A Duet of Pigtails
Prologue 1: Music Box Dancer

By Libby Thomas

Based on the characters and storylines of Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi and Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP

Inspired by "Music Box Dancer" by Frank Mills and an idea by Sakura Edwards

~*~

A brisk winter's day graced the Saotome-Tendo dojo. The world was silent, a rare fall of snow was drifting towards the ground on the still and picturesque home, and all of Nerima ward was at peace.

"RANMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

"CUT IT OUT, ALREADY!!!!!!!!!!!!"

"NO WAY IN HELL, YOU BAKA!!!!! GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE!!!!!!!!"

Saotome Ranma, Grandmaster of the School of Anything Goes and owner of the house, was running for his life. Gotta hide, or she's gonna beat it out of me! The thought of diving into the koi pond and hiding was instantly discarded. With his luck, that was going to be the first place she looked, not to mention the obvious thought that it was cold as hell. Likewise, diving into the snow was going to do absolutely no good whatsoever, as there wasn't even enough to make a snowball. Having no other recourse, he leapt to the roof, hoping to seek solace from the being that was hunting him down with dogged determination.

Said hunter came out of the house a second later, and she was not happy. "RANMA, YOU JERK!!!!!!!! YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET AWAY WITH IT THAT EASILY!!!!" Hefting the infamous Mallet-sama, Tendo Nabiki raced around the dojo, determined to find her brother and beat some sense into him. The irony of Akane's acts from not so long ago was not lost on her, nor was the fact that Nabiki took a sort of grim humor in watching Ranma get what was his.

Seated inside the house and watching the whole scene was Ranma's girlfriend, Shidou Hikaru, who was talking with his oldest sister, Ono Kasumi. Hikaru turned to Kasumi and said, "Please don't tell me this is normal."

"Oh, not at all," Kasumi was quick to admit, as she poured Hikaru a cup of tea. "Usually it was Akane who chased Ranma around with a mallet."

"A mallet?!?!"

"Why, yes. It saved wear and tear on our tables, stone lanterns, pots and pans, and the furo."

"Sorry I asked." The redhead gave Kasumi a weak grin. "Look, I know this was sudden for him, but maybe they should sit down and just talk. I mean, I can understand the situation, and...." She left her words unspoken; while she loved Ranma very much, she was in firm agreement with Nabiki's position in this case.

Kasumi, ever the scholar of other people's feelings, picked up in that in an instant. "Everything will be fine, Hikaru. You are, after all, his girlfriend, right? And he does love you. Nabiki will talk some sense into him, I'm sure of it. When all is said and done, everything will be back to normal."

Hikaru merely nodded. After all, she'd been through a lot worse in life. Watching her significant other have a disagreement with his older sibling was no big deal. Hey, even she and her brothers tended to solve disagreements on occasion with blunt instruments. Mind, they were wearing protection normally, but Ranma and Nabiki were martial artists....

~*~

Hours later...

"Ranma!" Nabiki said, panting heavily, finally having caught up to her brother. She had to ditch the mallet over by Ukyo's place on the way before taking a shortcut and racing down to the train station, leaping from one rooftop to another with a speed and agility she'd never been able to master before. Then again, I'm not usually in the mood to pound Ranma into the floor so often, am I? She managed to catch up to him over by track four, and the pair continued their chase on the tops of the Tokyo subway system, eventually taking the chase onto the JR trains, until they were quite some distance away from Nerima.

Now into its third hour, the duo had finally managed to stop, in an area vaguely familiar to the young woman. Nabiki ventured a glance at the nearest sign. Minatomirai. Wait a sec...that's all the way in Yokohama! Oooh, he's gonna pay for this!

Sitting on a nearby chain link fence, Ranma gave his sister a grin. "Hey, you managed to catch up to me. Pretty good."

Nabiki shot him a murderous look as she recovered. "You are a dead man, Saotome, unless you have a good reason for bringing me out this far. And you still haven't given me a good expla--" Her words were interrupted by the surprise of Ranma bounding off the fence, walking up to her and putting a package in her hands. "What the hell is this?"

"Open it." She did, unwrapping the package and revealing a box. In turn she opened the box and looked at the item inside. Nabiki looked at him in shock, then looked back at it, and back to him again. Sensing her vulnerability at the moment, Ranma hugged her, whispering, "Happy birthday, sis."

Nabiki was, for one of those rare times, completely and utterly lost for words. "Y-y-you remembered," she managed to stammer.

"Of course I remembered. You remembered mine, you remember Kasumi's. You even managed Hikaru's, and I don't recall ever mentioning it. How could I forget yours?"

"I-I-I don't know," she murmured. She looked once more at the gift he'd bought her: a miniature music box pendant; basically a singing locket. Since she was a child, it had been something that she'd always wanted, but had never bothered to buy; something that she'd written off long ago as a mere child's dream for a woman who never was afforded child's dreams. Eventually, though she'd written it off as bad for her high school image (after all, Akane or Kasumi would be more likely to have it than she), she'd never really stopped wanting one.

Now, finally, she had one, and by the looks of it, it was fairly expensive, too. Something that he'd gone down to one of the more expensive malls for, not some simple corner store. Of course it wasn't so much the fact that it was fairly expensive that counted (though it was a plus) so much as the fact that he'd gotten her basically something she'd wanted since she was a child. "I-I-I...." At a loss for words, she finally gave up and returned his embrace. "Thank you, little brother," she said, meaning every word of it. She leaned against him, cherishing him all the more. It was days like this that made her happy that she had the best brother in the world.

"Don't thank me just yet. We're still not done," he said, hinting at more to come.

"We're not?"

"Nope. Why do ya think I had us jog all the way to Yokohama? We're going to have a nice lunch at this restaurant I made reservations for." Taking her arm in his, he motioned her towards a nearby passenger overpass towards the Yokohama Pacific Shopping Center & Hotel. "Hikaru and I found it last week, and I thought you'd like to come here."

Nabiki couldn't help but smile. "You're hanging around me too much. You're becoming too sneaky." She paused for a second to smile at him, then replied, "So, little brother, you still haven't responded about your plans for Christmas."

Ranma's smile fell immediately. "Um, Nabiki, I...." Now it was his turn to be lost for words as he stammered, "But I...look, it's not that I mind you setting up...that is, Hikaru and I would...er, how would be the best way to say it?"

She gave him her best "kawaii eyes" and said in a pouty voice, "But you promised me. Besides, you don't want to upset your older sister, right?"

"Nabiki, you know that Tatewaki and I are barely getting along right now," he said as they walked into the restaurant. "The only reason we are managing to get along is because you're my sister and the fact that he still thinks that Hikaru's his 'Pigtailed Girl'. I'm just not sure the four of us going to Hokkaido for Christmas week is a good idea."

"Ranma, Kasumi said she'd love to watch Akama, and she's already got Hiro, so it's not a problem." Sitting at the table and taking the menus from the waitress, Nabiki rattled off a couple of appetizers before turning back to her brother. "Tatewaki is looking forward to this trip, and so's Hikaru--it's a great way for the four of us to get comfortable around each other."

"I dunno," Ranma commented as he pointed out his choices and handed the menus back to the waitress. "I don't want to spoil the whole vacation by getting into a fight with Kuno."

