Reverberations: Winter

Copper Bells

By Edward Simons

Based on characters and situations created by Takahashi Rumiko Ranma 1/2 and characters copyright Shogakukan, Kitty Animation Circle, and Takahashi Rumiko. This story written 2007 - Edward A. Simons

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Ask not for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

Ernest Hemingway

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

The ancient copper bell tolled for the final time. One hundred and eight rings for the one hundred and eight sins of mankind. One year had ended, another began, and nothing would be the same.

A pigtailed boy lay sprawled on the pavement, unconscious, while a lavender cat that had been a girl struggled free of her entangling clothing. A longhaired boy and a shorthaired girl stood in speechless silence, while a huge feline form loomed over them.

"I didn't..." Akane protested, whitefaced.

"You did," Mousse insisted, his complexion gray. "We did. Shampoo is..."

"Shampoo is trapped forever as a cat, destined to be my bride," the Ghost Cat crowed. "Thank you, thank you both!"

Mousse threw back his head and gave a piercing howl, a wordless ululation like the wailing of the damned. Chains, hooks, barbs, spears hurtled from his sleeves, flung blindly against the world and everything in it.

By some miracle only Shampoo's cage was decapitated. Akane crouched shivering behind the temple bell, a thin red line across her cheek and a deeper cut welling on her arm. The Ghost Cat was unharmed; it had dematerialized and retreated inside its round brass bell.

Mousse collapsed to his knees, weeping. The cat that had been a girl slipped easily between the bars of the cage, padded forward, and began licking Ranma's face.

The pigtailed boy blinked. His eyes focused and he flinched backwards, though he did not run. Ranma rose to his feet, eyeing the situation grimly. He swore softly, fervently, like a prayer. The boy set his jaw, though his eyes stared blankly into the distance. "This ain't over. I swear this ain't over." The words were both threat and promise.

And then he was gone.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Ukyou paused and looked up at the uncertain sky. Clouds obscured most of the stars, but a thin sliver of moon showed through. Perhaps a storm was coming; perhaps this would all just blow away.

One way or the other, it was well past midnight. Ukyou bowed her head and sighed. She'd enjoyed her new part-time job as a miko, a shrine maiden, but the ceremonies had taken longer than she'd expected. Perhaps that was because of her inexperience, though the priest, an older gentleman with a long white beard, had been patient with her nervousness and mistakes.

But she'd wanted Ranma to see her in her shrine maiden's outfit. The white loose-sleeved kimono would have been scandalously short on its own, but the outfit also included a crimson hakama, a garment like a divided skirt or a pair of wide-legged pants. Ukyou was sure her fiancé would have noticed her the way she wanted him to while she was wearing such traditionally feminine clothing.

But Ranma hadn't been there. She'd called to invite him, but Akane's father had answered the phone. Soun had claimed Ranma and Akane were off helping Shampoo, but that was an obvious lie. Clearly, Soun and Genma had forced Ranma to take Akane out on a date for New Year's Eve. When would those two old meddlers quit wasting everyone's time? Anyone with brain in their skull could see that Ranma and Akane didn't get along at all.

Ukyou pulled a wooden tablet, an ema, out of the sleeve of her kimono. The plaque was about the size of both of her hands put together and shaped like a child's drawing of a house or the blade of a spatula, roughly square with a tapered point at the top. The left side was marked with the hideous caricature of a horse, the symbol of the shrine. The right side had a space where you could write your wishes for the new year.

Another ema hung on the rack back at the shrine, marked with her standard wish for another good year in business. But she'd been too embarrassed to hang this one, which proclaimed 'I want to marry Ranchan' in a firm unwavering hand. Ukyou sighed and tucked the tablet away.

Maybe next year Ranma would notice her. Maybe next year he'd come to see her at the shrine. Maybe next year she'd dare to hang the tablet where everyone could see.

A pair of hands seized Ukyou and roughly pulled her into the alley.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Akane quietly slid the door open, and took off her shoes, placing them carefully in the entryway. She glanced back into the darkness outside and shivered, but there was no one there. Akane closed the door and started down the hall to her right.

