A Ranma 1/2 fanfic

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part 10: The Best Laid Plans

by Mark MacKinnon

     Tisa woke knowing something was wrong.
     She was on her feet almost before she was fully awake, the
morning air slightly chill on her still warm skin.  She cocked her head,
listening intently, trying to discern just what it was that had alerted her to
trouble.  Nothing appeared out of the ordinary at first glance, but she
felt a strange sensation deep in the pit of her stomach.
     Something was definitely not right.
     Naked, she padded softly to the door, slanting bars of early
morning light alternately revealing and concealing the lithely muscled
body that she wore, ridged muscle along the abdomen creased with
scars, more visible along the upper back and circling the right knee.
     Humans could be so fragile.
     She pressed lightly to the door, but heard nothing unusual.
Frowning, she considered her course of action.  Acting as Riana's
bodyguard, as well as occupying a human body so often, had definitely
given her an edge of paranoia.  A useful edge, as the scars this body
bore could attest.  Several times, her instincts had served her Lady well
in times of trouble, as well as keeping any of those scars from becoming
fatal wounds.  And that instinct was now telling her something was
amiss.  Here, in their stronghold.
     She considered her options briefly.  Being in this body served her
Lady's interests well, but there were disadvantages.  Her sense of
magic and her abilities were strongly curtailed, for example, although
her presence would be undetectable to any normal human, and most
gifted ones as well.
     She decided.  Sitting on the floor, she leaned back against the
wall and opened her mouth.  Triggering her own release, her
perceptions changed suddenly, shifting and flowing chaotically as she
flowed out of her borrowed body's mouth in a stream, coalescing on
the floor in front of him.
     Out.  It seemed like it had been ages since she'd been out of
that body.  Momentarily distracted, she stretched, luxuriating in the feel
of her light green hair as it fell, thick and straight, down her naked back
and below her hips.  Her long nails extended as she flexed her hands,
and she longed to trace the contours of her body, become almost
unfamiliar to her.  It had been months since the last time she'd come
out.  She'd have to be sure to do this more often.
     Then it came again, and she knew what it was that had woken her.
     Callie.  She was in trouble.
     Tisa didn't know *how* she knew; she just did.  And this
wasn't the first time it had happened, either.  She had her suspicions,
but now was hardly the time to engage in idle speculation.
     At any rate, now that she was free of her mortal shell she could
sense Callie's alarm clearly.  She lay a light sleep spell on the body of
the man named Jubei just to be safe, although after her extended
residence in his body, his personality rarely surfaced anymore.  Then
she summoned a light bodysuit as she slipped silently out into the hall.
Such minor magics were easy for her in this form.  An Aerkinma might
possess far stronger combat magic, but the Baenma had learned to use
subtlety to their advantage.  That was one reason they were prized by
the Upper Courts.
     She checked one of the alarm panels as she passed it, then let
her senses quest outward.  No alarms, either mundane or mystic, had
been tripped.  Yet, as she came closer to Callie, she continued to sense
fear, and now the beginnings of pain.
     Troubling.
     Even more troubling was where her sense of Callie was leading
her.  Her guess was confirmed as she caught sight of Riana's study, and
heard low noises coming from inside.
     She cursed silently.  Surely those two fools hadn't been insane
enough to go play in their Lady's private study?  If Riana had caught
them sporting in there, it was no wonder Callie was afraid.  She eased
up to the door, and just as she let her hand graze the handle, a sudden
wordless cry reverberated through her head.
     [callie?] she thought.  Seconds later, a weak reply.
     [tisa ... help ... it hurts ...]
     Damn.  Well, if they had angered Riana, perhaps she could
divert her Lady's temper a bit.  She eased the door open without
knocking.  That would surely shift the focus of Riana's wrath.
     The lights hadn't been turned on inside, and inky shadows pooled in
several parts of the room.  Her slitted pupils opened wide in the low
light, but still she had trouble seeing into one particular patch of
darkness ...
     She froze.  Callie's body appeared as the darkness seemed to
draw back slightly.  She was being held up by a slim, pale hand that
gripped her face tightly, and the wrist attached to that hand disappeared
back into the pool of shadow.  Somewhere behind Tisa, she heard a
low whimper and knew it was Lilla.
     She knew who the intruder was now, and knew she would
have to proceed very carefully.  Their visitor was in a very bad mood.
     "Ah," a low, cool voice came from the darkness.  "Riana's
lapdog.  Now perhaps we'll get somewhere."  Tisa clenched her jaw
tightly, forcing herself to stay focused.
     "Our Lady of the Shadows," she said, bowing respectfully.
"Your presence here is most ... unexpected.  If I may ...?"
     "I dislike having my time wasted, little one," the voice
interrupted coldly.  "That one would not take me to Riana."  Another
hand emerged from the dark, pointing to where the bodyguard could
now see Lilla sprawled on the floor, holding her bloodied cheek and
shaking with fear and impotent rage.  Her black bat-wings had
extended reflexively from her back and were flexing slowly, as if Lilla
longed to take flight and escape.  "Then this one," she went on, shaking
Callie slightly, "came between us.  Such impudence against a Lady of
the Upper Courts must not go unpunished.  Don't you agree?"
     "Lady, they were only following orders.  Lady Riana's orders
were that she not be disturbed for any reason."  Tisa's mouth was dry.
This one was unpredictable, and dangerous.  If she didn't handle this
just right, things could easily get out of control, and something
irrevocable might come to pass.
     "Indeed?"  The voice was glacial now.  "Then I shall simply
have to amuse myself with these pretty playthings until Riana deigns to
appear, I suppose."  Callie gasped as the dark flowed around her
again, and Tisa felt the psychic distress again in her mind, although she
kept her expression controlled.
     "Lady, that will not be necessary.  I will of course inform her of
your presence immediately."  There was a pause, during which she
dared not even breathe.  Finally, the voice came again, merely cool
again.
     "At last, someone with some common sense.  Quickly, then.
Drag the witch away from whatever it is she thinks is more important
than the news I bring ..."  Sensing an opportunity to divert the Lady's
attention, Tisa spoke from the doorway.
     "She is closeted with Keisuke," she said with just a touch of
contempt in her voice.
     "Indeed?"  The voice was ice cold again.  "Forcing a Lady of
the Aerkinma Court to await her pleasure while she ruts with that
half-blooded puppy?  We shall have to discuss her priorities."  Tisa
extended her hand to Lilla while the other spoke, and Lilla tentatively
reached out.
     "That one can stay," the voice came, soft but bristling with
dangerous edges.  "She can see this one punished for her impudence,
and perhaps learn a valuable lesson about the way things are.  Perhaps
you've all been here so long that you've forgotten the natural order of
things.  And this will give you some motivation to hurry, won't it, Tisa?"
     "Yes, Lady," Tisa said emotionlessly, bowing again as she backed
out of the room.  Once clear, she turned and sprinted for Keisuke's
rooms.
     One thing seemed clear.  One way or another, this was going to
get ugly.

