Kunou Tatewaki had failed. Utterly failed.
The young man sat on the hospital bed, his mind lost... and found.
He didn't have the security of his kendo skills to comfort him, nor
the proud tradition of samurai blood; here he was just another
patient, another nutcase. Revulsion filled him at some of the people
around him; some had lost touch with reality long ago, and the
rest... well, they had their own problems. He had been cast with the
outcasts, to wallow until he had purged himself of his demons.
Still, he thought to himself, this had been inevitable. How long had
he hidden behind warrior's dreams and vanished lives? How long could
he hold back the pain, hold back the tears... hold back himself?
He'd fought the good fight, but it was a fight he could not win.
Perhaps here, on a different battlefield, he could find his peace.
He had done well so far; two months ago, he couldn't even mention his
mother's past existence without crying. Now he was almost normal -
A flash of red caught his eye, and he turned to the open door. A
woman of rare beauty walked past, her scarlet hair unbound, her eyes
cast to the floor like a newly-taken bride. Bandages covered her
supple wrists, and two burly guards kept a 'don't try anything' look
He rose up from the bed, passion overwhelming him. Somehow, his
angel had come to him in his hour of need, to comfort him in his
infirmity! He walked out the door, calling for her with the only
name he knew.
"Pigtailed girl! Wait!"
The woman stopped, though did not turn around. "Kunou, let me be."
In a softer voice, she added, "Let me die."
For once, Kunou was struck speechless. The pigtailed goddess...
wished to die? That would explain the bandages on her arms... but
why? His oration could find no witty riposte to her simple words.
"Because... my life is already over. Good bye, Kunou." She
continued walking down the hall, her steps slow and lethargic. He
moved to follow, but found a glare from an orderly holding him at
"Wait! Please... at least tell me your name."
Of her own accord, the woman turned around. The fiery glare to her
blue eyes was back, at least for a moment. "It's Ranma. Saotome
Ranma. And don't you *ever* forget it." She continued her trek down
the hall, her steps with more purpose.
Kunou moved back into his cell, his mind spinning. Something was
definitely wrong with the world, and it was up to him to make it
right. Somehow, the mighty had been brought low, with disastrous
results. He didn't know how (not yet, anyway), but he resolved with
what life remained in him to find out.
"I understand that one of the other guests... disturbed you, Ranma."
Ranma scraped a fingernail along the leather couch. "Yeah... I guess
you could say that, Doc."
The doctor's voice remained impassive. "Why did this young man
disturb you? Was it because he had something you didn't?"
Ranma growled for a moment, but kept her cool. If she lost her
temper here, in front of him, then she lost. "No, Doc. He... was a
sempai at my old school."
The doctor's voice purred softly. "How would you describe your
relationship with him?"
Ranma sighed. "Out of everyone at the entire school, he's the only
one who never figured out about my curse. He... was attracted to my
"And what sort of advances did he make toward you?"
Bile rose in Ranma's throat. "He... he sent me roses, hugged me,
occasionally felt me up..."
"And this made you feel uncomfortable."
"Whaddaya think? Have someone fondle *your* breasts, and see how you
The doctor chuckled. "As much as I would find it a learning
experience, no, thank you." He shifted positions in his chair. "And
now? How do you feel about the young man?"
"I hate him."
Ranma closed her eyes, trying to grab something beyond her reach.
"He... he helped take my manhood away. Every touch, every advance...
that was one less moment that I had to feel like a man."
"And now you have none."
"And now I have none," Ranma repeated.
The psychiatrist looked downward at his notes, then at his watch.
"Ranma, I... I think that at some point you should talk to this
sempai of yours."
"Talk to him? Why should I?"
"Because you have a lot of ghosts that need to be put to rest."
"Like my manhood?" Ranma spat.
"Nothing so drastic, Ranma." The psychiatrist put down his notes.
"You will always be a man inside, at least partially. However, this
man apparently violated that part of you without realizing. I think
it would be best if you talked to him, and told him - CALMLY - how it
made you feel."
Ranma snorted. "Kunou'll never listen. I changed once while being
glomped by him, and he still didn't figure it out."
"Don't hold that against him. No offense, Ranma, but your...
curse... is somewhat difficult to believe. I wouldn't have believed
it myself if your friend Mr. Hibiki hadn't demonstrated."
A bitter chuckle came from Ranma's throat. "Ryouga... bastard..."
The doctor closed his eyes. "I... I'm sorry, Ranma."
In response, Ranma took a deep breath, seeming to swallow her
emotions in the process. "It's all right, Doc. I'm... I'm okay. It
was bound to happen, I guess." She sprang up, and walked to the
door. "Okay, Doc. I'll talk to him - when I'm ready."
The doctor smiled. "I wouldn't want it any sooner, Ranma."
Kunou lay in his bed, his eyes cast to the darkened ceiling. The
blank slate was his artist's canvas now; left to hermit, thoughts on
his past came to visit him in the night. Each night, his mind
treated him to something he'd forgotten... or would rather forget.
Tonight, though, the memories were relatively pleasant ones. The
water came down to rush to him, sending his body twisting in the
cold. Undaunted, he chased his prey, the cur who would *dare* take
his Akane away from him. Seeking to keep the coward from escaping,
he grabbed at his shirt, making sure to keep him at arm's reach. He
certainly never expected to grab a handful of breast, nor did he ever
imagine the visage of scarlet that would haunt his dreams for years
to come. More pictures came... a moment in the soccer fields... the
moment where he embraced her, told her of his affections, only to
have... to have what?
One of the advantages of his time here was that he was seeing the
world through eyes that, if not clear, were at least less clouded.
Saotome Ranma had always had an aura of magic around him; luck seemed
to follow him, sticking to him like a cancer. For the first time,
though, things were there, begging to be connected... connected...
Of particular interest was the moment where his love disappeared,
just before Saotome... bested him. She had been in his arms, he
could feel every curve of her body... then...
Kunou sat bolt upright in bed. Something was very wrong with the
pigtailed woman he'd fallen in love with. He stared at his arms, his
body remembering the shifting, the *molding* of flesh... the change
from the pigtailed girl to Ranma?
He shook his head. Something impossible was happening with this,
something he could not explain. However, there was one person who
knew how to fix the dilemma. Indeed, the doctor had said as much in
his cryptic words.
Relaxing somewhat to gather his strength, Kunou moved back to bed,
his eyes painting glorious pictures on the walls.
