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

Doors Best Left Unopened
by Mark MacKinnon

Part two: Down Time
 

     "Shampoo!  Would you come in here please?"  Shampoo
looked up from what she was doing.  She sighed, then winced as her
taped ribs twinged painfully.  Broken ribs.  Just one more thing she
owed Mousse for.  There was ruining her plan, humiliating her, breaking
her ribs, humiliating her again, and then the small matter of their
*engagement*.
     Yes, she owed Mousse a lot.  And sooner or later she meant to
find a way to pay him back.  Warmed by those thoughts, she entered
the kitchen.
     "Yes, great-grandmother?" she asked, walking in.  Then the
door swung back and she saw that Cologne was not alone.  Her
muscles tightened reflexively, and her ribs sent out another warning.
She hadn't known their visitor had already arrived.  It was, as
expected, a member of the council.
     But she hadn't known it would be Xi Fan.
     "<Honoured elder,>" she murmured, bowing.  "<Welcome.>"
This was what she'd been afraid of.  Her great-grandmother had a long
running feud with Xi Fan, and although Shampoo wasn't sure what was
at the heart of it, it was no secret that the two women despised each
other.  Whatever position Cologne took on the council, Xi Fan was
certain to adopt a contrary one.  That, in turn, often polarized the
council, with many other members aligning themselves with one side or
the other.  Things had probably been uncommonly peaceful in
Cologne's absence.
     "<Ah, Shampoo.  Have you managed to marry that recalcitrant
fianc‚ of yours yet?>" There was a hint of malice in the words, and
Shampoo dreaded what was to come.
     "<There's been something of a change in Shampoo's status,
actually,>" Cologne spoke up.  The wizened old woman looked back
towards her rival, then turned to Shampoo again.
     "<Oh, has there?>" she asked innocently.  Shampoo wasn't
fooled.  The situation had to be better than Xi Fan could have hoped
for on the surface.  Cologne's handicap was clear, and the way was
open for a challenge to be issued against her over her shielding of
Shampoo.  Xi Fan also had to know that they'd be trying to head off
any such action.  She was obviously expecting something.
     Shampoo was quite certain, however, that she'd be surprised
at what had transpired.
     "<Mousse!  Come down here, boy!>" Cologne shouted.  Xi
Fan frowned.
     "<His presence is not necessary,>" she snapped.
     "<I'm afraid it is,>" Cologne replied smoothly.  Mousse came
through the door moments later, stopping in surprise at the sight of the
amazon elder.
     "<Hon-Honoured elder ...>" he began.
     "<Yes, yes.  Now what's all this about?>"
     "<Xi Fan, meet Shampoo's new fianc‚.>" An uncomfortable
silence fell over the room.  Shampoo looked at the floor, heat rising in
her face.  This was yet *another* humiliation that she owed Mousse
for.  Silently, she added it to her list.
     "<Oh, very nice,>" Xi Fan growled at last.  "<Come now, stop
wasting my time.  What kind of a fool do you take me for, anyway?>"
She walked slowly over to Shampoo.
     "<Shampoo, don't hide your gaze like a child.  Look at me.>"
Reluctantly, she did.  The old woman's eyes bored into hers, belying
the friendly smile she wore.
     "<That's better.  Now, do you really expect me to believe that
you were beaten by Mousse?  The very same Mousse that used to run
around the village with tattered flowers in his hand, begging you to
marry him?  The same Mousse that regularly proposed to tree stumps,
farm animals and rocks?  You expect me to believe that this boy raised
his hand against you and defeated you?>"
     "<It's true, honoured ...>" Mousse began.  She wheeled on
him, eyes blazing.
     "<SILENCE!  When I want your opinion, *boy*, I'll ask for
it,>" she snarled.  Mousse paled visibly and shut his mouth.  Xi Fan
nodded and turned back to Shampoo.
     "<Well?>" she prompted.  Shampoo felt that her face must be
glowing with embarrassment.
     "<It is true.  Mousse challenged me and I lost.>" There.  She'd
said it.  Xi Fan stared up into her eyes, her own gaze revealing nothing.
     "<Well, isn't that convenient?>" she said at last.  "<And I
suppose *you* have a letter of resignation drafted already?>" This last
was directed at Cologne, who nodded.
     "<My present condition sadly prohibits me from carrying out
my duties as ...>"
     "<Gah!  Please stop insulting my intelligence!  This is such an
obvious ploy!  Do you really think anyone is going to believe this
fabrication?>"
     "<I'm afraid it is the truth.  Mousse challenged Shampoo for
her hand.  She accepted, and she lost.  There were witnesses.>"
     "<Witnesses?>" Xi Fan asked suspiciously.
     "<Yes.  Ranma, his family, and some friends.>"
     "<Oh.  Well, just so the witnesses were totally *impartial*,>"
Xi Fan sneered.  "<What kind of a fool do you take me for?  This is all
highly improper!  The council will never accept this travesty of our
laws!>"
     "<Why don't we let the council decide that for themselves?>"
Cologne asked mildly.
     "<Oh, rest assured, I intend to see that personally.>" Xi Fan stalked
over to Cologne and muttered something Shampoo could not hear.
Cologne nodded, and both women stepped outside.  Shampoo wanted
to go eavesdrop on them, but she knew how much trouble she would
be in if she did.
     Of course, she was in trouble already, wasn't she?  Engaged to
Mousse, and Xi Fan didn't even believe she had lost to him.  Of
course, she wasn't the only one ...
     Cologne stepped back inside.  There was no sign of the other
woman.  Shampoo frowned.
     "<What happened?  Where is Xi Fan?>" she asked.  Cologne
made an impatient gesture as she limped over to the table.
     "<She has decided to take my letter of resignation and the written
account of what transpired here back to the council.  She will return in
a few days with their reaction.>" Shampoo sighed.  She knew what
was in those letters, of course.  She written down her
great-grandmother's words, since it was very hard for the blind woman
to write legibly.
     "<Reaction?>" Mousse asked, sounding worried.
     "<This whole situation is quite unusual.  The council will no
doubt want to hear the particulars before deciding on a course of
action.>"
     "<You mean there could still be trouble?>" he asked nervously.
Cologne sighed.
     "<Don't worry, boy.  I'm sure everything will be fine.>"
     But the look on the old woman's face told Shampoo that she
wasn't certain of that.  No, not certain at all.

