A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic
All Ranma 1/2 characters copyright Rumiko Takahashi
and are used without permission
 
 

Prologue:

Nerima Ward, Tokyo
28 years ago

     Solid lines of silver-gray rain hammered into Akira Kunou's
body, chilling his exposed skin to numbness.  That numbness couldn't
match the dangerous detachment in his soul, however.  He gazed out
into the darkness, unable to penetrate the storm's fury very far in any
direction.  The icy rain ran down the blade of his katana, which hung
loosely in his hand.
     It was rinsing away the greenish-black ichor that clung there.
Akira watched it disinterestedly.  Not far away was a puddle of the
same substance, which bubbled and spat evilly.  The rain was taking
care of that, as well.
     Soon there would be no evidence.  That thought tried to push
its way into his mind, but he wasn't really interested in thinking about it.
     Soon there would be no evidence that the thing had ever
existed, the thought insisted intrusively.  Akira turned his face up to the
raging skies, letting the cold hard rain pound him, forcing away all
thought, all feeling.
     It didn't matter if the rain washed this one away.  There were
plenty more where it came from.
     "My lord!"  He ignored the cry.  It didn't concern him, and it
was disturbing his hard won tranquillity.
     "My lord!"  Again, closer this time.  He sighed and lowered his
head wearily.  A dark shape stood beside him, clad in a ninja's garb,
nearly invisible in the darkness.
     "Yoshi," he said, the words tumbling clumsily from his lips.
     "Master Akira, are you hurt?"  He thought about that.  He
ached all over, but he didn't believe his injuries were severe.
     "No, I don't believe so.  But my sister ..."
     "I don't know where she is!" the ninja shouted back.  "She
became separated from the others in the fighting!  We have to look ..."
     "Gone."
     " ... for h ... What?"
     "Gone," he repeated, louder this time.  "It looked just like a
woman, a beautiful woman, but she had spider legs growing from her
back, and she took my sister, and the other one set upon me ..."  He
gestured in the general direction of the pool of slime, trying to focus.
Yes, his sister.  She was gone, wasn't she?  And ...
     "Yoshi, the others.  Where are the others?"  He began to focus
a little now, and in the dim light glimmering through the storm from the
shattered wall of the main house, he began to see.  He saw the grief in
Yoshi's eyes, the only part of his face that was visible.  He saw the
darkness of blood in the ninja's clothes that even the driving rain
couldn't wash away.
     And then he saw the sword.  His father's sword.  Sheathed and
gripped tightly in Yoshi's hand.  Yoshi watched his gaze travel down to
the weapon, watched the awareness forcing its way through the boy's
shocked detachment.
     "He fought well, and bravely," Yoshi said, and Akira had to
strain to hear his voice over the incessant drumming of the rain.  "In the
end, it was he who broke their attack ..."  He broke off, and Akira
realized that he was shaking his head slowly in denial.
     "No ..."
     "Their attack *is* broken, their ranks scattered.  It will be a very
long time before they dare attempt to breach the estate again, but it has
cost us dearly.  Many that we have depended on are gone now.  And
now this is yours."  He held up the sheathed weapon, water dripping
from the tip of the sheath, and Akira shuddered.
     "No," he said again, firmly.  His father wasn't gone.  He
couldn't be.  Akira wouldn't accept that.  And besides, they couldn't
expect him to take up the weapon.  He was only fourteen.  His sister ...
     But she was gone too, wasn't she?  He'd seen it.  He'd ...
     "My mother," he rasped, feeling a distant sense of shame.  He
was not a small child, to be asking for his mother!  "Does she know?"
he asked, looking Yoshi in the eye.  What he saw there chilled him
anew.  No, he thought again.  Please.  But his pleas were swept away
by brutal reality, just as his childhood had been.
     "The doctor says she will not last the night," Yoshi told him, the pain
thickening his voice.  "We must hurry, but first, you must accept the
weapon, my lord.  The danger may not be past."  Yoshi held it up, his
hands steady, his head bowed.
     Akira felt something burn through his numbness then.  Rage.
Fury at his family, his bloodline, and the awful duty that was their
burden.  He knew that all those burdens would be his once he accepted
that weapon, and he knew their weight could break a strong man, never
mind a boy like him.
     But his father was dead, his mother dying, and his sister gone to
a fate best not thought about.  He was the only one left to take up this
burden.  The duties of the House of Kunou fell to him now, and he
would not dishonour his family name.
     He dropped his nearly forgotten katana on the sodden grass, and
slowly reach out to grasp the proffered weapon.
     He'd half-expected a flash of lightning when he took it, or a
feeling of weight, or something to mark the passing of the torch.  But
there was nothing but his own dull aches and the cold tendrils of rain
snaking down his back.  Yoshi nodded, his shoulders slumping.
     "I wanted it to be ... from my hand ..." he croaked.  Then,
before Akira could react, the ninja fell to his knees, toppling forward.
Akira rushed to catch him, only then seeing the terrible wounds in the
other man's back.
     His mother was not the only one who would not live to see the
sun come up.
     And all around them, uncaring, the storm raged on.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part one: False Fronts

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     No.
     He was sitting up in his bed, the last razored slivers of the
nightmare spinning off into the void, unable to breach the waking world.
His shoulders trembled as he panted, fists clenched, body drenched in
cold sweat that soaked through his bedclothes.
     No.  He would not scream.
     It was a promise he had made himself long ago.  Whenever the
dreams returned, and they always did return not matter how long their
absence, he would bear them.  He would suffer them silently.  It gave
him some feeling of control, and even though it might be illusory, he
scarcely cared.  After all, he could not stop the dreams, so he needed
some way to deal with them.
     And he would not scream, even though there was no one left to
hear.
     He shuddered, looking reflexively at his walls.  They looked
bare without the posters he'd had there, the blown-up shots of Akane
Tendou and the pig-tailed girl whose name he'd never managed to
discern.  He'd taken a dim comfort from those once, but that was
before.  Since Kodachi's death, he had forsworn even that small refuge
from the terror he could not escape.  It was false comfort, after all.  He
saw that now.
     He saw many things more clearly these days.
     Groaning under his breath, he pulled himself from his bed,
plucking the sodden material of his pajama top gingerly from his
clammy skin with his thumb and forefinger.  He padded to his dresser,
shucking the sweat soaked pajamas as he walked, finally standing
naked in the chill air.  The first rays of the new day's sun dimly
illuminated the room, and he dressed slowly, trying to restore his
thoughts to some semblance of order.
     He'd been worried about something the night before ...  Ah.
Yes.  His schoolwork.  It had suffered with his somewhat lengthy
absence.  For some reason, that had concerned him.
     After having one of the dreams, such concerns necessarily
became less pressing.
