The silence of the house at night was disturbed only faintly by the rustlings of tenants moving in their sleep — a faint creaking from a toss here, the scuffing of a mumbling of those nearly asleep as they wandered to the restroom.
Were it not for how upset she was, she wouldn't be awake to notice the sounds, or anything else. She would simply sleep and dismiss it. But sleep of late was markedly… different, with Suu missing.
Rolling to one side and blinking into the darkness of her room, she sighed. Everything she had tried to run away from… followed her, and worse.
Of course, there was at least one solution….
Chapter Five: Change Comes from Without?
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.
Ranma knuckled back a yawn as she stumbled through the main room of the inn, on her way to the baths. How long was she going to have to sleep as a girl, anyway? Suu seemed to pop into her bed — or at least her bedroom — whenever she was ready to turn in. She paused on the carpet in the center of the front room, and glanced outside the window, towards the deck where Shinobu habitually hung the laundry up to dry, dimly illuminated in the pre-dawn light.
Her eyes widened slightly, and she sighed, watching Motoko practice her forms — without a sword. She considered that briefly before shaking her head. After a quick wash in the sad replacement for a hot springs that the inn maintained at the moment, he vaulted to the roof, and jogged across the peak to observe the girl from there. She froze in her practice, and turned to look at him for a moment before beginning anew, ignoring him.
And that was something else entirely. What was Tsuruko's reasoning for asking him to teach her, anyway? The styles seemed so different… and his was poorly defined as it was. How would he teach an art he only halfway understood himself? Perhaps that was the reason — to make him learn faster. The woman had a knack for assigning rather daunting tasks, he remembered from his work at the dojo.
Regardless, it wasn't feasible that he teach a student who wasn't willing.
On the other hand, he didn't want to disappoint Tsuruko, either. Sighing, he hopped from the rooftop, landing a few steps away from Motoko. "Morning," he said neutrally.
She broke off her practice and turned to study him for a moment, warily. "Indeed it is," she replied after a moment, crossing her arms across her chest.
He shuffled his feet nervously. "Mind if I practice with you for a bit? We're supposed to spar with Seta sometime tonight."
Something flashed in her eyes, and she pursed her lips for a long moment before finally replying, "As you wish." She retreated to one side of the deck, watching him closely.
He frowned, shaking his head. Well, peace offerings didn't seem to be working, though she had calmed down a bit. Probably for the best, all things considered. Relaxing his shoulders, he flexed his hands, then rolled his neck, finally stepping into the stance he remembered from the battle against Happosai.
The stance was loose, relaxed, but not as mobile as his stances usually were. The problem, he thought, tentatively shifting through some forms, was that it had felt less like a maneuver, and more like he had just shifted his stance from standing, to… pinning the old man.
But how was it done? He broke off his practice with a muffled curse. He could repeat any set of movements, but no matter how smooth they were, they just felt… mechanical compared to what he had done when he had beaten Happosai.
"Something wrong?" Motoko asked, breaking the morning silence, the anger fading from her expression, giving way to curiosity.
"I can't get it," Ranma mumbled. He sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "It's like it's just out of my reach." Shaking his head, he offered the girl a shrug and a wry grin. "Looks like I'm just wasting space here. I'll let you get back to your own practice. Gotta work on the place today." He stretched, yawned slightly, then trod towards his room.
Motoko frowned, watching him stride away confidently. He moved with casual grace, his training evident in his walk — the balance, and the way he held himself…. Everything she had seen him do while practicing looked flawless to her, if a bit unorthodox. He didn't move through any form she recognized, but the motion was perfectly fluid in her eyes.
She considered that for a moment. Was he showing off? That was a possibility… but she couldn't understand him, truly. She knew that she didn't like him, and she knew that her sister had made matters worse, going so far as to invoke their mother's name. That meant… that her sister was probably trying to goad her into something. Like returning home.
Well, she wasn't about to give in. She shook her head, retrieving the pack from where she had left it, beneath an overturned laundry basket.
The ordeal would require some thought, however, and that meant going somewhere away from the inn for a day or two to consider her approach to the situation. But she wasn't about to give up just yet….
Suzuki Taiso trooped up towards the inn, his uniformly burly assistants trooping behind him up to the courtyard atop the stairs. They all ground to halt in the middle, spying Ranma standing before the door to the inn itself. Taking a step forward, Taiso studied Ranma closely. "On time," he said, nodding his approval. "Got your hard hat?"
"Rules are rules," Ranma sighed, hefting a slightly battered hard hat and nodding back to the burly man. He put the hat into place, mirrored by the entire construction crew, then strode forward to meet Taiso. Bowing to the larger man, he announced, "I am Oe Ranma, and I'm glad for the opportunity to work with you."
The crew returned the bow as one, while Taiso nodded, grinning widely. "Welcome aboard, kid. I think you'll do just fine. For your first day, I want you to stick with me while I show you what our boys do. The rest of you, you all know where to go."
"Right!" the men exclaimed in unison, rising from their bows and all breaking up into small teams headed to various points around the inn.
Ranma straightened while the other men went their separate ways. "Where to first?" he asked.
Taiso handed Ranma a clipboard and pen. "You're going to help me take notes," he said. "And the better notes your take for me, the more I know you understand about what we're doing. I'll check up on you during lunch, and we'll see. 'Til then, let's check out some of the damage — we got a team clearing out the rubble from the boiler explosion, so we're gonna go there first. C'mon."
The workers had begun shuffling their equipment around — a ladder was leaning against the side of the inn, roofing shingles lay in a tarp-covered pile near the ladder, a team had already uncovered most of the water pipes leading to the inn. It appeared that the prior day had been planning, and so Keitaro lay some of his worries to rest.
Of course, one of those workers was Ranma, though he had subtly made it apparent that his employers didn't know that he was also a tenant. He wasn't certain why the martial artist had done so, but Keitaro respected that he had.
In the meantime, occasional workers — though they all looked identical to Keitaro, excepting Taiso and Ranma — would run up to him and ask him a question about the inn. He answered to the best of his ability, sometimes catching a fleeting glimpse of Naru, though the girl appeared to be evading him. Whenever he moved to chase after her, another worker with yet another question would appear as though summoned before him.
He gave up on trying to catch her attention and talk to her, focusing instead on studying in his room — breaking from that on occasion to answer the questions that still found their way to him. Things continued in this manner until lunch, which was punctuated by a shrill, piercing whistle.
