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

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part Six : Life Goes On

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     Ninomiya Hinako tossed and turned restlessly.  Her sheets
were damp with sweat, the same cold, clammy sweat that plastered her
caramel-coloured hair to her forehead and raised gooseflesh over her
body.  Finally, with a frustrated groan, she threw the covers back and
sat up in her bed.
     Her small body was wracked with shivers as the sweat dried in
the cool air.  She scrubbed her face with her hands, shaking her head
wearily.  She'd been lying here for hours, trying to get some rest, but it
was just no use.  She couldn't get to sleep.
     No.  It wasn't that.  She was *afraid* to go to sleep.
     It was crazy, really.  Every time she started to drift off, she
would find herself snapping back to wakefulness.  Somehow, she'd
gotten the idea, somewhere deep inside, that if she fell asleep she
wouldn't wake up again.
     Crazy.  Just crazy.
     But she couldn't shake the conviction that she mustn't fall
asleep.  Something was waiting for her in her dreams, something with
glowing red eyes
     (Soooooo ... huuuuuungryyyyyy ....)
     and claws and teeth, something evil, something *vile*, and once
she was vulnerable it would come and hover over her bed like a
vulture, watching her, staring at her, hating her.
     Just like before.
     No!  No.  Those were
     (Just dreams)
     just dreams, just strange dreams she'd been having ever since
     (the alley)
     well, recently.  Nothing evil came to watch her while she slept,
watching her child's body with implacable hate, waiting for its time.
That was just
     (crazy)
     crazy talk.  Yes, just crazy.
     But still the utter conviction wouldn't go away.  Something was
creeping up to her bed, cloaked in the dark.  Something bad, something
that would wait until she was asleep, then carry her off to some place
far away, some place so far away that she would never be able to find
her way back.
     She was afraid to sleep.  But she was so tired, so very
     (Sleepy)
     sleepy, and she couldn't stay awake.
     But she mustn't fall asleep.
     She was going mad.
     "Please," she whispered, not even aware she was speaking
aloud.  "Please, can't somebody make it stop?"
     (Just go to sleep.  Prove that it's safe.  Nothing will happen)
     Yes.  That made sense, didn't it?  Even if it hadn't seemed like
her thinking the thought at all.
     But it had to be her.  It was her thought.
     Wasn't it?
     (Sleep, and you won't be afraid any more)
     Tired.  Yes, tired of being afraid.  At first the changes in her
powers had seemed intriguing, but things seemed to be getting out of
control lately.
     (So sleep, and forget)
     She fell back on the bed, curling up on her side, knees drawn
up to her chest.  Her eyes burned with fatigue, and she was cold and
tired and scared and she kept having thoughts that didn't seem to be
hers and oh help me help me I'm going crazy can't someone help me?
     But there was no one.
     (Go to sleep, deep deep sleep)
     Ever since childhood, her freakish nature had scared people
away.
     (Sleep deep, and forget them)
     It still did.
     (Sleep and forget, the laughing ones, the frightened ones, the
ones who point and whisper and stare)
     Alone.
     (Forget the men who leave when they find out you're not
beautiful all the time and the women who resent you when you are)
     Her thumb crept unconsciously to her mouth, and she sucked
on it idly, drawing into a tighter ball, beginning to rock gently as her
eyes closed.
     Tired.  Make it all go away ...
     (Yes.  Sleep.  Sleep deep in the deep dark sleep and don't
think don't worry don't do anything but sleep)
     She just wanted to help those students, give them the discipline
they needed, but
     (They don't appreciate)
     they never appreciated her and
     (laugh)
     yes, they laughed at her and
     (tired)
     she was so tired, she would just rest her eyes for a second and
nothing would happen nothing could happen nothing
     (sleep forever)
     mommy mommy something's in here something's in the dark
something
     (sleeeeeeep)
     mommy please i'm scared
     (Yes)
     And it was dark, so dark, and somewhere she heard/thought
something that was her not her ...
     (Mine now.  Finally all mine)
     She tried to cry out, but she had no voice.
     The dark swallowed her.

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

     On the rumpled bed, the small body stopped rocking.  She
pulled her thumb slowly from her mouth and cautiously opened her
eyes.
     And smiled.

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

     "It's not funny!"
     "I know."
     "Then stop laughing!"
     "Ranma, I'm not laughing," Akane said reasonably, spoiling the
moment by beginning to giggle.  Ranma-chan scowled at her, hoping it
might garner her some sympathy.  Unfortunately, her expression only
served to send Akane into further fits of giggling.  Ranma-chan gave a
put upon sigh and resolved to ignore Akane for the rest of the walk to
school.
     "Honestly, Ranma," Akane said at last.  "That old woman must
be at least ninety!  How does she keep getting you with that water
scoop?"  Ranma-chan forgot her resolve and turned.
     "I'm telling you, she's like a water ninja or something!  The old
bat just lives to see me change!  Now I'm gonna have to find some hot
water before class."  She noted with disgust that Akane still wasn't
showing her any sympathy.
     "You may have to start taking a different route to school," she
told the red-head impishly.  Ranma-chan snorted derisively.
     "Aw, I wouldn't give her the pleasure," she grumbled.  At least
they were nearly at school.  She ought to have enough time to change
back to boy form before class started.
     They rounded the corner and Ranma-chan bumped into
someone who was rushing for the main gate.
     "Hey, watch ..." she started.  Then she took in the long
ponytail, spatula and startled brown eyes.
     Ukyou.
     They stepped back from each other in unison, Ukyou nearly
bumping into an equally flustered Akane.  She tried to sidestep,
bumping roughly into someone coming upon them from behind.
     "Who dares to ..." the newcomer started imperiously before
realizing who he was talking to.  Ranma-chan felt a sinking sensation in
the pit of her stomach.
     Kunou.  Just perfect.  Ranma-chan hadn't been around Kunou
in girl form since Kodachi's death.  Since Kunou had always believed
his girl form to be a totally separate person, she wasn't sure how to
react.  Offer condolences?  Treat him the way she usually did?  Say
nothing?  For some reason, she hadn't prepared for this particular
eventuality, and was caught flat-footed.  The four had backed into a
small square and were nervously regarding each other.
     "Well," someone said dryly.  "Just how many different ways is
*this* awkward?"  Nabiki sauntered up next to Ranma-chan, taking
the situation in at a glance.  As the silence stretched uncomfortably,
Ranma-chan looked from face to face.  Akane, for some reason, kept
looking from Ukyou to her sister and back.  When she caught Kunou
staring at her, he started guiltily and looked at Akane, then looked
away from her.  Ukyou appeared to be trying not to look at anyone.
Only Nabiki appeared unfazed by the lull.
     "Um," Ranma-chan said.  Nothing else suggested itself, so she
tried again.
     "Um," she repeated cleverly.  Still nothing.
     "I must apologize," Kunou said at last.  "For my clumsiness.
Please ..."
     "Sure!" Ukyou blurted.  "No problem!"
     "Um," Ranma-chan said again.  She wanted to ask Ukyou how
she'd been, but the other girl wouldn't even meet her gaze.  Akane
started glaring at Ranma-chan for staring at Ukyou.
     Think, dummy, Ranma-chan told herself.  Now's your chance
to talk to Ukyou.  Say something, anything!
     "Oh, wow, look at the time!" Ukyou exclaimed suddenly, pulling her
sleeve back and glancing at her watch.  "Gonna be late!  Gotta go!"
With that she ducked her head and scuttled away, barely managing not
to run.
     "Uc ..." Ranma-chan started helplessly.  Not that she was sure
what she would have said if Ukyou had turned back, of course.
     "Yes, the hour grows late," Kunou spoke up stiffly, strangely
subdued.  "I too must hurry.  Ladies."  Sketching a small bow he
disappeared through the gates, eyes fixed straight ahead.  Ranma-chan
was left standing, mouth open and feeling stupid.
     "Well, Saotome, you certainly handled that well," Nabiki
drawled.  Ranma-chan shook her head, feeling dazed.
     "That's not fair, Nabiki," Akane snapped.
     "Maybe not," the other girl conceded.  "But we all go to the
same school, guys.  Is it going to be like this every time you all see each
other?"
     "That hasn't been much of a problem up to now," Ranma-chan
said heavily.  "Ukyou and Kunou have both been avoiding me pretty
much all the time."  She started walking through the gates, Akane and
Nabiki following.
     "Well, for one thing, Kunou's been avoiding Ranma, not the
pig-tailed goddess," Nabiki reminded him.  "He saw both you and
Akane together, but I didn't hear any poetry, any cries of devotion.
What gives?"
     "I can never explain Kunou," Ranma-chan muttered.  "As long
as he keeps acting this way, I'll be happy."
     "It's funny, you don't look very happy," Nabiki mused.
     "Oh, leave him alone, Nabiki," Akane sighed.  "He feels bad
enough as it is.  Come on, Ranma, let's find some hot water before
class."  Ranma-chan nodded, following Akane automatically.
     The day was off to a fine start.

