Little Nabiki pouted as she watched her mommy giving all of her attention to that darn annoying brat, Akane. Her mommy was bent low, listening to Akane ramble on about something stupid like she was interested, leaving Nabiki to just stand there and fume. It wasn't fair. Nabiki was important too, and her mommy should have spent more time with her. But the bigger Akane grew — though the brat was still just a baby to four-year-old Nabiki — the more attention she seemed to get. Nabiki had thought that going out for a walk with just the three of them (Daddy had taken big sister Kasumi to her friend's home) would net Nabiki with more attention than usual, but no, it was Akane babbling senselessly, her mommy listening intently, and Nabiki being left to her own devices.
They started to cross a bridge over a river running through the district. Nabiki paused at the railing for a moment to look down at the water below. It had rained a lot over the last week, and the river was bigger and a whole lot faster than before. To her little eyes, the effect was very exciting, even if she couldn't swim. She wasn't afraid of water. Basically a river was like a bathtub, only bigger and faster. It wasn't something to be afraid of. It was neat.
Nabiki tore her eyes away to see neither her Mommy nor Akane had realized she stopped to look at the river. They had just continued on, Akane singing some stupid song and Mommy acting as though it sounded neat instead of just plain awful. Nabiki waited for them to say something, but they just continued walking.
That made Nabiki's pout double. Then she came up with a way to gain her mommy's attention. She grabbed onto the lower bars of the railing along the bridge and pulled herself up to the top. She was good at climbing, the best in the neighborhood for her age. She had even climbed up into Mrs. Tanaka's tree just because Matsuo said she couldn't, claiming all girls were bad at climbing. But she had shown him. She challenged him, and he stopped halfway up, while Nabiki made it to the highest branch she could reach. Certainly climbing up a railing with all of its potential and firm handholds was a simple matter.
Within seconds she was standing on the top of the railing. It seemed incredibly wide to Nabiki's tiny feet, nothing at all like the narrow tree branches she had stood on before. It was broad and firm enough to easily stand straight. Looking down, she saw the river yawning below her. Its raging torrent seemed intimidating to Nabiki finally, or it would have if she wasn't so confident in her perch.
She looked back to see that her Mommy and Akane still hadn't realized she had stopped walking with them, and were very far away, almost to the end of the bridge. Intent on reclaiming some of the attention due her, Nabiki shouted out, "Hey, Mommy! Look at me!"
Her mommy turned around. Instantly Nabiki knew she had done something horribly wrong from the look of fright on her mommy's face.
"Nabiki! Don't move!" her mommy shouted.
Reflexively, Nabiki shifted her feet, and her balance, which had been more precarious than the she realized, was lost. She tried falling forward onto the bridge, but instead found herself moving backward. She even tried making circling motions with her arms in an effort to grab onto something, anything, to arrest her fall. But there was nothing, and she continued falling backward until it felt like the railing and disappeared below her feet.
Her tiny heart skipped a beat. She was going to fall into the huge, gaping river, which she could feel wanted to suck her down and drown her, since that was what rivers did to little girls that couldn't swim. There was no way her mommy was going to get to her in time. She was too far away, and already the railing was passing Nabiki's head as she began plummeting farther and farther.
Nabiki was about to reach the bottom of the railing when her mommy's head poked above the railing. Nabiki couldn't understand how it was possible, since she had been too far away. Daddy wasn't able to move that fast, even when he was practicing martial arts. No one should have been that quick.
Her mommy thrust her body out beyond the railing and just barely managed to snag Nabiki's hand, which was still above her trying to reflexively grab onto something. Nabiki's tiny hand found itself completely engulfed in her mommy's larger one. Her body stopped falling, but a shooting pain came from her shoulder at how abruptly her descent had ended. For a moment, Nabiki felt her hand slip slightly from her mommy's grip, but then her mommy cried out louder and in more pain than Nabiki had ever heard, enough to make Nabiki cry because it was obvious she was hurting so much. Even moreso, Nabiki couldn't believe her eyes as the railing her mommy was holding onto to keep from going over herself buckled under the hand.
Nabiki felt the grip on her tiny hand tighten, and she was brought up over the railing and tossed roughly to the ground. She landed firmly on her bottom on the granite that composed the walkway of the bridge. She was in too much shock to cry at the moment, and simply sat there.
And then her shock ended as her mommy fell backward collapsing on the ground and screaming in pain as she clutched her knee. Akane was still standing at the end of the bridge, going from a wide-eyed stare to crying as well, as much from not understanding what was going on to the fact her mommy was crying, meaning it was something incredibly bad.
All of that proved to be too much for little Nabiki, and she broke down, competing with Akane to see who could cry louder.
Though, as her mommy rolled on the ground and continued clutching her limb, Nabiki knew the older woman was crying the hardest of all.
Nabiki woke up, drenched in sweat and holding her shoulder. There was no lingering trace of pain, like there had been just a moment before. It took second for her higher brain functions to kick in and remember that it had been a dream, one she hadn't experienced in over five years. That was not a complaint on her part. She hadn't wanted to remember what was easily one of her most traumatic childhood memories. It reminded her of what it meant to be helpless, and at the mercy of others. She would never be that way again.
"And it's that damned Kachi's fault!" Nabiki snarled, remembering all too well the face of the person that had kept her from drowning so many years ago, and that the annoying pest looked so much like her. Something had to be done about the false woman dredging up the past by her mere existence, memories that were made the more bitter by the fact that someone who obviously had nothing but contempt for Nabiki could possibly have anything in common with the woman who would have given everything for her.
A Ranma ½ story
by DB Sommer
Any and all C&C is appreciated. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
Preface: What's happened before: Akane got her hands on a wish and used it to wish her mother had never been in a car accident and was alive in the present. Well, her mother wasn't in an accident and is with them in the present. There's only a slight complication; Kachiko had been in two accidents, the first occurring when she was the ripe old age of seventeen
Once Nabiki was up and about, she considered what she was going to have to do to alleviate some of the stress and tension caused by that annoying pest who needed to get out of her life yesterday. Bad enough that she acted like she was the real Kachiko Tendou — sort of — but she had the audacity to refuse to acknowledge who her intellectual superior was, and somehow actually manage to outwit Nabiki occasionally. Not often, and Nabiki always gave back more than what she received, but Kachiko just couldn't live without trying to get one up in return.
