Entering the main hall of an old inn amidst a heavy fall of rain, and glancing behind her towards the setting sun in the distance, a woman paused, lighting the cigarette that had been extinguished in the downpour. Her hair was bound behind her, and she wore a skirt and a long-sleeved blouse, and a dark apron over that. "Oi," she called out through lips that still maintained their grip on the filter of her cigarette. "Keitaro. Get your lazy butt down here — you got a letter."
Only taking a moment to respond, and clumsily charging down the stairs, a man rushed towards her, clutching a pencil in one hand and a small stack of papers in the other. "Variable one to the power of seven over two —" he mumbled, snatching the envelope from her hand and spinning about.
One eyebrow ticking at the title she had been given, the woman kicked Keitaro's foot out from under him as he charged the stairs. He fell, his balance hopelessly upset, and planted his face firmly in the staircase, sending papers flying everywhere. "I'm not old," she stated firmly. "Got that?"
"Yes," he pronounced around a mouthful of one of the steps. "I really have to study, though, Haruka-basan." Prying himself off of the floor, he quickly assembled all of the visible papers into a single stack. "Now," he mumbled. "It was… seven over one to the power of variable… one…." He tromped back up the stairs as quickly as he had arrived, swiftly vanishing from view.
Shaking her head, the woman sighed, turning back towards the rainy walk between the inn, and the teashop. "Oh, it could be worse," she allowed, frowning at some disturbance in the mists that surrounded the inn during the rainy season.
A Ranma 1/2 / Love Hina / Golden Boy crossover story
by Brian Randall
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Love Hina belongs to Ken Akamatsu, Kodansha Comics, Shounen Magazine Comics, TV Tokyo and Pioneer Entertainment. Golden Boy belongs to Tatsuya Egawa, SHUEISHA-KSS, and ADV Films.
Notes: Divergences should become apparent as relevant.
Days later, after the extended spates of rain finally seemed to be giving up, Keitaro Urashima found himself standing at the top of the stairs leading to Hinata-Sou, eyeing the muddied steps with some trepidation. As much as he hated to admit it, the stairs wouldn't be cleaning themselves, though.
"Right," he announced, shaking his head. So much studying to be done, and hardly enough time for it. Turning his back to the stairs, he trotted to the property's maintenance shed, and retrieved a broom. The mud would need a bit of time to dry — the last of the rains had stopped only a few minutes prior — but the sun was shining brightly, and Keitaro expected he wouldn't need to wait long.
When he returned, he found something unexpected — a woman was standing atop the steps, leaning against a red ten-speed bicycle staring up at the inn with a bemused smile, and hopeful eyes. Blue eyes that sparkled with a strangely foreign luster. She wore a white T-shirt with short sleeves, and a pair of loose jeans, the bottoms of the legs folded up into cuffs, along with a pair of slipper-style shoes. Tightly braided red hair flowed down to the middle of her back, unruly red bangs kept in check with a cloth strip of a nearly identical color. The woman pursed her lips thoughtfully, fingers tapping idly against a handlebar of the bike, and an improbably large pack sat on the ground to one side.
Keitaro dragged his attention from the woman long enough to study the pack. It was worn, and had a few obvious signs of repair about it — extra stitching across the seams, patches along the bottom, and one of the straps had been replaced with a length of thick rope — but seemed far too large for such a petite woman to have borne. "Can I help you?" Keitaro asked cautiously, returning his attention to her.
Blinking, the woman straightened from the bike, allowing it to rest on its kickstand, and turned to face Keitaro. She grinned at him, nodding hopefully. "Yeah," she said, knuckling back a yawn, and stretching slightly. The stretching did interesting things to her white T-shirt, allowing Keitaro an excellent view of some very well defined curves before the woman seemed to notice, and frowned sharply. Closing the mouth he hadn't even realized had dropped open, Keitaro rubbed a hint of drool from his lower lip. "I'm Oe Ranma," the woman offered, still frowning.
At Keitaro's blank stare, she rolled her eyes, and crossed her arms over her chest. "Did you get my letter?" she asked, annoyance creeping into her voice. "I sent a letter explaining who I was and that I wanted to rent a room — you do have vacancies, right? You are the manager, aren't you?"
"Yes," Keitaro managed, nodding, and tearing his eyes from the flimsy — and wet — material of the woman's shirt to meet her eyes, now an annoyed cerulean. "Um. Vacancies. Yes, we do have vacancies."
"Great!" the woman said, enthused, clapping her hands together. "And you did get my letter, right?"
Distracted by the secondary motions caused by the woman's sudden applause, Keitaro nodded dumbly. "Uh, rooms two-oh-four and three-oh-four are empty."
"What's the difference?" she asked, turning her head toward the inn, and studying it closely.
"Three-oh-four is on the top floor, next to, er, that is, next to Aoyama, and four is on the lower floor next to Maehara," he explained, struggling with the temptation to stare at the woman's chest. His eyes, nearly of their own accord, seemed to creep lower and lower, widening slowly, until he forcibly snapped them upward, blinking sharply and shaking his head to clear the thickness that had begun to settle there.
"Okay," she said, nodding agreeably, and marching towards her pack, rifling through it swiftly. "I'd like the lower floor, I think." Retrieving an envelope she turned her attention back to Keitaro, who was at that point focusing entirely on her face. "This isn't a co-ed dorm, is it?"
"No," he said, shaking his head quickly. "It's not, you see, but, er, we make an exception—"
"Thank the gods," the woman said, shaking her head. "I was afraid that… well, if you're saying it's okay with you, then it's all okay in my book. The old brochure I found said that rent was about, uh, forty-eight thousand yen a month?"
"Fifty-thousand even, actually," Keitaro said apologetically. "I, er, well, let me get the paperwork, so you can sign everything."
"Fine by me," Ranma said agreeably, thumbing through her envelope. "Do you mind if I pay for three months in advance?"
"Not really," Keitaro said, shaking his head, and turning towards the entrance. "Some of the other tenants actually do that." He marched through the doorway, finding the foyer deserted for the moment, no visible sign of the other tenants coming to his attention. "Er… Anyway, what college are you going to?"
"I'm trying to get into Todai," Ranma offered, hefting her backpack and slinging it across one shoulder effortlessly.
"Really?" Keitaro asked, dropping the forms he had retrieved from the desk in the foyer to stare at the woman in alarm. "Um, are you trying to get into Todai because of a promise you made?"
"Uh… Yes," the woman said, frowning at Keitaro worriedly. "Why?"
Grabbing the woman's shoulders, his eyes widening further, and unable to keep the excitement out of his voice, he asked, "Is it a promise you made when you were just a child?"
Frowning, the woman disengaged his hands with a casual shrug, incidentally sending him staggering back five steps. "No," she answered, annoyed. "I made a promise last year, when Aniki told me where he went to college. Why?"
Recovering his composure, and shaking his head, Keitaro apologized, "Um, sorry about that. It's… uh… not really important."
Ranma blinked. "Well," she grumbled. "My older brother studied law there for a few years. I want to follow in his footsteps. Anyway, I have to sign those papers, right?"
Chastised, Keitaro turned his attention to the sheets, sighing. "Of course," he mumbled. "Sorry. Anyway, I'll need you to sign here, here, initial here, and sign here," he noted, gesturing to the lines.
The woman signed quickly, sighing in relief, and handed over the three months of rent. "Man, that just about wiped me out," she mourned, shaking her head.
"You don't have to pay all at once," Keitaro offered, holding the money back out to her.
"Nah," she said, shaking her head. "Keep it — I'll get a part time job in the city down there. Aniki taught me to do all kinds of things." Grinning, she asked, "Is the hot spring clean, do you know?"
Blinking at the change in subject, Keitaro nodded. "Well, yes, actually. Were you planning on using it right away?"
"You bet!" the woman enthused. "That's the main reason I chose this dorm — constant access to hot water. So, can you show me which room is mine, so I can put my bike away before I take a bath?"
