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

The Heart's Reasons
Part 5: The Heart's Battleground

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     Akane awoke knowing that someone was in her room.
     Controlling her breathing carefully, she opened her eyes just the
tiniest bit, peering out into her room.  Silvery light filtered in through the
window, and every shadow was ripe with menace.  Anything could be
hiding in those shadows: a monster, a demon from a parallel world ...
     A Chinese amazon with a poison pill ...
     "Geez, Akane, how long are you gonna pretend to be asleep?"
     "Ranma!" she hissed, bolting upright in bed.  He was crouched
easily on the footboard, his toes curled around the varnished wood and
holding him in place with unconscious ease.  She couldn't see his face
very well in the gloom, but she sensed that he was smiling.  She pulled
the covers up around her neck, trying to banish the cobwebs from her
head.
     She noticed that her window was open all the way.  Again.
     "I'm going to have to start locking that," she muttered grumpily.
"This is getting to be a bad habit, Ranma."  He hopped down from his
perch with unnerving silence and walked around to sit near Akane's
head.  She pulled back to give him some room, noticing that he was
dressed only in a tank top and a pair of shorts.
     She tried, without much success, to keep from wondering what
it would feel like to run her hands along his heated skin under that
skimpy shirt.
     "I just wanted to make sure everything was okay," he
explained.  "Shampoo's still out there."  THAT killed her lascivious
train of thought.  She burrowed unconsciously into her blankets,
drawing her knees up protectively.
     "Come on, Ranma," she said nervously.  "You don't really
think she'll come after me again, do you?  After what happened
today?"
     "I don't know.  I don't know anything anymore," he said, his
voice low and tight.  "Mom says that in four days it'll all be over, so I
mean to see that nothing happens before then, that's all."  Akane was
torn between pleasure at the thought of Ranma's desire to protect her,
and irritation at the *need* for Ranma to protect her.
     "I feel so stupid.  I can't believe I fell for the "Look behind
you!" trick.  Well, you're training with me tonight, and this time you're
*not* getting out of it.  The next time Shampoo and I meet, she's going
to be the one coming out on the wrong end of things."
     "Excuse me, Miss Tendou, but there ain't gonna be a "next"
time!  You're staying away from her until this is over!"
     "What if she doesn't give me a choice?" Akane asked sharply.
Seeing Ranma's expression at that, she took a deep breath and
continued in a softer tone.  "I'd rather be prepared for anything.  It's
better that way, isn't it?"
     "I suppose," Ranma agreed grudgingly.  "But I don't want you
looking for trouble!  Got it?"
     "No problem," Akane said with a small, secretive smile.
Shampoo had taken her out effortlessly, drugged her and assaulted her
family, not to mention trying to blackmail Ranma by threatening her life.
Akane had told Ranma the truth; she wasn't going to go looking for
trouble.  However, if the opportunity presented itself, she fully intended
to show Shampoo just what she thought of her methods.
     "Good.  By the way, you were tossing and turning pretty good
there, earlier.  Having bad dreams again?"  Akane hesitated.
     "No," she lied.  She had, in fact, dreamed about that day,
feeling her body going numb, her utter helplessness amplified and
enhanced in the dream, time stretching out like taffy.  Although her head
had drooped to her chest, in the insane logic of dreams she could still
see everything that was happening.  Ranma faced Shampoo, who had a
cat in one hand and the antidote pill in the other.
     "Give me the antidote!" Ranma shouted, and in the dream
Akane knew that this time the poison was real.  Shampoo pouted
prettily.
     "You want?  Here."  And she tossed the pill on the floor in
front of Ranma.  When he bent down to pick it up, she threw the cat at
him.  It hit him in the back, melting into his body, and Ranma collapsed
on all fours instantly.  When he looked up, Akane saw that he had cat
ears and a tail.
     "Mraawr?" Ranma asked plaintively.  The pill sat on the floor
as an uncomprehending Ranma nuzzled Akane's body uncertainly.
     "Get me the antidote, Ranma!" Akane wanted to scream, but
she couldn't speak, couldn't move at all.
     "What the matter, stupid violent girl?  Why Ranma not give you
antidote?  Maybe he not love you so good, ne?  If he really love you,
he give you antidote."  But Ranma-cat just kept nuzzling her, his eyes
blank, making interrogative noises as her panic grew.
     "You lose," Shampoo hissed.  "You see?  Shampoo take him
away!  You lose you lose YOU LOSE ..."
     And she'd woken up, not screaming, but with her heart
hammering away wildly, certain that she was not alone.
     She shuddered, and Ranma was instantly attentive.
     "Are you sure that you're okay?" he asked.  Trying to shake
off the sudden chill, Akane once again found herself thinking of
Ranma's warm skin.  Why fight it? she asked herself, and leaned
forward, running her hands up inside his loose shirt.
     "Gah!  Your hands are cold!" Ranma objected.
     "Mmmmm.  But you're warm," Akane purred, running her
fingertips up the bumps of his spine, leaning her head against his chest.
She sighed contentedly as his arms slipped easily around her and held
her tight.  She rubbed her cheek gently against his shirt, breathing in his
scent, and considered not ever letting him go.  His hands traced small
circles on her back.
     "Akane ..."
     "I'm fine, Ranma.  Really."  She spoke softly into his chest,
closing her eyes as she kneaded her fingers into the long lean muscles of
his back.  "I just ..."
     "What?"  She could feel his voice, a dull pleasant vibration in
his chest.
     "Will it ever be easy for us?  It seems like everybody,
everything is trying to keep us apart!  Will we ever have time to just be
together?"  He brought one hand up to gently stroke her hair, and she
sighed some of her tension away, feeling safe for the first time in what
seemed like forever.
     "Yeah.  I'm not gonna give up on us, Akane, no matter what
anyone does."
     "Promise?" she asked in a very tiny voice.  She was certain
now, after today, that any promise Ranma made her would never be
broken.
     "Promise."  And that was good enough for her.  She felt the
remaining tension in her body melted by his delicious heat, and knew
that now she'd be able to sleep.  Speaking of which ...
     "Ranma?"
     "Mmmm?"
     "Not that I want to stop doing this, but if you don't get some
sleep, you're going to be a big bag of nerves in the morning."  He
sighed.
     "I have to make sure you're okay."
     "And I have to make sure *you're* okay!  What if you stay up
all night, and there's trouble tomorrow?  Not to mention, the school
year's almost over, and we've got exams coming up!  You need rest,
Ranma.  Lock my window before you go, and stop worrying, okay?"
He pulled back slightly, and she tilted her head up so she could look
him in the eye.
     "Well, I'll lock your window, anyway," he said at last.  She
smiled.
     "Deal."  He started to get up and she snaked one hand behind
his neck.
     "Hang on," she said softly, drawing his face back down to hers.
Their mouths met gently, and she pressed, feeling his lips part slightly,
tasting him.  After a meltingly long moment, he started to pull back.
She let him break contact slightly, then brought her other hand up to his
face and drew him back down again, eliciting a low moan from him as
she kissed him harder, teasing his lips apart with her tongue this time.
His reactions fired a hot bolt of pleasure through her, and it was several
long moments before she broke the kiss off.  Ranma's eyes opened
slowly, and she was gratified to note that he seemed to be having as
much trouble as she was catching his breath.
     "Wow," he said at last.  "What was that for?"
     "Lots of things," she breathed.  "The short version would be
"thank-you"."  He grinned lopsidedly.
     "You're welcome," he rasped.  Akane couldn't believe how
good it felt to make Ranma react that way.  She wanted him to stay,
she suddenly realized.  She wanted to explore the boundaries of their
relationship even further.  Almost being killed had done wild things to
her libido.
     But this was neither the time nor the place, so she simply
touched her fingertips to his lips gently.
     "Sleep well," she murmured as he turned and locked her
window.  He turned and gave her a protective look that made her
shiver deliciously.
     "If you need anything ..." he began
     "I know where to find you."  He nodded and left, shutting the
door quietly behind him.
     Akane lay back on her bed with a deep, heartfelt sigh, and wrapped
her arms around her body tightly.  She turned on her side and drew her
knees up to her chest, trying to hold on to the heat of Ranma's body for
as long as possible.  It was getting harder and harder for her not to be
close to Ranma all the time, touching him just for the sake of it, letting
everybody know that he belonged to her.
     I'll never get back to sleep, she thought ruefully, her body
pleasantly flushed from the passionate kiss she and Ranma had shared.
I'm too worked up.
     Surprisingly, however, she soon drifted off, and this time all her
dreams were pleasant ones.

