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 Eight: First Steps
 

     The music was a second heartbeat, throbbing in her blood
through the womb-like heat of the crowded club.  Lights strobed,
revealing and shrouding all in one bright flash, sweeping the sea of
bodies.  Ukyou slipped onto a stool, reflexively edging closer to Nabiki
as they placed their club sodas on the narrow shelf that ran along the
wall.
     "Well, it sure is ... loud," Ukyou managed, speaking a little
louder than normal to be heard above the din.  Nabiki grinned.
     "That's all you've got to say?  Loud?  It's chaos, Ukyou.
That's kind of the point.  This is a place for letting go.  If you want to
think deep thoughts, try the public library!"  Ukyou supposed she had a
point.  And the insistent throbbing of the music did seem to resonate
deeply in her chest and belly, beyond the realm of rational thought, in a
place of primal instinct.  Nabiki was still grinning at her, and she realized
that she was tapping her fingers and swaying slightly on her stool.
     "So, you want to dance?" she asked teasingly.  Ukyou found
herself grinning back.
     "You know, I do," she said.
     "Well, let's go!"  Together they pushed into the throng and
soon found themselves on the dance floor.
     The music was invariably loud and fast-paced, and soon they
were both swept away by it, moving their bodies to the seductive beat.
For the first time in ages, Ukyou wasn't thinking of Ranma, or her
problems, or how unhappy everyone seemed to be lately.  She wasn't
thinking at all; she just *was*.  She moved and bounced and cheered
along with the crowd, singing along to some of the songs she
recognized, just dancing to others.
     It was bliss.
     They returned to their seats after a time, both gasping for
breath.  Nabiki looked pleased with herself, lifting damp strands of hair
from her neck and fanning herself with her hand.
     "Whew!  The place is rocking tonight!  So, Ukyou.  Having a
good time?"  Ukyou nodded, unable to stop grinning.
     "This was a fabulous idea, Nabiki!"
     "Yes," Nabiki said immodestly.  "I know."  They both giggled
at that.
     "Hey, that guy kept coming over by you.  The tall guy with the
black shirt, remember?  I think he likes you," Ukyou grinned.  Nabiki
shrugged.
     "If he plays his cards right, he can buy me a drink," she said
suggestively.  "His friend seemed to have eyes for you, though."  Ukyou
felt a hot blush rise to her cheeks.
     "Oh, I don't think he ..."
     "And he *was* kinda cute.  When a slow song comes on,
maybe you should give him some eye contact."  Ukyou knotted her
hands together nervously, although there was a pleasant tingle in her
stomach.
     "I don't know, Nabiki," she said, peering up through her bangs
shyly.  Nabiki laughed at the spectacle.
     "Whatever," she said.  "The night's still young.  And you're
supposed to be working on your self-esteem, remember?"
     "What?  Since when?"
     "Doctor Nabiki's prescription.  Loads of adulation from the
testosterone set.  Just make sure he minds his hands ..."
     "Na-BIKI!"  She laughed again.  The night seemed ripe with
possibilities, unrealized potential, and mystery, and Ukyou realized she
hadn't felt this way in a long time.  If ever.  And it was a seductive
feeling.
     "Hey, I'm parched," Nabiki said, still fanning herself.  "I'll go
get us some more club soda.  Be right back."  Nabiki headed off
toward the bar, and Ukyou sighed, sitting back on her stool and turning
to watch the crowd.  The club was a kaleidoscope of humanity,
beautiful vivacious youth that came together, split, then recombined in
heated couplings.  It was fun to watch, not to mention educational.
Ukyou let the music thrum through her while she absently watched the
goings-on around her.
     Something caught her eye, and she frowned.  A flash of red, a swirl
of white.  The crowd eddied and parted, and she found herself looking
at the woman she and Nabiki had seen entering the club.  She was
strutting slowly through the crowd, her brief red dress showing a lot of
dusky skin.  She ran one slim hand through her long white hair, and
Ukyou sighed.  That woman was beautiful, sophisticated.  She moved
gracefully, and seemed completely unfazed by the admiring looks she
got as she moved through the crowd.
     I wish I could be like that, she thought wistfully.  Totally in
control, at ease in my own skin ...
     The woman's gorgeous gray eyes shifted, and Ukyou realized
that she'd been caught staring.  She blushed and looked away, hoping
she'd looked casual about it.  Then she glanced back, and her heart
stuttered.
     The woman was coming towards her, a sultry smile playing at
her lips.  Ukyou blushed even more deeply, cursing herself for being so
stupid.  She was sure that if the vision walking over to her had been
caught staring, she wouldn't have blushed.  She'd have done something
classy, like nod and smile, acknowledging the stare easily.  Ukyou felt
clumsy and foolish.
     "Hello there."  She looked up to find the woman standing over
her.  Her voice was just how Ukyou would have imagined, deep and
husky, a voice that probably drove men wild.  She swallowed.
     "H-hi," she said.  Oh, nice one, Ukyou, she chided herself.
Very smooth!
     "I'm sorry I was staring," she blundered on.  "I, uh ... like your
dress."  The woman smiled at her gently, running one hand down the
sleek fabric.
     "Why, thank you.  I'm Riana.  What's your name?"
     "Ukyou."  Ukyou began to relax a little.  The woman didn't
seem put out by her stare at all.  In fact, she was being quite charming.
     "Are you here alone, Ukyou?"  She shook her head.
     "No, I'm here with a friend.  She's off getting some drinks."
Riana raised one perfect eyebrow at that as a new song started up, a
slower, sensuous rhythm.  She swayed in place, her cool, bottomless
eyes holding Ukyou's.
     "Well, she's abandoned you during my favourite song.  How
lucky for me.  Would you care to dance?"  Ukyou blinked.  Dance?
With her?  To *this* song?
     Ukyou had had women come onto her before while dressed as
a boy.  She'd been told she made a pretty boy, after all, but she'd
always managed to put them off.  She'd never had it happen this way
before, though, and it took her a second to realize just what was
happening.
     She thinks I ... she thinks ...  Ukyou's brain locked up as the
woman held one hand out to her, a whiff of expensive perfume washing
over her.  She couldn't seem to tear her eyes away from the other
woman's gaze, and she realized with faint alarm that she was reaching
out to take the woman's hand.
     "Why, *there* you are, love!  Come on, let's dance!"  Ukyou
blinked as someone moved between them, grabbing the startled woman
and whirling her away onto the dance floor.
     Huh?
     She shook her head, feeling like she was waking out of a light
doze.  Her hand was still held out and, feeling foolish, she let it drop.
     "Hey!"  She turned to see Nabiki standing behind her with a
couple of drinks, an arch expression on her face.
     "There you are," Ukyou said, feeling relieved.  Nabiki put the
drinks down and frowned.
     "Just what exactly was going on here, Ukyou?"  Ukyou
fidgeted.
     "I, uh ..."
     "You looked like you were about to go cheek dancing with that
woman, that's what!  Have you been drinking?"
     "Of course not!" Ukyou denied hotly.  "I just ..."  How to
explain it?  She'd felt drawn to the woman, almost ... hypnotically.
"Well, it's hard to explain."  Nabiki snorted.
     "You think *that's* hard to explain?  Did you see who stole
your dance partner?"  Ukyou gave her a quizzical look and turned to
the dance floor.  It took her a few seconds to spot the couple she was
looking for, but when she did her jaw literally dropped.
     "No way!" she squeaked.