     Sighing like a man shouldering a familiar burden, he turned to
the rack on the wall, selecting a bokken to carry that day.  His eyes
flickered to the locked cabinet in the corner where the sword rested.  It
was protected by measures more potent than a mere lock, of course.
There were all manner of magical defences on that cabinet, not that he
expected they'd be needed.
     Once, House Kunou had been able to procure such magics
easily.  No longer.  That had changed.  Many things had changed.
     He shook off his reverie.  That was of no consequence at the
moment.  And as for the weapon, it could remain safely ensconced until
it was needed again.
     Which would hopefully be never.
     With that thought, Kunou set out for his morning ablutions.  The
remaining servants would not be arriving for some time yet from their
quarters off the estate grounds.  Although it had once seemed a
nuisance to have the servants off the grounds at night, Kunou had come
to appreciate the few precious moments of solitude and relative peace
he found in the early morning.
     Then he heard it.  A noise, where there should be none.  He
tightened his grip on the bokken instinctively, coming up onto the balls
of his feet, head cocked.
     There.  It came again, faint but definite.  He padded silently
through the house, easing down the stairs like a ghost.  The place was
huge, but dead silent, which allowed the offending noise to carry to his
ears.  He should be alone, yet someone was here.  Someone was ...
     In the kitchen.
     The ground floor was a maze of shadow and light as the sun
rose above the horizon.  Kunou's mind was empty of distractions now.
Somebody was here.  Nobody *should* be here.
     Somebody was going to be very, very sorry.
     Grinning savagely at that thought, he readied himself, then burst
through the door.
     The figure was sitting cross-legged on the floor, harshly lit by
the white light of the open refrigerator.  He was busily shovelling cold
noodles and sauce into his mouth with his fingers, pausing to look up as
Kunou burst in on him.
     "Tatchi!" he called happily through a mouthful of half-chewed
food.  Kunou stood stock-still for a moment, then sighed deeply and
lowered his bokken.
     "Ah, father.  You've returned.  How ... delightful."  His father
nodded happily, the inane little palm tree on his head bobbing with the
motion.
     "Yah, li'l Tatchi!  Papa's back!"  Kunou pinched the bridge of
his nose while squinting painfully.  His father rarely came to the house
anymore, choosing to live elsewhere when he was actually in town.
And when he did come to the house, he never came after dark, and he
never stayed long.  Kunou supposed that was a blessing.  Still, after the
night he'd had, he was not anxious to put up with his father's presence
for any longer than he had to.
     "What do you want?" he asked, his voice sounding weary,
even to himself.
     "Wan'?  Don' wan' nuttin'!  My house heah, ya?  Can come
whenevah I wan'!"
     "I suppose it's too much to hope you've come to pay your
respects to Kodachi.  Remember her?  Your daughter?"  The malicious
humour drained from the older man's face at that.
     "You did hear about her death before you ran off, didn't you?
I've no doubt of that.  Perhaps you even have some idea how she died.
Perhaps you left *this* time because you felt guilty.  Is that it?  And if
so, why did you come back?  Did you run out of places to hide, you
crazy old man?  Or could you not outrun the accusing voices of the
dead?"  Kunou's father sat motionless in the flat light of the refrigerator's
naked bulb, his face devoid of all expression.  Kunou snorted and
turned to leave.  He supposed he should have known better than to
expect remorse from the old fool for skipping Kodachi's funeral.
     "You are never to open this door, no matter what.  Some doors are
best left unopened.  Remember that."  Kunou's flesh seemed to shrink
painfully over his bones, ice filling his veins.  The words hung heavily in
the air, and Kunou was certain he must have imagined them.  Must
have, for they had been delivered in the voice not of this old fool, but
that of the powerful and certain man he'd once admired, the man he'd
once been proud to call his father.
     But he had not imagined them.  He'd *heard* them.  Slowly,
with a sick feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach, he turned.
     "What did you say?" he whispered to the motionless form.  The
old man regarded him coldly, and Kunou felt as if his father had finally
returned from some far off place.
     "Why did you say that?" he asked, his voice getting stronger.  "Have
you always known?  HAVE YOU?  ANSWER ME, DAMN YOU!"
His father seemed to be lurking just below that suntanned face for a
moment, ready to break through.  Ready to raise an accusing finger and
say, yes, son, I know.  I know and I've always known and how dare
you accuse me when I should be accusing you!  YOU!
     But then that face split into a wide grin, and the stained hands
began forcing more noodles into that gaping mouth.
     "Know?  Don' know NUTTIN!  Jus' a crazy ol' man, ya!
Crazy ol' men don' nevah know NUTTIN!"  And then he began to
laugh.  Kunou felt pressure building behind his eyes and at the base of
his skull, and he hoisted his bokken over his head in a blind rage.  The
old man's eyes followed the arc of his swing, and he laughed even
harder.  He laughed helplessly, half-chewed noodles falling from his
open mouth and staining the front of his garish Hawaiian shirt, landing
on the cool tiled floor with a loud splat.  Struggling to maintain control,
Kunou finally wheeled around and stomped out of the kitchen, leaving
his father for the servants to clean up.
     But Akira Kunou's cheery mad laughter followed him, long after he
shouldn't have been able to hear it any more.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Nabiki tugged absently at her dress, checking the mirror to
ensure that nothing was out of place.  Satisfied, she reached for her
bookbag, stopping when she caught sight of the thick folder on her
desk.  Reluctantly, she picked the folder up, feeling its weight, its
reality.
     It was her project file.  Project Kunou.  That was how she'd
come to think of it.  She had enough information there to have formed a
few hypotheses, although if she was honest with herself they were in
reality little more than guesses.  She had, at any rate, as much useful
information as she was going to get without going to the source.
     Now she had to decide what to do with it.
     The mystery behind the Kunou family had started out as an itch
she needed to scratch, an itch somewhere just in the middle of the back
where you couldn't quite reach.  She'd done some scratching, but had
achieved no satisfaction.  She still wasn't inside.  She still didn't have
the answers she craved.
     Now the only unexplored option was talking to Kunou himself.
Once she wouldn't have experienced the slightest hesitation when faced
with that prospect, but that was before.  Before the events at Furinkan,
before his sister's death.  She'd expected, somehow, that he would
return eventually to the way he'd always been.  After all, she had him
figured out, she knew all his hot buttons and motivations and
weaknesses.  But only the faintest traces of his old self poked through
the armour of the new Tatewaki Kunou, and Nabiki wasn't sure how
to handle him any longer.  And that irritated her, because it meant that
perhaps she hadn't had him figured out quite so completely after all,
and so that itch began to burn all the more maddeningly.
