Ranma woke up with the first lights of the rising sun turning the walls of her room golden, running with a soft amber glow. She stretched carefully, mindful of the silver-haired girl cuddled up against her, and muffled a yawn. "Morning, kiddo," she said sleepily.
The girl scrunched up her face, even in her sleep, and pressed her face against Ranma's side, mumbling, "Aniki…."
The small amount of annoyance left at having to sleep as a woman to satisfy Motoko's temper faded, and Ranma sighed, ruffling Suu's hair gently. "Come on, time to wake up."
"Too early," the girl mumbled. "Motoko-chan sleeps longer."
"None of that, now," Ranma said sternly, sitting up, and dislodging the sleeping bag she was using in lieu of a blanket.
The cold air struck Suu, and made her shiver, pouting at Ranma. "Still tired!" she protested.
"Well, you can either go sleep in your own room, or stay here, but I've got things to take care of — like finding hot water."
Sighing, Suu nodded, climbing up off the bedroll, and stretching. "Morning, Ranma!" she exclaimed, suddenly much more cheerful.
Ranma shook her head, running a hand through her hair. "You rest well?"
"Ranma talks in his sleep," Suu assessed, nodding knowingly.
The redhead tensed uncomfortably at that. "What about?" she asked cautiously.
"Eight treasures," Suu said, frowning. "What's that? Is it delicious?"
Chapter Three: Call me Master
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.
"It's about the most distasteful thing I've ever heard of," Ranma assured the girl, shuddering.
"Eight treasures? Happosai?" she asked.
Ranma shuddered again, and insisted, "Yes, now, never speak that name again. It's bad luck."
Suu eyed Ranma, her nearly perpetual smile fading for a moment. Nodding, she resumed her grin, and scampered to the door, sliding it open and vanishing.
Ranma raised an eyebrow, seeing Motoko standing in the hallway, worn and haggard as she stared resolutely forward. "Rest well?" the redhead asked, smirking.
Motoko growled, "I had to make sure you wouldn't do anything untoward with Suu."
"Just because I turn into a girl doesn't mean I act like you," Ranma assured her. "Now go and get some sleep, or something. I'm going to take a bath."
"That's not fair!" Motoko wailed suddenly. "I'm not like that!"
"Neither am I," Ranma said seriously. "But there's this girl I know, see, and she runs around with a sword, chasing me all the time, and she doesn't believe me. So I feel your pain."
Motoko heaved a put-upon sigh, and wandered away, shaking her head. "Watch yourself, Ranma," she warned. "I wanted to trust you, but you do not make this easier for me."
Ranma winced, a sudden bolt of guilt shooting up her spine. The girl had a point, but…. "You want to trust me? So why did you watch me all night to make sure I wasn't doing anything? You didn't trust me, then."
"Nor would I, ever," Motoko shot back, pausing before the corner of the hallway, and looking back at Ranma with a scowl. "With Suu." She offered the faintest hints of a smile, and stepped around the hall, vanishing from Ranma's sight.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ranma asked, confused.
Shinobu rubbed at her eyes sleepily, blinking at her reflection in the small mirror near the sink. She was suddenly stricken with the realization that she didn't know who put it there, and spent a moment to ponder that, while she readied her toothbrush. Her eyes narrowed slightly with curiosity, and she had to resist the urge to giggle at her own reflection as she began brushing.
A soft footstep sounded nearby, and Ranma nodded at her, producing a toothbrush of his own. Suu had finished brushing her teeth already, and then run off to chase Tamago across the roof. Ranma, however, had taken the time to take a bath, as his once-again male form suggested.
Stiffening, Shinobu managed an awkward bow, and mumbled around her toothbrush, "Did you rest well, Oe-san?"
Ranma nodded, yawning slightly, and putting some toothpaste on his toothbrush. "Pretty good," he said after a moment. "I fell asleep the moment I lay down, so that was nice."
The girl relaxed instantly at hearing that. If he had just slept, then it wasn't nearly as bad. "Oh, that's good," she said, holding her toothbrush in her hand. "I was so worried! I thought that Motoko-chan and… um… never mind." She blushed, realizing what a scene she was making, and quickly jammed her toothbrush into her mouth again, bowing her head.
"Nothing like that," Ranma said insistently. "Me and Suu just slept, and I was a girl at the time. I'm not like that."
Shinobu looked up at Ranma hesitantly, as he began brushing his teeth. "Really?" she asked quietly.
"Yeph, reawy," Ranma replied seriously.
The girl couldn't help but giggle at the stern looking man with his toothbrush still in his mouth.
He raised an eyebrow, then pointed at her and proclaimed, "Rabid schoolgirl!"
Laughing harder, Shinobu put her hand over her mouth to avoid spitting at Ranma, and glanced at her reflection in the mirror. As Ranma's announcement had suggested, her mouth was neatly ringed with foamy bubbles of toothpaste. Drawing in a breath to laugh again, she choked on her toothbrush, and sat down heavily, trying to breathe, as everything faded….
…Only to return a half-second later.
"You okay?" Ranma asked cautiously, his toothbrush still in his mouth.
Shinobu blinked, wondering why she was lying on the floor again. Something about being near Ranma seemed to prompt that. "I think so," she said cautiously. "What happened?"
"You choked on your toothbrush," Ranma explained, chuckling. "Ah… that was my fault, I'm afraid."
"I'm fine," she assured him, climbing unsteadily to her feet again. Her toothbrush sat on the counter next to the sink, and by her reflection, Ranma had wiped the toothpaste from her face.
Right," the man mumbled, producing his notebook and pen. "'Do not laugh and brush teeth at the same time. It can be dangerous.'"
"Oe-san?" Shinobu asked, unable to resist giggling again despite the embarrassment. "You need to write that down?"
"It helps," Ranma said in an offhanded manner, rinsing his mouth out and spitting into the sink. "Aniki used to write down notes like that, too. One of them was, 'The human head is not meant to turn one hundred and eighty degrees. I tried it today. It hurt.'"
Shinobu burst into laughter at hearing that, while Ranma nodded sagaciously. "Is that true, Oe-san?" she asked.
"Yep," Ranma said, smirking. "I also learned the hard way that the head should not sit at a ninety degree angle to the shoulders, once. Hmm. Never remembered to write that one down."
He scribbled in his notebook again, and Shinobu laughed, carefully pushing her toothbrush away from her. "Well, I'll just remember, 'Be careful about brushing your teeth near Oe-san'," she giggled.
"Could be good advice," Ranma reasoned, smirking. "Hey, since I'm taking over for Keitaro, and you already had an accident this morning, how about letting me make breakfast for you?"
"Ah! I can't let you do that!" Shinobu protested. "Oe-san, you don't need to do that for me!"
"You sure?" Ranma asked cautiously. "You were knocked out for a few minutes, and you still need to leave in time for school, don't you?"
"Oh," Shinobu wailed. "I'll never make it! I have to hurry!"
"Then hurry, but let me handle breakfast," Ranma insisted, marching towards the kitchen quickly.
Shinobu paused her frenzied panic, blinking at Ranma's back as he strode away. If he took care of breakfast, she'd have easily enough time, but at the same time…. "Thank you," she whispered quietly, dashing to her room.
Ranma threw himself into the task of cooking, glancing up from the stove only as Keitaro and Naru wandered into the dining room, quizzing one another on various topics in the upcoming test. Both paused at seeing Ranma in Shinobu's normal place, and frowned in confusion.
"Oe-san?" Keitaro hazarded. "What's going on?"
"Shinobu-chan's running a bit late, Kanrinin," Ranma said, serving out the rice and miso carefully, and setting bowls of each before the pair.
"Oooh, that smells good, Shinobu… Oe?" Mitsune asked in confusion as she poked her head into the dining room. "You can cook?"
"I worked a summer at a hot-spring resort with Aniki," Ranma said dismissively. "Most days I ended up in the kitchen." He served Mitsune, then retreated back into the kitchen to prepare more place settings. "A few days I had to serve everyone in the main hall."
"Oh, so you know how to be a cook and a waitress?" Mitsune teased, sampling her miso.
"Yep," Ranma answered absently. "Didn't care much for the drunken old men, and the management didn't care much for bruised and angry customers, so they made me clean out the hot springs from then on. I liked that a little better."
Mitsune blinked in surprise. "Oh," she said quietly. "I thought you were kidding."
"Nope," Ranma said, setting out bowls for Motoko and Suu as they entered, Suu dancing circles around the weary kendoka. "But I've worked in restaurants before, mostly just not ones that served alcohol."
"I bet you look really cute dressed up as a waitress," Mitsune mused, causing Keitaro and Naru to wince in tandem.
"I guess," Ranma mumbled. "Aniki's got pictures. If I were staying longer, I'd get the album from him, but—" Ranma broke off, staring at the wall facing the interior of the inn, and blinking in confusion.
"But?" Mitsune prompted.
Ranma remained silent, eyes growing large with shock, and prompting even Motoko to rouse herself to study him in concern. A low, nearly inaudible scream echoed, growing louder with each passing second, until Shinobu nearly flew into the dining room, wailing, and latched onto Motoko. "Waaaaaaaah!" she cried out, causing everyone else to wince at the volume.
"What's going on?" Motoko asked, climbing to her feet and putting an arm about the girl protectively, shooting Ranma a scathing glare.