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

     "Mmmmmm ..."
     "I don't ... nnnh ... know if you should be doing that."
     "What?  You don't like it?"  Teasing.
     "Well, my nurse told me I was not to exert myself just yet."
     "Your nurse thinks you can exert yourself as much as you like,
as long as you are on your back."
     "Oh.  In that case, I can do ... this?"
     "Nnnnnnngh ... um.  Yes, I think that's permissable ..."
     "And this?"
     "Yesssss ..."
     "Annnnd ..."
     Someone began pounding on the door at the most inopportune
moment.  Riana snapped out of her warm haze, finding herself staring
down into Keisuke's dark eyes and flushed face.  She almost thought
she must have imagined it when the pounding came again.
     "GO THE HELL AWAY!" Keisuke bellowed.  She raised
herself up on her arms, rage blossoming in her as the pounding
resumed.
     "Who dares?" she whispered in disbelief.  Her orders had been
explicit.  In one smooth motion, she swung from the bed, winding a
sheet tightly around her naked body.
     "Don't move!" she admonished Keisuke, wheeling sharply and
stalking to the door.  She jerked it open, so enraged that at first it didn't
register that her bodyguard was standing there in her natural form.  She
raised one impeccably manicured hand in a gesture of tight menace.
     "You will be ..." she began in a low, venomous tone.
     "Our Lady of the Shadows has returned unexpectedly and
awaits your pleasure," Tisa said in a rush.  Riana froze.  Tisa stood
there, dressed in a brief bodysuit that was cut high over the thighs, with
high boots and fingerless gloves.  That was the outfit she wore when
working, and she'd left Jubei's body.  Riana sorted through the
implications quickly, efficiently, using the almost instinctive ability to
analyse and plan that had kept her in control for so long.  She had held
herself back from violence by the thinnest tendril of control, and now
she pulled herself back from the brink of that liberating rage.
     But with the utmost reluctance.
     "Wait," she snarled, slamming the door.
     Damn.  Why had that bitch returned?  What was going on?
Thankfully Tisa had been on her toes; Riana couldn't afford to be
caught in a vulnerable position, not with HER.  She dropped the sheet,
turning back to the bed.  The sight of Keisuke trying to sit up greeted
her.
     "Where do you think you're going?" she asked archly.  He
grunted, slim muscles rippling under his bandages, his face contorted
with pain.
     "I heard," he grunted.  "If she's come back unexpectedly, it means
trouble.  You need me beside you."  She walked over to the bed and
stared down at him.
     "Don't jump to conclusions," she said evenly.  "And if she
DOES wish to challenge my authority, I am more than equal to the
task.  And Tisa will be with me.  Now lie down."  He hesitated, and she
leaned over until her nose was touching his.
     "That's an order," she whispered.  Reluctantly, he half lay, half
collapsed on the bed, panting.  She nodded.
     "You can't fight quite yet," she said.  "Remain here until I return.
I'll
deal with this problem."  With a gesture, she summoned her court
dress.  A light robe with a high collar and a large diamond cut out
between her breasts and her navel, a short skirt consisting of two
panels of material cut up almost to her waist on either side, and high
boots shimmered and appeared on her body, the white material
contrasting nicely with her dusky skin.  A full white cape hung gracefully
from ebon shoulder guards, and she wore white fingerless gloves and
wrist bracers of black metal.  Her outfit was a more intricate version of
Tisa's, as befitted her station.  And like Tisa's, hers was made more for
action than ceremony, a distinction she trusted wouldn't be lost on their
guest.
     A shame she couldn't do anything about her hair, tousled from
bed, but there wasn't time.  She ran her fingers through it as she turned
to Keisuke.
     "I'll return soon," she said absently, her thoughts already on the
coming confrontation.  "Do not leave until I return.  Understood?"  He
grunted, and she stared icily at him until he explicitly agreed.  Then she
swept out of the room, every inch the ruling Lady.
     Tisa fell into step with her immediately, every inch the loyal
bodyguard.  At least some things were predictable.  Riana was silent
for a few moments.
     "Where is she?" she asked at last, as they neared the first
intersection of hallways.
     "Your study," Tisa said stonily.  Riana stiffened.  That bitch
insulted her, invading her inner sanctum like that, and the insult was no
doubt deliberate.  That was troubling; it implied leverage on her rival's
part to disregard Riana's authority that way.  "She is keeping Callie and
Lilla with her until I bring you."  Riana knew her eyes were blazing red
now, and she brought herself quickly under control.  Tisa's posture told
her all she needed to know about that situation.  Arriving unannounced,
she had invaded Riana's inner sanctum, and was playing with two of her
valuable Baenma without permission.
     Riana was not happy.
     "Anything else?" she asked.  Tisa's eyes flicked slightly.
     "Our Lady of the Shadows is in something of a temper, Lady,"
she added stiffly.
     "Speak."
     "Lilla is blooded.  Callie she holds in Shadow."  Riana held her
temper, just barely.  The point of all this could well be to try to anger
her, make her act in haste.
     It appeared that her rival had forgotten who she was dealing with.
     As they approached the study, Riana turned to her bodyguard.
     "Do nothing without my orders," she said.  Tisa nodded. She
understood.  Riana had known she would.  Her experience would
prove invaluable.  Tisa was a well-honed tool, and Riana was well
aware that the Baenma's infatuation with her only strengthened her
loyalty.  And Riana was not one to fail to exploit any advantage.
     Especially if the only other Aerkinma Lady in this realm had ideas
about taking over.
     She swept into the study regally, holding her temper in careful check
as her gaze swept across Lilla's form, crouched in a silent snarl on the
floor.  She directed her attention to the odd patch of shadow in the
middle of the room.
     "You forget yourself, Wynneth," she said, deliberately leaving
out her rival's title.  "Too long away, I suppose."
     "And who's fault is that, Riana?" the other mocked.  Riana's
eyes narrowed.
     "Show yourself!" she snapped, her tone one of a woman used
to being obeyed.  For a moment, nothing happened.  Then the shadow
pulled back, revealing Callie's unresisting form still suspended by a
single hand.  The almost liquid shadow continued to retreat, until the
newcomer stood revealed.
     Riana had to admit that Wynneth was breathtaking.  She was a
study in contrasts, etched in shadow and ice.  Even now she seemed
cloaked in shifting darkness that revealed and concealed all at once.
She was cloaked in a mane of ankle-length night dark hair that nearly
overwhelmed her lithe body.  It was so full and dark that she seemed to
disappear into its depths at times, only revealed by flashes of her skin,
pale as winter moonlight.  Her bangs were cut straight across just
above the large, gorgeously dark pools of her eyes, and her face was
delicate, wide cheekbones and a small, pointed chin forming a pale
triangle in the darkness of her hair.  Her lush lips were blood red,
an oasis of colour that matched her long, wicked nails.
     When she shifted slightly, her brief black corset was visible.  A long
narrow V of white showed against the black leather, running between
her breasts and down to her navel, cris-crossed with black lacings.  At
the top, the garment attached to a black chocker that encircled
Wynneth's pale neck.  Black boots rose to the knee, leaving her legs
bare between the knee and hip.  Her arms were likewise bare from the
shoulder to the elbow, where long gloves stretched down, narrowing
across the backs of each hand to terminate at the ring finger.
     The effect of the glimpses of pale flesh was enticing, as it was
no doubt meant to be.  There was an air of aloofness, of cruel and cold
beauty, about the Aerkinma Lady.  Riana reflected absently that she
and Tragus shared tastes in clothing.
     Then her jaw tightened.  Tragus.  Alone, he was manageable,
but if Wynneth learned of his ambitions, and they teamed up, that could
be disastrous.
     Well, first things first.
     "It has been some time, Wynneth," she said coolly.  "I see you
are as charming as ever."
     "They defied me," Wynneth said, her deceptively soft voice
showing little emotion.
     "They followed my orders.  They answer to me, Wynneth.  Now
turn my servant loose."  Wynneth stared back, her bottomless dark
eyes unreadable, and Riana waved Tisa forward.  Tisa moved to where
Callie was still being held up, and reached out.  Riana stared directly
into Wynneth's eyes, waiting, unwilling to repeat herself.  Finally,
Wynneth lowered her eyes demurely, her long dark lashes sooty against
her pale cheeks, and she opened her hand.  Callie collapsed bonelessly,
and only Tisa's reflexes kept her from hitting the floor.
     "Tisa, take Callie and Lilla out and see to them.  I wish to speak
with Wynneth alone."  Tisa nodded, hoisting Callie's limp form into her
arms easily, then walking over to Lilla.  The smaller girl stood shakily,
avoiding Wynneth's gaze.  The long scratches on her cheek were
already beginning to heal, and she appeared otherwise unhurt.  She
followed Tisa out meekly, and closed the door behind them.  Riana
took a deep breath and turned back to face the other woman.
     Wynneth's features were set in an expression of icy repose,
fairly radiating a cool, unattainable beauty.  Riana took two steps
forward, placing herself directly in front of the other woman.  Although
Wynneth was not tall, Riana had to look up slightly to meet her gaze.
     "Aren't you going to welcome me back?" she asked in her
cool, slightly mocking tone.  Riana answered her by delivering a savage
backhanded blow to her face.  Wynneth's head snapped back, sending
a ripple through the glossy cloak of her hair.  She slowly brought her
chin back down, and Riana saw with no little satisfaction that there was
a tiny crack in her rival's icy facade.  For a moment, hot rage glared
balefully from Wynneth.  Then, all too quickly, her mask of control
slammed back down.  A tiny trickle of blood snaked from the corner of
Wynneth's lush mouth, bright red against the flawless alabaster skin.
The woman's pink tongue stole out with deliberate slowness as she held
Riana's gaze, licking at the blood in as brazen a manner as possible.
     "Welcome back," Riana said softly, the menace in her tone
unmistakable.  She moved slightly, and now the two were almost nose
to nose, Riana's storm gray eyes staring into Wynneth's of midnight
black.  Their posture was oddly intimate, and deceptively so as well,
for Riana knew well that one wrong move would precipitate a battle
frenzy between them that would likely not end until one was dead.
     She didn't want that, couldn't *afford* that, but she could not
let Wynneth's defiance of her authority pass unchallenged.
     "That was unwise," Wynneth whispered, her breath fanning
hotly across Riana's face.  Some of the blood from her split lip had
trickled below the range of her tongue, and Riana slowly, deliberately,
reached out her index finger to wipe it off the taller woman's delicate
chin.  Then, her eyes holding Wynneth's with arrogant defiance, she
raised her finger to her face and slowly sucked the blood off, savouring
it like a fine wine.  She favoured the other woman with a sultry smile.
     "It tastes just as I remember," she purred.  Wynneth's coldly
beautiful features twitched, she now the one being forced to maintain
her temper.
     "You ... DARE?" she hissed.  Riana leaned forward, and now
they WERE touching lightly, something dark and electric hanging in the
air between them.
     "You forget yourself, Lady of the Shadows," she said in her quiet
yet menacing voice, all trace of mockery gone.  "You come unbidden
into MY study.  And you presume to make free with my property."
Both women held absolutely still, as if to make the slightest move was
to invite disaster.  As in fact was very likely the case.
     "I am still Aerkinma," Wynneth hissed, her nostrils flaring.  "I
may command ..."
     "I lead here!" Riana interrupted.  "I have not given you leave to
damage MY Baenma.  They are few now, and valuable to me.  You
drew blood without my leave, you detained my servants, and you
forced my bodyguard to disobey my DIRECT ORDERS to serve your
own whims!"  That stung her rival; fire mingled with the glacial cold in
her eyes, and for a dizzying moment Riana was certain that there would
be violence.  Finally, though, Wynneth regained control.
     "Speak not to me of whims," she said in a low, deadly voice.
"I am no toy, Riana.  You would do well to remember that I am an
Aerkinma Lady, sworn to High Lord Vaenruth ..."
     "And in his absence, sworn to me," Riana interjected, her voice
soft.  "Someone had to rule our forces in his stead.  And you know full
well, sweet Wynneth, that I do not rule because I was his consort."
She reached out, across the tiny distance that still separated them, and
let the first two fingers of her hand rest gently on the cool smooth flesh
at the base of Wynneth's throat.  She could feel the other's pulse
thrumming there, and remembered when her lips had grazed that exact
spot.
     She could see by Wynneth's expression that the point was not
lost on her.
     "The three of us fought for supremacy," she breathed, holding
Wynneth's implacable gaze with her own, not moving her fingers as she
spoke.  "You bested Vaxe.  You did not best me."  She paused, letting
her fingers press ever so slightly against her rival's vulnerable throat, her
eyes narrowing slightly.  Wynneth's breathing was slightly faster, but
she showed no other outward signs of her turmoil.
     "Have you forgotten what it was like?" Riana asked in a
breathy whisper.  "Lying helpless, entangled in my silken web, my
venom rendering you helpless?  I might have killed you then, but you
offered your ... submission.  And I accepted it, because we are already
too few. HAVE you forgotten?  It has been some time.  Perhaps your
lack of manners is a sign that you no longer consider me fit to rule you.
Is that the case, Wynneth?  Is it?  Because if it is, then we must settle
the question of your loyalties before we do anything else."  They stood
in a frozen tableau for long moments, and Riana felt herself quivering at
the brink of changing into her spider form.  Wynneth was the only other
Aerkinma amongst their number now, and despite Riana's earlier
victory, a fight between them could go either way.  But with her goal
now finally within her grasp, she couldn't let this slide.
     She had to know.
     Finally, she was aware of Wynneth slowly raising one hand.
Up it came, gently clasping Riana's where it lay against her throat, the
other woman's cool slim fingers wrapping around her hand while she
continued to stare into Riana's eyes.  Riana fought not to let her
edginess show as Wynneth gently drew the captive hand up to her
mouth.  Then, still not letting her eyes drop, she gently kissed Riana's
signet ring, her soft lips brushing lightly against the fingers there.  Riana
had to suppress a shudder.
     "My Lady," Wynneth breathed, "your humble servant begs
your pardon for her rudeness.  I have been away from our court for far
too long."  And they both knew whose fault that was.  However,
Wynneth had made the correct obeisance, and her apology was
untainted by mockery or sarcasm.  Riana judged it appropriate.
Barely.  She retrieved her hand and gave her rival a tiny nod, barely
inclining her head.
     "We don't stand much on protocol, Wynneth," Riana said, feeling
the electric tension between them finally ease.  "But I will not stand for
insubordination."  She knew the respite was only temporary, but she
also knew that was the best she could hope for, at least until she found
out where things stood.  Wynneth would continue to harbour
resentment against her, as she had since being humbled those many
years ago.  If she was finally getting ready to challenge Riana openly,
then all Riana could do was be prepared.  She would simply have to
keep closer tabs on her fellow Aerkinma from now on.  She walked
over to her desk and sat in her high-backed leather chair, looking up at
the enigmatic Shadowmistress.
     "Well, Wynneth, perhaps you could tell me what is so
important that you felt it necessary to ignore my orders and return
here," she sighed, leaning back.  "Not to mention interrupting my
meditations."  Wynneth stood in front of the desk, looking remote and
untouchable once more, no outward sign of her temper visible.  Riana
wondered how many humans had been drawn in by that cool beauty,
only to fall prey to Wynneth's appetites.  Riana knew she was a
connoisseur of pain, among other ... darker pursuits.
     Hardly unusual amongst the Aerkinma, but unnerving attributes
in a rival.
     Wynneth tossed her head haughtily, and her hair swirled in a
silky wave around her lithe body.  Darker shadows seemed to lurk
within its concealing mantle, and Wynneth reached one hand back into
that darkness, her arm impossibly disappearing up to the elbow in the
blackness before reappearing with something held in her hand.
Wordlessly, she tossed the object onto Riana's desk.  It struck heavily,
skidding across the surface to come to a stop directly in front of the
startled woman.
     It can't be, Riana thought, quashing a sudden surge of panic.  I
didn't know ...
     The object itself was a gold-coloured glove of some strange metallic
material.  Fingerless, it had on its back the small triangular head of a
beast with a long snout and two sets of curved horns.  It's eyes were
red jewels, dull now, and a green stone was imbedded in its forehead.
It was stained with something that might have been dried blood.
     "I thought it might go well with the one you already have," Wynneth
said darkly, and Riana suddenly understood that the stakes had risen
once again, high enough that everything was about to change.  And
Wynneth knew it, damn her.  Here was her leverage.
     "An Ibex Glove," Riana sighed resignedly.
     "Yes," Wynneth said sourly.  "I thought it was somewhat more
important than rutting with a half-breed.  I'm glad to see you agree."
Riana fought the urge to lash out at Wynneth over that remark.  First
things first.
     "You didn't realize that there WAS another one," Wynneth
continued.  "And you quite likely didn't realize that there were any
survivors of the Kanzaki Clan to attempt to master it, either."  Riana's
heart clenched painfully as she fought to keep her outward expression
calm.  NONE of them had known there was another one.  Wynneth
would milk this, and she would have to allow it.  For now.
     "Tell me," she instructed.  Wynneth drew herself up to her full
height, cloaked in her personal darkness, triumph and accusation in her
eyes.
     "While we have waited these many years, our enemies have begun
to recover," she said coldly.  "Humans are not like us, they breed
quickly and you can never be certain you've killed an entire line of
them.  Despite what we believed, the Mamono Hunter clans were
obviously not totally eradicated.  I stumbled onto the girl using that
glove almost by chance.  She was apparently a novice.  She didn't give
me much trouble."
     "You killed her."  It was not a question.
     "She died," Wynneth confirmed.  "Eventually."  The expression
in her dark eyes told of how the Shadowmistress had enjoyed delaying
her victim's death, but that was not Riana's concern.  She had only been
a human, after all.  Any information she'd possessed, though, could be
invaluable to them.
     "Did she tell you anything of significance?" Riana pressed,
aware that Wynneth was forcing her to prompt for information and
savouring her small victories.  Wynneth shifted, her body concealed
again by darkness, only her pale face visible.
     "Oh, yes.  She sang beautifully," Wynneth sighed.  "Through her I
found her mentor, a wrinkled old harridan.  That one died without
talking, unfortunately."
     "No sign of others?" Riana asked.  Wynneth shifted again,
flashes of pale skin showing as her hair swirled slowly about her.
     "Others?  Of course there are others," she said coldly,
imperiously.  "It is as I have always said.  While we wait interminably,
doing nothing, our enemies are recovering from the blow we struck
them so many years ago.  There are still artifacts of power adrift in this
world that have escaped us, and now we know there are champions
arising who are capable of using them, and the next time it is quite
possible that we shall not be as lucky.  Are we to wait here until the
humans hunt us down and cast us back into the darkness?  We were
promised plunder, and a world at our feet, and instead we skulk in the
shadows while they walk free, unafraid!  It is intolerable!"
     "Enough!" Riana thundered.  Wynneth subsided, uncowed, and
Riana shook her head.
     "Enough," she repeated softly.  "Of course you have made
valid points.  We have hunted down our enemies and eradicated them
wherever possible, and they remain weak, scattered.  They pose no
threat to us ..."
     "The Kunou Clan should be eliminated," Wynneth said flatly.
"While they are weak and vulnerable.  As long as they remain, they
could become a focal point for any champions of the old order who
arise.  We cannot give the humans such a beacon to flock to."
     "The Dread Lord has forbidden that course of action," Riana
pointed out.  "For his own reasons, whatever they may be, and it is not
for us to question them.  For he would punish us should we disobey
him.  No, they must be allowed to survive in ignorance, cut off from the
others.  They are powerless."
     "It will not always be so," Wynneth warned.  "We have lived
among these humans for many years now, and I for one understand
their petty little minds more deeply than in the beginning.  They are
unpredictable, and they change quickly and capriciously.  We cannot
rely on them to remain ignorant forever.  Inaction will cost us our
victory, our spoils."  Riana steepled her fingers and regarded Wynneth
carefully.
     "I did not say I was inactive," she said.  "In fact, my plans are
proceeding in good time.  I believe you will find the results quite to your
liking."  The Shadowmistress cocked her head slightly.
     "Indeed?  Now I am intrigued.  What plans might these be?"  Riana
just smiled.  She certainly didn't trust her rival; she was the only one
capable of seriously challenging Riana's position, after all.  However, if
she kept Wynneth totally in the dark, the shadow bitch would just go
nosing around and become an even bigger threat than she already was.
And Wynneth knew that Riana needed her now, and would take full
advantage of that knowledge.  No, the best way was to control the
information she received and to try to lure her into a position that would
be to Riana's own benefit.
     Another dangerous game, but a necessary one.
     "We will talk at some length later.  First, though, you must be
tired from your long journey."  She reached out to the intercom and
called for Tisa.  Seconds later, her bodyguard entered the room,
walking over to the desk.
     "Lady Riana," she said respectfully.  "Lady Wynneth."
     "Tisa will see to ... ALL your needs," Riana explained.  She
noticed Tisa's jaw clench as the implicit invitation of Riana's words did
not escape her.  Wynneth looked over at the green-haired beauty with
a cool smile.  Riana did not feel guilty.  Tisa was hers, after all, and she
needed to keep Wynneth distracted for a while.
     And Tisa would not complain.  She would perform out of duty
and love for her Lady.  As always.
     "Tisa will show you to guest quarters," she said casually.  "We can
discuss matters further over breakfast."  Wynneth glided over to
where Tisa stood, stiff and unflinching.  She reached out and stroked
one finger lightly across Tisa's bare shoulder.
     "Better make that lunch," she told Riana with a sultry sidelong look.
Riana nodded.  Better than she'd hoped.
     "Very well.  Until then."  Tisa led their visitor out of the study,
her back rigid.  Riana watched the pair go, then sat back in her chair.
     Alone at last.
     She rubbed her eyes, letting some of the tension seep from her
body.  She'd kept Wynneth occupied and away from her power base
for years, but now it was obvious that she'd be needed close to home.
Any possibility that members of the Mamono Hunter clans were active
again was bad enough, but they were far from the only possible threat.
She couldn't help thinking about the old priest Keisuke had killed, and
the girl he'd supposedly been training.
     She surmised that the girl was responsible for the trap which
had befallen Keisuke, and if that was so, she was as dangerous as
Riana had feared when the slight possibility of her heritage had come to
light.  Not as dangerous as she would have been had she possessed the
pendant, of course.  At least Riana knew she didn't have that.
     And, if her plans came off the way she intended, that eventuality
would never come to pass.  But there were so many random factors
being thrown into the mix now ...
     She rose briskly from her desk.  She needed to plan, to consider all
the new factors being introduced after all this time.  She'd just bought
herself a few hours.  It would be wise to put them to good use.