Her father sat on the stairs in front of her. "Have you got any idea what time..." His face turned white. "Akane, what happened to you? Your sweater's torn and you're bleeding!"

She raised a hand to her cheek, wincing as the cut on her arm throbbed. "It doesn't matter," she said dully.

"It doesn't matter? I suppose it doesn't matter that you've been crying, too. What did Shampoo do to you? Where was Ranma? It's his job to protect you!"

Akane's hand clenched into a fist. She raised it slightly, then let it drop, the fist opening. "Shampoo didn't do anything to me." She realized she was shivering again.

"Ranma didn't protect me, but it doesn't matter," Akane repeated lifelessly. "I don't want to talk about it."

"But..."

"Just leave me alone. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to talk to anyone." She trudged past her father, heading down the hallway to her left.

"Where are you going?" Soun asked.

"The bath," she muttered. "Maybe if I stay there long enough I'll feel clean again."

Soun's eyes grew wide, his mouth moved like one of the goldfish in the koi pond, but no words came out.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

"Get your hands off of me, you stupid jackass! What do you think you're doing?"

Ukyou's eyes adjusted to the darkness and she recognized who had pulled her into the alley. "Ranchan." She beamed, wrapping both of her arms around one of his. "I was sure Mr. Tendo never gave you my message, but here you are. Obviously you couldn't get out of the date with Akane, but you came to walk me home. That's kinda romantic, especially for you."

"Ucchan, just shut up," Ranma said flatly.

She winced at the harshness of his tone, releasing his arm. "What do you mean?"

"Just be quiet. It ain't safe."

"Ranchan, I'm not exactly fragile. Besides, you promised you'd always take care of me."

The boy exhaled slowly. "Sorry, I don't think I'm gonna be able to keep that promise."

"What? You jackass! If you think for one moment I'm gonna let you just toss me aside..."

He placed his hand firmly over her mouth. "Just shut up. It ain't safe and I'm not strong enough to protect anyone." He dropped his hand. "Please, you gotta keep quiet."

"Not strong enough?" Ukyou whispered. "What happened? Weakness Moxibustion again?"

He wouldn't meet her gaze, but his eyes were red-rimmed. He said nothing.

"Ranchan? Am I gonna have to pry this out of you with a spatula?"

He swallowed and looked her in the eyes. "You remember the Ghost Cat?"

She nodded. "Sort of. I heard about it. The Ghost Cat showed up right after you got your strength back after that old troll Happosai tried to cripple you with that stupid Moxibustion. I'd spent so much time in the Yamogi Valley with you that I needed to focus on my restaurant for a while so I skipped a lot of school. I never saw the Ghost Cat, but I heard a lot about it."

"It's back," Ranma said.

"And?"

He hesitated long enough she thought he wasn't going to answer. "And this time it won."

Ukyou crossed her arms. "What the heck does that mean?"

His eyes looked hollow, haunted, his expression grim. "I made two, no, three mistakes tonight. I thought I was strong enough to protect my fiancées. I thought I could face my fears. And I thought I could trust my friends."

Ukyou narrowed her eyes. "So are you telling me this as a fiancée you can't protect or a friend you can't trust?

He stared at the ground, unwilling to meet her gaze. "I dunno, maybe both."

She slapped him as hard as she could. "How dare you say that! I was there for you when you were weak! All your real friends were!"

He glared back, one hand raised to his reddened cheek. "Yeah, I was dumb enough to think that, but tonight one of those real friends..." He sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Ucchan, I got one less fiancée now."

Ukyou's eyes grew wide and she raised a hand to her mouth. "Oh, kami, no. What did that Amazon barbarian do to Akane?"

He tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a strangled sob. "Wrong way...not Akane...Shampoo. She's trapped as a cat, doomed to be the Ghost Cat's bride."

"How? How did it happen, Ranchan?"

"It's my fault," he stated. "Mine and Akane's and..." Ranma's eyes widened and he stared towards the mouth of the alley. The boy dropped into an odd stance, palms cupped, wrists almost touching. A ball of sickly greenish energy coalesced in front of his hands - chi, dark and heavy. "...and Mousse," he spat.

