Eclipse: The Dark Side of the Moon

Chapter 4: The Guild

The Tokyo Martial Arts Guild Headquarters is a building designed to exemplify the virtues of the martial artist. As far as headquarters go, it's actually closer to a monument than a fortress. Of course, this is by design.

Should an attack occur, we, as martial artists, will not seek protection behind barriers of steel, wood or stone. We will not invoke power that we have not earned, power that does not belong to us, power that does not weight upon our very shoulders to save what is close to us.

In the west they have a saying. All roads lead to Rome. What matters is that you get there.

The ends justify the means. Nationalist dogma at its finest.

We do not agree. We are individuals before we are citizens. I am a human being before I am Japanese and I always will be. I refuse to sacrifice my humanity for the sake of country, duty or honour because my soul is more precious than my life.

We will stand and we will oppose our enemies using only that which is not beneath us to use, win or lose. This building was built to showcase this.

It will stand the test of time and it will fall when it can no longer endure. It may be destroyed and it may someday be forgotten, but never will it lose its dignity. Never.

It was difficult for him to admit, seeing how he'd been totally excluded from the design phase, but he was very much impressed by the results of the Guild's architectural endeavour.

The Guild's center of operations was built just north of Tokyo's Imperial Palace, in the Fukiage Gardens of the Imperial Palace Grounds. The building itself was surrounded by carefully maintained plant life and loomed over the entire area, as it was over four times as tall as the garden's tree line.

The Tokyo Martial Arts Guild Headquarters was a massive six-sided and six-storied tower with eaves extending from the edge of each floor in addition to the roof. The design of the building was shamelessly stolen from ancient pagodas, which traditionally served as temples for various religions.

No one would ever mistake any of those morons for monks or priests, but since most of them could handle a spirit or two, demonic or otherwise, he guessed that it was okay. Besides, religious pagodas ceremonially had odd numbered floors. The use of even numbers for their HQ must have been intended as a distinction.

The clear glass that served as the building's windows were arranged as distinct characters knitted in the wood. The kanji for Water encased in a circle was inscribed on each wall of the first floor. Arranged symmetrically on the second floor was the kanji for Fire, followed by Earth on the third, Wood on the fourth, Metal on the fifth and finally Heaven on the top floor.

Ranma couldn't help but scoff at that. The five elements under Heaven? And you call me arrogant.

There wasn't a single person in that entire building that deserved to stand on that last level. That he knew for certain. Not even Happosai had completely overcome the shackles of his mortality.

Still, the building was magnificent. He couldn't wait to see what was inside.

Ranma stood with crossed arms, nodding his head thoughtfully as he mulled over the situation. An impasse had appeared before him, a sphinx with a riddle.

Steadily, he eased his lungs open, letting a gust of wind settle deep inside. He paused for a moment and let his thoughts come to rest before loosing a tranquil sigh. He was relaxed, at peace with himself and the world around him.

His eyelids peeled back, gently revealing an idyllic world that he viewed in a state of complete placidity.

"Could you repeat that?" he asked nicely.

In contrast, the baby-faced boy that stood before him shook like a leaf in the wind. "Um, I'm sorry Mister Saotome, but I can't let you in here."

His eyebrow began to twitch as the child's impressively firm and steady voice crashed through his placid demeanor like a rocket through a brick wall. He quickly took another breath but found that he could only release it in the form of an annoyed grunt. "One more time," he grumbled.

"I can't… allow you to set foot in this building… sir." The boy looked so scared and unsure of himself that Ranma took pity on him and decided to give him some help.

He took a stab in the dark and thought of a possibility that wouldn't end in violence. "Are they in a meeting or something?"

The boy only shook his head in response.

The other possibility was nowhere near as likely, but he felt that he had to ask. For the boy's sake if no one else's. "Have you started denying access to non-members?"

"…no…" The whisper was so soft he probably would have missed it if he hadn't seen the boy's lips move. Ranma closed his eyes and thought about his next move.

He could walk away. He should walk away. This wasn't his place. It might have been, once, but not anymore. He needed to let it go.

However, he could also bust the door down and make his way to the top by force. Technically, sneaking in was also an option, but that wasn't exactly true as he certainly wasn't going to sneak back out.

"Heh." He chuckled.

But then there was a third choice.

"Um… sir?"

He could think for a second.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't just go through you?" he asked. He made sure to make his question as non-threatening as possible.

"Um… Um…" It didn't help.

However, if they really wanted him gone, they definitely wouldn't have asked this runt to give him the news. Maybe they were counting on his usual reluctance to hurt small children as they couldn't have anticipated the amount of crap he'd had to deal with throughout the day, but still. They couldn't possibly expect him to take this lying down.

Unless, of course, they had nothing to do with this.

"Who put you up to this?" He had to ask. There were so many candidates. But, on the other hand, if he had to guess… "Akihito or Souichiro?"

"I… I don't know what you're talking about." The child, who'd watched him scrupulously for the entire duration of their conversation, now chose to avert his gaze. And just as suddenly, his fear seemed to dissolve into hesitation tinged with apprehension.

Ranma couldn't ask for a more obvious sign. "Tell me, or I will go to both," he said.

The threat seemed to have the desired effect. The boy seemed to crumple into himself as he gave his answer. "It was… Akihito."

"Right. So where's Souichiro?"

