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

Doors Best Left Unopened
by Mark MacKinnon

Part Seven: Never Too Late

     The dark was oppressive.  It hid a multitude of evils, a fact that
Tragus had never fully appreciated before.  But now, in this body, he
felt first hand the terror that mere proximity to his kind brought.  The
woman's senses couldn't penetrate the darkness to see what was
lurking there, but the flesh of his new home crawled painfully and a cold
sweat had broken out all over.
     No matter.  These reactions were ingrained in Ninomiya
Hinako's human form.  Tragus was master of this body now, and he
would remain calm and in control.
     The crumpled form of the demon in front of him was proof
enough of that.
     Vague shapes stirred in the shadows, a fresh wave of terror
trying to swamp him.  That would be Gruundi; seeking out a human's
secret terrors was her specialty.  He stood still, willing himself to show
no outward reaction, letting his words sink in.  If he'd misjudged his
audience, there was a very good chance he wouldn't be leaving this
place.  But he'd taken the risk, regardless.
     If his plans were to succeed, he'd need help.
     "So," a gravelly voice rumbled from the shadows at last,
followed by moist sucking noises.  Knowing what was causing those
sounds didn't set Tragus's mind at ease in the least.
     "So," Tragus acknowledged.  Things were moving around in
the concealing dark, shifting and tittering and slithering in a way that
would have driven human prey mad with fear by now.
     "If we are to believe this story of yours, then you are our lost
comrade Tragus," the voice continued.
     "That's right, Carg," Tragus said smoothly.
     "I never liked Tragus," Carg responded heavily.  Tragus smiled.
     "I never liked you either.  So what?"
     "So let us say you are Tragus, and events happened as you
have described.  So what of it?"  Apparently the others had decided to
let Carg speak for them.  Hardly surprising, really.  Once Tragus had
gone missing, Carg would have been the most ambitious.  Tragus knew,
though, that if he stepped carefully here he could pull this off.
     "So what of it, he asks?"  Tragus turned in a slow circle,
holding his slim arms out in an imploring gesture.  "Don't any of you
remember why we came here?  Why we risked so much to be in the
vanguard of the invasion?"
     "We haven't forgotten," Carg rumbled menacingly.  "We also
haven't forgotten that the strongest of us were killed by the champions
of this place."
     "And we were forced to scurry into the shadows!" another
voice grated, outraged.
     "And to swear fealty to that Aerkinma bitch!"
     "Yes, that galls, doesn't it?" Tragus asked casually, trying to
steer the conversation where he wanted it to go.  "After we risked so
much by rebelling against our own Aerkinma masters ..."
     "They spend too much time in human seeming!" something
croaked from behind Tragus.
     "Yes.  Much like somebody else we know," Carg boomed.
Much laughter followed that, and Tragus knew his chance was slipping
away.
     "They have forgotten the pleasures of our kind!" Tragus
exclaimed in his new body's throaty voice.  "They have lived among
humans for too long, they no longer wish to glory in the taking of our
rightful prey!  They should be setting their own Borgunma loose on this
place, and us as well!  We could reign in terror, taking what we
desired!  If only ..."  There was silence now, Tragus noted with
satisfaction.  No more laughter.
     "If only?" Carg asked, his voice dangerously low.
     "If only we didn't have to worry about those same champions
that thwarted us before.  If only we didn't have to worry about the
Aerkinma.  If only we had free reign.  And all these things can come to
pass.  We can have what we came here for.  This world will lie at our
feet and we will plunder it as is our right!"  He had the sense that the
dark forms that hovered just out of the feeble light were leaning in now,
anxious and willing.
     At least, most of them.
     "Pretty words," Carg said at last.  "But you have nothing to
back them up.  You are more like an Aerkinma now than one of us.
You are worse than an Aerkinma, because you are powerless!"  A
discordant rumble started up, and Tragus cursed under his breath.
     "That's what *he* thought," he said haughtily, pointing to the
slumped form of the one who'd attacked him as he'd approached this
place.  "And you can see how wrong he was."
     "You could not take all of us at once," Carg pointed out.
Tragus sighed.
     "This is getting us nowhere.  I'm trying to tell you that I have a
plan, one that will remove all the obstacles we face.  Once that's
happened, we'll be able to gorge ourselves on the pleasures of this
fertile place.  No more skulking in the dark like a bunch of animals!
We'll take our rightful position as rulers!"  He glared into the darkness,
challenging the unseen forms around him to dispute him.  "That is what
we want, isn't it?"
     "Why should we trust you?"  Carg again.  He was getting to be
a major annoyance.  Tragus forced himself to smile, though.  He
needed all of his former comrades now.  Time enough to deal with
Carg later.
     "Carg, I'm still one of you.  I want what you want.  We all
came here for the same reason, remember?  I have no reason to betray
you, and every reason to do what I say I'll do."
     "Perhaps.  But can you actually pull of this plan you speak of?"
     "With your help, yes."  Something hove into view in front of
Tragus, a hulking form with many tentacles coiling out of its back.
     "Bah!  I say we have us some fun right now!  C'mon over here,
Tragus baby.  I'll show you how good that new body can feel."
Laughter erupted again, and Tragus knew he had to prove himself here
or lose any possibility of their cooperation.  He'd seen Prokno use
those tentacles before, and knew what was in store for him if he
couldn't defend himself.
     Not a pleasant prospect.  It appeared he would have to test
this body's abilities sooner than he'd wanted.  He was fairly certain
that, with his control, he could fire off a blast of stolen chi at less than
full power, hoarding some so that he could still remain in this form
afterwards.  If he reverted to his small form in front of them, he'd be
lost for certain.  So he watched as Prokno stalked him, waiting for his
chance, feigning nonchalance.  Then, when his prey was close enough,
he heaved a put-upon sigh and raised his hands, forming a circle.
     "Happo No Coin Return!"  A blast of chi roared out from his
hands, striking Prokno squarely and throwing him back into the
shadows.  The mocking laughter was silenced instantly.
     Tragus was in trouble, though.  He'd misjudged how much chi
to release and was trembling on the verge of reverting.  Gritting his
teeth, he spoke once more, willing himself to remain calm.
     "I intend to follow through on my plan.  Any of you who do not
join me will certainly not reap the benefits of my success, and be
assured I *will* succeed.  I'll leave now, but consider my proposal.  I'll
be in touch."  He strode away, trying not to hurry as he felt the
reversion trying to occur.  He knew better than to show any sign of
weakness.  Come on, he told himself, just a little more.
     Finally he was safely away, and with a sigh he let his body
revert.  He stared with frank dismay at the cute little girl he'd become.
     He hated this form.  Hated it.  It was small and weak and
vulnerable.  But no matter.  He'd carried off the first part of his plan,
and gotten away clean.  Using the chi blast instead of draining Prokno
had been a risk, but he knew it would look more impressive to the
others.  Apparently it had.  His risks had all paid off.  They would
consider his words carefully, because frankly they had nothing to lose
and everything to gain.  He was confident that they would come
around.  But right now ...
     Now he just had to find someone to drain.

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

     Ranma eased the window open, gritting his teeth as he waited
to see if it would squeak.  It didn't.  With a barely audible sigh of relief,
he slipped inside the room.
     It wasn't like he hadn't crept into Akane's room like this
before.  This time, however, he had a different objective.  He
straightened up and stared towards the bed, hoping that Akane
wouldn't wake up while he was doing this.  The last thing he wanted
was for her to get mad at him over this.
     He needn't have worried.  She was fast asleep.
     His quarry was not.
     Ranma stalked over to the bed, glaring into P-chan's gleaming
eyes.  Akane had one arm slung over the piglet, and Ranma considered
just how difficult this might be.  If Ryouga decided to put up a fight ...
     The piglet squirmed carefully backwards, slipping out of
Akane's grip, then sat calmly staring at Ranma.  Trying not to show his
surprise, he reached down and hoisted the piglet by its bandanna.
     "Quiet," he hissed, holding his prey close to his face.  The
warning seemed unnecessary; for once, P-chan showed no inclination
to resist being removed from Akane's presence.
     Ranma bounded silently to the window, pausing to look back.
Akane mumbled something in her sleep, burrowing into her bed covers
before subsiding.  Ranma would have preferred to stay and just watch
her sleep, but this other matter definitely needed to be tended to first.
     He made it to the dojo without incident.  Inside, the pile of
clothing and the steaming kettle were still where he'd left them.
Unceremoniously he dropped the piglet on the floor, then doused it with
hot water.  Then he slung the pile of clothing at the naked boy sitting on
the dojo floor.  It was fortunate that Ryouga left sets of clothing behind
so often, Ranma supposed.
     It would have been embarrassing to have to beat the crap out
of him while he was naked.
     "Well, P-chan," Ranma growled as the other boy dressed in
silence.  "It didn't take you long to get up to your old tricks, did it?"
Ryouga's face was flushed a bright scarlet, and he turned as he finished
with the lacings of his pants, facing Ranma with his shirt in one hand.
Ranma idly noted the parallel scars on Ryouga's chest.  A souvenir of
their fight at Furinkan, no doubt, although Ranma couldn't specifically
recall.  Ryouga just stared at him, and Ranma felt his anger, barely held
in check all evening, fighting to burst free.
     "So much for giving up on her," he sneered, stepping closer to
Ryouga.  "So much for not interfering.  Do you really think I'm just
gonna sit back and let you spend nights in *my* fiancee's bed, pal?
Huh?"  Ranma glared Ryouga, whose lack of response was beginning
to both puzzle and annoy him.  "Answer me, dammit!"  He saw
Ryouga's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed.
     "I'm sorry," he said.  Ranma stopped dead.
     "Huh?"  Ryouga slipped his tunic over his head, tugging it into
place, avoiding Ranma's accusing gaze all the while.
     "I said I was sorry.  I didn't mean for this to happen, Ranma.  I
swear to you that I was trying to stay away."  The abject misery in
Ryouga's voice lanced Ranma's anger, leaving only confusion behind.
First Ryouga came willingly, and now this?  Ryouga fiddled with his
clothes, still not meeting Ranma's eyes.
     "What the hell do you mean?" Ranma asked, trying to maintain
his outrage.  That was difficult to do, however, when Ryouga was
offering no resistance.
     "I didn't even know I'd wandered back into Nerima," Ryouga
muttered.  "Then I got splashed, and the next thing I know Nabiki
picked me up and brought me here.  I tried to take off once, but
Akane's been watching me pretty closely."  Ryouga sighed and finally
looked up, his cheeks burning with humiliation.  Ranma blinked.
     "I meant what I said about giving up on her, Ranma.  I'm not
going back on my word.  Do you believe that?"  Ranma was silent for a
moment.  What Ryouga had said made sense, actually.  It was
completely possible that things had happened just as he claimed.  And
looking at him now, seeing the slumped set of his shoulders and the
self-loathing in his face, Ranma knew that Ryouga had derived no
pleasure from being close to Akane tonight.
     "Yeah, I believe you," he said at last.  "But come on, man, I
can't have you in sleeping in Akane's bed like that, y'know?"  Ryouga
gave him a sour grin.
     "Believe me, I understand.  I'll leave right away."  Ranma felt a
sudden queasy sensation in the pit of his stomach.
     "Hey, it's the middle of the night.  Where're you gonna go?"
Ryouga shrugged.
     "It doesn't really matter, does it?  South, maybe.  I was in
Kobe a little while ago, that was pretty nice ..."
     "Hey, wait a minute!  You're gonna leave the *city*?"
     "Well, yes.  I was trying to avoid Tokyo altogether ..."
     "You don't gotta do that, man!"  Ryouga stared at him.
     "If I don't, then how do you expect me to keep this from
happening again?" he asked reasonably.  Ranma realized that Ryouga
had probably been wandering all this time, going from place to place,
alone.  A lonely nomad, just the way Ranma himself once had been.
Only Ranma had at least had his father along.
     And Ranma realized something else.  He actually kind of
missed having Ryouga around.  Things weren't the same here anymore,
and he hardly saw any of his old circle of friends now.  But he and
Ryouga understood each other in a strange sort of way, and besides, he
hadn't had anyone to scrap with in a serious way since he'd left.
     He didn't want Ryouga to leave again.  That realization
surprised him, but he found it was true.  He regarded the other boy
critically.  He didn't much like having Ryouga like this, though.  There
was no fight in him.  It was ... unnatural.  Ranma decided to take
matters into his own hands.
     "Ryouga, you don't have to leave the city," he said patiently.
"Just convince Akane not to take P-chan to bed anymore."  He
watched Ryouga's expression change at that.
     "You make it sound so easy," he grumbled, but Ranma could
tell he was thinking about it seriously now.
     "Oh, come on.  Stop playing the cute pig around her, that's all.
Maybe you could bite her or something."  Ryouga's jaw dropped.
     "What?!  I couldn't ..."
     "Ah, not hard enough to draw blood.  Just a nip."  Ryouga's
body language was changing now, misery and embarrassment being
replaced with hostility.  Ranma suppressed a grin.  Sparring with Akane
was more fun than he cared to admit, but he always had to hold back
with her.
     This, on the other hand, promised to be a riot.
     "I will not bite Akane!  What's the matter with you, idiot?"
     "Wait!  I got it!"  Ranma grinned hugely at the other boy.
     "What?" Ryouga asked suspiciously.
     "Pee on her bed."  Ryouga's dumbstruck expression made
Ranma want to laugh, but he held back.
     "Wh ... wh ... what did you say?"
     "Pee on her bed," Ranma repeated casually.  "Then maybe roll
around in it a little.  She'll never sleep with you again, that's for sure!"
Ryouga's face was red again, and not with embarrassment.
     "What do you think I am, Ranma, an animal?" he growled,
shaking with rage.
     "Just trying to help, *P-chan*" Ranma prodded.
     "And *don't* call me ..."
     "Bwee!  Bweeeeee!"  Come on, Ranma thought.  Say it,
Ryouga.  You know you want to.  Come on ...
     Ryouga's hands were clenched into fists.
     "Ranma, I'm warning you!"
     "A little sensitive there, P-chan.  What's the matter, ain't you
house-trained?"  Here it comes, Ranma thought.  Ryouga's features
twisted in rage.
     "RANMA!  PREPARE TO DIE!"  Yes! Ranma crowed
silently.  He braced himself as Ryouga leapt forward.
     And the carnage did commence.  And it was wonderful.