All Ukyou knew about the Chinese boy was he ran deliveries for one of the local restaurants and in the Hot Springs Race he'd been even more of an unreliable jackass than that idiot Ryouga. Ignoring her, Ranma hurled the ball of chi into the street and Ukyou spun just in time to see it strike its target. Mousse grunted as he was hit, then slammed a concrete power pole, cracking it. The Chinese boy slumped to a sitting position, back against the power pole. Ranma was on him, hands blurring with a speed Ukyou had never seen before, each strike slamming the Chinese boy into the concrete hard enough to crack it while the backswings of Ranma's fists decorated the street in crimson.

Ukyou surged forward, trying to grab one of Ranma's arms in both of hers. "Ranchan, stop! You're killing him." The flailing limb caught her in the face and she tasted blood. Ukyou tightened her grip and hauled back with all her strength.

The boy suddenly stopped resisting and they spun backward, falling. Ukyou's head cracked against the pavement and Ranma's elbow caught her in the chest with all his weight behind it, slamming the wind from her lungs.

She saw sorrow in his eyes, an apology on his lips. And a glint of moonlight on metal, driving for his head. Ukyou tried to scream, but she had no breath.

Ranma flung himself to the side as the gently curved blade of a naginata missed him by centimeters. He backrolled twice, then sprang to his feet, eyeing his attacker warily.

From Ukyou's prone position, Ranma's attacker seemed to tower, his head brushing the clouds. The man's armor, like his weapon, was that of the ancient samurai. His face was distorted, eyes scarlet and glaring, moustache bristling, mouth a fanged maw, and for a moment she'd thought it was an angry demon mask like some of those warriors had worn into battle.

"Bad enough what you've already done to Akane," Soun snarled. "Now I catch you assaulting another girl in the street! Have you no shame, no honor?" He thrust forward with his polearm. Ranma sprang back, while Soun pursued.

"What the heck are you talking about?" the boy shouted, continuing his retreat. "I didn't mean to hurt Ucchan and I didn't do nothing to Akane!"

Soun snarled and struck again, too furious for words.

Ukyou wheezed and tried to sit up, before collapsing back on the pavement. Mousse stared at her, hollowed-eyed, with an expression far too much like Ranma's. "Why?" he rasped.

She didn't try to reply, but rolled onto her side, looking down the street. Ranma was half a block away, dancing in a spiral. She levered herself to her feet and took a halting step forward.

Ranma raised his fist, completing the Hiryu Shouten Ha. The maelstrom of hot and cold chi sprang up around him, hurling Soun into the sky, but at this distance it only tugged at Ukyou's hair and clothing.

She stepped forward till the sleeves of her kimono and the legs of her hakama were whipping in the wind, till she could barely stand against the storm, till she could hardly breath. All the while she called his name.

Ranma's shoulders slumped, his fist dropped, but his eyes met hers and he didn't look away. His lips moved, but the howling winds drowned his words.

The storm plucked away Ukyou's hair ribbon and her tresses streamed wild and unbound behind her. She pulled the ema from her sleeve, tried to imagine it as the blade of a large and heavy throwing spatula. She called his name again and flung the tablet towards him with all her strength, with all her skill, with all her love.

The whirlwind plucked it away as if it were a feather or a piece of straw. It disappeared into the night sky and when she looked, Ranma was gone as well.

Ukyou turned away, but no one leaned against the battered power pole. All that was left of the Chinese boy was a drunken trail of blood drops that trailed away to nothing.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Wood and glass shattered as Genma was pitched through the window into the yard. He rolled to his feet and glared upwards. "What did you do that for?" he yelled. "And at least I open the window before I toss Ranma through it."

Grim and battered, Soun stared down at him for an instant. "Don't you dare mention his name around me again." He launched himself weapon first towards Genma, who easily caught the blade of the naginata between his palms. Soun struggled, but could not free his weapon.

"Tendo, I'd almost think you were trying to hurt me," Genma observed dryly. "Now what did the boy do this time? I'm sure it was nothing important."

