Part IV : That Way Madness Lies

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Nabiki slid open the dojo door. Sitting on the floor after their workout were Ranma, Uncle Saotome, and Akane. They were so intent on their conversation that they didn't even look to see who it was.

"Kuno Kodachi is dangerous," Uncle was saying. "She relies on weapons, which weakens her, but uses many different weapons, which makes defending against her difficult. She also uses chemical agents to paralyze her opponents. I would suggest wearing masks over your mouth and nose."

"We'll look funny coming to talk to her with masks on." Akane unconsciously touched the bandage on her cheek. "She'll probably take that as a sign we don't trust her."

"Well, I don't trust her." Ranma was looking fierce. "We can't afford to let our guard down for a second." He looked protectively over at Akane, his gaze lingering on her bandage. Since Akane had come home from the hospital, Ranma had been treating her like she was made out of china, which both annoyed and pleased Akane.

Akane frowned at Ranma. "Come on, Ranma, we can't just knock on the Kuno door, ask for Kodachi, and then pound her until she agrees to stop chasing you."

"That would be my recommendation," a voice spoke forcefully from behind Nabiki.

Ranma, Akane, and Uncle looked up at this, staring at surprise as the speaker stepped around Nabiki. He bowed to the center of the dojo, then entered. "I, Kuno Tatewaki, offer my unconditional assistance."

Nabiki grimaced. She'd asked Tatewaki to come over and offer his help in evaluating his sister before Ranma and Akane confronted her. She'd hoped for a slightly more intelligent appraisal from him. Although she'd gotten to know him a little better over the past few weeks, he had not mentioned his family since their first lunch time spent together.

She spoke in an exasperated tone of voice. "Kuno-baby, you can do better than that. Sit down and let's talk this over in just a little bit more detail."

Although his stern expression didn't change, she could feel disapproval radiating from him. Nevertheless, he walked over and sat cross-legged on the floor next to Akane and Ranma. He put his bokken across his legs. Ranma was looking at him with outright hostility, while Akane merely looked uncomfortable. Well, Nabiki supposed, they had good reason.

It was up to Nabiki to give them a reason to like him. This was important to her, somehow.

She went over and slapped Ranma's shoulder. He looked up at her in surprise. She made a little shooing motion with her hands. He scowled, but moved over. Nabiki sat down between him and Kuno. Best to make sure there was a buffer between them.

Tatewaki was staring at Akane, "Nabiki has told me of your injury. How are you faring, Tendo Akane-san?"

Akane brought her arm up to touch her bandage again. "It's nothing, really. Just a few stitches - well, actually lots of tiny stitches. I've already had some of them removed, and Tofu-sensei thinks that the scar will be nearly invisible - it's right along my cheekbone, so the natural highlights of my face will hide it."

Tatewaki looked over at Ranma. He gripped his bokken, but kept it on his lap. "And where you while my- he stopped abruptly, started again. "Where were you when Akane-san was being attacked?"

Ranma seemed to swell. Nabiki grimaced again; Tatewaki had pushed the wrong button. Ranma was feeling incredibly guilty over letting Akane be injured, even though the whole rest of the family - including Akane - assured him there was nothing he could have done.

Nabiki quickly got up and stood directly between Tatewaki and Ranma, breaking their eye contact. She hunched down on her heels and looked Tatewaki in the face. "Ranma was there, Tatewaki-kun. He threw her attacker to the floor, picked Akane up, and ran through the pouring rain to the hospital. It wasn't his fault she got hurt, and he certainly reacted fast enough to protect Akane from further harm, and to make sure her wounds were attended to quickly." She gave him her evil eye, an expression she used when she wanted to put the fear of Nabiki into the recipient. "Do you understand?"

Tatewaki looked at her, and relaxed his grip on his bokken. To her utter shock and amazement, he stood and bowed to Ranma. "I apologize, Saotome Ranma, if I accused you unfairly. You are a worthy protector of Akane-san."

Nabiki gaped at him. She had seen him slowly soften during their lunch time encounters, but she had never expected this radical a change from him. He was giving up his claim on Akane and acknowledging Ranma's engagement to her all at once.

Where is this coming from, Nabiki asked herself. He can't really have changed his mind so completely. Nabiki prided herself on understanding human nature, and she knew that these kind of turnabouts did not happen spontaneously. They were usually indicative of one of two things: either this was a ploy, an attempt to get Ranma to drop his guard, or he had found something else to fixate on besides Akane.

