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Ranma smiled hopefully at the assembled residents of the inn. "So now you know what's going on," he explained, nodding, and glad for the calm that seemed to have settled over the room.

So calm, in fact, that Shinobu appeared to take a nap right in her seat, slumping across the table.

"Erm," Ranma noised, tensing at the girl's collapse. "Anyway, this has been one big mix-up after another, so I'll just take my stuff, get my rent back, and then move along."

Keitaro twitched violently at that. "Um, oh, you don't have to move out," he said quickly. "I mean, they let me stay here, so one more boy — especially one who's a girl half the time — shouldn't be a problem, right?"

"No," Motoko protested, just as quickly. "He's a pervert, even less trustworthy than yourself, Urashima. We cannot let him stay here."

"Calm down!" Ranma said, smiling broadly. "There's no reason to be upset! I don't have a problem with moving out — there might not be as good a deal around here in the way of cheap dorms, but I can find another place. No worries, right?"

"Actually," Keitaro said hesitantly, "there's a small, little, nearly negligible, mostly insignificant problem…"

"Well, it can't be that bad," Ranma reasoned, his smile slightly strained.

"Erm… Well, you see, Oe-san, you remember the fight you and Motoko-chan had yesterday?"

Ranma's smile became more strained. "Hardly worth commenting on," he insisted. "I've been through worse, though I usually don't get hit upside the head with collapsing buildings."

"Er… about that, you see," Keitaro managed, backing away nervously. "Um, I already spent your rent money on repairs, so I can't refund it and I'm really, really sorry so please don't hurt me!"

Ranma stared at him blankly. "You mean… all of my money was wasted because some crazy tomboy wrecked the inn, and now I can't get it back?" He turned to Motoko, furious. "You're saying that just because she attacked me, I have to stay here? Are you serious?"

Motoko backed away nervously at the anger Ranma was radiating, and stammered, "Now, now, now, there's no reason to be upset!"

Ranma growled angrily. "Stupid, violent— Okay. This is your fault. Now how are we going to deal with the problem?"

"It's not my fault!" Motoko countered, overcoming her fear of Ranma's aggressive demeanor. "You were staring at me in the bath!"

"Like that means anything!" Ranma snapped. "I've got a much better looking— No, wait. I'm not going there again." He took a deep breath and finished, "Suffice to say that I've seen better, little girl."

"I am a martial artist, not a little girl!" Motoko yelled. "And I was attacking you for being a pervert!"

"Me for being a pervert? He is the one who made me think that this was a boys-only dorm!" Ranma growled, pointing an accusatory finger at Keitaro.

The manager was standing on one foot, frozen mid-tip-toe towards the back door. "Eh, heh…" he offered lamely, his face a mask of mixed fear and worry.

Chapter Two: I'm Not a Pervert!

A Ranma 1/2 / Love Hina / Golden Boy crossover story
by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Love Hina belongs to Ken Akamatsu, Kodansha Comics, Shounen Magazine Comics, TV Tokyo and Pioneer Entertainment. Golden Boy belongs to Tatsuya Egawa, SHUEISHA-KSS, and ADV Films.

Notes: Divergences should become apparent as relevant.

Naru stood up, smacking one fist into the palm of the other hand. "Of course!" she exclaimed, relief flooding her voice. "It's all Keitaro's fault! Now it all makes sense. KEITA—"

"Not inside!" Keitaro protested, cowering before the punch that Naru launched towards him.

"Oh, right," Naru said sheepishly, stopping herself. "Forgot about that. Now, were you just about to step outside, 'Kanrinin'?" she asked sweetly.

"Why me?" Keitaro whimpered.

"Hah!" Motoko exclaimed, pointing a finger and jabbing Ranma in the chest. "Trying to shift the blame, are you? It was your attack that caused such devastation, not mine."

"Not really," Ranma said, staring down at the finger Motoko had jabbed into his chest. "And since you almost attacked Shinobu-chan yesterday, I had to protect her."

Shinobu had just recovered from her fainting spell in time to hear that, and immediately broke down in tears. "She's not a lesbian, she just wants to kill all the girls so she can have the boys to herself!" she wailed. "I don't want Motoko-sempai to kill me!"

"I am not trying to kill anyone," Motoko snapped. "I attacked Ranma, not you!"

"And if I dodged, your attack would have gone right through the wall and hit her," Ranma countered, crossing his arms over his chest smugly. "You're far too irresponsible to be a martial artist. Like Aniki told me, it's a martial artist's duty to protect the weak."

"Aneue said the exact same thing," Motoko growled. "It's one of the primary rules for our school."

"Feh," Ranma grumbled. "Pops said it a lot, too, but when Aniki said it, he meant it. Can you say it and mean it?"

"That does it!" Motoko snapped. "I challenge you to a duel, Oe! The winner will be declared the innocent party."

Ranma grinned. "Suits me just fine," he growled. "Where do we fight?"

"Outside — there is an arena for such things." So saying, Motoko spun on her heel, brushing past Ranma and marching to the door, one hand clenched tightly about the hilt of her sword.

Keitaro edged slowly away from Naru while she was distracted by Motoko. "Does this mean that it's not Keitaro's fault?" she asked slowly.

"Something like that," Ranma muttered, stalking out the door after Motoko.

Ranma stood at one side of the small island that Keitaro remembered from his own duel with Motoko. The kendoka stood at the other, facing Ranma intently. The other girls lined the bank of the stream at either side of him, watching with varying degrees of emotion — apprehension from Shinobu, confusion and worry from Motoko, and simple curiosity from Mitsune and Suu.

"So, what exactly happens when you lose?" Ranma asked casually.

Gritting her teeth, Motoko yelled, "I'm not going to lose to you, pervert! Justice is on my side and I will be proven right."

Ranma smirked, dropping into an easy, relaxed stance. "Okay, then go ahead and take me down — hit me with your best shot."

Motoko charged him angrily, crying out, "Shinmei Ryu — Ougi Zangan Ken!"

Ranma tensed slightly, throwing both palms towards Motoko. "Mouko Takabisha!" he countered, a flaring ball of golden light forming between his hands and launching itself towards Motoko's attack. The vacuum blades met with Ranma's fireball, countering each other in a spectacular explosion, a thin wash of golden light passing through the smoke and striking Motoko.

The kendoka, uncaring, charged through the smoke towards Ranma, sword in a ready position. "I will strike you down, fell minion of perversion!" she declared.

Ranma smirked, ducking her initial sword slash with a lithe and casual grace. "You're all steamed up!" he taunted, pointing to Motoko.

She paused, glowering, and glanced at herself. Where the golden light of Ranma's attack had touched her clothing, it had begun to smolder. "Aaah!" she shrieked, frantically beating the flames out with her free hand, but not dropping her sword.

"Looks like you're going to win this fight for sure," Ranma heckled. "You're absolutely on fire!"

Mitsune clicked her tongue against her teeth. "Motoko seems to be in over her head," she assessed. "What do you think, Suu?"

"I think he's going to do something really sneaky," the girl responded, nodding sagaciously.

"Auuugh… poor Motoko," Shinobu whimpered. "The strange man is going to kill her!"

"He's not going to kill her," Naru countered. "He doesn't have a weapon, and she's got a sword. She'll win for sure."

"Auuugh… poor Shinobu," the little girl sobbed. "Motoko's going to kill him, and then she's going to kill me!"

"Motoko is not going to kill anyone," Keitaro declared firmly.

