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"You're probably all wondering why I've gathered you here right now," Keitaro said quietly, surveying his audience.

Silence greeted his solemnity, and he nodded, bowing his head.

"Recently, I've gone over the numbers again, and unfortunately, the retrofit for the inn hit us a lot harder than I initially thought." He raised his head, putting on a firm, confident expression. "But I'm sure we can get through this somehow. All we need to do is to remember to stick together."

"I know what you're thinking," he said quickly, before he could be interrupted, "and we're not completely out of options yet."

He allowed the silence to stretch into a dramatic pause. "Um… Well, anyway, Tama, this is the part of the speech I can't figure out how to finish," he mumbled, slumping to the floor at his table.

The turtle chirped encouragement at him.

"I don't know what our other options are, really."

For a moment Keitaro imagined the turtle looked surprised, but Keitaro was distracted by his door sliding open. "Oi, what's up, Keitaro?" Haruka asked.

"Huh?" he managed, blinking. "Oh, um… I'm trying to figure out how to tell everyone some… er… bad news."

"Let me guess, short on money to run the inn after the repair work?"

He nodded sheepishly, trying to ignore the tremor of fear running up his spine.

Haruka began to smile softly. "I have just the thing, Keitaro," she assured him. "Now, do you remember the summer play I had everyone put on?"

"Yes?" he hazarded meekly. "Thankfully, that's all over now. A long forgotten memory that never needs to be dredged back up."

"Time for another one to raise funds," she announced.

Keitaro winced. "Um… wouldn't it be easier to plead bankruptcy?"

"Not likely," Haruka drawled. "You go break the news to everyone; I'll pick out a script."

"Oh boy," Keitaro whimpered.

Chapter Nine: Winter Performance (Part One)

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.

"… and that's the situation," Keitaro finished, watching the assembled tenants worriedly. "Um… I'm sorry about this."

"A play?" Ranma asked, the only one present not familiar with the last one. "I haven't done one of those since high school. You guys do this a lot?"

"They're fun!" Mitsune assured him, smiling happily. "Hopefully it'll be even half as fun as the last one!"

"I can hardly wait," Keitaro and Naru said in unison, neither looking pleased at the thought.

"Which one will it be this time?" Suu asked, blinking. "Will it be the story of Keitaro?"

"For the last time, Suu-chan, Taro Urashima isn't me!" the manager protested.

"I must admit, I'm curious too," Motoko said quietly, arms crossed over her chest. "If this one is anything like the last…."

Shinobu turned her own gaze on Keitaro, and asked, "What is the play going to be, Urashima-sempai?"

"I don't know," he admitted, shrugging his shoulders uncomfortably. "Haruka-san said she would choose it."

"This time, it's going to be the heroic legend of Raiko," the woman announced cheerfully, stepping into the inn, and setting a bag on the floor. "You all know the story, right?"

"Isn't that part of the legend of the golden boy?" Ranma asked, furrowing his brow.

"Sakata no Kintoki?" Haruka asked. "Yeah, he was one of Raiko's four retainers." She glanced over the rest of the tenants swiftly, and asked, "Is everyone ready to draw lots?"

They nodded, Keitaro and Naru more hesitantly than the rest.

"So, who is everyone?" Haruka asked, once all the roles were drawn.

"Apparently, I'm Sakata no Kintoki," Ranma answered, staring at his strip of paper.

"And I am to be Watanabe no Tsuna," Motoko added. "Another of Raiko's retainers."

"I'm Urabe no Suetake!" Suu cheered. "Who's that?"

"Another retainer," Mitsune answered. "And I'm Usui Sadamitsu, the last of the four."

Haruka glanced between three who had not spoken yet — Shinobu, Keitaro, and Naru. "Well?" she prompted them.

"Um… I guess I'm Raiko," Keitaro said somewhat sheepishly. "What are the odds?"

Haruka smiled vaguely, but masked it swiftly, and turned to Naru. "And you?" the older woman asked.

Naru frowned. "Umm, I'm a princess, apparently." She looked at Haruka. "I don't remember this story having a princess in it."

"I took some liberties," Haruka dismissed. "It's a play for kids, after all."

"So I'm the narrator?" Shinobu said, looking between her paper and Naru's. "That's all?"

"You could do worse," Haruka said, waving her own slip of paper. "I'll be playing Yamamba, Sakata no Kintoki's caretaker." She shot a speculative look at Ranma. "We may be short an actor or two, so some people might end up taking double roles. We'll see."

"Do we get to see the script?" Naru asked curiously. "I think I kind of know the original legend, but if you've made some changes, I'm not so sure what I should be doing."

"Sure thing," Haruka said, reaching into the bag she had set on the floor and handing out a booklet to each of the would-be actors. "Your first show's going to be in about three days."

"No time to rehearse?" Keitaro asked worriedly.

"Didn't need it last time," Haruka said cheerfully. "Well, you have fun with those — I've got to run the teashop."

"Something else to study," Ranma mused, flipping his booklet open and scanning through it. "'Who are you? For I am Kaidomaru, and I speak to the creatures of this forest.'" He raised an eyebrow thoughtfully. "Huh. This is kind of interesting. So you've all done this before?"

They all nodded, Shinobu quietly mumbling some of her lines. "'And today we present to you the heroic legend of Raiko and the ground spider,'" she quoted. Looking up, she asked, "Who's supposed to play the ground spider?"

"Or the goblins?" Keitaro added, frowning. "I suppose I could find Haitani and Shirai. They helped us out with the summer play…."

"I can help with that, too!" Suu cheered, grinning. "I'll take the leftover parts from my last experiment with Ranma, and make a goblin-projector."

"Well, if that's taken care of, we should probably get back to getting ready for the test," Naru pointed out.

"Hello!" Mutsumi called out, smiling brightly, and peeking in through the doorway. "Is everyone ready to study?"

Keitaro and Ranma nodded, tucking their scripts away into their back pockets. "I think so, Mutsumi-chan," Naru replied, smiling. "Let's go to my room."

Mitsune flipped through her script idly, but found her role fairly small, outside of a few fight scenes. Well, she'd had some training with martial arts, thanks to Ranma. It couldn't be that hard.

And if that wasn't a concern, well, then she could pay attention to other things.

Like Mutsumi.

Ranma seemed to always have one eye on her. She was clumsy, but whenever she slipped, he would catch her. Was it just because he was trying to help someone avoid being hurt, or was it something about Mutsumi specifically? And how to find out if there was anything going on there? She lit upon an idea quickly enough.

"Say, Shinobu, you don't think that Mutsumi is more competition for you, do you?" she asked.

Shinobu blinked as though the idea had never occurred to her, and blushed brightly. "Is she?" she asked. "I suppose when… Naru-sempai confessed… she said she liked… Keitaro-sempai too, after all."

Mitsune nodded knowingly. "Well… You know, you could check the situation out, if you wanted."

"That's… true," Shinobu admitted, looking more nervous than pleased with the proposition. "I should find out, at least, but…." She hesitated, and sighed. "I'm concerned that I may already be out of the running, Kitsune-san."

"It's not like you to give up," Mitsune protested. "And if you don't investigate, you'll never find out, will you? What have you got to lose, anyway?"

"That's true," Shinobu admitted more confidently. "I'll bring them something to eat while they study!"

After removing the freshly baked cookies from the oven, Shinobu gave them a few minutes to cool down, and considered things. Perhaps… perhaps Mutsumi would be interested more in Ranma than Keitaro. That would be good, because it would mean that she still had a chance.