"Right," Keitaro said, thoroughly confused. "It's just down this hall, past Maehara's room. Um, I'll try and see when I can arrange for you to meet the other tenants — but there's a walkway from outside just a way up the street, so you don't have to carry the bike all the way up the stairs."
Body glistening, and skin prickling at the chill, Ranma grinned, dousing herself with the wash bucket one last time before standing. Towel about her waist, she sighed happily, and strode into the bath. Her form remained female until she splashed comfortably into the water. Her body rippled, shivered, and convulsed once briefly before changing, but the sensation was long familiar, and little attention was paid, save to adjust the towel.
"This is good," he murmured, relaxing, allowing some of the tension to drain out of his body. The inn was nice, that was certain, and the price was very good. Tests, food, and countless other details would almost certainly take even more money, but for the moment, he was secure, in reach of the college he was going to try and attend, and everything was in order. A light sprinkling of rain quickly offset the warmth of the spring, though the immersion in much hotter water prevented his curse from triggering.
He glanced upward, brushing his bangs back and staring into the falling droplets. The rain had always been an annoyance after he got the curse. But the rain also reminded him of a night, three years and more ago, when his life was changed forever. "Shit," he whispered, balling up one hand into a fist, and punching at the surface of the spring. Water splashed up about him, cascading down and crashing back into the bath, ripples masked by the fall of rain. The same way that tears and their tracks would be masked.
"Why do I always gotta think about that when it rains," he whispered unhappily. The rain ceased at those words, remarked on only by a loud curse from the manager of the inn about cruel weather and impossible steps. Ranma snorted, shaking his head. "Not gonna think about that now," he said resolutely, casting his mind back to the closest thing he had had to a real home since leaving Nerima.
That had been a simple garage that Kintaro rented from an elderly couple in Chiba. He also had his mail sent there, though he habitually spent less than a month out of the year at his 'home'. The elderly couple delighted in seeing him about, and he paid his rent regularly, in addition to helping the couple out whenever he was nearby. Three months… three months had been spent with Kintaro in that garage before he and Ranma had scraped together enough money from odd jobs to assemble what Kintaro deemed was appropriate 'travel gear'.
Provisions, changes of clothes, good raingear, and the all-important notebooks. Kintaro had a small bookshelf in the garage, half full of reference books on nearly every subject imaginable, and the other half full of his own notebooks. Ranma had flipped through them a few times, and eventually Kintaro had given Ranma a notebook of his own — blue, to Kintaro's black. Ranma couldn't complain.
It was that notebook that had recorded all that Ranma had learned during those first three months when Kintaro had taken him in. It was that notebook that had all of the notes from late-night cram-sessions of studying with Kintaro camped on one side of the road in the mountains, or in a wooded area, with Kintaro teaching him all the things he had ignored the last time he was in school.
He wasn't going to inherit a dojo, after all, not after — "Stop it," he growled, shaking his head to clear the thoughts.
"Ugh," he groaned, settling back against a large stone, and staring up at the inn. The sound of a door sliding open alerted him, and he rose to his feet, prepared to greet the new fellow tenant. His greetings died on his lips, managing only a strangled choke as he stared at the girl who had walked into the bath with him.
Long black hair flowed down her back, flaring out behind her like a thin cloak, extending all the way to her waist, and offsetting her fine, pale complexion nicely. She stared at him blankly, only carrying a towel in one hand. The fabric dangled downward and covered her from the waist to a short distance along her thighs. It was enough to let him see that she wasn't wearing any underwear, and leant him a strange feeling of foreboding. Blinking once, her hand twitched slightly, and she dropped the towel to pool at her feet, alarmed.
"Uh," he managed. "Are you going to leave calmly, grab a stone lantern, and then try and kill me with it?"
"No," she answered quietly, shaking her head. "I'm going to go back into the changing room, grab my sword, and then kill you with that."
"Oh, good," Ranma said uneasily. "For a moment there I thought I'd done something wrong."
The girl offered him a smile, then spun on her heel, marching into the changing room.
"That went well," Ranma decided. "She was pretty reasonable." Shaking his head, he took a step towards the exit — he needed to find out why a girl was in the bath at a non-coed dorm, and he had a sneaking suspicion that the answer would not be to his liking.
The chance to do as he planned was denied, when the girl who had strode away returned, this time bearing a bared metal blade, and dressed in a loose white uwagi and hakama. "Pervert!" she intoned. "Prepare to die!"
Grumbling, Ranma announced, "Okay, so I jumped to a conclusion on the whole 'reasonable' thing, but before you go calling me a pervert when you walked in on me."
"This is an all-girls bath in an all-girls' dorm!" the girl shouted, hefting the bokken.
"Oh, this is not what I needed," Ranma announced, shaking his head. "Look — calm down before you hurt yourself with that thing—"
"Shinmei Ryu — Ougi Zangan Ken," the girl announced, slashing her blade at Ranma despite the distance between them.
A flurry of pressure waves from the slashes swept towards him angrily, screaming across the bath. He barely had the time necessary to react — throwing himself to the surface of the arena of combat, he sent a carefully angled strike downwards, launching a massive curtain of water upwards before the girl's attack reached him.
The girl's eyes widened as the shower of warm water exploded upwards. Ranma leapt away the second his attack was released, hoping his opponent would be blinded by the spray — or at least distracted -but he knew from experience that a battle involving ki could far-too-easily go wrong. "I don't suppose we could settle this amicably?" he yelled, swinging his fist downward as he shot towards her through the spray of the bath.
"Die!" she yelled, her sword carefully deflected by his punch, and backpedaling to reclaim fighting space. But Ranma knew how to fight kendoka. If he were to stay close to her, then she couldn't get a good swing in at him. He advanced on her, until she sprang away suddenly, lashing out with her sword almost faster than his eyes could follow. He threw himself backwards, the tip of the steel edge barely caressing the flesh of his hip, tearing through his towel without any noticeable effort, and inflicting a nearly invisible cut, just deep enough to sting. Far too close for comfort, and far too close to things that Ranma preferred to keep comfortable.
His feet slipped across the slick floor, scrambling wildly as he windmilled his arms to retain balance, finally coming to a halt and slamming roughly against the wall separating the bathing area from the laundry and changing room. "Damn it," he swore under his breath, as the girl stared at him openly, eyes wide, and mouth hanging open. "Hey, is a towel too much to ask for?" he yelled.
Her face flushed, the girl's eyes snapped upwards to meet his, her pink cheeks suffusing red with anger. "Pervert!" she declared, drawing her sword back again, and snapping her mouth shut.
Ranma tensed to leap, but restrained himself, hearing a voice through the wall behind him. "Excuse me," it asked timidly, "Motoko-san, is everything okay in there?"
"Shit," Ranma cursed, still slightly dazed from the collision with the wall.
"Ougi Zangan Ken!" the girl yelled again, this time sending her attack towards him and immediately rushing after it.
Gritting his teeth, Ranma shook his head. "I didn't want to have to do this," he growled. "Mouko Takabisha!" The golden ball of light coalesced in his hands, surging away and slamming violently into the blades of ki. The two energies collided, exploding outward from the point of impact — and then there was only darkness.
The second spate of rain had finally let up — hopefully the last throes of the dying storm — and Keitaro returned to the stairs with the intent of sweeping them off once the sun came out. That intent vanished as the entirety of the inn behind him lurched suddenly, an echoing explosion ringing out, and a column of steam and dust billowing upward in the background.
