The room was silent for a long minute, until it was broken by the sound of Motoko collapsing to the floor, eyes vacant.
"Erm," Ranma noised. "Uh, Tsuruko-sen—" He cut off, swallowing nervously when the woman shot him a disapproving look. "Ah, that is, Tsuruko-chan, I think someone should look at your sister to make sure she's okay."
"You are most correct," the woman agreed.
Another moment of silence was born, briefly.
Coughing, Ranma said, "Er… I think that since everyone else is kind of out of it at the moment, it should be me."
"I concur," the woman murmured.
Once more, silence reigned, though not for long.
"That would be a lot easier if you would let go of me."
"I imagine it would."
Ranma winced, squirming uncomfortably. "Um, Tsuruko-chan, could you please let go of me so that I can make sure Motoko's okay?"
Pouting, the woman asked, "Why should I, when they haven't?"
Suu and Sarah's eyes sparkled brightly as they stared upwards at Ranma, still clinging to his legs.
Chapter Four: Can I Win?
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.
Rousing himself from the stunned silence that permeated the room, Keitaro ambled to Motoko's side and knelt, checking her pulse. "She's breathing fine," he assured Ranma, who was still trapped in Tsuruko's embrace with Suu and Sarah clinging to a leg each. "Um, Aoyama-san, I don't think I can carry her alone," he said, raising an eyebrow hopefully.
Sighing, the woman finally released Ranma, who quickly extracted himself from the other two girls and scrambled to Motoko's side. Lifting the girl in his arms, he nodded his thanks to Keitaro. "Where to, Kanrinin?" he asked dutifully.
Keitaro led the way, and the pair quickly left the room, Tsuruko following close behind.
After reaching the girl's room, Ranma set her down, and Tsuruko tucked her in. Keitaro stood respectfully near the door, while Ranma dashed to hide behind him, peering at the sisters over his shoulder. Motoko roused after a moment, and blinked. "Aneue?" she asked hesitantly, her voice very small and frightened. "I had the most awful dream!"
"Whatever about, Motoko-chan?" Tsuruko asked, as her bird rustled its wings on her shoulder.
"I dreamt that Oe's corruption had spread so far that even you fell under his dark spell," Motoko murmured, shuddering.
"I wouldn't call it a dark spell at all!" Tsuruko refuted gleefully. "Kintaro is so wonderful — pity he left before I could speak to him about his service to the dojo."
Motoko furrowed her brows, blinking. "Kintaro? I meant Ranma. Who is Kintaro?"
"Aniki," Ranma supplied from his hiding spot behind Keitaro. "We worked at your sister's dojo for a while."
"No!" Motoko shrieked, jumping to her feet, and fumbling for her sword. "That cannot be! Oe, explain what you have done to my sister! At once!"
"I didn't do anything!" Ranma asserted, waving his hands before himself defensively. "I was in charge of setting up practice dummies, leading the youngest students in training, and Aniki helped me maintain the grounds! But I never did anything to your sister."
"Such a pity," Tsuruko sighed. "But he speaks the truth. Now, Motoko-chan, have you summoned me here simply because you were frightened of Ranma?"
"Frightened? Never! I fear no male," the girl asserted, shooting Ranma a dark look. "But… but… but Oe-san has secrets that I fear bring ill tidings to the inn." She blinked, and smiled slightly, crossing her arms over her chest. "Just this morning, some foul spawn infiltrated this very inn, and stole all of the panties within."
The sound of wind blowing across the roof filled the room for a long moment, echoed only by a faint scream of rage from one of the lower floors. "I should go," Keitaro decided abruptly, backing away. "Uh, if you need me for anything, I'll be in my room."
"You can't leave me here alone!" Ranma hissed, a little too loudly. "I mean, please, Kanrinin! I need you here!"
"Um… why?" Keitaro asked, looking nervously at the sword-bearing sisterly duo, and then to Ranma, practically cowering behind him.
"I know why!" Mitsune announced gleefully, poking her head into the doorway.
"You do? I mean, uh, yeah! She does!" Ranma encouraged, nodding quickly at the woman. "She knows!"
"He doesn't want to you to leave him alone because you two are a couple," she asserted, winking at Keitaro.
Ranma's eyes remained in the same position, and his mouth opened slightly. He seemed frozen that way for a long moment, and then said, "Errr…."
"Errr…" Keitaro agreed.
"What?" Motoko asked quietly, scratching her head. "Is that why Oe-san wanted to go to an all-girl's inn? Bah — it makes sense now! All along he was saying that I liked girls, when it was really just that he liked boys!"
"Um…" Ranma defended himself.
"No need to be shy, Kanrinin," Mitsune encouraged, winking again. "We know all about your little date earlier tonight, and the… agreement for Ranma's rent."
"Uh?" Keitaro eloquently queried.
"And you never have to worry about being treated differently by me," the woman continued, unabated. "Even better, we can go shopping together all the time, now!"
"Oh, joy," Ranma intoned, slumping.
"There are lots of benefits! You and Keitaro can probably trade clothes — you couldn't do that while you were seeing a girl, now could you? Oh, wait, I guess you could…." Mitsune trailed off, frowning, and touched a finger to her lips. "Er… Anyhow, I just wanted to tell the two of you that you have my full support, and that Keitaro was right; us girls are all in good hands, because neither of you will ever take advantage of us."
"Thank you, Kitsune," Ranma said in a very quiet, level tone.
Beaming at Ranma, the woman replied, "You're welcome!"
"But, you see, there's just one little thing about that…."
"Yes?" she asked, cocking her head to one side, blinking inquisitively.
"Yeah; you see, I'm… um, what's that word? Not gay?"
Mitsune blinked, staring between Ranma, Keitaro, and then the completely stunned Aoyama sisters. "Oh, dear," she murmured. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I am sure I'm not gay!" Ranma bellowed, causing the woman to flinch backwards. "Why the hell do you think I am?"
"Er… you saw me in my underwear and didn't try to take advantage of me?"
"I was a girl at the— Oh, hells," Ranma growled, advancing on the woman, grabbing her wrist, and then sweeping her into a fierce, searching kiss.
