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 Nine: Legacy
 

     Nabiki was afraid.
     This fear wasn't like what she'd felt earlier.  It wasn't urgent
and immediate.  This was a deeply rooted sensation of dread, as if
she'd looked up at the sky only to see four moons in a purple sky.
     She wasn't certain where she was or how she'd gotten there.
All she knew was that she wanted to leave, and right away.
     The strange gray plain stretched away from her on all sides to
the featureless horizon, unnaturally flat.  She had the sensation of turning
without seeming to move, and something slowly came into view.
     A tower.  It was hard to judge how far away it was with no
landmarks, but it seemed to reach impossibly high into the dull dead
sky.
     There was a sound now, carried to her on the flat, used up air.
A faint sound, high-pitched and unnerving.  She could barely see,
around the base of the tower, tiny figures capering and dancing.  They
appeared lost in some mad ritual, and the hair on the back of her neck
stood up.  She couldn't make them out clearly, but something about
them shouted to her of wrongness, of otherness.
     Then she heard another sound, rhythmic and regular, beneath the
first.  Faint but growing stronger, it thrummed in her very being like a
taut wire in a high wind, and the fear that pervaded her began to
intensify.  The sound was somehow familiar, like a drumbeat, or
footsteps ...
     No.  A heartbeat.  The thrumming ba-dump of some titanic black
heart.  As soon as she had the thought, she was certain it was correct,
and her fear grew even sharper.
     There's something here, she said, and the cold dead wind
carried her words away to some dread place where no sun ever shone,
consigning them to the darkness forever.  The dancers spun with eerie
grace around the base of the tower, and as their tempo increased, the
sleepy rhythm of the heart kept pace, growing steadily louder.  And
faster.
     Ba-dump.  Ba-dump.  Ba-DUMP.  Ba-DUMP.
     It's waking up, she said, uncertain who she was talking to.  The
dancers spun even faster, unnaturally long arms clutching the air as they
moved, and their unearthly laughter drifted to her, strange and mad and
somehow almost seductive, calling ...
     They're calling it, she realized.  They're waking it up.
     Ba-DUMP.  Ba-DUMP.
     The fear and dread rose up in a dark wave, smothering her,
and she cried out in panic.
     No!  Don't wake it up!  You're not supposed to do that!
     Ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP ...
     You're not supposed to wake it up!  Stop!
     Ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP, BA-DUMP, BA-DUMP
BA-DUMP BA-DUMP BA-DUMP ...
     Please stop ... please ... don't ...
     BA-DUMPBA-DUMPBA-DUMPBA-DUMPBA-DUMP
     Then a wave of terror swept over her, one thought rising above
her panic with crystal clarity.
     It's awake.  And it knows we're here.
     The tiny forms stopped their dance, falling silent and still, and in the
ensuing calm Nabiki wanted nothing more than to run away, but she
couldn't seem to move, not even to turn her head.  The moment
stretched out, gravid with terrible anticipation, and she wanted to
scream, to cry out, to do anything.
     Then she saw it.
     A smooth blue sphere burst silently from the flat top of the tower,
hovering with strange menace above the dark finger that had held it.
The forms at the tower's base stood still and silent, as did she, as it rose
slowly into the barren sky.  Higher and higher it went, but instead
of getting smaller it seemed to grow, until it dominated the sky above
them.  Finally, it stopped, looking like some impossibly huge moon,
featureless and glowing with a soft light that bathed the unnatural
landscape below, yet cast no shadows.
     Then, as Nabiki stared in horrified fascination, a line appeared,
bisecting the sphere along the surface facing them.  The figures at the
tower's base began to call out again, but now they were wailing in fear,
huddling on the ground or running aimlessly about, clawing at each
other in a mad frenzy.  The line continued to spread until it stretched
from one edge of the sphere to the other, then, with exquisite slowness,
the line became a crack.
     And the crack began to widen.
     And Nabiki knew.
     It was an eye.
     It was *the* Eye.
     The Eye that Sees.
     The Eye that Knows.
     The wonderful, terrible Eye.
     It was looking straight down upon the tower, and the creatures
there began to scream in earnest, clawing at their faces as they fell.
Nabiki closed her eyes, but somehow she could still see.  She looked
down at her feet, but that didn't help.
     She could *still* see.  The Eye's regard fell upon the dancers, and
they screamed and screamed.
     Then they stopped screaming, and somehow that was worse.
     The Eye began to shift its attention, its gaze sweeping over the
plain.
     it knows i'm here it knows i'm here and it's looking for me
     Where the Eye's gaze fell, the flat gray ground broke up in
strange silence, large chunks of it rising into the air as if suddenly
released from gravity's bonds.  Only the silent, brooding tower
remained unaffected.  Nabiki noted with dull mute terror that where the
ground was torn away, only a terrible void remained.
     The Eye's gaze swept the plain, rushing unerringly towards
Nabiki, and she thought she screamed then, although she could hear
nothing but a hammering heartbeat, whether hers or the other's she
no longer knew.
     it's going to see me oh no it'll see me please don't see me
     She was frozen with the atavistic fear, the need to hide like an itch in
her belly, but there was no place to hide from the Eye.  Except for the
tower, there was nothing, and it's gaze swept closer.  Nabiki was
seized with the certainty that when it's gaze fell on her, she would be
driven irrevocably mad.  Already she could feel its presence like white
hot spiders in her head.  It's gaze swept closer, tearing away the very
ground itself, and she watched helplessly, her fear turning raw and
savage, sweeping away all rational thought.
     I don't want to see I don't want I don't look at me don't see me oh
please it's the eye the eye the eye that sees and it sees me oh please
don't see me don't see don't oh please DON'T SEE ME DON'T
DON'T DON'T DOOOOOON'T

     "DOOOOOOOON'T!"
     It was dark.
     Nabiki gulped huge breaths, feeling ice cold sweat trickling
over her skin, cloth clenched in her fists, and trembled against the
strangely solid warmth.  At least it was dark.  In the dark, the Eye
wouldn't see, it wouldn't ...  She leaned against the comforting warmth,
feeling her heart pounding stupidly against her ribs, and tried to make it
slow.  The helpless panic, the need to run, the need to *hide* ...  Her
whole body was trembling, and she swallowed and made an attempt to
slow her breathing.  She was okay now.  She was safe.  Somebody
said so.  She felt some of the frantic tension drain out of her body at
last, sagging against her support, her lifeline.  She breathed deeply,
taking in the slightly musky scent of ... of ...
     Wait a damn minute.
     She was sitting up in the dark, her body cradled in someone's
arms, her face nestled against someone's chest.
     The Eye ...?
     A dream?
     A voice ...
     "It is over.  You are safe now ..."
     The voice rumbled in her ear where it was pressed against the warm
solid chest, and large hands gently stroked her back.  A voice,
somehow familiar ...
     Kunou?
     She thrust herself back to arm's length, her hands still clutching
at the front of a dark robe.  She looked up, able to see now in the dim
light, and blinked.  Kunou's dark, sombre eyes gazed back, unreadable
for once.
     "K-Kunou?  What ...?"  She suddenly realized how close she
was to him and jumped back reflexively, releasing her death grip on his
robe and sliding across the bed, crossing her arms defensively across
her chest.  He watched her, his posture becoming stiff as she glared
back at him.
     Kunou was in her room?  No, not her room.  The night came
flooding back and she remembered where she was.  A guest room in
the Kunou estate, yes.  She remembered now.  She realized that she
was still shaking, and that Kunou could see.  He saw her afraid,
vulnerable.  That wouldn't do.
     "Dammit, Kunou, what are y-you *doing* in here?" she
blurted, hating how high and shaky her voice was.  He was perched on
the edge of the bed, drawing his arms back, his gaze becoming stony as
he looked at her.
     "I apologize," he said stiffly.  "You cried out.  I merely sought
to assist you."  She glared around as he snapped on the bedside lamp,
wincing at the sudden flare of warm yellow light.  The terror of the
dream was beginning to recede somewhat, and Nabiki struggled to
reassert her characteristic control.
     "Yeah, about that ... I, uh, I'm sorry about that, Kunou.  Had a bad
night, y'know?  But anyway, that doesn't explain why you're in here ..."
     And Kunou said expressionlessly, "You dreamt of the Eye."
     She stopped dead.  It seemed even her heart stopped beating
for a moment.  How?  How was it possible that he knew that?  How ...
     Then she remembered.  Sleep, he'd said.  When you wake, if
you still wish to, we will discuss it.  A final test, a pre-condition.
     "You knew."  Her voice was hoarse, bewildered, tinged with
wonder and anger and other unnameable emotions.  "Didn't you?
How?  How could you know?"  He didn't move, keeping his gaze
locked to hers.
     "That dream is always the first.  Not the worst, however.  To
answer your question, yes, I knew.  I knew you would have it."  She
realized that she was still huddled against the wall, staring at him
across the expanse of the bed.  The sheets were all pulled loose and
twisted, she noticed with a sense of detachment.  I must have done that
in my sleep.  Wow.
     Aloud, she said, "You bastard."  She said it like she still
couldn't believe it.  He smiled then, a thin, dark smile that was painful to
look at, and some terrible dark knowledge lurked suddenly behind his
eyes.
     "Yes," he said simply.  "Words are insufficient, are they not?
This was my final chance to dissuade you from the course you have
chosen.  Now I know that you finally understand.  This is not merely
about secrets and lies and shadows.  It is also about madness and
terror and incomprehensible forces that lurk just below the surface of
our world.  I would not have you proceed without understanding that.  I
dare say you understand it now, better than you would wish.  I certainly
do not blame you for what you are thinking about me right now."
     She just stared at him, feeling like a blind woman at the edge of
an abyss where none had existed before.  One wrong step could send
her screaming into the darkness.  One wrong step.
     "What was that, Kunou?  It didn't feel like a dream, not really,
but it wasn't like being awake either ..."  He held up his hand as she
began to interrogate him.
     "Nabiki Tendou.  We had an agreement, and now the time has
come.  You have one last opportunity to turn your back on this matter.
You may return to your life and never face this madness again.  You
have felt it for yourself.  I can make no more compelling argument than
this.  Please, consider carefully.  After this, there is truly no turning
back."  She stared at him for a moment, then sat up, straightening her
borrowed pajamas with fussy little tugs as she thought.
     One last opportunity to turn back.  But that wasn't so, not
really.  She had already passed the point of no return, although she was
no longer certain when it had happened.  It might have been when the
foul things had used the memory of her mother against her, but she
didn't think so.  It might have been when she'd seen Kunou and his
mother in the garden that day.  But thinking about it, she began to
wonder if it mightn't have been her confrontation with Ranko that had
really started things.
     All she knew was that, since Ranko's appearance, nothing had been
the same.  Now, she had a decision to make.  Choose the known, the
comfortable, and look back on her life one day wondering wistfully
what might have been.  Choose the unknown, and ... what?
     She was afraid now, she couldn't deny that.  But there was
more to it than that.  She still wanted to know.  She *needed* to know.
This was big, this was important.  This was ...
     It finally hit her.  This was the first thing she'd ever really
wanted.  The first thing she couldn't coast through with minimum effort.
The first thing in her life that grabbed her and shook her and wouldn't
let go.
     It would cost her too much to turn her back on it.
     "Kunou, I've taken your worst shot.  I'm in."  She didn't
realize until he drew a deep breath that he'd been waiting, frozen.  She
thought she saw relief on his face for a second before he slammed
down a mask of control.
     "So be it," he nodded.  He stood with easy grace, looking
down at her soberly.  "In the morning, we will speak more of this.  I will
..."
     "Uh-uh," Nabiki said, climbing off the bed.  "There's no way
I'm going back to sleep, Kunou-baby.  I'm not going through that again
tonight."
     "It is unlikely you would have another tonight," he said.  She
glared at him, running her fingers through the sweat-dampened tendrils
of hair on the back of her neck.
     "Unlikely?  Thanks so much.  Are *you* going to bed?"  He
grimaced.
     "No."  She grinned, enjoying putting him on the spot.  As usual.
     "Then let's start now.  I ask, you answer."  He stared at her,
then sighed, apparently convinced that she would not be put off.
     "Very well.  We shall talk.  What would you like to know?"
Nabiki felt a warm flush rise in her body.
     "Everything, Kunou-baby.  I want to know ... everything."