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

     "You sent for me?"  Keisuke stood in front of Riana's desk,
loose limbed and watchful.  She nodded and leaned back in her chair.
There was no sign of the playfulness and passion of the previous night.
For a moment, he wished she could be that way all the time.  Just the
two of them, away from the responsibilities of her position ...
     He cut off that line of thought sharply.  Such fantasies were
foolish and dangerous distractions.  There was no time for such luxuries
now.  No time.
     "Yes, Keisuke."  She looked beautiful this morning, as usual.
Her hair was tied back into a braid, making her look fresh, almost
girlish.  He had to reign in his thoughts again before they could wander
too far astray.  Not a good sign.  He forced his expression to remain
impassive as she took a sip of steaming tea from her mug, then replaced
it gently on her desk.
     "I want you to return to the shrine," she continued at last.
     "What?  But Lady, why?"  She gazed at him evenly.
     "You told me there were rumours of the old man having a
student.  I want to know if those rumours were true, and if so I want
the matter dealt with."  This was unexpected.
     "Lady Riana, with all due respect, even if he had been tutoring
a student, she couldn't pose a threat to us now that we know where the
artifact is.  My place should be here, in case you need me."  Her gaze
hardened, and when she spoke again her tone was perceptibly colder.
     "Are you refusing my order, Keisuke?" she asked.  He stiffened at
the rebuke.
     "Not at all.  But last night ..."  She arched an eyebrow.
     "Last night?" she repeated icily.  He winced inwardly.  Poor
choice of words, he told himself.  She would never tolerate his bringing
their extra-curricular activities into their working relationship.
     "Last night," he said firmly, "you told me you intend to confront
Tragus soon, to set in motion the first phase of your plan.  I think I
should be there when ..."
     "I can handle Tragus," she said, but some of the ice had gone
out of her voice.  "But I wish to know that all loose ends are accounted
for before we begin this delicate operation.  Are we clear on what you
are to do?"
     "Yes," he said, bowing his head.  "Please forgive my
impertinence, Lady."  She made a dismissive gesture.
     "Go now.  I want this handled quickly, with no fuss."  He nodded,
leaving without looking back.  Only once he was safely away did he
pause to take a deep, steadying breath.
     The Lady Riana ran hot and cold, and he was never certain what to
expect from her.  And he most certainly did not like the idea of her
facing Tragus alone.  Of course, if he hurried, he might be able to
complete his mission and return before that happened.
     He retrieved his sword and jacket and headed out to his
bike.  When he saw Jubei leaning against the Mercedes, waiting
for Riana to decide to go somewhere, his eyes narrowed.  Sauntering
up to the sour faced man, he slung his sword across his back and
smiled insincerely.
     "Leaving so soon?" Jubei asked, not sounding at all unhappy
about the prospect.  Keisuke threw a leg over the bike, mounting in one
smooth motion and balancing it between his legs as he snapped the
kickstand up.
     "Don't worry," he said.  "I'll be back soon."  He grabbed his
helmet off the seat in front of him, fishing his riding gloves out of it.  The

great thing about all the security around the mansion was that he didn't
have to worry about thieves.
     "Don't rush on our account, junior," the bodyguard sneered.
Keisuke started the bike, listening to the almost feline snarl of the engine
for a moment before slipping his helmet on.  Then he flipped the tinted
visor up and turned to Jubei.
     "Oh, by the way," he said casually.  "I think you'll find she's in
a much better mood today than she was last night.  Guess she slept
well.  Ciao."  He snapped the visor back down, grinning fiercely at
Jubei's expression, and gunned the motor, arrowing away down the
long drive.
     A long drive on a pleasant spring day, a little clean up duty,
then home to stand beside his Lady.
     The day was off to a promising start.

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

     The sun's warmth felt good, both beaming down on her dark
school uniform and seeping up from the cement underneath her.  Her
lunch sat beside her, barely touched, and her spatula leaned against the
short retaining wall nearby.
     Ukyou stared up at the cloud dotted sky, aimlessly tracing the
patterns of blue and white with her gaze.  She was coming to enjoy
spending lunches with Nabiki, much more so than she ever would have
thought.  Today, though, her thoughts kept straying to something else.
     Some*one* else, actually.
     "You're brooding, you know.  Not that it doesn't look good on
you."  Ukyou dragged her gaze away from the open expanses of sky to
see Nabiki regarding her with one of her patented appraising stares.
     "Am not."
     "You most certainly are.  Are you going to eat that?"  She
gestured at Ukyou's lunch.
     "Kasumi made your lunch, didn't she?" Ukyou asked.  "I'll
trade."  Nabiki grinned.
     "You're learning.  I'll make a proper businesswoman out of
you yet.  One octopus ball and some rice for one of those small
okonomiyaki."  Ukyou wasn't really hungry, but couldn't resist the
opportunity to play this game.
     "Three octopus balls, half the rice and a pickle."
     "You're insane.  For *one* okonomiyaki?"
     "Made by the best okonomiyaki chef in Tokyo."
     "Oh, ho.  And the most modest, no doubt.  Two octopus balls,
one third of the rice.  No pickles.  I like the pickles."  They dickered
good-naturedly, Ukyou glad for the opportunity to take her mind off of
things for a while.  Nabiki eventually won some concessions, as she
usually did, getting two small okonomiyaki without sacrificing any
pickles.  She was unbearably smug about it, too, making Ukyou laugh
out loud.
     "That's better," Nabiki said with a twinkle in her eyes.  Ukyou
made a face at her.
     "I wasn't brooding," she said again.  Nabiki shrugged.
     "Okay, if you say so.  But you know, that guy that you *weren't*
brooding about is pretty high-profile around this school.  You really
should get used to the fact that you're going to see him around."
Ukyou sighed, leaning back against the wall.  She laced her hands
behind her head and groaned, stretching her long legs out in front of her
and lazily crossing her ankles.  She had her uniform jacket open and her
boy's dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar.  She tried to let the sun's rays
penetrate all the way to her core, to warm her tension away.
     "Yeah, I know," she said at last.  "I just wasn't expecting to run into
him, for some reason."
     "You weren't the only one.  Did you see Kunou-baby's face?
I've never seen him so tongue-tied before."
     "Mmmm.  Do you think he's really given up on Akane and the
pig-tailed girl, or is he just letting things slide for a while?"
     "I'm not sure.  It bears some looking into, though."  They sat in
silence for a time, the faint sounds of activity drifting up to them on the
pleasant spring breeze.
     "Men," Ukyou said at last.  "We'd be better off without them."
     "Well, our lives would be simpler, but not nearly so interesting,"
Nabiki said dryly.
     "They're nothing but trouble," Ukyou said grumpily.  Nabiki
laughed.
     "You know what your problem is?" she asked lightly.  Ukyou
squinted at her out of one eye.
     "I suppose you're going to tell me," she answered resignedly.
     "You got obsessed with the wrong guy, and now you're bitter."
Ukyou tightened up at that, but said nothing.
     "Come on," Nabiki pushed.  "You hated the guy for ten years,
then all of a sudden you fell for him because he said you were cute.
This is not the basis for a healthy relationship.  You're better off this
way."
     "I keep telling myself that," she sighed, closing her eyes and
leaning her head back.  The sun burned through her closed lids, its
golden light turning her vision red and sparkly.
     "Well, believe it.  This whole getting engaged thing is just out of
control anyway.  We're too young for stuff like that.  We should be
shopping around, you know, experiencing life's pleasures.  Sowing our
wild oats.  Squeezing tight butts."  Ukyou laughed, her eyes still closed.
     "Nabiki, you're terrible."
     "Oh, excuse me, Saint Ukyou.  You never look at a guy's butt?
Nice, tight, round and squeezeable butts?  C'mon, I bet you looked at
Ranma's plenty of times."  Ukyou gave a put-upon sigh.
     "Well, maybe I glanced once or twice," she conceded
grudgingly.
     "Of course, it's hardly fair that he got to have a great butt as a
guy and a girl.  And eyes, of course.  Gorgeous eyes are a must."
     "Agreed."
     "Tall.  Tall is very good."
     "I'm a sucker for a great smile," Ukyou admitted dreamily.  "A
little bit roguish, a little bit shy ... a smile that promises trouble and fun

