Notes from Juilliard

By ClassicalGal

Once again, I'd like to express my deep appreciation to my prereaders: Nesin Evets, Nightelf, and Michael Chase. They gave me lots of excellent suggestions, and the story is better for it.

Formatting constraints here don't allow me to make realistic-looking emails, so please use your imagination. :-)

Chapter 1


High above the Arctic coastline of Alaska, a pair of blue eyes watched a number on a screen grow steadily larger.


The cabin of JAL flight 006 was dark and quiet, save for the roar of the jet engines. Almost all the passengers were asleep, but for a handful: the night owls and the insomniacs. Their seats were islands of light in the darkness. The flight attendants circulated among them, moving softly to avoid waking the sleepers.

One of the wakeful few was a petite young Japanese woman with fiery red hair, whose eyes were focused on the status display showing on the main cabin screen. All sorts of information was popping on and off the screen: the aircraft's speed, its position, its heading, the outside temperature, the local time, the distance to the nearest land mass. The redhead only cared about one number.

Kilometers from Tokyo, Japan: 5,395

Everyone she knew, everyone she loved, her entire family, all her friends: they were all receding at around 1,000 kilometers per hour.

Kilometers from Tokyo, Japan: 5,407

Saotome Ranko closed her eyes and leaned her head against the window; she felt the cool plastic against her forehead, the vibration from the engines. She opened her eyes and looked out at the sparkling, bleak wasteland far below, bathed in perpetual twilight. What am I doing here?

When she'd been on the road with her father, they'd always been on the move. They'd rarely stayed in one place long enough for her to make friends. That was something she'd had trouble enough with anyway, being trapped as a boy due to Happousai's magic. Kuonji Ukyou and Hibiki Ryouga were the only two people who stood out from that part of her life.

Then they'd come to stay with the Tendous, and life had started to change. The biggest change had turned her life upside down: she'd discovered who she really was, and had resumed her life as a girl. After that, she'd actually started to make friends. Her family had expanded beyond her father to include her mother and her second family, the Tendous. She'd reconnected with Akane, the childhood friend who was more like a twin sister to her.

And in a twist of fate that had both of them still laughing and shaking their heads on occasion, she and Ryouga had fallen in love, and were engaged to be married.

She'd spent five and a half years putting down roots for the first time, strong roots. Now she was leaving it all behind, again. And this time, not even her father was with her.

It's the chance of a lifetime, she scolded herself. You've been over it and over it. A chance to push your skills farther, to learn from the very best, to get the help you need. A priceless opportunity any performing artist would jump at. How could you ever turn it down? Her heart recited the reasons: Ryouga, Akane, Mom, Dad, Kasumi, Nabiki, Ucchan, Uncle Souun, Noriko, Miki, Shampoo, Cologne, Professor Murata… She sighed. You can call. You can e-mail. You'll be home for New Year's for two weeks. You'll be home for good in only nine months! Nine… whole… months… She closed her eyes again, shutting out the view, as she absently fingered the heart-locket necklace she wore.

She should really be trying to sleep; everyone had told her that when going East, sleep was the best way to adjust to the eleven hour difference in time zones. That little number on the screen was keeping her awake, though. That, and the unknown world that was waiting for her when her flight landed.

Her senses alerted her to a presence nearby, and she sat up and turned to find one of the flight attendants smiling at her. Her badge announced her name, in Roman letters: E. Taneoka. "I thought you were asleep, Miss; I was about to turn off your light. Is there anything I can get for you?"

Ranko sighed and sat back in her economy class seat. She hadn't even considered business class; given her small size the extra room would have been wasted. She smiled ruefully. "I don't know. Can you get the pilot to turn around?"

Taneoka laughed. "I don't think so. Your first trip outside Japan?"

Ranko shook her head. "No, but it's my first time alone, and so far from home. Before this, I just went to China a couple of times with my father." And now he turns into a panda when he gets wet, and my fiancé turns into a woman, but let's skip that part.

Taneoka hesitated. She was garrulous by nature and loved to meet new people, but normally wouldn't pry into a passenger's life. She'd actually gotten into a little bit of hot water once or twice by letting her enthusiasm get the better of her. Still, the girl seemed to want to talk. "How long will you be in America?"

The redhead sagged visibly, and Taneoka winced; she'd hit the jackpot on the first try. "Nine months."

Taneoka added up the facts and guessed. "Overseas study?"

Ranko blinked, surprised. "Yes, how did you know?"

Taneoka smiled. "You're going at the start of the American school year and coming back at the end." She clucked in sympathy. "Isn't it unusual for a high school girl like you to be going overseas by herself?"

Ranko laughed. "Actually, I'm twenty-one, this past March. I'm just on the small side." And she was: she'd only gained two or three centimeters in the last five years. She was still shorter than her mother. Akane, on the other hand, was now slightly taller than Kasumi; Nabiki was a touch shorter. All three towered over her, having inherited some of their father's height.

Taneoka blushed, and Ranko smiled sympathetically. "Don't worry, lots of people make that mistake."

The other woman nodded, still a little embarrassed. "Where will you be studying?"

Ranko's smiled faded, and her face grew somber. "The Juilliard School, at Lincoln Center in New York."

Taneoka bit her lip. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be prying…"

Ranko shook her head. "No, really, it's OK." She giggled. "I've been driving myself crazy watching the distance pile up on the screen." Her eyes flicked to the screen for a moment: 5,484 kilometers from Tokyo, Japan. She offered up a bright smile to the flight attendant. "I'm happy for the distraction, really. It's nice to have someone to talk to."

Taneoka beamed; she'd made the right decision, after all. For a moment her eyes scanned the cabin; a few more lights had gone out, and it looked like she could spare a couple of minutes before getting back to work. I'll just take my break fifteen minutes early. "Do you mind if I sit down?"

Ranko smiled, and shook her head. "Not at all, Taneoka-san. My name is Saotome Ranko, by the way."

Taneoka smiled. "I'm Taneoka Eimi, Saotome-san." She sat down in the empty seat next to the diminutive redhead. "What will you be studying, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Of course not. I'm studying the violin; I've been studying it for about five years now. I've been attending the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music full time for the last three and a half years."

Eimi reddened. "I'm sorry, I think I've heard of both places, but I don't really know much about it. My taste in music runs towards pop." Ranko smiled and nodded. "So why are you going to Juilliard?"

"Professor Murata—he's my sensei—I think he's responsible for this. There was a professor from Juilliard who came to our school for a couple of months while on sabbatical, Professor Vasilev." Ranko enunciated the name carefully; it was hard for a native Japanese to pronounce. "He gave an advanced workshop which I attended, and the next thing I knew he and Professor Murata were plotting something. Then they went out drinking one night—a Japanese and a Russian drinking, now that's really dangerous—and when they showed up again the next day, they'd hatched this scheme to send me to Juilliard for a year." Just like Father and Uncle Souun. "It's a fantastic opportunity, and I really couldn't say no." She sighed.

Eimi watched her carefully. "But…"

Ranko smiled halfheartedly. "But this is my last year of school, and I wanted that to be with Professor Murata, at my own school. I wanted to graduate and see the cherry blossoms…" she trailed off, and her eyes lost focus.

Eimi tilted her head. "And…?"

Ranko grinned and blushed at the same time. "You really know how to read people, don't you?" Eimi shrugged in an elaborate display of modesty, and they both laughed.

Ranko's smile faded. "And, I'm going to miss my family, and my friends. And my fiancé."

Eimi's eyes went to Ranko's left hand; she hadn't noticed the modest ring before. She sagged in sympathy. "I'm sorry. This must be really hard on you." They both sighed. "When are you getting married?"

Ranko smiled nervously. "Three days after I get back."

Eimi's jaw dropped. "Wow… only three days?"

Ranko nodded. "We set the date before I knew about this. It was going to be two months after I graduated, but now it's just three days."

Eimi smiled knowingly. "And now you can't change it, right? You have to book those wedding places really far in advance."

Ranko nodded vigorously. "My father wanted to save money, but my mother insisted on having it at a wedding chapel. We had to reserve way in advance to get a good rate, and now it can't be changed." She sighed. "I'll be planning my wedding from 11,000 kilometers away."

She smiled sheepishly. "It's just as well, I guess—we've been engaged for four and a half years, and my fiancé has been so patient, and… and… I didn't really want to put it off again anyway."

