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

This chapter is rated Lime for suggestive scenes.

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part 14: A Convergence of Forces

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     Tisa knew that Riana wasn't going to take the news well.  She
tried to keep her features expressionless, waiting as she'd been
instructed.
     Her gaze strayed to the bed, its rumpled covers taunting her.
They seemed to whisper of the intimate deeds that they had witnessed,
and Tisa was thankful that at least HE hadn't been present when she'd
arrived.  Keisuke was hard enough to tolerate as it was; seeing his
smug grin first thing in the morning would have been more than she
could bear.
     Finally, Riana emerged from the attached bathroom, and Tisa
felt her breath catch in her throat.  The sheer material of Riana's thin
silk robe clung to her curves enticingly, outlining her thighs as she
walked.  Her hair was a sensuous tangle, and her eyes were still lidded
from sleep.  Making her way over to Tisa, she held out one hand in a
lazy, imperious gesture that made Tisa's mouth go dry.
     Gods, Tisa thought with no little despair, whatever it would
take to make this woman want me, I would do.  In a heartbeat.
Wordlessly, she handed the steaming mug she held to her Lady.  Riana
cradled it carefully, letting the fragrant steam caress her face, then took
an appreciative sip.
     "Ahhhh," she sighed at last.  "At least you're civilized enough to
deliver bad news with coffee."  Tisa swallowed.
     "Bad news?" she asked carefully, wondering if Riana could
somehow have already found out.  Riana gave her a sly smile and
moved over to the bed with easy, feline grace.
     "My dear Tisa, you're not as hard to read as you think," she
said, her voice pleasantly husky.  "You woke me early, and you know I
hate that.  You brought coffee.  You're tapping your fingers against
your thigh."  Tisa realized she was, in fact, doing that and stopped,
embarrassed.  Riana sat on the edge of the bed, careless of the way her
robe pulled apart at the throat and thighs.
     "Therefore, bad news," Riana concluded, taking another sip of
coffee.  "And much as I hate to start the day that way, we might as well
get this over with.  Tell me."  Tisa pulled her gaze away from the
enticing gap in Riana's robe, meeting her Lady's gaze evenly.
     "It's the girl, Reiko Hisakawa.  The one that you had under
surveillance."  Riana just cocked her head.
     "What of her?"
     "She's gone."  Riana said nothing for a moment, and Tisa
pressed on.  "Apparently, the human operatives were only watching her
hotel, not following her ..."
     "Yes.  Those were my orders," Riana said absently.  Tisa
blinked.
     "Ah," she said.  "I mean ..."  Riana met her gaze again, raising
one eyebrow.
     "Your report?" she prompted.
     "Yesterday, she left the hotel around five.  When she returned,
after ten, she appeared to be hurt.  She was with a boy around her own
age.  He helped her to her room, leaving alone approximately twenty
minutes later.  Then, around five-thirty this morning, the girl checked out
suddenly.  Her present whereabouts are unknown."  Tisa waited for a
reaction to the news.
     "Well," Riana mused.  "That certainly didn't take long."
     "Lady?" Tisa asked, confused.  Riana set her mug on one of
the end tables by the bed and worked her head back and forth.
     "I seem to have a kink," she groaned.  "This is your fault, Tisa,
so the least you can do is help me get rid of it."  Tisa felt a vital heat
creeping up from her belly, making her flesh tingle pleasantly.
     "Of course, Lady," she said, pleased that her voice didn't
betray her nervousness.  Making her way onto the bed, she knelt
behind Riana, close enough that she could feel the heat of the other
woman's skin.  She slipped her hands under the heavy cloak of Riana's
hair, her hands seeking out the slim column of her Lady's neck.
Carefully, her mouth dry and her heart pounding away, she slid her
hands down, inside the loosened collar of the robe, until her palms were
resting on Riana's bare shoulders, her thumbs pointing down parallel to
the spine.  Then, carefully, she began to knead and probe for tension.
     "Mmmph," Riana groaned.  "Ah!  Ah.  Mmmmm ..."  She
arched her back, clearly appreciative of Tisa's attentions.  For her part,
Tisa tried not to let the seductive warmth of Riana's dusky skin distract
her from the business at hand.  That task was made much more difficult
as Riana fairly purred, arching languorously against her befuddled
bodyguard.
     "Delightful," she muttered.  "I'd forgotten what wonderful
hands you have, Tisa."
     "Thank you, Lady," Tisa mumbled.  Riana's proximity was
causing a light sweat to break out across her forehead.  In truth, it was
more than just her closeness.  Tisa had seen Riana manner swing from
cool and competent to languorous and playful before, but she had
rarely been on the receiving end of such a shift.  During all the hours she
spent close to her Lady, she lived for the rare moments such as this,
when she was privileged to see a side of Riana that few ever witnessed.
     "Tisa," Riana sighed.  "About the Hisakawa girl ..."  Tisa
tensed, her hands freezing in place.  Damn.  She'd allowed herself to
become complacent, distracted.  Now the Ice Queen would reappear,
and Tisa's dressing down would be all the worse for having let her
guard down.  Her stomach churned into a tight, sour ball as she wet her
lips reflexively.
     "Lady ..." she began.  Riana reached back lazily, covering
Tisa's hands with her own.  The contact sent an electric thrill through
Tisa's body.
     "Don't stop," Riana murmured.  "That's just what I needed."
Cautiously, Tisa began kneading once again, and Riana let her head fall
back with a contented sigh.
     "Better," she breathed.  "Now ... ah, yes.  The girl.  Tisa, the
time has come to bring you into my confidence regarding recent events.
To begin with, our young Reiko Hisakawa.  I have my suspicions about
what happened last night.  You see, I believe young Reiko is the heir to
a great power ... an assessment  I suspect Keisuke would agree with
wholeheartedly."
     "Then ... she's the one who burned him?" Tisa asked,
confused.  If Riana had set her favourite against the girl, and the girl had
survived, then ...
     "Almost certainly," Riana rumbled softly.  "He was most put
out when I gave Wynneth the task of running her to ground."  Tisa's
thoughts whirled madly.
     "But Lady, what if Lady Wynneth snares the girl?  She would
be a powerful tool in the wrong hands, and if I may be so bold, Lady
Wynneth would not hesitate to use such a tool to her advantage."
     "Very good, Tisa.  That is quite true.  However, I gave
Wynneth that task to keep her occupied during a delicate phase of my
operations.  I obscured the trail to draw things out and buy myself some
time.  If Wynneth did clash with the girl last night, though, I may have to
re-evaluate her cunning.  If she survived, that is," she added dryly.
     "Lady Wynneth has survived against many amongst the
Aerkinma who would see her enslaved or dead," Tisa said, doubt
tinging her voice.  "It is hard to believe this girl could have killed her so
easily."
     "Don't underestimate her, my dear.  She may be heir to the
power of the Golden Dragon Clan's sorceries."  Tisa frowned.
     "I've heard tales of them," Tisa mused, working her palms
slowly along Riana's spine.  "Weren't they among the humans who
stole the Dragon Orb from our realm?"
     "We'd stolen it first, but yes," Riana smiled.  "To this day,
nothing remains of what was our greatest city but shattered ruins.  So,
you see, caution is definitely called for."
     "But Lady, if the girl wasn't warned of our presence here
before, she is now."
     "Yes," Riana sighed.  "Sadly, gambles don't always turn out the way
we would like.  I WAS supposed to have more time.  Matters are
coming to a head, and that idiot Tragus hasn't accomplished anything
yet.  Even in desperation, I should have known better than to depend
on him."  Tisa thought back to the club where Riana and Tragus had
ended up dancing.  It was news to her that Riana and Tragus were into
something together, but it would explain her Lady's mood that night.
She sat back warily as Riana twisted around so that she and Tisa were
facing each other on the bed.
     "You see, I've recently discovered the whereabouts of the final
artifact," she murmured, her stormy gray eyes staring into Tisa's from
only inches away.  Riana was so close that Tisa could feel the other
woman's breath on her face when she spoke.
     "You ... have it?" she asked incredulously.  Riana smiled, and
Tisa felt the muscles in her belly flutter in response.
     "No, but I know where it is.  And I want it in my possession. Soon.
After so long, the time is near."  Tisa felt mixed emotions at the
revelation, and as if sensing her uncertainty, Riana reached out to trace
one finger along the line of her bodyguard's cheek.  The light, teasing
contact made Tisa shudder slightly, and she dropped her eyes,
embarrassed at her loss of control in front of her Lady.  Riana
just smiled, though, and cupped her palm gently against Tisa's cheek.
     "You know what's at stake," she breathed to her astonished
bodyguard.  "I can't involve Keisuke in this.  I fear his jealousy of
Vaenruth might jeopardize everything.  You're the only one I can trust
with this.  I need your help, Tisa."  Tisa's heart was hammering in her
chest so wildly that she was certain Riana could hear it.  Closing her
eyes, she pushed her face lightly into Riana's warm hand like a cat, her
Lady's words wrapping her in tingling heat, banishing her previous
uncertainty.  Looking up slowly, her head still bowed, she enfolded
Riana's hand in her own.  Abandoning her usual caution, she drew
Riana's deceptively delicate hand to her mouth, brushing her lips against
the palm in a lingering kiss.
     "I remain your most devoted servant, Lady," she whispered.
"You can depend on me.  For anything."  She still held the hand next to
her lips, and Riana curled her slim fingers so that her long nails brushed
lightly against Tisa's cheek in a proprietary gesture.
     "Loyal Tisa," she purred.  "I knew I could count on you.  Now
here's what I need  ..."

***

     "Oh, this really stinks," Ukyou said flatly.  "I can't begin to tell
you how much this stinks."
     "Look, I know this must seem hard to believe," Reiko began in
a maddeningly reasonable tone.  "I mean, us talking about demons and
all ..."
     "Um, remember I mentioned fighting demons at Furinkan?"
Ryouga broke in tentatively.  "Ukyou was there."  Reiko looked at
Ukyou with undisguised interest.  In fact, she'd been giving Ukyou a lot
of looks like that during the discussion of the previous night's events.
That didn't help Ukyou's mood at all.  Reiko was making eyes at her
and Ryouga both.  What a floozy!  And ... and ...
     And why was she thinking about this when she'd just been told
that some of those monsters were still around?  She shook her head,
trying to focus on the matter at hand.
     "Okay," she said.  "Putting aside the small matter of vampires in
our city's fine parks ..."
     "She wasn't a vampire, exactly," Reiko said.  "She was a type
of higher demon, sort of vampire royalty I guess you could say.  She'd
almost certainly be unaffected by sunlight or religious symbols ..."
     "Fine," Ukyou said shortly.  "I don't care if she's Queen of all the
Vampires.  I just want to know why you dragged Ryouga into
something like that.  You're the sorceress, not him."  Ryouga suddenly
looked very uncomfortable.
     "I didn't know about them being here," Reiko shot back.  "I
only wanted to talk to him about this Kunou guy.  That's all."
     "Oh, yes, that," Ukyou said, crossing her arms tightly.  "By all
means, let's talk about that.  You need something from the estate, but
you're only supposed to talk to Sasuke, not Kunou."
     "Look, those were my instructions," Reiko told her, exasperated.  "I
can't really explain ..."
     "My point," Ukyou said coldly.  "There's a lot you can't explain.
Like what you're after and why you want it.  Like how you know so
much about these creatures.  Like why we shouldn't just go talk to
Kunou ..."
     "That might not be smart," Reiko said softly, and something in
her tone made Ukyou pause.
     "Why not?" she asked, still suspicious.  Reiko stared at her,
eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
     "Well," she said at last, "let me put it to you this way.  There
are things about the Kunou family that you don't know.  Dangerous
things."  Ukyou snorted.
     "Gee, thanks for the news flash.  They're a pretty strange
bunch, everybody knows that."
     "It goes beyond strange," Reiko insisted.  "I've been watching that
place.  It's protective wards have been allowed to degrade ..."
     "Um, protective whats?" Ryouga asked hesitantly.
     "Wards.  Protective shields."
     "I've never seen such things there," Ukyou said.  Reiko smiled
humourlessly.
     "You'd have to be either a magic user or a creature of magic to
see them," Reiko told her.  "They're for protection against evil, but
they're full of holes.  And one night I saw lower demons coming out of
the estate.  They were with a woman.  Not a demon exactly, but with a
very dark aura.  Definitely bad news.  And she returned to the estate
later, where she was buzzed right in the front gate."
     "All of which means what?" Ukyou demanded.  Reiko sighed.
     "I don't know for sure," she admitted.  "But it can't be good."
     "So what do we do, then?" Ryouga asked.  Ukyou bristled at
his use of the word "we".  Reiko brightened immediately.
     "Well, I came here because I need your help with my plan," she
smiled.
     "What, there's a plan now?" Ukyou asked.
     "What did you have in mind?" Ryouga inquired politely.  Reiko
smiled at him, and Ukyou felt her cheek twitch.  That was a smile
calculated to dazzle the male of the species, and it was clearly having its
desired effect.  And Ryouga, like many men, would agree to anything
for a pretty girl.
     The idiot.
     "You know what Sasuke looks like, right?  Let's sneak into the
estate today and see if he's there."
     "Well ..." Ryouga began.
     "That's the plan?" Ukyou asked incredulously.  "That plan stinks!"
Reiko turned her dazzling smile on Ukyou, irritating her further.
     "Oh, come on.  What could it hurt?" she asked innocently.  "If
he's not there, then maybe I'll have to consider approaching this Kunou
guy directly.  And if we find Sasuke, he'll be able to clear everything
up for all of us.  So, how's about it?"
     "It still stinks," Ukyou sighed.  "But I don't have a better plan,
so I suppose it'll have to do.  With any luck, he'll be there and we can
put an end to this quickly."
     "Ah, an optimist," Reiko grinned, linking her arm through
Ukyou's.  She reached out and linked her other arm with Ryouga's,
and pulled them both towards the door.  "I like that.  And with two
handsome guys to protect me, I won't have anything to worry about.
My day is looking up."  Ukyou ignored Ryouga's startled look at the
"two guys" remark.
     "Don't count on it," she sighed.  "It's early yet.  Very early."

***

     Nabiki worked her way through the crowd, jostling and
bumping as she neared the exit.  Too bad I'm not cutting classes for
something more enjoyable, she told herself ruefully.  Still, she felt a
tingle of anticipation in her stomach.  If things went well today, she
might end up with some useful information.  The worst her quarry could
do was slam the door in her face.
     Nabiki found the bus she needed, and soon she was disembarking
close to her destination.  Consulting her notebook, she  proceeded to a
nearby side street, busy with morning traffic.  She found the address
she was looking for about halfway down.  The building was a little run
down, but to badly off, in an area that was somewhat dingy, but with
plenty of signs that the people in the neighbourhood cared for their
surroundings.  All in all, not a bad place to live.
     Not that Nabiki would have wanted to live there, of course.
Around the side of the building were stairs that led to the second floor
veranda.  Nabiki went up, her shoes clattering noisily on the metal
stairs.  There were three doors off the veranda; the one she was
looking for was the middle one.  Two B.
     "Or not to be," she whispered.  Oddly appropriate.  She stood
in front of the door, her bookbag resting lightly against her thighs, and
took a deep breath.
     Well, she thought.  Here goes nothing.  Raising her hand, she
knocked sharply.  Moments later, the door opened to show a woman
wearing a plain white sleeveless blouse and dark skirt.  Her brow
furrowed as she looked out at Nabiki.
     "Yes?" she asked hesitantly.  Nabiki smiled.
     "Hello again, Yukio.  Remember me?"  The woman's almond-
shaped eyes widened in shock.
     "You," she whispered.  "I ... how did you ..."
     "Can I come in?" Nabiki asked politely.  "There are a few things I
want to discuss with you."

***

     "That's a wild story," Reiko said, shaking her head.
     "Does that mean you don't believe us?" Ukyou asked.  Reiko
sighed.  Ryouga's roommate was still being hard to get along with.
Well, that was fine with her.  It just gave her an excuse to turn up the
charm.  He'd respond to flirtation and flattery.
     After all, they always did.
     The more immediate problem was that they'd arrived at the
Kunou estate.  Ryouga was shooting furtive glances up and down the
street, making sure that nobody was watching while Ukyou studied the
wall impassively.
     "Not at all," Reiko responded smoothly.  "I just didn't expect to hear
about something like that happening here, that's all."  Ukyou seemed
strangely unappeased by her manner.
     "Whatever," he said resignedly.  "We might as well get this over
with."  He turned to Reiko with a frown.  "Those ward things won't
cause us trouble, will they?"  Reiko shook her head.
     "Nope.  Not unless you're some kind of supernatural evil."
     "Well, I wasn't last time I checked," he grunted.  "Come on."
Gracefully, he leapt up, making it easily to the top of the wall.  Ryouga
followed suit, and they disappeared inside.  Reiko just stared up after
them, nonplussed.
     "Show-offs," she grumbled.  Quickly checking to ensure she
was still unobserved, she cast a levitation spell, floating quickly over the
top of the wall.  She came down neatly between Ryouga and Ukyou,
flinging her arms out with a flourish.
     "Taa-daa!" she announced.
     "Was that a spell?" Ryouga asked, clearly impressed.
     "Oh, a small one," she said modestly.  Ukyou just rolled his
eyes.
     "Come on, let's get going," he said, gazing off through the trees.
"We should snoop around the main house.  That's where he's likely to
be."  Something caught Reiko's eye as she turned, and she stepped
closer to the wall.  There, mostly hidden by the shrubbery, a scrap of
paper fluttered gently in the light breeze.  She moved a branch aside
and examined it closely.
     Ah-hah, she thought.  So I WAS right.  Very interesting.
     "What's that?" Ryouga asked.  She let the branch spring back
and turned away.
     "Nothing important," she told him briskly.  "Come on, let's go."
     "Careful of the traps," Ukyou said cheerfully.  Reiko blinked.
     "Traps?"
     "Oh, didn't you know?" he asked innocently.  "Since Sasuke's a
ninja, he loves booby-traps."  Ukyou slipped into the trees, leaving
Reiko to stare after him.
     "Was he kidding?" she asked weakly.  Ryouga grinned.
     "I'm afraid not.  Come on."  Together, they followed Ukyou
into the trees.