Swearing quietly, Keitaro dropped his broom and charged toward the baths. Who knew what accident had happened? A frantic storm of possibilities danced through his head — perhaps the boiler had exploded, or maybe Suu's latest invention had reached some form of critical mass, or perhaps even worse. "Suu! Suu! What have you done now? I swear, if I've told you once that the baths are not the place to make banana pudding—"
Cutting himself short, he skidded to a halt before the washroom, peeking in cautiously. Dust and steam wafted into the hall, suggesting that site as the source of the explosion. Inside, he saw Shinobu staring with wide eyes at the completely destroyed wall between the wash area and the baths. The girl's blue eyes were glazed over completely, and she appeared nearly frozen, save for the faint rustling of her shoulder-length hair in the breeze that wafted in over the ruined wall. "Uh-oh," Keitaro whimpered. "Oe-san was in there— Shinobu-chan, do you know what happened?"
The girl blinked, seeming to just then return to her senses, and turned to stare at Keitaro in surprise. "Ah! Oh, Sempai! I heard Motoko-san yelling, and I came to see what happened — but everything blew up before I opened the door!"
"Okay," Keitaro said, marching forward as the dust settled. He stopped, looking down, and seeing that the floor was already pooling with cold water. "Oh, great," he grumped. "Shinobu, I need to shut off the water and drain the bath — if someone's stuck under the rubble they could be in trouble." He bit his lip, then decided, "I'll take care of the water and get to the drain. Can you please ask Suu-chan if she can help get rid of the rubble? We need to hurry!"
The girl blinked at him for a moment, one hand drawn nervously to her cover her mouth, then nodded quickly, dashing off in the direction of Suu's room. Keitaro spared a quick smile for her, and opened the closet for access to the water main. With a few decisive twists, the valve was shut off. "That takes care of that, now where is Haruka?"
Her turned around, knowing that the woman would arrive any moment — she was not one to ignore explosions, he expected — and came face to face with both Mitsune and Naru. Mitsune bore a rare look of concern on her face, dressed as she usually was just after arriving home from work, while Naru had a bedraggled look that spoke of a recently disturbed study session. They stared about in consternation for a moment before Naru set her hands on her hips, and fixed Keitaro with a suspicious glare, eerily accentuated by the glasses that she was wearing. "What's going on here?" she asked, staring at Keitaro sternly.
"I'm not sure yet," he admitted. "But Oe-san — she's a new tenant — and Motoko-chan might be underneath there. I'm going to drain the bath. Try and help Suu clear off the rubble, and tell Haruka what's going on when she gets here," he ordered, quickly trotting past the girls and heading towards the kitchen side exit.
Outside of the inn, he limped across a small bed of gravel, and then through the thick brush that served as a barrier between the bath and the outside world. His progress was impeded briefly by a short bamboo fence around the interior of the spring, but it lasted for only a minute before breaking. Splashing awkwardly through the shallow water, he fumbled for the drain. His questing fingers needed only a moment to find purchase and lever the catch upwards, creating a wide, but shallow whirlpool.
Raising his eyes from his immediate situation, he stared about, looking for either the buxom redhead, or the raven-haired kendoka. Neither were immediately visible in the baths, and for that, he sighed in relief. After pulling himself away from the drain and staggering to his feet, Keitaro studied the fallen rubble, more easily visible from outside of the washroom. The rafters and some of the roof of the washroom had been blasted away by some force, and then fallen straight back down. Looking upward revealed a hole in the side of the inn that opened up into the attic, a few roof tiles having rained down about the stone walkway outside the wooden bathing area.
The rubble was easier to identify from his current angle, a large beam from the roof of the bathing area lying crosswise over the door and supporting a good expanse of the flat structure. Keitaro guessed from the angle that it had collapsed, anyone near the door had a reasonable hope of not being crushed. Sighing, he looked around for any sign of Ranma or Motoko, but he could see no ready traces of either in the rubble.
Shaking his head, he strode to the rubble pile, and began pulling loose pieces aside, piling them on the stone expanse between the wooden deck, and the still-draining depths of the bath. "Hello?" he called out cautiously. "Can anyone hear me?"
"I hear you," Naru called back, audible through the wreckage from inside. "But no one answered us — we can't move the beam here, it's too heavy. I think I can see Motoko's leg, though."
"Great," Keitaro grumbled, setting to work with renewed vigor. In a slightly louder voice he noted, "I don't think I'm going to be able to move the main beam myself — does Suu-chan have anything that can help?"
"Yes!" the girl enthused from the other side of the barrier. "Keitaro! Duck! Go Mecha-Bather-Extraction unit, mark two!"
Still holding a half-broken shingle in one hand, and a chunk of wood in the other, Keitaro blinked at the source of the noise. "Duck? Mark two?" he asked himself, a moment before his eyes widened, and he threw himself flat to the stone. A beam of pearly white light swept through the upper half of the rubble, moments before the top half of the mass lurched abruptly, cascading off the main body of rubble and landing atop Keitaro.
Grumbling quietly, he pulled himself from the fallen wood and plaster, thankful that it didn't have far to fall before it reached him, and dusted his shirt off, eyeing the reformed heap. The mass had been forced off the stack by a remote controlled hydraulic arm of some kind, and he could see Suu sitting on the floor across the pile cross-legged. Her face was scrunched into a grimace of concentration, and she was wearing a pair of goggles, pushed up to her forehead at the moment, and wired into the base of the hydraulic arm she was controlling. Keitaro wasn't certain how she managed it, but the girl's green military jacket and khakis — a rare change from her school uniform — were eerily appropriate.
Naru, Mitsune, and Shinobu watched expectantly, hovering behind the girl as she jabbed at buttons and pulled on levers on her remote control. Still, more of the rubble covered the two girls. Shaking his head, Keitaro grabbed a flat board, and heaved it away, assisted by the robotic arm. As the board tumbled to one side, knocking away bathing gear that had been left out, the two victims of the accident finally came into view.
The falling roof had — apparently — dropped an 'L' shaped bracket nearly straight down, the peak of the 'L' forming a crude protective arch above the girls. One corner of the brown wooden beam was darkened and wet with blood, causing Keitaro to draw his breath in worriedly. Motoko lay, to all appearances merely asleep, beneath the redhead. Oe, for her part, was breathing slowly, a thin rivulet of blood working its way from her scalp across one eye. Motoko lay on her stomach, with Ranma laying atop her on her back, one leg folded carefully up as though to catch something — supporting more of the collapsing rubble, Keitaro realized. Her arm was thrown almost protectively across the back of Motoko's head, and the two were both completely soaked from the leaking cold water elsewhere in the bathing area.
Shinobu's eyes widened at the sight of blood, and she managed to emit only an alarmed, "Auuugh…" before she swooned, collapsing on the floor.
Shaking his head, and sparing no time to admire the undressed women, he grabbed at the last bits of wreckage, sweeping them aside. "Suu-chan," he gasped while working, "move that beam upward, please. Narusegawa, Mitsune, if you can, get Ranma-san and Motoko-chan out."
"Right!" Suu exclaimed, uncharacteristic concern apparent on her expression. Naru and Mitsune nodded, far less convinced than Suu, but willing to work. The robotic arm twisted, wide metal clamps seizing the beam, and long pointed teeth digging deep into the wood. Slowly, whining and protesting whirs emitting the whole while, the beam rose. Stepping cautiously over the rubble, and placing his feet in the clear area between Motoko's knees, Keitaro grabbed onto the beam, and hauled upward, adding his strength to that of Suu's machine.
It was plainly obvious to him that the machine was stronger, but his contribution hastened the process, allowing Naru and Mitsune to begin to pull Ranma free. "Thanks, Suu-chan," Keitaro said, releasing the beam and catching his breath.
Suu frowned, punching at some controls, and cried out in sudden alarm, "The hydraulics are going to fail — hurry!"
Gritting his teeth, Keitaro wrapped his arms around the beam, and threw his strength against it again. With a sudden sharp twanging noise, and the hiss of escaping liquid, the beam began — slowly — to lower. Ranma was at that point squarely beneath the slowly descending chunk of wood. "Hurry," he gasped. "Where is Haruka-basan? The old woman should be here by now!"
