DISCLAIMER: Relatively standard stuff. Existing characters are properties of the people who made them up. Mitsuki, and several other characters are mine, and so's the story, hence ownership and copyright of them belongs to me. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want permission to use anything I've written for whatnot purposes.
** Cheque, Please **
Ranma eyed the cats. The cats eyed Ranma. Mitsuki eyed Ranma. Hotaru eyed Ranma. Rei kept her eyes firmly locked on the cats.
"C-c-c-cats!" Ranma stuttered, finally managing to lift a hand and point at them.
"Meow," Luna added, helpfully.
That just made it worse. Ranma jumped backwards, back through the door. He forgot Hotaru had hold of his hand, and she was jerked before he broke free. And Ranma was gone.
Curiously, there was a Ranma-shaped hole in the outside wall directly out of the doorway. Hotaru frowned. What was it with Ranma and cats? She turned back to the senshi. "I'll go see what's wrong with him." Usagi nodded. Mitsuki caught Hotaru's arm as she turned to go out past her.
"Be careful," the older senshi said, but Hotaru wasn't sure if Mitsuki meant she be careful of Ranma, or be careful for Ranma. She held Mitsuki's eyes for a moment, then turned, and followed her idol's exit path. At the hole, she poked her head through. No Ranma on the ground; likely he was up on the roof again, where she'd found him.
She took the stairs to the roof, where the washing line was, and then shakily climbed the rickety ladder leading up to Ranma's favourite thinking place of late. Ah, there he was. Shivering, which was weird, all crouched up. She walked up behind him quietly, and called out a quiet, hesitant "Sempai?" at one point, but he wasn't paying attention. She tapped him on the shoulder when she was close enough.
"YEEAAAAGH!" Ranma jumped up and around in fright, scaring Hotaru. She took a step back, lost her footing, and started to go over. But Ranma recovered from his fright long enough to grab her, wrapping his arms about her waist and pulling her up into a hug. It was completely impulsive, and Hotaru struggled against it for a moment, then realised, hey, this is what I've been working towards. It was about then that Hotaru laid her head on his chest, brought her arms up and hesitantly patted his back.
Slowly, Ranma stopped shivering and shaking under her hands, and looked down. "Uh..." What does one say in a situation like this? "Thanks."
Hotaru smiled to herself, down on Ranma's chest. Then she pulled away from him, carefully, eying the height again, and stepped back. "Sempai? Are you all right?"
Ranma shook his head. Slowly, the other senshi were filing up onto the lower roof, where from the very edge, they could just see Ranma and Hotaru. Luna and Artemis came with them, padding weakly up the stairs and then being picked up by Usagi and Minako. "Is he all right?" Luna asked.
Usagi shrugged. "He's always seemed wacko to me."
Rei gave her a brief, distracted push. "You just say that cause he's cuter than Mamoru."
"I DO NO- ahem," Usagi stopped when luna looked up at her.
"This isn't a jealousy issue, is it, Usagi?"
Usagi shook her head emphatically. Then, under the glares of the other senshi, she dropped her head and nodded. "Everyone else talks about him all the time, like no one's got a boyfriend of their own," she grumbled.
Ami raised her head, and went to say something, but then thought the better of it and went back to her laptop. Makoto shot a glance at Rei, who seemed to find interesting shapes in the clouds.
"Sempai?" Hotaru repeated, gently.
Ranma looked up. "Hotaru-chan? I'm... yeah, thanks."
"It's a long story. A really *long* story." Ranma looked away from Hotaru, up the mountains behind the dormitory buildings and springs, and rubbed at his chin. He had been so tired from not sleeping the night before, but now... well, now he was just wired. As if someone had poured adrenylin into his blood, pure and undiluted. His eyes were wide open, too. Residual effect from fear, he knew, and Hotaru suspected. She raised big eyes to stare directly into his, let the worry fade from her face, and showed concern, compassion.
"Tell me, sempai. I have the time."
