The sound of drills, hammers, saws and numerous other pieces of construction equipment rang out below the roof. Ranma ignored the noise, reclining against the tiles and basking in the morning sun. In female form, of course, as the construction crew was already present. Tamago sat on her knee, the turtle's head bobbing up and down faintly as though following the soft breeze.
She heard someone land nearby, and reached out to scratch under the turtle's chin with a fingertip. "Oe-sensei?" Motoko asked cautiously from behind her.
"Morning, Motoko-chan," she replied, glancing over her shoulder and nodding at the other girl. "Everyone ready for morning practice?"
Ye— AUGH!" she exclaimed, as Tamago hopped off Ranma's knee and drifted past her. Motoko's eyes were wide, her hand pressed to her chest.
"You're afraid of something as harmless as a turtle?" she asked incredulously.
Motoko straightened up, and shot her a cool look. "I have my reasons," she said quietly.
Ranma opened her mouth to say something, then reconsidered it, and shook her head. "Let's go and get ready to practice," she said instead.
The two hopped down from the roof, landing before the other assembled students, though they were crowded around Shinobu, who had her back turned to them. "Are we ready to start?" she asked. Shinobu turned around, surprised, and Ranma saw what the other girl carried in her arms. "We'll jus— AUGH!"
"You're one to talk," Motoko grumbled, as Ranma trembled, wide-eyed, in fear of the mewling kitten.
Chapter Seven: Tamago and the Sea Princess
A Ranma ½ / 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.
"Will you let go of me?" she added, dropping Ranma from her arms to the dirt. The redhead bounced onto the ground at the same time the kitten leapt free of Shinobu's hands and dashed away.
"Oooh, Ranmas like Motokos," Suu observed. "Now I can create a breeding program!"
Motoko shot the girl a look of consternation, then turned her attention back to Ranma. "Oe-sensei?"
"It's gone?" Ranma asked, still shaking nervously.
"Yes, Oe-sensei," Shinobu replied, frowning. "What's wrong?"
"Noth…" she trailed off, sighing. "I had a bad experience with… cats when I was young." Clearing her throat, she shook her head. "Anyway, as long as we're all ready…." She glanced around furtively. "You're sure it's gone?"
"It's gone, Oe-san," Keitaro confirmed, frowning slightly, while Suu began to smile.
"New experiment! How does a Ranma react to cats!" she exclaimed. "Must test!"
"Um… no. That would be a bad idea," Ranma insisted, shaking her head. "A really bad one. Anyway, on with today's lesson."
In Naru's room, once the morning practice session was complete, the three Todai hopefuls concentrated on their studying. "I don't think I've been invited here to study before," Keitaro mused quietly.
Naru shook her head, her back to both Keitaro and Ranma. The martial artist was currently in cursed form, as the construction crew assumed that her 'brother' had vanished. While Keitaro turned around and examined some of Naru's books, the girl was busy making tea for the others. "The weather sure has started to turn," she remarked.
Ranma nodded absently, glancing at her, then Keitaro, then scribbling some notes in her notebook.
"Ah!" Keitaro exclaimed, picking up a nearby book. "A photo album!"
Naru made a startled noise, as Keitaro flipped it open, examining some of the pictures. "Don't look through that!" she exclaimed.
"I'm just going to look a little bit," he replied, flipping through the images. "Ah! Here's our vacation with Otohime-chan!"
Ranma glanced over, raised an eyebrow, then turned her attention back to her notebook.
"Oh… fine," Naru grumped, setting the tea service on the table. "Here's a picture of myself in middle-school…."
"You were cute!" Keitaro exclaimed.
"Ah…." Naru blushed, as Keitaro sighed, shaking his head.
"Hey… this looks familiar," he mused, pulling one of the pictures from the album's pages. Ranma glanced over again at the image of a young Naru — no more than three or four years old — cuddling a large stuffed animal. "Oh! I know, it's the one over there, isn't it?" Keitaro pointed across the room at a stuffed animal sitting on a wooden board.
"It… was popular when I was younger," Naru admitted. "When I was two or three, there was an anime for it."
"So you've had this thing for fifteen years?" Keitaro asked, eyeing the stuffed creature appraisingly.
Naru looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded.
"Fifteen years ago," Keitaro murmured distantly.
"Where is your mind going?" Naru asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Ah… just thinking about the promise I made to that girl," he confessed, blushing slightly, and bowing his head.
"The one that will be waiting for you at Todai?"
Keitaro fumbled for a moment, his hand slipping across the floor and seeking Naru's. "If you were the girl from my promise—" he broke off, raising his eyes.
"Real sweet of you, Kanrinin, but I think we can safely say it wasn't me," Ranma said, reclaiming her hand. Naru and Keitaro blinked at the girl they had forgotten was between them. The redhead glanced between the two for a moment, then pointed at each in turn. "Do you two want some privacy?"
"Ack!" Keitaro and Naru exclaimed in tandem, leaping away from the small redhead.
Ranma smirked, shaking her head, and rose to her feet as Tamago shuffled into the room, waving at them, then drawing herself onto four flippers, and bowing her head. Ranma made a face, and followed the turtle from the room, leaving Naru and Keitaro alone. "That was strange," Naru finally said.
"Something wrong, Narusegawa?" Keitaro asked, already cracking open his study guide again.
"Tama was acting funny, I think," she explained, turning to regard Keitaro.
"Well… Oe is following her, so Tama should be fine," Keitaro reasoned.
"I suppose…" she mused.
Ranma chuckled as she followed the turtle out to the courtyard, waving to Mitsune and Haruka in passing. The construction crew carefully avoided her, courtesy of the rumor that she was dating Keitaro, and that her 'brother' would beat up anyone who touched her. It was better than some methods of negotiating the curse.
The turtle paused, looking back at her, then made a cheerful chirp, and waved.
"You sure?" Ranma asked, raising an eyebrow. "I wouldn't mind wandering for a bit — all this studying makes me feel cooped up."
The turtle cocked its head to one side, as though considering, then nodded, and motioned for Ranma to follow.
It wasn't exactly speedy, but the turtle was able to set a pace, ambling down the steps one at a time. "No more flying?" she asked, stretching, and admiring the view from the top of the stairs before she followed.
The turtle shook its head, and Ranma shrugged, trudging after.
As the day wore on, Keitaro pushed his study guide away. No progress had been made. On the one hand, the information he was trying to pay attention to kept fading into the back of his mind as he considered Naru. On the other hand, any attempt to broach the subject of them as a couple was met with a reminder about what he needed to study.
Net result, of course, being no progress. On either front.
He groaned, falling onto his back and staring at the ceiling. "I'm going to take a break," he muttered.
Naru nodded, and yawned quietly. "Too much studying," she agreed.
"Hmm," he mused, seeing the photograph album she had left out. "Now that I think of it… do you ever suppose we'll see Mutsumi again?"
Naru made a thoughtful noise, and pulled the book to her side, flipping quickly to the picture with Mutsumi in it. "It could happen," she said slowly. "I mean, she might decide to retest."
"That's true," Keitaro admitted, daydreaming back to when he'd first met Mutsumi. He shook his head, dismissing an image of Mutsumi kissing him, at the sound of Naru's voice. "Sorry, what was that?"
"I think it's about time to get back to studying," Naru said pointedly. "You've been staring at the ceiling for several minutes now. What are you thinking?"
"Just remembering Mutsumi," he offered, smiling sheepishly.
"Let's hope you remember your study questions half as well," she muttered.
Tiptoeing along behind the turtle was a bit of a challenge. With the turtle's weight being less than her own, and its own relatively small size, it could cross the wires strung between storefronts easily. Ranma needed to exercise a bit more care than that.
Her skill would let her distribute her weight carefully enough that she could do it, but her speed was reduced to only that of… the turtle, really. It would be faster to hop from rooftop to rooftop, but the turtle was leading the way. Tamago stopped at the building's edge, and turned to look back at Ranma.
She shrugged, carefully, gently testing the wire that crossed the two buildings. It was only three stories down if she fell, but that wasn't the point of the game. The wire was sturdy, probably new. She carefully plodded along, until she stepped off the wire, next to the turtle. "Awesome," she said, grinning. "Where to next?"
The turtle looked around, then sniffed at the air for a moment before chirping again, and working its way across the flat roof.
Ranma quickly surveyed her surroundings. The buildings all appeared to be storefronts with flattened roofs, except for a nearby train depot. The rails headed west, well outside of the city. "Oh, this is the main hub for the city," Ranma realized, glancing back, only just able to see the hilltop that Hinata-Sou sat atop. The turtle's adventurous wandering had led across most of the city, though it never ventured far from sight of the inn. "I guess this is where people from out of town will get in… you looking for someone there?"
The turtle nodded eagerly, then flung itself from the rooftop, gliding quickly towards the depot.
"That's more like it!" Ranma cheered, vaulting off after the creature. She rebounded from a light pole, and landed before the lobby to the building, barely beating Tamago there. The turtle landed on her shoulder and chirped gratefully.
Once on the ground, Ranma stretched, looking around with mild surprise. The entire area was nearly deserted, only a handful of people walking by. "So, who are you looking for?" she asked the turtle curiously.
It made another chirp, and pointed at a young woman who was crossing the terminal, struggling with the weight of her baggage. Ranma shrugged, and approached curiously. How to introduce herself to the girl? "What should I do, just go up to her and say, 'Hi, my name is Ranma, and I just thought I'd ask you who you were. This turtle seems to know you, and by the way, I'm really a guy?'" Ranma shook her head, grimacing, and muttered, "That won't help."
