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"Ucchan came back?" Ranma asked, scratching behind one ear in confusion.

"She said she wanted to tell you where she was going to set up her shop," Haruka explained quickly, while Ranma looked around, bewildered.

"I should say hello," she reasoned, before the woman reached out a hand to restrain her, shaking her head. "Something wrong?" Ranma asked, looking up at the taller woman.

"She's selling refreshments to the crowd. You should wait until after the performance. She's going to be busy during intermissions."

"Oh, well, that's true." Ranma frowned, then snagged a tossed okonomiyaki from the air when Seta flung it at him. "Thanks!"

"No problem!" Seta said cheerily. "The play seems to be going well. How long is the intermission going to be?"

"Just a few minutes or so," Keitaro said, tugging his belt tighter. "Hey, Haruka-basan, where did you manage to get all these costumes, anyway?"

"I pulled them out of the attic while Oe-san was replacing some of the bad insulation. I was hoping we'd have an excuse to put on a play," she explained.

Ranma took an instinctive step back, wincing. "Um, Haruka-san, he does need to be on in a few minutes," she warned.

"Oh, right." Haruka removed her foot from the small of Keitaro's back, where she had tripped him to the ground. "Break a leg."

"If I don't, I get the idea you'll do it for me," Keitaro said weakly, climbing to his feet.

Chapter Ten: Winter Performance (Part Two)

Disclaimer: Paints in this story are from Takahashi, Viz (Ranma 1/2), TV Tokyo and Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina), and Tatsuya Egawa (Goldenboy). The story of the heroic legend of Raiko and Sakata Kintoki as presented here is public domain. The easel is mine. That's all.

Notes: Divergences should become apparent as relevant. If you are not familiar with the heroic legend of Raiko and Sakata Kintoki, they are explained within these chapters (somewhat).

"You should be more careful," Naru warned. Turning her attention to the other cast members, she asked, "Shinobu-chan, are you ready?"

"You have a minute," Seta warned. "I have to get back to the lighting system."

Ranma waved, finishing the last bite of her okonomiyaki as Seta turned and strolled away.

"Are we all ready?" Haruka asked, glancing towards Mutsumi and Naru as they vanished into the costuming tent.

"I'm ready," Shinobu said bravely, nodding. "It's easier now, I think."

Haruka peered at the girl and raised an eyebrow. "Eh? You have stage-fright?"

"Not anymore," she giggled. "Should I go out now?"

"Mm." Haruka considered, then nodded. "You should. The lights will change once you're out. Everyone else, that means places in a few seconds. Let's go!"

The lights on the backdrop of the stage dimmed, the 'intermission' sign fading out and leaving the theater dark for a moment.

A pool of light began at the base of the small podium, expanding until it captured the radiantly glowing narrator. She offered the audience a cheerful smile, and began to speak. "Thank you," she said in a voice that filled the auditorium without echoing, "for coming to listen to our story again."

The last bits of conversation in the audience trailed off to silence.

She bobbed her head quickly, offering another smile before her expression became serious. "Raiko and his four retainers journeyed in search of adventures, but one of Raiko's most famous exploits was his fabled battle against the ground spider, Tsuchigumo!" The stage lit up, showing hilly, lushly carpeted terrain, Raiko and his retainers marching along a worn dirt road.

"And this is how Raiko came to know of the ground spider's existence," the narrator explained, while the light on her dimmed, until she was nearly invisible. "For one day, as they journeyed eastward, they came across a distressed young woman and her daughter…."

As Raiko's group reached center-stage, the right half lit up, illuminating a woman with long dark hair in an immaculate sky-blue kimono, kneeling at a small wooden grave-marker. At her side, glancing towards Raiko and his band curiously was a small blonde child, also in a kimono.

The woman, who looked similar to one of the peasants from Suetake's village, clasped her hands together as she saw Raiko. "Noble samurai!" she cried, climbing to her feet, hurrying to the group. "Please," she begged, the smaller girl trailing her. "You must heed my warning!"

"Warning?" Raiko asked, surprised. "What do you need to warn us of?"

"There is evil here, great and terrible evil," the woman warned, shaking her head, and wobbling on her feet unsteadily. "My husband was taken by the creatures that come by our town at night."

"What manner of creature?" Tsuna asked, stepping forward.

"I do not know, but they are great and terrible." The woman paused for a moment, then leant to one side, as though listening to the child. She straightened up, and nodded. "They move about in the darkness, unseen by our town's warriors."

"Where do they come from?" Suetake asked, stepping forward next to Tsuna.

"The hills, at night — we do not know."

"Why do they attack you?" Kintoki asked, stepping to Tsuna's side.

"They seek to rob of us all we own, and torment us," the woman said, shaking her head. "More, I cannot say, for I do not know."

"When do they attack you?" Sadamitsu asked, moving next to Suetake.

"They attack each new moon, but our preparations for them are in vain," the woman sighed.

"Who leads them?" Raiko asked, one hand going to his sword.

The woman shook her head mutely, then knelt to listen to the child as she whispered something. Nodding, the woman straightened, and explained, "My daughter claims that the forest spirits speak to her, and tell of a cave, not far from here."

"A cave?" the retainers said as one, frowning.

"A wicked spirit," Tsuna proclaimed, nodding. "For such as they would do these evil deeds."

"No, it is wicked men," Sadamitsu said, shaking her head. "For they would pretend the guise of spirits and prey on unsuspecting innocents."

"No, no! It's fools," Suetake insisted. "Because we will beat them up!"

Raiko glanced between the three, then turned to the redhead. "And you, Sakata no Kintoki?" he asked. "What do the animals tell you?"

Kintoki cocked her head to one side, as though listening to something, then glanced at the audience. "Animals of the forest," she addressed them, "what manner of creature preys upon these innocents?"

The narrator quickly explained, "Sakata Kintoki listened to the animals of the forest when she was a child, and could still hear them on occasion, but only when they were brave!" The light on her brightened, and illuminated her pleading gesture, hands clasped together beseechingly. "Please, warn Raiko and his band about the ground spider and his army of goblins!" she begged.

There was a long moment of awkward silence, before a child in the audience yelled, "The ground spider!"

Kintoki raised an eyebrow and cupped a hand to her ear, leaning closer. "What was that, animals of the forest?"

More children joined in the cry, saying, "The ground spider! Smash him, Raiko!"

"Yeah! Fight the ground spider, Raiko!" even more children cheered.

Kintoki nodded sagely, trying not to grin, and told Raiko, "The forest animals say that a monster called the ground spider lives here."

Raiko nodded, looking like he was about to laugh. After a moment, he did, chortling, "A lone spider?" He shook his head, grinning. "A lone spider is no match for us!"

The narrator's eyes widened. "Oh no! Raiko doesn't know about the goblins! Whatever will he do?" she exclaimed, looking at the band anxiously.

"Oh, well, if that's all," the woman on the stage began. "Surely you can defeat such a foe simply, and rescue our poor town?"

"You forgot about the goblins!" a child from the audience yelled. "Goblins!"

"Yeah! Goblins!" more of them chimed in. "Be careful, Raiko!"

Kintoki nodded, and opened her mouth, but before she could speak, the narrator stilled the children with her voice. Her speech accented with regret, she said, "Unfortunately, Kintoki had stopped listening to the animals, and she failed to heed the warning!"

