This part of Doors is rated Lime.  This part does contain some suggestive
and gratuitously racy scenes, so if that sort of thing offends you ... well,
you've been warned.

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

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part Five: Questions and Answers

by Mark MacKinnon

     Ranma sighed.
     Akane had seemed distracted ever since gym class.  Now, as
they walked to their lockers, Akane turned to him and blurted out a
very strange question.
     "Ranma, do you think Nabiki's feminine?"  He was, to put it
mildly, caught off guard.
     "Uh, what?"  Akane just stared at him with an odd expression
on her face.  What on earth, he wondered, was she asking him this for?
     "Well?" she prompted finally.
     "Um.  Well, she's a girl," he hedged, hoping that being dense
would let him get out of whatever she was trying to get him into.  She
frowned, a crease appearing between her eyebrows, and he saw that it
wasn't going to be that simple.
     "Come on," she pleaded.  He sighed.
     "Well, uh, I guess.  I mean, she doesn't really wear girly stuff
much, mostly pants and shirts ... and she's more interested in money
than guys, and ..."  He blinked as he realized that Akane was glaring at
him.
     "That doesn't mean anything!" she said hotly.
     "Absolutely just what I was thinking," Ranma agreed.  "None
of that means anything."  She just glared at him again.  Man, there's no
pleasing her, he thought glumly.
     "I'm serious, Ranma!"
     "Yeah?  About what?  I mean, what kind of a question is that,
anyway?  Now Kasumi's really feminine, I mean, when you think of
that stuff, she comes to mind a lot more than Nabiki ..."  Akane was
starting to look troubled now, and Ranma racked his brains trying to
figure out what this could be about.  "I mean, come on, Akane.  I've
never been able to figure Nabiki out.  Feminine?  She'd never be
mistaken for a guy, that's for sure.  I mean, the way she fills out her
exercise clothes ..."  He trailed off, realizing that he'd wandered into
dangerous territory.
     "Not that I've ever noticed, mind you," he added weakly.  But
Akane didn't seem upset at all.  At least, not with him.
     "Guys are just intimidated by her, that's all," Akane said, as if
he had argued the point.  "I mean, that's why they stay away from her.
Right?"  Ranma looked at her as if she was crazy.
     "I wouldn't know.  Akane, what is this all about?"  She looked
away, sighing deeply.
     "Nothing.  I shouldn't even be thinking about it.  It's crazy
anyway.  There's no way ..."  She trailed off, then turned to him with a
determined smile.
     "Hey, let's stop for ice cream on the way home, okay?"
Ranma wisely decided to go along with the change of subject.
     "Sure.  I'll stop and change first, though."  Akane flushed, her
eyes widening.
     "Wh-what?  Go together as girls?  I mean both of us?"  Ranma
was puzzled by her reaction.
     "Aw, c'mon Akane.  You know I get better service that way."
She blinked, then laughed nervously.
     "Oh, yeah.  Right!" she grinned, letting out another forced
laugh.
     "Okay, Akane, what's going on?"
     "Nothing, Ranma.  Nothing's going on.  And if someone
suggests that something *is* going on, just tell them they don't know
what they're talking about," she said firmly, striding ahead to her
locker.  Ranma watched her go, thoroughly baffled.
     "That won't be hard," he muttered under his breath.  "I don't
even know what *we're* talking about!"

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

     Yes?
     Shampoo was certain she couldn't have heard that correctly.
Surely Mousse hadn't just said he would willingly give up a chance to
make her marry him?  After all, there was no way he would ever do
something like that.
     Just no way.
     She realized that she was staring at him.  He shifted
uncomfortably, aware that he was the centre of attention, but didn't turn
to look at her.  At last, Li Feng nodded.
     "Very well.  Then we'll proceed," she said, her voice sounding
unnaturally loud in the strained silence.  She went to the far side of the
table and sat, regarding the three amazons sombrely.  Nodoka stood
off to one side, watching the proceedings with barely concealed
curiosity.  When Li Feng finally spoke, there was none of the bantering
tone that she'd used before.  The authority in her voice was
unmistakable.  Shampoo remembered that this woman had defeated all
challengers for the post that she now held.  She was the most powerful
warrior of her village, and her strength and wisdom were highly
respected.  With good reason.
     "We all know that amazon law is not absolute," Li Feng began.
"While it has guided us through many crises, there have always been
cases where the law has had to bend to serve the cause of justice.
There have also been cases where the strong have bent the law to their
own purposes.  What we have here is a true mess, and it falls to me to
try to straighten this out in a manner that best serves the interests of all
concerned.
     "As leader of our tribe, I must be concerned not only with
being fair, but with *appearing* to be fair.  For starters, we have
Shampoo's actions against her former fiance, Ranma Saotome.  She
was concerned, and not without justification I might add, that certain
parties might take advantage of Cologne's condition in light of her role
as Shampoo's protector, and launch a challenge against her.  So she
attempted to head off any problems in that regard, but only succeeded
in making things worse.  Then we have Mousse's challenge of
Shampoo."  Shampoo's fingers curled up tightly into her palms, the
tension humming in her tendons like electricity.  She barely breathed,
waiting for the elder's next words.
     "There are many in the village who believe, under the
circumstances, that Shampoo threw that fight in order to remove her
great-grandmother from a dangerous situation."  Shampoo opened her
mouth to make a retort, but a gentle hand on her arm stopped her.  She
looked down to see her great-grandmother's hand resting lightly on her
arm.  The old woman didn't speak, but the message was clear.  With
difficulty, Shampoo held her tongue.  Li Feng continued as though
nothing had happened.
     "No one can say for certain, however.  Just because she had
much to gain from doing this does not mean that that is what happened.
Frankly, though, appearances matter here.  Since both parties are
agreeable to setting aside the result of this challenge, I feel that the
cause of justice is best served by annulling the engagement."  Shampoo
broke out in a smile so broad it hurt her face.  She felt dizzy for a
moment as the elder's words hit home.
     She didn't have to marry Mousse!  She was free!  She was ...
     "However."  The intonation of that one word instantly wiped
the smile from Shampoo's face.  The elder was looking at her now, her
face set in a harsh mask.  "Our laws have been twisted and bent, first in
one direction, then another, by those who sought to use them for their
own purposes.  It is also serves the cause of justice that these ...
indiscretions be punished, and are seen to be punished.  It is my
judgement, therefore, that a condition be attached to this annulment."
     "Condition?" Shampoo asked respectfully.  Li Feng nodded.
     "Yes.  And that brings us to the source of all of this, the forces
of corruption and evil.  Creatures from beyond our realm have returned
here from the darkness where they dwell.  They have attacked this
place and gravely wounded our sister in arms, and some may yet
remain.  While this does not directly threaten the Joketsuzoku, it does
concern me.  Therefore, Shampoo, I set you a quest.  You will seek
these abominations wherever they hide.  You will exact revenge on
behalf of she who is your mentor, you protector and your fellow
amazon.  You will destroy any that you find and, by my command, you
shall bring me the heads of twelve of the beasts.  You may enlist
whatever aid you require to find them, but the twelve in question must
die by your hand.  You will be forbidden to return to the Joketsuzoku
until you have accomplished this task.  Do you understand?"  Shampoo
felt her great-grandmother's hand tighten almost painfully on her arm.
She fought to keep her emotions from showing on her face.
     "Yes, honoured elder," she said, her mouth dry.
     "Do you accept?"  This time, she couldn't keep a small smile
from breaking through.
     "Yes, honoured elder.  Shampoo accept."  A vital heat seemed
to blossom in her belly.  A quest.  An opportunity to put all this behind
her.  She could regain the face she'd lost by losing to Mousse, and she
could gain revenge on the creatures that had nearly killed her beloved
great-grandmother.
     "Your road will be a difficult one, Shampoo.  The honour of
our tribe will travel it with you.  I know you will do us proud."
Shampoo nodded, hardly able to believe it.
     A quest.  Redemption.  Revenge.
     It was better than she'd dared hope.

