1

December 21, 1997

10:03 AM

Whatever warm and fuzzy feeling Setsuna found never followed her back home last night. Naturally, since she headed straight for bed after they returned to the apartment, she didn't discover this little detail until the next morning, when she first stepped out of her room.

Still rubbing away the sleep from her eyes, Setsuna stumbled into the living room, almost tripping over the table in front of her before she righted herself. She stopped, taking a moment to adjust to the morning light, and let her arms stretch all the way up and out. The old, wrinkled "Powerpuff Girls" T-shirt came up halfway past her thighs as she yawned.

Suddenly, out of the corner of her vision, she noticed a familiar someone poking his head out from the bedroom to her right. Her arms froze over her head.

"Uh," she said in surprise.

Ranma's reply was just as florid. "Ah," he said, eyes widening; the one elbow becoming as stiff as the doorframe it was leaning against.

Judging from the profound silence that followed, it would appear that each of them preferred the other to speak first. They waited.

A light draft, gliding into the apartment from a window that wasn't quite closed last night, swept aside a set of slightly-wet curtains and peered into the room curiously. It flitted around the two, brushing its belly against the soft, yielding cotton on one end, then nestled its head into smooth, velvety silk on the other. Finally, growing weary of the play, it settled over the couches, patiently waiting for the conversation to come.

x x x

In the end, Ranma reluctantly volunteered.

"Uh, nice day," he said.

Noticing words were starting to come out from those lips that she had been staring at unintentionally, Setsuna ripped her gaze away in an instant, turning aside. "Right, right. Nice day," she agreed, then began. "Um, about last night..."

"Last night?" Ranma interrupted. "Oh, yeah, last night," he repeated uneasily, scratching his head. "Beautiful night too, wasn't it?"

"Uh, right. Beautiful -" Realizing that she was beating around the bush almost as much as he did, she berated herself mentally and tried again. "Wait, what I meant was, about last night, I, um, just want you to know that -" she halted, searching for the best way to put her feelings into words.

"Yes?"

"- that if you feel like you want to talk about it any time, we can do that." There. Somewhat ambiguous; a suitable, Setsuna-like response, and left her dignity intact as well.

Ranma looked like someone who had a hot potato handed to him and didn't quite know how to handle it. He fidgeted. "Oh. Yeah, uh, I'll keep that in mind." He brought a wrist up exaggeratedly. "Er, heh, look at the time," he smiled uncomfortably and said, straightening out the wrinkles in his shirt with a free hand and adjusting the cuffs of his sleeves. "I gotta go. Groceries, you know; I still have to pick those up."

Then, before she even had a chance to wave him off, he was out of the door.

Listening to the sound of retreating footsteps, Setsuna walked across to the other end of the glass table, and slumped into her seat. Out of habit, her hand reached out for some random magazine scattered across the floor to her right, but stopped halfway. She sighed. Perhaps Ranma had forgotten that he hadn't ever worn a watch since the first time she saw him, but she surely had not.

She hoped that she could at least spend Christmas and New Year's at home with a little less awkwardness than this.

.

2

January 1, 1998

10:22 AM

Or, she could spend Christmas night polishing her toenails on the couch, and New Year's Day studying the fading nail polish.

Admittedly, she did quite a bit more than her nails on Christmas night, if listening to Ranma's piano sessions counted. He had gone through a few festive songs - for the occasion, he claimed - but she knew that his heart wasn't quite in them when he played. Sure, they were perfectly executed as far as she could tell, but everything sounded generic and mechanical, like something that every customer service department in Japan liked to play when the reps put you on hold over the phone. Truthfully, listening through the whole thing just made Setsuna remember all the more that he had still not taken up the clumsy offer she made on Sunday morning.

Well, except for one particular song - the one that wasn't quite classical, and wasn't quite jazz, but somehow always made her stop doing whatever she was doing just to listen. Ranma slowed its tempo even further that night, and deliberated on a few notes, stringing the piece together with a solemn eventuality. As a result, whereas she felt like ballroom-dancing at sunset the first time she heard the piece, that night she only felt the parting of the guests at the end of the evening: a peaceful, tranquil procession out of the courtyard, with a tinge of sorrow, regret, and a backward glance at a sumptuous hall where marbled floors still reflected the glitters from crystal chandeliers overhead, and wistful notes from a last song that ended too early still lingered.

She could only guess what emotions were running through his mind when he played it, and wonder whether those emotions would, in time, fade away like the last bits of rose-colored polish on the tip of her toes.