Mitsune struggled for the first few seconds, but quickly eased into the contact, purring deeply. Keitaro blinked a few times, then covered his nose with both hands and began to back away, while Tsuruko murmured, "Oh my," and placed a hand across Motoko's wide eyes.
After easily a minute, Ranma released the woman, who sagged against him deliriously, giggling. "Shows what you know," he retorted.
"Oooh," Mitsune purred, running a hand across his shoulder. "Educate me, Ranma!"
"Oh Ranma," Tsuruko piped up, waving her free hand at him. "I also believe you're interested in men!"
"Ack?" Ranma noised, dropping Mitsune to the floor and hiding behind Keitaro again.
"It was worth the attempt," Tsuruko sighed, dropping her hands to her sides, and allowing Motoko to see again. "Now, though that was certainly… educational… what's this about missing panties, Motoko-chan?"
"What? Oh, right, the missing kisses," Motoko said. She paused, blinking, and furrowed her brows. "Um. Missing panties."
"Okay," Keitaro said, shaking his head, hands still clamped across his nose. "This time I'm really leaving."
"Uh-oh," Ranma mumbled, backing into a corner, as Keitaro marched out of the room.
"You can hide behind me!" Mitsune suggested, winking at Ranma and grinning widely.
Sighing, Ranma hung his head in defeat. "Why me?" he moaned. "Um, Tsuruko-chan, what happened was — do you remember what I said about Happosai?"
The woman's demeanor shifted instantly from the calm, playful grin with eagerly watchful eyes, to a much more purposeful grin, with wiser eyes. "I do, Ranma," she said regretfully. "Has he returned to taint your life once more?"
"Uh… Yeah. I thought I saw the last of him when I…." He trailed off clearing his throat uneasily, and staring at his feet.
"Left your old home," Tsuruko supplied, pursing her lips. "I hadn't imagined your paths would cross again, either, but who can know the future?"
"I was kind of hoping you would, actually," Ranma said nervously. "Um… can I talk to you for a few minutes, alone?"
"Of course," Tsuruko said, nodding.
Walking down the hall slowly, Keitaro shook his head. "What a strange day," he murmured to himself. "They say with the good, comes the bad. No one ever said 'with Ranma, things get really weird', though."
"'With a Ranma, things get really weird,'" Suu parroted at him, dropping from a hidden handhold along the ceiling to cling to his back. "What's a 'strange'? Is it delicious?"
"I guess it could be," Keitaro said doubtfully. "But it's just a word that means out of the ordinary. Why do you ask?"
"Hmm…. Naru said that Keitaro was strange," Suu assessed. "And Keitaros are very out of the ordinary, but not very delicious."
"Um… thanks, I think," Keitaro mumbled, pulling the girl from his back and setting her on the floor. "Don't you have homework to do or something?"
"Maaaaaaybe," the girl sang, skipping away down the hall.
Still, it had reminded Keitaro of something important; he'd never gotten around to telling Naru about his practice test score. Path set, he began marching again, this time towards her room. Maybe strange things were going on, but for once, his own luck was looking up. Other than the fact that Mitsune had thought he was interested in Ranma, but he doubted any damage had been done by that one wayward assessment.
Arriving at Naru's door, he knocked twice. "Hello?" he called out, before she could respond.
"Just a moment, I'm…. Oh, come on in, Keitaro," Naru said, her voice strangely unenthusiastic.
Smiling proudly, Keitaro double-checked to assure that his test result was still in his pocket, and opened the door. He blinked twice, and closed the door, then turned around, and clamped his hands over his nose again. "Not inside!" he protested without thinking.
"It's not like it's a big deal," Naru said in annoyance, sliding the door open and pulling him into her room.
"Ack!" Keitaro protested, closing his eyes. Naru was wearing nothing more than a rather thin nightgown, nearly transparent, and a pair of white cotton panties. "Um, Narusegawa, why aren't you wearing anything?"
"I'm wearing enough," she said simply.
Peeking through his fingers at her, and trying to allow himself to only see her face, he asked, "Enough for what?" That question answered itself quickly; she obviously knew how well he had done on the test, and wanted to take the next step in their relationship. "Wait! Wait! Not like this! Um, I mean, don't you want to wait before we do this?"
"Does it really matter?" Naru sighed. "I mean… there's nothing wrong with familiarity. Not now, anyway."
"I still think you're rushing things!" he protested, unable to admit that he didn't mind that much aloud. "Um, Narusegawa… can I talk to you about something, first?" Even if she already knew how well he did on the test, he had to tell her himself.
"I… Okay," she mumbled. Climbing to her feet, she strode across the room, grabbed a robe, and pulled it on over the thin nightshirt. "Go ahead and tell me, Keitaro."
"Er… right," he said lowering his hand from before his face, and smiling triumphantly. "Um, see, what I had wanted to tell you, Narusegawa, is that I owe you a lot for your help, because without it, I would never have been able to—"
"No!" Naru yelled suddenly, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "I can't! I… go away, Keitaro! Leave me alone!"
"Eh… what?" Keitaro asked, backing towards the door quickly. "What's wrong?"
"I thought… I thought…." She closed her eyes, shaking her head. "I thought I was ready for it, but I can't hear it from you, Keitaro. Not yet. Please leave!"
Nodding slowly, the man left her room, sliding the door open carefully, and staring at his feet. "I understand," he said quietly. "I… couldn't stand rushing this. It's really important. I'll… wait until you're ready, Naru."
Her head drooping, the girl slid the door to her room shut, leaving Keitaro alone in the hall.
Motoko stood in the hallway outside her own room, arms crossed over her chest. Not far away, leaning against the wall away from Motoko's room, Mitsune fanned herself with a hand, face reddened slightly. "Are… are you okay?" the kendoka hesitantly asked. "Oe has touched you against your will — I assure you that I am willing to do anything within my power to remove him for his transgression."
"Against my will?" the woman mused, her blush fading. "Well, maybe at first, but it was worth it. I don't want him to leave."
"But… but… but he kissed you! Without your permission!" Motoko protested, dropping her hands to her sides and balling her hands into fists. "How can you simply allow that to happen?"