Unlike Kinnosuke, matching wits with Kachiko wasn't fun. On the contrary, Nabiki actually found herself irritated — bordering on outright anger — every time they butted heads. She couldn't figure out what it was about Kachiko that stirred such an alien reaction in her, an almost pathological need to prove her superiority to someone that was essentially a stranger. Nabiki found herself hating the feeling, and the girl causing it, all the more. And it was not because they were "so much alike, it's scary" as Ranma stupidly stated yesterday when Nabiki made the mistake of expressing her disdain of their visitor in front of him. Oh, he was going to pay for that insult, once the whole Kachiko matter was taken care of. She'd become his fiancée again and sell him to Azusa, or Mariko, or somebody equally distasteful.
The real crux of the problem was Kachiko, though. What the time-lost girl needed was to return to wherever she really came from and leave Nabiki alone. Was it really so wrong for Kachiko to go back to her true home, rather than claiming the Tendou domicile as her own? True, they hadn't found the slightest hint of anything that would allow her to time travel again, but just because there was no way back was no reason to settle in. Especially in a place where Nabiki didn't want her. And it wasn't fair that there were times when Kachiko did sort of remind her of her real mother, usually by some casual reference using a certain phrase or mannerism that triggered the memories left in the distant past. Usually warm and pleasant ones.
But the girl wasn't her mother. Nabiki's mother had liked her, and this annoying pest obviously didn't, which she had made very clear numerous times. She had even overheard Kachiko sucking up to her "husband" by cooing over him and calling him "Soun-chan" repeatedly, and suggesting that Nabiki was undisciplined and shipping her off to a military academy would be "for her own good". That had panicked Nabiki. Her father often caved in to the impostor's demands, and the several times Nabiki had tried exerting her "daughterly influence" to counteract the insidious spousal suggestions, her father would either side with Kachiko, or break down and cry about how his "wife and daughter weren't getting along". At that point both Kachiko and Nabiki would leave in disgust, irritated neither had gotten the upper hand.
Almost as vexing about the attempt at ditching Nabiki at some boarding school — and the sickening feeling at being rejected, even if it was by someone she didn't like — was that Nabiki had been doing some background work on getting her rival committed to an asylum; an easy feat given her claims of being the long-time deceased Kachiko Tendou. That Kachiko had been thinking along similar lines once again made Nabiki seethe in anger. They were not alike!
Pondering the matter worked Nabiki into a frenzy. Her heart was racing and her hand was reflexively forming a fist. She took several calming breaths. Today was Saturday, a day off, and for once she intended to enjoy it, time-lost-pain-in-the-ass be damned.
Nabiki finished dressing and left her bedroom, heading toward the kitchen. Like most of the mornings of late, breakfast would be served to the family by Nodoka and Kasumi. Ostensibly, Nodoka was supposedly helping Kachiko become more "motherly". The reality was the two got along almost as badly as Nabiki did with Kachiko. That at least could be explained because Nodoka represented the last thing Kachiko wanted to be, and the others were trying to turn her into it. It was probably one of the few things that made Nabiki feel even a small degree of sympathy. If Kasumi had tried making Nabiki into some sort of "traditional girl", she'd balk and be antagonistic, too. But that was where the sympathy ended. Everything else Kachiko brought upon herself, as far as Nabiki was concerned.
She walked into the living room and saw that everyone else was already seated at the table, eating. The Saotomes sat together on one side, Soun at the head of the table, Kasumi at the foot, and Kachiko and Akane sat on the final side. Nabiki noted they were finally talking to one another again. They had seemed to patch over whatever problem had erupted during the race, something that had kept the pair on edge around one another. However, Nabiki thought she detected some lingering resentment on Akane's part towards their mother. That wasn't really surprising. Kachiko still tried to make passes at Ranma, and that was something Akane never tolerated from any girl for very long. As much as her younger sister might try to deny it, Akane was more territorial about Ranma than the other self-proclaimed fiancées combined. It was a miracle she had held out as long as she had. That Ranma didn't seem to mind the attention (well, he didn't vocalize his irritation over it often, which in his case was the equivalent of not minding it) made it infinitely worse, at least to Akane. However, it appeared even Akane was reaching the end of her rope concerning both Kachiko's come-ons and Ranma's lack of complaining about them.
As to Ranma's reaction, once Nabiki considered the situation, she could honestly say she wasn't that surprised. Oh, he still panicked whenever Kachiko overtly made a pass at him, but she wasn't exactly like the other rivals for his affections. She stated quite proudly the limits of her interest — and the implied punishment that would follow should he try to exceed those boundaries — which seemed to ease him somewhat. Ground rules weren't something Ranma was used to. Frequently she didn't make any pass at him at all, which made him somewhat relaxed in her presence. And then there was her admitted attraction to Kunou, which served to entice Ranma. Nothing irritated him more than the implication that he either was undesirable or someone else was better than him. Worse, that it was Kunou who might be more appealing actually made Ranma try to prove himself more charming in Kachiko's eyes, which only served to fuel Akane's irritation at him. Kachiko's obvious similarity to Akane didn't hurt either.
Once Nabiki considered the situation, she would have thought Kachiko was playing Ranma quite well, and actually making some headway with him, or at least keeping him from running away from her at all times, which put her one up on his other romantic interests. Being on the outside, Nabiki could see some things that Kachiko could do to spur his interest further, a tug there, a hint here, a way of going about things subtly — and Ranma was not good at subtlety — and twist him around her finger. But Nabiki never did. Even if she had felt so inclined to help her "mother" romance Nabiki's supposed "future brother-in-law", she doubted Kachiko would accept the advice. The truth, as it appeared to Nabiki's eyes, was that Kachiko wasn't really manipulating anyone — other than in the most superficial, and largely unintentional, way. She was behaving as she would with any guy that piqued her fancy, and Nabiki doubted she would change her manner of "romance", as twisted as it was, on anyone else's say-so. It was a sort of honesty, she supposed. Almost contradictory in some ways, just the like the person it involved.
Turning her mind from her mother and to matters of the stomach, Nabiki inventoried the various dishes on the table. The pleasant smell made her stomach grumble in appreciation for the many elaborately prepared servings. One advantage to Nodoka's presence was the increase in good food being offered at the meals. She enjoyed cooking for her family, as well as (most) of the Tendous.
One tray in particularly caught Nabiki's eyes. "Fortune cookies?"
