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

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part 11: Plots and Plans

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     Tisa knew it would be a mistake to show fear when dealing with
Keisuke.  She decided to take the initiative.
     "Well, well," she said dryly.  "Look what the cat dragged in."
He just kept on grinning, a feral and unsettling sight, and Tisa was
painfully aware that she had not yet fully regained her strength.  Even if
she had, her magic was, like that of most Baenma, limited.  If the boy
was looking for a fight, even in his current state, she would be in
trouble.  She decided it would be wise to act as if she were
unconcerned by his sudden appearance.
     "Our Lady let you off your leash, dog boy.  How lovely," she
said coldly.  His grin died abruptly.
     "Now, that's not nice.  I mean, after I disobeyed Riana and got
out of bed to come see you."  Her skin prickled at that.
     "Me?" she echoed.  "And why exactly would you want to do that?"
The grin was back, and he flexed his shoulders, loosening them
reflexively.  The lacquered sheath of his sword gleamed dully in the low
light as he moved.
     "Listen.  I don't like you.  You don't like me.  That's how it is,
and we both know that's not going to change."  Tisa said nothing,
letting him talk.  "But we share one important interest."
     "Lady Riana," she said, raising an eyebrow.  Interesting.  So he
wasn't looking for a fight after all.  He nodded absently, his hair
brushing his shoulders in a manner that she could have found enticing,
had he not been who he was.  "I don't understand ..."  Then she trailed
off, for suddenly she did understand.
     "Ah.  Lady Wynneth," she said.  He nodded.
     "You got it.  She's rarely been back here in recent years, and never
unannounced.  I'm worried, but Riana won't talk about it.  I figured you
would, seeing as our interests coincide."  Tisa thought furiously.  She
couldn't trust Keisuke very far, of course, but it couldn't hurt to give him
enough information to be a thorn in Wynneth's side.  And to protect
their Lady, if it came to that.
     "All right.  But not here.  Let's go out into the garden.  Less
chance of being overheard."  He inclined his head, motioning to her to
take the lead.
     "Nice robe, by the way," he murmured as she strode past.
     "Nice bandages," she shot back.  He shut up.
     They slipped easily into the garden, moving through the
darkness to a secluded spot surrounded by heavy foliage, hidden from
prying eyes.  Keisuke grunted.
     "Satisfied?" he asked as they regarded each other in the silvery
moonlight.  She sighed.
     "Not really, but it's the best we can manage.  Now, because
you can be with the Lady when I cannot, I will tell you about her
enemy.  And make no mistake, Wynneth is her enemy."
     "She's Aerkinma, right?" Keisuke asked.  Tisa sighed again.
     "Let me give you a little background here.  You know that our
realm, one of the planes of demons closest to this realm, is populated
mainly by three different types of demon: the Borgunma, the Baenma
and the Aerkinma.  It is a bleak and savage place, and the Aerkinma
rule because they are usually the strongest."
     "Usually?"
     "Life is not that black and white, boy.  Occasionally, an
abnormally strong Borgunma might arise, or a particularly clever
Baenma.  After all, the Borgunma we took in from the attack at the high
school were from another dimension, and they had successfully rebelled
against their Aerkinma masters.  The Borgunma have numbers on their
side, and sometimes that can be the difference."
     "All very fascinating, but ..." Keisuke began, clearly irritated.
     "Be still, boy!  There is much you don't know, which is why
you came to me.  Remember?"  When she was satisfied he would not
interrupt again, she went on.
     "The Seven Great Cities of our realm are ruled by the Seven Great
Lords.  The best way to live a half decent life is to pledge yourself to
one of these Lords, or their most powerful vassals.  If you go out into
the wastes and  carve yourself a nice little niche, conquer some
foot soldiers and a Baenma or two to be your retinue, then your
chances
of getting noticed by one of the more important members of the powers
that be are greatly enhanced.  Which is exactly what Lady Wynneth
did, as I recall.  Not only was she beautiful and backed by an
impressive contingent of Borgunma and Baenma retainers when she
presented herself, she also possessed a rare talent amongst any of the
denizens of our realm.  She was a Mistress of Shadow."  Keisuke
shifted, clearly interested now that they were getting to the heart of the
matter.
     "I worked in Lord Vaenruth's court in a capacity where I came
into contact with a lot of information," Tisa went on after a moment.
"And I learned to separate rumour from fact fairly reliably.  I believe
that Wynneth is actually a Baenma who managed to pass herself off as
a wandering minor Aerkinma noble."
     "Is that possible?" Keisuke asked sharply.  Tisa smiled.
     "Of course.  Records are sparse, and communication between
the competing cities erratic at best.  If she was strong enough to gain
those followers, nobody would doubt she was an Aerkinma Lady.
Many Baenma could pass that way, if they were strong enough, but
most are not."
     "But she is, I gather."
     "Ah.  Now we come to the really interesting part.  In the aftermath
of our battle here so many years ago, we retreated in chaos from our
goal.  The battle cost us much.  Our Lord was frozen in that accursed
crystal, and of his court, only the Ladies Wynneth and Vaxe, and his
consort, Lady Riana, survived.  One of them would have to take up the
reins in our Lord's absence.
     "We had barely gone to ground when Wynneth made her
move.  Vaxe disappeared that day and was never seen again, although
I know for a fact Wynneth killed her.  She did not fare so well against
our Lady, though, and was forced to swear allegiance to Lady Riana in
return for her life."
     "An oath I'm sure she'll break if she thinks she can get away
with it," Keisuke rumbled menacingly.  Tisa smiled.
     "Quite.  At the time, none of us were certain what would
happen, and Lady Riana judged it prudent to keep her rival alive in
case her power was needed.  As things settled, she made sure that
Wynneth was kept away from our seat of power, hunting down
nebulous threats to our safety."
     "The point?" Keisuke asked with ill-concealed impatience.
Tisa sighed.
     "The point is this.  Wynneth is, or rather was, a type of
vampire.  Hardly unique, of course.  There are many variants among the
Baenma, including common nightfeeders, as well as incubi and succubi.
But she seems to be a rather special variant.  She can gain, not only
strength and sustenance, but the actual abilities of her victim by drinking
their blood.  Temporarily in most cases, but permanently if she
performs the correct rituals, which are fatal to the victim. I surmise that
her first victim was an unwary Aerkinma with Shadowmagic, which
allowed her to begin the charade.  After that, she was able to pass
herself off as an Aerkinma quite easily, for she had gained the strength
of one."
     "You know all this for a fact?" Keisuke asked, running his
fingers through his hair carelessly.  She smiled unpleasantly.
     "Some of it was surmise, but I am certain now.  You see, Lady
Vaxe had the ability to drain the vitality of an opponent with her touch.
Earlier today, Lady Wynneth used that talent herself, first on Callie,
then on me."  Keisuke's expression was sour as he digested that piece
of information.
     "What are the limits to her power?  How many different abilities
can she absorb?"  Tisa shrugged.
     "I wish I knew.  Lord Vaenruth was the only one who was
privy to all the intelligence on her, as he was to the others under his
command."  She fell silent, watching her rival carefully.  He paced
lightly within the limited space, tapping the sheathed sword lightly
against his free hand.
     "So what do you suppose her first move will be, then?  I mean,
seeing as you know her so well?"  Tisa regarded him coolly.
     "My limited knowledge of her suggests she will attempt to
supplant Lady Riana.  One does not rise from being a Middle Court
nobody to serving one of the most powerful vassal lords in the realm
without daring and ambition.  And she suffers the humiliation of her
defeat at Lady Riana's hands poorly.  However, she has been most
circumspect so far, biding her time and waiting for the right opportunity
to move.  As it is, the Borgunma have become restless under the
constraints of our Lady's rule.  If Lady Wynneth were to promise them
plunder and the opportunity to sate their appetites, some, if not most, of
them would flock to her banner.  Especially the newcomers.  None of
we Baenma wish to serve under her, but if she defeats our Lady we will
have no choice.  There is, however, one other, unpredictable element."
Keisuke stopped, then frowned.
     "Tragus."
     "Tragus," Tisa agreed.  "He is a wild card.  Like Wynneth, he
has managed to rise above his station.  Like her, he is ambitious.
Unlike her, he is neither experienced nor particularly clever, merely
cunning.  He would be a perfect tool for Wynneth to use against our
Lady.  That danger must be guarded against."
     "How?" Keisuke demanded.  Tisa smiled thinly.
     "I am certain our Lady will strive to keep her rival ignorant of
Tragus's existence and away from him.  Beyond that, I will merely
carry out my Lady's will.  As I expect you will."  Keisuke's eyes
narrowed.
     "I don't like this," he spat.  "There's too much going on all at
once.  Things are getting out of control."  That was more true than the
punk realized, but Tisa wasn't about to tell him more than she thought
he needed to know.
     "Then we had both better strive to ensure that we serve our
Lady well in the coming turmoil.  When this is over, she will rule over
the torn corpses of her enemies, holding us together until the time
comes for us to act.  And now you know about the threat to our
Lady's safety, and our business is over."  She turned and began to
walk towards the house.
     "Pleasure talking to you," Keisuke said sarcastically.  She
stopped and looked over at him.
     "Make no mistake, dog-boy.  This was for her benefit, not
yours."  He stared at her, a sneer twisting his mouth and his dark eyes
unreadable.
     "You're fooling yourself, *Jubei*, if you think she'll ever choose
you."  Tisa kept her face expressionless at the familiar jibe.
     "We'll see," was all she deigned to say.  Then she walked away, not
looking back.
 
------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Keisuke stood in silent contemplation for a short time, then he
too left the small concealed glade.  It stood empty, inky black shadows
holding sway under the overhanging branches and in the spaces
between the shrubs.
     Slowly, soundlessly, one of the shadows seemed to eddy and
swirl darkly, a pale beautiful face appearing within, seemingly
disembodied, unsupported in the darkness.  Lush ruby lips smiled, then
parted, softly uttering a word as if tasting it.
     "Tragus."
     Then the pale mask receded into the shadows, leaving them to
rule the night alone once more.

