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

The Prodigal Mother
Part Two

by Mark MacKinnon
 
 

     Akane was worried.
     She'd been thinking carefully about Ranma's behaviour since
the fight at Furinkan, and some worrisome patterns were beginning to
emerge.  She had shared Ranma's reluctance to force her company on
Kunou, given the lengths he had gone to in order to isolate himself from
the outside world, but she was beginning to see that there was more to
it.
     He hadn't been to either the Nekohanten or Ucchan's since
Ranko's departure.  Mousse and Shampoo were apparently nursing
Cologne back to health at the restaurant, since she'd refused to go to a
hospital.  And he'd been avoiding Ukyou, both at school and outside of
it.  He was even withdrawing somewhat from Akane herself.
     Akane knew Ranma pretty well after all the time they'd spent
living under the same roof.  She was accustomed to the ebb and flow of
his moods, and she was pretty sure she knew what the problem was.  It
wasn't *just* that Ranma felt guilty over Kodachi, although that was
part of it.  Ranma just wasn't very good at dealing with emotionally
complex situations.  He wasn't afraid of anything he could fight (outside
of cats, of course), but the prospect of having to face a crippled
Cologne or an emotionally fragile Ukyou left him paralysed.
     And so, he had chosen to do nothing.  She sighed.  Not an
uncommon reaction for him, but the worst possible one under the
circumstances.  She'd begun to wish that Ryouga would show up to
fight Ranma, so he would pull out of his funk.
     But of course, that wasn't going to happen.  Ryouga had left
soon after Ranko, and she knew why.  He had decided to give her up,
and didn't want to stick around to watch her and Ranma together.  She
had only just found out he'd been in love with her, and he didn't know
she knew, nor did he know she knew about his decision to leave.  Not
that it would have made much difference, beyond embarrassing him.
     She sighed again.  Why did things always have to be so
complicated?  It was going to be up to her to nudge Ranma in the right
direction, she figured, if she hoped to head off trouble before things got
even more tense.  She looked up and down the hallway.  Speaking of
Ranma, if the idiot didn't get his butt in gear, he was going to be late,
and he'd end up having to tussle with Miss Hinako again.  Where could
he be?  Class was almost ready to start.
     Finally she saw him trotting up the hallway, dodging small
crowds of latecomers, his clothing damp.
     "Where were you?" she asked.  "We're gonna be late!"
     "I had to get some hot water," he grumbled, not meeting her
gaze.  "I got splashed again."
     "Honestly!  You'd think you could avoid one little old lady!"
     "She's uncanny," Ranma admitted, patting his damp shirt into
place.  She noticed that he kept a discreet distance from her, not
walking too close.  Any observer would never know that he had finally
admitted his love for her.  To everyone around them, their relationship
was exactly the same.  She wondered if that was ever going to change,
either.
     Well, she knew she had to take the first step.
     "Ranma, meet me out behind the gym at lunch, okay?  I want to
talk to you."
     "Huh?" he asked, sounding alarmed.  "About what?"  Akane
sighed inwardly at the panic in his eyes.  If she'd said twenty berserk
rival martial artists would be waiting for him at the school gates at lunch,
he'd have been eager to meet them and show off his skills.  The
prospect of having a serious conversation with the girl he said he loved,
though, struck terror into his heart.
     Hopeless.
     "Just be there, Ranma!  It's important.  Okay?"  He nodded
glumly and they slipped into the classroom, only a few seconds late.
     That turned out not to be a problem, however.  Miss Hinako
never showed up that morning, and they ended up having a free period.
Akane spent most of it thinking about what she'd say to Ranma,
watching him ignore an increasingly despondent Ukyou, and wondering
at Miss Hinako's uncharacteristic absence.

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

     Ninomiya Hinako blinked blearily, focussing on her hands
where they gripped the edge of the bathroom sink.  She felt like she
was just waking up after a deep sleep, groggy and uncertain.  She
noticed that light was streaming in a bathroom window.  She noticed
that the bathroom in question was, in fact, her own.
     She couldn't remember how she'd gotten there.
     Looking up, she could see her reflection in the mirror.  There was
dirt smudged across one cheek, her hair hung in a snarled mass, and the
look in her eyes was one of blank confusion.  She felt like she had just
reverted back from her adult form, but how could that be?  And why
was it morning?  The last thing she remembered ...
     What *was* the last thing she remembered?  She'd gone to
see Tatewaki Kunou, she recalled that.  Then she'd been on the way
home, and ...
     She saw her eyes, reflected in the mirror, widen in shock as she
remembered ...

     (Something moved in the darkness, 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.
     She kicked and struggled angrily, only causing more sounds of
amusement from her captor.
     "Pretty-pretty," he had hissed gleefully, running his free hand
over the exposed flesh of her leg.  "Hungry, pretty-pretty.  Very
hungry."  She knew what her captor was hungry for.  Well, he was
going to be in for a big surprise.
     Finally they had stopped, deep in the alley, behind a garbage
dumpster and far from the safety of the streetlights.  She had been
tossed roughly to the ground, looking up to see a dark shape among the
shadows, standing over her, breathing raspily.
     "Pretty-pretty," he crooned.  "Sooooo hungryyyyyy ..."  She'd
heard enough from this pervert.  She could sense the chi coming off him
in foul waves, ignoring her own sense that something was terribly,
terribly wrong ...
     "You twisted little creep!" she'd shouted, hating how high-pitched
her voice was in that form.  "I know how to deal with scum like
you!"  And she'd extended her hand, a five-yen piece between two of
her fingers.
     "HAPPO FIVE-YEN SATSU!!"  The shape had grunted in
surprise as she'd begun to drain it's chi, stepping back reflexively into a
pool of light.
     That's when she saw it for the first time.
     It wasn't human.
     And it's chi had begun to flow into her, and it *hurt*.  She
screamed in concert with the creature, but she couldn't stop the flow of
energy.  She'd never drained chi from something not human before, and
the shock threatened to drown her in ice-cold pain and darkness ...
     She remembered seeing the thing dissolving into a puddle of
greenish goo, and she doubled over in pain, her body swelling into her
more developed form, the alleyway disappearing in a haze of pain ...)

     Or so she thought.  Maybe she'd dreamed it.  Maybe the
whole thing had been a dream.  It didn't seem real, not standing here in
her nice, tidy bathroom, with the towels hung neatly, ends squared
away, and all her toiletries arranged in neat rankings according to size.
     But she felt groggy, confused.  She was dirty and sore.  It had
been getting dark out when she'd passed that alley, and now it was
light.
     Light.
     "Oh my, what time is it?" she asked aloud, feeling a sense of
panic.  "I'm going to be late!"
     She dashed out into the bedroom, only to be brought up short
by the pain in her limbs and a sudden wave of fatigue.  She sat abruptly
on the edge of her neatly made bed, shaking her head woozily.  She
blinked several times, trying to bring the room back into focus, but it
didn't seem to help.
     "Better phone in sick," she mumbled, trying to stand.  Her legs
buckled without warning, though, and she found herself falling back
onto the bed, her limbs heavy and uncooperative.
     "In a minute," she mumbled.  "Phone them ... in a ... minute ..."
     Seconds later, she was asleep.

