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The port was quiet, even in the afternoon, only the sounds of the sea lapping against the pier and the occasional gull's cry reached across the docks. Ranma rose, seeing where the trail of footsteps faded, and then vanished.

"Well, either he went for a swim, or there was a boat here," he murmured to himself. "But where was it headed?"

At the loud blasting of a foghorn, Ranma turned, catching sight of the sign on the pier. "South Seas Cruises, eh?" he mused. "Why the hell would he go on a cruise now of all times?"

Something was definitely wrong and he was going to find out what was happening to Keitaro. Just as soon as he figured out how to track a boat.

"This… is going to suck," he sighed.

Chapter Fifteen: Trouble in Paradise

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.

After obtaining a record of the ship that Keitaro had presumably left on, Ranma found another vessel headed in the same direction. Hopefully it would be faster than a pleasure cruise and he could catch up to the wandering Toudai examinee in another port.

But first… he had to call back to the inn. "Hello?" he heard, as a young girl answered, her voice sounding smaller and more worried than usual across the pay phone's connection. "This is Hinata-Sou, Shinobu speaking. How may I help you?"

"Shinobu-chan — this is Ranma. Is Naru—?"

"Hello? Hello? Where is he?" Naru suddenly shouted into the receiver. Ranma winced and drew the phone away from his ear until she had finished.

"It looks like he got on a boat headed south," Ranma answered. "I, uh, don't know why."

"Well, wait there — I'm going after him," Naru replied. "Do you know which bus route I should use to reach the port fastest?"

"Calm down," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Look, Keitaro's not a complete idiot; he probably just panicked. That means he's going to call home at some point and tell us where he is — I think you should be there to make sure he's got someone to talk to when he does."

"Don't tell me what to do, Ranma, this is Keitaro we're worried about! He'll get himself killed inside of ten minutes. I'm sure he'll barely clear the harbor before he manages to fall overboard!"

Ranma snorted, and surveyed the port quickly. His ship was making ready to depart and he doubted they'd hesitate to leave him behind if he took too long. "Naru, look, I'm already here and cruises are expensive. I got a temp job working on a ship that's headed in the same direction. I'm going to try to beat him to the port he's headed to and catch up. Unless you want to get a job like me, hauling in fish, or you can afford a cruise, you should probably wait there."

There was a long pause, with nothing but the sound of Naru's worried breathing. "Oh," she finally said, in a somehow… defeated tone.

He winced at the sound of the girl's sniffling whimper. Sighing, he shook his head again. "Look… I'm going to keep in touch. As soon as I make port, I'll update you on what's happening and if I've found him. If I catch up to him before he contacts you, I'll haul him back. If he calls first, I need you to tell me where he is when I check in with you."

"I… Okay. Do you at least know where his cruise was heading?" Naru asked.

Once more, Ranma shook his head, forgetting she wouldn't be able to see the gesture. "The ship makes port in five places. The closest port is some island called Pararakelse. Look, I have to go now — my ship's leaving," Ranma said, as one of the sailors on the ship called to him and the gangplank retracted onto the ship.

"Wait! Um… before you go, did you want me to say anything to Mutsumi?" Naru asked.

Ranma flinched away from the phone, but paused. "Um. Tell her I said… good luck, and I hope she's still here when I get back. Gotta go!" With that, he hung up, dashing down the pier and leaping onto the small fishing vessel he was to be working on. "Sorry," he called, as the gap between the pier and the ship widened behind him.

The captain — an ancient man who looked to be carved from tanned and roughened leather — raised an eyebrow at Ranma. "Quite a leap, kid. I thought for sure ye'd spend too long talking to yer girlfriend," he said around the pipe he clenched in his teeth.

"Hey, she wasn't my—" Ranma began, before shrugging. "Er. Right. I'm sorry about that. Um… what do you need me to do?"

"Thar be rope to coil, lad. We be hunting the elusive albacore tuna, and we best be ready," the captain replied. "They be a feisty fish!"

"Boss, can I ask why we're going to Pararakelse if we're going to just be catching tuna?" Ranma queried.

The captain looked nervous and then sighed, hanging his head in defeat. "Okay, you got me. I play the part of a fisherman 'cause my wife gets a kick out of it. I actually run bananas between that island and Sasebo. Then I buy a cargo of tuna with the profits and my wife is none the wiser. I can't fish to save my life."

Ranma stared at the man blankly for a long minute. "Okay," he finally said. "So, uh, what do you want me to do?"

"Look busy coiling the rope! She can't hear us, but I know she's watching from the pier with her binoculars. Once we're out to sea you can relax until we make port. Then I'll need you to help load up crates of bananas."

Shrugging to himself, Ranma walked to one of the other sailors and set to work winding rope into neat piles.

Keitaro gazed into the sea sorrowfully, searching the depths of its mystery for answers. How could he choke up like that at the end of the test? He was so close! And then to be caught in a daydream and just… miss it?

"I'm an idiot," he mumbled. "I deserve to be stranded with the arctic wolves. And polar bears. And penguins."

He sighed, pulling his winter jacket about himself more tightly… though, it did seem oddly warm. And come to think of it, most of the couples on board were wearing light summer clothes. Since when was northern Alaska a getaway for couples, anyway?

"Waaaait a minute," he said, realization drawing on him.

Running up to the English-speaking crewman who'd originally helped him aboard, he asked, "Popeye! Where is this ship headed?"

The burly sailor turned and smiled widely. In English he said, "You enjoy your cruise, okay?"

Keitaro blinked, thinking for a moment to translate, and asked in English, "Is this ship headed south?"

"Of course! You'll love the beaches — and since you're alone, there's a lot of single ladies here just looking for someone to spend time with!" the sailor assured him.

"Guh," Keitaro replied, falling to his knees. "Man. I can't even get this right!" he muttered. Hauling himself upright and nodding at the large sailor, he added, "Um, thanks."

The man nodded back at Keitaro without speaking.

Sighing, Keitaro walked away, stopping at the railing and thrusting his hands into his pockets. "What's this?" he mused, pulling his photo sticker book and his exam ticket stub from his jacket. His eyes narrowed at the stub. "Stupid waste," he grumbled, tucking it into the book and then flinging it overboard.

"Wait, what was I thinking?" Keitaro berated himself, leaping after the articles with martial skill and deftly snatching them from the air. "Hah!" Then he looked down. "WHY ME?"

After he managed to claw his way to the surface, the ship was already out of earshot. "Oh, no," he groaned.

In retrospect, Ranma thought to herself, she should have tried to book passage as her female self. There was usually a kettle of hot water in the ship's galley, but that was the only source of hot water on the ship and it was never left unattended.

Once they were far enough out at sea that Ranma was relatively sure they'd hesitate to turn back, she'd gotten splashed. Not intentionally, but at sea, it was bound to happen. She sighed, hanging onto the railing and glancing back over her shoulder. Maybe if she was lucky….

Every single member of the crew was on the deck at that moment, and they all stared directly at her.

So much for luck. "Um," she said slowly, "I… can explain everything." Why hadn't she thought to plan for this contingency, anyway? Jusenkyou made it an inevitability.

"I'm hoping so," one of the sailors said, wide-eyed. "I don't want to get splashed and then have to convince my girlfriend to become a lesbian!" Another sailor blinked and turned to look overboard thoughtfully.

Ranma winced. "Er," she managed. "Well, I, uh, was always really a girl. I just disguised myself as a boy." That sounded reasonable.

"Uh… why?" another crewman asked curiously.

She frowned. Why couldn't they ask an easy question? "W-well," she said slowly, sticking with the truth for the moment, "I'm… looking for this guy…."

"Oh," the crewmen said in a single voice, nodding knowingly.

"Young love," the captain said, smiling fondly, prompting Ranma to twitch. Keitaro was going to pay for this. "Well, okay then, girl. What's your name?"

"Ranma," she replied reflexively.

"Okay," another crewman said, nodding. "Even though you won't be able to move crates of bananas, you're still part of the crew."

"Why wouldn't I be able to move crates?" she asked indignantly.

"Er, well…. When we get to the island, aren't you going to be busy looking for your boyfriend?"

She made a mental note to pray for long hours that the story never got back to the inn. "Yeah," she said, nodding. "Good point."

"Okay, then," the captain said, nodding. "You can take over in the galley and stay on with the crew." After a moment, he added, "If we took you back now, I'd probably get caught by my wife anyway."

Sighing, Ranma rubbed the back of her neck and checked the pot on the stove, careful not to fill it too high. The seas were relatively calm, but the boat still rolled across the surface. "How much longer to the island?" she asked, as one of the sailors poked his head in and sniffed at the air.

"Oh, um, we've got another day," the sailor replied. "Is lunch ready?"

"In about fifteen minutes," Ranma replied, checking the kettle and making sure it was still hot enough for tea. "Can you tell the other men to wash up?"

"Right," the sailor grunted, turning around and vanishing from the doorway.

Sighing again, the redhead ran her fingers through her hair. "Keitaro, you'd better have a good explanation for this when I find you," she muttered to herself. "What am I getting into?"

Keitaro felt sluggish and fevered, as though a great, warm weight was being pressed onto him. "Ugh," he groaned. "What's going on?"

"Keitaro," a giggling, effeminate voice called. "Keitaro!"

"Who… Naru? Is that you?" he asked, struggling to see what was about him. From the formless black that filled his vision, he saw her, a speck of white light drawing closer from a long distance away. "What… what's going on?"

"Keitaro! Listen to me, you need to do me a favor, okay?" Naru said, as she drew closer and wrapped her arms around Keitaro's body.

"W-what?" he asked, bewildered. "But… I failed! I blew the test — and this was my last chance at it, too! What do you want with me?"

"Pay attention!" Naru chastised him. "Open your eyes, Keitaro. You can't give up here, or I really won't forgive you!"

"Huh?" Keitaro asked, before coming to his senses. His eyes were fogged, his glasses loose. It was dark and he couldn't breathe. Naru's arms weren't arms at all — they were fronds of kelp he'd gotten wrapped up in.

Fighting off the lethargy that seemed to sap his limbs of strength, he swam upwards, clawing his way to the surface again. The seaweed let go as he moved, and in seconds he breached the surface, gasping for breath.

The sun glittered overhead, though he could see no land or boats immediately around him.

"Damn," he swore dizzily, trying to get his bearings. "Think, Keitaro. Think. Okay. Kelp is seaweed. It grows on the ocean floor. So I'm probably near land, or at least some kind of reef." Treading water, he turned around in place, until he spotted something on the horizon that looked promising.

"Just a few miles away," he said grimly. "Oh, boy." It took a long moment for his survival instincts to kick in — Seta had told him a story of a time the man himself had been stranded at sea and gave instructions on how to survive. First things first, he needed to lose the coat and shoes.

