A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic
All Ranma 1/2 characters copyright Rumiko Takahashi
 

CAST A LONG SHADOW
by Mark MacKinnon

Part Three: Sole Survivor

     The warm spring breeze, laden with the scent of sakura
blossoms, flowed over the dojo like a lover's caress.  The sun
beamed warmth and goodwill down on everyone under the sky.  It was
just a perfect spring day, a day when nothing bad could possibly
happen.
     Yeah.  Right.
     I looked around the table and suppressed a shudder.  It felt so
unreal, and yet at the same time familiar, that I found myself wondering
if my memories weren't all just a dream, if this wasn't my life, a simple
sunlit existence where the people I loved didn't suffer horrible deaths.
But I couldn't escape the reality of the situation, or the fact that there
was already a Ranma here.  My past was real and so was this, and
now these people, who had been placed in danger by my presence,
were waiting for an explanation.
     Yeah, it was a beautiful spring day, and I got to be the guy who
dumped a big steaming heap of foulness on it.
     "He said there'd probably be differences, but I haven't seen
any yet."  My voice sounded unnaturally loud in the room.  Everyone
was looking at me, and I realized that I hadn't made a very good start.
I grimaced, feeling self-conscious.
     "Okay, let's start at the beginning.  Apparently, there isn't just
one earth.  There's lots of them.  Some of them are almost the same,
and some are really strange.  The way Jack told it to me, I'm from one
of those worlds that's a lot like this one.  I know ... knew, all of you.  I
lived in a house just like this, at breakfast off a table just like this one
..."  My throat threatened to close up and I stopped, took a deep,
shaky breath.
     "Sorry.  This is probably going to be pretty hard to believe.
Well," I added after a second, "after what you saw out there a few
minutes ago, maybe not so hard.  Anyway, I came from another earth.
Okay?"  Nobody laughed or called me a liar, so I guessed I should go
on.  "Okay.  Well.  It was just like this one, I suppose, until about a
week and a half ago.  That's when it started."  I stopped, studying my
fingernails intently.
     "It?" Kasumi prodded me gently after a long moment.
     "I didn't pay much attention to the news at first," I muttered at
last.  "Stories from the U.S. about monsters attacking people in New
York.  Hell, nobody believed it, and anyway, it was so far away!"  I
pleaded with them to understand, as if someone had made an
accusation.  As if, had I payed attention at the start, I could have
somehow prevented what was to come.  "By late the next day, there
were pictures, footage coming in from Germany and Britain at first, then
other cities in Europe and North America.  Then everywhere.  They
were everywhere, so fast.  Nothing stopped them for long.  Somebody
would set up a line somewhere, they'd show up behind it.
     "The third day, they showed up in Japan."
     "Who?" Ryouga asked.  "Who were they?"
     "Monsters.  Demons.  Hell-spawn, ogres, oni.  What they were
called depended on where you were."  I closed my eyes, remembering.
"But they weren't human.  They were monsters, killers.  They started
showing up everywhere, killing everyone, destroying everything.
Military and police action slowed them down some.  At first.  But never
enough, and never for very long.
     "By the fourth day, we weren't getting any more news from
Europe.  What news we were still getting was all bad.  People were
literally running in the streets, screaming, praying, crying.  None of that
helped either.  It was starting to sink in that these things were invading,
and we were losing."  I stopped, glancing around the table.  All eyes
were on me, nobody even seemed to be breathing.  I gathered my
courage and told myself to just get it over with.
     "Day five."  My mouth was dry.  I tried to swallow and
couldn't.  "We ... some of us ... the phones weren't working, and ..."  I
stopped, tried to swallow again.  "We were going to get everyone
together here, decide whether to make a stand or join the crowds trying
to get out of the city.  I went out to ... to get ... and that's when ..."  I
lowered my head, feeling the hot stinging of tears in my eyes.  Hadn't I
cried all my tears already?  It seemed impossible that I had any left.
Impossible.
     A hand touched me gently on my arm.  I didn't look up to see
who it was.  I was too busy trying to will away the lump in my throat.
Finish it, I told myself angrily.  Finish it, coward, TELL THEM!
     "Ranma."  It was his mother.  His, not mine.  "It's all right.
Take your time."  I nodded, gulped a breath, then another.
     "They.  Killed.  Everyone."  I got it out, biting off the words
savagely.  "Everybody.  They came so quickly, we didn't have time, we
had no warning, and they just killed everyone."  There.  Now they
knew.  I felt a couple of rogue tears escape my clenched eyelids and
stream down my cheeks.  Looking for a happier place to be, probably.
     Ryouga broke the stunned silence.  "All of them?  Of us?
Dead?"  I nodded, swallowing hard.
     "I don't remember the time after that very clearly, but I don't
remember seeing any people at all in the time before he picked me up."
     "He?  You mean that guy?"Akane asked.  "He ... *saved*
you?"
     "Well, sort of," I said, trying to stretch my uncooperative face
into a grin.  "There I was, walking through what was left of a market,
and this door just appears in front of me.  This guy comes out and says,
 "Ranma Saotome?"  I say yes, and in we go.  He treats my wounds
and tells me that my world has ended.  Like I hadn't noticed."  I
stopped, trying to remember exactly how it had gone.
     "Apparently, he belongs to this organization that watches over
all these parallel worlds.  He said my world had gone over, or gone
bad, or something.  Anyway, he said that since I'd only die if I stayed,
he had permission to take me back to his people and put me to work
for them."
     "What?"  Everyone reacted with shock and dismay.
     "Yeah.  I started getting mad then.  I asked him why he hadn't
come sooner, why he hadn't saved some of the others.  He said ... he
told me his orders were only for me.  No one else."  I clenched my
fists, the memory washing away my grief with a white-hot tide of rage.
     "He seemed surprised when I hit him.  I told him to take me
home, but he wouldn't.  I just went crazy.  I let loose a chi blast that
messed up his ship, or whatever it was.  He said that we were travelling
between the parallel worlds and when I damaged the ship he landed
here.  I ... convinced him to let me out.  I guess he was pretty unhappy
when he regained consciousness."  I grinned, but nobody else did.
After a second, I let the grin slip away.
     "And when I got away, I was here.  At first, it was like it had all
been a bad dream, but it didn't take me long to figure out that he'd
been telling the truth.  This wasn't my home.  I started following Akane
and Ranma around because, well, because I didn't know what else to
do.  And I still don't.  I don't belong here.  I don't belong anywhere
anymore.
     "And that's the whole damn story."  It wasn't, actually.  I'd left
out a lot of things, things I'd rather not talk about, but I didn't figure
anyone would be pushing too hard.  The expressions on their faces said
it all.  They believed me all right, which left them in the unenviable
position of having to decide how to feel about the deaths of a bunch of
people that they'd never met, whose existence they'd never been
aware of, but with whom they none the less shared a strange sort of
bond.
     They had to ponder the reality of their own mortality, their own
deaths.  But at least they hadn't had to *watch* it happen.  As an
uncomfortable silence settled on the room the day, oblivious to my pain,
continued to be glorious.  Birds sang, the sun shone, and somewhere
nearby, children squealed in delight.  My whole world, my whole *life*,
was gone, swallowed up by the shadows, but life went on like normal
for everyone else.  Nobody was going to bury the dead, erect markers
for them, cry for them.  Remember them.  Nobody but me.
     I was the last, and at that moment I felt alone in a way I don't
think I could ever really explain.  All alone.
     "Ranma."  The voice pulled me back from the dizzying depths
of the blackness with an almost physical force.  I blinked and looked
up.  Mother.  I couldn't think of her any other way, even though she
wasn't truly my mother.  Her expression was so tender, so warm that I
felt the lump forming again in my throat.  She smiled, so gently, at my
expression.
     "I'm so sorry for what you've been through," she said quietly.  "I
don't know if any of us can truly understand what you're feeling, or how
being here amongst the faces of those you lost must hurt.  But you
aren't alone any longer.  We can help you get through this."  I bowed
my head and sighed loudly.
     "Thank-you, mo ... Mrs. Saotome."  God, that sounded weird!
"But I can't stay here now.  Jack knows where I am, and he'll be
coming after me again.  I can't put you all in danger like that.  I'll just
go."
     "Ranma."  Her tone had changed.  It wasn't the cold, steely
tone she'd used with Jack, or the warm, maternal tone she'd used
earlier in the dojo or just now with me.  It was a combination of the
two, pleasant but firm, tolerating no argument.  "Would you have us
abandon you, just when you need friends the most?  Would you ask us
to act so dishonourably?  After you saved Akane's life, that would be
an unforgivable sin.  I, for one, have no intention of just giving you to
these people."  I stared.  I was beginning to understand why pop had
been afraid of her all those years.  She was one tough lady, and she
made it very hard to say no.  She turned to Mr. Tendou, and cocked
an eyebrow.  He nodded, his arms crossed.
     "That's right, boy.  You can stay here as long as you like," he
said firmly.  "When that thug comes back, he'll taste the wrath of the
Anything Goes school of Martial Arts!"
     "But .." I said.
     "How far are you gonna run, Ranma?" Ryouga asked.
Now *that* was unfair, using my own words on me.  "You told me that
you'd run a very long way, and it hadn't helped.  Remember?  It won't
help, either.  Sooner or later you'll have to stop running and make a
stand.  It should be here, where you won't have to do it alone."
     "No matter who you are, or where you're from, you're still
Ranma.  We won't let anyone just take you away," Akane added.
When she noticed everyone looking at her, she blushed furiously.
"What?" she asked crossly.  Mother smiled gently.
     "Akane speaks the truth, Ranma.  You have survived a great
tragedy, and fate has led you here.  You are among friends now.  We
will not just abandon you."  The much abused voice of my conscience
began screaming again, telling me that I shouldn't listen to them, that my
presence could only mean trouble for these people.  That little voice
hadn't been winning many arguments lately, though, and this time
wasn't going to be an exception.  I felt a loosening of the tension
around my heart, and dared to hope.
     I looked around at the faces surrounding me, and felt something that
I hadn't felt for what seemed like a very long time.
     Joy.
     I felt like I had come home.