The point was moot — as she approached, the young woman looked up, smiled pleasantly, and then clapped her hands together. "There you are!" she exclaimed cheerfully. Tamago flew away from Ranma's shoulder, and drifted to the newcomer's. "How have you been?"
The turtle chirped excitedly for a long minute, while the girl nodded attentively.
"Wow," she said after a moment. She then looked up, and smiled all over again. "Hello, there," she said amiably. "I'm Otohime Mutsumi!"
Ranma nodded, remembering when she'd seen her picture in Naru's room. "Nice to meet you," she replied, smiling back. This girl radiated a sense of tranquility and peace that Ranma found soothing. Her expression was calm, and her smile spoke of near permanence. Tamago reached up from her shoulder and brushed back her straw hat, granting Ranma a nice view of her long, dark hair, braided loosely. While Mutsumi retrieved her hat, Ranma realized she had been staring. "Um… sorry, my name is Oe Ranma."
Mutsumi nodded, holding her hat in her hands. "Have you been taking care of Tamago?"
"Me? Well… not really. Keitaro takes care of her." Ranma scratched her head, frowning, then brightened. "Would you like some help carrying your bags?"
"Oh, that would be wonderful," Mutsumi replied, bowing slightly. Ranma nodded, and hefted the larger of the bags, leaving Mutsumi to carry what looked like a sack made of net, though it only had a watermelon in it. "Do you like training in martial arts?"
"Eh?" Ranma managed, blinking. How had she known? A good martial artist could read another martial artist even outside of combat. But she didn't move much like someone who practiced. Maybe she knew another martial artist well enough to see the differences? "Yeah, actually," she managed. "How did you know?"
"Oh, I just guessed," Mutsumi giggled, while Tamago raised her head, as though whispering into her ear. "Oh, my. You certainly are in good shape — how long have you had your bicycle?"
Ranma nearly tripped over her own feet, then shook her head and stared Tamago squarely in the eye. "Did you get stuck in your cursed form, somehow?" she asked the turtle.
Tamago shook her head quickly.
"Oh, Tamago doesn't have a curse like you do," Mutsumi explained. "She's just a very smart turtle."
Ranma said nothing for a moment, eyeing Mutsumi thoughtfully. "You can understand what the turtle says?" she finally asked.
"Oh, of course not, that would be silly!" the young woman giggled.
"Just like a curse would be?" Ranma asked.
"…right," Ranma finally managed, shaking her head. "Where do you need to take these?"
"Oh! I rented a room in this town, somewhere. You certainly are kind to take care of someone you don't even know, Oe-kun."
Ranma shrugged her shoulders, smiling weakly. "Aniki tried to teach me to look out for other people," she finally managed. "Where to?"
Mutsumi produced a map from a skirt pocket, and studied it thoughtfully for a moment before she gave a confident nod. "This way," she explained, motioning Ranma to follow.
Ranma pursed her lips together carefully, studying Mutsumi as she led the way down the street. She seemed to know where she was going, so Ranma remained silent, studying the way she moved. It only took Ranma a moment to realize that Mutsumi likely had poor health — the aura of life energy all living things generated seemed… subdued from her. Weakened.
She needed to pause to catch her breath every so often, though Ranma could see she didn't look like she was willing to rest. That was easily solved, as the redhead 'accidentally' untied a shoelace, and called Mutsumi to a halt while fixing it. Which also, coincidentally, took long enough for Mutsumi to recover, and let the flush of exertion fade from her cheeks.
But her body was a healthy mix of decently toned muscles. She had nothing on Haruka or Ranma — or even on Naru and Shinobu — but she certainly wasn't out of shape, which Ranma had seen from time to time in other people. There was just something that made her weak, whatever it was.
Eventually, the girl pointed at a two-story building. "That's my apartment!" she said cheerfully.
"Looks nice," Ranma allowed, a vague sense of uneasy familiarity from the area prickling about her shoulders. "Should we go in?"
Mutsumi led him into the apartment, where he set down her packages. Mutsumi perused the room, examining the features, and nodding happily. "This is wonderful!" she cheered. "My packages already arrived!"
Ranma glanced into the corner, where a short stack of watermelons sat. "Er… Well, one package, anyway," she said, nodding. "Does the apartment have any hot water yet?"
She checked the faucet, then nodded happily. Ranma splashed her — now him — self, and studied Mutsumi for a reaction, curious.
The turtle nodded knowingly, and Mutsumi herself seemed a bit startled, but not nearly as much as Ranma would have expected. "That was interesting," she said after a moment, her smile quickly overcoming her surprise. "But I need to thank you for helping me carry my things here."
"Oh, really, it's fine," Ranma said dismissively, shaking his head, and pulling his notebook from his pocket. Writing quickly, he mumbled, "'Humans can learn to speak turtle.'" Looking up, he asked, "You want to meet with Urashima and Narusegawa?"
"Well, that would be nice, but I need to thank you first," Mutsumi insisted. She brightened suddenly. "Oh, I know! Why don't you let me buy you a drink?"
"I, ah… don't generally drink," Ranma said uneasily.
"I insist!" Mutsumi pressed, taking his hand and smiling. "We can go with Naru-chan and Kei-kun, and catch up on old times!"
Ranma blinked in confusion. "Uh… what old times?"
"Oh, I thought that Tamago said you spent a lot of time with them," Mutsumi explained. "You don't?"
"Well, I do, actually," Ranma admitted. "Sometimes we study together. I teach Urashima martial arts. Um…. Anyway, I suppose we could go back to the inn and get them if you really want to go out somewhere."
"Oh, I do!" Mutsumi cheered, nodding. "Where do you live?"
Ranma considered it, trying to mentally retrace his footsteps since leaving the inn. The train depot wasn't a good landmark, as he'd never been there before — he'd ridden his bike into the area, after all. While he pondered, Mutsumi crossed the room, and opened the window.
"Ooh, what a lovely view," she said in admiration.
Breaking off his mental re-mapping, which had broken down at some point when he and Tamago had turned cartwheels over a clothesline strung between balcony railings on five-story buildings, he looked up. The hillside before him was covered in trees, the actual earth obscured behind a heavy cloak of leaves. A sign sat unobtrusively in the distance, and Ranma approached the window to study it curiously.
"I hear that the rent here is cheaper, because it's right next to a dormitory filled with dangerous people — there's always explosions and noise coming from it," Mutsumi supplied helpfully. "But I don't mind. I think it's kind of exciting!"
"'…female dormitory,'" Ranma read aloud, massaging his eyebrow as it began to tic. "Boy, I wish that sign had been up when I first got here."
"Oh, do you know this place?" Mutsumi asked, turning to regard him curiously.
"Yeah." Ranma shook his head. "That's where Urashima and Narusegawa live, Otohime."
"Then we can go and drink!" Mutsumi cheered. "Lead the way, Ranma-kun!"
"Er… okay." Sighing, he looked up as Tamago drifted over to pat him on the head before returning to Mutsumi's shoulder. "This way, Otohime."
She followed dutifully for the entire sixty-yard trek to the base of the stairs leading up to the inn. Keitaro and Naru — along with the other assembled tenants — met them there, the entire gang skidding to an awkward halt to stare in confusion.
"Tamago?" Keitaro asked. "Oh! Otohime-chan!"
"Wait! It's Mutsumi!" Naru gasped, smiling brightly, while everyone else but Keitaro blinked in confusion.
Mutsumi roused suddenly, as though she had been about to doze off, then looked between Keitaro and Naru. "I'm sorry," she said slowly, smiling. "I'm looking for two friends of mine, Keitaro and Naru. Do you know where they are?"
"Auuugh!" Shinobu made a dive to grab Keitaro's shirt before he could pitch forward and fall on his face, and saved the manager a clumsy meeting with the ground until he could recover his senses. "Sempai?" she asked tremulously. "What's going on?"
Naru had merely stumbled backwards, into Mitsune, before she shook off her confusion. "Otohime-chan? Don't you remember us?"
"Oh! Right!" the Mutsumi enthused, clapping her hands together. "I had forgotten, since it's been so long!"
"Could someone explain what's going on here?" Motoko managed, glancing at Tamago with a mixture of concern and relief.
"We thought that Tamago had run off before we could have our final confrontation," Suu supplied, eyeing the turtle suspiciously.
"Well, I remembered that Oe-san was with her, so I wasn't too worried… but after a few hours I started to think it might be a good idea to look for her," Keitaro offered, chuckling weakly. "For a moment, I thought she'd run off to go into the sea."
"Well, she went down to the beach for a bit," Ranma said, scratching his head. "I think that was before the zoo and after the aquarium. Probably to play around after running through the car wash. The little critter sure gets around." He glanced between Naru and Keitaro, and asked, "You thought she was going to run off for good?"
Naru nodded, holding up a pamphlet. "It says here that when a turtle stops flying, they're ready to mature," she said, pointing to a picture of a turtle assaulting what looked like the Japanese Self Defense Force.
"Turn the page," Ranma suggested.
Naru did so, and then blushed darkly. "Oh," she said quietly. "It says here it takes fifty years."
"Well, now that that's all settled, why don't we go out and talk about old times?" Mutsumi asked, clapping her hands together. Tamago nodded enthusiastically from her shoulder.
"Well," Mitsune finally managed. "You three… seem to know one another, so we'll get out of your way, then."
