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"It is a solemn occasion that has us all assembled here today," Mitsune intoned grimly, surveying the other tenants before her.

Suu raised an eyebrow curiously, then nodded to herself. "Of course," she said firmly. "We must launch an investigation immediately."

Shinobu looked between Mitsune and Suu curiously, but Mitsune was already continuing her speech. "Now, we've got precious little time to act, so we're all going to need to cooperate to find out what we want to know. This is a plan that will take all of us working together and precise coordination to accomplish." She smacked a fist into her opposing palm. "But if we work together, we can do it!"

"Um… what exactly do we need to accomplish?" Shinobu asked.

"Why, we need to find out what Keitaro's gotten us for Christmas!" Mitsune exclaimed.

"We all need to work together?" Naru asked doubtfully.

"And why can't we just respect his privacy?" Motoko objected. "We'll find out anyway, if we are patient."

"We all need to work together!" Mitsune insisted. "It's of the utmost importance."

"Which kind of explains why you're all hiding," Sarah announced, popping open an entrance to an air-duct, and poking her head into view. "While you're all down here in the crawl-space, both of the living practice dummies have gone to work. If you want to peek, now's the time."

Chapter Thirteen: New Year's Tidings

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.

Mitsune pouted, but the assembled tenants quickly made their way to the first floor of the inn, brushing off the accumulated dust they'd gathered. "You amuse yourselves," Naru announced firmly, turning away. "I'm going to study."

Motoko nodded faintly, saying, "And I intend to practice. Ranma has been increasing the difficulty of our sparring matches lately."

"Oh, you guys are no fun," Mitsune grumbled. Turning to Shinobu and Suu she asked, "Are you two still in?"

"Um… I don't think we should go through sempai's things," Shinobu opined.

"And you?" Mitsune asked Suu worriedly. "You're not going to back out on me now, are you?"

"Hmm… this is a mystery which requires contemplation," Suu said, settling into a meditative position. "Is it better to unravel the truth now, or wait and find out? Is the surprise worth it? Hmm…."

"Spoilsport," Mitsune groused. "I guess it's up to me, then."

She turned around, and took a step towards Keitaro's room, freezing when she saw Haruka standing there, one eyebrow raised, cigarette in the usual position, still unlit. "What's that, Kitsune?" the woman asked.

"I guess it's up to me… to… keep these guys at bay and make sure they don't go into Keitaro's room," Mitsune said suddenly, smiling. "But, uh, you're here now, so… be seeing you!"

"Of course," Haruka drawled, watching Mitsune dash off.

Walking to the bottom of the stairs that led to the inn, a package heavy in one hand, Keitaro paused, looking upwards. A faint drifting of snow lined the stone staircase with white, the trees on the sides bearing a similar coating. The screech of tires across slushy pavement warned him, and he turned to see Ranma carefully dismount, hefting the bike over one shoulder.

"Oh, hello," Keitaro greeted, offering Ranma a smile.

Ranma smiled back tiredly. "Where are you working these days?" she asked, currently female and stifling a yawn.

"Advertising," he admitted. "Carry a sign around in front of a store."

Ranma nodded, sighing slightly. "I distribute flyers. Which store are you advertising for?"

"Uh, the big shop just east of the train station," Keitaro said. "The one with the green roof."

"Ah, I work for the guys across the street," Ranma mused. "That makes us competitors."

"I guess," Keitaro said, starting up the steps. "I don't really feel that motivated right now, though."

"Yeah, I know the feeling," Ranma admitted, following Keitaro up the steps. "Hey, what's in the bag, anyway?"

"Um… a present," Keitaro said slowly, looking at Ranma sidelong. "I'm trying to sneak it inside, though."

"Oh yeah, it's only a few days to Christmas, huh? Well, I'll go ahead and make a distraction for you, okay?" Ranma offered Keitaro a thumbs-up, and vanished up the stairs in a flurry of disturbed snow and trailing red hair.

"You—" Keitaro cut himself off, shaking his head. "Thanks, I guess."

From the direction of the inn he heard Ranma call out, "Surprise lesson!"

Motoko unleashed a cry of alarm, and then a great chorus of surprised yells echoed about the inn.

"I'd better hurry," Keitaro realized.

Ranma had remained in female form for the study session, something that took Naru a bit by surprise. Usually it seemed that Ranma avoided being female whenever possible at home, though she seemed to take it in stride if she ever got splashed elsewhere.

Currently the redhead was lying on her stomach, browsing through a study guide with the lower half of her body underneath the heated table. Naru and Mutsumi each sat to one side of her, and Keitaro sat opposite. Mutsumi masked a yawn with one hand, then lay back on the floor, sighing. Naru shook her head, trying to focus on her study guide. "We're almost past the solstice," she reminded herself aloud. "So we should have longer days from now on."

"Yeah," Keitaro yawned. "But I sure don't feel it."

Naru sighed, shaking her head, and tried turning back to her study guide again. "So, what important events shaped the world in the year fourteen ninety-two?"

"Uh…. Columbus discovered America?" Keitaro offered.

"That's right. Are you sure you got the right study guides? This seems to me to be really simple stuff."

Keitaro checked the binding of his guide quickly, then nodded. "These are right. Besides, I think it's important to give ourselves a refresher of the basics. The real tests are coming up soon."

"Bleah," Ranma noised, turning over and pulling a blanket up higher towards her chest. "This stuff is putting me to sleep."

"Me, too," Mutsumi said, raising slightly from the floor to peer at Ranma.

"I thought you were already asleep," Naru chided.

"I was, but you woke me up," Mutsumi said tiredly. Sitting up, she blinked blearily as she cast about the room. "Did I miss much studying?"

"Um, no, you must have only just dozed off," Keitaro assured her.

"Oh?" Mutsumi bowed her head and raised a hand to her cheek. "But I could have sworn it was longer; I had a dream."

"What about?" Ranma asked, sitting up and shivering slightly.

"I dreamed that you were fighting someone," Mutsumi said quietly, frowning and raising her head. "And you were angry."

The redhead shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably. "Well, I fight a lot…. Used to fight even more, though."

"Hmm," Mutsumi mused. "You were there, and Naru-chan, and Kei-kun, and Haruka-san, and I was there, and Liddo-kun, too." Mutsumi narrowed her eyes and leaned closer to Ranma, inspecting her thoroughly. "And you and your brother were fighting against some people who looked very angry." She shivered suddenly. "Well, I guess it was just a dream! Should we get back to studying?"

Ranma blinked at Mutsumi for a long minute, then said, "Um, yeah."

"Before we start, can I ask you a question though, Ranma-kun?" Mutsumi pressed, still looking at her closely.

"Er, go right ahead." Ranma looked uncomfortable, nervously adjusting the blanket to not let any warm air escape from around her legs.

"Why are you still a girl?"