The redhead blinked, her eyes widening, and turned to look at Raiko, who was equally baffled.

"Uh, did someone change the script?" Keitaro asked under his breath.

Ranma did not nod, but whispered, "I think so."

"Ad-lib!" Mitsune hissed, forcing a smile.

"We should hurry to the cave to end this menace early, then," Sadamitsu deduced. "Surely it does us no good to wait here."

"That's… true," Tsuna managed, turning to regard the woman in the clean kimono curiously. "Would your daughter know of the location of this creature's lair?"

"It's the cave!" the little girl piped up suddenly. "The forest spirits say it's to the north of here."

"Then let us make haste," Raiko said, nodding his head. "Is there anything else you wish to tell us?"

Before the woman could reply, a man appeared, seeming to fall from the sky. He was tall, lean, and dressed in black, while spider-webs appeared on the backdrop behind him. "Hah!" he exclaimed, grinning. "I am your foe, Raiko. I am the Tsuchigumo!"

"Ack!" Raiko exclaimed, drawing his blade quickly.

"But we will not fight here!" Tsuchigumo warned, shaking his head. "No, instead I will give you a reason to fight me!" Leaping effortlessly across the stage, he seized the woman and her child in his arms. Both made surprised noises, and struggled, unable to escape the Tsuchigumo's grip. "If you wish to rescue this woman, you must face me. But before you can enter my lair, you must find the sword of a fallen hero." He laughed maniacally, and the audience booed him until he bounded away, vanishing into the darkness above the stage with both girls.

Raiko stared, openmouthed, and sheathed his sword angrily. "The nerve," he growled.

Under his breath, he added, "I bet you Haruka-basan changed this just to trip us up."

"Could be," Suu whispered. "More fun this way!"

"Where do we find the sword of a fallen hero?" Tsuna asked, her hand on her own sheathed blade. "The land is vast, and searching may take time."

"Time we don't have," Kintoki added, spinning her staff across her hands idly. "Suetake, do you have any ideas?"

Suetake considered for a long moment, and crossed her arms over her chest. "I think we should proceed to the town," she finally suggested. "There, we can find more information, and restore our HPs."

The audience chuckled at that, and Raiko winced.

"To the town it is," he said. "Onward, my retainers."

The scene faded to darkness, light focusing in on the narrator. "Raiko and his band made their way to the city where the abducted maiden had come from, searching for more information." When the lights returned, the stage showed a street of an ancient Japanese city, dozens of people milling around in the background. Raiko and his band stood at the right side of the stage, looking around in surprise.

"This is quite a city," Raiko finally said. "We should look for someone to help us find the clues we need to finish our quest."

At that moment, a young woman with light brown hair marched onto the stage, preceded by a pair of guards. The guards looked familiar, one tall, and one short, but slightly rounder. "Ah!" she exclaimed, seeing Raiko and his band. "Samurai, what brings you to our city?"

"We seek to help liberate you from the shackles of the unknown villains that attack you by night of the new moon," Raiko offered, walking to meet the woman mid-stage. His band stood a few careful steps behind him, while the young woman's guards stayed behind her, looking around nervously.

"Is the city so unsafe you require guards?" Tsuna suddenly asked, frowning.

"My father insists that it be so," the woman said, bowing her head. "But if you are warriors come to rescue us, perhaps it is not too late."

Ukyou warmed her hands over the grill on the yattai behind the auditorium, still able to see across the audience to the stage itself. "You took quite a few liberties with the story," she noted, flipping a warming okonomiyaki.

"Ah, I'm sure everything will work out," Haruka said, shrugging. "Or did I forget to send the last-minute changes to everyone but Shinobu-chan and…. Hmmm."

"Ah… yes, let us go to meet your father, then," Raiko suggested, peering about nervously. "Tragedy could strike at any moment."

"I am not afraid. The villain that attacks us does so only at night," the woman insisted, smiling brightly. "Please, come with—"

Her speech was interrupted, as the Tsuchigumo leapt to the stage again, grinning in his black clothing. "Danger can strike at any time!" he said cheerfully, causing the children in the audience to gasp.

"Ah!" the tall guardsman exclaimed, leveling his spear. "Flee, princess, it is no longer safe here!"

"We will fight to defend you to our last breath!" the short one added. "Be safe!"

"Be careful!" a child in the audience warned.

The Tsuchigumo simply grinned. "Another prize to claim," he said. "Fight me then, guards! Let's see what you're made of!"

They charged together, spears forward. The black-clad man simply stepped to one side, and slapped them away, tripping the two guards with a comical lack of effort. The audience laughed quietly at the sight, while the brown-haired woman jumped in fright, quickly dashing to hide behind Raiko.

"Ah! Raiko!" the Tsuchigumo exclaimed, stomping on the stage. A discarded spear flew into his hands, eliciting another gasp from the audience. "Come and face me!"

"Wait!" Raiko protested, his feet plowing up furrows of dirt as the brown-haired young woman began to push him towards the black-clad man. "I haven't found the sword of a fallen hero yet!"

"Oh well, then I guess this will be a quick fight," the Tsuchigumo drawled.

"Watanabe no Tsuna!" Kintoki suddenly exclaimed, bringing her staff before her. "To me!"

Tsuna wordlessly drew her blade and flowed to the redhead's side, the two blocking the Tsuchigumo's way to Raiko. "Hah!" Tsuna crowed, shaking her head. "You overestimate yourself, Tsuchigumo. Raiko-sama, take the woman to safety and find the blade. We will buy you what time we can against this evil!"

"As will we," one of the guards said, the pair staggering to their feet, murderous rage shining in their eyes.

"We'll get even!" the second added, tossing his spear to the first, and drawing a sword.

"Er… Now, we can be reasonable about this," the Tsuchigumo said, chuckling nervously. The audience booed at him, and he looked mildly offended. "Bah! Well, if you're going to be like that, I won't tell you where to find the sword that can defeat me." The booing increased in volume. In an aside, the Tsuchigumo stage-whispered to the audience, "He'll never know it lies in a dungeon far to the east of here!"

"Are you prepared to fight?" Kintoki asked, leveling his staff at the black-clad man.

"Always," the Tsuchigumo returned. "But if you won't listen, then you can never defeat me. Good will never triumph over evil without wisdom!" He hopped over Kintaro and Tsuna's heads, breezed past Raiko, and snatched the brown-haired young woman up easily. "Hah! Another, Raiko. If you wish to free her, you must face me!"

"No! Smash him, Raiko!" the audience encouraged him.

"I—" but before Raiko could say anything else, the Tsuchigumo had bounded away again. "This is ridiculous!" he exclaimed. "How am I supposed to find this sword now?"

"The cave to the east!" the children of the audience exclaimed earnestly. "East!"

Raiko's eyes took on a speculative cast, and he sheathed his sword, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. The guards and retainers watched him curiously.

"It's almost as though I can hear the wind," he murmured. "Some quiet voice suggesting that I go…." He trailed off, raising an eyebrow, and glancing across the audience.

"East!" more of the audience chorused. "Head east!"

Raiko took a step towards the edge of the stage, and cupped a hand over his ear.

"EAST!" they yelled. "It's to the east!"

"I have it!" he said suddenly, turning to his retainers. "There is a cave to the east of here, and we must retrieve the weapon there."