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

     Nodoka was worried.
     In the relative calm that had descended after Mousse had gone
for Doctor Tofu and Shampoo had been sent to rest, the tension
between Li Feng and Cologne was palpable.  She wondered why Li
Feng had asked her to stay.  This seemed like something the amazons
would want to keep to themselves.
     They sat around the Nekohanten's one intact table, drinking tea
like any normal group of people.  The fact that the restaurant around
them had been pretty much totalled belied that image, of course, as did
what Li Feng had said only a few minutes before.  Nodoka sat
watching her two companions and wondering if she should say
something.  Cologne solved her dilemma by speaking first.
     "The heads.  How cute."  Her tone was bitter.  Li Feng took
the rebuke mildly.
     "I couldn't make it too easy, Cologne."
     "Oh, I know that, damn you!  I know all about it!  Just don't
ask me to like what you're doing!"
     "She didn't have to accept."
     "As if she'd turn down such an opportunity!" Cologne spat.  "A
quest, bestowed upon her by the council's leader herself.  A chance for
honour and glory, what is personal danger to a warrior in the face of
that?  Gah!  The young are so stupid!"  Nodoka watched the two
amazons warily.  Li Feng's composure seemed unaffected by
Cologne's outburst.
     "You couldn't protect her forever, Cologne," the elder said
quietly.  Cologne started slightly, then sighed, slumping in her chair, the
anger seeming to drain out of her.
     "Look at me," she muttered.  "What help will I be to her, when
she needs me most?"  Nodoka frowned.  She thought she understood
one thing.  Cologne wasn't so much angry at Li Feng as she was at
herself.
     "Well, that brings us to our guest," Li Feng said.  Nodoka met
her gaze with a small smile.
     "I hope this means you are going to explain the situation to me,"
she murmured.  "I'm afraid I must confess to being somewhat
confused."
     "Of course.  I understand you must have many questions," Li
Feng nodded.
     "Yes.  Firstly, since Shampoo's engagement to Mousse is null
and void, what about her engagement to my son?"  Nodoka had no
wish to see things return to their previous chaotic state.  If Shampoo
resumed her pursuit of Ranma, then she was very much afraid that
someone would end up hurt.
     "Shampoo's engagement to Ranma ceased when Mousse
defeated her.  You must understand that it is standard practice for
engaged couples to be wed almost immediately after their battle, so it is
unusual for an engaged woman to be defeated again before she can be
married.  My decision to set aside the result of Mousse's challenge
gives Shampoo a blank slate.  Her quest is the price of that decision."
     "Ah, yes.  This quest.  You don't seem surprised at all to hear that
demons and monsters attacked this city and injured Cologne."  Li Feng
smiled at Nodoka's puzzled tone.
     "There are things in the mountains of China much more
dangerous than goats and rock slides," she said quietly.  "We of the
Joketsuzoku have had to deal with such creatures in the past."
     "But not the recent past," Cologne broke in harshly, her staff
clutched tightly between her legs.  "And there is an old saying to the
effect that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."  Nodoka
felt a chill stir the hairs on the back of her neck at Cologne's words.  Li
Feng nodded sadly.
     "Here we come to the heart of the matter," she agreed.
     "I'm not certain I understand," Nodoka said.  "What does this
have to do with your decision?"
     "I wasn't there, but I can guess pretty much what happened,"
Cologne grumbled.  "After all, the council has been becoming more
insular in recent years, less concerned with what happens in the world
outside our village.  When they found out that demons had broken into
this realm again, the usual arguments started up.  Their attack was
defeated, only a few scattered survivors remain, Japan is so far away,
let them handle their own problems ... the usual shortsighted garbage.
How did I do?"
     "You captured the essence of the arguments," Li Feng said
calmly.
     "And all the factions agreed that it would be foolish, unnecessary
and a waste of resources to send someone from our tribe to investigate
further."
     "Quite right."  Nodoka blinked, listening carefully to the exchange.
     "Oh," she said.  The picture was beginning to take shape, and it
wasn't pleasant.
     "But you had a ready made solution, one that wouldn't require
a drawn out, pointless fight with the whole council.  You could use your
authority to set aside the result of Mousse's challenge, which would be
popular since many people think the whole thing was a sham anyway.
Then you could make that decision dependant on Shampoo's
cooperation.  You're worried these things might organize in the
shadows, perhaps attempt to bring more of their brethren to our world.
Just like last time.  And if they are organized, and Shampoo starts
hunting them, they'll find out quickly.  And they'll act."
     "Is this true?" Nodoka asked angrily.  She glared at Li Feng,
disbelief warring with fury.  Li Feng returned her stare calmly.
     "Yes, it is.  And that's where you come in."
     "Me?"  Li Feng remained maddeningly calm.
     "Yes.  I would like very much to know that my people here had
someone close by to turn to if they needed help.  Cologne has told me
of how honourably you have acted towards her, even though you must
have been furious at Shampoo's actions."  Nodoka took a deep
breath, trying to keep her temper under control.
     "Cologne, Shampoo and Mousse put themselves in harm's way
to protect us all.  I will not forget that.  However, I don't see why all
this plotting and manipulation is necessary.  If there is still danger ..."
     "I act as I think best under the circumstances.  Cologne
understands.  She doesn't like it, but she does understand."  Nodoka
turned to Cologne, seeing that the amazon elder spoke the truth.
Cologne's anger seemed to be mostly at herself for being unable to help
her great-granddaughter.  Her expression spoke volumes.
     "Well, I don't like it either.  Hasn't Shampoo been through
enough these last weeks?  All of them have!  They're so young ..."
     "They are our future, Nodoka Saotome.  And they are no
longer children.  So tell me truly, if Shampoo discovers a nest of
corruption here in Japan, could she count on these other young warriors
for help?"  Nodoka thought about that, reaching out absently to stroke
the sheath of her katana.
     "I would like to think so," she said at last.  "But you should know
that things have changed here since Ranko's departure.  Ranma is still
very angry with Shampoo over what happened with Akane, more so I
suspect than he would be if Shampoo had attacked him directly.
Akane holds a grudge as well.  I will speak to him on this matter, but
my son can be very stubborn.  I can make no guarantees."  Li Feng
smiled.
     "That is all I ask. Shampoo will do her duty and face danger
without hesitation, but it would mean a lot to me if I knew she had
friends to count on if something does go wrong.  China is, after all, far
away."  The old woman fixed Nodoka with a stare, her mouth twisting
into a wry smile.  "I know you don't approve of what I'm doing, but
believe me when I tell you that I did not undertake this plan lightly.
>From what I've been told, these creatures lost their leaders during the
attack, and without strong leadership will probably just drift away."
     "Probably?"  Li Feng shrugged at the question.
     "I feel that, however remote the possibility, the mere chance
that they might organize justifies this course of action.  Would you be
willing to ignore the danger, knowing that these things might return?"
     And that was the crux of the problem, wasn't it?  Nodoka
couldn't bear the thought of watching those youngsters leave to fight
again, knowing one or all of them might not come back.  This way, they
might have some warning, might be able to act before there was
trouble.  Surely if Shampoo found a crisis brewing, she would only
need help until the amazons could reach her with reinforcements.
     "You're asking too much of her," Cologne said tersely.
     "No," Nodoka replied.  "No, she's not.  I will do whatever I
can to help.  I want this over with, once and for all.  I will help as much
as I can."  Whatever reply Li Feng had intended to make was cut off
by the arrival of Mousse and Dr. Tofu.
     "Oh, my, Cologne, he *is* a handsome one!" Li Feng
exclaimed with unseemly enthusiasm.  She hopped off her chair and
quickly began sizing up the nonplussed doctor.
     "Uh, I was told that Shampoo needed some attention ..." Tofu
said, a trifle uncertainly, splitting his attention between the devastated
restaurant and the elder's frank gaze.  Li Feng nodded.
     "Yes, yes, come this way.  I'll take you to her.  Say, sonny,
you ever considered moving to China?"  A chipper Li Feng herded
both the doctor and Mousse out of the room, and it took a few seconds
for Nodoka to realize that she'd been left alone with Cologne.  She
wondered if that had been intentional.
     "I wish to apologize to you, Nodoka Saotome," Cologne said
stiffly as the commotion faded.  Nodoka frowned.
     "Whatever for?"
     "Li Feng has put you in an awkward position, asking you to
intercede with Ranma on our behalf.."  Nodoka smiled gently before
remembering that Cologne could not see the gesture.
     "Nonsense," she said gently.  "You have done so much for us, I
would be happy if I could return the favour.  I spoke with Shampoo
earlier, and I believe I made clear to her the consequences of
attempting to come between Ranma and Akane again.  As long as she
does not try to take advantage of the situation, I may be able to help."
She paused for a moment, taking time to frame her next question
properly.
     "Tell me something," she said at last.  "Was Shampoo really as
happy as she seemed to be about this quest she's been given?  I mean,
perhaps it was just getting out of her engagement to Mousse ..."
     "It wasn't just that," Cologne sighed.  "She's quite happy,
believe me."
     "But why?  This is so dangerous!"
     "Why?  Because it's a great honour to be given such a quest by
the head of the council herself.  Because she can finally act, instead of
sitting around waiting for things to happen to her.  Because she is, at
heart, a warrior.  And because she's young and foolish and headstrong.
As I was once."  Cologne sighed again, wistfully this time.
     "You must be terribly worried," Nodoka murmured.
Cologne's sightless eyes stared off into space.
     "She's brave, and strong."  Nodoka noticed that Cologne had
avoided the issue, and didn't push.
     "Perhaps she won't find anything.  Perhaps these things have
really all run away," she mused.  "Isn't that possible?"
     "Yes, it is.  Possible and, frankly, likely.  And nothing would make
me happier."  The two women sat silently for a moment.  Finally
Cologne stirred, leaning back in her chair.
     "Tell me," she said, "does this place look as bad as I think it
does?"
     "Worse, I'm afraid," Nodoka told her.  "You won't be serving
any customers for a few days yet."
     "Ah, well.  Something for Mousse to do."  Nodoka suppressed
her irritation at that.
     "You don't think much of him, do you?" she asked, somewhat
more sharply than she'd intended.  Cologne smiled.
     "More than I used to.  That boy has potential, I must say, but he'll
never realize it if he doesn't get over his maudlin sentimentality.  He
needs to be pushed, sometimes.  That's all."
     "He didn't need to be pushed to give up his claim to
Shampoo," Nodoka pointed out.  Cologne sobered at that.
     "No," she admitted.  "It appears he truly loved her after all."
     "Enough to fight her when he didn't want to."
     "Enough to let her go," Cologne said quietly.  A fleeting
expression of regret and sorrow flickered over Cologne's weathered
features, gone nearly as quickly as it had come.  Nodoka wondered
what was behind that look.  She resolved to ask about it one day.  But
not now.  Now there were other things to worry about.
     "Why don't we go see how Shampoo is doing?" Nodoka
asked.  Cologne nodded, all traces of her reverie gone.
     "Yes, we should probably rescue that young scamp Tofu
before Li Feng decides to teach him some of the more esoteric amazon
techniques."  Nodoka stared, surprised.
     "Should I ask?"  Cologne gave her a faint but mischievous grin.
     "Now, Nodoka.  Fighting isn't the only thing that amazon
women do well, you know."  Nodoka watched the old woman move
carefully toward the back room, shaking her head in amazement.  Then
she followed Cologne, trying without much success not to chuckle.

