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

The Heart's Reasons
by Mark MacKinnon

Part Two:  The Morning After
 

     Kasumi eyed the sky cautiously.  It definitely looked like rain.
Fortunately, she had taken her umbrella with her when she'd left the
house.  Not that she thought she'd need it, since she was nearly at
Ucchan's.
     She was glad that Akane had come to her for help.  After
hearing how her relationship with Ranma had begun to blossom, her joy
was secretly tempered by the suspicion that Ranma's remaining fiances
would be an obstacle to a smooth romance.  Ranma deciding to settle
things with Ukyou and Shampoo was, in her view, a very wise move.
     However, Akane had been worried after talking to Ranma the
previous night.  Ukyou had taken the news badly, and Akane thought
someone should check up on her.  The problem was, she wouldn't
want to see either Akane or Ranma, and she had no other real friends.
     So Kasumi had happily volunteered her services.  She was
certain that she could provide a lonely Ukyou with some much needed
support, and perhaps cheer her up a little.  It was the least she could
do.  And she genuinely enjoyed playing den mother to the group, so it
wasn't an imposition at all.
     Her mood darkened somewhat as she had a vivid mental flash
of the whole group returning from Furinkan that day.  They'd looked
like they'd been through a war and, as she later heard, that wasn't at all
inaccurate.  Cologne had been crippled, and young Kodachi had died.
They'd all been through so much.  She was resolved to do whatever
she could to help.
     She was almost at the restaurant when she saw Mousse
storming towards her.  She lifted a hand in greeting.
     "Good morn ..."
     "Hibiki!  Where are you, you coward?  Come out and take
your punishment like a man!  Hibiki!!"  He charged by without even
slowing, and Kasumi blinked, her hand frozen in the air.
     "Oh, my," she said weakly.  What had that been about?  Were
things finally returning to their normal state of chaos?  Shrugging, she
continued up to the front door of Ucchan's.
     The first thing she noticed was that the interior was a mess.
The second thing she noticed was that the proprietor was *also* a
mess.
     "Ukyou!  Oh, dear!  What happened to you, are you all right?
Were you in a fight?"  Ukyou, who'd been righting a fallen stool, turned
to face Kasumi, giving her a better view of the ugly bruise on her face.
     "Oh, Kasumi.  I wasn't expecting you.  A fight?"  She fingered
her bruise carefully, limping forward.  "No, nothing like that."  Kasumi
noticed Ryouga's pack and umbrella on the floor.
     "Oh, is Ryouga here?  I just saw Mousse, and he was looking
for Ryouga, to fight him I think.  He seemed very angry."
     "Angry at Ryouga?  I don't ..."  She stopped abruptly, her
fingers still touching the bruise, her eyes widening in shock.
     "He ... he couldn't have thought ... Oh, DAMN!"  Kasumi
stood uncertainly just inside the door.  This wasn't at all what she'd
expected.  Ukyou turned to Kasumi suddenly.
     "Which way was he going?" she asked.
     "Pardon?"
     "Mousse.  Which way?"  Kasumi indicated a direction, puzzled
as Ukyou limped quickly toward the door, gritting her teeth in
frustration.
     "Dammit!  Kasumi, can you help me?"  Kasumi nodded and
Ukyou slung her arm around the older girl's shoulders.
     "Um, where are we going?" Kasumi asked as they walked as
quickly as they could out the door.
     "We're going to find Mousse and Ryouga," Ukyou told her
grimly, "before they do something really, really stupid."  The two hurried
off in pursuit of Mousse.
     "I just hope we're not too late," she added under her breath.
     Kasumi wondered what in the world she'd just gotten herself into.

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

     Ryouga was in a very foul temper.
     For one thing, he was experiencing the first hangover of his
young life, and he was finding it not at all pleasant.  Also, he'd woken
up sprawled under a tree in a park, having misplaced yet another pack
and umbrella.
     Well, not misplaced exactly.  He knew where they were, but
even if he could find his way back to Ucchan's, he wouldn't go back
for them now.  Ukyou must think he was a complete idiot after all those
stupid things he'd said.  There he'd been, shouting out all the garbage
he usually carried around inside him, while she was still hurting from
having lost Ranma for good.
     She probably thought he was pathetic, and he wouldn't blame her.
He was sure she'd feel nothing but pity when she saw him again.  And
Ryouga Hibiki didn't need anyone's pity.
     He clenched his fist, then winced in pain.  The bandanna
wrapped around his hand was crusted with dried blood, and he
groaned as he recalled yet another of his stupid actions of the previous
night.
     Oh, life just kept getting better and better.  What the hell else
could possibly happen?  He checked out the darkening clouds and
frowned.  Well, it could rain, for one.  Without his umbrella, he'd be
spending some time in his pig form if he couldn't find shelter.
     "Hibikiiiiiiii!"  He frowned, looking around.  Someone was
calling him?  He cocked his head and listened, hearing it again, closer
this time.
     "Where are you, Hibiki?  Come out and face me like a man!"
He could see Mousse now, wandering along the edge of the park.  He
waved his arms and shouted to attract the other boy's attention.
Mousse spotted him and immediately started towards him.
     "What's the matter?" Ryouga called to him.  Mousse stopped
facing him, his face dark with barely suppressed rage.
     "You," he growled.
     "Hey, what's your problem?" Ryouga asked, puzzled.  He hadn't
done anything to Mousse that he could think of.
     "I just came from Ukyou's place," Mousse informed him.  Ryouga
started guiltily.  He had a vivid mental picture of a depressed Ukyou
telling Mousse how Ryouga had gotten drunk, caused a scene, and
stormed out, leaving her to deal with Ranma's rejection all alone.
     "Oh.  That.  I can explain ..." he began.  Mousse cut him off.
     "Explain?  What's to explain?"
     "Look, I had too much to drink and got a little carried away,
that's all!  I didn't mean to hurt her!"
     "A little carried away?"  Mousse's eyes narrowed behind his
thick glasses, his hair blowing in the stiffening breeze.  "Is that what you
call it?"  Ryouga grimaced, remembering the things he'd said, how
shocked Ukyou had looked.  She must still be upset, he thought,
wondering why she'd told Mousse about it.
     "Look, the sake was her idea!  I never planned to ..."  That
was as far as he got before Mousse erupted.
     "Are you trying to say she asked for it!?  Damn, I expected
better than that from you, Ryouga!  Drunk or not, I'm going to make
you pay for what you did!"
     Ryouga wasn't sure exactly what was going on, but he did
know one thing.  The past couple of weeks had been horrible, even by
his standards, and the previous night he had made a complete ass of
himself and apparently hurt Ukyou's feelings even more than he'd
imagined.  His temper, never all that even, was frayed to the breaking
point.
     It was not a good idea for Mousse to push him.  Not a good
idea at all.
     "Why don't you back off, China boy?" Ryouga growled,
feeling hurt, anger and depression rising up inside him with a familiar
and not unwelcome surge of power.  "Before you get hurt."  Mousse
drew himself up into a stance, arms out, hands cocked, and smirked at
him.
     "Not until I've punished you, you bully!"  That was it.  Ryouga
had had enough.  A quick look around was enough to show him that no
innocent people were around.  He remembered his promise to Ranma's
mother, and took it seriously.  He had no intention of causing innocent
people any harm through his actions.
     Mousse, on the other hand, was going to be the recipient of a great
deal of harm.
     They both attacked at once.

