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

CAST A LONG SHADOW
by Mark MacKinnon

Part 4: A Reflection Dark and Flawed
 

     Ranma cursed under his breath.  The garden had turned into a
scene of utter chaos and he was stuck playing ringleader.  Shampoo,
Ukyou and Kodachi were confronting each other noisily, and the
potential for violence was growing by the second.  Mousse and Kunou
looked around suspiciously, not actively contributing to the chaos but
certainly doing nothing to help.  Ryouga looked like he'd rather be
someplace else, and Akane was doing a slow boil on the veranda.
     "I can't believe she did this," she growled yet again.  Ranma
sighed.
     "I can."  Apparently, each of the girls had expected to be the
only one showing up for a shot at the "new" Ranma, and all were less
than pleased to find competition at hand.  Ranma cleared his throat
noisily.
     "Hey, people!  Hey!"  The shouting was getting louder, and for
once none of the girls showed any inclination to pay attention to him.
That figured.  The one time he *wanted* them to hang on his every
word ...
     Akane had finally had enough.  Ranma jumped aside as she
jumped to the ground and stormed past him to confront the noisy
group.
     "Oh, man," Ranma thought, "just when I thought things couldn't
get any worse."  She stomped up and stuck her face right into the
middle of the shouting match.
     "Would you people all just KNOCK IT OFF!"  They did,
suddenly having something else to concentrate on.
     "Hmmph.  Akane want two Ranmas for herself?" Shampoo
asked suspiciously.
     "Indeed.  If there are in fact two.  I see only my Ranma
darling," Kodachi sniffed haughtily.
     "There is another Ranma.  I've seen him," Ukyou shot back.
She turned to Akane.  "Come on, where are you hiding him?  Why
won't you let us see him?"  Akane was obviously taken aback by the
accusation.
     "Hiding him?  I'm not ..."
     "Well, then, where is he?" Ukyou insisted.
     "Right here."  The garden fell silent as everyone turned to the
house.  Ranma followed their gazes to see Ranko looking out at the
small group, his face tight and expressionless.  He was wearing a black
outfit with a red sash, and Ranma wondered where it had come from.
He watched Ranko study the faces of the suddenly silent group, and
wondered how hard this was going to be.  Finally, Ranko sighed and
stepped off the veranda, taking slow measured steps to where the four
girls stood with varying expressions of wonder and disbelief.
     "Hello, everyone," he said gently.  "I guess I'll have to tell my
story all over again."
     "Ranko," Akane said, touching him hesitantly on the arm, "I'm
sorry about this.  Nabiki ..."  He favoured her with a tiny smile.
     "It's not your fault.  I guess I was going to have to do this
eventually.  Maybe it'll be easier telling everyone at once."  The look on
his face told her he didn't believe that.  He turned to the others.  "I
think everybody should come in and sit down."  Ranma watched the
others looking at the two Ranmas warily.  If they thought this was
strange, they hadn't seen anything yet.

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

    Kasumi knocked on Nabiki's door again.  No answer.  Funny,
she hadn't heard Nabiki come down stairs.  She opened the door and
peered in.  Nabiki was sitting on the edge of her bed, shoulders
slumped, short hair hanging down and obscuring her face.  Kasumi
frowned.
     "Nabiki, didn't you hear me knocking?  I'm going to the
market.  Would you like to come along?"  Nabiki turned her head to
look out the window, not meeting Kasumi's gaze.
     "No thanks."  Her voice was quiet, calm.  Kasumi came in and
closed the door behind her.
     "Are you all right?" she asked.  Nabiki lowered her head again.
     "Yeah.  Listen, just go without me, okay?"  Kasumi didn't
move.  "Hey," Nabiki said in a louder tone.  "I don't want to be
cheered up, okay?  Just go."
     Kasumi was beginning to worry.  Akane was an open book,
but Nabiki had always guarded her heart so well that many people
thought she had no feelings at all, except about money.  Kasumi walked
over and sat on the edge of the bed next to her sister, tucking her skirt
primly under her.  She leaned down and peered at Nabiki's partially
obscured face, stifling a gasp.
     "Nabiki, have you been crying?"
     "No," she lied, her voice rough.  "Go away."  If Nabiki had
been crying, this was more serious than she'd thought.  It called for
dramatic action.
     Kasumi leaned over and wrapped her arms gently around her
sister's shoulders, pulling her close.  She felt Nabiki's unyielding body
tense against her as she tilted her head so her mouth was next to
Nabiki's ear.
     "Little sister," she whispered fondly.  Slowly, like ice melting,
Nabiki's body relaxed against her.  Kasumi could feel the warmth of
her body through the t-shirt she wore, felt her back hitch gently as she
swallowed a sob.  Slowly, Nabiki brought her breathing back under
control.  Then, ever so slowly, her hands came up and slid around
Kasumi's waist, clasping her tightly.  Kasumi closed her eyes and
smiled.  It wasn't much, but for Nabiki it was like a crying fit.  She
stroked her sister's hair gently, remembering the last time she'd
comforted her like this, after their mother died.  It was good to know
that Nabiki's heart hadn't shut itself off completely after that.
     At last Nabiki drew in a shaky breath and held it briefly, then
sighed and pulled back.  Kasumi let her go, watching with veiled
concern as her sister composed herself.
     "Better?" Kasumi asked gently.  Nabiki nodded with a tiny
smile.
     "Yeah.  You're the best at this nurturing thing, sis."  Her words
were flippant, but Kasumi could see the gratitude in Nabiki's eyes.
"Boy, I hope this doesn't get out.  The Queen of Cool loses it.  My rep
would never recover."
     "Your secret is safe with me," Kasumi assured her.  "Can you
tell me what happened?"  Nabiki turned her head, her jaw tightening.
Her shoulders tensed, then slumped again.  Kasumi was sure that she
was going to close up again.
     "I had a fight with Ranko," she said finally, surprising Kasumi.
She wasn't surprised to learn that Ranko had been angry with Nabiki,
or even that words had been exchanged.  That was not at all a rare
occurrence between their Ranma and the middle Tendou sister, after
all.  But she couldn't imagine what he could have said to affect Nabiki
so deeply.
     "He was angry that you told the others about him," Kasumi
prompted.  Nabiki's face tightened up again.
     "But they'd have found out anyway!" she protested.  "For free!
And I got them all to pay me!"  She leaned forward, her eyes glinting
with excitement.  "Kasumi, it was incredible.  The whole plan came
together beautifully.  I mean I actually *tingled*!  That plan hit me and
man, I was gone!"  Kasumi smiled sadly at Nabiki's enthusiasm.
     "But you do understand why he was hurt?  He'd just lost all
those people, and now he had to face them again unprepared, after
he'd just gone through the same thing with us."
     "I wasn't trying to hurt him!" Nabiki protested.  "I just ... I
couldn't *not* execute such a beautiful plan!  It was perfect!"  Kasumi
frowned.
     "It seems to me I heard the girls arguing that they'd each
bought exclusive information," she mused, watching Nabiki closely.
     "Oh, that.  See, I sold Kodachi info on the new Ranma, and
Kunou info on the pig-tailed girl.  I sold Ukyou info on the guy she'd
seen rescue Akane, and ..."
     "Nabiki!"
     "It's a *loophole*, sis," she said in an aggrieved tone.
"Loopholes are legitimate in the business world.  I phrased things very
carefully."  Kasumi was silent, and some of the animation faded from
Nabiki's face.  "You're mad."  Kasumi took a moment, knowing she
had to proceed very carefully.  She gave her sister a tender smile.
     "Na. Bi. Ki."  She drew her name out playfully, reaching up to
brush Nabiki's bangs out of her eyes.  "Little sister, I know you are
proud of your talent for business.  It's an important part of you, just like
martial arts are to Ranma and Akane.  But undisciplined martial arts
nearly injured or killed Akane the other day, remember?  Your talent
can be almost as destructive if it isn't properly directed.  You need to
exercise discipline."  Nabiki looked steadily at the floor, and Kasumi
sensed that she was working up the nerve to say something.
     "Do you ..." she began.  She took a deep breath and started
again.  "Do you think ... would mother be proud of me?"  She finished
in a rush, a flush spreading across her cheeks, and looked up at Kasumi
with raw, naked need in her eyes.
     Icy talons slipped into Kasumi's heart as she felt the pieces fall
into place.  "He didn't," she thought numbly, "oh, tell me he didn't.
Not that."  The numbness began to fade, and Kasumi felt something
unfamiliar take it's place.
     Anger.  But Nabiki was still watching her, and Kasumi forced
the anger back, keeping her expression open and concerned.
     "Oh, Nabiki, how can you even ask that?  Of course she
would.  We all slip form time to time ..."
     "Not you," Nabiki mumbled.  Kasumi's smile widened.
     "Yes, even me.  But as long as you are always true to your
heart, her love will always be there to sustain you.  Understand?"
Nabiki nodded slowly.
     "I guess so.  Thanks, sis."  Kasumi rose smoothly and held her
hand out.  Nabiki blinked.
     "Well, I know a good way to cheer you up.  Come to the
market with me.  A little haggling with the merchants and you'll be back
to your old self in no time."  Kasumi's eyes twinkled mischievously at
her sister's dumbfounded expression.  Then Nabiki smiled and took the
offered hand.
     "Damn you're good," she laughed, standing.  Kasumi's heart
eased a little at the sound of her sister's laughter.
     "Yes.  Yes I am," she said primly, prompting more giggles from
Nabiki.  She joined in, gratified to see Nabiki acting more normal all the
time.  She was almost glad that she'd had this chance to get close to
Nabiki, glad to have been needed.  But when she thought of what had
caused the crisis in the first place, her heart clenched again.
     She and Ranko would be having a talk at the first opportunity.

