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"So, how exactly does ki move through a body?" Mutsumi asked curiously, looking between Ranma and Motoko.

Ranma said nothing, reading a scroll he had produced from his room and nodding thoughtfully. Motoko glanced at him, then answered, "Think of it like blood vessels going through a body." She considered that for a moment, then shook her head. "No, that's not quite it. Think of it like the passageways through a house."

"And the ki would be the people who lived inside?" Mutsumi asked thoughtfully.

"Yes! And with the passageways blocked, certain elements of ki — or people in this house — would have trouble reaching all of the points that they need to," Motoko explained.

Mutsumi frowned, then raised a fingertip to her lips. "So, what happens when the ki is blocked from getting where it needs to go?"

Keitaro stumbled across the muddied lawn, staggering as though drunk. He stopped a few paces away, and lurched from one foot to the other unsteadily. "They… patched… the hole," he said aloud. "It's… all… blocked off…."

"It would cause the strength of your… life-force to decrease," Ranma explained slowly, glancing at the manager. "Eventually, your body would just give up, even if it were otherwise healthy."

Keitaro gurgled softly and began to wobble on his feet.

"Ah, I see," Mutsumi remarked. "And the ki is blocked through me?"

"To a large degree, yes," Motoko answered, eyeing Keitaro worriedly. "Oe-sensei and I will help you unblock those passageways — part of it is by proper breathing, and… he will use pressure points for most of the rest."

"And what will that do?"

"It'd be a lot like… um… fixing a door that was stuck, or opening a window that was closed," Ranma offered. "Maybe like adding a new door to a blank wall so you could connect two rooms that needed to be close together."

"Patched up," Keitaro mumbled.

"So I can be saved?" the girl asked, as Keitaro collapsed on the lawn and began to twitch weakly. "I hope it's not too late."

Chapter Eight: Trials, Testing, and Temporary Employment

A Ranma ½ / Love Hina / Golden Boy crossover story
by Brian Randall

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

Notes: Divergences should become apparent as relevant.

"Um… with any luck," Ranma answered, glancing again at Keitaro for a moment. "Anyway, this lists a series of exercises we can use to help improve your health — and some pressure points, like Motoko-chan said."

The kendoka nodded, taking a moment to study the scroll herself.

"How does it work?" Mutsumi asked, clasping her hands together and cocking her head to one side.

"Well, think of the pressure points as… opening doors between the rooms in a house. The actual movement would be the trick of having your ki — the people in the house — move through the rooms, which will help strengthen you," Ranma explained, rolling up the scroll and putting it into his pocket. "Until you learn more about meditation, all you'd need to do is practice simple exercises to encourage the movement of ki through your own body."

"Okay!" Mutsumi enthused. "I understand. How do we begin?"

"First, we'll show you the special kata you'll need to move through — it's fairly close to the exercises I showed you yesterday. Are you ready?"

"Yes!" The girl nodded eagerly.

Ranma nodded, and moved slowly through the kata, Motoko and Mutsumi watching closely. Keitaro finally picked himself up enough to sit up and watch curiously. "Like that," Ranma said, once he was done.

"Oh, that looks graceful," Mutsumi cooed. "You think I can do it, too?"

"It should be simple," Motoko encouraged her. "Just move slowly, and you can do it easily."

Nodding, Mutsumi attempted to repeat the motions Ranma had demonstrated, though he halted her a few times to correct her positioning until she was able to mimic his performance nearly flawlessly. "Is this it?" she asked, uncertain.

"Yeah, that's it. Well, I'll hit the pressure points, if you're ready," Ranma said slowly. "But… before I do that, you need to understand that we need to do this every day for at least a month. Is that okay with you?"

Mutsumi nodded again happily, smiling. "I would like to be able to not fall down so often," she replied. "If this will help me, I am willing to try it — especially if it helps me study with you, Keitaro-kun, and Naru-chan!"

"Okay, well, the next part… is… that I need to touch you," Ranma explained, blushing slightly. He raised a hand to his chest, and indicated a pair of points. "There are two pressure points here, and three on your back that I need to hit — are you sure that's okay?"

"I'm watching — if he tries anything perverse I will catch him," Motoko added.

Ranma shot her an annoyed look, then turned back to Mutsumi. "Are you okay with it?" he asked again.

"Oh, that's rather forward, isn't it?" she asked, suddenly apprehensive.

Motoko produced a bucket from behind her, and splashed her teacher. "How about now?" she asked, smirking at the newly transformed redhead.

"That's not nearly as bad!" Mutsumi exclaimed, smiling brightly. "Shall we begin?"

Keitaro's eyes widened, and life returned to his gaze as he returned to his normal state, save that his nose was bleeding. Ranma stepped behind Mutsumi, reaching up under her arm, and poked two fingers into Mutsumi's chest, touching three separate points on her back at the same time. The redhead held the pressure points for a moment, until stray hairs on Mutsumi's head began to rise, as though statically charged.

"I think that did it," she said cautiously, stepping back around in front of Mutsumi. "How do you feel?"

"I feel a little stronger," the dark-haired girl replied thoughtfully. "Should I go through the exercises again?"

"Yep! In about a month, we'll proceed to exercise number two, and according to these instructions, you'll be done," Ranma replied, smiling. With Ranma and Motoko repeating the exercises at her side, Mutsumi went through them again.

Shaking his head, Ranma sighed, turning his attention to the practice test before him. Focus. This required focus. He mumbled under his breath, "Study, study, study, study!" He would get through this!

"Pencils up!" Sighing, Ranma shook his head, glancing at his fellow would-be Todai students.

Keitaro looked confident as he took care of his answer sheet. At his side, Naru looked less sure of herself, though still hopeful.

"Do you think you did well?" Naru asked, glancing between the two once they were on the sidewalk and headed back towards the inn. "You look confident, Keitaro."

"Ah… I think so, but we won't know until we get home and compare answers," Keitaro replied, shaking his head. "What about you, Oe-san?"

"I get the feeling I totally blew my math questions," he sighed, shaking his head. "Still trying to correct everything I got wrong from Taiso." He brightened suddenly, smiling. "But I think I did at least fair everywhere else."

"I know the feeling," Naru offered sympathetically. "I had to skip over the conversion factors entirely — I completely forgot about them."

"At least it's only a practice test," Ranma reasoned, crossing his arms behind his head and gazing upwards. "Ah, a clear day… should be the last day the construction crew is around, too."

"You're a big fan of clear weather?" Keitaro asked, raising an eyebrow.

"For obvious reasons," Naru added, whacking Keitaro playfully upside the head. "Did you forget so easily?"

Keitaro chuckled, ducking his head in embarrassment as Tamago fluttered across the breeze and landed on his shoulder. "Sorry, sorry… but I'm glad that we're all studying together. With the four of us, I think we'll make it into Todai for sure!" He turned to the turtle curiously. "And what are you doing here?"

"Myu!" the turtle chirped worriedly.

"What?" Ranma snapped, standing at attention and peering at Tamago. "Mutsumi's fallen in a well?"

"MYU!" the turtle chirped a second time, shaking its head quickly.

"Oh! She's about to be hit by a car," he said, nodding. "Wait, that's not good." He shook his head, flowing into motion. It was as though there were some form of step-up to a higher state, he observed, marveling at how disconnected he felt from himself at the moment.

The distance between himself and the girl blurred, stretching, then compressing, so it seemed like he took only a single step forward before he caught her in his arms, and lashed out with one foot, pushing upwards and off the car that was about to collide with them. They soared over it, the girl protectively held to his chest, as he somersaulted, rebounding off the side of a building to come to rest before Naru and Keitaro.

Mutsumi blinked, as he set her down. "Oh, my," she managed, dazed. "Thank you, Ranma-kun."

"No problem," he dismissed, ignoring the gawking bystanders. "You okay?"

"I've been better," she admitted, wobbling on her feet.

Ranma nodded, as the images of what he'd done filtered into place. He hadn't even managed to realize what was going on — he'd just reacted to it. But thinking back, he could see himself joking with the turtle, pretending he could understand its speech, when he caught sight of Mutsumi, about to stumble into an oncoming car. And that had — again — triggered the same sequence that had allowed him to defeat Happosai.

What was it that made it happen? Was it that she reminded him of… Kasumi? No, she wasn't that similar — it must be something else. He banished the thoughts, noting them down in his book before he forgot them entirely. Enough time to consider it later. For now he had other things to worry about.

"I've been emotionally battered," she explained, producing a sheet of paper. "My last exam score was very poor."

Keitaro took a step back, waving a Shinto ward frantically as though to banish the results. Ranma and Naru merely winced sympathetically. "How well do you suppose you would have done if you had signed the test?" Ranma asked, reading the note at the top.

Mutsumi looked thoughtful, then shook her head, while Tamago drifted to her shoulder. "I'm not sure," she admitted.

"Well, why don't we check the results, then? I'm sure it'll be higher than… er… negative one hundred percent," he reasoned.

Mutsumi offered a wan smile, and nodded. "Okay," she agreed. "Thank you again for saving me — I wouldn't want to get hit by another car today."