Ranma nodded, and moved to walk up the stairs, but was halted by a tugging at the back of his shirt. Mutsumi tried to slow him down, but wasn't expecting as much resistance as Ranma ended up putting out, no matter how inadvertently. The end result was that he turned around, curious, and Mutsumi fell into him. He caught her easily, while her head lolled to one side, and her eyes took on a vacant cast.
"Hey," he said, frowning. "Hey!" Shaking his head, he fumbled for a moment, grabbing her wrist and feeling for a pulse. "Her heart's stopped," he said clinically, while his own heart began racing.
Naru and Keitaro watched, alarmed, while gasps told him the rest of the tenants hadn't yet cleared hearing range. Shaking his head, Ranma crouched, laying Mutsumi on the ground, and put his hands on her sternum, below the swell of her bosom.
"Oe-san?" Keitaro asked worriedly.
"A minute, Kanrinin," he said tersely, as an aura of something began to radiate from him. His entire body shimmered for a second, and was then enveloped in a wavering aura. Tendrils of white and gold flame crept into the wavering field about him, seeming to concentrate on his hands, while he closed his eyes.
Motoko stiffened, and stumbled down a few steps to watch. "I don't believe it," she murmured. "I never thought…."
Flickers of green and black shot through the aura, chased by white specks. The gold and white gathered at his hands, while everything else wandered across his body seemingly at random. Faintly, at first, and then more brightly, Mutsumi began to pick up the periphery of the glow, white and gold flickering about over her own body.
After only a few seconds, Ranma staggered back, and let the light show vanish. "Ugh," he groaned, rubbing his forehead. "I think I saved her."
"Oe-kun?" Mutsumi asked, looking around in confusion as she sat up. "What was that?"
"Your ki is blocked, for some reason," Ranma offered, along with a weak smile.
"That can be deadly," Motoko said quietly.
"I was taught well," Ranma shot back, frowning.
Motoko stilled, looking away, then nodded. "Be careful, Oe-san," she whispered, before retreating up the stairs.
"More things to investigate!" Suu cheered. "So, martial arts aren't always purely destructive. This is interesting, too." She also clambered up the stairs, though Keitaro guessed it was for different reasons.
Blinking away their shock, Mitsune and Shinobu also departed, leaving Ranma with Mutsumi, Keitaro, and Narusegawa. "Anyway," Ranma sighed. "I'll let you three chat—"
"Oh, no!" Mutsumi insisted, shaking her head. "I owe you something for helping me."
"For what? The ki thing?" Ranma shook his head back, smirking. "That's my duty, the way I see it."
"I'm not sure what that is, but I meant for carrying my bags for me," she countered.
"… oh," Ranma finally managed in a small voice. "Um… if you insist."
"Ah… Oe-san," Keitaro finally managed. "Um… you… don't need to worry. Otohime-chan is… she sometimes has fits like that."
"She gets better on her own," Naru supplied.
"Sometimes," Mutsumi added, nodding.
Keitaro and Naru stared at her for a moment. "Anyway," Keitaro finally managed, shaking his head. "Where do you want to go, Mutsumi-chan?"
"Well, do you know of any places around here that are good?" she asked thoughtfully.
Keitaro led the group to a nearby bar, where they were given a low table in the corner. Mutsumi and Naru took one side, while Keitaro and Ranma sat at the other. Ranma shifted about uncomfortably, not sure he belonged, but Naru suspected that Ranma wasn't sure of what to do about it. She offered him what she hoped was a reassuring smile, then turned her attention to Mutsumi.
"It's good to see you again!" she told the older girl. "And it's good to see you're healthy, too."
Keitaro nodded, quickly adding, "After we saw you in Okinawa, we were afraid that we might not see you again."
Mutsumi smiled, glancing between Naru and Keitaro. "It's lucky to have good friends. Last time, you looked out for me very well, and I'm grateful for it." She turned to Ranma, and her expression became more inquisitive. "Are you helping take care of Naru-chan and Keitaro-kun, Ranma-kun?"
Ranma blinked, momentarily distracted by the waiter that set drinks before each of them before backing off. "I… guess," he said slowly. "I'm teaching Kan— uh, Urashima-san some martial arts, but he's already pretty sturdy." He frowned and sipped at his drink, making a face at it.
"Actually," Keitaro supplied, when Ranma lapsed into silence, "Oe-san's been helping out a lot — he was part of the construction crew that put the inn back together."
"Really?" Mutsumi asked, turning to look at Naru.
She nodded, sipping at her own drink. "They're not done yet, but Oe-san made them stop playing around and being lazy," she offered. "Anyway, Mutsumi-chan, what brings you all the way here?"
"Oh, that's easy!" Mutsumi exclaimed, just before draining her glass. She signaled the waiter for another round, then said, "To drink with my friends!"
Keitaro glanced at Ranma, who was staring between Mutsumi's empty glass, and his own, only sipped at drink. "Um, I think Naru meant to ask why you were here in the city, Mutsumi-chan," he offered.
"Ooh," Mutsumi made a thoughtful noise, while the waiter served the second round out. Sipping at her new drink, she pondered for a moment. Setting her glass down, she asked, "Why am I here?" She glanced between Ranma and Tamago, who was resting on her shoulder. "Do you know?"
The martial artist and the turtle both shook their heads.
"You… don't know why you're here?" Naru finally managed.
"Hmm," Mutsumi mused, pulling a slip of paper from one pocket after draining her second glass. "Ah! This looks like an exam ticket! I must be here to test for Todai again!"
Keitaro stared blankly, while a waiter set yet another glass before Mutsumi.
Sipping from the glass and then setting it down, Mutsumi asked, "What are you going to do about Todai, Keitaro-kun? Are you still trying to get in?"
"Yes," he finally managed, staring at Mutsumi. "Um… you sure can hold your alcohol."
"I like to drink!"
"It looks easy enough," Ranma said, eyeing Mutsumi's collection of empty glasses. "Heck, I could probably do that." Signaling the waiter to pour him a third drink, Ranma quickly downed his first two, and then chased them with the third when the waiter brought it by. He stared around for a moment, then nodded. "I thought I could do it." Shaking his head slightly, he turned his attention to Mutsumi. "So you moved into the area just for the test?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed happily. "I think I will do it, this year." Her look turned from joy to concern, and she turned her attention back to Keitaro. "But, Keitaro-kun, are you sure you should try again? With your intelligence level?"
"Hey! I got a hundred!" Keitaro complained, producing his test result from a pocket.
"Oh, my, you got all hundred questions wrong?" Mutsumi asked, blinking in surprise.
"Just like me?" Naru mumbled.
"Wait, what?" Keitaro asked, turning to Naru.
"'snot as easy as it looks," Ranma slurred suddenly. "G'night!" He collapsed face-first onto the table, distracting Keitaro.
"Oe-san? Oh. I guess this is why he said he never drinks," Keitaro reasoned, putting his test result away.
"Why would he drink if he knew this would happen?" Naru asked, leaning forward to study the not-quite-snoring man slumped across the table.
"Oh, I just wanted to thank him for helping me carry my baggage," Mutsumi explained. "Ranma-kun, are you okay?"
"Five more minutes," he mumbled. "I swear the waffles are good."
Keitaro shook his head, then turned to Mutsumi. "Anyway, it doesn't matter if I did badly before, we're all retakers here, aren't we?" he asked, stealing a glance at Naru.
She blushed bright red, and ducked her head, sipping at her own drink to mask it.
"I'm not!" Ranma announced suddenly, sitting upright as though mounted on a spring. "I failed high school, and only finished catching up just before…. Can't… feel… my legs…." With that, he collapsed again, his face slamming into the table.
Mutsumi blinked, eyes widening slightly. "Ah! Is Ranma-kun taking the test with us?" she asked.
Keitaro nodded, glancing at the man worriedly. "Er… yes. Sometimes he studies with Naru and I."
"Ooh!" Mutsumi cooed, clapping her hands together. "So you two have become closer?"
"What do you mean?" Naru asked unsteadily, her face still red.
Tamago chirped quietly into Mutsumi's ear.
"Really?" Mutsumi asked. "You two study together almost every day?"
"Ah… sometimes Oe-san is with us," Keitaro said quickly.
"Four of us together, then!" Mutsumi cheered. "We can make it this year for sure!" She raised her glass in a salute, which Naru and Keitaro hesitantly accepted. Ranma merely lay as if dead. "Ranma-kun, don't you agree?"
He sat up, eyes bleary, and glanced around. "Together?" he managed. "Yes! Together! Allegiance or death! Bigfire!"
Naru rolled her eyes. "This isn't an anime, Oe-san. I think you've had too much to drink," she criticized.
"Oh yeah?" he asked, wobbling unsteadily. "Well, that may be true, but… uh… but…." He frowned for a moment, then furrowed his brow in concentration. "Okay, hang on." For a moment it seemed like he would collapse again before he righted himself. "I can do this," he muttered, seconds before an aura of blue flame leapt up from around him, flooding the room with light. Some of the patrons looked at the spectacle in worry, and then eyed their drinks, while the other half elected not to notice.
"A light show!" Mutsumi exclaimed, clapping her hands together excitedly. "That's beautiful, Ranma-kun! Can you do any other tricks?"
"Not right now," he croaked, as the light faded. The waiter approached cautiously, and Ranma pleaded, "Water… please… a dying man's last request." Nodding dubiously, the man went off to retrieve what Ranma had requested.