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

     "A what?"
     "You heard me."
     "Why the heck would I buy you a triple-scoop ice-cream
sundae?" Ranma asked.  Akane glared at him.
     "To make up for stealing my chocolate yesterday," she
growled.  "If you treat me nicely, I *might* just forgive you.
Eventually."  He winced.  He had hoped she would forget about that.
Fat chance.  He met her glare ruefully.
     "Okay, okay.  Geez, Akane, don't make such a big deal out of
it."
     "It is a big deal, you.  Never come between me and my
chocolate!"  He held up his hands in surrender.
     "Fine.  If it'll make you happy, I'll buy you a sundae."
     "Triple-scoop."
     "Yeah, yeah.  Course, it'd be hard for such a small girl to eat
such a big sundae all by herself ..."
     "Oh, no you don't!  You're not going to buy ME a sundae and
then end up eating most of it yourself!  Ranma, I swear ...!"  He grinned
in what he hoped was a disarming manner.
     "Just a little!" he compromised.  She glared suspiciously.
"Okay, tell you what.  I'll only eat what you feed me."  A light blush
appeared on her cheeks, and she looked away.
     "Well ..." she muttered.  He bounced on his toes and tried to
look into her eyes.
     "Oh!  What's this?  Thinking perverted thoughts, Akane?"  She
whirled on him, her eyes alive with vitality.
     "You wish!  That's it, no ice-cream for you!"
     "Why not?  I'm not the one having the perverted thoughts," he
teased.  She danced ahead, her nose in the air.
     "Why would I think about you, anyway?" she asked haughtily.
     "C'mon, admit it!"
     "Not a chance."
     "And you will too give me some ice-cream."
     "Don't count on it."
     "What if I make it worth your while?" he asked suggestively.
She continued to walk ahead of him, but he noticed her peeking back
at him out of the corner of her eye.
     "For instance?" she asked in a hugely disinterested tone.  He
bounded ahead, catching up to her easily.  Leaning one hand on her
slim shoulder, he leaned forward and whispered something in her ear.
Her cheeks turned bright pink.
     "What do you think?" he asked, straightening.  She swallowed.
     "One bite," she said at last, her voice slightly husky.
     "One?" he asked in a wounded tone.
     "Unless you meant *both* earlobes ..."
     "Well, of course," he said with a cocky grin.  She gave him
another of those sly, sidelong glances that made his heart beat like a
hummingbird's wings.
     "I'll think about it," she said at last.  He kept grinning.
     Oh, she'd think about it all right.  He was absolutely confident
on that point.
     They approached the gates together, and Ranma's grin slipped
as he caught sight of Ukyou.  She was wearing her usual boy's uniform,
the dark jacket buttoned to the neck, her hair tied back tightly.  She
was walking along, deep in conversation with Nabiki.  He hoped
Akane hadn't seen them.
     In vain, as it turned out.
     He saw her frown as she watched them go into the school.  Even he
had to admit that a fair number of people were watching the two girls
from a distance and whispering in a salacious manner.  The rumour mill
was apparently still operating at full tilt.
     "You know, I think tonight would be a good time to put my
plan into operation," Akane said suddenly.  Ranma suppressed a groan,
but Akane seemed to sense his disapproval anyway.
     "Ranma, you promised!" she reminded him.  He sighed.
     "Yeah, I know," he said.  It had been in a weak moment, after
all.  Akane'd been right there in his arms in the dojo, and she'd looked
at him, her beautiful deep brown eyes beseeching, and like an idiot he'd
said yes.  "But Akane, nothing's going to happen."  She turned to him,
hands clasped behind her back.
     "Well, of course it isn't," she said simply.  "But I'm going to
*prove* that nothing's going to happen!"
     Prove to who? he wondered glumly.  He thought the logic
behind the whole plan was more than a little shaky, but he had agreed
to help, and he really didn't want to disappoint Akane.  He'd done
enough of that in the past.  And he supposed it couldn't really hurt.
Maybe, once she'd gotten this out of her system, she'd get over this
crazy suspicion of hers.  She claimed just to be angry that people were
gossiping about her sister, but he thought she actually had doubts.
     "Fine," he sighed.  "Why do I let you talk me into these things,
anyway?"  She smiled then, and her face lit up as she rose up on her
tip-toes.
     "Because you love me," she whispered before turning and
dashing to the doors.  He stood there for a moment, feeling a heady
rush of hot blood to his face.
     "Oh, yeah," he said giddily to no one in particular.  "I knew
there was a good reason."

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

     Nabiki couldn't help it.  She laughed.
     "Nabiki!" Ukyou protested.
     "I'm sorry," she chuckled.  "Just the mental picture of Ryouga
trying to fend off a flirtatious customer ..."  Ukyou sniffed, her nose high
in the air.
     "He wasn't trying to fend her off very hard," she said.  "And
Mousse was no better."
     "Well, what do you expect, Ukyou?  They are guys, after all."
Ukyou looked at the ground, a line appearing between her eyebrows,
appearing troubled.
     "Is that what it really takes to get a guy's attention?" she asked
after a moment.  Nabiki raised an eyebrow.
     "Well, that's one way," she said.  Ukyou looked up at her, still
troubled.
     "But she was so blatant!  I mean, the way she dressed and flirted
and everything, it was just so ... much!"  Nabiki thought to herself
that compared to Ukyou's usual low-key approach, this girl had
probably seemed like the goddess of love herself.
     "Hey, relax.  I said it's one way, not the only way.  Anyhow,
Mousse and Ryouga are a couple of single guys, so they can look
whenever they like, right?"  Ukyou scowled.
     "Look, yes," she said reluctantly.  "But not drool!"
     "Oh, I'm sure you're exaggerating," Nabiki said easily.  Ukyou,
however, was not placated.
     "Well, I mean, really, Nabiki.  If you liked a waiter, would you
just leave your phone number on the receipt like that?  It's shameless,
that's what!  And ... and what if I get audited and have to provide my
receipts, huh?  What then?  What will the tax department think?"
     "They'll think that they'd get more if they were in the restaurant
business," Nabiki said wickedly, enjoying the flush that rose to Ukyou's
face.
     "Nabiki!"
     "Come on, now, Ukyou.  Tell the truth.  Were you shocked by her
behaviour, or jealous of all the attention she got?"  Ukyou stopped,
gaping and stuttering incoherently.
     "J-j-jealous?!" she managed at last.  Nabiki nodded knowingly.
     "That's what I said.  Why else would you be so bent out of
shape?"
     "I'm not ... but she ..."
     "Ukyou, Ukyou, Ukyou.  You spent so much time pretending
to be a guy, didn't you learn anything about them?"  Ukyou stared at
her, uncomprehending.  Nabiki sighed.
     "Never mind.  Look, if she wants to flaunt what she's got, then
let her.  No sweat.  I'm sure you could give her a run for her money
any day."
     "M-me?  What do you mean?" Ukyou asked, flustered even further.
Nabiki grinned.
     "Oh, come on.  Remember the reaction your dress got from
Ryouga?  If you loosened up a little, who knows?"  Ukyou flushed.
     "But I've never done anything like that!" she blustered.  Nabiki
wagged a finger at her.
     "Well, maybe you should think about starting," she grinned.  She
thought that maybe that was what all this was really about.  Ukyou
could be so forthright in some ways, and yet so reserved in others.
Nabiki figured she was probably looking for someone to give her a little
push, and she would be more than happy to oblige.
     "Hey," Ukyou said, her tone suddenly more subdued.  "Look."
Nabiki saw what had caught her attention.  Miss Hinako was walking
along, trailing her usual complement of male admirers.  She had
stopped, however, to lavish her personal attention on Tatewaki Kunou.
The two girls watched as the sultry teacher laughed, flipped her hair,
touched her student on the arm with easy intimacy, and generally
carried on in an inappropriate manner.
     Kunou, of course, was soaking it up.
     "Um, she's acting awfully strange, isn't she?" Ukyou asked.  "I
mean, after what we saw at the club the other night ..."  Nabiki
shrugged absently.
     "Maybe she's flexible," she suggested.  "You're right about her
acting strange, though."  Ukyou glanced at her.
     "What do you mean?"
     "For a couple of weeks now, she's been gradually changing,"
Nabiki said, watching as Miss Hinako left a puffed-up Kunou and
walked into the school.  "I didn't really notice at first, but if you look
back you can see that things have been getting weird."
     "Come on, Nabiki.  Miss Hinako was always weird."
     "No, think about it.  She always used to have a sense of justice,
deranged as it was.  But people have been complaining lately that she
seems to be zapping them for no reason.  Like when she nailed you that
day, remember?"  Ukyou nodded slowly.
     "Yeah, but ..."
     "And there's more.  She hardly ever reverts to her little girl
state anymore.  Have you noticed?  Whenever I see her, she's in tall
and gorgeous mode.  It used to be she couldn't stay that way through
an entire class, but now she does it easily.  And there's a vibe coming
off her that I never used to get.  I don't know, she just seems ...
dangerous now.  And a little bit mean.  It's hard to explain."  Ukyou
considered her words as they walked.
     "Well, maybe you're right," she said at last.  "But she's got to
have a strange life anyway.  Maybe things are just getting to her lately.
I mean, with someone else, maybe I'd say you were right, but Miss
Hinako?  How do you figure out someone like that in the first place?"
Nabiki shrugged.
     "All I know for sure," she said, "is that she suddenly seems to
have it in for me, and I'm not sure why."  Ukyou gave her an appraising
look.
     "If you think she has it in for you now, think how she'll feel if
you spread around what we saw at the club the other night."  Nabiki
blinked innocently.
     "What?  Me?" she asked blankly.
     "Yes, you.  We both know it's no fun being the butt of
rumours, Nabiki.  You're not going to make a big deal about this, are
you?"  Nabiki smiled.
     "Ukyou.  Trust me."  She had no intention of making a big deal
out of things.
     After all, in a case like this, subtlety was often more effective.