Nabiki in the past probably would have played her trump card, meaning her looks. However, since such an action was lost on Ranma and the fact that she would never do that to him anyway, she smiled and merely was honest with him. "Ranma, this is a chance for you and Hikaru to indulge in a little romantic time--you know that with Akama, neither you nor I get to spend as much time with our loves as we'd like to, and we can't always foist him off on sis. This is a chance that Kasumi's happily giving us." She took his hand in her and asked, "Ranma, this is important to me, little brother. Please? For me?"

Ranma sighed in resignation. There was little he would deny Nabiki; in the past because of her blackmail, or now when she merely asked. Also, if Hikaru was siding with Nabiki on this, then the decision was already made. He loved them too much to go against both. "Okay, Nabiki. You win. I'll go, and just hope for the best that there won't be any trouble."

"Don't worry, Ranma," she answered with her familiar tone of confidence. "I've got everything under control. What could go wrong?"

~*~

Two weeks later...

"Saotome," Kuno said in his usual haughty tone, "if it were not for the spell that you hold in thrall over the Pigtailed Girl, I swear that I would smite you now for your insolence!"

"Awww, c'mon, Kuno! You're pissed at me because I got the last can of Birdie out of the machine?"

Kuno gripped his can of tea. "I happen to prefer tea, you wretch. I am filled with the righteous anger of heaven because you were so craven as to not offer the can to the beauteous and ravishing Pigtailed Girl."

"Um, Tatewaki," Hikaru said, "I've already got a can of coffee. I grabbed a Georgia out of the Coke machine."

"And you totally forgot to mention me, I see," Nabiki interjected, her voice holding a dangerous edge to it. "Kuno-baby, I hope you'll like sleeping alone tonight."

"But my love," Kuno said, his voice on the edge, "I fail to see how either you or the delightful Pigtailed Girl can put up with such a wretch as Saotome Ranma!"

"She has a name, you know. And I thought you promised me that you wouldn't fight with my brother."

"How you can consider that cur your brother is beyond me, my fairest love."

"Simple. He married Akane, which makes him one by law. More importantly, we've been there for each other through thick and thin, which totally makes him one to Kasumi and me. Hey, if I knew a way to make him one by blood, I'd do that too. At least he's a better sibling than, say, Kodachi?"

Kuno nodded and shut up. It would be another year or so, the doctors said, before Kodachi would be able to function outside of the healthcare facility. Hopefully by then, she'd forget all about him and the family...and leave them alone.

"Well, then, now that we're one big happy family again," Ranma grumbled in a sarcastic tone, "can we go hit the slopes? It's getting cold standing here."

Hikaru gave her boyfriend a whimsical smile. "Funny, I'm pretty warm right now."

Ranma whispered in her ear, "Fire magic?"

"Nope, just thoughts of what I plan to do with you tonight." At that comment, Ranma's cheeks flushed and she said, "See? Works every time."

Nabiki, having overheard the exchange, couldn't help but giggle, though she didn't understand Ranma's comment about fire magic--must be something private between them. So far the vacation to Sunigiri Ski Resort in Aoshima had been a resounding success. Of course, success was measured in the fact that Ranma and Tatewaki had not had a significant enough fight to blow the resort into matchsticks. Between Nabiki and Hikaru, the two men had only come to blows once and with the expected results: Kuno lost, Ranma punted him a quarter-kilometer up the mountain, and then had to go find him.

Otherwise despite themselves, they were growing closer. The girls were getting to know one another in closer way, and any doubts that the older girl may have had about the redhead dating Ranma were completely erased, though she couldn't help but feel that in some ways, Hikaru was a toned-down, non-kleptomaniacal Shiratori Azusa. In turn, the men were finding out that they actually had things in common other than fighting over Akane and the Pigtailed Girl: they both actually did enjoy sumo, and could actually talk about it in a sort of camaraderie.

The only problem apparently stemmed from Kuno's occasional advances on Hikaru. Though, to his credit, he was showing mostly admirable restraint, there were times when his control slipped and he had to be restrained. One of those times had been when Ranma had sent him "advance scouting" up the mountain without the benefit of warning. The rest of the time, though, Hikaru had actually taken care of it. Between her acrobatic skills at dodging, some martial arts that she was picking up from Ranma, and her incredible sword talent (she was far and away better than Kuno), she kept him at bay until Nabiki could deal with it.

Christmas was in two days, and nothing was going to go wrong, nothing at all.

The four got on the ski lifts, heading up to the top of the slopes. Nabiki kept her distance from Kuno just to torture him, while Hikaru leaned into Ranma, giving him a small kiss and looking up at him with eyes full of love. Up they went, into the deeper section of the forested area, where they would take on the expert slopes and spend another day on snowtime fun. Just a (for a change) normal, uneventful day.

~*~

Mommy? Are you coming? I can feel you coming, mommy. Are you coming to get me out of here?

Mommy, I'm scared. I'm so lonely and afraid.

Mommy, please come, because I need you.

~*~

"SSSUUUUUGGGGGOOOOOIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

"Hey! WATCH IT, WILLYA?!?!" Ranma ducked at the last second as a pair of skis raced over his head, missing him by mere centimeters.

"Sorry, sweetheart!" Hikaru called back to him. "I'll make it up to you tonight!" Seeming to race by at the speed of her namesake, Hikaru tore down the slopes in her flame-patterned snowsuit; only Ranma knew that it was a modified version of the Fire Knight armor. The others just thought it to be very expensive ski gear, and that was the way things were. As Hikaru bolted past, he watched her with a sense of pride. That was the woman he loved, no doubt about that. He never thought he'd love again after Akane's death, and fate had happily proven him wrong. Now, after so many years of pain, he was happy with another woman.

But happy and marriage was something else in his mind. Six months ago, Nabiki had gotten engaged to Kuno. That was also the same day that he'd met Hikaru, and perhaps it was a sign that they were fated to meet. Since then, his time with her was completely, totally magical. There was no doubt that he loved Hikaru, but was he ready for marriage again? How would Kasumi and Nabiki react? Granted, they were thrilled that he was dating, but what if he wanted to make it more permanent? That was, assuming she wanted to. Would he be betraying Akane? He didn't think so, but there were times when he was afraid that he might be, however unintentionally. Though Hikaru meant the world to him, even she knew that she could never compete with his love for Akane, and to her credit, she never did, instead showing him a new path to love. Ranma took one more look as Hikaru raced down the slope before she caught up to Nabiki, also moving swiftly herself, but it was the redhead who seemed to garner the attention, like moths being drawn to the force of flame that she so much meant to embody.

"Saotome, isn't she a beautiful sight? Like a fiery angel in motion, a scratch of glorious red against a field of pristine white." Ranma turned to notice Kuno standing right next to him, a rapt look on his face. Turning to Ranma, no malice in his words, he said, "You know, Saotome, I envy you."

"Um, why?" Kuno's being nice? Wow--the holidays must be in full swing.