Mitsune smiled, touching a finger to her lips and looking distant.
she quoted. Motoko furrowed her brow, relaxing only slightly. "And I'll admit — after everything else I heard, it probably would have taken that to convince me."
"But… it was a man! Touching you! Pressing his lips against yours!" Motoko shook her head, staring at her feet. "How can submitting to that be pleasant?"
"Well, the thing he did with his tongue helped a bit," Mitsune said quietly. "But outside of that, I think you're giving the practice a bad name. It's more fun than you might think."
Motoko sighed, shaking her head again. How on Earth could close contact between two people be a good thing? Especially contact that close? Seeking to change the subject, she pitched her voice low, and asked, "What do you suppose that Oe and Aneue are talking about? I cannot believe that she knows… that monster we faced this morning."
Raising an eyebrow, Mitsune stepped past Motoko to place her hand against the door, then leant close and pressed her ear against it. One eyebrow rose immediately, and she gestured Motoko closer.
Hesitating, Motoko considered her choices. On the one hand, while she trusted her sister, she did not trust Oe. On the other hand, it was her own room, and her sister was behaving strangely around him. In retrospect, she realized that it was folly to try and consider such a thing; she knew already what she should do. "Mitsune-san!" she hissed quietly. "What you are doing is wrong!"
"Oh?" Mitsune whispered, frowning. "Aren't you curious?"
"Of course I am! And you should not use up all of the good listening places."
Mitsune smirked, and shifted her position. Motoko leant nearby, pressing her ear to the door, and closing her eyes to concentrate. She extended her senses, as her training had led her to, to detect the most hushed nuances of the world around her. Specifically, the speech from the other side of the door.
"Can you make it out?" Mitsune breathed. "It's a bit too quiet."
Obligingly, Motoko repeated what she heard quietly, as Ranma's voice asked:
"So, now that you know that, what should I do?"
"Hmm," Tsuruko mused. "It is a difficult decision to make, Ranma. But, at the same, when you were younger, and stayed at our dojo, you were never one to seek guidance from any but your own brother."
"Well, Aniki's really smart about these things," Ranma said defensively. As an afterthought, he added, "Most of the time, anyway."
Tsuruko giggled quietly. "Ranma, you would probably be wise to follow his counsel, but he can not always be here to advise you."
"I… I know that," Ranma mumbled. "But the whole thing is just… You know, I'm not sure I can handle this alone. I think I've lost my edge."
Motoko's sister sighed sadly. "Oh Ranma… I wish I could help you, but this is… a test. How can you ever grow if you always need to ask someone else for help?"
"Hey! I like being able to depend on myself," Ranma protested defensively. "And now you're saying that when I'm finally ready to ask for help, I can't get it?"
"That isn't very fair, is it?" Tsuruko asked.
"But life is like that, isn't it?" Ranma countered, calming himself. "Okay, well, since I can't ask you for help, that must mean I already know the answer." There was a moment of silence before Ranma spoke again, as though reading from a page. "'When all else fails, follow your heart, and give it your all.'"
"Is that good advice?"
Ranma sighed. "I'm not sure. No, I don't think that's it. And all else hasn't failed yet. I get the feeling that this is really obvious, too."
"Perhaps you shouldn't look for it too hard?" Tsuruko suggested.
"Maybe," Ranma hedged. "But if you're not supposed to help me, you don't need to help me. I do have a favor I'd like to ask you, though."
Motoko furrowed her brow, wishing she could pick out the sound more easily, and repositioned herself slightly against the door.
"Um… Tsuruko-chan, could you please convince your sister that I'm not here to molest her or anyone else here?"
"I will, Ranma, but…."
Motoko grimaced, as the conversation dropped below her hearing level, and pulled her ear from the door for a moment, pursing her lips as she considered what to do next. The rushing sound of the door sliding open startled her, and she froze, eyes opening cautiously. Mitsune stood by, surprised, and only centimeters away from Motoko herself.
"Uh-oh," the woman whispered.
Tsuruko stood inside the opened doorway, one eyebrow rising. "I would advise more discretion in the future, Motoko-chan," Tsuruko said cheerily. "If you're trying to hide your… preference… more subtlety might be in order."
"Ack?" Motoko noised, wincing.
Ranma stood behind Tsuruko, and rolled his eyes.
"My! Do try not to bother Ranma, Motoko-chan. He's a friend to our dojo. You would be well-advised to respect him."
"Why me?" the girl protested. "I was not trying to kiss Mitsune-san! I was only trying to eavesdrop on you!" She clapped her hands over her mouth, eyes widening in panic.
"Oh my, look at the time!" Mitsune announced suddenly, looking at a bare wrist in surprise. "Well, I have to go — see you around!" With that, she spun and dashed away, fleeing the scene.
"My, my," Tsuruko murmured, shaking her head. "Such poor behavior, Motoko. I expected better of you!" The woman began to smile again, though it was much harsher than her normal, friendly smile. "Ranma, what punishment do you think we should make her endure?"
The man sighed, running a hand through his hair. "She's just a kid, Tsuruko-chan. Let her off with a warning. I don't think she'll do it again," he mumbled.
"I am not a 'little kid', Oe!" she protested.
"My, my, my," Tsuruko murmured again, still shaking her head. "That was not the proper way for you to address Ranma, Motoko-chan." She turned to face Ranma, her smile softening. "Please, Ranma, she must be punished for her poor behavior. What should her punishment be?"
The man blinked at Tsuruko in confusion for a moment before shrugging, and saying, "Uh…. There's some shops in the town that are still open, and since Happosai's been through here, I bet a few of the girls here still need to get new… panties, and stuff. Mitsune dragged me along, but why not just have Motoko take everyone else shopping?"
"I approve!" Tsuruko announced cheerfully, producing a coin pouch from a sleeve of her outfit, and peeking into it for a moment. "Now, Motoko-chan, as punishment for your poor behavior, you must take everyone who requires new underclothes out shopping."
"O…okay," Motoko said, glad to be getting off as lightly as she was. "I will go fetch them now."
"Good!" Tsuruko announced, taking a step closer. "I will accompany you, then. Let us be off. I imagine that Ranma would like some time to himself." Ranma nodded absently, stepping into the hallway, and swinging from the open window upwards, disappearing onto the roof.
