A Ranma 1/2 fanfic
All Ranma 1/2 characters are copyright Rumiko Takahashi
and are used without permission for non-profit entertainment purposes
only

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part 12: Hunger

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     The supper rush had died down by the time Mousse arrived at
Ucchan's.  Ukyou looked up from behind the counter and beamed
when she caught sight of him.
     "Mousse!  Come on in!"  He couldn't help but smile back at
that expression.  It made him feel warm inside.
     I wish Shampoo would have looked at me that way, he thought
wistfully.  Just once.  Then he sighed inwardly.  He was trying to avoid
thinking about Shampoo and had been ever since their little talk,
although without as much success as he would have liked.  It wasn't a
very good coping strategy; unfortunately, it was the only one he could
come up with.
     He slid onto a stool and nodded to Ukyou as she twirled her
spatula neatly, beginning to assemble an okonomiyaki in front of him.
     "So, how's everything going?" she asked as she worked.
     "Not too bad.  We'll be opening the Nekohanten again
tomorrow, so I'll have less free time on my hands," he told her.  "Still, it
will be nice to have something to keep me busy."  She peered up at him
with a sympathetic gaze.
     "I guess it must be hard, being around Shampoo all the time,"
she said quietly.  He sighed, pulling his glasses off and rubbing his nose
wearily.
     "Yes and no," he said finally.  "I mean, she hasn't been treating
me badly or anything.  Whenever she has to talk to me, she's polite
enough.  Somehow, though, I feel like it's finally over."  He laughed
then, a small, self-deprecating chuckle that almost succeeded in hiding
his pain.  Almost.
     "Over," he repeated sourly.  "I guess it was over before it
began.  I was just the last one to figure it out."
     "Mousse ..." Ukyou began.  He shook his head.
     "Sometimes, you know, I wish she would get mad at me again,
like before all this started.  At least then, I could get a reaction from
her.  Even that was better than the way it is now."
     "I know it's tough, Mousse," Ukyou said, checking the food as
it cooked.  "But maybe it's better this way.  There's no sense in
dragging this out, is there?  You said yourself that Shampoo made
things absolutely clear to you.  You don't believe she'll change her
mind."  It wasn't a question, but he answered anyway.
     "No.  No, I suppose I don't."
     "Then trust me," Ukyou smiled.  "Just get it over with, then try
to get on with things.  I think that's the only way to go."  He nodded.
He'd told himself the same thing many times, but it was somehow better
to hear it from someone else.
     Finally, Ukyou scooped up his okonomiyaki and slid it onto a
plate, plopping it down in front of him.
     "You know what's good for a broken heart?" she asked lightly.
     "No, what?"
     "Okonomiyaki."
     "Really?" he asked with a small grin.
     "No, not really.  Now eat up."  His grin widened and he dug in.
Ukyou wandered down the counter to attend to another customer, then
made her way back.  Mousse glanced around.
     "So where's Ryouga?" he asked.  "I expected to see him
here."
     "He said he had to go out, and I let him go a little early since things
were slow," Ukyou explained.  "He figured he'd need the extra time to
get where he was going."  Mousse laughed out loud.
     "That's true," he sneered.  "What a loser ..."  He broke off at
Ukyou's glare.
     "Mousse."  Her tone was cold as she leaned across the
counter, glaring into his eyes.  "That's not nice."  He blinked.
     "Sorry," he mumbled.  "I just meant ..."
     "I know what you meant," she said tersely.  She pulled back
and sighed, a little of the tension going out of her.  She glanced at
Mousse out of the corner of her eye, and he felt a pang of guilt at the
disappointment he saw there.
     "Mousse, I like you guys.  I want to have you both around.  It's
important to me.  Why can't you guys get along?"  Mousse's guilt
increased, and he bowed his head abashedly.
     "We get along," he mumbled.
     "You guys are always growling at each other, ever since that
day you fought in the park," she argued.  "I don't see why you can't
put that behind you.  Please, Mousse, at least try."  He nodded,
meeting her beseeching gaze with determination.
     "Very well," he said solemnly.  "I can behave if he can."  Her
face lit up and she bounced slightly in place.
     "Thanks, sugar," she beamed.  "There's been enough trouble
for everyone lately.  I'm looking forward to finally having things
peaceful around here for a while."  He smiled politely.
     Peaceful, he thought.  A nice dream, if it came to pass.  Somehow,
life in Nerima never seemed to stay peaceful for very long.
     And as for Ryouga, well, Mousse could make nice with him for
the sake of Ukyou's cherished peace.  Assuming Ryouga was willing to
do the same, of course.  Still, Mousse wouldn't mind a chance to finish
their fight.  No, he wouldn't mind that at all.
     After all, it wouldn't do for Ryouga to go around thinking he would
have
won.

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

     Kasumi stood still, head slightly bowed, vaguely aware of what
was going on around her.  The firefighter's boots clumped on the floor,
tracking the small puddles of water that had leaked from the hose.  The
hose hadn't been necessary, of course, but they hadn't known that until
after they'd broken down the door and gotten a look at the kitchen.
     With all the windows open the smoke was dispersing nicely,
but the inside of the apartment still reeked of it.  She was dimly aware
of Tofu conversing in low, rueful tones with one of the firefighters
somewhere close to the door.  Then, with a final cheery admonishment
and a slap on the shoulder, the men were gone, the door banging
hollowly behind them.  It wouldn't latch, of course; they'd broken the
jamb on their way in.
     She didn't hear Tofu come up behind her, so she started a bit
when he spoke.
     "Well, I did end up finding the super," he said, a tad sheepishly.
"Even if it did turn out to be too late."  She nodded silently, not turning
to face him, and the silence that followed was painfully awkward.
     "Uh, he says I can wedge the door shut from the inside tonight.
He'll fix the jamb first thing in the morning.  So that's ... uh, pretty
good."  She just stood there, unable to think of anything to say that
wouldn't sound terribly inadequate.
     "Um, Kasumi?" Tofu asked finally.  She stared at the burnt
remains of dinner and tried to reconcile the sight with her worst
expectations of how her first date with Tofu might go.  She simply
couldn't, though, no matter how hard she tried.  Her earlier certainty
that she only needed to guard against his clumsiness seemed terribly
arrogant now.
     Who would have though things would turn out like this?
     Taking a deep breath, she stepped towards the sink, stooping
to open the cupboard beneath it.  Inside, she found a dish towel
hanging from a hook, a sponge, some dish soap and some cleaner in a
spray bottle.  She gathered all these up and set them on the counter,
arranging them neatly, taking some small comfort in the familiar
motions..
     "Kasumi?" Tofu repeated.
     "What a terrible mess," she said softly, not turning around.  "I'd
better start cleaning up."
     "Oh, you don't have to ..."
     "Please, go sit," she continued blithely.  "I'll take care of this."
She turned to reach for one of the encrusted pots on the top of the
stove, but clumsily knocked the bottle of spray cleaner to the floor as
she did so.  Her eyes watered inexplicably at this insignificant setback,
and she swallowed hard, telling herself not to make the evening an even
worse debacle by crying.  Instead, she turned to get the bottle.
     Tofu was right there.  Funny, she'd never noticed how quietly
he moved.  He was also starting to stoop to retrieve the bottle, and she
collided lightly with him, her hands coming up reflexively to steady
herself.  That was how she found herself slightly off-balance, her hands
braced against Tofu's chest.  She blinked, staring down at her hands as
if they belonged to someone else.  His chest felt broad, and strong, and
warm.  A breathless tension began to wind tightly within her belly as she
had a sudden desire, almost primal in its intensity, to let her head fall
forward across the few inches separating them and rest on that chest.
     It isn't fair, she thought helplessly.  All I wanted was to have a
nice dinner together.  That was all.  Just once, I wanted something for
myself.  Is that so much to ask?  I wanted so little, and I can't even
have that.  And now I'm going to cry like a little girl in front of him and
it just isn't FAIR!
     "I just wanted things to be nice," she whispered aloud, her
lower lip trembling as she drew a shaky breath.  "But I ruined
everything.  I'm sorry."  Still unable to raise her eyes to his, she
watched her hands clenching Tofu's shirt, blinking back hot tears.  She
knew she'd remained in this posture too long to comfortably attribute it
to her stumble, but she couldn't bring herself to pull away just yet.
Tofu's chest felt solid and reassuring, and if she let go she was
convinced she would just crouch on the floor and stay there.  Oh, what
Tofu must be thinking of her by now, acting so immature and foolish ...
     The gentle sensation of hands on her shoulders made her breath
catch in her throat.  Their weight was comforting, soothing, and then he
said her name softly, just once, and she couldn't help it.  The next thing
she knew, her forehead was thudding lightly against his chest.  Her
vision blurred, and she inhaled his scent, clean and masculine, and tried
to think of the right thing to say.
     "I'm sorry," she managed to say through the hot lump in her throat.
     "What for?" he asked lightly, his large hands gently kneading
her shoulders.  "Heck, the kitchen always looks like this when I cook."
Her body shook with a sudden convulsive motion, half-laugh and
half-sob.
     "And the fire department?  Here all the time," he went on, his
voice rumbling pleasantly in his chest and directly into her.  "I've had to
replace that door 86 times since I moved in."  She sniffled, trying not to
be obvious about it.
     "You're a terrible liar," she mumbled at last.  His hands
continued their gentle ministrations, and she wondered how it would
feel if his arms were around her, holding her tight against this warm,
broad chest.
     "Well, I don't get enough practice," he admitted lightly.  "Come on,
Kasumi, it isn't that bad.  I mean, it was just a silly mistake.  There'll be
other dinners."
     "There will?" she asked before she could stop herself.  She felt
his breath stirring her hair gently as he chuckled.
     "Of course," he scolded her.  "How can you even ask that?"
     "It's just ... I was so stupid," she muttered miserably.  He
laughed again.
     "Stupid?" he asked incredulously, pushing her back so he could
look into her eyes.  She stifled a sense of regret at the loss of contact,
but returned his gaze gamely.
     "Stupid," he repeated, shaking his head.  "Kasumi, this was
nothing.  You want to hear about real stupidity?  Let me tell you a story
or two ..."