"Lead us go onwards, then," Suetake said, nodding thoughtfully. "But find a save point, first."

Raiko winced, and beckoned the other retainers to follow him, while the audience chuckled again.

"I hope we get a break, soon," Motoko whispered.

"Me too," Ranma shot back. "I need to check the script — this is crazy."

The lights dimmed once again, focusing on the narrator. Her eyes were downcast, and she frowned in determination before raising her head to regard the audience. "Raiko and his band struggled onward bravely, not stopping to rest until they reached the cave that supposedly contained the key to defeating the Tsuchigumo." She glanced at the darkened stage, and then turned to the audience, and begged, "Please, wish them luck."

"Good luck!" the audience cheered, as the lights came on again.

This time, the stage showed a darkened room with stone walls and a large sarcophagus in the center, near a well. Raiko and his band stood beneath a single shaft of light, regarding the setting curiously. Kintoki and Tsuna stood together, regarding a scroll, which Tsuna hastily tucked away at Sadamitsu's quiet coughing.

"So… this is it," Raiko said doubtfully, surveying the area, and shaking his head. "If there was ever a fallen hero, I guess he'd be resting here."

"Yes!" a tall skeleton warrior exclaimed, seeming to spring from the ground itself.

"Exactly right," a shorter, more rounded one added, springing up next to the first.

"How many roles do these guys have to fill?" Mitsune wondered quietly.

"They should have their own play," Keitaro grumped.

"And what do you want from us?" Raiko asked cautiously, one hand going to his sword.

"We will challenge…." The tall skeleton trailed off, looking over the assembled warriors, until his eye sockets settled on Kintoki. "Ah! We'll challenge one of you to single combat against the pair of us in exchange for the sword."

"One of us?" Tsuna asked doubtfully.

"Single combat?" Sadamitsu added.

"Against the pair of you?" Raiko completed.

"Yes, and we challenge… you!" the short skeleton completed, pointing at Kintoki.

The redhead blinked, then shrugged, stepping towards the guards, and sending her staff spinning along her arm. She passed it behind her back, over her shoulder, around her wrist, and then reversed the process, finally spinning the thing before her so quickly it blurred into a disc before she abruptly snapped it to a halt, pointed directly at the skeleton warriors. "Okay," she said reasonably, taking up a combat stance, while the audience cooed in delight.

"Must our plans always backfire?" Haitani asked quietly.

Shirai grinned behind his skeleton mask. "I have an idea!"

"You're not the real Sakata no Kintoki!" the short skeleton accused, pointing at the redhead.

"I'm not?" she asked, surprised.

Curious noises emanated from the audience.

"No! The real Sakata no Kintoki doesn't use a staff, he— uh, she uses an axe, a weapon so great and heavy that most men cannot even lift it, for only Sakata no Kintoki is that strong."

"Well, it's not like I have an axe like that handy," Kintoki grumped, dropping her staff, and crossing her arms over her chest. As though obliging a request, a massive gleaming axe fell from above, slamming into the stage heavily enough to nearly unbalance Raiko and the skeletons. Sadamitsu and Suetake clung to one another for support, while Kintoki and Tsuna seemed to barely notice. "Oh," she said offhandedly, seeing the weapon stuck in the ground.

Shrugging, she kicked her staff behind her, and reached to lift the axe. She picked it up without any appreciable effort, and spun the handle — nearly as long as she was tall — around one wrist, testing it for weight before she gave an approving nod, and took up a ready stance. The blade of the axe was almost a quarter as long as she was, and half as wide, with a wickedly gleaming edge. "I'll fight you," she said confidently.

"Did we say we were challenging you?" the tall skeleton asked, scratching its skull in consternation.

"I seem to remember us saying we were going to just give them the sword and let them be on their way," the short one supplied, nodding.

The audience laughed, and Kintoki glanced at them. "Should I let them go?" she asked.

"Smash them!" the audience exclaimed gleefully.

Shrugging, Kintoki turned to the pair of skeletons. "Um… We'll just leave you to the goblin hordes," the taller of the pair said quickly, turning about and vanishing off the edge of the stage.

"Have fun!" the shorter one added, following the first as he waved farewell.

Kintoki scowled at them, while the audience laughed aloud.

"Goblin horde?" Raiko finally asked, frowning. "And where's the sword?"

Suetake approached the well, and peered into its depths. A careless elbow nudged a nearby bucket over the lip, sending up a resounding clatter. Raiko and Sadamitsu winced in tandem, looking around worriedly.

Eyes widening, Kintoki backpedaled, leaping to stand atop the sarcophagus, axe at the ready. "They are coming," Sadamitsu snapped, holding Kintoki's discarded staff before herself protectively.

"Maybe I took a few liberties too many," Haruka allowed, watching the action across the stage.

"You think?" Ukyou asked dryly.

"Hey, the kids love it," she said defensively. True enough, the children were enthralled with the production. "Thanks for the okonomiyaki."

"No problem," Ukyou said, smiling. "These people love okonomiyaki. When's the next intermission?"

"After the battle," Haruka replied absently. "I wonder if that goblin projector works?"

As the audience watched, a number of small, ugly creatures began to boil out of the left side of the stage, twisted little man-like forms wearing armor and wielding crude weapons.

They gasped in terror, until a force of about twelve of the monsters had assembled into a rough semblance of a formation, and waved their weapons menacingly.

Raiko's band stared blankly, until Kintoki shook her head and looked to Raiko for guidance.

"This is Suu's doing, isn't it?" Mitsune asked quietly.

Suu smiled brightly, but did not nod.

"It'd have to be," Keitaro hissed. "Will they go away if we hit them?"

"Yes," Suu assured him, still grinning. "They're programmed for maximum stage-presence!"

Clearing his throat, Raiko announced, "Foul creatures, prepare to face the might of Raiko!"

Sadamitsu nodded uncertainly, and swiped at one of the monsters with her staff as it rushed at her. There was a flash of light from the impact, and a glowing number appeared in the air over the monster's head.

"Critical hit!" Suetake exclaimed, pumping a fist in the air enthusiastically, then snatching a bow and quiver of arrows up from the ground.

The monster looked up at the number, and its features twisted into disappointed surprise, before it faded away into nothingness, and the remaining creatures charged, yelling a war cry.

The five warriors on stage swung into action together, Kintoki and Tsuna running so quickly that trails of dust puffed up behind them. They seemed to almost pass through the horde of monsters, quickly sliding to a halt on the opposite side of the group. Sadamitsu and Raiko exchanged a look of confusion, as they had only managed a few steps, and Suetake merely pouted.

The monsters stopped, and looked at one-another uncertainly, before they all stiffened, and suddenly fell into separate pieces, numbers popping up over their heads.

They too faded, and Kintoki slung her axe over her shoulder, Tsuna sheathing her blade.

"Combination attack," Suetake announced disappointedly. "You're hogging all the XPs!"

Kintoki coughed quietly, and glanced around. "That wasn't so bad," the redhead finally said, turning to look at the others. "So… where's the sword?"

Shinobu winced, and shook her head. Had Ranma forgotten to study his script? Now she would have to cover for him somehow….