Alone, once Haruka had come to retrieve Sarah, Keitaro lay on the floor to his room, staring upwards at the ceiling blankly. More specifically, at the hole in the ceiling, covered by a wooden board, and thanks to the intervention of the repair crews that had been over the inn earlier, marked off with tape. And thinking of that hole, he could only think of the person who lived on the other side of it.
"Naru," he whispered, frowning. What was to happen to… them? To… their relationship?
They were a long way away from dating, but at the same time, there had to be something there. Naru obviously saw it too, considering her reaction to his test score. Though, he chastised himself, he hadn't actually gotten a chance to tell her what his score was yet.
Shaking his head, he rose, and paced across the floor before his desk for a moment. He would have loved dearly to speak with Naru, but she needed time alone, and this time, more easily than any other, he could respect that. After all, she was preparing to take things to a new level in whatever relationship they had, and that meant… all kinds of things, really. Some of which Keitaro didn't want to think of, either. He certainly couldn't blame her for wanting to wait.
Nodding to himself, he headed to a scroll on his wall, rolling it up, and stepping into the passageway behind it. Most of the inner secrets of the inn confused Keitaro, but he had learned one combination of passageways fairly well — enough to find an easy way onto the roof from his room.
The void around him was not the dark, frightening mystery of blackness that he remembered from climbing into the crawlspace beneath his parents' house as a child, but a comforting embrace. It made him think of Naru, too. He smirked, reaching the top of the passageway, and opening up the hatch to the roof. Climbing out, he allowed the trap to shut behind him, stretching in the cool evening air.
The soft whisper of wind near him was the only warning he had, and he froze, as Ranma flashed past him, a blur of concentrated motion and force, passing within centimeters of Keitaro's form. A kick rocketed out swiftly enough to crack the air, almost striking Keitaro's knee, and a thrown punch stopped a dozen centimeters from Keitaro's throat, the air pressure from the blow nearly bowling him over.
"Um, I can go back downstairs if you're upset," he offered nervously.
Ranma stood down from his offensive stance, blinking in surprise. "Kanrinin? What are you doing here?" he asked, scratching his head.
"Nothing," Keitaro assured him. "Just thought this would be a nice place to relax for a bit and think."
"Oh, no, sorry about that. I get kind of lost when I focus on the Art," Ranma said, shaking his head, and climbing to the top of the roof. Heaving a heavy sigh, he sat on the peak, looking down at the city below, twinkling lights sparkling in the night. "It's a pretty view," he allowed after a moment.
"I like it," Keitaro agreed, finding a spot to sit a short distance away, admiring the same lights. "Um. You seem to really focus on your martial arts."
"Not as much as I used to," Ranma said quietly. "I'm trying to work harder — I think I've lost my edge. The old guy from this morning… he nearly got me."
"Is something wrong?" Keitaro asked, alarmed. If Ranma was going to be having grudge matches, he expected they could get fairly destructive. "You'll be careful, right? You won't get in a fight and let any of the girls here get hurt, will you?"
"Never," Ranma growled fiercely, shooting Keitaro a scathing glare. His gaze softened, and he slumped forward, looking away. "Never… again. I promise you that on my life, Kanrinin." Slipping down the peak of the roof, Ranma stretched out, lacing his fingers together behind his head and staring up at the stars. After a moment of awkward silence, he mused, "You can see more stars from here than in the city."
"I know what you mean," Keitaro mumbled, wishing he knew what Ranma was hiding, but unwilling to pressure the man for more information. "I, uh, can hardly see the stars at all from my parent's house."
Ranma made an absent noise, not looking at Keitaro.
Not wanting to upset Ranma, but still needing an answer, Keitaro asked, "So, do you think you'll be able to win your fight?"
"Yes," Ranma replied at length. He paused for a moment, then sighed, and added, "No. Well, maybe. I'm not exactly certain." He breathed out an exasperated sigh, and closed his eyes. "If this were the old days, I could beat him hands down, but I can't fight like I used to, and I don't think it would work, anyway. The answer isn't training, because I don't have enough time. I just don't know what to do, and Tsuruko-sensei says that this is a test for me."
"Well, whenever I get stuck on a test, I just ask myself how Narusegawa would answer the question." Keitaro chuckled nervously. "I… wish I could help you, Oe-san, but I don't know martial arts that well. Um…. Motoko-chan always speaks highly of her older sister, so what would your older brother say if he were in your place?"
"Say?" Ranma asked quietly, opening his eyes, and furrowing his brows. "That's a good question. I guess…. Well, Aniki would say something like, 'This is a challenge, Otouto. Together, we can do anything!' And then the two of us would try and study like crazy to find an answer… but I don't think studying will help this time."
"Well… what would he do, then, if he were in your place?" Keitaro asked, frowning.
"He'd… he…." Ranma's eyebrows rose and he sat up, staring at the city below in surprise. "He would win! Of course! That's it!"
Keitaro blinked in surprise. "Er… what? Oe-san, you mean… you're just going to win? What about, um, the fight? How do you just 'win'?"
"It's in the blood," Ranma said, grinning. "I have to get ready. Thanks a bunch, Kanrinin!" Vaulting to his feet suddenly, the man vanished over the edge of the roof, and into the night.
"If everything were that easy, I'd just 'get into Toudai'," Keitaro grumped. He blinked again, remembering his test score. "But then…." Keitaro's eyes widened in sudden alarm. "'In the blood'? Wait! Oe-san said he was adopted!"
Trudging along morosely ahead of her sister, Motoko held the various shopping bags in front of her, wishing they would somehow conceal her from the ever-watchful eyes of the pedestrians surrounding them. Shinobu observed hesitantly, but Motoko was certain the girl was trying to mask an amused smile. For her part, Suu seemed to take the entire thing in stride, somehow knowing better than to toy with Tsuruko as she would with Ranma or Motoko. Naru's amusement was evident, though she tried to keep a straight face when Motoko glanced at her.
Motoko tried to remain proud, made all the more difficult by the fact that her chosen clothes had been taken away in favor of what her older sister had picked out for her. "Aneue, is this necessary?" she asked, her voice hitching slightly in the middle of her question.
