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"I see you know how to hold a bokken," Motoko observed, shifting into an offensive stance, her wooden blade before her.

Ranma nodded, taking up a stance of his own across from her. "I've had a bit of training," he said casually.

"I think I recognize the style," the kendoka said slowly, studying him. "Are you ready?"

"Of course," he flippantly replied. "Let's see what I can teach you."

The two rushed one another then, wooden swords passing mere hairsbreadths apart before flying onwards.

On the sidelines, Shinobu gasped, covering her eyes and unable to watch, while the rest of the tenants stared avidly.

The two fighters passed one another and reassumed their stances, each facing away from the other. Both bore impassive expressions, the only features to differentiate the scene from a samurai drama being Ranma's casual jeans and T-shirt, and the bokken they bore in place of actual blades.

Finally, Ranma straightened up, turned to face Motoko, and said, "I think I pulled something," before collapsing flat on his face.

Chapter Six: Visitors! Hoax! Madness!

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.

"Well," Haruka mused quietly, watching the duelists on the island from the safety of the riverbank. "That was unexpected."

Motoko stared at the bokken in her hands, and then cocked her head to one side, and turned to face Ranma, sprawled on the ground and unmoving. "Oe-sensei?" she asked cautiously.

He didn't respond, even when Suu bounced over the river surrounding the miniature isle, and began shaking him. "I think you broke him," the smaller girl surmised, frowning. She brightened a heartbeat later. "Now I can take him apart and see how he worked!"

"I ain't dead," Ranma pronounced, spitting out a mouthful of dirt and sitting up, eyeing Suu suspiciously. She merely offered him an innocent smile. Shaking his head, he turned back to Motoko. "I think I'm gettin' the idea here, though," he said slowly, wincing as Suu prodded his side.

"Does this hurt?"

"Yes, it hurts," he snapped, picking her up, and rising to his feet. Motoko raised an eyebrow as the girl shifted her position to sit on his shoulders and toy with his hair. "Um… anyway, it seems to me that you know how to use a sword really well, but you don't know how to fight without a weapon quite as well."

"And your own skills with a blade are less than remarkable," she returned flatly, crossing her arms over her chest. "Is it so certain that you should be training me after all?"

Ranma bristled for a moment, and Suu's hair stood on end, as though she had picked up a tremendous static charge. The girl looked at Ranma in surprise, but he calmed, and her hair settled. "That's not the point. The point is I'm supposed to help train you. I bet you could probably beat anyone if you and the other person were using the same weapons."

"Keitaro beat Motoko-chan in a sword-fight!" Suu chirped happily, tugging on Ranma's braid.

Ranma's left eyebrow began to tic, and he turned towards the inn's young manager. "Really?"

"It was only a tie!" Keitaro protested quickly, waving his hands before him defensively, as if he could push Ranma's gaze aside. "She was sick! It was an accident, I swear!"

He stared blankly, then turned his attention back to Motoko. "Anyway," he growled, "I think the point is that you're well trained against specific opponents, but people with unorthodox styles or different techniques could beat you. You're very good at what you do, but you need to expand your focus more."

"Fair enough," Motoko allowed, nodding. "You were, after all… challenging, unarmed."

Ranma's left eyebrow ticked again, stopping only when Suu leaned over him to examine his face closely, incidentally obscuring his view of Motoko. When Ranma calmed, she offered an impish smile, and straightened up. "All right, I think a demonstration is in order here. Kanrinin, would you be willing to lend a hand?" he asked, turning to Keitaro.

Keitaro looked around, as though there were another manager of the Hinata-Sou hidden among the trees to answer the call, then faced Ranma nervously. "Help how?" he asked, his voice trembling with worry.

"Just come here," Ranma said, beckoning him closer.

Hesitantly, nearly tumbling into the river despite his care, Keitaro found a path across the rocks, and reached Ranma's side. "Okay," Ranma whispered to Keitaro, ignoring the ever-inquisitive Suu on his shoulders, "what I want you to do is very simple. I'm going to set up a quick sparring match between you and Motoko, all right?" Keitaro began to protest, eyes widening in panic, but Ranma quickly overrode him. "You'll have the bokken at your side, in a strap as though it were sheathed — Motoko will do the same. You'll stand at combat distance, draw, and then spar to one contact."

Keitaro shook his head uncertainly. "I'm not sure," he began hesitantly. "I think you really should wait until Seta-san gets here, and ask him for his help."

Ranma offered Keitaro a somewhat reassuring smile. "Trust me on this one. There's a trick to it. The bokken is going to be on your left side, and you'll draw it with your right arm, across your body. You start the duel with your hand on the hilt. As soon as you hear me say 'begin', you just draw it and bring it straight across your body as hard and fast as you can, angled downwards. The tricky part is, at the same time, you want to throw yourself to the ground on your left side. Your momentum should carry you clear, and let you hit her once — and that's all that the match is to. You follow?"

Sighing, Keitaro nodded, taking the cloth strap and putting it over his shoulder. "I get the feeling I should start praying now," he muttered, shaking his head.

Motoko put her hands on her hips, frowning, and called across the distance, "What's this, Oe-sensei?"

"A demonstration," he replied, explaining the rules again for her benefit quickly.

Once he had done so, Motoko nodded, taking up a stance within Keitaro's reach, and sheathed her bokken in a loop of cloth at her side. Keitaro swallowed, and put a hand on the hilt of his bokken, closing his eyes, and waiting.

Motoko frowned, and both waited until Ranma's signal to move. Both combatants shot into motion the second that Ranma barked, "Begin!" Motoko swiftly drew her sword, launching a blindingly fast slash across Keitaro's midsection — but the young man wasn't there to receive it. The second she began to move, he'd already begun throwing himself to the ground, away from the stroke, drawing his wooden blade and swinging it in a motion too fast to be clumsy. The strike drove into Motoko's leg, unbalancing her, and throwing her to the ground, stunned.

Keitaro hesitantly opened one eye from his prone position, Motoko collapsed near him. "I'm not dead?" he asked hesitantly, sitting up and looking at Motoko nervously.

"Not yet, anyway," Motoko growled, sitting up near him. "What kind of underhanded move was that?" Her eyes narrowed, and she turned to face Ranma, who nodded smugly.

"You underestimated him, and left yourself open. If this were real swordplay, Keitaro would have taken your legs off just above the knees, Motoko," Ranma explained. "Not because he's skilled, but because he's doing something you don't expect. That's what I think I need to teach you. How to deal with the unexpected."

Motoko frowned, mulling that over, and climbed to her feet, nodding. "I… suppose, but that trick wouldn't work again, so are you certain this is necessary?"

"Ranmas are clever," Suu warned suddenly. "They can come up with many tricks."

The martial arts instructor looked upward at the girl perched on his head, and frowned. "Exactly," he answered, turning to face Motoko again. "And really, trying to learn every trick you're going to be hit with isn't as practical as being able to adapt to the unexpected."

The kendoka sighed, nodding, and offered Keitaro a hand up. He accepted it hesitantly, climbing to his feet, and glanced at Ranma uncertainly. "That makes sense, I guess," he said slowly.

"That's just one aspect of it, though," Ranma said, shrugging. Turning his attention to Keitaro, he smiled slightly. "But, you know, something that would be helpful here is someone else for Motoko to spar with, aside from just me. Kanrinin… are you interested in learning?"

"Eh?" Keitaro blinked, stunned. "Me? Learn martial arts? Well, I don't—"

"It'd be a great idea," Ranma assured him. "You picked up what I told you to better than I thought you would — I thought you'd just hit her at the same time she hit you — and learning has other benefits, too. It'll improve your balance, your physical conditioning, and your coordination."

"And detract from his excuses to 'accidentally' be a pervert," Naru teased from the sidelines.

Keitaro looked at Naru for a moment, then turned back to Ranma. "If… you think I would be any good, then I'll go for it," he said, grinning. "It's going to be a few weeks before I need to study again, anyway."

Ranma clapped his hands together, smiling back at Keitaro. "Excellent!" he enthused. "Anyone else interested?"

"I already know martial arts," Naru deferred.

"Figures," Keitaro grumped quietly.

"What kind?" Ranma asked, ignoring the manager, and jumping to land before her. Behind him, Suu yelped, wondering how exactly her Ranma had turned into a Keitaro.

"Seta-san taught me some of what he knows," she replied, taking a half step back, and balling a hand into a fist before her, waving it menacingly.

Glancing behind him, to where Mitsune had raised a speculative eyebrow, and Shinobu had finally stopped covering her eyes, Ranma said, "Okay, how about this, then, Narusegawa-san — I want you to knock me down."

He snapped his head around in time to raise one hand, catching her launched fist, and pulling on it. His other hand shot out, pressing into her sternum as he pulled on her fist, guiding her in a gentle throw over his head, and then setting her on the ground with the minimum possible force. Naru found herself sitting on the dirt, her arm locked in Ranma's vice-like grip. "Hey…" she mumbled, "How'd you do that?"

"There's more to defending yourself than just knowing how to throw a punch," Ranma replied, releasing her hand, and turning to look at Mitsune.