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

     Tisa staggered, pain flaring through her body as she collided
with the wall heavily.  She gasped aloud, then placed her palm flat
against the cool wall and tried to push herself upright.  Her strength
seemed to have deserted her, though.  And she was so cold.
     So cold, and weak, and tired ...
     She just stood there, her head down, and concentrated on
breathing, trying to force the dizziness to pass.  After long moments, it
did, and she began to stagger forward again.  Each clumsy step caused
jagged pain to shoot up through her body, but at least the pain told her
she was still moving.
     She didn't realize someone was trying to talk to her until she
walked right into them.
     "Tisa!  Oh, damn that bitch to the Pits!"  Slim arms went around her
waist, supporting her, and she was guided around a corner and into a
dim room.  She tried to focus on the face that went with the voice.
     "Lilla?"  The shorter girl moved her forward, then lowered her
with surprising strength for such a delicate figure.  Tisa gasped, then
sighed as she sat down on a yielding surface.  A bed.
     "What happened?" a second voice asked, heavy with sleep.
     "What do you think?" Lilla asked archly, tilting Tisa's head up
so she could peer into her eyes.  "The shadowbitch had her fun after all,
and with our splendid Lady's permission this time no doubt ..."
     "Don't ... speak against our ... Lady," Tisa muttered.  Lilla
shook her head violently, her shoulder length hair spinning in a neat
silken arc.
     "Oh, you are just too much!" she spat.  She reached down and
tore the tattered remnants of Tisa's bodysuit away with one hand,
eyeing her naked body critically.  Tisa looked down with a sense of
detachment.  There were bruises and marks discolouring her usually
smooth flesh, but they didn't look too bad.  At least not from her
vantage point; from Lilla's pained hiss, she obviously didn't agree.
     "Well, she clearly wasn't given permission to draw blood," the
second voice said from behind her.  "That's something."  Callie.  She
was in the room that Callie and Lilla shared.
     "That's little enough," Lilla said tersely.  "And probably the only
reason she withheld permission is because the shadowbitch could have
controlled Tisa had she drunk her blood.  Damn it, her Ladyship could
have found some human to be the shadowbitch's playtoy!"  She
reached around Tisa and pulled the heavy covers on the bed back, then
eased the unresisting Baenma bodyguard into the comforting warmth.
Tisa gasped aloud when Callie's arms snaked around her and pulled her
close.  Callie was also naked, and her skin was so *warm*.  Lilla
stripped off her flimsy shift and climbed in after her, and suddenly Tisa
was surrounded by subtle, life-giving heat.  Lilla drew the covers up
around them as Callie pulled Tisa's head onto her chest.  Lilla lay on her
stomach, her chin propped on Tisa's bare shoulder, their bodies
intertwined intimately.  It reminded Tisa of the way they'd all used to
sleep together, before she'd been elevated to the position of Riana's
bodyguard.
     "Damn, you're cold!" Lilla complained.  "I spent half the
morning warming poor Callie up, and now this!"  Callie's warm hands
cradled Tisa's face, and the battered bodyguard looked at Lilla through
lidded eyes.  She could see that the youngest Baenma was worried,
little of her usual playful nature in evidence.  The slashes on her cheek
had healed already, and her eyes were deeper pools of dark in the
shadows as she stared up at Tisa.
     "How are you guys doing?" she asked, their seductive warmth
flowing into her, restoring her slowly.  She felt safe and at ease for the
first time in a very long time, and she closed her eyes, listening to the
soft sounds of their breathing, feeling Callie's chest rise and fall under
her head, feeling Lilla's hot breath on her shoulder.
     "I'm better now," Callie said softly.  "Our little Lilla's been
nursemaiding me all morning."
     "And she's been loving it," Lilla sniffed.  Then her tone grew
more sober.  "I was afraid that the shadowbitch ..."
     "Carefully, little one," Tisa murmured drowsily.
     " ... that *Lady* Wynneth was going to really hurt her," she
finished archly.  "She was as angry as I've ever seen her when we told
her that Lady Riana's orders had to be obeyed."
     "It put us in a tricky spot, love," Callie added, stroking Tisa's
long hair tenderly with her free hand.  "That practically rubbed her nose
in the fact that Riana's orders take precedence over hers."
     "So she cut me," Lilla said, her eyes unfocused.  "And then ..."
     "And then Callie jumped in to take the heat off of you," Tisa
finished for her.  A smile spread slowly over Lilla's face.
     "Yes," she said softly.  "My hero."  Callie snorted gently, not saying
anything.
     "You should have called me as soon as she showed up," Tisa
murmured, her eyes closing again under Callie's ministrations.
     "She surprised us," Callie told her.  "And then she wouldn't let us do
anything."
     [but I did call you, love.  and you heard and came]
     Tisa smiled at the unspoken words, and Lilla rumbled deep in
her throat, sending a pleasant vibration through Tisa's chest.
     "You two are doing it again, aren't you?" she asked accusingly.
     "Sorry," Tisa sighed.
     "Don't be jealous, little one," Callie teased her.
     "I'm not," Lilla said insincerely.  She traced light patterns on
Tisa's bare shoulder with her finger, the warmth seeping into Tisa's
body deliciously.  The soul-numbing chill that had gripped her was
nearly melted now, and her aches were fading slowly.
     "Anyway, Tisa, you took the heat for both of us, disobeying
our Lady by interrupting her," Callie murmured in her ear.
     "Dragging her away from her toy that way," Lilla said darkly.
"That's probably why she gave you to the ice queen."
     "Vindictive as our Lady sometimes is, I would think it would
have been a greater show of strength for her to deny Wynneth such
hospitality," Callie said doubtfully.  "She's done it before, just to show
who's boss."
     "Politics," Tisa mumbled.
     "Huh?" Lilla asked.
     "Bad times coming.  Lady Riana's going to be keeping her
fellow Aerkinma Lady close at hand from now on, methinks."
     "What do you know, Tisa?" Callie asked.  Tisa sighed, arching her
back slightly.
     "When I was summoned into the Lady's study, there was
something on her desk, a human artifact of power.  I think it was the
reason behind Our Lady of the Shadows' return."
     "Reason or pretext?" Callie asked.  Tisa shrugged lightly.
     "Whichever you like."
     "Artifact?" Lilla asked, brushing her bangs out of her eyes.
"Like what?"
     "I don't know exactly what it was, but it had a familiar raised device
on it.  An Ibex."  She felt Callie go stiff under her.
     "Mamono Hunters?" she asked in disbelief.  "But we wiped
them out during the last big fight!  And captured their artifacts!"
     "Apparently, not all of them," Tisa sighed.
     "I knew it!" Lilla complained bitterly.  "All this time, while
we've been doing nothing, the human circle of champions has been
recovering!  If we keep waiting, one day they're going to end up hunting
us down right in our own lair!"
     "If the Mamono Hunters are active again, there'll be others, too,"
Callie mused.  "And now that I think of it, wasn't one of mongrel-boy's
jobs to hunt down potential threats to our safety?"
     "Yeah," Lilla frowned.  "He was pretty chewed up when he
dragged himself in here the other night."  Tisa cursed herself.  She'd
been so jealous, she'd never stopped to wonder just what had worked
Keisuke over that way.  Even she had to admit he was a lethal fighter.
His enemy must have been skilled indeed, or powerful.  Trouble either
way, and she'd been too wrapped up in her feelings for Riana to
wonder about that little detail.
     "So anyway, you see why Riana wants to keep Wynneth close for
the immediate future," Tisa said.  Lilla nodded.
     "Wynneth is strong, but she takes orders very poorly," Callie said.
"At least Lord Vaenruth could control her, but she's certain to challenge
Riana's authority again."  Lilla's eyes widened.
     "You don't think she'll try to take over?" she asked, a tinge of
fear creeping into her voice.
     "There are too few of us left for her to form a splinter group,"
Callie pointed out.  "Nobody's seen Vaxe since the aftermath of the big
fight, and smart money says her bones are picked clean somewhere in
Shadow.  There are only three of us Baenma left, and two Ladies of the
Upper Court.  Even with the extra Borgunma we picked up, that's not
enough for two groups.  No, I think she'll bide her time and watch for
an opportunity to take Riana's position away."
     "And with that idiot Tragus running around, things could get
even crazier," Tisa muttered.  "If the humans are organizing resistance
against us again, Lady Riana will need Lady Wynneth's power.  And
they both know it.  I think things are going to be tense around here for a
while, girls."
     "I hate this," Lilla grumbled.  She reached her hands under the
covers, running them slowly over Tisa's naked flesh.  The effect was
not erotic, but rather comforting, as she brought warmth back to the still
cool flesh and stiff muscles.  Tisa sighed as Callie joined in.  Their
warmth surrounded her, banishing the memories of Wynneth's
attentions.
     "You are getting spoiled, little one," Tisa murmured.
     "What?" Lilla pouted.
     "She's right," Callie said softly.  "We've been here so long,
we've grown accustomed to the comforts of this place."  Tisa opened
one eye, peering up to see Callie's face.  The bronzed beauty was
sober, thoughtful.
     "Remember home, Lilla?  How barren and inhospitable our realm
is?" she continued after a moment.  "How every day is a struggle for
survival?  We only rarely had stolen moments like this, and that only
because we were safe in a fortress of one of the seven Great Lords.
We Baenma are neither as numerous as the Borgunma nor as powerful
as the Aerkinma.  Only by being either useful, or comely enough to
catch a powerful Lord's or Lady's eye do we ensure our survival."  Tisa
had to agree.  She had resented being used to placate Riana's rival, but
such things had been common back in their home realm.  They were
kept safe from marauders and shared in the pleasures and luxuries of
their Lord.
     In return, they belonged to him.
     Such a fate was preferable to being left to wander the blasted
landscape, foraging for food and water and trying to stay ahead of
bored, hungry and rapacious Borgunma hordes.
     "I remember my first sight of the human realm," Tisa murmured
wistfully, burrowing back against Callie.  "I couldn't believe it.  Water
ran freely everywhere, and there were green growing things and warm
breezes.  It was paradise."
     "Paradise," Callie echoed, smiling.
     "You know," Lilla said with studied casualness, "we've been
hiding away for thirty years, and for what?  We're following the old
ways, but look around you!  This place is ripe for us!"
     "Lilla," Callie said, the warning in her tone plain.  Lilla,
however, plowed on.
     "Just think about it!" she urged, reaching around to knead the
muscles at the small of Tisa's back.  Tisa groaned appreciatively, trying
to separate the wonderful sensation from the treason Lilla was
speaking.
     "Trying to seduce me to your point of view, little one?" Tisa
asked in a low, husky voice, arching her back in spite of herself.
"That's so like you."
     "You and Callie can both possess humans," Lilla breathed.
"And there isn't a mortal alive who could resist me."  Tisa knew that
wasn't an idle boast.  "Together, we could find someplace, set up our
own little kingdom.  We'd have more than we'd ever need!  Human
subjects to play with, riches, all the comforts and wonders that this
place has!  And flowers!"
     "You and your flowers," Callie chuckled.
     "I'd have a whole *house* full of them!" Lilla laughed.  "No,
two houses!"  Tisa sighed as Lilla kept up her gentle persuasion.  "And
no Aerkinma to rule us, to tell us what to do.  We'd be free, Tisa.  We
could be together as much as we wanted, just the three of us!"
     "What a wonderful dream," Tisa sighed.  "But it is just a dream,
little one."
     "Or have you forgotten Pilyo?" Callie added softly.
     "She thought like you do."  Tisa spoke softly, not scolding.
     "And that's why Riana made an example of her."  Callie's arm
tightened gently around Tisa's waist, and she knew that the other was
remembering.  As she was.
     "Quite an example," Tisa added.  "Surely you haven't forgotten."
Lilla sighed and pouted, nuzzling into the crook of Tisa's shoulder.
     "No, I haven't forgotten," she grumbled, her voice slightly
muffled.
     "It's okay to talk this way between us, Lilla, but remember that
these are dangerous thoughts," Tisa admonished, reaching up to stroke
the girl's glossy black hair.
     "After, then," Lilla said defiantly.  "After we are finally allowed
to do what we came here for, and the barriers sealing our realm away
are shattered.  Nobody will care about three measly Baenma then.
We'll find a small corner of this realm and make it ours!"  Tisa's eyes
felt heavy, and she let them close again.
     "After," she agreed drowsily.  "Everything will be permitted
then."
     "Sleepy?" Callie whispered in her ear.  Tisa groaned.
     "Damn," she mumbled.  "I've got to get back."  Lilla's lips
grazed the side of her neck then, soft and enticing, and she moved her
mouth to Tisa's other ear.
     "Stay with us," she breathed, her voice sultry and compelling.
     "Stop that, foul succubus," Tisa groaned.  Lilla giggled.
     "Hey," she said with mock indignation.  "I happen to be a very
GOOD succubus!"
     "She's got you there," Callie smiled.  "Stay a while.  Lady
Wynneth drained you a lot worse than she did me.  Let us soothe your
hurts and replenish your strength."
     "I have to be available in case Lady Riana needs me," Tisa
protested, trying to force her eyes open.  The warmth of the soft bed
and the bodies pressed against her was seductive, pulling her down into
the peaceful dark.
     "We'll wake you if her Ladyship calls," Callie said.
     "It'd serve her right anyway if Tisa couldn't come," Lilla
grumbled, snuggling against the unresisting woman.  "Hey!  Damn, Tisa,
your feet are STILL cold!"
     "Her feet are always cold, remember?" Callie chuckled.  Tisa
felt herself drifting away, safe in the warmth of their embrace.  Just as
she was about to fall asleep, Lilla tilted her head up and whispered
something to her.
     "It's good to see you again, Tisa.  We missed you."
     She went to sleep with a smile on her lips.

