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

CAST A LONG SHADOW
by Mark MacKinnon

Part Five: Naked Hearts
 

     I stood in front of Nabiki's door, trying to suppress the feeling
of dread that was making my stomach turn somersaults.  Kasumi was
right, I needed to talk to Nabiki about this, needed to apologize.
     I just didn't *want* to.
     Well, that wasn't exactly true either.  I wanted to straighten
things out, I just wished it had already been done so I wouldn't have to
stand here getting up the courage to do it.
     Oh, hell.  I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath, and knocked
on the door.
     "Come in."  I opened the door and walked in.
     She was lying on her bed with her chin propped in one hand,
legs bent at the knees, ankles crossed and bobbing gently in time to
some silent rhythm.  She looked up from the magazine spread out on
the bed, her expression casual.  I thought I saw a flicker of emotion rise
in her eyes, ever so briefly, but I may have been imagining it.
     "Nabiki."
     "Ranma."
     "Ranko, remember?"  She sat up in one smooth motion, putting
her back against the wall and drawing her knees up to her chest.
     "Ah, yes.  I keep forgetting.  It's one of the ways we can keep
you separate from our Ranma."  One of the ways besides the fact
Ranma would never have said to me what you did, her posture seemed
to say.  But again, I may have been reading too much into it.  I stood
uneasily in front of the bed, clenching and unclenching my hands
nervously.  My face felt flushed.  I'd never been any good at this sort of
thing.
     "I, uh, I wanted to talk to you," I said finally.  She just regarded
me impassively.
     "You are talking to me."
     "Dammit, Nabiki!"  I grimaced.  This was not going well.  I
took a deep breath and looked at her, trying to project sincerity.
     "Look," I continued after a moment, "about this morning.  I
was out of line, I mean way WAY out of line, and I wanted to say I
was sorry."  She just stared at me, saying nothing.  "I was angry, hell I
still am, but that doesn't excuse me for using your mother's memory
like that.  I promise it won't ever happen again."  I waited to see what
she would say.
     "Okay."  Her voice was expressionless, as if I'd just told her
dinner would be ready in five minutes.  Okay?  I felt that unreasoning
anger rising again as I looked at her, and I tried to remind myself that
was why I'd gotten into this situation in the first place.
     "That's it?  Okay?"  I tried to keep my voice steady and
succeeded.  Mostly.
     "Well, what do you want me to say?"
     "I want you to *feel* something!  I want you to ... to ...
gaaaah!"  I shook my head in disgust.  "Forget it.  I apologized, and I
meant it.  If you don't want to accept my apology, I can't make you."  I
wheeled around and stomped to the door.  Damn that girl!
     I was reaching for the door knob when she spoke.
     "Ranko."  Something in her voice stopped me.  I turned,
reluctantly, to look at her.  She hadn't moved, her expression hadn't
changed, but she was staring at me.
     "Ranko," she repeated softly, "come back and sit down.
Please?"  That last please did it.  There was emotion in her voice now,
real emotion, a muted feel of regret, of pain.  Cautiously, I walked back
over, snagged her chair from her desk, and straddled it, leaning forward
on the backrest.  She met my gaze, and her mouth quirked into a tiny,
but genuine, smile.
     "I accept your apology," she said in a small, sober voice.
     "Thanks."
     "Don't thank me."  A tiny, painful sliver of anger had crept into
her voice, but I sensed that it wasn't directed at me.  She wrapped her
arms around her knees as if she were cold and rubbed them idly with
her palms.  "You're not the only one who should be apologizing, after
all.  I hurt you first.  And what you said wouldn't have hurt so much if I
hadn't wondered, from time to time, that exact same thing."
     "Nabiki!" I gasped.
     "Just wait, Ranko.  I have to tell you something.  I don't want
to, but I think you deserve to know."  She dropped her gaze from
mine, colour rising high on her cheeks, and leaned her head against her
raised knees.  She gazed off at a point on the floor and spoke in a voice
thick with emotion.  This was what I had wanted, the real Nabiki
Tendou, the girl behind the mask.
     So why was this making me so damned uncomfortable?
     "This morning, when Kasumi asked me about what happened, I
told her how I got carried away with my great plan, and that was true.
I also told her that I never meant to hurt you."  She shifted her eyes to
look at me, her gaze timid, uncertain.
     "That wasn't true," she whispered.  I felt an unpleasant shock
lance through my chest at her words.
     "What?  But ... why?"  That was all I could think to say.  She
dropped her gaze again, hugging her legs tighter.  Her body posture
spoke of misery barely contained.
     "You're so much like Ranma," she said at last.  "Living in the
dojo all this time, but you still don't know me at all.  That's not
surprising, really.  I'm not an easy person to know, and I'm not an easy
person to like.  I know those things about myself, and I accept them.
Most of the time."  I just stared at her, not certain where this could be
going, more confused than angry now.  She seemed to gather herself,
then plunged ahead.
     "Ranma, and I'm sure you two share this, he's always
complaining about all the girls that are always chasing him.  He's even
got guys chasing his girl side.  And neither of you actually have to *do*
anything, it just seems to happen!  Akane's had to fight through hordes
of guys every morning.  Ryouga gets tongue-tied whenever she's in the
room, and she doesn't even notice.  Kasumi can render Dr. Tofu
incapable of rational thought just by clearing her throat."  She burrowed
her face a little deeper into the shelter of her crossed arms, still not
looking at me.  I felt almost numb.  I didn't know what I'd expected,
but this definitely wasn't it.
     "You have no idea how mad it makes me sometimes, the way
you all seem to treat all this attention as a nuisance, and take it for
granted.  You know what I wish?  Sometimes I wish that, just once,
somebody would come crashing in here and announce, "Nabiki
Tendou, I must have you!"  Just once."  She gave a strangled, bitter
little laugh, and I could see her eyes gleaming with what looked
suspiciously like unshed tears.
     "Listen to me," she said, "the Queen of Cool sounding like a
jealous school girl."  I suppressed the urge to tell her that, technically,
that was what she was.  I didn't think she'd find it at all comforting.
     "I've singled Ranma out, treated him badly from time to time,
out of pettiness," she continued quietly, her voice quivering ever so
slightly.  It's not his fault ... not *your* fault that people like you.  Not
your fault they don't like *me*.  But I've still done it, so often it's reflex,
like Akane's and Ranma's fights.  And this time, I did it to you and I
went too far.  And I'm sorry."
     "Nabiki."  I was stunned.  I shook my head slowly, trying to
reconcile the girl talking to me with the dispassionate, greedy Nabiki of
my memory.
     "Don't," she said softly.  "Don't feel sorry for me.  It's bad
enough you had the guts to come up here to apologize to me.  I sat here
and listened to you, and all I could think about was that I'd finally
gotten what I deserved and ..."
     "Nabiki!"  I leaned forward on the chair, startling her.  "That's
not true," I continued in a calmer tone as she finally looked me in the
eye.  "I should have known better.  I just lost everybody that mattered
to me, remember?  The hurt is so fresh that I still can't even think about
them.  If someone used their memories against me, I'd hate them."  She
held my gaze steadily now, sitting up a little.
     "I don't hate you," she said finally.  "I did, when you said it,
and if you hadn't come here like this, I probably still would.  But it just
seems like a waste of time now.  I think we should just call a cease fire,
what do you say?"  She gave me a tiny, tremulous smile, and I nodded.
     "Deal," I said solemnly.  "And about what I said ..."
     "Forget it."
     "No."
     "Ranko, maybe you were right.  Maybe I need to work harder
to be a person she would have been proud of."  I sighed, feeling a
loosening in my chest.
     "Nabiki, I feel so bad.  I never knew it was hurting you, all
those times ..."
     "Hey, Ranko.  If people could tell what I was feeling, I wouldn't be
me, right?"  She gave me a grin, one that held a faint ghost of her usual
expression.
     "Maybe that would be a good thing.  I mean, if people could
tell how you were feeling.  At least *some* of the time."
     "I don't know.  I'm kinda set in my ways.  I can't see me
getting all touchy-feely all of a sudden."  She reached up and tucked
her hair behind her ear, watching me.  "I'll think about it, though."
     "Do that."  I got up, sliding the chair back to the desk, and
paused to look down at her.
     "So we're okay, then?" I asked.  "I mean, between us?"
     "Yeah, I guess we are."  She stretched, working the kinks out
of her shoulders, then stood gracefully.  "You know, you have
unplumbed depths, Saotome.  I'm pleasantly surprised.  And," she
paused, a little awkwardly, "if you need to talk about, you know, what
happened to your family, and ..."  She trailed off.
     "Thanks," I said, surprised.  "I'll keep the offer in mind."  She
looked at me then, and her usual wry grin was back full force.
     "Aw, geez, Saotome, enough with the puppy dog eyes," she
said dryly, but there was no rancour in her tone, and her eyes danced
merrily.  "Get out of here, would you?  After all this mushy stuff, I'll
probably have to go foreclose on an orphanage or something.  Go on,
get."  I walked over and opened the door.
     "You're one of a kind, Nabiki," I said on my way out.
     "Ain't it the truth," she said softly.  Then the door closed and I
was alone in the hallway.
     I took a deep breath and sighed out all the tension I could.
Then I shook my head in wonder.  Nabiki Tendou, subject to the same
fears and jealousies as the rest of us.  And in all the time I'd known her,
I'd never seen it.  Was she really that good at hiding her feelings, or did
people simply take her at face value and write her off?  Had I done
that?
     And now I'd seen the soft, vulnerable underbelly of her soul.
She'd shown it to me, knowing that I could use the knowledge to hurt
her, but trusting, finally, that I wouldn't.
     Trust.  She trusted me.  And I was glad.  Glad that my words
spoken in anger hadn't caused irreparable damage.  But it made me
wonder about all the other things I thought I knew about people, all the
things I took for granted.
     Just what other surprises were in store for me?