     But every time she asked herself if she would be willing to let
this drop, the answer was no.  She was in too deeply now.  She
wanted, she *needed*, to know what was at the heart of this mystery,
and if Kunou was the only one who could tell her, then she'd simply
have to convince him to share what he knew.
     She remembered the look on his mother's face when she'd
asked Nabiki if she was Kunou's friend.  This was, after all, the sort of
thing a friend should be doing, but Nabiki wasn't at all certain that
Kunou had any friends.  She didn't know who he might talk to in that
big empty house when the darkness came, who he might confide in.
Sasuke, maybe.
     Well, whatever his needs might be, it looked like all he was
going to get was Nabiki Tendou.  Still, he could do worse, couldn't he?
 For once, Nabiki was going to put her talents to good use, and lucky
Kunou was going to be the recipient of her efforts.  And maybe after
she straightened everything out, he'd get back to normal, and she could
go back to selling him pictures at grossly inflated prices just like before,
without having to worry how he'd react.
     Not that she was worried.  This was just a project, after all.
And it was only Kunou.  She just felt a little sorry for him.  She wasn't
going soft or anything.  It wasn't like that.  It was just that ... that ...
     A morose Kunou was an unprofitable Kunou.  She just didn't
want to lose a source of profit.
     Oh, what is this? a small voice chided her.  Can't you even
admit you want to do this without pretending there's some grand
motivation?  Are you the same Nabiki who stood in this room talking to
Ranko like a real person, or aren't you?
     She sighed, dropping the file into a drawer and locking it
securely, striving to ignore the mutinous thoughts.  She knew what
needed to be done, now all that remained was to get it over with.
     She just couldn't figure out why the prospect was making her so
nervous.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Today was the day.
     It had been three days since Mousse and Shampoo had fought,
and today the Nekohanten would receive a visitor.  An emissary from
the council would be arriving to find out why Cologne had not returned
as scheduled, and she would find out just what the future held for them.
     She almost welcomed the distraction.  Having Mousse and
Shampoo under the same roof was proving to be a nerve-wracking
experience.
     Shampoo's ribs were healing nicely.  Unfortunately, that meant
she was up and around.  She lapsed into an icy silence whenever
Mousse was in the same room as she was, and an embarrassed one
around Cologne.  It was clear she was upset over losing the fight.  After
all, she'd always taunted Mousse with how weak and foolish he was,
and now she had to deal with the humiliation of having been beaten by
him, with her hand in marriage as the stake.
     It was also clear that she was so wrapped up in her own
misery, Mousse's odd behaviour had completely escaped her notice.
     But it hadn't escaped Cologne's.  Even blind, she saw more
than her great-granddaughter.  Given past precedent, Mousse should
have been fawning all over Shampoo, trying to attend her while she was
still confined to her bed, apologizing continually, and just generally
moping over her cold disregard.  Instead, he was avoiding her as much
as she was avoiding him.  He hadn't spoken a word to her since she'd
regained consciousness, not even to apologize.
     Cologne was frankly baffled.  She wasn't too stubborn to admit
that she'd been wrong about Mousse in one important regard.  She'd
always thought that his sentimentalism and emotional openness were
liabilities that he'd never be able to overcome, thus fatally
compromising his usefulness as a warrior.  However, he *had* been
able to fight Shampoo and defeat her, no matter how much it must have
hurt him.
     A tiny smile tugged at the old woman's mouth.  She was not
immune to the lure of romance; she too had once been young.  And if
Mousse was learning to lock away his romantic yearnings when
necessary, then there might be hope for him yet.
     She still wasn't enthusiastic about having him marry Shampoo,
but even she had to admit that he'd solved all their problems in one fell
swoop.  He had earned his chance, if nothing else.
     He just didn't seem particularly interested in *taking* it now
that he'd earned it.
     She was brought out of her reverie by the sound of someone
entering the room.  Shampoo.  She could hear the girl's soft footfalls,
smell the fresh scent of her, hear the silken swish of her hair.  She
missed her sight, but was determined not to dwell on its loss.
     "Yes, child?"  Shampoo fidgeted.
     "Great-grandmother, when ...?"
     "Shampoo, I don't know.  She'll arrive when she arrives.
Surely there's enough to be done until then?"  There was silence.
Cologne heard the girl take in a breath, as if to speak, then sigh
resignedly.
     "Spit it out, girl.  What is it?  You've been walking around on
eggshells for days now.  What's on your mind?"  Cologne heard
Shampoo's feet shuffle on the floor, then heard another sigh.
     "Shampoo is sorry, great-grandmother," she said at last.
     "Sorry?  For what?"
     "For losing fight.  For losing to Mousse.  Shampoo
dishonoured great-grandmother's teachings.  Shampoo is so so sorry."
Ah.  So that was it.
     "Dishonoured?  Shampoo, did you lose on purpose?"  She
heard a sharp gasp, struggled to keep her face serene.  The young
could be so easily controlled sometimes.
     "No!"
     "Well, then, you have no dishonour.  You were beaten by a
superior opponent, a member of out tribe."
     "Superior?  Yaaa!  Beaten by Mousse!"  She sounded
outraged, and Cologne could see clearly in her mind's eye exactly what
expression she would have as she spoke.
     "Yes, dear.  You were beaten by Mousse, and I suggest you
learn to deal with it."
     "But ..."
     "Shampoo."  The tone in Cologne's voice silenced the girl
easily.  "Mousse overcame his reluctance to hurt you, and he bested
you in combat.  Perhaps it is my fault for neglecting your training for so
long, but the fact remains.  You were never shy about quoting the law
when you were pursuing Ranma, my dear.  Mousse is your fiance now,
and the only way that's likely to change would be if your previous
fiance were to challenge him for your hand.  And I don't think Ranma is
very likely to do that, do you?"
     "No, great-grandmother," Shampoo whispered, and Cologne
could hear the pain in her voice at the mention of Ranma's name.  Well,
that was too bad, but things were the way they were, and the sooner
Shampoo learned to deal with it, the better off she'd be.
     "Good.  Now, go and tell Mousse I'd like to see him, would
you?"
     "What?  But ... very well."  Shampoo stomped off, and Cologne
suppressed a smile.  She really didn't have any need to see the boy, but
this way Shampoo would have to talk to him, at least to relay the
request.  Maybe that would break the ice.
     Frankly, they were both starting to get on her damned nerves.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Ninomiya Hinako wanted the Rush.
     She wanted her adult body.  She wanted the attention it
garnered, the power it gave her, the confidence, the satisfaction.
     But most of all, she wanted the Rush.
     The sudden outbreak of peace at Furinkan could not have
come at a worse time for her.  This sudden odd change in her power
had her craving chi.  The feeling she got when she drained somebody
was silky, it was sensual, it was white-hot pleasure ...