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

     Riana had felt a warm glow in her belly, and turning, had
spotted the girl.  Her chi was strong enough to stand out even in the
crowded club, and better yet she was staring right at Riana.
     Riana had moved in, her predatory instincts kicking into gear as
she slipped easily through the crowd.  The girl was embarrassed at
having been caught, blushing prettily and looking away.  She was
wearing a simple black dress and matching black hair ribbon that made
her look sweetly sexy and yet innocent at the same time.  Riana's heat
increased as she drew near.
     Yes.  This one would do nicely.
     She'd caught the girl's attention easily, striking up a
conversation while she held the girl's gaze, staring into those pretty
green eyes and letting her compulsion fall on her hapless prey.
     Then, just as she was ready to claim her prize, she was denied.
Someone grabbed her around the waist and propelled her away, out
onto the dance floor.  Slim arms circled her waist tightly, and she was
pulled against a lush female body, suppressing a snarl as she watched
her lovely meal slip away.
     Then she took in the mocking eyes and tawny hair, and realized
just who had denied her the girl, and for an instant she seriously
considered transforming there and then, orders be damned.
     "Tragus," she hissed venomously.  The lovely teacher kept her
pulled close, undulating suggestively against her while the slow
compelling music rolled over them.
     "Dance, won't you, love?  We don't want a scene, after all."
Tragus brushed against her deliberately and she began to dance with
him, or her, as it was hard to think of Tragus any other way in Hinako's
body.
     "You are seriously testing my patience," she spat, trying to
keep her expression neutral.  She was trapped on the dance floor, and
there was no way she could just tear the insolent Tragus apart the way
she wanted to.  And Tragus, damn her, knew it.  She let her hands
roam slightly over the curves of Riana's back, and smiled slowly at her
reaction.
     "That's it, love.  Doesn't hurt to be nice, does it?"  Tragus
smiled teasingly, letting her fingers slip up to the back of Riana's neck.
"After all, this is what you were intending to do with that pretty young
thing, right?  I'd be much more ... diverting."  Riana smiled back.
     "If you'd like to end up where she would have, I accept your
offer," she said.  Tragus laughed.
     "You are so haughty, love.  I bet I could change all that.
Maybe I'd have to tie you down, hmmm?"
     "I do all the binding in my relationships, Tragus," Riana said
coldly.  Tragus pouted.
     "Ah, you see, you're letting silly prejudice stand in the way of
what could be a ... beautiful relationship.  I'm more like you now than
what I was.  And this body, is it not comely?  It has certain charms, you
must admit."  Tragus was right.  Under other circumstances, she might
consider the girl a worthy diversion.
     "Well, Tragus, why don't you come back to my mansion and
we'll discuss the matter further?" she asked lightly.  Tragus just gave
her a musical laugh.
     "Oh, no thank you, love.  I quite like having my head on my
shoulders.  I'd prefer any encounter between us remain on neutral
ground for now.  But I have news."  Riana's hands had moved up to
Tragus's shoulders, and she smiled enticingly.
     "Do tell?  What news could you have that would interest me?"
She tried to keep her tone light, bantering.  She was beginning to
remember that she'd wanted to meet with Tragus, to put her plan in
motion.  She'd been taken off-guard and under circumstances other
than those she would have chosen, but being able to think on her feet
had kept her alive and in charge this long.  She'd play along and wait
for the right opportunity.
     "Oh, I thought you might like to know that I'm now in total
control of this body.  The irritating school teacher is a mere memory."
     "Do tell?"  They swayed together, and Riana was aware of the
attention they were attracting.  Well, good.  Perhaps the evening
wouldn't be a total waste after all.  This spectacle might make her hunt
easier in the end.
     "Yes, well, that's not all.  You see, I'm becoming very close
friends with one of my students."  Riana cocked her head lightly.
     "Scandalous," she murmured.  Tragus moved her face closer
until their noses were nearly touching, grinding her hips lightly into
Riana's and enjoying the resultant expression on her reluctant partner's
face.
     "Indeed.  It's the oldest story in the book, really.  Beautiful,
experienced older woman takes young man in hand to show him the
pleasures of life.  Maybe you know him?  Tatewaki Kunou?"  Tragus's
hazel eyes were boring into Riana's, and she carefully controlled her
reaction.
     "That's a dangerous game, Tragus.  The boy is off limits."
Tragus ran her fingers through Riana's hair slowly, luxuriating in its
silken softness, and bumped her hips lightly against Riana's in a
coquettish manner.
     "Really?  Why is that, love?  I mean, since I'm not taking
orders from you and all.  Why should I care?"  Riana was careful to
hide her excitement.  Here she was, about to try to manipulate Tragus,
and the little punk was trying to do the same to her!  This would be
delicate, and would need to be handled just so, or Tragus would
become suspicious.  And she didn't want that, not now that she had
hope finally in her grasp.
     "Tragus.  You don't want to make trouble for me, do you?"
she asked silkily, letting her body come more fully against her partner.
Tragus's eyes widened, then she smiled in understanding at Riana's
subtle offer.  It was, after all, just the sort of deal Tragus would
understand best, and no doubt just what she'd had in mind.
     "Well, that would be unfortunate," she answered, taking full
advantage of Riana's opening.
     "It could be very unfortunate," Riana murmured throatily.  "For
all of us, if you acted hastily."
     "Oh, I don't know," Tragus returned, watching her closely.  "I
might just be of some help to you.  I mean, once I get inside the Kunou
estate, why, there must be a treasure trove of magical artifacts in there
like that sword ..."
     Bingo!  She let a faint trace of alarm slip into her manner, her
arms sliding around Tragus's slim shoulders and tightening in warning.
     "Tragus!  No!"  Tragus watched her as she pretended to bite
back any further comment, being content for a moment to dance in the
strobing light and darkness, surrounded by delicious youth and vigour.
     "Because ...?" Tragus asked suggestively.  She scowled.
     "Damn it, you know I can't trust you!"  Tragus smiled
seductively, running her fingers lightly down Riana's long back as she
did so.
     "Riana," she purred.  "What's the better option?  Giving me
information, or letting me stumble around in there blindly?  The boy will
give me the run of the place, believe that.  Soon he'll give me whatever
I want."  Riana made a show of considering Tragus's argument, but not
too much of one.  She didn't want to overplay her hand.  Finally, she
moved in so their bodies were in full contact, her arms around Tragus's
neck, staring directly into the possessed teacher's eyes from only inches
away.
     "Tragus.  I will tell you this one thing, and only because I don't
fancy losing all I've worked for because of you," she breathed.  "There
is an artifact in that estate, a golden pendant in the shape of a dragon's
head with green gemstones for eyes.  That one artifact is the key to the
power of chaos incarnate.  It is feared even by us, for it cannot be
controlled.  Play your games and take your treasures, but mind me.  If
you try to harness the power of that pendant, we will all pay the
ultimate price.  Better than you and I have tried and failed.
Understand?"  Tragus licked her lips.
     "Of course.  I'm not suicidal, love.  Now, wasn't that nicer than
fighting?"  Tragus moved in for a kiss, and Riana slipped out of her
arms easily.
     "Sorry.  The song's over, Tragus.  And I've hunting to do."  Tragus
looked frustrated for a moment, then smiled.
     "You see, Riana, we should work together.  That way we'll all
get what we want.  It's much better this way."  Riana cocked her head.
     "Maybe," she said at last.  "First prove your worth, and your
discretion.  Follow the one piece of advice I gave you.  If you can do
that, I'll consider allowing you into my inner circle.  Consider, mind
you."  Tragus gave her a mocking smile.
     "A chance, that's all I ask," she said simply.  Then she let her
gaze linger on Riana's body, and smirked.  "Well, not quite *all* ..."
     "Good-bye, Tragus," Riana sighed, turning and slipping into the
crowd.
     Riana felt a sense of exultation.  Tragus was greedy and stupid.
She would take the fastest, most direct path to power instead of biding
her time and trying to topple Riana from within.  That meant she would
definitely try for the pendant.  And once she had it away from the
estate, then Riana could take it from her.
     Then her long wait would be over.  The only question was how
long it would take the impulsive Tragus to retrieve the amulet.
     Her mood once again light, Riana danced her way through the
wave of humanity as the music started up once again.  Perhaps she'd
find the girl with the strong chi that she'd almost had before ... and
celebrate.

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

     "No ... way," Ukyou managed at last.  "Miss Hinako? *Our* Miss
Hinako?"  Nabiki was watching with interest.  She'd seen the
beautiful woman talking to Ukyou as she'd made her way back, and
from where she'd been standing it had almost looked like she'd been
asking Ukyou to dance.  Then, to her surprise, Miss Hinako had
appeared out of nowhere and whirled the woman away.
     "Boy, she's really walking on the wild side, huh?" Nabiki
asked.  They could see the teacher, her arms around the exotically
beautiful stranger, dancing slow and close.  Nabiki saw that Ukyou was
blushing furiously as she watched.
     "She's ... she's ..." she stuttered.  Nabiki smiled.
     "Yes.  She certainly is, isn't she?"  Something in Nabiki's tone
caused Ukyou to look at her blackly.
     "What?" Nabiki asked.
     "Nabiki, if you were an anime character, you would have dollar
signs for pupils right now," Ukyou said flatly.  "I know what you're
thinking."  Nabiki glanced back out to where Miss Hinako seemed to
be whispering intimately in her partner's ear.
     "Wow, look at her go," she said.  "Who'd have thought she
had it in her?"
     "Nabiki!  You can't blackmail a teacher!"  Nabiki blinked
innocently.
     "Blackmail?  Moi?  Whatever could you be talking about?"
Ukyou continued to pin her with a dark stare, and Nabiki smiled.
     "Wow, Ukyou, you know, it really is great, you standing up for
Miss Hinako this way."  Ukyou took a drink of her club soda.
     "Well, there's nothing wrong with ... that," she said primly,
gesturing at where the two women were dancing closely together.  Very
closely.
     "I'm glad you feel that way," Nabiki said casually.  "Especially
in light of those rumours she helped start ..."  She trailed off
suggestively, and Ukyou froze in the middle of taking another drink.
     "Rumours?" she asked.  "What rumours?"
     "Oh, it doesn't matter," Nabiki said dismissively.  Ukyou
moved closer.
     "Nabiki.  What?  Rumours?"  Nabiki sighed.
     "Oh, well ... you know how thought people have been watching
you lately?  Well, it turns out that, as a result of our little clinch that
day,
you know, when Mousse was air-mailing his invitations?  Well, Miss
Hinako was of the mistaken impression that we, that is you and I, were
..."  Comprehension dawned in Ukyou's eyes.
     "Eep!" she squeaked.  Nabiki nodded.
     "Exactly.  If you're interested, the rumours currently making the
rounds have us as either a girl/girl couple or a girl/boy couple,
depending on whether your true gender is known by the teller or not."
Ukyou grabbed Nabiki's arm.
     "I *told* you that was how rumours got started!  Didn't I tell
you that?  What are we going to do about this?"  Nabiki smiled
comfortingly.
     "Ukyou, Ukyou.  I am aware of the situation now, and will take
all steps necessary to dispel these rumours.  Don't panic."  Ukyou
stared at her warily for a moment, then relaxed slightly.
     "Really?" she asked doubtfully.
     "Really.  Information is power, et cetera et cetera.  Trust me, I will
straighten everything out."  Ukyou sighed finally.
     "No wonder everyone's been staring at us," she said grumpily.  "I
mean, what a stupid rumour."  Nabiki's eyes gleamed.
     "Well, you can thank our friend Miss Hinako for helping to
propagate it," she said.  Ukyou stared out at the dancing teacher,
looking puzzled.
     "Well, she *does* think I'm a boy," she said.  "She didn't
mean anything by it."
     "Really?  Just yesterday, she told me I was welcome to all the
girls as that would leave more boys for her.  And look at her now.
Talk about greedy."  Ukyou held her head in her hands, groaning.
     "I don't believe this.  This is just so ... stupid!"  Nabiki patted
her shoulder comfortingly.
     "Oh, relax.  Rumours are par for the course around Furinkan.
Your lucky there haven't been more about you, the way you go around
dressed like a boy all the time.  Boy, you should hear some of the ones
that have circulated about Ranma!  That boy is a one man ... what?"
Ukyou was staring at her again.
     "You don't suppose he's ... heard these rumours?" she asked
weakly.  Nabiki gave her a put-upon sigh.
     "Ukyou, he's the *last* person who would believe them, right?
Anyway, what he thinks isn't your problem anymore.  Now come on,
don't worry.  I said I'd straighten things out and I will.  Anyway, these
things always blow over.  Tonight, we relax, okay?"  Ukyou sighed.
     "You know, the thing about this town is, life's never dull."
Nabiki grinned.
     "That's for sure.  C'mon, let's dance!"