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

     Nodoka stood very still, willing her temper back under control.
Genma and Soun, as yet unaware of her presence, sat cross-legged,
watching Ranma and Akane in the garden.
     The young couple was fighting.  Of course.  Nodoka took a deep
breath and walked up to the men.
     "Well!" she said brightly.  "I'm back.  Was everything quiet
while I was gone?"  Genma looked over his shoulder and grinned
broadly at her.
     "Oh, welcome back.  Yes, everything went smoothly.  Right,
Tendou?"
     "Oh absolutely.  No problems."  They both turned back to their
quarrelling offspring.
     "C'mon, boy, kiss her," Genma urged under his breath.  He
failed to notice Nodoka close her eyes and apparently counting to
herself.
     "If everything went smoothly, perhaps you could explain
something to me," she said finally in an amazingly calm voice.  "Like for
instance, why I just saw Kasumi in the kitchen looking depressed."
     "What?" Soun asked incredulously.
     "Or why there is a large hole in the side of the dojo that wasn't
there this morning.  Or where everybody has gone off to.  Or why
Ranma and Akane are having an argument about *Ranko*!  Well?"
She glared at the hapless pair.  "All I asked was for you to keep an eye
on things while I was gone, and here you have no idea what has gone
on under your very noses!"
     "But, dear ..." Genma began.
     "Don't "dear" me, Genma!  I can't believe you two!"  She glared
at them until, realizing that they had no idea why she was so upset, she
stalked off.  The two men watched her go, amazed, then turned to each
other.
     "Women," they said in unison.
     "Nothing unusual happened today," Genma sighed.
     "These kids never do anything but fight," Soun agreed.  "No
big deal.  I'd be worried if they *weren't* fighting!"
     "I don't know what she's so worried about."
     "Are they really fighting about Ranko?"
     "Take her hand, boy.  Come on!  Agggh!  Don't call her that!"
     Nodoka, meanwhile, had gone looking for Ranko.  Kasumi, who
was once again wearing her happy face, told her he was probably still
upstairs.  Nodoka considered asking Kasumi what was bothering her.
After all, she was the sole stabilizing influence for a household full of
chaos.  It wouldn't be surprising if that got to her from time to time.  But
first, she had to talk to Ranko.  One crisis at a time, she told herself
wryly.
     So she had simply thanked Kasumi and headed for the stairs,
where she saw Ranko.  He was sitting near the bottom of the steps,
deep in thought.  She was struck by how tired he looked.  Tired and
worried.  Her heart twinged at the sight, and she walked over with a
comforting smile on her face.
     "Ranko."  He looked up, startled out of his reverie.
     "Auntie.  Hello."  She waved him back as he started to get up,
and sat herself on the step beside him.  The stairway was quite narrow,
and their bodies touched at the hips and shoulders.  Nodoka resisted
the urge to put her arm around his shoulder.  She knew he would resist
what she had to say, and was determined to proceed carefully.  She sat
for a moment, enjoying the intimate atmosphere.  She still rarely had
times like this with her own son, even now that she knew about his
curse.  There was so much water under the bridge ...
     "Rough day?" she asked gently, turning to look at him.  He
gave her a weak grin.
     "So far, it's been kinda strange, yeah."
     "I expect it was a shock seeing all those people this morning.  I
intend to have a talk with Nabiki about this matter ..."
     "No!  I mean," he stumbled, seeing her shocked expression,
"please, no.  I already talked to her.  I think we've got an
understanding between us about this."  Nodoka raised one eyebrow
and nodded reluctantly.
     "Very well.  There was something else I wanted to talk to you
about, anyway.  I went to see Dr. Tofu today."  He perked up at that.
     "Why?  Are you sick?"
     "Oh, no, Ranko.  Not for me.  I wanted to talk to him about you.
I've been thinking about what you've been through, what you must have
seen.  Dr. Tofu referred me to a person, a counsellor.  Someone who
specializes in helping people deal with traumatic events ..."  She trailed
off as she saw his expression close down.  She sighed.
     "Ranko, please keep an open mind about this," she said gently.
     "I don't need to talk to some shrink, Auntie.  I'm gonna be okay!" he
protested.  She felt a dull ache in her breast as she looked at his
stubborn expression.
     "Never admit your need.  Never admit to weakness.  A man
among men," she whispered sadly.  "Just like I wanted."  Ranko's eyes
widened.
     "Oh, man, tell me you're not feeling guilty too?"
     "Too?" she thought.  Out loud, she said, "Your mother and I
seem to have both committed the same error with our sons, Ranko.
Central to Ranma's problems, I believe, is the inability to express what
is in his heart."  To her surprise, Ranko smiled at that.
     "You might be surprised," he said.  "I think there's hope for him
yet."  He sighed.  "Listen, Auntie, I know you want to help, but ..."  He
trailed off, groping for the right way to express himself.  "You wouldn't
believe some of the conversations I've had since I got here.  I feel like
I've learned more about you all in some ways in the last couple of days
than I learned in my life back home.  And I have a feeling it isn't over
yet."  He smiled sadly, his eyes looking out at something she couldn't
see.  "It has helped me, in a way.  It's like having a chance to tie up
loose ends.  Ranma's been a big help."
     "He has?"  Ranko chuckled at the shock in her voice.
     "Yeah, it surprised me too.  But we worked some things out
today, and I feel better for it.  I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but I
think I can get through this on my own.  I'm starting to feel like ... I
don't know, like things might get better."  She wasn't sure she believed
him.  She wasn't even sure he believed himself.  But she did know that
there was no sense trying to push him.
     "I'm glad," she said softly, looking into his eyes.  "But my offer
stands.  Please think about it.  I know how stubborn you can be.  I
want you to promise me that if things get to be too much, you'll at least
come talk to one of us."  He looked away, uncomfortable.
     "I'll ... try," he said at last.  She nodded.  His hesitation
convinced her that he was sincere.  If he'd agreed easily, she'd have
been suspicious.
     "I also thought we might discuss the matter of your several
fianc‚s," she said delicately.  Actually, she really only wanted to talk
about one, but she thought it best to approach the matter obliquely.
     "Swell.  But they're Ranma's fianc‚s, remember?"
     "Yes, but the fact of the matter is these girls seem to regard you
as just another Ranma, unfair as that may be.  You are going to have to
deal with them.  They are very persistent, and now they have a real
hope of landing "Ranma" as a husband even if the arranged marriage
goes through.  I don't think they'll be giving you too much space."
     "I know."  His shoulders slumped and he rubbed his eyes
wearily.  "I'll figure something out."
     Now.  One last matter, and it would be perhaps the most
delicate of all.
     Akane.  How did he feel towards her, and what effect would
his feelings have on Ranma and Akane's already difficult courtship?
She dearly wanted to pursue the matter now, while she had Ranko
alone.  Unfortunately, Ryouga chose that moment to blunder by with an
armload of lumber.
     "Uh, Ryouga, what're you doing?" Ranko asked, his tone
indicating that the answer couldn't help but be amusing.  Ryouga
scowled.
     "I got tired of listening to Akane and Ranma fighting, so I
decided to start patching that hole in the dojo.  The hole *you* made, I
might add."  His tone was aggrieved, but Nodoka noticed he was
watching Ranko carefully for a response.  Ranko grinned and hopped
off the stairs.
     "That's a good idea," he said, clearly relishing the thought of a
simple, physical task.  "But they're keeping the dojo outside, not in the
kitchen."  Ryouga looked in the direction he'd been heading.
     "I was taking a shortcut," he said simply.  Ranko chuckled, and
after a moment, to Nodoka's amazement, Ryouga joined in.  The sight
of the two boys joking together caught her totally off guard.
     "He's never like this with Ranma," she thought, puzzled.  "Why
would he act this way with Ranko?"  Ranko turned and shot her a grin.
     "We can finish talking about this later, right?  If I don't go with
him, he'll end up in Hokkaido."
     "Hokkaido," Ryouga informed him gravely, "happens to be
very pleasant this time of year."  They both started laughing again, and
Nodoka smiled in spite of herself.  Ranko's mood had improved so
suddenly that she couldn't bear to continue.
     "Very well, you two, go on.  Before Soun sees what you've
done to his dojo."  The two left, Ranma leading the way.  Nodoka
shook her head ruefully.  Their talk had gone about as well as she'd
thought it would.  She'd known he would resist talking to someone
about his problems.  She'd known because Ranma would have
resisted, and they were just the same.
     Except ...
     Except they weren't.  Not really.  She wasn't sure how to
define it, but she felt as though Ranko was changing, becoming more
distinct from Ranma.
     No, perhaps that wasn't quite right either.  She felt quite sure
that Ranko and Ranma had been very much alike once, but the tragedy
that had befallen Ranko had changed him, was still changing him.  And
being in this place, being Ranko Saotome instead of Ranma, was
changing him even more.  He was still very much like the Ranma that
they all knew, but he was becoming more of an individual all the time,
with his own quirks, his own memories.
     That was inevitable, she supposed, and very likely a good thing.
But it might cause a few surprises for his friends, especially the girls
who hoped to land a Ranma, any Ranma, for a husband.
     May you live in interesting times.  No wonder that's considered
a curse, she thought ruefully.