and all that good stuff."  Nabiki laughed delightedly.
     "Ah, I knew it!  You *do* think about them!"
     "Only in my weak moments," Ukyou said solemnly.  "I've
sworn off men."
     "Wrong way to go, my friend.  What you need is a good old
rebound relationship."
     "Excuse me?  I wasn't really in much of a relationship to begin
with," she argued, opening her eyes.  Nabiki waved her hands
dismissively.
     "You're still entitled," she assured Ukyou.  "A cheap fling, just
the thing to restore your mental equilibrium."
     "Oh, sure.  With who?"
     "It doesn't matter, dummy.  Look, I'm sure there are lots of
guys who'd like to go out with you, if ... well ..."
     "What?" she asked, curious.
     "If you weren't a cross-dresser, for starters."
     "EXCUSE ME?" Ukyou blurted.  "I am *not* a ..."
     "Ukyou," Nabiki interrupted patiently.  "What are you
wearing?"  Ukyou looked down at her dishevelled boy's uniform.
     "Well, but ... I just ... that is, I really ..."
     "You *really* come to school every day wearing a boy's uniform
with your breasts taped up and your hair tied back that way.  Not
sending out the best signals to any prospective dates, y'know.  How
come you keep dressing like that, anyway?"
     "It's just a habit I got into," she said weakly.
     "Exactly.  But there's no need for it anymore, right?"  Ukyou flushed,
not knowing what to say.
     "Nabiki, I don't care what the guys at school think about me."
     "Hmmm.  You're right, they are mostly losers ..."
     "That wasn't what I meant."  Nabiki grinned.
     "Still, it wouldn't hurt to loosen up from time to time ..."
     "I've never really been into girly stuff, Nabiki.  I'm just not
good at it."
     "Aw, there's nothing to it.  A little effort, a dress, and presto!  The
guys wouldn't know what hit them."
     "What guys?"  Nabiki rolled her eyes.
     "Any guys.  Like ... how about Ryouga?"  Ukyou blinked.
     "What?"
     "Well, why not?"
     "But ... Ryouga?  I mean ..."  Nabiki sighed tolerantly.
     "Look, Ukyou, I don't mean you have to marry him.  Just take
him for a test drive.  Now that boy has a nice butt."
     "Nabiki!" Ukyou cried, scandalized and delighted at the same
time.
     "And those cute little fangs," Nabiki mused.  "Still, a little shy
..."
     "A little?"
     "Or Mousse."
     "Oh, come *on* ..."
     "Hey, not a bad butt on him, either.  Not Ranma class, but nice.
And long hair, some girls really go for that ..."
     "This is just getting weird," Ukyou laughed.
     "Nonsense," Nabiki said primly.  "Now that Shampoo's
thrown him over one final time, why not?  And since he was raised by
amazon women, I bet he'd be nice and ... pliable."  She gave Ukyou a
lascivious grin.  "You could be on top."
     "Oh, shut UP!" Ukyou giggled.
     "Oh, I can see it.  Under that sweet, long-suffering exterior,
Ukyou, lurks the heart of a femme fatale.  There's Moussie, tied to the
bed ..."
     "Pervert!"
     "Ah, stop it.  You know you're loving this.  Now, where was
I?  Oh, yeah.  And then you appear in your stiletto heeled boots, fishnet
stockings, and tight leather skirt and bustier.  And a studded choker
collar."  Ukyou giggled again at the incongruous mental picture.
     "With a big spatula," she laughed.  Nabiki shook her head.
     "No way.  A whip, baby.  And then you slowly walk up to the
helpless, submissive young male, his oiled pecs gleaming in the
candlelight, and you say ..."
     "And I say?"
     "What would you like on your okonomiyaki, SLAVE?"  Ukyou
burst into fresh gales of laughter, tears springing to her eyes.  Nabiki
studied her fingernails casually.
     "Oh, yes.  I can see it now," she said calmly as Ukyou
convulsed with helpless mirth.  "Ucchan's Okonomiyaki and
Domination.  Reservations Required."  Ukyou gasped for breath.
     "Oh," she squeaked at last.  "Oh, you are evil.  Evil."  Nabiki
smirked.
     "Hey, you're the one that's got a poor honest amazon boy tied
to your bed.  You're the one who's licking special sauce off his
trembling body ..."  That set Ukyou off again, and this time Nabiki
grinned widely.
     "S-stop ... oh, you're bad," Ukyou gasped at last.
     "I'm bad?  What about you, having your way with him, then
casting him aside, lounging on your bed and looking terrific while eating
chocolates?"
     "I'll get fat!"
     "This is a fantasy, Ukyou.  You eat chocolates all day and
never get fat."  Ukyou giggled again, feeling a little giddy.
     "Right.  Then what?"  Nabiki made a show of thinking.
     "Well, then Ryouga wanders in, lost as usual.  You're in the mood
for some fun, so you throw him down and tie him up with your whip ..."
     "Hah!  He'd get a nosebleed to end all nosebleeds!"
     "Nope.  Because you *command* him not to."
     "Oh, of course.  Pardon me.  Then I take his order, too?"
     "Ukyou, what am I going to do with you?  Then you rip his shirt
off with your teeth!"  Ukyou stretched, closing her eyes for a moment.
     "Okay.  Then what?"  Nabiki made an exasperated sound.
     "Don't you have *any* ideas?"  Ukyou thought for a moment.
She was beginning to enjoy herself.
     "I, um ... make him lick my boots?"
     "Lick those boots, SLAVE!" Nabiki agreed.  "Make him beg
for the attentions of ... MISTRESS UKYOU!"  Their eyes met and
they both laughed out loud.
     "Oh, you are so *bad*," Ukyou sighed at last.
     "You have no idea," Nabiki told her.  "Come on, Ukyou,
loosen up.  Guys don't have to be lifelong commitments.  You're
allowed to shop around.  You're young, you're attractive ... you own
your own business.  You, Ukyou, are a catch."  Ukyou felt her cheeks
grow warm at the flattery.
     "A cross-dressing catch," she mumbled.  Nabiki grinned.
     "We could fix that pretty easily."  Ukyou sighed.
     "Well, what about you?  What kind of guy does it take to make
Nabiki Tendou's heart beat a little faster?" she asked, eyeing the other
girl with interest.  "Come on, tell."  Nabiki looked surprised at the
question.
     "Welllllllll ..."