Ranma twitched, nearly pulling the blanket hard enough to tear it, then managed a weak laugh. "I don't like to get wet when I don't have to, when it's this cold," she explained. "Even if the water's nice and warm, the air is freezing."

Satisfied, Mutsumi nodded and sat down to a better study position. "Well, how about you go next, Kei-kun? I already asked a question."

Keitaro stared at Mutsumi for a moment, then collected himself and nodded. "Um, okay. Ah… Here we go. In the Book of Genji…."

The snow of the previous night had thickened, spreading a carpet a dozen centimeters thick across the courtyard in front of Hinata-Sou. Shinobu admired it from the balcony after the morning ritual of brushing her teeth was completed. She could hear the other tenants shuffling around behind her in the chill morning, none willing to brave the cold air.

Tiptoeing through the front halls, she had stopped on the exposed balcony, bearing the temperature to admire the pristine beauty of the snow. "Ah," she sighed, shaking her head. "How pretty!"

And a shame, she thought, that no one else was about to enjoy it. That thought cut off suddenly. With the snow, would Ranma still want them to practice? He tended to go much more gently with their training than his own, with the exception of Motoko. "Of course he wouldn't," she assured herself. "I can't hear him practicing, after all."

A sudden battle cry rang out from the side-yard where the training traditionally took place, and the entire field seemed to rise, snow flying upwards, and then drifting down once more.

"Nnng," Suu noised, emerging from the warmth inside and looking around. "It's morning," she observed unenthusiastically. "And there is a lot of undelicious snow on the ground."

"Ah… good morning, Suu-chan," Shinobu greeted the other girl, sighing sadly at the mess she knew would be waiting for her on the field. "Did you rest well?"

Suu nodded. "Ranmas are able to sneak out of bed without warning," she said quietly. "At least they're pretty warm, most of the time."

"Well, we should prepare for practice," Shinobu remarked. "Let's get ready, okay?"

"Practice?" Mitsune groaned, the second the pair stepped back in through the doorway. "But it's cold outside!"

"Well, Keitaro already headed out, and Oe-san is a girl right now, so I'm going to keep an eye on him," Naru said smartly, already wearing her normal practice clothing.

Mitsune hung her head in defeat. "Fine, fine," she grumped. "I'll be right there."

After Shinobu and Suu redressed, they assembled with the other tenants on the edge of what was in theory the lawn. It had spent most of the season as a muddy field, and was now covered in snow, so Shinobu debated the virtue of calling it a lawn, but it was still the practice yard either way.

To her surprise, the snow looked undisturbed, save a handful of footprints around Ranma and Motoko. The redhead stood completely still, while Motoko took painfully slow steps forward. "Don't concentrate too hard," Ranma admonished. "There's a certain ease of thought that comes with it."

Motoko nodded, not relaxing her look of determination in the slightest, and took a step forward.

"I don't get it," Mitsune said, after watching three more halting steps.

"Ooh, this Motoko is running in stealth mode!" Suu piped up, eyes brightening instantly. She whipped a pair of goggles from one pocket, and studied Motoko intently. "Lowered heat emissions, which acts as minor thermoptic camouflage."

"I don't know about that, but now that you mention stealth, she's hardly leaving footprints," Naru pointed out.

Shinobu looked. Sure enough, wherever Motoko walked, there was the slightest brushing of a difference in the snow, and that was it. She turned behind her and counted the trails of footsteps she and the others had made. Five sets of footprints, carved into the snow. Checking quickly, she counted Suu, Mitsune, Mutsumi, Naru, and Keitaro.

Nodding to herself, she turned back to watch the practice.

"Wait a moment," Shinobu said quietly. "Five sets of footprints, and six people, so—"

As she turned around to look, Keitaro yelped, tripping on something and plowing up a massive wave of snow. His path completely obliterated the footprints. "Ow," he managed from the end of his slide at the entrance to the inn.

"What was that all about?" Ranma asked, walking slowly across the snow and leaving just as little trace as Motoko.

"Tripped, and uh, hit an icy patch," Keitaro apologized, climbing to his feet. "I'm okay, now!"

"Um, okay," Ranma said, quirking an eyebrow. "Everyone ready to practice?"

"Ah…" Naru sighed, sinking into the bath until only her head was above water. "Nice and warm. I don't think I ever want to get out."

"I hear that," Mitsune said, sprawling against a rock, her shoulders just showing over water level. "Wow, that was a fun one. Glad we didn't have to throw each other into the snow or anything."

"I think Oe-sensei didn't ask us to spar because we'd get cold and wet in this weather," Motoko suggested, sitting up straight, keeping her hair clear of the bath's surface.

Mutsumi nodded thoughtfully, and said, "Ranma-kun is good to train with; I feel a little stronger after each practice."

"Which reminds me," Motoko said suddenly, turning to look at the girl. "The practices should be coming to an end soon."

"No more free exercise instructor?" Mitsune protested. "Why not?"

"Not for you," Motoko clarified. "Otohime-san is undergoing special training."

"Oh, yes," Mutsumi affirmed, nodding happily. "He touches me here," she added, indicating her chest.

Naru and Mitsune stared for a moment, then sat up and shared a sharp look. "Well, that's certainly… interesting," Naru finally said, eyeing Motoko.

"Er… nothing like that, I assure you!" Motoko protested, jumping to her feet and shaking her head furiously. "It is a legitimate technique. I've studied the scroll myself."

"And he always turns into a girl before he does it, to make it less perverted," Mutsumi chimed in, smiling brightly.

Mitsune shook her head, while Naru merely looked unconvinced. "And you really feel stronger?" the younger girl asked.

Mutsumi nodded again. "I don't think I've fainted once in weeks and now I never feel dizzy after climbing the stairs." She frowned, eyes opening as she considered something. "Though, now that I think of it, I've been feeling a strange urge after Ranma-kun touches me."

Motoko was beginning to sit down, but slipped, splashing noisily into the baths. Suu rode the wave idly, while Shinobu looked like she was about to faint in Mutsumi's stead. Sputtering, Motoko managed to recover to a kneeling position. "Otohime-san!" she exclaimed.

"Ooh!" Mitsune cooed, grinning. "Tell me more, Turtle-girl."

Mutsumi blushed, her eyes narrowing in embarrassment. She touched the points of her index fingers together and then pushed on them nervously. "Well," she said slowly, "this is really embarrassing."

"Don't say it! Don't say it!" Naru and Motoko yelped in tandem, covering Shinobu's and Suu's ears respectively.

"Tell us! Tell us!" Mitsune pressed, looking at Mutsumi eagerly.

"I… I feel the urge to pretend I'm a magical girl, and go around fighting crime," Mutsumi confessed, blushing deeply.

"That's it?" Naru complained, collapsing back into the bath, while Shinobu took deep, calming breaths.