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

     I straightened up from driving a nail into the bottom of the
unfinished plank and wiped the light sheen of sweat off my forehead.  It
felt good to be just doing something for a change, not having to think.
The hole I'd made was almost covered, although the new wood made
the patch stand out against the wall of the dojo.
     Of course, the innumerable other patched holes stood out
pretty well, too.  Holes in the walls were not an uncommon occurrence
in this place.
     "Hey, Ranko."
     "Yeah?"
     "Is everything okay?"  I looked over at Ryouga.  He was
studying our repair job, trying vainly to look casual.  I grinned a little at
how transparent he was.  Ryouga just wasn't good at hiding things.
     "You mean about ..." I gestured at the mostly-repaired hole
suggestively.  He reached up to scratch the back of his head, laughing
self-consciously, then tugged nervously at his tiger-striped bandanna.
     "It's just that, well, after what that idiot Ranma said to you ..."
I grinned even more, hearing him talk about Ranma that way to me.
     "Ryouga, this has been hard on him, too," I said.  "He let things
get to him, until it all just burst out all at once.  I don't blame him for
saying that.  I'd have probably wanted to believe the same thing in his
place."  Ryouga looked uncomfortable.
     "Are you serious?"
     "Yeah, I am.  We sat down and got things out in the open,
something we probably should have done at the start.  Trust me,
everything's fine between us now."  He nodded absently.
     "Well, Akane was really upset about the whole thing."  He
laughed again, looking even more ill at ease.  "Actually, she was really
worried about him.  Hearing him say that, it surprised her.  I don't think
it ever occurred to her that he might feel guilty over what happened.  I
think half of the reason she's being so emotional is that she's upset with
herself for not knowing."  I shook my head sadly.
     "What a mess.  And I guess it was hard for you, too.  Hearing
how worried she was about Ranma, I mean."  Ryouga leaned back
against the wall and crossed his arms, looking at the floor with an odd
little smile playing around his mouth.  I frowned.
     "Ryouga?"
     "Actually, I've given her up."  I stared.
     "I'm sorry, what did you just say?"  He chuckled, still looking
at the floor.
     "You heard me."
     "You're giving up on Akane.  Just like that."  Now he did raise
his gaze to meet mine.  His eyes were sombre, and seemed to possess
a depth I'd never seen there before.
     "Not just like that, Ranko.  This has been a long time coming."
He turned to look away, and I wondered at his expression, wondered
what he was seeing.  "I've been dragging this on long enough.  A
couple of days ago, I jumped into the middle of a fight between Ranma
and Akane and if it hadn't been for you, she'd have been killed.  And
why?  Because I wanted to protect Akane, defend her.  But she's
never asked for that from me, and she never will.  It's always Ranma
she looks at when she thinks nobody's watching.  It's always him she
worries about, always him she fights with.  I just finally had to admit it
to myself.  If I was to die tomorrow ..."  I winced at that, but he didn't
notice.  "... I would have too many regrets.  I can't tell Akane my
feelings, because I know it wouldn't make any difference, except to
make her pity me.  And I can't keep playing P-chan just for the chance
to be near her for a little while.  It isn't fair to her or to me."  I wanted
to argue the point, but something told me to let him finish.  I didn't think
he had it in him to carry on if I stopped him now.
     "After our fight, Mrs. Saotome gave us quite a lecture on
responsibility and maturity.  Well, it's time for me to start acting a little
more responsibly and a little more maturely.  I know better than anyone
that the only thing really keeping those two apart is all the people trying
to interfere in their lives.  If they were left alone for just one day, they
might figure out how much they care for each other.  I can't just stop
having feelings for her, but from now on they'll have one less person
trying to keep them apart.  And maybe I can stop making myself
miserable trying to hold onto something I can never have.  Then maybe
she can finally be happy, like she deserves to be."  He stopped and just
stood there, almost perfectly still.
     I was amazed.  I hadn't expected anything like that from Ryouga.
He'd always been one to plough ahead, regardless of such
considerations as the odds or common sense.  Of course, I'd never
taken much time to look at things from his perspective before.  It
appeared I'd been selling him a little short.
     But then, my Ryouga *had* laid down his life for me.  For us.  I
really shouldn't have been so surprised to find a little nobility in
Ryouga's soul.
     "Ryouga.  You're *serious*, aren't you?"  I shook my head in
wonder.  "I'm sorry.  I know this can't have been easy for you.  I'm
impressed, though.  I think you made the right choice.  And I know
you're strong enough to stick to it."  He looked back over at me,
surprise evident in his eyes.
     "Thanks," he said at last.  "You know, it's funny.  Talking to
you is different than talking to Ranma.  It's like you're ... the same, but
not the same.  Does that make any sense?"
     "Yeah, well, even twin brothers have separate personalities."  I
grinned at him.  "I'll be the good twin, he can be the evil one."  Ryouga
grinned back.  "So, you gonna tell her about ... P-chan?"  Bright spots
of colour appeared on Ryouga's cheek's.
     "Are you crazy?  She'd kill me!  I think we'll just let P-chan
retire in peace.  No more trips to Akane's bed."  We both laughed.  It
had driven me crazy, all the times I'd found that stupid pig in my
Akane's bed, but now it didn't seem like so much.  Just a fond memory
of the way things had been, once upon a time.
     I hoped Ranma would be as willing to forgive and forget.
     "Man, I feel better," Ryouga said finally, sounding amazed.
"You're a good listener, Ranko.  Did you used to talk to your Ryouga
this way?"  I felt a wild grin stretching my face.
     "Are you kidding?  Our conversations used to go pretty much
like this: "RRRRRRANMAAAAA!  PREPARE TO DIEYEEEEEEE!"
Ryouga snorted, trying not to laugh at my deadly accurate
impersonation.
     "Oh come on, I'm not *that* bad!"
     "Oh yeah?  Then I'd say something like, "Aw, man, what is it
this time, P-chaaaan?"  And then we'd start breaking things trying to
bash each other."  He started laughing finally, and I joined in.
     "Well, nice to see you two are enjoying yourselves," a voice
said.  We looked up to see Ranma and Akane coming into the dojo,
followed by Ukyou.  All three looked at us like we were crazy.
     "What's going on?" Ranma asked, puzzled.  Ryouga glanced at
me.
     "Rrrrranmaaaa!" he howled.  "Prepare to ... dieyeeeeeeeee!"
We both started laughing harder.
     "What?  Aw, what is it this time?" Ranma asked.  Ryouga's
eyes met mine for one brief, perfect moment, and we were gone.  I was
laughing so hard I had to sit down, the tears streaming from my eyes.
Ryouga collapsed next to me, laughing almost as hard.
     "Saotome, you cur!  While we were out searching for you,
you've been here amusing yourself?"  Through my tears, I saw Kunou
striding purposefully through the door.  "Dolt!  You made off with my
pig-tailed goddess!  Where is she?"
     "P-prob'ly ... wen'to ... Hokkaido," I gasped, trying to control
my laughter.
     "Hokkaido?" he asked, puzzled.
     "Very ... nice there ... this time'a ... yuh-year," Ryouga
managed, then we were off again, literally rolling on the floor laughing.
     "Do you ...*mock* me?" Kunou asked haughtily.  I nodded
frantically, unable to speak.  Everyone was staring at us now, with
varying degrees of wonder.  I noticed smiles beginning to appear as our
laughter became infectious.
     "Akane," Ukyou asked slowly, "have you ever seen Ryouga
laugh like that before?"
     "Uh-uh," she said, grinning now herself.  "Never."
     "I'm surrounded by idiots," Kunou muttered under his breath.
Ranma shook his head.
     "C'mon guys, what's so funny?" he asked plaintively.
     "Whatever those two have been into, they should definitely be
sharing," Kodachi announced, joining the growing crowd.  I just lay on
the floor with Ryouga, gasping for breath.
     It was nice to know that, for all the dark despair I could feel in
the quiet times when I was alone, I was still capable of laughing.
     And it felt *good*.

