Project: L
A Dark and Mysterious Tale

Chapter 1: The Exchange Student

Ranma Saotome sighed as he sat through his last period class on the third floor of Furinkan High School. He had already counted the white board-style ceiling tiles so many times he lost count. After turning his head to the left and looking out the windows, which showed a sky slowly becoming overcast, he sighed slowly. He despised the last period, because to him, it seemed to stretch on for an unnecessarily long time. And it was Friday. That fact only increased his yearn to leave. The teacher was discussing matters and lecturing about an assignment that was due next Wednesday, history, he thought. He was too tired to really pay attention. Ranma had already completed it, so he started to tune out the teacher and began to daydream, when something finally interesting came into play.

"I would like to announce that this class is getting an exchange student." The statement was met by gasps, mumbles, and general disorder. Hiroshi, one of Ranma's friends, whispered to Daisuke, another friend of Ranma's, "I hope the exchange student's a girl. I need to find a good chick." The section of the class that was of the fairer gender rolled their eyes, or in a few exceptions, gave death stares. The teacher interrupted by clearing his throat. "Hmm-mm! Sorry to disappoint you boys, but the student is a boy." Akane groaned. "His name is…" the instructor paused to check his notes. "…Leif Zahn. He is from the United States, Washington D.C., I believe, and according to what I have heard; he skipped a grade, so I assume he's fairly intelligent," He paused to catch his breath and then continued, "Akane Tendo, I have already talked to your father about this, and we arranged for Leif to stay at your home for the year." A look of surprise combined with chagrin formed on her face. Ranma watched all of this blankly, that fact barely registering. "Here is a letter to deliver to your father from him." He handed the letter to Akane. There were a few murmurs and whisperings as she accepted the envelope feebly.

Dear Mr. Soun Tendo,

I would like to thank you for your support, and for offering a place to stay. I can use an extra room, or whatever you would like me to use. If necessary, I can reimburse you for room and board, and my other expenses. I will arrive this Saturday at 4:00 p.m. from my flight. I have been given instructions on how to get to your home, so please expect me in by 5:30 p.m. Thank you for your time.

Leif Lewin Zahn
リフ ルイン ツァン

Soun sat studying the letter, while his daughters and Ranma gathered around the kitchen table. "He will be here tomorrow. Akane, I know that you do not necessarily care for boys, yet I would like you to be polite." She sighed, grimaced, and nodded her head. "So father, what room should I prepare for him?" Kasumi politely asked her father. "You may prepare the second guest bedroom, next to the one where the Saotomes are currently in." She got up and then proceeded to the hall closet.

"You know Akane, for all we know, he may be cute, or he may be a stupid Yank." Nabiki commented as she sat on her younger sister's bed while the latter finished her homework. She swiveled her chair around from her oak desk, turning down the volume of her radio, and then faced her older sister. "Nabiki, thanks for the thought, but the last thing I need right now is another stupid boy around the house." She ended her sentence by going into a small, but noticeable scowl. "Akane, don't be so hard on him; you've never even seen him. Wait until he arrives. Then you can kill him if you want." She grinned.

A distant thunderclap sounded as a light tapping started outside. Ranma knocked on the door, and in a few moments was admitted by the sound of the screen sliding open. "I just heard the weather. The guy says a cold front's moving in from the North. It's gonna be like this all weekend." Nabiki responded, "I take it you're going to be staying inside this weekend, then, hmm? Going to do some more training?" "I don't know. Probably. If I get bored, I could use the practice."