Even if it did put her and Naru in direct opposition.

Then again, she reasoned, if she never tried, she'd never be able to succeed. If she tried, at least she'd know.

Steeling herself, she loaded the warm cookies onto a plate and crept towards Naru's room, her script booklet tucked into her pocket. The doorway was closed to ward off the deepening chill of the turning season, so she knocked gently.

"Come in!" Naru called out.

Nodding to reassure herself, Shinobu balanced the tray carefully on one hand, and slid the door open. "Hello," she greeted the study group timidly. "I thought you might like something to eat while you studied."

"Ooh?" Mutsumi asked, looking up from her study guide. "That's very thoughtful!"

"So it is," Naru agreed, smiling at Shinobu brightly.

"Cookies?" Keitaro asked. "Oh, why don't you sit with us and stay a while then, Shinobu-chan?"

The table was large enough to fit four comfortably, and one or two more without too much trouble. She sat down next to Naru, on the side closer to Keitaro, and set the tray on the table between them.

Shinobu surveyed the seating arrangement from her spot. Keitaro was to her left, and Naru shared a side of the table with her. To her right was Ranma, struggling with a problem, his brows furrowed in concentration, and opposite Naru sat Mutsumi.

"Would you like a cookie, Ranma-kun?" Mutsumi asked, turning her attention to the man.

"Four," he stated, nodding.

Shinobu frowned, looking at the pile, but nodded, agreeing, "Four, Oe-san."

"That's… um, thirteen and one sixteenth," he clarified, furrowing his brow at his book.

Naru glanced between Ranma and Shinobu for a moment, while Shinobu considered the prospect of breaking a cookie into sixteen equal pieces. "Um, Oe-san?" she asked.

"Well, the best I'm coming up with is really fifteen, but that's the choice that's closest," he explained, pressing the book flat against the table and closing his eyes, one hand rising from the book to scratch behind an ear thoughtfully. He turned to Mutsumi and opened his eyes. "What do you think?"

"I think you may be right," she agreed, smiling.

Naru sighed from her spot, and snatched the book from in front of Ranma, while Shinobu stared at the plate, wondering how quickly she could bake another batch. "Cookies, Oe. Do you want one?" Naru asked sliding the book out of Ranma's reach.

Ranma stared at her blankly for a long moment. "Uh, yeah, sure, I'll take one," he finally said, recovering his bearings. Mutsumi passed him a cookie, while Naru returned the study guide. "Sorry, kind of spaced out there. But I think it's answer number four."

"That's right, Oe-san," Keitaro noted, taking a cookie from the tray as Mutsumi reached for it at the same time. Their hands brushed together, and both blinked in surprise. "Er… I'm sorry," Keitaro apologized, blushing slightly.

"That's fine," Mutsumi assured him, smiling brightly, then taking a cookie from the tray to pass to Ranma.

Ranma scooted away from the table and stretched his legs out a bit, munching on the baked treat. "Hey," he said after chewing a mouthful. "These are great, Shinobu-chan."

She beamed a smile at him, pleased, but more concerned about Keitaro's opinion. "They're awesome," the manager seconded.

Mutsumi nodded, and added, "Shinobu-chan, you'll make someone a wonderful wife."

Shinobu felt herself grow dizzy as her face reddened in embarrassment, and she bowed her head. "Ah…" she managed.

"Oh, do you have a crush, Shinobu-chan?"

It was all she could do not to fall over. "Ah! I don't have anyone, no—" She cut herself off, and shook her head. "No one," she said after a moment.

"Oh?" Mutsumi frowned, then turned to Ranma. "What about you, Ranma-kun?"

Ranma's eyes flickered briefly, but he didn't otherwise react immediately. Without even looking up, he slid back to his place at the table, and reopened the study guide Naru had taken away from him. "No one at the moment," he mumbled, flipping through the pages.

Mutsumi waited for Ranma to say something more, but he was absorbed in his studying. Shinobu shook her head, and turned the thread of the conversation back to the subject of brides; it was bad form to receive a compliment without returning it. "Well, you would probably make someone a beautiful wife too, Otohime-san," Shinobu said cautiously, offering Mutsumi what the younger girl hoped was a brave smile.

"Really? But this place is filled with pretty girls," Mutsumi said. "Naru would make a lovely bride, as well."

It was Naru's turn to blush, while Keitaro glanced between the three girls present, scratching his head. "Filled with pretty girls?" he asked, turning a speculative glance at Ranma.

All three girls turned their eyes to Ranma. He raised his eyes from his paperwork and blinked, looking between the others. "Huh?" he managed, peering between them in confusion.

"I can kind of see it," Naru said after a moment. "Cold water's easier to come by, after all."

"Oh, I don't know about Ranma-kun's temperament," Mutsumi hedged, smiling knowingly. "But…."

"I don't think Oe-san is like that!" Shinobu blurted out, turning him a fearfully questioning glance.

"Not a chance," he said quickly, shaking his head.

Motoko's voice reached them faintly from where she practiced, outside, piercing the suddenly awkward silence. "Strike! Strike! Strike!"

Ranma shuddered, and looked briefly haunted, glancing over his shoulder fearfully, then turning back and insisting, "Never. Ever."

"We were just teasing," Mutsumi giggled quietly, her smile not yet disappearing. "I'm sure you'd rather be with a girl, even if you were a girl at the time, right?"

A loud sneeze echoed from the hallway as Mitsune passed by, heard but unseen.

Keitaro blinked into the silence, glancing between Mutsumi and Ranma, while the sound of footsteps faded down the hall.

"Um… Anyway, back to studying," Naru finally said, still blushing.

"So, what did you find out?" Mitsune asked, when Shinobu crossed the main room on her way to the kitchen again.

"Um… Not much of anything," Shinobu admitted, somewhat distraught. "I'm not sure…."

"Well, if you're going to make a move, you should probably do it soon," Mitsune advised. "Wait too long, and it could be too late."

"Umm…. How?"

Mitsune raised an eyebrow, then reached for her copy of the script. "Seems to me we should be able to come up with something," she reasoned. "After all, being the narrator, anything you say goes, right?"

"Does it?"

"It should." Mitsune looked thoughtful for a moment. "I have an idea. See, in this scene here…."

Naru and Suu sat together, watching Keitaro and Ranma during the morning exercises.

"Okay, Keitaro, I think it's about time we moved on to the next phase of your training," Ranma announced.

"Eh?" he managed, looking nervous about being singled out. "Um… What comes next?"

"Well, I think it's time that instead of just practicing forms and exercising, we sparred a bit," Ranma reasoned.

Motoko nodded, leading the other students through their exercises on the opposite side of the yard.

"Um… are you sure?" Keitaro asked hesitantly. "It seems to me that, really, you're better than me at this."

"And how do you expect to get better?" Ranma asked, grinning. "The way it works is simple — neither of us is out for blood, but you're tough enough to take a hit, and you've gotten enough skill to start working on more complex forms of the art. I'm going to start the match fighting at your level, and slowly bring up the challenge."

"Is that how you train Motoko?" Keitaro wondered. "Well… if you say so, I suppose you must be right, Oe-sensei."

"Right!" Ranma exclaimed, clapping his hands together and taking up a stance. "Let's go!"

Keitaro nodded, smiling, and the two rushed one another. Keitaro's first strike was a quick punch to Ranma's midsection, feeling out the other combatant's reflexes. Ranma deflected it, creating a brief opening, which Keitaro noted. A kick diverted Ranma's attention, and Keitaro went for the opening full force, punching Ranma directly in the ribs.