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

     Tragus let Riana slip away into the crowd, considering his
position.  His little impromptu conference with her had been quite
interesting, to say the least.  Whether the softening of her stance against
him was a ploy or not was certainly open for debate; the matter of the
pendant was not.  She'd reacted with very real agitation when she'd
mentioned it.  Her breathing had quickened, her skin had flushed and
her pupils had dilated, and none of that had been a reaction to anything
he'd done, more's the pity.
     The pendant.  Tragus's eyes narrowed.  It was just possible
that she had become so comfortable in her position that she was
unwilling to risk tampering with something that was dangerous and
unpredictable.  Tragus, on the other hand, had no such compunctions.
After all, he had very little to lose and much to gain.  He wanted to rise
above his station, to seize power and gorge himself on it, and fate had
given him that opportunity, first with this body and now with this
knowledge.
     Of course, he couldn't take things at face value, not with Riana.
Still, it was worth taking a chance to see what came of it.  He would
continue with his plan to ingratiate himself with the Kunou boy and see
what could be learned that way.  He was quite enjoying learning the
ways in which a beautiful woman could wield subtle power.  It might be
interesting in the meantime, though, to rattle young Tatewaki's cage and
see if anything popped out.  Perhaps place him in a situation where that
sort of power might be needed ...
     As he thought, his eye chanced across the lovely young thing
who'd nearly become Riana's latest meal.  Tragus wondered what the
girl would think if she knew how close to death she'd come.  Then the
crowd shifted slightly and Tragus froze.
     Nabiki Tendou.  The girl was talking to Nabiki Tendou.  And
...  He stared at the girl for a few moments.  She *did* look familiar.
Could it be?  It was!  That vision of loveliness was Ukyou Kuonji!
     Tragus was amazed.  He never would have recognized the girl.
It made him wonder why she dressed as a boy.  Hinako's memories
held no answers to that question as the little twit still thought Kuonji was
a boy.  It looked as though the rumours about those two were true.
Although the Tendou girl had seemed somewhat possessive of
Tatewaki Kunou the previous day ...  Wait a moment.
     Tragus felt his lips curving into a smile.  Yes.  Oh, yes.  Very
good.  The goddess of fortune was positively beaming down upon him,
once a lowly Borgunma.  And here he'd been looking for a stick with
which to rattle young Mr. Kunou's cage.  He smiled unpleasantly,
slipping off into the crowd.  There were things that needed to be done,
and quickly.
     Nabiki Tendou was going to have an unpleasant night, quite
possibly the last one of her young life.  At worst, Tragus would have
some entertainment.  At best, he would see the power hidden within the
Kunou estate in action.
     But first, he needed some strong young specimen to drain.

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

     Nabiki drew in a breath of cool night air and sighed.
     "Well," she said, the noise of the club still a low whine in her
ears, "how was that for a night out?  Everything I promised?"  Ukyou
grinned, practically skipping along beside her.
     "Wow," she said.  Nabiki grinned back.
     "You said that already, you know.  About fourteen times."
     "Well, I meant it," Ukyou replied.  "Really, really wow."
     "I guess it didn't hurt when those two guys started competing
for your attention," Nabiki said casually, trying to hide her amusement
at the way Ukyou blushed.
     "You're making too much of that," Ukyou mumbled.
     "Oh?  They were trying to impress you by outdoing each other,
Ukyou.  That's a good thing.  And they weren't bad, the taller one was
quite a cutie."
     "Yeah he ... I mean, I really didn't notice."  Ukyou fiddled
with her dress for a moment, then looked with shy uncertainty at Nabiki
from the corners of her eyes.
     "They *were* flirting with me, weren't they?" she asked.  Nabiki
laughed.
     "Outrageously," she assured the other girl.  "I'm quite jealous.
Did you enjoy it?"  Ukyou took a deep breath, then squeezed her eyes
shut and nodded frantically.
     "Yes!" she squeaked.  "Oh, Nabiki, that *was* fun!  Is it awful
to have let them pay so much attention to me?"
     "Awful?  You didn't make them do anything, you know!  They
wanted to flirt with you.  That's what happens to cute girls."
     "But it's never happened to me before!"  Nabiki rolled her
eyes.
     "When you weren't going around dressed as a boy, Ukyou,
you never paid the slightest attention to a guy other than Ranma.  Trust
me, that was a natural occurrence and, if I'm any judge, quite an ego
boost.  Right?"  Ukyou nodded again, still flushed with pleasure.
     "One time I wore a girl's uniform to school, and I got lots of
attention," she sighed, "but not from Ranma, so to me it didn't count."
     "Well, now you're free to enjoy it," Nabiki said.  "So enjoy it."  They
came to a corner and Nabiki stretched.  "Well, this is where I get off,"
she yawned.
     "Nabiki, it's late.  You could come back to my place if you
want," Ukyou offered.  Nabiki shook her head.
     "Thanks, but I'm just going to head home.  I've got plans for
tomorrow morning."  She didn't add that those plans involved setting
up a video camera to tape Ranma and Akane in the kitchen.
     "Wait!  What about your dress?"  Nabiki grinned.
     "I'll get it back later.  You know, we're going to have to go
shopping sometime, to find you some more girly clothes."  Ukyou
blushed.
     "Nabiki!"  Nabiki just grinned.
     "Aw, you're going to love it, trust me!" she called.  "Catch you
later!"  With that, she set off down the deserted street for home, leaving
Ukyou behind.  But not before she heard humming, and turned to see
Ukyou walking away with a definite skip in her step, twirling every so
often to unheard music.  Nabiki shook her head with a wry grin.
     "Oh, Nabiki, don't make me wear those girly clothes!" she
squeaked under her breath.  "I'll just look dumb!"  Chuckling, she
thought of how Ukyou had needed only a little coaxing to go out that
night.  She was, of course, more than willing to be coaxed, which was
hardly surprising.  It was far past time that she emerged from her shell
and spread her wings.
     Humming a snatch of music under her breath, she strode easily
along the sidewalk for a distance, until something caught her attention as
she passed under a streetlight.
     Since when did she have two shadows?

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

     Kunou sat cross-legged on the floor of his practice area.  It
was distressingly clean, he thought with a sudden, surprising pang of
sorrow as he looked about.  Kodachi had been prone to leaving her
equipment lying around for the servants to clean up after her sessions,
and he remembered wistfully how it used to vex him.  Now, though, he
found himself longing for just such an irritant.  Anything to distract him.
     Because frankly, he was swamped.  The affairs of the estate and its
duties were in an incredible disarray, and his attempts over the last few
days to make some sense of where things stood had left him with little
more than a headache.  There were records, strange inventories of
items, histories, out of date dossiers on missing allies and piles of
miscellaneous papers that he simply couldn't make any sense out of.
     It had been this way since his father had succumbed to his
madness, possibly even before.  Things had been falling apart for a long
time, and he had no idea where to begin trying to put them back
together.  Any enemy that tried to breach his hold by force, he could
fight.  The blade had been his constant companion since he'd been a
boy.  But this ... bureaucracy was beyond him.  The only books he
favoured were his beloved tomes of poetry, haiku and Shakespeare
and romantic era poets, giving him escape from his dark duty on
silvered words.
     A sword would avail him nothing with these other problems,
though, and the resultant feeling of impotence had him quite out of sorts.
He had no idea what to do, no plan for how to proceed.  So he did
what he invariably did when things got to be too much for him.  He
pulled a worn cloth headband from inside his shirt and tied it around his
forehead, letting the long ends dangle in the back.  Then he picked up
his bokken and rose smoothly to his feet, assuming a beginning stance.
     And he let the movements flow out from his centre, letting his
mind and body become one flawless unit, forgetting it all.
     For a while.

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

     Something moving, off to the right.  She turned, seeing nothing
but shadows, but she knew it was there.  Her senses had the painful
acuity of prey, fleeing for its life.
     The air burned Nabiki's chest like acid as she ran.  Every time
she tried to turn, one of them sprang up and she had to go another way.
Her legs were hot and leaden, and cold fear sweat trickled down her
back.
     They were playing with her.  That was it.  They were toying
with her before killing her, and she had no idea how to stop them.  Just
then she'd have traded *everything* she knew for just one of Ranma's
techniques.
     After all, it seemed unlikely any of them needed their taxes
done.
     She ran blindly, as she had from the first glimpse of one of them
creeping up behind her, trying to reign in her panic.  Think, dammit!
She gasped as she stumbled, then regained her balance.  Falling.
Falling would be bad.  If she fell, they might just decide she wasn't fun
any longer.  She didn't want that.
     Nabiki was coming to believe that it was worse not being able
to see them.  The fact that they seemed to be all around her, popping
out at odd times with playful swipes of clawed hands, was highly
unnerving.  As she ran, the night seemed alive with pools of deeper
shadow and concealing trees and fences.  She stumbled again, nearly
falling.
     Don't, she told herself desperately.  Don't stop.  You've got to
think of something, and quick!  Yes, quickly would be good.  She
couldn't go on much longer.
     A large, featureless wall loomed up ahead of her.  She cursed
to herself.  She'd have to try to double back, or risk getting trapped by
the ...
     Wall.  Big, high wall.  And ... familiar?  She shot a few frantic
glances around, hope blossoming in her chest as she realized where she
was.
     That wall surrounded the Kunou estate.  Sanctuary, if she was
fast.  And lucky.
     Very, very lucky.
     She cast a glance back over her shoulder, catching a glimpse of
something darting between the lonely pools of safety cast by the
streetlights.  She still might get trapped, but there really wasn't any
choice.  She couldn't run any further.  She had to risk it.
     "Puss, puss puss puss," a gravelly, mocking voice came from
behind her.  She forced herself to run on, looking for the gate.  Any of
the martial artists in Nerima could have jumped that wall easily, of
course, and didn't she just have to think of that as she pushed herself
onwards?  There were sounds behind her now, sounds very much like
those something with big, clawed feet might make running on pavement.
     Be there, Kunou, she begged silently.  You're my only hope,
and I sure don't want to die with that thought on my mind.

