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The dining room of the inn was pleasantly crowded. Shinobu liked how everyone sat at the same table, putting whatever momentary differences they had to one side. Then they focused on enjoying the meal and the company.

Not that there were as many differences to put aside as there once were. Though the conversation had taken a stranger turn….

"Well, after the Department of Public Works in Hokkaido, Aniki and I went towards Osaka, and worked… er… at the dojo that Motoko's family owns," Ranma said thoughtfully.

"I can only imagine the damage you caused," Motoko said, hiding a smile by sipping her tea.

"I doubt you can," Ranma replied. He blinked, realizing what he'd said, and scowled. "Anyway. After that I worked in a warehouse, moving boxes around for a while, then Aniki and I were upholsterers in Kobe. Well, I was an assistant, really, but I learned a bit."

"You must have traveled a lot," Shinobu said appreciatively. "How far have you gone?"

"Well," Ranma mused, rubbing his chin in thought. "I guess the farthest east I've been was… Hokkaido. I've been as far south as the Ryukyu Islands, and as far west as the Gobi desert in China… and I guess China would probably be the furthest I've gone north, too."

"That doesn't sound very far," Suu said, frowning.

"Well, where have you traveled?" Ranma asked, raising an eyebrow.

"That… is a secret!" the girl chirped, smiling knowingly.

Keitaro frowned thoughtfully. "I'd always thought you'd have traveled all over the world, from the way you and your brother talked," he said. "Even Sarah's been to America."

Ranma's eyebrow twitched. "It's not like that!" he protested. "We explored all over Japan, and learned lots of stuff. We didn't need to go to another country for anything!"

"So," Haruka drawled, stepping just through the entry from the hallway. "You're saying you've seen better locations nearby instead of wasting time by going further?"

Nodding emphatically, Ranma exclaimed, "Yes!"

"Funny," Mitsune commented. "I didn't take him for the type to put quality over length."

Chapter Twelve: Season's Greetings

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

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.

Haruka's lips twitched in a smile, while everyone else stared blankly at Mitsune.

Finally, Shinobu said, "I don't get it, Kitsune-san."

"Er… not important," Mitsune said, her face blushing crimson.

"Anyway, on to more important things… It's getting close to that time, you know."

"What time?" Ranma asked, when everyone else nodded thoughtfully.

"Oh, right," he said after a moment. "Can't believe I almost forgot about that. Thanks for the reminder, Kitsune. I have to go to take care of some things before work." With that, he cleared his dishes and bounded out the door.

Shinobu pushed his chair back to the table and shook her head. "He sure seems excited about Christmas. I wonder if he's going to get something for…." She trailed off, noticing everyone else in the room looking at her. "Um… never mind," she finished, blushing fit to match Mitsune a few moments ago.

"Good point," Keitaro murmured. "I need to go and get a job, myself."

Mitsune turned to Motoko and asked, "Who do you think he's going to get something for?"

It was the kendoka's turn to blush, and she said, "It's not my place to speculate."

Naru shook her head, chastising, "It's not good to pry into the affairs of others. You should just leave Oe-san his privacy."

"Yes, that's a good point," Haruka seconded, while Keitaro nodded his agreement. "And we certainly shouldn't question the way we found you two yesterday, Naru-chan."

Both Naru and Keitaro blushed darkly, and Shinobu fought against the urge to wobble dizzily. "It was just an accident," she said confidently. "Naru-san just dropped her hammer on the floor."

"Of course," Mitsune drawled, grinning as the blushing pair rapidly mumbled excuses and vanished from the room. "She just dropped the hammer. Sixteen times."

In the city, just a mile or so from the inn itself, Ranma stopped at a building near the machine shop where he worked.

"How could I have forgotten that I had to move out at the end of the month?" he mused to himself.

Shaking his head, he glanced at a brochure of apartments to rent.

None of them offered deals as good as the Hinata-Sou, but such was life. He frowned thoughtfully. Maybe it would be better to just camp out in the woods while he studied….

His ruminations broke off when Tamago fluttered down onto his head.

"Heya!" Ranma greeted the turtle, nearly crossing his eyes trying to peer at the creature. "What are you up to today?"

The turtle chirped softly, and moved its flippers in a fair approximation of a shrug. Ranma snorted, and the turtle clung to his bandana to avoid being dislodged. "Alrighty. You just watch out for yourself, a machine shop is no place for a careless turtle."

He blinked when the turtle produced a tiny welding mask, and sighed.

Suu. It had to be her doing; for all of her claims of being a devoted enemy of the turtle, she was obviously helping it out. "Right," he said, clenching one hand in a fist before him in an effort to emulate Kintaro's stoic pose. "Time to learn something new."

Shinobu leant over the railing in the front of the inn, frowning thoughtfully. Christmas. She knew she should get something for Keitaro… but she wasn't certain what. To aid her in her quest she'd compiled a list of the things she could get for him… or do for him… and she eyed it dubiously.

Normally she'd spend whatever free moments she had with Suu, or just admiring the view and relaxing, but today, she had something else to focus on. Namely, that list. Which consisted of study guides, an umbrella, a warmer jacket, a scarf, and… a kiss.

That last one had taken her some time to consider, and longer to write down, and she could feel her face begin to burn even knowing that she had managed to record it on paper. She knew it was a foolish idea, at least in her own mind; Naru was certainly making a claim on Keitaro, no matter how tenuously and painfully slowly she was going about it. Shinobu knew she had scant hope to do anything about it now. And a kiss was a desperate, foolish measure.

Or at least, it would be, but she wouldn't actually ever manage to summon the nerve necessary to just up and kiss him. She felt herself growing faint at the thought — probably from all the blood rushing to her face. She shook her head, forcing herself to concentrate.

Desperate or not, it would show that her feelings were real, enough for her to risk making a fool of herself. But… would it make a difference at this point? Part of her hoped so, and wanted to somehow win his heart away from Naru. And part of her dreaded to try, thinking that Naru's claim could not be revoked by a kiss from her, a mere junior-high student.

She hung her head, sighing. Perhaps she was being immature about it. She knew that if it wasn't going to be with her… a small part of her wanted him to be happy with Naru anyway. And that small part seemed to haul a lot of weight with the others, despite it being just a small part. She rubbed her eyes and shook her head to banish the image of a tiny Shinobu in her head lecturing the larger and more selfish Shinobus that ran around in a disorderly gaggle.

That aside, and forgetting about him for the moment… or at least, directly about him, anyway… she realized that she wanted Naru to be happy too. Why should she want to interfere in what could be positive? Aside from which, another small part of her pointed out, if it failed, she would be there to pick up the pieces.

