Spice of Life

Chapter 7

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Deep in L-Space
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So, she had finally found out his secret. Setsuna closed the book, a thoughtful expression on her face. Were any man to find out her secrets -- guarding the Gate of Time, having been reincarnated, being the Princess of Pluto -- she doubted they would take it as well as Kodachi had. Maybe she should try to find a dimension sometime where most guys had more problems than she did.

Note to self: Read more Takahashi.

Setsuna had ended up in a slightly less public corner after Shinigami's uninvited interruption. She had curled up in a comfy armchair, in a particularly deep aisle that sank into the blackness of space a few feet behind her. Most of the junior librarians never trekked this far in fear of the tentacled monster books that had evolved in order to survive the nether regions of the library, but Setsuna knew that the secret to taming a wild book was to ignore it.

She sighed and picked up where she had left off, wondering where the author would take her now.

* * *

The Spice of Life
[Chapter 7]
An Herb/Kodachi fic
Written by Cat Who
Requested by Prince Herb
Beta Read by Rezantis

For Daddy . . .

* * *

Their clothing now dry, the teenagers set about returning to Teninkyou-onsen in silence. Herb glanced over the ledge -- well away from the waterfall itself -- and decided to give his cloak up for lost. The secret was out anyway; if Kodachi saw him change, it was no big deal.

The snow had mostly melted as they made their way down Mt. Hebereke-yama. Herb was careful to avoid stepping in any puddles that had formed.

Kodachi remained silent, and Herb had the horrible thought that maybe she saw him as not simply a curse victim, but as a freak to be pitied. The very idea made his heart seize up in pain, and Herb cursed his stupidity for letting himself see the girl as anything more than the witch who would save his people.

Save his people? He had never thought of it like that before, but Kodachi, not him, would be seen as the savior of the Musk. Gender aside, the Musk respected ability first and foremost, and with her unique magical powers she had something that none of the warriors had.

He looked at her, as if seeing her for the first time again. She was beautiful in the classical way, with her high cheekbones, pouty lips, and sleepy gray eyes. She came from old wealth, and was strong enough to take on yazuka as well.

She's fit to be a queen, Herb decided after he finished his evaluation. Unfortunately, I'm not fit to be a king at the moment.

Herb wondered if his father had come home yet. Herb prayed he hadn't. The king could not fall ill; it was simply unthinkable. But while some of the younger people, such as himself and Lime, had managed to escape the illness, almost all the older ones had gotten sick immediately.

"Ohji-sama, look," Kodachi said, breaking the silence and his chain of thought. She pointed ahead at a small herd of deer grazing peacefully on the plain.

Herb paused, as did Kodachi, and they absorbed the tranquility for a moment. Herb suddenly felt very depressed. He should be rejoicing; his journey was halfway over. Yet somehow he still a poignent sense of loss. He did not want to go back to China the way things were.

"I feel almost sad to be leaving this place." She sighed, and stared back at Hebereke-yama, a faint gleam of longing in her eye. "It's the magical field, I think. The mountain itself is lonely now without Hebereke-san to keep it company. No one ever visits it or hikes it like the other mountains. It's not us that is feeling sad, it's the land we're standing on."

She knelt down and gathered a handful of snow damp earth. Herb watched her, confused, as she put it in one pocket, then clapped her hands together and bowed in the Shinto style. She stood up, and seemed to address the mountain directly.

"Hebereke-yama, thank you for your gift. We will carry a part of you with us, and honor you as we travel."

The feeling of sadness left Herb all at once, to be replaced by a feeling of joy. Herb glanced rapidly between the witch and the mountain, unsure of what had just happened. The Musk were not the most religious of peoples, but Herb realized that something deep and important had ocurred on a spiritual level.

"More magic, Kodachi?" he asked as she dusted her hands off.

"In a way. Part of the spirit of the mountain will travel with us now." Kodachi shrugged. "It's the least we can do. How would you like to be a mountain, stuck in the same place century after century? Hebereke-san had been a friend to this place. As one of the students of her school of magic, I too am a friend to this place. A friend does not simply take without giving something in return. This earth should be given to your kingdom once they are healed."

Herb nodded in agreement, now understanding. Kodachi didn't want to be seen as a savior, either.