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

     Something nagged at the edge of Kunou's awareness,
interrupting his concentration.  It was only a small distraction, but even
those were rare now that he was alone in the house most times.  For a
moment, he considered that possibility that it might be his father, but
dismissed that thought immediately.  Darkness had fallen quite some
time ago, and his father would never dare venture near the house after
dark.
     Still, the noise continued, and that, combined with his
frustration, disrupted his inner peace and finally caused him to stop.
The familiar nature of the noise taunted him, like a word that just eludes
articulation.  He sighed, walking over to the door and opening it,
bokken still in his hand.  Once he'd done that, the noise came to him
clearly through the stillness of the house.
     Someone was at the main gate, ringing the buzzer.  Although
ringing didn't do it justice.  The idiot must be *leaning* on the thing.
Shaking his head, he began walking toward the front door and the
intercom panel.  He might just as well deal with whoever it was quickly.
     He was almost to the door when his unwelcome visitor let up
on the button, and he savoured the sudden silence even as he listened.
The buzzer activated the intercom, but he heard nothing from it but a
low hum.  Then, as he neared the main foyer, she screamed.
     "DAMMIT KUNOU, WHERE ARE YOU?"  He almost
didn't recognize Nabiki Tendou's voice.  He certainly had never heard
that tone of raw panic from her before, but in his mind, there could only
be one cause.
     The sword was where he had left it, safe in his rooms.  But it
would take time to double back, and he wasn't certain he had time.  It
only took him a split-second to decide, and he was running all out,
slapping the gate release as he cannoned past the intercom and burst
out into the night.
     And all he could think was, Not again.  This time, I will not be
too late.
     Please.
     And from the direction of the main gate, he heard howls.

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

     Tragus watched as three of his helpers closed in on the girl from
all sides.  She had her back to the gate, watching the demons coming
closer with a kind of horrified fascination.  Finally, she turned and
screamed into the intercom beside her.
     "I'm impressed," Tragus said from his place of concealment.
"That's the first time she's screamed since we started.  She's made of
sterner stuff than I would have thought, is our Miss Tendou."  Plik
snorted indifferently.
     "If those guys walk any slower, they'll be going backwards," he
growled, his discoloured fangs dripping hot saliva onto the ground.
"Can we just get this over with?"  Tragus sighed.
     "Remember the plan, Plik," he said patiently.  "Drive her here,
then wait until the boy appears, and see what he does."
     "Stupid plan," Plik shrugged.  "Kill him, kill her ... now there's
a plan."  Tragus ignored the creature.  Things were going well so far,
although it might get sticky if the Kunou brat wasn't even home.
     Just as he had that thought, though, the gate swung open and
the girl fell backwards with a startled cry.  One of her three stalkers
bounded forward, only to be brought up short by a crackle of
blue-white light that arced across the gate.
     "Wards," Plik hissed.  Tragus nodded.
     "Yes, but there are many weak spots.  Find some and get
inside, Plik old buddy.  From here on in, it's keep what you catch.
That was the deal, remember?"  Plik smiled, a sight not for the weak of
heart.
     "I don't care what Carg says, Tragus.  You're still one of
us!"  With that, Plik bounded off towards the wall.  Tragus sighed.
     Poor expendable bastard.  They all were, save Gruundi.  He fully
expected one of them would get Nabiki, of course, before she
made it to safety.  Kunou, though, was another matter.  Tragus wanted
to see what forces Kunou could bring to his defence, and to begin
putting the screws to the lonely young swordsman.  He needed every
advantage to put his plan into action.
     And best of all, of course, was that no matter what happened,
his hands would remain clean.  He leaned back and waited for the
fireworks to begin.

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

     Nabiki nearly had a heart attack when the gate opened on its
own, spilling her onto the path within.  One of the uglies that had been
eyeing her hungrily rushed forward, and she threw herself back
desperately.
     Fortunately, something stopped the thing from getting through
the open gate, some sort of light flash.  Nabiki just stared for a moment,
until the things ran off and she suddenly wondered if they could get in
another way.
     Then she was on her feet and running towards the lights of the
main house, barely visible through the trees.  She stumbled along as fast
as she could, the tiny hairs on her arms standing up painfully at every
tiny noise from the dense foliage around her.
     She barely had time to register the presence of a darker
shadow looming on the path ahead of her before she ran headlong into
it.  It grabbed her and she squawked in panic, flailing her arms wildly.
     "Nabiki!  Stop it, Nabiki!  We must get back to the house.
Quickly!"  She tried to swallow, but it felt like her entire stomach had
jumped up into her throat.
     "Kunou," she gasped.  "I'll deny ... ever having said this ... but
I am so glad to see you ..."  He grabbed her arm and pulled her along.
     "They are inside the wall already, I believe.  Can you run?"
What the hell do you think I've *been* doing, she wanted to ask.
Instead, she just nodded jerkily, and they started back towards the
house, Nabiki's heart hammering in her chest.
     That was when she saw it.
     "Kunou," she gritted.  "A stick?  You ... brought a *stick*?"  He
glanced around them, peering intently into the dark.
     "It is called a bokken," he said absently.  She tried desperately
to keep up.
     "The magic sword, Kunou," she sais with as much equanimity
as she could muster.  "Now would be a good time."
     "Faced with the choice of going back for it or coming for you, I
chose the latter.  Are you displeased with my choice?"
     "Well, why weren't you carrying it?" she asked, oddly peeved,
as if he should have been expecting just this occurrence.
     "I do not bathe or sleep with it either," he told her.  "Although
perhaps I shall have to begin doing both.  Duck."  She blinked, and he
pulled her down as something hurtled over them.  She had the
impression of bulk and scales, and then Kunou was pushing her
forward, towards the well-lit doorway of the main house.
     "Run," he suggested.  She did, and he stayed behind her,
turning as their attacker recovered and charged in with an unearthly
howl.  She caught a glimpse of Kunou's stupid stick blurring in a sharp
arc, and the howling changed in tenor, becoming shrill and filled with
pain.  She charged forward, certain that with every step something
would grab her from behind and drag her down.  The door seemed to
be maintaining its distance from her, like something out of a nightmare,
but finally she charged through the lighted opening and into an oasis of
sanity.  She could hear more pained howls behind her, and figured that
Kunou must be holding his own.  For the moment.
     Then she caught sight of a phone, sitting on a small table in the
foyer.  She ran over to it, quickly dialling the dojo's number.  If ever
there was a time to call for help, this was it.  Ranma could help.  If there
was one thing Ranma was good at, it was fighting.
     There was no ringing at the other end, just the crackle of an
open line.
     "Come on," she breathed.  She heard a sharp intake of breath
at the other end.
     "Hello?" she asked tentatively.
     "Nabiki?  Is ... that you?"  She froze, that chill prickling
sensation creeping across her skin again.
     "Who is this?" she asked hoarsely, although she knew.  She
hadn't heard that voice in years, but she knew it instantly.
     "Nabiki?  Thank heavens!  It's dark out here, and I'm afraid!
There's someone fighting, oh Nabiki help me!  Please!"  Nabiki's
mouth was painfully dry, and her pulse beat loud in her ears.  She
fancied she could smell a faint perfume, feel a warm embrace, hear a
tune being hummed in a warm kitchen.
     "Ma ... ma?"
     "Nabiki, please!  I don't know where to go!"
     "Mama?"  The receiver felt ice cold in her aching hand, but she
couldn't let go.  "No, it ... can't ..."
     "Something's here with me!  Kiki, help!"  Kiki.  Nobody had
called her that since her mother's death.  It had been mama's pet name
for her.  She felt a tightness in her chest as she turned to the open door.
     It can't be.  But ... what if it is?  After everything that's
happened, all the strange and impossible things ... what if she's out
there?  What if, somehow, someway ...?
     Kunou barrelled in through the door, slamming it shut behind
him.  Nabiki jumped at the loud noise, then jerked as a wailing came
from the receiver she clutched in her hand.
     "IT'S DARK!  OH KIKI PLEASE HELP PLEASE ..."
Nabiki dropped the phone as the wailing increased, and in the
background she could hear something else.  Growling.  Grunting.  She
stared at the phone helplessly, turning as an expressionless Kunou
stomped up beside her, trying to find the words as her mind, pushed to
the limits, threatened to shut down.
     "It's ... Kunou, we have to go back out.  We ..."  He ignored
her, raising his bokken, which she saw had been broken off raggedly
near the tip, then bringing it down over the phone, smashing it.  He
struck it repeatedly, then jerked the cord from the wall, but the wailing
and begging continued.  Nabiki was watching, her fists pressed
uselessly to her temples, everything feeling vaguely unreal.
     "Kunou ... Kunou, my mother!  She ..."  Kunou struck one last
time, and the phone splintered into shards, small circuit boards flying
everywhere.  Then he dropped the remnants of his bokken and turned
to grasp her firmly by the shoulders.  She realized with some surprise
that she was shaking, just a little.
     Wow, so this is what going into shock feels like, she thought
numbly.
     "Kunou ..." she began again.  His eyes met hers and held them,
his expression stern.
     "Your mother is beyond harm, Nabiki," he said firmly.  "She
has been dead for many years, has she not?"  He paused while she
soaked that up.
     "But ... she called me ... she *knew* ..."
     "They know how to hurt you, Nabiki," he said, his hands
tightening on her shoulders.  "They can find your darkest fear or most
vulnerable spot.  They used your mother's memory to try to lure you
back out.  A trick, a foul deception.  That is all."  She just looked at
him, and again that memory came, the memory of her mother's warm
safe scent as she hugged her, came with such clarity that she wanted to
cry.
     "But that's not fair," she found herself saying plaintively, and for
a moment, something glimmered deep in Kunou's eyes.  Not contempt,
not impatience.
     Understanding.
     "No," he murmured, his Adam's apple bobbing as he
swallowed.  "No, it is not."  Then his jaw clenched and he was pulling
her along again.
     "Kunou, what ... where are we going?"
     "We are not safe yet.  They have dared the wall, they may try
to enter the house.  I need my blade."  Nabiki fought to get her
emotions under control, casting one longing glance back at the ruined
phone as they ran further into the house.