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

     Nabiki sprawled on the floor of the family room, leafing idly
through a magazine while munching contentedly on a chocolate chip
cookie.  She acknowledged Akane's entrance with a casual wave.
     "Hey, sish," she mumbled through a mouthful of sinfully good
cookie, not looking up from the magazine.
     "Oh, Nabiki.  Um.  Hello."  Akane came over and sat down
next to her on the floor.  After a few seconds, Nabiki looked up to find
Akane looking at her.
     "Yeeeees?" she drawled.  Akane started guiltily.
     "Nothing!" she blurted hastily.  "I mean, uh, so ... how are
you?"  Nabiki frowned.
     "Well, the yen closed up against the dollar, but gold prices are
going soft again, and ..."  Akane sighed.
     "No, I mean, how *are* you?"  Nabiki rolled her eyes.
     "I'm fine, sis.  How are you?  You're acting a little stressed.
Something on your mind?"  Akane immediately flushed, and Nabiki
rolled her eyes.  Her little sister was many things, but subtle was not
one of them.
     "Nothing at all," she said with forced casualness.  "So what did
you do today?  I didn't see you around at lunch."  Nabiki shrugged
mentally.  Akane probably just wanted to borrow money or something
and was trying to work up to it.
     "I had lunch with Ukyou," she said.  Akane's face went through
an interesting contortion.
     "Ah, you did?  I mean, you don't usually ... do you?"  Nabiki
was puzzled now.
     "Look, Akane, just because Ukyou doesn't want to have
anything to do with Ranma right now, there isn't any reason why I can't
associate with her.  Right?"
     "Right," Akane said uncertainly.  "Um, she's still mad at
Ranma, huh?"  Nabiki sighed.
     "Mad doesn't really cover it, Akane.  I know he didn't want to
hurt her, but she isn't really taking it all that well.  I wouldn't be
surprised if she swore off men altogether."  Akane's face leapt
headlong into another of those odd contortions, and she turned pale.
     "Oh ... really?" she asked weakly.
     "Geez, Akane, are you okay?  You don't look too good."
Nabiki was beyond confused now.
     "Oh, yeah.  Fine.  Oh, I forgot, there's something I ... forgot.
To do.  I have to go ... do it.  Now.  Bye."  With that, she bounded to
her feet and ran out of the room, leaving a befuddled Nabiki staring
after her.  Kasumi stuck her head into the room.
     "Was that Akane?" she asked.  Nabiki nodded.
     "I swear, being in love has fried that girl's brains," she said,
bemused.  Then she turned back to her magazine, shaking her head at
the antics of the besotted.

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

     "Yes?"
     "Ma'am, Keisuke has arrived."  Riana's lips curved up in a
smile of anticipation, and she tightened her grip on the telephone
receiver ever so slightly.
     "Send him in," she told the secretary, keeping a firm reign on her
emotions.  Telling herself not to get her hopes up, she reclined in the
high-backed leather chair, feeling it tilt smoothly.  Swivelling around,
she pressed her fingertips together and stared out the window at the
impressive view, deliberately placing her back to the door.
     It just wouldn't do to reveal how anxious she was to hear
Keisuke's report.
     Her gaze lingered over the polluted Tokyo skyline, even after
she watched Keisuke's pale reflection enter her office and walk to her
desk.  Only after he'd fallen to one knee, head bowed in obeisance, did
she deign to speak.
     "Make your report," she murmured, still staring out the
window.  He rose and faced her, radiating barely contained menace.
As always.
     "The old man is dead.  He will no longer pose any threat to you
or your plans."
     "You took longer than expected."  She marvelled at how calm
her voice was, marvelled at her cool restraint.  This wasn't what she
wanted to hear about.  And Keisuke knew it.
     Damn him.  He was enjoying having this power, she was certain
of that.  Well, let him have his moment.  He'd pay for it later.
     "There was a minor complication.  Our information didn't
mention the girl."
     "What girl?"  She allowed a trace of irritation, just a trace, to
creep into her voice.  She noted with satisfaction that he shifted uneasily
at that.
     "She was living at the shrine with him.  We waited for her to
come back, so I could determine whether or not he was training her.  If
she was his student in the arts, then she might possibly be a threat."
     "You did the right thing," she said coolly.  "Was she?"  He
shifted again.
     "She still hadn't returned when I left."  Riana swivelled around
abruptly at that, pinning the young man with an icy stare.
     "Excuse me?"  She could tell her tone was having its desired
effect by the look in Keisuke's dark eyes, but he held his ground.
"You left your assignment unfinished?  Explain yourself, boy."  His lean,
muscular frame stood rigidly under her gaze, and something dark
flashed behind his eyes.
     "I discovered something that I judged to be important enough to
cause me to return prematurely."  Her breathing quickened involuntarily.
Here it was.  The old man had likely been no threat at all to her, but
ever since she'd learned of his true identity, she could think of only one
thing.
     The final artifact.  The old man's fate had been entwined with it once
upon a time, and there was a chance he might have it.  A chance.  After
all this time ...
     That artifact was what she really wanted.  She knew it, and Keisuke
did as well.  She watched the conflicting emotions tearing at him, and
finally gave in to her impatience.
     "Well?  What is it?"  And then she leaned forward, clenching
her fists unconsciously.  "Did he have it?  Did he?"  Keisuke drew in a
deep breath.
     "No."  She felt a tiny shudder of rage thrill through her, felt her
demonic nature struggling to push its way to the surface.  She
maintained control with difficulty, only gradually noticing that Keisuke
had averted his gaze.  His tense posture and unwillingness to look her in
the eye suddenly intrigued her.  All might not be lost after all.  Moving
with the lazy, sensual grace that always drew all eyes to her, she flowed
up out of her chair, stalking around the desk to stand in front of
Keisuke.
     He was hiding something.  Foolish boy.  He should have known
better than to try to hide things from her.
     "Keisuke," she crooned, her voice low and husky.  He
shuddered helplessly at that, the way he always did.  The others all
feared him, but she didn't.  She knew he would never turn on her.
Even if he ever unravelled the secrets of their shared past, she didn't
think he'd be capable.
     "Keisuke," she whispered again, standing close to him, close
enough to feel the heat of his body.  "Are you telling me the truth?"  He
turned his head to face her finally, rage and pain warring in his beautiful
dark eyes.
     "You accuse me of treachery?" he asked, almost plaintively.
She knew of his reputation amongst the others, knew that they would
never see the hurt little boy in him that she could summon with mere
words.  She smiled gently, reaching out to cup his face tenderly with
one palm.  She watched with satisfaction as his eyes half-closed at her
touch, and a tremor ran through him.
     "You fear to lose my favour," she whispered huskily.  Letting
her fingers trace lightly over the curve of his sculpted cheekbones, over
his ear and into his long dark hair, she slowly circled him, letting her
fingertips maintain the barest contact with his skin.
     "You go to him almost every day," Keisuke replied bitterly.
"Lately, you've spent more time with your crystal-locked lover than
with me."  She stopped behind him, leaning in to press the length of her
body tightly against his back.  She felt his breathing become slightly
laboured, and she let a sly smile creep to her lips as she wrapped her
arms around his lean waist.  Placing her mouth next to his ear, she
breathed her words directly into him.
     "He is my heart, Keisuke.  You've always known that, I've
made it no secret.  But you are my weapon."
     "Why him?" Keisuke asked tightly.  Riana noted with
satisfaction that his jaw muscles were tightly clenched.
     "He has proven himself to me and to my goals."
     "Then let me do the same!  Give me the order and I will storm
the Kunou estate alone!  I'll smash that buffoon and finally claim my
birthright, then you'll have everything you want!"  There was desperate
excitement in his voice, and Riana flexed her fingers, kneading her long
scarlet nails into the boy's tight abdomen.
     "I have promised you revenge on those who wronged you,
haven't I?  I have promised you that you will have what was taken from
you, that you will restore your family's name to greatness, that you will
have what you deserve."  She dug her nails in a little deeper through the
thin material of his shirt, and Keisuke shuddered in her arms.  This
fierce warrior, rightly feared by the others, was reduced to a willing
servant by her touch.  But she was always cognizant of the dangers of
playing with such a dangerous toy.
     That was, after all, part of the appeal.
     "I only sought to spare you," he sighed at last, some of the
tension draining from him, and she knew that she had won.  Again.
     "Tell me," she growled throatily.  "Tell me what you found.  Tell me
what brought you back without finishing your assignment."
          "He didn't have the item you want," Keisuke sighed at last, his
voice low and toneless.  "But I found out where it is.  Where it has
been for quite some time."  She let the moment play out, stroking his
lean body with her fingers while she pressed firmly against his back.
She could afford to be patient, now that the moment was at hand.
     "Tell me," she urged again.
     And he did.