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

     Ranma edged around the corner of the gym, hoping against
hope that Akane had forgotten, or been distracted.
     It was a vain hope, of course.  She was waiting right where
she'd said she would be, leaning against the wall, her hands clasped
lightly in front of her, arms straight.  She was looking the other way, and
he took the opportunity to just look at her.
     She really was cute, he had to admit.  She cocked her head
lightly, as if listening to something only she could hear, and a sudden
breeze swept her skirt against her legs, outlining one thigh in a way that
made Ranma's breath catch in his throat.  She reached up absently to
slide a stray lock of hair behind her ear, staring off into space pensively.
Ranma wished she would smile.  He wanted to see her smile again.
Things had been so confusing since Kodachi's death that he sometimes
felt like nothing was certain anymore.
     Not even the love he'd finally admitted to.
     Then Akane noticed him standing there, and she did smile, a
warm and inviting smile that lit up her whole face and caused Ranma to
smile in return.
     "Not cute," he thought, dazzled.  "Beautiful."  She waved him
over and he went, watching her as she primly swept her skirt under her
legs and knelt on the grass.  He settled beside her, his smile fading as he
realized that the time for stalling was over.
     "Ranma," she said, looking him in the eye and speaking firmly,
"we have to talk."
     "Uh-huh," he said with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
     "Don't look at me like that," she sighed.  "This situation isn't
going to go away, and it isn't going to get any better on its own."
     "It's okay, Akane," Ranma told her.  "I've decided to go see
Kunou like this."  He indicated his boy form.  "I'm going to have to
face him sooner or later.  You're right, there's no sense in putting it
off."  She just looked at him.
     "That's good, Ranma," she said softly, "but I wasn't just talking
about Kunou."  He looked puzzled cocked his head warily.
     "What do you mean?"
     "You've been avoiding the consequences of that day, Ranma.
You've stayed away from the Nekohanten, and you've even been
ducking Ukyou here at school.  Just why is it so hard for you to be
around your friends now, Ranma?  Does your guilt extend to them
too?"  She reached out to take his hand, and he pulled back in alarm,
looking around frantically.  She froze, hurt plain on her face, then slowly
drew her hand back.
     "Ranma, you idiot," she said, her voice low and rough.  "Ever
since that day, you've been avoiding me, too, haven't you?  You said
you loved me that night, but nothing's changed, has it?  HAS IT?"  He
could see that she was on the verge of tears, and cursed himself
inwardly for his clumsiness.
     "Akane, wait!  You've got it all wrong!"  He tried to explain,
but she stood abruptly, glaring down at him.
     "No, I think I've finally got it right.  You're still afraid to change
things.  You're afraid to be seen with me, isn't that it?  Well, fine.  Then
I'll leave!"  She stomped away, and Ranma knew that tears were
streaming down her face, but he felt powerless to stop her.
     Wait, he wanted to shout.  You've got it all wrong.  But as
usual, when he needed words, they abandoned him, and at last he just
drove his fist into the wall of the gym, hearing the siding creak
alarmingly under the impact.
     "You, my friend, are an idiot," he muttered to himself.  He
stood slowly, brushing the grass from his pants, and began to walk.  He
knew he had to talk to Akane and straighten things out.
Misunderstandings like this had a way of ballooning.  Experience had
taught him that.  And after what he'd said to her on the roof that night,
he knew he could talk to her, *really* talk.  But talking like that still
didn't come easy to him.  He didn't think it ever would.
     So he walked, beginning to compose the words he wanted to
say to her, running over them in his mind so that when the time came, he
wouldn't get flustered and fall back on his old standards, "You stupid
tomboy!" or "You are sooo uncute!"
     He wondered how he could ever have thought things would be
simpler after he'd confessed his feelings to her.
     He walked through the small knots of people enjoying the
warm spring sunshine, catching the occasional stray scrap of
conversation as he walked.
     "... she was wearing this red dress, oh MAN ..."
     "... hasn't called me since the weekend, do you ..."
     "... I'll tell her friend that you like her and ..."
     "... heard she was killed by a cult, and her brother was
arrested!"
     He stiffened as he heard that last part.  People were still talking
about Kodachi, and the events of that day.  Fires, explosions, and
chaos all over the ward, and beyond.  Rumours abounded, but nobody
seemed to have any inkling of the truth.  Nobody but those who had
fought at Furinkan that day.
     He wondered, not for the first time, what had become of the
creatures that had escaped after the link had collapsed.  There hadn't
been any further incidents that he was aware of, but the things had to
have gone somewhere.  Still, things were quiet, and he had his own
problems to deal with.
     Speaking of problems ...
     "Well, well.  Ranma.  I just saw my sister, and you know, she
didn't look very happy."  Nabiki crossed her arms and skewered him
with one of her patented cool stares.  Ranma felt his already frayed
temper begin to stir.
     "That's none of your business," he growled at her.  She blinked
innocently.
     "Since when is my sister's welfare none of my business?" she
asked acerbically.
     "Since when do you care?" Ranma shot back.  He noted her
expression flicker, and pressed the advantage.  "For that matter, what
was all that yesterday about Kunou?  It isn't like you to care about
somebody if there's nothing in it for you, Nabiki."  Her eyes hardened,
but her expression remained cool.
     "Since when would you know what is or is not "like me", eh,
Ranma?" she asked.  He was surprised to hear a trace of bitterness in
her voice.  "Anyway, I don't know how you couldn't at least be
curious about what's going on with him.  The guy showed up with a
magic glowing sword, aren't you at all interested in the story behind
that?"
     "I've had other things on my mind," he said defensively.  She
stared at him flatly for a moment.
     "Like Akane, one hopes?"
     "Look, Nabiki, I'm doing my best with her, all right?" he
snapped.  "Things are more complicated than you think!  And I haven't
noticed that you're any better at managing a love life than I am!"  He
expected her to be angered, or at least irritated, by that.  Oddly, she
just stared at him for a moment, then gave a small laugh.
     "Touche, Saotome," she said dryly.  "A point for you."  He
scowled.
     "Look, Nabiki, I know you probably think I'm a jerk, but I'm
trying to make things better between me and Akane!"
     "You'd better, Saotome," she said seriously, surprising him yet
again.  "Because you could end up with nothing but regrets."  Then she
walked off, leaving a puzzled Ranma behind.
     What was with her lately, anyway?  Granted, it had been a
pretty traumatic week all around, but Nabiki was the last person he'd
have expected to be affected.  Still, whatever her problem was, he
didn't have time to worry about it.
     Just as he'd told her, he had other things on his mind.  Quite a few
other things, and they were beginning to threaten to overwhelm him.
He figured it was time he started dealing with some of his backlog of
problems.
     One at a time, he corrected himself as he slipped behind a tree
to avoid the figure walking out the front doors.  Ukyou looked around,
tugging irritably at the collar of her boy's uniform, then walked off,
looking unhappy.
     Sorry, Uc-chan, Ranma said silently.  One problem at a time.