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

     Ukyou shivered with the chill of the stiffening breeze as she and
Kasumi hurried down the street.  She was torn between anger and
panic.  If she was right about the conclusion Mousse had come to,
there could very well be trouble, especially given Ryouga's present
state of mind.
     She gritted her teeth angrily.  How could Mousse even entertain
such a wild idea about Ryouga?  Ryouga was the sweetest, nicest guy
she knew!  He would never hurt her.  Never.
     But if Mousse found him and started making all sorts of wild
accusations, Ryouga might hurt *him*.  Or they'd hurt each other.
     "Oh, my," Kasumi said suddenly.  Ukyou looked up to see a
figure in white travelling in a flying arc above some nearby trees.  He
disappeared, but she could hear the faint sounds of shouting, and then a
sharp crack, like a tree branch breaking.  She groaned.
     "Oh, no!  NO!  C'mon, Kasumi, we've gotta stop them!"
Kasumi looked puzzled, but helped her along as they neared the park
where the trees obscured their view.
     "Um, Ukyou, why are Ryouga and Mousse fighting?" she
asked as they half-ran, half-hobbled towards the fight.
     "It's a misunderstanding, that's all," she gasped.  "I can
straighten it all out."
     "Oh, good."  Kasumi didn't sound convinced, as they saw the
top of one of the trees tilt, then slide toward the ground with a series of
loud cracks.  "I'm very glad to hear that ..."

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

     Several chains arrowed out of Mousse's voluminous robe
sleeves, burying themselves in the ground as Ryouga sprang easily
away.  Ryouga sent a handful of bandannas spinning towards the tree
branch Mousse was using as a perch, forcing him to jump to safety as
the unfortunate branch was reduced to splinters.  Mousse returned a
volley of small daggers.  Ryouga slipped under them and closed
quickly, hammering Mousse with a series of piledriver punches.
Mousse slipped the last punch, twisting to launch a ferocious kick inside
Ryouga's guard.  The impact threw Ryouga back, but he quickly
recovered, springing away from Mousse's follow-up, keeping ahead of
his opponent, looking for an opening that would allow him to use his
superior strength.  Mousse was quick, though, and worked to keep
Ryouga at bay with his array of lethal surprises.
     Finally, Ryouga stumbled on a large rock embedded in the
ground, and Mousse, sensing an opening, sent a long weighted chain
flying out with a cry of victory.  His celebration was short-lived,
however, as Ryouga allowed the end of the chain to wrap itself around
his raised forearm, then pulled Mousse off his feet with a savage jerk.
He leapt forward, fist cocked back, howling in anger, as Mousse tried
to get his guard up in midair.  When they collided, one of them was
going to get hurt.
     As they flew toward each other time seemed to slow.
     And the rain began to fall.