Mitsune eyed Keitaro critically. "Except maybe you, if she loses."

Blanching, Keitaro shouted, "You can do it, Motoko-chan!"

Either unable to hear his comment, or uncaring, Motoko slashed at Ranma with her sword, but he seemed entirely unconcerned, dodging with exaggerated ease.

"Stand still!" Motoko yelled at the man. "It's not fair!"

"Would you rather dance?" Ranma asked, hopping over Motoko's head, and pivoting in the air to land still facing her. "Why not? I'll lead!"

Yelling inarticulately, Motoko chased after Ranma as he led her in slowly narrowing spiral.

"Hmm," Mitsune mused. "He's going to run out of room to run in a bit, if—"

"Hiryuu shouten HA!" Ranma shouted suddenly.

Motoko froze for a single startled instant. Along the path that Ranma had run, a puff of air, cold enough to make her path through the spiral steam hotly, shot upwards. There was only enough time for the girl to whimper, "Uh-oh," before a sudden violent whirlwind plucked the kendoka from the island, hauling her upwards and throwing her into a massive, churning tornado.

Ranma remained in the center of the storm, head bowed, and one fist raised above him.

"Wow," Suu breathed. "He used the temperature differential to create a vortex that channeled the heat of her own anger against her!"

"So that's why he was teasing her," Mitsune whispered, watching with interest as her hair was whipped about in the high winds.

Ranma heaved a sudden loud sigh, staring upwards. "Man, she was angry," he muttered, frowning. "I think I put a little too much into that one."

"Oe-san?" Keitaro asked cautiously, peering upwards, trying to make Motoko out in the whirling tornado. "Is she okay?"

Grimacing, Ranma shook his head. "Don't know. I'd better go get her down, I guess." With that, he vaulted upwards, riding the wind of the tornado into the air and vanishing after the kendoka.

"Well!" Mitsune exclaimed, smiling broadly at Keitaro. "I like him. If we get to see fights like this all the time, I say we let him stay!"

Naru gaped at Mitsune. "Are you serious?" she asked, unbelieving. "He turns into a girl! He can beat Motoko, our only defense against Keitaro's perversion!"

"He's paid for half the repairs to the inn himself," Mitsune countered, her grin widening. "As far as turning into a girl — just think how much fun that could be!"

"Auuugh…" Shinobu wailed. "Kitsune-san too!"

"Not like that," Mitsune said hastily. "But think about it — you can date him as a he, and then go shopping with him as a she!"

"I want him to stay!" Suu said excitedly. "I want to study him, lots!"

"But… but… but…" Naru protested. Turning to Shinobu for support, she asked, "Do you want him living with us?"

Shinobu sniffled, wiping tears from her eyes, and managed, "I don't know! Maybe he's a pervert!"

"Exactly!" Naru said, nodding and turning to Keitaro.

"But he can't be nearly as bad as all the perverts we already have!"

Riding the burst of hot air upwards, Ranma raised a forearm, slapping the flat of Motoko's blade away from his face at the last second as he drew near her. "Yikes!" he exclaimed, flipping about, and drifting a meter away from her in the raging whirlwind. "You've still got a lot of fight in you!"

"And you are a more worthy opponent than I had thought," the kendoka countered. Her sword was still held in a ready stance, as her garb fluttered about her, strangely ominous in the updraft.

"Most people I hit with that one give up," Ranma offered, knowing that with the girl's newfound control over her temper, the whirlwind would vanish shortly. "It's a long way down. How are you on landings?"

"If you think to offer me help, you're sorely mistaken to guess that I'd accept it," she growled, holding her sword before her menacingly. "I do not need your assistance."

"Okay, okay," he said, smiling. The brief flare of her temper would feed back into the technique, giving them some time. If she had enough control to simply allow herself to float in the center of the tornado, without it tearing her apart… that was impressive in and of itself. "Where did you learn to fight?"

"This is not the time for idle chatter," Motoko snapped. "Do you wish to fight further, or will you leave me be?"

"I'm making sure you get down safely," he insisted. "Aniki says, 'Never leave a girl in distress, double for cute ones', and I think it's good advice."

Anger gave abrupt way to confusion, and the intensity of the whirlwind lessened, lowering them towards the ground, and quickly. Motoko didn't notice, instead growing angry again, and adding more heat to the tornado. Whirling about the periphery of the technique, Ranma's own soul of ice would allow them to hover indefinitely, were things managed correctly.

They had dropped, though, and were now mere meters from the ground. Ranma looked at her expectantly. "Well?"

"You are mocking me," the girl assessed. "Is it not enough that you've shamed me already?"

"Hey!" Ranma protested, raising his hands before him in a placating gesture. "It's not like—"

The second he shifted his stance, the girl calmed to an iciness that rivaled his own, plummeting the last few meters and landing on the ground easily. He dropped to the earth nearby, as she took up a defensive posture. "Oh," he said, laughing weakly, and running a hand through his hair. "I guess that looks kind of like the way you throw a Mouko Takabisha," he joked. "Um, no, look. I don't want to fight you, really. I got enough of that when I was a kid."

"So you are mocking me now?" the kendoka asked, furrowing her brow.

"I'm not mocking you! Well, I was before, but that's because I needed to make you hot enough to use the Hiryuu shouten ha."

"A convenient excuse," the girl growled, loosening her defensive stance only slightly. "I do not know your school. Where have you learned such techniques?"

"All around," Ranma said, shrugging uncomfortably. "That trick I got from… a friend… from China. I learned kempo and the Saotome School from my pops, but now I study the Oe Ronin-Ryu."

"I don't know of that school," Motoko admitted, lowering her sword, and after a hesitant minute sheathing it. "We will call this duel a draw."

"So I did peek at you, but you peeked at me too," Ranma offered, smirking. "Fair enough."

"For the moment," Motoko grumbled. "I am not pleased about this, and you were a very rude man."

"Uh, sorry about that," Ranma laughed, running a hand through his hair and scratching the back of his head nervously again. "I was really angry about the money thing. But it's no big deal, I can live in the woods behind the inn okay, I've done it before."

Motoko looked as though she were about to say something, but dropped her head to stare at her feet nervously. Sighing, she slumped her shoulders, and admitted, "It would not be fair that you would contribute so much, and benefit not at all. So… I will agree that we should let you stay with us… until your three months are finished."

"Fair enough," Ranma said, nodding. "Anything else?"

"I would… be pleased if you could tell me more of your 'Oe Ronin-Ryu', Oe-san. I am curious," she mumbled, looking away. "Aneue would likewise be curious to know."

"Eh? Well, if you really want to know… it's a school Aniki made up." He nodded judiciously, eyes distant as he remembered everything he had learned with his brother. "Anyway, it's about learning what to use, and when to use it. Aniki says… 'Take everything you can ever learn, and learn it as best as you can. It's always going to be useful somewhere, sometime.' So, we go around, and everything we can, we learn, and add to the Art. Even simple chores are an extension of the Art, and everything you ever do is training."

"I'm familiar with the theory," Motoko allowed, nodding. "And you actually practice this?"

"Eh, me and Aniki, yeah," Ranma said, nodding. "Er… I hear the other people coming. We must have landed a ways away… Anything you want to tell them?"

"Merely that the duel was a draw," Motoko said, crossing her arms over her chest as the other tenants exploded from the underbrush around the landing site, all of them babbling simultaneously. The little girl with the pale hair seized onto Ranma immediately, proclaiming that she wanted to keep him. Shinobu seemed nervous about approaching either of them, while Naru shook her head sadly. Mitsune watched everything with a broad grin, and Keitaro smiled hopefully.