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

INTERLUDE
     Kei shone his flashlight up into the shadows above his head and
cursed.  Somewhere close by, in the shadowed basement, water
trickled steadily, the eerie sound echoing hollowly in the dark.
     "Kei.  Kei!  Where the hell are you?"
     "Over here!" he shouted back.  He sloshed forward and shone
his light up again.  "What the hell?" he muttered.  He heard footfalls
sloshing through the water, and turned to find Yusaku trudging toward
him, the beam of his light jiggling erratically as he walked.  He came up
to Kei, cursing steadily.
     "Please tell me you've had some luck," he pleaded.  Kei shook
his head.
     "I've never seen anything like this," he sighed.  "Look at all the
water pipes down here.  Why does a damn school need all these extra
pipes anyway?"
     "Maybe the principal puts bad students in the sub-basement
and floods the place," Yusaku grumbled.  "I hear the guy's a real
headcase."
     "Yeah, well, I hear the vice-principal's running the show, and
he wants everything fixed by Monday morning so classes can start up
again.  Damn, I wish we could get some light down here."
     "No problem," Yusaku drawled.  "I'll go find the power
company guy and have him throw the breakers.  Of course, we're
standing in two bloody feet of water.  One exposed wire, and ..."
     "Aw, shut up, smart ass.  I know that, it's just a nightmare
trying to find anything down here in the dark!"
     "So no luck, huh?"  Kei shook his head.
     "I can't find the bloody master shut off valve anywhere.  The
original blueprints are useless, half of this stuff ain't even *on* them.
And we can't do anything about the pipes until we get the water shut
off.  No luck finding the school's maintenance guy?"
     "Nope.  He probably knows where the shut-off is, so of course
nobody can find him.  That guy's gonna be out of a job when we tell his
boss about this."  Kei nodded, sloshing along, following the maze of
pipes above his head with the beam of his light.
     "Ow!"
     "What?"
     "Aw, I ran into something."  He lowered the light to see a stack
of desks leaning against the wall.  "Man, we're gonna kill ourselves
screwing around in the dark down here like this."  He heard Yusaku
chuckling behind him, and he scowled.  "It's not funny!  We've been
down here half the day already, and we haven't even got the damn
water turned off!"
     "Okay, okay, relax.  I'm gonna look down this here hallway.
There's gotta be a master shut-off somewhere.  Hey, did anyone ask
the principal?"
     "Apparently, nobody knows where he is.  I hear he's hardly ever
here.  That's why the vice-principal's running things."  Kei heard
Yusaku grunt, then slosh off through the sluggish water.  He sighed and
kept working his way through the dark.  He could hear the sound of
falling water getting louder, and aimed his light toward the source.  It
reflected on a silvery fall of water which was spattering merrily into the
flood.  Kei frowned.  This leak wasn't bad enough to account for all the
water they were seeing.  He looked up into the maze of pipes, looking
for the source of the leak.  Maybe, he reasoned, whoever had added
all these pipes had used cheap material, which had corroded and finally
burst.  When his light found the source of the water, however, he knew
that wasn't the reason.
     "Damn," he muttered.  He could see shiny metal glinting in his
light under the dull surface of the pipe.  There were fresh scratches and
marks around the break in the water line.  Someone had deliberately
broken this pipe.  And apparently, several others, too.
     Vandalism.  Just wonderful.  When they reported that little fact
to the vice-principal, he'd hit the roof.  The cops would probably have
to be called.  There'd be paperwork involved.
     Just wonderful.
     "SHIT!"  Kei's head snapped up as the cry echoed crazily in
the dark, flooded basement.
     "Yusaku!  You okay?"  Silence.  "Hey, `Saku, stop messing
around, man!  Answer me!"  Only his own echos and the steady trickle
of the water.  Kei gripped his flashlight nervously.  If Yusaku fell over
something and hit his head, he could drown in this mess.
     Or if the kids that did this were still here ...
     "Dammit!"  Kei began splashing quickly toward the hallway
he'd seen his partner disappearing down only minutes before.  The
dark seemed to press in all around the narrow cone of his light, making
him shiver.  This place might seem harmless with all the lights on, but
now it took on an ominous dimension that called to the primitive parts
of Kei's brain.
     Bad things hide in the dark, Kei, his brain told him.  Bad things
wait for you in the dark.  Bad, bad things that don't like the light.
     Frankly, Kei wished his damned brain would shut up.
     Finally, the hallway opened up in front of him.  He sensed
rather than saw a large space around him, heard, through the fading
echoes of his own recent motion, another, louder rush of water.
     "Yusaku!  Where are you?  You idiot!  YUSAKU!!"  No
answer.  Frantic now, he splashed forward.  Yusaku must be in trouble,
he thought.  He'd better be in trouble, because if he's pulling my leg,
I'm gonna *kill* him.
     Then something bumped against his leg and he pulled up,
surprised.  His light wavered, then steadied on the object bobbing in the
water disturbed by his frantic movements.  He bent down and fished it
out, holding it up to the light with his free hand.
     It was a boot.  It was *Yusaku's* boot.
     And it was strangely heavy.  So Kei looked inside.
     Yusaku's foot was still in it.
     Bad things, his brain started up petulantly.  Bad things in the
dark.  Told you so.
     The boot fell from his nerveless fingers to land noisily in the
water.  Kei straightened slowly, senses trying to penetrate the
oppressive darkness.  He could hear nothing but the echos of the
water, bouncing around hollowly, masking all other sounds but the
pounding of his pulse in his ears.
     "Yusaku?"  It came out as a squeak.  Kei stood there in the
dark, feeling the cold from the water seeping through his boots.
     And he was afraid.  Suddenly he wasn't Kei Yashida, co-owner of
his own moderately successful plumbing business, any longer.
He was Kei-chan, 4 years old, hiding in his bed with the covers drawn
up, afraid of the bad things.
     There's nothing in the dark that isn't there in the light, Kei's
parents had always said.  But that wasn't right.  There was something
here now.  Here in the dark with him.  And mommy and daddy
couldn't chase it away, oh no.
     He needed to pee.  He needed to see the sun.  He needed
ouuuuuuuut.  NOW.
     He spun around, looking for the doorway, but found only
mottled green flesh.  He panted, his pulse hammering now, as the light
seemed to rise on it's own.  Up and up and up until it found a head, full
of teeth and glowing red eyes.
     Kei felt his bowels loosen, felt the spreading warmth in his
pants, and he whimpered.  Kei the plumber was gone.  Only Kei-chan
remained.
     Then he shrieked.
     "BAD THINGS!  BAD THINGS!  BAD THIIIIIIIINGS!"  A
huge clawed hand reached out and grasped him by the head, lifting him
effortlessly.
     "BAD THINGS," a voice full of rusty broken metal agreed.
Then it began to swing him around by his head.  And it started to sing.
     "BAD THINGS, BAD THINGS, BAD BAD BAD THIIIIIIINGS
..."
     Kei's last sensation was one of blinding pain as his body
slammed into something solid, and then mercifully, everything went
away.