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

     Ranma padded silently down the hall, senses stretched to the
limit, seeking any hint that things were not as they should be.  Try as he
might, though, he could sense nothing out of the ordinary.
     Although, to tell the truth, everything these days seemed to be
out of the ordinary.  Akane's father had spent the evening breaking into
tears for no apparent reason, his mother had been giving his father dirty
looks, and even the normally unflappable Kasumi seemed shaken up by
the day's events.
     He still had trouble getting his mind around what had happened.
Even the knowledge that Shampoo hadn't used real poison didn't make
her actions any easier for him to accept.  And he had only Mousse's
word for that, didn't he?  Maybe what Mousse had given Akane *was*
the antidote to a rare poison.  Ranma wouldn't put it past Mousse to
cover for Shampoo, after all.
     Well, it didn't really matter.  Akane was safe now, and that was
what mattered.  Ranma intended to ensure that she stayed safe.  A faint
tremor thrilled through him, just under his skin, and he looked back
towards Akane's room longingly.
     Japanese society couldn't be called touchy-feely to begin with, and
having been away from his mother for so many years, most of the
physical contact Ranma had experienced had involved martial arts.
Being with Akane now that they'd admitted their feelings was
incredible.  Just the gentle touch of her hand, the sensation of her
body against his, was addictive.  He craved the simple pleasure of
touching her, even just holding her hand, and the obvious pleasure she
took from such contact merely amplified his own.  It was a little
frightening, and a lot exhilarating, the way she made him feel.  For a
moment he considered going back to her room.
     But only for a moment.  He shook his head ruefully.  He had to
resist the temptation, because there was no telling where it might lead,
and that was the last thing he needed in a house full of busybodies like
this one.
     Besides, he needed to be on his guard.  Despite Akane's
admittedly good reasons for getting some sleep he knew he'd be up
most of the night, starting at every noise, no matter how slight, checking
Akane's room regularly, padding across the cool tiles of the roof.
     He'd finally found happiness, after being confused and lonely for
so long.  He didn't intend to let anyone, or anything, take that happiness
away.
     He stretched and settled in for a long, sleepless night.