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

     "Ready?"
     "Uh-huh."
     "Then ... GO!"  Ranma-chan fired the chestnuts at Akane, her
fingers a blur.  She watched with satisfaction as Akane's hands
snapped out again and again, snaring the tiny projectiles before they
could get past her.  Then Akane winced as one of the chestnuts
streaked through her guard and ricocheted off her shoulder.  The
distraction caused her to miss the next one as well.
     Finally, Ranma-chan ran out of ammunition, and walked over to
check Akane's score.  Akane was grimacing and rotating her shoulder
gingerly.
     "Those things really hurt when they get through," she
complained.  Ranma-chan felt a twinge of guilt, but quickly suppressed
it.  Akane had insisted that she didn't want to be treated with any
special consideration while they were training, and Ranma-chan knew
that she had a point.  She was only improving because she was being
pushed.
     "That's the point, Akane," the red-head pointed out bluntly.  "It
gives you some motivation to catch them all."  She looked at Akane's
open hands and allowed herself a small grin.  "And it seems to be
working.  You only missed three that time.  That's your best yet.  Your
speed is really improving."
     "Well, it's nowhere near yours," Akane demurred, but Ranma-chan
could tell she was pleased.
     "Just wait.  I'll have you snatching those out of a raging fire in
no time," she said lightly.  The way Akane's eyes lit up at that gave her
pause.  Akane really did want to become a better martial artist, but
Ranma-chan was worried she might try to push things too fast.
Akane's enthusiasm sometimes caused Ranma-chan to worry for no
reason she could adequately articulate.
     "Again," Akane suggested.  Ranma-chan looked at her
fiancee's flushed face and slightly tousled hair and felt a sudden wave of
affection.
     "Okay," she said with a mischievous grin.  "But first, I think you
deserve a reward."  She leaned close, her tongue wetting her lower lip
absently as she tilted her head and went to give Akane a kiss.
     "Ranma!" Akane blurted, her eyes widening.  Ranma-chan
stopped, puzzled.
     "What?" she asked.  "There's no one around, Akane."  Akane
blinked, then scowled and poked Ranma-chan lightly in the breast with
her finger.  Ranma-chan yelped at the contact, which felt strange.  She
looked down at her body, suddenly realizing the problem.
     "Oops," she said sheepishly.  "I forgot."
     "You FORGOT?  Ranma, how do you forget that you're a
girl?" Akane asked irritably.
     "Hey, if you could change bodies you might sometimes lose
track, too!" Ranma-chan shot back defensively.  "I was thinking about
something else and forgot all about what body I was in."
     "Yes, I saw what you were thinking about," Akane said,
peering at Ranma-chan suspiciously.  The red-head noticed that
Akane's cheeks were pink again, and this time not from exertion.
     "Look, Akane.  I feel the same way about you no matter
WHICH body I'm in.  It gets confusing sometimes, that's all."
Ranma-chan really didn't want to fight about this, mostly because it just
seemed stupid to her.  Still, she could understand why it would bother
Akane.
     "Well, try to keep your hormones under control, would you?"
Akane sniffed.  Ranma-chan crossed her arms, knowing it would make
her breasts jut out ... and knowing how Akane hated that.
     "Huh.  You should be glad that such a beautiful girl is in love
with you," Ranma-chan said petulantly, striking a provocative pose.
Akane's face turned a deeper shade of red.
     "Ranma!"  Ignoring Akane's protests, Ranma-chan grabbed a
few chestnuts from the floor and looked gazed at Akane with large,
innocent eyes.
     "Oh, Tendou-sempai!" she said breathily.  "I ... I've always
admired you!  You're so strong, and athletic!  I know I must have a lot
of competition, but please ... take these.  I ... made them for you!"  She
bowed her head and thrust out her hands, cradling the chestnuts gently.
     "Ranma, cut it out!" Akane cried, seemingly caught between
consternation and amusement.  Ranma-chan raised her eyes slowly,
blinking.
     "You ... don't like them?" she asked, letting her lower lip
quiver.  Akane scowled.
     "Knock it off, you weirdo!"
     "Don't ... don't you understand my heart?" Ranma-chan cried
theatrically, throwing herself into Akane's arms.  Akane tried to shove
the other girl away, but their feet got tangled up together and they fell to
the floor heavily.  Ranma-chan found herself lying on top of Akane,
their limbs tangled intimately, staring into her eyes from only inches
away.  She grinned disarmingly.
     "Guess the direct approach works better with you, huh,
sempai?" she asked with her normal voice.  Akane sighed.
     "Jerk," she said with a small smile.  "Get off of me."  Ranma-chan
pouted.
     "Aw, do I have to?" she asked innocently.  "I'm kinda enjoying
this position."  Akane scowled.
     "Ranma, you'd better be thinking about baseball," she warned.
Ranma-chan sighed.
     "Yeah, yeah."  She propped herself up, taking her weight on
her hands while trying not to notice the intriguing manner in which
Akane's gi had become disarrayed.  She moved to the side so Akane
could sit up, wrapping her arms around her knees as she did so.
Akane glanced at her sidelong with a wry grin.
     "We do have problem that other couples don't, huh?" she
sighed.
     "Couples?" Ranma-chan blurted.  Akane frowned.
     "Well, yes, Ranma.  Aren't we a couple?"  Something in her
posture and tone warned the red-head that she'd strayed into sensitive
territory, and she cursed herself.  Talking about feelings and
relationships still wasn't her strong suit, and probably never would be.
     "Well, yeah.  I mean, of course, Akane.  It's just that I never
thought of us exactly that way is all.  I mean, using that exact word.  Is
all."  Akane just looked at her for a moment, then glanced away, her
expression carefully neutral.
     "Well, I suppose that makes sense, doesn't it?" Akane asked
quietly, her fingers absently smoothing her ruffled hair back into place.
"I mean, we can't really talk about it much since we're still keeping it a
secret."
     "Some secret," Ranma-chan snorted.  "Your sisters know, and
my mother.  Plus my ex-fiancees and Ryouga and ..."
     "Yes, Ranma, but we're still keeping it a secret from everybody at
school.  We have to act like nothing's changed when we're there ...
and what about here?  We spend half the time checking to make sure
our fathers aren't watching us," Akane pointed out.
     "Well, of course.  If our idiot fathers find out, they'll push us to get
married!" Ranma-chan retorted.  Akane said nothing, just looking off
into space again, and the red-head frowned.  Something was bothering
Akane, she realized belatedly.  She was missing something here,
something important.  What ...
     "Ah, Ranma.  Here you are."  She snapped out of her reverie
to see her mother in the doorway of the dojo.
     "Mom.  Hi."  Ranma-chan and Akane got up as Nodoka came
in.  She smiled at them, then looked around quizzically.
     "What have you two been up to?" she asked with a trace of
amusement.
     "Wh-what?" Akane stammered.
     "Nothing!" Ranma-chan blurted at the same time.  Nodoka
cocked her head slightly.
     "Then what are all those chestnuts doing on the floor?" she
asked.  Ranma-chan blinked.
     "Oh, those," she said.  "Um ... training props."
     "Of course," her mother answered in a tone that indicated she
wasn't about to inquire further.  "How is it going?"
     "Well, Akane can definitely defeat nuts," Ranma-chan grinned.
"I'm thinking of moving her up to fighting vegetables next."
     "Hey!" Akane protested.  Ranma-chan stuck her tongue out
playfully, and Nodoka laughed.
     "Ah, to be young again," she murmured wistfully.  Akane shot her
fiancee a look and excused herself to go get cleaned up, and
Ranma-chan followed her mother out into the garden.
     "Is everything all right?" Nodoka asked as they walked.  "I mean,
between you and Akane."  Ranma-chan tried to hide her surprise at the
question.
     "Well, sure.  I guess.  Why?"  Nodoka stopped, looking at the
reflections of the dying light in the pond.
     "She seemed somewhat preoccupied when I came in, that's all.
You two must have been having a serious conversation."  Ranma-chan
waved her hand negligently.
     "Oh, that.  That was nothing," she assured her mother.  "We
were just talking about things.  Akane called us a couple, y'know, and it
kinda caught me off-guard a little."
     "Oh?" his mother asked neutrally.
     "Yeah, you know, she said how it was hard to think of us as a
real couple sometimes, since we hide it so much, but I told her we had
to, cause otherwise Pop and Mr. Tendou would make us get married."
     "Ah."  Her mother nodded sagely, then turned to regard
Ranma-chan placidly.
     "Ranma, you are truly your father's son sometimes," she said
sadly.  Ranma-chan stared at her mother in amazement.
     "Hey!  What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded.
Nodoka turned to face her fully, resting her hands lightly on
Ranma-chan's shoulders.
     "Ranma," she said patiently, "from what little you've told me, I think
that there may have been more to your conversation that you were
aware of."  Ranma-chan stared up into her mother's eyes, feeling a
nagging doubt worm its way into her belly.  She had felt like there was
something she was missing while talking with Akane, but ...
     "Mom," she began.
     "Ranma," her mother interrupted, squeezing her shoulders
gently.  "Sometimes people can read a lot into what you say, even
things that you don't really mean.  For example, your reaction to being
called a couple may have hurt Akane's feelings."
     "What?  But ... well, we are.  I just never heard her use that word
before," Ranma-chan objected.  "It was funny, that's all.  I didn't
MIND it."
     "Yes, but she may not have realized that.  And when she brought up
the fact that you are keeping your relationship secret, she may have
been trying to get you to talk to her about that ... about how you feel
about the relationship, and about her."
     "Really?" Ranma-chan asked tentatively.  Her mother nodded.
     "And she may well have interpreted your comments about
avoiding marriage, along with your previous ones, as signs of doubt,"
Nodoka finished quietly.  Ranma-chan was speechless for a moment.
     "B-But that's crazy!" she blurted at last.
     "Is it?" Nodoka asked gently.  "Listen, son.  Have you and
Akane talked much about the future?"  Ranma-chan stared at her
mother blankly.
     "The future?  Well, no, not really.  I mean, after everything that
happened, we've been just trying to enjoy being together."  Her mother
smiled tolerantly.
     "That's completely understandable," she said.  "However, have
you ever told Akane that you want to marry her?"
     "Of course I want to ... to m-marry her, Mom!" Ranma-chan
spluttered.  "I mean ... I mean, why else do you think I went through
everything with Uc-chan and Shampoo?  Akane's the one I want!"
     "Oh, you are such a man," her mother sighed with a mixture of
amusement and exasperation.  "Of course, you think that your deeds
should show your true heart.  And they do, make no mistake.  But
Ranma, have you told her?"  Ranma-chan thought about that, a strange
feeling of apprehension stealing over her.
     "Well, not in so many words," she said weakly.  "But she
should know ... I mean, how could she doubt it?"
     "Ranma."  Her mother pulled her close, her beautiful face
reflecting a certain melancholy wistfulness that seemed to resonate in
Ranma-chan's heart, even though she wasn't totally sure she
understood why.  "Love is precious but also fragile.  A girl needs to
hear the words.  Tell her you cherish her, you love her, and you only
want to be with her.  It can't hurt to tell her, can it?"
     "Do you really think she's worried about this?" Ranma-chan
asked in a small voice.  Nodoka smiled.
     "If there's even a chance that she is, isn't it worth talking to
her?" she asked.  "Reassure her.  Girls like to talk about their feelings,
and about things that matter to them.  After all, you do want to marry
her, don't you?  Even if you've never said it."  Ranma-chan swallowed
hard and nodded.
     "Yeah," she muttered, looking away.  "I mean, not right now,
but when we're out of school and all.  It's just that if Pop and Mr.
Tendou found out about us, they'd pressure us to get married right
away, and ... and I want it to be for US, how WE want it, not for them.
You understand, right?"
     "Oh, Ranma," her mother sighed, placing one of her palms
against Ranma-chan's cheek and turning her gaze back until their eyes
met.  "Of course I do.  And you are right, you shouldn't have to worry
about being pressured.  That's why I'm going to take care of this
problem for you."
     "What?" Ranma-chan asked, her eyes widening.  "What do
you mean?"
     "I mean that I will ensure that your father, at least, understands
he is not to push you and Akane.  And I believe I can enlighten Soun as
well."  She gazed fondly into Ranma-chan's eyes.  "Yes, I think it is
high time you and Akane stopped having to sneak around."
Ranma-chan's stomach started doing somersaults as the import of her
mother's words sunk in.
     "You really think you can do that?" she asked, wondering if she
dared hope.  "I mean, Pop's pretty stubborn.  He and Mr. Tendou
have always tried to get me and Akane married on the spot anytime
they thought they could get away with it."
     "Don't you worry, dear.  I can handle your father," Nodoka
said, her tone becoming somewhat cooler.  "He won't give me any
trouble if he knows what's good for him."  Ranma-chan seized the
sudden opportunity and leapt into the breach before she could chicken
out.
     "So what's going on with you guys anyway?  You guys have hardly
spent any time together in the last couple of weeks."  The words came
out all in a rush, not casually as Ranma-chan had been hoping for.  Her
mother seemed caught off-guard by the question momentarily, then it
was her turn to look away.
     "Your father and I have been apart a long while, Ranma," she
said at last.  "There are ... adjustments to be made.  Things aren't the
same as they were."  Ranma-chan felt a cold lump forming in her
stomach.
     "Come on, Mom," Ranma-chan said plaintively.  "I know he's
a jerk sometimes, but ... but you married him!"  Her mother looked up,
startled, then laughed.
     "So I did," she said dryly.  "Don't worry, dear.  Things will
work out.  It will just take some time.  I'd much rather you
concentrated on your relationship with Akane than worry about your
father and me."
     "Should I be worrying?" she pressed.  Her mother sighed.
     "Now, that's enough of that," she said sternly.  "You have to think of
a way to reassure your girlfriend.  Well, fiancee, actually ..."  She trailed
off, her eyes lighting up.
     "What?" Ranma-chan asked suspiciously, wondering if her
mother was just trying to distract her again.
     "Oh," her mother said with a dazzling smile, "I believe I have
just the thing to help you show Akane how you feel ..."