"He got him!" Naru cheered suddenly, grinning from the sidelines.

"Ranma let him," Suu dismissed, though she watched raptly.

The man took a step back, and nodded his approval. "Very good," he encouraged Keitaro. "Now, again, with a bit more speed. Ready?"

"Right!" Keitaro exclaimed, grinning. He charged Ranma gain, seeking to exploit the same opening — but this time it wasn't there.

Instead of deflecting the blow, Ranma merely stepped inside Keitaro's guard, then shoved at Keitaro's sternum with one palm, while his other hand slapped away Keitaro's attempt at a counter. He stumbled backwards across the field, and landed heavily on his backside.

"Got cocky," Ranma chastised. "Remember, adaptability. Again?"

"Again," Keitaro agreed, accepting Ranma's hand to his feet. The two squared off again, and Keitaro opened up with a foot-sweep, trying to knock Ranma off his feet. Ranma stood his ground, and Keitaro reversed direction, sweeping a chop towards Ranma's neck. This blow was deflected, and Keitaro saw another opening.

This one would require more effort to exploit than the last. He stepped back to consider his options. Ranma moved towards him, launching a strike towards his chest. He slapped it out of the way, quickly launching a kick at Ranma — there was no time to sit around idle while trying to battle! This was like a multiple-choice question on an exam, and time was running out.

Ranma danced away from the kick, grinning, and Keitaro nodded. Maybe choosing the right answer wasn't as important as picking a choice at all, here. Just like testing. Emboldened by the range Ranma's evasion had granted, Keitaro stepped forward, and kicked upwards. Ranma leaned back out of the way, and blocked the heel-drop Keitaro had planned to follow up.

Keitaro blinked in surprise, and Ranma shoved the leg upwards, flipping him over to tumble to the lawn. "You need to watch your defense," Ranma advised. "You don't always have a lot of time to take advantage of your enemy's weaknesses, and while you're feeling out their defenses, you're also showing them your own."

"Tricky," Keitaro said, climbing to his feet. "I think I understand. Again?"

Ranma blinked, eyebrows rising. "Well, if you want," he said, shrugging. Keitaro nodded, taking up a defensive stance.

Grinning in understanding, Ranma charged. Keitaro sidestepped Ranma's charge, throwing a foot out to trip the man in passing. The martial artist shifted direction suddenly, and moved to tackle Keitaro — there! There was the opening!

As if in slow motion, Naru watched Keitaro's foot, with dreadful slowness, arc around from its placement for a trip, sweeping into Ranma's shin from the side. The manager twisted to the side at the same moment, his other foot slipping across the ground until he ended up spinning completely around, resting in a ready stance. A ring of dust rose from around him, swirling faintly in the direction of his motion.

Meanwhile, Ranma, unbalanced by the trip, sprawled forward, tucking into a roll, and using a handspring to launch himself into the air until he could recover. From there, he descended, landing near Keitaro. "Much better," he said, nodding. "Now you get it. Tomorrow, we'll spar again."

"What about now?" Keitaro asked, surprised.

"Now it's my turn!" Suu exclaimed, springing to her feet enthusiastically.

The girls had made a collective concession to the fact that there were now two men in the inn by letting them use the baths. After the girls were done with them, of course.

But Ranma wouldn't begrudge them that — the inn was meant to be a girl's dormitory, so he considered it a privilege, and he wouldn't complain about it. The hot water acted as a soothing balm — Ranma ruefully admitted that before coming to the inn he had let his conditioning slip. But the hot water salved aching muscles from sparring with Motoko, and was relaxing in other ways, as well.

"It almost seems timeless," Keitaro commented, staring upwards. The trees surrounding the spring were nearly invisible before him. In the colder air, as winter approached, the spring tossed up masses of obscuring steam, leaving the entire baths cloaked in a mist that was difficult to see through.

"I know what you mean," Ranma murmured, waving one hand. The steam swirled behind, following the motion of his arm, little whorls and eddies dancing about before more steam obscured the air. He frowned thoughtfully, moving the hand in a circle, and caused a tiny vortex to appear. The motion pulled gently at the steam across the surface of the spring, pooling it and forcing it upward in a funnel.

"Wow," Keitaro breathed, able to make out the flows of steam even without his glasses. The mists spiraled high enough to clear the roof, and touch against a cool breeze. The air temperature there caused the steam to condense, sprinkling cool droplets across the entire bathing area. "That's nice," Keitaro commented after a moment.

Ranma nodded, glad it had worked, as neither of them remembered to bring cool rags for their foreheads, sometimes important when the baths were as hot as they were. "I didn't know if it would work right," he admitted after a moment, as the steam worked on building itself back up.

"When will you teach us how to do that?"

Frowning, Ranma shot Keitaro a sideways glance. He was sprawled against a rock, just over halfway submerged in the spring, reclining comfortably with his arms behind his head. Ranma himself sat against another rock, not quite as deep in the water as the manager. "I don't know if I will," he finally said. "That kind of thing… it's dangerous. And it's not that I don't trust you, it's that I'm leaving before I can guarantee that I'll have enough time to teach everyone correctly. I should be close enough by to give you lessons, but probably not enough to supervise as much as would be needed."

"Ah," Keitaro mumbled, nodding, his eyes closed. "I understand that. Motoko-chan already knew, after all. What do you call that kind of move?"

"It's an esoteric art," Ranma replied, shrugging. "Some people call them ki attacks, but that's a bit misleading. You can do things with ki that you could do with your bare hands, and sometimes you can do more… but using it to attack is not always as effective as a good punch or kick."

Keitaro frowned. "So why use it?" he asked.

Ranma shrugged, dropping a hand into the water and pushing it back and forth, sending out small waves that marched across the pond, vanishing into the steam-shrouded reaches. "You can do things with it that are harder to do with your bare hands," he said. "The… Hiryuu Shouten-Ha, for example…. The main reason to use it instead of a normal attack is that you can use someone's anger against them, which makes it useful if you're fighting defensively."

Keitaro opened one eye, and peered at Ranma curiously through the thickening steam. "What about the fireball?"

"Well… that's… different." Ranma frowned thoughtfully. "I really prefer to use that one to counter someone else's attack. But, really, that's not as important right now as studying. We should probably get out of the baths."

"If you insist," Keitaro replied, opening both eyes, and stretching. "Can you clear out the steam again?"

"Sure," Ranma replied, rising slightly, and stepping in a circle. This time the funnel of steam was wider, causing the water beneath it to roil, but not quite powerful enough to actually draw any of it away. When it was done, the steam passed too high to rain back into the bath, and was carried away on the breeze. "That was a nice soak," he said appreciatively.

"Yes," Mutsumi agreed.

Keitaro and Ranma blinked at one another, checking their modesty towels before turning to glance at Mutsumi. "Um… hello," Ranma managed.

The girl was sitting towards the back of the pond, her face flushed from the heat, but smiling regardless. A towel was pressed to her chest, barely managing to keep her covered. "Hello!" she replied cheerfully. "What are you two doing in here?"

"Naru said… everyone had gotten out of the bath, and we could get in," Keitaro said nervously, climbing to his feet at Ranma's side. "We'll, uh, get out of your way, now."

Ranma nodded quickly. "Sorry to bother you," he added, taking a step backwards.

Mutsumi shook her head, her hair in a bun behind her to keep it dry. "You don't need to worry," she insisted, climbing to her own feet. "I'll get out with you!"