He heard a grunt near him, a pair of slender arms wrapping about the beam ahead of him. "I'm not old," Haruka pronounced, taking a moment to turn her head and spit her cigarette into the bath. "I owe you for that one — for now, are you going to let a woman prove that she's stronger than you?"
Unable to resist smiling despite the situation, Keitaro shook his head, and redoubled his efforts. Mitsune and Naru pulled Ranma completely away from the rubble, leaving only Motoko beneath the beam. "How did you get here, anyway?" Keitaro asked through gritted teeth.
"A woman's got to have her secrets," Haruka countered, straining. But between the two Urashimas, the beam was held up long enough for Naru and Mitsune to grab Motoko's wrists and drag her away. Sighing in relief, Keitaro and Haruka dropped the beam together, wincing as it smashed through the wooden floor where it was dropped. The beam then cracked, the center dividing and the two pieces — masses of dangerous looking splinters — crashed to the very spot where Ranma and Motoko had lain.
"Wow," Keitaro allowed, dubiously impressed. "Narusegawa, could you and Suu-chan take Shinobu-chan to her room?" The pair nodded, and carefully lifted the fainted girl up. Rubbing at his right shoulder — he knew it would be giving him untold pain later — he stepped through the doorway carefully, looking at the two fallen remaining. "Man," he whispered, shaking his head. They were both breathing, and someone had draped a towel across Ranma, while Motoko was still wearing her uwagi and hakama. Kneeling at Ranma's side, he brushed aside her hair, inspecting the wound. "I read somewhere that head wounds bleed more than any other wounds," he said, frowning. "Obasan, what do you think?"
The woman raised an eyebrow, kneeling at Keitaro's side to inspect the redhead. "That's two I'm going to owe you," she remarked absently. "She should be fine, I think. It's not too deep, and there's not much bruising or swelling, so she's either very tough, or it cut her more than it hit her. She might have a concussion."
Keitaro raised his head to look Haruka in the eye. "Should I call an ambulance?"
"Only if she doesn't wake up tomorrow," Haruka said, shaking her head. "I've seen much worse. However," she announced, drawing a cigarette from an apron pocket, "since the disaster is over for the moment, why don't you see about calling some contractors to fix the damage here, and take care of all the responsibilities, Kanrinin. Kitsune-chan and I will take care of these two."
Nodding, Keitaro rose to his feet, glancing at the wreckage again. If neither of the girls were hurt, at least he had gotten out of sweeping the steps, he thought to himself.
"Oh, and once you have that settled, you might want to look into sweeping the steps. They're a bit dirty."
Haruka smirked slightly, watching Keitaro trot down the hall towards his room. Allowing her smile to fade, she looked down at the two young women on the floor. After a brief visual inspection, Haruka decided that Motoko would be fine, and turned her attention back to the redhead. "Now, you I haven't met before," she said bemusedly. "Do you know her, Mitsune?"
The pale-haired woman shook her head quickly. "Never met her," she assessed. "Keitaro said that her name was Oe, and she was a new tenant."
"Hmm," Haruka mused, still holding the unlit cigarette in her mouth. "Well, let's move Motoko back to her room — she'll probably wake up soon anyway."
Mitsune nodded, and with a bit of work the slight girl was propped on Haruka's back. Running ahead, Mitsune opened the door to Motoko's room, and set out her futon. Haruka set the girl down on her futon, and pulled her blanket over her before leaving.
Returning to the redhead in the ruined bath, Haruka glanced around, frowning. The demolished wall had sent chunks of wood and plaster about the changing room, covering the neatly folded stack of the kendoka's clothing with splinters and muddied plaster powder. In a basket not terribly far away, a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, a tank-top, and a pair of boxer shorts were wadded together.
Haruka narrowed her eyes at the boxer shorts, frowning intently. Mitsune followed her gaze, and made a curious noise. "Do you suppose that's Keitaro's?" she asked.
"I doubt it," Haruka said, shaking her head. "I would guess it was Oe's. Well, regardless, let's get her to her room and clean her up."
"She wears boxer shorts?" Mitsune stared at Haruka blankly for a moment. "Must be a new trend, I guess. But which room is hers?"
"Good question." Pausing to consider, Haruka retrieved a lighter from one pocket, and lit her cigarette. After inhaling deeply, she said, "Why don't you ask Keitaro, and I'll clean up the blood first, hmm?"
Mitsune nodded, darting off to find the wayward manager, as Haruka knelt, finding a clean washrag to wipe away the blood. Most of it appeared to come up easily, though with the young woman's red hair it was difficult to tell. The wound, when examined more closely, appeared to be more minor than she had originally thought. She narrowed her eyes, scanning across Oe's body with her eyes. Muscle tone screamed of rigorous training of some kind — she was almost guaranteed to be an athlete, though she was probably something of an adventurer.
Likely Keitaro's interesting life would become a notch more so. Haruka smirked, and turned her attention back to the cut on Oe's head, involuntarily dropping her cigarette from her mouth in surprise. It bounced off of her knee, spun for a moment in the air, and landed in one of the remaining puddles in the changing room with a subdued hissing sound. The cut was already healing, almost visibly closing as she watched.
"I'll be damned," she murmured. "Now you, girl, might have been a rival for me when I was your age."
"Two-oh-four," Keitaro said, the portable phone on his shoulder as he poked his head into the room, his hands full of papers from the small cubby in his room that composed the 'managers office' for the highly casual management. "What was that about age, Haruka…chan?"
Haruka glowered, raising her head to eye Keitaro balefully. "Nothing," she grumbled. "Now get out of here and stop ogling Oe before I tell Naru you were peeping."
The young man retreated, babbling a swift apology, and Mitsune reentered, glancing at Keitaro as he dashed away. "So, um, she's in room four. She didn't have a futon, but I found a bedroll and set that out," she offered.
Haruka nodded, grabbing Ranma's wrist, and lifting the young woman to sling her across her back, the same way she had carried Motoko. "Oof," she grunted, staggering for a moment. The girl, for being smaller than Motoko, weighed just as much, which hinted at more than just average muscle density.
"What was that?" Mitsune asked, gathering the clothing from the basket that they had deemed was the redhead's.
"Nothing," Haruka assured her. "So you're sure those are Oe's?"
"Er… yes," Mitsune hedged. "I, uh, looked through her bag on a hunch — it's full of clothes for boys, so I guess that's just what she prefers to wear."
Haruka snorted, shaking her head, and walking down the hallway. "I'm suddenly glad that she's only on the second floor, is all."
"She doesn't look too heavy," Mitsune opined.
"Weight and size are two different things," Haruka grumbled, walking into room four, and allowing Oe to slip to the floor slowly. Rolling the redhead onto the bedroll, Haruka glanced at the heap of disarrayed clothing scattered about the room. "You know, when you go through someone else's things, you generally want to put it back where you found it," she noted.
"I couldn't fold it up as well!" Mitsune protested, pulling a sleeping bag from the backpack. "We'll just tell her we needed to get this out."
Haruka rolled her eyes, unzipping the sleeping bag, and pulling it across the unconscious woman like a blanket. "You've got a bit to learn, I think, Mitsune."
"No more learning for me, thanks — I'm done with school," Mitsune grumped, striding out of the room.
Haruka smirked, crossing to the windows to throw them wide open, before joining Mitsune in the hall, and closing the door behind her. "Let the poor girl get some air," she said. "I think she'll be just fine in the morning."
Setting down the phone, and sighing, Keitaro rubbed at his temples. "This isn't any good," he mumbled, striding to the hall and eyeing the damaged bathing area again.
"So, Kanrinin, what did they say?" Mitsune asked, popping up behind him suddenly.
Keitaro twitched slightly, and glanced at the woman for a moment before surveying the wreckage again. "I called a few places that do repairs, and thanks to my grandmother, we've got insurance. So someone will be out later today, we should have it fixed within the week, and there's a… uh… deductible," he said tiredly. "Why?"
