For Keitaro, time seemed to have stopped almost entirely. In the pocket of the abstract world that had consumed the area around him, no physical substance could move. Only energy was free to shift about.
The blazing fire wavered and flickered, snapped and danced, all beneath a frozen cloud of smoke. The fire fighters and their equipment were stuck in place, unmoving, yet their voices continued to shout orders.
In this dimension of frozen time, Ranma's aura remained flared, flickering at a slower pace than the rabidly leaping flames. But most of that aura wasn't around Ranma; it was a leaping, oddly shaped lump of energy that was sliding across a silver, five-pointed wire connecting him to someone hidden behind a screen of flame.
This odd lump soared through the air, energy free to move in the matter-frozen world it was passing through. The flames drew back as it approached them, and then it vanished into the house.
With a slow, ponderous creak, the house began to move, infringing on what was an energy-only right, until everything else began to move too. The firefighters slowly unwound themselves from a standstill, to slow motion, to frenzied activity, spraying water across the flames.
The flames which now consumed the entirety of the building, collapsing into a pile of blazing timber and ash.
"Mutsumi," Ranma choked, just before he fell limp, and the five-pointed wire of light snapped, recoiling into the ruins of the house.
A second later, leaping through a small gap in the still-collapsing building, Mutsumi flew free of the flame, wreathed in an aura of cold blue fire.
"Oh, my," she said as she landed next to Ranma. "That was unexpected!"
Chapter Fourteen: Revelations and Leave-takings
A Ranma ½ / Love Hina / Golden Boy crossover story
by Brian Randall
Disclaimer: Paints in this story are from Takahashi, Viz (Ranma 1/2), TV Tokyo and Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina), and Tatsuya Egawa (Goldenboy). The story of the heroic legend of Raiko and Sakata Kintoki as presented here is public domain. The easel is mine. That's all.
…noise from outside? What was it that had brought her…?
The thoughts died a swift death. "I can explain everything—"
"No," the girl 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 another figure stepped forward, his long black hair dripping in the cold rain, 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….
Mutsumi blinked her eyes a few times to completely wake up, and stared at the ceiling. "How odd," she mused, sitting up. "I don't think that was my dream at all."
"Mmmm?" Naru noised, waking, and struggling to sit upright on her own pallet. "What's going on?" she asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
Mutsumi's eyes surveyed the room until they discovered a clock. "This is a good time to wake up," she decided. "Why did I stay at your place, Naru-chan?"
"Your place burned to the ground," Naru said. "Ugh. As long as we're awake at this hour, let's go take a bath."
"Okay." Mutsumi climbed to her feet, noticing she was wearing a pair of Naru's old pajamas. Loosening the top button relieved some of the uncomfortable tightness across her chest. "Naru-chan?"
"Hmm?" Naru asked, grabbing a spare change of clothes.
"Have you ever had someone else's dream?"
The younger girl snorted, leading the way out the hall and towards the bath. "If you mean 'have I spent more than a year of my life trying to help someone else realize his own dream', then yes."
"Well, I meant more in the sense of someone throwing a ball of their own life energy at you to help you save yourself from a roaring inferno, and accidentally bringing a few of their memories with it, but I suppose that will do," Mutsumi said softly.
This caused Naru to halt in the act of opening the door and turn to look at Mutsumi speculatively. "You had Oe's dream?" she asked quietly.
"Ooh, was it naughty?" Mitsune asked, seeming to spring from nowhere, one hand holding an icepack on her head, the other steadying herself against a wall. "Was it about me?"
"No, I don't think it was naughty," Mutsumi said quietly. "But it may have been private."
"Or just a dream," Naru reasoned, turning about and opening the door the rest of the way.
Nothing else was said until everyone was soaking in the baths, Mutsumi's one remaining change of clothes already running through the dryer as Shinobu had valiantly finished bathing much earlier, just to tend to such things. The smells from the kitchen suggested she was still keeping herself busy for when everyone finished their baths as well.
"So," Mitsune said, sighing a bit as the pain of her hangover began to subside. "What did you dream about?"
"A dojo," Mutsumi said slowly. "I think. It was hard to tell. There was a girl there, too. I think she meant a lot to Ranma-kun… an awful lot."
"Ah, his former wife?" Motoko asked, having joined them in the bath after Mitsune.
"No…. She was different. I remember the picture of his wife. And not Ukyou-kun, either," Mutsumi said thoughtfully. "Hmm."
"Well, he did mention that there were three girls," Mitsune reasoned. "Maybe that was the one we've never really heard of?"
"I suppose that must be it, then," Mutsumi decided.
"Anyway. What were they doing in the dream?" Naru asked curiously.
"And was it naughty?" Mitsune added.
Mutsumi shook her head, smiling. "I think that it's not something Ranma-kun would like us to talk about," she decided. "It's probably very private."
"So it was naughty," Mitsune decided aloud, crossing her arms beneath her chest. "After all this time."
Naru rolled her eyes. "Anyway. That aside, we should get out and let the boys clean up."
"Ah, that reminds me. I need to ask Haruka that question," Motoko piped up, climbing out of the bath.
"Shoot," Mitsune grumped, when Mutsumi didn't go for the bait. "Well, hopefully he'll tell us what happened when he's good and ready… Still one girl we haven't heard about."
"Some of us have better things to do with our time than chase dreams, Kitsune," Naru commented wryly.
"Ah… a new year, and I feel refreshed," Keitaro mused, reclining against a rock and sighing happily.
"I'm alive," Ranma groaned. "I think that's as close as I'm going to get today."
"Ah… yes." Keitaro frowned thoughtfully, and looked at the martial artist, his eyes sleepily half-closed, and crouched into the water up to his neck. "So… what exactly happened, last night?"
"There was a fire."
Eyeing Ranma, Keitaro deepened his frown. "Well, yeah. I saw that. I was asking about that… how you… Mutsumi…. What exactly is 'good girl's exercise', anyway?"
Ranma's stony gaze, beneath those half-lidded eyes, remained fixed on a point in the water. "It's very complicated," he said at length. "I don't think you would understand."
Keitaro sighed, settling deeper into the water, as Tamago drifted past him.
After a moment of silence, broken by Shinobu calling everyone to breakfast in the distance, Keitaro hazarded, "You don't know, do you?"
"I don't even have a clue," Ranma admitted, shaking his head.