So Ranma sighed, looked away, then looked back. "I'm gonna tell you about one part of the training trip I went on with pops. It involved learning a new fighting technique, supposed to be an invincible technique, but it was flawed... pops couldn't wait to try it out... so..."
Umiko crouched on an industrial bin in an alleyway, hands on the bin's lid just in front of her feet. She was scaled mostly all over now, dressed in what little remained of her nurse's uniform. Her mouth was filled with sharp pointed teeth, and fingers and toes were one-knuckled claws - big, seemingly blunt, with a sharp serrated edge. She licked her lips with a long tongue, watching the new recruits her master had made.
Four people stood along the side of the alleyway, watching the master move about. He was three and a half feet tall now, completely a glossy black, strangely looking as if he was made of liquids. He gave the impression of flowing around, but for the moment, he stopped, and looked up at his new troops. Some kind of silent communication passed between them, and the humans nodded as one, turned as one, and filed out of the alleyway as one. He smiled.
Umiko smiled. It was good when the master was happy. Those girls hadn't been able to stop him spawning these troops - things would be much, much worse for them now. Well, not right now. The new monsters needed time to complete their changes. Even that fool kid the master had turned a scant few days ago hadn't wanted to wait until he was fully transformed... no, he'd had to go show off his new power, his lack of illness. And he'd squandered the gift he had been given for so small a price...
No matter. There were always more of the sick and dying. Of those craving adventure, excitement, or to be able to defend themselves. They would come running to the master, like she had come when woken from her previous life's slumber.
So. The master was happy. She looked at him - could she hunt? The response came back unspoken, just a brief nod. And Umiko bounded off.
Hotaru listened to every word very seriously, then nodded sagely, with a slight grin. "It left you with an acute phobia of cats? And... strange things happen... if you are exposed to them for any period of time?" Ranma nodded. Hotaru knew the other senshi would be able to hear this, and indeed heard them turn as one and quietly shuffle off the roof. "Can Luna and Artemis stay?"
Ranma was about to say no, but Hotaru interjected again.
"They help us in our fight."
How could he say no to that? "Just... keep them out of my way?" Hotaru nodded.
"That's the least we can do. We should have asked first... sempai, you *are* the manager of the dormitory..." Hotaru smiled shyly, and fidgited with the hem of her skirt. "Uh... about your fiance...?"
"Yes?" Ranma looked uncomfortable again. He was more at ease talking about the various training he'd done, and its effect on him than he was his feelings.
"What she did to Mitsuki... you've hinted -"
Ranma nodded. "She, uh, is a violent tomboy. And mostly isn't the girl I fell for. Especially now, she's really not. She can't accept me... being around other people. Women, mostly. Always thinks I'm, uh, doing something I shouldn't." He actually blushed! Hotaru found that so cute, and blushed herself, getting all shy, while Ranma got angry with himself. Why'd he have to turn red in front of Hotaru? That was no way to -
To what? He caught himself, and thought hard. To what, indeed? He couldn't have feelings... for... An eyebrow shot up. He couldn't. No way. She was too young! Yeah, had to be something like... gratitude! Relief! That sort of thing! Yeah... not anything like affection. She was a nice girl, but...
A little voice started talking in the back of his head and he did his best to shut it up. To distract himself, he smiled, put his hand on Hotaru's shoulder to steady her, and gestured towards the ladder. "Shall we go tell Rei and Mitsuki we'll be training again from tomorrow morning?"
Early morning. The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon. The front door to the Ai Sou dormitory opened, and three girls filed out. Their sensei, Ranma, was already outside, facing directly away from the girls, to the east, to the rising sun. Up above, small figures appeared at one of the windows. A small black cat, and a small white cat. They eye each other, then settle down on the sill.
Ranma turns around, and bowed to the women. Each of them bowed back as one, slightly deeper. Mitsuki, Hotaru and Rei raised their heads, expectantly. Each looked at Ranma, waiting. Ranma ran them through a basic ten minute warm-up, some tai'chi mixing into some slow, basic tae kwon do katas. They then moved up the pace slightly, keeping as slow as the slowest members - Hotaru, who was also trying the hardest - before paring off for a morning spar.