"Someone's stolen all my panties!" Shinobu wailed. "I can't find any of them!"
Ranma shuddered, making a face. "This can't be happening," he murmured. "Suu, did you say that name I told you not to say?"
"Which name?" Suu asked curiously, pulling up the hem of her skirt to look. "I said it, but my panties are still here!"
Ranma slapped himself on the forehead, gritting his teeth. "Perfect," he mumbled. "Aniki never said the days would get this bad."
"What do you know about this?" Naru demanded suddenly, standing up, and slapping her palms against the table. "Are you responsible for Shinobu's missing panties?"
"No!" Ranma protested. "Well. Maybe. Wait! No, the only thing I ever did was let the old pervert live!"
"Which old pervert?" Naru asked skeptically.
"Uh… it's not important," Ranma assured her, glancing over his shoulder worriedly. "Kanrinin, you and Narusegawa-san need to hurry up to get to your test. I can handle the old man."
"What old man?" Keitaro asked, frowning in confusion.
"I'd rather not say," Ranma said evasively. "But, uh, look at the time, you know?"
Keitaro took a deep breath, and climbed to his feet, instantly the center of attention, dropping one hand onto Naru's shoulder. "I think Oe-san is right, Naru — we need to hurry up to make it to the test on time. I asked Oe-san to take care of the Hinata-Sou while I was gone for today, and I trust Oe-san. Everyone else, if you need help, ask Oe-san. He's going to need to talk to the contractors later today."
"Don't be so personal with me!" Naru snapped, looking at Keitaro with annoyance. "And get your hand off my shoulder."
Keitaro leapt back as though burnt, and reflexively whimpered, "Not indoors!"
Everyone took a moment to blink in surprise, before Naru shook her head. "Anyway, you're right, Keitaro, we need to hurry up and get outside."
Cringing, Keitaro dropped his head. "Must go outside," he whimpered. "Okay, everyone, see you later."
With that, the pair strode down the hallway, and out of sight.
"Oe, I want answers," Motoko grumbled. "What's going on here?"
"I think we should take this outside, too," Ranma said quietly. "I don't know how much time we have before the contractors get here."
"What?" Motoko asked, one arm tightening about Shinobu, and the other dropping to her sword.
Shinobu, realizing where she was, began to whimper, "Help! Save me, Oe-san! Motoko, I'm not like you!"
Motoko released the girl, scowling. "It's not like that! I'm trying to save you from the perversions of men!"
"That only makes it sound worse!" Shinobu protested, running to hide behind Mitsune.
"You think I can help you?" Mitsune asked, surprised.
"No, you're just less perverted than everyone else!"
"Uh… let's try and tone down how often we say that word," Ranma suggested. "And I'm going outside. I'll handle this."
With that, the man shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably, one hand going to his headband before he stepped out the door.
Everyone else exchanged a few nervous glances, then followed.
Ranma marched across the lawn area behind the inn, glaring towards the trees. Shinobu had realized that the man had a quick temper that seemed to come and go — mostly around Motoko — but she couldn't fathom what had brought up the man's ire this time. Certainly, not why he would be angry about missing panties.
Whatever his anger was at, he stood in the center of the lawn, fists trembling at his sides. "Where are you?" he yelled out towards no one in particular.
Motoko crossed her arms over her chest, and narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "I sense something," she murmured. "Something ominous."
Mitsune and Suu stood nearby, the younger girl staring with wide-eyed interest and a curious grin, Mitsune with slightly more concern. "Well, what's all this about?" Mitsune asked after a moment, when no one answered Ranma.
"I—" Ranma snapped out, cutting himself off suddenly. He raised his hands, glowering, and stared at them closely. "I'm not sure," he said in a slightly subdued tone. "I… maybe I'm overreacting, is all."
"Overreacting?" Shinobu asked, blinking in surprise. "Why are you so worried about… about… about what's missing?"
"Not what's missing," Ranma clarified, "but who took it."
"Something wicked approaches," Motoko intoned, drawing her sword, and standing before Shinobu and Suu protectively. "Is this some fell minion that followed you, Oe?"
"He shouldn't have been able to follow me, though!" Ranma protested, taking up a fighting stance.
"Who?" Motoko asked, shooting a sidelong glance at the man.
"Him," Ranma stated flatly, as a form of shadow leapt from the trees.
A dark, rounded blur like a massive troll or ogre, gigantic upper body supported on a set of tiny legs, moving so quickly that Shinobu almost couldn't see it at all flashed towards her. "Aaaah!" she wailed, covering her head with her arms and cowering.
The sound of Motoko's sword cleaving through the air echoed through the silence, along with the soft rustle of cloth and the muted noise of footsteps staggering to a halt. Recovering some of her courage, Shinobu peeked through her fingers, afraid of what she was going to see. The troll stood a short distance away, but she could see clearly that it wasn't a large creature at all — it was a rather tiny one, with a massive sack slung across its back.
Motoko held her sword in a ready position, her knees shaking slightly, and her eyes wide with shock. Ranma crouched before her, one hand on the earth, the other held parallel to the ground at his side. "Oe," Motoko said softly, taking a staggering step backwards. "What… what have you done?"
Ranma growled, reaching into his shirt, pulling out a frilly black lace bra, and throwing it to the ground. "Saving you a lot of trouble," he spat. "Now stay out of the way, little girl. This is my fight."
Motoko's grip on her sword wavered, and she took another halting step backwards before she steeled her resolve. "I will not stand down until you tell me what is going on here, Oe," she insisted.
"Oe?" the troll asked, surprised. "Ranma, have you changed your name?"
Straightening up, Ranma shrugged his shoulders. "What difference would that make?" he asked. "I don't know why you're here, Happosai, but I don't want you to stay."
"Ranma!" the creature exclaimed, batting suddenly large, innocent eyes at the man. "You wound your old master!"
"You are not my master," Ranma countered, shaking his head tersely. "You never gave me anything, just like everyone else in—" He caught himself, and shivered slightly. "You're from a part of my life that's over, old man," he said flatly.
"Oh, that's not true," the troll chuckled, setting down his sack and grinning widely. "I can see that you still use Anything Goes just by looking at you. As long as you use that school, you will always be my heir."
"Oe!" Motoko snapped. "You've trained beneath this beast?"
"Beast?" Happosai asked. "How cruel! But you're a feisty little thing, aren't you?" The old man — if he was a man — looked at Ranma slyly. "Almost reminds you of Akane, doesn't she?"
Ranma trembled with barely suppressed rage, his face a mask of anger focused enough to make whatever temper he'd had against Motoko the prior day look as though it were nothing.
Shinobu took a step backwards herself, colliding with Mitsune, who reflexively dropped a hand to the girl's shoulder to steady her. "Well, now," Mitsune mused, frowning softly. "This is more than I bargained for when I mentioned excitement!"
"I wonder what their relationship is," Suu mused quietly, one finger placed between her lips as she studied the two. "Is a Happosai stronger than a Ranma?"
Ranma glanced at Suu, his expression softening. Standing up straight, he shifted his combat stance, turning to face the old man. "Maybe I use Anything Goes, and maybe I don't," he said evasively. "And even if I do, I'm not your heir. Never will be again, old man."
"Sounds like a challenge, Ranma m'boy!" the man cackled. "Your father Genma may be the master of the Saotome School of Anything Goes, as Soun is the master of the Tendo School of Anything Goes, but I am the grandmaster. If you don't have their permission, then you have to have mine to practice." He rubbed his hands together slowly, grinning from ear-to-ear. "So that means if you can't beat me, you have to beg my students for permission."
"I don't need your permission for anything," Ranma growled. "I can do whatever I want, and I'm not training anyone in Anything Goes." Ranma's expression gave way to a rather unkind grin. "Whatever there was of the Art that was pure in Anything Goes has been refined into the Oe Ronin-Ryu."
"So you think that you can steal some of Anything Goes to create a higher art?" Happosai asked, one eyebrow flicking upward in surprise.
Motoko grimaced distastefully, and turned to regard Ranma the way she would look at something unclean. "Is that your art?" she asked. "Theft?"
Ranma glanced at Motoko, and his expression shifted — for just a heartbeat, Shinobu knew, but long enough for her to see — to hurt and betrayal before it melded back into anger. "Stuff it, old man!" Ranma yelled, turning back to the wizened creature. "Fine. I'll accept your challenge. When I win, you leave me alone forever. Deal?"
Happosai chuckled again, pulling a pipe from his gi, and puffing on it idly. "Interesting, interesting," he mused, blowing a pair of smoke rings. "And if I win, you either give up Anything Goes, or train under me like your father did."
"I don't plan on losing," Ranma said levelly. "So let's get this over with."
The old man barked a short laugh, and said, "Your choice, my heir! Happodaikarin!" Bouncing towards Ranma, the creature pulled an object about the size and shape of a tennis ball from his pocket, and flung it at Ranma.
The man leapt backwards, his arms crossed before his face. In slow motion, his braid seemed to leap across his shoulder, trailing in front of him as he flew backwards, then, as Happosai's projectile struck the earth and detonated, the braid flipped over Ranma's shoulder and fluttered behind him. His hair only came to rest when Ranma landed on the far side of the lawn on both knees and one hand, wincing. Happosai landed on the lawn, and chuckled for a moment, before producing three more of the spheres from his gi.