     "Come on.  If you don't tell, I'm taking those trampy boots off
and untying all the boys," she teased.  "No more Ucchan's House of
Domination ..."  Nabiki chuckled.
     "Oh, all right."  She leaned back beside Ukyou, resting her
head against the wall and staring idly off into the distance.
     "What kind of guy ..." she mused.
     "Would he have to be rich?" Ukyou asked.  She wanted to
take the words back as soon as she'd said them.  They sounded
accusatory, judgemental.  But Nabiki just smiled.
     "Hey, I like money.  Rich would be nice, but not necessary.  After
all, I could make us rich with his salary.  Wise investments and all ..."
She trailed off.
     "Then what?" Ukyou asked, genuinely curious.
     "Well ... this stays between us, right?"
     "Absolutely."  Nabiki nodded absently.
     "Passion.  I'd want a man that was passionate.  Maybe you
couldn't tell on the surface, but he'd have a wild side that I could bring
out.  He'd want me, I mean *want* me, need me, so that the sight of
me could drive him to distraction.  When we first met, I'd play ice
queen with my cold numbers and calculations.  But he'd start playing
that little game, you know, where your eyes meet, then you look away,
then they meet again and hold for a little longer, then you look away
again ..."
     "Oh, yeah," Ukyou sighed.
     "When we were around other people, we'd let the tension build
and build, pretending it didn't exist while both knowing it was there.
Something just for us, that nobody else suspected."  Ukyou turned to
see Nabiki had leaned her head back against the wall and closed her
eyes, a soft half smile on her lips.
     "Sometimes," Nabiki went on, "when we were at home, I'd be
working on something, and he'd start to tease me.  I'd be working at
my desk and he'd come up behind me and start running his fingertips
lightly up and down my spine.  Then he'd lean in and kiss the nape of
my neck, very gently.  Then he'd start moving around to the side, the
earlobes, the little spot under the corner of the jaw ..."  Ukyou
shivered.
     "Wow," she said softly.  Nabiki opened her eyes suddenly,
looking a little embarrassed.
     "Well, you know," she said.  "Lot's of foreplay.  Since we're just
talking, that is.  He'd chase me for a while before I let him catch me.
But when he did, fireworks.  Big time."  Ukyou leaned in a little.
     "Got it.  And since we're just talking ..."
     "Idle speculation at best."
     "Riiiight.  So what's he look like?" she asked curiously.  "Any
preferences?"  Nabiki frowned, pursing her lips a little.
     "Hmmm.  Let's see.  Tall, nice shoulders, strong chin.
Gorgeous eyes, of course.  A crooked smile, narrow waist ... looks
good in a suit or a t-shirt and jeans.  Good hands, and ..."
     "And?"
     "And an eminently squeezeable butt."  Both girls burst out
laughing at that.
     "Of course," Ukyou giggled.
     "An utter necessity," Nabiki informed her.  "And since this is
my fantasy, he's charming and smart *and* funny and devoted.  And
he brings me flowers sometimes for no reason, and he likes to go
dancing ..."
     "Is he a good dancer?" Ukyou asked innocently.  Nabiki
smiled, a slow lazy smile.
     "Oh, yes," she breathed.  "Very good."
     "Sounds great," Ukyou said.  "Too bad he's unemployed."
Nabiki took a moment to register that last comment.
     "What?" she asked finally.
     "Oh, yeah.  An unemployed ... poet."
     "A *what*?"
     "With no ambition."
     "Hey!"
     "You have to support him totally," Ukyou said, shaking her
head sadly.  Nabiki grimaced.
     "Is this because I made you a slutty dominatrix?"
     "In a word, yes," Ukyou said, then giggled.  "But don't worry.
You can bring your man around to my place and I'll whip him into
shape for you."
     "Oh, that's mighty big of you," Nabiki grumbled.  "No way are
you licking sauce off MY fantasy guy, you little hussy.  I already gave
you Ryouga and Mousse.  Hey, I'll throw in Kunou too.  No extra
charge."
     "Eeek!  No thanks."
     "C'mon, he's not really bad looking.  You could gag him, and if
he started to get annoying you could punish him.  A lot."
     "Hmmm."
     "Or you can have Ranma ..."
     "Uh-uh.  Ranma doesn't get to be in my fantasies any more.
He's banned."  Nabiki grinned.
     "Atta girl.  Now all we have to do is get you to have a cheap
fling ..."
     "That again?  I don't want to have a cheap fling!"
     "Aw, it's for your own good.  I'm talking something fun,
something to make you feel beautiful and desirable."  Ukyou thought
about that.  Nabiki had a point.  Being rejected by Ranko and Ranma
had struck at the very core of her self-confidence, making her feel
unattractive, unwanted, and just plain unhappy.  But still, she didn't
want to have some meaningless fling just to prove to herself that she
was attractive.
     "No, thanks.  That kind of trouble I don't need."  Nabiki
thought about it.
     "Hey, I've got an idea.  We could go to a club Saturday night,
somewhere with dancing and lots of guys.  Having guys ask you to
dance all night's sure to take your mind off all this Ranma stuff."
     "A club?" Ukyou asked doubtfully.
     "Sure.  C'mon, it'd be fun.  We could all use a little fun after
the last month or so, couldn't we?"  Ukyou started to refuse out of
habit, then stopped to think about it.
     Why not go?  It was better than staying at home and trying not
to think about how alone she was.  She could close up early, that
wouldn't pose a problem.  It might be just the thing to take her mind off
her problems, right?
     Why not?
     "Why not?"  She didn't realize she'd spoken out loud until
Nabiki answered her.
     "That's the spirit!  A couple of foot-loose single women on the
prowl, Ukyou.  Sounds like the recipe for trouble to me."  She grinned
mischievously, and Ukyou found herself grinning back.
     A whole night devoted to having fun and attracting attention
from men.  Men who weren't Ranma.
     Yes, that might be just the tonic her bruised heart needed.