Wandering out of the inn revealed the workers gathered in the side-yard — the one where Ranma had fought Happosai the prior evening — opening up lunch boxes and chatting amiably. The craters that had been blasted in the yard were already filled in with dirt from the uncovered plumbing. Except for the fact that nearly all of the grass would likely be killed, it was an improvement. Probably.
Keitaro shook his head, and retreated into the kitchen, warming some leftovers for himself. Mitsune sat at the table, occasionally glancing out the window towards the workers. "Heya, Kanrinin," she greeted, stirring a bowl of soup idly.
"Hello, Kitsune," he responded, looking to see what had gotten her attention for only a moment before turning his attention to his leftover rice and fish. "Staying home today?"
"I'm not working tonight," she answered absently. She sighed, then, shaking her head. "Looks like Ranma forgot to pack himself a lunch."
"Hmm?" Keitaro mused, swallowing. "Well, maybe I should make him something." He frowned, considering that. "No, no… The workers in the yard would catch on," he sighed. "Well, I hope he can hold on until dinner, then."
He glanced to the hallway, surprised to see Naru there, a particularly haggard expression marring her features. Realizing Keitaro was looking at her, she managed a quick smile, quickly bustling to the refrigerator and making a bento for herself. "I'm headed out to pick up some more study guides," she offered, before he could ask. "Do you or Oe-san need anything?"
"Ah… I'm fine," Keitaro replied, bowing his head and flushing slightly. How considerate of her…. He hadn't thought that escalating their relationship to the next level meant she would be so kind to him. "But, thank you very much for the offer."
"No problem," Naru replied quickly, wiping at her eyes and sniffling. "Stupid onions…." Shaking her head, she packed her bento up, and handed Keitaro another. "Here, you can give this to… to Oe-san later. I'll see you later, Kanrinin."
Before he could say anything else, she had vanished down the hallway, and Keitaro's attempt to follow was aborted when he nearly dropped the packaged lunch. A frenzied lunge saved it from spilling, and sent him sprawling on the floor.
"Smooth," Mitsune advised, plucking the box from his fingers. "I'll deliver this package for you, Kanrinin."
"Thanks," Keitaro managed, climbing to his feet as Mitsune sashayed towards the doorway, and then outside.
Curious, he hesitated before chasing after Naru, and peeked out the window. Mitsune worked her way through the small groups of workers, offering an occasional giggle or wink, drawing nearer to Ranma. She drew to a halt before him, and knelt on the lawn, offering the bento to him and smirking widely.
He accepted it hesitantly, offering the woman a nervous smile, then swallowing worriedly as he examined the actual meal itself. Of course, Keitaro realized, shaking his head. Naru's cooking looked dangerous. Ranma, however, nervously took a bite, then blinked, grinning, and set into the bento with vigor, reducing the lunch to a pleasant memory very quickly, then thanking Mitsune profusely. Keitaro could hear the laughter and wolf-whistles from the other workers through the window, though not a whit of their conversation carried.
She said something to him — bending close and whispering it in his ear — which Keitaro couldn't make out, but it made Ranma pale slightly.
Whatever he said in reply, it seemed to please her, and she took the bento and chopsticks back, heading towards the inn again. Sinking back to his seat, Keitaro set about finishing his lunch, which had cooled. Mitsune entered after a half-heartbeat, and dropped the box into the sink, before lowering herself to her chair with a somewhat dreamy expression.
"Um, did Oe-san enjoy it?" he asked cautiously.
She nodded. "I think I'll tell him who really made it," she said absently. "After he takes me out to dinner tonight, of course."
Keitaro rolled his eyes, and set about washing the dishes up. The workers began to rise outside the window, and migrate back to their positions about the inn, Ranma vanishing into their midst, along with Taiso. He paused his dishwashing, then turned to regard Mitsune curiously. "Say… do you think I should ask Narusegawa out, as well?"
Mitsune clapped her hands together, coming out of her daze. "Yes! A double date! A brilliant plan, Kanrinin — I'll even ask Naru for you."
Keitaro grinned, hope for the evening filling him.
The end of the day found Ranma more bored than tired, as he had done no real work — just the note-taking that Taiso had ordered him to do. After calling the men to a halt, he checked Ranma's notes, nodding, frowning, and then nodding some more.
"Not bad," the man allowed. "This is actually pretty good — though you did make a few mistakes on the time calculations."
"It'll take less than three and a half weeks for the roofing?" Ranma asked. "I wasn't sure about that one."
Taiso snorted, shaking his head. "Nah, nah, simple stuff, but you made the same mistake everywhere. Anyway, to make it simple for you, the numbers actually work out like this." He sketched a few formulas out for Ranma. "You gotta round out a bit, but in this business you need to pad your schedule some."
"Okay," Ranma replied slowly, going over the formulas and frowning. "Um… what about the other stuff?"
"Construction materials were spot-on," Taiso rumbled, pounding Ranma on the back enthusiastically, and grinning. "You got most of the boys' names right, and you did a good projection on the plumbing project's time-frame, too. All in all, I think you have what it takes to be one of us. Good work, kid." He clapped his hands together, while the workers assembled in the neat ranks they had that morning. "Alright, everyone, let's go home! See you all in the morning."
With that, the workers, Taiso at the fore, trooped down the stairs, leaving Ranma standing in the courtyard with the clipboard.
"Damn," he mumbled under his breath. "I thought I finally got the math stuff, too… how the heck am I going to find time to study with a job like this?"
Sighing, he balanced the clipboard on his head, drawing his notebook from his belt, and recording all he had learned in it before stretching. He dislodged the clipboard as he did so, catching it when it fell behind him with one foot, then retrieving it with one hand. At the same time, Naru finished climbing the steps, sparing a single backwards glance towards the street where the workers had disappeared.
She cocked her head to one side at Ranma's display of agility, and approached him cautiously. "Hello," she greeted, as she drew close.
Ranma blinked, turning to face the girl, and offered her a warm smile. "Hi! How was the city?" he asked.
"Loud, like always," she replied, sighing, and shaking her head. She seemed to struggle with something for a moment, then opened her eyes again, and smiled at Ranma, though there was a hint of pain in her eyes. "You were working on the inn today?"
"Yes," he drawled, wondering about the girl. She was the one who had spoken to him the least his entire stay there, and the one he had the most trouble understanding…. Still, an opportunity to get to know her better would not be amiss, given that Keitaro mentioned he studied with her. "Today I just spent a while learning how long it would take to fix up the damage."