Shinobu pressed her hands together, allowing the extra warmth picked up from moving the plates of hot food to the table to pass through from one hand to the other, and surveyed her handiwork. There was a spot for everyone to sit at the table. Some time ago — probably it was in November, she supposed — she'd asked Ranma and Keitaro to widen the table, and insert the removable leaf that was nominally kept in one of the closets.
Usually it only needed to be done once or twice in a year, she reflected. Before Keitaro had moved in, Grandmother Hina had only needed it put in for the New Year's party. After she had left, it had been used on occasions when Haitani and Shirai came over, though those were rare.
With Ranma being added to the household, and Sarah spending more time at the inn than the teashop, the leaf had been called on more often than not, until Shinobu had finally decided to just leave the thing in place.
This was important because it gave her enough room to set a place at the table for everyone, and still fit Haruka, Sarah, and Seta, if he happened to pop in.
There was no sign of the archaeologist at the moment, but with Mutsumi staying over, the extra space came in handy. The dishes were set just so, everything was warm… and for some reason, no one was in the dining room to eat it.
Cold food wouldn't do. Raising her voice to what she considered a shout, she called, "Breakfast is ready."
She imagined it wasn't very loud, and thought about just going around and collecting everyone for the morning meal in person, but after her call, Mitsune trudged in, followed immediately by Motoko. "Thanks for keeping it down," Mitsune said, smiling, and wincing slightly. "Ugh. Bright. Smells good, Shinobu-chan."
Motoko said nothing, merely smirking at Mitsune's alcohol-induced suffering, and taking a seat. "Ah," she said suddenly, reaching into a pocket and producing an envelope.
"Ooh, you got dirt on someone?" Mitsune asked, taking a seat near the kendoka and trying to read over her shoulder.
"Perhaps," Motoko replied, tucking the envelope back away and shooting Mitsune a reproving look.
"Aw, no one's letting me get any juicy gossip. It's a good thing that stuff blows up around here all the time, or I'd start getting bored," she grumped.
As if on cue, there was a low, earth-shaking rumble, and Suu re-entered the inn from the side door. "Good morning," Shinobu greeted the girl.
"Morning," Suu replied, somewhat less than her usually chipper self.
Taking a bite of the omelet on her plate, Mitsune asked, "Something wrong, Suu?"
"My experimental Tama-seeking rocket violated the Hinata-Sou non-aggression treaty," the girl replied dourly. "It had to be destroyed."
Haruka entered at that moment, from the same door Suu had used. "Sorry, Suu-chan," she said, shrugging and trying to smile comfortingly around her cigarette. "It's just that a lot of effort has been put into this place, and it'd be a pity to put Keitaro and Ranma to work fixing it up again."
"Well, I can still study them," Suu reluctantly agreed, forgetting what had upset her and turning to her own breakfast.
The others trooped into the room then, filing to seats around the table. Shinobu nodded approvingly, taking her place at the head of the table, nearest to the kitchen should anyone need something not already set out. To her left were Naru, Keitaro, Suu, Sarah, and then, sitting opposite her, Haruka. To her right were Mutsumi, Ranma, Mitsune, and Motoko.
"This is really good," Ranma said, eating his meal slowly.
This garnered a few odd looks. "Hmm… energy output has dropped," Suu commented, rubbing her chin thoughtfully.
"I'm feeling a bit drained," Ranma deadpanned. "But, thank you for letting me stay here last night. I'm sorry about imposing."
"Your speech about walking away was very noble," Keitaro opined, nodding encouragement.
"Your inability to blink under your own power was less than convincing, however," Motoko noted, producing the envelope from her pocket again. "Also, last night, while you were dealing with the fire, I was distracted by your 'gift'."
"Ah," Ranma said, edging slightly closer to Mutsumi, and away from Motoko. Mitsune realized her point as the buffer between Ranma and Motoko and leaned back thoughtfully, shooting curious looks both ways. "Well. It was what you wanted, right?"
"I considered your speech to me the last time we trained, as well," Motoko added. "So I will not beat you, as I'm sure I could in your weakened state, for your lack of common sense."
"Ugh," Ranma mumbled, hunching over and shrinking in on himself.
"Well, Motoko has to observe the Hinata-Sou non-aggression treaty, too," Suu reasoned, nodding.
"I think it's more a mutually-assured destruction pact, Suu," Mitsune interjected.
Shaking her head, Shinobu realized that her carefully crafted pseudo-family get-together was being treated roughly, and asked, "Um, what's this about?"
"If it's a bad present, he didn't mean it," Keitaro added helpfully, addressing Motoko. "I mean, you're hard to shop for."
This drew all eyes from Ranma and turned them squarely on the inn's manager.
Obliviously, he added, "I thought about getting you a bra, before I thought better of it."
Naru blinked slowly. Motoko stared incredulously. Haruka coughed quietly, which by now Shinobu had learned to interpret as a sign of amusement.
"Er," Keitaro noised, realizing the attention focused on him was largely not positive. "We were criticizing Oe's bad choice in gifts?" he hazarded.
This gambit seemed successful, as Motoko turned her attention away from Keitaro and back to Ranma. Haruka's attention followed. Suu's eyes darted around the table swiftly, and Sarah looked mildly curious. Mutsumi seemed largely indifferent, merely sipping at her tea.
"If you're upset with me for giving you sake when you wanted water, I'm sorry!" Shinobu added quickly, fighting back a sniffle. She didn't think she could handle it if it was her fault that Ranma wanted to leave.
"I was wondering who nipped into the Everclear last night," Haruka murmured thoughtfully.
"Eh, what?" Ranma asked, giving the girl a look of confusion. "That wasn't why I…. No. That's not it, Shinobu-chan."
"Then what is it?" Shinobu pressed.
Ranma seemed to shrink further into his seat, looking away again.
Motoko finally broke the silence. "After careful consideration and reflection pondering what you said to me in our lesson about our demeanors in combat and out being one, however… I reject your gift," she announced, sending the envelope flying across the table, spinning around and nearly smacking into Ranma's head. He caught it at the last moment, only a heartbeat ahead of Mitsune's snatching fingers.
"Ah," he said, staring firmly into the depths of his omelet.
"If I can ask," Mitsune said, somewhat peevishly, the letter kept from her grasp still, "what exactly was the gift?"
