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

The Prodigal Mother
Part One

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     Akane woke with a soft cry, struggling weakly against her
confining covers.  Someone's arms slid around her, warm and
comforting, and a low voice murmured in her ear.
     "It's all right, Akane.  You're okay now.  You're safe."  She
gasped for breath, her heart fluttering like a trapped bird, curling up
against the warm figure that sat on the edge of her bed, trying to draw
strength from it's solidity, trying to banish the irrational fear that slid
through her veins.  Trying to remember that she was in her own bed.
Safe.
     Wait a minute.
     She pulled back suddenly, causing the figure to stiffen with
surprise.  "Ranma?" she hissed.  "What ... what are you doing in my
*room*?"  Her heart pounded for a different reason as she tugged the
already demure collar of her pajama top tightly closed.  She could see
Ranma's face now, her eyes growing accustomed to the dim light
leaking in through her open window.  He looked embarrassed,
scratching the back of his head ruefully.
     "I, uh, heard you.  You sounded like you were having a
nightmare, and I came in to check on you."  He sounded angry and
defensive, and she felt her own anger dissolving quickly.
     "Heard me?  Was I really loud enough to wake you?" she
asked, concerned.  Ranma's ability to sleep through anything was
legendary.  Then she remembered the open window.  Only she hadn't
left it open.
     "I wasn't asleep," he admitted ruefully.  "I was on the roof.
Thinking."  Right.  Brooding was more like it.  It had been just over a
week since Kodachi had died, pulling Ranko from the collapsing
dimensional link.  And almost a week since Ranko, Ranma's
counterpart, had set out for parts unknown, unable or unwilling to stay
with them.  Everything still seemed tentative somehow, unreal, as if they
were all waiting for someone to drop the other shoe.
     "So are you okay?  I mean ..." Ranma trailed off awkwardly.
"You wanna talk about it, or something?"  She glanced at him,
surprised.  Outside of the pressure-cooker situation that had forced
them to finally confront their true feelings, things had become somewhat
forced between them.  She felt a warmth spreading through her chest as
Ranma expressed concern for her.  Well, as directly as he was able, at
any rate.  She noticed that he was dressed only in shorts and a dark
tank top, and she wished he would put his arms around her again.
     Well, if he wouldn't, she would.  After all, they had admitted their
feelings for each other, right?  She leaned into him again, slipping her
arms around his lean waist, basking in the heat from his body.  She
smiled slightly as she felt him finally reciprocate, closing her eyes and
nuzzling into his chest.  For long moments, neither of them spoke.
     "I dreamed about my mother," Akane said at last, her smile fading
away.  "And Kodachi."  Ranma's arms tensed slightly, but he said
nothing.
     "She didn't look like she was sleeping," Akane said after
another silence.  "They always say that it's just like they're sleeping, but
she didn't look asleep.  She looked dead."
     "Which one?" Ranma asked softly, his hands stroking her back
in a soothing, repetitive pattern.
     "Both.  The only two dead people I've ever seen."  Her arms
tightened around him, and she burrowed into his broad chest even
harder, as if he was the only safe place left in the world.
     "All the things we've ever been through, all the dangerous and
silly and wild things, and I never thought ..."  She stopped for a
moment, choking up, a lump rising in her throat.
     "Hey," Ranma said, concerned.
     "I never thought anything serious would ever happen!  I never
thought any of us would ever duh-die!  It was never supposed to be
like this, was it?"  She felt tears stinging her eyes, forced them back
angrily.  "But I can't stop thinking about her!  It's just ... just NOT
FAIR!"  Ranma silently agreed as Akane clung tightly to him, a shudder
running through her.
     "Not fair," she whispered.  She felt him sigh, his breath stirring
her hair gently.
     "I know.  I think about it too."  She heard something in Ranma's
voice that told her she probably wasn't the only one whose sleep was
uneasy these days.
     "And what about Kunou?  He hasn't been back to school since
it happened.  Nobody's even seen him.  I hate to say this, Ranma, but
he's never been exactly ... *stable*, has he?  Who knows what he's
going through now?  And he's got nobody to turn to.  That father of his
would certainly be useless at a time like this.  We're the closest things
he has to friends, we should be doing something!"
     "We tried, remember?" Ranma told her.  "The servants had
instructions not to let anybody in.  Like it or not, we'll just have to wait
for Kunou to finish mourning."
     "But ..." she began.
     "You can't help somebody that doesn't want to be helped,"
Ranma told her softly.  "He'll have to come out of that estate sooner or
later.  Just be patient."  They were silent for a while then, just sitting
there, being together, the way Akane had always dreamed of.  This
was the first time they had been alone together since the fight at
Furinkan that had cost them so much.
     She found herself enjoying it.  A lot.  And she felt guilty for that, a
survivor's guilt.  Then she felt Ranma tense slightly.
     "What?"
     "Nothing," he sighed after a moment.  "I just thought I heard a
noise, and I was thinking what your father would do if he found us in
here like this."  Akane felt a smile spread over her face.
     "Relax.  He'd probably be delighted that we were together," she
giggled.
     "Don't be too sure of that," Ranma said darkly.  Akane pulled
back so she could look him in the eye.
     "Ranma, Dad didn't mean what he said to you that day."  She
could tell by his expression that he wasn't convinced.
     "He still blames me for that accident at the construction site,
and he was pretty sure I was the bad influence that convinced you to go
to Furinkan to fight those things," he said sourly.  "He's still giving me
the evil eye, you know."
     "He just needs some time to get used to the idea that I'm not a
little girl anymore," she told him.  "You know how overprotective
he gets.  If he doesn't have us girls to protect, he thinks he doesn't have
anything.  He'll get over it, Ranma.  Trust me."  He nodded, then stood.
She was surprised at the intensity of the pang of regret she felt at the
thought of his leaving.
     "It's getting late," he said at last.  "We'd better get some sleep.
School tomorrow."  She nodded reluctantly, waited to see if he would
kiss her.  They hadn't kissed since the day of the fight, and the old
awkwardness threatened to build between then again.  He hesitated,
and her heart skipped a beat.
     "Sweet dreams," he said finally, vaulting out the window.  She
watched him go, exasperated.
     "Do I have to do everything in this relationship?" she despaired,
before plopping back onto her bed with a deep sigh.
     The heat from his body seemed to linger, a teasing tingle against
her skin, and sleep was a long time coming.