"Your son assaults my daughter and you dare to say it's unimportant! She was bawling her eyes out when she came home!"

Genma's eyes narrowed. "My son would never do something like that. It's not his fault if your daughter decided to have some fun and then changed her mind afterwards."

"You're blaming the victim!"

"The only victim here is my son's honor," Genma spat.

Soun released the haft of his naginata and backhanded the other man across the face.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Cologne's staff stabbed towards Mousse's throat. He neither dodged nor flinched. The weapon stopped, less than a centimeter from his skin.

"Why?" the boy asked softly, wearily. "My life is yours or hers at any time. Am I not even worth killing anymore?

The staff dropped from Cologne's trembling hands, clattering on the floor of the restaurant. She seemed smaller somehow, finally showing the weight of the decades. It was quite a while before she spoke. "That bell. That stupid, stupid bell. Shampoo must have picked it up while she was back at the village visiting relatives. The little fool - like her mother, her grandmother, she had skill but not wisdom."

"Don't talk about Shampoo as if she's gone forever," Mousse said. "There's got to be something you can do. The Amazon tribe is three thousand years old; surely there's some sort magic to cure her."

The old woman shook her head.

"What about those secret rituals some of the women go off to do from time to time?" the boy asked. "Aren't those magic?"

Cologne's voice was barely audible. "Our last sorceress died four hundred years ago fighting the people of Phoenix Mountain, though we kept that secret, hid our weakness from outsiders. All I have is some crumbling parchments no one understands and a few magic trinkets, most of them useless."

Mousse slumped to his knees. "Nothing?" Something dark burned in his eyes. "Then all that's left is vengeance." He started to stand, but Cologne grabbed his wrist and there was iron in her grip.

"What do you intend to do?" the old woman asked.

The boy blinked in surprise. "Why, kill Akane Tendo, of course," he said in the tone most people used when addressing small and not particularly clever children.

"Fool!" the old woman spat. She shifted her grip and pain blazed in Mousse's wrist. He hissed through clenched teeth, refused to cry out. "Fool," Cologne repeated. "Until now, Ranma has not been willing to kill. If Akane dies by an Amazon's hand, you create an enemy such as we have not faced in hundreds of years. You may doom the whole tribe."

"Ranma is already willing to kill," the boy ground out past the pain. "Akane Tendo deserves to die according to Amazon law." His tone turned plaintive. "Besides, it's the only way to regain my honor."

"You had no honor in the first place," Cologne said flatly. "As to the law, the best, the bravest thing Shampoo ever did was not killing when the law said she should." The old woman's eyes narrowed. "Now swear on your oldest ancestor, swear that you will not kill Akane Tendo."

Mousse shook his head. "I'm not afraid death."

"There are worse things than death, Duck Boy." Cologne's grip shifted and the previous pain from his wrist, the muted aches from his brutal beating by Ranma were nothing. It did not feel like the old woman had broken his wrist, it felt like she'd snapped it clean off.

It was a while before Mouse could even speak. "I swear...by my oldest ancestor...and all the ancestors in-between...I will not kill...Akane Tendo."

Cologne released his wounded wrist and Mousse cradled it to his chest. "Any problems with me killing the Ghost Cat?" he asked. "This time I'll be fast enough to finish it while it's still flesh and bone."

The old woman raised an eyebrow just the slightest amount. "Not yet. Killing it might break the curse, but it some curses can only be lifted by the being that cast them. We can't afford to execute the Ghost Cat, not until we know." Cologne gave a faint nod. "I will consult the Elders of the Tribe, perhaps one of them has an answer."

"But it will take weeks to get there and weeks to return," the boy protested.

"Or I can pick up the phone and call the Jusenkyou Guide. He lives less than half-an-hour from the village." The old woman reached out, touching several places on Mousse's wrist. The pain spiked, then dropped to a dull ache.

His eyes grew wide. "How? It was broken."