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

     Kunou burst into his rooms, pulling Nabiki along behind.  She
looked shell-shocked, but seemed to be bearing up amazingly well
under the strain.  Just as well, as the night wasn't over yet.
     He let her go as he moved to the warded cabinet that held the
sword.  Sheer planes of light streamed out from every seam and crevice
in the cabinet, casting strange shadows on the walls.
     He opened it easily, reaching inside to grasp the cool hilt.  The light
spilled out easily, filling the room with a comforting blue-white light,
brilliant yet not at all painful to look at.  He heard Nabiki gasp behind
him as he straightened.
     "So that's it, huh?" she asked quietly.  He nodded.
     "This weapon will put an end to the foulness that has invaded
my home."  He started for the door, and she jumped in front of him.
     "Wait!"  He looked at her, puzzled.
     "Nabiki, you will be safe here ..." he began.  She frowned,
some of her stubbornness beginning to reassert itself.
     "You can't seriously be thinking of going out there alone!
Kunou, there are at least three of those things, maybe more!  How can
this possibly be considered a good idea?"
     "I have a duty."  It was just that clear to him, and he hoped he
could make it so to her as well.  Apparently, he couldn't.
     "Well, that won't matter much when you're dead!" she
snapped.  "Let's be sensible here, Kunou."
     "Very well," he said calmly.  "What do you suggest?"  She
looked a tad startled at that.
     "Uh, well ... for starters, we stay in here, where it's safe."
     "It is not safe.  Sooner or later, if left alone, they will try to
breach the house's defences, and they may well succeed.  If I do not
act, it will be seen as a sign of weakness, and others will come.  This
must be dealt with, quickly and harshly.  You must trust me on this."
She stared at him, her maddening aloofness finally making an
appearance.
     "And just how can I do that, when you won't tell me what's
going on?  None of this surprises you, does it?"  He fought to keep a
scowl off his face.
     "Now is not the time for us to resume that particular
conversation," he said tightly.  Nabiki's mouth was set in a stubborn
line.
     "I think it is," she said, staring him down.  Their impasse was
broken by the sound of something heavy striking the house.  Kunou
whirled and opened his window, since Nabiki was blocking the door.
     "Stay in this room," he advised her.  "It has fairly fresh
protections.  You'll be safe here."  That was true to a point; it was one
of the safest places in the house, thanks to Sasuke's meticulous use of
their few remaining active wards.  And he simply couldn't drag her
along with him.  Distractions could prove fatal, and the only way to
ensure her safety was to drive off or kill the intruders.
     So he ignored her outraged expression and hopped easily out
the window, much the way he had on the night Sasuke had died.  At
least she had the sense to close it behind him.  He surveyed the grounds
around him, peering intently into the shadows.  He had not activated the
security lights because their dazzling light might blind him at a critical
moment, while his blade's light would reveal without that danger.  Plus,
the shadows would make the things bolder, overconfident.
     It didn't seem like an all-out attack.  They were being
somewhat cautious, and if they had the numbers they would have
already attempted to overwhelm the house.  Perhaps he could deal with
the things quickly.  Then he could try to figure out just what he was
going to tell the inquisitive Nabiki Tendou.  She was tenacious at the
best of times; he feared that now he'd never be able to convince her to
leave matters lie.
     That was a matter for later, however.  For now, he had other,
more pressing matters to attend to.
     "I tire of these games," he said in a loud, commanding voice,
standing in the open.  "You will never gain your objective until I am
dead, so let us be about it, shall we?"
     "Brave words, *boy*," someone sneered.  He watched
impassively as three hulking forms shambled out of the darkness in a
rough semicircle, their eyes baleful red sparks in the dark.  Kunou
watched them come, aware that at least one of them had been injured
by his bokken, although how seriously remained to be seen.  His sword
blazed with a pure light that halted the monstrosities several feet away.
They moved to surround him, but he was not concerned.  Not as long
as none of them tried to break for the house.  Nabiki was a
non-combatant and as such, she was his responsibility.  While she was
under his protection, he vowed no harm would come to her.
     "Well, don't you look all fierce, kid?" one of the things asked
roughly.  It had tough scales on its body that gleamed in the light of his
sword, and it flexed its claws dangerously.  "Think you can use that
toy?"
     "Oooh, I think he's gonna wet himself!" another taunted.  One
of the creatures waved its four muscular arms and stomped to try to
draw his attention away.
     "Hey, boy!  Let us have the girl and we'll let you live.  Hey, you
can even watch!"  All three broke into raucous laughter at that, and
Kunou let his breath out in one long, slow controlled motion.
     Then he spoke.
     "This place has been attacked many times," he said in a low,
toneless voice.  "These grounds have been knee-deep in the blood of
my clansmen and the foul ichor of your kind, yet never has it fallen.
Nor shall it tonight.  There is still a Kunou to guard.  I fulfill the ancient

covenant of my clan."
     Then, oddly, he smiled, thinking of how the souls of his sister
and loyal Sasuke, and even of his brother, gone too soon, cried out to
him.
     For us, they chorused.  Forget your father and how he faltered
and dishonoured our clan.  Tonight, defend.  Protect.  And avenge.
For us.  He raised the glowing blade in front of him, point down, hilt
held high, and turned slowly, making certain he knew where each of the
things was and where it was going as they all circled together, waiting
for the moment when the talk would be done and the fighting would
begin.
     Then, as his right foot was pointing at the four-armed fiend,
he leapt in a high arc, twisting in the air to bring his sword down in a
savage blow to his enemy.  The thing tried to block his swing with its
arms, but with the full force of both his leap and his swing behind him,
the glowing blade cleaved through all four arms, bisecting the thing's
head neatly and continuing down into the chest.  Kunou landed
smoothly, drawing the blade free with one easy motion, turning to face
the other two as the startled creature made a hideous burbling sound
and collapsed, its body slowly turning to bubbling green slime.
     He'd seized the initiative and drawn first blood.  Now things
would get interesting.
     Howling, the others charged.

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

     The whole thing was unfolding right in front of her eyes, and all
she could do was watch.  Nabiki stared intently out the window as the
creatures came out into the pool of light around Kunou.  Seeing them
clearly didn't make her feel any better.  She could hear them taunting
Kunou, watched with trepidation as they circled eagerly.
     She'd seen Kunou fight before, and she had to admit (although
never to him) that he was good.  But there were three of the things, and
they weren't human.
     Then Kunou leapt into the air, almost too fast to see, and in
seconds he'd cut the first one almost in half.  As he turned from its
falling body, she felt a shock tingle through her body.
     That had been incredible.  Before she could do more than start
to feel optimism, though, the other two howled and charged.  Kunou
danced back, spinning that fiercely glowing sword in short arcs around
his body, holding them off while they all manoeuvred for position.  He
moved carefully, stepping back and then darting forward suddenly,
raining blows on the big hairy one, forcing it back.  She could hear the
howls of pain and rage clearly, and they made her skin want to crawl
off and find someplace to hide.
     Along with the rest of her, frankly, but she knew she couldn't
leave that window.  She had to see.  She had to know.  She just
couldn't bear *not* knowing.
     So she watched, breathless, as Kunou turned from the
wounded one just as the scaled monstrosity tried to gut him from
behind, parrying its long claws with his blade.  Then he spun, using the
charging creature's own momentum against it.  Committed, it was
unable to stop as he hit it with a savage cross-body stroke that cut it
cleanly in two.  He didn't even bother watching the body hit the ground,
instead using the force of his spin to carry him around so he was facing
the wounded survivor once more, lunging immediately to attack.
     The last one decided that it had had enough, turning to run
before discovering that its head was no longer in a position to be giving
orders.  Its body toppled heavily to the cool grass, beginning to
dissolve quickly.  Kunou straightened up and cleaned the slime from his
blade with a sharp flick of his wrist.  Nabiki blinked, feeling herself sag
against the cool glass with limp relief.  It was over.  He'd done it.  He'd
really done it!
     Then she saw his head turn sharply as someone walked out of
the trees.  She saw who it was and felt a cold solid fear settle in her
stomach.
     "Oh, no ..."