Nabiki flushed suddenly. She thrust the half-formed speculation of his new fixation out of her mind. More important things to think about at the moment.

Ranma seemed just as shocked as Nabiki was at Tatewaki's apology. He didn't seem to know how to react. "Uh... uh... uh..." Nothing coherent was coming from his mouth and, Nabiki knew, nothing coherent was likely to emerge. Or if he actually did say something, it was guaranteed to be exactly the wrong response.

Akane seemed to recognize this also. Still sitting, she reached over to tug on Tatewaki's very wide and loose pants. "He says thanks, Kuno-sempai."

Of course, "Kuno-sempai" was the last thing Ranma would call Tatewaki, unless he was being sarcastic. However, Tatewaki seemed to accept it. He returned to his cross-legged position on the floor. Nabiki looked down at him a moment, then resumed her seat, a little closer to Tatewaki than before.

"My sister," Tatewaki said, assuming a stern voice, "is diabolical, unpredictable, and maniacal. She will stop at nothing to get her way... and I do mean nothing." Tatewaki glanced from face to face, trying to get his point across. "She has yet to kill anyone, preferring to paralyze them. I would not put it past her, though."

He turned to Ranma. "She has become enamored of you, Ranma, for reasons that defy explanation. To approach her rationally is futile; she is beyond reason. It would be best if you challenged her to a duel for the right to your hand. You must then beat her very thoroughly. Any half-measures would not make an impression on her. She would merely redouble her efforts to win you as her husband. Show her that you are deadly serious, and you just might break her will."

Ranma sat there, stunned. Nabiki felt no less stricken. His frank and brutal appraisal of his own sister frightened her. Although she and Akane might occasionally exchange verbal barbs, there was no doubt how devoted they were to each other and the rest of the family. Ranma, too, was well liked by the Tendos, even if he occasionally acted like an idiot. To find that a brother and sister could think so little of each other was a shock.

Uncle was the only one who took it in stride. "Do you have any suggestions on defeating her in combat?"

Tatewaki reached inside his tunic and pulled out a small package. "These packets contain antidotes to the poisons she likes to use. Ingest them just before combat, and you stand a better chance." He set them on the floor in front of Akane.

He looked over at Ranma. "You have fought her before. You know her style, and the weapons she likes to use. It does not change from those she uses in the gymnastics ring. Beware of the traps she sets; she is quite clever in setting them up, and they change constantly."

Ranma nodded, while Nabiki wondered when Tatewaki had ever seen Kodachi fight Ranma in his male form.

Uncle grunted. "Does she have any weaknesses you can tell us about, boy?"

Tatewaki merely gazed straight ahead, as if he hadn't heard the question. Nabiki frowned; this was the reason she had brought him here. She leaned over to him and shook him a little. "Well, Tatewaki-kun? Does she?"

Tatewaki spoke with great reluctance. "If you mention our mother, she will either attack in a blind rage or collapse to the ground in tears."

Everyone stared at him in silence. Horror ran through Nabiki; what kind of life had he known while growing up? She put her hand on his arm, vaguely trying to reassure him. This kind of touchy-feely stuff was not her greatest skill; she usually left that to Kasumi. She wished she'd paid better attention to the tricks Kasumi used; she could use them now.

Akane licked her lips and broke the silence. "We don't have school the day after tomorrow. How about we challenge her to a duel then, Ranma?"

Ranma looked over to her. "I don't know, will she accept?"

"She will." Tatewaki sounded certain. "As long as you let her know that you are the prize, she will agree to anything." His eyes burned into Ranma's. "Just be certain you win."

Ranma gulped and nodded. "It should be just me who challenges her, shouldn't it?"

Akane glowered at him. "Hey! Don't leave me out of it! It makes more sense if I challenged her anyway, with the winner getting you."

Ranma scowled at her. "Are you serious? C'mon, you know you can't possibly defeat her in combat."

"I beat you up often enough!"

"Only 'cause I let you. Remember our first fight in the dojo?"

"Well, I've gotten a lot better since then!"

"So have I."

"Akane." Uncle interrupted the argument. "The risk we are taking here is high. To lose is to force Ranma to marry this deranged woman. To win is to make certain she never bothers us again. Who would you choose to fight that battle?"

Akane sighed and looked down. She shook her head a little, but finally admitted, "Ranma."