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

     The air was dank here, and cool.  The tightly fitted stones that
made up the walls and steps were old, clearly much older than the rest
of the house.
     Yes.  Much older.  Kunou drew in a deep breath, and for an
instant the steady white light of the battery operated lantern became a
flickering yellow glow, casting eerie shadows over the ancient door with
it's dull black lock plate.  Then he blinked, and the light was once again
the steady white glare that chased away all warmth with its icy modern
efficiency.
     He knew he shouldn't be there.  Oh, it wasn't as if it could
matter now.  The damage was done, had been done long ago.  But the
sun would be down soon and night would claim the world again, and
he was quite certain that if he remained standing before the door until
then, he would see something that would drive him irrevocably insane.
     Nonsense, he told himself sternly.  Childish nonsense.  There
was no reason to believe that, was there?  No.  No, there wasn't.
     But there is so much you do not understand, an inner voice told
him reasonably.  The heart of all your mysteries lies through that door
and beyond, sealed in the dark.  The dreams are loosed now, and have
been since ...
     He thrust a fist against one of the walls, skinning his knuckles
against the cool stone.  The impact thrummed up his arm, a welcome
distraction from the path his thoughts seemed to be taking of their own
volition.
     "Stop it," he whispered.  But his thoughts ran on chaotically.
     Denying it doesn't change anything.  Why not go through, all
the way this time?  Why not see for yourself what it has all been for?
You could.  Don't you want to know?
     He did.  But he was afraid.  He could admit that, standing in
front of this aged portal, its ancient wood hard as steel.  He could admit
it, if only in the privacy of his own thoughts.  He wasn't afraid of any
foe he could fight, but the formless fears that haunted his nights came
from beyond that door, and they could not be vanquished with cold
steel.  They could only be endured, and his endurance was near its
limits.
     But not his courage.  He reached out with his bleeding hand,
brushing his fingertips across the smooth, hard surface of the door.  He
felt like a man afraid of heights who stood, hands locked in a death grip
on the railing, forcing himself to look out into the void just to prove that
the fear couldn't rule him, no matter how bowel-loosening it might be.
He let his fingers splay out, leaning forward to press his palm flat against
the cool dark wood, and stood there with his heart hammering against
the inside of his ribs.
     "There is still one to guard this place," he whispered into the
stillness.  "One yet remains.  Does that please you, I wonder?  Or do
you seek to be free of us?"  There was no answer, but he fancied he
could feel a distant thrumming, as of some titanic heart, or perhaps a
river of blackness, rushing on in eternal night to some unknown
destination.
     One way to know for sure, his thoughts informed him,
quiescent no longer.  Go through.  There might be a way to end it.
     But that was not his duty, was it?  His duty was to guard, to
defend.  And that he would do, until he could do so no longer.
     But oh, he was so tired.
     Finally, he pulled his hand away from the door, his heart
slowing to its regular rhythm once more.  He stepped back, dropping
his hand wearily to his side.  He shouldn't have come down here.  He
realized that now.  There were no answers here for him, certainly not
for the one question that had haunted him all that day.
     Does he know?
     (Some doors are best left unopened)
     Does he really know?  It was certainly possible.  But then, it
was also possible that he had been babbling mindlessly, lost in his own
memories of the past, triggered by Kodachi's death.
     And if he knew, did it really matter anymore?
     Kunou turned to go, his eyes sweeping over the small, bare
stone chamber.  It hadn't changed in all the years since he'd last been
there, at least not that he could tell.  Except it looked smaller now than
he remembered.
     He trudged up the worn stone steps, feeling an intangible weight
settle over his frame.  He'd had an extremely trying day.  First the
dreams had resumed.  Then the discussion with his father, and of
course, his poor handling of Nabiki Tendou.
     How had she known?  How was it possible that an outsider had
learned so much?  And more importantly, what was he going to do
about it?
     A puzzle for another day.  For now, he was spent, his head
aching.  He entered the chamber at the top of the stairs, eyeing the
inside of the secret panel that led into the house.  He needed rest.  He
needed sleep.
     Sleep, with no dreams.

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

     Ah, Sunday.  Nabiki stretched, luxuriating in the lazy sensation
of just lying in bed.  Sleeping in was a highly underrated pleasure in her
humble opinion.  Throwing the covers aside, she sat up, yawning
hugely.  She trudged over to the closet to find something to wear,
squinting at the bright sunshine that beamed cheerily in her window.
     In fact, a little too bright, that sun.  She frowned, checking her
clock, and was shocked to see that it was nearly eleven in the morning.
She'd lain awake the previous night for some time, thinking about her
discussions with Kunou and Ukyou, but still, eleven?  She almost never
slept in that late.
     Of course, she almost never got the *opportunity* to sleep in that
late.  Cocking her head, she frowned.  The house was unusually quiet.
She could generally depend on a ruckus of some sort rousing her
before this hour.  Ranma fighting with his old man, Ranma fighting with
Akane, furniture being overturned, walls being demolished ...
     Well.  Peace in our time.  Don't look a gift horse in the mouth,
Nabiki, she told herself, turning back to the closet.  She found some
slacks to go with a sleeveless blouse, then tossed then on the bed while
she got some undergarments from her dresser.
     She stopped to stare at the bottom drawer of her desk.  It was
still in there.  She should really get rid of it.  After all, Kunou had made
it perfectly clear what he thought of her and her offer of assistance.
And Nabiki Tendou was not somebody who had trouble taking a hint.
There was no point in expending any more time and energy on this
project upon which she had so foolishly embarked.  She might as well
just destroy the damned file and move on to something more deserving
of her attention.
     Yes.  But later.  It would just wreck her good mood if she had
to flush away all the effort she had invested in the project right now.
Later, and good riddance.
     She had just finished dressing when she heard it.  A loud yell,
followed by a crash, a yelp, and a splash.  She sighed.  It didn't take
much imagination to assign actions to the sounds.  Akane yells, punts
Ranma through the door into the garden, where he lands in the pond.
     "Guess the honeymoon's over," she sighed.
     Once downstairs, she found Kasumi hovering nervously in the
hall leading to the family room.  She also detected a pungent,
unpleasant odour.
     "Nabiki," Kasumi said, obviously surprised.  "I thought you'd
already gone."
     "Nope.  Sacked in on this fine morning.  What's going on?"
Kasumi turned back to the family room, and Nabiki could see that the
door to the garden had indeed suffered grave structural damage.
     "Akane cooked Ranma some lunch," Kasumi said sadly.  It all
became clear to Nabiki then.
     "No wonder it was so quiet this morning.  Okay, give.  How
bad was it?"
     "He really tried," Kasumi told her, "but ... well, he began to
turn a very strange colour, and then he started choking.  Akane didn't
take it very well."
     "One suspects not," Nabiki said dryly.  "Well, I just won a
million yen from myself."  Kasumi gave her a strange look.
     "Pardon?"
     "I bet myself that their first fight would be over Akane's
cooking.  I wanted to bet you, but you wouldn't bite, remember?"
     "Ah, yes.  I do remember.  I know better than to bet against
you, Nabiki."  They stared into the abandoned room silently.  The
remains of the meal sat in all its unspeakable splendour on the table,
and Nabiki fancied she could see it plotting against humanity like some
B-movie monster.
     "Well, come on, sis.  I'm a million yen richer, the least I can do
is treat you to lunch."  Kasumi looked at her.
     "I thought I should stay around and ..."
     "And what?  Pick up the pieces?  There's nothing you can do
here.  I for one do not intend to hang around for the awkward scene
that's likely to result."  I've had enough of those for one week, she
added silently.  Kasumi sighed.
     "I suppose you're right," she admitted.  They slipped away to
get their shoes.
     "Really, Kasumi, you're such a domestic goddess," Nabiki said
to her sister as they left.  "Can't you do anything about her cooking?"
     "I have tried," Kasumi replied despondently.  "I just can't
control her enthusiasm once she gets into the kitchen."  Nabiki grinned
wryly.
     "In that case, I hope they can afford to eat out a lot once they get
married,  cause if you can't teach her, no one can."