"So… I hope you don't mind staying with us for a while," the other man managed, between the excited babble, bowing his head apologetically.

"Yeah… it's okay," Ranma said, shaking his head. "I really gotta do some stuff, though, and get a part-time job, too, so…"

Once things had settled down into some semblance of order, Keitaro sighed in relief, thankful that he'd escaped with minimal damage. Tomorrow was the day that the contractors would be coming in to work on the retrofit for the inn, and it was also the day of another of the important pre-tests. "Study!" he told himself insistently, pulling out his notebook, and turning his attention to a study guide.

After a moment, he heard a scraping and sliding noise, and a panel in his ceiling slid to one side, a familiar face and head of hair poking down to observe him. "Hey," Naru said suddenly, dropping down and flipping over to land on the floor. "Which book are you looking at?"

Keitaro blinked, turning his attention to the book at his desk, and read off the title.

Naru nodded, and consulted a notebook of her own. "What did you get for the long problem on page eight?"

Consulting his notes, Keitaro read, "Uh… I got variable by seven over three." He looked up to Naru curiously. "What did you get?"

"Variable by three over seven," she grumped. "But my answer key is missing."

"Oh, well, let me check." Keitaro flipped through his book quickly. "Oops. Looks like you were right," Keitaro sighed, shaking his head sadly. "Anything else?"

"No," Naru said tiredly, tossing the notebook up through the hole in the ceiling, and consulting another book. "Want to work on some world history? I'm getting bored of math."

"Sure," Keitaro enthused, smiling. "I'll get some tea — do you want me to ask Oe-san if he wants to study with us?"

"Er… I suppose," Naru said, shifting her shoulders nervously. "I still think he's kind of scary, though."

Keitaro opened his mouth to say something, but the sudden crash of stampeding footsteps interrupted him. He stared towards his open doorway in surprise, as Ranma — as a redheaded girl again — charged down the hallway, Tamago perched atop her head. Suu skipped along after him, holding a bucket with her signature logo of three eyes on the side. "I just want to have the Suu Mecha Analyst Mark One examine you and find out how you work!" the girl pleaded.

Ranma spun on one foot, the other sweeping through the air above Suu's head and snapping into a metal object soaring after her. The device gave a resounding crunch, and bounced away. "No!" Ranma insisted, shaking her head quickly. "I don't want tests done on me! It's just a Jusenkyou curse!"

"What's a Jusenkyou? Is it delicious?" Suu asked, peering at Ranma closely, and seemingly unconcerned with the destruction of her latest invention.

"I—" Ranma blinked, considering. "Who knows? You don't want to drink something that's cursed!" Shaking her head, Ranma leveled an arm and pointed it at Suu sternly. "Now, don't send more machines after me to try and find out how I work!"

Seeing the extended arm as an invitation, Suu leapt towards the woman, vaulting onto the limb, and hanging easily by her knees, rocking back and forth slowly while she prodded at Ranma's shins. "Where does everything go?" she pressed. "I want to know how it works!"

Ranma blinked, staring at the girl who looked up at her, smiling brightly, and running her fingers towards Ranma's feet. "Stop that!" She shook her arm, trying to dislodge the girl, but only succeeded in having Suu grab onto her and scurry about to sit on the girl's shoulders, fingers poking experimentally at Ranma's head.

"But where's it all go?" Suu asked. "How do the colors change? What about the other parts you have when you're a boy? Where do they go?"

"Oh, there's something I was happier never ever, ever thinking about," Ranma mumbled, blanching slightly. Keitaro nodded in sympathy, shuddering. "Look, I don't really know about how Jusenkyou works, just the hot and cold water thing. I knew some other guys, way back in the day, who had different curses, but even the smart people I know don't get this. Can you just leave me alone about the curse?"

"Is a curse delicious?"

"Now I know you're just being difficult," Ranma asserted, plucking the girl from her shoulders, and setting her down on the hallway. "Tell you what, though. If you behave, and don't bug me, maybe I'll tell you where Jusenkyou is."

Suu debated for a moment, then nodded, and bounced down the hallway happily.

Ranma slumped visibly, sighing, and wiped her forehead, Tamago reclaiming the perch as soon as she straightened, and mimicked her expression. "Oh, heya, Kanrinin, Narusegawa-san," Ranma greeted, nodding at the pair. Tamago waved, and Ranma rolled her eyes upwards, leaving her head level. "This critter a friend of yours?"

"Uh… yes," Keitaro managed, nodding. "Tamago was a gift from Otohime-chan. He's kind of a pet for the whole inn."

"Neat," Ranma enthused, waggling a finger near the turtle's nose. It extended its neck slightly, and released a delighted chirp. "Anyway, looks like you're busy, so sorry for bugging you."

"Actually, we were going to start studying for world history," Naru explained, smiling at Ranma brightly. "Would you like to join us? Keitaro was just going to get some tea."

"Er… maybe later," Ranma apologized. "I don't like spending too much time in my cursed form, and anyway, I need to go and find a job, and register for classes and tests and everything."

Keitaro frowned, and watched Ranma walk away before turning to regard Naru questioningly. "I thought you said you didn't want to study with Ranma?"

"It's different when Ranma is a girl," she insisted. "If he's a boy, then you outnumber me, and that's not safe."

"Oe-san is not dangerous!" Keitaro defended. "He was very well behaved, considering that he fought Motoko-chan to a draw so easily."

"I never said Oe was dangerous," Naru evaded. "You said you were going to make some tea?"

Atop the peak of the inn's roof, alone for the moment, Ranma carefully faced the city, his back to the building. He flexed his knees slightly, then sprang away, flipping in the air, gripping the peak of the roof with his toes and dancing backwards. Dancing was as good a word as any, though it had taken Kintaro some effort to prove to Ranma that dancing wasn't just for girls and hopeless romantics.

But the careful and graceful motions, evasions, strikes, blocks, they were all fluid… there were few better words for the whole thing, and the word 'kata' sounded too mechanical, robbed the entire thing of what made it… the Art. So he danced backward, his own mind and the gentle breeze providing him with a rhythm as he wove back, parrying and striking at an invisible foe, until he reached the end of the roof, spun, and danced backwards again.

"That's an interesting kata," Motoko observed dryly, her hands clasped behind her back.

Failing to notice the kendoka's arrival, Ranma stumbled, falling to one side of the peak and rolling over repeatedly before he could right himself, grimacing. "Didn't hear you coming," he admitted, sighing. "What about it?"

"Very little," Motoko said, shaking her head. "Save… Another might not grasp the significance, but I see something there, Oe. You do not seem the type to run as much as that maneuver would suggest."

"Oh?" Ranma asked, righting himself. "Why do you say that?"

"You have too much confidence, I think," she accused, smiling slightly. "I do not entirely trust you yet, despite everything."

"What do you want to know?" he asked quietly. "You've seen my confidence before."

Motoko cupped her hands before her, and summoned a dim flame of her own ki, burning a pure, pale white. "You showed me something, Oe, but it did not stay what it was. Not for long." She studied the weak, flickering flame in her hands for a moment before dismissing it. "I have shown no one else that I can do that much. My blade is required for more."

"I get it," Ranma said, sinking to sit on the roof, placing his hands on his knees. "I show you mine, and you show me yours, right?"

