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"Ah!" Haruka exclaimed, looking between Ranma and the elder Oe. "So this is the older brother we hear so much about."

The man blinked, surprised, and turned to survey the rest of the cast, his eyes widening in appreciation. "You've heard about me?" he asked. He shook his head suddenly, striking a pose. "Where are my manners?" He released his pose after a moment and grinned boyishly. "I'm Oe Kintaro!" he greeted, bowing to the assembled group. "It's nice to meet you!"

A quick round of introductions and handshaking followed.

"Ooh," Mitsune cooed. "He's just as handsome as Ranma."

"Eh?" Ranma and her older brother noised as one.

"We don't have to discuss things in the cold," Haruka chided before anyone else could answer. "Why don't we all go into the inn to celebrate finishing the play?"

"Sounds like a plan to me," Keitaro said decisively, grinning at the smiling people surrounding him.

"After you finish cleaning up out here, of course," Haruka added, surveying the makeshift stage.

Chapter Eleven: Wrap Party

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).

"Of course," Keitaro sighed.

"It'll go faster if we all work together," Mutsumi offered.

Keitaro brightened, and with everyone working together, the materials were stowed quickly, except for the benches, which Ranma promised to take care of later.

That done, everyone swarmed into the main room of the inn, glad to be out of the steadily deepening chill of the evening.

Shinobu poured everyone drinks, and then they raised their glasses in a toast. "To the great play you put on!" Ukyou called out, finally having finished serving all the people who had attended the show. "You did a great job!"

"An awesome job!" Kintaro seconded.

With that, they all drank. Once the toast was over, Mitsune turned to Kintaro, and offered him a thoughtful smile. He returned the smile, sitting at Ranma's side. "So, now that we meet the mysterious older brother, tell us about yourself," she prompted him.

"Oh, so you're Ranchan's older brother?" Ukyou asked excitedly, setting down her glass and studying Kintaro with interest.

"Er… that's me!" Kintaro hazarded, blushing faintly. "What's Otouto told you about me?"

"Not much," Suu said, peering at the man intently. "Are Kintaros and Keitaros related somehow?"

Seta chuckled at that, and shook his head, ruffling Suu's hair. "I doubt it's like that," he said cheerfully. "Though, now that you mention relations, my older sister married an Oe…" He trailed off as his expression became more thoughtful, and turned to study Kintaro speculatively. "I wonder…"

Kintaro shrugged. "I don't know," he said slowly. "I'm the oldest living male in the family, and… er… well, except for Otouto, the only member with the name at all."

Seta frowned, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "When I was younger, I was visiting an excavation site with my parents in Bashtarl. My older sister was already married with two children. I think her husband was named Oe… Oe Oji. But while we were gone, she and her husband had an accident, and her children — my niece and nephew, I suppose — vanished. Management of the family was passed to my niece, and she married very young, so we were never able to find them again."

Ranma looked between Kintaro and Seta curiously, but Kintaro merely shook his head. "How old were they?" the elder Oe asked.

"Well, she was sixteen, or so, and he wouldn't have been more than five or six at the most," Seta answered after a pause. He chuckled dryly, and shook his head. "It seems to be a tradition in my family to have children unusually far apart in age. Ah, it's probably only a coincidence. I wish I could remember their names, but that was… well… just over twenty years ago." Everyone looked at Seta attentively, and he laughed ruefully. "Sorry! Me and my old story have distracted everyone. I think Keitaro-kun did a very good job on the play."

Mitsune nodded, and slapped the young man affectionately across the back. "Good job, Keitaro!" she encouraged.

He nearly choked on his drink, but smiled anyway, face coloring in embarrassment. "It wasn't easy," he finally admitted. "But it was great fun with all of you guys! Especially you two, Haitani, Shirai."

"They say to become an artist, you must endure great hardships and terrible suffering," Shirai said, grinning.

Haitani gulped a quick mouthful of his drink, then piped up, "With our suffering for this play, we're soon going to be able to be the best actors in all of Japan!"

Everyone chuckled at that, chattering in small groups, until Ukyou revealed a huge platter covered in okonomiyaki. "Everyone eat up!" she encouraged. "You've earned it."

Ranma — now male again — snatched one from the top of the pile, and wolfed it down eagerly. "Excellent as always, Ucchan. How long are you going to be in the area?" he asked.

"Just for tonight, really," she admitted, beaming him a smile. "I'm opening my shop next month. I can give you directions for how to get there, if you'd like. Will you be there for my grand opening?"

"You bet!" he said enthusiastically. His grin faded, and he turned to his older brother. "Aniki? How long are you going to be here?"

Kintaro shook his head as though roused from some distracting thought, and frowned. "That's a good question," he mused, rubbing his chin. "I just wanted to come by and visit you after I got your letter. Probably only a day or so before I get back to traveling." He looked suddenly evasive. "Things seem to happen if I stay put too long without learning something new."

"Is that all that brought you here?" Naru asked, settling into a cushion comfortably.

"Well, no, not all," Kintaro admitted. "I also need to go to Todai to finally get around to picking up that law degree."

"Oh, you're trying to get into Toudai too?" Naru asked.

Keitaro frowned. "I thought you already said your brother attended Todai, though," he said, turning to Ranma.

"That's right!" Ranma said, smacking one fist into the palm of the other hand. "He passed all of the exams to get his degree, but left before actually picking it up."

Naru and Keitaro choked on their drinks in tandem, then stared at Kintaro fixedly. "Finally get around…" Keitaro began.

"…to picking up that law degree?" Naru completed.

"Why?" Keitaro and Naru asked together, the pair of them seeming to think the idea a blasphemy.

"Well, something more important came up," Kintaro said dismissively. "It was only a few months of classes anyway."

Silence filled the room, punctuated by Haruka pulling a cigarette from one pocket and putting it to her lips, though she did not light it.

"That's quite impressive!" Mutsumi finally exclaimed, clapping her hands together in delight, and shattering the fragile silence.

Kintaro offered an embarrassed and good-natured chuckle, ducking his head at the praise.

"Well," Keitaro finally said, shaking his head. "Most of us are still trying to get into Todai, Oe-san, so we're going to use you as inspiration to do our best!"

"Right!" Naru and Ranma cheered in tandem, raising their glasses. "To Todai!"

"I'll drink to that!" Mutsumi chimed in. "Sake, anyone?"

After the morning workout and training, Keitaro retreated to the baths, joined by both Ranma and his older brother. The men all relaxed in the soothing heat, luxuriating in the warmth.

