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Second Best
By D.B Sommer

 

I stumbled on this forgotten story recently. It was done about two or three
years ago back when I first finished S 1/2. Touched it up a bit (a lot
actually. Nice to know I've come some ways since then) but that was when the
idea was formed, so it might be a bit rough.

Second Best

Any and all C+C is appreciated. You can contact me at
sommer@3rdm.net .

Angcobra is now storing all of my fics at


And at Larry F's at:


And another site with some of my fics from the last couple of years is at
R+C books at:


Standard disclaimer:
I don't own any of the folks from Ranma 1/2.

Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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

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

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

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

"You could have gone easier on him."

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

"You sound disappointed."

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

"You have no shame," Akane grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yep."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn't fair!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No catch." The man stated plainly.

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

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

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

"Yes."

"How do I know I should trust you?"

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

The frankness surprised Ranma. "Then why would-"

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

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

"Why get into specifics?" the man asked.

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

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

"I'm not calling you all that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It won't work."

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

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

"How do you know that?"

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

"What's that supposed to mean?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akane begging his opponent to show him mercy.

Never again.

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

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

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

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

"It's complete." Sifler told him.

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

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

"Everyone will be at class."

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

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

"Does it really matter?" Sifler countered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Damn you!" Takeshi raged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I am not irrelevant!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Watch me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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

D.B. Sommer








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