Raising her head, she blinked. Where had that come from? She frowned, and produced a pencil, crossing out 'a kiss' from the list until it was completely illegible. Foolish thoughts, she chastised herself. And a warmer jacket… that should be from Naru. It was that kind of gift, after all. She would get him something sensible.

A scarf to replace the ones that were beginning to fall apart on him.

Yes, that would do it. Nodding in her resolve, she had enough time to blink before a shadow passed over her head, and the balcony she perched on shuddered. A trail of smoke led towards her, as though a smoky torch had been carried by an avid jogger up the stairs, who had been going fast enough when they reached the top to fly all the way to the center of the courtyard, and then leapt all the way to the balcony behind her.

When she turned around and looked behind her, she saw a severely disheveled redhead, every exposed inch of her skin coated with soot, save circles around each eye. Tamago perched haggardly on one shoulder, looking practically identical. Shinobu blinked at the sight, seeing the large tears in Ranma's work clothes, thick T-shirt and jeans singed and ripped ragged. "Oe-san?" she asked tremulously.

Impossibly, shining white teeth emerged from the soot-covered face, bared in a grin. "Heya, Shinobu-chan!" Ranma replied, rocking back on her heels slightly. "I, uh, totally meant to land like that. So, what are you up to?"

"Thinking about my Christmas shopping," she replied absently, repressing the jealous urge to sob at Ranma's endowments. Well, she was drinking her milk, at least. "What… happened to you?"

"Christmas, eh?" Ranma mused. "Oh, this?" she gestured absently, a shower of soot drifting away from the arm and dusting atop the balcony. "I learned something new today."

"What's that?" Shinobu asked.

Ranma produced her notebook from behind her, and opened it, the outer edges of each page slightly singed. Using the layer of soot on her fingertip instead of the pen that was tucked inside the booklet, she wrote something down. As she wrote, she announced, "Turtles should not be allowed to handle acetylene torches." Snapping the booklet shut, she tucked it back into her belt, nodding judiciously.

Shinobu's eyes widened. "Tamago blew up your work?" she asked, horrified.

"Nah," Ranma said dismissively. "This little critter," she rapped the turtle atop the shell, sending out another small shower of ash and soot, "did that to my bike," she said, then pointing to the courtyard.

Eyes widening, Shinobu turned slowly. The trail of dust and smoke had thinned enough to allow her to see Ranma's bicycle, previously hidden in the center of the courtyard. She blinked, and frowned.

"There's a… basket on the front?" she hazarded. "Is that all?"

Ranma snorted, and shook her head. "Yeah, but I asked for a mesh weave pattern to the basket, not a simple wire cage." Shinobu looked back in time to see the turtle actually hang its head in shame.

"I see, Oe-san," she finally managed. "Um… can I ask you a question?"

"Go right ahead," Ranma replied, eyes fixed on the bike.

"How… did you get burnt?" Shinobu finally managed.

Ranma blinked, seeming to only just realize that she was coated in a fine layer of ash and soot. "Oh, right," she said slowly. "Well, one of the guys was smoking, and another guy tried to throw him a piece of stock metal. Eh… basically the stock metal hit him in the stomach and his cigarette landed right on the cord to my welding torch." She shrugged. "Thought for sure it wouldn't light, but it did, and the next thing I know — BOOM! — I got knocked silly."

Shinobu's eyes widened fractionally. "Are you okay? Should I call a doctor?" Normally she would call right away without asking, but this was, after all, Ranma. She seemed nearly as resilient to damage as Keitaro himself… her initial meeting with Motoko aside.

"Just fine," Ranma assured her. "When my clothes caught on fire someone splashed me with cold water. They couldn't figure out where I went, and where some girl showed up from." She shrugged unconcernedly. "I told them I was a bystander and saw someone flying out towards the bay."

"You caught on fire?" Shinobu asked faintly, trying to imagine Ranma being flung backwards by a fiery explosion and then rebounding effortlessly.

"Not me, my clothes," Ranma assured her, halfway moving to pat her on the head, but remembering the soot at the last moment. "I'm pretty heat-resistant myself, so it's no worry, and Tamago here seems to be just fine."

"I see," she managed, still trying to puzzle out Ranma's survival.

"I think I'm going to wash up, though."

Shinobu nodded vacantly, now wondering why she had agreed to learn martial arts from someone who seemed to find nothing wrong with being blown up.

Ranma hesitated, then looked at the bicycle for a long moment. "Ah, the wire cage design works better anyway," she finally said. Tamago perked up slightly. "Sturdier." The turtle managed what looked like a smile at that. "Practical." Tamago nodded happily. "More masculine." The turtle's smile vanished, and it looked at Ranma questioningly. Ranma returned the turtle's gaze. "You need a bath too," she finally assessed, hopping over the balcony and then rebounding from the courtyard to the rooftop, vanishing from Shinobu's field of vision.

"Ooog," Shinobu managed, her train of thought hopelessly derailed.

Eventually, her eye caught the slip of paper in her hands. Blinking at it for a moment, she decided to think of the less complex events of Ranma's day at work, instead of the sheet of paper.

Keitaro paced in the hallway, pondering asking Ranma for a favor.

Actually, another favor, all things considered. He'd asked the inn's sole other male tenant for quite a few favors since he had moved in.

Realizing that, he paused, reconsidering. As if summoned by Keitaro's thoughts, Ranma turned a corner, just coming into sight, looking freshly bathed, his hair still wet.

The martial artist raised a hand in greeting. "Yo, Keitaro. What's up?" he asked.

"Um… nothing," Keitaro lied. It wouldn't really be fair to ask for another favor right now. Even if it was help around the inn while Keitaro tried to earn money from a part-time job… it wouldn't be very fair. Ranma had his own problems to worry about, since he didn't have the benefit of Keitaro's failed three years of trying to get into Todai.

"You sure?" Ranma pressed, raising an eyebrow. "You've got that 'I don't know the answer to this multiple choice question, so I'll leave it blank' look."

Keitaro blinked, trying to smooth his features. "I have a look like that?" he asked worriedly.

Ranma smirked at him. "Kind of. So what's on your mind, Keitaro?"

"Ah," Keitaro hedged, frowning, and staring at his feet. "Well, I… I've been meaning to ask you…" He swallowed nervously, and realized that he couldn't tell the truth; he'd put Ranma through quite enough already, especially considering the cost of normal martial arts training, and what Ranma offered for free. Searching, he quickly blurted out the most believable thing his mind could come up with: "…if you had a good idea of what I should get Naru for Christmas."