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

     Reiko was puzzled.
     She'd sensed the flaring magic in the distance and had been
drawn to it.  Her instinct had proven correct; the source of the
emanations had been the Kunou estate.  She'd sensed the ward energy
still hanging in the air like a haze, clear to her mage senses.  And from
within the estate she'd sensed something else, something powerful yet
unfamiliar.  Before she could decide if it was worth the risk of intruding,
however, she'd sensed something else.  Something dark.
     She'd hidden, and something had come over the wall nearby,
cloaked in shadows but definitely not human.  A low level demon, by its
aura.
     The first puzzle had walked up to the demon from a point of
concealment nearby just then.  A beautiful woman wearing a tight dress
sauntered towards the thing fearlessly, running one slim hand through
her thick, caramel coloured mane, the sharp sound made by her high
heels echoing through the quiet night air.
     Reiko nearly called out to the woman instinctively, but
something stopped her.  She studied the woman for a moment.  Her
aura was ... strange.  Very strange.  She'd seen a lot of weird things,
but this was a new one on her.  Still, she wasn't terribly surprised when
the gorgeous woman stopped and spoke casually to the shadowy form.
     She was too far away to hear what they said, but moments later
they vanished into the trees opposite the wall.  Reiko sat still, making
herself inconspicuous to both mundane and magical searches while she
thought.
     She was smart to be cautious approaching the estate.  For
starters, that woman and her pet demon and who knew what else were
interested in it.  And that magic she'd sensed from within had been
strong, tightly focused, and unfamiliar.  Characteristic of an enchanted
weapon or artifact ...
     She frowned then.  Could it have been the damned pendant?
But how would they use it?  Unless the old man had lied about it.
     No.  The old man had had many faults, but when it came to her
training he'd never lied.  Not once.
     Okay, except for that very last time, and she didn't intend to
ever forget about that, or to forgive him either.
     Like he cared.  Being dead and all.
     She sighed and turned her attention back to the wall of the
estate.  Why, she wondered, if they had such powerful magic at their
disposal, didn't they do something about their wards?  A low-level
demon like that could never have gotten in had they bothered with even
the simplest of defensive wards.  Several places on the wall were still
actively protected, but there were too many holes.
     This whole thing was just so strange, and if it hadn't been for the
old fool's dying wish, she'd listen to her common sense and get the hell
out of there.  But she didn't have that option, or at least she wouldn't let
herself have it.
     Gotta draw the line somewhere, she thought glumly.  Damn it all.
She decided to hang around for a little while and see if anything else
developed.  If nothing did, she'd have to start thinking about some way
to find out about the occupants of the estate.
     Particularly that servant the old man had mentioned in his letter,
what was his name?
     Oh, yeah.  Sasuke.