With a blink, Setsuna swung her bare legs down from the cushions and stood up. It was New Year's Day; she had no reason to spend all day watching her nail polish peel off piece by piece, and ruminating about the past wasn't the preferred way for her to spend the morning either.

Hmm, what to do, what to do... Ranma was out, physically; he had called out earlier and mentioned something about wanting to take a walk while she was still half-asleep in her bed - which left her as the sole occupant of the apartment at the moment.

Setsuna went for the phone, but stopped before she picked up the receiver. It was probably still too early to call up Momoko, since the girl was probably having all kinds of kinky multi-some trans-species fun with her boyfriend and her legion of Hello Kitty dolls last night. The television didn't look appealing either; she didn't even have to turn the thing on to know that it was probably cycling through between live-broadcast of the New Year celebration all over the country and other equally inane holiday special programs. Of course, since this was a national holiday, it meant no postal service as well, so new issues of her seven different magazine subscriptions would not arrive until at least tomorrow or the next Monday, and she was already tired of reading "Ninety-Nine Ways to Strut Your Hips on the Catwalk" from the last issue of Models Monthly after the fourth time. With equal parts plea and pensiveness, she scanned across the room, trying to figure out what she could use to hold her boredom at bay.

Her eyes fell on the piano.

x x x

A hand crept towards the mass of black and white, index finger extending from a loose fist. It landed somewhere near the middle of the keyboard, and stopped when the nail made contact with the bit of glossy, polished white.

Delicately, Setsuna tapped on the key twice, testing to see how far she could safely press down before it would elicit a sound, and wondering if it would be the right one when it sounded. She tapped on the key again, but jerked the finger away like she'd touched a pot of boiling water when it sank down further than she'd imagined.

Ugh, I don't see how people can learn to play something like this, Setsuna exhaled soundly and thought; this is like roulette and chess rolled into one.

She shot a furtive glance at the front door, then chided herself for doing so. It wasn't like Ranma was going to be back anytime soon - and even if he did, it wasn't like she was doing anything wrong. At least, not as wrong as trying to maul his piano on that first day, so he probably wouldn't mind it anyway if she was just taking a look. Or giving the thing a little love-tap.

She turned back to the piano, searching for the key she picked out earlier among the hundreds of its siblings. Again, her finger hovered over the white, poising to strike. She tensed; her teeth sawing into one another.

And pressed down on the key like she was trying to launch a nuclear missile.

The sound rang loud and clear, and while it was played without skill, there was a hint of muted triumph in it.

"Mi...Mi..." Setsuna pursed her lips and mimicked, forcing the lessons she learned in the music class at a high school she didn't even remember the name of to come to the forefront, changing her own pitch to place the sound. Yes, that sounded about right for the start, she decided. Ranma had played it enough times for her to know that for certain at least.

Now, how did the rest of that song go again?

Slowly, she worked the piano, chaining the melody in single notes, one bit at a time; a pleased smile surfaced when she discovered the right key to the sound, and a frown settled over her brows involuntarily whenever she erred. Trial and error became her companion in the empty apartment for the next half-hour, but in the end, Setsuna came away satisfied. The stiffness in her shoulders had faded sometime during her practice as her posture became more relaxed, and she let her hands fall to her sides, her body leaning away from the piano.

Only to return and begin anew a few moments later.

This time, no mistakes.

A welcoming warmth from the light outside sieved through the glass window panes and seeped into her skin, and the corners of her mouth widened into an expression of content even as she resumed.

"Mi, Mi-Fa-So, So-Fa-Mi, Do;" she sang, so softly that she could barely hear herself in the deafening rush of her heartbeats.

Awkwardly, a lone finger mapped out each pitch in her warbling voice with a slight delay, pausing only when she stopped to mark the break in the melody, and used the occasion to wet her lips before continuing.

"Fa, Fa-Re-Fa; Do, Re-Mi-Re..."

.

.

Timed Vacation

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Chapter Six

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Opening Theme: Close to You (Instrumental)

Composed by: CAGNET

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3

January 4, 1998

7:45 AM

School resumed right around the corner of the passing New Year. Namboku Line in rush hour was once again a full-body contact sport between stoic-faced businessmen and uniformed students. Not a few fuku-clad schoolgirls tried to bring an arm up over their chests protectively while gripping the rails overhead with the other to keep their balance and their doe-eyes darted about warily, searching for leering faces in the crowd as bodies swayed with the momentum of the subway train.