Ranma flexed the muscles in her hand, staring at them with a bored
Truth to tell, of all of the changes she'd gone through, she despised
her hands the most. To put it simply, they *felt* changed, more so
than any other part of herself. They were slim, elegant, refined, a
paragon of feminine beauty - an ideal which she despised. These
hands were not meant for hard, strong work; they were made for more
delicate tasks, such as cooking and sewing. The things attached to
her were some other person's hands, weak, frail things... not the
hardened, calloused workhorses she preferred. And, more than any
other part of her change, they locked her in her present life.
Sighing, she closed her eyes, turning her sight away from her hands,
choosing to feel them move rather than see. She moved into position
to begin the kata; her breathing evened out as she settled in.
Purposely ignoring some of the more alien sensations through her
body, she began to move, her body weaving through the fighting dance
with a skill well beyond her years. In moments, she was gone, lost
in the only haven she had left - her art.
As her body danced, she dreamed of better times, days when she had
what could be called 'friends'. True, many of them just wanted her
for one thing or another... but they still treated her well all the
same. Ucchan was good to talk to; Ryouga, if angry, was still a good
sparring partner; even Kodachi provided her with some entertainment
Until the bachelor party.
Until the pain, worse than anything he'd ever heard about from a
Until... until the last moment, two weeks later, after he'd shared an
intimate moment with Akane... and...
Screwing her eyes shut, she tried to force herself back to the
exercise. Artist's precision gave way, though, as anger filled the
clear heart she'd tried to build for her exercises. Grace
disappeared from her movements; power, raw power, enough power to
shatter stars, pleaded for release, begging for her to right the
wrongs done to her... to wipe all clean.
She finished the exercise, and stopped at the applause around her.
The other inmates stood a safe distance away, ringing around her
performance. Most were clapping; some let out amazed breaths.
Fools. They didn't know a poorly-executed kata when they saw one.
She opened her eyes, and turned to face the crowd.
Comments came, questions as to how she performed that, requests to
teach them... she didn't want to hear any of it. She tried to wave
them off with a gentle hand; when that didn't work, she leapt over
them. She ran into the hospital as fast as she could, and sprinted
down the hall and to her door. She waited for her heart to calm
down, then relaxed on the bed.
The knock came to her door a minute later.
"Ranma? may I come in?"
She groaned. Of all the people who noticed her actions, it had to be
"Sure. Come on in, Doc."
The doctor, truth to tell, was everything she wasn't, and never
wanted to be. He was like Gosunkugi, only older, fatter, and with
less hair. She looked at his hands, and sighed.
"Ranma... why did you run away?"
Ranma swallowed, tasting the dust in the air. "Because... there were
too many to deal with at the time."
The doctor raised an eyebrow - another thing she hated about him.
"Is that all?"
She fought hard; she was sorely tempted to break the first rule with
him - lying. "No, it's not. My art... it's a private affair now."
She shook her head. "Because right now I can't perform it. I...
what you saw was good, but it wasn't martial arts."
"It certainly looked like it to me," the doctor quipped.
"That's because you weren't looking closely," Ranma replied, a touch
of venom in her voice. "The Art comes when I am calm, at peace - and
I haven't been that in a long time. When I can perform the kata
without losing my cool, then I will be ready to leave here."
The doctor smiled, and wrote some words in his notebook. "So it's a
form of meditation for you."
She smiled. For the first time since she'd arrived, one of the
psychiatrists actually said something right. "Exactly. It's a...
communion, with body, mind, and soul moving together in harmony.
Problem is, ever since my body moved out..."
To his credit, the doctor nodded without speaking. "I'll talk to you
tomorrow, Ranma - about this as well as other things. Thank you for
"Thank you," Ranma whispered, then relaxed. Her nerves were shot; it
was time for a nap.
He saw her again a few days later, in the courtyard of the hospital.
This time, she looked a little more confident, if still depressed.
Then again, if what his suspicions were telling him were true, she
had good reason to be down. Ghostlike were her steps through the
blades of grass, and funereal was her mood among the other ghosts of
the hospital. She walked over to the flowers, feeling each bloom in
her dainty fingertips, her eyes never going beyond the colorful bed.
"Will you tell me your tale, Saotome Ranma?"
The woman looked back at him, her hands stilled around a sunflower.
He could see the flicker of emotions pass in her eyes - revulsion,
anger, sadness... despair. "Why do you want to know, Kunou?"
For once, the young man floundered for words. "Um... well... the
doctors said that I... might be able to get past some of my problems
if I did." His eyes never left her form. "Also... I have questions
that I must have answers to - if I am to leave this place, that is."
Ranma snorted - almost like a chuckle, but not quite. "They... told
me similar things. That I should talk to you about some of the
things that happened." She played with the petals in her hands.
"What do you want to know?"
Kunou nodded evenly. "Who are you? Are you Ranma... or someone who
has taken his name?"
Ranma winced. "I... I *was* Saotome Ranma."
Kunou blinked, his eyes analyzing every inch of her frame. "Pardon
me if I intrude, but... how?"
He could see the frustration in her eyes. The hands clenched around
the flower. "You always called me a 'vile sorcerer', correct?"
Kunou hedged for a moment. "Well... your male form, anyway."
"I am no sorcerer, Kunou, nor was I ever a sorcerer. I am a victim of
magic, not a master of it." Ranma crushed the flower in her hands.
"During my travels, my father and I traveled to a magical place known
as Jusenkyo. There, I was cursed to take this form whenever cold
water splashed me."
Her grip tightened around the flower's remains, grinding it into a
pulp. "I was so close, Kunou... I thought I had everything. The
wedding was in two days... someone poisoned me. Dunno who; we think
either Cologne or Happousai, since neither one has been seen since
then. It... caused my curse to go haywire."
Kunou nodded sagely. "So... your curse is now a permanent
"Yeah," Ranma whispered. She let the petals fall to the ground, then
turned back to him. "So why are you here?"
Kunou winced. He didn't want to explain why. "Well... I had a
nervous breakdown, along with... some other problems."
Ranma smiled weakly. "Fair enough; nobody wants to talk about their
problems here." She looked around at the other residents. "You'd
think that, considering we all have problems, that we'd at least talk
about it with each other."
"Well, would you want the other inmates to know about your past?"
Kunou tried to smile for her. After all, she needed as much cheering
up as possible.
To his credit, it worked. She seemed to chuckle at the idea. "No.