"We don't have to try and get as good as you if we agree, do we?" Mitsune asked hesitantly.

"Nah, just enough to get into shape, to defend yourself — most people don't have the drive to get as good as me, or Motoko-chan, or Haruka-san," Ranma replied, jerking his head towards the older woman.

"You've never seen me fight," Haruka said around her cigarette, raising one eyebrow.

Ranma grinned at that, nodding. "Yeah, but I can tell by the way you move, Haruka-basan."

One eyebrow twitched slightly, and the woman cracked her knuckles. "Do I get a turn to try and knock you down, now?" she asked.

"Um… pass," Ranma replied, edging away and putting Naru between himself and the woman. "Anyway, I've got to get to work today, but if you're up to it, we can start training tomorrow morning. Sound good?"

After seeing the scattered hesitant nods, Ranma grinned again, and leapt away, joining with the construction crews.

Shortly after the sun rose, shedding soft amber light across the field, Ranma surveyed his assembled students.

Motoko was there, as expected, along with both Keitaro and Mitsune. Narusegawa had passed on the opportunity to learn, as she already knew what she had needed, but Shinobu and Suu had both elected to see what they could learn. Keitaro could only guess at the other's reasons — Mitsune liked the idea of being able to stay in shape, and probably just to ogle Ranma, from what he could guess. Suu liked being near Motoko, or Ranma, and this was what both of them were doing, so it seemed to make a certain amount of sense. He wasn't certain what prompted Shinobu to join, but hoped it wouldn't be too much for her.

She and Suu were both dressed in their school physical education uniforms, while Mitsune wore track pants and a T-shirt. Motoko was dressed in her standard garb, as was Ranma, while Keitaro was wearing an older pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

Ranma bowed to his class, and they bowed back to him. "Okay, for some of you, this may be old news, and for some of you, this may be new… but the first part of your lessons is going to be how to fall right." Motoko nodded dubiously at that. "Some of you look like you already know the basic idea, but learning how to fall correctly can save you from being hurt in an accident, or how to save yourself some damage when you get knocked down in combat."

And so the lessons began….

Now into the third week of repairs on the inn, Ranma had grown comfortable with his job, and practicing regularly with Motoko and the other tenants. Other than being easily annoyed by Sarah on her thankfully infrequent visits, he felt he got along with everyone who lived in the inn. Motoko made it a point that while she respected him, and he was her teacher, she didn't like him… but he could respect that, and they got along well enough in the meantime.

Mitsune reminded him — in many ways — of Nabiki, but at the same, seemed less mercenary… and sometimes more devious. The manager of the inn was easy to get along with, and showed a surprising aptitude to learn martial arts. Enough so that Ranma had asked if he'd had formal training before. Keitaro explained that he hadn't, but the things that had happened at the inn before he began training probably already honed his reflexes. Not sure what else to teach, Ranma had begun demonstrating Tai Chi to him.

Shinobu and Mitsune progressed at about the same rate, and Ranma had decided to teach them Tai Chi, as well. Trying to teach multiple forms of martial arts would just be confusing to everyone, after all. Shinobu had shown a lot more strength than he had expected from such a small girl, but he thought she could benefit from training to turn an attacker's moves against themselves. Suu was difficult to teach, seeming to shift whatever he tried to show her into a form similar to Savate… but she was very good at it — a lot better than he'd expected for someone who had just started to learn.

He shook his head, banishing the distractions. Training would need to take a back seat to studying for the exams, soon, though he wouldn't drop it entirely. For the moment, however, he had work to do. "So," he said, turning to one of the identical-looking members of the construction crew, "we just need to get the water heater into place; all of the rest of the plumbing is ready?"

"Exactly right," Taiso announced, rounding the corner of the view to where Ranma stood, just outside of the bathing area. "We'll need to move the water heater into location, of course, and that's going to require something to move it across here without damaging the area. We'll probably get a small crane in here in the next few… days…." Taiso trailed off, as Ranma dashed over to the side of the huge metal water heater, and hefted it over his head with only minor strain.

Grunting, Ranma carried the water heater over to its proper location, and carefully set it into place. "No problem," he said cheerfully, pulling a wrench from his back pocket, and motioning to some of the other men to cut off the water pressure. They did so, and he removed the plug caps on the old plumbing, swiftly fastening the new water heater into place. After checking the pipes, he repeated the process for the gas line, and sealed the valves, motioning for the other workers to turn the water back on.

After it was done, they waited for a few quiet seconds. Then, they heard the sound of water rushing in to fill the large tank. "Awesome," he breathed, moving on to set the pilot light aflame before reporting back to Taiso. "Don't need any more equipment, boss — everything looks good-to-go."

"Impressive," Taiso allowed, nodding slowly. "I was going to have the secondary crew hook that up in a few days, but… well. Hot water restored is a major progress mark for the restoration of this historical inn. Let's call it a day, men!"

The construction crew raised their fists into the air as one, and cheered loudly, then trooped off of the property, Ranma following them to the bottom of the stairs. Taiso paused there, turning to face him, and said, "Good work, kid. I underestimated you."

"Um… thanks," he said, uncertain. "Why are we stopping so soon, though?"

"Hey, the water heater was a major project — the men deserve a break after a challenge like that," Taiso dismissed, hunching down slightly to be on a level with Ranma. "Anyway, since the plumbing's all done, next week I'll switch you over to siding detail, and we'll patch up the holes in the walls."

"Okay, I guess," Ranma said quietly, wondering at Taiso's approach to the repairs.

"You enjoy your weekend, kid."

"Sure thing, boss," he replied weakly, as Taiso hopped onto a bus. "Something's not right here," he muttered, shaking his head.

Still, as long as work had gotten out early, he might as well spend that time studying with Naru and Keitaro….

"Heh," Ranma gloated, tossing his completed answer sheet onto the table before him. "There's my studying — see you later, I'm going to get in some practice with Noriyasu-san." Nodding at the other prospective students, he jogged out of the room.

Keitaro took the dropped paper with a trembling hand, and compared it to the key at his side, Naru watching him breathlessly. One question… two… another….

Once finished, he swallowed, and set the answer key down. "Amazing," he whispered.

Naru nodded in agreement, only managing to add, "Every single question…."

Another moment of silence filled the room, the two bowing their heads in thought.

"How exactly did he finish high school with math this terrible?"

"I have no idea," Naru said quietly. "But with grades like these… do you think he has a chance of getting into Todai?"

Keitaro considered that for a moment, then shook his head. "With scores like this, he'll actually place worse than me," he laughed.

Naru flinched at the laughter, but quickly managed a smile. "Oh, right, worse than you… funny."

Dismissing herself from Keitaro's room, she made her way to her own room, wondering if she should tell Keitaro how she had done on the last practice test. Mitsune saw her on her way, and raised an eyebrow. "Something wrong?" she asked the other girl.

"Nnn… nothing," Naru dismissed. "How about you?"

"Just wondering how long it takes to fix up the inn," Mitsune said with a shrug. "It's been… what, four weeks now?"

Naru frowned, considering things. Something here didn't add up… Ranma's previous test scores, from what he had said, were better than his latest performance. Did it tie in with the inn taking so long to repair? While there were some visible differences, really, the inn wasn't that much different from when they had started working. "Well," she temporized, "the hot water's been restored, but… that's a good question."

Mitsune brightened instantly. "I'll go ask Ranma!" she announced. "Want to come with me?"

Naru hesitated for a moment, then nodded, following Mitsune out to the torn-up side yard, where Ranma was sparring against Seta. Just as well, she reflected, watching the two practice, that the yard was still not repaired. The way the two of them were fighting, it would have gotten ruined anyway. The fight ended in an apparent stalemate, Ranma shaking his head, and Seta chuckling ruefully. "Heya, Narusegawa," he greeted, nodding at her. "What brings you here, Mitsune? Want some more practice?"

"No, no," she replied quickly, shaking her head and smiling. "But… the construction crew left early, didn't they?"

"Uh… yeah," Ranma replied hesitantly, as Motoko took over, sparring with Seta behind him. He seemed oblivious to the fact that Motoko and Seta were launching themselves at one-another in inhuman displays of force just behind his back, occasional misses tearing up the turf, and Motoko's techniques blasting narrowly to one side of him. "Taiso said that, uh, the guys deserved a break for getting the water heater set up."

"Well, hot water is good," Mitsune reasoned. "Still, it's been four weeks — how long is it supposed to take? I thought originally it was two weeks, maybe three."

Ranma rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and bowed his head. "Well," he drawled, "let me calculate… if you take the number of workers, the amount of work to be done…." He nodded to himself, eyes distant, mumbling, "Carry the one… round up for odd shifts…." Standing fully upright, he smacked one fist into the palm of the other hand. "Got it!"

"How long?" Motoko queried, breaking off her match with Seta to listen in.

"Two weeks, three at the outside," he said confidently.

Mitsune blanched, and shook her head quickly. "That was the original estimate, though," she protested.

"Er… well, yeah, but the workload was different, see," Ranma reasoned, rubbing his chin again. "See, if you take the amount of work that needed to be done originally, and then the number of shifts… and then…." He scratched the back of his head, frowning intently. "Carry the one again… round up for odd shifts…." He brightened immediately. "Got it!" he announced cheerfully. "It would have taken about two weeks, maybe… Wait, that can't be right." His face fell, as he struggled with the math in his head.

