Amor Fati

Notes: So, first off, you've probably noticed the change in pen name. It's something that I've probably put off too long. The jist of it is that it just didn't fit me anymore. So something new.

As for the story; it's been getting harder and harder to write this one. I've changed a lot in five years, and it's resulted in struggling with the story I set out to write so long ago. As I noted on my profile, when I began writing Amor Fati I was in a pretty rough place. When you can't see a happy ending for your own life, it's hard to create one on the page. The story began as a sort of tragicomedy meditation on fatalism, of how people can have the best of intentions and still wound each other, and how to try to rise to meet fate with dignity. While I was constantly fighting myself to prevent it from being too angsty and avoiding the pitfalls that tend to come with curse-lock/split fics, I never really let the main character have a win.

And I've damned myself by starting in media res, so it's not like I can change the ending to suit my changed outlook. I've made a commitment to seeing this story through to the end. But the journey at the very least has surprised me. Completing the various arcs I had plotted out five years ago has given me some pleasant surprises. I'll let you guess which they are.


Chapter 15: What Are Friends For?

The sun was setting on Nabiki's empire. The desolation wrought by Kuno's rampage was cut in sharper relief in the pale orange twilight. The Ice Queen of Furinkan stood at the gate, mindlessly rubbing at the shallow cut on her neck.

Their eyes had passed silent judgment as they left. Or was that the paranoia acting up again. Nabiki sighed as she slumped against the fence. Whatever anyone else believed, she knew she was in the heart of this maelstrom, and there was no running from it.

Her 'associates' had kept their distance from her. Smart play, she thought bitterly, I taught them well.

She was just about ready to begin the walk home when she heard a familiar voice. She turned to see Tsubaki Yui smiling warmly at her behind brown bangs.

Nabiki had never considered herself friends with Yui, except in the professional sense. Nabiki preferred the comfortable numbness of solitude, but her ambition always got the better of her. Her cons and petty hustles grew big enough that she needed some help. And she supposed she got a queer sort of pride in teaching others to not be weighed down by maidenly concerns.

"Ah Yui, thought you would've gone home by now," said Nabiki. That nagging feeling of unbalance settled some.

"Chief…there's something I gotta show you." Yui glanced furtively for eavesdroppers, then handed Nabiki something wrapped in a kerchief.

The mercenary girl sighed, already guessing at the contents. She unwrapped it anyway, bracing for the feeling of violation. There were a couple of shots, taken from different days, each more violating than the last. She tried to soothe the tremble in her lips. "Guess I'll never get used to seeing myself in glossy print."

"That voodoo obsessed muppet was selling these. I…I bought up what I could, but he obviously has more. Chief, we're in trouble. The administration is already talking about clamping down on us, and now no one will take you seriously. There's rumors going around that you've become a gravure model…or worse."

There was nothing to fill the silence, not even the barest whimper of cicadas. This was the bitter fruit of her labors, and she could stomach it no longer.

"We have to think of a counterstrategy, or we're sunk," said Yui.

Nabiki tucked the photos away. Yui looked up at her with hopeful eyes. But it was time to disappoint them. "I'm sunk either way, Yui. Don't go down with the ship."

"What?"

"I'm out of the game. I guess I don't have the stomach for it. It'd be better for you and the others to continue on without me as a liability. Besides, I'm graduating soon anyway. This just accelerated things."

Her cute little kouhai was on the verge of tears. "Senpai, you can't!"

"I must. Go on, you'll be fine. Don't go crying over someone like me."

Nabiki groaned inwardly. Maybe she had a bit of a soft-spot for Yui, having taken the underclassmen under her wing. But that didn't mean she liked having to play the big sister role. She hugged the crying girl, and told her that it was going to be okay. It wasn't, but she supposed it was the thought that counted. Yui finally got a hold of herself. She left just at dusk, promising to keep a seat open for Nabiki.

The mercenary waved as Yui left. Only the most loyal had come. A faint smile curled on her lips. Then a cruel thought ran through her head. Something didn't add up. She hoped it was just the paranoia.


Several days later

A sharply tolling bell roused Hiroshi from his nap. Bleary-eyed and still half-asleep, he slithered off his western-style bed. He lay limp on the floor, staring up at the whirling ceiling fan for a moment. The bell tolled again, and it dawned on him that it was his door-bell. He shook the cobwebs out of his mind and rolled to his feet.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," he muttered.

The doorbell rang again, more insistently. Hiroshi glanced at his watch by rote. Something was knocking at the back of his mind, but he couldn't place it.