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

     Shampoo heaved a put-upon sigh.  That sigh had been known
to turn males of the species into gibbering idiots, what with the enticing
motions it caused in her body.  Her great-grandmother, however, was
completely unimpressed.
     "You heard the doctor, Shampoo.  Bed rest, followed by a
couple of days of taking it easy."  Shampoo pouted, more to keep in
practice than out of any hope that it would help her situation.
     "Shampoo fine," she insisted stubbornly.  She sat with her back
against the wall, propped up by pillows.  The aches of her body
notwithstanding, she wasn't enjoying being treated like an invalid.  Now
if someone was here to nurse her and fuss over her, like Ranma ...
     She clamped down on that line of thought harshly.  That wasn't
going to happen, couldn't happen.  Not now.  Still, a wistful vision of
Ranma perching on the end of her bed, concern in his beautiful eyes,
broke through her resolve momentarily.  If only ...
     If only.  Well, now she had other things to worry about.  Other
things to keep her occupied.  A quest, something that was hers and
hers alone.
     "Shampoo, you're not listening to me," she heard her
great-grandmother say.  She started guiltily.
     "Shampoo listening," she lied.  The old woman perched on the
edge of the bed, staring out at nothing.  Shampoo got the feeling that
something was on her mind, so she kept quiet and waited for the lecture
to begin.
     She didn't have to wait long.
     "Shampoo, I want you to know that I'm proud of you.  And I
believe in you.  I'm certain that you will prove worthy of the task that
you have been given."  Shampoo felt a flush of warm pleasure at her
great-grandmother's words, and squirmed slightly until a twinge of pain
from her ribs brought her up short.
     "Having said that, however, I have to say that you've let your
passions get the better of you again."  Shampoo blinked, confused.
     "What you mean?" she asked.
     "I mean that in your rush to accept this honour and get out of
your unwanted engagement, you haven't thought things through.
Remember what I've taught you about the council?  Wheels within
wheels, always keeping their true purpose hidden ..."
     "Shampoo understands.  Elder wants something, so she get
Shampoo to do it.  But she giving Shampoo honourable path out of
mess ..."  Her great-grandmother shook her head sadly.
     "You're partly right, but there's even more going on here.  For
instance, you've overlooked something fairly important."  She stopped,
waiting for prompting from Shampoo.  Shampoo thought for a moment,
wondering what she could have forgotten.
     "Think, Shampoo," great-grandmother urged.  "Think of the
battle at Furinkan, against the creatures that you are now supposed to
be tracking.  Think of what the elder has asked of you."  Shampoo
frowned.  The creatures were fearsome, certainly, and vicious, but they
mostly seemed to rely on strength and fear to defeat their enemies.
When she was hunting them, she would choose the time and manner of
each confrontation.  She was certain her skills would prove more than a
match for the foul things.  Even on that day, when they'd had superior
numbers, they'd been thrown back again and again by the determined
martial artists.  If it hadn't been for their leader ...
     "The heads, Shampoo," her great-grandmother said patiently.
"Li Feng wants you to bring her twelve heads."
     Then Shampoo had it.  The ground, littered with bubbling pools
of green ooze.  She shot upright, ignoring the stab of pain through her
chest at the abrupt movement.
     "Aiyaaa!  They melt!  When monster things killed, they melt!  How
Shampoo can get heads if monsters melt?"
     "How indeed?" the old woman asked dryly.  "It's a little late to
be asking that question now, of course."  Shampoo clenched her hands
until they ached, feeling anger beginning to boil in her gut.
     "That ... that not fair!"  She bowed her head until her hair
obscured her vision, angry with the elder for fooling her, angry with
herself for being fooled.
     "Not fair," she whispered.  If she didn't bring back a dozen
monster heads as proof, she couldn't return to the village.  Was that the
plan all along, to keep her from returning?  But why?
     "Wheels within wheels," Cologne repeated in a low, calm
voice.  Shampoo looked up at her, hearing something in her tone.
Great-grandmother knew what this was all about.  After all, she'd been
a council member for a long time.
     "Tell," Shampoo said.  The old woman smiled.
     "The council has become increasingly isolationist.  Li Feng is
one of the few council members to oppose such policies.  She
recognizes the short-sightedness of those who forget history."
     "Shampoo not understand."
     "Later, child.  Let me put it this way.  Li Feng did not forbid
you to seek assistance in your quest.  There was a simple reason for
that; she wants you to seek help.  You will need to seek out magics if
you are to secure your trophies, and Li Feng wants to know what
mystic forces, if any, exist here that are capable of standing against the
enemy."
     "She manipulate Shampoo."  Her voice was bitter, but her
great-grandmother just smiled.
     "Oh, yes.  And quite skilfully, too.  After all, everybody is
getting something out of this.  I'm quite in awe, actually.  I've rarely
managed to pull off any plan quite so elegant.  Oh, don't sound so put
out, child.  You've learned a lesson here.  And when you learn a lesson
the hard way, you are less likely to forget it.  By succeeding in your
quest, you'll be serving the needs of our tribe.  Just think of that if you
feel badly used by our leader.  And remember that you could have said
no."
     Shampoo didn't bother to answer.  They both knew that
realistically, she *couldn't* have said no.  Perhaps that was the point
her great-grandmother was trying to make.
     The decision had been made.  She didn't have to like it, she
just had to do what needed to be done.  Shampoo set her jaw, a faint
smile creeping across her face.
     She would do what needed to be done, but she wouldn't be an
unwitting pawn of the council.  Now that she was aware of their
machinations, she would consider herself a full participant in the
proceedings.
     She never stopped to wonder if that was why her
great-grandmother had revealed so much to her in the first place.