Ranma said nothing, continuing to stare at his plate.
"This is good tea," Mutsumi said, putting her cup back on the table and smiling cheerfully.
"All right," Haruka said, as Ranma and Motoko continued staring; one fixed firmly on his plate, the other glaring resolutely at him. "Come on, you two. What's this about, now?"
Ranma wordlessly handed the envelope to Mitsune.
"Finally!" the young woman cried, liberating the letter from within.
"Well?" Naru asked, as Mitsune's eyes scanned down the page.
"Huh? Oh, right," Mitsune said, coughing a bit to clear her throat. "Okay. 'Motoko-chan, I think you've done well, and learned a lot in the time we've trained together. But I also remember our promise, and as we agreed all those months ago, I will move… out?'" The questioning note was obviously entirely Mitsune's, as she broke off to look at Ranma in consternation. "Wait, wait, you were just going to run away? Without a word or a wave goodbye, you were just going to run off? And what, live in the forest?"
"That… was my plan, yeah," Ranma said, still looking at the table.
"What about our martial arts training?" Naru asked, frowning at Ranma. "Were you just going to take us that far and then vanish?"
"N-no," Ranma defended himself falteringly, looking up, slightly wounded. "I made sure… last night, you saw that Mutsumi's training was complete. There's no doubt in my mind that Motoko is good enough to continue teaching you. I… I'm not… I don't think…." At a loss for words, his gaze dropped to the plate again, and he worked his jaw for a moment. Realizing he couldn't find anything to say, he just shook his head and closed his mouth.
"Oe-san," Keitaro said quietly. "I remember… that we originally agreed you would stay for what you paid for in advance. And I know that… at that time it seemed like that was as long as everyone wanted you to stay…." He trailed off there, and looked about the table for support.
"But that was then!" Shinobu exclaimed, putting her hands on the table, and looking at Ranma with the sternest glare she could muster, even if her eyes were watering. "We thought you were… violent… and a pervert… and didn't belong… but we were wrong!" She halted with a sniffle, and bowed her head to stare at her own breakfast.
"And I think you're also failing the promise you made my sister," Motoko grumbled. "You said you would teach me. Do you think I'm done learning?"
"Ranma-san… I'm sure Motoko can teach us, but you can't just leave us when we're learning your school," Naru chipped in. "This isn't just a collection of throws and punches… every time you teach us something, you also show us how we can use it in our lives."
"He does?" Keitaro asked quietly, earning himself a sharp look from Naru.
Turning back to Ranma, Naru softened her gaze. "Motoko-chan… is still learning that with us. And I think… you are too. Do you want to throw that all away?"
"No," Ranma wheezed, his voice rough, his head still bowed. "But…."
Haruka raised an eyebrow skeptically, her cigarette removed from her mouth to rest between two fingers. "But?" she pressed.
Ranma sat up, staring at his plate. Licking his lips nervously, he said, "I think I learned why Aniki doesn't sit still if he can help it. We're… trouble, my brother and I. We… attract trouble to us. Aniki… I guess he made some mistakes when he was younger, because sometimes, when we went somewhere new, and he did something good, he said, 'And now that's set to right.'
"And… I think by staying here so long, I've brought trouble to you. If I'd been on the road, I could have done my own work. I could have set things to right without causing you so many problems."
"And let's not forget his vicious forays in the evil practices of self-defense education," she added, throwing her hands into the air. "Or, tragedy of tragedies, the time he wastes studying with Naru and Keitaro, and Mutsumi, which could, I'm sure, be better spent running away from all the 'harm' he's done."
Softening slightly, Mitsune sighed. "Ranma… look. You haven't caused as much trouble as you seem to want to think. And you know what? People make mistakes — look at Keitaro!"
"Gee, thanks," the manager grumbled.
"But every time something went wrong, you went out of your way to fix it. You learned how to try and make it better. You patched up things with Motoko, turned me, of all people, down as a romantic interest, and still got me to be your friend after that. You think that this is a bad thing?"
Ranma scrubbed a hand though his hair. "I… remembered something last night," he said softly.
"What?" Motoko asked, blinking in confusion. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I remembered what I did that sent me on the road in the first place," he added, just as quietly. "I remembered the damage I've done… and what caused it. I've… spent so much time with you – with all of you — being happy that I've forgotten why I needed to learn what I did. I… I really like it here. I like all of you, too. But I think… it's time for me to move on."
Haruka made a thoughtful noise at this, putting her cigarette to her lips to free her hands. Pushing her chair away from the table, she rose. "You know," she remarked thoughtfully, carefully putting her chair back into place and walking around the table, "you remind me a lot of Seta when he was your age."
"What?" he asked, looking up from his plate in confusion. His gaze was rewarded with Haruka's knuckles, the punch flinging him completely out of his chair and onto the kitchen floor, where he lay dazed.
"Aaah!" Suu cried, covering her head. "The treaty has been broken!"
"Haruka-san?" Ranma asked, staring up from the floor incredulously.
"'Course, back then, Seta probably had an even thicker skull," Haruka added, squatting by Ranma, and poking him in the chest. "Oe, I'm sure you've got your reasons. But there's a real obvious one you missed here."
"What are you talking about?" Ranma asked, blinking and rubbing his cheek.
"Well, it goes something like this. Let's say, you don't like to break things. Heck, you don't even like seeing things that someone else already broke. You want to fix them, and make 'em better. Right?" To punctuate her question, she brought her hands up, clasping them firmly together.
He nodded dumbly in response.
"Great," Haruka said, nodding back at him, and smiling. "Now, there's one problem, here," she continued, pointing a finger directly at Ranma. "If you run away, like you're planning, you're leaving a big Ranma-shaped hole in everyone's lives. If you want to leave, you can leave. I certainly won't stop you. But saying it's for the good of everyone here, when it really isn't? That, I won't stand for in my family's inn."
Ranma stared up at Haruka, unable to think of anything else to say.
"Well, I've broken one treaty already to make my point," she said, rising, and offering Ranma a hand up, which he hesitantly accepted. After hauling him to his feet, she said, "If anyone's going out for New Year's for the festival, I've got spare outfits. Everyone who's staying at this inn is welcome to borrow one." While saying this last, she affixed Ranma with a very pointed glance, and then walked out the side door.
"You're going to live in the forest?" Mutsumi asked, blinking thoughtfully, and turning around in her seat to look at Ranma.