"How long?" she asked curiously, clasping her hands behind her back, her bag swinging behind her knees as she did so.
"Uh… well…" Ranma temporized. "I had a bit of trouble calculating it all out, because the number of men in each crew shift, depending on what needs more attention, and then, there's other factors, too, but…. Mostly it works out to three or four weeks." He smiled apologetically. "Not so great… hopefully, once they teach me more, I'll be able to help speed things up."
Naru shook her head, looking up at the inn, seeing the damage that had accumulated over the years. "It's reasonable," she said after a moment. "This place… needs it." Sighing, she turned her attention back to Ranma. "I never properly introduced myself," she admitted, smiling again. "My name is Narusegawa Naru."
Ranma bowed to her, smiling. "It's nice to meet you. I hope that we can study with you — er…. I mean, Keitaro, you, and I can study together." He mentally cursed himself for tripping over his tongue.
Naru looked distant, watching the house again, but nodded. "I think that would be good," she said after a moment.
Mitsune emerged from the front door, and regarded the pair strangely. "You two getting along?" she asked.
"Uh… oh yeah," Ranma mumbled, scratching the back of his head nervously. "I forgot." Sighing, he walked to the door, as Mitsune approached Naru, still standing near the center of the courtyard. He paused at the doorway, and turned to face the two, bowing low. "Thank you very much for lunch. It was very good." After rising, he added, "I'll be ready in a bit."
Naru flushed slightly, while Mitsune giggled, and waved Ranma into the house. He vanished shortly, and then Mitsune turned her attention to her friend. "Got any plans tonight?" she asked warmly.
"Ah… I was going to study," Naru answered, bringing the bag in front of her and hefting it.
"Okay, okay," Mitsune replied, shaking her head. "How would you like to go out to dinner?"
"I'm trying to save my money," Naru answered, frowning. "These books weren't exactly cheap."
"What if someone else were buying?" Mitsune asked suggestively.
Naru smiled at that. Mitsune could be thoughtful, sometimes. Taking her out after the revelation of Keitaro and Ranma…. "Wait a moment. What's your plan?"
"Well, you, and I, and Oe, and Keitaro-kun will go to the restaurant together," she began.
Naru sighed, loudly, shaking her head. Mitsune fell silent. It wasn't really something she wanted to do, but at the same time, running wouldn't accomplish anything. She wanted to like Ranma and Keitaro; she did not want to resent them. "Okay," she said quietly, offering a smile. "I get it. When will we be ready?"
"Well, as soon as they get here, I suppose," Mitsune mused. "Do you want to change, first? Those are your studying clothes, after all."
Naru nodded, trooping to her room, Mitsune heading to her own. She hesitated, then picked out a simple dress, and marched nervously to the hall. Somehow, she never quite expected her first date to end up like this. Mitsune emerged a moment later, wearing a sleek black Chinese dress with a gold embroidered dragon up the length, and a split from the hem ending only at mid-thigh.
Naru compared that to her own light brown patterned outfit, and suddenly felt underdressed. Ranma and Keitaro's voices wafted up from the lower hall, and Naru steeled herself, nodding to Mitsune before marching down the stairs. Ranma stood there, wearing something different from his standard jeans and T-shirts — Chinese clothing. The blue denim pants had been changed out for black silk, and the shirt matched, black silk with gold-colored wooden ties. Keitaro was dressed up in his best suit, and yet, neither seemed to be better dressed than the other.
Naru considered that for a moment, then decided she preferred Keitaro's neat tie and carefully buttoned shirt to Ranma's sleek darkness. She shook her head, smiling at the couple. Mitsune nodded to herself. "I thought you'd pick that shirt," she mused.
"How did you know I had it?" Ranma asked, frowning slightly.
"Er… I… saw it when I had to find your blanket in your backpack," she answered quickly. "But, uh, shouldn't we hurry?"
Keitaro, however, ignored Mitsune, and blinked at Naru in surprise. "You look very nice," he managed after a moment.
Naru smiled, sighing inwardly. How far did they intend to take the fiction? Still… she might as well play her role — Keitaro and Ranma would catch no end of difficulty for their choice of lifestyle. She would at least help them enjoy this public date. "Thank you, Urashima-kun," she answered, smiling. "You look quite handsome, too." She managed to catch herself before she tacked on something mean, just to tease him. But the words 'for a change' had nearly leapt to her lips regardless.
"Going somewhere?" Haruka drawled from the entryway.
"It's a double date," Ranma replied, his voice somehow lacking enthusiasm.
Trying to cover for his slip-up — and for no other reason — Naru grabbed Keitaro's arm, and smiled brightly. Keitaro froze, grinning awkwardly, and unable to speak while she grabbed onto him. Poor fool, she thought to herself. So used to playing the role he overplayed it now that she knew.
Ranma looked uncomfortable — as he should, given the way Naru was touching his lover — and Mitsune quickly grabbed his other arm. "Well," Mitsune purred. "Shall we be off?"
The journey to the restaurant passed in a complete blur for Keitaro, and he was only really aware of it ending after he ordered something from the waiter. The waiter in question strode away, and Naru sat opposite him, not quite able to meet his eyes, but smiling anyway.
Mitsune gave Ranma a series of sultry glances, the pair seeming to be the better-dressed couple at the table. Keitaro wasn't certain what it took to wear an outfit like Ranma's to a fancy restaurant, but whatever it took, Ranma apparently had. He shook his head turning away from Ranma, and focusing on Naru.
"I'm… glad that you agreed to come," he managed nervously. "I wasn't…."
"I understand," Naru soothed him, before he could finish. Mitsune blinked suddenly, and broke her attention away from Ranma, who relaxed visibly. "You don't need to explain it to me." Naru took Keitaro's hand in hers, across the table, and offered a reassuring smile.
Keitaro grinned stupidly, and blushed, unable to say anything else.
"So…" Mitsune drawled, looking between Naru and Keitaro. "How is your studying going?"
"Mine?" Naru asked, dropping Keitaro's hands. "Oh, ah, fine, really. Urashima?"
"I've been falling behind a bit, with everything that's been going on at the inn," he apologized. "But since the last test is over for a few weeks, I'm actually going to take a bit of a break before getting back to studying."
Ranma nodded absently, as the waiter approached, and set a drink before each person at the table, and then set down a basket of rolls. He took one casually, tossing it into the air and rolling it across the back of his hand before letting it fall onto a small plate in front of him.
"What about your studying, Ranma?"