As usual, Hotaru nodded at Ranma, and Rei gave Ranma a glance before nodding at Mitsuki. Both of the older two senshi knew some moves, and could watch Ranma - pick moves up from that - but Hotaru was coming into this with no knowledge of the moves whatsoever. Thus, their teacher spent much of his sparring time teaching Hotaru the basics.
They moved, forwards and backwards in turn, each taking equal time in offence and defence. Not usually the standard method of sparring, but it allowed for unequal skill levels such as existed in this group, and taught each other the weaknesses not only in their own attacks, but in each others'. That last was something that Ranma had deemed important, after finding out his three students were members of the Sailor Senshi - two of them only a couple of days before. He'd observed their fighting styles, and determined that the senshi all relied on their magical attacks more than anything else. A major disadvantage. They had the strength, they had the speed, they had the agility, they had the endurance.
More than that, they had the ability to withstand much more punishment than they realised. Their actions as a combat force would be highly improved if they could only make use of these attributes. Ranma had some ideas, but he could only teach them to these three senshi... he had no idea who the other four in this region were.
Hotaru tagged him lightly with a punch to the chest - her arm completely extended. She received a light cuff to the ear for her troubles, and stepped back two steps to regain her distance. Her face was red with embarrassment, but she didn't let her mask of concentration slip.
Ranma danced in a step - his stride length greater than the girl's - and twisted on his left foot, bringing his right up in a swinging crescent kick. Hotaru blocked, but Ranma leaned inwards and whispered, "Tag." He danced back out again, beyond her reach.
Hotaru nodded, knowing this game. Before, they had played this once. Ranma had dodged the girls all with ease, and had taunted them lightly, treating this as a game. His lesson there had been something Hotaru hadn't really realised up until this point - he was doing his best to show them how open they were to anyone who knew how to use their natural abilities. Hotaru knew that Ranma's seemingly superhero-styled powers were nothing but the product of a trained body and a focussed mind. Something she hoped to be able to emulate at some point soon.
She darted forward, but apparently telegraphed her intentions too easily. Ranma stepped to the left. "Too slow." She slung her left hand out, but he was now behind her. He tapped her on the shoulder, and she spun, with a leg up and spinning where Ranma had been - had been! - only a quarter second earlier. The spin was slightly too fast for her naturally physically weakened condition, and she had to pause to catch her balance. Ranma tapped her on the shoulder again from behind.
This time, she took three slow steps, and turned around to face Ranma, giving herself plenty of room to manoeuvre. Ranma had his back to her, waiting.
Mitsuki and Rei stopped sparring, and stood back with arms folded to watch. Up above, the cats took extra special notice of this game.
Hotaru took a step forward, skipped, then leaped high, committing herself to a move she'd seen Ranma do once in a spar with Rei. She threw her weight backward, which, when combined with her forward momentum, tipped her backwards. Her face saw the ground spin by lazily, and she gave her body a roll in mid-air. She noted Ranma beneath her, looking up at her, surprised and concerned - she'd never made a move like this before.
But she hadn't sparred with Ranma while transformed before.
She saw the sudden understanding in his eyes, and both knew, when a smirk, it would now be a different game.
Using her own super-human abilities had opened that up. Hotaru knew Ranma wouldn't go light on her now. Just the way Sailor Saturn liked it.
Her hands reached down, lightning fast, using moves Ranma had taught her sped up by senshi-enhanced muscles. But Ranma dropped like a stone, faster than her arms, onto his back. She completed her jump, landing on the ground facing her teacher. He flipped back to his feet, and both began circling.
Rei and Mitsuki traded glances. "Is this wise? Won't he ask -" Rei asked, worry in her eyes.
Mitsuki nodded at Ranma, the way he was acting. "I think he already knows."