END INTERLUDE

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

     Ukyou walked along the street, trying to control her racing
heart.  It had been decided that dinner would be eaten outside, because
of the nice weather.  Kasumi, Shampoo and Kodachi were all making
dinner.  Ryouga and Mousse were helping Ranma finish repairing the
wall of the dojo.  Akane had been assigned to set up a dining area, all
the better to keep her away from the actual food preparation.  Kunou
had made the mistake of glomping onto Akane with the expressed
intention of protecting her from the "foul sorcerer" Saotome, and had
been thrown in the pond for his trouble.  He was drying off peacefully
under a tree, at least until he regained consciousness.
     And so, in the confusion, she'd told Kasumi she would go to
Ucchan's and get some extra soba noodles, ignoring Kasumi's puzzled
reply that they didn't *need* any more soba noodles.  After all, that
wasn't really the point of the trip.
     She'd gotten Ko-chan to go with her.
     It had taken some stealth to make sure none of the others
realized what was going on, and she knew there'd be hell to pay when
Shampoo and Kodachi finally figured it out.  That, however, was
something she could deal with.  For now, she had Ko-chan all to
herself.
     The problem with Ranma was that she'd been too late.  By the time
she'd arrived on the scene, Akane was already there.  She didn't intend
to let that happen again.
     She sneaked a look at Ko-chan out of the corner of her eye.
His handsome profile started her heart racing again.  He looked just like
Ran-chan, was just like him, in fact, with one important difference.
     He had no fianc‚s.  Technically.
     She felt a pang of guilt at that thought, and shoved it down
roughly.  After all, it wasn't her fault that they'd all died.  But they were
all dead, and he'd need someone to help him get through the aftermath.
Ukyou intended to be that someone.  She'd love him and support him
unconditionally, and he'd come to love her back, and everybody would
be happy.
     Well, everybody except for Shampoo and Kodachi, but that
couldn't be helped.  All's fair in love and war, after all.
     Ukyou grinned and breathed in deeply.  She loved spring, when
the sakura blossoms were in full bloom.  It was her favourite time of
year.  And here she was walking with the love of her life, sharing the
day.
     But Ranma's the love of your life, part of her objected.  Ranko
isn't Ranma.  Not really.
     Dammit, she thought angrily.  He's no different, not in the ways that
count!  I'm not going to screw this up, it might be my last chance!
     She looked over at him again, thinking of what had happened
earlier in the dojo.
     "Ko-chan?"
     "Hmmm?"  He blinked and looked up at her, smiling that smile
that made her legs go weak.
     "Is everything all right?  Between you and Ranma, I mean.
After what happened ..."
     "It was touch and go for a while there, but we got things
straightened out.  Don't worry, everything's gonna be okay."
     "Where did you two go?  I looked everywhere I could think of,
even under that bridge where you go sometimes ..."
     "Oh, nowhere special.  We just ended up someplace quiet, and
talked about ... why he felt guilty, and why he shouldn't.  That's why he
said what he did, you know.  This whole situation is strange, even for
this group.  I guess we just needed to get things out in the open."  She
thought of the look on Ranko-chan's face when Ranma'd cried out that
he wouldn't have let his friends die.  It had broken her heart to see the
light go out of her eyes then, but what had been worse was the moment
of doubt she'd seen there.  She was sure that, just for a moment
perhaps, Ranko had wondered if Ranma was right.
     Well, she'd have none of that.  Ranma was Ranma, no matter
what dimension he was from, and the man she loved would have done
everything in his power to save his friends.  She had no doubts
whatsoever about that.  And she'd be there to tell him that anytime he
needed her.
     She reached back and undid the ribbon that bound her hair
tightly at the nape of her neck.  Pulling it free, she tossed her head and
ran her fingers through her long, glossy brown hair, letting it flow in the
stiffening breeze.  She cocked her head coyly and glanced over to see if
Ranko had noticed.  He had.  He was wearing a wry smile that told her
he hadn't missed the fact that she was doing a little preening for his
benefit.
     Well, good.  She wanted him to know, after all.  She knew she
must be quite a sight in her boyish clothes with her shirt collar open and
her hair streaming in the breeze.  Not to mention the large spatula
strapped to her back.  But being with Ranma had always made her feel
beautiful, and being with Ranko was the same thing.  She caught sight
of Ucchan's and suppressed a mischievous grin.
     "Hey, Ko-chan."
     "Hmmm?"
     "Race ya."  Then she was off, sprinting full speed toward the
restaurant, giggling wildly at Ranko's outraged protests.  She could
hear him pounding after her as she ran nimbly along the sidewalk,
dodging around startled pedestrians.  She knew her opponent was fast,
but so was she, and her head start gave her a definite advantage.  Still,
she only reached the door of Ucchan's a half-second before Ranko.
They both stumbled to a stop, gasping after the all out sprint, and fell
back against the sun-warmed wall.  Ukyou combed her hair out of her
face with her fingers and grinned insolently at the winded Ranko.
     "Beat ya," she gasped.  He gave her a mock scowl.
     "You cheated," he panted.  She just stuck her tongue out at
him, then fished her keys out of her pocket and unlocked the front
door.  They both stumbled inside.  Ukyou headed toward the stairs.
     "Make yourself at home," she called over her shoulder.  "I'm
just going to change out of my uniform."  Once upstairs, she went to her
room and stripped down to her underwear.  Being so scantily clad with
Ranko just downstairs gave her a delicious shivery feeling.  She threw
her uniform on the bed that she'd left unmade that morning after buying
Nabiki's information, and went digging in her dresser.
     Nabiki.  Have to remember to have a word with that girl, all
right.  Exclusive information indeed.  Still, she couldn't be too mad.
Everything seemed to be working out for the best, after all.
     After agonizing over what to wear, she finally decided on a pair
of worn jeans and t-shirt with a light green, slightly oversized jersey.
She rolled the sleeves up and tied her hair up into a loose ponytail, then
turned her head this way and that, regarding herself critically in the
mirror.  A slow smile spread over her face.
     "Perfect," she whispered.  Not to flashy, but definitely eye-catching.
Let's see him resist this, she thought.
     Downstairs, she found Ranko sitting at the counter on one of
her stools, drumming his fingers idly and staring off into space.  She
wondered, with a twinge of empathy, what he was thinking about.
Heavy thoughts, no doubt.  Well, she'd cheer him up.  She slipped up
behind him, pressing herself against his back suddenly and covering his
eyes with her palms.
     "Guess who," she whispered in his ear.  He stiffened for a
second, then relaxed with a sigh.
     "Well, since there's only two of us here, and it isn't me ..."
     "Oh, pooh," she said, "you're no fun."  She inhaled the scent of
his hair and skin, letting him go reluctantly.  It felt so intimate, being in
Ucchan's alone with him.  She began to hum cheerily as she ducked