"You've always had the most beautiful women around you: Akane, the Pigtailed Girl, that Amazon murderess, your friend Kuonji, my sister, and even more than I probably know of. I cannot fathom why the ravishing Pigtailed Girl would deign to fall for one such as you or even how you managed to win the heart of the lovely Akane, much less the care of her sister; but I suppose that it is best that it is you in all these cases, and not some other worse scoundrel. Though I daresay I'd be hard pressed to find one worse."

Ranma thought about it for a second, and decided to take it as a sort of backhand compliment. "Thanks. I think." Ranma paused for a second. "You know, sometimes, you're not as bad as you seem to be, Tatewaki. Maybe you'll make a good husband for Nabiki after all."

"Why thank you, Ranma. I must admit that for once, you've shown a glimmer of intelligence. Maybe someday, you'll even--" Kuno was interrupted by the sound of a massive rumble, like the sound of thunder over the mountains. "What was that? Saotome, you haven't been fooling around agai--"

The sound grew louder and louder, now combined with the sounds of wood snapping, and a person screaming, "RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!!!!!! AVALANCHE!!!!!!!!!!!!" Both men looked up and saw an awesome wave of white bearing down on them at breakneck speeds, sweeping up any and everything in its path.

"The girls! Kuno, find them and get them out of here!" Ranma barked as he charged up his power. Calling a sphere of blue energy to his hands, he roared, "Now move, dammit! MOKO TAKABISHA!!!!" The lance of blue ripped from his hands, blasting forward and splashing against the moving wall of snow with incredible force. However, it did little to halt the advancing tide, in fact, it was coming closer and faster. "Kuno, go save the girls, you moron!"

"What, and run like some mewling coward?" Kuno countered. "I shall stand by you and show this mere force of nature the wrath of the Blue Thunder of the Olympic Kendo Circuit!" Pulling his bokken out of nowhere, he screamed, "THE VENGEANCE OF HEAVEN IS SWIFT AND SURE, AND I SHALL SMITE THEE!"

Ranma held his tongue in check, not sure which point of stupidity was more prevalent: Kuno screaming challenges at the oncoming (too close!) snowslide, or the fact that he actually thought that oversized toothpick of his was going to do any good. Realizing that arguing was going to get them nowhere, Ranma turned to face Kuno once more and tried for reason. "Kuno, you and I can stop this thing, but the girls are going to be helpless! Who's going to protect them? I need you to go and protect them!" Ranma cut loose with a second beam; the blast impacted, but much too close. If he was going to do something to stop this, it would have to be soon or dozens of innocents could be caught up in the catastrophe now occurring.

Ranma's words must have clicked on a light in the dusty attic that was Kuno's brain, because he nodded with understanding, murmuring, "I see. Very well, I shall find the fair Nabiki and the beauteous Pigtailed Girl, and rescue the--" Kuno didn't have time to finish his statement as the crest of semi-frozen water slammed into him and Ranma, carrying both in its wake and dragging them to the bottom of its travails. At this rate, the girls were in deep, dark trouble, and might not survive.

And as the darkness of unconsciousness began to settle around Ranma, he thought another sad truth: at this point, he might not, either.

~*~

Mommy?

I can hear your heartbeat. Is that you? I love you, mommy. I miss you.

Please come for me, and take me away from here.

~*~

"There's another one!" Ranma heard the muffled voices of someone, felt a dozen hands reaching to pull him free of the mess. "It's okay, miss. You're safe now. You barely survived."

At those words, Ranma knew she'd changed over to her female aspect. No one was sure how much snow it was going to take to change him into female form, but evidently an avalanche's worth was more than enough. Still feeling dizzy, she muttered a half-felt thanks, then asked for Kuno's whereabouts. She bristled when they'd referred to the idiot as Ranma's boyfriend, but a quick explanation of him being her sister's fiancé straightened that out. He'd been knocked unconscious, and one of his legs had been broken in the slide.

Once that was clarified, she asked for the whereabouts of Nabiki and Hikaru. They were nowhere to be seen, the rescue rangers told her. Neither Nabiki nor her "twin sister" were seen at all, and with some fifty other people caught in such a major snow slide, there was no evidence that anyone had survived other than those lucky enough to have already been pulled from the snow.

"NO! DAMMIT, THEY'RE OKAY!" she cried. "SEARCH FOR THEM!!!!" Her voice was panicked, caught firmly in the grip of terror at what had just happened, but fortunately, his mind intervened a second later. Get a grip on yourself, Ranma! she told herself. Getting terrified about things isn't going to help Nabiki or Hikaru. But something about now just felt too ominous. She was in her female form, in a wooded area, and her loved ones were suspected of being.... No! This is not the same, Ranma, and you know it! She slunk to her knees in fear then forced herself back to her feet. However, she also knew Hikaru's secrets and Nabiki's willpower, and knew that if there were a way for both to survive, both would find it easily. And if that was the case, there was no way in hell that Saotome Ranma would ever give up on them.

However, what to do about Kuno? Ranma knew she could just leave him there and that the emergency personnel would take care of him, but somehow, that didn't seem right. So, as the crowds moved to help others, the redhead picked up Kuno and carried him to the room he shared with Nabiki. Ranma would make sure that Kuno was at least safe before moving to help the others. Nabiki would insist on it, and Ranma knew she couldn't disappoint her sister's wishes, even if she wasn't here to give them.

Assuming, Ranma thought, her heart racing in fear, that Nabiki and Hikaru were still alive.

~*~

Whew. She's heavier than she looks. Hikaru panted, dragging Nabiki into the cave that she'd noticed at the last second just as the avalanche overtook them. If it hadn't been for the older woman's quick attention, they would have both been turned into gooey condiment on a giant shaved ice. As it was, Nabiki had slammed her head against a rock at one point while pulling Hikaru to safety, and was still bleeding from the cut. They'd finally ended up about five meters from the cave, and Hikaru had pretty much worn herself out not only digging Nabiki out, but also fireblasting a makeshift tunnel to the cave's mouth, and then lastly dragging Nabiki to safety. Now that that was done, Hikaru was tending to Nabiki's first aid needs with what she remembered from her university courses in medicine, what seemed a better part of a lifetime ago.

With a dull whump, the makeshift tunnel closed behind her and closed them off. Hikaru looked at the cave's mouth and found it was shut off by a barrier of felled trees, rocks, and snow. Too exhausted to summon any significant reserve of energy, she figured that they were stuck there until rescue teams could arrive; besides, she was more concerned about Nabiki's health than getting out of here right now. If worst came to, she'd just power up and use the Fire Sword to cut them out of there. However, she'd rather not do that; she wanted to appear to her future sister-in-law as a normal girl and not some powerful person, much less the goddess of another universe.

But the cave was getting cold, and with the snow slowly bleeding in, it was only going to get colder. Hikaru knew nothing about how igloos or whatever worked, but she did know that warming up would be a good idea. Concentrating, she released what little heat she could into the air; within minutes, the cave had begun to approach room temperature. Hoping that the heat would hold, she took off her small backpack, pulling out the flashlight and throwing the beam on the shadows. Additionally, she grabbed her cel phone, hoping that she might be able to call for some sort of help, but to no avail; she'd forgotten it in her room in the resort.

Nabiki, for her part, moaned and said, "Hi-Hikaru? Is that you?"

"Yes it is, Nabiki," Hikaru answered. "Are you okay?"