"I see you've been working on your martial arts again," Kintaro said suddenly, straightening slightly, and peering at his younger brother.

Ranma nodded at that, grinning proudly. "And you came by too late to see it today, but I'm teaching now," he added.

Kintaro smiled, leaning back against a rock, and peering up into the swirling steam clouds above.

"By the way, Aniki… how do you know Happosai?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side.

"Eh?" Kintaro asked, taken aback. "Well… that's… um… a long story," he hedged.

"I'm curious myself," Keitaro added in quickly, glancing between the two. They did seem similar in many respects… if he hadn't been told otherwise, Keitaro suspected he would really have believed them to be biologically related.

"Well…" Kintaro looked thoughtful and distant for a moment, then nodded his head. "When I was very young, I lost my entire family," he explained.

Ranma straightened up and turned to watch Kintaro attentively.

"I suppose I was… ah… maybe five or six years old. Anyway, after I lost my family, I had nothing to my name but the clothes on my back, and a backpack with a few things from my old home in it. While wandering, I ended up stumbling across an old man. He said that he would teach me martial arts… and he did."

"You learned from Happosai?" Ranma asked, stunned. "Why did you say you learned somewhere else?"

"Well… Happosai trained me for a few years," Kintaro said uncomfortably. "But I thought that… something was wrong with the way his school worked, so I told him I would make myself find a better way… a higher art that could defeat his school. Then I started learning all over again from a different master." He grinned. "That was the beginning of the Oe Ronin-Ryu, Otouto."

"That makes sense," Ranma allowed, nodding. Cocking his head to one side curiously, he asked, "So why did Happosai send me a package from your place?"

"Happosai knows why you left," Kintaro stated bluntly, offering a sympathetic smile. "I think that… even though we don't agree on the philosophy of our arts, he respects us."

"Why you left?" Keitaro asked quietly, curious.

Kintaro offered a blank expression at that, as though distracted, and Ranma only looked away, down into the water.

"Um… Oe-san?" Keitaro prompted anxiously, looking at Ranma.

"I don't want to talk about it," Ranma said quietly. "It's from a long time ago. Something that doesn't really matter anymore." He shook his head, meeting Keitaro's eyes, and asked, "Have you talked to Narusegawa lately?"

The dagger of betrayal stabbed into Keitaro's heart, and he forced a smile. "Not really," he said quietly, though he felt he understood Ranma's point. Ranma didn't want to talk about his past, and Ranma suspected that Keitaro had already figured out that Narusegawa was interested in the martial artist. Obviously, they should mutually avoid certain topics.

"I think you should," Ranma advised, frowning.

"Which one is Narusegawa?" Kintaro asked, glancing between the two.

"Hmm? Oh, the uh… medium-height violent one with glasses and light-brown hair," Ranma offered.

Keitaro couldn't help but frown at that. Violent? She hit Ranma less than she hit him. How was that violent?

Kintaro laughed, as though it were a joke between them, and Ranma probably didn't mean it that way. "You like her, Otouto?" Kintaro pressed, leaning towards his younger brother and grinning.

Ranma's eyebrows rose, and he shook his head quickly. "Aniki," he protested, flushing slightly. "It's not like that — I'm interested in someone el— Um…" He coughed. "I'm not interested in anyone right now."

Kintaro smirked, nodding knowingly, while Keitaro blinked in surprise. Ranma didn't like Narusegawa? Keitaro couldn't be certain, but he doubted that Ranma would lie to his older brother. Was it… somehow a misunderstanding? Were Narusegawa and Ranma not seeing one another?

"Well, I've soaked long enough," Ranma said suddenly, before Kintaro could ask another question. Shrugging, Kintaro followed his younger brother from the baths, leaving Keitaro alone.

He mulled over what he had learned for a long moment, wondering what he should do. Could it be, perhaps, for the best if he were to just talk with Naru, and finally get everything out in the open? Certainly… it couldn't hurt, could it? Of course not! If he were to meet Narusegawa, and the two were to talk on the level, surely nothing could go wrong!

Nodding to himself, he rose, sloshing across the bath and climbing out. Just as he reached the edge of the wooden bathing platform, one foot on the surface, one still in the bath, the sliding door to the changing room slid open, and the female residents of the inn strode in. He froze, eyes widening in terror.

Well, some things could still go wrong, he realized shortly.

"You know," Keitaro remarked, nursing the slap mark across his cheek, "you two seem pretty lucky when it comes to dealing with angry women."

Kintaro and Ranma both winced, and exchanged a pointed glance. Shaking his head, Kintaro changed the subject, asking, "Do the two of you study together to try and get into Todai?"

Keitaro nodded, turning his attention to the small pile of study guides on the low table in front of him. "Mutsumi-chan and Narusegawa also study with us, though," he added, when Kintaro picked up a booklet and flipped through it.

"Good study habits," Kintaro said neutrally. "But then, everything is study, because life itself is learning. Right, Otouto?"

"Right, Aniki," Ranma replied, grinning. "I haven't forgotten what you taught me."

Kintaro nodded knowingly, sporting a wise smile, and rubbing the bottom of his chin with his thumb. "Yes, yes," he allowed. "But at the same time, you must always follow your own path."

"Er… what does this have to do with studying?" Keitaro asked, frowning. "I thought you were going to help us out with studying, since you already went to Todai."

Kintaro leapt to his feet, grinning, and posed dramatically. "Ah! Well, then, that's simple. You just need to study like me!" he cried out.

"How do I do that?" Keitaro asked eagerly.

Kintaro pointed directly at Keitaro, and the dorm manager suddenly had the sensation of looking up a great distance to meet the older man's eyes. "First," he intoned deeply, "you must acquire a bicycle."

"A bicycle?" Keitaro dismissed the comment as a joke, and shook his head. "And then?"

Keitaro's eyes widened, and he leaned back, as Kintaro put one foot on the table, increasing his height and leaning closer to the manager. "Then," Kintaro thundered, waggling his finger back and forth, "you must sharpen your mind and body to physical perfection, and embark on a twelve year journey of learning."

Shaking his head, Keitaro realized that Kintaro was leaning even closer. "How long?" he managed tremulously.

Time seemed to stretch, dragging on impossibly slowly, and Kintaro's lips moved with the speed of complacent glaciers. Keitaro's mind raced to sort the deep rumble of sound into words, as the answer came again, "Tweeeeeeeelllve yeeeeeeeeeaaars."