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

     Ukyou rapped gently on the door to her spare room.
     "Uh ... yeah?" a groggy voice answered.  She opened the door
and stuck her head inside.
     "Hey, Mousse," she said cheerfully.  "How'd you sleep?"  He
ran one hand through his dishevelled hair, sitting up on the thin old
mattress Ukyou'd supplied him with.
     "Okay," he grinned weakly.  It was an obvious lie, judging from
the bags under his eyes, but Ukyou decided to let it pass.  She glanced
at the golden shafts of light beginning to claw their way through the
window.
     "Looks like another nice day," she said, then immediately
regretted it.  It wasn't likely to be a nice day for Mousse, not after what
he'd told her the previous night.
     "Sure."  She bit her lip pensively.
     "Hey, want some breakfast?" she asked, feeling awkward at
having a guest.  He peered blearily towards her.
     "Hey, uh ... you don't have to do that."
     "No prob.  I gotta make some for myself, anyway.  Get
dressed and come downstairs, okay?"  She pulled the door closed and
headed down herself, buttoning her uniform jacket up to the neck, then
reaching back to tie her long hair tightly at the base of her neck.  By the
time Mousse made it down, she nearly had breakfast ready.
     "I really don't want to put you to any more trouble," he said
contritely to a stool.
     "Mousse," she chided gently.  "Glasses, hon."  He reached up
and pulled them down off the top of his head, settling them on his nose
with the ease borne of long practice.  He blinked at the stool, then
turned to her.
     "Ah.  Sorry," he apologized.  Ukyou grinned.
     "That's okay.  I'm not really a morning person either.  Here,
have a seat."  He sat at the counter as she put the finishing touches on
their breakfast, pulling it off the grill and sliding it onto two waiting
plates.  Mousse nodded gratefully as she poured him a glass of juice.
     "Thank-you.  Ukyou, I feel guilty putting you to this much
trouble, after you let me stay here last night and everything ..."
     "Nonsense," she said easily.  "I had the room, and you didn't
have anyplace to go, right?"  She saw how his expression darkened at
that and mentally kicked herself.  She wasn't sure what would happen
to Mousse if he returned to the Nekohanten before he put his plan into
effect, but the look on his face the previous night had convinced her that
he had no intention of finding out.  She watched him eating with
deliberate, mechanical motions, and knew the food wasn't to blame.
She set her own chopsticks down and sighed.
     "You didn't tell me much about what you plan to do, Moussie,"
she nudged.  She hated seeing him so depressed, and figured it was
worth trying to draw him out a little.  "You really think you can fix
things?"  He stared disconsolately at his plate.
     "Yes," he said softly.  "I'm certain of it."  Ukyou frowned.
     "Well, you don't seem very happy about it."
     "I'm not.  But there's really no other choice."  He poked his
breakfast listlessly with his chopsticks, and Ukyou suppressed a surge
of irritation.
     "When are you going to ..." she began.
     "Today.  After school, probably.  The sooner, the better."  She
shook her head.  She didn't really have time to get into this, as much as
she wanted to.  She took her dishes into the kitchen, rinsed them
quickly, and set them on the drying rack.  Then she snagged her
bookbag and headed for the door.
     "Listen, sugar, I've gotta go.  We'll talk more later, okay?  If
you leave, lock the door!"  He nodded, and she dashed out into the fine
morning air.
     The run to school was along a familiar route, and her body
went on autopilot as her mind mulled over the events of the previous
night.  Mousse's story about the threat to Cologne and Shampoo from
the amazons was strange enough.  Ukyou'd been shocked to hear the
lengths to which Shampoo had gone to get Ranma.  She'd always
considered the amazon girl to be extreme, but threatening Akane that
way was simply insane.  And then goading Ranma into a killing frenzy
...?  Ukyou still wasn't sure she could believe that, no matter how many
times Mousse insisted that was exactly what Shampoo had been doing.
     How had things gotten so badly out of control?  Well, the
answer to that was simple.  It had all started the day Ranko first
appeared, and his departure hadn't stopped the ripples of change from
spreading inexorably through the lives of every one of them.  Still, she
never would have guessed it would come to this.
     And Mousse thought that the only way to solve this situation
without anyone getting killed was for him to beat Shampoo, thus
becoming her fianc‚.  Ukyou hadn't wanted to say anything to Mousse
in his present mental state, but she highly doubted that was ever going
to happen.  It wasn't that she doubted Mousse's abilities.  He was a
talented martial artist, but he'd never be able to fight effectively against
the girl he loved.
     Unless he had a plan.  Some trick he planned to use to beat
her.  Yes, that must be it.  The more she thought, the more certain she
became.  She wondered what it could be.
     By this time she was almost at the gates of Furinkan.  She
slowed, her eyes narrowing reflexively.  She wondered if she'd ever
be able to enter the school grounds again without thinking of the
monstrosities they'd faced there, on that black day not so long ago.
     That was the last time they'd all been together, she realized.
Since then, everybody seemed to be drifting apart.  Everything had
changed.
     She pulled up short at a familiar sight, ducking nimbly behind a
nearby tree.
     Ranma and Akane.  There they were, walking together, the
way they often did.  But to her eyes, the changes screamed out to be
noticed.  They still bickered back and forth, but there was a gentle,
teasing aspect to their exchanges that had never been there before.
Akane was darting around Ranma, hands clasped together on the
handle of her bookbag, and as she moved behind him she "accidentally"
brushed against him.
     Accidentally.  Sure.  Ukyou'd used that trick herself, more than
once.  But it had never seemed cheap then.
     Akane said something, and when Ranma turned to look over
his shoulder at her, his tender smile tore at Ukyou's soft, vulnerable
underbelly.  Akane stuck her tongue out at Ranma playfully, then darted
ahead, brushing by him again, turning to walk backwards, taunting him
before whirling around to sprint for the doors to the school.  Ranma
gave an outraged squawk and tore off in pursuit.
     Is it always going to be like this now? Ukyou wondered,
leaning back against the massive old tree, trying to draw strength from
its stolidity.  She closed her eyes and found it hard to swallow.  Am I
always going to have to hurt like this when I see them together?
     She gritted her teeth until her jaw ached, pressing back against
the rough tree trunk.  Clenching her hand into a fist, she drove it back
angrily against the tree, again and again, until the pain in her hand began
to distract her from the pain in her heart.
     "It isn't fair!" she whispered.  "He told me he doesn't love me,
it isn't fair that I should still have to hurt for him!  It's not!"  I'm not
gonna cry, she told herself, surprised at the strength of her reaction. I'm
not.  I'm just gonna ...
     What?  What *was* she going to do?  She realized she had no
idea.
     "A thousand yen says the tree doesn't last five minutes," an
amused voice said dryly.  Ukyou stopped hammering the tree and
opened her eyes, startled.  Nabiki was standing in front of her, bag
slung casually over one shoulder, hip shot out to one side.  Her
expression was faintly amused, as usual, but there was something
unfamiliar in her eyes.  A hint of understanding, of sympathy even.
     "Boy, that tree must really have offended you," she said with a
small smile.  Ukyou grimaced, turning away quickly, not wanting the
other girl to see the turbulent emotions she knew were plain on her
face, letting everybody know that she still cared about the boy who
cared for someone else.
     Pathetic.
     "What do you want?" she asked roughly.  She didn't want to
listen to anything Nabiki had to say, she was certain.  She had no need
of sarcasm or sales pitches.  She just wanted to be left alone to pull
herself together.
     She started as she felt cool fingers sliding gently around her
wrist.  Nabiki gently pulled Ukyou's abraded hand up so she could
examine it.
     "Hmmm.  Not bleeding much, though it would have been in another
minute or so," she said, and for once Ukyou didn't hear any trace of
amusement in the other girl's voice.  "I'll bet it hurts a little, though."
     "A little," Ukyou said in a tiny voice, making no move to draw
her hand away, confused at the compassion she was certain she saw in
the older girl's usually cool brown eyes.  She watched warily as Nabiki
pulled a clean white linen hankie from her pocket with her free hand.
With a few deft movements, she wrapped the cool, clean cloth around
Ukyou's hand, tying it snugly against her palm.
     "There," she said.  "That should keep it clean.  You don't want
to get it infected, right?"  She smiled reassuringly at Ukyou's blank
expression.
     "Don't laugh at me," Ukyou said.  Nabiki held her gaze calmly.
     "I'm not."  And she wasn't, Ukyou knew.  She just didn't
know why.
     "I take it you saw Ranma and Akane," Nabiki went on after a
moment.  Ukyou looked away, and nodded reluctantly.
     "Bad, huh?"
     "What are you doing?"  She'd meant it to come out sharply,
but instead it sounded like a plea.  Nabiki was still holding her wrist,
and though she knew she could have broken free easily, she didn't.
     "Look, Ukyou.  I know it's tough ..."  Ukyou laughed bitterly.
     "Oh, really? *You* know?  What do you know about a
broken heart?"  Nabiki favoured her with a lopsided smile.
     "Hey, everyone knows I don't *have* a heart, remember?"
Ukyou bit her lip at that.  Nabiki's expression never changed, but
something about the way she'd spoken told Ukyou that she'd hit a
nerve.  Just because *she* was miserable didn't mean she had to
share.  She flushed, the moment stretching out awkwardly, neither girl
willing to be the one to decide what came next: honesty or evasion.
     "Well, now, isn't this romantic," a husky voice intruded.  Miss
Hinako stepped around the tree, taking the frozen tableau in with a
languorous sweep of her eyes.  "You young lovers had best get to
class.  It's detention if you're late."  Her gaze was remote and amused
all at once, and Ukyou suddenly realized that Nabiki was still holding
her wrist, and that they were standing rather close.  And that she was,
as far as Miss Hinako knew, a boy.
     It was suddenly clear what the teacher must have thought was
going on.  But I love Ranma, Ukyou protested silently.  That automatic
reaction triggered anger, self-loathing, and shame, a potent mix of
emotions, and suddenly Ukyou had a very real urge to do something
wild.
     "She's right, Nabiki-chan," Ukyou blurted.  "We better go!"
She tugged her hand lightly, twisting it to snag Nabiki's, and ran off,
dragging the startled girl behind her.  "See you in class, Miss Hinako!"
She continued to run as fast as she could on her sore ankle, pulling a
spluttering Nabiki behind her, until they were nearly at the doors.  Then
she staggered to a stop, turning to look at the other girl.  The
expression on Nabiki's face caused her to break out laughing.
     "You ... I ..." Nabiki spluttered, panting from the sudden run.
     "I'm sorry, Nabiki," Ukyou managed between giggles.  "Miss
Hinako doesn't know that I'm really a ..."
     "Apparently NOT!" Nabiki said with an air of outrage.  "What's the
matter with you, Kuonji?  That's how rumours get started, you know!"
Ukyou just burst out with a fresh spate of giggles.
     "Sorry," she mumbled through the laughter.  Nabiki gave her a
put-upon sigh.
     "Well, at least you're in a better mood now," she grumbled,
smoothing her ruffled hair with fussy motions.  Ukyou's laughter trailed
off, and she lifted her hand slightly, flexing it against the clean white
handkerchief that bound it.
     "Sorry about that.  Before, I mean.  I was out of line."  She
sighed.  "You know, there should be a rule that once someone has
rejected you, they have to be completely erased from your life."
     "Nice.  When I become Queen of the World, it'll be my first
new rule."  Ukyou turned to her, a smile forming, only to catch a
glimpse of motion from the corner of her eye.
     "Watch out!" she blurted, pushing Nabiki back against the wall.
Two flashes of silver sped by, burying themselves in a nearby tree.
Ukyou turned to see where they'd come from, but there was no sign of
anyone, and nobody else seemed to have noticed anything unusual.
     "Ahem," somebody said behind her.  She turned her head to
see Miss Hinako again.
     "Perhaps I wasn't clear earlier.  This *really* isn't the place or the
time, Mr. Kuonji," she said sternly.  Ukyou was puzzled, until she
turned back and realized that she had Nabiki pinned to the wall of the
school.  The other girl's eyes were twinkling merrily with mischief.
Ukyou leapt back, heat rising in her face.
     "No, I ... we weren't ..."
     "Sorry, teach," Nabiki cut in smoothly.  "He just finds me
irresistible."  Miss Hinako scowled darkly as Ukyou's jaw fell open.
     "He can find you irresistible after school hours, Miss Tendou.
Ten minutes to first bell."  With that, she stalked off.
     "Nabiki!" Ukyou blurted.  Nabiki stifled a yawn.
     "Don't you mean Nabiki-CHAN?"  She grinned at Ukyou's
discomfort.
     "THAT's how rumours get started!" Ukyou grumbled.  Nabiki
looked unrepentant.
     "I'm not easy to embarrass.  By the way, I think you
overreacted a bit.  Those things weren't really too near us.  What was
that, anyway?"  Ukyou turned, her cheeks still burning, and looked at
the tree.
     "Two knives," she said.
     "Ooooh.  All this, and a grasp of the obvious, too."  Nabiki
walked over to the tree, reaching up to unwrap something from the grip
of one of the knives.
     "What is that?" Ukyou asked as the other girl unfolded it and gave it
a quick glance.
     "Message for you, sir," she replied, holding it out.  She removed a
similar paper from the second blade.  "Ah.  This one's for me."  They
read in silence for a short time.
     "Is this for real?" Nabiki asked at last.  Ukyou nodded.
     "Yeah, he told me about it last night," she sighed.  Nabiki
turned her arm so she could glance at the watch on the inside of her
wrist.
     "Time for class.  Listen, would you have lunch with me?"
Ukyou blinked.
     "Lunch?"
     "I want to hear more about this," Nabiki told her.  "Meet me
here, okay?"  Ukyou nodded, and Nabiki dashed off for class.  Ukyou
followed, folding the paper up and slipping it into her pocket.
     At least now she had something to worry about other than
Ranma.