"My head hurts like Akane repeatedly nailed it with a hammer," the older woman moaned. "Now I know how Ranma felt. What happened? And why is this cave so warm?"

"Um, you pushed me out of the way when the avalanche hit and we got lucky enough to fall into this cave," Hikaru lied, feeling uncomfortable about making up the story, but knowing that it would be easier for Ranma's sister to digest than the truth. "As to why it's so warm, I think it might be some sort of hot springs thermal, but I'm not sure." At least, that sounds like a good enough excuse. As Nabiki tried to get up, Hikaru gently held her down and said, "Please rest, Nabiki. I'll go looking around in this cave and see if I can find another way out of here."

"Okay, I will. Just...be careful, Hikaru. This could be a bear cave, and if that's the case, we'll be in big trouble for disturbing its hibernation."

"Don't worry, Nabiki," the redhead replied. "I'm not the least bit worried about some sort of bear. I can handle myself." There was something in the girl's voice that made it seem as though she was actually capable of doing so, though from what Nabiki had seen, Hikaru was far better at kendo than at hand-to-hand. Was she better than she let on, maybe as good as Ranma, even?

Naaah. Couldn't be, Nabiki decided, as she looked at the mouth of the tunnel. Well, that's going to take them a long time to dig us out...assuming they even think of searching this place. Wonder if they're looking for us? I wonder if Ranma and Tatewaki made it out okay? She smiled inwardly, knowing those two. Hey, I don't need to worry. Nothing stops my little brother. And if he's looking for us, then so's Tatewaki. Who knows? This might be the thing that finally gets them to cooperate. So, I guess that gives me and Hikaru a few hours or so to bond before our rescue. Besides, what could go wrong?

"MOMMY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" a voice called out. And it wasn't Hikaru's.

~*~

"Saotome, you must be mad to go out there! The snow's coming down in sheets, and even the other rescue workers won't go out in that weather!" Kuno, his leg propped up and in a cast was screaming at Ranma with all his energy. "Think, man! What good is it going to do to go out there and get yourself killed?"

About the only thing that was going well for Ranma so far was that he changed back to male form after a shower. However, there was a freak snowstorm coming in, and things were getting so bad, the search had been called off for the night. Unspoken was the fact that since the rescuers had been pulled back for the night, the chances of survival for anyone still caught in that mess was somewhere between minimal and negative zero. And on top of all that, Kuno was trying to convince him not to go outside?

Since when did I get into the Twilight Zone? the martial artist asked himself. "Kuno, the woman I love and my sister are out in that mess, and neither you or anyone else is going to tell me to back off of this!" Ranma's eyes flashed fire, and he was far angrier with the kendo artist than he'd ever been before. "Damn it, what would you have me do? Sit here and wait for news of their deaths? I saw Akane die in my arms, you bastard, and I will not allow anyone I love to ever die if I can do something about it, you understand?"

"I never thought that, Saotome." Kuno's voice had taken a calm, collected tone to it, as though there were things he had to say, and wasn't sure how to express them. Finally, he did something that he never did before: addressed Ranma as an equal. "Look, Ranma, it's no secret that you and I are not of the same cut. But I must face the truth that you and I are to be brothers-in-law someday, and as that, I must caution you to be wary."

"Wary? Why?"

"Because Nabiki--my fiancée and your sister--and your beloved Pigtailed Girl are out there, and could be dying. Perhaps you can do something to save their lives, but I would be remiss in not telling you that you could be risking your life in vain." Kuno sighed; it seemed to be that talking to Ranma one-on-one was harder than anything he'd ever done, and possibly more painful than his broken leg. "You may be good enough to beat Saffron. You may be good enough to beat Kirin. You may be good enough to beat Toma. But can you beat nature itself, Saotome? Can you?"

No hesitation: "If I don't do something, they're dead, and I'm not going to allow that at all! You know that!" Ranma's balled his fists in anger. "I can't afford to lose them, Kuno. Surely you know what it's like to lose a loved one."

"That I do. I still remember the day my mother...passed on." There was another painful moment of silence between the two, as though a critical barrier had been broached. The silence sat for minutes, interminable and thunderous in its own existence before Kuno opened his mouth again. Finally, he said, "Ranma, please save them. I'd go with you myself, but...." He gestured towards the cast.

Ranma nodded in understanding. "Y'know, I believe you would. Take care of yourself until I get back, Tatewaki."

"And you mark my words, Ranma: be wary on that mountain. I have a dark boding of what is up there," Kuno said, his eyes somber, "and I don't like that feeling at all."

~*~

"Hey, Nabiki," the redhead said as she wandered back. "Look who I found."

Nabiki strained to look up. "I see we have a visitor." In tow, holding Hikaru's hand, was a frightened little girl, perhaps about eight or so. She was covered with dirt and grime, and looked like she'd been living in the mountains for quite a while. To the older woman, the young girl had a passing resemblance to the child form of Ninomiya Hinako, only a bit more somber, shyer and worse for wear. Managing to get back to her feet without her head slamming its pain down on her, she said, "So, little one, are you lost? Where're your parents?"

The girl, her eyes brimming with tears as though she'd been crying forever, said, "My daddy's...gone. And I haven't seen my mommy for a long time."

Hikaru bent down and whispered in Nabiki's ear, "There's no sign of any others. I think she might have been left here by her parents." There was suppressed anger and indignation in the redhead's tones. "Look at her, Nabiki! Her parents just gave her some homespun stuff to live with! I swear, if I get my hands on them, I'll...." She stopped, thinking it wouldn't be good to get angry in front of the child.

Nabiki, for her part merely nodded slightly. Giving the child the same sort of parental look that she gave Akama, she asked, "So, little one, what's your name? I'm Nabiki, and you already know my friend Hikaru."

The girl gave a slight smile and said in a tiny voice, "My name is Kagura. Odoriko Kagura."

"Kagura. What a pretty name you have." Hikaru smiled, trying to set the young girl more at ease. "So, where are you from, Kagura?"

"Near Edo," the girl replied. "I was brought up here with my mother and father to be presented to the local daimyo. They think I'm really special, and if I am, I get to be treated like a princess." Kagura looked at the two ladies and stopped for a second, having a look on her face as though she shouldn't say what she wanted to next. But she decided that they were really nice to her and so she told them: "I don't wanna go, though. I want to be at home with my family."

"Edo?" Hikaru asked, not sure if she heard the child correctly. "You did say Edo, right?"

"Uh huh," the girl nodded. "Hey, I've never seen anyone dressed like you before, Hikaru-sama. Are you some sort of geisha?"

Both women looked at each other, then back at the girl, then back at each other. Of all the things to run into at this time, it had been a ghost that they had currently encountered. At least she seemed to be a benign sort. So far.

"I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever stop seeing weird things in my life," Nabiki said rhetorically. Turning to the girl, she said, "Er, no. Hikaru's a...samurai, and I'm a...kunoichi." Remind me to look up all that historical stuff sometime and figure out what it is. Maybe I should call Konatsu sometime. He might have an answer for that, though it's not going to do me any good right now. "Hikaru's with Clan Shidou, and I'm with the Tendo Clan, in Nerima."