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

     Tragus was enjoying himself immensely.  He knew his way
around from having rummaged through Hinako's memories, and so far
nobody had suspected anything.
     Which was to be expected.  Who would suspect that inside this
lovely body lurked a creature out of their nightmares?  Who, indeed?
Not one of these fresh, young people, that was for certain.  And there
were so many of them, all bursting with energy, just waiting to feed
Tragus's appetites.  He even had the perfect pretext.  Hinako was
notorious for her treatment of "delinquents", after all.
     He caught sight of something through the crowded hall that
caused him to pause.  There.  A flash of red.  Was it ...?
     It was.  Ranma Saotome.  She'd seen this one in the young
teacher's memories as well.  His chi was incredibly strong.  He'd
nudged Hinako's thoughts away from the boy when she'd considered
draining him earlier because he hadn't wanted to risk a confrontation.
The boy knew a technique to temporarily interrupt this body's chi
draining abilities, and Tragus didn't want that.  He wouldn't be trapped
in that small, vulnerable body, not even temporarily.
     But now, he was in complete control.  And he was pretty
certain he could find a reason to punish the boy for something.  He'd
certainly enjoy feeding on that deep, delicious chi.
     But first things first.  He let the boy disappear into the crowd,
surveying the crowd for another face.  He was not unaware of the
looks many of the young men were giving his new body.  They lusted
for it.  Well, good.  That would make it so much easier to keep a ready
supply of chi close at hand.  He put a little extra sway into his walk,
smirking inwardly at the reaction from his many admirers.
     Humans.  They were so easy to manipulate.
     Finally, he caught sight of his target and smiled.  Time to start
getting some leverage over Riana and her ilk.
     "Mr. Kunou," he called.  The young man, clad in a kendo
uniform, turned at the velvety sound of Tragus's new voice.
     "Sensei," he said.  "Is something the matter?"  Tragus let the
body's beautiful features slip into a pout.
     "Now, does something have to be the matter for me to talk to
my favourite student?"  Kunou looked startled at that, and Tragus could
tell he was pleased by the compliment.
     "I ... suppose not," he said, trying to regain his equilibrium.
     "Good," Tragus purred.  He slipped his arm around Kunou's with a
familiarity that bordered on scandalous.  "Then why don't you walk me
to my next class?"  The boy's eyes lit up as envious stares burned in
from every direction.
     "It would, of course, be an honour and a privilege to escort
you, sensei," he said.  They began to walk, and Tragus leaned in a little,
speaking in a low, conspiratorial tone.
     "So tell me, how are things at home?" he asked innocently.
     Yes, he thought.  Tell me, boy.  Tell me ... everything.

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

     Ukyou unbuttoned her uniform jacket with one hand as she
walked, sighing with relief as she unbuttoned the collar of her shirt and
the next button as well.  Not for the first time she wondered if a girl's
uniform might be more comfortable.
     That line of thought led her back to her lunch with Nabiki, and
a faint grin touched her lips.  Nabiki's dry humour and frank, fearless
manner was refreshing, to say the least.  She was finding the middle
Tendou sister's company much more enjoyable than she would have
believed.  It was liberating to have a friendship that didn't revolve
around Ranma for once.
     She remembered how she'd agreed to go out on Saturday
night, and her grin faded.  She was beginning to have second thoughts
about that idea.  What if she ended up looking foolish?  What if all the
guys ignored her?  What if ...
     She shook her head ruefully.  You can't spend the rest of your
life afraid, she told herself.  This is nothing, just a baby step.  You're
not looking to fall in love with someone to replace Ranma, you're just
going to have a good time.
     A good time.  And when was the last time she'd set out to just
enjoy herself, to have a good time for its own sake?  She really couldn't
remember.  All her plans had involved getting Ranma to spend time
with her alone, and that had rarely happened.  And even when it had, it
was obvious now that his thoughts hadn't been on her.
     Well, fine.  She would go, after all.  Hell, she might even enjoy
it.  Stranger things had happened.  Many stranger things, in fact.
     She was jolted rudely from her reverie when someone ran into
her on the crowded sidewalk.
     "Hey, watch it!" she snapped.  The other person staggered
back, obviously also a victim of mental distraction.
     "Oh, I beg your ... Ukyou?"
     "Mousse?"  She smiled to take the sting out of her words.
"Sorry, hon, you just startled me."
     "No, it was my fault.  I wasn't paying attention.  Are you all
right?"
     "Sure.  How are you, anyway?  I haven't seen you since ..."
She trailed off uncertainly.  Since your fight with Shampoo, she added
silently.  Nice going, idiot.  Mousse gave her a bitter little smile,
obviously aware of her discomfort.
     "Things have been ... hectic," he told her.  She nodded
sympathetically.
     "Yeah, I heard."
     "You did?" he asked, startled.
     "Mmm.  Mrs. Saotome told the Tendous, and Nabiki told me.
I'm sorry, Mousse."  He looked uncomfortable.
     "It doesn't matter," he mumbled, not meeting her gaze.  She
frowned.
     "Of course it does!  Listen, why don't you come back to my
place for a while?  I'll make us something to eat before I open and we
can talk about it.  Whaddaya say?"  He paused to consider, then
nodded.
     "I'm supposed to be running some errands," he said slowly,
"but I'm mostly finished.  I'll tell you what.  I'll walk back with you."
     "Well, that's a start.  C'mon."  Together they strolled off through the
golden sunshine.
     "So how are things?  Are you going to be able to re-open the
Nekohanten anytime soon?"
     "Well, the place was pretty well wrecked.  It will take a week
at least to get things back in order," Mousse sighed.  "And with
Cologne the way she is now and Shampoo hurt, you can probably
guess who'll get to do most of the work."  Ukyou glanced at Mousse
out of the corner of her eye, noting how dispirited he seemed.  She
could tell that the events of the past weeks had taken their toll on him,
and she was fairly certain he wouldn't be getting any sympathy at home.
     "Is everything going to be all right, though?  I mean, with the
tribe and all."
     "It appears so.  Ironically, the person who will come out of this
the worst will probably be Xi Fan.  She thought she was going to get
her revenge."
     "What does she want revenge *for*, anyway?"  Mousse
shrugged indifferently.
     "I don't really know.  She and Cologne have always been
adversaries, but I didn't realize that things were so serious between
them.  I mostly ignored council politics.  I always had more ... important
things to worry about."  He lapsed into an awkward silence, and it
didn't take much for Ukyou to figure out what he was talking about.
Or rather, who.  She knew she'd probably worn that forlorn expression
a few times over the past month herself.
     "Shampoo must be pretty mad still, huh?" she asked
sympathetically.  Mousse gave her a watery grin that didn't reach his
eyes.
     "Yes, I suppose you could say that.  She doesn't talk to me much.  I
don't think that's going to change, either."  They were across the street
from Ucchan's now, and Ukyou stopped to look Mousse in the eye.
     "Things will get better," she said softly.  She saw him react to
her tone, and she smiled warmly at him.  "Just keep telling yourself that,
okay?  Things seem pretty bad right now, but they *will* get better."
He was silent for a moment.
     "I really wish I could believe that," he said finally.
     "Believe it.  That thought has gotten me through some rotten
nights lately."  He started guiltily.
     "I'm sorry, Ukyou," he said sheepishly.  "Here I am going on
about my problems when you've got your own to worry about."  She
waved him off.
     "We've all had things on our minds lately, sugar.  Listen, why
don't you come in for a while?"  He shook his head.
     "I can't.  I've got to get back to the Nekohanten.  I don't want
to leave them alone for too long right now."  Ukyou chuckled.
     "Mousse, you're a nice guy, you know that?"  He smiled back,
looking a little wistful.
     "Yes, well, you know where nice guys finish, don't you?"
     "They finish first in my book.  Listen, things have got to settle down
eventually.  Drop by whenever, we'll have an all-out bitch session."  His
smile brightened somewhat at that.
     "That sounds like fun," he said.  "Maybe I will at that.  See you
later."
     "Bye," she answered as she watched him trotting away.  Then
she sighed and dashed across the street to open her restaurant for the
supper rush.

