Disclaimer: Rated PG-15 for the occasional partially-censored swear word, several... um... er... innuendoes, and the occasional joke that you won't get unless you're above a certain age. Yes, there really _is_ such a thing. Sorry, kiddies, out! Out! Wait a minute, I'm writing something I'm not supposed to be reading? There's something wrong, here... I'm changing the rating to PG-13.
Hey, now, this isn't for any profit, I'm just having fun with the characters... Arigato, arigato, arigato to Takahashi Rumiko-sama, for creating the marvellous world of Ranma 1/2! Kudos to everyone who catches every single Ranma reference: e-mail me if you do. I'd be amazed if you did... BTW, I did _not_ take the name "Ryu" from "Street Fighter", Ryu means 'dragon' in Japanese.
Ryu's and Sayoko's situation of the past is based on Ranma's and Akane's situation, of a sort. It's kinda obvious... Sorry, Genki, if I'm putting you as a kind of scapegoat in Ryu's story. Parts of the story are based on the "Akane por Siempre" fanfic.
This is kinda a heavy story, not as light as the beginning suggests, so if you're not into this kind of thing, then maybe you'd better go...
This doesn't happen any time during the Power Rangers series: I'm pretending that Our Heroes were never Power Rangers (and thank God for that!) and simply gathered as friends. Trini, Zach and Jason were just buddies of the gang who, incidentally, really _were_ chosen as envoys to a peace conference.
"Yow! Watch those kicks, Tommy!" a petite brunette ducked as her friend, evidently sparring with another boy, executed a roundhouse that _she_ had to dodge.
"Never fear, Kimberly!" sang another boy, young and sallow, running to her rescue. "I, Skull, shall save you from the clutches of that evil sorcerer, Tommy Oliver!"
"Shaddup, Skull." came the chorused reply from the seven other teenagers.
"An' stop spouting stupid poetry." added the boy who was sparring with Tommy. "Oof!" he yelled as one of Tommy's kicks caught him in the solar plexus and knocked him down.
"Sorry, there, Rocko." Tommy apologized contritely, holding his hand out to the other boy. "I thought you'd jump back or som'thing."
The boy rubbed his close-cropped dark hair, patted his red-clad stomach gingerly and glared at Skull, accepting his friend's hand. "I _would_ have, if this... this... this _hentaii_ would go away!"
"Hentaii?" another boy looked up from his book, his blonde hair falling into green eyes. He tossed it backwards carelessly. "Rocky, that means 'pervert' in Japanese."
"Ah, such obvious beauty should not belong to such a humble domicile! Come with me, my pink goddess, and together we shall reign!" Skull moaned melodramatically.
"Get a life, Skull," a pretty young girl, skin the hue of soft mocha, snorted. "You've been listenin' to Mrs. Dejesus' class on medieval poetry too much. This _is_ the 20th century, y'know."
"Go away, Skull." Kimberly sighed, doing an elegant handspring. "We're practicing. Right, Aisha?"
The other girl looked around. "Oh, yeah, right. Practicing."
"Will you go out with me?" Skull leered, taking a peek at Kimberly's pink spandex leotard. She glared at him so angrily that he backed up a step-- and promptly ran into something--or someone-- bigger than him. He turned around (slowly).
"Skull, take a hint." Tommy glowered, looking down on Skull from his six-foot height. Skull met the taller boy's gaze for a minute, before Tommy muttered, only loud enough for Skull to hear him, "before I _make_ you take one."
"So, Tommy," a beautiful girl with alluring blue eyes and flowing blond hair squealed, hanging onto his arm in a _most_ appealing manner, "when's your next karate tournament?"
Tommy was obviously uncomfortable, and looked around desperately for a way out of this. "Hey, Kat... Ummm... Saturday. Day after tomorrow."
"Well, then," the blonde leech at his elbow cooed, "How about we go out for dinner and a movie to... celebrate your victory, after?"
Aisha grinned and moved to extricate Kat's fingers from where they threatened to become permanently attached to Tommy's arm. "He hasn't even _won_ yet, Kat."
"Well, he _will_. My Tommy-darling would never lose, _would_ you, Tommy?" Kat purred. Aisha pulled harder at Kat's arm.
Kat firmly refused to be disentangled. Aisha's eyes went to Kimberly, whose obvious disregard was belayed by the--not-quite-visible--blue ki flaming angrily around her.
"Er... Kat, haven't you got a... most important errand to do?" the brunette-blonde boy asked, flicking hair out of his eyes once more and putting down his book-- by the title of "How to Handle Difficult Women." When Kim's aura flared like that, _someone_ remedied the situation, or _everyone_ would regret it.
Kat released Tommy's arm and clapped her petite palm to her rosebud mouth. "Oh, yes, I do! How did you know?"
"I comprehend the profound mysteries of the antithetical gender." Billy replied knowingly. Blank looks were turned onto him, and he simply persisted in looking wise.
"Um... yeah, whatever he said." Kat replied uncertainly, backing off. She left in a hurry, casting worried looks after Billy.
"Uh... thanks, Billy, she was really starting to get on my nerves." Tommy sighed, relieved.
"Hey, what _did_ you say, anyway?" queried Adam curiously.
Billy grinned. "I understand women."
Their grins dropped, their mouths flattened into thin lines, and their eyes panned out. (In other words, the real-life version of an anime face-fault.)
"I _had_ to ask. I _HAD_ to ask." Adam could be heard muttering the words as a litany for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, Kim was still not appeased.
"Why don't you ever _try_ to get rid of her?" she snapped. Tommy recoiled, his fingers jerking into the Takahashi Posture of Pain. (third and ring fingers across the palm, thumb, pinkie and forefinger splayed.)
"Er... um..." Tommy muttered uncomfortably, finding himself in a position as much to his liking as the _previous_ one had been. "I can't?"
"You never _try_!" came the reply.
"Well, _I_ don't exactly see you trying desperately to get rid of Skull, either!" Tommy shot back.
They hadn't noticed the other four backing away. When Kim and Tommy fought, there were fireworks to be reckoned with.
"TOMBOY? Why you two-for-one deal with long hair--"
Adam sighed and stepped between the fighting pair. Only to be shoved out of the way again.
"He never learns, does he." Rocky remarked to Billy.
"Nope." Billy agreed. He tapped his finger to his chin. "Hmm. Well, now, I think I can arrange for them to stop fighting. For a little while."
He pulled a white envelope out of his pocket, and waved it at the two. "Hey, you guys, a letter from Jason, Trini and Zach arrived. They're in China."
Sure enough, the argument stopped. "They're _where_?" came the resounding (inevitable) chorus.
"Exactly. China. Well, it _is_ a _World_ Peace Summit, right? Well, they wanted to know if we wanted to go with them to this martial arts training ground-- they need to brush up on their training. They sent tickets already, paid for by the sponsors of the Summit."
"Really? Kewl." Kim squealed, bouncing up and down in a very kawaii manner. "What's it called?"
Rocky looked amused. "You know, Kim, when you do that, your boobs bounce."
An inter-dimensional mallet appeared out of nowhere into Kim's small hands.
"Are you quite done?" Billy asked coolly, looking at the tattered red wreckage that _used_ to be Rocky.
Kim dusted off her hands. "Quite. Go on..."
"Well, it's called Jusenkyo. From what I know of Chinese mythology, they believe that the pools are cursed, with animal and people spirits."
"Aw, that's just a story." the red pulp on the floor scoffed. "After all, what could possibly happen?"
"C'mon, c'mon!" Zach taunted. "Ya can't catch the Zach-man, can ya, CLUMSY!"
"Clumsy!" Rocky protested, bouncing after Zach and balancing on the bamboo poles which were the only things keeping him from falling into the myriad of small springs under him. "I'll show you clumsy, you-- whoa!" he screeched to a halt. "Hey... ain't that Skull?"
"Hey, yeah!" Zach agreed, turning. Skull was dressed... ridiculously, to say the least. The divided pants looked rather like a pleated skirt, and the shirt simply _didn't_ fit. To complete the absurd attire was a wooden practice sword.
"Hakama and kempo gi, Skull?" Billy pointed out. "Complete with bokuto, too. Very thirteenth-century."
"Dost thee mock the magnificent Skull? Well, then, I shall smite thee!"
Billy snorted derisively. "You _want_ to mess with a red belt when you're a white?"
"On second thoughts, I think I'll go smite Aisha." Skull turned around and went hunting for his prey, bokken-first.
Billy grinned. [Intimidation. Always works on the stupid ones.]
Kimberly huffed indignantly. [Humph. Who does that playboy think he is? Flirting with that ditz Kat all the time--]
She shifted her position of sitting on top of one of the bamboo poles, and turned her eyes towards Tommy, sparring with Adam (on dry ground). Her hazel eyes softened. [He's awful cute, though...]
"Kimberly!" came a resounding shriek which rocked the bamboo pole she was balanced on. She winced.
"Skull, make like an egg, and beat it." she yelled. He ricocheted towards her, perching neatly on the tips of the suspension canes. She had to admit, she was impressed: she hadn't believed that Skull had it in him to do something like that.
"Ah, my goddess of the chestnut locks!" he exclaimed, stopping on the pole next to hers. He was wavering slightly, of course."Will you consent to be mine forever and ever?"
"Well, then, wanna go to the movies?"
"Then what would make you happy, my darling?" Skull stepped off the pole onto the--very-- nearby cliff-face.
"For you to leave me alone."
Skull gave a courtly--absurd--bow. "I am afraid that I cannot fulfill your request, dear maiden. I am too impressed by your exalted presence."
"Hey, what's with the weird clothes?"
"I," Skull proclaimed, striking a proud pose, "have decided to take up the ancient art long abandoned by the modern world, the craft of honor, the majestic summit of skill--"
"You're taking kempo?" Kimberly interjected.
Skull deflated. "Yes."
Kimberly looked mildly impressed. "Well. That's hard."
"I know." Skull preened.
She frowned, deflating his ego as only a teenage girl can. "But that outfit looks ridiculous."
Skull slumped. "I know."
Then he heard an angry shout. "SKULL?! What the Hell's _he_ doing here?"
"Uh-oh." Skull muttered, turning to face Tommy, who was balanced expertly on the pole next to Kimberly. "Uh..."
"Well?" Tommy pressed.
"I have come to challenge you for the right to date the beautiful Kimberly Hart!" Skull finally proclaimed.
"Last I checked, Skull, I wasn't dating her." came Tommy's acid reply. "Now go away. Or do you _really_ want to challenge a third-dan black-belt?"
Skull puffed up with indignance. "Yeah!"
"Then go bother Jason."
With that, Tommy turned around, putting his back to Skull. Kimberly giggled, biting her lip so as not to show it-- she really didn't want to hurt Skull's feelings. How strange, though, that Tommy would never say he was dating her (which was the absolute truth) but somehow always managed to be _right_ there when Skull started to get really annoying.
Skull was pissed. Who did this long-haired ego-master think he was? Kimberly's boyfriend? He gave Tommy a shove-- conveniently forgetting that Tommy was perched on top of a bamboo pole.
Kimberly shrieked as Tommy lost his balance and fell. "Skull!" he yelled, curving his body into a dive position, "What'd ya do _that_ for? I'm gonna--"
His words were cut off as he hit the small pool. A few bubbles surfaced... but as the teenagers waited anxiously for their friend to appear, they grew more and more worried by the second... as he did not emerge from the water.
"Tommy?" Kim asked anxiously, standing up on the pole. "C'mon, the joke's done. Come up, now."
"Then I'm going in after him." She set her mouth resolutely.
"That may not be the wisest idea, Kim." Billy interjected worriedly. Then he shut up as she cast pleading eyes on him. "Oh, very well. Go ahead."
"I don't recall asking, Daddy Billy." Kim answered. She poised herself-- and dived into the pool.
"Hey." Adam began.
"That isn't the pool that Tommy fell into!"
Billy slapped his forehead.
He cupped his hands to his mouth, and called, "Kim! It's the wrong pool!"
A squat, absolutely nondescript little man dressed in Army rejects appeared in front of them. He said something in Chinese, and raised two little placards of wood with characters painted on them.
"What's he sayin', Trini?" Jason asked, turning to a tall Asian girl with a sweet oval face framed by a waterfall of dark hair.
"He's saying..." Trini frowned. "'Oh, very bad. Your friends fall in Spring of Drowned Warrior Woman and Spring of Drowned Martial Artist. There very tragic legends of woman and her lover which drown in those two pools, six-hundred eight year ago! Now, whoever fall in springs take body of beautiful woman and body and skills of warrior!'"
Zach's expression was sceptical. "Shyeah, right."
The man grew agitated, and started spouting Chinese. "He says to look, your friends should be coming up, soon!" Trini translated. They all turned to the small pools.
"Uh-huh." Skull muttered. "Whatever."
In a flash of glittering water sparkling in the sunshine, a figure erupted from one of the pools. The person--whoever it was-- hung in mid-air for a second, blocking away the sun's rays, until he dropped into an agile crouch before them.
He was not _extremely_ tall, as men went. Maybe about the same height as Tommy: six feet or so. He had the build of a dancer-- or an _extremely_ agile fighter. His arms were wired with sleek muscle, and where Tommy's white muscle shirt and green flannel had only shown a completely normal--if fit and muscled-- teenage boy's body, _this_ person's shirt showed what could only be the result of a lifetime of training. But it was the face that elicited the gasps.
He was handsome. Stunningly, shockingly handsome. He had huge grey-blue eyes, framed with black lashes. A small nose and mouth complemented the large eyes. His thick hair gleamed wetly in the sunlight, and it was the same raven hue as his eyelashes and eyebrows. Long bangs were slicked to his forehead, and he wiped them out of the way. The tip of a braided black ponytail hung over the edge of one shoulder.
And even so, it was _still_ evident that this person was a teenager.
"Well?" he asked. "May I ask why all of you are staring at me?"
Even though the voice itself was unfamiliar--neither deep nor tenor, neither gentle nor harsh-- the cadences of it were unmistakable.
Trini stepped forwards. "Tommy?" she gasped.
"Ah... not quite. I am Ryu. I suspect that Tommy is your friend?"
Puzzled looks were exchanged among them. Finally, Jason stepped forward. "Tommy, I'm hoping that you still consider me your best friend. So believe me when I tell you-- God, Tommy, did you hit yourself against the bottom?"
Tommy--Ryu-- snorted. "Pardon me?"
"It's not that. Geez... Tommy, you've changed."
"Of course I've changed." Ryu calmly replied. "I'm wet. Now is there anywhere I could get some dry clothes on?"
Suddenly, with the speed of a falling drop of water, someone erupted from the other pool and somersaulted towards them.
She was taller than Kimberly-- maybe around five-six, as compared to Kim's five-three. Just as slim, but certainly more voluptuous, her long, black hair cascaded unconfined down her back in waves. Her eyes were cornflower blue, and they were even bigger than Tommy's eyes had become.
In other words, simply pretty Kim had become an absolute beauty.
And she stood with absolute disregard about the state of her clothing, which had become, to say the least, tattered by her sudden growth. The boys starting drooling, with the exception of Ryu-Tommy, who smiled and took her into his arms, hugging her joyfully.
"At last, we are reunited, my love, my beautiful Sayoko..."
"Indeed." she replied, cuddling against his chest. "And so fitting that our other halves should be beautiful, happy youngsters... such as we were so many years ago..."
"Hey, she's almost naked!" Skull exclaimed, examining Kim-Sayoko closely. He took a double-take. "Heeeyyyy, she's almost _naked_!" he repeated, a lecherous expression forming on his face.
<Is there any way we can bring our friends back?> Trini asked the Jusenkyo Guide desperately.
<Oh, yes, madams and sirs, please to use hot water?> The guide handed Trini a steaming kettle. Which she promptly upended over the closely embraced couple.
They sprang apart, yelling. "YOW! HOT!"
"Whoa." Zach expressed. "Major funky."
To say the least, it had been strange to see the features melt off to resolve into the familiar faces of their friends.
"Tommy?" Jason jogged to his friend and examined him. "Hmm, aside from a few burn marks, you look O.K. What happened?"
"I dunno. It was... weird." Tommy gasped, eyes wide. "I fell into that pool thing... it was kinda dark... and it was like I was shoved to the back of my mind. I could see what was happening, I could hear and feel everything... but I couldn't _do_ anything. That... other guy, Ryu... he lived six hundred something years ago. He was the fiancée of a martial artist... her enemy, too. Arranged marriage. And one day, one o' his enemies drowned him in a spring. That enemy wanted to take the martial artist girl as his wife. What the guy _didn't_ count on was the girl throwing herself in the spring next to his..."
He turned and stared at Kim. "Kim? Oh, God... _You're_ Sayoko?"
"_You're_ Ryu?" she asked, aghast. Then she looked down at her clothes, still hanging in tatters. "EEEK!"
"Here." Tommy winked at her good-naturedly, pulling off his flannel and handing it to her. She wrapped it around herself, and it was fully large enough to hang past her hips and way past the tips of her fingers.