Later that evening, Akane sat lying down in bed, as the light and shadows from outside her window were reflected through the glass and were projected on the floor beside her. "I don't know what this guy will be like. I guess I will have to wait 'til tomorrow. And I hope he's a lot nicer than Ranma, don't you agree, P-Chan?" The pig squealed and nodded. She yawned, and then drifted off to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning was fairly hectic, the rain still softly continuing, Ranma and Akane arguing over an earlier incident involving one particular pet pig, while the latter held P-Chan in her lap defensively; Nabiki talking to Kasumi while she managed her finances via her favorite abacus, and Soun tapping fingers impatiently as he sipped hot coffee. "I can't believe that he will be here in only eight and a half hours!" Soun energetically reported, eyeing the wall clock. "Hey daddy," Nabiki said, "I can understand your excitement, but we have just a little bit of time to use before this Zahn guy gets here." "Oh, well… I guess you're right." Soun relaxed and stopped rapping his fingers on the table, much to the relief of the remainder of the household.

A few hours later, Ranma, now a girl, and Akane went downtown and into a café for lunch. Ranma closed her umbrella and they sat down at a booth with red upholstery and started to think about ordering. Soon, a waiter appeared, holding a white dishcloth. He was tall, with dark ruffled brown hair and a sharp chin, making him look a little imposing. Akane assumed he was a college student, judging by the face. She then decided to have a delicatessen-style sandwich. "And I would like my spaghetti with not too much marinara, but lots of powdered Parmesan!" Ranma enthusiastically told the waiter. As the waiter walked off, Akane heard him mumble something about a "crazy red-head" as he went into the comparatively brightly lit kitchen area. Her face went into a smug grin; shortly thereafter, a slightly perturbed Ran-chan replied with "What are you lookin' at?"

Ranma finished her milkshake with a loud 'slurp' and a quiet sigh. "Hey Akane, if you don't finish your milkshake, I get it!" Akane just rolled her eyes and continued sipping. She turned her head and looked at the overcast sky and listened to the light tapping of rain on the roof of the café. They heard footsteps, and Ranma turned around, and with a sparkle in her eyes, she said, "My spaghetti!" As soon as it hit the table she started in with a fork, nearly impaling the waiter with the implement. The waiter then said, a bit startled, "Geeze, kid, don't eat the plate!" He emptily laughed to himself, took out the receipt, and laid it down on the table before walking off again. Akane plucked the olive from her sandwich into her mouth, and thought, "I certainly hope this exchange student is better mannered than my fiancé." Her thought was then promptly interrupted by another loud "slurp" as Ranma finished her spaghetti. "Gee Akane; aren't you going to finish your sandwich?" "Me? Look at you. You finished a plate of spaghetti with sauce before I even took a single bite out of my sandwich!" "Yeah, so, what's your point?"

Ranma closed her umbrella as she walked in the door. "We're home!" she announced. She then promptly walked away to the kitchen to retrieve the trusty teakettle while Akane went upstairs to her room. Nabiki was there, waiting for her, and she immediately started talking. "You know, Akane that Leif will be here in about a half-hour. Let me guess." She emphasized her last comment, paused momentarily, and then continued. "You have already decided to hate him, because he's a boy. Am I right?" "Nabiki, we've gone over this. I already have Ranma. I don't need another boy in this house!" "Relax, Akane. You're not getting another fiancé. And by the looks of his letter, it sounds like he's a lot nicer than Ranma, or at least better educated." "You don't say." Akane gritted her teeth in frustration. "I'm going to the dojo, to brush up." "Fine, whatever." Akane finished a small paper she had been working on, and she went out the door. Nabiki could hear her feet hit the wood floor, as the sound softened away to nothing, the sound of the gentle rapping of the rain flooding out the sound.

A cloaked figure walked towards Nerima. "I've got to go on, even like this. They would think of it impolite of me to be late." The figure stopped to rest, and leaned on a staff. The figure shivered in the heavy rain, and continued walking.

"It's a half-hour past five" Soun said, watching the second hand slowly advance with muffled clicks. "He will be here any second, I'm sure!" The rest of his family sat at the table, along with the Saotomes. A sudden DING-DONG! interrupted the rain. Soun shot his eyes in that direction and jumped up at the tone of the doorbell. Nabiki was the first to get up, and she walked to the front door.