"Uh," he managed, noncommittally.
"Can I live with you then?" she asked, clapping her hands together pleadingly.
"What? Why?" he asked, squinting at her in disbelief.
"Oh, my own home burned down last night," Mutsumi said, giggling nervously. "I haven't a place to stay anymore!"
Ranma winced at that. "Why don't you… stay here?" he asked, looking at Keitaro speculatively.
"We do have an open room," Keitaro said, nodding.
"Yes, but I can't afford that much rent every month," Mutsumi said apologetically. "If it were ten percent cheaper, it would be no problem, but…." She trailed off with a shrug.
Keitaro snapped his fingers together. "Ah!" he exclaimed. "I remember this. Normally we've got an oddly high number of vacancies. But I did the math — if one more person moves in, then the monthly rent can be reduced by fifteen percent, and we can still meet the inn's operating costs."
"What?" Mitsune asked, blinking. "Wait, more spending money? Well, that clinches it, then, Ranma's staying!"
"Oh, really?" Mutsumi asked. "Oh, I do hope you decided to stay, Ranma-kun," Mutsumi declared. "I'd like to stay in a place that won't blow up on me!"
"No sense of fun," Suu grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest when Haruka shot her a warning glance.
"Well, I," Ranma began hesitantly. "I just—"
"No," Motoko said, finally breaking her own long silence. "Before anything else is said…. Oe-sensei, I must apologize. While I do not wish you to leave… I still must apologize for my behavior to you before. I was rude, and should not have required of you what I did. I wish to retract the bargain I forced you to accept, and ask for you to forgive me."
Sighing, Ranma bowed his head, running his hands though his hair again. "Okay," he said quietly. "I'll… I'll stay. I'm sorry for causing so much trouble."
"Then it's settled!" Shinobu exclaimed, happy that balance was restored to her pseudo-family. "Now let's all go to the festival together!"
"Okay, everyone together, now," Haruka said, setting the camera up on a tripod. 'Everyone' was, of course, every single tenant of the inn, plus Sarah, all dressed in kimono for the festival. "Let's see… timer… thing… and… here we go."
Sprinting, she joined the group, all of the older residents standing in a neat row, Suu, Shinobu, and Sarah standing in front. "Smile!" Haruka said turning about, slightly to one side, and facing the camera.
Everyone grinned, and waited for the telltale click, which came a moment later. "Alrighty," Haruka said, turning to eye Seta, who had manifested from the falling snow at her side a heartbeat before the picture was taken. "So, you showed up?"
"Yeah, there was a disagreement over an artifact," Seta said dismissively, waving a hand. "The, uh, other archeologists wanted to disturb the site and take the artifacts back to their own country."
"Eh?" Keitaro noised. "You got in a fight with a rival archeologist?"
"No, no," Seta said, shaking his head. "It was all filing paperwork with the local government. It's not important."
"What is important is that we're all together again, pretty much. So let's go out and have fun, eh?" Haruka suggested, carefully disassembling the camera's tripod, and moving the equipment back into the teashop.
"Right," Keitaro declared, smacking one fist into his opposing palm. "First stop, the temple!"
Mutsumi sighed at the light dancing snow through the branches of the trees in the park. "It's pretty," she said at length, turning back to face Ranma.
He nodded hesitantly, wondering where the others had run off.
"Ranma-kun?" she asked, leaning slightly closer to him.
"Um… yes?" he asked hesitantly, standing his ground, as nervous as her proximity was making him.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Smirking, he rolled his eyes. "Of course you can," he replied.
"Ranma-kun… who was that girl who was so angry at you?" Mutsumi asked pointedly.
Ranma stiffened and frowned. "What girl?"
"It was dark," Mutsumi said contemplatively. "And there was rain. You were a girl… and there was a man with long hair… he was angry, too."
"It's a long story," Ranma mumbled, staring at his feet.
"Ranma-kun… I think I know why you still wanted to leave after Motoko said she didn't want you to go."
Ranma closed his eyes, and turned his head away. "It was an accident," he said hoarsely. "I couldn't… I couldn't stand… if it…."
He fell silent when Mutsumi took his hands in her own. "Ranma-kun," she whispered. "It's okay. I think something very bad happened. But if you run from it, you'll run from it forever. If you stay, you can try and make things better. Then, maybe, you can fix it, like you want to."
"I don't know if what I broke can be fixed," he said quietly.
"You can't know if you don't try."
His eyes opened, shining with unshed tears. "That's true," he admitted. "How… did you know what I dreamed?"
"Good girl's exercise number one," Mutsumi said, smiling brightly. "Ranma-kun… you've helped me a lot. I think I'm strong enough to make it into Toudai, with your help. But, Ranma-kun. I hope you let other people help you, too."
"I… I don't think… I can talk about it yet," he said slowly.
"I… I can promise you that I will try. And someday…. Someday I hope I can explain the entire thing to you."
"Okay, then," Mutsumi agreed, releasing Ranma's hands.
"All right," Naru announced, clapping her hands together, and setting the first of the study guides before her. "We've got to seriously get into the correct mindset for studying, now. We've spent too much time enjoying ourselves — from here on out, we have to focus."
"Right," Keitaro agreed, nodding. Ranma and Mutsumi nodded as well, saying nothing.
"Well, we'll begin now," Naru declared.
The first week of the new year saw everyone settle into a comfortable pattern of morning practices, studying all day, and the occasional interruption from Suu's experiments.
The following weeks followed this established routine, drawing ever nearer the actual date of the tests for entry into Toudai.
"Tomorrow," Ranma declared, snapping the book shut, and then dropping his face directly onto the table in front of him.
Mutsumi winced sympathetically. "That looks painful," she said.
"Brain… failure," Keitaro groaned, before dropping his own face onto the table opposite Ranma.
"Okay, okay," Naru relented. "We'll let up on studying. The test is tomorrow anyway. I suppose if we haven't learned it by now, we're not going to learn it in time."
"I think if I study any more, my head is going to explode," Ranma mumbled, not moving from the table.
"I think my head's going to explode anyway," Keitaro countered, raising his eyes, and fixing Ranma with a wavering stare.
"No heads exploding inside," Haruka chastised, sliding open the door to Naru's room, and stepping inside. "It's a pain to clean up." She hefted a handful of envelopes and surveyed the would-be Toudai students impassively.