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

     Akane stomped along the sidewalk, staring intently at her feet,
swinging her bag in short, vicious arcs.  She wasn't in the best state of
mind to visit Kunou, she knew, but she'd decided it was necessary, and
unlike *some* people she was capable of making a decision and
sticking to it.
     She couldn't believe Ranma hadn't even showed up after
school to go with her.  She'd have refused to talk to him, of course, but
he hadn't even showed up, so she'd been denied her chance.  That
made her even angrier.  By the time she reached the edge of the school
property, her temper was roiling like a white-hot sun.
     So of course, Ranma picked *that* moment to show up.
     She saw him as she rounded the corner, lounging against the
wall, looking deceptively calm.  She stomped toward him without even
acknowledging his presence.
     "Akane ..." he began.
     "I am NOT speaking to you!" she snapped, tossing her head in
what she hoped was an appropriately haughty manner as she passed
by.  The whole effect was ruined, however, by Ranma scooping her up
and leaping easily over the wall.  She gave out a startled squeak as they
crested the wall and landed gently on the other side, shielded from view
by the high wall and a small grove of trees.  She gritted her teeth in fury
as she finally managed to regain her composure.
     "Just what do you think you're DOING?" she growled, twisting
to look into Ranma's face.  "Put me down!"
     "Do I have to?" he asked gently, and she was surprised to see
that he looked genuinely regretful at the prospect.  Nevertheless, he set
her easily on her feet, stepping back as she hastily straightened out her
uniform skirt.
     "Akane."  She looked up, angry words poised to spring from
her mouth.  "I want to talk to you about today.  Please, just listen for a
minute.  After, if you still want to hit me, I'll go and find you a big
mallet.  Okay?"  Her anger reined in somewhat, still simmering but no
longer boiling.
     "Talk," she said curtly, trying to ignore the effect his gentle
expression was having on her.
     "You were only partly right when you were talking about why I
was acting so strangely about everyone since ... that day.  I admit, I am
feeling a little guilty about Kodachi, but that's not all.  Akane, I meant
what I said that night.  I do love you.  I just don't think you've thought
about what that means."  She stood still, feeling the playful breeze
eddying easily around her, his words lancing her anger, letting the hot
fury drain away painlessly.
     "What do you mean?" she asked, almost plaintively.
     "You remember how Uc-chan was that day everyone was at
the dojo for supper?  After she came back from Ucchan's with
Ranko?"  Akane nodded.  "You know why she was like that, don't
you?"  She did.  She'd overheard Ranko and Ranma talking about it.
     "Ranko told her he couldn't love her," Akane said softly, not
understanding.  Ranma nodded, his eyes full of sorrow.
     "Yeah.  He told me later that he'd owed her that.  I finally
know what he meant."
     "Ranma, I don't understand!" Akane cried, exasperated.
"What does that have to do with ..."
     "Akane, remember how I told you I was afraid to change
things?" he pushed on, his voice quiet and intense.  "Well, I still am.
But ... now that things are out in the open between us, things *are*
going to change.  They have to.  And I know I can't just sit back and
wait for everybody to realize that things have changed.  I'm going to
have to have that same talk with Uc-chan that Ranko had, and it's going
to hurt her badly.  Shampoo, too, after all she's been through.  And
Kunou.  How's he going to take it when I'm walking around, happy
with the girl I love, and his sister is cold and dead because she loved
me?"  Akane felt a cold shock running over her, through her, and she
finally understood.
     "Ranma, that's what this was all about?"  He smiled at her
sadly.
     "Come on, Akane.  Don't you think I want to be with you, be
*near* you, all the time now?  Especially after I came so close to losing
you.  But I didn't want anybody to know yet.  I want Uc-chan and
Shampoo to hear it from me first.  I owe them that.  And Kunou ..."
She'd heard enough.  She stepped forward, wrapping her arms around
his waist, and leaned her head against his chest, squeezing him tightly.
She could hear his heart beating, a regular, comforting thrum, as he
wrapped his arms around her in return and sighed into her ear.
     "I'm sorry I hurt you," he whispered.  "I've been putting this off
because of what happened, but I know now that there's never going to
be a good time.  I've got to do it soon.  Kunou first, I guess."
     "Ranma, why didn't you just tell me all this?" she asked, leaning
back a little so she could look up into his blue-gray eyes.  She realized
now that the sorrow that filled those eyes was not for himself, but for
the others that would be hurt by what he had to tell them.
     "Aw, you know I'm no good at talking about stuff like this," he
said self-consciously, and suddenly he was awkward again, not meeting
her glance.  She gave him a gentle shake.
     "Hey.  People that love each other help each other, right?  From
now on, if something like this is bothering you, you should come
to me.  We can face things like this together, you know."  He blinked at
her, surprised, then smiled shyly.
     "Really?" he asked in a tone that made her heart break sweetly.
She smiled back.
     "Yes, really."  They stood in the sun-dappled shade of the
trees, just looking at each other, and then Ranma bent down, and she
raised her chin slightly, and they kissed, a warm, sweet, innocent kiss
that stole her breath away and left her glad she was holding on to
Ranma.  Otherwise, she didn't think her legs would have held her up.
     Finally, he pulled back, his gaze turning sombre.
     "I'm glad you're going to see Kunou with me," he said.
     "I'll always be there for you, Ranma.  I promise.  Always, no
matter what."  He smiled then, and his smile washed over her like the
warmth of the late spring sun.
     "I'm glad," he said.  "Cause I need you, Akane Tendou."  She
pulled away reluctantly, and he let her go, their gazes still locked.
     "Come on," she said with a sigh.  "We'd better go do this
before it gets too late."
     Together, they bounded back over the fence and set out for the
Kunou estate.