He raised an eyebrow, noting the familiarity she took with his name, and not Keitaro's. "I haven't really got a lot of time," he sighed. "I expect I'll work until the current job is completed, and then devote myself to studying. Otherwise, I can only really try and study on weekends or evenings, and there's not as much time as I would like."
Keitaro nodded thoughtfully. "Oe-san… I meant to ask you, are you keeping the fact that you're a resident of the inn from the workers?" he asked.
"Well…" Ranma hedged, looking uncomfortable, and pulling his roll apart, while Mitsune took another from the basket. "I don't really like explaining the curse if I don't have to — people tend to act funny around me. And I don't need all the guys I work with thinking they can splash me and then ask me out, or something like that." He shook his head, realizing he was shredding his roll, and smashed the bits together into a much smaller roll, which he popped into his mouth. After swallowing, he said, "Anyway, let's just say I want to try and keep that subtle for the time being. Which reminds me… One of the things that'll keep me from studying is that I have to practice. I like to practice in the mornings and the evenings, and I'm also supposed to be training Motoko… if she agrees."
"I think Motoko-chan will come around," Keitaro offered. "At least, I think she will."
"Oh, why talk about her when you've got me right here?" Mitsune chastised, winking at Ranma.
He cleared his throat as his face reddened, and sipped at his drink to cover. He made a face, immediately setting it down. "Bah, white wine," he grumped.
"Indeed it is," Naru observed, holding up her empty glass and tilting it back and forth. "I wonder if I can get some more."
"Narusegawa!" Keitaro yelped, pulling his glass out of her reach and managing — barely — not to splash himself or Ranma with it. "You're not old enough to drink!"
She made a face at him, then shook her head, waving a hand at him dismissively. "I'm not drunk," she grumped. "And I won't drink more, but don't make such a fuss."
"Never cared for it, myself," Ranma said quietly, pushing his glass away.
Mitsune readily traded his glass for her own, which was already empty. "More for me," she declared.
Ranma shrugged, exchanging a glance with Keitaro. "Er… I guess there won't be any studying tonight, then," he sighed.
Naru released a quiet hiccup, and regarded Keitaro coolly, as the waiter arrived again, silently placing a dish before each of them, then refilling each of the wineglasses. "Anything else?" he asked politely.
At the mutual head shaking, he bowed slightly, and walked away.
"Anyway," Ranma sighed, poking at his meal. "This doesn't look too bad."
Mitsune raised an eyebrow, and asked, "What did you get?"
"Salmon," he answered quietly. "It's okay."
He shot Mitsune a pointed glance, then indicating Naru and Keitaro with a nod of his head. Naru had quickly finished her refilled glass of wine, and was idly pushing the pasta before her around on her plate. Keitaro was actually absorbed in trying to eat his pasta without making a mess, and making a good effort towards it.
Mitsune frowned, then nodded slightly. "Say," she started suddenly. "This place is nice and all, but what really makes it nice is the company… Who's for getting this stuff to go, and finishing it up at home?"
"Fine," Naru muttered sullenly.
Keitaro swallowed nervously, and managed to nod, flagging down a waiter. In short order, he and Ranma had left (wincing in unison) enough money to cover the bill, and escorted their dates from the establishment.
"It's a nice evening," Keitaro said, walking down the street, Naru trailing immediately after him.
Ranma followed shortly behind, Mitsune at his side. "Can barely see the stars through the clouds," he groused, carrying all of the leftovers himself.
"Well, it's the company that makes an evening good or bad," Mitsune repeated.
"Oh, well… Yeah, it's a nice evening, then," he said, nodding. "What do you think, Narusegawa-san?"
"S'okay," she mumbled, head bowed slightly, as she slowed to a halt. Keitaro noticed her flagging, and paused, turning to look at her worriedly. She stared at her feet for a moment, then added, "But I never thought it'd be like this."
"What do you mean?" Keitaro asked, frowning slightly.
"I thought our first date would be real," she whispered, shaking her head.
"Real? It… It was real, Narusegawa. Wasn't it?"
She sniffled, raising her head, and regarded Keitaro with tear-filled eyes. "It wasn't real at all!" she whimpered. "It was just a…." She swallowed, and blurted out, "It was just a cover so you could enjoy your date with your boyfriend! I'm sorry, but I…. I don't like it!" She lowered her face to her hands and sobbed.
Ranma blinked, and turned a questioning look at Mitsune.
"Oops," the woman managed, laughing guiltily. "Guess I forgot to clear that up."
"Clear what up?" Naru asked, turning to look at Mitsune, tears tracing their way down her cheeks.
"Okay, I think I'm going to have to be doing a lot of this, since someone spread a false rumor, but as far as the whole Ranma-and-Keitaro-are-gay thing goes, well, we're not," Ranma grumbled. "I'm not gay. I'm one-hundred-percent man. All not gay." As if to punctuate the point, rain began to fall, activating the curse. "Damn it, I'm a guy!"
Mitsune snickered, pressing against the building behind her to stay dry, while Keitaro and Naru had halted beneath an awning.
"What?" Naru asked, shaking her head and blinking. "No…. No, you two are a couple, you and Keitaro — I know already. You don't need to hide it from me."
Ranma raised an eyebrow, and pointed at Keitaro. Naru turned to look at him, and found the young man as frozen as if he were made of stone, an expression of incredulity carved on his face. He shook his head, seeming to return to life, and protested, "We're not gay!"
Naru frowned, and placed her hands on her hips, frowning. "Don't believe you," she said, shaking her head and turning her back to the boy, regarding Ranma again. "But you don't need to hide it, Oe-san. We know the truth."
The redhead slapped her forehead with the heel of her palm. "I am not gay," she repeated through clenched teeth. "Okay?"
"Is it because of your curse?" Naru asked, frowning, and tapping her lower lip with her fingertip. "Or was it something else?"
"It's not the— Alright." Wheeling, she took Mitsune's wrist in one hand.
The woman had exactly enough time to release a frightened 'Eep!' as her eyes widened, and Ranma swept her into a deep, searching kiss. Naru stared and blinked, while Keitaro fell over backwards onto the sidewalk, clutching his nose. When the redhead moved to break the kiss, the taller woman pushed her away, eyes still wide.
"See?" Ranma asked. "Even when I'm a girl, I like girls better. Completely not gay."
"Still acts like a man, too," Mitsune breathed, blinking. "That was… different."
Naru blinked, and turned to look at Keitaro, who had regained his feet, though one hand was still trying to stem the tide of red from his nose. "So… you're not gay?" she asked quietly.