"Well, Motoko-chan, if you behave like a child, you should dress as one, as well," Tsuruko said serenely, one hand covering the smile that formed as she spoke.
Sniffling bravely, Motoko clutched the bags of clothing to herself more tightly. The shoes were childish, with little stars and hearts all over them, sparkly and multi-colored. The stockings came up to her calves, hot pink and with a ruffle that ringed each of them neatly. Her shirt was powder blue, emblazoned with a bright and cheerful 'Hello Kitty' logo, though the pacifier on a chain, which hung from her neck, obscured that. Beneath that, a matching blue skirt extended to just above her knees, granting her the appearance of nothing more than an exceptionally tall child. Shinobu looked more mature than she felt at the moment. Tsuruko had even taken her sword away, and as a result, she tried to hide herself behind the packages she was bearing.
She continued to walk forward in silence, thankful that they were nearly home. Peeking around the bags in her hands, she was relieved to see the foot of the long staircase leading up to the Hinata-Sou, and the much thinner crowds so close to the hilltop. Soon, she would be able to be home, and put her own clothes back on, and promise her older sister that whatever it was she had done, she would never do again.
Her ruminations were interrupted at the base of the stone steps, as Ranma landed from the nighttime darkness, seeming to practically appear from nowhere before all the girls, a spreading ring of dust radiating from beneath his bicycle-tires' point of impact. He nodded to Shinobu and Tsuruko, then frowned slightly at seeing Motoko. "Eh… I don't want to know," he said before she could explain herself. "I'll be back in the morning. Thanks for your advice, Tsuruko-sensei." The man stepped off of his bike long enough to bow to the woman deeply.
"My, my," Tsuruko mused, smiling, despite an unmistakable glint of sadness in her eyes. "Such formality. Very well, Ranma. If you will be preparing for the battle, I give you my best wishes. Motoko-chan and I will await your duel."
"Will you win, Oe-san?" Shinobu asked anxiously. "I… don't want that man to come back again."
"The Happosai is very dangerous," Suu agreed.
"That's the plan, Shinobu-chan," he said, smiling. "Don't worry, Suu. I think I have this one figured out. I'll see all of you later."
Not giving them enough time to reply, he hopped onto his bike, and shot down the street, swiftly overtaking what little traffic was there, and vanishing from sight.
"Hmm," Tsuruko mused quietly. "This will be interesting."
"Why didn't he laugh at me?" Motoko asked cautiously. "I… thought he would find this punishment amusing."
"Perhaps he's not as wicked as you make him out to be," Tsuruko said, slightly more sternly. "I am not doing this to you to be petty, Motoko-chan. Allow yourself to realize that."
"I… don't understand," Motoko mumbled, face flushing with shame, and bowing her head.
Night fell across the city, dimming the lights below, but never truly vanishing. Keitaro remained atop the roof, watching the lights sparkle, and thinking about things. Obviously, he needed to talk to Naru at some point; Ranma felt a solution had been found for his quandary, so Keitaro should find one for himself as well. But… there was no reason to rush Naru, really.
Thinking about it, it was easy to appreciate her hesitance, considering the enormity of what they were about to do. He had to suppress a grin at that, before he realized he was alone on the roof, and no one would question him. Smiling widely, he scooted a short way down the roof, then laced his fingers behind his head, as he'd seen Ranma do.
Gazing up at the night sky, and too distracted by his thoughts to feel the mild chill in the air, he shortly dozed off.
The sun rose the following morning, as it always did, spreading its gentle, glowing warmth across the inn's roof, not quite rousing the man who was sleeping there. But the bright amber beams of light woke another, a girl who sat up in her bed suddenly, clutching her stuffed animals to her closely, and staring blearily at the luminosity.
Frowning, she squinted, peering at the alarm clock next to her bed, and sighed. Turning it off before it could ring, she yawned, and climbed out of the bed, tucking the large stuffed rabbit back in without thinking about it. After grabbing a towel and a change of clothes, she padded out of her room on quiet feet, and set about the laborious process of warming up the bath.
It was only lukewarm when decided she didn't have enough time to wait for it to heat up, and quickly washed herself, then dressing and heading across the hallway in the front of the inn towards the stairs. She paused in the main walkway, the large common area above the inn's entrance, and turned to look at the street below.
Slow morning traffic trickled past, though the cherry trees that lined the walkway leading to the courtyard below framed her view. She smiled at that, remembering the things that had first made her like the inn, then blinked as a rounded, red-haired blur shot up the stone walkway.
Ranma leapt her bicycle up the entire distance, dismounting, and landing in the center of the courtyard, her bike held in her hands when she did so. She trotted around the side of the inn, and reappeared a moment later in the hallway, carrying the thing nonchalantly. "Morning," she said cheerily, passing Shinobu and depositing her favored conveyance in her room before emerging again.
Shinobu could only blink in surprise, until Ranma returned, standing next to her, and stretching her arms over her head. The girl's eyes stuck to Ranma's shirt when she stretched, as interesting things happened, stretching the material tightly. "Ah, what a nice day," the redhead mused, relaxing, and turning to beam a smile at the girl.
"Auuugh…" she agreed quietly, turning to stare at the street in dismay. Ranma was so beautiful, and had such a nice body… why couldn't she be as pretty as Ranma, who was actually a man? It wasn't fair!
"Something wrong?" Ranma asked, frowning slightly, and leaning forward to examine the girl.
She shook her head quickly, trying not to peek down Ranma's shirt too much. But there was no padding there, and Shinobu shuddered, worrying that she was becoming as perverted as everyone else. "I'm okay," she said weakly. "Just… um… Oh, it's nothing, Oe-san."
Ranma shrugged, standing up straight and yawning softly. "I bet I know what you're thinking. But it's a curse — I get to look good as a girl. Which I'm not. It also makes most girls jealous of me. Not fun." She reached out and ruffled Shinobu's hair unexpectedly. "Don't sweat it, Shinobu-chan, you'll grow up to be a better woman than I could ever be."
Shinobu giggled in embarrassment, bowing her head. Ranma had seen right to the heart of the matter, but…. "Do you really think I'll be as beautiful as you?" she asked nervously.