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

     "Remember me?"  The woman looked up from the her drink,
looking faintly puzzled.  The hotel restaurant wasn't very busy, and
Nabiki could hear the faint sounds of traffic from the street below.
     "I'm sorry, I don't ..." the woman said tentatively.
     "From yesterday, Mrs. Kunou," she pressed gently.  The
woman coloured slightly then, turning back to her drink.
     "Oh.  Yes, I remember.  I told you, I don't go by that name
anymore."  Nabiki sat down across the small table from the other
woman without being invited, and pulled a sheaf of papers from her
book bag.
     "But you could.  You and your husband never got a divorce,
did you?"  Mrs. Kunou's grip on her glass tightened, but she said
nothing, and Nabiki went on blithely.
     "You live in Yokohama, work in a small retail store, live alone ...
Should I go on, Mrs. Kunou?"
     "What do you want?" she asked, her voice dull, lifeless.
Nabiki leaned across the table, crossing her arms.
     "You said that your son was in danger.  I'm trying to figure out
why, and if we can help him.  I always thought I knew all about the
Kunou family, but now I see that I didn't know anything.  For instance,
I never knew that there was another Kunou sibling.  Kazuhiro."  She
said the name softly, but the other woman still jerked as if she'd been
struck, and Nabiki felt a sudden twinge of conscience.  Firming her
resolve, she pushed on.
     "Someone who owes me a favour is good with computers.
You'd be surprised what someone like that can learn.  On Kazuhiro's
death certificate, for instance, the cause of death was listed as trauma
from an animal attack.  A dog."  Mrs. Kunou held her glass up to the
light, looking at the light filtering through the brownish liquid.  Then, in
one smooth motion, she downed it and waved the empty glass in the
air.  A waiter arrived with a fresh drink, looking at Nabiki questioningly.
She waved him off and he left.  Then she turned her attention back to
Mrs. Kunou, who was giving her new drink the same sort of rapt
attention she'd given its predecessor.
     "Lies," she said finally, her voice so hoarse that at first Nabiki
wasn't sure she'd spoken.
     "I'm sorry?"
     "Lies.  All lies.  We couldn't even keep dogs on the estate.
They refused to cross the threshold.  Smarter than humans."  She
downed half of her new drink at one go, slamming the glass on the table
with a gasp.
     "Lies," she repeated.  "But when you have money, and power,
the truth is mutable.  I learned that very quickly.  Did you know my
daughter?"  Nabiki was taken off-guard by the sudden change of topic.
     "What?  Kodachi?  Well, yes, sort of.  She went to an all-girl's
school ..."  Mrs. Kunou waved her hand impatiently.
     "Yes, I know that.  Do you know how she died?  Will you tell
me?"  The older woman's eyes met Nabiki's then, naked and
vulnerable, burning with need, silently pleading.  Nabiki sat back,
uncomfortable.  She'd come here to get information, not give it.  And it
wasn't as though the story was all that believable.
     "I don't think ..." she began.
     "Please.  Please, I need to know.  You're the only one I can
turn to.  The *official* version will be nothing but lies, and Tatewaki
won't ..."  She broke off, her voice thick with unshed tears.  Nabiki
remembered watching her in the garden, hearing her son telling her that
he had no mother.
     "Mrs. Kunou ..."
     "Call me Yukio.  I haven't been Mrs. Kunou for quite some time."
She looked at Nabiki then, her eyes bright with tears, and Nabiki
nodded.
     "Very well.  Yukio.  She was helping fight against some very
bad ... people.  She was trying to help someone else when she was
killed.  That's really all I know."  Nabiki fought the urge to squirm in
her chair.  It was only a little lie, and for Yukio's own sake, really.  The
older woman's next question caught her off-guard.
     "Who did it?  Who killed her?"  Oh, boy, Nabiki thought.  This
isn't what I had in mind, not at all.
     "I, uh, don't ..." Nabiki started.  Yukio pinned her with an
intense glare, something dark and mad flitting behind her eyes, and for a
moment she was the very incarnation of her daughter.  And Nabiki, for
the first time, felt a faint stirring of unease, felt that maybe this woman
might be more than a grief-stricken mother.  She might be dangerous.
     Her next statement confirmed it.
     "Was it monsters?  Did Tatewaki tell the truth?"  Nabiki leaned
back in her chair, watching the other woman warily.  It HAD been
monsters, of course, but Yukio couldn't know about them.  Nabiki
watched in horrified fascination as the other woman leaned forward, her
dark eyes burning with anger, the way Kodachi's often had.
     "Did the monsters finally kill my daughter?" she asked, and
Nabiki knew she was in way over her head.  Finally?  The monsters
*had* come to Nerima that fateful day, but that was a somewhat
unique situation.  She was unstable, Nabiki suddenly decided.  The
whole family was wacko, after all; she shouldn't have expected the
mother to be any different.
     "She was very brave," Nabiki said softly, trying to deflect the
woman's sudden unfocussed rage.  Yukio blinked, and her anger
drained away in an instant, leaving her looking small and vulnerable.
     "Brave," she whispered forlornly.  She picked up her half-empty
drink, her hand shaking so badly that some of the brownish liquid
slopped onto her hand, and threw it back in one neat motion.  Nabiki
took note of the flush in her cheeks and realized that Yukio was, if not
drunk, well on her way.  It seemed unlikely she was going to get any of
the answers she wanted today.  She was considering the best way to
slip away when Yukio spoke again.
     "They were all cursed with bravery, my children.  When the
dark came for Kodachi, that first time, it was Kazuhiro who saved her,
at cost of his own life.  He was brave, much braver than I.  And they
killed him for it."  She raised her eyes from her empty glass, and Nabiki
could see more unshed tears shimmering in their depths.
     "He was only a little boy," she whispered, imploring Nabiki to
understand.  "I wanted to leave, but my husband refused to abandon
his obligation to guard the estate, the ... *he* has to stay, but not us!  I
told him not to put them in danger, his oaths weren't worth what *they*
did to Kazuhiro, nothing was!  Let them have the place, what could it
matter?"  Nabiki struggled to follow what she was being told.  Yukio
was at least a little unhinged, she decided, and a lot drunk.  Still, there
might be some kernel of truth in her ramblings.
     "Yukio, I don't understand," she said softly, trying to steer the
woman back on track.  Yukio shook her head wearily.
     "I tried to take them, anyway.  The dark had marked us that
night, and I knew it would return.  So I tried to take my other two
babies, but he caught me, and cast me out.  He had money, and
influence, and I had nothing.  A stronger woman, a braver one, might
have found a way, but I never did."  Tears coursed silently down her
cheeks now.  "The dark has come for two of my children now, and
soon it will come for Tatewaki.  I know it.  It's starting all over again,
just like before."  She lowered her head, clasping her empty glass
tightly like it was her only anchor in a storm of uncertainty.
     "He'll die if he stays there, and I don't know what to do," she
whispered.  Nabiki shook her head.  This was no good.  Yukio wasn't
making any sense, and Nabiki knew it would be pointless to ask any of
the questions she'd planned to ask.  There were treacherous
cross-currents beneath the surface of the Kunou family, and they were
dragging Yukio down.  If Nabiki really wanted to know the truth about
the family's mysteries, she'd have to map some of those cross-currents
first.
     She reached into her bag and gently slid a card over to the
older woman's side of the table.
     "Yukio," she said gently.  She didn't respond.  "YUKIO."
     "Yes?"  Distant.
     "This card has my phone number on it.  I want you to take it.
When you're feeling better, I'd like you to call me, okay?  I want to
talk to you about the family.  Would you do that?"  Yukio nodded
absently but didn't pick up the card, and one corner began to discolour
as it soaked up a small puddle of spilled drink.  Nabiki sighed inwardly.
It didn't matter, really.  She could find Yukio easily enough with all the
information she'd gathered already.  She stood, looking down at the
other woman.  Yukio seemed lost, still staring at her glass, reeking of
cheap booze and desperation.  Nabiki slipped away quietly and found
herself outside the hotel, her mind humming.
     Secrets.  Whatever the truth about the Kunou family was, it
was well hidden.  Nobody, not even Nabiki herself, had had even an
inkling of any of this.  A brother, dead under mysterious circumstances,
a mother, kept from her family for years ... or had she abandoned
them?  The truth was, as Yukio had noted, mutable, and Nabiki needed
more facts in order to decide what was true and what wasn't.
     Whatever the truth was, Nabiki found herself facing a huge,
complex puzzle.  Her personal schemes and plots began to appear pale
and insignificant in the face of it.  The prospect of untangling the twisted
skeins of truth and deception surrounding the Kunou clan engaged that
part of her that needed, that *craved* challenges like this.
     Nabiki felt a grin tugging at her lips as she strolled home along
the busy sidewalks, mingling with the after-work crowds.  Her blood
fairly buzzed with anticipation at the prospect of a challenge worthy of
her problem-solving talents.  She was no longer certain when she'd
decided, but she now knew that she had to find out what secrets lay at
the heart of the Kunou's twisted past.
     Being Nabiki, she never stopped to consider that some things
are best left undisturbed.