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

     Jack sat slumped in a floating chair, fumbling idly with his side
arm.  A voice that emanated from the air brought him out of his reverie.
     "I hate to say  I told you so ...'" Scooter began smugly.
     "No you don't."
     "Okay, have it your way.   I TOLD YOU SO!!  You feel better
now?"
     "Frankly, no."
     "Well, good, because frankly this thing's been an unmitigated
disaster.  The only good feature of this whole debacle is that it's not our
problem anymore."  Jack stared idly at the light gleaming on the barrel
of his gun, and said nothing.
     "Because its obvious we have to call in the Ops team now," Scooter
continued with forced cheer.  Jack holstered the gun and stored it in it's
cubbyhole.
     "Right?" Scooter asked weakly.  Jack sat back and crossed his
arms.
     "AW C'MON!  You weren't serious about giving him a couple
of days to think this over, were you?"  Jack closed his eyes.
     "  Fraid so."  The command deck was silent for a few moments.
     "Would you like to know precisely how many regulations that
action would violate?  I mean on top of the fourteen we've already
broken."
     "Not really."
     "Well then, let me put it this way.  Shetney'll bloody well kill us
both."
     "You're an AI," Jack reminded him.
     "Then she'll dismantle me!  Dammit, Jack, what are you
thinking?"  Jack looked at the ceiling idly, swivelling his chair back and
forth.  Scooter sighed.  "Never mind.  I think I know you well enough
to know where this is coming from."
     "I wouldn't count on that."
     "Listen.  We are a patrol unit.  We aren't set up for this sort of
thing."  Scooter spoke in short, concise sentences, trying to reason with
his commander.  "Ops is.  We should call them in now."
     "Those ham-handed yahoos'll just make a mess.  Look, I
know what I'm doing.  What's the compatibility index on this world
compared with Saotome's home?"  A screen lit up on one of the
curved walls, showing two transparent globes.  One said Terra
Designate 413, the other Terra Designate 417.  The two images moved
over top of each other slowly until they were perfectly aligned.  Jack
whistled.
     "Ninety-six point four one percent.  Damn, that's close."
     "Damn, that's bad!  He'll be almost the same as his
counterpart!" Scooter wailed.  "Jaaaaack ..."
     "You're going to have to trust me on this," Jack replied
absently, studying the screen.  "Give him some time to get over the
shock, get used to the reality of his situation."
     "Central really wants this guy, Jack.  They'd have sent every
Ops team Sector has if TD 413 hadn't gone over with so little warning.
We can't afford to play a hunch here!"
     "Why was there a panda there, anyway?" Jack asked.  Scooter
stopped abruptly.  There was a brief silence.
     "You didn't read the mission briefing?" he asked incredulously.
     "I'm a Patrol Officer, not some Ops bagger.  Shetney pulled us off
sector patrol because of the emergency ..."
     "You didn't read the mission briefing."
     "Priority one extraction on a world in chaos ..."
     "I can't believe you didn't read ..."
     "I *skimmed* it, okay?  I programmed the guy's signature into
the sensors ..."
     "Big deal.  He was easy to find, he was just about the only
human life signature left in that part of the city!  Finding him in a densely
populated urban environment like this will be a lot harder!"
     "He won't run."  Jack sighed, rubbing his face with both hands.
"Look, I speak from experience.  If we try to force the issue now, it's
just going to cause problems later.  It'll be better for everyone if he
decides to come along on his own."
     "Sector'll kill us if they find out about this," Scooter said at last.
Jack grunted.
     "Then let's not tell them.  Work with me a little, okay?  Forty
eight hours, that's all I'm asking for.  Then, if my way doesn't work, we
call in reinforcements."  There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
Finally, Scooter sighed noisily.
     "You don't pull this off, Sector's gonna bury both of us," he
muttered.
     "Artificial Intelligences don't sigh, you know."
     "Bite me."