After kicking them off and dropping his heavy winter jacket, swimming became a bit easier. Holding his breath, Keitaro next pulled off his pants, tying the ends of the legs in knots and shortly working it into a makeshift float. He doubted it would last for more than a few minutes, but a few minutes he could use to catch his breath could mean the difference between life and death.

Resting on his float, he began paddling towards land. "Idiot," he chastised himself. "And I even lost the stupid book I jumped after."

Then he shook his head again. He needed to save his breath for swimming; if he lived, there would be plenty of time for self-recrimination later.

As he swam, to his dismay, the kelp fronds beneath him drew away and the ocean deepened into mysterious blackness. Apparently he'd drifted over some sort of underwater rise… but still, he was sure now that the spot on the horizon he was headed towards was land, even if it was further than he hoped.

"At least," he panted, forgetting his resolve to remain quiet, "it can't… get any… worse!"

It was at that point that the wind began to pick up, and Keitaro looked behind himself anxiously. A towering wall of dark storm clouds was rolling towards him on a fierce wind, and he could see lightning flash within its depths.

"At least now it really can't get any worse," he thought to himself grimly.

And that was when the first of the dorsal fins began to pierce the surface, circling him at a distance of about twenty meters.

"A bit taller than me, about, um, this high," the redhead said, holding a hand up to indicate height. "Maybe not quite that tall if he's slouching. Wears glasses, black hair, kind of unruly but not very long. Ring any bells?"

The burly man in the sailor's costume rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Doesn't seem familiar," he said after a moment, in halting Japanese. "Sorry, Miss."

"Do you have a list of the passenger's names?" she asked hopefully. "You don't need to show it to me, just tell me if his name is on it."

"All right," the sailor agreed. He produced a list and scanned it, before frowning in dismay. "I… can't read this." Shrugging, he offered the list to Ranma, who quickly grabbed it and glanced over it for Keitaro's name.

"There," she said, pointing at his name. "He was on this ship. Is he still aboard?"

The sailor took the list back and glanced at what was indecipherable gibberish next to it. At least, it was indecipherable to Ranma. "Oh! I remember him. He did not get off the ship here," he said cheerfully. "I will ask the crew to look for him."

Ranma nodded, as the sailor walked back up the ramp to the cruise vessel and made some inquiries. When the ship's loudspeaker paged Keitaro, she was certain he'd be found… but the minutes stretched into an hour before the sailor returned, his face pale. "Sorry," he said. "Your friend… must have fallen overboard. We haven't seen him aboard since before we made port."

The redhead massaged the temple on the right side of her face, shaking her head. "Keitaro can't be dead," she growled, trying not to remember what Naru had said about him falling overboard. "He's too resilient. And he's got some martial training. If he's kept his wits about him, he should be okay."

The sailor made a curious noise, which Ranma distantly identified as a question in English.

"Uh, no, I'm fine," she said, lowering her hand. "I need to find someone with maps of the sea around here. If I can figure out where he fell overboard, we can try and see where the current would take him." This sounded reasonable to Ranma, but she'd never actually tried to read a nautical chart, and from what she'd seen aboard the ship earlier, it wasn't going to be an easy task.

"Try the port authority," the sailor said, pointing back to a large building.

"Sounds authoritative," Ranma agreed, shrugging. "Thanks for the help."

The sailor nodded and called back, "Good luck!" as Ranma strolled away.

"Great," she muttered. "How am I going to tell Naru about this?"

As she drew near the vessel she'd arrived on, the crew waved to her, just finishing loading up their cargo of bananas. "So," the captain said, nodding to her. "Did the outfit we got you help you catch your man?"

Ranma resisted the urge to grit her teeth and instead smiled wanly. "He fell overboard on the way here," she replied. Stupid dress. Stupid heels. Stupid feminine undergarments. And, just for the heck of it, stupid Keitaro. She lowered her head and sighed. "I'm not giving up hope. But I won't be going back with you. I need to try and find him. I can't go back until I do. One way or another."

The crew paled at her announcement. "Oh," the captain said softly. "I'm… so sorry. I understand then. Good luck, Ranma-chan. And… if you need help, let me know. When you're ready to go back to Japan, you've got a vessel that'll welcome you aboard at any time."

"Thanks," Ranma said, smiling. "That means a lot to me. I hope I'll see you around."

The sailors all waved quietly as she turned away and started heading towards the port authority.

The phone was answered before the first ring was even complete. Ranma closed his eyes and sighed in resignation. "Hello, this is Naru, at the Hinata-Sou. Who is this?"

"Naru… this is Ranma."

"You made it to port all right?" Naru asked anxiously. "Have you found Keitaro? I managed to get a hold of the company he took a cruise with — Haruka did, really, since she's his aunt. We have his passenger number if you—"

"Naru," Ranma said quietly. "I want you to sit down and take a deep breath, okay?"

"O-okay," Naru said. "What's going on? What happened?"

"I found the ship he was on, and—"

"Something happened? He got food poisoning? Is he in the hospital right now?"

"Calm down! Look… the ship's crew remembered him boarding. And they do checks every so often to make sure all of their passengers are there. Keitaro… went overboard before he made it to the island."

Ranma winced at the telltale thud of Naru sitting heavily on the floor, followed by a crack as she dropped the receiver.

He heard her fumble for the phone and then quietly say, "I see."

"I think… Keitaro probably survived. I mean, he's not entirely hopeless. And he's got some martial training. There's a storm coming in right now, so they're closing down the harbor — I can't get out to look for him yet."

"Oh," Naru said, her voice sounding even more distant.

In the background he could hear someone, Suu, he thought, ask, "Naru? What's going on?"

"I'm going to try and get someone to help me figure out where he would have fallen overboard and where the current would have carried him. He could be clear of the storm, or he might have washed up on shore on one of the other islands around here. There's dozens of them, so I think he's got a very good chance of being okay."

"You do?" Naru asked, desperation in her voice. "He could still be okay?"

"Naru?" he heard across the phone from the background again.

"I do. Look, I'm going to stay here until I find him. I'm not giving up hope yet, and neither should you, all right?"

"Okay. I understand," Naru said. "Is… there anything I can do to help?"

"I hate to ask this, but… I'm kind of… broke. Could you wire me enough for another calling card? This one's almost out, and I'll want to keep you updated."

"What? Well, where should I send it?"

"The Japanese Embassy, if you can. Otherwise, well, I'll figure something out. Anyway. I've got navigation charts to get analyzed, so I'll catch up with you once I know more, okay?"

"In that case, I'm going to come to Pararakelse. You left your things behind, anyway."

Ranma opened his mouth to object, but froze before he actually spoke. Why not? It wasn't likely to be dangerous, just reviewing charts. And even if it were, as close as Naru and Keitaro had been, what right did he have to deny her? "Okay. That sounds like a plan, then. I'll see you when you get here — since I don't know your ship yet and there's no way for you to call me, just leave a message at the port authority," he said.

"Okay," Naru said. "I'll see you soo--"

The call was suddenly interrupted by a recorded voice, announcing, "Your calling card minutes have all been us--"

"Bah," Ranma grumped, hanging up the phone before listening to the entire recording. "Now to survive until she gets here with only one change of clothes and pretty much no money." He glanced at the outfit he'd folded away into a plastic bag. "Hmm."

"YeeeeeeaAAAAAAH!" Keitaro yelped, clinging on to the dorsal fin of one of the dolphins that had seen fit to rescue him from his predicament. "Wow! You guys are awesome!"

The storm was right behind them, but the dolphins refused to abandon Keitaro, and when one grew tired of hauling him along, it would simply dive and another would take its place.

"I'm gonna be a good person from now on, I swear," he promised. "No more failing tests. No more goofing off. I've been given a second chance, and I feel alive!"

Even better, the land was drawing nearer. What Keitaro had seen in the distance was not a distant outcropping of rock, as he'd originally thought. It was a small peak on a much larger island. From here he could see the green of what would be trees, though the sun was setting and the storm was closing in.

He still couldn't make out much in the way of details, but even if the island were uninhabited, he should be able to find… well… something to eat. "Island hermit," he mused to himself. "I could make a career out of that."

The dolphin below him chittered suddenly and dove, leaving Keitaro to flounder. "What? Huh? Oh, I'm close to land, eh?" he asked the dolphin, as it resurfaced nearby.

It seemed to nod at him.

"Well, I should be fine from here," Keitaro reasoned, starting to swim towards shore again. "Thanks, my friends! I'll never forget this!"

The dolphins all leapt from the water, flipping end over end before diving beneath the waves and vanishing from sight. "I was rescued by a pod of eight dolphins," he muttered to himself, after counting them. "Now that'll make an awesome story."

Not, he supposed after thinking about it, that an island hermit would tell a lot of stories, except perhaps to himself.

He paddled his way towards the beach, which was just coming into sight when the storm reached him. The rain reached him, pounding hard and accompanied by powerful winds, waves rising higher and more violently than before. "No! Not when I'm this close!" he yelped, as a massive wave crashed down on him, shoving him beneath the surface of the water.

And then a current gripped him, clawing and hauling him down and away from the shore. In a panic, he tried to fight it, only to get slammed into a boulder on the bottom of the sea. He clung to the boulder, hoping the current would pass and he could fight his way to the surface for air.

But if anything, the current increased, to the point where he could feel his boulder rocking back and forth, threatening to pry his grip from it. "No," he gasped, hauling in a desperate breath of… air? "Huh?"

He glanced down to see that his 'boulder' was actually a huge turtle, swimming into the shore against the storm's current. "Lucked out again," he wheezed, clinging to the turtle gratefully. The rain had been so intense, he'd managed to not even notice he had breached the surface on turtle-back.

"My awesome failing powers come in handy," Keitaro coughed. "Messed up the entrance exam to a watery grave."

Within minutes, he'd made land, and staggered into the jungle a few steps before passing out.

"So, that area's an undersea rise. Essentially, a very small dead-zone for ocean currents. Whatever was there would stay there," the man across the table from Ranma explained. "Anywhere nearby, or if he swam to the edge of it… it depends on which direction he went. East, and the current would move him further out to sea. West or south, and it'd sweep him near land somewhere along the east coast of the island."

"Well, that gives him good odds," Ranma mused, studying the charts. "And if he'd gone north?"

"Coral reef. The current is still dead there, but cruises often have people snorkel, so they'd probably spot him," the man explained.

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Things are starting to sound hopeful," he said. "Well, it looks like I've got an idea of where to look for him. If I have any more questions about currents, I'll come back and visit later."

"Any time," the man said, nodding.

Ranma rose from his seat and headed through the doorway, blinking when he nearly walked into Naru. The girl looked harried and worn, as though she hadn't rested in days.

