Part III : To Pierce the Blackness

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Prologue: Council of War

"I think we should start with the easiest fiancee - Kuonji Ukyo."

Genma sat on the dojo floor, facing Ranma and Akane. They were all dressed in their gis, having just completed an intense workout. Genma himself was pretty worn out - he was not a young man anymore - but both Akane and Ranma looked as fresh as daisies, even with the sweat glistening on their faces. It had been the first time the three of them had ever worked out together. Genma had insisted on it, wanted to use the workouts to clear their minds. Certainly, he had a lot to get out of his mind. He looked out the dojo door at the pond; he could almost hear it calling to him. So much better, safer if he could just take a swim. It would be nice to relax for a while.

Genma shoved that thought out of his head. His wife's face danced before his eyes. She was still as beautiful as the day he had met her. Yet she was so demanding, the smile on her face belying the forceful personality underneath. He had thought her pliable, demur, and easily controlled; their marriage had soon shown him the error of his perceptions. He had been glad to escape her demanding ways.

He looked at his son, so like her in many ways. The same steel will, the same commanding presence. Would he have wanted a demur and pliable son? He had much to reassess about his wife, and only one way to get that opportunity.

Ranma, meanwhile, was blinking in surprise. "Why's Ukyo the easiest?"

Genma made one last effort to clear his head. In a stern tone of voice, he asked "Ranma, what have I taught you about a martial artist who specializes in a particular weapon?"

Ranma answered immediately. "It makes them weak. If your enemy knows where the attack is coming from, it's easier for your enemy to defend against it. Wielding a weapon limits your attacks and hinders your defense, no matter how good you are at using it."

Genma grunted in satisfaction. "Kuonji Ukyo depends mainly on two weapons: her small throwing spatulas, and her larger fighting spatula. Knowing that an attack from her is likely to come from one of these two places will make defeating her very simple."

Akane looked at him skeptically, then turned towards Ranma. "Besides, she respects you more than the others. She's more likely to listen to reason. It shouldn't have to come down to a fight."

Ranma grimaced. "She didn't seem very reasonable at the wedding."

Akane tilted her head. "I think she's just getting desperate. If we clear the air by talking to her rationally, she'll listen."

It was Ranma's turn to look skeptical. "Are you sure you can talk rationally with her? You're more likely to hit her over the head with a mallet."

Genma winced and prepared for the explosion. It wasn't long in coming.

"Idiot!" Akane jumped up, grabbed Ranma by his tunic, and threw him at the dojo wall. Ranma flipped in the air and used his feet to bounce off the wall and land back over by Akane.

"See, what did I tell you?" Ranma sounded smug. "If we go, you gotta control your temper. Otherwise we'll all end up fighting and she won't listen to nothing we say."

Akane glowered at him, but slowly calmed down. Finally, a look of consternation replaced the anger in her face. "Okay, maybe I will have to try not to get mad so easy." Then a scowl returned to her face. "But you had better think before you say anything! If you start running off at the mouth like you usually do, she'll get mad and we still won't accomplish anything!"

Ranma immediately started to say something, but Akane was ready for it. She lifted her hand up and covered his mouth, her eyes sinking daggers into him.

Ranma seemed chagrined. He reached up and lifted her hand away. "Okay, you have a point, too. Let's see if together we can do something we wouldn't be able to do separately."

Akane's irritation seemed to dissolve at his words. She stepped closer to him, giving him an adoring look. She reached up to touch his cheek tenderly. Ranma smiled down at her, putting his hands on her waist.

Genma smiled, feeling vindicated. Who says arranged marriages don't work? These two were getting along fine, thanks to him and Soun. And Nodoka, he mustn't forget. They were a good couple, and they would carry on the tradition of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts in fine fashion.

Genma cleared his throat. "When are you two going to talk with Ukyo?"

They both started. Ranma turned quickly, flushing slightly. "Uh, we were thinking after school tomorrow."

Akane had turned slightly red herself, but answered calmly. "It'll be after the lunch rush but before the dinner crowd. It should be a good time."