Wide-eyed, the boy tried to protest. "What? But I…"

Ranma crossed his arms and glared down. The protests died down and the boy looked away once he realized that he couldn't even lie properly.

Regrettably, Ranma had enough experience with intimidation and blackmail to know the how to tell the difference between fearful acquiesce and outright guilt. "I know. I scare you, but I don't live here. The only thing I can do is beat you down while he can make your life miserable. It's self-preservation. Now, where is he?"

The boy still hesitated. "He…"

"Look at me, kid." Ranma demanded. The child looked into his eyes, trembling slightly. "I am not going to repeat myself. Where is he?"

"He's…" The boy shut his eyes and clenched his fists tightly. "He should be teaching inside the dojo."

"And where is that?"

"It's inside. As long as you don't take the stairs, you'll get there. The entire first floor is a training area."

Ranma smiled grimly and tapped the tensed child on the shoulder, feeling the immature muscles loosen on contact. "Thanks kid," he said. He moved beyond the poor opposition offered by the young martial artist, but stopped just before opening the door the child had guarded.

Ranma closed his eyes and quickly searched inside of himself. There, he found a great well of dissatisfaction.

He turned back. He couldn't leave things like this. "What's your name?"

The child answered listlessly, without turning or moving in any unnecessary way, "Taichi." He slouched like someone who had suffered crushing defeat.

Ranma crossed his arms and leaned against the closed door, smiling strangely. "Let me give you some advice then, Taichi. Don't let anyone just walk over you like that."

Taichi's body began to tense up again under the weight of his words. That was good. It meant that the boy still had some fight left in him. "Easy for you to say," he grumbled. "He's not stronger than you."

Ranma raised an eyebrow. Actually, I was talking about me.

"What's your point?" Ranma asked.

Taichi turned to face him, wearing his disbelief like face paint. "I can't win." The boy presented that statement like one of the universe's fundamental truths, like it was so obvious that no explanation should have been required.

So caught up was he in the blatant obviousness of his dilemma that he managed to miss the point.

"Who said anything about winning? I asked you to fight."

Taichi found himself puzzling over an enigma. He stood with his mouth primed and ready to deliver an answer that did not involve cowardice. He was surprised and disturbed to find that the search was taking longer than he had expected.

"Sometimes Taichi, it isn't about winning or losing. Beware of excess, beware of greed and take only what you need. Here, the only thing you need is respect." Ranma straightened up and waved the boy closer, "Come with me."

Ranma looked on approvingly as the younger martial artist, plagued though he was by profound disquiet, still had the presence of mind to doubt. He was a little less pleased by Taichi's indecision.

The boy was visibly hesitating. He initiated movement and interrupted the motion before it reached completion. Repeatedly.

He opened his mouth and shut it without saying a word. He brought his foot halfway off the ground and sat it back down without taking a step.

If Taichi wasn't careful, this could become a huge hindrance to his combat ability. Doubt was useful when carefully contained. Hesitation was a whole other animal.

Left alone, the boy might have stalled for much longer before committing to a course of action but thankfully Ranma didn't need to hear the question to answer it.

"I'm going to do you guys a favor. Today, you kids are going to learn the difference between a strong martial artist and a respectable one."

With that last statement, he swiveled towards the entrance and pulled the thick wooden gates open. Just inside was a long hallway of dark brown and beige that held no decorations save for several identically stylized lanterns.

It seemed to him that the passageway followed the outside perimeter of the building, until he looked up and realized that the corridor actually reached the ceiling hundreds of feet above. T-MAG's HQ was a circular tower inside of a larger hexagonal tower. As he watched the edifice that stretched far above him, he saw several spiraling staircases end on the third floor.

For a moment, he wondered how the residents were supposed to reach the upper floors until he noticed a series of two meter long thick wooden poles sticking horizontally out of the interior walls, getting further and further apart as they gained in height.

Facing such a spectacle, Ranma could do nothing but watch stupidly. When his nerves began to function again, the first thing that came to mind was a feeling of relief. All of a sudden, he was very glad that he had no part in designing this building. He'd forgotten exactly what kind of people had designed it.

Ranma Saotome could have been the poster boy for martial arts, but he was never one to sacrifice practicality in favor of exoticness, unlike his father and many of his peers. He could certainly indulge in both, but he believed that the simplest solution was the best.

Shaking his head in disbelief, he turned his attention back to the ground floor and focused on his self-imposed mission. Directly before him was an opened doorway the size of a mammoth. It had been the first thing to catch his eye when he stepped inside the building. At the time, he'd chosen to ignore it in favor of his immediate surroundings but now that he examined past the surface, he saw hundreds of children, little boys and girls that were carefully executing drills, techniques and exercises designed to perfect their art. They worked alone, in couples or in groups, practicing hand strikes, kicks, throws and holds belonging to completely disparate styles, clothed in simple achromatic garbs.

It was only then that he noticed the sound. The dull sound of skin to skin impact intertwined with the whoosh of the wind as bodies and limbs sliced through still air. Above that were the shrill cries of soulful kiais, and below were the guttural grunts of pain and exertion.

He recognized some of the children by face, others by technique. There were always a few dozen orphaned or abandoned children being harbored in the Guild's enclaves around Tokyo. T-MAG taught them to take care of themselves. Those teachings included rudimentary training.