By the time Ranma hopped over to the Chiyoda Line, and finally found an exit through the masses at Nezu Station, he was beginning to think that it might have been easier to just run to the campus instead.

He passed through Gedai's main gates without pause, but chose the long way around to get to the music building today, hoping that the walk would provide some precious quiet time that the lurching ride on the subway had robbed from him. Along the sides of the walkway, patches of grass peeked through the blanket of snow that fallen over the weekend. A few Gedai students, long-abandoning their usual ensemble of baggy jeans and T-shirts that carried slogans of all sorts of non-sequitur rationales for stifling coats, paused in their tracks and directed an odd look at the thin fabric of the lone, white oxford shirt and single-pleated pants he wore. He paid no attention to their stares.

Even footfalls pattered on the pavement. Like everyday in the past two weeks, he couldn't spend ten minutes alone without remembering that Saturday night when Akane jumped into a taxi and took off without waiting for an explanation from him. He had spent nights alternating blames - first to himself, then to Akane and her habit of judging-before-listening, and finally to Setsuna's stupid green tea and the astronomical price-tag that it came with. In the end, however, no amount of reasoning or recrimination could change the fact that Akane had left him.

As he had done every other time, he forced that thought aside and tried to think of something else. Losing, in any sense, never existed in Saotome Ranma's vocabulary. Therefore, not completing that train of thought meant he didn't have to add that word to his dictionary yet.

Of course, soon as he stopped thinking about Akane, the image of him and Setsuna engaging in a blinking contest in the apartment flashed in his mind. It was hard not to; the two of them had spent most of the past two weeks doing just that - when they couldn't avoid each other, that is.

He couldn't recall when he had felt so uncomfortable around her for such a long time before. Where did he go wrong?

A voice calling his name broke his concentration. Ranma looked up.

A short distance to his right, by the small set of stairs leading to the two-story rectangular building that was the unsightly Gedai library, stood his music professor. The older man tilted his head briefly to the side in greeting; the expectant smile on his face at complete odds with the depressing, ashen gray that both the outside of the library and his suit sported.

x x x

"A... contest? National?"

"Offered once every two years," the professor continued without missing a beat. "Winner gets to go study for a year at Julliard's Institute with a full scholarship on an exchange program."

Ranma's eyebrows rose even higher. "Julliard's?"

"In New York," the older man supplied, adjusting the pair of half-rimmed glasses on his nose. "In the United States," he added, when no reaction came. "One of the most famous music schools in the world. Established in -"

"I know that, Sensei." The young man said, a hand waving in the air impatiently. "But, I mean, why me? There are hundreds of upperclassmen that you could have asked."

"-and they're all good musicians in their own right, you're right;" the professor interrupted. "But, you're something different," he admitted.

Ranma looked baffled. "Different how?"

"There's a fire in you that others lack, Saotome-kun," he said, face growing serious. "A flame, pure and bright, waiting to be released. You've tried to hold it in, but I've caught a glimpse of it when I first saw the way you played your thing down at the store." Overcome by the sudden passion in his own voice, he leaned closer, tightly gripping Ranma's arms in earnest. His rich, convincing voice carried far into the fields around them. "From that day, I kept saying to myself, 'I have to make this boy mine.' I've watched you for a long time now, Saotome-kun, and I know that your fire still burns just as bright as that first day."

Unused to such emotions coming from his sensei, and touched by the utter sincerity in the man's tone, Ranma squirmed a bit, chewing his lips in hesitation before responding. A few students stopped at a short distance away from them to observe the pair, and he did not notice. "Um. I really don't know what to say, sensei. The first time -"

"- was just that; an experience." The other nodded sagely and finished for him, understanding that the loss at the last concert was still fresh on his student's mind. "Don't let it concern you too much. Everyone has to have a first time sometime, and not even the most energetic young men like yourself comes out on top all the time."

"But..."

"You just have to let it out; I know you can."

"Er, okay," Ranma conceded at last. "I'll do it, Sensei, if that's what you want." Still at a respectful distance away, the small group of students quietly grew to a cluster. A few faculty and visitors joined. Neither man paid any attention.

"No, Saotome-kun. Don't do it just for me; do it because you want to." The professor lectured. "Trust me, you will have a great time," he added, "Think of all the things you can do with your wonderful hands."