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

     If I'd had a pin, I'd have dropped it to see if I could hear the
sound it made in the silence.  Quiet enough to hear a pin drop, what a
stupid saying.  Thinking about it, though, distracted me from the cause
of the unearthly stillness.
     I'd just finished telling everyone the same version of my story
that I'd told last night.  Nobody seemed to know what to say.  That
didn't matter much; the looks on their faces said it all.  A little bit of
disbelief, a dash of horror and a sprinkling of grief.  Mix and shake
well.  Allow to sit and sink in.
     Never sleep well again.
     "Ran-chan."  I looked up to catch Ukyou's gaze, hating the pity
I saw there.  Hating it because I didn't deserve it.  Hating it because, if
I'd been a little bit faster, she wouldn't have died.  At least not when
she did.
     "They're calling me Ranko now," I reminded her gently.  She
cocked her head for a second.
     "Ko-chan," she said, and smiled.  My gut clenched.  For a
second I was looking at the little kid I'd known years before, giving me
that exact same smile.  Good old Uc-chan.  Never give in, never give
up.
     "Is there anything we can do, Ko-chan?  Anything at all?"  That
got everybody looking at me again, and I squirmed under the scrutiny.
Do?  What was left to do, except forget?  And how could I forget with
everyone around me as living reminders?  Somehow, I think asking
everybody to get lost would have been a bit harsh.
     "Thanks, Uc-chan," I said at last.  "I just need time, that's all."
     "Hmmph."  Shampoo stood gracefully, a haughty tilt to her
chin, and fixed me with a fierce stare.  "When that man come for
Ranko, he get big surprise!  Shampoo show him what she think of
him!"
     "Yeah," Ukyou chimed in, "that bastard won't know what hit
him!"
     "What?" I asked, feeling alarmed.
     "Though we have had our differences in the past, on your
behalf, I, Tatewak ..."  Kunou's speech was interrupted when his sister
elbowed him in the back of the head, sending his face into the table with
a sickening thud.
     "Us, too," she purred, giving me a hungry look.
     "That hurt, you know," Kunou said, his voice muffled by the
table.  I waved my hands frantically.
     "Wait, guys, hold on!  I can't ask any of you to do that!  It's
too dangerous!"
     "Shampoo do anything for her fiance," she said simply.  Ukyou
scowled and jumped to her feet.
     "What are you talking about?  He's not your fiance!  This
Ranma never beat you in combat, remember?"
     "Well then, he no you fiance either, dummy!" Shampoo shot
back, going nose to nose with Ukyou.
     "Well, girls, I guess that means he's all mine!" Kodachi chirped,
leaping into my lap and throwing her arms around my neck.  "Oh,
Ranma darling!  I mean, Ranko darling!"  I could feel my eyes bugging
out of my head.
     "Ah ... um ..." I said cleverly.  Shampoo and Ukyou followed
suit, grabbing my arms.
     "Hey, you pervert!  Let him go!"
     "Yes, let go!  He want marry Shampoo, right?"
     "What?  Are you deluded, girl?"
     "Ohohohohohohohohohoho!"  For the moment, I was forced to
put aside all thoughts of Jack in favour of not starting a riot.  The more
things change ...
     "Looks like you're stuck with us, Ranko. *All* of us."  Akane
was giving me a funny look.  I started to protest my innocence before
remembering that I didn't have to bother.  After all, I wasn't her fiance
either.
     I turned to see Mousse tugging on Shampoo's arm, trying to
get between us.
     "Shampooooo ..." he wailed.  Shampoo shot him a withering
glare.
     "What you want, stupid Mousse?"  I caught their pose, Mousse
holding Shampoo's arm, her angry glare, and suddenly I was seeing
them somewhere else
     somewhen else

     ("Shampoo, it's too dangerous!" Mousse yells.  She pulls her
arm from his grasp angrily.  I look around, trying to pull enough air into
my lungs.  I'm so tired, but we've got to get back to the dojo before ...
before ...
     "He's right," I gasp, "it's too dangerous."  Shampoo sets
herself angrily.
     "Shampoo no leave without great-grandmother."  She turns toward
the shattered doorway of the Nekohanten.  Ukyou edges up behind
me.
     "It's quiet, Ran-chan," she whispers, her voice raw.  I nod.
The screams have stopped.  I'm not sure if that's good or bad.  All I
know is that I don't want to waste the time Ryouga bought us.
     I can still feel the shockwave from his last Shi Shi Hokodan
blast vibrating in my muscles, in my bones.
     I take a step after Shampoo, to drag her back if necessary, and
that's when I see it.  The old ghoul's staff, lying on the ground near a
shadow cast by the corner of the building.
     Sheared cleanly in two.
     "SHAMPOO, GET BACK!"  Too late.  It boils out of the
dark, all teeth and bulk with tentacles around it's one eye.  In a flash, it
snags Shampoo and slams her against the ground.  Her face goes white
with pain.  I try to move in, but it slams me back with one of the
tentacles.  Too slow to dodge, I get thrown back into Ukyou and we
skid across the street.  When I can see through the haze of pain, it has
her dangling above it, slime dripping from it's open, eager mouth.
     A white streak hits the tentacle, resolves itself into Mousse.
Conjuring twin blades from his sleeves, he begins hacking frantically at
the tentacle that's wrapped around Shampoo.  But another joins it, and
another, faster than he can cut them.  I pull myself off Ukyou, trying to
ignore the pain, trying to focus, but it's so hard.  Need to concentrate,
need a chi blast ...
     It's pulling her toward it's mouth, and she's still trapped.
     "Mousse, let go!" she cries.  He doesn't answer, hacking madly
at the tentacles, his hands twin blurs as he holds himself over her with
just his legs.
     "MOUSSE!  LET GO!"  She's sobbing now, helpless, and I
know.  He isn't going to let go.
     And she knows it too.
     "Please."  I hear her quiet plea even across the street as my chi
starts to build, too late.  He flings a blade at the creature's eye, but the
tentacles deflect it easily as it pulls them in.  And he wraps his body
around her, as if he can protect her from what is to come and whispers
something into her ear.  His last words are for her alone.
     Then the thing thrusts them into it's maw and that awful mouth
closes.
     The sound.  Oh, God, the sound it made.
     And they were gone.  Shampoo, the proud, stubborn amazon
girl.  And Mousse, the boy who loved her so much, he couldn't let her
go.  Not even at the end.
     Gone.
     I raise my hands and Ukyou is there, pulling them down, saying
that it's too late, too late, and she's crying, the tears mixing with the
blood coursing from her forehead.  I shake her off.  I'll kill this thing.
I'll do it for them.  I'll make it pay.
     Then she says something that catches my attention.
     "The dojo!  Please, Ran-chan!  We've got to go, they'll be
here soon!  We've got to get back to the dojo, please come on please
..."
     The dojo.  Akane?
     "Do you want them to have died for nothing?  Shampoo,
Mousse, Ry-Ryougaaa ..."  She's pulling at my numb body now,
trying to pry me away as the chi dissipates.  It watches us go, slowly
chewing it's dinner.  Later for you, it seems to say.  Be seein' ya.
     "Ran-chan, they're coming!  Ran-chan ...")