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

     The dinner dishes had been cleared away and the Tendous and
Saotomes sat around the table.  They had all avoided probing too
deeply into the new Ranma's past, although it was by no means certain
whether this was to spare Ranma the pain of remembering, or because
nobody wanted to consider the fates of their counterparts.  Talk turned
idly to the logistics of the situation.
     "So, what are we going to call you?" Nabiki asked Ranma.  He
looked puzzled.
     "What do you mean?"
     "I mean," she said, "that we already have a Ranma Saotome in
our midst.  Every time somebody calls your name, both of you are
going to answer.  We should have something to call you."
     "But that's my name," he protested.  Nabiki's eyes narrowed
thoughtfully.  Then, without warning, she upended her water glass on
Ranma's head.
     "Hey!  What'd you do that for?" the wet now-redhead
squealed in outrage.  Nabiki grinned.
     "I just wanted to make sure," she said.
     "You enjoyed that," Ranma-chan grumbled, wringing excess
water from her shirt.
     "Moi?" Nabiki asked innocently.  Everyone at the table looked
at her closely.
     "Now that they're both girls," Genma said slowly, "you can see
how much they look alike."
     "Identical," Soun agreed.
     "Oh, my," Kasumi said.
     "So my idea," Nabiki said, "is this: Meet Ranma and Ranko
Saotome."
     "What?!" the two Ranmas chorused.
     "That's a dumb idea," Akane said.  "You want Ranma to stay
as a girl all the time?  He'll never agree to that, Nabiki!"
     "Damn right I won't!" Ranma-chan growled.  His expression
changed to surprise as Nodoka laughed.
     "Well, I don't think you have to stay as a girl, but you could use
the name, couldn't you?  After all, you've used it in the past."  Her eyes
twinkled with mischief as both Ranmas looked uncomfortable.  They
didn't like being reminded that they'd spent a good deal of time lying to
Nodoka.
     "Yeah, you don't have to officially change your name.  Just
think of it as a nickname," Nabiki said.
     "And you should really start dressing differently," Kasumi
chipped in.
     "But I like dressing like this!" Ranko-chan protested.
     "Yeah," Ranma-chan agreed.  "It's comfortable and suits both
our forms."
     "Well, perhaps different coloured shirts, then," Kasumi mused.
The conversation was taken up in earnest, leaving the two Ranmas
looking sheepish.
     "Sorry, man.  It looks like I'm making your life even more
complicated," Ranko-chan grimaced.
     "Hey, no problem," Ranma-chan sighed.  "Life around here is
always pretty complicated.  Come on, let's go take a bath.  At least we
won't have to spend the rest of the night this way."  Ranko-chan's eyes
lit up at the mention of a bath.  The two excused themselves and
headed upstairs.
     "Well, Akane, aren't you lucky?" Nabiki asked.
     "What do you mean?"
     "Well," she drawled lazily, "now you've got *two* fiancés,
right?  If you're fighting with one, you can just go to the other one.
Right?"  Akane's face turned an alarming shade of scarlet.
     "Nabiki!" Kasumi blurted, shocked.
     "I ... I'd never ... I mean ..."  Akane seemed to have lost the
power of speech.
     "You mean you haven't even thought about it?" Nabiki teased.
Akane continued to splutter.  It was obvious that she hadn't.
     Nodoka didn't smile.  The situation had arisen so suddenly that
she didn't think any of them had grasped the full implications of
Ranma's ... make that Ranko's presence.  If he was indeed another
version of her son, did he share Ranma's feelings about Akane?  And if
he did, what then?
     For the first time, Nodoka began to understand just how
complicated the situation could become.

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

     The newly-christened Ranko-chan had just finished running the
bath when Ranma-chan came into the bathroom with some towels and
clean clothes.  She set them in a stack on the floor and turned to see
Ranko-chan shimmying out of her pants.  Ranma-chan suddenly felt
oddly uncomfortable as Ranko-chan's shirt hit the floor.  She was
looking at the back of a nude woman.
     "Get a hold of yourself," she told herself sternly.  "She's a guy
and so are you, and you've seen that body hundreds of times before."
Still, she felt strange the whole thing.  She was beginning to understand
why people freaked out when she ran around the house half-naked.
     "Whew.  I haven't had a bath in days," Ranko-chan sighed,
poking the untidy heap of clothing with one toe.  "And these clothes
have seen better days ... huh?"  She turned, giving Ranma-chan a full
view of her naked body, and frowned.  "Hey, what the hell are you
looking at, pervert?  I expect this from Kunou, not from you!"
Ranma-chan was about to reply when something caught her eye.  She
leaned in close, staring at Ranko-chan's chest.
     "HEY CUT THAT OUT!" Ranko-chan squealed, crossing her
arms.
     "Relax.  I was just wondering about these scars," Ranma-chan
murmured, pointing.  Ranko-chan looked down.
     "Oh," she said, slightly mollified.  Three narrow white scars
travelled from just above her navel, angling up and tracing across the
underside of her left breast before terminating just below the shoulder.
Ranma-chan could see a few smaller, fainter cuts that appeared almost
healed.
     "Old wounds, huh?"
     "Nope."  Ranko-chan stepped onto the tiles and doused herself
with cold water.  "Pretty recent, actually."  She stepped into the
steaming water and ducked herself under while Ranma-chan shucked
her clothes.  When he surfaced, gasping happily, Ranma-chan crouched
down and rinsed herself.
     "Recent?  You know some quick-healing technique or something?"
Ranko shook his head as Ranma-chan plunged into the tub, settling
back with a contented groan.
     "It was Jack.  He has some pretty high-tech stuff in that thing he
travels around in.  He threw my clothes in a machine that repaired all
the rips and tears and got the blood out ..."  Ranko trailed off at the
mention of blood.  Ranma grunted.
     "So the guy lets all those people die, but rescues you, heals
your wounds and does your bloody laundry?  What is with this guy
anyway?"
     "I guess you get treated well if you happen to be somebody his
bosses can use," Ranko said bitterly.  "If I ever meet the people he
works for, I'll show them just what I think of their policies."  Ranma
splashed idly, watching his double's face.  Ranko was staring at the
surface of the bath water, seemingly mesmerized by the play of light on
the wavelets.  "I'll make them pay," he whispered.  Ranma shifted
uneasily.
     "Why do you think this guy gave you forty-eight hours, though?
Why give you any time at all?"  Ranko shrugged.
     "Who knows why these people do anything?  When he comes
back, though, I intend to be ready for him."  Now that was an idea
Ranma could get behind.  They'd need to get all non-combatants out of
the dojo first, of course.  This guy had a gun, but they could get around
that.  Ranma stared again at his double, feeling the itch of something
nagging him deep in the back of his mind.  Looking at Ranko was
beginning to make him feel uncomfortable for some reason he couldn't
quite identify.  Or maybe for some reason he didn't *want* to identify.
     "Hey," he thought, "I brought him here.  I trusted him.  This is no
time to be second guessing myself."  Ranko looked up to find Ranma
staring at him.  He favoured the other boy with a lopsided grin.
     "Just like looking in a mirror, huh?"  Ranma's expression
clouded at that, then he forced a grin.
     "Yeah, kinda," he said cheerfully.  Ranko frowned.
     "What the hell was that look for?" he wondered.  Ranma
looked at him.
     "What?" he asked.  Ranko saw no sign of the dark expression that
had crossed his double's face only moments before, and decided to let
it go.
     "Nothing."
     "Hey, sorry you got stuck being called Ranko, pal," Ranma
said.  "Maybe we can come up with something better between us,
huh?"
     "I'm just glad they didn't let Akane give me a name," Ranko
said.  "They'd be calling me R-chan."  Ranma burst out laughing.  After
a second, Ranko joined in.  Ranma glanced at Ranko, still chuckling,
and told himself that everything was going to be okay.  Everything
would work out.
     But still, the nagging doubt remained in the back of his mind.
Quiet for now, but waiting.
 