Eimi giggled. "You're lucky he wants to get married. My boyfriend turns green when I even talk about it."

Ranko smiled quietly. "He's a sweet guy." Quite suddenly, tears welled up in her eyes.

Eimi bit her lip. "I'm sorry…"

Ranko dug in her purse for a tissue. "No, it's not your fault. I've been thinking about it for the last…" her eyes went to the screen again, "5,836 kilometers." She dabbed at her eyes.

Suddenly, there was the sound of a throat being cleared, and they both noticed the rather stern-looking middle-aged woman standing next to them; she, too, was wearing a flight attendant's uniform. "Taneoka-kun."

Eimi paled and shot to her feet, banging her head on the overhead luggage compartment in the process. She winced. "S-senpai?"

"What are you doing?"

"Umm, I decided to take my break fifteen minutes early, Senpai."

"And use it to pester the passengers again, I see." The older woman leaned over. "Has she been talking your ear off, Miss?"

Ranko smiled and shook her head. "No, she's been a great help, actually. I was feeling kind of lonely and far from home, and it was wonderful to have someone to talk to." She beamed at Eimi. "Thank you, Taneoka-san."

The older woman glanced between the two younger ones for a moment; then her own face relaxed into a warm smile. "I see. I'm glad Taneoka was able to help." Eimi sagged slightly in relief. "Taneoka-kun, we need an extra hand in the galley. Come along when you have a spare moment." She winked at the two of them.

Ranko and Eimi watched her glide off, then stared at each other for a long moment before bursting into muffled giggles.

Ranko sobered. "I'm sorry to get you into trouble."

Eimi shook her head. "No, it's my fault. I just love to meet people." She looked at her watch. "My break is over anyway. I'll stop by again later, OK?" Ranko smiled and nodded.

Fifteen minutes later, when Eimi passed by Ranko's seat, the young woman's head was leaning against the cabin wall, and her breathing was quiet and regular. Eimi smiled, pulled a blanket from the overhead compartment, and covered Ranko with it. She put a pillow between Ranko's head and the wall, raising an eyebrow when the redhead mumbled "Go 'way, Daddy. Don't wanna spar t'day." Eimi turned off the light, and moved on.


Ranko started and gasped, and opened her eyes. Bright light flared at the bottom of the not-quite-closed window shade. The pillow her head had been resting on slid down to the floor. She felt disoriented; her head swam. Where am I?


Still groggy, she turned her head to find Eimi smiling at her apologetically. "I'm sorry to wake you, but you said on your menu card that you wanted to be awakened for breakfast."

Ranko nodded sleepily—she never missed a meal if she could help it—and Eimi smiled again and moved off. The redhead looked around; the lights were on, and the cabin was full of noise and activity. Many windows were open, and sunlight was everywhere. She glanced at her watch; it was midnight in Tokyo. Her head spun from the contrast between her body's clock and the sunlight outside.

Her eyes went to the screen, but the status display was gone, replaced by a news program; she had no idea where they were or how many kilometers she was from Tokyo, Japan. If breakfast was just being served, though, then there must be a little while still before they landed.

She raised her window shade, and winced at the bright light that streamed in; fortunately, the sun seemed to be on the other side of the plane. She looked down and saw green hills with the occasional dark blue of a lake or gray ribbon of roadway. Her high school geography was a little hazy, but she knew Canada was north of the United States, and that New York City was in New York State. They must be over southern Canada or northern New York, or maybe New England. Beyond that she couldn't say.

She watched the terrain, fascinated. It was nothing like the area around Tokyo, but she could imagine that she was over northern Honshu. Then she noticed the tiny cars on a large highway far below: they were driving on the right side of the road. No, she definitely wasn't in Japan.

She felt a brief surge of anxiety, and ran through a calming exercise, blowing her breath out. She forced herself to remember her travels with her father: twelve long, hard years on the road. Sleeping in a bedroll on the hard ground or snow. Eating campfire rice most of the time. Traveling through China, not understanding a word of what was said around her. Having to take menial odd jobs to be able to afford even the rice.

Being a boy.

She'd only be at Juilliard for nine months. She'd be in a dorm room with another woman, with her own bed, and two and a half baths shared with her roommate and six other women in a five-bedroom suite. She'd be eating hot meals which she wouldn't have to prepare herself. There were other Japanese students she could talk to, and she'd get a chance to test the crash four-week immersion course in English conversation she'd taken in lieu of summer vacation. Thanks to her scholarship, she'd just have to work a part-time job to earn a little spending money, for clothes, movies, and the like. And best of all… she was herself.

She smiled. Compared to traipsing around Japan and China as Ranma with Father, this was going to be a piece of cake. Her anxiety faded. I've just gotten used to being in one place, is all. And if I'm going to be a violinist, I can't spend all my time in Japan. This will be good for me. She nodded to herself.

The cart carrying breakfast arrived, wheeled by two flight attendants, neither of whom were Taneoka-san. Ranko was a little disappointed; it was nice to see a familiar face, even if it was a new one. One of them smiled and handed her her breakfast: a smallish cheese omelet, a somewhat glutinous muffin, an unnaturally stiff banana, and orange juice. She set to eating, if not exactly with gusto. She soon felt better, though for someone who ate like her it was more like a snack than a meal. She would have preferred the Japanese breakfast choice, but she knew this would sustain her longer.

She waited impatiently for the tray to be taken away. When it was gone and the aisle was clear, she immediately got out of her seat and started doing some stretching exercises. Several of the passengers watched with interest as she stretched and contorted her body, at one point bending over and grasping her calves. She went into a vertical split, held it for a few moments, then stood up, turned around, and glared daggers at the middle-aged Japanese businessman who'd been observing her anatomy rather than her form; she'd spotted him ogling her while looking back through her legs. He had the good grace to grimace and look elsewhere.

She turned back towards her seat to find Eimi smiling at her. "Are you a dancer as well as a violinist?" She had a hopeful look in her eye.

Ranko laughed. "No, a martial artist, but there isn't enough room to do a kata in the aisle. I needed to work out the kinks—I've been sitting in that seat way too long."

Eimi's face fell just a bit. "Oh… I'm kind of into dance myself, and I was hoping…"

Just then a tone sounded and the seat belt light came on. The pitch of the engines went down, and the plane tilted down slightly. Eimi laughed. "I'm afraid you're going to have to get right back into that seat; we've just started our descent."

Ranko nodded reluctantly and sat down. "Thank you, Taneoka-san. It was fun having someone to talk to." She looked wistful.

Eimi bit her lip, and took a chance. Part of the reason she liked this job was the opportunity to meet people. That wasn't half as much fun if you said goodbye to them right away. "You know, since I work the Tokyo/New York route, I often have layovers here. The company has an apartment that we all share near the airport, and I'm usually here for a few days every other week."

She was rewarded when Ranko's face lit up. "Really?"

Eimi nodded. "I can give you my cell phone number later, if that's all right?"

Ranko nodded happily. "I'd love to get together with you again." She smiled sheepishly. "I'm afraid I don't know an address or phone number yet, just that I'll be in the dormitory at Juilliard."

Eimi nodded, then spotted her senpai near the front of the cabin. "I need to get back to work." She smiled apologetically and hurried off.

Ranko smiled, then turned her gaze out the window. The ground below was looking much more populated now, with houses and highways everywhere. Ranko boggled at the huge number of single-family homes and how much land they each had; many had swimming pools. The rolling green of the land stretched out in all directions, nary a mountain in sight. In the distance, she could see a large river; they seemed to be flying parallel to it.

A video started on the screen, discussing U.S. Immigration and Customs procedures. Flight attendants passed up and down the aisles, handing out forms. Ranko sighed as she took her copies; she loathed bureaucratic forms. She'd had a very bad experience with them a few years ago. As she rolled her pen between her fingers, looking the forms over, she heard a throat being cleared. She looked up; Eimi was standing there, and handed her a slip of paper with a wink. Ranko giggled; she kind of felt like they were passing notes in class.

Halfway through filling out the forms, she got stuck on one question she didn't understand. In frustration she turned to look out the window, and gasped. Stretched out before her, in the middle distance, was downtown Manhattan. It couldn't be anything else; gigantic buildings stood shoulder to shoulder, like impossibly large building blocks. She'd thought herself a city dweller, but Tokyo was sprawling and flat, with only a few clusters of tall buildings here and there, like Shinjuku.