Naru stepped forward, and asked, "Oe-san, can you give me the numbers you used, and I can try the math?"

"I… well, I got everything right," he said defensively.

"Why not give me a piece of paper and we'll work it out together, then?" she suggested, biting her lower lip.

"Okay," he acquiesced, pulling his notebook from behind him, and offering it to Naru.

She flipped through it, stunned at the array of small sketches and notes throughout the book. Only a few odd phrases leapt out at her. A line that said 'clueless' beneath a small sketch of Keitaro with someone else. A smile came to her lips at that, but she dismissed it, until she reached a blank page, and cleared her throat. "Okay, what's the first number?"

Ranma obligingly explained the numbers to her, and she worked the entire formula out on her own. "Was I right?" he asked anxiously.

Naru bit her lip. "Um… not… exactly," she said weakly. "The formula you gave me is a trick… pretty much any numbers you put in will always work out to just under two and a half weeks."

Ranma slumped, staring at the ground. "But… what reason would Taiso have to lie?" he asked nervously. "And if that was wrong…." His eyes widened in horror. "I blew the math questions, didn't I?"

"Every single one," Naru affirmed sympathetically. "But… I think the point here is trying to figure out what the construction crew is doing."

"I…. They're getting paid by the hour, right?" Ranma asked, straightening up.

"I think you should ask Keitaro about that," Mitsune interjected. "To the Kanrinin— Onwards!"

The group — Motoko and Seta following along curiously — trooped to Keitaro's room, picking up Suu and Shinobu en route.

Keitaro glanced up from his desk when the door slammed open, and leapt backwards, reflexively yelping, "It was an accident! I swear!" Naru blinked at that, as Keitaro stared around wildly, then calmed, frowning. "Wait, what's going on?"

Quickly, Mitsune explained what Ranma and Naru had done. Keitaro bowed his head, thoughtful, then retrieved the ledger for the inn's finances, along with a copy of the insurance policy.

"Well," he said after a moment, "they're getting paid by the hour, but not by us. Um… it would look like they're trying to cheat the insurance company, which will cover quite a bit more than they've already been paid."

"Perhaps I gave my respect to you too soon, Oe," Motoko murmured. "You've fallen in with thieves and scoundrels."

"I ain't like my Pops," he snapped at the girl irritably. "And I was just doing my job — but it all makes sense, now."

"Oh?" Motoko asked, raising an eyebrow, and taking a half step backwards at Ranma's irritated comment.

"Yeah, see, they'd always be setting up stuff to take care of the next day, or always be needing some new piece of equipment from headquarters, or the weather wasn't right… or something, and I always thought they meant it. But after I moved the water heater into place, I began to think that maybe they were being kind of lazy about it — especially when Taiso sent everyone home early for something I did by myself," Ranma explained quickly. "And now I'm not even going to see them until Monday…."

His eyes brightened, and he turned to Naru, holding out a hand towards her. She stared at him uncertainly for a moment, then shook her head, handing him his notebook. "I have my original calculations, from before he gave me the formula," he muttered, leafing through the pages rapidly. "Ah! Here we go. By my original estimate, everything should have taken about five weeks, maybe a little less. But that was before I found out that these guys were slacking. If they really worked, they could probably fix the place up much faster — like three weeks from the beginning, or…" he hesitated, and pondered for a moment before finishing, "probably another week and a half from now."

"Well," Keitaro murmured, stowing the ledger and his copy of the insurance policy back in the small cubby that comprised the 'manager's office' section of his room. "What are we going to do about it?"

"I'll deal with it," he promised coldly. "Taiso lied to me, after all."

"Like you didn't with the curse?" Mitsune nettled.

"That's different," Ranma grumped, some of his anger fading. "Ugh — what a day. I'm going to clean out the baths and get them set up — they should be open in an hour or two."

With that, he vanished, Suu brightening in his wake. "The hot spring is going to be back?" she asked excitedly.

"Hot water?" Shinobu managed, her only contribution to the conversation so far. "Wait, insurance fraud? Auuugh! Sempai, are you going to call the police?"

Keitaro shook his head slowly, frowning. "I think I'm going to trust this one to Ranma," he said quietly.

"Intrigue," Seta murmured. "Fascinating. Anyway, since Oe-san's busy, would you care to spar with me and Motoko, Keitaro-kun?"

The manager whimpered quietly as he was dragged outside.

The woods were silent, home to watchful eyes, and attentive ears. The young man before the woods, angrily absorbed in his practice did not notice the wood paying attention to him. He flowed from each form with power, but far less grace than the watcher expected, striving to wear himself down through the process of exhaustion, and rid himself of his anger.

The watcher understood this, and so waited, watching, patient.

A chance would come soon.

Shinobu, nervous about the changes, but grateful for the return of hot water — laundry would be so much easier, now — followed Ranma hesitantly after he finished cleaning the baths. Everyone else except Keitaro was comfortably soaking. Ranma lost the usual grace and elegance she admired when he showed her Tai Chi, instead using motions that even her newly trained eyes saw as clumsy.

He continued in that fashion for a while, then stopped, sighing, and bowing his head. "Oe-san?" she asked tremulously.

That was when it happened. He turned to look at her, and time seemed to slow down, the woods behind him disgorging a fleeting creature of shadow, moving too quickly for her to make out. Much like Happosai, but significantly larger. It blurred towards Ranma, who was facing the wrong way to defend himself, and Shinobu's eyes caught the glints of steel, sharpened and upraised, descending towards the unsuspecting martial artist.

She shrieked in panic, eyes widening in terror as the mass of steel descended upon him, and he turned around in time to catch the blade with a resounding 'Whang!' noise on the side of his head. The force slammed him to the ground, where he slid all the way to her feet…. Wait. Blades didn't make noises like a shovel smacking someone upside the head.

Swallowing nervously, she stepped across Ranma's prone form, slipping into her Tai Chi stance. "Who are you?" she asked, her voice quavering much more than she wanted it to, while she studied her opponent. The blur had stopped moving, and Shinobu beheld a young woman, probably about Ranma's own age, with long chestnut hair. She wore blue tights and a jacket, her hair bound with a white ribbon that waved playfully in the gentle breeze. In her hands she carried — of all things — a massive metal spatula, with an indentation approximating the profile of Ranma's head curving it.

"Not his best side," the girl observed, eyeing the spatula critically. She turned her eyes to Shinobu, and frowned. "Who am I? Who am I? I'll tell you who I am, I'm—"

"Ucchan?" Ranma asked groggily, climbing to his feet.

"Ranchan!" the girl exclaimed, breezing past Shinobu as though the girl weren't there, and hugging Ranma tightly. "How've you been, you jackass?"

"Feels like someone dropped a roof on my head again," he grumped. "What's… oh… right." He flinched away, and the young woman released him, balling her hands into fists, and planting them on her hips. "Um… Sorry?"

"Sorry?" she fumed, turning to look back at the spatula she had dropped when she charged past Ranma. "That all you can say? I spent ten years of my life chasing after you, Saotome, and then most of another year trying to get your attention, and now another — what? — four, nearly five years chasing after you again, and all you can say is 'sorry'?" She affixed him with a dire gaze, and he shrank away a step.

"Um, I'm really sorry?" he asked meekly.

Her anger melted, and she giggled at him. "Oh, Ranchan, don't sweat it — that was about what I was expecting from you. I got my one good whack in on you, already."

"Oe-sensei?" Shinobu asked, terribly confused by this. "What's going on?"

"Oooh… This is going to be tricky to explain," Ranma muttered, running his hands through his hair. "Um… Shinobu-chan, this is my childhood friend—"

"Kuonji Ukyou," the young woman introduced herself, bowing to Shinobu.

"I'm… Maehara Shinobu," she offered in reply, bowing meekly in return.

"Nice to meetcha!" Ukyou exclaimed, grinning. "Now, how'd you fall in with this lug?"

"Oe-sensei came here to try and get into college," she explained. "He's… he's teaching us martial arts, too."

"It that so?" Ukyou asked, turning to regard Ranma curiously.

"Eh… well, yeah," he said, shrugging uncomfortably. "Um, Ukyou, before we go on, I gotta tell you… my name's not Saotome anymore. It's Oe. I'm now Oe Ranma."

"Oh?" Ukyou asked, cocking her head to one side. "Well, that's new." She shook her head, straightening up, and retrieving her spatula. "You know why I'm here?"

"I'm guessing it's about the engagement," Ranma said slowly. Shinobu felt faint at the proclamation — it explained so much! Ranma was engaged to a dangerous ninja-woman!

"Ah!" Shinobu exclaimed. "So that's why you became gay!"

A moment of absolute silence took hold of the small clearing, Ukyou blinking, then taking a half-step back, and eyeing Ranma up and down before it passed.

"Not again," Ranma groaned, smacking his forehead.