The blinding sunlight assaulted him as soon as he opened the door. He squinted at the unfamiliar red-haired boy standing on the stoop, wearing a crisp black gakuran. "Oy, it's noon-thirty, people are trying to sleep."

"Really getting the most out of the school closing, huh?" said the redhead.

The gears ground in Hiroshi's brain, but he was awake now. It wasn't a boy standing in front of him. His eyes traced up the contour of the gakuran uniform, following the swell of the girl's hips and the slight bulge of her bosom before settling on Ranma's smirking face.

"Perv," she teased.

"Oh hey…that's a new look."

"Look, I know I'm early Hiroshi, but you look like you've literally just rolled out of bed. You've got to have something better to do with time off than just sleep it away."

Hiroshi scratched awkwardly at the nape of his neck. "Well come on in, I'll make some tea." Ranma brushed by him the moment "come" had left his lips. She slipped her trainers off in the tiled foyer and invited herself into the kitchen.

Don't stare at her butt. Of course, his eyes couldn't help but disobey a direct order. Hiroshi followed, suppressing the twinge of guilt at leering at his friend.

Ranma had found her way to the kitchen easily enough. The kitchen was modern and homey, but Hiroshi only ever had much use for the toaster oven and the electric kettle. Everything else was the exclusive province of his mother, who'd skin him alive if he broke anything.

Hiroshi filled the kettle from the tap. It docked to the heating element with a satisfying click. Ranma ooed at the cream-colored plastic wonder of the modern world, muttering about how this would've been handy to have then. They talked about the weather and how glad they were to get a week off from school for repairs and the police investigation of the Kuno 'incident' while the tea brewed. As he poured Ranma a steaming cup, he finally steered the conversation towards his burning questions. "Stop by a costume shop on the way here?"

"Nah, it's my middle-school uniform. Kasumi was nice enough to help me tailor it."

"Just wearing it on a lark?"

"Meh, I was feeling boyish today. Thanks to the sports bra and the cut, I can pass fairly well if people aren't looking too closely."

Hiroshi stared thoughtfully into his tea, twiddling his thumbs.

"You totally forgot that we were hanging out today."

"Yup."

"You are such a dork. Well Daisuke's going to be here soon. We can watch more of that martial arts anime."

He cocked an eyebrow. "Hokuto no Ken?"

"Yeah! That's the one." Ranma flexed, mimicking Kenshiro's trademark stance. "You are already dead," she said in her best baritone.

It came out less menacing and more adorable. He felt the deep belly laugh coming on, and though he knew no good would come from it, he couldn't help himself. He doubled over as he laughed, spilling his tea all over Ranma.

"Oy, what the hell man!" The hot tea had soaked the front of her jacket and trousers. She quaked with fury for a moment before calming herself. "You know, just when I finally stop looking over my shoulder for unexpected soaking, it happens again."

"Sorry, couldn't help myself. You were too adorable."

"I am not adorable!" growled Ranma. "Whatever. you have a washer, right? Lemme use it and borrow some of your clothes."

She hadn't waited for his permission to be storm upstairs to his bedroom. The wooden dressers clacked as Ranma rustled through them. "Yes Ranma, you can borrow some of my clothes. Maybe you'd like the shirt off my back," he called out after her.

Never a dull day when Ranma is around. Hiroshi tip-toed over the spill, and began searching through the cupboard under the sink for some rags. He found a few clean kitchen rags tucked behind his dad's old booze bottles. He heard the skitter of socks on tile flooring behind him. As he finished wiping up the mess, the old washing machine rumbled to life. Ranma emerged from the laundry room wearing nothing but a pair of his gym shorts. "Got any baggy t-shirts?"

"Uh…lemme go look," he said, trying not to stare.

Ranma rolled her eyes. "It's not like you haven't seen them before."

Hiroshi grumbled as he trudged back to his bedroom. He didn't know why Ranma was always such a tease in his girl form, and at this point it was way too late to ask. After a little digging, he found a clean t-shirt big enough to accommodate Ranma's bust.

As he handed the shirt to Ranma, Daisuke walked in unannounced. He stood silently in the vestibule, bag in hand, for all too long. "Um, should I come back later?"

"Get your mind out of the gutter," said Ranma, "Genius here managed to soak all my clothes in one go. I'm borrowing this while I wash them."

Daisuke soon explained to a crestfallen Ranma that the video store was all out of Hokuto no Ken. Bribing her with juice and snacks, he patiently explained that the show he had rented, Toppu o Nerae!, came very highly recommended.