     "Ranko?"  I blinked.  I realized I was staring at Mousse and
Shampoo, who were frozen in place.  They were staring back, and
whatever they saw on my face scared the hell out of them.  Ukyou
touched my hand lightly.
     "Ko-chan?  What is it?" she asked, sounding scared.
     "Don't fight," I whispered.  "Please."  I hated the way my voice
sounded.  I saw them looking back at me, and in an instant of
crystalline clarity they suddenly understood.  I mean they understood at
the gut level, the level that lives under the rational mind, the mind of
logic.  It was one thing to hear my story, to listen and say all the proper
things and wonder at the strangeness of it all.  It was quite another to
really understand, in some basic, primal way, that death sat among you.
They knew now where I'd come from, what had spawned me.
     I had escaped the inferno, but not untouched.  I cast a long
shadow over their world of light, and wherever that shadow fell they
were forced to face the reality of their own mortality.
     Of course, with this group, no moment of introspection was
bound to survive too long.
     "I'll get you some tea," Akane said suddenly, standing.
Kodachi leapt instantly to her feet.
     "*I'll* get him some tea," she announced primly.  Akane
scowled.  Ukyou looked up.
     "Hey, knock it off," she growled.  I saw Shampoo and Mousse
realize at the same instant that they'd frozen with Shampoo's hand
gripped tightly in Mousse's.  Their gazes met and they sprang apart,
identical flushes colouring their cheeks.  I took a deep breath.  Get a
grip now, you can handle this.  This is all familiar, right?
     "Hey."  I spoke quietly, but everyone turned to look.  "Let's go
outside and get some air, okay?  It's a little crowded in here."  I got up,
disentangling myself from my would-be fiances, and headed outside.
The contenders jostled for position in my wake.
     Oh, swell.  Now, on top of everything else, I was going to have
to deal with three jealous women.  Four, if you counted Akane, who
was watching me like she couldn't figure out whether or not to be
jealous.  Usually, the spectacle would have sent her into a rage, but I
caught her looking back at Ranma, who was still brooding.  Mousse
glared, Ryouga looked puzzled and Kunou looked stunned.  It was all
too much, too fast, for everyone to really get a grip on.  They needed
some time to get used to things.  They needed something to take their
minds off of the situation.
     Unfortunately, the solution we came up with left a whole lot to be
desired.

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

     Jack stared disconsolately at the auxiliary display, adjusting the
controls in a futile attempt to make some sense out of the readings.  The
readout stubbornly refused to resolve into anything that made the
remotest amount of sense.  Jack propped his chin in his hand and
groaned.
     "Scooter.  Scooter!"
     "Yes, my lord and master?"
     "Can the sarcasm.  Can you get me LRS or main imaging
control?"
     "Not yet, boss.  Sorry.  The system disruptions caused by our
young friend are proving to be more widespread than I thought."
     "Christ, I can't make heads nor tails of these local subspace
readings!  This can't possibly be accurate."  Jack leaned back in his
chair, scrubbing his face with his hands wearily.  "That kid's energy
must have fritzed the sensor web inputs somehow."
     "Well, there is good news and bad news on the self-repair
front," Scooter said with a suspiciously hearty tone.
     "And?"
     "The good news is that the comm system is back up."
     "The bad news?"
     "The comm system is back up.  And you have an incoming call
from Commander Shetney."  Jack groaned again.
     "Perfect.  Just great."  He pulled his knees up to his chest,
braced his feet against the console, and pushed off, sending the floating
chair to the middle of the deck, where he swivelled neatly to face the
main screen.  "Okay.  Hit me."  The screen lit up with the symbol of the
Dimensional Task Force, then switched to a jumble of lines and
multicoloured static.  The image wavered, then resolved itself into a
shaky picture of a stern looking woman in a dark uniform.
     "Commander," Jack said, "I'm getting a lot of interference
here.  It could be from some weird fluctuations we've got in local
subspace ..."
     "Never mind that, Patrol Officer Conroy.  What is the status of
your mission?"  Even through the distortion, he could see the worry on
her face.  "You failed to report in on schedule.  What happened?"
     "Uh, we've had a little setback here," Jack began tentatively.
     "Conroy!  This is a very delicate situation!  I went out on a limb
with Central on this, I assured them that my P.O. could handle the
extraction!  If Ops doesn't get this guy, heads are going to roll mister!"
Her glare made it clear that his head would be first.  Jack took a deep
breath.
     "The extraction itself went off without a hitch," he said carefully.
"Afterward, however, my Door was disabled when the target
generated some kind of energy burst."
     "That capability was noted in the mission briefing," Shetney said
stonily.  Jack winced as Scooter chuckled in the background.
     "Ah, yes.  Regardless, the power discharge caused widespread
systems disruptions, so we're presently unable to transit."
     "Where are you?"
     "T.D. 417, Commander."  She scowled.  The image broke up
badly, then reappeared, shakier than ever.
     "I can't send anyone that far out.  The situation at T.D. 49 has
deteriorated badly in the last 48 hours and I've had to commit all
garrison forces, Patrol and Ops."
     "Dark Circle?"  She nodded.
     "It would appear so."  He sighed.  At least he had an excuse
now for his delay.
     "What is the status of the target?  Can I speak to him?"  Jack
froze.  This was bad.  He had been deliberately vague thus far, but now
he had to decide whether to lie to his superior.  If she found out
Saotome was at large, she'd go ballistic, *and* she'd order him to
bring the kid in immediately.
     "Conroy?" she repeated.  He slipped his hand along the arm of
his chair and surreptitiously began fiddling with the controls.  The image
on the screen began to flicker.
     "Ah, Commander, say again, over?  Your transmission is breaking
up badly."  She leaned in closer to the pick-up.
     "DAMMIT CO ... F YOU TH ... THAT ... TEAR YOU A ...
CKER!!"  Jack kept fiddling with the controls and the signal began to
fade out.
     "Too much interference!  I'll try again later!" he called as he
broke the connection.  The screen went dark and he fell back in his
chair bonelessly.
     "Oh, bravo," Scooter said dryly.  "An award winning performance.
Like anybody's stupid enough to buy the old  my comm broke down
story."
     "It'll buy me some time."
     "Jack, giving the kid 48 hours isn't going to make any damn
difference!  Let's bag the guy now, and hold him until we can transit
safely with our available systems."  Jack leaned back to stare at the dull
grey ceiling.  It hadn't changed since the last time he'd looked.
     "We go tomorrow evening.  Not before."  For long moments,
the only sounds were the ever-present, almost subliminal hum of the
Door's systems.  Finally, Scooter spoke.
     "You're way out on a limb there, partner.  Is it really worth it?"
     "If someone had done the same for me, once upon a time,
maybe things would have turned out different."
     "That's not likely, Jack, and you know it," Scooter said gently.
     "A chance, Scooter.  That's all.  I just want to give the kid a
chance to say good-bye.  That's not so much to ask, is it?"  Scooter
didn't respond.  Jack closed his eyes, rocking gently in the chair.
     "You going to yank my ticket, partner?" he asked finally.
     "You're on the clock," Scooter said.  "Forty-eight hours, then
we go in.  One way or the other."  Jack smiled.
     "You're the man, baby."
     "And you owe me big for this."
     "I know, Scooter.  I know."