"First to make a tag wins, Hotaru-chan?" Ranma asked lightly.
Hotaru nodded. Suddenly, she was right in front of Ranma, her hand coming up to touch him on the nose. He tensed his legs, and sprang, all in speeds too fast for the human eye. He bought his legs up behind him, swinging him out and around a little, but arcing over Hotaru's head. She lifted her gaze, a little too late as Ranma alighted a dozen metres behind her.
"Sempai, must you make this difficult?"
"How will you learn anything if I don't, Hotaru-chan?" Ranma retorted. He lifted a hand, beckoned to Hotaru. She responded to the bait, and flew towards him.
Ranma dodged again. "Man, Hotaru-chan, you're getting slow. Maybe with great strength comes slow speed?" He lazily dodged another two thrusts from the senshi, and then backflipped casually away from a barrage of kicks. He yawned. "Hotaru-chan, are we finished yet?"
"NO!" she roared. She summoned all her speed, focussed her rage into power, and leapt towards Ranma. He seemed to blur -
- and she felt a light tap on her shoulder. "Tag, you're it."
Hotaru fell to the ground, surprised. Ranma landed lightly beside her, and helped her up. "That was good, Hotaru. Using what you had to your advantage. But you let your anger get in the way at the end there."
"Could I have tagged you?" the senshi wanted to know.
Ranma thought about it a few moments. He didn't want to be patronising. "Yeah, I think you could have, with some more practise." He looked over at the other two girls. "You might want to consider taking what she does before practise."
"What do you mean -" started Rei.
Mitsuki shook her head. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Ranma shook his head. "I know what you three get up to in your spare time. I don't particularly care, I've got my own problems to face as well as saving the world, so worrying about the others' identities... well, that's not high on my list of priorities."
"What other problems?" Rei wanted to know.
"I'm expecting one any time now," Ranma said, looking down over the prefecture below. In the sudden silence, he could hear footsteps, coming up the stairs. He looked over, and saw someone familiar walk up them. "I thought it would be Kasumi," he muttered.
Hotaru watched the new arrival carefully. The exercise had drained her, very much so, and with her training gi on over her fuku (weirdly enough, it did a good job of hiding it) she let her transformation drop, and felt the lack of power sweep through her like a staff between the shoulder blades. She sagged, and Rei helped her to stand up.
"Why did you do that?"
Hotaru knew what Rei meant. "He already knew. About all three of us."
Rei didn't press on that one. Mitsuki looked like she wanted to, but was also distracted by the arrival of the newcomer. Something seemed familiar about her. She wasn't sure what. The walk, the face... of course. Had to be the sister - some relation at least - of that Akane girl who had claimed to be her Ranma's fiance.
She wasn't anymore.
The girl walked up to Ranma, seemingly unconcerned. She looked him in the eye. "Do you know how much your little stunt cost me?"
"Nabiki. Always a pleasure," Ranma replied. "Shall we take it inside?" He gestured at the door to the dorm. Nabiki looked at it, then peered around Ranma to see the three women standing behind him. The door opened, and Usagi and Makoto walked out to call everyone in for breakfast.
Nabiki's eyebrows rose, and she turned back to Ranma. "I see why you don't want my sister any more. Quite the harem you've got. Consider selling -"
"No." Ranma folded his arms across his chest, looked angry. Still in sensei mode, Hotaru noted. Nabiki didn't seem to quite know how to handle it. She cocked her head to one side with a smirk.
"So. You know how daddy wants this engagement to go ahead. You know your father -"
"Leave our parents out of this. They're off in China, or somewhere else by now, dodging Happosai again, and this time, I ain't bailing them out." He paused. "Not just yet, anyway. What do you want, Nabiki?"
Nabiki glared. "You calling off the engagement is very costly to my family. And to my sister. Deep down, she really wanted this."