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

     Ranma-chan pulled herself from the koi pond and flopped onto
the grass, rolling onto her back with a groan.
     "Well, *that* could have gone better," she said to nobody in
particular.  Wiping the water from her face, she climbed to her feet and
trudged back to the house.
     The table had been cleared of ... of *whatever* it had been that
Akane had cooked.  It looked like even Kasumi had bailed out, leaving
her to face the music alone.
     Coward.
     She padded over to the kitchen, peering carefully around the
edge of the doorway.  Akane was in there, her back to the door,
staring at the messy counters and the cluttered sink.  Her shoulders
were hunched, her arms held stiffly at her sides, fists clenched.
     And her battle aura was lighting up the room.
     Ranma-chan pulled back instinctively.  This was bad.  Very,
very bad.  It wasn't like she'd *tried* to make Akane mad!  It was just
that the food had been ... well, *vile*.  And she'd still tried to eat it!
And look at the thanks she got!  Smashed through the door and into the
pond.  That violent, uncute ...
     Ranma-chan cut off her thoughts before they could run away
down that familiar path.  She remembered sitting on Akane's bed,
feeling Akane's hands on her back, kissing with tender passion.  She
remembered the look in Akane's eyes then, and when they'd kissed
behind the dojo that other time.
     She could make Akane feel that way again.  That simple
thought came to her without warning, cutting through her righteous
indignation.  She could make Akane forget about this debacle.  For
once, she could actually make Akane happy instead of being the cause
of her misery.
     No, better than that, she could turn this to her advantage.  That
was what tactics were all about, after all.  She thought for a moment, a
flush rising to her cheeks.  How to turn this around ...
     A slow smile spread across her face.  Yeah.  That could work.
And she might be able to do something about Akane's cooking at the
same time.  She ran through her plan, and her nipples tightened
pleasurably.
     Oops.  She looked down, a blush spreading across her cheeks.
She would definitely be needing a *guy's* body for this plan.
     Grinning with anticipation, she headed for the bathroom.

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

     Akane didn't turn when she heard Ranma come into the kitchen
behind her.  She continued to clean off the counter with sharp, angry
movements, making as much noise as possible.  She didn't want to face
him, didn't he know that?  Why couldn't he just go away?
     "Um.  Akane?"
     "Leave me alone."
     "Look, I'm sorry, okay?"  She slammed down a metal mixing
bowl, turning to face him.
     "What for?" she asked bitterly.  "It was awful.  Really horrible."
Ranma gazed at her earnestly.
     "It wasn't that bad," he lied.
     "Oh, stop it!" she cried, unshed tears glistening in her eyes.  "I tried,

Ranma, I tried really, really hard!  I just wanted to make a special meal
for you, but it was awful!  I just can't do this and I'll never be able to!"
Ranma just stood there.
     "Sure you can, Akane," he said quietly.  She gritted her teeth.
     "Don't.  Humour.  Me."  Why wouldn't he just let her suffer in
peace?  He knew how much her constant failures in the kitchen
bothered her.  But he not only stayed, he walked over to her, and she
had to look at the floor to avoid his gaze.
     "Look, Akane.  You're always telling me to let you help, right?
Well, this time, I want you to let me help you."
     "Oh, you're gonna teach me to cook?"  She couldn't quite
keep the bitterness out of her voice.  This was just what she needed, a
reminder that Ranma was better than her at *everything*.
     "Not quite.  I'm gonna train with you."  She looked up,
surprised.  His blue-gray eyes were softened by gentle good humour,
and she felt a twinge of warmth despite herself.
     No, she thought contrarily.  I'm in a bad mood and I'm not
going to be jollied out of it just like that.
     "And what's that supposed to mean?" she asked, crossing her arms.
     "Kitchen katas."  She blinked.
     "Kitchen katas?  There's no such thing," she said suspiciously.
He broke out in an utterly disarming grin.
     "This is the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts, remember?
If something doesn't exist, we make it up!"
     "You shouldn't have swallowed my cooking, Ranma.  It's
making you delirious."  She was more exasperated than angry now.
What on earth was he up to?
     "None of that, now," he said cheerily, placing his hands on her
shoulders and gently turning her around.  "Are you ready for your first
lesson?"  She sighed.  Well, at least he was trying to cheer her up.  That
was an improvement from the usual aftermath of one of her cooking
disasters.
     "All right.  What do I do?" she asked, resignedly.
     "First, we start with your stance.  Open it up a little ... good.
Now ..."  She started as his arm slipped around her waist, drawing her
back until their bodies were touching.  She felt warmth flooding her
cheeks.
     "Ranma!"
     "Hush.  Okay.  Now, you follow my movements, just do what I do,
right?"  She let a small smile escape her quickly failing gloom.
     "`Kay."  He moved her across the floor with gentle nudges of
his legs against the backs of her own, one arm still encircling her waist.
Now this might not teach me to cook, she mused, but it's not bad.  Not
bad at all.
     They came up to the counter, then stopped.  Ranma's free
hand slipped down along the outside of her arm, fingers tracing lines of
warmth along the back of her hand.
     "Now reach up here ..." he said in a low, throaty voice that
rumbled pleasantly in her ear.  Together, they opened the cupboard and
reached inside.  He gently closed her fingers around something flat and
rectangular, drawing it out.  She blinked in surprise.
     "A cookbook?"
     "Uh-huh.  First step: figure out what we're going to make."
     "Why not just try what I made you?" she asked.  Ranma made
her start leafing through the cookbook.
     "Uh, this is the basic kata pattern.  We should start with
something easier."  She sighed.
     "You don't know what it was supposed to be, do you?"  He
cleared his throat nervously.
     "You have to learn the basic katas before you can progress to
the more complex ones," he said simply.  "You'll just have to trust your
teacher."  She felt her lips tugging upwards into a smile, and leaned her
weight back against his chest.
     "I do," she told him softly.
     Her bad mood already seemed a million miles away.