There was some of that here, too; directly below her must be the outlying parts of the city, and there were mostly small buildings and single-family homes. Though everything seemed… more spacious.

But Manhattan… suddenly Ranko understood where all the futuristic cities she had ever seen in movies had had their genesis. Manhattan reached for the sky, a profound statement by Mankind.

She watched the buildings, the bridges, the rivers, the highways, and the staggering numbers of cars, rapt, until the land suddenly fell behind and they were headed out to sea. Ranko blinked, then realized that they were going to circle around to land. She hurriedly turned her attention back to her customs form, referring to the Japanese instructions in her in-flight magazine.

Oh, OK: the form was asking for the total value of any goods she had acquired abroad and was bringing into the United States. She furrowed her brow. She'd aquired all of it abroad, of course; after all, that's where she lived! What a silly question to ask any foreigner!

She tried to estimate the value of the clothing and other possessions which were packed in a large steamer trunk in the cargo hold. Then there was the compact notebook computer in her backpack, which Nabiki-neechan had badgered her into getting, so she could communicate with her family back in Nerima without running up enormous phone bills. Oh, and she couldn't forget her Lott "del Gesù" violin.

She added everything up, then laboriously converted it into U.S. currency. She wrote on the form: "Total value: $61,000.00" She blinked; it didn't sound like much when you wrote it that way. She had a gown that was worth 60,000 yen (though she'd gotten it for free). She'd have to be careful shopping here until she got used to the difference in currency. Satisfied she was done, she put the forms in her backpack, put up her tray table, and resumed watching out the window.

The plane was quite low over the water now, and soon a runway loomed below them; Ranko watched, fascinated. This was only her second time on an airplane—the first had been a skiing trip to Hokkaido with Professor Murata and her fellow students—and she was not yet jaded by the wonder of such a heavy machine flying like a bird.

There was a screech as first one tire and then the others touched the ground, and the 747 immediately started to brake. As they slowed and began to taxi, Ranko noticed that even though it was an airport like Narita, it was… different. The vehicles had different shapes, and everything was labeled in English; there was no kanji or kana to be found anywhere. The ground personnel weren't Japanese. She spotted all sorts of skin and hair colors and faces that one rarely saw in Japan, and mused that here, her red hair would hardly be noticed.

She heard Taneoka-san's senpai voice over the PA system. "Welcome to New York City and John F. Kennedy International Airport." Ranko listened as the flight attendant ran through the usual details about the weather (warm and muggy), the local time (1:20 PM), the luggage procedures, and so on, first in Japanese and then in English. After a short while, she found herself lined up with the other passengers and filing out the door. She passed Eimi on the way, and they exchanged a smile and a goodbye. Ranko thought of the little slip of paper in her backpack, and resolved to look up the other woman soon.

As she walked out into the terminal, it finally hit her full force: this was not Japan. There were no Japanese here, except for her fellow passengers who were rapidly melting into the crowd of other international arrivals. The announcements over the PA system were all in English, and she struggled to make sense of them. While she'd been on the JAL flight, she'd still been surrounded by a little bubble of Japan, and now she'd left that behind. She adjusted her backpack, gripped her violin case a little more tightly, and set off to follow the crowd.

After a good long walk through a maze of corridors, she arrived at Immigration. Ranko waited patiently in line—she was Japanese, after all—and when it was her turn stepped up to the immigration official, handing him her passport, with the attached student visa, and her forms. The man looked everything over, then looked up, eyeing her doubtfully, and spoke.

In English. And she hadn't understood a word he said.

She froze up momentarily in panic, then calmed herself. Summoning her four weeks of conversational expertise, she ventured, "Sorry, I no understand. Can you please speak slower?"

Surprisingly, the man looked relieved; she guessed he'd been expecting even less. He repeated, slowly, "You left out your U.S. address on your I-94 form. Where will you be staying?" He pointed to the offending lines.

She furrowed her brow as she processed that. "I no know address. I go to Juilliard School, in Lincoln Center." She added, "They have dor… dormitory. I live there."

The man checked her student visa; it did indeed list the school as the Juilliard School in Lincoln Center. He noticed the violin case in the tiny redhead's hand, and smiled. "I see. That's good enough." He typed for a while on his computer keyboard, watched the screen, then stamped her passport. "Enjoy your stay in the United States, Ms. Saotome." He'd pronounced it "Sow-too-mee." He handed Ranko's documents back and waved her on; she smiled tentatively and proceeded out the other side of the barrier, the next person coming up behind her as she left.

She'd passed the first milestone: she was now officially in the United States. She couldn't help smiling, for she and her father had not bothered with passports and immigration when they'd swum to China. This seemed a lot more… normal.

She came up to a mammoth luggage carousel surrounded by a sizable crowd of fidgety people, most of whom looked like they would much rather be visiting their dentist. Like them, she had to wait for her checked baggage (in her case, a large steamer trunk) to appear so she could proceed through Customs. After ten minutes or so, though it seemed much longer, the large black trunk finally popped out and slid down onto the conveyor with a loud thump. As it circled around towards her, she reached out a hand and made ready to grab it.

A young man with hairy, muscular arms stepped forward and blocked her way. He spoke in heavily accented English. "Hey, babe, let me get that for you."

Ranko struggled to make sense of the heavy accent, but got most of it. Especially the "babe" part. "No thank you, I get myself." She examined him; he towered over her like a giant. He had eyes as blue as her own set in a handsome face, lightly tanned skin, dark brown, wavy hair, and a day's growth of beard stubble. In contrast to his muscular arms, his fingers were long and slender. He was wearing a red cotton shirt with a button-down collar and chinos, and looked to be about her age. Actually, he was pretty cute…

The young man flashed a rakish grin. "A delicate little thing like yourself? I would not want you to hurt yourself." Ranko fumed as he manhandled her trunk off the conveyor and onto a nearby luggage cart, grunting at the weight. "My God, women don't travel light, do they?"

Ranko found herself wishing she didn't understand his English quite so well. He might have been cute, but he was grating on her like fingernails on a blackboard. She swallowed her pride. "Thank you, Mister…?"

The rakish grin reappeared. "Laurent. Jean-Pierre Laurent. You're welcome, Ms. Saotome." He pronounced it correctly.

She blinked. "How you know my name?"

He shrugged, then pointed at her trunk, which had "R. Saotome" stenciled on it in large white Roman letters. "Oh."

She put her violin case on top of the trunk, not noticing as he raised an eyebrow. She moved to push the cart off towards Customs.

He put a hand on the cart to stop her. "But that is my luggage cart, babe. We will have to share it." He grinned again. "Don't worry, I would be happy to escort you to your car. I think it is my responsibility, no?" The redhead glanced up at him, and he blinked; for a moment, it had looked like she was… glowing?

Ranko glared at him for a second, then nodded. "I very sorry. I no mean take your cart." She pulled her violin off again and put it on the floor. She took the handle of the trunk with both hands, and as Jean-Pierre's eyes bulged, flipped it around and up onto her shoulder, holding it perfectly balanced. It was not the heave of a stevedore, but almost like a graceful pirouette. His jaw hung slightly open.

She carefully bent her knees and picked up the violin with her left hand, balancing the trunk with her right, then slowly straightened up again. "You keep cart, so you can carry luggage. I would not want you to hurt yourself." She smiled sweetly, turned her back, and walked away.

Jean-Pierre goggled as the tiny Japanese girl, who was barely five feet tall and couldn't possibly weigh more than 100 pounds—if that—casually strode off carrying the huge trunk he'd struggled to pull off the carousel. He spun around as he saw his own luggage go by and made a grab for it, but instead fell face first onto the carousel. He let fly with some choice words in French, then hurriedly righted himself to watch the receding redhead. As he circled around, the other passengers staring at him, a smile slowly came over his face.

Ranko sighed and glanced at the clock on the wall in the tiny office: 2:30 PM. She played back the scene in her mind, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. She'd stood in line in Customs, feeling rather uncomfortable as everyone else, for want of anything better to do, had stared at her and the trunk she carried. She'd spotted Jean-Pierre Laurent in another line; he'd been leaning casually on his luggage cart and grinning, and after their gazes met she'd averted her eyes, fuming.

She'd finally reached the head of the line, put her trunk down, and handed her forms to the Customs official. He'd taken one look at her paperwork, and his jaw had fallen open. He'd called a coworker over, there had been a hurried conference, and she had been ushered into this room, where she and her luggage had sat for the last forty minutes. She shook her head; she had no idea what was going on.