Kim shuddered as she remembered having no air under that pool... then coming up, and not being able to move or speak or do anything at all... and Sayoko had thought calming thoughts at her... but it was the pure outflowing of love for the handsome stranger-- stranger to her no longer-- that eventually got her wits collected around her once more.
:Don't worry.: Sayoko had told her. :I will not harm you or your body. I merely wish... to live once more...:
And then she had embraced the black-haired man--Ryu, she knew now-- and the joy had been simply wonderful...
And Trini had splashed them with boiling-hot water, and Kim had found herself in control of her body once more. But she could feel Sayoko in the back of her head, a gentle presence.
She looked up into Skull's leering face. She grinned as Sayoko sent a mischievous idea towards her. She started to walk towards him in a sexy, slinky way."Oh, Skull, about that little comment before?"
Skull nodded as his grin grew wider. Anyone who was looking at Tommy would have seen him scowling fiercely, but all attention was focused on Kim. She reached Skull, put one hand to his chest and raised the other to his face--
After Skull's nose had stopped bleeding, the teens decided to take the next plane home as soon as possible.
Kimberly decided that maybe sharing her mind with a gorgeous warrior princess wasn't so bad after all...
"...So now, whenever me or Kim gets wet with cold water, we... kinda change personality as well as looks." Tommy looked uncomfortable. "And..."
"And what, Tommy?" Trini pressed.
"And Ryu is a much better fighter than me." Tommy finished, looking rather miserable. In the meantime, everyone else's eyebrows went up.
"A better fighter than you? Tommy, you're a fourth dan black belt!" Billy exclaimed. "He must be very good indeed--"
"I _know_." Tommy agreed, annoyed. "But he's good. He's _really_ good. And," he added after a few seconds thought and a glance at Kim, "he's utterly and totally devoted to Sayoko."
"That's so sweet." Aisha exclaimed. "Faithful, even past death..."
Kim rolled her eyes. "Sayoko said the same thing. She's some kind of warrior princess... she says she can lift great weights, and can call her ki energy."
Billy's green eyes grew huge. "Her ki?"
"Yeah. I didn't know what she meant until she showed me some kind of energy blast. This is too weird for me..."
"I know." Adam agreed. "Cursed pools, energy blasts... what now? Floating heads in beams of blue light?"
"Dad!" Tommy yelled, pulling the door closed after him. "I'm hooome!"
"Son, today is a very important day for you." his father replied, grinning. "Or perhaps night. After all, it _is_ eleven-thirty."
Tommy's reply was guarded. When his father called him 'son' instead of 'boy', there was normally something up, and it didn't necessarily mean that it was good. "Whaddya mean, dad?"
"I mean that I have gotten you engaged."
Tommy's first reaction was puzzlement. What did his dad mean, he'd gotten him engaged? Weren't people nowadays supposed to _choose_ who they married?
His second, and definitely predominant reaction was one that he only had very seldom. His training as a martial artist had schooled him against it. But every so often, it did come up.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU'VE GOTTEN ME ENGAGED?!" Tommy roared. His father, a short, paunchy, balding man, took a step back from his six-foot teenage son. Who was obviously furious. "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN?!"
Mr. Oliver started to sweat, a huge anime teardrop appearing on the back of his head, and took another step back from Tommy. "Now, now, son... I'm sure she's a very nice girl... I just wanted to make sure you would have a marriage that would be... good for the family as well as for you. Her father was my friend when we were young and--"
His word was cut off in a gag as he found himself pinned a foot off the floor to the wall. He'd forgotten how fast Tommy could move. His son's sentences were carefully chosen, each word tipped with fury. "You mean you haven't even MET her?! Dad. I. Am. Not. Going. To. Marry. Some. Girl. That. You. Chose. For. Me. Do you UNDERSTAND?" the last word came out as a shout.
Edward Oliver squirmed in his son's grasp. "Tommy." he gasped. "You're choking me."
Tommy let his father fall in a heap to the floor. "The Hell with you." Tommy threw scornfully over his shoulder. "What's _wrong_ with you? Just because _your_ parents arranged _your_ marriage, you want me to be as miserable as you?"
His father would never admit it, not even to himself. But he _did_ want Tommy to be contemptible as he himself had been. Every time he looked at his son he saw what he had wanted to be: handsome, strong, popular, sporty and good-natured. In fact, the only way for Ed Oliver to ever _get_ married was through an arranged marriage.
Tommy took the stairs two at a time. He felt like crying, though he'd never have done it in front of anyone. And right now, there was no _time_ to cry. He yanked his clothes out of the drawers and stuffed them into his karate bag. His room was mostly bare-- he spent as little time at home as possible-- and the only things that he might have missed were his posters, always easily replaced. Everything precious to him was either in the hidden pouch of his karate bag, or in his locker at school.
He slammed the drawers shut and with some difficulty, ripped closed the zipper of his bag. He then ran down the stairs, striding towards the door.
"Tommy!" Mr. Oliver's voice echoed after him. Tommy stopped. He had to. This was the first time he knew of, since he was a child, that his father had ever called him by his given nickname. "Where are you going?"
"Away." Tommy's lip curled. "Where no-one makes my decisions for me."
He ran out and slammed the door as hard as he could.
Kimberly sat up in bed at the sound of tapping on her windowpane. She hadn't heard that sound, well, for literally years. She and Tommy had been best friends as youngsters, and whenever he had problems, she had told him that he could always climb up the tree near her window, and rap on the glass and she'd let him in. Of course, after they'd started realizing that their 'best friend' was a completely different gender, the tapping had stopped. That had been when they were ten.
She climbed out of bed and slid open the glass. Two luminously dark eyes shined back at her.
"Tommy?" she murmured. They certainly fought enough, but it was heart-warming to know that in times of trouble, he'd still turn to her. "What's wrong?"
"Kim?" his voice was a little choked, and she guessed that something truly awful had happened. "Can I come in?"
"Sure, sure." she stepped back from the window as he flowed through the space. "Tommy, what happened? You haven't knocked at my window in seven years!"
"I know." he replied, a little ashamedly. "My dad told me that I should start confiding in _him_ instead of in some _girl_."
Kimberly's teeth bared. "I hope to God you don't believe that. For your sake. Boy, would you be in trouble if you said that in front of Aisha and Trini and Kat... You understand, right?"
"I... I do now." the naked anger in his voice made her shiver. She stared at him: she'd never heard him so furious.
"What's wrong, Tommy?" she asked. She sat on the edge of her pink-covered bed and patted the space beside her. "Sit."
He sat, and buried his head in his hands.
:Let me talk to him.: Sayoko insisted gently. :I think... it would be easier for him to say what he needs to say to one who is a stranger.:
[You sure?] Kim queried, nervously.
:I _know_.: came the confident reply.
"Wait a second, Tommy." she told him, bolting to the bathroom. She shed her clothes, took out a basin of cool water and poured it over her body. She-- Sayoko--dried off and pulled Kim's nightgown back on.
"Now." she asked,"Would you begin?"
Tommy's eyes narrowed. "Sayoko?" he asked hesitantly. Sayoko nodded.
"Yes. I think... I know what your problem is." she began delicately. "You are a martial artist-- Ryu would never have committed himself to you if you were not. Martial artists are trained in their emotions. So it must be something grave indeed."
"Kinda." Tommy hung his head. He completely ignored Sayoko's voluptuous form and gorgeous face, and talked. "You-- Kim, anyway--know about how my dad's parents chose who he was gonna marry."
Sayoko nodded. "In my time, such was common. And there were a great deal of miserable young men and women. Such as me..."
Tommy looked up gratefully. "You were in an arranged marriage? You _do_ understand! Well... my dad kinda chose out a girl for... me."
Sayoko was unsure about whether it was Kim's breath or hers which caught in her/their throat. Sayoko's shock at this revelation was not because of losing Ryu when Tommy had to marry, but rather the casual cruelty of what Tommy's father had done. She had been through it, and it had been Hell while it had lasted. All had turned out for the best eventually, but she still believed that arranged marriages were rather a cruel idea. Kim's gasp was due to... something she normally preferred not to admit.
"That is horrible! I would run away from home if my father _dared_ do something of the sort to me!" Sayoko protested. Then she re-though. "Actually, he did, but..."
"That's why I'm here. I... I don't know what to do, so I was kinda wondering if I could stay here for a while. My dad doesn't know about any of my friends... and he'd never think that I would be staying at a girl's house."
Sayoko's eyebrows jumped. "I don't recall getting any... ah... sensual feelings from Kimberly..."
Tommy blushed. "No... no, nothing like that. We're just friends, that's all. I could sleep on the floor, or something..."
"Nonsense." Sayoko declared. "The bed is certainly big enough for the both of us."
Tommy's face became so hot that he was sure he was on fire. "Um... no offence, Sayoko... but I'd really rather not."
"But whyever not?"
"Because... well, to put it straight, miss Sayoko, you're very beautiful. I'm just a teenager... and I may not be able to help myself."
Sayoko was amused at the blatant surge of jealousy that poured up from Kim.
:Don't you _shush_ me, Sayoko! That's my body you're using! Tommy's my friend--:
[And perhaps he may be more, from the feelings that I am picking up from you.]
Kimberly's mental blush colored her thoughts pink.
"Would you prefer, maybe, if it was your friend Kimberly you slept next to?"
"Maybe," Tommy agreed doubtfully, "but I'd really rather sleep on the floor."
Sayoko eyed him critically. "Perhaps. But you, as a martial artist to another, will be very stiff in the morning if you do. Or... ah, I have an idea. Why not let Ryu be the one to sleep here?"
Tommy's eyebrow jumped. "With you? I don't _think_ so, Sayoko."
"Let Ryu sleep with Kim, then?"
"Or maybe not. It seems that Kim objects to that idea. All right, then... the two of you." Sayoko sighed melodramatically. "Ah, well..."
She went into the bathroom and took a hot bath... emerging as Kimberly. A Kimberly who was steaming not with the heat of the water, but with her anger.
"Kim, what's wrong?"
"Don't you 'Kim' me, mister!" she chewed him out. Tommy took a step backwards. "What do you _mean_, she's very beautiful and you might not be able to help yourself?"
Tommy bit his lip. "Bad choice of words? It's the truth, though."
"I didn't want to lie to her."
He grabbed her wrists, her hands clenched into fists. "Look, Kim, _you_ know Sayoko's beautiful, and so do I. I also know she's got a helluva body. I didn't want to take any risks."
Kim was puzzled. "Why not? Any _other_ guy would have jumped at the chance."
"Martial arts does more than make you hurt in the mornings if you didn't stretch right, Kim." Tommy explained. "It kinda gives you a sense of honor. It wouldn't be _right_."
"I still don't see."
"Look, I'll put this to you as plainly as I can. But it's the reason why I got out of the house as fast as I could, and why I wouldn't share the bed with _her_."
"I... I kinda have someone." Tommy looked away. Then looked back at Kim. His smile was a little chagrined. "She's very sweet, when she wants to be... normally, she's as fiery as anything. If I'd... been tempted to do anything with Sayoko, it'd feel like betrayal to _her_."
Something in Kim snapped. She glared at him, and screamed, "SO BEING WITH ME WOULDN'T TEMPT YOU, IS THAT IT?"
"Kim, Kim, you'll wake the house." he soothed gently. "It's not that, Kim. It's that I hope I know you well enough to know that you won't do anything unexpected... nothing that _would_ tempt me. You're my friend, Kim. We've been friends for too long for anything like that to happen."
She scowled at him. "Yeah. Whatever."
Tommy was beginning to be very uncomfortable. "I'll go, if you want... I didn't mean..."
She sighed, and her anger flowed out of her into the floor. "No... it's O.K, I guess. It's just late-- I must be tired. Good night, Tommy."
"I can still sleep on the floor... it's no problem..."
"No, no... you have a tournament tomorrow, and we can't have you stiff for that, now could we?"
"It's alright." she soothed. "C'mon... get into bed." She broke into a wan smile. "Just don't try anything funny, buster."
He smiled back, hesitantly. "Wouldn't dream of it."
They crawled into bed, Kim under the thick coverlet, and Tommy over it with a blanket wrapped around himself.
"Good night, Kim. Thanks."
"Hey... that's what friends are for, right?"
Her only reply was a soft rumble of sleepy breathing. She turned on her back, arms under her head, and stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. She had decided that she wouldn't be able to sleep at all that night, but as soon as she started thinking, the stars on the ceiling began to blur...
Kim woke up before Tommy did. She was startled by the extra warmth in her bed, until she remembered what had happened the day before-- or maybe earlier that day. It _had_ been late, after all... maybe that had been a good enough reason for her irrational behavior earlier. She ignored Sayoko's mental snort.
She climbed out of the bed gingerly, so as not to wake Tommy. As she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, she looked at him. Her expression softened wonderfully. He looked so peaceful, sleeping, with his long hair framing his face... like the child he'd never really been.
:He is very handsome.: Sayoko pointed out.
[Yeah--] Kim agreed before she remembered that Sayoko heard her thoughts rather than what she said.
:You agree with me?:
[I guess so... but he's also so damned self-confident, popular, cheerful--]
:And these are _bad_ things?:
[They're things that could make absolutely sure he _gets_ whatever girl he wants.]
[Stop sounding so puzzled.] Kimberly snapped, rather irate.
:I still don't understand. Why are those bad things?:
It irked Kimberly to admit it, but Sayoko was right. Why _were_ they bad things?
:Perhaps, because,: Sayoko suggested delicately, :you don't want to let him go to another?:
[You're a hopeless romantic, Sayoko.] Kim scoffed, proceeding to shut off the other girl.
:But I am right, am I not?:
[Of _course_ not.] Kim bit down on the words. [I... I'm just worried that he'll choose someone like Kat, that's all.]
:Has chosen. He has chosen someone already, remember?:
[O.K, then, I'm worried he _has chosen_ someone like Kat.]
:Tommy does not particularly strike me as one who would make such a shallow decision, you know.:
[What do _you_ know?] Kim snapped.
:Everything you do.: Sayoko replied, unflinching. :And a little more.:
[Like what? What could you know about him that I don't?]
Kim pulled off her nightclothes and headed for the bathroom with annoyed, jerky movements. Maybe living with someone else in her body wasn't such a good idea after all...
Tommy groaned and buried his face in the pillow. The pillow that smelled like--
Tommy woke up. Fast. And looked around.
[Whew.] he thought, relieved. [I'm in Kim's room. I didn't do anything that I'm gonna regret.]
He amended the thought as he remembered running away from home. He grimaced as he recalled his father grinning as he told him about his 'arranged marriage'. [I hope.]
:Why do you fear an arranged marriage so much?: Ryu asked with some curiosity. :It's not so bad...:
Tommy snorted, heading for the bathroom. [Yeah. Right. What would _you_ know?:
[All that you do.] Ryu agreed, unperturbed. [And much more. _My_ engagement is the result of my parents' meddling.]
Tommy raised his eyebrows. [Really? Who's your fiancée?]
:Sayoko, of course.:
Tommy groaned as he opened the door to the bathroom. [Feh. I was asking for that.]
He was hit by a blast of hot air. Then a towel. _Then_ Kimberly screamed "Get the Hell out of here, you pervert!"
He felt small hands on his chest giving him a shove. The towel still covering his face, he stumbled backwards and the door slammed closed a few centimeters away from him.
:Oops.: came Ryu's sending, with definite amusement.
[Shut up.] Tommy snarled. But Ryu's laughter brought a smile to his face.
:Too bad she hadn't been using cold water.: Ryu said smugly. :Then you'd have _really_ gotten an eyeful.:
[And Kim would never have forgiven me.] Tommy reminded him. No matter how tempting the idea was. [Look, Ryu... aren't you supposed to be some kind of a martial artist, with an honor code?]
[Then don't you have anything regarding _women_ in that honor code?]
[Then why were you even _suggesting_ that I look at Sayoko?]
Ryu was thoughtfully silent for a little while. He began, slowly. :Well... Tommy, if you think about it, I _am_ you-- we share the same body, the same senses... we may not be the same person, but that's regardless. I am an engaged man, and I would be married to the woman I love, had the jealous Ryoko not killed me.:
[Go on...] Tommy encouraged.
:My spirit is in your body. Who is to say that we are not one and the same?:
Tommy's face twisted. [But Sayoko's not my fiancée any more than Kim is yours... or mine, for that matter.]
:Who is to say? The ways of Jusenkyo are strange... we may never know. In the meantime...: Ryu began, :Do you know anywhere I can practice?:
:Yes. I am wondering how rusty my skills have gotten over the course of six centuries.:
[Ohboy. I guess you could practice in the Youth Center-- everyone else does.]
:Youth Center? The place with the fat man you call Ernie?:
[That's right.] Tommy agreed.
:I suppose. Are there no training or practice dojos here?:
[If you want a dojo, Ryu, then go to Japan. This is the USA, Angel Grove, California.]