Mitsune blinked, trying to digest that. "Wait… What's that mean?"
"It means that I have to pay for repairs on this place," Keitaro said quietly. "The person who comes over later today will collect the money after I sign the paperwork, or else they won't agree to work on the place. The insurance company pays anything for repairs that we incur that goes over the deductible."
"Urk," Mitsune noised. "That's… how much money, Kei-kun? Got any plans?"
He glanced at her, then shook his head. "It's not that bad, Mitsune. We can make it, since we've got a new tenant. Oe gave me three months rent up front, and I can cover the rest — half with my own savings, half with whatever's left in the budget from the other tenants. Why are you curious about this, anyway?"
Smiling guiltily, she shook her head. "I was kind of hoping that while they were fixing things, they could take care of some of the other stuff around the inn — you know, the holes in the outside walls, some of the bad plumbing, or whatever."
Keitaro raised an eyebrow, running through the insurance policy that he'd read in his mind. "We'll see," he allowed. "I don't know for certain, but we'll see."
Motoko woke suddenly, sitting up sharply, and dislodging the blanket that had been thrown across her. "What…" she fell silent, staring about her in confusion. "What happened?" she mused, glancing about the empty room.
Sunlight filtered in through the open window, accompanied by a soft breeze. Furrowing her brow, she rose, carefully folding her blanket, and discarding her outfit. After redressing in a spare set of clothes, she retrieved her sword, and headed cautiously down the stairs. She remembered facing off with someone in the baths — someone of formidable martial skill, to use ki the way he had. More importantly, though, Keitaro had mentioned that there was a new tenant. A girl. That girl should have been in the baths, not the man that had been there.
By her reckoning, that meant that the pervert must have done something to her, and therefore needed to be punished. That thought brought her up short, and she shuddered, staring down at her body before stepping off the stairs. Had something been done to her, while she was unaware?
A moment of checking produced no tangible results, so she sighed, hoping that all was well, and stiffened, watching Keitaro walk down the hall with an unfamiliar man in a blue suit. "So as long as it's covered by the insurance, we might as well take advantage of it," Keitaro said, not glancing at Motoko.
"Oh, well, little things that just require spot-work, no problem. We'll even reshingle the roof — going to have to after that boiler explosion — but we can't do anything as extensive as replacing all of the exterior paneling on the same job. I'd like to help you out and all, but that's not really related to the current incident."
The pair of men paused before the door, Keitaro rubbing his chin thoughtfully and nodding. "That makes enough sense — the insurance does cover maintenance, though, so how about opening a separate ticket for whatever's not covered by the first one?"
Crossing his arms over his chest, the man in the blue suit cocked his head to one side, closing his eyes and concentrating. "Well, I'm not entirely sure — there's over five hundred thousand yen in damage that we're going to need to cover already. Honestly, it'd be cheaper if we made the ticket out for a complete retrofit for the inn, and then tacked the boiler explosion on as an accident."
"How much would that cost?" Keitaro asked, scratching his head. "Wait, I think I got it — the insurance says that the retrofit is the cost of the deductible, for us, but I think the additional expense there would only be half of the deductible."
"Sounds about right," the man said, opening his eyes, and uncrossing his arms. "So that means three hundred thousand up front pays for a retrofit, and repairing the bath area. Plumbing's included in the retrofit, and if your boiler went up, probably about half of that's ready to go anyway."
Keitaro sighed mournfully, and rubbed at his temples. "I should be happy," he said, "considering how cheaply we're getting off, and all the damage there is…." He bit his lip, considering, then nodded. "I'll do it. The budget will be really tight for a month or two, but according to the records it's been decades since this place has had any major work done."
"Good call," the man said, pulling a small clipboard from the interior of his coat. "Chances are if you didn't, and you got a building inspection, this place could fall short of code. Sign here, and here, and if you can make out a check to me, we'll be set."
Keitaro nodded, signing some papers, and handing over the aforementioned check. "When will you start, and how long will it take?" he asked the man worriedly.
The man shrugged, tucking the clipboard back into his coat. "We'll start Monday — day after tomorrow. I think it'll take about two weeks, but it could go a week over, depending," he said, shrugging again.
"Well, that'll do, then," he assessed, shaking his head. "Okay, thank you very much for your time, Yoshida-san."
"My pleasure, Urashima-san," the man said, offering his hand to Keitaro. Keitaro accepted, and the two men shook before Hajime turned away and departed.
Shaking his head again, Keitaro noticed Motoko, and sighed. "How are you feeling, Motoko-chan?" Keitaro asked, offering her a weak smile.
"Very confused," the girl said, finally descending the final step to the floor, and looking at Urashima closely. "You seem quite… capable… Urashima."
"Thanks," Keitaro sighed, smiling softly. "But, the damage is going to be fixed. Don't know what we're going to do for two weeks, but it could easily be worse. And I knew I could show you that I could be a capable manager for this inn!"
"Very capable," Motoko intoned, eyeing him mistrustfully. "Who are you, and what have you done with the real Urashima?"
"Very funny," he deadpanned, his smile fading. "I need to go through the books, and see how to raise any money we're short."
"Ah," Motoko managed, shifting her feet about uneasily, and not meeting Keitaro's stare. "Well, good luck with that, then, Kanrinin."
"Try not to kill Oe-san the next time you see her, please?" Keitaro asked quietly.
Flushing slightly, Motoko shook her head. "She wasn't there, Kanrinin — there was a boy in the baths, and he was watching me bathe!"
Keitaro raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Yes! There was a boy, and after staring at me, he exposed himself to me, and when I tried to strike him with one of my techniques, he threw a globe of golden light at me," she stated confidently, crossing her arms over her chest and nodding to emphasize the point.
Keitaro raised the other eyebrow, seeming dubiously unimpressed. "Motoko-chan, can you follow me for a moment?"
The girl nodded uncertainly, as Keitaro led her to the room neighboring Suu's — and directly beneath her own. He rapped on the door, and when there was no response, he cracked it open, peeking inside. His face reddened, and he backed away suddenly, gesturing for her to look for herself. Uncertain, and confused, Motoko peeked into the slight gap, seeing only a woman asleep on the floor, sprawled about haphazardly, her blanket pushed off her chest.
Her very ample, and obviously female chest. Her hair was in a similar style, but a completely different color, and Motoko guessed that the girl was quite a bit shorter than the boy had been. "This is Oe-san?" she asked quietly.
"Yes," Keitaro assessed, standing in the hall and looking studiously away.
"I sense something amiss," Motoko grumbled, sliding the door open the rest of the way, and marching into the room. She had scored a hit on the man's thigh — if they were somehow the same person, that cut should remain on the woman. Keitaro poked his head into the room, his eyes bulging as Motoko knelt at the redhead's side, and threw the blanket off.
The redhead only offered a quiet, sleeping giggle as Motoko prodded and poked at the girl's thigh, inspecting it closely. There was a line of something there…. Far too shallow to be the cut that she had inflicted, though, and the closer she looked the more she was sure it was her imagination. "This is most strange," she said quietly, poking the woman's leg with one hand, and prodding her chest with the other. Both felt real enough….
The angered cry brought Motoko to attention, and she turned her head to stare into the hallway. Keitaro was frozen in the middle of the doorway, eyes larger around than his glasses, both hands clamped over his nose. A thin trickle of blood worked its way between his fingers, and his eyes turned glassy only moments before a fist slammed into him, launching him down the hallway. His flight was rewarded with a shattering crunch of wood, and Naru's seething form standing where he had been moments prior.
"I swear! Peeping at the new girl! Keitaro is such a pervert," she grumped. Shaking her head, the girl calmed herself, and turned to look at Motoko. "Don't you agree…." She trailed off, eyes wide, and stared at Motoko.