"No!" he protested, bristling. "I wanted to go out on a date with you because I like you! Do you want me to prove it, too?"
He took a step towards her, and she reflexively punched him, sending him careening down the street. "He's not gay!" she cheered, suddenly elated. "He's just a pervert!"
Ranma grinned, sighing in relief. "So we've finally got that settled," she enthused.
Mitsune couldn't help but smile, as Keitaro returned to the scene, rubbing his head, and grinning. "That's the Naru I know," he stated happily.
"Ah! Keitaro! Now you pay for your deception!"
"What did I do to you?" he whined, fleeing from the girl.
But both Mitsune and Ranma could see the smiles they wore, as they ran away.
"All's well that ends well, I suppose," Ranma mused, relaxing slightly. "Should we go back to the inn?"
"Er… yes," Mitsune said, after a moment. "Um…. Ranma, about that kiss…."
Ranma winced, turning to regard Mitsune. "Yes?"
"I… deserved that," she said, sighing. "And you're not bad… but I like guys."
The redhead stared at her for a long moment, then nodded. "I don't expect everyone to always be able to take the curse in stride," she said, shrugging. "I understand."
"You know, Ranma, you don't make a very good boyfriend," Mitsune mused, walking down the street in the direction that Keitaro and Naru had vanished. Ranma slumped slightly, but shrugged, and followed after the woman, as the rain was letting up. "But…. You make a good friend, I think."
She brightened at hearing Mitsune's words, and nodded. "I can deal with that," she allowed. "You can never have too many friends."
It wasn't until breakfast the following morning that Ranma noticed that Motoko was missing. He frowned, having the presence of mind to pack himself a lunch before heading out. It was, however, on his mind from the moment he left the lot via the side exit, and joined the stream of identical-looking workers as they trooped up the stairs, until the moment he broke apart from them at the end of the day.
By then, of course, the other tenants had noticed, too.
He cautiously entered the main room to find everyone else — save Haruka — already gathered there, musing over the incident. "So…" he began cautiously. "Does anyone know where Motoko went?"
Keitaro shook his head, and Suu bounced over to Ranma, pouting. "I want to sleep with Motoko-chan, but she's not here anymore," she protested.
Shinobu nodded hesitantly, offering, "Some of the food was missing from the cabinet — I think she took a few days of rice with her."
"Does she have gear for camping?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side. She'd left the sword in his room, either way.
"I… think so," Shinobu hazarded. "But some of her things are missing from her room when I went up to look for her."
"Well, then we know she probably left on purpose, at least." Ranma scratched his head, considering that. "She's probably okay," he reasoned.
Naru, apparently having calmed down from the previous night, frowned pointedly at him, and said, "She may have run away because of you, you know."
He sighed, bowing his head. "I figured it would come to this. You want me to chase after her, right?" he asked.
Naru nodded, while the other tenants looked unsure. "Of course," she said slowly, "I'm not sure I trust you alone with her…."
He raised an eyebrow at that. "What, you want me to go after her in my cursed form?"
"Not that it slows him down much," snickered Mitsune.
"Yeah, yeah, I get it. I have work in the morning, and we may be overreacting. She's probably okay, but she might just be on a training trip, or something. Since I don't work the day after tomorrow anyway, I'll wait until then to see if she comes back before I look for her," Ranma decided. "Sound fair?"
"A training trip?" Suu asked, excitedly. "Like a real martial artist? How long do they last?"
Ranma winced at that, unable to meet her or Shinobu's eyes. "Well, my pops took me on a training trip for eleven years," he drawled slowly. "And… I went on one with Aniki for about two and a half years…." Swallowing, he quickly added, "But some of them are only a few days, or a week — most are much shorter than that."
Shinobu's eyes grew large and teary. "She might be gone for years?" she whimpered.
Ranma waved his hands quickly, shaking his head. "Uh, you know, she's probably just gonna be gone for a day or two — her stuff is still here, and she never said goodbye, right?"
The girl calmed slightly at that, but not much, and nodded, blinking away the forming tears.
"Still," he mumbled quietly, so that no one but Keitaro could hear. "I wonder if she's okay…."
Staring up at the stars, more of them visible this far from the city, Motoko sighed. How exactly was she to manage the situation that she had been trapped into?
She did not like — or even trust — Ranma. Not one whit. She growled, as a sudden downpour drenched her, threatening to extinguish her campfire. Sneezing, she moved to the shelter of a nearby tree, still within range of the fire's warmth, and shook her head.
It was, after all, her first night out. Would they even have noticed she was gone, or would they be wrapped up in the novelty of the new person who had invaded their home? Would they devote all their time to him, and not even gather that she was gone?
All she knew was that she wanted her sword back. The blade was not just a weapon, or a tool — it was her honor, her pride…. And she could replace it, but not even able to lose it in an honorable fight, that made her ache, and she shook her head. She couldn't accept not having the blade.
Ranma had offered her two options, but when she considered it, she had three choices to get the sword back. She could agree to his training, and he'd give it back. It would satisfy her own sense of honor, but it was also what her sister had tried to force her into, and she wasn't certain she was willing to accept that. Her sister may have thought that she knew best, but Motoko harbored firm doubts that the woman was as wise as she felt she acted.
Secondly, she could decide not to accept the training, and demand her sword back. He had said he would return the blade to her if that were the case. But that would be tantamount to admitting defeat. It would upset her sister, as well. While Motoko didn't always agree with her sister, that would be going too far to spite her, she felt.
The final option, the one Ranma had not mentioned, would be to defeat him. If she could beat him in a fight, then she could reclaim her blade, and had obviously proven that she was not in need of his training.
Of course, that sounded much easier than it would likely be, because Ranma had specialized in non-weapons focused combat. Her own training left her familiar with it, enough so that she could battle without a weapon, but not nearly as well.
The long and short of it was that she would need to gain a lot of skill to be able to beat him, and she wasn't certain how to do that in any kind of timely manner.
She sneezed again, mulling that over, and shook her head. Time enough to consider that in the morning.
After work had finished for the day, Ranma stood at the large window, staring out at the pouring rain that she'd only barely managed to avoid while on the job. Luckily, it had only threatened to rain the entire day, until after Suzuki and his men had left. He'd rushed down the stairs ahead of the workers, and made it around one corner before the downpour began.
The workers had all nodded knowingly, seeing Ranma rush off, and a few minutes later his 'sister' return, asking after him. They apologetically informed her that she had just missed her brother.