"Ah!" she exclaimed, causing each of the players on the stage to pause, and listen expectantly. "But what Kintoki didn't know, was what Raiko had learned while fighting the creatures. When he had dispatched two of the go— of his good retainers to fight the monsters, he realized that the Tsuchigumo was lying! There was no need for a special sword to fight the ground spider. All he needed was his own will."

She realized how her words sounded in contrast to the action on the stage, and quickly added, "…And the support of his friends."

Raiko glanced across the stage at his companions, and nodded in determination.

"I'm ready to finish this," he announced.

"What about the sword?" Suetake asked, while Sadamitsu leaned on the sarcophagus lid. The stone lid slid to one side, and the retainer nearly slipped.

"It's not about having a special sword," Raiko said, shaking his head. "It's about knowing that it's really just time to finish this. For good." He nodded emphatically at that last point.

Behind him, Sadamitsu plucked a sword from the sarcophagus, and held it up. It suddenly seemed to burst alight, shedding a powerful blue glow across the stage around her.

Unaware, his back turned to the retainer, Raiko bowed his head, and balled his hands into fists. "We may get beaten down, and we may have rotten luck with tests— uh, that life… throws… at us." He cleared his throat, his head still bowed.

Sadamitsu took an experimental swipe at the stone sarcophagus with the drawn blade. It passed through the stone with no more visible resistance than water, and a large chunk fell to the stage at Sadamitsu's feet.

"And we may be attacked by monsters and evil men, and… who knows what else this crazy… world might throw at us." Raiko raised his head, and fire seemed to glow within his eyes, his face a mask of fierce determination.

The light-haired retainer behind Raiko blinked, glanced across the audience, then grinned and sheathed her newfound blade before tucking it into her belt.

"But it doesn't matter! By the will of the heavens, I swear that we will overcome any obstacle in our path!"

The lights on the stage dimmed, Sadamitsu's sword glowing for a second longer than everything else before it, too, vanished. The light pooled across the narrator, who smiled, and said, "And thus began Raiko's battles against the Tsuchigumo to rescue the princesses. Please wait to see what happens next!"

She stepped to one side of the podium, bowed deeply, and then vanished into darkness as the light on her faded, the backdrop glowing with another 'intermission' symbol. The audience cheered quietly, and began to murmur, first a low buzz, but quickly building up to a loud chattering.

Keitaro looked both haggard and angry, as he paced backstage, muttering to himself.

"Sempai?" Shinobu asked tremulously. "What's wrong?"

He stopped, shaking his head, and sighed. "Nothing," he muttered, as Haruka strolled backstage bearing a small pile of okonomiyaki on a paper plate in one hand.

"Yeah, I forgot to mention, I made a few changes. Shinobu's got the latest copy of the script," Haruka said, shrugging. "Anyway, you guys are ad-libbing pretty well. I like how you play everything up to the audience, too."

"What do you mean?" Suu asked, tilting her head to one side.

"Eh, just that you interact with the audience well," Haruka explained, holding the plate of okonomiyaki out as Haitani and Shirai each claimed one before retreating to nurse their wounds. "Your lines are good, Suu-chan."

Mitsune frowned, snagging one of the okonomiyaki for herself. After taking a bite, she asked, "So, since we're short on time, can you give us some clues about the next scene?"

"Hmm?" Haruka considered for a moment, then said, "This is the final act, so it's got three scenes. The first one will have Ranma and Motoko playing go, while everyone else is asleep. The Tsuchigumo attacks, there's a quick battle with no one getting injured, and he retreats. You fight another group of goblins, and that's the scene."

"That sounds much like the original script," Motoko surmised, flipping through her script book.

Haruka nodded, then continued, "Scene two will have you journeying through the cave on your way to the Tsuchigumo's lair just to give you time to catch your breath after the battle. You're supposed to go through your revelations about what you've discovered on the journey before you get to the throne room, though."

"Shouldn't there be more to the story for us to have revelations?" Ranma asked, frowning. "We really didn't do that much on stage that leads up to this. All I really did was save Yamamba and follow Raiko. Supposedly at this point in the legend we've been together for years, but we really didn't show that in this version of the story."

"Good point," Haruka acquiesced. "We'll cut that scene and skip straight to the final battle, instead."

"Thanks," Keitaro muttered dryly. Shaking his head he prompted, "And the final scene is?"

"Where you rescue the princess, of course." Haruka looked thoughtful for a moment, then frowned. "Though, Mutsumi-chan shouldn't have been kidnapped."

"Looks like Seta took a few liberties with the script on his own," Keitaro sighed. "Um… So it's just a big fight, then I rescue Narusegawa, and that's the end of the story?"

"Well, there's more," Haruka drawled, checking her watch. "Shinobu will walk you through it — we're out of time. Get ready!"

"Wait!" Keitaro protested, shaking his head. "Where are Mutsumi and Narusegawa?"

"Later, later," Haruka insisted, hustling Shinobu onto the stage and vanishing from sight.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Keitaro said quietly.

Suu juggled a prop skull in one hand, and grinned. "Let's go!"

Once more the narrator appeared, bathed in a glowing pool of light. She bowed again to the audience, and said, "Thank you again for staying to listen to our story."

Straightening, she stepped behind the podium, and began to tell the story again, "Raiko and his retainers returned to the city to recover from their battle in the cave, and to prepare to attack the Tsuchigumo himself."

The lights on the stage brightened from nothingness, illuminating what looked like the interior of a large house. The forms of Sadamitsu, Raiko, and Suetake lay beneath blankets, while Tsuna and Kintoki stared at a go board.

Kintoki pointed to the sleeping forms and Tsuna glanced back at them. While she was distracted, Kintoki quickly rearranged several stones on the board. Tsuna looked back, regarding Kintoki curiously, but the redhead merely shrugged. Tsuna shook her head, and turned to look at the board again, frowning while the audience let out a quiet chuckle.

"While Raiko slept, some of his me— band kept a careful watch, in case something should happen at night," the narrator explained.

A trio of lovely women trooped onto the right half of the stage, shimmering slightly, and nearly glowing with a radiant beauty.

"But the Tsuchigumo's forces arrived in disguise, trying to woo Raiko's band and… um…." The narrator trailed off as Kintoki and Tsuna both looked behind the redhead at the three glowing women.

Kintoki and Tsuna exchanged a look, glanced down at their respective chests as though to verify their genders, then shrugged blankly, returning to their game of go.

"However," the narrator explained, "the Tsuchigumo's forces were not very bright, so their disguises weren't very good."

The three women flickered for a moment, then wavered, and collapsed, vanishing, and being replaced by a pair of grinning men, one taller, and one not as tall, but slightly more rounded.

Kintoki and Tsuna glanced at them again, then exchanged a glance before shaking their heads quickly.

"But they succumbed to the wiles of the Tsuchigumo's servants," the narrator added, "once they got the disguises right."

Tsuna sighed loudly, as the taller of the men drifted to her side, and knelt there. "I have succumbed completely," she announced in a level voice, shooting the man a glare.

Motoko eyed Haitani dubiously, and whispered, "Try anything…."

"I think they know," Ranma replied quietly, as Shirai knelt at her side, trying to nod subtly.

"Ah, I too have succumbed completely," Kintoki announced, yawning slightly.

"Once two of the retainers were distracted, the third of the Tsuchigumo's servants…." The narrator trailed off, while the people on stage who were awake looked around curiously.