Uncle nodded. "I will contact Kodachi and establish the conditions of contest."

"Be certain she understands that she forever gives up claim to Ranma." Tatewaki's voice was full of warning. "She loves to twist words about and alter them to her liking. Make sure you clearly state what exactly is at stake."

Uncle nodded. Akane looked scared. Ranma jumped to his feet, his fists clenched in front of him. "Just you wait, Kodachi. You ain't gonna ever come between me and Akane again!"

"A worthy vow, Saotome Ranma-san." Tatewaki got to his feet, and Nabiki rose with him. "If you will excuse me." He bowed. To Nabiki's surprise, Ranma bowed back. The guy was maturing, if only a little.

As they left the dojo, Nabiki noticed the adoring look Akane was giving Ranma. That would make the whole exercise worthwhile, if they could only keep those two looking at each other like that.

Nabiki stopped Tatewaki at the front door. She looked into his eyes, unsure of what he was thinking. "Tatewaki-kun, do you believe Ranma can do it?"

Tatewaki looked down at her. "He is strong, quick, and skilled; that speaks favorably for him. He gets distracted easily, and is prone to letting his emotions interfere with his fighting; that does not bode well. He is very quick to learn and exploit the weaknesses in others; that is my greatest hope for his victory."

Nabiki blinked; he had just given an excellent evaluation of Ranma's martial arts abilities. "That's a good analysis. Why..." she trailed off, not wanting to embarrass him.

He gave her a humorless smile. "Why do I continue to challenge him when I know full well his abilities?" The smile faded. "It is much easier, Nabiki-chan, to scrutinize those around you than it is to examine the faults within yourself."

Before she could stop him, he turned, opened the door, and walked quickly outside into the setting sun.

Nabiki looked after him, her mind reeling. There were layers and layers to Tatewaki, pain upon pain yet to be discovered within him. She wasn't sure it was a task she was willing to undertake. Much effort would be needed; would the profit be enough? Nabiki didn't know. Best to cut her losses now rather than risk more capital.

Nabiki continued to watch as his form was lost in the distance and light. Somehow, this investment drew her as no other ever had. Maybe it was worth trying to protect.

Biting her lip, she stepped back inside.

***

Ranma was walking on the fence, intense concentration on his face. Akane looked up at him, worry etched on her face. Nabiki could feel their tension; it matched her own.

She looked over at Uncle Saotome. His face was neutral, as it usually was. "Why did you agree to have it at the Kuno residence? She'll have all her traps there."

Uncle glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "She claimed, as the one challenged, the right to choose the venue. I had to agree, out of honor. I did force her to accept me as an observer, to make sure the conditions of contest are met."

Akane looked over at him. "Did she really agree to give up Ranma if she loses?"

Uncle looked at Nabiki. "See what you think. The conditions state that if Ranma wins, Kodachi irretrievably, irrevocably, and permanently gives up all claims to Ranma as his bride, concubine, girlfriend, or lover of any sort. She agrees to never consort with Ranma or Akane ever again, and will never interfere with their lives in any way, unless she has specific permission from Ranma or Akane to do so."

Ranma looked at his father. "Hey!"

Uncle shrugged. "She insisted on that clause. I agreed, since I found it unlikely that either of you would ever grant her such permission."

Nabiki scowled at him. "Seems to me should could kidnap you or me, then tell Ranma that he had better give her permission or she would kill us."

"I told Kodachi that threatening any friends or family members would constitute interference. She agreed."

Akane looked unsure. "Do we really know that she'll do it if she loses?"

"For that, we have to rely on Tatewaki's judgment." Uncle Saotome looked up at his son. "That means, my boy, that you do not go easy on her. Use all of your skills to defeat her completely. You must let her know how serious you are, or it will all be for nothing."

Ranma nodded grimly. Nabiki could tell he wasn't exactly pleased; he had trouble hitting girls. Nabiki sighed in frustration; not only was that stupid of him, but it hindered his ability to protect himself and Akane from lunatics like Kodachi. He'd better be serious today, Nabiki thought. One hesitation and Kodachi would have him as her husband in a second.

Nabiki shuddered. She'd only known Ranma for a year, but he felt like family. She'd hate to see that happen to him. Not to mention what it would do to Akane. Nabiki looked over at her. Akane looked very scared. Nabiki grimaced. There was so much at stake here. Ranma had better win.