Ukyou watched, arms crossed over her chest, while Ranma proceeded to explain — in painstaking detail — why exactly he wasn't gay, incidentally filling in a lot of the gaps on his stay at the Hinata-Sou to Ukyou in the process. Once he was done, he sighed, and pleaded to Shinobu, "Do you believe me?"

"You're… really not gay?" she asked, uncertain.

"I wouldn't have kissed Mitsune if I was," he stated firmly, nodding his head.

"Mitsune, you say?" Ukyou drawled, raising an eyebrow.

"Er… well, you see," Ranma temporized, wilting nervously under Ukyou's stare, "we're not, uh, dating, or anything like that, I just needed to prove that I was, uh, not gay. Yeah. That's it exactly."

"I see," she said, smiling softly. "Don't sweat it, Ranchan. It's been too many years — I had to figure out a long time ago what we wanted… and if you ran away from the engagement, I figured that wasn't what you wanted, anyway."

"It was more complicated than that," he mumbled, bowing his head. "It was… the… dojo…." He swallowed nervously, looking away. "And my — and Nodoka."

"Hmm," Ukyou mused. "I wasn't hunting you down, Ranma. I was just passing through the area, and heard someone mention you. So… I've got my revenge." She hefted the spatula, eyeing the likeness impressed into its surface. "Should make my dad happy, anyway. And… What he doesn't know doesn't hurt him."

"So… what does that make us?" Ranma asked hesitantly.

"Friends, I hope," Ukyou laughed. "Now, c'mon, show me this Mitsune, and let me make sure she's pretty enough to replace me."

"It's not like that!" Ranma protested weakly, a smile forming on his face anyway.

Shinobu shook her head. "I'll never understand martial artists," she complained.

"Ah, stick with it — you'll understand in time," Ukyou encouraged her. "You've been training for, what a year? Maybe two?"

"Three weeks," she said quietly.

Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "Good form," she allowed. "Ranchan's teaching you, huh?"

"Yes," she said quietly. "Um… sorry, why don't you come inside so you can meet everyone else?" Her eyes widened suddenly, in remembrance. "Auuugh! I forgot to start dinner!"

"No sweat!" Ukyou insisted, restraining Shinobu before she could run away. "I'll make everyone okonomiyaki."

The entirety of the household had gathered to watch the situation unfold in the kitchen. Ukyou, as she had claimed, could indeed make okonomiyaki. That wasn't what impressed them, as much as the way she went about it, flipping her spatula with one hand, mixing the ingredients in midair before they struck the grill, and then flinging the cooked meal — on a plate — across the counter and into the dining section of the room. Ranma would effortlessly catch the plate and set it on the table. And all the while, they talked, Ranma not meeting Ukyou's eyes, but still able to catch the plates, and Ukyou looking directly at Ranma, yet still able to mix the correct ingredients.

It was, Shinobu decided, amazing. A ninja that made okonomiyaki. Who would have thought? "I was afraid at first that you'd be like the first person that came to visit Ranma," Shinobu admitted, blinking at her meal. The sauce across the top had been delicately brushed there, a fair likeness of herself — smiling — while in a Tai Chi stance, with her name at the side. In hiragana, as Ukyou wouldn't have known the correct kanji, but still…. "This is really good!" she exclaimed, after taking a bite.

Ukyou winked at her in response, then asked, "So, who else didja meet? Kuno?"

Ranma made a face, snagging another plate from the air, and setting it before Mitsune, then taking Keitaro's empty plate and launching it back at Ukyou. She snatched it from the air with an equal lack of effort, then set it on the counter, and sent yet another plate his way before he replied. "It was the ol' letch," he admitted after a moment. "For some reason, he wanted me to beat him, so I could get permission to teach."

"Ooh, well, that's half of it," Ukyou encouraged. "If you get the legal side of teaching taken care of, you'll be able to teach in a dojo professionally."

"That's what I want to get into college for," he explained, continuing the progression of aerial dish serving.

"Makes sense," she allowed. "You kinda vanished on us, there. You talk with anyone else, lately?"

Mitsune watched intently, saying nothing for the moment.

Ranma flinched, nearly fumbling a plate, and shook his head. "I try and avoid all the stuff from what happened back then," he said flatly. "I mean… I don't mind seeing you. You weren't… uh…. Let's talk about this later. What have you been up to, Ucchan?"

She shrugged, turning the grill off, and stacking the dirty plates next to the sink. When she emerged from behind the counter, she handed Ranma another plate laden with okonomiyaki, and took a seat. Hesitantly, Ranma followed suit, taking the seat that Haruka traditionally would have used, were she there. "Not much," she said after a moment. "I mean, I decided to focus more on the art after you left, and only ran the shop for a month or three. Then it was training, catching up with my dad… and studying. I didn't get into a great college, but I got my two-year degree."

"So, what are you doing here, looking for a place to set up a new shop?" Mitsune asked.

"Oh, well, that's what I'm supposed to be doing," she replied offhandedly. "I figure I'm probably going to head somewhere south of where my dad lives — this area's nice, but… I prefer the climate down there."

"I thought you had a Kansai accent," Mitsune remarked.

"You're one to talk," Keitaro chided her.

"Oops, busted," the woman giggled. "Anyway, you told us your name — let me introduce myself. I'm Konno Mitsune."

"Ah, so you're the one," Ukyou commented archly, sizing her up and down. After a studious moment, she nodded, and glanced at Ranma, stage whispering, "She'll do just fine, Ranchan." In a slightly louder voice, she asked, "So, how old are you?"

"Ooh?" Mitsune noised, taken aback. "Well, I'm 20 years old… why do you ask?"

Ukyou nodded slowly, then announced, "I approve! As Ranchan's former fiancée, I give you permission to be his new fiancée!"

Ranma twitched at that, while everyone else stared at him in shock. "Um… Ucchan," he said quietly, glancing at Keitaro's glazed expression, and the sheen of nervous sweat forming on Mitsune's, "that's, uh, not really necessary."

In response, the okonomiyaki chef stuck her tongue out at Ranma. "Spoilsport," she grumped. "No sense of fun." Turning to Keitaro, she asked, "So, what's your name?"

Blinking away his confusion, the manager rose from his seat long enough to bow. "I'm Urashima Keitaro, manager of this inn."

"I'm Kaora Suu!" the girl introduced herself excitedly.

"And I'm Narusegawa Naru," Naru completed, looking around the circle. "Thank you very much for the okonomiyaki — it was very good."

"Oh, no problem," Ukyou said dismissively. "When you practice something for close to two decades, you tend to get good at it, you know? Anyway, I've got to get back to look at a few sites in the area before the sun goes down completely — but if you're still here tomorrow, Ranchan, I'd love to catch up with you."

"I'll be here," he confirmed. "The work on the inn's stopped for the next two days, so I'm just going to, uh, study my math and work on training."

"See you round, then," Ukyou said, winking at him, and vanishing out the door.

"That was… interesting," Mitsune said, once the young woman had left. "You get your past showing up a lot, Ranma?"

"Not if I can help it," he said dryly. "I'm going to do the dishes, and then use the hot springs." He paused for a moment, surveying the other tenants to assure that they understood what he meant, and that they wouldn't walk in on him.

Keitaro intercepted him before he reached the kitchen, prompting, "You go on ahead, I'll clean up here."

After a hesitant moment, he nodded, and retreated to the outdoor bath.

Once he had finished the dishes, Keitaro sighed, glancing behind him. All of the girls were gone, once the meal was over, but that wasn't what concerned him at the moment… what worried him was the construction crew. He knew that Ranma was strong, fast, and a good martial artist. He wasn't, however, certain that it would be a good idea for Ranma to confront the construction workers alone.

They were large, burly, and there were dozens of them. Ranma himself wasn't perfect, as his failure to defeat Motoko at kendo had demonstrated. Not only that, he mused on his way to the hot spring, they could damage the inn itself. Or refuse to work on it further. When he considered it, he wondered if maybe he should confront the workers himself.

But, he realized as he tossed his clothes into a hamper and strolled into the bathing area itself, how would he explain that he knew? He only knew now because Ranma and Naru had figured it out — from the information he was supposed to know, everything was slowed due to legitimate holdups. "Seta-san was right," he grumbled. "There is intrigue involved."

"You can say that again," someone said behind him.

He blinked, in the middle of lathering himself up, and glanced behind him nervously at the sound of Haruka's voice. But it wasn't Haruka, with her back to him, on a bathing stool, scrubbing her arm furiously with the other bar of soap — it was Ranma. "Oh," he sighed, relieved, trying not to be distracted by Ranma's curvaceous form — Ranma was a man, after all, curse aside. "Thought you were Haruka for a moment."

"It's the voice," Ranma said, shrugging. She doused herself with cold water, rinsing off the soap bubbles, and stood, shivering slightly. "Cold! I'm headed into the springs for a soak. What are you thinking, Kanrinin?" she asked, turning, and giving Keitaro a good view before she strode into the hotspring itself, quickly reforming into the male that taught their martial arts lessons.

"Uh…" he drawled, shaking his head and pushing the lingering image of Ranma's female form aside. "I was thinking of the construction crew. How long… do you think it will take to finish the work on the inn?"