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

     Hinako headed toward the teacher's lounge to drop off some
things before her first class, still puzzling over what she'd seen.  The
Tendou girl had always seemed a cold fish to her.  Finding her holding
hands behind a tree before first bell just seemed so ... girlish, so unlike
her.
     And the Kuonji boy.  He was a strange one.  For one thing, he
hadn't given her even a cursory appraisal.  When she was in this form,
no man could resist checking her out, a fact that pleased her more than
she let on.  Could the boy be *that* besotted?  With such a cold,
mercenary bitch as that?
     She sighed.  Love really is blind, she mused.  Or lust, which in
her experience was much more prevalent in high school students.  She
headed for the school, feeling just a tiny bit smug as she garnered
appreciative looks from all the male stragglers in sight.
     "Sensei."  She turned to see Tatewaki Kunou approaching, a
frown on his handsome face.  For some reason, she felt an automatic
surge of panic at the sight of him, as if her body wanted to flee his
presence.
     "Nonsense," she thought, a trifle irritably.  "I can handle the
likes of this boy.  Easily."
     "Ah, Mr. Kunou," she said silkily.  "How are you doing?  Catching
up on your schoolwork?"  He frowned even more deeply.
     "Yes, sensei.  Thank you for asking.  I ... ah, that is ..."
     "Hmm?  What is it, Mr. Kunou?"  He seemed slightly
embarrassed, which intrigued her.  Kunou was well known for his
arrogance, and she hadn't been sure, given his previous record, that
anything *could* embarrass him.
     "Just now, outside, were ... was that Nabiki Tendou you were
speaking to?"  She frowned.
     "Yes, she and that Kuonji boy were behaving disgracefully.
They were all over each other, not once but twice.  I mean, you would
think that they could wait until after school, wouldn't you?"  Kunou's
expression had become quite interesting, and she stopped, puzzled.
     "Are you all right?" she asked solicitously.
     "Nabiki and ... Ukyou?  Ukyou Kuonji?  You're certain?"  She
nodded carefully, then blinked as she understood.  What now?  A love
triangle?  And the Tendou girl never did anything but torment Kunou
unmercifully!  How was she getting all this attention?
     "Yes, they were holding hands by the gate, then I caught them
in quite a passionate embrace," she told him, curious to see his reaction.
He seemed quite stunned by the news.  She shook her head sadly.
These students were such a handful.
     "Come now, Mr. Kunou, it's nearly time for class.  Surely
personal business can wait until lunch break?"  He shook his head
dazedly as if to shake off a particularly hard punch, and walked away,
looking troubled.  She sighed.  He might be a buffoon, but surely he
could do better than to pine after a tramp like Nabiki Tendou, couldn't
he?  At least he seemed to be doing better than the last time she'd seen
him, that day she'd gone ...

     (the alley)

     to his house and ...

     (hungry)

     She frowned, rubbing at her temples absently as her train of
thought derailed badly.  What was she doing?  She had to get to class!
     She ran down the hall, her heels clicking on the hard linoleum
floor, leaving a trail of overwrought young men in her wake.

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

     Kasumi didn't hum under her breath the way she usually did
while hanging out the wash.  While the simple act of doing laundry
would usually leave her with a sense of inner peace not unlike what she
imagined meditation must be like, today was different.
     She couldn't help thinking of the previous day, of Shampoo's
blazing attack, of her father hitting the floor, of the splintering sounds of
furniture broken in a cold rage.  Of Akane, pale and frightened, trying
so hard not to show it.  She was reminded of all these things each time
she glanced up and caught sight of the hastily repaired door that lead
between the garden and the house.
     The dojo had suffered damage before, of course.  Chaos was a
regular guest at the Tendou residence.  But this time, she knew things
were different.  Things had changed.  People had died, and now it was
all for real.
     So when she heard the thunk of something striking the wall
behind her, she froze, a clean sheet slipping languidly from her suddenly
nerveless fingers to settle on the ground.  Slowly, she forced herself to
turn her head, seeking out the source of the noise.
     Not again, she thought numbly.  I mean, I *just* got the house
squared away ...
     There.  A long, wedge-shaped blade was stuck in the solid
wood of the door frame, still vibrating with the force that had delivered
it.  Kasumi looked around nervously.  Could it be Shampoo, angry
about being sprayed with the hose?  But nothing moved in the garden,
and as Kasumi turned back toward the door to seek help, she noticed
something that she'd missed the first time.
     There was something attached to the grip of the blade.
Something that appeared to be a folded piece of paper.
     Warily, Kasumi approached the blade, half-expecting to be set
upon at any moment.  But nothing untoward happened, and finally, she
pulled the paper free.  It was very nice stock, creamy coloured and
heavy.  Cautiously, she unfolded it.
     And read.
     The silence was broken only once, by a sharp intake of breath.
Then Kasumi let her hand, still holding the paper, fall to her side.
     "Oh, my," she whispered.
     For once, that really said it all.

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

     Nabiki leaned back against the rough trunk of the tree, idly
enjoying the feel of the sun's warmth on her skin.
     "It won't work," she said simply.  Ukyou looked at her over
the remains of her lunch, puzzled.
     "What do you mean?"  Nabiki stretched, sighing contentedly.
     "Look, when Shampoo first showed up, I read the rules in the
book she had.  It told all about the laws regarding outsiders and
amazon females.  Kill a woman who defeats you, marry a man.  That's
what it said.  But it definitely applied to outsiders, and Mousse is an
amazon himself."  Ukyou nodded, understanding in her eyes.
     "Oh, that.  Yeah, you're right.  But Mousse told me last night
that, as an amazon male, he can issue one challenge to any woman in
the tribe.  That way, a strong male can prove his worthiness and have a
family.  Or something like that.  It all sounds pretty stone age to me."
     "What if she turns down the challenge?" Nabiki asked.  "That
could mess up his plan, right?"
     "He's sure she won't.  Pride is at stake, after all.  Amazon
women kill over pride, remember?  If she backed away from this
challenge, especially coming from someone she regards as inferior, she
would look weak."  Nabiki nodded.
     "Plus, she probably wants a crack at him after he ruined her
plan yesterday."  Ukyou looked unhappy at that.
     "I'm worried that this whole thing could get out of control," she
confessed, tugging open the collar of her uniform jacket.  She reached
back and adjusted the angle of her large spatula, trying to get
comfortable.
     "Out of control is a way of life around here, Ukyou.  I'd have
thought you'd be used to it by now."  Ukyou nodded glumly.
     "I suppose you're right."  They started to clean up the remains
of lunch, then stood, walking back toward the school.
     "Hey, why don't we go to the thing together?" Nabiki asked
suddenly.  "We can meet out here after school."  Ukyou glanced at her.
     "Together?"
     "Sure.  I'd like to hear more about what you guys talked about
last night."  Also, Nabiki wanted a skilled martial artist near her if
she was going to be anywhere near Shampoo.  She *had* brought the
dog to the previous day's festivities, after all, and she had no idea how
much of a grudge Shampoo might hold over that.  Ranma and Akane
had probably received invitations as well, but if there was trouble,
Ranma's first concern would be Akane.  This way Nabiki would have a
bodyguard without even having to pay.
     "Okay," Ukyou shrugged.  Nabiki felt a slight twinge of
conscience as she realized she'd reflexively manipulated Ukyou without
even thinking about it.
     "Then it's a date.  Ukyou-chan," she smiled mischievously.
Ukyou groaned.
     "Are you ever gonna let me forget that?" she asked.  Nabiki
made a great show of pondering the question.
     "Hmmm," she mused as the walked.  "Depends what's in it for
me."  She laughed as Ukyou rolled her eyes.
     Neither of them noticed that someone had been watching them.

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

     Kunou's brow furrowed.  He'd seen it with his own eyes,
Nabiki Tendou and Ukyou Kuonji eating lunch together.  He'd hardly
been able to believe what Miss Hinako had told him earlier, and yet
here they were, together, which was itself an unusual situation.  He'd
never known the two girls to spend time together like that before.
     Then, as they had walked past his place of concealment, he'd
caught a snatch of their conversation.
     Go together?  A date?  Ukyou-CHAN?
     He could scarcely believe it, and yet the evidence ...
     He crouched down, tapping his bokken on the ground absently,
and bowed his head.
     "Has the entire world gone mad?" he whispered, confused.
     Predictably, the ground had no reply.