Genma grunted. They seemed to have spurned his martial arts advice. No matter. Ranma would remember, once the fight had begun. As Genma knew it would.

***

Ukyo waved cheerily at the departing young man. He had actually been a bit of a pig, leering at her when he thought she wasn't looking. He had also flirted with Konatsu, much to Konatsu's amusement. Ukyo had almost let the man know Konatsu's secret, but decided against it. After all, he was a customer, and if he found the server attractive, what did it matter what the server's real gender was? He might even come back to flirt with him some more. That thought made her smile even more widely. Not telling was more fun, too.

She rung up the sale, pausing to move her fighting spatula a little to the side. She kept it near the cash register in case someone made the mistake of attempting to rob her. Anyone who tried to harass two apparently defenseless young women running a restaurant would be in for a very rude shock.

Konatsu cleared the table the last customer had been sitting at and went back to wash the dishes. Ukyo wiped off the grill, although there wasn't much of a need. It had been a slow day, but Ukyo wasn't terribly worried; business had been steady. The customers still came, even if they weren't getting 500 yen coins in the okonomiyaki anymore - one of Konatsu's more innovative attempts to attract customers. Despite the disaster it had been on their bottom line, it did seem to be having some long-term benefits; the customers liked her food, and spread the word.

Ukyo hummed to herself. She liked cooking. She was good at it, and still held the belief that she made the best okonomiyaki in the world. If she could only get the world to understand it as well, everyone would be much happier. She smiled; it was only a matter of time. Today Tokyo; tomorrow Paris, London, New York, and Beijing. Ucchan's would circle the globe, and she'd be filthy rich, too. It was a pleasant fantasy, one that kept her going during tough times.

Ukyo's smile hardened. She was determined to turn the fantasy into reality. She was young, she had lots of time. After all, how many people her age ran a restaurant? Surely a sign of greatness to come.

She heard the door open. She looked up and her heart soared. "Ran-chan!" Ranma looked as handsome as always. He'd come to visit, something he didn't do often. That he usually needed something from her on such occasions didn't bother her in the least, just so long as he came.

Ranma was in her fantasies, too. The first part of her life had been spent training to kill him. Well, maybe not kill him, but at least let him know how angry she was at him. When she'd been abandoned on the road by him and his father, a blackness had filled her. She had used the rage to train herself in a unique martial arts style, the blackness driving her on with promises of revenge. After she'd finished her training, she'd established her restaurant. She had recalled Ranma's name for her: "Ucchan". She had thought it endearing until he had run off with his father. Naming her restaurant "Ucchan's" had been a reminder of the revenge she was going to extract from Ranma.

Then she had gotten down to the business of finding him. It hadn't been easy, but by pure chance she had seen Genma leaving a nearby clinic. She had followed him, and been overjoyed to discover that he was living nearby, and that Ranma has with him.

She had set up an elaborate plan for revenge. She'd executed it to perfection against Genma. He had tasted her wrath, and come to know the folly of abandoning her.

Unexpected things had happened, though, when she had tried to do the same to Ranma. He had turned out to be strong, quick, handsome, and friendly. He had called her cute; no one had called her that for years. Her rage had turned very quickly to love.

Unfortunately, he had other fiancees. The blackness found new targets, and she had attempted several plans to try and separate Ranma from the girls. When they failed, she had decided to try to win by setting a better example than his other fiancees. She had become industrious, friendly, and helpful. The name of her restaurant remained "Ucchan's"; now it was a promise of things to come for her and Ranma.

There had been times when she had almost given up, time when she had almost thought that Ranma didn't love her. The blackness had helped her then, though, reminding her that Ranma had called her cute, and that he wouldn't do that if he didn't love her. If other thoughts tried to argue differently, the blackness swallowed them.

Ranma closed his umbrella; it was raining outside, and he had a particular aversion to rain. She smiled; she could accept that about him. She would accept just about anything from her future husband. It was another fantasy she was determined to see come true.

Ranma held the door open, and Akane followed him in. Ukyo scowled for the briefest of moments: what was she doing here? She quickly recovered, though; a cute fiancee wouldn't scowl.