***

     Nabiki watched Yukio closely.  The first time they'd spoken,
she'd just been through a deep emotional shock.  The second time, she
was in shock AND drunk.  Nabiki had wondered how she would react
to their third meeting.
     Although she hid it well, she seemed a little nervous.  Well, that was
understandable.  She set a tray on the table, tucking her skirt under
herself carefully as she knelt.  She poured tea into two cups, then
offered one to Nabiki.  Every inch the dutiful hostess, Nabiki reflected
dryly.  Impressive, under the circumstances.
     She was surprised anew by how much Kodachi had resembled
her mother.  Yukio had the same high cheekbones and almost feline
eyes as her daughter.  Her hair, tied back into a loose ponytail, was the
same colour as Kodachi's had been.  Only her air of sorrow, of quiet
desperation, was totally unlike her only daughter.  She lacked
Kodachi's manic air, letting Nabiki see what Kodachi might have been
like had she not been so damned intense all the time.
     Nabiki was surprised when that thought made her feel just a
little sad.  She hadn't liked Kodachi, but the girl had been young.  Who
knew what she might have become, given time?
     Sighing, she sipped her tea, waiting as Yukio did the same.
She let the other woman speak first.
     "Have you seen Tatewaki recently?" Yukio asked finally.  Her
tone was deliberately casual, and it didn't fool Nabiki a bit.
     "Yes, I see him pretty much every day," she answered, just as
casually.  Yukio nodded.
     "I see.  Is he well?"
     "I think he's better than he has been.  He's starting to come to
grips with Kodachi's death."  Yukio's face was deliberately neutral at
the mention of Kodachi.
     "He took it poorly?" she asked, her voice quiet.  Nabiki steeled
herself.  She'd come for information, but she couldn't deny the woman
this little glimpse into the lives of the children she apparently barely
knew.
     "Very poorly.  He was there, you know."  Yukio twitched at
that, covering by taking another sip of tea.  Her hands barely shook.  If
Nabiki hadn't been looking for it, she probably wouldn't have noticed.
     "No," she said after a moment.  "No, I didn't know."
     "He blames himself for not saving her.  It eats at him, I think,
but he won't talk about it."  A strange expression settled over Yukio's
face at that.
     "Yes, he would," she murmured.  Nabiki took a deep breath.
     "Yukio, do you remember telling me about Kazuhiro?"  She
flushed, staring down into her cup.
     "I ... vaguely, but ..."
     "I understand," Nabiki told her.    "You were a little ... under
the weather when we talked that time."  Yukio nodded, her eyes still
carefully blank.  "But you told me that your children were cursed with
bravery, that Kazuhiro saved Kodachi when the dark came for her.  I
didn't understand what you meant then, but I do now."  Yukio's head
snapped up, and the blankness in her eyes was gone.  There was fear
there now, and dark understanding.
     "What do you mean?" she asked hoarsely.  Nabiki set her cup
down carefully.
     "I think you know what I mean.  I'm talking about the Kunou
family's secret demon-slaying business.  I'm talking about things that go
bump in the night."  Yukio shook her head slowly back and forth, her
eyes never leaving Nabiki's.
     "You don't know what ... that's insane," she stuttered weakly.
Nabiki sighed.
     "When you told me that monsters killed your son, I didn't
believe you.  Now I do.  I've seen them, Yukio.  Up close.  Much
closer than I would have liked, as it happens.  And I've been in the
tunnels under the estate.  Your son has reluctantly accepted my help
with his burden."  She grinned wryly.  "Stress the reluctant part.  So
now I need a few answers, and since he's not being totally forthcoming,
I came to you."  Yukio was staring at her now with a sort of detached
fascination, her already pale face having gone stark white.
     "Why?" was all she said.
     "Why what?"
     "Why would you ... involve yourself in this?  Why?"  She kept
staring at Nabiki, cup cradled idly in her hands.  Nabiki sighed.
     "Believe me, I've asked myself that question more than once,
and there is no easy answer," she told the older woman.  "Just
understand that this thing threatens  more than your family now, Yukio.
And since I am in it, I intend to keep my butt covered.  There's just too
much history here, too many dark secrets.  I need to shine some light
into the shadows.  Will you help?"  Yukio still appeared unconvinced.
     "I don't think you understand just how dangerous this is," she
insisted, playing with her tea cup nervously.  Nabiki remembered her
run through the streets, misshapen forms loping after her.  It had a sort
of nightmare quality now, but it had been all too real.  A matter of
seconds had separated her from a messy death, and she had woken up
in a cold sweat more than once since then, from dreams in which the
gates didn't open in time.
     "Believe me, I understand exactly how dangerous this is," she
assured the older woman.  "And it's not going to be safer for me if I'm
ignorant."  She took a breath, then hit Yukio's most vulnerable spot
with only the barest twinge of conscience.
     "I can't help your son if I don't know what I'm up against," she said
with her best trust-me gaze.  Yukio glanced up at her, and Nabiki could
see that her shot had hit home.
     "He really confided all those secrets to you?" she asked.
"About the estate's history, I mean, and the ..."
     "Demons?  Yes, he did.  I finally made him see that he needed
help, but he's pretty stubborn.  I'm certain there's a lot he's not telling
me.  So, how about it?  Will you help me ... no, help US?"  Yukio
stared down at her hands for a time as if she'd never seen them before,
and Nabiki held herself still, waiting.  When the other woman looked up
at last, Nabiki knew she'd won.
     "What do you want to know?" she asked resignedly.  Nabiki
folded her hands carefully.  It was going to be hard to dig out
information when she wasn't really sure what she was looking for.  The
important thing was to get Yukio talking.  Once she was comfortable,
she'd probably start to spill all sorts of things she hadn't even known
she remembered.  And Nabiki had just the starting point.
     "Tell me about Kazuhiro," she said softly.  "Kunou mentioned
him when we were in the tunnels under the estate, told me that the two
of them used to sneak down there when they were little."  Yukio smiled
wistfully, her gaze sliding away again, unable to settle in any one place.
     "That wouldn't surprise me," she murmured, her voice heavy
with melancholy.  "They were constantly together, daring each other to
do things.  They were very close.  And Tatewaki looked up to his big
brother, practically adored him."
     "And they knew about the tunnels, the demons, all of that?"
     "They knew more than I would have had them know at such a
young age," Yukio replied, an edge creeping into her voice.  "Akira
always insisted that they needed to be brought up fully aware of their
destiny.  I argued with him, but in the end, I lost that argument.
Actually, I lost most of them.  Maybe if I'd fought harder ..."  She
shook her head, running her fingers nervously through her hair and
smiling tightly.  "But that's history now, isn't it?"
     "Kunou never really talks about him," Nabiki nudged.  "How
did he die?  Was it really ..."
     "Monsters?" Yukio asked tightly.  Tiny tremors ran through her
hands, and she clasped them tightly together, her knuckles turning white
with the pressure she exerted.  "Yes, perhaps you should know what
happened that night.  Perhaps then you'll understand just how
monstrous this whole thing became, how it overtook our lives."  Yukio
leaned her forearms on the table and hunched forward, staring down at
her clenched hands.  Nabiki had the feeling, though, that the woman
was seeing something else, something far away in time ... the night her
life had jumped off its tracks.  She sat quietly, willing to wait until Yukio
was ready.
     And, after a few moments, Yukio began to speak.
     "I suppose it was the nightmare which woke him, although I'll never
know for certain.  They invaded our sleep for the first time that night,
and we all had the same horrid dream ... the dark tower, and that huge,
terrifying eye.  It woke me before it did Akira, though, and as I sat
there in our bed, covered with cold sweat, I knew that something was
terribly wrong.  I could just feel it."
     "Wait a second," Nabiki said, cocking her head.  "That night
was the first time any of you had those nightmares?"
     "Yes," Yukio said softly, her brow furrowed.  "You know
about them as well?"
     "I'm afraid so," Nabiki mused, "but I was under the impression
that they had always happened."  Yukio shook her head, her gaze
falling back to her twined hands.
     "No.  It started to seem like they'd always haunted us later on,
but that night was the very first time."  Interesting.  She was curious to
know more, but she didn't want to distract Yukio any further.
     "I'm sorry.  Please go on," she urged.  Yukio nodded
woodenly.
     "At the time, I didn't realize what they were.  I thought I'd
simply had a regular nightmare, not an unheard of occurrence
considering the estate's history.  Akira was thrashing in his sleep, and I
thought to wake him in case he was having one too.  Then ..."  She
stopped and wet her lips.
     "Then?"
     "The first screams."  Yukio's voice was so low that Nabiki had
to lean forward to hear her.  "We leapt from our bed, Akira grabbing
his sword.  As we ran we could hear more screams, high pitched and
... Akira was ahead of me when we got to Kodachi's room ..."  She
stopped again, her hands trembling.
     "I don't know why it went after her," she whispered at last.  "I
don't know why.  But it got in somehow ... they never came into the
house, you understand, not back in those days.  And Kazuhiro must
have woken after his nightmare, and he was near his sister's room for
some reason when it ... and he ..."
     "Yukio," Nabiki said gently.  The older woman looked up, and
Nabiki was not surprised to see those dark eyes full of tears.  They
welled up and ran down her cheeks, but Yukio's voice, though soft,
remained steady.
     "It wasn't a terribly big one, but it was very ugly.  It had long
claws, I remember that clearly.  Kazuhiro had thrown his body over
Kodachi, and it was clawing at him, trying to get to her.  There was so
much blood, and Kodachi was screaming for me to come, covered
with her brother's blood, screaming for her m-mother.  For ..."  Yukio
swallowed, and Nabiki cursed herself for thinking that this would be a
good way to start things off.
     "Yukio, why don't you take a second here ..." she began.
     "Akira drew his sword," she said, staring into Nabiki's eyes,
her gaze haunted.  A single tear ran down to the corner of her chin,
hanging there for a moment before dropping off.  "It lit up the whole
room, that sword, like a tiny sun.  He was in a rage, and the thing tried
to run but he cut it down, screaming.  He was screaming, and I was in
the doorway screaming, and Kodachi was too.  But not my Kazuhiro.
He wasn't screaming, not anymore.  And there was so much blood.  It
was everywhere, but somehow I told myself that he would be all right.
I told myself over and over again that it would be all right, while my
husband hacked the creature into pieces in a berserk rage.
     "Then someone brushed by me.  It was Tatewaki.  And he
knew.  He knew that everything wasn't going to be okay.  I tried to
keep him from seeing, but it was too late.  I don't know how much he
saw of what happened, but he'd seen enough to know that his beloved
big brother was not going to be all right."  Yukio's cheeks were wet
with tears, and she wiped at them ineffectually with the back of one
hand as if only just becoming aware of their presence.  Nabiki
wordlessly dug out a handkerchief and handed it to the older woman.
     Whatever she'd been expecting to hear, this wasn't it.
     "Nothing was ever good for us again after that night," Yukio
whispered hoarsely, her voice quavering slightly.  "Kodachi was so
traumatized, she didn't speak for almost two months.  When she did,
she'd lost her cheerful nature.  And she never once mentioned Kazuhiro
again.  Those bizarre nightmares came some nights, and regular
nightmares haunted us the rest of the time.  Sasuke had been ambushed
and nearly killed that night, but he still blamed himself for not being
there to protect the children.  Even he changed after that."  She
mopped at her face with the handkerchief, sniffing and fussing so that
Nabiki couldn't see her face.
     "I know it's hardly sufficient, Yukio, but I'm sorry.  Kunou ...
Tatewaki never told me any of this."  Yukio nodded.
     "I suspected he hadn't," she sniffled.  "He never spoke of it
afterwards, not to me anyway.  It almost seemed sometimes as if he
blamed himself for what happened."  She sat back, taking a deep,
shaky breath, then letting it out.
     "That was silly, of course.  I placed the blame where it belonged,
with my husband.  He was forever filling the boys' heads with tales of
noble warriors fighting the forces of darkness and such nonsense.  And
the boys ate it up, of course."  She snorted delicately, anger flashing in
her eyes, the anger that made her look so much like her daughter.
"Noble.  There is nothing noble about this madness.  This is the enemy,
Nabiki Tendou.  Creatures that think nothing of slaughtering children in
their beds.  What could be worth all this pain and suffering?  What?
Do you know?"
     "No," Nabiki told her.  "No, I don't, not really.  But I'll find out,
believe me.  And you can help."  Yukio stared at her, then sagged,
her anger evaporating quickly.
     "Very well," she said resignedly.  "What is it you wish to
know?"  Nabiki leaned forward.
     "For starters," she said quietly, "tell me about the inner circle."

***

     They stumbled across the grove by accident.
     They'd been trying to take a shortcut to a small cluster of
outbuildings while staying hidden in the trees when they'd come upon
the peaceful little clearing.  The sight of all the grave markers brought
them up short.  Not even Reiko had anything to say at first.
     "I never knew this was here," Ryouga whispered.  Ukyou
nodded in agreement.  The grove was sheltered and shady, cool even in
the rising heat of the day.  A small stream gurgled softly somewhere
close by, an intimate and somehow comforting sound.  The three
stepped into the sanctuary hesitantly, as if their very presence would
destroy its fragile peace.
     They drifted slowly apart, and Ukyou found herself checking
out the markers as she wandered.  Some were quite ornate, while
others were elegantly simple and unadorned.  Some of the dates went
back hundreds of years, but others ...
     She stopped.  "Hey," she called softly.  Ryouga was at her side
quickly, giving her an inquisitive glance.
     "What is it?" he asked in a hushed tone.  She nodded her head
at the marker that had caught her attention.  Ryouga's eyes widened as
he took in the rose carved into the black stone.
     "Is that ...?" he began.  She nodded.
     "Yeah," she breathed.  "It is."  She moved closer to the marker,
running her fingertips gently over the carving of the rose, letting them
slip slowly down to trace the characters of Kodachi's name.   Ryouga
joined her, reading the inscription silently.  Neither of them spoke.  It
was as if Kodachi's marker cast a sudden tinge of sorrow over the
peace in the grove, or at least reminded them that this peace was the
peace of those who have passed beyond the worries of the flesh.
     Here was someone they had known, someone their own age,
someone they had talked to and fought against and beside.  Here was
someone whose final moments they had witnessed.  Seeing her marker
was a sobering reminder of that fateful day at Furinkan, the day
mortality had finally touched their charmed lives.  Kodachi would never
again bound through the streets, waving her ribbon.  She would never
again laugh that shrill, smug laugh of hers.  All she was now existed in
the memories of those who had known her and those (please, let there
be someone, Ukyou thought sadly) who'd loved her.
     She wondered if one day a young Kunou would walk these
hushed paths and chance upon this stone.  If he did, would he know
that this girl had once lived, been vital and wild, had bedevilled her
rivals at every turn?  Would he know that she had given her young life
for love?
     Or would he just see a name like many other names, carved
into dead rock, a piece of history?
     It hardly seemed fair to her that a person's life could end up as
so little.
     "Damn!" Reiko blurted.  Ukyou jerked out of her reverie, the
expletive sounding loud as a gunshot in the reverential hush of the
grove.  Scowling, she strode over to where Reiko was standing,
grabbing the blonde's shoulder and jerking her around sharply.
     "Do you mind?" she hissed furiously.  "Show a little respect!"  Reiko
just pointed at the stone in front of her and stomped off, her cheeks
flushed.  Still seething at Reiko's behaviour, Ukyou turned to see what
had prompted the outburst.  She blinked, then read the stone again.  It
still said the same thing.  Ryouga came up quietly behind her, watching
Reiko cautiously over his shoulder.
     "What is it?" he whispered.  Ukyou motioned at the small stone with
her chin.
     "We found Sasuke," she sighed.

***

     Nabiki leaned back against her seat, the rhythmic vibrations of
the train sinking into her body.  Her thoughts were churning madly as
she tried to catalogue everything she'd been told.
     Yukio had filled in some blanks for her, but unfortunately she
had known very little about the few survivors of the inner circle who'd
remained in contact with her husband.  There were only two names
she'd been able to give of people who might be able to help.  One was
a woman in Osaka, the other an old priest who ran a shrine up north,
and she couldn't guarantee that either knew much about the old inner
circle, much less whether either of them were still alive.
     Still, that was someplace to start.  All she'd needed was a
starting point to unravel part of the Kunou family mystery to begin with.
Any lead was cause for optimism.
     Of course, her optimism was tempered by thoughts of what
else Yukio had revealed.
     Kunou had seen not one but two siblings die horrible deaths, one at
a very young age.  The wonder wasn't that he was strange, but that he
wasn't completely insane.  Nabiki wondered what other secrets were
hidden deep in the murk of Tatewaki Kunou's soul, and just how tightly
wired he was.
     That thought led to others.  Was there any significance to the
fact that the mysterious nightmares had started the night Kazuhiro had
died?  If so, did that mean that the enemy was behind them?  Finding
out might well be impossible at this point.  She could try to ask Kunou,
of course, but that would be a delicate operation.  For starters, he
would want to know how she'd discovered that the dreams had started
that particular night, and she would certainly not be able to explain her
knowledge of that event without revealing that she'd spoken to his
mother.
     Thinking back on the scene between the two she'd witnessed while
hiding in the grove, she was pretty sure he'd be displeased at the
prospect.  While the spectre of Kunou's displeasure normally wouldn't
have given her the slightest pause, this was a little different.  Family
business was, by its nature, intensely personal and often messy, and it
didn't inspire people to act reasonably.
     Well.  She'd have to work something out, wouldn't she?  After
all, she'd come this far.
     She closed her eyes and saw Yukio again in her mind's eye,
asking her why she was doing this.  All this history, all this darkness, all
this treachery and deceit and madness.  And even though she was
working behind the scenes, there could still be danger.
     So why?
     It bothered her that she couldn't articulate her reasons.
     But not so much that she was willing to stop.
     Rehearsing what she was going to say when she saw Kunou,
she stretched out her legs and let the motion of the train soothe her.

***

     Tragus paced.
     He didn't particularly want to go back into the room.  The smell
was unpleasant, and the sight of that ruined body seeping putrid fluids
into the bed where he'd finally deposited it didn't do wonders for him
either.  He couldn't even be sure that Wynneth hadn't gone and died on
him already.
     But assuming she hadn't, he had no idea what to do.  As a
Borgunma, he'd been a whiz at tearing people apart.  Keeping them
from dying had never been part of the job description.  Hinako had no
abilities that would help, and he couldn't take Wynneth to a hospital.
There was Riana, of course, but that option left much to be desired.
For one thing, Wynneth had made it clear that she and Riana were
rivals.  Riana might refuse to help, and even if she didn't, the advantage
Tragus had been offered by aligning himself secretly with Wynneth
would be lost.
     And, for all Tragus knew, Riana was the one who'd done that
to Wynneth in the first place.
     So here he was, pacing the small living room, cursing his
indecision.  If he was ever going to play with the big boys, he'd have to
learn to take bold leaps when called for.
     Finally he sighed.  This was getting him nowhere.  Gritting his
teeth, he slipped into the bedroom.
     He'd drawn the curtains, but enough light penetrated to allow
him to see the charred form on the bed.  Edging closer, he took quick,
shallow breaths, breathing through his mouth to minimize the smell of
charred flesh.  Wynneth's head was twisted to one side, the fairly
unmarked half facing up, emboldening him.  He reached out tentatively,
looking for some intact skin to shake.
     When one clawed hand shot up and grabbed his arm, he
screeched in alarm, his female voice high pitched and shrill.  The hand
was rough, almost skeletal, but inhumanly strong.  Frantically he yanked
back, pulling free so abruptly he toppled onto his butt on the floor.  He
scrambled to his feet, chest heaving as he backed against the wall.  On
the bed, Wynneth struggled weakly to rise, her one good eye pain
maddened and rolling in its socket.
     "Why the hell did you do that?" Tragus blurted angrily.  "You
scared the hell out of me!"
     "Turrrr ... ragussss?" Wynneth gurgled wetly.  "Ssssooo.  I
muh-made it.  Huhhhh."  She stopped struggling and lay back, her
breathing wet and painful.
     "Yeah, you made it.  No offense, but the carpet and the bed
are never gonna be the same, Wynneth."  The pain-wracked Aerkinma
twitched spasmodically.
     "You'll ... pardon me if I duh-don't care," she choked out.
     "Yeah, whatever.  Boy, you're a lot livelier than I thought you'd
be," Tragus said, secretly relieved.  Wynneth twitched.
     "Pain," she hissed.
     "I would have guessed that," Tragus informed her.  He started
to move closer until she held up one blackened, trembling hand.
     "No!" she groaned.  "No.  You mussst not ... come near.  I can
smell your ... blood ... oh, ssssmell it ..."
     "Uh, yeah," Tragus said cautiously, backing to the wall again.
"And that's bad?"
     "If I could ... reach you, I would ... take you ... and drain you ...
every lassst drop ... wouldn't be ... able to stop ..."  Tragus looked at
the sharp fangs protruding from behind Wynneth's blackened lips and
grimaced.
     "Gotcha," he said.  Wynneth writhed weakly, her long nails
tearing into the stained sheets and mattress as she convulsed in pain.
     "Blood," she gasped.  "I need it ... quickly ..."  Tragus cocked his
head, eyes narrowing as he considered the situation.
     He could easily drain the chi from an unsuspecting victim and
bring them back here, but it was the middle of the day and the risk of
discovery was quite real.  And discovery meant giving up his
comfortable life, and his job close to all those delicious young students.
And if Riana had done this to Wynneth, she might well do the same to
anyone who was found helping her.
     On the other hand, if he helped Wynneth now, she would be in
his debt.  He couldn't help but recall the elegant, seductive beauty
who'd teased him with a fleeting kiss after their first meeting.  Her very
presence had caused his blood to boil with need, her siren song
promising pleasures beyond the brutal couplings he had indulged in
during his previous incarnation.  For the merest chance to possess that
lush, alluring seductress, he was willing to chance almost anything.
     Boldness has brought me this far, he thought giddily, and it will
bring me farther still ... if I dare.
     "Perhaps it is already too late," he suggested carefully.  "I
mean, I've heard Aerkinma can survive a great deal of damage, but
this ..."  He trailed off suggestively.  Wynneth made a wet, gurgling
noise that took him a few seconds to identify.
     It was laughter.
     "Oh, I assure you ... that I can ressstore myself ... fully.  With
sssweeeet ... blood ..."  Ah.  If she would once again be whole and
beautiful, then his course was clear.
     "Why then, of course I'll help you, my dear Wynneth," he
smiled, edging around the bed.  "Consider it an expression of my faith
in our new partnership."  She didn't reply, slumping loosely back
against the stained mattress, her breathing loud and laboured.  With a
final glance at Wynneth's ruined form, Tragus backed quickly out of the
room.
     It appeared that he needed to find his new partner a blood donor,
and fast.