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

     He stood amidst the remains of his three opponents, almost
disappointed that it was over so quickly.  He fought to control the cold
rage that fuelled his movements, his nostrils flaring as he fought to
control his breathing.
     "And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" he whispered into
the still night, lips pulled back in a mirthless grin.
     "Revenge," someone whispered back.  "What use have I for
that?"  He felt everything slow around him as he turned slowly, dreading
what was to come, but unable to stop himself.  There, standing near the
trees, was a figure in a black and green leotard, its front stained dark
with blood.  Her skin was pale and bloodless, her eyes dark pools of
accusation, as she took a step forward.
     "I'd far sooner be alive than revenged, brother *dear*," she
sneered.  He felt his arm wanting to tremble and willed it to be still.
     "Kodachi," he whispered.  For a moment, he wondered if true
madness had finally claimed him, but only for a moment.
     The sword, something in him shouted, clamouring for attention.
It's still glowing.  She's one of them, idiot!
     Of course.  They were using his innermost shadows against
him, as they had against Nabiki.  He felt his cold rage turn hot, boiling
and trembling and beginning to rise in him at the thought.  Not enough,
he thought through the haze.  Not enough that they killed her, but they
must demean her memory this way ...
     "You failed me, brother dear," the apparition spat.  "Where
were you when I needed you?  What good were all your pretensions of
nobility, you who let your sister die?"  He brought the sword up, feeling
its power thrumming in his arm, focusing his rage on the suddenly
uncertain form facing him.
     "You think me so easily fooled?" he asked in a deceptively
calm voice.  "I know you for what you are, foul imp.  Oh, yes, I know.
And I mark you.  I ... mark you."  The apparition paused, then pushed
on.
     "Your fault ..." she began, but Kunou could see the form
beginning to shimmer now.
     "CEASE THIS FARCE!" he screamed.  "IF YOU ARE NOT
AFRAID, THEN FACE ME AND LET US PUT AN END TO
IT!"  His words tore out into the dark, and he levelled the glowing
blade at his tormentor, his lips pulling back from his teeth in a snarl.  He
saw the path his sword stroke would take, saw it as if it had already
happened, and he began to shift his weight, his vision narrowing until the
mocking vision of his sister was all he could see.
     That was very nearly his undoing.  Salvation, such as it was,
came from an unanticipated source.
     "Kunou!  Behind you!"  Nabiki's voice.  He'd already been
shifting forward, and that saved his life.  He threw himself into a roll,
gasping as white hot pain erupted in his left shoulder, rolling out and
springing back, regaining his balance to find himself facing another of
the beasts, this one tall, lean, covered with sharp edges.
     He panted, tossing his head sharply to throw the sweat from his
brow.  His left arm hung at his side and his shoulder throbbed with
nauseating pain, but he forced himself to focus past it.
     Tricked.  Tricked like a callow, inexperienced youth.  He'd
thought the trap was in the thing assuming his sister's form, but it had
merely been a diversion, and he'd allowed his anger to lead him to
carelessness.  Now he had two of the things to deal with, and he was
injured.  Fortunately, only the one that had blindsided him moved in.
The other merely watched, letting Kodachi's face lapse into a blank,
inhuman stare.
     "You're the Guardian?" the thing asked, moving forward.
"What a joke!  You're a boy, and that little toy won't save you!  Come
on, show me something stronger!  What else have you got?"  Kunou
raised the glowing blade shakily, feeling a tiny spark of optimism as its
light caused the thing to wince and pause.
     "I assure you, this will suffice," he gritted.  "If you doubt me,
then simply come closer."  The thing laughed, an unnerving sound, its
red eyes fixing Kunou.
     "Bravado?  Nice.  I'll tell everyone you didn't beg before I
killed you."  Kunou grinned savagely.
     "Indeed?  How polite.  I intend to tell everyone that you did."  It
hissed at that, then blurred forward, sparks flying as its claws raked
along the glowing blade that Kunou barely managed to block with.  The
thing howled in pain at its proximity to the weapon, but it seemed willing
to brave the pain to kill him.  He spun, his head swimming dangerously,
and barely managed to avoid its second pass, all the while trying to
keep track of the other one.  He knew that time favoured the enemy
now.  He felt hot blood coursing down his back under his shirt, and
knew that eventually he would weaken.  He needed to strike fast and
strike hard, while he still could.
     He slid his feet into the proper position, fighting down the pain
and dizziness as he waited for the thing to commit to another attack.
Fortunately, it relied on speed and strength, not skill.  That would give
him an advantage.  A small one, granted, but at this point he would take
whatever he could get.
     It sped forward, and he shifted all his weight to his left foot,
springing ahead and bringing his gleaming blade around in a vicious
cross-body cut, angling up and across as he met the thing's attack.  He
felt the light impact as the razor-sharp blade sliced through demonic
flesh and bone, and then he was skidding to a stop on the cool grass,
glancing over his shoulder in time to see one of the startled creature's
arms hit the ground.  It tried to turn, but a thin greenish line bisected it
on an angle across its wiry body, and the effort of turning caused its
upper half to topple to the ground.  The lower half remained standing
for a few seconds before collapsing as well.  Even as the legs were
falling he turned, seeking out the other one.  It was backing into the
shadows, and though he could no longer see it clearly, its form was
hunched and knobby, no longer that of his sister.
     "You."  His voice boomed out in the silence, and the thing
paused in the shadows.  "I have marked you, coward.  Remember."  It
skulked off into the dark, and he slumped, sweat loosening his grip on
the sword's hilt.
     "Kunou!"  He turned to see Nabiki running up to him.  He
straightened instinctively, glaring at her.
     "I thought I told you to ..."
     "The light's going out."  It annoyed him, the way his
disapproval didn't even faze her, but he resolved not to let it show.
"Does that mean it's safe now?"  He sighed.
     "Perhaps, but we should not tempt fate.  It will be safer in the
house.  Come."  He started to walk, slowly.
     "Hey, you're really bleeding there, Kunou baby," she said,
following closely.  "Let me give you a hand.  Here, lean on me."  He
snorted.
     "That would be quite undignified," he said sharply.  Then he
stumbled slightly, and pain lanced anew through his shoulder.  He
gasped.
     "Hmmm.  And falling flat on your face would be what,
exactly?" she asked with her usual maddening indifference.  He
regained his balance to find her slipping under his good arm, bracing his
body with hers.  "C'mon, hero.  I don't guess you'll be wanting to go
back in through the window ..."
     "How very astute," he grimaced.
     "... so we'll go around to the door."  Much as he wished it
were otherwise, he was forced to allow her to help him, her smaller
body pressed tightly against him, one hand holding the arm that was
slung over her shoulder, the other wrapped tightly against his waist.  In
other circumstances, such proximity to a woman would have been quite
pleasant.
     A woman, not Nabiki Tendou, he hastily amended.  He saw
her shoot a quick glace up at his face, and knew he was in for one of
her patented put-downs.
     "What?" he asked wearily.  She sniffed.
     "You know, you were moderately not terrible out there," she
said casually.  He blinked.
     "I, ah ... thank you, I suppose."  She looked up at him out of
the corner of her eye again.
     "Don't let it go to your head," she said.
     "No worries on that score," he assured her with what he hoped was
sufficient hauteur.  "Everything seems to be rushing away from my head,
actually."  She looked faintly alarmed for a second, then redoubled her
efforts to get them to a door.  They both breathed a little easier once
they were safely inside, and Nabiki led him into a small sitting room,
easing him onto a couch.
     "I'm no expert, but that's really bleeding," she said, eyeing his
shoulder critically.  "You should see a doctor ..."  He smiled slightly.
     "I would still advise against using the telephone," he said, and a
muscle in her cheek jumped, her only outward sign of emotion.  Kunou
found himself admiring her reserve.  "And going out is not a terribly
good idea at the moment either.  I don't believe the injury is that
serious.  I need merely stop the bleeding for the moment."
     "First aid kit?"
     "There is one in the kitchen, under the sinks."  She nodded and
went off after it.  He sighed again, letting his eyes slip closed, feeling a
vertiginous wave sweep over him.  Everything had happened so fast, he
hadn't had time to think of the repercussions of what had just occurred.
How had Nabiki managed to get into the middle of everything?  Bad
timing?
     He prayed that was all it was.
     "Hey."  He opened his eyes, realizing that he'd been perilously
close to drifting off, to find Nabiki standing over him with the kit in her
hand, looking concerned.  As soon as his eyes opened, though, that
expression disappeared so quickly that he wondered if he'd imagined it.
She sat primly on the couch next to him and placed the kit on the low
coffee table, next to his now quiescent sword.  She opened it with a
snap, then turned to him.
     "Okay, the doctor is in.  Let's see that shoulder."  Carefully,
they peeled his loose blouse back, and Nabiki hissed as the wound was
revealed.
     "Ouch," she said quietly.  "That's got to hurt."
     "It ... stings," he admitted.  She gave him a flat, disbelieving
look.
     "Kunou, is macho a samurai thing, or just a guy thing in
general?" she asked.  He gave her a weak grin.
     "I believe it may be found encoded in the Y-chromosome," he
admitted.  She sighed.
     "Oooh.  It jokes.  I guess you can't be hurt that badly, then.  Here,
hold still."  She soaked some gauze in antiseptic and pressed it