"Um. Naru?" Ranma hazarded. "You okay?"

"Just… tired… from carrying… your backpack," she gasped, letting it slide from her shoulders and crash to the floor with a resounding thud. "Sheesh, what do you have packed in there, anyway?"

"Almost everything I own," Ranma replied. "Say, since you're here, why don't we get something to drink? I'll tell you what I've found out while you recover your strength a bit. There's a cafe nearby… I've got a part time night-job there waiting tables."

"Ah!" the man behind the table said. "You get to work with that new redheaded cutie?"

"Uh… yeah," Ranma said, shifting his shoulders uncomfortably, and then hefting his backpack from the floor. "Anyway, thanks again."

"Oh, any time, like I said," the man said, as Ranma and Naru left the port authority.

"So, what do we know?" Naru asked, already seeming to have recovered some of her strength.

"Well," Ranma said, looking down the steps from the entrance to the port authority. "The way the guy in there explained it, there's basically two currents that Keitaro could have gotten into. I don't think if he was washed overboard he would just sit there, so the big question is which way he went. From some spots in the area we think he went overboard, you can see this island, so I expect he'd head towards it. But from others, you can't, so I'm not so sure.

"Basically, if he went north, he was probably picked up by snorkelers from a cruise ship. If he went west, or south, he's going to have ended up south and east of here, on the island."

"And if he went east?" Naru prompted.

"Well… if that happened, he'll have ended up washed further out to sea," Ranma said glumly. "But generally speaking, assuming he didn't see land, he's got a three in four chance of survival. If he did see land, then I'm positive he'll have hit the right current."

"That… doesn't mean he survived," Naru said grimly.

"And it doesn't mean he didn't," Ranma said gently, guiding Naru to a seat at the outdoor cafe. "Uh… wait here a second. I'll be right out. Need to change really quickly."

Naru nodded, her eyes distant and her brow furrowed in thought.

After a quick trip to the bathroom, a splash of water, and a change of clothes, Ranma emerged and approached the counter. "Hey, Boss," she said.

The man behind the counter nodded, washing out a coffee cup with a wet rag. "What's going on, Ranma?" he asked.

"Ah, not much. I might be heading out for a bit in a day or two, just wanted to give you a heads-up. Also, can I get two ice cream parfaits?" she asked, smiling hopefully.

The man snorted. "Yeah, you get one complimentary drink a day, and you didn't get yesterday's. I'll let it go this time. Have a seat, I'll bring them to you."

"Thanks, Boss! You're the greatest!" Ranma said, smiling and batting her eyelashes.

The man blushed and bowed his head. Ranma returned to Naru's table and seated herself opposite the other girl. "Anyway," Ranma said, tapping one finger on the table thoughtfully.

Naru managed a smile at Ranma. "You're wearing a dress," she said, pointing. Ranma glanced down at the red Chinese dress and matching high heels.

"And you're wearing pants," Ranma replied. "It's… I had no spare changes of clothes. The sailors I came into port with thought that I was a girl because as it turns out, there's a lot of cold water in the ocean. Not a lot of hot water. They thought they were doing me a favor and picked this outfit up for me." She frowned, and added, "You know, my wife wore dresses like this all the time."

"They've got nice taste," Naru said, smirking. "She did too; it looks good on you."

"It landed me a job here," Ranma said, shrugging as her boss set a parfait before each of the pair. "Thanks, Boss!"

"Don't mention it," he said, winking as he made his way back behind the cafe's bar.

Sobering, Naru took a spoonful of her parfait before saying, "So, we need a plan of action. Ask the snorkelers, and then check the beach, right? How big is the beach, anyway?"

"It's about fifty miles long before it gets to some cliffs, according to the maps. The island's bigger east-to-west than north-to-south," Ranma replied. "The beach is easy — if he's been there, I should be able to track him. As long as the storm didn't wash his footprints away."

"Okay. Then I'll stay here and post some missing persons pictures around — I brought some with me, just in case," Naru explained, pulling them from her own duffel bag.

"Good thinking," Ranma said, nodding. "You could also check with the cruises, and people in town. I guess that means I'll be giving up the job here to check out the beach."

"Quitting?" Ranma's boss called from behind the counter. "You can't quit! Without a cute waitress, I'll get no business!"

Ranma blinked, and then stared at the man in alarm. "How sharp is your hearing, anyway?" she murmured.

"Plenty sharp when it's about losing an employee, even a part-timer," he said, frowning. "Do you need a raise? Because if you do I--"

"Actually, can I have his job?" Naru asked, looking at the proprietor. "I'm going to need to be in town for a few days, and a way to earn a bit of money while I'm staying here would help."

"What do you mean 'his'?" the man asked quizzically. "Well, if you want the job and Ranma won't be here, you're plenty cute, too."

Naru smiled cautiously at that. "Um… just so you don't get the wrong idea, we're both here looking for this one guy, and--"

The man let out a low whistle. "That's one lucky dog," he said, shaking his head. "Say no more. As long as I can keep one of you here for a while, I've got nothing to complain about."

"Thanks," Naru said, smiling brightly, and without reservation. "Can I put up a picture of the guy we're looking for at the cafe?"

"Oh, sure thing. There's a bulletin board there with public events and the like. Feel free," the man said dismissively, gesturing to the marquee in front of the cafe.

"Okay. You should get a room at the hotel down the street and rest after your flight. I'm going to work here tonight and head out to see the beaches tomorrow morning," Ranma decided.

"Where will you be staying?" Naru asked.

Ranma shrugged and pointed to her backpack. "It's a bit of a hike, and if I find him, I doubt he can keep up with me the entire way. I've got a tent and some other gear, so I'll be back in two days, three at the most. There's another village at the opposite end of the coast, so I'll give you a call at the hotel once I get there — unless I find him before I get that far and it's faster to come back here," Ranma explained.

"Where will you stay tonight, though?" Naru asked.

Ranma grimaced. "I haven't slept since I got here, but I'm doing fine so far."

"Oe… thank you for trying to find Keitaro," Naru said quietly, after a few spoonfuls of her parfait. "You sure are putting a lot of work into this."

"Well, Keitaro's my friend," Ranma replied. She moodily sampled some of her own parfait, and then added, "And… you are too, Naru. So I'm worried about him. And I really want to know why he ran away."

Naru nodded wordlessly in agreement.

"Ah," Keitaro sighed, relaxing next to the warmth of the fire. If he hadn't been found by Seta, unconscious on the jungle floor, he had no idea what would have happened to him. "That was delicious, Seta!"

"I'm glad you enjoyed it," the man said, laughing. "The way you ate, I thought you were your friend for a while!"

"My friend?" Keitaro asked, scratching the back of his head, and looking out at the dark sea, stars glinting overhead. "Oh, you mean Ranma."

"Yes," Seta agreed. "Now, Keitaro, what the heck are you doing out here? It's exam season right now. Shouldn't you be waiting for your test results?"

Keitaro sighed, the joy of surviving his trial diminishing at the memory of what he was running from. "I… don't need to wait to know how I did," he said quietly.

"Hmm, running away from the problem?" Seta asked.

Keitaro cringed and admitted, "Yeah… I am."

"Hey, that's how I deal with most of my problems! You can hide out with me — I could use someone to back me up on my dig!" Seta enthused, pounding Keitaro on the back.

"Well, I… I guess I could help," Keitaro agreed, slightly dazed with the force of Seta's friendly gesture. "But, um… where will we be going?"

"Oh, just around the island. There's a dig site I'm looking for… an old partner of mine said he found something here once. But then he vanished and I never heard from him again. I decided I was finally ready to start looking for what he left behind, but when I got here, well…." The man trailed off, and took a puff from his cigarette contemplatively. "As it turns out, desert bandits keep me from hiring any help. No one else is willing to risk them."

"Desert bandits?" Keitaro asked incredulously. "They have those here?"

"Eh… yeah," Seta said, nodding. "See, apparently a few years ago, there was a caravan that used to cross the desert pretty regularly. The west side of the island is mostly desert, and the west coast has no port. There's a few spots where a ship could harbor, though. So, this gang of smugglers would send people on this caravan across the desert to ships on the far side, and they'd skip customs."

"Okay," Keitaro said, frowning. "I'm guessing the bandits are people who attacked the caravan?"

"Well, not exactly. See, once the local government found out what was being smuggled, they declared all of the smugglers would be exiled from the cities until they agree to make restitution for the taxes they owe, and they've been hiding in the desert to avoid the law. Because no sane man will enter the desert, the smugglers can all hide there, and they prey on tourists that wander too far from the jungle."

"Right," Keitaro said, frowning as he considered this. "So, what were they smuggling?"

"I won't lie to you, Keitaro," Seta said, flicking his cigarette into the fire, and turning very solemn. "They were smuggling bananas. And nature has yet to invent a creature that fights as fiercely as a cornered banana smuggler."

Keitaro was about to laugh when he suddenly thought of Suu. "Oh," he said quietly, instead. "So, what do you want me to do if I help you out, then?"

"Dig, mostly," Seta said, shrugging. "The vast majority of the banana-bandits have turned themselves in because desert life is hard. I don't think we'll run into any of them, but it'll be good to have backup, just in case we do. You've been training under Ranma, right? You can practice with me too."

Keitaro considered, and decided, "Well, I guess there's no problem with that. I don't have anywhere else to go. At least if I can earn my way I won't feel bad about it."

"Oh, I'll pay you," Seta said. "Just, well, not much. Same as last time, actually."

Keitaro chuckled. "That's fine," he said, shaking his head. "So, what's our plan, then?"

"Tomorrow we should head into town to pick up some supplies," Seta answered. "Then we'll head into the desert."

"Okay," Keitaro agreed.

"Excellent!" Seta cheered, gripping Keitaro's hand firmly and shaking it. "You won't regret this!" More quietly, he added, "I hope."

"What was that, Seta?" Keitaro asked, after his hand was released.

"Nothing! Let's get some rest. Tomorrow's going to be a big day!"

After finishing a shift at the cafe, and picking up a handful of the local currency, Ranma headed south along the beach. About a mile away from the town, he stopped and set up camp. If Keitaro had landed in that stretch of beach, he'd have seen the town and gone there, he was sure.

An uneventful night passed, Ranma catching up on some much needed sleep before trekking along the shore not long after dawn. In the light of the rising sun, it was easy to see a multitude of footprints. But all of them seemed to lead from the town and then back; he was looking for a set that came from the ocean and lead to… well… Keitaro.

It was shortly after noon when Ranma found what he was looking for. Footprints from the sea could have belonged to anyone, but the exam ticket and page from a photo-sticker-book that had washed ashore next to them… those were uniquely Keitaro's. The footprints led to a campground, though someone had thrown dirt over the firepit. From there, a line of smashed down trees and tire-tracks lead to a road, turning north, back towards town.