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

     Keisuke felt a moment of regret as Riana pulled away from him.
He'd known how she would react to the news, of course.  That was
why he hadn't wanted to tell what he knew, not until he'd been more
certain.  But he couldn't deny her anything, not when she touched him
like that.  And she knew it.
     Damn her.
     He turned to watch her as she stalked around the spacious
office.  Part of him was spellbound by her beauty, which was only
enhanced by her high temper.  Her lustrous mane of waist-length hair
swirled around her slim body as she whirled angrily, her long legs
scissoring enticingly in her brief skirt, her eyes ...
     But he didn't have time for this.  Now that she knew, he
needed to make certain she didn't probe too deeply into what had
happened at the shrine.  Her anger would work to his advantage there,
if he was careful.  As he fully intended to be.
     She stormed by him, close enough to touch, leaving a faint,
maddening wake of her perfume.  He didn't flinch as she slammed her
palms onto the surface of her desk, causing it to creak in a most
alarming manner.  She stood there a moment, head down, shoulders
heaving with barely repressed fury, and he longed to touch her.
However, where she could always tame him with her touch, the
opposite did not hold true, and he did not wish to anger her further.
When she was angry with him, her cold dismissal burned him like fire,
and though he would never admit it, losing her affection that way hurt
him more than anything.  So he played it safe, just watching while she
brought herself under control.
     He was confident that someone else would be bearing the brunt
of her fury this time.
     Finally, she straightened up, combing her hair back over her
shoulders with her fingers, and turned to face him.
     "The Kunou estate," she breathed.  The anger was still there;
he saw it in her eyes.  She was more dangerous now than before, and
he knew he must choose his words with care.  "How certain are you of
this information?"
     He had intended to tell her that he'd returned prematurely
because he'd found out where information about the artifact's
whereabouts could be found.  That would have bought him some time,
and delayed his rival's possible release.  But in the end, he hadn't been
able to lie to her.  Maybe that was just as well, after all.  Maybe it was
time to finally bring this situation to a head, at long last.
     "Not absolutely certain, but it does make sense," he said,
speaking softly.  "According to the old priest, the rightful bearer of the
artifact was present on that day, when the estate was stormed by your
forces."  Her eyes narrowed, and Keisuke steeled himself.  He hadn't
lied to her, after all; his information *had* come from the priest.
Indirectly.  The old fool had died without revealing anything, but the
writings Keisuke had discovered hidden in his chambers had contained
many secrets.
     Many secrets, yes.  And perhaps, somewhere within those
pages, there might be some of the answers Keisuke had been seeking.
If that was the case, he didn't want Riana to know about his find.  Of
course, he had to avoid lying to her.  Lying to her would be foolish and
dangerous.  But if she was too distracted to press him about his
information ...
     "Almost all of their people were there that day, Keisuke.  That
was, after all, the point."  She spoke haughtily, but he sensed old
bitterness buried behind her flip words.  He nodded respectfully.
     "Indeed, but it appears that this one never left.  She died
defending the Crystal Barrier."  Riana tensed, and he knew that she
wouldn't be thinking of the source of his information now.
     "No," she whispered.
     "Yes," he said calmly, knowing how delicate this subject was.  For
both of them.  "It is very likely that Lord Vaenruth was the one who
killed her.  Just before he attempted to breach the ..."  Her screech of
rage cut him off.
     "It would have been right there!" she raged.  "When they were
pulling his frozen body from that accursed inner chamber, it would have
been RIGHT THERE!"  The desk took another pounding as Keisuke
fought with his emotions.  He hated to be the one to cause her pain this
way, but at the same time he wondered if she would have been so
enraged if it were him trapped in crystal, and not his rival.
     He snorted to himself.  His rival, indeed.  The man had been
sealed in that prison for longer than Keisuke had been alive, yet still she
yearned for him.  If he was ever freed, would she really just cast him
aside for her old lover?  Many nights he'd lain awake pondering just
that question.  Many dark, sleepless nights.
     "They couldn't have known we would need it to free him,"
Keisuke said, trying to soothe her.  She whirled angrily, stalking to the
window and slamming her palms against it.
     "Perhaps not," she growled at last.  "But HE knew.  He's the
one who told me which artifacts I would require to break the crystal,
after all.  And he's known where the damned thing was all along.  All
this time, our Most Dread Lord has been playing me for a fool!"
     "You don't know that," Keisuke said calmly, although he
thought it likely she was right.  He'd known where to find the other
artifacts, after all.
     "Oh, don't I?  Where is the one place he has forbidden us to
go?  It makes perfect sense now.  I can't believe I never thought of it.
He enjoys his games, after all.  Only when he is prepared to act would
he have revealed the final artifact's location."  Her slim body trembled
with suppressed rage, and Keisuke again had to fight the urge to go to
her.  Instead, he just watched her, silhouetted against the afternoon
light, making his face an emotionless mask.
     "Leave me," she said suddenly, her tone frosty.  He swallowed,
but showed no sign of his distress, merely nodding respectfully at her
back.  He turned and walked to the door, grasping the cool handle
before her voice came again.
     "Keisuke."  He froze.
     "Yes, my lady?"
     "Speak to no one of this.  Understood?"  He nodded, and she
made a curt gesture of dismissal, still staring out the window.  Silently,
he left.
         Fool, he sneered at himself.  Fool to be so bound to the whims
of a woman.  And fool he was, but what choice did he have?  There
was almost nothing which could make him weak, but what a sweet
vulnerability she was.  He fought to keep his expression neutral as he
walked down the hallway.  Once he had regained his birthright, he
would ensure she was never unhappy again.  He would see to it that
she had whatever her heart desired.
     And what if her heart desires only *him*? a tiny voice taunted
him.  You've told her all she needs to know in order to free him.  Once
she has the final artifact, what if she discards you for her long lost love?
Keisuke shook his head angrily.
     The only way to free Vaenruth would be to storm the estate
again.  And if that happened, Keisuke would kill the clownish Kunou
brat and take back what was his.  Then he would gladly fight his rival
for Riana's affections.  After all, it was difficult to compete with a
crystal-locked memory of a man, wasn't it?  But Keisuke wasn't afraid
of a real fight; in fact, he'd welcome one.  He'd rather face a live foe
than a memory any day.
     A live foe was much easier to vanquish.