Ranma surged to his feet, clapping his hands together, then tearing them apart with a shout of, "Mouko Takabisha!" As his hands separated, strands of energy and light began to swarm across them, like bolts of lightning that quickly grew in size and number, then leapt into the space between his palms, forming a flashing sphere of golden-white light, shot through with streaks of red and black. The ball hovered for a half-second, then shot directly at Happosai with blinding speed, streaking across the yard.
The old man leapt upward, narrowly dodging the ball of force, which shot past him and slammed into the bundle that Happosai had left on the ground. There was a quiet, muffled explosion, and the bag detonated, scattering burning panties and bras across the battlefield. "My… my… my pretties!" Happosai shrieked in horror.
"Yours?" Mitsune asked under her breath. "I think those are ours!"
"None of mine!" Suu said cheerfully, until one of the garments suddenly exploded with enough force to knock Shinobu and Mitsune to their feet. "Well, maybe one," she allowed, shrugging.
Happosai stared at Ranma disconsolately, with large, sad eyes. "Ranma!" he sputtered. "You've destroyed my pretties! How could you?"
"I was aiming for your head!" Ranma snapped.
"Why, you little…" Happosai muttered. "Take this! Happodaikarin!" Barely giving Ranma enough time to react, the old man lobbed a trio of his explosives, one towards Ranma, one towards the inn, and one towards the girls.
Motoko didn't flinch, slicing the grenade in two before it struck, the pieces rolling to land near Suu. Ranma dived immediately towards the inn, landing on his hands, somersaulting, and snapping a kick upwards towards the third projectile, launching it into the air where it burst harmlessly. Climbing to his feet, Ranma growled at Happosai, who bounced over to stand between Ranma and the others. "Care to take another shot at me?" the old man asked, smiling. "I'm suddenly reminded of something that happened a few years ago in Nerima…."
Ranma raised his hands, the sparkling bolts of power that preceded the Mouko Takabisha shining for a moment before he growled, low in his throat, and released it. "Leave them out of this, old man!"
"It's 'Anything Goes', Ranma!" the old man mocked. "Are you going to show me your higher art?"
Ranma surged towards Happosai again, speeding towards the aged man. Happosai hopped backwards, deflecting strikes and blows from the larger man with his pipe, offering only an exaggerated yawn at the effort required. "You've gotten sloppy," he chastised. "Now I'm not sure I even want you to be my heir."
"Shut up!" Ranma roared, throwing as much strength as he could into a spin-kick at the man's head. Happosai twirled his pipe absently, and Ranma was launched upwards with a forceful sounding 'crack'. The man tumbled through the air, slamming into the Earth in front of Mitsune and Shinobu hard enough to leave an indentation. "Uhhng…" Ranma moaned, trying to pull himself up out of the crater.
"Do you not have enough strength to clean up your own messes?" Motoko asked angrily, her sword directed at the old man. "I am disappointed in you, Oe!"
"Leave… me alone," Ranma mumbled, still unable to rise.
"Oe-san?" Shinobu asked hesitantly. "You can beat him, right?"
Ranma paused his struggles for a heartbeat, and lay still, simply breathing. The old man began to walk over slowly, and Ranma unsteadily reclaimed his feet, glowering. "I'd better," he mumbled, easing himself into a defensive stance, obviously in pain as he did so. "And you should back off a bit."
Shinobu quickly did as he suggested, followed only a second later by Mitsune and Suu. Motoko held her ground, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. "I expect an answer for this, Oe," Motoko warned.
"Stay out of this!" Ranma yelled at her. "Leave me alone. I—"
His moment of distraction was more than opening enough for Happosai, who darted across the intervening distance to throw Ranma upwards again, coming to the ground heavily before the short shrubs and low fence that separated the back yard from the baths. "Heehee!" the old man chuckled, whirling his pipe across his fingers idly. "And you used to think that I was easily distracted by a pretty face!"
"Stuff it," Ranma advised, spitting out a mouthful of turf, and staggering to a kneeling position. "I betcha can't hit me like that again."
"Sounds like a plan!" Happosai said cheerfully, moving far too quickly for the other man to stop, and sending Ranma hurtling through the air again. Ranma vanished over the fence, but this time, there was no resounding thud from his impact against the ground. Happosai blinked, frowning in surprise. "What's this?" he asked quietly, glancing around in consternation.
Ranma reappeared, bouncing over the fence, female this time. Her red hair fluttered behind her, a stray fleck of blood from a cut on her cheek drifting past it. The long bandana that Ranma habitually wore came loose, and the shock of her bangs came free, hair hanging before her eyes like an ominous curtain. "This is me kickin' yer ass!" Ranma yelled, driving towards the ground foot-first.
The old man barely had enough time to slip out of the way as Ranma slammed into the ground, leaving behind an impact crater nearly half a meter across. "Hotcha!" he said, laughing. "Ranma-chan, you're coming back?"
"Oh!" Ranma exclaimed, collapsing to the ground and clutching the ankle she had landed on. "Damn it!"
Happosai paused, then smirked. "Serves you right for destroying my haul," he observed sagely. "Now maybe if you behave, I'll be a forgiving master!" He leapt for the man-turned-woman, as she clutched her wounded leg, only to make a distressed sound as the 'wounded' limb shot out, snapping into his chin and flipping him in the air.
Ranma launched herself off the ground, a wild — but powerful — strike slamming the aged man to the lawn, and a number of follow-up blows raining down on him while he lay prone. "Moron!" Ranma chastised. "You fell for the oldest trick in the book!"
"Urk," Happosai uttered, struggling away, then running from Ranma. The redhead didn't follow, one hand going to her side, as she winced. "You got me once," he said, flatly. "But the match isn't over."
"You sure about that?" Ranma asked, grinning. "You know I'm going to win, old man."
Happosai opened his mouth to say something, then frowned, and crossed his arms over his chest. "No," he said, shaking his head. "You're not. You don't have what it takes to be a master of Anything Goes, Ranma. You've lost this match."
Ranma gaped in surprise, collapsing to one knee. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"We'll fight again," Happosai advised, smiling softly. "At sunset tomorrow, I'll return. Then we'll really fight. Until then, my heir, that was a fair warm-up. But next time, I want you to show me the true Oe Ronin-Ryu." Done with his speech, and cackling loudly, the old man bounced away, vanishing into the trees, though his laughter echoed for far longer.
"Oe…" Motoko said softly. "I don't understand what has happened here, and I mean to. Speak to me."
Ranma said nothing, merely bowing her head slightly. With her hair unbound by the bandana, her eyes were masked, though Shinobu flinched at the single trail of wetness that she saw crossing Ranma's cheek.
"Oe…san?" Motoko ventured again, sheathing her sword.
"Nothing," Ranma rasped, straightening up and not meeting her gaze. "Nothing I want to talk about."
"Best leave the girl alone," Haruka advised, emerging from the side-path behind the baths. "Anyway, where's Keitaro? There's a bunch of contractors here to talk to him about the repairs to the inn."
"Oh, right," Ranma mumbled, rubbing at her face with her palms for a moment, then shaking out her damp T-shirt to try and remove some of the form-fitting qualities it had assumed when she stood still. "I have to talk to them. Thank you, Haruka-san."
"Hmm," Haruka mused, watching Ranma disappear down the path she had arrived on herself. "Keitaro's foisting the responsibilities of running the inn off on a new tenant already. I might need to have a word with him about that."
"Oh!" Shinobu exclaimed, finally clearing her head of the daze-inducing shock that had settled over her. "Um, Haruka-san, Urashima-sempai had to take a test, and asked Oe-san to take care of the inn for him for the day, since Oe-san can't take the test yet."
Haruka raised an eyebrow at that, taking a drag from her cigarette. "If he trusts Oe, I suppose," she allowed. "If he can hold his own against Happosai, he must have enough ability to at least run an inn."
"Happosai?" Motoko asked, her eyes widening. "You know him?"
Haruka blinked in surprise, then looked away, touching the side of her head with a finger. "Um, say, don't you girls need to hurry off to school?"
Motoko yelped in surprise, and ran towards the inn, full tilt. "I mustn't allow Oe to make me late!" she protested.
Shinobu only took a moment to follow, her arms agitated blurs as she wailed, "I have nothing to wear!"
Suu cocked her head to one side, glancing between Mitsune and Haruka speculatively, then shrugging and skipping into the inn. Mitsune broke the silence, asking, "Now, what's that all about?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all," Haruka said flatly.
"Well, if nothing's up, then I was wondering if you could loan me some money," Mitsune began, smiling softly. "Some little troll and a really handsome guy conspired to steal my underwear and then blow it all up…."
Haruka reached into a pocket, and slapped a short stack of large bills into Mitsune's waiting hands. "Let us never speak of this again," the older woman said tersely.
"Works for me," Mitsune said softly, counting through the bills.
With the inn behind her, Naru stood on the already crowded bus, one hand on the rail before her. Keitaro stood behind her, mumbling about something from his notebook to himself. She couldn't help but shake a certain feeling of apprehension; that something bad was going to happen.
Turning around as much as the crowded bus would allow, she asked, "Keitaro?"