Ranma was skeptical. She sat on the floor in front of the TV, crossing her arms in a huff. After popping the VHS tape in, Ranma remained adamant that she wasn't going to like this show. Her protests were forgotten after she witnessed the cute girls in leotards performing karate in their giant robots.

They watched four episodes without stopping. When the credits rolled on the end of the second tape, Hiroshi could feel the grogginess tugging at his eyes. Daisuke was still awake but barely. Ranma, however, was laying on her stomach right in front of the TV, kicking her feet like a little kid. Hiroshi's eyes lazily followed her puffy white socks as she kicked in time with the end credits music. "Daisuke, put in the next tape," she said, not tearing her eyes from the screen.

Daisuke stirred and began to stretch his weary limbs. "There is no next tape."

Ranma whipped around, her eyes boring holes into him. "What!?" She looked like Daisuke just told her Santa Claus wasn't real.

"Next tape doesn't come out until July I think. This is all there is."

"But…that's like forever."

Hiroshi tutted in amusement, "It's like a month Ranma."

"Like I said, forever."

Ranma had a long feline stretch before she jumped to her feet. "Well, let's go get another show."

It amazed Hiroshi how quickly the martial artist could change gears. "I suppose. We can get more snacks and juice while we're out."

"So," said Daisuke, "how's your other half doing?"

Ranma twitched, like a record scratching on the turntable. "He's doing fine. Akane's visiting him today."

"You've visited the hospital, right?"

Ranma rolled her eyes. "Yeah things are awkward between us, but it's not like I'm giving him the cold shoulder. I've checked up on him. It's just…Akane is visiting him today."

This was certainly interesting. "Oh?"

"We kind of have an unspoken agreement. We don't intrude when the other is spending time with Akane." Ranma sighed heavily, "I guess it's a small mercy he grants me. Besides, he'll be out soon. I think the docs are only keeping him to study how we can heal so fast."

Daisuke's face screwed up. He knew that look quite well, the dark-haired boy was failing to contain a burning question. "Did you hear how it started?" blurted Daisuke.

Hiroshi glared at him, but the cat was already out of the bag.

"What part? I'd already known about him and Akane moving things along for a while. That wasn't a surprise. Though…as crazy as he is I didn't think Kuno would snap quite like that."

Ranma was pretty good at keeping the stoic front, but Hiroshi saw the twinge in her cheeks, and the pain buried in her calm voice. "You knew about it all along? Why didn't you tell us?"

"Because it wasn't any of your business," she snapped.

Daisuke put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She tried shrugging him off, but Daisuke didn't relent. "Look, it's not about the rumors. You're right, it wasn't any of our business knowing about their relationship. But it clearly upset you, and we just want to help."

Ranma sighed, "Fine, but you're buying me ice cream if you want any more out of me."

"Mercenary!" said Daisuke.

Hiroshi decided to chime in and maybe bring the attention away from Daisuke's blushing face. "There'd always been rumors about you, Ranma. Not surprising with how many hot girls clustered around you. It was quite another to see the pictures."

Ranma glared daggers at him. "I didn't buy it, I swear, I just saw. Nabiki showed them to me, said she was 'gathering evidence.' Believe me, I feel sick too. I thought about how I'd feel if I'd been caught in the camera lens like that—"

"—as though you could get a girlfriend, Hiro," chided Daisuke.

"Shut up Dai! Look, point is that it made me think about how messed up things are at Furinkan. And I'm sorry for having played a part in it.

Daisuke nodded, "Yeah, what he said."

Ranma chewed it over a minute. "Well, I suppose I can forgive you. What kind of photos did you buy?"

Something stirred in his conscience, compelling Hiroshi to spill his guts. "Well, mostly just of your girl half…before we knew it was you. But I tore them up after Kuno went nuts. It made me sick to think of how your privacy was violated like that."

"Well that's a shame, because we both know you can't get a girlfriend."

"Hey!"

Ranma ruffled his hair. "Come on, let's get going."

The day had turned out warm and muggy, more than a bit beyond Hiroshi's comfort zone. If Daisuke minded, he didn't let on. And Ranma seemed to be completely unaffected. The video store was about a kilometer away, and the redhead spent most of it walking along fences or doing that other annoying shit martial artists seemed to find amusing.

They walked in silence for a couple minutes before Ranma apologized. "Hey Hiro, sorry about teasing you about not having a girlfriend."

"Eh, it's not a big deal. More annoying than anything," he lied.

Ranma gave him a sidelong glance. "I believe you."