The girl nodded, one hand sinking to rest on her sheathed sword. "That would be for the best," she said. "My own power burns with the pure light of cleansing. What of yours?"

Ranma cupped a single hand before him and concentrated, summing a flicker of his own power to him. It was difficult, but within a minute, a golden-white flame of power danced over his palm. "I'll tell you a story," he said, staring into the flame as though mesmerized. "But I really don't like this story, so don't expect to hear it again, little girl."

"Don't call me that," she said reflexively, before stepping forward cautiously, and dropping her hands to her sides from the hilt of her sword. "Very well. Speak, Oe. I will listen."

"There was a boy in a town far away from here," he said softly, staring into the intensifying golden ki-flame. "He had a curse, and you know that curse, but it was the least of his problems." He chuckled, as the flame wavered, then strengthened. "The greatest of his problems was that he didn't know how to control himself. More importantly, he didn't know when to control himself, Motoko-chan." A streak of green crept into the flame, strengthening and widening as he continued. "And he was so sure he couldn't make a mistake, that he did make a mistake, and it was a big one."

He turned to meet her eyes briefly, and some connection was made there. Though he couldn't fathom the depths of it entirely at that moment, he knew it was enough that she understood more than he had simply spoken. "And that mistake cost that boy everything that he valued," he whispered, the gold vanishing entirely to the sickly, wavering green. "And everywhere he turned, everything he knew became something else." The first strains of malevolent black crept into the wavering strands of ki-flame. "And he lost something very important to him."

The kendoka swallowed nervously, gaze fixed firmly on the glowing energy, as more of it shifted to dark, wicked flame. "But then… then something unexpected happened." Suddenly, a white mote of light burst into the mottled black and green structure, spreading golden-white light across it, slowly banishing the other colors. "Then the boy met someone who told him it wasn't lost, it wasn't over… it was just a question of looking at things differently." He allowed the ki-flame to vanish, smiling sadly. "And that's pretty much that, Motoko-chan. This isn't a story I like to tell."

"I… see," she said slowly, struggling with her words. "But, Oe-san… you haven't told me everything, I think. There is more that I do not understand."

"That's the way life is, usually," he said, standing up, and shaking his head. "You want to know if I'm evil or something, right? Well, I'm not. If I were, I would have taken advantage of you already, wouldn't I?"

"You should not speak of such things," Motoko said harshly, her face coloring. "And I never accused you of such."

"Bet you thought it, though," Ranma teased, bounding off the roof, and dashing across the clothesline where Shinobu was busy pinning up laundry. The man ran effortlessly across the thin wooden supports, gliding past so swiftly that Shinobu didn't notice, save to comment about the wind aloud. The man vanished off the edge of the balcony, leaving Motoko to stare after him in consternation.

Mere moments later, he pedaled his bicycle down the street, swiftly vanishing from sight again.

"Perhaps not evil," she mused, "but something is amiss, and you will not answer my questions." She smiled tapping a finger against her lower lip. "An easy answer occurs to me, Oe-san. My sister will divine your true intents easily enough, though I suspect I know the answer regardless."

Once she was done washing laundry, more of a chore than ever, given the lack of hot water, Shinobu carefully set a pair of kettles on the stove. There was no telling how much hot water would be needed around the house, and Ranma would need it even more, given Suu's declarations of pursuing her investigation of the man. Woman. Man. Ranma.

The more she thought of it, the more confused she became, until she finally was able to dismiss it by losing herself in the ever-present task of housework. The laundry would need to be brought in, but before then, the dishes needed to be done, and that meant more hot water.

"Oh, I hope we can have the boiler replaced soon," she sighed, shaking her head.

Suu bounced into the kitchen, carrying a large thermos marked with her traditional symbol. "Where's Ranma?" she asked, looking around and pouting. "I wanted to ask him some questions!"

"I think he's left, Koara," Shinobu apologized, pouring a kettle of boiling water into the sink, and then adding cold water to that. "Oh, this is going to take forever," she sighed, testing the water temperature.

Suu crept over and peered into the dishwater. "What is it? Is it delicious?"

"No, not at all!" Shinobu warned, pushing Suu away from the sink. "It's awful, and now it's worse because we don't have enough hot water."

"Oh! I can fix that!" Suu exclaimed, pulling the cap of the thermos off, and swiftly disassembling it. She only needed a second to recombine a number of the oddly shaped pieces inside before she stuck it on the end of the kitchen faucet, and beamed a smile at Shinobu. "Hot water!" she pronounced. "I was going to give this to Ranma for testing, but he's not here, so you can have it!"

Shinobu peeked at the device worriedly. "How does it work?" she asked hesitantly.

Suu obligingly pointed at the device's three prominent eye-shaped buttons in turn. "Hot water, cold water, self-destruct."

Fearful of the last button, Shinobu pressed the button for hot water, and turned on the sink again. To her delight, steaming hot water began to fill the basin. "Thank you, Koara!" she cheered, clapping her hands together delightedly. "Now we don't have to worry so much about hot water!"

The foreign girl nodded absently, stretching her arms above her head and looking distant. "I was going to give it to Ranma."

Shinobu turned her attention to the dishes, humming happily. "You like Oe-san, Koara?"

"He's really neat!" the other girl said, nodding happily, and rummaging through a basket of fruit on the kitchen table until she found a banana. "I want to see him lots!"

"You like him… like that?" Shinobu asked, pausing her washing of the dishes long enough to peer at Suu.

Suu was happily munching on her banana, looking out a nearby window. "He's a Ranma, not a Keitaro," she stated, as though that explained everything. Beaming a smile at Shinobu, she flung the banana peel into a trashcan, and skipped down the hall. "He's coming back now!"

Taking a break from studying world history, Keitaro stood atop the cleanly swept stairs leading up to the inn, leaning on his broom and staring down at the traffic zipping along the street below. Shaking his head at his self-distraction, he turned about, and began to walk towards the inn again. Without warning, Suu released an exuberant war cry, and leapt from the second story of the inn, nearly flying across the courtyard to slam into Keitaro.

Knocked down by the girl's mass, Keitaro slid across the flagstones, back to the very edge of the staircase, when Suu leapfrogged off of his back, hurtling down the steep flight and caroling, "Ranma!"

The man in question had just reached the bottom of the stone staircase on his bicycle, and looked up in alarm at the schoolgirl as she eagerly zoomed towards him. His eyes widened, and he spun his bicycle around, the girl colliding with — and latching onto — his back. The momentum launched the pair into the street, Ranma narrowly evading a bus, and turning the bike sharply downhill.

Keitaro's eyes widened, as Ranma jerked the handlebars upward, jumping the vehicle onto the hood of an oncoming speeding car, and bouncing off of it onto the level stone rim that ran along the staircase. Shooting forward like a rocket, Ranma swiftly piloted the bike up the slope, jumping off a stone or some bump Keitaro couldn't see, but passing directly over his head.

He rolled over and sat up in time to watch the pair come down on the bicycle, Ranma balancing it on the rear tire in the center of the courtyard, a faint ring of dust rolling away across the ground, centered around the bike.

Ranma heaved an unsteady sigh, and allowed the bike to drop to both tires, setting one foot firmly against the courtyard's surface. He stepped off the bicycle, rewarded by sudden applause from Mitsune and Haruka, and gave an uneasy smile, grabbing Suu's arms and pulling the girl off his back. "Don't do that," he warned sternly. "You could get people hurt."