"Can I make you some okonomiyaki?" She reached over for the batter, trying to imagine what shape she should bake into it. She'd used a heart so much; how about a flower? Or a horse; that would be a challenge.

"Ucchan-" Ranma stopped abruptly, seemed to reconsider his words. He had an unhappy look on his face. Ukyo looked over at Akane, who stood very close to Ranma, looking at Ukyo with the same sadness in her face, but mixed with a grim determination.

A cold lump of fear settled in Ukyo's stomach. Slowly she set the batter down. "Konatsu!" she called out, her voice a little shaky.

He appeared behind her, his reflexes very sharp. "Yes, Ukyo-sama?"

She continued looking at Ranma and Akane. "Konatsu, please go to the store and get us some more noodles."

She could hear the puzzlement in his voice. "But Ukyo-sama, the delivery truck was here just three days ago. Surely we have enough for-"

"Now, Konatsu!" Ukyo hated how shrill her voice sounded, but she couldn't seem to control it, or how fast her heart was racing. She just needed as few people around here as possible. "Lock the door on your way out."

Konatsu was silent for a long moment. Then she could here the rustle of his kimono as he bowed. "Yes, Ukyo-sama." He went to the door, pausing to give Ranma and Akane a probing look. He glanced at Ukyo, his eyes questioning. She flashed an angry look at him; he ducked his head, flipped the sign over to "Closed", went outside and locked the door behind him.

Ranma and Akane had watched the scene without comment, but their faces had become sadder during its length. The fear in Ukyo's stomach grew, and spread to a tightness in her chest. She cast about for a topic, anything to delay the inevitable. "Ran-chan, w-will you be going on vacation with your family during the school break?"

Ranma licked his lips before answering. "Uh, I dunno. Nabiki is going to be moving out. I, uh, think we'll be helping her do that."

Akane spoke a little hesitantly. "We will go to the beach for a week - one last time all together." Akane paused for a moment, than spoke in a rush. "You could come too, if you want."

Ranma looked at Akane in surprise, but quickly added, "Sure! We'd love to have you, Ucchan."

Ukyo smiled weakly. "I'll have to see if I can take some time off. Summer's my busiest season, though, especially during the school break."

They all stared at each other, a silence growing, hanging heavily in the air. Ukyo was afraid to breathe for fear of sobbing; afraid to move for fear of collapsing. The blackness filled her. She clutched the counter with her hands, threatening to crush it in her grip.

Akane gave a slightly exasperated sigh. She poked Ranma in the ribs with her elbow. He looked down at her, and they stared into each other's eyes for a few seconds. The way Ranma's face softened put ice into Ukyo's heart.

This could not be happening. It was not happening. Akane was the uncute one, she and Ranma were always fighting and would always be fighting. Akane would never be half the woman Ukyo was; surely Ranma could see that.

Ranma turned back to Ukyo, now reflecting some of Akane's determination. "Ucchan-"

"NO!" The word was ripped from Ukyo's throat. She reached over and grabbed her fighting spatula. She took it in an overhand grip and brought it crashing down on the counter in front of Ranma.

He jumped back, his eyes betraying his shock. Ukyo didn't care; he would not do this to her. Without thought, her throwing spatulas appeared in her hand. She sent them flying towards Ranma.

Infuriatingly, he dodged them easily, as he always did. He flipped himself over by the door and attempted to open it, cursing when he found it locked.

He had given her an opening, and she grabbed it. She leapt over the counter, raised her fighting spatula, and brought it down towards Ranma's head.

He dropped to the ground, letting her spatula pass over him. He grabbed her legs and pulled them out from under her. Ukyo landed on her rear end with a cry. She changed the grip on her spatula and brought a backhanded blow to bear on Ranma.

He raised his forearms and absorbed the blow; she couldn't bring much force to bear in a sitting position. She bared her teeth and rolled away from him. She sprung to her feet and sent several more throwing spatulas at him.

Ranma leapt back towards the center of the restaurant, upending a table that took most of the hits from her throwing spatulas. He stood behind it, his stance ready, his eyes wary.

And the sad look was still on his face.