I don't want to make them any worse than they already are." She
looked over to the entrance. "It looks like they're 'inviting' us
The young man looked back at the entrance, and the orderlies herding
the others in like cattle. He needed to act - and quickly. "Ranma,
do you mind if we talk here tomorrow? It is frighteningly lonely in
this place, and a friendly face is something beyond value here."
Ranma smiled as the orderlies came up to her. She waited for a long
second, her eyes seeming to gaze into every fiber of his being, then
nodded. "Okay, Kunou. Besides, there's a few things that I need to
talk to you about."
Kunou tried to get a reply out, but found guards in his way.
Sighing, he turned away and to the exit, his eyes on the redheaded
girl as much as possible.
Ranma hated cafeteria food.
Truth to tell, there were a lot of things she hated about the funny
farm - or, as the doctors liked to call it, 'behavioral hospital'.
She didn't like the way the orderlies watched her like a babysitter,
and their nervous looks when she started a kata in the courtyard.
She didn't like the doctors with their smarmy looks and condescending
tones and nosy questions that she had to answer. She didn't like the
other patients; most of them were downright *crazy*, and it scared
her. She didn't like the hospital rooms, the lack of freedom, the
medications, the loneliness... but, at the moment, she hated the food
She... she wasn't sure if she wanted to end her life anymore. When
she... when she had tried to kill herself, she'd been in a very bad
way. She'd just seen all of her dreams shatter like glass for all
time, and she acted in the only way she knew. She was starting to
come down from the cold euphoria of blood loss; the pleasant, scary
feeling of letting go had faded into deep memory.
Unfortunately, the food they gave her looked like they weren't giving
her a choice. The gruel they served for rice made Akane's old
cooking look good. And she didn't *want* to know what the mystery
meat given to her was. If it weren't for the insistent growling
coming from her stomach, she'd have starved by now.
"Good morning, Ranma. Do you mind if I join you?"
She sighed. Perhaps misery did love company. "Sure, Kunou. Take a
She picked at the food with her chopsticks. At least it wasn't still
alive... she hoped. "Kunou... there's some things that I need to
talk to you about."
Kunou nodded. "Go on."
"Did you honestly not know that Saotome Ranma and your 'pigtailed
girl' were the same person?"
Kunou frowned. "At... at some deep level, I might have. I lived in
my fantasies then; I didn't want to know the truth." He shrugged.
"I'm sorry I can't answer more precisely."
She tried to take a bite of the meat; it slid down her throat too
easily, and left a bitter aftertaste in her mouth. "Okay. There's
some things that I have to tell you. Please don't take this the
wrong way; I'm sure you're okay now, but then..."
Kunou nodded, ever the gracious guest. "Go on, Ranma."
Ranma put her chopsticks down, and took a deep breath. "When you...
made advances at me, I... god, how do I put this... it made me feel
uncomfortable. I... do you know what it's like to have another guy
make passes at you?"
"I have not had that... experience." Kunou picked up his food and
began eating, oblivious to its noxious taste.
"Anyway, please, now that you know..." Ranma's attention slid away
from her speech as Kunou continued eating. He was shoveling the
gruel down as though nothing was wrong... as though it was actually
edible. "... How are you eating that stuff, anyway?"
Kunou snorted. "I ate my sister's cooking for nearly a decade. I
have developed an immunity to most poisons as a result."
Ranma couldn't help but giggle. "I dunno, Kunou... I had to put up
with Akane's cooking creations for awhile, and I'm *still* not used
to this stuff." The two laughed for a moment, a laughter that
descended onto tense silence.
Kunou finished his meal, then stared out at the other patients.
"You still love her, don't you?" It wasn't stated as a question.
Ranma closed her eyes. "For all time, Kunou - for all time."
She opened her eyes... to find Kunou's eyes filled with tears. "I
sympathize with you, Ranma. I... I dreamed of a woman who would be
my equal, a warrior maid with beauty and fire all in one package. I
lived lifetimes in my dreams, years with you or Akane at my side, my
partner in war, in peace... in love. I... I still love your fantasy,
and it is... painful to let go of that fantasy."
Ranma shuddered at the frank comments, but kept her cool. "It always
hurts to let go of your dreams," she blurted. She desperately
thought of a way to change the topic.
"So... how are your sessions going?"
Kunou shook his head - a frustration she shared with him. "Slowly.
I fear I may be in here a long time." He took a long sip of his
water. "They are going to experiment with certain drugs to help
with... some problems; however, I have the feeling that it will not
help." He put down his glass. "And you?"
She shrugged. "Good question. I... I'm better than I used to be -
unfortunately, I don't know if I'll ever be where I was again." Her
fists clenched; she could *feel* the frustration building in her
fingers. "I... I had everything, Kunou. I had Akane, I had a good
future... and someone took it all away. They don't even have the
decency to face me about it." She shook her head. "I *know* it
wasn't a dream, but everyone keeps asking me to act as though it
never happened, and I... I just can't do that." Her fist hit the
table softly, as hard as she dared with orderlies nearby.
"Then don't. Remember it, cherish it... but go on." Kunou ate the
last of his food, then grimaced. "We... can't change the past,
Ranma. We can only change the future."
Ranma swallowed another bite of her food. She didn't even taste the
morsel; it hurt too much just to swallow. "I know, Kunou. I know."
She knew she wasn't going to eat any more, so she picked up her tray.
"See you later, Kunou."
He nodded. "Same time and place?"
She tried to smile for him - a pathetic effort, to tell the truth.
"Yeah. Same time and place."
Ranma slowly wiped the sweat off of her brow, enjoying the ache in
her muscles. Her workout had been intense; she didn't care about
style for once, and went all-out to test herself. She'd annoyed the
orderlies on at least one occasion, as she moved into the intense
section of her workout; fortunately, they'd given her some leeway on
her workouts, and allowed her to continue.
It had been too long, she thought. A martial artist's path meant
stretching the body's limitations to its extreme, letting no force
outside of nature's hand impede that progress. She'd lived by
that ideal ever since she was little; she'd forgotten it in the past
year, though, due to real-life intrusions.
Of course, she'd forgotten a lot in the past year.v
Not allowing herself to get mixed up in that train of thought, she
rose to a sitting position. They were starting to urge everyone in
for supper; not urgently, but enough to let her know she didn't have
much time left. She was about to get to her feet, when she felt a
hand brush against her shoulder.