They approached the Kuno residence. Tatewaki stood at the entrance, waiting for them. He opened the gates and gestured towards the back yard. "Kodachi awaits you there. Akane-san, Genma-sensei, you will find chairs on the back porch from which you can observe." He turned to Nabiki. "Nabiki-san, Kodachi objects to your presence. You are not directly involved with the principal issues; she fears that you will cause a distraction. She says that Akane-san is barely tolerable; you are not."

Nabiki gritted her teeth. She drew a couple of angry breaths and let them go. This was too important for her to make an issue out of Kodachi's snobbery. She turned to Ranma and glared at him. "Win, Saotome. Just win. Don't fool around and don't hold back. If you lose, I will call in all your loans. You don't want me to do that."

Ranma gave her a grim smile. "Yeah, right. Win." He looked at Akane and his father. "Let's go." They moved into the yard, heading around to the house to the back.

Tatewaki looked after them, then turned to Nabiki. "Kodachi objects to your presence, but I do not. Come with me, if you would." He took a step towards the house, then stopped. "Please."

Nabiki folded her arms, still annoyed at being left out of the fight. It wasn't his fault, though. She shook her head to clear it, then followed Tatewaki.

He took her into the house, upstairs to an enclosed room. It had a large console with many controls and several monitors. Against one wall was a much larger screen. Currently, it showed Kodachi dressed in her gymnastics outfit, idly twirling a ribbon as Ranma and his entourage came into view.

Nabiki looked at Tatewaki in surprise, than slipped into the chair in front of the console. She scanned the controls. "Can we listen to them, too?"

Standing just behind her, he reached over her and turned a knob. Nabiki noticed in passing that he smelled good.

"-see you, Ranma-sama." Kodachi was smiling widely. "Are you ready to become my husband? I have made all the necessary preparations; we will be married by evening."

Ranma grunted. "We'll see about that." He took a packet out of his tunic, opened it, and swallowed its contents.

Kodachi laughed, a haunting, surreal sound that always sent shivers up Nabiki's spine. "Did my dear brother give you that? He has become meddlesome. Don't worry, Ranma-sama, I will not need to resort to such tricks to defeat you."

Ranma crumpled the packet and threw it to the ground. "Enough talk. Let's do it, Kodachi."

Kodachi smiled. "So eager to attend your wedding! How wonderful!"

Uncle spoke from where he and Akane were sitting on the porch. "You remember what we agreed to, Kodachi?"

She looked vaguely annoyed. "Yes, yes. No killings, a chance to yield at first blood, otherwise, the one left standing wins." She grinned wickedly. "Don't worry, Ranma-sama, I'll go easy on you. I wouldn't want you hurting too badly on our wedding night."

Nabiki looked to where Akane was sitting. Sure enough, she leapt to her feet. "Kodachi, just you wait! Ranma will beat you so hard you won't be able to laugh your stupid laugh! You'll never have him!"

Kodachi laughed. It went on and on. Nabiki could see Akane begin to glow, a sign that she was about to forget her non-combatant status. Uncle saw it, too, and reached over to grab her arm. Akane ignored him, glowing brighter; Nabiki could feel the situation about to explode.

"Akane!" Ranma spoke sharply to her. "Sit down! Don't let her get to you!" He softened his expression, spoke a little more calmly. "Remember what we're fighting for."

Nabiki couldn't see Akane's face, but she did see the glow flicker and go out. Akane tore her arm out of Uncle's grasp, but she did sit down.

A hand grasped Nabiki's shoulder, causing her to jump in her chair. She'd forgotten about Tatewaki. "I have not seen her this bad in a long time," he said with trepidation.

Kodachi finally stopped laughing. "Well, enough of the pre-game festivities. A fun diversion, but I am anxious to get to the altar. Shall we begin, Ranma-sama?"

His face hardened; he brought his arms to a ready position. "Let's go."

Kodachi flicked her wrist, and the ribbon spun towards Ranma. He leapt to the side, then sprung at Kodachi.

She flipped backward, throwing something at the ground that caused a great deal of dust to form around Ranma. Nabiki couldn't see him clearly. What she did see was that Kodachi's ribbon had continued beyond Ranma and wrapped itself around a three-foot high statue of a horse. Kodachi tugged, and the statue came flying towards the dust cloud.