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

     Ukyou gaped at the scene.  Broken branches, and in one case
an entire tree, littered the ground.  The grass was torn up in several
places, and stray chains, knives, bandanna-blades and other, less
identifiable debris was embedded in the ground, trees, and in one case,
a large rock.  Kasumi gasped.
     "Where did they go?" she asked.  Ukyou sighed, pinching the bridge
of her nose.  The rain was light, but it would have been more than
enough.  She looked around, finally spotting two heaps of clothing
together on the ground.  Even as she watched, the piles stirred.  A small
black snout and a yellow bill thrust out into the air simultaneously, and
then the battle was joined again.
     The small black pig squealed and charged.  The duck responded by
spreading its wings and lifted itself out of reach.  Then several small
knives appeared in the duck's wingtips, and the pig was forced to
dodge a deadly hail of razored steel.  It ran in circles for a few
moments, then suddenly reversed direction and thrust one small foot out
at the nearby boulder.  The surface of the boulder exploded,
pummelling the unprepared duck with rock fragments.  Stunned, it fell
to the ground, where the pig jumped on it and began snarling and biting.
     Ukyou shook herself out of her daze and limped quickly across
the ragged ground.  She reached down and separated the squabbling
animals with difficulty, holding on to one with each hand.
     "Stop it!  Cut it out, both of you!  Mousse!  Ryouga!  Dammit,
listen to me!"  Both seemed to be ignoring her, straining to break free of
her grip.  Ukyou leaned forward so that her body was partially
interposed between the combatants.
     "Mousse!  Mousse, look at me.  Look at me!"  Slowly, the
duck turned so it was staring up at Ukyou, seeming to register her
presence for the first time.  "Mousse, Ryouga did not hurt me.  Do you
understand?  I was running after him and tripped on his pack."  Some
of the tension leached out of the duck's body at that, a puzzled
expression appearing on the strangely expressive face.
     "Quack?" he asked plaintively.  Ukyou frowned.
     "How could you have even thought that?  Ryouga would never ..."
She stopped.  Her left hand, the one holding P-chan, was beginning
to tingle.  She looked down to see the little pig staring intently at the
duck, it's body bathed in a blue-green glow, tinged with red.
     Uh-oh.
     She abandoned her grip on Mousse's duck form, grabbing P-chan
with both hands and hoisting him up into the air until she was
looking directly into his eyes.
     "Ryouga, sugar, calm down, okay?  It was a misunderstanding.
Please, just take a deep breath."  She continued talking in a low,
soothing tone, ignoring the pins and needles sensation in her hands,
praying that she could talk some sense into Ryouga.  Slowly, very
slowly, the glow around the pig faded.  She sighed in relief.  It
appeared that disaster had been averted.  At least for the moment.
     "Kasumi, would you grab their clothes, please?" she asked
over her shoulder.  Kasumi, who had been watching quietly, nodded
and began retrieving the sodden clothing.  Ukyou sighed, feeling the
light rain soaking through her thin cotton t-shirt and plastering her hair
against her shoulders.
     "C'mon, guys, lets get out of this rain," she said wearily,
standing up and cradling a reluctant P-chan in the crook of her arm.
"We'll head back to the restaurant and straighten this mess out."
Mousse hesitated, then began to follow her.  Kasumi hung the clothing
over one arm, holding her umbrella over herself and the already wet
Ukyou with the other.
     "My goodness, Ukyou.  You're soaked!"
     "Well," she replied, grinning weakly, "at least it's taking my
mind off my hangover."
     Kasumi didn't say much after that.

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

>From the shelter of nearby trees, protected from the rain under her own
umbrella, Shampoo watched the odd procession trooping away.  Her
expression was tinged with bitter disappointment.
     "Stupid Mousse," she whispered.  "No can beat pig boy.  No
is strong enough.  Never be strong enough."
     Then she turned and walked away, into the shimmering gray
rain.