For the first time in two weeks, a smile formed on Ranma's face. It was hesitant and almost unnoticeable, but it was there nonetheless. "Heh," he smirked, the old confidence creeping back into his voice, "I haven't shown you half the stuff I got yet. All right, you can count on me."

The older man's eyes shined with untold joy, and he loosened his grip. Collective whistles and a smattering of applause rose from the assemblage of people, making Ranma aware of their presence. The pigtailed young man turned to his teacher with a puzzled frown. "Hmm... Sensei, was there a pep rally at school today?" He winced briefly when a few cameras flashed from several photography students in the crowd.

A sudden scream of "Die, Fag!" tore from an angry-looking young man in the midst of the group, but it was quickly silenced as others nearby fell on him.

The professor looked away from the unexpected commotion, and turned back to Ranma. "I have no idea," he said with a shrug.

.

4

January 4, 1998

6:43 PM

The soft sound of shoes carefully placed onto the floor followed the front door closing.

Blowing lightly against the fresh coat of red on her nails, Setsuna inched her head forward, drawing her bare knees up closer. A mass of green fell over her shoulders and down the front of her flame-checkered tie-top, and she brushed it away hastily when a few strands almost touched the still drying polish. Too busy to even adjust the pair of beige-colored casual shorts that had been hiked up nearly to her hips, she waved noncommittally with a free hand and called out the standard "welcome back" without looking up.

The light saunter in her roommate's steps as he strolled into the living room, however, did give her pause. "I'm home," he said casually, making a beeline for the couch next to her before sinking into the cushions. He eyed the bit of cotton between each of her toes curiously, gaze traveling up her slender, exposed legs, before settling on the tiny cap-brush in her hand. "Anything going on?"

It took a moment for her to reply. "Not really," she said evenly. Was there actually some energy in his voice today? She shook her head, placing the cap back over the tiny glass bottle, and went on. "Called some agencies, and got two or three appointments, starting later this week. I want to try out for that fashion-designer job again." She directed a nod to the page of newspaper laid out over the table. A few circles marked in red ink dotted the classifieds section.

"Ah."

"And Momoko-chan called. She said she wanted to see if I would come over to her house Friday afternoon, since her boyfriend was leaving on a short business trip for his company, and she didn't have anything planned over the weekend."

Ranma somewhat remembered the name. "That's your friend from the modeling place?"

"Yeah," Setsuna said, heaving a small sigh. "She's been worried about me ever since I got fired, so she called me again. But, when I told her I was fine, she just started going on and on about wanting me to come over to watch this great classic movie that she rented, even though she already watched it like five times in the theatre when the thing came out over a year ago, and probably three more times on the tape as well before she called."

He sweat-dropped. "Guess she really loves that movie."

Setsuna cast him a sideway glance. "You have no idea. Anyway," she continued after a half-hearted yawn, stretching as much as she could without falling backward, "Other than that, I'm just doing my nails."

"Oh?" he pretended not to notice the hint of a bare navel showing from under the knot of her top before she brought her arms down again.

"Not as good as green tea, but I've always found it somewhat relaxing," she explained matter-of-factly without much jibe, then looked back down past her knees. "Oh, good. They've dried."

Bending forward once more, Setsuna spoke up again after she removed the cotton balls from her feet. "You know, actually, I've always kind of wondered about this."

"About what?"

"My toes."

Ranma leaned over to examine them briefly. Soft, well-manicured, and slightly longer than his own, but nothing wrong as far as he could tell. Then, an old memory came, and he made the connection. "You mean, like, how some people think that if you keep touching them, they'll grow longer?"

She turned to him in surprise. "You think so too?"

"Yeah. Me and Pops used to fight barefoot on the road all the time, and I've gotten some really bad splinters before. When he saw me picking the bits of wood out, Pops always told me not to play with my toes because they'd grow too long, and I wouldn't be able to kick as well."

"Really?"

"Well," he stopped for a moment, rising from his couch to sit down beside her, recalling his old man's words, "What he really said was that if I kept touching my toes, it'd make them so long that my feet would look like a girl's. And since Pops always said that girls were weak..." he trailed off, not bothering to give voice to the obvious conclusion from the brilliant logic behind his father's philosophy.

"I can see how he would have said that," snorted Setsuna. Then, with an amused smile again, she added, "But I'm glad that someone else thinks the same way as well. I happen to like my toes long... like this. See?" Swinging her legs all the way around, she gently stroked the tip of one of her newly-painted toes with a finger.

"Actually, this one is longer," he replied honestly, lightly pinching the middle one with a hand.