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

     Nabiki faced Kunou across a low table in one of the mansion's
smaller rooms.  Small, expensive-looking lamps cast a low warm light
that held back the darkness without appearing harsh.  Kunou poured
the tea he'd prepared, placing one cup in front of her and the other by
his right hand.
     She was fairly certain that he'd gone to the trouble of making
tea more out of a desire to marshal his thoughts than out of any real
desire for it.  Now that the moment was at hand, he seemed more than
a little reluctant to begin.  Still, that was all right with her.  She wasn't
going anywhere while it was still dark, and she had no desire to go
back to sleep.  She had all the time in the world.
     And besides, it was very good tea.
     Kunou ran out of things to fuss with and straightened his
shoulders at last, a slight wince telling of the pain from his wound.
     "Understand one thing, Nabiki Tendou," he said gravely as she
sipped her tea.  "I have assumed my present position in light of my
father's total abdication of his responsibilities.  Never before have these
circumstances existed in our family's history, so I must tell you that this
is unfamiliar ground."  She just raised one eyebrow and waited for him
to continue.  The events of the night had chewed away at her
composure, but she was determined not to let that show.  Whatever
Kunou told her, it could hardly be stranger than the conjectures she'd
entertained along the way.
     Or so she thought.
     "Meaning you're not sure how to proceed?" she asked archly.
He sighed, cupping his tea and breathing in its scent.
     "Exactly.  I suppose I am committing a fairly serious breach of
our rules, but under the circumstances ..."
     "Kunou, you keep mentioning the circumstances, but you still
haven't gotten around to telling me what they are."  He just looked at
her for a time, then nodded.
     "Before we proceed, I must make it clear to you that what you
learn here is not to be spoken of to anyone."  She frowned then,
studying him closely.
     "What if there's some danger to my family?"  He blinked.
     "What?"
     "If my family was in danger, Kunou, and something you told me
here ..."
     "The danger centres on the estate and its occupants," he said
firmly.  She cocked her head, her hair brushing lightly over her shoulder
with the motion.
     "Oh really?  Are you sure?  Remember Furinkan, Kunou?  You
didn't anticipate that, did you?  I couldn't keep quiet if something like
that happened, Kunou.  Not after what happened before."  Mention of
the fight at Furinkan made him wince, and he put his cup down
carefully.
     "What do you suggest?"
     "I suggest that if the time comes that something you tell me here
tonight can protect a member of my family, I need to be able to use that
information."
     "And you alone would determine if circumstances warranted
disclosure?" he asked, sounding tired.  She rubbed the side of her nose
with her thumb.
     "I would endeavour to clear it through you, Kunou, but if
circumstances ended up being ... extreme, then I would have to be free
to act.  I won't compromise the safety of my family, Kunou.  That's
non-negotiable."  She wondered if he would try to take advantage of
the situation, but he merely nodded as if he'd expected no less.
     "Very well," he said.  "If extreme circumstances should arise,
you would have leave to reveal just enough to guarantee their safety ...
without revealing the source.  And I only make that provision because I
am certain it will be unnecessary.  Otherwise, you are sworn to
secrecy.  If you do not agree, I may not tell you anything further."
     "Fine," she agreed.  "Do you want me to sign a non-disclosure
agreement or what?"  He watched, puzzled, as a small but genuine smile
creep to his lips.
     "Your word on the matter will suffice," he said quietly.  She
stared at him, dumbfounded.
     "No, seriously," she said.  "A contract, something legal, outlining
each party's responsibilities ..."
     "Your word," he repeated.  She began to wonder if he was taunting
her.
     "Kunou-baby, stop messing around, would you?"  He steepled
his fingers carefully, and met her gaze, his face serene.
     "If your word is no good, then I have no business speaking to
you of these things.  You are many things, Nabiki Tendou, but I think
that a liar is not one of them.  Your word will be good enough for me."
He was serious.  He was willing to take her word.  But perhaps that
was the smart way to go.   Nabiki's pride might let her, nay, *require*
her, to seek out the loopholes in any legal document, but it would also
mean that she would be bound by her word.  And by agreeing to keep
his secrets this way, instead of being compelled by a contract or
complex agreement, the matter was simple.  She agreed to keep his
secrets.  He agreed to let her use the knowledge she gained in cases of
extreme need.
     Maybe he wasn't so dumb, after all.
     "All right, Kunou.  You have my word that I will not reveal
anything you tell me here tonight, except under the circumstances we
previously outlined.  Or unless you give your express permission."  He
nodded solemnly.
     "Very well.  Then where would you like me to begin?"  She
smiled then, not a grin or the wry twist of the lips that was her
trademark, but a genuine smile.
     "At the beginning," she said simply.  "That's usually the best
place."  He nodded.
     "Very well.  At the beginning."  He took a deep breath and
began to speak.
     "You must understand that I do not know everything.  It may
be that there is no longer anyone alive who knows even most of
the mysteries of this place, but I will tell what I know.  To begin with,
there are unseen forces in the world.  Call them magic, if you like.
You've seen examples of such forces, of course.  My sword, for
instance.  And there are places where these forces ... come together, to
form a natural nexus.  Such a nexus is a place of power, and to control
it would be to gain great power over the forces of magic."  He paused
to take a drink of tea, glancing up to see if Nabiki wanted to interrupt.
When she said nothing, he went on.
     "The estate is built on, or rather over, just such a nexus of
power.  For centuries, my family has been charged with defending this
place against any who would seek to defile it.  It is a great honour, and
many have fallen in the service of our duty."
     "If it's such a great honour, how come you're the only one
here?" Nabiki asked.  She figured it couldn't hurt to cut to the heart of
the matter.
     "A fair question, but the answer will be revealed," he told her
without rancour, turning to gaze off into the shadowed corners of the
room.  "The forces of darkness have sought to take this place at times
throughout history, and always they have been repulsed.  But ..."  He
paused, seemingly trying to separate the threads of the story in his head,
uncertain of which to begin with.
     "Things are not as they once were," he said finally.  "There are
several reasons for the black times that have fallen upon House Kunou.
The first, I suppose, happened nearly thirty years ago.  My father was a
mere boy then."  He gazed off into space, the expression on his angular
face oddly wistful, as if for a past that was simpler somehow.
     "House Kunou did not stand alone against the darkness then," he
continued after a time.  "There were other families, other allies in the
fight against the dark.  Names like Masakazu, Kanzaki, Mikami, Mano
... and others.  Wielders of magic, warriors, scholars.  Together these
people were the core of a secret organization that kept track of the ebb
and flow of the darkness, acting to keep the populace safe from a
threat most were never aware of."  He stopped, and the wistful
expression was gone, replaced by one harder, and sadder.
     "And then came one night when we lost it all.  The forces of the
dark had been quiescent for quite some time, but suddenly there were
portents of disaster.  My grandfather, I am told, summoned all those of
the inner circle here on that night, all of our leaders, our strongest and
most learned, to hold council."  Nabiki started suddenly, something
niggling in her memory.
     "Thirty years ago?" she asked suddenly.  "Wait a minute.
When I was checking your history, I remember something ... an
explosion.  And a fire.  It was a horrible accident, flattened half the
main house, a lot of important people were killed ..."  She trailed off as
he gave her a tight smile.
     "Ah," she said, understanding.  He just nodded, acknowledging her
sudden insight.
     "The events of that night could not be covered up or dismissed," he
said softly.  "They had to be explained.  I know little of what happened.
Even when he was still ... capable, my father spoke of it only once.
That night there was some sort of conjunction of forces favourable to
the dark.  There had been no trouble for so long, so very long, that
perhaps they didn't truly believe anything would happen.  Nevertheless,
all of the inner circle were present.  If something did happen, they
would of course be able to deal with it."  His tea sat on the table, cold
and forgotten, as he clenched his fists carefully.
     "I take it they weren't quite as capable as they'd believed,"
Nabiki said softly.  This story was strange, but she was inclined to
believe it.  It explained a lot of what she'd found in her investigations.
    "You take it correctly," he said wearily.  "You've seen the reports.  It
is so much history now.  A terrible battle took place here that night.  It
cost my father his parents, and his sister.  He was the only survivor
of the Kunou family.  And so many others died, so many of the inner
circle upon whom everything depended so heavily.  But it was no
explosion, no fire, that killed those people.  THEY came that night,
overwhelming the estate's defences, killing and laying waste to
everything in their path.  And though it cost them dearly, they nearly
gained their goal, being stopped only at the final barrier, at great cost to
the defenders.  But although they were denied their final victory, they
accomplished a feat never before managed in our family's history.
They crippled the forces of the light.  The dark struck us a blow that
night from which we never recovered."
     "How?" Nabiki asked.  "If this inner circle was so powerful, how
did it happen?"  Kunou met her eyes briefly, then looked away.
     "Who is to say?" he asked softly.  "Perhaps they were lulled
into a false sense of security.  Perhaps the enemy was simply stronger."
His words rang false suddenly, and she had the sense that he was
holding something back deliberately.  She set her nearly empty cup
down gently and leaned forward, staring at him until he finally met her
eyes again.
     "Don't hold out on me, Kunou.  What else?"  He stared back, then
sighed and shook his head ruefully.
     "There was, apparently, the faintest hint, just a whisper, of deeds
dark and foul," he said at last, the words emerging reluctantly.
"Treachery.  But nothing was ever proven to that end, and the one time
I braced my father on the topic, when I was young and took a great
interest in these things, he struck me.  The blow hurt, it knocked me
down and cut my lip, but what I most remember was that I was
frightened of him then.  He glared down at me and told me that it
was dishonourable to repeat such base rumours.  I never had the urge
to ask about that night again."  He stared down at his hands, apparently
surprised to find them clenched tightly.  He carefully placed them on the
table and spread his fingers, flexing the wrists idly.  When he continued,
his voice was low and even.
     "Whatever the cause, although the dark was driven back at the very
last moment, our forces were in chaos, our leaders dead.  My father
was forced to assume the mantle of guardian of this place at a tender
age.  The remnants of the allied families, such as they were, advised
him, but fortunately it was as though the enemy had expended their full
strength.  They also suffered horrible losses, and appeared unable to
mount another attack.  They did not come in force again, not in all the
years since.  Not until that day at Furinkan, and even then they were
not the same enemy that bedevilled this place in years past, if I
understand correctly."
     "And the ones tonight?  The ones that chased me?" Nabiki
asked.
     "I am inclined to believe they were survivors of the invasion from the
other realm.  I cannot say for certain, but at any rate, they were easily
dispatched.  They were no real threat."  Nabiki snorted.
     "Well, I'm glad *you* think so, Kunou!  I thought they were
plenty threatening!" she snapped.  "And tell me something.  Where
are the rest of these people who fought the darkness with your family?
Some of them must have survived."  He nodded slowly.
     "Oh, yes.  Some survived the assault, not many, but a few.  And
others, foot soldiers in the struggle, lesser talents, were not present that
night.  But soon afterwards, a curious thing began to happen.  People
began to die."
     "Oh," Nabiki said.  Her skin prickled with a premonitory chill.
Suddenly, she understood all too well what was coming.
     "Accidents, death by misadventure ... a hit and run accident
here, a swimmer found floating face down in a pool there.  Nothing you
could point to at first, but it soon became obvious that the survivors
were having fatal accidents at a rate that could not be considered a
mere statistical anomaly.  And so the few remaining survivors went
underground.  The shattered remnants of our enemy could not assault
our stronghold, but they no longer needed to.  They could afford to
bide their time, winnowing out the weak and unwary at their leisure.
We no longer had the resources to hunt down the enemy, or to strike
back.  My father was the only one who could not disappear in such a
manner, although once upon a time he would not have even considered
such a course.  Oddly, the enemy did not return here even while the
others were running for their lives.  We were left in peace for quite
some time.  But when they returned ..."  He trailed off, something dark
showing in his eyes, and suddenly he feigned a cough to hide what
Nabiki was certain was a near loss of composure.
     "Kunou?" Nabiki asked cautiously.  "You okay?"  He waved
her off.
     "Nothing," he assured her, but his voice was hoarse, thick with
repressed emotion.  Whatever was coming next, it was no history
lesson, she knew.  It was something terribly personal.
     "Now where was I?  Oh, yes.  I told you that they did not
return in force after the night my grandparents died, but they did
occasionally probe our defences.  And there was one night in particular
when they managed to wreak havoc in this very house.  Can't you
guess when that was?"  She stared at him, confused, then a slow
realization dawned on her, and a feeling of dull horror crept into her
flesh and made itself right at home.
     "Dog attack," she whispered.  He frowned.
     "I beg your pardon?"  She shook herself mentally.
     "Your brother, Kazuhiro, died of severe physical trauma.
Cause was listed as a dog attack."  He shrugged his uninjured shoulder
slightly.
     "I think I will not ask how you know that for the moment," he said,
his fingers drumming nervously on the tabletop.  "However, I see that
you understand.  The night my brother died, it was those foul things
which killed him."  Nabiki leaned forward, noting how his eyes were
dark and fathomless in the low light, and she opened her mouth to
speak.
     "We shall speak no more of that night," he said roughly, before
she could say anything.  "I would not even have mentioned it save it
bears on what happened after, for that was the beginning of the final
slide into madness and despair for this family."  He stopped, breathing
deeply as he fought back some private anguish, and for once Nabiki
decided not to push.  She fiddled with the tea, pouring more for both of
them, averting her eyes while doing so and giving him a chance to regain
control.
     "Tell me the rest, Kunou," she said softly after she was finished and
his mask of control was firmly back in place.  "Finish it."  He nodded.
     "The madness began to claim us all, so slowly at first that it was
barely noticeable.  If you live with such every day, then you become
accustomed to it, I suppose.  After my mother was ... gone, my father
struggled on for a while.  Even with his few remaining advisors,
however, he was truly alone."  He stopped, looking directly into her
eyes.
     "And eventually, he broke."  He spoke with a bitterness that
shocked her in it's intensity.  Always before, she'd merely considered
the principal to be just another eccentric Kunou, but now she was
coming to understand there was more to it than that.  "You've seen him.
He broke utterly, abandoning his duty, his children, and his entire life
without warning one day.  Better he had never returned from Hawaii, I
believe, than we should be forced to see him as he is now.  A bad
joke."  Kunou's hands clenched again, and this time he didn't bother
trying to control them.
     "But then, I should talk.  Isn't that what you are thinking?"  She
had the good grace not to deny it, and he laughed bitterly.
     "That is the final indignity, Nabiki.  I hated my father for
abandoning us, but by that time we lived with madness as if it were an
old friend.  The dreams would come as they wished, and no defence
could keep them out.  In such an atmosphere, the mind finds ways to
cope.  Kodachi and I, we found different ways, but for both of us
coping meant finding ways to deny reality.  You have seen the results of
that.  Everyone has.  It was not pretty, I suppose, but it did allow us to
continue.  Unfortunately, it also meant that much of the time the truth of
our history, our duty, was forgotten.  I mean literally forgotten.  There
would be times when I would have managed to convince myself that
reality was what I wished, that I was sought by your sister and the
lovely pig-tailed girl, that I was a noble champion and not a total
buffoon.  And whenever the truth might intrude upon my comfortable
world of escape, I resented it.  And I did my best to ignore it, until it
would retreat into the back of my mind, safely out of the way, so that I
might be untroubled by the reality of life.  Had it not been for noble
Sasuke, who kept in touch with the last of the known survivors of the
old circle, we might have drifted beyond redemption."  He stared at his
fists, and she felt obligated to fill the growing silence.
     "Kunou ..."
     "I believe I hate my father all the more because I am so much
like him," he said then, so softly she had to strain to hear him.  "I hated
him for leaving us, for not being strong, and yet I was truly my father's
son, was I not?  And yet, I still cannot forgive him.  Had he come home
for Kodachi's funeral, had he shown that he was not beyond being
dragged back by such a tragedy, then perhaps I could.  But to do that
would be to acknowledge his failure, and so he remains lost.  And at
times I ..."  He trailed off, looking like a lost little boy, and Nabiki
leaned forward, her borrowed robe rustling softly.
     "Kunou?"
     "I still want to join him in denial," he whispered, self-loathing
dripping from his words.  He banged his fists on the table, causing the
tea service to jump.  "Some days I long for that comforting madness,
oh how I long for it, and ... that shames me."  He met her eyes, his gaze
dark and terrible, and she felt a lump forming in her throat.
     "But you haven't gone back," Nabiki pointed out.  "You
picked up that sword when you found out those things were coming
through at Furinkan.  And you picked it up tonight, when I was in
danger.  I say that's what matters, Kunou.  As long as you keep
fighting, you won't be like your father."  She narrowed her eyes, trying
to make him believe what she was saying.  He swallowed and nodded
slightly.
     "Perhaps," he said at last.  "At any rate, all the responsibilities
of his office are mine now.  Mine to carry alone."  Alone.  He made the
word sound hollow, empty, like a ruined city where no human had
trodden for centuries, ruled only by the barren winds.
     Alone.
     "Hey, what about that little spud, Sasuke?" Nabiki broke in.  "You
said he was involved in all this.  Where the heck is he, anyway?"
Kunou looked down into his cup, and whatever he saw there gave
him no pleasure.
     "Sasuke has ... left my service," he said quietly.  Nabiki
snorted.
     "After all this, he quits now?  I don't by that.  Anyway, I thought this
family ninja thing was supposed to be for life!"  He looked up slowly,
and her heart sank as she realized the implications of what she'd just
said.
     "As I said, Sasuke has left my service."  She sat back, a strange
uncertainty overtaking her.  Kunou just sat there, stoic again, and she
cursed herself for not seeing this sooner.
     "I'm sorry, Kunou.  I didn't know ... I mean, you never said
anything ... how?  When?"  Something about the way he stared at his
hands chilled her.
     "After my sister," he said simply.  "You are the only other
person who knows.  He had no family left, he had ... nothing.  Only his
duty.  Only us."  The thought of Kunou bearing the knowledge of
Sasuke's death alone made her angry, although she was uncertain
where she should direct that anger.
     "I wish it known that ... he died trying to fulfill his duty to us,
regardless of the risk.  He was loyal to the e-end ..."  He bowed his
head then, and a hot tear escaped to course down his cheek.  He
swallowed with difficulty, swiping his sleeve across his face roughly,
then forced himself to meet Nabiki's gaze again.  She gazed back,
careful not to let anything that he might mistake for pity show.
Something that might have been gratitude showed briefly on his face,
then he took a deep breath and continued.  As it turned out, he only
had a little farther to go.
     "And so now you know the story of this place.  I suppose you
find it quite unbelievable."  She took a careful sip of her tea, then set the
cup down on the table with a soft click.
     "That's an incredible story, Kunou, and if I hadn't been through
the things I've gone through in the past month, I'd think you were nuts.
But I don't see how I can draw any lines in the sand, especially after
tonight.  So if you're asking me if I believe you, the answer is yes."  He
nodded as if he'd expected no less.
     "Do you recall that earlier, I asked you about your destiny?" he
asked her in a soft voice.  She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully.
     "Of course.  You said something about making me an insider,
that there was some precedent."  He nodded.
     "You know what you wished to know.  You could simply walk
away now, keeping secret what you've been told, but ..."  She raised
her eyebrow.
     "But?"
     "In times past, the inner circle, acting together, could decide to bring
an outsider into their confidence, whether partially or fully.  That
happened rarely, but sometimes they would find an individual who
possessed some skill or knowledge that they needed.  There is no inner
circle to decide now.  There is only me.  But I must admit, I could use
you.  Your talents ... there are problems, mysteries yet within this house
that I cannot penetrate.  You seem to have a penchant for such
problem solving."  A tiny smile began to play at the corners of her
mouth.
     "Are you offering me a job, Kunou?" she asked with a tone of
mixed amusement and astonishment.
     "After a fashion, I suppose I am.  You would be kept as far
away from events like this night's as possible, of course, but there is still
some small element of risk.  You would appear to an outsider to be
merely a highly placed employee of the estate ..."  Nabiki named a
figure.  He stopped.
     "I ... excuse me?"
     "My salary," she said simply, enjoying the was the blood drained
from his face.
     "W-what?  I ..."
     "If you're hiring me, then I get a salary, right?"  He nodded,
dumbfounded.
     "Well, yes, all of the inner circle drew on house accounts ..."
     "Exactly," she said, cocking her head and pinning him with a
happy grin.
     "But that figure is ... outrageous!"  She shook her head sadly.
     "Kunou, Kunou, Kunou.  Whatever will I do with you?  Look.
You forget I've seen the house accounts.  I know you can easily afford
what I'm asking.  And of course, you keep telling me how dangerous
this all is.  I have to be compensated for that element of risk.  And their
isn't any competition for the position, right?"  He seemed to completely
forget his troubles as he looked at her.  His sombre demeanour was
replaced with an almost exhilarating expression of outrage.  Nabiki hid
a grin.  Now *this* was the Kunou she knew.
     "You ... but ... I don't ..."
     "And I'll need a title," she added in her most self-important tone.
"Hmmm.  Ah.  Got it.  "Nabiki Tendou, Head Troubleshooter".  No,
wait, that makes me sound like a shrink or something.  How about,
"Nabiki Tendou, CHIEF Troubleshooter?  Yes, I like the sound of that.
I'll need a nameplate for my desk, of course ..."
     "N-name ...?"
     "And personalized stationary ..."  She peered at him out of the
corner of her eye to gauge his reaction.  It was gratifying, to say the
least.  His mouth worked silently for a few moments, a flush rising to his
cheeks.
     "Yuh-Yuh-YOU!  Are the most MADDENING!  WOMAN!!"
She grinned disarmingly.
     "Aw, you love it, Kunou-baby," she said.  And the strange thing
was, he clearly did.  It felt almost like old times again.  He crossed his
arms, wincing as his shoulder reminded him to take it easy with the
sudden arm movements.
     "Very well," he said stiffly.  "I will meet your demands, outrageous
as they are.  We are agreed."  She looked at him, innocence
personified.
     "What?  Don't you want to haggle?"  He growled.
     "Haggling is beneath a Kunou," he informed her.
     "Damn!  Then I should have asked for double!"  She watched his
face twitch again.
     "You are ... you ..."  She waved him off.
     "Yes, yes," she said lightly.  "Maddening, woman, and so on."
She looked at him and realized that his dark mood had been chased
back to its shadowed recesses.  She wondered if that had been
intentional on her part, then immediately dismissed the thought as
ridiculous.
     Simply ridiculous.
     "I suppose I shall have to put up with your casual insolence on
a much more regular basis now," he grumbled, and to her ears he
seemed to be striving hard to sound put out.
     "I suppose you shall," she mimicked.  "I don't know which of
us I feel more sorry for."  He snorted, but some animation had returned
to his features.  He straightened his back and sighed.
     "I do hope neither of us comes to regret this decision," he said
at last.  Nabiki chuckled.
     "Kunou, I'm a big girl.  I made my decision and I'll live with it.
Anyway, I'll be the investigative troubleshooter, you be the monster
slayer.  We'll have this whole thing back under control in no time.
You'll see."  He nearly laughed aloud at her presumption, and she
grinned wryly.  There'd been enough seriousness for one night, she
figured.
     "There will be much for you to do," he warned.  "There are piles of
paperwork, files in incredible disarray, dossiers that are years out of
date.  You will be earning every yen of that outrageous salary you
bestowed upon yourself."  She stretched, yawning hugely.
     "My first duty will be to close the back doors that let me find
out so much about your family," she informed him.  "After all, I can't
have somebody snooping around and making me look bad, can I?"
     "Absolutely not," Kunou agreed.  "Snooping into things that are
supposed to be secret is apparently solely your prerogative."  She
grinned again.
     "Exactly."  She turned to glance out the window.  "Sun'll be up
soon."  He nodded.  The night had been long, but the comforting light
of day would come again soon, as it always did.  Always, even after the
darkest night.  She turned to regard Kunou, letting some of the humour
slip away.  It was hard to believe that so much could depend on him,
yet she knew now without a doubt that his sister's death had changed
him, brought him out of his comfortable fantasy world.  He was
different now, although just how different remained to be seen.
     Whatever the case, he now stood alone against an unknown
threat.  She smiled then.  No, not alone.  Not any longer.  He had
Nabiki Tendou, Chief Troubleshooter, on his side.  And she would
soon ensure that he knew everything there was to know about the
threat he faced.
     And, when the time was right, she'd sound him out about
accepting more help.  She already had ideas about this inner circle
thing.
     But that was for later.  Right now, there were more pressing
concerns.
     "So, Kunou-baby.  How are you with breakfast?"  He blinked.
     "Breakfast?" he asked blankly.  She sighed.
     "Can you at least find the kitchen?" she asked, exasperated.
He gave her an amused little half-grin, some of his old poise returning.
     "You expect Tatewaki Kunou, Guardian, heir to the Kunou
fortune, to cook you breakfast?"
     "And people say you're slow," she yawned, hiding a grin.
"Here's how I like my eggs ..."