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

     Ryouga trudged along, head down, thumbs hooked lightly in the
straps of his pack.  He had nowhere to go and no time to be there, so
he was just wandering.  It was something he did often, but now he was
beginning to feel the beginnings of an itch in the back of his mind.
     He needed ... something.  A plan, a goal, just something to
work towards, no matter how small or insignificant.  All this freedom
was driving him crazy.  In a way, it was worse than all the times he'd
struggled to find his way somewhere.  At least then he'd been doing
something.  Now he was just moving for the sake of it.
     Well, that wasn't exactly true.  He was trying to forget.  Forget
a vivacious girl with dark hair and fiery eyes, a girl that had found her
way into his heart and stubbornly refused to leave.
     Ranma, you'd better not be making her unhappy, he thought
suddenly.  Then he shook his head and sighed.  It wasn't his business
anymore, was it?  After all, he'd decided that he had to leave them
alone to live their own lives.  That was one of the reasons why he was
wandering here, in this strange city.
     Well, so be it.  At least he was far, far away from all that.
Maybe here he'd be able to forget, and find some peace of mind.
     "Excuse me?"  He snapped out of his reverie to find himself
staring into a pair of eyes the colour of a clear summer sky.  He blinked
and saw that the eyes belonged to a very pretty girl, about his own age,
peering up at him from under spiky straw-coloured bangs.  Her long
hair was tied back in a braid that fell to the small of her back.  Her
wide, mobile mouth was quirked into a smile, a tiny dark mole riding
between the corner of that engaging grin and her small, pointed chin.
She was wearing a plain white t-shirt and worn jeans and had a full
canvas carryall bag slung over one shoulder.  Ryouga felt the blood
rush to his head at the mere proximity of such a pretty girl.
     "Um, yes?" he asked reflexively.  She cocked her head at him, and
he felt a nosebleed coming on.  He smiled tentatively.
     "I'm new in town, and I was wondering if you could tell me the
way to the Kunou estate," she said.  Ryouga felt his smile freeze onto
his face in a manic rictus.
     "Ha!  Well, I know of it, actually, but I'm afraid you're out of luck.
The Kunou estate is in Tokyo," he said brightly.  The girl looked
puzzled.
     "Yes," she said slowly.
     "In Nerima Ward," he continued cheerily.  "A very long way
from here, you see."  He willed her to see, although she just looked
more puzzled.
     "But we're in Tokyo," she said hesitantly.
     "Oh, please say we're not," Ryouga said, his frozen smile
beginning to slip badly.  She eyed him warily.
     "But we are.  And we're in Nerima Ward."  Ryouga felt his
shoulders slump, and he suppressed a heartfelt sigh.  Nerima.  That just
figured.
     "Um," she continued after a moment, "are you all right?  You
don't look too good."  He nodded wearily.
     "Oh, sure," he said.  "Just fine.  The Kunou estate, huh?  Sorry,
I can't direct you there.  I mean, I've been there, but I don't know how
to get there.  So I can't tell you.  If you know what I mean."  Oh,
*that* was lame, he told himself.  Way to go, Ryouga.  Why don't you
just sound like a total maniac, okay?  After a pause, the girl laughed, a
light, musical sound.  A few seconds later, much to his astonishment,
Ryouga joined in.
     "You're a very strange person," she said at last.  "That's all
right.  I'll find it.  Thanks anyway."  She walked away, glancing back to
catch Ryouga watching her.  He blushed, but she only smiled again and
waved cheerily.  He returned the wave, his face warm and his troubles
temporarily forgotten.
     What a nice girl, he thought fuzzily, followed immediately by the
thought, I just can't believe I ended up back in Nerima *again*.
     So preoccupied was he by these thoughts that the passing truck
that splashed him with water caught him totally by surprise.

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

     Ranma stood across the street from the Nekohanten, hands
thrust deep in his pockets.  It was closed again, he supposed because
of the damage done during Xi Fan's rampage.  That didn't really
concern him, though.  He knew they were in there.
     He had a message to deliver, and the sooner he got it over with
the better.
     He was surprised when the old ghoul answered the door.  Her
blank eyes turned blindly up towards him, and her creased face twisted
into a smile.
     "Why, son-in-law.  What a pleasant surprise."  He scowled.
     "I don't think you can call me that anymore," he said flatly.  Her
smile slipped slightly.
     "Ah, yes.  Force of habit.  I suppose I'm just getting old."
     "How'd you know it was me, anyway?"
     "Oh, I have my ways.  Come in, come in.  Don't mind the
mess."  He entered cautiously, peering around as he did.  Most of the
shattered furniture had been cleared away, leaving the service area
strangely empty.  As well, there were several holes in the walls and one
of the light fixtures was missing.
     "Would you care for some tea?" Cologne asked politely.
Ranma took a steadying breath.  He reminded himself that he had to
hold firm, no matter what he felt.  Any show of sympathy would no
doubt be interpreted as weakness.
     "I came to talk to Shampoo," he said stonily.  Cologne sighed.
     "My great-granddaughter is resting, as per the doctor's orders.
I suppose your mother told you what happened."
     "She told me.  Nothing's ever simple with you people, is it?"
Cologne looked startled, then started to laugh.
     "I suppose that's one way of looking at it," she conceded.
"I'm surprised it took you this long to come after Shampoo, though."
     "I'm not coming after her," Ranma gritted.  "I just wanted to
deliver a message to her.  In person, to make sure she understands."
Cologne just stood there for a long moment, and it almost seemed to
Ranma that she was looking into him, searching for something.
     "Ranma ..." she began at last.  Just then, though, the door
opened and Mousse came inside.  He didn't notice Ranma until he'd
closed the door behind him, but when he did the expression on his face
was anything but welcoming.
     "Saotome.  What are you doing here?"  Ranma felt the muscles
of his jaw tighten.  He didn't need to deal with Mousse's protective
instincts today, not in the mood he was in.
     "I came to talk to Shampoo," he said curtly.  Mousse walked
slowly over to him, the light glinting dully on his glasses.
     "She's been through enough lately, hasn't she?" he asked, standing a
little too close.  "Why don't you just leave her alone?  I think you've
caused her enough pain."  He glared at Ranma over the tops of his
glasses, and Ranma felt his temper stretching dangerously thin.
     "That's funny, Mousse, coming from the guy who beat her to a
pulp ..."  He wasn't at all surprised by Mousse's punch.  He caught the
other boy's fist in his own hand, turning his body slightly sideways as he
did so.  He felt a brittle grin tugging at his mouth.
     "Shut up," Mousse snarled, trying to push his fist through
Ranma's palm.  Ranma made sure he showed no sign of the strain it
took to hold Mousse back.
     "Wrong move, Mousse," Ranma breathed.  His intentions in
coming were temporarily forgotten; here was something he could deal
with directly.  He shifted his weight slightly, preparing to take his
frustrations out on the person who'd been foolish enough to get in his
face.
     "Mousse.  Stop it."  He froze, seeing Mousse flinch at the
words.  With an expression of twisted loathing, Mousse pulled back.
Ranma let him go this time, turning to the doorway that led into the
back.  And there she was.
     Shampoo leaned lightly on the doorframe, pulling herself erect
and letting her hand fall away as soon as Ranma turned to look at her.
Her hair was slightly rumpled, as if she'd just gotten out of bed.  She
wore a plain silk robe belted tightly at the waist, and her feet were bare.
She stared evenly at Ranma as an uncomfortable silence stretched out
within the room.
     She looked different.  Tired, a little sad.  Older.  Ranma cursed
inwardly, reminding himself why he'd come here.  Don't feel sorry for
her, he told himself sternly.  That's just what she wants.  Looking at
her, though, he wasn't certain that that was the case.
     "Why you here, Ranma?" she asked softly.  Why, indeed.
Remember what she did to Akane, he told himself.  He straightened his
shoulders slightly and cleared his throat.
     "I've got a message for you.  We're not engaged anymore, and
we're not going to be.  My mother tells me that you're going to be
staying in Nerima for a while."  She nodded.
     "Yes," was all she said.
     "I guess that means we might run into each other, then.
Especially if these monsters really are still around.  But I want you to
know one thing.  If you go after Akane again, or any of her family, I
won't forgive you.  This is direct, from me to you.  You got that?  If
there's another incident like what happened at the dojo, you'll be
sorry."  She just stared at him, not moving.  He could see the bruises
and healing cuts everywhere that the robe didn't cover, and he knew by
the way she was standing that she was in some pain.  He saw her
swallow hard before she finally answered him.
     "Shampoo understand," she said evenly, her voice low but
clear.  Ranma clenched his fists.  This wasn't going at all how he'd
envisioned it.  He'd expected heartfelt pleas of love and devotion,
accompanied by much wailing and glomping.  But this ... this was
unnerving.  He didn't know quite how to handle it.
     "Shampoo," he said at last, staring down at his fists, "am I
gonna have trouble with you?"  It came out almost as a plea, and he
looked up quickly to see her reaction.  She blinked rapidly, seeming to
struggle with her emotions for a moment.
     "No," she whispered at last.  "Shampoo understands.  Ranma
loves Akane.  Shampoo cause no more trouble."  There didn't seem to
be any more to say.  Ranma's righteous indignation had evaporated,
and now he only felt awkward, uncomfortable and not just a little sad.
Still, it had been his duty to make sure that Shampoo understood how
things were.  He'd needed to do this, for Akane and for his own peace
of mind.
     Now he needed, very desperately, to leave.  Cologne stood
still, expressionless, to one side.  Mousse was giving him looks that
could freeze an August afternoon.  He sighed.
     "All right.  Good.  That's all I had to say.  So ... see ya around,
I guess."  He turned and walked to the door, acutely conscious of three
pairs of eyes boring into his back.  He had his hand on the doorknob
when Shampoo called out.
     "Ranma?"  Her voice was, for the first time, tentative.  He
looked back over his shoulder to see her still standing in the doorway.
Their eyes met and held for a long, breathless moment.
     "Shampoo is sorry," she said finally.  And he believed her, but
there didn't seem to be anything to say to that.  So he just nodded, and
left.
     Once outside, he felt like he could suddenly breath again.  He
wiped the back of his hand across his forehead and was surprised
when it came away slick with sweat.
     All things considered, he'd much rather have fought every opponent
he'd ever faced at the same time than had that conversation.