"Very impressive, Ranma. I can see why you beat me so handily in our
Ranma accepted the hand, and eased up to her feet. "Well... kendo
techniques have some advantages, but also some serious disadvantages
as well. The key is to exploit those disadvantages."
Kunou raised an eyebrow. "What disadvantages?"
Ranma smiled. "For one, your number of methods of attack is
seriously reduced. You can slash, bash, or stab; there isn't much
alternative to that. Also, the use of two hands for one weapon,
while giving you added control and reach, is seriously inefficient.
Overall, it's good for other kendoists, sword-wielders, and
less-versatile schools of grappling; however, it's at a serious
disadvantage to anyone who wields two single-handed weapons or is
good at barehanded combat."
"Interesting analysis." He smiled, and gestured toward the door.
"Care to dine?"
She grimaced, then felt a gentle rumbling below. "I... I guess. I'm
so hungry that I might actually enjoy their food." The two entered
the hospital together, their movements watched by the orderlies, and
headed toward the cafeteria.
Ranma sighed. The cafeteria food wasn't that bad... once you
realized what it was for. It gave a balanced meal to an army of two
hundred; nothing more, nothing less. It didn't try to be tasty or
fancy; it just gave the basics.
A lot like the hospital, really... She sighed at the food offered
her, then sat down at one of the tables. She paused for a moment at
what was about to enter her mouth before biting into it.
"So... are your relatives coming this Saturday?" Kunou sat down next
to her, and began eating.
"Um... yeah. From what I heard, Kasumi and my mom are coming over."
Ranma took another bite of the food, purposely ignoring the taste.
"How about you?"
Kunou sighed. "My family cares not for my fate. The last I heard
before coming here was that my sister was in China seeking you out,
and my father was unchanged."
Ranma closed her eyes. Something unpleasant was coming up... and it
wasn't the food. "I... don't know which is worse."
"What do you mean?"
She sighed, and pushed the food away for a moment. "A... My family
life was never very stable. When I was three years old, my father
took me away on a training trip. Every moment for the next decade
was spent in constant perfection of my form, to mold me into a
martial artist. I didn't have a father... I had a drill instructor."
Her fingers rubbed gently against the table. "When... I finally met
my mother, I found that she *wanted* to be a mother to me, someone I
could talk to and seek guidance from. Unfortunately... I found that
she could be a little..."
"Crazy?" Kunou supplied.
Ranma couldn't help but chuckle. "Overbearing was what I was
thinking of. She was very strict about how I treated others, and
about how I lived my life. It helped me out in some ways; it allowed
me to finally resolve the fiancee problem. Unfortunately..."
"She doesn't know what to do with me anymore." She took a sip of her
water. "After I got back from searching for a cure, her behavior
was... well... erratic. She'd take me shopping for clothes, then
quit altogether when I only wanted certain styles. She still wanted
me to get together with Akane, and would ask me why I wasn't trying
harder to keep the relationship together."
Kunou smiled. "So which is better? A crazy family who doesn't care,
or a crazy family who cares?"
Ranma snorted. "Good question, Kunou." She continued eating her
food, and talked while eating at the same time. "Y'know, Kunou..."
Her eyes smiled. "You could join us, if you like. I... I'll be
honest: I'd like a friend there when she arrives."
Kunou nodded. "Understandable. I have a session before then;
however, I hope to make it there before your family arrives." He put
a morsel in his mouth, and chewed thoughtfully.
"By the way..."
"What is it, Kunou?"
"Why isn't Akane coming?" Kunou's eyes stared through Ranma for a
"She's... not allowed." Ranma began eating at a faster pace. "I
wouldn't react well to her presence at this time."
Kunou frowned. "It hurts that much, huh?"
"I... I don't know, Kunou. I don't really feel like killing myself
right now... but I don't know what I'd do if I saw Akane and Ryouga
again. I mean... I know it's over... but someone hasn't told my
"And what are you going to do when they let you out? You can't avoid
them forever, you know. Unless you *want* to spend another two
Ranma ate another morsel of food, and savored its bitter taste. "I
know, Kunou. I know. But right now... I don't know where else to
"Hello, Tatewaki. Care to sit down?"
Kunou let out a deep, patient sigh. The psychiatrists were the one
part of his stay that he hated the most. His mind was his own, and
the probing questions and devil's tricks of the doctors made him feel
vulnerable. Besides... he always felt a lot worse going out of the
chair than in. That hurt would fade after awhile, but it would still
linger, tickling at the darker parts of his soul. He sat down in the
chair, and cast his eyes to the ceiling.
"I understand that you've been talking with that Saotome woman."
Kunou scowled. "Please do not refer to her as such unless she gives
you permission. She is as much man as I am, even though her body may
The doctor raised an eyebrow. "I am surprised you would say
something like that, especially given your... active fantasy life."
The young man fought back a wave of revulsion. "Doctor, my fantasies
are my own. They do not rule me anymore."
Kunou could *hear* the doctor smirk. "So... the medications we've
been giving you are helping?"
"I did not say that." Kunou fixed his eyes on a small spot above
him. If he could just lose himself in that one spot... "There are
more pressing reasons why I choose to leave this fantasy."
"Friendship." Kunou turned back to the doctor. "Ranma and I... we
both need a friend right now. She's hurting from her breakup with
Akane, and I... am hurting from too many things to mention."
The doctor wrote some notes on his pad, then continued. "Are you
sure that there are no... ulterior motives to your relationship?"
Kunou almost jumped out of the couch. "Excuse me?"
"Something for you to think about, Tatewaki." The doctor set his
notepad aside for a moment. "For the first time, you have your
precious pigtailed girl by your side. She needs your help, and
wishes to fight alongside you - just like in your fantasies. Who
cares that she was once a man, and still considers herself as such?
She's still the pigtailed girl, and she needs you... wants you
there... yearns for you..."
Something snapped inside Kunou at the last words. For a moment, it
seemed that a volcano had erupted in his eyes, as they glowed red
against the rising sun in the window. There was only so much
dishonor a man could take, and this fool had crossed that line.
"Sir, I don't know if what you say is true or not. I could still be
lusting after her, or I could still be lost in my fantasies. I don't
know anymore. Thanks to you, I don't know *anything* for certain
anymore. All I know is that she needs help, and I need help. And if
that isn't enough reason to try to help her... then you've been in
this office too long." Kunou trembled in his rage, then slowly
backed off. "Doctor."