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

     "My, it got awfully quiet in here," Nodoka said, walking out
onto the veranda.  Genma and Soun had assumed their standard poses
and were deeply engrossed in their game.  "Where did the children get
off to?"
     "They headed over to the dojo," Soun said absently.
"Dedicated martial artists, the lot of them.  Ha!"  He slapped a piece
down on the board, causing Genma to scowl thoughtfully.  Nodoka
frowned.
     "I wonder how Ranko is taking things?  It can't have been easy
for him to see his friends again all at once like that."
     "Well, they were pretty quiet after he told them his story,"
Genma said idly.
     "How do you know that?  Were you eavesdropping?"  Genma
realized his mistake and flushed.
     "Ah, couldn't help overhearing, dear.  Right Tendou?"
     "Absolutely," Soun agreed, taking advantage of Genma's
distraction to switch some of his pieces around.  "They took it rather
well.  It didn't take long for the girls to start competing for Ranko's
attention!  It must be a relief for Ranma not to have to put up with that
anymore, eh, Saotome?"  Genma grunted.  Nodoka wasn't so sure.
She doubted that things would end up being that simple. *Nothing*
about life in the dojo ever ended up being simple.
     "Nabiki and Kasumi already went out to the market, since it is
likely there will be guests for supper tonight.  I have some errands of
my own to run.  Will you two keep an eye on things?"  Soun looked up
at her.
     "Of course," he said heartily, while Genma swiftly rearranged
the board.  "Will you stay for supper?"  She smiled.
     "I'd be glad to," she said.  "I'll see you later."  She left, trusting
that the two men would at least prevent any major property damage
from occurring while she was gone.
     Genma and Soun turned back to each other after Nodoka had
left.
     "She's very worried, eh, Saotome?"
     "Mmmm.  I think she's exaggerating things a little, though.  I
mean, Ranko didn't even wake up screaming last night!  That's quite an
improvement from the night before, don't you think?"
     "Oh, absolutely.  And with Ranko around to draw all the stray
girls, Ranma and Akane will be free to finally get married!"
     "Tendou!  That's brilliant!  You're right, of course, there won't
be any further obstacles!  I'm so happy!"  They both started laughing,
then, as one, turned to the board and started maniacally switching
pieces around in complete defiance of the rules.  They sat happily, two
men with a huge load off their minds, and traded casual insults the way
only old friends can.
     And when, a little while later, the sounds of commotion arose
from the dojo, they were, as usual, happily oblivious.

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

     It was never clear afterwards whose idea it originally was for
the two Ranmas to spar, but it was taken up immediately by most of the
group.  All of the males had been beaten by Ranma on more than one
occasion and were looking forward to seeing him take his lumps from
the one person almost guaranteed to be evenly matched to him.  And as
martial artists, all were interested in seeing the outcome of two equally
matched fighters.
     Akane, though, was concerned, although she tried not to show
it.  She knew how fiercely competitive Ranma was.  If Ranko was the
same way, and it seemed likely that he was, the match might get out of
hand.  And something else nagged at her.  She couldn't help
remembering that morning, the way Ranma had watched Ranko and his
father as they practised, the look on his face when he'd insisted that
Ranko was nowhere near as good as he was.
     She was beginning to have a very bad feeling about the whole
thing.
     The two fighters seemed game enough, however, as they faced
each other in the middle of the dojo.  The others stood along the wall,
shifting eagerly in anticipation.
     Ranma versus Ranma," Mousse mused.  "I'd pay money to see
this."
     "Don't let Nabiki hear you say that," Ryouga warned.  Ukyou
frowned at the mention of Nabiki's name but said nothing.
     "The winner will be worthy of my love," Kodachi exulted,
watching the two Ranmas with a barely concealed hunger.  "You can
have the loser, Akane."
     "Thanks so much," Akane responded frostily.
     "Hey, Ukyou, lighten up," Ryouga said, nudging her gently.
"This is just a sparring match.  It's not like Ranma would hurt himself,
right?  Why so serious?"  Ukyou snuck a quick look at Akane, who
was in turn watching Ranma and Ranko.
     "No reason," she mumbled.
     "Okay," Shampoo said from the middle of the floor, looking at
the combatants on either side of her.  She held a bucket up by the
handle, causing a sudden stir.  "Winner first one to get loser wet."
     "Shampoo!"  Akane was definitely worried now.  The Kunous
were terminally clueless, but she still didn't like the idea of them
witnessing Ranma's transformation.  This hadn't been part of the plan.
     Ranma and Ranko, however, didn't seem to have a problem with it.
They just nodded as Shampoo walked over to the end of the dojo and
set the bucket on the floor.  The two backed to opposite corners of the
far end of the dojo.  Shampoo raised a green silk hankie in one hand
and struck up a pose that brought a blush to Mousse's cheeks.
     "Ready?" she asked flirtatiously.  They both nodded.  She dropped
the hankie and got out of the way.
     Two streaks, one red, one black, collided in the centre of the floor,
ricocheting off each other.  The two whirled and came together again in
mid-air, trading blows and kicks in a vicious and lethal-looking aerial
ballet.  Neither seemed able to get through the other's guard, and
neither could make a break for the bucket without giving his opponent a
clear shot.  They bounded around the dojo, not slowing as each tried to
outmanoeuvre the other.
     "Hey," Ukyou whispered to Ryouga, "they're not holding much
back, are they?"  Ryouga said nothing, staring intently at the two as
they attacked, countered, fell back and came together again.  He could
see that the two were very evenly matched.  He could also tell that
Ranma was beginning to get frustrated, if not downright angry.  Ranma
began to intensify his attacks, escalating a sparring match into something
more.  Ryouga remembered Ranma's expression earlier, when they'd
met in the garden.  He'd been spoiling for a fight, and he hadn't gotten
one.  And whatever had been riding him hadn't let up.
     Now Ryouga began to get seriously worried too.  He hoped this
wasn't leading where he thought it was.
     Ranma suddenly launched a furious flurry of spinning kicks that
forced Ranko back into a defensive crouch.
     "Hey!" Ranko cried.  "Take it easy, man!  This is just for fun,
remember?"
     "Speak for yourself," Ranma panted.  He took advantage of
Ranko's momentary distraction to spring towards the bucket.  Then,
when Ranko gathered himself to follow, Ranma suddenly rounded on
him.
     "Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken!" he shouted, unleashing one of
his signature attacks.  Ranko, caught off-guard and off balance, tried to
counter but was caught full force as Ranma's punches blurred into his
unprotected body.  The punches weren't pulled, and the force of the
multiple blows sent Ranko flying back through the air to crash into the
dojo wall, which buckled under the impact.  He slid to the floor, dazed,
arms wrapped around his midsection as he fought for breath.
     "Ranma!"  Akane started forward, only to be brought up short
by Ryouga's arm being thrust in her way.
     "Don't," he said quietly.  She gaped at him.
     "Wha ...?  Ryouga!"
     "Please," he said quietly, never taking his eyes off the
combatants.  "I think we need to let this play out."  He had a nasty
feeling he finally knew what this was about, and the sooner it was out in
the open the better.
     Ranma picked up the bucket and walked slowly over to where
Ranko was struggling to regain his feet.
     "Wha ... what the hell ... d'jou do that for?" Ranko gritted.
"This was supposed to be ... practice!"  Ranma grinned
unsympathetically.
     "Sorry, man.  Guess I just overestimated your skill level."  With
that, he drenched Ranko.
     "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Ranko-chan
growled.  "I could have used a full strength attack like that too, if I
didn't care who got hurt!"
     "Hey, don't be sour.  There's no shame in not being my equal,
just because we look like each other," Ranma said angrily.
Ranko-chan's eyes widened in shock.
     "You don't really believe that crap, do you?  Of course I'm
your equal!"
     "Then why are you a girl now and not me?"
     "Because you cheated!"
     "Hey, take it like a man, would you?  You're just not as good
as me, all right?"
     "We're the same, you idiot!!"
     "NO!"
     "WE'RE THE SAME ...!"
      "NO!  I WOULDN'T HAVE LET THEM DIE!!"
     As Ranma's hoarse scream dies away, a shocked silence fell
over the group for the second time that day.  Nobody moved as
identical pairs of stormy gray eyes locked with each other, something
unspoken passing between them.  Ranma's body fairly vibrated with
impotent fury that pounded against his tenuous control, seeking release.
Ranko, by contrast, was eerily still.  The stillness of the dead.
     As Ranma's words unerringly found their mark, he saw the light
in Ranko-chan's eyes gutter and die.  Her mouth opened and closed
soundlessly for a moment, and Ranma knew with a sick certainty that
he was responsible for unleashing the one demon his counterpart had
been able to keep caged.
     His skin prickled suddenly with the presence of active chi energy as
Ranko-chan began to glow.  She whirled and, with a cry of primal
anguish, crashed headlong through the already weakened wall.  Ranma
felt his anger churning, seeking something soft and unprotected to sink
it's claws into.  Like his conscience.
     "Awwwwww, DAMN!" he howled, hurling the bucket away
and springing after Ranko-chan.  The dented bucket wobbled through
the air, spinning end over end until it finally hit the floor with a metallic
clatter.
     That noise seemed to break the spell that had held the others
motionless.  Pandemonium ruled as everyone tried to react at once.
     "Pig-tailed girl!" Kunou shouted, only to be immediately
flattened by his sister.
     "Ranma darling, come back!"  She ran through the hole in the
wall and disappeared outside.
     "Aiyaa!  Ranma!"
     "Shampoo, wait!"  Shampoo and Mousse beat the dazed
Kunou to the dojo's new back door, with Ukyou in hot pursuit.  She
shot a look over her shoulder as she left, her gaze unreadable.
     Not that it mattered.  Neither Ryouga nor Akane was looking
at her.  Akane, in fact, didn't seem to be seeing anything.
     "Ranma," she whispered.  "How could you ...?"
     "Um ... Akane?"  Ryouga looked at the girl's bloodless face,
concern etched on his features.  "Are you okay?"
     She didn't answer.  She couldn't.  She just stared into space,
cursing herself for a fool and asking herself why she hadn't been able to
see what was bothering her fianc‚ before it had come to this.  All the
while she'd thought Ranma was being jealous and petty, he was ...
what?  Feeling guilty?  Feeling guilty about something that hadn't even
happened to him, that he couldn't have prevented?  She snapped back
to herself and grabbed Ryouga by his shirt front.
     "We've got to go after them," she announced to the startled
boy.  "Come on."  She tried to drag Ryouga with her, and was startled
to be brought up short.  She stumbled, righted herself, and looked back
at Ryouga, annoyed.
     "Well, come on!" she said impatiently.  Ryouga just stood
there, a sad little smile on his face.
     "You really care about him, don't you?" he asked gently.
Akane blinked, a flush spreading over the bridge of her nose and onto
both cheeks.
     "R-Ryouga."
     "I know you want to keep him ... keep*them* from fighting,
but think.  If they're going to live together here, they've got to get this
out in the open between them.  If it's allowed to sit, it'll fester and
poison everything.  You can't do this for him, Akane, and you can't
help him either.  He has to do this alone."
     "How can I just sit here?" she asked hoarsely.  "He's hurting,
Ryouga!  He's hurting so bad!"  Ryouga looked into her warm brown
eyes, full of unshed tears, and felt a hot lump form in his throat.  That
was the moment that he finally understood in his heart that she would
never, no matter what, choose him over Ranma.  Never.
     That was the moment his heart finally decided to let her go.
     His chest tightened with a bittersweet ache as he watched her
cast a longing glance toward the hole Ranko-chan had made.  She was
standing close enough that he could smell the clean scent of her, and the
ache in his chest grew until it seemed it would burst through into the
open air.  He drew a shaky breath, clenching his fists tightly.
     "Just let it go," he breathed in a low, raspy voice.  Akane
sighed, thinking he was talking to her.
     "I suppose you're right," she said sadly.  It didn't escape
Ryouga's notice that in her concern over Ranma and Ranko, she
seemed unaware of his distress.  She turned and smiled at him
tentatively.
     "Will you wait with me, Ryouga?"  Wordlessly, he nodded and
her smile grew brighter.  "Thank-you.  You're a good friend."
     A good friend.  And at long last, and forever, never to be
anything more.  He watched her walk slowly over to the bucket,
crouching down beside it.  She absently ran her fingers over the surface
as a lock of hair slipped forward, making her appear to Ryouga,
heart-rendingly beautiful.
     "Goodbye, Akane," he thought.  His throat closed up and his
chest burned with the sweet ache of his secret sorrow.  Then,
unexpectedly, the ache eased.  Not much, but a little.  Enough to make
it bearable.
     Ryouga decided that it was a start, and moved to help his friend
clean up the dojo.