The martial artist's look turned from amused to confounded for a long minute. After a series of blinks, Ranma collected himself, and pulled the book he habitually tucked into his waistband free. "Dating protocol…" he murmured, flipping through it. "Aniki gave me a couple of suggestions for this… Um… for guys it suggests study guides, an umbrella, a handkerchief, a coat, a scarf, and a kiss, in that order." He frowned, blinking at that.

"Study guides?" Keitaro asked, raising an eyebrow.

Ranma shrugged. "Aniki studied a lot — what can I say? And it's not like either of us don't have a use for 'em."

Nodding, Keitaro admitted, "That's true. Wait. A kiss?"

"Eh, coulda been a typo," Ranma said, frowning. "Doesn't sound right. Anyway, for girls it says… uh… well, if she's a more down-to-earth girl, chocolates or candies, and if she's more romantic, flowers. Second date…." He scanned the page silently for a moment longer, before his eyes widened, and his face reddened. Making a coughing noise, he looked away, and said, "Ah, well, never mind that."

He flipped a few pages ahead quickly, then looked up to Keitaro curiously. "So, how long have you been dating?"

"Um…" Keitaro managed, his face coloring deeply. "Well… I guess… since… October? But… sometimes it seems longer. I… don't really know."

Ranma nodded thoughtfully and scanned down the page he was looking at. "Well, Aniki says that the best gift you can give is something you come up with yourself, based on the girl," he said at length. "I guess… really, I can't answer that question." He snapped the book shut, and stared at the ceiling thoughtfully for a long minute. "But, that kind of makes sense. You can't find every answer you look for easily, just like Tsuruko-sensei told me. I guess you have to figure this one out yourself."

"The one time I ask for help," Keitaro sighed.

"I kind of thought that was unfair myself." Ranma patted him on the back. "Well, it could be worse," he consoled.

"Yeah, I know," Keitaro admitted ruefully. "If I knew what I wanted, I'd be bombarded with useless or bad advice."

Ranma raised an eyebrow, then nodded thoughtfully and opened the book again, this time to a nearly blank page. Keitaro glimpsed something that mentioned turtles and welding torches, written in ash, and decided it was better not to look too closely. "Well, sorry I couldn't be more helpful," Ranma said apologetically, as he scribbled something down. "But, uh, while we're here, I have a question for you."

"What's that?" Keitaro asked. "Is this about page twelve of—"

"No, no," Ranma said hurriedly, looking faintly embarrassed. "Not about studying… I just… never really went through a… Christmas… in a place like this." He shifted his feet, and looked away from Keitaro, not able to meet the manager's eyes. "Usually it was just another day on the road with Aniki, or before that…. Well, it was pretty much always on the road, anyway. What… are you supposed to do for it?"

Keitaro blinked, and snickered quietly. For all of Ranma's studying and martial skill, and his years of wandering, his education appeared to have a few interesting gaps in it. "Um… why don't you come to my room and I'll explain it?" he offered, as Motoko strode into sight, glancing at the pair before passing.

Ranma nodded, following silently.

When they were safely ensconced in Keitaro's room, each with a cup of tea, Keitaro began to explain. "December twenty-fourth is Christmas Eve," he started, staring at the calendar on his wall. "It's… a day for couples, mostly. Couples meet, enjoy dates, and exchange gifts. The… uh… 'Santa Day' part is something they started kind of recently… basically that's for kids, and everyone gives gifts to friends and family members."

"Gifts," Ranma mumbled thoughtfully. "So it's like a birthday for everyone?"

"Er… and the romantic part, too," Keitaro reminded him. "That's really the more important part."

"So, kind of like New Years, then," he reasoned. "I know about those."

"Well, somewhat," Keitaro agreed. "So I guess that's really it."

"Ah," Ranma said, nodding. "And that's why you wanted to get something for Naru."

"Er… yes," Keitaro admitted, glancing at the newly re-made hole between his room and Naru's.

Ranma's gaze followed Keitaro's, and he frowned at the hole. "Well, what do you know," he grumbled. "I thought Taiso had his boys fix up the entire inn."

"Ah, it was… left in by request," Keitaro said quickly, before Ranma could get it in his mind to repair the gap.

"Eh?" He seemed surprised, but dismissed it. "Well, anyway, can I ask you a more personal question, Kanrinin?"

"You can just call me Keitaro," he said, wondering at Ranma's lapse into the more formal title. "But… um, okay."

Ranma nodded at that, offering Keitaro a nervous smile. "Um… who are you getting presents for this Christmas?"

"Oh," Keitaro said quietly, considering. "Um, well, everyone here, I guess. It's just… Naru…." He shrugged at that, not quite able to find the words he wanted. "Well, anyway, I'm not sure what I'm going to get everyone yet."

Ranma nodded, relieved. "Okay, then. I won't tell anyone. But, thanks, Keitaro."

"No problem," Keitaro assured the martial artist, as Ranma rose. He grinned suddenly, looking up at his tenant. "If you ever need to know about stuff like that, or anything that involves romantic holidays, I know all about them."

"Probably because you constantly humiliate yourself whenever one comes up," Naru opined, sliding the wooden platform from over the hole in the ceiling.

Ranma and Keitaro jumped back, alarmed, and uttered a startled, "Ack!" in unison.

"Now, what's this you're thanking Keitaro for, Oe?" Naru asked. "If it's about romance, this lug always gets it wrong, just so you know."

"Nothing, nothing," Ranma assured her hurriedly, his face darkening with embarrassment as he scurried towards the door. "I don't need any advice on dating, or asking a girl out, or anything like that," he added, sliding the door open.

Shinobu blinked at him in surprise, carrying a tray laden with teacups. "I thought you would be studying," she explained, glancing between the two males, and Naru, who lowered herself through the hole in the ceiling. "Um… would you like some tea?"

"Studying!" Ranma exclaimed, his blush deepening. "Yes! That's it exactly! But, uh, I have to go, now, so, uh, thanks!" With that, he slipped past Shinobu, and bounded out the window, vanishing quickly from sight.

Shinobu frowned at one of the teacups, which had somehow emptied itself while Ranma passed. "How does he do that?" she asked aloud.

"I kind of wonder myself," Naru said, taking the tray from Shinobu and setting it on the table. "But, as long as I'm here, we might as well get some more studying done, Keitaro. You can sure use the help."

"Me?" Keitaro protested indignantly. "Which of us got—" he cut himself off before he could finish the statement, and shook his head.

"Um. I have to do something in town. I'll be back later… you can study with Mutsumi," he mumbled, trudging out of the room, and not meeting Naru's eyes.

Shinobu frowned, glancing after Keitaro as he departed. It seemed as though he had done a lot of growing up over the last few months… the rule against violence in the inn seemed to have — somehow — led to Keitaro learning to hold his tongue. While she felt Naru had a tendency to overreact, she could admit that Keitaro did sometimes say things he shouldn't….