"Aww, come off it, Nabiki. Deep down, yeah. But on the surface? She beat the crap out of me whenever she had the chance. What was I supposed to do? Live with a wife who doesn't trust me even when she's *with* me? Live with a wife who thinks beating her husband up is acceptable behaviour? I got news you ya, Nabiki, I don't want to live my life like pops."
That took Nabiki off-centre a little bit. "What makes -"
"Why do you think dad ran off with me for ten years? I slowly put it all together. Something happened between him and mum. And... well... I don't want to drag my children off around half the world, hiding for a decade until my *child* can protect me."
Time for the big guns. Nabiki leaned forward. "It's broken Kasumi's heart. I had to talk her out of coming up here and doing this herself." She whispered conspiratorily. "You know what she's like when she gets angry."
Ranma glared back at Nabiki, but didn't speak for half a minute, until he could trust his words. "Nabiki. Your sister, Akane, has routinely beat me up and belittled me, refused to trust me at all, and has on several occasions, gotten me into mortal danger. For what? For a marriage? To a violent woman who can't control her temper?" He snorted. "Please. Not even Kasumi could make me go back to that." He turned, and started to walk away.
"Ranma. You haven't heard the last from me on this."
"I'm counting on it, Nabiki." He stopped near the girls, looking studiously at the ground. He heard Nabiki turn, and walk away, down the stairs. Almost as one, the five women crowded around him. Hotaru slipped her hand into his and gave him a reassuring squeeze before letting him go and stepping back so the others could variously hug him or offer him some kind of support.
He looked confused at this show of affection. He looked up, looked right at Usagi, and finally asked, "It's been confusing me a while. But you all accept me, like I was one of the group. Why do you do that? Why treat me like a good friend? You don't know me, don't know the troubles I can bring -"
Usagi stopped him with a finger. "Ranma. I may think you're not as handsome as my Mamo-chan. But one thing we're not is unfriendly. We're a tight group, almost like family. We're living together now... and you live here, too. For all we moan about things? You do a good job as manager of the dorm. We've got nothing to worry about when we come home from university. Washing is done, food is cooked, house is clean - and things are being fixed. You might not realise it, but you listen to us, or seem to. You... do so much for us, we can't leave you out. You are part of the family."
That obviously meant a lot to Ranma. He cleared his throat, and nodded, briefly. "Thank you, Usagi. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got togofixtheroofsomemore." And he quickly walked inside, heading for the stairs.
Usagi raised an eyebrow. "What happened?"
Hotaru stepped through the girls. "I think he's crying."
Makoto watched the younger senshi disappear up the stairs after Ranma. "That's a surprise. What do you think it was?"
Rei sniggered. "Listening to one of Usagi's speeches, no doubt."
Ranma looked up at the sky from his position, a smile on his face, a couple of tears in his eyes, with some tracks of more down his face. "They think of me as family," he said. For him, that was possibly the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. The Tendos might not have treated him as such if he hadn't been betrothed to one, and Nabiki certainly wouldn't hold back now. Kasumi was a dark horse, as well. And Ranma had no doubt that Nabiki wouldn't hesitate to tell the other Nerima inhabitants where he was now, and what had happened... with a suitable twisting.
Damn, he needed to be ready. Intensive training.
Hotaru appeared above him, smiling. "Hello, sempai."
"Can I... sit with you?"
"Of course you can."
"Can... we hold hands?"
SAILOR MOON SAYS:
Mini-sub arc coming up here for the next few parts, I suspect. Am I going to do the "What is Kasumi, really?" schtick? Likely. It's so fun speculating! Anyway. Thank you for the detailed reviews, some of the bits and pieces in them I am going to try and cover over the next few parts. I do mean to include more on the personal lives of the senshi and Ranma around the dorm, and outside of it, too. This will, of course, tie back into the various plot strands weaving through the storyline - which will be great fun to write, I'm hoping even more to read.
So. What can you expect in the next part? Another Sailor Moon says, I know that. Do they hold hands? Yes? No? We find out. The second date is coming. And what exactly had happened to Artemis and Luna? Stories in the next chapter :)