***

     "I just don't believe it," Reiko said yet again.  Ryouga knew
she just didn't believe it.  He knew this because she had told him
several times on the way back from the estate.  He'd developed an
admirably eloquent shrug with which to respond to the statement.
     He needn't have bothered, of course, since Reiko didn't
appear to be showing much interest in his input.
     They sat at the counter at Ucchan's, Reiko staring at her
carryall which was sitting forlornly in front of her.  Every now and again
she would hit it, or slap it, or flick the strap.  Ryouga mostly just sat
there, because he couldn't think of anything useful to say.
     "Well, I might as well make some lunch," Ukyou said cheerfully
as she came out of the back.  Reiko glanced up at her disinterestedly,
then froze.  Ukyou was wearing her usual chef's outfit and had her hair
tied back with a white ribbon.  It took Ryouga a second to figure out
what the problem was, but then he understood.
     There was certainly no way Ukyou would be mistaken for a
boy in that outfit.
     Reiko blinked a couple of times as Ukyou stepped behind the
grill.
     "You?" she asked blankly.  "You.  Wait a minute.  You're a ... girl?"
Ukyou turned to her and smiled brightly.  It had seemed to Ryouga that
she didn't like Reiko right from the start, and he suspected that Ukyou
was enjoying this far more than was strictly necessary.
     "That's right," Ukyou said, drawing a couple of spatulas from
her bandolier.  "Now then ..."
     "You're a girl," Reiko clarified.
     "Couldn't you tell?" Ukyou asked innocently.  Ryouga saw
Reiko's face darken and started to edge away.
     "Of course I couldn't tell!" she blurted.  "You were dressed in
a boy's uniform!  I ... hey, Ryouga!  Did YOU know about this?"
Ryouga shrank under her furious glare.
     "Well, yeah, I mean ..."
     "Well, why didn't you say anything?"  He blinked.
     "Hey, stop picking on Ryouga," Ukyou interrupted.  "It's not
his fault you feel the need to flirt with everything wearing pants, is it?"
     "Excuse me?" Reiko asked, turning back to Ukyou.  "What the
hell's that supposed to mean?"
     "It's bad enough you dragged him into this dangerous situation ..."
Ukyou began.
     "I explained about that!"
     "As a matter of fact, you didn't really explain anything," Ukyou
shot back.
     "Um," Ryouga said timidly.
     "Look, I didn't know that witch would show up last night!" Reiko
snapped.
     "So you say," Ukyou said tightly, leaning over the counter.
"But she did show up.  So don't you think you owe us an explanation?"
     "Um ... guys?" Ryouga put in.
     "I told you I had to talk to this Sasuke guy ..." Reiko gritted.
     "Great, but he's dead.  So now what?"
     "How would I know?"
     "What's that mean?  You should know if anyone would!"
     "Look, you cross-dressing weirdo ..."  Ukyou's eyebrow
twitched dangerously.
     "Pardon?" she asked quietly, knuckles whitening as she
clenched her fists around her spatulas.  Ryouga leapt to his feet quickly
and leaned in between them.
     "Um, guys?" he said brightly.  "Maybe we should sit down and
talk about this?"  Grudgingly, both girls pulled back until they were on
opposite sides of the counter.  Ryouga sighed with relief.
     "Better," he said.  "Now.  Reiko, can't you tell us what you
wanted with Sasuke?"  She scowled, looking away.
     "Hey, this isn't for my benefit, you know," she grumbled.  "I'm
just trying to fulfill an old man's dying request.  It's not my fault he put
so many conditions on things."
     "Old man?" Ukyou asked suspiciously.  Reiko crossed her arms and
sighed.
     "He was a priest.  I lived with him from when I was really
young," Reiko explained grudgingly.  "He taught me about magic, and
how to control my powers."
     "What's he have to do with Sasuke?" Ryouga asked.
     "He instructed me to get something from the Kunou estate.
Something that once belonged to my family.  He said Sasuke could help
me get it back."
     "Well, that's obviously not going to happen now," Ukyou said.
"Can't you just go talk to Kunou?  If he has something that belongs to
you ..."
     "I already told you, I'm not convinced I can trust this Kunou
guy.  And the old man didn't seem to trust him either, or else why tell
me to go through his servant?"  Reiko shook her head wearily.  "No
way.  I'm just going to have to figure out another way to approach
this."  Ukyou shrugged and moved down the counter, and Ryouga
followed.
     "Hey, Ukyou," he murmured when they were out of earshot.
     "Hmmm?"
     "I was thinking.  Nabiki's pretty good at handling Kunou.
Maybe you could ask her to try to find out about this thing for Reiko,
you know, without being too obvious about it."  Ukyou gave him a look
he couldn't decipher.
     "Ryouga, you're being too trusting," she said at last.  "We
don't really know anything about this girl, except that she brought
trouble with her."  Ryouga squirmed.
     "Hey, I'm sure she didn't mean to," he protested.  "Anyway, it
seems to be important to her.  And don't you think it's sort of noble,
her trying to carry out someone's last request that way?"  Ukyou
sighed.
     "If that's really what she's doing," she said flatly.  "I think
there's a lot going on here that we don't know about, and if it involves
creatures like those ones we fought before, then this could be more
trouble than we can handle."  Ryouga remembered Wynneth, and the
sensual menace that she had exuded.  Yes, if there were more like her,
then that certainly constituted a serious threat.  Even if Wynneth had not
survived, though, he wasn't sure it was wise to ignore the threat and
hope everything just went away.
     He'd already seen what those things were capable of.
     "She's going to keep after this, Ukyou, whether we help or not.
I just think we can avoid a lot of trouble if we get involved, instead of
letting her blunder around.  And she might know some things that would
help us if those things DID come back.  Last night, against that vampire,
I have to tell you that things weren't going so well.  That one was ...
different that the ones we fought."  Ukyou sighed, shaking her head.
     "All right, all right," she grumbled.  "I'll ask Nabiki about feeling
out the situation."  Ryouga grinned.
     "Thanks ..."
     "If."  She held up one finger, eyes narrowed.  "And only if ... Reiko
spills the beans about this whole thing."  Ukyou fixed Ryouga with a
glare.  "If she wants our help, she's going to have to trust us a little bit
too.  Right?"  He considered that.
     "Sounds reasonable," he said.
     "Good," Ukyou said flatly.  "Then I'll start lunch, and you can
start trying to talk some sense into Miss Personality."  She walked
away, and Ryouga watched her stiff back, puzzled.
     Ukyou really didn't like Reiko much.
     He wondered why.

***

     Tragus slung the corpse into the bathtub with a groan.  Even in his
present, slightly shrivelled state, this guy was heavy.  Tossing his long
hair back out of his face impatiently, he straightened and caught sight of
himself in the mirror.
     It still took some getting used to, looking into a mirror and
seeing this human female's face looking back.  He tilted his head from
side to side, watching as they sultry beauty in the mirror did the same.
     "Damn, I'm hot," he snickered, striking a pose.  Then the
humour faded from his face.  Hot, maybe, but not smart.
     What a sucker, he thought sourly.  I can't believe my luck.  Blood
will restore me, Tragus.  Right.  What the hell use is that hideous,
burned up mess to me?  All that damn trouble for NOTHING!
     He'd enticed a husky young man into the alley beside the building,
making sure that they were out of sight before draining the hapless
fool's chi.  After that, the main course hadn't been able to put up any
kind of fight.  Tragus had half-carried, half dragged the rather large man
through the back door and to the elevator.  He'd had a story ready in
case he'd encountered anyone on the way, but fortunately he'd made it
back to the apartment without meeting anyone.
     Still, there were no guarantees that he'd been completely
unobserved.  It had been a huge risk, and for what?
     Say it with me, he thought blackly.  Nothing.
     Heaving a heavy sigh, he peered out into the bedroom.  The ruined
husk that had been a beautiful Aerkinma Lady lay on its back on the
bed.  Blood stains joined the other unmentionable substances on the
sheets that were now, frankly, way beyond help.
     Just to be safe, Tragus had stood well back when he'd pushed
the whimpering victim onto Wynneth's supine form.  She'd let loose
with a weird, whining growl that had set Tragus's skin crawling, and
begun clawing at the horrified young man.  It seemed she'd found some
last reserve of strength in her frantic need; nonetheless, Tragus could
see as he watched that if the victim had been able to resist, Wynneth
never would have been able to subdue him.
     But his muscles had still been limp and strengthless, and
Wynneth had clawed at his back frantically, forcing her ruined, twisted
mouth to his neck.  Blood had fountained, he had cried out, and then ...
     And then, for what seemed like a very long time, nothing but
horrible slurping noises as Wynneth gorged herself on fresh blood.
     Now, Tragus stared at her, filled with revulsion.  She lay on her
back again, sunken chest moving up and down shakily, drying blood
smeared across her face and neck.
     "Boy, I could have done without seeing that," he said flatly as
he stepped into the room.
     "I ... wouldn't have guesssed ... you were the squeamish type,"
Wynneth gasped out with effort, her once silky voice still hoarse and
raspy.  She rolled her head so that she could peer at him with that one
good eye.  Tragus crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall,
scowling.
     "It's this human body," he sniffed.  "The stomach is very touchy.  I
can't enjoy the pleasures of tearing apart my prey like I could  before.
Entrails make me queasy now.  It's embarrassing."
     "Poor dear," Wynneth hissed.  "But mightn't that ... pretty shell
hold other ... sweeter compensations?"  Tragus stiffened.  Was she
rubbing his nose in this?  How dare she taunt him!
     "You know, I very easily could have gotten caught," he
muttered angrily.  "And then where would you be?  It wasn't very
smart of you to lie to me like that."  Wynneth's gurgling laugh wheezed
out in short, painful bursts, and Tragus snorted.
     "Oh, that's funny, is it?" he asked shortly.
     "Tragusssss, my dear ... partner.  I did not lie, sssweet Tragusss.
Oh, no.  No liessss ..."
     "You said that blood would heal you," Tragus spat.  "Well, I've
got news for you.  If you showed up on the Red Plains looking like that,
not even the most desperate Borgunma would give you a second look.
You look like something a dragon hacked up after a prolonged snack!"
That gurgling sound came again, and it occurred to Tragus suddenly
that Wynneth did, at least, seem a little stronger.  She confirmed his
hunch moments later by struggling painfully to a sitting position,
hunching over herself, brittle swatches of black hair from one side of
her head hanging in her face.
     "Patienccccce," she crooned.  "That little appetizer has helped
somewhat.  Yesssss.  I can control my need now, at leassst for ... a
time.  We must act ... quickly."
     "Meaning what?" Tragus asked suspiciously.
     "Why, Tragussss.  Mussst I teach you ... how to treat a lady?  I
need more ... more blood."  He blinked.
     "More?  You want me to haul ANOTHER poor sucker in
here?  Dammit, Wynneth, I got lucky with the first one!  Two is really
pushing our luck!"  She shook and quivered, but remained upright,
wiping absently at the drying blood around her mouth with one claw-
like hand.
     "Another?" she hissed.  "Oh, you misunderssstand me."  He
cocked his head cautiously.
     "Well, thank ..."
     "At leasst ten more," she croaked, rolling her eye in its socket so she
could see him.  "Perhapssss ... as many as fifteen."  He gaped.
     "WHAT?" he blurted.  She raised her face to him, the mostly intact
side pulling into a mockery of a smile.
     "Come, come," she gurgled.  "Don't be cheap, Tragusss.  The
damage issss ... sssevere.  Drasssstic measuresss are ... called for."  He
regained control with difficulty.
     "Yeah, okay, but FIFTEEN!"  Come on!"  He stalked over
to the bed, glaring down at her.  "How the hell am I supposed to
manage that without getting caught?"  She reached out one withered
hand, cackling as he pulled away.
     "Yesssss," she nodded, "this place isss ... unsssuitable.  We
must move to a less ... public location, before my hunger ... overtakes
my control again."
     "For instance?" he asked, still suspicious.  Wynneth hunched
over in pain, shuddering as a series of dry coughs racked her body.
     "I have ... a plan," she gasped when she could speak again.
"But we mussst go ... quickly ..."

***

     Lilla smiled warmly as the lithe young man rode his bicycle past her.
She caught his eye and held his gaze, licking her lips suggestively.  The
young man didn't try to look away, not until he ran into the back of a
parked car with an awful clatter.  She sighed happily as the disoriented
cyclist climbed hastily off his butt and retrieved his bicycle, then quickly
rode away.
     That was diverting, she thought wistfully.  And a lot more
interesting than what she was stuck doing.
     She turned her attention back to the building across the street
reluctantly.  It was still just as unprepossessing as it had been thirty
seconds ago.  Tragus, in the form of this Hinako woman, hadn't
appeared yet, and likely wouldn't for a while yet.  After all, he should
still be at the local high school playing teacher.  With all those young,
healthy, hormone charged young men and women ...
     She sighed again, cursing Tisa for making her do this instead of
getting one of the corporation's human operatives.  But the humans
were, of necessity, kept in the dark on those occasions when they were
used for surveillance purposes.  Tisa claimed she needed someone in
the know to check up on Tragus.
     Lilla knew better.  There was no way things were as simple as
they'd been made out to be.  Tisa hadn't been very forthcoming about
her early morning meeting with their esteemed Lady, but there was no
hiding the truth from Lilla's experienced eyes.  The spring in Tisa's step,
the sparkle in her eyes, and that certain indefinable air of longing all
pointed clearly toward one inescapable conclusion.
     Riana hadn't given her besotted bodyguard an order.  She'd
asked for a PERSONAL favour.  And asked nicely.
     Lilla shook her head, her glossy, shoulder length bob brushing
lightly over her shoulders.  Oh, she could just see how it would have
gone.  Summoned to Riana's bedroom early, Tisa would have been
presented not with the icily competent Lady of the Aerkinma, but with a
warm, troubled beauty, fresh from her bed, clad only in ...
     White silk, she decided.  Something loose and flowing.  Yes, that's
what I would have worn.  Well, if I had her colouring and ... well,
anyway.
     So Tisa would be faced not only with the focus of her duty, but also
the object of her desire.  From there, it would have been a piece of
cake.
     Oh, Tisa, Riana would have said with just the right mixture of regal
worry and sultry relief.  There you are.  I need your help ...
     Ah, yes.  The Aerkinma did like their games, and Lilla certainly
didn't disapprove.  After all, using sex to manipulate others was her
best trick.  What she did disapprove of was Tisa being so damned
gullible.  How many times had Lilla discussed this sort of thing with her?
How many times had she warned her dear friend against being blinded
by her passions?  But the idiot just wouldn't listen, making it all the
worse by assuming that because she was aware of the risk, she was
immune.
     But the risk was very real.  If Riana had issued a direct order,
that was one thing.  But Lilla knew that wasn't how this particular game
was played.  Riana, probably standing close enough that her unbound
hair brushed lightly against bare skin, and her hot breath trickled into a
delicate ear, would let it be known what she wanted done without ever
explicitly ordering Tisa to break any rules of engagement.  That way, if
they were caught, Riana would be insulated from the consequences.
And Tisa, poor, loyal, besotted Tisa, would willingly take the blame to
protect her Lady.
     Lilla resented the situation, but it was an old, familiar resentment,
without much heat.  This was the way it was, after all.  The Aerkinma
manipulated those weaker than themselves for their own purposes.
Lilla was a survivor of many such campaigns, having learned how to
make herself indispensable to, or at least desired by, the parties most
likely to win.  Callie and Tisa had cultivated similar instincts over time,
but now Tisa's devotion to Riana was impairing her usually impeccable
judgement.
     And that was bad.  Just how bad would depend on just what
kind of plot the Ice Queen was hatching.  Lilla couldn't tell much from
her assignment, though.  She was to wait for Tragus to show and
monitor his activities.  Whoopee.
     She leaned against the bench at the bus stop, her attention
wandering again.  Even with a simple masking spell in place to hide her
otherworldly features, she knew she was beautiful enough to attract
attention.  She revelled in the furtive looks she got from passers-by,
occasionally stretching or bending over to give some particularly likely
specimen a thrill.  This was her element, not being forced to keep to the
shadows, isolated from all this warm, throbbing, vital human need.  A
sly smile tugged at her sulky mouth as she considered how easy it
would be to turn her attention on one of these locals, beguiling him with
a look, a gesture, a word.  And then ...
     She blinked.  Someone emerged from the foyer of Tragus's
building just as a taxi was pulling up.  Her heart began to race as she
recognized the leggy beauty with the windblown mane of tawny hair as
none other than her quarry.
     Tragus!  But he should still have been at school!  Her eyes
narrowed as she saw him retreat into the foyer, coming back out
supporting someone else.  The other person was cloaked in a
voluminous black hooded poncho affair, and Lilla couldn't discern the
details of the stranger's face in the deep shadows of the hood.
Whoever it was, though, was in pretty bad shape.  Tragus's companion
leaned on him heavily as they slowly made their way to the taxi ...
     Taxi?
     "Damn," Lilla hissed.  She made her way quickly toward where
she'd parked, her pulse still racing.  She couldn't afford to let them get
a head start.  Tragus was home when he shouldn't have been, and now
he was going somewhere with a mysterious hooded figure.
     This boring, routine assignment might just turn out to be
something worthwhile after all.