A small girl with blonde hair and a kimono bounced onto the stage, waving at the audience and grinning. "I am the third of Tsuchigumo's servants!" she announced. "And while Raiko's men are distracted, I shall slay him in his sleep!"

She crept across the stage with exaggerated tiptoes, until she was behind the go board. Once there, she balled her hands into fists, and stuck them at her hips. "Hey!" she yelled. "You're distracted!"

Kintoki and Tsuna quickly turned their attention away from her, and to the go board.

The taller of the men winked, and pointed at the board, saying, "You should place another here."

"I'm playing black," Tsuna growled.

"Good suggestion, though," Kintoki added, playing another stone. "Atari!"

Tsuna made a face, and frowned at the board. "Devious," she said, shaking her head. She rubbed her chin in thought, then nodded, and placed a white stone.

Kintoki raised an eyebrow, and frowned thoughtfully.

The small female servant watched the game for a moment, then shrugged, and walked over to the slumbering forms of Raiko and his retainers. She grinned gleefully, and the narrator warned, "However…."

Before anything else could be said, the servant took a step back, and produced a booklet from inside her kimono. She held it so that the audience could not read the title, and muttered, though her voice carried loudly enough to be heard, "Then servant three attempts to slay Raiko, but is instead slain before her goal could be accomplished." She looked up from her book sharply, and stared at Raiko. Frowning, she tucked the book away, and approached one of the other disguised servants. "Hey, guys, let's trade jobs!"

"Um… what?" the taller one asked.

"Oh, um, gee, that would be a bad idea," the slightly more rounded one countered, checking to make sure he wasn't too close to Kintoki, as she played another stone. "We're busy distracting Kintoki and Watanabe no Tsuna, you see."

"Atari!" Tsuna declared, grinning, and folding her arms over her chest triumphantly.

Kintoki nodded sagely, and studied the board, then looked up in alarm, and pointed at the disguised servant at Tsuna's side. "What are you letting him do?" she asked in horror.

Tsuna looked at the servant sharply, and Kintoki shuffled a number of the stones around silently. After a moment, she narrowed her eyes and turned her attention back.

Kintoki grinned sheepishly, and placed another stone. "Your turn!"

"Yeah, I can see how hard you're working," the female servant grumped. Marching around the seated servant, despite the fact that she was barely his height even while he was sitting, she kicked him with all her might.

Surprised, he bounced cleanly into the redhead's lap. Kintoki's left eyebrow began to tic, and the servant scrambled to get away, exclaiming, "Exchanging duties! Distract her! Distract her!"

Nodding in satisfaction, the blonde turned her attention to the servant at Tsuna's side. The second disguised goblin crept away to join his companion. Tsuna quietly switched some stones around while Kintoki was distracted.

"This just isn't our night," Haitani said quietly.

"I still blame Kintaro."

"Suicide attack?"

"Suicide attack."

"Um… however," the narrator resumed, "Raiko was a light sleeper, and woke when the servants drew near!"

The two disguised servants strode to Raiko's side as he sat up, struggling to untangle himself from the blankets he had gotten trapped in.

"For the glory of the tribe!" the taller servant yelled, launching himself at the hero.

"For the ground spider!" the more rounded one echoed.

"For crying out loud," Haruka groaned, shaking her head.

Ukyou smirked, flipping over another okonomiyaki. "The best laid plans can go awry," she observed. "I take it that this wasn't in the script?"

"Not really," the woman said dryly.

"Ack!" Raiko exclaimed, as the three combatants vanished into a writhing ball of fists, feet, and tangled blanket.

"And so, the mighty Raiko dispatched the rogue servants handily!" the narrator cheered.

The brawl dragged on for a long minute, neither side gaining a clear victor, though both Suetake and Sadamitsu sat up to watch, wincing sympathetically from time to time.

Kintoki glanced to the fight, then took the opportunity to rearrange more stones when Tsuna did the same.

The audience watched raptly, as the battle began to roll across the stage, inexorably rolling past the go players. Neither glanced up, both placing stones quickly, and shaking their heads, until an abrupt shift in the fight's path rolled across the go board, scattering stones across the stage, and launching the board skyward.

Kintoki and Tsuna were on their feet in a heartbeat, and Kintoki expertly extracted a slightly worn Raiko from the battle, while Tsuna simply kicked the remainder off of the stage, where they vanished into the night. Kintoki sat Raiko down, and Tsuna dusted her hands off in satisfaction.

"Um… after… Raiko defeated the foes, he rushed to the aid of Kintoki and Tsuna, so they could fight off the remaining… enemy… together."

The small blonde servant shook her head quickly, and scurried away.

Kintoki shrugged, and looked at Raiko expectantly.

"Okay," he said, putting one hand on his sword as he shook his head to clear it. "Now we're going to settle this, once and for all. Are we ready?"

"Yes!" his retainers chorused as one.

The lights on the stage dimmed, focusing on a slightly flustered, yet radiant, narrator.

"Not willing to forgive the Tsuchigumo's transgression, Raiko and his men set out immediately to hunt down and deal with the menace!" the narrator exclaimed, nodding to herself slightly. "They ventured across the plain, and shortly came to the entrance to the cavernous lair that housed their dreaded foe…."

The lights faded off of the narrator, and focused on the band of warriors, now walking across the stage, through a cave. After a moment, the light faded, and when it returned, they were walking the opposite direction, through another cave. The process repeated for a few times, until they appeared at one side of a large cavern, and Raiko drew his blade confidently.

"Now," he said insistently. "We finish this!"

The interior of the cavern lit up, and a massive wooden throne came into view, empty for the moment, but a pair of maidens — the woman and the princess from earlier — were chained to either side, looking somewhat surprised at their predicament. Once the lights finished brightening, the form of the Tsuchigumo dropped from above, landing in the throne and grinning at his guests.

"So you've arrived!" he exclaimed gleefully. "Did you find the blade of a fallen hero? Are you ready to face me, Raiko?"

"I need nothing more than my own strength, and the aid of my companions to defeat any evil!" he said heatedly, bringing his sword to a ready stance, and glaring at the Tsuchigumo.

Tsuna glanced at his posture, then blinked in surprise, drawing her own blade and mirroring it. Kintoki nodded confidently, and whirled her axe, while Suetake drew back an arrow, aiming her bow at the ground but ready to bring it up. Sadamitsu glanced around, then drew her own blade, which emitted a faint blue glow.

"Ah!" the Tsuchigumo exclaimed. "Then you are, perhaps, ready to face me!" He nodded, and stepped into a martial stance, feet apart, hands ready to strike. "Which of you shall I face first?"

"First?" Raiko asked, somewhat dumbfounded.

"Yes, first," the Tsuchigumo said.

Raiko blinked, then started, "Well, I—"

"Sadamitsu, ever brave," the narrator began, while Sadamitsu winced, and ducked her head on the stage, shooting a fearful glance at the audience, "volunteered to fight first."

The warrior shook her head mournfully, but gamely approached the Tsuchigumo, glancing back at Raiko to try and emulate his ready stance. "I will fight you!" she proclaimed. "For my master is great, and if I allow him to fight you first, there will be nothing left for the rest of us."

The Tsuchigumo smiled, and gestured Sadamitsu forward.