He looked up sharply, folding his book against his chest as the bus lurched to a halt at the next stop. "Yes?" he answered, blinking in surprise at her.
Naru bit her lip, reconsidering, then asked, "How do you think you're going to do this time?"
The man brightened instantly, eyes shining with hope. "I think I'm going to make it. This time, for sure! How about you, Narusegawa?"
"I'm sure I'll make it this time," she answered evasively, turning away and staring at her feet. "I won't fail again."
"That's the spirit!" Keitaro encouraged her, bumping into her gently as the bus ground to a halt at an intersection.
She reflexively raised a fist, ready to strike him, but when she turned around, he wasn't paying attention to her at all, instead trying to steady himself with one hand, and still read his notes. Sighing, she dismissed the urge to hit Keitaro, and studied him for a moment.
He'd been trying for years, to get into Toudai. Would he make it this year? Would she, for that matter? Her scores on practice tests were flawless, but the last time she had taken an actual test… she had failed. The idea began to form in the back of her head that she might not make it again this year, either. She wasn't certain if she could handle that.
Last year she'd had the dubious reassurance that Keitaro, for all of his attempts, also failed. But what if he made it this year, and she was left alone, trying to get in? Initially she had respected Keitaro, when she thought he had already made it, but she didn't like his attitude when he was maintaining that facade. Would it return if he made it in without her?
Maybe that was what was bothering her. That he would make it in and leave her behind. But… why would that bother her? "Stupid," she mumbled, prompting Keitaro to blink and look up at her in confusion.
Before she could explain, the bus gave another of its sudden lurches, and she found herself falling into Keitaro. He caught her with one hand, braced against her chest, and she grit her teeth, shoving him away. His grip failed, and he stumbled back into a pair of salarymen, while she righted herself. The men in suits shot Keitaro several dark looks as he managed to pull himself upright, apologizing to them profusely.
"This is our stop," Naru said with slightly more confidence, when the bus began to slow again. "Are you okay?"
"Um, fine, I guess," he said, frowning. "Do you really think I'm going to fail?"
"What are you talking about?" she asked, edging towards the exit as the bus came to a stop.
"You said I was stupid!" Keitaro protested, struggling out the door after Naru. "What was that all about?"
"Not so loud!" Naru protested, glancing around. Few people were paying any attention to them. "It was… it wasn't you," she mumbled, shaking her head.
"So I'm not stupid?" Keitaro asked, brightening. "You think I'm going to make it?"
"Y… yes," Naru said hesitantly. "I think you will." Her hopes weren't so high for herself, but she wasn't about to tell him that.
"Narusegawa! You finally have faith in me! I'll do my best for you!"
"Not so loud!"
The foreman for the construction seemed familiar to Ranma, somehow, but she couldn't quite place her finger on why he seemed to familiar to her. "Hello," she said, bowing, and trying to dismiss her temper. "Sorry about making you wait, and thank you for helping us on such short notice."
"Not a problem," the foreman said confidently. He was a large, burly man, more muscular and a good deal taller than Ranma in her male form. He and his crew — another dozen men dressed identically in beige tank-tops, heavy gloves, and sturdy looking jeans — stared about speculatively. "So, where do we begin? Hajime didn't tell us all the details."
"I imagine not," Ranma sighed, shaking her head. "I have everything written down. I've got all the details for what needs to be done — are you going to start working today?"
"It's early enough," the man reasoned. "We'll whip up a quick plan and move in some equipment — the real work won't begin tomorrow, and we'll probably start with the plumbing."
"That makes sense," Ranma mumbled, pulling her notebook from behind her, and consulting what information Keitaro had given her. She rattled of the directions quickly, leading the men into the house and showing them the ruined bath, then various other damaged areas — the hole in the wall shaped vaguely like Keitaro, a cracked beam in the ceiling of Motoko's room, and the like.
The foreman nodded studiously, his men already hauling their equipment up to the grassy area behind the house. "Any questions?" Ranma asked, once the pair had climbed to the roof to study the loose shingles and various other areas of damage.
"Just one or two," the man said, stooping down to tug at a shingle experimentally. It came up in his hands easily, and he frowned at it. "Well, uh, the first one is: how long were you told that this all would take?"
"Um… two weeks, they said, maybe a week extra," Ranma said, crossing her arms beneath her chest. "You think it'll take longer?"
"Yeah, well, my guys are good, and we're getting a new guy on Wednesday, but I don't think we're good enough to finish this place in two weeks." He rubbed at his chin for a moment, then shook his head. "Anyway, my other question is, who are you? Paperwork said we'd be working for some guy named Urashima Keitaro."
"Uh, my name is Oe," Ranma said, frowning. "Is it important?"
"Oe?" the man asked, surprised. "Oh! The new guy we hired is named Oe, too! His name is Ranma — are you related to him at all?"
"Uh, he's my brother," Ranma hedged. "Um, I'm Ranko."
"Nice to meet you, Ranko-chan," he said pleasantly. "You're twins, right?"
"Yeah," Ranma said slowly. "Um. So, I don't want to get in your way, or anything, but if you need any more info, just ask around. I think Mitsune's here, too, but you don't need to bother her for anything."
"Well, I did have that other question for you," the man protested, as Ranma backed towards the edge of the roof.
"Well, you seem nice, and I'm already working with your brother — why don't you let me take you to lunch so we can get to know each other better?" The foreman stepped closer to her — not threatening, but protectively.
Because Ranma was right next to the edge of the roof, she realized. What she needed wasn't a protective and burly foreman, but a way out. "Uh, I don't really think that would be a good idea. I mean, I don't even know your name!"
"I'm Suzuki Taiso," he said, bowing slightly. "So, how about it?"
"Um, well," Ranma hedged, looking around frantically, "I'd love, but, um… you see…."
"But?" the man asked, crossing his arms over his chest and raising an eyebrow.
"Oe? Where are you?" a voice called out from behind Taiso. Trying to keep her relief from being too obvious, Ranma took a few steps to the side, surprised to see Mitsune there, grinning widely.
"Um, I'm right here, Kitsune," she said, waving, as though there were other people on the roof she could have been confused with.
"Oh, great!" Mitsune cheered, clapping her hands together. "I was wondering if you could help me go shopping today."
"Er… well, I would, but—"
"Oh, if you've got other plans, Oe-chan, I won't get in the way," Mitsune drawled.
Taiso turned to look at Mitsune, scratching his head curiously. "Well, that doesn't seem like a problem to me," he said, shrugging. "You can go shopping some other time, right?"
"Um… I promised, didn't I, Kitsune? I mean, we were going to go shopping and then visit my brother," Ranma objected swiftly.
"Yeah, that's right," Mitsune said, crossing her arms beneath her chest and nodding. Leaning slightly closer to Taiso, as though she were confiding in the man, she added, "Her brother's a martial artist — really strong, and very protective of his sister. I also think there's something going on between her and the manager of the inn, anyway, but she's really shy about it."
Ranma's eyebrow ticked at that, but it saved her trying to explain his curse to the man, which she really didn't want to do. She wasn't positive, but suspected that they might not be happy with the idea, or would more likely see Ranma as the curse rather than the person she really was. "Yeah, that's right! Let's go shopping and meet with my brother, Kitsune-chan!" she cheered. "I have to go out for tea with the manager this evening."
"I hope your brother can take us to lunch," Mitsune commented quietly, while Ranma scurried towards her, avoiding Taiso.
"Why's that?" Ranma asked, suspecting he knew the answer.
"He seems like the kind of guy I'd like to get to know a little better," she said, putting an arm over Ranma's shoulders.
"Lucky him," Ranma managed, hiding a sigh. "Well, sorry Suzuki-san, I have to go now."
Male again, Ranma stalked down the street, carrying Mitsune's shopping bags over one shoulder. His appearance seemed to attract a fair number of glances, while Mitsune strode happily ahead of him, nearly skipping. When they reached a crosswalk, she stopped, waiting for the light, and turned to face him. "Thanks," she said after a moment.
"Thank you, I guess," Ranma grudgingly allowed. "I really hate it when guys hit on me like that."
"How do you normally deal with it?"
Ranma looked evasive, glancing away. "Um, just, kinda, hit them a little," he mumbled. "I'm not like that."
The woman snickered, shaking her head. "You know, there's a lot about you I don't know, but I'd really like to."
"What do you mean?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side. "You're not just playing games with my head, are you?"
"You wound me," she quipped, her smile widening slightly at his wince. "But, I would like to know what all of that was about."
"I don't like to talk about it," Ranma complained. "I mean, I really don't like to talk about it."
"I've heard," Mitsune mused, tapping her lower lip with one finger. "Okay, how about a bet, then?"
"What kind of bet?" Ranma asked suspiciously.
"Let's go have lunch. I'll guess your story. If I get it right, you pay for it."
"And if you don't get it right?"
"Then you tell me, and I pay for lunch."
"I have a better idea," Ranma posed. "See, I don't like to talk about the past, because it's, well, in the past. But I do owe you for helping me out with Taiso, so I'll buy you lunch someplace."
"Free lunch, or answers, free lunch, or answers?" Mitsune mused, cocking her head to one side, then smiling slyly. "Free lunch with a really cute guy."
Ranma snorted, rolling his eyes, then pointed to a nearby restaurant. "Hey — do you like okonomiyaki?"