Ranma rolled out of the dust cloud, quickly located Kodachi, and ran towards her. Kodachi quickly tugged her ribbon again, changing the trajectory of the incoming statue.

When the statue was just about to strike him, Ranma spun, plucked the statue out of the air, and hurled it at Kodachi. The speed with which he moved left Nabiki dizzy from watching him.

Kodachi was quick herself; she dropped her ribbon and jumped over the flying statue. Ranma met her as she came down.

Nabiki was no martial artist, but it seemed to her that Ranma pulled his punch. It was enough, still, to send Kodachi flying to the side.

She rolled as she hit the ground and came up on knees, clutching her stomach. Her eyes had a wild look in them. "Is that the best you can do, Ranma-sama?" She asked with obvious effort.

Ranma thinned his lips, then went after her.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Kodachi pulled a hoop. She hurled it at Ranma, who dodged it easily. Another follow, and Ranma had to leap into the air to avoid it.

This was the opening Kodachi was looking for, evidently. She brought out some clubs and positioned herself where Ranma would land, shouting "Senju Konbo!" The clubs blurred, moving faster than Nabiki could follow them. Ranma landed right in the middle of the blur.

His hands seemed to be moving just as fast as Kodachi's, but Nabiki could hear that some of the clubs were making contact. Suddenly a club flew out of the blur to land on the lawn. Another soon followed, then two more. Before long twenty clubs littered the lawn, and Kodachi was empty handed. Ranma had some bruises and a cut on his hand.

Kodachi smiled sweetly at him. "First blood, darling husband?"

Ranma looked down at his fist. The sight of the blood seemed to infuriate him. "I've gone too easy on you, Kodachi. I decline first blood." He leaped backwards and landed in the ready position.

Kodachi sighed, a smile on her face. "Oh, Ranma-sama, accept the inevitable," she said in a sickly sweet, chastising tone. "This child who sits on my porch is not worthy of you. Leave her and come with me; it will be better for you both."

"Do not let her taunts inflame thee, Ranma." Tatewaki's voice spoke urgently from behind Nabiki. "She seeks to have thee lose control of thyself, and to see thee attack incautiously. Maintain thy focus and see this battle to its rightful conclusion."

Nabiki half-heartedly chastised him. "Kuno-baby, remember, twentieth century."

Ranma did seem to be struggling with control. She saw a glow forming around him. With a cry of "Moko Takabisha!", a ball of chi-energy exploded from him.

Kodachi did a rapid series of cartwheels away from Ranma. She did catch the edge of the explosion, however, and it lifted her off the ground and sent her flying. She landed poorly, and was rubbing her forehead as she struggled to her feet.

She scowled, all traces of a smile gone, her face full of hate. "Ranma-sama, have I introduced you to Midorigame?" She gestured to the pool, where an alligator could be seen floating in the water.

Ranma seemed set on ignoring her, stalking warily but steadily towards her.

Tatewaki sounded puzzled behind Nabiki. "Midorigame's in his pen on the other side of the house. What is Kodachi up to?"

Kodachi brought a remote control of some sort out of her leotard. "Midorigame's hungry. I haven't fed him for a week. Shall we indulge him in some dinner?" She pressed a button.

The chairs Akane and Uncle had been sitting on exploded off the porch. Akane barely had time to scream before she and Uncle had landed in the pond.

Ranma spun around at the sound. "Akane! Father!" He leapt to the edge of the pool. The pool was not deep; Akane was up to her waist in it. Uncle was perched atop the remains of his chair, understandably reluctant to enter the water, although he couldn't help that his feet were covered. Nabiki wondered how much immersion was required to trigger the change.

The alligator began to move rapidly towards Akane and Uncle. Akane screamed and began to fumble her way towards the edge of the pool. Water was not her element, though, and she slipped, falling face down into the pool.

"Akane!" Ranma leapt across the pool. He landed directly on the alligator's back, crouching down to grab the alligator's throat. The alligator, however, made a definite metallic clanking sound as Ranma landed on it.

Kodachi pressed another button.

Electricity arced from the fake alligator into the pond. Uncle cried out and fell off his chair. Akane, who had regained her feet and was almost at the edge of the pool, screamed and slumped forward, her torso landing on the shore with her legs still in the water. Ranma, his bare hands on the alligator, cried out in pain. He let go, but his feet were still touching. He turned and tried to leap, but instead fell on the alligator, his arms and legs dangling in the water, his head and trunk atop it.