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

     Note to self, Nabiki thought darkly.  Stop talking to Kasumi.
     She sat alone under a tree, eating her lunch and feeling very
cross.  After her confrontation with Ranko, she'd broken down and
spilled her feelings to her older sister.  While that conversation had
made her feel much better, it had unearthed some ugly truths that she
would rather not have confronted.  Her tendency to run roughshod over
people's feelings in the pursuit of her own goals had caused the
confrontation, and she had agreed with Kasumi that she needed to
consider the consequences when using her talent to make money, and
to consider the feelings of others more often.
     And God knows she was trying.  But half the problem was that
when she passed up an opportunity to really put the screws to
someone, people acted as if she was doing something suspicious.
Everyone knew her reputation, and figured that she must be up to
something really sinister, and treated her even more warily than usual.
     The other half of the problem, of course, was that she liked making
money.  She was good at it.  She couldn't just stop, even if she wanted
to.  And frankly, she didn't want to.
     She saw nothing wrong with loaning people money at high
interest rates.  People came to her, after all.  She wasn't forcing them to
borrow money.  But making money was just an off-shoot of her talent
for conceiving and executing plans, the more complex the better.
Unfortunately, many of her ideas ended up with someone getting hurt.
Thinking of that had lately given her a very clear mental picture of
Ranko's face as it had appeared after she'd sold information on his
whereabouts to the others.  She'd been cruel and petty, and she knew
it.  And a surprising number of budding plans turned out, upon
reflection, to have similar likely outcomes.
     Nabiki was not a monster.  She didn't want to go around
looking for ways to hurt people.  But her talent was a part of her, an
important part.  It made her special, the way talent for art or writing or
music made other people special.  It was driving her crazy, trying to
come up with a really good money-generating scheme that wouldn't
hurt anybody.  It seemed impossible.
     If only Kunou was around.  Tormenting Kunou was always the high
point of her day.  But he hadn't been back to school, not since
Kodachi's death.  In fact, no one had seen him since that day.  She
thought about Kodachi and her mood darkened even further.
     She'd never liked Kodachi.  In fact, she'd regarded her as
being anywhere from a severe nuisance to an actual threat, depending
on her mood, but that had never stopped her from making money off
the poor sap.  And she'd never wished her dead.  From what she'd
heard of that fight, it was a wonder any of them had come back alive.
She turned, looking over the yard, wondering exactly where she had
died.  There was nothing to mark that spot.  That seemed wrong
somehow, considering what the stakes had been.  Still, very few people
outside of the small group who'd been there knew the truth about what
had happened on that dark Sunday.
     She heard the hushed chatter of a group of girls as they walked
slowly past her, listening out of ingrained habit.
     "I heard they found some plumbers in the basement, along with
the chief custodian," one was saying excitedly.  "They'd all been killed
in some sort of ritual!"
     "I heard the police covered it all up to stop panic from
spreading!" another whispered conspiratorially.  Nabiki snorted to
herself.  If it had been covered up, then a bunch of schoolgirls wouldn't
have known about it, would they?  People could be so naive
sometimes.
     "Well, I heard that Kunou-sempai's sister was involved
somehow, and that the police had to shoot her!" another girl confided.
Nabiki stiffened angrily.
     "She was always so creepy," the first girl agreed.  "I wouldn't
be surprised if she was involved in something unnatural like that."
Nabiki had heard enough.  She stood abruptly and marched into the
path of the girls, startling them.
     "Why don't you shut up about things you know nothing about?"
she asked in an icy tone.  "It's not proper to gossip about someone
who's just died, you know."  The girls, aware of Nabiki's reputation
for ruthlessness, were cowed momentarily by her vehemence.
     "Well, if you know so much, Nabiki, why don't you tell us what
really happened," one of them spoke up.  "Everybody's heard that his
sister died, but nobody knows how!  You always know all the dirt!"
     "Yeah, we'll pay you!" another joined in, her eyes glinting with
anticipation.  Nabiki felt a sick sensation in her gut at that.  Did they
really think she would sell information like that?  Did they?
     Of course they did.  Why wouldn't they?  Wasn't that what she
always did?  Anything for the right price, that was her.  She felt the
blood draining from her face, a chill creeping through her body.  This is
my legacy, she thought numbly.  This is it.  This is all I have.
     The girls were holding out handsful of yen, eager to be the first
with the inside scoop on Kodachi's mysterious death.  After all, they
could tell everyone that it came from Nabiki Tendou, and wasn't her
information always good?  Nabiki stared at the money, feeling a scream
building in the back of her throat.
     "Oh, this is bad," she told herself.  "I'm going to scream, right
here in front of these idiots.  I'm really going to ..."
     "Girls," a low, throaty voice intruded.  "Is there a problem?"
Nabiki blinked.  The hands were quickly withdrawn, the money stuffed
away quickly.
     "Miss Hinako!  No ma'am, no problem!"
     "Good.  Then why don't you run along?" she purred in her sexy
voice.  "I'd like to speak to Ms. Tendou for a moment."  The others
lost no time in getting lost, leaving Nabiki to face the teacher alone.
     Nabiki noted that someone must have been fighting recently,
since Miss Hinako was in her adult form.  Her curves pressed
provocatively against the overstressed material of her dress, her skirt
riding up indecently high on her thighs, the buttons over her impressive
cleavage threatening to burst with every breath.  She tossed her
carmel-coloured mane back over her shoulder with one elegant hand,
and Nabiki saw that her haughty features were creased in a
disapproving frown.
     "Hey, teach," Nabiki said, striving to keep her tone light.  "What's
up?  Besides your chi, that is."
     "Ms. Tendou," Hinako breathed.  "I do hope that you weren't
doing what I think you were doing.  Trying to cash in on the grief of one
of your classmates would be low, even for you."  Nabiki felt anger
swelling behind her suddenly clenched teeth.  No, she told herself.
Never let them know what you're really feeling.  Never.  Be cool.
Don't lose it.
     Just be cool.
     "I resent the implication," she said.  There, that was cool, she
congratulated herself.
     "It was not an implication, dear, it was a warning.  If you know
anything about what happened with Tatewaki Kunou's sister, and it
would not surprise me at all to learn that you did, keep it to yourself.  It
would be most unfortunate if I were to learn you were making money
off of such information.  That would upset me."  She leaned closer,
looking Nabiki directly in the eye.  "A great deal.  Do we understand
each other?"
     "Certainly," Nabiki answered coolly.  Miss Hinako was a lot
easier to deal with in her childish form.  In this state, she had too much
self-confidence to be easily diverted or evaded.  It seemed to Nabiki
sometimes that the teacher was two entirely different people.
     "That's what I wanted to hear," Hinako said, her lush lips
curving into a smile that didn't reach her eyes.  She turned to go.
     "Miss Hinako!"
     "Yes?" she asked, turning back.
     "Has the principal been back this week?"  The sultry teacher
frowned.
     "No, he hasn't."
     "Well, what about Kunou?  Do you have any idea when he's coming
back?"  Hinako gave her a strange look.
     "Perhaps you should ask him yourself," she suggested
pointedly.
     "He isn't taking calls, and everybody who shows up at the
gates of the estate is turned away.  None of us have gotten to see him
since ..."  She trailed off suggestively.
     "I wasn't aware of that," Hinako said, frowning even more
severely.
     "I was thinking that, since you're a teacher, maybe you could
get in and, you know, make sure everything's all right."  Nabiki waited,
her face carefully expressionless.  Hinako thought for a moment.
     "Perhaps that would be a good idea," she nodded at last.  She
glanced back at Nabiki.
     "See that you don't forget our talk, Ms. Tendou," she
admonished, and then she strutted off, quickly picking up a bevy of
male admirers.  Nabiki allowed a small, satisfied smile to cross her face
finally.
     She had manipulated the teacher without her knowledge, and a
plan was quickly developing.  She'd find out what was going on with
Kunou yet.
     Then the smile faded as a small voice spoke up inside her head.
     "Are you proud you managed to manipulate her?" it asked.
She scowled.
     "Oh, shut up," she muttered.
     She wondered if it was a coincidence that the voice sounded
like Kasumi.