***

     Kunou had given Nabiki keys and the access code to the
estate's security system so willingly that she was disappointed.  Still,
she supposed that after revealing the darkest family secrets, handing
over the keys to the place was nothing more than a formality.
     Having access to the house, she'd figured to stop by and check
out some of the books they'd brought up from the catacombs while she
waited for Kunou to get home from school.  When she walked into the
main study, though, she was surprised to find Kunou already there.
The large, hardwood desk was covered with loose papers and the
musty old tomes that she'd been planning to peruse, one of the books
lying open in front of an uncharacteristically bedraggled Kunou.  He
looked up as she came in, frowning slightly.
     "You should be in school," he pointed out.  She walked over to
the desk and dropped her satchel on the floor, pulling up a chair
without waiting to be invited.
     "I could say the same about you," she pointed out.  "What's
up?"  He leaned back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose
carefully.
     "I was doing some reading," he told her.  "In case you are
interested, I did find references to sakaba-tou like the one we saw
yesterday."
     "You mean the sword with the reversed blade?" she asked.
     "Indeed.  One was named Shin-Uchi, and was wielded by an
ex-assassin named Himura Kenshin in the last century.  Apparently, he
did some great service for the inner circle of the time, and they ended
up with custody of the sword after his death.  The other is called
Gassan, and unlike Shin-Uchi, it is inherently magical.  It is rumoured to
have been forged by demons."
     "Wow," Nabiki said.  "Now tell me that you spent the morning
looking up this information on a whim."  He grimaced, working his
shoulders to loosen them.
     "No, I merely came across the information while searching for
something else.  You should take note of this book, however.  It may
prove useful in cataloguing artifacts."  He tapped the book in front of
him, and she nodded.
     "Got it.  So, what WERE you looking for?" she asked
innocently.  As she expected, he evaded the question.
     "Just a ... hunch," he answered vaguely.  She decided to let it
ride for the time being.  She didn't want him any more defensive than
necessary when she broached this next subject.  This discussion
promised to be difficult enough as it was.
     "Well, since you're here, and I'm here, now would be an
excellent time for us to talk."  He regarded her warily.
     "Indeed?  And what particularly is it that you wish to talk
about?"  Willing herself to look earnest, she leaned forward, bracing
her chin in her hands and her elbows on the desk.
     "I've been giving this a lot of thought, and here's what I've
come up with.  I think it's time you gave serious consideration to
forming a new inner circle."  His expression didn't change at all.  He
simply pushed the chair back, rose, and walked over to the window.
Nabiki watched his back carefully, waiting for him to respond.  She
wasn't at all certain how he would react to such a suggestion, but she
figured that it was high time she broached the subject with him.  And
maybe, just maybe, she could slip in some of what she'd learned earlier
from his mother without arousing his suspicions.
     "Well?" she asked at last as he continued to simply stare out
the window, hands clasped behind his back.
     "I might have known," he said evenly, not turning around.
"You have no confidence in my ability to handle this duty."  She
blinked.
     "Excuse me?" she sighed.  He turned, glaring imperiously at her
while the golden sunlight cast his face in harsh lines.
     "I know you think me a buffoon, Nabiki, but I had hoped that
after all you've seen you could manage to have some minimal amount of
faith in me."  She shot to her feet, planting her palms flat on the desk.
     "Listen, Kunou-baby," she snapped.  "Can we make this not
about your ego for a second?"
     "Ego?  You dare ..."
     "Yes, ego!  Look, how many of your ancestors had to carry
this thing all alone, with no help whatsoever?  Huh?  How many?"  The
muscles along the edge of his jaw writhed under the skin as he clenched
his teeth, but he made no reply.
     "That's right," she continued, softening her tone slightly.  "None.
They all had help.  They had the resources of an inner circle to
call on.  What do you have?  A glow-in-the-dark sword, a
devastatingly clever classmate, and an ego the size of the Tokyo
Tower.  Not a bad start, but let's face it.  The enemy knows where to
find you.  We, on the other hand, know almost nothing about them.
You need to start treating this thing as something more than your own
personal crusade, Kunou.  From what you've told me, it was always a
team effort in the past.  We need that kind of strength again."
     "Indeed?" he asked frostily.  "And just what would you have
me do?  Advertise in the classifieds?  It took generations to form the
nucleus of our forces.  Such a group of people may no longer exist, and
even if they do finding them will be nearly impossible."  Nabiki
straightened, tugging fussily at her skirt.
     "Oh, I think you're being a pessimist," she smiled.  "After all,
there was a group of people that did pretty well in a fracas with a large
group of demons.  At Furinkan.  Remember?"  She saw his eyes widen
as her point sank home.
     "You ... can't be serious," he spluttered.  She cocked her head.
     "No?  Why not?  We personally know a group of very talented,
very POWERFUL martial artists.  Think about it.  If there was
a fight, wouldn't you like to be able to call on Shampoo and Mousse?
Ryouga?  Ukyou, Akane, Ran ..."
     "Not him," Kunou broke in.  She crossed her arms and looked
up at him.
     "Why not?  Ranma's a hell of a fighter, and his techniques ..."
     "I will not have him here, and that is final."  She sighed.
     "Kunou, if you're serious about your duty, then you are simply
going to have to put it ahead of your personal feelings sometimes.
Besides," she added evenly, "I think it's unfair for you to hold a grudge
against Ranma for what happened to Kodachi."
     "Life," he said tightly, "is seldom fair."  She sighed.  Well, he had her
there.
     "All I'm saying is consider it," she went on patiently.  "We
don't even know if any of them would agree to help, but first you need
to decide what you want to do."  And if you make the wrong decision,
she added silently, I'll just have to nudge you back on course.
     "I suppose it would do no harm to consider the matter," he
grumbled at last.  She beamed.  At least she had him thinking about it
now.
     "Great," she said.  "In the meantime, I want to try to run down
some leads.  They're kind of shaky, but I think they're worth looking
into.  So where's your computer?"  Kunou looked at her quizzically.
     "We do not have one," he said.  She just stared in disbelief.
     "What?  Are you serious?"
     "I do not like them," he admitted.  "And Kodachi had ... no
patience for such complex things."  Nabiki was aghast.
     "Kunou, how can you be rich and pretentious without the very
latest computer gear?" she asked, thoroughly irritated.  "First thing
tomorrow, I'm going to order up some stuff we need."
     "Expensive "stuff", no doubt," he sighed.  "And how is all of
this expensive equipment going to help us fight rapacious demons?"
     "Just trust me," Nabiki told him.  "Knowledge is power, et cetera.
 Well, this is just great.  Now I'm going to have to go to the library to
do this research."
     "My heart bleeds, I assure you," Kunou said wryly.
     "Well, I'm not doing research on an empty stomach," she
informed him.  "Let's do lunch.  And it's on you, of course."  He shook
his head ruefully.
     "Of course," he said.  "I would have expected nothing less."

***

     Sweat dampened the palms of her hands as she stood outside
the door.
     Just knock, she told herself.  Do it before you lose your nerve
and run away.  You made yourself come all the way here and wait for
him.  You watched him go in.  Don't back out now.
     Swallowing hard, she reached out and knocked timidly.
Moments later, the door opened and he was standing in front of her.
When she finally spoke, her voice didn't shake; she was quite proud of
that fact.
     "Akira."  On the train, she'd wondered what she'd say to him
when she finally saw him again.  Walking from the station, she'd
wondered what she would do if he didn't still have his apartment near
the school.  And now, all she could think was that the man she had
once loved, and then feared, had gone totally bonkers.
     "Well, well, WELL," he breathed.  "Looky who it is, ya.  Da
little woman herself.  Didn' t'ink I evah be seein' you crawl out from
undah ya rock again.  To what do I owe da dubious pleasure `a dis
visit?"  His contempt washed across her like a ripe stench, and she
found herself wanting to cower, to plead, to explain.
     But she also felt something else, something unfamiliar,
something she'd rarely felt when dealing with her husband back in the
days when they'd still spoken.
     Anger.
     "We need to talk," she said evenly.  He laughed out loud.
     "Talk?  WE need ta talk?  I don' need ta talk, wahine.  Da Big
Kahuna, he don' nevah need ta talk to da likes'a you.  Be a good l'il
wahine, now, an' crawl back undah dat rock where you been hidin' all
dese years," he said, a smug grin plastered on his face.
     Yes, that was definitely anger she was feeling.  And it felt hot,
and primal, and GOOD.
     She pushed past him into the apartment, savouring the shocked
look on his face.  She took in the posters of Hawaii and grass-skirt clad
girls in a glance, the tacky plastic coconut lamp, the expensive leather
recliner.  Stomping to the middle of the floor, she turned, crossed her
arms, and waited.  The disbelief faded from his features quickly, his
face flushing with an ugly rage.
     "Hey," he said quietly.  "I leave you alone all dis time, on
account `a old times an' all dat.  But you gonna make me mad, l'il
wahine.  An' you don' wanna be makin' me mad."  She raised her chin
slightly and met his gaze with narrowed eyes.
     "You might be more menacing if you took that ridiculous thing
off your head," she said, biting off her words viciously.  Again, she saw
him falter, taken off guard.  The palm tree, the tan, the ugly clothes and
the bad accent ... THIS was the man she'd once married?
     He slammed the door behind him, advancing on her slowly.
"Look ..." he began threateningly.  She would not be put off, though.
Now that she was here, everything she'd held in for so long was
desperately seeking release, and there was nothing this caricature of a
man could do to stop her.
     "Where were you, Akira?" she asked, and although her voice
was low her tone stopped him in his tracks.  She stared him down,
righteous in her restrained fury.  "Where were you when they killed our
daughter?"  His mouth opened and closed silently, like a landed fish
trying for one last breath.
     "Well?" she snapped.  "What's this?  Nothing to say?  How is
that possible?  You always had all the answers, Akira.  I was to keep
quiet because you had all the answers.  Well answer me now, damn
you!  Where were you?"  Even as the irresistible wave of emotion
drove her on, she noted his tanned face flushing, growing mottled with
anger.  She couldn't bring herself to care, though.  Not anymore.
Nothing could be worse than the knowledge that her weakness had let
this man keep her from her family.
     "You shut up," he snarled, and she noted distantly that his
accent seemed to have vanished.  Buoyed by the heady release of grief
and anger, she stepped closer to him.
     "You sneered at me, Akira.  You said I was unworthy because
I was afraid.  Well, I WAS afraid.  But you ... what about you?"  She
felt the trembling in her legs, marvelled that she was saying all this.  But
it was too late to stop now.  Even if she wanted to, there was no
holding back the tide.
     "Yukio."  The warning in his tone was plain.  Just like the good
old days.
     "No, tell me!  You had power!  You could have done
something, but look at you!  Once, you could have protected her, but
not now.  Now you're nothing but a bad joke ..."  His hand flashed out,
the large flat palm colliding with her cheek with a loud crack.  Her head
rocked back, and through the pain she found herself insanely
remembering those large hands on her body, the gentle way they'd
touched her when they were first married.  They stared at each other in
the ensuing silence, her eyes tearing as she raised her hand to her
stinging face.  Akira seemed uncertain suddenly, as if he'd surprised
himself.
     "It's all happening again, isn't it?" she whispered, bereft.  He just
stared at her.  "Isn't it?" she asked again, louder.
     "I ... don't ..."
     "We still have one son, Akira," she said, her voice slightly
unsteady now.  "And they'll come for him someday.  They won't be
happy until they've killed Tatewaki, too."  His face brightened, and he
stepped back.
     "Tatchi?" he asked.  "Tatchi's a good boy, ya!  Chip off de ol'
block!"  It was frightening, watching him slip away even as they spoke.
     "Damn you!" she shrieked.  "He's all alone!  Do you know
who he's got helping him?  A girl!  A classmate!  What is she going to
be able to do when they come for him?  He's our son, Akira, and we
have to do something!  Can't you understand that?"  Akira cocked his
head as if she'd just done a particularly interesting trick.
     "Tatchi's a good boy," he repeated, a little sullenly.  "But he got
ta learn his lessons.  He make his bed, now he gonna lie in it."
     "What does that mean?" she wailed.  "This isn't his fault!  It's
YOUR fault!  He's in danger in that house, and he won't leave because
YOU told him again and again how important it was ..."  She trailed off,
feeling her heart sink into her belly.  Akira wasn't listening.  He'd never
listened to her before, and he clearly wasn't about to start.
     "Doesn't this matter to you anymore?" she asked plaintively.
"Don't you care what happens?"
     "Ever'ting gonna be awright," he said, his gaze intense.  She
stepped back, uncertain.
     "Y-you mean ..."
     "Ever'ting!  Gonna be!  Awright!" he crowed.  "I know dat
t'ing, baby!  You know how?"  She shook her head warily.  He
grinned, an edgy, dangerous grin.
     "Beee-cause, da Tree tell me," he said in a low, conspiratorial
voice.  She stared at him.
     "What?" she asked.  He waggled his head, making the little
palm tree on the top of his head sway.
     "Da Tree," he repeated patiently.  He walked over and
collapsed into the ugly neon recliner, reaching back to retrieve a
bottle of something from the shelf behind him.
     "Ya see," he said, spinning the cap off the squarish bottle, "da
Tree serve da Eye.  Da Eye, she a harsh mistress, see.  Before, I din't
serve da Eye well, an' so da Eye, she punish me.  But now I seen da
light.  Da only path ta peace be t'roo da Eye.  Da Eye dat sees.  Da
Eye dat knows.  An' now I serve da Eye, so I don' worry none `bout
dem bad t'ings."  She watched, numb, as he took a long pull from the
bottle, exhaling loudly when he finally pulled it away.  The tree bobbed
contentedly on his head, its tiny fronds waving at her in the still air.  Join
us, it seemed to whisper.  I serve the Eye, Yukio, so why not get down
with me?  Worship the Tree, baby, `cause it's all downhill from here ...
     "I'm not going to let them kill our son," she said softly.  It was
the only thing left to say.  Akira lay back in the chair, legs splayed
untidily, garish shirt askew.
     "What you gonna do, l'il wahine?" he asked contemptuously.
"You ain't wit' da Tree.  Dem t'ings gonna eat you all up an' spit out
you shrivelled l'il soul."  She nodded.
     "Maybe," she whispered.  "Maybe they'll kill me.  But they
can't hurt me worse than I've already been hurt.  This time I'm not
going to fail."  She turned and walked to the door, head down.
     "You wastin' you time!" he shouted at her back.  "Dere ain't
nuttin' you can do!  Da day gonna come, Yukio!  You'll see!"  She
opened the door and stood there for a moment as he ranted on.
     "Da Tree serves, an' tells me all dem t'ings!  See, da Eye
gonna call forth dat fire, ya!  Blazin' white fire dat gonna burn dem all!
Gonna burn up da bad l'il boy-killers!  Gonna burn up da bad spider-
women!  Gonna burn up ALLLLLLL dem unbelievers, baby!"  He
cackled wildly, and she felt tears burning her eyes again.  Reaching
blindly into her purse, she fished around until she found the small, cold
object she'd put in there earlier.  She pulled it out, keeping it hidden in
her clenched fist, and turned.
     "Here," she said softly.  "I've been meaning to give this back to
you.  I just never had a chance."  She tossed it lightly at him, not
watching it hit the floor and bounce towards him.  Instead, she turned
quickly and went out, closing the door behind her.  She stood outside,
feeling the tears spill over, feeling a door somewhere inside her finally
slam all the way shut.
     Good-bye, Akira, she said silently.  I wish ... I wish ...
     I wish things had turned out differently.
     Stifling a sob, she walked quickly away.

***

     Akira stared dumbfounded at the tiny gold circle that lay
gleaming on the floor by his foot.  He couldn't believe she'd kept it, all
this time.  He'd thrown his into the ocean on a beach in Hawaii long
ago.  The Tree hadn't liked it.  Slowly, he reached down with his free
hand and scooped it up off the floor.  It looked small and delicate in his
palm, and he was surprised at the sudden lump in his throat.
     Boy, he thought numbly, that Yukio.  She always knew how to
get me.  Shakily, he raised the bottle to his mouth and took another
long drink.  Cheap scotch burned his throat as it slid down like liquid
fire.
     Then he hurled the ring away violently, watching it ricochet off the
wall and vanish down the hallway.  He reached up and tweaked the
Tree fondly.
     "Hey," he whispered.  "Do me a favour, ya?  When da Eye call
dat fire up ... burn her first."

***

     Ranma bounced on the balls of his feet, and Nodoka could
scarcely contain her amusement.
     "And you're sure it's okay?" he asked for the tenth time.
     "Ranma," she said patiently.  "Yes.  I am certain.  To be honest, I
hadn't expected you to embrace the idea so eagerly."  He shuffled in
place and grinned boyishly.
     "Well, maybe I'm just getting used to the idea," he said
sheepishly.  "I mean, after what you said last night, I thought about it a
lot.  And Akane did seem kind of quiet today.  Anyway, this will make
her smile."  His eyes shone when he said that, and she felt a pang of
love for her son, emerging clumsily but with fierce determination from
his boyhood.  It was obvious that the very thought of being able to
make Akane smile lit up his soul.  He was going to be a fine man, one
that would make her proud.
     What more could a mother hope for?
     "Yes, I daresay it will," she said warmly.  "And I intend to
speak with Soun and your father tonight, as I promised.  You two
won't have to hide your feelings any longer."  Ranma looked at the
floor for a moment, then lifted his gaze to meet hers.
     "Mom," he said, "you're the greatest.  Have I ever told you
that?"  She felt a warmth spread through her chest, and she smiled
fondly at her only child.
     "No," she said softly.  "But it was worth waiting to hear you
say it.  Now."  She clapped her hands smartly.  "You, young Romeo,
should go find your lady."  He grinned in an utterly endearing fashion,
ducking his head.
     "Yeah, I guess I should," he said.  She stepped close and
reached out to gently brush one unruly lock of hair away from his eyes.
     "You're a good man, Ranma," she whispered.  "You two are
lucky to have each other."  He fidgeted, but smiled back.
     "Yeah, I know," he replied.  She pushed at his strong
shoulders, gentle but insistent.
     "Now go," she instructed.  He turned to go, then turned back.
     "You're really sure ..." he began.
     "Go!" she repeated.  He went.  Nodoka sighed, shaking her
head.  They grow up so fast, she told herself ruefully.  Even now, in the
short time since she'd become re-acquainted with her son, she could
see him maturing.  Looking around at the garden, she was overcome by
a sudden sense of melancholy.
     I won't miss any more of his life, she told herself.  I want to see
him marry Akane and start a family.  I want to see them love each
other.  And I want to be there for him, for both of them.  I couldn't love
that girl more if she were my own.
     Then suddenly, a haunted face appeared in her thoughts, and
she paused to stare wistfully into the pond.
     Ranko, she thought.  Oh, dear Ranko.  Where have you gone?
Are you happy?  Do you have anyone?  She shook her head, watching
her reflection in the pool ape her.  She wished he could have stayed.
But what would he have thought of Ranma and Akane?  Would he
have been happy for them, or tormented by the spectre of the love he
might have had if things had only been different?
     Come back to us, Ranko, she thought.  I need to know that
you're all right.
     A wandering breeze wafted through the garden, whispering
bittersweet tidings of those absent and lost in her ear.  She breathed its
nostalgic scent deeply, then let it go in one long, slow exhalation.
     Sadness.  Yes, there had been that in their lives, but there was
hope too.  And hope had the power to sustain.  Sadness was the past,
hope the future.  With a gentle smile playing at her lips, she went into
the house and found her way to the kitchen.
     "Auntie," Kasumi said, clearly pleased to see her.  "I didn't
know you were here.  I was just thinking about supper.  Will you be
staying?"
     "Yes, dear," she said, "but you won't need to make any for
Ranma and Akane."
     "Oh?  Why not?" Kasumi asked.  Nodoka smiled.
     "They," she informed the eldest Tendou daughter, "are going on
a date."