The girl pouted at him, and said, "You said that you would tell me where I could find a Jusenkyou!"

"If you behaved!" he grumped. "Jumping down the stairs like that is not behaving. You could seriously hurt yourself!"

Keitaro coughed pointedly, pulling himself off the ground and dusting his clothes off. "Sorry about that, Oe-san. Suu-chan is a little excitable."

"So where's a Jusenkyou?" Suu demanded, tugging on Ranma's T-shirt sleeve.

Ranma looked askance at Keitaro, then turned to regard Suu squarely. "If I tell you, are you going to go there?" he queried.

"Yes! I need to investigate it! Or you could let me study you."

"Maybe I'd better not tell you, then," the man mused, stripping off his riding gloves, and tucking them into a pocket. "Look, Jusenkyou is dangerous, Koara. It makes jumping down the stairs and throwing us into traffic look like child's play."

"I am a child, and jumping down the stairs is playing!" Suu gleefully asserted. "So, will you tell me, now?"

"Suu-chan, I think you really should just leave Oe-san alone," Keitaro warned, nodding at Haruka and Mitsune by way of greeting. "Um, but, Oe-san, since you've already met Kitsune, I should introduce you to my aunt, Haruka. Haruka-basan, this is Oe Ranma, our newest tenant."

Recovering his manners, Ranma bowed to the woman. "It's a pleasure to meet you," he intoned.

"Charmed," Haruka said, nodding at Ranma, and glancing at Keitaro pointedly. "Nice job of sweeping the stairs. What happened to the little redheaded number you had moved in here yesterday?"

Ranma shivered uncomfortably, and offered the women a weak smile, picking up his bike and inclining his head respectfully to Haruka again. "Well, anyway, uh, I'll see you around," he managed, quickly leaving, and trailed by Suu.

"Er… that's a long story," Keitaro hedged. "I don't know if Oe-san wants to talk about it."

"Oh, Kitsune told me everything," Haruka said, smiling around her cigarette. "Just thought I'd warn you that Seta is coming by later, and he's bringing Sarah back with him."

Once inside, Keitaro wandered back into the kitchen of the inn, following Shinobu and Ranma's voices, and the occasional question from Suu.

"Oe-san, I'm very sorry about not remembering to make you breakfast," the young cook said insistently. "I have to make something for you tonight to make up for it!"

"Will it be delicious?"

"Heh! For once, that's actually appropriate. Tell me, Koara, why do you ask that question all the time?"

Keitaro rounded the corner and paused, watching the residents chatter. Ranma was standing, looking oddly at ease given the way Suu was latched onto his back, inspecting an ear curiously. Shinobu was in the kitchen, dancing between a number of bubbling pots, wearing a look of fierce determination.

Suu straightened up, crossing her arms over her chest and looking suddenly very thoughtful, considering that she was suspended by having her legs wrapped around Ranma's chest. "It's a specially devised technique to throw people off and learn more about them from their indirect reactions, allowing me to gauge what kind of person they are and study them better."

Ranma blinked, twisting his head to one side to try and look at the girl. "That makes sense," he said quietly. "But you still want to go to Jusenkyou?"

The girl nodded excitedly. "We can test the effects of a Jusenkyou on Tamago!"

"Koara, I don't think that Tamago would like that," Shinobu warned, tapping the side of a pot with a wooden spoon. "If Oe-san can beat Motoko, and he says that it's dangerous, you should be careful."

Smiling, Suu declared, "Then I study a Ranma more than a Jusenkyou!"

Ranma sighed, as Suu leapt off of him, and ran away. "It's probably for the best," he commented, smirking slightly. "What's up, Kanrinin?"

"Er… not much," Keitaro said, laughing nervously. "Did you sign up for tomorrow's pre-test?"

"Nope, they closed admissions since Friday, so I was too late," Ranma said, shaking his head. "I have an appointment for the next one, though. Oh, I did get a job. I start on Wednesday. Why?"

"Well, if you're not busy," Keitaro began, sidling closer to Ranma, and lowering his voice slightly, "I need to stay here to talk to the contractors tomorrow, but I also have to go to the test… since you didn't make it, I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor."

Ranma grimaced, then nodded. "No problem, Kanrinin," he declared. "I'll watch over the inn for the day. Anything else?"

"No, no," Keitaro said, shaking his head quickly. "I'm already asking you too much, Oe-san. Thank you very much."

"Well, shouldn't be that bad," Ranma reasoned. "Anything else I should know about it?"

Keitaro shook his head absently. "I don't have a cell phone, or I'd give you my number. But I might be able to make it back from the test with enough time that I can take care of it myself."

"What if they ask me for any information about the inn?" Ranma asked, raising his arms over his head and stretching casually, then whipping out his notebook and poising the pen over the paper.

"Er… I guess I'll go ahead and give you a quick rundown, then," Keitaro reasoned, gesturing towards the damaged section of the inn. "What we want done is…"

Shinobu frowned, turning the stove off, and allowing everything to sit for a minute. It would need that time to cool down, and she needed that same time to think. While a part of her mind wanted to label Ranma 'strange', and possibly 'pervert', given Ranma's circumstances, he seemed relaxed and calm. Certainly, with Suu around he nearly felt… innocent, truthfully.

It hadn't taken much time of being in the same room with him to warm up to him. He was similar to Keitaro in so many ways — but much calmer in some respects. She smiled, until she remembered his battle with Motoko, and shivered. And much more temperamental in others.

She couldn't fathom how he put up with Suu so good-naturedly — she'd heard from Mitsune about the misadventure involving Ranma's bicycle and heavy traffic — and yet lost his temper against Motoko. When he fought Motoko, he insisted it was because he had to… to defend her, actually, she realized, her face warming up as a blush crept across her cheeks.

How was that any different from what he had done to protect Suu and himself, all told? Perhaps it was simply that Suu had put herself in danger, while Motoko seemed to accidentally put her in danger? She considered that for a moment before shaking her head. Motoko wasn't the kind to recklessly endanger the lives of any resident of the inn, with the possible exception of Keitaro himself.

Even then, she had to question the kendoka's sincerity for those efforts; she seemed to have some minor affection for Keitaro, even after all her complaints. So much to consider, and so little of it made sense!

She sighed, shaking her head and looking up as Naru stepped into the room, glancing back over her shoulder towards the ruined bathing area. She paused for a moment, extending the glance into a lingering gaze before shaking her head and taking a seat at the table. "How much longer will dinner be?" she asked Shinobu, idly thumbing through a study guide.

"Oh, ah, it's ready now, actually," she said apologetically, grabbing a stack of place settings.

Keitaro and Ranma wandered back after that, Ranma first, and Keitaro with Tamago perched atop his head. "So, that's about it, I think," the manager concluded, smiling nervously.

"No sweat," Ranma replied, snapping his notebook shut, and tucking it into his waistband. "If I forget, I have it written down. Dinner smells delicious, Shinobu-chan."

"Ah! Um, thank you, Oe-san!" Shinobu set the stack of plates at the table, and was pleasantly surprised when Ranma quickly spread them to each place before glancing at the kitchen.

"You need help carrying anything?"

"N… no, Oe-san, really, you mustn't," Shinobu insisted, striding quickly towards the kitchen. "I have to make up for forgetting to give you anything at breakfast!"