Gathered before him were the best of them. The ones with the spark. The ones that loved martial arts. The ones with the talent needed to become masters and the learning curve needed to do it quickly.

It was by far the most diverse collection of martial arts styles he'd ever seen, gathered and executed in a single place. It was awe-inspiring just standing there, reaching a dawning realization of just how much he had left to learn.

He watched. He observed, he noticed, he witnessed. He analyzed and memorized the movements he didn't know and admired the execution of those he did for what seemed like years, at least in terms of content and experience. Realistically, he knew that he couldn't have gotten any stronger. But that didn't mean that it didn't feel like he had.

It was hard to believe, but he may just have gotten a little more confident. Smiling, he slipped his shoes off of his feet, pushed them aside and walked a few steps into the massive dojo.

One of those sets of eyes turned outwards when their exercise was completed and caught sight of him.

"RANMA-SENSEI!" A scream, a yell, a cry that, like a magnetic force, attracted all eyes to his position.

In no time at all, he was swallowed by the immense volume of the fearsome flesh tide. He was buried underneath a litter of sweaty, smelly children. And he smiled, because, for a moment, there was nowhere else he would rather be.

Throughout his childhood, he couldn't recall a single instance where he had spent an extended amount of time around or interacted with children of significantly younger age. For some reason, whenever he and his father settled down long enough for him to get to know other people, it was always around people his age or older. As a result, pretty much every single one of his personal relationships included competition in one way or another.

His friendship with Nabiki was no exception. The only real difference between her and everyone who had come before was that she wasn't inclined towards penalizing failure. They were friends and so their competition was naturally friendly. It was different here. For the first time, his talents weren't an obstacle to bypass on the road to his social prosperity.

Over the years, he had bested a great number of opponents. However, he could count on one hand those who had freely acknowledged his superior ability and all of them were female. Humility was trait very few martial artists possessed, himself included. In the end, he became very much accustomed to disregarding the jealousy and resentment his skill attracted. It became almost natural over the years.

So it was somewhat of a shock when he first encountered the Guild's trainees and the emotion known as hero-worship.

In any case, as glad as he was to be there, he would very much appreciate being on his own two feet. "Get off of me!" he bellowed.

One after the other, the human bricks that he was buried under moved off and stacked themselves into a neat wall right beside him. He peeled himself off the ground, brushed himself off and smiled to himself. Instant unquestioned obedience. It was kind of nice every once in a while, especially after a day like today.

As soon as he got his legs under him, he was bombarded by a salvo of frenzied questions and jumbled briefings. Half of the children wanted to tell him a story and the other half wanted to listen to a story. It was the same story really. A story with one subject and a few billion perspectives. A story about yesterday.

But that would have to wait. He brought his hand up, facing forward, "Sorry kids, we'll have to talk later. I need to take care of something and I want you to pay attention to what I'm going to do. You just might learn something important."

He could literally see them begin to memorize his every movement. It was almost eerie how they just stopped moving, their wide eyes following everything he did until he stepped off and they scattered to spread his word.

Sure-footed, he stalked towards his target, Souichiro Tanaka, heir to one obscure martial arts style or another. He didn't really care to remember which one. It wasn't really important.

They'd crossed paths once before, months ago. The Tanaka family's oldest son moved to Tokyo for the express purpose of joining the Guild and helping with the war effort. While his intention had been noble, his attitude was anything but.

In short, Souichiro had believed himself to be one of the biggest fish in the ocean and quickly found himself disabused of that notion. After everything was said and done, Ranma remained very much unimpressed.

The guy had some nice, useful moves, but no real idea on when to use them properly. He specialized in striking techniques, he was fast, he was strong and he was skilled in the use of ki, but Ranma could have beaten him when he was thirteen. Not because he had known more techniques or because he'd been stronger or faster at that age, but simply because he had mastered every technique that he had been taught up until that point.

Souichiro's basics were sloppy, to say the least. He showed every mark of an impatient, spoiled student. He must have been the kind of kid that went straight to the end of the training manuals and never got around to reading the beginning. Since the jackass was talented enough to actually learn the harder techniques, his teacher, who must have been an utter idiot or a complete patsy, must have thought it okay to let him focus on them.

In comparison, Genma had spent the entirety of their decade long training journey focusing on his son's basic skills. Ranma didn't learn a single advanced ki manipulation technique until after he settled down in Nerima at the age of sixteen, even if he was more than talented enough to learn one.

There was a reason for that, and he was going to take the opportunity to make sure every one of these kids knew it by heart. By the time he was finished, he may have earned himself another enemy.

But it would be worth it. It always was.

He might regret it one day, but today was not that day.

Smiling and raising his hand high above his head, he delivered an informal greeting that was entirely unnecessary. "Oi! Souichiro!" he called out.

The man was already looking straight at him, a surly glare twisting his handsome features. No surprises there. No one could have missed the brouhaha his arrival stirred up.

Approaching at a sedate pace, he raised his voice and spoke loudly, "I hear you've got a problem with me being here. Since I'm free right now, I'd like to take the chance to settle our differences." His words were cordial and his tone pleasant.

Souichiro tensed immediately.

Ranma smiled graciously, completely relaxed. The stage was set. It was opening night at the theater. The house was packed and the lights were dimming.

Souichiro was reading from the script he'd written himself. Ranma never got a copy.