"Is that all you're offering me?" Mitsune asked, pouting slightly, and leaning towards Ranma as though to inspect his value.
"I'm trying to save up and get into college," he said defensively. "Look, I'll even cook for you. Sound fair?"
"Well… okay," she allowed after a moment, straightening up. "Lead the way, my darling Ranma-sama!"
"Don't call me that," Ranma said reflexively, marching into the shop, and nodding at a waitress. In short order, the pair was seated near the window, with a good view out onto the city. Bright sunlight flooded the street below, shiny cars dimmed by tinted windows, and the tree-lined hill that Hinata-Sou sat in pitched in the difference. Mitsune said nothing immediately after Ranma's admonishment, and he spent a long minute simply staring out at the view. The restaurant they were in sat atop a hill, and he could see more streets and buildings laid out below, before the slope reversed, leading up to the inn.
"It's a nice view," Mitsune said, finally breaking Ranma's reverie, a hint of disappointment entering her voice.
"Yeah," Ranma mumbled, turning back to face her and shaking his head. "Um. Sorry. I'm not real sociable all the time. I'm just a bit on edge from… Happosai."
Mitsune rested her elbows on the wooden lip surrounding the grill in the center of the table, and raised an eyebrow. "Want to talk about it?" she asked, lacing her fingers together and resting her chin atop them.
He wrestled internally for a long minute. He wanted nothing more than to speak about it to someone, but… but why open up to a woman he'd know for three months, at best? Moreover, the curiosity and scheming from Mitsune struck close to home for Ranma, and reminded him far too much of a girl or two that had gotten the better of him in the past. His brother could handle that, but he wasn't certain he could.
And then, the truth of the matter was that Mitsune didn't seem to be a bad sort — not at all. But….
"Nah," he said after a moment. "If I did, you'd have to pay for lunch."
"Point," the woman allowed, smiling. Further conversation was preceded by the arrival of a waitress, who took their orders quietly, then returned with the ingredients they had requested.
Mitsune watched intently as Ranma poured some batter across the grill, smiling slightly. He served it to her when it was done, then began to prepare one for himself. "Not bad," Mitsune said around a mouthful of her okonomiyaki. "Somehow, after breakfast, I was expecting more, though."
"If I'd met Aniki before I left Nerima, I'd have learned how to make okonomiyaki better from Ucchan," Ranma said absently, flipping an okonomiyaki over.
"Oh?" Mitsune asked quietly. Ranma blinked at the grill, realizing his slip-up. Too often when he thought about his past, he spoke about it without thinking. He had nothing to hide around Kintaro, of course, and the rest of the time, he didn't think about his past when he could help it.
But now he was locked in a situation where he had to think about it, with the reminders being thrown at him nearly constantly. And it was more than just the okonomiyaki, he knew. It was the little parts of Naru that reminded him… of Akane. Or the way that Shinobu reminded him of… of… of her.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Mitsune asked quietly.
Ranma looked up sharply, realizing his okonomiyaki was burnt. He distractedly moved it in front of himself, off the grill. "Um…" he stalled. She had asked if he wanted to talk about it, not for more information. That alone told him the woman was trustworthier than he was giving her credit. She could have drilled him for information while he was vulnerable, but she hadn't — and he knew she was curious about it. "I… I could tell you about my older brother, I guess," he said after a moment, taking a bite of the burn okonomiyaki he had made for himself.
"That can't taste very good," the woman opined.
"It doesn't," Ranma said, grimacing. "But I made it for myself, so I'll see it through." He shook his head, adding some sauce, and taking another bite. "Anyway, I… like Happosai said, I didn't used to be Oe Ranma. I used to be Saotome Ranma, before I met Aniki."
Mitsune nodded her understanding, sampling another bite of okonomiyaki.
"Um, I met him… a while after something that changed my life forever. In a bad way… I mean, it was what I think was the worst day of my life, and he… stopped me from doing something stupid." Ranma scratched his forehead underneath his headband uncomfortably. "So, he told me things weren't so bad, and was about one of the first guys I ever met who treated me like a guy all the time, even… with the curse."
Ranma sighed, pouring another okonomiyaki onto the grill. "So, I liked that he could respect me, and he asked if he could help me out. And he offered to teach me a new way to look at things, and a way to learn more." He glanced at Mitsune, checking for her reaction, then continuing, "I didn't much care about the learning part right then, but… Aniki saved me, so I wasn't going to ignore it. I agreed, and he said that if I was going to live with him, we would be like brothers. So he called me 'Otouto', and… I've called him 'Aniki' ever since."
"So he's not your real brother?" Mitsune asked, surprised.
"Nope." Ranma flipped the next okonomiyaki effortlessly, and set it before Mitsune. "But he is my brother legally. He went to Toudai for long enough to get a law degree — but he never actually picked it up. He said he knew everything he already needed from that, and that his learning would continue elsewhere. But he knew enough about how to get my name transferred to his family's register legally."
"Is your brother as cute as you are?"
Ranma dropped a spatula on the grill, scrambling for a moment to retrieve it, and burning his fingers in the process. "Er… a lot of girls think so," Ranma hazarded. "I mean, he's my brother, I don't look at him that way."
Mitsune giggled, shaking her head. "Sorry," she murmured apologetically. "I probably shouldn't have asked like that. You really like your older brother, huh?"
"Yeah," Ranma said quietly, leaning back in his seat, and turning to look out the window. "He's done a lot for me, and I owe him. That's why I have to get into Toudai." He turned to look at Mitsune, who was watching raptly, the remainder of her lunch ignored. "So now you know," he finished.
"Thanks for the story, Ranma," Mitsune murmured. "You know, Keitaro and Naru are also trying to get into Toudai for special reasons."
"Really?" Ranma asked, pushing the remnants of his burnt okonomiyaki away from himself.
"Well… you should ask them about it," the woman suggested, stretching her arms over her head. "But I guess we're done here."
"Yeah, you're right," Ranma said quietly, standing up, and reaching for his wallet. "Anyway, I want to get some cold water, and I really have to get back and see if those contractors need any more information."
Treading lightly, Shinobu was the slightest bit unsettled to watch Suu leap off of the ground and dance merrily across the low rooftops of the shops on the street leading to the Hinata-Sou. "Going to catch a Ranma!" the girl sang happily, leaping across the entire width of the road to caper back, passing in a wide circle around Shinobu. "Going to catch a Ranma!"
"Ahh! Kaora! Be careful!" Shinobu called out, hurrying to keep up with the other girl's pace. "We'll be home soon, and that's dangerous!"
"I know what I'm doing," Suu assured, a heartbeat before she slipped at the edge of one roof. An ancient shingle, coated on both sides with a thick layer of moss, shot out from beneath the girl's foot, caroming across the street, and leaving the girl to fall, rear-end first. A hapless man broke her fall as he wandered down the street, looking up in time to catch a face full of Suu's skirt before he was slammed into the ground.
Suu sat still, perched on the man's face and blinking in surprise, while Shinobu ran up to investigate. "Auuugh! Kaora, are you okay? You need to get up, you've crushed someone!"
The man struggled to rise, and Suu shifted her position, clinging to the man as he sat up. "Huh?" he asked, blinking, and adjusting his spectacles.
"Ah! Urashima-sempai!" Shinobu cheered, relieved. "It's you! For a moment I was afraid someone might have gotten hurt!"
"Fine, thanks," Keitaro managed, slightly dazed. The confused expression lasted only a moment before he jumped to his feet, ignoring Suu, now seated on his shoulders. "Yes!" he exclaimed, eyes growing large and moist with joy. "Shinobu-chan! Suu-chan! Meeting you here is a sign of good luck!"
"Lucky," Suu agreed, nodding. "But I wanted to catch a Ranma, not a Keitaro."
"Eh? What's that, Suu-chan?" Keitaro asked, trying to look at the girl. "Um, do you two come this way every day after school?"
"Yes, Urashima-sempai," Shinobu assured him. "Are you looking for something?"
"Er… well, I was wondering what kind of places there are along this street that are good for taking someone to… to talk to," he said, nodding. "A teahouse, or something. I don't want it to be the one at Hinata-Sou, though."
Shinobu blinked, then pointed to the building they were standing in front of — the same one Suu had fallen off of. Keitaro turned to look, adjusting his spectacles and blinking at the sign in front of the building. "'Lower Hinata Tea-house'," he read off the sign. "Oh. Well, that would explain that. Thanks, girls!"
"Why do you need to know about it?" Suu asked, leaning forward far enough to peer into Keitaro's eyes. "I checked — their tea is not delicious."
"I was just going to ask someone out to tea later," Keitaro said dismissively. "But for now, I need to come up with a way to give Narusegawa some important news."
Shinobu blinked at that, drawing her hands together before her chest reflexively. Whenever things started to turn strange, she had a nearly uncontrollable desire to curl into a ball, and this wasn't helping things. "Important news?" she asked worriedly.
"It's about Oe," Keitaro explained. "But don't worry about that, now. Once I talk to Narusegawa, then I think I can honestly say that you girls will all be in good hands."
Shinobu blinked, absorbing that bit of information, as Keitaro resumed his walk to Hinata-Sou, Suu still perched on his shoulders.