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

     Ryouga looked around, unable to wipe the delighted grin off his
face.
     "Hey, this is great!" he enthused.  Ukyou chuckled, luxuriating
in a slow, cat-like stretch on a reclining lawn chair.
     "Thanks.  It's sort of my own private penthouse."  Ryouga
walked across the flat roof of Ucchan's, feeling the heat from the day
seeping up from the still warm roof.  None of the neighbouring buildings
had windows looking out on the rooftop, and there was a semblance of
privacy, and of space.  Ukyou leaned back on one chair, indicating
another for Ryouga.  As he walked over to sit down, she fished a Coke
out of a small plastic cooler and tossed it to him.  He caught it neatly
and grinned his thanks.
     "It's a nice night," he sighed, sitting down and popping the tab
on his can open.
     "Yeah," Ukyou agreed.  "And we've earned a little relaxation,
haven't we?"  Ryouga looked around, feeling the tension seep from his
shoulders as the warm and fragrant night breeze wafted over them,
carrying the sounds of the neighbourhood which sounded oddly muted
and far away.  Ukyou glanced over at Ryouga, then banged her can
lightly against his in a mock toast.
     "To quitting time," she said solemnly.  He grinned.
     "I'll drink to that," he said, and did just that.  Then he looked around
with frank appreciation.  "You know, if you put in a staircase instead of
a ladder, you could have patio seating up here."  Ukyou laughed.
     "No way, pal!  This is my private retreat!  Anyway, I'd have to
put up railings or worry about customers falling off.  Way too much
hassle."
     "Just thinking," he said idly, leaning back against the plastic
mesh of his chair and taking another drink.  They sat in companionable
silence for a few moments, just soaking up the night.  Ryouga
surreptitiously studied Ukyou out of the corner of his eye.  She had one
arm slung carelessly over her head, resting the pop can on her chest
with the other.  She was gazing up at the sky with a look of pleasant
distraction, humming something tuneless under her breath.
     Ryouga realized with a start that he felt at ease, contented, in a
way he rarely had before.
     It was a very nice feeling.
     "I can hardly see any stars," Ukyou said softly, snapping
Ryouga out of his reverie.  He glanced up.
     "Yeah," he sighed, "I miss that about being out in the country.
On a clear night, the whole sky is just full of stars.  There's so much
light in a city like Tokyo that you can hardly see any at all.  It's a
shame."  She made a small sound of assent, then stretched her legs out,
crossing them at the ankles.
     "Ryouga," she asked suddenly, her voice soft, "do you ever
wonder about Ranko?"  He blinked, caught totally by surprise.
     "Huh?"
     "I do," she said dreamily.  "I wonder where he is right now.  I
wonder if he's looking up at these same stars tonight.  I wonder ... I
wonder if he's lonely."  She toyed with her drink, the can wet with
condensation, as Ryouga simply stared.
     "And sometimes I wonder if we did the right thing, letting him
go," she breathed.  Ryouga turned to look up at the sky, the diffuse
light from the Tokyo skyline washing out most of the stars with its
intrusive luminescence.
     "It was the right thing," he said firmly.  She looked over at him.
     "How can you be so sure?" she asked plaintively.  Ryouga
smiled crookedly.
     "It's hard to explain," he said.  He felt the weight of her gaze on
his skin, a not unpleasant sensation.
     "Try," she urged.  He drew a deep breath in through his nose,
then let it out through his mouth.
     "Okay," he said at last.  "I've been lost a lot.  You know that,
heck, everybody knows that.  And that's caused me a lot of problems,
but I have to admit there were good parts to it as well."  He didn't meet
her gaze; he didn't have to.  He knew he had her undivided attention
     "There've been times when everything just seemed to lie on my
spirit like mountains of stone, making me feel so heavy that I just
wanted to sit down and cry.  But there's something about ... about just
*moving*, about wandering, that cleans you out.  It's like you open
yourself up and let the journey just wash everything away.  You don't
worry about getting to your next class, or what's on television, or
following any schedule except the one that feels right to you.  You just
... you just ARE.  And that can be a very wonderful thing.  It can give
you back some perspective when things get bad."  He stopped then,
rubbing his hand over his face.
     "Sorry," he sighed.  "I guess I didn't explain that very well."
Ukyou shook her head.
     "Mmm-mm," she disagreed.  "You explained it great.  I think I
understand a little better, anyway.  He's trying to heal himself, to come
to terms with the horrible things that happened."  Ryouga nodded.
     "If he can.  He still feels guilt and pain over the things that
happened, no matter what anyone says to him.  I guess it'll take quite a
long trip to help him deal with all that."  And maybe no journey was
long enough to accomplish that, he added silently.  Ukyou turned her
attention back to the sky.
     "Do you think he'll ever come back?" she asked.  Ryouga
sighed.
     "I don't know.  It's hard for him, Ukyou.  He sees us, but he
also sees the ghosts of our other selves.  And he feels guilty for
Kodachi, even though she made her own choice."  A soft breeze sighed
across the roof, and Ukyou dropped her empty can back into the
cooler.
     "It's funny," she said, the ghost of a grin touching her lips.
"When I first found out about him, I thought that destiny was finally
giving me what I wanted, what I deserved.  A lost Ranma, heartbroken
and alone, needing somebody ..."  She trailed off, her grin twisting into
a self-deprecating scowl.  "I was kinda selfish, to tell the truth.
Although I didn't see it at the time.  I thought I could be everything for
him.  But whatever it is he needed, it wasn't me."
     "Are you angry about that?" Ryouga asked before he could
stop himself.  The atmosphere between them felt comfortable, intimate,
like the other time they'd talked, and he found himself enjoying the
experience.  A lot.
     "I was," she confessed softly.  "I was ... angry, confused, torn apart
inside.  But he never wanted to hurt me, I knew that even then.  He
needed to go find his answers, and I needed to let him go.  To let them
both go, in the end."  She shook herself gently and stretched again,
smiling over at him.
     "But life goes on, doesn't it, Ryouga?  One day we'll look back
on these days and feel nostalgic."
     "Sure," he said.  "One day."
     "But I still miss him," she said simply.  Ryouga felt a bittersweet
pang in his chest.
     "Yeah," he said softly.  "Me too."  They sat for a long time in
silence, just sat.  Finally, Ryouga worked up the nerve to ask something
that had been bothering him all day.
     "Ukyou?"
     "Hmmm?"
     "If it's too personal, I understand, but I was wondering, um,
about why Ranma's mother came here today."  She looked surprised.
     "Oh, that," she said.  "No big deal, Ryouga.  Actually, it's kind
of funny.  She only just found out about how Ranma's dad stole our
okonomiyaki cart way back when."  Ryouga's eyes widened.
     "Oh, boy," he breathed.  "I wouldn't have wanted to be
Ranma's dad when that happened.  I've seen her when she's upset,
and believe me it isn't an experience I care to repeat."  Ukyou nodded
absently.
     "I was there.  I remember that day," she told him.  "Hey, Ryouga?"
     "Yeah?"
     "You understand why I don't want to be around Ranma,
right?"  He thought of Akane, and how he had felt when he'd been
trapped in the dojo as P-chan, listening to her talk about Ranma.
     "Yeah," he murmured.  "It's hard."
     "It is."
     "But maybe it gets better," he added.  She laced her fingers
behind her head and stared up at the sky.
     "Maybe so," she said softly.  He lay back and gazed upwards too.
     Yeah.  Maybe so.  But not quickly.
     They stayed like that for a long, long time.

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

     The day had dawned gray and overcast, but by mid-morning the
clouds had begun to break apart to reveal swatches of bright blue sky.
Mousse sighed as he set another heavy box down in the storeroom.
Straightening up, he braced his hands at the small of his back and
stretched, wincing at the popping noises that motion elicited.
     He strayed back into the kitchen to get himself a drink of water.
Cologne was seated at the table, calmly sipping a steaming cup of tea.
She'd been working him hard for the last couple of days, but that was
not really surprising.  And, he had to admit, the place was looking
almost ship-shape again.  They'd be able to open in another day or two
at the most.
     "Great-grandmother, Shampoo going now," a voice came from
behind him.  He stiffened as Shampoo leaned in the doorway, ignoring
him completely.
     "All right, child."
     "You need anything else when Shampoo is there?"
     "No, I put everything on the list.  Off with you now."  Mousse
felt a certain release of tension as Shampoo popped back out through
the doorway.  Ever since her speech on the roof, she'd acted with a
sort of casual disregard towards him.  It was pretty clear that she
considered the matter closed, and for the first time he was faced with
the reality of the situation.
     She wasn't going to change her mind, and nothing he could do
would help.  That made being around her kind of awkward.  He didn't
know what to do or say.  And so, in his spare time, he ended up taking
refuge by spending more time at Ucchan's.
     "Well, Mousse.  Have you finished moving those boxes?"
Cologne asked mildly.  He nodded.
     "Yes, and the tables are all set out as well."  She smiled.
     "Excellent.  It will be good to be busy again."  Mousse cast a
reflexive glance at the cooking area.  Cologne had everything set out
according to some pattern only she knew and had forbidden either of
them to touch anything in her work space.  The reason was pretty
simple; she intended to continue cooking.
     "Worried about the old woman's cooking skills, Mousse?"
Cologne asked dryly.  He started.  Sometimes it was as if she could
read minds.
     "Well, the customers might get a little nervous if they find out
their meal was cooked by a blind woman," he admitted.
     "Well, I won't tell them if you don't," Cologne chuckled.
"Trust me, sonny, I've learned a few tricks in my time.  Nobody will
know the difference.  Anyway, most of our customers come to gawk at
Shampoo."  He nodded glumly.  He was well aware of that fact.
     "Since she's going to be taking care of getting all the food
ready, I guess you won't need me tonight," he said casually.  Cologne
took a slow sip of tea.
     "Going to be having okonomiyaki for supper again, Mousse?"
she asked with a trace of amusement in her voice.  For some reason,
her tone caused him to flush slightly.
     "Maybe," he allowed grudgingly.
     "You know, Mousse, you should be careful," she went on.
"After all, Ukyou is on the rebound from Ranma, and you're on the
rebound from Shampoo ..."  He made a choking sound.
     "It's nothing like that!" he blurted.
     "Oh?" she asked innocently.
     "We're just friends, you old ghoul!"
     "Oh?"
     "And anyway, do you think I'm the kind of guy who could go
from one girl to another just like that?"  Cologne gave him an enigmatic
smile.
     "Mousse, I've been around a long time," she sighed.  "I've
seen a lot of things.  Trust me when I say that you can never tell what
one spurned person will do, let alone two."
     "It's not like that!" he gritted, feeling flustered by her insinuations.
"It's just ... she doesn't ignore me the way Shampoo does, and she
listens to me, and ..."
     "Gives you a sympathetic ear and commiserates with your
troubles and tries to make you feel better."  Cologne nodded sadly.
"That's how it starts.  Better be careful, Mousse.  A girl that's been
rejected is vulnerable."  He snorted and stomped out of the kitchen,
ignoring Cologne's snickering.
     Stupid old woman.  She was just having fun at his expense,
trying to get him wound up.  Sure, that was it.  But it was stupid for her
to even joke about something like that.  Just because Shampoo had
well and truly dumped him didn't mean he was going to run out and try
to forget his heartache in the arms of another woman.  He wasn't that
kind of guy.
     And even if he was, Ukyou wasn't that kind of girl.
     So the whole thing was stupid, really.
     Just stupid.

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

     Tisa was tired and out of sorts.
     She'd slept for most of the previous day.  Her Jubei body had
also slept, due to the spell she'd laid on it.  And then there was the fact
that she'd been brooding over Wynneth's reappearance and what
implications it might have.
     All those factors added up to one long, sleepless night.  Kneading
the back of her neck wearily, sighed under her breath.  She'd have
been better off staying with Callie and Lilla after all.
     She opened the rear door of the car, letting Riana slide in
gracefully, then closed it and went to climb into the driver's seat.  She
was back in Jubei's body, though, and when her knees ended up
around her ears she sighed.  Damn.  It had slipped her mind temporarily
that Lilla had driven Riana the previous day.  Lilla was shorter than
Tisa, and MUCH shorter than Jubei.  She reached for the power seat
adjustment control and eased the seat back until she could stretch out
her legs.
     "I'm afraid I've been taking you for granted," Riana said, a
note of dry amusement in her voice.  "Having Lilla take over your duties
for a day was quite a revelation."  Tisa adjusted the mirror, swallowing
her anxiety.
     "I trust Lilla acted responsibly?" she asked, her mouth dry.
Riana waved one slim hand negligently.
     "Oh, she was adequate," she sniffed.  "But I like things done a
certain way.  I hadn't realized just how well you've adapted to this
role over time."  Tisa flushed at the unaccustomed praise.
     "Of course," Riana went on lightly, "our little succubus was
careful to point out that you would have been available had it not been
for the Lady Wynneth's attentions."  Tisa sat up straight, a cold spike
sliding through her belly.
     "She didn't?" she blurted before she could stop herself.  She
caught Riana's eyes in the mirror.  Such a remark, while ostensibly
directed at Wynneth, could easily be taken as a criticism of Riana's
decision.  As it had been intended.
     "I apologize for her impertinence, Lady," Tisa said stiffly.  "I'll
speak to her."  Riana laughed lightly.
     "Don't be so concerned, Jubei.  Lilla is quite a charming
creature when she sets her mind to it.  She knows I tolerate a certain
amount of impudence from her, as long as she amuses me."  Her tone
cooled slightly.  "And she knows what happens when I am no longer
amused."  Tisa relaxed somewhat as Riana's expression remained
placid.
     "And at least this time she managed not to molest the couriers,"
she laughed.  "I found it impossible to stay angry with her last time, after
she looked at me with those imploring eyes and told me she couldn't
resist their short pants."  Tisa sighed.  She had been worried that, in her
dark mood, Riana might have taken offense to Lilla's playful nature.
Apparently, however, the succubus's mischievous spirit had been tonic
for their Lady's mood.
     Fortunately for all concerned.
     "The office first, Lady?" she asked, starting the car.  Riana was
dressed in a tailored jacket and skirt outfit that totally failed to conceal
her physical charms.
     "Yes, I think so.  I want to get our computer people to do
some searching for me.  Then I have a meeting with Takashi at eleven."
Tisa grimaced.
     Takashi was a pig.  The company had been his, was STILL his
as far as anyone knew.  However, in reality Riana had free run of the
facilities, and made all the important decisions.  It was a good way to
launder the money that they acquired by various unsavoury means, and
it gave them access to the human mundane information gathering
networks and other resources without risking exposure.
     In return, Riana gave Takashi whatever he wanted.  As it turned out,
it really wasn't hard for them to feed the man's depraved lusts.  They
were fairly unsurprising, innocuous even, to someone who'd witnessed
the bacchanals and victory celebrations of the demon realm.  In human
terms, however, they would be considered depraved and filthy.  Which
was just as well, as it gave Riana a ready means to control the man, and
through him many resources that their group had come to regard as
indispensable.
     Tisa shook her head as she drove.  And humans call US
monsters, she thought wryly.  If only they knew what was right in their
midst.  What struck her as funny about the whole thing was that the fool
was selling his soul for so little.  An escalating series of sexual fantasies
involving all manner of forbidden scenarios, some drugs and a ready
supply of young women kept a once successful businessman on Riana's
leash.  And once he was no longer useful, she could cut him loose,
throwing him to the dogs or killing him, whichever struck her fancy.
     Captives of their own restrictive mores.  Humans were such
bizarre creatures.
     But that was part of what made them so easy to control.