"Could Mutsumi really be Magical Princess Turtle-girl?" Suu asked thoughtfully. "Ah! She could use her Tamago-beam to make me tons of turtles to eat!"

"I don't think that's it," Motoko said weakly, struggling to her feet. Clearing her throat, she regained her decorum. "I'm getting out of the bath," she announced quietly.

Mutsumi giggled. "Yes, we really should get out of the bath," she agreed. "Why, I remember an episode of Liddo-kun where they stayed in the bath too long, once."

"What happened?" Shinobu asked softly, recovering her equilibrium.

"Mm," Mutsumi mused, looking thoughtful. "Ah! Now I remember!" She rose from the bath, and looked down at Shinobu and Suu sternly. "They stayed in the bath and turned into giant prunes! Then a farmer came along, and ate them all up."

"That's not what happened!" Naru yelled, jumping to her feet, while Shinobu's eyes took on a glazed look. "Ah… Shinobu-chan, that's not right. It ended with Liddo-kun and friends getting washed out to sea. Then they had to wander all the way back home and learned their lesson. Really, Mutsumi, can't you remember?"

"Oh, I guess that was how it ended," Mutsumi said quietly. "Really, the two are so similar, it's easy to get confused, right?"

"I'm getting out," Naru replied tiredly. "Shinobu-chan, you have school today, right?"

"Yes," Shinobu said quietly, climbing to her feet. She bowed politely to Mutsumi, who was still looking thoughtful.

Suu followed Shinobu into the changing room. Once the two were dressed, they made sure all their things were in order, and exited the bath. Naru surveyed the changing room, then glanced out at the obscuring curtain of steam. "Mutsumi," she called out, "don't forget to come in from the bath this time. Keitaro and Oe will want to use it, too."

"Okay, Naru-chan," Mutsumi called back. "I'm coming in now, so you can send them out."

Naru nodded dubiously, but waited until Mutsumi was actually clear of the bath before seeking out Ranma and Keitaro.

"Do you ever wonder?" Keitaro asked softly, staring upwards.

"About what?" Ranma asked, stretching his arms over his head, glad for the chance to soak.

"What the girls talk about when they're in here," Keitaro clarified, peering at Ranma.

Ranma shook one hand to shed some water, then scratched behind one ear thoughtfully. "Not really," he admitted. "I dunno. I guess they probably talk about the same things they usually talk about around us."

"You really think so?" Keitaro asked, surprised.

"Do they have a reason to say something else?" Ranma asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I… guess not," Keitaro admitted. "I guess I was just hoping they had nice things to say about me."

"Well, the winter play aside, I don't think they have anything to complain about," Ranma assured him. "I mean, you've been running the inn as a manager since then and no problems have come up, right? I bet they say all sorts of nice things about you."

"And you?" Keitaro asked.

"How would I know?" Ranma asked. "Anyway, it's time to get out of the bath for me."

"Hmm," Keitaro said slowly, unconvinced. He watched Ranma leave, then leaned back against a rock, shaking his head. "I wonder," he mused. "Do you wonder, Tama?" he asked, turning to peer at the turtle. It shook its head placidly, and Keitaro sighed. "You're no help," he grumped. "Guess I might as well get out, too."

Christmas Eve, Keitaro reflected, had come upon him entirely too quickly. It seemed that summer had only just ended, and already it was drawing on New Years. And, of course, Christmas Eve was already there. "Ugh," he wheezed, looking up the long flight of stairs. "What a day."

"Yo," Ranma called out, sounding as tired as Keitaro felt, pulling his bike up beside Keitaro.

"Hey," Keitaro greeted weakly. "Long day?"

"Yeah," Ranma sighed, peering into the darkened sky, and shivering. "You ready to go inside?"

Keitaro bit his lip, and looked at the cracked stairs leading up to the inn, not meeting Ranma's eyes.

"Keitaro?" Ranma prompted after a moment, climbing off of his bike and looking at the manager closely. "Something wrong?"

Keitaro shook his head furiously. It was far too late for lingering doubts; he knew where his heart lay, and that Ranma was not interested in Naru. But at the same time…. Sighing, he slumped and allowed a grudging nod.

"Well, what is it? Did you forget to buy a present?"

Keitaro snorted and shook his head. "I got something for everyone," he assured Ranma. He bit his lip and stared up at the lights emanating from the inn atop the hill. The building itself was out of sight, but cast light into the treetops up the slope. "I just… I have to ask you, Ranma. Who did you get presents for?"

"Everyone," Ranma said. He frowned, and rubbed his chin. "I hope everyone likes what I got them."

"Here's where we find out," Keitaro said, firming his resolve.

Ranma nodded, and strode up the stairs in step with Keitaro. A kindred spirit, Keitaro decided. That's what it was. A brother-in-arms. Someone who knew of his own trials and tribulations, someone he studied with, worked with, and maybe even played with, considering Haruka's attempts towards theater generously. Ranma was a friend, more than Haitani and Shirai ever were.

Neither flinched, marching to the top of the stairs and surveying the inn. The girls had decorated, and lines of brightly colored streamers radiated out from the entryway. Even though the doors and windows were sealed, light and cheer seemed to flow forth like a palpable force. Sparing one last glance for one another, the two opened the front door together, Ranma holding his bike over one shoulder, and stepped inside.

Mitsune lounged across the couch comfortably, spirits cheered by sake, though she had not yet imbibed to the point where her senses became more than slightly dulled. Shinobu puttered around the room anxiously, never running out of things that needed to be adjusted, or snacks to set on tables.

Haruka sat on the one section of the couch Mitsune wasn't occupying. Sarah sat on the floor before Haruka and drummed her heels idly beneath the table. Suu and Motoko kept themselves busy around the Christmas tree that Haruka had set up; all of them were in what Haruka had termed appropriate Christmas garb except for Haruka. This garb was a collection of frilly red and white skirts, and vests with powder-white fuzzy adornments about the edges, buttons, and seams. After that, she'd passed out an assortment of 'Santa' hats to each of the inn's residents save Suu, who had assembled her own.

Mitsune was beginning to suspect that Haruka may have enjoyed a career in fashion more than working in a teahouse, but held her tongue. No matter what Haruka thought, for the time being, Mitsune got to try on cute outfits without actually having to be a model. And it was free, too, which really didn't hurt.

Turning her attention towards the television, which was displaying the final minutes of some relatively unappealing game show, her eyes tracked across Naru. She sat on the floor opposite the table from Sarah and watched the show without any real interest.

"I wonder when Keitaro and Ranma will come back," she mused aloud.

"Right now!" Keitaro called out, climbing the steps and striding into the room. Ranma followed a half step behind him.

"Presents!" Suu exclaimed, leaping onto Keitaro and clinging to his side. "Whatcha get me? Is it Tamago?"