Ukyo's black rage continued undiminished. He would deny her the fulfillment of her fantasies! She had worked too hard, given up too much to let him get away. She raised her spatula overhead again, prelude to a leaping attack over the table directly at Ranma.

She felt the spatula being yanked out of her hands. She turned to see Akane holding the spatula in her two hands, somewhat like a picket sign, the wide end partially covering her face. Akane seemed to be struggling with anger as she retreated, taking a few steps backwards.

Ukyo was beyond caring. Here was the source of her problems! This woman needed to learn that Kuonji Ukyo was not one to be trifled with. Ukyo found four more throwing spatulas in her hand and sent them flying towards Akane. Her intention was to have them strike the wide, flat end of the fighting spatula, scaring Akane and hopefully getting her to drop it. It would teach her not to interfere in Ukyo's business.

It was unfortunate that Akane chose that moment to lower the spatula.

Three of the throwing spatulas whizzed by Akane's head where the fighting spatula had been. The fourth struck Akane in the face.

Akane screamed, dropped the fighting spatula and fell to the floor. She slapped her hands to her face and curled up in a ball, her screams muffled.

"AKANE!" Ranma's voice reverberated throughout the room. Something struck Ukyo from behind, and she went flying to the side, landing in a heap on the floor. She watched in a daze as Ranma scooped up Akane. He kicked the door viciously; it literally exploded off its hinges, splintering into a hundred pieces. Ranma was through it in a flash.

Ukyo lay there in a daze, unable to comprehend what had just happened. She crawled over to where Akane had fallen. Blood spots covered the floor. A lot of blood spots.

The blackness claimed Ukyo. She wasn't sure if she fainted or if her mind simply shut down momentarily. When she became aware again, Konatsu was shaking her shoulders.

"Ukyo-sama!" He sounded desperate and angry. "Who did this? It was Ranma, wasn't it? I knew he couldn't be trusted." Konatsu looked at the floor around Ukyo, evidently noticing the blood spots for the first time. "Oh no, Ukyo-sama, are you hurt? Let me get you to the hospital!"

The hospital. Yes, that was where she needed to go. She brought herself up and staggered to the door. Or to the opening where the door used to be. She felt Konatsu touch her arm. She turned around fast enough to surprise even his ninja reflexes. She grabbed his face between her hands.

"Don't bother me! Stay here until I get back. Do nothing, you understand me? Stay here until I say it's okay for you to leave. Stay here."

She realized she was babbling. She shut her mouth and stared into his eyes until she was sure he understood. Then she released him, grabbed Ranma's umbrella, and ran out the door into the pouring rain.

***

The hospital was not very far away. She figured it took Ranma ten minutes to run there from her store. Not having to carry anyone, she made it in five, hopping along the rooftops.

She skittered into the main entrance and realized her mistake: the emergency room was on the other side of the building. Rather than go outside and run around the building, she ran through the corridors, barely noticing anyone around her.

She turned a corner and stopped. At the end of the hallway was the emergency waiting room. She had a good view of the entire Tendo/Saotome clan. Akane's father was sobbing hysterically. Kasumi was sitting next to him, her hands patting his back and arm, speaking soothing words. Nabiki was leaning against the wall, rubbing her cheek over and over. Ranma was furiously pacing in a circle, her hands clenched at her sides. Genma was talking to Ranma in a low voice. Nodoka was just walking up to her son, carrying a kettle, a worried look on her face.

Ukyo felt the blackness coming over her again. She couldn't be responsible for this, she couldn't be the source of all the pain in the waiting room. Leave now, a scared voice inside her head told her. Leave now before they see you.

Too late. Kasumi looked up and stared directly at Ukyo. Ukyo averted her eyes, then turned around and fled back down the hallway, the blackness at the edge of her consciousness. She got halfway down the hall when she found a long, low bench she could collapse on. She started sobbing, and let the blackness creep ever further around her.

She heard footsteps behind her. Slow, measured footsteps, not the footsteps of someone chasing her, thank goodness. They stopped right behind her. Very likely a nurse or someone, about to ask her to go back to the waiting room. Ukyo was beyond caring at this point. She just wanted it not to be her fault.