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

     The schoolyard was littered with loose clumps of students
enjoying the weather as they ate their lunches.  Ukyou and Nabiki
strolled slowly along the grass, Ukyou choking back a laugh with some
difficulty.
     "You did what?" she asked in disbelief.  "Oh, Nabiki, you are
BAD!"
     "You should have seen Akane's face," Nabiki confided
solemnly.  "She just about blew a blood vessel.  Of course, out of long
habit, she went after Ranma first.  After all, everything's his fault."
Ukyou shook her head.
     "I can almost feel sorry for the guy," she snickered.  "Almost.  The
pond?"  Nabiki nodded.
     "Oh, yes.  Did him some good, actually.  Helped him cool
down," Nabiki said casually.  Ukyou snickered.
     "Oh, I can't stand it.  I wish I could have seen that," she
giggled.  "Those two idiots ..."
     "Well, I gathered that Akane was the chief idiot.  Ranma pretty
much just followed along because he's smitten."  Nabiki glanced over
at her, and Ukyou knew her friend was checking to see what effect all
this talk about Ranma and Akane was having.  She grinned easily.
     "Oh, wait'll I tell Ryouga!  He'll just die!"  They both laughed
at that, and Nabiki checked her watch for the second time in as many
minutes.  Ukyou frowned.
     "So where are we going?" she asked.  "And why do you keep
checking the time?  Got an appointment?"
     "Something like that," Nabiki replied.  "And we're going right
about here, I think.  Yes, this should do nicely."  Ukyou looked around.
They were standing beside a tall tree, halfway between the school and
the front gate.
     "So?" she asked, confused.  "What's going to happen here?"
Nabiki smiled secretively.
     "You'll find out," she said.  "Any minute now."  Seconds later,
Ukyou turned as a loud roar split the air.  A sleek red racing bike shot
through the gates, arrowing towards the tree.  It pulled up short, sliding
to a halt in front of them.  The rider dismounted in one smooth motion,
stripping his helmet off and plunking it down casually on the seat of the
bike.  Then he stood there, peeling off a pair of black riding gloves.
     Ukyou gasped.
     He was beautiful.
     There was no other way to put it.  His dark blond hair fell in
artless spikes over his sea-green eyes in front and tumbled down past
his shoulders in back.  His leather jacket was unzipped, and his lean
body showed easily through the flimsy material of his T-shirt.  Worn
jeans clung to his narrow hips and long, long legs.
     He sauntered over to where they were standing, his crooked,
devilish grin making all the muscles in Ukyou's body turn weak.  He
stopped in front of Nabiki, flipping his bangs absently out of his eyes,
then reached into his jacket and pulled something out.
     Ukyou suppressed a whimper.  It was a single red rose.  The
young god, who appeared to be no older than his early twenties, held it
out to Nabiki.
     "Hey," he said, his voice like warm honey.  "Been thinking of
you."  Nabiki accepted the rose casually, waving it slowly in front of
her nose.  Ukyou blinked, shocked by her friend's reaction.  Nabiki
seemed completely unaffected by the entire affair.
     "Do tell?" she asked dryly.  "Good thoughts, I hope?"
     "Only the best," he grinned.  Ukyou was certain that if he
turned that grin on her, she'd turn into a puddle on the ground.  Before
she could explore that thought any further, however, she heard the
screeching of brakes from outside the gate.  She turned to look, and
saw another young man leap out of a sleek, low-slung sports car.  He
strode purposefully towards them, and Ukyou gaped again.
     This one was also quite the looker, but in a completely different
fashion than the biker.  He wore slacks and a tailored jacket that
looked quite expensive.  His black hair was cut short in the back and
swept straight back off his forehead.  His eyes were dark and piercing,
full of intensity that rivalled the biker's devil-may-care ease.  Without
looking around, he marched directly up to Nabiki, producing a full
bouquet of roses with a dramatic flourish that should have seemed silly,
but didn't.
     "I'm just in time, I see," he murmured, shooting his rival a black
look.  The biker grinned back, apparently unconcerned.
     "How sweet," Nabiki said, accepting the roses.  He smiled
confidently at her compliment.
     "I thought I'd avoid any problems of the sort we had last
week," he announced, "by reserving your presence for this Friday
night."
     "Too bad, sport," the biker drawled.  "She's already going out
with me."  The two men turned to face each other, and Ukyou could
only stare, trying to figure out just what was going on.  Then she
realized with a start that she was far from the only person in that
position.  A great many people were watching the action unfold.
     "I beg your pardon?" the snazzy dresser asked icily.
     "You heard me.  A ride out to the hills, a picnic under the stars
... I was thinking pate, a baguette, and a nice little unassuming white
wine," the biker said, winking at Nabiki.  "And me."  His rival snorted.
     "She'll be too busy having supper at the new five star restaurant to
go slumming about in the woods," he informed the biker coolly.
     "Boys, boys," Nabiki said calmly.  "Let's not fight.  I'm going
to have to consider both offers before I make a decision.  How about I
let you know?"  Ukyou could only gape in disbelief at Nabiki's casual
stance and tone.  The two rivals, however, seemed only fired further by
her seeming disinterest.
     "Dinner under the stars," the biker said with a lazy grin, his
warm voice ripe with promise.  "Warm breezes, cold wine ... and I'll
just bet that moonlight becomes you."  Ukyou felt a sweat breaking out
along her spine.  His rival, not to be outdone, stepped up to the plate.
A stray lock of hair hung down enticingly over one gorgeous dark eye,
and Ukyou had the very real urge to reach out and brush it back.
     "This restaurant is really very elegant," he said smoothly.  "And
I know the staff personally.  They may find it necessary to spoil us
horribly.  And afterwards, there are a few exclusive clubs in the area
that we could while away some time in ..."
     "Enough!" Nabiki laughed lightly.  "You two are making this
very hard on me, you realize.  I'll let you know later.  I think it'll
depend on what I'm in the mood for."  The snazzy dresser smiled, a
slow, knowing smile.  He stripped off his jacket and loosened his tie.
     "Very well," he said, slinging the jacket easily over his shoulder.
"I look forward to hearing from you, ma cherie."  He walked off
toward  his car with long, graceful strides.  The biker snorted.
     "*I* look forward to hearing from you," he purred, his voice
rumbling most pleasantly.  Ukyou swallowed, her dry throat clicking, as
he swung one long leg over his bike.  Donning his gloves and helmet, he
gave Nabiki a jaunty wave, then started his bike and roared off, buzzing
close by his rival on the way out the gate.  Seconds later, the sports car
sped away from the front of the school, and Ukyou was left staring,
amazed and not just a little aroused.  Finally, she blinked and turned to
Nabiki, who was sniffing at her roses quite appreciatively.  Ukyou
opened her mouth, but nothing came out, and Nabiki, noticing her
difficulty, grinned.
     "Anything worth doing, Ukyou," she said sagely, "is worth
doing to excess."
     Then they were surrounded by excited girls, all demanding to
know the details of what had just happened.  Nabiki stood calmly at
the centre of it all, fielding questions easily while Ukyou stood back,
shaking her head.
     One thing was for certain.  Nabiki wasn't going to have to
worry about those rumours that she liked girls any longer.
     Which was, Ukyou realized numbly, no doubt exactly the point.

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

     Riana sat back in her chair, stared out the window over her
steepled fingers, and brooded.
     Events had reached a very delicate stage, and she had to
wonder if she had adequately covered all her bases.  It was maddening
to think that now, after so long, her goal was within reach, only to be
threatened by events beyond her control.
     She turned back to her desk, looking at the reports there.
There were definite advantages in having access to the humans'
mundane but effective resources.  It hadn't taken investigators in the
research division long to come up with a dossier on the girl.
     Reiko Hisakawa, aged seventeen.  The girl who'd been living with
the old man at the shrine.  Spread out before her were the fruits of a
morning's work, pictures from school files and a couple of sheets of
biographical data.  This cold data could reveal some interesting facts
about young Reiko.  Her grades were fairly good, but she had a history
of discipline problems.  She'd actually transferred schools three times
since starting junior high.  So.  Fairly bright.  Willful, perhaps a little
wild.  Managed to do well despite a high absentee rate.
     But all the paper in the world wouldn't tell her the one thing she
most wanted to know.  Was this girl the one who had set the trap for
Keisuke?  Was she a sorceress who'd been taking instruction from the
old man?
     Was Reiko Hisakawa really a sorceress of the Golden Dragon
Clan?
     If she was, then she represented a danger to Riana and her
plans.  And there was only one way to find out for certain.
     Riana knew where the girl was.  She hadn't been hard to find,
registering in a local hotel under her own name.  Still, if she was a
sorceress, she would expect the enemy to search for her using means
magical.  She probably wouldn't think twice about covering her tracks
against such an ordinary search.
     And then again, if she was just an ordinary girl, she wouldn't
bother hiding either.
     It was all so maddening.  If it weren't for the Dread Lord's
restrictions upon their actions, she would simply storm the damned
estate and be done with all this lurking.  But that was not an option, so
she tried to put the thought out of her mind.
     But that wasn't possible.  She had planted the bait, and now
she could do nothing but wait for Tragus to take it.  Once he had the
pendant, she could finally act.  Until then, she could only scheme, and
hope she could keep the various balls in the air long enough to pull this
off.
     In the meantime, there were other matters to occupy her
attention.
     Several newspaper clippings were arrayed off to one side.
Riana shuffled through them lightly, although she already knew full well
what they said.  They detailed several incidents of mayhem and
mysterious death that possessed all the characteristics of a covert action
by her people.  She'd conducted such actions many times in the past;
since they were few and the humans were many, stealth was the only
way to effectively act against those who might pose a threat.  There
was only one problem.
     Her group hadn't been responsible for these incidents.
     There were many possibilities, she knew.  It was not unheard of
for denizens of her realm to find their way to this world on occasion,
either through a momentary flicker in the seals between worlds or
through the actions of a foolish human performing a demon summoning.
There were certain to be rogues in this realm, but they would be few
and easily dealt with should they come within Riana's area of influence.
     Or they could be ... others.  There were darker realms buried
even farther from the light than her own, as she well knew.  And
although it was much rarer for a path to be opened between those
realms and this one, it was at least possible.  If a denizen of one of
those realms were to arrive here, then in all likelihood it would either
gorge itself or work towards opening a stable portal to its home
dimension.
     Riana shuddered in spite of herself.  She didn't much fancy the
prospect of fighting off the Lucifer Hawk for control of this place.  Or
the Lost Ones.  Just dealing with the bloody human champions would
be bad enough.  It wouldn't do to conquer this fertile world, only to
have it taken away by hungry competitors.
     Of course, the Dread Lord and his ilk were supposed to be
ensuring the ways to those deeper realms stayed closed.  That was one
of the reasons his aid to them was so limited.
     Or so he claimed.
     Whatever the case, these incidents bore investigating to
determine exactly what was behind them.  The problem with conducting
such an investigation, though, was simple.  With matters locally at such
a delicate stage, she couldn't afford to stretch her resources that far.  At
least three different locations all across Japan had suffered from shrine
attacks, vicious holy site desecrations and mysterious deaths and
disappearances.
     The clippings, backed up by whatever the research division
could find out, were often too vague or brief to be of much help.  One
of the people who'd vanished was of particular interest to her because
she'd been on Riana's list of potential threats, and that was the only
reason the small write-up had been brought to her attention.
     Some of the incidents could very well have mundane
explanations.  Possibly all of them did, although Riana didn't think that
terribly likely.  But they needed to be checked just the same.  That sort
of caution had kept her on top for a long time, and it was disconcerting
to abandon it now.
     But she had no real choice.  Ordinarily, she'd have occupied
Wynneth's attentions with such matters, or Keisuke's if she judged the
matter too sensitive.  However, now she needed them both close to
her.
     She had the sudden vertiginous sensation of events spinning
madly out of control; hers, or anyone else's for that matter.  She closed
her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose wearily.  No, that wasn't
true.  She would remain in control.  She had to.
     "I will have my victory," she whispered aloud.  "And my love.
Woe to whatever dares stand in my way."  As if in response, her
intercom buzzed.
     "Yes?" she answered, voice cool and brisk once more.
     "Keisuke is here to see you, ma'am," her secretary told her.
     "Send him in."  She leaned back, smiling slightly.  Her secretary
was a lovely young woman, pleasant, pretty and professional.  Riana
wondered what she would think if she knew the truth about her boss.
     Keisuke entered, and she watched him closely.  Only because
she knew him so well was she at all aware that his injuries were not fully
healed.  He stood in front of her desk and bowed respectfully.
     "Well, you're looking much better," she said, crossing her legs
carefully.
     "I feel much better," he said simply.  He leaned over her desk,
catching sight of the files, and carefully retrieved a picture of Reiko.
     "Pretty," he said idly.  "Who is she?"
     "The girl who was living at the shrine," Riana told him.
"Coincidentally, she's here in Tokyo now."  She watched with
concealed amusement as a predatory grin spread over his face.
     "So she's the one," he breathed.  "The one who burned me."
She raised an eyebrow.
     "It is possible, although far from certain," she said casually.
"She may be no more than she appears.  I expect we'll know for
certain once Wynneth finishes with her."  He froze at that, as she'd
known he would.
     "What?" he asked slowly.  "But ... this is my assignment."
     "WAS your assignment," she corrected him.  "I've instructed
Wynneth to track the girl down and deal with her."  She watched him
struggle to keep his composure.
     "Lady," he began tightly.  "I assure you what happened at the
shrine was a fluke.  If this girl is a sorceress, I can deal with ..."
     "Your ability to deal with her is not the issue, Keisuke," Riana
broke in smoothly.  "I have my own reasons for this decision, and I
assure you they are not open to debate.  Is that clear?"  His features
twitched for a moment before he straightened, looking directly ahead.
     "Yes, Lady.  Quite clear."  She nodded.
     "Good."  She leaned forward, softening her expression slightly
as she gazed up at her fierce, proud creation.
     "Don't fret so, Keisuke," she said throatily, knowing how easy
it would be to soothe his bruised ego.  "I'll be wanting to keep you
close, after all."  His posture relaxed subtly at that, and she smiled
inwardly.  She knew just which buttons to push.  It was practically
instinct.
     "I spoke to Jubei about Lady Wynneth," he said, meeting her
eyes once more.  She smiled.
     "Well, well.  How nice to have the two of you getting along so
nicely."
     "The only thing we agree on is how important your safety is,"
Keisuke went on stubbornly.  "And that woman is dangerous!"  She
pushed her hair back over her shoulder with one hand, re-crossing her
legs to distract Keisuke.  It worked momentarily, and she smiled
sweetly.
     "Of course she's dangerous.  She's always been dangerous."
Riana stood slowly and began to circle the desk, never taking her eyes
off of her young lover.
     "But then," she whispered huskily, "so am I.  And I have
bested her before.  Never forget that."  She moved until they were face
to face, she having to tilt her head back to look up into Keisuke's
intense dark eyes.
     "I don't trust her," he muttered.  She smiled, letting one hand
slip inside his open jacket and trace up the lean length of his body.
     "Nor should you.  But she can be useful if handled correctly."  She
leaned into Keisuke, her hand slipping up to curve around the back
of his neck.  "And I know just how to handle her.  Don't worry,
Keisuke.  I'll come out on top.  I always do."  She let her other arm
slide around his waist, revelling in the heat of his body.
     "Now, Keisuke, are you certain that you're ... completely
recovered?"  He stared down into her eyes, nostrils flared, his body
humming with tension.
     "Would you like me to show you?" he asked softly.  She
nodded.
     So he did.