:I suppose the Youth Center will have to do, then.: Ryu sighed resignedly. :There would be no-one who would challenge me there, I hope?:
[I don't think so... but why? Are you _that_ rusty?]
Tommy felt Ryu grin. :No. I wasn't worried about _me_...:
"Wow." Aisha gasped, watching Ryu--Tommy?-- go through a kata of a style she hadn't seen before. "Geez... he's _good_!"
"I'll say!" Adam agreed, staring. "That's kendo... you train all your life to be that good."
"Humph!' Rocky protested indignantly. "He ain't so good as that!"
"Then why don't you challenge him, then?" Aisha pointed out.
"You know what?" Rocky's face pulled itself into a somewhat manic grin. "I think I will."
Aisha slapped her forehead. "D'oh. Rocky, get back here! You can't beat him!"
Rocky called out, "Wanna bet?" before his face was met with a fist. "Mrrrmf?"
"If I may ask what you are doing, Rocky?" Ryu queried politely, withdrawing his hand from where it was embedded in Rocky's visage.
"I've come to fight you." Rocky replied with ever-enthusiastic cheer. He was completely unperturbed by his rather flattened nose.
"You'll lose." Ryu protested flatly. "You know it."
"Never say die!" Rocky blithely bounced, launching himself at Ryu.
"Your funeral." Ryu shrugged, stepping aside. Rocky hit the punching bag behind Ryu with his head. Solidly. "And I suppose that must have definitely hurt."
Rocky's hands were folded into the Posture of Pain, and his legs were bent bowlegged-style. "Mrrrmf." he agreed. "Rrmm yrroo bttt meee ort offf errre?"
"Can I get you out of there?" Ryu asked innocently. "Certainly."
He grabbed one of Rocky's feet and yanked. Rocky came flying out and landed hard on his butt. "Owww!"
"Give up, please, I would not like to hurt you. I may not be at full potential, but I can certainly inflict sufficient damage on you for you to regret messing with me."
"Just give up." Ryu sighed.
"Nope!" Rocky bounced.
[Just what I needed. A bouncer. Wait, did that sound as stupid as I thought it did?]
:Oh, it gets worse, Ryu.: Tommy chuckled. :It gets much worse.:
[You don't say.] he thought distractedly as Rocky bounded towards him with the eagerness of a puppy. Of course, puppies didn't lash out with sweep kicks and punches.
"Where did you learn to fight like that?" Kim asked, grudgingly admiring. She _still_ hadn't really forgiven him--Tommy? Or Ryu?-- for walking in on her that morning.
Ryu turned towards her, ignoring a kick coming towards his back. "Hmm?"
"Look out!" Adam yelled.
Without even turning to look, Ryu moved out of the way bonelessly. "My father trained me from birth."
"Not really. It's the only life I knew, after all." He easily dodged Rocky's frantic efforts to land a hand on him. "But... ah, well... he took me to Jusenkyo to train me."
Kim's eyebrows mingled with her bangs. "Oh? And what happened there?"
"Guess." Ryu smiled a wry smile, ducking under Rocky's fists and somersaulting over the inevitable sweep-kick.
"You fell in a pool?"
"I most certainly did." he grimaced. "I suppose it could have been worse... I could have fallen into a spirit pool as you and Tommy did..."
"I fell in the Nyaniichuan." he shuddered, vaulting over Rocky with ease.
"I don't know Japanese."
"Doesn't that mean... Spring-of-Drowned..." Billy stopped, his mouth quirking as if he couldn't quite decide whether to laugh or grimace.
Ryu had no such compunctions. He grinned. "Oh, go ahead and laugh! I know it's funny... though I didn't think so at the time."
"What spring did you fall into?"
"The Spring of Drowned Girl." Ryu stated blandly, smiling ironically.
Kimberly's features flattened as she face-faulted once more. "You're kidding."
"I most certainly am not. I turned into the most adorable little red-head teenage girl when wet with cold water."
Kim looked more than faintly sick.
"Oh, don't worry, Kim. The same will not happen to Tommy. _Or_ me."
He neatly sidestepped Rocky's outstretched lunge. Kim looked relieved... then worried.
"How'd you become engaged to Sayoko, anyway?"
"Sayoko is the inheritor of the Femme Fatale School of Martial Arts. But her father was friends with mine... they promised each other before we were born that whoever had a son would marry that son off to the daughter of approximately the same age of the other family. And so Sayoko and I were engaged."
He grimaced. "Ah... we hated each other on sight."
Kim's eyebrows disappeared into her hairline. Ryu shook his head, evading Rocky's quickly tiring efforts. "She was a boy-hater. You know how beautiful she is... well, we were fourteen when we met, I was already cursed, and _she_ was a boy-hater." he shivered. "We were engaged on the grounds that we were of the same age, and since _I_ was a girl half the time, she couldn't hate me."
"It certainly didn't stop her from trying! Every single day... I was attacked by her potential 'suitors'." he shook his head. "Persistent buggers... especially Genki Tamura! But I never lost, thankfully. Sayoko, however, was another story."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, like I said, we hated each other on sight. When she first met me, I was in GIRL form. Oh, sure, she thought it was great that my pop had a daughter instead of a son. She thought we'd be buddies and whatnot."
He frowned, grabbing Rocky's foot and flipping him head over heels. "Well, so we sparred for a bit, and I beat her. I was sweaty, so I went to take a hot bath."
"She walked in on me."
:If he'd told me about the curse, I wouldn't have.: Sayoko complained good-naturedly.
"And that was the beginning of a _most_ uncomfortable relationship..."
"Doesn't sound very restful." Adam agreed.
Rocky flopped down on the ground, tired out.
Ryu spared him a glance. "Oh, tired already? And you didn't even land a blow on me!"
"So what happened with you and Sayoko?"
"Well, her parents wanted the Femme Fatale--a woman's fighting school, obviously--school to remain in the family. For that to happen, Sayoko had to marry me."
He winced. "You don't know how many people tried to carry her off and whatnot... I can't even remember all their names. Feh... there were a lot that tried to carry ME off, too."
"I can see why..." Kat purred. Ryu looked nonplussed.
:The leech. The psycho, Tommy-obsessed leech.: Tommy supplied. :Otherwise known as Kat. Sheesh... I've developed a phobia of cats since she moved here from Australia.:
Ryu shuddered. [I, too, dislike cats a great deal. But Sayoko adores them, so I bear with it. It's easier than facing the wide end of her mallet... or even worse, the tip of her foot...]
"To make a long story short, we did _not_ get along. She had a sister named Kozue... the businesswoman of the family. She was all right, now that I think about it, but she was a swindler, a blackmailer... it was the only way the dojo kept going."
"And all the while, I was still cursed. That caused me enough problems as it is... having a fiancée who couldn't stand me, a father-in-law-to-be who didn't do anything but cry, a neglectful father and numerous admirers I didn't want... life was Hell."
"So what happened?"
"I was with Sayoko's family for two, three years... Little by little, I fell in love with Sayoko. I couldn't admit it, not even to myself. I didn't dare hope, though, that she'd fall in love with me. I called her names, insulted her cooking... and she replied by kicking me to Kingdom Come, then running off and crying. I guess it was the only way I knew _how_ to show my affection for her: I 'rescued' her from all her other admirers, and God only knows what else. And whenever the time came to choose between her or something else, no matter what it was... I'd always choose her."
"Then I thought she died. Oh, God, I was in Hell. She got sick... and kinda wasted away. But... but she wasn't dead. She'd been bitten by a vampire of some kind... and if a certain combination of chemicals was given to her, she'd go back to normal. She couldn't make anyone else a vampire... so I let her kinda drink _my_ blood. I guess we admitted to each other we were in love, then. It was the most miserable part of my life... but it was the best, too. After a long fight against the sorcerer... I lost. So I slashed my palm, and shoved it in front of her face."
"She fell for it, like I knew she would. She grabbed my hand and started drinking my blood. And like I thought would happen, all my martial arts abilities went to her. She came close to killing the sorcerer... and when the sun came up, he died and we gave her the chemicals."
"I didn't know this at the time, of course. I was out cold with blood loss. They rushed me to the hospital, and the first think I saw... was Sayoko's face, smiling at me. It was bright daylight, so I knew she was cured. My hand was in hers. She said 'thank you.' Then she leaned down and kissed me."
Ryu's face was wistfully dreamy. "I think that was the best moment of my life." He looked hopefully over at Kim. "I like re-enacting it... but..."
Kim smiled sweetly at him. His teeth started aching from sugar poisoning. "No. And I don't think Tommy would like it either."
Ryu winced as his mental partner screeched at him.
:WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!:
[Only a suggestion...]
Ryu shrugged. "Ah, well..."
:I believe I'd like my body back, now. It's almost time for the tournament.: Tommy suggested.
[You're right. But where could I get hot water?]
:There are showers in the back.:
Ryu headed for the showers, waving goodbye to his newfound friends.
[They are good people, aren't they.]
:I know. I'm really lucky to have friends like them.:
[Would you really object to having me kiss Sayoko? I mean, she's my fiancée... I love her more than my life. Please?] The blatant pain in Ryu's voice said that what he'd spoken was clear truth.
:It's not that, Ryu.: Tommy sighed. :I wouldn't mind, if Sayoko wasn't a girl with a dual personality. But if you kiss Sayoko, you're also kissing Kim. And I don't like that.:
[Why not? Jealous?]
:JEALOUS?: Tommy blustered. :Of _course_ not. It's just that... that... well, if you kiss her, it's like _I'm_ kissing her, too.:
[She's very pretty.] Ryu changed the subject abruptly.
:I _know_ that. It's just... just...: Tommy's thoughts flew. :It's like lying, kind of. OW!:
"Hot!" Tommy yelled, turning the hot water lower. "Oww..."
:I didn't stretch any of your muscles, did I?:
[No. In fact, you warmed 'em up perfectly. Thank you.]
:My pleasure. I love martial arts. It makes me feel... so...:
[Full? Like you were half before but are whole now?]
:Yes! That's exactly it.:
[Oh, good. I got _something_ right.]
[You weren't supposed to hear that. Have I _no_ privacy with you in my head?]
:None. I don't understand. What do you mean, you got _something_ right? Don't you always?:
Tommy's thoughts took an undertone of bitterness. [It's not like that, man. I mean... look. I can't do _anything_ right. I'm just kind of a black sheep, y'know? I don't fit in. Billy's the genius, Rocky's a joker, Adam's the quiet, thoughtful one, Kim's the bounce-and-popular girl, Aisha's the one who'll tell you to your face what she thinks. Where does this put me?]
Ryu was silent for a while. :Well... sometimes, everyone needs a black sheep, Tommy.:
[That's not comforting.]
:I know it's not. _I_ am a black sheep myself-- think of it this way, my friend: when I was alive, I didn't have a single friend who didn't either want to kill me or marry me. I'd much rather have the kind of life you live.:
[Kill you or marry you?]
:Yes. And you'd better get out of the shower, you're starting to wrinkle.:
Tommy looked down on his fingers, which bore an amazing resemblance to raisins, and jumped out of the shower.
Tommy bounced on the balls of his feet as he readied himself for the tournament. He neatly did a split kick which made some boys cross their legs and his competitors blanche. He _knew_ he was good-- but it never could be beneficial to be too cocky: someone would eventually come along who was better than you.
[Like Ryu.] he thought, with a little anger. [The others probably even like him better than me.]
:That's not true, Tommy.:
[Dammit, I keep on forgetting you're in my head.]
:I suppose it's easy to forget. But I am sure your friends live by the old saying 'Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other is gold?':
Tommy won the tournament, of course, but all through the competition he seemed a little distracted, without the mindless dedication he normally had when fighting his tournaments.
As he raised his trophy into the air, with his friends cheering them on, Ryu spoke again. :It's not maybe, Tommy. It _is_. I know it. And Ryu always knows best.:
Kat slunk up to him and started massaging his shoulders. "Well well _well_." she purred. "Another trophy for my handsome Tommy."
Kim's angry aura was starting to flare again. "Kat, since when is he _your_ Tommy?"
"Oh, for a long time now." she remarked airily. "So, Tommy darling, are you going to take me to dinner tonight? To celebrate?"
:You'd better tell her off and not make the mistake I made.:
:Worrying so much about how she would feel that I didn't think about what it would be like in the future. By never telling her that you're not interested, she thinks you're playing hard-to-get.:
The thought hit Tommy as hard as a punch.
It also took direct effect on his mouth.
"Um... Sorry, Kat, but I'd really rather not."
Kim's aura disappeared, and she blinked at him. He'd never actually turned Kat down before... just kinda avoided the question. Kat pouted prettily. "Why not?"
"Look, Kat." He took her hands off his shoulders. "I am _not_ 'your Tommy'. I have _never_ been 'your Tommy'. I just think you should know: I am _not_ interested in you, and I never have been. You're very pretty and all... but I prefer to be with girls who have more... substance?"
Kat looked perplexed, and more than a little hurt. "Substance?"
"Nevermind. Look, Kat: let's get this straight. I'd love to have you as a friend... but not more than that. O.K?"
Kat looked up at him with a pleading expression. "Friends?"
Tommy nodded resolutely, dropping her hands. "Friends. And no more than that. O.K?"
"Yeah... I suppose so." Kat agreed reluctantly. Then she looked back up at him with a puppy's eagerness. "Would it ever become more than that?"
"No." Tommy lowered his eyelids. "No, Kat, it won't."
She sighed. "I guess friends is better than nothing, then." she batted her eyes at him flirtatiously. "Not even a little chance?"
Tommy fixed her with a stare that was quickly becoming annoyed.
"I guess not." she amended. She gave him a purely platonic grin. "O.K, why don't we _all_ go out for a soda to celebrate?"
Billy's eyebrow lifted. He wouldn't have expected Kat to change faces so quickly-- or for her to be such a diplomat. She didn't even fall in step beside Tommy when they all agreed; instead, she walked beside Kim and asked her where she'd gotten 'that awesome shirt'. The girls soon got into a good-natured conversation about clothes and boys.
"Well." Tommy looked after them, the pair having bounced on ahead. "I'd never have guessed."
:Me, neither. Girls. Go figure.:
Tommy had to hide his nod of agreement from the others.
:He has beautiful form, you know.:
[Yes, I know. What's your point, Sayoko.]
:He's very good-looking, too.:
[I _know_. What's your _point_?]
:And he seems quite considerate--:
:Not to mention sweet--:
[SAYOKO!] Kim finally yelled.
Kim could almost see Sayoko's eyes blinking innocently at her.
[Why are you telling me all this? We've been friends for years-- I _know_ what his good points are.]
:Then why did you get so upset at the suggestion that he and I share a bed last night? You know him better than I do-- you know he wouldn't have 'taken advantage' of me, no matter what he said. A martial artist with no honor is no martial artist at all, and I'd hardly say he was anything _but_ one...:
[Just... just drop it, O.K, Sayoko? Just drop it.]
Sayoko heard the menacing, if not violent, tinge in Kim's voice and dropped it. It couldn't be good to have her new other-half mad at her...
"So," Kat chirruped, "you want to go shopping tomorrow? The mall's having some great sales..."
Kim blinked. "Uh... sure! I'd love to."
[You know, she's not half bad when she's not trying to seduce Tommy...] Kim thought pensively.
Sayoko, wisely enough, refrained from saying anything.
Kat squeaked as Adam dropped into step beside her. She hadn't even heard him coming. Kim's mouth curved in a somewhat sly smile-- _she_ knew Adam's tendencies!
:I wonder if he fell in the Spring of Drowned Shadow or something of the sort.:
Kim blinked. [Spring of Drowned Shadow? How could a shadow drown?]
:How could a duck, or a fish?: countered Sayoko. :But there are those pools. Strange.:
"Kim, are you O.K?" Tommy asked, concerned. "You looked a little... uh... spaced out, there."
She gave him a weak smile. "Uh, just Sayoko talking. You know."
Tommy's wry smile told her that Sayoko's fiancée was just as persistent as Sayoko herself. "I know. Hey... um, would you mind if I stayed at your house tonight, again? Maybe for the rest of the week?" he dropped his voice a little. "I can't exactly go home..."
Both were suddenly aware of a great many pairs of eyes on them. They turned. Slowly. And became conscious of the fact that everyone had dropped silent and was staring at them.
"It's not what you think!" they both protested in perfect unison.
Both were met by identical knowing looks.
It was going to be a very long week.
"I hate being wet." Ryu sighed, strolling hand-in-hand with Sayoko.
"Me, too." Sayoko agreed. She grinned wickedly, though. "But it is the only way for us to be together, you know that, don't you, love?"
"I know. But it doesn't make me like it any better." he grumbled. Tommy was being amazingly quiet, and wasn't even protesting about his holding hands with Sayoko.
[Hey, Tommy... could I kiss her? Please? Just once?]
Tommy had receded to the back of his own mind. He was clawing against a wall of gelatinous material-- trapped! He could hear, and he could see... but somehow, Ryu couldn't hear _him_! :RYU!: he screamed. :I'LL GET YOU FOR THIS!:
Ryu frowned. Tommy normally answered when he was talked to... nor was it like him to stay quiet when the subject of Sayoko came about, as it inevitably did.