behind the counter.
     "Where you going?"
     "To get the noodles, remember?" she said lightly.  He stared at
her, his smile completely at odds with the sorrow in his eyes.
     "Ukyou.  You know perfectly well Kasumi doesn't need any
more noodles."  Her heart caught painfully.  Ukyou.  Not Uc-chan.
And the look in his eyes ...
     "So why'd you come with me, then?" she asked, trying to keep
her voice light, as she moved to face him across the counter.  That's
right, she thought as she leaned on her arms to look him in the eye, if he
knew it was just an excuse to get him alone, why'd he come?  Unless
he* wanted* to be alone with me ...
     "I wanted to talk with you alone.  This seems to be my day for
heart-to-heart conversations, after all."  She didn't understand what he
was talking about, and suddenly she didn't want him to go on.  His eyes
were depthless wells of sorrow, and yet there was a resolve there that
frightened her.  Whatever he was going to say, she didn't want to hear
it.
     "Please, don't look at me like that."  She was surprised to find
that she had spoken out loud.  Ranko flinched guiltily, but didn't look
away.
     "Ukyou ..."
     "Call me Uc-chan again.  Please."  The raw need in her voice
scared her.  Ucchan's no longer seemed intimate, it seemed empty and
barren.  So quickly, everything had changed.
     He can't reject me, she thought desperately.  Not him, too.
     "She was my Uc-chan," he said, holding her gaze.  "For the rest of
this conversation, I think it's important to remember that we only met
today.  I'm Ranko and you're Ukyou.  I'm not trying to hurt you,
Ukyou, but we have to have this talk, and it may as well be now.  After
all, you're in love with Ranma, not me."
     "That's not true!  Everything I love about him is in you!  I can see it,
I can feel it, you're heart is like his!  Everything that matters is the
same!"  She leaned toward him, trying to impart more force to her
words, trying to make him understand her feelings.  He sighed.
     "Look, Ukyou, we were almost the same to start with, I think,
but not anymore.  The things that happen to you affect who you are,
and some pretty bad things have happened to me that haven't
happened to him.  We're becoming more separate every day, and I've
got no idea what I'll turn out like in the long run.  But there's no
guarantee it'll be like Ranma.  You understand?"
     "That's all right!  I want to be there for you, Ranko, no matter
what!"  He shook his head angrily.
     "Dammit, Ukyou, listen to me!  I just lost the woman I loved,
and everything else that ever mattered to me too!  Do you really want
to be second best in my heart to the ghosts of my past?  Do you really
want to be the girl I went to just because I couldn't have what I
wanted?  Do you really want to be just that?"  Ukyou looked at him,
her hands tightly clenched, wide and beseeching, and spoke the truth
that was in her heart.
     "I would be that girl.  For you, I would.  That would be enough for
me."  She whispered it, but Ranko flinched as though she'd screamed
the words into his face.  He blinked rapidly, a shiver running lightly
through him.
     "Oh, no," he breathed.  "Please, Ukyou, no.  Don't say that.
Don't ever ... Dammit!  How can you say that?  How could you settle
for that?  Ukyou," he pleaded, "you deserve so much more than that.
You deserve to be first in someone's heart, you deserve a man who's
only thoughts  are about you, your happiness.  Please don't do this.
You're pretty, and smart, and nice ... why would you let me do that to
you?  Why?"
     She just looked at him, hoping, wishing for the words to come
to her, the words that would make him change his mind, make him love
her.
   "Because," she said, trying to ignore the tightness in her throat,
the stinging of her eyes, "there's only you in my heart.  There's only
*ever* been you.  I hated you, then I loved you, but there's only ever
been you.  Ranko or Ranma, it doesn't matter.  Only your face, your
soul.  Only you."
     "I can't love you back," he whispered, and she ducked her
head so he wouldn't see if her tears escaped.  Because she'd been
afraid of that, afraid for so long, and she'd been unwilling to give up.
     "Because of her," she whispered bitterly.  He said nothing, and
she stared at the countertop through the blurry filter of her hot,
miserable tears.  "I know.  Oh, I know.  After you saved Akane and
ran off the other day, I saw.  He carried her all the way home, and the
way he looked at her ... she was curled up in his arms, trusting him
totally.  And he kept staring at her with this *look* on his face that ..."
She stopped, swallowing hard.  "I knew then that he'd never look at me
that way.  Never.  I don't think he even remembered I was there.  He
only had eyes for her.  I finally felt like there was no hope, that he'd
never turn to me.
     "But afterwards, there was you.  And it was like I had a second
chance.  Just when I finally began to think that I could never have
Ranma, you come along.  And now you want me to just ... GIVE UP?"
She shook her head, her pony tail flopping frantically against her
cheeks.  "No.  I won't.  Don't ask, because I won't."  She felt the tears
streaming down her cheeks, and wondered how she could have gone
from such joy only minutes before to such misery.  She heard him shift
in his seat, stifled an anguished sob.  I won't, she repeated silently.
Never.
     "Uc-chan," he said softly.  Using the name only he used with
her.  His voice, so tender, not wanting to cause her any more pain.
"Don't you want someone who'll look at you the way Ranma looked at
Akane?  Isn't that what you really want?  Uc-chan, I'll never be able to
do that.  Even if I could ever fall in love again, and right now I don't feel
like that's possible ... Uc-chan, my memories of her would come
between us.  It can't happen.  Let it go.  Please."
     "No."  She looked up into his eyes, glistening with unshed
tears.  "I'd do anything for you.  But not that.  I won't give up on you."
He closed his eyes.
     "Dammit, Uc-chan, I'll cause you pain just by being around,
and that's not what I wanted.  I wanted to make a clean break.  I
wanted to clear things up now so you wouldn't hold out any false
hopes."
     "You've made yourself clear, Ko-chan."  She said it defiantly,
angrily swiping the back of her wrist across her face to scrape away the
worst of the tears.  "Whatever feelings I hold onto won't be your fault.
You've warned me.  Okay?"  She stared at him, willing him to
understand.  He looked back, looking drawn and hurt, not knowing
what else to say.  They stood there, face to face, for an eternity.
     "All the logic and good advice in the world," she said finally, in a
very small voice, "can't change love.  My heart doesn't care about your
logic, Ko-chan.  It just loves you.  Both of you.  No matter what."
     He just sat there, sorrow stamped into the lines and planes of the
face she loved, and said nothing.  He'd said all he could say, after all,
and she'd refused to listen.  She pushed away from the counter then,
rubbing her eyes with her palms vigorously.
     "Well, I'd better get those noodles.  After all, how'll it look if I
come back empty-handed?"  She wheeled around and headed into the
back, trying to force down the lump in her throat.  As she left, she
heard Ranko whisper something.
     "I'm sorry."  She didn't know if she'd been meant to hear it or
not, but it didn't really matter.  He didn't need to apologize to her.
     She was such an idiot, she couldn't even hate him for not loving
her.
 