"For dessert. Mother made them herself," Kasumi said in such glowing terms one would have thought Kachiko had just painted the Sistine Chapel.
"I decided to pitch in," Kachiko explained.
"Cold gruel would have been more appropriate," Nodoka commented dryly.
"I can fix you some." Kachiko smiled back in a decidedly non-friendly way.
"Why don't we eat?" Kasumi suggested, instantly defusing the situation.
Everyone heartily dug in. In less than fifteen minutes, the majority of the food had been eaten, and matters were coming to a close.
Just as Nabiki was about to rise and excuse herself, Kachiko said, "Good news, everyone. Today is the most important day of the year."
"You're declaring your engagement to Father?" Kasumi asked.
Kachiko's mood instantly soured. She picked up several plates — including the one Ranma was still eating from — stacking them upon one another, and handed them to Kasumi. "Wash these."
Crestfallen at having guessed wrongly, Kasumi accepted the rebuke and went to wash the dishes.
Once Kasumi had departed the room, Kachiko explained, "It's my birthday."
"I knew that," Soun said happily. "It was one of your favorite times of the year. You always enjoyed receiving presents."
"And I still do," Kachiko added. "Which is to say, it would be really nice if people were to give me presents, since it's my birthday and everything."
"What would you like?" Akane asked.
Kachiko was practically glowing. "I don't know. Something expensive that I don't have a use for."
"I'll sign you up for chemotherapy," Nabiki said.
Kachiko shot another of her unfriendly smiles toward Nabiki. She picked up the tray of fortune cookies. "Anyway, why don't we have the fortune cookies for dessert?" She looked them over careful, then picked one up. "This is for Akane."
Akane accepted the cookie.
Kasumi reentered the room as Kachiko continued handing out the cookies. "This is for Mr. Saotome. And this is for Ranma." She gave him a sly wink. "And this is for the old woman."
Nodoka shot her en evil glare.
She quickly finished handing them out.
"Mine has tape on it," Nabiki observed.
"It was hard getting those messages in there," Kachiko explained.
Akane cracked hers open. "Mine says clothing makes a fine gift for those that brought you into this world." She scratched her head.
Nodoka read, "Mine says 'Try not to drag others into the depths of misery and depression your pointless life has mired you in'." The paper crumpled in Nodoka's hands as one of her eyebrows began twitching fiercely.
Kasumi opened hers. "'Do not try to make others into becoming what they are not.' What sound advice. Perhaps we should discuss it while we clean the house and do the laundry, Mother."
Kachiko's head thumped against the table.
Nabiki rolled her eyes as she read hers. "Repent your mercenary ways. The only path to absolution is to give your ill-gotten gains to those that brought you into this world. Cash always makes an acceptable birthday present as well'."
Soun was nearly crying as tears filled his eyes. "You should ask someone that recently came into your life out on a date."
Kachiko made a strangled sound. "No! That was Ranma's cookie, not yours."
Soun would hear none of it as he grasped Kachiko, who desperately tried worming her way out of his hold and failed miserably.
"So I probably shouldn't follow the advice on mine about 'Leaving sweet women that are too young for you alone, Old Letch'?" Ranma said. He turned to his father. "What did yours say, Pop?"
"My what say?" Genma asked.
"I must have ate it." Something crinkled in his mouth.
"I'm sorry I didn't do that to mine," Nabiki said dryly.
"Enough!" Kachiko declared, whacking Soun in the head with the nearest vase in easy reach.
Nabiki made a show of crumpling up her paper and tossing it in Kachiko's direction. "Tell you what, you get me something 'Expensive that I don't need,' for my birthday, and we'll talk about getting something for yours." She rose to her feet, only to find Kachiko already there, smiling pleasantly. Nabiki found that smile far more disturbing than the insincere one. "What?"
"Nothing. I was just getting up to help with the dishes," Kachiko said, waving a pamphlet in front of her and whistling nonchalantly.
"What's that?" Nabiki asked, then caught sight of the heading on it: C. Fodder Military Academy, Where We Make Boys Into Men, And The Women As Well.
Kachiko stared at the pamphlet, as though she was seeing it for the first time. "Oh, it's something I've been pondering for someone that might need a little discipline in her life to straighten herself up. Of course, if I was to have some expensive bauble that caught my attention, why, I'd probably forget this pamphlet ever existed." She waved it back and forth again.
Nabiki shot Kachiko a heavy-lidded glare. She knew she should have moved faster on the asylum idea. Now it would have to be temporarily derailed while she parried Kachiko's latest thrust.
"I need to go out shopping," Nabiki said disgustedly.
"Good luck," Kachiko said. Anything further was cut off as Soun attached himself to her again and suggested they go to a movie together, Kachiko's wails drowning out the rest.
Nabiki continued strolling randomly throughout Nerima and the surrounding districts. She hadn't found anything yet she could bring herself to buy for her "mother". She had seen plenty of appropriate things, but gifts like dead fish or one-way tickets to Antarctica would probably have Nabiki saluting a commandant before the ink on her transfer papers dried.
For the fifth time in the hour, Nabiki cursed the day Kachiko Tendou came into her life. Kasumi and Akane didn't have to put up with the girl's crap the way she did. It was like Kachiko saw her as some sort of rival and just had to go out of her way to torment her until Nabiki admitted Kachiko was the better girl. Hell would freeze over sooner than that happening. No one messed with Nabiki Tendou, and if they did, they paid for it. Mother or not, — and she wasn't — Kachiko needed to be put out of Nabiki's misery by whatever means possible. And no matter what happened, the girl brought it on herself for the endless harassment and being driven to whatever extreme was necessary to win.
Nabiki was still lost in thought when she realized how dry her mouth was. She had not drunk anything since breakfast. She looked around, trying to locate a café or vending machine when she noticed the name of the store she was standing in front of.
"Hmm. Now this has potential," Nabiki said to herself as she entered the "Cursed Antique Shoppe".
The door closed behind Nabiki, the bell sitting on the top of the door jingling loudly enough to wake the dead, as well as the wizened shopkeeper running the store. He was an old, stooped-over man who wore a set of plain clothing that had a musty odor, like the one that had assailed her when she entered the business. His only unusual characteristics were a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that sat on his nose, and the brightly colored bandanna on his head, similar to the way Genma wore his. He was appropriately friendly as he asked, "How can I help you, Miss?"
Nabiki feigned only a casual interest. "I'm just wandering around, looking for a birthday present."