Motoko had only time to blink before both Shinobu and Mitsune poked their heads in. "Looks like you got the wrong pervert," Mitsune assessed quickly. "I didn't know you swung that way, Motoko, but really, you should at least wait until the poor girl is awake before you try and take advantage of her."
Realizing her position, and where her hands were in relation to the woman on the floor, Motoko jumped away as though burnt. "That's not it!" she exclaimed angrily. "That's not it at all! I just wanted to make sure that she wasn't the boy who showed up in the baths!"
"I really don't know how you could mistake her for a boy," Mitsune said quietly, glancing at the then-catatonic Naru. "But Keitaro might be mad if he finds out you messed up the bath because you were trying to come onto the new girl, and I think Naru's not going to be too happy, either."
"It's not like that!" Motoko protested violently, standing up straight, her hands balled into fists at her sides.
Suu skipped down the hall, and paused before the crowd, glancing inside the room and putting one finger to her lower lip. "Is Motoko-chan going to sleep with the new girl instead of me now?" she asked, worried.
At that, Naru's eyes rolled upwards, and she collapsed in a faint in the middle of the hallway, Shinobu only taking a moment to join her. Mitsune's eyes opened wide, as she glanced between Motoko and Suu. "I think I understand now," she said quietly. "Well, I'll let you two sort out your little quarrel on your own." Grabbing Shinobu and Naru each by an arm, she pulled them out of sight, leaving Motoko alone, standing over the form of the — still slumbering — redhead, with Suu watching curiously.
"Nobody understands me!" Motoko protested.
"Don't worry!" Suu caroled happily. "I'll still sleep with you, Motoko-chan!"
The kendoka sank to her knees, eyes tearing. "Why me?"
Dizzy from the veritable flood of disaster and confusion that the day had been so far, Shinobu gladly ensconced herself in the kitchen, burying herself in the task of cooking…. After a few quiet and pleading questions, Keitaro had crawled through the wreckage of the bathing area long enough to restore water to the rest of the house, and shut off the water that would otherwise flood what was left of the laundry room.
Water was essential to both cooking and cleaning, and Shinobu couldn't have her peace without it. Either Keitaro knew and respected that, or he was just too distracted to study, and didn't mind doing chores about the house. She wasn't entirely certain, but in the sanctity of the kitchen, at least, she could focus more on preparing food, and less on thinking about the girl who was bleeding, and later being molested by Motoko. She was certain that there was a good explanation for it, but at the same time, was just as happy not being too near Motoko until things were sorted out.
The shock of seeing blood had left her feeling faint, but the revelation of Motoko's apparent ultimate goal had… had… unnerved her, and pushed her back into that unpleasantly confusing area where she fainted again. Thinking of it, even later, made her uncomfortably woozy.
Pushing that thought from her mind until the meal was finished cooking, she sighed contentedly, and then trundled the meal into the dining room, calling out quietly, "Dinner is ready, everyone!"
The assembled residents of Hinata-Sou — save for Sarah, who was with her father for a few days — trooped in, Motoko uncharacteristically sullen. Keitaro, too, seemed strangely tired — more than the tiredness that hung over him from days on end of studying, and less than the tiredness of failing a test. She bit her lip, remaining silent as the meal bore on. Only Suu seemed to be her completely normal and animated self, polishing off her portion with gusto, and then bouncing in her seat impatiently. "What are we going to have a meeting about, Keitaro? Is it delicious?"
Pushing away his plate, and sighing, Keitaro shook his head. "Well, we might as well get this over with," he mumbled. Everyone turned to regard him curiously, and he stood up, pacing a few steps away before turning back to face the assembled tenants. "Oe's still asleep, so I'll explain this to her later, but the long and short of it is that because of the damage to the inn, we need to hire someone to repair it."
Mitsune and Motoko nodded their understanding, and Shinobu exchanged a concerned glance with Naru. Suu merely blinked eyes bright with interest. "So someone will fix the broken parts of the inn?" Shinobu asked quietly.
Rubbing at his temples, Keitaro nodded. "That's right," he said. "They're coming on Monday, and it will take them two or three weeks to finish repairing all the damage to the inn." Everyone outside of Suu winced at that. "It's also costing an awful lot — about three hundred thousand yen, actually."
Naru winced again, biting her lower lip. "Do we have that?" she asked worriedly.
"Thanks to Oe-san, yes," Keitaro said, nodding. "I ran down to the bank and checked to try and hurry things up — it's already gone through, so that's not a worry. However, the budget's going to be a bit tight for a while and they're going to fix all the damage in the entire inn, not just the bath."
"That's not too bad!" Naru said. "They can fix that hole between our rooms!"
"Well, that too," Keitaro mumbled. "And the new hole you put in the wall earlier today."
Naru laughed nervously. "Oh, yeah," she giggled. "That. Sorry, Keitaro, I thought that you were—"
"Anyway," Keitaro overrode her, glancing briefly at Motoko, then turning his attention back to Naru, "I chatted with Haruka-basan about this, and this means we're going to have a new rule around the inn."
"New rule?" Naru asked suspiciously. "Like what, we can't beat you up if you're a pervert anymore?"
"I'm not a pervert!" Keitaro protested before calming himself. "No — the new rule is no fighting inside the inn. The budget's going to be rough as it is — if we have to pay for repairs to make sure the inn is up to code all the time, that's just going to get worse. So if there's a need for violence, be sure to take it outside and not destroy the inn."
"So you're saying even if we don't respect you, we should respect the inn?" Mitsune asked, smiling softly.
"Uh… yeah," Keitaro said, nodding swiftly. "Anyway, I've had a long day. If any of you need to use the bath, you can use the one you gave to me — there's an 'occupied' sign there already if you need it."
"What about laundry?" Shinobu asked nervously. "Three weeks is a long time."
"We'll just have to do it the old fashioned way," Keitaro apologized. "By hand."
Shinobu groaned softly. That was something she wasn't particularly looking forward to. By the expressions on Mitsune and Naru's faces, they were less than thrilled with the prospect themselves. "Why do we have to do this all now?" Mitsune complained. "We've never had any maintenance done on the place before!"
Keitaro stared at her, blinking in confusion. "Then, I guess it's time, then, isn't it," he asked, before turning away from the table and walking towards his room. "I'm going to bed," he tossed over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hallway. "I have a lot of studying to catch up on."
"He's come a long way from the guy we wanted to kick out, when we first met him," Mitsune noted. "He seems really different today, though."
"He was normal this morning," Naru countered. "It's probably just the destruction of the inn. I guess that we've just never damaged the place that badly."
"Yeah," Suu said, yawning and covering her mouth. "It must be really low on HPs."
"I guess this one was just too much for him to handle," Mitsune said, shrugging. "And they can probably do a better job once they send some cute guys over to start working."
Naru rolled her eyes at Mitsune's comment, and rose from the table. "Well, I want to get some more studying done, so I'm going back to my room," she offered, before leaving the room.
"I wish to finish bathing," Motoko announced, rising to her feet.
"Thanks for the warning!" Mitsune replied, rising to her feet. "I'll wait until you're done."
Motoko paused at the doorway, looking back at Mitsune and frowning, but said nothing. Mitsune simply offered one of her knowing grins, and marched off towards her own room.
Ranma woke up.
Her eyes snapped open widely, then immediately shut themselves again.
Her head hurt as badly as though someone dropped a building on it, and searching back through her memories suggested that was exactly what had happened. She sat up slowly, groaning, and felt at her head experimentally. A slight bump; no serious pain from the bump itself, and no blood.
Good, she decided. It wasn't lethal, and that meant she had some kendoka butt to kick. Climbing to her feet, she was unsettled to find herself naked, once her sleeping bag fell to the floor. "Sleeping as a girl is the last thing I want in an boy's dorm," she grumbled. "Then again, that crazy chick said it was all girls."