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

     Akane flipped idly through the magazine, her mind on other
things.  Ranma's reaction to seeing Kunou and Ukyou that morning, for
starters.  He'd been down all day after that, and then he'd run off after
school on some errand that he hadn't wanted to discuss with her.  Now
she was stuck sitting around, wondering where he was and what he
was doing.
     I miss him, she realized suddenly.  I miss him, and I spent most
of the day with him.  I only saw him a couple of hours ago.  Her cheeks
warmed at the thought.  That's stupid, she told herself.  And perhaps it
was, but she felt a twinge of anticipation at the thought of seeing him
again.  She propped her chin in her hands and sighed.
     It must be love, she thought warmly.
     "I know that smile," someone said.  She looked up to see
Ranma's mother standing over her.  "That is the smile of a woman in
love."  She blushed furiously, and the older woman laughed.
     "Is it that obvious?" Akane asked.  Nodoka knelt down beside
her, still smiling.
     "I'm afraid so, dear.  But I have to tell you it makes me very
happy to know that you and Ranma have each other."
     "It makes me happy, too" Akane admitted.  "After everything
we've been through, I sometimes can't believe it actually finally
happened.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think it was all a
dream, that I'll come downstairs and Ranma won't be looking at me
the way he does now but the way he used to, all defensive and mad."
Nodoka smiled gently at that.
     "It's natural to have doubts, Akane, but I feel certain that what
is between you and Ranma is real.  You must believe that too, don't
you think?"
     "What do you mean?"  The older woman leaned forward.
     "I mean what you did yesterday.  After you spoke to Ranma he
agreed to help Shampoo if she needs it.  Thank you for doing that,
Akane.  It was very mature of you."  Akane squirmed then, feeling
acutely uncomfortable.  Ranma's mother seemed to pick up on her
distress right away.
"Akane, what is it?"  Akane sighed.
     "Can I ... tell you something?"  Nodoka nodded.
     "Of course you can."  Akane took a deep breath.
     "About yesterday.  I did tell Ranma he should help Shampoo,
but I wasn't really being selfless."  She watched Nodoka with some
trepidation as a puzzled frown crossed her face and wondered if she
should admit to this.
     "I don't understand."
     "I'm worried about Ranma being around her again.  But I think
that it would be worse in the long run if he didn't help her."  Akane
stopped, shifting position nervously.  "Okay, it's like this.  If something
does happen to Shampoo and Ranma didn't try to help her, he'd feel
incredibly guilty no matter what she's done.  He already feels guilty
about what happened to Kodachi, and that wasn't even his fault!  If I
asked him to stay away from Shampoo and something ... bad
happened, it could poison things between us.  This way, he'll know he
did everything he could.  I guess that makes me sound like a selfish,
jealous little girl, huh?"  She paused, not wanting to look at the other
woman, afraid of what she might see.
     "I suppose it's natural for you to be jealous, Akane," Nodoka
said slowly.  "And you did make the right decision, even if I think it was
for the wrong reason."
     "I'm just afraid sometimes!" she blurted, looking up from her
tightly intertwined fingers.  "I can't help it!  Our lives are so crazy, what
if she tries to take him away again?  What if something happens to
change the way he feels about me?"  Nodoka looked startled at the
outburst, then let her face slip into a comforting smile.
     "Have a little faith in him, Akane.  My son may have taken his
time admitting his feelings, but now that he has I think it would take a lot
for him to change.  And as for Shampoo, I don't think you have to
worry about her.  She's been through a lot too, and after talking to her
I think she finally realizes that no matter what she does, Ranma isn't
going to love her."
     "Really?" Akane asked, her voice small.
     "Really."  Nodoka reached out to brush Akane's hair off her
forehead gently, a gesture that reminded Akane suddenly and vividly of
her own mother.  "So you stop worrying so much, all right?  The
important thing is that Ranma will do the right thing if necessary, and
your love will be better and stronger for it."  Akane beamed.  When
Ranma's mother talked like that she couldn't help but believe her.
     "Thanks," she said.  "I feel better about things now."
     "You are most welcome, my dear.  You can come to me any
time if you want to talk, you know.  And as for Ranma, where is that
son of mine?"
     "Oh, he had some errand to run after school.  He'll be here by
suppertime, though.  You know Ranma, he won't risk missing a meal,"
Akane said dryly.  They both laughed at that.
     "Well, then.  I'll go see if Kasumi needs any help."  Left alone
once again, Akane turned back to her magazine, not really reading now
as she thought about the conversation she'd just had.  She would still
worry if Ranma had to be around Shampoo; there was no way around
that.  All things considered, though, she supposed she would just have
to learn to live with that.
     It was better than the alternative, anyway, even if not by much.
     "Hey, Akane."  The sound of her sister's voice dragged her out
of her reverie.  "I've got something here that belongs to you."
     "Nabiki, what ...?"  Nabiki was dangling a small black piglet by
the bandanna around its neck with a faint expression of distaste.
"P-chan!"
     "I found him wandering around in the street," Nabiki told her.
Akane held the little piglet to her, hugging him joyously.  The piglet
stared up at her, its eyes wide and unhappy looking, its ears drooping.
Its whole demeanor was one of abject misery.
     "P-chan, where have you been?" she scolded gently.
"Mommy's been worried about you!"  Nabiki sat down, appropriating
the magazine.
     "You know, Akane, they say that there's a good way to keep
your pets from wandering."
     "Really?  What's that?" Akane asked curiously.
     "Get them fixed."  P-chan's ears twitched up suddenly, and he
let out a panicked squeal.  Akane looked down at him, a thoughtful
expression on her face.
     "Really?" she asked.  P-chan let out another bleat, beginning to
shake.
     "Oh, yeah.  It takes away their urge to wander," Nabiki
assured her, scanning the magazine.  P-chan was darting anxious looks
around the room, squirming in Akane's grip, and she tightened her hold
on him.  "At least it does in dogs and cats.  Probably work for pigs,
too."
     "Look at poor P-chan.  It's almost like he understands you,"
Akane laughed.  Nabiki grunted.
     "If he did, he'd be pretty upset, I guess.  Hey, this is cute."
She pointed to a picture in the magazine.  Akane looked.
     "Mmmm.  I don't like the colour, though."
     "Really?  I bet it'd look good on you."
     "You think?"
     "Oh, sure.  Speaking of cute ..."
     "Ah.  Here it comes."
     "I just want to borrow that jacket you bought.  You know, the
one that goes so well with my new boots."  Akane sighed.
     "Well, I suppose.  If I can borrow ..."  She thought for a
moment, then brightened.  "Slinky dress."  Nabiki grinned slowly.
     "Oh," she said with a tone of total understanding.  "You mean
sliiiiiinky dress."  Akane flushed slightly.
     "You *know* which dress I mean."  Nabiki nodded
knowingly.
     "If you wear that dress for Ranma, he'll blow a gasket."
     "If I wear that dress for him, he'd *better* blow a gasket."
     "Well, yes.  That's the whole point of a dress like that, after all.
Okay, sis, you've got a deal."
     "Why do you want the jacket, anyway?" Akane asked, a
thought occurring to her.  "Are you going out somewhere?"  Nabiki
nodded.
     "Saturday night, I'm taking Ukyou out dancing."  Akane sat still
while her brain attempted to process that data.
     "You're taking ... who?"  Nabiki glanced up at her, seemingly
puzzled by her sister's reaction.
     "Come on, Akane.  She's been a little down about this whole
Ranma thing, so I'm just trying to cheer her up a little.  You can't
expect every girl that was once interested in your boyfriend to just
vanish, you know."  That wasn't really the point, although Akane didn't
want to think about what the point actually was.  She didn't really
believe those stupid rumours, after all.  There was no way they could
be true.  Just no way.
     But she couldn't help wonder why Nabiki suddenly seemed to
be spending so much time around Ukyou ...
     "Helloooo?  Akane, are you in there?"  She realized that she was
staring at Nabiki, and had been for some time.
     "No," Akane said.  "I mean, yes.  I mean ... I don't expect her
to vanish or anything like that."
     "No?  Things seemed a little strained this morning, as I recall.
I'd think you guys could at least cultivate a veneer of casual disregard
for each other, seeing as you spend your days in the same school and
all."
     "Don't make fun of us, Nabiki.  This is really hard for Ranma,
you know."
     "Not just for him.  I thought Kunou was going to faint this
morning, coming upon his pig-tailed goddess that way.  And Ukyou has
to deal with being rejected by Ranma and Ranko ..."
     "Look, I'm just sick of having to feel guilty about this!  Can't I
just be happy that he loves me?  Is that so wrong?"  She felt P-chan
droop even further in her arms as she stared imploringly at her sister,
willing her to understand.  Nabiki just sighed.
     "I guess, if you put it that way, it's not so wrong," she admitted.
"I suppose everybody just needs time to let some of these open
wounds scab over.  That's all."  Akane looked away.
     "Sure," she agreed, not really convinced.  "That's all."  The
words felt false to her, though, and she wondered if things would ever
go back to the way they'd been before between their circles of friends.
     Then again, she wondered if she even wanted them to.