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

     I heard him behind me, soft footfalls on the cushiony grass.  He
wasn't trying to hide his presence.  Fair enough.  I supposed that the
sooner we got this done with, the better.
     "I don't have anyplace of my own now, do I?" I asked bitterly.
I sat on the grass, my knees drawn up to my chest, watching the water
flow by on it's way to wherever it was going.  It usually had the power
to soothe me, but today more than that would be needed.  A lot more.
     He came up behind me and just stood there, not saying
anything for a moment.  I tried to hate him, but I didn't feel anything but
tired.  I'd just had enough.  I couldn't fight anymore.  Let it be over.
Just let it be over.
     "I'm sorry."  If Ranma was struck by how inadequate his
apology sounded, he didn't say so.  I remained silent, too.  Finally, with
a sigh, he lowered himself to the grass beside me.
     "I guess," he said at length, "I could understand if you decided
not to forgive me."  I remembered just then what I'd said to Nabiki that
morning, and how much I'd wanted to take it back afterwards.  It
seemed to be a day for regrets.
     "I understand," I said shortly.  Not the same as "I forgive you",
but what the hell.
     "Do you?" he asked softly.  We sat side by side, not looking at
each other, as if that would make it too difficult to say what we needed
to say.  "I wanted you not to be as good a fighter as me.  I *needed*
that.  Everyone kept saying how much alike we were, and that made
me feel like *I'd* failed everybody.  I put it all on you, telling myself
that I was better so I wouldn't have to feel so ... guilty, so powerless.
That was the worst, I think, feeling like there was nothing I could do
about it.  You know?"  There was such naked need in his voice that I
relented.
     "Believe me, Ranma, I know."  He nodded.
     "Yeah, I guess you do. I didn't mean what I said, back there.  I
know you did everything you could, because we really are the same.  In
all the ways that matter.  I see that now."
     "We were."  He looked over, surprised.  "Our lives are on
different tracks now."  He frowned.
     "I guess you're right.  But ..."
     "Ranma."  He stopped dead at my tone.  "Just ask."  He didn't
move.  "Just ask the question you've wanted to ask since you heard my
story.  Please." I saw his hands clench in the soft soil, pulling the grass
up by the roots.
     "Why didn't you save her?"  His voice was strangled with
bottled up emotion.  He watched the sparkling surface of the river, not
me.  I was sure I would see tears if I looked.  I didn't.  He'd have done
the same for me.
     "Why?" I said softly, as an errant breeze blew a lock of red hair into
my face.  "Why am I alive when she's dead?  Right?"  I didn't begrudge
him the question.  Far from it.  I would have wanted to know in his
place.  I took a deep breath, shrugging my shoulders to loosen them,
then let the breath out, leaving me empty.  Clean.
     "I'll tell this story once, then we'll never speak of it again.
Understood?"  I saw him nod out of the corner of my eye, but it
wouldn't have mattered if he'd agreed or not.  I was beginning to
understand that I needed to tell him as much as he needed to hear it.
     "I wanted to protect her."  My voice was soft as I remembered
how it had been.  "God, I swore I would never let anything happen to
her.  Never.  So, when we finally began to believe that the dark things
would come for us, I decided to go find the others and bring them to
the dojo.  Akane wanted to come with me, of course, and I didn't want
her to.  You know how it drives her crazy when I try to protect her.  It
hurts her pride and makes her unreasonable.  So, I told her she had to
stay and protect her sisters and father.  I told her I'd be faster on my
own.  I'd have told her anything to get her to stay.
     "And, eventually, I convinced her.  But she made me promise
to come back.  She was so worried ... the look in her eyes.  That was
the closest I ever came to telling her what she meant to me.  But I
didn't.  And now I never will."  I stopped for a moment, swallowing
hard.
     "So she stayed, and I went.  I got Uc-chan and Ryouga at her
place, found Shampoo and Mousse coming back from the market with
provisions.  And then the first screams started, and they were on us.
Everywhere you turned, these nightmares were attacking.  Big ones
swept through whole neighbourhoods, rupturing gas lines and starting
fires.  They dragged people into the sewers, into alleys, they ate them
right there on the streets.  We tried to fight them off at first, but
every time you killed one ten more showed up.  So we ran.  And they
chased us.  They wore us down, and finally ... Ryouga stayed behind,
to buy us some time."  A tiny sound escaped Ranma's throat.  That
was all.  I decided it would be merciful to be brief.
     "That worked, for a while.  But then we passed the Nekohanten,
and they'd already been there.  Shampoo wouldn't leave her
great-grandmother, and Mousse wouldn't leave Shampoo.  Then it was
just me and Uc-chan.  We passed the Kunou mansion, and there was
nothing but a smoking crater.  As we got closer to the dojo, I could tell
that they had been in the area already.  We saw fewer living people,
and then ... then ...