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

     "... so there are the pictures that I managed to take of our idol,
and they're all black.  Completely black."  Tofu paused to take a drink,
and Kasumi leaned forward a bit, the chair creaking as her weight
shifted.  "We're baffled," he continued after a moment.  "After I hid in
the bushes for hours waiting to snap these pictures of her, this is
supposed to be our great triumph, right?  So we check the negatives,
and THEY'RE all black too!  And as we're standing there with the
pictures we promised the whole fan club, Toshiro just shakes his head
and says, `Ono, I don't get it.  What could have gone wrong?'  And I
say, `Dunno.  I did everything you told me to.'  Then a really strange
expression comes over his face.  He looks at the pictures, at the
camera, then at me.  And he says, `You did remember to take off the
lenscap, didn't you?'  Tofu paused for another drink, and Kasumi
cupped her wineglass gently, rolling it between her palms.
     "And?" she asked finally.  Tofu grinned boyishly.
     "And I said, `Uh, lenscap?'"  They both burst out laughing.  In
fact, Kasumi's cheeks were sore from laughing so much, but it was a
good feeling, so unlike the serenity she tried to project at home.
     "Oh, you made that up," she gasped at last.  Tofu placed his
hand over his heart solemnly.
     "I wish I was making it up," he said.  "To this day, Toshiro
hasn't let me forget that little blunder."  She giggled again, turning away
to gaze contentedly out at the blazing colours of the dying sunset.
     They were sitting on Tofu's balcony, the remnants of dinner on
the small plastic table between them.  The salads had been salvageable,
and they'd had those along with some instant ramen.  Tofu had
produced a bottle of white wine from the fridge to top off their
impromptu picnic, and Kasumi had decided to indulge in a glass.  She
barely remembered how dinner had tasted, as Tofu had been funny and
charming the whole time, regaling her with tales of embarrassing gaffes
and blunders from his past.  She couldn't remember when she'd
laughed so hard.
     She closed her eyes, breathing deeply as the warm breeze
feathered its way along her face, toying with the end of her ponytail.
She took another small sip of the sharp, cool wine and sat back in her
chair, savouring the giddy feeling of well-being that suffused her.  She
highly doubted that the wine alone was responsible for that feeling.
     Tofu had been incredible.  It appeared that his protective
instincts had been aroused by her distress, as had happened after
Shampoo's attack on the dojo.  Instead of treating her with clumsy
reverence, like she was some sort of untouchable goddess, he had
talked easily with her for the first time she could remember.  The
evening had flown by, and Kasumi's earlier distress had soon faded like
mist in the radiance of their rapport.  She felt at ease, content.  She
didn't want the evening to ever end.
     The sun had almost completely disappeared, though, and she
opened her eyes and sighed.  It was getting late, and she had to get
home.  She turned to see Tofu watching her with a lopsided grin, the
last golden rays of the sun reflecting off his wire-framed glasses.
Instinctively, she smiled back.
     "What?" she asked softly.
     "I was just thinking that I like you better this way," he
answered.  "Having you almost in tears was not the way I envisioned
our date."  She ducked her head, finishing off the wine in one go.
     "I'm sorry I got so emotional," she murmured.  He waved her
off.
     "Don't worry about it.  After all, things worked out okay,
didn't they?"  She looked back at him, surprised.
     "Yes," she said.  "Yes, they did."  They smiled at each other,
the growing silence between them taut with something unspoken, an
almost tangible intimacy that was thrilling and frightening all at once.
The moment made Kasumi feel like she'd been neglecting an important,
vital part of herself for a long, long while.  It made her feel ... alive.
Aware, in a way she hadn't been for far too long.
     Finally, she broke the spell by getting to her feet with a sigh.
     "I'll have to be going soon," she said apologetically.  Tofu rose
as well, an expression of regret on his face.
     "I suppose it is getting late," he conceded.  In companionable
silence, they gathered up the remains of their meal and went inside.  The
pots involved in the unfortunate dinner incident were still soaking in the
sink.  Kasumi checked them, but judged that they should soak at least
overnight if there was to be any chance of getting the burnt food off
without using a chisel.  She straightened the rest of the kitchen over
Tofu's objections, then gathered up her things and went to the entryway
to get her shoes.
     The sight of the broken door jamb stopped her momentarily.
She slipped her shoes on, feeling guilty again.
     "Your superintendent must have been angry," she said timidly.
"About the door, I mean."  Tofu shot her an engaging grin.
     "Oh, he'll get over it," he told her.  "Anyway, I've been a
model tenant.  I figure I was about due for something like this."  She
tried to smile back, but suddenly she was feeling awkward and
uncertain again.  Standing stiffly, her hands clasped together in front of
her, she fidgeted as the silence stretched.  Ironically, after all that had
happened Tofu finally seemed at ease in her presence, while she was
the one who was nervous.
     "Well, then ..." she said softly, suddenly unable to meet his eyes
again.
     "Well," he acknowledged.
     "I suppose I ..."
     "I had a really good time," he blurted.  She looked up,
surprised, and he blushed slightly.
     "Did you?" she asked, her heart thudding.  He nodded.
     "I'm glad you came," he said, shuffling his feet slightly.  "We
should, um, do it again.  You know, except for the part where the fire
department breaks down my door."  They both laughed, easing the
tension a little.
     "Yes, next time we shouldn't invite them," she agreed, a trifle
giddily.  He grinned that engaging grin again.
     "Deal.  Of course, that part wasn't all bad.  After all, you still owe
me dinner, so it ensures a second date."  She felt a strangely exciting
heat spread through her at that word.
     "Date," she repeated dreamily.  He blinked.
     "Well, I mean, it was ..." he began nervously.  She beamed.
     "Yes, it was.  And it was the best first date I've ever had."  A
pleasantly dazed expression stole over Tofu's boyish features.
     "Really?" he asked breathlessly.  "Even with ..."  He made a
motion with his hand that loosely encompassed the broken door and
the kitchen.  She giggled.
     "Yes, even with that," she confirmed.  "You'll be hard pressed
to be more charming next time."
     "Oh, I'll think of something," he promised.  Kasumi looked at him,
just looked, for a long moment, a bold impulse coming over her without
warning.  Feeling a warm tingle rush through her belly, she closed the
distance between them with one quick step and, rising up on her toes,
brushed her lips against Tofu's cheek lightly.
     "Thank-you," she whispered.  "For everything."  She stepped
back, biting her lower lip, and cocked her head slightly.
     "Are you free Friday night?" she asked, trying to ignore the
pounding in her chest.  Tofu was standing stock still, one hand half
raised toward his cheek.
     "Huh?" he asked intelligently.
     "Friday?" she prompted gently.  He nodded eagerly.
     "That would be ... just ... yes.  Good.  Same time?"  She nodded as
she backed out the door, practically quivering with nervous energy and
trying not to show it.
     "All right," she agreed.  "See you then."
     "Yes.  Uh ... good night, Kasumi."
     "Good-night, Tofu."  The door closed softly, and Kasumi let
out a huge sigh as she glided over to the elevator, her feet seeming to
not even touch the ground.
     That had been quite unlike her.  But then, she thought giddily,
maybe that was the whole point.  Whether it was the sunset, the wine,
or just being with Tofu the way she had been, she felt different.  Daring.
Bold.  Confident.
     When that door had locked behind her, she'd been certain that
the night would be a disaster, and yet ...
     And yet now she wondered if things would have gone so well if
it had just been an ordinary, mundane dinner.  The elevator pinged and
she walked inside, still awash in her warm tingling glow.  Somehow,
everything had worked out.  Finally.  Tofu had been forced to
overcome his debilitating nervousness by the circumstances, and she
had been forced out of her usual narrow range of behaviour.  She
leaned back against the cool wall of the elevator and smiled at nothing,
touching her fingertips lightly to her lips.  The memory of his cheek
against hers as her mouth brushed at his warm flesh brought a delicious
rise of warmth, and she savoured it shamelessly
     Sitting on cheap plastic furniture, eating instant ramen and
drinking wine while watching the sun go down, swapping embarrassing
stories with Tofu and laughing.  Laughing a LOT.  Had someone asked
her what she envisioned as the perfect first date with him, she would not
have conceived of anything remotely like that.  And yet now, she was
glad things had turned out that way.
     It had been a lot of fun.
     She couldn't wait for Friday.