"Wow...you must be real important. My dad's just a farmer," Kagura admitted.

"Hey, each person is important, Kagura," Hikaru said, hugging the child; she couldn't help herself--her heart went out for this lonely little girl. "And you're important too. We'll help you find your parents, I promise."

"And how are you going to pull that off?" Nabiki whispered to the redhead. "In case you haven't realized yet, Hikaru, the girl is a ghost! Her parents are probably on the other side, waiting for their next shot at life. How are you going to pull that one off?"

Not even bothering to look at Nabiki, she said, "Trust me, okay? I know what I'm doing." Reaching into one of her pockets, she pulled out a candy bar. "Hey, Kagura, have you ever had chocolate?"

"Um, no. What is it?" Kagura asked, to which Hikaru gave her a piece. The girl took it, copied Hikaru in putting it in her mouth, and chewed cautiously. A second later, the remainder of the bar went to the happy girl ghost, who was dancing and thanking her benefactors for such a delicious treat.

"She's a sweetheart, that's for sure," Nabiki said. "I wonder what happened to her in life."

"I don't know," Hikaru answered. "Sometimes ghosts carry marks of their death on them, but she seems to be so happy and at peace, she couldn't have been a mononoke or a onryo or the like. She may have just gotten lucky, died peacefully and became a yurei, even though it seems her parents abandoned her. But it doesn't make sense why they would have."

"Well, she said she was special," Nabiki responded. "I wonder how?"

As if in answer, the flashlight took that exact time to die. "Oh, I knew I should've replaced the flashlight batteries. Nabiki, do you have a...wait, you lost your pack in the fall. Nevermind." Hikaru sat there, trying how to best reveal her flame magic without upsetting anyone. She promised Ranma that she wouldn't reveal her powers to his family until he thought it was time; after the battle with Ukyo she had two months ago, she nearly fried the other girl to a crisp--and she'd been holding back most of her ability.

"I don't like the dark," Kagura said. "It's too scary." With that, the ghost began to sing. No voice seemed to come from the girl, save a music that seemed to come from the very essence of heaven itself. As the girl's wordless creation of music continued, the cave became brighter and brighter, the light coming from a mysterious power that was too beautiful, to incomprehensible to describe. Waves of music seemed to caress both women, dancing around them as though each note was a friendly spirit merely wanting to play, and it felt to Hikaru and Nabiki as though they were floating in a giant bubble, rather than sitting down in a barren cave that was now as lit as the noonday sun.

"That's why I'm special," Kagura said, pleased to show off her talent. "My singing can do special things, and that's why the daimyo wanted me to be a princess."

"And you are special," Nabiki said, impressed by Kagura's skills, as recognition of a sort seeped into her features. As though she was conducting a gentle interrogation, she asked, "Do you like music?"

"Hai, Nabiki-sama!" the girl cheered. "It's so pretty and nice, and I really liked to watch the dancers and geisha perform."

"Well, maybe you'll like this." Nabiki pulled the music box pendant out of her shirt and played it for the child. The girl stared, rapt at the small box giving off the most beautiful music she'd ever heard. Looking at Nabiki with abject adoration, Nabiki took it off and gave it to the girl, saying, "Be careful with it; it's a bit fragile. But go ahead and play with it for a bit. I have to talk to Hikaru for a second okay?" The girl, already entranced by the tinny music of the small device, nodded cheerfully and wandered off.

Nabiki gave the girl a smile as she walked off. "So, she's a siren, it seems. That's a bit unusual for Japan."

"Ano? Siren?" Hikaru asked, unfamiliar with the term.

"Western mythology--I did a report on it when I was in 10th grade. If I remember correctly, it's a woman whose magic comes from her voice, or something like that. They're very skilled in music, and they were mainly used to lure ships to their doom or something. I've forgotten the exact details." Nabiki sighed. "Now it makes sense. If no one in her time was used to the concept of the power she had, they might become afraid of her."

Hikaru thought of Cephiro; more to the point, Ascot's beast friends who were thought to be hideous monsters and instead turned out to be like overgrown puppies, gentle in their nature. "People become afraid of what they can't understand," she mused. "So they killed her. Her parents weren't taking her to see the daimyo, and they may have lied to her when they told her she was from Tokyo, er, Edo. Why would anyone from there come this far north at that point in history?"

Nabiki nodded, agreeing. "Well, that's another problem for another time. Right now, we're trapped in a cave, and there's probably little chance that any rescuers will be able to find this place. Worse, we're stuck in here with a ghost. Granted, she's a nice one, but what if she decides that she wants to go home with us?"

"Then we take her with us," Hikaru insisted. "Ghost or not, she's a frightened little girl, and she needs help. Maybe afterwards we can take her to a priest and speed her on to her next life. But I made a promise to help her, and I will."

"Hikaru, for as long as I've known you, you've been the caring type, but this is a bit much. I just have to ask: why?"

"Three reasons. One: she's a little girl. After you've helped Ranma raise his son, you should know how much a child needs her parents. Two: it's the holiday season, Nabiki. Peace on Earth and goodwill and all that." Hikaru then turned her gaze to the girl, sitting in the other corner of the cave listening to Nabiki's charm, and singing along, creating motes of light that seemed to dance and swirl in time with the music. "And number three: I know how that little girl feels, what it's like to have talents that you can't quite describe and aren't sure how to use half the time. I know that feeling all too well."

~*~

"Awwww, damn," Ranma moaned as the wind picked up, making her momentarily stagger back. The wind had gotten worse, and the snow had been slamming against him hard enough to trigger the change, something she didn't need. It was now far worse going, her female body being far lighter than her normal one, and would make things an absolute bitch to climb to the last place where she saw her girlfriend and sister. But Ranma didn't dare stop; to do so would be a death sentence for them--and her.

"NABIKI! HIKARU! ANSWER ME! CAN YOU HEAR ME?" she screamed as loudly as possible, her voice barely carrying above the whipping wind. The wind was still picking up, and she'd been warned that there was a snowstorm coming in, possibly strong enough to set off another avalanche. She was headed blindly up the hill with a heavy pack of first aid and survival gear, and there was no way to check the map of possible survival spots that was marked off.

Swinging around one of the trees that had managed to withstand the first snowslide, Ranma used it to shield herself from the winds as she pulled out the plastic-coated map, turning the flashlight onto it and finding his current location. Okay, I should be by the third pylon, which means I'm halfway to where the girls were last. Hopefully, it should only be a hundred or so meters more. Hopefully. Putting back the map, Ranma moved away from the tree, steadied herself, and trudged forward back into the snowstorm, determined to find them at all costs.

The snowstorm continued unabated, an opponent that Ranma had never fought before but had to defeat against all costs. She was not willing to accept any other scenario. Not one damn bit.

~*~

"Kagura? Can you come here, please?" Hikaru said. Whispering a hushed, "Thanks, Nabiki," Hikaru addressed the girl as she approached, "Kagura, are you happy here?"

The child nodded and said, "I just wanna go home."

"Would you like to come with us?" Nabiki asked. "When we get out of here, we'll help you find your parents."

"And if I don't find them?" Kagura asked, the look in her eyes one of hope, holding onto Nabiki's pendant as though it was a lifeline.