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

     That afternoon, the schoolyard  was full of groups of people, many
still talking about the events of the past week in Nerima.  Nabiki
ignored them all.  There was only one person she was interested in.
     Miss Hinako.  She watched as the teacher, once again in her
diminutive form, walked quickly through the crowd.  Nabiki followed
along, her bag slung casually over her back.  She hung back, not
worrying whenever she lost sight of Hinako.
     After all, she knew where the teacher was going.
     The crowd thinned out quickly once they were through the
school gates, and Nabiki faded back even further to avoid detection.
She needn't have bothered.  Miss Hinako never looked back once,
bouncing along perkily on her way to the Kunou estate.  The afternoon
sun was pleasantly warm, and she enjoyed the walk, casually checking
out passers by.
     Finally, she slowed, seeing the main gates to the estate ahead.
She watched Miss Hinako walk up to the two burly young men
standing in front of the gate.  They were dressed in servant's livery, but
there was no mistaking the look of hired muscle.  Nabiki knew that they
had orders not to let anyone in; she'd already tried several methods of
circumventing them.  This particular method promised to be
entertaining, however, as well as effective.
     She lingered by the corner of the wall as the unimposing Miss
Hinako marched up to the two guards and said something.  She saw
them burst out in laughter.  Hinako stomped her foot angrily and said
something else.  One of the guards actually patted her on the head.
     Bad move.
     Hinako took one step back, whipping out something in her right
hand.  Nabiki knew it was a coin with a hole in the middle, and she
knew what came next.  Holding the coin between her index and middle
fingers, she held it in front of her.  The two guards started laughing even
harder.
     Then their chi became visible and started draining into the coin,
and they stopped laughing.  Nabiki watched them drop to their knees
as Miss Hinako's form swelled once again to its adult proportions.  The
two guards keeled over onto the ground, stunned, and Miss Hinako
stepped over them gracefully, letting herself in through the gate.
     Nabiki smiled to herself.  Teach, you're a gem, she thought
smugly.  As she started to move from her spot of concealment, she
suddenly caught a motion out of the corner of her eye, and she eased
back, curious.  A slim figure wearing a long grey trenchcoat and
sunglasses dashed nimbly across the street toward the Kunou estate's
now unguarded gate.  Pausing to glance furtively about, it slipped
quietly inside.
     Well, Nabiki thought.  Curiouser and curiouser.  She trotted up
to the gate, pausing to look down at the two stunned guards.
     "Oh, no," she said magnanimously.  "Don't get up.  I'll let
myself in."
     And she did.
 