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

     Akane looked over her shoulder, giving Ranma one last smile
of encouragement.
     "Ready?" she asked.  He nodded, placing a comforting hand on her
shoulder.
     "Do it," he said.  She turned and knocked on the door.  Her
heart seemed to rise in her chest, hammering nervously as she heard
faint footsteps approaching the door.  Finally, it opened to reveal
Kunou, dressed in his usual Kendo outfit, carrying a sheathed katana in
his left hand.  He stared impassively at the uninvited guests, his face
revealing nothing, not even when he seemed to take note of the
proprietary way Ranma's hand rested on Akane's shoulder.
     "It appears I will have to fire another set of guards," he said at
last, his voice flat.
     "They didn't even see us," Ranma said defensively.  "We snuck
in."
     "Then you'll be able to find your way back out again," Kunou
shot back, a hint of irritation finding its way into his voice.  Ranma
scowled, and Akane jumped in before things could progress any
further.
     "Kunou-sempai," she said, clasping her hands nervously in front
of her, "I'm sorry we snuck in here, but we've been worried.
Nobody's seen you since last Sunday, and now we hear that you're all
alone here!"  Kunou's gaze shifted to her.
     "There are servants ..." he began.  Akane shook her head
violently.
      I'm not talking about servants!  Who do you have to talk to?
Who is there for you to share your grief with?  You and Kodachi came
to help us, to protect everybody in this city!  And now she's dead, and
you're alone, and it shouldn't have to be this way!  It's just not right,
and it's not fair!"  She stopped abruptly, finding herself on the verge of
tears, clenching her hands tightly, angry all over again at the injustice of
it all.  Ranma's hand squeezed her shoulder gently.  Kunou's expression
softened ever so slightly, and when he spoke, there was a trace of
gentleness in his tone.
     "As ever, your heart is true, Akane Tendou.  It is easy to see
why I was so enamoured of you.  But listen to me carefully, I beg of
you.  I remain sequestered here for only a short time longer.  Once I am
done with my grieving, I shall return to Furinkan.  In the meantime, I
ask only that you do not return here.  Please."  She looked into his
eyes, seeing the sorrow buried there, and nodded wordlessly.
     "If ... if that's what you want," she said at last, her voice tiny.
     "It is what I need," he told her quietly.  "From everyone."  He
shifted his gaze over her shoulder to Ranma, and she stiffened, dreading
what would happen next.
     "Saotome."  His gaze was flat, emotionless again.
     "Kunou."  Ranma's expression wasn't exactly hostile, but he
wasn't very open either.
     "Your other, the one called Ranko, visited here before he left."
Akane hadn't known that; it was clear from Ranma's expression that he
had.  "He asked that I hold him, not you, responsible for what befell my
sister.  I find, however, that I cannot hold you completely blameless."
     "Kunou-sempai!" Akane gasped.  He held up his free hand
sternly.
     "You and I, Saotome, share one burden.  We both failed
Kodachi.  I have no intention of seeking a confrontation with you, but it
would be prudent if our paths were not to cross any more than strictly
necessary."  Ranma stared at him silently for a long moment, then
nodded.
     "I understand," was all he said.  Kunou looked up at the sky.
     "The hour grows late.  You must leave now.  Please remember
what I said."  Ranma turned and started away, and Akane turned to
follow, her features sombre.
     "Akane Tendou."  She turned back, to see Kunou still standing
there, his face bathed in the light of the late afternoon sun.  "It ... means
much to me that you came.  I ... thank you."  She smiled then, feeling
her heart lift.
     "Don't forget you have friends, Kunou-sempai," she told him,
looking up into his shadowed eyes.  "You don't have to be alone."
     He looked sad then, and old.  "If only that were true," she
heard him mutter, then he closed the door gently, and she walked
away, to where Ranma was waiting.
     "Well, that went better than I expected it would," Ranma
sighed.  "At least I didn't have to fight him.  I don't think I could've
handled that, after all the guy's been through.  You notice he's still
carrying that sword?"  She nodded silently, and Ranma noticed the
tense set of her shoulders.  He sighed.
     "Come on, Akane, we did all we could.  He just wants to be
alone.  We can't make him accept our help, you know?"  She nodded.
     "He just seems so ... hurt.  Do you think he'll ever be like he
was before?"  It was clear from Ranma's face that he didn't consider
that to be a desirable option.
     "I don't know, Akane.  Really.  Maybe he just needs some
time.  At least we tried, though.  Come on, let's get home, okay?"  She
nodded and they began to wind their way through the trees to the point
where they'd jumped the wall.  Akane paused once to look back at the
house, a small crease appearing between her eyes.
     Now that she'd seen him, she hated the thought of leaving Kunou
alone more than ever.  But Ranma was right.
     There didn't seem to be anything they could do.