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

     Shampoo watched her great-grandmother sort through the
contents of the chest by touch, feeling strangely disconnected from
everything around her.  This was the day she should have either gained
what she most wanted in the world or been dead.  Those were the
options she'd left herself, and she believed that she'd been prepared for
both eventualities, one hoped for, the other accepted.
     But neither of those eventualities had come to pass.  Thanks to
Mousse's interference, she now had to carry on with things the way
they had been.  She had to face her failure, which was one thing her
plan hadn't allowed for, and she was finding the experience not at all to
her liking.  An honourable death would have been preferable, death at
*his* hands.  Those hands that she longed to feel on her body, tenderly
tracing her curves, were the only ones that she could envision ending
her life.
     "Thinking about Ranma, eh, child?"  She started.  Her
great-grandmother was still sorting through the chest's contents, her
face expressionless.  Shampoo stifled a sigh.  Her great-grandmother
knew her too well.
     "Were the situation different, I would advise you to try and
change his mind," Cologne went on.  "But under the circumstances, you
will simply have to learn to live without him."  A faint pang in her heart
was the only reaction to those words.  Shampoo felt spent, emotionally
exhausted.  She wasn't sure that she'd ever feel anything again.
     "Maybe Shampoo should try again ..."
     "No."  Cologne's denial held the tone of a command.  After a
moment, she sighed, letting some of the harshness drain from her
words.  "Shampoo, I never wanted to allow you to attempt your plan in
the first place.  The only reason I did allow it is because you *earned*
the chance to control your own destiny.  But your plan failed, although
through no fault of your own.  Now you must plan for a future different
than the one you wanted.  That, too, is strength, child."
     Shampoo nodded absently.  She supposed all that was true,
but she couldn't bring herself to care all that much.  Ranma had spurned
her, Mousse had humiliated her, and she had been unable to protect her
beloved great-grandmother.
     She was so caught up in her reverie that she nearly didn't sense
the dagger's entrance to the kitchen.
     Nearly.  But even her numbness wasn't complete enough to
defeat all her years of training.  She moved instinctively, shifting position
while watching for a follow-up attack.  When none came, she
straightened up warily.
     "Shampoo?" Cologne asked.  She too had moved, but she
couldn't see what was happening.  Shampoo wondered if this was a
precursor to attack by the council, then dismissed that thought.  A
council member wouldn't have needed to resort to such theatrics, and
regardless, there'd only been the one dagger.  It had come in through
the window over the twin stainless steel sinks.
     Shampoo frowned, puzzled.  The table they'd been sitting at
was clearly visible from that window, but now that she took a moment
to think, the dagger hadn't actually been close to them at all.  She
moved gracefully over to the wall where the dagger still vibrated,
noticing as she did so the paper bound tightly to the dagger's
unadorned hilt.
     "What is it?" Cologne asked sharply, ears twitching as
Shampoo carefully removed the thick paper and unfolded it.
     So.  He'd finally decided to play his trump card.  She supposed
that she shouldn't have been surprised.  Mousse was predictable in the
way that he dealt with her.  I love you, Shampoo.  Date me, Shampoo.
He's not worthy, Shampoo.
     I did it for you, Shampoo.
     Anger sparked and began to spread from the centre of her
chest, and she welcomed it.  It was infinitely preferable to the
numbness.  It made her feel alive again.
     "Shampoo?" her great-grandmother asked querulously.
Shampoo folded the paper carefully along the creases.
     "<Mousse has issued a challenge for my hand,>" she said
simply.  Cologne cursed under her breath, and the words that Shampoo
caught caused her to blush.
     "<That idiot!  As if I didn't have enough to worry about!  This
is highly irregular anyway.  I don't think such a challenge has ever been
issued outside of the village.>"
     "<But it is legal,>" Shampoo said, the question clear in her
tone.  Cologne stopped her cursing immediately.
     "<You're not considering accepting?>" she asked, disbelief
plain in her voice.  "<Shampoo, this is a waste of time!  There's so
much to do before ...>"  She trailed off, fixing her unseeing eyes on
Shampoo out of habit.  "<You aren't considering losing to him on
purpose, are you?>"
     "<Great-grandmother!>"  Shampoo was shocked, but she
understood why the question had been asked.  It was, after all, a safe
way out for all of them.  "<I would never disgrace myself or you that
way.  I still have my warrior's pride.>"
     "<Then why ...?>"
     "<*Because* of my pride.>"  Shampoo walked over and
crouched beside the old woman, trying not to let her anger seep
through into her words.  "<He claims to love me, but Mousse thinks
only of himself.  I would have died with my honour intact, but he
thwarted me, humiliating me in front of Ranma and placing you in
danger.  He must be taught a lesson.  I have allowed this to go on for
far too long.>"  Cologne reached out, placing one hand gently on her
shoulder.
     "<Shampoo, do not act in haste.  Your temper blinds you, your
passions rule you.  We have much to accomplish in little time.  Mousse
is no longer important, and as for Ranma, I think it is best we consider
that issue closed.  I do not wish for you to try to resume pursuing him
after I am gone.  It ...>"
     "<NO>!"  Shampoo took a deep, calming breath.  She didn't
want to arouse her great-grandmother's suspicions.  She knew that she
would be sacrificing herself to ensure Cologne's safety, just as she
knew that Cologne would stop her if she suspected.
     "<No,>" she repeated, calmly this time.  "<Listen to me, now.
I am no longer a little girl.  You know that.  I must answer this
challenge.  My pride and my honour allow no less.  Perhaps Mousse's
defeat will lend him some enlightenment, turn him to a path that will
serve the best interests of our people one day.>"
     "<You don't intend to kill him?>"  Shampoo shook her head.
     "<Perhaps it would be better to humiliate him.  After all, he must
know that if he'd embraced the laws of our tribe long ago, he might
have had a chance to end this.  That knowledge, and one final defeat at
my hands, may conceivably turn him to the right path.  He has great
potential, you must admit.  It would be a waste to merely kill him.>"
     "<Going soft, great-granddaughter?>" Shampoo smiled
thinly.
     "<Also, death is merciful.  For destroying my plan and helping
to humiliate me in front of Ranma, I intend to see him suffer.>"  That he
would suffer all the more when he was unable to prevent Shampoo's
death a second time was something she didn't dare reveal.  The chance
to avenge that humiliation on the hapless Mousse caused her to burn
with an unwholesome heat which chased away the last of the numbness
in her soul.
     This way, she would be able to face her own death with one
less burden on her heart.

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

     The last thing Ranma was expecting was a crowd.  The strange
letter from Mousse had asked that he come to this vacant lot after
school, and to his surprise Akane had received one too.
     Apparently, they hadn't been the only ones.
     His eyes roved over the group as he and Akane stepped
gingerly through the hole in the splintered old plywood fence.  Both of
his parents were there, along with Akane's father, Nabiki, Kasumi, Dr.
Tofu, and ...
     Ukyou.  Ranma's gut clenched as he saw her, speaking quietly
to Nabiki.  Her hair was drawn back into a tight ponytail that snaked
sinuously in the stiffening breeze, and she was still wearing her boy's
uniform.  He'd seen her in class, wanted to ask her about the bruise on
her face, about why she was favouring one leg slightly, but she'd turned
the tables on him.  Only days ago, he'd been avoiding her.  Now she
was returning the favour, refusing to even look at him.
     Even now, as they approached the others, he saw her eyes dart
towards him while she continued to talk to Nabiki.  Obviously aware of
his presence, she pretended not to know he was there.  He supposed
he couldn't really blame her, but that didn't make the situation any
easier.  He wondered when she'd forgive him.
     Then he wondered IF she'd forgive him, and his gut twisted
again.  He started as Akane placed a gentle hand on his arm.
     "Okay?" she whispered.  He gave her what he hoped was a
comforting smile.
     "Sure," he replied.  Sure.  Just fine.  She obviously wasn't
convinced, but didn't dispute his empty assurances.  He appreciated
that.
     "All right, boy, what's the meaning of this?" his father barked
impatiently.  A familiar looking piece of paper was fluttering weakly in
his large hand.  Ranma fought the urge to snap back at him.  For about
half a second.
     "Hey, how should *I* know?  This isn't my idea, you know!"
     "Do you have any idea why Mousse asked us to be here?" his
mother asked in a more reasonable tone.
     "We think it has to do with the plan he was talking about,"
Akane answered.  Ranma blinked.  "We" think?  Well, they had both
come to that conclusion, but hearing themselves referred to as "we" in
that context made him nervous, for some reason.  He shot another
stealthy look at Ukyou to catch her reaction, but she was still ignoring
him.  He sighed.
     "I don't see why we all had to be here," Mr. Tendou grumbled.
"It's bad enough that Chinese maniac girl half-destroyed my house.
Now her boyfriend is hauling us all out here for fun and games!"
     "He's not her boyfriend," Ukyou said flatly.  She still hadn't
turned toward him, but Ranma could see the tension in the line of her
back.  She reached up to idly caress the handle of her spatula, gazing
out at the opposite side of the lot with obvious trepidation.  Ranma had
a sudden intuition that she knew more about what was going to happen
than she was letting on, but before he could ask her about it, he heard a
sudden sharp intake of breath from beside him.
     "Shampoo," Akane hissed, and Ranma stepped in front of her
without even having to think about it.  Her eyes snapped up to his, and
he saw her temper in their depths, roiling at the thought of how the
amazon girl had used her.  He knew she was burning for a chance to
avenge her humiliation, just as he knew that he couldn't allow her to put
herself in danger like that.
     Besides, *he* was the one who was going to straighten
Shampoo out about what she'd done to Akane.  As soon as he got a
chance.
     "Easy," he murmured, and she gave him a smile no more
genuine than the one he'd given her earlier.
     "Sure," she breathed.  "No problem."  Not convinced, he
stayed slightly ahead of her as he turned to watch Shampoo enter the
lot from the opposite side.  She stopped to help Cologne through a gap
in the fence, speaking to the old woman in a low voice before
straightening up and walking to the middle of the lot.  It had to be
intimidating, facing so many people who had so much reason to be
angry with her, but she showed no nervousness, no trepidation as she
stopped, facing them.  Her chin rose haughtily, her high-collared
Chinese blouse and pants rippling in the stiff breeze.  Ranma noticed
that she had two bonbori to replace the one she'd left behind at the
Tendou house and the one his mother had destroyed.
     "Why you here?" she asked defiantly, her hair streaming out
sideways, a banner of silk.
     "We were invited," his mother answered before anyone else
could.  She held up the letter in her hand, neatly folded.  Shampoo's
eyes narrowed angrily.
     "Invite?  Who invite all you?"
     "I did," a voice called out loudly.  They all turned to see a figure
in white robes perched easily on the fence at the far end of the lot.
     Mousse.