And now, of course, they were gone, and she was alone in the house, staring at the rain and wondering if she could find Motoko on her two days off. She heard a noise behind her and sighed.
Not entirely alone, of course. Just that the workers were all gone for the moment. "Well, I guess I'd better go after her," she sighed aloud, turning to face an anxious Shinobu and a somewhat less concerned — but still visibly worried — Keitaro.
"Are you sure it's wise to leave with that storm going on?" the girl asked, clasping her hands together over her chest and drawing into herself slightly.
Ranma winced as the wind picked up momentarily, slashing rain across the window. "Yeah, I know it's not so great, but remember that she's already out there." She stretched slightly, already dressed in a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt. She pulled on a jacket, and hauled her pack onto her shoulder. "If there's any kind of trail to follow, it's only going to get harder, the longer I wait. With any luck, I'll be back in a day or two."
Keitaro nodded approvingly, trusting that Ranma knew what she was doing, and Shinobu offered a more dubious nod. "I'll try and make sure that you have hot water when you come back," she said after a moment, trying to smile, but not able to muster the confidence for it.
"Thanks, Shinobu, Kanrinin." Ranma nodded at the pair, then strode towards the side exit. "Be back in a bit."
Back to a large pine tree, Motoko shivered, glad that most of the rain had been kept off of her, even if the torrent had finally overcome her small fire. Her blanket was wrapped around her shoulders, keeping her from getting too cold, and she was still mostly dry… but that wasn't what concerned her. What concerned her was that she was no closer to finding an answer.
She had to find a way to defeat Ranma, somehow. She sneezed once, grimacing, then huddled lower into her blanket, sighing. Once this damnable storm passed…. It seemed events conspired against her, somehow.
Her sister, Ranma, and now, the weather. Why was it all against her? She grimaced, then yawned, before her yawn was interrupted with another sneeze, and she finally succumbed to her exhaustion.
She woke up to the faint smell of wood smoke, shaking her head to clear it. The downpour had lessened very slightly, but had not halted. Who, she wondered, climbing to her feet and swiftly packing her gear, could start a fire in weather like this?
Once her pack was on her shoulder, she stifled another sneeze, and followed her nose to the source of the smoke, pausing only long enough to put on a wide, cone-shaped straw hat to deflect the worst of the rain.
In short order, she found a cave — more a hole in the side of a nearby hill, with wisps of smoke escaping upwards. A cheerful, if faint, flickering warned of a fire, and she hesitated, wondering, before she approached. Once the opening in the side of the hill came completely into view, she was able to see the cave for what it was — a number of giant boulders had formed one jumbled side of the hill, and the space between them had filled with dirt over the years. Filled with dirt, except for the space between some of the slabs of rock near the bottom, nearly as high as she was tall, sloping upwards into the side of the hill, and a good five meters deep. The opening was at least two meters wide, with the fire burning near the opening so the smoke would be carried away.
The fire wasn't terribly large, but spread welcome warmth across her when she crouched before it, allowing the smoke to pass above her. But there was no one in the cave, just a pile of dampened pieces of wood, being dried out by the fire, and behind that, a large, carefully wrapped bundle.
She backed out, away from the protective overhanging rock, and warmth of the flame, back into the pouring rain. Promptly sneezing again, she looked around, calling out, "Hello? Is anyone there?"
A long moment of silence passed without a response, and she bit her lower lip nervously, shivering faintly.
The fire behind her made a quiet noise, one of the small logs collapsing, sending up a colorful shower of sparks. Sighing, she entered the cave, setting her pack down, and putting another log on the fire before it began to die down too much. An hour passed, with her quietly tending the fire, before she removed all the clothing from her pack, and spread it on the bare stone near the fire to dry.
Another hour, and she put a small pot near the fire, filled with the readily supplied rainwater, and some rice from her supplies. She eyed the wrapped bundle, but carefully did not touch it.
When her meal was finished, and her sneezing had begun to subside, she sighed, wondering what was taking the rain so long to stop, and threw another log onto the fire. There was enough wood for another day, at least, stacked within easy reach, and now mostly dried. With a frown, she finally approached the wrapped bundle closely enough to inspect it.
The cloth surrounding the bundle was a solid, uniform blue, without patterning or decoration. It was long, like a stave, possibly even the length of a sword… but who would leave a sword in the forest like this, abandoned, and with a dying fire? It hadn't even been banked, but she could find no footprints leading either to or from the cave. She'd seen her own clearly enough, and the rain had made the soil muddy enough that she couldn't imagine someone managing not to leave a clear trail.
Frowning, she sat before the fire, and drew the bundle into her lap, cautiously unwrapping it. Behind the blue sheet of cloth — a large towel, to appearances — was a clean white gi, both top and bottom, wrapped around still something else. She removed those, revealing a long, smooth length of wood, and a scrap of paper. Fingers trembling, she hefted the wooden weight.
And who, exactly, would leave her sword in the middle of nowhere? Swallowing back a combination of satisfaction and worry, she turned her attention to the paper scrap. Written on it in handwriting that was better than she expected from Ranma — but not much — was a message.
She read aloud, barely more than a breath, "Motoko-san, I'm sorry for the trouble I've caused you. I don't understand why your sister made the decision she did, but I won't make you do something you don't want to. I hope you come back soon. I'll…" she trailed off, her eyes widening, as she managed, "leave Hinata-Sou and move on as soon as I can. Oe Ranma." She folded the letter up carefully, and looked upwards, at the stone ceiling of the cave.
Mulling things over, she frowned. She wasn't happy with this — she had wanted her sword back on her own terms. But… at the same time, this meant that Ranma had made the choice, not her. He had decided not to fulfill her sister's commands — not her. And that meant… that meant….
What did that mean, exactly?
She frowned, lost in thoughts of honor and duty, then sighed. "Ranma," she mused quietly. "Where are you now, I wonder?"
A loud — but petite — sneeze reached her, sounding from over the cave's entrance, and she sighed again, shaking her head.
Shinobu hummed to herself quietly, working in the kitchen. The construction crews still came, even though Ranma was not with them, and had diligently cleared the bathing area of rubble. The hot springs were full again, but this time with rainwater, so intense was the downpour. Still, they had at least managed to seal up the house against rain before the worst of it began, the only leak appearing in a currently unoccupied room.