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

     Nabiki stuck her head into Akane's room, running one hand
through her sleep-rumpled hair.  Akane was lying on her stomach,
pillow clamped securely over her head.  Nabiki was fairly certain that
the pillow was not keeping the noise out.
     "Looks like Ryouga's back," she yawned.  Akane grumbled
and flung the pillow away.
     "Looks like," she huffed.  Her eyes were heavy with interrupted
sleep.  A loud crash came from the dojo, followed by more shouting.
Akane looked around her room.
     "By the way, have you seen P-chan?"
     "Nope."  Akane groaned.
     "Where's he gone now?" she asked plaintively.  More shouts
floated up on the still night air, followed by a succession of loud
crashes.  Somebody in one of the neighbouring houses screamed a
curse, and nearby a cat yowled.
     "Hmmm," Nabiki mused.  "P-chan's run off, Ryouga and
Ranma are fighting ... maybe things are finally getting back to normal
around here."  Akane grabbed her pillow in both hands and flopped
down on the bed, clamping it over her face again.
     "Joy," her muffled voice declared.

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

     "I don't want to talk about it," Akane said firmly.  Ranma
shrugged as he ambled easily along the fence.
     "Fine," he said.
     "I mean," she continued, " what were you two idiots thinking?
You woke up half the neighbourhood!  It was the middle of the night,
Ranma!"  Ranma sighed.
     "I thought you didn't want to talk about this," he pointed out in
what he thought was a reasonable manner.  Akane glared up at him.
     "I don't!" she returned hotly.  They walked in silence for a few
seconds.
     "But, I mean, what could you have been *thinking*?" she continued
suddenly.  "I thought you two were going to start acting more
responsibly!"
     "We were," Ranma told her.  "There were no innocent people
around at three in the morning to get caught in our fight, right?"
     "And there were no innocent people getting any sleep at three
in the morning, either!  What were you two fighting about this time,
anyway?"  Ranma looked away, hoping his expression was innocent.
     "Oh, nothing much.  Ryouga just needed to be cheered up a
little, that's all."  Akane snorted.
     "Well, that's a pretty dumb way to cheer somebody up," she
said indignantly.  She looked away for a time, and Ranma noticed some
of the tension go out of her.  Finally, she looked back up at him.
     "So, why didn't Ryouga stay for breakfast?" she asked.
Ranma saw through her casual tone easily.
     "Well, I offered.  He didn't want to stay."
     "Oh."  Ranma could tell she was thinking about Ryouga's
unrequited crush on her.  He was pretty sure she wouldn't feel quite so
guilty if she knew about P-chan.
     "Where's he been?  He hasn't been around much lately," she
mused.  Ranma sighed, hopping down to walk beside her.
     "He's been wandering around.  Trying to sort things out, I
guess."  The two had talked after they'd worked out their frustrations,
and although Ryouga typically hadn't been very forthcoming about what
was going on with him, Ranma had gotten the impression that he had a
lot on his mind.
     Of course, these days that hardly made him unique.
     "Is he leaving again?"
     "Well, not right away anyway.  I got the impression he's gonna
stick around for a while, maybe try to go home and see his parents.  If
he can find his way home the same time his parents do ..."  Akane
shook her head.
     "Poor Ryouga.  His life must be so lonely."  Ranma frowned.
     "I guess," he said.
     "We should have him over for dinner or something," Akane
said suddenly.
     "What?"
     "Come on, Ranma.  Things have been so strained lately, it
would be nice to have a chance to catch up."
     "That might be a little uncomfortable for Ryouga," Ranma
argued.
     "Look, I don't want to have to spend the rest of my life
avoiding *everybody*!  Why don't you ask him?"
     "Okay, okay, I'll ask him.  When I see him."  And who knows when
that'll be, Ranma thought.  With Ryouga's sense of direction he could
already be in Hokkaido.  Akane smiled, though, making Ranma's heart
speed up just a little.
     "Good.  I think it's about time we started trying to get on with
our lives, *all* of us."
     "There's a plan," Ranma said, squinting at the sky.  "Oh,
wonderful.  We'd better hurry, Akane.  It looks like rain."
     "Sure," she said dashing ahead, then turning to face him with a
mischievous grin.  "I'll race you," she taunted, whirling to run ahead.
     "Hey, that's cheating!" he bellowed, sprinting after her.  But not
too quickly.  He enjoyed her teasing a lot more than he ever let on,
especially now.  She just turned her head and stuck her tongue out at
him.
     "Catch me if you can," she called as she ran.  He grinned and
increased his pace slightly.
     Yes, this was a definite improvement over constant bickering.

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

     Ryouga frowned, eyeing the sky uneasily.  Ranma had given
him clothes to wear, but he'd lost his pack and umbrella the previous
day, and would be in dire straits if it started to rain before he found
shelter.
     Which certainly seemed likely to be the case.  By the time he
managed to find his way anywhere he knew, he'd be a pig again.  After
the previous day's humiliation of ending up back in Akane's arms, he
was determined not to let that happen.
     He flushed as he remembered the events of the previous
afternoon.  Once he would have derived a secret pleasure from being
so close to Akane, but now it just seemed foolish and pathetic.
Nothing drove that point home harder than hearing her talk to Nabiki
about loving Ranma.
     Ryouga Hibiki was a man, and as a man he knew he finally had
to accept his situation.  Akane loved Ranma and Ranma loved Akane.
They'd admitted as much to each other, and honour demanded he stand
aside.
     A task which would be made much simpler if he could manage
to stay away from Akane as P-chan.  He didn't blame Ranma for being
upset with him, really.  Things had probably looked very bad to him
before he'd heard Ryouga's explanation.  As it had turned out, though,
Ryouga had enjoyed their fighting.  In a weird way, he found he'd
almost missed fighting with Ranma.  If nothing else, it kept him sharp.
     He sighed, peering up at the sky again and increasing his pace.
The sky was full of dark, scudding clouds and he needed to find some
shelter before the rain started.
     So intent was he on the sky that he nearly missed the still figure
that was staring at him.  When he glanced down, he took in the white
robes and thick glasses at a glance.  He stopped in front of the other
boy, the shock of recognition quickly giving way to a dull throb of
resentment.
     "Mousse."
     "Ryouga."  The two stood in the freshening breeze, regarding
each other warily.  Ryouga remembered the accusations Mousse had
levelled at him during their last meeting, and also recalled that their fight
had been interrupted before they could finish.  He wondered if Mousse
was intent on finishing what they'd started.
     "I suppose you've heard by now," Mousse said suddenly, his
tone flat.  Ryouga frowned.
     "Heard?"
     "Oh, come on, Ryouga.  Don't play dumb.  You must just be
aching to let me have it after what I said to you last time.  Well come
on, then, let's have it.  It's not like it would be possible to ruin my day
at this point."
     "Hey, I don't know what your problem is ..." Ryouga began.
Mousse cut him off with a curt gesture.
     "Just get it over with!" he snapped.  Ryouga felt his temper
rising.  He knew he should keep his cool, but frankly things hadn't been
going that well lately and his fight with Ranma hadn't worked out *all*
his frustrations.  Especially since he hadn't won.
     "Don't tell me what to do, Mousse!" he fired back.  "As a
matter of fact, I do remember what you said to me last time we met,
and believe me, you are the last person who should be getting in my
face!"  As their argument heated up, Ryouga forgot all about the
threatening skies.
     At least, until the cool wet drops started hitting his skin.

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

     Late, Ukyou though as she dashed through the sudden
downpour.  Damn, this is all I need.  With Miss Hinako on the warpath,
I'll end up with detention for sure.  Or worse.  She hurdled over a
puddle, gripping her umbrella firmly as she ran.
     She rounded a corner and staggered to a stop, stricken by the
strongest sensation of deja vu.  Ahead of her, a small black pig and a
duck wearing glasses were glaring at each other, the battle auras
coming off each limned by the falling rain.  She gathered her wits
and stalked up to the two angrily.
     "Oh, I just don't believe this," she snapped.  "Not again!  What
is with you two?"  The two broke off their angry stares to look up at
her.  She shook her head sadly.
     "Come on," she sighed.  "I guess I'll be cutting classes today."
She squatted down to gather the two up.  Mousse hopped back,
though, spreading his wings for balance.  Ukyou frowned.
     "Come on, Mousse.  Let's go back to my place and straighten
this out once and for all."  But Mousse apparently wasn't enamoured of
that plan.  He squawked loudly, then turned and took wing into the cool
spring rain.  Ukyou rubbed the bridge of her nose, then turned to see
the pig trotting away.  She reached out and snagged it by the bandanna.
     "Oh, no you don't," she said, hoisting the indignant P-chan to
eye level.  "Last time, you ran out before we had a chance to finish our
talk.  In fact, you ran out *twice*.  This time I'm gonna have my say,
Ryouga.  Clear?"  The pig stopped squirming and finally nodded.
Ukyou grinned wryly.
     "Yay!  I win!"  The pig gave her a glare at that, which she easily
ignored.  She scooped Ryouga's sodden clothes off the sidewalk and
headed back to the restaurant.
     She was very curious to hear what Ryouga had to say for
himself.