"Another car…" Keitaro began.

"…today?" Naru finished, the both of them wide-eyed.

Ranma merely blinked, stunned. "Right," he said after a moment. "Let's go back to the inn and check those test scores out."

"Well," Naru reasoned, as they climbed the stone stairs to the inn, "there's still another seventy days before we need to worry about the test itself. We have plenty of time to improve."

"True, true," Keitaro said, nodding his head.

"Where are we studying today?" Ranma asked, stretching. "Your room, Kanrinin?"

"Why don't we use my room?" Naru asked. "They just finished fixing it up yesterday."

"Ooh, forgot about that," Ranma realized aloud, snapping his fingers. "I'll catch up with you at the entrance — I'm going to get some cold water from Haruka." He bounced away before anyone else could say anything.

Naru merely shrugged. "Today should be the last day, right?"

"Oh, no," Mutsumi replied, shaking her head. "Ranma-kun has only been helping me for a week. He said it would take a whole month!"

"Ah, we meant the last day the construction workers would be here," Keitaro explained, laughing nervously.

"Oh… but the tea-shop doesn't look like it's done yet," she said, pointing to the smaller structure. The teashop indeed looked as though just over half of the roofing tiles had been replaced so far.

"Oe-san is working on that all alone, though," Naru explained. "He'll probably finish it up in a week."

"Haruka told me she was paying me for three weeks, so I might as well use them all. It gives me more time to study," Ranma said, female once more, at the top of the steps. "So, up to the third floor?"

"Oh! I know a shortcut!" Mutsumi exclaimed excitedly, once she entered the doorway.

"Eh? Shortcut?" Naru and Keitaro asked together.

Mutsumi merely nodded happily, and pushed a large box at the side of the stairs away from the wall, revealing a low tunnel leading deeper into the inn.

"How could we have missed this?" Keitaro asked, surprise in his voice.

"Yeah," Naru managed, speechless at the sight. "And… we never found one once when we… er… made holes in the walls on accident."

"I'm kind of wondering how we managed to fix up the place without noticing something like this," Ranma added, frowning.

Mutsumi giggled good-naturedly, and dropped to the floor to crawl into the opening. "Come on!" she called out over her shoulder. "Follow me!"

The four crawled through the dark tunnel, quickly finding themselves crawling through an entrance hidden behind one of the scrolls on the wall of Naru's room. "How come I never knew about this!" the girl protested. "I've been here for three years!"

"Mutsumi-san… Are you psychic?" Keitaro asked curiously.

"I… don't know how I knew," the girl admitted, suddenly thoughtful. "My memory is sometimes not very good."

"I know how that goes," Ranma said quietly, smirking. "That's why I take notes about everything."

Mutsumi nodded thoughtfully, then clapped her hands together, smiling. "Shall we begin?"

"Ah… right," Naru said, shaking her head. "Now, here's the guide, let's check our answers and self-correct."

Naru focused herself on her test, checking her results carefully. Certainly she would have to do better than she had last time…. And she had. Right off the bat, she got the first answer correct. Smiling, she continued to check through the answers, until she had tallied all of her results.

"Whew!" she announced, setting her sheet down. "I got four hundred and seventy points!"

"Out of five hundred?" Keitaro asked, impressed. "That's nice! I only managed to get three hundred and eighty six."

"Three hundred and ninety," Ranma contributed, shaking her head. "The math killed me."

"Oh?" Mutsumi asked, finishing her calculations. "I only got four hundred and eighty five. Is that good?"

"Uh… that's… very good," Naru managed, blinking. "If… you score that high, why didn't you already make it into Todai?"

"Oh, well, sometimes I forget to write my name on the test," she explained. "Or get sick and faint before the test. I think that's what keeps me from getting in."

"Er… well, it looks like me and Kanrinin here really need to hit the books, but your training should keep you from fainting as easily," Ranma said, smiling.

"That will be nice!" Mutsumi exclaimed cheerfully.

"Right. Until then, more studying?" Ranma asked.

"Uh… right," Naru said nodding. "We just need to identify our weak areas and improve. Oe, was it just math for you?"

Ranma surveyed her test, and grimaced. "My English could've been better," she admitted. "Too bad they want English instead of Mandarin."

"You know Mandarin?" Keitaro asked, glancing at Ranma's results. "It looks like your English isn't too bad — you know three languages?"

"Er… yeah," Ranma replied, shrugging her shoulders. "Um… I learned a little bit of Mandarin when I was younger, and was taught… more later." She cleared her throat. "Anyway, it's a long story."

"Oh, I love stories!" Mutsumi said brightly. "What is the story about?"

Ranma blushed darkly, shaking her head. "Ask me some other day."

The girl nodded, letting the question drop, and opened a study guide.

"So this is your room?" Naru asked, glancing around.

"Yep," Ranma replied, ushering Keitaro and Mutsumi in behind Naru.

The walls were all bare, save the scrolls that had come with the room — scrolls that probably concealed more hidden passageways — and a single framed image of a girl with purple hair sitting on the shelf in the corner. The floor was equally bare, except for the bicycle, which was standing unobtrusively in another corner, and then the table that Ranma had set up.

As Naru took a seat, Keitaro frowned at the cloth of the kotatsu. "This looks like the table in Haruka-san's apartment."

"It was," Ranma replied with a shrug. "When I finished fixing up the inside of her place, she decided she was going to get new furniture. She gave me an old futon and this table pretty cheap." He patted the tabletop affectionately, smiling. "It was a little beat up, and the heater makes some noise when you first turn it on, but it's solid — I refinished it, patched the holes in the cloth, and I think it cleaned up nicely."

"It looks very well cared for," Mutsumi said, running her fingers across the smooth wooden surface, before smiling at Ranma.

"I studied carpentry for a while," Ranma admitted, embarrassed. "Anyway, let's get to studying. We've only got so many more days left before we test."

"Ooh!" Mutsumi exclaimed, opening a photo album that Naru hadn't even seen her pick up. The first page had a single picture on it, that of a confused looking Ranma, male at the time, looking at a bicycle with a blue ribbon tied onto it. "Is that your bicycle, Ranma-kun?" she asked, sliding to sit next to Ranma and show him the picture better, then pointing to the same bicycle in the corner.

"Er… yes," he said, nodding. "I wasn't expecting it, but Aniki saved the money to buy the parts, then put it together himself — taught me how to take care of it and everything."

"Do you have any pictures of your older brother?" Keitaro asked, leaning to see the picture more closely himself.

"Um… I'm afraid not," he admitted. "He was the one taking the pictures, after all."

"Do we have time for this?" Naru asked, frowning. "Shouldn't we be studying?"

"You mean you're not at all curious?" Keitaro asked, raising an eyebrow.

Naru shook her head. "Oh, fine," she grumped, crossing her arms over her chest, but unable to hide her smile. "Oe-san, do you have any other pictures?"

He sighed, flipped the page, and revealed a scattered collection of himself in female form doing various jobs around an onsen. The most prominent image was of her giving a 'victory' sign towards the camera while grinning.

"You really are a cutie as a waitress," Mitsune teased.

"Yeah, well— YAAAH!" Ranma turned his head to look at the young woman in shock. "When did you get here?"

"I had a feeling," she said, grinning.

"And I wanted to learn more about Ranmas!" Suu piped up, climbing out from under the table to sit opposite Ranma.

Shinobu nodded shyly from Suu's side.

"Right," Ranma grumped. "Where's Motoko-chan, then?"

A delicate cough sounded, and the kendoka had the decency to look embarrassed, stepping out from behind Naru. "I was… curious, myself," she admitted.

Ranma sighed, shaking his head. "Fine, fine. I'll tell you the story of how I learned Mandarin."

The tenants nodded, as Ranma flipped a page to an image of a slightly younger male version of himself. He and a girl next to him were giving identical cheesy grins and victory signs, each with one arm about the other's waist.

"Ooh!" Mutsumi cooed. "Ranma-kun — is this your girlfriend?"

"Um… my wife, actually," he replied, chuckling nervously.

Ranma was married? It was all Naru could do not to gawk. He had said something like that not long ago, but she had attributed it to him being drunk — or hung over.

At the sudden gasps of shock sounding from around him, he cleared his throat. "Um… it's kind of a… strange story, but…." He took a moment to school his thoughts, then nodded, some expression Naru couldn't quite identify flashing across his face. "See, her name was Shan Pu…."

"This look like a good spot to stop for a bit?" Kintaro asked, bringing his bicycle to a halt, then checking the brakes.

Ranma nodded, checking the position of the sun in the sky. "I think this is better in summer," he said. "More hours where it's safe to be on the road."

"Very true," Kintaro agreed, chuckling. "You want to set up the tents, or cook tonight?"

"Your cooking is better, Aniki," Ranma deferred. "I'll set up the tents."

"Okay, then," Kintaro said, climbing off his bike, and setting his backpack on the ground. Ranma did the same, and the two proceeded to set up their camp. Within the span of a few minutes, Kintaro had gotten a fire started, and Ranma had finished setting up the tents.