"Ah!" Mutsumi exclaimed, looking up at Haruka happily. "A letter from my father?"
"Uh… yeah," Haruka said, checking the envelopes before her. "How did you know?"
"I saw the postmark," Mutsumi said authoritatively.
"You've got sharp eyes," Haruka allowed, handing her the envelope. "Keitaro, something from your folks," she added, flinging the envelope across the table in a perfect line towards his nose. One fumbling hand batted it to the table in front of him. "Naru, something from your own folks." This envelope landed in the center of the table and slid to a halt in front of the girl. "And… looks like something from your brother, Oe." This envelope twirled in a direct line for Ranma's ear, but he managed to catch it without raising his head.
"Ah," he said, finally sitting upright. "Aniki."
Then the four were quiet, opening their respective letters and looking them over, while Haruka busied herself passing out letters to the other residents of the inn.
"Aw, how sweet," Naru exclaimed, looking at the letter she had gotten. "My parents are wishing me luck!" She turned to look at Keitaro, who had frozen, statue-like, and turned a gray, lifeless color. The air about him seemed darkened in misery. "Uh, is something wrong?"
"Um," he said, shaking his head and banishing the pallor and hanging clouds of impending doom. "They just said that they have faith that I'll get in this time."
"They said that if you don't make it in this time, they'll stop sending you money?" Mutsumi guessed.
Keitaro winced, then nodded reluctantly.
"Aw," Mutsumi said. "I have faith in you!"
"After all the studying we've done, you'd have to be a totally hopeless idiot to fail now," Naru encouraged.
"I remember last year all too well," Keitaro said flatly, prompting Naru to wince.
"Well, I have a good feeling anyway," Ranma said, shaking his head. "We've studied a lot together, and we've gotten much better on our practice tests."
"Right," Naru said, smiling at Keitaro. "So, cheer up! It'll be the last chance you need, anyway."
"I hope so," Keitaro agreed. "What did your letter say, Mutsumi?"
"Oh, my parents said that if I fail, they'll still welcome me back," she said cheerfully. "And I can try again next year! What about you, Oe-san?"
Ranma frowned, scanning his letter. "Aniki says he thinks he's going to drop by in a month or so," he said slowly. "And that he just finished a job as an engineer, working on a tunnel." He then pulled out a thin stack of photographs. "Oh, and he sent some pictures of the project."
"Really?" Keitaro asked, leaning over. "Wow. I didn't think that was a standard engineer's outfit."
"Ah," Ranma choked, blinking. "I think she's the, uh, director of the project." He put the pictures back into the envelope. "Anyway, he also said good luck." Ranma drummed his fingers atop the table and shook his head. "All those years on the road working for this… I'm kind of nervous."
"Really?" Mutsumi asked. "I was, too, the first few times I failed the test."
"You haven't been nervous about it before?" Keitaro asked Ranma dryly.
"Well, I've been trying to keep myself from thinking about it too much," Ranma admitted. "I'm going to go out and blow off some steam practicing."
"I'll join you," Keitaro decided, climbing to his feet. "I used to feel stiff after a long study session… this practice is great for keeping in shape."
Ranma nodded slowly, pulling his notebook from his belt, and scribbling a new note in it.
Keitaro frowned curiously. If there was one thing he'd learned, it was that whatever Ranma wrote in that book, it was always interesting, at the very least. "Um, if you don't mind me asking… what did you write in that notebook?"
"Just a thought," Ranma said, shrugging, and tucking the notebook back behind his belt. "Basically, I asked myself, 'What are martial arts good for besides fighting', and you just gave me another thing to add to the list."
"Ah," Keitaro said quietly. "Well, that's good."
The two walked in silence, followed after a bit by Mutsumi and Naru, until they reached the side yard, which they typically used for training. Spring hadn't arrived yet, not completely, but some of the grass seed that Motoko and Ranma had scattered tried to sprout anyway, sparse strands of green across the muddy field.
Eyeing the struggling lawn, Keitaro opted to move beyond that, into the more barren area between the yard and the small island behind the house. This area wouldn't be as badly damaged if their fighting got out of hand, which with Keitaro had yet to happen, but with the more experienced martial artists was almost a given.
After a bit of stretching, Keitaro and Ranma faced off, trading weak jabs, but mostly dodging and experimenting in the more acrobatic aspects of their study. Mutsumi and Naru watched from the sidelines until Keitaro had decided he'd had enough — just in time for Motoko to get home from school and decide that she could use some practice against Ranma too.
Keitaro joined the girls, watching Ranma and Motoko spar for a bit. After a particularly aerobic display that culminated in Ranma disarming Motoko, and then Motoko attacking Ranma full-force unarmed, their roles neatly reversed. Backing away from Motoko slowly, losing his ground, Ranma grimaced, causing everyone to laugh when he shoved the sword back into Motoko's hands and caught her with a leg-sweep.
Landing flat on her rear, Motoko stared at the blade in her hand ruefully. "That was unexpected," she admitted, when Ranma gave her a hand up.
"That's the name of the game," he said cheerfully. "Gotta keep you on your toes."
"Is that so?" Motoko asked. "Well, I'm going to take a bath now. Thank you for sparring with me again, Oe-sensei."
Ranma chuckled nervously. "No need to be so polite, Motoko-chan." He paused. "Oh, wait, you called dibs on the bath. Clever."
The kendoka masked a small smile. "That's the name of the game," she replied, turning back towards the inn.
"I think I'm going to go, too," Naru decided, picking herself up off the ground, and dusting the dirt off of her clothes. "Do you want to come, Mutsumi?"
"Sure!" the girl chirped, hopping to her feet and following suit.
"Ah," Keitaro sighed, watching the girls collectively vanish towards the baths. "You know, one of the things I liked most about you staying here is that it's easier for me to use the baths," he said, turning his gaze back to Ranma.
"Gee, thanks," Ranma said dryly, sitting a few paces away from Keitaro.
"Oh, uh, I didn't mean it that way," Keitaro said ruefully. "I
don't, ah… in all honesty, Ranma, have many friends. Most people don't like to associate with someone who's failed to get into college as many times as I have."