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

     Riana chose to meet Wynneth in the small dining room.  It was
more intimate, and she felt it couldn't hurt to play to her rival's vanity a
little by dropping some of the formality she could have demanded.  The
Borgunma servant who showed the Shadowmistress in seemed ill at
ease, and left with unseemly haste when dismissed.  Wynneth hid it
well, but Riana knew she was amused by the anxiety her appearance
kindled in the underlings.
     "Well, Wynneth, I trust you are more ... relaxed?" Riana asked
lightly.  The beautiful Aerkinma sat across the small tale from her with
unearthly grace, and smiled.  Her eyes, though, remained impenetrable.
     "Your servant saw to my needs," she said smoothly.  Riana had
no doubt that was true.  Wynneth seemed to radiate a dark sensuality
that had been absent in their earlier meeting, indicating to Riana's
practised eye that the Shadowmistress had indulged her many
appetites, and no doubt sated at least some of them.
     "I trust she performed satisfactorily in her duties?"  Wynneth
ran her long, slim fingers through hair which seemed to greedily drink
the light and cocked her head slightly.
     "Oh, yes," she murmured.  "Your Tisa is quite delightful.  I
can't tell you how sweet it was to while away a few hours with her after
so long away.  I am so weary of humans and their flimsy natures.  Most
of them are quite fragile, you know.  One has to take great care not to
break them.  I'm afraid I may have fatigued her, however."  Riana
smiled back, reigning in her irritation, reminding herself of just what was
at stake.
     "She is, isn't she?" she replied smoothly.  And she's my
property, Wynneth, she added silently.  Much as you wish it were
otherwise, they are all mine.  Remember that.  Aloud, she added, "And
she will recover quickly, have no fear.  But for now, please relax."  She
gestured at the food on the table.  "Eat as much as you like."  Wynneth
just gave her a tiny, enigmatic smile.  Their lunch was a quiet, tense
affair.  Wynneth, her other appetites sated, showed little interest in
food, nibbling daintily at a tiny morsel for a time while she watched
Riana with her dark quicksilver eyes.  Riana felt little appetite herself,
but would not show any weakness in front of her rival by refusing to
eat.
     Things were at a delicate stage now.  She couldn't simply send
Wynneth away again, not now.  Her goal was so close, and she
couldn't afford any surprises from Mamono Hunters or anyone else.
But she would also need to keep a close eye on her rival, who would
certainly use this opportunity to try to execute a plot of her own.
     It was almost like old times.
     She felt no urge to wax nostalgic, though.  She had to try to
manipulate Tragus while keeping him away from Wynneth, and at the
same time she had to deal with the threat that Keisuke had stumbled
into.  She would certainly have her hands full.
     "Well, Wynneth, I trust everything was to your satisfaction,"
Riana asked at last.
     "Oh, certainly," Wynneth replied coolly.  "Although I find your
sudden concern for my welfare surprising, Lady Riana."  The slight
emphasis on Riana's rank was not obvious enough to be considered an
insult, but it got the point across.
     "Nonsense, Wynneth," Riana said easily.  "Your long exile was
for the good of our little group.  I needed you to root out possible
threats to our safety, and you did so with commendable efficiency.
And, had it not been for you, I would have been unaware of the
possible resurgence of the Mamono Hunter clans.  That matter has
been dealt with, thanks to you."
     "For the time being," Wynneth said coldly.  "However, do not
think this ends it.  The humans are like weeds.  Just when you think
you've eradicated an infestation, it reappears."  Riana sipped her coffee
and nodded.
     "I am aware of the risks, Wynneth.  In fact, that is why I am
keeping you close to home for a while."  Wynneth showed no emotion
at this statement, having undoubtedly already deduced Riana's
intentions.
     "A wise precaution," was all she said.  Riana nodded.
     "More than a precaution, Wynneth.  You are probably not
aware that Keisuke was injured while carrying out an investigation for
me recently."  Again, Wynneth showed little emotion.
     "Indeed?  What sort of investigation would that be?"
     "The same sort you were undertaking, as it happens.  He
eliminated an old priest for me who might have proved troublesome in
the future."
     "Ah.  So that WAS one of yours," Wynneth said with a tiny,
predatory smile.  "I thought it might be.  But the reports said the old
man was killed, most gruesomely I might add."
     "Oh, he was.  The problem is the girl he was training.  She
seems to be quite a talented little sorceress."  This time Wynneth did
smile.
     "A girl?  Oh, my.  What a blow to the boy's pride that must
have been," she said, unable to keep the smugness out of her tone.
Riana scowled.
     "Yes, well, now we have an angry sorceress at large, and I
have information that she is in the city."  She had no such information,
of course, but she needed something to occupy Wynneth's attention.
And if the girl went looking for the pendant, she might just end up here,
in which case it would be to her advantage to have Wynneth deal with
her before she got in Riana's way.
     "Why would she come here?" Wynneth asked, more curious
than alarmed.  Riana sat back, choosing her words carefully.  Time for
a little careful editing of the facts.
     "I don't know that for certain," she said.  "It seems, however
that the old man might have found out a few things before he died,
things that would lead the girl to seek us out in this city, and passed
them along.  Not much, just enough to be dangerous to us.  And so this
girl will have to be taken care of.  If you're up to it."  Wynneth ran one
blood-red fingernail along her lower lip slowly, a flash of something
unsettling showing in her eyes for a moment.
     "Oh, I think I can handle that," she said with an expression of
hungry anticipation.  "A sorceress, eh?  How ... delicious."
     "She is not to be taken lightly," Riana cautioned.  "She nearly
snared and destroyed Keisuke, remember."  Wynneth shrugged, her
slim white shoulders sending a ripple through the concealing mantle of
her hair.
     "I am not to be taken lightly either," she reminded Riana, her
eyes flashing darkly.
     "Of course not.  That is why I'm entrusting you with this task."
     "And after I catch up to her?"
     "Find out what she knows of us.  Then ... use her as you wish."
Riana suppressed a shudder as she said that, keeping her outward
expression serene.  Wynneth possessed, among her other attributes, a
vampiric nature.  And ever since her own encounter with a powerful
blood-drinker, Riana had developed a certain aversion to such
creatures.  And on top of that, Wynneth was a Lady of the Aerkinma
Court.  It was possible she could gain power by drinking the life's
blood of a sorceress.
     It was, to be sure, a calculated risk.  But while Wynneth was
occupied with tracking the girl, she would be kept away from Tragus.
And if (when!) Tragus retrieved the pendant, Riana could finally free
her love from his cold crystal prison.  After that, Wynneth's aspirations
of power would be for naught, even if she did drain the girl.  She might
challenge Riana, but she would never dare to rebel against Vaenruth.  It
would be a delicate operation, but if Riana did everything just right, she
would see the Masakazu girl dead, Wynneth neutralized, her love freed
and Tragus blamed for violating the Dread Lord's orders.
     A fine and wonderful plot.
     Now all she had to do was pull it off.
     "Very good," Wynneth said smoothly.  "I will require any
information your pet was able to gather on this girl, so that I may start
looking as soon as possible."
     "Keisuke is my loyal servant, and is to be addressed with
respect," Riana said sternly.  Wynneth nodded her head without a trace
of mockery.
     "Your pardon, Lady," she said.  "I fear I let my prejudices get
the better of me.  It will not happen again."  Riana knew that was a lie.
Wynneth would keep pushing, subtly probing Riana's authority to see
what she could get away with as she looked for a way to topple her
rival and take over.
     "Well, that's all for now.  Keep me advised of your progress."
Wynneth nodded slightly, then rose without a word and left.  Riana
slumped back in her chair, letting out a huge sigh.
     She fought down a premonition that she'd just gotten in way
over her head and poured herself some more coffee.
     After all, if she was going to succeed bold measures would be
required.
     And bold measures meant bold risks.

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

     Reiko grimaced.  She still had a headache from the previous
night.  She'd definitely had too much to drink.  Still, she'd been looking
for a good time, and she'd found it.  The club had been dark, crowded,
and loud.  So loud you couldn't even think, which had been a
prerequisite, after all.
     Her carousing had been a sore point between her and the old
man, of course.  He hadn't approved of her penchant for loud music
and late hours, and he'd especially disapproved of her underaged
drinking.  He just hadn't understood her need for an outlet.
     And now he never would.
     She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose and squinting her
eyes.  It was high time she tracked down this Sasuke character and got
it over with.  She rang the bell and waited, secure in the knowledge that
the surviving Kunou sibling was safely at school.  Soon the gate opened
to reveal a servant who regarded her quizzically.
     "Yes?" he asked with just the right degree of hauteur.
     "I'm looking for Sasuke.  I understand he works
here."  The man looked startled at that.
     "Well, yes he does," he said slowly.  "But I don't recall him
having any visitors before."
     "He's a friend of the family," she said brightly.  "I was
supposed to look him up when I got into town."
     "Well, I'm sorry, but I haven't seen him for a while.  I don't
know where he's gotten off to.  Master Kunou might know, but he's at
school right now."  The man's expression told her that's where he
believed she ought to be as well.  She frowned.
     "You don't know when he'll be back?" she asked, slightly
peeved.
     "Master Kunou?  Usually, he ..."
     "I meant Sasuke."
     "Oh.  No, I'm sorry.  You really should speak to Master
Kunou about that."  Great, she thought.  Except I'm not *supposed* to
talk to him, according to the old man's letter.  Wonderful.
     "Yeah, maybe I'll do that," she said casually.  "I'll check back
later."
     "If you want to leave your name ..." the servant began, but she
was already backing away.
     "No problem," she said.  "Bye!"  Then she turned and walked
away, leaving the man staring after her.
     Well, great.  She could either wait around to see when this
Sasuke guy came back, or take matters into her own hands.  And
frankly, her patience was running out rapidly.  She wanted this over and
done with.
     In which case, she needed a plan.  Unfortunately, her head was
still pounding.  She decided to head back to her hotel.
     A little sleep would do her a world of good.  Then she'd be
able to think of a decent plan.
     She'd retrieve the family legacy and blow town, and that would
be the end of it.  After that, no more of this destiny crap for her.  She'd
live her own life her own way, and it would be glorious.
     Glorious.  And free.