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

     Akane shifted her weight, looking for an opening.  Her
opponent feinted left, then came in low, taking her legs out from under
her easily.  She hit the floor and was quickly pinned.
     "Okay, Akane, what's going on?" Ranma-chan asked, peering
down into her eyes with obvious concern.  Akane scowled.
     "I don't know what you're talking about," she told the little
red-head.  Ranma-chan held Akane's wrists to the floor, balancing
easily over her prone form, and Akane felt heat rising to her face at her
position.  It could be described as compromising, after all, and given
the direction her thoughts had been taking all day ...
     It's not the same thing! she told herself hotly.  Ranma's a guy!
Still, she couldn't stop the embarrassed flush from rising to her cheeks.
Ranma-chan's uncomprehending stare only made matters worse.
     "Look, you've been distracted all day.  We can't practice if
your mind isn't on what you're doing."  Akane twisted out of
Ranma-chan's grip and sat up grumpily.
     "I know," she muttered.  "I'm sorry, I've just got something on
my mind, that's all."  Ranma-chan leaned forward, trying to look into
Akane's eyes.
     "Well, duh," she said bluntly.  Then her tone softened as she
added, "Wanna talk about it?"  Akane didn't want to meet those
blue-gray eyes, because she knew she *would* want to talk about it.
And she wasn't quite ready to risk making a fool out of herself yet.
After all, she really could just be jumping to conclusions about Nabiki.
     What was she thinking?  Of *course* she was!  How could she
even consider believing those stupid rumours?  There had to be a
perfectly reasonable explanation for everything that had happened.
     "Earth to Akane, come in please."  She blinked, looking up into
Ranma-chan's eyes, dangerously close to her own.  "C'mon, Akane,
give."  She felt the compelling pull of those eyes on her heart, and
smiled in spite of herself.
     "Maybe later, okay?" she pleaded.  "It really is just something
dumb."  Ranma-chan didn't look convinced, but reluctantly nodded.
     "I'm not gonna forget," she warned.  "Now, do you think we
can practice some more or what?  I mean, you're the one that wanted
to do this."  Akane sprang to her feet, bouncing lightly in place.
     "I remember.  And yes, I think we can go on.  If you're not too
tired, that is."  She felt warmth spreading through her chest as
Ranma-chan's eyes lit up with their characteristic fire at the merest hint
of a challenge.  The red-head bounded to her feet, falling back into a
defensive stance.  Akane smiled warmly, confusing her partner.
     "What?" Ranma-chan asked, puzzled.
     "I love you, you dummy," Akane said softly.  Ranma blinked,
taken completely off-guard.
     "Uh ..." she said cleverly.  Seeing her opponent's guard was
completely down, Akane darted in, throwing the dazed girl over her
shoulder, then dropping to pin her to the floor before she could react.
     "Gotcha," she grinned.  Ranma-chan stuttered angrily.
     "Hey, that wasn't fair!" she growled, looking hurt.  Akane's
grin softened as she stared down into Ranma-chan's face.
     "But I do love you," she said gently.  "A lot."  Ranma-chan's
anger evaporated at her words, and she tried to cover up by scowling.
Akane thought it just made her look cute, but resolved not to tell her
that.  Not at the moment, anyway.
     "Well.  I guess ... but, I mean, you shouldn't surprise me like
that ... but it's okay, I guess ..."
     "The proper response, Ranma, is "I love you too,"" a voice
came from the doorway.  Akane's heart gave a panicked twitch as she
jerked her head up to see Ranma's mother standing inside the door to
the dojo, smiling.  She jumped off of Ranma-chan, suddenly aware of
how close they'd been.
     "We ... that is, I ... well ..." she stuttered.  This was not the way
she'd envisioned their parents finding out that they'd finally declared
their love for one another.
     "We were practising," Ranma-chan blurted.  "Practising ... uh,
diversionary techniques!  Yeah!  Boy, won't Ryouga be surprised next
time we fight!"  Ranma-chan let loose with a burst of manic laughter,
reminding Akane just what a lousy liar Ranma was.  His mother walked
over to them, her smile suddenly tinged with sadness.
     "Ranma.  Akane.  I wanted to talk to both of you about
something, but I think we should discuss this first."  She stopped in
front of them, fixing them each in turn with a warm gaze.
     "This what?" Ranma-chan asked stupidly.
     "Ranma, I understand why you two have tried to hide your true
feelings from us.  I understand the pressure you've been under over this
engagement, and I'm not proud of the role I've played in that.  Seeing
you deny your love makes me realize just how unfair we've been, trying
to force the issue the way we have."  Akane blinked in surprise, and
beside her Ranma-chan shifted uncomfortably.
     "Mom ..."
     "Let me finish, dear.  It hasn't been hard for me to guess what's
been going on between you two, although I'm certain your fathers are
still blissfully ignorant.  I just want to tell you that I support whatever
decision you make about your future."
     "Really?" Ranma-chan asked doubtfully.  "You're not gonna
try to get us married right away?"
     "I think we've done enough damage already," she replied.  "It
appears you two have things well in hand without, or rather in spite of,
our help."
     "Thank you," Akane said softly.  "That means a lot to us.  And
we are going to tell Dad and Mr. Saotome, eventually.  But we just
wanted some time first to ... work things out between us.  You know,
without having to worry about all the craziness and ..."
     "You don't have to explain, dear," Ranma's mother said with a
small, secretive smile.  "I understand."
     "Really?" Ranma-chan asked again.  "You mean it?"
     "Of course, Ranma.  I'm very happy for you two.  You
deserve to be happy.  But there is something else I want to talk to you
about, and I want you to keep an open mind.  All right?"  Puzzled,
Akane agreed, and Ranma-chan did the same.
     "Well, I spent the afternoon at the Nekohanten ..." she began.
     "WHAT?  Mom, why'd you go there?  That was dangerous!"
Akane flinched as Ranma's mother shot her a withering glance.
     "Ranma," she said sternly.
     "But ..."
     "Hear me out first."  When Ranma had subsided, she
continued, giving them a brief account of the afternoon's events.  Akane
listened with mounting amazement at the strange tale, until they heard
about Shampoo's quest.
     "If those things are still around here, she will be in a great deal
of danger," Ranma's mother told them gravely.  "In that case, it would
be helpful if she had someone to turn to for help ..."
     "No!"  Akane started, turning to see Ranma-chan's mouth set
in a stubborn line.
     "Ranma," his mother began.  Ranma-chan shook her head
angrily.
     "Look, I just got her out of my life!  All this is, is another
excuse for her to get back in!  And how long would it be before she
was gunning for Akane again, huh?  I'm not gonna put her in that kind
of danger, Mom.  Forget it!"
     "Ranma," his mother said patiently, "I've made it clear to
Shampoo that I would not tolerate any further interference, and I
believe that she understood the message.  She has no further hold on
you."
     "She doesn't give up that easily!  Don't you remember what
she did?  Was that something a reasonable person would do, Mom?  I
don't think so!  Offering to help her would just send the wrong kind of
message, give her some reason to think I was interested again!"
     "Ranma," his mother broke in, her voice tinged with anger and
sorrow, "all I'm asking is that you use your abilities to help Shampoo if
she needs it, the way she helped you!  Is that so much to ask?"
     "It's just a bad idea!"  Akane knew the time had come for her
to jump in, before something got said that couldn't easily be taken
back.
     "Auntie Saotome, could I speak to Ranma alone for a few
minutes?"  She looked surprised at the request, but nodded reluctantly.
     "Very well," she sighed.  "But don't be long.  Kasumi nearly
has supper ready."  With one last pained glance at Ranma-chan, she
turned and walked out, closing the door quietly behind her.  Akane
turned to find Ranma-chan staring at her.
     "What's this about?" she asked suspiciously.  Akane sighed.
     "Ranma, she has a point."  The red-head's eyes widened.
     "Geez, Akane, I don't believe this!  You can't mean that!  You
were as mad at Shampoo as I was!"
     "Madder," Akane said calmly.  "And I still am.  But look,
Ranma, this is something different.  I don't know about all this plotting
and scheming your mother thinks the amazons are doing, but I do know
that when we went off to fight those things, Shampoo didn't ask what
was in it for her.  If we hadn't had Shampoo, Cologne, and Mousse
with us, there's no way we could have won.  It was that close, Ranma.
Remember?"  Ranma-chan couldn't hold Akane's gaze, looking away
with a petulant scowl.
     "So I'm just being selfish, is that it?" she grumbled.  Akane
reached out and took the smaller girl by the shoulders, gently turning
her back so they were standing face to face.
     "I'm glad you're worried about me, Ranma," she said gently.
"But the man I love wouldn't abandon someone who needed his help.
If Shampoo finds these things still lurking around here, you should help
her fight them.  We *all* should.  That's how it should be."
Ranma-chan's lovely deep eyes stared back at her, and Akane could
see her fiance struggling with conflicting instincts.
     "What if we're wrong?" she asked plaintively.  "What if it's all
a trick to get me engaged to Shampoo again?  It was so hard to end
this mess the first time around, is it so wrong not to want to have to go
through it all again?"  Akane sighed softly.
     "No, it isn't wrong.  And listen, you let me worry about
Shampoo, Ranma.  After all, that's why you agreed to train me, so I
could take care of myself, right?"  Akane favoured the red-head with a
reassuring smile.  "But this is something you have to do.  I know you
think about Cologne, blind and hurt, and how if she hadn't helped us,
she wouldn't be having any of these troubles right now.  Don't you?"
Akane felt some of the tension seep from Ranma-chan's body as she
finally sighed.
     "I never wanted all this to happen.  I just wanted to be left
alone.  Now Uc-chan's mad and hurt, and Shampoo's going on some
stupid kamikaze mission, and Cologne had to quit the council ... and
everyone's lives seem to be messed up!  Except ... except I get to be
happy, `cause I get you.  Doesn't really seem fair, does it?"  Akane
smiled, squeezing Ranma-chan's shoulders as she stepped close to her.
     "Life's not fair, Ranma.  All you can do is your best.  That's
why you have to help Shampoo if she needs it.  As for her trying to get
you back, well ... I don't know if we'll have to worry about that.  If
your mother gave *me* a warning, I'd take it pretty seriously."
Ranma-chan nodded, and Akane hugged her lightly.
     "I still want to talk to Shampoo myself," Ranma-chan
grumbled, "just to make sure she knows where things stand."
     "Good idea," Akane said.  Although she had no intention of
telling Ranma, she too wanted to have a talk with the amazon girl.
     After all, there were some points which couldn't be made too
clear.