     It was the Rush.  And she wanted it.  Now.
     She strode briskly through the gates of Furinkan, cursing her
little girl body, craving the sensations that draining some delinquent's chi
would give her.  Hell, anybody would do at the moment.
     But nothing appeared out of order at first glance.  Of course.
     In these last weeks, since the mysterious events that had resulted in
the school's temporary closure, things had calmed down remarkably at
Furinkan High.  And one person was the key, one boy who had once
been at the heart of the chaos and was now at the heart of the lull.
     Ranma Saotome.
     Nobody had come to school to attack him, to challenge him, or
to try to date him recently, and so violent delinquency had fallen off
sharply.  She was having to expand her list of offenses that merited
draining, just to keep sane.
     It wasn't fair.  Furinkan had *always* been a hotbed of
anarchy in the student body.  Why did that have to change now, no
matter how temporarily, just when she needed an excuse to act?
     Ranma Saotome, she thought again.  She had to find some
pretext to drain him.  His chi was deeper, more powerful than almost
anyone she'd ever met.  Absorbing his chi would be an exquisite
experience ...
     (No.)
     She stopped, putting her hand out blindly.  Fortunately she
stumbled to a tree, catching it before she could fall.
     (No.  Not him.)
     She closed her eyes, dizziness sweeping over her like an
unexpected wave on a calm sea.  The sudden thought frightened her,
because for a moment ...
     For a moment it hadn't seemed like her own.
     Why not him?  Why would she think that?  Why ...
     (Because he can block your power.  He can stop you from
feeling the Rush.)
     A chill skittered along her skin, causing all the tiny hairs on her
body to stand on end.  Yes, how could she have forgotten that?  By
striking those five acupressure points together, he could block her
power for a time.  And he might, if she went out of her way to drain
him.  Forget might, he *would*.  And then she'd be cut off from ...
     "Miss Hinako!  Are you all right?"  She opened her eyes and
raised her head to find a young man standing beside her.  She knew him
vaguely, although she didn't think he was in any of her classes.
     Have you been a good boy or a bad boy? she wanted to ask.
For a second she was afraid she'd done just that.  Then she licked her
lips and said, "Perhaps you could lend me a hand."
     "Of course!"  He let her lean on his shoulder and helped her off
the path and onto the grass.  She had to look up to see his eyes.  That
wasn't right.  In her adult form, he would have had to look up at her.
*That* was how it should have been.  That was how ...
     She needed his chi.  She needed the Rush.  She slapped at his
hand where it supported her shoulder and twirled away.
     "You delinquent!" she snarled.  "How dare you touch your
teacher like that!  You must be punished!"  She saw his eyes widen,
panicked and confused.
     "But I didn't ... wait, it's a mistake!"  He wasn't putting out a
battle aura, but that wasn't a problem for her.  With practised ease, she
fished out a 50 yen coin.
     "Happo Fifty-Yen Satsu!"  She triggered her power, and
immediately was rewarded.  She gasped as the Rush filled her.  It felt
like raw silk being pulled across her naked skin, like tiny bolts of
pleasure playing across her nerve endings, like a vital heat shooting into
her fingertips and spreading through her entire body.  Her body
expanded, her dress pulling tight across her hips and breasts, the hem
of her skirt rising daringly.  At long last she lowered her hand, her
breathing finally slowing.  She stretched, luxuriating in the afterglow of
the Rush, and haughtily flipped a thick lock of tawny hair over her
shoulder.
     "Next time, watch where you put your hands," she purred
throatily to the dazed boy, who was slumped bonelessly on the ground
at her feet.
     How fitting.
     Then she strutted off to her first class, the world suddenly looking
much brighter.
     If she was lucky, someone would have forgotten to do their
homework.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The class was buzzing with the news of the principal's return.
Kunou held himself aloof from the discussion as much as possible.
     His father was the last thing he wanted to talk about.
     He tried to concentrate instead on the classwork that he'd
managed to do, but his concentration kept slipping.  He couldn't seem
to get the foul taste out of his mouth, and the same phrase kept running
through his mind.
     (Some doors are best left unopened)
     Did he know?  In all the crazy times after, could he have known
and never said anything?  Or was it just more ramblings
     (Some doors)
     of his already unhinged mind?  Could the knowledge of
Kodachi's death have driven him further from reality?
     (Some doors)
     But that would have to mean that he'd cared, and Kunou couldn't
believe that.  The old fool had long since ceased caring.
     (are best left unopened)
     If he had cared at all, he would never have left them in that house
alone.
     "Hey, Kunou baby."  He snapped out of his reverie.
     "Ah, Nabiki Tendou."  She gave him that maddening little half-smile
that she often wore, the one he'd never been able to see through.
She was the only person who dared to address him such a disrespectful
manner, and he still had no idea why he allowed her to do it.  Perhaps
because his wealth and position never seemed to impress her in the
slightest.
     "I hear you're old man's finally come back to town.  Where's
he been, anyway?"  Kunou failed to keep the distaste from his
expression.
     "I really have no idea."  She looked mildly surprised at that.
     "You didn't ask him?"
     "We only spoke briefly, when he dropped by the house for ...
breakfast.  The issue of his whereabouts never came up."  She raised
one eyebrow archly, something she did so well Kunou wondered if she
practised.
     "Dropped by?  He isn't staying at the house?"
     "He rarely does.  He no longer finds the accommodations to his
liking.  It is, however, his house, and he can come by whenever he
pleases."  And didn't *that* little fact gnaw at Tatewaki Kunou from
time to time.  The man had abdicated all responsibility, but could still
drop by on a whim.  The expression on Nabiki's face told him that
more than a little of his bitterness had seeped through, and he cursed his
carelessness.  This was family business, after all.
     "Hmmm.."  She appeared to come to a decision.  "Well, listen,
Kunou baby, I want to talk to you about something.  In private.  Why
don't you meet me after class?"  She seemed just the slightest bit ill at
ease, and Kunou frowned.
     "I suppose I could ..."
     "Great!  I'll meet you by my locker, okay?"  With that, she
moved off to her seat as the bell rang.  Kunou watched her go, puzzled.
She'd never been shy about doing business with him in the classroom
before.  Whatever she wanted to talk about must be delicate.
     He wondered how much it was going to cost him.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Only ten minutes left.
     Ukyou sighed, reaching up to pull at the collar of her uniform.
She just wanted this class to end.  She had to keep herself from
glancing at the windows, and not because she'd be distracted by the
beautiful weather.
     No, she just knew that if she did, she'd catch Ranma looking at
her with that whipped puppy expression.  He was in most of her
classes, of course.  She'd wanted it that way once.  Now that just
meant she had to spend most of her day avoiding him.