Nabiki opened the door to find someone looking extremely downtrodden, tired, and soaking, a large backpack beside him, resting on what appeared to be a hiking staff. "You must be Leif Zahn. Am I right?" The figure, which she now saw more clearly, was a boy around six foot. His head was tilted down from exhaustion; and she could not see his face. All she saw was a silhouette of the face, and a neatly combed, or more precisely, used-to-be neatly combed head of red-orange hair. He spoke something as he lifted his head up, to where it could be seen in the porch light. "Yes." Nabiki noticed that the voice sounded like the person looked. "This would be the Tendos wouldn't it?" Nabiki answered with a "Yes." "May I please come in, or may I continue to be beyond drenched and near-pneumatic?"

Leif's hair was so saturated with water that it just ran off him. He was wearing a cotton-knit shirt, and Khaki pants. Nabiki stood with the door open, completely bewildered. "Well?" Nabiki snapped out of her trance, and immediately said "Sure, come on in. Sorry." He walked inside, and she could see him pick up and then wear a framed hiking pack with a waterproof cover on it, and he was carrying two large suitcases in his left hand, and what looked like a staff in the other. She eyed the front gate, and saw that he had closed it behind him.

Soun heard the door close, and he got up to see the exchange student. "Dad, he's here." Nabiki told her father, and then addressed the aquanaut. "Wait a minute. If your flight came in at 4:30, then why did you just arrive five minutes ago?" He answered. "I walked." Nabiki's face went askew, and she walked off, saying to herself, although loudly, "He's either overly polite, or just plain crazy. Maybe both." Soun cut in, bowing to their guest. "By the way, I am your host, Soun Tendo; if I may introduce my household—." Leif interrupted him. "Excuse me sir, but where is your laundry room? I don't want to further drench your floor." "Down the hall, and the first door on your right. It's next to the stairwell." "Thanks." He set down his suitcases for a moment, and leaned his staff against the door of the coat closet. He then picked up both suitcases, but had distributed one to each hand, and proceeded around the corner. Soun then looked at the staff. "What? It's…metal."

Leif set down his suitcases once again, and knocked on the door. No answer, so he twisted the knob and proceeded into laundry room, setting his navy suitcases next to the washing machine. He took off his hiking backpack, after unbuckling the waist strap. He sighed in relief as the almost fifty pounds of dead weight was removed from his back, afterwards, he carefully removed the cover, revealing it dry and safe. "It's still dry. Good." He managed a small grin, created by the fact that his reading material and other paraphernalia were unscathed by the water. He saw another door on the end of the room. "It's either a garage, or…wait, I never saw a garage door on the outside of the house, which means it's probably a bathroom." He walked over to it and knocked on the door loudly. No answer once more, so he opened it, revealing the smallish bathroom and the simple tile floor it held.

He walked back to the door to the main hallway and opened it. He then spoke fairly loudly. "Mr. Tendo! Would you mind if I took a quick shower?" He heard a "Go right ahead." After Soun's answer, and after locking the hallway door, he took off his soggy clothes and set them in front of the washing machine, and his shoes in front of the dryer. He unlatched one of the suitcases, and locked it upright in a 90-degree angle on the top of the clothes dryer, then proceeded to the bathroom.

A few minutes later, he emerged from the laundry room, hair neatly combed, forming red-orange bangs that rested above his eyebrows. He was in a silken cotton tunic with a small American pop dragon print and cotton slacks, in a light khaki. He was wearing brown leather moccasin-style house slippers, muffling the vibrations of the wood floor. "We're in the living room, if you'd be so kind to join us." He followed the sound of the voice into the room, walking through the soft carpeting, and glanced at the paintings, wall scrolls, and calligraphy that adorned the room, giving it a pleasing oriental style. What piqued his interest was, among the artifacts, there, next to a tall dresser hung a single Norman Rockwell painting he remembered seeing. He looked at it. It portrayed a scene in a narrow alley with a delivery truck stopped by a small bulldog in the middle of the street. "The Roadblock. That's it." Leif stated as his continued to study it as someone addressed him. "Pretty cool painting, huh? Mr. Tendo picked it up a while back. He said it reminded of some of the traffic downtown."