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

     "You're awfully quiet today."
     "Mmm?  Am I?"
     "Nothing's wrong, is it?"  Nabiki didn't answer for a moment.
     "No," she lied at last.  "Nothing."
     "Oh."  They walked on in silence.
     "Lunch was very good," Kasumi added after a time.
     "Yeah, Ukyou makes a mean okonomiyaki."
     "It was nice of her to treat us like that."
     "Hey, she probably saves a mint now that she doesn't have to
feed Ranma all the time," Nabiki answered.  She'd actually counted on
Ukyou's largesse, a fact she didn't feel obliged to share with Kasumi.
     "Um."
     "What?"
     "About that.  Ranma, I mean.  And Ukyou."
     "What about them?"  Nabiki shot her sister a look.  Kasumi
was toying idly with her hair where it hung over her shoulder.  The
streets were full of people basking in the warm spring sun and enjoying
the day.
     "She still isn't speaking to him, is she?"
     "Look, Kasumi.  Whether he meant to hurt her or not, he did.
It's going to take time for her to get over that.  He's just going to have
to get used to the idea that there's nothing he can do, you know?  She
needs time."
     "Yes, I suppose.  I just hate the thought that their friendship might
be lost forever.  She seemed in fairly good spirits today, though.  You
two even seemed quite friendly."
     "Well, we came to a bit of a meeting of the minds the other
day at school.  She had some things on her mind, and it helped her to
chew them over with someone.  It was kinda nice, actually."  And it
helped me too, Nabiki thought.
     "Really?  That was nice of you, Nabiki."
     "Yeah, well, I never really talked to her before, y'know?  She
surprised me."  Kasumi smiled, her hands clasped lightly in front of her
as she walked.
     "Do you think she'll really be all right?"
     "I guess.  I'm no expert in broken hearts, though.  Speaking of
affairs of the heart ..."  Kasumi blinked.
     "Were we?"
     "No, but that was the best segue I could come up with.  I saw
that book you checked out of the library.  Medical terminology, hmm?"
Kasumi coloured faintly and looked away.
     "I, ah ..."
     "You, ah, wanted to learn some medical terms to drop into the
shell-like ear of a certain doctor of boyish charm?"  Kasumi had the
good grace to look embarrassed.
     "Well, I thought I might ... but it's useless."
     "Whaddaya mean?  That's a great plan!"  Kasumi sighed.
     "I can't talk to him, Nabiki!  Unless there's a life-threatening
emergency going on, he just goes to pieces around me!  I'm
considering just giving up."  Nabiki was shocked.
     "What?  You can't!  Kasumi, the guy is nuts about you!"
     "Too nuts.  What am I supposed to do?  I can't even be in the
same room with him most of the time!  I've had to stop finding excuses
to visit his clinic because my presence physically endangers his patients!
The last time I visited, an old man hopped out without his crutches and
Mrs. Hideki jumped out the window!  You know what people in the
neighbourhood call me?  Kasumi the Terminator!"
     "Well, only behind your back," Nabiki said weakly.  Kasumi
sighed sadly.
     "I've been hoping recent events would change things, but he's
still completely lost around me.  I don't know what to do."  Nabiki
grinned broadly.  Now here was a problem she could get her teeth into.
     "Sis, have you come to the right place.  The master strategist is
on the case.  Let's see now ..."  She ignored Kasumi's confused
expression as they walked through the market.
     "Ah.  I've got a plan."
     "That was fast," Kasumi said, doubt evident in her voice.
     "I was inspired," Nabiki said simply.  In truth, it was a lot easier
trying to solve other people's problems than tackling her own.  And this
just might work.  "It's gonna cost you, though."
     "Cookies again?"
     "No.  For something this big ... brownies.  The ones with the
nuts and the chocolate icing."  Kasumi gave her a mischievous smile.
     "Half now, half when the job's complete?"
     "Ah, so nice doing business with a professional."
     "So?" Kasumi urged.  Nabiki could see that, in spite of her doubts,
Kasumi really wanted to hear what she had to say.
     "Okay, look.  You just said that the doc is a menace to his
patients when you're around, right?  Well, what we gotta do is bring his
giddiness into direct conflict with his professionalism and his feelings for
you."  Kasumi nodded.
     "Huh?" she asked.  Nabiki sighed.
     "Kasumi, how's your back?"
     "What?  It's fine," she answered, confused.
     "Really?  I think it's bothering you.  Stiffness, pain ..."
     "No, not at all."  Nabiki sighed again.
     "With all the work you've been doing around the house this week?
It's really starting to bother you, isn't it?  I really think," she said
patiently, "that you should go see a chiropractor."  Kasumi's eyes
widened.
     "Oh," she said.  "But ..."
     "Look.  Your very presence makes the doc jump the rails, no?
But if he's treating *you*, then he'll have to stay in control or risk
hurting you.  And that, my dear sister, is something our Ono Tofu
would never dream of doing.  He'll have to actually touch you *and*
stay rational.  If one visit doesn't cure him, you may have to develop a
stiff neck or something, but sooner or later he's gonna get used to being
around you without going ga-ga."  She cocked her head impishly.  "Not
bad, eh?"  Kasumi stared off into space, a furrow between her brows.
     "That's very good," she said at last.  "It might just work."
     "Of course it'll work," Nabiki told her with an attitude of
wounded pride.  "This isn't just a cookie plan, it's a *brownie* plan!"
     "Ah," Kasumi nodded.  "In that case, it'll definitely work."  They
both began giggling at the same time.
     "It would be nice to be able to talk to him ..." Kasumi mused
wistfully.
     "Ooooh.  Speaking of affairs of the heart, which we *were* this
time, we're home.  I wonder how much damage our lovebirds have
done while we were gone?"
     "I hope they make up quickly," Kasumi said.  "They were getting
along so well."
     "Forget it," Nabiki scoffed.  "Those two are as stubborn as
they come.  It'll be a week before either of them gets up the nerve to
apologize.  Mark my words."