"What are you talking about?" Ranma asked, frowning. "Those two guys, Hirosh— Uh, Haitani and Shirai, they come over once in a while, and if they're not friends, well, have you looked at most of the people who live in the inn? The only ones I'd say weren't really your friends already would be Haruka, and maybe Sarah. And that's because Sarah's a kid, and Haruka's your aunt."
"Well, when you put it that way," Keitaro mumbled, bowing his head. "But I meant… you know, guy friends. Someone you can talk to about girls with. And while I like the girls here, I can't really talk about that sort of stuff with them."
"Ah," Ranma said slowly. "And those other two guys?"
"They've showed up, what, twice in the last three months?" Keitaro asked. "They're good guys, and I don't mind them, but they've certainly got their own agendas. They only turn up once in a while.
Like when Haruka put on that play." He frowned. "I guess they don't always have good luck or judgment when they arrive, though."
"I knew some guys like that," Ranma mused. "When I was in school. I guess I know what you mean."
"Well, that's a relief," Keitaro decided. "I think you're a friend, Ranma."
"Hey, thanks," Ranma said, grinning. "I'll keep an eye out for you, too, buddy. Hmm. Wonder when the girls will finish up in the baths…?"
"Ah!" Naru exclaimed, easing her body into the hot water. "Maybe I should have worked out a little, too," she pondered, one hand rising so she could tickle the bottom of Tamago's chin. The turtle made a quiet, pleased noise, and drifted in place for a while, before heading towards Mitsune, who lounged nearby, eschewing a modesty towel, stretching in the sunlight.
"Maybe," Mitsune agreed, winking. "Looking to lose some of that weight you put on studying?"
Naru's expression stiffened, and she looked down at her body. "Weight?" she asked quietly. "Hey!" Looking up at Mitsune, she frowned and pointed, "I work out almost every day, I'll have you know!"
"I know," Mitsune said, smirking. "I'm there, remember? I'm just teasing you."
Naru grimaced, looking down at her body and uncertainly running her hands across her hips beneath the bath's surface. "Have I really?" she asked self-consciously.
Mitsune looked thoughtful, then clapped her hands together. "Let's find out!" she exclaimed, moments before tackling Naru into the depths of the bath.
Shinobu and Suu edged away from the huge splash, and Motoko sighed, her eyes covered with a damp cloth. "No rough-housing, you two," she said, without looking up.
"Oh, my, Mitsune-san is certainly bold," Mutsumi said from the kendoka's side, as Naru came up for air, followed a few seconds later by Mitsune.
"Kitsune!" Naru yelped. "What was that all about?"
"Just seeing where you stand," the woman offered good-naturedly. "And you're doing okay. Better size you up against the competition, though. Turtle-girl, want to see how you compare?"
Shinobu and Suu winced, edging away from the new splash. "I said no rough-housing," Motoko mumbled, still not moving her cloth.
Mitsune came up first, grinning, then frowning as she looked around frantically. "Uh-oh. Turtle-girl?"
Mutsumi sat up, emerging from the water. "Was it a test?" she asked, blinking the water from her eyes.
"Uh… yeah, a test," Mitsune agreed, nodding.
Mutsumi clapped her hands together. "Oh, wonderful!" she exclaimed. "How did I do?"
"Well, since I'm Naru's friend, you both get a passing grade — nothing to worry about," Mitsune assured her.
"So, what exactly was that all about?" Naru asked, frowning at the woman.
Mitsune grinned. "Oh, well, mostly wanted to see where I stood, really."
"And?" Naru asked skeptically.
Mitsune looked down, and frowned. "I think I'd better stop skipping every other day of morning practice," she concluded glumly. "Ah! I want to be a sexy college-wannabe too!"
"Don't say it like that!" Naru groaned. "It takes hard work and dedication, you know."
"Pass," Mitsune said, waving a hand and sinking back into the bath. "I'll just rest here a bit, thanks."
Mutsumi giggled at this. "You're silly, Kitsune-san," she opined. "Shall we get out now?"
"Hey," Keitaro said suddenly, sitting up in the baths, and glancing over at Ranma.
The martial artist looked back, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
"You ever wonder if those scenes in anime where the girls in the bath feel each other up are true?"
Ranma looked at Keitaro oddly for a moment, and then paused to reconsider. "Well," he said slowly, looking off to one side, "I think that's probably something they make up for anime, really. I mean, I worked at a hot-springs resort for a while, and whenever I was working on the pump-house, or around the divider when the women were bathing, they never seemed to sound like it, anyway."
"Yeah, I guess it is a bit farfetched," Keitaro admitted.
"Why did you ask?"
Keitaro scratched his head, and frowned. "I have no idea."
"February twenty fifth," Keitaro said solemnly, raising his head and gazing at the clock tower on the school's main building. "Today is the day."
"Isn't seven o'clock in the morning a bit early to get here?" Naru asked, rubbing at her eyes sleepily, and shivering slightly in the chill.
"Better safe than sorry," Keitaro countered confidently.
Mutsumi nodded wordless agreement, and Ranma said nothing, still looking at the clock tower. "Well," he finally said. "I'm nervous about this. I know none of you have made it on your first try, and I'm worried I won't, either… but I'm still going to give it my best shot."
"We all will!" Mutsumi encouraged. "I'm even going to remember to put my name on my test!"
Keitaro winced at that. "Um, well, we've got some time to spare, why don't we get some coffee before we go in?"
Naru nodded her swift agreement, and they turned to a stand where a bored looking attendant warmed himself from the heat of his mobile coffee bar. After getting their drinks, Keitaro pulled out his exam ticket, and said, "It looks like I'm going to be in the 'B' testing division, which is in room 105."
"I got 'B', too," Naru said, scanning her card. "Room 207."
"I have the same room!" Mutsumi chirped. "What about you, Ranma-kun?"
"Um…." After fishing his ticket from a pocket, Ranma studied it for a moment. "I'm in division 'C'. Looks like I registered later than you. I wonder what that 'division' means? Anyway, my room is 105, too."
"I think it means building, not group," Mutsumi opined, pointing to a large letter 'B' on the side of one of the buildings.
"Oh," Keitaro said, frowning slightly. "I guess we don't have a test in the same room after all."
"But we do," Naru said, glancing at Mutsumi's ticket. "Well, we should all meet up here after the test to go home together."
"Sounds good to me," Ranma said, walking over to a large map, and looking for the 'C' building.
"Okay," Naru said, once Ranma returned from the map. "Let's give ourselves one last cheer before we head to our testing rooms, all right?"