     She didn't think she was being unfair.  After all, *he* was the
one who'd hurt *her*, and all she wanted was a little space to lick her
wounds in private.  But in every class she was aware of his gaze coming
back to her again and again.  It was driving her crazy, all the more so
because once his attention had been all she'd wanted.  Of course, now
he just wanted absolution.  He wanted her to tell him it was all right that
he didn't love her, and let's all just be friends, okay?  Well, it wasn't
okay and it wasn't going to be okay anytime soon.  Maybe eventually.
Maybe.
     She glanced up at the teacher and sighed again.  Ranma was
probably the only boy in the class who wasn't raptly gazing at her.
Miss Hinako was spending more and more time in her adult
form these days, it seemed.  Rumours were starting to spread that she
was cracking down on ever more trivial offenses as justification for
zapping offenders.  Oh, well.  Ukyou supposed a weirdo like that fit
right in at Furinkan.
     It was a very weird school.
          "Mr. Kuonji!"  Ukyou started guiltily.  Miss Hinako was calling
on her, and she hadn't been paying attention.
     "Um ... yes?"
     "Can you answer the question I just asked?" Miss Hinako
inquired silkily.
     "Uh, no.  Sorry."
     "Do you *know* what question I just asked?"  A tiny titter ran
through the room, and she flushed slightly.
     "Sorry, ma'am," she muttered.  The teacher nodded.
     "I see."  The bell picked that moment to finally ring, and the
class was alive with the sounds of students eager to escape.
     "All right, class.  Chapter six for next time.  Mr. Kuonji, would
you remain for a moment?"  It wasn't really a request.  She kept her
gaze averted as the others filed out.  She was thankful that Ranma
didn't try to say anything to her on the way out.  Finally, the room was
empty, and she looked up to see a stern Miss Hinako perched on the
edge of her desk, showing a considerable amount of thigh.
     "She really gets off on that," Ukyou thought, hiding her distaste.
The teacher swung her leg in a slow, languorous arc, regarding Ukyou
through lidded eyes.
     "Come here, young man," she said at last.  Ukyou sighed and
stood, walking to the front of the room.
     "You haven't been paying attention in class, Mr. Kuonji.  This
isn't the first time you've been woolgathering during my lectures."
Well, that was true.  With everything that had been going on lately,
school had been the last thing on her mind.  She hadn't heard from
Mousse since he'd returned to the Nekohanten, and found herself
hoping that he was holding up under what had to be a very
uncomfortable situation.
     "I'm sorry, ma'am.  I've had a lot on my mind ..."
     "Daydreaming about your girlfriend, no doubt."  Ukyou
blinked.  Girlfriend?  Then she remembered Miss Hinako's selective
view of what had happened between her and Nabiki earlier in the
week.
     "Uh, I can explain about that ..." Ukyou began, red-faced.
Miss Hinako slipped gracefully off the desk and turned to face her
student.
     "That's not necessary.  You see, as your teacher, it falls to me
to ensure that you live up to your potential, and don't fall prey to bad
habits.  I'll simply have to see to your ... discipline."  So saying, she
flipped something into the air, catching it neatly between the first two
fingers of her right hand.  Ukyou's eyes widened as she realized what it
was.
     "Hey, wait just a ..."  Miss Hinako gave her a sly smile.
     "Don't worry," she purred, raising the coin.  "This won't hurt a
bit ..."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     "Step into my office, Kunou baby," Nabiki said, opening the
door to an empty classroom with a flourish.  Warily, he did so.  She
watched him walk, noting the tension in the set of his shoulders, the
sombre set of his face.  She had considered putting this conversation off
again when she'd first seen him, but had finally steeled herself to go
through with it.  After all, it wasn't like her to avoid a confrontation.
     (If you care at all for Tatewaki, please help him.  Please.  He's
in terrible danger.)
     It isn't like that, she thought defensively.  I just feel a little bit
sorry for him.  That's all.  And nobody else is doing anything ...
     "If this is about purchasing more photographs, I must inform
you that I have abandoned my pursuit of your noble sister and the
beauteous pig-tailed girl."  Kunou's words surprised her.
     "Actually, that's not what this is about, but I am curious to hear
why you're finally giving up on the two loves of your life."  He turned to
face her, bokken tucked neatly into his sash, arms crossed.  It was
probably the most serious she'd ever seen him.
     Then she had to correct herself.  That time in his garden, when
he'd spoken to his mother, was definitely more serious than this.  He
just hadn't known he was being watched then.
     "My reasons are my own," he said gruffly.  "I prefer not to
discuss them."  Nabiki shrugged.  She really wanted to talk about the
other matter anyway.  She knew how stubborn Kunou could be, so she
figured she'd have to show him how much she knew first.  After he saw
that she knew so much, and after she hinted that she knew even more,
he'd see that there was no point to keeping the rest a secret.  Then she
could see about helping the poor dope out of whatever mess he was in.
       (The dark has come for two of my children now, and
soon it will come for Tatewaki.  I know it.)
     The tortured words of Kunou's mother came back to her, and
once again she wondered about them.
     (It's starting all over again, just like before.)
     She'd been exaggerating.  She *must* have been.
     (He'll die if he stays there, and I don't know what to do.)
     She'd just been drunk, hadn't she?  But what if there was a
kernel of truth to what she'd said?  What if Kunou really was in *that*
much trouble?  Would he really be stubborn enough to try to handle it
himself?
     Well, she was just the person who could find out, wasn't she?
     "Fine.  Then let's by all means discuss something else.  Like,
for instance, your family history."  The muscles around one of his eyes
twitched slightly at that, and she suppressed a grin.  Never play poker,
Kunou baby, she told herself.
     "What of it?  You know my family's history, Nabiki Tendou."
     "Do I?" she asked, studying her fingernails idly for a moment, as if
his answer really didn't interest her.  "Do I really?  I used to think I did.
Tell me, where in your family history does a magic glowing sword show
up?"  This time the corner of his mouth twitched.
     "Someone has been ... exaggerating," he gritted at last.  "That
sword was merely highly polished.  The light ..."
     "Oh, please, Kunou baby.  Give me some credit here, would
you?  I got curious, and I did some checking.  What do you suppose I
found?"
     "Nothing, of course," he said, speaking a tad too quickly.  "There is
nothing to find.  Our family has no secrets."  The lines of his face were
drawn tightly, and she felt her pulse quicken.  There was something
here, and she was getting close to it.
     "All families have secrets.  For instance, Kazuhiro.  Your older
brother."  Kunou didn't move, but his face actually went white.  She
cocked her head slightly.
     "You've never mentioned him.  Kodachi either.  It's like he never
existed.  It all began there, Kunou, with him.  And with your mother.