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

     Ryouga looked up as Ukyou emerged from the living area of
Ucchan's into the serving area.  She had a ribbon dangling from her
clenched teeth as she gathered her hair back in a ponytail.  She
muttered a greeting around it as she worked, finally snagging the ribbon
with one hand and tying her hair back.  Then she slipped behind the
counter and began fishing out some ingredients for breakfast.
     The sun shone brightly outside as the streets began to stir.  It
was early yet, but Ryouga was accustomed to rising with the sun.
     "You must be tired," he said lightly.  She looked up at him.
     "Why's that?"
     "Well, you weren't back when I went to bed."  She gave him a
smile, and he noted something about her, an almost carefree air, that
surprised him.  She hadn't been that way for some time, and then it had
generally been Ranma's presence that had elicited such a response
from her.
     "Checking up on me, Ryouga?" she asked in a teasing voice.
He blushed.
     "No!" he denied hotly.  "Just ... you don't have to get up early
just because I'm here.  That's all."  She grinned at him.
     "I get up early anyway, hon.  I'm a morning person."  He nodded
absently.
     "So, uh, how was it last night?" he asked.  She beamed at him,
and he fancied he could actually feel the warmth of her smile on his
skin.
     "Oh, it was fun!" she enthused, her gaze becoming a little unfocused.
"I really had a good time, Ryouga.  Nabiki was right about it being a
good way to take my mind off things."
     "Well, good.  I, uh, I didn't know you liked that sort of thing,
though.  You know, dancing and stuff."  She shrugged, her green eyes
dancing with merry light as she worked.
     "I've never really done it much.  Never taken the time to just
do something like that for the sake of doing it, you know?"  He made a
noncommittal noise, and she paused, then began concentrating intently
on the batter she was mixing up.  He stared at her profile.  She seemed
to be paying much more attention to the batter than it warranted, as a
matter of fact.
     "Did you really think I looked good in that dress, Ryouga?" she
asked at last.  He was taken off guard by the question, as well as the
shy tone with which it had been delivered.  He remembered the vision
of loveliness that he'd seen leaving with Nabiki the previous night, and
felt blood rush to his face immediately.  As long as he'd known Ukyou,
he'd always considered her to be one of the guys.  He'd never felt the
awkwardness and discomfort around her that he felt around most girls,
and after a time he'd ceased to even think about that fact.
     But the previous night had shown without a doubt that Ukyou
was, in fact, a girl.  A very pretty one.  And the fact that she'd spent the
night in a dance club dressed to attract attention caused Ryouga some
odd disquiet he couldn't name.
     "Yeah, uh, I mean ... yeah.  You looked really ... nice."  He
winced and cursed himself inwardly for sounding like an idiot, but she
just smiled slightly, not looking up from her stirring.
     "Thanks," she said softly.  "I was kinda nervous about the
whole thing, you know?  But once I was there, it just felt natural."
     "So, um, did you get asked to dance a lot?" Ryouga asked.  A faint
blush appeared high on her cheeks and across the bridge of her pert
nose.
     "Some," she admitted.  She stopped stirring and looked up at
the ceiling, grinning a little.  "A couple times," she murmured, the far
away look returning to her eyes.  Ryouga smiled stiffly.
     "Well, uh, good.  Because, I mean, well, you seem happier
today.  More cheerful."  She looked at him, mildly surprised.
     "Do I really?" she asked, blushing prettily again.  He nodded.
She did indeed.  In fact, she was acting downright ... girlish.
     "Oh, Ryouga," she said suddenly. "Here I am going on about
my night when you were stuck here alone!  I'm so rude ..."
     "Hey, no!  Don't worry about it!" Ryouga assured her hastily.
"I spend a lot of time alone, remember?  I can keep myself amused for
a night.  I'm just glad you had a good time."  She grinned at him again,
then turned back to mixing the batter.
     "Oh, I did," she assured him.  "All that attention was flattering, you
know?  It really makes you feel special.  I'll tell you something ..."  He
leaned forward a bit at the warm, husky tone in her voice.
     "What?"
     "I can't wait to go again."  He smiled politely, not that she
noticed.  He was happy that she was feeling better, but as she started
breakfast, humming a jaunty tune under her breath, that strange feeling
of disquiet wouldn't leave him alone..

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

     Mousse wasn't surprised to find Cologne already up and
about.  The old woman hardly seemed to sleep at all.  He was
somewhat surprised, however, to find that Shampoo was not with her.
     "Ah, Mousse.  There you are," Cologne said, not bothering to
turn in his direction.  She couldn't see him, after all, so there was hardly
any point.  "Shampoo is on the roof."  He paused, trying to process this
information.
     "She's ... where?"
     "On the roof.  She wants to talk to you."  He frowned.
     "Should she be up there?" he asked cautiously.  "Her injuries
..."
     "Do us both a favour, boy, and don't mention her injuries.  They are,
pardon my saying so, a sore point with her."  The old woman seemed
amused about something, and Mousse sighed.  As usual, it seemed he
would be the last person around the Nekohanten to know what was
going on.
     "Well, are you sure she said she wanted to talk to me?
Because that's the last thing she's wanted to do recently."  Cologne
heaved a sigh, settling herself at a newly repaired table.
     "I'm sure, Mousse.  And before you ask me what she wants, I
don't know.  Why don't you just go talk to her?"  He still hesitated,
and she sighed again.
     "It never used to be this hard to get you to talk to Shampoo,"
she said with a mixture of amusement and exasperation.  He set his jaw
stubbornly.
     "Well, things have changed, haven't they?" he asked sourly.
But he still went, because frankly he was curious.  Whatever Shampoo
had to say to him at this juncture, he was fairly certain he wouldn't like
hearing.  Still, it was best to get this over with.  The tension around the
Nekohanten recently was beginning to seriously get on everyone's
nerves.
     He found a ladder around the back, leaning against the wall.  A
telling sign, that.  Under normal circumstances, Shampoo wouldn't have
required anything like that to reach the roof.  This was proof that she
wasn't fully recovered, no matter how much she insisted otherwise.
Mousse gathered himself to spring, then thought better of it.  Shampoo
was very proud, and might take his jumping to the roof where she could
not as an insult.  And while he knew he shouldn't care what she
thought, he found he still did.
     So he stepped onto the ladder and began to climb.

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

     Shampoo heard him coming up the ladder and sighed, breathing
in the still cool morning air.  The sun was barely up, but it was already
promising to be a marvellous day.
     And here she was getting ready to ruin it.
     Well, not necessarily, she told herself firmly.  She didn't expect
this discussion to go particularly well, but she'd taken her
great-grandmother's words to heart, and was determined to go through
with it.  It was far past time to lay things out for Mousse.  Whether he
would accept what she had to say was something else again.
     She sat with her back to where he would appear, her legs
dangling over the front edge of the roof, watching the early morning
risers beginning to stir.  Her ribs still pained her a bit, but she knew that
within a few days she'd be back in fighting trim again, and ready to
begin her quest in earnest.  That knowledge seemed to add extra
vibrancy to the colours of the newly minted day.
     "Shampoo?"  She didn't turn.
     "Come, Mousse.  Shampoo want to talk to you."  She heard
him hesitate, then come padding gently over the roof to where she sat.
     "<Have a seat,>" she said as he hovered indecisively behind
her.  With a sigh, he sat gingerly beside her.  Since she'd resolved to
have this talk, she was anxious to get it over with.  Sensing Mousse's
confusion, she jumped right in.
     "<Mousse, much has happened lately.  There have been many
changes in our lives, for both of us.  It is past time we cleared a few
things up.>"
     "<What's to clear up?>" he asked bitterly.  "<You don't have
to explain yourself to me.  It's not like we're engaged anymore,
right?>" She sighed.  This was going to be as difficult as she'd
expected.  Still, there was nothing to be gained by losing her temper.
     At least, not yet.
     "<If we're going to be living under the same roof, we should
have things plain between us, don't you think?>" He snorted.
     "<Things *are* pretty plain, Shampoo.  You've always made
things pretty plain between us.>" She began to reassess her policy on
keeping her temper, only keeping from snapping at Mousse by
remembering her great-grandmother's words.  She gazed out over the
city that had come to be her home over the last year and when she
spoke at last, her tone was low and even.
     "<Mousse, I want you to listen to what I have to say, and I
want you to try to think seriously about my words.  Try not to take this
personally.  Will you do that?>" She could feel his stare on her face as
she kept looking out over the city.  The light breeze ruffled her hair
slightly, and she gave Mousse her best profile, hoping that would soften
his resistance a little.  She knew that resentment was now mixed in with
his feelings for her, and she had to cut through that to make him
understand.
     "<I'm listening,>" he said at last.  She nodded.
     "<Mousse, I do not love you.  For so long, this has been
between us.  You profess your love, and I reject you.  It has become
something of a joke amongst out tribe, but it is not really funny, is it?>"
If she expected a response, she was disappointed.  Undaunted by his
silence, she pressed on.
     "<I don't want to hurt you, Mousse.  Truly, I've never wanted
that.>" He snorted and she felt her temper rise up instinctively.
     "<You could have fooled me,>" he said sourly.  She turned and
faced him, trying to keep from lashing out at him.  That was the pattern
that had gotten them to this point, and as great-grandmother had
pointed out, repeating that behaviour would not help anything.
     "<Damn you, Mousse, don't be so dense!>" she snapped.  His
eyes flashed angrily, but she didn't give him a chance to interrupt.
"<You must know that it's your own fault that I treat you so badly!>"
His expression was so shocked that, had the circumstances been
different, she might have laughed.  Instead, she waited for the inevitable.
     "<M-my fault?  MY fault?  How can you say that?  What have
I ever done but love you?>" he asked plaintively, torn between anger
and anguish.
     "<What you've done is refuse to accept me for what I am.
Mousse, I've never enjoyed being cruel to you, but what choice did I
have?  From the beginning, anytime I showed you the least bit of
sympathy or friendship, you chose to interpret it as a sign that I loved
you.  Soon I couldn't pass a civil word to you without you taking it as a
sign of my favour.  So I treated you harshly every chance I could.
After all, I asked myself, what man with a shred of self-respect would
allow himself to be treated like that?>" She looked at him, wishing she
knew if her words were reaching him.
     "<You are not a bad person, Mousse.  Irritating, maddening,
possibly even obsessed, but not truly a bad person.  If you were, then
we would be married now.>" He looked away from her, the rising sun
flashing dully of his thick glasses.
     "<I didn't want you to marry me because you had to,>" he
said, his voice tight.  "<I never wanted that.  I wanted you to marry me
because you *wanted* to.>"
     "<Believe me, Mousse, I understand that.  But you aren't
making me want to marry you, and you can't make me fall in love with
you.  Are you going to spend the rest of your life chasing after a woman
who doesn't love you, Mousse?  Because I'm telling you right now, for
the last time, that I don't love you.>" She idly tucked a stray lock of
purple hair behind her ear and stared intently at him, willing him to
listen.
     "<I'm not telling you this to be cruel, Mousse.  I'm telling you
this because it's not too late for you to free yourself from this prison
you've built for yourself.  At first, your attention was a little bit
flattering.
Then it became irritating.  Now it's simply incomprehensible.  Believe
me Mousse, you'll never be happy as long as you're determined to love
me.  And, believe it or not, I wouldn't mind seeing you happy.  If this
thing wasn't between us, we could even be friends, after a fashion.>"
     "<Friends?>" he echoed hollowly.  She nodded, kicking her
dangling feet idly and staring out over the rooftops.
     "<Mousse, you know the path I am about to embark on.  I
don't want this distraction any longer.  I can't afford it.  I've finally
given
up Ranma because to do otherwise is madness, a seductive madness
but madness nonetheless.  I'm asking you to do the same.  Give up on
me and get on with your life.  Let it go, Mousse.  Just let it go.>" She
stood, her ribs twinging only slightly as she moved, and looked down at
Mousse, who was staring out over the closely packed buildings of the
neighbourhood.
     "<I don't want to look back one day and be sorry I ever knew
you, Mousse.  Our childhood is over, and with it our innocence.  I hope
that now, after all that's happened, you will finally listen to me.>"  He
didn't look up at her.
     "<I was listening,>" was all he said.  She nodded.  She'd done
her best.  If he chose to ignore her this time, then more drastic
measures would be required.  She looked over her shoulder as she
walked away.  Somehow, she thought she'd gotten through to him.
She hoped she had.
     She felt a tiny blossom of sympathy for the boy and crushed it
immediately.  Showing sympathy at this point would undo all her good
work.  Mousse's problems were of his own making; only he could
solve them.
     Sighing, she swung nimbly onto the ladder and went down to
help her great-grandmother set up the kitchen for when the Nekohanten
reopened.