"Dunno," Ranma said, obscured in the haze of steam rising from the springs. "I'm guessing two weeks — though I'm serious about it, this time."

Keitaro chuckled good-naturedly, gasping when he splashed himself with cold water to wash away the suds. "That's good to hear," he managed, his teeth chattering as he made his way to the springs. "Does the cold water seem colder to you?"

"Eh, we replaced the plumbing up to this point," Ranma answered distantly, adjusting his towel as Keitaro came into view, and sat in the hot water nearby. "The pipes are better insulated… the last ones in the house are supposed to be taken care of next week — the next phase of repairs is going to make it really hard to live in the inn for a while. You might want to have people change rooms for a day or so, so the workers can finish it faster."

"You…." Keitaro trailed off, considering. Why not trust Ranma? He was good for his word, as he had demonstrated. He defeated Happosai, as he'd said he would. He'd found Motoko, as promised. Why not trust him to deal with the workers? "Yeah, that'll be nice," he said, instead of asking if Ranma was certain. "The inn will look nice and new… and we won't have all those piles of equipment in the yard."

Ranma merely nodded, his eyes distant.

"So, um… what are you thinking about?"

He shook his head, offering Keitaro a smile. "Nothing important," he dismissed. "My math is all screwed up — I'm going to get to studying that for a bit. I'll be in my room if you need me, Kanrinin," he excused himself, rising from the spring, and vanishing towards the inn.

"Ah," Keitaro sighed, shaking his head, only smiling when Tamago splashed into the water near him, making a happy noise. "Hey, there," he greeted the turtle. "Thought you ran off for a while — found some place with a hot spring that still worked?"

Tamago nodded in the water, making another happy chirp.

"Traitor," Keitaro grumped, removing his glasses, and setting them on the floating turtle while he settled in for a nice long soak.

Carefully wrapping the package in the last bit of parcel paper, Ukyou gave a nod, and then sealed it with twine. She'd carry it back home with her instead of mailing it, given the relative importance of the entire thing. Well enough, she mused, falling to the futon on the floor of her rented room in the small hotel.

"Ranma," she murmured aloud. All those years…. She'd finally given up on finding him again, until a random comment from someone near one of the building sites she had been looking at mentioned a young man with an incredible penchant for attracting troubles. A cautious question or two had revealed that there was, in fact, a girl matching the description of Ranma's girl side.

Sighing, she looked up, frowning as someone knocked on her door. She climbed to her feet, checking her robe to make sure she was adequately covered before opening the door, and not entirely surprised to find Mitsune standing there, grinning nervously. "Heya," she greeted, waving at Ukyou.

"How'd you find out where I was staying?" Ukyou asked, moving to one side, and gesturing Mitsune to enter.

The other woman laughed quietly, and said, "This is where I work. I just didn't know you knew Ranma until you stopped by today."

"There's a thought," Ukyou giggled. "You live in one inn, and work at another."

"A job's a job," Mitsune dismissed. "In another month, I'll probably work somewhere else."

"I'm guessing that's not what you came here for, though," Ukyou surmised, gesturing to the low table, and the cushions around it.

Mitsune nodded, sitting at the same time as Ukyou, and grinning nervously. "That's right," she admitted. "I was… curious about Ranma, and wanted to know if you could tell me something about him."

Ukyou frowned at that, drumming her fingers atop the wooden table. "I don't know," she said slowly. "If he hasn't told you himself, there could be a good reason for it…."

"Well, he's mentioned some things," Mitsune clarified. "He told me about you, after all."

Blinking, Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Oh, yes, he said he'd wished he'd learned to make okonomiyaki from you before he'd left."

Ukyou giggled, shaking her head. "He could have just asked. What else did he talk about?"

"Mmm," Mitsune mused, looking distant for a moment. "Well, mostly he told me about his older brother."

"He has an older brother?" Ukyou asked, stunned. "He… When did he get an older brother?"

"Well, I don't know," Mitsune said hesitantly. "If he hasn't told you himself…."

"Okay, okay," Ukyou sighed. "I'll tell you what I know, if you tell me what he's been up to since before he left Nerima."

"Easy!" Mitsune exclaimed, grinning. "He told me that something happened that made him leave — I don't know what, but I'm guessing it's really personal to him. When that happened, he met Kintaro Oe, who legally adopted him as a younger brother, and the two traveled together while Ranma studied for Toudai."

"Toudai?" Ukyou's eyes widened a fraction. "He's setting his goals higher, that's for sure. Why Toudai?"

"Because his brother went there, and he seems to really admire his brother," Mitsune offered. "Whoever he is, he must be a really great guy."

"I'll say. All right, now… what do you want to know?"

Mitsune bit her lip hesitantly, and sighed. "He's… kinda hinted at it a lot, but I figure it can't all be bad, because he seems not to mind you as much as that other guy who he used to know…."

"Which other guy?" Ukyou prompted. "Kuno? Ryouga?"

Shaking her head, Mitsune frowned, a calculating hint to the expression before she asked, "No… He never said either of those names. But, he did mention someone named 'P-chan', once. Do you know who that is?"

"P-chan?" Ukyou asked, mystified. "Sure, that's Akane's pet piggy."


"Er… that was… his uncute fiancée," Ukyou offered, blushing slightly. "Tendo Akane. We… uh… three of us were engaged to him at the same time, ya see…."

"And he ran away?" Mitsune laughed, shaking her head.

"Yeah, well… things had a way of getting kind of hectic back then," Ukyou admitted, frowning faintly. "Anyway, Ranchan said the old lecher came around." Ukyou made a face at that, shaking her head. "Nasty. Did Ranchan kick his ass nine ways 'til Sunday?"

"Er… the second time around," Mitsune allowed. "Then the old man told Ranma he was a teacher — that's why Ranma's teaching us, after all. Anyway, can you tell me what made Ranma decide to leave Nerima?"

"Oh, I'm not entirely sure," Ukyou admitted, looking at the wooden tabletop, and folding her hands together. "Um… one day everything seemed pretty normal — and then the next day, the Tendo dojo was blown up, Ranma never came back, and Akane's family was gone for nearly a week. Whatever the Tendo family knew, they refused to talk about — even Kasumi."

"A week?" Mitsune asked, frowning. "Well, now it's a real mystery, isn't it? If I don't know, and you don't know… hmm."

"It's a mystery, all right," Ukyou sighed, shaking her head. "I don't know, but I figure if he doesn't want to talk about it, there's probably a good reason for it. I bet it was really bad, and I'm just glad I wasn't part of the problem, far as I can tell." She grimaced.

Mitsune took the hint, and nodded, deflating somewhat. "You're probably right," she admitted.

"And, 'course, I think Ranchan'd get a bit annoyed at someone poking around behind his back too much, too," Ukyou mused, smiling. Mitsune stiffened, eyes widening slightly, but Ukyou shook her head. "Don't sweat it, sugar. I won't tell on ya. Just treat him right for me, and give him a good whack once in a while, is all."

"We're… not really dating," Mitsune confessed, shaking her head.

Ukyou's eyebrows rose. "Oh? Why not?"

"Well, it's… he's… a great guy, and I like him, but, uh, that curse is… a little… weird," Mitsune admitted, looking away.

"Bah," Ukyou grumped, shaking her head. "Look past that — he's the same guy underneath it all, isn't he?" She paused, considering. If Mitsune couldn't see through that, maybe, really, it was for the best.

"That's true," Mitsune admitted, blushing. "And he's a really good kisser."

Ukyou brightened at that, leaning across the table. "Really? Tell me all about it!"

"You've changed a lot."

Ranma shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, and stared at his teacup. Ukyou had come by to visit him, and he'd wanted to talk with her. On a hunch, he'd gone to Haruka's teashop, suspecting that the woman was more easily capable of thwarting eavesdroppers than the manager of another teashop might be. It was also much cheaper, but that was incidental. "Maybe," he finally admitted, straightening up and smiling faintly. "I don't feel that different."

"You've changed," Ukyou insisted, giggling. She was dressed in a knee-length skirt and a white sweater, her hair up in a ponytail bound by the same white ribbon she always seemed to use. It was a marked change from the garb she'd worn yesterday, which was what he was used to seeing her in. "I think we all do, as we grow up, Ranchan, so it's nothing to be ashamed of."

He sighed, shaking his head, glancing to the side. Haruka leaned in the doorframe, just out of quiet earshot, facing the inn. "Sometimes I don't think I've changed enough," he admitted. "Ucchan… You…. Did anyone tell you why I left?"

"No," she said hesitantly, setting her teacup down, and reaching across the table to take one of his hands in her own. "I… I wanted to know, Ranchan. I asked around, everywhere that I could think to. But… the only explanation I got was from Nabiki…."

He was unable to speak for a while, merely staring at his teacup and nodding faintly.

"I… Let me tell you, Ranchan, what it was like then…."

Ukyou perched atop the wall, surveying the ruined remnants of the dojo. The building looked as though it had been struck with explosives; ruined and shattered timbers were scattered across the yard in a senseless jumble. The house itself was relatively undamaged, only the covered walkway that had led from the dojo to the house crumpled onto the ground.