They were one end of the thread I began tugging on.  Should I tell you
where that thread led me?"  Kunou just stared at her blankly and,
uncharacteristically nervous, she plowed ahead.
     "If you know what to look for, the history of your family is very
curious indeed.  For instance, you said earlier that the house was your
father's, but that's not exactly true, is it?  He can't sell it.  It's in his
name until he dies, and then it passes to you, then to your eldest child.
The documents surrounding that property are as strange a bunch of
legal mumbo-jumbo as I've ever seen."  Kunou's eyes held hers,
frighteningly blank, and she forced herself to remain outwardly calm.
     "And what about the mysterious deaths and incidents
surrounding your estate?  And the subsequent rumours of cover-ups?
Said incidents go back to the turn of the century, and probably before
that.  Mysterious pay-outs, high staff turn-over, disappearances and
rumours and ..."  She trailed off, puzzled.  She'd expected initial denials,
followed by relief when she'd revealed that she actually did know that
something strange was at the heart of the Kunou family.  After all,
Kunou was a bit of a braggart at heart.  The strain of keeping secrets
had to be driving him crazy.
     "Come on, Kunou," she snapped, a hint of irritation creeping
into her voice.  "Even your old man's abandoned you!  You said it
yourself, you hardly ever see him!  You're all alone!"  That got through
to him.  Finally, there was a flicker of emotion there, and she felt a
surge of relief.
     Spill it, Kunou baby, she thought.  I did all the hard work, now
spill it all.
     "I understand," he said softly.  "You have determined that I am
all alone, and so now is the time to strike.  How like you, Nabiki
Tendou.  When the wolf stands alone, the jackals close in."  Nabiki felt
a chill as his words hit home, and her stomach churned unhappily.
     "What the hell are you talking about?  I'm trying to *help*
you!"
     "Ah, yes.  Help me.  After all, we wouldn't want any potentially
embarrassing information to end up in the wrong hands, would we?
And I am quite certain that you can help me in that regard.  How
much?"
     The chill bottomed out at absolute zero in the vicinity of her
heart.
     "Wh-what?"
     "How much?" he repeated loudly.  He reached into his shirt,
withdrawing a huge wad of bills.  "You are for sale, correct?  Will this
do?"  He thrust the bills into her face, causing her to jerk back, her eyes
wide.  Suddenly she flashed on a similar situation, four girls thrusting
money in her face for the inside scoop on Kodachi's death.
     "What is the matter?  Not enough?  I can get more, as you well
know!  How much for your discretion, Nabiki Tendou?  How much for
your silence?"
     Nabiki stared into those eyes, blazing with righteous anger, and
felt a sudden rush of heat shatter the ice around her heart.  It swept
through her, bringing a hot flush to her throat and face.
     She swept her arm out savagely, knocking the wad of bills from
his hand, sending them fluttering through the still warm air like a storm
of autumn leaves.
     (Are you a friend of my son's?)
     No.  Not his friend.  Not anybody's.  Just the local loan shark.
Now and forever.  She glared at the startled Kunou, holding her
sudden rage back with an act of willpower that would later baffle her.
     "Burn in hell, Tatewaki Kunou," she hissed venomously.  "All
by yourself."  Then she wheeled, stomping over the scattered bills, and
pulled the sliding door open so viciously that it bounced halfway closed
again, nearly hitting her as she stormed through.
     Her pulse throbbed hotly in her temples, making the world
seem faintly distant as she stormed down the hall.  The fury she was
feeling threatened to overwhelm her control, but she knew she couldn't
let that happen.  She'd spent many years building up her walls, polishing
them to a mirror sheen that revealed nothing to the outside world, and
she wouldn't let this hot rage/shame/humiliation burst out, baring her
soul for all to see.  She couldn't.  But it was rising, implacably, and so
she sought solitude, like a wounded animal.  A dark and lonely place to
cry out where her vulnerability would not be seen, and then to lick her
wounds and nurse her hurt the way she always did.
     Alone.
     You were a fool to think anyone would accept your help, girl, a
tiny smug voice whispered above the rising tide of bile.  How could you
have forgotten the cardinal rule?
     No good deed goes unpunished.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Hinako's nerves were still buzzing pleasurably with the
aftereffects of the Rush as she sauntered lazily down the hall.  Turning
the corner, however, she was nearly bowled over by a girl rushing
along, her head bowed, her arms swinging in angry little arcs as she
walked.
     "Hey, watch where you're going!" Hinako growled.  She
considered zapping the little twit, but her mood was so good she
decided to let it go.  She hadn't made young Mr. Kuonji give up *too*
much of his chi, but she was certain he wouldn't soon forget her lesson.
And not incidentally, she got to experience the Rush again.  She'd
sensed that she had been getting near to reverting back to her child-like
form, and she hadn't wanted to do that.
     She continued down the hall until she noticed the door to one of
the classrooms was standing partly open.  Frowning, she eased it back
on it's runners the rest of the way and stepped inside.
     Tatewaki Kunou stood inside, an oddly forlorn expression on
his face.  The floor was littered with what had to be hundreds of bills of
high denomination.  She crouched down, scarcely believing her eyes.
     "Mr. Kunou," she breathed, "what on earth is going on?  Is this
yours?"  She scooped up a handful, worth more than she made in a
week, and held it out to him.  After a moment, his eyes focussed on
her.
     "It is only money, sensei," he said at last with a strange lack of
animation.  "I can always get more."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Unfair!  So unfair!  Not paying attention in class shouldn't be a
zappable offense!  Ukyou picked herself up off the floor, her muscles
still feeling like jelly.  She leaned on the desk, feeling her strength slowly

returning.
     Damn it!  Only in a bizarre school like Furinkan could you get
your chi drained by a teacher.  What ever happened to regular old
detention, anyway?  Ukyou took a deep breath, then another, watching
the little black spots slowly fade from her vision.
     She should do something about this.  But what?  Go to the
principal?  He'd hired Miss Hinako in the first place, presumably to
control the notoriously rowdy student population just the way she was
doing.  The only student who'd ever had any luck thwarting her weird
power was Ranma, and she wasn't going to him for help.  No damn
way.
     Just then, it struck her.  She could transfer schools.  Why not?
After all, she'd only chosen Furinkan in the first place because Ranma
was there.  Nothing held her here now.  She had no friends, no reason
to stay.  It was a little late in the year to do it now, perhaps, but next
year, sure.  That would solve a lot of her problems.
     She smiled slightly at the prospect, then blinked as someone
stomped by the open door.
     "Nabiki?"