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

     Shampoo moved around the kitchen, cleaning up the dishes
from breakfast.  There had been some discussion about her spending
the day in bed, discussion which she had cut short with a few choice
words.  The nerve of Mousse, trying to order her around like that.  It
was bad enough great-grandmother kept trying to fuss over her.  She
simply wouldn't tolerate Mousse taking any such liberties.
     She turned when she heard her great-grandmother come into
the kitchen.  The old woman moved carefully over to the table, their last
remaining intact table as it happened, and sat gingerly on one of the
chairs.  Shampoo felt a pang of sorrow as she read the elder's
movements.  This was apparently not going to be one of her
great-grandmother's better days.  Still, Shampoo knew better than to
inquire about the old woman's health.  Instead, she asked her if she
wanted any tea.  The old woman sat very still, and for a moment
Shampoo thought she had not heard.  Then, at last, she sighed and
turned her sightless eyes toward where Shampoo was standing.
     "No, nothing for me, child.  Come, sit with me.  I wish to talk
with you a while."  Puzzled by her great-grandmother's solemn tone,
Shampoo did as she was bade.  The old woman stared emptily at the
table in front of her, seeming to weigh her words carefully.
     "You were very hard on Mousse this morning," she said at last.
Shampoo was surprised.
     "What?  But Shampoo ..."  She trailed off in frustration.
     "<He was just trying to insinuate himself into my good graces
again,>" she argued, switching to her native tongue.  "<You know how
he is!  I don't even see why he stayed, unless he thinks he can
somehow get engaged to me again.  He's just a nuisance.>"
     "<If he still wanted to be engaged to you, child, he still would
be,>" her great-grandmother pointed out with a wry smile.  "<And the
fact is that he *has* chosen to stay here.  Things are going to get very
unpleasant around here if you two can't get along somehow.>"
     "<Then things will be tense,>" Shampoo sniffed.  "<I see no
reason why I should forgive him for the things he's done, interfering
with my plan and ...>"
     "<And beating you when you thought he had no chance?>"
Shampoo turned away, her cheeks warm.  She wasn't sure what to say
to that.  Cologne sighed heavily.
     "<I know how angry you are, child.  All I'm saying is that this
needs to be dealt with before it festers and becomes bigger than it has
to be.>" Shampoo snorted.
     "<What you mean is you want me to set aside my pride and
make nice with that idiot?  No, great-grandmother.  That is just asking
too much.>" The old woman smiled sadly at that.
     "<We revere pride, don't we child?  But it is possible for pride
to hurt more than it helps.  Believe me, I know.>" Shampoo leaned
forward, propping her chin in her hands and regarding the old woman
curiously.
     "<Are we still talking about the same thing?>" she asked.
Cologne just smiled, pressing her fingertips together lightly and flexing
her hands as she thought.  The weather had taken a turn, and the
somnolent drumming of heavy rain on the roof lent the small kitchen an
intimate atmosphere.  Shampoo was reminded suddenly, painfully, of
the times she'd gone training with her great-grandmother in the
mountains when she was younger.  Sometimes they would sit in their
tent, sheltered from a sudden storm, and Shampoo would listen raptly
to tales of amazon history, of great battles and honour.
     She missed those days, sometimes.  Things had seemed so
much simpler then.
     "<You've never asked me about Xi Fan,>" the old woman said
at last.  Her voice jerked Shampoo lightly from her nostalgic reverie.
     "<I did once,>" she corrected the elder.  "<Long ago.
Remember?>"
     "<Ah, yes.  So you did.  And I told you that one day, I would
tell you why she hated me so.  Well, in light of recent events, I think
perhaps that day has come.>" Shampoo leaned in closer, feeling a
tingle of excitement in her belly.  This promised to be just the thing to
take her mind off recent events.  Her great-grandmother seemed to
sense her eagerness, giving a harsh little laugh.
     "<Oh, this is no great tale of honour, child.  Rather, it is a tale
of a mistake from long ago.  You see, when I was a girl, growing up in
our village, I had a small circle of friends that I was always with.  Li
Feng was one, Xi Fan another.  And there was a fourth, whose name is
never again to be spoken, but that is another tale for another time.>"
     "<You and Xi Fan were friends?>" Shampoo asked
incredulously.
     "<Oh, yes.  If anything, we two were closer than any of the
others.  Like sisters.  We played together, fought together, got into
trouble together.  Eventually, though, when I was just a little younger
than you are now, all that changed.>" Shampoo watched the old
woman's face, noting the old buried sadness that seemed to surface
briefly as she spoke.  The water trickling off the eaves spattered noisily
outside, the only sound other than their voices.  They might have been
all alone in the world just then.
     "<What happened?>" Shampoo asked finally.  Cologne
blinked rapidly, clearing her throat.
     "<A man happened, of course.  Well, little more than a boy,
really.  We were all so young ... ah, but young hearts burn the brightest,
don't they?  He used to come by our village to watch our festivals, our
combats, with some of the other, bolder lads from neighbouring
villages.  Oh, he was a looker all right, a real heartbreaker.  Even some
of the older girls considered throwing that one over their shoulders and
taking him to some secluded spot to have their way with him.>"
Shampoo grinned at the thought.
     "<This boy, he came between you?>"
     "<Yes, you could say that.  You see, for all that Xi Fan was an
amazon warrior, it turned out her heart was not immune to the lure of a
pretty face.  She fell in love for the first time, and fell hard.  She made a
fool out of herself more than once over that boy.  There was only one
problem.>"
     "<What?>"
     "<He didn't even notice her.  He had only eyes for one girl.
Me.>" Shampoo's eyes widened and she sighed in sympathy.
     "<Ahh,>" she nodded.
     "<Yes.  My best friend was hopelessly in love with a boy who
himself was infatuated with me.>" Her great-grandmother's features
grew soft with recollection, as if in her mind's eye she could still see
those long ago, sepia-toned memories playing out.
     "<Oh, what a mess.  And of course, if I knew then what I
know now ... heh.  Well.  You're only young once, thankfully.  Things
began to get tense between us.  Our other friends didn't know what to
do about it, and frankly neither did I.  I liked him a little, but I wasn't
about to risk my friendship with Xi Fan over some pretty village boy.
Unfortunately, her jealousy blinded her to my protestations of
innocence.  It didn't help when he showed up constantly with flowers
or little gifts, claiming to love me.>"
     "<Sounds familiar,>" Shampoo said dryly.
     "<Indeed.  Well, things were getting worse by the day, and
finally I came up with a plan.  The boy was a martial artist of some skill,
so I decided to settle things once and for all.  I told him that he had only
one chance with me.  He could challenge me for my hand, but if he
couldn't defeat me, I'd never consider him suitable.  When he lost, I
could simply claim that he'd had his chance.  He readily agreed, and so
it was set up.
     "<Many people showed up to see the challenge, including Xi
Fan.  I don't know what I thought, perhaps that if I beat him he would
finally see that he had no chance and leave me alone, and those two
could be happy together.  Whatever the case, it quickly became
apparent to me that I'd underestimated his skill.  He was giving me quite
a fight, and all I could think about was that if he beat me, I'd have to
marry him, and Xi Fan would hate me forever.  So I decided to get
serious and take him out with my best stopper.>" Her sad smile was
gone now, and Shampoo thought for a moment that she saw a sheen of
moisture in her great-grandmother's eyes.  Then she blinked and it was
gone.  Shampoo chalked it up to the dim light.
     "<It had rained the day before, and the ground was still slippery
in places.  I suppose he must have slipped just as I launched my attack.
That kick should have dropped him like a sack of rocks.
Unfortunately, when he lost his balance I was already committed.  I
snapped his neck like a twig.>" She fell silent then, and Shampoo could
only stare.  Whatever she'd been expecting, this wasn't it.
     Then she remembered her encounter with Xi Fan with startling
clarity, the moments just before their fight suddenly cast in a new light.
     (I may punish you as much as I desire without killing you.  However,
in a pitched fight, it is always possible that one may ... slip, thus allowing

a lethal blow to land.  Such a thing would be an accident, and thus the
offending party would get off quite lightly.)
     Even now, Shampoo thought, feeling dazed.  Even now she has
not forgotten.
     "<But it was an accident,>" she said quietly.  "<Surely she
could see that.  She was your friend.>" Cologne shook her head.
     "<She was grief-stricken.  Somehow, she decided that I'd
wanted to keep the two of them apart.  It made no sense to me, but it
helped her deal with her grief.  Unfortunately, it also made her hate me.
The matter of the boy's death was dealt with by the council, and
determined to have been an accident.  Such things do happen from time
to time.  Of course, I'd thought that I was so much better than he was
that I could have, should have, defeated him easily.  My guilt meant that
I didn't deal with the matter very well, either.  Things began escalating
between us, with other girls in the village taking sides ... finally, the
elders at the time had enough and set the two of us to quests to purify
our hearts.  When next we saw each other, our anger had cooled, but it
had also hardened our hearts.  She hated me, and I resented her for
taking away her friendship and for not believing in me.>"
     "<But it's all so pointless,>" Shampoo murmured.  "<It was an
accident, just a stupid slip at the wrong time that could have happened
to anyone ...>"
     "<Yes.  And I relive that fight still, some nights when sleep
won't come.  I think there is no way Xi Fan and I would have become
such implacable enemies had we never been friends.  It is such a waste,
Shampoo.  I have few regrets for someone who has lived such a long
life, but I regret that we two could never bridge the gap created on that
day.>" Shampoo nodded slowly.
     "<I'm very sorry, great-grandmother.  I never knew.>"
     "<And so this brings us back to the matter at hand.>"
Shampoo blinked.
     "<What?>"
     "<You and Mousse.  I think it is time you sat him down and
had a serious talk.>" Shampoo felt her temper rising.
     "<I've tried that, great-grandmother!  You know I have!  The
idiot just will not listen to reason!>"
     "<Gently, Shampoo.  Gently.  I know you are frustrated, but
listen to me.  You two have fallen into a rut and become trapped in
your patterns of behaviour.  He pursues you ardently, anxious to show
you how much he cares about you, not understanding that the depth of
his devotion is not the problem.  And you merely brush him off, irritated
by his inability to understand.  You need to break that cycle, child.  Sit
him down.  Talk to him.  Explain it to him.>" Shampoo looked away,
her mouth set in a stubborn line.
     "<I have sensed the change in you, Shampoo.  You have
chosen to give up Ranma now that his choice is made, rather than
follow a course which would certainly result in misery and heartbreak
for all involved.  I think now you can help Mousse make the same
choice.  If you don't, you may look back one day filled with regrets,
wishing that you had taken the opportunity when it arose to put things
right.>" Shampoo felt a lump rising in her throat and swallowed with
some difficulty.
     "<You can be a very persuasive old woman.  Do you know
that?>" she asked finally, her voice hoarse.  Her great-grandmother
smiled impishly.
     "<I've been told that, from time to time,>" she said softly.
"<Will you benefit from the hard-won wisdom of an old woman, child?
Will you put aside your own pride, just for a while, and try to set things
right while there is still time?>" Shampoo sighed heavily.
     "<I will try,>" she said at last.  "<I can promise nothing, though.
I think you overestimate just how reasonable Mousse will be.>" The
old woman gave her a secretive smile.
     "<Oh, we'll see about that,>" she said.  "<Now, I believe you
said something earlier about tea?>" Shampoo nodded and went to
make the tea, her battered body a little stiff from sitting so long.  She
stood at the counter and gazed out the window at the pouring rain, her
thoughts chaotic.
     She was at the beginning of a new path in her life.  Maybe her
great-grandmother was right.  Maybe she needed to try to tie up some
loose ends before moving on.
     This conversation with Mousse, though, was not something she
was looking forward to.