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

     Kasumi gaped.
     She had headed to the kitchen with the intention of cleaning up
the mess Akane had undoubtedly left behind.  The scene that greeted
her there was, frankly, astounding.  She peered around the door frame
in amazement, straining to hear.
     Ranma and Akane stood at the far counter, their backs to her.
Well, "stood" really didn't do it justice.  Ranma was behind Akane, his
arms around her, his hands covering hers and guiding them.  Their
movements were slow, languid, and strangely intimate.  It almost
looked like they were *dancing*.
     But they weren't, she realized suddenly.  They were ...
     They were *cooking*.
     "Okay," Ranma said suddenly, "now we add two teaspoons of
salt."  Akane reached out for something, only to have Ranma gently halt
her by lacing his fingers through hers.
     "What are you doing?"
     "Getting the salt."
     "Uh, read the label again, you."
     "It's ... oh.  Sugar."
     "Right.  Salt is over here ..."  Kasumi was amazed.  Akane
didn't yell at Ranma, didn't get angry at her mistake or at him for
catching her.  What on earth was happening?
     "Okay, now ... hey!  Use they measuring spoon, grasshopper.
We agreed, no winging it until you master the first level katas."
     "Yes, mastah!"
     "That's master-CHAN to you, young lady."  Akane giggled.
     "Right, master-CHAN.  The bestest master."
     "You forgot the most modest."
     "No I didn't.  There.  Precisely two teaspoons, oh great one.
Now what?"
     As Kasumi watched in growing amazement, they moved
together, gliding across the floor toward the utensil rack.
     "Hey.  You're spying," a stern voice whispered in her ear.  She
started violently, turning slightly to see that Nabiki had come up behind
her.
     "For shame," she scolded.  Kasumi coloured.
     "No," she whispered back, "I just ... I wasn't ... I ..."
     "Hush.  I can't hear."  Nabiki looked past her sister with
obvious curiosity.  Ranma had nudged Akane into retrieving a mixing
spoon, and together they moved back over to the bowl.
     "Okay, have you got the spoon, grasshopper?"
     "Yes."
     "Do you see the spoon?"
     "Of course."
     "No.  Not with your eyes. See the spoon with your heart.
Embrace the spoon.  Become one with the spoon!  Akane.  BECOME
... the spoon!"  She started giggling helplessly, then snorted a breath.
     "Ah!  You snorted!"
     "Did not!"
     "I definitely heard you ..."
     "Well, you made me!"
     "Do it again!"
     "I can't," she said haughtily.  "I'm becoming the spoon."  Then
she elbowed him playfully in the ribs, and he slipped his free arm down
around her waist, holding her tightly.  They were both half giggling still,
Kasumi noted.
     "Okay, now this is the all important "stirring" technique,"
Ranma said at last.  "The spoon goes in the bowl, and then you stir."
     "Clockwise or counterclockwise, oh mastah?"
     "Counterclockwise.  Always counterclockwise."
     "And why's that?"
     "Keeps the evil spirits out of the bowl."
     "Ah.  Well, just so there's a good reason.  Fast or slow?"
     "Oooh.  Slow.  Very slow.  Like this."  Ranma guided her hand
to the bowl, gently inserting the spoon, then starting to stir with slow,
careful motions.  He started moving his hips from side to side in a lazy
rhythm, and Akane followed suit.  Ranma began humming something.
     "What's that tune?"
     "Um ... the kitchen kata mixing song?"  Akane giggled again.
     "Really?  How does it go?"
     "Uh, like this.  Na na na na, na naaa na na, NAA nanananana
nana nana nana naaaaaaaa ..."
     "Gosh.  It must have taken you minutes to write," Akane
observed drily.
     "Do you mock me, wench?"
     Wench?"  Akane wrenched the spoon from the bowl and
twisted to whack Ranma lightly on the nose.  A glob of sticky white
stuff stuck to his nose and she giggled again.
     "Oops," she said sweetly.  He glowered.
     "Grasshopper, is there something on my nose?"
     "Hmm.  Let me check."  Twisting all the way around, she
grabbed him by the ear and came up on her tiptoes to lick the food off
Ranma's nose.  Kasumi opened her mouth to gasp, and Nabiki's hand
covered it instantly.
     "Go, Akane," she whispered in Kasumi's ear.  Kasumi could
tell Nabiki was grinning without having to see her face.
     "Weirdo," Ranma laughed.  "Well?"
     "Wellll, there's nothing on your nose now," Akane observed.
     "Funny.  How was it?"  She struck a thinking pose, one hand
on her chin, the spoon held out to the side, head cocked.
     "Not sure," she said at last.  She flicked the spoon quickly,
depositing another glob of food on Ranma's face, just under the eye
this time.  She leaned forward, licking the mixture off his cheek while he
squirmed.
     "Hey!" he protested softly.  He leaned forward, pinning her to
the edge of the counter with his body.  "Stop that!"
     "Still not sure," she grinned.  "Maybe an ear this time ..."
     "I think not!"  Ranma's hand blurred behind her, his fingers
dipping into the bowl, coming out with a healthy amount of the whitish
mix on them.  He held his hand above Akane's face threateningly.
     "Okay.  You have one way out of this, little grasshopper."
     "What's that?" she asked humbly.
     "Sing the mixing song."  She tried to keep a straight face.
     "Naaa ... what were the words again?"  Ranma dipped his
food-laden fingers toward her face slightly, and she squeaked.
     "Okay, okay!  Na, na na na naaaa, na na ... Ranma's a goof ..."
     "What?"
     "Gooooof, goof goof goof goooooof ..."
     "Biiiig mistake!"  Ranma's hand wove a mesmerizing pattern through
the air, looking for an opening.  Akane tried to pull her arms up to
guard her head, but Ranma used his free arm to keep pulling them
away.  Finally, he managed to deposit good-sized blobs under both her
earlobes.
     "Eeeew!  You clean that up right now!" she laughed, trying to
sound angry and failing miserably.
     "If you insist."  He grabbed both her wrists and held her arms
away from her body, then moved in to suck the food off Akane's neck.
She squealed with outrage and delight.
     "Ahhh!  Ran-maaaaHAAAAA!  Stop that!"
     Kasumi felt heat rising in her face as she watched the two
squirm around against the counter, licking food off one another.
     "Bet you never thought of teaching Akane to cook that way,
huh?" Nabiki whispered.  Kasumi looked back and gasped.
     "Where'd you get that camera?" she hissed.  Nabiki was
snapping pictures of the action happily.
     "Always prepared.  Thought they might want a few shots for
the ol' family album, y'know?"
     "Nabiki!"
     "Aw, relax.  How much worse is this than spying on them,
anyway?"  She had a point.  Kasumi grabbed her and dragged her
away from the door.
     "Aww, man!  It was just getting good!" Nabiki protested.
Kasumi coughed politely into her hand, her face still burning.
     "Maybe so, but we should give them some privacy.  And we
should make a *lot* of noise when we come back in."
     "Oh, all right," Nabiki grumped.  "But man-oh-man, Kasumi, did
you see?  I mean, it's one thing to know, intellectually, that they're
actually together, but to see *that*, after all this time!  I didn't know
Ranma had it in him!  And Akane with that nose thing ..."  Kasumi
blushed again.
     "Never you mind," she said primly.  Nabiki grinned.
     "Hey sis," she whispered conspiratorially.  "If my plan works, you
and Doc Tofu could try some of those cooking tips."  That created a
mental picture which threatened to cause blood vessels to burst.  A
furiously blushing Kasumi hustled Nabiki to the door.
     "Remember, make lots of noise, okay?" she hissed.  Nabiki opened
the door and looked up at the sky.  Kasumi frowned.
     "Whatever are you doing?"  Nabiki grinned.
     "After what we just saw?  Checking to see if pigs were flying."

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

     Kunou stepped out of the house into the glorious sunshine.  A
light workout that morning, followed by a satisfying meal, had him in a
truly contented state of mind.  He roamed idly through the estate's
grounds, allowing the tranquillity to soak into his very bones.  He hadn't
felt this good since ... since ...
     Well, but the past wasn't important, was it?  What was
important was that he was feeling good *now*.  He shook off a vague
sense of unease at the thought and kept walking.  Some instinct told him
that to dwell too closely on the past would be to forsake his peace of
mind.
     And that would be a shame.
     He came upon the gardener behind the main house, near
Midorigame's pen.  The man turned as Kunou came up to him.
     "Ah, Masaki.  Is something the matter?"  The wiry little man
gestured to the pen with barely concealed distaste.
     "That ... beast is hungry," he gritted.  "I was just preparing to
feed it."  Kunou frowned.
     "Such a strange creature for a maiden to keep as a pet, no?" he
asked softly as he looked into the pen.  Midorigame's cold reptilian
gaze met his, its flat alien eyes revealing nothing.  "She should have a
puppy, perhaps.  No.  A cat.  My dear sister is definitely a cat person.
What a shame we can't keep them ..."  He trailed off as his thoughts
seemed to veer towards forbidden territory, and he felt the sense of
unease return.  Shaking it off brusquely, he turned to the smaller man.
     "At any rate, there is no excuse for her to be neglecting the
poor beast.  I shall speak to her about this, faithful Masaki.  After all,
this is not part of your duties."  Masaki stared at him blankly.  "By the
way, have you seen her?"
     "Who, sir?" Masaki asked, his voice dry and raspy.  Kunou
frowned.
     "I speak of Kodachi, of course.  There are a number of
photographs missing from my room, and I wish to know what she did
with them."  Kunou noticed that the other man looked pale, and a
heavy melancholy seemed to have settled on his slight frame.  "Are you
quite all right, Masaki?  You look ill."  The other man shook his head
quickly.
     "Not at all, Master Kunou.  I am well.  And I have not seen
Mistress Kodachi.  Not ... recently."  Kunou nodded.
     "No matter.  I will speak to her anon.  Carry on."  Masaki
nodded, hoisting a bucket of raw meat with deceptive ease as Kunou
strode away.
     Kunou cast a glance over his shoulder as he walked away,
catching sight of Masaki standing beside the pen.  He hadn't moved
from where he'd been standing, and was staring off disconsolately into
the distance.  Kunou made a mental note to see to it that the poor man
took a vacation soon.
     He looked as if he'd just received the shock of his life.