Whoever it was sat down on the bench behind her. Ukyo shuddered and tried to pull herself further down the bench. A hand was placed on her back. It rested there a moment, then started patting her.

"Akane's all right, Ukyo-chan. Ranma thinks she turned her head at the last moment, so it only grazed her cheek. There was a lot of blood, but not much actual damage. She'll have a few stitches and then she'll go home. The doctor doesn't even think the scar will be noticeable, except from close up."

Ukyo glanced quickly up at the speaker. Kasumi was smiling warmly at her. Ukyo examined her face closely, and found no trace of recrimination there. "Really?" she asked shakily.

Kasumi offered her a handkerchief. Ukyo looked at it for a second in disbelief, than used it to clean herself up. She sniffled into it for a second, still looking closely at Kasumi. She had difficulty accepting Kasumi's warm smile and calm demeanor.

The tears continued flowing from Ukyo's eyes. "Kasumi, I'm so sorry."

Kasumi spoke in a bright tone. "Did Akane tell you that you are welcome to come with us on our summer trip?"

Ukyo's jaw dropped open. "I-I couldn't possibly..."

"We'll be spending a few days there. Nabiki has found an entire house we can rent, within walking distance from the beach. There will be plenty of room. I'd love to have your help preparing dinner. Maybe you could show me some of your secrets to making okonomiyaki."

Ukyo's mind was reeling. "Kasumi, no one wants me around, not after I..." This time Ukyo stopped herself; she couldn't complete the thought.

Kasumi continued speaking lightly. "Nonsense. You've known Ranma-kun since you both were children. You've helped our family out on many occasions. We're glad to have you as our friend."

Ukyo continued to gape at Kasumi, her self-recrimination slowly giving way to incredulous annoyance. Could Kasumi really be this oblivious? Could she truly not understand what had just happened? "Kasumi, you can't be serious. I simply can't go."

"You will go." For the briefest of moments, Kasumi's face hardened, and determination lined her features. "I will not have this... misunderstanding... gnawing away at my family's peace of mind. You will come and have a good time and remain on good terms with Ranma-kun." She smiled again. "Isn't that what you want, Ukyo-chan?"

Ukyo reeled. This was a side of Kasumi she had never seen before. Ukyo realized there were depths to Kasumi that remained hidden under her usually cheerful nature.

She considered Kasumi's words. What did Ukyo want? She wasn't sure, but the picture Kasumi painted of a pleasant family holiday was very seductive. There certainly was no harm in agreeing; she could always change her mind. "Okay, I'll bring my okonomiyaki cart; maybe I could do some business at the beach."

Kasumi beamed at her. "Excellent! Don't plan on working too hard, though, it's a vacation! We'll certainly need some volleyball players, and I'd love to have a clothes-shopping companion."

Ukyo smiled back at her. Kasumi was a great person, maybe the best person Ukyo knew. How Kasumi could pull her from the brink of despair so easily she didn't know, but it felt good. Having Kasumi on your side made getting through the tough times much easier.

Ukyo looked beyond Kasumi and her smile withered. Ranma stood there, looking at her, his face cold.

Kasumi turned around and spoke to him happily. "Ranma-kun, Ukyo will be coming with us to the beach next month, isn't that nice? She'll make us some okonomiyaki. I know how much you like it."

Ranma shifted his gaze to Kasumi, his cold expression not changing. As Kasumi continued to smile at him, though, it started to melt. Finally, he looked almost sheepish as he said. "Yeah, that'll be nice. Kasumi, can I talk to Ukyo for a second?"

"Of course." Kasumi stood up and walked over to Ranma. She looked into his eyes for a second, smiling but with something in her eyes that made Ranma gulp and look down. Kasumi gave his arm a quick squeeze, then went back to the waiting room.

Ukyo looked up at Ranma, the fear back in her stomach. His face was now calm, but his eyes couldn't exactly be called friendly. She moved away from him slightly, unsure what to do, terribly frightened.