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

     Nodoka swallowed her trepidation and knocked on the door.
She wasn't at all certain how this was going to go, but she couldn't let
her nervousness interfere with her duty.  She sighed, wishing she could
take more enjoyment from the sun's gentle warmth and the intimate
caress of the breeze.
     She frowned and knocked again.  School was out, and she'd
expected Ukyou to come straight back to her restaurant in order to get
ready for the supper rush.  She wondered if she would be disappointed
or relieved if it turned out nobody was home.  Even as she had the
thought, however, she heard footsteps approaching from the other side
of the door.  It opened to show, not Ukyou, but rather Ryouga.  He
looked as startled as she felt.
     "Mrs. Saotome," he said, blinking.  She felt a warm smile
spreading across her face.
     "Why, Ryouga!  It's good to see you again, dear.  But what are
you doing here?  I didn't think Ucchan's was open yet."  He shuffled
his feet slightly and glanced away, looking ill at ease.  But then, he often
seemed that way to her.  For all that he was an incredibly strong martial
artist, he could be disarmingly reticent at times.
     "Oh, I, uh ... I'm staying here for a while," he said, blushing
slightly.  "I'm helping out around the restaurant."  What a delightful
notion, she thought.  Both Ryouga and Ukyou seemed to her like
people who could use some company.  Especially now.
     "That's very nice of you, Ryouga.  Ranma didn't mention
anything about this to me."  Ryouga's blush deepened.
     "I haven't told him yet, actually," he admitted, a tad sheepishly.
"Haven't had a chance."  She nodded her understanding.  Ukyou was
bound to be as sore a topic with Ranma as Ranma was with Ukyou.
Ryouga certainly wouldn't want to be in the middle of that.
     "Well, I'll be the very soul of discretion," she assured him.  "I did
want to discuss something with Ukyou, though.  Is she here?"
     "Oh.  Yeah, I mean, of course ... please, come in."  She
followed him inside, moving over to stand near the counter as he
disappeared into the back.  Moments later, Ukyou appeared.  Nodoka
was startled to see that Ukyou was still wearing a boy's school uniform
and had her hair tied back tightly.  To someone who didn't know her,
she might have passed as a boy.  She thought of Ukyou's strange life,
and her son's role in it, and felt a pang of sorrow that she promptly hid.
Forcing herself to act naturally, she smiled at the girl, who smiled back
tentatively.
     "Mrs. Saotome," she said.  "Welcome.  You've never been
here before, have you?"
     "No," she said.  "It's very impressive.  I see you just got home
from school."  Ukyou seemed to realize that she was still dressed in her
uniform for the first time, and laughed self-consciously.
     "Oh, yeah.  This."  She reached back and untied her hair, giving
her head a shake to send it cascading over her shoulders.  She looked
softer that way, much more feminine.  Nodoka cocked her head.
     "You still go to school that way?" she asked gently.  "Really,
Ukyou.  You're such a pretty girl.  You should let your feminine side
show."  Ukyou unbuttoned her jacket and let it hang open, then
unbuttoned her shirt collar as well, looking uncomfortable.
     "Mrs. Saotome, did Ranma send you?" she asked abruptly.
"Because if he did ..."
     "No, dear.  Ranma doesn't know I'm here."  Ukyou sighed at
that, and it was only as she began to relax that Nodoka realized just
how tense the girl had been.  She could understand that; Ranma had
valued his friendship with Ukyou, and the loss of that friendship
bothered him greatly.  But that was between the two of them.
     She was here for something else entirely.
     "I'm sorry, I've been rude.  Can I get you anything?" Ukyou
asked, plastering an unconvincing grin on her face.  Nodoka demurred,
and they sat at one of the small tables, facing each other.  Ukyou
twined her fingers nervously, beginning to fidget, and Nodoka
restrained the urge to mother the girl.
     It would be best just to get this over with.
     "This is a little awkward, Ukyou.  I'm not sure how to begin."
Ukyou looked even more trepidatious at that.
     "Well, I guess you should just begin at the beginning," she said
helpfully.  Nodoka smiled in spite of herself.
     "Yes, I suppose that would be best.  Recently, I have been
doing something that I should have done a long time ago.  I've been
finding out the details of what my husband did all those years he was
travelling.  I'd never heard the entire story, you see, but the end result
was the awful situation that resulted with Ranma and all of you girls."
Ukyou was just staring at her, eyes wide and somehow wounded
looking, and Nodoka knew that she was risking reopening old wounds
here.  Still, she pressed forward.
     "For instance, I knew that you were one of Ranma's fiancees,
but I never knew the exact details.  Until recently."
     "Mrs Saotome ..." Ukyou began in a low, uncomfortable voice.
Nodoka held up her hand.
     "Please, dear.  Let me finish.  I suspected that my husband had
committed some reckless and even dishonourable acts during his
journey, but never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined what he
did to you and your father.  Stealing an okonomiyaki cart and leaving a
little girl sobbing in the middle of the road!  I could never have imagined
that my husband could commit such a low act!  And, when I confronted
him with this knowledge, he had nothing to say in his own defence."
Ukyou gazed down at her twined fingers, her cheeks flushed.
     "It was a long time ago," she mumbled, crimson streaks colouring
her cheeks.
     "That doesn't matter," Nodoka said firmly.  "A serious crime
was committed against your family by my husband.  After giving the
matter some thought, I've decided to make whatever amends I can, no
matter how belated and insufficient.  Here."  She pulled an envelope
from her kimono and pushed it across the table.  Ukyou stared at it in
incomprehension.
     "What's this?" she asked blankly.
     "That is the first installment of repayment for the property which
my husband stole.  I had Nabiki find out the worth of a ..."
     "No," Ukyou said.  Nodoka smiled gently.
     "Please, Ukyou, don't be embarrassed.  I receive a monthly
stipend from my parent's estate.  It isn't a fortune, but I insist on
making good ..."
     "No!" Ukyou blurted.  She shoved the envelope back across
the table roughly, causing it to spin and skitter off the edge, fluttering to
the floor.  Her eyes met Nodoka's again, and the older woman was
surprised at what she saw there.  Anger, hurt, and sorrow, all mixed up
together.  Ukyou trembled, taking a deep breath as she stood, bracing
her hands on the edge of the table.  She lowered her head, her bangs
hiding her eyes for a moment, and when she looked back up, her
expression was more composed.
     "No," she repeated more calmly.  "I don't want it."  Nodoka
stared up at the younger girl, nonplussed.
     "I don't understand.  Genma ..."
     "That's part of the past," Ukyou said, and the bittersweet smile
that crept to her lips then nearly broke Nodoka's heart.  "The girl that
knelt in the road and cried because she was left behind is gone forever.
I guess she probably died for good when I knelt in the dojo and cried
because I finally knew Ranma wouldn't choose me.  Anyway, I got my
revenge for that incident when I caught up to your husband for the first
time.  I don't suppose he mentioned that to you, either."  Nodoka
shook her head.
     "No," she said carefully.  "But Ukyou ..."
     "It's funny," Ukyou said, straightening up and gazing out the
window.  The golden afternoon light picked out bronze highlights in her
unbound hair, casting gentle shadows across her face.  Her eyes gazed
out at something far away, perhaps the past, perhaps the future she'd
wanted and now would never have.  She fingered her uniform jacket
idly as she spoke.  "I hardly ever think about how strange my life has
been.  I wear this uniform to school every day still.  I spent years
pretending to be a guy.  I waited to take my revenge on the person I
thought had wronged me, and then I fell in love with him instead.  And
you know something?"
     "What?" Nodoka asked.  She wondered if Ukyou knew how
enchanting she looked in that light, melancholy yet proud.  Ukyou
turned then, meeting her eyes easily.
     "I don't regret it," she said.  "Not any of it.  Not anymore.  I finally
realized that it would be such a waste to live my life wishing I had done
everything differently.  Maybe he didn't love me back, but at least I
tried, at least I will never look back and wonder what would have
happened if ... if.  If this or if that.  I took my best shot, and that's all
that anyone can ever do.  And I'm not ashamed."  There was a
suspicious gleam of moisture in Ukyou's eyes, but she smiled as she
faced Nodoka, spreading her hands slightly.  "I'll never let myself be
ashamed.  Do you understand?"
     "Yes, I think I do," Nodoka said quietly.  "You are quite a girl,
Ukyou.  Oh, how I wish that you and Ranma could still be friends."
Ukyou's smile faded then, and she glanced back towards the window.
     "I'm sorry," she said.  "Maybe I'm just not strong enough, but I
can't just forget everything and go back to the way things were.  I
can't.  I'm not trying to punish him, but ... in my heart, it just doesn't
feel right.  Not yet.  Maybe someday, but not yet."  Nodoka nodded.
     "I understand.  And I'm so glad to hear you aren't bitter.  That
would be such a waste."  Ukyou cocked her head, absently pushing her
hair back over her shoulder, then walked around the table and knelt to
pick up the fallen envelope.  She reached out and gently took
Nodoka's hand, placing the envelope in it and closing Nodoka's fingers
with her own.
     "Do you truly understand why I won't take this?" she asked, looking
down into the older woman's eyes.  Nodoka smiled wistfully.
     "I think so.  Pride, among other things."  Ukyou smiled back.
     "Among other things.  It's hard to explain.  That day, crying in
the road as Ranma and your husband ran off with the cart, it moulded
me, started me on the road to being the person I am now.  It can't be
changed, can't be put right.  It just is, for better or worse.  So keep
your money."  She stepped back, her smile changing to a lopsided grin.
"Besides, if you've decided to go around making up for everything your
husband's done wrong, you'll be needing it."  Nodoka sighed.  The girl
had a point.
     "I just wish there was something I could do," she said.  Ukyou
shrugged casually.
     "Well, you could stick around and have some dinner.  I'll be
opening up in about fifteen minutes.  I'd be happy to hear what you
think of my okonomiyaki."  Nodoka studied her for a moment, then
smiled.
     "That's very kind of you.  Perhaps I will."  She slid the envelope
back into her kimono, stifling her regret.  She had hoped this gesture
would be helpful for Ukyou, but it had ended up having just the
opposite effect.  Still, she'd felt compelled to try.  Perhaps she would
find another way to help Ukyou, one that wouldn't offend the girl's
pride.
     "Say, Ukyou," she said, motioning the girl closer.  "Ryouga told
me he's helping you out around the restaurant."  Ukyou grinned then,
her face lighting up.
     "Yeah," she said.  "He's been great.  I think he's really enjoying
himself."  Nodoka smiled.
     "I'm glad to hear that.  I think having something to do must be
very good for him.  Not to mention having someone to talk to.  How
has he been, anyway?"  Ukyou pursed her lips thoughtfully.
     "Well, actually, I was a little worried about him for a while
there.  Ryouga tends to let things get to him a little too easily, and he
spends too much time alone.  But I finally managed to get at what was
bothering him, and I think that things are a little better now.  At the very
least, I think that being here is actually good for him."
     "I'm sure that it is," Nodoka said warmly.  "I'm glad to hear
that he has someone to talk to."  Ukyou excused herself to go get
changed, and soon reappeared in her usual outfit.  She opened the door
and began to assemble her cooking implements and ingredients behind
the counter.  Then Ryouga emerged from the back, tying a loose
canvas belt of linked pouches around his waist.
     Nodoka watched with interest as he went to the counter to get
an order pad.  He spoke softly to Ukyou, his face animated, even
cheerful.  Interesting.  She smiled to herself.  He seemed quite at ease
around Ukyou.  And why not?  She was quite a pretty girl, after all.
Maybe he was smitten.  Or maybe that was just the romantic in her.
     "Welcome!" Ukyou called out as someone came in.  Nodoka
saw her smile as she realized who it was.  "Hey, Mousse!"
     Mousse saw her, and smiled back.  His smile faded somewhat when
he saw Ryouga, though, and Nodoka wondered what that could be
about.
     "Hello, Mousse," she said.  He turned to her, surprised.
     "Mrs. Saotome!  Hello.  I didn't expect to see you here."
     "Just dropped in for a bite," she explained.  "How are things
going at the Nekohanten?"  He sighed.
     "The old woman's been working me like a dog," he sighed.
"She hasn't mellowed at all.  Still, we should be ready to re-re-open in
a few days.  I hope this time we can stay open longer than we did last
time.  Say, why don't you drop by the Nekohanten one of these days?
I'll bet Cologne would be happy to see you again."  Nodoka smiled.
     "That's a wonderful idea.  I think I will."  Then she looked back over
to the grill area and smiled as Ryouga and Ukyou began bantering over
an order.
     "They make a cute couple, don't they?" she asked idly.
Mousse started.
     "What?  Couple?  Since when?" he blurted.  She looked over
at him.
     "I'm sorry, I didn't mean they WERE a couple, just that they'd
make a nice one.  It's the mothering instinct, I'm afraid."  Mousse
seemed to relax a little at that, and Nodoka hid her puzzlement.
     Surely Mousse wasn't interested in Ukyou, so soon after
recieving Shampoo's final rejection?  Perhaps he was only jealous of
the amount of time Ryouga got to spend with her.
     Whatever the case, she suspected things might become a little
bit tense between those three.
     She suppressed a smile.
     Ah, to be young again.

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

     "Akane, I feel ridiculous."
     "Well, you look great.  Now hold still."  Akane fussed with
something as Ranma-chan gritted her teeth to hold back yet another
fruitless objection.  It was clear that Akane would not be happy until
she'd gotten this nonsense out of her system, so she'd decided to go
along with it.
     Maybe, after nothing whatsoever happened, Akane'd finally be
satisfied.  At least, Ranma-chan hoped so.  She hated to think of what
other hare-brained schemes Akane might come up with.
     "There," Akane said.  "And now for the final touch ..."  She
produced a glass stopper from behind her and reached out to touch it
gently behind Ranma-chan's ear.  Ranma-chan jerked back too late,
and Akane frowned as she moved to the other ear.
     "Hold still, will you?" she asked peevishly.  Ranma-chan
smelled something faintly musky.
     "Is that perfume?" she asked, outraged.  Akane bit her lip as
she pulled back and considered the results.
     "Oh, calm down," she chided the red-head.  "It's only a very little bit
... hmmm."  She reached out and dabbed the stopper in the cleft
between Ranma-chan's breasts, causing the other girl to wrap her arms
protectively around her body.
     "Damn it, that's cold!" she snapped.  "What are you doing,
anyway?"  Akane just smiled.
     "There.  All done.  Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"  Ranma-chan
grumbled a bit, but Akane cheerfully ignored her.
     "So where is she?" Ranma-chan asked at last, resigned to
carrying out her part of the plan.
     "In the living room looking over some papers."
     "And I should just parade around the room, or what?"
     "Idiot!  I told you, Ranma.  Just sit next to her and be ... I don't
know, alluring or something!"
     "Alluring?  Oh, man ..."  Akane tapped her foot impatiently.
     "Look, Ranma.  If you're ... we're right, nothing will happen.
She won't even react in the slightest.  That'll be the proof we need to
put these rumours to rest once and for all."  Ranma-chan knew better.
Akane was worried because she was entertaining just the slightest
doubts about what was going on between Ukyou and Nabiki.  This
was all for her benefit.
     Oh, well.  Best just to get this over with so she could go change
back to a boy and wash this damned perfume off.
     "Okay, Akane.  I said I'd help, didn't I?  Let's get this over with."