Sayoko noticed the somber expression on her lover's face. "Ryu, iinazuke... what's wrong?"
"It's Tommy. I asked him if I could kiss you... and he didn't answer."
Sayoko grinned. "Maybe he means yes."
She moved closer to him and reached for his lips with her own.
Ryu shook his head and moved back. Sayoko pouted prettily at him. "Oh, now, Ryu..."
"They trust us enough that they'll let us have control of their bodies, Sayoko. I'd like to _earn_ that trust... and doing something that _they_ don't want us to do is not a good way to earn trust."
Sayoko grinned. "I know. I was testing you."
The funny thing was, she really _had_ been testing him.
"I don't doubt it." Ryu smiled back thoughtfully. But his handsome smile was troubled. "Maybe there's something wrong. Is Kim saying anything?"
Now it was Sayoko's turn to frown. "Now that you mention it... she hasn't said anything since... since we got splashed."
[Kim?] she sent out gently. [Kim, you in there?]
Her calls became more frantic as she received no reply.
She turned to Ryu in a panic. "She's not answering!"
Ryu bit his lip. "Then we'd better change back."
"No buts, Sayo. If there's something wrong, then it's important we know what it is. If we can't change back..."
He left the trailing end of the sentence unfinished as they raced back towards Kim's house.
They ran into the shower together, not bothering to pull off clothes--though perhaps it was for the better that they didn't-- and turned the hot water on.
"YOW! $#!^!" Tommy and Kimberly screamed, having regained control of their bodies. Kim grabbed the hot water knob just as Tommy grabbed the cold water, and twisted them simultaneously. The water shut off, and there was an unnervingly long silence...
Then Kim started to laugh.
As Tommy stared at her, brows furrowed, he wondered vaguely whether being confined in her own head had driven the girl insane. But she merely doubled over giggling, and pointed towards the mirror parallel to the shower.
As he looked towards it, he realized why she had been laughing so hard. He looked a mess. That was the only way to describe it. His white clothes were waterlogged and almost completely transparent, his long, loose hair was slicked around his ears and plastered down the side of his face, and he had a mournful, puppy-dog expression.
Kim promptly stopped laughing, blushed and covered her torso with her hands.
And nosebleed threatened. He'd forgotten how white clothes became see-through when wet. It was all very well for _his_ clothes to get wet: jeans didn't become transparent, and it didn't matter for his top. But Kim was wearing a thin, white cotton tee-shirt, which had become quite sheer indeed.
He looked away in a hurry, tilting his head back and pinching the bridge of his nose.
This again struck Kim as enormously funny, and she collapsed into his arms in laughter. This set _him_ off again...
:It's nice to know you two get along so well.: Ryu commented dryly. _Then_ they realized what position they were in, and sprang apart like the other was red-hot. Then they laughed again, and hugged platonically.
:They really _are_ getting along better.: Sayoko thought. :Maybe there's hope for them after all.:
[I think not.] Kim grumbled. But she smiled all the same and detached herself gently from Tommy.
They dried themselves off and Tommy dragged his bag into the dressing-room to change his damp clothes. Meanwhile, he was warned by Kim not to come into the room until she called, or "she'd be very angry." Tommy mock-quailed at this statement, and bolted into the bathroom playfully.
It seemed like forever before Kim told Tommy that he could come out of the small, cramped bathroom. His clothes were crinkled and flattened in places from leaning against the wall, but looked altogether presentable.
"O.K. Now we need to ask Sayoko and Ryu what happened..."
Tommy snarled angrily. "Yes. We do."
"Tommy!" Kim reprimanded him, placing a pacifying hand on his muscled shoulder, which was taut with outrage. She took him by the shoulders and looked up at him. Something in her eyes commanded him to look back. "Think, now. Look... Sayoko got really worried when she was calling for me. Didn't Ryu?"
"Yes," he agreed reluctantly, "but--"
"Look, Tommy... you argue with Ryu a lot, don't you?"
Tommy's startlement was obvious.
"Wondering how I know, aren't you. I'm not as stupid as I put up, Tommy. You frown whenever you're fighting with Ryu. And you've been frowning a lot lately."
"Look... we've gotta accept this. If, say, _we_ were going out, and we were in _their_ bodies... we'd be upset, too, if they kept us apart like we're doing to them."
He looked back down at her, helplessness warring with stubbornness on his face.
"Tommy, you know Ryu's story. Does he love Sayoko?"
"I know that Sayoko loves Ryu. Should we really keep them apart? I mean... they've been through so much together."
"But... but Kim! _They_ may be sweethearts... But _we're_ just friends!"
Kimberly reached up and smiled at him. Her smile was not echoed in her eyes. Her small hand caressed the line of his chin, and he caught her hand in his and pushed it away. "I know that, Tommy. But if we're friends... then we can sacrifice at least that much for other friends..."
She touched his chest and leaned into his arms. Tommy took her into his embrace. "As long as they don't do... something that all of us will regret..." he agreed reluctantly, "and we all know what I mean, I suppose..."
:Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou...: echoed in both their heads.
"You're welcome." they both said, happy to be able to do something for a friend. "But..."
:We know the limits. You have my honor as a martial artist on that.: Ryu promised. :And a martial artist has nothing--:
[If he does not have honor.] Tommy finished. [O.K, then.]
:What did I ever do to deserve a friend like you?: asked Sayoko gratefully.
[Nothing.] Kim answered cheerfully. [But I think that you and Ryu, after going through so much, deserve at least to be together...]
Tommy took a cup of water and poured it over himself. It was... strange... to see Tommy's features melt away and be replaced by Ryu's.
[Tommy?] he asked hesitantly. [Can you hear me?]
:Loud an' clear..: answered Tommy, relieved. :And I guess you can hear me?:
[Yes. Oh, good...]
"Look, Kim, I don't know how you did it..."
"It's a girl thing." Kim replied with a grin. "And like I said, you two deserve it."
Kim took another cup of water, and tipped it over her head, slicking brown-now-black hair over her back.
"I think she remembered not to wear white this time." Sayoko commented, smoothing her pink shirt over her body.
Ryu's smile was gentle as he looked at her, savoring her beauty with his eyes. She caught him staring at him and smiled back tenderly, reaching out to caress his bangs away from his huge grey eyes.
A pure rush of love froze Kim and Tommy as it ran through them, through Ryu and Sayoko. Though for Ryu and Sayoko it was a familiar sensation, for Kim and Tommy it was not.
"I love you." Ryu said simply, holding out his arms. There were no passionate dedications of her beauty and grace, no flowery poetry. Just those three words: I love you. And it said more than a hundred books of poetry and songs could have.
Sayoko ran into his embrace. But where Kim's and Tommy's had only been an innocent hug between friends, Sayoko's and Ryu's clasp was hardly such.
"Oh, I've missed holding you so much!" Sayoko murmured into his shoulder.
Ryu looked down on her and planted a gentle kiss on Sayoko's ear. They stared at each other for a while, admiring each other the way only sweethearts can.
"You've never looked so beautiful." Ryu told her gently, tracing the thick band of her eyelashes with the tip of his finger. "Do you love me, Sayoko?" he asked rhetorically, as he had so many years ago.
"I love you." Sayoko insisted, pulling his head down to hers. Their lips met... and they shared their first kiss in over six hundred years. Ryu pulled her body tight against his, their forms molding together easily, as if they were two pieces of a puzzle that fit together perfectly.
They held the kiss, taking air from the other's mouth, until they both ran out of breath. Then they parted, and there was uncharacteristic softness in the eyes of the two martial artists.
They spoke at the same time, then both laughed gently and said, "You first."
"Very well then." Sayoko giggled, stroking his smooth chin. "I will go first. You know how Tommy is the victim of an arranged marriage... just as ours was."
"Well, I think we should find out a way to nullify that. If he is to marry, it is better if he does it by choice. He deserves a home, and though Kim is his friend, her home is not his. And he cannot go home until the arranged marriage has been solved.
"That sounds like a great idea. He has enough problems without having to worry about what other people will think... his friends, O.K. Kimberly's parents and other people, not O.K."
"You're not upset it will give us less time together?"
"Not at all... if they can make sacrifices for us, then it is the least we can do for them..."
"That is what I thought." Sayoko agreed. "You _do_ know where Tommy's house is, do you not?"
"Yes." Ryu admitted. He offered her his arm. "Shall we go, m'lady?"
"Of course, m'lord." Sayoko giggled, taking his elbow and heading for the tree in the window. They clambered down the foliage easily, and headed for Tommy's house.
The reached the house in short order, proceeding to knock on the door. It opened, and a very haggard-looking, balding, rotund man opened the door.
"Yes?" he asked, in the voice of a man who was very worried indeed.
"Hello, Mr. Oliver?" Ryu asked, standing tall in front of the man."
"Yes, that's me. Do I know you?" he asked, haphazardly squinting his eyes through thick-lensed glasses.
"No... I am a friend of Tommy's? My name is Ryu Fujishita."
The glazed eyes cleared quickly. "Tommy? Do you know where he is? He disappeared about a week ago, and I haven't seen him since... I've been so worried."
Ryu's lip curled. "So eager to throw your son into an arranged marriage, Mr. Oliver? Make him just as miserable as you yourself were?
Mr. Oliver backed up from this man. "How did you know about that?" he asked, fear misting his eyes. "Only Tommy knew that. He wouldn't have told anyone... he was too honorable..."
"You taught your son well. So he is." Ryu agreed. [Though I have doubts about _him_ teaching you the Art.]
:You're right there. But he's the one who sent me to karate school.:
Mr. Oliver puffed up proudly. "He is, isn't he. Such a pity he had that childhood involvement with that _girl_..." Mr. Oliver shook his head. "He would have done better if he'd been with a person like _you_ rather than a light-skirted _female_."
Ryu's expression hardened, and Sayoko stepped out from behind him. "What was that, Mr. Oliver?" Sayoko asked, her words frigid. Her aura was so cold that Ryu could almost feel it.
Mr. Oliver blanched and took another step back.
"This is my _fiancée_, Sayoko Otonashi." Ryu informed Mr. Oliver coolly. "And I would not advise you to speak as such of Kim... she is no light-skirt, and being female is not a disadvantage."
"We came to speak with you of cancelling Tommy's arranged marriage. But it seems hopeless... though you raised Tommy as honest and honorable, you are no such thing. Good day, Mr. Oliver." Sayoko dismissed both of them.
They turned away. "Wait!" echoed after them.
They turned as one and looked at him with no feeling in their eyes. "Yes?"
"I... is Tommy all right?"
"He is fine... upset, but he is O.K."
"Where's he staying?"
"I do not believe that is any of your business, Mr. Oliver."
"He's my _son_, dammit! I've been so worried--" Mr. Oliver babbled.
Sayoko and Ryu exchanged looks. Mr. Oliver _was_ genuinely worried. "Until you revoke the arranged marriage, Mr. Oliver, I am afraid that you _have_ no son."
"Then I take it back!" he jabbered. "I'll talk with the girl's parents tomorrow! But... please ask Tommy to come home!"
Tommy was more surprised than Ryu.
"May we come in?" Ryu asked.
"Yes, yes of course! Would you care for some tea, maybe...?"
"No, thank you." Sayoko declined gracefully, nodding to him as if it was her own home she was entering. Ryu took out a kettle from one of the cupboards and started heating water.
"Who cooks in this house?" asked Sayoko, tracing away a line of dust from the top of the counter.
"Tommy. His mother taught _him_ to cook... before she left." Mr. Oliver's voice was bitter.
"Did your marriage work out?" asked Sayoko, feeling sympathy for this man despite what he had done.
"Yes... but she left when I started telling Tommy..." he cast a look at Sayoko and looked down. "Never mind."
"She left when I started telling Tommy to confide in me instead of in that Kimberly girl." Mr. Oliver mumbled.
"Yes, most mothers would do something of the sort." Sayoko agreed. "I would leave home if Ryu started telling our children to confide in him rather than in a girl."
"You have children? But you're so young--"
"No, no children." Sayoko hastily explained. "And not likely to... due to, ah, extenuating circumstances."
:Good choice of words, Sayoko.:
The kettle started to boil, and Ryu started to talk casually. "Well, what would you do, Mr. Oliver, if I told you your son was right here?"
:What are you _doing_?!:
[You are going to be living with him, and you will have this curse for life... he may as well know now.]
With that, he poured the hot water over himself, and over Sayoko.
Mr. Oliver clambered away from his teenage son. "Tommy?" he asked, his eyes the size of saucers. "But--"
"I recall Mom telling me the legend of Jusenkyo. The Cursed Springs." Tommy informed his father grimly. "Well, it ain't just a legend..."
Tommy repeated the entire story dutifully. But he left out the parts where he was staying at Kim's house, and when Ryu was telling his story. It couldn't do to have his father know that Ryu's marriage was arranged...
"Well." Ed Oliver sighed. "Anyone else but you, boy-- Tommy, I'd call it bull$#!^. But I know you... you wouldn't lie for the world."
"It's true, Dad."
Mr. Oliver came to his son and leered over at Kim. "Who's the pretty little gal?" he whispered in a not-so-soft whisper. "Are you boffing her?"
Tommy looked over his shoulder at Kim. <Play along.> he mouthed to her. She nodded in reply. "It's not what you're thinking, Dad. Remember how Ryu said that he and Sayoko were engaged?"
Mr. Oliver nodded, and began to look suspicious. Tommy reached over and took Kim's hand in his. It amazed him how easily the lie came to his lips. "Well, Dad, meet my fiancée, Kimberly Hart."
Kimberly raised an eyebrow, but concealed it by looking at Tommy with undisguised lovey-dovey-ness. Then she looked over at Mr. Oliver. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Oliver." She stood up and shook his hand.
Ed Oliver looked like a landed fish. Then he closed it. "Ah... my congratulations, son. I can see why you did not want me to arrange a marriage with another girl when... you have such a lovely fiancée already."
He didn't even notice that Kim wore no rings on her slim, elegant fingers.
Kim smiled gracefully. "Thank you."
"Will you be staying with us?" Mr. Oliver asked, smiling now.
"I am afraid not." she answered coolly. "We will not be married until we have both finished college, and we would rather keep ourselves... ah... pristine until then."
:You're a good liar.:
[Thanks. I think.]
Tommy snatched up the hanging thread, and took her hand. "Well, I should think that your gymnastics coach would be looking for you...?"
Kim took the hint. "Yes. Well, thank you, Mr. Oliver. I hope to be seeing you again soon..."
With a wave and a nod, she and Tommy left.
"Whew!" Tommy gasped as soon as they were out of earshot, relieved. "I wasn't sure he'd buy it..."
"That was really a great idea." Kim shook her head with admiration. "Me, your childhood friend, as your fiancée? I'd never have thought of it."
"I never thought lying was so easy..." Tommy shook his head, and laughed. "Oh, man... that _look_ you gave me... that moment was worth all the money in Fort Knox!"
Kim grinned. "Acting classes. Gotta love 'em!"
"You don't... _mind_, do you?"
"Mind? Nah. It'll be fun! But we've gotta tell the gang..."
"Oh, yeah. Wonder how Kat'll take it."
"Hey, it's only pretend, you know."
"_She_ doesn't know that!"
They both laughed. Then stopped as they looked at one another.
"You know, Tommy?"
"I've never seen you this happy since... since we were ten. That's right... today was the first time you really laughed without worrying about anything else, that I've seen."
Tommy was sobered. "Really?"
Kim nodded, then smiled. "Don't take this the wrong way, really. I just mean it as a friend. But you should laugh more often, 'cause you're rilly handsome when you do."
Tommy blinked. "Um. Thank you."
Kim bobbed her head, embarrassed. "Well. Here's my house. See you tomorrow, then... the gang's meeting at the Youth Center at ten... good luck with your dad!"
She patted his shoulder and playfully blew him a kiss before sliding through the door.
Tommy smiled and headed for home.
"Well, son!" Mr. Oliver greeted his son as he walked through the door. "You really _must_ tell your dear father how this happened."
"I don't have to tell you anything, Dad." Tommy snapped. "Not after you treated Kim like a slut and told Sayoko to her face that girls were inferior. I don't owe you anything."
Mr. Oliver was taken aback. His son was normally gentle, not one given to mischief... or disobedience. And the barely-concealed anger in his eyes was frightening, more so than if Tommy had strung him up by the ankles. "But, son..." the words were out of his mouth before his mind could caution it. "_Are_ you boffing her?"
Tommy turned on his father. "You're pathetic!" he snarled furiously. "Is your life so miserable, _father_" he used the term of endearment as an insult, "that you must get details of your son's personal life for kicks?"
This time, Mr. Oliver's eyes flashed in return. "Now see here, boy--"
"No, _you_ see here! You practically tell my best friend--and fiancée!-- that she's a slut! How would you like it if I called Mom a slut?"