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

     Nabiki sighed and dropped her bag in the entryway.  She
placed both hands carefully on the small of her back and stretched,
groaning with pleasure as her back made tiny popping noises.  She'd
been puzzling over Kunou's mother's story all the way home,
wondering what truths lay buried in her words.  One thing was for
certain.  Young Kazuhiro had died an ugly death, and while Nabiki
doubted that monsters were involved, she wasn't at all convinced that a
dog had killed that boy.  There *was* something here, something big.
She knew it.  She *felt* it.   She'd have to investigate further, find out
more, before she could decide where to go from here.
     She grinned to herself suddenly.  Find out more.  She was just
the person who could do that, if there was anything to find.  She'd
unlock this puzzle yet.
     "I'm home," she announced, wandering into the family room and
finding Akane perched in front of the television.
     "Hey, sis."
     "Nabiki, you missed supper again.  Kasumi saved you some,
though."
     "Great."  Nabiki flopped down on the couch and sighed.
Akane looked at her curiously.
     "What's up with you?" she asked.  Nabiki glanced over.
     "What do you mean?"
     "You seem ... I don't know.  Jazzed.  Worked up."  Nabiki
grinned, showing more enthusiasm than Akane was accustomed to
seeing from her.
     "I'm working on something," she said casually.  Akane's
expression darkened.
     "Oh," she said, and Nabiki looked surprised, then stung by her tone.
     "Hey, it's not like that!" she protested, her cheeks burning.  "This is
something good, okay?  Geez!"  Akane blinked.
     "Really?  Nobody's going to get hurt because of this, are they?" she
asked gently.  Nabiki wanted to snap at her little sister, but she knew
Akane was thinking of what she'd done to Ranko, telling all of Ranma's
fiances about him before he was ready to confront them.  She knew
Akane had reason to be sceptical, but she was pretty sure that there
was nothing to worry about this time.  After all, she didn't know that
her poking around would actually hurt anybody.  And it didn't look like
things could be *worse* for the Kunou family.
     "Really, Akane," she said, her voice earnest.  "I'm into something
really big here, but I think something good may come out of it.
Actually, it's a really good feeling.  Maybe I'm losing my edge."  Akane
laughed at that, and Nabiki joined in.  It felt good to just sit on the
couch and laugh with her sister.  Things felt more normal than they had
for the past week.
     "Well, I'm glad to hear it," Akane said.  "I know when you get
your teeth into something, nothing can stop you."  Nabiki felt strangely
touched by Akane's expression of confidence.  She nudged her with
her elbow just below the ribs.
     "You should talk, little sister.  What's going on between you
and Ranma, huh?"  Akane gaped at her and Nabiki laughed again.
     "Me and ... why would ... I don't ..."
     "Oh, VERY smooth, Akane.  C'mon, you two have hardly
fought all week.  The clarion cry of "Uncute tomboy" has not been
heard within these walls for so long, I almost miss it, and our wall repair
bills have dropped off to nothing!  Did something happen?  C'mon, spill
the beans!"
     "Yes, by all means Akane," Kasumi said, draping herself
elegantly over the back of the couch between them.  Akane started,
surprised by her sudden appearance.
     "Hey, you guuuuuys ..." she protested.  Kasumi smiled at her
benignly.
     "All the juicy details, please," she said.  Akane sighed and
Nabiki knew she would cave in.  She'd probably been aching to talk to
someone about it all week.  And Nabiki needed to talk about
something sane, rational and cheerful just then.  In the worst way.
     "We had a long talk the night before ... you know.  The night
before.  Up on the roof."
     "And?" Nabiki pressed.  A crimson flush spread across the
bridge of Akane's pert nose, staining both cheeks.
     "He told me he loves me," she said, pressing the tips of her
index fingers together shyly.  Both sisters gasped.
     "Ranma *Saotome*?  Wears Chinese shirts and has a pig-tail?"
Nabiki asked.  "That Ranma?"
     "Akane, that's wonderful!" Kasumi gasped.  Nabiki found that
her slight twinge of jealousy at Akane's good fortune was overwhelmed
by sheer happiness.
     "You can't tell Dad or Mr. Saotome yet, though!" Akane said,
suddenly sounding alarmed.  Nabiki grinned.
     "Your secret's safe with us.  So sis, tell us more.  How'd you
get him to say the words?  I can't imagine Ranma actually saying that!
Tell, tell!"  Akane's blush deepened, something Nabiki hadn't thought
possible.
     "Well, I was tired of the way things were, you know, with all the
fiances trying to decide who got Ranma and who got Ranko and ... and
it was twice as bad as before.  Everyone seemed to be getting hurt, and
I was tired of it.  So I went to confront Ranma.  I didn't think I was
going to go as far as I did, but finally, it came down to me needing
Ranma to talk about what was between us.  When he wouldn't, I
decided to just ... let go.  I was actually walking away, I was this close
to giving up on him.  You'll never know how close we came.  But ..."
     "But?" Kasumi asked, looking for once like an eager schoolgirl,
and not the most responsible member of the household.
     "He stopped me.  At the last moment, he caught me and
wouldn't let go.  It was so hard for him to talk about it, but ... oh, it was
so SWEET.  You should have seen him.  He talked about his
childhood, his fears about changing things here ..."
     "Wait a minute.  Ranma said these things?" Nabiki asked in
disbelief.  Akane smiled dreamily, staring at the floor.
     "Uh-huh.  And then he said everything would be all right
because he loved me.  I remember that moment, everything about it.
I'll remember it for the rest of my life."  They sat there for a moment,
Akane pulling a plush cushion from the corner of the couch and hugging
it tightly to her chest, pulling her knees up.
     "And then you kissed.  Please tell me there was a kiss," Nabiki
pleaded.  Akane buried her face in the pillow, drummed her heels
against the edge of the couch, and nodded frantically.  Her sisters
squealed with delight.
     "All right, Akane!" Kasumi said, in a manner so unlike herself
that for a moment Nabiki thought she'd said that herself.  Akane leaned
back, still embracing the pillow, and sighed deeply.
     "I'd been dreaming of that moment for so long, and it was so
perfect.  It was everything I thought it would be."  She buried her face
in the pillow again.  "I'm in LOVE!" she squeaked.
     "And you waited this long to tell us," Kasumi scolded her.
Akane's joyful posture relaxed somewhat, and Nabiki tensed.
     "Well, after Kodachi died and Ranko left, things weren't going
so well," she said softly.
     "I saw you at lunch today, Akane, and you looked pretty
upset," Nabiki said.  She remembered how Ranma had told her he was
trying to make things better, and how she'd actually believed him.
"Things go wrong already?"
     "Things are never simple where Akane and Ranma are
concerned," Kasumi mused, sounding worried.  Akane looked up and
shook her head.
     "No, it's not like that!" she protested.  "I mean ... okay.  After
the fight, Ranma seemed to pull back from me a little.  At first I thought
it was natural, but then I started to worry, and today we fought about it.
But later, he explained everything to me.  You remember how
depressed Ukyou was that night we all had dinner here?"  They both
nodded.  "Well, that was because Ranko talked to her, told her he
didn't love her so she could let him go.  Ranma really does love me."
She looked at the cushion softly, her lips curving up in a dreamy smile.
     "He really does," she continued after a moment.  "And he
knows that he has to have the same talk with Ukyou that Ranko had,
and with Shampoo too.  He doesn't want to hurt them, but he's finally
going to tell them once and for all that we love each other."
     "Oh, Akane, I hope things work out," Kasumi said happily,
gently squeezing Akane's shoulder.
     "Yeah, but what about you?  Won't Ryouga be crushed?"
Nabiki asked, suppressing another twinge of jealousy at her sister's
multiple suitors.  Akane blushed again.
     "I overheard Ranma and Ranko talking one time.  Ryouga
decided to give up on me on his own."  She glared at Nabiki.  "And I
didn't even know that he liked me!  If you knew, you could have said
something!"  Nabiki gave her sister a put-upon sigh.
     "Geez, you're dense sometimes, Akane.  Everybody knew that
Ryouga had a major thing for you.  I can't believe that you never
noticed!"
     "I had other things on my mind!" she shot back.
     "And what about Kunou-baby ..." Nabiki started to say, then
froze.  Akane's smile faded.
     "We saw him today, Ranma and I.  We talked to him."  She turned
to her sisters, her face grave.  "He said he would be okay, but ... he's
changed so much.  I never thought I'd say this, but I miss the old
Kunou."  Nabiki knew exactly what she meant.  Her glimpse of Kunou
in the garden had bothered her more than she would have believed
possible.
     "I feel guilty, being so happy," Akane said at last.  "I mean,
after everything that happened, I get to be happy.  It feels wrong,
somehow."
     "No!" Nabiki said intensely.  "It's not wrong, Akane!  You
fought to be happy, to have what you have!  You have the right to
enjoy it!  None of what happened is your fault, remember that!"
Nabiki broke off when she realized that the other two were looking at
her strangely.
     "Geez, where did that come from?" she asked weakly.  A
warm smile lit up Akane's face and she leaned over and trapped
Nabiki in a tight bear-hug.
     "You're right, sis!  I gotta try to learn to just be happy!"
Nabiki patted Akane's shoulders awkwardly.
     "Urgh.  Good, Akane.  Now let me breathe, okay?"  Akane
loosened her grip sheepishly, and they all laughed again.
     "That's better," Kasumi said.  "There's been too much gloom
around here this past week and a half.  Let's talk about happy things
for a change."
     "Yeah, getting back to you and your hunk-meister ..." Nabiki
teased.  Akane blushed again.  God, this is TOO easy, Nabiki thought
gleefully.
     "More details about the kissing," Kasumi urged, leaning
forward with anticipation on her face.  Nabiki was surprised at how
much Kasumi was enjoying this.  For that matter, she was enjoying it
quite a bit herself.  It had been too long since the three had talked like
this.
     Just then, Ranma walked into the room on his way to the
kitchen.  The girls fell silent, turning in unison to look at him.  His stride
faltered as he became aware that he was the centre of attention.
     "Um, what?" he asked, puzzled.  All three girls were wearing
secretive smiles.
     "Nothing, Ranma," Kasumi said in her most innocent voice.
     "Just talking," Nabiki added breezily.
     "Right.  Talking," Akane clarified.  He began to look a little
unnerved by the intensity of their attention.
     "Oh," he said lamely.  They continued to stare, Akane blushing,
Nabiki and Kasumi directing almost identical looks of frank appraisal
his way.  Ranma squirmed.
     "Well, I gotta go ... do that thing that I gotta ... go do.  Bye!"
He left, trying not to look as if he was hurrying and failing miserably.  A
gale of feminine laughter erupted in his wake.
     "Oh, my," Kasumi gasped at last.  "Poor Ranma."
     "Aw, he'll live," Nabiki said dryly.  She turned to a still giggling
Akane.  "Now, Akane, the subject was kissing, I believe.  You and
Ranma.  Details.  First time, and I'm not talking about that time he
thought he was a cat.  Go."  Akane had retrieved her cushion and was
once more squeezing it in the grip of death.
     "Well, the first time I actually started it ..." she began.  Her
sisters giggled uncontrollably.
     "That figures," Nabiki gasped.  Akane flushed bright crimson
and buried her face in the cushion.
     "Ranma's always been a little slow," Kasumi giggled.  "So,
Akane, how did you start?"
     "Well, we were on the roof, and I was crying because he'd just
told me he loved me.  I was hugging him, and I told him I loved him
too.  The look on his face when I said that!  Oh, it was *incredible*!  I
reached my hand up and ran my fingers up his neck, behind his ear and
into his hair ..."
     "Yeah?  And then?"
     "Well, then I ..."