Ukyo Kuonji was obsessed with Ranma Saotome.

Or at least, that's what Nabiki liked to call it. But then, Nabiki was a cold-hearted bitch with no friends who'd likely die cold and alone in a ditch somewhere.

Aside from her worrisome… association with Ranma, there was nothing really remarkable about her. And that association wasn't even all that disturbing, seeing as it was almost unavoidable.

Shampoo was more paranoid than a bank robber hiding with his loot in a dusty basement after a botched heist, which was certainly understandable. Substitute the basement for a small shack outside the city and the picture was largely accurate.

Thanks to her paranoia and her complete inability to trust the man she professed to love, Ranma was forbidden from interacting with those she perceived as competition. Namely, Akane, Kodachi (god knew why she even had to add her to the list) and, of course, Ukyo.

Ukyo was particularly proud of the way Ranma had told her to shove off.

It only took a few days of marriage for the cunt to stumble upon the obvious. It wasn't going to be any easier for her to make Ranma Saotome do what he didn't agree with. He may have wilher, but he wasn't about to become Mousse Mk II. He wasn't about to stop seeing his friends just because his wife felt insecure.

Unfortunately, Shampoo didn't give up. Even worse, she didn't do anything Ranma could justly object to. Her plan was simple, if deadly. She assigned him an honor guard.

An Amazonian honor guard consisted of a contingent of four elite female warriors who escorted their target for an indefinite amount of time.

In this case, it was for a year.

For over four hundred days, they followed him everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. And while Ranma wasn't easy to track, they outnumbered him four to one. They also learned quickly. Within a week, it became impossible for Ranma to lose them for longer than twenty minutes. At least, without leaving the city limits.

It was hard to have an intimate conversation with someone when one was surrounded by hostile witnesses. Even worse were the times Shampoo herself decided to tag along. At least the honor guard tried to keep their distance, if only to avoid provoking Ranma. But Shampoo… Just remembering it made her want to break the bitch's face in. She would never forget the torment she (and just about everyone else aside from Nodoka) had endured after they started sleeping together.

Eventually, the length and frequency of his visits began to die down, until he only stopped by once or twice a month. Evidently, Shampoo found that to be acceptable, as her grudging husband was allowed outside without supervision for the first time in a dozen months.

At first, Ukyo had been overjoyed. She had believed that they could… She had been foolish. Ranma's visits… didn't increase in frequency.

Thankfully, he maintained his refusal to spend his free time in the Amazon village. He hadn't given up. He just found new ways to occupy his time, new people to hang around. Or rather, a new person.

Ukyo didn't ask questions. She already knew the answer.

She closed her restaurant, but she kept the hired help. She joined T-MAG and started training under some of the best martial arts masters the country had to offer. She ditched the spatula and picked up something a little more appropriate.

Spatulas were good for cooking, but they weren't all that good at separating heads from their shoulders. She hadn't picked an easy target. In all likelihood, she would only get one opportunity so she had to be prepared. She had to make it count. As if things weren't hard enough, she quickly realized that she was on a time limit.

In times of war, the Amazon warrior women consumed a birth control potion to make sure that they wouldn't be inconvenienced by unexpected pregnancy. Also, depending on the enemy they faced, it also served to make sure the worst didn't happen if their warriors were ever captured.

Ranma told her on one of his monthly visits that most Amazon women were beautiful by design. After all, if an Amazon warrior ever found herself at the mercy of an enemy it was likely that the enemy would be male. It was a fact that a man was more likely to capture a beautiful woman than kill her.

Of course, a man was also likely to take great pleasure in violating his beautiful captive. Depending on the enemy, the man may not do so alone.

Once the warrior recovered from whatever injuries plagued her, she was free to make her escape… after she collected whatever vengeance she felt appropriate. Few things in this world can hold an Amazon warrior. Shackles and prisons rarely count among them.

The potion saved those warriors from having to return to their village carrying a child of dubious or unsuitable parentage. Apparently, this small piece of information served to clear up a few of Ranma's questions about the Amazon's marriage laws. They made sense, kind of, once it was considered that the laws were created under the assumption that, after a man defeats a woman, he would have his way with her.

It also explained why Shampoo never had any problems with marrying a complete stranger. Her first impression of him was that he was strong of body and of spirit because he'd beaten her, but he hadn't raped or molested her while she was unconscious. And getting to know him only seemed to make her like him more.

Ranma became a lot less friendly towards Mousse once he realized that his rival would not have done the same. Trying to kill him was one thing. Wanting to take advantage of a defenseless woman was another. But then, Mousse was an Amazon and those rules only applied to outsiders. He could have beaten Shampoo a thousand times and she still wouldn't have married him, voluntarily or otherwise and Cologne would have killed him if he even thought about touching her without her consent.

However, from that point on, Ranma made damn sure that every single Amazon male that accompanied the war party to Japan knew the Japanese laws regarding such things to the point where they could recite them in their sleep.

Several of the unmarried men complained.

Several of the unmarried men lost the ability to function without assistance, and the rest of them understood for the first time exactly why he was the Matriarch's husband.

Apparently, Shampoo and the elders hadn't been too happy to learn that a portion of their work force was incapacitated, but none of them did anything serious about it. They didn't even complain when he insisted that they let the injuries heal themselves naturally. No drugs or potions of any kind were to be administered. And that included painkillers. Every one of the Amazon warriors quickly understood that there would be no compromise on this matter and no one wished to take him to task over it.