She would still be fit for a queen, however. She would make a beautiful queen of the Musk. Herb had only seen his mother in a picture, but he could imagine Kodachi wearing the rich traditional Chinese clothing, draped in soft silks, with her jet hair pulled into a complicated coif that framed her large gray eyes.

But she would not love him, and whereas Herb had never once imagined marrying for love -- he was royalty, after all, and marriages were mostly alliances for all intents and purposes -- he could not ask Kodachi to be trapped in a one-sided love.

Love? Where did that come from . . .? Herb dismissed it as a wrong train of thought, but he could not get the idea out of his head.

* * *
Teninkyou-onsen, Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido
* * *

The two teenagers were exhausted when they stumbled into the campsite late that evening. Two days of hiking in the mountains was beginning to wear on them, and Kodachi was more than ready for a good soak in the hotsprings.

She sank into the steaming water with a groan, leaning back into the natural stone seat that had formed in the water. She was very surprised when the prince joined her.

"Ohji-sama, isn't it dangerous to be around so much water?" she asked, genuinely concerned. It suddenly occurred to her that before the prince had not slipped but purposely fallen into the spring in order to prevent her from discovering his secret.

"Not if the water is hot. I just have to be sure to dry off thoroughly before I go anywhere else." Herb was without his shirt and armor, clad only in a pair of tight fitting silken shorts. Kodachi discreetly admired his firm stomach and muscular physique, even though she had seen it before. She herself did not feel the least bit self conscious in her bikini. After all, it was Herb, not . . . not anyone else.

When had she become so comfortable around him? With Ranma, she had been overcome by first love every time she saw him. With other men, she had been nervous, and she hid that by acting superior. But with Herb, she felt the urge to do neither. She felt calm and comfortable with him, as if she were more herself than at any other time.

"The stars are pretty tonight," she commented, looking at the friendly waxing moon in the sky. In six days it would be full. In six days, she would have to perform a miracle that could save or destroy a nation. It was a heavy responsibility, she decided, that she had accepted without that much hesitation. First for love, then for sympathy, then for friendship.

Ah, friendship. That would explain why she felt so comfortable around the prince. Friendship didn't quite sum it up, though.

The prince's foot accidently brushed against hers for a second, then jumped away.

"Excuse me," he said, reddening ever so slightly.

"That tickled," Kodachi said with an uncharacteristc giggle, and touched his foot with her toe in revenge. "So I shall tickle you too." She wiggled her toe, causing the prince to laugh involuntarily.

He quickly got himself under control, and tried to do the same to her, but Kodachi had tucked her feet far up against the wall. Herb glared at her, and started poking around with his toe, trying to find where she had put her missing limbs. He found her knee, and slid downward to her ankle, sinking chin deep in the water in order to do so.

Kodachi laughed genuinely, not from the tickling sensation, but because the prince looked so determined to exact retribution for his foot's honor. He must have realized how silly they looked, because he quickly sat up again on his side of the small pool of water, his ears turning as pink as his damp hair.

"That's the first time I've ever heard you really laugh, Kodachi," he said, and sent a current of warm water over to her with his foot instead.

"You've heard me laugh before," she said, then realized that this laugh had indeed been different.

"What you did before was a cackle that would have mummified a newborn babe. I like your true laugh a lot more."

Kodachi pursed her lips in thought. "You know, I've never noticed it, but I think I was taught that laugh in school. All of my professors have a laugh sort of like that."

"They're all witches, aren't they?"

"Well, of course they are, ohji-sama. You can't teach magic unless you know it yourself."

"Even your gymnastics coach?"

"She also taught history."

"Well, there you go. Your learned laugh is a witch's cackle. Your real laugh is a lot more beautiful."

"Flattery will get you everywhere, ohji-sama," Kodachi purred, and splashed the warm water toward him with one finger.

Herb ducked away, and Kodachi realized her mistake.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Herb-sama," she said. The water had cooled rapidly in the air, triggering his curse for an instant before the warm water of the hotspring reasserted itself.

"It's OK," he said once he was back to himself. "You only just found out. But be careful."

Guilt settled in, and Kodachi sat on her hands. She was going to have to be very careful indeed.
To her utter surprise, the prince leaned over and gripped her shoulders. "Kodachi, listen for a moment."