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

     Nabiki stood beside her locker, cradling her roses and trying
hard not to laugh as Ukyou fairly bounced with anxiety.
     "Come ON, Nabiki," she gritted.  "Tell me how you pulled that
off!"
     "What?" Nabiki asked innocently, placing her hand above her
heart in a stricken pose.  "You don't believe that those guys were
smitten with me?"  Ukyou scowled.
     "You told everyone that you met them at that club we went to,"
she pointed out.  "But that never happened.  I was there, remember?"
Nabiki winked.
     "Always mix a little truth in with your deceptions, Ukyou," she
advised.  "Makes them harder to unravel."  Ukyou shook her head as
they walked out into the sun.  Nabiki was quite certain that her friend
had been puzzling over what had happened at lunchtime for the whole
afternoon.  Her grin widened as Ukyou glared at her.
     "Okay, I get it," Ukyou sighed as they walked together.
"Everybody saw what happened.  So now, nobody will be talking
about you and me, anyway.  I get it.  And it's a good plan."
     "But?" Nabiki asked.  Ukyou glared at her.
     "But how did you DO it?  Who were those guys?"  Nabiki laughed
at Ukyou's frustration.
     "Isn't it obvious, Ukyou?" she asked.  "I hired those two."
Ukyou stopped dead, staring at Nabiki in obvious shock.
     "Y-you mean they were .."
     "Ukyou!" Nabiki said reprovingly.  "They were ACTORS."  Ukyou
blinked.
     "Actors?"
     "Well, what did you think?" Nabiki asked, still grinning.  "Out
of work actors, although not for long, if today's performance is anything
to go by.  I hired them through a talent agency."  Ukyou started
laughing then.
     "Actors?" she asked.  "Wow.  I mean ... WOW."
     "Uh-huh.  Fight fire with fire, my friend.  I don't mind if there
are rumours going around, not if they're about two guys who both want
me."
     "And the crowd ate it up," Ukyou said, shaking her head.
     "Of course," Nabiki said, wounded.  "It was a convincing
performance, wasn't it?  The secret was being nonchalant about it.  If
I'd tried to make a big deal of things, going around telling everybody,
then there would have been suspicions.  This way, it looked natural.  I
mean, this being Furinkan, it wouldn't have seemed out of place if those
two had come armed for a duel."
     "You've got a point," Ukyou admitted.  "Much stranger things
have happened here.  Still, wasn't it expensive?"  Nabiki shrugged.
     "Not as much as you'd think.  Anyway, my cash flow is quite
comfortable these days, thank you."
     "Really?  How so?"
     "Oh, I'm doing a little freelance work for Kunou," Nabiki said
breezily.  Ukyou looked surprised at that.
     "For Kunou?  You're kidding."
     "No big deal, just some book keeping and related stuff.  His
father's unreliable, and he's been kind of lost since ... you know.  Since
Kodachi.  And the money was good, so I figured, why not?"  Ukyou
grinned.
     "I can't imagine it would be too easy working for Kunou," she
pointed out.  Nabiki grinned back.
     "Oh, don't worry.  I can keep our Blue Thunder in line," she
said.
     "Yes, you do seem to have a talent for that," Ukyou admitted.
Nabiki checked her watch.
     "In fact, I think I'll drop over now and see how things are
coming along," she said.  There were a few things she wanted to go
over before she went to Yokohama the next day.
     "Why don't you come by later for supper?" Ukyou suggested.
Nabiki thought about it.
     "I will if I have time," she said, "but I want to make sure I'm
home this evening.  Kasumi's got her first date with the doc tonight, and
I want to get the straight dope on the goings on."
     "Oh, that's right!" Ukyou exclaimed.  "I forgot about that!  Wow,
there's two people who really belong together, don't you think?"
Nabiki nodded.
     "I do.  But Kasumi's still a little nervous.  She hasn't been on a
date in a while, and she's worried that the doc might get all flustered
again and end up talking to skeletons all night.  I gave her a few
pointers, though, so she should be okay."
     "Oh?  Nabiki Tendou, Goddess of Love?" Ukyou teased.
Nabiki sniffed.
     "Hey, it was my plan that got her that date in the first place,"
she pointed out.  "And anyway, which of us is lugging around a fistful of
roses?"
     "Which you paid for," Ukyou snickered, unimpressed.  Nabiki
sighed.
     "Okay, you got me there," she admitted.  Ukyou sighed
dreamily.
     "I don't know how you were able to be so cool, being in the
middle of those two guys," she murmured.  "I thought I was going to
melt just standing near them!"  It hadn't been easy, but Nabiki certainly
wasn't going to admit that.
     "They were quite nice, weren't they?" she smiled.  "I was going
to go with just one, but I couldn't decide between them.  Then I
thought, what the hell.  I don't HAVE to decide.  I'll take them both."
She shot Ukyou a sidelong glance.
     "So confess, Ukyou.  Which one did you like better?"  Ukyou's
cheeks coloured slightly, and she tugged the collar of her uniform jacket
open as she walked.
     "They were both gorgeous," she sighed finally.  "But I just started
thinking about that picnic under the stars with the biker ... and holding
tight to that body on the ride up.  And his voice ... just hearing him talk
made me tingle all over."  She shivered, and Nabiki laughed.
     "I still have his number," she teased.  Ukyou flushed, but
grinned back.
     "You think I could rent him for a night?" she asked playfully.
Nabiki wagged an admonishing finger.
     "Yes, but he'd probably be quite expensive."  Ukyou crinkled
up her nose slightly.
     "Yeah.  But worth it."  The girls looked at each other and
broke out laughing.
     "Oh, that's enough of that," Nabiki sighed.  "Anyway, what
would Ryouga and Mousse think if brought him home?"  Her teasing
tone had its intended affect, bringing a bright crimson blush to Ukyou's
cheeks.
     "What's that supposed to mean?" she asked quickly.  Nabiki
just grinned.
     "You've been collecting strays, Ukyou.  I think they're starting
to feel a little possessive about you."  She laughed as Ukyou blushed
even more furiously.
     "That's ... that's just not ..." Ukyou stuttered.  Nabiki stopped.
     "Well, here's where I get off," she said breezily, holding out the
roses.  "Here.  Give these a good home, why don't you?"  Ukyou
found herself with an armload of fragrant roses before she could react,
and Nabiki skipped away.
     "Later!" she called out.  Leaving the tongue-tied girl behind, she
made her way to the estate.  She supposed that it was a little bit much,
teasing Ukyou that way, but honestly, that girl needed to loosen up just
a bit.
     And Nabiki was more than willing to help her out in that area.

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

     Ukyou let herself into Ucchan's, still burning over Nabiki's
comments.
     What a stupid thing to say.  Ryouga and Mousse just enjoyed
spending time with her because she was nice to them.  They were
friends, that was all there was to it.  After all, Ryouga had been
depressed over his perceived shortcomings, and Mousse had been hit
hard by Shampoo's final rejection.  They *needed* a friendly ear, and
she gave them one.
     It was really that simple.  After all, they were ... well, they were
Ryouga and Mousse.  She didn't think of them that way.
     "Oh, hi.  You're back."  Ryouga walked out of the back, and Ukyou
stared.  He was wearing baggy black pants and a black sleeveless
T-shirt with a low, ragged neck hole that revealed most of his collar
bone and throat.  His body glistened with a light sheen of sweat,
tendrils of hair plastered damply to the nape of his neck.  He grinned
engagingly, and slung a towel around his shoulders, grasping the ends
tightly.
     Apparently, her hormones hadn't quite recovered from Nabiki's
little dinner theatre.  Just remember, she told herself dryly, that you
don't think of him that way.  He noticed her stare and cleared his throat
nervously.
     "Uh, I was working out a little up on the roof.  I hope you don't
mind."  She smiled, shaking off the sudden awkwardness ruefully.
     "No, that's fine," she assured him.  He shifted his gaze to her hands.
     "Hey.  Flowers," he said brightly.  She realized that she was still
holding the roses that Nabiki had given her, and blushed.  She didn't
want to try to explain the whole story to Ryouga, so she just nodded.
     "Uh, yeah.  I'd better find some water to put these in.  Be right
back."  She went into the back to get changed and dropped the flowers
on her bed.  I wonder what Ryouga thinks about this, she asked herself
wryly.  Then she laughed out loud.
     "I'm getting too self-conscious," she said to her reflection in her
mirror.  "He probably didn't even give it another thought."

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

     Roses.  RED roses.  A whole lot of them.  That wasn't the sort
of thing you gave to a girl on a whim, was it?  Ryouga tugged absently
on the ends of the towel as he puzzled over it.
     Could it have been Ranma, trying to smooth things over with
her?  He quickly decided that was unlikely.  There was only one
explanation.
     Some guy had given Ukyou flowers.  Some guy with romantic
intent.  That had to be it.  And she'd kept them, so she must have been
happy about it.  That nagged at Ryouga a bit, but he ignored the
sensation.
     Maybe I should ask her, he thought.  No, wait.  I shouldn't be
pushy.  Anyway, if she wants to tell me, she'll tell me.  But I won't
bring it up.  After all, it's just a bunch of flowers, right?  Sure.  No big
deal.
     But ...
     But I wonder if she agreed to go out with this guy?