Cologne shook her head. "Dislocated. That hurts more, especially after the pressure points I touched to enhance the pain. Don't just stand there looking befuddled, I need you to find Ranma and make sure he doesn't kill the Ghost Cat, not until we know if that will save Shampoo or doom her forever."

Mousse bolted out the door, running as hard as he could.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Ukyou probed her split lip with her tongue and winced. She sighed and looked at the ancient stone stairs. Maybe this was it, the old abandoned Buddhist temple. She clutched a handful of throwing spatulas in one hand. The other held several ofuda, paper wards that were supposed to guard against the supernatural. She prayed to any kami willing to listen that they worked better than the ones she'd seen in those stupid shows on television.

Ukyou took one cautious step, followed by another. Soon she was at the top of the worn stone stairs. A large archway with a peaked tile roof marked the entrance to the temple grounds and there was still enough moonlight to see the sign in the middle of the arch that said in faded characters that this was the Cat Temple. A thick rope with paper streamers was strung across the entrance at a little less than waist height. The shimenawa was there to mark the boundary between the world of spirits and the world of men, and to contain those spirits if they were less than friendly.

At least it was supposed to.

Gingerly, Ukyou stepped over the rope, careful not to snag the loose legs of her hakama on it. The courtyard was empty, the flagstones dusty with a scattering of dead leaves. The only sounds were the rising wind and the beating of her heart. No one had been here in quite a while.

She almost turned to leave when she saw them, a pair of eyes atop of the main building, reflecting moonlight. Ukyou blinked and the eyes were gone. Perhaps she'd only imagined them.

"Shampoo?"

No one answered, though the wind had picked up. Bushes moved like living things and leaves skittered across the dark stones. Ukyou advanced cautiously to the temple building. She put away her hand spatulas and used a finger to poke a hole in the paper of the sliding door. All she saw was darkness. She slid the door open one-handed, ready to throw the ofuda with the other, but there was nothing there. She circled the building, opening other doors, with no more success.

Behind the main building and slightly to the side stood the structure that housed the temple bell. It stood atop a stone platform which was about knee height and perhaps three meters across at the base. At each corner of the platform sturdy wooden pillars wider than a person supported another peaked tile roof. There were no walls, and in the center a bansho, a huge copper bell, hung. The bell was taller than she was, wide enough an incautious person could be trapped beneath it if the bell ever fell, and mottled with verdigris.

Ukyou sprang lightly onto the structure's tile roof. There was nothing there and looking back at the roof of the temple she saw it was also empty. She tucked the ofuda into her sleeve and looked up at the narrow crescent of the moon, the slender curve reminding her of a cat's claw. Ukyou sighed and sat down. The night was almost gone and she hadn't accomplished anything.

She wiped the back of a hand across her eyes and sighed again. And then she saw a pair of amber eyes, then another, then a dozen all around her, looking up. Behind them, near the temple something larger, much larger, loomed with eyes bigger than her head. It smiled, revealing pale white fangs the size of her fingers, unsheathed claws the size of short swords. Ukyou pulled out her ofuda and something landed on her back. Foreclaws caught in cloth and flesh while hind claws raked her back. Ukyou gave an involuntary shriek, sprang to her feet drawing her battle spatula, and spun. The cat tore free, but a roof tile crumbled beneath her feet, pitching the girl onto the pavement below. There was a snap like sticks breaking and then a chilling shriek.

She'd landed on the cat. Ukyou rolled off and the creature scrabbled across the pavement, it's back broken, yowling piteously as it dragged useless legs behind it. Wide-eyed, Ukyou swallowed hard, praying this was not Shampoo. The ring of cats edged closer and she put away the battle spatula. Drawing ofuda with both hands, she flung them in all directions. Each paper ward struck a cat's forehead.

And all fell uselessly to the ground.

The cats surged forward, burying Ukyou in a wave of fur. She slapped them away with her bare palms, but for each one dislodged another took its place. Ukyou stumbled and went down hard, catching the edge of the stone platform across the ribs and dropping to the pavement. The impact dislodged most of the beasts, but she only made it to her hands and knees when they were on her again - black and white and gray and brown - needle claws and needle teeth. She struggled, raised herself to a kneeling position and then she screamed louder than she ever had before.