"Then we take you home with us, right, Nabiki?" Nabiki nodded in the affirmative. Nabiki gently took the pendant from the girl's hand and settled it around her neck, and Kagura positively beamed in delight. Opening her mouth again, she sang a song of joy, filling the two women with a mystical warmth that seemed to melt away their aches and pains; Nabiki's injury healed instantly, while Hikaru's magic reserves began to rejuvenate at an exponential rate. Within minutes, both women had felt as refreshed as they had when they'd begun this long day, hours upon hours ago.

When the girl was done, she went over and hugged the ruby-maned goddess, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Do I get more choko--whatever that brown stuff is called?" Giggling, the girl danced for joy and relief, to be free of this place, rescued and with someone who would take her to her family, or even take her into theirs. She was sure they wouldn't ever leave her.

A ghost of a smile flittered on Nabiki's lips as she saw Hikaru and Kagura playing. Gotta admit, she's a total sweetheart. Hikaru thinks more of others than she does of herself, and it's like she can't stop giving. She's just like Ranma in that respect--although he's a bit rougher around the edges. I really hope he's thinking about marriage, because those two deserve each other, completely.

"Nabiki," Hikaru asked, "Christmas Eve is tomorrow. Do you think we'll be back in time for it?"

"Count on it. When Ranma gets here and pull us out of this mess, we'll be back at the resort just in time for Christmas Cake. And you know that he and Tatewaki are out there right now, looking for us."

"Ranma? Who's he?" the girl said, turning to Hikaru. "Is he your husband?"

Hikaru gracefully blushed at that and murmured in a dreamy voice, "Someday, maybe. If I'm lucky." Meanwhile, the elder woman took note of that and filed that little nugget of information for a later time. Say, like two months down the road, on Valentine's Day, where she could do a little mischievous cupid-izing.

~*~

Shivering from the cold, Ranma carried on, forcing her way up the mountain. She was now over by the ninth pylon, much farther up than she thought she'd have to go, but at least near where the girls were last seen. Sadly, there was still no sign of them at all. It was as though they'd been swallowed up without a trace. Either that, or they've gone to Cephiro, she thought with an edge of dark humor. But at least she believed them to be alive--something in the back of her mind felt that way.

An unusually strong gust of wind blew her off her feet, sending her tumbling back five meters and over a ridge that she'd missed the first time. At least the ridge was blocking most of the wind, which gave the martial artist a few more minutes to rest her weary bones before continuing her trudge back up the slope. Sitting down in its cover, she reached into her pack, pulled out a thermos that the rescue operators provided her with, and took a couple of sips of hot tea, just enough to get her going again. Setting it down, she pulled out the flashlight and map once more, attempting to get her bearings.

Sitting there for a couple of seconds was not something that she preferred to do, but there was little choice in the matter. If she didn't take the time to rest, then she was going to be stopped or led off track by the snowstorm, and that wasn't going to do the girls the least bit of good. Whether she liked it or not, she had to stop every so often to warm up and check the map. Unfolding it in the shelter of the bank, she set it on the ground, trying to see where she was at the moment. Clicking on the flashlight to read it, Ranma saw a white ski.

The fact that it was a white ski was a bad enough indicator; that meant someone was possibly in trouble and in need of help. But this particular ski had a gold edge on it and a red gem embedded in the tip of the frame, similar in design to the owner's ski suit...or rather, the owner's Fire Armor. Turning on the proverbial ten-yen coin, Ranma used her strength and wrenched the ski out of the snow bank. It ripped halfway, and the fiberglass' broken end only made her worry that much more. Digging more only revealed that there had been a massive rockslide of some sort, and that he had just pulled half of Hikaru's ski out of the snow.

NO!!!!!!!!!! Channeling up her ki, she ignored the snow now coming in droves and threatening to bury her as it had this drift. A second later, though, as though ricocheting off a force field, whole cascades of snowflakes being repelled by the cocoon of bioenergy surrounding her. Raising her palms towards the snow barrier, she screamed with all the worry and defiance she had within and hoping that her confidence would be enough to fuel one more "MOKO TAKABISHA!"

~*~

The whole cave rocked. Instinctively, both girls dived over the ghost, trying to protect her. A split-second later, the barricade in front of the cave's mouth collapsed and was ejected away, forced out by a blast of blue. "Hikaru! Nabiki! Are you in there!" a voice called out in desperate hope.

"RANMA!" both girls shouted joyously in return. A somewhat bedraggled and windburnt woman nearly identical to Hikaru came in, and both women hugged the newcomer fiercely, Hikaru almost giving her lover a deep kiss but stopping as she remembered that Kagura was in the room.

"Hikaru-sama? You have a twin sister?" Kagura inquired.

"It's...a bit more complicated than that." Though if Nova was here she might have qualified for that, the redhead mused. Turning back to Ranma, she said, "We knew you'd come looking for us."

"Yeah, I seem to have a bad habit of chasing after Tendo girls when they're missing," Ranma droned, winking at her sister. "You just happened to be along for the ride this time, dear."

"Um, Ranma, we've picked up another stray," Nabiki commented. "It's a long story, and I'll explain later, but this little girl is Odoriko Kagura. She lost her parents...some time ago, and we're going to help her find them. If it's okay with you, I'd like to put her up in one of our spare bedrooms at home for the time being."

Ranma nodded in understanding, saying only, "I trust your judgment, sis." Hearing the wind picking up even more, she added, "Look ladies, I hate to break up our pleasant reunion, but the Civil Service reported that there was going to be an even worse snow storm than the one that caused the avalanche...and I just came up here in that snow storm now. We've got to get down slope before it's too late."

There was a deep rumble as the cave shook, catching all off-guard. "Kusottare...." Ranma seethed between grimaced teeth. "We gotta get out of here now!" The rumbles grew louder and louder, and the cave began to shake more and more, the rumbles becoming the loud booming rumble of massive torrents of white rolling down the mount. To the shock and dismay of all, a new batch of white slammed down on and into the entrance, forcing the four back deeper into the cave, to where they had less room to move, and where the air was staler.

When the damage was done, they were surprised to discover that they'd lost eighty percent of the space they had, and there was only enough air for a couple of hours or so. They had to get out of there immediately, or they would never be getting out again. "Stand back!" Ranma roared, charging her power up as much as she could; she was already very weakened, and there was little she could more she could do, but she didn't come all the way up here to fail. "MOKO TAKABISHA!!!!!" The blue lance of energy bored through the snow with the ease of a heated katana cutting through tofu, but to no avail, as the hole she created collapsed a half-second later. Four more tries yielded no further success, and finally Ranma collapsed to the ground, spent.

Hikaru was at her side in an instant. "Anata, let me do it. You're too tired, and--" A look from Ranma silenced her; it was a look of outright determination that she'd seen in those blue eyes only in rare spurts and when it came up, there was little to oppose it. "Please don't, Ranma. You'll only hurt yourself."

"I came to save you, and I will!" Ranma's eyes flashed obstinacy. There was no way she was going to let something as simple as an avalanche doom them all. She had better things to do. Forcing herself back to her feet for the umpteenth time that day, she closed her eyes, searching for her center of focus. She was going to pour everything she had into the next blast, and she was going to make sure she cleared out the area enough for the girls to escape. Then she could do something nice...say, like slipping into a coma or something.