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

     As she was shown into the room, Nabiki smiled enigmatically.
It wasn't that she was feeling particularly enigmatic; it was just that she
knew that particular expression would irritate the hell out of Kunou.
     As in fact, to judge by his curt greeting, it did.
     He nodded to acknowledge her presence, dismissing the
servant with a short gesture.
     "Well?" he asked.  She raised an eyebrow, letting the smile widen
subtly.
     "Nice to see you too," she said glibly.  He sighed.
     "You made such an issue out of having access to the
information I gave you that I was expecting some sort of revelation," he
said stiffly.  She cocked her head.
     "Do you eat dessert first, too?" she asked lightly.  He scowled, then
stood slowly.  Nabiki didn't find much challenge in irritating Kunou, but
she liked to stay in practice.
     "Very well.  In that case, there are some things I think I should show
you," he said at last.  "That is, if you think you can make the time in
your busy schedule."  She smiled.
     "I think that could be arranged.  Lead on."  As he moved past her,
she noticed that he was holding his left arm at a slightly awkward angle.
She shook her head.
     "You didn't get your shoulder looked at, did you?" she asked.
He sighed in response.
     "I am accustomed to accumulating injuries, Nabiki.  I assure
you this one did not necessitate professional medical intervention.."
     "Use as many fancy words as you like, Kunou-baby, macho is
still macho.  And dumb."  He looked down at her, affecting a superior
attitude, and quite well, she had to admit.
     "Why, Nabiki, if I did not know better, I might think you were
concerned about my well-being."  She shot him a pained look.
     "Oh, puh-leese," she drawled.  "I just don't want anything to
happen to my meal ticket."  He grunted.
     "I will endeavour not to die before you have maximized your
profits," he shot back.
     "I appreciate that," she grinned.  Then she looked away and
her tone became deliberately casual.  "So, sleeping okay?"  He blinked.
     "My sleep is still tainted by mad visions, if that is what you
mean," he ventured cautiously.  She frowned.  She had been giving this
matter much thought, but no solutions had come to her.
     "You said they come and go."
     "Yes, but if there is any pattern I have yet to detect it.  For the
moment I must suffer their vagaries."
     "There must be some way to stop them!" she snapped.  She did not
like being thwarted.  At anything.  And, having experienced one of
these particular night terrors, she was determined that they must be
stopped.
     "They are dreams.  They cannot be fought, or kept out by
locked doors.  They can only be endured."  They walked on in silence
for a time.
     "I don't know how you stand it," she said at last.
     "I stand it because I must."  And that really seemed to sum things up
nicely.  Still, she knew that the dreams couldn't be good for Kunou's
mental state.  In some ways he seemed more clear-headed now than
she'd ever seen him, but in others she thought the strain must be
terrible.  The deaths of his sister and Sasuke, the encounter with his
mother, and the recent appearance of several of the demons on the
estate grounds must all be eating away at him, especially because he
had to endure it all alone.
     Well, not quite alone.  He had his chief troubleshooter now,
and she intended to start putting things in good order the way only she
could.
     In silence, they descended into the lower part of the house until
they finally reached a slightly shabby storage room.  The corners were
shadowed and dusty, and odd bits of furniture and abandoned
gardening equipment clustered protectively against the walls.  Nabiki
looked around with a critical eye, her hands clasped behind her back.
     "Oh, Kunou-baby," she quipped, "you take me to the nicest
places!  I bet this room isn't on the official estate tour."
     "You would win that bet," he said, retrieving a battery-powered
lantern from a dented metal cabinet.  He moved easily through
the room, making his way to a tall wooden cabinet against the back
wall.  Nabiki followed, picking her way fastidiously.
     "There'd better not be rats," she warned him.  "I get paid extra for
rats."
     "The rats no longer come here," he told her gravely.  "They fear
me."  He patted the hilt of his sword for emphasis, and she realized with
some surprise that he was joking.  That had to be a good sign.
     "Swell.  Nice cabinet, rat-slayer.  Family heirloom?"  The cabinet in
question slumped like a drunken sailor, it's scabrous brown paint giving
it a particularly unsavoury appearance.  It had wide double doors
festooned with cobwebs, as if it hadn't been opened for years.
     Apparently, even rich people weren't immune from collecting
junk.  How refreshing.  Kunou just ignored her jibes, though, and lightly
ran his fingers up the edge of the left side at head height.  Finding the
spot he wanted just behind the projecting edge of the trim, he pressed
firmly and was rewarded with an almost inaudible click.  The entire
cabinet swung away from the wall, revealing an imposing door set into
the wall.
     Nabiki felt her pulse quicken.  A door that big, that
impenetrable-looking, had to hide something pretty important.  Kunou
produced a key and unlocked the door, which swung open with eerie
silence, revealing rough-hewn stone stairs that vanished into the inky
blackness.
     Nabiki licked her lips unconsciously, rubbing the palms of her
hands lightly to dry the sudden perspiration there.  Here, she was
certain, was the physical manifestation of the secrets she'd ferreted out,
a hidden staircase that could lead to ... anything.
     "Secrets," she breathed.  "Oooh, I do love secrets.  Lead on,
Kunou."
     "So I have noticed," he said dryly.  "And since you are privy to
this family's secrets, I thought it important that you see this."  He moved
to the top of the stairs and glanced back at her, looking superiour again.
She snorted.  If he thought she was afraid of the dark, he had a surprise
coming.
     "Stay close," he warned, switching on the lantern.  "There are
still some damaged areas where caution is advisable."  She just
nodded, and he started down, letting the cold white light of the lantern
bore a tunnel through the darkness.  She followed, feeling the cool dry
air chill her exposed skin as she crossed from the light to the darkness.
Kunou did something with the wall, and the cabinet closed behind them,
sealing away the comfortable world of light with a firm click.
     No matter.  She was anxious for the secret things now, the
mysteries which lay slumbering in the deep darkness, perhaps
half-forgotten by those who dwelt above.  Nabiki's glee only increased
as they descended.
     "Hey, we're pretty deep," she murmured as they reached the
bottom, her voice sounding strange in her ears.  "I never would have
guessed there was a tunnel down here."
     "That is rather the point," he muttered, moving away from the
small landing.  In front of them was a large corridor, cut from the rock,
that stretched away into the darkness.  Corridors also extended at right
angles to their position.
     They stood there for a moment, listening to the oppressive
silence pressing against them.  The air tasted old and used up, and at
that moment Nabiki thought they could have been the only two people
left alive in the world.  She looked up at Kunou to find him staring out
at the darkness, lost in thought.
     "Hey," Nabiki whispered, snapping him out of his reverie.  The
atmosphere of this place tended to inspire whispering and stealthy
movement.  Perhaps it was an atavistic fear of disturbing the slumber of
some restful beast.  At any rate, he responded the same way.
     "Yes?"
     "What is this place?  A bomb shelter?"  He chuckled softly.
     "It pre-dates such things by quite a few centuries," he told her
dryly.  She felt her excitement rising again.
     "How much is there?  Is this the only entrance?  Who ..."  He
held up a hand to forestall her sudden tide of curiosity.
     "I will tell you what I know, but first I wish to show you
something.  Come."  He set off down the corridor that lay directly
ahead of them, and Nabiki quickly fell in behind him.  As they left
the landing behind, they became suspended in a moving oasis of light,
hemmed in ahead and behind by the dark, and on either side by the
walls of the corridor, which was quite comfortably wide.  The sound of
their footfalls seemed to be swallowed up by the implacable silence that
reigned amongst the ancient stone corridors.
     Nabiki's imagination seemed to have slipped its restraints,
flitting about in mad fits of fancy as they walked.  Who had constructed
these tunnels?  When?  Had they really been here for centuries?  And
what was hidden down here?
     "You can see there are wall brackets where lanterns were once
mounted," Kunou said suddenly.  Nabiki jerked, startled at the sudden
sound of his voice in the almost tangible silence, but recovered nicely.
As usual.
     "Yes, I noticed," she lied, peering up at the walls.  She squinted.
Some shattered light fixtures remained on the walls, but their
construction was unfamiliar.  Soon they passed a place where a ragged
crater seemed to have been blasted into the wall.  It was surrounded by
dark scoring which trailed off along the smooth stone like the bloody
handprint of a dying man.
     For all she knew, that was exactly what it was.
     They passed more such signs of violence, and Nabiki broke the
silence again.
     "Looks like there was quite a fight," she said with studied
casualness.  Kunou narrowed his eyes, the lantern throwing harsh
shadows over his face, making it seem to be composed of flat planes
and sharp angles.
     "Oh, yes," he said.  "The night my grandparents died, the dark
ones fought their way down here, to the very heart of the estate.  With
the lights out and the corridors filled with nightmarish creatures, it must
have been quite a fantastic struggle.  Don't you think?"  She peered up
at him out of the corner of her eye, suppressing a shiver.  Being down
here with one lantern their only talisman against the rule of the dark, she
could imagine all too well the panic and terror that would ensue in such
a battle.  Her memory skipped back to a couple of nights previous,
when she'd run through the streets, frantic even though she hadn't been
able to see what was chasing her.
     Yes, she could well imagine how horrible that fight must have
been.
     "Trying to scare me, Kunou?" she asked to hide her nervousness.
He smiled crookedly.
     "I hardly think that's necessary, after all you've seen," he
murmured.  "No, I simply wish to make it real for you.  They fought
down here, in the darkness.  They defended our secrets and our most
revered treasure with their blood and their lives."  He stared off into the
distance, remembering.
     "It wasn't real for me, not back then," he said softly.  "Perhaps
if I had understood, I would never have allowed things to become so
far gone."  At times like this, he almost looked like a different person.
She couldn't see any trace of the pompous nitwit she'd been
classmates with for so long.
     "I'll say this," Nabiki breathed, wrapping her arms around
herself to ward off a sudden chill.  "It must have taken real guts to fight
down here."
     "Yes," he murmured softly.  "Their sacrifices must be honoured."
     Then he stopped, and she could see a widening of the corridor
just ahead, with doors were visible on either side.  As they moved
forward, she saw that the corridor continued on for a short distance
past the bulge, a dark wooden portal just visible in the faint reaches of
the lantern's light.  Kunou ignored that door, though, turning to regard
the matching doors on either side.
     It was clear that pitched fighting had occurred here.  Although
there was no debris on the floors, the stone walls were cracked and
pocked as if by great force, almost none of the original smooth carved
surface left untouched.  Many areas were blackened as if by great heat,
and Nabiki fancied she could hear the faint screams of the dying and
curses of the fiercely pressed survivors as they fell back further and
further, desperately trying to throw back the invading tide.
     "What's down there?" Nabiki asked, pointing to the door further
down the corridor.  Kunou gave her a look that tweaked her suspicious
nature.  He was trying to be nonchalant all of a sudden.
     "That is nothing," he said casually.  "I wanted to show you what
is in here ..."
     "Nothing?" she asked innocently.  "It can't be nothing.  Let's
go look."
     "No!"  She froze at his sharp tone, which sounded unnaturally loud
in the confines of the tunnel.  She stared at him as he struggled to bring
himself under control.  He took a deep breath.
     "Nabiki, you must listen to what I tell you, in this if nothing else.
That way lies the heart of the matter, the last barrier between us and the
power that the dark ones seek to control."  She twined her fingers in
her glossy bobbed hair with languid grace, a hunger rising within her
belly, hot and vital.  The heart of the matter, eh?
     "I'd like to see something like that, Kunou," she said softly, gazing
longingly at the door.  "I'd like it very much."  She felt the pull of secrets
at her core like the implacable tidal force of some swollen moon, subtle
yet irresistible.  Kunou just stood there, his face in shadow as he let the
lantern hang down by his leg.
     "Some doors, Nabiki, are best left unopened."  The words were
soft, spoken without force or emotion, yet somehow she felt that there
was something deeper, something dark and tangled, behind them.  She
turned to Kunou and clasped her hand behind her back, rising up on
her toes so she could gaze into his shadowed face.
     "Kunou," she said with a tiny smile, "you forget who you're talking
to.  I don't believe that.  If I did, we wouldn't be standing here."
     "I did not believe either.  Once."  He stared down at her, and she
stared back, wondering, not for the first time, what sorts of secret
torments might lurk within his soul.  She'd never suspected any of this,
after all; what more might there be?
     Still, his secrets couldn't be just his anymore.  Not now that she
was involved.
     "You promised to let me in, Kunou," she said simply.  He
sighed.
     "Not there," he said firmly.  "Some day, perhaps, but not
today."
     "Soon," she grinned, confident in her ability to convince him.
     "Perhaps," he sighed again.  "After you understand more of this
place.  After all you have been through, I suppose you are entitled."
     "That's the spirit," she told him.  "So, for today, it's these
doors, huh?"  He nodded, moving to one of the doors and pushing
down on the simple latch, which clacked loudly in the still, cool air.
     "Not locked?" Nabiki asked curiously.  He shook his head.
     "Not necessary, down here," he replied.  "At least, it was never
believed it would be.  I am told this door is covered with magical
symbols that are invisible to ordinary people, but which offer protection
against supernatural intrusion."
     "And you believe that?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
Ever the skeptic, even now, she told herself ruefully.  And yet, she
wasn't about to stop challenging him.  She wanted to know everything.
     He cocked his head at her, studying her for a few moments.
Then, wordlessly, he withdrew a length of the blade from its scabbard.
The polished metal began to glow with a soft bluish light, quite unlike
the blazing radiance it had possessed in the presence of the demons
only nights before.  It seemed to pulse softly, as if in time to the beat of
its bearer's heart, and a series of strange symbols appeared on the
door's surface, pulsing faintly in sync with the sword.
     At the centre was a large six-pointed star within two concentric
circles.  The space between the circles was filled with symbols, possibly
writing of some kind although it clearly wasn't Japanese.  There were a
few smaller symbols outside of the circle, linked to it by angled lines.
Kunou slipped the sword back into its sheath and the glow died away.
     "Okay, the symbols are there," she conceded with a grin.  He
sighed.
     "Have I told you lately how stubborn you are?" he asked,
exasperated.
     "No, not lately," she informed him.  "So.  Spooky magical
protection, huh?  Why isn't there any on the door leading down here?"
     "There is."
     "Uh, so how did the bad guys get through?  Isn't that stuff
supposed to stop them?"  Kunou smiled, but there was no humour in
the expression, simply a twisting of his mouth.
     "That was the idea.  However, even this magic can be overcome by
more powerful forces.  And there were some truly powerful creatures
amongst the ranks of the enemy, and although many of them paid with
their lives, our defensive magics could not keep them out."  They
walked  into the room, Kunou holding the lantern high.
     Nabiki was in heaven.  All around, stretching beyond the reach
of the lantern's cold white light, were pedestals and cabinets and racks,
all holding gleaming weapons or armour or other arcana.  Her gaze
swept the treasure trove slowly as she spun in a circle, breathing in the
musty air.  To her it smelled of secrets long buried.  And they were all
at her fingertips.
     "It's like a museum," she whispered.  "Is all of this magic?"
     "Oh, no," he said softly.  "Some of it, certainly, but much of
these artifacts are significant to the history of our struggle."  She
followed him through the room, having to fight the urge to stop and
gawk at everything.  Who knew what secrets resided within this room?
What tales, what powers?
     She wanted to know.  She wanted to know all of it.  And right
then, she told herself she would.
     "Here," Kunou said.  "I thought these might be of interest to
you."  He'd stopped before a large bookshelf, and as he stood aside
she saw row after row of book spines, worn smooth by handling.  She
stepped forward and ran her fingertips over the uneven rows of books
reverently, her hand tingling with the proximity of so much knowledge.
     "Histories?" she asked huskily.  He nodded.
     "Among other things.  At one time there were writings dating
back to the birth of this nation, detailing the struggle between darkness
and light.  However, this room was also breached during the struggle,
and many of the priceless writings were destroyed.  These that are left
are jumbled, fragmentary, and badly out of order.  Many things have
been neglected in recent years, I am sorry to say."  She nodded, pulling
one of the books gently from the shelf.  It's binding appeared to be
leather, smooth and cool against her flushed skin.  She opened it
slowly, listening to the gentle creak of the leather and the soft rustle of
the pages.
     And blinked.
     "Kunou," she said slowly, "what language exactly is this?"  He
leaned over her shoulder, holding the lantern up to better illuminate the
pages.
     "Ah.  This particular book would fall into the category of
 "other", I should think."
     "Are they all like this?" she asked plaintively.  What good
would having all this at her disposal be if she couldn't even read it?
     "Oh, no.  Many of the books have been copied over many
times, and are easily readable.  But some, like this one, remain a
mystery.  I am uncertain whether it is written in some forgotten
language, or perhaps in some sort of code.  There was even talk that
some of the books down here were books of spells, comprehensible
only by those gifted with magic."
     "Well, someone must know what it says," she frowned.  He
sighed in response.
     "Once, I am certain that we could have easily found such a
person.  But the battle that ravaged this place cost us many whose
knowledge was irreplaceable.  It is possible that there is no longer
anyone alive who could decipher this text."  Reluctantly, Nabiki slid the
book back into its place amongst its fellows.
     "There is much that I do not know," Kunou said after a
moment.  "There may still be answers within the remnants of our
history, but it will be quite a task to find them.  I had thought that
perhaps you could look over these books as part of your duties and
see if you could put them in some sort of order."  He glanced away,
looking vaguely apologetic.  "It is a task long overdue, but it may have
some value."  She felt her mouth quirk up lightly.
     "I think I could handle that, Kunou.  Anything to give us an
edge on the bad guys, huh?"  He looked relieved at her response.
     "Indeed," he nodded.  "There is just so much to do, I confess I
am quite at a loss as to where to start."
     "Well, these books are a good place," she informed him.  "And
maybe we can find out what some of this stuff is for, too.  You could
have a whole arsenal of magic doo-dads down here, you know."  She
wandered around the collection, careful not to stray too far from the
light.  She reached down and plucked a sheathed katana from its
resting place, marvelling at how heavy it was.
     "Hey, maybe this one's magic," she grinned.  She tugged it free,
examining the blade critically.
     "Oops, maybe not," she said.  "This one's defective."
     "Defective?"  Kunou moved over so he could see the blade
clearly.
     "Yes, Kunou.  Look, the blade's upside down.  The sharp
edge is on the back instead of the front."  He smiled.
     "How very odd," he said with a trace of bemusement.  She just
shrugged and returned the sword to its sheath.  Glancing around, she
noticed for the first time that some of the alcoves and pedestals that
should have held something were empty.
     "Hey, Kunou.  When the bad guys got in here, did they by any
chance take souvenirs with them?" she asked, moving slowly through
the room.
     "Very perceptive," he answered dryly.  "Yes, they not only
defiled this place, but also stole some of the artifacts and destroyed
others.  Of course, many of the more powerful artifacts were taken
from the bodies of those who had wielded them."  She didn't
particularly want to pursue that line of thought.
     "Well, what kind of stuff do you have left?" she asked instead.
     "That," Kunou sighed, "is where you come in."
     "Me?" she asked curiously.
     "Indeed.  You seem to have a gift for uncovering secrets.  I
was hoping you might be able to make some sense of the inventory
down here, as well as trying to put the volumes of history in some
semblance of order.  In the aftermath of the great battle, many things
were neglected, and I think it is time that said neglect was addressed."
Nabiki looked around her, picking out shapes and forms in the harsh
white light of the lantern.  So many half-forgotten secrets, all beckoning
to her, begging to have their depths plumbed.
     How could she refuse?
     "So basically, you're not sure what you've got here, eh, Kunou?
Well, as long as it doesn't interfere with my other duties, I suppose I
could give it a try," she said, hiding her enthusiasm out of long habit.
Then she had an unpleasant thought.
     "I'm not going to have to work down here, am I?" she asked
as casually as possible.  She did not relish the thought of spending any
time alone in this place, as interesting as it was.  Some of her
apprehension must have shown through, for Kunou smiled.
     "At least some of the work will have to be done here, yes.  The
inventory will be useless without the actual items close at hand, and the
histories are too valuable to be allowed to go astray."  Then, his eyes
shining with what she would have termed mischief, had she witnessed
such an expression in someone else, he added, "Although I suppose I
can release a few at a time for perusal in more comfortable
surroundings.  The house seems safe enough, at least for the time
being."
     "Oh, I understand completely," she sniffed.  "I suggest we
begin by taking some of this mouldering paperwork upstairs with us so
I can get a start."  He nodded, taking a long, lingering look at his
surroundings.
     "I suppose that would be prudent," he admitted.  He followed
her back over to the bookshelf where she got her revenge by
immediately shoving a heavy stack of books at him, relieving him of the
lantern as he flailed and struggled to keep the stack from toppling.
     "That will do for the time being," she said with obvious
satisfaction.  "For perusal in more comfortable surroundings, I mean."
He grunted, finally wrestling the books under control.
     "So happy I could be of assistance," he grumbled as she led the
way out.  She looked longingly towards the forbidden door at the far
end of the hall, then turned reluctantly back to lead Kunou back
towards the stairs.
     "Heavy?" she asked impishly.  She heard Kunou stifle a grunt.
     "Not in the least," he muttered tightly.
     "Good.  You know, this wouldn't be necessary if you could fix
this place up a little.  Make it, I don't know, less foreboding ..."
     "Such a project is long overdue, I admit," he responded.  "And
yet, having only recently assumed the mantle of responsibility I
neglected for so long, I find there are a great many things that demand
my attention.  Still, something should be done to return this place to its
former state, if only to honour the ghosts who must roam these
darkened tunnels."  She started to laugh, then remembered the
creatures that had chased her to the estate.  Was the idea of ghosts
really so far-fetched?
     "You really think there are ghosts down here?" she asked,
cocking her head.  She was quite astonished by the gentle half-smile
that crept to his lips then, and his eyes assumed a far-away gaze.
     "We used to imagine so," he murmured.  "But we always told
each other that they would guard us from any harm ..."
     "We?" she asked, and he seemed to snap back to the present.
"Who's we?"
     "Ah ... that is, my brother and I," he mumbled.
     "Your brother?  You mean, you guys were allowed down here
as kids?" she asked in disbelief.  His cheeks reddened slightly as she
watched.
     "Allowed would be too strong a term, actually," he admitted
reluctantly.  Nabiki was delighted.
     "Kunou-baby!  You sneaked down here?  I bet you dared
each other, didn't you?"
     Afterwards, she would remember his face when she said that.
For a moment, she saw something raw and hurt in his eyes and etched
in the planes of his face.  The pain that radiated from him in those few
seconds was almost palpable, and Nabiki was taken completely
off-guard.  Quickly, though, his mask of indifference slammed back into
place, leaving her to wonder exactly what nerve she'd touched.
     "I ... would prefer not to speak of this further," he said at last,
and his voice was tightly controlled.
     "Sorry," she said softly.  "I guess it isn't easy for you to talk
about him."  He looked somewhat startled at her apology, then looked
away.
     "It is nothing," he said.  "Simply unpleasant memories.  It will
pass."  Still, he said nothing further until they were back in the
storeroom, with the door sealed and the cabinet secured behind them
again.  His mood seemed to lighten somewhat, which she observed
when he began grumbling about how heavy the books were.
     "Well, then, hadn't you better find someplace where I can look
them over?" she asked.  He glared at her.
     "I was just thinking that very thing," he assured her.  Together,
they set off to find just such a place.