Naru seemed to recognize both what Keitaro had been about to say, and the fact that he hadn't said it, for she just looked at his departing form with a combination of annoyance and fondness.

"Auuugh…" Shinobu whimpered. She really was losing her chance….

"Oh, my," a new voice mused quietly. "Where are Kei-kun and Ranma-kun?"

"Eh?" Shinobu noised, turning around and seeing Mutsumi standing in the open doorway.

"They'll be late for our studying session," Mutsumi added, shaking her head.

"They had something else to do," Naru sighed. "Let's study in my room until they get back."

Once they had reached her room, Naru settled into the comfortably numbing routine of study with Mutsumi, relieved only when one or the other paused to ask a question about one of the problems. In the back of her mind, Naru knew she was waiting for Keitaro, or perhaps even Ranma to come back to the inn and join the study group.

But no matter her wishes, the light began to fade before either returned. Frowning thoughtfully, Naru said, "We should take a break."

Mutsumi nodded happily, and stretched. After a second, she spied Naru's Liddo-kun doll, and said, "Ah, Liddo-kun again! I had one of those when I was young… but I lost it." She looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned to look at Naru again. "You really liked Liddo-kun, too, didn't you?"

Naru raised an eyebrow, and turned to regard the stuffed animal. Did she? She could only barely remember a handful of the episodes, and the theme song. And yet… the creature had been with her as long as she could remember. It seemed to her that the stuffed animal was infinitely more important than any animated show. "I really like this one," she said slowly, picking up the creature and holding it in her lap. "It's been with me for a while."

"Oh?" Mutsumi frowned for a moment, as though trying to remember something, but quickly dismissed the thought, shaking her head. "I think we could use a snack — I'll run back to my place to fetch a watermelon!"

Naru nodded as the other girl rose and ambled away on much steadier feet. Naru spared a thought for that. Ranma's training of all them had had some noticeable effects, but Mutsumi was the most obviously improved. She could easily walk about without fainting, now, though she was still prone to dizzy spells.

"Distracting myself," she murmured, running her fingers across the stuffed animal before her. "Where did I get you? A gift from a friend?" On a sudden worried impulse, she examined the name-label.

It was, to her relief, blank.

"Silly," she mumbled, turning the animal over and shaking her head.

Her breath froze in her throat when she beheld the writing on the bottom of the creature, concealed where it had sat for longer than she could recall. Scrawled in permanent pen, in a childish hand, was the name: 'Otohime Mutsumi.'

She didn't recover her senses until she heard footsteps in the hallway outside, and quickly turned the Liddo-kun doll right side up again. The footsteps passed her room, and faded away. "How… did I get this from Mutsumi?" she wondered aloud, stunned. "Maybe…."

Leaping to her feet, she seized the photo album that had last been opened when Keitaro rifled through it; perhaps in her childhood there was a clue? Her own mind held no recollection…. A few quick flips brought her back in time from high school to middle school, and then earlier. In a handful of pages she was staring at her infancy, and the years immediately following it.

Her eyes widened further when she beheld a picture of her father standing next to her… with the Hinata-Sou in the background. "I was here when I was young?" she asked, dumbstruck.

Swallowing, she looked to the next page, and her mouth fell open.

For there, behind her smiling two-year old face, was a playground with two children in it… and with them, a Liddo-kun doll. "Keitaro?" she asked herself, hearing the panicked strain in her own voice. "But that, that means… Keitaro's promised girl is…."

Her ruminations cut off abruptly as Mutsumi opened the door, offering a cheerful smile. "Hello!" she greeted.

"Gah," Naru managed in response. "Um… er…."

Mutsumi offered Naru a watermelon slice as she sat at the table. "Is something wrong?"

Naru accepted the slice, quickly shoving the photo album out of sight beneath the table. "Um… nothing!" she managed, forcing a smile, and biting into the melon to hide her expression.

After Keitaro and Ranma had arrived, some furtive last-minute study had been completed, and finally disbanded late in the evening to the sound of numerous growling stomachs, Naru climbed onto the roof to think about things.

Mutsumi was Keitaro's promise girl? Could it be? The boy in the picture certainly looked like a young Keitaro to her… and the creature bore Mutsumi's name on it. The possibilities were that the boy in the photograph was someone else… or that the girl in the picture was an entirely different Otohime Mutsumi… or that Mutsumi was the promise girl. But according to things Haruka had mentioned in passing long ago, Keitaro had spent time from his childhood at Hinata-Sou.

And aside from that, as Mitsune had said, Keitaro seemed to destroy coincidence.

Experience showed her that more likely than not, it was as simple as that.

Mutsumi was the promise girl.

"Ugh," Naru moaned, collapsing back against the roof. How could this come to light now? Only after she had finally gotten up the nerve to confess to Keitaro!

Only, when she stopped to think about it, it wasn't much of a confession, really. She was probably reading too much into what he said; he meant he liked her as a friend, probably. And while she did like Keitaro, she'd never really admitted it to him.

Well, with things standing like that, it would be easy for her to move aside, or maybe even nudge Mutsumi and Keitaro together. Mutsumi admitted that she thought Keitaro was nice, hadn't she?

Except… a part of her thought that, maybe, the best thing to do would be to run to Keitaro and really honestly tell him the truth; that she liked him, right then and there. But if she did that… she would be coming between Keitaro and the girl of his promise. And she couldn't do that… could she?

"Why me?" she groaned, rubbing at her eyes.

It was a difficult choice no matter how she looked at it. Claim Keitaro for her own, or give him to Mutsumi? If only… there was some explanation on how she should deal with the situation. If only it would become clear, somehow.

A creak sounded behind her, along with a muted voice. "This doesn't appear to be the way to the bath, Tama-chan," Mutsumi murmured as Tamago drifted out of the secret passageway, waving to Naru. Mutsumi followed after, smiling at the other girl. "Oh, hello, Naru-chan!"

"Uh… hello again, Mutsumi," Naru managed, forcing another smile.

"How are you doing?"

"Fine!" she enthused. "And you?"

"Um," Naru began, considering. Should… she tell the truth? Or should she maybe… see if Mutsumi even remembered? "Mutsumi-chan, can I ask you a question?"

"You just did!" Mutsumi replied, smiling as she took a seat nearby.

"Is something troubling you, Naru-chan? You can tell big-sister Mutsumi what's wrong!"

Naru winced at that. "Um… well, you're trying very hard to get into Todai… can I ask you why?"

"Certainly!" Mutsumi said, nodding. "I made a promise for my future with someone." She spoke in an almost dreamy manner, looking up at the sliver of the moon. "It was a childhood promise… with someone who was very close."