The boy turned around to see a male, about his own age, a bit shorter, but fairly toned and somewhat muscular. He was wearing a yellow-orange T-shirt; it was cotton that had triangular notches cut out of both sleeves. Adding to that was a warm, friendly face, and a head full of bushy black hair that ended in numerous bangs in the front, and a short braided pigtail in the back. Leif relaxed a little bit while Ranma continued. "Name's Ranma. Ranma Saotome." "Hi." Leif's last reply seemed a little unsure, and maybe aloof. Ranma blinked, shrugged, and walked over to a short wooden table "Cherry, it appears." He thought, in the middle of the room. He walked over to it, and sat down.

The student eyed the people sitting around the table. There was Soun, who turned about to be about as tall as him, with a dark complexion, black hair, and well-kept mustache. There was the boy he had just met, along with an older man, wearing a white Gi, large thin-brimmed glasses, and a bandana around his head. Across the table from him were three girls, all teenage, the youngest with short almost bluish hair, and a look that seemed to him to be a combination of impatience and chagrin. Sitting next to her was a girl about the same age, maybe older, that he recognized from the door. She had shiny brown hair, parted in the middle, and a look that was friendly, yet smug. The eldest girl, sitting the closest to Soun, looked to be in her early twenties, with long brown hair, and look of motherly warmness radiating from her. After he was finished looking around, Soun started in. "These are my daughters Kasumi, Nabiki, and Akane." They each slightly bowed their heads after being mentioned. And over here are some of my other guests: my good friend, Genma Saotome and his son, Ranma." Genma had a look of pride, and cocked his head at the American, unnerving him, while Ranma sat indifferent. "Pleased to meet you, boy." Leif got up, and politely bowed to them, and then to his host and sat down. Kasumi walked off to the kitchen as the inquiry began.

Surprisingly, Akane was actually the first one to speak up. "So, I hear you're from the capital of the U.S. What's it like?" Leif shook his hands. "Ohh, no, I'm not from Washington D.C., I'm from Washington State." Akane said "Ahh." In understanding, while Ranma blink in his standard amount of quasi-confusion, then started in. "Where's that?" "Far North-West, on the Canadian border. It has a climate similar to the one here; maybe a little colder." Leif accepted some tea from Kasumi as she sat down. He sipped it while the hostess passed out servings to the other people seated. "I was born and raised there, although I've gone on vacation all over. Nice place, friendly people." Soun thanked Kasumi. "I'd like to complement you on your Japanese. It is quite good, and you don't have a discernable accent. How did you do that?" He answered his host. "I don't really have a secret on that, other than I've gotten lots of practice, and had several good teachers." He paused.

After the family meeting was adjourned and Genma and Soun had left the room, Leif caught Kasumi as she picked up the tea. "I don't mean to intrude, but why are they here?" Leif quietly asked her. Kasumi then replied. "Ohh. Ranma is Akane's fiancé, so they are living here for the time being." Leif looked at Akane, then looked at Ranma. "They don't look much older than me, if it all." "Ahh… Pre-arranged marriage, then." "You nailed it." Akane sighed, then continued. "It was our parents' idea." Ranma agreed with that. "No kidding." "Leif, would you like me to show you your room?" Kasumi asked, ever so politely. "Sure, why not?"

Kasumi lead him to an empty room adjacent to the one where the Saotomes slept. It was a small, but cozy room, with a plain design, and a single box-spring matressed bed in the corner with freshly made sheets. Kasumi set down a towel and a glass of water on the small dresser and said, "You must be tired, so feel free to hit the sack whenever." "Thanks." He set down his suitcases next to a short dresser next to the bed, and placed his backpack on the bed.