While Kintaro set up the small pot, Ranma went out to look for more deadfalls, gathering up a small supply of firewood. It only took him a few minutes to gather enough for the night, and then he returned to the camp, setting it a careful pace and a half away from the blaze.

"Smells good," he encouraged.

"Oh, we'll teach you to cook yet," Kintaro chuckled, grinning. "Outside of an inn, anyway."

"Campfire cooking is not nearly as easy," Ranma replied, smirking.

"Fair enough," Kintaro admitted. "Where do you want to head next?"

Ranma considered things for a bit, and frowned. "What did you have in mind?"

"I was thinking of heading north — spending some time in Hokkaido for a while," Kintaro suggested. "I've heard there's a few good teachers in the area. We can spend the winter working for the department of public works, and then when the thaw comes around, we can go to somewhere around Osaka."

"Osaka?" Ranma raised an eyebrow. Both locations had the advantage of being far from Nerima.

"I know someone who runs a dojo in the area," Kintaro clarified. "She might be willing to let us train with her for…. Say, did you hear that?"

Ranma raised an eyebrow, and glanced over his shoulder, looking into the darkness surrounding the camp. He shook his head quietly, but Kintaro just scowled.

"Come on into the light," the man instructed. "We're not going to hurt you."

Ranma's eyes widened in surprise, as Shampoo hesitantly emerged from the darkness, her eyes fearful, and locked on Ranma. "Airen?" she asked softly, biting her lip.

"Shampoo?" he managed to squeak out.

She smiled at him, stealing a glance towards Kintaro before she sank to her knees, a few paces away from Ranma. "Was… curious. Wanted to know why… Airen left."

"Ah…" he managed, Kintaro rising to his feet, and balling up his fists angrily.

"You'd better be careful," the older man warned, frowning. "Ranma is my little brother, you know, and he left Nerima for a good reason."

"Shampoo doesn't want to make Airen unhappy," Shampoo said quickly, shaking her head. "Does not want to make Airen angry… but wants to know why Airen left."

"That's…." He swallowed, shaking his head. "Don't try and make me go back," he warned. "That's… not part of my life anymore."

"Shampoo does not mind," she said mildly. "Shampoo not think that Nerima is home."

Kintaro relaxed visibly, sinking to a sitting position, and stirring the stew in the cook pot. "All right, then," he said, shrugging.

"So… Ranma… is angry at Shampoo?" she asked, biting her lip.

"N… no, I'm not angry at you," Ranma admitted, shaking his head. "I was… I had…. Shampoo, do you know about my mother?"

The girl nodded slightly, frowning. "Shampoo… hear about Ranma's mother from spatula-girl," she admitted. "Ranma hides curse from mother, or have to die?"

"Yeah," Ranma admitted, wincing. Kintaro grimaced, shaking his head. "Um… my… the…." Swallowing, he shook his head. "Nodoka… I… she…." He broke off again, unable to put it into words, then hung his head. "She rejected me, Shampoo."

The girl gasped, clasping her hands together worriedly. "Is no good!" she said tearfully. "Ranma is good boy — very much man! How… she not see this?"

"I dunno," he said, his voice thickening. "But she didn't think I was good enough."

"Oh, is too-too stupid woman, not see Ranma is man," Shampoo opined, edging slightly closer to Ranma. "But… Shampoo think that not only reason Ranma leave."

He shook his head, raising his eyes to meet hers. "It was too much," he said quietly. "My life was… crazy. If it wasn't one thing, it was another, and something happened that I got blamed for…." He swallowed, shaking his head. "I… couldn't stay any longer. I… can't let that life be mine."

"But… Shampoo… is married to Ranma," she said quietly. "Law of village…."

"I can't… let that be part of my life anymore, Shampoo," he insisted, shaking his head. "Shampoo… I'm sorry."

"Maybe… is other way?" the girl asked hopefully. "Ranma… say he married to Shampoo for one month. After month, Shampoo… for Ranma… say rite of divorce invoked. Then… no more be married, and… honor satisfied."

Ranma blinked at the girl, realizing what she was offering to give up. "For…. This is my issue of honor," he said, nodding slowly. "This is what I got myself into, not… Pop. Yes… Okay, Shampoo. I… will help you regain your honor as much as I can… without… going back with you."

The girl lunged across the distance, trapping him in a tight hug. "Shampoo like Ranma very much!" she exclaimed, bright tears trickling down her cheek. "When… Shampoo think Ranma angry, Shampoo very sad. Shampoo will try to make Ranma happy, help him, and not be problem."

"It was a matter of honor," Ranma explained, looking at the picture of himself with the girl. "She had to be married to me because… I beat her in a fight. The laws of her village say if she can't keep me as a husband, she's not fit to be married to anyone else." He swallowed, shaking his head, and glancing around the assembled tenants. There was only so much of the story he could really tell….

They seemed transfixed by the image of Shampoo. "Wow," Shinobu said after a moment. "She was… beautiful."

"Yeah… and she was a good friend, too," Ranma remembered sadly.

"But…. How were you married to her if you were engaged to that ninja?" Shinobu asked, biting her lower lip.

"Eh… that… um…." He shook his head. "My pops engaged me to Ucchan when we were kids… even though I was also engaged to someone else."

"You had three girls after you at once?" Naru asked, eyes widening. "Humph, stringing them along, I bet."

"Nothing like that!" Ranma protested, shaking his head. "I was a kid — I wasn't ready to settle down with any of them — period. It wasn't like I was asking for relationships. And… things got messed up later…. Uh. Anyway. I'm telling you about Shampoo right now."

Suu nodded with interest as Ranma flipped the page, which showed Ranma and Shampoo bicycling along the road, Mt. Fuji standing clearly in the background. Assorted other pictures showed Ranma and Shampoo about their various camps, and running through the woods.

"She… taught me a lot about tracking, and how to speak Mandarin," he said quietly. "There was a loophole in the law that she could use to get both of us free. If I agreed to be married to her for a month… then she could decide that she didn't want me, and declare the marriage nullified. Since… it was my own honor, I agreed. I owed her that, and for the next… well… three months, we stayed together, traveling across Japan."

"Not bad," Keitaro said, nodding at the image of Shampoo in a bathing suit, winking at the camera.

"Watch where you put those eyes!" Naru grumbled, shooting Keitaro a dark look.

"Er… she can't actually swim," Ranma said quietly, before Keitaro could reply. "She's cursed, too."

"Does she turn into a boy?" Mitsune asked, raising an eyebrow.

"She turned into a… cat," Ranma said flatly, shivering.

"Oh, that must have been cute!" Mutsumi exclaimed, clapping her hands together.

"Uh… I don't really like… cats," Ranma managed, paling slightly.

"He's actually terrified to death of them," Keitaro said helpfully, earning himself a glare from the martial artist.

"Anyway," Ranma overrode the manager, shaking his head. "When she left…."

She sat on a rock, staring at the sunset in the distance. "Shan Pu?" Ranma asked worriedly in Mandarin, looking at the girl. "Is… something wrong?"

She shook her head, smiling at him. "Yes, unfortunately."

"What is it?"

"It's been a lot longer than a month," she answered, uncurling, and hopping to the ground, near Ranma. "I… liked spending time with you. But I need to go back. Otherwise…."

"I get the idea," he replied, sighing. "And… I can't go back with you. But… the time we spent together, it… felt like we really were married. And I liked learning with you."

"You learn quickly," she said, smiling again. "Ranma… the sun is setting, and this is… the time that it should be done. I want to give you this." She produced a pair of glittering metallic bracers from her pack, and sighed. "These… are dragon-hide armor. My great-grandmother said that she got them from another village in China, and this… is the most important piece of my… dowry. I want to give it to you now."

He accepted the bracers hesitantly, feeling the cool cloth-like substance between his fingers. "Shan Pu," he breathed, examining the material. Even if it wasn't dragon-hide, it was beautiful, and they felt much more durable than they looked. "This is… wonderful."

"Do you know what this means?" she asked, her voice catching.

"I… what does this mean?" he asked, turning and looking into her eyes.

The last light of the dying sun reflected there, and they burned, with sorrow and intensity. "This means… that I am divorcing you," she said quietly, the fire shimmering into a hundred facets, forming in tears that trickled down her face. "Take this to remember—" her voice broke, and she nearly choked, closing her eyes. The hundred facets fell away, scattering a thousand droplets of fire across the ground. "To remember me," she sobbed, as the tears continued, until the fire vanished.

Ranma was speechless. He had known this was coming — they had planned it, after all. Both of them had agreed about it… and yet… yet he could see how much it hurt her. He could feel it too, after all. And she had given him such a priceless gift to thank him. What did he have to give to her?

Swallowing, he took the dragon's whisker from his hair, tentatively offering it to her. "I… don't have anything nearly as nice to offer you," he managed. "But… this is something that… I would… like you to have to remember me, too."

She shook her head, taking the whisker in her hands, and wordlessly re-braiding Ranma's hair. Once it was done, he heard the hiss of something slicing through the air. He blinked, as she brought her hands from behind his back, and showed him nearly half of his pigtail. "This is… tradition," she said. "Keep… the whisker, Ranma, my former husband."