Female once more, Ranma was awarded the dubious honor of watching Mitsune model her new clothing. Most of this entailed her sitting on the floor of Mitsune's room, watching the door. "Ready?" she asked, twirling the end of her braid around her finger idly.
"Yep, I think that does it," Mitsune said, stepping around a divider, and showing off a sleek black dress. "What do you think of this one? And be honest."
Ranma sighed, studying the dress closely. "It looks okay, but I don't know if black is really your color," she said after a moment.
Mitsune stuck her tongue out at Ranma. "Black matches everything."
"I guess," Ranma said, shrugging. "I never learned much about clothes, except how to mend them."
The woman smirked, shaking her head. "Okay, okay, I have one more to try on, but it's not that special. You have to like one of these."
Ranma nodded dutifully, and turned to watch the door again. A soft pattering of feet tramped their way past, followed by another, and a sudden, "Myu!"
"Can Tamago take care of himself?" Ranma asked, suddenly worried.
"The only thing around here that tries to eat him is Suu, and I think she's given up on that," Mitsune assured Ranma. "And I don't think she's back from school yet. You'll hear it when she is, though."
"I'll bet," Ranma mumbled, shrugging her shoulders uncomfortably.
"I'm not so sure…."
"No, you're probably right. If Suu were back, I'd probably get some clue on it."
Mitsune laughed quietly. "I meant about the outfit. It looked okay in the window, but it seems… too old-fashioned now that I think about it." She paused for a moment, and Ranma heard her footsteps across the back of the room. "What do you think?" she asked curiously.
Ranma sighed, and turned around. And froze, unable to move, with eyes wide. The outfit that she had chosen consisted of multiple pieces. The first was a white blouse with a wide, lacy collar. The second was a plum colored dress with a low neckline that fit over the blouse, and the last piece was a simple light blue vest that fit over that.
The redhead swallowed unable to look away. Only Mitsune's face and hair kept the illusion from being perfect. The woman held out an arm, and frowned at the sleeves there, shaking her head uncertainly. "I feel like an old housewife — this outfit's no good at all," she sighed. "I'll take it back tomorrow after work, I suppose."
"Uh," Ranma managed, closing her eyes, and shaking her head. "It's… not a bad outfit."
"You like it, then?" the woman asked, a faint hint of hope sounding in her voice.
"Um, I don't think it's really you," Ranma said, shaking her head. "The black dress looked better on you — or the miniskirt, that was nice."
"Wow, thanks," she said dryly. "If you think it's bad, then you could just say so."
"It's not bad," Ranma said quickly. "I… knew someone who used to dress like that all the time."
"Oh?" Mitsune asked skeptically.
"Yes," Ranma said apologetically, opening her eyes. But the dress wasn't on Mitsune any more — all she was wearing was the blouse, which was already halfway unbuttoned. "Eep!" Ranma spun around, facing the door quickly. "Um, yes, really."
Mitsune laughed softly again. "Okay, okay," she said. "I believe you. But you peeped at me. I could tell Motoko about that, you know…."
"Oh, please," Ranma groaned. "That's the last thing I need! That irritating little girl will jump on any excuse to give me hell." She paused for a moment, considering what was about to happen, then sighed. "Can you do me a favor and make this quick and painless?"
"Whatever do you mean?" Mitsune asked, voice full of feigned innocence.
"Awww… what do you want me to do in order to not have Motoko running after me with a sword all day?" Ranma asked.
In answer, Mitsune dropped the black dress into her lap.
"You want me to return this for you?" Ranma asked hopefully.
"I want to see how you look in it," Mitsune said cheerfully.
"Okay, okay." Ranma stood up, shaking her head, and turned to face Mitsune, getting another eyeful as the woman was wearing nothing but her underwear this time. "Ack!" Ranma spun around. "Don't do that," she chastised, tugging off her shirt. She held up the dress before her, studying it, and trying to calculate the fit.
Mitsune grabbed the bottom edge of her tank top, and began to pull it up, just as the door to Mitsune's room opened, and Naru walked in, sighing. Mitsune froze, her hands atop Ranma's breasts, as the dress slipped from Ranma's fingers, and the redhead began to giggle nervously. "Mitsune?" Naru asked tiredly, staring at the floor.
"Um… yes?" Mitsune hazarded, peeking over Ranma's shoulder.
"I need to talk to you—" She broke off at a sudden pattering of feet down the hallway, and glanced towards the open doorway. "Oops — it'll have to wait." The woman stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind her without seeming to register the awkward position of the people within. "Wait a minute," she said slowly from outside the door. "Did I just see—"
Ranma wasted no time, surging into motion faster than Mitsune's eyes could follow. By the time Naru opened the door again, Mitsune was in the same position, blinking, and wearing the black dress. Ranma was seated on the opposite side of the room, trying to look nonchalant, and wearing her T-shirt.
Naru peered around in confusion, then shook her head. "Sorry Kitsune, Oe-san. I thought I saw something strange," she apologized, closing the door again.
"Yeesh," Ranma mumbled, climbing to her feet, and shaking her head. "Doesn't she know how to knock?"
"Ack," Mitsune noised, remembering to breathe. "How did you do that?"
"I've had lots of practice," Ranma mumbled. "You learn to change clothes really fast with a condition like mine."
"So, did I get out of trying on the dress?" Ranma asked hopefully.
"Er… for now," Mitsune allowed, smiling slyly at Ranma.
"Thanks," Ranma sighed, shaking her head. "I think."
Ranma waved to Keitaro, nodded her head at him as he finished the long climb up the stairs before the inn. "Heya, Kanrinin," she greeted. "The contractors are about to head out — they just wanted to get set up today, I guess." The redhead smiled slightly, raising her head. "Hey, Suu-chan, Shinobu — how was school?"
"School was fine, Oe-san," Shinobu said, smiling hesitantly.
"Oooh, this Ranma is still a girl!" Suu said, leaping from Keitaro's shoulders to scamper across the courtyard and examine Ranma closely. "Can we sleep together tonight, too?"
Shinobu paled slightly, and bowed, excusing herself. "I need to do my homework," she apologized, edging away.
"Thanks again, Oe-san," Keitaro said, bowing slightly himself. "I found a nice spot in town where we can talk, and drink tea. Er… would you mind having tea with me?"
"Of course not!" Ranma said, smirking. "I agreed to this yesterday, didn't I?"
"Auuugh," Shinobu noised quietly, running towards the inn, followed shortly by Suu.
"I wonder what that was all about," Ranma mused, turning to look after the schoolgirls. "Oh! That reminds me — how'd you do on your test?"
"I got a perfect score!" Keitaro exclaimed exuberantly. "I can't wait to tell Narusegawa!"
"Good for you," Ranma encouraged, glancing back over her shoulder at the inn. "I'm going to change back before we go out. When did you want to take care of that?"
"Oh, uh, I need to tell Narusegawa how well I did — I got out before she did, and then we were separated before we got to the bus," Keitaro explained, looking up to the front of the inn. The man sighed, smiling, and stretched his arms over his head. "What a great day!"
"Seems pretty good to me," Ranma said agreeably, moments before a rounded, speeding blur slammed into the back of Keitaro's head. The blur resolved itself into a little girl, her knee driven into the back of Keitaro's neck while she grinned impishly. "Uh… maybe I spoke too soon," Ranma said, frowning.
"Who are you?" the blonde asked, blinking at Ranma curiously.
"Oe Ranma," the redhead said, nodding. "And you are?"
"Sarah MacDougal!" the girl exclaimed proudly. "Papa-san said that there was someone new at the inn to play with, but he said it was a boy."
"You'll meet him soon enough," Ranma said dryly, shooing the girl away from Keitaro as the man righted himself unsteadily. "But, uh, do you live here, too?"
"Nope, I live with Haruka."
"Is your Papa-san Seta?" Ranma asked, cocking her head to one side.
"Yep! Papa-san teaches me martial arts — he said he was teaching the new person martial arts, too." The girl grinned. "This'll be fun!"
"Maybe," Keitaro said, shaking his head. "Sarah, don't go trying to hit, uh… the new tenant once you meet him."
Ranma rolled her eyes. "I guess you're busy, and the contractors are on their way out. I'm going to get some hot water. Go ahead and tell me when you've got some time for that thing we were talking about earlier," Ranma advised.
Keitaro nodded, as Tamago flitted down to land atop his head, waving at Ranma.
The flow of Naru's words melded into a low distressed mumble, of which Mitsune paid only partial attention to, most of her thoughts instead centering around the outfit that had seemed to stun Ranma. "…and I'm afraid to let anyone know how badly I did on the practice tests," the woman concluded sadly. "What should I do?"
"Eh?" Mitsune managed, blinking at her friend. "You think Keitaro did better than you?"
"Even Keitaro has to score higher than zero," Naru mourned.
"Zero?" Mitsune asked, offering Naru her most sympathetic look. "Is that bad?"
Naru shook her head, sighing. "It's really bad," she mumbled. "Really, really, really bad."
"Oooh. Well, I'm sure something worse could happen than failing a practice test." The door flew open at that point sliding into the wall with a loud bang, revealing a wide-eyed and heavily breathing Shinobu.
"Aauuugh! Kitsune-san, I need your advice!" the girl wailed, pitching herself at Mitsune's feet.