Shinobu glanced up from the first of the dishes in time to see Ranma look vaguely guilty before he looked away, adjusting his crimson headband. Naru and Keitaro conversed in low tones about Naru's notebook, as Mitsune and Suu wandered in, each taking a seat to one side of Ranma. Suu grinned at Ranma, blinking curiously, while Mitsune cocked her head to one side, both of them studying him intently.

He shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, and Mitsune picked up her glass of water, sloshing it about idly. "Hey, Ranma, how much water does it take to make you change?" Suu asked, leaning forward intently.

"Oops!" Mitsune exclaimed exaggeratedly, the contents of her water glass escaping and dousing Ranma thoroughly.

Ranma sighed, adjusting his — no, adjusting her, now — headband slightly. "Not much," she commented wryly, as everyone turned to stare at her in surprise.

Motoko strode into the room just then, raising an eyebrow, but otherwise saying nothing, and taking a seat opposite Ranma.

"Dinner's coming," Shinobu announced, shaking her head, and bringing out Ranma's plate first. "I made you some extra, Oe-san, since I forgot this morning."

Ranma looked distinctly uncomfortable again, for some reason, and smiled weakly. "Um, thanks, Shinobu," she said, laughing nervously. "It looks great."

"Oooh!" Mitsune cooed, smirking broadly. "Shinobu, do you have a crush on the new boy?" She chuckled, eyeing Ranma closely. "Or girl, at the moment?"

"Auuugh!" Shinobu wailed, distraught. "No! I wanted to make Oe-san something special! To make up for not giving her anything this morning!"

"He," Ranma said softly. "I'm a guy."

"Don't feel much like a guy," Mitsune commented, groping Ranma's chest casually. "Hmm, almost as big as mine," she murmured. "Not bad!"

Ranma twitched, hands in the air assuming claw-like shapes as one eyebrow ticked furiously. "Please don't do that," she whispered.

Mitsune hastily drew her hands back, waving them in the air before her. "Just checking! Just checking! Motoko got her turn to see if they were real yesterday!"

Eyebrow still ticking, Ranma turned her attention to Motoko, who shook her head furiously, waving a hand at Ranma in a warding gesture. "I was just checking to see if you were a man!" she protested. "After seeing you in the baths, I was curious!"

"Her hands were a bit lower than your chest, as I remember," Mitsune noted, her smile returning. "Isn't that right, Keitaro?"

The man was staring with wide eyes, glancing between the women assembled at the table rapidly, and clapping his hands to his nose. "I don't remember!" he protested, shaking his head quickly. "I just remember that you had no blanket on and Motoko-chan's hands were all over you!"

"Auuugh!" Shinobu wailed again. "She is a pervert!"

"I am not!" the kendoka yelped, jumping to her feet. "I was just checking to see if Ranma was a man!"

"I'm sure that's all it was," Ranma said loudly. "Now, can we stop talking about this and just eat?"

Everyone halted, and turned to look at Ranma speculatively.

"Please?" the redhead added, looking surprisingly haggard.

"Er… yes, Oe-san, I think we could do that," Keitaro announced helpfully, before anyone else could speak up. "I think, after all that you're doing for the inn, it's the least we could do. Right, Narusegawa?"

Shinobu swallowed nervously, calming herself, and turned to look at the girl in question, but Naru was frozen, nearly statue-like, staring forward blankly with her mouth halfway open. "I'm sorry," she giggled, snapping out of her daze instantly. "I thought I heard something funny. About Motoko."

"Right," Ranma said, pushing the empty plate away from her. "I'm going to go train for a bit, then hit the sack. Thanks, Kanrinin. Dinner was great, Shinobu-chan."

The redhead rose, bowed politely to everyone, and marched out the back door.

A long minute of silence hung over the tenants after that, finally broken when Suu inspected Ranma's plate curiously, and asked, "When did he eat? I didn't see a thing!"

After pausing for a moment to steal some hot water — someone had left the small bath on the second floor warm — Ranma balanced on the rail off of the laundry balcony. He could just barely hear the other residents chattering in the distance, too indistinct for him to make out their words.

The entire weekend had been an irritating ordeal, but he found it hard to hold it against the residents of the inn — for the most part, he could tell that they meant well. Allowing his body to slip into what he thought of a graceless — mindless, really — kata, he tried to focus his thoughts and impressions of the people he would be living with… at least for three months.

Shinobu was cute, for being a child, and seemed to be the major domestic influence for the household. Ranma furrowed his brow at that, punching the air, and spinning, then filing that thought away to consider later. There was something there he didn't want to think of just yet.

The pale-haired Suu was also cute, and very excitable. Her sense of curiosity was something of an annoyance, but she meant no harm, and Kintaro had taught Ranma nothing if not to respect curiosity. How were they to learn if they weren't curious? If she could calm down just a bit, Ranma expected he'd come to like her quite a lot.

Curiosity and scheming from Mitsune struck close to home for Ranma, and reminded him far too much of a girl or two that had gotten the better of him in the past. Curiously, Kintaro had a knack for looking like an idiot near them, and still getting the better of them, but those were abilities that Ranma knew he had not grasped. Nor did he expect to. While the woman probably didn't mean any harm, something about her made him nervously uncomfortable, and he resolved to watch himself around her, wherever possible.

The other woman, Narusegawa, was obviously used to being the center of attention, probably through Keitaro, unless Ranma missed his guess. He was thick about that once, and had made a point of learning better when the opportunity had presented itself. He couldn't tell much about her, yet, but she seemed fairly unobtrusive, and he couldn't see himself not getting along with her. She seemed to have something of a temper, though that too was one of the mental territories Ranma would have preferred not to tread, as it reminded him of someone else.

Ranma stopped his kata, and sank to a sitting position on the rail, rubbing his chin. How long had it been since he'd even thought of her? He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning back and staring up, as the sun began to touch against the horizon.

…A peal of thunder crashed in the distance, but not so far away that it couldn't still be heard, occasional bolts of lightning providing scattered, rare illumination. The ruins of wood and jagged timber glowed faintly with the aura of mist from the heavy rainfall, the constant sound of drumming water only broken by the sounds of breathing, and more slow rumbles of thunder. Her wide eyes met with another pair, raw shock met only by intense anger…

Not long enough, he decided angrily, pulling himself back to the present, and throwing himself into the kata once more, force and power ruining whatever grace he'd once had. Slowly, he recovered his temper, at least externally.


The next tenant, after all, was Motoko, and as a martial artist, she picked up on things Ranma didn't feel like discussing. The last thing he needed was more questions from her, as eager as she was to jump to conclusions. She wasn't half bad, as far as martial artists went, and she had said her ki — her very life force — burnt with the white light of purity. More pure than his own life was, at least.


Still, he wasn't sure how well he'd manage to deal with three months of living near her. She'd given in soon enough when they dueled, but Ranma didn't look forward to constantly battling her, as he knew he'd need most of the time he would have soon simply to study. Perhaps some form of longer truce could be arranged between them, but he had no idea of how to go about it just yet.


And that brought his thoughts full circle, back to Shinobu, and the already raw memories that Naru brought up in him. He'd want to avoid both of them, he'd guessed, until he had enough time to sit down and think things through. It had been too much of a trying time for him to subject himself to people who brought up that much pain inside him. Kintaro had warned him there would be days like that.


And then, of course, was the question of how well he'd be able to afford rent while still studying for college, once he moved out of the Hinata-Sou. He imagined he could survive well enough in the woods — he and Kintaro had before, and he was used to it from long before he'd met Kintaro, truly — but the trees weren't completely adequate for the purposes of studying.