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

     Ukyou walked out of the back carrying a steaming kettle.
Kasumi had been straightening up the front area, and had laid out
Mousse's and Ryouga's clothes to dry on several stools.  P-chan and
Mousse were both sulking, as far as she could tell, ignoring each other's
presence.  She sat the kettle on the counter and looked around with a
smile.
     "Kasumi, you didn't have to clean up like this," she said, "but
since you did, thanks!"  Kasumi smiled benevolently.
     "You're welcome."  Ukyou pulled her wet hair over one
shoulder, using the ends of the towel around her neck to sponge the last
of the water out of it.  Then she looked at the two animals and grabbed
the kettle again.
     "Okay, boys, let's talk."  She paused.  "Kasumi, could you get
their clothes please?"
     "But they're still damp," Kasumi protested.  Ukyou allowed a
small grin to creep onto her face.
     "Yeah, but if I pour hot water on them like this, they'll both be
naked."  Kasumi coloured instantly.
     "Oh, dear."  She rushed to comply.  Once the clothing was in
place, Ukyou poured the hot water.  Mousse grew into his robes easily,
but Ryouga got his head caught in his tunic briefly, giving the girls a
glimpse of his bare chest.  Ukyou felt a sudden shock at the sight of
three narrow scars across Ryouga's chest.  She remembered how he'd
gotten those.  He'd been trying to cover her back during the battle at
Furinkan, and had been caught off-guard.  She blinked as he wrestled
the uncooperative tunic into place.  That had been just about a week
and a half ago.  It seemed much longer.
     It seemed like a different lifetime.
     Mousse and Ryouga were now standing, and Ukyou shook
herself out of her reverie as the two adjusted their clothing, glaring at
each other.  This would have to be handled very carefully, she knew.
She stepped between them just as Ryouga was moving toward
Mousse.
     "Okay, now both of you listen!"  They both froze.  "Better.
First of all, Mousse," she began, turning to him, "I just can't believe you
jumped to the particular conclusion you did.  Ryouga would never hurt
me, or any other girl.  He's far too honourable to do anything like that,
and I don't think it's unreasonable for him to be angry at the
accusation."  Mousse looked uncomfortable.
     "I ..." he began.
     "And as for you," she continued, turning to Ryouga.  "Mousse
was wrong, but he thought he was protecting me.  I don't think you
should hold this against him."  Her voice dropped a little.  "After all,
you know what it's like to act in haste and regret it later, right?"  She
saw him wince at the reprimand and knew he was thinking of Akane's
close encounter with several steel girders, courtesy of his Bakusai
Tenketsu.
     "So how about you two call a truce before this gets out of
hand?  Please?  We've all had enough grief in our lives recently, haven't
we?"  She stepped back and waited.  Grudgingly, the two boys looked
at each other.
     "Truce?" Mousse asked reluctantly.  Ryouga nodded.
     "Very well.  Truce."  It was hardly an enthusiastic apology, but
under the circumstances Ukyou guessed that it was the best she could
hope for.
     "Oh, my!  Ukyou, aren't you late for school?" Kasumi asked.
Ukyou glanced at her watch and sighed.
     "Yeah, I may as well skip going this morning.  Who's hungry?"
She walked back behind the counter.  She stopped as Ryouga hoisted
his pack onto his shoulders.
     "Thank-you for the offer, Ukyou, but I should go."  He hefted
his umbrella in his other hand and headed for the door.  Ukyou called
after him.
     "Ryouga, wait!"  He paused by the door.
     "I'm sorry to have caused so much trouble," he said softly, not
meeting her eyes.  Then he was gone, the door banging shut behind
him.  Ukyou thought of running after him, but a twinge from her ankle
reminded her that would be fruitless.  She settled for groaning
loudly.  She'd wanted to talk with Ryouga privately, but how was she
ever going to find him now?
     "I, too, should go," Mousse said softly.  "I wanted to see how
your talk went last night, but if you were sitting here drinking sake with
Ryouga, I suppose it must not have gone too well.  I'll talk to you later,
Ukyou.  Kasumi."  With that, Mousse left, pausing inside the door to
pull an umbrella from the sleeve of his robe.  Ukyou turned to Kasumi,
her teeth grinding painfully together.
     "Men!" she spat.
     "Understood," Kasumi said simply, sitting primly on one of the
stools surrounding the serving counter.  Ukyou looked at her, suddenly
remembering.
     "Oh geez, Kasumi, I'm sorry!"  Kasumi blinked.
     "For what?"
     "I was in such a state when you got here, I forgot to ask you
what you wanted!"  Kasumi smiled then, a warm gentle smile that made
Ukyou think of warm kitchens and bedtime stories.
     "I came to see how you were doing, actually.  Akane asked me
to."
     "Akane?"  Ukyou felt an irrational pang of anger at her name,
followed by confusion.
     "Yes.  She has told Nabiki and I about how things have
changed between her and Ranma recently."  Ukyou looked away.  A
warm, gentle hand came down on top of hers where it rested on the
counter, and she looked back, startled.  Kasumi was still smiling, but
there was understanding in her eyes as well.
     "I have some idea what you and Ranma talked about last
night," she said softly.  "Akane said Ranma was worried about you,
coming home to an empty restaurant.  She asked if I would make sure
you were okay."  She held Ukyou's gaze, her head cocked ever so
slightly, concern evident in every tiny movement she made.  "Are you?"
     "Am I okay?" Ukyou asked.  She thought about it.  She'd been so
distracted with everything that had been going on that she hadn't even
had time to think about her problems.  That in itself was amazing to her.
     "You know, Kasumi, it's funny.  I think I knew I had no chance
with Ran-chan the day he carried Akane home.  You were there when
we arrived, you know what I'm talking about, right?"  Kasumi nodded.
     "I remember the look on his face," she told Ukyou.  "It was so
fierce, yet protective."
     "Yeah," Ukyou said softly.  "That look.  Like he'd die if
something happened to her.  He's never looked at me that way.
Never."  Silence welled up inside Ucchan's for a few moments, as
Ukyou gazed moodily at nothing in particular.
     "But then Ranko came, and I thought that my prayers were
answered.  So much for that, though.  He told me he didn't love me,
couldn't love me.  And that hurt.  Actually, it hurt more than last night.
Last night was a lost cause before I even got there, I think."  She turned
to Kasumi once more, and this time there was some animation in her
eyes.
     "I never answered your question, though, did I?  Am I okay?
If you had asked me last night, I'd have said no."
     "And now?"
     "Now.  You know, I was sitting here feeling pretty sorry for
myself, and in the process I completely ignored someone else's pain.  I
guess not being able to have the person you love isn't the end of the
world.  Some people actually have worse problems.  Kinda puts
everything into a little bit of perspective, if you know what I mean."  It
was clear from Kasumi's face that she didn't.
     "Are we talking about Ryouga?" she asked.  Ukyou fiddled
with the ends of the towel around her neck idly.
     "Partly.  You know he was in love with Akane?"  Kasumi
smiled.
     "It was hard to miss.  Akane was about the only person who
didn't know.  Although I didn't realize he was P-chan."
     "Eep!  Akane *still* doesn't know that, so keep it quiet,
okay?"  Kasumi nodded, and Ukyou went on, "Anyway, Ryouga's
gotta deal with a broken heart AND a ton of other things.  Mousse
comes over here for a sympathetic ear because the girl he loves barely
tolerates him.  I think I'm all cried out over Ran-chan.  Things have
been kinda miserable around here since Kodachi died, and I think it'll
be good for me to stop moping and try to help someone else.  Am I
okay?  Not really, but I think I will be."
     "I'm glad to hear that," Kasumi said, and Ukyou realized that
the older girl really *was* glad.  She laughed.
     "Geez, Kasumi, don't you have enough mothering to do at
home?"
     "My skills can scarcely be contained by one family," she
answered primly.  "I hope you'll remember that, if you need someone to
talk to.  All of you are like family, after all, and families should support
each other."  Ukyou smiled, feeling cheered by Kasumi's presence.
     "You're the best, Kasumi.  Hey, how about I make you some
breakfast?  You *always* have to cook, someone should cook for you
for a change!  I've got a great breakfast okonomiyaki recipe I've been
dying to try!  C'mon, the house will survive without you for a little
while, right?"  Kasumi hesitated, then nodded.
     "Thank-you, Ukyou, that would be nice.  Would you like some
help?"  Ukyou grinned.
     "Hey, I said relax!  I'll do all the work!"  Reluctantly, Kasumi
settled back onto her stool, and Ukyou hobbled into the back after
some ingredients.
     She thought again of Ryouga.  She'd seen in his eyes that he
was embarrassed by the things he'd told her the previous night, things
he'd obviously kept to himself for a long time.  She was worried that he
would feel too awkward to talk to her, and she didn't want that.  She
didn't want him wandering around carrying that burden alone.
     But she was beginning to realize that for all the time they'd
spent together, there was a lot that they didn't know about each other.
She would never have guessed that Mousse, of all people, would fight
for her honour.
     She wondered what Shampoo would make of that.
     She set her ingredients to sizzling on the warm grill, and looked up at
Kasumi.
     "Um, Kasumi, can I ask you a kind of personal question?"
Kasumi smiled.
     "You may."
     "Have you ever been in love with someone that didn't love
you?"  Kasumi's omnipresent smile faltered, and Ukyou wondered if
she'd gone too far.
     "I'm sorry!" she apologized hastily.  "I didn't mean ..."
     "It's all right, Ukyou.  You just .. Caught me off-guard.  Yes, I
had something like that happen to me once.  When I was still in school,
barely a teenager.  Kid's stuff, really."
     "Kid's stuff.  I bet you didn't feel that way at the time," Ukyou
said.  Kasumi looked at her sombrely.
     "No," she said at last.  "You're absolutely right.  At the time, I
thought my heart would burst when he told me he didn't like me.  I
suppose time lets me look back on it as being a mere crush.  As if the
word "mere" can ever describe a crush."  Ukyou nodded in silent
agreement.  Kasumi smiled again, a smaller, older smile this time.  "Why
do you ask?"  Ukyou fiddled with one of her spatulas, then turned her
attention back to breakfast.
     "Ran-ch ... Ranma.  He asked me if we could still be friends.
Last night, I mean."
     "Ah."  Kasumi's voice indicated complete understanding of the
problem, but Ukyou plunged ahead anyway.
     "I just ... I feel so stupid, so, I don't know ..."  She looked at
Kasumi helplessly.  "To be around him now, to be around *both* of
them ... after everything that's happened ..."
     "You feel hurt, and angry, and even a little betrayed."
     "Yes!  And more!  I'm not even sure what to call some of the
things I feel, but ... would it be weak of me to just accept it quietly and
be his friend?  I'm just not sure what to do."  Kasumi pulled her hair,
tied near the end in a white ribbon, across her shoulder and began
fussing with it.
     "Ukyou, I don't know what to tell you," she said at last.  "You
have to make this decision by yourself, of course, but ..."
     "But?"
     "Ranma values your friendship.  The things he told you were
not meant to hurt you, but to set you free.  And Akane, she's your
friend too, isn't she?  I suppose it's easy for me to say, but it seems a
shame to throw that all away.  Why don't you give it some time, see
how you feel?  It isn't a decision you have to make right now, is it?"
     "I ... guess not.  You're right, I should think about this some.
You know, it's funny.  Even though it hurts to lose Ranma for good,
I'm starting to think that maybe I was ignoring too much for his sake.  I
mean, some of the things I've talked to Mousse and Ryouga about in
the last couple of days!  I never would have dreamed of having those
conversations even two weeks ago, because they wouldn't have gotten
me closer to Ranma!  And sitting here, talking to you like this.  It's
nice."
     "Yes, I think so too."  They smiled at each other, then Ukyou deftly
slipped two okonomiyaki off the grill and onto waiting plates.
     "There you are, Madame.  One Ucchan's breakfast special,
hot off the grill."
     "Why thank-you, pretty okonomiyaki lady.  It looks delicious,"
Kasumi intoned seriously, and they both burst into giggles.
     As Ukyou watched Kasumi eat, she began to think that not
only would she survive, she might actually enjoy the experience.
     It was a good feeling.