The man scratched his bandanna clad head. "Hmm. Can't say as I've seen any birthday presents lately. Have you tried the fabrics store? They have wrapping paper there, and it might be hidden among them."
"I meant I want to buy one from you," Nabiki clarified, and began rethinking her strategy.
"Oh, I have lots of things you can give for a birthday," The shopkeeper went over to a number of statues sitting on a shelf. He picked one in the shape of a frog up. "Magic statues are popular. This is one of a Frog Prince. Place it in a swamp, and it will come to life, transforming into a prince. That is to say, he'll look like a prince, but still be a frog in mentality, eating flies and hopping around. Well, assuming if you believe such nonsense, which I don't, mind you."
Nabiki considered that. No, Kachiko was fixated on Ranma and Kunou, and worse, she might try to pawn the frog princeling off on Nabiki, using the excuse that her daughter "needed a man to settle her down". She shook her head.
Seeing the lack of interest, the owner indicated several evil-looking brightly-dressed knee-high statues. "Lawn gnomes? They'll come to life during a full moon and try to kill you. You could do a movie about it. Horror movies are making a comeback."
"A movie about evil homicidal lawn gnomes? Don't be ridiculous," Nabiki snorted. "I'm thinking of something smaller. Ideally, something that will convince an unwanted person to go away and never come back."
"You should try mace," the man suggested.
Nabiki shook her head. "No, conventional attacks wouldn't work."
The proprietor considered that. "Hmm. Go away and never come back? I think I have the ideal item for you." He led Nabiki through several aisles, finally stopping and walking down one whose floorboards were covered in a thick sheath of dust. The man walked down the aisle, kicking up clouds of it with each footfall and forcing Nabiki to place a handkerchief over her mouth so she could breathe.
At last he bent down to the bottom shelf and pulled out an item. It appeared to be an hourglass, with wooden trim around its edges and two wooden shafts running up and down to help transport it. An unusual blue sand lined the bottom of it. The item was about the length of Nabiki's forearm, and by her estimate, could hold about two hours worth of sand. He held it up for Nabiki to get a closer look.
"Seems pretty mundane," Nabiki commented.
"Ah, but it's ideal for what you want. You see, this hourglass is special. It'll measure the days of our lives."
"That's a pretty bad turn of the phrase."
"But accurate," the proprietor assured her. "Turn it over, and that's how much time you'll have left."
Nabiki's eyebrow cocked quizzically. "Time you have left?"
"Exactly what it says."
"But it doesn't explain anything."
The proprietor shook his head. "If you want someone to go away, this will insure that they depart by the time the sands reach the bottom. Give it to them, have them turn it over, and when the sands run out of time, so do they. Assuming you believe such nonsense."
"Which you don't, mind you," Nabiki finished for him. "Why doesn't someone just turn it over when it's almost out and get more time?"
The old man shook his head. "If it was that simple, it wouldn't be much of a cursed item. It'll keep right on flowing until it's out, or you give it to someone else who willing accepts it and turns it over. Then it'll adjust to the new owner and it'll be their time running out instead of the person that originally turned it over."
Now that had potential. Satisfied, Nabiki said, "I'll take it."
The proprietor seemed to reconsider things. "Maybe I shouldn't sell it. It is potentially dangerous. No, I couldn't sell it to you if you hit me in the head with a wad of cash."
"How about if I place fifteen thousand yen in your hand?"
She placed the money in his open palm. "And gift wrap it."
The proprietor went in back of the shop, then returned several moments later with an hourglass shaped object wrapped in tasteful green paper. He even placed a large pink bow right in the middle of it .
Nabiki admired the item as she held it in her hands. This was the solution to all her problems. Then something occurred to her. "Wait, what if, by chance, I was to drop it and it broke?"
"All the sand will have run its course. Then you're out of time immediately, so be careful."
"I will," Nabiki assured him. She was going straight home and giving her mother the birthday gift she wanted so badly. Two hours or so later, Kachiko would be out of time, whatever that meant. All Nabiki really knew was that it sounded good. Maybe Kachiko would have to go back to her proper time, where she belonged. As far as Nabiki was concerned, the annoyance had run out of time a while ago. About five minutes after she arrived, to be specific.
As she strolled down the street, her step lighter than it had been in days, Nabiki considered how to give it to her mother so as not to arouse suspicion. The most direct method would be simply to hand it to her and let whatever came afterwards take its natural course. She was rehearsing what to say in her mind when a child on a skateboard zoomed past at a dangerous speed. Nabiki barely had time to dodge out of the youth's way and keep him from slamming into her. As she moved backward, her heel hit a crack in the sidewalk and she lost her footing. Reflexively she brought her hands out to break her fall, and in the process, released her grip on her present.
A gasp escaped her lips as her body froze as the wrapped gift tumbled toward the ground. She was so distracted that she stopped trying to break her fall, and instead landed solidly on the concrete. Despite falling hard on her shoulder, the pain was nothing compared to the terror as she saw the present impact with the street.
Luck was with Nabiki as it landed upright on the one of its flat surfaces rather than the side, where it would surely have broken.
Nabiki let out a sigh of relief. "That was close." Her hand almost closed on the top when something occurred to her. What if she wasn't going for the top, but rather the bottom?
She reexamined the present. The bow had been wrapped around the middle, and the wrapping paper was perfectly symmetrical. It was impossible to tell which side had previously been the top.
Nabiki began sweating. What if it had flipped over while in midair? Upon thinking about it, she was fairly certain it had at least a couple of times. What if right now it was her time that was running out as the sands trickled through the neck of the hourglass? Of course it might be paranoia. Nothing really bad ever happened to her. To Ranma, yes. To his opponents, certainly. To his fiancées, sometimes worse. Even to Akane, sometimes, bad things happened. But not to Nabiki Tendou. She was smarter than that.
"I should just give it to Kachi as is and not worry about it. I'll give it to her, she'll turn it over, and I'll have nothing to worry about," Nabiki said to herself.
Of course, Kachiko might not be at home, and there hadn't been a great deal of sand in the hourglass to begin with. If she wasn't there, Nabiki would have to find her. Maybe quickly. It wasn't a large hourglass, and Kachiko was nearly impossible to track down at times. How much time would be enough?
Nabiki tore at her hair in uncharacteristic frustration. Unable to live with the lack of knowledge concerning her fate, she tore off the wrapping paper with maniacal fervor. Once the last shred of green gift wrap was free of the ancient timepiece, she saw what had happened.