"Huh," Ranma mused, rubbing his chin as he studied the camp. "This is getting… weird."

Keitaro looked around the town. It was pretty big, especially for an island he had originally planned to become a hermit on. "Hmm," he mused, glancing over a bulletin board with various fliers on it. "Wanted: assistant for excavation in the desert." He chuckled, then raised an eyebrow. The bottom edge of the sheet was cut into little strips with instructions to leave messages for Seta with the local chapter of the Archeologist's Guild.

Keitaro had never heard of such a thing, but supposed that it must exist, and would explain how Seta was able to access sites in so many other countries easily. The curious thing was that someone had pulled one of the tabs off, to take it with them. That might mean that he and Seta would have someone else to help them out on the dig.

Nodding to himself, he perused the board further, pausing when he found a mirror. Why would someone put a mirror on a bulletin board? And then scribble, "Missing person. Contact Narusegawa Naru at 'Pararakelse North Hotel' with information if found," on it?

He blinked again, and his eyes widened. "Oh, no!" he whimpered, turning around and running full-speed back to Seta's van.

He slid to a halt on the gravel before the van only to see Seta talking to… Shinobu? Bowing his head, Keitaro sighed. He'd been caught for sure, now. He had no idea how Naru had known to look for him in such a remote location, but if they'd gone so far as to bring Shinobu with them, he'd probably best turn himself in, and explain that he was going to stay with Seta due to his failure.

Then the girl turned around, and Keitaro blinked. That girl had too much of a tan to be Shinobu. After heaving a quiet sigh of relief, Keitaro asked, "Seta, how quickly will we be ready to head outside of town?"

Seta looked up. "Well, we were actually just about to go looking for you, Keitaro. Did you want to use the Guild's fax machine to send a message home before we leave?"

Keitaro was about to say "no," but then caught himself. "Yeah, I should do that," he said, nodding. He glanced at the square, nondescript looking building Seta had parked in front of. "Is this it?"

"Yep! Just go inside and tell them you're my assistant."

Keitaro nodded again. "Thanks — I'll only be a minute."

Mitsune regarded the new fax warily. "This is interesting," she mused.

"What's that, Kitsune?" Motoko asked, walking into the living room from the kitchen, where Shinobu was working on the evening meal.

"We, uh, got a fax. From Keitaro," Mitsune replied, waving the paper in front of her. "It's just, uh, kind of funny."

Motoko crossed the distance between the kitchen entrance and the phone in an instant, and held out a hand expectantly. Mitsune gave her the paper without complaint. Furrowing her brow, Motoko read the fax. "What?" she asked, incredulously, reading it a second time to ensure that she'd gotten in correctly.

Shinobu timidly peeked in from the kitchen. "What's going on?" she asked.

Suu jogged into the room from the hallway. "Family meeting time?" she asked.

"Something like that," Motoko replied. "Kitsune, where did this arrive?"

"Haruka handed it to me about five minutes ago, laughing to herself," Mitsune replied, smirking. "I think I know why."

"Well, that's obvious," the kendoka deadpanned.

"What does the letter say?" Shinobu asked, looking at Motoko curiously.

"Ah… well, read it yourself," Motoko said, shaking her head and handing the paper to the girl.

Shinobu took the sheet of paper in trembling hands, and read aloud, "'Dear everyone. I'm okay. I'm in Australia right now. Please don't come after me. Keitaro.'"

She blinked. "He's in Australia? But… but Naru went to Pararakelse!"

"Read the top of the paper," Mitsune instructed.

"Oh," Shinobu said, reading aloud once more. "'This fax was sent from the Archeologist's Guild Office on Pararakelse Island'." She blinked at that. "What?"

"Well, it looks like Keitaro's trying to hide where he is," Mitsune said. "But Ranma and Naru are probably close to catching him. I bet he saw one of them, and got away, then tried to use this fax to confuse us."

"But… he's alive," Shinobu said. "So he didn't vanish at sea after all!"

"Sure he did!" Mitsune countered. "He just came back."

"Well. We'll need to let Naru know what's going on, then," Motoko decided.

Shinobu frowned at that. If Keitaro were hiding from Naru and Ranma, maybe he wouldn't hide from someone else. And she'd been working hard on assembling everyone into a peaceful community. Once Haruka had convinced Ranma to stay with her own unique brand of persuasion, things had been going very well — until Keitaro vanished.

Obviously, she needed to get him back. If Naru was there, it couldn't be that dangerous. And hadn't Ranma been training them all in martial arts? She nodded to herself, plans percolating in the back of her mind.

Motoko's hand dropped to her shoulder, causing her to emit a startled squeak. "Don't even think of it," the kendoka warned. "I'm responsible for keeping you out of trouble right now, after all."

"What… are you talking about?" Shinobu asked nervously.

Motoko just shook her head. "Naru will bring him back, Shinobu. Just have a little patience."

Shinobu bit her lip… but Motoko was right. Aside from which, she'd need to plan for days to get past the kendoka. "Okay," she said quietly. "Dinner's almost ready. I should watch the stove." She strode back into the kitchen contemplatively.

Ranma took a seat at the cafe's table, and nodded at Naru as the girl wearily sat opposite him. "I'm glad I had practice waiting tables a few summers ago," she muttered. "I've got a quick break — what brought you back so soon?"

Setting the photo-sticker book page and exam ticket on the table wordlessly, Ranma slid them towards Naru. Her jaw dropped, briefly, and then she smiled. "So he's okay?" she asked, looking up at Ranma hopefully.

"Well," Ranma said, rubbing his chin, "yes, and no."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not sure what's going on," Ranma said with an apologetic shrug. "I found some footprints next to these papers. They led to a campsite. It looks like he met up with someone at the campsite, and then they got in a car or a truck and drove towards the city. I couldn't really track it once I got into town, so I don't know where he went from there… but it seems to me he should be in town somewhere," Ranma explained.

Naru looked at the exam stub and photo-sticker page thoughtfully. "Well, he's not getting off the island. I filed a missing persons report with the police, and they won't let him leave the island without letting me know about it. They'll also want to find him to get his passport, since he washed ashore somewhere," she said.

"Okay," Ranma said, nodding thoughtfully. "I'm not sure where we go from here, though. If he's in town, someone should spot him and let you know, right?"

"Right! I'll bet as soon as my shift finishes, we can go back to my hotel and get a message saying where he is," she said, smiling brightly. "This is great!"

Ranma nodded, not smiling himself.

Naru caught his lack of enthusiasm and asked, "What's wrong, Ranma?"

"Something just doesn't seem right. Something… about this island bothers me," he said, shaking his head. "I don't know what. It just makes me uncomfortable."

Naru sobered. "You probably haven't gotten enough sleep," she decided. "Here," she added, handing him a key. "I got a room with two futons. You can use the one I'm not, and get some sleep." She hesitated, and quietly added, "Though, uh, I'd prefer it if you were… um…."

"Yeah, yeah. Cold water and all that," Ranma said, waving a hand dismissively. "I guess that makes sense. And if someone calls, I can get the phone while I'm there. Okay, I guess I'll see you when your shift ends, then?"

Naru nodded, and Ranma took the keys. "Okay," she replied. "See you there."

When Naru returned to the hotel room, Ranma was in the bed in the far corner, just a red braid sticking out from under the covers, and sound asleep. The message light on the phone was blinking, and Naru wondered if Ranma had not seen it, or just didn't know what it meant.

Shrugging, she picked up the phone and checked with the operator in a hushed voice, her eyes hardening as she listened. Placing the receiver on the hook gingerly, as to avoid waking up Ranma, she sank to her futon, drawing her knees up to her chest, and wrapping her arms around them.

"That doesn't make any sense at all," she muttered. "What's going on?"

After a night of fitful sleep, Naru stared grimly at the rising sun, as Ranma woke up, yawning, behind her. The first rays of light were just reaching into the room, when the redhead climbed to her feet. "Morning," she said groggily.

"Yeah," Naru replied, looking back over her shoulder.

"Something wrong?" Ranma asked, waking up a bit more.

Naru turned around and faced Ranma directly, her expression fading to neutrality. "I think so. We got a message from Keitaro."

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Well, that's good. What was it?"

"He said, 'I'm outside of the inn, so it's okay to smack me around for being an idiot'," Naru replied.

Ranma cocked her head to one side, and considered this. "I'm guessing he spelled it differently?" she asked.

Naru sighed, hanging her head. "He's avoiding us!" she complained. "Why would he avoid us? Did we do something wrong?"

"Well, calm down," Ranma reasoned. "Let's think about this rationally. The best source for answers is going to be Keitaro himself, and you can't just push a friend away without explaining why."

Sitting down, Naru placed both hands in her lap, trying to think. "Okay," she said after a moment. "What happened, then?"

Ranma pondered briefly, and then said, "Well, we never actually talked to him. So… he thinks he did something wrong—"

"Or he really did do something wrong," Naru interjected.

Ranma shrugged, continuing, "And then he sees us, and he thinks he's going to be in trouble, so he runs away. We just need to talk to him and find out what's happening."

"Well, he really is going to be in trouble when I get my hands on him this time," Naru warned.

Ranma grunted. "I'm going to take a shower," she decided. "And then I'm going to start looking for him around town."

Naru nodded. "I think I'm going to stay until I find him," she decided. "If he's not in town, where else could he be?"

"Ah, there's only two towns on the island," Ranma said, smirking. "So, either in one of them, or the jungle."

"What about the desert?"

"I can't think of any reason that he would want to go to the desert," Ranma said, shaking her head. "So I'm going to leave looking there for last. Remember, Keitaro doesn't drive, so he's not alone."

"Hmm," Naru pondered. "I hadn't considered that, but you did mention tire tracks."

Heading into the hotel room's small bathroom, Ranma shrugged, making sure to bring a change of clothes with her.

"Keitaro!" Seta yelled over the sounds of explosives and gunfire. "Take these!" Rattled, Keitaro reached for what Seta was handing him — it looked like a small pile of juggling balls. "Open the sunroof, and throw them behind us!"

Nodding, Keitaro did as told, climbing up onto the middle seat and trying to stay out of Nyamo's way. The bandits behind them were aboard a trio of dune buggies, with rockets and machine guns mounted to their frames. It seemed to Keitaro that the recoil from the weapons should cause the buggies to overturn, but he supposed the half-dozen bandits wearing identical dust-cloaks, masks, goggles, and brandishing swords that clung to the side of each buggy might weigh them down.