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

     "You really think it's something?" Akane asked, peering up at
Ranma.  For once, he was walking beside her on the ground, if only to
share her umbrella against the persistent light rain.
     "Sure!" he responded, his eyes alive with excitement.  Akane
sighed.  She hoped he wouldn't be disappointed.
     They'd woken up that morning to find Ranma's father gone.
According to Kasumi, he'd left early to go to Auntie Saotome's house.
That was not a standard occurrence, and Ranma was excited by the
news.
     "This means that those two are finally gonna patch things up for
good!" Ranma told her.  Akane swallowed her doubts and smiled
encouragingly up at him.
     "That would be great," she said.  Ranma nodded.
     "Yeah, it's about time, too!  I mean, Mom shouldn't have to be
alone all the time, right?  She knows our secret now.  She and Pop can
work things out finally!"  Privately, Akane wondered if it would really
be that easy between two people who'd been separated for over ten
years.  She tried to imagine Ranma leaving her for ten years, then
suddenly coming back.
     No.  Not easy at all.
     They walked through the school's main gates, and Akane felt
Ranma's enthusiasm dim somewhat.  She knew why instinctively.  He
would have to face Ukyou in class, and he wasn't sure how that was
going to go.  She watched him out of the corner of her eye.  He was so
good at hiding his emotions sometimes.  Or at least disguising them as
simpler ones.  People expected Ranma to be high-strung, what with all
the weird happenings in his life.  Few people would probe deeply
enough to discover what he was really nervous about.
     Once, she wouldn't have, either.  But now she was beginning to
realize that was a mistake.  Ranma wasn't good at expressing
complex emotions, but that didn't mean he didn't have them.
     They moved under the cover of the main entrance, Akane
shaking off her umbrella as they entered the school.  Ranma frowned
and motioned with his head.
     "What's all the commotion?" he asked.  Akane saw the crowd
by the shoe lockers and frowned.  Then she caught a glimpse of
someone through the crowd, talking to one of the members of the
kendo club, and gasped.
     "It's Kunou!"  They could see more clearly now as several
members of the kendo club were shooing away well-wishers and the
curious from their captain.  Akane walked over, a reluctant Ranma
following.
     "Kunou-sempai!"  He turned to her, and she was stricken by
how tired he looked.  He gave her a faint smile which vanished when he
saw Ranma.
     "Akane Tendou," he said.  "Saotome."
     "It's so good to have you back," Akane told him.  "How are
you?"
     "I am ... well.  Merely tired.  I have finished my mourning, and
am prepared to resume my studies."
     "I'm glad.  Oh, no!  We've got to hurry or we'll be late for
class!  C'mon, Ranma!  See you later, Kunou-sempai!"  She waved as
they hurried to their lockers.
     "Man, it's weird seeing him like that," Ranma said, looking over
his shoulder at the disappearing kendoist.  "I mean, still no poetry, no
"Akane Tendou, I would date with you!"  Is this permanent or what?"
     "He's been through a lot, Ranma.  It's only natural that it might
change him."  Ranma changed his shoes and closed his locker door.
     "I suppose.  Still, did ya notice?"
     "Notice what?"
     "He was carrying his bokken again.  He's ditched the magic
sword."  Akane hadn't noticed that, actually.
     "Well, good.  I think that's a sign that things are starting to get
back to normal around here," she said.  "Now let's get to class.  Miss
Hinako's supposed to be back today and I don't want to give her an
excuse to get mad."