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

     Genma and Nodoka strolled through the gathering gloom in the
Tendou's garden.  It was a warm evening, redolent with the scent of
sakura blossoms.  Perfect for a lover's stroll.  Unfortunately, that was
not what was transpiring.
     "I will be spending more time here now," Nodoka said.  "Soun
has said he will be more than happy to have me here."
     "Of course.  The girls adore you.  Have you thought of asking
Tendou about moving in temporarily?  Or we could join you back
home ..."
     "Genma."  Nodoka's expression turned stormy.  "We are not
having this conversation again."  They were both silent for a moment,
then Nodoka sighed and eased herself down on a large rock next to the
carp pond, carefully sweeping her kimono out with one hand so it hung
gracefully.  Genma plopped down beside her with somewhat less
grace, and sighed.
     "Perhaps, in light of recent events, we *should* have this
conversation again," he said finally, trying not to show his nervousness.
     "Ten years.  That is a very long time to be apart.  On top of that,
you lied to me, kept my son from me deliberately after your ... accident.
Stories of your behaviour during your training journey continue to
disgust me.  For Ranma's sake, and for our family's honour, I suppose
we shall have to reconcile eventually.  But not just yet.  You've become
a stranger to me, Genma.  Sometimes I wonder if I ever knew you at
all."  She fell silent, leaving Genma to watch disconsolately as a stray
sakura blossom sailed by on an errant breeze.
     A night for lovers, indeed.
     "There will be time to speak of our own troubles, husband.  I
wished to speak to you tonight about Ranma."
     "Which one?"
     "Both, as a matter of fact."  She shifted, gazing up at the
darkening sky.  "Ranma spent a great deal of his youth with you,
lacking contact with other children."  Genma opened his mouth to
object.  She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.  "I am not
laying blame, Genma, simply stating the facts.  Please just listen."  He
shut his mouth, nodding reluctantly.  "Ranma had little experience in
socializing with other children," she went on.  "Also, he was an only
child.  I am somewhat concerned with how he will react to having an
instant  brother'.
     "I am much more concerned with Ranko.  His situation is unique, to
say the least.  I am uncertain whether being around all of us will be a
help or a hindrance to him in dealing with his loss.  There is simply no
way I know of to predict how he will react to being here."  She turned
to gaze calmly at her husband.  Genma caught his breath as the setting
sun picked out crimson highlights in her hair.  She could still take his
breath away, just by looking at him.
     "And?" he asked, to show he was listening.
     "One thing I do know is that Ranma has never been any good
at talking about his feelings," she continued, favouring him with a faint
smile.  "I think we've both seen the trouble that has caused him with his
fiancé.  I suspect that Ranko is much the same as Ranma, or at least he
was before the tragedy which struck his home.  He is trying to be
strong, holding everything inside.  It will be difficult to get him to talk
about his loss, but I thought it might be helpful if you and Ranma were
to train with him, help him relieve some tension.  Make him feel at
home.  Perhaps that will allow him to open up."  Genma grinned.
     "Of course!  That's a wonderful idea, Nodoka.  I'd be happy
to do whatever I can to help."  Genma was glad she hadn't asked him
to try to draw Ranko out.  He knew he was no good at talking things
out.  He only had to look at Ranma to see that.  Ranma would sooner
fight a hundred opponents than admit to weakness or need.  And he
would rather fight a thousand opponents than admit he sometimes felt
guilty about that.
     "Good."
     "I would like to say something, however."  She raised one eyebrow
questioningly.  "If ... no, when Ranko's pursuer returns, I hope you will
show more sense than you did today.  Really, Nodoka, threatening a
gunman with a katana?"  She crossed her legs, swinging one foot idly as
she continued to gaze off into the gathering dark.
     "Oh, very well, husband.  I was, after all, just trying to distract
him while he was threatening Akane.  And I did have a rather large and
gallant panda to shelter behind."  Genma blinked.  Gallant?  Nodoka
rose to her feet gracefully and looked down at her stunned husband.
     "You do have your moments, Genma.  Perhaps I should keep
you after all," she murmured.  Then she began walking back to the
house.  She stopped and cast a cool glance over her shoulder.
"Coming?"  He nodded and jumped to his feet.
     The pair walked through the now dark garden to the lights of
the veranda, Genma's head spinning.  He still harboured suspicions that
she was far too good for him, but he supposed it was just possible that
there still might be a chance.
     If he could just keep from screwing it up.