lightly to the three long gashes in the top of Kunou's shoulder.  He
hissed in pain, and she raised an eyebrow.
     "Let me guess.  That stings?"  He glowered at her.
     "There is no need to be smug," he informed her.  She smiled
tolerantly.
     "Oh, that wasn't smug, Kunou baby.  I'm saving smug for
later."
     "Indeed?"
     "Oh, yes.  After you've told me all about what just happened."
He stiffened, then yelped as more of the stinging antiseptic was pressed
to his wounds.
     "There is nothing to tell," he said stiffly.  He knew that was a
lame attempt, but he felt duty bound to try.
     "Oh, really?  Nothing?  So I get chased across half of Nerima
by rejects from Monster Chiller Horror Theatre, then you whack the
bad things with a magic sword, and I'm supposed to accept that there's
nothing to tell.  Hmmmm.  Tell me, have you forgotten our conversation
at school?  You remember the one, I tried to find out what's at the
heart of your tangled family secrets, and you tried to buy me off like
some cheap sleazeball?"  He flinched at that, and started to open his
mouth.
     "Or the subsequent one, when you told me that there was no
danger here, despite what I thought."
     "I did not want this to happen!" he blurted.  "Damn you, this is
exactly what I was afraid of!"
     "Well, it has happened, Kunou.  And me being ignorant didn't
stop it at all, did it?"  She held his gaze for long moments as he fought
with himself.  Part of him really did want to tell her.  She knew much
already, had guessed even more.  But another part of him declared that
urge a weakness, a need to tell another so he wouldn't be alone.  Will
you really endanger her because you couldn't bear to be the only one?
he asked himself sternly.  Is that your honour?
     But as he stared into her waiting face, he told himself that she
was already in danger.  They'd pursued her once, whether to get at him
or by mere coincidence, he could not be certain.  But if the dark was
restful again, would it not be safer for her to know all?
     He struggled with his conscience, uncertain, as she carefully
applied butterfly bandages along the length of the cuts, then taped a
clean piece of gauze over the entire thing.
     "Well, I guess you'll live," she said at last.  "Not bad if I do say
so myself.  But in the morning, I'd advise seeing a real doctor."
     "So noted," he said, moving his arm carefully.  It hurt, but he
was pretty sure the cuts looked worse than they were.  The muscle
seemed mostly uninjured, and the pain had dulled to a mere throb.  At
least as long as he didn't move his arm too quickly.
     "So.  I believe you were about to break down and tell all."  She
watched him expectantly, and he sighed.
     "Nabiki, I ... you have no idea what you are asking me to do,"
he said, almost plaintively.  She laced her fingers together carefully.
     "Look, Kunou.  We've been classmates for a while, right?  You
know that I'm not going to just go away.  You can't scare me and you
can't intimidate me.  And we've established, I believe, that you can't
buy me."  He felt his cheeks warm slightly at that.  "The best you can
do is try to ignore me.  But even before this, I knew there was
something here, and I'm going to find out what it is."  He clenched his
fists, feeling the pain in his shoulder knife hotly through him at the
sudden motion.
     "Why?  Why must you know?  That I do not understand!"
     "Understand?  Understanding isn't necessary, Kunou.  I can't
stand secrets, maybe it's just that simple.  But there's a big one here,
and I'm going to drag it out, kicking and screaming if necessary."  She
pinned him with that maddening stare of hers, and he stared back.
     He had no idea what to do.  Nothing he said seemed to
dissuade her from her stubborn need to know.  But he still felt he had to
try.
     "You can't truly understand what's at stake unless I tell you of
our secrets," he sighed at last, "and once I've told you it will be to late
to turn back."
     "Kunou, get a clue.  I'm not turning back ..."
     "Damn you, this is not a game!"  She sat back suddenly,
startled by his outburst, and he swallowed hard, trying to bring himself
under control.
     "Lives have been lost because of this," he said carefully.  "My
brother, as you've pointed out, was only one.  Lives have been lost and
destroyed, and now I have to make a decision about what to tell you,
or if to tell you anything.  Do you understand my dilemma?  Can you?
These are secrets that have remained within selected circles for
centuries, and now it all comes down to me, and I dare not make a
mistake!"  Her gaze softened, ever so slightly, and she nodded.
     "I see your problem, Kunou, really I do.  But understand me.
This is no longer just about your family and their dirty little monster
secrets.  I was chased by these things tonight.  That means at least
some of them have stayed around Nerima.  They could go after anyone
next.  My sisters, my father, Ukyou, Ranma, Shampoo ...  Ignorance is
not bliss, Kunou.  Is keeping a secret more important than protecting
people's lives?  Is that what your noble samurai code tells you?"  He
looked away.
     "That is unfair," he said hoarsely.
     "Maybe.  But I'll tell you this, Kunou.  You can't handle this by
yourself.  And you don't have to."
     "That is where you are wrong, Nabiki Tendou.  The
responsibility is mine.  My duty ..."  He trailed off.  His duty.  His duty
was to protect, wasn't it?  How could he protect all these people if they
were targeted?  None of the others had ever been so alone.
     He sat up.
     None of the others ...
     "Kunou?"  He looked at her, really looked at her, as if seeing
her for the first time.  An idea, beautiful in its symmetry, bloomed within
him like a rose.  Maybe.  Just maybe.  She regarded him cautiously,
and he drew a deep breath, taking the time to choose his words.
     "What is your destiny, Nabiki?"  She blinked.
     "My ... WHAT?"
     "Your destiny," he repeated calmly.  "Where shall it take you?
Business school?  Crunching numbers for a large corporation?  Or
perhaps a business of your own?"  Nabiki frowned.
     "Don't change the subject," she said flatly.  He leaned forward,
wincing as his shoulder twinged suddenly with the sudden change in
position.
     "But I am not changing the subject," he said quietly.  "You may
stand at a crossroads here, and I wish to ensure that you understand
the magnitude of the decision that you, that *we*, face.  What you are
asking me could change your future, your destiny.  If I were to reveal to
you the secrets you desire, you would possess knowledge that would
change the way you look at your world.  And your path might
irrevocably change, become entwined with that of House Kunou.  You
would become part of a shadowy world of power behind the scenes, of
a struggle that most people in their daily lives are unaware of."  She
leaned forward, her eyes gleaming in the low light, and a tiny, beautiful
smile crept to her lips.
     "If you're trying to dissuade me, Kunou baby, you are going
about it in *exactly* the wrong way."  He shook his head.
     "No.  I am trying to make certain, absolutely certain, that you
realize what is at stake before we proceed.  My mistake has been a
simple one.  You are an outsider, and thus I have tried to keep you
away from the heart of things.  That has always been the way it has
been.  But ..."
     "But?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.
     "But if you were to become an insider, then things would be
different.  And there is some precedent for such an action.  You have
skills that I desperately need."  Her smile widened slightly, and she
leaned back.  For the first time, Kunou noticed the way she was
dressed.  Her skirt was rather short, and she was wearing jewellery.
And that red jacket was rather becoming ...
     "Were you on a date?" he asked before he could stop himself.
She blinked again.
     "What?" she asked as if she hadn't heard correctly.  He cursed
himself inwardly.
     "I just ... the way you are dressed, I ..."  She sighed.
     "You're just noticing now?  I should've gone with the short
skirt."  He eyed her skirt again, wondering how much shorter it could
be without becoming a belt.  "But now you *are* changing the subject.
Are you saying that you're willing to let me into your family's secret
world?"  He shook his head.
     "I am saying that is a possible solution, perhaps even a desirable
one, for me at any rate.  Perhaps, in the end, not as desirable for you.
But the fact remains that, once in, it is very difficult to extract oneself
from such a morass of secrets."
     "Kunou, you may have noticed that I've spent a fair amount of
time and effort just trying to get *in*."  He stood slowly, looking down
at her.
     "I wish I could be certain," he said at last.  "Certain as to the
correct course."  She rose, standing close and tilting her head back to
look him in the eye.
     "Yes, Kunou, knowing beforehand whether or not a decision was
the right one would make our lives a lot easier.  Unfortunately, it doesn't
work that way.  I'm a big girl, and I'm willing to take my chances.  So
where do we start?"  He took a deep breath, slowly let it out.
     "Not yet," he said finally.  "There is one final argument that can
be made, one final chance for you to truly understand what you will be
letting yourself in for.  Words can convey only so much.  This will show
you, in a way that I cannot explain, the darkness that you must brave."
She looked up at him  and he caught a faint, maddening scent of
perfume.  In that light, her expression calm, almost serene, she looked
quite ... enchanting.
     "And what is this last obstacle?" she asked.  He sighed.
     "Simply, you must sleep here tonight."  Her expression
flickered coldly, and he rubbed the bridge of his nose with his
forefinger.
     "Not with me," he said shortly, biting the words off.  "Must you
think so poorly of me at every turn?"
     "There is some precedent," she said, seeming somewhat
mollified.  He sighed.
     "I will prepare a guest room for you.  It is late already.  Simply
sleep.  When you awake, if you still wish to know, I will explain the
conditions to you.  Do you accept?"  She cocked her head.
     "That sounds easy enough," she said cautiously.  He nodded.
     "I will remember that you said that," he said grimly.  "Afterwards."