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

     Ranma strolled out into the garden, having liberated some
leftovers from the kitchen.  He heard another burst of laughter from
inside the house, followed by Kasumi's scandalized voice crying,
"Akane!  Did you REALLY?!"
     He frowned.  What the hell were they talking about in there,
anyway?  He sighed and walked over to the carp pond, absently
stuffing cold rice into his mouth as more faint squeals of laughter
escaped from the house.  He remembered the way the girls had looked
at him, united by some unspoken bond that had hung heavy in the air.
     "Women are SO weird," he sighed.  He wished he felt like
laughing, but frankly, he didn't.  He'd straightened things out with
Akane, for once, and she wasn't mad at him anymore.  Still, he had to
face the prospect of having a heart-to-heart talk with Uc-chan and
Shampoo.
     He dreaded the prospect of breaking Uc-chan's heart.  He'd
already seen what effect Ranko's talk had had on her, but he knew
finally that his counterpart had been right.  Uc-chan was his oldest and
dearest friend, but she loved him and he didn't love her, and he owed it
to her to make that plain once and for all.  But she'd cry, and he hated
the thought of being the one that made her cry.  Hated it.
     Shampoo was another matter altogether.  She'd probably cry,
too, but she'd also get mad, and it was entirely possible that violence
would follow.  Ranma didn't know what he'd do if she wanted to fight
him.  Shampoo was a girl of deep passions, and she was unlikely to
take this lying down.  He wondered if Mousse could help him.
     He sighed again, looking at the still surface of the pond, smooth as
glass in the warm, still evening air.  He fancied he saw the reflection of a
cute red-haired girl there, but of course the reflection was his own.
Ponds have no sense of the dramatic.
     And Kodachi.  If she'd lived, he would have had to have this
talk with her as well.  He reminisced about her antics almost fondly,
now that she was gone, but the truth was she had been pretty scary at
times.  But gone she was.  He only had to think of Kunou to be
reminded of that.
     At least his talk with Kunou hadn't been anywhere near the
disaster it could have been.  He had pretty much told Ranma to stay out
of his way, but that didn't bother Ranma at all.  He had no particular
desire to be around Kunou at the best of times.  And in particular, he
remembered Kunou telling Akane how he "had" been enamoured of
her.  Past tense.  Maybe things on that front would actually be easier
now.
     He crouched down and dipped his fingers into the glassy
surface of the pool, staring raptly as the ripples spreading out from his
fingertips fluidly shattering his reflection.  It wasn't enough to trigger the
change, he knew that from experience.  Closing his eyes, he
remembered Kunou's face when he'd demanded Kodachi's body,
remembered him walking off alone.  Whatever lived behind Kunou's
eyes had gone far away that day, and remained untouchable, even now.
Maybe Akane was right, Ranma thought.  Maybe Kunou did need
help.  Ranma was pretty sure, however, that whatever came to pass, he
was one person Kunou would not be looking to for that help.
     Still, Kunou was a big boy.  He'd decided to take care of
things on his own, for whatever reason, and they really had no choice
but to let him be.
     He was shaken from his reverie by another burst of laughter
drifting from the house, and his mouth quirked into a small grin in spite
of his mood.  It was good to hear laughter around the dojo again.
Maybe this was a sign that things were finally going to get better.  He
sighed and stood, tossing his empty bowl into the air and catching it
neatly on one outstretched foot, then kicking it up so he could grab it
again, his actions lazy and graceful.  Then he retrieved his chopsticks
and headed slowly back into the house.
     He wanted to join in with the general good mood, but he had a
feeling that he wasn't going to be doing too much laughing in the next
couple of days.