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

     Ninomiya Hinako sauntered up to the front door of the Kunou
family's opulent house feeling uncharacteristically subdued.  She had
been worried ever since she'd heard the rumours of Kodachi Kunou's
mysterious death.  The principal hadn't been back to school yet, and
nobody in administration was talking about where he was or when he'd
be back.  She wouldn't have thought twice about young Tatewaki's
continued absence if it hadn't been for Nabiki Tendou revealing that
nobody had seen him since his sister's death.  That didn't sound healthy
to her.
     She frowned, thinking about Nabiki.  That girl had the heart of
a mercenary, if she had any heart at all.  She suspected that the girl
knew more about Kodachi's death, and perhaps all the strange events
of the past week, than she was telling.  However, experience had taught
her that the girl was nearly impossible to intimidate, and she had no
proof, so she was stuck.
     She thought again of the snatch of conversation she'd
overheard at lunchtime, the girls with money held forth eagerly.  Had
Nabiki really been on the verge of selling information about Kodachi's
death?  Would she really go so far?
     Hinako shook her head.  That would have to wait.  Right now
she had bigger problems to deal with.  She reached the front door and
knocked briskly.
     Presently, the door was opened.  Hinako was surprised to see
that Kunou himself was answering the door.  He stared at her without
expression, as if she was just a fixture of the lush yard.
     "My servants had orders not to allow anyone to enter."  He
spoke flatly, without inflection.  Hinako felt a subtle chill stir the hairs at
the back of her neck.  As long as she'd known Kunou, he had been
loud, expressive, and full of life.  Amongst other things.  This Kunou
was a stranger.  This Kunou, she did not know.
     "Your servants were very rude," she said simply.  "They had a
sudden pressing need for a nap."  His expression didn't change.
     "If you have come to speak to my father, you have wasted a
trip.  He is not here, and I know not where he is, nor when he shall
return.  If ever."  She was surprised to hear that the principal had left
his son to mourn alone.
     "Actually, I came because I wished to speak to you," she said
softly.  "Tatewaki Kunou, I understand that you grieve for your sister,
but I learned today that you have spurned all comfort and company.
Grief is best shared.  If kept to oneself, it can become an unbearable
burden."
     "This burden cannot be shared.  It is mine and mine alone," he
said flatly.  She frowned.
     "Have you no friends, then?" she asked angrily.
     "Does one not have a duty to protect one's friends?" he asked,
a flicker of something flashing across his face.  Hinako frowned.
     "I don't understand."
     "I know.  Nor must you understand, sensei.  You must simply
leave.  There is nothing here for you."  She stared urgently into his face,
searching for some sign of the blustering young fop she was so familiar
with.  She began to wonder if that boy was gone forever, banished by
his sister's mysterious passing.  At long last she sighed.
     "Very well, then.  I will leave.  For now.  Have you any idea
when you will be returning to school?"
     "Soon, sensei.  There remain only a handful of tasks that I must
complete first."  She nodded, although she wasn't sure she understood.
     "Very well.  I'm sorry to have disturbed you.  And Kunou.  I
was very sorry to hear about your sister's passing.  You have my
deepest sympathies.  If there is anything I can do, anything you need, I
would appreciate it if you would let me know."  Another flicker of
emotion crossed his face quickly.  Regret.
     "I thank you for your concern, sensei," he said quietly.  "I
apologize for my lack of manners, but I really am unprepared for
visitors."  She nodded.
     "I understand.  Please remember what I've said."  Then she
turned, hearing the door close quietly behind her as she walked down
the path to the main gates.  The whole brief conversation had been
strange.  Kunou had changed so much.  She wondered sadly if he
would ever again be the boy he had once been.  And his father, running
off and leaving his son at a time like this!  What kind of a man could do
that?
     She fumed silently as she walked to the gate.  And one other
thing bothered her as she cast a glance over her shoulder.  The entire
time she'd been on the estate grounds, she'd had the oddest feeling.
     Like she was being watched.

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

     Nabiki skulked through the bushes, following the mysterious
figure as it slipped unobtrusively through the estate's sprawling
grounds.  It had left the path as soon as they'd entered the estate, not
following Miss Hinako.  In fact, it seemed to know where it was going.
Curious, Nabiki followed, barely managing to keep the gray trenchcoat
in sight at times, until finally they came to a sheltered grove deep in the
garden.  Nearby, she could hear the quiet trickling of a streamlet, a
soothing sound.  She crouched behind a dense cluster of tall shrubs and
waited to see what the other would do.
     Then she noticed several markers scattered throughout the
grove.  Grave markers.
     What the HELL?
     The figure moved slowly among the markers, stopping finally
before one of black stone.  As Nabiki watched, shocked, the figure fell
to it's knees, the sunglasses tumbling to the ground.  Then she heard a
sound.
     A sob.  A woman's sob.
     Nabiki watched as the mysterious woman's shoulders bobbed
with the force of her emotion, her hands coming up to her face.
Although she couldn't see what the woman looked like, since she was
almost directly behind her, she could make out a rose carved into the
surface of the marker, and guessed that it was probably for Kodachi.
So the Kunous had their own private graveyard, did they?  But who
was this, sneaking into the estate just to see Kodachi's grave?  A
friend?  Did Kodachi even *have* any friends?
     She caught a slight motion out of the corner of her eye, looking
up to see Kunou coming slowly into the grove.  He moved with an easy
grace, making no sound, and if she hadn't seen him she'd never have
known he was there.  The crying woman was still unaware.
     Nabiki stared intently at the sheathed katana he carried in one
hand in place of his usual bokken.  She'd heard about the glowing
sword he'd had at Furinkan that day, the one that the demons had
feared.  There was a lot going on here that she wanted to know more
about.  A lot.
     "I buried her next to Kazuhiro.  It seemed fitting."  The woman
started at the sound of Kunou's voice, her hands flying to her chest.
She turned to look at him, and Nabiki saw her face for the first time.
She had her dark hair pulled back from her face, and her eyes were
wide, startled.  Shocked, even.  Nabiki had never seen her before, but
she thought that the woman looked strangely familiar.  She stood
slowly, turning to face Kunou, and Nabiki got a better look at her face.
High cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, a slight curve to the bridge of
the nose ...
     Then she had it.
     "Oh, my God!" she thought.  "No way!"  The woman watched
as Kunou walked toward her, stopping just over an arm's length away.
     "Tatchi," the woman whispered hoarsely.  Kunou's face
showed no emotion.
     "Hello, Mother," he said.