***

     Ryouga set the order down on the table, smiling automatically.
When he straightened up, he saw Reiko, still brooding at the corner
table.
     He sighed.  Ukyou had asked him to talk to the secretive girl, but
she hadn't been in a very talkative mood, just sitting at that table as the
afternoon progressed.  Ryouga took a look around and, seeing that the
few customers were all served, went over and sat down across from
the blonde sorceress.
     "So," he said brightly.  She looked up.
     "Why didn't you tell me that Ukyou was a girl?" she asked
flatly.  He blinked.
     "Huh?" he blurted.  "Are you still mad about that?"
     "I don't like looking foolish," she said evenly.  "So tell me ... are you
hiding anything I should know about, Ryouga?"  Blood rushed to his
face.  He really didn't want to tell her about P-chan.  Her sky-blue eyes
narrowed, and she leaned forward.
     "Hey," she said suspiciously.  "You ARE, aren't you?  Are you
really a boy?"  She reached out and poked his chest.  He recoiled.
     "Hey!" he protested. "Of course I am!  Stop that!"  She leaned
back, a tiny twitch playing at the corner of her mouth, and he realized
he was being had.
     "So," she said.  He sighed.  This girl was so strange, hot one
moment and cool the next.  He couldn't figure her out.
     "So," he said.  "Been thinking about your problem?"  She
propped her chin in her hand and look out at the street.
     "Yes," she admitted.  "I'm not sure what to do next."
     "Well, I might have an idea," he ventured.  Her gaze swung
back to him, suddenly intense.
     "Don't fool around, Ryouga," she said sharply.  He held up his
hands.
     "Just an idea," he said quickly.  "But it's better than nothing.  Well,
anyway, it's like this.  Ukyou is friends with Nabiki, who knows Kunou
pretty well.  And, well, Ukyou is willing to ask Nabiki to check into this
thing for you, casually you understand.  But only if you give us some
details, something to work with."  Reiko peered intently into his eyes,
making him uncomfortable.
     "Ukyou doesn't trust me," she said at last.
     "That's not it," he protested, even though it was.  She gave him
a crooked grin.
     "That's all right, Ryouga," she told him.  "I guess I can't blame
her.  This whole thing is pretty strange, after all.  So, you think this
Nabiki can check out the lay of the land without giving things away,
huh?"
     "That's the plan," he nodded.
     "And you're not worried that it might be dangerous if he figures
out what she's up to?"
     "Dangerous?" Ryouga asked, incredulous.  "Kunou?  You
don't know Kunou.  He's ... well, he thinks of himself as a real old-time
samurai.  Truth is, he's kind of a flake, pretentious, full of himself, but
still a pretty good swordsman.  He wouldn't hurt a woman, though.
The fact is, he considers himself kind of a lady's man."
     "The old man must have thought he was dangerous, or at least
unreliable," Reiko pressed.  "Otherwise, why tell me not to reveal
myself to him?"  Ryouga shrugged.
     "I don't know," he confessed.  You tell me.  I don't know
anything about this old man.  How did he know Kunou?"  Reiko sat
back, brow furrowed, and for a moment Ryouga didn't think she was
going to answer.
     "I don't know," she sighed at last.  "There were things he didn't
tell me.  A lot of things."  This last was delivered with such bitterness
that Ryouga felt the urgent need to be somewhere else, like an outsider
witnessing a family spat.  Reiko turned her attention back to him,
though, searching his face as if looking for answers there.
     "So what happened to him?" Ryouga asked finally, unnerved
by her close regard.  "I mean, you keep saying ..."
     "He's dead," she said flatly.  He swallowed nervously.
     "I, uh, gathered that," he stammered.  "I'm sorry, that is ..."
     "He was a priest, like I said" she continued in a low, even voice.
"He taught me about magic, and spirits, and demons.  The whole
unseen world that's all around us.  I inherited the family gift, after all, so
I had to be taught these things."  She laughed, a short, unhappy sound.
     "Gift," she huffed.  "Or curse, depending on how you look at it.
Anyway, even though we didn't always get along, he was a pretty good
teacher.  Even I have to admit that."  She trailed off, and Ryouga
waited to see what would happen.  He wasn't good at this sort of thing.
He wished Ukyou would have tried talking to Reiko.  Ukyou was a
good listener.  People liked talking to her.  She would know what to
say to put Reiko at her ease.  He looked at the girl, her shoulders
hunched slightly as she stared at the table, and couldn't think of
anything to say that didn't sound stupid.
     "They killed him."  Her voice was still quiet, nearly emotionless.
It took Ryouga a second to realize what she'd said.
     "Huh?  Who did?" he asked.  She traced a pattern idly on the
table top with her index finger, her manner one of exaggerated
casualness.
     "Them.  The demons," she said softly.  "At the shrine.  They
came to the shrine and killed him.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe they
didn't need a reason."  Ryouga's discomfort grew.
     "I guess it's lucky you weren't there," he said, desperate to fill
the awkward silence.  She looked up at him, a humourless smile on her
face.
     "Luck?" she asked in a brittle tone.  "Luck had nothing to do
with it.  Apparently, the old fool had a vision, see.  He knew they were
coming for him.  So what do you suppose he did?"  Ryouga shrank
back slightly.
     "Uh ..." he hazarded.
     "Did he run away?" she pressed.  "No.  He stayed to face
them.  His duty, he probably would have said.  But."  She held up one
finger, cocking her head.  "BUT.  Did he arrange to have his student,
the heir to a powerful sorcerous legacy, there to help him?  No.  Oh,
no.  In fact, he arranged for her to be gone when they arrived.  So
she'd be safe, see.  Because her power is so important that her survival
had to be assured."  She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms.
     "You'd think being a sorceress would be something special,
wouldn't you, Ryouga?" she asked.  "Well, let me tell you something.
Sometimes, I really hate it.  I mean, nobody ever asked me if I wanted
this, you know?"  Her eyes shifted from the table to him, and she
stiffened suddenly.
     "Geez, why am I telling you all this?" she asked.
     "Uh, I don't know," he told her weakly.  She shook her head.
     "Just forget all that," she grumbled.  "The only thing that matters
right now is that the old man had one last request, and for some reason
I feel obligated to try and make it happen.  Even though I'm still mad at
him."  She fished around in her bag, and Ryouga reflected that, although
she acted like she hadn't liked her mentor, she sure was going to a lot
of trouble to honour his memory.  Frankly, he just couldn't figure her
out at all.  She went from being outrageously flirtatious to sullen and
brooding seemingly at will.
     Of course, not being able to figure women out was nothing new
to him.
     Finally, she found what she was looking for and straightened
up.  Ryouga looked at the folded paper in her hand curiously.
     "Do you know what this is?" she asked him.  He shrugged.
     "It looks like a letter."
     "Exactly right," she nodded.  "It's a letter.  The old man sent
me on an errand the night he died, and that errand ended up taking me
most of the night.  At the end of the line, I found this letter.  Addressed
to me."  She waved it gently in front of her face as if fanning herself.
     "Uh ..." Ryouga began.
     "Cute, huh?" Reiko broke in with a tight smile.  "He made sure
I was safe when they came for him.  And do you know why?"
     "Well ..."
     "I'll tell you why," she went on, ignoring him.  "Because,
apparently, I have to survive and fulfill my destiny.  My destiny."  She
laughed bitterly.
     "Not that I have any idea what my destiny is," she said softly,
staring at the table.  "But apparently it's more important than the life of
an old priest.  At least he thought so."  Ryouga squirmed in his seat,
watching as Reiko seemed to lose herself in her thoughts again, the
letter crumpled absently in one fist.
     "If he knew they were coming," he said hesitantly, "couldn't he
have ... run away?  Or something?"  She scowled.
     "Don't you think I've asked myself that?" she snapped.  "I've
asked myself a million questions about this!  All I know is what's in the
damn letter!  He claims he had to face his destiny, and now I have to
face ... mine."  The anger drained from her delicate features as quickly
as it had come, and she slumped, rubbing absently at the band-aid at
the base of her throat.  She looked tired, and Ryouga remembered that
she'd shown up at Ucchan's early that morning.
     "I don't know why it was so important to him, but I'll get the
damned pendant," she muttered.  "After that, all bets are off.  I'll make
my own destiny."
     "Pendant?" he asked.  She sighed, rubbing her eyes with the
palms of her hands.
     "The thing that's supposed to be somewhere on the Kunou
estate," she said wearily.  "Only, as we already know, this damned
letter tells me not to go to the Kunous, only Sasuke, to ask about it."
     "He really said that, huh?" Ryouga mused.  "It's strange.  I never
would have said that Sasuke was particularly reliable, and he was only
their servant.  So why him and not Kunou?"  She fixed him with a
disbelieving stare.
     "Isn't it obvious?" she asked. "He must have known that the
Kunous were involved with these dark forces, and were working both
sides of the fence."  Ryouga stiffened.
     "Hey," he said defensively.  "I'm not Kunou's greatest fan, but he
wouldn't cooperate with creatures like that, especially not after they
killed his sister!"  Reiko laced her fingers into her bangs, pushing them
back off her forehead while she regarded Ryouga with a critical stare.
     "You really don't get it, do you?" she asked at last.
     "What do you mean?" he asked cautiously.  She sighed.
     "Look, Ryouga, I've learned about creatures like this almost
my whole life, so let me tell you some things you may not realize," she
said with a strange half-smile.  "They aren't all ugly monsters like the
ones you fought before.  If they were, it would be a lot easier to spot
them.   No, the dark isn't always frightening.  In fact, it often wears a
beautiful face.  Think about it, Ryouga.  You'd fight a slavering, drooling
monster that tried to rip you apart, that's a no-brainer.  But what if you
were faced with a lush, sensuous beauty like, oh, Wynneth?  She
doesn't look like a monster at all, does she?"  Ryouga remembered the
striking vampiress from the previous night, and had to admit that Reiko
had a point.  If he hadn't known what Wynneth really was, he would
never have suspected her true nature.
     "The lower orders of demon are usually satisfied with just killing
you, Ryouga," Reiko told him, her blue eyes sombre.  "But for the
more powerful ones, like Wynneth, it becomes a game.  They hate
humans, and so it isn't enough to just kill us.  They want to destroy us,
drag us into the dark and make us wallow in it.  They prefer to seduce
their victims, to beguile them.  And some of them are very good at what
they do."  She paused, absently rubbing again at the band-aid on her
throat.
     "Some of their victims are willing to give up their souls, their
humanity for the dark promise these creatures offer, Ryouga," she
continued, shaking her head slightly.  "And others are just drawn in,
deeper and deeper, one step at a time, until one day they find
themselves in so deep that can't get back out.  If they even still want to
escape.  You said this Kunou fancies himself a lady's man, right?"
Ryouga blinked, lost in the gentle cadence of Reiko's voice
     "Uh, yeah," he said.  "So?"  She smiled tolerantly.
     "So?  So this.  Remember I told you about the woman I saw a
couple of times at the estate?  She was very beautiful, Ryouga.  Now,
maybe this Kunou guy would kill a monster on sight, but what about a
gorgeous woman like that?  She comes to him, asking for his help,
playing to his vanity.  She plays with him a little, finds out what he wants
most, then she sees that he gets it.  Probably, she uses herself.  Makes
up a story about being chased, maybe by the same demons that killed
his sister.  He's happy to become her protector.  She's grateful, and
shows her gratitude ... in many ways."  Ryouga felt his face grow warm
at the insinuations, and Reiko's smile widened.
     "Oh, yes," she said knowingly. "She'd make him want her, then
NEED her, and then she could "succumb" to his advances.  Soon, he
wouldn't want to live without her, and then ... why, then she starts
asking for things.  Little things at first, then bigger things.  Maybe a petty
misdemeanour to start, all in good fun.  Things escalate slowly, and then
...  Eventually, maybe there's someone who is a danger to her, someone
she needs ... dealt with.  Get him on that slippery slope, then slowly
lead him down into the depths, so slowly that by the time he realizes it
..."  She trailed off suggestively.
     "Oh," Ryouga said, chastened.  Thinking about it, he could see
Kunou falling into a trap like that.  Easily.
     "You see?  He never knows what he's dealing with until it's too
late," she said, her gaze unfocussed.  "She would revel in soiling his
soul, and then she'd kill him ... if he was lucky."
     "What if he wasn't lucky?" Ryouga asked hesitantly.  Her eyes
came back to his face, and she smiled unpleasantly.
     "Slavery," she suggested.  "Madness.  Any number of horrible
fates.  So you see, the old man may have known, or suspected, that
these Kunous were compromised.  That's the best reason I can come
up with for his restrictions on talking to them."
     "Okay, but even if you're right, what do we do?" Ryouga asked.  "I
mean, how will we find out for sure?"  Reiko rubbed her chin lightly.
     "Find that woman," she said, "and we'll find some answers.
Failing that, I still need to get that pendant from the estate.  Assuming it
isn't already gone."
     "What exactly is this pendant you keep talking about?" Ryouga
asked.  "Is it important?"  Reiko stretched slowly, her arms extended
over her head, and Ryouga tried not to notice the way her thin cotton t-
shirt pulled tight against her breasts.
     "I'm not entirely certain," she yawned.  "But first things first.
We've got to find the thing, which means we've got to figure out the
situation over there at the Kunou place.  Do you think, if you tell Ukyou
what I told you, that she'll agree to talk to her friend about this?"
Ryouga thought for a moment.
     "I think so," he said at last.  "I'll ask her, anyway.  Nabiki
knows Kunou as well as anyone, so if something strange is going on,
she should know."  Reiko smiled.
     "Thanks, Ryouga.  I just want to get this over with, you know?
Uh, oh.  Your boss is calling."  He blinked, then turned to see Ukyou
waving at him.  A new customer had come in and was waiting for
service.
     "Oops.  I gotta go.  Talk to you later," he said, getting up.
Reiko stopped him, a serious look on her face.
     "Ryouga, just remember what I said," she told him.  "This
woman could have your friend's soul in the palm of her hand by now.
He might be dangerous.  This has to be handled carefully."  Ryouga
smiled.  He really couldn't see Kunou being anything more than a
nuisance, no matter what Reiko said.
     "Don't worry," he assured her.  "Everything's going to be fine.
You'll see."  She didn't look convinced.
     Considering the disturbing scenario she'd outlined, Ryouga
supposed he didn't blame her one bit.

***

     Akane had to admit she was impressed.  Ranma had done a
nice job of planning and executing their surprise dinner date.  She
supposed that, at some level, he'd picked up on her disquiet after their
talk in the dojo the previous night.  That would explain the sudden
announcement when they'd arrived home that he was taking her on a
date.  She supposed she couldn't complain, even though they'd had to
sneak out of the house separately to avoid their fathers, which brought
her disquiet to the surface again.
     Still, it was an actual date.  Ranma had taken her to a
restaurant, not a terribly fancy place but nice enough nonetheless.  And
he'd paid, which only served to heighten the sense of occasion.  She'd
felt edgy after they'd ended up at their table, though, and it had taken
her a little while to realize why.
     Finally she understood.  By that point in their date, something
fairly catastrophic should have happened.  After all, something
ALWAYS happened.  But they ordered, received their food, and
began to eat, all without anything exploding.  No walls were smashed,
no one showed up to challenge Ranma or to reveal that she was a long-
lost fiancee.
     The calm was a little unnerving.  And through dinner, their talk
was nervous, strained, as if they both realized that something unnatural
was occurring.
     They got through the meal without any mishaps, though, and
Akane began to relax a little.  Ranma hadn't eaten much, which was
definitely not like him, but she chalked it up to the unusual
circumstances.  Then she smiled ruefully.  Only in their relationship
could a quiet dinner be considered an unusual circumstance.
     Outside the restaurant, awkward silence once again reigned
until Ranma suggested, a trifle nervously, they go for a walk.  With
summer fast coming on, it was quite a pleasant evening and Akane
readily agreed.  She really didn't want to go home yet, where they'd
have to sneak around again.
     Walking along beside Ranma, Akane felt a warm, intimate glow
in her belly.  A date, she told herself wistfully.  A normal, ordinary date.
She'd looked forward to this for so long, and she'd been too nervous
for most of dinner to actually enjoy it.
     Well, that was going to stop as of right now.  Once the evening
was over, they'd be facing another night of pretending they weren't a
couple, so she was going to enjoy this while she could.
     She sneaked a look at Ranma.  He looked very nice in a white,
sleeveless shirt with black pants and a black sash.  She was wearing a
light floral print sun dress, and one hand toyed with the hem of her
knee-length skirt as she surreptitiously studied Ranma's face.
     He seemed to be preoccupied, not saying anything as they
walked.  Her heart sped up at the sight of him, and she suppressed a
sigh.  It was so hard not to shout out that he was hers sometimes.  She
couldn't tell the truth to any of her friends at school, and they had to
sneak around the house too.  It seemed like, now that they had
revealed their feelings for each other, there was never any time when
they could just be together.
     "Ranma?"
     "Huh?" he asked, shaking himself out of his reverie.  She smiled
up a him.
     "Is everything okay?" she asked.  He nodded, smiling back.
     "Sure," he said.  "Fine."  He was lying, though.  She could tell.
He never had been a very good liar.  The warm glow inside her began
to cool.  Maybe he wasn't enjoying himself.  Maybe she wasn't being
very good company.  Maybe ...
     "Hey, let's go in here," he suggested abruptly.  He grabbed her
hand and led her into the nearby park.  She trailed along, Ranma's
hand sending shivers up her arm.
     "Slow down, Ranma," she gasped.  "What's the hurry?"  He
looked back and grinned ruefully.
     "Sorry," he said.  They started walking again, this time side by
side.  Ranma's hand was still wrapped around hers and she squeezed it
gently.  He squeezed back, and her heart fluttered pleasantly.  The
warm air was redolent with the scent of green growing things, and
Akane breathed it deeply, savouring every sensation.  All her worries
receded into the background as she let the moment lull her.  Maybe
Ranma was having doubts.  Maybe she was tired of having to sneak
around.  But for right now, for these next minutes, she would just enjoy
being here, in this place.  With him.
     They passed other couples as they walked, and Akane
wondered with a tiny thrill whether she and Ranma looked as right
together as they did.  She was certain that they must, walking along
without speaking, without needing to speak.  Every tiny motion was
somehow magnified by the delicious silent pressure that had grown up
between them.  Ranma ran his thumb lightly over hers.  In response, she
leaned slightly into him, their bare arms brushing exquisitely.  He
glanced down one path and shifted his body slightly; she followed
without his having to say anything.
     These small intimacies would have seemed unimportant,
perhaps even silly, to an onlooker, she knew.  But they mattered to her,
more than she would have believed.  She and Ranma were becoming
aware of each other at some almost primal level, and it was an
experience both exhilarating and frightening.
     So this is love, she thought blissfully.  I don't want this moment
to end.  Ever.
     But end it did, as it had to sooner or later.  Ranma led her
through some shrubs and into a stand of trees.  They had left the path
behind, and she wondered where they could be going.  When they
broke through to the other side, though,  Akane gasped with delighted
wonder.  They were standing on a grassy hill that sloped sharply down
to a lake.  The surface was still, almost glassy, a huge mirror distorted
only by the passage of a family of swans cruising placidly nearby.  Past
the opposite shore, behind more trees, the ubiquitous city resumed its
brooding presence.  The sun was setting now, though, and the tawny
light picked out brilliant diamonds of sunflash from the windows of the
towers, lending them a  fey beauty they never possessed by the harsh
light of midday.
     It was perfect.  She stood, enraptured, until Ranma released
her hand and cleared his throat nervously.
     "Um, nice view, huh?" he asked.  "I, uh, found this place a
while ago, and I thought you might like it."  She crossed her arms under
her breasts, hugging herself lightly.
     "I do," she said breathlessly.  He shuffled his feet.
     "Well, good," he said.  "I mean, I'm glad.  The truth is, Akane,
I ... uh, sort of have a ... whaddayacallit, an ulterior motive for bringing
you here."  She turned away from the spectacular vista, a vertiginous
sensation in her stomach.  Ulterior motive?  And why was he so
nervous?
     This sudden date, she thought numbly.  This whole evening ...
he's trying to cushion the blow.  He really is having second thoughts
about us getting married.  Or maybe just about us PERIOD.  Why?
Why can't we just be happy?  Why ...?
     As she stood, stunned, Ranma continued to fidget in front of
her, rubbing his palms together slowly, seemingly unaware of her shock.
     "It's like this, Akane.  I've been thinking about what you said last
night," he went on, glancing at her from time to time as he spoke.
"About us, I mean, and ... being a couple, and ... things."
     "Things," she echoed hollowly.  "Like our future."  He nodded
spastically.
     "Yeah!" he blurted.
     "I see."  She just stared, a feeling of unreality settling over her
like a heavy cloak.  Ranma plowed on, oblivious.
     "So, about that ... the future, I mean.  Well, I was talking to
Mom and she explained that when I thought we were talking about one
thing last night, you meant something else.  And then I felt bad about the
misunderstanding ..."
     "Ranma."  Her voice was so quiet that he didn't even hear her,
continuing to rattle on full tilt.
     "... and so I thought ... I thought that ... aw, hell."  He thrust his
hand inside his shirt and withdrew it quickly, his fingers curled around
something.
     "I had a speech," he said sheepishly, "but I, um, forgot it.  Sorry."
His fingers uncurled as he held his hand out, and everything seemed to
slow down for her.  The moment stretched out like taffy as the object in
his palm was slowly revealed, like the sun breaking above the horizon.
     She would swear later that, as she realized what Ranma held,
her heart actually forgot to beat for one incredibly long second.  When
it started up again, it pounded frantically in her chest.
     It was a box.  A small, black box.  She just stared, spellbound,
all her doubts and fears swept away in a moment.  She couldn't speak
or move.  Hell, she could barely BREATHE.
     That couldn't possibly be what it looked like.
     "Akane," Ranma said finally, breaking the long silence, his voice tight
and a little unsteady.  "Aren't you going to open it?"  Unfolding her
arms, she slowly reached out and took the box from his hand, staring at
it as if to blink would give it the opportunity to vanish.  It hardly seemed
to weigh anything as, with a shaking hand, she pried it open.  The creak
of the hinge sounded unnaturally loud in her ears as the box reluctantly
opened to reveal ...
     "It's from Mom's side of the family," Ranma blurted.  "I know it's not
a real engagement ring or anything.  I mean, there's no diamond, but it's
... like an heirloom, and ..."  Akane just stared.  There, nestled in black
velvet, was a slim ring of gleaming silver.  Tiny hearts were inscribed in
a chain, twining around the surface in a delicate pattern.  Ranma,
unnerved by her continued silence, began to talk even faster.
     "I was thinking that, for now, this would be good," he rambled.
"I mean, you could show it to people and ... stuff.  Until I could afford a
real ... well, I mean ... okay, look."  He stopped, swallowed hard.
     "I'm not really any good at this," he said hoarsely.  "You know
that.  Talking about how I feel and that, I mean.  So I thought that ...
that if you had something like this ... that you could wear it, see, and
then if, sometimes, you were worried about ... us, you and me, I mean,
then you could just ... look down, and see it, and, and, and remember
that I gave it to you as a promise, to show that I love you and ... and
you're the one I want to be with and ..."  She cupped the box in her
hands, noticing that it was suddenly swimming out of focus.  Her chest
felt tight and her legs felt shaky and a warm shiver tickled the back of
her neck.
     "... and ... aw, MAN.  Are you crying?" Ranma asked plaintively.
"What's wrong?  Don't ... don't you like it?  Akane ..."  Keeping her
gaze fixed on the ring, she took a small step forward.  Then another.
She didn't stop until she collided lightly with the befuddled Ranma.
Then she let her arms slip around his waist, burying her face in the
crook of his shoulder.  Squeezing his narrow waist tightly, she nuzzled
his shoulder, letting her freely flowing tears soak into Ranma's shirt as
she struggled to speak past the lump in her throat.
     "I love it," she whispered, breathing in the scent of his skin.
"And I love you, Ranma."  His body, rigid in her arms, slowly relaxed,
and his strong arms came up around her shoulders, one large hand
cupping the back of her neck protectively.
     "So, just for the record," he said slowly, "this is GOOD crying,
right?"  She giggled and sniffed, leaning her weight against his
wonderfully warm solid chest.
     "Yes," she confirmed.  "The best."  He held her then, and she
knew that she'd been a fool to doubt him.  After everything he'd done
so that they could be together, she should have known better.
     "You had me worried for a minute there," he sighed, his warm
breath stirring her hair.  She closed her eyes and revelled in the feel of
him, her senses drunk with his very essence.  His hand gently kneaded
the back of her neck, eliciting delightful sensations that cascaded down
her spine, and she could feel the thrumming of his heart where their
bodies were pressed together.
     "You surprised me," she murmured, smiling widely at the
understatement.  "You planned all this, didn't you?  The lake, the sunset
..."
     "Guilty," he whispered throatily.
     "It's perfect, Ranma," she sighed.  "YOU'RE perfect."  He
began toying with her hair where it curled behind her ear.
     "I just wanted to make sure you knew what I was feeling," he
responded.  "After last night, I worried that maybe I let you think I had
doubts."  She made a contented sound deep in her throat.
     "Let's not talk about that," she said.  Reluctantly, she pulled
back, bringing the box between them so she could look at the ring
again.
     "It's so beautiful, Ranma," she murmured, holding it close to
her chest.  "Your mother really doesn't mind?"  He chuckled.
     "Mind?  She thought it was a great idea," he told her fondly.
"We're just lucky she never let Pop have it."  She looked up at him
from under her still damp lashes, her breath momentarily stolen by the
way the dying light reflected in his eyes.
     "Ranma?"
     "Hmmm?"
     "Would you ... put it on me?"  She held the box out to him, wiping
ineffectually at the tears on her cheeks,  and he blinked.
     "Uh ... sure."  He gently pulled the ring out of its nesting place.
With a movement that felt strangely natural, she held her hand out,
cocked slightly at the wrist.  Ranma took the proffered hand in his,
slipping the ring onto the proper finger gingerly.  The cool metal left a
trail of icy shivers along her finger as it gently slid into place.  Filled with
wonder, Akane raised the hand in front of her face, watching the
quicksilver light play on the surface of the ring, turning it this way and
that.  It really was beautiful.  She couldn't wait to show ...
     "Ranma," she said slowly.  "Did you really mean what you
said?  About me having something to show everyone, I mean?"  He
nodded.
     "Yeah," he said.  "They'll all be jealous, I bet."  She smiled,
clasping her hand to her chest.
     "Then we can finally tell everyone?  But ... what about our
fathers?  They'll try to ..."
     "Don't you worry about them," Ranma told her with a crooked
grin.  "We'll get married when we're ready, and not before.  By the
time we get home, I have it on good authority that they won't want to
cause any trouble at all."