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

     The moon rode high in the clear night sky, shadow eating half of
it's scabrous face.  Tatewaki Kunou knelt in the centre of his room,
sheathed weapon lying crossways on the mat in front of him, eyes
closed, bathed in its light.  To any observer he would have appeared
calm, but that appearance was a mere facade.  His gut was
wound tightly into a twisted knot, and the same thought kept returning
again and again.
     It will be tonight.  It will be tonight.  It will.
     He sighed imperceptibly.  He hoped he was wrong, but knew
in his heart that he was not.  The worst would come to pass.  It was his
fate, it seemed, to have to face the worst.  His hands tightened slightly.
     So be it.
     Then his breathing shifted with the awareness that he was no longer
alone.  It wasn't one of the servants; they had been quartered off the
estate grounds for some time now.  He lifted the sheathed katana in his
left hand, bracing his thumb against the underside of the hilt's
cross-piece and pushing it loose so that a thumb's length of blade was
revealed.
     The blade was glowing.
     He stared into the deep blue light.  You are my bearer now, it
seemed to say.  The responsibility is yours.  The burden is yours.  Fulfill
your duty, Tatewaki Kunou.
     You know what you must do.
     Yes, he knew.  And for a moment, he faltered.
     But only for a moment.
     "Master!"  The voice hissed from outside his window, and
Kunou sheathed the blade fully once more.
     "Yes, Sasuke?" he asked calmly.
     "Master, come outside!  Quickly!  I have found out something
you should know!"  Kunou stood easily, striding over to the window
and opening it.  He vaulted out of the house, landing easily on the cool
grass.
     Sasuke was nowhere to be seen.  As a ninja, however, he
would be in the shadows.  It was second nature.  Kunou moved away
from the house, cocking his head slightly.
     "I am here, Sasuke.  What would you tell me?"  Kunou saw
nothing, heard nothing, but suddenly he was moving, springing into the
air, twisting to land facing the spot where he'd just been standing, the
spot where several shuriken now quivered in the trunk of a nearby tree.
He back-tracked the trajectory with his eyes, picking out a patch of
shadow from the surrounding dark.  A black clothed figure eased out of
the shadow, stopping in the pale moonlight.  Its head twitched once,
convulsively.  It moved strangely, its joints seemed almost to be in
the wrong places, and its skin was an unhealthy gray tone, contrasting
against the sullen red glow of its eyes.
     It was Sasuke.  And yet it was not.
     "Hello, old friend," Kunou said softly.  "I've been expecting
you."  The thing's lips pulled back from its mouth, revealing stained
teeth.
     "Guardian," it hissed.  It was Sasuke's voice.  And yet it was
not.
     The little ninja had degenerated badly after Kazuhiro's death,
much like Kunou's own father.  In later days, he was reduced to a
shadow of his former self, but he deserved better than this.  He
deserved a clean death over this ... abomination.  Kunou's grip
tightened on the sheath as he raised it slowly, holding it crossways in
front of him.  Now that his fears had been realized, he was possessed
of a glacial calm.  He knew what had to be done.
     "Guardian, you are the last," the Sasuke-thing said, twitching
again, ripples moving under its skin.  "Flee, and you may live."
Kunou's expression didn't change.
     "You went into the caves, didn't you Sasuke?  Even after I
forbade you to.  Why?  Did you sense what was coming?"  The thing
snarled, shifting with inhuman fluid grace, its hateful glare fixed on
Kunou.
     "Did you?" he repeated softly.  "They came for Kodachi that
time, and you were not able to protect her.  Although it was not your
fault, your absence cost Kazuhiro his life.  His death weighed heavy on
you, did it not?  And you wanted to protect Kodachi this time.  That is
why you sought them out."  The thing twitched again, and Kunou
wrapped his right hand around the katana's hilt, his other hand gripping
the sheath just below the hilt's cross-piece.  He wondered if anything of
Sasuke was left in there to hear him.
     Smoothly, he drew the sword, dropping the sheath on the
grass.  The blade blazed with light, illuminating the surrounding area
with an eerie blue-white glow.  The Sasuke-thing quailed, but did not
fall back.  Enshrouded within Sasuke's physical form, the thing could
stand the blade's holy light.  Long, wickedly sharp claws burst forth
from its fingertips, greenish ichor dripping from their points.  Kunou
adopted a stance, the blade held high and parallel to the ground.
     "YIELD!" the Sasuke-thing screeched, enraged.
     "You have always served our family faithfully, Sasuke Sarugakure.
Come to me, and receive the light.  Come to me and be set free."  The
Sasuke-thing's eyes locked on the blade, and for a moment it faltered.
     "Free?" a voice whispered.  Kunou felt white-hot rage threaten
to overwhelm him at that moment.  Sasuke *was* still there, still aware.
The bastards.
He drew in a deep breath as the creature tore its gaze angrily away
from the light, its eyes glowing balefully.
     Kunou was unnaturally still.  It would all be over soon.  One way or
another, the fight wouldn't last long.
     The Sasuke-thing was a blur of movement, and Kunou reacted
without thought.  They collided and sprang apart, Kunou deflecting
several throwing spikes, his blade a blazing arc of fire as he spun.  They
came together again and Kunou's howl rang out over the Sasuke-thing's
snarls.  Kunou felt a fiery pain in his side as he committed himself to his
attack.
     The Sasuke-thing's claws were buried deep in Kunou's left
side, below the ribs.  Kunou could no longer see the blade of his
sword.
     It was buried, up to the hilt, in his opponent's chest.
     The Sasuke-thing quivered, then gagged as green fluid began to
pour from its ears, nose and mouth.  Its claws pulled away from
Kunou's side, and he was dimly aware of the pain as he lowered the
diminutive ninja to the cool, soft grass.  He used his free hand to cradle
the stricken ninja's head.  He couldn't lay him flat because of the
glowing blade that protruded from his back, and he wasn't willing to
remove the sword.  Not yet.
     "Sasuke?" he asked softly as the glow in the little man's eyes
guttered and died.  Red was mixed with the green flowing out of
Sasuke's body now, and his limbs stirred weakly.
     "Master," he croaked.  "I failed you.  I'm ... sorry ..."
     "Hush, old friend.  It doesn't matter."
     "Held them ... back ... long as I ... *cough* ... could ..."
     "I know," Kunou said gently.  "I know you did.  You can rest
now, Sasuke.  You have earned it.  Kazuhiro and Kodachi will be
waiting for you."  The creatures would have tortured him with the
knowledge of Kodachi's death, he knew.  He saw grief on the little
man's face then, not for himself, whose pain was nearly ended, but for
his master, whose burdens now must be carried alone.
     You are the last, it had said.  The last.
     "Master," he coughed, reaching up to stem the blood seeping
from Kunou's wounded side with his hand.  "Guardian."  Then he
smiled.
     And was gone.
     His hand fell away, and Kunou suddenly had trouble
swallowing.
     "Sasuke?"  There would be no answer, he knew.  Carefully, he
withdrew the blade from Sasuke's chest.  It no longer glowed, merely
glinting dully in the silent silver light of the moon where it was not coated
with slime and gore.  He lay the sword on the grass and eased Sasuke's
body onto the ground, arranging his limbs neatly, feeling a hot stinging in
his eyes, a tightening around his heart.
     He told himself that it did not befit a warrior to cry.  And yet, at that
moment, he was just Tatewaki Kunou, seventeen years old.  And now
he was all alone.  The tears clouded his vision as he knelt beside
Sasuke's body.
     "I swear I will make them pay, Sasuke.  For you, and
Kazuhiro, and Kodachi.  There will be a reckoning."  His voice shook,
and he leaned back, eyes closed futilely against the tears, and drew a
painful breath.
     "THERE WILL BE A RECKONING!  DO YOU HEAR ME?  I
SWEAR IT!!" he screamed, his raw voice shattering the still of
the night.
     The only reply was a faint sound that might have been mad
laughter, but was probably only the wind rustling in the trees.
     Probably.
 

End part two.

Well, that's it for this volume of the CASL series.  What did you think?
Let me know!  E-mail thoughts, suggestions, criticisms or whatever to:
emmack@ibm.net
Revised Sept. 1/97