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

     Unbelievable.  Her luck was just unbelievable.
     First, that idiot Ryouga had stood her up.  Reiko took that
personally.  Her plan had been to get Ryouga alone and charm him into
helping her with this Kunou character.  It had never occurred to her that
he might not bother to show up at all.
     She'd waited almost an hour, unable to believe he wasn't
coming.  But he never showed, and she was forced to admit that she, of
all people, had been kept waiting by a GUY, when it was usually the
other way around.  It had been almost dark by then, and when she'd
come across the vending machine full of beer she'd decided to indulge
herself.  Three beers later she had a mild buzz, but her temper hadn't
improved at all.
     And now, to top things off, this jerk had showed up.
     It had gotten dark, and she didn't see him until he was almost
on top of her.
     "Hey, gorgeous," he grinned.  She cursed sourly to herself.
Great.  Another loser who thought he was the universe's gift to women.
Why did she always attract that type?
     Simple, she told herself wearily.  Because all guys were that
type.  They only wanted one thing.  She hopped down off the bench,
lobbing her empty can at the nearby trash can.  It struck the rim and
clattered to the pavement, the sudden noise reminding her of how
isolated this end of the park had become.
     "Oh, too bad, babe," her admirer said insincerely.  "You don't
score."  Then he grinned widely and added, "But you still might."
     "Lucky me," she yawned.  The guy was tall and broad through
the shoulders, and his unbuttoned shirt showed off his muscular chest.
He looked like he worked out, and Reiko was sure he was the type
who used his size to intimidate others.  He wasn't really bad looking,
either.  He was probably used to getting attention from the opposite
sex.
     Well, not tonight.
     He strutted over to her, combing his short hair with his fingers
as he gave her yet another grin.
     "Looks like you've been having a party, babe," he noted,
glancing at the empty beer can.  "Mind if I join you?"  It wasn't really a
question, but she answered it anyway.
     "Yes."  He frowned at the unanticipated response, then
laughed.
     "Hey, good one," he nodded.  "I like you already."
     "The feeling isn't mutual," she assured him.  A gentle breeze
blew up, causing her long, unbound hair to flutter silkily over her
shoulder.  She pushed it back impassively as her new friend grinned.
With her short skirt and sleeveless top, she probably looked like the
catch of the day to this jerk.  Well, too bad for him.
     "Come on, babe.  Let me show you some real action," he
urged, stepping closer.  She sniffed.
     "Not interested," she informed him, starting to walk past.  She
was startled when a large hand grabbed her arm and yanked her back.
     "Where ya going, huh?  I was gonna be nice, babe, but if you
give me attitude, then maybe I won't be so nice."  His grin was ugly
now, his eyes full of malice.  She knew that look.  He wanted an excuse
to be rough with her.
     She knew she should be subtle, but she'd had a bad night.  Her
temper was frayed, and the beer hadn't helped at all.  She smiled
sweetly up at him while holding her free hand behind her back.
     "Well, why didn't you say so?" she asked demurely.  "I was
just playing hard to get, stud."  Through her haze of anger, she began
assembling a spell, trying to order her quicksilver thoughts.
     "That's better, babe," the muscular stranger said with a grin.
He didn't let go of her arm, though, and the glint of sadistic pleasure
didn't leave his eyes.  She held the spell in her mind, summoning the
power to fill it.  An answering heat blossomed in her palm, and her
smile widened.
     "In fact, I have something for you," she said softly, wetting her
lips.  Her new friend bent down towards her, his eyes narrowing with
pleasure.
     "Well, that's more like it," he rumbled.  "I knew you just
needed a strong hand, babe."  Still smiling, she brought her hand out
from behind her back and placed it lightly against his chest.
     "You know me so well," she said sweetly through gritted teeth.  He
let go of her arm and raised his hands to cup her face.
     "Sweet," he grinned.
     "Concussion wave," she answered gleefully.  He only had a moment
to look confused before a blaze of light erupted where her palm was
pressed against his chest.  He howled in fear as he was thrown back
viciously, his feet not even touching the ground.  He flew several feet
until he slammed full-tilt into the beer machine.  The machine rocked
back, overbalanced, and fell heavily to the ground with Prince
Charming sprawled on top of it.  Reiko walked over, wondering for a
moment if she'd put too much power into the spell.
     Prince Charming was out like a light.  Reiko groaned.  With the
machine broken, he was lying in a pool of loose change and surrounded
by beer.  She shook her head sadly.  When he woke up, he'd think he
was in heaven!
     Things just weren't going well for her tonight.
     With a sigh, she leaned down and retrieved one of the cold
cans.  Popping the tab, she raised it in silent salute.
     "Better luck next time, BABE," she growled.  Then she turned
and walked away, sipping at the cold bitter drink as she went.
     I should take it easy with this stuff, she thought.  It took longer
than it should have to get my head together for such a simple spell.
Then she remembered one of the last arguments she'd had with the old
man.
     You're just running away, he'd said.  Hiding.  Drinking too
much, staying out too late.  Until you can admit to yourself why you feel
the need to run away, all that I've taught you will be useless.
     Bah.  She took a long drink, the cold liquid burning in her
throat.  Mr. Know-It-All.  If he was so smart, how come he was dead?
     She let out a long, shuddering sigh and held the cold can against
her cheek.  It felt nice.
     "Well," she said aloud, "at least this night can't get any worse."