     (There are large holes battered in the wall around the dojo.  I
am running all out now, my heart full of jagged shards of ice, ignoring
Uc-chan's desperate pleas to wait.  There still might be time.  It's not
too late.  It can't be.  We have more time, Akane and me.  More time.
So I charge through the shattered wall and across the yard and into the
house, ignoring the danger of ambush, because I know that she's
waiting for me.  Waiting for me to come home, like I promised.
     In the gloom inside the house, I see her sprawled on the wooden
floor, her legs twisted at a terrible angle.  The floor is dark with her
blood, so much blood that her once yellow gi is soaked with it.  So
much blood that it squishes under my feet as I draw nearer.
     So much blood.  Too much.  I fall to my knees in it and reach
out to her untouched face, ivory against the black of her hair.  I whisper
her name.
     And her eyes open.  Alive.  Oh, God.  Her eyes shift, focus on
my face.  And she smiles.
     "You came."  She mouths the words, and I touch her face
gently.
     "I promised," I reply hoarsely.
     "Hold me."  She whispers this time.  I don't want to move her.
She's hurt so badly.  She sees it in my face and a tear runs down her
cheek.
     "Please."  She knows.  She doesn't have much time.  It won't
matter now.  I reach down and cradle her in my arms, pulling her up to
my chest.  She doesn't seem to be feeling much pain anymore.  She's
cold, her skin like ice.  I hear a low wailing from behind me.  Uc-chan.
     I want to say so much, too much.  We had more time, she and
I, all the time in the world, only now our time is almost gone and there
isn't enough left and I don't know what to say.  It all jams up behind
my hot tears as they rain down on her face, and she looks up at me as if
she sees something wonderful, something radiant.
     "Ranma.  My Ranma.  Promise me.  You won't give up.  Promise."
I'm sobbing now.  I just want to lay down beside her and never get up,
and somehow she knows.  With the last of her strength, she's trying to
save me.  The man who wasn't there for her.  I can't bear her
forgiveness, but she won't go until I promise.  I know she won't.  She's
always been so stubborn, ever since the day we met.
     "Akane ..."
     "Promise."  Her skin is cold, the only life in her eyes, begging me to
let her go.  I shudder, and nod helplessly.
     "I promise."  She smiles then, the sweetest smile, and her fingers
reach up to trail across my cheek, leaving a trail of her blood behind.
     And then she's gone.  Her eyes close and she slips away effortlessly,
away from all pain, and all I want is to go with her.  But I can't.  She
made me promise.  And I'd never break a promise to her.
     I never got to tell her that I loved her.
     Then Uc-chan screams, and I look up to see the thing, standing
in the shadows.  It pulls a piece of black and white fur from it's mouth
and grimaces.
     "Hmm," it says.  "The flesh of young girls is so much sweeter."  Then
it smiles, an amiable, mad grin.
     The next thing I remember is Uc-chan shouting in my ear, her
arms wrapped tightly around my waist, begging me to come back, not
to leave her alone.  My fists, my clothes, and the walls are covered with
green ooze, and I realize I'm screaming, and have been for quite some
time ...)

     ...then we got to the dojo and it was too late.  She was dead
when we got there.  They all were.  It was quick.  They never felt any
pain."  He needed to know that I'd failed her, but he didn't need to
know that she'd suffered.  I was man enough to carry that one alone.
Alone, for the rest of my days.
     Somehow, she'd known what to say in her last moments.
She'd waited for me, never doubting I'd return, so she could tell me to
go on without her, not to give up.  Had she known that I would survive,
that in my darkest moments, when I wanted to surrender, when I was
weakest, that I would need something to hold on to, a reason to keep
on?  It seemed impossible, but there it was.
     I couldn't save her, but she may very well have saved me.  Oh,
God, it wasn't fair.  Just not fair.
     We sat together there for a time, listening to the distant sounds
of traffic, of people, of the city getting on with life.  Finally, when I
could trust my voice not to break, I continued.  Because it wasn't quite
finished yet.
     "I buried them in the garden.  Under that tree, you know,
where we sit in the summertime to watch the sun through the branches?
I thought that would be a good place.  Uc-chan watched my back
while I did it.  Then we went looking for survivors.  Uc-chan ... I think
she felt guilty somehow, because she finally got what she wanted in a
strange way.  She ended up with me.  She shouldn't have felt that way,
it's not like she ever wished Akane dead or anything, but she did.  She
was pretty quiet after we left the dojo.  I asked her where we should
go, and she said she'd go wherever I went.  She'd never leave me.
     "She was dead less than 24 hours later.  Something dropped out of
the sky and just snatched her up.  She never even had a chance to
scream.  And then I was alone.  Sometime after that, Jack found me
and things happened just like I said after that."  I looked at the river,
wishing I could just jump in and let it carry me away to wherever it
pleased.  Ranma hadn't spoken in quite some time.  I was willing to bet
this wasn't what he'd expected to hear when he came looking for me.
     "It seems like weeks since you came here looking for me," I said at
last, my voice surprisingly calm.  "If you had to do it all over again,
knowing what you know now, would you?"  His eyes tightened, his
gaze not shifting from the river.  Suddenly I felt the need to hear his
answer, maybe just to prove to myself that I wasn't trying to hurt him
back for what had happened in the dojo.  "Would you?"
     "It was a lot easier when you were just some mysterious guy
who looked like me," he said finally, his voice tinged with sadness.
"Hearing all this, it's like looking into some dark, warped mirror.  I
won't lie to you, I'd be happier if I didn't have to think about this stuff.
I think we all would."  I nodded tightly.  I couldn't find it in my heart to
blame him.
     "I understand," I breathed.  I looked out over the river again,
my eyes prickling with tears I promised myself I wouldn't shed.  Not in
front of him.
     "Hey.  I'm not finished.  Look at me."  I didn't.  "Ranko.
RANMA."  His voice became low, urgent.  "Look at me."  Clenching
my jaw muscles tightly, I breathed in the damp smell of the river and
turned to meet his gaze.
     "You should know better than that, you of all people."  He
gave me a comforting grin as I stared at him stupidly.  "I never quit on
anything just because it was hard.  This whole mirror world thing
spooks me, man, it really does.  But if the price of a little peace of mind
is being a coward and turning my back on you, well, that price is too
high.  I'll stand behind you.  No matter what.  From here on in, you
don't have to carry what happened to them by yourself.  We'll share
the load."  A tear slipped free and slid down my face.  So much for my
promise.
     "Are you sure?" I asked in a very small voice.  He nodded
solemnly.
     "And one other thing.  We are alike.  I can admit that now.
Not only that, I'm proud to say it.  We're more alike than brothers,
than twins.  And I know that you did everything possible to save them.
I'm ashamed that I ever suggested otherwise."  He held his hand out to
me, and I took it.  Then his arms were around me and we were locked
in a fierce embrace.  It should have felt strange, or awkward, but it
didn't.  It felt natural.  It was like, for the first time since falling into the
Jusenkyo spring, my yin and yang could finally face each other.
     I felt the pressure in my chest begin to loosen, the ache flowing
out through me, and I bowed my head against his shoulder as my body
began to shake.  I realized, for the first time, that more than anyone,
even Akane, I'd needed him to understand, and to forgive me for not
dying.
     And, miraculously, he did.
     Tears I'd had, but for the first time I cried.  I mean really cried,
the way children do.  I wailed miserably.  Painful sobs racked my
female form, forcing their way past the lump in my throat and through
my clenched teeth, and I clung to Ranma desperately as I finally just
had to let go.
     At long last, I trusted that he wouldn't turn away.  And he
didn't.