He was too stunned to protest. Too full of sorrow to feel angry that she'd cut off some of his hair.

Too confused to stop her before it was too late.

She was gone before he returned to the campsite, and by the time he considered following her, he realized what a bad idea it would be.

"When she left, she gave me these dragon-hide bracers to remember her," he said softly, indicating the bands on his wrists. "So now you know the story."

"So you're single now?" Mitsune asked, raising an eyebrow. His story certainly shed some light on the information Ukyou had given about Ranma's prior life, and it was something to consider.

"She left… I guess about three years ago," Ranma said with a shrug. "Probably a little more. She never replied to my letter… and I haven't seen her since."

"Oh, but that's cute," Mutsumi said, smiling. "She was very pretty, Ranma-kun. Do you still love her?"

"She was a nice girl," Ranma said quietly. "But… that was a long time ago. Anyway, she's the one who taught me Mandarin."

"This is the story you couldn't tell us a few days ago? You didn't need to tell us that whole story just to tell us how you learned Mandarin, you know," Naru noted.

"Yeah, well, I figured I was going to have to explain it eventually anyway, ever since Kitsune tried to sneak my photo album out of my room to look through it herself," he replied, smirking at the woman in question.

"Busted!" Mitsune exclaimed, giggling nervously and blushing.

Ranma stretched, yawning quietly, and closed the photo album. "That's it for today — the rest of the pictures are just the different places we went — some nice shots of Hokkaido, and stuff. But that's the story."

"Wow," Shinobu said, smiling. "That's nice! I was afraid you had a sad and unfortunate past, but I'm glad that some good things happened to you!"

"Eh? I generally consider myself pretty lucky," Ranma said, shrugging. "I've got a pretty happy past, mostly. But, um, we're getting distracted. We should get back to our—"

"Oi!" Haruka called out, leaning into the room. "You want to earn a quick yen, Oe? Some delivery guys dropped off my new furniture, but it's at the bottom of the stairs."

Ranma raised an eyebrow, considering it, then shrugged again. "Okay," he replied, rising to his feet, and vanishing into the hallway.

"Eh… I could have done that for you, Haruka-san," Keitaro offered, frowning.

"Yeah, but he won't scratch anything up." She paused for a moment, considering something, then frowned, stealing a glance at Mutsumi before she focused her attention back on Keitaro. "And the lug thinks that he owes me for the beat-up table and futon I unloaded on him."

"Oh, so you felt bad for taking advantage of him even more?" Mitsune asked, smirking.

Haruka coughed quietly, then cleared her throat, shooting Mitsune a level look. "Hush, you," she said. "Anyway, I want to tell Ranma where I want the new things to go."

"More heavy lifting!" Mitsune cheered. "I'll keep you company."

"How noble," Haruka drawled, turning around and walking down the hallway.

Motoko awoke slowly, blinking her eyes to banish the sleep still in them. A glance revealed that Suu was no longer there, though the futon was still warm where she had slept. Sitting up, she shook her head, quickly dressing and marching down the stairs.

It was early enough that almost everyone else would be asleep, the sun not yet even peeking over the horizon. Usually only Ranma was awake this early, and even then he seemed to prefer sleeping in when he could. Not, Motoko supposed, that she could blame him. He tended to work fairly hard, and stay up late studying.

He wasn't outside yet, which probably meant he was sleeping right then, too. Well, that just meant there was more time for her to warm up before he got downstairs. Her unarmed forms were improving under his guidance, though she'd seen him pick up more than a few tricks of her own. The last time he'd snatched her sword, he'd managed to reproduce her own air-slash technique. His own barehanded ki-attack was beyond her at the moment, but he'd dismissed it as being designed specifically for himself.

That aside, she'd improvised at least one of her own, and thought she might be close to learning another… but before that happened, she'd have to… wonder at the large wooden deck covering what had once been one of the larger craters in the backyard. Had the construction crew left it before they departed?

"This is new," she mused, inspecting the neatly lined rows of planks and boards. There was a square section near the center, looking much like a trapdoor. Motoko approached it cautiously, seeing a strip of cloth lying on it. She picked it up in one hand, and frowned at it curiously. It looked like a belt, but someone had covered it almost completely in…. "Turtle food?" she mused.

"Motoko!" a voice called from the house, warning her. "Step away!" Suu rushed towards her, looking worried. The kendoka shrugged, and stepped forward, forgetting the location of the trapdoor. It dropped out from under her, and her hands managed to tangle in the belt of turtle-food before she landed roughly, thanks to the fact that she couldn't see what was beneath her. "Suu! What's going on here?" she yelled.

"It's a super-special training technique," the girl explained, peering down from the trapdoor above. "I got it from a book that Haruka-san dropped, but I changed my mind after I saw what a Ranma did around cats. I'll get help!" The girl's footsteps echoed across the planks above her, pattering quickly away.

"Training technique?" Motoko wondered quietly, as her vision adjusted enough for her to see light coming through the boards above. A sudden bolt of terror ran down her spine at a sudden thought. "Wait, which book? Suu! Let me out of here right now!"

Light flickered on, in the form of an aged computer monitor of some sort, spilling illumination across the floor of the pit. Irregularly spaced and sized stones lined nearly the entire floor, but it appeared to be otherwise empty. Except for the pair of glowing eyes atop the monitor….

Motoko took a nervous step backwards as the eyes widened, and she was able to make out the tired expression of what looked like a sleepy turtle. The monitor made an unhealthy noise, and spat out a cloud of smoke, completely waking the sleepy turtle up, as more lights came on.

As more light poured into the pit, Motoko realized with horror that each of the stones was actually another turtle.

Keitaro made a face at the rising sun, brushing his teeth. It was too early to be awake after so much studying. And when he thought about it, there was still so much more studying to do. He shook his head, spitting into the sink, then rinsing his mouth out.

"Ah, another peaceful day," he said aloud, as Shinobu sleepily trudged to the sink to brush her own teeth.

She offered a quiet nod at that, as a bloodcurdling shriek of terror rent the morning calm. A rounded blur streaked with black shot past both of them so quickly that Shinobu's hair fluttered in its wake for a few seconds before it subsided. "Good morning, Oe-san," she said tiredly to no one in particular.

"Uh-oh," Keitaro whimpered. "Oe-san?"

The blur was gone, of course, and that meant Keitaro would have to run after it to see what had happened.

He reached the side balcony in time to watch Ranma descend on a wooden platform, arms first. The wood seemed to collectively tremble for a moment, then explode into a massive cloud of splinters and dust. The shock wave threw Suu, standing nearby, off her feet, and rained fragments of the deck across the already ruined yard.

Before the dust and debris had even stopped falling, Ranma leapt up out of the pit, Motoko in his arms. He bounced across the yard for a moment to collect Suu, then landed on the balcony next to Keitaro. Suu spun in place when he set her down, falling to sit on her backside. "Ow," she protested dizzily.

Motoko was wide-eyed and trembling in Ranma's arms, and he looked at her in concern. "Figures the first night I get to sleep as a guy something goes crazy," he mumbled. "Motoko-chan? Are you okay?"

The kendoka blinked, seeming to return to her senses, and suffused bright red, embarrassed. Almost faster than Keitaro's eyes could track, Motoko's hand slapped Ranma across the face. "Set me down!" she demanded.

Ranma obligingly dropped her, though she caught herself, still blushing. "You're welcome," he said dryly, the tone underscored by the bright red handprint on his face.

"Um… sorry," she managed, staring at her feet. "I was… not thinking clearly."

Ranma shrugged, shooting an annoyed glance at Suu, who had recovered and was now looking between the two in confusion. "It's okay," he said, sighing. "I know what it's like." He turned away from her, and focused his full attention on Suu. "Don't do that again. And if you find that book again — burn it."

"It was an accident!" she protested. "I was going to get rid of it… but I forgot, and Motoko fell in on her own."

The kendoka blushed darkly, and stared at her feet.

Ranma blinked, adjusting that information. "Accident?" he asked quietly. "Motoko-chan? Did you really fall in?"

"I was… distracted," she managed, not raising her head.

"Well… I do the same thing around… cats," he reasoned. "Are you okay, then?"

"I'm fine," she assured him, raising her head and nodding. "Suu is a good person — I do not believe she would do such a thing if she knew it would… bother or hurt someone else."

The girl nodded quickly. "I got the instructions off the internet," she said. "But then I thought it might be a bad idea, so I decided to test Ranma with cats first… and then I was distracted." She looked at the girl thoughtfully. "I'm sorry, Motoko. I didn't mean for you to fall in."

"Um… there was no harm done," the kendoka mumbled.

"Ranma seems to be much more frightened of cats than you are of turtles, anyway," Suu said, shrugging. "I'll come up with something better to surprise you next time!" Smiling at both of the martial artists, she dashed away to her room.

Both Ranma and Motoko stared after her, blinking.

"Good morning," Keitaro offered helpfully.

"I suppose," Motoko hesitantly agreed.

"What… was that all about?" Ranma wondered, scratching his head.

"I think Suu just wants to help you two train," Keitaro said, shrugging.