"Oe-san?" Keitaro asked cautiously. "Are you okay?"
"I'm a bit hung over," he said matter-of-factly.
Nodding, Keitaro asked, "How did you do that?"
"Trick I picked up from my wife," he groaned. "Just after she taught me how to track." He brushed a hand through his hair, tugging at his bandana, then opened one eye, and glanced across the table. "Wait. Did I say that aloud? Damn, my head hurts."
Keitaro and Naru blinked in stunned shock.
"You'll live," Mutsumi assured the martial artist.
"Dunno if I want to," he moaned, sighing in relief when the waiter presented him with a pitcher of water, and an empty glass. "Stupid intentional low alcohol tolerance… stupid drunken boxing." He sipped at his water, relaxing somewhat. "What was that about a toast?"
"Ah, I was thinking we should all drink to getting into Todai next year," Mutsumi explained.
Ranma eyed his glass of water, then nodded. "I'll drink to that," he agreed.
As one, the four Todai hopefuls raised their drinks. "To Todai!"
After draining their glasses, Mutsumi climbed to her feet. "Well, it was lovely meeting with you again — but I should really be getting back to my place so I can unpack my things," she said.
"Leaving so soon?" Naru asked, raising an eyebrow. "You can stay a bit longer, can't you?"
"Well, it is starting to get a bit late," Mutsumi deferred, smiling. She leaned over and patted Ranma on the head. "Really, Oe-san, you need to be careful about how much you drink," she chastised him, as he pressed a hand to his forehead.
"Yeah, but you made it look so easy!" he protested, wincing again. "And it really seemed like a good idea." He shifted his position uncomfortably, then ducked his head and looked away. "You know. At the time."
Mutsumi giggled, and Ranma climbed to his feet. "Anyway," he said, shaking his head. "Why don't you let me walk you home?"
"Ah, why not let all of us go with you?" Keitaro quickly added, smiling hopefully. "It would be a shame to run into you again, and then never be able to see you again."
"Oh, well… if you insist," Mutsumi said, yawning. "You take such good care of me."
Naru nodded, smiling at the other girl. "It's the least we can do," she insisted, smiling.
After the bill was settled, they left the bar. Mutsumi was carried on Keitaro's back, as Ranma was still weakened from his ordeal. "She's tired," Naru observed, smiling.
Keitaro nodded dubiously, tying not to pay too much attention to the girl's weight pressing into him from behind. "Well, now we just need to figure out where she lives," he reasoned.
"I know the way," Ranma said, glancing at Mutsumi for a moment. Tamago nodded dutifully from atop Ranma's head.
"Er… why don't you lead, then?" Keitaro suggested.
"Sure thing, Kanrinin," he replied, striding forward, looking at the ground closely.
"Is something wrong?" Naru asked, watching the way that Ranma bowed his head.
"Just tracking our footprints until I get my bearings," he said.
"You can track across pavement?" Naru asked, surprised.
"And through raining forests — never would have found Motoko-chan otherwise, unless it was dumb luck," he dismissed. "I got it. This way." He marched onward, Naru and Keitaro following behind.
"It's a nice evening," Keitaro finally said, to break the monotony.
"It's not raining," Ranma agreed.
Keitaro snorted, shaking his head. "Not a big fan of rain?"
"For obvious reasons," Naru muttered. "Really, Keitaro, is your attention span that short?"
"Huh?" he asked blankly. "What are you talking about?"
Ranma winced, shaking his head. "We're here," he announced quietly.
Naru and Keitaro had drawn to a halt, and Keitaro offered a nervous laugh. "Sorry, sorry," he said, bowing his head to Naru, then trying to cast a backwards glance to Mutsumi.
"Something funny?" she asked raising an eyebrow, as Keitaro's face reddened.
"Nothing, nothing at all," he said quickly.
"Oh, so you think Mutsumi's chest is better than mine?"
"Well, yeah, I did notice— I never said anything like that!" Keitaro protested indignantly.
"What does it matter, really?" Ranma asked suddenly. "A curse—" As though on cue, a sprinkler system started up, splashing him and causing him to switch genders. She sighed, pulling her shirt away from her chest. "A curse kind of makes things like that arbitrary."
"Ah, Oe-san," Mutsumi murmured quietly. "They argue just like a married couple. It was cute."
"It's not like that!" Keitaro and Naru exclaimed in unison. "We're not at all alike!" Stomping their feet, they yelled at one another, "Stop talking like me!"
"Oh!" Mutsumi exclaimed more loudly, as Keitaro knelt to let her regain her own footing. "This is where I live!"
Ranma nodded stretching her arms over her head. "Yup!" she said, yawning slightly.
"Do you know the way back to your home from here, Ranma-kun?" Mutsumi asked worriedly.
In response, Ranma pointed wordlessly at a nearby sign.
"'…female dormitory,'" Keitaro observed aloud, massaging his eyebrow as it began to tic. "Boy, I wish that sign had been up when I first got here."
"I know exactly what you mean," Ranma said dryly. Turning to Mutsumi, he explained, "I stay at the same inn as they do."
Mutsumi nodded in understanding, beaming a smile at him.
"Wow," Naru managed, smiling. "You live right across the street! Maybe we can get together to study, sometimes."
"That would be wonderful!" Mutsumi enthused.
Ranma knuckled back a yawn. "But right now it's late, and burning that much alcohol out of my system leaves me a bit drained," she said. "Let's go back home."
"Okay!" Mutsumi said cheerfully, waving goodbye. "Maybe we'll meet again tomorrow?"
"With any luck," Ranma agreed, nodding.
Keitaro nodded his agreement as well, then turned towards the stairs leading to the Hinata-Sou. "That was nice," he said after a moment, climbing the steps. "I didn't think we'd run into Mutsumi again."
"It's certainly more fun than having Tamago run away," Naru allowed.
Ranma nodded again, stifling another yawn. Mitsune greeted her at the door, the young woman clearly excited about something. "Ranma! Guess what you got in the mail!"
"A bill?" she asked, making a face.
Keitaro and Naru watched expectantly.
"No!" Mitsune shook her head, sighing in exasperation. "You got some packages — three of them! Open them up, quick, I want to see what's inside."
"Packages?" Ranma frowned, then brightened. "Oh, right. Aniki sent my stuff to me. It's not important, Kitsune. I'll open them tomorrow. Right now I want to go to bed."
"You can't!" Suu cheered, flying into the room from the hallway, and tackling Ranma to the floor. "Your room isn't ready yet."
"It was ready when I left," the redhead muttered.
"I'm fixing it," Suu explained steadfastly. "So you have to wait."
"Ooh?" Mitsune noised. "Sounds like a perfect chance to open some packages to me."
Ranma shook her head, yawning, and climbed to her feet as Suu scampered to the room that should have belonged to the redhead. "It can wait until I have a place to put my things," she said dryly. "For now, it looks like I get some time to study. Like, the rest of the night."
Keitaro nodded thoughtfully. "Good luck with that, Oe-san. I'm going to get some sleep," he finally said, trudging to his room. As he retreated down the hallway, he heard Mitsune offer to help Ranma study, and shook his head.
The light of dawn creeping through the window managed to awaken Shinobu before her alarm clock could do so. She fumbled with it for a moment before she blinked, then nodded at it, and climbed out of bed. Mornings were always such a pain. And it was a Sunday anyway, so she didn't need to worry about school, but at the same time…. Chores needed to be done, and sleeping in could easily be a bad habit.
After all, she reflected, some days Keitaro and Naru pulled all-nighters for studying. Yawning, she gathered her bathing supplies, and crept down to the baths. Someone had cleaned them, and they were still ready for use.
Once she had finished washing up and brushed her teeth, she pulled on her day clothing — Ranma had mentioned that they wouldn't be training every day, and today was a day they wouldn't need to practice. Except for Motoko, but Shinobu knew that Motoko was leagues beyond everyone else except possibly Ranma anyway.
She ran through the day's chores in her head as she wandered through the main room, and paused, frowning. Ranma was sitting on the very edge of the couch, blearily flipping through a study guide. Mitsune was stretched out across the parts of the couch that Ranma wasn't using, sleeping soundly.
Ranma glanced up at Shinobu, and nodded, rubbing her eyes tiredly. "Good morning," Shinobu greeted the redhead. "Did you study here all night?"
"I don't have a table in my room, and Suu's… doing something in there," Ranma said, shrugging.
Shinobu nodded, while Mitsune stretched in her sleep, and turned to one side, incidentally grabbing Ranma's leg and snuggling close to it. She raised her head after a moment, yawning, and released Ranma. "It's morning already?" Mitsune asked, sitting up and stretching.
"Looks like," Ranma said, closing her study guide, and pulling her notebook from behind her. "Hopefully Suu doesn't take too much longer."
Mitsune brightened, and nodded towards some packages sitting on the floor. "We can see what you got, then, right?"
"Not until I at least have a place to put them." Ranma yawned tiredly, and shook her head. "What is she doing, anyway?"
Suu bounced into the room at that moment, skidding to a halt, and hopping into Ranma's lap. "It's ready!" she cheered.
"Oh, good," Ranma mumbled, standing up, while Suu slipped onto the couch and picked up her discarded study guide. "I'll check my packages when I wake up. For now, I just want to get some sleep."
"Phooey," Mitsune grumped, while Keitaro came down the stairs, looking well rested, and holding a study guide of his own. "You're no fun."
"Eh, when I wake up," Ranma dismissed, trudging down the hall to her room.