Ranma moved towards her suddenly, and she flinched. But all he did was to sit down next to her on the bench. His blue-gray eyes seemed to pierce her soul.

Ukyo quailed under his gazed. "I'm sorry, Ranma. I didn't mean it, I swear I didn't mean it. I never never wanted to hurt her, really and truly I didn't." She felt the tears coming again, and the blackness behind them.

Ranma grimaced. "Throwing bladed spatulas at people is stupid. I know that when you throw them at me you count on my reflexes being able to do dodge them. You don't really hope that they hit me. I saw what you were trying to do when you threw those things at Akane; you thought that they would hit the spatula." Ranma glowered at her. "You should know that during a fight, anything can happen, that it never goes the way you expect."

His face returned to a neutral expression, and his gaze turned inwards. "It was a stupid and dangerous game you were playing. When you have the martial arts skills we have, you have to be careful how you use them." He spoke softly, almost a whisper. "You could have killed him, even if that wasn't what you meant."

"Him?" What was he talking about?

Ranma seemed to refocus on her. His voice turned sharp. "You know what I mean. What were you trying to do, anyway?"

Ukyo slumped her shoulders and looked down at the bench. "Ran-chan, I - " She stopped, swallowed. "I just couldn't... let her... you two can't..." She looked up, suddenly angry, the blackness upon her. She grabbed his shoulders and yelled in his face. "You're engaged to me! Your dad took the dowry! That means you belong to me!"

She stopped for a second, unable to read his expression. She continued in a fierce voice. "I've got it all, Ranma: looks, brains, a good business. I can support you while you run a dojo of your own, you don't need the Tendo Dojo. You'll be much, much happier with me than you ever would be with her! You have to choose me, you have to!"

A thoughtful look appeared on Ranma's face. Ukyo's hopes soared; he was considering it! Maybe if she leaned forward and kissed him...

Before she could complete that thought, he gently but firmly lifted her hands off his shoulders. Pushing her away slightly, he asked "What about Konatsu?"

"Konatsu?" How could he be jealous of a cross-dressing ninja server? "I don't love Konatsu, Ran-chan, I love..."

Ranma interrupted her before she could finish. "But he loves you. He told you how he feels about you. He hangs around you all the time. He would do anything for you. Why don't you tell him you love him?"

Ukyo gritted her teeth. Why would Ranma care about her feelings towards Konatsu? "It doesn't matter how much he loves me, I don't love him back! I will never love him! I feel sorry that he's so infatuated with me. He's a great guy and a good worker, and I'll be glad to let him in on the business. But we will never be more than friends." Ukyo stared at Ranma, trying to make him understand.

He just looked back at her, boring his eyes into hers. She flushed, what was he trying to prove? If Konatsu would never have her love, why would Ranma...

Suddenly, she understood.

Horrified realization crashed over her. She started weeping. "No, no, no..." She couldn't stop. This was not how it was supposed to be. Ranma loved her, he had to love her.

He had just shown her, however, that love offered isn't always love returned.

"Ucchan.." Ranma encased her in his arms. "Ucchan, I do like you. I want us to be friends. But you gotta understand.." He paused, seemingly reluctant to say the next few words. "I l- love.." He trailed off again. "It's someone else who...who has my affection."

At that moment, for the first time, something penetrated the blackness in Ukyo's mind. It felt like a shaft of pure white light struck the core of her soul, carrying the message, "Ranma doesn't love you." Her mind shuddered and tried to block the light with the blackness. But the light stood firmly, echoing its message throughout her being. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, the light said to her, Ranma will never love you.

Ukyo shivered and fought back the blackness. She allowed the light to engrave its message on her soul. With acceptance came a strange peace. The conflict was over. She had lost, and that hurt a lot, but the wound would heal, and she would recover. It promised to be a long and painful recovery; too much of her life had been spent allowing the blackness to grow. Ranma would be there to help, though, as well as Konatsu. Kasumi would probably help, too. Just the thought that they would be there if she needed them was already helping.