"Eh?" Mitsune managed again, blinking at the girl. "Why's everyone coming to me for help?"
"Kitsune-san, I think that Urashima-sempai is interested in Ranma — he asked her… her… her… asked her out to tea!"
"Ack!" Mitsune responded as eloquently as possible. "You mean… asked out to drink 'tea' tea, or asked out to a love hotel?" She blinked, mulling that over for a second, while Shinobu wobbled unsteadily at the mere thought. "Um, wait, we already remember what Ranma said last night. I thought it was… wait, something doesn't make sense."
"Keitaro is trying to do what with Oe?" Naru asked, one eyebrow ticking.
"This calls for investigation," Mitsune announced, climbing to her feet and nodding boldly. "Where are they going?"
"I know where it is! Urashima-sempai is going to take Oe-san to the Lower Hinata Tea-house," Shinobu explained quickly, recovering herself.
"Okay, quick, dress up casually so they won't suspect us, and let's chase after them!"
Ranma shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, walking alongside Keitaro down the street, away from the Hinata-Sou. "You ever get that strange feeling you're being watched?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side, and glancing sidelong at the other man.
"Right now?" he asked, glancing up at Tamago, who was looking behind Keitaro intently. "Yeah, actually, but I'm kind of used to it, I guess. Why?"
"No reason," Ranma said, shaking his head. "So, where are we going?"
"I found a tea shop earlier today. It's nothing spectacular, but I thought that you might like it more than the inn, since you were there all day," Keitaro explained.
"Well, I did get to go out for okonomiyaki with Kitsune," Ranma reasoned. "So we could have just gone to the teahouse back at the inn — heck, if you wanted, I could have made tea in the kitchen."
"You know how to make tea?" Keitaro asked, surprised.
Ranma sighed, sticking his hands into his pockets. "I know the tea ceremony," he said offhandedly. "I mean… I had to learn it, when I was a kid. I kind of figured everyone would know the basics, though. Don't you?"
"Actually, I do," Keitaro admitted, chuckling ruefully. "My parents made me learn it when I was younger. Erm. Anyway, what would you like to talk about?"
"Tell me about your parents, I guess," Ranma suggested, shrugging.
"Er… maybe something else?" Keitaro asked. "I… don't like to talk about them much."
"You won't get any complaints from me," Ranma mumbled, shaking his head. Raising his voice slightly, he asked, "Why don't you tell me about how you ended up moving into an all girl's dorm."
"Oh, well, that's actually a funny story," Keitaro began, gesturing towards the teahouse as they neared it. "I was looking for my grandmother…."
Creeping along carefully, Naru a step ahead, and Shinobu a step behind, Mitsune peered around her newspaper cautiously. She was dressed in an inconspicuous trench coat, along with a matching fedora. The papers in her hand had been chosen carefully for maximum subtlety. She imagined, however, the effect would have been more convincing had Shinobu and Naru not dressed identically.
"Are you sure this is casual?" Shinobu asked, her voice quavering slightly.
"They aren't noticing us, are they?" Naru countered.
Mitsune, of course, had her own suspicions as to why they hadn't been noticed, and that was the fact that neither of the men seemed particularly observant. "They probably will, if we're not quiet," she warned. The other two immediately bowed their heads behind their newspapers, as the men entered the teahouse.
Shinobu spoke — though the newspaper she still held muffled her voice. "Why are we spying on them? Oe-san wasn't… wasn't a girl, so it's just two men, right? That's normal, isn't it?"
"Two men, alone at night in an inn filled with pretty girls like myself?" Mitsune asked. Shinobu flinched from behind her paper. "And they talk about the tea ceremony on the way here?" Naru winced this time, dropping her newspaper to look at Mitsune in dismay. "Neither of them want to talk about their parents?"
"Okay, so the clues are all there, but that doesn't really make any sense! We don't know Oe, but Keitaro is a pervert! He's always trying to peep at one of us," Naru asserted. "He couldn't possibly be…."
Mitsune smiled grimly when Naru trailed off, unable to convince herself. "Maybe that's all a clever ruse," she warned. "Maybe that's why he tries so hard to peep — he's overcompensating because he's not sure how to act normally."
"Keitaro… is not like that," Naru protested weakly. "Is… Is he?"
"It makes so much sense!" Shinobu sobbed quietly. "He told me today that he had important news for you, Narusegawa-sempai, he said: 'It's about Oe. But don't worry about that, now. Once I talk to Narusegawa, then I think I can honestly say that you girls will all be in good hands'." She sniffled, shaking her head sadly. "He must have meant that he wanted to tell you that he doesn't need to pretend anymore, and the inn will be… pervert-free once he… he… tells you." The girl dropped her newspaper to the ground, bowing her head and staring at her feet. "I'm sorry, Narusegawa-sempai…."
"But… but… but why?" Naru asked plaintively. "Why… why would he want it to be here, and not at the teahouse at Hinata-Sou?"
"Good question," Mitsune mused. "Let's go inside and try to listen in."
In relatively short order, Mitsune had managed to wrangle a position in a booth not far from Keitaro and Ranma. Shinobu simply hid behind her newspaper, while the older pair listened intently to what they could of the conversation.
"…and that was pretty much how my first day at Hinata-Sou went," Keitaro concluded.
"Wow. Sounds like I got off lucky, just being attacked by Motoko," Ranma noted.
"Well, I wouldn't speak poorly of Narusegawa," Keitaro protested.
"Nah, I'm not saying anything bad, but she's just… eh… not my type." There was a pause, then, Shinobu waving away a server as Mitsune and Naru traded glances. "Anyway, I guess you probably had some questions about this morning, right?"
"Um… with the missing… panties?" Keitaro asked hesitantly. "Er… yes, I am a bit curious."
"It wasn't me, it was someone I knew from… a long time ago," Ranma grumbled. "Suffice to say, he won't be back until tomorrow, and then I'll finish things with him for good."
"Oh, that's a relief," Keitaro said, sighing slightly. "I was worried for a moment."
"Sounds like Oe's not completely finished with a relationship," Naru whispered to Mitsune.
Mitsune paled, and shook her head quickly. "I'm pretty sure that's not what they're talking about. I mean, Ranma? With… that old guy? Yuck!"
Naru was about to speak again, until she heard her name mentioned. "…Narusegawa is really nice," Keitaro's voice announced. "With her help, I think I can really get into Toudai this year."
"I've heard enough," Naru said quietly, shaking her head. "Let's leave."
"But, don't you want to hear what else they talk about?" Mitsune asked. "I mean, we don't know for certain if—"
"I don't want to hear it!" Naru snapped, wincing at how high she had raised her voice. She glanced across the table to where Shinobu was sitting, head bowed, and eyes wide. Speaking more softly, she added, "I just… need to go home."
"Okay," Mitsune whispered, one hand patting Naru's shoulder comfortingly. "I didn't know…. Well, let's get out of here."
As they crept away, pointedly ignoring the confused waitress, the last of Keitaro and Ranma's conversation reached them:
"How many years have you been trying?"
"Er… four," the man said in a somewhat weaker voice. "But, this time for sure!"
"That's nothing to be ashamed of," Ranma assured him, chuckling. "I dropped out of high school, and ended up making the missed years up on the road. But I'm going to make it into Toudai for sure — I want Aniki to be proud."
"You really like your older brother?" Keitaro asked.
"Yeah," Ranma said in a much more subdued voice. "Family… is very important."
The sun was just setting as the three walked down the street, Naru and Mitsune side-by-side, Shinobu some distance away. She needed time to think about what was going on.
Naru was obviously uncertain how to deal with the revelation, so she decided she couldn't fault herself for being unsure, as well. But… it was so unfair! She had never gotten a chance to confess her own feelings to Keitaro!
A heavy sigh echoed from Naru, and Shinobu froze, turning to look at the woman. A distracted apology was murmured to a pedestrian that took a step around her, standing still as she was. Was Naru disappointed too? Shinobu felt that for all of her violence towards the man, Naru felt more than she showed, but… but was she upset about the lost opportunity, as well?
Part of Shinobu's mind immediately tried to cheer her; if she never confessed to him, she never had to worry about how he would have had to treat her, considering his actual preference. Though, somehow, that felt like it wasn't much of a consolation.
Her musing was interrupted by a sudden succession of noises. The first was a loud, deep rumbling, one that made itself felt throughout the evening air, and reverberated through the street. A shrill squealing echo that bounced eagerly across the close buildings lining the road to assault her ears followed it. The next in the rapid procession of sounds was the deep, grating blat of an air-horn, sending a chilled shiver of panic up her spine. As she turned around to try and look at the source of the noise, a final sound joined the ensuing cacophony; that of tires scraping for desperate purchase on a too-slick road as several tons of truck skidded towards her, faster than her reflexes would carry her away.
The irony, she decided, was that her biggest regret would have been being unable to confess to Keitaro, had she not learned that he wasn't interested in girls at all. Her final ruminations sluggishly worked their way through her mind as she stared at the grill of the approaching metal behemoth, maintaining their lurid pace as the pedestrian she had murmured an apology to suddenly reappeared before her, drawing a flashing line of glimmering light vertically through the air.