He flung the balls into the air, up and behind the van, ducking to avoid an incoming hail of gunfire. Then he squinted, as he saw a handful of bullets strike the van's rear window, only to be deflected harmlessly. "Seta, does your van have bullet-proof windows?" he asked, just before the balls he'd tossed out exploded, emitting a massive volume of smoke.

"Of course!" Seta replied. "What kind of archaeologist would I be otherwise?"

Blinking, Keitaro made his way once more to the front passenger seat. "I guess I never really thought about that," he said quietly. "Um, is this normal?"

"Nah, but once in a while it's nice to enjoy a quiet dig without a lot of resistance," Seta said, shrugging. "That's why I'm able to be here without a full team."

"That's reassuring," Keitaro sighed, shaking his head. "Um, why are we bringing Nyamo into this, if those bandits are armed so heavily?"

"Oh, she's been looking for something her grandfather left in the desert, I think," Seta said, glancing over his shoulder to look at the girl briefly. "She told me she usually goes into the desert to search a few times a year. Of course, the other times, she's gone with her older brother."

"Where's he?" Keitaro asked.

"She says he stays in the desert and fights the bandits," Seta offered, shrugging. "That's all I could find out about him."

"Huh," Keitaro mused. "Maybe if we're lucky, we'll run into him."

Naru sat at the table the regular customers of the cafe tended not to use, recognizing it as her own. It was odd, she thought, that she could come to this island and settle into a routine so easily. Only a week and a half, and she knew a handful her customers by name.

Ranma approached, a bit later than usual, and Naru nodded at him, pushing a drink towards the opposite side of the table. He accepted it gratefully and sat down with a sigh.

"Anything?" she asked. Ranma's search of the southern town hadn't turned anything up so far, though he'd stayed there three days to be thorough. He had already said he doubted that Keitaro was in the jungle — and if he were, it would be near some place that a car could be parked.

That left the desert, which he'd started exploring, or at least, becoming accustomed to so he could cross it more easily. "I found something out," he said, before taking a sip of his drink. "Whoa," he said, blinking. "Good stuff, what is it?"

"Watermelon juice," Naru replied dismissively. "What did you find?"

"I finally did the obvious thing and checked with Motoko-chan at the inn — there's a clue on the fax we missed. So, they mentioned it was sent from the island, but didn't mention it was sent from the Archaeologist's Guild," Ranma said, pointing at a nearby building.

Naru blinked at that. "So, they remembered seeing him?" she asked hopefully.

"Yep. I found something else interesting. Noriyasu-san was in town looking for a pair of assistants for a dig out in the desert. He hired someone local, but they remember the other assistant asked to use the fax machine," he explained. He didn't mention that they also complained about the dozen other messages that Keitaro had apparently scribbled down, and then thrown away without sending.

Naru relaxed slightly, leaning back in her chair. "So he's safe," she said. "That's good."

Ranma grunted, taking another sip from his drink. "Well, this means he's out in the desert. Which is, incidentally, filled with bandits. I got attacked while exploring the edges of it — wasn't expecting that at all," he grumbled.

"Are you okay?" Naru asked in alarm.

"Yeah… they had guns on them, but they didn't see one on me, so they rushed me with swords," he said.

"You don't look hurt," Naru said, looking Ranma over. "What then?"

"Eh, I chased them off into the desert and then started heading back. One of them said he wanted all of my maps and digging tools before they attacked, which is part of what tipped me off to check the Archaeologist's Guild," he went on. "So after calling Motoko-chan I did that, got some of the dust off myself, and came back here."

Naru nodded thoughtfully. "Are we going after him?" she asked. She doubted she could handle bandits alone, especially if some of them carried guns.

Ranma shook his head. "I'm still thinking about that," he admitted. "Naru, you know what today is, right?"

"March… tenth, I think," she said, checking her watch. It was still set to Tokyo time, but she needed that to know when to call back to the inn, or her parents.

Nodding, Ranma asked, "And when are the exam results posted for Toudai?"

"March ten— oh no! We've got to get back to check!" Naru yelped, drawing a few glances from the patrons nearby. She jumped to her feet, and then froze for a moment, before sitting down heavily. "What if he got in?" she asked.

"Well, I found his ticket, so we can find out," Ranma said, shrugging. "Or, I guess, give the number to the girls at the inn. What's the final day for submission of the ticket stub?"

"March… fifteenth, I think," Naru said anxiously. "So do we take another day or two to look for him before heading home?"

"I hate to put Keitaro on hold, especially if he's out in a desert full of bandits. I think we should ask, uh, Mutsumi or Motoko-chan to check for us, and then we can mail out tickets from here before we go looking for him. And heck, if he gets in, we can send his in, too." Ranma sipped at his drink again, grimacing. "If I got in, anyway," he added quietly.

"Think positive," Naru chastised. "Maybe we'll all make it."

"Here's to hoping," Ranma said, raising his glass and draining the rest of the drink in a gulp. "I'm going to head to the hotel to call the inn. I'll give them Keitaro's ticket number. Meet you back there later tonight?"

"Sure thing!" Naru cheered. "This could have a happy ending after all."

Mutsumi hummed to herself, looking over the lists of names and ticket numbers for those who had made it into the school. Behind her, Shinobu, Motoko, and Suu pored over the numbers that Ranma had given them over the phone the night before.

"Ah!" she exclaimed. "There's… there's my number!" She felt lightheaded, nearly enough to swoon, but she kept her feet. "Hooray!"

"Congratulations, turtle-girl," Mitsune said, appearing at her side. "And hey, look! Naru got in, too!"

"And so did my sensei," Motoko said, pride in her voice.

"Well, looks like everyone got in, then," Mitsune said, clapping her hands together. "Let's go home!"

"Wait!" Shinobu protested. "We haven't found Keitaro's number yet!"

"Well, you can't find what's not there," Mitsune said, shrugging.

"We'll see about that!" Suu exclaimed, pointing at the far side of the sign. "Look!"

"Uh, Suu, writing Keitaro's name on a piece of tape and sticking it over someone else's name doesn't get him into the school," Mitsune said, ruffling the girl's hair.

"And it's somewhat rude to whomever has their name behind the tape," Motoko said, frowning at Suu as she peeled it off. "Really, you should apologize to this," she turned to look at the name beneath the tape, "'Urashima Keitaro' person."

Motoko froze, halfway turned back to look at the other girls, and blinked. "That name… seems… very familiar," she said slowly.

"No way!" Mitsune exclaimed. "There's another guy in town with the same name! What are the odds?"

"No, no," Shinobu protested. "That's him! That's the ticket number Oe-san gave us!"

All of the girls looked at Keitaro's name in subdued awe, except for Mutsumi, who simply smiled pleasantly. "Now all he needs to do is sign his ticket stub, and mail it in before the fifteenth," she cheered.

"Yeah, we just need him to-- Say, didn't Ranma say he found Keitaro's ticket?" Mitsune asked.

"And yet, they have not found Keitaro himself," Motoko said slowly. "This bodes ill."

"So… they've got to find him and get him to sign his ticket in time to get back here," Mitsune deduced.

"Oh, will that be a problem?" Mutsumi asked, cocking her head slightly to one side, and raising one finger to rest on her lower lip.

"I think we'd better call Naru and let her know what's going on," Mitsune decided.

Ranma was pacing the room when Naru returned. She didn't even have time to ask what was wrong before he said, "I got a call back from the inn — what would you like first, the good news, or the bad news?"

"Bad news," Naru said without hesitation. Best to get it out of the way.

"He's got to sign the ticket stub before we can mail it in," Ranma explained.

Naru looked at him oddly, and then it clicked. "He got in?" she asked excitedly. "But, that's great! Oh, wait, no it isn't! We've got to find him!"

"I can leave for the desert tomorrow morning. I can probably travel faster alone," Ranma said quietly.

Naru shook her head. "You think I'm soft?" she scoffed. "We've been keeping up morning practice; I can probably keep up with you."

He looked her over and then nodded. "Okay. We're going to want to leave at first light. The problem is that we don't know where he is. I checked with the Guild again, before they closed for the day, just to see if there were any clues, but Seta didn't say specifically where his site was, just that it was in the desert," he said.

"Is there an oasis in the desert?" Naru asked. "If they haven't come back in so long, they must have gotten more food and water from somewhere, right?"

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Good thinking," he said, shaking his head. "Let's look." He produced a map from his pack, explaining, "I got this from the Guild, too. There's three, it looks like. One of them is the bandit's base-camp. Then there's a river that runs from near town, into the desert. It submerges about a mile from the road, and runs underground until it reaches here," he said, pointing to a cape on the southwestern corner of the island.

"Okay. We should go along that river, and head to the oasis on the cape," Naru decided.

"Sounds fine," Ranma agreed. "It's going to be hard getting there and back here in time… but I think we'll be able to make it if Seta's got his van."

"Right. So… how did we do?"

Ranma grinned and shook his head. "If we can get to Keitaro in time, Naru, we all made it."

Naru grinned back, her joy held in check only by the need to get to Keitaro before it was too late. "Great! We should probably mail in our own tickets first, just in case, though," she warned.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Okay. It's too late to call the inn, now, so we should call them in the morning before we go."

"Good," she said with a nod. "Now splash yourself with cold water and get some sleep," Naru instructed. "Lots to do in the morning!"

Snorting, Ranma headed to the bathroom.

Humming to himself, Keitaro snapped back the rod with his right hand, his left expertly snagging the caught fish before it could go over his shoulder. "Lunch is captured," he called out.

Nyamo approached and smiled a little, taking the fish from Keitaro and then returning to her laboriously maintained 'kitchen' area. Sighing, Keitaro put down his hand-made fishing rod and turned to Seta, who was still examining hieroglyphs on a nearby wall of rock.

"So, how's it going?" he asked.

"Well, it's interesting, all right," Seta said slowly, not taking his eyes from what looked to Keitaro to be nothing more than pictures of turtles in different poses. "But it's not going to tell me how to get more gas."

"Think we could get some from the bandits?" Keitaro asked, not liking the idea, but not seeing any alternatives immediately.

"I'm not sure," Seta admitted. "It'd be pretty hard to separate them from their vehicles. But… they have to refuel them from somewhere, right? So, we just need to figure out where that somewhere is."

Shinobu counted out her life's savings remorsefully. There was no way she could afford to get to Pararakelse on that meager sum. But she'd need to try, somehow.

Sighing, she finished packing what she thought she would need, and set her pack on her shoulder. First things first, she'd escape through a secret passage. No one would expect that.

It took a few tries, and two wrong turns before she found the exit she was looking for — the one that came up beneath one of the steps to the inn. This would be out of sight from the inn itself, too. She struggled to climb out, until someone gave her a hand, and helped her up. "Ah, thank you, Moto… ko… san," she mumbled, looking up at the kendoka. "Um."