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

     His head buzzing with seemingly random thoughts, Ranma
walked slowly into the house.
     "Hey, I'm home," he called out half-heartedly.  Kasumi stuck
her head out of the kitchen door, smiling with her usual benign good
humour.
     "Oh, Ranma.  Good.  Dinner is almost ready.  Why don't you
go and get Akane?  I think she's up in her room."  He nodded and
trudged up the stairs.  When he rapped lightly on Akane's door, she
bade him to enter.
     "Akane, Kasumi says ..." he began.  Then he stopped cold,
seeing the familiar black form sitting on Akane's lap.  When the piglet
saw Ranma, its ears drooped dispiritedly.
     "Look, Ranma!  P-chan's come back!  Isn't that great?"
Ranma saw how excited Akane was and willed himself to smile.
     "Oh, yeah," he muttered through gritted teeth.  "That's just
swell."
     And just when he'd been absolutely *certain* his day couldn't get
any worse.

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

     Pale twilight had claimed the sky, and the streetlights were
beginning to come on.  Reiko had chosen an inconspicuous location
from which to observe the main gate of the Kunou estate.  She'd finally
found someone to direct her there, and now she found herself
wondering what to do.  She sighed, leaning against a convenient tree
and flipping her blonde braid over her shoulder.
     The old man had been a major pain in the ass, but at least she'd
been able to trust him.  After a fashion, anyway.  With him gone, there
was really nobody she could trust.  And his final instructions to her
were vague at best.
     One thing was for sure, though.  Somebody had killed the old
man, and he was one senior citizen that would have taken a lot to kill.
She was determined to be careful.  She was, after all, too young and
good-looking to die.  She'd fulfill the old man's last request, and then
she'd finally be free to have her own life.
     With a sigh, she let the power rise within her.  The problem was, this
promised to be more complicated than she'd first thought.  When she
summoned the Sight, she could see that the walls of the estate were
alive with wards.  The set-up was strange; most of them were old, and
many of the oldest were unravelling badly.  The few new ones, the ones
acting as patches, were nowhere near as powerful as the older
protections.  And there were traces of other magics as well, some of
them fresh and reeking of corruption.
     She'd hadn't come this far only to get killed just when the end
was in sight.  She'd hang back, wait for the right opportunity.
     And when the time was right, well, woe unto anyone foolish
enough to get in her way.

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

     Yellow crime-scene tape fluttered noisily in the fitful breeze.
Keisuke slashed through it easily with the edge of his hand, passing
through the shattered doorway into the shadowy interior of the house.
He wondered if anyone was ever actually dissuaded from entering a
crime scene by the ubiquitous yellow tape.
     Of course, people seemed to act like sheep much of the time,
meekly doing as they were told.  So maybe it worked, after all.  Still,
he'd been watching the premises for hours, and as full dark
approached, he was certain that no one was watching the house.  And
why should they?  The old man had been a victim of a random act of
senseless violence, hadn't he?  Surely his killer wouldn't return?
     Grinning wolfishly, Keisuke moved easily through the shadows,
little more than a shadow himself, approaching the doorway that led to
where he'd left his prey's broken body.
     The spirit ward on the floor was hidden by carefully arranged dust
and debris, and completely inactive.  As he stepped over it, he wasn't
even aware that it was there.
     He wasn't quite so lucky with the second one.
     As his foot came down, he just had time to realize he was in trouble
before the inside of the house lit up with a brilliant white light.
     His screams echoed out into the night.
 

End part six.