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

     Kunou looked at his mother dispassionately.  She had aged well;
there was no gray in her hair, and her face was still unlined.  She was
wearing a gray trenchcoat that was tightly belted around her slim waist,
and her face was streaked with tears.  She reached a hand out to him.
     "Oh, Tatchi," she whispered.
     "You will not call me that," he said, an edge to his voice.  She
jerked, her hand wavering, then falling to her side limply.  She looked
down.
     "I understand you must be angry ..." she began.
     "Angry?  You flatter yourself.  I have long since stopped caring
about you.  Long since, in the many years since we last saw each
other."  He continued to stare at her, but she wouldn't meet his eyes,
glancing instead around the grove, at the scattered markers.
     "How did you find out?" he asked at last.  She looked up
reluctantly.
     "I've always kept track of what's gone on in your lives," she
said quietly.
     "How very maternal," he said flatly.  She paused, then spoke again,
tentatively.
     "How?  How did it happen?"
     "Monsters," he said simply.  "Monsters killed her."
     "Don't mock me!" she cried.  "Don't you dare!  She was my
daughter, damn you!"  Kunou's face hardened.
     "Yes, she was," he gritted.  "She was your daughter, and you
abandoned her.  I think it is somewhat late to be showing concern for
her now."  His mother stood, her hands clasped tightly, her head
bowed, stricken by the truth of his words.
     "She thought of you often," he said suddenly, causing her to
stiffen.  "She never told me, of course, but I know she did.  Sometimes,
in the quiet hours before dawn, I would wander the halls, and I would
hear her cry out in her sleep.  Most often, she cried out for her mother.
She cried out for you."  His gaze was glacial, which she seemed to
sense even though she wouldn't look up.
     "But I never did.  Not once."  Her head snapped up at that, her
face streaked with fresh tears.
     "Tatewaki, I'm so sorry," she whispered.
     "Sorry?  You are SORRY?"  She flinched away from the
sudden rage on his face as he fought to regain his careful control, the
control he had struggled to maintain since he had buried his sister.
     "You ... you don't understand ..." she said weakly.
     "No, I think it is you who does not *understand*.  Every day
we lived in this environment, the three of us at first, then Kodachi and I.
We lived in an acid bath of madness and nightmare, and watched
helplessly as it slowly ate away at the veneer of sanity.  We may have
been somewhat mad, but at least we found ways to function.  I had my
arts, my poetry, submerging myself in the past.  And ... other pursuits.
And Kodachi ..."  He stopped, his jaw clenching tightly, and his mother
finally looked up timidly, trying to meet his gaze.
     "And Kodachi," he continued at last, "sought what she had
always been denied.  Love, tenderness, caring.  But by that point, she
sought it with a single-minded obsessiveness that was frightening to
behold, that was antithetical to the very things she claimed to desire.
She had come to believe that she could be saved by true love."  He
turned to look toward Kodachi's marker, but in truth his gaze was
seeing something much farther away.
     "True love," he said, almost wistfully.  "And of course, she
chose exactly the wrong man to lose her heart to.  She came to believe
that if she could win his love, by any and all means necessary, then she
would be saved.  We would all be saved.  How could I make her
understand that he was a coward, an honourless cur who cared nothing
for the feelings of the women who pursued him so ardently?  I tried, but
she would not listen.  In later days, she never listened to me, not even
when I tried to get her to leave here.  And so, in the end, she sacrificed
herself for the love of an unworthy man, and was lost to us."  He
continued to stare blankly at the marker, lost in what might have been, if
only ...
     If only.
     "Tatewaki, it's not too late!  Leave this place.  Today, with me."  He
blinked, her voice bringing him back to the present roughly.  He turned
to see her looking into his face imploringly.
     "Leave?" he echoed hollowly.
     "There is nothing but madness here, Tatewaki!  You said so
yourself!  You need not stay with all these bad memories, come away
with me!  Now, today!  We'll go someplace safe, we'll ..."
     "YOU!"  The rage in his voice stopped her short, and she took
a step back reflexively as Kunou's hands trembled, his control nearly
breaking.  Nearly.
     "You," he repeated softly.  "You have never understood, have you?
It has always been the duty of our clan to guard this place.  That was
explained to you when you and father married, was it not?"  She
nodded helplessly.
     "Y-yes, but ... nothing had happened for so long, I didn't
expect ..."
     "You swore an oath," he said, his voice laden with scorn,
"because you thought you would never be called upon to fulfill it."  She
looked away again, unable to meet the loathing in his face.
     "I was afraid!" she cried, her voice thick with sorrow.  "Don't
you understand?  Kazuhiro was just a child, and they killed him!  I was
afraid of what might happen to us!"
     "And so you ran away!"
     "I wanted to take the two of you with me!  I wanted to, but
your father wouldn't allow it!  He had wealth and influence, and I had
none!  He wouldn't let me take you away, and now two of my children
are dead!"  She stepped closer to Kunou, reaching out desperately, her
hand clenching in the air.
     "Come with me, Tatewaki.  Don't let this family's curse claim
you, too.  End this once and for all."  He stared at her, his face
expressionless once again, and he could see a faint glimmer of hope
cross her features, those features that were so much like his sister's.
Once he would have given anything to have his mother come back to
him.
     Once, but that was a long time ago.
     "Even if I were to leave, foolish woman, it would not be ended.  If I
were to leave, who would fulfill the obligations of our clan?  My father
is no longer capable, has not been for some time.  If I leave, who will
honour their memories, their sacrifices?"  He swept his arm out to
indicate the scattered markers that occupied the sheltered grove.  "You
would have me run away, like a dog with his tail between his legs, after
all I have endured?  You are mad, woman.  I will fulfill my obligations,
to my blood line and to honour, even if it costs me my life.  But you
would not understand that.  You understand nothing but yourself.  Go
from this place."  He turned to her, his expression granite, unyielding.
     "You are not welcome in this house."  With that, he turned sharply
and walked away, leaving her standing, stunned and motionless, in his
wake.  Her hand, still held out to him, trembled and fell to her side.
      I'm afraid for you!" she half-shouted, half-sobbed at his stiff
back.  "Can't you understand?  Tatewaki, I'm your MOTHER!"  He
stopped, not bothering to turn around.
     "I have no mother," he said softly, his voice carrying in the still
afternoon air.  "She was lost to me, a very long time ago."
     Then he left her amongst the memories of the dead, the only
sign of emotion the whiteness of his knuckles where he grasped the
lacquered sheath of his weapon.