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

     It should have been me.
     She watched them from her hiding place, hearing that mantra in
her head over and over until it threatened to drive her mad.
     It should have been me.
     But it wasn't.  Instead, Akane sat on the grass beside Ranma.
They were eating a picnic lunch in the Tendou's garden.  And laughing.
Laughing quite a bit.
     She watched impassively as Akane snagged a rice ball with her
chopsticks and tried to feed it to Ranma.  He pretended not to want it,
and she pressed the point, laughing all the while.  Finally, she knocked
him onto his back and straddled him, pinning his arms with her legs and
teasing him with the rice ball, dangling it tauntingly above his mouth,
only to snatch it away when he tried to eat it.  After much hilarity,
Ranma finally caught the rogue rice ball, chewing it thoroughly before
swallowing.
     "Mmm-mm," she heard him say.  "That's the best first level
kitchen kata rice ball I've ever tasted!"
     "Aw, I bet you say that to all the girls," Akane responded
demurely.
     "Any left?"
     "Just one," she told him, looking into the food basket.  Then she
looked up at him, mischief in her eyes.
     "Wanna split it?" she asked sweetly.  Ranma, of course,
nodded.  Never one to pass up food, that Ranma.  She watched
impassively as Akane brought out the last rice ball.  Then she stifled a
shudder as the girl seized it in her mouth.  She held her hands behind
her back, then turned to Ranma expectantly, her eyes flashing merrily.
Ranma looked nervous suddenly, shooting a surreptitious glance at the
house.  No one was in sight, however, and he leaned forward, bracing
himself on his hands as he brought his mouth closer to hers.
     Don't watch, she begged herself, but she knew she would.  She
had to.  Ranma's lips touched Akane's, then he bit into the rice ball
with agonizing slowness.  Finally, they drew back slightly, gazes locked
as they chewed with lazy, sensuous motions.  A light breeze blew a
lock of violet hair into her face, and she absently brushed it away.
     "Shampoo know you there, Mousse," she said in a low voice
that wouldn't carry to the young lovers below.  "Go away."  There was
no sound for a long moment, then an equally low voice came from
above and behind her.
     "Why are you here, Shampoo?  Why are you making yourself
watch this?"  As punishment, she thought sadly.  Punishment for failing
so badly.  And so I won't miss him when I'm gone.  I'm burning him
out of my heart.
     And it was just possible that she was succeeding, but oh, it
hurt.  It hurt so very badly.
     "None of Mousse's business what Shampoo do," she replied
flatly.  She wondered if he would press, trying to take advantage of his
status as her new fianc‚.  If he did, he would be terribly surprised.  She
would allow him the minimum privileges accorded to a man in his
position.  And he would never touch her until they were married, and
then only as much as absolutely necessary.
     He disappointed her, though, by not forcing the issue.
     "Ranma will be very angry if he catches you near the dojo," he
said instead.
     "Shampoo knows.  It Shampoo's business.  Go.  Now."  She
continued to stare at the tender scene below, barely noticing the slight
creak of the branches when Mousse finally leapt away.  She forced
herself to watch as Akane and Ranma flirted and frolicked and smiled
at one another under the golden spring sun.  She watched and she gave
no outward sign of her emotions, even though her heart felt as though it
would burst.
     Let me hate you, Ranma, she begged silently.  Please.  How
will I ever get you out of my heart if I can't hate you?
     She watched them from her hidden perch for a long time, and
even when warm tears began to course down her cheeks, her
expression never changed.

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

     Kunou stood motionless in the dappled sunlight, regarding the
sight before him with a strange apprehension.
     Two roads diverged in a wood, he thought numbly.  Wasn't
that how the poem went?  And indeed, here in this lovely grove his path
diverged.  The main branch, well-trimmed and maintained, curved away
into a large sunny clearing.  The other, smaller and clearly seldom used,
meandered into the gloomy shade cast by the overarching trees.
     I don't know where that goes, he thought fuzzily.  Isn't that
odd?  I should know where that goes, shouldn't I?
     It doesn't matter, he assured himself.  This way lies the sun, and
the grass, and the sky.  Surely it is the best path.
     But his gaze was dragged, all unwilling, back to the smaller
path.  It compelled him, its destination dancing tantalizingly just out of
reach, like a word one strives to remember.
     It does not matter, his inner voice spoke up firmly.  There are
many paths contained in an estate of this size.  Who can know them all?
Leave it.  It will keep for another day.  The sunny clearing awaits, to
ease your body and your thoughts.
     Yes.  It would be pleasant to sit in the sun, would it not?  That
way looked so gloomy and threatened to disrupt his feeling of
contentment and tranquillity.
     He walked up to where the path forked, turned towards the
clearing.
     Yes.  This way is best.  After all, some paths
     (doors)
     are best left
     (unopened)
     untravelled.
     He froze.  Something fluttered deep behind his eyes, something
black and dreadful, and was gone.  He withdrew his bokken from his
sash and held it in front of him, raising it slowly to eye level.
     Is someone there? he wondered silently, but he knew no one
was.  This was no enemy to be conquered with swordsmanship.  This
was something far more insidious.
     Stop it, his inner voice chided him angrily.  Just go to the
clearing.  Worry about this later.
     But he couldn't.  Something was wrong, and he didn't know
what it was.  And he had to know, because it was his ... his duty.  But
why?  Why his duty?  Why ...
     He turned again to the broader path.  He could see the warm
sun bathing the grass in its light, and he felt a need so intense it was
physical, a need to run to that clearing and lie in that grass and just
watch the clouds sail serenely by the way he had often as a child.
     Yes!  It's warm there!  And it's safe!  Nothing can trouble you
there and you're going! his inner voice snapped, sounding petulant now.
     "I am Tatewaki Kunou," he said, his hoarse voice breaking the
peaceful stillness of the day.  He clenched his teeth and spoke again.
     "I am Tatewaki Kunou," he repeated, more forcefully this time.
"I shall not hide, nor shall I yield."  With that, he turned and set his foot
on the darker path.
     Don't wanna! his inner voice shrieked, and it was still his voice,
but as a young child.  Don't wanna go!  It hurt, it hurts it hurts it
huuuuuuurts!
     He gripped his bokken tightly.
     "I know," he whispered aloud.  His gut clenched painfully.
     And he took another step.