Unfazed by Kunou's outburst, the psychiatrist picked up his notebook,
and jotted some notes. Letting out a long sigh, he looked over at
the patient, his eyes tired.
"What will you do if she asks you to leave?"
For a moment, Kunou hesitated. He'd spoken the truth earlier; he
honestly didn't know... and not knowing scared him. "Leave... I
The psychiatrist nodded. "Good. It means... it means you're
learning how to deal with your fantasies." He let out a sigh, and
turned the page of his notebook. "Now... tell me about your mother's
Kasumi normally loved to visit hospitals. There was something about
the healing of the body that drew her to places like this; there were
few callings on earth more noble or sacred. She spent many an
afternoon at Tofu's clinic or at Nerima General, visiting with the
patients there and making sure they were well spiritually as well as
Which was one reason why this particular hospital gave her the
She was no stranger to psychological damage. Indeed, there were so
many scars lurking beneath her housewife's mask that she sometimes
thought she deserved a place here. These people, though... there was
no hope for a few of them. She had visited here a few times before;
almost all were charming and polite... but there was an emptiness to
the gazes of some, as though the walls around them were all they
knew. One in particular got her attention: she had been a resident
for ten years, and showed no signs of getting out anytime soon.
Even death held more hope than that.
She shook the fears from the cloak of her mind, and looked down the
hallway. There were others coming to visit, to comfort these lost
souls, but she knew that far too many would be alone today. Her
heart instinctively went out to them, even while she shied from their
presence. She meekly followed Nodoka down the hallway to the small
cell... Ranma's second home.
Her eyebrows raised, though, when she saw who was by Ranma's side.
She remembered Kunou Tatewaki from Nabiki's high-school days; while
he was always gracious to her, she disliked his archaic views on
women, as well as his designs on her sister and her sis... and Ranma.
"Hello, Ranma!" Nodoka gave a mother's greeting next to her, and
rushed to embrace her child. Kasumi merely gave a soft greeting;
this was a moment between mother and child, and any words from her
now would spoil it.
"Hi, Mom." Kasumi felt like crying on seeing Ranma's face. The
young man she'd come to admire was gone forever, a victim of a broken
heart. This new person in front of her... she held secrets and pains
deep inside, scars only someone else scarred would ever recognize.
She seemed to move like a young woman: tentative, but with a touch of
careful grace. Kasumi looked at the woman's hands, and the ugly
white scars around her wrists; a flash of dying flesh burned through
her memory, as she tried to keep life flowing in Ranma's empty veins.
Ranma noticed Kasumi's eyes, and pulled the hands beneath the sheets.
"Hey, Kasumi. How are you doing?"
Kasumi stopped for a moment; the words she had planned felt
meaningless. "We're doing okay, Ranma. Father and Uncle Saotome are
debating what to do with the dojo; your... reaction to certain
problems brought things to a head. Akane's been lonely since you
left; it seems like every day she spends at the dojo, making repairs
"How fares Nabiki?"
Kasumi blinked at Kunou's question, but quickly recovered. "She's
doing well. She just started her second year at college, and says
that the business classes are too easy."
Both of the hospital's residents nodded in appreciation. "That's
good," Kunou whispered. "She was always the best of us at Furinkan."
Nodoka coughed, getting the others' attentions. "Um... Ranma?
Honestly: how is it here? You look so pale, so thin..."
Ranma chuckled softly. "Well... the cooking's atrocious, the doctors
are bastards, and the other inmates aren't that good on
conversation." She looked over to Kunou for a moment. "Well, most
of them, anyway."
"Thank you," Kunou replied.
Kasumi's eyes were on Nodoka for much of the exchange. The matriarch
was holding something back...
"Um... Pardon me, sir, but how do you know my child? Or the Tendos,
for that matter?
Kunou frowned. "I... I was in the same class as Tendo Nabiki. I
also... had a crush on Akane and on the 'pigtailed girl', though I
didn't know her identity then."
Something flashed in Nodoka's eyes, a simmering that Kasumi didn't
like one bit. Fortunately, Ranma beat her to the punch.
"How are you and Tofu doing, Kasumi?"
She blushed. *That* would definitely distract her. "Well... we came
to an understanding after your... problem. Things are a lot better
Ranma grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Enough for you to be wearing an
Kasumi instinctively covered her left hand. "Um... well... yes."
She smiled; she was almost giddy about it, but didn't want to depress
The warm smile was all the assurance Kasumi needed. "Good. I... I
hope the two of you are very happy together." Ranma looked from
Kasumi to her mother.
"Mom... seriously. How are you doing?"
The walls Nodoka had built started to crumble around her. "Well,
Ranma... I'm okay... I'm just wondering what possessed you to do
something like this."
The smile on Ranma's face vanished. "I didn't have anything to live
for, Mom. And.... and right now I still don't."
Something seemed to flare up inside of the older woman. "But,
Ranma... you have your friends, your family... you still have Akane
waiting for you..."
"As what, Mom? A *girl* friend? Just a business partner? We were
supposed to be MARRIED, Mom! We were supposed to have kids running
around by now!" Ranma's anger deflated as the sobs came through.
"And that... knowing I'd lost... nothing is worth it..."
Nodoka was positively livid - her eyes twitched as she spoke, and her
voice was starting to carry from the room. "Not worth it? We
*raised* you, Ranma!" Tears were beginning to form in her eyes.
"How can you say that we mean nothing to you? Didn't you care about
the hurt you'd cause us with your... your act?"
"OF COURSE I CARED!" Ranma sobbed. "I... I cared... too much..."
The sobs degenerated, as human speech was replaced by animal
Kunou got up on the bed, and wrapped his arms protectively around
her. "I think it's time you left, Mrs. Saotome."
"And who are you to say whether I should leave my child?" Nodoka
positively growled at the man.
Kunou kept his gaze. "Just a friend who knows a lot more about what
she's feeling than you do."
Kasumi watched all of this, her throat dry. She... she honestly
didn't know what to do. She moved over, and grabbed Nodoka by the
"Auntie Saotome? I think it would be best for Ranma if we left." In
a quieter, harsher voice, she whispered, "Ranma is here to get
better. Do not make this any harder than it has to be on her."
Veins popped out on Nodoka's forehead and neck, as she strained to
hold back choice words. "As... as you wish, Kasumi. However, the
next time I am here, I will visit with my child - alone." She
flashed Kunou a dark look, and stormed out of the room.
Kasumi flashed an apologetic smile. "I'll talk to her once we get
back home. All right?"