Her eyelids lazily swam closed and then reopened, watching a matching line of blackness suddenly cleave the truck cleanly in two. It separated along the divide, one half sliding past her, as everything suddenly sped up, and the next thing she knew she was staring straight up at the first stars of evening.
The pedestrian, vaguely familiar at the periphery of her vision, peered down at her. "Are you okay?" she asked in a much more familiar voice.
"I'm sorry, Motoko-sempai," she said without thinking. "Do I have to sleep with you to thank you, now?"
The woman above her blinked, and leant closer, eyes widening slightly, and peering deep into her own. "You know Motoko-chan?" she asked, one eyebrow rising. "Strange, I know she was never one to associate too closely with males, but that I would not have expected of her."
"Oh, sure," Shinobu said, blinking, and still lost in the haze of panic from the oncoming truck. "It makes sense. She's that way, Urashima-sempai and Oe-san are that way. Maybe Kitsune-san and Narusegawa-sempai are, too!"
"I… see," the woman said slowly, looking up. "I think that this poor girl is in shock. Do you know where she lives?"
"Shinobu?" Naru asked, suddenly entering the girl's field of vision. "Are you alright? Shinobu-chan?"
"I'm okay," she giggled, struggling to sit up as the haze over her thoughts began to thin. "Oh, oh no! I shouldn't have said those things — I'm sorry! I don't know what I was talking about!"
"Ah, good. It was merely the shock, then," the woman said, one hand going to caress the beak of a bird that landed on her shoulder. "Am I given to understand, however, that you know my younger sister?"
"Younger sister?" Shinobu asked in tandem with Naru and Mitsune.
"Yes! It's been so long since I've seen poor Motoko-chan, and just yesterday I received an urgent… message from her saying that she required my assistance with a certain… situation involving her lodgings." The woman stood to her full height, one hand going to the sheathed sword at her hip. "Do you know, perhaps, where she dwells?"
"She lives with us," Shinobu said, face flushing. "Only, um, forget what I said earlier, I didn't mean it and she only sleeps with one other girl and she only tried to—" she silenced herself by the simple expedient of clapping her hands over her mouth.
"It would seem as though something is amiss," the woman mused quietly. "Allow me to introduce myself — my name is Aoyama Tsuroko."
Whistling tunelessly to himself, Ranma walked jauntily forward, staring up at the stars, and nodding absently as Keitaro babbled on about 'how bad Naru really wasn't, Oe-san, if you'd just listen'! Occasionally, he would offer a grudging nod, as though the man had convinced him of some point or another, while in reality, his thoughts were focusing on what they needed to — the match he was going to be fighting against Happosai the next day.
The old man had beaten him soundly, as little as Ranma wanted to admit it. Moreover, he had needed to call upon a very dirty trick. One he hated to employ.
And it hadn't worked.
Kintaro had shown him the basics, but Ranma had always felt that Kintaro's martial arts simply weren't up to par with Anything Goes. And he liked admitting that even less. The possibility existed in his mind that he was doing something wrong, and he knew that the Art as Kintaro had presented it was about more than just combat.
But at the same time, how could something that focused on so many things still be good for fighting? Especially against an art as focused as Anything Goes. He had learned a few martial arts techniques over the years, and had expected by his rather simple victory over Motoko that he had gotten better. Much better.
And then Happosai had come and beaten him so easily.
Obviously, the answer was more training, but Ranma was uncertain how he could manage that, considering that the rematch was only a day away. And Kintaro had said, "Life is training, Otouto. More than that, training… is life!" Ranma had written that one down in his notebook, but had the unnerving suspicion that he hadn't actually learned it yet.
"…what do you suppose happened here, Oe?" Keitaro asked suddenly.
Stopping his casual march, Ranma lowered his gaze, blinking as his eyes came to rest upon the two neatly bisected halves of a large delivery truck. The apparent driver of the vehicle was sitting on the side of the road, eyes wide. On the street next to him, a scintillating collection of glass shards sat in a small pool of alcohol, and all about pedestrians stared at the sight in shock.
Ranma hopped over to the side of the truck, and leant over to examine the engine of the vehicle. While he was unfamiliar with how they worked, he suspected the razor-fine slash that formed a perfect plane across the workings of the device was not an aspect normally associated with standard operations. "Huh," he mumbled, rubbing his chin. The truck looked to be heavy, and the halves had dragged a good distance along the street before it came to a halt. "Someone cut the truck in half," he deduced.
"Oe-san?" Keitaro asked incredulously. "Who? Do you think it was… Motoko-chan?"
"Eh? Motoko?" Ranma rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and reexamined the cut. "No," he said after a moment. "It's too fine. Whoever did this never actually cut the truck. It was done with a blade of vacuum, and I've seen hers — unless she was holding back a lot every time she fought me, it was someone else. Still, I do wonder who did this." He strode towards the man sitting on the sidewalk. "Excuse me — is this truck yours?"
"Never again," the man mumbled, shaking his head. "Bluehaired little girl… coulda been an accident. Never again."
Ranma's eyes narrowed in anger. "Driving while he's drunk," he spat. "Idiot. Kanrinin, can you give me a hand?"
"With what?" Keitaro asked, scratching his head.
Ranma strode to the nearest half of the truck, and pushed against it carefully. "I'm going to try and move these," he said, grabbing the frame, and testing the leverage of the obstruction. "Can you make sure no one's in the way?"
"Eh?!" Keitaro exclaimed, as Ranma heaved upwards on the truck, and dragged it towards its matching half, easily a distance of four meters before letting it drop to the road.
"There," he said, leaning over to catch his breath. "Thanks, Kanrinin. Now they can get something in here to clear this hunk of junk out.
"How… did you do that?" Keitaro managed, after a moment.
"I spent a few months with the Department of Public Works in Hokkaido," Ranma said, shrugging. "They'd get boulders and trees falling all over the roads on the pass I was working at. Luckily, it was mostly snow and hail, so the work wasn't bad," Ranma reasoned. "Why?"
Keitaro goggled at Ranma. "The Department of Public Works must have very high standards," he finally said. "I don't think most people could even push that truck if it were on four wheels, let alone drag it like that!"
"Oh, that," Ranma said dismissively. "That's nothin' — Wait, that guy said something about a little girl with blue hair, right? Crap! Kanrinin, we gotta get back and check on Shinobu-chan! What if it's her?"
Ranma only gave Keitaro enough time to blink before seizing the man's arm, and hurtling down the street. The Hinata-Sou was only three quick jumps away, and Ranma bounced for a fourth leap from the top of the steps, entering the open window into the sitting area on the second floor without a second thought. The lights indicated that someone was there.
Indeed, Shinobu was there, sitting on a couch next to Naru and Mitsune. Suu skipped down the hall a half-second later, waving cheerily at Ranma, while the other females just stared at him. Ranma glanced down and saw that Keitaro was clinging to him with wide eyes, and shivering slightly. "Kanrinin," Ranma said, shaking a leg and trying to dislodge the man. "Ride's over."
"Whee!" Suu exclaimed, latching onto his other leg. "My turn!"
Keitaro disengaged his grip, and rose unsteadily, until he regained his focus. "Shinobu-chan! Are you okay?" he asked, leaning over to inspect the girl.
She blushed reflexively, and bowed her head, looking away. "I'm… fine, Urashima-sempai," she said, nodding quietly.
"That's a relief," Ranma grumbled, frowning at the other girl that latched onto his leg the second Keitaro had let go. "So, you're Sarah, right?"
"Yes!" the little girl said, clinging to him tightly. "Papa-san says that I should play with you to help you train!"
"Swell," Ranma sighed. "Any other surprises I should know about?"
"Ranma!" a chillingly familiar voice greeted him.
The man's eyes widened, and he tried to back away, but was tangled up in the children clinging to his legs. "Uh-oh," he said quietly. "Um, hello?"
Motoko, who he had missed, smiled at him triumphantly. "And now the truth is revealed, Oe-san," she murmured.
A woman eerily similar to Motoko stepped out from behind the girl. "It's been so long!" she enthused, rushing him while he was trapped, and hugging him tightly, his face pressed into her bosom. "Ranma! How are you doing?"
"Can't… breathe," he wheezed, until the woman loosened her grip on him. "Um, it's been a while, Tsuroko-sensei."
"Ranma," she said sternly, pouting. "Is that any way to address me?"
"Er… sorry, Tsuroko-chan?" Ranma hazarded, smiling nervously.
"Much better!" the woman enthused. "Tell me, Ranma, where — rather, how is your brother?"
"You know my sister?" Motoko yelped. "How? Why? This is not fair — how could you possible have known her, and not heard of me!"
"Ah, I see that Ranma's still not learned to improve on his horrible memory with names," Tsuroko giggled.
To be continued.
Author's Notes: Mad props to everyone who's C&Ced for me so far: Rez, Dracos, Pavel, Gin, Bjorn, Mr. Sommer, Therm… And anyone else I forgot to mention.
Thanks to Chibi-Ginn for his help with this chapter. And previous chapters, once they're revised!
So, if you didn't know:
Aniki — term of address, has a few potential translations, but when Ranma says it, he means 'older brother'.
Aneue — term of address, means 'older sister' in the context that Motoko gives, but is a somewhat older form of speech.
Otouto — term of address, means 'younger brother' in this context.
Be blinded by my l33t fanboy Japlish skillz!
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