"Uh… okay," Ranma agreed, scratching his head. "Um… you ready for today's jog?"

Keitaro frowned, glancing towards the corridor that Suu had vanished down. "I'll ask her to stay out of your way while you're training, if you'd like," he said after a moment. "I might do that instead. There's no telling what she might come up with next."

"It could be for the best," Motoko reasoned, paling when she considered what Keitaro said.

"Suu? Are you in there?" Keitaro asked, trying the door to Suu's room and finding it locked.

Still dressed in her pajamas, Naru sleepily looked at the young man, as he knocked anxiously on Suu's door.

There was no answer from within, except for the quiet clattering of things being shuffled around — or perhaps assembled. A line of flashing light across the bottom edge of the door suggested a welding torch, despite the strange colors that were appearing.

"Suu, could you please let me in?" he called more loudly. "I'd like to talk to you."

"I see," Naru said coolly. "So you think you can sneak around with another girl just because it's early?"

"Eh?" Keitaro noised, turning to look at her. "Uh, no, it's not like that, you see—"

Naru smiled sweetly at Keitaro, and grabbed his hand, quickly hauling him outside. "I understand," she said, coming to a quick halt at the front door, where Ranma and Motoko were standing, the pair of them looking concerned. "Er… is something wrong?"

Motoko nodded slightly, and asked, "Did you have any luck, Kanrinin?"

"Um, not really," Keitaro answered, shaking his head. "Naru thought I was trying to do something else."

"Oh." Motoko bit her lip, then shook her head. "Otohime should be here any moment—"

"I'm here!" the girl said, looking slightly winded, but still smiling cheerfully from the top of the stairs. "Oh, Naru and Keitaro were in the middle of something! How naughty!"

"Gah!" Naru managed, dropping Keitaro's hand and blushing darkly. "I swear I was only hauling him outside to have my way with him!"

Ranma and Motoko shared a blink, then took a step back, eyeing Naru appraisingly. "Um, we'll go jogging without you, today," Motoko suggested. "You two… uh… have fun."

"Wait! That's not what I meant!" Naru protested. The other three had already fled before she could explain, vanishing down the stairs without a backward glance. "Keitaro… this is all your fault!"

"What did I do?" he whimpered.

Naru deflated, still blushing, and looked away from Keitaro, unable to meet his eyes. "Anyway, what's this about Suu?" she asked, shaking away her embarrassment.

"Um… she dropped Motoko into a pit of turtles on accident," he offered. "I think… she wants to come up with something else to help them, but I'm worried that she might get in their way."

Naru blinked at that. "Is that all? Well, Motoko and Oe-san do some crazy things… it's probably for the best." She shook her head, frowning. "And now she won't answer her door? What do you suppose is wrong?"

"I don't know," Keitaro admitted, sighing. "But she won't let me into her room or talk to me at all."

"Well, let me try to talk to her," Naru said confidently.

Another dreary day of school….

Shinobu sighed, looking upwards. The weather was beginning to turn again, as well. Dark, clouded skies tended to add to the atmosphere of dreariness.

No, it wasn't that bad, but as long as Shinobu could remember, Suu had never missed a day of school. Whatever the commotion had been before she left for her classes had obviously bothered the other girl. Shinobu frowned, wondering what had happened, and looked up at the stairs leading to the Hinata-Sou.

Maybe she had cheered up already. And… if she hadn't, maybe Shinobu could make Suu something. There was a recipe for banana curry — no one else liked it, but Suu thought it was wonderful.

She nodded to herself, climbing the rest of the stairs, pausing in her room only long enough to change out of her school clothes. Once she was dressed in the outfit she preferred, she walked down the hallway towards Suu's room, freezing in surprise when she saw Keitaro and Naru leaning against the wall on either side of the door, arms crossed and features locked in a determined set.

"Um… is something wrong?" she finally managed, looking between the two in concern.

Naru looked up, relaxing her expression, and sighed. "Suu won't come out of her room to talk to us," she sighed.

"We're not really sure what's going on," Keitaro added morosely.

"Oh… I… see," Shinobu said quietly. "Um… I'll be in the kitchen, then, if you need me."

She retreated to her favorite room of the house, frowning thoughtfully. Back to her original plan, then. Hopefully Suu could be coaxed out with her favored banana curry.

She set about mixing the ingredients, and considered what to make for everyone else for dinner. Normal curry? That would be simple enough, really. It would even leave her more time to take care of her homework, which was probably for the best.

Nodding to herself, she turned off the stove. It was ready now, just needing to be served. It was, after all, just enough for a snack — she'd set about making dinner later. Though the question at the moment was really how to get it to Suu, more than anything else.

A large grating set into the floor suddenly swung upwards, clattering against the floor as it flipped over completely, and Shinobu's eyes widened as Sarah climbed out, peering around the kitchen curiously. "Ah! Sarah, you shouldn't play in the ventilation system!" she exclaimed.

"It's not the ventilation system," the smaller girl replied, grinning. "It's a secret passage. I've got all of them mapped out — they go into every room!"

"But…. Every room?" Shinobu asked, mulling that last over. "Okay, then, can… you show me the way to Suu's room from there?"

Sarah considered this for a moment, then nodded, producing a flashlight from her outfit's front pocket. "Leave it to me!" she enthused. "Ready?"

"Just a moment," Shinobu answered, hurriedly packing the banana curry into a sealed dish, and then wrapping a pair of chopsticks in a napkin. "Okay, I'm ready."

She hurried to Sarah's side, peering into the dark, mysterious depths of the passageway, and swallowing nervously. Sarah grinned, climbing down — there were ladder rungs set into the sides of the shaft, cleverly hidden from casual observation.

In due course, the pair had reached the bottom of the descent, and then proceeded to crawl through a network of tunnels, Sarah pausing on occasion to consult her hand drawn map. "I think it's this way," she said, pointing to an open space ahead of them, illuminated by the flashlight. "Or… the next one to the right. I'm not sure."

"I'll… try it," Shinobu said, crawling forward. There was a trapdoor, labeled clearly in the beam of light, though it only said, 'trapdoor,' and offered no other useful indicators. She set the sealed dish to one side of the trapdoor, and pushed down with both hands on the center of it carefully. It gave slightly, then sprang back.

Nodding in determination, while Sarah watched, she pressed down harder, leaning with all of her weight on the wooden panel.

"…I swear it's not like that!" Ranma protested, turning to look at Mutsumi and Motoko.

"You don't seem to mind touching me, Oe-san," Mutsumi said, giggling quietly. "Every day, in fact."

"It's not like that!" he protested again, waving his hands.

Mutsumi adopted a curious expression, and cocked her head to one side. "So, you don't like touching me, then?"

"I—" He cut off what he was going to say, and stopped to consider things.

Motoko crossed her arms over her chest, curious at this new interplay.

"Well," he temporized, "I'm… doing it to try and help you, not for fun. I mean… it's… not that I wouldn't… like to… um… normally… but…." He scratched the back of his head, staring at his feet. "Well, I mean, if I really wanted to, I guess I could just get some cold water… but that's not the point." He shook his head again, and gesticulated with both hands in front of him, "I don't think about it like that when I'm helping you. I mean, I'm not that desperate to try and do something perverted, even if I don't exactly have girls falling over themselves for me—"

A square section of the ceiling flipped downward at that precise moment, and a panicked Shinobu tumbled free, landing squarely in Ranma's extended arms.

"… or maybe I do, but that's still not the point," he grumped.

"Um… Hello, Oe-san," Shinobu said timidly.

Another new interplay to observe, though Motoko was more interested in the panel swinging from the ceiling at the moment. Sarah peeked down from the darkness, obviously curious, but said nothing.

Ranma nodded at the girl. "Hi, Shinobu-chan. How was school?"

"It was… okay," she replied slowly. "I was going to try and get Suu out of her room."

"So the ceiling thing…."

"Um, I was looking for a secret passage there."

"My, Oe-san, you should let her down, she might get the wrong idea," Mutsumi giggled.

"No!" Shinobu yelped.

Mutsumi and Ranma's eyes widened marginally at this. "Er…" Ranma managed, blushing.

Shinobu blushed just as darkly and quickly asked, "Could you help me up into the passageway again, instead?"

"Oh… er… right," he replied, tossing her into the air slightly, and hoisting her by her waist until she was able to grip the lower lip of the trapdoor. Once she was hanging there, he pushed upwards on her feet, helping her back into the ceiling. "Good luck," he advised.

Shinobu nodded, waving from the opening before she grabbed a small rope handle, and pulled the trapdoor shut again.

"You must get to touch a lot of cute girls," Mutsumi said quietly, offering Motoko a mischievous smile while Ranma stared at the ceiling.

Face still burning from embarrassment, Shinobu crawled along after Sarah, who indicated another trapdoor. "This time for sure," she said, marking her map.

Shinobu sighed, setting the curry bowl to one side, and then squirming about until she could drop her feet on the trapdoor. It swung open without quite as much effort as the previous trapdoor, and she peeked over the edge cautiously. The muffled thump hadn't been enough to alert Suu, who was sitting at her desk in the corner, head bowed slightly. Flashing lights and soft noises emanated from behind her, though Shinobu couldn't quite make out the source.