***

     Nodoka gazed sternly at the two men seated across from her.  Her
katana, unwrapped, lay across her knees and she fondled the sheathed
weapon lovingly, noting with hidden amusement the effect on her
husband.
     "So," she said crisply.  "We have an understanding then,
Genma?  Soun?"  The two fidgeted like recalcitrant schoolboys, but
they both nodded.
     "Of course," Soun said soberly.  "Anything for the happiness of
our children."
     "Yes," Genma rumbled.  "Since they have come so far, it
seems only reasonable to let them finish the journey without any ... er,
help."  She noticed him glancing surreptitiously at the katana and gave it
an extra caress for good measure.
     "I'm so glad we're all in agreement," she said mildly.  "After all,
I gave Ranma my word that their engagement would proceed without
our interference, and I wouldn't care to have my oath to my son
besmirched.  I take matters of honour ... most seriously."  Idly, she let
her fingers curl around the hilt, stroking the tips lightly up from the
cross-guard.  Genma's Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, and
she fought to keep her expression neutral.
     "Of course not, my dear Nodoka," Soun said with his usual
bluff pomposity.  "Have no fear.  Now that the future of the dojo, not to
mention our two families, is assured ..."  He broke off and coughed
discreetly.  "It is, uh ... ASSURED, right?"  She smiled.
     "Let me just say this," she replied.  "When our children return,
if Akane is wearing the ring, then the answer is yes."  And, she thought,
judging by Ranma's reaction when I suggested he give it to her, there's
no way he'd have backed out.  And of course Akane would accept.
Now, if only nothing strange or outrageous happens while he's trying to
give her the ring ...
     She stifled a sigh.  No sense in worrying, she told herself.
They'd all know soon enough if Ranma had succeeded in his quest.  In
the meantime ...
     "So.  Now that our children have finally admitted their feelings
to each other, that will be one less worry for us."  She rose gracefully,
clutching the katana in front of her.  "And I would like to ask you to
please keep this to yourselves for the time being.  I'm sure Akane
wants the pleasure of telling her sisters about this."
     "Certainly," Soun said agreeably.
     "You can count on us, Nodoka," Genma chimed in.  She
nodded.
     "I'm glad to hear that.  Well, Kasumi went to take some
cookies to Doctor Tofu, so I'm going to make some tea."  She stepped
out of the room, sighing with relief as she pulled the door closed behind
her.
     Well, she'd done all she could do to make sure that things went
smoothly for the young lovers.  It was all in their hands now.  A faint
smile stole over her lips as she made her way to the kitchen.
     Ranma had grown so much in just the short time since she'd
rediscovered her son.  To her surprise, he'd shown no reluctance when
she'd brought up the matter of the ring.  After their talk, he seemed
determined to let Akane know where she stood with him once and for
all.  His love for that girl made her proud.
     She sighed.  Ah, to be young and in love again, she thought
wistfully.
     Lost in reminiscences, she set about making the tea.

***

     The two men sat in silence for a moment after the door shut,
staring at it blankly.
     "Tendou," Genma said at last.
     "Saotome," Soun answered back.  They regarded each other
solemnly, then broke out in matching grins.
     "We did it!" Genma exulted.
     "I knew our efforts would pay off!" Soun crowed, slapping his
friend on the shoulder.  "Damn, we're good!"
     "At long last, they've stopped being stubborn!" Genma
beamed.  "Ah, a father's task is thankless, Tendou.  It took a while, but
it was worth it, wasn't it?"  Soun nodded.
     "Yes, indeed it was," he sighed.  "Some days I wondered if we
would ever get those two stubborn kids together.  But we
persevered!"
     "Brings a tear to an old man's eye," Genma sighed.  "Ah, if
only the Master were here ..."
     "Shhh!  Not so loud, Saotome!" Soun hissed with a furtive look
around the room.  Genma waved his large, square-palmed hand
negligently.
     "Oh, come on, Tendou," he said breezily.  "After all, how long
will it take him to steal underwear from every single country in the
world?"
     "With any luck, another twenty years," Soun said in a
conspiratorial voice.  They both laughed.
     "At any rate, we should be more worried about Nodoka than
the Master," Genma went on.  "Although, now that we've done all the
hard work, it shouldn't be too hard to avoid giving her a reason to get
upset."
     "Women," Soun sighed, "are so unreasonable sometimes."
     "I couldn't agree more, Tendou."
     "And no offense, Saotome, but your wife can be quite ...
formidable," Soun said with an uneasy glance at the door Nodoka had
recently passed through.  Genma chuckled.
     "You needn't tell me, my friend," he said wryly.  "You think
that was bad?  Take a word of advice.  Never.  EVER.  Make her
angry."  The two men shared a laugh at the strange vagaries of women,
then looked at each other, sharing the sort of wordless communication
old friends often possess.
     "Sake?"
     "Definitely."
     And with that, the two set about celebrating the end of an era.

***

     The sun had completely set by the time Ranma and Akane
arrived back at the Tendou dojo.  Ranma felt a strange buzz in his
blood, an altogether intoxicating sensation.  He'd been so damned
nervous before he'd given Akane the ring, he'd barely been able to do
anything.  Then, when his carefully memorized speech had evaporated,
he'd been forced to wing it, and Akane's tears had nearly undone him
at the very last moment.  But he'd carried on, and now ...
     Now he felt on top of the world.  It was like the night he'd
confessed to Akane on the roof, only even more intense.  And the one
thing he'd worried about, feelings of doubt, had not materialized.
     It was strange.  From the moment his mother had broached the
subject with him the previous night, he'd felt the sudden need to give
Akane that ring.  It was as if there'd been something missing, and he
hadn't even realized it until his mother made her offer.  But, thinking
about it, it made perfect sense to him now.  He'd gone through so much
with Akane, and the events of the past couple of months had turned
their lives upside down.  But the one thing he was sure of, now more
than ever, was that he wanted to be with her.  There was no sense
in being coy about it now.  He'd gone through everything with Ukyou
and Shampoo just so he could finally be with her, and yet it had still
seemed at times that things were unsettled between them.
     But this was more his style.  A ring was something concrete, a
symbol, a tangible goal.  Afterward, he could look at it on her finger
and tell himself, There.  Now it's real.
     And, wonder of wonders, for once things had worked out at
least more or less as he'd planned.  And Akane was so happy ...
     His heart ached every time he looked at her.  A soft glow
seemed to light her from within, and when she smiled up at him he had
trouble breathing.  He was quite certain that he'd never been this
happy.
     They stopped in front of the gates, hesitating.  Akane was
leaning against him, both of her slim arms wrapped around one of his,
and her silky hair brushed his shoulder lightly as she moved even closer.
His skin tingled everywhere that they touched, and he knew every detail
of that moment would be seared into his memory forever.
     "Well, this is it," she said softly.  "Are you ready?"  He grinned
at her.  That wasn't hard, as he couldn't seem to stop grinning.
     "As ready as I'll ever be," he told her.  She squeezed his arm,
laying her head gently against his shoulder.
     "Everything's going to be okay, Ranma," she assured him.  He
nodded.
     "Yeah," he said.  "I know.  Come on, let's go."  He started
forward, but she resisted, tugging him back.  He glanced down at her,
surprised.
     "Ranma," she smiled.  A gleam from the streetlight swam in the
warm pools of her eyes.
     "Huh?" he asked.
     "I love you."  She spoke quietly, but with absolute conviction.
He looked down into those gorgeous eyes, forgetting to breathe for a
few moments.
     "I love you, too," he said hoarsely.  She slipped one hand up to
rest on his opposite shoulder and tilted her face up, and he brushed his
lips lightly against hers.  They stayed that way for a few long, breathless
seconds.
     "There," she said as they reluctantly parted.  "NOW we can go
in."
     "Yes, dear," he grinned.  They both laughed, moving forward
together.  Everything seemed brighter to Ranma somehow, clearer, as if
it all possessed an extra dimension it hadn't only hours ago.
     They went in the front door, taking their shoes off.  Somewhere in
the back, he could hear their fathers conversing raucously (and no
doubt drunkenly).  They were walking down the hall when Kasumi
popped out of the living room.
     "Oh, there you are," she said mildly.  "Auntie told me you two
had gone out for supper.  Did you have fun?"
     "Yes," Akane told her.  Ranma swore to himself that Akane
hadn't done or said anything unusual, but at that moment Kasumi froze,
her eyes widening.  Her hand came partway to her open mouth, and
stayed there, quivering slightly.  He frowned, wondering what was
wrong.
     "Oh, Akane," she breathed.  She rushed forward as Akane
brought her hand up in a motion that was so natural it looked practised,
her hand ending up grasped in both of Kasumi's.  Kasumi looked at the
ring, then up at Akane's face.  As if on cue, they both squealed loudly.
     "Oh, Akane, it's beautiful!" Kasumi gasped, seeming to vibrate
in place.  She threw her arms around her sister and hugged her tightly.
     "Thanks," Akane sniffed.  Ranma noticed that both sisters were
becoming teary eyed as Kasumi took another look at the ring.  He saw
his mother come into the hallway behind Kasumi, smiling.  Then Kasumi
was throwing her arms around him in an uncharacteristic display, kissing
him firmly on the cheek.
     "Congratulations," she said warmly, beaming at him.  He
blushed, scratching at the back of his head bashfully.
     "Thanks," he grinned.  His face was beginning to hurt from all
the grinning, but he didn't mind at all.  He watched as his mother
walked up and took Akane's hands in hers.
     "It looks like it was made for you," she said gently.  Akane
smiled back.
     "Thank you so much for letting Ranma have it," she sniffled.  "It
means so much to me ..."
     "I'm proud that it could be put to such good use," his mother
answered, hugging Akane, and now SHE was tearing up too.  Ranma
sighed, and was almost happy when the fathers finally came out to see
what was happening.
     Soon they were all seated in the family room, everyone talking
at once.  Kasumi disappeared into the kitchen, returning with tea and
snacks.  They had just settled down when Nabiki showed up.
      Ranma watched, astonished, as Nabiki walked casually into the
room.  She said hi in her usual deadpan manner, and seemed about to
walk straight through when she stopped dead.  Cocking her head, she
turned slowly and walked over to Akane.
     "Let me see," she demanded.  Akane obediently held up her
hand, and Nabiki examined the ring critically.  Ranma turned to his
father, baffled.
     "Pop, did you see that?" he asked.  "How do they DO that?"
The men chuckled loudly, already flushed from having started
celebrating early.
     "It's a woman thing, son," his father assured him.
     "It's like they have radar," Akane's father added.  "Get used to
it, Ranma.  It's going to be happening a lot in the next few days!"
     "Ranma, I'm impressed," Nabiki said, kneeling next to her
sister.  "This is real silver."
     "It's from his mother's side of the family," Akane told her shyly.
Nabiki grinned.
     "Really?  That explains why it hasn't been sold off already."  A
strangled noise came from the other side of the table.
     "Tendou, isn't it past her bedtime?" Genma asked irritably.
Soun just laughed.
     "She got you there, Saotome," he guffawed.  Ranma shook his
head.  This was going to be a long night.
     "So," Nabiki said, her eyes twinkling mischievously as she settled
next to her beaming sister, "how did he do it?"
     "Yes, Akane, tell us!" Kasumi urged, leaning closer.  Ranma
was appalled when his mother smiled and edged closer herself.
     "I would like to hear this, too," she said.
     "Hey!" he protested.  His father reached over and grabbed him
in a headlock, plunking a glass of sake in front of him.
     "Don't bother trying to stop them, boy," he rumbled.  "There's
no point."
     "What did you have for supper?" Nabiki was asking.  Akane
frowned and turned to Ranma, who was still struggling in his father's
boozy embrace.
     "I forget," she confessed.  "Ranma?"  He chuckled weakly.
     "I, ah ... was so nervous that I can't remember either," he
admitted.  Everyone laughed.
     "Okay, boy," his father bellowed, tightening his hold.  "It's time
for us to share with you our total acquired wisdom about women!"
Ranma snorted.
     "This shouldn't take long," he grunted.  Soun slammed his glass
on the table, sloshing some of the contents onto his hand.
     "Quiet, youngster," he scowled.  "You think you know so
much, but you can definitely benefit from our experience!  Right,
Saotome?"
     "Right!  Now, Ranma.  Lesson one.  The words, "Honey, have you
lost weight?" can get you out of many tight situations ..."