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

     The last of the day's golden light was fading from the sky as
Keisuke guided his motorcycle through the mansion's gates and along
the narrow, winding drive.  Anticipation and nervousness warred in his
gut.  Riana should be at the house by now, and he wondered what her
mood would be like.  The very fact that her moods could cause such
trepidation in him would no doubt prove very amusing to the others.
     Which was why he was determined that no one should ever
find out.  He was, after all, his Lady's weapon, sharp and swift and
deadly, and for all that the others regarded him contemptuously as a
mongrel half-breed, none disputed that he was a lethal enemy, held in
check only by Riana's will.
     He wheeled easily into the parking area, feeling a tiny jolt of
pleasure at the sight of Riana's Mercedes.  He coasted up next to it,
planting his feet to balance the bike as he came to a stop and shut the
engine down.  He peeled off his helmet, resting it on the gas tank and
turning to watch as the slim figure who'd been leaning against the car
stood and moved over towards him.
     "Jubei," he said with exaggerated casualness, kicking the stand
down and dismounting gracefully.
     "Keisuke.  She wanted to see you when you got in."  Another
jolt of pleasure, mixed with a tiny dose of trepidation.  That could be
good or bad.
     "What about?" he asked neutrally, running his fingers through
his sweat-dampened hair.  The other man, host for the creature that
was Riana's personal guard, scowled.
     "How should I know?  Why don't you ask her yourself, boy?"
Keisuke grinned.  There was no love lost between the two of them,
perhaps because Jubei often spent more time with Riana than Keisuke
did.  Or perhaps because they both considered themselves her
protectors.
     "Bad day, huh?"  That remark earned him another scowl.
     "Herself was in a foul temper after your meeting, boy.  But
don't worry, I believe she saved some of that unpleasantness for you.
Hurry along, now."  Keisuke sneered, making sure to let the sheath of
his sword brush against his rival as he pushed past.  The spells on the
sword didn't make it invisible, exactly, but allowed it to become ...
inconspicuous, hard for ordinary people to notice.  Jubei was not
ordinary, however, and the subtle threat was not lost on him, judging by
his expression.
     Keisuke savoured the bodyguard's discomfort as long as he
could, but once inside the sprawling mansion his own discomfort
returned.  He dreaded the coming confrontation.  Having had all day to
stew over the situation, he had no doubt that Riana would be looking
for someone to take her frustrations out on, and when she was in such a
mood not even he was safe.
     By the time he reached the door to her study, his stomach was
in a knot, although he ensured that no sign of his trepidation was visible.
It wouldn't do for the ice man to show any chinks in his armour, after
all.  Running through a brief mental exercise to calm himself, he rapped
sharply on the door.
     "Come," a lazy voice bade from within.  He complied, closing
the heavy door behind him.
     The interior of the study was dark and intimate, shadows
cloaking the corners of the room.  An expensive looking desk sat in the
only pool of light.  Riana lounged behind it in a high-backed leather
chair, much like the one in her office.  Keisuke frowned as he moved
closer.  Her bare feet were perched on the edge of the desk, crossed at
the ankles.  That pose suggested a state of mind he definitely hadn't
been expecting.  She reclined in the chair, her hair a tumbled silken
disarray, her dark silk blouse unbuttoned dangerously low.  She held a
crystal snifter full of dark fluid cradled in one elegant hand, regarding it
with lidded eyes.  An enigmatic smile pulled at her lush lips as she
regarded her drink carefully.
     He frowned.  She didn't seem upset at all.  Quite the contrary.
Instantly, he was on his guard.
     "My lady," he said, beginning to fall to one knee.  She stopped
him with a languid wave of her free hand, causing her loose blouse to
slip enticingly.
     "Oh, no need to stand on ceremony, Keisuke," she murmured
throatily, still examining the drink as she turned it slowly from side to
side.  Finally she brought the glass to her lips and sipped, savouring the
drink before swallowing.
     "You wanted to see me?" he asked.  He'd begun to wonder if
she was trying to put him at his ease before venting her frustrations.
She just smiled sensuously, turning the chair slightly so she could stare
at him.
     "Oh, yes.  Yes, I did."  Slowly, she slipped her feet off the
desk.  The leather chair creaked softly as she stood, then began circling
the desk, padding through the thick carpet like a great cat stalking its
prey.  He moved only his eyes, following her as she circled the desk,
finally disappearing behind him.  He sensed her nearness as she circled
behind him, crackling with barely leashed energy.  Finally she appeared
at his side, still regarding him with those lidded eyes, sleepy and sexy
and compelling.  He fought the need to swallow past the sudden lump in
his throat.
     "I'm sorry," he said finally.  She was letting her gaze roam over
his body, long fingers twining in her hair where it spilled over one
shoulder.
     "Why?" she asked idly.
     "My news today must have upset you," he said stiffly, still
uncertain what she was up to.  "I know it must have been a blow.  I
only wish I could have brought you some more hopeful news."  She
laughed then, a delighted little sound, and raised her eyes to his.
     "Noble Keisuke," she whispered.  "*Loyal* Keisuke.  After
finding out the key to freeing my lord lies beyond my reach, your
thoughts are not of victory, are they?  They are for the pain this must
cause me."  He said nothing.  She was partly right, after all; he had
thought of her pain.  As for his victory, he knew it wouldn't last.  One
day, the Kunou estate would fall.  Then the matter would come to a
head.  But by then, he hoped Riana would think only of him.
     She swayed gently in place, as if listening to some far off,
intimate music, and held his gaze.
     "It would have been so easy for you to have hidden this from
me," she said at last.  His jaw clenched painfully.  He'd considered
doing just that, after all.
     "I wouldn't," he gritted.  "I could never betray you.  Never."
She smiled again, her fingers toying idly with the open edge of her
blouse.  The glimpses of her smooth dusky skin left him breathless.
     "No, you wouldn't, would you?  Loyal Keisuke.  My weapon, after
all.  Forged by me."  Her fingers traced down, pulling the blouse open
even more.  "Tempered by me."  Her long crimson nails traced lightly
across her belly, drawing back upwards with agonizing slowness.
"Honed by me."  She raised her fingers to her mouth, clasping her long
thumbnail lightly between her front teeth.  His gaze was following her
fingers helplessly, transfixed.  She smiled again, pulling her hand away
from her mouth and resting it lightly against his chest.
     "And only I can wield you," she breathed, drawing his gaze
back to her eyes again.  He swallowed.
     "Yes," he admitted tightly.  "Only you."  He'd given up trying to
figure out what was behind this odd mood.  She would explain, or not,
as the whim took her.
     He just hoped she stopped teasing him before his heart
exploded.
     She held the glass up to the light, swirling the remaining liquid so
that it sparkled darkly in the dim light.  She watched it for a few
moments, then looked over at him with a slow sidelong glance.
     "This is very good," she told him.  "A rare vintage that I think
you'd appreciate.  Would you care for some?"  He didn't care one
way or the other, but an offer from Riana was not to be taken lightly.
     "Certainly," he managed to say, fighting the urge to nervously wet his
lips.  She nodded, then took another drink herself.  Then, before he
knew what was happening, her free hand slipped up behind his head
and she brought her mouth up to his.  Her silken lips teased his apart,
and he inhaled sharply as the sharp sweet liquid was forced gently into
his mouth.  A small trickle escaped their intoxicating kiss, trickling
intimately down his chin.  He shuddered as he swallowed the burning
drink, tasting her in it as her lips lingered lightly on his before pulling
back with exquisite slowness.  She moved to fastidiously lick the thin
trickle from his chin.  His throat burned, his lips tingled, and he fought
the urge to grab her and tear that damned blouse open the rest of the
way then and there as she stood tantalizingly close, taunting him with
her eyes.
     "Well?" she asked throatily.  "What do you think?"  His
breathing came in short, harsh gasps as he looked at her.
     "I think you've bewitched me," he said hoarsely.  Her laugh
was low, husky and thrilling.
     "Why, Keisuke, your fabled reserve is cracking.  How
flattering."  Gently, she set the mostly empty glass on her desk, reaching
out to snag the collar of his shirt.  She tugged him along, turning so that
her hand reached over her shoulder, pulling him almost up against her
back.
     "Where are we going?" he asked, hoping he knew the answer
already.  She laughed again.
     "We have some things to discuss about the day's events," she
said.  Then she looked over her shoulder at him, her gray eyes full of
mischief.  "But first ..."
     "But first?"
     "But first, I want to play."  She tugged at his shirt again, and he
followed.
     Willingly.