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

     The morning had dawned clear and bright, and the rising sun was
quickly chasing the night's chill from Nerima's streets.  Akane finished
her morning run, feeling pleasantly winded as she trotted through the
dojo's front gates.  She walked around to the garden, sweat trickling
down between her shoulder blades, and pulled off her headband,
wiping more sweat off her face with the ends of the towel around her
neck.
     The sight in the yard was a familiar one.  Genma and Ranma
were bounding around the yard, engaging each other with various
techniques.  Then she noticed another Ranma sitting on the veranda,
watching the pair.  She shook her head.  She still couldn't tell which one
was which.  This was going to take a lot of getting used to.
     Akane walked over and perched tentatively on the deck next to
Ranma.  Or Ranko.  She studied him for a moment, trying to figure out
which one he was.  She started when he turned and caught her at it.
     "Can't figure it out, huh?" he asked dryly, as if he had read her
thoughts.  She chuckled, a trifle guiltily, and shook her head.
     "Sorry," she said sheepishly.  He grunted and turned his
attention back to the sparring pair.
     "Pop wanted to train with Ranko this morning.  Asked me to sit
out," he said shortly.  Akane frowned.  It sounded like something was
bothering Ranma, and she didn't like the way he was studying the
practice.  Something about the way he followed his father and Ranko
as they bounced around the yard was disturbing.  Almost desperate.  A
funny suspicion began to form in the back of her mind.
     "Couldn't be," she thought.  "No way."
     Out loud, she asked, "So how's he doing?"
     "Not in my league."  Ranma's flat response surprised her.  She
frowned and watched the practice for a few moments.  Ranko's timing
seemed to be a little off, but to her trained eye if he wasn't as good as
Ranma he was damned close..
     "He's probably just tired," she said at last, watching for Ranma's
reaction.  His mouth twitched into a slight frown.
     "Yeah, well, none of us slept all that well last night, did we?"
Akane sighed, remembering.
     She'd been dragged roughly from a deep sleep by the sound of
an anguished scream.  Barely recognizing it as Ranma's voice, she'd
raced to his room, beating Nabiki and Kasumi there.  But of course, it
hadn't been Ranma, but Ranko.  He'd been huddled on his tangled
bedding, trembling, his body sheathed in a cold sweat.
     Akane shivered herself despite the warmth of the morning.  She
didn't want to imagine what sort of nightmare could cause someone to
scream that way.  It was probably to be expected, after all.  Ranko
must have seen some pretty horrible things.  She was just glad that
Kasumi had been there.  Her mothering instinct had taken over and she
had soothed Ranko's frayed nerves, stroking his hair gently as she sent
Nabiki for some dry bedding.  In fact, Akane had felt a little bit jealous
at first, thinking that she should be taking care of him, until she
remembered that she wasn't looking at her fiancé.  The shaken Ranko
had just kept apologizing over and over for the trouble he'd caused.  It
was nothing, he kept insisting.  Nothing.  Everybody go back to sleep.
     Eventually, everybody had gone back to their rooms.  Thinking
back, though, Akane realized that Ranma hadn't had anything to say
during the whole episode.  And he'd been looking at Ranko with a
strange expression then, too.  Watched as Ranko was the centre of
attention.
     She shook her head angrily.  Ranma wasn't petty like that.  He
couldn't be jealous of ... of himself.  Could he?
     It was so strange.  The two Ranmas really did look so much alike,
but ...
     But.  She remembered Ranko crouched on his bedding, shaking.
He'd seemed so *vulnerable*.  Her heart had gone out to him, seeing
his pain even as he tried so hard to hold it in, to look strong.  The way
her Ranma always did.
     Her Ranma.  She sneaked a look at his stiff profile out of the corner
of her eye.  It was funny to think of him that way.  After all, what claim
did she have to him?  A betrothal neither of them had asked for?  He
was always insulting her, or hurting her feelings by going off with one of
his other "fiancés", or even coming to her rescue.  But was that the
basis of a real relationship?  He never seemed to *need* her.  Even
after all they'd been through, he'd never managed to sit down and say
he wanted her, he needed her, he ... loved her.  How was she
supposed to know for sure how he felt?  How long could they go on
this way?  Seeing Ranko in pain, and not knowing how to respond,
only brought to the forefront her doubts about whether Ranma really
needed her at all.
     And now he was acting so strangely.  Having Ranko in the dojo
had to be hard for him, but he'd been through so much, lost everything.
Surely Ranma could show a little compassion.
     Akane thought again about the night before, wondered if she
should bring up Ranma's jealousy.  No, she decided, even if I'm right
he'll just deny it.
     "Ranma," she said instead, "I wanted to talk to you.  About
what I said on the way to school yesterday ..."
     "Forget it," he said brusquely, still watching the odd pair bound
around the yard.  Genma caught Ranma in a sloppily executed attack
and twisted, heaving him into the pond.
     "No, I won't forget it," Akane responded, beginning to get
angry.  "I shouldn't have said it.  I ..."
     "Akane," Ranma said, "do you remember how your hair got
cut?"  She stopped, puzzled for a moment.
     "What?  Oh, you mean ..." she trailed off, remembering how
Ryouga's spinning blade had dropped, shearing off her long hair while
he and Ranma were fighting that time.  Ranma turned to face her, his
expression uncharacteristically serious.
     It wasn't hard to figure out where this conversation was going.
     "And that time after the skating competition, when you tried to
stop me and Ryouga ..."
     "Ranma."
     "... from fighting and fell off the diving board ..."
     "Ranma!  Just stop it."  He stopped and looked away.
     "You had a right to say that, Akane, because it's true."  His face
remained expressionless.  "If you think about it, I've put you in danger
more times than either of us can count, almost from the day we met."
     Akane felt her anger rising, and fought it.  "Ranma Saotome, don't
be an idiot.  Do you think I ever needed help getting hurt?  I was a
rambunctious kid, always coming home with a scraped knee or a
bruise.  I played hard, and I took my knocks."  She paused,
remembering.  "After my mother died, I got into fights sometimes," she
said quietly.  Ranma looked surprised.  "I didn't need you or Ryouga to
help me get into trouble then, and I don't now.  I don't need to be
protected or treated like I'm fragile, okay?  Why don't you stop
treating me like a child and talk to me?"  Ranma scowled.
     "That's not what I'm doing."
     "Yes, it is!"  Before she could continue, Kasumi came out of
the house.
     "Oh, Ranma, Akane ... oh.  You are Ranma, aren't you?"
     "Yeah," Ranma growled.  If she was taken aback by his tone,
Kasumi didn't show it.
     "I just heard on the radio that all classes at Furinkan are
cancelled today.  There are some burst pipes or something, and the
school is flooded.  Since tomorrow is Sunday, you get a long
week-end."  Kasumi beamed benignly, as if she had arranged the whole
thing, and Akane grinned back.  She turned to Ranma, only to see his
attention once more focussed on the training match.  Ranko-chan was
now tangling with a damp panda, indicating that she'd managed to get
at least one good shot in.
     "Come on, you two," Kasumi called.  "Breakfast is ready!"
They stopped immediately and made a bee-line for the house.  If
Akane hadn't known better, she'd have sworn she was watching
Ranma and his father on a typical morning.  With one last look at her
uncommunicative fiancé, she headed in for breakfast.
     Soon, they were all gathered around the table except for Nabiki.
     "Kasumi, where's Nabiki?" Soun asked, sounding concerned.
Akane sighed.  Their father had been in an overprotective mood ever
since her near-accident.
     "I don't know, father.  As soon as she found out about school
being cancelled she said she had something to do.  I haven't seen her
since."
     "She's up to something," Akane sighed.
     "Probably going to rent the school some mops or something,"
Ranko-chan said.  She and Akane both chuckled at that.  Ranma didn't
join in.  He poked listlessly at his food, watching Ranko-chan and his
father jousting over breakfast.  Akane had decided to let Ranma get
some sulking out of his system before trying to talk to him again, so he
had nothing to distract him.  Kasumi came back in from the kitchen with