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

     It had been much easier to lurk around the Kunou estate after
dark, Reiko reflected with some irritation.  Not that it was terribly
difficult to pull off during the day, of course.  There was a high wall on
one side of the street, and large tree-lined houses of rather expensive
appearance on the other.  Still, she couldn't just hang around staring at
the gate.  Someone would notice.
     She'd figured to come by and try to catch sight of this Kunou
guy.  Sasuke might show up, too, although she had no idea how she'd
know either of them by sight.  Still, it might give her an idea of what to
do next.
     Because frankly, she was stumped.  There were so many
restrictions on how she was supposed to go about doing this.  Don't
make contact with any of the Kunous.  Don't use magic around the
estate.  Don't talk to anyone but Sasuke.  Don't do this, don't do that.
The whole thing was unnecessarily paranoid, as far as she was
concerned.
     Damn the old man, anyway.  Damn him for everything.  Well, he'd
left her alone to take care of this, and she was by damn going to do it
her way.  There was no reason she shouldn't just walk up there and
ask to talk to this Tatewaki Kunou jerk.  She'd demand he give her the
damned pendant in the name of her family, and then she'd ride off into
the sunset, and nobody would ever be able to run her life again.
     She had worked herself into such a temper that she had actually
started to leave the shade of the broad-limbed tree she'd been lurking
under when she caught sight of someone approaching the gate from the
opposite direction.  She pulled back, a note of caution sounding
somewhere in the back of her mind.
     The woman looked familiar.  She was leggy and gorgeous, with
full lips and a mane of caramel-coloured hair ...
     She had it then.  She'd seen this woman near this very spot
only a couple of nights ago, talking to one of the demons.  A cold chill
skittered across her skin despite the warmth of the day as the woman
stopped before the gate and rang for admittance.  She spoke into the
intercom briefly, then the gates swung open and she disappeared inside.
     Reiko rubbed her forefinger with her thumb absently, a habit
she had when she was thinking.  The woman's aura had been strange,
she recalled, but the gate wards hadn't been triggered by her passage.
She'd walked right on through.
     Still, she was in league with some very bad characters.  And
why launch an attack in the middle of the night when she could walk in
any time she pleased?
     There were mysteries here, and Reiko reluctantly admitted to
herself that she did not know nearly enough to just go charging in.
     The old man was dead, and he was STILL irritating her by
being right.
     Damn him.
     Well.  She took a deep breath, straightened, and set off at a
brisk walk.  Time for plan B.  Since her reconnaissance had revealed
nothing of value, she would just have to try a little subtlety.  Maybe she
could get someone who knew this Kunou guy to help her out.
     It looked like she'd be having okonomiyaki for supper.

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

     Tragus adjusted the tight dress as he waited in the entryway.  A
servant had gone off to fetch the young master for him, leaving him a
few moments to prepare.
     After all, as a teacher, wasn't he entitled to check up on his
students?  Especially one that had suffered loss recently.  And if, in the
course of things, he ended up showing her around, well, so much the
better.  And if talk should turn to rare and exotic items, such as
dragon's head pendants, well ...
     Tragus heard someone coming and looked up, a sultry smile at
the ready.  The smile curdled, however, when she saw who was with
her prey.
     "Hey there, teach.  Fancy meeting you here."  He longed to
smash that insolent smile off the girl's face, but settled for a sneer.
     "Ah, Miss Tendou.  What a ... pleasant surprise."
     "Come to tutor Kunou-baby?"  If only Kunou had been a few
moments slower in opening that gate, Tragus thought ruefully.  Then this
arrogant little twit would be dead, unable to bedevil him any longer.
However, once he had what he desired he would personally ensure that
Nabiki met the end she deserved.  And he would enjoy it, too.
     "As his teacher, I merely wished to check up on him," he
replied coolly.  "And you?"
     "She was just leaving," Kunou said quickly, obviously puzzled
by the antagonism between the two.  Nabiki smiled.
     "Yes, I have things to do.  You two have fun, now.  But not too
much fun."  She gave Tragus a suggestive smile which he didn't much
like.
     "Don't worry," he murmured.  "Mr. Kunou is in good hands."
Nabiki didn't look impressed, but she left, and that was what Tragus
wanted.  Now he could devote his attention to beguiling the unwary
Tatewaki Kunou.
     "My, what a beautiful house," he said before the flustered
Kunou could speak.  "I would love to see it all."
     "But of course," Kunou replied, bowing slightly to cover his
nervousness.  "Please, follow me."  Tragus did so, a predatory gleam in
his eye.
     Perfect.