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

     Nabiki hung back under the stairs, watching Kunou walk by.
She hadn't joined the crowds that had greeted him when he'd first
arrived; that wasn't her style.  Anyway, there were a few more pieces
of the puzzle she wanted to put together before she had her little talk
with him.
     "Um, Nabiki?"  She turned around to see a nervous young man
standing behind her.
     "Ahh, Shinji.  Good.  You have it?"  He nodded, handing her a
folder full of papers.
     "I don't know what you want with all that junk.  I mean, none
of this stuff has any relation to the info you asked me for before."  Oh,
yes it does, Nabiki thought.  You just have to know what you're
looking for.
     "Never mind that.  As a result of all your efforts, my friend, you
are now completely out of debt.  Go forth, and sin no more."  He went,
eager to be away.  Nabiki hardly noticed.
     She had what she wanted.

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

     Hinako walked quickly down the hallway, rubbing absently at
her temple.  She was late.  She was tired.  And above all, she was
beginning to get a headache, and all of the above were conspiring to
make her irritable.  So when she saw two boys wrestling over a
magazine in the hallway, she was quick to take offense.
     "You two!  Shouldn't you miscreants be in class?" she asked
sharply.  The two looked up at the sound of the little girl voice to find
themselves facing down a five yen coin.
     "Uh-oh," one of them managed to say before Hinako triggered
her power and began draining chi from the two combatants.  Her form
swelled, pushing out as she grew into her mature form, and she gasped,
nearly dropping the coin.
     It felt *good*!  Absorbing chi usually gave her a feeling like an
adrenaline rush, but this, this was different.  The sensation was silky and
pleasurable, almost sexual.  She stopped, hardly noticing as the two
boys collapsed bonelessly to the floor, and stared at her hands and the
five yen coin as if she'd never seen either of them before.
     "What was that?" she breathed huskily.  Her body still buzzed with
the rush of it, and she shook her head, sending ripples through her long
tawny hair.  She wasn't sure what had changed, but she *liked* it.
Jauntily, she flipped her coin into the air, snatching it at the apex of its
arc, and turned to address the groaning boys.
     "Looks like you two are going to be late for class," she murmured
throatily.  "That's what you get for messing with me.  Later, boys."  She
walked away, her long legs scissoring enticingly as she headed for her
class.
     "Soooo hungryyyyyy ..." she crooned under her breath.  Then
she frowned.  Why had she said that?  She wasn't hungry, she'd just
had breakfast.  She chewed her lip uncertainly.  She'd felt strange ever
since
     (that night)
     she'd been sick.  She still had a touch of whatever it was that had
kept her out of class for the past two days,
     (pretty-pretty)
     that was all.  But she felt fine now.  Better than fine, she felt
*wonderful*.
     In fact, even her headache was gone.

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

     By the time school let out, the rain had ended and Ranma was
freed from the necessity of an umbrella.  He felt Akane watching him
with amused tolerance as he navigated the edge of the fence with
unconscious ease.
     His day had been easier than he'd thought it would be.  Ukyou
hadn't shown up to class, so he hadn't had to face her.  He wondered
how long that was going to last.  He considered going to check up
on her, then immediately abandoned that plan.  He was the *last*
person she wanted to see.  He'd talk to Kasumi when they got home
and find how things had gone that morning.
     As they neared the dojo, Ranma spotted a familiar figure in a
white gi approaching the front gate from the opposite direction.  He
hopped down to the road and trotted up to his father, waving
cheerfully.
     "Hey, Pop!  How'd it go?"  Ranma's father looked up, a scowl
on his face.
     "How'd *what* go, boy?" he asked irritably.  Ranma blinked.
     "Well, uh ... you went over to the house this morning, right?  To
talk to Mom?"  His father looked away, an expression on his face that
Ranma couldn't quite identify.
     "Oh, that.  Yes, your mother's fine, boy.  Just fine."  Ranma
was started to follow his father, coming up short as he smelled the faint
scent of stale sake.  He frowned.
     "Hey, have you been drinking?"
     "I'm well past the age of majority, Ranma."
     "Yeah, but ... I mean, nothing's wrong, is it?"  His father
walked off with a curt wave.
     "Stop worrying, would you?  Everything's fine."  Ranma knew
his father pretty well after having spent so much time with him these last
years.  He knew the old man was lying.  He just didn't know what to
do about it.  In any case, it was clear that he wasn't going to tell Ranma
anything.  He scowled as his father disappeared into the house.
     "Ranma, is everything okay?" Akane asked as she caught up to
him.  He heaved a sigh.
     "I don't know.  Pop's hiding something.  And he's been
drinking, which isn't all that unusual, except he usually drinks with your
dad, not alone."
     "Did something happen with your mother?"
     "He wouldn't say.  Ha!  Well, if he won't tell me, she might."
Ranma started walking toward the house, and Akane followed.  "But I
can't go over there tonight, so it'll have to wait."
     "Why, what's happening tonight?" Akane asked.  Ranma
smiled at her, but he knew the smile looked forced.
     "Tonight, it's Shampoo's turn to find out about us."  She fell silent,
and he knew she was worrying again.  He didn't think she needed to
worry.  Cologne was in no condition to hatch one of her looney
schemes, and as for Shampoo, well, she'd come to see reason.
     Eventually.  He hoped.
     Okay, so maybe she needed to worry a little ...