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

     Wynneth welcomed the setting of the sun.
     The sun held no power over her, unlike some of her blood-drinking
brethren.  However, it was stark and bright and unforgiving.  The night,
on the other hand, was deep, full of gorgeous, concealing dark.  The
night was a time for deeds best hidden from the light: for the slow
languid corruption of the willing and unwilling alike; for the unleashing of
hidden desires and shameful hungers; for the throbbing of hot blood and
the sound of quickened breath; for the exquisite dance between
huntress and prey, anticipation drawn out like warm taffy; for the final
consummation, the conquest, the taking.
     Humans feared the night, and rightly so.
     It was her domain.
     She slipped through the deeper pools of darkness, unseen by
the few humans that ventured near her.  She felt truly alive on nights like
this, when she was on the hunt.  All the intrigues could be allowed to
fade to the back of her mind as she stalked her prey, all troubles
forgotten.
     At least, usually.  Sadly, that was not the case tonight.
     Wynneth didn't know why Riana had given her such a ripe
plum as this girl.  She must have known the risks in letting her rival have
her way with a sorceress.  Wynneth was uncertain whether she could
absorb a human's powers the way she could with her own kind.  Even
if she could, there were dangers inherent in the process.  She'd
achieved a precarious balance within her mind, but the memory
phantoms of Vaxe and the Shadowmistress Kimn still rattled the bars of
their mental cages from time to time, howling for release.
     Such a thing was not to be undertaken lightly.
     Still, she could draw the girl under her spell if given the chance.
She might even turn her.  Both options would give her a loyal sorcerous
weapon that she could use against her rival.
     And Riana knew it.
     That alone had made Wynneth suspicious; the fact that Riana
had almost certainly made the girl harder to find by withholding some of
the information in the file she'd compiled didn't assuage those
suspicions at all.  Riana obviously didn't want her to find the girl TOO
quickly, which meant she was being kept busy.  Still, she was very
good at getting what she wanted.  Riana couldn't count on the girl
eluding her forever.
     Unless the whole thing was not a diversion, but a trap.
     That possibility didn't concern Wynneth much, though.  Riana
was powerful, but Wynneth's years of exile had enforced the lessons
she'd learned as a girl, dodging ravenous Borgunma and decadent,
slumming Aerkinma in the blasted ruins of her home.  She'd learned
well how to overcome superior strength with treachery and her not
inconsiderable wiles.  She would pit her subtle cunning against Riana's
bold machinations any time.
     She just wished she knew what the stakes were.
     Tragus might be of some help there.  Wynneth was certain she
could get the lowlife to spill all he knew.  His price was, after all,
painfully obvious.  No subtlety there, she thought smugly.  Still, he/she
might prove to be a diverting plaything as well as a source of
information.
     Then she frowned, stopping in the cool shroud of darkness
nestled under the arcing branches of a huge old tree.  Thinking of
Tragus made her remember the fleeting contact she'd had when she'd
kissed him.  The tiny bit of blood she'd drawn wouldn't allow her to
control even a human, but it should have given her a glimpse of his
spirit.  For some reason, though, she hadn't gotten a clear impression.
There'd been a strange duality there that she hadn't understood ...
     She sighed, brushing a thick strand of midnight hair over her
shoulder with the back of one slim hand.  Perhaps she was wasting her
time here tonight.  She'd penetrated deeper into Nerima than she was
supposed to have in the hopes of spotting her quarry, but so far
nothing.  Hardly surprising, of course.  Having been given such a wide
area to cover, it would be a matter of sheer  luck to find the girl just by
wandering around, and Fortune was a bitch goddess whose favours
were bestowed upon her rarely of late.
     She turned her attention lazily to a couple who'd ventured into
the sheltering darkness of the trees not far from her.  Unaware of her
presence, they sat together on the cool grass.  Her nostrils flared as
their fresh scents reached her on the gentle breeze.  Their breathing
grew deeper and more laboured and they moved hesitantly toward
each other, reaching out inexperienced hands to stroke and hold and
caress.  And beneath it all, the thundering of twin hearts, faint even to
her ears but growing louder.
     Ah, she thought.  Just what I need.  It has been a while since ...
     She froze as a new sensation washed through her, leaving a tell-tale
tingling in its wake.  Holding her breath she spun in place, like a
hound scenting the wind.
     Magic.  No doubt about it.  The spike of power had been short
and not terribly powerful, but there was no background magic here to
screen it out.  And it was close.  Very close.  Close enough that she
could pinpoint the direction it had come from.  Silently, she slipped off
through the dark, the young couple already forgotten as she felt her
blood race, spiced with anticipation.
     A spellcaster.  It had to be that girl.  And she was CLOSE.
     A predatory smile touched Wynneth's ruby lips.  Perhaps the
bitch goddess was smiling on her after all.