Then the cats were gone and all she could hear was her own ragged breathing. Ukyou's shredded kimono was red as her hakama. Blood streamed into her eyes. She brought the back of her hand to her forehead, tried to brush that sticky redness away. Ukyou gasped, it felt like someone had splashed hot cooking oil across that side of her face.

She wasn't alone. Her fiancé crouched on the stone platform in front of her, close enough she could feel his breath. The boy's back was arched, his fingers splayed like claws, staring straight at her, his eyes reflecting strangely in the moonlight.

"Ranchan?" she breathed.

His lips curved back, baring his teeth like fangs. Ranma snarled and leapt.

He flew past her, landing on the Ghost's Cat's chest and they rolled across the pavement, clawing, biting, while flesh and fur flew. Ukyou wobbled to her feet, pulling her battle spatula, but the others were moving too fast for her to get a clear shot. They smashed though the wall of the temple to the sound of cracking wood and tearing paper.

There was silence for a moment and the Cat burst through a different part of the wall, charging straight towards her, running on two legs in mockery of its true nature. Ranma followed only a few steps behind, running on all fours.

Ukyou swallowed. The Ghost Cat had to be twice as tall as she was. She ducked beneath a claw strike that could have taken her head off, feinted toward the creature's head with the spatula blade, then reversed the grip, embedding the round steel counterweight at the base of the handle into the monster's stomach. The Cat staggered back, wheezing, and Ranma was on it. He landed on its shoulders, driving the creature forward.

Ukyou staggered to the side and the Ghost Cat's head impacted into one of the support posts for the bell. The wood gave with a sharp crack and their momentum carried Ranma and the creature straight through the support post, landing on the other side. The structure slumped, the bell struck stone with a deep ominous boom and the roof settled drunkenly atop the bell.

Something rolled from beneath the structure, a round brass bell at least a third of a meter across. It rolled off the edge of the platform, ringing as it stuck the pavement, before Mousse scooped it up, the bell disappearing down the voluminous sleeves of his robe.

Before Ukyou could ask when the Chinese boy had arrived or why he was there, a horrible gargling howl cut her off. Heart pounding, Ukyou hurried to the other side of the stone platform. The Ghost Cat lay silent on its back, staring sightlessly at the darkened sky, its throat a bloody ruin. Ranma knelt above the beast, hands coated in blood and gore, mouth rimmed in red. He coughed, spitting out something red and wet and indescribable.

"Ranchan?"

The boy shuddered, and light came into his eyes. He spat again, only blood this time, and stared wide-eyed. "Oh kami, oh kami, oh kami," he babbled.

Ukyou took a step towards him.

"Get back," the boy called, turning away and swinging an arm backhanded to ward her away. He dropped to his hands and knees and vomited messily across the flagstones.

Dropping her weapon, Ukyou knelt behind her fiance and wrapped her arms around his chest. She felt him trembling, felt his heart thundering in his chest, knew that there were tears in his eyes. She held on till the shuddering stopped, till his pulse slowed to normal.

"It's okay, Ranchan, it's okay." Ukyou wasn't sure who she was trying to convince more.

"Spirits and ancestors, what have you fools done?" an old voice asked.

Ranma rose to his feet, lifting Ukyou with him. To her surprise, she was leaning heavily on him. Ranma turned and they saw Cologne. There was a grim expression on the old woman's face and a small lavender cat stood near her, though Mousse had disappeared.

"What do you mean?" Ranma asked. "I just avenged Shampoo."

"Perhaps," the old woman said flatly. "But my great-granddaughter is still a cat. The monster's death didn't end Shampoo's curse. You may have killed the only being who could free her."

Ranma inhaled hoarsely and slumped to his knees, taking Ukyou with him. She picked up her discarded spatula and levered herself to her feet by force of will more than anything. Ukyou leaned heavily on the weapon, using it as an improvised crutch.

"What do you think you're doing, child?" Cologne said quietly. Her tone was flat, emotionless.