"She _was_ one. Like most women. _Including_ that fiancée of yours." Mr. Oliver's reply was flat. Tommy's fist caught him in the jaw and sent him flying.
Ed Oliver's world blacked out in pain as his son's hand caught his jaw. He knew he wasn't a weak man, nor a light one, but that punch had thrown him as easily as if he'd been a ten-year-old.
He came to against the wall. Tommy was standing over him, hands clenched into fists and eyes blank with fury. "You say anything like that again-- and I swear that I'll set Sayoko, Kim, Trini, Aisha and even Kat on you. And _they'll_ do more than dislocate your jaw, I promise."
Thankfully, Tommy didn't kick him. It wasn't in his nature to hit a man while he was down.
With that, Tommy grabbed his karate bag and strode out the kitchen door.
"Where are you going, son!" Ed creaked out through his dislocated jaw.
"I'm not your son." came the bland shout.
Tommy ran. Where, he didn't know. But when he stopped, he was in the middle of the Angel Grove park. He sat down under a tree, and pulled his knees up to his chest.
And even still, he didn't cry.
Grateful for the silence and the loneliness, he settled his chin on his knees and sighed.
[Where will I go now? I can't stay with Kim... it'll make too many tongues start wagging.]
:And would that be a _bad_ thing? After all, you two are supposed to be 'engaged'...:
[Look, Ryu... Kim's my friend, O.K? Not anything more than that.]
:So you say.:
[And what's _that_ supposed to mean?]
:Tommy, she's very pretty.:
[So? I didn't even know she was a girl until we were ten!]
:You knew, it just wasn't important.:
[Whatever. What was _that_ supposed to mean?]
:It means that you lied so easily to your father... why shouldn't it be just as easy to lie to yourself?:
Tommy curled up a little tighter and didn't deign to answer.
And suddenly, it started to rain.
Ryu sighed a little louder and headed for Kim's home.
Kim hummed quietly as she practiced her gymnastic floor routine in the carpeted living room of her house. She'd shoved all the furniture aside and brought in a radio to play her song as she prepared for her next competition.
She back-flipped and tumbled, rising to stand on her tiptoes as she did a side-tumble turn. Gently sweeping her arms upwards, she cartwheeled three times, did a handstand easily and fell to her feet. Then, her finale-- three handsprings with a full twist.
She landed on the tips of her toes, rather pleased with herself. The routine itself was easy, but that finale was a killer...
She looked up to the sound of applause. Ryu was leaning casually against the wall, clapping his hands with no indication of sarcasm.
"Very nice..." he congratulated her. "If my previous memories of gymnastics were more pleasant, I might consider taking it up again."
"Why? What happened?"
"Oh... there was a gymnast I knew, back when I was younger, she was really good at it. Martial arts gymnastics, but still..."
"Was she nice?"
"She was obsessed with me, and clinically insane."
"Oh. Well, how come you're here? I doubt Tommy would have brought both of you... he's probably happy at home. But still, the house is awful empty without you two around..."
"Probably." Ryu agreed. "But he's not happy. He left again... disowning his dad, this time."
"How come?" Kim was shocked.
"His dad treated Sayoko like she was inferior and you like you were a... er... lady of the night?"
"What about it?"
"It doesn't bother you?"
"Not really. Most pretty girls get treated that way, because people think they haven't got a thought in those lovely heads. So he could have been paying me a compliment."
"He could have also been saying you were... uh..."
"Generous with my favors?" Kim suggested dryly.
"I don't really care. If he thinks I'm a slut," Ryu winced at her choice of words. "then that's his problem, and not mine."
"How can you be so cool about it? If I were you, I'd be out to tear his head off!"
"Why should I? It wouldn't solve anything." she pointed out reasonably.
Ryu wrinkled his brow in suspicion. "I know why you don't care. You've been having discussions with Sayoko, haven't you."
"Something like that."
Ryu snorted. "Funny. Having discussions about staying calm with the girl who used to boot me halfway to China whenever I called her a 'tomboy'!"
:Sayoko? A tomboy?: Tommy asked wryly.
[I _know_ it was a bad choice of insults. I _know_ she's not a tomboy. I _know_--]
:Sheesh. It was a perfectly innocent question, man, you don't need to go beatin' your brow over it.:
"Sayoko? A tomboy?"
"What? Wha'd I say?"
"So would you mind if Tommy--and me, too-- stayed here?"
"No, no, of course not! You're both welcome here. Seeing as how Tommy's supposed to be my 'fiancée', I guess that's only normal." Kim agreed. "I mean, my parents aren't here, and they thought Tommy was a 'real gentleman', so I guess they'll think it's O.K.
:~_~: Tommy thought, disgruntled.
This was Ryu's reply.
"So you don't mind a few... what _is_ that word?... freeloaders?" Ryu asked aloud.
Kim snorted. "You're _friends_... not freeloaders. But I've gotta find a room for you guys. You can't stay in mine... and don't even think about staying with Sayoko, Ryu..."
Ryu snapped his fingers. "Aw, _darn_." He grinned. "You sure?"
"You start to sound more like Tommy every day, you know that?" Kim quivered. "Geez... it's scary."
Ryu shuddered theatrically. "Perish the thought..."
"C'mon... let's get you some hot water."
"No... uh, I don't think Tommy wants to be out right now."
"I think we'd better let him decide that."
"Couldn't you just get some cold water?" he pleaded, his gray eyes wistful.
Kim's solemn expression softened into a smile. "You really want to see Sayoko?"
"Yeah. I'd be with her all the time if I could, you know that."
"I know." Kim nodded. "If only we could figure out a way to separate everyone, so that you two _can_ be together all the time..."
"There's Jusenkyo Twin Water... but that has really nasty effects." he quavered dramatically. "I know from experience."
"So there's no way."
"I don't think so. If you prick my finger when I'm Tommy, and then pour cold water on me, the fingerprick'll still be there."
"How do you know?"
"I've _felt_ all the bruises he gets from his tournaments." Ryu rubbed his shoulder, with a wince. "You remember when that opponent of his got him in the shoulder with a backspin kick?"
"Well, I show the bruise just the same as him."
Sighing, she strolled to the kitchen and grabbed a cup of cool water, upending it over her head.
Ryu smiled as Sayoko greeted him from the kitchen door. She ran to him and kissed him.
:What... what _is_ that, that rushes through both of us every time you kiss him?:
Sayoko didn't reply at first. The primary thing that came through her at Kim's question was surprise.
[You mean you don't know?]
She slipped her hand into Ryu's, and his thumb stroked her fingers lovingly. His other hand stole around her shoulders.
:Well, why should I?:
[You mean you've never loved anyone?]
Kim was struck dumb. Was _that_ what love was like? That... that closeness, that feeling of wanting to be together, to be _one_? The feeling of complete unity, even more than that of being a team?
If that was being in love, then she swore to God she'd find someone she loved... there was nothing like it.
Suddenly, Kim--or rather, Sayoko-- doubled over in pain as a twinge of agony ran through her abdomen.
"Sayo!" Ryu caught her before she collapsed. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know!" she gasped. Then she swore as another pang shot through her. This time, her knees gave out, but Ryu's strength was already supporting her.
Ryu, every inch the concerned fiancée, picked her up with ease, cradling her in his muscled arms. He ran to Kim's room and settled Sayoko, who was still clutching her stomach, on the bed.
"Should I get a doctor?" he asked, scared for her. "What's happening?"
She avoided the question. "No... don't get a doctor."
"I don't _care_ if you tell me not to get a doctor, baka! There's something wrong... and only a doctor would be able to tell what it is!"
"No... No, I'm all right! Really!" Sayoko protested.
Ryu fell over her, his face mere inches from hers, his body held off hers by his arms. "Sayo, I'm only concerned because I _care_."
Her face softened. "I know you do, love. But I _know_... nothing's wrong with me!"
His face hardened. "Then why do you keep on bending over and crying out?"
"It's just... just a cramp, that's all. Just a cramp."
He lowered himself down and kissed her. "Liar."
He jumped up and headed for Kimberly's pink phone.
[Tommy, does she keep a list of emergency numbers?]
:Yeah... by the phone, in that little pink book.:
He ruffled through the book, then stopped abruptly. "What is this?"
[I can't read this!]
[I'm Japanese, you baka!]
[Idiot! Dunce! Stupid!]
:So what you're saying is that we've gotta change, and _I've_ got to call the doctor?:
[In a nutshell.]
Tommy bolted to the bathroom and dumped hot water over his head, ran to the phone and called the doctor.
<Hellow? Dr. Relosa's office, how may I help you?>
"Could I speak to Dr. Relosa, please?
<Just a minute!>
A male voice boomed into the phone. <Hello.>
"Hello, Dr. Reloza."
<Tommy! How are you?>
"Fine. Look, there's a problem."
<Isn't there always?>
"Yeah, yeah, look, it's _serious_!"
<I know. What's wrong with ya? Didn't stretch b'fore your karate match? Pulled a muscle in your competition? Oh, congrats on your victory.>
"Yeah. Whatever... look, it's not me, Dr. A friend of mine's sick."
Suddenly, Dr. Relosa turned serious.
<It's not Kim, is it?>
"Kim? Why would it be Kim?"
<You mean you don't know?>
Tommy's voice grew more frightened. "What's wrong with Kim?"
<Ah... it _is_ Kim, then?>
"No! Yes! Oh... I don't know! Could you just come over here? PLEASE?"
His voice was soothing. <Of course, Tommy. Give me a few minutes... just stay with her.>
Tommy paced in front of the door. Why was Dr. Relosa taking so long? It seemed forever before the strong knock resounded.
"Who is it?" Tommy asked, cautiously.
"Dr. Relosa!" came the reply. Tommy practically threw the door of its hinges to let him in.
"Doctor, I'm so glad you're here." he sighed. "I've been so worried..."
Dr. Relosa grinned. He was very nearly the same height as Tommy, and was almost sixty. His hair was pure black, except for the cream-white skunk stripe running through the center. His face was unlined but for tiny crow's feet and smile lines. It was so easy to imagine him as an old, wily skunk... "Tommy! Why are you in Kim's house? And why in the world are you wet?"
"Er... would you believe I was visiting?"
"No. I'm glad that you finally decided to take a girlfriend... Kim's a great girl."
"Hey, who said anything about a girlfriend?"
"Urk. Well, uh... I can explain..."
"Not now, son. C'mon, where's the patient?"
"Um, she's upstairs..."
Dr. Relosa scooted up the stairs with the agility of a rabbit, slipping into the door before Tommy could make it halfway up.
When Tommy entered the room, Dr. Relosa was clucking over Sayoko--
Wait a minute, that wasn't Sayoko, that was Kim! And a rather... damp... Kim, at that.
"Well, Kim, it looks like you're going to have a very painful few days... does this hurt?"
He prodded her side gently. Kim's face twisted. "OW!"
"I guess so. Well, that clinches it."
"What's wrong with her, doctor?"
Dr. Relosa's face was absolutely serious as he answered. "She has a rather nasty case of dysmenorrhoea. Just make sure she stays in bed, and don't give her plenty of liquids. Oh, Kim, and _no_ rolls in the hay in this time period, O.K?"
Kim's voice was weak, but laughing, as she replied, "I sorta figured that out, doctor."
"I thought you would." Dr. Relosa nodded. "Well, good luck... take care of her, Tommy."
With that, Dr. Relosa was out the door.
Tommy blinked. "Well, that was fast..."
"I thought I told you not to call the doctor, you idiot!" Kim admonished him. "I knew what was wrong: nothing!"
"But he said you had dysmenorrhoea... what _is_ that, anyway? It sounds awful..."
"It's a chronic condition of some women, O.K?" Kim told him, exasperated. "Not life-threatening... just painful."
"But what _is_ it?"
Kim's face was absolutely straight as she told him it was none of his business.
"Kim," his voice grew lower, "I wouldn't ask if I didn't care..."
He slapped his hand over his mouth. Had he said that? Nah... Ryu must have had control of him at that second...
:Nope. That was all you, brother.:
"Why, Tommy, that's very sweet." Kim smiled at him. "Just as friends, right?"
"Friends. Of course." Tommy hastily agreed. "I mean, how could I care as anything else for someone like _you_..."
:Bad choice of words. _Very_ bad choice of words...: Ryu warned.
Tommy had figured that out when Kim's expression grew stormy. "Wait, wait..." he quickly amended. "I didn't mean that like it sounded..."
"Well!" Kim huffed, ignoring his apology. "If that's the way you're going to be, fine! See if I care!"
"Don't you 'Kim' me, buster."
She pushed him out the door, ignoring the twinges of pain in her abdomen. "Third room to the left."
She slammed the door in his face.
[Shut up, Sayoko. I don't want to talk.]
:No, I _won't_ shut up.:
[You don't have a choice.] Kim's voice was low with menace.
:Wanna bet? Look, Kim... I remember, Ryu used to say things like that to me.:
Kim tried her best to sound flippant. [So? I don't care about that.]
:Don't tell me that it's that 'dysmenorrhoea' business... it's not. You can't lie to someone who lives in your head, you know. Just listen. Look, Ryu's told you our story, how we were miserable with each other.:
:He always did that-- stuck his foot in his mouth whenever he'd said something too unbearably nice for his liking.:
[But that's stupid!]
:You're right-- but guys have this really masochist point of view, O.K? They do things like that.:
[But I don't care!]
:Really, now? Then why were you so angry when he said that?:
Kim clamped her lips closed and shut Sayoko out.
:Oh, wasn't _that_ smart now?:
[Shut up.] Tommy snarled. [Just shut up, O.K? I didn't mean it like it sounded, and you know it. Why can't she just accept that?]
:Tommy, you have to understand.:
[What's to understand? I didn't mean it...]
:Look, Tommy, I used to do things like that, too. Stick my foot in my mouth after I'd said something really nice.:
:Tommy, just listen, O.K? You care about her, don't you?:
[Of course! She's my friend,]he ignored Ryu's derisive snort.
:Then why did you have to go on and say everything else? I mean, if you care, admit it... before you lose her.: Ryu added solemnly.
[How can I lose her? We're friends, it's not like she's gonna move away anytime soon or anything...]
:You never know, Tommy. I remember, we had a saying long ago: if you love something, set it free; if it comes back, it's yours forever, and if it doesn't, it's probably better that way.:
[You lost me somewhere.]
:You are irrevocably dense sometimes, you know that?:
[Oh, shut up. Just because I don't use five-syllable words in every sentence doesn't mean that I'm stupid, O.K?]
:I didn't say you were stupid, I said you were dense. There is a difference. Now go and apologize, or else I will make your life miserable for a month!:
[Don't you already?]
:Oooh, I'm gonna get you for that...:
[Just you _try_!]
:Tommy, look. You care for her, don't you?:
[Well... yeah, I suppose so...]
:Then why not tell her so? That's the most precious gift you can give a woman. Believe me, I know-- the day I told Sayoko that I loved her was the first day she kissed me.:
[Hey, who said anything about love?]
Ryu sighed. Tommy was just plain hopeless. :Sometimes, it's the same thing. You just don't know it.:
[I know that it isn't, Ryu.]
:Then why was it so easy to lie to your father, telling him that she was your fiancée?:
:Tommy, if you love her, say so. Before it's too late. Before someone else claims her...:
[Ryu, you're not just doing this so you can be with Sayoko, are you?]
Ryu sighed. :Tommy, would I do something like that?:
[I dunno. Would you?]
:Of course not! I love Sayo, Tommy, but I wouldn't manipulate someone else's life to be in hers. If you were to decide never to see Kim again... well, it's your body, and I won't stand in your way.:
[I think I'm gonna go and apologize.]
Tommy stopped, knocking on the door of Kim's room gently.
"Who is it?" she asked, pain in her voice.
"Ryu, or Tommy?"
"Kim... look, I'm sorry. I really am. I kinda didn't want to sound too... affectionate, you know, so I backpedaled and went too far back."
Kim's voice was marginally warmer as she said, "O.K. Come in, then, we can't talk properly if you're outside the door."
Tommy opened the door gingerly, still somewhat afraid a shoe would come flying out at him, and when nothing did, he approached the woman lying on the bed.
Then it registered what she was wearing.
She had drawn on a simple pink silk nightgown. It hung to mid-thigh, exposing a slight flash of white panty. The spaghetti straps bared the fact that she wasn't wearing a bra, and the v-neck of the nightgown made it doubly obvious that Kim's gymnastic practice hadn't rid her of her smooth curves.
She smiled wanly at him, noticing him staring. "That bad, huh? I always wear it when I'm feeling nasty, it makes me feel better. But I guess it doesn't do anything for my figure."
"You look beautiful!" he blurted. He didn't bother trying to take it back: it would be a lie.
She smiled. "Thank you, Tommy. That didn't come from Ryu, did it?"
"No, that was straight from me..." he admitted, smiling back. She really was beautiful when she smiled... it was infectious. "Look, Kim, it's not a problem for me to stay here, is it?"
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "I'd rather have you guys here rather than at your house, being miserable."
Tommy's face lost its sweet warmth.