She looked up when a balding, older man, with wire-rimmed glasses and a very tired expression, stepped in. "Ms. Saotome?" He pronounced it "Sow-toem." She bit her lip and nodded. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting so long." He pulled up the only other chair in the room, and withdrew some paperwork from a folder. He spent a few moments looking it over, then spoke carefully and slowly. "Ms. Saotome, I hope you'll understand, but we need to find out why you are bringing so much merchandise into the country when you have a student visa. It's kind of unusual."

Ranko blinked; had she understood that word correctly? "Merchandise? I no understand."

The man looked over the paperwork again. "You declared $61,000 in merchandise. Are you planning to sell all this or give it away as gifts?"

Ranko shook her head. "No, is just my own things: clothes, books, computer, things like that. The big part is my violin. It is $55,000."

His eyebrows shot up. "$55,000 for a violin?"

"Yes, it is 150 years old."

"What are you doing with such an expensive instrument?"

She blushed. "I come here to study violin at Juilliard School, in Lincoln Center. This violin is… loan to me by… by…" She wasn't sure how to translate "senpai." "…by another student my professor teached."

He nodded thoughtfully. "And you're planning to take all this home with you when you return to Japan? They're all your personal effects?"

She nodded. "Yes, it is all mine, so I will take home with me."

He sighed, shaking his head sadly. "Ms. Saotome, you shouldn't have declared any of this. You declare things when you buy them abroad, then bring them here to give to other people or to sell: when you import them. Your own personal posessions which you bring with you don't count if you're going to take them home."

Ranko sagged. "Oh." All that time waiting, because she hadn't understood the instructions. Not that they were all that clear. She definitely hated forms.

He smiled apologetically. "It's OK. Believe me, you're not the first visitor to make that mistake. I'm sorry to keep you waiting so long; I had some more serious cases to look at first." He stood up. "You can go now."

He held the door open, and his eyes bulged slightly as she hefted the huge trunk and maneuvered it through the door. He'd heard the story from his coworkers, but hadn't believed it…

Ranko made her way back out into the main Customs area, which was now mostly empty save for the Customs agents. She couldn't understand why they were all smiling at her, but she inclined her head to them and smiled back. The man who had let her out of the office waved her on, and she moved towards the exit. One of the agents held up a hand to stop her, and brought a luggage cart over; she smiled gratefully and lowered the trunk onto it. While she could carry it—she was using her balance more than her muscles—it was tiring, and the cart was more than welcome. After another round of smiles, she made her way out the exit…

…And stopped short; a familiar figure was standing there, next to a familiar luggage cart. "Well, well, Supergirl has been released from custody, it would appear." He glanced at the cart. "Ah, giving your superpowers a rest, eh babe?" He leaned forward conspiratorially. "What was it? Smuggling? I should have known you were too cute for them to throw in the slammer."

She didn't understand all of what he said, but didn't particularly care. She sighed. "Mr. Laurent. Why you here?"

He bowed. "As I told you, it is my responsibility to escort you safely to your car."

She closed her eyes for a long moment. "I no have car. Take taxi." Normally she'd take a train rather than the hideously expensive taxi, but not with her steamer trunk; it was too much of a hassle.

"Then I shall escort you to the taxi stand."

She sighed in resignation, and started pushing her cart. He scrambled to follow with his own. "And why are you here in New York, babe?"

"I going to school."

He nodded. "Ah. May I ask where?" His gaze went momentarily to the violin case.

She glared sideways at him. "No."

He smiled and shrugged innocently. "You can't blame a Frenchman for trying, eh?" She snorted and didn't reply.

They passed through the sliding glass doors at the front of the terminal's lower level, outside of which was the taxi stand. There wasn't a line at the moment—her sojourn in Customs had allowed her to miss the crowd—and Ranko waved to the driver of the first cab in line, a young Indian fellow. He got out and came around to open the trunk of the cab, then strained to lift Ranko's trunk off the luggage cart.

Ranko put her hand on the trunk and waved the driver off. "It OK, I put in." The man shook his head, confused; she couldn't possibly mean that, could she?

She did. Jean-Pierre enjoyed watching the cabbie's eyes bulge as Ranko repeated her earlier feat. "Why don't you save the fare and just fly there, eh babe?"

She glared at him as she maneuvered the heavy trunk into the back of the taxi. The driver shook his head, muttering, and closed the trunk. He opened the door for Ranko, and she climbed in as quickly as she could, still carrying her backpack and violin case.

She moved to close the door, but Jean-Pierre interceded and leaned in. She was getting to the point where she was itching to use her ki mallet, but he merely said, "It was very nice meeting you, Ms. Saotome. I hope we meet again some day. Good luck to you at your school."

The wind went out of Ranko's sails, and her anger ebbed. She felt slightly ashamed for having been so snippy with him; he was just saying a polite goodbye. She managed a smile. "Thank you, Mr. Laurent. Goodbye."

He backed off, and closed the door, waving through the window. Tentatively, she waved back. The taxicab pulled away from the curb and headed towards the airport exit; Jean-Pierre smiled warmly after it.

The taxi stand attendant asked, "Sir, will you be needing a cab?"

Jean-Pierre nodded, the smile never leaving his face.

Ranko watched as her cab took off with a screech of burning rubber. The driver seemed to be in an awful hurry to leave, just as he had been in an awful hurry to get here. He'd weaved dangerously in and out of traffic on the way here, flooring the accelerator whenever he had a stretch of open road ahead of him, though Ranko hadn't said she was in any particular rush. The man had babbled the whole time about a band he was part of, and the world music they played. At least she thought that was what he had talked about; the rapidity of his speech, and his accent, had left her English skills scrambling to catch up. She'd paid him from her meager cache of U.S. currency, which had seriously depleted it. She'd need to find an ATM in the next day or two.

She took a moment to look around and orient herself. She was standing in the middle of the cacophony at the corner of Broadway and 65th Street. The din of the traffic was nearly deafening, as cars, buses, trucks, bicyclists, and taxicabs thundered past. Ranko mused that despite being the center of serious music in New York, Lincoln Center's surroundings were hardly musical.

It was late on a weekday afternoon, the late August sun low in the sky, and the sidewalk was aswarm with pedestrians going about their business, talking and shouting and whispering and crying and laughing at each other. Ranko goggled at the sheer variety: here was humanity in all the shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities, and personalities that were available. It reminded her of the ostentatious shops in Ginza, showing off their assortments of exotic goods.

Most of them ignored her, but the occasional pedestrian spared her a passing glance: tiny Asian woman with vibrant red hair, perched on an enormous steamer trunk, wearing a rather large backpack and clutching a violin case. Their curiosity mildly piqued, they let it slip from their minds and moved on.

She'd had this feeling back home, of being a tiny speck in an ocean of humanity. But in Tokyo, nearly everyone was Japanese; she felt part of that ocean, a drop in the current. Here she felt like flotsam, borne by the current but apart from it, standing outside of the life and pulse of New York, invisible and apart. There was a part of her that couldn't grasp the fact that she was 11,000 kilometers from home, a part which expected that she'd wake up from this odd dream any moment now.

She'd been to an alternate universe once, where she'd met a male version of herself, but that had seemed familiar and close to home by comparison. This seemed like the true alternate universe: a bizarre, incomprehensibly different reality. It was somewhat overwhelming.

She sighed, and hefted her luggage once again. She needed to get settled in her dorm room; existential musings could wait. She turned around slowly, and spotted the broad steps leading up to a modern-looking multi-story concrete building, clearly marked: The Juilliard School. She set off, garnering rather more stares than she had before, now that she was carrying the trunk.

While walking with the trunk was mostly an exercise in balance, climbing stairs with it required actual effort, and her calves ached by the time she got to the top. She was starting to fixate rather single-mindedly on the moment when she'd finally be able to put the thing down and unpack it.

The revolving door wouldn't admit the trunk while being carried, so she used the regular door next to it, straining to pull it open while not losing her balance. As she stepped inside, the lobby security guard hopped up, his eyes wide, and hurried over. He was a middle-aged man of average build with a bald spot and a kind face.

"Good God, Miss, don't you want to put that thing down?"

Ranko sighed wearily. "Yes." She swung the trunk off her shoulder, using her leverage and balance to deposit it on the floor. She sat down heavily on top of it and hunched over slightly.