Both Keitaro and Ranma watched, gulping involuntarily as Mutsumi stepped towards them, her towel struggling valiantly to keep her covered, but fighting a losing battle. She stopped halfway towards them, and peered at her feet. In the reforming mist, she had nearly bumped into Tamago, who was floating peacefully on the surface of the bath. "Ooh," she said, blinking at the turtle. "I almost tripped over this rock." She raised one leg from the water, and prepared to step on Tamago, as the turtle floated away. With nothing beneath her but more water, she stumbled, crashing towards one of the bath's real rocks.

Again, Ranma's senses blurred, and time seemed to slow down. He shot across the handful of meters between them, not sure what he found purchase on as he hurtled towards her. Slowing, he skidded on his knees atop the water, sinking in time to catch Mutsumi before she tumbled into the rock.

He came to rest crouched low, Mutsumi held in his arms, and blinking in surprise. Behind her, Tamago drifted lazily past, raising a flipper in greeting and offering a cheerful chirp. "Thank you," Mutsumi finally said, smiling.

"No… problem," Ranma managed, glancing at Keitaro, who stared at him in shock. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine!" she exclaimed cheerfully. "Have you seen my towel anywhere?"

Blinking, Ranma looked down, realizing that the towel covering Mutsumi had vanished. "Gaah!" He tipped over backwards, he and Mutsumi both splashing into the water.

In the ensuing confusion, by the time Ranma managed to haul himself upright and help Mutsumi to her own feet, she managed to tug off his modesty towel. "Oops!" she exclaimed, blushing brightly.

"Oe-san, I found her towel!" Keitaro exclaimed, retrieving it from the bottom of the pond, and offering it to her.

Ranma covered himself with his hands, quickly sinking into the bath, his face crimson. "Thank you," Mutsumi said, reaching towards Keitaro, and grabbing the cloth. One firm tug left her holding his modesty towel, while he and her towel took another tumble into the bath, splashing loudly.

"Ack!" Keitaro managed, flushing fit to match what Ranma felt he looked like, and trying to cover himself.

"Oh, here it is," Mutsumi said, pulling Ranma's modesty towel from the bath, and looking between the pair.

Keitaro's eyes widened as the door to the bathing area slammed open. "Uh-oh," he whimpered.

"Keitaro!" Naru exclaimed. "What in the world are you…."

The rest of the tenants of the inn quickly poured into the area behind her, peeking over her shoulder at the three in the bath. "Hello!" Mutsumi cheered, waving one of the towels at Naru while Ranma attempted to hide himself behind a rock. "Are you going to take a bath with us, too?"

"Urashima!" Motoko exclaimed. "How could you have fallen so low now, after you had done so well?"

"Sempai," Shinobu whimpered. "What are you doing?"

Mitsune merely looked between Keitaro and Ranma, a smile forming on her face.

"Taking advantage of Mutsumi like that!" Naru exclaimed, crossing her arms over her chest and scowling darkly. "I hope you have a good explanation."

"I do!" Keitaro said fervently, springing to his feet, and marching to stand before Naru. "It's simple, Narusegawa — Oe-san and I were just taking a bath, and we didn't realize that Mutsumi-chan was still in here!"

"Do you feel a draft?" Mitsune asked, her smile widening to a grin as she peered at Keitaro.

"Eh?" he asked, turning to look at her quizzically.

"Ah! Keitaro-kun!" Mutsumi called out from behind him. "You forgot this!"

Blinking, he turned around, to look at Mutsumi. She had managed to cover herself with her towel again, though it did little at this point. More importantly, she was waving Keitaro's wet modesty towel with her free hand. Ranma struggled in vain to reach for his own towel, not willing to leave the relative safety of his rock. "My towel," he said weakly. "Um… hello? Otohime?"

Keitaro swallowed nervously, and looked down, remembering that his towel was missing. "Wait! I can explain this too!" he protested, grabbing Naru by the shoulders to try to show his sincerity. "Er… actually, maybe I shouldn't have done that," he said, releasing her and trying to cover himself with his hands.

Her expression warned him that she wouldn't have any of it, and he whimpered. One good punch sent him upwards, and he flipped over in the air twice before slamming into the ground. "Pervert," she grumped. "Really, now."

"Keitaro-kun?" Mutsumi asked, draping his modesty towel over him, and leaning close to examine him. "Are you okay?"

"I can see my house from here," he slurred in reply, eyes not quite focusing.

Motoko shook her head, and turned her attention to the rock Ranma was hiding behind. "And your excuse?" she asked, setting her hands on her hips.

"Um… I'm just an innocent little girl?" he hazarded.

"Really, now."

Clearing his throat, Ranma shook his head. He had one good chance at pulling off an escape, since Mutsumi had run off with his towel. "I have a better explanation," he reasoned, peeking over the top of his stony hiding place. "Basically, it goes like this. You see — Hiryuu Shouten-ha!"

The tenants all stepped back, eyes wide, as Ranma vanished into a rising vortex of hot water. In the center of the spiral, once it was separated from the springs, the hot mass cooled quickly, triggering his curse.

Female, she landed at the edge of the bath, while the water rained down across the bath from her effect. "Now," she reasoned. "Keitaro was telling the truth. It was all an accident."

"Exactly!" Mutsumi added, smiling. "I guess I forgot to get out — I love hot springs!"

"And… um… Mutsumi tripped, and dropped her towel, and then, um, I tripped, and then Keitaro tripped… and it was all an accident. See?" Ranma said, smiling hopefully.

"So, what was the show for, then?" Motoko asked, raising an eyebrow.

"My modesty towel was missing," Ranma said, shrugging. "Didn't want to flash you all, or anything like that."

"Fair enough," Motoko allowed, frowning. "Though you display a certain lack of feminine modesty."

"Well, in either body, I'm still missing a towel," Ranma countered. "Anyway, I'm going to go dry off and put some clothes on." She strode forward, towards the exit.

Mitsune grinned, and made a kicking motion with her foot.

Ranma's next step found itself planted on a bar of soap, which skidded across the deck, causing her to trip over Keitaro's prone form. Ranma was sent careening wildly backwards into Mutsumi, and the pair landed tangled in the baths again with another thunderous splash.

Shaking his head to clear it, and trying to ignore Mitsune's gloating chuckle, he protested, "It was an accident! I swear!"

Keitaro had left the window shades in his room open, though the light filtering through both it and the open door felt dim and gloomy. He and Ranma had their heads bowed, studying their workbooks quietly.

"You know, it seemed like things had gone on too long without something going wrong," Keitaro finally said, prodding at his cheek gently. He winced as he felt the bandage placed over a swelling bump.

Ranma nodded solemnly, feeling at a matching bandage on his own face.

"Anyway," Keitaro mumbled. "I think Narusegawa really hates me, now."

"Why?" Ranma asked, frowning.

"Just a feeling," Keitaro sighed. "She hit you, too?"

Ranma blinked, surprised, and removed his bandage. "Actually, no," he said, turning to look at the wrapping in confusion. "No one hit me. It must have been a reflex."

Keitaro winced, looking away to mask his jealousy. "Narusegawa… must really like you a lot, Oe-san," he said. "If she didn't hit you after that…."

"Eh?" Ranma noised, frowning. "I don't know about that, Kanrinin. She's not studying with either of us right now, so I don't think she's any happier with me than she is with you."