The neighbors had said they hadn't noticed a thing out of the ordinary, until the Tendo family had returned. And that was today.

Sighing, she hopped off the wall, circled around to the front door and knocked. Instead of Kasumi, Soun answered the door, looking down at her coolly. "Can I help you?" he asked after a moment, not motioning her inside.

"I'm… um, looking for Ranchan," she said reasonably, managing a weak smile. "He's been missing some school, so I thought I'd check up on him," she offered.

Soun nodded, his eyes dimming. He did not, as she would have expected, begin bawling. Instead, he seemed to droop slightly, as though some vital spark of himself had been extinguished, and he no longer had the energy to cry endlessly. "He isn't here," he said after a moment. "He doesn't live here anymore. I don't know where he is."

Ukyou blinked away her shock, her heart racing and her thoughts confused. "Is… Nabiki in?" she managed to ask, smiling faintly.

The man hesitated, then nodded, opening the door wide and motioning her in. Smiling obligingly, she stepped in, while Soun walked towards his habitual shogi game against Genma, though each of them looked subdued. Soun paused for a moment, and gestured her towards the kitchen.

Frowning, Ukyou left as directed, somewhat surprised to see Nabiki standing in the kitchen. The apron she was wearing seeming almost out of place… but not entirely. Nabiki was absorbed in reading the instructions printed in a handwritten book, nodding occasionally, and checking a pot on the stove. "Nabiki?" Ukyou managed after a moment, confused again.

The girl looked up from her pot tiredly, and raised an eyebrow. "Ukyou," she greeted neutrally. "Looking for your fiancé?"

"Um… yes," she said slowly.

"He ran off," she said dismissively, turning her attention to the pot on the stove. "Don't know where."

"So… Why are you in the kitchen?" Ukyou asked. "I thought you hated cooking."

"You grow to like it more than your father's, all things considered," she replied dryly.

"Um… Nabiki… what happened? The dojo's a complete wreck, and Ranchan's nowhere around."

"Yeah, kind of makes it easy for you, doesn't it?" Nabiki mused, sampling the soup from the pot, making a face, then nodding. "No dojo for Ranma to inherit, you know, means he's pretty much yours, after all."

"That doesn't explain…." She trailed off, biting her lip. "So, what did happen to the dojo? And, where's your sister?"

"Akane's in her room, or helping Kasumi," Nabiki replied frankly, turning to face Ukyou and look her in the eye. "Kasumi's not down here because she can't walk very well yet."

"What…" Ukyou began, before biting her lip again. If Nabiki were going to explain it, then she'd explain it.

"I'm not even going to pretend to understand," Nabiki said flatly. "Ranma decided to blow up the dojo, and nearly killed Kasumi in the process. He seems to have picked up on the fact that he's not welcome here anymore." She glanced at a clock on the wall, then made a face. "You should probably leave."

"And that's the last I heard of you," Ukyou finished wistfully. "I… never really got an idea of what actually happened, but… the Ranchan I knew would never be responsible for something like that. The Ranchan I knew… he would never hurt an innocent."

"Yeah," Ranma said, his voice thick, nearly cracking.

Ukyou's eyes widened, her gaze shifting upwards from the depths of her teacup to meet Ranma's eyes. Unshed tears shimmered there. "Ranchan?" she asked quietly.

"I was… pretty sure… she didn't die," he managed, his voice wavering. "I… never… even knew she was there…" He faltered, trying to mask a sob with a cough, and Ukyou slipped from her seat to rush to his side, eyes wide with worry.

"Ranchan?" she asked breathlessly. "What… what happened?"

The man finally broke down, sobbing into his old friend's shoulder. Forgotten, still standing in the doorway to the teahouse, Haruka took a long breath, tempted to light her ever-present cigarette. Time enough for that later, she reasoned, restraining the hand that wandered towards the lighter in her pocket. For the moment, she'd learned more than she thought Ranma had meant to reveal, and it had made certain things clear to her.

Ranma's actions were explained, if not justified. And more importantly, he was watching over Shinobu with genuine concern, not something else… Something that would have worried her. She listened to the story continue between wracking sobs, carefully keeping her expressions neutral, and pretending to be absorbed in the trashy romance novel in her hands. Neither Ukyou nor Ranma noticed when she quietly reversed the 'open' sign on the door.

Ranma and Keitaro faced one another across the field of battle. "So," Ranma intoned. "This is how it begins? You betray me after all this time?"

"Your mastery of Dark Kingdom Dirty Infighting is weak, lowly worm!" Keitaro returned contemptuously.

"You shall never defeat me, for I am the true successor!" Ranma exclaimed, an aura of power playing across his fingertips.

"We shall see, insolent fool."

"No, for you are the fool who is being insolent!"

"Are you ready?"

Nodding slightly, Ranma waited for the unseen judge's signal before moving. The match began, Keitaro leaping across the distance, his body trailing a vivid aura of power. Backpedaling quickly, Ranma tried to put distance space himself and the manager's attack. He was too slow, however, and the impact launched a blinding green splash of light into Ranma's eyes.

"Auuugh!" he groaned, as Keitaro followed up the flashy strike with an array of ki attacks — his fists were sheathed in green flame, which exploded brightly across his opponent, splashing green fire and blood everywhere. Ranma could distantly hear someone… who? Mitsune? Mitsune was cheering for him. He couldn't give up!

Trying to recover, he quickly launched a counterattack — but it was too late.

His last vision was of the manager's final attack, and then everything began to grow dim, the manager's form laughing darkly as he incinerated Ranma's body with a stray bolt of ki. A deep voice announced, "NIFTY combo!" and Ranma fell out of his seat.

"I hate video games," he grumbled, handing his controller to Suu.

"Er… It takes a certain knack," Keitaro assured him, laughing nervously.

"I guess," Ranma replied, shrugging.

"You need to use more of the ranged attacks," he offered, pounding buttons seemingly at random, as Suu's avatar — a small girl in a short skirt — proceeded to fold the manager's character into quarters, and then smashed what remained with a mallet.

"I guess," he said neutrally, stretching slightly, and rising from his seat. "Anyway, I gotta get back to studying, and I want to say goodbye to Ucchan before she leaves."

Keitaro nodded, his brow furrowed in concentration as he tried to win against Suu, who wasn't actually pressing buttons — she was gnawing on the controller, though her strategy was granting her a clear victory. He watched for a moment longer, until he spied Naru walking down the hallway, wearing her glasses and frowning at a study guide.

Shaking his head, Ranma left, vaulting through an open window — only ducking back inside long enough to grab his shoes — and bounded down the stone steps in front of the house. He didn't need the bike tonight, though the ever-present notebook was still tucked through his belt.

Rebounding from the sidewalk at the base of the hill, he launched himself across the street, off the top of a telephone pole, and then over a number of rooftops, landing before the hotel she was staying at. He paused for a moment, looking it over, then shook his head, and entered.

A man wearing a coat with the inn's logo on the front greeted him, smiling. "Hello, can I help you?"

"I'm here to see Kuonji Ukyou," he explained. The man nodded, motioning him to wait, and then vanishing around a corner. In short order, he returned, and again motioned at Ranma — this time to follow him. Ranma trailed after obligingly, nodding to the man when Ukyou greeted him at her door with a wink.

The man bowed, quickly vanishing from sight. Ranma allowed himself to be pulled into the room, Ukyou shutting the door behind him. "Heya," she said, giving him a quick hug, then leading him to the low table in the middle of the room. "Glad you came by before I left."

He nodded, glancing at the mess of papers on the table, then sitting opposite her. "Yeah… I… think yesterday was kind of… um…." He struggled for a moment, then sighed, and said, "I wanted to say goodbye and have it be more cheerful than last time."

Ukyou smiled at him sympathetically. "I know it couldn't have been easy for you," she began, shaking her head. "I mean, I… know that things were already pretty bad… I'm not going to blame you." She turned to look at the papers for a moment, then frowned bleakly. "Sometimes this work is really boring," she grumped. Smiling faintly again, she looked up at Ranma. "It was nice visiting with you, Ranchan… even if we're only friends instead of engaged… you're not a bad guy. I… ain't gonna blame you for running away."

"Thanks, Ucchan. It's kinda… confusing sometimes, you know?" he managed after a moment, smiling weakly.

"I can only guess," she admitted. "Listen, sugar… I… have to decide where I'm going to set up shop for my father. He wants me to pick a spot around here, since okonomiyaki appeals to the college crowd, and it's kinda close to Todai." She bit her lip, staring at the papers. "I… don't know if that'd be a great idea, though… so I think I'm going to pick a spot near the college… but not so close as I'll be in your way." She winked at him. "Still close enough you can drop by if you want someone to talk to, though. Sound good?"

"Uh… that's… fine by me," he said, his smile strengthening. "I… I don't think I'd want to never see you again, Ucchan… even if we…." He swallowed, then shrugged, clearing his throat. "I was a confused kid, you know, back then."

"And I wasn't?" she asked archly. "Look, Ranchan, this is what all that growing up hooey is all about. And… I think we've both done our best at it, which… is more than I could say for some people, you know?"