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

     Ukyou shook the water from her umbrella as the door banged
shut behind her.  The squiggles of water on the windows cast strange
patterns on the floor as she walked through the dim half-light of the
storm, placing Ryouga's clothes carefully over a couple of stools.  Then
she plunked herself down, placing the piglet on the counter in front of
her.
     There were a lot of questions she wanted to ask, but that would
be a pointless endeavour until she turned Ryouga back.  She sighed and
glared at the hapless P-chan as he shook the excess water from his
body like a dog.
     "Hey, watch it!  Jeez, Ryouga!"  She picked him up and
dangled him at eye level, ignoring his outraged squeaks.
     "What am I gonna do with you?  Huh?"  As she held him there,
she noticed something on his belly between his front legs.  She turned
him slightly, seeing three parallel scars there.  She started as she
remembered those scars on Ryouga's chest.  And of course, she
remembered how he'd gotten them.
     "Okay, okay," she murmured at the indignant piglet, setting
him back on the counter.  "I'm gonna go warm up some water, and ...
um.  Your clothes are soaked.  What'll you wear?"  That posed a bit of
a problem.  As she pondered that, the piglet sneezed suddenly, its small
frame shuddering with the force of it.  Ukyou couldn't help but chuckle
at the sight.
     "Poor Ryouga," she teased, smiling.  "Not even the sense to
come in out of the rain.  I'll tell you what.  I'll run a hot bath for you.
While you're in there, I'll try to dry your clothes.  Okay?"  The piglet
nodded reluctantly, and Ukyou scooped him up once more.  Her
bathroom was small, and she set P-chan on the sink while she ran the
bath.  Once the tub was full of steaming water, she got a towel and set
the piglet on the side of the tub.
     "Now I'm gonna go dry your clothes.  Don't go anywhere,
okay?  I'm not done with you."  She closed the door, waiting outside
until she heard a small splash, followed by a lot of splashing and a loud,
very human sigh.  Then she set off to find her hair dryer.

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

     Ryouga stayed in the tub for a long while, luxuriating in the
soothing heat of the water and trying not to think about his predicament.
     Don't go anywhere, she'd said.  As if he could leave without
any clothes.  He leaned back, scrubbing his hands over his face wearily.
Ukyou was probably still upset over what had happened the last time
he'd been here, and now to top it all off she'd had to break up him and
Mousse a second time.  He figured she must be pretty unhappy with
him by now.
     Just the thing to round out his day.
     The knocking startled him, and he realized he'd been on the
verge of falling asleep.  What with the previous night's festivities, he
hadn't gotten very much rest.
     "Ryouga?"
     "Um ... yeah?"  He was suddenly nervous, painfully cognizant
of the fact that he was naked and Ukyou was just outside.  He cursed
himself as the blood rushed to his head.  Why do I have to be such an
idiot? he wondered.
     "I've got your clothes here.  They're pretty dry now.  I'll just
leave them outside.  When you're done, come on out, okay?  I want
to talk with you."
     "Uh, okay.  I'll be right there," he called.  He waited until he
heard her walking away, then pulled his dripping body from the warm
embrace of the water.  The towel Ukyou had left him was a large, plush
bath towel.  It smelled fresh and felt good on his bare skin.  He
wrapped himself in it, feeling warm and contented.  This was a far cry
from taking cold baths in mountain streams.  He'd missed some things
about civilization, after all.
     Finally, he realized he was just delaying the inevitable.  He
opened the door and retrieved his still-warm clothes from the hallway,
getting dressed in the small bathroom.  He found himself noticing the
odd feminine bits of toiletry in the small space, and felt acutely
self-conscious.
     Finally he was ready.  Of course, it took him a few tries to
finally find his way back to the counter where Ukyou was sitting sipping
something out of a steaming mug.  She looked up and smiled slightly
when she saw him.
     "Well, that's better," she said.  "Here, have some hot
chocolate."  She pushed a second mug over in front of the stool beside
her, and he sat obligingly.
     "So," she said as he took a sip.  It was hot and rich and very,
very good.
     "So."
     "You want to tell me what that was between you and Mousse
today?  I thought you two had worked out your little ...
misunderstanding."  Ryouga sighed.
     "I don't really know what happened, to tell you the truth.  I ran
into him by accident.  He started in on me, something about how I must
have heard and why didn't I just get it over with ... what?  What's
wrong?"  Ukyou's eyes had widened in understanding, and she set her
mug gently on the counter in front of her.  She hadn't taken the time to
change, merely unbuttoning her uniform jacket and untying her hair, and
now she reached up to comb her fingers through it nervously.
     "I guess you haven't been back long," she sighed.  "Have you
talked to anyone yet?"  He frowned.
     "Just Ranma," he said, then instantly regretted it.  "Sorry," he
muttered sheepishly.  Ukyou shook her head.
     "It's all right.  I can hear his name without breaking in two.  Did he
tell you about what's been going on?"
     "Not really ..."
     "Ah.  Let me guess, you two spent most of your time fighting."
Ryouga flushed.
     "Well, *he* started it!"  Ukyou sighed, shaking her head.
     "Right.  Well, anyway ... Ryouga, Mousse is feeling guilty right now.
I mean, guilty probably doesn't do it justice.  And when he saw you, he
assumed you knew, and ..."
     "Knew what?"  Ukyou laced her fingers together and took a
deep breath.
     "Mousse challenged Shampoo and beat her.  And in order to
beat her, he had to hurt her.  He broke her ribs among other things."
Ryouga was outraged.
     "What?  He did that?!  How could he ..."
     "Ryouga, there's more to it than you know.  Just listen, okay?"
And he did, while Ukyou laid the strange tale out for him.  His outrage
peaked again when he learned what Shampoo had done to Akane, and
it took Ukyou a little while to mollify him with assurances that Akane
had come through the experience unhurt.
     "Huh.  So that's why he went all snakey," Ryouga mused.
     "Well, yes.  After accusing you of beating up a woman, it
makes him look pretty bad."
     "It *is* pretty bad.  I mean, whatever his reasons were, I just
can't believe he could do that."  Ukyou rubbed the sides of her mug
with the palms of her hands in an absent manner.
     "It wasn't easy for him, Ryouga.  He thought he was doing the
right thing, saving her from something even worse.  Please, even if you
don't think he should have done it, can you just go easy if you see him?
Things haven't been going to well for him lately."  Ryouga frowned
stubbornly, and Ukyou's gaze softened.
     "Please?" she repeated softly.  Ryouga felt some of his
stubborn anger fading as he looked at her.  With her hair unbound, in
this light, she looked kind of cute.  Even dressed in boy's clothes.  He
heaved a sigh.
     "I'll try," he said at last.  "As long as he doesn't start anything, I
won't either.  Okay?"  She smiled gratefully.
     "Thanks, Ryouga.  I appreciate that."  He shrugged off her
thanks awkwardly, taking a drink of rapidly cooling hot chocolate.  In
the ensuing silence he could hear the hissing of cars on the wet road
outside and the steady drone of the falling rain.  The sky had darkened
so that, even though it was still mid-morning, it looked like dusk.
     "Well, now that we've got that straightened out ..." Ukyou said
quietly.  Ryouga looked up to see her staring at him with a tiny smile
playing at her lips.  He felt a sudden sinking sensation in the pit of his
stomach.
     "Um," he said.
     "Come on, Ryouga.  We never got a chance to talk about what
happened last time you were here."  She edged her stool a little closer
to his, trying to catch his gaze while he squirmed.  Ryouga was
beginning to feel intensely self-conscious under her scrutiny.  He didn't
want to talk about the things he'd said to her that night.  He just wanted
to forget all about it, bury the memory in an unmarked grave and
pretend it never happened.
     Ukyou, apparently, had other plans.
     "I'm sorry about all that stuff," Ryouga said gruffly, still avoiding
her gaze.  "I really shouldn't have said all that.  Sorry."  He reached
one hand up behind his head and grinned sheepishly, peeking at Ukyou
out of the corner of his eye.  "Guess I should stay away from sake,
huh?"  He let out a forced laugh, but Ukyou's sombre expression didn't
change.
     "I never knew you felt all those things, Ryouga," she murmured,
propping her chin in one hand.  He could see the light from the back
hallway reflected in her eyes as she stared at him, and he desperately
wished for the ability to say something glib, something that would
deflect her away from the dark, ugly heart of him.  He wished for
the words to steer the conversation back to safe, superficial territory,
but no words came.  She just kept staring at him with those bottomless
eyes, and finally he swallowed.
     "It doesn't matter," he said huskily.  She shook her head
slightly, a ripple passing through her glossy hair where it hung over one
shoulder.
     "That's not true.  It does matter.  Do you really feel like a freak?  Do
you really think nobody could love you, Ryouga?"  His face felt like it
was on fire as he stared into the mostly empty mug, not wanting to face
these questions.  She leaned in closer, and Ryouga could smell the
clean scent of her hair.
     "Do you really think you have no future?  Please, Ryouga, talk
to me.  I want you to talk to me about this."  He hunched his shoulders,
unconsciously pulling his body inwards, unaware of the misery that
showed plainly in his posture.
     "I was just drunk, and depressed," he muttered.  "That's all.
It's no big deal.  Can't we just forget this?"
     "No, because it is a big deal."  She was peering intently at him,
he could tell.  He figured his face must be as red as a cherry tomato,
but he still couldn't think of a way to divert her.  "I started thinking
about things after you ran off that night.  I wondered what it would be
like to be wandering all the time, to be *lost* all the time.  And you
were right, we all do treat it like a big joke.  But it isn't, is it?  I never