     But she was already past.  Ukyou frowned.  It *had* been
Nabiki.  And she'd looked upset.  Ukyou trudged to the doorway, still
feeling enervated, and looked down the hall in time to see the other
girl's back as she turned to head up the stairs, away from the sounds of
people milling around the lockers on the ground floor.
     What the hell?  She wondered what could be wrong with the
normally unflappable girl.
     You could go find out, a shy, almost indifferent, voice pointed
out.  She immediately felt awkward.
     Yeah, but this is Nabiki.  She doesn't need any help.  And
anyway, what would I say to her?
     Then she became aware that she was absently flexing her right
hand.  The small cuts on the edge of the palm were mostly healed over,
but she could still remember Nabiki tying a clean white handkerchief
around her hand with uncharacteristic gentleness.
     (There.  That should keep it clean.  You don't want to get it
infected, right?)
     (Don't laugh at me.)
     (I'm not.)
     Her sudden compassion had been unexpected, but in the end
not unwelcome.
     (I take it you saw Ranma and Akane.  Bad, huh?)
     What's the matter with you? she asked herself suddenly.  All
you have to do is ask her what's wrong.  If she doesn't want to tell
you, no big deal.  Right?
     Right.  Resolved, she pushed away from the door frame,
trudging down the hall.  Her spatula seemed to weigh a ton as she
reached the stairs, and she groaned at the prospect of climbing then in
her current state.  Then she heard a door bang shut loudly, the retort
echoing down the stairwell, and she groaned again.
     She'd gone all the way to the roof.  Damn.
     By the time Ukyou reached the top of the stairs, she was
panting from exertion.  Still, her strength was steadily returning, and she
was feeling better by the minute.
     She resolved never to make Miss Hinako really angry, and
eased the door open.
     Nabiki was sitting against the low retaining wall in one corner of
the roof, forearms resting on her knees, staring at nothing.  Ukyou
thought she made a fine poster child for loneliness, sitting like that, and
a thought hit her.
     Maybe she *was* lonely.
     Rubbing the edge of her hand absently, Ukyou walked over.
Nabiki didn't look up as she unslung her spatula, leaning the handle
against the chain link fence that topped the wall, then sat down beside
her.  They sat together in silence for a moment.  Nabiki didn't seem
inclined to say anything at all.
     "Hey," Ukyou said finally.
     "Hey."  Nabiki's voice gave nothing away.
     "Bad day?"
     "Had better."  Well, this was enlightening.  Ukyou glanced
down, noticed that the knuckles of Nabiki's right hand were skinned
and bleeding slightly.  It looked like she'd punched someone.  Or
something, like a locker or a wall.  Ukyou'd done that once or twice in
her life, and she knew the signs.  This was worse than she'd thought.
     On impulse, she pulled a clean handkerchief from her pocket,
then grasped Nabiki's wrist gently.  Ignoring the other girl's startled
look, she carefully wrapped the clean cloth around the injured hand,
tying it snugly against the palm.
     "There," she said.  "We wouldn't want that to get infected now,
would we?"  Finally, a faint smile appeared on Nabiki's lips, and some
life returned to her eyes.
     "You know, I've got the oddest feeling of deja vu," she said
dryly.  Ukyou grinned.
     "Really?  I wonder why?"  She undid her jacket while Nabiki
stared with faint amusement at her hand, then propped one arm on her
knee and plopped her chin into her open palm.
     "So," Ukyou said at last.  "Wanna talk about it?"  Nabiki continued
to stare at the clean white linen against her skin with an oddly wistful
expression, and a not uncomfortable silence grew up between them.
Large fluffy white clouds slid lazily across the sky, and the faint
sounds of a soccer game drifted up from below.  Ukyou let the warmth
of the sun relax her as she waited to see what Nabiki would say.
     "I guess it was stupid for me to think I could just help him.  I
mean, me, helping someone?  Doing something decent?  Beyond the
realm of the possible, right?"  Ukyou was taken totally off-guard by the
question, and stared into Nabiki's rich brown eyes.  Something
flickered uneasily there, some unaccustomed uncertainty, and Ukyou
wondered exactly where this was going.
     "Um.  Well, I'm not really sure what we're talking about here,
Nabiki, but ... that's not really a hypothetical question, is it?  I mean, a
few days ago I was standing in front of this school, feeling pretty low,
and you stopped and helped me.  My first thought then wasn't that you
wanted something from me.  I mean, I was surprised that you did it, but
when I looked at you, I could tell you were sincere."  She noticed a
faint flush spreading across the bridge of Nabiki's nose at that.
     "C'mon, Ukyou.  You're exaggerating."
     "Why?  Because no one knows you well enough to tell what
you're thinking?"  She could tell by Nabiki's expression that she'd hit a
nerve, and she smiled, cocking her head slightly.  "I'll admit, most of the
time you're very hard to read, but you're not a fortress, Nabiki.  No
one is.  For instance ..."  Nabiki raised an eyebrow in what Ukyou
though of as a very Nabiki mannerism.
     "For instance?"
     "Remember the day you sold us girls that info on Ranko's
whereabouts?"  Nabiki's blush deepened, and she suddenly looked
uncomfortable.
     "Um," she said.
     "Yeah.  I was pretty mad at you that day, I can tell you.  And I
figured that Ranko would be too.  Afterwards, though ... I was never
sure what happened between you two, but somehow you worked it
out.  And ... the day he left, I still remember how he said good-bye to
you.  He whispered something in your ear, and you giggled ..."
     "Chuckled, thank-you very much!  I do not giggle!" Nabiki
protested hotly, the blush spreading all over her cheeks.  Ukyou
grinned.
     "I was there, girl.  You definitely giggled.  And the way you
looked at him was, how can I put this?  Not the way *we* always
looked at him, but ... there was an easiness, a casualness between you,
like between good friends.  I didn't really think about it much at the
time, but later it struck me that I'd never really see you like that with
anybody before.  You've certainly never been like that with Ranma.  If I
hadn't seen you like that, it would have been harder to realize that there
was a heart under that cool exterior.  But I did, and I didn't forget.  So
I wouldn't necessarily think you had ulterior motives, but I suppose
someone else might."
     "Someone else did," she said quietly, not meeting Ukyou's eyes
now.  Ukyou sighed inwardly.
     "Well, I guess that's not a big surprise.  After all, you go around
hiding behind a facade, only letting people see what you want them to
see.  That way, they don't know anything about the real you, and they
have no power to hurt you.  So, if you take a chance and show a little
of your real self, and someone rejects you, it hurts like hell."  Nabiki
turned back to her, gaping, and Ukyou burst out laughing.  She just
couldn't help herself.  Nabiki continued to stare at her, open mouthed
and incredulous, and finally Ukyou managed to speak.