This level of vehemence was surprising. It was rare that Ranma exerted such force against anyone, especially against someone who hadn't actually done anything wrong yet. So she had asked him to explain.

His answer is what truly convinced her to assassinate his wife.

"Let them suffer," he had said. "Let them bear the scars of their selfishness."

He had looked at her then and spoke of something they rarely addressed, "You know Ukyo, sometimes my old man was a thief, but he didn't like taking things from those who couldn't defend themselves. He always said that we had to protect the innocent. If you weren't a martial artist, he'd treat you fairly. He'd pay for what he could afford and we'd do without if we couldn't. Hunger builds character, he used to say."

He chuckled fondly for a moment, "But, if you were a martial artist, then he'd take whatever he could get his hands on because you should know better. You ever see him and old man Tendo play games? They cheat like you wouldn't believe, but they never call each other out and they never complain. The way they see it, if they couldn't stop it from happening, then it's their own fault. They should have been stronger, more vigilant. It's why he asked for your forgiveness and not your father's. You were a child. Your father was a fool.

"That's why I can't forgive those Amazons. Their mentality… it disgusts me. The women aren't all that bad once you get to know them, but the men… The men need a solid ass kicking. And my foot is primed and ready to deliver."

That was what worried her. He cared. He wasn't supposed to care.

Ukyo needed to act before Shampoo took the antidote. She knew Ranma. If Shampoo became pregnant with his child, then he would protect her with his life, regardless of everything. Once that happened, even Genma would consider her family. And it would be too late. Shampoo will have won.

She could feel him slip away again. The first time around, he was taken by a shifty old man who cared for nothing but blood. Genma Saotome was a family man. If you weren't family, then you were practically nothing in his eyes. Years ago, he'd looked at her, taken what she had and tossed her away.

She knew why. She wasn't stupid.

She hadn't been good enough. Her family hadn't been good enough. Even then, Genma had chosen Tendo blood over hers.

She couldn't let that happen again. The first time had cost her over a decade. This time, she would prove herself. Not even Genma could find her wanting once she's taken Shampoo's head.

Years ago, when she finally caught up with the Saotome vagrants in that equipment shed surrounded by curious students, she had told them that okonomiyaki became her life after they left her behind. At the time, that was what she had believed.

However, the truth was that her entire life was focused on Ranma from their meeting onwards. That meeting had changed the course of her life. She couldn't even imagine what it would have been like without him in it, without his very existence driving her in one form or another.

She'd been chasing him for so long now that he had become the only thing she really cared about. She realized this when she found no difficulty in trading her treasured spatulas for blades. She hadn't cooked okonomiyaki in months now. These days, she only fired up the grill when Ranma needed a snack.

She found that, for his sake, for their sake, there were very few things she was unwilling to do.

So when Ranma stepped into the Guild's new training area for the first time, Ukyo watched carefully. She watched as he was swarmed by a few dozen children and watched as he quickly sent them away. She watched as he approached another man and watched as he talked the man into an offensive stance.

Then, she noticed a few things.

She noticed how the children and instructors seemed to clear a space for them, so that no one was within fifteen paces of either of them.

She noticed how Ranma's clothes sported rips and tears and how the skin underneath burned crimson.

She had previously noticed that Ranma aggressiveness tended to intensify if he was under any sort of pain. She wondered if she should do something to help that idiot Tanaka. It didn't seem like anyone else was going to.

She noticed just how much respect he garnered in this place. Ranma was going to fight and likely injure a relatively significant member of an exclusive organization and it seemed like not one of that member's allies was going to interfere or even complain. Their blank faces basically told Tanaka that he was on his own. She knew that this was the source of Tanaka's furious jealousy. These people were supposed to be his friends, his comrades. They lived, they fought, they ate, they learned and taught together and yet they wouldn't back him up against an outsider.

She noticed that this thought was where perspectives differed and where conflict was born. This was something Souichiro may never understand, simply because he simply hadn't been there at the time. Ranma might not be an active member of the Tokyo based martial arts guild, but he was one of its founding influences. That fact carried a lot of weight in many people's eyes.

Ranma would always have a place in the Guild. He may not be able to sit in it for a long time, but the seat would be there regardless.

She noticed it often. It was always there at meetings, right between Soun Tendo and Genma Saotome.

She noticed them start to inch closer together, and made her decision.

"Konatsu," Ukyo muttered as she stood amidst her fellows.

She noticed a shadow creeping along the edge of her senses before a sweet voice caught her attention, "Ukyo-sama?"

She turned towards her pretty companion without taking her eyes away from him and said, "Watch over this, will you? And make sure they don't start without some protective gear, gloves at least."

"I understand."

She didn't notice him leave.

Konatsu immediately made his way through the crowd and swiftly arrived at Ranma's side, where she saw him inform the martial artist of her request.

She watched Ranma mull it over for a moment until he nodded in acquiescence, and that was it. Her part was over.

Now, all she could do was bear witness.

Her ninja sent a few of the children to gather the necessary equipment and waited calmly beside Ranma's composed figure. The two friends conversed quietly for the minute it took the children to return. Neither one seemed to pay any particular attention to Tanaka, which would probably lead the man to believe that he was being underestimated.