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

     Bars of pale, translucent light fell slantwise across the rumpled
bed.  The wan illumination was more than bright enough for Riana to
see by, had she cared to open her eyes.  At that moment, though, she
kept them closed, listening to the frantic breathing that was the only
sound in the room slowing to a more sedate level.
     A sated smile tugged lightly at her lips, and she revelled in her
delicious languor.  Moments like this, where she could find peace, were
few and far between, and gone much too soon.  She lay against
Keisuke's heat, flesh on flesh, savouring the moment while it lasted.
     Finally, Keisuke groaned, trying to shift position.  She opened
her eyes and slowly slithered onto his chest, propping her chin on her
crossed hands and regarding the young man with an enigmatic
half-smile.  His long black hair was dishevelled, pooling darkly on his
pillow.  She liked the way his arms were stretched over his head, wrists
bound firmly to the headboard with filmy webbing.  They hadn't started
that way; she'd wanted to allow his skilled hands to do their work, after
all.  But they often ended up that way.  Still, the boy had nothing to
complain about.  The other men who shared her embrace ended up in
much worse shape.
     But not him.  She would not feed on Keisuke, no matter how
great the temptation.  He trusted her now, only her, just the way she'd
wanted, and she would do nothing to jeopardize that.  She ran her eyes
over his exposed body with a possessive air.
     He was not her heart, no.  Only her Lord could ever be her
heart.  But he was something better.  Her possession.  Her weapon.
She'd made him, and she owned him.  The others served her because
she served in Vaenruth's stead; it was to him they owed their ultimate
loyalty.  And that, she supposed, was how it had to be.
     But Keisuke, he was loyal to her and her alone.  To be with
him was to know the thrill of possession, to feel the pleasure of the
power she held over him.  No one else could command him.  No one
else could make him lose control, make his careful veneer slip the way
she could.  As with any weapon, he was dangerous, and that added to
the thrill.
     On occasion, she would take him to her bed and allow him to
please her, which he invariably did.  But it was always at her whim.  It
was another way to exert her control over him, to condition in him a
desire to please.
     He shifted again, and the headboard creaked.  She ran her long
fingernails over his chest, applying enough pressure to be painful, but
not quite enough to break the skin.  He hissed in response, but
subsided.
     "If you break my bed, Kei, I'll be most cross," she purred,
watching him squirm.  He looked fetchingly helpless, although she knew
that wasn't the case.  Her webbing was much stronger than it
appeared, but the headboard it was attached to was only wood.  He
could break it easily.  She ran her gaze slowly over him, and had a vivid
mental picture of herself, straddling Keisuke and cocooning him in filmy
webbing, then bending down to drain his lifeforce ...
     She shuddered pleasurably and lowered her head to nip at his
broad chest, which was already covered with welts and scratches.  It
was time to secure another disposable victim for the catacombs,
apparently.
     "Riana," he said quietly, his voice rumbling in his chest where
she was leaning against it.  "If you free my hands, I'll be able to ...
touch you."  The promise inherent in his words made her smile, and she
slowly ran her hands up his arms until she could reach his wrists.  Using
her sharp nails, she carefully cut him loose.  With a sigh, he lowered his
arms, running his fingers through her hair and down the ridges of her
back in a slow, pleasing pattern.  Just the way she'd taught him,
actually.  She closed her eyes and let her head drop to his chest again.
     "Well?" he asked after a time.  She was toying with his silky
hair with one hand, lightly tracing his nipple with the other.
     "Well, what?"
     "Are you going to tell me what put you in such a good mood?  I
expected you to be ..."
     "Bitchy?"  He paused prudently, and she laughed.
     "Upset," he said diplomatically.  She sighed.  She might as well
tell him.  His services might be required before she was done.  Might?
Hells rings, almost certainly *would* be.
     "I was not happy at first," she confessed.  "But then I started
thinking things over.  This news comes at just the right time.  Had it
come a week ago, I might have been forced to consider disobeying the
Dread One and placing everything in jeopardy.  But now ..."  She
trailed off.
     "What has changed?" he asked, lightly changing the rhythm of
his caressing fingers.  She stretched appreciatively.
     "Mmmmm ... nice.  Oh, that's right, you don't know about
Tragus yet, do you?"
     "Tragus?  Not one of yours, is he?"
     "No.  One of the newcomers, from the failed invasion."
Keisuke snorted.
     "Ah, that rabble.  Vermin, the lot of them."
     "Mmm-hmm.  A little higher, Kei."  When he'd complied, she
related to him the tale of Tragus's possession of Ninomiya Hinako,
including the details she'd omitted when speaking to the Dread One.
She felt the tension in his body, and smiled to herself.  So predictable.
     "That he should have dared to touch you that way ..." Keisuke
snarled, temporarily forgetting what his fingers were supposed to be
doing.  "And where was Jubei during all this?"
     "Jubei has been punished adequately for his lapse," she informed
him.  He scowled.
     "Still, for that little bastard to take such liberties with you!  I'll
tear him apart with my bare hands!"
     "You'll do no such thing," she said calmly.  He blinked.
     "But ..."
     "Fingers, Kei," she scolded him.  Slowly, his fingers resumed
their activities, tracing up over the swell of her buttocks, and a satisfied
smile crept to her lips.  She made a low purring noise deep in her
throat.
     "Better.  Now, as to Tragus's transgressions, perhaps I will let
you kill him when the time comes.  Or perhaps I will reserve that
pleasure for myself.  However, for the moment I need him alive."
     "Need?"
     "Oh, yes.  The Dread One has forbidden our forces to enter
Nerima Ward, or to attempt to take the estate and its treasures, until he
decides otherwise.  However, he is willing to allow Tragus to gather
intelligence in his present form."
     "I don't see how that helps us," Keisuke said slowly, once
again changing the pattern of his caresses.
     "Tragus wants to run with the big dogs, Kei.  I'm going to give
him his chance.  After all, he knows nothing of the Dread One or his
plans.  If I let it be known that the Dread Lord wishes an artifact
retrieved from the estate, Tragus will no doubt seek to possess it
himself.  He will violate the Dread One's orders, and mine, by seeking
confrontation with the remnants of the Kunou clan.  I have already told
the Dread One of Tragus's intractability, you see.  Tragus will get me
what I want, then take all the blame."  Keisuke's fingers stopped their
careful ministrations again, and Riana knew that he was thinking of
Vaenruth.  She knew it was time for the carrot.
     "And of course, if I arrange things just so, I can see to it that
young Master Kunou is drawn away from the estate, to our stronghold
and into direct confrontation with our forces."  Keisuke stiffened
underneath her, and she smiled sweetly.
     "And should that happen, I would have no other choice but to
unleash you upon him, my weapon.  The Dread One could never fault
me for that, and you would have your fondest wish realized."  She bent
down and bit him lightly.
     "Just as I always promised," she whispered.  His fingers began
to move again, ardent and clever, and she arched her back as they
sought out the places she liked to be touched best.
     "You can arrange all this?" Keisuke asked, his breathing
becoming laboured again.
     "Oh, yes," she gasped.  "I'm quite certain of it.  Ah!  Keisuke."
She glared at him sternly.  "If you don't stop, you'll find yourself
webbed to the headboard again."  His eyes gleamed in the half light, a
faint red glow beginning to show.
     "That is a chance I'm willing to take," he informed her.  She
gripped his shoulders tightly and moved her body over his.
     "Good boy," she sighed.
     And then they forgot about schemes and plans and deceit.
     For a while.

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

     He wandered along the street, shouldering his pack easily as he
walked.  The gentle night breeze tugged at his sleeveless yellow tunic,
and he made note of the fact that rain appeared unlikely in the near
future.
     Always a good sign.
     He sighed deeply, missing the fresh scent of the woods where he'd
wandered for the past few days.  But it was getting late, and he needed
to find someplace to camp for the night.  A park, maybe, or a bridge to
shelter under.  He'd thought to stay on the outskirts of town for the
night, but apparently he hadn't ended up at the smallish town he'd been
aiming for.
     And wasn't that just the story of his life.
     This city was much bigger than he'd been expecting.  Still, big
cities had their advantages.  Anonymity, for one thing.  He could try to
blend into the crowd, not be noticed.  Beyond that, he had no plans.
No plans beyond staying far away from the site of all his heartbreaks.
     Sadly, he failed to take note of the newspaper box he passed
as he headed towards a small park visible in the distance.
     Clearly marked on the side of it was the masthead of the Tokyo
Times.
     Chance, destiny, or just plain contrary luck had once again
carried Ryouga Hibiki to the place he least wanted to be.

End part 5