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

     Reiko drained the can and tossed it into a nearby garbage bin.
Then she stretched her arms over her head, groaning as she listened to
the pops and cracks of her shoulders.
     The whole night was a write-off.  First Ryouga had stood her
up, then that lout tried to get pushy with her.  Typical of her luck with
men.  Just typical.  Now she had to decide if it was worth chasing
Ryouga down again.  Of course, she had no other sources of
information on the Kunou estate to turn to, so her options WERE kind
of limited.
     Damn it.
     She sighed resignedly as she passed between oases of light on
the path through the quiet park.  Maybe she could find a club with lots
of loud music where she could fritter away the rest of the night, while
forgetting about the first part.  Now, THERE was a good idea.
     A muffled sound caused her to freeze in her tracks.  Startled,
she peered around, but the trees in this part of the park were close
together, and the illumination from the lights along the path didn't
penetrate very far into the gloom.  Her shoe scuffed the path lightly as
she turned, and she heard the sound again, like a muffled sob.
     "H-Hello?  Is anyone there?" a soft voice came from the
shadows.  She relaxed.  The voice was female and timid.  Following the
source of the sound, she thought she could make out a figure crouched
in the concealing mantle of darkness cast by the intertwined branches of
two large trees.
     Dammit, a little voice told her, just walk on.  You've got
enough problems of your own.  But she hesitated, torn.
     "Are you okay?" she called back.
     "No," came the barely audible reply.  "I mean, my boyfriend ...
we had a fight and he ... I ran ..."  That tore it.  Men!  What the hell
was it with them, anyway?
     She stepped off the path, her shoes silent on the grass.  As she
slipped into the pooled shadow, her eyes began to adjust and she saw
that the girl was sitting with her legs together and out to one side, her
hands pressed against the ground and her head bowed.  She didn't
look up until Reiko was standing over her.
     Reiko stifled a gasp.  This woman was gorgeous!  Her pale,
high-cheekboned face was dominated by huge dark eyes and full
crimson lips.  Her hair was so dark that it seemed to blend into the
night, flowing down over her back and arm like liquid silk to pool on
the ground around her.   She was wearing a tight leather skirt and a
matching, high-collared top that left her narrow waist and arms bare.
Reiko crouched down, puzzled.  This woman didn't seem the sort to be
either timid or easily frightened.
     "Are you hurt?" she asked, unable to see any injuries on the
flawless pale skin.
     "He was getting rough," the woman replied tightly.  "I ran into
the park to get away, but it was dark and I twisted my ankle."  Reiko
looked at the woman's high-heeled boots.
     "I'm not surprised," she said dryly.  "Those aren't really made
for running."  A faint flush appeared on the woman's pale cheeks and
she bowed her head.
     "He likes them," she whispered.  "And he gets upset when I don't do
things he likes."  Reiko felt her temper rising again.  This guy sounded
like a real winner.  Maybe if she was lucky, she'd get to meet him.
She'd enjoy giving him some of what Prince Charming had gotten.
     "How bad is your ankle?" Reiko asked.  "Can you stand?"  The
woman looked up at her again, smiling in gratitude.
     "I ... I think so.  If you help me."  Reiko nodded.  She shuffled
closer and slipped her arms around the woman's tiny waist, marvelling
idly at how cool her skin was.  The woman wrapped her arms around
Reiko's shoulders, and together they slowly rose until they were
standing.  When Reiko went to move away, however, the other woman
tottered, her ankle obviously unstable.
     "Oh!" she cried, falling heavily into Reiko, who had to tighten her
arms around the other woman to keep them both from falling.  Her hair,
revealed to be ankle length now that she was standing, flowed against
Reiko in a  fragrant, silky wave, and her arms wound instinctively
around Reiko's neck.  That left them pressed together in a slightly
awkward position, and Reiko blushed at the intimate sensations in spite
of herself.
     "I'm sorry," the woman said, pulling back slightly so she could
look Reiko in the eye.  Reiko's senses were filled with the beauty's
nearness, the slightly musky perfume of her hair and skin, the cool feel
of her alabaster skin, the silken sensation of that luxuriant mane against
her bare flesh ...
     "What's a woman like this doing with a loser?"  Reiko didn't
realize she'd spoken aloud until the other woman's lush lips curved up
in a shy smile.
     "Why, how sweet," the raven-haired beauty breathed.  Her voice
had a sensual, husky undertone that Reiko hadn't noticed before.
     "I, uh, just meant that a woman like you could do better," she
stammered.  She cursed herself for saying something so stupid,
supporting the woman around the waist as they hobbled over to a
nearby park bench.  The beauty leaned against the raised back of the
bench, taking the weight off her injured ankle with a sigh.  Reiko started
to back away, but the woman caught her wrists with slim hands, tugging
her gently back.
     "Don't go," she urged in a low, husky voice.  "Please."  She
lowered her eyes demurely, her long lashes sooty against her pale
cheeks, and Reiko hesitated.  Her inner voice was still telling her not to
get involved, but there was something strangely ... compelling about the
woman.  An allure, subtle yet insistent, that fascinated her and drew her
in.
     Perhaps it was the incongruity between her striking beauty and
her oddly appealing vulnerability.  Reiko would have expected a
woman who looked and dressed like this one to be much more
aggressive, much more confident.  But of course, she'd often been
judged on surface factors herself, and told herself she of all people
should know better.
     For whatever reason, the woman managed to overcome Reiko's
usual defensiveness, which was definitely unusual.  She smiled
reassuringly at the apprehensive beauty.
     "All right," she said.  "I'll help you out to the street.  There's a
phone there, you can call a cab."  The woman smiled back.
     "Thank-you ...  I'm sorry.  I don't even know your name!"
     "Reiko."
     "I'm Wynneth."  The name was strange, exotic.  It suited her
perfectly.  Wynneth was still holding her hands, and Reiko pulled her
upright easily.
     "Okay, Wynneth.  Let's get you home so you can take care of
that ankle."  Reiko slipped her arm around Wynneth's narrow waist
while Wynneth slipped her arm across Reiko's back, hooking her hand
over the opposite shoulder so Reiko could take some of her weight.
Together they began to make their way slowly along the path.  The
park was pretty deserted, and Wynneth's boot heels clicked loudly in
the silence, creating a strange stuttering rhythm as she limped along..
     "I'm sorry to be so much trouble," Wynneth murmured as they
walked.  "Things just got out of control so quickly, and I became
frightened."  She peered at Reiko out of the corner of her eye.
     "I'm not usually like this," she confided, her tone intimate.  "It's just
that ... I thought this man was different.  I thought he wanted me for
ME, but lately he started to change."  She leaned into Reiko for a
moment, sending ripples through her hair as she shook her head slowly.
     "If I hadn't gotten my hopes up, it wouldn't have been so bad,"
she sighed, almost inaudibly.
     "Believe me, I understand," Reiko told her.  Wynneth gave her
a small, secretive smile.
     "Yes," she said softly.  "You do, don't you?"  This is weird,
Reiko told herself.  Why do I feel so comfortable with this woman?