Keitaro shrugged, leaning back and staring up at the spot on the ceiling where a hole had once been, connecting his room to Naru's. "I…." He hesitated. Should he tell Ranma that he already knew about Naru's confession? No…. No. There was too much studying to be done. They were probably going to wait until after the test to reveal it. And why? Because, really, they were both good people. They didn't want to hurt him at such a stressful time.

Ranma only wanted to help him out — that was why he helped Keitaro learn martial arts, after all. Naru, despite how annoyed she could get at him, really did want him to succeed. Wanted him to get into Todai. And maybe, maybe everything would work out, and he'd get into the college, and find his missing dream-girl.

And maybe he should stop deluding himself, he decided. Still, they really did need to study. "Well, let's move on to the next book," he finally said.

Naru looked up from her study guide, having trouble focusing on it. Ever since Keitaro had begun training seriously in martial arts, he had gotten better. Less clumsy, at least. There honestly had been fewer accidents since he began.

And not counting his first day, Ranma hadn't done much of the sort at all. Outside of martial arts and studying, really, he often felt standoffish. Probably because he knew he was leaving soon, she decided.

But at the same time…. Ranma wasn't a pervert, at least as far as she'd seen. Well, he had grabbed onto Mutsumi, because Mitsune had kicked the bar of soap under his foot. But what was she to think?

Though she left her suspicions unvoiced, it seemed to Naru that Ranma was still being faithful towards his former wife — he probably didn't want to betray her memory, even if they had parted on good terms. So what was Keitaro doing naked with Mutsumi?

Would he try anything perverted with Oe around? Probably not.

The only explanation she could come up with was that… as unfortunate as the scenario was… Mutsumi was making a move on Keitaro. "Um… Mutsumi?" she asked, raising her head and looking at the other girl. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure!" she said, smiling.

"Um…. Mutsumi, do you remember what we talked about?" Naru asked, biting her lower lip uncertainly.

"Of course," Mutsumi replied, becoming solemn.

"Well… I was… wondering… if you were… trying to do something about… that… first," Naru said quietly.

"Oh, no, never that!" Mutsumi replied, shaking her head. "We're studying together, after all."


"But I think you might be faster than me anyway," Mutsumi sighed. "You're almost halfway through the study guide, and I'm only beginning."

Naru blinked at the other girl. "I was asking about Keitaro," Naru clarified. "I was asking… if you… were… trying to get him."

"I like Keitaro," Mutsumi answered, nodding. "But you like Keitaro, too. He's a good person to like. He doesn't know that either of us likes him, though."

"Right," Naru affirmed, nodding. "Are… you going to tell him before I can?"

Mutsumi looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head. Conspiratorially, she whispered, "I think that Kei-kun likes you more. If you confess, you'll make him very happy."

Reassured, Naru smiled, letting out a sigh of relief. "I hope so," she said quietly.

Mutsumi nodded knowingly, and beamed Naru a smile of her own. She frowned suddenly, and cocked her head to one side. "Naru-chan… what do you know about Ranma-kun?"

"Ranma?" Naru asked, raising an eyebrow. "You like him?"

Mutsumi ducked her head. "I like Ranma-kun, but I like Naru-chan and Keitaro-kun, too. I like everyone here!"

Naru giggled, seeing the faint blush on Mutsumi's cheeks as she answered the question. "Well… you know, I don't know that much more than you… but I bet I know someone who would know. Why don't we ask Mitsune once we finish these questions?"


"Hello, Kitsune!" Mutsumi greeted cheerfully, as Mitsune returned to the inn after a day of work. "Did you work hard today?"

"Not really," Mitsune replied absently, kicking her shoes off, and stretching her arms over her head. "Er… that is, yeah. I worked pretty hard."

Naru sighed, watching a pair of pachinko balls bounce out of Mitsune's pocket. "Gambling?" she chastised. "Did you work at all?"

"Of course I did," Mitsune insisted, grinning, sweeping up her fallen loot. "I just stopped off to win a few yen at the pachinko parlor before I came home."

Mutsumi nodded thoughtfully, then looked at Naru before walking across the inn's lobby towards Mitsune. "Kitsune-san… could you tell me something?" she asked, clasping her hands together over her chest.

Quirking one eyebrow, Mitsune nodded. "Sure," she replied, shrugging. "Let's go to my room."

After the other two had followed her to her room, Mitsune sat on her bed, and lounged across her pillows. "What do you want to know?" she asked, a calculating gleam in the corner of her eye.

"Do you know anything about Oe-san that we don't?" Naru asked thoughtfully. "We're looking for information on anything you might have… found out… that we don't already know."

This time both of Mitsune's eyebrows rose, and she sat up straight, frowning. "You want to know about Ranma? Why?"

"I'd like to know more about Ranma-kun," Mutsumi said, smiling softly. "He seems like a nice boy."

"Help me out," Naru whispered to Mitsune quietly. "If she's interested in Ranma, then she's not after Keitaro."

"Ah… I see," Mitsune whispered back, worried. In a louder voice, she said, "Well, I suppose I might know… some things that you might not. Why don't you tell me what you know already?"

"'But then, though no one had expected it, the ground spider's minions attacked Raiko's men when it thought they were asleep!'" Shinobu nodded to herself, and turned the page in her script book, making a face at how much dialogue she needed to speak. Quoting faithfully, she read aloud, "'But Sakata no Kintoki and Watanabe no Tsuna' — that's Oe-san and Motoko-sempai — 'but Sakata no Kintoki and Watanabe no Tsuna were not sleeping, they were playing go, and heard the minions entering their camp.'" Sighing, she closed the book, and shook her head. "So many lines," she said quietly. "I hope I can learn them all."

Stretching, she put the script book in her pocket, and padded from her room to the kitchen. It was near time to start cooking dinner anyway, and she needed a break from trying to learn the script. She found it easier to focus on her lines when she was cooking, anyway. Something about working in the kitchen always worked to soothe and calm her, especially when she was unsettled and nervous about something. And while she had been in a play before, this one involved much more attention to the dialogue.

She looked up as Mutsumi entered the kitchen, waving at her and offering a genial smile. "Otohime-san?" Shinobu queried, stirring a soup pot. "Taking a break from studying?"

"Yes, that's right," Mutsumi replied, nodding. "Shinobu-chan, is it true that you're putting on a play?"

"What?" Shinobu blinked, nearly forgetting to stir, and quickly shook her head. "No, no, that's not it. I'm part of the play, but Haruka-san is in charge of it."

"Do you think she would let me join?" Mutsumi asked thoughtfully, cocking her head to one side.

"Um… she might," Shinobu hazarded. "I'm not sure, though, which roles are left—"

"Thank you, Shinobu-chan! I'll ask her right away!"

Shinobu blinked, as Mutsumi turned about and strode away. "I wonder if this means the script will be changed," she murmured.

Atop a stretch of highway cresting a steep hill, standing at the very peak of the road before it sloped down into a stretch that lead into a city some miles distant, a man sat astride his pink ten-speed bike. A faint mist of rain sprinkled down lightly, and he stared stoically at the pavement before him. Stretching away and below like a black carpet unfurled expressly for him, far reaches shrouded by distance, and then further by a faint fog and the already misting rain.

But that expanse of black asphalt beckoned him, and he could not ignore its call for long. Hands fumbling for only a moment, he produced a pair of fingerless gloves, which he slipped on, followed by dark mirror-reflective sunglasses, and a quick adjustment of his blue baseball cap. "Little brother," he whispered, smirking, before he gave himself to the road.