Sadamitsu swiped at her enemy with her sword, but the Tsuchigumo possessed a fluid grace, and dodged the blade, stepping within Sadamitsu's guard, and pushing her to the ground with a single blow. She rolled across the stage to Raiko's feet, the sword falling from her grasp.

Raiko's mouth opened in surprise, and he knelt to examine the warrior, while she twitched weakly.

"Are you okay?" Keitaro asked anxiously.

"Got… tickle… spots… can't… laugh…" Mitsune managed to get out, still twitching with barely restrained giggles.

Raiko's expression flickered, then settled on a dark scowl, as he rose to his feet.

"Next!" the Tsuchigumo called out, beckoning another warrior with one hand.

"I'll go," Tsuna said quietly.

The Tsuchigumo grinned, and nodded. "Come and approach me," he said.

Tsuna charged, sword ready, and carving a silver flash across the stage, narrowly missing her grinning foe. "Not bad!" he evaluated, countering with a foot-sweep that nearly knocked the warrior down. Tsuna held her ground, swiping at the Tsuchigumo's feet half-heartedly and then launching a blindingly fast spin-kick to his midsection.

He had only enough time to raise an arm, but his stance wasn't able to save him being sent tumbling. Rolling across the stage, he launched himself at the black-haired warrior woman, reaching her before she could recover from the surprise kick.

"Not bad at all," he said, before jabbing her once, in the ribs. Her eyes widened, and she crumpled to the stage, not moving. The Tsuchigumo rubbed his forearm, and eyed the remaining warriors. "Next?" he asked.

Kintoki stepped forward, but was cut off by Suetake's exclamation. "Me first!" the small warrior enthused, dropping her bow and running towards the Tsuchigumo.

Nodding, he ducked beneath her flying kick, and spun around for a graceful sweep at her landing position — however, the girl didn't land where he had expected. Instead, she latched onto the limb, quickly scurrying up the Tsuchigumo's leg, and then sitting astride his shoulders, small fists drumming ineffectually at his head.

Surprised, the Tsuchigumo recovered his balance, and then adjusted his spectacles. "Innovative," he said, nodding, before he wriggled out of the girl's hold, and touched her side. She made a sharp noise as she tumbled to the ground between the other two fallen warriors. "This is kind of fun," he said in an aside to the audience.

His reward was more booing and hissing from the audience. Taken aback, he almost didn't notice Kintoki stepping forward, axe at the ready. "Now we fight," Kintoki said darkly, the massive gleaming edge of her blade shining in the light.

"So we do!" the Tsuchigumo cheerfully replied.

The two rushed one another, Kintoki holding the axe high, both of them advancing so swiftly that puffs of dust rose from the ground beneath them.

Just before the two combatants collided, Kintoki dropped the massive axe, and slipped to one side, her arm only barely missing the Tsuchigumo's chest. His counter was a kick in passing, which sent her rolling, but the forgotten axe tumbled through the air, the heavy wooden post on the back of the blade meeting the Tsuchigumo's face with a loud thudding noise. The audience laughed, echoing loudly into the night.

The small redhead rolled across the entirety of the stage, coming to a rest just past Suetake, at the feet of the dark-haired woman chained to the throne. She looked down at the fallen warrior in consternation, then turned to watch the Tsuchigumo, who had also fallen down. Climbing unsteadily to his feet, he rubbed at his nose, still smiling. "That was clever," he admitted. "Next?"

Raiko stepped forward and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, the narrator overrode him. "But Raiko did not rush to meet the Tsuchigumo's attack!" she said. "Instead, he turned to his fallen companions, and rallied their flagging spirits."

"Rise, my retainers!" Raiko exclaimed, gesturing grandly with his sword. Unsteadily, they did so, all four eyeing the Tsuchigumo with suspicion, amid the audience's cheers.

The narrator waited for the exclamations to die down before speaking again. "Raiko's retainers knew they were powerful, and mighty indeed, but they were most powerful when they worked together," she offered.

Raiko nodded in response. Smiling, the Tsuchigumo exclaimed, "Then, I will face all of you at once. But!" Raising his arms, he leapt atop the throne, and pulled a large switch behind it. In a quick sequence, the throne unfolded, and raised the chains binding his two prisoners, suspending them over a giant cookpot. "You must hurry, Raiko, if you are to rescue these prisoners!"

"However," the narrator warned, before anyone could move, "his plans were even more devious than they had considered, for the Tsuchigumo had kidnapped another princess, and added her to the prisoners that Raiko must rescue."

Tsuna stared blankly for a moment, then produced a scroll from her uwagi. Kintoki peered at it with her, until they came to a specific point, while the Tsuchigumo pulled a book from one pocket, and flipped through it, scanning quickly. Tsuna and the Tsuchigumo both looked up from their records at the same time, and shared a shrug, throwing the papers into the large cookpot. Sadamitsu flinched away as the papers burst into flame instantly.

"Third princess," the Tsuchigumo murmured, frowning. "Now, where can… er… did I get one of those?"

Sadamitsu grinned wickedly, and gestured the Tsuchigumo forward. He approached cautiously, and she stood up on tiptoe, whispering into his ear, while everyone else leaned close to try and listen in. The Tsuchigumo nodded thoughtfully several times, then grinned happily. Then Sadamitsu stepped away, cleaning her glowing blue sword and whistling innocently.

"There is no limit to my evil!" the Tsuchigumo exclaimed. "Behold, I am so wicked I would even kidnap…." He trailed off, stalking to the front edge of the stage and eyeing the audience as though they were all potential victims. After a moment, he shook his head, his grin widening. "I've kidnapped… the narrator!"

The audience gasped in surprise, and exchanged confused looks, while the Tsuchigumo leapt to the dark spot that the narrator hid in, extracting her with only a mild squeak of surprise. In short order, he had her strung up between the other two prisoners, and all three were hanging over the cookpot.

"Now," he said, clapping his hands together. "You must choose, Raiko!"

"Choose?" he said without comprehension.

"Strike me down, or rescue one of these girls!"

"I can't make a choice like that!" he exclaimed.

"What, between fighting, or which of us to rescue?" the dark-haired prisoner asked thoughtfully.


"Why make a choice?" Suetake asked. "There are enough of us to take him down! Attack, warriors, Raiko can rescue whichever one he wants!"

"Why only one?" Raiko asked earning him a growl from the lighter-haired prisoner.

"Because the chains will drop the ones you don't save into the cookpot," Suetake warned.

Keitaro's heart froze in his chest, only to restart a moment later. Of course, he didn't know if what Suu said was true, but even if it was, she had promised that none of her additions would actually hurt anyone. But that didn't change the fact of the matter that he had to make a choice.

"Uh… I don't know," he said nervously, prompting the audience to boo him. "If I can only save one, which one should it be?"

"Oh, save me," the Mutsumi said suddenly, smiling brightly. "I have a child to look after."

"What?" Naru exclaimed angrily, before realizing Mutsumi's earlier role in the play. She recovered gracefully, saying, "How can you wonder at the choice, Ke— Raiko? I am a princess! If you rescue me, my family will see that you are richly rewarded!"

Behind Keitaro, the retainers had gotten into a scuffle with the Tsuchigumo, slow play fighting, which looked good, and distracted the audience, though some still called, "Coward!" or "Choose the cute one!"