The man clucked sympathetically. "You must be a new student. I thought the high school division didn't start until next week, though."

Somehow it didn't seem quite as amusing as it had on the plane. "I am here for college division. I am twenty-one years old." She managed a small smile. "I just look as fifteen."

The man laughed nervously. "Sorry about that, Miss." He collected himself. "You can leave that thing here; I'll watch it. The Registrar's office is on the third floor."

Ranko nodded and stood up, and together the two of them pushed the trunk off to behind the guard's desk. "Thank you, Mr. …?"

"Jefferson. T-tom Jefferson." He braced himself ever so slightly in anticipation.

Ranko smiled a sunny, oblivious smile. "Thank you, Mr. Jefferson." She turned and left for the elevator.

Tom beamed after her. He loved the foreign students.

"Swootuhmee, Swootuhmee…"

Ranko blinked and shook her head, trying to overcome the torpor which had crept up on her. She struggled to focus her tired brain on the young woman in front of her, who was fiddling with a computer, all the while mangling her name in yet another imaginative way.

The woman—a redhead like herself, with freckles—looked up. "I'm sorry, Ms. Swootuhmee, but I can't seem to find you in our records."

Ranko felt her stomach drop into a void. Adrenaline accomplished what sheer force of will could not: she was wide awake. "Wh-what?"

"Do you have an admissions letter?"

Ranko nodded and hurriedly fished in her backpack. She pulled out a manila envelope and handed it to the woman, who pulled out the contents and scanned them with a critical eye. "Hmmm… this isn't an admissions letter…" She read further as Ranko held her breath. "Oh, I see. You're an exchange student." She turned back to her computer and fiddled some more. "Well, I still can't find you, but the letter has Professor Vasilev's signature, so I imagine we'll get things sorted out." She frowned.

Ranko's fingers drummed nervously on the counter as the other students behind her in line fidgeted impatiently. "Is problem?"

The other redhead chewed on a fingernail. "Well… I can't give you access to your dorm room if you're not officially a student. The computer doesn't know about you." She sighed. "I'd better call Professor Vasilev and have him come down here."

She punched buttons on her phone; Ranko listened in over the speaker as the other end rang. "Music Department, Andrea Martin speaking."

"Andrea? It's Jean in the Registrar's office. I have a new student here, a Ms. Rank-Oh Swootuhmee. She has a letter from Professor Vasilev saying she was admitted as an exchange student, and everything seems to be in order, but she's not in the computer."

"Jean, Peter's with a visitor right now. I don't know when they'll be done. They're already over by half an hour, so…"

Jean looked up, and her gaze softened when she saw the sad, exhausted, slightly pitiful expression on the petite Japanese woman's face. She turned back to the phone. "Andrea? This poor girl just flew in from Tokyo, and I can't get her into her room in Willson Hall until we get this straightened out…"

There was a pause. "All right, I'll let him know. I'll call you back, OK?"

"OK." Jean hung up, and turned back to Ranko. "Hon, why don't you sit down while we get this figured out?" She smiled sympathetically. Ranko nodded and shuffled over to plop down heavily in one of the chairs. "Next in line, please."

She was dozing lightly when the ringing phone jolted her awake. She listened as Jean picked up the handset: "Uh-huh… uh-huh… OK, I'll tell her. Thanks, Andrea. Bye." Jean smiled at her. "The Professor is coming over right now. He should be here in about ten minutes." Ranko sighed and nodded sleepily, the fatigue starting to overwhelm her.

She was dead tired, hungry, and depressed; she felt close to tears. All she wanted was to get to her room, write an e-mail to her family to tell them she was safe and missed them terribly, unpack a little, and get to sleep. Oh, and eat first. Definitely eat.

She glanced at her watch, and did the mental arithmetic: it was 5:30 AM in Tokyo. Akane and Father would be getting up to spar any minute now. She started to nod off again.

She sensed someone sit down in the chair next to her, and heard them clear their throat. She wearily straightened up and opened her eyes, and turned to stare into a pair as blue as her own.

"Hey, babe. Jet lag really sucks, no?"

Ranko was suddenly wide awake. "You… you follow me here?" Her body unconsciously prepared itself for action.

Jean-Pierre drew himself up and huffed, "Of course not! I am not some kind of stalker, you know." He smiled and held up a photo ID: The Juilliard School, Music Division. Laurent, Jean-Pierre. "I am a senior in the Music School. Piano." He winked at her. "I guess we will be making beautiful music together this year, eh?"

Jean-Pierre grimaced as Ranko started to cry.

"You're kidding."

"I would never kid you, Peter."

Professor Peter Vasilev raised one of his bushy eyebrows. He was a tall, lanky middle-aged man, balding up the middle, and spoke with a faint British accent. "No, of course not. A herring?"

"A herring."

"Would you mind telling me how that happened, Louis?" He peered at his visitor, a short, chubby, older man, with a full head of white hair and wire-rimmed glasses.

Louis Maastricht leaned back in his chair, and took his glasses off to polish them. "Well, Richardson was going on and on about playing three different instruments. You know how he is. He was a little drunk—hell, we all were—and he said he could play anything."

Peter rubbed his eyes. "This sounds familiar. So?"

"Well, Jacques just raises an eyebrow, and he deadpans, 'Have you ever played a herring?' in that thick accent of his. Everyone just broke up—which just pissed Richardson off, of course."

Peter smiled. "Jacques could piss anyone off. Just like his son. So what happened next?"

Louis grinned and leaned forward. "Richardson says, 'If it's possible to play a herring, I can do it.' Then Jacques handed him his appetizer." He snorted. "He tried, too. Couldn't get a sound out of the damned thing, of course, but he tried." Both men laughed.

There was a knock on the door, followed by a tall, middle-aged woman with curly brown hair and glasses. "Professor?"

"Yes, Andrea, what is it?"

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but there's a problem at the Registrar's office with one of the new students. A Ms. Rank-Oh Swootuhmee, who just got in from Tokyo. They can't find her in the computer, and they can't give her her ID card or anything else until it's straightened out."

"Ah, so she's here!" He leapt up, coming perilously close to causing an avalanche in the tiny, cluttered office, and rubbed his hands together. "It's 'Ranko Saotome,' by the way."

Louis stood up as well. "Oh, that girl you've been telling me about?"

Peter nodded. "Yes, she's the one. Ichirou Murata's prize student." He turned back to Andrea. "You can tell them I'll be right over." She nodded and left.

Peter waved his hands excitedly as Louis collected his portfolio. "She's really something. She still has some things she needs to work on—that's why Murata sent her here—but I believe she has the potential to be a truly great violinist. And here's the best part: she had never touched a violin or any other instrument until five years ago, when she was 16."

"16? Now you're pulling my leg."

"No, no, I'm serious. Apparently it's because she's a talented martial artist as well; she's such a tiny little thing, but you wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen her do. She's been studying martial arts since she was four, and she's been able to use the control, discipline, and technique she learned from that to accelerate her study of the violin. Four months after she started she was playing Bach partitas."

Louis smiled. "She sounds fascinating. Mind if I tag along? I'd like to meet her."

"Not at all."

They set off out of the Music Department's offices, and down the corridor to the elevator. While they were waiting for it, Peter continued, "Talented as she is, there are still things she needs to work on. I'm not sure she got everything she needs from those martial arts. Still, I have high hopes for her."

The elevator came, and they rode it to the third floor, as Peter continued to expound on his new student. As they drew close to the Registrar's office, still deep in conversation, they heard a shout and a loud thud. The two men exchanged glances, and hurried their pace.

They burst through the door and found a young Japanese woman whose flaming red hair seemed to be matched by her mood. She was standing over another student, who was just sitting up on the floor and rubbing his shoulder. Everyone else watched, incredulous.

Jean-Pierre grimaced in pain. "That hurt, you know."

Ranko folded her arms, glaring all the while. "I no ask you put arm around me."

"I was just trying to comfort you a little!"

Peter cleared his throat, and everyone turned to face him. "What happened, Ranko-chan?"

Ranko flushed in embarassment. "I sorry, Professor. Mr. Laurent put his arm around me. I put him on floor."

The professor turned to the young Frenchman. "Jean-Pierre, you started hitting on her in the Registrar's office? Couldn't you at least have waited until she was settled in her room?"