"What are you up to?" he wondered aloud, lurching forward slightly, and allowing inertia to do the work for him.

"It's been a while, Ranma," he mused, positioning himself to ride low, and offer less wind resistance, his ponytail flicking behind him in his wake.

The stage had been set up outdoors, as the pit that had once housed dozens of turtles for Suu's experiment had been expanded and reshaped into an auditorium, with collapsing dividers set up to leave a 'back stage' area. The rear of the stage ended abruptly at an earthen wall, a tree standing above the center, and white sheets hanging across lines to provide a backdrop for the projection that Suu had set up.

Currently it was displaying a red velvet curtain, realistic enough that Shinobu had gone to touch it, not quite trusting her eyes. Ranma had, at Haruka's request, cobbled together the leftover scraps of lumber still lying around, and made simple wooden benches to serve as seats for the theater's guests. Surprisingly enough, they were slowly filling up, and Shinobu guessed there were more than forty people waiting for the play to begin.

A wooden podium was set up at the side of the stage, and Shinobu sighed in relief to see that there was a copy of the script on it, as that was where she would be standing. That way, if she forgot her lines, she could check them against the book. Swallowing, she looked at her costume, a carefully sewn up white gown, with white gloves. This hardly felt like a normal play, but then, Haruka had said she had taken liberties, so….

She shook her head, as Suu motioned to her. More people were trickling in, and she tried to ignore them, preparing for her performance. "Kaora-san?" she asked quietly, retreating behind the dividers for the back-stage area.

"Almost time," Suu warned. "Ready?"

Of course she wasn't, but she wasn't going to answer that.

"Give it a few extra minutes," Haruka said suddenly, entering the backstage area, and gesturing to the pair of tents being used for costuming. "Some of our actresses are being slow, and more people are coming anyway." She smiled vaguely. "I need to get dressed myself. Shinobu-chan, are you okay?"

"I'm a bit nervous," she admitted, staring at her feet.

"Don't worry about it — if you make a mistake, they'll probably just assume it's a comedy. Relax, and remember, you're the narrator, so they'll listen to what you say… but they're going to be watching everyone on the stage. Okay?" The woman patted her shoulder comfortingly, and Shinobu managed a brave smile. "Okay. When I come back out, we should be ready."

Shinobu nodded, watching Haruka retreat into the tent for women's costume changing.

It seemed to Shinobu that the woman hardly took long enough, before she emerged, gesturing Suu towards the tent. Her own costume was hard to make out as the last light of the sun faded, and the outdoor lights came on. "Seta dropped by, and he'll run the lighting for us," Haruka explained, leading Shinobu to the stage.

"Okay, is it time?"

"You're on!"

The lights on the stage slowly faded until they were extinguished entirely, only a pair of lights at either side of the back of the theater providing any illumination at all. A sudden beam of light erupted, just as the audience began to adjust to the darkness. It pooled about a figure, dressed in a radiantly glowing white gown. Her hair was held back by a simple gold tiara, and she stepped delicately down an earthen ramp to the side of the stage, stopping behind a podium.

Her voice echoed across the audience, hesitantly at first, but then with more confidence. "Welcome to Hinata-sou's presentation of the heroic legend of Raiko," she announced, bowing slightly to the audience. "Tonight we wish to show you the story that began, so long ago, in the far, forested reaches of Japan…."

At her words, the light about her faded, dimming, and illuminated the backdrop, now showing a thickly forested wood, and a simple wooden shack sitting at one edge of the stage.

A young woman with long red hair in a ponytail, wearing a red bandana and sleeveless gi strode out from behind the shack, looking around speculatively.

"Our story begins not only with Raiko, but the second of Raiko's retainers, the mighty Sakata no Kintoki. But at that time, she was not called Sakata no Kintoki, her name was instead…."

A man dressed as a samurai, with the ancient formal overshirt — uwagi — patterned in blue and white, and the loose flowing pant-like garment — hakama — strode onto the stage. His look was grim and confident, and he was trailed by a woman with long black hair, each of them carrying swords. "Who are you?" the man asked, looking at the red-haired girl speculatively. "And where is this forest?"

"Me?" the girl asked, blinking in surprise. "Who are you? For I am Kaidomaru, and I speak to the creatures of this forest."

"To speak with animals? Can this be possible?" the black-haired woman asked the audience, one hand smoothing the sleeve of her white uwagi nervously. "Surely this is a joke." Turning to the red-haired girl, she drew her sword, pointing it directly at her. "Speak to my master only with respect, knave, for he is Minamoto no Yorimitsu, the hero known as Raiko."

"Hold your sword, Watanabe no Tsuna," Raiko said, shaking his head. "I have heard stories of this bo— girl." He coughed quietly, glancing at the audience, then turned his attention back to Kaidomaru. "Are the legends true, young woman?" he asked. "Is it true that you wrestle with the bears of this land?"

"It is true," Kaidomaru replied, nodding. "I wrestle with the bears, and I run with the deer, and I climb the trees, for this forest is my home. I am no samurai or lord such as yourself; I have no title and no land, so this is my station."

"And is it also true, young Kaidomaru, that your caretaker is the wicked Yamamba?" he asked, one hand going to his sword. "The dreaded and vile man-eating hag?"

Before Kaidomaru could reply, a woman in a tattered and torn kimono emerged from the hut, making a motion towards Raiko. He reeled as though struck, and sunk to the ground, dazed.

"Watch your mouth," Haruka grumped, preparing to throw another rock at Keitaro.

"It was in the script!" Ranma shot back under her breath.

"I changed that line," she countered just as quietly.

"Ah!" the narrator exclaimed suddenly. "The, ah, dread witch Yamamba cast a spell at Raiko to weaken him!"

The audience gasped in stunned surprise.

Raiko struggled to his feet, aided by Tsuna. "That hurt!" he exclaimed, rubbing at his head, as though dismissing the effects of her spell. Tsuna leaned close to examine his head.

"Ad-lib!" Motoko hissed under her breath. "Come up with something!"

"Right, right," he whispered back.

"But!" Raiko exclaimed, drawing his sword, "you have affronted my honor, and attacked a samurai. Yamamba, unless you can offer suitable restitution, I will strike you down."

Yamamba took a menacing step towards Raiko. The samurai's eyes widened in surprise, and he shot a worried glance at his retainer, but held his ground. Kaidomaru grabbed the woman's sleeve, and pleaded, "Oh, Yamamba, do not sacrifice your life so. You have watched over me as I grew up in this forest, and while it was all I have ever known, I would not remain here alone, without you."

The woman paused, her long nails twitching, but she nodded curtly. "Very well, then," she announced. "What restitution do you demand, noble samurai?"

"A life is only worth another life," Tsuna noted aloud. "But the life of a samurai and the life of a woman such as yourself are not equal."

Yamamba's eyebrows twitched, and she growled wordlessly.

"But what could she offer that would satisfy samurai honor?" the narrator asked aloud. "Kaidomaru couldn't let the woman who raised hi—her die so easily, but she didn't know what to do. If only the animals of the forest could tell her to give herself to Raiko as a retainer!"

"Animals of the forest," Kaidomaru intoned softly, while everyone else on stage froze. "What should I do?"

"Go with Raiko!" the narrator pleaded. "Tell him, animals of the forest!"

The children in the audience, hesitantly at first, but then with more feeling, called out, "Go with Raiko! Go with Raiko!"

Kaidomaru nodded, then glanced between Yamamba and Raiko, saying, "Yamamba, while I am no samurai, perhaps Raiko-sama would be willing to take me in your stead?"