The man, much like Keitaro's goal of reaching Todai, began to recede before him, shrinking, and moving further away, though the intensity of his gaze hadn't faded one whit. It was only when the nearly numbed reverberations through his head jarred his glasses off that Keitaro realized he had fallen backwards.

"That's… an awfully long time," he gasped out, as time resumed its normal course, and Kintaro settled back to the floor opposite him. Keitaro straightened his glasses out and sat up, peering at Ranma hopefully.

"Aw, don't be like that," Ranma encouraged, still grinning. "It only took me five years."

Keitaro blinked, wondering why he was staring at the ceiling of his room. The one without the hole leading to Naru's room, he absently observed, frowning. "Is that all?" he heard his voice ask.

"Then again, Otouto, you're not in Todai yet."

As Keitaro sat upright again, Ranma chuckled, ducking his head in embarrassment. "Yeah, I know," he said. "But I have a good feeling. I think I can make it."

"A positive spirit is the most important part of studying," Kintaro acquiesced. "With will and determination, you can go far."

"So we can rule out the twelve years of study?" Keitaro asked hopefully.

"It's a possibility, I suppose," Kintaro mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "But not the bicycle."

"I see," Keitaro said slowly, as there was a knock at his door. "Come in!"

Naru slid the door open, waving, and Mutsumi followed, closing the door behind her. "It's getting colder!" Naru observed, shivering slightly. "I'm glad we finished the play before it got worse!"

"Oh?" Mutsumi asked, cocking her head to one side. "I live for the winters — it's almost always warm in Okinawa."

Ranma and Kintaro nodded knowingly at that, and Kintaro rose from the table, gesturing the girls to be seated. "I don't want to interfere with your studying," he explained.

"Oh, it's not interfering," Naru assured him, glancing at Keitaro. "Only, we were wondering…" She trailed off, biting her lip, and couldn't meet Kintaro's eyes.

"Yes?" he prompted, not yet moving to the doorway.

"Oh, well, Keitaro-kun sometimes needs help with his studying, because he isn't very intelligent," Mutsumi volunteered.

Naru crossed her arms beneath her chest and nodded knowingly.

Keitaro winced, noting Ranma doing the same. "I'm not dumb," Keitaro defended himself.

Touching a fingertip to her lower lip, Mutsumi mused, "And Ranma-kun learns bad habits very easily."

Naru nodded again.

"How was I to know that Suzuki's trick couldn't be universally applied?" Ranma grumbled, flinching.

"And I sometimes forget important things, like… well, I forget," Mutsumi sighed.

Naru nodded a third time, and then said, "Of course, as for myself and my own studying—"

"And Narusegawa got a score of zero on one of her practice tests, too," Mutsumi said, clasping her hands before her and offering a sympathetic smile.

"That's exactly right," Naru affirmed, nodding a fourth time. Keitaro and Ranma stared at her blankly for a moment before comprehension flashed across her face, and she gasped out, "Mutsumi-chan! How did you know about that?"

Tamago offered a helpful chirp, floating out from behind Mutsumi and waving a test paper.

Before Naru could intercept it, Keitaro snatched the sheet away, unable to believe it. "A zero!" he exclaimed. "That's amazing — a perfect zero!"

"Ack!" The light-haired girl reflexively grabbed the paper away from Keitaro and turned her back to him, hunching in on herself. "You don't need to be so mean about it," she said, her voice hurt.

Keitaro managed not to nod. Partially, because Naru was looking away, and would miss the gesture, and partially because if his world were shifted any more, he was afraid he would fall completely out of it. Ranma only offered Narusegawa a sympathetic glance, suggesting that — somehow — Keitaro had managed to imagine that they were in a relationship on his own, and they were actually separate. He couldn't imagine Ranma being interested in Naru, and ignoring her when she was hurt. Rather, Ranma would act like Kintaro was, and take her hand, giving her words of encouragement.

Keitaro managed a gurgling noise before his vision went black.

When Keitaro returned to his senses, Kintaro had gone, and the other three would-be students were studiously working, Ranma and Mutsumi as cheerfully as ever, and Naru with a small smile playing about her lips.

"Um… did I miss anything?" he asked, rubbing his eyes tiredly.

"Not much," Mutsumi assured him, smiling.

"Oe-san just told us that anything is possible with patience and a positive attitude!" Naru said, glancing at him as her smile deepened for the merest moment.

"Which Oe-san?" Keitaro asked, rubbing at his forehead.

"Aniki," Ranma clarified. "You can call me Ranma, Kanrinin."

"Ah… you can call me Keitaro then, Ranma-san," Keitaro replied hesitantly.

"No problem, Keitaro." He frowned then, and glanced at his answer sheet. "Actually, maybe one… have you looked at the question set for page twelve of the advanced math booklet? I'm actually getting two and a half for the final answer, and I want to make sure it's really right this time."

Ranma tucked his hands into his pockets, walking slowly next to Kintaro. He kicked at a small pile of leaves that had gathered at the top of the stairs before taking a few steps down, Kintaro pacing him. The pair stopped there, in a good position to see both across the courtyard, and over the stairs, should anyone approach.

"It's good to see you're doing well, Otouto," Kintaro finally said, looking at the city stretching out beneath the staircase.

"Thanks for dropping by… and sending my things over, too," Ranma said quietly, studying his shoes intently. "I… think I can get things to work out."

"I have faith in you," Kintaro said, turning to look at Ranma directly. "I know you can do it."

"Aniki… have you seen Tsuruko-sensei recently?" Ranma pressed, shooting the older man a sidelong glance.

Kintaro blinked in surprise, then looked away, and scratched the back of his head. "I don't think I've really seen her since we spent that time learning with her," he said slowly. "I usually don't stay in one place very long, you know." He grinned, and offered Ranma a shrug. "Too many things I still want to learn."

Ranma nodded silently, looking at his feet again.

"You've seen her though, haven't you, Otouto?"

"Yeah," Ranma mumbled. "And Happosai at around the same time. It was… confusing."

"What happened?"

"Well… the only part that's really important is that Tsuruko-sensei asked me to train her younger sister… and I'm teaching her martial arts, but I'm not sure how much of your school Tsuruko-sensei wants me to teach Motoko-chan…" He coughed quietly, and shuffled his feet. "And how much you want to let me teach."