***

           Wynneth raised her cupped hands to her face, letting the
warm liquid cascade down over her.  Delicate fingertips followed the
warm trail, tracing lightly over her smooth skin, down her throat,
lingering at the swell of her breasts.
     Ecstasy.
     The pain had been excruciating and constant, but nearly as bad
had been the maddening clamour of voices in her head.  Her debilitated
state had given them the rare opportunity to slip free from the dark
corners of her mind where she'd imprisoned them, and they had begun
tearing at her vulnerable mind, seeking to drag her down into the pits of
madness with them.  And lying on that bed, waiting for Tragus to return
with life-giving blood, she'd begun to wonder if her victims would finally
have their revenge on her.  At the last, driven to the limits of her
strength by pain and bedevilled by the howling spectres of Kimn and
Vaxe, she had rallied, finding some last reserve of strength with which
to hold them off.  The indomitable need to survive that had carried her
so far had not abandoned her, and she'd held on until Tragus had
returned.
     Kimn had given Wynneth her first taste of true power, even if it had
been quite by accident.  She remembered how she'd run from the dark
apparition that had confronted her that night so long ago, in the maze of
shattered stone.  She'd fled, panicked, and the lovely Aerkinma
Shadowmistress had stalked her through the night, thinking to take her
pleasure with a comely Baenma, caught alone and unprotected,
skulking in the ruins of Comeorit.  Not realizing that the huntress was
playing with her, Wynneth, young and still relatively inexperienced, had
eventually been caught with infuriating ease.  But then, as she'd
struggled for her freedom, the cold night air burning her lungs, an
unfamiliar sensation had arisen in her, brushing aside the impotent rage
and the helplessness.
     If I had her power, she'd thought suddenly, I could just slip
away.  Her feeding fangs had ached, extending to their full length, and
the thought had resonated through her like dark thunder.
     If I had her power ...
     Later, she had trouble remembering exactly how it had
happened.  Kimn, lulled with the ease by which Wynneth had been
taken, had dragged her through Shadow to her pavilion and, binding
her, had been contemptuously tearing Wynneth's worn rags away to
survey her prize.  She'd leaned down to steal a kiss from her new slave
when ...
     When somehow, Wynneth had gotten her fangs into the unwary
witch's throat.  And for the first time, she'd tasted Aerkinma blood, and
with it a rush of power.  Kimn's power.  And she knew, somehow, that
she COULD take it.  The Shadowmistress, taken off-guard, had
struggled wildly, but somehow Wynneth had held on, draining not only
her captor's lifeblood but her very essence as well in great gulps, finally
aware that she'd torn her bonds asunder and had the terrified Aerkinma
locked in an unbreakable embrace.
     That night, she had taken Kimn's life, and her power ... and it had
nearly killed her.  The days following were a blur to Wynneth, a
miasma of madness, fear, and pain.  Along with Kimn's power had
come a part of her soul, and their struggles had continued inside
Wynneth's mind, until finally, both sides exhausted, Wynneth had forced
the ghost of her adversary down, besting it and confining it to the
darkest pits of her mind.
     It had all been worth it, though.  She had emerged from her
trial, tempered by the pain and fear into a sleek, beautiful predator.  No
longer was she merely a pretty blood drinker, sought as a playtoy by
those who would use her and discard her when they'd had their fill.
No.  Now she had Kimn's power to add to her own, and the woman's
memories of the High Court to teach her guile and stealth, and the
pleasures of the vicious, decadent games of the Aerkinma.
     Leaving the ruins behind, she had begun to carve out a niche for
herself.  Transforming herself from a frightened girl into a powerful
Lady, she would now prey on the powerful, instead of being preyed
upon by them.  And one day, they would all kneel to her.
     Fighting and clawing her way from the wastes, she had gotten
where she was through sheer willpower.  And when the opportunity
had come to rule the dark forces on this world, she had seized it.  She
had defeated Vaxe, and then absorbed her power, mostly to see if she
could do it again.  It had been important for her to know.  And of
course, it had worked, and the struggles to control her enemy's spirit
had been familiar this time, and more easily dealt with.
     Still, she had gone after Riana too soon, and been defeated.
That was not a mistake she would make again.  This time, she was
going to be sure.  Her prize would not elude her; she'd spent the past
three decades, after all, planning her revenge.  Not a terribly long time
for one of her kind, but long enough to ready her pawns for the
opportunity that must come.
     She sighed, lifting one alabaster arm from the warm tub.
Crimson blood streamed off in thick rivulets, trickling over her belly and
back into the rejuvenating fluid that half-filled the tub.  After gorging
herself to bursting, she'd had the remaining victims bled into the tub so
she could soak in their rich, coppery life's blood.  Her strategy had
worked, her skin once again silky smooth and pale, no trace of the
burns remaining.  And it had only required the lives of thirteen
unfortunate humans.  Her strength had not yet fully returned, of course,
but much of her weakness had been washed away by the hot blood of
her victims.  She stretched her legs out in the tub, indulging in a
languorous feline stretch.  It was good to be able to move without pain
again.
     A knock at the door disturbed her reverie.
     "Do come in, Tragus," she beckoned.  The door opened, and
the tawny beauty edged her way into the room, one delicate hand held
over her face.
     "Tell me that was the last one," Tragus pleaded.  Wynneth
nodded.
     "Oh, yes," she assured her partner in crime.  "For the time
being at least.  If I require more blood, I am now quite capable of
getting it myself."
     "Swell," Tragus said shortly.  "In case you're interested, I just
wrapped lucky thirteen in plastic and stuck him in the laundry room ...
which is getting quite crowded.  And since I lugged those poor bastards
all the way up here, I think it's only fair you get rid of the bodies."
Wynneth nodded lazily.
     "That will not prove difficult," she assured Tragus.  The other
woman stared at the tub with obvious distaste.
     "Isn't that wasteful?" she asked sourly.  Wynneth smiled,
splashing crimson blood across her chest.
     "Not at all, my dear.  My skin is healing much more quickly this
way," she said.  "I told you I still needed those last ones, remember?"
     "Whatever," Tragus sighed, grimacing.  "But how do you stand
the smell?"  Wynneth laughed lightly at the former Borgunma's obvious
distress.
     "Why, Tragus, you weren't joking about your new body's
delicate stomach, were you?" she needled.  "Perhaps you should wait
outside."
     "Good idea," Tragus gritted.  "Enjoy your ... bath."  With that,
she bolted, letting the door swing shut behind her.  Wynneth lay back
again, feeling the stolen strength from the blood soaking into her,
rejuvenating her.
     It had been a near thing, all right.  She'd nearly been too far
gone to feed, and that would have spelled her doom.  As it was, she'd
wondered if even such extravagant feeding could restore her, but
fortunately she had been able to heal much of the damage.  If Tragus
hadn't come through for her, though, she definitely would have died an
ignominious death, cooked alive by that snotty little sorceress.  Tragus
had proved her worth as a useful ally.
     For now Wynneth lived to hunt again, and to seek her revenge, and
that was what mattered.
     Thoughts of that vengeance kept her pleasantly occupied for a time,
but at last the blood, rapidly cooling, began to congeal.  With a sigh,
she dunked herself one last time, then pulled the plug.  As the blood
began to gurgle noisily down the drain, she rose gracefully and walked
to the nearby shower stall.  Inside, she set the spray to hot and adjusted
the nozzle to full pressure, then set about cleaning herself with the
scented soaps arrayed carefully inside.  Washing her hair took no time
at all, since it was mostly gone on one side and hung in tatters to her
shoulder on the other.  She sighed.  Another matter she would have to
see to.
     Finally, she emerged into the steam-filled bathroom, padding over to
the full length mirror.  She swabbed it with a towel to clear the
condensation and regarded herself critically.
     She'd always prided herself on her beauty.  This, she reasoned,
was not mere vanity; in those younger days her beauty had been a
curse as it had attracted the attention of marauding Borgunma and
lecherous Baenma warriors.  However, it had also brought the
Aerkinma Shadowmistress to her, and had taught her a valuable lesson.
Her beauty could be a trap, a lure to snare the unwary.  As such it was
not to be taken lightly.
     Wincing, she twisted and turned, looking at her reflection with a
practised eye.  Her skin was once again pale and flawless, sheathing
slim, lithe muscles capable of great strength.  Slowly, she ran her hands
across her high, full breasts, down her flat belly, across the narrow slash
of her navel, then propped them gently on the curve of her hips.  She
could nearly encircle her wasp waist with her hands, and her legs were
long and shapely.  Yes, she was as good as new.  Her hair was, of
course, a disaster, but would be easily fixed.  The biggest problem was
the blow to her ego.
     You were taken off-guard, she told her reflection sternly.  It's
been far too long since you've fought anyone who posed a real threat,
and you got careless.  The way she'd been careless when she'd
attacked Riana back then, emboldened by her easy victory over Vaxe.
     But Riana had been tougher and cannier than Wynneth would
have believed.  Wynneth had underestimated her rival, and paid the
price.  The memory of that fight still ate at her, or more specifically, the
memory of Riana standing over her as she lay, entangled and helpless,
in the bitch's web.  That humiliation would never be erased until she
could force her haughty rival to kneel at her feet.  It was just that image
which had kept her going through her long exile.
     The time had never been right for her to strike back, though.
Riana had consolidated her power in the aftermath of that last great
battle, and now Wynneth would have to face not only her, but all the
others as well.  The Baenma were the key, of course; they would far
sooner serve Riana than her, and they presented a united front.  Even if
she could have gotten to them, there was Riana's guard dog Keisuke to
consider.
     Direct conflict was out of the question.  She always worked
best from the shadows, slowly seducing, corrupting, and destroying.
She could insinuate herself through the strongest defences, given time.
But there was no way she could deal with all of them at once.  She
needed to isolate Riana and defeat her.  Once Riana was hers, the
others would have to fall into line.  That was why she needed her
instincts about Tragus to be right.
     Sighing, she made her way to the master bedroom.  It was a
study in luxury, dominated by a huge four-posted bed with silk sheets.
Wynneth browsed through the dressers and closets, taking her time,
picking several outfits and flinging them carelessly on the bed.  In the
end, she decided on a sheer black silk chemise with spaghetti straps
and lace fringing along the hem.  Dropping the towel, she slipped it on
over her head, luxuriating in the sensation of silk against her revitalized
skin.  This, she smiled to herself, was much more like it.  Then she
retrieved an ornate hand mirror from the vanity and went to find Tragus.
     Although the safe house was quite spacious, she didn't have to
search long.  Tragus was relaxing in the main sitting room, reclining in a
plush chair and drinking something dark from a crystal goblet.  She was
clad in an emerald green robe that really was quite becoming.
     "Making yourself at home?" Wynneth asked wryly.  Tragus
grunted.
     "This place sure is well stocked," she admitted grudgingly.  "I
guess it's lucky you had this little hidey-hole tucked away."
     "Oh, it isn't mine," Wynneth told her cheerfully, lowering herself
gracefully to the sofa.  Tragus frowned.
     "It isn't?"
     "Not at all," Wynneth said, toying with the wispy remnants of
her hair.  "It's an Aerkinma safe house.  Riana set up a number of them
in case of emergency."  Tragus made a strangled sound.
     "In fact," Wynneth went on blithely, "I suspect this one is intended
for her personal use."  Tragus sat forward, an expression of disbelief on
her face.
     "What?" she asked.  "How do you know that?"
     "Oh, many things suggest it," Wynneth smiled.  "The toiletries in
that luxurious bath, the crystal goblets, the spirits ... basically, the finest
of everything.  And," she added with a sly smile, "her personal scent
lingers all over the unmentionables in that bedchamber."  Tragus
groaned, covering her face with her hands.
     "In fact, it's quite arousing, knowing that this is hers," Wynneth
continued in a low, intimate tone, running her fingers lightly over the silk
that clung intimately to her curves.  Tragus groaned again.
     "You didn't mention any of this before," she said accusingly.
Wynneth shrugged.
     "We needed someplace to go that was suited to our needs,"
she pointed out.  "Here, we are near the docks.  There are plenty of
dark alleys and industrial areas from which to pluck unsuspecting prey."
     "But what if she finds out?" Tragus blurted.
     "She will not, my dear.  I had the code for the security system,
didn't I?" Wynneth pointed out.
     "Yes," Tragus said accusingly.  "And how is it you not only
knew about this place, but also knew how to get in?"
     "Oh, my dear Tragus," Wynneth purred, running the tip of her
tongue over her lower lip.  "People ... tell me things.  Secrets.
Sometimes, they don't even remember doing it afterwards.  I suppose I
have a way about me."  Tragus shook her head wearily, draining her
glass in one motion.  Then she rose and made her way over to the bar.
     "Do be a dear and get me one, would you?" Wynneth asked
lightly, settling herself on one of the sofas.  Breathing deeply, she
summoned her concentration, preparing for the minor magic she was
about to use.  Wordlessly, Tragus came over, setting a glass on the low
table in front of her.  Wynneth nodded her thanks, picking it up and
taking a drink.
     It was excellent.  Of course.
     Setting the glass down again, she patted the couch next to her.
     "Do sit down, Tragus.  There, that's good.  Now, hold this."
She handed Tragus the mirror, making her tilt it until the angle was just
right.  Then, gathering her concentration, she placed her palm flat
against her scalp where the hair had been burned away.  Slowly, she
pulled the palm out, watching as a swath of night black hair appeared
in its wake.  She drew the hand farther and farther, smiling with
satisfaction as the glossy locks lengthened.  When she reached arm's
length, she grasped the silky length near her palm with her free hand
and pulled, lengthening it even further.  When she was satisfied with the
length, she snapped her fingers, releasing the ends of the hair from her
palm.  Moving her hand back to her scalp she began again beside the
new growth.  Tragus watched for a time in silence.
     "It seems a little foolish," she said at last.
     "What does?" Wynneth asked idly.
     "Wasting magical energy in your state for such vanity," Tragus
pointed out.  Wynneth raised one perfect eyebrow.
     "Vanity?" she asked coolly.
     "Yes, vanity."  Tragus took a healthy sip from her drink.  "You don't
need to make it so long.  Even this is a lot of trouble to take care of,"
she sighed, flicking a strand of her own hair.  "It just doesn't serve any
purpose."  Wynneth chuckled, a low throaty sound.
     "Oh, but you're wrong, my dear," she informed the other
woman.  "It most certainly does."
     "Such as?" Tragus asked archly.
     "For one thing, it creates shadows close to my body, shadows
that I can use," she pointed out.  "For another, it is a very striking
feature.  Beauty can be an effective lure, a fact that I'm sure you
appreciate after spending some time in that body.  Also, and quite
importantly, my lovers like the feel of it against their skin.  It is a very
sensual experience, let me assure you."  Tragus flushed, though whether
with embarrassment, anger or arousal she wasn't certain.  Not that it
mattered.  Some sort of passionate reaction was all she'd wanted.
     "I'm surprised they live long enough to do anything of the sort,"
Tragus said sourly.  Wynneth smiled enigmatically.
     "I have no qualms about killing, Tragus," she told the other
woman easily.  "But sometimes, I simply prefer not to."
     "Oh, please.  Tell that to those thirteen guys you drained
today," Tragus snorted.  Wynneth paused, a curtain of glossy black hair
draped over one arm.
     "I needed their lives to heal myself," she pointed out.  "And anyway,
that was just feeding.  There was no art in it.  Seduction, now, if I may
be immodest, is something I have quite a talent for."
     "You don't say," Tragus grumbled.  Wynneth hid a smile.
Tragus didn't realize that she was being played with.  Well, so much the
better.
     "Oh, yes," she murmured.  "And the more dangerous your
prey, the sweeter it is when they succumb."  Tragus took another drink.
     "If they succumb," she said slyly.  "If they don't, I guess you end up
crispy and nearly dead in someone's closet."  Wynneth reached
out to adjust the mirror again, letting her fingers linger on Tragus's as
she did so.
     "I'll admit I was careless," Wynneth sighed.  "But this only
makes me burn to possess her even more."
     "Her meaning Riana?" Tragus asked.
     "Oh, no," Wynneth murmured, tilting her head as she worked
toward the back.  "After all my conquests, I was nearly undone by a
pretty young sorceress and a common street brawler.  Quite amazing,
really."  Tragus grinned nastily.
     "Well, I guess that, preferences aside, you're going to kill those
two.  Right?" she asked.  Wynneth sighed.
     "Of course not," she said, biting her lip as she worked.  Tragus
blinked.
     "I don't get it," she said finally.  Wynneth pretended to be
distracted as she began to draw the other woman in.
     "Of course you don't, Tragus," she smiled.  "You haven't really
had time to adjust to your change of circumstance yet, after all."
Tragus frowned prettily.
     "Meaning?"
     "Meaning that, throughout your life, you adapted to being a
Borgunma, my sweet," she replied, combing her fingers through her
hair, fussing with it.  There.  Done, except for the bangs.  "Attend, now.
You were probably born out in the wastes somewhere ..."
     "Dragonflame Flats," Tragus grunted.  Wynneth smiled
tolerantly.
     "Just so.  Your tools were strength, likely coupled with sharp
claws and teeth, fearsome visage, perhaps even cunning.  Since you
survived your youth, you must have quickly learned how to kill those
weaker than yourself and avoid those stronger, at least until you could
join a pack.  I daresay after that happened, there were few problems
you didn't solve with direct and brutal violence."
     "Gosh, you make it sound so romantic," Tragus said dryly.
     "And doubtless, you and your fellows would laugh and sneer at
the byzantine plots and machinations of the High Court," Wynneth went
on.  Tragus smiled.
     "As a matter of fact, that's absolutely right," she agreed.  "I
could never figure out why those hoity-toity nobles had to spend so
much time playing games, smiling at each other while figuring out how to
take the other guy's lands, or slaves, or harem."
     "Truthfully," Wynneth frowned, regarding the mirror critically,
"I couldn't either when I was young.  It seemed like a tremendous
waste of time to someone whose main concerns were staying alive and
finding enough to eat.  But I have come to understand intimately the
pleasures of the hunt over a simple and brutal murder."  Tragus snorted.
     "Killing someone," she pointed out, "is fast, direct, and to the
point.  What could be better than that?"  Wynneth smiled tolerantly.
     "Many things, my sweet," she murmured huskily.  "That is why
we play the game the way we do.  You see, my dear Tragus, there is
nothing more delicious than bending your foe  to your will, making them
submit utterly and completely.  It becomes  like a dance, the
combatants becoming more intimate than lovers.  Slowly, you probe
your foe's defences, finding their weak points.  You beguile and tease,
ever so slowly, until your foe doubts herself, her skills, her thoughts full
only of you and her need to destroy you and save herself.  Then, when
your foe is almost beyond rational thought, you can act, ensnaring the
careless and unwary, binding them to you with hate and love and need
and obsession."  She looked up from the mirror, meeting Tragus's eyes
almost coquettishly, noting that she was quite enrapt by the lesson.
     "It is quite difficult to master the intricacies of the game, of
course," she purred.  "It requires a certain artistry, a certain flair.
Losers quickly become property of those more ... talented.  And yet, in
the hands of someone like myself, such techniques can be exquisitely
devastating.  Think of it, sweet Tragus.  Think of your most despised
enemy.  Instead of killing her, you defeat her utterly, making her your
slave, forcing her to serve your every whim.  She would have to bear
that humiliation for the rest of her days, and you would be able to
savour your victory again and again.  Victory is so much more sweet
that way.  Wouldn't you agree?"  She had let her voice drop into a low,
throaty register, and she held Tragus's gaze with a light compulsion,
enjoying the way the other woman's lips parted slightly, her breathing
becoming rapid to match her pulse.
     "I can see where that would have its charms," Tragus said at
last, her voice slightly hoarse.  Wynneth smiled, a slow, languorous
smile, and inclined her head slightly.
     "Oh, indeed it does," she acknowledged, her voice low and
honey-thick, caressing the other woman.  "You see, Tragus, killing is
certainly acceptable when necessary, but it tends to be clumsy, brutal,
and unfulfilling.  To ensnare, corrupt, and dominate your foe, now, that
is high art, and a rare pleasure that can't be matched outside of the
bedroom .. in my experience, at least.  And that is why I shall not be
killing that lovely young sorceress or her handsome protector."  Tragus
was looking at her with a new respect, and an unmistakable hunger in
her lidded hazel eyes.
     "And you are playing this game," Tragus asked slowly, "against
Riana?"  Wynneth rose slowly, retrieving the nearly empty glass from
Tragus's hand, making sure to brush fingers ever so lightly as she did
so.
     "Indeed I am," she breathed, conscious of how the black silk
clung to her body as she moved.  Against Riana, yes, she added
silently.  And against you, Tragus, although you are hardly a challenge.
Still, you may have your uses, and so you become a player ... and, in all
likelihood, a casualty.  Wynneth was quite certain, though, that the
ambitious ex-Borgunma would quite enjoy her servitude.
     Wynneth slowly strutted to the bar, moving with a sinuous
animal grace calculated to inflame the blood of even the coolest
spectator.  She tossed her head haughtily, her glossy raven's-wing hair
cascading in a silken fall down her back and brushing against the backs
of her shapely calves as she moved.  When she reached the bar, she
refilled Tragus's glass from the open bottle.  Then, with a sly glance
over her shoulder, she licked the rim lazily before draining it herself.
She refilled the glass, cradling it in one slim hand, and stalked slowly
back to the sofa, staring boldly into Tragus's hazel eyes the whole way.
     She was a mistress of the games played amongst the Aerkinma,
the games that determined dominance.  In time, she was certain that her
skills would allow her to rise to the highest levels of power.  But for that
to happen, she needed to break the stalemate with Riana.  And she was
certain that Tragus held the secret that would allow her to do that.
     Lucky girl.
     With deliberate slowness, she circled the sofa, leaning over the
back so that her hair fell across Tragus's arm.  Then she handed the
glass to the tawny beauty, smiling.
     "Riana and I clashed once, some time ago," she murmured as
Tragus raised the glass to her lips, deliberately drinking from the same
spot Wynneth had.  "And she bested me then."
     "That must eat at you," Tragus said, understanding in her eyes.
Wynneth nodded.
     "Oh, yes.  I will pay her back for that, of course.  If there
weren't so few of us left here, she might have kept me under her thumb.
But she needed me, so I was reduced to toiling at mundane tasks far
from the seat of power, our esteemed Lady thinking that she could use
me while keeping me from being a threat to her.  That was her mistake.
I have been patient, and I believe I have finally found a vulnerability that
I can exploit."  She perched lightly on the back of the sofa, her chemise
riding up intriguingly.
     "What might that be?" Tragus asked carefully.  Wynneth smiled.
     "You," she said simply.  Tragus's eyes narrowed.
     "I don't understand," she said, wary.
     "She did not want us to meet," Wynneth said, reaching out to
trail one long, blood-red nail down Tragus's cheek.  "I told you that
when we first spoke.  There must be a reason for that, don't you think?"
     "Perhaps," Tragus replied, tilting her chin up slightly as
Wynneth's nail slipped over the line of her jaw and down along the
tender, vulnerable flesh of the throat.  She felt the other woman's throat
work as she swallowed.
     "But perhaps she just wanted to prevent us from allying,"
Tragus went on.  Wynneth shook her head, sending ripples through the
curtain of hair.
     "No, my sweet.  I think that she would not have risked giving
me that sorceress to chase unless she was desperate to keep me busy.
And her bodyguards were most adamant that you and I should be kept
apart.  No, there is a secret here, something significant.  I feel it."
Tragus took a sip, then cocked her head so that she could look up at
Wynneth.
     "And if there is?" she asked with a tiny, enigmatic smile.
Wynneth rose gracefully, moving around the room, aware that Tragus,
for all her bravado, could not look away.
     "You are wondering, I suppose, what is in this for you," Wynneth
said idly, picking up objects at random and examining them.
     "Frankly, yes," Tragus said flatly.  Wynneth nodded.
     "Well, for one thing, you would earn my gratitude," she said
lightly.  Tragus snorted.
     "I spent the entire day saving your Ladyship's hide," she
pointed out.  "You might almost think that I'd already have your
gratitude."
     "Ah, that is true," Wynneth agreed, continuing to wander,
slowly making her way closer to the sofa.
     "And, no offense, but I really would like to have something a
little more tangible for a reward," Tragus went on.  Wynneth glanced at
her, eyebrows raised.
     "But I have been sharing my wisdom with you," she pointed
out, hiding her amusement.  If Tragus wanted to play with the big girls,
she really was going to have to learn to hide her hunger more
effectively.
     "Great," Tragus spat.  "But talk is cheap, Wynneth.  If Riana
finds out that I've been helping you, I'll be a marked man.  Woman.
Whatever.  Suppose you tell me, *partner*, why I should tell you
anything.  So far, I've been doing all the work."  Wynneth gave the
other woman a predatory smile as she wandered even closer.
     "I don't think you've been listening, Tragus," she sighed.  "I've
been trying to explain to you how things are.  Very well, I'll be blunt.
You are obviously very ambitious, desiring a spot amongst the players
in our arena here in Tokyo.  Basically, you have two choices.  You can
hitch your fortunes to Riana and hope that she throws you more than
the occasional table scrap.  Or," she added, her voice lowering, "you
can throw your lot in with me."  She could see that she had Tragus's
undivided attention, and she crossed directly in front of her on her way
to the bar.
     "Here's a tidbit for you, my friend," Wynneth continued as she
poured herself a fresh drink.  "I returned to Tokyo at this particular time
for a reason.  I have seen signs that the human champions are rising
again, preparing to challenge us.  Riana has grown complacent over the
years, becoming far too comfortable in her position.  She is unfit to rule
here.  If I can defeat her, I can use the threat of the humans to rally the
others behind me."  She swayed over to the sofa and sat on the table
facing Tragus, crossing her legs carefully.
     "Of course, it won't be easy," she continued blithely.  "The
Baenma will require some ... convincing, and Riana's favourite will have
to die.  But it can be done."  Tragus smiled confidently.
     "But to get to Riana, you need to know what I know," she
pointed out.  Wynneth shrugged.
     "Once I have that brat sorceress, my chances of success will be
much greater," she said easily.  "But you are correct in thinking that I
really do want to know what you know."  She stared into Tragus's
hazel eyes arrogantly, holding the other woman's gaze while she dipped
her index finger into her glass.  With exquisite slowness, she lifted the
wet finger to her lush ruby lips.  As Tragus watched, captivated, she ran
the moist finger over her parted lips, finally letting it slip inside.  With
exaggerated care she sucked and licked the finger clean, never taking
her eyes from the other woman's face.  Finally, she pulled the finger
free, letting it trail absently down her chest.
     "If you tell me something that ... excites me," Wynneth
breathed, "there is no telling what might happen."  She noted the hot
flush that rose to Tragus's cheeks with amusement.  This was too easy.
Tragus's hunger would bind her to Wynneth, and there would be no
telltale bite to trace back to her if anything went wrong.
     Perfect.
     "You are a magnificent creature," Tragus groaned.  She stood
abruptly, and Wynneth rose to meet her, using all her skills to project
an untouchable allure.  When Tragus reached out to her, she stepped
back easily.
     "You know the price, Tragus," she said coolly.  "But I must tell
you, I am not easily aroused.  If you have nothing of interest, then I fear
your ardour will be for naught."  She circled her prey slowly, amused
that Tragus was so easily manipulated.  The tawny beauty would have
to learn patience and control if she ever hoped to pit herself against the
Aerkinma.
     "I met Riana by accident one night," Tragus blurted suddenly.
Wynneth cocked her head.
     "Oh, really?" she asked disinterestedly.  Tragus turned,
following her progress.
     "She was hunting in a club.  We danced," she continued.  Wynneth
smiled tolerantly.
     "And was she a good dancer?" she asked.  Tragus growled,
reaching out for Wynneth abruptly.  Wynneth froze her with a look.
     "I am not interested in Riana's social life," Wynneth sniffed.  The
look of impotent rage and need on Tragus's face was precious.
Wynneth knew that Tragus was being driven nearly beyond rational
thought by her desire.  A mistake.  Tragus had possessed leverage, and
she was trading it away for a vague promise of fleeting pleasure.
     "We talked about the Kunou estate," Tragus added quickly,
her fists clenched at her sides.  "I can go there, you know."
     "I'm listening," Wynneth said.  Tragus's eyes lit up.
     "There was something, an artifact she claimed was there,"
Tragus rushed on, licking her lips nervously.  Her hands clenched and
unclenched reflexively, and Wynneth suppressed the urge to chastise
her for her lack of control.  If Tragus proved useful in the short term,
maybe there would be time to teach her control later.
     "I'm sure there are many artifacts there," Wynneth said
dismissively.
     "She made a point of mentioning this one," Tragus insisted.
"Said if I wanted to prove my discretion to her, I was to never tamper
with it."  Translation, Wynneth thought.  Make a bee-line for this item
and steal it.  Not very subtle, but with Tragus it would likely have been
effective.
     "And what was this artifact?" Wynneth asked, concealing her
excitement.  If there was a secret here, this had to be it, she told herself.
Tragus moved a half-step closer, and Wynneth let her.  She could
sense the tawny beauty's pulse hammering through her body, could
smell the hot need in her blood.  Give it to me, she commanded silently.
Give me what I need, renegade, and you will know pleasures that you
have never dared dream of.  Disappoint me, and your pain will be
great.
     "A pendant," Tragus said, her voice slightly hoarse.  "A golden
pendant in the shape of a dragon's head.  With green gemstones for
eyes."  Wynneth turned away, her own control almost wavering.  She
walked away with deliberate casualness, glad that Tragus couldn't see
her face.
     Oh, she thought.  Oh, yes.  It all makes sense now.  That's why
she risked giving me the sorceress.  If she had the pendant, it wouldn't
have mattered one damned bit.  That clever bitch, everything she wants
is just within her grasp now.
     Her thoughts whirled madly.  Tragus must have seemed a gift
from the dark gods to a desperate Riana.  Wynneth wondered how
long Riana had known where the pendant was.  Well, no matter.  It
would be all the sweeter to snatch that victory from her rival before she
reduced her to a mere plaything.  Oh, yes.  Sweet indeed.
     She forced her excitement back, composing herself before her
wanderings brought her casually back face-to-face with Tragus.
     "You ignored her, of course, and tried to get it," she
commented lightly.  Tragus scowled.
     "So she WAS manipulating me," she said bitterly.  Wynneth
smiled.  At least Tragus wasn't totally clueless.
     "But you failed," Wynneth went on.  "Why?"  Tragus's expression
darkened even more.
     "That idiot Kunou boy," she spat, her frustration beginning to
overflow.  "I made nice with him, but he wouldn't come across!  The
hell with all this, I should just walk in there and rip his arrogant head
off!"  Wynneth reached out, grasping the furious beauty's chin in one
hand.  Instantly, Tragus froze, her eyes wide.
     "Now, Tragus," Wynneth said soothingly.  "You haven't been
paying attention at all.  I'm becoming most cross with you."  She kept
her voice low, intimate, and she watched with satisfaction as Tragus's
pupils dilated, her lithe frame trembling ever so slightly at Wynneth's
touch.
     "What do you mean?" she asked breathlessly.  Wynneth
smiled.
     "Tragus," she murmured.  "If someone has something you want,
what is a good way to get it from them?"  Tragus blinked.
     "I don't ..."
     "If you have something THEY want," Wynneth purred, rubbing
her thumb lightly over the curve of the other woman's jaw, "you can
offer to trade."  Tragus's eyes flickered with comprehension.
     "Ah," she said.  "But I tried that ..."  Wynneth shook Tragus's
head slowly from side to side.
     "No, no, no," she chastised.  "Not that.  Not for him.  You
must become a student of human behaviour, my dear.  Kunou has
something we want, therefore we need something HE wants.  Badly."
Tragus licked her lips carefully.
     "Like what?" she asked.  Wynneth sighed.
     "Tragus," she asked slowly, "is there a girl?"  Tragus frowned.
     "Girl?"
     "The Kunou boy, Tragus," Wynneth went on patiently.  "Is
there a girl that is special to him?"  She leaned closer, waiting for it to
hit Tragus.  Slowly, it did.
     "There are two, actually," Tragus said, her eyes lighting up.
Wynneth nodded.
     "And what do you suppose would happen if we had one, or
both, of these girls?" she asked.  "And we offered to trade our hostage
for the pendant?"
     "He'd come running to the rescue," Tragus breathed.  Wynneth
smiled brightly.
     "There," she said, dropping her hand from Tragus's face.  "You
see?  Simple.  He's a man, after all.  Play to his vanity.  He won't
believe he might lose, not until we have him AND the pendant."
     "So it IS important?" Tragus asked eagerly as Wynneth moved
gracefully over to the table.  Wynneth picked up her glass and took a
thoughtful sip.
     "Let's just say I'd rather Riana didn't have it," she murmured.
"And, unfortunately, time is of the essence.  Could we lay hands on one
of these girls tomorrow?"  Tragus nodded.
     "Oh, yes," she said quickly.  "They both go to the school I
teach at ... although one of them is only a girl part time."
     "Really?  How interesting.  You shall have to tell me more of
that later," Wynneth smiled.  "Is there a place near the school where
you could take our hostage for safekeeping?"  Tragus thought.
     "There's a closed down factory a few blocks away," she nodded.
"That should do."
     "Excellent.  We must seize this opportunity, Tragus.  While
Riana waits, we shall snatch our victory from under her nose.  Then ...
ah, then, sweet revenge."  She placed the glass carefully on the table
and walked briskly toward the master bedroom.
     "Wait!" Tragus called.  Wynneth glanced over her shoulder.
     "Yes?" she asked calmly.  Tragus just stared at her, frustrated
need coiling her dangerously tight.
     "Where are you going?"
     "Why, to bed," Wynneth answered.  "Tomorrow will be a busy
day, and I need to regain my strength."
     "Buh-but," Tragus whimpered.  Wynneth turned her back,
walking all the way to the hallway that led to the master suite, letting
Tragus's shock wear off, waiting until her anger had almost reached the
breaking point before she stopped and turned.
     "Well?" she asked imperiously.  "Aren't you going to join me?"
She watched, amused, as Tragus's fury dissolved into confusion, then
eager acceptance.
     "Of course I ..." Tragus began.
     "Do come on, then," Wynneth said, allowing an inviting tone to
creep into her voice.  "I have decided that you deserve a reward after
all ... and I dislike being kept waiting."
     She didn't have to ask twice.