Nodding decisively, she grabbed the end of the rope, which was secured on one end between the trapdoor's hinges, and on the other through a ring on the opposite edge. There was enough slack in the rope that Shinobu guessed it was designed to be used to climb down, as well as pull the trapdoor shut again.

Gritting her teeth, she swung through the opening, dangling for a long moment over the floor before she let herself drop the last centimeters to the ground. From there, she peered around the veritable jungle of plants that Suu had placed throughout the room, until she was able to spot Suu again. It had been easier from the trapdoor's superior height… more places needed trapdoor access in the ceilings, she decided, glancing upwards. If she ever built her own home, it would be riddled with secret passages — Hina-san certainly knew what she was doing when she set about designing the inn.

Sarah dropped the banana curry down, startling Shinobu out of her reverie. Dismissing the daydream, she managed to catch carefully packaged meal, before Sarah gave her a 'thumbs up' sign and then pulled the trapdoor shut. Shaking her head, she crept through the jungle until she reached Suu's desk, buried in a far corner. The girl was mumbling quietly under her breath, intent on her computer, which was still making all sorts of loud noises.

"Suu-chan?" Shinobu asked in a tremulous voice.

The light-haired girl ignored her.

Stepping forward, Shinobu placed a hand on Suu's shoulder gently. The other girl startled, and tapped a key on the keyboard quickly, turning to look up. Blinking, she pulled off a pair of headphones so tiny that Shinobu hadn't even noticed them before, as the noises intensified. "Shinobu?" Suu asked, turning the volume down. "Is it time for school already?"

"Ah… you missed school, actually," Shinobu said, giggling quietly. "What have you been up to?"

"Oh, well, I was going to use my computer for something… but then I got distracted by a game of Super Tetris vs. Columns IV: Mega Death Championship Tournament Edition Turbo — Online," Suu explained. She blinked, glancing at a clock. "Wow. This update is taking way longer than I thought it would. I'm feeling kind of hungry…. And how did you get here, Shinobu?"

"I… used a secret passage," she explained, offering what she hoped was a warm smile. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine!" Suu cheered, smiling.

Keitaro looked up in surprise as Suu's door slid open. Naru straightened herself from where she had begun to doze in her vigil, and the pair looked at the pale-haired girl expectantly.

"I'm back!" she exclaimed, grinning.

"You had us worried!" Naru exclaimed, smiling. "What was that all about?"

"I was just playing a game," she said dismissively. "But my computer was being slow. Motoko-chan doesn't have to worry," she said, seeing the kendoka standing nearby. "I won't get in the way of her training anymore."

"Ah… just… that's fine," Motoko said, shaking her head. "I… thank you, Suu-chan. I appreciate that."

"No problem!" Suu exclaimed cheerfully. "I'll eat any turtles that come near you all up, starting with that one!" She eyed Tamago hungrily.

"Auuugh! No, Suu-chan, don't eat Tamago!" Shinobu pleaded. The turtle nodded emphatically from atop Keitaro's head.

Suu giggled, nodding. "Okay…. For now."

Ranma leafed through a book, frowning intently.

"More studying?" Mitsune asked. "What are they quizzing you on now… 'Your Lawn and You: A Guide to Yard Maintenance?'"

Ranma looked up from the book and shook his head. "Nah," he said, closing it. "Just wondering about the yard — it got all torn up and everything. I want to see about fixing it so I can undo all the damage I caused before I leave," he replied simply. "It's also one of the most boring books I've ever read. I doubt I need half of what I've read already to get the lawn back into shape."

Mitsune nodded thoughtfully, then grinned. "Mind if I use it for firewood?"

Blinking, Ranma turned a thoughtful gaze over the book, then shook his head. "Not just yet. Once I'm done with it."

"Phooey. Want to help me look for firewood, then?" she asked hopefully.

"Eh… what for?" Ranma asked, furrowing his brow.

"We have a ceremony," Mitsune explained, holding up a small handful of firewood. "We need fuel for the fire for our big pot — we make soup for everyone, and drink until we drop!"

Ranma stretched, rising to his feet, and nodded, setting the book on the deck he had been sitting on. "Firewood," he mused. "Should be plenty of deadfalls. Where do we take it all?"

Mitsune led the way, picking out the pieces, and having him carry it. When she had decided he had gathered enough, she led him to the pot. He blinked, surprised at how large it was — nearly the size of a standard furo — and added the firewood he had hauled to a nearby stack. "That's a big pot," he said aloud.

Shinobu nodded, standing on a crate to be high enough to stir the mixture. Of course, the paddle she stirred it with resembled nothing as much as a full-sized oar. Everyone but Haruka had already gathered around, enjoying the ambiance.

"It's a yearly tradition, but we skipped it two years in a row," Mitsune explained. "The old pot cracked, and we finally got this new one."

"I'm not certain it's very good," Mutsumi said apologetically, shaking her head. "But I brought watermelon!"

"Oh, don't worry about the pot," Mitsune said, shaking her head. "It'll be fine! But, anyway, why don't you have a seat?"

"I brought some drinks," Haruka said, approaching the group, then turning to look at Mutsumi speculatively. "Hmm," she mused.

"Ah, Haruka-san? What are you doing?" Keitaro asked, glancing between the two.

"Oh! That's the kind of sake I like!" Mutsumi exclaimed, pointing to the bottle in Haruka's hand.

Haruka raised an eyebrow. "Yeah? Think you can drain it all in one go?"

"Your sake says goodbye!" the girl cheered, as she obligingly took the bottle and, in a surprisingly short amount of time, drained it completely.

"Ah! My sake!" Haruka protested, eyes widening. "Well, that's okay, I brought an extra because we have an extra person."

"I still say that looks easy," Ranma said stubbornly. "Can I see the other bottle?"

Haruka narrowed her eyes, and grudgingly handed it over. Ranma replicated Mutsumi's feat, then grinned, handing the empty bottle back. "Hey, that wasn't so bad," he said, blinking blearily at the woman. "Say, Haruka, you never told me you had a sister."

The woman sighed, shaking her head. "I should have known better," she mourned. "I'm going to get some more for us, Kitsune. Keep an eye on these two. They're liable to go through all the beer I brought up before I get back."

Mitsune nodded, while Haruka retreated down the stairs. Ranma shook his head, looking towards Mitsune. "So pretty… but so cold… so very… very cold," he mumbled, before he collapsed to the ground.

Mutsumi looked at the fallen man in consternation, then knelt at his side and shook him gently. "Ranma-kun?" she asked. "Are you okay?"

He opened his eyes briefly, and shook his head. "I taste… metal." That done, he passed out again.

"Um… Ranma-kun, can you give me your light show again?" Mutsumi asked, shaking him slightly.

"He's come for me, girl. It's my time," he mumbled, shaking his head.

"Please?" Mutsumi asked, clasping Ranma's hand to her chest.

"Okay," he grumbled, his head lolling to one side. In a second, the two of them were enveloped in an aura of blue flame, exploding away from the pair, and illuminating the area clearly. It was enough to drown out the light from the chain of lanterns strung overhead. The flames burned brightly for a long minute, then flickered out, Ranma seeming to recover his senses at the end of it.

"Ooh!" Suu cooed, wide-eyed. "Ranmas need to be exposed to alcohol more often!"

"Ah… no, actually," Keitaro said, laughing nervously.

"If anything they should be kept away from it for their own safety," Naru added.

"Damn!" he swore, struggling to sit up, and leaning against the side of the pot. "I still can't drink anything without falling down!"

"It takes practice," Mutsumi advised. "Now I'm not even tipsy."

"Oh, right… sorry abou… wait… how did it affect you?" he asked. He scratched his head, considering that, then shook his head. "Never mind. I'm sorry about that."

"No problem!" Mitsune said, patting him on the shoulder companionably. "I'll protect you, Ranma. Just show me where that bad alcohol is, and I'll make it all go away!"

"That's just an excuse for you to get drunk!" Keitaro protested.

"That was fun!" Mutsumi cheered, turning her attention to the soup pot.

Ranma shook his head to clear it of the effects of his short-lived drinking binge, while Mitsune sat nearby, happily taking one of the beer cans that Haruka had brought in hand.

In the meantime, Mutsumi filled a tureen, and carried it to where Naru and Keitaro were standing. "Keitaro-kun, Naru-chan, you should try some," she encouraged.

"Ah… thank you," Keitaro said, chuckling quietly, and holding out a small bowl. Naru nodded, holding out her bowl as well. Mutsumi carefully ladled some of the soup from her tureen into the container, then filled one for herself, and set the tureen aside.

Naru blinked, frowning. "Um…."

"This is really good!" Keitaro cheered.

"Yep!" Mutsumi said, sampling her own bowl.

"Hello?" Naru asked timidly.

Mutsumi's eyes widened slightly, as she turned her attention to the large soup pot, where something large had just bobbed to the surface. "What's this?" she asked, prodding it with a pair of chopsticks. "It doesn't look like meat or a vegetable."