"No," Motoko said firmly. "As I said last time, Shinobu, you're not going to look for Keitaro. I'm certain that Naru and my sensei have everything well under control."

Shinobu sniffled. "But… I want to help him, too! What if he's avoiding Naru, but wouldn't avoid me?" she protested.

Motoko raised an eyebrow at that, and then shook her head. "Then Ranma will find him, beat him senseless, and carry him home, as appropriate," she asserted. "You should stop--"

"Motoko!" Suu suddenly cheered, popping up from the same secret passage. "Catch!" The girl flung a small metal ball at the kendoka, which Motoko deftly snatched from the air.

"What's this?" Motoko asked, looking at the device curiously.

"My electro-stun-bomb!" Suu cheered, as Motoko's eyes went wide and she stiffened, the sound of crackling electricity reverberating through the air.

"S-Suu?" Shinobu asked in disbelief, watching the silver-haired girl help Sarah up through the same exit. "What are you doing?"

"Going with you as backup! Intrepid Rescue Girl Shinobu and her Heavy Weapons Expert Sidekicks, ready for duty!" Sarah cheered.

Suu smirked, and added, "The Hinata's treaties are slowing down my creative progress. I need to get out in the world and use my inventions, or my talent is going to go to waste!"

"Um… okay, we should hurry… but how will we get to Pararakelse?" Shinobu asked, as the three girls jogged to the bottom of the stairs.

"Just you leave that to me," Suu replied, grinning.

Motoko returned to her senses when Mutsumi had patted her on the cheek a few times. Then she coughed, expelling a small puff of gray smoke. "What happened?" she asked dizzily.

"You looked stunned," Mutsumi replied, Mitsune behind her. "We saw a flash from the top of the stairs, and came to look after you. You were just standing here, frozen, like sleeping beauty."

Mitsune snickered at that.

Motoko blanched, remembering Naru's explanation that her first kiss was with Mutsumi. It was probably best not to ask for clarification, as her score would then be rather high in terms of girls and… at zero boys.

"I take it that Shinobu and the other girls are gone, then?" Motoko asked, instead.


Motoko sighed, and retrieved the bag from where she had stowed it behind a nearby tree. "Well, I'm headed after them, then. Are you coming with me?"

"Wait, you were expecting this to happen?" Mitsune asked, her expression shifting to display confusion.

"I planned for the eventuality, just in case, but I had hoped it wouldn't happen," Motoko corrected the other woman.

"That reminds me, Motoko," Mutsumi said. "The airline called to confirm that your flight leaves in an hour."

"That seems pretty thorough for a 'just in case'," Mitsune said, grinning.

Motoko blushed, and looked away. "Let's hurry and get to the airport."

"Trying to change the subject?" Mitsune asked. "Come on… was it because you wanted to chase after Keitaro? Or Ranma?"

Motoko's blush deepened, and she scowled. "I have no such inappropriate feelings for my sensei," she snapped.

"Oh, your flight was confirmed, too," Mutsumi added, smiling at Mitsune.

"Ah," Motoko said, sighing. "And what's your excuse?"

"I want a front-row seat for the mayhem!" Mitsune enthused, pumping a fist in the air energetically. "Let's go!"

Motoko hung her head. "And you?" she asked Mutsumi, raising her head to eye the girl speculatively.

"It seemed like it was such a nice trend," the girl said dreamily. "I imagine it's a lovely vacation spot!"

The most annoying thing about the desert, Naru reflected, was the heat. She had thought, somehow, that it would turn out that the desert would have some deeper, subtler cruelty. Sharp sand in her shoes, or maybe horrible cactus plants that shot needles. Heck, even a swarm of insects would be a welcome reprieve from the inane dullness of unrelenting heat. But no, after a few hours, the desert revealed that its deepest complexity was, in fact, the bounty of the sun's furnace.

"Stupid heat," Naru muttered tiredly. After half a day of trekking across the sand with only Ranma and the sand for company, she was exhausted. But Ranma hadn't shown any effect from the temperature at all, just putting on a wide-brimmed straw hat to shield himself from the sun. At least he'd given her one, too, which she was grateful for.

It was a struggle to keep up with him, though, and the worst part was that she had sworn she wouldn't slow him down! "Stop," Ranma suddenly ordered, putting a hand out behind himself, and dropping his backpack.

Naru gratefully sank to her knees, sitting back on her heels and catching her breath. "What's going on?" she asked, once she was sure she could speak without gasping for breath.

Ranma shook his head, and grimaced at her. "I… feel something I haven't sensed in years," he mumbled, his eyes seeming unfocused.

Naru looked around in confusion. It all looked like desolate, featureless desert, to her. But she wouldn't complain about the break. While Ranma concentrated, and looked around at nothing in particular, she sipped lightly from her canteen, remembering that it was important to conserve.

Ranma sighed, and shook his head again. "It was nothing," he grumbled. "Just my imagination. Sorry, let's keep going. We'll want to go for an hour or two after sunset, and then make camp."

Naru glanced at her watch. The sun set in about an hour and a half, and that meant she'd crossed the halfway point. Nodding to herself, she rose to her feet. "Okay," she said. If she'd made it that far, she'd make it the rest of the way. And then she'd find Keitaro.

After a brief two-day detour to Argentina, Shinobu had gotten Suu and Sarah on the right track, and arrived at Pararakelse.

Shinobu whimpered, looking around. For a remote island, the town was pretty big. And now she would have to contend with the fact that Naru and Ranma were already here; undoubtedly, they'd send her home if they caught her. Suu seemed unconcerned, puttering with one of her devices, and Sarah was looking at a nearby bulletin board.

"Found them!" the small blonde girl exclaimed, pointing at a row of pictures.

"Eh?" Shinobu noised, turning to look. There were six pictures there. Four of them looked familiar to her, and she blinked. Ranma, Naru, Keitaro, and… Seta? Then, the next picture was a girl that reminded her eerily of herself, and a much older looking picture of a man wearing a bandanna over his mouth, and goggles over his eyes. The other girl was named Nyamo, and the picture of the strange man was simply labeled, 'Desert Hero.' Above the pictures, there was a heading that read: 'Vanished into the desert and presumed missing.' "Lost in the desert?" she whimpered. "That's bad! Very bad!"

"Oh, come on," Sarah said, waving a hand dismissively. "Papa says it's not a real dig if he doesn't get lost in a desert or at sea at least once."

"Don't say that!" Shinobu exclaimed, clasping her hands together, unshed tears making her vision waver. "What are we going to do?"

"We go after them!" Suu cheered, indicating a sizable turtle-shaped craft.

Shinobu blinked the tears out of her eyes, and shook her head. "Where… did that come from?" she asked. The thing was the size of a jeep, at least.

"It was in my luggage," the silver-haired girl replied, grinning. "You like it? It should get us across the desert in no time, and has defensive capabilities, too! I've heard about bandits in deserts like this. Usually fierce banana smugglers!"

"Now that's just silly, Suu," Shinobu said, shaking her head. "But if it'll get us across the desert quickly, we can use it to search for Keitaro, right?"

"Right!" Suu cheered. "All aboard?"

"You're kidding, right?" Mitsune asked, peering into the sandy wastes. "We're headed into that? On foot?"

"Do you want to find Keitaro or not?" Motoko asked in annoyance. "If there's another way across the desert, I'd like to see it."

"Oh, man. Are you sure they went this way?" Mitsune asked plaintively.

Motoko nodded. "Sensei left his route with the Archaeologist's Guild, in case something went wrong. They also said that Noriyasu-san's daughter stopped by to ask for his route, but it wasn't listed. So we know that Shinobu is out there, too. We should be right behind them."

"Hopefully we can catch up," Mutsumi said. "Would you like a slice of watermelon, Kitsune-san?"

"If we're headed into this offense to fair and moisturized skin, yeah, I could use a slice," Mitsune sighed. "Do we at least get hats or something? I don't want to get sunburned."

Motoko's left eye twitched. "The day you spent shopping before letting us begin our search wasn't enough?" she grumbled.

"Hey, not a lot matches with sand," Mitsune countered. "You gotta coordinate."

"So, why didn't you pick up a hat?" Mutsumi asked, handing each of the others a slice of watermelon.

"Ah," Mitsune grinned, reaching into her bag and pulling out a trio of white outfits. "I got us all nice comfy desert ensembles. Tah-da!"

Motoko stared at the light, loose fitting clothing. "That… seems sensible, actually," she grudgingly admitted.

"And hats for all," she added, winking. "Now let's get changed so we can get this over with."

Shinobu panted for breath. The searing heat was brutal, and the brightness of the sun threatened to blind her.

After the turtle had deleted its battery, she'd been reduced to staggering along the sand, hauling Suu and Sarah behind her. "So… tired," she whimpered. "Why didn't I listen to Motoko?"

She froze, blinking at the sound of a revving engine. A car? Someone was out in the desert? Salvation!

She dropped Suu's and Sarah's arms, and looked around. There it was again! Certainly a motor of some kind. No, now there were two of them. Or was that three?

She'd just determined where the sound was coming from when a trio of extremely battered and sand-scoured dune-buggies shot over a distant dune headed straight for her. "Saved!" she cheered. "We're going to make it!" Waving, just in case they'd somehow miss her, she called out, "Over here!"

As the buggies sped closer, she stopped waving and blinked. There were an awful lot of men on each buggy. And most of them were waving swords, an assortment of clubs, some hammers, and various other dangerous looking weapons. This might not be a good thing.

The buggies drew to a halt about twenty meters away, and Shinobu sank to her knees as the men all dismounted, forming a semi-circle around the three girls. "This'll be an easy one," one of the men said, sheathing his sword. The only thing that distinguished him from the other men were his exceptionally bushy eyebrows. "Give me all of your valuables!"

"But… but… I don't have anything!" Shinobu protested. "We're lost out here all alone! Won't you help us?"

The man snorted, and his bandits laughed to themselves. "What's our motto, men?" he asked, looking around.

As one, the bandits replied, "What's in it for us?"

"But I don't have anything!" Shinobu protested again.

"Sure you do," the man said, grinning. "We found you by following the pile of unloaded weapons and bananas you left in a trail behind you."

She blinked in confusion, then looked at Suu curiously. The small foreigner remained unconscious. "What?" Shinobu asked, looking at the bandit leader. "We have weapons?"

"Or you did," the man said, shrugging. "But since you've got to have dropped them all by now, I think we're ready to fight."

"Oh no," Shinobu moaned. "Why me?"

"Well," the man said, thoughtfully. "We tried getting the old guy in the van, but he set up a smoke-screen and got away. We tried getting that young couple, but the guy kicked our butts and threw a tornado at us. So now we're aiming at a target that we can actually handle — a little girl and her two unconscious friends seems about our speed."