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

     "Hey!"  Nabiki had waited until Kunou's mother had left the
estate grounds before trying to approach her.  The woman hadn't
turned at her call, and Nabiki trotted to catch up, her shadow racing
ahead of her in the late afternoon light.  It wasn't hard to catch the other
woman.  She was walking slowly, aimlessly, seemingly oblivious to
everything around her, her long gray trenchcoat flapping listlessly
against her legs, not even noticing as Nabiki came up beside her.
     "Um, Mrs. Kunou?" Nabiki asked hesitantly.  The woman
stopped finally, turning her tear-stained face to look at the younger girl.
Up close, Nabiki was amazed by how much she looked like Kodachi.
The features were so similar, but Kodachi's face had always borne the
imprint of maliciousness, of anger.  This face was kinder, but sad.  And
beautiful.  It was the face Kodachi might have had if she'd lived long
enough to mature, and if she'd ever found a measure of peace.
     "I haven't gone by that name in a long time," the woman said
hollowly, and Nabiki shivered at the despair in her voice.  "Who are
you?"
     "Nabiki Tendou, ma'am," she said.  "I'm a classmate of Kunou
ba ... of Tatewaki's."  The woman nodded distantly, and Nabiki went
on.
     "I was going to see him, and I couldn't help overhearing a, uh,
a bit of your conversation.  I was wondering if you could tell me what
that was all about?"  The woman stood motionless, her dark eyes
shifting to look into Nabiki's, her gaze sharpening slightly.
     "Are you a friend of my son's?" she asked suddenly.  Nabiki
was taken off-guard.  A friend?  Most of her dealings with Kunou had
historically involved him paying her, whether it be for pictures or
information.  She didn't think that particular fact would be of interest to
his mother.  Mrs. Kunou, perhaps misinterpreting Nabiki's hesitation,
pressed on, emotion creeping into her voice.
     "If you care at all for Tatewaki, please help him.  Please.  He's
in terrible danger.  Please."
     With that last plea, she turned and dashed off down the
sidewalk, leaving a startled Nabiki behind.  Danger?
     Leave this alone, a tiny internal voice chided.  No profit here,
just twisted old family business.  Get out of it.
     Then she flashed, with painful clarity, on the image of the girls
from earlier, their money clenched in outstretched hands, expressions
eager and hungry.
     Nabiki's mouth set into a firm line and she set off to follow Kunou's
mother.

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

     Hinako walked slowly through the gathering gloom.  She had
reverted to her younger form, but was acting with uncharacteristic
seriousness.  Her encounter with Kunou had left her both saddened and
angry.  Kunou was obviously suffering from his sister's passing, and
seemed determined for some reason to suffer alone.  And his father had
apparently abandoned him.
     The principal's penchant for taking off was legendary amongst
the staff and students at Furinkan.  He was, after all, something of a
flake, if the truth be told.  Still, to leave his only son alone in that huge
house after his daughter had died ...!
     And she still had no idea what had happened to Kodachi.
Rumours abounded, each more outlandish than the last.  She had a
feeling that the cause of Kodachi's death might have something to do
with her brother's state of mind.  She wondered how she might find
out.  Maybe she should ask Ranma or Akane.  They all hung around in
the same group, maybe they knew something.
     Or Nabiki.  She felt an expression of distaste cross her face.
Only if she wanted to pay for the information.  Honestly, that girl ...
     She was passing by a shadowed alleyway close to her building
when she heard it.  A piteous sound, tiny and frightened.  She stopped,
peering intently into the shadows.
     "Hello?" she said tentatively.  It came again, a high-pitched
mewing.  It sounded like a kitten.  She edged toward the alleyway,
noting how few people there were on this side street.  She should be
careful, she knew, but the animal sounded like it was in trouble, and she
couldn't resist an innocent in distress.  She took another step closer.
     "Here, kitty kitty kitty," she crooned, trying to make out details
in the darkness.
     Something moved in the shadowed alley, a quick blur of motion,
and she was pulled roughly from her feet, yanked forward into the
shadows.  She fought for breath as she felt a rough hand covering her
mouth, cutting off her scream as she was carried into the depths of the
alley, further and further from the light.
     And the thing carrying her laughed, a mad, inhuman sound.