"What? Of course not!" Keitaro said indignantly, hefting a large stack and balancing awkwardly with Suu clinging to him. "Calm down, I'll give it to you in a bit."

The girl quickly transferred herself to Ranma and repeated her inquiry.

"Hold up a second," Ranma said, ruffling the girl's hair. "I think I'll let Keitaro go first."

"Huh?" Keitaro looked around, surprised, as all eyes turned to him. "Oh, well, uh, er… I got everyone something. Here, let me see…." He peered into the sack at his side and pulled out a box. "Here you go, Suu — bananas, all the way from… um… Parapara… Para… Well, someplace. I thought you might like them."

"Ah, fuel for my battle against my eternal nemesis," Suu said, accepting the box happily.

"And, ah, Shinobu, I got you this," Keitaro announced, producing a teddy bear with a large red bow from the sack and presenting it to Shinobu.

"It's so cute!" Shinobu exclaimed, taking it and looking at it closely. "Is this… handmade?"

"Er… Yeah. I'm surprised you noticed," Keitaro admitted, looking at Shinobu with a raised eyebrow.

"I really like teddy bears," Shinobu managed weakly. "It's… um…."

"Nothing wrong with that," Naru assured her, looking at the bear closely. "I still have a Liddo-kun doll, after all."

Shinobu blushed and nodded, hugging the bear gently. "Thank you," she murmured. "This is very nice."

"Er… and I got something for you, too, Haruka," he continued, pulling a small box from the bag.

Haruka rose gracefully from the couch and strolled over, and opened it. "Oh, a new ashtray." She frowned suddenly, pulling the ceramic tray from the box and holding it closer to her eyes. "And it even matches my new furniture. How did you pull that off?"

"Just a lucky guess?" he said ducking his head and chuckling. "I thought the pattern on the edge was nice, and it was kind of classic, so I thought you might like it."

"Yeah? It's got good heft. Nice and solid, too," Haruka remarked, eyeing Keitaro and tossing the tray into the air.

"I mean, uh—"

"Thanks, Keitaro," Haruka interrupted him, winking. "It's nice."

"Um…." Momentarily flustered, Keitaro only managed to nod, jumping into the air when Sarah gained his attention by kicking him in the shin.

"Yo!" she said. "You get me anything?"

Wincing, Keitaro nodded, and pulled a small, battered-looking shield out of the sack. "It's an artifact," he offered. "Supposedly it can't be destroyed."

Sarah eyed the shield skeptically, but it was thrust into her hands before she could refuse it. "It's not haunted or anything, is it?" she asked, scowling when she realized she had already taken hold of it.

"Um…. So, Mitsune, I picked something out for you, too," Keitaro announced, drawing close to the couch where she still lay, watching the proceedings. "I was going to buy you a lottery ticket, but I wasn't feeling very… lucky… so I got you this instead," he announced, drawing a small stone statuette from the bag. "It's supposed to bring you good luck."

"Better than nothing," Mitsune allowed, examining the small marble carving of a cat curiously. Ranma shuddered and looked away. "Anyway," Mitsune continued dryly, tossing the statue into the air and testing its heft, "I think I can find a use for this." Straightening in her seat, she sat up and offered Keitaro a smile, "What did you get everyone else?"

"Oh, right," Keitaro managed, diving into the bag once more. "Um, Motoko-chan, I got you this; it made me think of you when I was working," he offered, handing the kendoka a book.

"The Book of Five Rings," Motoko observed, accepting the gift. "I've read it, but I did not have my own copy." She considered for a moment, then allowed, "It is a decent work of humor. Thank you."

"Um… yeah," Keitaro said quietly. "Anyway, I got you something too, Naru-chan," he said, while the others were distracted by their gifts.

Naru rose, smiling softly, but unable to directly meet Keitaro's eyes. "Keitaro," she said softly.

Everyone else in the room seemed to fade away for the pair, as Keitaro fumbled for a moment to draw another package from his bag. Naru drew close enough to accept it, and opened it with no small show of reverence.

Inside lay a winter coat, which Naru drew on experimentally. "Thank you," she said quietly, raising her eyes to meet Keitaro's.

The two gazed on for a moment, oblivious to the outside world.

Haruka quietly coughed and lit her cigarette. Mitsune watched for a minute, then coughed more loudly, and asked, "So, Ranma, you brought something, too?"

Ranma nodded, looking around the room and frowning.

"Something missing?" Mitsune asked, as Naru and Keitaro broke their gaze and blushed brightly. "Or did the two lovebirds here distract you?"

"It's not like that!" Keitaro and Naru protested together.

"Of course not," Haruka noted dryly, putting her new ashtray to use.

"Um, no, I just…." Ranma trailed off, then shrugged. "Let's go ahead and pass these out, then," he mumbled to himself, rummaging through the bag and producing a quartet of similar packages. "I hope you don't think these are unoriginal or anything," he added, as he handed one to each Mitsune, Shinobu, Suu, and Naru.

The girls exchanged a quizzical glance and opened up their packages together. "Oh, hey, this is decent cloth," Mitsune remarked, pulling out a bundle, and shaking it so it would unfold itself. "What is it?"

"It's what Ukyou-san drew me wearing," Shinobu said, suddenly remembering where she had seen the garment she was holding. "You got us all training clothes, Oe-san?"

"Um, well, yeah," he said, ducking his head and scratching behind one ear nervously. "I don't think I'm as good at picking out presents as Keitaro. But, I hope you like them, anyway."

"This will be warmer than my school uniform," Suu decided, rubbing her cheek against the sleeve of her new gi. Turning a soft smile at her martial arts instructor, she said, "Thank you."

"Um, no problem," Ranma said, looking towards Naru briefly.

"If we're going to be practicing throws, this will keep our normal clothes from getting dirty," Naru agreed, turning the gi around to look at the back. "It doesn't have the name of your school on it?"

"Oh, well, it's not really official yet, but, um, there should be bandanas in the packages, too," he said, shrugging.

Naru picked the bandana out of the wrapping, and inspected it. White, with a black block in the front, and red kanji spelling out "Oe Ronin-Ryu" in the center.

"Nice," she finally said, nodding appreciatively. "Thank you, Oe-san."

"That's a good, practical gift," Motoko approved.

Ranma turned to look at Motoko, and raised an eyebrow. "And now you just want to know what I got for you, right?"

The kendoka looked away, and coughed pointedly, a faint blush climbing up her cheeks. "Maybe," she said in a very quiet voice.

Ranma nodded and handed her an envelope. Motoko accepted it, but Ranma shook his head before she could open it. "Hang on to that until New Years," he advised. "Trust me."

"Interesting," Haruka remarked, sinking to the couch, and pulling Sarah to sit next to her while the blonde studied the shield that Keitaro had given her. "Anything else in that bag of tricks, Oe? You get me something?"