The faint hope that Naru still harbored that, somehow, whoever had been in the picture with Mutsumi was not Keitaro began to fade; Keitaro did actively destroy coincidence, and Mutsumi seemed to be working alongside him, this time. Aside from that, Mutsumi's knowledge of the secret passages would be explained if she had been at Hinata-Sou as a child. Things were fitting together too neatly, now.

"And?" she prompted the older girl.

"Mmm," Mutsumi mused, frowning slightly. "I said that we should go to Todai together… but it's been so long now, and I've failed to get in three times. I feel like I've already broken my promise."

Though her expression didn't change, Naru thought she perceived disappointment in Mutsumi's features. "My friend has probably already gotten in by now."

"Well," Naru began hesitantly, "it's never too late. You can still get in, and meet him, probably."

"Oh, no," Mutsumi said, still staring at the moon. "It's been so long… I don't even remember what my friend's name was, or anything like that." She smiled sadly, shaking her head, and closing her eyes. "We were very close… and sometimes I daydream that we'll meet again, and I'll say, 'Yes, I made it into Todai.'" Her eyes opened, slightly moister, and she stared at the moon with longing. "I… would like that."

"Oh," Naru managed, hoping the words didn't sound as strangled as they felt to her. "Keitaro…. Do you like him?"

"Hmm?" Mutsumi asked, blinking, and turning to regard Naru curiously. "Do you mean… because of what I said in the bath the other day?"

"Er… yes," Naru hedged. "That's it."

"Oh, well, I only meant that I liked his type," Mutsumi offered, smiling. "I think he's meant to be with you, Naru-chan."

Naru flinched at the invisible dagger that seemed to have lodged itself in her chest. "Um…."

"You two get along so well, after all…"

An invisible hand grabbed the invisible dagger's hilt, and began to twist it.

"…it's like you were made for each other…"

A detached part of Naru's mind wondered at the lack of blood, for all of the pain she felt.

"…and I hope some day, I can find someone meant for me as much as you two were meant for each other!"

Naru clenched both hands to her chest, her breathing shallow as she fought back tears. "I… Mutsumi-chan, I know who your promised… friend is," she gasped. Instantly, the pain lessened, fading to a distant memory. Bolstered by the sensation, Naru continued, "Keitaro made a promise just like yours, and…" She swallowed. "I have a picture of you and Keitaro together as children. You made… the promise to him."

Mutsumi's eyes widened, and one hand covered her mouth as she gasped in surprise. "Keitaro?" she asked wonderingly. "But—"

"No!" Naru exclaimed, shaking her head. "It's… it's gotta be you and Keitaro, Mutsumi-chan. I… still have your Liddo-kun doll."

She swallowed, staring at her feet, and balling her hands up into fists. "You… can have it back, if… you want."

Mutsumi said nothing, and Naru was keenly aware of the passing minutes, rolling by like ponderous stones grinding across her frayed nerves.

"I… think it must be destiny, don't you?" Naru finally managed. "Bringing… you together like this?"

Mutsumi blinked in surprise. "But, Naru-chan—"

"No, Keitaro and I weren't… meant for each other, Mutsumi," Naru said quietly, looking away. "The one who is most like Keitaro… is you, after all."

The other girl said nothing in reply, merely looking at Naru and considering.

"This must come as a real shock to you," Naru finally said, looking up at the moon.

"It… Naru-chan… the one I made a promise to… it couldn't have been Keitaro," Mutsumi said quietly, in a very soft voice.

Naru blinked, turning to look at Mutsumi in surprise. "What?"

"My friend… was a girl, Naru-chan," Mutsumi assured her, smiling. "But I can't remember her name anymore!"

"But— But—" Naru sputtered indignantly for a moment. How could her emotional turmoil be so casually dismissed? After all of the internal agonizing over the right thing to do… "Are… you sure you aren't Keitaro's promise girl?"

Mutsumi nodded swiftly, her eyes narrowed in a smile. "I'm certain of it, Naru-chan! I couldn't be a person to come between you and Kei-kun."

Naru felt like someone had stolen the wind from her, unable to think straight, or puzzle out the complexities of the situation. "But—"

"Don't be silly, Naru-chan," Mutsumi assured her. "Kei-kun… likes you just as much as you like him, I think."

Naru felt herself blush, and managed a numb nod.

"Oe-sensei, can you answer a question for me?" Motoko asked, looking up to her teacher.

He nodded to her, looking upwards as though in contemplation of something deep and meaningful.

"You've explained to me why we need to train balance," she began.

He nodded again.

"And you've shown me why it's useful to be able to adapt to different styles of offense and defense."

Another nod.

"And you've given me no reason recently to question the value of our sparring matches or the other training exercises…."

He nodded a fourth time, studying her guardedly, as though he expected her to yell at him for something.

"But you've never even shown me this training, so I must question you. What is the benefit to hanging from the roof by one ankle?" the kendoka asked, staring at the point where Ranma's foot had snagged the inn's rain-gutter, and the martial artist was dangling upside-down outside the walkway.

"Well," he temporized in a quiet voice, looking away from his student. He nodded to himself, as though he was going to explain something complex and mystic to his student. "By balancing this way, I can achieve whole new levels of meditation." He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. "I can use the perspective to consider things from a new direction, and solve problems in my head more swiftly."

"Really?" Motoko asked doubtfully. "I suppose that it also lets you eavesdrop on whoever is on the roof, doesn't it?"

"Well, actually, it's not too bad for that," he admitted. "But really, it's mostly because I'm stuck. If I move my foot, I think I'll knock a roof tile loose, and I'm trying to be quiet."

"So you can spy?" Motoko asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Mostly not to embarrass the people I'm listening in on," he said flatly.

Motoko blinked, then cupped a hand to her ear, as though to listen.

"I don't hear anyone at all," she said at length.

Ranma shrugged, and flipped over, landing in the hall. Behind him, a tile fell into the darkness, shattering loudly against the courtyard.

He winced, shaking his head. "They're gone," he said. "I'm going to fix that tile, though."

"I see," Motoko said. "And what of what you heard?"

"None of my business," he assured her, frowning. "I'm not going to say."

Motoko eyed him thoughtfully for a moment as he moved down the hallway, then nodded. "Fair enough," she decided.

In the following days, Mitsune noticed, both Keitaro and Ranma appeared at the inn less and less. She expected that the others hadn't noticed for two reasons. One of which was the fact that Naru and Mutsumi were still studying together, even if the others weren't in evidence. The other reason being, of course, that no one else was as nosy as her; everyone else's loss, she thought.