Kim sat up, ignoring the pain in her abdomen. "Aaah... sorry. I didn't mean to bring that up..."
"It's O.K." he said, smiling a sickly smile.
"Liar. You want to talk about it?"
Kim clambered out of bed to grab a cup of cold water that she always kept near her bed.
"No, Kim. I'd really... rather talk to you."
Kim's eyes softened. She knew what it cost him to admit that he wanted to talk to _her_: he still hadn't quite gotten over the prejudices that his father had installed in him about women. Thankfully, the bigotry of the father had never had very much influence on the son.
"Then come on, Tommy." she scooted over and propped herself up on the pillows. She grabbed another, huge soft pillow and plumped it so he could sit or lie as he chose beside her, and they could talk comfortably.
He perched uncomfortably on the edge of the bed, throwing Kim little sidelong glances.
"Tommy, I don't bite. Well, not while I'm talking to anyone, anyway..."
[And let him make of that what he will...]
"Well... uh... where do you want me to start?"
"Where do you _think_ you should start?" she asked, at Sayoko's prompting. It wouldn't do to have him retreat back into his shell of martial arts.
"I guess... yeah, I'll start at the time when I was eight. We were still friends then, right? That was the year you gave me a pair of roller skates for my birthday."
Kim nodded, touched that he'd remembered.
"Well, my Mom and dad weren't getting along too well. My dad didn't like the fact that we were friends, and said that 'roller skating was for sissies'. My Mom thought it was great that I was 'so well adjusted', and that 'I was taking up a good pastime.'"
"It sounds like your parents didn't get along."
"That's what happens in arranged marriages, Kim." Tommy smiled again, a melancholy expression with no hint of white teeth. "It's why _I_ don't want to be in one."
"That's when the trouble started. I couldn't see it then, but I noticed Mom taking out her katana more, and often at night I'd hear them screaming at each other."
"When we were ten, my dad explained to me that my best friend--you-- was a girl. I was going through the 'eew, girls' stage, so I guess I found it easy enough to break off ties."
"When my Mom found out, she packed up her stuff and left. She couldn't stand it anymore. She tried to take me with her... but Dad wouldn't let me go."
Tommy's voice cracked a little, and he slumped down on the pillows. "I wanted to go with her, get away from the fat man who told me that it was better to talk to him than to a 'girl'."
"It just got worse from there. When I grew into my clumsy legs--"
:Clumsy? You? Hah!:
[Didn't _you_ ever go through the gangly stage?]
:Yeah, but I was never clumsy. Imagine, me clumsy? Never. Just like I bet _you_ never were.:
"I found out that... well... girls _liked_ me. What dad _didn't_ like is that I was beginning... well, to like them, back. He told me that all women were good-for-nothing, just for fun."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kim bristle. He couldn't blame her.
"That was my first real fight with my father."
"Well, I dealt with it, and went on. It was no big thing... I'd just avoid girls, no problem."
"So _that's_ why you stopped speaking to me." Kim mused.
Tommy nodded. "That's right. Well, anyway... he's been telling me these things for years, O.K. I know they're not true--I've known for a while-- but I'm not about to tell him that. To each his own beliefs, y'know? But... after he treated you like a... a prostitute, I was plenty mad at him."
"Oh, Tommy, you shouldn't have left because of that!"
"I wouldn't have, if he hadn't done... what he did."
His hands clenched in fists of impotent rage.
"What did he do, Tommy?" Kim asked gently. She hadn't seen him so angry in years. Not since that boy had tried to beat her up when they were eight, and Tommy had come to her rescue.
"He... he..." his jaw clenched, and his teeth bared. He gritted the words out. "When I told him that he was treating you like a slut, and I asked what would he do if I treated Mom like that, he said that she _was_ a slut. Like most women. Including you."
"Oh, Tommy." Kim patted his shoulder with sympathy. Even though she felt like knocking his father's teeth out. "What did you do?"
Tommy grinned an angry, malicious grin. "Dislocated his jaw for him, and threatened to sic you, Aisha, Trini, Kat, an' Sayoko on him if he ever said anything like that again."
Kim threw her head back and laughed. "Oh, that's a good one. He's been asking for it for years, you know."
Tommy hung his head. "I know. But it doesn't stop me for feeling bad about it."
"Tommy, you're only supposed to feel bad about something if you did something _wrong_."
"I don't think so, Tommy. He's had it coming for years; you're just the first one who's ever had the guts to do it."
He blinked at her, and his hazel brown eyes were pleading with her to forgive him. Pleading with her to forgive him for something that he should have done years ago. To forgive him for bravery, for spirit, for very human anger, for pride in his friends and himself.
She smiled at him, a gentle flush riding her cheeks lightly. Her soft brown eyes became meltingly warm, framed by soft lashes as long as Tommy's. Her pale skin gleamed in the soft glow of warmth from outside the window, where the ancient tree cast lengthening shadows on all under it. Gingerly, one hand crept towards Tommy. Her fingers brushed his lips with kitten-paw delicacy.
Then it was her fierce lips which traced around his, those curious fingers tangled in his loose, long hair.
She felt Tommy jerk, his eyes flaring open with surprise. But it seemed that once he realized that she would not let him go, he relaxed and leaned into her with surprising expertise. With his superior size, weight and sheer presence, Kim soon found herself in the position of kissed, rather than kisser.
She broke from him with a little moan. "Tommy, what are we doing?" she whispered, barely loud enough for she herself to hear.
:Kim, what was _that_?!:
[I... I don't know, Sayoko.]
"I don't know, Kim. God take me, I don't know."
Kim shook her head and didn't meet his curious, piercing eyes. "It was an accident, Tommy. Just... just an accident."
It hurt that Tommy was so quick to agree with her. "Um. Right. Just an accident. Something we can never do again."
It was like a child promising he'd never tease his sister again. Completely and utterly impossible. But Kim didn't know that.
"Kim? You O.K?"
She hadn't realized that she'd had a crestfallen, pained expression on her face. She quickly pasted a wan smile over cardboard lips and answered weakly, "Yeah. Just... just the dysmenorrhoea acting up again."
His eyes fell on her, and his eyelids dropped lower as one eyebrow twitched upwards. He could tell she was lying and she knew it. "Really?"
"Uhm. Maybe you should go."
For emphasis, she leaned over and clutched her stomach.
Tommy wasn't buying an inch of it. But he didn't have a choice. He was only a guest in her house, and it would be rude to stay at her direct request to leave.
:She's lying.: Ryu informed him pointedly.
[I know.] Tommy agreed.
:You think we should go?:
[You think we've got a choice?]
Tommy flopped down on his bed, exhausted. It was hopeless, trying to talk to Kim. Oh, she'd _talk_ to him about pointless little things... but whenever important issues came up, she'd either shut him out or not acknowledge his presence at all.
[She's been ignoring me ever since... well, ever since that kiss. Was it wrong, to enjoy it? It was nice, I admit... but was it wrong? I mean, I must have done something for her to ignore me like this...]
For a few seconds, Ryu was silent. Then, choosing his words carefully, he replied. :I don't think you did anything _wrong_, Tommy. In fact, I think you two have had that kiss coming for months, maybe even years. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a kiss... I do that all the time. _She_ probably knows that, too... she just needs a little time... to adjust, to sort things out. We all do.:
[You talk like she's my girlfriend or something.]
:Isn't she? C'mon, Tommy, that was one heckuva serious kiss. I've known married couples who didn't kiss like that. Hell, I've known times when Sayo and I didn't kiss like that.:
[You and Sayo must be rubbing off on us.] Tommy shrugged off the completely solemn sentence with a flippant comment.
:Don't go glib on me, Tommy. I wasn't kidding. Don't you think it's time to admit how you feel?:
Tommy snorted. [Admit what?]
:You idjut. Bloody idiot.: Ryu snarled. :You're going to end up hurting yourself, hurting your friends and hurting Kim if you keep on going on like this!:
A pulse of astonishment-- Tommy's-- tore through Ryu's thoughts for a second. [What? Why?]
:You fool. I remember you telling Kim something. "She's very sweet, when she wants to be... normally she's as fiery as anything..." now who's that, Tommy?:
Tommy blinked. [You don't know?]
:I respect your privacy, just as I hope you respect mine.: Ryu replied dryly. :And I think, in matters of the heart, everyone deserves it.:
"Tommy, we need to talk." Kim's voice tingled into his ears, the coolest of breezes on the most sultry summer day.
"About time." he informed her with a small smile. "I've been trying to catch you for quite a while."
She was quite out of breath, and he could evidently see there was something wrong. Something _very_ wrong. "Tommy, this isn't the time for that! Someone attacked Adam, today, as he was walking home from school-- and that someone was looking for us!"
On the way to the hospital, it started to rain.
"God, Adam! Who did this to you?" Sayoko asked, kneeling down at Adam's bedside. He was muffled in bandages from head to toe.
"Mrm drmnt noow! E mlled mslf yyoo."
"I think he's saying he doesn't know, but he called himself Ryoko." Ryu put in.
One white-blond, one ash-blonde, one wet raven-black, one dark brown, and one black, braided head turned to look at him. Adam nodded vigorously, agreeing vehemently with Ryu.
"I had a lot of practice." he explained.
His tanned, handsome face twisted into an expression of sadness. "So Ryoko decided to follow us after all."
Sayoko's mind-send to Kim was sad. [Ah. Poor Ryoko.]
"My best friend, once upon a time." Ryu smiled, but it was as artificial as the sun-touches on Billy's hair.
Aisha stood up and touched the taller man's smooth-muscled, soft-skinned arm. "What happened?"
"What else happens between boys?" the smile turned bitter. "We were rivals and best friends both. Neither of us ever lost, or won, so we thought it was equal. Then I got betrothed to the girl that I'd known Ryoko had loved for years, but never got the guts to ask out."
"Our friendship was over. He blamed _me_ for all of it: he fell into a Jusenkyo pool, just as I had, when I was in China training. Spring of the Drowned Hamster, poor guy. And he still loved Sayoko. We fought... and I discovered that through all those years, I'd gotten better than he had. He lost, and slunk away."
"The day I was supposed to marry Sayoko," he looked at her with open love in his eyes, "I went to the Jusenkyo pools, to get a bottle of Naniichuan. So that I would be a man for good. For her."
"I never saw it coming. He bashed me across the back of the head with a metal pole, and I fell into a spring. I guess I drowned, there. I'd have never thought that Sayoko would throw herself into the one nearest it..."
:Or that Ryoko would do the same when he saw Sayoko die.: Tommy added.
"Or that Ryoko would do the same when he saw Sayoko die." Ryu agreed. "It was very complicated. That's a very simple version of the story. The poor guy... I wonder who's body he's taken over?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes. Because the body he's taken over is probably in love with Kim, otherwise his spirit could not have been able to take over."
Sayoko, Ryu, Kat, Aisha, Billy, Adam, and Rocky exchanged twenty-one looks. "Skull."
:What the Hell! Get out of my head! Let me out of here!: Skull screamed. :Who the Hell are you?:
[I'm Ryoko Fujishita.] Ryoko sent a mental picture of huge, malicious grin to poor Skull. [And I need to borrow your body.]
:You can't have it! For what?:
[Revenge.] The flood of hatred that came with the statement made Skull shiver. Mentally, of course. Not being able to move his body, struggling against the bonds of his own body and feeling the terrible, powerful thoughts of this stranger...
:Against _who_?! Who, or why, would you hate someone that much?:
[Love. You wouldn't understand. And I need my revenge against Ryu.]
[You would not know him. Ryu. My most hated enemy.]
:You mean Tommy?!:
Skull thought of Ryu's features melting into Tommy's.
[Yes. Oh yes. And this time, I will kill him _permanently_. There will be no personality pool for him to fall into this time. And Sayoko will be _mine_. She always loved me, not him. He just put her under some kind of spell. Just so he could have her, and I couldn't. He doesn't love her as much as I do, as much as I can.]
It was the rambling of a man driven mad.
:Um, Ryoko? Not to spoil your little party or something, but Ryu and Sayoko looked like they were pretty much in love.:
[Shut up!] Ryoko shouted, delivering a mental slap across Skull's face. [We're going to find him. And then we're going to kill him. And then I'm going to marry Sayoko.]
There was no denying, though, that Ryoko was very much in love with Sayoko.
And it was tempting to Skull. Very tempting.
:If you marry Sayoko... that means that I marry Kimmie, doesn't it?:
[Of course.] Ryoko replied pompously. [But that's only if you help me.]
:If you promise not to hurt my friends.:
Ryoko sneered. [You have no real friends.]
:Then just don't hurt Kimmie. Promise me you won't hurt her.:
This time, Ryoko just scoffed. [Do you think I'm so stupid as to hurt the body of my future wife? Ryu I can kill... but wouldn't it be so much easier to go for this host, Tommy...? And who better to use as bait than this girl you call Kimmie?]
"Who _are_ you!" Kimberly screamed, struggling against abnormally powerful arms. "Dammit, let _go_ of me!"
"Heh." came the amused reply. "I don't think so, Kimberly-chan. You see, I need you."
Kimberly felt Sayoko's thoughts run cold. :No.:
[What?] Kim shrieked. This feeling of binding, of closing, was more than she could bear. It was if this man-- it _was_ a man, she could tell by the voice-- didn't let her go soon--
:You can't do anything to him that he won't counter.: Sayoko informed her, dully. :He knows you too well.:
"Who _are_ you?!" Kim shouted, twisting to see her capturer's face.
She stopped flat when she saw _exactly_ who it was.
It _was_ Ryu. There was no mistaking those huge gray eyes, so piercingly handsome that it drove a drill straight through her just looking at him. That black braid still tumbled over one shoulder carelessly.
He even dressed the same. White slacks, white sweatshirt that hung on his body just enough to emphasize those sleek muscles and powerful, deep chest.
There was no way it could be anyone else.
"Ryu!" she queried, her voice trembling and wide-eyed.
Then his lip twisted into a nasty sneer-smile that was definitely not Ryu. "Hello, Kim."
Sayoko had panicked at first when she'd seen the one who held her in an iron-handed grip that bruised her--and Kim-- arm painfully. Ryu, her gentle Ryu, would never do anything like this, she knew it.
So that meant that Ryoko really _was_ back.
Then they were in trouble.
:No.: she thought to Kim as she felt Kim struggle. :Don't move, Kim.: She'd just hurt herself. Ryoko might not want to hurt _her_, Sayoko, but he'd have absolutely no compunctions about slapping around Kim...
And if it was Skull's body he was occupying, then Skull would not be able to do anything about it other than make a little mental noise. Skull would never want to hurt Kim-- but Ryoko didn't care.
"Why are you doing this, Ryu!" Kim shrieked, twisting in his arms. "Leave me _alone_!"
"Stop squirming, you &!^#$," he whispered sensually, next to her ear. "You're just the bait, darlin'. I've got bigger fish to fry."
He ran a possessive hand down her hip. "But hey, I might keep you anyway."
"Get away from her."
Kim's head snapped up as she realized who was speaking. "Tommy?" she murmured weakly. If Tommy-- and therefore, Ryu-- was across from her on this grassy cliffside... then who was holding her body in that painful vice?
Yes, it _was_ Tommy. And they were wearing the exact same outfit.
"Stay cool, Kim. Ryoko Fujishita," Tommy stated flatly. "Let her go. Or I'll kill you, I swear I will."
And Tommy raised his Magnum .45, pointing it unerringly at Ryoko's head.
"Tommeee!" Kim shouted. "Go! He's just using us as bait to get Ryu and Sayoko!"
"I know." he answered, sighting coolly down the barrel.
Ryoko smiled cruelly over Kim's head, and drew a long-bladed serrated knife from a scabbard on his hip.
He was tall, the same height as Tommy. Kim's head barely reached his Adam's apple. But her small frame served its purpose. There was no way that Tommy would shoot if Kim was in the way of the shot.
Then across her neck went the knife, ribbing gently against the soft, soft skin.
:What are you _doing_?!: Skull shrieked. :You said you wouldn't hurt her!:
[I never said that, boy.] Ryoko answered coldly. [I merely asked why I would want to harm Sayoko's body. I harm it for a greater purpose, for the Game.]
Then Ryoko slammed a mind-shield in Skull's face, knocking him out of his own mind for about half an hour.
He held Kim tightly, the knife riding her every tortured breath. Her bound hands pressed uncomfortably between their bodies. He chanced a glance down, and there was a sticky brown smudge on the crown of her head where he'd broken the skin. Finding that paperweight had been a real stroke of luck: he hadn't even had to fight with her. One throw, and she'd dropped like a stone in water. It had stunned her, making her easy prey.
[And easy prey makes for an easy kill.]
He wouldn't kill Kim, of course. He'd never do anything to _permanently_ harm Sayoko. But he needed to hurt her a little, just a little, to punish her for falling under the spell of that traitor, Ryu.
Guns were so impersonal, so cold. They were so clumsy, not elegant weapons at all.