Kodachi turned off the electricity and began to laugh.

Nabiki had been frozen in horror as the events were unfolding on the screen. It had all happened so quickly. She looked up at Tatewaki. He, too, seemed to be horrified. He looked at her, then leaned over her to point at a button. "If Kodachi gets the better of me, push this button. Don't leave this room; if Kodachi finds you, she will hurt you." He ran to the door.

"What does the button do?" Nabiki called out to him.

He paused at the doorway. "It summons the police." He shut the door. She could hear him lock it.

Nabiki gazed at the button. She thought that maybe she should press it now. She looked at the screen. Kodachi seemed to be using her remote control to guide the fake alligator to the edge of the pond. Everyone was still unconscious, including the panda lying face up in the pond. Kodachi was ignoring it.

The fake alligator reached Kodachi. She dragged Ranma on to the shore. His legs and arms were wet, but the rest of him was still dry; evidently the threshold had not been reached. Kodachi began stroking his chest, and seemed to be purring.

Nabiki's thumb hovered over the button. What held her back was she wasn't sure what Kodachi was capable of if she heard sirens approaching. Tatewaki was Nabiki's best hope right now. Please, let him be able to get through to her.

"Kodachi!" From the speakers, Tatewaki's voice could be heard. It sounded different, none of the usual poise and eveness of his normal speech, but harsher, guttural. It sounded ugly.

Kodachi whirled, a snarl on her face. She brought out a ribbon and began twirling it. "Tatewaki, this is no concern of yours!" Her voice, too, sounded fierce and harsh. Nabiki wondered if they always talked to each other like that.

Tatewaki stepped within the camera's field of view. He was wielding his bokken. "You broke your word, like you always do! This was supposed to be a fight between you and Ranma, not including these other two. Ranma had you beat. Honor the agreements you made!"

Kodachi smiled a grim smile. "The agreement said that the last one standing wins. I won."

"You threatened the lives of his father and fiancee!"

"They were in no danger. They just got a little wet. Anything else was purely in Ranma-sama's mind." Her voice sounded sweeter, but no less ugly than before.

Tatewaki shook his head. "I will not permit this. You will not reshape the world to fit your needs. To take advantage of Ranma's love for his father and fiancee was dishonorable. What would Mother say?"

Nabiki drew a sharp breath.

Kodachi's smile vanished, and her face twisted with rage. "Mother knew no more of honor than I. She taught me that honor was an outdated concept, to be used to manipulate those fools who still believed it valid."

"She taught you no such thing. She believed in the way of Budo. Moral Development. Discipline. Aesthetic Form. You showed none of those qualities today, sister."

Kodachi's voice was on the ragged edge; she was practically screaming. "If she believed in such things, why did she kill herself? Only to prove them for the lies that they were!"

Nabiki gasped and covered her mouth with her hands.

Tatewaki did not answer for a long moment. "Mother was not well, towards the end. You must remember her from our younger days, when she was almost happy."

Kodachi screeched at him. "You may remember such things, brother. I do not. She screamed at us and hit us, and you call it, 'Moral Development.' " She paused, took a deep breath. "All I can remember is finding her body in the bathroom."

Tatewaki shook his head. "You have to remember the lessons she taught. Listen to what she said, rather than what she did. She knew the way to inner peace; she was just unable to follow it."

Kodachi smiled, and her voice turned sprightly. The sudden change in her chilled Nabiki to the bone. "Why are we arguing, Tatewaki? Look what he have here. I have Ranma-sama. You can have Akane. No one ever need know what happened to them. You want Akane, don't you?"

Tatewaki didn't answer. Nabiki gazed at him in the monitor, her heart sinking.

Kodachi spun two lazy cartwheels to end up by Akane. She turned her over; Nabiki was glad to note the steady rising and falling of her breast. "Look brother, how attractive she is! No wonder you have all those pictures of her. Surely she will learn to love you in time, as you love her."

Nabiki willed Tatewaki to deny it, willed him to adopt the same attitude he'd used when he had told Ranma that he'd given up his claim on Akane. Tatewaki only looked down at Akane, his face a complete blank.

Nabiki's whole world seemed to center on that face. All thoughts of buttons, duels, and electrical shocks temporarily fled her mind. Instead she watched Tatewaki, wanting to know what he was thinking, afraid of what it was.