"Did you get something for me?" Ranma countered, raising an eyebrow.

"Sure did," Haruka replied, smiling faintly. "I figured that old blanket you bought from me for your futon was falling apart, so, here ya go." The woman hooked one arm behind the couch, and unceremoniously flung a blanket towards Ranma. Suu looked up in time to get snared by the sheet, and bumbled around in front of Ranma for a moment before he pulled the blanket off.

"It's sufficiently warm," Suu declared, once free from the blue cloth. "We can sleep together tonight!"

"Uh, we'll see, Suu-chan," Ranma replied dubiously, quickly folding up the blanket and putting it on the floor beside him. Nodding to Haruka, Ranma said, "That's a very nice blanket. So, when you asked me to throw out your old wooden tea tray when you were remodeling, I noticed that it had your family name on the bottom before I tossed it. It seemed like it might have been important to your family, but it was really beaten up over the years."

"It was a gift from my great-great grandmother," Haruka agreed. "It'd been in the family for generations, but was already in bad shape before I got to it. Did you get me a replacement?"

"Not exactly," Ranma admitted, pulling a long, flat package from the bag and offering it to Haruka.

She took it, raising an eyebrow, and tore off the wrapping. Inside, was a simple wooden tea tray, obviously very old, but appearing very well cared for. On the top there was a finely detailed ink painting of a crane in a pond, looking at a turtle hiding in the reeds. "This is nice," she said appreciatively, turning the tray over, and frowning. "You even put the family name on the bottom?"

"Actually, I had the guy at the store I was working at restore it," Ranma said. "The colors were faint, so he had to do some really hard work to bring it all back, but that's the original design."

Haruka blinked in surprise, staring closely at the tray. "Well, I'll be damned," she finally said. "It even matches the ashtray. I hope this didn't cost you too much, Oe-san."

"No, no," he said, shaking his head quickly. "The guy at the store said I could ask to have something restored as a perk for working there, and he taught me a little bit about how you do things like that, too." After a minute, he admitted, "And I didn't have any other antiques to bring in for restoration anyway."

"Well, I'm satisfied that I got the better part of that bargain," Haruka decided, shaking her head. "I hope that blanket keeps you warm."

"Anyway," Sarah interjected, setting aside her shield, "what did you get me?"

"Huh?" Ranma asked, blinking at the girl. "Oh, right. Um, well, I heard you like fishing with Noriyasu-san, right? So, I got you this," he explained, handing her a small package.

She opened it cautiously. "A map of Japan?" she asked, frowning at it once it was opened.

"And a compass," Ranma pointed out. "That's a secret map, though, that me and Aniki made while we were roaming across the country. It's got some great hidden fishing spots marked in it. I thought you might want to drag Noriyasu-san along with you to one of these, sometime."

"That's not so bad," Sarah reluctantly allowed. "But why couldn't you get me something cool, like a sword?"

"Um, anyway," Ranma said, shifting the conversation away from Sarah and edged weapons, "that's it for me."

"Isn't there still something in the bag?" Mitsune asked, pointing at it curiously.

"It's for someone else," he deferred, turning towards the stairs, and quickly disappearing towards his room.

"Hmm," Motoko mused. "Well, that was interesting."

Leaving the conversation and the bright cheerfulness of the lower floor behind him, Ranma quietly took the stairs, stopping at the balcony that looked out over the city. The windows had been put back in, no longer leaving the area open to the outside air. Which made sense with the shifting of the seasons.

He sighed and rubbed at his forehead. "This is going to be awkward," he grumbled.

"What's that, Oe-san?" Shinobu asked, creeping up the stairs behind him. "Is something the matter?"

He gave a start at the little girl sneaking up on him, and turned around to look at her as she reached the top of the stairs. "Oh, well… I… Hmm." He considered for a moment, then asked, "Shinobu, did you get something for Keitaro?"

Shinobu climbed the remaining steps and moved to stand near Ranma, peering out at the city. "I did," she said quietly. "But, um, Naru got him the same thing. I… didn't think I should give him mine afterwards, but I still wanted to give something to him."

"What was it?" Ranma asked, frowning. "A new scarf? The one he was wearing looked like it was in pretty bad condition."

Shinobu winced. "That's the new scarf that Naru made for him," she replied.

"…oh," Ranma said quietly. "Well. Huh." The two said nothing for a moment, before Ranma hefted the bag at his side. "Um… you know, I'll tell you something. I'm a bit new at this thing of… well, where you give people presents and stuff. I… before I realized it was mostly about guys giving stuff to girls, and the other way around, I thought you got things for friends, too. So, I… got something for Keitaro. But I think it'd be weird if I gave it to him, you know?"

"Oe-san?" Shinobu asked quietly.

"I, uh, got him a gi, too. You can say I picked it out, or you asked me what to get him, or, uh, something. But, I think that might work."

"Oh," Shinobu replied, smiling a little. "Then, um, Oe-san, I know it's not much… but would you like a scarf?"

"I could use a scarf," he agreed, shrugging. "Sure."

Shinobu slowly raised a small, carefully wrapped package, and offered it to Ranma. He accepted it with solemn dignity, offering a larger bundle back to Shinobu in return. The girl giggled, once she was holding the bundle. "Oe-san, thank you. Thank you very much. I'll go give it to him now." With that, she turned and trotted down the stairs, leaving Ranma alone.

"A scarf, eh?" he mused, opening the bundle, and trying the new scarf on. Blue and red, in a plaid pattern, and fairly thick, too. "Hmm. Nice. Now, one last present to give." Taking a breath, he steeled himself, then turned down the hallway, heading towards the side-exit — the one that would keep him clear of the other residents.

Once he was outside, he plodded through the snow, skirting around the edge of the courtyard, and carefully walking down the steps. He could have leapt down, or at least slid down on the stone ramps on either side of the stairs, but instead he restrained himself, walking slowly and deliberately.

Finally, he reached the bottom of the stairs. There were no cars in sight, and the night was still and quiet.

Taking another breath to steel his resolve, he strode across the street, not allowing himself to breathe again until he was at the door to Mutsumi's apartment.

"Maybe she's not even home," he said to himself, hesitating. "Maybe, I should just—"

His mumbling was cut off when the door opened. Mutsumi blinked at him, Tamago perched calmly on her head, only the turtle's head peering out from beneath Mutsumi's Santa cap. "Hello, Ranma-kun," she chirped, taking his wrist. "Won't you come in?"

"Er, yeah," he said nervously, shrugging his shoulders uncomfortably and stepping inside. The apartment was still very bare, Mutsumi not unpacking much more than the table, some watermelons, and her study guides. "So," he said slowly. "Merry Christmas?"

Mutsumi clapped her hands together in delight. "It is! I just got off of work for a pastry shop — they let me take home a cake, but it's too much for me and Tama-chan. Would you like some?"