Kintaro laughed aloud, clapping Ranma on the shoulder and grinning. "Otouto, it's not a collection of secret techniques," he said gently. "It's a way of learning… and if I get it right, it's going to be the best way." He shrugged, dropping the hand from Ranma's shoulder, and looking up at the sky. "And, anyway, my school doesn't really have any martial arts; it's just… a way of using the martial arts you already knew."

"About… that, Aniki," Ranma managed, a note of strain entering his voice. "I… found something. But I'm not really sure what it is, or… how it even works."

"Found something?"

"It's more than martial arts… or maybe less." Ranma sighed, and hung his head. "It's so confusing. I don't know what it is."

"Did you take notes?"

"Just like you taught me, Aniki," Ranma confirmed, pulling his notebook from his belt, and offering it to the older man.

Kintaro flipped through it quickly, eyes scanning the pages. "'The top of the head should not rest at a ninety degree angle to the axis of the body,'" he read aloud, smirking. "That's a good one."

"Not that, Aniki," Ranma said, some of the tension escaping his voice.

Kintaro made a thoughtful noise, and then flipped through a few more pages. "Do you think… it's connected to her, somehow?" he asked.

"It has to be," Ranma replied, frustration creeping back in, as he clenched his fists. "And I don't… really even know what it is."

"I have an inkling," Kintaro said slowly. "Otouto… I think that this is part of your path. There's two parts to learning, you know. We're not machines, and we can't take everything as pure logic. We have to let ourselves be influenced by other things, or else we're not experiencing everything there is out there to be experienced… and that means something we're not learning about."

Ranma said nothing, continuing to stare at his feet.

"Ranma…" Kintaro shook his head, and sighed, raising his arms in a stretch. "You know, most of what I do I learned from… well, you know, now."

"Him?" Ranma asked in surprise.

"Yeah… but I said there was a better way to go about things, and I'm still working on perfecting it," Kintaro said quickly.

"Well, what is it?"

"That's my path, Otouto," Kintaro said gently, lowering his arms, and turning to face Ranma again. "Your path is something else."

"Have you ever had… Have you ever felt… Did anything like my notes ever happen to you?" Ranma pressed, turning to face his older brother.

"A few times," Kintaro admitted, looking away. "I remember… Riding my bicycle, racing against… well, I'll tell you how I met Tsuruko-chan later. But… I can't explain it yet, either." He sighed. "Once we get that, we'll have really perfected the school."

"What then?" Ranma asked, regarding his brother curiously.

"Well, then we're done learning about living, and ready to start really doing it!" Kintaro encouraged, grinning, and slapping Ranma on the back again. "The road's calling me, Otouto. I'll check in at my place every so often — write me, okay? I'll send you postcards while I'm out."

"Okay, Aniki. Take care."

"You too," Kintaro called back, smiling, then walking to the bicycle in the courtyard. Ranma sighed, not looking back at his brother, and walked down the stairs.

When Ranma vanished at the foot of the stairs, Kintaro pulled up his bicycle at the top of the steps, and opened his own notebook. "Learned something," he said, writing quickly. "'You can probably never know everything about someone you teach, even if you think you do.'" He snapped the book shut, then frowned. "I should probably copy the one about toothbrushes and laughter later."

Motoko very nearly fell out of the tree she had been sitting in, trying to practice her balance as Ranma had suggested. Shivering, she wondered if Kintaro's note was an observation about her, or Ranma, and more importantly… what was it that Ranma was trying to understand, and who was it connected to? "Her?"

Naru glanced around to make sure that no one was looking, then knocked on the door before her.

"Come in," Mitsune answered from within, somewhat distractedly.

Opening the door and taking another careful glance around, Naru stepped into the room, quickly closing the door behind her. Mitsune was stretched out on her bed in her normal attire for the weather — long pants and a sweater. She didn't look up at Naru, instead flipping through a magazine with a steadily increasing frown.

"So, Mitsune, I wanted to ask you—"

"Says here that Oe's loaded," Mitsune noted, snapping the magazine shut, and raising her eyes to meet Naru's.


Mitsune sat up, and motioned Naru to take a seat.

After Naru had found a cushion, Mitsune showed the magazine to her. On the cover, in a very revealing red outfit, a long-haired blonde-haired woman posed, looking somewhat distracted. The text beneath her face read, "Female Power! Inside: Exclusive Interview With T.N. Software Founder."

"I don't understand," Naru said, frowning, and raising her eyes to meet Mitsune's.

Mitsune shook her head, and flipped the magazine open, reading aloud from an article. "'When asked during the interview how she had managed her all-female staff, leading them to develop a new database software which secured a contract overseas with an American client, which in turn caused the company's net worth to more than triple overnight, the only response given was, "I couldn't have done it without Oe." Further comment was refused on who this mysterious "Oe" is, but our inside sources suggest that not only is Oe the only male member of the team, he may have been "more" than a partner to a woman owning a company worth millions of dollars in America, and billions of yen here in Japan.'"

"Oe?" Naru asked, frowning. "Well… I don't understand what makes you think that he's rich just because of that."

"He'd have to be!" Mitsune protested. "You can't secure a multi-billion yen contract and ignore it unless you've got some obscene amount of wealth stowed away! Aside from which, Kintaro mentioned earlier that he knew about computers and had once written a database program."

"It could be a coincidence," Naru countered, crossing her arms over her chest. "Really, Kitsune. How do you know it's the same Oe?"

"Really." Mitsune snorted, crossing her own arms over her chest after dropping the magazine. "I don't believe in coincidences like this anymore. Ranma and Keitaro collectively seem to destroy all coincidences."

"I suppose," Naru conceded, shaking her head. "But that's not what I wanted to ask you about, Kitsune."

"You want to talk to me about Keitaro?" Mitsune asked, uncrossing her arms and laying across the bed. "More trouble between you two?"

"Eh? You say it like we're having a lovers' quarrel!"

"Just a coincidence, I'm sure," Mitsune retorted dryly. "But, Naru, before you talk about Keitaro, you want to listen to something from me?"

"Well…" Naru bit her lip, holding back the reply that she just had listened to something from Mitsune, and instead nodded.

"You know, Naru-chan," Mitsune said softly, looking away. "This isn't just about the fact that Ranma and his brother may be rich. Because, even though they may have money, neither of them looks like the kind of guy who would really want to live a lifestyle immersed in riches and luxury, like any sane person would." She sighed, rubbing at her eyes. "I made a snap judgment, though. I went on a date with Ranma, and then I told him that I couldn't go out with him because his curse made me uncomfortable."