knew that it hurt you so much."
     "Look, Ukyou.  I ... should never have said all those things,
okay?"  He finally turned to face her, and she sat up straight, not giving
any ground.
     "Why not?  Because now somebody knows?  Because it
makes you vulnerable?  What are you afraid of, Ryouga?"  He jerked
away at that, even though her voice was gentle, imploring.
     "Nothing!  I'm not afraid!  I just ... it makes me look pathetic!"
     "Ryouga, it's not pathetic to have feelings like that."  She held
his eyes with hers, and he felt she was willing him to understand, to
believe.  "Remember that night?  I told you all those things I felt about
Ranma, about what his rejecting me meant.  Did that make me
pathetic?"  He felt a sudden flush of cold panic."
     "No!  I didn't mean ..."
     "I know," she soothed.  "Just listen.  I felt better for having
shared those things with you.  It was like saying them out loud let some
of the darkness out of my heart."  She smiled wryly.  "And then I
realized that I'd been ignoring you and your feelings, and I felt worse.
And I still feel bad, knowing that you felt like this a lot of times before
and I never knew, never had a clue.  I was always too wrapped up in
my own problems to see.  Some friend, huh?"
     "It's not your fault," Ryouga protested.  "There was no way for you
to know."
     "Well, I know now, and I want to help if I can.  If you'll let
me."  Ryouga's chest felt a little tight at that, and he shifted nervously on
his stool.
     "I ... that is, I don't ... um, okay.  Sure.  I guess."  She smiled
again, her green eyes fairly radiating happiness.
     "Good.  For starters, why don't you tell me where you've been
since I last saw you?"  Ryouga stared at his mug again, feeling slightly
foolish.  Then he started listing off place names in a monotone.  Ukyou
waited until he was finished, then took a breath.
     "Wow.  You went to all those places?  Um, where were you
trying to get to, if you don't mind my asking?"  Ryouga felt his blush
deepen.
     "Well, I wasn't really trying to *go* anywhere.  I just kinda
didn't want to be here.  I thought it would be easier to deal with
everything if, you know, I didn't have to be around them too much."
Ukyou nodded.
     "I guess that makes sense.  Did it work?"
     "Huh?"
     "Did travelling around take your mind off things?"  One
corner of Ryouga's mouth quirked up in a self-deprecating grin.
     "Ah, not really.  I mean, the problem was I didn't have anything
else to think about.  I didn't have a plan, or anything I wanted to do
besides not think about things.  Unfortunately, I had a lot of time to
think, too much really, because ..."
     "Because you were alone."  He scowled and glanced at her.
     "Yeah, I guess."  They were silent for a minute.
     "So, what now?" Ukyou asked at last.  "Are you going to stay
around town?"
     "I don't know."
     "Oh, come on, Ryouga!  This is your home!  You don't have to
slink off just because of this, you know!"  Ryouga grinned weakly.
     "Well, I did get turned into a pig and ended up at the dojo
yesterday," he muttered.  "That was moderately humiliating.  And
Ranma was pretty upset ..."
     "He'll get over it.  Look, stick around for a while, why don't
you?  Things are beginning to get back to sort-of normal, at least as
normal as things get around here.  We've already been invaded by
demons, had Shampoo attack the dojo, and seen an amazon
showdown.  Things can only get better, right?"  Ryouga grinned a little
wider.
     "I guess that makes sense," he said grudgingly.
     "Of course it does!" Ukyou replied.  "Look, I hate the thought
of you wandering around, feeling the way you did that night with
nobody to talk to.  I've got an idea.  Why don't you bunk down here
for a little while?"  Ryouga gaped.
     "Wha ... huh?" he gibbered.  She raised her chin slightly, her gaze
challenging.
     "I've got an extra room.  Granted it's pretty small, but you
don't have much stuff, right?  And you could help me out around the
restaurant when things got busy, in return for meals."  Ryouga gaped at
her.
     "That's more than a fair deal, hon," she admonished him with a
wicked grin.  "I've seen you eat."  He felt a little light-headed.
     "You'd do that?" he asked at last.
     "Yeah, I'd do that.  You'd have something to keep you busy,
in the short term at least, and somebody to talk to."  He tried to get a
grip on his chaotic thoughts.  He couldn't really go back to the dojo
even if he wanted to, which he didn't.  His house was a fair distance
away, and once he found it he'd almost certainly be alone there.  His
parents were virtual strangers to him anyway.  And going back on the
road suddenly didn't appeal to him much anymore.
     But you'd be living with a girl, his conscience objected.
     This isn't a girl, he told himself.  It's Ukyou!
     "If you're sure it's okay ..." he began hesitantly.
     "I said it was, Ryouga.  You're welcome to stay.  Come on, sugar.
Say yes."  He blushed and nodded.
     "Well, okay.  But only for a little while.  Just until I figure something

out.  Thanks."  She smiled.
      You're welcome.  More hot chocolate?"  He nodded, and she
reached over the grill to retrieve the kettle and powdered chocolate.
     "I'll get you set up, cook us an early lunch, then I'm gonna hit
my afternoon classes.  You'll be okay here alone?"
     "Ukyou, I spend a lot of time alone.  I'll be fine," he assured
her.  He looked at her as she stirred the powder into his mug of hot
water, and for the first time in weeks felt a tiny surge of optimism.
     "Just fine," he repeated quietly.  And this time he smiled.

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

     Nabiki couldn't believe her eyes.
     She checked.  She checked again.  She pinched herself to
make sure she was awake.
     All systems checked out a-ok.  She was awake.  She was
aware.  And she was seeing Furinkan's own Miss Hinako hanging all
over Furinkan's own Blue Thunder.
     It was definitely surreal.  She was clinging to his arm as they
walked down the hallway, giggling girlishly at his every utterance.  She
swayed her hips gently, making sure to bump his every other step or so.
She leaned into him when she spoke, stroked his forearm with her free
hand, and generally flirted outrageously.
     And the idiot was eating it up.  He was so puffed up he almost
looked like the old Kunou, the one that had existed before Kodachi's
death.  Nabiki was dumbstruck.
     It wasn't so much the impropriety of it all.  What would
certainly be considered inappropriate behaviour at almost any other
school could easily be overlooked at an institution where the principal
had been known to attack students with barber shears and teachers
drained their student's life force for fun and discipline.
     No, what bothered her was that it was so *blatant*.  Miss
Hinako, who'd never had the slightest interest in any of her students
despite many attempts by almost every red-blooded male (and a few
females) to change that, was now playing Kunou like a piano.
     She obviously wanted something.  And he didn't even notice.
     "What a bonehead," she muttered under her breath.  She
watched as the thoroughly besotted young man stopped in front of the
doors to the boy's locker room.  He said something to the sultry
teacher that resulted in another gale of throaty laughter, then ...
     Nabiki groaned.  He actually kissed her hand!  What a sap!
     Miss Hinako watched Kunou enter the locker room, then
started to walk away.  She noticed Nabiki out of the corner of her eye,
though, and changed direction, striding over to her.  Nabiki shook her
head sadly.
     "Teach, that was an appalling performance."  The older woman
smiled, but the mirth didn't make it anywhere near her hazel eyes.
     "Why, Miss Tendou, whatever is the matter?  Are you
jealous?"  Nabiki snorted delicately.
     "Please.  It's just that, when I manipulate someone, I'm
generally much more subtle.  I find such blatant efforts ... unbecoming."
Miss Hinako raised one eyebrow in response.
     "Really?" she asked coolly.  "You think I want something from
Mr. Kunou?"
     "Gee, I did sort of get that impression," Nabiki replied dryly.
     "Hmmm.  Perhaps you are simply jealous that I'm intruding on
your territory."  Nabiki's mouth twitched slightly.
     "Oh, please," she said, giving the impression that she was trying
hard not to yawn.  The beautiful teacher stepped closer, giving Nabiki a
smug grin.
     "You shouldn't be so selfish, young lady.  After all, you still
have Mr. Kuonji to bestow your affections on."  Nabiki blinked, then
blinked again for good measure.  She wasn't going to let this tart
provoke a reaction from her.  Not even with something like that.
     "Why would you think there was anything between myself and
Ukyou Kuonji?" she asked, actually stifling a small yawn this time with
just the right degree of terminal boredom.
     "Oh, it isn't just what I think.  The whole school is talking about it.
Haven't you noticed the looks you've been getting?  I believe the
discussion centres on several major topics; namely, whether you will
choose Mr. Kuonji or Mr. Kunou, or possibly both.  And of course,
there are rumours that Mr. Kuonji is actually a girl, which opens
a whole new can of worms for you."  Miss Hinako looked down her
nose, an expression of lascivious interest plain on her face.  "So come
clean, Miss Tendou.  What is the story?"  Nabiki felt a shiver run down
the nerves at the nape of her neck while fighting to maintain her
composure.  Something about the teacher's words rang true.  Could
such rumours really be circulating about her?  Furinkan was infamous
for its rumour grapevine, after all.  And this particular tidbit of info cast
some of the conversations she'd had in the last few days in a whole
new light.
     Oh, swell.
     "Why teach, I do believe you're trying to divert the discussion
away from why you're trying to sweet talk the captain of the kendo
team," Nabiki said, marvelling at how calm her voice was.  A sudden
mask of thwarted fury flashed across Miss Hinako's features, vanishing
a suddenly as it had come.  For a moment, Nabiki tried to convince
herself that she'd imagined it, but she hadn't.  It *had* been there.
     Nabiki felt a chilling certainty that, for just an instant, Miss
Hinako had wanted to attack her physically.  But now her mocking
smile was back, and the teacher stepped back, twirling a 50 yen piece
between her long fingers.
     "You shouldn't make unsubstantiated accusations, Miss
Tendou.  Such a habit could get you in a lot of trouble.  If you take my
meaning."  The sense of barely veiled menace was back, and Nabiki
frowned.  She'd never felt this from Miss Hinako before.  Even when
she was in hot pursuit of some delinquent, she never seemed to bring
any malice to her job, just a sense of justice, skewed though it might be.
This change was unnerving, although Nabiki made certain none of her
nervousness showed.
     "Oh, trouble.  You mean like what would happen if the
principal found out one of his teachers was molesting his son type
trouble."  Nabiki wasn't at all certain the principal would mind; he might
even congratulate his son.  With men you could never tell, and the
principal was loopy to boot.  Still, it seemed a card worth playing.
Miss Hinako, though, just smiled and turned to go.
     "Don't worry your little head about my business, dear," she
said airily.  "I can handle young Tatewaki *and* his father.  And any
other male in this school.  I'll leave the girls to you.  Ta."  And with that
she was off, drawing stares as she sauntered down the hall.
     Nabiki fiddled absently with the handle of her bookbag, staring
after the departed teacher.  She tried to force her thoughts into some
sort of order.  What was Miss Hinako after from Kunou, and why was
she being so obvious about it?  What was behind her strange
behaviour?
     And was she telling the truth about those rumours?
     Well, answers to the first two questions might be hard to come
by.  The third, however, was another matter.