That had been patched, and then the construction crews had proceeded to dig up all of the plumbing — leaving it intact but exposed. She shook her head, frowning at the disaster area of the backyard. The craters of Ranma's fight against Happosai were completely gone, lost in all the digging. A voice called out behind her, "Oi, Shinobu-chan."
"Sempai!" she cheered, turning, and expecting to face Ranma. What she got, of course, was not Ranma, but Haruka, who raised one eyebrow at the title, her cigarette hanging from its usual spot between her lips.
The woman smiled finally, after a moment, and said, "It's good to know I still sound as young as I look. Do you know where Keitaro is, Shinobu-chan?"
"Ah… um… he's… studying, I think," the girl managed, fumbling for words.
Haruka nodded, and headed out of the kitchen, towards Keitaro's room.
Sighing, Shinobu shook her head. "Not again," she grumped, turning her attention to a bubbling pot on the stove, checking to make sure the kettle she had set to warm remained so. It had, and she nodded happily at it, focusing on adding seasonings to the pot sharing space with the kettle, while she heard footsteps behind her.
"Ugh," Haruka's voice groaned.
"Obasan?" Shinobu asked cautiously, not looking away from her cooking. "Is something wrong?"
"She's not that old," Motoko replied, startling Shinobu so much she nearly dropped the ginger into the pot and over-seasoned the soup.
"Augh!" she exclaimed, panicking, and turning to face the girl. Motoko was carrying Ranma — in his cursed form, of course — on her back, Motoko seeming more herself, and Ranma…. Ranma looked fit to die from her fever, her face flushed, and eyes distant.
"Wanna lie down now," Ranma mumbled, not moving much, her arms over Motoko's shoulders as she slumped listlessly.
Motoko glanced at the redhead's face, pressing into her shoulder, and coughed quietly. "I am going to take Oe-san to his room," she announced to Shinobu. "But he seems to have caught cold."
Shinobu nodded, glancing out the window towards the construction workers. "I'll bring some tea, sempai," she managed.
Motoko nodded in response, trudging — apparently — with relative ease down the hallway. Stilling her rapidly beating heart at the surprise, Shinobu stirred the soup carefully, and allowed herself a small smile. Well, however it had happened, Ranma had gotten Motoko back, so she was confident that everything would work out.
No light escaped the angry clouds, leaving Ranma's room dim. She shuddered slightly shivering into her blanket, and squirmed around, trying to find a spot on her bedroll that was somehow warmer. The spot didn't exist to be found, so she shivered again, snaking an arm out into the cold air and snagging her jacket, which she then dragged atop the blanket, wishing it would warm her.
"Ooh, not feeling too good?" someone asked sympathetically.
She mumbled something sounding appropriately negative, and pulled her blanket up to her nose.
A cool hand touched against her forehead for a heartbeat, then was pulled away with a quiet yelp. "You're burning up! Ranma, should I call a doctor?"
"Nnn," she managed, shaking her head slightly. "Had worse."
"Real sure," she said, finally approaching something near comfortably warm.
Ranma closed her eyes, too tired to even look, but guessing that the person was Mitsune. Everything felt far too unconnected, and diffuse….
Her eyes flickered suddenly, and she struggled to sit up, but lacked the strength, and succumbed to darkness.
… noise from outside? What was it that had brought her—
The thoughts died a swift death. "I can explain everythin—"
"No," Akane said, her voice cold, eyes filled with raw hurt and anger. "You can't, Ranma. Get out."
"Get out!" she screamed, stepping away from him, while her father stepped forward, just as much anger visible in his gaze.
"This is too much, Ranma," he said, growling. "Leave — now."
"I…." But they had no reason to listen. Not bothering to face either of them any longer, and unable to bear the sight of….
She sat up, eyes widened in the darkness, and gasping. Mitsune shook her head to clear it from where she had been dozing off, and turned her attention to the feverish redhead. Ranma exclaimed something then, too quiet to make out completely, but sounding like a name.
Mitsune frowned at that, filing the information away for later, and seeing the unhealthy glow in Ranma's eyes — the poor boy-turned-girl was delirious with fever. "Yes?" she asked cautiously, kneeling at the redhead's side, and pressing her gently back to her bedroll. Ranma had to have been sick, to have been so weakened she couldn't resist Mitsune's strength.
Ranma sagged to the bedroll without resistance at hearing Mitsune, though her feverish eyes were looking far beyond her. "You're okay?" she asked anxiously. "Not hurt?"
Mitsune raised an eyebrow at that. "No, no," she soothed Ranma. "I'm fine. But you need to rest."
"Rest," Ranma mumbled. "I never meant it," Ranma said quietly, her strength ebbing, and shaking her head. "Accident. Stupid P-chan…."
"P-chan," Mitsune murmured, considering the only coherent name she'd gotten from Ranma. Perhaps when he was himself again, she could ask him in greater detail, and try to unravel the entire mystery. Until then, she could just watch over her, and make sure she recovered. She bit her lip, staring at the girl. She didn't like the idea of a relationship with Ranma because she didn't like the idea of being with Ranma when Ranma was a girl… at least, not in that way.
But…. He was more likable than she had let on, and she had to wonder….
There had to be something there, to make her take care of the poor fevered girl through the night. Something.
In her own room, Motoko rested on her futon, staring at the ceiling, and wondered.
When she had approached the redhead, sitting atop the shelter, Ranma had only offered, "I thought that you'd come out sooner," already appearing to be ill.
What was it that made Ranma decide to do as he had, and return the sword to her? She had been placed completely in his power, and he had simply given it up…. When she had demanded her sword back, he had refused, only the night before she had left. But now…. Now he'd given it back, along with an apology, and said that he was leaving as soon as he could.
If she didn't know any better, she'd think that, maybe, she had judged him poorly…. But then, had she reacted so badly? Naru typically did the same to Keitaro whenever he did anything so inappropriate, didn't she? She raised her head, frowning, as Naru dashed down the hallway, dragging Keitaro by the hand, and blinked at the couple. Keitaro only gibbered faintly until they vanished down the stairs, and a loud cry of "Pervert!" rang through the air, followed shortly by the sound of a muffled impact.
Then again, maybe she had chosen bad people to use as a demonstration on how exactly men and women were supposed to interact. Would Seta and Haruka be a better example?
She frowned at that thought for some reason, and shook her head. That wasn't it. Maybe… maybe there really wasn't that much of a difference, and she'd be better off acting that way?
That could work… but if she did that….
A bleak frown grew across her face as she considered things.