"And now those packages are going to be sitting on the floor of the main room, tempting me all day," the woman complained to Ranma's retreating form.
"Don't worry about it," Keitaro assured her. "Oe-san doesn't seem to need much sleep, so he'll probably be up soon."
"Oh, he'll never wake up fast enough for me," Mitsune continued to gripe.
A bloodcurdling scream of terror shook the entire inn just at that moment.
"Then again, I may have been wrong," Mitsune admitted.
Ranma tore down the hallway on all fours, like a thing possessed, then skidded to a halt before Keitaro, backpedaling, and hissing like an enraged cat.
"Yikes!" the young man exclaimed, jumping backwards. "Oe-san? What's going on?"
"His synch rating is over four hundred percent!" Suu exclaimed, waving a small hand-held computer in one hand, a white lab coat fitting loosely about her shoulders as she dashed into the room. "He's gone berserk!"
Mitsune stared, wide-eyed, and backed away from Ranma slowly.
Swallowing, Shinobu looked around, as Naru stumbled down the stairs at the noise, her toothbrush still in her mouth, and sleep still in her eyes. "What's going on?" she managed to mumble.
"I don't know!" Shinobu protested. Her eyes widened as Ranma looked around, then sidled up to her, nuzzling against her leg like a large, redheaded cat. "Oe-san?"
Skidding down the steps behind Naru, Motoko had one hand on her sword, and stared at Ranma in consternation. "Oe-sensei?" she asked worriedly. "What's going on?"
"Stop asking that question," Haruka demanded, entering the room from the kitchen, and startling everyone. "And you stop acting silly right this—" Her orders were cut off when Ranma leapt in the air and dived at the woman. Haruka raised one eyebrow, and launched a punch at the redhead, but the smaller girl seemed to roll in midair, slipping to the side of Haruka's strike, and then knocked the woman to the floor.
Shinobu gasped in horror, as Ranma then raised one hand, fingers spread like claws… and batted playfully at Haruka's cigarette. The entire thing frayed apart as though it had been slashed with knives, sending a small cloud of dried tobacco to drift to the floor. Ranma continued to bat at the falling pieces, until nothing remained large enough to hit, and the floor had gained a faint smudge of dust around Haruka.
That done, and distraction removed, Ranma turned her attention to Haruka again… and curled up on the woman's lap to take a nap.
Haruka's other eyebrow rose, as she produced another unlit cigarette to replace the one that Ranma had destroyed. Cocking her head to one side, she gently petted Ranma, scratching behind one ear. "Okay," Haruka admitted, when Ranma began to purr quietly. "This is, in fact, new."
"Um… what's going on?" Shinobu finally managed to ask.
Haruka sighed, shaking her head, and scratched Ranma behind the ear. The redhead acted like a cat would, turning her head to provide a better scratching angle, while her purring grew to a muted rumble.
"I thought he was afraid of cats," Motoko reasoned. "So why would he act like one?"
"Afraid of cats?" Haruka asked, raising an eyebrow. "Well, is there a cat in his room?"
"No real cats," Suu said, shaking her head. "But I made a hologram projector to test a Ranma's reaction to cats!"
"That explains a little," the older woman sighed. "Ranma's not going anywhere for a bit, and at a guess, neither am I. Keitaro, do me a favor, and see if you can get a hold of Seta?"
It took him the better part of an hour to actually run into Seta. The man was situated in his van, down by a small river a good mile off from the Hinata-Sou. Keitaro had no idea why the man was there, and even less of an idea of how he had managed to find him, but wasn't about to complain. Haruka had said to find him, so Keitaro had.
"Seta-san!" he exclaimed, skidding to a halt.
The man raised an eyebrow and adjusted his spectacles, one hand gripping a fishing rod loosely. "Oi, Keitaro," he greeted cheerfully. "What brings you here today?"
"Ah…." Momentarily struck dumb, Keitaro had to wonder how the man could be fishing so casually in the middle of the day. Didn't he have a job at the college? "Haruka-basan sent me to find you," he said, shaking his head to clear it. "Oe-san… is acting strange."
"Strange?" Seta asked, jerking his hand backwards, sending a large trout flying up from the stream, attached to the fishing line. He expertly caught the fish in his free hand, quickly tossing it into a nearby icebox, and then packed up his fishing gear.
"He's… um… acting like a cat," Keitaro offered weakly. It suddenly occurred to him that Seta hadn't known about Ranma's curse. "Oh, and… he's been turned into a girl," he added thoughtfully.
"Sounds serious," Seta said, rubbing his chin. "Well, if Haruka-chan wants me to see what I can offer, I'll try to help. Hop into the van, Keitaro — we'll drive back."
Keitaro nodded, climbing into the vehicle after Seta opened the door, and then buckled his seat belt. The man took a moment to shuffle some things into the van from outside — the icebox, a collapsible chair, and a dirty shovel — before he climbed into the driver's seat. Humming quietly, he turned the key in the ignition.
When the vehicle sputtered to life, the aged radio did, too, playing some tired English song. "I like to dream, yes, yes," the radio crooned, as the world outside the windows blurred sluggishly, sliding violently to one side. "Right between the sound machine."
Keitaro blinked, trying to get his bearings, and realized that he was smashed up against the door, while Seta made a thoughtful noise, threw a lever, and stomped on the gas pedal. "Uh-oh," Keitaro managed to croak out.
"On a cloud of sound I drift in the night," the song continued. "Any place it goes is right."
"I think I know a shortcut," Seta said helpfully before he reached out to turn up the volume of the radio. While he did so, the river spun crazily in place, and Keitaro swallowed heavily, whimpering.
When the van straightened from the spinning, it was hurtling through blurred city streets, zooming uphill impossibly fast. "Goes far, flies near," the music went on. "To the stars away from here."
"Gaaaaah," he managed to moan, while Seta hummed happily along with the music, cresting the hilltop, and soaring free of the Earth's weak grip.
"Well, you don't know what we can find," went the music. "Why don't you come with me, little girl, on a magic carpet ride?"
Keitaro considered this turn of the song for a heartbeat before deciding that he would much rather remain grounded, and not fly away. The van decided the same thing at about that point, and it began to rotate alarmingly, nosing down towards the streets below. Surprisingly, he saw the courtyard in front of the inn appear before the van, only a handful of meters away.
"Well, you don't know what we can see."
"Whoops," Seta laughed. "Looks like I made a bit of a mistake, there." The ground approached rapidly, showing not a trace of slowing its eager embrace of the descending vehicle.
"Why don't you tell your dreams to me? Fantasy will set you free."
The van came to a lurching halt, flipping end over end while the music seemed to shift by the Doppler Effect, and the ground greeted the metal behemoth. When Keitaro opened the door to stagger out, he and Seta bleeding from matching cuts on their heads, he had to wonder if the ride was as bad as he had thought. Was it, perhaps, just his imagination? The van certainly didn't look like it had rolled the way he remembered happening.
Seta opened the side door of the van, and rummaged through a box for a moment, before producing a book titled 'Advanced Combat'. "Very well," he said, nodding. "Let's see what this is about, then."
Keitaro shook his head to clear it, frowning. Wasn't he bleeding a moment ago? Ah, that wasn't important. Spinning on his heel, he marched into the inn, leading Seta to Haruka's side — and so, to Ranma.
The redhead was curled up on the floor, her head resting on a pillow. Haruka sat on the couch, her cigarette hanging in its habitual spot while she observed, and someone had swept up the dusting of the one that Ranma had shredded. "Oi," she greeted the men, nodding. "About time you got here."
"I came as soon as Keitaro-kun told me something was wrong," Seta said simply, smiling. "What's this about Oe-san turning into a catgirl?"
Haruka blinked, then shook her head. "He was acting like a cat," she clarified.
Seta nodded knowingly, and flipped open his book before handing it over to Haruka.
The woman accepted it, scanning across the page quickly.
"Where did everyone else go?" Keitaro asked, scratching his head.
"Away," Haruka answered tersely. "They all had better things to do than sit around and watch Oe-san, once I shooed them off."
"Oh," he said quietly. "I see."
Seta nodded thoughtfully, as Sarah bounced into the room, gleefully throwing herself into the man's arms. "Papa-san!" she exclaimed. "Are we going fishing today?"
"You want to go fishing?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "Well, I suppose we could do that." He turned to look at Haruka. "Do you mind if I take her out for a while?"
"Go right ahead," Haruka said, snapping the book shut with a frown. Seta nodded, waving goodbye, then took Sarah outside and vanished with the muted rumble of his van's engine. Mitsune crept into the room next, peering at the sleeping redhead cautiously.
"So… what did you find out?" Keitaro asked, motioning towards the book. "What was all this about?"
"I had a suspicion," Haruka said slowly, frowning. "Where's everyone else?"
"I'll get them!" Mitsune replied, smiling. Haruka glanced over at the young woman, but she had already vanished.
"That girl needs to learn herself some subtlety," Haruka observed. "Have a seat, Keitaro."
Shrugging, he sat on one edge of the couch, scrubbing his hand through his hair. It was beginning to get a little lanky…. Maybe he should get it cut? But then, Ranma and Seta had longer hair… maybe he could grow it out a bit, and see if that worked? What would Naru like? He shook his head to refocus; he was distracting himself again.
In short order, Mitsune had gathered everyone into the room.
"So, what happened to Oe-sensei?" Motoko asked cautiously, kneeling at Ranma's side and peering at her teacher's face curiously. "Some affliction, perhaps? Or maybe some form of demonic possession?"