"Very well," Yamamba sighed. "Raiko, take my Kaidomaru, take him away from me… but know this much. While I have never told him before, Kaidomaru's is a samurai, of the Sakata family."

"Then Sakata Kaidomaru, you shall become my retainer as well," Raiko decided, nodding. "And from this day forth, you shall be known as Sakata no Kintoki."

The lights faded out, hiding the stage and all of its actors.

"With Sakata no Kintoki as his newfound retainer, Raiko began to search for adventure," the narrator said, her voice carrying to the far reaches of the auditorium. The light on her began to brighten, until the audience could see her clearly again. "They had many adventures, eventually bringing them to a small town far to the north of what was once the home of Kaidomaru."

"It's my turn!" Suu said gleefully, checking her costume quickly. "Is everyone ready?"

Naru and Mutsumi nodded, examining their own outfits, while Haruka grumbled on her way to the costuming tent.

"Let's go!"

"Raiko, along with his retainers, entered the small town, sensing danger on the wind," the narrator explained, as the lights shifted again, leaving her to fade away while the backdrop of an ancient town came into view.

The samurai himself stood at the edge of the stage, his retainers behind him. Kintoki's gi had been covered with a red hakama and uwagi, and she now bore a staff lightly in one hand. Two peasant women in simple kimonos stood at the opposite side of the stage, one with long brown hair, and the other with long dark hair. Both of them glanced around nervously, as though afraid of something.

"The poor villagers were terrorized by villains of the rudest sort!" the narrator exclaimed, as two men in armor jumped out from behind the stage, looking as though they had leapt from a rooftop. They landed, one tall and lanky, the other shorter and more rounded, both with long hair.

"Ah!" the tall one exclaimed, putting his hands on his hips, and offering a maniacal laugh. "This village is ours, for our strength is uncontested!"

"Indeed it is!" the other chimed in, grinning wickedly, and leaning on his spear to leer at the peasant girls. "And now, let us claim our bounty!"

"We get to tussle with those cuties!" Haitani whispered to Shirai.

"Let's hurry before anyone else shows up," Shirai countered, as the pair advanced on Mutsumi and Naru.

"Naru-san?" Mutsumi asked quietly enough not to be heard off the stage. "Is this in the script?"

"They couldn't be that dumb," Naru said in disbelief, while she and Mutsumi cowered away from the approaching villains.

"But, before Raiko and his me— retainers could act," the narrator said, so happily that the smile in her voice could be heard despite the fact that she was hidden, "another hero arrived!"

"I'm Urabe no Suu!" a girl with silver hair exclaimed, bouncing onto the stage from above the two peasants, a lashing foot sending the pair of villains away in a tangled heap. She stood up, striking a pose in her green hakama and uwagi. "And I protect the people of this town!"

There was a momentary pause, while the villains attempted to struggle upright. The narrator's voice carried a single note of anxiety. "Unfortunately," she warned, "Urabe no Suetake was injured in the battle, and couldn't fight on any longer, leaving the villagers defenseless against the able-bodied villains."

Suetake blinked, then looked around. "I am injured!" she exclaimed suddenly, toppling to the ground and lying near the peasant women, who seemed stunned. The audience chuckled quietly.

"Ah!" the tall villain exclaimed, wobbling unsteadily, and cradling one arm with the other. "Now you are defenseless, and we can strike you down, Urabe no Suetake!"

"That's right!" the other exclaimed, both of them working together to hold a single spear, and stagger closer to the girl. "You overestimated yourself!"

"Aren't these roles a little backwards?" Haitani whimpered. "I think she nerve-pinched my arm; I can't feel it anymore."

"The play must go on," Shirai hissed back.

"But before they could strike, Raiko's retainers interceded," the narrator said, just as the villains reached Suetake's side.

Raiko drew his sword, and in the time it took it to clear his sheath, Kintoki and Tsuna had crossed the stage, easily throwing the villains into a pile in the center.

Struggling to their feet, just as Raiko took up a ready stance, the villains gave one another a firm nod.

Haitani tested his arm, grabbing up his spear again. "Alright, Urashima arranged for us to get beaten up — time for a taste of his own medicine!"

"Agreed," Shirai returned quietly.

The villains charged Raiko, who took a step back, raising his sword defensively. "But the villains were stronger than anyone suspected, and they attacked Raiko while his retainers were helping the villagers!" the narrator exclaimed, sounding almost panicked. "Fight, Sem— Raiko! Fight!"

Raiko dodged out of the way as the villains attempted to club him with their spears, and then lurched into motion, his sword-arm blurring and leaving an arc of shining silver that passed before them.

"Oooh!" the audience gasped.

"Haitani! That's not a stage weapon!" Shirai whimpered.

"Play dead!" Haitani mumbled.

"It's… not…" the tall villain gasped out loudly as they both collapsed.

"Fair," the short one completed, before both stilled.

"And so, Raiko asked Urabe no Suetake to join his band of retainers," the narrator contributed.

Raiko made his way around the fallen villains. The light over them dimmed, until they were invisible. "You are a great warrior," he exclaimed, standing over the fallen Suetake. "You would have won, were it not for the villains' terrible trickery and wicked magic."

"Truly, they must have been among the undead," Tsuna added, glancing to where they had been.

Reiko shot Tsuna a glance, and the retainer flushed, staring at her feet.

"What is your name?" he asked, turning to regard Suetake again.

Suetake bounced to her feet, grinning wildly. "I am Urabe no Suetake," she said. Turning to the audience, she stage-whispered, "My friends call me Suu." Turning back to Raiko, she added, "I am the warrior who protects this village."

"Urabe no Suetake," Raiko announced, nodding gravely. "You are a mighty warrior — would you consider following at my side, and join me as one of my retainers?"


The stage faded to darkness again, and the narrator was illuminated while she explained, "Raiko and his band journeyed far and wide, searching for evildoers and vanquishing them. Eventually, they were drawn to the Ryukyu islands by rumors of a rampaging demon."

The stage lights began to brighten again, this time showing a shore, waves crashing silently in the distance, and nearby rocks and trees leading to a darkened, ominous cave.

Raiko's band stood at left side of the stage, Suetake standing in front of Raiko, and peering around cautiously, now carrying a bow. "Ah!" she exclaimed, pointing at the cave. "There it is! We should find the demon within."

"Then let us proceed," Raiko decided. The quartet marched, while the backdrop scrolled towards them, granting the illusion of movement. As they approached the cave, the backdrop showed the interior of the depths.

They paused once completely within the cave, and Tsuna announced, "I hear the sound of battle. A ma— person engaged in a life-or-death struggle."

The lighting on the right side of the stage picked up, showing a previously hidden warrior. This was a taller woman than Suetake, with blonde hair, wielding a staff, much like Kintoki did. Standing before her in an aggressive pose was a small demon with short blonde hair. Her nails were long claws, and her wings and tail twitched as she moved her hands menacingly.

The blonde woman backed away nervously, while the narrator explained, "Raiko and his band had stumbled across Usui Sadamitsu, who was already fighting the demon."

"Prepare to die, silly mortal!" the demon exclaimed, lashing at Sadamitsu with a claw.

Sadamitsu dodged to one side, and waved her staff at the demon. "You can not defeat me, vile thing, for I fight for justice!" she proclaimed.

"Hey, take it easy!" Mitsune hissed. "I'm supposed to win this fight, remember?"