Waking to a brightly-lit room, Ranma sighed, blinking away the sleep, and yawning. The sense of health that she never really appreciated until after she had recovered from an illness filled her, and she stretched, until she realized that someone had wrapped themselves around her while sleeping.
She sighed, reaching under the covers, and gently pushed Suu away from her. Except instead of finding a shoulder, she found something much larger… and much softer. Blinking, Ranma threw off the blanket, revealing Mitsune, who sat up, blinking slowly.
The woman languorously unwrapped herself from the embrace, and smiled at Ranma, stretching, both of them — thankfully — completely clothed. "Good morning," Mitsune said cheerfully.
"Uh," Ranma managed, blinking. "Why were you…."
"I was watching over you last night while you were sick," she said, scooting off of the bedroll, and kneeling to one side. She yawned quietly, and shook her head. "Just after midnight or so, you got really cold, so I climbed in with you to help warm you up."
"Oh," the redhead said quietly. "Thanks, Mitsune. Sorry… I must have been really sick."
"I was going to call a doctor, but you insisted that you've had worse," Mitsune said in reply, shrugging.
"I have. Um… thanks a lot, actually, Mitsune."
"No problem — next time, I'll take all our clothes off. I hear it warms you up faster."
Ranma blushed darkly at that, shaking her head, and rose to her feet. "I'm going to take a bath," she announced.
"Better hurry, before the construction crew gets here," Mitsune advised. "Today's Saturday — when's the next day you work?"
Ranma winced. "Today," she sighed. "I lost a whole day to being sick — did anything happen?"
"Not really," Mitsune said, climbing to her own feet, as Ranma picked out the day's clothing. "You should just be happy that you got over it so quickly."
Nodding, Ranma grabbed her chosen outfit, and swept out the door, making a beeline towards the baths — and hot water. The water was too hot when she got there, but also too low, so she added some cold water to the bath, which averaged it out nicely. She then scrubbed herself off, wincing at the cold water, and happily dunking into the bath with a contented sigh.
Male again, he relaxed for a moment, until he heard footsteps approaching, and realized that he'd forgotten to put up the 'occupied' sign. Jumping out of the bath, he swiftly toweled himself off, dressed, and leapt off the balcony, bouncing up from the railing and snagging the edge of the roof. In short order, he crossed over to the other side of the inn, dropped to the ground, and made his way back to his room.
When he got there, Mitsune had already put up his bedroll for him, and then apparently gone to her own room. He smiled faintly at that, then shook his head, tossing his dirty laundry into a heap, and rushing to the exit. He heard the other workers trooping up the stairs as he reached the side-exit, and was only just able to avoid being late.
It wasn't until after work had let out that Ranma was able to relax — he hadn't had time to grab something for lunch, and Mitsune was out doing her own job, and so unable to bring him something. Still, Shinobu was cooking something — he could smell it from his perch on the rooftop — and he could be patient for a while yet.
He rolled out of the way, warned by a twinge at the edges of his perception, as someone landed where he had been laying only a heartbeat ago. "Oi!"
Bouncing to his feet, Ranma grinned. "Heya, Noriyasu-san," he greeted, nodding.
Seta shifted from his combat stance to a more neutral one, grinning back. "Oe-san, good to see you again!" he enthused. "Sorry about missing the last meeting to spar, but I found a site I wanted to investigate…."
"A site?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side.
"Oh, I'm an archeologist," he explained. He nodded to himself, then glanced around the rooftop. "Is Motoko-chan here?"
Ranma frowned, and shook his head, as he hopped down to the deck of the laundry area. "I'm not sure," he admitted, looking around.
Only Mitsune and Naru were there, bringing in the laundry before the sun set. "Hello!" Seta greeted them enthusiastically, after following Ranma.
Naru smiled at the men, nearly fumbling her laundry as they lit upon the deck, and nodded. "Are you looking for Motoko-chan?" she asked.
"Yes, actually," Seta chuckled. "I was going to spar with Oe-san, and Motoko-chan for a bit, since I forgot to last time."
"Motoko's downstairs — I'll tell her that you're looking for her," Mitsune advised, she and Naru gathering up the last of their laundry, and retreating from sight.
"Archeology?" Ranma asked after a moment, breaking the silence.
Seta shook his head, his expression changed from his normal vacant-seeming smile to a slightly more solemn look. His eyes fixed upon Ranma, as he said, "I remembered meeting a Saotome Genma, once."
Ranma winced, and looked away, unable to meet Seta's eyes.
"Ah… when Haruka and I, and Sarah's mother…. But that's a story for another time." He smiled faintly, and shook his head. "He was a good martial artist."
Ranma nodded, still not meeting Seta's eyes.
"But you're better." Ranma looked up sharply, while Seta nodded absently, his expression melting back into the placid mask he generally appeared to wear. "If you beat Happosai…" he murmured.
Before he could say anything in response, Motoko arrived, emerging from the same hallway that Naru and Mitsune had disappeared down. She looked at Ranma and Seta coolly, then focused her attention completely on Ranma. "Oe-san," she intoned, fishing a scrap of paper from her pocket.
He shifted his feet uncomfortably, nodding. "Aoyama-san?" he asked after a moment.
"I… if you mean to hold to the terms of this letter," she said slowly, pulling her sword from her belt. "Then… I have reconsidered." She held the sword to him hesitantly, and he stared at it dumbly.
"I… wish to honor my sister's wishes, and train with you, Oe-sensei," she said, looking away, and still holding the sword out to him.
He reached for it, uncertain, and swallowing nervously, finally took it from her. She seemed nervous, not looking at him, and shifting her feet uncomfortably, until he said, "Then… I will teach you. But… this is your sword, so you should hang onto it. If you want me to teach you… you may not end up using it for a while, but you should keep it, not me."
The sword was passed back, this time Motoko pausing uncertainly before accepting it. When she did accept it, her face was darkened with a blush, and she still couldn't meet Ranma's eyes. "Thank you," she said quietly. "Oe-sensei."
From behind him, Ranma heard Seta chuckle, and say, "Well, that's a fine beginning… but unless I'm mistaken, I think that dinner's ready!"
"Ah!" Shinobu exclaimed, running out to the deck from the hallway. "Oe-san, sempai, dinner is ready!" Her message delivered, the girl vanished back into the inn.
"Er… We can start tomorrow, I guess," Ranma offered, grinning.
"I look forward to it," Motoko replied, not grinning, but offering a small smile of her own.
To be continued.
Author's notes: Hopefully this chapter will work better than the last. :)
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