"Ranchan did the best he could," Ukyou answered. "If you wanna hurt him, you'll hafta get through me."

The ghost of a smile crossed the old woman's face, but it never touched her eyes. "Half the blood on Ranma is his. All the blood on you is yours. And you wouldn't stand a chance against me even if you were unhurt."

Ukyou snorted derisively. "You're not the first person to say I never had a chance." She took an awkward step forward, putting herself directly between her fiancé and the old woman. Her hands slid slightly down the handle of her improvised crutch and she nearly stumbled.

The cat looked briefly between her great-grandmother and Ukyou, then padded forward to a place halfway between the two. Shampoo turned to face Cologne, then arched her back and bared her fangs.

"Looks like you're gonna have to get through both of us if you wanna hurt Ranchan," Ukyou added. She tried to smile, but her traitor legs failed her and she pitched forward, her face striking the cold gray stone. The sun was supposed to be rising soon, but instead everything faded to black.

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Akane blinked and opened her eyes. She lay on her bed, the sunrise starting to peer through the windows. Kasumi sat near the bed, gripping one of Akane's hands in both of hers. The older girl's eyes were red-rimmed and she tried to fake a smile.

"What happened?" Akane asked. Her mouth was dry; her words hoarse. "Where's Ranma?"

"Gone, and good riddance," Kasumi snapped.

"What?"

"Last night he and Genma put Daddy in the hospital." There were tears in Kasumi's eyes and she tried vainly to wipe them away with one hand, while her other still held Akane's. "If we'd known what the Saotomes were really like, we'd never have let them in the house. Daddy was trying to stand up for you, but they did that to him and said it was all your fault."

"It was all my fault," Akane said dully. "All the horrible things last night. All my fault."

Kasumi pulled her sister's hand to her chest and shook her head. "Don't say that. Please don't say that. Everything that happened is Ranma's fault. You're the victim here."

"But..."

"No, not another word, Akane. I won't have you standing up for that boy. I won't have you blaming yourself. Something terrible may have happened last night, but it wasn't your fault. You're strong enough to make it past this. I want you to forget last night ever happened. Just put it behind you, forget that boy, forget everything that happened."

"But the engagement..."

"There is no engagement, not anymore, and there never should have been. We're sorry, we'll try to make up for it. But please, Akane, promise me. Promise for me and Daddy. Promise you'll stop blaming yourself. Promise you'll forget."

oooooooooooooooooooooooo

Ukyou pried one eye open and stared at an unfamiliar room. Her body was one massive ache. She could tell she was on a bed, not a futon, and lying a few feet off the ground made her feel a bit uneasy. Bandages covered one side of her face and her hands and arms were swathed in them as well. Perhaps the rest of her body, too, but that lay beneath the covers.

A pale lavender cat sat on a dresser nearby. It eyed her carefully, jumped down, and padded away. The creature returned moments later, with Cologne closely behind.

"Where is Ranchan?" Ukyou demanded.

"Hush, child, you must lie still."

Ukyou tried to sit up. "Where...is...Ran...chan," she gritted out, before collapsing back onto the bed, white-faced and gasping.

There was pain in the old woman's eyes. "Your fiancé is as well as can be expected, I suppose. He stayed by your side for three days until your fever broke." Cologne tried to smile. "A young woman appreciates stamina in her man."

"Where is he now?" Ukyou asked.

"Once we knew your life was no longer in danger, Ranma went off to be alone. I think he's at the Cat Temple now, most likely brooding."

"None of this is Ranchan's fault!"

Cologne nodded. "I know that and you know that and Shampoo knows that." She gave a deep sigh. "And on some level Ranma knows that, though he still blames himself. He's also afraid of hurting you."

"Ranchan would never hurt me."

Cologne nodded. "I know that; I told him so at the Yamogi Valley. He does not want to hurt any of his fiancées, which is probably why he has been so indecisive. But there is something he particularly fears. Tell me, was he acting like a cat?"

Ukyou nodded. "That was some sort of weird magic of the Ghost Cat's, right?"