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

     He leapt down nimbly from the fence, trying to ignore the
anxiety hammering at the inside of his stomach.  He felt all their eyes on
him as he moved with steady, measured paces toward the centre of the
lot.
     Toward her.  He had eyes only for her now.  Just as it had
always been, as long as he could remember.
     Just for her, this one last time.  Before he killed his dreams
forever.
     He stopped a few paces from her, calmly meeting her gaze as
the wind whipped his long dark hair around his face.
     "This amazon business, Mousse.  Why you bring them?"  Her
voice was cold and hard and sharp enough to draw blood, but now it
hardly mattered.  Nothing she could say, no amount of contempt, could
cause him more pain than what he was about to do.
     "It's their business now, too.  After what happened, I thought
they deserved to be here.  And because I want lots of witnesses, so
that afterwards, there'll be no doubt about what happened."  Her
beautiful features were set in an expressionless mask, but his words
affected her, he knew.  He could tell.  He could always tell, even when
nobody else could.
     "Stupid Mousse," she said, anger creeping into her voice now.
"You think it so easy?  You make everything okay?  You?  It no is
possible.  You waste time!"
     "I'm going to put this right, Shampoo.  No matter what it
takes."  If she was impressed by his words, she hid it well.
     "<You ruined my plan, Mousse.  You stole my victory and
humiliated me in front of the man I love.  You're just making it easy for
me to return the favour.  It's like I always say: stupid.  Stupid, stupid
Mousse.>" Her words were knife-edged, intended to wound, but
Mousse just smiled.
     "<You know, even when we were children, I never thought it
would come to this.  I always dreamed that you'd be the one girl in the
tribe who would understand me, who would *want* to understand me.
And in my dreams, I was the one who got through to the girl inside the
warrior, who showed her that it was all right to love someone just
because of who they were, not because of how strong a fighter they
were.>" Shampoo mask didn't slip, but he saw her swallow.
     "<Foolish dreams,>" she said at last.
     "<Yes>," he responded sadly.  "<But I'm going to miss them>."
She regarded him for a long moment, her gorgeous violet eyes
holding his, and he fancied he finally saw some emotion there, although
even he couldn't say what it was.
     "<Run away, Mousse,>" she said softly. "< Run far away.
You've never had any honour in my eyes, so what could it matter now?
You are no challenge for a true warrior.  Just run away until this is over.
You're not good enough for this stupid plan to work.  And if you stay,
I'll hurt you.>"  The foreign emotion in her eyes vanished, and only the
warrior remained.
     He could have told her that he knew she planned to die fighting
to save Cologne.  He could have told her that he'd always loved her.
He could have told her any number of things, but he knew her well
enough to know that now, once she'd made up her mind, they wouldn't
matter.  So he simply said, "<I know.>"  They faced each other, the
warm breeze tugging at them as if urging them to quit the field now,
before it was too late, before something irrevocable happened.
     But it was already too late.  He was committed to his plan, as
she had been to hers only one day before.  Neither of them would turn
back now.
     "<So be it,>" Shampoo said quietly.
     And it began.

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

         "Damn, they're talking in Chinese," Ranma muttered.
Nabiki frowned.
     "Mandarin, I think," she corrected him absently.  "What the hell
exactly is all this about, anyway?"
     "Mousse is going to fight her," Ukyou said flatly.  "If he can
defeat her, he becomes her new fianc‚, and everyone's problems are
solved."  Ranma didn't bother to ask how Ukyou knew this.  He was
busily sorting the possibilities in his head.
     "Brilliant," he said into the stunned silence that followed Ukyou's
announcement.  "Only one problem.  Can Mousse really beat
Shampoo?"
     "He says she'll get herself killed fighting to protect Cologne,"
Ukyou answered absently, her gaze locked on the young couple in the
middle of the lot.  "To save her life, he'll do a hell of a lot, I think.
Even
fight her all out."  Nabiki frowned again.  Everyone affected by
Shampoo's failed plan was here, including Dr. Tofu.  But he'd shown up
at the Tendou house after Shampoo had left.  Why had Mousse invited
him?  Was it for the same reason that Nabiki had summoned him to the
Tendou household the previous day?  Did he really think the good
doctor's skills would be necessary?
     Her skin suddenly felt like it was shrinking over her bones.  Mousse
and Shampoo stopped talking, and the mood shifted.
     "Here they go," somebody said quietly.

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

     One second Shampoo was just standing there, the next she was
attacking, bringing her bonbori up in a pair of vicious arcs that
terminated at Mousse's head.
     He'd anticipated her opening move, however.  She knew that
he had an edge in ranged attacks, and so he had guessed correctly that
she would launch a pre-emptive strike, trying to finish things quickly.
He sprang back, snapping his arms out straight so that several weighted
chains flew out of his sleeves, arrowing at Shampoo.  She dodged
nimbly, spinning away from his trap.  No matter; he'd expected that as
well.  They danced around each other now, each looking for an
opening.  Mousse leapt up, firing a series of razor-sharp metal slivers at
Shampoo, trying to herd her in the direction he wanted.  She
outguessed him, though, moving under the arc of his leap instead and
hurling one of her bonbori straight up with savage speed.  Caught
off-guard, the airborne Mousse was hammered in the solar plexus,
flipping over and crashing awkwardly to the ground.

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

     "He lasted longer than I thought he would," Ranma muttered.
"But he's done for now.  In close, Shampoo'll eat him alive."

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

     Shampoo pounced on her opponent, only to have her weapon
strike the ground as he back-flipped away at the last moment.  She
rushed at him, noting coldly how much trouble he was having catching
his breath, automatically factoring how long it would be before the
trickle of blood from the small cut on his forehead would start to
interfere with his vision.  She pressed hard, not wanting to give him any
opportunity to use his hidden weapons techniques.
     Shaking his head woozily, Mousse backpedalled, but not nearly
fast enough.  Dancing in with feline grace, Shampoo extended her
remaining bonbori in a blinding finishing move.
     And missed.
     Mousse dropped under her swing, bracing both hands flat on
the ground and torquing his hips as one leg knifed up under Shampoo's
extended arm, catching her squarely in the ribs.
     She cried out involuntarily as the pain of cracking ribs lanced
through her chest.

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

     "No way," Nabiki whispered as Shampoo staggered back.
Ukyou just stared, her face impassive.
     "I don't believe it," Ranma muttered, clearly stunned.
     "He really ... he *hurt* her," Akane breathed, clearly amazed.
     Ukyou said nothing.  He *had* hurt her, that much was plain.
But what nobody seemed to have seen was that attacking Shampoo
was hurting Mousse.  Each blow he landed would tear at him in a way
no physical attack ever could.
     Even if he won, he would lose.  She finally understood.
     "Oh, Mousse ..."

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

     Mousse shook his head again, trying to clear it, noting that
Shampoo took advantage of the lull to retrieve her other bonbori.  Her
movements were less graceful now, and although she was hiding her
pain well, he'd felt the ribs crack under his kick.
     He thought he was seeing double until he realized that one of
the lenses of his glasses was cracked.  He tore them off and drew
another pair from his sleeve, keeping a tight rein on his emotions.  He
had to win, or he would have hurt Shampoo for nothing.  All for
nothing.  And that would be unacceptable.
     The look in her eyes told him that she finally understood.  This
wouldn't be like any of the other times they'd fought.  This was, at last,
for real.  And being the warrior that she was, she welcomed the
challenge.
     Damn her.
     He let another weighted chain slip from his right sleeve,
swinging the end around and around, gradually letting out more chain
until a silvery disc seemed to hang in the air beside him.  The chain cut
through the air with a low keening, and he shifted his weight slightly.
Shampoo matched his move, pivoting on the balls of her feet, her eyes
fixed on his, looking for a split-second of warning as to his intentions.
     They were alone now.  The others didn't exist, only the two of
them and the uncaring wind that rippled through their hair and tugged
urgently at their clothing.  It was an oddly intimate moment, perhaps the
most intimate they'd ever shared.
     The irony was not lost on him.
     Then he let the chain fly, and she dashed to the side, three
quick steps, turning to leap at him, bonbori held high for twin crushing
blows.  He knew it must have hurt like hell to twist and jump like that,
but her move didn't surprise him.  He'd studied Shampoo,
*worshipped* her, for years.  He knew how she fought, knew how she
thought.  He dropped the chain, turning to dash under her, sending
another chain snaking out with a lightning quick motion to ensnare her
ankles.  He used his momentum to prevent the startled girl from getting
her feet under her, and she crashed heavily to the ground, crying out
again.  He hardened his heart against her pain.  He had to.
     That should have been that, but as he turned back toward her,
she let go of her maces and used her hands to spring toward him.  That
gave her enough slack to kick her feet free, and when she landed, she
sprang directly at him, landing a lightning flurry of body blows before he
could get his guard up.  She followed up with a series of spinning kicks
that caused her to grunt with pain as she drove Mousse back across the
field.  He weathered the storm for a few seconds, waiting until he could
counter, slipping through her guard to rock her head back with the base
of one calloused hand.  He tried to follow up, but she slipped deftly
away, and they were circling again, each nursing their own hurts.