***

     Gadgets, Lilla thought smugly.  Gotta love 'em.
     She clung tightly to the wall above the window in an inverted
pose, a thin wire travelling from the small suction cup on the glass to the
microrecorder clipped to her belt, and then to the slim headset.  A spell
would have been an easier way to eavesdrop, but she'd been worried
the occupants might have detected it, and that would not do.  No, not
at all.
     There was little traffic to worry about around this run down
warehouse, but even if someone did chance to walk by and look up,
Lilla was well concealed by shadows.  She didn't have to worry about
being caught.
     Which left her nothing to do but listen as things heated up
inside.
     What had started out as a tedious, routine assignment had
turned into paydirt.  Tragus's mysterious friend was none other than
Lady Wynneth, who had been badly hurt fighting some human
sorceress.  And not only had she gone to ground in what was
apparently one of Lady Riana's safe houses, she had availed herself of
her rival's private stock and lingerie ... indulgences that would be
certain to evoke the Lady Riana's wrath.  And as if that wasn't enough,
the Shadowmistress was conspiring with Tragus against Riana.
     Lilla smiled contentedly.  This would be more than enough to
convince Lady Riana to fix that arrogant bitch once and for all.  She
could still feel the power of Wynneth's contemptuous gaze and the fiery
pain of the Shadowmistress's long nails raking across her cheek.  And,
of course, the impotent humiliation as Wynneth had punished Callie for
daring to try and intervene.  Oh, yes, she would enjoy watching
Wynneth get her comeuppance at long last.
     She bit her lip, wondering if Riana would let her help administer
that comeuppance.  She dearly hoped so.
     Flexing the muscles in her shoulders as much as she could
without releasing her grip on the wall, she sighed.  She could faintly hear
telltale sighs and moans through the sensitive microphone as Wynneth
began to bestow her special reward on her co-conspirator.  As a
succubus, Lilla had something of a professional interest in the
proceedings, and normally would have tarried.  Now, however, she
knew that she had to get back and report her findings.  Too bad, too.
This sounded like it might be interesting.
     She retrieved the microphone, tucking it and the headset into
her belt.  The, smiling with anticipation, she let go of the wall and
plummeted.
     Her black spandex top was mostly backless, which let her
easily extend her bat-like wings from her shoulder blades.  They
spread, catching the air easily, and she swooped in a silent arc, rising
high above the buildings below.  She decided to leave the car where it
was.  It would be faster for her to fly back, and if something happened
to it, well, Riana had plenty of cars.  Anyway, she was long overdue.
     Although, considering the news she had, Lilla was certain she
would avoid being punished.
     Humming a jaunty tune, she winged across the city towards
home.

***

     "Well?" Ukyou asked impatiently.  Ryouga just looked puzzled as
he racked the receiver.
     "I think it was Mr. Tendou who answered the phone," he said
slowly.  "But he sounded drunk.  Shouted something about "at last" and
"oh happy day", and then I think he dropped the phone.  Want me to
try again?"   She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed.
     "No, don't bother," she said.  "I'll see Nabiki at school tomorrow.
We can talk about things then."  Once upon a time, Ukyou reflected,
she would have jumped at the excuse to go to the dojo on the off
chance that she would see Ranma, but now that was the last thing she
wanted.  She was quite happy to keep her distance.  Maybe forever.
Still, she appreciated Ryouga making the call, since it probably wouldn't
have been easy on him had Akane answered.
     She glanced out at the table where Reiko sat, and stifled a sigh.
The blonde sorceress was busy flirting with Mousse, who had only just
arrived.  Mousse looked bewildered, but not at all unhappy.
     Men, she thought blackly.
     "What about her?" she asked.  Ryouga immediately looked
guilty and began shuffling his feet.
     "Well, she left that hotel because she was worried that if there were
more like Wynneth, they might be looking for her and they could find
her there," Ryouga said tentatively.  "And she doesn't really have any
place to go ..."  Ukyou pinched her nose again.
     "You didn't tell her she could stay here, did you?" she asked
wearily.  Ryouga lowered his head and shuffled his feet some more.
     "I told her I'd ask you," he admitted.
     "Aw, Ryouga!"
     "It would just be for tonight," he added quickly.  "She really
doesn't have any place else to go, Ukyou.  Please?"  She sighed,
plucking one of her mini-spatulas from its holder and toying with it.
Ryouga's beseeching stare tugged at her, and her resistance crumbled.
     "All right," she said at last.  "But just for tonight!"
     "Thanks, Ukyou," Ryouga beamed.  She just scowled back.
He sure is going to a lot of trouble for some girl he just met, she thought
sourly.  He started to turn away and she reached out her hand to stop
him.
     "Look, Ryouga," she said quietly.  "Have you thought about
this at all?"  He frowned.
     "What do you mean?"
     "I mean," she said patiently, "what if these things really are after
her?  The last time we got mixed up with creatures like that, things
didn't go too well."  He grinned.
     "Don't worry," he told her.  "The world isn't in danger this
time.  We're just going to help her fulfill an old man's last request.
What could go wrong?"  He strode over to the table, leaving Ukyou by
the counter, apprehension fluttering in her stomach.
     "What could go wrong," she murmured to herself
disconsolately.  "Talk about famous last words."

***

     The tiled roof still held some of the heat of the day, and from
the house below the sounds of celebration continued unabated.  It had
been quite a night for the Tendou household, all right, and Ranma was
glad to see everyone so happy.  He was pretty sure, though, that
nobody was happier than he was.
     Although one person probably came close.  Akane sat between
his legs, her back resting against his chest, his arms wrapped around
her shoulders.  He rested his chin on top of her head, breathing in the
clean scent of her hair, and stared up at the sky.  Neither of them said
anything for a while, content just to sit and be together.
     The sound of something falling, followed by loud laughter,
wafted up from below.  Akane giggled and reached up to squeeze his
forearms.
     "Do you think they've even noticed we're gone yet?" she
asked.  He smiled, nuzzling the top of her head lightly.
     "Our fathers our past noticing a lot of things," he replied wryly.
"As long as Mom and Kasumi keep Nabiki away from the video
camera, I figure we're pretty safe.  For a while, anyway."  She
hmmmed in reply, running her hands lightly over his arms.  His pulse
quickened in response, and he found himself amazed what Akane could
do to him with a simple touch.  He watched as she raised her hand in
front of her face, posing it this way and that in order to catch sight of
the ring from different angles.
     "Ranma," she said softly, "have I mentioned yet how happy I
am?"  He grinned.
     "I think you might have let it slip," he told her.  "Once or
twice."  She cuddled back against his chest, making a contented sound
deep in her throat.
     "Well, have I mentioned how surprised I was?" she murmured.
     "I got that impression, too," he noted.  She smiled.
     "I can't believe you did this," she said dreamily.  "I mean, what
on earth possessed you?  Your mother said she suggested it, but there
must have been more to it than that."  He chuckled, feeling her shudder
slightly as he did so.
     "It was almost on this very spot," he told her in a low, throaty
voice.  "Remember?  That night ..."
     "How could I forget?" she smiled.  "You finally confessed to
me ... with a little nudging."  She dug her elbow into him playfully.  "I'll
never forget that night.  It seems so long ago now, even though it was
only a couple of months."
     "Yeah," he sighed.  "You've gotta know, Akane, that night
changed a lot of things for me.  After that, we could never go back to
the way things were.  Not that I wanted to, of course, but ... I just
don't know if you realize how hard that was for me."  She craned
around so she could look into his eyes.
     "I know, Ranma," she whispered.  "I really do."  He smiled
back.
     "I'm glad.  The point I'm making here is that was, like, the
turning point.  That led to everything that came later with Ukyou and
Shampoo.  And once things quieted down a little, I thought I'd be just
happy to leave everything alone for a while.  But then last night, when
Mom was explaining things to me, she suggested the ring, and it was
like a light going on in my head.  I just stood there, and the first thing I
thought was, "I can't do that!"  And then I thought some more, and I
asked myself, "Why not?"  I mean, I love you, and we went through so
much so we could be together ..."  He trailed off, grasping for the
words to explain his feelings.
     "Ranma ..."
     "I just wondered what the heck I was waiting for, you know?"
he said, shaking his head.  "Up here on the roof that night, that was the
hard part.  This was the pay-off.  Well, seeing your face when I put that
ring on your finger, THAT was the real pay-off."  A sense of
melancholy settled over him, and he sighed, hugging her tightly.
     "And I couldn't help remembering something Ranko said to
me," he continued wistfully.  "He said how he always thought there'd
be time to work things out, and then one day there was no more time."
He bent down and kissed Akane's cheek without a trace of self-
consciousness. "Mom told me about that ring, and all of a sudden I
didn't want to wait any more.  I wanted to give it to you right away.  I
NEEDED to.  So that you'd never doubt ..."
     "Ranma," Akane said, her grip on his arm tightening.
"Nothing's going to happen."  He grinned and squeezed her
comfortingly.
     "I know," he soothed.  "I just meant that I wanted to be able to
tell the world you were my fiancee."
     "Even though I have been since we met?" she asked
mischievously.  He grinned.
     "It didn't count until we decided, right?" he asked.  She
nodded.
     "Right."  Then she sighed, staring off moodily into the sky.
"Ranma, do you think Ranko would be happy for us?"
     "I really don't know," he told her.  "I've thought a lot about it,
and I think he would want to be, but ..."
     "But?"
     "But it would always remind him of what might have been," he
sighed.  "Who knows what might have happened to them if they'd had
a chance?  Would they have gotten together or would something have
come between them?  There were always so many misunderstandings
between us ..."
     "They would have been together," Akane said firmly.  "I'm sure
of it."  He smiled at the utter conviction in her voice.
     "Yeah," he murmured.  "I think so, too.  The thing is, though, I
don't think he could be around us like this, not so soon after losing her.
I think he needed to go out and find something for himself, something
that was just his, so he wouldn't feel like a ghost looking at how his life
should have been."  Another burst of laughter floated up to them faintly.
     "Do you think he'll ever come back?" Akane asked finally.
     "I hope so," Ranma said softly.  "I really do."  They sat
together for a time, watching as a few tattered clouds appeared above
them, making their way slowly across the night sky.  Ranma was
surprised when Akane took his hand and raised it to her mouth, kissing
the back lightly.
     "What was that for?" he asked, grinning.  She turned to him,
her eyes shining with warmth.
     "Everything's really going to be all right for us, isn't it, Ranma?"
she asked.  He laughed aloud, feeling young and strong and invincible.
     "Yeah," he said, leaning forward.  "Everything's gonna be just
fine."  Then they kissed, tenderly at first, the passion slowly building,
feeling like the world had stopped just for them.
     An understandable conceit for young lovers, but the earth still
spun implacably on its invisible axis, carrying all its children towards
their futures.
 
 
 

End part 14