"Eh… something like that," Haruka replied, handing over the book. "Page fifteen or so," she added.
Motoko sat up straight, flipping through the pages until her eyes widened. "Neko-ken?" she asked. Perplexed, she read aloud to the assembled tenants, "'To learn this invincible martial arts technique, one must first take a fish sausage…'"
Suu blinked curiously, thoughtful for a moment, then nodded, while Motoko's brow furrowed. "And then what?" Shinobu asked, wondering how this related to martial arts.
"Um, '…then wrap it around the trainee and throw him into a pit of starving cats.'" Motoko blanched at that. "Invincible martial arts technique?" she asked. "I have doubts…."
"So Oe-san wanted to learn a martial arts technique so badly that he put himself through that?" Naru asked, frowning. Next to her, Suu's expression had taken a speculative cast, and she glanced at Motoko thoughtfully.
"How bad could it be?" Keitaro reasoned. "They're just cats, after all."
"Aaaugh…" Ranma moaned, uncurling slightly, and tossing her head to one side. "They're everywhere."
"Oh, I suppose it could make a difference in how many there were," he temporized, at Mitsune's glare. "I mean… I'd be scared if I were dropped in a pit with a dozen of them, I guess."
Ranma subsided slightly, seeming to lapse back into sleep.
"Er… yeah. And then they'd probably go right for the sausage, with their beady eyes and prickly little claws — yeah, that'd scare me," Keitaro said, nodding.
All of the girls sent him a look somewhere between confusion and annoyance.
"And, um, the pit would probably be dark, which is also scary, and then they'd be making noise and biting and…." He trailed off, frowning, as Motoko and Mitsune shot him twin gazes of anger. "And I think I'll shut up now," he said, nodding again. He'd really put his foot in his mouth that time…. Then again, he'd done almost as poorly with understanding Motoko's fear of turtles.
Haruka cleared her throat, rising from her couch, and shook her head. "Keitaro, let's go outside for a quick walk, hmm?" she asked.
Keitaro's eyes widened, and he backed away, shaking his head quickly. "No, no, I'm good, I don't need any air — maybe I'll go to my room and study for a bit, actually, now that—"
"Oh, give it up already," Haruka grumped. "The point here is that justified or not, everyone's got something they're afraid of. Try not to rub it in."
Shinobu nodded thoughtfully at that. "I always thought that… they were cute and cuddly. Not scary," she said, turning to look at Ranma's slumbering form.
"Well, be that as it may, he did it to learn an invincible technique," Motoko said, frowning. "According to the book, at least."
"Turn the page," Haruka advised.
Motoko obliged, reading aloud, "'Of course, this isn't a real technique, and only an idiot would try it.'" She blinked, then sighed. "Oh. So, in his quest for power, he brought this upon himself."
"It ain't like that!" Ranma said, suddenly sitting bolt upright. "Wait." Her brows furrowed, and she turned to look at Motoko speculatively. "What happened?"
The kendoka blinked, glancing about the room, then coughed, hiding the notebook behind her back. "Nothing, nothing at all," she blurted, managing a forced smile, though even to Shinobu's eyes it was unconvincing.
Shinobu frowned, shaking her head. "Oe-san?" she asked tremulously. "Why did you try and learn the neko-ken?"
"How'd you find out about that?" Ranma asked, surprised.
"Well, we have a book…" she managed, offering a smile she hoped looked more believable than Motoko's. "But, mostly because you were… acting like a cat earlier."
"Oh," Ranma said quietly, adjusting the fit of her bandana, then scratching behind one ear nervously. "I should have come clean on that a while ago, I guess," she admitted, grinning ruefully. "Um… when I was a kid, my… father… thought it would be a good idea for me to learn the technique, so he tossed me into a pit for training." She shuddered at that, shaking her head. "Uh, anyway, if I go… like that… again, you can usually get me out of it by triggering my curse. Otherwise, I'll usually calm down and let someone pet me… then it just takes an hour or so to wear off."
"So I noticed," Haruka observed, suddenly looming over Ranma's diminutive form, her voice much more dire than Ranma's. She looked down at the redhead, cracked her knuckles, and said, "Please don't let that happen again."
Ranma's eyes widened slightly, and she backed away quickly. "Won't happen again," she said swiftly, shaking her head.
"Good," Haruka replied, her looming figure suddenly reduced to her more normal stature. "Having you sit on my lap cost me a good hour of running the tea shop. Doubt any customers came by, but I'd better check it out."
Ranma climbed to her feet, and frowned. "Ah… Haruka-san… would you be looking for any part-time help?" she asked cautiously.
Haruka raised an eyebrow at the door, and glanced back at Ranma. "I'll consider it," she said after a moment. After that she offered what may have been the hint of a smile, and vanished.
"Well, that didn't go too badly," Ranma reasoned, glancing around the assembled tenants. "Anything exciting happen while I was out?"
"Um…." Shinobu giggled quietly, still somewhat nervous. "You acted like a cat, Oe-san. That was enough excitement, I think."
"Great," Ranma replied, yawning. "I'm still sleepy, so I'm going back to bed… assuming it's safe."
"Wait here a moment," Motoko said, holding up a hand to forestall Ranma's motion. It came too late, and the hand pressed into Ranma's chest. The redhead looked down at Motoko's hand, and the kendoka quickly withdrew it, blushing. "Ah… that is… wait here a moment, while I make sure there is nothing else in your room that should not be there." Still blushing, the kendoka retreated swiftly, vanishing up the stairs towards Ranma's room.
Ranma blinked, then nodded, stretching. "What a day," she sighed.
"Tell me about it," Keitaro said after a moment. "Seta's driving scares me."
Naru shook her head. "I think I'm going to lie down for a while, too," she said, turning to the stairs, and vanishing to her room.
"Your father threw you in a pit of cats?" Mitsune asked, scandalized. "That sounds rather… cruel."
"Was it effective?" Suu asked curiously.
Ranma shuddered. "In a way, I guess," she mumbled. Shaking her head quickly, she added, "Don't try it. It's not worth it." Her eyes flickered briefly across Mitsune's, then away. "Anyway, that's not important anymore."
"I'm sorry, Oe-san," Shinobu said sympathetically. "I won't… bring any more of them near you again."
"Thanks," the redhead replied uneasily.
Motoko returned then, nodding. "I have disabled Suu's devices." She shot the girl a disapproving look. "It should be safe, now."
"Thanks," Ranma mumbled again, blushing darkly, before she ran off. "G'night!" she called out on her way to her room.
"That was interesting," Mitsune said. "I'd say he's pretty embarrassed about the entire thing."
"Wouldn't you be?" Motoko asked, frowning. "If you had… some fear that tormented you so?"
"I guess," Mitsune replied, shrugging. "I'm not really scared of anything like that, though."
"A letter came for you today," Motoko said, shifting the subject of the conversation.
"What, really?" Mitsune asked eagerly. "What was it? Where is it?"
"It's from a debt collector."
Mitsune's expression paled, and she looked around nervously. "Uh… really? Where's it from?"
"It isn't real," Motoko explained. "Today is Sunday, after all. The point is that we all have our fears."
"I don't!" Suu chirped cheerfully. "I'm afraid of nothing!" Smiling, she dashed away, singing in a language Shinobu didn't recognize as she skipped down the hallway.
"Don't do that!" Mitsune chastised Motoko. "Anyway, I need to go to work." Grumbling, she too wandered towards her room.
Keitaro shook his head, sighing. "And I need to study," he said before he left, walking down the same hallway Mitsune had used.
Motoko shrugged, then glanced at Shinobu. She only looked for a moment before looking away, watching something through the windows of the front room.
"I'm… afraid of being alone," Shinobu volunteered.
Motoko shifted her feet slightly, and nodded.
"I'm afraid… that some day everyone will vanish, and I'll be… all alone." She swallowed. "That's… my fear."
"And you still find the courage to face it every day," Motoko said sadly. "That is brave, Shinobu-chan — don't think that it isn't."
"Aoyama-san?" Shinobu was taken aback at the kendoka's words — as though she, somehow, were more brave than the one who was training to fight constantly?
"Don't… worry about it," Motoko said, shaking her head. "I'm going to go practice."
"Jogging?" Ranma asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well… it's… partially to keep in shape — the long hours of studying aren't good exercise — and… partially to try and help Mutsumi-chan get healthier, so she can make it to Todai more easily," Keitaro explained.
The martial artist frowned. "So, you want to do this instead of practicing your martial arts?"
"Ah! No, of course not!" Keitaro said, waving his hands to placate Ranma. "In fact, we were hoping… you would try and get her to train with us. Since you're a martial artist, you'd know more about training someone to become healthier… right?"
"To a degree," Ranma said, nodding. "I mean, I spent a lot of time with Aniki learning… to do all sorts of things, really. But yeah, I taught some of the beginners exercises at Tsuruko-sensei's dojo. If Otohime agrees to it, that's fine. Is this going to be before or after practice?"
"Before," Keitaro said happily. "Mutsumi-chan will follow us, and then we can show her how you teach us — hopefully she'll want to learn, too."
"'Us?'" Ranma asked, raising an eyebrow again.
"Er… yes," Keitaro managed, laughing uneasily. "Um… Narusegawa wants to train with you, too."
"Why the change of heart?" Ranma asked, frowning.
"Er… I… guess she wants to keep a closer eye on me around Mutsumi-chan," he admitted.