Jean-Pierre shook his head indignantly. "I did not start hitting on her in the Registrar's office. What do you take me for?" He smiled amiably. "I started hitting on her at the airport when I saw the name on her trunk."

Ranko's jaw dropped. He'd known who she was all along?

Louis snorted and muttered, "He's Jacques' son, all right." Ranko's jaw dropped further. Jean-Pierre's father was Jacques Laurent? The Jacques Laurent, the famous cellist?

Peter smiled. "Jean-Pierre, I suggest you back off. She's already engaged, and she's a martial artist as well."

Jean-Pierre rubbed his shoulder again. "Yes, I found out about the martial artist part." He grinned at Ranko. "Eh, Supergirl?"

Ranko seemed to glow again. "No call me that."

Jean-Pierre cleared his throat. "I suppose not." He got to his feet, and the other students and the office staff went back to their business—or seemed to.

Peter stepped to the desk. "So Jean, Andrea tells me you can't find Ranko here in the computer?"

"Oh, is that how you pronounce it? Ran-ko? Sorry, Ms. Swootuhmee." Ranko closed her eyes momentarily. "I looked in all the databases."

Peter turned back to the diminutive redhead. "Ranko-chan, you did fill out the application form I mailed you, and mailed it back, didn't you?" Ranko nodded vigorously. "And you wrote your name in English letters, right?"

Ranko nodded again. "Yes, Saotome Ranko." Jean blushed slightly. Ranko spelled her name aloud: "S, a, o, t, o, m, e, R, a, n, k, o."

Jean frowned. "Is Saotome your given name?" This time she pronounced it more or less correctly.

"Given name? What is that?"

"Umm… your first name?"

Ranko blinked. "Yes, it is first. Saotome Ranko."

Peter interrupted, mercifully. "Saotome is her family name, Jean."

Ranko nodded vigorously. "Yes, is family name. Family name is first in Japan."

Jean's eyes widened, and she turned back to the computer. "Just a sec." She tapped the keys and scanned the screen, her brow furrowed. Then she jabbed a finger at the screen and smiled triumphantly. "Here you are. You must have written your name in Japanese order on your application; it's in the computer backwards." Everyone smiled in relief. Ranko rubbed her eyes. She really hated forms.

Jean typed rapidly. "There, I've got your name all fixed. You'll be sharing room number 2 in Suite 17C in Willson residence hall, with a Ms. Tish Williams. She's in the Acting School; she arrives tomorrow." She waved Ranko over to a chair set in front of a camera. "Just sit over there and I'll take your ID picture."

Ranko thought of her disheveled appearance and cringed. Oh well, it's just an ID card. She sat down as directed. The flash on the digital camera dazzled her, and a minute later a machine spat out a plastic ID card with her name and photograph on it, just like the one Jean-Pierre had shown her before. Except her photo looked like it came from the coroner's office.

Jean handed her the card. "Now, this is your access card to the residence floors and the school, as well as your ID, so don't lose it. The access here is all electronic; there aren't any keys."

Ranko nodded. She pulled her purse out of her backpack, removed her wallet, and slid the card into one of the pockets. With any luck she wouldn't have to actually pull it out and show it very often.

Jean handed her a thick envelope. "Here is your registration package. It has everything on the school, the campus, the academic program, the rules for the residence hall, how to access the Internet in your room, you name it." Ranko accepted the envelope and stuffed it into her backpack.

Jean beamed. "You're all set, Hon. You can take your luggage to your room and crash now." She winked. "Orientation starts Sunday, so you have a few days to get settled in and explore."

Ranko smiled in gratitude. "Thank you, Ms. Jean." Her stomach growled noticeably, and she flushed in embarrassment. "Umm, is there place I can eat dinner?"

Jean giggled. "You're signed up for the meal plan, so you can go to the cafeteria for dinner. It's on the plaza level of the Rose building, where Willson Hall is. It's the only tall building in Lincoln Center; you can't miss it. Just use your ID card."

Ranko nodded. "Is there place I can exercise?"

Jean nodded. "There's a fitness center on the 22nd floor of Willson Hall. It has all kinds of equipment."

"A place with open space?"

Jean sagged slightly. "I don't think so, Hon. You should check it out, but I don't think there's a lot of open space. It's all exercise equipment and a little aerobics studio." Ranko nodded, disappointed.

Peter spoke up. "I think I know what she wants, Jean. If the fitness center doesn't work out, she can probably use one of the dance studios in this building."

Ranko perked up. "I can use?" Her brow furrowed. "They have showers?"

Peter nodded. "Yes, as long as you do it in the evening or the early morning so it doesn't interfere with classes. You'll have to share it with the dance students, though."

Ranko smiled. "I no mind."

Louis piped up, "I have an idea. Why don't we all go out to dinner somewhere, to welcome Ms. Saotome to New York? I'd like to chat with her, and this way she can get a nice meal instead of cafeteria food." Ranko nodded, somewhat bewildered. Her stomach growled again, causing everyone to laugh as she blushed. "Well, I see her stomach agrees with me."

The professor added, "I'm sorry, Ranko-chan, with all the excitement I forgot to introduce my colleague here. Ranko Saotome, this is Louis Maastricht. He's the music director of the New York Philharmonic; they play across the street in Avery Fisher Hall." Louis held out his hand.

Ranko paled and swallowed nervously, and gingerly reached out her own hand to shake his. "It is great honor to meet you, Mr. Maastricht."

Louis smiled. "The pleasure is mine, my dear. Peter here has told me a great deal about you." Ranko studied the floor intently.

Jean-Pierre smiled broadly. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's eat, no?" The two older men looked at each other; Ranko just winced.

"Excuse me, I'd like another unagi!"

The sushi chef grinned at Ranko. "Sure thing, Miss. Coming right up." He set about preparing her order. "It sure is nice to talk to someone from back home." Ranko smiled and nodded.

While Ranko bantered with the chef in Japanese, her three dinner companions eyed the stack of fourteen plates in front of her with no little incredulity. "My God," whispered Jean-Pierre, "where does she put it all? Dating this girl would cause a serious financial crisis."

Oddly enough, given that Ranko had just flown in from Tokyo, they'd suggested sushi, and Ranko had certainly had no objections to that. She loved sushi. Well, she loved just about anything… except pork. She'd been very fond of it, but these days she couldn't even look at it without thinking about P-chan. And that time Shampoo had nearly… ugh. Ryouga had a different curse these days, but the memories remained. Funny how falling in love with someone changed your perspective on things.

The others had stalled after a while, but she was still going strong. Louis was very glad Peter had insisted on picking up the check tonight. Peter wondered how the Juilliard cafeteria was going to keep up with his new student, and wished he'd remembered that time they'd eaten together in Tokyo before he had volunteered to pay for dinner. It must have been all that sake he'd had…

Jean-Pierre looked on as Ranko chatted with the chef. When speaking her native language, she was quite voluble and animated, and the angry glare had left her face, leaving a cheerful smile. She's beautiful, he thought, but she's even more beautiful when she smiles. He watched her quietly.

Ranko turned back to her dinner companions. "Gomen nasai… I mean, I sorry be rude, is nice to talk without fight for words."

Louis smiled. "Quite all right, my dear. So you've only been studying the violin since you were sixteen? That's quite amazing. It's because you've studied martial arts all your life?"

Ranko nodded enthusiastically, her mouth full of eel. After swallowing, she answered "Yes, since I am four years old. I study long time with father, and learn from Chinese Amazon old woman, also."

"Chinese Amazon? There is such a thing?"

"Oh yes, I meet them when we in China. Father and I, we go all around China and Japan on martial arts training trip, for twelve years." She turned back to the sushi chef. "Could I have some tako, please?" The man smiled and nodded.

Jean-Pierre smiled. "That is a very unusual life for a Japanese girl, no?"

The change was instantaneous: the smile vanished from Ranko's face, and she seemed to deflate slightly. Her body language was like a door slamming shut. Jean-Pierre winced.

She stared off into space, silent, and Peter remembered something Professor Murata had told him when they had planned Ranko's year at Juilliard: "She had some traumatic experiences during her childhood. She's pretty much over it, but sometimes it catches up with her. And she's terrified of cats; be careful about that." A quick change of subject was in order. "So you were able to translate these martial arts skills to play the violin?"

Jean-Pierre watched, rapt, as Ranko slowly relaxed, like a flower unfolding from a bud. "Yes, is very much same." She seemed to recover rapidly, and after a moment she went after the other piece of eel on her plate.