Ranma nodded between sobs. "Th... thanks, Kasumi."
Kasumi left the room as fast as she could. She trusted Kunou (for
once) to take care of Ranma; Nodoka would need her help. She looked
down the hall, and saw Nodoka storming her way to the exit.
"Auntie Saotome! Wait!"
The older woman stopped. Kasumi could hear her sobs; she pulled out
a tissue from her pocket, and offered it to her.
A moment later, Nodoka straightened up. "Th... thank you, Kasumi."
"Auntie Saotome, may I speak freely?"
She sighed. "You're going to tell me that what I did in there was a
mistake. I already know that; I just... lost control."
She had to smile. Nodoka may not have been perfect... but she at
least realized when she was wrong. "Auntie Saotome, you have to
understand that Ranma is grown now. She has been taught everything
she needs to know. It's now time... for us to have faith in her."
Nodoka nodded quickly. "I know. I... just don't want her to make a
mistake. She's more vulnerable than she realizes right now."
Kasumi shook her head. "If Ranma didn't realize how vulnerable she
is, she would have left here by now."
"I suppose you're right." The matriarch straightened up, and fixed
the wrinkles in her kimono. "Come on, Kasumi. It's time we went
Kunou knew what it meant to be out of control.
He just never knew what to do when someone else was out of control.
Ranma was, quite literally, a mess. She was sobbing uncontrollably,
in a way she probably hadn't done since childhood - if then. She
occasionally tried to mumble something through her tears; all that
came out were howls and grunts. Her body was contorted into a fetal
ball, shivering as though she were freezing.
Kasumi had left a minute before; to her credit and his honor, she
left him to take care of Ranma. He slipped an arm around her waist,
and began to whisper in her ear. It felt... well, natural; after
all, he'd done this for Kodachi once.
"It's okay, Ranma. You don't have to worry about it; she's gone.
You don't have to worry, Ranma. You're not alone; I'm here, helping
you... just like I always have."
Ranma began to quiet down, her sobs calming enough to form words.
"W... why? Mom..."
"She loves you, Ranma. She always has, she always will. She... just
made a mistake."
"I... need to talk..."
"Later, Ranma. You're not ready now; you're scared, and hurting...
you need to calm down."
"I... no... I'm ready..."
Kunou put his hands over her eyes. "No, you're not, Ranma. You're
not thinking clearly. Just... just rest, and everything will be much
He swallowed; he could feel her movements stilling... resting. Tear
streaks marred her face, her eyes shone red from crying... she was
like a little girl, lost and scared.
And she never looked more lovely in his eyes.
She fought to smile; it was clearly an effort. "Th... thanks,
Kunou." Her entire body seemed to melt into him, as her breathing
"Kunou?" she whispered.
"Why did you comfort me like that?" To his surprise, her words were
"I... when my mother died, Kodachi was acting just like you did.
Mother... was the glue that held our family together, and when she
died, we all fell apart. Kodachi was only nine at the time; she
started crying uncontrollably after we got the news. I... didn't
know what else to do to calm her down."
She seemed to laugh... at least, it looked like an effort to. "Does
that mean I'm... going to be calling myself 'Black Rose' and
taking... gymnastics in the future?"
"I should hope not," Kunou whispered, forcing down more choice
replies. He... was on a knife's edge in her bed; he wanted to
comfort her, to let her know that she wasn't alone... but he was
finding something in the way of that care. Something familiar,
something distracting... a siren's call to his doom. He shuffled
close to the edge of the bed, and moved to get off.
The words came difficult out of her mouth, he could tell. "Thanks."
Mustering what little self-control he had left, Kunou eased off the
bed, and straightened his pajamas. Looking down at her, he allowed
himself a fleeting touch of her hand - a subtle gesture of goodbye.
"Anytime, Ranma. Anytime."
For a moment, Ranma wondered if paranoia had set in.
First there was her mother. Mom probably didn't know much about why
a person would kill herself; she definitely didn't know how to
respond to one. Some of the things she said... they were like giving
her another razor to finish the job. She knew Mom meant well;
problem was, meaning well and doing well were two very different
Then came Kunou.
The fool had been ignoring her, ever since she'd calmed down after
the visit. He hid inside his room during the outside breaks,
finished his meals before she had a chance to sit down, and generally
went out of his way to avoid contact with her. She'd tried to find
him, but all that he'd do would be to run away, close to the
It was enough to make her wonder if the whole world was against her.
She'd been wary of others ever since her fiancee had... had left her,
and this new behavior from others set her nerves on edge. She
marched down the corridor and to his room, loudly knocking on the
door to get his attention.
"Oi, Kunou! You in there?"
"Please leave, Ranma." The voice inside sounded haggard... weak.
"I... don't want you to see me this way."
She blinked. Kunou... was ashamed of himself? "Kunou, what's wrong?
Please, I can't help you unless you let me in."
The door opened a crack, enough for her to enter. Kunou was at the
other end by the time she opened the door, his face turned away.
A long silence reigned for a moment, as Kunou tried to will thoughts
into words. "Saotome... it is best if we didn't help each other.
You will be leaving soon; it would be to both of our advantages if we
did not fraternize during our stay here."
Ranma blinked, as though slapped. She found a soft aching in her
heart - an aching she'd recognized from the departure of too many
friends. "Kunou, if that's the way you want it... I will respect
your wishes. But only if you tell me why."
Kunou shuddered. "I... can't."
Ranma's anger was starting to flare. "Why not, Kunou? What could be
so bad that you have to hide from me?"
Kunou looked away, his eyes darting around like a caged animal.
Words formed again, slowly, with more resistance.
"Ranma... I... I love you."
Ranma's blood ran cold. "You... love me? And that's why you're
running away from me?"
"Yes," Kunou whispered. he straightened up, and tried to smooth the
wrinkles out of his pajamas. "I... I no longer love the pigtailed
girl. She was a figment of my imagination. You, on the other
hand... you don't even realize how breathtaking you are. You're
kind, patient, strong, independent... you're everything a man could
ask for in a woman. And that hurts... because you're also the best
friend a man could ask for."
Ranma's mouth hung open in shock. She couldn't feel her knees; she
held onto the wall for support. She remembered how she felt before,
after he'd first admitted his love for the 'pigtailed girl'; all the
revulsion and fear and wonder that became her thoughts of this man.