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

     It was midmorning by the time Nabiki arrived back at the dojo.
Kunou had assured her that he would see to getting her official access
to everything she would need in order to do her job, although he felt
that would take a couple of days.
     He'd seemed a little ill at ease by the time she'd left, as if he
was uncertain about his decision to confide in her.  Well, too bad for
him.  It was a done deal, and soon he'd come to see how indispensable
she could be.
     She felt a chill as she walked through the gates, a shadow of the
previous night's fear, and shook it off.  Ignorance hadn't protected her,
but she was determined that awareness would.  But she didn't want to
think of that any further; the dark had been banished for the time being.
     Nabiki slipped into the house after making a quick detour to the
dojo, smiling wryly at the silence.  Once again, the threat of Akane's
cooking had proven sufficient to drive everyone out for the morning.
She moved as quietly as she could towards the kitchen, hearing voices
as she drew closer.
     " ... and I say we put some in," Akane was saying.  There was
a metallic clatter, and Ranma's voice came in reply.
     "Well, grasshopper, I am the master, and I say we don't.  And
that's that."
     "Oh, really?  Look, don't make me use this, tough guy."  Grinning in
anticipation, Nabiki reached up and triggered the hidden switch that
activated her concealed camera.  She was well prepared for the
morning's festivities, if a bit late.
     She hoped she hadn't missed anything good.
     "A wire whisk?  Exactly what do you think you could
do with thaaaAAHYIKES!"  Ranma's startled yelp caught Nabiki's
attention, and she dearly hoped that whatever had just happened had
been caught on tape.
     "Oooo, not talking so tough now, are we, Mastah?" Akane
taunted.
     "Don't put that thing there!" Ranma spluttered, outraged.
     "What, here?" Akane taunted.
     "No!  Well, there either ..."
     "Or ... here?"
     "Gaah!  Grasshopper, never abuse the tools of your training
that way!"
     "Never?"
     "At least almost never ..."
     "Aw, come on, Mastah.  You know you waaaant it ..."
     "No spices, and that's final!"
     "Beg for it, big boy.  Come on, beg like the dog your are!"
     "Behave yoursellllAAHHGEEZ!  Look, you!"
     "I can do more with this thing than beat eggs, Mastah."
     "Gah!  Okay, *one* spice!"
     "Three."
     "One!  That's my final word on the matter!"
     "Sounds like somebody needs some ... convincing."
     "Hey!  Don't make me come over there!  I've got an egg
flipper, and I'm not afraid to use it!"
     "Big words, chump ... HEY!  Watch it!"
     "Oooh, you can dish it out, but you can't take it, eh,
grasshopper?"
     "Now you're gonna get it.  Stand still!"
     "Nyahhh!"
     Crashes and shrieks of laughter came from the kitchen, and
Nabiki retreated to the safety of her room, her cheeks burning in spite
of herself.  But she was grinning madly as she went.
     Her little sister.  Who would ever have thought that the girl that
had once grimly fought her way through anxious suitors every day as a
matter of course would have such a playful side?  And who would have
thought that Ranma, of all people, would bring it out in her?
     They certainly had found a creative outlet for their passions, she
had to admit that.  And they had happened across a pretty good
scheme for getting some time alone.  Nabiki supposed they were
making up for lost time, and for the fact that most people still didn't
know they were a couple.  Still, Nabiki was sure that they wouldn't be
able to keep a lid on that much longer.  Keeping their idiot fathers in the
dark was one thing, but they hadn't fought at school for weeks now,
and people were beginning to notice.
     Well, the whole thing should prove entertaining, at the very
least.  She stripped off her outfit, pulling out some more sedate clothes
to wear.  Then she flopped back on her bed with a heartfelt sigh.
     She needed this after the night she'd had.  Stubbornly, her thoughts
returned to her heart stopping flight through the dark streets.  Parts of it
seemed unreal now, but she knew it had been all too real.  She'd been
chased by those things, and if they'd been a little more determined, or if
she'd fallen just once, she was certain she would not be here now.
Somehow that fact should have felt more significant, but she just
couldn't grasp it.
     She sat up and fished in her purse, removing the tape she'd
retrieved from the hidden recorder in the dojo.  That machine was
voice activated, so she knew she would have gotten any conversation
that Ranma and Akane had shared there the previous night.  She fitted
the tape into her machine and settled the headphones over her ears,
lying back on the bed.
     Eavesdropping was something of a guilty pleasure with her.
She knew the others would be angry if they found out, but really ... she
just hated to miss anything.
     She listened to the tape idly, hearing nothing really juicy, just a
bunch of talk about training.  Then they stopped.  Apparently, Akane
was having trouble concentrating.  Then she revealed why, and
Nabiki's internal radar sprang into action.
     Akane revealed the rumours about Nabiki and Ukyou to
Ranma.  He hadn't known, and some discussion of the matter followed.
Then Ranma suggested just asking Nabiki point blank.
     "No way!  I can't do that!" Akane's voice came, slightly tinny in
the earphones.  "We need to find another way to discover if Nabiki
might really like girls."
     "Okay, like what?" Ranma's girl voice responded.
     "Well," Akane said at last, "I do have one idea.  Kinda.  But I'll
need your help ..."  Nabiki listened to Akane's half-baked plan as it
was revealed.  She was torn between exasperation and amusement.
The plan was completely stupid, and she was sure that only the fact that
Akane was asking very, *very* nicely had convinced Ranma to go
along.
     But he had agreed to go along.  An evil grin crept stealthily to
Nabiki's lips.
     Oh, this was just too good an opportunity to pass up.  Really,
they were just asking for it.  Nobody could blame her for taking
advantage of this chance, could they?
     This was going to be fun.

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

     Ucchan's had filled nicely as lunchtime approached, and Ukyou
hummed under her breath as she kept up with the orders.  The lunch
rush was nearly over now, and keeping up with things was much easier
now that she had Ryouga taking orders for her.  He was doing quite a
good job, too.  She watched him working, scribbling orders on a pad
before making his way back to the counter, and grinned.  Whatever
doubts she'd had about letting Ryouga stay with her were more than
assuaged by the enthusiasm with which he seemed to be taking to his
new job.
     She took two orders from him, shaking her head as he went to
wipe down a newly vacated table.  Having something to concentrate on
seemed to have lightened his mood a bit, and her regular customers had
taken to him readily.  And why not, she asked herself.  Ryouga could
be sort of charming, in a guileless way, when he set his mind to it.
     She turned back to the grill, using a spatula to slide a just
finished okonomiyaki onto a waiting plate, then placing the order on the
end of the counter.
     "Order up!" she called, and Ryouga came to fetch it.  Business
was brisk, the weather was lovely, and she was still nursing the
unfamiliar pleasure of her outing the previous night.
     This was a state of mind she could get used to.
     She turned as someone walked up to the counter, a delighted
smile spreading across her face as she took in the glasses and white
robes.
     "Mousse!  Hey, how are you?  Sit, sit!"  He gave her a small,
shy smile and eased himself onto a stool at the counter.  Watching him,
she felt a warning bell go off in her head.  Something was on Mousse's
mind, that much was plain.  Before she could say anything, however,
Ryouga marched up to the counter.
     "Here's the next ord ..."  He broke off as he realized Mousse
was sitting at the counter.  Mousse turned at the sound of Ryouga's
voice, and the two boys glared at each other, instant tension arcing
between them.
     This, Ukyou thought in exasperation, just will not do.  She
leaned over the counter so she was between the two of them and
clapped her hands sharply.
     "Boys!" she snapped.  "If I could have your attention!"  Both
turned to her, startled by her manner.  "Thank you.  Now.  I don't think
I've ever seen two guys that have no reason to fight look harder for one
than you two.  As to your most recent encounter ..."  She turned to
Mousse.
     "Mousse, Ryouga had just returned to town and didn't know
about what happened between you and Shampoo.  And Ryouga ..."
she continued, turning to him in turn.  "Mousse jumped to conclusions
because he was upset.  He didn't mean anything by it.  So here it is.
There's been enough of pain and misunderstandings lately.  I want you
two to shake hands and make up, because I like having you both
around and I don't want to have to use this."  With that, she caressed
her big spatula menacingly.  "Whaddaya say, boys?  Truce?"  They
both looked at her, startled, then at each other.  She saw that they were
both wary and uncomfortable, but her brief lecture seemed to have
made an impression.
     "Well ..." Ryouga grumbled.
     "I suppose ..." Mousse returned.  Ukyou sighed.
     "Restrain your enthusiasm, guys.  Now shake."  Slowly, hands
moving in tiny increments, they finally managed to meet somewhere in
the middle for a brief clasping of hands.  Before they could release,
however, Ukyou dropped her hand on top of theirs and grinned.
     "There!  Now let's put all this foolishness behind us, okay?"
They both looked at her glumly and nodded.  She released their hands
and pulled back over the counter.
     "That's more like it," she told the tongue-tied twosome with a
smile.  "I want only harmony in my restaurant from now on.  Hey
Ryouga, you've got a customer."  Ryouga blinked.
     "Huh?  Oh, yeah, uh ... okay."  He scurried away and Ukyou
turned her determined grin on Mousse, who seemed to shrink slightly
under the force of her cheer.
     "So, Mousse.  Hungry?"  He opened his mouth, closed it.
     "Ah, no, I ... I just came by to ... but you're busy.  I should
go."  She reached out and snagged his sleeve before he could get up,
tugging gently.
     "Hey, you."  She lowered her voice, speaking gently.  "Stay,
okay?  I want to talk to you."  He looked torn, and she grinned again.
"Come on, we haven't had a chance to talk for a while.  I'll make you
some lunch.  I can cook and talk at the same time, y'know."  He sighed
at last and settled back on his stool.
     "All right.  Thank you."
     "Ah, don't mention it."  She began assembling a deluxe
okonomiyaki for Mousse and put it on the grill next to the order
Ryouga had just brought.
     "So, Mousse, when are you guys finally going to get the
Nekohanten opened again?" she asked, trying to draw him out.  She
put a glass of water in front of him and he nodded his thanks.
     "Next week, we hope," he sighed.  "Even then, it's hard to say
how things will go."  She nodded sympathetically.
     "So, how have things been going otherwise?  With Shampoo and all,
I mean."  The look on his face told her all she needed to know on that
front.
     "Well, she talked to me today," he said, carefully tearing a strip
off his paper napkin.
     "Really?  About what?"
     "Oh, things," he said vaguely.  She checked the grill quickly.
     "Come on, Mousse.  What's going on?"  He slid his glasses up
on top of his head and started fidgeting with the hem of his robe
nervously.
     "Let me ask you something," he said suddenly.  "Do you think I
deserved to be abused by Shampoo?"  She blinked.
     "What?  Of course I don't, sugar!  Why would you ask that?"
He sighed.
     "She wanted to make sure I knew she didn't love me," he said
dispiritedly.  "I mean, I always used to think that one day ... but lately,
things have changed.  After our fight, I was pretty sure she would hate
me, but then, when she was released from having to marry me, I
thought ... I *hoped* ... that maybe there was still a chance.  Deep
down, I guess I knew it wasn't going to happen, though."
     "I'm sorry, Mousse," Ukyou said sympathetically.  He looked
down at his hands, which were busily tearing apart the napkin again into
slim, even strips.
     "The thing that really got me, though, was when she said that ...
that we could have been friends, but she was always afraid to be nice
to me because I'd think that meant she loved me.  I mean, is that true?
Could that really be true?"  He looked up at her, raw anguish and
confusion in his dark eyes, and Ukyou felt an overwhelming need to
offer him some comfort, however small.
     "Look, Mousse.  I could easily give you a run for your money
in the category of falling in love with a person who doesn't return the
favour.  And I'm not sure that it would be any easier for you if
Shampoo had been nice to you all this time, just to dump you in the
end.  Believe me.  But what's done is done.  Your feelings were real,
right?"  He nodded dumbly, and she smiled, leaning close.  "And all you
wanted to do was show Shampoo you really cared, right?"  He nodded
again.  She sighed, chewing lightly on her thumb for a moment.
     "Look, this is how I see it.  You were in love with someone.
So you set out to let her know how you felt.  And when she acted like
she didn't care, well, you thought maybe you just weren't showing her
enough attention, or weren't saying the right things.  You would have
felt like a fool or a loser if you gave up, only to discover later that she
wanted to see how devoted you were, right?  All you really needed to
do was show her how deep your love was, and eventually you were
sure that he would come to see that you cared the most, that you really,
really cared ..."
     "He?" Mousse asked.  She blinked.
     "Uh, I meant she," Ukyou said, feeling slight blush rise to her
cheeks.  Mousse gave her a crooked grin.
     "Right," he said, and for a moment she felt a powerful bond
between them.
     "Anyway," she sighed, "you did what you thought was right.
You know, sometimes pursuing someone that way works.  Sometimes
it doesn't.  I don't think Shampoo understands that you were only
trying to be worthy of her.  People in love do strange things, Mousse,
we all know that from experience.  Hell, she chased Ranma at least as
hard as you chased her, if not for as long, so I think she could show at
least a little understanding."
     "Maybe," Mousse sighed morosely.  "But the more I think
about it, the more I wonder if maybe she's right.  Maybe all I really
accomplished was to push her away from me."
     "Mousse, you chased your dream.  How would you feel if you
hadn't had the courage to at least try?" Ukyou asked in a low, insistent
voice.  "And if you made a mistake, well, welcome to the club.  Nerima
is full of members of that particular club, let me tell you.  She's not the
only woman in the world, Mousse.  If you're absolutely sure that she
won't change her mind, then ... then feel bad.  Cry, if you want.  Brood
over what might have been.  And then ..."  She straightened up,
retrieving Mousse's food from the grill, slipping it onto a plate with a
practised motion.
     "Then?" he asked, sounding curious in spite of himself.
     "Then, move on."  She set the plate in front of him, moving to
place the other order at the end of the counter for Ryouga to pick up.
     "Just like that," Mousse said sourly.  Ukyou came back over to
stand in front of him.
     "No, not "just like that", Mousse.  It takes time, but it can be
done.  I know what you're going through, remember?"  He looked a
little chastened at that, and she smiled.
     "I guess.  I just didn't like the way my talk with Shampoo went.
She got to do all the talking, and I just got to react to it."
     "Well, then, next time you do the talking," she suggested.
"That's only fair, even though it won't change her mind.  Now let's not
talk about Shampoo any more, okay?"  He managed a small smile.
     "Deal."
     "Good.  Now eat your lunch."  He dug in dutifully, and soon
had eaten almost the whole thing despite his claim of not being hungry.
The restaurant had cleared out quite a bit, and Ukyou soon had more
time to talk to him.
     "How'd you get Ryouga to wait tables for you, anyway?" he
asked as she returned.  She grinned.
     "In return for room and board," she told an astonished Mousse.
     "What?  He's ... living here?"  She shrugged.
     "It's a long story.  He's trying to stay away from the dojo and
Akane, you know?  But it's working out well for both of us."  Mousse
looked over to where Ryouga was standing.
     "Better for him, maybe.  I think Akane's probably the last thing
on his mind now," he said.  Ukyou followed his gaze, puzzled, to see
Ryouga leaning on a table talking to a very pretty blonde.
     And, in Ukyou's estimation, he seemed to be enjoying himself far
too much to just be taking her order.