Legs shifting reflexively, she had to stop herself from giggling from the light tickle. "You think?"

"Sure... ah." At length noticing the smooth, supple flesh resting across his lap, the two froze simultaneously. An instant later, there was a space between the pair on the sofa enough to fit an extra person.

"Sorry about that. I... guess I got carried away," Setsuna said, looking down pointedly. "Anyway," she went on, changing the conversation in a hurry, "I take it that something exciting happened at school today?"

"Uh, yeah. You can say that," he said, also looking down. "Got selected to go compete nationally in February."

"Oh, a piano contest? Congratulations then." Interest piqued, Setsuna inquired further with an arched brow. "So, what does the winner get?"

He scratched his pigtail absently. "A year at Julliard's as an exchange student."

"Julliard's?" Eyes fully wide open now, she blurted out. "As in, New York's Julliard's?"

"Yeah. But, I'm not sure I want to go even if I win. I just want to win again." Then, before she could dwell on that last comment, he stood up, walking towards his room. "In any case, I gotta start practicing for real again now."

Just as his hand touched the doorknob, however, Ranma stopped. "Hey, Setsuna?" he asked, calling over his shoulder.

"Hmm?"

"I... I've really lost her, haven't I?"

"I -" Setsuna started, startled look meeting only his back. There was no doubt whom that 'her' referred to, but she did not expect the topic to come up at a time like this. "No," she said after a pause, carefully considering her words. "Think of it as coming out even, if you like. You left, and now she left. So, you guys are even, no?"

He didn't reply immediately, and from her angle, there was no telling of his expression. At length, he drew a sharp, audible breath, and expelled it in a rush. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he said haltingly. Then, in a brighter voice, "Thanks. I needed that."

The door closed softly behind him.

.

5

January 7, 1998

11:10 AM

In a grand, spacious meeting room on the top floor of the Hanai & Co. Ltd., Setsuna sat in one of the comfy executive leather chairs, her hands tucked underneath the oak conference table and placed atop the immaculately-folded Sorrento skirt she wore. The matching purple Turin jacket converged into a triangle perfectly over of her chest, and an evenly-tied red bow arranged precisely under the front collar stood out against the pressed white silk blouse underneath. A composed, business-like smile adorned a face that was otherwise devoid of all emotions.

She afforded a quick glance out of the windows. Blue skies with a splash of cloud - a rarity in Tokyo during winter, and a view of the bay from across Aoyama that was partially obstructed by the Canadian Embassy building in one corner, and the regional post office in the other.

Nearly a room's length away, sitting at the other end of the conference table, a graying man with heavy glasses and a square face spoke once more, calling her attention back to the room.

"So, according to your resume, Meiou-san," he paused, rubbing his fingers against the ribbed texture of the sheet absently before gazing up from the resume paper in his hands, continuing. "I see that you have a fair experience as a model and - a manager as well."

"That is correct."

"How do you think you can contribute to the strength of Hanai?" The man flicked away a few pieces of dandruff that landed on the shoulder of his black three-piece suit and asked evenly.

"Excuse me?" Setsuna asked for the first time during the interview, not liking the condescending undertone that the man had taken.

The interviewer clicked his tongue lightly. "Let me rephrase that. What makes you believe that you will be able to handle the duties of a fashion designer, or an assistant fashion designer at our company?"

Taking a moment to hide the annoyance in her eyes, she replied matter-of-factly. "I can sew."

There was a pregnant pause.

The man blinked. "Ah..." he said, trying to understand the blunt rationale that Setsuna had supplied. "I see."

Not giving him a chance to speak further, Setsuna held up a hand. "If I may?" She inquired, pointing at the sketches on the design board - no doubt a byproduct of a previous meeting - resting against the wall to the man's left. At his nod, she stood up and methodically walked around the table until she was in front of the board.

"I'm well-acquainted with various modern and postmodern designs," she began confidently, "Especially in women's clothing. See here," she tapped at one of the sketches of a female gown on the right side and said. "This sketch of an evening gown is most likely an attempt to imitate the purism that designers such as Donna Karan and Calvin Klein utilize, judging by the neutral tint and the overall beige coloring and the sharp cuts at the edges along the dress."

Pushing the glasses up the bridge of his nose, the interviewer smiled briefly and gave a polite nod, egging her to continue.