She didn't, but it was the thought that counted, he supposed. The trio arrived at the video store soon after. Hiroshi pushed through the glass door, relishing the wave of cool air. His heart began to pound with anticipation; was his goddess of VHS rentals working today?

She was standing behind the counter, flashing that gorgeous grin of hers at an undeserving patron. A bit taller than him, a refined elfin face, and long brown hair feathered out like an MTV diva; Hiro couldn't dream of anything more perfect.

She smiled and waved at him. He wasn't prepared for this. His heart fluttered, and he waved back at her.

Some voice was trying to get his attention. He was too entranced by his idol to hear the words—until he ran straight into a support column. Everything went fuzzy after that.

He opened his eyes to see gaussian blur wonderland, his VHS goddess looking down at him. And she spoke! She even said his name. Strange how she spoke in a crude, boyish accent. Almost like Ranma's voice.

Hiroshi reached out to cup her cheek. She seemed to freeze as he touched her. He lay there smiling, gently caressing her in a stupor. The stars in his vision receded, and the image returned to crystal clarity as his delirium ended. And Hiroshi realized that he was lovingly caressing Ranma's face while she twitched with irritation.

"Oy, Casanova! What's the big idea?"

Wonderland was gone. Only an austere tiled ceiling, and a pissed off martial artist remained. The pain came soon after.

Ranma pulled him to his feet. He had quite the bump on his head. At least the girl behind the counter came to see if he was okay. He tried to laugh it off like it was nothing. But she seemed genuinely concerned, so that was nice.

He still had that warm fuzzy feeling when Daisuke led him, still dizzy, over to the anime section.

Ranma had been chewing on her thumb pensively. "You've got it bad, dontcha."

Hiroshi shrugged it off. He wasn't going to outright lie after being so stupid.

"Come on, spill it. I ain't heard a peep about this girl, and now you go all moony like that."

Daisuke chimed in. "Ranma's right, Hiro. You're head over heels for her, and all I've gotten out of you is that there's a cute girl working here."

"That's more than I've got," huffed Ranma. "How come you're telling him about her, and not me?"

He was cornered now. Time to fess up. "Well, there wasn't much to tell. I mean, we've chatted about movies when I've come to rent things but I've always been too chicken to ask for her name. And Ranma…it just didn't feel right to tell another girl about a girl I like."

That got Ranma's hackles up. Daisuke groaned, "Oh here we go again."

"I'm not just a girl, Hiro. I'm still a boy too."

Hiroshi waved his hands in defeat. "Let's not get into this again. I'm tellin' you now aren't I."

Ranma started to calm down. She glanced furtively over at the girl behind the counter, who seemed blissfully unaware that she was the subject of the current conversation. Ranma nodded with approval. "She is cute. You should ask her out."

"What? No! That'd be terrible!"

"Why?"

"It just would, okay."

"That doesn't make much sense."

"If she knows I like her, like 'like-her like her', then I'm finished."

"If you say like again, I'm going to punch you. And that still doesn't make any sense."

"Real rich coming from you, Mr. Will-they-or-won't-they." The moment the words left his lips, Hiroshi instantly knew he'd made a terrible mistake. Ranma looked at him with murder in her eyes. No, far worse than murder. It was regret.

Hiroshi braced himself for a world ending punch. But nothing came. Ranma instead spun on her heel, and skipped over to the counter. Oh god, she wouldn't…

Ranma introduced herself to the girl like she was some ordinary girl, and not the ghost of the Man-Among-Men her father had forged. Hiroshi watched helplessly, waiting for the guillotine to drop.

"So, funny story," said Ranma, smirking back at him. "My friend Hiroshi here hit his head so hard, he plum forgot your name. And now he's too embarrassed to ask again."

The clerk laughed, "Well I'm just glad he's okay. He really seems to enjoy talking about movies. It'd be too tragic if his love for film killed him. It's Hana, by the way."

"Well, Hana, I don't know if you've noticed, but Hiroshi's a bit shy. But he really likes talking about movies with you."

"Well, let Hiroshi know that if he wants to talk about movies some more, I get off at eight tonight. I think we'll be able to have a more 'productive' discussion at the café at the end of the block."

Hana began scribbling something on a sheet of paper. Hiroshi had already tuned out of the conversation just after hearing her name, so her words had gone in one ear and out the other. Ranma might as well have been marching him up the gallows. So he was a bit surprised when Ranma returned with a handwritten note with her name, phone number, and the name of the café written on it, punctuated by a little heart.

"Looks like you've got a date, Hiro-chan," teased Ranma.