"What holds you back, brother? The pig-tailed girl?" Kodachi looked over at Ranma. "Surely we can arrange that, too."

This shocked Nabiki back to reality. How much did Kodachi know? She moved her thumb back over to the button.

Kodachi's voice continued lazily. "Or is it this new one, this Nabiki?" Nabiki froze, staring at the screen. "Does she know how much time you still spend among your pictures, brother? The hours you spend meditating in front of their posters, unable to chose between them, even now? Do you have any pictures of Nabiki? Ah, but you could never love that money-grubbing cold-hearted weasel-faced wench, I see that." The heat rose to Nabiki's face, Kodachi's words like daggers. "Come, brother, accept what is in front of you now."

Tatewaki looked up from Akane to glare at his sister. Nabiki could see the blank look change to one of cold fury. "Kodachi, there is so much you know about me, yet more that you do not. There *is* something right in front of me that I do not have the courage to take. A fool I am, I admit it to you freely. Yet I still live with honor. It fights back the madness which claims you now. Let us not continue on this destructive path, lest we end up like our father... or our mother."

Kodachi's voice returned to a shrill scream. "I will never be like Mother!" She sent her ribbon flying towards Kuno.

Tatewaki flashed his bokken, and the ribbon parted easily. Nabiki looked closely at his weapon, and realized for the first time that it was a katana. He was taking this fight very seriously.

A hoop appeared in Kodachi's hands. She sent it spinning towards Tatewaki. Two more quickly followed. Tatewaki parried each with his katana, the contact causing sparks.

Kodachi screeched in rage, then started flipping head over heels around the yard, picking up her clubs as she went.

Tatewaki didn't wait for her to finish. He ran to her and grabbed her during a flip, holding her upside down with one arm, the other arm holding his katana away from his body. She started beating on his legs with her clubs, at the same time kicking powerfully with her legs.

Tatewaki let her go. She bounced up and brought her clubs to bear, evidently ready to barrage him with blows as she had Ranma.

Tatewaki had reached inside his tunic when he'd dropped her. He pulled out his hand and blew some dust at Kodachi. She paused, and the rage left her face, to be replaced by simple surprise.

Tatewaki spoke to her calmly. "Living with you all these years, Kodachi, I've learned a thing or two."

Kodachi slumped to the ground.

Tatewaki looked down at her, then turned towards the camera. "You may come out now, Nabiki. I would like some help with Ranma and your sister. I cannot see Saotome Genma-sensei; maybe he's under the panda."

Nabiki could only stare at the screen. Her life had taken several violent turns in the past few minutes; she wasn't sure she was up to facing the world just yet. Akane needed her, though, and Ranma did too. She got up, unlocked the door, and found her way outside.

***

"Man oh man, these things do not get any easier." Ranma was sitting on the porch, watching as ambulance attendants tended to Kodachi. He looked over to Tatewaki. "Where are they taking her?"

Nabiki watched Tatewaki closely. His face was carefully neutral. "I have arranged to have her taken to a private hospital. I will have my father sign the papers, even if he doesn't fully understand the need. He owes it to my mother." He watched as the attendants strapped Kodachi firmly to the stretcher. "She will be in there for a long time, I think. It will not be forever. I hope it is not forever."

The silence reigned as Kodachi was wheeled away. Akane was hugging Ranma tightly, shivering slightly. Ranma had one arm around her shoulders, the other held gently rubbing his eyebrows. Both of his hands were wrapped in bandages. The panda was leaning against the wall; no one wanted to have him change back in front of Tatewaki. The unspoken consent was to let Tatewaki draw whatever conclusions he wanted to; they were usually the wrong ones.

Nabiki stood close to Tatewaki. She wondered if she should hug him. He certainly looked like he could use one. The memories of him looking down at Akane, though, kept her from attempting one.

Tatewaki stared after his sister. "I would request a favor of you."

Ranma looked at him. "What is it, Tatewaki-sempai?" For once, there was no trace of mockery in him.

Tatewaki noticed, and stood a little straighter. "Actually, it is a favor I would ask of you all. Please keep today's events to yourselves. I would not have our family secrets spread as gossip."

To Nabiki's annoyance, Ranma and Akane both looked at her. She glared at them before turning back to Tatewaki. "We promise."

Tatewaki sighed and looked back at Ranma. "Please, take your fiancee and go home. Kodachi will no longer bother you. Take your father with you." He turned and walked back towards the house. As he was walking away, they could hear him say, "Also, tell the pig-tail goddess I release my claim on... on him as well."