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

     Nabiki was confused.  She wasn't entirely certain what she was
doing, or even why she was doing it.  She'd spent half the afternoon
following Kunou's mother, tracking her to a small, inexpensive hotel
where she'd determined that the woman was staying.  She didn't look
like she'd be in any shape to answer any questions, so Nabiki had
decided to wait and hope the woman didn't leave before she could talk
to her again.
     But what was she going to talk to the woman *about*?  What
the hell was the deal, anyway?  Private graveyards, strange family
obligations and this dead guy, Kazuhiro.  Why was she even
considering getting into this?
     ( "I have no mother," he had said, the sorrow buried, but clear
if you knew where to look.  As she did.  "She was lost to me, a very
long time ago.")
     You and me both, Kunou-baby, Nabiki thought darkly.  She
trooped wearily up the front walk, dropping her bag in the entry and
trudging through the house.  She could hear Kasumi in the kitchen, but
there was no sign of her father or Mr. Saotome.  Loud female voices
indicated Akane and Ranma-chan were in the garden.  She walked
over to the veranda, peering out at the squabbling couple.
     Watching them, unobserved, her thoughts returned to the
confrontation she had witnessed, and Kunou's bitterness over his sister.
He had said that she sought refuge from her pain in the pursuit of love.
Ranma's love, Nabiki thought sourly.
     A coward, Kunou had called Ranma.  A coward, an
honourless cur, and an unworthy man who didn't care about the
women that chased him.  Even in her current dark mood, Nabiki knew
that Kunou's evaluation of his rival was exaggerated, twisted.  But
maybe not entirely wrong.
     Perhaps she was being unfair, but Ranma really *could* be a
jerk sometimes.  And he didn't seem disposed to put a stop to all the
female attention he was always getting, either, even when it hurt Akane.
     Jealous, Nabiki? That tiny little voice chirped.  She scowled,
because the voice was right.  She hated the way they took all this for
granted, hated the way they treated what was between them.  A chance
for caring, for love, and they treated it with an almost astonishing
casualness, as if it wasn't something incredibly precious.  As if, if it
were to slip away, it wouldn't matter, because another chance would
come along right away.
     And that might even be true, for them, and that made her even
angrier, even more jealous.  Her secret, that jealousy.  No one knew.
     Well, that wasn't true.  Ranko knew.  Suddenly, she missed
him.  She thought again of Kunou's judgement of Ranma, and thought
that Ranma certainly suffered in comparison to his counterpart.  There
was something about Ranko's pain that let him understand and
empathize keenly with the pain of others.
     She supposed that was part of why she had told him.
     She'd been surprised how good it had felt, in a way, to admit
that she'd often sought to make Ranma miserable out of petty jealousy.
She'd expected him to be angry, but he'd actually been very
understanding.  And what he'd done, in front of everybody when he'd
been leaving, had been so sweet.
     Everybody had wanted to know what he'd whispered to her
then, but she wouldn't tell.  He'd remembered the exact words she'd
used, and fed them back to her.  She knew some of the girls now
suspected she had a thing for Ranko, but they were wrong.
     ("Nabiki Tendou, I must have you.")
     A code, just between them.  He hadn't forgotten what had
passed between them that day.  He wanted her to hang in there.  She
smiled sadly, remembering that moment.  A friend.  A real friend.  And
then, just like that, he was gone.  And now she needed him, needed to
tell him about the Kunou situation, needed to talk it out with someone
who would listen, someone who could try to help her understand this
insane urge to get involved.
     She snapped out of her reverie as Ranma-chan and Akane
started laughing over something.  She couldn't imagine ever talking to
Ranma the way she had to his counterpart.  Ranma lacked some
element of maturity that she had found in Ranko.  Still, something had
changed in him since Kodachi's death.
     Is that it? she wondered silently.  Ranko, Ranma, Kunou ...
me?  It takes death to change us, to make us grow?  Isn't there an
easier way, a cleaner way?
     The two girls laughed again, and Nabiki felt very much alone.
 
------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Akane was cautiously optimistic.  She and Ranma had been
fighting over something, arguing, and then, suddenly, the tension had
evaporated.  Where she might have thrown a hapless Ranma into the
pond only a week ago, or he might have called her an uncute tomboy,
they'd suddenly looked at each other and begun to laugh.  She knew it
wouldn't always be so easy, but the very fact that it had happened
reinforced in her mind that things actually *had* changed between
them.
     They hadn't told anybody, and sometimes it hurt her that
Ranma still seemed unwilling to go so far as to demonstrate any
affection for her.  But, she told herself, that's just Ranma.  It'll take
some time for him to change, that's all.  Just some time.
     And moments like this, she actually believed that.
     "Having fun?"  They looked up to see Nabiki standing in the
shadows of the veranda, watching them.  Something in Nabiki's tone
made Akane wary.
     "Hey, Nabiki.  Where were you?  You missed supper."
     "I had some things to take care of," she said, somewhat shortly.
     "A profitable day, Nabiki?" Ranma-chan asked with false cheer,
apparently oblivious to the older girl's mood.
     "Not especially," Nabiki said quietly.  "Listen, I was wondering
what you two were planning to do about Kunou."  Akane blinked
uncertainly.
     "Do?" she echoed, confused.
     "There's nothing to do, Nabiki," Ranma-chan told her.  "He's
locked himself up in that stupid estate, and he doesn't want to see
anyone.  He's even posted guards at the front gate."  Nabiki snorted
derisively.
     "As if that would stop you if you really wanted to get in,
Ranma.  Geez, the guy's all alone over there!  Even his flake of a
father's deserted him, according to my sources.  Don't you care?"
     "Hey!" Ranma-chan returned, stung.  "Since when are you such
a big Kunou booster, anyway?  What's in this for you, Nabiki?"
Akane drew a sharp breath as she saw Nabiki's eyes narrow in anger.
For some reason, what Ranma-chan had said actually got to her.
     "He and his sister put everything on the line to help you, to help
all of us, and now she's dead!  And she loved you, doesn't that count
for anything?"  Ranma-chan made a small strangled sound and flushed.
     "Nabiki!" Akane cried.  "That isn't fair!"  Nabiki's glare
faltered, and Akane saw some of the tension drain from her slowly.
     "You're right, sis.  I didn't mean it that way, Ranma.  It's just
that the guy is a total mess.  You've got no idea."
     "And you do?" Ranma-chan asked quietly.
     "I was over there today, actually.  Kunou had a visit from his
mother.  It didn't go well."  Akane and Ranma-chan traded
dumbfounded looks.
     "Kunou has a mother?" Ranma-chan asked dumbly.
     "I always assumed she was dead!" Akane said in wonder.
     "She might as well be.  Kunou doesn't want anything to do with
her.  Damn it, Akane.  Don't you remember how hard it was when our
mother died?  We all had trouble dealing with it, but at least we had
Daddy and each other.  Kunou has nobody except us to care about
what happens to him."  Akane met Nabiki's gaze, feeling troubled.
After all, Nabiki wasn't saying anything that Akane hadn't already
asked herself.  She remembered Ranma telling her the previous night
that they couldn't help Kunou if he didn't want to be helped, and
wondered if that was really true.  Had they all really let Kunou down so
badly?
     "Maybe you're right," she said softly.  Nabiki nodded.
     "Maybe I am.  Just think about it, would you?  The guy always
had a thing for you, remember?  A visit from you might do him some
good."  She turned to Ranma-chan.  "That goes for you, too, pig-tailed
girl."  Then she turned and disappeared into the house.
     "Damn, what was *that* all about?" Ranma-chan asked, anger
and confusion mixing freely.
     "I don't know," Akane confessed.  "But she could be right.
Maybe Kunou isn't in the best shape to be determining what's best for
himself right now.  Maybe we owe it to him to make sure he's okay."
     "I don't really think it's a good idea, Akane."  Akane decided it
was time to get stubborn.
     "What's this really about, Ranma?"
     "What do you mean?"  Ranma-chan sounded defensive, and
Akane pressed on.
     "What Nabiki said bothered you, didn't it?  Just because
Kodachi was in love with you doesn't make what happened your
fault!"  Ranma-chan flushed and looked away, and Akane sighed.  So
that *was* it.
     "Ranma, you didn't do anything wrong.  You don't have to feel
guilty."  Ranma-chan shuffled her feet nervously.
     "Suppose Kunou doesn't see it that way, huh?" she asked.  "I don't
want to have to fight the poor bastard, not after all he's been through."
Akane just shook her head.
     "Look, you can go like you are now.  At least if you see him,
talk to him, you'll feel like you've done something to try to put things
right.  Kodachi is dead, Ranma.  Kunou isn't.  We can't do anything
now for her, but we can still help him.  I've decided.  I'm going for
sure.  Will you go with me?"  Ranma-chan sat, her posture stiff
and unhappy, head bowed.  Akane waited patiently, not wanting to
push any further.
     Finally, Ranma-chan nodded, her pigtail flopping lightly against
the back of her shirt.
     "I'm with you," she said quietly.
     "Good.  It'll be okay, Ranma.  You'll see," Akane said.
     She just wished she felt as certain as she sounded.