He laughed at that, shaking his head, and pulled his notebook from his pocket. "You're right," he admitted, scribbling a few quick notes down. "So, when you pick out your place, you'll come by and tell me where it is, right?"

"You betcha!" she enthused, winking. "I gotta get ready for my train; it leaves in an hour or two. But you take care of yourself for me, okay, Ranchan?"

"Sure thing, Ucchan. You take care of yourself, too, okay?"

"No problem," she replied, rising to her feet, and giving Ranma another hug before letting him leave her room. "See you 'round!"

The deck was a popular spot to study, Mitsune surmised. Naru, Keitaro, and Motoko — who should have been at school — were all seated around a small pile of books, trading notes quietly. This would have been perfectly normal, were it not taking place on the balcony surveying the center of all the construction crew's activity.

Motoko was facing them directly, though ostensibly reading a book. Keitaro and Naru were leafing through their own study guides, nodding at Motoko's occasional comments. Shrugging, she sat between Naru and Motoko. "So," she began conversationally. "You can hear them from here?"

The kendoka shot Mitsune a look of what might have been annoyance, then nodded. "I have more than a passing interest in seeing what exactly Ranma does about this," she admitted.

"And aren't you worried he'll see you?" Mitsune asked, raising an eyebrow.

"He shouldn't be able to notice us up here — the tree branches obscure us from him, mostly," Keitaro offered.

"Okay, then, go ahead and tell me what's going on."

Motoko nodded, her eyes focusing on the boss of the construction crew. Taiso, his name was, if Mitsune remembered correctly. "He's giving orders to everyone on his crew," she said quietly. "They're all nodding, but not saying anything back."

Mitsune glanced over the scene. It was partially shielded by the same tree-branches that concealed the students, but she could make out the horde of construction workers, Taiso and Ranma alone standing out from among them. The scene seemed the same for a long minute, Taiso giving orders, and the others listening, nodding, and otherwise remaining quiet.

Eventually, it changed, and Ranma said something, stepping through toe crowd to stand before Taiso. "Oe says he has issues he wants to discuss with Taiso," Motoko murmured, furrowing her brow.

"Is Ranma going to fight the grand clone army?" Suu asked, seeming to appear from thin air behind Motoko, and peer over her shoulder.

"Shouldn't you be at school?" Motoko asked, glancing over her shoulder. "Oe is making a challenge against Taiso—"

The outraged cry of the construction workers cut off anything else that Motoko was going to say, and everyone on the deck turned to peer at the goings on below.

Ranma stood in the center of a wide circle of construction workers, along with Taiso. The burly man put his hands on his hips, and turned his head to one side, the loud cracking noise echoing loudly enough to reach the deck.

Motoko had abandoned her pretences and was leaning over the railing to get a closer look. "Taiso is now asking Oe what the terms of his challenge are," she said quietly.

"Oh, well if it's combat, we've got no problems at all," Keitaro said, relaxing. "He's really good at that."

The kendoka shot him a strange look, and then shook her head, paying attention to the scene below. "Oe says that he's willing to challenge the crew… so that if he wins, they will work their hardest to complete the inn, and do it well."

Keitaro grinned, nodding. "I knew he would come through," he stated authoritatively.

"And Taiso now replies that…." Motoko swallowed nervously, her eyes flicking across the rest of the crowd before turning to Ranma gain. "If he loses, Ranma will continue to work, and not complain, nor tell of what he's discovered."

Naru frowned at that, shaking her head. "Something doesn't seem right," she mumbled.

"And now Oe says the terms of his challenge — he says that before sunset tonight…." She blinked, shaking her head. "He says that working without any help from Taiso or his crew, he can finish repairing the entire roof of the inn."

Dead silence took hold of the roof, extending to the grounds below.

Finally, the quiet was interrupted by laughter — Taiso's laughter. "Taiso agrees," Motoko said flatly. "Does Oe really think he can do that much by himself?"

"He's certainly willing to try," Mitsune observed, as Ranma grabbed a double-armful of material off of the ground, and leapt to the rooftop.

Naru pursed her lips thoughtfully, waiting. Suu obligingly clicked a stopwatch, and announced, "Fourteen tiles takes twelve and three fourths of a second."

"Okay, now, we take the area of the roof, and the average number of tiles in a square meter," she mumbled, while Keitaro nodded, and obligingly listed off the numbers. "Hmm. Now, take the area left… what's that?"

Keitaro checked a few of his calculations again, and gave her another number, which she quickly worked into her equations. Sighing, she shook her head. "He'd finish probably… let's check the newspaper… if he doesn't take a break, he'll finish an hour before sunset."

"That's good!" Mitsune enthused.

"Well, that's just replacing the tiles," Keitaro warned. "He's fast — really fast — but he's also going to have to replace… um… hang on a second." He produced a notebook labeled 'Keitaro's Manager Stuff' from one pocket, and looked it over. "The main beams are solid, but two of the supports on this side need to be replaced. Three on the other side." He flipped a page, and frowned. "The section of roofing that covered part of the bathing area needs to be put in — it's assembled, just needs to be put in. The front of the inn needs most of its tiles replaced too. Not to mention the fact that some of the insulation needs to be replaced around where those supports need to be knocked out and have new ones added in."

"That's bad," Mitsune said with a frown.

"The weather is fair, and should help keep him cool," Motoko reasoned. "He should be able to work for some time before he needs to stop and rest."

"That's good!" Mitsune enthused.

"I'm guessing he's fast — really fast," Naru added, watching Ranma work to replace the tiles over the otherwise good sections of roof. "But on top of all of that, he's going to need to stop to get more tiles every so often and get rid of the bad tiles, so he's not really even going to be as fast as we calculated."

"That's bad," Mitsune said with a frown.

"Taiso's crew is giving themselves a slight handicap by leaving the materials where Ranma can get them easily," Keitaro reasoned. "And so far, they haven't tried to keep him from using any of their tools."

"That's good!" Mitsune enthused.

"Though to judge by the way they're laughing at him, they know he can't do it in time," Naru warned, shaking her head again as she went over the numbers.

"Will you make up your minds?" Mitsune snapped. "Are we mourning or cheering, already?"

"Hmm," Motoko noised, tearing off her kendo outfit. Everyone stared, shocked, as she was wearing a pair of jeans and a comfortable looking short-sleeved shirt beneath. "His word of honor stated… that he would work without their help." She smiled faintly. "They said nothing of mine." With that she bounded away, landing at Ranma's side on the rooftop.


"That's good," Naru encouraged Mitsune, winking.

"I knew that."

"Well, if that's the way it's going to be, as the manager of this inn, I should take some measure of responsibility," Keitaro reasoned, climbing to his feet, and carefully crawling across the rooftop to offer what help he could.

"That's good!"

Naru winced, then shook her head. "We'll see — I'd better keep him out of trouble." She dashed into the inn, returning a moment later in shorts and a T-shirt, then followed Keitaro onto the roof.

"That's probably good," Mitsune reasoned, then turning to face Suu, who watched interestedly. "So, what about you?"

"Suu can help," she declared, grinning, and bouncing eagerly across the deck.

"That's also good," she observed to no one in particular, producing a small bottle of sake from one sleeve. "But someone's got to stay behind and cheer them on," she reasoned.

"Too true — and my favorite brand," Haruka interjected, appearing almost from nowhere, and taking the bottle from Mitsune's hands.

"Ack!" the girl exclaimed. "I was going to drink that!"

Haruka raised an eyebrow. "I could help them out," she reasoned, half-offering the bottle to Mitsune. "If you'll just watch over Sarah for me…."

Mitsune reached behind her back and produced a hardhat. "I'm a worker — I can do this!" she exclaimed, before scurrying out to join the others.

Haruka grinned to herself, nodding slightly, and pocketed the bottle. It would make a decent celebratory gift. All in all, however, things seemed to be coming together nicely.

The work proceeded quite neatly. Suu would happily break the old tiles, and Mitsune would follow, picking up the debris and stowing it safely — Suu would then sweep the area a second time and retrieve all the old nails. Once that was done, Naru would set out the new tiles, and Motoko would set the caulk. Keitaro would then hold the nails in place, and Ranma would hammer them home.

"Okay," Ranma grunted, as Suu and Mitsune uncovered a post that was obviously rotted through. "We need to get rid of this support, and replace it with good wood."

Motoko and Naru nodded, breaking off their tile setting. Suu and Mitsune proceeded onwards for one last row of tiles, then collapsed, trying to catch their breath. Ranma checked the position of the sun, then sighed, frowning. "Okay, Kanrinin, you stand on the top of the roof, and catch the beam when I throw it up to you, okay?"

Keitaro nodded absently, climbing to stand atop the roof beam, as Ranma jumped to the ground below. He blinked, eyes widening when a timber shot up from the earth below, directed at him. "Aaugh!" he exclaimed, panicking, and managing at the last moment to catch it by putting his palm out before him, stopping its advance. "Hey, that was easy," he reasoned, just before the beam began to fall back down. Panicking again, he nearly overbalanced in his attempt to catch it, but he kept it from falling off the roof.

Ranma hopped back up, and examined it. "It's a few centimeters too long," he said, eyeing the old support, and the length of the new segment.