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

     Nothing is ever simple around this place, Nabiki mused.  Then
again, simple would be boring.
     Ranma and Akane looked tense and wary, but for once she
sensed the source of the tension was actually external.  In fact, they
seemed to be getting along fine.  She'd made a bet with herself that their
next big fight would involve Akane's cooking.  Making a bet with
yourself was not much fun, but Kasumi'd refused to bet with her.  The
wimp.
     Ranma's father had shed his usual bonhomie and bluster, and
was sitting on the veranda, sullen and uncommunicative.  Thank heaven
for small favours.  Her own father seemed a little bewildered by his
friend's mood, and had retreated to the dojo.
     Nabiki checked in with Kasumi and found out about the fight
between Ryouga and Mousse that morning.  It surprised her to learn
that the fight had apparently been over Ukyou.
     Swell, she thought sourly.  Ranma and Akane go off the
market, and the old habits start up with a brand new cast.  She felt a
sensation not unlike biting down on tinfoil, and thrust the pang of
jealousy away.  This is not my problem, she told herself.  I will not
waste any time on the antics of a bunch of sex-crazed martial artists.
     I have my own problem to worry about.
     She went up to her room and tossed her books onto her bed.
After changing out of her uniform, she sat down at her desk with a sigh.
She unlocked the bottom drawer of the desk and removed a thick
folder full of papers, adding the papers she'd gotten that day to the pile.
All her notes were in her notebook; Shinji's work had shown her how
insecure computers could be.  She didn't want some hacker stumbling
across what she'd been piecing together.
     She still wasn't sure that she completely believed Kunou's
mother.  Her story had been so unreal, after all.  But something was
certain.  Whatever was behind the strangeness at the Kunou estate, it
certainly was not recent.  She'd found references to strange
occurrences and mysterious deaths that were directly or indirectly
linked to either the estate or the Kunou family going back at least a
hundred years.  The financial material she'd been able to scrape
together about the family and its holdings was also suspicious if you
knew what to look for, both in what it showed and in what it took pains
to hide.
     Nabiki had no use for false modesty.  She knew that she was
good at piecing things together, at sensing patterns and their
significance, not only in matters financial but also in more mundane
events.  But if it hadn't been for what she'd learned from Yukio Kunou,
she would never have found that one loose end that she needed.  That
thread, once pulled with sufficient determination, revealed a knot, a
tangle that would have deterred most people.
     Nabiki was not most people.
     The loose end had been, of course, the death of Kazuhiro
Kunou.  His death, whatever the real cause (and Nabiki was not at all
certain she wanted to concede that demons plagued the occupants of
the Kunou estate) had obviously been a blow to the family.  They had
had the boy buried in the family plot at a very old cemetery just outside
the city within 48 hours of his death.  The family doctor signed the
death certificate.
     Only she'd seen the truth.  Kazuhiro, Kodachi and who knew
how many others were buried in a private plot on the estate.  And a
careful check, a *very* careful check, of the events concerning
Kazuhiro's death and everyone surrounding it had turned up a startling
fact.
     The Kunou's family doctor at the time had been a very distinguished
and respected man.  He had served the family, according to several
available copies of birth and death certificates, for many years.  He
would have been the first person they turned to in order to get a death
certificate signed.
     Would have been, had he not died himself of natural causes not
four days before Kazuhiro.  And yet his signature appeared on
Kazuhiro's death certificate, in the box reserved for the examining
physician.
     Nabiki was patient and methodical, but even she had almost
missed the suspiciously small obituary in the local paper, apparently
placed by the family.  The dates, when compared, showed quite clearly
that the doctor had died *before* Kazuhiro.  Perhaps he was a
confidant of the family and their problems, and thus trustworthy.
Nabiki certainly thought that was likely.  In the panic and pain of
Kazuhiro's death, they'd chosen to use his name rather than get an
actual doctor to examine the body.
     Suspicious?  Somewhat.  But they hadn't been caught; after all,
there was no reason for anyone to wonder who had signed the death
certificate.  This was a powerful and influential family, and any concerns
about the manner of the boy's death were obviously quickly glossed
over.
     Power.  Influence.  When in doubt, follow the money.  And so
she did, and as a faint pattern began to resolve out of the sea of
information, her heart began to beat a little quicker.
     The family had money, and lots of it.  But she couldn't seem to
find out where it had come from.  The family owned the estate and its
grounds and had for centuries, but the land was deeded so that it could
not be sold outside the family.  They owned plenty of other land, too.
Significant holdings.  Land, buildings, factories.  Banks.  Money,
power, and influence.  All of which meant leverage, and a way to get
people to turn a blind eye to strange goings on.
     And what about the money?  Occasionally, she came across a
newspaper account of a death in or around the estate.  A servant, a
worker, even an innocent passer-by.  These tended to happen in
spurts, after long periods of inactivity.  And again, a pattern.  Initial
reports of suspicious or mysterious death would quickly be repudiated
in the next day's papers.  Police reports of foul play would change to
routine death by misadventure.  Checking up on the families of the
deceased where she could, she discovered a radical increase in
spending habits.
     That screamed, to her, of hush money.  No doubt in her mind.  But
what were they hushing up?
     There was more, much more, when you knew what you were
looking for.  And when she couldn't access the information herself, she
enlisted people who owed her favours, or money.  There were a lot of
those about.  She'd been careful, too.  This was hot stuff, and she was
certain that if she wasn't careful, someone would notice the direction of
her research.  But she'd kept things decentralized, using hackers when
it was necessary to use computers, and public records where she
could.
     And now she had quite a file on the estate and its inhabitants.
The question was what to do with it.
     But of course there was no question at all, not in her mind.  She
knew so much, but the central mystery was still obscured.  What were
they hiding?  And why?
     Only one person could give her those answers.  And she
intended to confront him.
     Soon.