Kodachi nodded, wide-eyed. The prince's touch was sending jolts of electricity up and down her arms, and causing her toes to tingle again.

"When this is over . . . if your panacea can cure curses like mine after all . . . then I . . ." Herb seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment, and his red eyes locked with hers in the dim light.

"Ohji-sa--"

"If I'm cured, then I want you to be more considerate of Ranma."

Kodachi blinked, and she knew that it was NOT what the prince had intended to say.

"I've given up on Ranma, ohji-sama."

"Even so, be nicer to him. You have no idea how it is . . . once careless act of play can bring about years of humiliation."

"How did . . . how do you cope?" Kodachi asked quietly, touching one of the hands that was still on her shoulder.

"I locked myself away for several days, trying to find a fix on my own. Then I came to Japan for a temporary solution; my curse had been locked into place because of my own stupidity, and the fix for it was on Honshuu. That is when I met Ranma the first time." The prince finally let go of her shoulders, and leaned back. "I was cruel to him too . . . because he revealed the curse to my best friends in one of those acts of carelessness." He banged one fist against the stone wall, his face reflecting the bitterness of that memory.

"They would have found out sooner or later, right?"

"Oh, you'd be surprised how well someone can hide a Jusenkyo curse. While looking for the Open Water kettle -- the fix for the permanency of the curse -- I encountered someone else in Nerima who had not only been cursed with the Spring of Drowned pig for almost as long as Ranma had been cursed, he was the pet pig of one of your old rivals."

"Pet pig . . . Akane's P-chan?" Kodachi covered her mouth in horror, and then put the pieces together. "Ryouga. He was more than welcome to Akane, as far as I was concerned. Anyone else?"

Herb thought back to the fight on the mountain. "The purple haired amazon is a cat, if I recall, and the blind one is a duck."

"Mousse and Shampoo. Cat and duck, made for each other." Kodachi stared thoughtfully at the water. "If I had a curse, who would I be?"

Herb glanced her over, and shrugged. "I don't think there's a spring of drowned rose."

"Silly," Kodachi said, and stretched. She had pruned up during their conversation. "Well, ohji-sama, I am about to go sleep. We still have a bit of hiking to do tomorrow."

"Right," Herb acknowledged, and stood up at the same time as Kodachi, immediately grabbing a towel for his chest. Kodachi dried herself off quickly, and watched as the prince meticulously removed every drop of water from his body before the cold night air could cool it down. The process took several minutes as he took out one leg, then the other. Finally satisfied, he walked around to the other side, next to Kodachi.

"Let's go, witch," he said, with an inflection that made the previously flippant title seem like an endearment.

"Yes, ohji-sama," Kodachi answered in kind, and smiled secretly to herself. Something more than a friend, indeed.

* * *

That night, Prince Herb had a dream he had never had before.

He was young . . . very young, perhaps no more than two. He was cradled in warm arms, arms that embraced him and secured him all at once.

But suddenly he was torn from those arms, and placed in another, rougher pair that were not warm and did not feel secure at all.

"My baby!" a woman's voice cried. "Give me back my baby! Basil, he's not ready for this yet." The voice broke into sobs, and the young Herb joined her, reaching out for her.

"Rosemary . . . you knew the ways of our land when you married me." A man whom Herb realized was a younger version of his father hugged the beautiful, sobbing woman, and the contrast between them caused the young Herb to stop crying. His mother, for that was who she had to be, had white skin and silvery hair. She was a foreigner, Herb decided in his dream, and it was easy to see why anyone would fall in love with her.

"No more, no more children then, Basil. Don't take away any more."

"We will have only daughters from now on, Rosemary."

The woman calmed, and looked longingly at Herb, who stared back, confused.

"I wish you have been born a girl, my little prince. Maybe someday I shall have my wish . . ." The woman broke down sobbing again, and Herb's father signalled to the men to take Herb away.

"Mama!" he cried, as it dawned on him that he was to never see her again. "Mama, I don't want to go!"

"Hush, your Highness. My sister knew this was the fate of sons in your kingdom, and she accepted it before you were e'en born. We'll train you into a right fine laddie to make her proud." The cold arms, which were not unkind, squeezed the prince in friendship. "You're as late as we take 'em away, too. The wee ones you'll be startin' out with are not e'en out of nappies yet."