Cologne shook her head. "It's called the Cat Fist State. It's a flawed technique that makes the student terrified of cats, but when the fear grows strong enough, mentally they become a cat."

Ukyou sighed. "His father's stupid idea?"

Cologne nodded. "I expect so."

"Sounds like I need to smack that furry idiot senseless for doing that to Ranchan. So how long till I can get up again? And how long have I been out?

"About a week, child, in both cases."

Ukyou groaned. "Great, I got my butt kicked by a bunch of cats."

"The Ghost Cat made them stronger and more vicious and you were trying not to hurt any of the cats."

Ukyou looked puzzled. "How did you know that? Did you see what happened?"

Cologne shook her head. "I didn't, but Shampoo did."

"She can still talk, even though she's a cat?"

The old woman sighed. "Shampoo cannot speak, but a cat's paw is dexterous. She can still write, though it is rather a chore getting the ink off her paws. Regardless, we owe you a debt, child."

Ukyou stared at the ceiling. "You guys don't own me anything. I didn't do anything.'

"That's not true," the old woman replied. "You could have done nothing and eliminated a rival. Instead, you tried to help."

"And a whole lot of good that did!" Ukyou snapped. "I'm no heroine. This is just like when Happosai made Ranchan weak. I knew I was the only one who still wanted him if he stayed that way, that the smart thing to do was nothing. But I saw the look in Ranchan's eyes, the pain he tried to hide, and I couldn't stand it. Pure selfishness no my part, not wanting to see him that way anymore. This time was no different."

Cologne and Shampoo exchanged a glance, but said nothing.

"So what happens now?" Ukyou asked. "Is Ranchan on his way to get water from Spring of Drowned Girl for Shampoo?"

"He wanted to," Cologne replied, "but I already ordered some from the Jusenkyou Guide. I know that probably makes him feel useless, unable to do anything, but it's better this way."

"Better how?"

"There is a good chance it will not work," Cologne said. "He is in enough pain. If it fails and it may very well fail, then it will not be his failure." She closed her eyes for a moment. "Ranma might even try to atone by splashing himself with water from Spring of Drowned Cat."

"You tell that stupid jackass that if he tries anything that boneheaded, he'd better splash me, too!"

"You have enough to worry about without the handicap of a Jusenkyou curse," Cologne said.

"Anything that gets me closer to Ranchan is not a handicap," Ukyou grumbled. She exhaled slowly and raised a hand to the bandaged side of her face. "You mean this. I lost the eye, didn't I?" Nothing else had ever hurt as much and there had been so much blood.

"By some miracle the eye is unharmed," the old woman replied. "The nerves and muscles were badly damaged though, beyond my skills or those of a Dr. Tofu that Ranma insisted see you.."

Ukyou blinked, moisture in her eye. "So now I'm hideous. Half my face looks like chopped meat, the eye won't be able to focus properly, and the mouth will hang slack, drooling." Angrily, she turned to face the wall.

Cologne had already moved to that side of the bed, as had the cat. "Not as bad as all that, child, but I will not lie and say the wounds are nothing. The eyelid may hang low a bit, but the eye can still move. You'll have enough control to open and close that side of the mouth. And I have an ointment that will restore the skin, leave it as smooth as when you were a child." The old woman closed her eyes for a moment, then looked straight at Ukyou. "But it will be a porcelain mask, immobile. Not hideous, but strange, disconcerting. And when you're in the grip of great emotion, the damage beneath the surface will show as a web of angry crimson lines."

"So not that bad," Ukyou said, her voice hollow. "I'll just wear my hair differently, cover that side of the face. If those stupid anime characters on TV can see through a wall of hair, so can I. Looks like Akane's the only one to get off scott free."

"Life is seldom fair," Cologne said.

"Yeah, I learned that one when I was six. Still, I've got no right to complain. I'll bet Shampoo would trade places with me in a heartbeat."

The cat nodded, but would not meet Ukyou's gaze.

"No right to complain," Ukyou whispered, blinking away tears. "If you guys could leave me alone for a bit. At least I crying is something I can still do with both sides of my face."

oooooooooooooooooooooooo