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

     Nabiki pored over the figures, fascinated.  These accounts
were even more convoluted than she'd suspected.  In fact, without the
full access to the Kunou accounts which she'd been granted, she
doubted she would have been able to follow half of what was going on.
     There was money here, of course.  Lots of it.  Some of it was
in investments, generating more money.  Some of it was non-liquid; for
instance, real estate holdings that might or might not have some
significance to this whole demon warrior business, and she wondered
just how she'd go about investigating that particular fact.
     But at the moment, what interested her the most were a series
of smaller accounts.  Smaller in relative terms, of course, since they
each represented a modest fortune.  The route that the money from the
main accounts followed in order to reach these accounts was so well
hidden that she doubted anyone prying into these matters would be able
to make any connection between them and the Kunou family.  Which
was obviously the point.
     Most of the accounts were inactive, and had been for some time.
No activity at all.  What interested her were two accounts which HAD
shown recent activity.  If these accounts served the purpose she thought
they did, then she might have found another loose thread to pull on, one
that could lead her in very profitable directions.
     Just as she'd decided to investigate further, though, she was
distracted by the sound of feet coming down the stairs.  Two sets of
feet, actually.  Then there was silence, and a strained bout of
whispering.  She hid a grin.
     Hoo, boy.  It looked like those two were actually going to do
it.  Remembering what she'd heard on the tape, she made sure to keep
her gaze on the stack of paper as she heard someone enter the room
behind her.  Her mischievous nature gleefully leapt to full attention.
     Oh, this was going to be fun.
     She glanced up casually as Ranma-chan walked over and sat
down, a little closer than she usually would have.  Nabiki let her gaze
linger on Ranma-chan until the silence became just a little bit awkward.
She had to admit, they'd outdone themselves.  Ranma-chan was
wearing a very tight t-shirt that was cropped just below her rather
plentiful assets, showing off her narrow waist.  The neck was a wide V
shape that swept up from between her breasts to the edges of her
shoulders, leaving an enticing wedge of bare skin.  She wore a pair of
ragged shorts that moulded themselves to the curve of her buttocks,
and were cut high on the thigh.  The look wasn't overly feminine, but
the overall effect was one of artless sensuality, and Nabiki knew she
would have to tease Akane about this later, for getting Ranma to go
even this far must have taken a fair amount of persuasion.
     "What?" Ranma-chan asked, sounding a trifle defensive as
Nabiki's cool assessing stare ran over her body.
     "Got a hot date, Ranma?" she asked, watching with satisfaction
as Ranma-chan's cheeks flushed.
     "There's no clean laundry, so I had to wear some of Akane's
clothes," she explained lamely.  Nabiki raised an eyebrow.
     "I see.  So, you and Akane must have been working out in the
dojo again, huh?"
     "Yeah," Ranma-chan replied.  "I always practice with her as a girl to
make things more fair."
     "Ah," Nabiki said softly, letting her eyes get a little unfocused.
"Working out together, huh?  Getting all sweaty ... grappling, wrestling,
rolling around," she said with a tiny, nearly salacious grin.  Then she
gave herself a tiny shake and turned to wink at the suddenly uncertain
red-head.  "That sounds like fun.  You guys are so lucky you can do
stuff like that together.  So, I guess Akane's having a bath?"  She knew
Akane was watching them from nearby, but Ranma-chan seized on her
offered excuse quickly.
     "Yeah, I think so."  After a few moments of Nabiki continuing to
gaze at her, she cleared her throat nervously.
     "So ... whatcha doing?" she asked.  Nabiki indicated the stack
of papers with a lazy wave of her hand.
     "Just going over a few things," she said easily.  Ranma-chan
leaned forward to look, and Nabiki's eyes widened as she caught a
whiff of ... perfume?  Oh, my, she thought, Akane must have REALLY
turned on the charm.
     "Ranma, is that perfume I smell?" she asked in a teasing tone.
Ranma-chan straightened up abruptly.
     "Um ... yeah.  Y'see ... Akane was fooling around and splashed a
little on me.  That's all," she said, all in a rush.  Nabiki eased a little
closer to the other girl, letting her hand rest on Ranma-chan's slim, bare
shoulder as she leaned in and inhaled deeply next to the red-head's ear.
Then she let her breath out slowly, making sure it fanned out over
Ranma-chan's sensitive skin.
     "Wow," she purred in a throaty voice.  "That smells pretty nice
on you.  Maybe you should wear perfume more often."  Ranma-chan's
shoulder was tense under her hand, and Nabiki kept her expression
carefully neutral as she squeezed it gently.
     "Wow, Ranma.  You're really tense."  So saying, she moved
behind the other girl and started kneading her shoulders, suppressing a
snicker at the way Ranma-chan froze.  She continued her ministrations,
leaning forward to let her breasts brush gently against Ranma-chan's
back.  The red-head's face was suddenly as bright as her hair, and
Nabiki thought she heard a strangled squawk from out in the hall.
     "Um ..." Ranma-chan began nervously.
     "You know, Ranma, I feel very close to you right now," Nabiki
said huskily, making sure to keep her mouth near Ranma-chan's ear.
     "Close?" Ranma-chan asked.  "Yeah, um, too close I think ..."
Nabiki leaned close again.
     "Oh, pooh," she murmured.  "We're practically family, aren't
we?  And why should anyone complain?  After all, we're both girls."
She trilled that last word into Ranma-chan's ear, letting her fingers trail
along the back of the girl's neck lightly.  Ranma-chan shivered
reflexively, and Nabiki sensed she was about to pull away.  Quickly,
she threw her arms around the other girl's neck, hugging her tightly.
     "I know why you're so tense, Ranma," she said, squeezing the
startled girl tightly.  "All that rolling around with Akane in the dojo ...
she doesn't understand, does she?"  She was pressed tightly against
Ranma-chan's back, and she nuzzled up against the girl's ear, letting
her breath tickle the sensitive skin there.
     "I know what you need, Ranma," she said in a sultry tone.  "Let
me make you a woman ..."
     "AHHHHHHH!" Ranma-chan blurted, waving her arms in a
state of total panic.
     "NABIKI!"  Akane burst into the room, fists clenched.  Nabiki
hugged the struggling Ranma-chan tighter.
     "Akane, I'm sorry," she said, letting her hands slip down to
Ranma-chan's bare waist provocatively.  "But she sat down next to
me, acting all flirtatious ..."
     "WHAT?" Ranma-chan squealed in full panic mode.
     " ... and wearing sexy clothes and perfume!  Akane, I just
couldn't control myself!"
     "I didn't do anything!" Ranma-chan squeaked.  Nabiki thought
if Ranma-chan's voice got any higher, only dogs would be able to hear
it.  Then she hooked her chin over Ranma-chan's shoulder and looked
down, still holding the other girl against her tightly.  Akane's outraged
gaze followed, and finally Ranma-chan looked down to see what they
were staring at.
     Ranma-chan's thin shirt did absolutely nothing to conceal the twin
points that thrust out from her breasts.  Nabiki had to struggle to
hold back her mirth.  Man oh man, she thought, am I good or WHAT?
Ranma-chan looked up at Akane slowly, a trapped expression in her
eyes.
     "Boy," she said loudly.  "Is it cold in here, or is it just me?"  A
valiant effort, Nabiki thought smugly, but absolutely no-go.  Akane was
totally focussed now.
     "Ranmaaaaa ..." Akane growled, her battle aura flickering to
life.  The red-head thrashed ineffectually as Akane strode over and
grabbed her arm.
     "Oh, this is SO not my fault!" Ranma-chan blurted.  That was the
wrong tack to take, Nabiki thought sadly as Akane dragged the
protesting girl out towards the pond.  Nabiki managed to hold in her
laughter until she heard the splash, then she began to giggle
uncontrollably.
     "Nabiki," Kasumi said a minute later, entering the room cautiously.
"Why is Akane trying to drown Ranma, and shouting about nipples?"
Nabiki couldn't help it.  She broke down laughing, pounding on her
knee as tears trickled from her eyes.  Kasumi sighed disapprovingly.
     "Oh, Nabiki," she muttered.  "What have you been up to?"  Nabiki
couldn't have answered even if she'd wanted to, and soon Akane
stomped back into the house, her arms wet to the shoulders.  She still
looked mad, and Nabiki knew she should talk fast to forestall another
explosion.  Now that Akane'd taken out her frustration on
Ranma-chan, she could turn her attention to her sister.  Nabiki knew
Akane wouldn't hit her, but she very well might get dunked if her little
sister was mad enough.
     "You know, sis, I'm insulted that you two would use such an
amateurish plan.  Almost as insulted as I am that you gave any
credibility to those stupid rumours.  I mean, my own sister ..."  Akane's
anger drained slowly away as she stood in the doorway, shoulders
heaving, to be replaced with stunned realization.
     "Wait a minute," she said slowly.  "You ... knew?  You knew all
along?"  Nabiki shook her head sadly.
     "Of course, Akane.  I know everything."  Akane looked over
her shoulder, then back at Nabiki.
     "You did that on purpose," she said, a tone of wonder in her voice.
"You ... YOU ..."
     "Hold it, Akane.  I'm the one that should be insulted here,"
Nabiki pointed out.  "I mean, come on now.  That wasn't even a
GOOD plan."  Akane just stood there, gaping, until Kasumi returned
with a towel.  She handed it to Akane with a gentle smile, and the
stunned girl began slowly drying her arms as she walked over to where
Nabiki sat.
     "Is anyone going to tell me what's going on?" Kasumi asked,
looking from Nabiki to Akane and back.  Nabiki grinned.
     "I think Akane should tell.  I don't think I could do it with a
straight face ..."  She broke off, looking over Akane's shoulder, and
pressed her hands to her mouth to contain another fit of giggles.
Ranma-chan was standing in the doorway, completely soaked and
looking pathetically bedraggled.  She stared at Nabiki venomously.
     "You ... are a bad, bad woman," she said hoarsely, plodding
into the room.  Her feet made wet plopping noises on the floor, and
Akane winced guiltily.  Nabiki nudged her sister and nodded at the
towel she still held.  Akane sighed and went to Ranma-chan, holding
out the towel.  Ranma-chan switched her glare to Akane.
     "And you ..." she started.  Akane ignored her protest and
wrapped the other girl in the large, plush towel.  Ranma-chan tried to
shrug her off.
     "Oh, don't be such a baby," Akane said in a low voice.  "You'll
catch cold if you don't dry off.  Now hold still."  Ranma-chan looked
like she was thinking about arguing the point for a moment, then
sighed and sat down heavily, water seeping from her clothes.  Akane
sat behind her and gently began towelling her dry.  Kasumi cleared her
throat.
     "Um, so why DID you try to drown Ranma?" she asked politely.
Akane looked up from her work, offended.
     "I didn't try to drown him!" she snapped.  Ranma-chan cleared
her throat noisily.  Akane, to Nabiki's surprise, actually looked a tad
guilty for a moment, then returned to drying Ranma-chan's hair.
     "Okay," she mumbled.  "So I dunked you in the pond a couple of
times"  Ranma-chan snorted.
     "Dunked?  What about holding me under, huh?"  Akane dropped
the end of the towel over Ranma-chan's face.
     "Don't press your luck, Casanova," she said shortly.  Nabiki
snickered.
     "Um ..." Kasumi repeated.  Akane sighed.
     "Nabiki knew all along," she told Ranma-chan, who flipped the
towel out of her face.
     "I heard," Ranma-chan said sourly.  "That was not nice, Nabiki."
Nabiki affected a look of wounded innocence.
     "Hey, I was just helping out your lame plan," she said, her eyes
sparkling.  "You're the one who couldn't resist my charms."
Ranma-chan's cheeks burned at that, and Kasumi took a deep breath.
     "Now I definitely have to know what's going on," she said.
"Who'd like to start?"
     "There are rumours floating around school that Ukyou and I are
an item," Nabiki said with a grin.  "These two decided to test me out to
see if I'd changed preferences."  Kasumi blinked and turned to Akane
and Ranma-chan.
     "Oh, come on, now," she said in frank disbelief.  "Akane, you
didn't really ..."
     "Hey, we didn't come up with this out of the blue!" Akane
protested.  "There was plenty of circumstantial evidence!"
     "Like?" Nabiki asked archly.
     "A lot of people saw you and Ukyou in each other's arms in
front of the school!"  Nabiki hesitated.
     "Oh, yeah.  That.  Um.  Well, there's a perfectly good explanation
for that ..."
     "And you were suddenly spending so much time together, and
Ukyou said she was giving up on men, and you two went out to that
club together, and ..."  Nabiki held up her hands.
     "Okay, okay!  So there were a few things which, taken on the
surface, might have made the casual observer think there was
something there.  But you should have known better, Akane.  Honestly,
my own sister!  I mean, when those rumours were circulating about
you, I didn't give them a second thought!"  Akane blinked.
     "Rumours?" she asked blankly.  "What rumours?"
     "Oh, last year, when you were fighting off half the guys in
school every day, there were mutters in certain quarters that maybe you
were fighting a little TOO hard.  And what with you being such a
tomboy and all ..."  Akane's cheeks turned bright pink.
     "What?!" she squealed.  "I never heard that!"
     "Well, of course not.  Violence would have certainly ensued.
Anyway, I squelched those rumours pretty quick, and then Ranma
showed up and you were engaged, so new rumours started about your
love life."  Nabiki shrugged.  "But that kind of thing is inevitable at any
high school."
     "But Nabiki, don't you care about your reputation?" Akane
asked.  Nabiki grinned cockily.
     "Oh, don't worry about that," she said.  "By this time tomorrow,
those rumours will be dead in the water."  She got up stretched, and
collected her stack of paper.
     "Well, I've got things to do," she said.  "Hey, Ranma."  Ranma-chan
looked up at her balefully.
     "What?" she asked tightly.  Nabiki grinned.
     "Next time, try thinking about baseball.  They say it works
wonders.  Ta."  Snickering, she left the embarrassed duo sitting on the
floor and went upstairs to make a few phone calls.
     She had a show to put on for the school, and some of the
arrangements had to be finalized.