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

     Nodoka watched in amazement as the two young martial artists
launched attack after attack against each other, clearly holding nothing
back.  Both sought to take advantage of their individual fighting styles to
the fullest, and both were bruised and cut by the blows that had landed.
     This fight wasn't going to end until someone was too hurt to
continue.  Suddenly, she was very glad that Dr. Tofu was there.

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

     Again and again they came together and sprang apart, Mousse
trying to gain room to use his weapons, Shampoo trying to get in close
and hammer him into submission.  Finally, dodging a rain of entangling
bolas, Shampoo slipped in for a final furious attack.
     They were both gasping for breath now.  The air was molten in
Shampoo's lungs, and hot spikes of pain shot through her injured ribs
every time she moved.  No matter.  She'd fought hurt before.  It would
take more than that to defeat her.
     It would take more than Mousse had.  Of that she was certain.
     Both of them were battered and hurting, and she knew it had to
end soon.  Still, she couldn't help but almost admire the fight he was
putting up.
     She fired a volley of punches at his face, not managing to get
through his guard, but drawing his attention high, then followed up with
a savage kick.  Her ribs protested vociferously, though, and the kick
was neither as hard nor as fast as it had been intended to be.  He took
advantage of that, blocking with one thigh and throwing a quick left at
her head that she caught between her crossed forearms, startled.
     For one moment their eyes met over the tangle of limbs, and
something unspoken, some powerful spark, arced between them.
Later she would remember that moment, remember the unfamiliar
darkness in his eyes, and wonder how it was that she'd never noticed it
before.  But she hadn't, and as the moment passed, he delivered a
vicious jab with his right, curving in before she could drop her arms to
block him, catching her just below the breastbone.   She gaped
helplessly as all the air was forced from her lungs.  She staggered back.
     And she fell.

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

     "It's over," Kasumi cried softly.  "Please, let it be over.
Please?"
     No one answered her plea.  It wasn't over yet, they all knew.
Not until one could no longer continue.

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

     Mousse stood over her, fighting down the sick feeling that
threatened to overwhelm him.  Shampoo lay sprawled on the grass, her
hair splayed untidily around her head, eyes unfocussed.  She stirred
groggily, then turned her head so that she was staring right into
Mousse's eyes.
     And began to fight her way back to her feet.
     It was too much for Mousse to bear.
     "Stay down!" he shouted at her, unreasoning rage exploding
behind his eyes.  "It's over, Shampoo!  Just stay down!"  Tears stung
at his eyes and his clenched fists trembled with the force of his barely
leashed fury.  She just gave him that maddening little half smile,
enigmatic and alluring.  He knew that smile.  That smile meant many
things.  It meant: real warriors don't surrender, and if you were worth
anything you'd know that.  It meant: do you really have what it takes,
Mousse?  Do you?  It meant: I'm not beaten.  Not while I can still
move.
     It meant: you can beat me, but you'll never own me.  Never.
     Never.  But he'd settle for saving her.  Even if it meant damning
himself.
     She regained her feet, pulling herself into a stance, one arm out
toward him, first two fingers extended.  She was picking where to land
her kick, he knew.  Not that it mattered anymore.  Her injuries had
slowed her too much, giving him the extra half-second he needed.
     He lunged, all his weight behind the punch that blazed through
her inadequate defences, catching her flush in the jaw.  Her head
snapped back, and she staggered, one step, then two.
     Then her knees buckled and she went down again.  This time,
he knew she wasn't getting back up.  Her eyes rolled back, then
closed, and her head lolled to the side.
     It was over.
     The next thing he knew, he was on his knees beside her,
cradling her head in his lap, smoothing her hair back from her forehead
as tears coursed silently down his face.  I'm sorry, he wanted to say,
but he couldn't.  The words wouldn't come.  Perhaps that was because
he knew, in his heart, that he could apologize for the rest of time, and it
would never, ever be enough.  He saw the bruises, the cuts, the hurts
that he had inflicted on the woman he loved, and the knowledge of
what he'd done savaged his soul with talons of ice.
     She'd been right all along.  He really *wasn't* worthy.
     Blinded by his tears, he bowed his head, not realizing at first
that there were people around him, that someone was calling his name.

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

     Ukyou rushed forward with the others, crowding around
Shampoo and Mousse.  Only Cologne stood apart, expressionless and
unmoving.  Ukyou felt her heart clench at the raw anguish that was
etched onto Mousse's face, and at the tears that flowed freely down his
cheeks.  His glasses had fallen off again and lay, forgotten, on the
ground beside his fallen love.
     The group parted to make way for Dr. Tofu as he moved
forward, then crouched beside the two.  He spoke in a low, soothing
tone, his warm gaze locked on an unseeing Mousse.
     "Mousse, I want to see Shampoo.  All right?  Would you ..."
     "DON'T TOUCH HER!" he screamed, his eyes shut tightly in
a futile attempt to dam the tears.  Dr. Tofu didn't react, except to speak
in an even lower and more comforting tone.
     "Mousse, I'm a doctor, remember?  I want to examine her, make
sure she's not seriously hurt.  All right?  Can I do that?"  Finally,
Mousse's shoulder's hitched with a suppressed sob, and he nodded
slightly.
     "Please," he whimpered, holding the girl's limp body out to the
doctor.  "She's hurt.  Please ..."
     "It's going to be okay," Dr. Tofu assured him, taking
Shampoo's weight easily.  He cradled the unconscious girl against him
with one hand, checking her pupillary response with the other, then
gently probing her ribs.  Mousse stood suddenly, causing everyone to
look away from the doctor.  After a long moment, he raised his head,
staring grimly at the small group, his face wet with tears.
     "You," he whispered huskily.  "You all saw.  You all saw what
I did.  Shampoo has been defeated.  Both she and Cologne are now
safe from the council's wrath.  And all of you should have no further
trouble from any of us."  The tiny hairs on Ukyou's body prickled and
stood on end at the bereft tone in Mousse's voice.  She wanted to say
something to him, wanted to tell him that it was okay, but when she
opened her mouth nothing came out.  Mousse turned to Ranma and
Akane.
     "It's over," he told them hoarsely.  "You don't have to be
worried about Shampoo troubling you now.  So don't seek revenge
against her.  Please.  I ask you, I *beg* you, as her fi ... her ..."  He
choked on the word, his face contorting in pain.
     "I beg you," he finished, no force behind his words.  Ukyou
saw that both Ranma and Akane seemed unable to speak in the face of
Mousse's plea.
     Dr. Tofu stood just then, cutting off any further discussion.
     "Her injuries don't seem too severe," he told Mousse, cradling
the girl easily in his arms.  "I want to take her to my office to examine
her further, though.  It's not far."  Mousse just stood there, nodding
miserably.  No matter how gently the doctor stated it, Ukyou knew, the
fact remained that Shampoo's injuries were caused by Mousse, and
that fact was killing him.
     "Take ... good care of her, doctor," Mousse blurted, then spun
around and darted away, running flat out for the edge of the lot.
     "Mousse!" Ukyou cried.  She felt a hand grasp her shoulder,
and turned to see Ranma standing there.
     "Let him be," he suggested quietly.  Once a word from Ranma
would have taken precedence over all else, at least to her.  But he
didn't love her, and he never would, and because of him she was
intimately acquainted with soul rending pain.
     And no matter what he said, there was no way she wanted
poor, sweet Mousse to have to go through that kind of pain alone.
She'd missed the warning signs with Ryouga, but this time she was
going to help.  Curtly shaking off his hand, she did the only thing that
made any sense to her.
     She took off after Mousse.