Grabbing a spare change of clothes, she dressed quickly, mulling that over. The manager — and he had been the manager, too; his name was on the forms he signed, and Keitaro was certainly a boy's name — had said that the inn was not coed, and had said that he'd read the letter Ranma had mailed. Confident that she was in the right, she rubbed at the bump on her head before sliding open the door and glancing around. The hallway was deserted, a side-door leading outside — a large hole in the wall in the vague outline of a man's body — and the rest of the hall was deserted.
Eyeing the hole suspiciously, Ranma turned away and closed her door behind her, carefully padding down the hall. By the sunlight trickling in from outside, it was very early morning, which made her wonder how long she had been knocked out. She frowned, but heard no one nearby — there was a faint clattering noise from what she guessed to be the kitchen, followed by the soft scents of good things cooking.
"Mmm," she mused, her stomach growling suddenly. Vengeance against the rogue kendoka could wait — food was more important.
Walking silently into the kitchen, she peered around cautiously, surprised to see a small girl hard at work over a boiling pot. He blinked, frowning. She was a capable, to all appearances, and seemed to know her way around the kitchen. Her short blue hair bobbed slightly as she nodded her head at something or another, and Ranma frowned, sitting at the table to consider things. Thanks to the layout of the kitchen and the dining room, Ranma could easily watch the little girl from her seat.
Something about her manner in the kitchen reminded the redhead of Kasumi, and that brought a whole slew of unwelcome memories. Trying to distract herself, Ranma rose from the chair, still noiselessly, and padded to the entrance to the kitchen, a wide path between a counter and the far wall. "Hello?" she said cautiously.
"It's not ready yet," the girl responded, setting her wooden spoon on a rest and frowning thoughtfully. She turned to face Ranma apologetically, "I'm sorry Haruka— Oh! I'm sorry! I thought you were Haruka-san!"
Ranma frowned, shaking her head. "It's the voice," she assessed. "Everyone tells me I sound like someone else they know."
The girl giggled in embarrassment, dropping her head to stare at her feet nervously. "I'm really sorry!" She stared at her feet for a moment, then shyly raised her head to meet Ranma's eyes. "Um… I'm Maehara Shinobu," she introduced herself, bowing nervously.
"Oe Ranma," Ranma returned, bowing back to her. Good cooks were to be respected, after all. "So, I suppose that you do all the cooking around here?"
"Yes!" the girl enthused. "When I first moved in, Hina-obasan did the cooking, but no one else did, so I offered to help. She taught me a lot about it, and Haruka-san helped a bit. Now that she's gone, I do all the cooking myself. Sometimes Urashima-sempai and Koara-san help, though."
"Hey, good cooks are hard to come by," Ranma encouraged her, glancing around the kitchen. It was formidably stocked, and Ranma was willing to bet that any number of delicious wonders could be created within it. "Aniki could make a mean bowl of noodles," she reminisced. "Taught me how, too."
"Ah! You're a cook?" Shinobu asked, eyes widening, and clasping her hands together. "It would be so nice to have someone who I could share recipes with, Oe-san!"
"Eh… Well, I'm okay, I guess," Ranma laughed, scratching the back of her head nervously. "I'm not that spectacular — I'm mostly really a martial artist."
Shinobu's excitement seemed to lessen slightly at that, and she nodded her understanding. "Aoyama is a martial artist, too," she said, turning to tend to the large bowl on the stove. "But I don't think she can cook very much."
"Well, I could still show you how to make your own noodles, if you'd like," Ranma offered. "And I can cook okay from a recipe, if you want to take a break from it sometime, or something."
Satisfied with the bubbling pot, Shinobu beamed a smile at Ranma. "I'd like that very much, Oe-san!" she thrilled. "Why don't you take a seat? Everyone else should be waking up soon, and I should be finished cooking in a few minutes."
"Actually, I was thinking of taking a bath." Biting her lip, and remembering what had happened, Ranma asked, "Is there still a working bath around, anywhere?"
Shinobu nodded, explaining, "On the second floor, at the end of the hall, there's a private bath. Be sure to use the occupied sign — Motoko might walk in on you."
"She's… the martial artist," Shinobu said apologetically. "Yesterday she—"
"Attacked me in the bath," Ranma concluded, frowning. "She stays here, too?"
"Well, yes, Oe-sempai, you see… ah… don't be angry just because she's… different…. You just need to be firm and tell her you're not interested in that way," Shinobu suggested, wobbling slightly on her feet.
Ranma blinked, scratching her head, then nodded slowly. "I gotcha," she said, nodding. "So she was the exception. I guess I could see why the normal dorms and inns wouldn't take her in."
"Oe-san?" Shinobu asked cautiously.
"Ah, it's nothing," Ranma said, shaking her head. "Not as bad as I thought it was. I'll take a bath and be right back. Breakfast smells really good."
Shinobu hummed happily, putting the finishing touches on the meal, and pausing to set the plates for everyone at the table. Oe seemed to be a nice new tenant — she could only see the other girls getting along with her. She spoke a little roughly, like a man, and carried herself with a completely tomboyish grace. The redhead was also very beautiful, and Shinobu was a little envious, when she compared her own plain features to Ranma's.
Sighing, she turned around, and prepared to carry the rice to the table. She had made more, so the load was a bit heavier than she was used to. Much to her surprise, as she reached for it, a pair of slender hands seized the handles from either side of her, hoisting it clear over her head. "Uh?" she noised, turning around.
Smirking at her, the rice carried easily — as though the entire thing weighed nothing — Ranma nodded at her. "No sense doing all the work yourself," she insisted, carrying it to the table. "Need anything else moved?"
"Ah! N…n…no, Oe-san!" Shinobu protested. "You just got here — you shouldn't have to do my job!"
"It's nothing!" Ranma countered, shaking her head and grinning. "Anyway, the hot water's out, so I figured I would see what I could do here to help you out. Maybe you can give me some hot water, later, right?"
"Oh! If you want hot water, I'll put a kettle on right away," Shinobu announced, scurrying to a cupboard to produce one. "I normally make tea in the mornings anyway, but today I forgot. I'm so sorry!"
"Relax," Ranma encouraged, taking a seat at the table, and glancing to the hallway as Keitaro shuffled in, looking like death warmed over. His clothing was disheveled, there were massive bags beneath his eyes, and his hair looked as though he'd gotten on the wrong side of a vicious barber, or temperamental modern artist, with spiky jumbles of hair pointed in every direction. The flesh of his face was pallid and drawn, leaving him looking gaunt and beaten, a mere specter of the man she had met the previous day. "Uh… good morning, Kanrinin."
"Stuuuudy," Keitaro moaned, dropping into a seat and collapsing face-first into his breakfast plate. "All night… so tired… so very… very tired."
"That's right," Ranma said, holding out one palm and smacking the fist of the other hand into it. "Isn't there an important pre-test coming up? I need to get to work on preparing for that."
Keitaro straightened up, revitalized. His hair shifted about, lining itself up into orderly, well combed rows, while his clothing seemed to lose the threadbare portions and smudges of ink and food. Color flooded back into his face like bizarre time-lapse footage of a decaying body played in reverse. Suddenly pink and healthy — nearly normal looking, he stood up, clenching a fist in the air dramatically and announcing, "Yes! I've already paid for my test, and this year I'll make it into Todai for sure!"
Ranma stared at him for a moment, then shook her head. "So, um, Kanrinin, what's the deal with the hot water, anyway?"
Keitaro slumped slightly, while Shinobu brought the rest of the meal to the table and served out a portion to each Ranma and Keitaro. "Oh, well, it's going to take a while to repair, I'm afraid. The upstairs bath works the old fashioned way, though, so you just need to light the fire underneath it if you want hot water."
"Eh, didn't have the time today," Ranma said, shaking her head. "Anyway, now that we got this mostly sorted out, I need to find the local testing center and find a study group." The redhead produced a notebook from behind her and asked Keitaro purposefully, "You know where they are, right?"