Downstairs, he saw Soun reading, and Nabiki watching the medium size television in the corner of the living room, the one he had apparently overlooked. He glanced at the screen, and saw that a stock report was on and Nabiki was reclined in a bean bag chair, with a legal pad and a pencil, and was apparently taking notes. Ranma was reading a manga at the table, and he walked over and sat down next to him. "That girl over there, Nabiki. She's really intense into that stock info. Is she planning on being a stock broker, or an accountant?" Ranma looked up, cocked an eyebrow, and replied. "Yeah, either that, or a loan shark. She's good at that."

"Ranma, you're a martial artist aren't you?" "How'd you know?" "One, your muscle tone. That, and when I was walking here, I noticed what appears to be a dojo attached to the side of the house. I just assumed you'd be most likely to use it. Oh, and another thing…" Ranma stopped. "A guy I passed was mumbling about you. I asked him about it, and he seemed ridiculously angry at you for some reason. He kept on blabbering incoherently that because of you, he was doomed to hell or something like that. Then he asked me if I knew where Nerima was. I pointed in the direction I was going, he thanked me…but the really weird part was he then started heading in the opposite direction." Ranma looked at him. "I think I know who you're talking about. What'd he look like?" "About your height, a muscular build, he was wearing a bandana like a headband, yellow shirt, black pants with yellow straps, holding a large, red bamboo umbrella."

"His name's Ryoga Hibiki. He used to be an old classmate, but after some minor stuff, he vowed to kill me, and made trying to do it his hobby." "That's kind of odd. I don't know if you know, but I also, have a little bit of training in martial arts, for self-defense and such. Do you practice karate?" "It's kempo, and it's my family's specialty. What do you do? And what was that bo thing you had?" "I'll show you." Ranma blinked a couple of times in confusion as Leif walked out of the living room, heading towards the front door.

As Leif reached the front door, he eyed the familiar reflectiveness of the metal staff, leaning against the door handle of the coat closet, and picked it up. He gave a hardly noticeable smile as he did, and walked back to the living room.

Ranma was there still, a couple pages ahead in the manga he was reading. Leif looked at it, holding the staff diagonally in his right hand and the pig-tailed boy realized his manga was being kibitzed. "You wanted to see this, I suppose?" Ranma looked at the cylindrical metal object that was well over six feet in length, with a dulled silvery finish on it. Leif handed it to him. "Whoa… Cool." Ranma was rather startled at how light the staff was. He stood up, and gently and carefully twirled it slowly. The object that looked like it weighed forty or fifty pounds only weighed, at most, a couple of pounds. And yet, it felt extremely sturdy. He lifted his knee, and placed the staff on it, perpendicular to his thigh and pressed down on both ends very gently, then slowly increased the pressure. It flexed very slightly, but it did not yield to the force he applied.

"Hey, this is like those, uh, what-ya-ma-call-it… tennis rackets!" Leif cocked his head slightly. "Sort of, it's more metal than anything. It's a lightweight titanium alloy, smelted with iridium and osmium. Most tennis rackets are carbon fiber, but I didn't want it, because although carbon fiber is strong and light, it breaks really easy." Ranma blinked, the previous few sentences flying completely over his head. "Wait, you can buy these things?" "No, I had it custom made a long time ago. I use it for two things. Hiking, and my martial arts specialty." "Which is?" Leif grinned smugly. "Tibetan Staff Fighting." Ranma cocked his gaze out towards the patio. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still overcast. "That's also kinda weird. Say, you up for a match?" "Na, no thanks. You're probably way better. I've only been doing this for a few months, and you've probably done karate all your life." "Uh-huh…are you sure? Or are you just being a girl?" Ranma gave a bit of a smirking grin at that, as Leif's eyebrow started to twitch. "Alright, Saotome…You're on."

Ranma and Leif walked to the back patio. Ranma slid open the door, revealing the back yard, a cherry tree to the right, and the large Koi pond, which was bordered by a loose ring of stones. Leif walked out with his staff, using it in the hiking variant. He drew it diagonally as Ranma went into a defensive stance. He paused and looked at the sky, and saw lightning, then heard the soon accompanying thunderclap. The rain may have stopped for the moment, but it would probably return very soon. The two boys stood for a moment, and then the fight began.