The sands flowed from top to bottom. Already it had formed an unpleasantly large pile in the lower portion of the hourglass.
"Oh, crap," Nabiki lamented.
Her cell phone rang. Absentmindedly she pulled it from within her pocket and opened the mouthpiece. "Hello?"
A female voice, ancient in tone to the point it was almost unrecognizable as coming from a human, croaked out, "You have seven days left."
"AHHH!" Nabiki screamed at the top of her lungs, holding the phone away from her, as though it was a dangerous viper that had sank its fangs into her cheek and its poison now traveled through her bloodstream. Her ears pounded with the jack-hammering of her heart and made her deaf to the world around her for a split second.
The same female voice, now much more clearly and youthful, shouted out from the phone, "Hey, Nabiki! Nabiki! I'm just screwing around!"
It took Nabiki a moment to process what was being said. The voice sounded familiar. She brought the phone back up to her ear and asked, "Ryonami?"
"Yeah, it's me. Jeez, you really freaked there."
Nabiki felt a surge of relief as her heart jumped back into her chest and she calmed down. Fast on its heels was a chiding cry of, "What the hell do you think you were doing?!"
The voice, now somewhat contrite, said, "I just wanted to screw around with you, like in 'The Ring'. I didn't think you'd freak out or I wouldn't have done it."
"It wasn't funny." Nabiki's tone carried a promise of revenge at a later time of her convenience. "Did you call me up solely to try rattling my cage?"
Voice now oozing repentance, Ryonami said, "No, I called to see if you wanted to go to a movie today. I got free movie passes from one of the friends of my father who works there. And since it's Saturday and everything, I thought you might like to go."
That settled Nabiki further. It was nice for someone to ask her to do something normal for a change. "I might be able to. Is it only for afternoon, or does it include evening shows as well?"
A finger tapped her on the shoulder, nearly making her miss Ryonami saying, "It's good for any time in the next two weeks."
"I see. What's playing now?"
The finger tapped her shoulder again.
"Depends on what you're in the mood for. There was this foreign picture that's supposed to be good. It has that comedic genius—"
Nabiki didn't bother turning around as she held her hand over the mouthpiece and snapped at the insistent tapper, "Would you cut that out?!" She removed her hand and said, "Would you repeat that, Ryonami?"
"I said I was thinking of an American picture, one with that funny Pauly Shore guy."
"I—" Nabiki found her mouth go dry as from over her shoulder appeared a long arm, shrouded in a voluminous black sleeve. A hand poked out of the end, bearing an hourglass identical to the one Nabiki carried, save for the fact it was smaller. Sand was running from the mostly full top rapidly filling the bottom.
Softly, Nabiki said, "Something's come up. I don't think I'll be making it to the movie tonight." And hung up.
Slowly, inexorably, Nabiki turned around to see what the owner of the arm looked like.
He was tall and Japanese, of indiscriminate age due to his plain features, ghostly pallor, and lack of any facial hair. He wore a plain black robe, similar to a monk's. In one hand he bore the miniature hourglass, in the other, a long scythe that was nearly twice as tall as Nabiki.
"AHHHH!" Nabiki screamed at the top of her lungs and drew back.
"AHHHH!" the shrouded figure screamed at the top of his lungs and drew back.
Their identical movement caused a momentary confusion between the pair. Each managed to catch their breath, and regain some of their composure.
"Don't scare me like that!" the man stated.
"Who are you?" Nabiki got out through her gasps.
Now much more composed, the man held the scythe in the crook of his arm and placed a hand inside his robe. A moment later, he came out with a small card and held it out for Nabiki.
Reluctantly, she accepted the card. On it in gold-enameled writing were the words, 'Shin I. Gami: Professional Usherer of Travelers to Far Off Destinations.'
"You're a spirit of death!" Nabiki gasped out.
Shin appeared offended at both the words and tone. "That's 'Professional Usherer', thank you very much. We Usherers are a bit testy about that rather insensitive 'death' title. It's insulting and demeaning. 'Usherer' is much nicer and more appropriate," he explained.
Nabiki said, "But you look like how those Western pictures depict you, rather than Japanese ones."
Shin fingered his robe. "Ah, yes, the clothing. Just came back from Norway. They really are morbid people. Everything is drab and gray there. It's only professional that I dress for the role they want me to. I was on my way home to change into something a little more traditional, but then you called me, so I hurried on over."
"Oh, well, there's been a mistake. I didn't mean to call you. It was an accident, so goodbye." Nabiki tried waving him away.
Shin shook his head. "Now, now. If getting out of it was that easy, the 'Time's Up Hourglass' wouldn't be much of a cursed item, now would it?"
"But it's was originally meant for someone else," Nabiki complained.
"Yes, it usually is. I can't remember when that thing was successfully given to its intended target. Another negative effect of the curse." Shin deftly twirled the tiny hourglass in his fingers as he spoke.
The movement caught Nabiki's eye. She pointed at it. "What's with that thing?"
Shin stopped twirling the hourglass and eyed it as though seeing it for the first time. "Oh, this? It's your personal timepiece. Every living thing has one. It starts the moment you're born and ends when it's time for you to be 'ushered'. For instance."
Shin pointed to a child, no more than five years old, walking at the end of the street. The spirit then pulled a different hourglass out from his robes. Holding it up, Nabiki saw it was the same size as hers, though the amount of sand in the top was greater, and the speed with which the sand flowed considerably slower.
He placed that hourglass back into his robes, then pointed at a fly that was buzzing around Nabiki's head. "Now for that little fellow. He pulled out another hourglass. Again, it was the same size as Nabiki's however, it was almost empty at the top, and the sand flowed far faster. In less than a handful of seconds, the sand ran out.
Shin looked at it in surprise. "Oh." He placed the hourglass back in his robes, then reached forward and slapped his hands together, catching the fly in-between. He looked at his hands and gave a satisfied grin. "That takes care of that." He wiped his palms off on his robes.
Nabiki watched everything transpire with rapt horror. "It's not fair. Why is mine faster than that kid's?"
"You speeded it up when you flipped over the 'Time's Up' hourglass. That's its power. It substitutes itself for your actual time piece. If you give the hourglass to someone else, and they willingly accept it and turn it over, your time will not just go back to normal, but it'll slow its flow down until it's back in synchronicity with your original amount of time left, then it returns to its normal flow. Theoretically."