"They're all cute," he muttered quietly. "But that's not—"

"I'm a princess too!" Shinobu exclaimed, wriggling in her chains, and glancing down into the cookpot fearfully. "Plus, I can cook, and clean, and… if you pick me, I'll marry you!"

Naru's eyes widened at that, and her mouth hung open. She found her voice quickly, and countered, "If you pick me, I'll marry you, too!"

Keitaro shook his head, glancing between the three nervously. His gaze drifted up, seeing where the chains were secured. The audience wouldn't be able to see, thanks to the positioning of the lights, but he could see the devices they were secured with, in the side of the framework of what had once been the throne.

Suu's trademark symbol adorned the seals, probably meaning somehow, if he made a choice, it would be as she said.

"I don't know what to do," he said aloud, forgetting the play entirely, in the face of the decision before him.

His sword fell from his hands, as he looked between the three, unable to choose.

Ranma tried to clear her mind of what was going on in the background — Keitaro's dilemma was, for the moment, his own, and not anything to do with her. At the same time, she had sympathy for the manager, and wished him the best of luck.

She blocked a blow from Seta, sliding across the stage with it, and growling in mock anger. Suu had set her bow aside and gathered up a staff, which she used to whack at Seta when her turn came around in combat. The man was genial enough, taking a blow or two for the ones he actually landed, and while powerful enough to knock the supposed heroes around, they were also gentle enough not to cause real damage.

Ranma thought she might actually get used to stage combat, all told.

"The timer's activated!" Suu exclaimed suddenly, pointing to the top of the framework suspending the chains. An hourglass had sprung up there, and was trickling down, only a minute remaining at best before it ran out.

Keitaro groaned, sinking to his knees, and shaking his head.

What was taking him so long?

Keitaro shook his head, torn. What kind of decision was this, anyway? No matter what Naru said, it was all about the play, not reality. Though he had the suspicion that the entire affair went deeper, to some degree; he already knew about Naru and Ranma, and the fact that they were dating.

His feelings aside, how could he pick her, knowing that? And Shinobu? She was cute, certainly, and every bit as earnest as any man could want, and good in a kitchen, and with cleaning…. And Mutsumi? She was beautiful, and affectionate, and gentle….

Mutsumi? Well, if Ranma was choosing Naru already… but then, in the play, how would Raiko justify sacrificing two princesses to spare a single commoner woman? And why had they suddenly decided to put this into a play for children?

He shook his head again, and considered for a moment. The play had been a disaster already, so why should he bother trying to preserve it? He could set that aside, and then concentrate on who he really wanted to pick.

But which one?

He raised his eyes, and looked at Naru. She had fallen silent, looking down at him with a mixture of concern and fear, only a hint of anger playing about her eyes. She was angry that he wasn't helping the play, he supposed. And afraid of hurting his feelings if he chose her… and concerned for the same reason. She did care, enough to try and hide her relationship with Ranma until after the test.

His gaze turned to Shinobu next, her gaze a combination of hope and panic, each warring for dominance. He didn't understand everything that Haruka had done with the script, but he had a suspicion, at least, that Shinobu had made some changes of her own. But why? Did she… want him to choose her for some reason?

Maybe she liked him. She was also a princess, and more than that, the narrator, which would help the play… if he still cared about that. Should he pick someone who could return his affection?

Moving his eyes onward, he finally found himself looking at Mutsumi, who offered him nothing more than a cheerful and encouraging smile. Did she like him?

Probably not, though it was hard to say. She seemed to like everyone equally, and offer him no special preference. And then, she wasn't there entirely by choice, if he understood the changes to the script. The only prisoner should have been Naru. Which would have made everything so much easier. He dropped to his knees, still not able to choose, as Suu warned about a timer.

"Just like a test," he murmured. "One I'm going to fail."

"What happens when the timer runs out?" Ranma asked, ducking underneath a blow from Seta.

"They all drop!" Suu warned.

"What?" she asked, stunned enough that she nearly took the next punch to the chin. "Well, we don't have time! All of us need to get rid of this guy so we can rescue them!" she exclaimed, exchanging a meaningful glance with Motoko.

"Is that so?" Seta asked, grinning. "Only the sword of a fallen hero can defeat me, you know."

"Not with our strengths combined!" Motoko retorted, she and Ranma charging towards the man together. He was good, but together, they should be able to take him out, Ranma thought.

The Tsuchigumo grinned, and pulled something from his pocket, showing it to Motoko. The Kendoka's charge broke off, and she began to frantically backpedal. Ranma scowled, deciding it was all up to her… and without the benefit of her bracers or her proper form. Well, she'd just have to—

Shinobu winced as both Motoko and Ranma were repelled from attacking Seta. Motoko was warded off with Tamago, and a kitten sent Ranma panicking, to cower behind Motoko. Well, that wouldn't do any good.

She bit her lip, glancing down at the very hot looking liquid beneath her, and then over to Naru. The other girl's gaze was fixed firmly on Keitaro, who was still torn with indecision. "R… Raiko!" she called out, prompting Keitaro to raise his dull-eyed gaze to meet hers. "You must vanquish the Tsuchigumo! Your retainers can't do it alone!"

A hushed cheer met the proclamation from the audience, and Keitaro nodded slowly, gathering up his sword, and turning around to face Seta.

Seta was fighting against Suu and Mitsune, though in truth he made it look an easy dance, while he merely played with the pair of them. Keitaro barked out a challenge, bristling with anger — he was such a good actor, she thought admiringly. He made it look like the emotion was real!

"Fell minion! Face me!" he cried, bringing his sword to bear, and slashing viciously at Seta. His slash missed, though barely, and Seta's eyes widened in surprise.

"You can fight!" Seta said, surprised. "Very well, then, though you lack the sword of a fallen hero."

"It's right here!" Mitsune exclaimed in annoyance, while Shinobu tried to see the hourglass that warned how much time she had left before the chains dropped her and the others into the cookpot full of hot red… whatever it was. Surely it only looked like molten steel.

Seta fought off the three attackers at once for a moment, then unexpectedly lashed out with a spin-kick, laying all three down. "That was disappointing," he chided, shaking his head.

Motoko and Ranma had finally climbed to their feet, and whispered quietly to one another for a moment, before nodding and breaking apart.

Ranma ran in a curved path, one that left her standing where Keitaro had deliberated, and Motoko crossed to the other side of the stage, passing around Seta, and leaving the man confused for a moment. He turned to Ranma as the redhead rubbed her hands together, then pointed her palms at Seta and yelled, "Mokou Takabisha!"

A ball of golden flame formed in Ranma's hands, only a handful of centimeters across, but glowing brilliantly, flecked with specks of vibrant blue. The audience gasped collectively, and then Ranma launched the ball of energy at Seta.

Seta set himself to receive the attack, and it dissipated harmlessly before reaching the bespectacled man. He frowned in consternation, just as Motoko reached him from the side, her blade slashing in front of him and making him dance backwards, where he tripped over her extended leg. She immediately fell backwards, rolling away, while Ranma flung herself across the stage, reaching Seta in a heartbeat.

Shinobu's eyes widened as Seta, impossibly quickly, chuckled, and pulled the kitten from his pocket again, tucking it into Ranma's gi. The redhead dashed off, quickly running into a panicking circle, while Motoko growled low in her throat, and lunged at the man again.