"I knew you'd follow me, 'Tommy'." he tasted the name on his tongue. "And I didn't even need to meet you."
For some reason, this unnerved the young man who held the gun in unfaltering hands. His jaw tightened. "Then let Kim alone. If it's Sayoko you want, then talk to her. She loves Ryu, not you. Why are you here?"
Ryoko's smile was cruelly melancholy, his gray eyes flashing in amusement. "My dear Thomas, haven't you ever been just plain jealous?"
Ryoko had. Almost since birth, he had. His younger brother, his younger _twin_, had been identical to him in birth. But he'd always been the favored one, the one whom everyone liked. He'd had whole neighborhoods of friends-- never mind that he had as many enemies as friends-- and all the girls in the city where they lived adored him. Gentle Ryu, sweet Ryu, darling Ryu.
And the only one who hadn't fallen prey to his brother's sorcerous charms had been Sayoko Otonashi, heir to the Femme Fatale school. The only one who Ryoko had ever loved. But no, Ryu had to have _her_, too, even knowing how his twin felt about her.
There was no denying they'd been friends, no matter Ryu's position as favorite son. Ryu had never rubbed his advantages-- he was stronger, faster, a better student, a better fighter, a better friend-- in Ryoko's face. But his engagement to Sayoko-- no matter how unwillingly-- had been the straw that broke Ryoko's sense of control.
It got worse when Sayoko and Ryu had admitted their love for each other. It had to be a spell. It couldn't be anything else. Sayoko loved _him_, Ryoko, not some pale goody-goody imitation.
It couldn't be anything else.
"Drop the knife, Ryoko. Before anyone gets hurt." said the long-haired boy with the gun. His face was classically handsome, and he was tall and firmly muscled. A single golden earring dangled from one ear.
Ryoko's lip turned up in a sneer. Anyone taking a first look at this child, this Jacob-I-Have-Loved child, would think he was totally in control. But Ryoko wasn't fooled. He knew this boy, could see the bleakness in his eyes that came from bad parents, laughed at his inner turmoil. He knew the coldness in Tommy's mind, the complex and often contradictory manner with which Tommy thought.
Because, no matter how much Tommy might want to believe otherwise, though his soul, sweet innocence and forgiveness were Ryu's, his mind was Ryoko's. And no-one would ever, could ever, change that.
For one brief instant, Ryoko had seen Tommy's heart and greatest weakness.
And like a general planning a great and glorious battle, he struck.
For he knew that, unlike himself who had been extradited by association with his gloriously wonderful brother, Tommy kept aloof from a mistaken belief that it would protect him. And those he secretly cared for.
His mouth curved in a handsome, horrible smile. Once again, he looked down at the woman he was holding so close to him. Her eyes were focused directly on Tommy, her back ramrod straight. He admired her iron control, that which kept her from screaming or struggling. He would have killed her, true, but it would have been amusing to watch Tommy trying to stop her. She was his partner, so to speak. His best friend.
And was she something more?
Tommy's eyes blazed, throwing sparks from a ghost-pure soul. "What do you want, Ryoko? Just give it up. You know that a knife is no match for a gun. You ain't goin' no-where, man. Just give it up."
"What do I want? I want my Sayoko back. And I want my brother _dead_!" Ryoko screamed. The fool, the naïve fool.
Then he bared his upper teeth again in a cruel grin. "And about the knife, I beg to differ. I have always found a knife to be a most effective weapon. If I'd had one in that battle against Ryu, surely I would have won."
He shifted the gleaming blade in his white, callused hand
so that the flat of it lay against Kimberly's face. Then slowly and gently, like a lover's caress, he ran it from her temple, down her cheek to her chin. He did not draw any blood-- to do so would spoil all the fun-- but waited for her reaction. And Tommy's. Oh, this was so much fun...
To her credit, the woman made not a sound, but stood absolutely still, her rapid breathing the only sign of her agitation. Ryoko glanced at Tommy, his dark, thick eyebrow raised in a challenge. Kimberly's friend was not having the same success as she in schooling his emotions, however. Sweat had broken out on his high, sun-bronzed forehead. He grew pale, eyes wide with barely restrained horror, Tommy nervously licked his lips.
Ryu's elder brother noted with satisfaction that his opponent looked as if he might be physically ill.
That would be satisfying beyond belief, to watch this white-pure boy retch at the sight of the knife caressing Kim's skin.
[Yes, he may think like me, but he hasn't got the stomach to kill me. A little mama's boy, top in his class, couldn't fight to save his life, I bet, if it came down to the crush. A black belt in school, only. And I bet he can't even shoot that gun he's holding so coolly.]
"I see you get my... point, Thomas Oliver," he smirked at his own quip, placing the glass-sharp point in the hollow of Kimberly's throat. "A knife can hold its own against any gun. It all depends on how and who you use it against. The trick, dear boy, is to use the knife against something the gun's owner values. And I think I have found something you value, boy."
He saw Tommy's eyes flit briefly to his stone-still, pretty friend's. Sorrow, regret and reassurance all shone in the young man's eyes as he sought to send a silent message to the woman before him. Not for the first time, Ryoko wondered at the connection between the
two teenagers. Even before he'd met either of the pair, he'd sifted through Skull's memories: though Tommy laughed and taunted and sparred with the others in the group, only Kimberly knew him well. Why? The black sheep, with Tommy's need for solitude, why would he let someone like Kim to get as close to him as she had?
And Ryoko knew the answer, and he almost laughed. It was too obvious, too funny. And only Skull, of all the sweet and innocent members of Angel Grove, had seen it.
Skull had noted immediately that they were truly friends. Though they fought and bickered almost constantly, they were comfortable with each other. They hadn't spoken much, he noticed, being the sort who were comfortable with their shared silences. But they caught and held each others' gazes. Often. Sometimes, the look that flowed liquidly between them was filled with unspoken, unneeded comments and questions regarding something or other.
Other times, it had appeared they simply liked looking at each other.
Well, that was no surprise. They were both very easy on the eyes. Though neither was strikingly, amazingly good-looking, as Sayoko and Ryu were, they had an amiable nature around them that attracted friends.
Tommy was tall, taller even than him, Skull, and lean, strong and unconsciously graceful like a dancer. Add to that a gently pointed jaw, and old eyes which shifted colors depending on which light they were seen in, he drew interested glances and women no matter how much he tried to be unassuming. Even in a crowd as beautiful-- or handsome, as the case may be-- as Angel Grove, he stuck out.
His thick, long deep mahogany hair, cut fashionably around his shoulders, was worn swept back into a teenager's traditional ponytail. He was dressed for comfort, not for show: a loose cream-- not white, for once-- shirt with sleeves cut off and baggy karate pants of dark green. Not to Skull's taste-- what fit well on Tommy and his friend "Jason" would have fallen off Skull's bone-thin frame and made him look even slimmer than he already was.
Skull had him mentally written down as an all-American jock. Then learned differently when Tommy smiled and replied to "Billy's" intense question about physics.
Kim was another matter, however.
Nearly a foot shorter than the man beside her, she had nevertheless appeared his equal-- if not in stature, than definitely in intelligence. It glittered from her smile, her posture, that she was no "Valley Girl", no matter how much she might act or speak like one. Her chestnut hair fell in a graceful wave to her shoulders, her smile held welcome for everyone-- well, almost everyone-- and her eyes...
Oh, Skull had fallen in love with her when he'd seen those sweet eyes, so very innocent, and so very lovely. A light dusting of joy shaded those eyes, the need to help and be friends with everyone. She, too, had obviously read the handbook on Typical Teenage Dress Code: she wore a tiny little shirt which had given up on trying to cover her belly-button, and just-as-tiny little pink shorts. Just as bright as her personality.
He'd noticed instantly that there was a connection between the two. That, of course, was why he'd challenged Tommy for that famous first time. And found out, much to his humiliation, that they _weren't_ going out.
But he kept trying, and always got the same answer. "Last I checked, Skull, I wasn't dating her."
He just couldn't figure it out.
[The fool.] Ryoko thought, with some amusement. [The stupid idiot.]
When he'd finally arrived, back in the world of the living, the first thing he'd done was study Skull's memories. Those two, that intriguing pair had immediately stuck out.
Though he knew, from those same memories, that Sayoko and Ryu lived within those two bodies, they did so many little things that Sayo and Ryu would never have thought of doing. They'd never really been 'friends', in the barest sense of the word. These two were...
In the mind, there is no sense of the minutes ticking away. He'd had more than enough time to witness the closeness with which they stood, Tommy's taller frame bent to listen to his friend's voice, considering carefully her opinion. To notice once again the eye contact between them, unwavering, unguarded, and lingering. To view the small, incidental ways in which Tommy managed to establish a tiny physical connection with her: a gentle touch on her arm to get her attention, a hand on the small of her back to guide her down a hall or into the Youth Center. And the smiles. Small, secretive sometimes, open most, volumes spoken without a single word.
Ryoko liked puzzles.
"I wonder, do you really and truly value your friend, Tommy? With all your heart and your soul? I wonder." Ryoko asked conversationally, delicately lifting strands of the woman in question's hair with his knife. The chestnut strands glimmered lightly, shining against the gleaming steel.
Tommy's mouth tightened. "I'm not playing that game with you, Ryoko."
The raven-haired, braided man shrugged without rancor, his eyes sly. "All right. I can see how you might find that question rather personal. It can wait until we get to... know each other better. Why don't we play another game I believe you _will_ enjoy."
Tommy shifted warily, his gun still before him. Still pointed calmly at Ryoko Fujishita's head. "Oh, and what game is that?"
"Twenty Questions," he answered evenly, relaxing against the wall of packing crates at his back. "Surely, there must be some things about me you're just . . . dying to know."
Tommy thought it over, then said with studied nonchalance, "Why don't you let Kim go? Then we can talk. As soon as I know she's all right, we'll play any sort of game you like."
Quick as a snake and three times as deadly, Ryoko stepped away from the cartons and changed his grip on Kim. The hand that had clasped her to his chest reached up and pressed sharply beneath her chin, his thumb and forefinger digging into the soft flesh there surrounding her windpipe. Just as swiftly, she began to gag, sputtering for air. With his other hand, he pointed his knife at the hollow at the base of her throat, ready to thrust and kill at the slightest move to shoot from the boy. "_Don't_ insult my intelligence, Tommy-boy. Do me that courtesy at least. And do not _ever_ forget how quickly I can paint the floor with your dear Kimberly's blood."
Stricken, Tommy's voice tumbled out of his mouth like an avalanche down the Himalayas, "All right, all right. That's enough, Ryoko. Let her go. You son of a bitch. You heard me. I SAID, LET HER GO, YOU BASTARD!"
Satisfied he had made his point, Ryoko released his hold on his hostage's throat. She tried to bend over from the waist to catch her breath. His arm across her collarbone restricted any such motion. So the young chestnut-haired woman could only bow her head, coughing and gasping for air.
"Kim? Kim! You okay? Can you breathe?" Tommy's worried eyes bored holes into the crown of his childhood confidant's head as he anxiously waited for her to raise her eyes.
It took a moment, but she managed it, her voice rough and raw. "Yeah. It's okay. I'm okay."
Tommy nodded in acknowledgment, then raised his eyes to meet Ryoko's. The gentle concern that had been there only an instant ago vanished before a flood of hatred.
Ryoko merely smiled. "Do you understand the rules now, Thomas?" he asked softly, a sneer turning one lip.
Tommy nodded again, curtly and unwillingly. "More than you know."
"Then ask your questions."
His eyes never leaving Ryoko and the woman he held pressed against him, Tommy paced in a tiny square, all the fury and frustration he had thus far ruthlessly squelched fuelling his movement. Finally, rubbing his hand over his mouth as if wiping away the taste of something foul, he spoke, "Fine, Ryoko. We'll play it your way. For now. You want questions-- Here's number one: Did you kill your brother?"
The braided man dipped his head. "Yes."
Tommy's eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"Why not," Ryoko replied with a mischievous grin, leaning in to speak the words in a stage whisper into Kimberly's ear. His breath made her hair flutter against the side of her face.
She closed her eyes.
Tommy shifted uncomfortably, all too well aware of the physical proximity shared by a psychopath with a knife and his defenseless companion. "I thought you were going to give me answers, Ryoko," he challenged loudly, trying to draw the man's attention back to him. "Isn't that how you play Twenty Questions? One person asks the questions, the other answers. Well, I'm doing my part. But you-- you're just feeding me bull$#!^."
"My apologies," Ryoko replied smoothly, his eyes measuring. Tommy died just a little bit every time he physically encroached upon Kimberly. In that respect, the muscled teenager was just like Pavlov's dog. You push a button, you get the expected response. How far could he push it with Tommy, before the boy broke?
Ryoko smiled a secret smile, and decided to try an experiment. He let his hand drift down from its safe, neutral position on Kimberly's shoulder to rest lightly just on the slope of her left breast. He wouldn't have thought it possible, but the woman made herself even more rigid. The only proof he had that there was a living, breathing woman before him and not a statue carved in stone was the steady, if rapid, beat of her heart against his fingertips. A muscle in the corner of Tommy's jaw jumped, then tightened with what looked like painful force.
And Ryoko was willing to bet that the angry lines of Kim's jaw were visible like a caricature, she would be clenching her teeth so tightly.
"Save your apologies for Kim, man," Tommy murmured, his voice low and intent. "Under normal circumstances, I don't think she lets a guy go that far on the first date."
Ryoko quirked an eyebrow. Hmm, although it was costing
him his soul to remain calm, Tommy was handling this particular maneuver better than had thought he would. He had expected the sensible karate black-belt to turn into a latter-day Lancelot defending a certain fair maiden's honor. Instead, the youth had recognized the gesture for what it was-- a test. While it pained him to see his partner compromised, he controlled himself. Ryoko's respect for Tommy raised a notch. He understood then that he would have to go farther to get the reaction he desired.
Oh, this would be fun...
"Quite right," Ryoko agreed at last, raising the offending hand to gently flick at Kimberly's cheek in a perversely playful, affectionate gesture before resting it once again on her shoulder. She merely turned her face away in disgust. "I was rude. I'm afraid I couldn't help myself. Kimberly is a very attractive woman, even if she _isn't_ my dear Sayoko. I got carried away. Has that ever happened to you, Tommy?"
"I thought I was the one who got to ask the questions," Tommy protested, adjusting his grip on the gun.
"Ah, yes, the game. "
Tommy nodded. "The game. You were the one who wanted to play. So I ask you again--why?"
Ryoko sighed, as if put out by the question, and resumed his slouch against the wall of packing crates. "Because he deserved what he got. And I never thought that his spell on my beautiful Sayoko would last even past his death."
"Oh, come now," Ryoko said, nearly purring his response,
his eyes flint hard, unforgiving. "You, better than anyone, know the
answer to that. Jusenkyou water is a wonderful thing for those who want to live forever, no?"
Tommy fidgeted, his eyes darting to Kim, then back again
to rest on Ryoko's face.
"Have you forgotten already, Tommy?" Ryoko said in a concerned, friendly tone. "Forgotten the second voice who lives in your head? My traitorous brother?"
He clucked sympathetically, and addressed his next comments to Kimberly. "I would have thought the experience had made a greater impression upon him. Perhaps I should refresh his memory by getting to know you better."
"No!" Tommy took a step forward. The gun in his hand, pointed at Ryu's twin, never wavered.
Ryoko stopped him by smiling darkly. "Ah. I see you do
recall after all..."
"Why, you ask, why? Why am I doing this?" Ryoko grinned, baring teeth that were deceptively white. "Why. Well, you know that. That bastard brother of mine lives in you. Just like my pretty Sayoko's in this lovely little lady here."
Understanding dawned on Tommy's face. "You! You..." his voice died away.
Ryoko nodded. "You, my boy, get a gold star. I'm sure you, Kim, can appreciate the intricacy of all this."
"Of all what?" she asked in a hushed, clenched voice, moving no more than necessary, what with the knife point tickling her jawline delicately.
"Oh, you didn't tell her!" Ryoko laughed. "That is too precious! For shame, Tommy, Ryu, you didn't tell her!"
"I only bother her with the important stuff." Tommy snarled angrily.
"Ah, but she must know. Otherwise, I think I'll cut her a new little earhole right here..."
He touched his knife point to Kimberly's soft temple. She flinched.
"Then I'll tell her now," Tommy gritted out instantly. "Ryu told me something that I didn't tell anyone else. Ryoko, his twin brother, was cursed to follow Ryu around forever in time until he killed him-- or got killed, himself. Ryu didn't want you-- or Sayoko-- to worry."
He stepped forward, ignoring the shocked look traversing Kimberly's face. Purpose shone in his beautiful, gentle, hard hazel eyes. "It's me you want. You kill me, you kill Ryu, and you get Sayoko. Isn't that what you want? Now let her go. I'm the one who'll fight you."
"Tommy, no!" Kim shouted, twisting in Ryoko's grip, the knife momentarily forgotten.
"It's all right, Kim," he soothed. Then his voice hardened, giving it the irony of steel. "I'm right, aren't I. That's why you're here. You're here to kill me."