"However, I think that the neckline is too rounded, and the use of pistachio-green brocade fabrics at the ends too gaudy. This detracts from the overall simplicity the design tries to achieve." Without waiting for his acknowledgement this time, she skipped over to the next sketch and resumed her analysis immediately. "Now, this business jacket over here, along with the obvious shoulder pads, brings out a feeling of power-dressing fashionable back in the eighties in the West. But, the reduced collar style and small jacket silhouette have a minimizing effect on the piece, and matching this to bright-colored Capri pants, while visually stimulating, makes the whole suit look rather unprofessional."

Feeling totally in her element, Setsuna cut loose now, flipping the pages to the next sets of sketches, and then the ones following that, laying her opinions on each and every design she saw. She was determined to show this officious interviewing just how knowledgeable she was in the fashion trends all over the world, and cut that infuriating, patronizing look he had on earlier right out of his face. Halfway through the lecture, she found a marker that was left on the window ledge behind the board, and began to adjust the drawings to her will. The extemporaneous editing session lasted for a good fifteen minutes, and in the end, when she had finally recapped the marker in her hand, large red circles decorated every sketch, and no page was spared.

"-and the pearls lining the sleeves should be omitted here and the nipped-in waist made more prominent like this to create a variance of the Bar design by Dior back in the late forties without mixing in extraneous stylistic qualities." With a satisfied look, Setsuna concluded her session and turned back to the primly-dressed interviewer, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead absently. "Any questions?" Obviously not, she thought to herself when the man remained silent; he was too awed for words.

However, contrary to her belief, he did speak at length; the smile on his face was excruciatingly strained as he voiced out his final comment. "Just one, Meiou-san;" he said tightly. "Do you realize that those are the designs I've just spent the past six months working on to present to the board for approval at two o'clock this afternoon?"

.

6

January 8, 1998

9:41 PM

"Well, there goes that interview," she mumbled miserably under her breath. Just her luck - a prick of an interviewer who happened to have no sense of fashion. Guess I'll have a better luck next time.

Looking around her, Setsuna could tell that Momoko's apartment was still as cluttered as ever. The living-room was about the size of her own, and there was a nylon couch behind a low wooden table sitting at one end against the wall, facing the television stand at the other end. In between, however, the space was amply filled with everything from magazines to romance novels to personal laundry to stacks of tabloids. Suppressing a shudder, she gingerly stepped over a pair of Hello Kitty panties near the entrance, not wanting to know how the thing had gotten discarded onto the floor in the first place.

Walking out from her bedroom with a rental video box in hand, Momoko chirped up curiously. "Huh? Did you say something, Senpai?"

"Oh, no," Setsuna replied. "Just talking to myself, that's all."

The other girl nodded, not wanting to probe further. She took the tape out of the box, and handed the case over. "Here." Setsuna looked.

On the front cover, a black and white photo of a woman with shoulder-length wavy hair was shown on the left, faced against a nerdy-looking man, with his hands tucked into his pant-pockets, wearing a zipped-down jacket on the right. Beneath the level of their feet, there was a small-scaled image of some city with skyscrapers, although the entire thing was so badly copied that Setsuna could make out neither the faces of the man and woman, nor the actual title of the movie printed in English letters below the picture of the city.

"Wait a second," Setsuna asked, flipping the case over to its spine and squinting to read the equally smeared-and-blurry labels, "Is this... Is this 'When Harry Met Sally?'"

The flushing of the toilet, along with the sound of water running and stopping from the sink, disrupted whatever the younger girl was about to say. Setsuna frowned.

"Wait, Momoko-chan, didn't you say that your boyfriend was gone? Then who was -" staring at the figure that had just emerged from the bathroom, Setsuna momentarily forgot her words.

Blue eyes, check; blond hair, check; red bow, check-check-check-check-check-

"M...Minako-chan?" she nearly shrieked.

Minako, for her part, was just as speechless, looking like she just choked on a plate of those most hateful mushrooms that someone forced down her throat. "Y-you?" she managed to squeak out, gaping and pointing. The blonde turned her gaze back towards Momoko in silent accusation.

The defendant quickly interjected herself between the two, playing mediator. "Now, now," Momoko said hastily, waving her arms. "I know you guys didn't part on the best of terms, but Senpai here is my best friend," she paused, turning from Minako to address Setsuna. "And the boss just forked over some of the duties over to me after you left, Senpai, so I'm kind of acting as Minako-chan's manager right now. I just want you two to have a chance to make up, and let old things stay in the past, okay?"