Ranma's left eyebrow ticked slightly. "Er… yeah," she said, nodding.
"So boys will actually pay attention to me?" Shinobu eked out, her face reddening further.
"Um… of course."
"Will I grow up to be as… big as you?"
"You're already almost as tall as me," Ranma mumbled, looking away. She blinked, eyes widening, then slapped the heel of her palm to her forehead. "Oh, um, that. Uh, maybe, I guess? I dunno, do you drink lots of milk?"
"I will now!" Shinobu said with determination. "But I have to start breakfast, first!" Not sparing another moment for thought, she dashed away towards the kitchen.
Trooping up the stone steps in their loose formation, the contractors glanced around the front of the inn, hammers, saws, and various other tools slung over their shoulders. Suzuki Taiso was at the lead, and craned his neck to peer around the deserted courtyard. "Hello?" he asked after a moment, frowning. "Anyone home?"
Ranma trotted out of the front of the inn, waving apologetically. "Sorry!" she called out, skidding to a halt a few meters away from the men, Suu prancing after her. "Um… Keitaro isn't in his room right now, but I'm sure he'll drop by in a moment."
Taiso nodded, opening his mouth to say something, but cut off to look upwards as a terrified shriek rang out. Ranma spun around and looked skyward, squinting, while Suu held up a hand to shield her eyes and joined her. Rolling off the edge of the roof in a writhing panic, Keitaro bounced off of the awning on each floor before slamming directly into Ranma, the pair then lying in a dazed heap.
Rousing himself groggily from the fall, Keitaro pushed himself upwards, only realizing after the fact that one hand came to rest directly on Ranma's chest. The redhead grimaced, one eyebrow ticking, before Keitaro whimpered, "Why did it have to happen outside?"
An angry battle cry rent the near-silence, and Keitaro suddenly vaulted upwards, aided by a blow from Naru, and swiftly disappearing over the peak of the roof.
"Um," Ranma managed, blinking at the girl.
Naru glowered after the spot that Keitaro had vanished into for a moment before flinching suddenly, and becoming very apologetic. "I'm sorry, Oe-san! I shouldn't have done that, I mean, you could deal with him yourself, and it was wrong of me to interfere—" she broke off, swallowing, and stared at her feet uncomfortably. "Sorry," she finally managed, very quietly.
"Oh," Ranma mumbled, scratching the back of her head nervously. "Uh… you mean about the… uh… relationship between me and… um." She sighed, wondering how far Mitsune had spread that story before shaking her head. "Well, um, we've been through worse, so don't worry about it."
"What a lucky guy," Taiso rumbled, sighing. "Well, we saw 'im, boys. Let's get to work."
In a single voice, the workers chorused, "Right!" and swiftly scattered across the inn to work.
"Lucky guy," Naru echoed quietly, sniffling. "Um, I'll… see you later, Oe-san." Not waiting for Ranma's reply, she dashed across the courtyard, vanishing down the stairs.
"What a weird day," Ranma mumbled, scratching the back of her head again.
"What's the relationship between a Keitaro and a Ranma?" Suu asked pointedly, leaning closer to examine Ranma curiously.
"It involves violent girls, I think," Ranma mumbled, as Keitaro staggered around the inn, nodding at her.
"Oh, eh, Naru's a very nice girl," Keitaro said absently, rubbing at a bruise and wincing. "She's really quite gentle."
"Compared to what?" Ranma asked incredulously.
"Good morning!" Sarah enthused, seeming to teleport from nowhere to appear behind Keitaro, dropping the man with a knee to the back of his head.
"On second thought, I think I'm getting off lucky," Ranma concluded, turning away.
Once breakfast had been dealt with, Shinobu grabbed her school things, preparing to run away to school, where people behaved normally, and she could hope that some of the rampant background perversion would fade away.
Shaking her head, she passed Ranma as the redhead entered the inn, knuckling back a yawn. "Are you okay, Oe-san?" she asked, cocking her head to one side.
"Just a bit tired. Stayed up late last night getting ready," Ranma dismissed, glancing at Sarah as the little girl clung to one leg. "I'm going to get rid of this thing, then take a nap. I got that challenge at sunset, and I want to be ready for it."
"Oh!" Shinobu exclaimed, clasping her hands together in surprise. "I had forgotten about that! Do you think you will win now, Oe-san?"
"I have a plan," the redhead said evasively. "Could you ask Sarah-chan to let go of my leg?"
"But it's fun!" the blonde protested. "Keitaro trips when I try it. He must be a real wuss if a girl like you is stronger than him."
Ranma chuckled, shaking her head. "You're going to get really bored if you don't let go, because I'm going to bed." She paused, considering, then frowned. "And Motoko-chan might get the wrong idea. Again."
Pouting, the little girl released Ranma's leg, crossing her arms over her chest. "If I can't play with you, who can I play with?" she asked.
"Sarah-chan, don't you have school today?" Shinobu asked hopefully.
"Nope! Not today!" she cheerfully exclaimed. "I'll go play with Kitsune, instead!" The girl ran off, disappearing around a corner, though her voice still carried. "Good morning, Kitsune!"
"Maybe that wasn't such a good idea," Ranma mumbled. "Eh, well, things will work out."
Keitaro was growing increasingly frustrated with each passing minute. The repair men were competent, and only really seemed to be marking out areas that would need attention, except the men who had already dug up the yard to expose the inn's old plumbing. They measured, and calculated, and eyed, and considered, but did no actual work.
They did, however, ask him questions, nearly constantly, on what he wanted done with the place, and it left him without a free moment to try and speak with Naru. It wasn't until the men stopped for their lunch, congregating in the field to the side of the house, that they finally left him alone.
Trudging tiredly up the stairs towards her room, he deflated to find her gone from the inn. "Where did she go?" he mumbled tiredly, turning in time to watch Motoko and her sister march down the hall, away from him. "Hello?"
The sisters stopped, Motoko hiding behind Tsuruko and not meeting his gaze. Tsuruko beamed a smile at him, and waved cheerily. "I hope you do not mind me visiting my sister," she said genially. "I imagine I will be leaving shortly."