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

     Ryouga concentrated on clearing the last couple of tables,
trying not to look at where Mousse and Ukyou were talking.  His
irritation with Mousse had been allowed to fester since their first scrap,
and their second hadn't improved his grudge towards the other boy at
all ... not to mention the fact that he hadn't gotten a chance to finish the
job either time.  Still, he was a guest here, so he supposed he shouldn't
complain.
     He caught sight of Ukyou and Mousse talking as he worked,
and frowned.  They were awfully close, and whatever they were talking
about was certainly weightier than the menu.  He felt that odd feeling of
disquiet again, stirring in his gut.  Since when had those two become so
close, anyway?
     Of course, that was the sort of thing you missed, he told
himself, when you wandered off all the time.  He glanced over again,
wondering what they could be talking about.  Then someone came in
and sat at one of the tables near the door, and he hurried over, glad for
the distraction.  He snagged a menu on the way and tucked it under his
arm as he made his way to the table.
     "Hi, can I take your order?" he asked politely.  Deep sky blue
eyes met his, and he felt a tiny shock of recognition.  For a second, he
couldn't quite place her, then remembered.  She was the girl who'd
asked him for directions to the Kunou place when he'd first gotten back
to the city.  She had changed from her nondescript clothing, though,
and was dressed in a loose blouse, open in the front and tied under her
breasts, showing a tight black top underneath.  What he could see of
her skirt indicated that it was tight and fairly short.  She cocked her
head, flipping her long blonde braid back over her shoulder, and smiled
up at him.  Ryouga instantly felt his cognitive centres beginning to
overheat.
     "Well, we meet again," she said breezily.  "I suppose you'd like
me to tell you we're not in an okonomiyaki restaurant?"  He blinked,
then remembered their first conversation, and laughed self-consciously.
     "Oh, ah, no, nothing like that," he said somewhat giddily,
cursing how stupid he sounded.  "I'm sorry about all that.  I mean,
before.  I just have a bad sense of direction, and so I couldn't ... not
that I didn't want to, but I just ... you see ... um, menu?"  He held the
menu out, feeling the heat in his face.  She glanced at it casually.
     "Yes, it is," she acknowledged.  He felt even more foolish and
tongue-tied, and laughed to try to cover his nervousness.  She smiled
back, only increasing his agitation.
     "What do you recommend?" she asked, holding his gaze
boldly.  A cold shower, he thought woozily.
     "Um, well ... the okonomiyaki's very good," he said at last with
a weak grin.  She stared at him for a moment, then began laughing out
loud.  Ryouga joined in after a second.
     "Maybe I should check this out after all," she said, her eyes
dancing with amusement as she took the menu from Ryouga's hand,
lightly brushing his fingers as she did so.  He had to stifle a gasp at the
slight, charged contact, and felt a hell of a nosebleed coming on.  She
surveyed the menu while he stood uncertainly nearby.  Her bold manner
was really getting to him, and he swallowed hard, feeling clumsy and
stupid.  Finally, she looked up.
     "Well, how about one deluxe okonomiyaki and a Coke?" she
asked.  He just stared at her for a second, then realized he should write
her order down.  She stared at him as he did so, a wry smile on her
lips.
     "Listen," she said as he finished.  "You said you'd been to the
Kunou family estate, right?"  He fiddled with his order pad, meeting her
disconcertingly direct gaze.
     "Uh, yeah.  I mean yes."
     "So you know the Kunous, then?"  He shrugged.
     "Well, yeah, you could say that.  Although I guess only
Tatewaki lives there now that his sister's dead."  Something flashed
through her eyes at that.
     "Dead?  Really?  Was this recent?"  He nodded.
     "Yeah, pretty recent."  He leaned on the table as she chewed her
lower lip thoughtfully.
     "What happened?" she asked casually.  He blinked.  He had no idea
what the official story was, and he knew that this girl would never
believe the truth even if he'd been dumb enough to tell her.
     "Uh, I'm not sure of the details," he lied.  "Anyway, there's just
Kunou and the servants there now, I guess."
     "Servants.  One of them wouldn't happen to be named Sasuke,
would he?"
     "Yeah.  He's kind of the family ninja.  Short guy, sort of
incompetent if you ask me.  Why, do you know him?"  She shook her
head.
     "Oh, no.  Just an old friend of the family, sort of.  I'm supposed to
look him up while I'm in town if I get a chance, that's all.  I don't
suppose you know where he hangs out?"  Ryouga frowned.
     "Well, at the estate, I guess.  I don't think he gets out much.  He
sticks pretty close to the Kunous ... well, I guess to just one Kunou
now.  Haven't you found the estate yet?"  She smiled brightly, and
made Ryouga want to smile back.
     "Oh, no, but don't worry.  I've got time.  I just thought I'd
ask."  He stood there for a few seconds until she cleared her throat.
     "Are you thinking of taking my order to the chef anytime
soon?" she asked innocently, and he realized that he still had her order
in his hand.
     "Oh!  Yeah!  Um, sorry!" he grinned apologetically, backing
away.  She waved with her fingers as he turned, nearly tripping, and
made his way over to the counter.  He stopped as he realized that
Ukyou and Mousse were both watching him.
     "Friend of yours, Ryouga?" Ukyou asked archly.
     "Uh, no, not really," he blurted, feeling for some odd reason as if
he'd been caught doing something wrong.  "I mean, we've met before is
all."  She looked surprised.
     "Really?  You two seemed pretty friendly."  She held her hand
out, and he looked at it for a moment before remembering that she
wanted the order he'd written.  Grinning abashedly, he tore off the
sheet and gave it to her.
     "She sure is a flashy dresser," Ukyou remarked with studied
casualness as she began assembling the ingredients for the girl's order.
     "Uh-huh," Mousse and Ryouga said together.  Surprised, they
stared at each other, then looked around to see Ukyou glaring at them.
     "Well, if you're finished ogling her, you can clean table three,
Ryouga," she said shortly.  Flushing, he hurried to comply.
     But every time he looked up, the blonde seemed to be looking
at him.  And smiling.

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

     "You know, Saotome, you've been awfully quiet."
     "Nice weather, eh, Tendou?"
     "All I asked was how things went with your wife last night ..."
     "Getting rather warm, too.  Summer's heat will be upon us
soon."  The large man nodded as if this observation had been
particularly profound, and Soun sighed.  His old friend was not making
this easy.
     "Look, Saotome.  How are we ever going to get our children
married if you can't even reconcile with your own wife?"  Genma
leaned back in the shade of the tree, ignoring the shogi board for a
moment.
     "Oh, don't you worry about that, Tendou," he said expansively.
"She's just being difficult.  You know how women are."  Soun sighed
heavily.
     "Unfortunately, living in a house full of them has given me some
insight into their moods," he acknowledged.  "Still, she has seemed ...
rather cold recently."  Genma nodded glumly.
     "It seems," he rumbled, cleaning his glasses on his gi, "that
she's been talking to someone or other about the things that went on
when Ranma and I were on our training trip."
     "Ha!  Is that all?" Soun asked.  "She already knows that you
got your only son cursed to turn into a girl!  What could be worse than
that?"  Genma waved one large hand dismissively.
     "She's a sensitive woman, Tendou.  She doesn't understand
the sorts of compromises we came to accept as necessary under the
master's tutelage."  They both paused, as if expecting their demented
master to leap out of the bushes as soon as he was mentioned, but
thankfully no such thing happened.
     "Well, that's all history, right?" Soun asked heartily.
     "Exactly!" Genma growled.  "But now she's furious about
something that happened ten years ago!  I mean, it's not even my fault!
Ranma *said* he preferred okonomiyaki to Ukyou!"  Soun froze.
     "She ... ah, found out about the okonomiyaki cart?" he asked.
Genma sighed and nodded.  Soun crossed his arms, an expression of
commiseration on his gaunt features.
     "Saotome, you'll always have a place to stay as long as I live,"
he said magnanimously.  If Nodoka had found out about that incident,
of course, Soun knew his friend might just have to take him up on that
offer.
     "How long before you figure it's safe to go back?" Genma
asked at last.  Soun thought.
     "Another hour or so, just to make sure all the noxious vapours
have cleared the area.  Poor Ranma."  They nodded in unison.
     "I brought him up right, though," Genma asserted.  "Sacrificing
himself so that we could escape.  Oh, how he must be suffering!  It
warms a father's heart!"
     "Indeed!  Saotome, our children must be bonding over a
terrible ordeal such as this, it's just human nature.  Look at it this way,
perhaps this will bring them close together.  Marriage would only be a
short step from that point!"  They laughed together, gleeful at the
thought of finally getting their stubborn offspring married.  Finally,
Genma leaned forward, hands on his crossed legs.
     "An hour, eh?  Well, in the meantime ... hey.  Where are all my
pieces?"
     "I have no idea what you're talking about."
     "Tendou ..."
     "Looks like I win," Soun said with a grin.  "Play again?"

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

     Reiko stretched her arms over her head, fingers interlaced and
palms facing outwards.  She didn't need to look to see that the guys at
the counter were watching appreciatively, or that the female chef was
glaring again.  Like she cared.  It was no crime to show off what you
had, after all.
     The okonomiyaki had been excellent.  That she had to admit.
Stopping in here had been a good idea after all.
     Of course, besides the food she'd gotten to tease that hunky
waiter with the bandanna.  He was kind of cute, and shy besides.  And
luck was with her for once, because he was familiar with the Kunou
estate.  She now knew that this Sasuke was indeed still a servant there.
He was the one she was supposed to contact, after all.  Still, she wasn't
certain how to go about finding him without attracting the wrong kind of
attention.
     She cast her mind back to the night before.  Whatever else that
place was, it seemed to be the focus of all sorts of trouble, and she
didn't need to get involved in anything like that.  Once she had what
she'd come for, she could leave this sort of nonsense behind her for
good.  And if that meant taking a little extra time to make sure she
stayed uninvolved, well that was time well spent.
     She grinned to herself as her waiter ventured back over to the table.
Now this one was fun to play with.  He was already blushing slightly as
he fished the bill out of one of the pouches of his apron-like belt.
     "Here you go," he said, handing her the folded bill.  She took it,
being sure to let her fingers brush his gently as she did so.  His face
turned beet red, and she stifled a laugh.  Just like she'd thought.
     She fished out enough money to pay the bill, then scribbled
something on it before handing his copy back.  She stood, giving the
waiter a wink.  He scratched the back of his head nervously and
tittered, and she could feel the eyes of the two guys and the chef on her
as she went to the door.  Then she stopped and turned around,
catching the waiter's eye.
     "Hey, handsome," she called.  "What's your name, anyway?"
He pointed at himself, looking dumbfounded, and she laughed.
     "Yes, you," she teased.  He cleared his throat.
     "Ah, R-Ryouga," he stuttered.  She touched the first two
fingers of her right hand to her lips and blew him a kiss.
     "See you around, Ryouga," she said sweetly.  Then she was
out the door, striding through the warm spring sunshine and glorying in
the appreciative looks she was getting from the locals.
     Well, she thought as she went, that was diverting.  But there's
still the problem of how to get in touch with this Sasuke.  Just why the
old man had specified this servant over anybody else, she didn't know.
But she needed to talk to him, so talk to him she would.
     Tomorrow would be soon enough, though.  She was starting to feel
hemmed in, and she'd hardly taken any time to check out the city.
Tonight might be a good night to cut loose a little.
     Yes.  That might be just the thing.