Herb didn't quite understand the foreign words, but the tone was soothing and he wasn't quite so cold anymore.

He forgot all about his mother.

The dream ended, and Herb sat up in a cold sweat. He wiped his brow before the moisture could trigger the curse, and then lay back on his bed, trying to comprehend the full meaning of the dream.

His mother had been Scottish.

Why had he never remembered before?

That meant he was half Scottish too, something he had never wondered about. He had always attributed his unusual appearance entirely to his draconic heritage. His father's dark blue and red hair must have mingled with his mother's shock of white in him, giving him the beautiful pink and true blue chunks that he was known for.

Herb stared at the waterproofed silk roof of his tent, and blew out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Perhaps the biggest question was why this dream had come to him now, of all times. Was his mother even still alive? He hadn't been lying when he told Kodachi that he didn't know he had a mother until a few months ago. None of the young men of the Musk gave much thought to it; women as a whole were forbidden, so that warriors would be able to train without interference or distractions. Mothers especially might get in the way of that training.

However, there might be a price for that attitude. Female warriors were nonexistant in the Musk, despite the fact that many of the women themselves had come from warrior backgrounds. At least, it dawned on Herb, he had always *believed* them to be nonexistant.

In that moment Herb hated his culture, his people, his traditions. The price for training boys in segregation was simply too great. They were ill-prepared for the rest of the world; gone was an age in China where the greatest warlord would conquer all. With the current Communist regime, the rest of the country suffered enough. Minor kingdoms like the Musk were for the large part ignored except when it came to taxes. But some day, that could all change, Herb feared. Were China to once again fall to squabbling kingdoms and regional feuds like the old days, then the warriors could be called to arms. Worse, if China were to go to a world war, the small kingdoms would be expected to contribute manpower and supplies.

There had to be something he could do. Herb felt the burning desire to *change* things, to bring the Musk Kingdom into the twentieth century where it belonged. Tradition was one thing, being foolishly stubborn was another.

The prince flopped over in his sleeping bag, and started to furiously plan. First things first, he would track down his father and ask about his mother. He had a right to know. Next, he would find the mothers of Lime and Mint, and introduce them . . .

He remembered suddenly about the illness, and his plans deflated rapidly. No, the kingdom would not be ready for changes so close to the tradgedy. Maybe after a few months. Maybe after a few years.

Gods, it made him feel so impotent. He wanted to be back in China NOW. He wanted Kodachi to hurry up and cure everyone so they could go back to their regular lives, and he could go on with his. On the other hand, that meant Kodachi would go back to Japan, and he really didn't like that idea, either. He wanted Kodachi to stay with him as he brought the Musk up to snuff. She could even help, with her knowledge of French cuisine and train travel . . . and other important modern things.

The vision of her dressed like his mother came back. This time, however, the colorful silk robes were replaced by her signature black and red, with her hair in the jaunty side ponytail. The idea did *things* to him that bothered him since he was supposed to have that particular part of his anatomy under control.

Disgruntled with himself, the prince stuck his head under the tiny pillow he had brought along and started counting dragons in an effort to go to sleep.

He had gotten up to two hundred and twenty six when the sound of rockets woke him up, followed by a lot of screaming.

* * *

Kodachi sighed as she looked at the charred roof of her tent, and sighed again as the prince barged into it for the second time in as many nights.

"What happened?" he yelled, and covered his nose as he smelled the melted nylon.

"I rolled over onto my wand. I was dreaming of fireworks," Kodachi said sheepishly, and picked up the offending piece of wood, from which dangled her gymnastics ribbon "This is why I usually keep it on the other side of the room from me. Wands can be very dangerous when used in an uncontrolled manner."

"I can see," the prince said with a frown, and kneeled down in the text next to her, startling her. "But are you all right? Did you get burned or hurt?"

"I am fine, ohji-sama," Kodachi insisted, and presented her arms and face to Herb. "Not a trace of ash or fire anywhere. The firework was mostly sound, I believe, and it originated from my hand." She picked at the charred fabric of the tent, crumbling a bit of soot between her fingers. "Regretfully, I cannot say the same for my tent. It is not something I can repair. I don't know the spell for mending fabric, and even then this is advanced transfiguration."