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

     Akane's cheeks were still burning with embarrassment as
Kasumi sighed and got up to go to the kitchen.  Nabiki had known
about her plan all along and turned it completely around on her.  And
that wasn't fair, because she'd only been trying to help out.
     Rumours about her?  Was that true?
     By this time tomorrow?  What ...
     Baseball?
     She realized that she was still rubbing the towel over Ranma-chan's
damp hair and shoulders, and the other girl hadn't told her to
stop.  It was kind of nice, sitting here together, but she knew she
couldn't just leave things like this.  She swallowed her pride and took a
deep breath.
     "Sorry, Ranma," she said sheepishly.  "You were right.  It was
a stupid plan."  Ranma-chan closed one eye and peered at her out of
the corner of the other.
     "Well," she said grudgingly, "everything worked out okay, I
guess.  But to make it up to me, tomorrow you're buying the ice cream.
Triple scoop, too.  Deal?"  Akane smiled slightly.
     "Deal.  And Ranma?"
     "Mmmm?"
     "I'm sorry I threw you in the pond.  I, um ... overreacted."
    Ranma-chan looked surprised by this admission, then cocked her
head.  "Why were you so mad, anyway?"
    Akane blinked.  "What do you mean?  You were flirting!"
    Ranma-chan snorted.  "Oh, come on, Akane.  She was flirting with
*me*!"
     "Well, you certainly seemed to be enjoying it!" she shot back
accusingly.  Ranma-chan looked at Akane, comprehension dawning in
her eyes.
     "Akane!  Were you jealous?"
     "Idiot!" she snapped.  "Why would I be?"
     "You WERE, weren't you?  Pervert!"
     "Excuse me?!  Pot calling kettle black here ..."  A faint blush
spread across the bridge of Ranma-chan's pert nose, and she looked
uncertain.
     "Aw, c'mon, Akane!  That ... that was just a reflex!  I'm still a guy,
after all, even in this body, and when a girl breathes in your ear and
starts talking all husky and stuff, it's hard not to react!"  The little
red-head was flustered, her mouth set in a cute little scowl.  Looking at
her fiancee, Akane's irritation was replaced with affection.  Smiling to
herself, she leaned forward, placing her mouth next to Ranma-chan's
ear.
     "You mean ... like this?" she whispered throatily, letting her
breath brush lightly over Ranma-chan's ear.  Her fiancee's blush
deepened as Akane slipped her arms around the other girl's neck.  The
revealing top was askew, leaving one shoulder completely bare, and
Ranma-chan's skin was still cool from her dunking.
     "H-hey," Ranma-chan stuttered.  "Stop that!"  Akane nuzzled
the ear, making a low purring noise deep in her throat.  Ranma-chan
shivered, and Akane laughed delightedly.
     "Why Ranma," she teased.  "Are you thinking about baseball?"
Ranma-chan twisted half around, her blue-gray eyes staring into
Akane's own from only inches away.  Their breath mingled intimately,
and Akane shifted to bring more of her warm skin against
Ranma-chan's cool flesh, helping to chase the chill away.  With a
mischievous smile, Ranma-chan leaned forward until her mouth almost
brushed Akane's ear.
     "Does this teasing thing run in your family, or what?" she asked,
her husky tone sending delicious shivers down Akane's back.
     "If you find some hot water, I might let you find out if I'm
teasing or not," she said lightly.  Ranma-chan pulled back to look her in
the eye again, obviously intrigued and trying not to show it.
     "Oh, are you ever gonna get it," she said, the heat of challenge
gleaming in her eyes.  Akane disengaged herself, standing and backing
away slowly.  She gave Ranma-chan an inviting grin.
     "Promises, promises ..."

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

     Nabiki flopped onto her bed, pressing the disconnect button on
her phone.  There.  Everything was set for the next day at school.  Now
she could turn her attention back to the figures she'd gotten from
Kunou.
     She looked them over again.  Yup, there it was, just as she'd
thought.  Now this was interesting.  Very interesting.
     One of the active accounts had been accessed on occasion in a
small town to the north.  Then, in the last week, that same account had
been accessed a couple of times in quick succession, for larger
amounts.
     And that had happened right here in the city.
     Now, wasn't that an odd coincidence?  Nabiki very much
wanted to talk to the person accessing that account.
     She heard an outraged squeal and stood to look out her
window.  Ranma, now changed back to a boy, was chasing Akane
around outside the house.  Akane was fleeing, but Nabiki noticed she
wasn't trying TOO hard to get away.  She smiled to herself.
     Of course, the way she saw it Akane owed her for getting Ranma
so worked up in the first place.  She watched the two dashing around,
and sighed.
     She knew their bubble was about to burst.  People at school
were noticing how Furinkan's strangest couple didn't seem to fight they
way they'd used to.  Ranma's other fiancees didn't show up to
challenge for him, and things were oddly quiet.  The troops were
getting suspicious, and sooner or later (quite likely sooner) the truth
about those two was bound to come out.
     Nabiki wasn't sure why they were still trying to keep their
relationship under wraps.  Sure, keeping their scheming fathers out of
the picture was prudent, not to mention ridiculously easy, but they
couldn't fool the entire school for long.
     Hell, if tonight's plan was the best they could do, she had to
wonder how they'd managed to pull it off this long.  Still, it was their
business, not hers, and for once she had enough on her plate that she
wasn't tempted to interfere.
     Well, not too tempted, at any rate.
     Sighing to herself, she went back to work.

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

     Tisa came awake slowly, rising up from the comforting arms of
the goddess sleep with the greatest reluctance.  Awareness slowly
began
to impinge on her senses in a series of overlapping sensations.  A warm
arm draped across her waist carelessly; gentle breath stirring the hair at
the base of her neck; warm soft bed and covers; a sensation of ease
and safety.
     She opened her eyes slowly, taking a deep breath and rubbing
her face sleepily.  Someone was nestled up against her back, still
asleep.  She smelled flowers and blinked as her gaze swept the room,
cloaked in dusk and shadow.  It took a few moments for her memory
to banish the disorientation of her sleep-fogged mind.
     Then it all came back to her.  She was still in Lilla and Callie's
room.  She'd closed her eyes to rest them, and obviously fallen asleep.
Then she felt a faint stirring of panic as she realized how dark it had
gotten.  The sun was down!  How long had they let her sleep?
     She sat up abruptly, looking around for a clock.  Her
movement disturbed her companion, who mumbled groggily and threw
a forearm across her eyes.  She grumbled querulously, blinking up at
Tisa through tumbles of hair the colour of dark honey.
     "Why can't you wake up like a normal person?" Callie
mumbled.  Tisa was about to reply when the door to the room opened
quietly and Lilla entered, shadow-silent.  She had taken several steps
toward the bed before she realized that her stealth was unnecessary.
     "You're awake," she said happily.  Tisa frowned.  Lilla was
dressed in a white shirt, dark pants and matching tailored jacket, and
was wearing a man's tie.  Tisa climbed out of bed gingerly and
stretched, feeling a few twinges, but nothing like the pain she'd
experienced earlier.
     "How did it go?" Callie yawned, rolling over on her stomach
and raking her tangled mane back from her face with her hands.  Tisa
looked from one to the other, suspicious.
     "How did what go?" she asked.
     "Lady Riana wanted to go in to the office," Lilla said casually.
     "What?  Why didn't you wake me?" Tisa cried.  She could
only imagine how angry Riana would have been at being
inconvenienced.  Lilla, however, seemed unconcerned.
     "You needed your rest," she said primly.  "I told her Ladyship
that you were indisposed and volunteered to go in your place."
     "And she agreed?" Tisa asked, bewildered.  Callie chuckled.
     "She's not stupid, Tisa.  She's the one who got you worked
over in the first place.  Anyway, what good's a bodyguard who can
barely stand?"  Tisa shook her head.
     "So you agreed to this?" she asked Callie angrily.  Lilla pouted.
     "Hey, I can handle a simple job like this, you know," she told
Tisa.  "Why don't you give me some credit?"
     "Because you, my dear Lilla, have something of an impulse
control problem," Tisa sighed.  "And Lady Riana reacts very poorly to
having her orders questioned or disobeyed."  Lilla walked over to the
bed, tossing her head haughtily.
     "Well, I behaved in a perfectly appropriate manner, so there!"
she snapped.  "I think you're just afraid you'll be replaced, Tisa!"  Tisa
blinked, then found herself smiling slightly.
     "If you want the headaches that go with that job, little one, you
are more than welcome to them," she said.  Lilla grimaced.
     "No thanks.  Being so well behaved for so long is too much of
a strain for me."  They all laughed at that, and Lilla stripped off her
jacket, tossing it onto the bed.  Then she eyed Tisa's naked body,
letting her gaze linger lasciviously as she chewed gently on her
thumbnail.
     "You're looking much better," she said lightly.  Tisa nodded.
     "I feel much better, thanks to you two.  But I'd better be
getting back to my room.  Our Lady might have excused my absence
tonight, but her tolerance has limits."  Lilla skipped forward and
wrapped her arms around Tisa's waist, leaning her head against the
taller woman's bare shoulder.  Her dark hair brushed silkily against
Tisa's skin, and she felt Lilla's fingers twining in her long hair, stroking
and playing as the smaller girl gave her an imploring gaze that had no
doubt melted many a mortal's heart.
     "Stay," she breathed, letting her long nails score gently against
Tisa's back.  Tisa grinned, pushing the smaller girl away.
     "You have a one track mind, little one," she said ruefully.  Lilla
pouted.
     "I'm a succubus.  I'm SUPPOSED to have a one track mind!"
she pointed out, twisting coquettishly.  Callie chuckled again, sitting up
in bed.
     "You can't argue with logic like that," she said, laughter in her voice.
"Stay, why don't you?"  The offer was tempting, but Tisa shook her
head.
     "Sorry.  I need rest, and I won't get any with you two in the
mood you're in."
     "Rest?" Lilla asked, outraged.  "You slept all day!"
     "I'm getting cranky in my dotage," Tisa told her.  Lilla sighed.
     "Oh, very well.  But you can't go back to your room like that."
She indicated Tisa's nakedness, and went to rummage in her closet.
After a few moments, she emerged with a silk robe in her hands.  She
handed it to Tisa with a flourish.  Tisa sighed, knowing Lilla wouldn't be
happy until she'd gotten at least this concession, and slipped the robe
on.  The cool silk felt good against her skin, and the succubus's enticing
scent rose from the robe in a subtle wave.
     Of course, the robe was Lilla's, and thus was barely decent on the
taller Tisa, much to Lilla's delight.  Tisa judged it enough for the trip
back to her room, though.
     "Thanks," she said, ruffling Lilla's hair roughly.  She knew that
the little succubus hated that, and grinned as Lilla squawked her
outrage.  Then Tisa strode over to the door, and was reaching for the
knob when Callie's voice stopped her.
     "Hey, Tisa."  She looked back.
     "Yes?"
     "Don't be such a stranger.  Okay?"  She looked at her two fellow
Baenma, Callie wrapped demurely in a sheet and Lilla perched on the
edge of the bed, and smiled.  She hadn't made much time for them
recently, becoming caught up in her duties to the exclusion of all else.
Today had been a reminder that there were other things in life besides
work.  She'd been taking her duties so seriously that she had neglected
something that was once very important to her.  Something that was,
regardless of her longing for Riana, still important to her.
     "Okay," she promised, and slipped out the door with a smile on
her face.  The smile quickly faded, however, as she made her way back
to her room.  The events of the day promised to have as yet
unforeseen repercussions for their small group.  Tisa hadn't had time to
consider just what those repercussions might be, but one thing was for
certain.  The status quo that had come to rule their lives was almost
certainly about to end, for better or for worse.
     That thought led another to creep out from the dark crevices of
Tisa's mind with treacherous stealth.
     Do I really want things to change?
     Tisa reluctantly considered the implications of that thought, as she
remembered Lilla's wistful fantasies.  Her life was better here than it
had ever been in their home realm.  There was an embarrassing surfeit
of everything, not only necessities but also luxuries, and they were
allowed to indulge from time to time in manners that would not attract
official attention.  Even her unrequited longing for the affections of her
Lady seemed rather bittersweet and noble at times.
     In their home realm, her life had been very different.  And would
be again, if they ever managed to return.  After all, back there they
were much more expendable and were treated as such.  Maybe they
were ALL beginning to get a little spoiled ...
     Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden sense that she was
not alone.  She stopped, easily picking out a patch of shadow in the
dim hallway as the source of the warning impulse.  For a heart-stopping
moment, she was certain that Wynneth had returned to reclaim her
reluctant plaything.  Then the figure stepped forward, and she blinked in
surprise.
     Keisuke.
     He was wearing a pair of ragged sweatpants and a sleeveless t-shirt
that hid his physique, but couldn't conceal the many bandages on
his upper chest and arms.  His face was somewhat drawn, and he
moved without his customary easy grace, but Tisa wasn't fooled.  He
was still dangerous.
     And he was carrying that damned sword.  And smiling.
     It wasn't a particularly comforting smile.
     "You and I," he said, "we need to talk.  Now."
 

End part 10