Daisuke was jealous. "Ranma! That's no fair. You have to work your magic for me too!"

Hiroshi was a bit too shell-shocked to respond. He found himself almost in a trance as they selected their rentals and returned home. Madness followed in Ranma's wake and now he was caught up in it.


When Ranma returned to the Tendo residence, it was later afternoon. Nabiki intercepted her before she could indulge in a nice soak in the furo, and motioned for her to follow out to behind the dojo. Away from any prying eyes and ears.

Ranma sipped on her juice while Nabiki paced in front of her. The mercenary girl bit her lip, clasping her hands in front of her chest like some silent prayer. She let out a heavy a sigh and turned to Ranma. "Listen, it's painful for me to say this, but I need your h—"

Ranma blinked. "My what?"

"I need your he—hel—"

"Nabiki, you look like you're about to turn blue."

"Help! You happy now Saotome, I need your help!"

Ranma slid off the privacy wall, landing with feline grace in front of Nabiki. "See, that wasn't so bad, was it."

"You're not my pshrink."

"And yet you need my help. How does that make you feel?"

"Vulnerable. Scared—" Nabiki's face scrunched up. "Why the hell am I telling you that?"

Ranma mimed scribbling some notes down on a notepad. "I think we're nearing a breakthrough, Nabiki-kun."

"Listen, if I wanted sagely wisdom I'd go visit Tofu-sensei. I need your help with a more practical problem. I need to figure out who has been selling photos of girls at Furinkan."

"Umm…"

"I meant besides me. I've…left that market anyway."

"Oh that's easy. Everyone knows it was Gosunkugi that was selling those pictures of Akane and the other me. Don't worry about him, next time I see him he's as good as dead."

"Are you sure?"

"He's not keeping it a secret, he even admitted it." But something about the stern look on Nabiki's face made her begin to doubt that easy conviction.

Nabiki crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Seems a bit provocative for him, doesn't it? Didn't it seem odd that a spineless little cretin like him would be so bold?"

"Now that you mention it…shit I was so angry I didn't think about it. I just wanted to pummel him."

Nabiki smirked. It reminded Ranma of her old school teachers. "Don't beat yourself up about it," said Nabiki, "he had me fooled for a moment. He has some…compromising…photos of me making the rounds, and I felt so violated that I didn't stop to think."

"You think he had help?"

"I think he's someone's fall guy. And I need your help finding out who."

"Why me?"

"Because I can trust you. Because we both love Akane in our way. And maybe I'll be able to sleep soundly again if I can wipe this red from my ledger."

Ranma chewed it over a minute. "I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that you've got a lot of 'red' in your ledger then."

Nabiki sighed. "I know, believe me, I know. But I have to start somewhere."

"Why did you do it at all?"

Nabiki shrugged. When Ranma didn't relent in her stare, she huffed, "If you'd asked me a month ago, I'd have had the perfect justification. It'd been a lie, but a damn good one. Now…I'm not so sure. I guess I did it because it made me feel good. It was all a great game, and god, I was good at it. All the scheming, the ways of pitting people against each other…it made me feel like I was in control of something."

Nabiki slumped down against the privacy wall, hugging her knees tightly to her chest. The tears started to come, try as she might to hold them back. "I needed that control. After my world was turned upside down."

Imagining what could make Nabiki cry filled the redhead with terror. She was the ice-cold, iron-willed heartless queen bitch of Furinkan. Then Ranma remembered her mother, how her absence had left a gaping hole in her heart that could never be filled. "Your mother?"

Nabiki nodded, and buried her face in her knees.

Ranma slid next to her, wrapping an arm around her. Surprisingly, she didn't shrug away from it. She even turned to hug back, burying her face in the crook of Ranma's neck. Nabiki whispered, "She left us. I was only five and she left us alone in this cruel world. Dad checked out to lunch that day, and hasn't come back. The light went out of my world."

For the first time in her life, Ranma wished she was something other than a martial artist. Like a poet, or a philosopher. Maybe then she'd have something to say. Finding nothing, she just held Nabiki tighter as the tears began to fill her eyes.

"I've never told anyone this, Ranma. I've bottled it all up inside and tried to smother that feeling of powerlessness. I tried to harden my heart. I can't fight it anymore."

"Then don't try to. You can feel scared and hurt. I'll be here for you."

Nabiki held her with an iron grip for a short eternity, crying as quietly as she could. Just a month ago this would have been literally inconceivable. She'd only ever seen the barest glimmer of humanity in Nabiki. As Nabiki pulled away, leaving a damp spot on her shirt, she saw the streaks in Nabiki's mascara, and wondered how she was feeling this much sympathy for the devil.