She expertly snagged the thing, and lifted it clear of the soup pot, only to lose her grip and send the entire soggy bundle splattering down onto Ranma's head. He blinked, as hot soup ran down his face, and sighed. "Bad spot to rest," he grumped, taking the thing into his hands and examining it.

"Oh, isn't that Liddo-kun?" Mutsumi asked, inspecting what Ranma recognized as a stuffed animal of some sort.

"Is it?" he asked. "This looks just like—"

Naru's eyes widened at the creature, and she yelled, "What! How did that get in there?"

"—the one in Naru's room," he finished, as she plucked it from his hands, and dashed to the nearby stream to wash it off.

"Suu! This isn't supposed to go in darkness stew!" she complained, gently scrubbing the stuffed animal.

"But it looked so delicious," Suu plaintively defended herself. "What a shame…."

Ranma blinked the soup from his eyes, nodding thankfully when Mutsumi offered him a towel. After rising to his feet, he yawned slightly, then shook his head. "I shouldn't have drank so much," he mumbled. "I'm going to clean up and get some sleep. Later, everyone."

"Oh, wait!" Mutsumi protested, grabbing his hand before he could walk away. "You haven't tasted the soup yet!"

"I got enough already," he replied dourly, handing Mutsumi's towel back to her. "Thanks, though."

"Oh, well, at least take a watermelon with you," she insisted, taking one from her stack and pressing it into his hands. He blinked at the watermelon, then nodded, waving quickly before he vanished into the night. Haruka returned at about the same time, glancing back over her shoulder at Ranma's departing figure.

"No wonder," the woman grumped. "You two have enough tolerance that even all that doesn't make you drunk."

After Ranma had left, Keitaro and Mutsumi had reminisced on the anime that had spawned Naru's stuffed animal. Naru couldn't help but smile — everything was going well, and everyone was having fun.

Well, except for Ranma, but then, Naru figured he was lucky to have imbibed as heavily as he had, and still be able to walk.

Shaking his head, Keitaro sighed in contentment at her side.

"Uh-oh," Mitsune said, prodding at the mixture in the pot with a ladle. "Looks like we're out of meat."

"We are? Well, then I'm going to go get some more ingredients," Mutsumi announced, smiling brightly.

"Hmm?" Keitaro glanced at Mutsumi, who had gotten at least tipsy again, then nodded. "I'll help you," he offered.

"What? Well, I'll come, too," Naru decided.

"No, no," Keitaro insisted, waving at her. "You stay here — have fun! We'll be right back."

"You don't… want me?" she said quietly, though they were already out of earshot.

Mitsune sidled up to Naru after the pair had receded into the darkness. "Aren't you jealous?" she asked, looking into the darkness where the pair had vanished. "Mutsumi seems pretty close to Keitaro… and after you admitted your feelings, too!"

"Well…." She blushed, bowing her head. It was too late to deny it, considering she'd already confessed once. "Um…." Her frantically searching eyes seized upon the pair of bags that Keitaro and Mutsumi had forgotten to bring with them. "They… forgot their bags! I'll have to check up on them, yeah!"

Before Mitsune could say anything else, she gathered up the two bags, and dashed off after them, into the darkness.

She slowed down once she left the lanterns' aura of light, not wanting to trip, and considered it. She had thought Keitaro liked her — he certainly seemed to, at least. But why did he want to run off with Mutsumi, and not her? Mutsumi was pretty… and… Naru herself hadn't exactly made a good showing towards demonstrating to him that she cared about him, recently.

Come to think of it, the last time that they'd really done anything was when they reviewed the photo album in her room, and then… Mutsumi had arrived. And before that was the date that… when she thought about it, she had ruined by thinking Keitaro and Ranma were lovers.

She blinked at that. Was he upset about that, perhaps? Was he… choosing Mutsumi over her? "That could never happen," she said aloud, trying to convince herself. She blinked, as she entered the radius of light emitted from the light within the inn.

Silhouetted neatly, were Mutsumi and Keitaro, in an awkward embrace on the floor. "Ah!" Keitaro exclaimed, jumping back. Naru ducked behind a tree, eyes wide, and took an unsteady breath. "Sorry, I didn't mean to touch you like that!"

"Oh, it's okay," Mutsumi replied, giggling. "If you hadn't caught me, I would have hit my head. You're so manly!"

"Ack!" Naru whispered into the darkness, one hand pressing against her chest.

She waited until she heard their footsteps approach, and sneaked around the tree, slipping into the inn once the sounds of their conversation were lost to darkness. So that's how it was, after all, she realized sadly.

She'd had her chance, and lost it… and was given it back, when Keitaro turned out not to be gay. But she hadn't pursued him when she got the second opportunity… and Mutsumi had stolen it away. Swallowing nervously, she crept into her room, now glad for the carefully repaired hole in the floor.

But her room felt off somehow — too many memories of studying with Keitaro there. Shaking her head, she fumbled for the secret passage in her wall, crawling upward, until she found herself on the roof. This would be better, all things considered. Keitaro and his new lover wouldn't run into her here.

"Oh," she said softly, shaking her head at the stars above. "I'm such a fool!"

She heard a grunt nearby, and stiffened, until a familiar voice asked, "Watermelon?"

"Haruka-san?" Naru asked, squinting into the darkness atop the roof.


"Oe-san?" she guessed again, frowning.

"Yup," she replied, as Naru felt a wedge of watermelon pressed into her hand. "I like to look at the stars."

"Why… aren't you with the others?" she asked, sniffling slightly, and waiting for her eyes to adjust somewhat before she took a bite of her watermelon. Mutsumi's watermelon… it was just as sweet as Mutsumi was to Keitaro, she thought bitterly.

"When I burn off the alcohol the hangover kicks in right away," Ranma replied. "It's dark and quiet here, and the watermelon's got lots of fluid — which is good when you're hung over."

"Oh," Naru replied quietly, wiping away at the tears she could feel forming in her eyes and grateful for the cloak of night.

"Sheesh," Ranma grumped. "I haven't felt that much depression since…." she trailed off, and sighed. "You okay?"

"W-what do you mean?" Naru asked, trying to put more courage into her voice than she felt. "I just… felt like looking at the stars, too."

"And you wanted to climb up here in the darkness to do it?" Ranma asked skeptically. "Naru-san… What's bothering you?"

"Um, say, Oe-san, why are you a girl right now?" Naru asked, blinking away newly forming tears.

"Didn't feel like soaking," Ranma replied blandly. "And since I sobered up as a guy, turning into a girl lets me hydrate myself faster — smaller body, so I need less water."

"That's fascinating," Naru said, managing to keep the quaver from her voice.

"Well, it's my best guess, anyway," Ranma admitted. "But you're avoiding my question."

"Why should I tell you?" Naru asked hotly. "You hide most of your past from us, after all."

Ranma chuckled quietly. "That's true," she said.

Naru blinked away her tears in the silence, taking another bite of the sweet watermelon, and wondering when Ranma would say something else.

Finally, she decided to break the silence on her own. "Not going to offer to trade secrets?" she asked, looking towards the dark lump against the roof that she recognized as Ranma, now that her eyes were adjusting.

"I suppose could," she replied after a moment, shrugging. "But if you don't want to talk, you don't have to."

"Oh," Naru sighed, setting the watermelon to one side. It was hardly something she wanted to talk about with Ranma — she was practically a complete stranger compared to everyone else. "Do you… know where you're going to move?"

"Not exactly," Ranma replied after a pause. "I have another month and a half… I'll probably just camp outside the city and ride my bike for a bit." There was another long pause. "I seem to have trouble dealing with people, for some reason."

Naru shook her head, and sighed. What would it hurt? Ranma would be moving out in a while anyway… and if she didn't talk to someone she felt like she would explode. Mitsune and Haruka were both at the soup-pot, and Keitaro's grandmother hadn't come back in over a year. "I… finally realized that I really liked Keitaro," she said quietly.

Ranma shifted her position, enough that Naru could hear it, but not see it.

Taking the silence as encouragement, Naru licked her lips, and added, "But… I think it's too late, now."

"Why do you say that?" Ranma asked softly.

"I… think that he got upset… because I… didn't tell him anything when I had a chance," she confessed, sniffling. "And now… I think he likes Mutsumi more than me."

Ranma's eyes flashed in the darkness, light reflecting from the stars briefly. "I don't think it's like that," she replied slowly. "It seems to me… that Keitaro really… likes you. But… I don't know if he… can tell how you feel."

"But he and Mutsumi were… were… he…." Naru sighed, shaking her head. "He grabbed Mutsumi, and she hardly seemed to mind."

"Wait, he grabbed her?"

"It…. I think she fell, and he caught her… but she didn't complain when he touched her," Naru clarified, realizing she didn't fully understand the situation herself. "And when he… does something perverted like that with me, I beat him up."

"Um…." Ranma seemed hesitant, then sighed. "It's not like he's constantly putting his foot into his mouth — I don't think he's stopped liking you, Naru. All that's different is that… uh… Mutsumi doesn't hit him." There was a moment of silence while the smaller girl looked away, towards the twinkling stars. "I don't think it really means that he… likes her."