Naru's questions on how to approach Keitaro evaporated like mist at dawn in the face of such a remark. It was almost alien for the subject of romance to arise and not center around either herself or Keitaro. "I see," she said quietly, looking at her friend with sympathetic eyes. "And you're having an awkward breakup?"

"No!" Mitsune shook her head quickly, slumping. "I mean… that's not it, Naru-chan. I… I'm having regrets about breaking up with him."

"Oh! Well, if that's all, maybe you can—" She choked on her own words right then, eyes widening. But if Mitsune pursued Ranma, then Mutsumi would probably ignore him, and that meant that she might pursue Keitaro, which in turn meant… "Oh," she said again, much more quietly.

"Yeah," Mitsune sighed. "But you didn't know when you asked for that favor… and I didn't really think about it when I answered." She rubbed her forehead anxiously. "Anyway. That's what's been bothering me, Naru-chan. That I might have had something good, and thrown it away too soon."

Naru closed her eyes, thinking. What could she do? Risk putting her relationship in jeopardy just to give Mitsune a chance to patch things up with Ranma? Then again, what kind of relationship did she really have with Keitaro, anyway? Neither of them really managed to talk about it, and they'd had a grand total of two dates, one that was embarrassing, and one that had been something of a failure. Was she so selfish that she couldn't help out her friend when she was in pain?

Aside from which, she decided, if there was to be anything between her and Keitaro it should be easily decided by her making a move. Throwing Mutsumi at Ranma was only an excuse to buy herself more time, since she was too frightened to make a move. If she were to encourage Mitsune to pursue him, and then just… talk to Keitaro and at least admit her feelings, then everyone would be happy!

A nagging thought in the back of her head warned her that it wasn't entirely true, but she ignored it. She still had to help her friend. "Mitsune, I think you should try and make up with him, then," she said softly, offering an encouraging smile.

Mitsune seemed to relax, as the tension visibly drained out of her. "Really?" she asked, looking up at Naru.

"Yes," she said, nodding. "You shouldn't have to set your happiness by the wayside to try and help me out."

"Thank you, Naru-chan," Mitsune breathed, grinning. "I feel much better now." She eyed the fallen magazine, and her smile deepened. "And the possibility of marrying into money couldn't hurt."

Naru rolled her eyes, and offered a good-natured, "Just keep positive, Kitsune-chan! What could possibly go wrong?"

The door slammed open at that instant, and Motoko stood there, tensed, breathing heavily, and with a haunted look about her eyes. "Kitsune-san!" she cried out, striding into the room, and falling to her knees before the woman. "I find myself in urgent need of your advice!"

Mitsune sighed, and shot Naru a warning glance, before turning to Motoko. "What's bothering you?" she asked.

"I believe that Oe-sensei…" Motoko caught herself, and took a deep breath. "It took me some time, and much meditation to reach this conclusion, but I believe it to be the case that… Oe- sensei is in love with me."

Mitsune's jaw hung open for an instant, her eyes widening in alarm. A crash from the hallway, followed by a muffled groan interrupted the silence.

"Um… you left the door open," Naru noted.

"So she did," Ranma grumbled, climbing to his feet, and stepping inside. "So, what brought about this conclusion, Motoko-chan?"

The kendoka's eyes had widened in alarm at the crash, and each word from Ranma caused her to flinch, shrinking a little more into herself, until she looked like she was about to try crawling underneath Mitsune's bed to hide. "Oe-sensei," she mumbled, her head bowed. "I… I'm sorry, but my affections belong to… another."

Ranma blinked at that, then scratched his head. "Um… okay," he mumbled. Clearing his throat, he spoke up, explaining, "Motoko-chan, you're a student of mine, so—"

"It's improper!" Motoko snapped, straightening up somewhat, and raising her head. "It's shameful, that's what it is! A grown man lusting after a young student!"

Ranma blinked, not bowing his head at the rebuke. "Er… well, yeah, I can see why you would think that, but—"

"Probably even now you're planning some trip under the pretenses of training, where you'll drag me off alone!" Motoko leapt to her feet, one hand going to the sheathed blade at her side, and advanced on Ranma, who took a nervous step backwards.

"Um, Motoko-chan…"

"But you won't stop there!" Motoko accused, taking another step forward. "Then, when we're alone, under the guise of something more innocent, you'll ravish me! You'll find some excuse to get us into the same blanket, without clothes, and then you'll lay a hand on me, first running a rough hand in a gentle caress across my smooth—"

"Motoko-chan!" Ranma protested, his retreat halted by the railing outside of the hallway. Realizing he was pinned, he waved both hands before him defensively.

"And when you've had your way with me, and gotten me with child, you'll bring me back here, and I, with child, will have no choice but to marry you!" Motoko's hand tightened on her sword, and Ranma raised his hands over his head, as Motoko had advanced nearly right into them, then pressed closer, her face slightly flushed, and her breathing irregular.

"I… um, that is—"

"Our daughter would be raised and educated in my family's school, as is proper." Motoko's right hand hadn't budged from her sword, though her left had come up to tap her lower lip thoughtfully, while Ranma broke out in a nervous sweat.

"Hello? Motoko-chan, I—"

"Ah! Of course, you wouldn't stop with just one child, no! You would continue to take advantage of me night after night, until we had dozens of daughters…" Motoko trailed off, her eyes seeming to look less at Ranma, and more through him, to some distant, nearly invisible thing. She shook her head suddenly, her face still flushed, and pursed her lips as though to kiss Ranma for a moment, then spoke, "But I won't give in that easily! I can only surrender myself to someone who can best me in combat!"

"Well, he already has," Haruka noted, taking a cigarette from her pocket and placing it at her lips. "Repeatedly, as I recall."

Motoko, realizing what she had been rambling on about suddenly blushed very darkly, and stepped away from Ranma, bowing her head.

Naru shook her head, wondering when Haruka had come across the scene — she'd been so caught up in Motoko's tirade that she had missed the woman's arrival.

"This is all very interesting now, isn't it?" Haruka asked, turning to peer at Ranma, who had frozen when Motoko retreated. "Oe?"

Snapping out of his sudden stupor, Ranma shook his head, and cleared his throat pointedly, closing his eyes while he muffled a cough with one fist. Not looking up to see Motoko, who was blushing furiously, he explained, "As I was saying, Motoko-chan, I am your teacher, and you are my student. It wouldn't be proper for me to have such feelings for you." He nodded at that, then opened his eyes. "Hopefully that clears that up."

Motoko blushed silently, staring at her feet.