Ranma wiped the tears from Nabiki's cheeks. "Don't," she whispered, "you'll get makeup on your hands."

"I don't mind."

"So," Nabiki sniffled, and something of the calm woman with nerves of steel returned. "The matter at hand. There's something rotten going on here. And I need to unravel it. Will you help me?"

Nabiki was right, she concluded. Something more was going on here. Whatever it was had almost gotten Akane and her other half killed. Either intentionally or through malicious ignorance. "Absolutely."

Nabiki cleaned up quickly and efficiently. No one could tell by looking at her that she'd broken down sobbing mere minutes ago. The redhead got the unspoken message. The former ice queen led Ranma upstairs to her room. After shutting the door and stuffing a towel under it to muffle any noise, Nabiki pulled a box from among the many in her closet. Each was labelled in Roman numerals. Nabiki slumped onto her bed, and set the box labeled 'twenty' onto her bed.

"I keep my various supplies, blackmail material, photos, etc., all in these numbered boxes. There's no card index." Nabiki pointed to her head, "It's all organized up here. I've been reserving box twenty for a long time. Twenty in Roman numerals is 'XX'."

She paused, waiting for Ranma to make the next leap. When she didn't, Nabiki huffed, "Come on, you're the one that had to get fluent in English while you were gallivanting across the globe for a cure."

"Don't remind me."

"What's an 'x' look like."

"A cross?"

Nabiki said the English phrase "Double-cross."

"Oh! Like betrayal, you mean. That's pretty clever."

"Thanks, I learned about some spies who did something similar. That's the significance. We're facing an enemy as ruthless and conniving as me. You're not going to like what I've been collecting in here."

Nabiki pulled the lid of, revealing a mess of papers and glossy photographs. A picture of Akane and the other Ranma caught in flagrante delicto sat on the very top. The redhead suddenly felt ill and tore her eyes away.

"Ranma, I'm sorry, but this won't be easy. I need you to detach yourself from this, and do what needs to be done."

Nabiki was right. Someone had attacked someone very dear to her. And they'd done it in a way that she couldn't combat with punches and kicks. She centered herself, and subdued the passion in her chest. The air in Nabiki's room began to cool, until Nabiki began shivering.

"Must your techniques always be this dramatic, Ranma," said Nabiki, her teeth beginning to chatter.

Focused in the Soul of Ice technique, Ranma began studying the photos. There were about a dozen different shots from two separate days. The first was outdoors, in one of the secluded vales that Ryoga liked to set up camp in. She remembered the place vividly from her own idle musings and dreams. She'd thought often about taking Akane there, away from all the distractions and exploring each other. Looks like some version of her had lived that dream. With the jealousy and anger at their behalf subdued, she took a moment to appreciate the tenderness of the moment. All the worse that this sanctity had been invaded by the camera lens.

The very thing that made the vale so suitable for a private rendezvous also made it so open to voyeurism. The trees and thick shrubbery could conceal a couple or a spy equally well. And its proximity to a major highway would help drown out the sound of someone's approach.

Still, while obviously distracted by their passions, someone would have to be quite skilled to make the approach. She decided she'd have to see it first hand to learn anymore.

"Tell me, what do you see?" Nabiki whispered.

"I know the place. Always thought it'd be me there. But I guess with hindsight it's not such a good place after all."

"Can you take me there? We need to know more."

"I can."

"What about the others?"

The second set was even more disturbing. It wasn't quite as…intimate…as the first. But it had been shot in the Tendo dojo itself. Her Soul of Ice failed, and she turned away. "Here…in the Tendo dojo. If they could get photos unaware there…" she didn't complete the sentence. A tempest of violation crashed over her.

"See this one is interesting. As far as I know, this one wasn't for sale. Gosunkugi had a few on him that I was able to nick without him noticing, but it looks like they were either for private use or being kept in reserve. Raises a couple questions, doesn't it?"

"Why not sell both?"

"Indeed. They could be waiting to bring these out. But they could just as easily get some people to double-dip for the second set, because it shows Akane's tits much more clearly."

"Hey!"

"Calm yourself. We're detectives, and we need to get inside the minds of the people we're hunting. And these people want to see my sister in all her glory. If we want to crush the people behind this, we've got to figure out the pattern."

Ranma grumbled but nodded along.

"So, you've got a better product, or one at least as good. Why do you not sell it?"