Ranma lunged forward with a hard right-handed punch, which Leif easily blocked with his staff. Ranma yelped a little "oww", and shook out his fist. Leif stood solemn and ready with his staff held in both hands. Ranma sped up his punches, getting a feel for Leif's skill, to which Leif blocked each punch, barely breaking a sweat. Ranma then ducked, and executed a low sweeping kick, to which Leif back-flipped out of the way. Ranma jumped back and stood breathing just slightly heavier. He looked up and concentrated, then executed a series of quick punches, changing the target area with each, started high, going low, to mid, back to low then high again. Leif tried to block, but he was hit quite a few times. They were light enough that it really didn't do much damage, although they did lower his stamina. He jumped backward as Ranma advanced forward.

Leif immediately spun his staff into a fast windmill, blocking only about half of the punches Ranma then executed. Leif coughed as his chest tightened, and pulled back. Ranma also pulled back as well, as when he drew back he examined his fingers to find one of his knuckles with a small scratch, which was bleeding. He took out some cloth and wrapped his palm in it to stop the bleeding. Leif yelled as he lunged forward, hitting Ranma square in the stomach with the tip of his staff, before his attention could be put back into the fight, instantly knocking the wind out of him. He then came forward, grabbed Ranma, and using his staff, he flipped him over his staff, and then threw Ranma a good ten feet, skidding him into the pond, leaving a trail of wet grass that instantly became scented.

Ranma stood up out of the water, now the cute and busty redheaded girl version of himself. "Hyyah!" Leif stood a bit dazed and pointed at the soggy girl standing in front of him. "Who… are you? What… happened to Ranma?" The brazen girl yelled her response. "I am him, stupid! Besides… who said this fight was over!" Ranma jumped directly up out of the water. Leif jumped up to meet her in midair, using his staff to pole-vault upward. Ranma kicked in mid-air, and threw some more punches. Leif was hit hard, and knocked upward. Ranma, on the other hand, noticed she was far from the edge of the pond, and fell splashing back into the pond. Leif, much to his displeasure, realized the same. He yelled as he fell, then rotated his staff, and did a handstand.

Leif stood precariously balancing, one inch of space between his bottom hand and the water. He stood there on the precarious perch, and then collapsed out of exhaustion into the pond. He waded to the edge of the pond, got up, and sat down on the grass. "And I just took a shower." The redheaded girl walked over to him, cocked her head upside down, and asked him, "You okay?" He looked up, sighed, and replied tiredly, "Yeah." "He paused, and examined the girl. "Ranma, you're… a girl? How'd that happen?" The girl sighed then explained. "It's an ancient Chinese curse I got because of my dumb old man that changes me into a girl with cold water. Warm water un-does it." "Bummer. I bet causes some problems." Ranma scowled. "No kidding. And all he turns into is a panda."

They shook hands, and walked towards the house. Thunder sounded, and it began to rain. Leif and Ran-chan were immediately re-soaked, their faces drooping. The two strolled back into the house, the rain now down-pouring.

Kasumi walked to the ledge of the house with the two sitting, and with the tea kettle she had in her hands, she poured out hot water on the red headed girl's head. Ranma, now a bit manlier, got up and glanced at the exchange student, a light grin manifesting itself.

Nabiki, once again in Akane's room, was talking to her younger sister. "I don't know why you're so angry Akane. He's fairly good looking. And, he's polite." Akane let go of some of her tension and replied, "Well… I guess you're right, for once." Nabiki scowled for a second. "Perhaps you should have been engaged to him." Akane's pencil promptly snapped in half.

Ranma knocked on the door to Leif's room. No answer. He opened the door to find the lights on. Leif was fast asleep, still in his somewhat (newly) wet clothes, lying on top of the bed. "Jet lag." Ranma thought. "He still managed to put a fairly good fight. This guy's pretty good. Not that I was even trying, but hey, he's better, than say, Kuno." He walked to door, turned off the lights, and went out the door, closing it behind him.