Ranma nodded knowingly. "That makes sense," he said.
"Of course— HEY!" Keitaro balled his hands up into fists and bristled at Ranma. "What's that supposed to mean? I thought you were on my side!"
Ranma grinned, waving a hand dismissively. "I was just teasing you, Kanrinin. So what time do we meet for this jogging thing?"
"Open them!" Mitsune pestered gleefully. "I want to see what you got!"
Sighing, Ranma shook his head — though Suu was every bit as eager as Mitsune to see what was in the packages. "Fine, fine," he grumbled, snapping the twine about the first parcel and then tearing off the paper. "Clothes, clothes, clothes, clothes… oh, a blanket," he noted, stacking the articles to one side of his bag. "More clothes… and a photo album. Not bad."
Mitsune held up a shirt, and raised an eyebrow. "Chinese silk?" she asked. "Nice — I like it."
"Eh, I don't know if it even fits me anymore," he dismissed. "I used to wear them a lot. Okay, package number two… wait. This is from the old pervert." He frowned darkly, but opened it regardless. "Let's see what he gave me," he grumbled, as a number of lacy white and black feminine undergarments fell out. He ignored them, brushing them aside, and reaching in to pull out a larger white piece of cloth. "A gi… A signed writ recognizing… my mastery of the Anything Goes School…." He blinked, staring at the scroll, then smiled. "Wow. It really…." Shaking his head, he set it aside, pulling a number of other scrolls from the bundle.
"What are all of these?" Mitsune asked, pulling one scroll in particular out, and examining it. It seemed to show the outline of a body, with specific points being marked off.
"Pressure point chart," Ranma explained, glancing over the chart briefly. "It says it's to counter another set of pressure points… hmm." He rifled through the other scrolls, and pulled out another. "I think this is the first part. Looks like an exercise to increase the flow of ki through a person to enhance their ability. I'll have to research it more later."
"Is there a technique to turn invisible here?" Suu asked curiously.
"I doubt it — the old man would have used it, if he had it," Ranma said, shaking his head. "But, let's see…." He scanned through the other scrolls quickly, then shook his head. "Nope. No invisibility." He sighed, checking the return address on the parcel's ripped paper. "Funny… how did he send it from Aniki's place?"
"Maybe he knows your brother?" Mitsune suggested.
Ranma nodded. "Wouldn't be surprised," he admitted. "Everyone else seems to." He set the scrolls aside in a careful bundle. "Anyway, let's go ahead and see what the final package is." He tore it open, his eyes widening happily. "My bracers!" he exclaimed, pulling a pair of metallic-looking wristbands from the package, and sliding them on. "Man, these things are great!"
"What are they?" Mitsune asked, leaning to inspect them closely. "They look like silver or copper in the light… but the color changes and it moves like cloth."
"Feels like it, too," Ranma said, extending a wrist to Mitsune so she could touch the material. "This was a gift from… someone… after…." His face clouded, and he shook his head. "It was a gift," he said simply, shrugging. "She said it was dragonhide. I don't know if it's true or not, but I really like them anyway."
"Dragonhide?" Suu asked thoughtfully, peering closely at it, then nodding. "Looks like it," she replied disinterestedly. "Aniki has a pair of bracelets like that, too."
"Who's your older brother?" Ranma asked, plucking shirts and folded pants from the package and setting them in a neat stack.
"He's a prince," Suu said simply. "Ooh, is this a photo-album?"
"Ah! Pictures!" Faster than even Ranma could react, Mitsune snatched up the book.
He took it from her hands before she could open it, and shook his head. "Time for that later," he chastised. "For now, I need to get to work, and you," he shot a pointed glance at Suu, "need to clean up these pieces of your last experiment."
Finally reaching the top of the hill, Keitaro let out a long breath, sighing. "Quite a run," he managed tiredly. "All this studying… I don't get enough exercise!"
"Heh, the guy who invited us to run fell behind," Naru teased, giggling quietly. "Figures."
Naru, Mutsumi, and Keitaro all froze to look as a blurred shadow slid across the street. "An opening!" The blurred shadow resolved itself into Ranma, sliding backwards across the power-line over the road while balanced on the balls of his feet, his arms crossed over his face, and Motoko's blade between his bracers. Motoko drove the blade downwards, but was unable to touch the other martial artist with it.
"Gotcha!" he replied, grinning.
"Those bracers, they're—"
Not giving her enough time to react, Ranma rolled onto his back. Motoko's grip on her sword was firm, and she was pulled with him. Ranma's feet tucked under Motoko, and then exploded upwards, launching her into the air with a trailed cry of panic.
He flipped off the power line, landing on the street on both feet, and wiped a faint sheen of sweat from his forehead. "Man, I'm glad Aniki sent all my stuff," he said, eyeing the metallic bands on his arms with a grin. "These things are great!"
"Wow!" Mutsumi cheered. "Are you an acrobat, as well as a martial artist?"
"Eh?" Ranma blinked at that then shrugged, approaching a nearby vending machine. "I guess," he said after a moment, perusing the selection of drinks. "I mean, I've learned how to do stuff like that, too."
Fumbling for a moment with some change, he put coins in the vending machine, then pressed a button. It was vended with a rumbling clatter. Nodding in satisfaction, he added a few more coins, and got another drink, but this time instead of dispensing the drink with a tumbling clank, the machine said, "Winner!" in a recorded voice, and dispensed two more cans.
"That was unexpected," he mused, juggling the three cans.
Naru frowned worriedly, and glanced upwards. "Shouldn't Motoko be coming back down soon?" she asked.
"Point," Ranma admitted, shoving the drinks into Keitaro's hands, then launching himself into the sky. Motoko descended, and the two collided, a shower of sparks erupting as the kendoka's blade met with Ranma's bracers.
The pair of combatants came apart, flipping in the air and landing a few meters from one another. Motoko wore the same smile Ranma had a moment prior, and held her sword in a defensive position. "You've improved," she appraised.
"Just got my old bracers back," he said, nodding happily. "But, I think this is a good spot for a break, don't you?"
"About time you get tired," Keitaro grumped, as Ranma retrieved the drinks. "Fighting on the power lines?"
"It's good for practicing balance," Motoko answered flippantly, nodding her head as Ranma handed her a can. "Thank you, Oe-sensei."
"No problem," he assured her. "Haruka has me working part-time to fix up her apartment and the tea-shop. I'm not completely poor anymore." Ranma hesitated a moment, glancing at Keitaro and Naru, then held the extra can out to Mutsumi. "You look like you could use this," he offered.
"Oh, thank you," she said happily, accepting the drink. "A sports drink?"
"Water's better, but this'll replace some of the energy you lost on the way here," he explained. "You should also work on your breathing."
"Breathing?" she asked.
Ranma nodded, while Keitaro got drinks for himself and Naru. "How you breathe… well, part of it is that it changes the way you move ki through your body," he explained.
Motoko nodded, opening her can. "The pathways through the body for ki allow you to have more energy, and thus, be a better warrior," she added before taking a sip.
"Oh, but I'm not a warrior," Mutsumi said, shaking her head. "I just want to go to Todai!"
"Isn't that a form of fight?" Ranma asked. "I want to go to Todai, too. But if you want to be able to make it to the testing rooms, and then to Todai every day, it'll help to become stronger."
"That's true," Mutsumi admitted, nodding thoughtfully. Her generally cheerful features shifted as she considered things, and asked, "Will you help me become stronger?"
"Oh, um… sure," Ranma agreed, looking nervous for a moment. "There's a few things we can do… but just good exercise and proper breathing should help a lot."
"Thank you, Ranma-kun!" she exclaimed, cheerfully clasping her hands together.
"No problem," he said, grinning. "You're… anemic, right?"
"Oh, yes… how did you know?" she asked, cocking her head to one side.
"It was just a guess," Ranma admitted. "You looked a bit pale. Make sure you recover your breath before we jog back — good training doesn't push you too hard."
"Indeed," Motoko mused, crushing her can and tossing it into a nearby recycling bin. "So, what shall we do on the way back?"
"Simple," Ranma said, grinning. "You try and tag me once."
"That's it?" Motoko asked, disbelieving the task. "As you wish." She drew her sword and took up a stance — only to blink, as Ranma spun the blade idly through his fingers.
"Here's the challenge," he said, winking.
"Ah! My sword— Very well, I will show you a true warrior uses any weapon they can find," she shouted, drawing her sheath from her belt and swinging it at Ranma like a bokken. He ducked to one side, throwing the blade straight into the air, then plucked the sheath from her hands. "Hey!" she protested, glowering as he raised the sheath and caught the sword in it without looking. "Okay, now you're just showing off," she accused.
"Could be," he chuckled. "Ready?"
"Ready!" she yelled back, charging him with her bare hands.
Mutsumi shook her head appreciatively as the martial artists danced fluidly over the hilltop. "Ranma sure has a lot of energy," she observed, sipping her drink.
Keitaro nodded, glancing between the two girls who had jogged with him. "Yes," he replied, sighing happily. "He's teaching me martial arts, too."
"Oh, can you do something like that, too?" Mutsumi asked, turning to look at him while she sipped at her drink.
"Eh?" Keitaro asked, retreating a step at the suggestion. "Oh, no, I'm not nearly that, good, really!"
"Are you certain?" Mutsumi asked, stepping closer.