Regardless, they were both spending an awful lot of time during the day gone to attend something or another. Ranma had lost his job at the machine shop since they no longer had the equipment they needed to employ him. Keitaro didn't have a job (other than running the inn, of course) anyway, so Mitsune suspected that they were gone looking for work, or having done that, earning money.

Despite her thorough search of every restaurant that served alcohol in the district, she hadn't found either of them, which meant that they weren't working as waiters, or bartenders. Once her exhaustive investigation was completed, she dismissed the question of which jobs they had as being unimportant; the bigger question was what they were earning the money for.

Her suspicion on the subject was that they were trying to earn money to buy presents. Though, what was gotten was not as important as much as who it was gotten for. She expected that Keitaro would buy something for Naru, of course. And that didn't worry her much — though she wouldn't have complained if he got her something, too. She was more interested in who Ranma was getting something for. He had, after all, let it slip that he had something he needed to take care of when she had mentioned Christmas.

Logically, after her last discussion with him on the issue of their relationship… such as it was… it wouldn't be something for her.

But, at the same time, she couldn't help but harbor a faint hope that she was still enough of a friend to him to warrant some small gift….

"Hmm," she mused aloud, turning her attention to the empty dining room table. Shinobu bustled in the kitchen, harried by Suu but still making progress on the meal. The silver-haired foreigner was working on a dish of her own, and in response, Shinobu had prepared a basket of bread to set on the table… Thoughtful, considering how spicy Suu's dishes usually were.

Would either of them know who was getting gifts for whom? "Say," she said, gathering at least Shinobu's attention. Suu was distracted at the moment by her own efforts, which Mitsune decided warranted avoidance in the future, given the ominous red glow. "Who do you think Oe is going to get presents for?"

"Eh?" Shinobu managed, completely surprised at the question. "I didn't even think about that." She frowned thoughtfully, not meeting Mitsune's eyes. "Who does Oe-san like, Kitsune?"

"That's what I want to know," Mitsune said, shaking her head.

"Someone has to know," Suu said suddenly, peering at the others across her large platter of… something. Something dangerous, Mitsune knew by now. The silver-haired girl smiled mischievously.

"Who is that, do you suppose?" Mitsune prompted.

"Dunno," Suu admitted. "But someone knows, I'm sure."

Ranma strode through the door just then, and nodded at the assembled tenants before wandering towards the hall. "Dinner will be ready soon," Shinobu called to him.

He paused, and glanced over his shoulder, frowning. "I'm forgetting something," he mumbled. After consulting with his book for a moment, he nodded. "Right. I won't be here tomorrow night for dinner."

"Why is that?" Mitsune asked, wondering if it was merely work, or something more interesting.

"Ucchan's having her grand opening tomorrow," he said, smiling. "Figured I'd go out to see her." He paused, considering something, then asked, "You guys want to come? It's probably good luck to have friends visit when you open a restaurant, or something."

"Okonomiyaki?" Suu asked, raising an eyebrow. "Hers was delicious, so okay."

"Ah, really, Oe-san?" Shinobu asked. "Would it be okay for all of us?"

"I can't think of a reason why not," Ranma assured her, smiling.

"And, anyway, you can call me Ranma, Shinobu-chan." The girl's face turned a shade pinker and she nodded, quickly turning her attention back to the stovetop. Mitsune suppressed a vague twinge of jealousy at that. Surely Ranma wasn't interested in a middle-school girl, when he could have had her. "I'll go tell everyone else that dinner's almost ready," Ranma added, turning about and walking away.

Shinobu beamed an appreciative smile towards the hallway he'd vanished into. "Oe-san can be very thoughtful," she mused.

"So can Keitaros," Suu noticed, setting her dish on the table.

"Suu's special super-curry, Mark VII!" She frowned suddenly, and glanced at Shinobu. "I can't quite figure out what prompts that in Keitaros or Ranmas, though."

"Say, Shinobu," Mitsune noised. "Do you have a crush on Oe-san, now that Urashima's taken?"

"Taken what?" Keitaro asked, wandering into the room. "The tests are weeks away."

"Ack!" Shinobu yelped, dropping a stirring spoon into a pot of soup.

"Um, nothing, Sempai!" she assured him. "Have a seat! Dinner is almost ready."

Mitsune smirked, waiting for the others to filter in around the table before serving herself a small portion. She ate a bite of her meal, glancing at Ranma as she did so.

There was silence for a long moment, as they ate, Ranma finally commenting, "That's pretty spicy." The words came out in less of Ranma's normal voice, and more in a pained wheeze. "Really spicy. What's in it, Shinobu-chan?"

Shinobu blinked, and peered at Ranma's plate for a moment. "That's Suu's curry," she said, shaking her head apologetically. "What is in it?"

"Peppers, peppers, more peppers, and my specially formulated concentrate of essence of extract of curry!" Suu said triumphantly.

"Is it good?"

"It's got a kick," Ranma managed, eyeing his plate suspiciously.

"Kind of… interesting, I guess."

"I made it for you and Keitaro," Suu said, shoveling a portion onto Keitaro's plate.

Keitaro blinked, poking at it with his chopsticks experimentally.

The wooden sticks were reduced to two burnt stubs, and he stared at them for a long moment. "Um, I think I'll pass this time around," he said slowly, pushing his plate away. "But, uh, what's the special occasion?"

"I was bored," Suu said vaguely. "And I wanted to help Shinobu in the kitchen by making dinner too. So, Keitaro, try some!" Not taking his refusal as an acceptable reply, she grabbed a spoon of the faintly glowing red curry, and shoved it into his mouth.

The manager of the inn instantly broke out into a sweat, his face turning bright and glowing red. His lips puffed up, and he croaked out an agonized, "Pain," before launching himself face-first into the breadbasket.

"Is it good?" Suu asked innocently.

"Very spicy," Keitaro gasped, after swallowing several mouthfuls of bread, and gulping down an entire glass of water. "How can you eat that, Ranma?"

"Natural fire-resistance," Ranma assured him, his own face sweating and slightly red. "I took some magical medicine when I was younger."

"Wouldn't that be 'unnatural' fire-resistance, Sensei?" Motoko asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Details, details," Ranma grumped, finally pushing his plate away.

"Anyway, I hear that the trick to eating really spicy foods is to not think about what you're eating. That way you can pretend it's not spicy."

"Does it work?" Naru asked skeptically. "Your face is red, you know."

"Yeah, but it seems to be working for Kitsune," Ranma noted, pointing at her plate.

Mitsune blinked, looking down at her plate in surprise. "Um," she said aloud, as the room seemed to warm by about a million degrees.