"Oh, that's no problem," Keitaro assured her, laughing nervously. "I'm just afraid that with everything as busy as it is, you won't be comfortable."
"I'm sure I will enjoy my stay," she deferred, a smile playing about her lips. "Motoko-chan is embarrassed, but I was wondering if you could show us to the hot springs that she has written to me about so often."
Keitaro raised an eyebrow, as Motoko flinched visibly, and began to creep away from her older sister. "They're, uh, closed," he said warily. "For repairs. While we remodel the inn."
Tsuruko regarded Keitaro coolly, then pursed her lips thoughtfully, and turned to face Motoko. "Well, no matter," she said offhandedly. "I know of a public bath down the street — we can walk there, Motoko-chan. Won't that be fun?"
"Um, maybe I'll stay here," the younger of the kendoka blurted out, finally edging enough to one side that Keitaro had a clear view of her new outfit. "There's, uh, a perfectly good bath on the second floor of the inn, after all."
"With all the repair men about?" Tsuruko mused.
Motoko froze, blanching. "I had forgotten," she mumbled quietly.
Keitaro shook his head, only catching himself after a moment of thought. "Motoko-chan, don't you have school today?" he queried.
"Some things are more important than school," Tsuruko noted coolly. "Hmm. Motoko-chan, I think that since there are no hot springs readily available, we shall spar for a while. Run along and change your clothes to something more appropriate." The girl smiled with visible relief, and ran so quickly that Keitaro was spun about by the mere force of her passage. He came to his senses with Tamago peering into his face, and Tsuruko laughing quietly into her sleeve. "And some things are too cruel even for me," the woman whispered, still smiling. "Motoko? Are you ready?"
"Yes!" The girl reappeared, running back nearly as quickly as she had departed, obviously glad to be rid of the childish clothing she had worn a moment ago. "May I have my sword back?" she asked her sister cautiously.
"There's a worthy question," Tsuruko murmured. "You shall have to earn it back, Motoko-chan."
"Eh?" the girl squeaked out, surprised. "How can I fight without a weapon?"
"Ranma does it all the time, perhaps you should learn the same!" Tsuruko teased, leading the walk towards the stairs.
"But we are a school of swordsmanship! We do not fight with only bare hands!"
"A true warrior uses any weapon that she may, Motoko-chan."
Motoko ducked and scrambled out of the way of her sister's seemingly casual sword-swipes — swipes that cleft through boulders when they missed her. "This isn't fair!" she protested. "Ack!"
Tsuruko finally let up, clicking her tongue. Motoko fell heavily to the ground, their arena being the same mid-stream island she had challenged, and bounced on her rear end, wincing. "You've improved," the woman finally admitted. "But all the same, I expected more from you."
Motoko's face fell. "What am I doing wrong? Why are you so angry with me, Aneue?"
"Angry?" Tsuruko asked, bemused. "If I were angry with you, Motoko-chan, you would know it. I am merely preparing you for a challenge you have yet to face."
"What sort of challenge?" Motoko asked apprehensively. Something worse than sharing a home with two males? Being forced to wear such… girlish clothing? Worse than her sister's seemingly pointless lessons? "I don't understand."
"You will," Tsuruko assured her. "For now, the sun draws close to the horizon. We have something to take care of, I think."
"What? Oh! Ranma's fight."
"Oe-san," Tsuruko corrected her gently. "Come along, Motoko-chan. This is very important."
Sighing, the girl followed her sister, hopping idly over the stream, and kneeling beneath a tree to watch the arena of combat. Piles of plywood, roofing material, and pipes lay in neat stacks, remnants of the repair crew that was just then meandering away from the site. Across the grassy expanse, Shinobu and Suu sat on either side of Mitsune, who looked around curiously.
Keitaro joined them after a moment, Sarah knocking him sprawling into one of the craters from the morning battle until Haruka restrained the girl. Ranma arrived as the sun touched the horizon, yawning and totally relaxed. Striding in easy steps from the back of the porch, he stood in the center of the yard, and waited.
Not until the last glimmer of the sun passed beyond the horizon did his challenger return, the small form bounding easily over the trees to land a short distance away. "My heir!" Happosai gleefully asserted. "Are you prepared?"
"I think so," Ranma said, shifting his feet, not taking up a ready stance. "Are you?"
"All is not quite in readiness," Tsuroko interjected suddenly, rising to her feet. "You two are prepared for battle, but I think there is more on this fight than either of you contend. Oe-san, what do you fight for?"
Ranma glanced at her, surprised, and frowned. "To be rid of the old man?" he asked, as though unsure. "What else is there?"
"My, there's more than that, isn't there?" Tsuruko insisted.
Ranma turned to regard Happosai closely, his frown deepening. "Why are you fighting with me, old man?"
"You picked the fight," Happosai returned mildly. "I'm just curious to see if you have what it takes. If you're… worthy."
"Worthy of what?" Ranma grumped, scratching his head in consternation, his gruffness fading.
"My, my, that certainly changes things, doesn't it?" Tsuruko murmured, her voice carrying across the field.
Ranma blinked, tension vanishing from his face, as he grinned softly. "I get it," he whispered. "You think you're ready, old man?"
"Yes," Happosai said softly. "But before we begin, let me say one thing, Ranma."
"What's that?" he asked cautiously.
"May the best man win," Happosai stated, sincerity overwhelming the aged warble of his voice.
"Very well!" Tsuruko announced, clapping her hands together, then raising a white handkerchief. "Kumite!" The cloth slipped from her fingers, drifting slowly towards the ground.
And the fight began.
Shinobu fought to keep from whimpering at the display — everything seemed so drawn out, like the samurai dramas that Motoko liked to watch when she thought no one was paying attention. But as soon as Tsuruko said that the fight should begin, it did. Ranma seemed less to move, and more to slide across the field, expertly dodging past a strike from the old man's pipe.
His foot shot out, snapping through the air with a thunderous crack, and he spun with the momentum. Happosai nimbly leapt overhead and reached out to tap Ranma atop the head with his pipe. The younger man seemed to smile softly, and simply wasn't there for the blow to connect with, his braid trailing behind him as he moved behind Happosai, and—
The battle ended.