"Um… yeah," Ranma said, nodding. "And, there's something I wanted to give you, too."

Mutsumi paused, blinking at Ranma expectantly.

Fumbling for a moment, Ranma pulled a bundle from the bag, presenting Mutsumi with her own gi and bandana. "It's… for the morning exercises," Ranma explained. "I thought it would… come in handy."

"Thank you!" Mutsumi said, accepting it happily, and then planting a kiss on Ranma's cheek before he could back away. "Now come and sit at the table. The room's heater is broken, but the one under the table is fine."

"Okay," he said weakly, sitting down at the table. Tamago fluttered to the floor next to him, and crawled beneath the warmed blankets.

"Would you like something to drink?"

"Yeah, anything's fine," he replied, picking up a study guide that had been left on the table, and flipping through it distractedly.

Mutsumi paused, one hand on the refrigerator door. "Ranma-kun, is something bothering you?"

He hesitated, then nodded, looking up and smiling sadly. "Well, yeah," he admitted. "There is one thing."

"What is it?" Mutsumi asked, coming to the table and sitting opposite Ranma.

"I'm… going to be leaving soon," he said, glancing down at the table. Tamago chirped at him curiously. "After New Year's Eve," he amended. "My lease expires then. I'm… going to be moving out."

"Oh?" Mutsumi looked thoughtful. "Where are you going?"

"I'm not really sure," Ranma hedged. "I'm kind of… I should… Well, Aniki said that this place was really a nice area, and I should stick around. But I already made an arrangement."

"An arrangement?"

"A promise," he clarified. "That I would move out at the end of this month. I'm… not sure if I'm going to stay in this area, though. The best place I can find with comparable rent is across the city."

"So, you're leaving, and won't be able to study with us?" Mutsumi questioned.

"Yes," Ranma admitted, looking down at the table, and folding his hands together carefully to keep them from fidgeting. "And… your personal training, too. I'll… probably be gone, since we should be completely finished with that."

"Oh," Mutsumi said quietly in reply, though Ranma was busily studying the backs his hands rather than meeting her expression. "What about Motoko-chan?"

"I think she's got enough of where I'm going with the art to carry herself the rest of the way," Ranma said, raising his head and meeting Mutsumi's eyes. "She should be just fine."

"I see," she said quietly. "Well, we should make the most of our time, then!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together.

"Um… okay," Ranma agreed, reaching for one of the study guides.

Mutsumi caught his hand before he reached the book. "There will be plenty of time for that later," she said cheerily. "If you're leaving, we've got to do something fun! Especially if we won't have a chance to do it again." Not listening to any protest, she hauled him unceremoniously to his feet and grabbed her coat. "Let's go out and have a toast with Kei-kun and Naru-chan!"

"They're kind of busy," he managed, "what with, uh, Christmas Eve, and all."

Mutsumi paused in the doorway to the apartment complex, one finger resting against her lips thoughtfully, her other hand gripping Ranma's wrist mercilessly. "We'll visit Haruka!" she decided. "She has the best booze!"

"Uh-oh," Ranma managed before Mutsumi set off towards the teashop.

Keitaro stood at the washstand, glancing out at the courtyard occasionally. Another dusting of snow had descended, carpeting the area thoroughly, and there was no sign of anyone walking across it to disturb it. "I wonder if the courtyard is perfectly level," he mused.

"Hmm?" Shinobu noised, padding to the sink and reaching for her toothbrush. "Why's that?"

"Well, I was just wondering if we could measure the minute discrepancies in the height of the snow to calculate the dispersion pattern for falling snow," he replied. "I was thinking about one of the study questions we were looking at last night."

Shinobu froze, toothbrush in her mouth, and turned to look at him incredulously.

Entering the room, Mitsune grumped, "Ugh, not only do you not have the decency to fool around with Naru when you're finally alone and we're all too distracted to watch, you have to admit that before I can pry the answer out of you."

Shaking her head, Shinobu started brushing her teeth again.

"I'd never do a thing like that!" Keitaro protested, scandalized. "It's not gentlemanly."

"Of course," Mitsune said, splashing her face with water. "You're too much of a wuss to make that kind of move."

"What did he do this time?" Naru asked, plodding into the room and using the basin next to Mitsune.

"Nothing, and that's exactly the problem."

"Maybe it's for the best," Haruka opined, carrying a cigarette in one hand and leaning against the doorjamb.

"Eh? What are you doing here, Haruka?" Keitaro asked. "Er, not that I'm implying you're unwelcome, or anything."

Haruka eyed Keitaro levelly, and then straightened up. "I like to brush my teeth before I smoke in the morning," she replied. "And since Oe and Otohime got so drunk they passed out in the tea shop last night, I thought I'd be gentle around their hangovers."

"So that you can really give them hell when the tea shop actually opens?" Mitsune asked, putting away her own toothbrush.

"You're learning!" Haruka said, smiling sardonically.

"Uh, I think I'm going to go for a walk," Keitaro said cautiously.

"I'd better go with you just to make sure you don't do anything you aren't supposed to," Naru grumbled, following the manager as he left the room.

"I want to watch this," Mitsune giggled, running after them.

Shinobu frowned, turning to regard Haruka curiously. "Did you do that just to get them out of the inn?"

"You catch on faster than Mitsune," Haruka opined, raising an eyebrow. "But mostly I wanted them to haul Oe and Otohime out of the tea shop for me. Why do something yourself when a few well placed words can get it done for you, with twice the amusement factor?"

"I'm pretty sure that you could be much gentler about waking them up, though."

"Why would I want to be gentle with the girl who drank my best alcohol?" Haruka asked. Shaking her head, she added, "Can you imagine a noisier trio?"

Shinobu's eyes widened. "Please tell me if I ever upset you," she squeaked out.

Keitaro crept through the open doorway, and peered in cautiously. Fallen soldiers lay on the floor in piles, and the dim light lent the area an appearance of something out of a survival horror game. A quiet noise sounded from behind the counter where Haruka occasionally idled, and Ranma was sprawled in a corner, slumped over.

Swallowing nervously, Keitaro took a cautious step inside. Naru followed him, blinking at the devastation, and Mitsune peeked in through the doorway. "Wow!" she whispered, looking at the casualties, and widening her eyes. "I wish I was here last night!"

Ranma stirred, groaning a bit, and raised his head. "Run," he managed to cough out, his voice dry and wheezing. "Save… yourselves…."

"Oe-san?" Keitaro asked, leaning towards the man curiously, but not quite willing to take the steps closer towards him. "Are you all right?"

In response, Ranma groaned as if in pain, then slipped to the floor, unmoving.

Keitaro gulped nervously. "Otohime-chan?" he asked anxiously. "Are you here?"