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

     Mousse trudged wearily out of the alley.  He had lost track of
Shampoo when he'd had to dodge a scoop of water from an old
woman cleaning her walkway and ended up losing his glasses.  By the
time he'd located them, she'd disappeared in pursuit of Ranma and
Ranko.
     "Just perfect.  As if having to compete with one Ranma for her
affections wasn't bad enough," he grumbled to himself.  Ranma's fianc‚
troop seemed inclined to extend the same courtesies to Ranko as they
did to Ranma.  He wasn't sure that was such a good idea; but then,
predictably, nobody had consulted him.
     He looked up and down the street and was surprised to see
Ukyou standing by the curb not 10 metres away.  Her boy's school
uniform jacket hung open and her shirt collar was undone.  Her long
brown hair was gathered back at the nape of her neck the way she
usually wore it at school.  As he watched, her shoulders hitched with a
deep sigh and she adjusted her big spatula so she could sit on the curb.
Mousse frowned and walked over.
     "Hi," he said tentatively.  She looked up, and he was stricken
by the sadness in her eyes.
     "Hey, Mousse."  He waited, but she didn't say anything else.
Finally he sat, uninvited, beside her.
     "Lost them, huh?" he asked after a bit.  She nodded absently.
He frowned.  Normally, Ukyou was the most even tempered of
Ranma's wanna-be fianc‚s, although that wasn't saying much.  Thinking
back, Mousse realized that she had been somewhat out of sorts all
morning.
     "Say, Ukyou, is anything wrong?" he asked finally.  She looked
at him blankly.
     "Huh?  Why do you ask?"
     "Well, it's just that you've seemed a little out of it all day.  I just
wondered if you might want to talk about it, that's all."  She directed
her attention back to a particularly fascinating bit of street.
     "You wouldn't understand," she muttered.  Mousse chuckled
bitterly.
     "You mean I wouldn't understand being desperately in love
with someone who's in love with someone else?  Oh, no, what would I
possibly understand about a situation like that?"  Ukyou looked up,
startled.
     "I'm sorry, Mousse.  That was a thoughtless thing to say."  He
waved her off.
     "Forget it.  Jealousy can make you say strange things.  Believe
me, I know."
     "What makes you think I'm jealous?" she asked, puzzled.
     "Besides the usual reasons?  You've been tensing up all day
every time you get near Akane.  Usually you're the most friendly with
her."  This time it was Ukyou's turn to laugh.  Mousse raised an
inquiring eyebrow.
     "Sorry," Ukyou said.  "It's just that I was surprised that you
paid that much attention to someone other than Shampoo."  Mousse
gave her a crooked grin.
     "So I'm right."
     "No, actually."  Ukyou stared at him for a long moment, biting
her lower lip.  Mousse had the impression she was trying to make up
her mind about something.  Finally, she sighed.
     "Mousse, can I tell you something?"  Mousse blinked.  He and
Ukyou weren't particularly close.  He wasn't sure why she would want
to talk to him.  Still, Shampoo never confided in him at all, and Ukyou
appeared to need a sympathetic ear.  He smiled.
     "Sure.  What is it?"
     "You heard about what happened the other day, when Akane
nearly got killed, right?"
     "Yes, although none of us knew until today that a second
Ranma actually saved her."
     "Yeah, well, I knew.  I was there.  I was following Ran-chan
and Akane home ..."  Mousse raised his eyebrows and she scowled
prettily.
     "There was a good reason," she growled.  He raised his hands,
and she continued.  "Anyway, I was down the road when Ryouga and
Ran-chan started fighting.  When the crane shifted, I saw it before they
did.  When I saw what was happening, I knew I should warn them.
And I did.  But ..."
     "But?" Mousse prompted her after a moment.  She sighed and
looked away, a faint flush rising on her cheeks.
     "I hesitated.  For just a second, I wondered what it would be
like if Akane was dead.  I would have a clear shot at Ran-chan, I could
have the life I wanted."  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  "Just for a
second.  But I hesitated.  I really thought that."  Mousse sighed gently.
     "I see.  And now when you see Akane you feel guilt over what
happened."
     "Of course!  How can I be worthy of anyone's love, huh?
What kind of a person thinks things like that?"
     "Well, me, for starters."  She blinked.
     "What?"
     "Oh, I've thought in passing of doing some pretty nasty things
to your precious Ran-chan.  Some of them were even fatal."  He
looked up into the cloudless sky, his expression serene.
     "It's not the same!  I hesitated!  I actually considered it, and that
hesitation could have killed her!"  Ukyou made a  sound, half laugh, half
sob, as she hung her head.  "It was crazy, wasn't it?  I mean, look at
them, two Ranmas, and I bet they're fighting over *her*.  Even though
his Akane is dead, he still loves her.  I always wanted him to love me,
but I don't deserve love.  I'm a selfish bitch, Mousse.  That's not a nice
thing to know about yourself."  For long moments there was silence.
Ukyou was afraid to look up, afraid to see the look of disgust on
Mousse's face.
     "Ukyou," he said at last, "you know that's not true.  Listen.  Have
you ever been in a tall building?"  She frowned.
     "A what?"
     "A tall building," he repeated patiently.  "Or someplace high,
like a cliff or a tree top."
     "Well, sure, but ..."
     "And have you ever stood at the edge, and felt the urge, just for a
moment, to throw yourself out into space?"  She raised her head.
Mousse was still looking up into the sky, a placid expression on his
face.  Empty sky.  No place to hide.
     "Yeah, I guess."
     "But you didn't.  You see, those thoughts are real, they exist, but
they don't represent our real selves.  There are dark places in all of us,
full of repressed and forbidden thoughts and impulses, and sometimes
one will  squirt loose and surface for a moment, and we think, "That's
not me.  I'm a good person."  And that's the truth.  You're feeling guilty
about a stray thought, something you would never seriously entertain.
You are not a bad person, Ukyou.  You're just human.  You froze up
for a second, and because you're a good person, you want to punish
yourself for that lapse."
     "But to even *think* something like that ..." she protested.
     "Ukyou," Mousse said gently, lowering his eyes to hers, "you have
to learn to accept your darker impulses so that you can control them.  If
you try to pretend they don't exist, they'll breed in the darkness of your
ignorance and eat away at your soul.  Believe me, I know.  You would
never hurt Akane to get to Ranma, not for any reason.  I know you
aren't that type of person, and you know it too.  Stop feeling guilty over
a moment's lapse.  Actions count, and yours showed your true heart."
     "Mousse ..." she said, sounding amazed.  He grinned suddenly,
self-consciously.
     "Sorry.  I didn't mean to start preaching."  Ukyou shook her
head, tossing her long pony-tail fetchingly.
     "No, don't apologize.  I just ... never heard you talk like that
before."  Ukyou was impressed.  She'd never really talked to Mousse
before, not like this.  He had depths she hadn't ever noticed.  And the
way he was smiling at her ...
     Careful, girl, she told herself ruefully.  The last thing you need is
to fall for another guy you can't have.
     "Well, usually Shampoo gets to do all the talking," he said
ruefully.  "I just want you to know that you'll only hurt yourself by
feeling guilty over something you can't change.  Just keep telling
yourself that, okay?  I think you'll come to see it's true."  Ukyou gave
him a speculative look that made him nervous.
     "What?" he asked finally.  She smiled.
     "You know, I actually do feel better.  Mousse," she said
suddenly, "I'm gonna do something for you I don't usually do.  I'm
gonna give you some advice about women."  He blinked.
     "Really?" he asked doubtfully.  She nodded.
     "I've spent time as a guy, so I've seen things from both sides, and
I've gotta tell you I think you're going about this all wrong.  Listen,
Shampoo is an aggressive girl.  She likes the thrill of the chase.  But she
can't chase you, because you won't run away!  Every time she turns
around, there you are.  She takes you for granted, sugar.  I've seen a
few glimpses from time to time that make me think she has some
feelings for you.  Maybe if you played hard to get, she'd start chasing
you, or at least pay a little attention."
     "But I can't stay away from Shampoo.  I love her," he said simply.
She sighed.
     "Okay, ignore my advice, but I'm telling you, that girl isn't going to
stop using you as a door mat unless you make her.  Unless, I suppose,
you beat her in combat.  Then she'd have to marry you, right?"  Mousse
looked at her, then leaned back on his outstretched hands casually.
     "Suppose, hypothetically speaking mind you, that I could beat
her in combat."  He peered at her, watching her face crease into a
puzzled frown.
     "Well then, hypothetically, why wouldn't you?"
     "Ukyou, you are the one fiance besides Akane that never uses
magical or chemical means to try to coerce Ranma into your arms.
Why is that?"
     "I want him to give his heart to me freely!  It wouldn't mean
anything if he was forced or tricked!" she said, outraged.
     "Exactly.  And if, hypothetically, I were to beat Shampoo in
combat, then by Amazon law she'd be forced to marry me.  And I
wouldn't do that to her if I wasn't sure that she was willing to give her
heart to me.  Freely."
     "Oh.  I see."
     "Hypothetically."
     "Of course.  And the Amazon's laws?"
     "Heh.  Ukyou, laws have no power to govern the heart."
Mousse leaned his head back, his long hair brushing the ground.  "If I
beat Shampoo, she would marry me, but I would never know what her
true heart was.  I want her to love me, I want her to *marry* me,
because she wants to, not because of some outmoded law.  You
understand."  And she did.  They were almost kindred spirits, she
thought, amazed.  She never would have guessed.  Never in a million
years.
     "Mousse!"  They both looked up to see an angry Shampoo
glaring down at them.  She tossed her head haughtily and snapped,
"Why you here being cozy with spatula girl?  Where Ranmas?"
Mousse was speechless, as if he'd been caught doing something wrong.
Ukyou felt an urge to be naughty, and for once didn't suppress it.
     "Mousse was just giving me some advice on my love life,"
Ukyou said innocently.  Shampoo's eyes widened in disbelief.
     "Mousse?  Advice?  LOVE?"  Shampoo was obviously having
trouble fitting those three concepts into the same package.  Ukyou
nodded, then stretched languorously.
     "Uh-huh.  It was good advice, too.  I'm going to take it.  Thanks for
the pep-talk, sugar."  She leaned over and gave a startled Mousse a
chaste peck on the cheek.  He blushed furiously.  Then she stood up
and looked Shampoo in the eye.
     "He's gonna make some lucky girl a good husband someday,
Shampoo.  You should snap him up while he's still available."  Then she
wandered off back toward the dojo, hands behind her head, leaving the
shocked pair in her wake.
     "What she mean by that?  Mousse?  MOUSSE!"
     "Shampoo, I don't ... I didn't ... hey!  OUCH!"  Ukyou
suppressed a giggle as the sounds of a fight reached her.
     "Trust me, Mousse," she thought wickedly, "you'll thank me for
this later."  Then her smile faded, her expression turning wistful.
     If only her own problems were so easy to deal with.