"Ow!" She soon found herself running to the sink, desperate for enough water to cool the burning sensation in her mouth.

"Well," Naru said, "that was interesting."

"You know," Suu said, frowning at Ranma, "that's the first time I've seen a Ranma eat something other than okonomiyaki."

"Eh?" Ranma looked confused. "I've eaten in front of you lots of times."

"She does have a point, you know," Motoko said, smirking. "Usually you're far too swift to be seen eating."

"Er… the hand is quicker than the eye, and all that stuff," Ranma grumbled. He brooded for a moment, then admitted, "There isn't always a lot of time to eat properly on the road… I guess I've got some bad habits." He rose, shaking his head. "Anyway, I need to get to sleep — big day tomorrow. Don't forget that Ucchan's new restaurant is opening up, too."

It wasn't until after he was gone that Mitsune heard Shinobu say, in a quiet voice, "Well, that explains where all those servings vanished to…."

Whistling, Ranma trod down the street, hands in his pockets, looking towards the sky. Tamago drifted down the stairs of the inn and rested companionably on his shoulder. "Myu?" the turtle asked questioningly.

Ranma broke off his whistling and peered at the turtle thoughtfully.

"You think Mutsumi-chan should be invited, too?" he asked.

The turtle nodded.

"Why not?" Ranma mused. "She did meet Ucchan at the end of the play." Turning abruptly, he hopped across the flat lot in front of Mutsumi's apartment, and landed in front of the door.

A rather sleepy-looking Mutsumi opening the door, rubbing at one eye and still smiling in a welcoming manner rewarded his knock. "Good morning!" she greeted. "Is it time for our morning training exercises?"

"Er… we already did those today," he reminded her. "Long nap?"

Mutsumi nodded, gesturing him inside. Ranma stepped in, glancing around the apartment. It was sparsely appointed, only a table, and a stack of watermelons visible in the main room. "Are you here to study?"

"Huh? Oh, well, I should but I've been working — now I'm doing deliveries on my bicycle for a bakery," he explained. "Um… do you remember Ucchan?"

"The okonomiyaki girl!" Mutsumi enthused, clapping her hands together. "Is she back?"

"Well… in a way, yes," Ranma said, nodding. "She's opening up her shop today — I was wondering if you wanted to come with me to check it out."

Mutsumi blinked, narrowing her eyes and leaning forward to examine Ranma closely. "Are you asking me out on a date?" she finally asked, raising her eyebrows.

Ranma stared for a moment, while Tamago drifted to Mutsumi's shoulder, and glanced between the pair. "Um…." Shaking his head nervously, Ranma said, "The, uh, gang from the inn will be there, too, so…."

"Everyone?" Mutsumi asked. "My, that's a large date!"

"I'm not asking them out on a date!" Ranma protested. "I was just… asking… you if you wanted to go out to a restaurant to visit with Ucchan."

"Oh, okay," Mutsumi said, straightening up and smiling again. "When are we going?"

"Um… right now, I guess," Ranma said, relaxing. "Can you still come?"

"Sure! Let's go!"

Ukyou squared her shoulders, and eyed the gleaming grill before her.

Polished to perfection, it was ready for the shop to be opened.

Despite her somewhat late start on her opening day, she was still hopeful. According to the demographics, this should be a nearly ideal spot for a restaurant. It was located between two colleges, one of which was Todai, and the college crowd seemed to like okonomiyaki. In addition to that, there wasn't too much competition in the area, at least not in the same style of cuisine.

"Okay," she muttered to herself. "Here we go!"

Hopping over the grill, she threw open the sliding door, and set about putting up the curtain over the doorway. "Now, to see how much business I get," she murmured, glancing down the street. A few people eyed the newly opened restaurant, and at least one began to wander towards it.

Smiling, she re-entered the building, glancing at the corner where her single waitress was waiting. A younger girl she'd hired from the area. Ukyou offered the girl a nod, and said, "Well, with any luck we'll be terribly busy very soon, eh, Minami?"

The girl nodded, smiling brightly, and Ukyou hopped back over the counter. "Looking forward to working with you, Boss," the girl replied after a moment. "It's been hard finding work in this area — those college kids eat up all the after-school hours."

"I can imagine," Ukyou replied, smiling ruefully. "There are quite a few of them around here." She surveyed the interior of her building with a thoughtful gaze. It was much larger than the shop she'd run in Nerima — this one had room for seating a good thirty people comfortably inside, not counting the space at the grill. Ukyou hoped that business would meet her expectations….

Her smile shifted to eager anticipation as her first customer wandered in — a lone salaryman who looked around the restaurant with a boyishly happy expression. "Wow," he murmured, when Minami led him to a seat. "I haven't been to an okonomiyaki shop like this in years!"

But more than that, despite everything she had said, and all the years that had passed, she hoped that her first customer would be Ranma. Well, business was business, ultimately, and that dream had slipped through her fingers years in the past.

"Welcome!" she called, waving.

"Wow!" he enthused more loudly, perusing the menu. "Um, I may need a moment to look this over," he said apologetically, absorbed in it to the point of ignoring Minami. The girl blinked in surprise, then glanced at her outfit.

The modest, calf-length skirt and pale blue blouse were not unattractive on her, but the man seemed far more interested in the menu. "Well, Boss," she said, drawing up to the grill, "I think that you put together a really pretty menu, there." She pouted at Ukyou. "A girl might get to thinking that her looks don't matter."

Ukyou snickered, shaking her head. "Oh, don't be silly," she chided. "And, anyway, I promised I'd teach you to cook as well, if everything works out, right?"

"Right!" Minami said, clenching her fist and pumping it in the air. "And— whoops!" She cut off abruptly, as a crowd burst in through the open doorway all at once. "Welcome to Ucchan's Okonomiyaki!" Minami greeted, waving at the newly arrived customers.

"Ranchan!" Ukyou called out, delighted, as the swarm of people she had recognized as actors and tenants of the Hinata-Sou looked around the interior of the building.

Ranma walked past Minami, waving at Ukyou. "Heya, Ucchan! Congratulations on opening up your new place — it looks nice."

"Have a seat up here," she offered him, gesturing to the stools in front of the grill. "Minami, why not let them all sit up here?"

Minami shrugged, and gestured to the seats the crowd was already helping themselves to. Before she could say anything else, however, another small crowd of people burst into the door, and Minami was quickly leading them to tables and passing out menus.

"Hurry, Ranchan!" Ukyou said. "For luck, I have to make you the first okonomiyaki. What'll you have?"

"It has to be from the menu," Minami shouted across the increasing din inside the restaurant. "Special or complicated orders are bad luck for the first order of a grand opening." She dashed to Ranma's side, as the man looked at her, slightly bewildered. "Now, you have to give me your order, or you'll curse us all to poverty."