Nabiki, being familiar with Ranma's breaking point leapt in front of the glowing woman and pleaded, "No, little brother. Not this way. You might bring the mountain down on us! Remember your battle against Saffron!"

Eyes still closed, she answered, "Please move out of the way, sis. I'm trying to save you two."

"No," Nabiki said. "Not if it means you're going to be stupid enough to sacrifice yourself. I don't need that kind of altruism. We can dig our way out." She glanced at the monolith less than a meter away, and gulped. "I hope."

"Nabiki, I will not stand by and allow you both to suffocate in this cave." Sweat began rolling down Ranma's brow, and she began to wobble slightly. It was clear that the hike up the mountain had taken more of a toll on her than she was letting on, but Ranma would go down fighting before she would admit to a weakness. "I have to do something." Ranma's eyes opened, and they looked tired, but ready to do the job.

"Stand aside, anata," Hikaru said. "I'll do this. You're too weak." Nabiki arched an eyebrow at Hikaru's words. She was no sort of martial artist--surely she couldn't focus any ki attacks without some sort of channeling device like her practice sword or something. She's gotta be bluffing! But the way that Hikaru turned and stared at that wall of ice and debris was the same look of challenge that Ranma had on her face, and Nabiki had to decided what was more unsettling to her: watching the very face of determination in stereo, or possibly having to see that Hikaru was not as soft as she appeared to be.

~*~

Kagura looked at the whole scene, watching the three women. There was something special about them all, she saw, but she couldn't understand why. She only knew that the taller redhead they called Ranma (wasn't that the name of Hikaru-sama's intended, too?) was willing to put herself at risk to save Hikaru-sama and Nabiki-sama. They, in turn, weren't willing to allow Ranma to injure herself to help them. The three of them, willing to protect each other, no matter what the cost.

In that small space of time, Kagura had seen something that she'd never seen in her life, living or otherwise. She'd seen a real family, a trio that loved each other enough to throw themselves in the path of the wolf for the others. Her own family, she realized now, never would have done that. They'd left her here, and it was only by luck that Hikaru-sama and Nabiki-sama had come by, and offered her hope. Kagura was grateful for that.

Nabiki-sama called me special, the ghost thought to herself. Hikaru-sama said she would take me home with them if they had to, and Nabiki-sama told Ranma-san that she wanted to give me a room at their home. They want me to go home with them. I'm getting to go to a home!

But there was only one way to do that, and that was to help Ranma-san. Kagura didn't know how she knew; she only knew that the energy that the woman threw was no longer strong enough to do the job, and that after she attacked, she would become extremely sick. Kagura could prevent that, but if she did, she would become as sick, perhaps even sicker, than Ranma-san would. But, if Ranma-san was willing to do it for the others, and the others looked willing to do it for her, then the choice was clear.

Kagura sang.

~*~

"SAOTOME YAMASENKEN ATTACK!!!!! KIJIN RAISHU DAN!!!!!!!" Punching both fists forward, Ranma released a pair of crescent-shaped ki-blasts at the wall of ice and snow. There seemed to be a musical note behind her, and her whole body filled with warmth as she began to feel less tired and worn. In front of her attack, a magical field shimmered into view. The two vacuum blades hit the portal, disappearing into its rippling, 2D-depths. Almost immediately, on the other side, a great column of energy rocketed from the portal, slamming and boring through the barricade with an almost impossible ease. The onslaught continued its mission of coring an egress for the group, until Ranma lowered her hands, the impromptu beam attack also stopping as well.

Ranma looked at the hole, dumbfounded. She hadn't expected to be able to pull off that level of an attack with the power that she had, but she wasn't going to argue. They were free, and she could get them out of there.

Naturally, it caught her completely off-guard when the girl fell to the ground with a moan and a thump. Ranma turned around just in time to see Hikaru diving to the girl's side, a worried look on her face. The martial artist turned to her sister, but Nabiki looked at him with sad eyes and whispered, "We failed her, little brother. We failed that girl."

Hikaru gently scooped the girl off the floor, a dismal look in her eyes. She'd seen this situation too many times before, and never wanted to see it again. "Kagura-chan, did you use all of your power to save Ranma?"

The girl weakly nodded. "I feel so tired, Hikaru-sama. Am I going to die?"

How do I explain to her that she's already dead, and been that way for a while? No, she self-amended. She never died, her body only gave out. No one this kind can ever truly die. "I don't know, sweetheart. But stay awake, please. We're going down to the ryokan, and from there we'll start your journey to a new life."

"I'm so tired, Hikaru-sama. I'm going to miss you and Nabiki-sama, and even Ranma-san, too." Even if the girl didn't know she was dead, she knew this was the end of the road for her. Hikaru blinked back tears as the girl whispered, "I wish I could have you as my family. I love you all." Odoriko Kagura craned her head and kissed Hikaru on the cheek, saying sotto voce, "Remember me." With that final note, she faded into nothingness, her body dissipating like so many notes carried away from the band by the breeze. Nabiki's pendant, having nothing more solid to cling to, fell to the ground with a noisy clatter before settling on the cave floor, still as death.

"What the--?" Ranma was about to ask, but was silenced by a hug from her sister, who began to cry in her arms.

Meanwhile, Hikaru, alone for the moment physically if not in heart, had a moment of inspiration. Touching the remaining spectral fragments of the ghost child, she began to speak in a language that neither Ranma nor Nabiki could comprehend--only one other on Earth would be able to identify the foreign language that was the tongue of Cephiro. She went on in the strange chant for a few minutes before she finished it with a Japanese phrase of "I promise, Kagura. I promise." Getting up off the floor and unable to look at anyone, she headed for the cave mouth alone.

"Hikaru, love, are you okay?" she asked.

Not bothering to look at her, Hikaru answered, "No, anata, I'm not. I need some time alone, if you don't mind. I'll meet you back at the room." Nothing further to say, she walked off into the snowstorm. Oddly enough, a second later, it completely stopped.

Nabiki let go of her brother, wiping the tears from her eyes. "Why?" she asked no one in particular, staring at the cave's ceiling. "Why her?"

"I don't know, sis," Ranma answered. "But she was braver than a lot of other people I've known. She sacrificed herself to save us all, because you two made her happy. And I think I'm proud of both of you for showing her that happiness." Giving the brunette a wan smile, she said, "C'mon, let's go back to the resort. Tatewaki's probably worried about us."

"Speaking of which, where is that baka?" she asked. "And where'd Hikaru go off to?" Nabiki bent down and grabbed the pendant, nearly putting it on before she decided that such an action would be wrong for some reason. Instead, she hung it on a rock outcropping, where it would sit for all eternity. The music box pendant seemed to be a fitting memorial for the musical ghost girl, and would play its tune until the day the battery wore out, sending the final notes into the air beyond.

Watching her sister's action, Ranma paused for a second before continuing. "I'll tell you on the way what happened to Tatewaki," she said, ushering her sister to the cave's mouth just as the morning sun began to break over the horizon. "And as for Hikaru, she'll turn up soon enough. As you might have learned, my girlfriend can be a bundle of surprises at times."