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

     Akane watched Ukyou brush Ranma off without a word, felt
for him as a look of hurt flashed across his face.  Ukyou bounded off
after Mousse, moving a little awkwardly, and she turned to see Dr.
Tofu walking away with Shampoo.  Kasumi and Nabiki followed
behind, talking in low, shocked tones, while both fathers simply looked
at each other and headed for home.  She watched Ranma's mother
walk across the field to where Cologne was still standing, her eyes
open but unseeing.  Nodoka crouched down beside the old woman,
speaking quietly to her.  After a time, Cologne nodded stiffly, and the
younger woman stood, resting her hand lightly on the older woman's
shoulder and guiding her after the doctor.
     Only Akane and Ranma were left.  She watched him carefully,
not sure what to say.
     "I don't know what I was expecting," he said at last, "but it
sure wasn't this."  Akane nodded, absently tucking her hair behind her
ear as the wind blew it into her face.
     "I can't believe he did that," she murmured.  "I mean, Mousse
actually fought Shampoo.  He *hurt* her.  I never believed he could do
that.  Never."  Ranma nodded, looking toward the point where Mousse
and Ukyou had disappeared.
     "Yeah, but you heard him.  He saved her. And now he can
marry her, just like he always wanted."  Akane shivered, even though
the wind was warm, wrapping her arms around herself.
     "Yesterday, I wanted to fight Shampoo myself.  I wanted to
hurt her for what she did, I wanted to see her hurt, but now ... it just
doesn't seem worth it, you know?"  Ranma made no reply, and she
sighed.
     "Ranma, let's go home," she said plaintively.  After a moment,
he finally nodded.
     "Yeah," he said.  "I guess we might as well."  He turned and
began to walk, and she rushed to catch up to him, reaching out to take
his hand.  He squeezed it comfortingly, and favoured her with a fleeting
smile.
     For some reason, she desperately needed that.

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

     Uncertain, Ukyou watched.
     The shadows of evening had lengthened, pooling together into
puddles of night which would soon spread as the sun finally
disappeared.  The remaining daylight made the playground equipment
look strange and vaguely menacing, all jagged angles and harsh lines.
In the middle of it all, looking desolate and completely alone, sat
Mousse.
     He was sitting on a swing, his feet planted firmly, rocking
slightly back and forth by first extending and then retracting his legs.  He
gazed out at nothing, arms hooked carelessly around the chains, the
only sound in the deserted park the squeaking of the swing chains as he
rocked.  Ukyou had finally caught up to him, hobbled slightly by her still
tender ankle, and had been watching him from the trees for ten minutes
or so.  She wasn't sure what to do now, wasn't sure if she should
intrude on his solitude.  After all, he had run from everybody.  Maybe
he just needed to be alone.
     She no sooner had the thought than an unreasoning anger rose
in her.  That wasn't right, and she of all people should know it.  She'd
spent too many nights alone, curled into a ball around her own aches of
loneliness, to think that leaving him to suffer alone was a good idea.
Mousse wouldn't turn to any of the others, any more than she had.  He
was proud, and stubborn, and ...
     And hurting.  And he had been willing to lend her a sympathetic
ear when she'd most needed it.  It was time to return the favour.
     She moved quietly through the gathering dark, coming up
quietly behind Mousse so as not to spook him.  She needn't have
bothered.  He wasn't wearing his glasses, and so probably wouldn't
have seen her until she was right on top of him.  Even when she sat on
the weathered wooden seat of the swing beside him, he didn't react at
all, simply staring off into the distance and rocking incessantly.  She
kicked up her heels lightly and let the swing move, its chains providing a
low, creaking accompaniment to the other's squeal.
     "You saved her life," she said at last.  It seemed to her to be
the only thing that might matter to him.  He'd been so certain, after all,
that Shampoo would force her own death to save her
great-grandmother.  He didn't react at first, and she just drifted along
beside him.
     "It's ironic, don't you think?" he asked at last, his quiet words
startling her after his long silence.
     "What is?"  His mouth curved into a gentle, bitter smile.
     "I was so angry at Ryouga that day, remember?  When I
thought he'd hurt you?  And you told me, outraged, that Ryouga would
*never* hurt you.  And you know, you were probably right.  I was the
one capable of such an act, not him."  He swung on in silence for a
moment, leaving Ukyou groping helplessly for something to say.
     "Mousse, it's not like that.  You did it for her, to save her.  It
was the only way!"
     "I hurt her!  And for just a moment, some part of me thought,
"There!  This is what you've always wanted, isn't it?  A real man?
Someone strong enough to beat you?"  I was horrified by what I had to
do, and angry, and I put that anger onto her, directed it at her, and in a
way it felt good to finally let it go.  I always believed that my love for
her was pure.  Once I believed that I would die before I let harm come
to her.  I never dreamed that I would be the person harming her.
Never."  Ukyou had heard enough.  She dragged her feet to stop, then
stood and stepped in front of Mousse, grabbing the chains of his swing
to stop him.  He looked up at her, and his large dark eyes were barren,
desolate, stricken.
     She wished for the power, the words, to put life back into
those eyes, but no inspiration came to her, and so she started to talk.
     "You're not a bad person, Mousse.  I know you're not, and
she knows it too.  She's going to be all right, and later, after you're
married, you can make up ..."
     "Married?" Mousse asked.  "No.  We'll never be married."
Ukyou braced herself against the chains, leaning in a little so she could
stare directly into Mousse's eyes.
     "Um, Mousse?  Sugar?  You beat her, right?  Now she *has* to
marry you.  That's kinda the whole point, isn't it?"  He averted his
gaze, staring at the ground between his feet, and when he spoke again
she had to strain to hear him.
     "She is now officially my fiance, yes.  But I don't want it to be
like this.  I never wanted ..."  He broke off, drawing a shaky breath.
     "Shampoo will do her duty under the law, of course.  All for the
good of the tribe.  But I'll keep her here for a while, put off the actual
marriage, until ... until I figure out what to do next."  Ukyou shook her
head.
     "I don't understand," she said softly.  Mousse's shoulders
hitched in a half-laugh, half-sob.
     "Part of her duty is to bear strong children to carry on the
traditions of our people," he whispered.  "She would carry out that
tradition.  If we were to return to the village, then ... I'd be tempted!
Can't you see that?  I'm afraid!  I'm afraid that I'd give in to that
temptation, that I'd fool myself into believing that I could get her to love
me!"  He broke off, raising his eyes to hers again, and this time they
were wet with unshed tears.  Ukyou remembered talking to Mousse the
day that Ranko and Ranma had fought in the dojo, recalled how he'd
revealed that he wanted to win Shampoo's heart, not force a marriage.
     "Once I thought I'd never be able to hurt her, but now I know
that was a lie," he whispered.  "What else might I be capable of?  All I
ever wanted was for her to love me the way I loved her!  That's all!"
Ukyou felt her own pain over Ranma's final rejection throbbing in
sympathy with his words.  "But now that'll never happen.  I have to be
strong enough to realize that, and not try to take advantage of the
situation.  I don't want to turn into one of those couples from our
village, the man using his power to force his wife to serve him, the wife
getting back at him with tiny spites that grow and fester over time."
     "But what else can you do, Mousse?  I mean, now that it's done ...
if you don't marry her, won't the situation end up being the same?"
     "Oh, the elders will believe that I intend to marry Shampoo, of
course.  Everyone in the village is aware of my feelings for her.  I'll just
tell them I wish to stay here for a time, to tie up loose ends.  That will
give me some breathing space.  Maybe I'll be able to think of a way
out of this.  Maybe ..."  Ukyou crouched down beside him, sliding her
hands down the cool, smooth chain links, until she was forced to look
up at him.
     "Mousse, she's safe for now, and that's the important thing,
right?  Stop torturing yourself, hon.  Shampoo's tough, she's a fighter,
remember?  You did what you thought was right.  That's the best you
can hope for."  She stood, holding her hand out to him.  "C'mon, sugar,
let's go pay Dr. Tofu a visit.  You'll feel better once you see that she's
gonna be okay."  He sat there, staring at the proffered hand for a long
moment, then finally reaching out tentatively, allowing Ukyou to pull him
to his feet.
     "Atta boy," she grinned.  "Let's go."  She started to drop his
hand but he squeezed it gently, causing her to turn back.
     "Ukyou, you're ... a good friend.  I just wanted to tell you
that."  Mousse spoke timidly, and Ukyou was oddly touched.  She
squeezed back and released his hand.
     "Thanks, sugar.  So are you," she replied.  "Now let's go put
your mind at ease, eh?"  He nodded and they walked out of the park,
toward the not-so-distant lights of Nerima, and all the new problems
that waited for them there.

End
Revised Nov. 10/97