Louis frowned. "Really? I thought martial arts was about punching, kicking, that sort of thing."

Ranko tilted her head and thought as she swallowed. The octopus she had ordered arrived, and she reached for the plate. "Yes, but control of body and balance is very, very important. That is what work for violin." She attacked her octopus, and Jean-Pierre found the music from "Jaws" running through his head, unbidden. When she'd subdued it, she added, "Here, I show."

She took several of her spent sushi plates off the stack and arranged them. She took her chopsticks in hand, and seemed to concentrate for a moment. Then the others' jaws fell open as her chopsticks became a barely visible blur, spreading over the plates in front of her like a ghostly cloud. A moment later they were at rest, and she gestured at the one in the center, where a Japanese character made out of neatly placed grains of rice now sat. "That first character in my name, means… ahh… I don't know English word. Is kind of flower." She went after her other octopus as her dinner companions absorbed this.

Louis blew out the breath he hadn't known he was holding. "Yes, I can certainly see how that would be useful for playing the violin." Ranko beamed, her mouth stuffed with octopus. Jean-Pierre and Peter were still staring at the neatly drawn rice kanji on Ranko's plate.

Ranko's tower of plates topped out at sixteen with the octopus, and she settled back in her chair and sighed. "Thank you so much for dinner. I was very hungry." Louis and Jean-Pierre chimed in their thanks as well.

"Mmm," was all Peter could manage in reply. He signaled the waitress to come count plates so he could pay. She bustled over and set to work, raising an eyebrow when she came across the rice writing. She finished totaling their bill without comment. The professor looked it over, sagged slightly, and gave the woman a credit card.

Louis smiled at the young Japanese woman. "You're looking a little more energetic, my dear."

Ranko nodded. "Yes, it…" she glanced at her watch, "7 AM at Tokyo. I waking up again."

"Try not to stay up too late, it will make it harder to adjust." Ranko nodded and blushed at the fatherly advice. She could still scarcely believe she deserved this kind of attention from such distinguished people.

They were soon on their way, strolling back towards Lincoln Center. Louis bowed out shortly, hailing a taxi to take him back to his apartment. "Good luck at Juilliard, Ms. Saotome. I'm sure I'll hear great things about you." She blushed, and he turned to Jean-Pierre. "I'd tell you to stay out of trouble, young man, but I know it would be futile." Jean-Pierre gave a cheery nod, and they all laughed as the older man climbed into the cab and pulled the door closed.

They resumed their walk. After a block or so, Ranko asked quietly, "Professor?"

"Yes, Ranko-chan?"

"Why everyone know about me? Mr. Maastricht treat me like daughter even though we just meet. Jean-Pierre know me at airport just from my name."

Peter smiled. "Louis? That's just because he's one of the kindest men alive. As for everyone knowing you, I'm afraid you have me to blame for that. I've been telling everyone who would listen about your coming to study with me. You'd be surprised how many of them had already heard about you elsewhere."

Ranko was shocked. "Really?" Her face was tinged pink.

The professor nodded. "The world of classical music is very small, Ranko-chan, especially at the top. Everyone knows everyone else. Even though you're still a student and not performing professionally yet, people have heard about you. Word spreads rapidly." He grinned. "It's rather like a Japanese village, the way I understand it." Ranko laughed in spite of herself.

Jean-Pierre smiled. "I recognized more than your name, babe. Japanese redheads, they are not too common, no?" Ranko, her face still flushed, barely nodded in reply.

The mood was broken when Ranko stopped short next to a florist. "Ah!"

"What is it, Ranko-chan?"

She pressed her nose to the window. "That the flower!" She pointed. "Professor, what is English?"

Peter peered through the glass. "That's called an orchid. Why?"

"That flower in my name. 'Ran' mean orchid, 'ko' mean child." Peter nodded in understanding.

"A beautiful name for a beautiful flower," murmured Jean-Pierre. He was looking through the window, not at her, but Ranko was pretty sure he was not talking about what was for sale inside. He turned to find her eyeing him skeptically, her arms folded, but he only smiled enigmatically.

Ranko double-checked her settings against the instruction sheet from her registration package one last time, crossed her fingers, and fired up her e-mail program. She watched the little icon bounce up and down; it was slightly hypnotic.

Her notebook computer sat on the desk under her loft bed, and she bit her lip as she waited to see if she could communicate with her family. Around her was chaos: her trunk, open and half empty. The shipping box which had held the American-sized linens Nabiki-neechan had ordered to be delivered here. The scraps of paper that had been used to wrap the framed photo collage of her family, which now sat on her desk, watching her fiddle with her computer. She glanced over at them for the tenth time in as many minutes: Ryouga, her parents, the Tendous. In one corner was a larger version of the photo in her locket: she and Akane at age 4. As always, it brought a smile to her face.

Her e-mail program came up, and she tentatively pushed the button to check for new mail. Her face lit up in a huge smile when a tone sounded. "Hey, it works!" In her inbox were two new messages. The first was from the school:

To: Ranko Saotome [rsaotome at juilliard dot edu]

From: Juilliard Technical Support [techsupport at juilliard dot edu]

Date: Thursday, August 26, 2004 5:00 PM

Subject: Welcome to Juilliard

Dear Student,

Welcome to Juilliard! This message has been automatically generated to test your new Juilliard e-mail account. All official notices from the School will be sent to this address, so please be sure to check it regularly. This account will remain active after you graduate, so feel free to give the address to friends and family.

Should you have any difficulty with your e-mail account or any other Internet services while you are here, please contact the Office of Technical Services, at this e-mail address or at extension 5-7777.

The second one was the one she had been hoping for; it was in Japanese.

To: Saotome Ranko [ranko at tendoudoujou dot co dot jp]

From: Tendou Akane [akane at tendoudoujou dot co dot jp]

Date: Thursday, August 26, 2004 9:38 PM

Subject: Hello from Home!

Dear Sis,

As I write this it's only a few hours after we've gotten back from seeing you off at Narita, and I still can't believe you're really gone. I keep expecting you to pop your head in my door any minute now, but I haven't seen any red hair all day! We all miss you terribly already. I'm doing OK, because I know you're coming back, this time. (You are coming back, right? Don't get too enamored of that ritzy New York lifestyle, or we'll have to come drag you home!) P-chan was moping the whole way home from the airport, though. ^_^

Ranko smiled. It had been two years since Ryouga had finally confessed to Akane about his former porcine double life. This had led to a truly awe-inspiring demonstration of master-level ki mallet technique; Ranko would have been taking notes if she hadn't been busy trying to save her future husband's life.

When all was said and done, however, he was as much a member of the family as Ranko herself, and after a week of cold shoulders and the occasional mallet, Akane had finally forgiven him. Her sister grew angry easily, but simply couldn't hold a grudge for long in the face of sincere contrition. Ranko, to her own surprise, had been forgiven immediately due to her honor-bound promise.

The only lasting effect was that while Ranko called her fiancé "Ryouga" these days, Akane had started calling him "P-chan." Ryouga had accepted it with good grace as the leniency it was.

If you're reading this, then you must be all settled into your dorm room at Juilliard.

Ranko looked around at the mess and snorted.

I hope everything has gone well today, and that you've already started having fun. Please write when you get a chance, and let us know that you're safe and sound. We'll see you at New Year's.


Your sister, Akane

P.S. P-chan sends his love, too. He really misses you. Nabiki-neechan is going to take him shopping for his own computer soon so he can write to you.

The screen blurred and Ranko sniffled as she reached for a tissue. After she had dabbed at her eyes, she started to compose a reply.

To: Akane Tendou [akane at tendoudoujou dot co dot jp]

From: Ranko Saotome [rsaotome at juilliard dot edu]

Date: Thursday, August 26, 2004 8:55 PM

Subject: Re: Hello from Home!

Dear Sis,

I made it here in one piece and am knee-deep in unpacking. I'm sending this from my brand-new Juilliard e-mail address.

I miss all of you, too. I wish

She stopped typing, and her gaze went to the portraits on her desk. She stared at them for a long minute; then her hand went to the telephone. She lifted the handset and began to dial; she'd requested international calling in her room, and it seemed to be working. She couldn't afford to do this every day, but tonight, she needed to hear their voices.