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

     Kasumi closed her eyes and sighed.  The waiting room had
emptied out with unseemly haste, several patients fleeing into the rain
with neither coats nor umbrellas.  Several half-finished conversations
seemed to still hang, quivering, in the warm air.  On a small table a
partially empty tea cup still steamed.
     She had to consider this an inauspicious beginning.
     She considered backing out, then stiffened her resolve.  No,
she told herself firmly.  If Akane can get Ranma to confess his feelings
to her, then nothing is impossible.  And I have to know if Tofu can
overcome the symptoms of his infatuation.
     For infatuation it clearly was.  In the beginning it had been quite
flattering, but as time wore on Kasumi found that she longed for the
handsome young doctor to talk to her, flirt with her, woo her.
     Dancing with skeletons and walking into walls was quickly
losing whatever charm it had once possessed.
     Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the foyer and closed the
door behind her.  As she stood, uncertain, in the centre of the room,
she heard a chair squeak behind the closed door that lead to the
examination room.  Footfalls approached the door, and she hoped
fervently that her sister's plan would work.
     Finally, the door opened to reveal Dr. Tofu, peering intently at
a clipboard while adjusting his glasses with his free hand.
     "Okay, then," he said mildly.  "Next is Mrs. ..."  He looked up
and stopped, a puzzled expression spreading over his face at the empty
room.  Then his gaze fell on Kasumi.  She smiled sweetly, masking her
true feelings with the ease born of long practice.
     "Hello, doctor," she said.
     "K-K-Kasumi," Tofu stuttered.  His cheeks grew pink, his
eyes began to unfocus, and a foolish grin crept to his mouth.  "What a
... not an unpleasant, but still ... surprising ..."  Kasumi knew she had to
take control of the situation quickly, before any chance of putting
Nabiki's plan into action was lost.
     "It's my back," she blurted.  Oh, that was clumsy, she berated
herself immediately.  I should have tried to be subtle, or more subtle,
anyway.  Then she noticed that Tofu had frozen in place.
     "Um ... what is?" he asked, some measure of control creeping
back into his manner.  She controlled her sudden optimism carefully.
     "I mean, I think I may have pulled a muscle or something in my
back, what with all the excitement in the last two weeks.  Righting
overturned furniture and that sort of thing.  It doesn't seem serious, just
a minor nuisance, but I was wondering if you could take a look at it for
me.  If you have the time."  She smiled sweetly at that last, hoping it
didn't seem too ditsy, considering the waiting room was suddenly
deserted.  Tofu's gaze swept the empty room, and then he smiled, a
real smile and not the goofy sort of grin he usually wore around her.
     "I seem to have a few cancellations," he said calmly.  "Please,
come on in."  She smiled gratefully and hung up her coat on the coat
stand, hanging her umbrella underneath it.  Then she walked into the
examining room.  He directed her to sit on the table, then walked over
to a gray metal filing cabinet and pulled open a drawer, removing a
folder with her medical history.  He flipped through the file for a
moment, then returned to the table, his manner friendly but professional.
     "Now then, where is the pain located?" he asked pleasantly.
And so he began probing her back through her loose blouse, pausing
occasionally to apply pressure in one place or another, often
accompanied by loud crackling sound.  His touch was gentle yet firm,
and she began to relax under his ministrations.  And, though her back
pain had been a ruse, she realized after a time that she had been tense,
and that tension was beginning to melt away.
     She wished, wistfully, that she could have him do this to her in a
less clinical setting, feeling her cheeks warm immediately at the thought.
She shuddered slightly, and he stopped his probing.
     "Did that hurt?" he asked, sounding faintly alarmed.  She
suppressed a smile at the attentiveness in his tone.
     "No, I'm sorry.  I was ... thinking of something else."  He
paused for a moment, then continued his work.
     "Be sure to let me know if there is any discomfort," he
murmured, and she nodded obediently.
     This was pleasant, but it wasn't enough.  Tofu had treated her
as a patient before, but as soon as he was finished he would begin
treating her as some untouchable love goddess again, and that was the
last thing she wanted.  She wasn't terribly enamoured of Nabiki's
suggestion that she continue to feign injury until he was comfortable
around her, either.  She knew that she had to take advantage of this
situation while she could.  Unfortunately, that meant making an overt
move, something which made her terribly nervous.
     Still, she'd come this far.  It would all be for nothing if she
didn't follow through.  First things first, however.  She needed to get
him talking so she could ease into her suggestion.
     "I hear that you had to go to the Nekohanten again, doctor,"
she said.  He laughed softly.
     "Yes, I'm afraid so.  I didn't think that amazon elder was ever
going to let me leave, either."  Kasumi smiled at that.
     "Really?"
     "Oh, yes.  She kept asking me if I'd ever considered moving to
China.  Quite a flirt, that one."  Then his expression grew serious.
     "You heard what happened to Shampoo?"  Kasumi nodded.
     "Were her injuries very serious?"
     "Well, serious enough, considering that they came so soon after
the ones inflicted by Mousse.  She's so stubborn, that girl.  I could tell
when I was telling her to stay in bed that she planned to ignore me."
He sighed, moving his hands lower on her back.  "And both Shampoo
and Cologne keep ignoring my suggestions that they see another
doctor.  I have a knowledge of general medicine as well as shiatsu and
herbal medicines, but that's really no substitute for a good GP or even a
neurological specialist, in Cologne's case."
     "But they trust you," Kasumi objected softly.  "We all trust
you."  She blushed slightly.  "You are always doing so much for all of
us here in the neighbourhood.  I don't know what we'd do without you,
Doctor Tofu.  Especially in these last weeks, with the horrible fight at
Furinkan and everything that's happened afterward.  You've helped out
every time it's been asked of you, without hesitation."  She took a deep
breath, the pit of her stomach tingling madly with crazed butterflies.
There would never be a better time.
     "That's why I'd like to do something for you.  To thank you for
all you've done."
     "Kasumi, you don't have to ..."  She resisted the urge to pull
away.  She remembered Nabiki's admonishment, that she needed to
bring Tofu's professional instincts into direct conflict with his personal
reaction to Kasumi's presence.  She steeled herself as he probed gently
at the small of her back with his strong fingers.
     Gods, this was nerve-wracking!
     "I want to," she said firmly.  "Doctor, please allow me to cook
you dinner some night."  He froze, and she tensed up instinctively,
knowing that if he lost control now those strong, gentle fingers could
cause pain instead of bringing relief.
     "Please," she repeated.  "To thank you for all you've done."  She
waited for a long breathless moment.  She would never understand how
people found the courage to expose themselves like this regularly.
     Finally, Tofu cleared his throat.
     "Ah, I don't ..." he began.  She sensed his confusion level rising
and craned her head around to glance at him.
     "Yes, it's tight right there, doctor," she said sweetly.  He
blinked, then pressed gently with his fingers.
     "There?" he asked.  She nodded, and his confusion began to ebb
visibly as he began probing once more.
     "Ah.  Um.  That's better."  She swallowed a sigh of relief, and
plunged ahead.  "So ... will you accept?"
     "Accept?"
     "Dinner?  Please, after all the times you've helped out our
family and all the others, it's the least I can do."  The pleading in her
voice wasn't feigned; she was beginning to wonder if he might turn her
down.  At last, he straightened up and sighed, running his fingers
through his hair, leaving it enticingly rumpled.
     "That's very kind of you, Kasumi.  I guess that would be ..."
     "Tuesday?"
     "Pardon?" he asked, startled.  She took a calming breath.
     "I meant, is Tuesday evening all right with you?"  He blinked,
then grinned bashfully.
     "Oh.  Uh, yes, that is, that would be fine.  Yes."  She beamed
at him, then toned it down as his eyes began to unfocus again.
     "Wonderful!  Around seven o'clock, would that be all right?"
     "Certainly.  I mean ..."
     "Then I'll be at your apartment at seven.  Oh, dear, I nearly forgot.
Is there anything special you would like?"  He continued to stare at her,
and she hoped she wasn't pushing too far.  Finally, he just smiled and
shook his head.
     "You choose," he said with a small grin.  "I trust your
judgement.  Now, I want you to avoid too much stress, and if you need
to lift anything heavy, get Ranma or his father to help you, all right?
And if you have any further problems, feel free to come and see me."
She nodded primly.
     "Of course.  Thank you, doctor.  I feel so much better.  Oh,
my.  Look at the time.  I had better get going, I have so much to do
today.  I'll see you Tuesday, all right?"
     "Yes, I ... if you really want to.  That is ..."
     "Tuesday!" she called as she retrieved her coat and umbrella.
She was heartened by the fact that he still maintained his control as she
dashed out the door into the pouring rain.  Her haste might have been
somewhat unseemly, but she wanted to get out before he had a chance
to talk himself into backing out.
     She skipped along the sidewalk, kicking up a drenching spray
in the deep puddles and giggling like a girl.  She'd done it!  Nabiki's
plan had worked like a charm!  He'd stayed calm and focused the
whole time, and now ...
     Now she had a dinner date!
     Calmly, she told herself.  What if he goes back to his old habits
when I arrive to cook for him?  What if ...
     But no.  One thing at a time, she told herself sternly.  She would
just have to handle that if it became an issue.  After all, she'd gotten this
far, hadn't she?
     "Tuesday," she fairly sang as she danced along.  It was raining
everywhere in Nerima, but not in her heart.  There it was sunny and
warm.
     Tuesday.
     Oh, there was so much to do before then!

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

     Tofu closed the door, turning back into his now deserted office.
He walked slowly back into the examination room, staring at his hands.
     His hands.  The tools of his trade.  They possessed great
suppleness and strength, and could be instruments of precision.  But for
a few moments there, when Kasumi had first mentioned dinner, he'd
been dreadfully afraid that they would betray him.  Only his need not to
risk causing her pain had overcome the sudden crumbling of his control
that the very suggestion of dinner with Kasumi had prompted.  He'd
managed to complete his work somehow, though.  He stared down at
his hands, leaning against the door to his examination room, and smiled.
     "Thanks, boys," he said to them.  "I knew you wouldn't let me
down."  Then he glanced up at Betty.
     "What the heck are *you* grinning at?" he demanded with
manic good humour.  Then he laughed aloud.
     "She's going to cook me dinner!  She really is.  Wow."  He
shook his head, almost unable to believe it.  All the times he'd wanted
to coolly ask Kasumi to join him for coffee or a movie, and now ...
     And now ...
     "Damn!" he blurted, pulling away from the door frame
suddenly.  "Tuesday?  TUESDAY?"  He stalked around the office,
wringing his hands.  Then he braced himself against the filing cabinet
and hung his head, finally turning to look at Betty again.
     "It's going to take me that long just to *clean* my place!" he
groaned.  Betty, obviously inured to the cleaning habits of bachelors,
said nothing, and soon the good doctor was grinning madly once more.
     "Tuesday," he said finally, flopping down in his chair.  Then he
took out a pad of paper and started working out how many hours that
was.  Then how many minutes.
     It was going to be a long, long week-end.

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

     Darkness had fallen early due to the heavy overcast.  A light yet
persistent rain continued to fall, dampening spirits as well as everything
else.  Ukyou sighed as she flipped off the exterior lights and locked the
door.  She walked back through Ucchan's, automatically checking
everything as she went.  Finally, she shut off the lights and went into the
back.
     This is going to be a little weird, she told herself as she saw the
light coming from under the door of her spare room.  She knocked
lightly, then opened the door.
     "Hey.  Everything okay?" she asked.  Ryouga looked up from
where he was spreading a thin, worn futon mattress on the floor.
     "Yeah, I'm just getting set up," he said.  She noticed that he
also seemed a little self-conscious about the situation, and not for the
first time that day wondered if letting Ryouga stay had been a good
idea.
     After all, she was used to being on her own.  Having somebody
else living under her roof, and a guy at that, might get a tad
uncomfortable.  But as she looked at him, she remembered again that
she'd felt compelled to reach out to him, to try to help.  And it was only
for a little while.
     "Sorry about that mattress," she apologized.  "It's seen better
days."  Ryouga laughed.
     "I sleep on the ground a lot," he said.  "Believe me, this looks
like luxury to me."  She chuckled.
     "I guess it would at that.  Okay, well, I'm going to turn in.  I'll
see you in the morning, Ryouga.  Sleep well."
     "Okay," he said.  As she turned to go, he cleared his throat
nervously.
     "Um, Ukyou?"
     "Hmm?"
     "I just wanted to say thanks.  Again.  For, you know ..."  He
trailed off, clearly embarrassed, and Ukyou smiled.
     "I know.  And you're welcome.  Night."
     "Good-night."  She closed the door and padded softly to her
own room.  The look of gratitude on Ryouga's face reinforced her
belief that she'd done the right thing.  A little stability would be good for
him, after all.  And he'd promised to help out around the restaurant.
She might be able to get him to wait tables during the busier times.
Sure.  This would work out fine.
     She flopped down on her bed, lacing her fingers behind her
head as she stared at the ceiling.  She lay still for a time, feeling the
tension slowly leach out of her body as her thoughts churned uneasily.
She couldn't stop wondering if maybe she wasn't trying to solve
Ryouga's problems as a way of distracting herself from her own.
     Well, so what if I am? she asked herself finally.  What's wrong
with that?
     Unable to answer her own question, she finally slipped into her
nightshirt and eased under the covers.  She'd expected to have trouble
getting to sleep, but she nodded off within minutes, and if she had any
dreams they came and went without troubling her.