The students hurried back, carrying a black duffel bag that they unceremoniously dropped in front the male kunoichi before running back for the sidelines.

Konatsu sighed in disappointment and grumbled at the lack of the discipline as he straightened the container and dragged the zipper open. After rummaging inside the heavy-duty bag for a short time, he picked out two pairs of fingerless leather gloves sporting half an inch of padding over the back all the way past the knuckles and tossed a pair over at both participants. Then, he picked up the bag and stepped to the side, without stepping out of the loose circle formed by the members. He was going to referee this unscheduled bout.

Souichiro showed obvious impatience as he wrenched the elastic that held the gloves together off and hastily pulled them on.

Ranma took his time. He carefully examined the red pair of gloves Konatsu had handed him and then spent a long moment fixing his opponent's black pair. Seeing nothing of note, he sighed in distaste and pulled the elastic off.

As Ranma squeezed his hands into the equipment, Konatsu began to lay down the rules of the fight, raising his voice to a shout so that everyone in the training center could hear his melodious, feminine voice clearly, "This will be a single round engagement, lasting no longer than eight minutes. A winner will be declared only when one of the fighters gives up, is knocked to the ground three times or is deemed to be no longer able to continue. Blows aiming to maim or kill are strictly prohibited."

The ninja took the time to stare at each combatant until he received a sign of their agreement.

"May the best man win. Begin!" The enthused shout hung in the air as everyone held their breath in anticipation.

If Ranma was conscious of his audience's enthusiasm, he didn't show it. He even failed to react in any perceptible way to the start of the fight. He merely frowned at his fist as he formed it repeatedly.

It soon became apparent that this contest was going to develop in a somewhat different manner than she'd envisioned. When she considered the amount of precision and dexterity his technique required, she could almost make sense of what he was doing. It was important that he try to memorize the amount of resistance the gloves would provide to his actions. Ranma was used to fighting with bare fists and the equipment could potentially throw him off during the fight.

But still, Konatsu had given the go-ahead! The time to prepare was long over and he had to know that.

Ranma normally took challenges very seriously, especially if they were formal in any way. It wasn't like him to disregard an opponent like this. But then again, Tanaka wasn't Kuno, or Ryoga, or Mousse, or any one of Ranma's self-proclaimed rivals. Case in point, he hadn't attacked yet.

He hadn't attacked yet?

For the first time since the match began, Ukyo took her eyes off of Ranma and actually looked at the other man.

Ah. Of course.

Tanaka really wasn't like Kuno, or Ryoga, or Mousse.

Ranma's three rivals only had three things in common. They were all attracted to one or another of their rival's fiancées, they were tremendously talented in their respected fields and they were all complete idiots.

Maybe she was a little too used to their brand of reckless idiocy, but it never really occurred to her until that very moment that someone might come to fear Ranma after fighting him. Usually, his opponents weren't anywhere near that perceptive.

Ranma didn't believe in excess. He always tried to use the least amount of force needed to accomplish a task. This habit had the unfortunate side effect of making everyone he defeated believe that they could have beaten him with only a little more effort. Most of the time, they couldn't be more wrong.

She had looked over Tanaka's actions since he last clashed with Ranma and she had taken him for another oblivious idiot. From the way he constantly antagonized Ranma without any sort of restraint, she had assumed that this willful opposition was born of ignorance.

But as she eyed Tanaka's closed stance as he stood opposite her childhood friend, she was fiercely struck by an impression of anxious anticipation.

Fear. She looked at him and she saw a fearful man.

She was unable to pinpoint where she got the idea, but she was almost bursting with certainty. Souichiro Tanaka feared Ranma Saotome and Ranma Saotome knew it.

Ukyo looked up just in time to catch the braided man bash his gloved fists against one another a few times, spreading the sound of cushioned impacts over his surroundings, stomping over murmurs and whispers as it seemed to signal his readiness. His preparations complete, he deliberately advanced towards his opponent, holding both hands behind his back.

Tanaka's solid stance was in no way relaxed by Ranma's casual approach. If anything, his muscles seemed to expand under his loose gi, constricting and hardening, sacrificing flexibility for rigid resistance, trading mobility for protection.

Ranma seemed to notice this as his lips pursed in distaste. He entered Souichiro's attack range without incident and stopped well into the man's striking range. He stood there, motionless, for interminable seconds, staring the other man down. Tanaka stared back, unflinching.

Ukyo found herself anticipating an attack that never came. The challenger looked fearless, but it was only skin deep.

Though normally neither martial artist towered over the other, Souichiro was currently maintaining a defensive position, bending his knees and arranging his legs for optimal stability, thereby lowering his centre of gravity.

It was just a slight difference. No more than a few inches. However, Ranma could now truly look down at his opponent.

More importantly, Tanaka was forced to look up.

Once this little detail made its way past her consciousness, she found herself reasonably certain of one thing. Ranma didn't choose to get this close to his opponent because he wanted to intimidate him.

As if to reward the accuracy of her observations, Ranma promptly burst into action. His naked foot gently peeled itself off the hardwood floor before his entire leg broke apart into a blur of color and slammed into the inside of Tanaka's bent knee.

Souichiro's face showed a pained grimace as he was forced off balance. His arms instinctively stretched out as he pulled his bruised leg back and pushed his chest forwards, successfully maintaining his balance.