"K... Kunou?" Her mind was racing; she didn't know what to do. She
was *feeling* so much, thinking confusing and contradictory and
painful thoughts... but she *had* to stay with him. She had to. She
touched his arm; it felt like pinpricks on her fingertips.
He shrank from the contact. "Yes, Ranma?"
Words came to her, a question the doctor had asked her once during
her stay. "Do... do you love me enough to be my friend?"
She could see the confusion in his eyes; it mirrored her own. They
were so much alike, quiet people with storms raging inside. She
could see the light in his eyes, and his head nod its affirmative.
"Yeah, Ranma..." His voice gained more conviction. "Yeah."
"Good." She took a step toward him, and wrapped her arms around him.
"Because... you're all I've got left. And I don't... I don't want to
A shiver went up her spine, as Kunou's arms returned the embrace.
"You won't lose me, Saotome Ranma. I... I promise." She felt ...
she felt safe in his arms. It had been so long... she wasn't even
sure if this was what it was supposed to feel like.
All she knew was that, for the first time in seventeen months, she
Ranma stepped out into the courtyard. It was evening; normally the
patients weren't allowed after dark, but she just *had* to do this.
To put it simply, it felt right.
"Now... will you care to explain to me what you want to show me out
here? I have my rest to think about as well, you know."
Ranma smiled. "Okay. Just sit back, and watch."
She moved her hands in the ready position, and took a deep breath.
Her center was clear... but not calm; it was like there was a buzzing
around it, ready to explode. She punched into the air, using her
energy to propel her forward, and immersed herself into the kata.
She could feel the world around her, the electric fire that bound
everything together as she went through the moves. Her mind danced
in the past, reliving her life as Saotome Ranma... and not being
disturbed at bit. She could see the times they'd shared, and laugh
about them - or, at the very least, smile. She jabbed a foot into
the air, imagining fights that she'd fought... fights she'd won and
lost, all in the name of friendship and love. She moved, blocking
and dancing around an invisible opponent... her shadow, her fears.
And, all through it, she felt a presence around her, circling her,
keeping her warm... defending her blind spots. She knew who he was;
she could admit it now. She still wasn't sure what to do about him,
but she would know... in time. For now, he was there, and she was
there. That's all that mattered to her
A minute later, with a careful defensive stance, it was done. It
took a moment to realize she was smiling; she couldn't feel much of
her corporeal form, she was so giddy.
"Very good, Ranma! That was..."
She opened her eyes. "That was the Art, Doctor... in its purest
form." She bowed to the psychiatrist and orderly, like a student to
a master. "Now do you know why this was so important to me?"
The doctor smiled. "So... what brought about this change?"
She smiled. "I'm not alone anymore. I... I may never be able to
love someone like everyone else does. But... I know that I have a
friend. Someone who loves me... enough to be my friend."
The doctor wrote some notes on his pad, and moved toward the
entrance. "That's good, Ranma. I... hope you don't mind if I appear
skeptical, but I would like to wait a few more days before releasing
you, to make sure this is not a temporary thing."
Ranma smiled. She *knew* this wasn't temporary; it was too strong to
be that. "Sure thing, Doc. I... I think I can wait that long."
"I will contact your family, however, to make sure to pick you up
when you are released."
She smiled. She wasn't afraid anymore; not after what had happened.
"Sounds good to me, Doc. I... It's been too long."
The doctor smiled. "You will come and visit, won't you? It's so
rare that we have entertainment around here."
Ranma blinked; it hadn't occured to her to come back and visit.
"Um... sure. I... I will. I promise."
The flowers were blooming well, Ranma thought. Summer's zenith had
come while she'd been locked up here, so the only flowers she could
enjoy were the ones the sanitarium provided. Still, they were nice
ones; the bright corona of the sunflowers, the irises with their
fluted petals, the delicate pale-blue flower of the lilac...
She straightened up from the flowers, and took a deep breath. This
was not going to be easy, not by any stretch of the imagination. She
turned around, only to find his words waiting for her.
"Ranma, I apologize."
She blinked. This was not what she'd expected. "Um... for what?"
Kunou bowed deeply. "For my unfeeling words yesterday. I... I
didn't think of how the words would make you feel." He turned away.
"I'd better be going-"
"Wait." She felt the words leap from her throat. "Don't go." She
swallowed. "Not now. Please."
Kunou turned around, but was silent.
"Kunou... don't be sorry. What you said had to be said - just as
what I said needed to come out."
She moved over to him, and hugged him across the chest. "Kunou, I...
I needed to hear what you said last night. If you had kept it
inside, I would have figured it out eventually, and probably would've
been mad as anything. By... saying it in a way that wasn't a
come-on, you showed that you really cared for me as a friend." She
shuffled her feet on the ground. "Also... you helped me face some
Kunou's whole body seemed to melt in her arms. "Ranma... how could I
have helped you? What I did was selfish, and rude, and -"
"And necessary. I... the stuff the docs were trying to tell me never
settled in - until I found myself in their shoes. I... I've let go,
Kunou. I've let go." Her grip tightened around Kunou's waist, then
"So... you don't love Akane anymore?" The young man raised an
eyebrow - a trait Ranma found endearing. She smiled, and shook her
"Kunou, I do love Akane. I learned to love her enough to forgive
her, and to allow her to be happy." Her voice broke for a moment.
"If... Ryouga makes her happy, then I'll let them be together."
She looked up at him. His dark eyes sparkled with guarded happiness.
"So... you're okay now?"
She nodded. She was more than okay... though she'd never tell him
that. "Yeah. The docs say that I can get out of here in a couple of
days, once they make sure I'm okay."
An all-too-common sight greeted her at the words - brown, mournful
eyes. "I... will miss your presence here. You have been an enormous
help to me during my stay."
Ranma laughed softly. "Kunou, don't worry. You'll be out of here
soon enough. They're due to let you out in a week, right?"
Kunou nodded. "They are. It feels like I've been here forever,
"It'll be strange to go back, Kunou. But remember: if you ever need
someone to talk to, I'll be there." She backed away, and gave a
squeeze to his hand. "Okay?"
"Okay." A gentle smile adorned Kunou's face; it seemed that he, too,
was learning to let go. "I... will look forward to seeing you in
something other than pajamas."
Ranma laughed. "So will I, Kunou. So will I." She ran from the
courtyard and into the hospital, her hand never leaving his.
Tendo Akane walked through the front doors of the hospital, every
instinct inside of her screaming to run, and sat down in the waiting
lobby. Her eyes darted to and fro; she knew who the patients were in
a place like this, and it gave her the creeps. These people were....