"Count me in," Keitaro enthused, pumping a fist in the air. "Let's hear it for the Ronin Quartet!"
"Ronin Quartet!" echoed Ranma and Mutsumi, while Naru covered her face with her hand.
"Must you all be so proud of it?" she complained. "And Oe, you're not even really a ronin!"
"But it's part of the name of my school," he countered with a grin. "Anyway, we're early, but I'm going to see if the room is open — give myself a little time to calm down before the test and get comfortable with the room."
"Well, fine, but before you go, let's try the cheer again," Naru sighed. "On three, okay? One, two, three!"
"Ronin Quartet!" they all cheered together. "Let's go!"
"I can do this," Keitaro muttered under his breath, looking at the test booklet before him. "I'm good enough. I can do this."
"No talking!" the man who had handed out the tests called.
Keitaro reflexively cringed, and looked up, but the man was looking elsewhere. It hadn't been him.
"Focus," he muttered even more quietly, turning his eyes back to the test booklet.
Ranma eyed the stack of unanswered questions before him. He'd been taught that if he couldn't answer something right away he should skip it, answering what he could and then going over everything a second time.
The only problem was, he'd left a good quarter of the questions unanswered already, and now it was time to go back over them. "Okay," he breathed to himself. "How would Aniki handle this?"
Grinning, he flipped back to the first question he had skipped.
Naru resolutely worked away, occasionally sparing a glance for Mutsumi, to make sure the other girl was still alright. So far, she was doing fine — Naru had risked getting in trouble enough to peek and make sure that Mutsumi had recorded her name.
But the one-time anemic was doing much better already, and Naru suspected answering questions more quickly than her. Well, no reason to rush.
Taking a deep, calming breath, she dove into the test again, tuning out the outside world.
As they had planned, the four met at the coffee stand, Naru and Mutsumi reaching it first, and Ranma arriving last. "Ugh," Keitaro groaned, once Ranma arrived. "It was brutal, but I feel confident."
"Me, too," Mutsumi said, nodding her agreement.
"It was tough," Naru admitted. "It seemed like it was harder than last year's… but I feel better about my chances this time anyway."
Mutsumi nodded. "I remembered to put my name on it," she said. "I think I'll make it. How did you do, Ranma-kun?"
"I got stuck in a few places," he admitted. "And then I asked myself 'what would Aniki do?' And I realized that Aniki already did it, and I can't do what he did… so I found my own way. I think I did pretty well."
"I'm glad," Mutsumi said, taking Ranma's hand in her own. "Now let's go back home!"
Naru and Keitaro eyed the couple, Ranma obviously embarrassed, but not resistant to Mutsumi towing him down the street. "Wow," Keitaro said after a moment. "Mutsumi-chan sure seems happy."
"Yeah," Naru agreed. After a second of watching the couple recede in the distance, Naru snuck a quick glance around. There weren't too many witnesses… so why not? Coughing quietly, she stuck her hand out a little, pointedly not looking at Keitaro.
He got the hint quickly enough, gently taking her hand in his. Naru turned to look at him and offered him a smile. Keitaro grinned back, blushing slightly. "I… feel very positive about tomorrow," he said, finally.
Naru giggled, looking away, but not letting go. "Come on," she said after a moment, smiling at Keitaro again. "Let's go back home."
Once the group had managed to get back to the Hinata-Sou with no hands being held in sight of the other residents, they found themselves the guests of honor at an impromptu party. Suu had strung up a banner that said, "Congratulations on the birth of your new graduation!" Shinobu had made a veritable feast in terms of appetizers and then finished it all off with a massive main course.
Mutsumi and Ranma quickly found themselves in a drinking contest with Mitsune, despite Naru's warnings.
"Three bottles for me," Mitsune said in a nearly even tone, only the slightest hitch in her voice hinting as to her true intoxication.
"Matched," Ranma said, blinking a bit, and then squinting at Mitsune. "You know, it's not really fair that I'm competing against you and your sisters."
"I like this brand!" Mutsumi enthused. "I've finished five bottles."
Scowling, Mitsune and Ranma struggled to catch up.
Ranma waved a warning finger towards Mitsune, and waggled it authoritatively. "Once I finish with you two," he admonished, "I'm going to challenge the four of her. Cause, Saotome Ranma doesn't lose."
"Sure he doesn't," Mitsune replied flippantly. Furrowing her brow in thought, she asked, "But who's he?"
"You don't know who he is?" Ranma asked indignantly, his eyes not quite focusing on Mitsune. "I'll tell you… he's… the worst son a mother ever had." Ranma frowned at this, something clearly wrong to him, though he didn't seem able to pinpoint it exactly. "Wait. No. He's… the worst fiance a girl ever had," he slurred, his brows furrowed, as though dredging the answer out of a mire.
At this point, everyone had broken off their conversations to look at the martial artist, deep in his cups as he was.
"I don't know him," Mitsune finally replied, squinting at Ranma. "Is he cute?"
"Eh," Ranma grunted. "Too cute. People get the wrong idea all the time, and—"
"Ranma-kun," Mutsumi asked, taking his hand from the bottle of sake he was still holding, "can you do the light-show trick again?"
Blinking blearily at Mutsumi for a long minute, Ranma finally nodded, the now familiar blue flames licking from his body, much brighter than they'd been before, enveloping himself and the one-time anemic girl.
When the light had faded, Ranma's bloodshot eyes closed heavily. "Damn," he said quietly. "I'm going to get some sleep. Test in the morning." And with that, he left the room.
Haruka made a thoughtful noise. "That's good advice," she said aloud. "Probably it's for the best not to stay up too late."
Keitaro and Naru looked at their still untouched glasses of sake and wordlessly pushed them across the table, trying to put more distance between themselves and the drink.
The next morning's meeting in front of the school was a bit more subdued, only Mutsumi as cheerful as ever. Situated next to a planter filled with flowers which had gone dormant for the winter was a billboard, outlining which classes were to be held in which buildings. In a loosely square formation, the Toudai-hopefuls stood, facing the towering entrance to the school itself.
Naru and Keitaro were both silent, looking between Mutsumi and a much more somber and tight-lipped Ranma. It was clear to both of them that something was bothering Ranma. It was as good as written across his face in large letters, especially after his drunken babbling the night before.