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

     "I'm insulted."
     "P-pardon?" Ryouga stuttered, panic welling up in his eyes.
Reiko suppressed a grin.  This guy was so easy.  Still, he was a
refreshing change from the morons that hit on her all the time.  She kept
her gaze cool, though, and stared up at the bewildered waiter, letting
him sweat a little.
     "I left you my phone number the last time I was here," she said
at last.  "And you didn't call.  Usually, when I go to the trouble to leave
a man my number he at least has the courtesy to call me."  Ryouga's
mouth was opening and closing rapidly now, but he seemed incapable
of actually producing any coherent words.
     "I ... that is ..." he managed finally.
     "I think I'm ready to order now," she interrupted coolly.  He
twitched, dropped his pencil, laughed self-consciously, bent over and
accidentally sent it skittering across the floor.  She shook her head
sadly as she watched him give chase.  She would have to be careful
how she handled this guy.  He was the nervous type.
     Finally, he returned to her table, pencil in hand and ready to
take her order.  He seemed to miss the glare that the chef was directing
at him, although Reiko saw it just fine.  Without meeting Ryouga's eyes,
she ordered, then snapped the menu shut and thrust it carelessly at him.
He nearly dropped that as well before finally managing to bring it under
control and rushing off to the counter with her order.
     She sighed to herself.  The guy was not bad looking, but kind
of goofy.  Still, she was determined to go through with her idea.
Ryouga knew Kunou, so she could pump him for information.  And, if
she asked really nicely, she was certain she could convince him to help
her.  Surely Ryouga could casually ask Kunou where Sasuke was
without raising suspicions, or even look around the estate.  After she
gave him the cold shoulder throughout dinner, she was quite sure he'd
be willing to do her a favour to get back in her good graces.
     Men were predictable, after all.  And they had their uses.
     And so, after drawing things out all during the meal, she finally fixed
Ryouga with a stare as he was tentatively extending the bill towards her.
He froze immediately, like a deer caught in the headlights of an
oncoming truck.  She reached up and took the bill from his fingers
easily.
     "You know," she said, "I've been thinking I should give you a
chance to make things up to me."  He blinked.
     "Chance?  Make up ..."
     "What time do you get off?"  Looking dazed, he told her.  She
nodded.
     "Okay.  Do you know where that little park is?  The one with
the swings, just across from the convenience store."  He nodded
dumbly.
     "Sure, I mean kinda, but ..." he began uncertainly.
     "Meet me there after work.  I want to talk to you about
something."  She dropped some money on the table and stood,
impaling him with a cold stare.
     "Don't be late," she added.  His mouth started doing the
opening/closing thing again, and she went to the door, leaving him
befuddled and confused, a not unfamiliar sight to her.
     "But ... but I ... you don't ..."
     "See you later, Ryouga," she said over her shoulder.  Then she
turned and swept out the door, letting a grin spread across her face as
she strode down the sidewalk.
     The poor sap.  He hadn't stood a chance.

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

     Ukyou scowled at Ryouga's back, then turned back to the
counter and scowled again.  Nabiki, who had shown up after all, was
grinning wryly.
     "What are you laughing at?" she asked Nabiki peevishly.
Nabiki just shook her head.
     "So that's Ryouga's girlfriend, huh?" she asked.  Ukyou
snorted.
     "Hardly.  She's just a flashy, flirtatious customer.  That's all."
Nabiki shrugged in reply.
     "Well, whatever she is, I think she's a bit much for Ryouga to
handle," she said dryly.  Ukyou found herself in agreement as she
watched Ryouga clean the recently vacated table.
     "Poor Ryouga," she said at last, exasperated.  Nabiki looked
surprised.
     "Poor Ryouga?  What's that supposed to mean?"
     "Oh, come on, Nabiki.  You know how Ryouga is.  He goes
completely ga-ga anytime a pretty girl shows him any attention.  A girl
like that could ride roughshod over him, and he'd just let her take
advantage of him."  Nabiki cocked her head thoughtfully.
     "Well, you could be right," she conceded.  Ukyou nodded
firmly.
     "Of course I am," she said.  "A girl like that is totally wrong for
him.  Trust me."
     "Well, I wouldn't worry too much.  She didn't seem too
flirtatious today," Nabiki noted.
     "Oh yeah?  Maybe she's just playing hard to get.  Ever think of
that?"  Ukyou glared at Nabiki, daring her to answer.  Nabiki, for her
part, seemed more amused than anything by the whole thing.
     "Maybe she just wanted to have okonomiyaki tonight," Nabiki
pointed out reasonably.  Ukyou frowned, and Nabiki plopped her chin
down in her hand.  "Come on, Ukyou.  You're making a big thing out of
nothing.  I'm telling you, I didn't see any flirting, and no sparks.  That
was a perfectly innocent exchange."  Ryouga chose that moment to
come over with the receipt and cash from Reiko's table.
     "Um, here," he said, holding them out to Ukyou.  She regarded
the receipt critically before sticking it in the cash drawer.
     "What, no phone number?" she asked sarcastically.  "Ryouga,
you're slipping."  He blushed at that and scuttled off to take another
order.  Nabiki started laughing again.
     "Oh, you're being too hard on him, Ukyou," she murmured as
they watched Ryouga take an order from a couple who'd just arrived.
"It's not his fault if some girl comes in here and starts wilfully being an
extrovert."  Ukyou took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
     "Yeah, you're right," she said at last.  "But he's had a few
problems lately and I just don't want to see him to get hurt."  Nabiki
raised an eyebrow.
     "I see.  You deal with your problems by dealing with other
people's problems, is that it?"  Ukyou stuck her tongue out.
     "What, you're a psychiatrist now, Nabiki?"
     "Yes, and my rates start at 20,000 yen an hour.  So, Ukyou.  Tell
me about your need to dress as a boy."  Ukyou laughed in spite of
herself.  Nabiki always seemed able to make her laugh, something she
never would have suspected.
     "Okay, okay, I'm overcompensating," she sighed.
     "Hey, no self-diagnosis!  You are an unqualified amateur!"
Nabiki scowled.
     "Okay, doc.  What's your opinion?"
     "You're overcompensating."
     "Ah."
     "So relax.  Doctor's orders."  Nabiki checked her watch then,
and slid off her stool.  "Well, I'd better get going.  I want to make sure
I get home before Kasumi."  Ukyou brightened.
     "Oh, yeah!  The big date!  I wanna hear all about this later, got it?"
     "My rates are 20,000 yen an hour," Nabiki grinned.  Ukyou
sighed.
     "Kasumi and Doctor Tofu," she mused dreamily.  "There's a
match made in heaven.  It's nice to know that there are at least two
people in this city who are going to have no trouble getting together."

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

     Kasumi felt an anxious flutter in her belly as she gazed at the
imposing apartment building.  The sensation provoked a feeling of
bittersweet nostalgia in her, as she hadn't felt that way for ... well, for a
long time.
     Too long, maybe.  She closed her eyes and tried to still the
frantic beating of her heart.  She was too old for these schoolgirl antics,
she told herself sternly.  And yet, she'd had little enough time for such
things when she'd still BEEN a schoolgirl.
     She remembered what Akane had said to her before she'd left.
     "You always do so much for us, Kasumi," she'd said with a
sweet, shy smile, her eyes shining with joy.  "It's about time you got to
do something for yourself.  Don't worry, the place won't fall apart if
you're gone for one evening."
     And then, as she'd been walking out the door, Akane had
leaned close and whispered, "Have fun!" in such a lascivious tone that
Kasumi had burst out laughing.
     Have fun.  How was she supposed to do that when she was so
nervous?  And if she was this nervous, what was Tofu going to be like?
     Now that she was here, faced with actually going through with
it, she felt all the doubts crowding up to the forefront of her mind, loudly
clamouring that this couldn't possibly work.
     Then Kasumi took a deep breath.  If Ranma and Akane could
find the courage to face their problems, then she could as well.  She
had to at least try.  Shifting the heavy bags that hung from each hand,
she strode purposefully into the entrance foyer before she could change
her mind.  She located the buzzer code for Tofu's apartment, number
704.  She pushed the button, and seconds later a tinny voice
answered.
     "Yes?"
     "It's Kasumi, doctor," she said brightly.  She winced at how
inane her voice sounded, but just then the door buzzed and she had to
concentrate on juggling the bags to get it open.
     The elevator ride up seemed to fly by, even as she irrationally
wished it would never end.  Finally, the doors slid smoothly open and
she stepped out into the cool, carpeted hallway.  Tofu must have been
poised inside the door to his apartment, for as soon as she knocked the
door was opened and she found herself face to face with him.
     "Hello," she said brightly.  He smiled back, looking a trifle
nervous.  Kasumi quickly reviewed all the strategies that Nabiki had
concocted to deal with any outbreaks of debilitating anxiety, hoping that
they wouldn't be necessary.  He quickly took the heavy bags from her,
stumbling only a bit as he backed up to let her enter.
     "K-Kasumi.  Hello.  Hi.  I mean, come in.  Please."  She
followed him into the short hallway, trying to suppress her own
nervousness.  Tofu was wearing khaki pants with a sharp crease and a
black polo shirt, open at the throat.  He toted the bags of food into the
kitchen while Kasumi took advantage of the moment to peer curiously
around the apartment.
     It was quite a nice one, fairly spacious.  And very clean, which
somehow surprised her.  A low slung couch and matching recliner
faced a wall unit full of expensive stereo components and a large
television.  There were a few enlarged photos on the walls, and another
short hallway led back towards the bathroom and bedroom area.  The
atmosphere was restrained yet comfortable.
     "So," Tofu said, returning from the kitchen.  "What do you
think?"  Kasumi beamed at him, automatically toning her smile down as
his eyes began to lose their focus.
     "It's lovely," she assured him.  "Do you have a nice view,
Doctor Tofu?"  He blinked.
     "Um, yes, actually," he said, leading her towards the balcony.
"Here, let me give you the grand tour."  The view *was* quite nice, as
his balcony looked out over a nearby park.  Then he showed her
around the rest of the apartment, which didn't take very long.  Soon
they came to the small but well-equipped kitchenette.  In her element,
Kasumi began organizing what she would need to cook dinner.  She
noticed that Tofu was beginning to look ill-at-ease again, and
remembered that Nabiki had advised her to give him something to do if
he began to drift.
     "Oh, can you get me a large bowl, please?  For the salad."  He
snapped out of his daze and gladly complied.
     "And some pepper.  Oh, and can you put these in the
refrigerator?"  She handed him a bag which he obediently took to the
fridge.  He opened the door and began stuffing the contents inside.
Kasumi looked around her.  She had the ingredients for supper laid out
on the counter, and most of the dishes she would need as well.  But ...
     "Darn," she said, fishing in one of her bags.  "Doctor, do you
have any oven mitts?"  He nodded, still peering intently into the depths
of the fridge as he tried to shoehorn several items in at once.
     "Yes, they're in that drawer," he said absently, pointing.  She
reached for the drawer in question as he suddenly straightened up, an
alarmed expression on his face.
     "No, wait!" he blurted.  Too late.  Kasumi had already opened
the drawer.  She gaped as she realized that a pair of eyes were staring
back up at her.  As she got a good look at the drawer's occupants, she
clasped a hand over her mouth.  Tofu stood up slowly behind her as
she stood, transfixed.
     "Um, I can explain," he said slowly.  Kasumi bit her lips to
keep from laughing, and reached into the drawer.  Slowly, she pulled
out one of the oven mitts.
     It was made of a heavy quilted material, covered with a pattern
of tiny red and yellow flowers.  She slipped it onto her hand slowly and
turned it so that it faced her.
     And face her it did.  It had a pair of plastic eyes sewn onto the
upper half, just about where her knuckles were.  Tiny black pupils
rolled around freely inside the eyes, giving the face an amiably deranged
look.  A small nose was traced onto the end of the mitt with thick black
thread, and two triangular ears flopped endearingly above the eyes.
     Poor Tofu was absolutely crimson.  Mischievously, she turned
the mitt towards him.
     "Why doctor," she said in a high-pitched voice, flapping the
mitt's mouth, "were you trying to hide us from Kasumi?  Are you
ashamed of us?  Oh, say it isn't so!"  He scratched the back of his
head, grinning in a rueful, boyish manner that Kasumi absolutely loved.
     "Well, not really," he mumbled.  "They were a gift from my
mother, see, when I first moved away.  And I just can't bring myself to
actually throw them out ..."
     "Oh, you mustn't do that, doctor!" Kasumi squeaked through
the hand-puppet mitt.  "That would be cruel!"
     "You know, I really think that, under the circumstances, you
should call me Ono," he said suddenly.  Kasumi felt a tiny warm thrill in
her belly.
     "Do you mean me," she asked, flushing with pleasure, "or the mitt?"
     "Both of you," he admitted.  Kasumi smiled.
     "All right," she said.
     "Okay!" the glove squeaked.  They both laughed, and Kasumi
felt a lessening of the tension between them.  She put the kooky oven
mitts aside and pulled her apron from one of the bags.
     "Well, I should get started," she said briskly.
     "Can I help?" Tofu asked.  For a moment, Kasumi flashed on
the image of Ranma and Akane cooking together, swaying together in a
warm, intimate rhythm, and she felt the blood race to her face.
     "No!" she blurted.  Confusion registered on Tofu's face, and
she licked her lips.
     "I mean, that's all right," she added hastily.  "If you could just
set up the table, I'll start the cooking."  He nodded and slipped out,
leaving her to sigh and berate herself.  What a thing to think at a time
like that!  Still, the image returned, only this time with Tofu standing
behind her in this very kitchen, helping her to peel the vegetables ...
     She shook her head sharply.  It was getting late, and dinner
wasn't going to cook itself.
     She turned the oven on and got started.