     "Oh, man," she gasped, wiping tears from her eyes roughly,
"the look on your face!  You'd think you were the only person to ever
think of that!"  She let her laughter trail off, noticing that despite being
embarrassed, Nabiki was giving Ukyou her undivided attention.
"Listen, Nabiki, I spent years pretending to be a boy.  I even went to
an all-boys school.  I was a champion at keeping people away from the
real me, at putting up a false front.  I know all about the pitfalls and
perils of that kind of life.  Trust me, if you get real good at it, people
start taking you at face value.  And really, you can't always blame them.
Most people don't have the time, or the inclination, to try to figure out
the real you, so you can't blame them for believing what you try so hard
to *make* them believe."  Nabiki stared at her, shaking her head
ruefully.
     "You really think you know me that well?"  Ukyou shook her head.
     "Maybe not..  I just know that you're putting up a false front, and I
figure I know why.  Finding out what's behind all that is a lot tougher.  I
don't pretend to know the real you, not so easily, but I think I've seen
her peeking out once or twice.  And she seems like an okay person to
me."  Nabiki looked away again, blushing all the way down
to her collar.
     "Maybe she's not.  Maybe she really *is* a greedy, self
involved bitch, after all."
     "I doubt that," Ukyou said softly.  "That person wouldn't care
if she opened up a little to someone and got shot down.  Which is what
I assume happened."  Nabiki paused, then nodded.
     "Which just goes to show that it's safer not to show people your
vulnerabilities, right?" she asked with a tiny, bitter smile.
     "Well, let me tell you just one thing, Nabiki.  You're very good
at hiding yourself.  Maybe too good.  It can become a very alluring
notion, this feeling that nobody knows you, nobody understands you.
All very tragic and romantic, but also addictive.  You start to wallow in
that bitter little pool of self-pity, not realizing that you *have* to let
people in, just a little.  Before it becomes easier just to stay safe."
Nabiki gazed up at the sky, a small furrow appearing between her
eyebrows.
     "Maybe after so long, it's too late.  Maybe it stops mattering."
     "I don't believe that.  I don't think you do, either.  I think
you're just scared."  The furrow deepened at that, and Nabiki turned
her gaze back to Ukyou.
     "Will you stop pretending that you know so much?" she asked
irritably.  "It takes more than this to scare me, you know."  Ukyou met
the other girl's gaze and held it.  She felt a sudden kinship with Nabiki,
and if anyone had told her she would feel that way even a few days
before, she would have told them that they were insane.  But now she
felt like they were on the verge of some mutual understanding, if only
she could get through Nabiki's defences.
     "You think I'm pretending?  Listen.  You get to feeling like there are
people out there, maybe just a few, who'll see through to your true
heart, and that's how you'll know that you can trust them.  Maybe that's
what happened to me.  Maybe, after being closed off for so long, I got
so desperate that all it took was for Ranma to be nice to me, and I got
hooked.  I thought he was the one who saw through it all, and so I
decided that he *must* be worth trusting, worth caring about.  I never
would have pegged you for a romantic, Nabiki, but I see now that's just
what you are."
     "Oh, puh-LEEZE!  Me?"  Ukyou grinned.
     "Yup.  Underneath that cool businesslike exterior lurks ..."
     "A cool businesslike interior."
     "Well, somebody thought so earlier, and that hurt, remember?"
Nabiki looked mildly taken aback, then grinned lopsidedly.
     "Touche.  Well, look at it this way.  I learned my lesson.  He
doesn't want my help, I'm certainly not going to force it on him."
     "Gah!  Have you been listening to *anything* I've been saying?"
Ukyou asked, aggrieved.  Nabiki sighed.
     "Yeah.  I just think you're wrong about me.  I'm no starry-eyed
romantic, kiddo.  Maybe I'm not as bad as people think, but I'm
nowhere near as good as you'd like to believe.  If you think all that
about me, then *you're* the romantic."  Ukyou sighed.  Nabiki was
pulling back behind her walls again.  Well, so be it.  Ukyou'd seen a
crack in the armour.  She was pretty sure it wouldn't be the last time.
She knew when to push and when not to, after all.
     "If you say so.  Feeling any better?"  Nabiki glanced away almost
shyly.
     "Yeah, actually.  Thanks."  Her words were grudging but sincere,
and Ukyou smiled.  "I never much thought of you as one for
introspection, though.  That was quite a speech."
     "It's the roof," Ukyou confided, lacing her fingers behind her
head and leaning back against the wall.  "Rooftop brooding is a martial
artist's prerogative, after all.  Why do you think we spend so much time
on top of buildings, anyway?"  Nabiki laughed, and Ukyou grinned in
return.
     "I never thought of it that way," she confessed.  "I guess you've
had a lot of practice at this."
     "Oh, I'm one of the great all-time rooftop philosophers,"
Ukyou told her.  "The nature of life, love, personality ..."
     "*And* you make a mean okonomiyaki.  Wow."  The mention of
food made Ukyou's stomach grumble mildly.  She clambered to her
feet and pulled Nabiki up easily.
     "C'mon, let's get outta here.  It's too nice a day to be stuck in
school.  Let's head back to my place and I'll treat you to lunch."
Nabiki shook her head, her usual poise and detached humour
completely restored.
     "Ukyou, Ukyou, Ukyou.  What am I going to do with you?
Giving away food?  You'll never get rich that way."
     "So what's so great about being rich?"
     "Heresy!" Nabiki cried in mock pain.  "Repent, heretic!"
     "Nyaah!"
     They walked to the stairs, and Ukyou smiled, turning her face
up to the sun one last time before they went inside.  She felt that the
seeds of a real friendship might have been planted during their talk,
although only time would tell for certain.
     And that thought made her glad.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Cologne walked easily through the deserted eating area and
pushed her way through the swinging doors into the kitchen.  She had
no trouble navigating through the place when it was empty, as it was
now.  That is, as long as nobody moved any furniture, a fact she'd had
to make clear to Mousse with several thwacks only the previous day.
     She wondered idly if the Nekohanten would ever re-open.
She'd kept Mousse and Shampoo busy with preparations for just such
an eventuality, even though it seemed likely that they'd all soon be
leaving.
     For good.
     She walked slowly into the kitchen, then froze.  A slight breeze
tickled across her face.  From the direction of the breeze, it could only
be coming from the back door.  Which should have been closed.
     "Who's there?" she asked softly, shifting her grip on her staff
ever so slightly.
     "Well, well.  Cologne.  Whatever have you done to yourself?"
Cologne kept herself from flinching visibly.  Of course.  It just figured
that the council would end up sending the one person who bore her the
greatest antagonism of anyone in their village.
     "Hello, Xi Fan.  Come in, won't you?  We have a lot to talk
about."
 

End part one.
Revised November 26/97