"Theoretically?" Nabiki said,
Hesitantly Shin said, "Well, you see, no one's that's ever gotten their hands on the Hourglass has actually been able to successfully pawn it off on someone else before their time was up. It wouldn't be much of a cursed item if it was easy to ditch it onto someone else, now would it?"
Nabiki panicked. This was for real. She needed to pawn the hourglass off on her mother before it was too late. Knowing better than to stand there and argue with death while her life flew away, Nabiki spun on her heel and raced in the direction of her home, praying Kachiko would be present.
She had barely made it halfway there when she realized she was not alone. "Why are you following me?!" she shouted at Shin.
"Can't very well take you to where you have to go if I'm not there to usher you, now can I?"
"You'll ruin everything if you're around!" Nabiki shouted, and tried running faster in an effort to lose him.
The Usherer effortlessly kept up, not even breathing hard. It appeared he was gliding across the ground rather than running, and with the way the robes covered his legs, it made for a very disturbing effect. Nabiki tried running through crowds, but again Shin just seemed to flow around people, who barely took notice of him.
By the time Nabiki stopped outside her home, she saw the spirit was still with her, waiting patiently. Truly death was an inexorable thing. And quick on its feet, too.
Nabiki composed herself, it wouldn't do to give her intentions away at this point. Kachiko did have a fairly well-honed survival instinct. If even half the tales of her youth were true, she would have been dead long before she spawned three children otherwise. At this point, she was Nabiki's only hope for survival.
For a second, a stab of guilt pierced Nabiki's conscience. Deep down inside, when she had first bought the hourglass, she figured it either wouldn't work correctly or that someone's 'time being up' meant they would have to leave. She didn't really think it meant they would drop over dead. But the presence of Shin meant any such illusions were hopelessly dashed. When the hourglass ran dry, it would be all over for her. And she would never have purchased the item in the first place if Kachiko wasn't so damned manipulative and went out of her way to harass someone that was supposed to be her daughter. What kind of a mother was she really when she was constantly trying to one up someone she should have been friends with and helping in the way parents were supposed to? It was all Kachiko's fault, not Nabiki's.
Besides, the time-lost girl was resourceful. She would figure some way out of the whole problem with the hourglass and not be the worse for it. She had survived everything else. This wouldn't be anything different from all those other times. She was better equipped to deal with spirits of death, usherers, or whatever the shinigami wanted to call itself. And there wasn't even any proof Shin could do what he claimed, and it might all be a hoax or something. Most of those other cursed items from the store never worked like they were supposed to, or at least as they implied. Kunou's little problem with the phoenix on his head was proof of that. Just because Kachiko had the hourglass, didn't mean it would be the end of her. Nabiki would even help her get free of the item's curse in whatever way possible — except taking it back — just to show there were no hard feelings.
Realizing that standing around and thinking was making things worse as the sands of her life were quickly running out, Nabiki ran into the house and shouted, "Kachi, are you here?! I have your present for you!" If she wasn't home, Nabiki was dead. She didn't have enough time to find her. Not with the rate at which the sand in her personal hourglass was flowing.
Nabiki's heart skipped a beat as she heard a voice from the living room call out, "I'm in here!" Nabiki ran at top speed, entering the room with the spirit hot on her heels.
Kachiko turned her attention from the television set and to her nominal daughter. "Goody. I've been waiting for my presents. Everyone else went out to get them, or at least I assume they did. But you're the first one back. Now, this had better be good." Kachiko suddenly seemed to take notice of the man traveling at Nabiki's side. "Who's this?"
"Shin. His name is Shin," Nabiki blurted out before Shin ruined everything by explaining what he was and why he was hanging around.
"So who is he?" Kachiko pressed on.
"New boyfriend," Nabiki said hurriedly.
Kachiko examined him closely. "Got that whole, 'Grim Reaper' look going, doesn't he?"
"What can I say? He's a Goth."
Kachiko stared at him warily. "Are you sure you're ready to get involved with someone like this?"
"I am not that bad!" Nabiki shouted.
Kachiko looked at her askance. "Actually, I was asking you. I was just looking him over to make sure he was for real," she explained. "But you're right. It's none of my business who you get involved with. Do what you want, as long as it makes you happy." She looked Shin over again. "You've probably got body piercings in unmentionable parts of your body, don't you? Tattoos aren't so bad; I think they're kind of neat. It's that whole poking holes in you and sticking chunks of metal in that freaks me out."
Shin shook his head. "Afraid I don't have either one. I'm sort of plain, all things considered. I'm not one of those weirdo demon-type Usherers that go in for that whole gruesome thing. Some of them enjoy freaking folks out."
"An usher? So you're in the movie industry?"
While Kachiko and Shin continued conversing, Nabiki found herself at a loss. Kachiko had shown actual concern for her well-being, and was actually grilling her "boyfriend" to make sure he was all right and acceptable for Nabiki to date. Worse, there was something horribly familiar about the attitude. It was almost protective, and no one was ever protective of Nabiki. Again her conscience stabbed at her, trying to make her turn away from her course of action. But she needed to hand off the hourglass before it was too late. She could practically feel the icy hand of death on her shoulder.
Then she realized it was the icy hand of death on her shoulder.
"We do make a cute couple, don't we?" Shin said, as he squeezed Nabiki affectionately.
"Don't do that!" Nabiki yelped, darting out from under his clammy grasp.
Kachiko stared at him in disapproval. It appeared she was about to reprimand him when her eyes lighted up. She turned her attention toward Nabiki. "You said something about my present. Is that it?" She pointed at the hourglass in Nabiki's hand.
Nabiki's voice suddenly gave out on her.
"She purchased it just for you," Shin assured Kachiko, then gave Nabiki a sly wink and an "okay" sign with his hand.
Kachiko moved closer. "Let me see it."
Nabiki didn't move. She tried to make her arm rise up, but for some reason, her muscles refused to respond. Oddly, she didn't feel concerned about her body's betrayal, one that would result in her premature demise.
When it became obvious Nabiki was just going to stand there, Kachiko reached down and grabbed the item by one of the wooden grips. She tried pulling it away from Nabiki, but the girl refused to let go. Kachiko tried tugging, but Nabiki tightened her grip and tried pulling it the other way.
"I thought this was my present," Kachiko snarled out.
Shin prodded Nabiki. "Yes, I thought the whole point of coming here was so that you could give this girl that hourglass and have her turn it over."