[This is going all too well,] Ryoko thought with obvious pleasure. The boy was playing right into his hands. "That's right, Tommy."
"Then it's me you want. Let her go."
"Tommy--" Kim began warningly. Her friend's eyes flickered to hers gently, for a mere second. He smiled with sweet reassurance and an absolutely reckless lack of fear.
"Right again, Tommy. Another gold star!" Ryoko exclaimed in a honey-sugar tone. Then he slid the point of the knife backwards to stop Tommy's progress forward. "But it's not just your life I want."
Tommy stopped instantly, confusion in his eyes. "What're you talkin' about?"
"I want your soul."
It was a madman speaking from Ryoko's mouth, eyes red and glaring.
Tommy stopped, bewildered. He had thought he was going to be able to get Kim away from that lunatic. He had believed that he would finally be able to resolve their stand-off. Instead, he was left nearly grinding his teeth in frustration. "I don't understand."
Ryu and Sayoko were silent. They couldn't fight for him-- if they did, it would just make Ryoko angrier. And that could result in _all_ their deaths.
"I know you, Thomas Oliver," Ryoko smiled smugly, a schoolboy taunting his classmate. "I know all about you. Hey, I bet I even know you better than the lovely Kimberly here."
"Great." Tommy growled. "I bet we'd do real well on 'The Newlywed Game'. His gun arm was beginning to feel the strain. "Just let her go, O.K.?"
"Ah, ah, aaaah! I don't want to exclude Kimmie from our little circle here," Ryoko taunted with mock reproof, his eyes wild with adrenaline, his face flushed. "I think you should tell her what I know."
Tommy's brows furrowed. "How the Hell am I supposed to know what's in that head o' yours, man?"
:Ryoko had an ability I didn't.: Ryu whispered softly. :He could tell what was in people's hearts, their innermost wants and feelings and fears. I was the fighter, he the empath.:
"What do you want me to say?" he asked with frustration rampant even through his carefully cultivated calmness.
"You're a bright boy, Oliver. Figure it out." Icy, hard, victorious.
He then took his knife and turned it with his bare, ice-white fingertips, the blade catching the light from the hot orange bulb directly over the threesome's heads. Then, before Tommy could even register what was happening, much less react, Ryoko took his weapon and flicked against Kimberly Hart's long, graceful neck. Its needle blade opened a wound about three quarters of an inch long, right next to the smooth curve. Red, black in the orange light, welled up in the shallow cut, beaded, then fell. A small sound of alarm vibrated in the back of Kim's throat, not daring to emerge for fear of another cut.
"NO!" The words were wrenched out of Tommy as if a team of horses dragged them from him. His calm façade was unerringly broken. He was shaking.
"Think of this as an incentive, Tommy," Ryoko purred. "After all, it's getting late. And we _have_ been at this for quite awhile. We need to move along. Just tell your dear Kimberly what you told me, and it will all be over."
"I don't know what you're talking about--"
Ryoko could see the Angel Grove student fumbling, both physically and mentally, as he tried to come up with the information that would satisfy the man before him with the knife. His torturer chuckled, wanting to shout his pleasure to the world.
"Oh, come on! Where's your sporting sensibility?" Ryoko taunted with mock encouragement, his hand still locked in Kimberly's hair. "Think of it as a puzzle. It can't be all that difficult. Well, this is the same thing. Only this time, something important is on the line."
"Ryoko, this has gone far enough," Tommy pleaded, trying reason, though his face hinted that he was fast losing his own hold on it. "This isn't your game. I didn't think you were into puzzles--"
"That's your problem, Thomas," Ryoko growled, his voice diamond hard. "You don't think. You think I won't hurt her just because she's got Sayoko in her mind? If I kill her, well, I'll drop a girl just like her in the Spring, and voila! Sayo's alive again."
The knife did its dance against Kimberly's skin again. This
time, it drew blood from the flesh exposed by the vee of her tiny white tee-shirt. This gash, like the other, was small, yet the thick scarlet fluid rose quickly to the surface and trickled down to disappear inside the frightened girl's clothes, a small, black flower blooming at her collar. She sucked in a stunned, frightened gasp.
Tommy shifted his weight and his weapon, desperately looking for a lane in which to shoot. "Ryoko, so help me God --"
"I wouldn't, if I were you, Tommy," Ryoko cautioned,
as he, too, began to move ever so slightly. Tommy had forgotten that Ryoko, though not as agile or as strong as Ryu, was still many times better than Tommy himself. He needed reminding. "What if you chose to fire, and I did this--"
He dipped both Kim and himself sharply to the left, then righted them.
"Sure, you _might_ hit me," Ryoko continued, the amusement in his eyes goading Tommy unmercifully. The pained expression on Tommy's face told him that he was succeeding wonderfully. "If you were a bulls-eye shooter-- which I doubt. But-- oh my!-- look who stands in front of me. What would you do if you hit Kimberly?"
As he supposed Ryoko had intended, Tommy's beautiful eyes
strayed to his partner's terrified gaze. She pleaded with him in that look. Tiny red rivulets marred the ivory smoothness of her neck and chest. But she didn't weep. She didn't beg. Not aloud. But her eyes told him all that he needed to know: she was in pain, she was frightened, and she was counting on him. Not a good combination, considering the circumstances.
Tommy's eyes were haunted, his proud shoulders bowed. Without even knowing it, he shook his head. The loose hair around his face drifted in a gentle breeze wafting in the warehouse.
"What would you do if you killed her, Tommy? If she died right in front of you from a bullet fired by your hand? Would you be guilty? Happy? Proud? Sad? How would you feel?" Ryoko sneered.
Something in the way he had asked the last question drew Tommy's eyes back to the man standing before him. The bastard. The sick, perverted bastard. He was smiling a cocky, sure grin. Then he nodded as if offering some particularly twisted encouragement. Tommy replayed the man's last words over in his head.
[How would you feel?]
And suddenly Tommy knew. He knew what Ryoko wanted. What Ryoko wanted him to announce, the little fact that he had never admitted, even to himself.
He would do it, Ryoko knew. And so did Tommy. He had to. It didn't matter what happened, he had to do it.
But it was hard. So very hard to say the words. "Ryoko, man... you know... I care for her--" he managed to get out.
"Not good enough!" Ryoko taunted, grin of triumph wide and hideous. The knife flashed like a dying firefly's last burst. Another shallow wound, this one slightly longer than the other two, spilled blood again down Kimberly's throat. She couldn't stop the tiny moan that bubbled out of her mouth.
Tommy tore at his long hair with the hand not holding his now shaking Magnum .45, and paced back and forth like the proverbial tiger in a cage, his voice carrying through that simile with its angry, cracking roar. "That's enough! THAT'S ENOUGH, YOU DAMNED #^&%ER! I love her! Is that what you wanted to hear? _I love her_."
Ryoko only smiled.
Tommy just stared at his friend, swaying on his feet and lithe legs. Ryoko fervently wished he could see Kimberly's stricken, beautiful face. She was trembling, now, her hands vibrating against his soft denim jeans, brushing against his hip. But not because the knife was so near her throat. Something else must have surely overwhelmed her to make her forget the fear, of that, he was certain. Something in her expression must have asked a silent question. Tommy answered it, his heart aching with the injustice of it, of having to make this most painful of statements so openly, so forced. This time, though, he said it softly, the sorrow and longing in his darkening eyes fathomless.
"I love her."
Ryoko waited, savoring the moment.
Then he whispered, a huge and nasty grin crossing his face, "Very good, my dear Thomas. I knew you could do it. Now, let's wrap up this little tea party, shall we? Throw down your gun."
Ryoko felt Kimberly start in his arms. "Tommy!" she protested.
Ryoko pulled her against him more tightly, his arm back to its original position across her collarbone, smearing the blood on her chest as it settled. "Do it, Oliver. Or my knife carves Kimberly a new smile right across her very pretty neck. I'm just crazy enough to do it, you know I am."
"Tommy, shoot!" his partner urged, her voice tight with unshed tears.
Tommy didn't even consider the consequences. Just as Ryoko had expected he wouldn't. If it had been Ryoko in his place, he would have done the same, probably. Especially if it had been Sayoko who had a knife pressed to her neck. Ghostly pale, white-clothed and white-faced in the warehouse's stark light, Tommy bent down to place his gun on the floor at his feet.
Ryoko wanted to do a little victory dance. He liked this new game. He had thought tonight would be different. Had hoped it might be, in fact. He had realized when he had noticed Skull's memories of the devoted group. But this time, unlike his deeds from so long ago, he hadn't planned his course of action, hadn't mapped each and every step. Instead, he had relied on his own sharp intelligence and improvisational skills. He found the sensation of flying by the seat of his pants invigorating. And despite his words to Tommy, he didn't want it to end just yet. No. Tonight, he wasn't only going to take just pure, innocent teenage lives --but secrets, dignity, and dreams. He had lied to the pair. This evening wasn't over yet. Not by a long shot. He
figured he had hours of enjoyment left before he decided which of the fate-crossed lovers would watch the other die: Sayoko watch Ryu, or Kimberly watch Tommy?.
Ryoko watched Tommy lower his weapon to the floor, feeling as if he was viewing the action in slow motion, much the way a sports fan watches that one impossible catch or basket on the instant replay. He relished the teenager's surrender. As soon as the Magnum left Tommy's hand, this round of the contest would be over, and Ryoko would be declared the winner. Just as he'd expected. The poor young fool was so utterly predictable, just like Ryu.
But before that could happen, Kimberly Hart re-entered the game, this time not as prize, but player. His attention had been so focused on Tommy, Ryoko had nearly forgotten about the petite gymnast in his arms.
And that was his mistake.
She used his distraction to her advantage. Her small hands,
which had been brushing tantalizingly close to his groin all night, grew bolder, finally finding their target. And when she located what she was looking for, she squeezed.
And squeezed hard.
Those hands had gripped a gymnastic uneven bar set more than two feet taller than her with enough power to swing her entire body up and over it. In comparison, the soft flesh under her fingers was like literal putty in her hands.
Ryoko shrieked, high and long like a rabbit in its death throes. His body contorted, his arm flinging up and away from Kimberly's shoulder in surprise. She took her opening, and releasing the sacs of skin and nerves she had crushed so tightly, dropped down, preparing to roll away from the man behind her.
Ryoko was a martial artist, however, and his reflexes were as sharp as his blade. Before she could get away cleanly, his knife arm plunged. A scream ripped from her throat the same moment the blade ripped through her upper arm, tearing through her skin and causing blood to gush. But, before Ryoko could raise his weapon for a fatal swipe, a shot rang out. He flew backwards, crashing into the wooden crates that had served as his backdrop, and slipped to the floor with a heavy thud.
Tommy sprang from his denim-clad knees, his gun arm shaking, his feet getting tangled in the folds of his own long legs. Kim lay on her side, her hands still bound tightly behind her. Crimson was rising through her tight clothes to stain her arm. He ran to her, his mouth thinning in anger when he realized that Ryoko had used the belt
from her own shorts to bind her. As gently as he could so as not
to jar her injured arm, he wrestled the leathery knot free
"Kimmie, are you okay?" His hands skimmed lightly over her as if that alone would be enough to discern her condition.
She nodded, struggling to sit up from her undignified position of sprawled out on the floor, swaying from a combination of fighting adrenaline and blood loss.
"Ryoko--" she mumbled as she simultaneously tried to rub her sore leather-burnt wrists and struggling to get to her feet.
Tommy shook his head. "He's dead."
"How... how'd you know...?"
"I'm a bulls'-eye shot, Kim. I can drill a dime at ten meters, as Rhett Butler would say," he informed her softly. "I just wanted to make sure I didn't hit you."
"Please check, Tommy... it's not that I don't trust you... I wanna make sure that he doesn't leap out of somewhere an' hurt someone."
Tommy loped gracefully over to the man, and turned him over on the cement floor. Blood blossomed on his chest like some exotic variety of orchid, but no more gushed and wet the shirt. The teenager put his fingertips to the man's throat. Nothing.
And as Tommy watched, Ryoko's face faded away, his ponytail falling off, lips melting away from grinning teeth.
There was nothing left but a skeleton clad in clothes exactly like Tommy's. With skeletal fingers curled around a knife, dull with Kim's drying blood.
Tommy turned away, sickened.
Kim nodded, too shocky to feel nauseated from the killing, and wearily tried to stand, her legs not quite cooperating. Tommy hurried back to her.
"Are you out of your mind, Kim?" he asked in a hushed, angry tone as he caught her up in his arms, and gently smoothed away a fall of hair from her cheek. Then, as if he thought she might shatter from impact, he carefully lowered her back to the floor. "Just stay here, okay? I'll get some help."
His hand still shaking, he bolted towards the wall-phone attached to the warehouse walls, and did just that. "Guys... could you get over here? We've got a bit of a problem..." Then, as they waited, he settled Kim as comfortably as he was able, resting her against a wall a discreet distance from Ryoko's body. He started draping his sweatshirt over her lap to help ward off shock. That taken care of, he wanted to get a look at the wound, still oozing sluggish black blood down her arm.
"What you did, Kim --that was stupid," he muttered as he eased her blood-soaked sleeve away from her shoulders.
Really stupid, deadly stupid. Very nearly unforgivably stupid.
"You're welcome," she rejoined lightly, her brow creased with pain and annoyance.
Tommy shook his head, his concentration centered on tending to her. Blood had soaked through her blouse, saturating the soft, cottony fabric. Although she was being stoically brave, he knew it must be painful. Physically and emotionally.
Kimberly just sat with her head against the wall, her eyes closed, her face devoid of color. Even her makeup couldn't conceal the corpse-white of her face.
"What I mean is-- you could have been killed. If Ryoko had swung his knife from left to right rather than straight down---" Tommy shuddered. The thought didn't even bear consideration.
"Don't make me out to be Joan of Arc, Tommy," Kim scolded quietly, her eyes still closed and her brown hair, tipped with blood, still spilling over her shoulder. "If you had given him your gun, chances are, he would have killed us both anyway, just for fighting him. Even though he preferred a knife, I'm sure he wouldn't have had any trouble figuring out how to use your Magnum .45. I just didn't want to die in this place. For either of us to."
Then she grinned wanly, "Ryu and Sayoko would never have forgiven us."
His head bowed, Tommy considered her words, then nodded. She was right, as she normally was. Her move had saved both their lives. Yet that knowledge proved an ineffective balm to his abraded
emotions. He knew for a fact that the image of her falling before Ryoko's knife would be making regular appearances in his nightmares for years to come.
Sighing, and wondering if his friend was aware just how badly his hands continued to shake, he leaned down and tore away her blouse's sticky, soaked sleeve. Now, he could get a better look at the cut... It was difficult to tell, but it didn't look as if the knife had gone deeply enough to damage muscle. Thankfully, Ryoko's perverted mind hadn't affected Kim's continuing gymnastics career.
Still, there was an awful lot of blood. Grabbing the discarded belt which had so recently bound Kimberly's hands, he cinched it around her arm above the wound to staunch the flow.
Her eyes flew open, their usual gentle brilliance dulled by pain. And yet, she looked at him without any real rancor.
"Sorry," he mumbled, suddenly shy with her in a way he had never been before.
"S'okay," she murmured, studying him intently, catching everything.
Tommy tried to conceal his discomfiture by fussing over her. Not meeting her seeking gaze, he took the lining of one opened crate and folded it into a makeshift pillow, then slipped it behind her back. Next, taking a handkerchief from his back pocket, he dabbed at the
small cuts on her throat and upper torso. Thankfully, the wounds appeared superficial.
Throughout his ministrations, his eyes never strayed above the delicate line of her jaw.
"Talk to me, Tommy."
The husky request jerked him to attention, and made him obey more than any command could have. He raised his eyes and found them locked on hers. His face had somehow wandered dangerously close to his graceful friend's.
When he spoke, he almost didn't recognize his voice. It
sounded raw, unformed to his ears. As if he was going through the horrors of adolescence and cracking voices again. "I think I've said enough for one night, don't you?"
Kimberly watched him, her eyes wary but warm, considering his words. Then, slowly she shook her head. "No. There's still a lot to be said. By both of us."
Tommy swallowed hard, wishing he could erase the panic and embarrassment from his features. Why, at moments like this, did he always have the sensation that those innocent, sweet eyes of her penetrated far deeper inside him than he would have liked? "Not tonight," he choked out through some obstruction in his throat.
After a moment, she nodded, touching his forearm lightly with her hand. "Not tonight. But soon."
He nodded in return, ridiculously thankful for the reprieve.
Their eyes held, unspoken questions in each brown pair.
:Say something, you fool!: two voices echoed.
Finally, Tommy broke the contact. But not before he brought his hand to her cheek. After holding it there a moment, he turned away with a regretful twist of his lips.
Ever so faintly in the distance, he could make out the sharp metallic whine of the engines of Rocky's old car. He thought he had never heard as lovely a sound in his entire teenage life.