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

     Ryouga carried the money back to the counter so Ukyou could
put it in the register.  He knew he was still blushing, but he couldn't help
it.  Her flirting had been so ... bold.
     Absently, he handed the cash to Ukyou.  As he went to give
her the store's copy of the bill, he realized that something was written
on it.
     A name.  Reiko.  And a little heart.  And ...
     "Is that a phone number?" Mousse asked incredulously,
peering over his shoulder.  Ryouga felt his blood pressure skyrocket.
He could feel the hot pulsing of blood in his cheeks, barely noticing as
Ukyou snatched the paper away from him.  She looked at the bill, her
lips compressed in a thin line, and stuffed it into the cash drawer with a
short, sharp motion.
     "She really thinks she's something," Ukyou grumbled, staring
daggers out the door where the girl had disappeared.  "What kind of
girl is she, anyway?  I mean, guys don't really go for that sort of
outrageous girl, do they?"  The disapproval in her voice was plain, and
Ryouga blinked.
     "No way," he blurted.
     "Absolutely not," Mousse affirmed simultaneously.  She glared at
both of them for a moment, then reached under the counter and held
out a paper napkin to Ryouga.  He stared blankly.
     "What's that for?" he asked.  She just gave him a dispassionate
stare.
     "Nosebleed," she said shortly.  He grimaced as he felt the telltale
tickle on his upper lip.  Ruefully, he took the offered napkin and
staunched the trickle of blood as Ukyou turned back to the grill.
Mousse snickered at his embarrassment, and Ryouga went to
clean one of the tables before he gave in to the urge to punch the guy
out.
     "Men," he heard Ukyou mutter disgustedly under her breath as
she cleaned the grill.  Ryouga sighed.
     Well, it wasn't his fault that a pretty girl could get him flustered
so easily.
     What the heck was she so upset about anyway?

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

     She padded softly down the hallway, her bare feet making no
sound as she moved across the floor.  She was very accustomed to this
body, and could move with uncanny grace, a fact which had served her
well many times in the past.  She came to where one hallway split off
and eased up to the corner, sneaking a quick peek.  The hall down
which her quarry awaited was deserted.  She tensed slightly, preparing
to slip around like a wraith and ...
     "Yes, Tisa, she's still in there," a low, husky voice came from
behind her.  She jumped involuntarily, cursing herself for being caught
unawares, and turned to see Callie regarding her with a knowing smirk.
The tall Baenma sighed, running one bronzed hand through her
honey streaked dark gold hair.
     "I was just ..."
     "You were just going to disobey our Lady's direct order,
weren't you, Tisa?"
     "Jubei," she said firmly.  Lilla padded up behind Callie, her
glossy black bob dishevelled as if she had just gotten out of bed.  She
tucked a lock behind one long, tapered ear and fixed Tisa with a
mocking stare.
     "Oh, come now, Tisa.  You know we won't use that stupid
human's name," she said in her usual, teasing tone.
     "Yes, even though you hardly ever come out of that body
anymore," Callie chided, the slit pupils of her strange amber eyes wide
dark pools in the dimly lit hall.
     "That's because she has to serve our Lady, staying close to her
at all times," Lilla said with mock seriousness, slowly swaying up behind
Callie.  She leaned against the taller girl from behind, wrapping her arms
slowly around Callie's narrow waist and leaning her cheek against one
bare, bronzed shoulder.
     "And of course that means mastering that body to establish a
presence and avoid any suspicion from the humans," Callie added, the
mischievous light dancing in her eyes belying her grave tone.
     "Yes, I'm certain that the fact our Lady once remarked upon
*Jubei's* comeliness has nothing whatsoever to do with it."
     "Nothing," Callie agreed.  Tisa just stood and let them go.
She'd heard this enough times that she could have recited the entire
dialogue herself.  Lilla pouted and ran her hands up the front of Callie's
sleeveless shift, letting her fingers rest easily over the taller woman's
shoulders.  Callie smiled gently and let her hand stray to stroke Lilla's
dishevelled hair as the pair gazed with naked challenge at their
comrade.
     Tisa had to admit they were a striking pair, Callie with her
dark bronze skin and masses of  hair falling to her waist in soft waves,
and the more petite Lilla with the pale skin, glossy, shoulder length bob
dark as a raven's wing and mocking blue-green eyes.  Both shared the
features common to the Baenma: long, tapered ears, fangs and
retractable claws, as well as the slit-pupilled eyes.  They also possessed
unearthly beauty and the ability to possess the bodies of others, abilities
that made their type prized amongst the lords of the demon realms,
even though they were only considered of the Lesser Courts, not the
Upper.
     "Well, I won't be able to check on her with you two hanging
about," Tisa sighed.  "In my capacity as her bodyguard," she added
sternly as the lovely pair regarded her coolly.
     "She doesn't need guarding from our resident mongrel," Callie
said lightly, her eyes fixed on Tisa.  "She's the only one we can be
certain he would never harm."
     "Last night, when he came in here covered in blood, I thought
he'd finally come to kill us all," Lilla added breathlessly, tightening her
grip on Callie.  The taller Baenma reached up to stroke Lilla's hand in
an absent gesture of comfort.
     "His rages are something to behold, as we all recall," Callie
acknowledged, her eyes narrowed thoughtfully.  "Come, Tisa.  You
know our Lady would be cross if you interrupted her.  I'm only thinking
of you."  Tisa scowled, not wanting to hear this.
     "No good can come of her consorting with that ... half-breed!" she
spat.  Callie cocked her head.
     "Tisa, she plays with you," she said, all sign of playfulness gone
from her eyes now.  "You know how she is.  She uses your devotion
for her own purposes."
     "I'll not hear you speak against her!"  There was silence for a
moment as Callie and Tisa glared at each other, eyes human and
inhuman locked in a struggle of wills.
     "Don't be a fool.  She will never love you, Tisa.  You are
below her station.  She uses the mongrel boy as her sword, and she
uses you as her shield.  Only our Lord could ever bring her to heel.
That is why she rules in his absence.  Your devotion is wasted on her,
darling."  Tisa swallowed bitter rage but said nothing.
     Because there was nothing to say.  Because, night after night, she'd
told herself exactly the same thing.
     "Tisa," Lilla whispered huskily, rubbing her cheek against
Callie's arm, her eyes half-closed in pleasure.  "Leave that body for a
while.  Come play with us again.  All of us, like we used to."  Once,
Tisa wouldn't have needed any urging, but now that path felt strangely
empty.
     "Play," she said sourly.  "All you ever want to do is play."  Lilla
smiled, her ruby lips curling up lazily.
     "Of course," she purred.  "That was why we came here,
remember?  When we rule this place again, like our kind did long ago,
we will have whatever pleasures we desire.  Sweet pets to play with,
and so much blood that we can bathe in it, drinking until we are sated
for long, endless days.  So it was promised ..."  She broke off, pouting
again.  "A long time since, those promises.  Until then, we make do.
As you used to, Tisa."
     "Things will change when our Lord is returned to us," Callie
said simply.  "Those promises will be kept.  We have faith, Tisa."
     "Oh, Tisa, our Lord will be most put out if you insist on wearing
that body when he returns," Lilla breathed.  "You know he chose all us
of his inner circle for our beauty as well as our power.  He will not
tolerate you hiding your lovely self in such a plain mortal."
     "When our Lord returns, he may command me," Tisa said
stiffly.  "Until then, our Lady commands, and my appearance seems to
please her."  Lilla sighed and stuck out her tongue, while Callie simply
nodded.
     "Then come with us now, Tisa.  Our Lady shall summon us if
she has need.  The day is long, and it will pass more ... pleasantly in
company.  You can demonstrate your mastery of that body you insist
on wearing."
     "Tisaaaa ..." Lilla crooned enticingly.
     "Jubei," Tisa said firmly, shaking her head.  The others stared at her
for long moments, then Callie finally sighed.
     "So be it.  You know where we'll be if you change your mind.  But if
you're smart, you won't go down to his room unless summoned.  She
really will be angry if you do."  Reluctantly, Lilla followed Callie away,
glancing back once or twice.  Tisa stood, impassive, and watched them
go.  After they were gone she turned back to look down the hall that
lead to where her Lady was closeted with that punk, Keisuke.
     Why she needed him when Tisa stood ready to serve was
beyond her.  Riana *had* once commented on this body's physical
charms, true, but it was just foolishness for Callie to imply that was why
Tisa stayed in it so much of the time.
     Foolishness.
     Crossing her arms across her broad chest, she headed back to her
own rooms to wait for a summons from her Lady.