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

     Ninomiya Hinako heard voices.
     She was asleep somewhere dark
     (it was her bed wasn't it of course it was where else would she
be)
     and warm.  Her eyes were so heavy, and everything seemed so
strange and distant.  She was so tired, but the voices had woken her.
This seemed familiar, somehow ...
     Her eyes must be open.  She realized that when she saw a sliver
of light in the distance.  The voices were coming from the light.  She
listened, even though she just wanted to sleep, and suddenly she
recognized one.  A harsh voice, raised above the background hum,
angry and accusing.
     "Daddy?"
     Now she knew where she must be.  She was back home after
being in the hospital.  She was better now, but Mommy and Daddy
weren't happy.  They pretended around her, but she knew something
was wrong.  And at night, when they thought she was asleep, she
would hear them ...
     "They don't know?  How can they not know?  They were
supposed to cure her, and now they say they don't know how it
HAPPENED?"  Her Daddy's voice, yes, the way she remembered it in
later days.  Always loud, always angry.
     "Honey, please.  At least Ninomiya's better now ..."  Her
Mommy, who always cried a lot after she came home.
     "BETTER?  SHE'S NOT BETTER!  OUR DAUGHTER IS
A FREAK!"  Something shattered out past the light, and little Ninomiya
tried to squeeze her eyes shut, tried to cover her ears with her hands
the way she always did
     (used to)
     when they started.  The way ...
     But she couldn't seem to close her eyes or block out the noise,
and she knew hot tears would come soon.
     "No, Daddy," she whispered into the dark, her tiny voice
breaking.  "They're GOOD girl exercises!  He said so!"  But nobody
could hear her.  And they never listened, anyway.
     " ... what she did to those nurses!" Daddy was saying.  "She
could be dangerous!"
     "No!  I won't send her away!"  Away.  Ninomiya tried to curl
up in a ball.  It was always like this now.  Daddy always yelled and
Mommy always cried.  Ever since she got out of the hospital.
     Because of her.  Because she came home.  Because ...
     (Don't send me away!  Mommy, please!)
     Because of her.  All because of her.
     The voices were getting louder now, and the light was getting
closer.  She screamed, trying to shut it out.  The light, the voices, all of
it.
     It hurt.  The light hurt.  She just wanted to sleep again.  Then it
wouldn't hurt anymore.
     "Please," she whispered in the way of a child, a plea to nobody
or anybody, to somebody who could make things better.  "Please,
make them stop ..."
     And miraculously, they did.  The light shrank and vanished, and
it was quiet and dark once more.
     She slept.

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

     He woke.
     Tragus sat up in the bed, body soaked with sweat, shoulders
heaving with laboured breathing.
     The girl's essence.  As he had slept, it had tried instinctively to
re-assert itself.  He closed his eyes, noting with disgust that his new
body had reverted to child form again.  With a groan, he slipped from
the bed and tugged in dismay at the ill-fitting nightclothes.
     He went to the kitchen and poured a stiff drink, then sat himself
in a plush chair and waited for his breathing to slow.  As he'd become
aware of the girl's essence trying to break free from the dark place
deep within where he'd imprisoned it, he'd summoned painful images
he'd culled from her memories.  Faced with those, she'd curled
inwards, trying to escape the hurt, and he'd woken, triumphant.  He
cradled the glass in his small hands, sipping at the fiery liquid as he
considered his situation.
     There was no way of telling what would happen in the long run,
of course.  He was in rather a unique position for a demon of his type.
He'd been operating strictly on instinct since his absorption by the girl,
and his instincts hadn't led him wrong yet.  But they also hadn't told him
how to rid himself of the girl's essence permanently.
     Perhaps he couldn't.  Perhaps he needed her, alive but
dormant, to keep this body.  Well, so be it.  He would remain in
control.  He was certain that, in time, her struggles would weaken and
possibly cease altogether.  She was no threat to him.
     There were plenty of real threats for him to worry about.  Like
Riana, for instance.  He needed a lever, something to convince the
others that he was smart enough and tough enough to depose her.  And
the key to that was the Kunou boy.
     He smiled at the memory of how easily the boy had responded
to "Hinako's" advances.  The teacher's memories revealed to Tragus
that Kunou was now much less ... responsive to female attentions than
he had been.  An effect of his sister's unfortunate demise, no doubt.
Tragus hadn't had much trouble getting his attention, though.  And he
fully believed that his efforts would eventually pay off.
     One of the first things that arrogant witch Riana had pounded
home to them when she'd taken them in was that they were to consider
the Kunou estate and its occupants off-limits.  It had turned out that
even the Aerkinma were forbidden to venture there.  That intrigued
Tragus.  There were definite possibilities to this situation.
     It was possible that something or someone at that estate was so
powerful that even Riana and her inner circle were afraid of it.  Or
someone even more powerful than they coveted the estates treasures,
and had instructed them to watch but not touch.  Whatever the case,
Tragus fully intended to ingratiate himself with the Kunou boy and find
out for himself.  He suspected that there was great power to be had,
and he intended to be the one to possess that power.
     And as to Riana, well, he had some questions to ask her.  If he
rattled her sufficiently, she might very well give something valuable
away.  The problem was how to accomplish that.  Not all of the
Borgunma under her control were content with the restraints imposed
on them.  They had much in common with Tragus and his group, if the
truth be told.  From them he had learned some valuable information.
     Riana regularly secured victims who were taken into the tower
downtown alive, and who invariably came out dead.  Hardly shocking,
of course, but useful.  According to Tragus's sources, she was about
due for another hunting trip.  And Tragus knew where her favourite
hunting grounds were.  Bracing her on her home turf, after their first
encounter, would be dangerous.  On neutral turf, though, Riana would
be unable to reveal the full extent of her power without risking
exposure.
     Tragus could get away with much more, and might even have a
little fun.  She hadn't gone tonight.  That meant she'd almost certainly
go tomorrow.
     Falling into a pattern, little witch, Tragus thought, downing
another slug of the golden fluid, hissing with satisfaction as it burned its
way down his throat.  Very foolish.  Ah, but she'd had things her own
way for far too long, had grown a little too complacent in the absence
of any real competition.
     Now Tragus was going to change all that.  He was going to
take everything away from her.
     And when he was in charge, there were going to be a few
changes in how things were done.

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

     Ukyou leaned out the bathroom door and called Ryouga's
name.  Moments later, he appeared, fully dressed, in the hallway.
     "What is it?" he asked.  Ukyou sighed, holding something up in
her hand.
     "Up already, I see, and ready to take on the day."
     "Uh, yeah," Ryouga said, puzzled.  "What's that?"
     "Oh, this?  It's a tube of toothpaste.  Notice anything strange
about it?"  Ryouga squinted.
     "Um, nope."
     "Are you sure?  Doesn't it look like someone squeezed the
tube ... in the *middle*?"  Ryouga continued to look at her with an
expression of total incomprehension.
     "So?" he asked.  Ukyou sighed.
     "Ryouga, I don't ask much.  Really.  But just ... don't squeeze
the tube in the middle, okay?  Start at one end, work your way to the
other."  Ryouga gave her a look that indicated he was clearly
humouring a crazy woman.
     "Sure, Ukyou.  No problem."
     "Thank you."  She went back into the bathroom, then
immediately popped back out.
     "And Ryouga?"
     "Huh?"
     "The toilet seat.  Please leave it down when you're finished."
He sighed.
     "Got it."  She shook her head ruefully.  It had been quite a
while since she'd shared quarters with anyone.  She was very used to
doing things her own way, and now she had to get used to having
someone else in her space.  She brushed her teeth, staring at her
reflection moodily.
     This would take more getting used to than she had anticipated.

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

     Nabiki walked beside Ukyou, grinning at her tale of woe.
     "No!  He squeezes the toothpaste in the middle?  I hope you
took your spatula to him!"
     "Oh, go ahead and laugh," Ukyou grumbled.  Nabiki shook her
head, not bothering to hide her amusement.  "You guys are used to
having men around the house.  It's a new experience for me."
     "So why exactly did you decide to let Ryouga stay at your
place?"  Ukyou looked a little uncomfortable at the question.
     "Nabiki, I know you probably think Ryouga can take care of
himself, but I'm a little worried about him."  This was news to Nabiki.
     "Worried about Ryouga?  Ukyou, the boy is just about the
toughest thing I've ever seen.  He breaks through walls, for heaven's
sake!  What's to worry about?"
     "Well, how do you think he feels about Akane and Ranma
finally getting together?"  Nabiki snorted.
     "Depressed, of course.  He's always depressed about
something.  He'll get over it."  She eyed Ukyou carefully.  Nabiki had
the definite impression that Ukyou was holding something back.
"That's all it is, huh?  I mean, there's nothing else going on with him?"
Ukyou blushed slightly.
     "Look, he told me some things that I'd rather not repeat.  Let's
just say that I think things have been harder on him than he wants
people to know.  I think it'll be good for him to have a little stability for
a while."  Nabiki hid a smile.  She thought it might be good for Ukyou
as well, but was wise enough not to say anything.
     "Well, at least this way we can all get some sleep at night,"
Nabiki grumbled.  "So, we still on for tonight?"  Ukyou nodded
unenthusiastically.
     "Sure, I guess."
     "Hey, try to contain your excitement, would you?"  Ukyou
looked guilty.
     "Well, I mean, I just don't know about this.  I don't usually do
this sort of thing ..."
     "I know, and it's about time we did something about that.
What are you going to wear?"  Ukyou blinked.
     "Um, I hadn't really thought about that," she said weakly.
Nabiki nodded.
     "That's what I figured.  You probably don't have much that's
suitable anyway.  I'll bring some stuff with me when I come."
     "Really?"
     "Oh, yes, I think I can find something good.  Trust me, Ukyou,
we're going to have a good time tonight.  Just two women out on the
town.  So smile, all right?"  Ukyou managed a small grin, and Nabiki
sighed hopelessly.
     "Well, that'll do for starters, I guess."  They walked on toward
Ucchan's, flashes of blue showing in the sky as the cloud cover began
to break apart.
     "Hey, Nabiki."
     "Hmm?"
     "Did you notice that people seemed to be staring at us when
we left school today?"
     "Oh, really?" Nabiki asked innocently.
     "Yeah.  People have been acting a little weird around me lately,
too.  What do you suppose that's all about?"  Nabiki gave her friend a
knowing smile.
     "Oh, don't worry, Ukyou.  I'm sure it's nothing.  You know
how our school is."  Nabiki knew perfectly well what rumours were
circulating, even though her usual sources hadn't wanted to admit
knowledge of any rumours involving her personally.  She was already
considering ways to turn the situation to her advantage while showing
the rumours to be false.
     She shook her head in disbelief.  Furinkan was a strange place,
all right, but honestly, the things people would believe ...