The cry caught Ranma off guard, and he turned around, stumbling. His hand brushed perilously close to someone's face, pulling off a pair of spectacles and throwing them to the deck, while Ranma tried to recover his balance — and his temper. Too much focus, he decided belatedly, frowning at the newly arrived man.

The man blinked, surprised at the loss of his glasses, and immediately took up a fighting stance. "Is this a challenge?" Ranma snapped.

"Well, if you want it to be," the man replied, nonplussed. "I'm always up for training!"

Not giving the man enough time to react, Ranma launched a fierce uppercut to the man's jaw. To his surprise, the man stepped to one side, then slipped inside Ranma's guard, and shoved him forcefully backwards. The blow sent him tumbling through the air, and he landed on the deck, crouching. After sliding for a meter and a half, Ranma launched himself at the man, aiming a punch at the man's midsection, and following through with a spin-kick to his knee.

The man blocked the punch nearly effortlessly, then jumped over the kick, retaliating with a blow to Ranma's hip. The palm strike staggered Ranma, and he reevaluated his opponent. Obviously he knew a thing or two about fighting, one way or another. "Oh!" he exclaimed, nodding at Ranma happily. "Not too bad! A little slow, and unfocused, but not bad at all!"

"You want me to stop holding back?" Ranma asked, raising an eyebrow.

"By all means!" the man said, nodding his head, and gesturing Ranma to come closer. "I see you have admirable kempo skills."

"Oh?" Ranma asked, furrowing his eyebrows, and charging up towards the man quickly, halting just outside his range. "Jeet-kun-do?"

"That's a good part of it," the man admitted, nodding.

Ranma grinned, rushing the man again, throwing a dozen quick punches to the man's sternum, and following up with a foot-sweep. Blinded, missing his glasses, and grinning like a fool, the man deflected each blow with casual ease, kicking Ranma's leg as it extended for a foot-sweep and neatly reversing Ranma's maneuver.

Slamming to the wooden deck, Ranma raised his eyebrows, and somersaulted away. "Damn," he murmured. "How do you move so fast?"

"It's simple, once you know the trick of it," the man assured him. "I note a definite Chinese influence to your training."

"It's good stuff," Ranma said defensively, jumping to the ground before the man, hands first. Planting himself firmly on the deck with his hands, he sprang away, launching his feet in a powerful thrust towards the man's head. Ducking, the man allowed Ranma to pass over him, evading the blow, and standing up in time to watch Ranma rebound from the side of the inn, flying towards the man again, this time fists-first.

The man's block failed, and Ranma scored a hit to his shoulder, sending the man spinning away a half-meter. "Very good," the man said ruefully, rubbing his shoulder, and shifting his stance. "Again?"

Ranma nodded, and led in again, each punch met with a near deflection, or a careful block. It only took a few moments for Ranma's control to return to him, his anger fading in the joyous release of tension that the combat allowed. He wouldn't admit it, or at least he felt he shouldn't, but he loved to fight, even though he knew how dangerous it could be. If not to himself, then to others.

The man nodded his approval silently, and began to counterattack, forcing Ranma to speed up his own attacks, and add blocks to his movements. Grinning, the man picked up the pace again, until the air between them buzzed with the constant motion, and Ranma was hard pressed to focus on which strike was coming next. Worse, the man's strikes didn't follow a pattern he could recognize easily, which made deflections difficult.

"You're good!" the man exclaimed, still grinning. "I haven't had such fun in a while!"

Ranma grit his teeth, pushing himself harder. Had he let himself go? He'd spent a lot less time studying martial arts, as compared to other areas of study — odd jobs, whatever seemed useful at the time — but he still tried his best to keep his body in top physical condition. The slow burning sensation of exertion began to suffuse his shoulders, and he countered the man's seemingly endless upper-body stamina with an attempted foot-sweep.

In response, the man slowed, but only slightly, before he threw out a foot-sweep of his own. Ranma hopped over it, focusing all of his strength and ability on throwing more punches, and faster, while airborne. The man was rebuffed for a moment, but Ranma couldn't maintain the pace for long, and knew he was readily wearing himself down. If he were going to win, he would need to use a trick, as he had when…

He cut that thought off. The days of serious challenges were over, in his mind. While he had attacked the man outright, the man didn't seem to think of it as anything other than sparring. Why make the fight more serious than it had to be?

The man seemed to notice Ranma's slowly flagging attacks, and swiftly moved inside Ranma's guard, a quick kick knocking him off his feet, and a number of strikes slamming him to the wooden deck painfully. He rolled a few steps, then coughed, and laughed ruefully. "I deserved that," Ranma said after a moment. "Um… Sorry I attacked you like that."

Heaving a sigh, the man wiped a sheen of sweat from his brow, still smiling. "Not at all!" he insisted. "My glasses are nearly unbreakable — they've been through more fights and car accidents than I can remember, and it was great fun! I'll admit, I'm going to be feeling this session tomorrow, but for a challenge like you, it was worth it."

Ranma climbed to his feet, wincing at the bruises across his left side, from the final set of blows, and grinned. "Oe Ranma," he said politely, bowing.

"Noriyasu Seta," the man introduced himself, bowing back, and plucking his glasses from the deck as he did so. Putting them back on, he peered around for a moment, then smiled even more widely. "Hello, everyone!"

Ranma turned around hesitantly, not completely surprised to see everyone assembled at the edge of the laundry area, staring in various states of shock. Haruka blinked twice, shutting her mouth a bit too late, and allowing her cigarette to fall to the wooden deck.

Motoko simply stared, jaw hanging open and eyes wide. "You… you… you… you were holding back!" she protested, shaking with anger. "That's not fair!"

"What?" Ranma asked, frowning. "Well, you couldn't handle me if I went full out."

"Yes, that sounds about right," Seta assessed, nodding. "Motoko-chan probably couldn't beat Oe-kun without a lot of practice. But Oe-kun, you could be better, too."

"I know," Ranma said sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. "I haven't gotten in any real fights lately, and my training isn't everything it could be."

"Oh? Well, who's your teacher?"

"Oe Kintaro helped me train," Ranma said hesitantly, "but… the man who actually taught me most of my skills was named Saotome Genma."

"Hmm," Seta mused, rubbing his chin. "That name seems familiar, for some reason."

"It's not important," Ranma said quickly, shaking his head. "But, um, do you think we could spar again sometime?"

"Wait!" Motoko protested, her eyes narrowing. "You mean our duel this morning wasn't a 'real fight', Oe?"

"Er… not really," he said apologetically. "You're better than one kendoka I knew, but you got a long way to go before you have what it takes to beat me."

Seta laughed loudly, placing his hands on his hips. "Oe-kun sure has a lot of confidence for someone I just beat!"

Ranma winced. "About sparring?"

"No! You can't spar with Noriyasu!" Motoko complained. "That's not fair! If he spars with you, then you have to spar with me!"

Considering that briefly, Ranma nodded. "Sounds good to me. What do you think, Noriyasu?"

Seta rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then nodded. "Why not?" he asked. "I have some time this week. I really only came by to see Urashima-kun and drop off Sarah, but for a few matches, that would be fun."

"Wait," Motoko mumbled quietly. "What have I just gotten myself into?"

"I thought Motoko was strong," Naru said, her voice subdued. "I've never seen a living person move that fast."

Mitsune nodded, glancing out the doorway to Naru's room before sliding it shut. "Oe sure is strong, too," she mused. "I wonder if he's seeing anyone?"