"That's not fair!" Shinobu wailed. "Shouldn't you just get another job? Maybe you're not good at being bandits!"

The man laughed and drew his sword, taking two steps forward. "Now, just—"

He cut off suddenly, his eyes widening. Shinobu looked around, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. She could distantly hear the sound of something… a keen whistle, like something flying through the air quickly. She blinked, wondering if it was all a mirage, as a large red bamboo umbrella spun into view from behind a sand dune, handle pointing down, edges flaring outward, straight across the sand in a line towards the bandits.

"CRAP!" the bandit leader yelled. "It's that freaking moron who crashed our banana smuggling ring! Get him!"

Shinobu only had time to blink, as the men struggled to get their guns from their buggies, and a slew of yellow streaks began flying from around the umbrella. The men all dodged the umbrella itself, which turned around and crashed to the ground heavily near Shinobu, but the yellow streaks all flew true, hitting the bandit's guns from a distance and slicing them in half.

"Hiko!" a voice bellowed as a figure leap from behind a dune, one fist raised above his head. "We finish your nonsense today!"

Shinobu blinked, looking up at the figure. He was large, probably taller than Motoko or Ranma, but not quite as tall as Seta. He had broad shoulders, and wore boots laced up to his knees. He had a yellow bandanna with black flecks on his head, another covering his mouth to protect it from dust, and goggles over his eyes. His shirt was yellow, though heavily smudged with desert dust, and his leggings were dark brown. A duster flared out behind him, like a cape.

As he crashed to the ground, his fist slammed into it, sending out a huge wave of dust. Thinking quickly, Shinobu scrambled to get the umbrella between her friends and the advancing wall of sand. It was heavy, but Shinobu had been hauling Suu and Sarah across the desert for a while, so she quickly got it in place with enough time to duck behind it before the sand hit. After the initial blow, she peeked over the top of the umbrella, blinking. Was this the man who was called the 'Desert Hero'?

He stood surrounded by six men with swords, and snapped his belt off. It stayed straight, like a rod, and when he blocked a sword with it, the blade was cut in half. It took him only a few seconds to disarm all the men, and knock each one out with a single powerful blow. Reinforcements came, but fared no better, until it was only him and the bandit leader.

"Hiko," he growled. "Don't you think it's time to grow up, turn yourself in, and get a real job?"

The bandit leader fidgeted, and said, "Um, well, normally I'd challenge you and make some mocking comment. After all, this is only, what, the billionth time you've decimated us? So, we're out of weapons now. Either we start to rob people at rock-point, or give up. But, uh, I'm personally leaning towards the retirement option."

"Are you forgetting something?" the desert hero asked in a menacing tone.

"Um… I'm sorry?" he squeaked out, shooting an apologetic glance towards Shinobu.

The desert hero grunted, and shook his head. "You should atone for what you have done," he said. "Some of us… do not have that option. Now go."

"Sure thing!" Hiko replied, scrambling to get his men awake and on their buggies, swiftly headed away from the one who had disarmed all of his men.

Shaking his head again, the man tucked his belt back into place, and started heading towards Shinobu. Then he paused, and looked at a nearby sand dune, with a lower, flatter top than the others around it. "Saotome?" he asked curiously, though Shinobu was sure it wasn't directed at her.

He sighed, and turned to look at Shinobu, though he seemed surprised to see her. "Nyamo?" he asked, before adding something in English. Shinobu had enough time to blink before exhaustion caught up to her and she swooned.

When Shinobu awoke, it was to Motoko's prodding. "Auugh," she said slowly, blinking up at the kendoka. "Ah! I'm sorry! Please don't be mad at me!"

"I'm glad you're doing well," Motoko said, shaking her head. "We will discuss the rest later."

Shinobu sat up and hung her head. She was lying beneath a shade that someone had set up, four posts and a good length of white sheet overhead. Sarah and Suu sat nearby, munching on watermelon slices while Mutsumi watched.

"What… happened?" she asked.

"We found your camp," Motoko said, shrugging. "Your skill at desert survival is superior to my expectations. Perhaps I should not have warned you away from this place after all."

"Eh? What do you mean?"

"You set up this camp, didn't you?" Motoko asked, gesturing to the shade overhead, and a large canteen sitting nearby.

"Um… no," she said, apologetically. "We… got attacked by bandits. Then someone saved us and I guess he set this up for us."

"Bandits?" Motoko asked in amusement. "This island is far too small to support any kind of bandit population, Shinobu. Perhaps you were delirious, or it was heatstroke. Here, eat this. Suu? Sarah, what do you remember?"

Shinobu looked, and accepted the watermelon slice she was offered. Suu looked thoughtful, then spat out a watermelon seed, and said, "I remembered thinking I should have installed air conditioning on the mecha-tama mark four."

"Yeah, I remember thinking you should have done that, too," Sarah muttered.

"Anyway," Motoko overrode them. "You've gotten almost all the way to the oasis. Once you finish recovering a little, we'll head there. It's cooler, so you'll feel much better when we do." The kendoka produced a pair of straw hats, putting one on Shinobu, and the other on Sarah. Suu was already wearing her own wide-brimmed cloth hat.

"Okay," Shinobu agreed, nodding. At least she wasn't being sent home before she'd get a chance to talk to Keitaro.

Naru looked around warily, listening for the sounds of a bandit dune buggy approaching. So far, they'd only attacked in small groups, and Ranma said he thought they were reserving their full forces. He'd been able to fend them off quite well, but on two of the attacks, Naru had needed to fight off at least one bandit, as well.

She was glad she'd kept up her training with Ranma once she got to the island, as she wasn't sure she would have fared as well otherwise.

"Okay," Ranma said setting his backpack down, and clenching his fists at his sides. "This is driving me nuts." Throwing his head back, he bellowed at the top of his lungs, "Ryouga! Show yourself!"

The silent desert didn't even echo his yell back to him. He glared into the desert, looking around expectantly for a long while. Naru blinked and raised one eyebrow. "Um… what?" she asked.

"I can… his… ugh." Ranma shook his head. "Martial artists can often sense the ki of other martial artists they know well. He's been on this island for a while — I can sense him all over it! But… it's so fleeting… so vague. Where the hell is he?"

He spun around, peering at the horizon behind him and sighed. "Well, I guess—"

And then the sound of a revving bandit dune-buggy engine interrupted him, and he blinked. Smacking his forehead, he grumbled, "I'm such an idiot! Naru, when you see me starting to move in a spiral, throw yourself flat on the ground, okay?"

"Okay," Naru agreed, not really understanding what was going on. But just as Ranma had said, a trio of dune buggies burst into sight, pulling to a halt a dozen yards away and unloading about twenty men. Naru took an involuntary step back. They'd never faced more than seven at once, before. This was an awfully sharp increase in numbers.

"All right," Ranma said. "Let's make a deal. I'm pretty sure I've knocked teeth out of a few of you already, so I'm going to hope you want to listen, because I'm in a bad mood and don't want to hurt anyone I don't have to."

"Deal?" one of the men scoffed, stepping forward. "We don't deal. This is our land. The law holds no claim here, stranger. You may be good in a fight, but you can't take us all on at once. Give us your money and your valuables." After a pause and a glance at Naru, he added, "And your woman."

"Hey!" Naru protested. "I'm not his woman!"

"Then you're free for the taking?" the bandit leader asked, grinning.

"Why, you— Oooohhh…." Naru shook her fist at him angrily.

"Don't get your temper up, whatever you do," Ranma whispered to her.

Naru's fury faded quickly. She needed to act rationally against this many men. Ranma was right. "Sorry, Sensei," she mumbled.

"Well, you can try and take things from me, but I don't think you'll have much luck. The deal I'm offering you is that if you leave us alone, I won't kick your sorry butts," Ranma replied, smiling pleasantly.

"Ah, how about… no?" the bandit leader suggested, grinning. "Okay, leave the woman for last — GET HIM!" All of the bandits drew swords and charged Ranma.

Naru quickly backed away to give him room, but he didn't wait for the bandits to reach him — he charged in, arcing about in a wide circle. To her eyes, the bandits were worthless in terms of skill compared to Ranma or Motoko. These thugs would need to train for years to even bring this fight to the level of their daily practices.

Though… there were an awful lot of them. Ranma wove through them effortlessly, winding his footsteps in a spiral pattern. Naru nodded, remembering his first fight against Motoko, and threw herself flat just before he finished dancing around the last few bandits, and reached the center of his route. "Hiryuu Shouten HA!" the cry rang out, and in the desert heat, the whirling vortex of air was even bigger than it had been against Motoko, quickly whipping Naru's hair about, and pulling her hat off.

The thugs and their dune buggies were swept up in the storm, along with most of the upper half of the dune. When it cleared, Ranma was standing in the center, atop a now slightly flattened rise in the sand, though he too had lost his hat. He looked upwards, and frowned. "I wonder if they reached the ocean," he mused.

"Are you kidding?" Naru asked, looking around.

Ranma snorted. "Did you see them land somewhere else?" he asked.

"…you know, Oe-sensei, you're kind of scary when you're angry," Naru finally said.

"Believe me, that technique requires absolute calm," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Soul of ice. Anyway. We're close to the oasis. If we press on, we won't have to spend another night out here."

"Right," Naru said, grunting as she hefted Ranma's pack, and held it out for him. He took it from her, shouldering the burden, and consulting his compass before resuming the journey.

Keitaro hummed to himself, dusting off and cleaning the large clay pot that he and Seta had discovered earlier that day. The oasis was a nice base camp, even if they were going to be stuck for a while. Truthfully, he doubted Seta was highly concerned, either. And for whatever reason, Nyamo didn't seem to mind.

Come to think of it, he reflected, this wasn't a bad way to live. "I kind of think I could get used to the quiet and calm," he said aloud, to no one in particular.

Seta suddenly cried out, "Ha!" and started running towards his van at top speed.

Keitaro set down the pot, and rose. "What's wrong?" he called to the man questioningly.

"Could be bandits," Seta replied, drawing a sword from the stack of supplies, and looking up expectantly. The entire oasis sat at the bottom of a series of cliffs, only two routes leading down to the basin floor from the desert. One of those channels was a river, and the other was simply a dry riverbed. The only other way to come down would have been over the cliffs, but Keitaro imagined any bandit would scout from there before heading down.

Raising a hand to shade his eyes as he scanned the cliffs, Keitaro blinked, seeing a blurred form leap from the wall. "Wait, is that—?" He had just enough time to dive to one side as the form slammed to the ground where he was standing, narrowly evading… whoever it was.

Sprawled out, he rolled over, looking up in time to see Ranma looming above him, and glaring downward fiercely.