Seeing no reaction from either of them, she grabbed Minako-chan by shoulders and guided her onto one end of the sofa. Then, like a girl playing house, she led her equally-wooden Senpai by the hand, and placed the woman at the other end. Finally, walking over to shove the tape into the player, the brown-haired girl traipsed back across the room and plopped herself down onto the sofa between the two. In afterthought, she turned towards Setsuna, a wide grin on her face. "Oh, and Senpai?"

Not waiting to see whether Setsuna had heard her, she went on. "This isn't 'When Harry Met Sally'," she said, hitting the 'Play' button on the remote. "This is something much better. It's called 'When Hideo Met Satomi'."

.

7

January 9, 1998

11:18 AM

A wave of steam rolled into the living-room as the bathroom door opened. A few seconds later, Setsuna came out wearing only a white T-shirt that went down to her knees and a small towel on her head.

Ranma pushed himself away from the piano, looking over to the other end of the room. "So, how did last night go? I went to bed early, and didn't hear you come in."

Setsuna massaged her temples with her eyes closed. "Don't ask," she said, heading straight for her couch.

"...that bad, huh?"

She glanced at him, then rolled her eyes, dropping her head over the top of the cushions. "You have no idea. That must've been one of the worst films I've ever seen in my life... and it was three and a half hours long to boot. I didn't get back until almost one-thirty in the morning." Plus she bumped into Minako at the apartment, but she decided not to mention it. The whole thing was screwed up enough without bring that topic up to add to her headache.

Resting his back against the wall, he asked with a snicker, "What was it called anyway?"

"'When Hideo Met Satomi,' or something like that. I don't even want to remember," she said irritably, kneading the towel to rub the dampness out of her hair. "It was like a bad imitation of 'When Harry Met Sally', 'Romeo and Juliet', and 'Crocodile Dundee' thrown in together."

"Hold on," he frowned, the names striking a chord in his memory. "Wasn't that the one where there was this hotshot cop getting together with the daughter of a yakuza boss? And there was this escape scene when the guy dragged the girl across the pond, stepping over alligator heads?"

"The one where they met like four times in ten years and finally decided they loved each other in the end, and the guy had to scale the electronic fences of the mansion the girl lived in, dodging henchmen and guard dogs in the garden so that he could confess his love to the girl under the balcony? Yeah, that's it." Red eyes shot up from the other side of the room. "You've seen it?"

"Yeah," he said, "I've seen it. I still remember that scene in the end when the guy missed a spin-kick, and the whole thing went to slow-motion right then, including his grunts and all the bad sound effects in the background."

Towel and hair forgotten, Setsuna sat up and nodded animatedly. "I know. Ridiculous, isn't it? And where did he get that gun to shoot the Oyabun in the neck? That thing came out of nowhere."

Getting to his feet, Ranma walked over and sat down next to her, eagerly waiting to point out all the flaws he remembered from the movie now that someone actually shared his view. "Yeah, and don't forget about that part when Satomi was on the ground crying before the explosions set off."

"You mean, the way that water dripped out of her nose and down to her lips -"

"- and then the roof crashed down on her, killing everybody in the end?"

"Yeah," Setsuna finished. "That was ugly."

Then, unable to hold it in any further, she began to laugh until tears came into her eyes.

"You... you should've seen... the way Momoko-chan was going through boxes of tissues in that scene," she wheezed out, barely managing to complete the sentence.

"She did that? God, that's how Akane reacted when she saw the thing," Ranma said, laughing as well. "We even got into a big argument afterwards because I told her the movie sucked."

"It did suck," Setsuna agreed at length when she regained her breath. "I just didn't want to tell Momoko-chan that because it'd probably hurt her feelings. She's watched that thing almost ten times now." She stopped for a moment to look at Ranma, as if trying to assess his response.

Lips trembling, he tried to restrain the smile that was threatening to break out again and failed, and that made her collapse into another fit of irrepressible mirth so hard that she had to lean against him for support.

A few minutes later, when he finally regained self-control and calmed down again, Ranma became aware of a slight wetness on his arm. He looked, and found that somewhere along the way, Setsuna had laid her head on his shoulder, pressing her silky green hair into his shirt when the towel had become undone and fallen onto the floor. What was more discomforting, however, was the feeling of the soft, tender flesh underneath the thin fabric of her shirt when it made contact with his arm. From the way she kept smiling with her eyes closed, Setsuna was still blissfully ignorant of this fact. Oh, and her hair smelled wonderful.