"I'm pretty sure," Keitaro said, nodding as he retreated another step. His ankle caught on a short barrier, and he stumbled backwards over it, sending up a great gout of cold water as he splashed into a nearby stream. "Auuugh! Cold!" he yelped, as Ranma managed — somehow — to get splashed while sparring with Motoko.
The redhead seemed not to even notice that her gender had changed, except to pull her shirt away from her chest while she and Motoko sparred. Mutsumi turned her attention to Keitaro, as he pulled himself from the streambed. "Oh, my, are you alright, Kei-kun?" Mutsumi asked, leaning towards him to offer him a hand up and a towel. "You must be careful, you don't want to catch a cold right now!"
Keitaro nodded, glancing at Narusegawa as he climbed over the short fence blocking access to the stream. Mutsumi attempted to dry him off, but he shook his head, blushing. "I can dry myself off," he managed, laughing. She nodded, and he quickly got what he could of himself dry.
"We can finish at home later when we take a bath," Naru said, stretching. "Are you ready for the run back?"
"Ah… You two take a bath together?" Mutsumi asked, her eyes widening. "I hadn't realized you were in such a relationship!" She giggled, her hand covering her mouth. "How ecchi!"
"Not together!" Naru protested quickly, her face reddening darkly.
"We just live at the same place!" Keitaro added.
"And… we use the hot springs at the Hinata-Sou." Naru cleared her throat. "Why don't we go back there to study for a while?"
Mutsumi's eyes lit up, and she gasped in delight. "Hot springs?" she asked excitedly. "I love hot springs! Even though I've heard that there were springs in the area, I'd never gotten a chance to visit one near here." She turned back towards the inn, and began jogging happily.
"Um…." Keitaro began uncertainly. "I don't—"
"Kensei-strike!" Motoko yelled out suddenly, making a slashing movement with one hand. "A slash without a sword!" True to her word, a flashing blade of light shot between her and Ranma, the redheaded martial artist ducking just barely beneath the attack, as it tore into the street behind her.
"Hold up there!" Ranma growled, suddenly angry.
Motoko froze, brought up short. "Was my form off?" she asked anxiously. "Was I not supposed to use such an attack?"
Ranma sighed, shaking her head, and motioned Keitaro to move on. Swallowing, Keitaro turned to chase after Mutsumi, along with Naru. As he jogged down the hill, he caught the tail end of Ranma's lecture to Motoko.
"Now, that attack's good, and there'll be situations where you need it… but you always need to be careful when fighting. There's no call to damage the surroundings or anything else. What would you do if you accidentally hurt an innocent bystander…?"
In short order, Keitaro had caught up with Mutsumi, and it only took a moment to reach the inn. Mutsumi gamely jogged up the steps, not stopping until she reached the top. Naru and Keitaro paced her, and they all stopped to catch their breath in the courtyard before the inn's entrance.
"Ah!" Mutsumi breathed, surveying the inn. Keitaro examined it himself. Since Ranma's confrontation with the construction crew, the place had started getting put together very quickly — the siding and walls had been repaired nicely, all of the holes cleanly repaired instead of crudely patched. The roof was immaculate, of course, and Keitaro could only grin at the pride welling up inside him when he realized that he was responsible for a piece of it.
A stray wind brushed through the surrounding trees. "The famous Japanese inn, Hinata-Sou," Mutsumi said appreciatively. "I've seen this building before, I think."
"Eh?" Keitaro noised, surprised. Motoko and Ranma lit on the top of the stairs, neither of them looking pleased. "Um… something wrong?"
"Nothing," Motoko said, relaxing slightly. "Merely more lessons to learn."
Ranma's expression grew pained, and she shook her head. "Look, Motoko-chan… we learn from our mistakes, right? I'd… just like you to do me a favor and take that a step further — learn from my mistake. That's all," she explained.
Motoko's resentment faded. "I will try," she said, meeting Ranma's eyes and nodding.
"Say," Mitsune called from the balcony, her toothbrush in her mouth. "It's the turtle-girl, isn't it?"
"Ah! Hello, Kitsune-san!" Mutsumi greeted, waving happily.
"Er… how'd you know my name?" she asked, blinking.
"Oh, Tamago told me," Mutsumi explained, nodding happily.
Shinobu, also on the balcony, brushing her teeth, eyed the collection of people below her carefully, and removed her toothbrush from her mouth.
Kitsune blinked for a moment, then shook her head. "When does class begin, Oe-sensei?"
"When you're all outside, I suppose," she said, shrugging.
Once everyone had assembled, Ranma led them through their training exercises, though she emphasized the importance of proper breathing to everyone before they began. Naru sighed, shaking her head. Seta had taught her differently, but she didn't really know much outside of one or two moves.
Ranma seemed to aim to teach her a whole style of martial arts, showing her more of the Jeet-Kun-Do that Seta had trained her in, while Mutsumi joined Mitsune and Shinobu in Tai Chi. Suu and Keitaro had joined in learning at Naru's side, and she had to wonder what it was that Suu had been learning before, but Ranma looked happy that Suu had switched, so she decided not to ask.
Motoko, of course, trained in something Ranma wouldn't name, sparring against Ranma barehanded. She seemed to be improving, too, if Ranma's appraisal was any indication — Naru couldn't tell, herself. Both Ranma and Motoko were light-years beyond her own ability, outside of her few specialized attacks. Still… she did like the idea of keeping herself in shape. And, of course, it let her keep an eye on Keitaro when he was with Mutsumi.
She shook her head to clear it. "Ah, that was nice," she sighed, stretching. "Um… Mutsumi-san, would you like to use the hot springs with me? Keitaro and Ranma have their own baths."
Mutsumi glanced at the pair — Ranma currently a girl — who were chatting amiably, and discussing a maneuver that Keitaro was trying to learn. "Okay!" she said cheerfully, traipsing along after Naru and into the baths.
"Ah, so nice," Mutsumi breathed, once she was soaking comfortably in the hot water.
Naru shook her head, glancing at the other girl. "You sure seem to like this," she commented to Mutsumi.
"Oh, I like lots of things!" she said cheerfully. "Who do you like?"
"Eh?" Naru managed, stunned. "You mean what, right?"
"No, no," Mutsumi said, shaking her head softly. "Who is your boyfriend?"
"Ack!" Naru squeaked out. "I'm… not… that is…."
"Oh?" Mutsumi asked, leaning forward to examine Naru closely. "Is it that you like someone, but aren't going out with them? It is! Who do you like, Naru-san?"
The other girls — all of which had joined them in the baths, after the morning martial arts practice — watched with wide eyes.
"Um… well," she said slowly. "You see…." What was she supposed to say? Usually at about this point something embarrassing would happen — something that would tend to involve Keitaro wandering in and embarrassing himself horribly. She looked around nervously, wondering what it would be.
"So, I think it's going to be a function of… ah… ah…." Fumbling a handkerchief from his pocket, Keitaro managed to smother his sneeze. "Sorry about that," he managed.
"Yeah, I think you're right," Ranma said, leaning across the table to peer as his answer sheet. "That looks about the same as what I was thinking."
Keitaro nodded, then shivered violently.
"You all right, Kanrinin?" Ranma asked, frowning.
"I suddenly got the strangest feeling," Keitaro said nervously. "Anyway, um, on to the next question."
Naru swallowed back her fear, as nothing continued to happen to interrupt the question. "W…well," she managed, bowing her head. She had admitted it to herself, ultimately. When she thought she had lost Keitaro to Ranma it had begun to become clear in her own mind, at least. "I… like…."
"Is it me?" Suu asked excitedly.
"I… like all of you, but… the guy I like…." Naru trailed off, struggling with herself.
"Yes?" Mutsumi asked, smiling hopefully.
"Go on," Mitsune encouraged, grinning speculatively.
"Well… you see…."
"Who is it?" Motoko asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Sempai?" Shinobu asked, her eyes shining with trepidation.
"… like… Keitaro," Naru gasped out, her face suffusing solid crimson. "I… have for a while," she managed, drained from the admission.
"Ooh," Shinobu moaned, sinking in the bath to lean against a rock.
"See, that wasn't so hard!" Mitsune cheered, winking at Naru.
"I can't imagine what you see in that man," Motoko said, not quite able to meet Naru's eyes.
"Keitaros are interesting too," Suu admitted after a moment.
Naru met Mutsumi's eyes, finally, and offered a nervous smile. Mutsumi herself regarded Naru with widened eyes — not widened in shock, simply not narrowed in joy. Her expression shifted to a smile after a moment, though there were hints of sadness in the depths of her eyes before she veiled them behind narrowed eyelids. "Yes, Keitaro is very handsome," she encouraged. "I like him, too. Have you confessed to him yet?"
"N…no," Naru admitted, still feeling her face burn with embarrassment. "I… will. After the test to get into Todai."
"That's a good plan!" Mutsumi assured her.
"So, why don't we all study together?" Keitaro asked, while Ranma poured hot water over her — now his — head. "I mean, there are four of us, and… I know I got a lot better at studying after I began studying with Narusegawa… so if we all work together, I bet we can all make it!"
"I'm willing to give it a shot," Ranma said, setting the kettle on the table. "I might not always be able to make it, but with a team of four, if one person can't be there, the other three can still work together."
"I… wouldn't mind that," Naru agreed, blushing.
"Oh, I like studying with Naru-chan and Kei-kun!" Mutsumi said cheerfully. "I'll gladly study with you!"
To be continued.
Author's notes: Thanks again to all the people on the Refuge who helped C&C this chapter. ^_^
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