This time, her attacks failed to penetrate his defenses, and she found herself the recipient of a similar attack, quickly running around the other part of the stage, arms waving frantically, while the audience booed the would-be heroes. "Who's afraid of a kitten or a turtle?" one loud child asked, causing Shinobu to wince in sympathy.

"What do we do now?" she mused quietly.

"Pray for a miracle," Naru sighed. "He'll never choose."

"Oh, but he's nice anyway," Mutsumi reasoned.

"Ah!" Shinobu exclaimed loudly. "Raiko and his men have fallen! Call to them, encourage them to fight on!"

The audience began cheering, weakly and disjointed at first, but quickly settling into a chant of, "Raiko! Raiko! Raiko!"

Roused by the noise, Keitaro staggered to his feet, followed by Suu bouncing upright, and Mitsune climbing up after Keitaro, leaning heavily on her sword. "Take this blade," she said weakly, stumbling, but remaining upright, and handing the blade over to Keitaro. He took it, surprised by the blue glow, then nodded, features assuming a determined set.

"I didn't want to have to use this," he said aloud, frowning. The audience gasped, certain that this was to be a truly epic battle. His voice dropping so that only those on stage could hear, he muttered, "My family will be furious."

Shaking his head, he sheathed his blade, and tossed the one he had used previously to Seta. "I will fight," he said, nodding, one hand on his sword hilt, the other clenched into a fist over his chest. "I am a man, too." Seta caught the blade, raising an eyebrow, and Keitaro smiled grimly, right foot kicking at the ground beneath him. Once. Twice. A third time, while both hands shifted positions.

Then, he vanished, reappearing just before Seta, and slashing with his sword. Seta returned the smile, his raised blade sparking against Keitaro's violently, blue light suffusing the area as he barely managed to parry the blow. "So I see," Seta said aloud, though probably he hadn't meant for Shinobu or the others to hear it. "I know that style."

Keitaro nodded, and then the two began to fight.

Their sword motions were smooth, and blindingly fast. Shinobu's eyes could only barely keep up with the action, sparks flying everywhere. The blue glow from Keitaro's sword danced with him, and it was like a dance, full of life and grace, one that she envied deeply, wishing that she possessed half of that fluid movement. "Wow," she said admiringly.

"I wonder how long they had to rehearse," Naru managed, wide-eyed. "That's spectacular."

"I bet it's secret ninja training!" Mutsumi opined quietly.

The joke jarred Shinobu from her daze, and she struggled to twist and see the hourglass. "How much time do we have left?" she asked.

A loud clunk from overhead answered her, and the audience gasped, while the chains began to slowly lower the three into the cookpot.

"Oh," she said quietly, fighting back a whimper.

"It's not dangerous," Mutsumi said in encouragement. "Real molten metal would have enough heat that we'd be burned by being hung over it." A small metal clip fell from her hair, bouncing on the surface of the red glowing surface before liquefying, surrounded by a halo of flame.

"Trust Suu to find a way," Naru groaned. In a loud voice she called out, "Ke— Raiko! You must rescue us!"

Nodding, Keitaro didn't look at her, instead pressing his attack, sending Seta retreating across the field of battle, until finally the man tripped, and raised both hands in surrender. "Spare me!" he pleaded. "I'll reform! Honest!"

"Smash him, Raiko! Smash him! He's a bad guy!" the audience insisted.

Nodding grimly, Keitaro plunged his sword into the stage behind Seta from the audience. "It is done," he called out, kneeling at the man's side, and making as though to pray for his fallen foe, murmuring something quietly.

"Seta-san, I need some advice! How do I pick which one to rescue?"

"Tricky," Seta said as quietly as he could. "Keitaro… follow your heart. Nothing else."

Swallowing, Keitaro nodded, understanding the man's advice.

Naru wriggled about, wondering if she could swing herself past the lip of the cookpot and escape, but that became moot as Keitaro leapt to the rim of the cookpot, and leapt towards her. A single stroke from the glowing blade in his hands severed the chain, and left her to fall… into Keitaro's outstretched arms.

He landed on the other side of the cookpot and looked up in consternation. An expertly aimed shot from Suu wedged between the links of Shinobu's chain and the structure suspending it, halting the chain's descent, but she had no time for another shot, as with Naru freed Mutsumi began to plummet the remaining meter to the cookpot.

"Oh, my!" she exclaimed, eyes widening.

A yowling hiss echoed across the stage, and Ranma bounced over the edge of the cookpot, springing off of the side, and somehow intercepting Mutsumi's fallen form. She bounced back over the edge, and landed on the stage, Mutsumi sprawled across her back. Once Mutsumi straightened up and Ranma was free, the redhead began to purr, a rumbling noise that even the audience could hear.

Swallowing nervously, eyes shining with emotion, Shinobu said, "And Kintoki, once Kaidomaru, found strength in animals she had never known, finding the power to become one, for a time."

"Nice kitty," Mutsumi cheered, scratching Ranma behind the ears.

Mitsune and Suu quickly managed to get Shinobu down, and removed the chains from Shinobu and Naru — Mutsumi's were shredded when the girl dangled them over Ranma's head, and then the lights all shut out.

Ukyou wiped her hands on a small towel, and nodded doubtfully. "I'll give you to the count of thirty," she said. "Then I hit the switch, and run back to the yattai. Okay?"

"It's fair!" Haruka shot back, jogging towards the stage.

After a few seconds passed, long enough for the audience to summon a quiet cough or two, the lights returned, illuminating all of the actors and actresses standing in a row, holding hands, and smiling. They bowed, and the audience cheered happily, a few of the children standing on the benches, and waving their arms excitedly.

"Thank you!" the narrator called out, and the cast bowed again. "Thank you for enjoying our performance!"

Another round of applause and cheering rang out, as the house lights came on, illuminating the entire auditorium.

Once the play was over, Ranma sat on the side of the stage, Motoko not far away, the pair both glad that the turtle and kitten had respectively been ushered away. "That was humiliating," Ranma grumped, her costume still wet from the hurried dousing Haruka had subjected her to, snapping her out of the neko-ken.

"I know," Motoko said quietly, blushing. "I think I am happy that Aneue was not here to witness it."

Ranma nodded knowingly, while the rest of the cast milled around on the stage. People picking up okonomiyaki on their way out of the play would surround Ukyou, keeping her busy for a while yet. She yawned, raising her arms over her head, and stretched. "I think that was kind of fun, though," she allowed.

"I enjoyed it," a man said, grinning, and giving Ranma a thumbs-up.

Ranma nodded at the man, falling clean off the earthen lip of the stage, then scrambling to her feet and staring with wide, shocked eyes at him.

The others broke off their chattering, looking at the man curiously, wondering what had Ranma so stunned. He wore somewhat ragged jeans, and a faded but clean T-shirt beneath an open brown fur-lined coat. Two gloves were tucked into one pocket, and he had a relaxed, easy grin with an expressive and kindly face. Dark bangs crept out from beneath the edge of the blue cap he wore — turned backwards though it was.

"Nice job, Ranma!" the man encouraged, still grinning.

Ranma managed to eke out an excited, "Aniki!" before scurrying to the man's side, and pounding him on the back. "Aniki! How've you been!"


To be continued.

Author's notes: And you thought he'd never have a role in this fic. Nyaha!

Brian Randall

Chapter 11
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