Briefly, a war between his old instinct to run away and a sudden desire to stay where he was took place in his mind. Instinct lost in the end, partly because he couldn't think of a way to extricate himself without alerting Setsuna. Therefore, he remained in place for the time being, and tried very hard not to tense his muscles too much to give his nervousness away.

A bit later, he heard her ask again. "Hey, Ranma-kun?"

"Yes?" he asked back cautiously. He hoped he was loud enough that she could hear him over his racing heart, because he sure couldn't.

"What are we?"

"Huh?" he didn't quite get what she was saying.

Still not moving, Setsuna elaborated. "I mean, what's our relationship?"

Her eyelashes are really long, thought Ranma, before the question hit him. "R...Relationship?" he asked back weakly, jerking back suddenly.

On pure reflex, she snaked a slender arm around his, preventing him from his escape. "Momoko-chan was asking me earlier, and wondering if we're like some male-female friends. That's what you think too, right?"

He was too busy fending away the memory of the time when Setsuna had given him an impromptu demonstration and they ended up in a similar position to afford a reply.

"Ranma-kun?" She asked, lifting her head slightly and easing the pressure on his shoulder when he did not speak.

"Er... hmm," Ranma stammered, then hastily came up with his answer. "How about this? Supposed you've just moved. And, in front of your new place, there's this big light pole by the entrance," he paused to let the image sink in before he went on. "At first you didn't like it, but as time went on, you found that you didn't mind it as much," he honestly opined.

And immediately knew that he had given the wrong answer, when Setsuna stiffened. To his astonishment, however, she didn't pull away, but relaxed once more instead after a moment.

"That... works?" He said, half incredulous. Maybe he was getting better at putting things into words now, he thought.

He completely missed the snort and the hidden sarcastic tone that followed. "Yeah. Good analogy. Thanks." Then, letting her thoughts wander, Setsuna offered her own version of his scenario. She lifted her head and turned, moving so that the edge of his shoulder now supported her chin.

"Let's see..." she began, words coming out in a lazy mumble. "Suppose you've just moved. And, in your new apartment, there's this big cockroach. The cockroach, being a cockroach, keeps bugging the hell out of you at times. And you, being you, keep wanting to smash that cockroach to bits."

"What? I don't understand a word you're saying."

Seeing the total sincerity on his clueless face, Setsuna smiled wistfully. "Never-mind," she drawled out at length, and let her head fall back to occupy its previous spot.

As the apartment became quiet once again, there was only one question that remained in Ranma's head. It's not like he terribly minded the position they were in, after he had time to get used to it -

But how long was he supposed to stay like this?

.

8

January 9, 1998

11:49 AM

The answer arrived in the form of a telephone call.

Relief was painstakingly obvious on his face when Ranma gently pushed himself away to reach down for the phone that was on the floor, hidden behind the corner that the two couches formed.

"Hello?"

Setsuna obligingly let his other arm go and straightened, drawing a leg up to the couch and using it to create a bit of space between them; the lazy smile was gradually replaced by a mixed expression that resembled a cross between a small, petulant pout and a trace of embarrassed disbelief.

While she was still sorting out which emotion she should wear for the occasion, Ranma's eyes had widened for an instant, before his face turned solemn. He slowly handed the receiver to Setsuna, stretching the telephone cord until it became taut. "Here," he said quietly. "It's for you."

Somewhat alarmed by the change in his tone, Setsuna brought the handset up. Before it even reached her ears, she could make out the hysterical sobs that was Momoko's voice coming from the other end.

"Momoko-chan?" She asked urgently, fearing that something had happened to her friend. "...are you okay?"

"N-No, it - It's not me," the girl answered hoarsely in broken stutters. "It's Minako-chan."

"Minako-chan?" Setsuna queried. Didn't she just see her last night at Momoko's place?

"She - she was supposed to have a photo session today, but she didn't show up. So, boss told me to call her. At first, I just thought that she overslept, because the movie ended so late, but... Minako-chan - she's -"

The grip Setsuna had on the phone tightened until her knuckles turned white and trembled. The colors drained from her face, even as she was trying to make sense of what her friend was saying between the sniffles. I must not have heard that right, she thought. Feebly, she swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. "Say again?"

"Minako-chan... she got in an accident on her way home, and she's hurt really bad," Momoko said. "She's in the hospital."

.

(END CHAPTER)

.

Special thanks once again go to Figment and Thermopyle for their help on pre-reading, and suggestions on editing the scene at Momoko's apartment.

- ukie