Ranma thought for a moment. "While I know too many people who could pull off sneaking into the Tendo dojo to get that shot, it's a lot shorter list than the ones who could pull off the same in a noisy thicket near an overpass."

"Exactly. And I'm willing to bet that Voodoo Spike isn't one of them."

"So that means Gosunkugi is just the fall guy?"

"Maybe. But either way, withholding suggests that whoever is behind this doesn't want to know everyone involved." Nabiki pointed over to a stack of books on photography and optics. "I've been doing some light reading. While I can't be certain, I think that judging by optical distortion that these two sets were taken with different focal lengths, if not different cameras. Probably an expensive camera."

"I really don't have a head for mysteries. This is a lot to keep track of."

"Your job is to help make sure I'm not chasing my tale in a paranoid craze. And to keep me safe."

Ranma nodded. That was simpler than solving the mystery.

"There's something else I have to show you. There's more than just Akane and you who've been creeped on." Nabiki took a deep breath, and then produced another set of photographs.

Ranma blushed as red as her hair. Nabiki presented a series of photographs of her taken in various stages of undress. Some incredibly candid.

"Don't look at me like that, Ranma. A girl has her needs. And besides, you're not quite as quiet as you think you are, so don't go getting all prudish on me."

Ranma burned with embarrassment. "It's not that I haven't tried. Fine, I'll admit that. It's just…I've never been able to finish. I always get too self-conscious, like someone's looking down and judging me for doing that as a girl."

"Poor thing."

"Please tell me no one else knows!"

"I have a bad habit of sneaking around. I'm pretty certain no one else knows. If they do, they're not letting on. And while plenty of other people might judge you one way or the other for tying to make it by as you are now, I'll never be one of them."

"Anyway! Let's stop talking about my activities and get back to yours!"

"Indeed. Gosunkugi was holding this one in reserve for blackmail. Supposedly as insurance against retaliation, but I can't help but smell a rat."

"Huh?"

"Well they either tripped over the exact right sort of things to truly hurt me, or it was intentional. They targeted my family, deliberately running roughshod over the few lines I'd set for myself, that I would never cross."

Nabiki had asked her to help guard against getting to paranoid. This was sounding borderline. Ranma searched for a minute for a delicate way to put her vague feeling into words. "Well, I suppose. But you have to admit, when given a taste for your stuff, people would want something more."

"That's true. But I went through the timeline of events. Kuno kept himself sequestered most of the morning. His fellow Kendo club members said that something had been eating at him all day. The photos were only starting to circulate later that morning. Someone deliberately introduced them to Kuno first, knowing he'd be a loose cannon."

"Those cretins. You mean they deliberately tried to kill Akane and me—er him."

"No, nobody could predict how Kuno would react. They just knew he'd react poorly and make a huge mess. Something that would sit right at my feet."

"You mean someone is trying to attack you?"

"Yeah. I know it sound self-absorbed and paranoid. And maybe I deserve every bit of it. But they chose to attack me through the people I care about. And that I cannot forgive."


They had decided to get their terrible work done today, while there was still light out. Tucking away some of the photos, Ranma and Nabiki set out first to the thicket that had started it all. To Ranma's relief, Ryoga had not happened to make camp in it tonight. He'd been away wandering when this had all unfolded, and Ranma didn't relish the thought of explaining it to him. Or trying to pretend everything was normal after kissing him.

Nabiki must've noticed, because as they trudged through the thick ferns, she remarked. "You seem relieved. I would've thought you'd like the chance to work off some steam with Ryoga after this mess."

"H-how—"

"I have my ways. He's one of the few people you have an uncomplicated relationship with. I just figured you'd be happy to pound each other until the stress went away."

Ranma began to blush, imagining an altogether different sort of pounding.

"You dreading telling him about what happened to Akane that much? Or—" Nabiki skidded to a halt. "You're blushing."

"Am not."

"Yes, you are. Don't worry, the other you tries to hide it, but he can't help it. I guess you've always had a complicated relationship with him. He is quite shredded. On a purely physical level, I wouldn't mind a roll in the hay with Ryoga, but he's rather dull—"

"—Can we not talk about this right now?"

"Fine, fine."

They walked in silence for the next few minutes. After doubling back twice, Ranma finally homed in on their destination. With shaky fingers, she pulled out one of the photos. Kneeling, she matched the trees and foliage in the background.

Nabiki stood over her, guiding her to the right vantage spot. They found a fallen tree, shrouded in moss, some fifty meters away from where they would have lain. Nabiki pulled a camera from her bag, and began adjusting the telephoto zoom lens. "I think this is the spot," she said, snapping off a few pictures. "I'll know for sure when I develop them."