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

     Kasumi surveyed the kitchen with a familiar feeling of
satisfaction.  Everything was in readiness.  She could begin supper at
any time, and since she'd been shopping there'd be enough for
everyone.  She didn't mind feeding all those people; Shampoo and
Ukyou both provided free food to the inhabitants of the Tendou dojo
on a regular basis.
     She turned to the stove as the yellow kettle began to whistle.
She turned off the burner and picked the kettle up by the handle,
heading out towards the rear of the house.  She'd seen Ranma and
Ranko-chan arrive moments before, and she could see that Ryouga and
Akane had joined them.  Oddly, the tension in the group appeared to
have shifted since that morning.  Akane seemed quite agitated towards
both Ranma and Ranko, but the tension that Kasumi had sensed that
morning between Ranma and his counterpart had completely vanished.
     She was glad of that.  She'd felt the potential for real trouble
there, and for once she'd had no idea what to do to ease the growing
tensions.  But there was another problem she had to deal with.  She felt
responsible for maintaining harmony in the dojo as much as was
possible, and she knew that if this problem weren't addressed
immediately, it would begin to fester.  She gathered her resolve and
called out.
     "Hello, everybody," she said brightly, beaming her best oblivious
smile.  "Where are the others?"
     "Still out looking for these two idiots," Akane grumbled.  "They'll be
back soon."  Ranma and Ranko-chan exchanged a look.  They'd both
been on the wrong end of Akane's temper on more than one occasion.
Sharing her wrath seemed to diffuse it somewhat.
     "Good.  Oh, Ranko-chan, can I see you for a moment?"  She
nodded, looking eagerly at the kettle in Kasumi's hand.  Probably
anxious to change back before Kunou returns, she thought ruefully.
She led the red-head back into the kitchen and handed her the kettle,
then watched as she doused herself and changed back to male form.
     "Thanks, Kasumi," Ranko sighed.  She noticed that he looked
tired.  No, drained was a better word.  Still, no good would come of
putting this off.
     "Ranko."  He looked up, startled at her tone.  It was sombre,
stern even, with an edge he'd never heard in her voice before.  It was
nothing compared to his mother's best angry tone, but coming from
placid Kasumi the effect was like a slap in the face.
     "Wh-what is it?" he asked, worried.
     "I want to speak to you.  About Nabiki."  She saw understanding
dawn on his face.  He swallowed so hard she could hear it from where
she was standing.
     "Kasumi, I ..."
     "I understand that she hurt you today," she went on coolly,
ignoring his weak attempt to speak.  "I don't condone what she did.
But if you are going to remain here, you must make me a promise.  You
will never.  Again.  Use our mother's memory to hurt her."  She
stopped, fixing the young man with a stern gaze, her arms crossed
tightly.  Ranko looked miserable, trying to meet her gaze, and failing.
     "I never meant ..." he began.
     "Promise me, Ranko."  He closed his eyes, nodding.
     "I swear it.  Kasumi, I'm ashamed of what I said.  I didn't
mean to go so far ... I ... I'm not asking you to excuse my ..."
     "Ranko," she interrupted gently.  He stopped.  "I don't think
I'm the one you should be apologizing to."  She favoured him with a
small, sad smile and uncrossed her arms, pointing to the stairs.  He took
a deep breath and nodded again.
     "Go on, then.  Please.  You'll both feel better."  He nodded one
more time and walked out of the kitchen like a man going to his own
execution.
       Kasumi sighed, letting some of the tension flow out of her.  She
had noticed the slight puffiness around his eyes and wondered if he'd
been crying.  It wouldn't have surprised her, not one bit.  She shook
her head ruefully.
     It was going to be a long week for the Tendou dojo's resident
den mother.
 
 

End part 4.
Revised July 29/97
Comments/questions/etc.  Send to: emmack@ibm.net