It's like I've known her for years.  Her puzzlement, though, seemed
distant and unimportant somehow.  As they walked, Wynneth leaned
her lithe body a little more against Reiko, her long hair brushing lightly
against Reiko's bare leg.  Normally, Reiko would have protested the
familiarity, but she was beginning to feel quite at ease with Wynneth
somehow.  Maybe it was a sense of kinship, she told herself wryly.
We've both had guy problems tonight.  Who knows, if I didn't have my
magic, maybe Prince Charming would have scared me like her
boyfriend scared her.
     They came to a bend in the path, where heavy trees on both
sides screened out the light, leaving a patch of deep shadow.  Wynneth
tightened her grip on Reiko's shoulder.
     "Stop for a moment," she urged.  "Let me catch my breath."  Reiko
stopped and Wynneth moved so they were facing each other, Wynneth
leaning with her hands on Reiko's shoulders, head bowed and breathing
heavily.  Reiko kept her hands balanced lightly on Wynneth's waist in
case she lost her balance, feeling vaguely concerned.  As they stood
there a gentle breeze came up, blowing Wynneth's hair against
Reiko's skin again, carrying her musky, mysterious scent like a
promise.  Reiko shuddered at the intimacy of the contact, a faint thrill
racing down the tender flesh of her nape and spine.  Wynneth looked
up, her dark eyes wide against her pale face.
     "What's wrong?" she breathed, her voice a throaty purr which
made Reiko shudder again.  She laughed her reaction off, telling herself
that if Wynneth was having this sort of an effect on HER, she must have
men throwing themselves at her feet.
     "I was just wondering why you were putting up with such a jerk,"
Reiko said, her mouth strangely dry.  "I mean, look at you.  You could
have any guy you wanted."  Wynneth cocked her head lightly, her lush
red lips curving into a sensuous smile.
     "I'll tell you a secret," she whispered, holding Reiko's gaze with
her own.  "I suffer from bad judgement when dealing with men."  Reiko
grinned wryly.
     "Me, too," she said, feeling a detached wonder that she had
confided such a thing so easily.  A strange sense of intimacy was
growing up around them, counterpointed by a distant sensation in
Reiko's consciousness, almost like a high-pitched thrumming.  That
sensation was familiar somehow, but she couldn't seem to focus on it ...
     "We deserve better, don't we?" Wynneth asked softly.  Reiko
noted how, even in the dappled moonlight under the trees, she could
see Wynneth clearly.  Her red lips stood out starkly against her ivory
skin, and those gorgeous, light-drinking eyes seemed huge, exerting a
subtle yet inexorable pull.  A woman could drown in eyes like that ...
     Man.  A MAN could ...
     The thrumming sensation.  It was important, wasn't it?  Why
couldn't she ...?
     "Mmm-hmm," Reiko answered softly.  Wynneth was standing
even closer to her now, so close that Reiko could feel warm breath
against her face.
     "You have beautiful eyes," Wynneth crooned.  "Blue, like a summer
sky.  Has anyone ever told you that?"  Had anyone ever told her that?
She couldn't think ...
     "And this," Wynneth continued.  She brought one hand up from
Reiko's shoulder, tracing the tiny black mole at the corner of her mouth
with one long, blood red nail.  "I like it."  The sensation sent languid
waves of heat rippling through Reiko's body, and she drew a shaky
breath.  Making a purring sound deep in her throat, Wynneth traced the
nail up from the mole and drew it teasingly across the sensitive flesh of
Reiko's lower lip.  Reiko wanted to stop her, but her will seemed to be
weighed down, held in sweet bondage to some dark need.  Things
were slipping out of her control, and she ... she couldn't ...
     "You're carrying around a lot of pain, aren't you, blue eyes?"
Wynneth whispered softly, the words brushing against sensitized skin
enticingly.  Reiko's world had narrowed to the feel of the seductive
woman's body against hers, the mesmerizing gaze of those impossibly
dark eyes, the hypnotic rhythm of that throaty voice.  "I can help you
with that.  I can take away all your troubles and woes ... if you let me.
Won't you let me?"
     That sounded nice.  Not to have to worry any more, to finally
let go of everything ...
     (hey)
     ... and just be at peace ...
     (hey, that's not right)
     "Uh-huh," she heard herself say from a distance.  Wynneth
smiled, slipping one hand behind Reiko's head, her long nails gently
scoring the flesh there.  The sensation was quite
     (wrong)
     nice, but something was distracting her ... that faint but insistent
thrum in her head, now risen in pitch ...
     (think what is that feeling think please)
     ... and she didn't need this distraction now.  It was wrecking
the peace she'd found under Wynneth's gorgeous spell ...
     (spell)
     ... under ... spell?
     (yes YES DAMMIT)
     A spell?
     Suddenly, her perspective seemed to shift subtly, like someone
looking at a bunch of coloured dots who suddenly sees a picture of a
boat.  That sensation that had been nagging her, it was her awareness
of magic.  Someone was casting a ... spell ... someone was ...
     Wynneth?  Casting a spell ... on her?
     Oh, damn.
     "Ah," Wynneth breathed.  "Suddenly, the light dawns.  But too
late, blue eyes.  Far, far too late.  You're already mine."  Reiko tried to
resist Wynneth's influence, but her body felt pleasantly heavy, her will
ensnared in an intangible web, silken but insistent.  Wynneth's long, slim
fingers wound themselves languidly into Reiko's hair, drawing her head
back slightly.  Reiko gasped at the sudden heat as Wynneth's mouth
closed lightly on her mole, lingering there for a moment before beginning
to trace hotly up over her cheek.
     Even though she could no longer see Wynneth's eyes, it was as
though they still held her.  Her faint awareness of alarm began to turn
into panic as she realized just how well and truly caught she was ...
     (no if you panic you're done hold on)
     What do I do? She wondered drunkenly.  There must be ...
     (Fight her idiot)
     ... something ... yes ... a spell ... cast her own spell.  Cast ...
     She reached for a spell, ANY spell, but her thoughts were like
viscous mercury, slipping away as she tried to grasp them.  Her blood
burned with unwholesome fire in her veins, and her captor's lush mouth
against the ticklish shell of her ear wasn't helping ...
     "You disappoint me, Reiko Hisakawa," her tormentor whispered,
her voice trickling maddeningly directly into Reiko's ear.  "I'd expected
you to pose far more of a challenge."  Reiko tried to speak, but could
only whimper helplessly.  Wynneth chuckled, sending another tingle
down Reiko's spine.
     "Ah, blue eyes.  Don't fret.  You are going to love what I do to
you.  When I'm done, you won't even remember how you were
before."  She gently, almost tenderly, pulled Reiko's head back further,
exposing her throat.  As  Wynneth pressed her lips against the taut skin
there, they parted and Reiko felt twin pinpricks nestled in the lush
softness, pressing tauntingly against her vulnerable throat.
     No, she thought desperately as she finally realized just what
sort of creature had snared her.  Not that.  I don't want to come back
as ... no ... please ...
     Panic consumed what little awareness she had left as salvation
continued to dance maddeningly out of reach.  She needed more time.
     And she didn't have it.
     She cried out as twin points of fire blossomed on her neck,
sending an irresistible wave of pleasure/pain through her, smashing all
remaining resistance before it, leaving only delicious surrender in its
wake.  The tide rose up in her, and she had time for only one last
coherent thought.
     Sorry, old man ...