Ranma glanced sidelong at Haruka. "Um… thanks. What brought you by, anyway?"

"I'm a firm advocate of romance as a spectator sport," Haruka replied dryly, offering Ranma a sardonic smile. "Also, some mail." She pulled a trio of envelopes from a pocket. "Letter for you, Mitsune, and a letter for you, Motoko." She glanced at the last envelope, after handing the other two out, and pocketed it. "And now I just need to find Suu."

As if summoned, the excitable girl bounced down the hallway, taking a moment to run in a circle around Ranma and inspect him before drawing to a halt before Haruka. The older woman raised an eyebrow, and withdrew the envelope from her pocket again. "Here you go," she told the girl.

"Aniki!" Suu cheered, holding the letter aloft and zipping back the way she had come, inspecting Motoko on the return trip, then vanishing.

"Right," Ranma said, shaking his head. "I'm going to study some more."

"Good plan," Naru seconded.

During a break from studying, Naru sat atop the roof, leaning against the peak. Keitaro, Shinobu, and Suu were nearby, admiring the view of the city. It had rained much of the day, so once the clouds had gone away, the air was clean, and smelled fresh, presenting a clear view to the beach, and beyond. "It's nice," Naru finally said, drawing her knees up to her chest, and wrapping her arms around them.

Suu lounged across the peak of the roof like a sunning cat, already wearing her winter school uniform. To Naru's left, hands on the roof between her knees as she knelt, Shinobu nodded, her eyes distant, though she seemed to steal glances at something nearer than the horizon every so often. Naru wasn't certain what it was, but was too relaxed to ask or investigate.

Keitaro sat further down the slope of the roof, one leg drawn up, and the other laying flat against the roof, with both hands splayed at his sides to stabilize his position. He yawned slightly, then glanced to the side, into the yard where Ranma toiled with Motoko, picking up the last wooden remnants of the benches in the auditorium.

Most of the auditorium had collapsed in the rain, save the wall that had been defined by the roots of one of the great trees. The floors and walls had otherwise been turned into mud, and pooled at the bottom. While Motoko carefully stacked the wooden benches on one of the few undamaged sections of the lawn, Ranma shoveled drier dirt into the pit. Every so often the redhead would investigate the mess at the bottom to ensure that it wasn't too watery.

She worked swiftly, and once Motoko had finished moving the benches, she joined in too. It seemed to only take them a handful of minutes to turn the entire auditorium into a mostly smooth muddy patch, which was then carefully cordoned off with wooden benches. That done, they scattered grass seed across the surface of the field, though Keitaro doubted it would grow much — if at all — before the season turned again.

Naru took her eyes away from the scene, and shook her head. "Even when he's not studying he doesn't seem to relax," she murmured. "I wonder why that is."

"I think it's because he's running from something in his past," Mutsumi opined, climbing up through one of the secret hatches in the roof.

Naru startled at that, then shook her head, smiling softly. "Hello, Mutsumi-chan," she greeted. "Feeling better?"

"A short nap was just the thing," Mutsumi affirmed, climbing onto the roof with the rest of them. "It's a beautiful day today, isn't it?"

Suu straightened up slightly, and looked over the edge of the roof to where Motoko and Ranma were still talking, their voices audible, though the words were lost at such a range. "What can you tell me about a Ranma's past?" she asked curiously.

"Oh, I don't know," the dark-haired girl said slowly. "I think it must be a secret. Do you suppose we could ask Tama-chan?"

"My arch-nemesis," Suu murmured thoughtfully, glancing around for some sign of the creature. It was currently nestled atop Keitaro's head, eyeing her suspiciously. "But for information on a Ranma… it might be worth it. Tell me, Tamago! Do you know a Ranma's secrets?"

Tamago blinked a few times, then shook its head furiously, while Keitaro tried to look at it, perched as it was atop his own head.

"Oh, it was worth checking," Mutsumi said, smiling softly. "We could always just ask Ranma-kun, couldn't we?"

"Simple communication could probably solve a lot of problems," Keitaro said quietly. He yawned, stretching his arms wide before he climbed to his feet. "I'm going inside," he finally said. "It's a bit chilly."

Naru nodded absently, wondering if she should follow and try and confess to him; she knew that she really had to, now. She'd certainly been putting it off long enough, anyway.

Below, Ranma and Motoko drew close enough to the side of the house that their voices carried, pushed by a gentle breeze. Keitaro missed it, and vanished into the passageway Mutsumi had emerged from, but Shinobu looked up, as Motoko slowly said, "I'm sorry… about my mistake."

"Eh… don't worry about it," Ranma assured her. "I respect you, Motoko. I know we didn't get along really well at first, and I know you're a student… but I kind of like to think of you as a friend."

Motoko giggled, a decidedly foreign sound from the kendoka, and surprisingly… girlish, to Naru's ears. "Thank you, Oe- sensei. I am glad that… we have come to understand one another, then. Our initial meeting was less than pleasant."

"You can say that again," Ranma mumbled. "Oh, heya, Kitsune. What's up?"

Naru blinked, and Shinobu actually turned her head to hear better, frowning slightly. Suu lolled absently, appearing as oblivious as Mutsumi, and Naru wondered if she should make a sound to remind Ranma and Motoko that they were on the roof. "Not much," Mitsune's voice called, slightly strained. "Um… Oe… do you have a minute?"

"Sure," she said. "I think Motoko-chan wants to use the baths first, anyway."

"Actually, I do. If you will excuse me, Oe-sensei." Naru strained to listen, and saw Shinobu flinch slightly at the sound of the door closing.

"Um… Oe… do you remember… a while ago, when we went on a date?" Shinobu raised one hand to her mouth, eyes widening even further, while Naru frowned. All she could clearly remember of the event was her misery at thinking Keitaro was gay, and then elation over the fact that he wasn't. What specifically had happened between Mitsune and Ranma, then, to break them up?

"I remember," Ranma said slowly. "Why?"

"I may have… spoken too soon," Mitsune said hesitantly. "I was… surprised, really. I didn't think you were going to kiss me, I mean."

Ranma said nothing in reply, and Shinobu swallowed nervously in the silence.

Finally, Mitsune spoke again, her voice indistinct, and both Naru and Shinobu leaned towards the edge of the roof to hear better. "I'm not sure I meant what I said, Oe… I may have been hasty… and I'm wondering if you… might… want to… try again?"