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

     Riana stretched as the Mercedes eased along the long drive
towards the house.  The night had not been a total waste.  She'd
secured a new victim and had him installed in the chambers under the
tower.  She had hoped to find the girl with the lovely chi again, but that
one had slipped away.  She ran her hands over her thighs and bit her lip
gently.
     Perhaps next time.  She would be easy to find in a place like
that.  Thinking of the girl, though, led to thoughts of Tragus.  She hoped
that the fool had taken the bait she'd dangled.  It might be some time
before she saw results, however.  She would have to be patient, and
that would be hard considering what was at stake.
     Still, it was a promising beginning.
     She sat up as Jubei slid the Mercedes into its parking spot.  He
came around and opened her door, letting her unfold her long legs and
climb gracefully from the car's plush interior.  She was brought up short
by the sight of Keisuke's motorcycle, parked aslant not far away.
Back so soon?  Well, after the teasingly unfulfilling night she'd had,
perhaps she'd be able to have some fun after all.  She sauntered over
to the motorcycle, then froze.
     Keisuke's helmet was lying on the ground.  Careless.  Sloppy.
And quite unlike him.  She moved closer, frowning.
     There were dark stains on the hand grips, seat, and engine
cowling.  She smelled it as she got closer.
     Blood.  Keisuke's blood.  She knew his scent intimately.
     And there seemed to be a lot of it.
     "Lady, what ...?"  Ignoring Jubei's confused cry, she ran
toward the house, taking the steps two at a time before bursting through
the doors.  Her other two Baenma, Jubei's kin, were waiting for her.
Unlike Jubei, they were not currently inhabiting human bodies, and their
graceful feminine forms were inhumanly beautiful.
     "Where is he?" she demanded before either could speak.
     "His room," Callie, the taller of the two, said.  They both had to
trot to keep up as Riana stormed by without stopping.
     "What happened?" she snapped.  Callie glanced at Lilla
nervously.
     "Lady, we don't know," Lilla spoke up.  "He said nothing, and
would not allow any of us to attend his ..."
     "I see.  Give me that."  She held her hand out imperiously, and
Callie handed her the first aid kit.  She stopped when she reached his
door and turned to the two.
     "I am not to be disturbed.  For anything."  The expressions on
their faces told her that she had made herself clear.  Turning on her
heel, she opened the door without knocking and stepped inside, closing
it gently behind her.
     The room was dark, lit only by the pale luminescence that
penetrated the windows.  She saw a dark from sprawled on the bed,
face down, and strode silently over to look down on him.
     He had collapsed, naked from the waist up.  And he was hurt.  She
could scent his blood easily, knew its scent as she did her own.  His
clothes were badly torn in places, burned in others, and she perched
gently on the bed beside him.  He started awake as the bed shifted,
snorting and trying to pull himself up with a groan.  She placed one cool
hand against his back, pressing him back down.
     "Don't move, idiot," she said sternly.  She felt the lean muscles
of his back relax as he recognized her voice.
     "Lady," he muttered fuzzily.  "I'm ... sorry.  I ..."
     "Oh, do shut up," she snapped.  "You should be sorry, these
silk sheets you're bleeding all over cost a small fortune!"  She opened
the large case angrily, surveying its esoteric contents.  It contained
mystic remedies that would not be found in any mundane medical kit.
She chose some healing salve and bandages with her customary
efficiency.
     "And just why did you not allow my ladies to attend you?" she
asked archly.
     "I don't trust them," he gritted as she swabbed at a cut on his
back.
     "Oh?  My Baenma are loyal, Keisuke," she said coldly.  He
grunted.
     "To you, yes.  Not to me.  I'll allow none of them near me like
this."  She swabbed lightly over another cut, the sudden tensing of his
lean back the only sign that he felt any pain.  She was secretly pleased
at his stoicism, and at his attitude.  The lessons of his youth had not
been forgotten, apparently.
     "Well, there's no point in arguing about it now.  Still, if you'd
been seriously injured, I would have been irritated."  She mitigated the
harshness in her words with the gentle ministrations of her hands, her
gentleness surprising even her.
     "Roll over, Keisuke," she murmured.  He grunted and
complied.
     She gaped, all pretense of coolness forgotten.
     "Damn you, Keisuke!" she spat, leaning forward to cradle his
face in her hands.  "What on earth did you get into?"  There were
numerous cuts and abrasions on his body, but she could see now the
burns that ran up his belly and slanted over his chest, terminating at his
neck.  His forearms bore similar wounds, no doubt from where he'd
shielded his face.  She hissed, knowing how the burns must pain him,
and knowing that only one thing could have caused those marks.  She
reached back in the kit for a large red tube, squeezing out a generous
amount of the foul-smelling paste and beginning to slather it onto
Keisuke's burns.  He drew a sharp breath as the cool paste touched his
injuries, his eyes staring emptily at the ceiling.
     "The girl?" she asked as she worked.  He gave a short,
mirthless chuckle.
     "I assume so.  Someone left a trap at the shrine, a demon ward.
It was masterfully constructed, I never sensed it until it triggered."  He
gave her a twisted smile, his eyes shifting to hers.  "Had I been
full-blooded Aerkinma, I would not have survived.  It would have
trapped me there and the magic would have flayed me alive.  I think it is
safe to say the old man's student is aware of his demise, and unhappy."
     "Your human blood may have saved you, but your Aerkinma
blood is what will heal you," she said as she finished covering the
painful looking burns in a thin layer of the salve.  "You rode all the way
back like that?"  His grin, weak though it was, told her he was feeling
better.
     "I knew I had to warn you about the girl," he told her.  "She's a
definite threat, wherever she is.  Tomorrow, I'll start looking for ..."
     "You'll do what you're told, Keisuke," she interrupted curtly.
"And my instructions are that you will remain abed until I judge you
sufficiently recovered to return to your duties.  Is that clear?"  His grin
faded, and he stared at her.
     "Yes, Lady," he said reluctantly.  "But ..."
     "No buts!"  She glared at him, keeping up her posture as the
stern ice queen, waiting until his head fell back on his pillow.  "Do as
you are told."  She bandaged up the worst of his cuts, then had him sit
up so she could wrap him, from belly to chest, in bandages to cover the
salve.  She treated his arms as he leaned against her, grimacing.  When
she was finished, most of his body was swathed in a tight layer of white
cloth.  He was slumped forward, in some pain but determined not to
show it, and his eyes drooped shut.  He snapped them open again, but
not without visible effort, and Riana sighed.
     "Well, you'll live," she said at last, "but you certainly are a
sight."
     "Yes, Lady," he muttered.
     "Lie down, Keisuke."  She helped him settle back to the bed,
frowning at his gasp of pain and low groan as he settled wearily onto his
back.  She stood, and he gazed sleepily up at her.
     "I'm sorry, Lady.  I didn't ..."
     "Enough of that," she said, but without heat.  "We'll discuss the
situation in the morning."  She gazed down at him, thinking that he
looked smaller somehow, bandaged up like that.  Vulnerable, in a way
she'd rarely seen.  It should have angered her, she supposed, given
how she'd striven to drive weakness out of him from a young age.  It
didn't, though.  She sighed and shimmied easily out of her dress, then
her undergarments, crawling naked onto the bed beside the startled
Keisuke.  She reached down and grabbed the thick comforter from the
foot of the bed, drawing it up over them, then looked down at the boy,
propped up on one arm.
     "Would it pain you to turn on your side?" she asked.  He shook
his head, turning carefully.  She settled in against his back, draping one
arm lightly over him, letting the other hand stray to the nape of his neck,
fingers twining lightly in his sweat-dampened hair.  She worked her chin
into the curve of his shoulder, the smell of the salve combining with his
own musk in a not-unpleasant way.  The feel of the bandages against
her bare skin was strange, and she felt an unfamiliar tightness in her
chest.
     "Kei?"  She fancied that she felt his muscles relax against her at
the use of the diminutive.
     "Yes?"  She breathed lightly against his shoulder, closing her
eyes.
     "You are mine, Kei.  You are sworn to me, and you are not to
die without my express permission.  Clear?"  He lightly grasped her
hand where it lay against his chest and brought it to his mouth, kissing it
gently in a way that sent shivers down her arm and across the back of
her neck.
     "Riana," he rumbled lightly, "I wouldn't dare."  She sighed,
working herself in closer to the warmth of his body, a seductive heat
blossoming low in her belly.
     "Go to sleep, Kei.  You'll heal faster if you sleep."
     "Is that an order, Riana?" he asked drowsily.
     "It most certainly is," she whispered.  He murmured something
back to her, and moments later his breathing evened out and he slept.
     She didn't, though.  Not for a long time.

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

     "I hope the accommodations are to your liking."  Nabiki sat on
the bed, running her hands carefully over the coverlet.
     "Oh, yes.  Most satisfactory," she said.  "I just wish I knew
what you hope to accomplish by this."  She looked at Kunou standing
in the doorway, his expression sombre, his dark eyes looking almost ...
haunted.
     "You will know soon enough," he answered.  "It is not too late to
back out, however ..."
     "Kunou baby, you know better than that," she chided, waggling
a finger at him in a scolding manner.  "I don't scare easily."
     "No, after tonight I could hardly accuse you of that, could I?"
They regarded each other warily for a few strained, silent moments,
then Kunou sighed and straightened.
     "I will bid you good-night, then," he said at last.  Nabiki
grinned.
     "And pleasant dreams?" she asked lightly.  He paused.
     "No," he said hoarsely.  "I think not."  And then he was gone,
leaving her puzzled.
     Still, there was a sense of anticipation.  He'd finally reached the
point where he was willing to shed some light on the secrets she'd been
tracking.  All she had to do was sleep.  A strange condition, but then
Kunou was a strange person.
     Dressed in borrowed guest pajamas, she lay down on the cool,
clean sheets and clicked off the lamp.  In the sudden dark she thought
again of the nightmare creatures that had chased her through the streets
earlier.  That already seemed unreal somehow, as if her mind was trying
to protect her sanity.  Despite how late it was, she thought she'd be
finding sleep elusive.
     She turned to look around the darkened room, her eyes falling
on the phone on the guest table.  No way was she going to pick that
thing up.  She'd told Akane she might stay at Ukyou's, more to yank
her chain than anything else, but at least they wouldn't worry when she
didn't make it home.
     Didn't make it home.  That thought reverberated in her mind,
and she wondered just how close she'd come to *never* making it
home.  Her only comfort was the knowledge that answers were finally
within reach.
     She sighed, tossing lightly and turning on her side.  She stared at the
phone again, looking innocuous and quite harmless in the shadows.
     She heard her mother's voice again in her memory, and shivered,
her throat suddenly feeling hot and tight.
     Kiki.  They'd known to use that nickname.  And in doing so, they'd
soiled her mother's memory.  Those memories were tiny, shining jewels
that sustained her in her darkest moments, the memory of how she'd
looked, or of her scent, or of the way she'd always hummed in the
kitchen.
     I miss you, mama, she thought suddenly, with an intensity that
brought stinging heat to her eyes.  And I'll make them pay for using
your memory like that.  I promise.  They'll be sorry.
     They'll all be sorry.
     Swallowing hard, she drew the blankets up to her chin and
curled into a ball, weariness finally overtaking her.  It had been a long
night, and the raw fear she'd felt had drained her.  Sooner than she
would have thought possible, she drifted off to sleep.
     And she didn't wake when, after a time, the door opened
silently, and Kunou stole into the room.  She didn't wake when he
stood over her, gazing down at her sleeping form, his jaw set, his hands
clenched tightly at his sides.
     Nor did she wake when he knelt carefully at the side of her bed
and clasped his hands tightly in his lap.
     And waited.
 

End part 8