~*~

It was early afternoon when Hikaru reappeared at the resort. By this time, Nabiki had changed clothes, Ranma had changed both clothes and gender, and Kuno had woken up, having been completely worried about them. The three of them were sitting there discussing the ordeal the two women had gone through and the final moments of Kagura. Nabiki had also taken the time to tease her fiancé mercilessly about his cast, and how it was going to make their lives rather dull for a couple of weeks--for the remainder of the week, he'd have to sleep perfectly still and shy away from any activity. But even more important, the situation seemed to cause a sea change in the way the two men were dealing with the other. There was still tension between them, but now it seemed like it was more the tension of two people trying to sort out their friendship rather than two enemies trying to put up with each other.

"Well, I'm sure you two would like some time alone," Nabiki said as she watched the redhead walk in, "and no offense, but so would we. C'mon, you invalid." Jerking Kuno back to his feet, she gave him a small smile as he winced in pain. "Oh, poor Kuno-baby," she added in soft sarcasm.

"That hurt, you know," Kuno snarled at his fiancée, without any heat. "Ranma, please control your sister."

The martial artist laughed. "Tatewaki, I'd have an easier time giving Ryoga directions through downtown Tokyo than I would controlling my sister."

"Glad to see someone has some sense around here," Nabiki quipped. "We'll see you two at dinner...assuming any of us is awake by then. C'mon, Tatewaki, let's go do something vaguely romantic--it is Christmas Eve, you know." Waving farewell to the pair, the two went off (Kuno, more accurately hobbling off) in search of some privacy of their own.

Hikaru dropped right into her beau's lap while he was sitting on one of the couches, sipping Christmas tea. Gently taking it out of his hands, she leaned against him and said, "I love you."

"I love you too, Hikaru-chan," he said, nuzzling her hair. "Everything all right now?"

She nodded. "Everything's fine. I just felt so powerless to do anything about poor Kagura. I didn't realize until today what it really meant to be the Pillar, and how limited my powers are on this side. I wonder if I could have done more than I have to help her."

"You did what you could, sweetheart. You made a promise to make her happy, and you'll keep to it." Ranma pulled her closer to her, relishing the love that he had for her. "That's what I love about you, Hikaru. You just want to make everyone happy."

"That includes you, too, anata." She snuggled closer to him, and sighed in contentment. "Ranma, sometimes I wonder what it would be like married to you, and I have to admit, it's a good feeling." She felt him bristle, and confided, "I know that you still hurt when it comes to that, but when the day comes, I'm ready for it."

"I love you Hikaru, you know I do. But there's a part of me--"

"--that feels you're betraying Akane, I know. That's what I love about you, Ranma; you're always concerned about what others are feeling. Well, whether we marry or not, I'm with you forever. I've found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and that'll never change."

"And I'd be lying if I didn't say I felt the same way." Ranma had a contemplative look on his face, though the redhead couldn't see it. Instead, he asked her, "So what brought this on?"

"Just a Christmas wish, and a holiday dream," she murmured.

"I see. Well, this is for you." Reaching to the side of the chair, he grabbed a small box and gave it to her. "Merry Christmas, beautiful."

"Aren't we supposed to be opening Christmas presents tomorrow?" she teased, smiling. Unwrapping the gift, she opened a small jewel box and her eyes glowed with surprise. The ruby-and-gold earrings, shaped like musical notes, glittered in the sunlight streaming into the window. "Ranma, I--" She kissed him tenderly. "Thank you, anata."

I don't know if I can marry again, Ranma thought to himself. But more and more, everyday, you're convincing me otherwise, Hikaru. "Always welcome, sweetheart." The two kissed again, their lips meeting gently once more, then deeper as their love shone through. In the background, Christmas melodies played a simple holiday concerto for the two lovers.

~*~

Years later, Hikaru was tucking her youngest children in their cribs. Akama, sitting on the back of Hikari, watched. "Okaasan, watcha doin'?"

"Putting your brother and sister to bed, Akama-chan," she replied sunnily. She was counting herself very fortunate that she would be able to do so. Earlier today, she'd almost lost her daughter Hotaru because of a mistake that Ranma had made when he was a teenager and still engaged to Akane. Today, their marriage had gone through the worst trial that they'd ever suffered, and they made it through because they loved each other. Loved each other to wash away their pains and take each other as lifelong mates. Loved each other enough to start a family together.

Ranma came into the room. "Love, I'm going to take Akama and Hikari for a walk for a while. Do you want to come?" It was another way of apologizing for the mistakes he'd made that day; while the fight against Picollet had been a cinch, it had almost cost him his family. Never again would he ever allow something that inane to tear them apart.

"No, that's okay, love. I just want to spend time with the twins for a while." Turning to the older ones in her family, she hugged Akama, patted Hikari on the head lovingly, then gave Ranma a sweet kiss. "I'll be waiting for you three when you get back--maybe we can have some ice cream, okay?" Akama nodded eagerly at that, and Ranma gave her a return kiss.

"We'll see you when we get back, dearest," Ranma said.

"Bai, Okaasan!" Akama chirped, as Hikari gave a soft bark of joy. With that, the three left the nursery, heading down the stairs.

Hikaru watched them leave, smiling to herself. Her family, and all was perfect now. Her husband, her two sons, and her daughter, one happy if not perfect family. Facing the twins, she gazed lovingly at both her little angels. Hikama, his hair fiery red and his eyes closed, yawned once and slept, appearing like an angel. However, his sister Hotaru looked up at their mother with her sienna eyes, those orbs holding all the love a newborn could hold for her mother. Hotaru opened her mouth, gurgled once, and made baby noises that sounded vaguely like a melody.

A melody that would have come from a music box pendant, sitting in a cave in the far north of Japan.

I kept my promise, little one. You have a family now, and people who love you. "Sleep well, Hotaru-chan," Hikaru said to her daughter, kissing both children as she watched the youngest Saotome close her eyes and fall into a sweet, peaceful sleep.

Author's Notes

Birdie is a brand of coffee that they sell in vending machines in Japan, available in various flavors, and in hot or cold cans. Owned by Pepsi, it is a brand designed to compete with Georgia (Coke), Boss (Suntory), UCC, and Kirin. Thanks to Misaki Shirano for that information.

Okay, okay, okay, as my friend, editor, and Japanophile Rob Barba pointed out, Aoshima is not in Hokkaido, but at the far northern edge of Honshu. Chalk it up to a slight mistake in the characters remembering where it was, okay? ^_^;

This was inspired by an old friend of mine. She suggested that since I've made everyone wait forever for Duet 6, it would only be fair to come up with something to make up for it. Additionally, since some have said the series is a bit too dark, I thought that this might lighten up things a bit. Hey, it is the Season of Peace on Earth and Goodwill for Otaku, right? ^_~

While thinking of what to write, Sakura sent me a gift from Germany, where she lives. It's a music box, appropriately playing "Music Box Dancer" by composer Frank Mills. Something in my mind seemed to click together and one thing led to another and here we go.

Hope you enjoy this, and Happy Holidays!

NEXT:
Prologue 2: Fatherhood