two yellow kettles, and Ranko-chan and Mr. Panda reverted back to
their natural forms.
     Ranma may have been in an uncharacteristically quiet mood,
but Ranko more than made up for it by acting the way Ranma usually
did.  As a result, breakfast was the usual raucous affair, unlike the
previous day.  There was one exception to the routine, however;
Ranko and Akane didn't end up fighting the way Akane and Ranma
usually did.  In fact, they chatted easily on inconsequential matters.
     This fact did not escape Ranma's attention.
     "How are you feeling this morning, Ranko?" Kasumi asked as
the dishes were finally being cleared away.  He laughed
self-consciously.
     "Oh, ah, fine," he mumbled.  "Sorry again about last night."
     "That must have been a very frightening nightmare," Kasumi
said gently.  "I was scared just hearing your scream."
     "You were scared?  Try sleeping next to him!  I nearly had a
heart attack!" Ranma snorted.  Akane turned on him angrily.
     "Ranma!  What a terrible thing to say!"  He had the grace to
look embarrassed.
     "Uh, sorry, man.  I didn't mean anything by that," he said to Ranko
contritely.  Ranko looked uncomfortable at the whole exchange.
     "No problem.  Let's just forget it, okay?"  Ranma looked more
than willing, but Akane was still glaring at her hapless fiancé.
     "If you want to talk about it, Ranko ..." Kasumi continued.
     "Uh, thanks, Kasumi.  I'll remember that."  Fortunately, he was
saved further awkwardness by Nabiki's arrival.
     "Oh, hello, Nabiki.  I'm afraid you missed breakfast," Kasumi
said in greeting.
     "That's okay, sis.  I've eaten."  Ranma frowned.  Something
seemed strange about Nabiki.  She was practically *glowing*.  She
favoured the room with a benevolent smile, her eyes sparkling merrily.
     "Isn't it a glorious day?" she added.  Everyone was watching
her in various states of amazement.
     "You must have just made a lot of money," Akane said finally,
a faint hint of accusation in her voice.  Nabiki blinked.
     "Akane.  I didn't just make "a lot of money."  I conceived and
then executed a flawless scheme.  Which, not incidentally, made me a
lot of money."
     "What scheme?" Ranma asked suspiciously.  She beamed
smugly in his general direction.
     "Oh, I expect you'll find out soon enough," she said, tossing a
regal wave over her shoulder as she turned to go upstairs.  Ranma
frowned.  He could never read Nabiki, never penetrate her facade that
was by turns casual, sarcastic and smug.  He wasn't sure he'd ever
caught a glimpse of the girl behind the facade, he wasn't even certain
there was anything behind it.  In that moment, however, he experienced
a moment of absolute certainty that Nabiki had just done something
very, very bad.
     Then the moment passed and he heaved a sigh.  How could it
be any worse than the extortion, blackmail and petty schemes that she
usually got up to?  Anyway, he had more important things to worry
about than Nabiki.  He watched Akane and Ranko laughing over a
shared joke, and frowned again.  If he and Ranko were so much alike,
then why was he getting along with Akane so well?  Why couldn't
anyone else see how different they were?
     "Good morning, everybody."  Ranma looked up from his funk
to see his mother standing there.  She looked at the three of them,
puzzled.  "Ranma, shouldn't you and Akane be in school?"  She
addressed the question to Akane and Ranko, who were sitting
together.  Ranma sighed and spoke up.
     "School was cancelled today, mother."  She realized her
mistake and had the good grace to look embarrassed.
     "Oh.  Well, anyway.  Ranko, could I speak to you for a
moment?"  Ranma noticed she had a plain brown bag in one hand.
Ranko looked puzzled at the request but got up and left the room with
her.  Ranma sighed again.  He was definitely beginning to feel a little put
upon.
     "I don't believe it," Akane said in a flat tone of voice.  Ranma
looked up, not knowing what to expect this time.  He saw nothing out
of the ordinary.
     "What?" he asked at last.  She leaned forward and stared at
him in a way that made him distinctly uncomfortable.
     "You.  You're *sulking*.  I can't believe you're being so
small."
     "What the hell are you talking about?" he asked with equal
parts irritation and anger.
     "You're jealous of Ranko because he's the centre of attention."
Ranma gaped at her.  "It's true, isn't it?  You've been moping around
all morning!  Can't you see that everyone is just trying to help him get
over the terrible things that happened to him?"
     "You're crazy!" Ranma blurted.  "That's just not true!"
     "Face it, Ranma.  You're just used to being in the middle of
everything, and now you have to share the spotlight, and you don't find
that at all to your liking, do you?"  Ranma couldn't believe what he was
hearing.  It would have been bad enough coming from anyone else, but
hearing Akane say those things cut deeply.  She hurt him, and he
instinctively lashed out.
     "Hey, if that's the way you feel, why don't you just marry *him*
then?" he snapped, jumping to his feet and storming out of the house.
He savoured the image of her shocked face as he headed toward the
dojo, looking for something to take out his frustrations on, only to be
brought up short by someone stepping in front of him.
     Ryouga.
     "Hey, man, I was just thinking of you," Ranma said with an evil
grin.  "Took you longer than usual to get from the bathroom to the
breakfast table, eh, P-chan?"  Ranma was counting on Ryouga rising to
that P-chan taunt like a fish taking bait.  It always worked like a charm.
Except, of course, this time.  Ryouga just stared at him, frowning.
     "I heard what she said," he said finally.  Ranma, half into his
stance already, lowered his arms and growled.
     "Look, P-chan, we gonna talk or we gonna fight?"  A ghost of
a smile flitted across Ryouga's face.
     "Talk, I think.  I've been having some interesting conversations
lately, Ranma, and I think this one would be just as interesting.  Akane
was right about one thing, something has been riding you hard ever
since Ranko told us his story yesterday.  Want to talk about it?"
Ranma stared at Ryouga in disbelief.
     "All right," he said finally, "who are you and what have you
done with the real Ryouga Hibiki?"
     "Your mother gave us quite a lecture the other day about
discipline, remember?  I know I won't soon forget it.  She can be
pretty tough when she wants to be.  I'm not surprised your old man's
afraid of her."
     "It doesn't take much to scare him," Ranma snorted.  "Now stop
fooling around and let's scrap!"  Ranma started making piggy sounds.
     "C'mon, Ranma.  This once I'm not getting mad.  I want to know
what's going on.  This isn't like you, brooding over a problem.  Usually
you just tackle everything head on, even when you shouldn't.
*Especially* when you shouldn't."  Ranma just stared and Ryouga
struggled to explain himself, a situation he definitely wasn't accustomed
to.  "Try spending some time as a pig, buddy.  People talk as though
you're not even there.  I've seen and heard things in the last couple of
days that are starting to make me worry."
     "I can handle this, Ryouga."
Ryouga paused, eyes narrowing thoughtfully.  "Do you really think
Akane likes him better than you?  Is that it?"
     "You wouldn't understand," Ranma muttered.  Ryouga burst
out laughing.
     "Oh, sure I would!  You finally know how it feels to be me!  You
finally have to compete for Akane's heart!  Oh, that's perfect!"  He
laughed so hard that he finally had to lean against the wall of the house
for support while Ranma watched him impassively.  This conversation
was not at all to his liking.  If Ryouga wasn't going to fight, he needed
to find someone who would.
     "That wasn't what I meant ..." Ranma began tersely.
     "Ran-chan!"
     "Uc-chan?"  He turned to see Ukyou standing behind him,
dressed in her boy's school uniform, looking around warily.  "What're
you doing here?"
     "Is it true?  Did you find the other Ranma?  Where is he?"  She
looked around anxiously.  "He didn't leave, did he?"  Ranma and
Ryouga looked at each other, stunned.
     "Hold it.  How did you know he was here?" Ranma asked.
     "Nihao!"  A lithe form bounded around the corner, drawing up
short as she saw Ukyou.  "Why you here, spatula girl?  Nabiki say she
sell information exclusive to Shampoo."  She looked very put out.
Ukyou turned and matched her expression.
     "What?" she snapped angrily.  "But she told me ..."
     "Oh, no," Ranma groaned.  "She didn't."
     "She did," Ryouga confirmed.  A strange, lilting laugh rose up
on the calm morning air and Ranma fancied he could see some black
rose petals mixed in with the pink sakura blossoms.
     This was bad.  Very, very bad.