"No! You can't have it!" Nabiki shouted, resisting Kachiko's pulling with all her might.
"I want my present!" Kachiko snarled, and began to exert some true force.
Nabiki felt herself losing the tug-of-war. Through eyes that were now rimmed with tears, she exclaimed, "You can't have it because it's cursed! If I give it to you it'll make you die again, Mommy!"
Kachiko released her grip on the item. Lacking any form of resistance, Nabiki fell backward, landing hard on her bottom. Luckily, she brought the hourglass into her body as it fell, and it suffered no damage. She might not have had much time left, but it was better than losing it all at once.
Kachiko stared down at the girl with a decidedly disapproving glare. "I think you have some explaining to do."
Nabiki did so, crying the whole time as she understood that her conscience had finally betrayed her, though it refused to reconsider its course of action, informing her that some fates were worse than death, and killing her mother was one of them. Nabiki's fate was sealed and there was nothing she could do to stop the inevitable.
Kachiko did not seem quite convinced. She turned to Shin. "Is this whole thing legit, or is she trying to set me up for yet another one of her stupid money-grubbing schemes?"
"I'll show you." Shin pulled out Nabiki's hourglass, and one from someone else. "Note the way hers travels much faster than a normal person's." He replaced the other one back into his robes, but kept Nabiki's ever dwindling one out for everyone to mark its progress.
Kachiko turned a disapproving glare towards the sitting girl. "I think this is one of those rare occasions when I have the opportunity to quote Sakura: 'This is a fine mess you've gotten yourself into'. I have to admit, it's sort of neat hearing it applied to someone other than me," Kachiko snickered.
"How can you be so happy about it?" Nabiki sobbed.
Kachiko moved closer and patted Nabiki's head. "It's not often I get the opportunity to rub someone's blatant stupidity in their face. Usually it's the other way around, though it's never as bad as everyone acts," Kachiko said defensively.
Nabiki's head nearly struck the floor in shame. "You're right. I was stupid, and deserve this."
Kachiko nodded her head sagely. "A smart person knows when to admit they're wrong. It's nice to see you're learning."
"Stop being so smug about it!" Nabiki snapped from her sitting position on the floor.
Kachiko sighed dramatically. "However, since you did buy it for me, it really is mine, not yours, so give me." She reached down and tried pulling the hourglass away from Nabiki's grasp.
Nabiki barely had time to tighten her hold on it. "No! We just went over this! You can't have it!"
Kachiko kept tugging. Through gritted teeth, she snarled, "It's my birthday, it's my birthday gift. I want it, even if it's cursed."
Kachiko finally decided things by planting a foot lighting quick into Nabiki's midsection, kicking it slightly. Reflexively, Nabiki clutched her middle as she was left grasping for air. Prepared for the release of tension, Kachiko easily came away with her prize. She turned to Shin and unleashed a satisfied grin. "I do believe this is mine now."
"Indeed," Shin agreed.
"Stop her," Nabiki gasped out and tried to lunge for Kachiko's feet.
The time-lost girl easily darted out of the attempt. "And now I'll turn it over." Without hesitation, Kachiko did so.
In response, the sand from Nabiki's hourglass stopped instantly. Shin said, "It'll actually kick out a granule every month or so until she ages to the appropriate time, at which point it will return to normal."
"Nooo!" Nabiki wailed, realizing her mother had just given her life for her. It wasn't fair. She shouldn't have had to die twice. It was all Nabiki's fault this time. There was no way she could live with the shame. Better she died a hundred times than live through the horror of her mother dying again.
"Would you relax," Kachiko said to the wailing girl. "I'm going to return it to you."
Nabiki was momentarily taken aback. She wiped her face with her sleeve, an old habit she hadn't engaged in for years. "What do you mean?"
Kachiko rolled her eyes. "Get real. I have no intention of dying. The way I got it figured, we'll just keep passing it back and forth, resetting it each time until we figure how to get rid of it altogether. Maybe we can pawn it off on Bull-Butt as a birthday gift for him." A look of consideration dawned on Kachiko's face.
"Why, that's brilliant. I'm surprised I didn't think of it," Nabiki admitted. "But we'll have to be careful we don't forget to switch it before one of us runs out of time. I think we should hand it off at the halfway point, just to not cut things too close."
Shin cleared his throat, gaining the girls' attention. "Ah, it's not that simple. You see, if you had the Time's Up Hourglass once, then get it back, it'll pick up where it left off rather that restarting at the beginning, like it would with a new holder. It wouldn't be much of a curse—"
"—if you could get out of it that easily," Nabiki finished dryly.
Kachiko's eyes widened so that they nearly fell out of her head. To Shin she shouted, "What?! Why didn't you explain that in the first place? I wouldn't have grabbed it if it wasn't going to do any good."
"You didn't ask," Shin pointed out. "Besides, it's never actually come up since no one's ever been able to unload it before their time was up." To Nabiki, he said, "Congratulations! You've already made it farther than anyone else. All you have to do is not accept it back, no one can force you to take it, and you'll be fine."
Nabiki released a sigh full of resolve. "Don't be stupid. I'm not letting her die for me." She held out her hand to Kachiko. "Give it back. It's my fault we're in this mess."
Kachiko's eyes darted back and forth between proffered hand and hourglass. "Hold on, you'll still be screwed if I give it back to you. Let's think things through."
"We can think while I have it," Nabiki tried snatching it from Kachiko's grasp, but instead found herself shoved rudely back by her mother, knocking her onto her butt.
"I said hold it," Kachiko warned. "Let me see my hourglass. I want to get a full grasp of the situation."
Doing as he was asked, Shin returned Nabiki's hourglass to his robes and pulled out Kachiko's. "Here's yours. You can see it's moving very quick " he trailed off and took a closer look, staring at the glass in confusion. "This is most peculiar. According to this, your time ran out a long while ago and you're already dead. I can't recall this happening before." He scratched his hooded head.
Kachiko went from a wide-eyed look of surprise to one of sly cunning. "So, since you say I'm out of time already, then I don't have any left to lose, that means I can do this!" She raised the hourglass above her head, then threw it into the floor. The glass shattered into a hundred tiny fragments, the sands spilling out across the floor.