Rising from behind the counter, Mutsumi smiled, just as cheerful as ever. "Good morning, Kei-kun, Naru-chan!" she chirped. "I'm just cleaning up a bit before we go jogging this morning. Sorry about the delay!"

Looking at the array of empty bottles on the floor that Mutsumi hadn't yet picked up, Mitsune nodded in approval. "Looks like you had fun last night. How many of these did Ranma take responsibility for?"

"I could only convince him to drink that one," Mutsumi confessed, pointing to one specific bottle. "But he drank six of them!"

"Ebisu non-alcoholic beer," Keitaro said, reading the label of the bottle as he picked it up. "Non-alcoholic?"

"Really?" Ranma asked, opening his eyes and peering at the bottle curiously. "Then why does my head hurt?"

Mitsune rolled her eyes. "Shameful. Can't even drink himself into oblivion properly. Tell you what, Ranma, you need lessons on drinking, you come to me, not Mutsumi. Okay?"

"Pass," Ranma replied, climbing to his feet. "I'm gonna help Mutsumi-chan straighten up here — if you guys are willing to wait, we should meet you at the bottom of the stairs in a few minutes."

"Spoilsport," Mitsune grumped, marching out the door.

"Um, no problem," Keitaro agreed, as Ranma and Mutsumi gathered the bottles from the floor.

While Naru, Mutsumi, and Keitaro jogged below, Ranma and Motoko ranged in their sparring, preferring telephone poles and the tops of lampposts, or just plain mid-air to exchange blows over the streets themselves.

The sound of fist being deflected by the flat of a blade, or a foot striking a dragon-skin armband seemed to somehow blend into the morning air. "Ah," Keitaro breathed, cresting the rise that marked the jog's halfway point. "What a great morning!"

"I agree," Mutsumi cheered, stopping by the familiar vending machine to collect an energy drink. This coincided with a particularly violent exchange of blows between the two seasoned martial-artists culminating in Motoko's sword being knocked out of her hands to where it stuck blade-first in the ground, and then launching a vicious jab with the left hand, and a follow-up palm-strike from the right.

Ranma deflected both, taking a half step back, and nodding in approval. "Your weapons use is now a benefit to your mastery of your body, rather than a crutch," he declared.

"Really?" Motoko asked, dropping her guard.

"Yeah, I think you could probably have taken me down when I was your age, now."

Motoko blushed at that and lowered her head, before going to collect the sword that had stuck into the pavement. "Thank you, Oe-sensei," she said quietly, when she returned to the site where everyone else was gathered.

"Well, if I wasn't scared of Motoko before, I'm absolutely terrified of her now," Keitaro said encouragingly.

"That hardly sounds like praise," Naru said mildly, looking at the manager over the top of her drink. "Do I note that we're outside, and thus, our one restraining rule is not currently in effect?"

"Oh, are you two not allowed to fool around at the inn?" Mutsumi asked, covering her mouth with one hand and giggling. "I know a hotel right around the corner you can use…."

Both Naru and Keitaro blushed, and Ranma offered a good-natured smirk. "A hotel?" Motoko asked skeptically. "What could possibly— Ah!" Turning on one heel, she regarded Ranma. "Is this some new training which you've decided I'm not yet ready to handle?"

Ranma blinked at that. "Um…."

"Change of subject," Naru ruled. "Unless you wanted training in how to be beaten to a pulp, which is what I'm about to do to Keitaro—"

"Oh, my!" Mutsumi exclaimed, giggling again. "I didn't know you two were into that!"

"Into what?" Motoko asked, frowning. "Martial arts? Who isn't?"

Keitaro coughed delicately. "Change of subject," he seconded. "So, we're coming up on the new year pretty soon, huh?"

"Tomorrow," Ranma agreed, nodding.

Motoko shot him a look and raised an eyebrow. "Will you explain it to me later, then?" she asked quietly.

"I'd say to ask Haruka," Ranma said slowly. "But, um, ask her the day after tomorrow. Trust me."

"I see," Motoko replied, befuddled. Turning back to the others, she shook her head. "It will be the year two thousand. An auspicious number, I think. Perhaps we will find great fortune."

"Or maybe," Mutsumi added cheerfully, "because of a design inefficiency carried forward from decades ago, all machinery and computers will go berserk, leading to the wholesale slaughter of humanity at the hands of the silicon gods we've enslaved ourselves to!"

"Hmm. That could be interesting," Motoko murmured, eyeing the vending machine, one hand going to the handle of her blade. "Interesting indeed…."

"Somehow, I have doubts," Naru replied, smirking. "You've heard of Y2K compliance, haven't you? They test for that sort of stuff."

"Do they?" Motoko asked, drooping slightly. "A pity… I so wanted to fight a worthwhile foe."

"Which is going to be the next lesson you're going to learn," Ranma said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"A worthwhile foe?" Motoko asked, perking up again. "Who is it?"

"Yourself," Ranma replied, nodding. "No, wait, that just sounds clever. Really, the next lesson is something we probably all needed to know, and I think a part of you already does know."

"And that is?" Motoko asked, narrowing her eyes thoughtfully.

"Well, we haven't much focused on any of the philosophy or mentality of martial arts, as much as the performance, right?" Ranma asked.

"Ooh, this sounds interesting," Mutsumi chirped.

Naru looked skeptical, while Keitaro turned to face Ranma with interest.

"Uh… basically, the lesson is going to be about how the goal of being a martial artist is also about being skilled enough to not have to fight people. You can reason with them, as well."

Motoko made a dismissive gesture. "I'm far more concerned about fighting evils that can't be reasoned with," she replied. "That is the purpose of our school, you recall."

"Fair enough," Ranma allowed. "But your approach to the martial arts world also shapes your approach to the world outside of martial arts. Realistically, both of those worlds are the same, so you realize that you've either got to be two different people depending on the situation, or you need to find some way that you can be both in and out of combat, that fits both."

"Is that what you're trying to do?" Motoko asked, raising her eyebrows. "The focus of your school?"

"Well," Ranma said defensively, "the school that Aniki and I are trying to figure out is a school for more than just martial arts, it's also a school for how to deal with other things, too."

"Kind of like the Art of War," Keitaro said suddenly. "You can apply it to combat, of course, but it also applied to other things, like leading men, or managing a store… or even creating a plan of study to get into Toudai."

"Someone should have brushed up on the Art of War more thoroughly," Naru remarked. "Well, fourth time is the charm, right?"

"Eh… Anyway, time for the trip back," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Just think about it, though, Motoko."

She nodded dubiously, and the two resumed their aerial combat, while the joggers turned about and headed back for the inn.

The New Year's Eve party was thankfully laid back after the rush, and the Christmas decorations were still up, so that was taken care of, too. Keitaro yawned from his position on the couch in the living room, eyeing the fading light of the setting sun. "It's a nice day," he murmured, before turning back to his study guide.