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

     Ranma-chan bounded away from Akane's punch and follow
up, looking surprised.
     "She went where?"
     "You heard me," Akane gritted, pursuing the red-head.
     "Dancing?  With Ukyou?  Geez, those two sure are getting
chummy," Ranma-chan mused.  Akane redoubled her efforts.
     "No kidding!" she snapped.  "Nabiki even said she might not
come home tonight!  Can you believe that?"  She launched a flying kick
which the other girl avoided easily.
     "Uh, so what?" she asked.  "I mean, Nabiki's a big girl, Akane.
That's no big deal, is it?"  Akane spun around, lashing out wildly.
     "So who said it was a big deal?" she growled.  Ranma-chan
backed across the floor with a sigh, watching her partner steadily losing
focus.  This was not going well.  She figured she'd better get to the root
of what was bothering Akane once and for all.  When Akane lunged at
her again, she advanced instead of retreating, throwing a hold on the
other girl and tossing her easily over her shoulder.  Then she spun
around and caught Akane in her arms before the startled brunette could
hit the floor.
     "Ta-daaah!" Ranma-chan said with a flourish.  Akane scowled,
struggling in Ranma-chan's grip.
     "Very funny," she growled.  Then she found, to her surprise,
that the other girl had no intention of letting her go.
     "Hey," she said, irritated and confused.  Ranma-chan just
smiled sweetly.
     "I don't think we should do this anymore, Akane."
     "What?  But you promised!"  Ranma-chan shook her head.
      "Not until you tell me what's bothering you.  You can't
concentrate and you're all over the place.  Come on, Akane, give.
What's on your mind?"  Akane crossed her arms over her chest and
turned her head away.
     "Nothing," she muttered.  "Now let me go."
     "Oooh," Ranma-chan teased.  "Somebody wants to be
convinced ..."
     "Ranma."
     "I guess I'll just have to drag it out of you," she sighed.  One
thing Ranma-chan really enjoyed about her new relationship with
Akane was the ability to jolly her out of bad moods, instead of fighting
about them.
     "Ran.  Ma.  Knock it off!"  Ranma-chan grinned wickedly.
     "Guess I'll have to use the Saotome Secret Technique."  Akane
stared up at her, unimpressed.
     "Oh, isn't that where you run away?" she asked acidly.
Ranma-chan shook her head.
     "No, this is the *other* Saotome Secret Technique.  I call it ...
Tickling Hands of Vengeance!"  Akane's deep brown eyes widened
with understanding.
     "Oh, don't you da ... yaaaaaah!"  Ranma-chan began digging her
fingers under Akane's ribs delicately, moving quickly as Akane tried to
block her efforts with her elbows.
     "Ranma!  I'm not ... tuh-ticklish!"
     "Clearly," Ranma-chan grinned, redoubling her efforts.  Akane
convulsed, choking back a laugh.
     Ranmaaaa! *Stop* it!  Jerk!"  Akane couldn't match Ranma-chan's
hand speed, though, and she began to squeal helplessly, her face
beet red.
     "Tell me, Akane," Ranma-chan crooned.  "Tell me everything,
or I don't stop ..."
     "Ranma!  Urk!  Okay, o-okay, suh-stoppit stoooop!  I'll talk!
I'll talk!"  Reluctantly, Ranma-chan let her attentions taper off, grinning
madly at the sight of Akane curled up with helpless hilarity in her arms.
Slowly, Akane got herself under control, her colour returning to normal.
Ranma-chan help one of her hands up in front of Akane's face
solemnly.
     "Just remember," she intoned, "I'm not afraid to use this."
Akane stuck her tongue out playfully, and Ranma-chan let her hand dip
toward Akane's ribs, making her squeal again.
     "Okay, okay!" she gasped.  Ranma-chan relented.  She
thought about setting Akane down, but she hadn't complained, and
Ranma-chan was frankly enjoying the feeling of having Akane in her
arms, held tightly against her.
     "Well?" Ranma-chan asked at last.  Akane sighed deeply.
     "There are some rumours," she said at last, "going around
school.  I'm surprised you haven't heard them."  Ranma-chan frowned.
     "What kind of rumours?"
     "Nasty ones, about Nabiki."  Ranma-chan blinked.
     "Nabiki?  What about her?"  Akane looked uncomfortable.
     "People have been saying that she and Ukyou are ... an item.
Together.  You know."  She was blushing again, and Ranma-chan
stared at her.
     "Oh, come on," she said at last.  "That's just stupid.  Ukyou's a
*girl*."
     "Some people don't know that," Akane sighed.  "And some
people who do think they're an item anyway."  Ranma-chan started
laughing.
     "That's it?" she asked, relieved.  "Akane, you shouldn't let that
stuff bug you.  Those are just dumb rumours!"  Then she looked a little
more closely at Akane, a troubling notion occurring to her.
     "You don't *believe* them, do you?" she asked.  Akane
looked uncomfortable.
     "Well, of course I didn't at first," she grumbled.  "Especially
since they involved Kunou, too.  But Nabiki's been spending a lot of
time with Ukyou lately, and she's said a few things that got me thinking,
and she IS taking Ukyou dancing, and she said she might stay there
tonight and ..."
     "Akane, whoa.  Hold it.  This is Uc-chan we're talking about.
She likes boys.  She liked me.  Remember?"  Akane stared pointedly
at Ranma-chan's chest until the red-head blushed.
     "But ... I mean ..."  Ranma-chan shook her head.  "No.  I just
don't believe that."  Akane scowled prettily.
     "Ranma, everyone's talking about my sister behind her back
and snickering.  It's just getting worse.  We have to find out for sure so
we can put an end to these stupid rumours!"
     "We?" Ranma-chan asked doubtfully.  Akane glared.
     "Yes.  We."
     "Well, what are you going to do, ask her?"  Akane stared at
her as if she was crazy.
     "No way!  I can't do that!  We need to find another way to
discover if Nabiki might really like girls."  Ranma-chan wasn't at all
sure about this.  She was in the unique position of having a girl's body
part of the time, and to her there was really nothing strange about
feeling attracted to another girl.  She could totally relate to that feeling.
     Not that she thought there was any truth to these rumours, of
course.  But Akane apparently wasn't going to be happy until she
satisfied herself that they were false, and Ranma-chan wouldn't be
happy until Akane was happy.
     "Okay, like what?" she asked.  Akane peered up at her with
wide, innocent eyes.
     "Well," she said slowly, "I do have one idea.  Kinda.  But I'll need
your help ..."  Ranma-chan looked at that innocent expression, and
figured she was in trouble.
     Then she heard the plan, and she was sure of it.

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

     "I can't believe I'm wearing this."
     "You look great, Ukyou.  Trust me."
     "Really?  I mean ..."
     "Really.  Here, put this on."
     "Okay ..."  Nabiki stood back, satisfied.  More than satisfied,
actually.  She grinned widely.
     "Ukyou, you clean up real good."  Ukyou blushed prettily.
     "Oh, stop it," she grumbled.  But Nabiki noticed she couldn't
stop checking her image out in the mirror.
     "That belt goes nicely with the dress, huh?" Nabiki asked.
Ukyou nodded, then began fussing automatically with something.
Nabiki stifled a laugh.
     "Um, Ukyou, I don't think you're going to be needing that.  Anyway,
it clashes with the dress."  Ukyou blinked, suddenly realizing she was
about to sling her battle spatula over her shoulder.  She blushed again.
     "Force of habit," she said ruefully, putting the weapon back
down again.  "But I'm going to feel naked without it."  Nabiki walked
up behind her and placed her hands gently on Ukyou's shoulders,
peering at their reflection in the mirror.
     "Lock up your sons, trouble is on the way," she grinned.  A
small furrow appeared between Ukyou's eyebrows.
     "Really?  You think it's that good?" she asked doubtfully.
Nabiki gave her a long-suffering sigh.  Ukyou just didn't seem to want
to believe how good she looked.
     "Well, I know a good effectiveness test," she mused, a slow
smile spreading across her face.

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

     Ryouga finished wiping down the tables.  He found the activity
repetitive but soothing, and strangely enough, he was enjoying himself.
He still had a few bugs to work out of his technique, as evidenced by
the evening's work.  He kept confusing table five with table three, for
instance, but at least with everything in one room he didn't get lost
between the grill and the customers.  And Ukyou had made a point of
telling him how much easier his presence had made the busy supper
rush.
     He smiled to himself as he worked.  A strange sense of
contentment was settling over him, and it was quite unfamiliar.  But
quite welcome.
     He could get used to this.
     He was just wondering what Nabiki was up to in the back with
Ukyou, what with all the bags and gear she'd brought, when he heard
the door open behind him.
     "Hey, Ryouga," Nabiki called.  "We need your opinion on
something."
     "Hmmm?" he asked, turning.
     And then he gaped.
     It was Ukyou.  He didn't realize that for a second, because
he'd never seen her look quite this way before.  She was wearing a
dress.  That description hardly did it justice, of course.  It was black,
coming down to mid-thigh on the leg and with long sleeves.  The neck
was scooped rather low, and a belt of gold hoops was clasped tightly
around her narrow waist.  It showed off her figure very nicely, hugging
her curves.  Her hair was loose, brushed out to a glossy sheen where it
cascaded down her back.  A ribbon, black to match the dress, was
tied under her hair at the back and up to the crown of her head in a
bow.  She also appeared to be wearing earrings and possibly a little
makeup.
     She was frankly just beautiful.  He was so stunned by her
appearance that he hardly noticed how nervously she shifted as he
stared at her.
     "Well?" she asked finally in a tiny little voice.  "What do you
think, Ryouga?"
     "Ha?" he asked.  "Um ... uh ..."
     "And of course, I'm here too," Nabiki said wryly, tugging at
her cropped red jacket.  She sighed.  "Oh, it's pointless, isn't it?
Look, Ukyou, when they are actually rendered speechless, that's a
good thing.  Trust me on this."  Ukyou still looked nervous.
     "Maybe it's too much," she said, doubt evident in her voice.
Nabiki sighed.
     "Ryouga," she said loudly.  "Do you like Ukyou's dress?"  He
nodded slowly.  "Do you think it's too much?"  Slow shaking of head.
Nabiki smiled.
     "There, you see?  Now let's go."  Nabiki slung her purse over
her shoulder and propelled Ukyou toward the door.
     "Um, Ryouga, will you be all right?" she asked as they passed
him.  The faint scent of perfume reached him in their wake, and he
swallowed.  Hard.
     "He's survived on mountains and in jungles and who knows
where else, Ukyou.  He'll be okay one night in an empty restaurant.
C'mon, let's go!"
     "Okay, uh ... bye, Ryouga."  He waved, feeling his mouth
hanging open foolishly.  Nabiki waved back.
     "Don't wait up," she said with a wink.
     And then they were gone.
     Ryouga stared at the doorway for a time, willing his brain to
start working again.  Finally, he slumped back against the counter, a
long low sigh escaping from him.
     "Whoa," he breathed.
     That really seemed to say it all.

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

     "I told you it was good," Nabiki was saying as they neared
their destination.  Ukyou felt an odd sense of euphoria.  Ryouga's
reaction hadn't been hard to interpret, after all.  She'd seen Ryouga go
to pieces around pretty girls before, but he'd never done it around
*her*.
     Maybe Nabiki was right.
     "What's this place like?" Ukyou asked as they came into sight
of the front door.
     "Oh, fairly upscale, with a nice mix of people.  I think you'll like it."

They watched as a shiny black Mercedes pulled up in front of the club
and an exotically beautiful woman with dusky skin and long white hair
stepped out.  She was wearing a very daring red dress that garnered
quite a few appreciative stares as she slinked gracefully down the short
flight of stairs and went inside.  Nabiki whistled.
     "Nice car," she noted.
     "Car?  Did you see her dress?  Wow, she was really beautiful.
Maybe we're underdressed ..."  Nabiki grabbed her hand and pulled
her along.
     "Come on, you.  We're going to go in there, and we're going
to have some fun!  Even," she added with mock seriousness, "if it kills
you."
     They went to the door and pushed their way in, the din of the busy
club swallowing them whole.
 

End part 7