Keitaro's jaw dropped, and he heard Seta approach. Ranma reached one hand in his pocket for a moment before producing a slip of paper. "You lost this," he said holding it out, and offering a strained smile.

The junior archaeologist blinked, sat up, and looked at 'this'. The slip of paper was… a handwritten note? No, a series of notes! He read through them quickly. "So… you came out here to tell me that the girls all wished me luck on the test?" he asked, looking up at Ranma in confusion.

"Other side, idiot," Naru snapped.

"Oh, right," Keitaro said, flipping it over. "Oh. My exam ticket." He frowned, and looked up at Ranma. "Why did you bring this to me?"

Naru growled, "Because, you idiot, you got in! You passed!"

"And then you just ran away!" Ranma grumbled. "I'm not allowed to, so you can bet I'm not lettin' you get away with it either."

"Well, I— Naru?" Keitaro turned to look, and sure enough, she was standing next to Ranma. "When did you get here?"

"A few seconds ago. The cliff looked a bit steep for a jump," she said. Turning to Ranma, she asked, "Would you like me to hit him for you?"

Ranma sighed and sank to a sitting position. "Nah. I think I wore my temper out on those bandits," he said. "Hey, Noriyasu-san. How's your dig going?"

"Pretty well!" Seta said, smiling. "Nice of you to drop in! I don't suppose you brought any gas with you?"

Ranma shook his head. "Sorry, Noriyasu-san. Anyway, today's the thirteenth," he said to Keitaro. "That means we've got to get you back to town by the day after tomorrow."

"Well, actually, you don't," Keitaro said, crumpling the ticket up, and tossing it over his shoulder. "I'm enjoying my time here. I'd like to be an archaeologist, like Seta."

"I'm glad to hear that!" Seta said, grinning. "But, you know, Toudai is a great school for learning to become an archaeologist."

"But I didn't get in!" Keitaro protested, looking at Seta anxiously.

"Okay," Ranma said, covering his eyes. "I take it back. Naru? Can you please hit him for me? Just once?"

"Gladly!" Naru replied, slapping Keitaro lightly on one cheek.

"Ow," Keitaro yelped. "That was… well, it kind of stings! What was that for?"

"Even when I'm nice to you, you whine! Well, fine. I haven't even gotten to what I'm going to do to you for running away. That was for not getting the point. Keitaro, you remember that exam you took?" Naru asked.

Grumbling, Keitaro allowed, "Yeah, I do. You keep bringing my failure up."

"Keitaro, you idiot," Naru sighed. "You didn't fail. You passed!"

Keitaro blinked as the realization set in. "I… passed?" he asked. "ACK! I crumpled my ticket!" In a panic, he dove for the scrap of paper, quickly smoothing it out. "It's still okay!" he cheered. "Now, I just need to sign the bottom and send it in! I can't believe it!"

"Well, here's where we run into a problem," Seta interrupted. "We're out of gas, Keitaro. And we've got to get back to town to turn the ticket in."

Keitaro's eyes widened. "I'm doomed!" he moaned. "Doomed!"

Shinobu watched from a few steps away from everyone else. Too much had happened too quickly, and she was trying to set everything straight in her mind. Ranma sat to one side, apparently uncaring of the situation as he leaned against a tree. Keitaro was trying not to panic, and Naru and Seta desperately exchanged ideas on how to cross the desert. Motoko and Mitsune silently considered, while Suu worked on her mechanized turtle.

Mutsumi simply sat nearby and watched Ranma, though her nearly perpetual smile had been replaced with confused curiosity. And then, there was another girl, who Shinobu thought reminded her eerily of herself. Or would, she suspected, if she got a tan. Nyamo would be her name, according to the poster she'd seen in town.

"Okay," Ranma suddenly called, prompting all to fall silent and look at him. "I've got a plan. Motoko-chan and I will go to the bandit stronghold, and just get some gas from them. I'm sure they owe us for those hats they made me and Naru lose anyway."

"This sounds a good plan," Motoko agreed.

"Well—" Keitaro began, before Ranma cut him off, shaking his head.

"We don't have a lot of time. Motoko-chan, you might want to rest up; we'll head out at about an hour before sundown. It should be cold and dark by the time we get there," Ranma decided. Then he frowned and glanced across Keitaro, Seta, and the girls curiously. "In the meantime, have any of you seen a really big guy on this island?"

"What… kind of question is that?" Mitsune asked, scratching her head. "A big guy?"

"I dunno," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Last I saw him he was, eh, a bit taller than me. But I was shorter, then. He had short black hair, wore a yellow bandana… carried an umbrella. Doesn't ring any bells?" He glanced across everyone, his eyes skipping over Shinobu briefly, before snapping back and locking onto her.

She resisted the impulse to step back, knowing that the cold spark of anger in Ranma's eyes couldn't be directed at her, but feeling it anyway. "I… did," she managed tremulously. "He… saved us from the bandits. And then made the bandits agree to give up their ways forever."

Nyamo said something in English, then, though Shinobu could only pick out a handful of the words. She looked at Keitaro in befuddlement, and he offered, "She's says that he's a local hero, Ranma. Apparently he's responsible for keeping the bandits down."

Ranma's eyes lit up, the fury igniting within them. "That bastard's toast if I get my hands on 'im!" he snarled. Shinobu jumped with alarm, momentarily panicked, and was relieved to note she wasn't the only one. "I'm goin' out ta the desert ta think for a bit. I'll catch up with you before sundown, Motoko-chan."

Everyone watched in silence as he stalked away, the shimmers of the air in desert heat seeming somehow to be more intense immediately near him, until he reached the cliff top, and vanished from sight.

"Oh," Mutsumi sighed sadly, shaking her head. "He hasn't forgotten at all."

All eyes immediately turned to the woman, as she stared wistfully at the point where Ranma had disappeared from sight. "Spill!" Mitsune demanded. "This is weird, even for Ranma, and I want to know what's going on."

"I didn't think my education was something he'd get into a murderous rage over," Keitaro murmured.

"At a guess," Seta warned, cutting off further speculation, "it's nothing to do with us. I'm sure at this point that if Oe-san wanted us to be involved, he'd let us know."

"You're right," Mutsumi agreed, climbing to her feet, and dusting the sand off of the flowing white desert robes that she wore. "I'm going after him."

"Er, are you sure that's wise?" Keitaro asked, frowning. "You know, the desert's dangerous, and— OW!" Then he said nothing clearly for a moment, though he made several abortive noises that sounded like they aspired to be communicative. He jumped up and down on one foot while clutching the other in both hands, shooting Naru an annoyed glance. Naru merely looked innocent and surprised.

When Keitaro had settled down, and said nothing else, Naru quietly said, "Keitaro. Once I knew where you were, and I told Ranma I was going after you, he knew better than to stop me."

Keitaro's face reddened, and Shinobu winced. Well, she decided, sighing, that was it. That final confirmation. She already knew, she was certain, who Keitaro liked. But if Naru was going to spell it out for him…. She smiled, feeling a sudden sensation of relief. It wasn't that bad; the clues had let her know for weeks what was going on. She'd had plenty of time to prepare herself.

Shaking her head, she dismissed that for the moment, watching Mutsumi slowly climb the path up the cliff, and vanish after Ranma. "I bet they'll be hungry when they get back," she decided. "Is there anything that needs to be cooked?"

Some distance into the sands, but not so far that he couldn't get back to the oasis within a minute or two, Ranma sat atop one of the desert's taller dunes. He could see no telltale dust plumes to suggest bandit activity, but that thought only disappointed him. The dust of movement was only a precursor to the dust of battle.

And Ranma wanted a fight badly; he practically ached for it, and knew better than to ask Motoko or Seta to spar. Bad enough he had collapsed back through all of the training he and his brother had done to improve his speech. Bad enough he'd found his rage at Ryouga so quickly. But to lose it in front of the girls like that?

To make even Motoko jump in nervous fright, to mention nothing of the moment of stark terror he'd evoked in Shinobu's eyes. Seta's eyes held nothing more than sympathy and regret, which Ranma couldn't understand. But Mutsumi….

Such pity! She felt so sorry for him; he could see it in her gaze, and that sad smile….

He raised his right hand into a fist and angrily punched the desert next to him. "Stupid sand," he growled. "Stupid… stupid…." He trailed off, punching it again, and again, until his knuckles were raw and sore. The sand was merely slightly dimpled. He stared at his knuckles for a moment, and then dropped his hand to his side with a sigh. "No. I'm the stupid one," he muttered.

"You're not stupid," Mutsumi's voice came to him.

He was on his feet in a heartbeat, turning to face her before he finished rising completely, but quickly sank back to his dune. "Why are… you here?" he asked dumbly. To make him realize how low he was by showing more of the pity he could see on her face? "I don't need your pity," he added quietly, looking away.

"It's not pity, Ranma-kun," Mutsumi corrected gently, sinking to kneel before Ranma, and taking his wounded hand between both of her own. "It's sympathy."

"How would you know?" he managed half-heartedly.

"Because… when I used good-girl's exercise number one, I saw exactly why you're angry right now," she said quietly. "Remember? And I know you're angry because you're hurt. And because of what you couldn't do. That girl… you loved her, didn't you?"

Ranma took a deep breath, and closed his eyes, turning his face to the sun. "I did," he managed in a wheezing voice. "She meant… a lot to me."

"Do you… want to talk about it now?" she asked hopefully.

He wanted to scream, to shake his head, to run away, to…. "I think… if I don't," he managed, shakily, "I'm gonna explode. I've been running from this too long. I…. Okay, look, Mutsumi-chan. I can't ever tell this to anyone else, because I'm breaking my word of honor already by telling you."

She nodded her understanding, and promised, "I'll never speak of it with anyone but you and Tama-chan, Ranma-kun."

He snorted at that and shook his head. "The only reason I'm telling you is because you'll figure it out anyway, probably. You… remember some of what happened to me, right?"

She nodded again, and moved to sit next to him, still clasping his wounded hand in both of hers, though she set those in her lap, and offered him a comforting smile.


To be continued.

Author's notes:

A:) I've always wanted to do this. Remember way back in the day, when it was 'cool' to make fun of the fact that there was a flashback coming? Me neither. But I remember that people did it anyway, and now I get to, as well: Next chapter is a few pounds of raw flashback, seasoned with a bit of rehash, and then simmered in a fine stew of new bits. Very little humor, however! So be warned.

II:) This chapter was originally two parts, but they were both very short, so I decided that you're just going to have to accept this chapter as the spring special. Sorry!

π:) This is pretty much leading into the final arc of the story, which should end by chapter 18 at the most, I think. Flashback, resolution. Maybe a handful of epilogues.

—Brian Randall

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