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

     Call or don't call.
     Nabiki's gaze shifted from her phone to the open notebook on
her desk.
     Call or don't call.  Those two options had been repeating
themselves in an idiotic mantra for the last ten minutes.  She propped
her chin on her fist and sighed.
     "Dammit, Nabiki, what the hell are you *doing*?" she groaned
aloud.  It was bad enough she'd made such a stink in front of Ranma
and Akane.  Now she was agonizing over a course of action which
almost certainly would gain her nothing, and could end up costing her a
great deal.
     Call or don't call.
     After all, why should she be the one to dig into this thing?  It
was bound to involve all sorts of messy emotional scenes, and dealing
with emotions, either hers or other people's, was definitely not her
strong suit.  Leave it alone.  Don't call.  Clearly the best option.
     Not her problem.
     ("What would your mother think if she were here, Nabiki? Do
you think she'd be proud of you?  DO YOU?")
     Nabiki closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose.
     ("Because I don't.  I think she'd be ashamed to have a daughter
like you.")
     "Stop it," she muttered.  Her memories, however, were not so
easily quelled.
     ("You're wondering if you can carry on with business as usual,
knowing what you know about the effects it can have.")
     She rubbed her palms over her face, sliding her fingers back
under her hair.
     ("Nabiki, I think you know exactly what to do, you just don't
want to do it.")
     She kneaded her fingers into the stiff muscles of her neck,
letting her head fall forward limply.
     ("Are you a friend of my son's?")
     "Good question," she whispered, dimly aware that she was
talking to herself, and that couldn't be good.
     ("If you care at all for Tatewaki, please help him.  Please.  He's
in terrible danger.  Please.")
     What *do* you care about, Nabiki? her little voice asked her.
She saw the girls again, money held out to her eagerly, and sighed.
Slowly, she leaned her head back, rotating it slowly to loosen
her stiff neck and shoulder muscles.
     Call.  Or don't call.  But choose, because this is gonna drive
you crazy if you don't.
     She shrugged her shoulders and pulled her head back up
wearily.
     If I don't do this, I'll never find out the truth, she told herself.
It'll remain a mystery.  And I hate not knowing things.
     If you say so, her inner voice said smugly, sensing what her
decision was.
     She reached for the phone, looked up a number in her
notebook, and dialled.
     "Shinji.  Nabiki Tendou here.  How'd you like a break on the
terms of your loan payments?  No, I'm not feverish, smart-ass!  You
interested or not?  Good.  It'll cost you a favour.  You bought a
computer with that money, and word is you're a pretty fair hacker.
Never mind how I found that out.  I need some information ..."
     She set the wheels in motion, feeling a vague sense of some
emotion she didn't want to acknowledge.
     But it might have been relief.

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

     The first golden rays of the rising sun caught Tatewaki Kunou
crouched by the inner wall of the estate.  He carefully examined the
damaged ward that fluttered weakly in the gentle morning breeze.  It
apparently had finally given way under several nights of probing.  He
had been aware of the activity, of course, but did nothing to repair the
ward.
     After all, he wanted the intruder to be able to enter the estate.
He just didn't want to make it too easy.
     He straightened slowly, turning to the warm face of the rising sun, his
katana gripped tightly in one hand, his heart heavy with the grief of the
past week, and with the one last chore that lay ahead of him.
     "Tonight, my friend," he said, speaking softly in the early
morning stillness.  "It will be tonight."
     And then he hardened his heart against his fate, for it did not
befit a warrior to cry.
 

End part one.
revised Aug. 22/97
Comments, criticisms, etc. welcome at:
emmack@ibm.net