But he didn't seem to want to talk about it, and as far as the young would-be students saw things, it was difficult to make Ranma open up for anyone. Naru frowned at that, and then glanced at Keitaro thoughtfully. For his part, Keitaro blinked in confusion, looked behind him, and when he couldn't see anyone else immediately, turned back, blushing and trying to hide a smile.
Naru reflexively raised a fist to punch Keitaro, which he blinked at in surprise before she caught herself. "Hang on a moment," she said, breaking the silence. Her hand shot forward and latched onto the lobe of Keitaro's ear.
"Ouch!" he yelped, as Naru hauled him bodily away from Ranma and Mutsumi. For their part, Mutsumi seemed oblivious to the violence, only waving cheerfully. Ranma studied the billboard and its map of the school intently. "What's the big idea?" Keitaro protested, rubbing his ear with one hand once Naru released him.
"Look," she said, glancing back at Ranma and Mutsumi. "Oe's good at martial arts, but he's as bad with women as he is at math — and that makes him almost as hopeless as you, Keitaro."
"Ah," Keitaro said, nodding in understanding. "Hey, wait—"
"Oh, hush," Naru said, shooting Keitaro a cross look, before her features softened, and she turned back to watch Ranma and Mutsumi. "Anyway, it's our duty to help Oe and Otohime out. Right?"
"Um… how?" Keitaro asked, scratching his head.
"Well… I'm not entirely sure," Naru admitted. "But I'll think of something. So tonight, after the test, what we'll do is this. You'll pretend to feel sick, and not go to the party. I'll pretend to feel sorry for you. While everyone else is partying because the second day of testing is over, we'll come up with a plan to help Oe get together with Otohime!"
Keitaro stared at Naru for a long moment, and then shrugged. "Sure. I guess as pioneers, we need to help them follow along in our footsteps," he finally said.
"That's exactly right," Naru agreed, nodding. "And— Wait, did you just imply that—?"
"We need to get back there before they catch on to our plotting," Keitaro added, stepping away from Naru, and marching back to Ranma and Mutsumi. "So, how do you two think you'll do on the test?" he asked, smiling brightly.
"I'm going to do great," Naru said, catching up to Keitaro and shooting him a dirty look.
"I still feel confident," Mutsumi said happily. "I think I'll make it."
"And you, Ranma?" Keitaro asked.
Ranma raised his head, looking away from the map, and met Keitaro's eyes. Naru wasn't sure, but she thought she saw the sheen of moisture from an unshed tear for a moment. "As long as I don't slip up, I think I'll be okay," he finally said.
"Um. Okay, let's give it our best!" Keitaro enthused. "Good luck, everyone. I know I'll need it!"
Keitaro hummed to himself as he walked into his testing room. Naru seemed to think it was up to himself and her to put Ranma and Mutsumi together as a couple… as though they, the closer, more experienced couple needed to guide Ranma and Mutsumi along.
Smiling, he drifted off into a daydream….
Mutsumi and Naru were waiting by the time Ranma returned from his test, Mutsumi sitting on the bench-like edge of the planter and swinging her legs off the end idly. Naru was standing nearby, exchanging notes with the sitting girl. Both looked up, Mutsumi smiling brightly as Ranma approached, and Naru nodding acknowledgment. "Hey," he said, sitting down about a meter away from Mutsumi. "So, it's all over. How are you two feeling?"
"Pretty good," Mutsumi said, clasping her hands together. "How about you, Naru-chan?"
"Well, I was feeling okay," Naru said, frowning. "I wonder where Keitaro is, though. He should have gotten here first — his building is closest."
"They're done testing," Ranma reasoned, glancing at the building in question. "Why don't we see if he's still inside?"
"Good idea!" Mutsumi enthused, leaping to her feet. "Let's go!"
Nodding, Naru turned, and led the way, Ranma and Mutsumi not far behind. "I bet he knocked over the stack of tests," Naru said after a moment. "So now the teacher is making him pick them all up."
"Could be," Ranma said, as they stepped through the door and beheld a completely empty classroom. The massive auditorium-like room had desks in tiers arrayed outwards from a podium like ripples in water. It could have held at least a hundred students comfortably, but there were none. "Then again," he added, glancing around, "maybe not."
"Wait," Naru said, frowning. "Where's Keitaro?"
"He's missing!" Mutsumi said brightly.
Naru grimaced, and glanced across the desks, looking for some note or sign, but there was nothing to be found. "Where would he have gone after the test, though?" she asked, looking around again.
"He might have finished early," Mutsumi suggested.
Ranma, meanwhile, was busy pulling out chairs and glancing beneath desks. "It could be," Naru admitted. "But I think he'd still wait for us. Oe, what are you doing?"
"Looking for his— Here they are. His footprints. My wife taught me how to track people really well," he explained, eyes tracking the footsteps that no one else could see all the way to the door. "I don't know what's going on, exactly, but I can find him. You two head home, and I'll see where this leads."
"Why don't we just stick with you?" Naru asked, raising an eyebrow. "We're curious too."
"He might be in the men's bathroom," Ranma said. "Or already be on his way back to the inn."
"But… you don't think that's the case, do you?" Mutsumi asked, fixing her eyes on Ranma.
Ranma straightened from his inspection of the floor and gave Mutsumi an apologetic look. "He was running when he left," he said quietly. "I don't know why. But Keitaro's my friend. If he's in trouble, or in danger, I'm going to help him out. And if it's just a false alarm, then no reason to make him feel bad for having everyone chase after him."
"We're going with you," Naru said, trying to step forward, but being held back by Mutsumi. "Mutsumi-chan?"
Mutsumi smiled sadly, and shook her head. "Ranma is much faster without us," she said. "And I'm sure he'll tell us as soon as he finds anything out."
Naru could feel tears welling up in her eyes… she wasn't certain how, or why, but she knew that something was wrong.
And as little as she wanted to admit it, Ranma and Mutsumi were both right. "Good luck, then, Oe," she said, her voice thickening with tears.
And then Ranma nodded to the girls. "I'll call the inn as soon as I find out what's going on."
They both nodded back, and he turned away, towards the hallway, following the traces only he and a few others could ever know to look for.
To be continued.
Author's notes: Beware subtle changes in tone. (FORESHADOWING.)
|Layout, design, & site revisions © 2005||
Webmaster: Larry F