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

     I followed Ranma's mother out of the room, lost in thought.  It
was clear to me that something was bothering Ranma, and it didn't take
a genius to figure out that I was the cause.  Maybe, after having some
time to think about it, he was regretting his decision to bring me here.
After all, he had enough problems in the course of a day without a
double running around the place.  I should probably have tried to talk
to him about it, but to tell the truth, I was nervous.  What if he said he
wanted me to leave?  I had just begun to accept the idea that I might
have someplace, a sanctuary.  I didn't want to face having to leave so
soon.
     "How are you doing this morning, Ranko?"  I started, realized I
hadn't been paying attention.
     "Oh, ah, fine, mo ... Mrs. Saotome."  She frowned gently at
that.
     "Ranko, please don't be so formal.  You may call me mother if
you like."  I froze
     ( and near the soiled blade, a bloodstained shred of kimono )
     feeling the blood drain from my face.  She saw my expression
and dropped the bag, reaching out to place her hands on my shoulders.
     "I'm sorry, Ranko, I shouldn't have said that.  I was very
thoughtless."  I tried to laugh.
     "No, I ..."
     "Ranko, you recently lost your mother.  I am not trying to take
her place.  I just don't want you to treat me as a stranger."  I looked at
the floor, unable to meet her eyes, and shuddered.  She squeezed my
shoulders gently.
     "I am not your mother, but we are family in a strange way, are
we not?  All the family you have left."  I looked up at that, looked into
her tender, compassionate gaze, and found I had nothing to say.  She
smiled softly at my expression.  "Perhaps you would consent to call me
Auntie.  Like the girls do.  Would that be all right?"  Wordlessly, I
nodded.  I couldn't believe the intensity of the emotions that had risen
so quickly in me.  One minute I was feeling good, the next there was a
lump in my throat the size of P-chan.  It seemed I'd been fooling myself
about how well I could handle things.
     I wondered how long I'd be a rider on the roller coaster of
grief and regret.
     "Oh," my new Auntie said finally, "I nearly forgot.  This is for
you."  She bent down and retrieved the bag from the floor, handing it to
me with a smile.  I blinked stupidly.
     "What's this?"
     "I thought it would be a good idea to get you some clothes.
Ranma doesn't have many to spare, and if you two don't stop dressing
exactly alike, we'll never be able to tell you apart.  Why don't you go
try them on?"
     "Mo ... Auntie, you didn't have to do that," I protested weakly.
She waved off my protests airily.
     "I'm entitled to spoil my favourite nephew a little," she said
primly.  "Now why don't you go try them on?"
     So I did.  I found myself standing in front of the bathroom
mirror, turning side-to-side tentatively.  My new outfit wasn't all that
different from what I usually wore.  It consisted of a black
Chinese-style tunic with a high collar and matching black pants.  A
crimson sash wound around my waist, tied on the side with the loose
ends falling to mid-thigh.  I rolled the sleeves up onto my forearms and
moved around, making sure I had total freedom of movement.  The
clothing was comfortable, and wouldn't wrinkle too much when it got
wet, which it inevitably would.  It was familiar enough that I was
comfortable with it, but different enough that people would be able to
easily tell Ranma and I apart.
     Plus, I looked good in it.  The latter was not a factor I would
ever admit to considering, of course.  I looked at myself in the mirror
and sighed.  It was really very thoughtful of Auntie Saotome (boy, that
was gonna take some getting used to!) to go to so much trouble for me.
I was oddly touched.  Maybe it was the implication that I'd be around
long enough to make it necessary to keep Ranma and me separate.
     I wondered idly why she'd chosen black.
     *because of the darkness that surrounds you*
     I stiffened angrily, shaking off the stray thought.  I leaned
forward, bracing my hands on the sink, and looked sternly at my
reflection.
     *the final darkness of death*
     "There's no death here," I told myself hoarsely.  "You left that
all behind."
     *not true they're dead all dead you saw them die*
     "Shut up."
     *it's quiet why is it so quiet*
     I strained to hear the sounds of life in the house, but the whole world
seemed to be holding it's breath.
     *no one here no one living only bloated maggot filled corpses*
     "Shut ..."
     *you're the last they left you alone again*
     " ...UP!"  I gritted my teeth so tightly my jaw ached, and my
grip threatened to shatter the sink.  I straightened up slowly, watching
my reflection as though it might come after me.
     "Everything's okay.  Everyone is fine."  I whispered it, and as I
did, as if by magic I could hear again.  The beautiful sound of voices
drifted up from below.  Voices.
     I frowned.  A *lot* of voices.  I shook off my feeling of
foreboding and slipped out of the bathroom to the head of the stairs.  I
could hear the voices more clearly now.
     "Aiyaa!  Where you hide other Ranma?"
     "C'mon, Ran-chan, what's going on?"
     "Nabiki Tendou told me my pig-tailed goddess would be here,
Saotome!  What have you done with her, foul sorcerer?"
     Oh, no.  No.  They were here, all of them.  All the friends that
I'd seen ... that I'd ...
     Then something sank in through the icy shock.  Nabiki.
Nabiki?  She wouldn't do that, would she?
     Sure she would.  Hot rage melted the ice in my veins, rage so
powerful that for a second I couldn't feel my feet, rage that swept
through me with dizzying speed.  Swiftly I turned away from the stairs
and stalked my way to Nabiki's door.  I swept the door open and
slammed it shut behind me, then stood with my teeth gritted, waiting for