Shin stared at the shattered remains almost mournfully. "This is true. I can only take you the moment you run out of time. If you've already run out before I came along, I don't really have the authority to take you anywhere. Our job is to usher the living, not the already dead. It would be kind of silly to do the same work twice. That is unless you want to go?" he asked hopefully.
Kachiko shook her head. "I don't think so. Kicking the bucket once is enough for anyone. Even if you only discover it after the fact."
"Most unusual," Shin said mostly to himself. "Ah well, my job here is done." To Nabiki, he said, "Be seeing you in," he pulled out her personal hourglass again and stared at it. "Forty-eight years, nine months, seventeen days, thirty five minutes, and," He tapped the side. "Twenty-two seconds. Unless you speed things along magically, in which case I'll see you sooner. Ciao." He waved to the girls, then let himself out.
Once he was gone, Nabiki was left to stare in awe at her mother, uncertain what to say. She wasn't even sure of what she felt. Her mind had simply seized up upon discovering something that was completely incomprehensible. It took several moments for the reality of the situation, as impossible as it was, begin to settle in. Nabiki saw Kachiko in a new light. No one would have gone to such lengths to risk so much to save her. Nobody. "I can't believe you did that."
"Neither can I!" Kachiko said, the reality of the situation settling in on her in an entirely different way. "I could have died just there! Again, even if it was for the first time from my perspective! And for your worthless, manipulative, sorry behind. What was I thinking? What sort of temporary insanity was I suffering from?!" Kachiko began banging her head against a wall.
"I don't know, but it sounds like you're over it," Nabiki said dryly at the very descriptive terms her mother was using in characterizing her.
The head pounding stopped. With a combination of veins popping out of her forehead and her eyebrows twitching, Kachiko turned fully toward Nabiki. Her hands curled into fists as she stalked toward the girl. "You do still have to pay for what you tried to do. I mean really, killing your mother on her birthday? You have no sense of shame, do you?"
Sensing this was no bluff, Nabiki began to back away. "I tried to save you. I wouldn't let you have it. You had to beat me up and tear it away from me, and then you refused to give it to me again when we found out you were in trouble."
"Right. Like using the facts to defend yourself has any chance of saving you." Kachiko cracked her knuckles. "Time to show what happens to little girls who try to make Mommy suck eggs."
Nabiki turned and tried to flee, but a hand snagged the back of her shirt before she could make it out of the room and prevented her from going anywhere.
Akane rapped hard on Nabiki's door again, coming close to pounding on it. "Come on. We're going to open Mom's presents and serve the cake." Now that Akane thought about it, her family had always seemed to have a thing for Western celebrations concerning birthdays, rather than more traditional Japanese ones. When pressed, her father said something about after they were first married, Kachiko having decided that was the way to do things, and he had stuck by it all these years. Kachiko certainly seemed to enjoy it, of course she was the recipient of all the joy, so that seemed to help move matters along.
"I'm not going down," Nabiki said through the door.
"We have to. Dad and Kasumi are insisting on it since we have the family all together for a birthday for the first time in over a decade." A couple of weeks earlier, Akane might have been as enthusiastic as her oldest sister, but Kachiko's behavior was starting to wear thin on Akane, even with most of the tension generated by the race gone. Skipping the birthday would have been just fine with her.
Too bad Ranma didn't have the same attitude. Of course, that was because he desperately wanted to give his present to Kachiko. Akane had hit him and called him an idiot for acting so enthusiastic about giving her mother a gift — the idea of him wanting to celebrate some other girl's birthday more than Akane's hurting her — until she learned he planned on giving her "Tickets to a Sparring Match Duel" with him. Somehow, Akane couldn't get angry if he regarded that as an appropriate gift. That and the fact Kachiko had been ducking out on every attempt Ranma made to get her to fight him again, made Akane admit it was bound to cause more harm than enjoyment, which suited her just fine. As long as Ranma used better judgment when it came time to come up with a gift for Akane's birthday, or she'd share her disappointment over his insensitivity with something far more painful than a mere sparring match.
Nabiki's voice came from behind the door again. "I already gave her my gift."
"Then come and eat the cake."
Akane was having none of it. She opened the door to her sister's bedroom and swore she would drag Nabiki down to share in the joy, and pain, the party was sure to contain. The instant her eyes fell upon her sister, her attitude shifted in the opposite direction.
Nabiki was on her bed, lying on her stomach. Several pillows were propped under her pelvis, thrusting her panty-covered bottom upward. Even with two ice packs strapped to each cheek, Akane could see her rear end was colored deep shade of scarlet.
Unable to speak at first, all Akane could do was point. Eventually the shock wore away, and she sputtered out, "Kachi did that to you, didn't she? This time she's gone too far. When I get my hands on her, I'll make her apologize." She smacked a fist into her open palm.
"No, wait," Nabiki said in a surprisingly calm voice. "I had this coming."
It took Akane a moment to believe what she had just heard. That her sister could take such a thing so passively was unbelievable. Nabiki was the most insidiously vengeful person she knew. "Just because she's our mother, sort of, is no reason to let her abuse you."
With obvious reluctance, Nabiki said, "I was the one that was out of line. Mom bailed me out of a bad situation I got into at great personal risk to herself."
"Why would she do that?" Akane said before she could stop herself.
"Lapse in judgment, as near as we could tell. She assured me it wouldn't happen again."
"If you're sure."
"I—" Nabiki winced in pain as she shifted wrong on the bed. "I'm sure."
"Then I guess I'll let it slide," Akane said it in a way that implied Nabiki could change her mind, but all her older sister did was nod. Akane shook her head sadly and closed the door to the room.
That Nabiki accepted that sort of punishment for whatever she did boggled Akane's mind. Nabiki never did that either. But the most disturbing thing was the small smile Nabiki wore when she had spoken, one she was probably unaware of herself. It wasn't one of pride or promising revenge, but rather it was one Akane couldn't recall seeing: It was one of subtle joy.
"Hey, Akane! Get down here! Kachi's opening presents!" Ranma's voice called out from downstairs.
"But I don't want a dinner for two at Chez Italian with that old goat!" Kachiko's plaintive voice cried out.
"Open mine," came Nodoka's delighted voice.
The sound of paper tearing was followed up, "What the hell am I going to use a sweeper for?"
"To sweep, Mother. Now open my cooking utensils. Oops. I gave it away," Kasumi's voice finally joined in.
"This is my worst birthday ever!"
Akane shook her head sadly, and with great resolve, forced herself to walk down the steps.
To be continued.
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