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

     Akane was beginning to get mad.  Again.  Apparently Ukyou
and Ranko had both disappeared somewhere, and this fact had just
come to the attention of Shampoo and Kodachi.  It was bad enough
that they treated Ranma like some trophy to be won, but now they
were treating Ranko the same way.  And it wasn't like he didn't have
other problems to worry about.
     She was vainly trying to contain the fury of the two jilted fianc‚s
as they raged at each other and the absent Ukyou, and waved sharp
and potentially lethal kitchen implements in a dangerous manner.  Her
temper was reaching the boiling point, and it was very possible that
Kasumi's kitchen would not survive the wrath of three angry martial
artists.
     Honestly, she thought, what did Ukyou think she was doing?
The answer to that, of course, was sadly obvious.  She was getting a
head start on the Ranko Saotome marriage sweepstakes.  Akane had
thought that at least Ukyou would have been more circumspect toward
someone still mourning his dead family and friends.
     Apparently she had overestimated Miss Kuonji.  Badly.
     "Look, you two ..." she tried again.  Kodachi and Shampoo
ignored her, and appeared on the verge of coming to blows.  And
dinner would definitely not survive *that*.  The fact that she had none
to subtly been kept away from the dinner preparations had not escaped
her notice, nor did it improve her mood.  She clenched her fists and
tried one more time.
     "HEY, KNOCK IT ..." she began.  Then Ukyou walked into
the kitchen and all three fell silent.  They rounded on her as one, their
fury wound to it's highest pitch, ready to be set off by anything.
Anything at all.
     And as one, they froze, shocked.
     Ukyou had changed her clothes, and looked much more
feminine now than she did earlier.  In her hand she had a bag of soba
noodles.  She walked calmly over to the counter, her face impassive.
Her body radiated tightly contained misery, an emotion that bypassed
normal forms of communication and spoke directly to the animal part of
the brain.
     Ukyou had been with Ranko.  But Ukyou wasn't happy.
Ukyou wasn't gloating.  Ukyou wasn't smug.
     Ukyou was hurting.  Badly.
     "Oh," she said quietly, "I see that we don't need any noodles
after all.  Silly me."  Her voice was low and expressionless.  She
dropped the noodles on the counter and brushed by the stunned girls.
"I guess I'll just go wash up, then."  She walked out of the kitchen
without having looked any of them in the eye.  Shampoo looked
shocked and even Kodachi, normally not the most empathic of people,
looked disturbed.
     "What on earth was that?" she asked, her usual tone of
superiority absent.  Shampoo shook her head.  They both seemed to
have forgotten that they were fighting.  Akane gathered her wits and ran
out of the kitchen, trusting that the situation there was under control.  It
appeared as though there might be a bigger crisis to deal with.
     She caught up to Ukyou at the bottom of the stairs, stricken by
how dispirited the girl seemed.  She'd been acting strangely recently,
but this ... what could have happened?
     "Ukyou, what's wrong?  Are you okay?"  Ukyou jerked a little
at the sound of Akane's voice and turned to face her.
     "Sure, Akane.  Everything's great."  Then she just stood there,
staring in a way that made Akane distinctly uncomfortable.
     "Well, uh ... were you with Ranko?"  Ukyou stared some
more, then nodded slightly.  Akane was definitely beginning to get
spooked by the other girl's behaviour.  "So what happened ...?"
     "Akane."  Ukyou's voice wasn't expressionless anymore.  A
definite taint of bitterness had crept in.  "I know they both want you,
but face it.  You can only have one of them, and I intend to be there for
the other, no matter what.  He'll have to get over you.  In time.  He'll
just have to."  Then she wheeled and continued up the stairs, leaving a
stunned Akane in her wake.
     "U-Ukyou," Akane whispered.  She stood rooted to the spot,
her cheeks burning.  They both want me?  I can only have one?  Just
what the hell did Ranko say to her anyway?  Her thoughts began
ricocheting insanely around the inside of her brain until she had to shake
herself.
     Ranko.  She had to find him, ask him what had happened.  She
turned and ran down the hall, past a startled Kasumi.
     "It's awfully quiet in the kitchen," she said cautiously as Akane
ran past.
     "Enjoy it while it lasts," Akane advised her on the way by.
     She headed for the dojo, wondering at the day's strange
events.  She'd been so angry with Ranma when he and Ranko had
returned.  Angry at him for saying that awful thing to Ranko.  Angry at
him for being hurt and guilty, when she'd thought he was being petty
and small.  Angry that he wouldn't tell her what had happened.
     "We worked it out," was all he kept saying, which made her
even more angry.  And the fact that Ranko didn't seem to be upset just
irritated her more.  What the hell could they have said to each other?
How could they not still be *mad*?
     Whatever had happened, it was obvious they hadn't needed her
help.  She suppressed a twinge of jealousy by thinking of what Ukyou
had said to her.
     "I know they both want you," she'd said.  What the hell did *that*
mean?
     She was about to round the corner of the house when she
caught sight of Ranko and Ranma ducking behind the dojo.  She
grinned grimly.  Not this time, boys, she thought.  I'm not getting left in
the dark again.  She slipped quietly up to the corner, edging close until
she could hear the two quite clearly.
     "So she's still mad?" one of them asked.
     "Yeah, she wants to know what happened after we left the
dojo this morning."  Ah.  That must be Ranma.  Wait a minute, they
were talking about her?
     "Give her some time to get over it," Ranko advised.  "This has
been hard on her too, you know."
     I know, but she never trusts me!  If she'd just give me a chance
to explain ..."
     "You two'll work it out.  I have faith."
     "Well, that makes one of us."  They both laughed good-naturedly
while Akane stewed.  Laugh at me, will you?  Well, we'll see who gets
the last laugh.  She gritted her teeth and waited to hear more.
     "So where've you been, anyway?  You missed Mousse and
Ryouga challenging each other to Martial Arts wall repair.  We're lucky
they didn't knock the whole damned dojo down!"
     "I, uh, I let Ukyou trick me into going back to her place,"
Ranko said finally.
     "What?  What for?"
     "Because I wanted to talk to her alone."  They were silent for a
moment, and Akane's ears perked up.  Just what she wanted to hear
about.  She felt guilty about eavesdropping, of course, but after all,
nobody was telling her anything.  And she didn't feel guilty enough to
stop ...
     "Oboy," Ranma said at last, "*that* kind of talk."
     "Yeah.  I thought I'd try to learn a few lessons from my life and
head trouble off before it grew.  All I did was make things worse."
     "I take it things didn't go too well," Ranma said sympathetically.
Ranko sighed.
     "That's putting it mildly.  Basically, she offered to give up all her
dignity and wait for me forever, playing second fiddle to the memory of
a dead girl, even though I told her flat out I can't love her the way she
wants me to."
     "Oh, man.  Was it ... bad?"
     "Uh huh.  She's convinced that you and Akane are on the verge of
declaring your true feelings, and that once you get married, I'll have to
turn to her for comfort."
     "Me and ... she *said* that?"
     "Well," Ranko sighed, "she seems to think her chances with
you have shrunk to almost non-existent.  Me, I'm a gift from the gods."
His voice turned bitter.  "My feelings don't seem to matter much."
     "Aw, man, I'm sorry," Ranma said after an uncomfortable silence.
"That just doesn't sound like Uc-chan at all.  She's usually pretty
thoughtful about other people."
     "Yeah, well, I guess I just brought out the worst in her.  She won't
even look at me now, she just gets this tight look like she's afraid I'm
gonna try to scrape her off or something.  And I still gotta talk to
Shampoo and Kodachi!  This just tops off my day."
     "I'm sorry about that," Ranma said contritely.  Akane's already
racing heart sped up.  Was she about to hear what they'd talked about
after leaving the dojo?  She edged closer to the corner, hardly daring to
breathe.
     "Man, I wasn't even talking about that.  Let's see, so far today
I made Nabiki cry, I made Kasumi angry, I had that little talk with you,
I found out your mother wants me to see a shrink, I had an actual heart
to heart talk with Nabiki, and I somehow managed to break Uc-chan's
heart without actually convincing her to give up on me.  Let's see, I
know I'm forgetting something.  Oh yeah.  Ryouga told me he's giving
up on Akane forever.  Apparently, you can add him to the list of people
who think you and Akane are destined to be together."
     "You're kidding!"
     "Which part?"
     "All of it!  But ... Ryouga, for starters.  He's really giving up on
Akane?  Man, he had it bad!  Are you sure ...?"
     "Yep.  He really means it.  Whatever your mother said to the
two of you after your fight sure made an impression on him."
     "It can't have just been that!?"
     "Ranma, think it over.  Things couldn't go on the way they were
indefinitely.  Sooner or later, everything has to change.  Hell, I've seen
things change since I got here that I never thought I'd see.  I'm putting
quite a strain on relationships, it looks like."
     "C'mon, it's not all your fault ..." Ranma responded.  She heard their
voices growing fainter as they started walking away.  Luckily, they
walked to the corner opposite where Akane was, because, she would
not have been able to avoid being caught.  She stood stock still, her
eyes wide with shock.
     Made Nabiki ... *cry*?  Kasumi ANGRY?  How ... what ...
     "Ryouga?" she whispered.  Ryouga was ... in *love* with her?
No.  That just wasn't true.  But ...
     But so many things made sense if it was.  Ranma and Ryouga's
constant rivalry, for instance.  Or the way Ryouga always seemed so
tongue-tied around her.  But why hadn't she seen it?  How could she
not have known?
     She slumped back against the wall of the dojo, the gentle
breeze playing with the hem of her skirt like a playful kitten.  She
absently brushed her bangs out of her eyes.  This was all so strange, so
*sudden*.
     She sighed.  Poor Ryouga.  All the times she'd been nice to him, had
he interpreted it as interest?  Had he suffered sweet and silent agony
whenever they were alone together, wanting to tell her how he felt?
Yet he never had ...
     She frowned.  And he had given her up.  She could guess why.
Ukyou seemed to think that she and Ranma were going to end up
together now, too, from what she'd overheard.  Everybody seemed to
think that, whether they accepted it or not, but nobody had consulted
*her*.  Ranma had acted so sweet the other day, but since then things
had gotten complicated again.  The two of them never seemed to be
able to just talk about what was between them, and it was wreaking
havoc with their lives.  And with everyone else's lives, too.
     Well.  Let the others think what they wanted.  She wasn't
getting pushed into anything just to make other people's lives simpler.
She pushed away from the wall, then stood there uncertainly.
     "I know they both want you," Ukyou had said.  Was she right?
Was Ranko in love with her? Was Ranma?  She sighed sadly.  Had
Ranko really told Ukyou that he couldn't love her because he was in
love with *her*?  Or had he meant his Akane?  But if he'd loved his
Akane, did that mean that *Ranma* loved *her*?  What if he was in
love with her and Ranma wasn't?
     She was going to have to settle this once and for all, she realized.
She was going to have to start trying to take control of her increasingly
chaotic life.  She was tired of not knowing where she stood, so damn
*tired*.  She needed to put an end to this.  If she waited for Ranma to
make the first move, nothing would ever get settled.
     She walked away from the dojo, shaking her head.  Two
Ranmas.  Ryouga in love with her.  Nabiki crying!  Kasumi angry?
     Akane felt like someone had taken her world, turned it upside
down and started shaking vigorously.
     It was beginning to give her a headache.