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

     Nabiki sighed.
     She'd spent too much of this beautiful spring afternoon thinking
about strange and disturbing things.  That was to be expected, of
course, considering just what she'd gotten herself into.  There would
likely be more days like this before she was through.  However, Nabiki
was nothing if not confident of her abilities.  Kunou was stuck with the
status quo, such as it was.  He didn't seem to have any plan beyond
waiting for the enemy to come to him and then, if he was lucky, dying
bravely.
     But at least he'd been smart enough to bring her on board.
She'd find the knots in the twisted skeins of the affairs of House
Kunou, and she'd find where they led.  Order could be wrested from
chaos, sense made of nonsense, light shined in the dark corners where
vermin scuttled.
     They'd chased her.  They'd frightened her.  They'd soiled the
memory of her mother.  And they'd laughed all the while, for what did
creatures of darkness have to fear from Nabiki Tendou?
     What, indeed?
     She smiled then, and had anyone seen her, they'd have been
stricken dumb by her expression.  Her smile was thin and hard, and her
eyes shone with a deep resolve.
     There was no place in her world for Kunou's dirty little
monsters.  They just had to go.
     And go they would.  Her smile faded slowly, and she sighed
again, stretching slowly and listening with satisfaction as her neck
popped loudly.  All she had to do was find out everything there was to
know about the problem, and she'd be able to find a solution.  She was
sure of that.
     And finding out everything meant not depending exclusively on
Kunou.  He'd held some things back; that she didn't doubt one little bit.
Still, she had an idea of who to talk to about the family history.  She'd
know better what questions to ask this time, and she'd know to pay
attention to the answers.
     But that was for another time.  Right now, she needed a strong dose
of normalcy.  She got up and walked to the door, stopping as a thought
struck her.
     "When did I start considering life around this house normal?" she
asked aloud, amused at the thought.  Shaking her head ruefully, she
headed downstairs.
     She'd almost reached the bottom when a wonderful smell
reached her.  It was warm and intimate, a smell that spoke loudly of a
cluttered kitchen and licking batter off of mixing spoons.
     Someone was baking.
     She followed the scent like a hunter tracking her prey.  Ranma
and Akane had adjourned earlier to the back yard to enjoy the fruits of
their labours.  Nabiki seriously doubted that they enjoyed the fruits as
much as they'd enjoyed the labours, but that was another story.
They'd eaten everything, so it must have at least been edible, and then
they'd disappeared for a walk.
     No, not even Ranma's inspired lessons could coax this smell
out of a kitchen that contained her little sister.
     Kasumi was home.
     She entered the kitchen to find Kasumi humming under her
breath, wearing an apron and oven mitts and looking every inch the
domestic goddess.  She opened the oven as Nabiki watched, fishing
out a pan and turning to set it on the cooling rack.  She smiled
beatifically as she caught sight of Nabiki.
     "Oh.  I didn't realize you were home," she said.  Nabiki
shrugged.
     "I didn't know you were home either."  She peered at the pan,
her eyes widening as she recognized the contents.
     "Hey, are those ...?"
     "My special brownies?" Kasumi asked innocently.  "The ones
with chocolate icing and nuts?"
     "Really?"
     "Yes.  And so are these."  She bent down and fished out a
second pan, setting it gently next to the first, the warm scent of
chocolate making Nabiki's knees weak.
     "Oh, man," she breathed.  Then she blinked.
     "Wait a minute ..." she said slowly, realization dawning.
     "Hey, something smells good," Akane said, striding into the
kitchen.  "Wow!  Brownies!"  Kasumi smiled at Akane.
     "Yes," she said cheerfully.  Akane made a bee-line for the far
counter, snagging the empty mixing bowl and hugging it tightly to her
chest with one arm.  She stuck her index finger into the bowl, scooping
a large glob of chocolate batter off the side and popping it into her
mouth.  Her eyes closed languorously and she let out a sigh of ecstasy.
     "Mmmmmmmmm," she pointed out.  Nabiki shook her head at
the sight.
     "Were you thinking of leaving any of that for me, Akane?" she
asked dryly.  Akane clutched at the bowl possessively.
     "Rou c'n lick da shpoon," she muttered.  Nabiki winked.
     "Not necessary, sis.  After all, these are my brownies."  Akane
blinked.
     "Wraht?  Wry yers?" she mumbled in outrage.
     "For services rendered," she said smugly, turning to Kasumi.
"So it worked?"  Kasumi's smile, already large, spread even further
until it seemed her cheeks would burst.
     "Just like you planned," she sighed, stripping off her over mitts
and gazing at them as if they were made of solid gold.  Akane looked
from one sister to the other, confusion plain on her face.
     "Hah!" Nabiki crowed.  "I knew it would work, Kasumi.  So
he asked you?"  She blushed prettily, crimson spreading from her
cheeks across the bridge of her nose, and she gently set the mitts on the
counter, concentrating on that simple task a good deal more fervently
than actually seemed necessary.
     "Well, actually ..."
     "Hey, what's going on?" Akane demanded, her gaze bouncing
between the two.
     "Well, actually?" Nabiki prompted.
     "Um, guys ...?"
     "I asked him."  Kasumi stood, hands clasped tightly together in
front of her apron, elbows turned outward, the very portrait of prim and
sweet.
     Then she smiled again, the colour high in her cheeks, her eyes
seeming to shimmer with an inner light as she peered up shyly at her
sisters.  Akane's jaw dropped.
     "Oh!  Oh!  That smile!  I know that smile!" she blurted.  Nabiki
grinned wryly.
     "You ought to.  You've worn one just like it lately."  Akane ignored
her, staring intently at Kasumi's face.
     "That can only mean ... asked him?  Doctor Tofu?  Kasumi,
you asked Doctor Tofu on a ... DATE?!"  Kasumi flushed with
pleasure at Akane's enthusiastic response.
     "Well, yes, I suppose I did ..." Kasumi began timidly.  Akane
bounded over, quivering with anticipation.
     "Well it's about time!  But how did ... wait, wait.  Start at the
beginning."  Akane scooped up another glob of left-over batter as
Nabiki watched, amused.
     "Well, I was following Nabiki's plan ..."
     "What? *Nabiki's* plan?"
     "That's right," Nabiki said as modestly as she could, which
frankly was not very.  "Apparently I'm something of a genius."  She
studied her fingernails casually as Akane glanced back and forth
between them, looking both delighted and befuddled.
     "Nabiki suggested I try to talk to Doctor Tofu while he was
treating me, so he'd be forced to keep his ... impulses ... under
control."
     "But as I envisioned things, he'd finally have the chance to ask
*you* out," Nabiki pointed out.  Kasumi fidgeted.
     "It didn't seem that he was going to manage to do it, so I
helped things along," she admitted sheepishly.  Akane shook her head
in admiration.
     "Wow, you really just asked him?  I never knew you had it in
you, Kasumi!"
     "Ah, Akane, don't underestimate our big sister," Nabiki scolded.
"Just because she never had much time for dalliances when she was in
high  school, don't think there weren't plenty of guys who didn't chase
after her."
     "Not plenty," Kasumi said modestly.
     "Dalliances?" Akane asked.
     "Sorry.  Been hanging around Kunou too much," Nabiki
apologized.  Just then Ranma wandered in, his face lighting up as he
spied the brownies.
     "All right!" he exclaimed.
     "They're mine, Saotome," Nabiki informed him before he could get
near the cooling treats.  "But you might convince me to part with one ...
for the right price."  She let her voice trail off casually, and he grimaced.
     "Sorry," he said sourly, "I still need both my kidneys."  Then noticed
the way they were standing close together, and smiling.
     "Uh, what's going on?" he asked tentatively.
     "Girl talk," Akane said primly.  He winced.
     "Yikes.  I'm outta here."
     "Smart man," Nabiki grinned.  Ranma snagged the mixing bowl
out of Akane's arms deftly and dashed out.
     "Thanks!" he called to his startled fianc‚.  She gaped, staring at
her empty hands.
     "Wh-what the ... Ranma!"  She started after him, then realized
that she would miss hearing about Kasumi's encounter with Doctor
Tofu.  She stared longingly out the door.
     "Ranma, you're a dead man!" she shouted.  Kasumi reached
around her back and fished another bowl off the counter.
     "Icing," she informed a delighted Akane, who immediately took
possession of the bowl.
     "I love you, sis," she said sweetly.  Kasumi and Nabiki both
laughed as she stuck her finger in the bowl and came up with a glob of
chocolate icing.  Soon all three sisters were savouring the sweet
remnants from the sides of the bowl.
     "Shouldn't you be telling us to stop or we'll ruin our dinner?"
Nabiki teased.  Kasumi nodded.
     "Yes, I should," she admitted, promptly scooping out more
icing as she related the details of her trip to the good doctor's office to
the delight of her sisters.
     "So, Kasumi," Akane said when she was done, her eyes glittering.
"What are you guys doing for your first date?"
     "Not a movie?" Nabiki asked.  "Tell me you didn't suggest a
movie?"  Kasumi opened her mouth to answer.
     "What's wrong with a movie?" Akane asked.
     "It's cliche."
     "It's a first date!"
     "It's still cliche."  They turned to Kasumi expectantly.
     "Actually, I'm going to cook him dinner," she smiled.
     "Great idea," Nabiki nodded.
     "What? *That's* not cliche?" Akane asked pointedly.  Nabiki
shook her head.
     "Look, Akane, she should go with her strength first time out,
and that's cooking.  And afterwards, plenty of time for talking ... I
assume you'll be at his place?"  Kasumi blushed slightly but nodded.
     "What are you going to cook?" Akane asked breathlessly.  Nabiki
snorted.
     "Akane, this is Kasumi.  Whatever she cooks will be
wonderful.  No, the important question here is what is she going to
*wear*?"  Kasumi looked startled by the question as her sisters sized
her up.
     "Hmmm," Akane said, reaching out to pluck at Kasumi's
apron.  "I don't know about this apron."
     "Mmmmmm," Nabiki agreed.  "It's kind of ..."
     "Dull."
     "Matronly."
     "Ooo.  Good one."
     "Thanks."
     "Um," Kasumi interrupted, "I have to wear an apron if I'm
cooking."  Nabiki and Akane continued to examine her closely.
     "How about one of those tiny aprons that go with a little French
maid outfit?" Nabiki asked slyly.  "No, wait, how about the *whole*
outfit?"
     "Nabiki!" Akane blurted as Kasumi blushed again.  "That's for
*after* dinner!"  They all laughed at that.
     "Mmmph," Nabiki grunted suddenly, licking some wayward
icing off her lower lip.  "But you want to wear something that sends the
right message."  Kasumi looked at her, and Nabiki was happy to see a
sparkle in her older sister's eyes that had been absent for far too long.
Kasumi had spent so much time taking care of them and the household
that she'd had less and less time for herself as she'd progressed through
high school.
     "And exactly what message would that be?" Kasumi asked archly,
sucking some icing off her index finger.
     "Oh, a look that says, "You can have me.  Eventually.  But
you're going to have to work for it first."  That kind of look."
     "Yeah," Akane added.  "Interested.  Available without being
desperate."  They looked at each other.
     "Like he'll need much convincing," Nabiki chuckled.  Akane giggled
in agreement.
     "Or ANY convincing!"
     "Anyway, I'm not even sure I remember how to do this,"
Kasumi sighed.  Nabiki shook her head sadly.
     "Nervous?" she teased.  The corner of Kasumi's mouth tugged
up into a tiny smile.
     "A bit," she admitted.
     "Aw, you'll be fine," Nabiki assured her.  "Akane and I will
help you pick out something fabulous to wear.  The doc won't know
what hit him."  Kasumi pulled her hair over her shoulder and began
toying with it nervously.  Nabiki put a finger against the side of her jaw
thoughtfully.
     "You know, maybe you should wear your hair loose," she
suggested.
     "No way," Akane cut in.  "Tie it up.  Guys love that.  I think it
makes them want to untie it and run their fingers through it."  She
sighed, fingering her own short locks lightly.  "Sometimes I miss having
long hair."
     "You always said it was a pain to take care of," Nabiki said
absently, moving around Kasumi.  Akane sighed again.
     "Yeah, true, but I could do a lot with it."  Nabiki took
Kasumi's hair and lifted it up on top of her head, pinning it there with
her fingers, regarding it critically..
     "What do you think?" she asked.  Akane grinned.
     "Oh, yeah!  Definitely up.  A sexy, sophisticated look ..."
     "I don't want to make him too nervous," Kasumi said, turning
slightly to try to catch her reflection in the window.  "I think I should go
with something basic, not too fancy."
     "True, you don't want to blow the poor man's fuses," Nabiki said
smoothly.  "At least, not right away.  When's this date taking place
anyway?"
     "Tuesday."
     "Great!  Lots of time!  We'll have you all set up by then!"
     "Yeah," Akane added.  "You've waited a long time for this,
Kasumi.  We'll help you make it special."  Kasumi smiled, looking a
little misty-eyed to Nabiki.
     "Thanks, you two," she said softly, her face lighting up with pleasure.
"I don't know who's more excited about this, me or you."
     "It's a close contest," Nabiki admitted with a grin.  "Now, let's
talk accessories ..."

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

     Kunou moved easily through his practice forms, his muscles
burning pleasantly as sweat trickled down his back and arms.
Ordinarily working out this way gave him some peace of mind, but
today he simply couldn't escape the maddening buzz of his thoughts.
     It was unusual for him to second guess himself once he'd made
a decision, but he'd spent most of the day doing just that.  He was
certain that Nabiki Tendou could help him make some sense out of the
confusing mounds of files his father had left behind.  He was also certain
that he could keep her away from the more dangerous aspects of the
family's dark legacy.
     So why was he so unsettled?
     He stopped in mid-swing, lowering his bokken and wiping the
sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm.  His breathing only a
little laboured by his exertions, he walked over to the bench where his
things were laid out.  His injured shoulder still throbbed, but he'd
worked around it and the wounds had not reopened.
     He'd had the family physician make a house call earlier.  He was not
privy to the secrets of the Kunou clan the way his predecessor had
been, but the man was not unaccustomed to the strange sorts of injuries
Kunou managed to acquire on a regular basis, and he hadn't asked too
many questions.  He'd inspected the wounds, re-bandaged them, and
advised him to take things easy for a couple of days.  Which was easier
said than done.
     He towelled the sweat from his naked upper body, favouring
the tender shoulder, and then hung the towel around his neck and
headed for his bath.  The sword that was his legacy he kept close at
hand.  Just in case.
     After washing himself, he sank into the hot water with a sigh.
Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back and let the warmth relax his
tired muscles.  Inevitably, though, his thoughts turned back to Nabiki.
     He'd half expected some divine retribution to strike him down
after he'd revealed so many of the secrets that had remained within his
family for so long.  After all, it had been drilled into his head from
childhood that these were things not to be spoken of to outsiders.
     He was finally coming to accept, though, that there would be no
retribution ... because there was no one to deliver it.  He *was* the
inner circle now.  The decision had been his to make, and he'd made it.
All the consequences of his act, whatever the eventual results, would be
his to bear.  And although that was a heavy responsibility, he was
beginning to understand, to truly understand for the first time, what it
meant to be in the position he was in.  Yes, he had terrible
responsibilities, but as Guardian he had power and authority as well.
     In the end, he had the right to act as he saw fit.
     Now he just had to hope he possessed the wisdom to make the
right choices.
     He sighed deeply, fatigue weighing on him.  Suddenly, he was
very conscious of just how young he was.
     And just how alone.

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

     "Enough!"
     Tragus stumbled into the kitchen, snapping on the light.  It was
dark out, the warmth of the day fading easily into a cool spring night,
but there was no rest to be had, at least not for him.  He pulled a bottle
of something from the cupboard, not bothering to check what it was,
and poured himself a stiff drink.
     He plodded into the living room, throwing the once more
diminutive body into a soft chair and downing half the drink in one go.
The burning liquid made him gasp out loud, and finally he felt himself
beginning to relax.
     That damned little human bitch, Ninomiya Hinako, was still
managing to cause him trouble.  Her spirit had been driven deep inside,
but it was still restful, still trying to reassert control whenever he slept.
     And that just would not do.
     Unfortunately, he knew of no way to squash the little twit's
spirit for good.  He just had to hope it would wither and fade with time,
like with a long term possession.  Since his situation was unique,
though, he couldn't be sure just what would happen.
     And the boy, Tatewaki Kunou.  Not only had he not shown her
anything good the previous night, he'd killed all those sent against him,
save Gruundi.  And while that wasn't a great loss, Tragus wanted
something to show for the effort.  He had convinced himself that Riana
had been telling the truth about the pendant, and he was already
impatient for results.
     What the hell, he decided.  The subtle approach wasn't
working.  He'd just have to try to be more direct.  A young man would
do a lot of favours for a seductive older woman, he was sure, including
giving her a tour of his estate.  And it would only be natural for him to
want to bestow trinkets upon her as tokens of his affection.  Like, say,
a pendant.
     And if he refused to cooperate, well, Tragus would just have to kill
him outright.  It wouldn't be hard.
     The poor besotted fool would never even see it coming.
 

End part 9