"Try…" Ranma sighed, loudly enough to be heard from the roof. "I don't know. The curse is a part of me, you know. This form… is something I'm pretty much stuck with. I checked around a bit. Well, a lot, really.

"One of the things… that made me go on the road was the fact that I couldn't be accepted by…" She trailed off for a moment, the thickness in her voice audible even from there. "I couldn't be accepted with the curse by people I thought were important. Because of that, I decided that the only people who can really understand me are the ones that can see through the curse… like Aniki. If you pay attention, he goes crazy around girls usually… but for some reason he never looked at my cursed form twice. I wouldn't want to make you have to deal with something you didn't want to like that, Kitsune-chan."

"Why?" Mitsune finally asked.

"I dunno," Ranma finally said. "A lot of reasons, really. I mean, for all I know, some day I could get stuck as a girl… it's happened to me twice before. But maybe some time I could get stuck and not find a way to get unstuck for a long time. And even though I'd always be… a girl on the outside from then on… I'm a guy, Kitsune-chan. I couldn't change that, even if I looked like a girl on the outside forever."

"I understand," Mitsune said tiredly. "I… do."

"I… don't think it'd work. You… didn't like it when I kissed you as a girl, and I couldn't… couldn't let you go along with something that you weren't comfortable with. If I got stuck… then you would be miserable, and so would I. I'm sorry, Kitsune. I really am."

Shinobu looked like she was on the verge of tears, listening in. Naru felt more than a little guilty herself, but said nothing, wondering how Mitsune would react to that statement… and more over the fact that she could understand what Ranma meant. Even if on the surface it was perverted… Ranma wasn't about to let Mitsune start something she might not be happy with.

Mitsune's voice was filled with sorrow when she spoke next. "You're right, Ranma. If you… were just a guy, I think you'd be one of the best guys ever. But… You shouldn't apologize. I… I'm sorry." Shinobu sniffled quietly, tears trickling down her cheeks as she covered her mouth with her hands to muffle her sobs. The quiet sound of the door opening, and then closing sounded again.

"Damn it," Ranma muttered. She sighed, and then opened the door again, while Shinobu's sniffling increased in volume.

"That's so sad," the girl finally sobbed. "Poor Kitsune-san…"

"My," Mutsumi murmured softly. "Poor Ranma-kun."

Suu glanced between Mutsumi and Shinobu speculatively, then turned to Naru, and tugged at her sleeve insistently. "Naru, Naru, what was that about?" the girl asked.

Naru shook her head, wondering at how distanced she felt from what she had overheard; Mitsune was her friend, and that had to have hurt… Even if it was better than the truth coming to light only after something tragic had happened. "I'm not really sure," she finally managed. "I guess… it was just… that Ranma and Kitsune are too different."

"Ranmas are different from Kitsunes," Suu asserted, nodding sadly. Naru looked at her sharply, but the typical grin was gone from the silver-haired girl, and her green eyes were somber. "They are different from many things, here…"

"How do you mean?" Mutsumi asked thoughtfully, handing Shinobu a handkerchief and patting the girl on the back comfortingly.

Suu's eyes narrowed speculatively, and she looked upwards, as though the answer were written there in the evening sky. "Maybe trauma," she finally said. "It's hard to say. I could find out… But a good scientist won't destroy her specimens while trying to understand them, so I might not know for a long time." She blinked, the solemn cast vanishing from her gaze as she did so. "Until then, I think I'll sleep in a bed with a Ranma. It's nice and warm."

She scampered off, while Shinobu shook her head, dabbing at her eyes with the handkerchief and sniffling. "It's sad," she said quietly. "I thought Kitsune-san would be…" She hesitated for an awkward moment, then turned about to look at Mutsumi and Naru. "I thought Kitsune-san would be better at… love… than anyone else. She always… seemed to know more about it. But she… didn't really understand Oe-san."

"Or maybe she did, and tried anyway," Mutsumi suggested. "Love isn't something to be good at, Shinobu-chan. It's just something you do." She offered an enigmatic smile then, shaking her head. "But worry about that later."

"I… suppose," Shinobu sighed, dropping her gaze. "I should make dinner," she finally said, rising to her feet, and climbing into the passageway. Mutsumi nodded thoughtfully, and followed shortly behind, leaving Naru alone on the roof.

Would something like that happen between her and Keitaro? Fear gripped her heart, and she rocked backwards uncertainly, not sure what to do… But she had already decided. And waiting would only make it hurt worse if things were to go bad, wouldn't it?

Keitaro sat at his desk, wondering if he were slowly becoming a fixture of his own room, much like the desk or futon. Perhaps an accessory for the desk. It seemed to him that he spent far too much time crouched behind the thing studying, or just going through the mountains of paperwork that developed when he didn't pay attention to managing the inn.

This time, he was not doing work or studying, however. Instead, he was staring at a blank piece of paper. He had a journal, though he did his best to keep it hidden; no telling when Suu or Mitsune might try to read through it. But calligraphy was one of those skills his parents had impressed into him as being important when he was young. He supposed he was decent at it, but too often he let those skills decline in the interest of study.

Shaking his head, he dipped the tip of his brush into the already prepared ink, and began to carefully paint a character. Ideally, if he managed every stroke correctly, he would end up with something suitable to be added to a scroll. Perhaps he'd even replace one of the outdated scrolls that concealed the secret passages with his own carefully designed and brushed words of wisdom.

"Yeah, right," he muttered, shaking his head and eyeing the completed work thoughtfully. The strokes were smooth, though the ink was still wet. Not quite with the elegant structure he had hoped for, but still neat. "Always follow your heart," he quoted aloud. Frowning, he considered adding his name to the writing, but at the last moment decided instead to write down Seta's. It was, after all, the older man's advice to him.

He held the scroll up, absorbed in studying the letters as a slight chill wafted into his room, a soft breeze ruffling the extra papers at his desk. "But the question about it… Is it good advice?" he asked aloud, pressing the paper atop an already-hung scroll, and considering the look of it carefully. Could he replace "early to bed, early to rise" with "always follow your heart"?

Grimacing, he shook his head, dropping the paper on the floor and sitting back to look up at the older words of wisdom. "Which one's more important for someone who wants to get into Todai?" he murmured. He cocked his head to one side, considering that.

"Well, I know my answer, anyway. My heart leads me to Todai." He nodded to himself, and decided that maybe the scroll would look good on the wall. As he reached up to take the older scroll down, he hesitated. "Then again…" His hand dropped to his side as he reconsidered. "Who am I to go against advice like that?"