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

     Dinner that night ended up being a pretty tense affair.  Most of
the real tension, though,  was lurking below the surface, creating
dangerous cross-currents that waited to suck the unwary down into a
hurt glare or an icy silence.  Of course, there was still plenty of the good
old, in your face chaos that characterized any meal at the Tendou dojo.
     We all sat on an old quilt out in the yard in the warm fading light
of the afternoon.  Plenty of food had been made, and heaping dishes
formed a circle which we sat around.  There was plenty of passing
back and forth, and plenty of activity and idle conversation to distract
the unwary.  I wondered if I was the only one fully aware of all the
tripwire tension that was a guest at our meal.
     Considering all the things that had happened that day, I figured
that was highly unlikely.
     "Ranko!  You try some Shampoo's cooking, yes?"  The
bouncy amazon girl shoved a plate of steaming food in front of me.  It
looked good and smelled better, but before I could say anything, it was
rudely displaced by another.
     "Oh, Ranko darling, don't trifle with that bimbo!  This food was
made with the love of a maiden's heart!" Kodachi purred seductively.
     "And some sort of potion," I said, sniffing it cautiously.
Kodachi took a stab at looking surprised while Shampoo glared at her.
     "Oh my, however did *that* get in there?" she asked innocently.
Shampoo thrust herself forward over my lap.
     "What trick you try to play, stupid ribbon girl?  Go away!
Shampoo here first!"
     "Uh, ladies ..." I said weakly.  Kodachi joined Shampoo in the
airspace over my lap, their gazes sparking dangerously off each other.
     "Why don't you go talk to your *fianc‚*, girl, and leave Ranko
to me?" she sneered.  Shampoo cocked back the hand holding her
plate and got ready to administer a full face press.  Kodachi brought
her plate up into a guard position.
     "Ladies!" I protested.  It did little good.  Noodles, pickles and
bits of fish flew back and forth as they sparred.  Well, I thought, at least
they aren't using real weapons.
     Yet.
     I surveyed the rest of the group surreptitiously as the meal
progressed slowly.  Akane appeared to still be angry with Ranma, as
she was ignoring him as much as possible, much to his growing
irritation.  She was, on the other hand, keeping quite a close eye on
Ryouga, which I found strange.  He, of course, in keeping with his vow
to give her up, was avoiding looking at her as much as possible, which
did nothing to improve her mood.
     Ukyou, who would normally have been fighting for Ranma's (or
recently, my) attention, was strangely aloof.  I remembered her tearful
vow not to give up, despite what I'd told her, and wondered what she
was doing.  She'd been acting very unlike herself recently.  Ranma
noticed her brooding by herself, too, and he knew what had gone on
between us earlier.  He didn't seem to know what to do about it,
however, and ended up just watching her.  When he wasn't watching
Akane.
     Mousse, strangely enough, seemed to have noticed Ukyou's
state as well.  Even more strangely, he seemed to be devoting a fair
amount of time to watching her, and if I hadn't known better, I'd have
described the expression on his face as worried.
     Of course, being so distracted, he neglected to protest and
hang all over Shampoo the way he usually did while she was paying
attention to his rival.  And to my astonishment, she not only began to
notice his inattention, but it seemed to be getting to her.  She began to
sneak looks at him when she thought nobody was watching and, for
once, she didn't find him looking back at her.
     This obviously did not sit well with her.  She finally broke off
her culinary hostilities with Kodachi and hurled herself bodily into
Ranma's lap, where she commenced to curl up seductively, purring like
a kitten, and offered to hand feed him.  Ranma, who'd been doing a
more than adequate job of feeding himself, turned several increasingly
alarming shades of crimson, stuttered, waved his arms, and checked
Akane's reaction frantically.  She just tossed her head and gave him her
back.
     Of course, this let Kodachi turn her full attention on me.  I
rolled my eyes and vowed silently not to eat anything she gave me that
she didn't eat first.  I caught sight of Kunou, sulking at the far corner of
the blanket because his pig-tailed goddess had vanished.  He kept
glaring at me and/or Ranma, obviously knowing who to blame for her
absence.  His attempts to profess his love to Akane had earlier met
with not the usual hot-tempered rejections, but total indifference which
seemed to puzzle him.  And so he sulked, but at least he was doing it
quietly.
     I turned my head to see Kasumi beaming benevolently upon the
proceedings, as if this was the normal way in which to conduct a meal.
Come to think of it, she might just have forgotten what a normal
mealtime was like.  And then I caught Nabiki's eye.
     She was watching the amorous goings-on with her usual
dispassionate air of amusement, and I wondered what she was feeling.
Even though she'd admitted to jealousy earlier, I'd never have known
she was hurt or bothered now just by looking at her.  Her control was
most complete.  Maybe too complete for her own good.  She turned
and caught me looking at her, and she favoured me with a wry grin.
Then, when she was sure nobody was looking, she playfully stuck her
tongue out at me.
     It was only for a second, but it was so unlike what I'd come to
expect from her that I was shocked.  It only lasted for a second before
she slipped behind her well-worn mask of self-control, but it was
enough that I knew the real Nabiki, the one I'd met that morning, was
still in there, all appearances to the contrary.  I shrugged apologetically
and rolled my eyes.  A mischievous light entered her eyes.
     "For 1000 yen," she mouthed silently, "I'll make her go away."
I couldn't help it.  I burst out laughing.  Kodachi looked up from
pouring me a cup of tea, confused.
     "What is it, my darling?" she asked sweetly.  I just shook my
head, trying to suppress a grin.  The more things change, I thought, the
more they stay the same.  Akane had decided to start up a
conversation, no doubt to distract herself from all the goings on.  Since
she was avoiding Ranma and me as well, and Ryouga was avoiding her,
and Ukyou was avoiding everybody, she ended up talking to Mousse.
Ryouga tried to talk to Ukyou, but after a few monosyllabic responses,
settled on Kasumi.  And Nabiki, apparently determined to show she
was still in top form, decided to torment Kunou.
     "Hey, Kunou baby.  How's the head?"  She gestured at the
bruise on his jaw from where Akane's reverse spin kick had launched
his amorous self into the carp pond earlier.
     "Such a token of love troubles me not, Nabiki Tendou," he said
smoothly.  She leaned over and poked his bruise, causing him to yelp.
     "How about now?" she asked dryly.  He glowered at her.
     "I despise you, you know," he said in a tone of wounded
dignity.
     "I know," she acknowledged with satisfaction.  For a second, I
wondered if that was her way of flirting with him.  But only for a
second.
     Nabiki and Kunou?  I'd seen a lot of strange things, but that
would have qualified as the strangest.
     I sighed and took a long look around at the garden, the house,
and the people.  Ranma's parents and Mr. Tendou sat on the veranda,
silhouetted by the lights inside the house, enjoying a somewhat more
peaceful meal.  The light was fading now, cool shadows extending their
long fingers into the dying day.  The breeze was still warm and gentle,
but with the promise of coolness to come with the night.  My gaze
swept over the tree that I'd buried them under, back in my Nerima, and
for a second the darkness trembled at the edge of my consciousness.  I
forced it back firmly.
     Not yet, I thought.  Soon, but not just yet.  I took a deep
breath, revelling in the fresh, alive scent of the sakura blossoms,
listening idly to Kodachi's flattery, and tried to immerse my soul in the
peace I felt at that moment, in that place, knowing that I might not feel
that way again for a very long time.
     I thought I was beginning to understand why Jack had given me
that 48 hours.  My presence here had upset the delicate balance of
carefully intertwined relationships, the equilibrium that had kept
everything in check, kept everything stable.  Never mind whether or not
I thought things were overdue for a shake-up, this wasn't the way.
Things were happening that I was sure wouldn't be happening if I
hadn't come along, or at least wouldn't have happened now.
     I was the discordant note in the song of this place.  And I knew
it now, could accept it without rancour, and with the barest feelings of
regret escaping my own careful control..
     I felt resolved now that I'd made my decision.  Resolved, and a
little sad.
     I was really going to miss this place.
 
 

End Part five
May 30/97
Any comments or criticisms are welcome!  Write me at:
emmack@ibm.net 
and let me know what you think so far!