"Easily adjusted," Motoko reasoned, her sword flashing. The ends of the beam fell off, Keitaro scrabbling to catch the new end again, though it was sized and shaped appropriately.

"Nice," Ranma said admiringly, checking the area where it would abut against the main support beam. "Now all we need to do is get this into place."

Naru obligingly took the length from Keitaro, and wedged it in next to the old one, a judicious palm-strike shattering the rotten support and leaving the replacement positioned almost perfectly. Ranma's eyebrow rose slightly, as he hammered it into precise position. "That was good," he congratulated the girl. She blushed, nodding, and wiping the sweat from her forehead.

"It's easy enough, if you know the trick," she said demurely. "Can't you do it?"

"I was afraid I'd break the wood," he admitted, securing it into its new home with a few nails. "You've got nice control. Kanrinin, while I fix the siding here, can you tear out this insulation?"

Sighing, Keitaro nodded, quickly donning gloves, and doing as Ranma instructed. In short order, the insulation around the rotten timber was replaced. Suu and Mitsune, recovered from their break, resumed leading the way, as the others swiftly replaced the tiles again.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, as their collective strength began to flag, reinforcements arrived in the form of Shinobu. The girl climbed to the roof carefully, bearing a tray covered with glasses of lemonade. "Hello," she greeted timidly. "I asked Haruka-san if I could help, and she said you'd be thirsty. You're doing a great job!" she encouraged, looking at the completed expanse of rooftop, and the segments still remaining.

"Let's take a break," Ranma managed, smiling slightly. The rest of the crew nodded eagerly, gratefully accepting the offered beverage.

"Ah, this is perfect, Shinobu-chan," Keitaro encouraged, draining his glass quickly. "Just the thing!"

The others offered their own tired thanks, before Shinobu took the empty collection of glasses down from the roof. "Just tile from here on," Ranma reasoned, staggering to his feet, and shaking his head. "Whenever you guys are ready."

"How about never," Naru groaned, climbing upright. "I'm going to be glad when this is over."

"Tell me about it," Mitsune sighed, following Suu's path of destruction across the old tiles.

"I…" Ranma began, but then sighed, shaking his head. "Okay, then."

They resumed their work, racing against the setting sun. As they worked together, their speed increased slightly, until they were working on the final segment of roof.

"Ten minutes to go," Keitaro gasped, Suu and Mitsune already done removing bad tiles, and lying in a heap on the newly-replaced roofing.

"Weak man," Motoko grumped. "I could do this for another day!"

"Speak for yourself," Naru groaned, putting the last tile in place, and collapsing to sit next to Mitsune.

Motoko smiled softly, applying the caulk under the edges of the tile, then moving to join the fallen members of the repair crew. Keitaro shook his head, saying nothing, as Ranma carefully hammered the nails into place. Not once had he struck Keitaro in the process, though the nails seemed to shoot into place after a single strike.

"Done," Keitaro and Ranma announced together, as the last tile was set.

"Ugh, I just hope the girls let us use the baths sometime tonight," Keitaro groaned, flopping over the peak of the roof to lie on his stomach. "Nice… shiny… roof."

"Yeah," Ranma sighed, scratching his head. "With a bit of time to spare, too," he added.

"And we don't even get paid," Mitsune grumped.

"Um… I wanted to say… thanks," Ranma finally managed, slumping to sit lower on the roof then Keitaro. "I don't think I could have done it alone… but… why did you decide to help me?"

"Because we have to stick together, us Todai hopefuls," Keitaro replied, grinning.

"Because you're trying your best for all of us," Naru said helpfully, recovering quickly from the strain of the day's work. "It's only right that we return the favor."

"Because you're fun to win with, and no one likes seeing you unhappy when you don't," Suu decided.

"Because you're cute when you're lifting heavy objects," Mitsune added, winking. "And it was the right thing to do."

"Because we all try to help each other," Shinobu said from the edge of the roof, where she had just climbed up.

"Because I begin to see things I denied myself before," Motoko murmured.

"Hinata-Sou is like a family, sometimes," Shinobu added again, smiling at the assembled tenants. "You did a great job, and Haruka-san told me all about why you were fighting your best… so I did my best, too. I made a big dinner for everyone — it's ready now. Please come downstairs and enjoy it. You've earned it!" The little girl bowed quietly, then climbed down the ladder, while the girls on the roof roused themselves.

"I'm going to rinse off in the baths, first," Naru announced. "Anyone else?"

"I'll go!" Mitsune exclaimed, climbing to her feet and following her, Suu trailing silently.

Keitaro stretched, groaning quietly, then shook his head. "I'm going to use the upstairs bath," he said. "Unless you want to use it first, Oe-san?"

"Go right ahead, Kanrinin," Ranma assured him. "I'm going to cool off for a little bit." The manager nodded, making his way to the ladder, and vanishing quickly.

It was silent then, Ranma sighing in relief that the job was over, and luxuriating in the soft breeze that wended its way across the rooftop.

"There's more to it than that, of course," Motoko said quietly.

Ranma stiffened, his eyes widening as he realized she hadn't left yet. "What… do you mean?" he asked, turning to look at her, framed in the light of the setting sun.

Motoko looked away, her profile cleanly silhouetted, and pursed her lips. "I don't think… I… truly ever gave you the respect you deserved… and it occurs to me that much of this work…." She trailed off, and swallowed, turning to face him, as the sun finally passed below the horizon, and her face came into view again. "Much of what we had to do was also my fault. It was… careless of me to start the fight with you that I did. The one… that damaged the place enough to need these repairs."

"Oh," he said quietly. "I… wasn't…." He struggled for a moment, then sighed, shaking his head. "Motoko-chan, I'm the farthest thing from perfect in the world — I screwed up, too. I think… that fight we had… the one we called a stalemate… I think I'm glad it was like that, because I think… we both were responsible."

"You become wiser… or at least know how to sound it," Motoko laughed, sinking to sit on the rooftop.

"Thanks." They were quiet for a moment, watching the first stars come out. "Why the change of clothes?"

Motoko laughed quietly again — almost a giggle. "I… wanted to find something that was not so demeaning as my sister suggested… but still comfortable."

"Sounds reasonable to me — you should try sparring in an outfit like that. It may be easier for you to move in."

"Really?" Motoko's tone of voice was evaluating. "I'll consider it."

He nodded into the darkness, his eyes beginning to adjust to the change. "Well, Taiso's still waiting. I should talk to him, I guess. We did finish, after all."

Motoko nodded back at him, and he walked across the rooftop, hopping down to land at the edge of the pool of light cast by the construction lamp that Taiso had set up across the field of workers. They had broken up into groups of five or so, playing cards with one-another. "So," Ranma began, grinning, "we made it."

"Looks like the sun's set, to me," Taiso countered, crossing his arms over his chest.

"What?" Ranma exclaimed. "We finished before then — we were just cooling off after the work was done."

"'We,' you say?" Taiso asked, one eyebrow rising. His facade crumbled, and he shook his head, sighing. "Fair enough, fair enough. The old lady came out and told us it was done — the boys could see it before the sun set… I thought for sure you would miss the section over the baths, but you got it…." He shrugged. "You know, kid, you could have been something great."

"What do you mean?" Ranma asked, furrowing his brow.

"What do you care, it's the insurance company's money, not yours, right?" he asked. "But… I can see where you're coming from. You gotta take care of your little sister, and she lives here. And more than that, you want to look out for your girlfriend, there." He nodded at Motoko, who stiffened, blushing silently. "Can't fault you for that."

Ranma's eyebrow ticked, and he nodded carefully. "Yeah," he managed, forcing a laugh. "My sister."

"Whatever it was, you proved you got heart, kid," Taiso admitted, shrugging again. "That's what matters. You're off the crew — I'll give you two weeks of severance. My boys will come back tomorrow, and we'll be done before two weeks. For real, this time."

The identical-looking men of the construction crew rose to their feet in unison, and saluted Ranma. "Good job, Oe!" they roared as one, pumping their fists into the air.

Ranma flushed faintly, and took off his hardhat, bowing to the men.

After he and Motoko had returned from their respective baths, and enjoyed the veritable feast that Shinobu had assembled for them, Ranma mused aloud, "I could have sworn I forgot to take care of the section over the baths."

Haruka smiled vaguely, but said nothing.

"Well, anyway, here's to a job well done!" Mitsune enthused, pouring sake for everyone at the table. "Let's drink to it!"

"Hey!" Keitaro protested, snatching cups from Suu and Shinobu, and then managing to spill the cold sake on Ranma. "You aren't old enough — oops, sorry, Oe-san."

"Ooh, Ranma, a white T-shirt?"

"Keitaro-sempai, why don't you follow me outside for a moment, I'd like to have a word with you in private…."

"Narusegawa? Huh? What? Um, oh, er, it's really okay, you— Ow, ow, ow! Haruka-basan, let go of my ear! I can go outside myself!"


To be continued.

Authors notes: Special thanks to Ginrai, Edward Simons, DB Sommer, Dracos the Dark Heretic, and all of the other Refugees that helped me revise this chapter.

Brian Randall

Chapter 7
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