Happosai coughed, pinned to the ground beneath Ranma's foot, only this time the man had moved so fast that no eye could follow the movement entirely. "Ranma is the victor," Tsuruko declared, snatching her handkerchief from the air a hairsbreadth away from the grass. "Very impressive, Oe-san. What was that move?"
"A part of the true Oe Ronin-Ryu," he said quietly. "I… I think."
"You… win," Happosai wheezed. "Now get off me!"
Ranma withdrew his foot, his calm evaporating. "Okay, I beat you, old man, now are you going to get out of my life?" he snapped.
Happosai drew himself to his full height, and nodded solemnly. "Yes," he sighed. "As I agreed… but… I'm proud of you, Ranma. I didn't think he could do it."
"Who?" he asked warily.
"I never thought that your brother was right when he said he could refine my own art."
Ranma's eyes grew wide, and he staggered back a step. "Eh?" he choked out.
Happosai smiled thinly. "I wanted a worthy successor to my school… and it's not your father or Tendo. It would have been you, but… you've found something greater than I can touch. You've made me proud. As a student of mine, I recognize your mastery. Congratulations, Ranma!"
"Yes," Tsuruko added emphatically, drawing closer to Ranma. "I, too, am pleased with your progress, but know that you have a long way to go before your path is complete."
"What are you talking about?" Ranma asked in confusion.
"Well, as a master, you have the right to teach, Ranma," Happosai said, grinning widely. "And I don't have to anymore! Nya-hahaha!" With that, the old man bounced away, vanishing into the trees.
"I feel somehow… cheated," Ranma mumbled, scratching the back of his head.
Tsuruko took Ranma's free hand in her own. "I approve."
"Of what?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side warily.
"Of you training Motoko-chan, Oe-san. You would be the best tutor she could have, this far from our own dojo."
"You feel cheated?" Motoko whimpered. "Aneue! I can not be trained by such a creature!"
"You should speak better of Oe-san," Tsuruko said in a warning tone, pressing Motoko's sword into Ranma's hands. "Until he says so, you will not get your blade back."
"This—" Motoko cut herself off, drawing a deep breath to calm herself. "Oe-san, please give me my sword. It should not be sullied by the touch of a man."
"Oe-sensei," Tsuruko corrected. "And Oe-san, please do your best to train her. I have faith in you."
Ranma stared at the sword in his hands for a long moment, then raised his eyes to look at Motoko. "Train her?" he said quietly. "Why are you asking me to do this, Tsuruko-sensei?"
"I can think of no greater person for the task, Oe-san," Tsuruko said, bowing deeply to Ranma.
Ranma returned the bow nervously, then flipped the blade over in his hands, and tucked it through his belt. "Then… if it would please you, Tsuruko-sensei, I will do my best." He turned to face the younger kendoka, who was still obviously flustered over the loss of her sword. "Motoko, do you want to learn with me?"
"No!" the girl wailed. "I want my sword back, and to train with Aneue!"
"We don't always get what we wish for," Tsuruko chided. "Now, behave yourself, Motoko." Tsuruko's bird flapped down from the eaves of the house, lighting on her shoulder and cooing softly. "Oh, dear… it seems I must be going — there is a matter I must attend to. I cannot train you myself, Motoko. You are not ready, and when you will be ready, I cannot be here. If ever you trusted me, or Mother, you will accept training from Ranma."
Not waiting for a response, the woman bowed to Ranma, then to Keitaro, and then strode away, pausing only to blow a kiss towards Ranma before she vanished around the corner of the house. "Mother," Motoko whispered.
Ranma looked distinctly uncomfortable, and turned away. "When you're ready, Motoko," he said after a moment. "I respect your sister, but I won't make you start learning until you're ready."
"When will you return my blade?" the girl pressed.
"I don't think your sister thinks you're ready yet," Ranma said slowly. "Either… when you decide that you are ready to learn from me, or when you decide that you don't want to do as your sister requests. Until then, I'll hang onto it."
Motoko grit her teeth, balling her hands into fists at her sides, then stalked away, turning her back on the man.
Shinobu held her tongue until Motoko vanished into the house, then coughed nervously. "Oe-san? What happened?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Ranma admitted after a moment, sighing. "But if I have to train Motoko, I may need to be here a lot longer than three months."
"Um," Keitaro mumbled. "I don't know, Oe-san…. I'm not sure the other tenants will agree."
"I'll agree," Kitsune said quickly, smiling. "What about you two?"
"I… I think that Oe-san is a good person," Shinobu said haltingly. "He is… very responsible. I think we can trust him."
"This Ranma is mine," Suu said possessively, leaping at Ranma, and clambering onto his shoulders. "I wanna keep him!"
The man chuckled, shaking his head, and turning to face Keitaro. "Well, Kanrinin?"
"If Motoko and Haruka agree, it should be fine," the man encouraged. "And… Motoko-chan may be angry now, but I think she'll come around."
"Oh, well, if you count my vote, I say let him stay," Haruka mumbled around a cigarette, one hand resting on Sara's shoulder. "Things are more interesting now that he's here, hmm?"
"Right!" the girls responded in one voice.
"What about Narusegawa?" Ranma asked quietly, one hand running across the hilt of Motoko's sword. "I… shouldn't she have a say in the matter?"
"It's fine," her voice answered suddenly. All the residents turned to look at her, surprised. "I don't think… that Keitaro would be happy if I refused," she mumbled, looking away.
"That's really thoughtful of you," Keitaro chuckled nervously, scratching the back of his head. "Thanks, Naru!"
The girl offered a wan smile before turning and vanishing into the inn.
"Hmm," Keitaro mused, his smile fading. "I wonder what's gotten into her lately. Is she avoiding me?"
Ranma shrugged absently, frowning. "Well," he said decisively, "tomorrow is the first day of my new job, so I want to get ready. Night, Kanrinin." With that, he trudged into the inn.
To be continued.
Author's Notes: Thanks to Corwin for pre-suffering this for me. This was hammered out in free time at work. Very difficult. "Oh, no, sir! Is very bad you fall into spring of drown salaryman!"
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