Ukyo looked up at Ranma, trying to smile through her tears. " 'Has my affection'? Ranma, you can do better than that." She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest; for just this once, she was going to have Ranma all to herself, if only for a few seconds. "Don't deny your feelings, Ranma. Trust me, denial gets you nowhere."

She heard him gulp. Then he tightened his grip on her. Ukyo sighed and fell into a fantasy, one where she and Ranma had just gotten married, and they were sitting on a train on the way to their honeymoon. She was hugging him just like this, and he was her husband, and she could hug him as much as she wanted to for the rest of her life.

She struggled out of the fantasy; that way led back to the blackness. She pushed Ranma away, still smiling bravely. "It's best that you go back to the waiting room. You don't want to miss Akane."

He looked at her, his face a little wary. She stood up, pulled him to his feet, turned him around, and gave him a little push down the hallway. "Go! Just be sure to give me an invitation to the wedding. I'll leave my spatulas behind."

Ranma looked over his shoulder. He grinned at her. "It's a deal, Ucchan." He held her gaze a while, then turned and ran back down the hallway.

Ukyo continued to smile, although tears once again began streaming down her face. Most of her life had been spent fixating on the man running down the hallway. Letting him go made her feel relieved and terrified at the same time.

Turning her back on Ranma, she walked down the corridor and left the hospital.

***

Ukyo paused as she entered her restaurant. Konatsu had been busy; most of the damage had been repaired, and the blood cleaned off the floor. The door was still missing; she'd need to do something about it first thing tomorrow.

Konatsu appeared, and Ukyo sighed. He was wearing his ninja outfit, with his face covered and his eyes deadly serious. "Ukyo-sama, now can I go take care of Saotome Ranma?"

Ukyo went up to him and took off his hood. She gripped his shoulders tightly. "Konatsu listen to me. What happened here was all my fault, every bit of it. I attacked Ranma and Akane without provocation. I cut Akane's face, and Ranma broke the door down while taking her to the hospital."

Shock covered Konatsu's face. He tried to look down but Ukyo grabbed his chin and held his head steady. "Konatsu, you have to understand one more thing. I don't love you. I will never love you. The sooner you accept that, the happier you'll be. Trust me. You're my good friend and I'm glad to know you. But if you think that I'll eventually change my mind, you're wasting your time here."

She removed her hands and stepped back. He stood rock still, his face covered with misery.

Very much, Ukyo supposed, like she had looked in the hospital.

His eyes glistened. "You're still my friend, Ukyo-sama?" he asked querulously.

She smiled at him. "Yes, of course. Always. But shouldn't you just call me Ukyo?"

He quivered a little. "Okay...Ukyo." He turned. "I had better get ready for the dinner rush."

"Hey kiddo." He turned back towards her. "If you ever need to talk, I'm here."

He smiled at her, although she could tell he was still hurting. Konatsu went back to his room to change.

Ukyo sighed. There was going to be a lot of pain here tonight. She wondered if she was going to lose Konatsu. She hoped not.

She went back behind the counter and discovered that Konatsu had replaced her fighting spatula. She hefted it in her hands; it felt good and comfortable there. She thought back to her days by the ocean, when the sea's rage and her rage were matched wave for wave. She thought about Ranma perched on her spatula, a quizzical look on his face. She thought about Ranma calling her cute. She thought how quickly he'd come to her help when she was on the verge of bankruptcy. She thought about the long nights she had spent lost in pleasant fantasies about killing the Saotomes. She thought about the long nights she had spent lost in pleasant fantasies about marrying Ranma. She thought about Ranma and Akane entering her store with sad looks on their faces.

Ukyo walked back over to the doorway and stepped outside into the rain. She looked carefully around to see if anyone was nearby.

With a fierce cry, she attacked the banner over her store. It wasn't long before "Ucchan's" was indistinguishable among the tatters of cloth.

Then she brought the spatula down on the street corner. She hit it in just the right place; the wide, flat end snapped off, leaving her holding the handle in her hands. Contemptuously, she threw it in the gutter. Water from the gutter washed over it and continued down the sewer drain.

Looking down, she could feel the blackness washing away with it.

Spinning on her heel, she went back inside to prepare for the dinner rush.

~*~

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