Ranma blinked, furrowing his brow, but Minami was out of menus. "Um, well… can I have the… uh… special?" he hazarded.

"Which one?" Ukyou asked, grinning.

"Um… the one you always made for me?" he asked hopefully.

"Are you Oe Ranma?" Minami asked speculatively, leaning forward to examine Ranma critically.

"Er… yes?" he hazarded.

"Excellent!" Minami crowed, clapping her hands together as she straightened up. "One number one, Boss."

"Got it," Ukyou replied, giggling. The assorted salarymen and guests sitting at the bar laughed quietly, thinking they had stumbled onto a well-rehearsed joke. "One number one!" In short order she had whipped up the okonomiyaki and slid a plate in front of him.

After a tentative bite, he said, "Just as good as ever, Ucchan!" and everyone cheered, yelling out at once. Minami bustled about, writing down the specific orders and dashing to the grill, while Ukyou cooked furiously.

"So," she finally managed, once the initial rush had died down to a mere steady flow. "How have you been, Ranchan?"

"Pretty good," he replied. "Mostly just thinking it's nice to have a friend you can drop in to visit, you know?"

Ukyou nodded sympathetically. "I understand," she said. "Be sure to come by once in a while, okay?"

"No problem," Ranma assured her, smiling.

In a far corner of Ukyou's restaurant, unobserved by the crowd, a young woman in a severe business suit watched the group at the counter, her eyes fixing on Ranma in particular. "So," she murmured. "This is where you've been hiding."

It was later that evening that the assembled tenants of Hinata-Sou finally dragged themselves away from Ukyou's restaurant. For a moment, when the group emerged from the building, Shinobu stared at the small stack of hastily scribbled instructions that Ukyou had given her — a recipe for okonomiyaki batter, and another for sauce. But a few steps from the door, the chill wind of the deepening winter struck her, and she shivered uncomfortably, looking upwards.

A few stars peeked shyly through the ambient glow of the nighttime city, seemingly clearer with the cold air, and a crescent moon hung over a large building in the distance. She shivered again, wishing she had remembered to bring a jacket. At her side, Suu was dressed in only her winter school uniform, seeming otherwise oblivious to the cold. The pale-haired girl looked distant, contemplating something.

"What are you thinking about?" Shinobu asked, tucking the notes Ukyou had given her into a pocket, and crossing her arms over her chest.

"Banana okonomiyaki," Suu said with quiet decorum. "There was no banana okonomiyaki."

"Well, maybe I can try to make you some later," Shinobu offered, wishing the walk warded more of the chill off. Her thoughts were interrupted when a jacket was placed across her shoulders, and she stiffened in surprise. "Sempai?" she asked curiously, glancing over her shoulder to see Keitaro offer her an encouraging smile.

"The cold weather sneaks up on you, huh?" he asked.

Shinobu nodded wordlessly, bowing her head. Keitaro sneezed loudly, and she looked up in alarm.

"You dummy," Naru chastised Keitaro, grabbing his arm. "You'll catch cold."

Keitaro chuckled again, ducking his head at Naru's admonishment.

Suu studied the pair for a moment, and Shinobu did the same.

Keitaro seemed to forget about her the moment that Naru had touched his arm… walking past her and Suu obliviously. Naru also seemed absorbed in Keitaro, not noticing them as they strolled down the sidewalk, presumably back towards the train that would drop them off near the Hinata-Sou.

Shinobu sighed softly, and shook her head.

Suu glanced between Keitaro and Shinobu for a brief moment, then seized Shinobu's arm in the same way Naru had taken Keitaro's. "Let's all hold hands!" she cheered.

Shinobu's eyes widened, and she felt a surge of warmth in her face, the heat from Suu suffusing through the jacket and warding the chill off nearly completely. "But— But— Kaora!" she sputtered. "We're not like that!"

"Why not?" Suu asked, leading her down the sidewalk. "We're friends, so it's okay, right?"

"But… but…." She let her protests trail off. What could it really hurt? Suu was just cold, more likely than not. "Oh, Suu-chan, some day you'll understand that people could get the wrong idea."

"We'll worry about that day when we get to it," Suu said firmly.

"Until then, if someone's got a problem with it, we can just re-educate them. The treaty doesn't hold outside of the inn!"

Humming to herself, Ukyou finished cleaning the grill, taking a breath and releasing it in a sigh. She glanced up, seeing Mitsune still seated at a corner of the counter, while Minami finished sweeping up out front. "Are you planning on staying all night?" Ukyou finally asked, smirking.

"Ah, just a few minutes, maybe," Mitsune replied, glancing at the doorway.

"Oh, trouble with Ranchan?"

Mitsune looked away, and nodded unhappily.

Ukyou clicked her tongue, and turned to look at Minami. "Go ahead and call it a night," she offered. "I'll finish up here."

"You got it, Boss!" Minami said cheerfully, waving as she left, latching the door behind her.

"So," Ukyou said, pouring a cup of tea for Mitsune, and then another for herself, "what's going on with you and Ranchan? I know he said you weren't dating, but…. I can tell you still have a thing for him."

"Just like you do?"

Ukyou couldn't help but flinch, and managed a wry grin. "Maybe he's got some funny power over Kansai girls," she admitted. "Yeah. I mean… I can't help it." She sighed. "But I know he didn't seem interested in me then, and he doesn't seem to be now, either."

"He's got a blind spot, that's for sure," Mitsune agreed. "If you… Hey. Let me tell you what happened between us. It was… the curse that… I had trouble with."

"Just 'cause Ranchan turns into a girl?" Ukyou asked, frowning.

"Well…. More that he said the curse is part of him, and he's gotten stuck before," Mitsune said slowly. "So… He said if I couldn't handle the curse, I couldn't… well… handle him."

Ukyou nodded slowly, mulling that over. "I never really thought about that part," she admitted. "Well, it doesn't matter, I suppose. Ranchan likes me as a friend, and if that's what I get, that's what I'll take. Aside from which, I did kinda smack him around when I saw him again."

"He's not a bad friend," Mitsune agreed, smiling wryly. "Just wouldn't mind a little more."

"Could you imagine how much of a handful he'd be if he knew?" Ukyou asked, chuckling. "Come on. It's late — I've got a spare room upstairs. Let's talk over some sake."

"Sounds like a winning plan to me!" Mitsune cheered.


To be continued.

Author's notes: There we go. Not quite what I had planned, but… close.

—Brian Randall

Chapter 13
Layout, design, & site revisions 2005

Webmaster: Larry F
Last revision: April 22, 2006

Old Gray Wolf