"But… it could mean that she likes him," Naru said quietly, sniffling again.

"So? What does that have to do with anything?" Ranma asked, yawning slightly. "You like him, he likes you… what's the problem?"

"She likes him too!" she protested. "And he… might start liking her more, too."

"I can't imagine," Ranma said dryly. "Look, if he likes you, he likes you. Some other girl isn't probably going to change his mind, and if she does, then he probably didn't like you that much anyway."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Naru growled, halfheartedly throwing her watermelon rind at Ranma's head. It bounced off with a satisfyingly moist splatter.

"You're welcome," Ranma replied flatly. "But think about this for a while — if you like someone, and they like you, the only way I can think of that you can screw it up… is by never telling them how you really feel."


"Hey, you told me you like Keitaro, huh? Have you ever told him?"

"I…. No, of course not." Naru shook her head, and sighed. "I mean… he's a pervert, why would I tell him?"

"Sounds to me like you aren't even sure you like him," Ranma accused.

Not even thinking, Naru lunged, and socked Ranma squarely in the jaw as the smaller girl turned to look at her. "How would you know?" Naru snapped.

"Hey, Aniki, do you have a chain-breaker?" Ranma asked, shaking his hands, and then frowning at the oil and grease stains on them.

"Sure thing," Kintaro replied cheerfully, rifling through his pack for a moment before handing Ranma what looked like a demented interpretation of a corkscrew.

"How does this work?" Shampoo asked, kneeling on the other side of the bike and peering at the device curiously.

"Well, you open it like this," Ranma explained, loosening the device. "Then you set the chain on these supports here." He lined the device up carefully, and nodded. "Now when you tighten it, this little post will force out the peg that holds two links of the chain together. We can repeat the process down the line, and remove the crushed section of chain."

"I've got some spare links," Kintaro announced. "Looks like a dozen centimeters of chain or so. How many do you think you'll need?"

"Seven links," Ranma replied, loosening the chain-breaker, and moving it further down. "We can reverse the process to add new links to the chain, so we should have this thing in riding condition pretty quickly." He looked up from where he was working on Shampoo's bike, and offered her a smile. She didn't react, mesmerized by the repair process.

"It is good," she said after a moment. "I was afraid we would need to replace it."

"Your Japanese is improving," Ranma noted, smiling. "Aniki, can you salvage the rim?"

"It's bent back into the right shape, I just need to retune the spokes," he said, fishing another tool from his backpack. "Should last for a month or so — long enough that we can pick up a replacement in town. The treads on these tires weren't meant for this kind of riding, anyway."

Shampoo clapped her hands together excitedly. "Thank you, Ranma, Aniki," she cheered, giggling.

"No sweat!" Ranma replied, despite the fact that the sun was causing him to sweat quite a bit. He eyed his grease-marked hands, and flinched as Shampoo reached across the bike's frame to dab at his forehead with a handkerchief. "Thanks."

"We work together," she said, grinning. She turned to Kintaro, who was tightening the spokes on her tire carefully. "Aniki, can we stop in a town tonight?" She had taken to addressing him the same way that Ranma had, after the first week or so of traveling together.

Kintaro raised an eyebrow thoughtfully, then nodded. "We need to get some more supplies," he admitted. "I wonder what we can learn this time."

"To cook," Shampoo insisted, smirking at Ranma.

"I can already cook," Kintaro protested, smiling along with the other two. "But I bet we could find something."

Ranma nodded, wiping his hands on a dirty washrag. Was this contentment, he wondered? His past was still there, but now… now he had Kintaro, his older brother, and Shampoo. Even… if she were more a friend in reality than ever a wife….

There was something about it that he liked. Something about it that he liked a lot.

Ranma tumbled over, and rolled across a number of tiles before sprawling to a halt. She groaned incoherently, and did not rise.

Naru blushed fiercely, realizing what she had done, and quickly scurried over to Ranma's side, helping her sit up and not noticing a quiet click from somewhere behind her. "Are you okay?" she asked frantically, pulling Ranma's face close to hers to try and inspect it in the starlight. She swallowed nervously, and let Ranma pull away when nothing became immediately visible to her poor night vision. "You could be right," she said, sighing. "I mean… I… have to be honest with my feelings."

She looked Ranma straight in the eye, and nodded. "I'll come clean and admit my feelings then, Oe-san," she promised.

Ranma nodded vaguely, rubbing at her jaw, as a nearly invisible hatch settled back to the roof with a subdued thump. "Then, good luck," she said after a minute.

"And… I'm really sorry about hitting you," Naru apologized.

Ranma looked away, shaking her head. "I'm not so good at advice for relationships," she said after a moment, drawing her knees to her chest, and curling up slightly on the roof. "They say you learn from your mistakes, though." She shrugged. "I must be getting close to being a genius, now."

Naru raised an eyebrow. "What… who are you seeing?" she asked. Her eyes widened in the darkness, and she gasped. "Wait, do you like Motoko-chan?"

"Huh?" Ranma asked unintelligently. She shook her head. "Eh… she's my student, Narusegawa. I don't think it would be right to think of her like that." Ranma looked uncomfortable, and sighed. "I don't really like… anyone, right now. I'm more worried about getting into Todai."

"You… don't like anyone?" Naru asked, surprised. "Not at all?"

"Feh," Ranma grumped, climbing to her feet. "The last…. My wife left me because we knew it would never work. Before that—" her voice caught. When she spoke again, her voice was much thicker. "Anyway, it's not something I want to try for."

"But… you really cared for your wife, didn't you?" Naru pressed.

"More than I ever managed to tell her," Ranma replied sadly. "'Course, by the time I figured it out, she was gone. And when I was ready to chase her, I realized she was right to leave. It… wouldn't have worked in the grand scheme of things. You know. Some people make better friends, anyway." Ranma sighed. "I'm going to go to sleep. Be careful climbing off the roof in the dark."

Ranma turned away, but before she could re-enter the secret passage, Naru asked, "What about Kitsune, Oe-san?"

The girl paused, and raised her gaze, considering. "I don't know," she finally said, shaking her head. "I don't… know her well enough to say. Anything else?"

"Um… good night, Oe-san," Naru said, shaking her head and sighing. Of course, as inept as the redhead claimed to be… she had a good point. If she wanted to keep Keitaro… she'd need to tell him how she felt. Keeping the truth from him just made it more likely he would find someone else, Mutsumi or otherwise.

After hearing someone fumble with the secret entrance above his head, Keitaro scrambled to get back to his room, safely hidden from Naru and Ranma. He turned on his light, and slumped at his desk, wearily retrieving his photo-sticker book. "How could this happen?" he asked, turning it to the twin pictures of himself with Naru.

He had considered that a date — their first. The failed double-date with Ranma and Mitsune was their second.

Had he done something wrong? Had he pushed her away somehow?

Swallowing, his eyes searched the two pictures, as though they would provide a clue. But they hadn't.

He had returned to the small party only to find Naru missing, and no one sure where she had gone. After a moment of deliberation, he ran back to the inn to search for her — but she wasn't in her room. And when he had checked, Ranma's room was also empty.

So he had considered the roof, and climbed through the secret passages until he had cracked open the trapdoor. His night vision was better than most, but the night was moonless. It was still good enough, ultimately, to see Naru confessing, and it was her voice… and Ranma's silhouette. The pigtail was unmistakable, even if the proportion appeared off — a trick of the starlight, and nothing more.

There was no question about who it had been, ultimately.

Sighing, he slumped backwards, laying on the floor, and staring at the ceiling listlessly.

"How?" he asked quietly. "I never even saw it coming…."


To be continued.

Author's notes: I haven't posted anything since before February 26th, 2003, as I'd lost my internet connection. However, I still spent a good deal of all that time away from the net writing, working on stories such as this one — indeed, this chapter and the next one or two were with pre-readers before I lost my connection. Unfortunately, at about the same time my connection was restored, Tragedy Struck™ in the form of a failed backup, and pretty much everything I've ever written… ever… was erased.

Shortly after this (within 24 hours, actually), my alternate website was accidentally deleted by a similar fluke. Among the lost files were also the e-mail I'd managed to download after those six months had passed, including a good deal of fanfiction in my backlog, and the C&C I had written (offline) for them.

This is, in a word, was quite frustrating.

However, before the failed backup, Ginrai requested copies of my latest stories, out of what he insists is not the ability to see the future, and instead was simple curiosity. So because of that, he was able to send most of my own writing, at least, back to me after Tragedy Struck™. So. Thanks to Ginrai, Larry F's archive of all my distributed work, and Google's cache of my website, things will eventually be back on track, and most of what's lost are a few unreleased stories that I didn't like much anyway, and chances are, neither would you. I apologize for the absence, and moreso for being unable to send out all that saved C&C — not to mention the backlog of stories by writers who I appreciate that I had wanted to C&C later.

The end result of this is that if you e-mailed me in the last six months, and I haven't replied… now you know why.

For the handful of people who asked about a sequel to PoE, well… some of it was salvaged (thanks, again, to Ginrai!) so yes, I am working on it. ;)

Chapter 9
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