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

     Tragus stormed into the apartment and slammed the door
behind him.  The stolen body he wore practically vibrated with
frustration as he kicked off the high heel shoes (which, he was coming
to find, were much more attractive than they were comfortable) and
stomped over to the small bar.  He grabbed a bottle at random and
poured a healthy measure of something into a glass, downing it in one
go.
     Damn that stupid Kunou boy!  How could he be so slow?
Tragus had dropped hints so broad you could drive a truck across
them, but still the idiot hadn't shown him anything of interest.  Oh, sure,
in response to "Miss Hinako's" casual remarks about interest in rare
objects and jewellery, he had shown off some family heirlooms, but
none of them had matched the description of the pendant that Riana
had given.  If the thing was hidden, as well it might be, then finding it
was clearly going to prove harder than Tragus had thought.
     He was giving serious consideration to seducing the boy, half
for practical reasons and partly out of curiosity.  He was also giving
serious consideration to torturing the information out of him.  The only
thing holding him back was that he had no power to speak of.  If he did
something to seriously anger Riana, she might be provoked into bringing
the full wrath of her organization upon him.  He needed an edge, an
angle.
     He needed that damned pendant.
     The liquor did its job, spreading warmth through his body, and
he peevishly slammed the empty glass down as he reached for the
bottle again.
     "Well, well.  Someone is having a bad day, it would appear."
Stifling a curse he spun around, knocking the glass off the bar as he
moved.  The interior of the apartment was wreathed in shadow, and he
cursed himself for not turning on the lights when he'd come in.  He
peered into the darkened corners, fumbling a coin into his right hand as
he did so.  A low, throaty chuckle floated out from nowhere.
     "There's no need to be alarmed, Ninomiya Hinako.  Or should
I call you Tragus?"  As he watched, amazed, a pale face appeared in
one shadowed corner.  Slowly the face was followed by a body, which
emerged from the shadow as if it were a pool of dark water.
     When the stranger stood revealed, Tragus was literally speechless.
She was stunning, a sensual vision of pale ivory skin and lush ruby lips
cloaked in a mane of midnight black.  She glided forward, her long legs
scissoring enticingly, then stopped right in front of him.  Her scent
swirled around him, musky and compelling, and he found his mouth
suddenly dry.  She cocked her head, smiling as if at a private joke.
     "I do hope you are the one I'm looking for," she purred, giving
Tragus's body a slow, brazen stare.  He finally found his wits.
     "I'm Tragus," he said tightly.  "Who the hell are you, and
how'd you get in here?"  That low chuckle came again, raising
goosebumps all over his body.
     "Oh, but I've been rude," she said, her dark eyes flashing in the
low light.  "I am Mistress of the Hellcleft, Lady of the Shadows.  But
you may call me Wynneth."
     She was obviously Aerkinma, and if she'd wanted him dead
she could have taken him out while he was unaware of her presence.
Deciding to seize the initiative, he gently clasped her slim, cool hand and
raised it to his mouth.  He let his lips linger, brushing lightly across her
knuckles, angling his head so that his long, caramel hair fell across her
bare wrist.  She did not seem in the least offended by his brazenness,
he noticed as he straightened.
     "Well, well.  Royalty," he said with a sly smile.  She smiled
back.
     "All Aerkinma are technically royalty," she told him.  "Upon
their age of majority, they must go forth and conquer a holding, then
defend it.  And eventually expand it.  So, not terribly impressive, since
Hellcleft is my only holding.  Or was, when last I saw it."
     "Ah.  So, where has Riana been hiding you?" Tragus asked,
slowly letting the other's hand slip from his grasp.  Wynneth certainly
seemed in no hurry to retrieve it.
     "Oh, that's a long story," she responded.  "And at any rate,
that's not why I've come."
     "Ah.  So you've a message for me from Riana?"  Tragus was
loathe to end this flirtation, but he might have known that Riana would
send a messenger rather than come herself.  Wynneth's next words
surprised him.
     "Not at all.  Actually, I think Riana would be very upset if she
knew I was here.  After all, she's gone to great lengths to keep your
existence from me."  Tragus froze.  Wynneth moved closer, a sly smile
on her lips.
     "Aren't you going to offer me a drink?" she whispered, her
breath gently stirring the hair beside Tragus's ear.  He swallowed with
some difficulty and nodded.
     As he poured, his mind whirled with the implications.  An
Aerkinma Lady, come to him without Riana's permission?  Against her
orders, even?  He needed to feel out this situation very carefully.  He
handed her the glass, and she accepted, allowing her fingers to brush
his.  She tasted the dark amber fluid, swallowing carefully.
     "Lovely," she murmured, letting her gaze stray over Tragus's
stolen form, leaving some uncertainty as to the exact object of her
compliment.
     "So, Wynneth," Tragus began, refreshing his own drink in a
new glass.  "If Riana didn't tell you about me, how exactly is it that you
are here?"  She smiled secretively, inclining her head.
     "The shadows are my domain," she said.  "And in my domain,
many secrets are whispered.  I heard just such a secret, and wished to
pursue it."  She paused to take a sip of her drink.  "So, I decided to
pursue your whereabouts with your fellows."  Tragus felt a cold chill.
     "They told you about me?" he asked as casually as he could.
     "Oh, not willingly," she assured him.  "But I found one who was
... hungry.  And he followed me into the shadows."  She ran one finger
teasingly around the rim of her glass, her dark eyes holding Tragus's
own.
     "And then he was mine," she continued huskily.  "Do you
know, there are those who disdain the Borgunma as being below us.  I,
however, have always admired their vigour and resilience.  They can be
very diverting, and they do not break easily, as humans do."  Then she
shrugged, her slim shoulders partially obscured by the heavy fall of hair.
     "But they do sometimes break," she admitted.  "Fortunately,
this one talked first.  And so I was led to you."
     "So, of course the question is: why?" Tragus asked.  Wynneth
leaned gracefully against the bar, and Tragus followed suit, standing
rather close.  Wynneth didn't object.
     "Why?  Well, simply because Riana wishes to keep us apart would
be reason enough for me," she said, swirling the contents of her glass
carefully.  However, I suspect we share a common goal."
     "And what might that be?"
     "Power.  More specifically, Riana's power.  She is an obstacle
to both of us."  Tragus chuckled softly, causing the other woman to
arch an eyebrow inquisitively.
     "Indeed.  Wynneth, you are lovely and charming, and I don't
wish to insult you, but I must ask ..."
     "Yes?"
     "Why should I trust you?  After all, you could just be here on
Riana's behalf, to see if I'd turn on her at the first opportunity."  Far
from being insulted, Wynneth seemed actually pleased.
     "Very good," she conceded.  "You are clever.  That's
fortunate.  I wouldn't want to ally myself with someone who trusted too
easily."  She set her half-finished drink down on the bar and slowly
raised her eyes to Tragus's again.
     "That still doesn't tell me why I should trust you," Tragus
pointed out.
     "Trust will come," Wynneth assured him.  "But I will tell you
why you *shouldn't* trust Riana.  You were Borgunma, after all, no
matter what you are now.  She regards your kind as beneath contempt,
to be tolerated only as far as they are useful and no further.  You were
her guest for a time in your previous incarnation.  You can judge for
yourself the truth of my words.  No matter what promises she makes to
you, in the end she will discard you like trash."  Tragus had to admit
that was a compelling argument.  Riana's feelings toward the Borgunma
were well-known.  In fact, it had been attitudes like hers that had led
the Borgunma in his dimension to rebel against their masters.
     Wynneth had been studying him, and lazily reached out to twine
her fingers in his hair where it fell over one shoulder.  She stroked her
fingers through it, then tugged gently until they were nearly touching.
     "I, on the other hand," Wynneth breathed, "have no such
foolish prejudices.  After all, I rose through the ranks, as it were."  She
smiled at the expression on Tragus's face then, continuing to gently
stroke his hair, letting her fingers brush occasionally against his
shoulder.
     "Oh, yes, my dear Tragus.  I was not always Aerkinma.  But as
I remade myself, why, so could you.  Under my tutelage."
     "A bribe," Tragus growled, trying to resist the effects of
Wynneth's proximity.  She gave him a sultry smile.
     "An offer," she clarified.  "One that you likely won't receive
from my rival.  I will give you some time to consider matters, however.
The benefits of a partnership with me would be ... many."  She let her
hand trail down the inside of Tragus's arm, then pulled back and stood.
She turned to go, and Tragus's mind raced frantically, trying to figure all
the angles.
     "Wait!" she blurted.  Wynneth paused, and Tragus cursed
himself for appearing overeager.
     "Yes?"
     "If I ... ah, decide to accept your offer ..."
     "You will," Wynneth murmured confidently.  "After all, I
represent the path to everything you desire.  Riana will certainly use you
and discard you."
     "And you'll just use me," Tragus said, half-joking.  Wynneth
moved closer to him, resting her hands lightly on his shoulders.
     "I'll teach you," she whispered huskily.  "Many delightful
things."  She leaned forward, and Tragus's eyes widened as her
mouth brushed against his, silky and hot.  Then there was a sharp pain
that mixed with the pleasure as she bit his lower lip.  He jerked, and she
pulled back, licking a tiny smear of blood from her lips.
     Smiling enticingly, she seemed to glide back into the gloom.  Her
hair and outfit blended into the shadows, then her pale skin was
swallowed up, her full mouth remaining for a few tantalizing seconds.
     "Think of me," she purred.  And then she was gone.  He stood in the
dim apartment, his heart racing, his lower lip throbbing deliciously
where she'd bitten him, a dazed smile on his face.
     Now *this* was much more like it.

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

     Kasumi hummed contentedly under her breath.  Dinner was
nearly ready, and she had just finished cutting up the vegetables for the
salad.  Everything seemed to be going well, and she was cautiously
optimistic.
     Of course, dinner itself might be a little awkward, what with
them sitting so close to each other, and then of course they would have
to find something to talk about afterwards.  But one thing at a time, she
figured.
     It was good for her to start off with cooking.  She was
comfortable doing this, and hopefully that would carry over into the rest
of the evening.  Despite Nabiki's admonitions that this was only one
date, Kasumi felt certain that this night would be indicative of the
chances of success for a relationship between herself and Tofu.
     That was why she was so determined that this date come off
without a hitch.
     "Kasumi?"
     "Yes?" she replied cheerily.
     "I'm just going to take this garbage to the chute."  She glanced
over her shoulder.
     "All right," she beamed.  "But don't be long.  Dinner is very
nearly ready."  He bobbed his head and trotted down the hallway.  She
was turning back to the stove when she caught sight of the bag of
vegetable peelings and other leavings from her cooking on the floor.
     "Oh," she said.  "Doct ... I mean, Ono?"  She picked up the
bag and leaned out the doorway, but he was already gone.  She hefted
the bag for a moment, then decided to catch him in the hall, thus saving
him a trip.
     She opened the door and looked up and down the quiet
hallway, but didn't see him.  Odd.  She stepped out and took a few
steps in one direction, feeling tentative.  She smiled with relief as she
saw him emerge from a doorway at the end of the hall.  She walked
quickly up to him, the bag clasped primly in front of her.
     "Here," she said breathlessly.  "You forgot this one."  He
blinked, grinning boyishly.
     "Oh.  Um, thanks."  He stood there for a moment, and Kasumi
stifled a sigh.
     "Hadn't you better throw it away?" she asked mildly.  He
started, then laughed.
     "Yes, I suppose that would be wise," he grinned.  He pushed
the plain door marked waste open with his hip, and reached inside the
closet-sized room to pull the chute open.  With a flourish, he dropped
the bag in and let the chute clang shut.
     "There," he said, dusting his hands theatrically.  "Taken care
of."  They began to walk back towards the apartment together.
     "So, Kasumi.  What, um, what are we having?"
     "Oh, it's a surprise," she said.  "But you'll find out very soon."
He grinned.
     "Whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be great," he told her.  She felt
herself blushing.
     "You should wait until you try it before praising me," she said
lightly.  They came to the door, and she saw Tofu pause, a strange
expression on his face.
     "Is anything wrong?" she asked, suddenly concerned.
     "I just realized something," he said slowly.  "You're out here."
     "Well, yes," she answered.  Gingerly, he reached out and
grasped the door handle.
     It didn't move.
     "The door locks automatically," he said in the shocked silence
that followed.  "I thought you'd be inside, so I didn't bother taking my
keys ..."
     "You mean ... the door's locked?" she asked numbly.  He
nodded.
     "I'm afraid so," he said.  She looked between Tofu and the
door several times.
     "But ... but supper," she stuttered.  "The stove is still on, and
..."  They stared at the door silently for a few moments, uncertain.  Then
Tofu snapped his fingers and raced over to the elevators, punching the
call button frantically.
     "No problem!" he called back.  "I'll go find the super.  He's
got spare keys to all the apartments!  You just wait there, I'll be right
back!"  She just stared at him until the elevator arrived and he
disappeared inside.  Then she turned back to the door, feeling a sense
of unreality creep over her.  She reached out and tried the door herself.
     Yes.  That was one locked door, all right.
     How could this happen?  She berated herself for deciding to
come out with the garbage instead of waiting inside for Tofu to return.
She'd looked forward to this night for so long, and now it might all be
ruined if Tofu didn't get back in time ...
     She froze.  What was that smell?  Could it be ... smoke?
     She slapped her palm ineffectually against the heavy steel door
and bowed her head.
     "Oh ... OH ... POOP!" she wailed plaintively.
 
 

End part 11