"Well," Herb said, and Kodachi suddenly felt sheepish. Having an explosive dream was rather embarassing for a witch of any age, let alone a sixth year known for her icy control.

"I'm sorry," she said, blushing.

"You'll just have to share my tent for the rest of the night."

Kodachi blinked.

"Oh . . ."

"Don't be silly or prudish or anything," Herb said before she could voice an objection. "It's too cold to be outside, and if it starts snowing again, you could really suffocate this time. It's only logical you stay with me."

When he put it that way . . .

Kodachi gathered her sleeping bag and luggage, and reluctantly followed the prince from one tent to the other. His tent *was* smaller, and they were a bit pressed for space inside.

Kodachi curled up on one side, trying not to occupy more space than she needed too. The prince lay on his back, one arm above his head, looking a lot more relaxed about the whole situation than he felt.

She resisted the urge to reach out and touch him. This is getting silly, she chided herself. When has Kodachi 'the Black Rose' Kuno ever been denied something she wanted -- well, besides Ranma?

She was no simpering ninny to sit back and wait for the male to make the first move. She had pursued Ranma with her whole heart, and nothing had stood in her way -- not fianc├ęs, not parents, not her brother, not even Ranma himself.

But somehow, this was different. Her attraction to the prince was on many levels new. The utter devotion to Ranma seemed more and more like a dramatic plea for attention, something that should have been beneath her. With the prince, she could not continue to pursue him as long as she enjoyed the game. She would have but one chance, and if she ruined that chance, it would all be over. She would go back to Japan, he would stay in China, and their lives would continue separately, the memory of the two weeks they had spent together soiled by her improper timing.

So, this time, she would wait.

Still, as she drifted off to sleep, her fingers stretched out, as if she was trying to grab onto the prince before it was too late.

* * *

What the HELL had he been thinking?

Herb kept asking himself that over and over again, as Kodachi slept peacefully beside him. It was one thing to share a hotel room. But a tent was more personal. Her hand lay inches from his side, and one of her feet was touching his. Unlike their horseplay in the tub earlier, the innocent gesture caused his already uncomfortable physiological state to worsen.

She shifted, and Herb asked the gods for aid. Sleep was out of the question like he was.

Think of horrible things, he told himself. Imagine that it's not tempting, delicious Kodachi there . . . but that old hag of an Amazon, Rinsu. Or Lime. Or the half-bitch. Anyone but the witch.

It was nearly an hour before Herb managed to get his raging hormones under control by reciting the death counts of ancient Chinese battles. Battle of Musk vs Dong Yim: 3 Musk, 470 odd Dong Yim. The three Musk warriors had been taken prisoner and tortured to death. Herb wondered if there had ever been Chinese libido torture. Strap Musk warriors to a pole, and parade nubile young dancing ladies in front of them. Watch them struggle until they go insane and rip their arms out in an effort to reach the women.

Hmm. Probably wouldn't be too effective, but it was sure as hell annoying imagining not being able to touch Kodachi if he wanted to.

Wait . . . no, no thinking of Kodachi in sexual situations . . .! But it was too late. All the nubile women in his mind looked like Kodachi. They gyrated and gamboled before him, flashing brilliant smiles as their tall, lean bodies shimmered in the firelight.

Herb groaned. He was back to square one again.

Finally, Herb gave in and crept out of the tent towards the woods. Unless he did something, he wasn't going to get ANY sleep that night.

No one saw him as he slipped through the shadows, and he was glad. "Chinese Prince caught wanking off in Japanese National Park" would be a very, very embarassing headline.

* * *

Nabiki and Kuno looked glumly at the video. It had lain there since that morning's failure by Shampoo.

They had tried tongs, furniture, Mr. Turtle, and various other assorted objects. Each time Kuno had gotten electrocuted, and Nabiki had gotten a bit hot and bothered. She had finally given up, because Kuno was smelling a little smoky, and she had pretty much worn him out.

"Well, damn. We're going to have to find SOMEONE that can pick up the video."

"There is no one left in Nerima upon whom I would wish to inflict such toture," Kuno said, twitching slightly from residual shock. "I despise electrocution." He actually shuddered.