Ukyo winced. Dumb move. It may have been a reflex, but he really should know better.

Ranma's left hand reached out and grabbed a hold of the white cloth over his opponent's left shoulder before the man even realized that he'd left himself defenseless. By then, it was much too late. In a blur of motion, Ranma took a step back and sharply pulled his outstretched limb back towards himself, taking his unfortunate opponent with it.

Souichiro's previous efforts to keep his balance meant that he was in no position to resist and was easily pulled off his feet. With no legs under him, Ranma's arm was the only thing keeping him from hitting the ground. Knowing that it wouldn't last, his arms quickly extended under him to cushion his fall.

Ukyo shook her head in disappointment. That was a rookie mistake. That idiot was too reflexive. Ranma wasn't going to let him hit the ground.

Ranma's right arm blurred out of sight and emerged above his head. He squeezed his fingers into a tight, pulsing fist, releasing a fierce wordless cry filled with aggression and ill intent as he hammered his elbow down into Tanaka's exposed back with the force of a meteor.

Tanaka crumpled. He did not get up.

She saw Konatsu sigh and watched his shoulders slump down a little. She sympathized. It was embarrassing to have one of their members defeated in such a fashion, beaten in less than five seconds. Not because she took pride in the Guild's successes and failures, but because she had taken it upon herself to watch over it in Ranma's absence.

If Ranma couldn't be part of the organization he was born to join, born to lead, then she didn't want him to have to worry about it. What he had seen today certainly wasn't going to help with that.

She saw him turn towards her ninja and say a few words before the feminine man waved him off.

She heard him clear his throat a few times before he spoke, raising his voice to make sure everyone could hear him, "Alright children, listen up!"

Ranma carefully began pulling his fingers out from the stretched material of his gloves as he paced in a circle around Tanaka's prone form, "Now that I have your attention, I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss something that has come to my attention over the past few weeks. It seems that some of you have complained about the quality of the instruction provided by your elders. Apparently, some of you feel that you are progressing too slowly, that you are somehow too good for the basics. I thought I would take this opportunity to show you just how wrong you are."

Ranma finished taking the equipment off and carelessly dropped his pair of gloves on top of his downed opponent. "Some of you already know me and some of you may have heard of me. In case there's someone in this crowd that doesn't know me, allow me to take the time to introduce myself.

"My name is Ranma Saotome. Most of you already know my father, Master Genma Saotome. I am the heir of all branches of the Anything Goes School of martial arts. I haven't reached the rank of Master yet, but that's mostly because I don't have the time to take students. Some of you might find this hard to believe, but I am the best martial artist in Japan."

Ukyo found herself smiling as she listened to his introduction. He still had no idea. It was almost starting to get ridiculous. Ranma wasn't exactly the most technologically advanced person in the world, but still! How could he not know? It was all over the place!

In order to make sure the media didn't do anything too stupid in their search for answers, Nabiki decided to provide them with some unclassified information… for a hefty fee of course.

Unfortunately for Ranma, Nabiki had plenty of material concerning his life and no good reason to keep them to herself.

In the two years since the invasion, Ranma Saotome became one of the most recognizable people in the entire country, along with the Amazons and the Sailor Senshi, thanks to a series of broadcasts and reports about them.

His introduction was entirely unnecessary. They all knew who he was. Every single one of them. That was the reason why they stood so silently, eyes and ears wide open. She knew these kids. The only time they were ever this quiet is when they weren't conscious.

Ranma probably could have saved Tanaka a whole lot of humiliation and done this without the physical presentation. He never needed to prove himself. He had their full attention from the moment he walked in.

A few hundred faces watched on as he lectured, "Souichiro here is powerful, but that doesn't make him a good martial artist! He is strong, he is fast and he has some very effective techniques. His fist is strong, but I probably could've beaten him when I was as young as you and I'll tell you why."

Hearing Ranma talk about his passion was always a treat. His voice took on such strength and resolution that it was hard to stay indifferent. It was almost impossible not to believe in him. She wasn't close enough to see it now, but he always had this look in his eyes that made her feel like she was looking at someone special, someone larger than life, someone unforgettable.

His stride seemed to grow heavier and heavier until each step pounded through her mind like a drum beat. He waved his arm towards the unconscious man lying beside him, "I hit him exactly twice and that was all it took to knock him out," his tone revealed his disappointment, "More importantly, my kick was strong enough to break his stance! A tree, no matter how big or small, that stands with rotten roots cannot endure the wind. His body is weak.

"When he lost his balance, he tried to recover it. Unfortunately, he didn't think things through. He failed to keep his concentration on me. On some level, he must have decided that the ground he was falling towards was more dangerous than me, simply because it was right in front of him. He couldn't keep himself together, couldn't focus. His mind is weak."

She saw him stop his pacing to look at his downed opponent and watched him shake his head, "Worst of all though is that he didn't attack. He committed to this fight but he wasn't willing to follow through. He wasn't willing to take a chance. Souichiro knows that I'm stronger than him, that my defense is better than his offense, so he didn't even try to attack. He figured that he could just let me attack and counter while I was otherwise occupied. It could've worked…" he paused for emphasis, "If he was someone else! But Souichiro's School never taught this kind of technique, and if it did then he hasn't practiced in forever. It was doomed to fail because he never trained for it. The truth is that Souichiro gave up on his fist because he no longer believes in it. He was scared of me and that fear removed any possibility of victory.