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

     Nabiki hid a grin as Ranma and Akane came in from the
garden.  Her father and Mr. Saotome had just gotten back and were
setting up the shogi board on the veranda.  The lovebirds were lucky
that the two men hadn't arrived home a little while earlier.  They'd been
putting on quite a show out there in the garden, having almost as much
fun eating the food as they'd had making it.
     Nabiki wondered idly just how long it would take the two
boneheads to realize that their offspring had finally fallen in love?
     This situation definitely called for a betting pool.
     "So, boy, how was your, uh, lunch?" Ranma's father asked
with exaggerated casualness.  Ranma looked at Akane and she smiled
secretively.  Nabiki raised an eyebrow.  Well, now.  This could prove
interesting.
     "Ah, I only had to spend an hour or so in the bathroom," he
said, grimacing.  Akane scowled.
     "It wasn't that bad," she growled.  Ranma laughed nervously.
     "Hey, guess what?  She's promised to make us all lunch again
*next* Sunday.  You guys'll be here, right?"  He leaned in and gave
them an imploring stare.  The two men instantly looked uncomfortable.
     "Well, we would, son, but we have plans.  Remember,
Saotome?"
     "Yes!  I clearly recall those plans, Tendou!  A shame, but
there's nothing to be done about it now!"  They both laughed with
manic good humour.  Ranma turned to Kasumi.
     "What about you?" he pleaded.  She smiled sweetly.
     "I'm sorry, Ranma, Akane.  I also have plans for that day."
Nabiki grinned.  So that was their plan.  Very sly.  Worthy of Nabiki
herself.  They could have a repeat of the day's festivities in private once
everyone had been frightened off by the spectre of Akane's cooking.
     "Sorry, Ranma," Nabiki yawned as he turned to her.  "I've got
plans too."  And she did.
     Next time, she planned to use a video camera.

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

     Somewhere close by, water trickled and burbled merrily.  It
should have been a comforting sound, but it wasn't.  The little grove
was sheltered by trees and bushes, peaceful and serene, and he could
draw no comfort from that, either.
     The path led to their resting place.  Of course.  He'd known that.
Or rather, he *should* have known that.  But he'd forgotten.
Somehow, he'd forgotten many things.
     He'd fallen to his knees in front of Kodachi's marker, hunched
over, his hands clenched on the hilt of his bokken.  The bokken itself
had been driven, tip first, into the soft soil.  He tried to use it to lever
himself up again, but failed and slid back to his knees.  He knew if he
let go of the bokken he would fall to the ground, and his despair was
such that he wasn't certain he would be able to get back up.
     He had forgotten.
     No.  It was not nearly that simple.  He had run away.  That was
his real shame.  As the events of the past weeks had piled up to an
intolerable level, he'd simply gone to sleep one night and ...
     And let it all slip away.  He'd sought refuge in the comfortable
madness that had preceded Kodachi's death.  In those days, if
something threatened his safe and stable little world, he simply refused
to acknowledge it.  Reality was what he insisted it was.  That way had
been so much simpler, so much safer.  And when it had all gotten to be
too much, he'd slipped back into that mental haze so easily he hadn't
even noticed.
     Just like before.
     Except before, he'd developed his defensive madness over
time, so gradually that he hadn't even noticed.  Before, it hadn't
mattered so much.
     Before, he hadn't been alone.  He hadn't been the last.
     He felt hot tears welling in his eyes, spilling over to run silently
down his face as his head hung loosely between his upraised arms.
They gathered on his chin and nose and swelled, then fell without drama
to the grass below.  All those who rested here had died in the line of
duty, fighting in a shadow war that others never knew was being fought,
struggling to hold back the dark over centuries.  And now he was the
culmination of their efforts.  He was the last.
     And he had forgotten.  He had *allowed* himself to forget.
Without a struggle.  So easily.
     He clenched his hands tightly on the hilt of his bokken and
raised his face, forcing himself to face the mute stone markers.
Kodachi's was in front of him, Kazuhiro's off to one side.  And there
was noble Sasuke's, the newest marker, unadorned save for his
name and dates.  Just the way he would have wanted.
     Sasuke.  Even as duty had taken its toll on him, he'd always
remembered the things that the Kunou siblings had not.  It was he who
had kept the estate wards whole and renewed, who had seen to things
that he and his sister had allowed to slip from their awareness.
     But Sasuke was gone now, and if Kunou were to slip into his
world of comfortable fantasy, there would be no one to pull him back.
No one who still knew the truth.
     He tried to swallow past the hot ball of misery in his throat, then
struggled to stand.  Leaning hard on his bokken, he made it to his feet
this time.  Barely.  His muscles trembled as though from exhaustion as
he squared his shoulders and took a deep, shaky breath.  Then he
pulled the bokken from the ground and held it before him.  He looked
out over the markers of the dead, recalling the strange emotions he'd
felt the first time he'd been here.  Many of them had died young, denied
all the pleasures and tragedies of a full life.  All of them had died to
protect this place, to hold back the darkness which would otherwise
claim all of Tokyo, and then perhaps all of Japan.  And even farther.
He forced his breathing to slow and his back to stiffen, feeling the
weight of his obligation settle heavily on his shoulders.
     But this time, he would not allow it to fall.
     He reached out, tenderly brushing his fingertips across the rose
carved into his sister's marker.  I won't let it end this way, he promised
her silently.  I will not go quietly.  And if it is my duty to fight alone,
and
to die unmourned, then so be it.  Perhaps then, if our spirits meet, you
can finally be proud of me.
     With one last lingering look at the quiet grove, Kunou hardened
his heart and turned to the path.
     His fate awaited him, and he was determined to meet it.

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

     She shut the door softly behind her.  She'd watched long into
the afternoon, then wandered slowly home after she could no longer
stand to remain.  Her muscles were stiff from crouching in the tree for
hours, and she felt wrung out emotionally.  But perhaps that was good.
Perhaps she was purging Ranma from her system.  At least she was
doing *something*.  Just sitting around and waiting for something to
happen was not her way.
     "Shampoo."  She stiffened reflexively.  Narrowing her eyes, she
could see her great-grandmother sitting at the table, hidden in the
gathering evening shadows.
     "Great-grandmother.  You forget to turn on lights again."  The
old woman smiled faintly.
     "I beg your pardon, child.  Is it dark already?"  Shampoo
flipped on the light switch.
     "Almost."
     "Well, come sit and talk to your old great-grandmother for a
while, child."  Reluctantly, Shampoo sat.
     "So," the old woman said after a moment, "been watching
Ranma, eh?"  Shampoo knew she shouldn't have been surprised.
     "Mousse," she growled.
     "Now, now.  The boy's only worried about you.  And I must
confess, I'm somewhat concerned myself.  I don't see the point of
torturing yourself this way ..."
     "Shampoo know what she doing," she answered sharply.  "She
need to see for herself.  That all."
     "What's to see, Shampoo?" Cologne asked softly.  "He chose
her over you.  You forced his hand and he chose.  It is time to let go,
child."  Shampoo bowed her head, her lush violet mane falling forward
to hide her face.
     "Trying," she whispered.  "But not so easy."  The older woman
reached out clumsily and placed her hand over Shampoo's.
     "Listen.  I know first hand what lengths love can drive a person
to.  If you don't let go now, you'll end up destroying yourself if you're
lucky, and someone else if you're not.  You understand?"  She didn't.
Not really.  But then, there was much about her great-grandmother that
she didn't know.
     "Shampoo will be strong," she said, and she felt her hand
squeezed comfortingly.
     "Oh, I have no doubt of that, child.  None at all."  They sat
there together for a time in silence.
     "Great-grandmother?"
     "Yes?"
     "You want Shampoo to marry Mousse?"  Shampoo raised her
head to look at Cologne, waiting for her answer.
     "Shampoo, I only want what's best for you.  I thought Ranma
would be good for you, but that is not to be.  As for Mousse, I suppose
you could do worse."
     "Shampoo does not love him," she said quietly.  Cologne
nodded.
     "I know, but you accepted his challenge, and you lost.  You
can challenge for a divorce after your first child, of course, but unless
you could get the Elder herself to annul the marriage ..."
     "Elder can do that?" Shampoo asked sharply.
     "Our laws are many and, at times, quite complex.  Her ruling
stands above all, since she is the strongest of us.  I'm not certain what
grounds you would have for annulment, but you can certainly ask."
     "Yes," Shampoo mused.  There might be a way out of this yet.
     "Of course, if the engagement was nullified now that I've
resigned my position on the council, you might still be punished for your
earlier failure under our laws," Cologne cautioned.
     "Might?  Great-grandmother not know?"
     "It depends on many factors, not least of which is the will of the
council and the elder.  It would be wise to ask for guidance before
doing anything ... drastic."
     "Mmmm."  But Shampoo was already considering her options.
     "Shampoo!"
     "Yes, great-grandmother?"
     "Are you listening to me?"
     "Yes, great grandmother."  Cologne sighed.
     "Go get cleaned up and I'll make us some supper."
     "Yes, great-grandmother."
     "And stop saying that!"
     "Yes ... uh, okay."  Shampoo went to clean up, but for the first
time in days, she felt optimism.  She hadn't thought things through in the
aftermath of her humiliating defeat, after all.  What if there *was* some
way out of her bind?  Now that her great-grandmother was safe, it
didn't even matter if the solution was dangerous.  All that mattered to
her now was regaining control of her destiny.
     One way or another.