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

     Wynneth drew her mouth slowly down to the girl's exposed
throat, smiling wickedly as a helpless shudder wracked her captive's
body.  This was what she lived for, the moment when her savage kisses
enslaved even the strongest adversary with their sweet corruption.  Let
others of her realm rend their enemies with tooth and claw.  Her way
was so much more ... satisfying.
     She drew out the moment of consummation, of final abject
surrender, with a skill honed by many such encounters.  Her senses
were filled with Reiko now, her fangs aching sweetly as they extended
in response to her need.  The pounding of the girl's racing heart filled
her ears, merged with Wynneth's own.  The scent of her skin and,
under it, her blood, was maddening.
     Wynneth felt the young sorceress's will struggling feebly under
the layers of her mental domination.  They were, however, merely the
final struggles of a drowning swimmer before she succumbs to the
seductive peace of the ocean's cool dark depths, just before she
realizes that her strength is spent and her fate is sealed.  In the end, she
knew, her victims always embraced the rising darkness as they finally
realized that it would take away all their fear.
     Wynneth tasted the faint salty tang of the girl's skin as her lips
parted, savouring it for a moment while she let her aching fangs press
lightly against the taut, vulnerable flesh.  Then, with exquisite slowness,
she let her fangs break the skin.  Just barely.
     She tightened her grip on Reiko instinctively as the girl cried out
sweetly and her body tensed.  Wynneth growled softly like a great cat,
letting the hot sweet blood seep slowly into her mouth.  The first
moment of contact made her draw in a sharp breath through her nose
as she made intimate contact with the girl's essence through her life's
blood.
     So powerful!  This one had so much potential, such raw power
buried within her!  And now, all that power would be ...
     "Oops!  Uh, sorry!"  The voice smashed into her awareness,
and she pulled back instinctively, flashing her fangs with a feral snarl.
The girl had been much harder to snare than an ordinary human, and
she'd allowed herself to become lost in the moment, tuning out the
world.
     A careless mistake.
     The young man had come straight through the bushes behind
them, and apparently had thought he'd stumbled upon a romantic
assignation.  Understandable, under the circumstances.  Now,
however, he was staring in horror at Wynneth's bared fangs and the
limp girl in her arms.
     He would have to die, and quickly; she couldn't afford any
distractions now.  She'd only just tasted Reiko's blood, which meant
there was still a chance the girl could break free of Wynneth's control.
And this girl was a prize Wynneth didn't intend to let slip through her
fingers.
     Before she could act, though, the boy blurted out, "Reiko?"
     The bitch goddess strikes again, Wynneth thought darkly.  He
KNOWS her?  At the sound of her name, Reiko stirred, her eyes still
glazed and unfocused.  Secure the prize first, Wynneth told herself,
fighting to reign in her hunger.  Then take care of bandanna boy.
     Smiling, she began to back away slowly, senses questing for the
deepest part of the comforting dark, the place where she could slip into
Shadow.
     "Sorry, handsome," she said with a sly smile.  "She's mine
now, and I don't share."  He growled, and she noted with amusement
that he had tiny fangs himself.
     "Let her go, you ... monster!"  She pouted, still backing away.
     "Monster?  You won't still think that after we've ... gotten to
know each other better."  Ah!  There it was.  Her eyes narrowed as
she let the smile slip away.
     "See you later, handsome," she promised.  Then she began to
sink into the embrace of Shadow, pulling Reiko along with her.
     "Reiko!"  The boy was caught off-guard, realizing too late what
was happening, lunging forward.
     "Ry ...ouga?"  Reiko's voice was barely audible.
     "Shhh, blue eyes," Wynneth whispered.  "It's no one.  No one
at all."
     Together, they sank into the comforting dark.
 
 

End part 12