Ranma and Akane gaped after him. Nabiki knew how they felt, but it seemed that this last shock paled in comparison to the others she had received today. She looked at Ranma and Akane. Akane looked back at her. Her eyes flicked over to where Tatewaki was walking and back to Nabiki.

Nabiki thinned her lips. She wasn't sure she wanted to do this. Tatewaki had helped her out during a difficult time in her life, however; she could hardly fail to repay him in kind.

She ran after him, caught him as he opened the door. He turned to look at her. In the background, Nabiki could hear Akane gather up Uncle and Ranma and lead them off the grounds.

Nabiki stared at Tatewaki. Damn, this was hard. Akane had made it seem so easy with Ranma. What was the secret?

Tatewaki was the first to speak. "I think it best, Tendo Nabiki-san, that you do not bring me lunch anymore."

Nabiki drew in her breath at that. What was he talking about? She considered whether he was trying a reverse-psychology ploy. Looking at him, though, she could imagine him doing nothing of the sort.

She frowned at him. "Why? Don't you like me?" Cold-hearted wench; the words came back to her.

"It is not that, Nabiki-chan." He paused, his stern features set in an unreadable mask. "There is madness here. It has claimed my father and my sister. It took my mother's life. I would not have you be touched by it."

Nabiki had been having some of the same thoughts, but somehow they sounded different coming from him. "You are not like your father or your sister. You acted very bravely and honorably today on behalf of our family." As she spoke the words, she realized they were true.

"Did I?" His masked slipped, and some of the grief he was feeling showed. "I was tempted. Everything Kodachi said about me was true. I have hundreds of pictures that you've sold me, and I spend hours obsessing over them, trying to choose between two things I can never have." The mask disappeared, and real pain was etched on his face. "I could feel the madness pull at me. It wanted me to reclaim Akane. It told me how easy it would be, how pleasant it would be, to have her as concubine in our house." His gaze wavered. "I am ashamed."

"Ridiculous." Nabiki tsked at him in exasperation. "You chose the right thing. You stopped your sister and maybe saved Ranma's and Akane's lives. And I was watching you. You pulled back from... from the madness. Something made you choose the path of honor, of Budo. Hang on to that."

A strange, almost wistful expression came over him. "Nabiki-chan, when I was tempted and the madness almost upon me, I thought of you. I thought of how you would be hurt and disappointed if I chose the fruit my sister offered, and it pulled me back from the edge. You were my anchor, and I thank you for that."

Nabiki started breathing raggedly. She stared at Tatewaki. No one had ever told her that they needed her this badly; no one had ever made her feel the way she was feeling right now. What exactly she was feeling she wasn't sure, but if felt good.

Tatewaki brought his hand up stroke her hair. "You now know all of my secrets. This knowledge has driven others away, the burden of the knowledge too great for them to bear. You came to me just now, wanting to help me, even with the weight of my secrets on your soul. No one I have ever known has had your strength of will, your perceptiveness, your intelligence, your willingness to shoulder the burdens of others. And your beauty; though this be the least important of your attributes, it is one in which you excel." His hand fell, and the pain showed on his face again. "I would offer you all that I have and all that I am, but I am not sure it would be enough for one such as you."

Nabiki shuddered. What did he have to offer? Besides good looks, wealth, intelligence, and devotion. He also offered his obsessive nature, his crazy father and sister, his ability to ignore what he did not want to see, and the threat of madness.

He also offered her his love. Somehow, that one thing seemed to throw the whole ledger completely out of balance.

She smiled at him. "When you say, 'all that I have', does that include the monitoring systems?"

He blinked at her, evidently surprised at her question. "I-I would assume that it does."

"Good." She leaned into him, putting her arms around his waist, still looking into his eyes. She had forgotten that he was tall, too. "I've been making do with a silly microphone plugged into my receiver. You would not believe how inadequate that is."

"I can imagine." He seemed uncertain about her behavior. "To listen in on others without their consent is not honorable."

Damn, he was going to be trouble. She was going to have fun making him dance for her. If she didn't decide to dance for him first.

Tatewaki moved his head down and Nabiki decided she would allow him to do so. It was not her first serious kiss, but she was fairly certain it was his. She reached up, grabbed his head, and showed him how to do it right.

~*~

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