"Where's the fun in that?" Sarah retorted quietly. "You'll have to beat me the hard way!"

"So you think!" the demon retorted, leaping at Sadamitsu and lashing out with a foot.

Sadamitsu began to retreat, using her staff defensively. "Ack! Foul — eep! — minion, prepare to — yipe! — die!"

"Never!" the demon yelled, halting when Sadamitsu backed into Suetake.

Raiko's band drew their weapons.

"Well, maybe now," she allowed, turning around and running away, vanishing off the edge of the stage.

"Quick! Ad-lib, Shinobu's drawing a blank!" Mitsune whispered.

Keitaro nodded thoughtfully.

"Ah, I see that the demon is mighty indeed," Raiko announced, while Sadamitsu sunk to her knees, and Suetake examined her for injuries. "A creature this vile will require all of our forces combined to defeat. Brave wanderer, what is your name?"

"I am Usui Sadamitsu," the warrior explained, climbing to her feet, her blue hakama and uwagi slightly smudged. "I came here to hunt a demon."

"We are here, too, to hunt that evil being," Tsuna announced. "Would you join with us?"

"Unfortunately," the narrator announced suddenly, "Sadamitsu was too confident to accept their aid. She believed she was strong enough alone, and refused."

Sadamitsu's eyebrow twitched violently, and she shot a dark look off the side of the stage, while the audience chuckled. "Um, no… I… can handle this," she said stiffly. "I don't need any assistance."

"Yes," Raiko said, nodding. "You handled yourself very well against that small demon." He paused, shooting the audience a nervous glance, which resulted in another chuckle. "Let us follow you, then. We will not interfere as you battle the one that created it."

"Thank you," Sadamitsu returned, her voice dripping sarcasm.

They all turned, and began marching along, as the scenery shifted behind them, going deeper into the cave. The walls began to take on an ominous red glow, until finally, a pair of larger demons appeared. They were similar to the villains that Suetake had battled, and the smaller demon stood between them.

"You know, I was thinking," Sadamitsu said suddenly, turning to face Raiko.

"What?" he asked, surprised.

"Raiko kindly offered to help Sadamitsu, but she insisted on fighting alone," the narrator said, before Sadamitsu could answer.

One eyebrow ticking, Sadamitsu shot another annoyed look off the side of the stage, then a more fearful one towards the smallest of the demons. "Um, I was thinking that I could handle all these things myself," she grumbled.

The two larger demons grinned happily, and began to drool.

"This isn't fair," Mitsune whimpered, readying her staff nervously.

"Just use what I taught you," Ranma hissed back, winking. "You can put them down without hurting them."

"I can try," Mitsune replied, somewhat more confidently.

Shinobu sighed, thankful for the small light on the podium that subtly illuminated her script book. Why had Mitsune asked her to make those changes, and then been angry when she'd implemented them? Well, no use worrying about it now — they were almost finished with the first act.

Looking more confident, Sadamitsu strode towards the demons, her staff held loosely in one hand. "I am prepared for you, evil things!" she announced suddenly.

"Finally we get one!" Haitani whispered. "And it's even in character, too!"

Shirai nodded waggling his costumed fingertips, with their long claws. "Ready?"


The two larger demons — dressed identically to the smaller one — charged Sadamitsu together. Sadamitsu simply dropped her staff, and took up a combat stance.

Reaching towards her chest with his fist, the taller of the demons exclaimed, "I will tear out your heart, mortal!"

Sadamitsu grabbed the clawed hand in her own, and stepped to one side, pulling the demon into a throw, and sending it halfway across the stage. The other demon backpedaled frantically, but she guided it into another trip, and it sprawled across the first one.

They lay there for a moment, dazed.

"Shirai… I say we stay down for the count. These girls are too dangerous."


"Unfortunately, Sadamitsu was unable to defeat the demons alone!" the narrator warned. "Realizing her plight, she called for help from Raiko."

Sadamitsu looked up from polishing her nails on her uwagi, and glanced at the prone demons, then at the small demon still standing.

It looked around, then winced, and said, "Uh-oh."

"Oh, Raiko!" Sadamitsu exclaimed. "I need help, for I cannot finish this battle alone! Why not send one of your assistants to help me?"

Raiko looked confused, then shrugged. "Of course. One of my retainers can aid you — but who should I send?"

"Kaidoranma," Suetake suggested.

"Er… Kaidomaru, you mean?" Tsuna asked.

"Me?" Kintoki managed. "Uh… okay, I guess."

Shrugging, the redhead twirled her staff in one hand, stepping around the still prone demons, and approaching the short blonde one. "Um, foul demon, prepare to be set to rest forever!"

"You vanquished me!" the demon announced, falling down before he was even within a dozen paces of her. "I am defeated!"

Kintoki stared at the third fallen foe, then shrugged, propping her staff over her shoulder and looking at Raiko expectantly.

"Ah!" Shinobu protested under her breath. "They just skipped a whole battle sequence." More loudly, she addressed the audience, "Witnessing Sadamitsu's skill, Raiko became convinced that he should add the warrior to his retainers, for all of them combined would be unmatched, and able to stop any evil."

"Usui Sadamitsu!" Raiko announced. "Would you consider joining with me and my retainers, so that we could journey together and fight evil as a united force?"

"I would be honored, noble samurai, for your retainers are mighty, and your own skill must be great. But what is your name?"

"I am Raiko," he replied, bowing.

Sadamitsu returned the bow. "Then, Raiko, I will gladly serve you."

"And so," the narrator concluded, as all of the light again faded, refocusing on her, "Raiko had assembled his four retainers, and once more went on in search of adventure." She stepped to the side of the podium and bowed low, as the lights vanished, except for the stage backdrop, which showed an empty stage, and only solid white scenery, with the word 'Intermission' spelled out across the entire thing in bold black letters.

Still in peasant costume, Naru shook her head. "We're holding in there," she finally managed. "I think the last play went better than this."

"It's going well enough," Haruka reasoned, still dressed as Yamamba. "Everyone take a breather." She turned to look at Shinobu, who looked exhausted. "Excellent work, Shinobu-chan. Especially with that ad-libbing."

Shinobu smiled vaguely, and nodded. "Thank you," she said quietly.

"How are the rest of you holding up?" Haruka asked, surveying the troupe.

"I think it's going better than the last play," Keitaro opined, sitting on the grass to catch his breath.

"I'm having fun!" Suu said cheerfully.

"Me, too," Mitsune seconded, winking at Ranma.

"I believe I'm handling my role better this time around," Motoko said quietly.

"It's a bit more painful," Haitani and Shirai said together.

"But, it's actually still kind of fun," Haitani allowed.

"And I liked working on the backdrops with Suu-chan," Shirai said.

"I'm excited!" Mutsumi announced, smiling. "I can hardly wait to see what happens next!"

"It's okay," Sarah allowed, already out of her demon costume.

"And you?" Haruka asked, turning to Ranma.

"I'm fine," she answered. "A bit hungry, but otherwise having fun."

"That reminds me," Haruka said suddenly, smacking one fist into the opposing palm. "I arranged for some refreshments."

"What did you get?" Keitaro asked, perking up slightly. "We didn't have time for dinner, yet, so…."

"Okonomiyaki!" Seta announced, bearing one in his hand, and smiling genially. "A friend of yours, I think, Oe-kun."


To be continued.

Author's notes: I hope this isn't too rushed. Any and all C&C welcome.

Brian Randall

Chapter 10
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Last revision: January 7, 2006

Old Gray Wolf