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

     Fire.
     Step step lunge block.
     His muscles burned.  His lungs ached with every breath.
     Step turn slash parry.
     The only sounds were those of his feet hitting the floor as he
moved through his exercises, and his breathing, loud in his ears and
starting to become just the slightest bit unsteady.
     Lunge slash guard step.
     He ignored the fire that burned in his muscles and his lungs,
ignored the burning in his thoughts as he sought peace in the repetition
of movement and purity of form that was his art.
     He'd been at it for hours, and though that peace still eluded
him, he was much closer than he'd been when he started.  And that
was good.  He'd sought peace by running away and hiding from reality
too often.  This way, he could hope to ease his soul without
compromising his honour any further.
     And so he ran through his katas again.  And again.  And again.
     He whirled, the bokken weaving patterns in the still warm air,
his movements clean and precise.  He was stripped to the waist, and
sweat ran freely down his chest, glistening on the smooth curves of his
chest and arms and waist.  His hair was plastered wetly to his forehead
and the back of his neck, and the strip of cloth he was using as a
headband was soaked through, the loose ends occasionally tickling his
collarbone as he moved.
     He finished one movement and slid easily into the next, his body
moving almost without conscious thought now.
     He was afraid to sleep.
     A dozen skilled torturers with all the time in the world could
never have gotten that confession out of him, but as his body moved,
his thoughts seemed to crystallize as he neared the peace he sought.
     He was afraid to sleep, but not because of the capricious
dreams that sometimes haunted his nights.  No, he was afraid that,
sometime while he slept, defenceless, his hard won resolve would ebb
away, stolen by the dark, and he would forget again.
     Perhaps forever.  Perhaps he would drift so far away that this
time that there would be no niggling unease to warn him that something
was amiss.  Perhaps he might drift so far away that he would never find
his way back.  And now, there was no one to pull him back, no one left
who knew and would act.
     No one?
     The thought was so sudden that he nearly broke his rhythm.
But there was one who knew much, wasn't there?
     No.
     But why not?  She had revealed that she knew much that
should have been hidden.  He need reveal only a little more ...
     He clamped down on that thought.  Hard.  That was not the
way.  She was an outsider, to begin with.  And such knowledge was
dangerous and not to be treated lightly.  He would have to decide how
to deal with her without revealing anything further.  She could be bought
off.
     But even as he had the thought, he remembered her face as
he'd thrust the money at her, the terrible instant of vulnerability that had
allowed him to see her hurt.  He'd never seen such emotional honesty in
Nabiki before, and it had shaken him.  Not only because it meant he'd
been terribly wrong about her, not only because it meant he had
wronged her badly, but also because it meant she had really been trying
to help him.  And he had brutally thrust her away.
     No, he told himself again.  It was the right thing to do, if for the
wrong reasons.  You may not allow our secrets to threaten others.  If
you must hold the line alone, then you will do so.  Your resolve must
remain strong on this.
     Resolve.  Yes.  His thoughts seemed to be edging closer and
closer to something as he continued to move, feeling the pains of his
body becoming distant.  He didn't force the revelation, letting it come
to him.  This was what he'd been seeking, and he was only now
becoming aware of that fact.
     You do not wish this burden, his inner voice said finally, and it
was true.  It is a bitter duty, to be the last, to stand alone against the
coming of the dark.  You do not wish this duty, but you refuse to shun
it.
     Yes.
     Therefore, you must embrace it.
     It shouldn't have seemed so profound, but he felt as if a new sun
had blossomed in his thoughts.  He stumbled, gasping, and stopped, his
laboured breathing rasping in his ears.
     "Yes," he panted.  "Of course."
     He had to take up the mantle in earnest.  The time had come to
stop complaining about how unfair it was.  Unfair or not, he was now
charged with the duties of the Guardian.  It was past time that he
stopped waiting for something to happen and started acting on his own.
     His father was useless to him, and his mother had never known
anything of note.  And Sasuke was dead.  But there must still be secrets
to be plumbed here, and he would seek them out.  He would learn all
he could about his duties, about those who sought to take possession of
this place and its secrets.  The circle had been shattered long since, but
fragments of their knowledge must still exist, waiting only for someone
who recognized them for what they were.
     If the foul shadows intended to pay another visit to the Kunou
estate, they would find its Guardian ready for them.
     He walked slowly to the low bench where his things were
waiting, bokken dangling from his hand, his body aching from his
exertions.  A tiny, satisfied smile found its way onto his lips.  Let the
dark come.  He would welcome it.
     He would be hiding no more.

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

     That night, before going to bed, Nabiki unlocked the bottom
drawer of her desk.  She stared at the thick folder nestled amongst the
contents for a long time, arms crossed tightly under her breasts.  At last,
she took the folder out and, in one savage motion, tossed it into the
garbage can beside her desk.  Then she closed the drawer and went to
bed.
     She lay awake for hours, sometimes staring at the ceiling, other
times tossing and turning in a vain attempt to get comfortable.  Finally,
with an exasperated groan, she shot out of bed and stalked over to the
garbage can, retrieving the file folder.  She moved over to her window
and opened it wide, cocking her arm back to hurl the offending item out
into the night.
     She stepped back and sank onto her bed.  Taking the folder in
both hands, she held it in front of her and leaned her forehead against it,
feeling her bangs slither gently over the smooth cardboard.  She rubbed
her head gently against it as if it might tell her a secret, but if it
possessed any nuggets of wisdom it was reluctant to part with them.
She closed her eyes and sighed again, some of the tension finally going
out of her body.
     "Aw, hell," she whispered at last.  Then she got up, walked
over to her desk, and dropped the folder back into the bottom drawer.
     Disgusted with herself, she climbed back into bed grumpily.
     And quickly fell asleep.
 

End part 2