Naru had decreed New Year's to be, 'the last day for slacking' until after the test was taken. Because of that, Keitaro decided that rather than study, he would just skim some old reviews for a few hours, then see if he could get his video game system hooked up without Suu destroying him in the multi-player version of whatever he chose for a bit, until the party.

He looked up, seeing Ranma head for the stairs. "Where are you going?" the manager called out, curious. "We've got the party tonight, don't forget," he added when he saw Ranma's backpack, and the fact that Ranma was carrying his bicycle towards the front of the inn.

"What?" Ranma asked, scratching his head. "Party? I was—"

"You can't miss the party," Keitaro insisted, putting down his study guide. "Do you have work, or something?"

"Well, no," Ranma said hesitantly.

"Then you have to be at the party," Keitaro concluded.

Ranma looked reluctant, but nodded. "I'll just move my bike and come back up," he finally agreed.

A moment later, Keitaro had convinced Ranma to take another go at King of Magical Pretty Fighter: Mark of the Were-Senshi 1998 II Versus-Mode. "You're getting better," Keitaro remarked, after Ranma won his first round, seven attempts in.

"Thanks," he said dryly. "That move with the pancakes is pretty lethal."

"You're getting better at the crocheting hook moves, though. That sweater-knitting super you finished with was pretty spectacular."

"Ooh!" Suu exclaimed, bounding into the room. "King of Magical Pretty Fighter! I play winner!"

Ranma wordlessly handed the little girl the controller. "This game is tough," he grumbled, watching Suu's character effortlessly destroy Keitaro's.

After a few rounds of total decimation at the hands of Suu, Keitaro called it quits, and Suu lost interest. But by then, the other tenants had started to congregate around the television to watch the countdown anyway. "Almost two hours to go," Ranma mused. "I should probably go, get something to eat and—"

"The snacks are ready!" Shinobu called out, bringing in a hefty tray laden with treats from the kitchen.

"You have somewhere else to be?" Naru asked, taking one of the items Shinobu had crafted — some strange little thing involving halves of eggs.

"Well, not really," Ranma admitted. "I was just thinking, was all."

"Not wanting to be here when I finally open your present?" Motoko asked, entering the room, and raising an eyebrow.

"Uh… I wouldn't worry about that," Ranma said, calming himself a bit. "Um, could I have a drink?" Ranma asked Shinobu.

The girl blinked and frowned. Why would Ranma ask her for a drink? Unless he meant he wanted something with alcohol in it, instead of the water or juice he usually drank? That must be it. "I'll be right back with something for you!" she reassured him.

Retreating into the kitchen, Shinobu found a few bottles of alcohol already on the counter. Frowning, she judged them as best as she knew how. "This one's clear," she reasoned, peering at the label. "It even says so in the name. It must be weak." Nodding to herself, she fetched a large glass, and filled it all the way.

A few seconds later, she handed it to Ranma, who drank the entire thing in a single gulp. After downing it, he frowned. "That's odd," he said slowly.

"I'll get you another," Shinobu replied, taking the glass back from him before he could say anything else. Obviously he had expected a bigger drink.

After few more of Shinobu's trips to the living room, Ranma had stopped asking for anything, instead staring at the glass as though he expected it to try and attack him at any moment. Disregarding Ranma's adversarial view of his drinking glass, Keitaro watched as the countdown continued to tick towards zero. "It's almost the new year!" he said, elbowing Ranma.

In response, Ranma sluggishly turned to peer at the television. "I'll be ready for it," he mumbled.

"And… Happy New Year!" Mitsune exclaimed, throwing back a drink of her own as Naru and Keitaro clinked their glasses together in a toast. Ranma stood up, wobbling. "House… unsteady," he murmured. "Gotta… escape. Too hot."

"Had a bit much to drink?" Mitsune asked, taking Ranma's arm to steady him.

"Funny tasting water," he mumbled.

"Oops," Shinobu said quietly.

"Ooh," Keitaro said, pointing out the window behind the television. "A bonfire?"

"Hey," Haruka called out, opening a door and entering the room. With the door opened, the distant sound of sirens echoed about from outside. "Looks like there's a fire pretty close by, eh?"

"That's Mutsumi's apartment!" Naru yelped.

Without wasting a further moment, everyone rushed out and down the stairs to see what was happening. The firefighters were busily unpacking their equipment, and trying to extinguish the blaze. "What's goin' on?" Ranma asked sluggishly. "I… Mutsumi?"

"She's still inside?" Keitaro yelped, looking around for the girl frantically. "But, I— Hey! Hey you!" he yelled, approaching one of the onlookers. "Did everyone get out okay?"

"You mean people actually lived in here?" the man asked in response.

"She must still be inside!" he despaired. "We've got to get her out!"

"I'll do it!" Ranma said, nodding, and taking a half-dozen uncertain step forward before falling flat on his face. "Stupid… coordination…." Keitaro reflexively shielded his eyes from the flash of light that Ranma used to burn the alcohol out of his system. The second the blaze was out, he was tackled by a half-dozen fire-fighters, and hauled away from the conflagration of the building.

"You can't go in there!" one of them warned, as they dragged him back to Keitaro's side. "We can't let you get closer than this."

"Someone's… still inside," he gasped.

The firefighters looked back at the house, as a section of the roof collapsed in, sending a roaring column of fire and sparks upward. "We'll do what we can," they promised, running towards the inferno.

"No," Ranma groaned, "too dangerous." More loudly, he yelled, "Mutsumi! Where are you?"

Improbably, from one of the less damaged second story windows, the young woman appeared, waving frantically. "I need a little help!" she called out, as the fire fighters backpedaled, and started searching for a ladder rather than trying to negotiate the blaze.

The house gave another lurch then, more of it collapsing. "Eek!" Mutsumi exclaimed, waving again. "Help!"

Ranma shook his head. "Can't… Okay. Stand back." Keitaro ushered everyone back from Ranma without needing a second warning, only Suu needing to be pulled back by Haruka. From there, his aura blazed brightly, a harsh, actinic blue. "Mutsumi!" he yelled. "Good girl's exercise, step one!"

Whatever Mutsumi said in response was lost in a rush of flaming timber. Keitaro had the vague impression, for some reason, that she was talking about a 'watermelon hoop kill', but that didn't make much sense. Either way, he watched as Ranma's aura seemed to leap up from his body and fly directly to Mutsumi, ignoring the heat of the flame and the fire fighter's protests.

And then everything changed.


To be continued.

Author's Notes: I know the number of points and locations are reversed; many people have told me that. However, I reasoned that the points to activate the ability are different (opposite) from the ones we know that Ranma used to DEactivate it. Just my thoughts on that, though.

—Brian Randall

Chapter 14
Layout, design, & site revisions 2005

Webmaster: Larry F
Last revision: April 22, 2006

Old Gray Wolf