"His spirit is weak!" Ranma's shouted declaration burst through the training hall and seemed to push his audience an inch away.

The silence held for a long minute as she watched him take the time to lock eyes with each child. When he was done, he found reason to grin.

She knew why. Sometimes they annoyed the hell out of her, but she knew that they were strong, willful children.

When he spoke again, his voice seemed to cover the entire room without effort. "Souichiro may know how to fight, but he is a weak martial artist in all the ways that count. In the body, in the mind and in the soul."

He took a quick, sweeping glance of the crowd around him and something in him seemed to relax, "Who here can tell me the basics of the art?" he asked.

Ukyo blinked. She hadn't expected him to involve his audience and found herself incapable of focusing on the question.

After a few seconds of uneasy silence, Ranma took pity on them and continued, "No one? That's not unexpected. Depending on your school, the answer changes all the time. But I've studied from many schools of martial arts and I can tell you that they all have one thing in common. Defense. The basics of all martial arts is defense. Before you learn to strike others down, you must know how to protect. If you cannot protect yourself then you will never achieve anything."

Once more, he waved towards Tanaka's still form, "Souichiro here knows a dozen powerful, useful techniques and I'm sure he shows them to you kids all the time, but he never got the chance to use any of them in our match because his basics are lacking.

"Protect yourselves and defend those around you! That is the duty of the martial artist. You must learn to receive a punch, before you learn to throw one. That is the essence of what you are here to learn. You are here to learn the basics. You are here to master the basics. Once you have done that, you won't need teachers anymore. Once you've mastered the basics, you will be able to learn and develop more advanced techniques on your own. You will be able to learn not just from tutelage, but also from scrolls and simple observation. Once you've mastered the basics, no opponent will ever be beyond you."

Solemn silence enveloped the room as Ranma finished his address and took one last look around the room, before he turned to her ninja, pointing at the unconscious man beside him, "So uh, Konatsu. What am I supposed to do with this guy?"

Sometimes… sometimes being the best martial artist in the country is a pain in the ass. Not often, but sometimes.

Well, no. That's a lie. I guess it would be better to say that being the best in the nation while under the hold of a Jusenkyo curse is less than ideal. But, then again, being cursed sucked just as much when I wasn't the best, so maybe that doesn't have anything to do with it.

I admit, I've kind of gotten used to it over the years. I realize now that the curse doesn't change who I am. The only thing that changes is the way people see me, and I never really cared about that anyway. It isn't the bane of my existence anymore, but that doesn't make it any more fun to have. People tend to treat me differently when I'm in my girl form, even when they know who I really am. Sometimes it can be useful, but most of the time it's just annoying.

Being the best means that people who don't consider themselves competition tend to look up to me, kids especially. I like them, I really do, but sometimes they can really grate on the nerves. I get along with the boys just fine, most of the time, but the girls are a little more complicated. They tend to like me better when I'm about a foot shorter and walk around with huge, bulging protrusions hanging from my chest.

It's kind of irritating to think about, but according to Pluto, Jusenkyo curses are magnificent pieces of magic. The way I understand it, the curse is like a funhouse mirror. It's powerful ether magic, and doesn't really have anything to do with water as an element. It's all about the reflection, the mirror image. It explains why the curse changes with temperature. Hot and cold are basically determined by body heat. Anything above it is hot and anything below is cold. Darkness and light, hot and cold, yin and yang are all two sides of the same thing.

Pluto believes that the main curse was created by accident and that some asshole later added a few minor curses to the grounds. Apparently, to create new curse springs, all you really have to do is fall unconscious underwater in the Jusenkyo curse grounds. The curse basically copies a part of what you are, depending on how important it is to you and imprints it in the reflection.

She managed to break the weaker curse, but breaking the main effect was apparently somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible. She said that it would be easier to resurrect the dead. Whatever. At least I don't get splashed at random these days, though it doesn't really help when people try to do it on purpose.

Like a bunch of little girls that want to spend some time with their 'elder sister'. Selfish little brats…

Anyway, out of all the Senshi, Pluto is probably the only one who really knows what she's doing. She's a full-fledged witch, no doubt about it. Still, she isn't exactly the kind of opponent that would give me trouble. I could beat her inside of a minute if I had to, and I'm not just bragging here. Pluto's the kind of person that likes to gather information about everyone and I'm sure she thinks that she's got my number.

But the truth is that there's only one person on this Earth who really knows what I can do, and that's my old man. Old Saotome family secret: Always keep people guessing. I've done it for so long now that I don't even feel guilty about lying to Nabiki. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but I'm not about to change.

If I've learned one thing about the Senshi over the years, it's that every single one is unique. I have seen, examined and evaluated them all, and none of them could stand against me.

However, there's one Senshi out there that can make me hesitate. A Senshi that could probably take me down if we ever came to blows. A Senshi that isn't really one of them, as she stands above them all.

Unfortunately, that one Senshi just happens to be the only one that seriously tried to kill me.

Usagi Tsukino. Sailor Moon, the white witch, master of holy magic.

Queen Serenity, leader of the Sailor Senshi.

Finally, I've reached the end of the introductory chapters. The story truly begins after this. I would like to thank everyone who took the time to review. It may not seem like it, but it really helps me write faster as I get more motivated. Thank you.