After a long delay, she heard the phone begin to ring. It was 10 AM there, and she hoped everyone was still home. Nabiki would be off to work already, but Akane and Kasumi were still on summer break through tomorrow. Oh right, today: it was Friday in Tokyo.

"Hello, Tendou residence."

A tension she hadn't even been aware of relaxed. "O… Oneechan? It's me."

She heard Kasumi shriek, "Ranko?" Then, muffled, "Everyone! It's Ranko! She's calling from New York!" Kasumi's voice returned full force. "Ranko, Dear, how are you? Was your flight OK? Is your room OK? Are they treating you well? You poor thing, you must be exhausted!"

Ranko closed her eyes and smiled. "I'm fine, Oneechan. Everything is fine. I really miss all of you. I got Akane's e-mail, and I… I just wanted to hear your voices." She yawned. "Yes, I am exhausted, but I'll be going to bed soon. It's only 9 PM here."

"Akane and our fathers are here now, Dear, so I'm going to use the speakerphone." The sound from the other end took on a hollow quality. "There, can you hear us?"

"Just fine, Oneechan. Hi everyone!" There was a chorus of responses.

Akane's voice came. "It's nice to hear your voice, Sis."

Ranko smiled, and her eyes grew wet again. Suddenly, Tokyo didn't seem quite so far away. "Same here."

"How was your flight? Did you get any sleep?"

"A few hours. I'm really tired." She paused; her exhaustion made it hard to think. "Thank you for the e-mail; it was nice to have it waiting when I got here. I started to write back to you, then I just felt like I wanted to talk to you, and put off writing till the morning."

"Well, we shouldn't keep you up if you're that tired. Why don't you give us the details in your e-mail?"

Ranko nodded, though she was alone. "OK, I will. The day went OK. I met some interesting people, and had dinner with Professor Vasilev and the music director of the New York Philharmonic." Her tone darkened. "And an obnoxious boy."

Akane chuckled. "I'd love to hear about that, but you should go to bed. Be sure to write, though, OK? And don't forget to put in your phone number."

"I will, I promise. Right after my workout tomorrow morning."

Genma's voice came. "Have you found someone to spar with, sweetheart? It's important to keep up your training."

Ranko laughed. "I just got here, Father. Not yet. I'll look for someone, I promise. I may have to make the rounds of the local dojos." She grinned. "After all, I don't want to be a pushover for Akane when I get back!"

"You, a pushover? Sis, don't be silly. I'm not that much better than you, and I train a whole lot more." It was true: a year ago, Akane had surprised them all by announcing that she wanted to continue the Tendou dojo after graduating college, rather than pursue an acting career. She'd been training hard for it, and as a result had finally surpassed her sister. Ranko felt a twinge of regret at having surrendered her place as the best martial artist in the family, but she was happy with her choices in life.

She smiled. "Thank you, Sis."

"How's your English holding up?"

"OK, I guess. I can usually understand what they're saying. It's hard to find the words sometimes, and I'm sure I sound the way Shampoo used to when she was learning Japanese. It's kind of embarrassing. Now I know how she must have felt."

Akane laughed. "You ought to write to her and tell her that, she'd get a kick out of it. You'll get there, Sis. I was amazed at how much progress you made during your intensive course this summer. All you need is some practice."

"I hope so." Ranko yawned again. "I guess I should go. I still have to call Mother and Ryouga."

Kasumi's voice returned. "Don't stay up late, all right?"

"I won't, Oneechan. I promise." She hesitated. "Goodbye, everyone. I love you all."

"I love you too, Sis." "Me too, little sister." "Take care, sweetheart." "Be well, child."

Ranko smiled a wet smile. "Goodbye." She hung up. Not very expensive, and well spent. She resolved to do this at least once a week, and for more than a few minutes.

She dialed again, and waited as the phone rang. It picked up, and she opened her mouth to speak.

Her mother's voice came. "Hello, this is the Saotome residence. I'm sorry I missed your call. Please leave your name and a telephone number and I will return your call promptly." There was a tone.

"Mother? It's me. Everything went fine and I'm calling from my dorm room. The number for my room here is… umm, you have to dial international, then 1 for the US first… umm, then it's 212-555-7945. I don't have an answering machine yet, I guess I'll go get one soon. I'll write an e-mail tomorrow to Akane, so you can get all the details from her. I love you, Mom. Goodbye." She hung up and sighed.

One last call to make. She dialed, and waited.

Luck was with her; a young man's voice answered, "Hello, Hibiki residence."

Something warm blossomed in her heart. "Ryouga? It's me."

There was a long pause. "Hey." Ranko could hear the happy smile from the other side of the planet. "Everything OK?"

"Uh-huh. The flight was fine, and I had no trouble getting here. There was a mixup with my registration but they got it straightened out. The room is OK. I had dinner with my professor and a friend of his, who turned out to be the music director of the New York Philharmonic. And this obnoxious French student who's been hitting on me all day."

There was a snort. "Does he know you're engaged?"

"He does now. It didn't stop him."

"Figures. Just beat him up if he gets too fresh."

"I already did, once. We'll see how fast a learner he is." They both laughed. "Akane told me Nabiki-neechan is taking you shopping to buy a computer?"

"Dragging me kicking and screaming, more like it. I dunno, I guess I can give it a try. It'll probably help for writing papers at school, too. Hope I don't break it by accident. Oh, hey, gimme your phone number. Just a sec, I need to get a paper and pencil."

Ranko waited until he was ready, then gave him her phone number and new e-mail address. "Send me mail when Nabiki-neechan gets you hooked up, OK?"

"I will."

There was a long pause. "I'll try to call every week. I'll call you, OK? It's a lot cheaper calling from here than from there."

"OK." A pause. "You know… you've only been gone a day and I'm already counting the days till New Year's."

"Me too." Another long pause. "I love you. I miss you, lots. I wish you were here."

"I miss you too, honey." A pause. "I'm really looking forward to next June. To being with you every single day. To seeing your face when I wake up every morning."

Ranko looked around her empty room and was suddenly overcome; a tear tracked down her face. She already missed the feeling of his arms around her. "Yeah… yeah, me too." Her eyes settled on his photograph; it smiled at her, and she felt her mood brighten a little, and smiled back. She yawned again, loudly. "I'm sorry, I'm really tired. I haven't gotten a lot of sleep in the past 24 hours."

"You sound tired. Why don't you hang up and go to bed, OK? I won't mind, honest."

Another yawn. "All… all right." She sighed, her eyes still on his photograph. "I'll call you again Sunday morning your time, OK? That's the day after tomorrow." A pause. Quietly, "I love you."

"I love you, too. More than anything."

There was a long silence. Finally, Ryouga's voice came, gentle. "Hey… you OK?"

"Yeah." She rubbed her eyes. "Really, I am."


Her voice firmed. "I'll be fine. I promise."

"I know you will. Hang in there, honey. I'm only a phone call away if you need me; you can call me any time, even the middle of the night. And remember, Saotome Ranko doesn't lose."

She smiled. "I know." She sagged slightly, and added softly, "I'll talk to you Sunday. Bye."

"Bye." There was no click: he was waiting for her. Slowly, unwillingly, she replaced the handset in its cradle. She stared at it for a few moments.

She looked around her silent room and sighed a long, heavy sigh. Her martial arts training had preprared her for any threat or challenge life had to offer—except those of the heart. It was no help there.

Suddenly, a tidal wave of fatigue washed over her, and she was very glad she had made up her bed earlier. She'd have to finish unpacking and clean up the mess in the morning, before her new roommate showed up.

She closed the notebook computer and put it to sleep; she'd finish her e-mail tomorrow. She changed into her pajamas, and shuffled out into the common living area of the five-room suite. There were three doubles and two singles, for a total of eight women. She was looking forward to meeting all of them. She thought one of the others must have arrived today, too, as the door of one room was closed, but the woman must have gone to bed before Ranko had even returned from dinner. Maybe she was even more jet-lagged.

Ranko went to brush her teeth, then returned to her room. She set her alarm clock for 6 AM, turned out the light, and climbed into her loft bed. She tried to sort out the faint traffic noises from seventeen stories below, but in a few seconds she was fast asleep.

End Chapter 1

Thursday, December 22, 2005

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The characters and stories of Ranma ½ are Copyright © Rumiko Takahashi, and are used here without permission or license.

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This work is for non-commercial use ONLY, and is produced for the enjoyment of fans only.

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