Nabiki to say something.  She looked up lazily from her desk where
she sat writing in a notebook.  She closed the book neatly and
swivelled her chair to look at me.
     "Hey, Saotome," she said dryly, "nice threads."  I took a deep
breath.
     "Is that all you've got to say?" I gritted.  She raised one
eyebrow and steepled her fingers.
     "Actually, no.  I'd also like to say that you should always
knock before entering a girl's room."  I glared at her in disbelief.
     "You told them I was here!" I shouted, trying to direct the
conversation back on track.  She cocked her head inquisitively.
     "Well, not for free," she said primly.  I was stunned.  She didn't
even try to deny it!
     "Dammit!  Why would you do something like that?"  She sighed,
looking at me like I was dense.  I'd at least expected her to try to
defend her actions.  I could feel the rage churning in my gut like it was
alive.
     Alive and hungry.
     "Ranma."  Nabiki stood languidly, fixing me with a pitying gaze.
"They would have found out about you being here sooner or later.
Nobody around here can keep a secret.  All I did was strike while the
iron was hot, and make a profit in the process."
     "Did it ever occur to you that I didn't want to see them yet?" I asked
her in a low, venomous tone.  If she cared about what I was feeling, she
was doing a damn good job of hiding it.  She put one finger against her
cheek and narrowed her eyes.
     "Well," she said at last, "if that's the case I can get rid of them for
you.  For a price, of course."  And she smiled that smug, indifferent,
scheming smile.
     The bubble of rage inside me burst in a soundless, white-hot
nova of pain.  This Nabiki was just like the one I'd known.  She played
games with people's feelings for money, and through it all remained
unaffected.  I wasn't sure if I'd ever seen her display any genuine
emotion.  She always hid behind her mask of indifference, of faint
superiority, of benign greed.  Right then, right at that moment, I needed
to lash out at her, to tear away her masks, to make her face me.  I
needed to make her understand that she'd hurt me.  No.  It was more
than that.  I needed to hurt her back, to shatter that smug facade of
hers.
     I needed her to be sorry.  Sorry for what she'd done, sorry for
not even caring what it would cost me.  Blind with that need, I closed
the distance between us.  I took two slow steps so that I was standing
uncomfortably close to her, our noses nearly touching, and stared into
her eyes.  Something flashed there briefly, but was gone before I could
identify it.  I found myself hoping it had been fear.
     "You." I hissed.  "I can't believe you're even related to Akane and
Kasumi.  What would your mother think if she were here, Nabiki? Do
you think she'd be proud of you?  DO YOU?  Because I don't.  I think
she'd be ashamed to have a daughter like you."  I stood there, breathing
like I'd just run up the Tokyo Tower, and watched the blood drain from
her face.  I felt a moment of savage joy as I watched her expression
change.  I'd gotten what I'd wanted, all right.  I'd hurt her.  I'd hurt her
bad.  The corners of her mouth began to tremble and she blinked
rapidly against the swelling tears that brightened her eyes.
     Then the rage was gone as quickly as it had come, and I was
suddenly uncertain.
     "bastard."  It was a tiny whisper.  If I hadn't been so close to her,
there's no way I would have heard her.  I opened my mouth to say
something, to apologize maybe, but now, when I needed them, words
abandoned me.
     Then she slapped me.  She got a fair amount into the swing, too.
My head rocked back a bit.  I'd been hit a lot harder, of course, but
this was different.  I turned back to her and saw that she was still
managing to hold the tears back.
     "You think you're all so much better than me?" she asked tightly, her
voice quavering.  "Is that what you think, Ranma?  Well, let me tell you
a secret.  I don't care.  Being a good person never saved my
muh-muh-mother."  That did it.  The tears burst forth, coursing down
her cheeks as she took a deep breath.
     "Nabiki ..."
     "DON'T!  DON'T YOU DARE!  JUST GET OUT!"  I winced at
the raw pain in her voice as she shrieked at me.  Pain that I'd put there.
I'd wanted to hurt her, and I had.  Now I could only leave.
     So I did.  I turned and walked out of the room, feeling the door
shudder as she collapsed against it from the inside.  I stood there,
listening to her drawing deep breaths, trying to hold the sobs back, and
failing miserably.  I reached out and touched the door lightly, as if I
could transmit an electric current of apology through to the other side.
Then, sadly, I withdrew my hand and walked away.
     I'd been mad at Nabiki before.  Hell, I'd been *furious* at her
this time, but did that justify what I'd said?  Could anything?  I'd
crossed a line I'd never even ventured near before, and I wasn't sure
there was any going back.  I felt the darkness inside me threatening to
well up again, and wondered, not for the first time, if I could really leave
behind my tortured past.  Maybe I was doomed to carry a part of that
horror with me, like an extra shadow, spreading pain to everyone I
came in contact with.
     I stopped at the top of the stairs, listening to the chaotic sounds
from below.  Behind me, Nabiki, crying because I'd wanted to get
back at her.  I wasn't sure I'd ever seen her shed a tear, not once.
And ahead of me, more of the friends I'd seen die, and the prospect of
telling my grim history yet again.  I stood trapped in between,
wondering how, only a little while before, I could have felt hope for the
future.
     I gripped the bannister, hung my head, and wondered why I'd
had to outlive everything I'd ever known.
     At least if I'd been dead, I wouldn't have hurt so bad.
 
 
 

End part three.
Revised July 28/97
Comments/criticisms/etc. -- send to: emmack@ibm.net