"Really? Well, I imagine it doesn't feel pleasant, but I've never stayed up worrying about getting struck by lightning or anything." Nabiki saw Kuno blanch. "Don't tell me you--"

"Kuno Tatewaki is afraid of no man, no woman, and no lighting," Kuno said emphatically, and crossed his arms as he stared traight ahead.

"Uh huh." Nabiki pondered a bit. "You know . . . one thing I did always worry about was losing control . . . Kuno, I think we might be on to something."

"The Chinese Amazon is afraid of turning into a demon?"

"No, no . . ." Nabiki frowned and leaned against Kuno, thinking hard. "She's most afraid of losing Ranma to Akane."

"But she turned into a cat."

"And Ranma is afr -- doesn't like cats. I think that may be it. Your sister's spell brings the holder's deepest fears into reality." Nabiki stared glumly at the video.

"And this helps us HOW, Tendou Nabiki?"

"Well, let's see, Kuno-chan. If Ukyou picks it up, then Akane and Ranma might get married." Nabiki brightened. "Although it's doubtful." She stroked Kuno's hand absently while she thought. It had been surprisingly easy to bring her childhood crush on Kuno back to life, especially with the aid of that video.

"We have to be careful who we let pick it up from now on. Even though the effects could be temporary, it can still wreak havoc on people's emotions."

"If it brings one's deepest fear to reality, then there is no one safe to pick it up."

Nabiki patted his hand.

"We'll think of something. After all this trouble, I damn well want to know what your sister has on my future brother in law."

* * *

Kodachi woke up as the prince returned to the tent. She hadn't even noticed his absence before, and she wondered foggily how long he had been gone before drifting off into a half-fantasy, half-dream about her and the prince. Once they got to China, she performed her duty, and then started to go back to China. The prince declared his undying love for her, and asked her to be his wife.

"Yes, ohji-sama," she murmured, and snuggled into her pillow, pretending it was him.

She introduced the Musk to women's lib and French cuisine. The Musk Kingdom saw the error of their apartheid ways and allowed her to be with Herb all the time, even during training. But the nights . . . oh, their wedding night would be the most important time to be with him.

The things her mind concocted that as she half-slept were wicked beyond belief, but unlike the prince, she was content for the moment with fantasies and dreams. She *would* act on her desires, but as she had resolved before, only at the right time.

But when would the right time be? She had six days left now. Six days to convince the prince that she was indeed a capable, desireable woman, and not just a friend.

Could she do it?

Then Kodachi remembered: she had brought along the love potion from last week.

The secret, powerful love potion. The wonderful, deadly love potion. Belatedly, she should be glad she had not used it on Ranma, since the fates had obviously not intended him for her.

The potion in the little red bottle acted as an immediate or delayed aphrodesiac. One sniff even was enough to trigger the reaction. What it did was cause recipient to carry the potion as a poison or aphrodesiac until they declared their love for someone. If that person accepted them, it turned into an urgent aphrodesiac. If the person rejected them, it became a poison that only a witch could cure.

Perhaps that scheme HAD been over the top. The premise for the "if I can't have him no one can" aphrodesiac was that the person dosed with it was simply not doing anything about an unrequited love he had. Kodachi, in her blind naivete, had believed that Ranma's constant denials were simply manipulations from her rivals. In the even that she was wrong, she would have resorted to blackmail of course.

I'm glad I didn't make him go through that. Perhaps the prince is right. I *have* been rather inconsiderate of Ranma.

But now that was over, and she no longer wanted Ranma. She wanted Herb.

For this, she had to be genuine. Fancy potions and magical gimicks or doctored photos weren't the real path to true love. Only mutual attraction and respect could work.

She returned to her cozy fantasizing about the Prince. Mutual attraction. Well, now, that meant she had to do her best to be attractive. No more buns or business suits. The ski suit was workable, but the train ride back to Hokkaido would require another wardrobe direction entirely. Perhaps a visit to a boutique before thei left Sapporo would be in order.

Kodachi began forming Operation: Seduce Herb. Planning for seduction was something she had a feeling she'd be good at.

* * *

Overhead, the stars shined merrily down upon two tents, one charred to cinders, and the other containing two very frustrated teenagers. The crickets and cicadas who chirped for the last remaining days of autumn knew nothing of their lives, and if they had, would not care. In the grand scheme of things human happiness means nothing and everything.

* * *

End Chapter 7