"Keitaro?" someone asked quietly. He blinked, turning around in surprise. His shock was enough to keep his expression largely neutral, save for the slackened jaw. When had Naru gotten into his room? She knelt by the side of his desk, looking at the wall with determination.

"Narusegawa?" he returned cautiously. He was about to ask how long she had been waiting when he caught sight of her worried expression, eyes shining with emotion. "What… what's wrong?"

"I… I didn't know you did calligraphy," she managed after a moment, lowering her gaze. That was it? Did she have something against calligraphy? Or maybe she thought that his words of wisdom were stupid in the face of what was already written there.

He stared at the paper in his hands, hanging so that Naru could read it as easily as he could, and shook his head ruefully. "It's… Seta gave me this advice once, but… maybe this isn't good advice for someone who wants to get into college." He gripped the top of the sheet with both hands, ready to tear it in half.

"No!" Naru protested loudly, climbing to her feet, and snatching it away from him. At his surprised look, she clarified, "It's good advice."

Was it? If it was, then maybe… Maybe he should say something? Naru looked like she were on the verge of saying something herself. "Narusegawa?" he asked quietly.

She looked up from the paper, eyes flashing in the dimming light, as the sun set. "Keitaro," she said in a quavering voice that did not quite match the determined expression she put on.

Nothing else was said for a long moment, and Keitaro wondered; was this rejection? Was this her finally becoming impatient with his lack of a confession? "Naru," he managed.

At the same time, she found her own voice, and said, "I really—"

They both broke off, looking at one another cautiously, nervously. What was she going to tell him? He finally knew he wanted to confess to her… was it too late? "I have to say something," she asserted.

What if it was rejection? He couldn't let her speak first! Clenching his fists at his sides to steel himself, he took a deep breath. He had to speak, to say something. To… be so driven by his fear he could confess nothing at all. "What is it?" he finally managed.

"Do… you think you'll find… that girl from your promise?" she asked slowly.

"I… don't know," he replied hesitantly. "I think… it may not matter as much as…" He trailed off there, unable to say what he was thinking. Could he just say that maybe, just maybe, that girl was not as important to him as she was? "I don't know anymore."

Naru stared at his calligraphy pointedly. "So you're not going to follow your heart to her?" she pressed.

Reeling, and trying to consider what he said, he announced, "My heart… might not… lead me to her anymore."

"Then…" Naru blushed, and stared at her feet. "Do you like Mutsumi?"

Keitaro blinked at the subject change, and answered without thinking. "Mutsumi-chan? She's nice, and pretty, and smart, sometimes, and fun to be around—"

"I see," Naru said quietly, her color changing from embarrassment to anger. "So you do."

"What?" Keitaro asked, blinking and off-balance from everything that had already been said. "Well, she's all that, but—"

"I understand," Naru said coolly, turning on one heel and marching towards the door.

Reaching into reserves of control he didn't know he had, Keitaro managed to wrench the next words out before she could leave. "But she's not you."

He had done it. He had finally confessed. Even if it was in a roundabout way.

He had managed to tell her how he felt. If only this would turn out not to be a dream…

Swallowing, he watched her where she froze, and she shuddered slightly, hands rising to her face. With her back turned to him, he wasn't certain what she was doing, but after a moment she turned around, shimmering and unshed tears shining in her eyes… but a small smile on her face. A smile that said she understood.

She said nothing, merely nodding faintly, turning to the door, and walking outside.

Keitaro stared at the door after it was closed, and sighed, glaring at his calligraphy. "Daydreams don't get me anywhere," he chastised it, deciding not to hang it up after all. But… perhaps he would keep it anyway.

Naru felt like she was practically floating on her walk back towards her own room. Not because she was in love; she wouldn't give herself over to foolishness that easily! No, the lightness she felt was that relief of finally having a burden lifted from her shoulders. Finally, she knew.

She rounded the stairs, and walked down the last stretch of hallway before her door, then paused. Haruka stood in the hallway, bent over a railing and eyeing some small detail of the woodwork critically. "Haruka?" she asked. "What's going on?"

"Just checking the work here," the woman said in reply, straightening up, and revealing the hammer in her hands. "I got one of those flashes of intuition… thought I'd need a hammer around here for something." She shrugged, sticking the handle of the tool through the waist-strap of her apron. "Guess I was wrong."

Naru blinked, looking at the hammer for a long minute. "Actually," she said slowly, "I think I could use it."

"What for?" Haruka asked, raising an eyebrow in suspicion. "The point of that play was to pay for damages, you know. I'm not opposed to directing another, but…"

Flushing, Naru shook her head quickly. "I was just going to use it to give a message to Keitaro," she assured Haruka.

The woman's other eyebrow rose. She looked between the hammer and the floor of the inn, as though she could see through the wood to where Keitaro was probably sitting. "Well, the inn doesn't fix itself, but it's not like he won't heal," she finally decided. "Sure. Just be sure to put it away when you're done, okay?"

"Not a problem!" Naru said, smiling as she accepted the hammer. It held a surprising amount of weight, and had good heft. She eyed it thoughtfully when she entered her room, sliding the door shut behind her. It would do.

The spot on the floor where she used to keep her Liddo-kun stuffed animal still held that honor, though now there was tatami beneath the wooden platform. Of course, that was because there was a fixed floor beneath that… but that would only slow things down for a minute or so.

She slid the Liddo-kun aside, and then shifted the tatami out of the way, as well. The slats used to replace the damaged wood stood out faintly, a slightly lighter color. It was the work of only a few minutes to begin recreating the hole that had been there once before.

In his own room, Keitaro looked up, frowning at the creaking and straining noises of the room overhead. Naru usually made almost no noise from her room, so he rose and stood beneath the center of the disturbance, squinting, and staring at the ceiling above him.

"That's funny," he murmured, just before the entire ceiling above him appeared to wobble. "Ack! Earthquake!" he managed to get out, before a hole was blasted out above him, showering him with bits of shattered wood, a hammer, and Naru's sprawling form.

The girl giggled in embarrassment, hiding the hammer behind her back. "Hey, Keitaro," she said softly.

Dazed, confused, and having just been used as her impromptu landing pad, Keitaro slowly smiled. "Hey… Naru."


To be continued.

Author's notes: Getting back into the groove… slowly but surely.

Brian Randall

Chapter 12
Layout, design, & site revisions 2005

Webmaster: Larry F
Last revision: January 7, 2006

Old Gray Wolf