"With his curse?" Naru asked skeptically. "I doubt it. But I'm worried — we used to have such a peaceful and happy inn. Now that Oe has moved in, there's so much violence!"

Mitsune raised an eyebrow, saying nothing.

"And I'm really nervous about letting Oe stay here, too. He's stronger than Motoko — So who's going to protect us?"

A slow grin formed across Mitsune's face, and she looked at Naru speculatively. "Well, if you don't want him, I could take Ranma, and he could protect all of us."

Naru blinked in surprise. "Kitsune? Are you serious?"

"Maybe," Mitsune said neutrally, sliding the door open, and stepping into the hall. "He did manage to pay for three months up front, and he doesn't seem very broken up by the loss… he could be loaded!" She smiled at that, not quite meeting Naru's eyes. "But you have a test tomorrow. Better grab some sleep while you can!"

"Study, study, study, study," Keitaro chanted tiredly, flipping through his math notes again. "This time for sure."

Finally reaching the end of them, he sighed, shutting the book, and falling backwards. His eyes tracked across the ceiling listlessly, a dim corner of his mind pondering where Naru was in relation to him before he shook his head. "Focus," he mumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.

He felt bad about Ranma's first impression of the inn — first, he was attacked by Motoko, and stuck at the inn because of the repair fees. Then, he couldn't get into the pre-test, because he was too late. As if that weren't bad enough, Keitaro had dumped the responsibilities of managing the inn — even if it was only for a day — onto him.

The longer he thought about it, the guiltier he felt, until he remembered Ranma and Seta's sparring match. He had never seen a living being move so quickly — unless it was Naru after she'd caught him peeping on her. Maybe Ranma, as a martial artist, would prefer a challenge like that, and have fun, but even if that were the case, Keitaro wasn't certain that it made up for everything that had been piled up on the man since his arrival.

Then again, his own arrival wasn't easy, as he was plagued with variations on 'Operation: Get Keitaro Kicked Out' and the like. Furrowing his brows, he sat up, uncrossing his arms. That wouldn't do — the other tenants simply had to agree to let Ranma stay. Keitaro didn't have any way to pay Ranma back the difference on his rent, and wouldn't for at least two months, more likely than not. He suspected he could ask his parents for help, but was unconvinced that it would be a good idea, in the grand scheme of things.

Climbing to his feet, he paced back and forth in front of his door. Something needed to be done to make things up to Ranma. And, when Keitaro thought about it, new or not, he didn't know Ranma as well as the other tenants. It would make sense, then, to offer to take Ranma out to lunch somewhere to thank him for his help, and chat with him a bit — learn more about him.

Yes, that would work.

On the other side of the inn, Ranma slumped against a wall, watching Motoko and Suu tiredly. Motoko was all-but bristling with anger, and Suu had her arms crossed over her chest, grinning with confident resolve. "You can't sleep with him!" Motoko protested, waving her arms in the air. "Suu! He's a man, you're just an innocent girl! He would do such things — you can't!"

"Sure I can!" Suu chirped, latching onto Ranma, and nuzzling his side with her check. "I must study the sleeping habits of a Ranma to learn more about Jusenkyous."

"Don't I get a say in this?" Ranma asked cautiously.

"No!" Motoko yelled. "Not at all! Suu, don't sleep with that man. Come and sleep with me instead!"

Mitsune and Shinobu, alerted by the noise, peeked out from around a corner, and boggled at the spectacle. "Oooh, there's a quandary," Mitsune observed. "Would it be better to let her sleep with a man who's probably six years older than her, or a woman who's only three years older than her?"

"Auuugh…" Shinobu whimpered. "Not again! Motoko is trying to seduce Koara!"

"And Suu's trying to sleep with Ranma," Mitsune added, smiling. "How will they solve this, I wonder?"

Motoko and Ranma both blinked, and glanced sidelong at Mitsune and Shinobu. "Ah… perhaps I will allow Suu to share a room with you for tonight," Motoko said slowly, "if you will allow me to remain in the room as well."

Mitsune gasped, her eyes widening. "That's not much of an answer!" she protested. "That's even less responsible!"

Shinobu whimpered a second time, and swooned to the floor.

"I don't want both of you in my room when I'm trying to sleep!" Ranma complained. "Look, since you're so concerned, I'll just get some cold water, and sleep as a girl. Then nothing can happen between us." He paused for an exaggerated minute, eyeing Motoko up and down. "Provided you aren't there, at any rate."

Motoko nodded her agreement before realizing the insult that she had been given. "Wait!" she protested. "Where's the cold water?"

Ranma rolled his eyes, and stomped away, returning a few minutes later as a woman again. "Better?" she asked. "Suu, don't you have any pajamas?"

The girl nodded, and grabbed the hem of her blue skirt, tearing it and her middy blouse off with glee. Improbably, she was wearing a long-sleeved pajama shirt and pajama bottoms beneath, though it hadn't appeared that way before. "Ready!" she announced, hugging Ranma and nuzzling her face against the redhead's side again.

Ranma and Motoko stared in surprise for a moment, then shook their heads and turned to face one another again. "Now," Ranma asked, "is there anything else?"

Keitaro rounded the corner, glancing about. "Suu-chan," he warned, "you shouldn't leave your laundry lying on the floor." The girl released Ranma, stooping to collect the garments, while Keitaro turned his attention to Ranma. "Oe-san, I wanted to thank you for everything so far, and for what you're doing tomorrow. I was wondering if you would like me to take you to lunch to thank you for it."

"Er… nah, that's okay," Ranma said, shaking her head.

"Well, maybe dinner, then?" Keitaro pressed. "I feel like I owe you something."

Ranma frowned, crossing her arms beneath her chest moments before Suu latched onto her again. "Well, dinner's not really my thing, Kanrinin. I mean, meals are fine and all, but… heh… you've seen how I eat, haven't you?"

"That's true," Keitaro admitted, chuckling ruefully. "Well, what would you suggest?"

"For what I'm doing?" Ranma asked, tilting her head to one side and looking at Keitaro speculatively. "Hey, how about we just go somewhere for tea and get to know each other a little better?"

Keitaro beamed a smile, nodding. "That would be great, Oe-san! I'll see you tomorrow after the test, then. Rest well!" With that, the manager of the inn ambled away, humming tunelessly.

Motoko stared, frozen with shock, while Mitsune gaped with wide eyes. "I didn't know the curse was that complete," she managed after a moment. "Oe?"

Ranma glanced at her down the hall, one hand absently ruffling Suu's hair. "Yes?" she asked.

"You… you would do that… with Keitaro?"

"Well why not?" Ranma asked, frowning. "I mean, yeah, I'd like to get to know him better and get more settled in before I do it, but there's too much money in this to just blow him off."

"So that's how she paid for the repairs," Mitsune mumbled.

Ranma blinked, confused. "What?"

"Ranma, I'm tired," Suu protested. "Let's hurry up and get into bed."

Nodding, Ranma knuckled back a yawn, and slid open the door to her room. "Good idea, Suu-chan. I'd better rest up for tomorrow. I'm going to be having to handle Keitaro…" The rest of her explanation was cut off as the door slid shut behind the pair, Motoko and Mitsune still gawking at the closed door.


To be continued.

Author's Notes: Special thanks to Bjorn for his in-depth and wonderful C&C on chapter one, along with Mr. Sommer, and everyone else on the Refuge!

Brian Randall

Chapter 3
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