"I'm guessing that thing is expensive," said Ranma.

"Very. You couldn't get those pictures out of anything but a good set of lenses."

"Not something Gosunkugi would likely have."

"Indeed. Unless one of his stupid rituals magically summoned him one and the ability to use it, it sounds like he's just the front guy."

"Someone everyone expects the worst from."

"And who has a grudge against you."

Ranma clenched his fists. "I've seen enough. Let's go pound him—"

"—I didn't know you felt that way about him."

"Not that way! I mean, let's go beat him up until he talks."

"No. That would tip them off too soon. And he might not talk. He's tougher than he looks, with how often these things blow up in his face yet he keeps right on trying."

"Well, what else are we going to do."

"Boring work. Coming up with lists of suspects, which I'll need your help with. You know the local martial artists and their abilities. I suspect someone with the requisite stealth skills is involved. But that can wait until tomorrow. I need to see one last thing for myself."

"What's that?"

"I need you to take me to where this was taken from." She handed Ranma a photo. The redhead instantly flushed crimson. "There's a high vantage point that can look in through my window. I need to find it. I need to know what lengths someone is willing to go for this vendetta."

There was a flicker of wounded vulnerability on Nabiki's face. Ranma nodded, and took the former mercenary girl by the hand. It hurt to see Nabiki hurting, and seeing this apparent conspiracy caused her anger to flare up.

They returned to the Tendo residence, stopping outside just under Nabiki's room. Ranma studied the photo again. "It's a rather high vantage point," she said, scanning the horizon.

"I know. And…I'm afraid of heights."

"Another confession so soon?"

"Yeah. Don't get too used to it. I need to see it myself. So…you do your roof-hopping thing and I'll hold on for dear life."

"You sure?"

"Yeah."

Ranma scooped her up into a bridal carry. Nabiki wrapped an arm around Ranma's neck and pretended to swoon. "Oh, how romantic."

"Don't joke like that. Trust me, this is the best way to do this."

"I guess this is why you have girls falling into your arms all the time."

"Eh, not as much as I'd like lately. So, you might want to close your eyes for this part."

No sooner had Nabiki shut her eyes, she felt an immense kick upwards. On impulse, clawed tightly into Ranma's skin, eliciting a faint yelp. As quickly as it came, the rush passed. Then the freefall began, and she clawed even tighter. There was a scream, which Nabiki soon realized was her own.

This yo-yoing continued for several minutes. Occasionally, Ranma would stop to check the vantage point. She'd mutter "not high enough", and continue on her way. Not once did Nabiki open her eyes, or say anything.

The wind whipped around her, and the air chilled her. She held tighter to Ranma for her warmth. Ranma said softly, "I think this is the place. But you're not going to like it."

Nabiki cracked open one eye. It was somehow worse than she imagined. Ranma was perched on the top of a radio tower, on a maintenance platform barely big enough to stand flat on. It was a long way down. She knew her mind was playing tricks on her, but she seemed like she was standing atop Babel or some other testament to human arrogance, the ground miles away.

She shut her eyes again. "Ranma…how do you face your fears? Like with cats, you used to run screaming from all of them. But when Shampoo got turned into a cat last week, you didn't run. You were on edge, and afraid. But you even touched her without passing out."

"Well, I dunno. It took me forever to get that far. Part of it was it being Shampoo helped some. But part of it has been learning to accept being afraid, and not fighting it. Just, not letting it control me."

It was worth a shot. She had a job to do. Anyway. "Ranma, set me down on the platform."

The steel was cold against her jean shorts. She found herself grabbing hold of the grating. Ranma's hand never left her arm as the redhead sat down next to her. Nabiki opened her eyes. Her heart began to pound. But her eyes stayed open.

"So, what do you think?" Ranma asked.

"I can see my house from here," said Nabiki. Ranma snickered, and she laughed too. Some of the fear subsided. "So this is the place."

"Yeah. They went through a lot of trouble to get blackmail on you. Someone sat up here for hours, just waiting to catch a glimpse of something through your window."

"Confirms what I already know." Nabiki said, nodding sagely. "I'm going to have to get some blinds."

The sun was starting to slip below the horizon. The clouds glowed orange in the twilight. For right now, Tendo Nabiki was on top of the world. No one could touch her.

"Should I get you down now?"

Nabiki scooted closer. "You're like a space heater. Let's stay…for a little while."

They stayed until night claimed the sun, and the vast expanse of Tokyo turned into a shimmering sea of stars.