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

     Ranma rapped solidly on the back door of the Nekohanten.
The cafe was still closed, although a sign on the front door stated that
they would reopen within a week.  Regardless, the front door was
locked, so he'd made his way around to the back.  When the door
finally opened, Mousse stood there.  He had trouble disguising his
displeasure.
     "Ranma," he said flatly.
     "Mousse."
     "You certainly took your sweet time coming here, didn't you?"
Ranma felt an angry flush creeping up his throat.
     "Hey, I'd have thought you'd be happy I wasn't coming
around!" he snapped.  Mousse smiled tightly.
     "Oh, I was thrilled, but it hurt Shampoo that you stayed away
so long.  And I don't like seeing Shampoo hurt.  I suppose you're here
to tell her you've chosen Akane.  Right?"  Ranma gaped at Mousse,
seeing his tiny reflection doubled in the lenses of the other boy's
glasses.
     "How'd you know that?" he asked, stunned.  Mousse favoured
him with that same tight little smile.
     "Simple.  You told Ukyou last night.  I guess it's Shampoo's
turn tonight.  I wonder what she'd make of being second on your list?"
Ranma gritted his teeth and fought the urge to punch Mousse's tight
little smile right through the back of his head.
     "Whatever.  I didn't come here to talk to you, Mousse.  I came
to talk to her."  Mousse opened his mouth to make a reply, but never
got the chance.
     "Mousse, don't keep our guest standing outside.  It's rude."
Mousse scowled but stepped aside, letting Ranma enter.  He looked
down to see Cologne standing in the kitchen, dressed in a loose robe,
looking at him.
     Or facing in his direction.  She wasn't actually looking at him.
She wasn't looking at anything, not with those eyes.  Ranma
suppressed a shudder at the sight of the featureless black orbs that
faced him.
     "Well, son-in-law, we've missed you around our humble
establishment.  It's been an unnaturally quiet week."  Ranma couldn't
hide a guilty flinch as the old woman limped painfully toward him.  He'd
never really been conscious before of Cologne's age.  She, like
Happousai, had always seemed ageless.  Hell, he could rarely even
come close to her in combat.
     But now things had changed.  It was as if some vital part of her
had died in that fight with the demon lord.  Her movements were slow,
cautious, and it was apparent to him that just walking across the floor
hurt her.  She had fashioned a new staff, but this one was for leaning
on, not clinging to while bounding merrily through the air.  Her hair
seemed dry and brittle, her skin thin as parchment.
     She was no longer what she had been.  She was just an old
woman with one foot in her grave.
     Suddenly, her staff whipped out and cracked him soundly
across one shin.  He yelped in pain and jumped back, balancing on one
foot while grabbing the offended shin.
     "Ow!  Dammit!  Why'd you do that, you old ghoul?"  She
smiled, and there was a ghost of her old self there, even though her
brow was beaded with sweat form the effort of hitting him.
     "What are you thinking, boy?  Feeling sorry for the old
woman?  Hah!  I'll outlive all of you."  He scowled, even though she
couldn't see his expression.
     "Yeah, you might at that," he grumbled.  "Where's Shampoo,
anyway?  I wanna talk to her."  Cologne smiled.
     "Finally came to your senses, eh, Ranma?"  He scowled again.
     "You could say that.  I'm gonna put an end to this fianc‚ mess
once and for all.  Shampoo's just gonna have to get herself a new
fianc‚."  Cologne held herself very still, and a palpable sense of anger
seemed to fill the room momentarily.
     "You wouldn't dare."
     "Hey, it's for her own good, you know!  This whole mess has
gone on long enough."
     "This is not a good time, son-in-law.  Perhaps ..."  Ranma
steeled himself against the tone of pleading he heard in Cologne's voice.
After all the times she'd tried to trick him, he wasn't listening to her, no
matter how sincere she sounded.
     "I'm done putting this off, and I don't want her to hear it from
somebody else.  I ..."
     "Aiyaaa!  Ranma!"  Shampoo bounded into the room, her face
lighting up like the Tokyo skyline as she hurled herself into his arms.
"You come to see Shampoo, yes?"  She pulled back slightly and he
found himself gazing into her violet eyes, alive and happy.
     He knew they wouldn't look like that when he was finished,
and he hated that knowledge.
     "Yeah, Shampoo.  I came because I need to talk to you about
some things."  Her smile faltered a little at his words.  His tone was
uncharacteristically serious, he knew, and she had sensed something
was wrong.  He wondered if Mousse had told her why he was coming.
     "You is hungry, Ranma?  Shampoo make you too-too delicious
..."
     "No, I'm not hungry."  Now he could tell she was really
worried.  It was a rare occasion indeed when he turned down food.
"Why don't you come for a walk with me?  I wanna talk to you in
private."  She was staring at him now, uncertainty writ large on her
beautiful face.  Her usual effervescence was almost completely absent,
and Ranma had a sudden hunch that she'd been like this most of the
time since he'd last seen her.
     "We can talk here ..."
     "Please, Shampoo."  She bit her lower lip, then nodded.  He
opened the door and held it for her.  She passed through
unenthusiastically, and he followed her the same way.
     Damn, he wished this was over.

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

     At the sound of the door swinging shut, Cologne slumped
against her staff.  Mousse leaned back against the wall, letting his breath
out in a weary sigh.
     "Aren't you going to follow them?"  Cologne's raspy voice
seemed very loud in the quiet cafe.  He shook his head, then realized
that she couldn't see him.
     "No," he said softly.  "I already know what they have to
discuss."  Cologne grew angry at that.
     "He'll never be able to turn her down, you know.  Not Shampoo!
Never!"
     "He turned Ukyou down," Mousse said flatly.  "He'll do it.
Things have changed, old woman.  After what happened at Furinkan
that day, things can never be the way they were again."  His voice
dropped to a whisper.  "Never."
     "He wouldn't dare try this if I weren't ... incapacitated," she
hissed, moving painfully towards her room.  "And if he does reject her
finally, you know what that will mean."  Mousse was silent until she had
almost left the room.
     "I know she's been worried sick about it, but there is another
way out of this," he said.  Cologne froze, not looking back.
     "You mean you?  That's laughable, Mousse.  It will never
happen.  You haven't got what it takes.  And I would never permit it,
not so long as any life remains in this old shell.  Remember that."
     Then he was alone with his thoughts.
     Believe it or not, old woman, this isn't the way I wanted it, he
thought bleakly.
     This isn't the way at all.

End part 2
Revised Sept. 21/97