And Ranma was now among them.
Had been among them, she corrected herself. She was getting out
today, after two months... two months too long. She needed to see
Ranma's strong, powerful body, her rosy cheeks, her reckless smile...
anything to wipe that picture from her mind. There wasn't a night
that went by that Akane wouldn't see her image, and fight to hold the
She'd tried. She'd honestly tried to make the transition from
fiancee to friend as painless as possible for Ranma - without
success. She'd taken Ranma shopping, dragged her on "girls' nights
out", talked with her, asked her how she was feeling... then
accidentally walked in on her in the bath.
Ranma's heart had stopped twice that night. She didn't know how the
paramedics brought her back; she didn't want to know. All that
mattered was that Ranma was back and well... and, hopefully, ready to
live again. She heard a shuffling around her, but she paid it no
She looked up. Ranma stood before her, clad in her typical Chinese
outfit. There was something different about her; she seemed to
radiate peace and tranquility. Her smile was the kind reserved for
saints or madmen; her eyes shone blue without any malice. It was
almost as though she were born again. Akane tried to find her voice,
to find *some* words for this... this homecoming.
"Um... hi." She got up, and inspected her more closely. She winced
when she saw the scars, but other than that... "Welcome back."
Ranma looked to the floor. "Sorry, Akane... I..."
"Shhh, Ranma." She embraced the girl, holding in her arms and not
wanting to let go. "No.... you don't have to apologize. For
"I'm sorry. I tried to... tried to go on.... but... I rushed things.
I'm sorry." She started crying - tears which stopped as Ranma broke
the embrace. Ranma just *looked* back at her, her blue eyes piercing
to the core.
"Akane... I officially break the engagement between us. If... If
Ryouga makes you happy, then I won't stand in the way."
Akane blinked. "You mean... Ranma, you..." The tears came full
force. No power on earth could stop them; it hurt so much to let go,
to say goodbye.... but it felt good as well. "I... okay, Ranma.
If... if it's okay with you, then... okay." She winced; she hated
situations like this.
Ranma nodded her reply. "I... I'm sorry I put you through all that.
You... didn't deserve it. You were only trying to go on with your
life; you didn't deserve to have me in the way."
"Oh, Ranma..." Akane would have hit her, if she'd been elsewhere.
"Baka. When you're here, you'll never be in the way. I... I love
you. You.... I hope you're my best friend now. And I will ALWAYS
"Thanks, Akane." Ranma looked back to the doorway she came from.
"And... I don't know if you're my best friend, but... you're close
Akane looked over to the receptionist's booth. "Is there anything
else we need to do? Everyone's waiting at home."
Ranma stopped for a moment at the word 'home'. "Um... Akane?"
"A lot happened... while I was in there. We're going to need to sit
down and talk. Later."
Akane blinked. "What happened? You didn't meet some cute girl while
you were in there, did you?"
To her surprise, Ranma gave a wicked, enigmatic smile. Mischievous
laughter pealed from her throat as she opened the door, to let Akane
into the light.
The shirt felt strange around Kunou Tatewaki, though not in an
unpleasant way. He had become accustomed to the flannel of the
standard-issue pajamas; to feel a linen shirt around him was almost
erotic. The slacks came on with a quick slip and zip, making him
feel a little more normal. He put on the socks and shoes, then
looked in the mirror.
Gods, it was good to be back.
He still wasn't sure what to do about his future. The Kunou estate
had enough money for him to support himself in perpetuity; however, a
warrior became corrupt by staying away from the world, something he
never wanted again. He vowed to return to school, to finish what he
had started - once he was mature enough to go. With a fluid motion,
he picked up his bag of medications and walked to the door.
"Ready to go?" the receptionist asked.
He nodded. "It has been too long. I missed the cherry blossoms in
my absence; I do not intend to miss them again."
She shrugged. "The bloom wasn't very good this year, for some
reason. Still... it is missed, if you end up here."
Kunou nodded. "True. Now, may I please be let out?"
"Of course." She pushed the button in the office, releasing the
The door opened, and Kunou had to hold back his tears. For the first
time, in too long, he was free. He never knew the meaning of the
word... until it was taken from him. He let the air come into his
lungs, the stale, air-conditioned, but free air he'd yearned for so
long to taste.
"Oi, Kunou. You gonna go through, or do you want to stay another
Kunou blinked, then stepped through. "Hello, Ranma. It's nice to
see you again."
And it most definitely was. She looked different from the shattered
person that had entered the hospital, or the 'pigtailed girl' he
tried to woo with his odious charms. She'd cut her hair into a
short, flattering bob; it would be a long time before anyone called
her 'pigtailed girl' again. Also, her clothes were different; the
button-down summer shirt and slacks, likely borrowed from Nabiki,
weren't quite what he was used to from her.
Not that he wanted to complain, mind you...
"... you look nice."
"Thanks," she said noncommittally, then looked downward. "Kunou?"
"I... talked with Akane."
His eyebrow raised ever-so-slightly. "And?"
"Well, I'm no longer engaged, for one..." Ranma snorted, then met
his eyes. "Akane was wondering if you'd be willing to start a kendo
class at the dojo."
He blinked at her. Him... teach? "She... wants me to start
She nodded. "She and Ryouga are trying to get the dojo running
again. They figured that, if they offered as many different classes
as they could, that they'd be able to attract a larger number of
He smiled slightly. Perhaps *this* was his calling in life. "Would
the fair Akane be averse to me taking time to go to college?"
Ranma smiled. Gods, he loved that smile. "Nope. In fact, she
planned for the two of us to go to college while we taught. It'll
take a lot of studying... but, together, I think we could do it."
"To... gether?" Kunou looked at her strangely. Was this the same
Ranma he knew?
Ranma frowned, her eyes turning darker. "Kunou, we need each other
right now. That might change once you meet some cute girl, but for
now you need someone to call a friend." The eyes brightened.
"Besides, have you seen your sister lately? She's nuts!"
Kunou sighed. "You know, perhaps she would be served well by some
time in therapy..."
"Don't tempt me," Ranma agreed. Her eyes seemed to laugh, something
he'd not seen in too long.
"So... you gonna come along?" She grabbed his hand, and pulled him
to the door.
"As you wish, milady." He walked out the entrance and into the light
of day. For the first time since he was a child, though, he knew
that he didn't walk alone.
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