While Keitaro rattled off a list of addresses, Shinobu frowned at herself. She had forgotten to serve Ranma. Shaking her head, she served a portion onto her plate, then served herself. Ranma nodded at her thankfully, scribbling down the addresses as Keitaro babbled them out. "If you're looking for someone to study with, Narusegawa and I study together a lot."
"That's fine with me," Ranma agreed, nodding. "I also need to get a part-time job somewhere. Know of anyone who's hiring?"
Keitaro frowned thoughtfully, picking at his plate, and Shinobu noticed as he did so, that Ranma's plate was still spotlessly clean. Wincing at her own shortsightedness, Shinobu served a portion of the breakfast to the redhead, and began to eat.
"I suppose you could ask Haruka-basan — she runs the tea house down the stairs — but I don't know if she needs help, or how much she would pay," Keitaro warned. "Other than that… I'm not sure, but a lot of places around here require experience. Usually a year or two."
"I've covered there," Ranma assured him, tapping a chopstick against her empty plate. "I've got a lot of references, and tons of experience, thanks to Aniki. But I've been a waiter already, so I want to try something new." She glanced at her notebook as Shinobu whimpered, and served her breakfast. "I'll look around a bit while signing up for the sample tests."
"Okay," Keitaro said agreeably. "Good luck, then, and you have my apologies about what happened yesterday."
Sighing, Ranma shook her head, pushing the plate — still apparently perfectly clean — away from her. "Yeah, well, as long as it isn't a regular event, it's okay, I guess."
"Ah! Oe-san, I'm sorry!" Shinobu apologized. "I kept thinking I gave you something to eat, and then forgetting! Are you mad at me? You don't need to push your plate away!"
Ranma shook her head quickly. "Ah, no. I'm full, thanks. It was delicious, Shinobu-chan." She smiled encouragingly at the girl, before turning to glance up as Mitsune wandered in, trailed almost instantly by Suu. The foreign girl was carrying a small box with numerous odd little wheels and dials across it, along with a small speaker, and staring at it in annoyance.
Mitsune and Suu sat down, while Ranma stiffened suddenly. "Something wrong?" Keitaro asked, pulling his own study book from a pocket.
"Erm," Ranma noised, as Motoko and Naru trouped into the room, taking seats of their own. The kendoka shot Ranma a carefully guarded look, and then pointedly looked away. "Kanrinin, you remember the letter I sent you before I moved in, right?"
Keitaro nodded absently, flipping through his notes. "Yeah," he said, frowning at some scribbling or another. "Er…. Yes. Of course." Shinobu watched Keitaro closely between serving the other tenants of the inn their breakfasts.
The young man looked evasively nervous, for some reason, Shinobu noticed. "You remember what the letter said, right?" Ranma pressed.
"Uh… not off the top of my head," Keitaro said, laughing nervously. "Err… you're diabetic?" he guessed.
Ranma rewarded the man with a flat stare.
"Uh, you're asthmatic?" he asked, fidgeting nervously with the pages of his notebook.
Ranma's eyes narrowed in unspoken anger.
"Um, you, uh, suffer from epilepsy?" Keitaro attempted, the notebook slipping from his hands and bouncing on the table. It flipped in the air three times before landing on its spine, a stray breeze flipping it open to reveal an envelope — unopened, of course — wedged into the crease between two pages.
Ranma plucked the letter from the table idly, turning it over and examining it closely. "You never even opened it!" she accused, throwing it at Keitaro. The paper spun through the air on edge, smacking Keitaro in the forehead and landing in his lap. Ranma stood up and glowered at Keitaro, while Keitaro stooped to collect the envelope as it fell from his lap.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Keitaro panicked, standing back up and waving his hands apologetically. Ranma's eyebrow ticked slightly as a waving hand landed on her chest, grabbing one of her pronounced curves tightly before he panicked, and jumped backwards, knocking Mitsune out of her chair and sprawling atop her.
Ranma cleared her throat quietly, and carefully, deliberately, cracked each knuckle on both hands, one at a time. Keitaro whimpered into Mitsune's cleavage, protesting, "No violence inside! No violence inside!"
"Ah, aren't we being a little friendly this morning?" Mitsune asked, blushing darkly. Naru gently extricated Keitaro from his plight, lifting him off of Mitsune, beaming a smile to everyone in the kitchen, and then dragging Keitaro out of sight, walking into the backyard through the kitchen entrance.
Shinobu sighed, shaking her head, and Ranma blinked, taken aback. Before she could ask anything, however, there was a resounding 'thud', and the entirety of the inn seemed to jump a few centimeters upward before settling back down.
Naru walked back in, dusting her hands together before taking her seat again. "Sorry about that, Oe-san," she said, bowing her head slightly. "Keitaro is a bit of a pervert." Naru glanced at Motoko, and added hesitantly, "Though I think you might want to watch yourself around Motoko, too."
The kendoka twitched, her chopsticks snapping in half in her hands. "I was not trying to seduce Oe!" she yelled. "It's not like that!"
Shinobu whimpered, edging her seat slightly closer to Suu, who was watching everything attentively. "No, she wasn't trying to seduce me," Ranma said supportively, shaking her head.
"Exactly!" Motoko said, standing up straight, and crossing her arms over her chest. "I've been unjustly accused, and Oe now tells you the truth!"
"She was just trying to kill me," Ranma explained.
"Exactly rig—" Motoko broke off, staring at Ranma in shock. "I never saw you in the baths!" she protested. "I was trying to kill the pervert!"
Ranma took a deep breath, offering Mitsune a hand up, and helping the woman to her seat before turning to address the table as Keitaro staggered back in from outside. "I can explain everything," she explained. "If… sorry, I didn't catch your name?" She turned her head to Mitsune curiously.
"Call me Kitsune," Mitsune said. "What do you need?"
"The letter you stuck down your shirt?" Ranma asked frankly. "It will explain everything."
Mitsune's eyes opened slightly, and she wondered, aloud, "How did you know?"
"It doesn't take that long to get off the floor," Ranma said, smiling. "But if you'd read that letter, and Shinobu-chan would give me the hot water from the stove, I think I can explain everything."
Shinobu nodded, despite not knowing what Ranma needed the hot water for, and quickly fetched it, eager to see some semblance of order restored to the inn.
"Well, let's see," Mitsune murmured, pulling the envelope from her cleavage — where Keitaro had rested only moments before. Tearing it open, she fished out a note, and read it aloud. "To, Hinata-Sou management:
"My name is Oe Ranma, and I am an aspiring student that's looking for affordable housing while trying to get into Todai." Shinobu smiled at that, while Keitaro and Naru offered mirroring nods of approval. "However, I do have a condition that might cause problems, and I need a stable residence to study, so I want to make sure that everyone understand what this problem is before you agree to let me stay."
"Ah," Motoko said, nodding judiciously. "I knew it."
Ranma shot a dark look at the kendoka, and motioned Mitsune to continue. Clearing her throat, Mitsune read, "I have something called a Jusenkyou curse, and it is triggered by hot and cold water respectively. The reason that this is a problem is that sometimes, while I look like a girl, I am, in fact—"
"A man," Ranma concluded, pouring the hot water from the kettle over her head.
Everyone turned to watch, shocked, as the hot water coursed across Ranma's head, darkening hair from red to black, and causing her entire form to change. Slim, dainty fingers became thicker, while soft palms became callused, innocent blue eyes became a hardened bluish-gray, and the pronounced chest shrank, becoming hard muscle. Where the pleasantly curved woman had been before, there was now a doubtlessly male figure before them now.
They could only stare, stunned, as Ranma bowed politely. "I'm Oe Ranma. Sorry about this."
To be continued.
Author's notes: Wheeee!
The Refuge told me I couldn't write comedy, and they were right. But from the wreckage, some form of dramatic comedy may be salvaged. This chapter dedicated to Ginrai, who made me do it.
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