=Author's Forward=
Love Hina is now definitely one of my favorite animé of all time. Naturally, after seeing the entire series (including the specials and "Love Hina Again"), I couldn't help but come up with some kind of idiotic plotline to turn into a fanfiction. What can I say? It's my thing. I'm sure I'll receive more than one flame for this, but that's the price you pay for writing something this absurd. Enjoy!

=Legal Disclaimer=
I hereby declare a total lack of ownership of Love Hina and its trademarked characters, locations, and episodes. However, I will probably steal a joke or two from the series, so don't be surprised if you recognize some of the schtick.

[38% New Material]

Love Hina
"What the Dickens?"

"C'mon, let me see it!"

Urashima Keitaro cringed inwardly at the advances of his beautiful study buddy, clutching his paper even tighter to his chest. Under normal circumstances, any kind of attention from a gorgeous woman would send his spirits soaring. However, these were not normal circumstances, and this woman, even if her stunning beauty were to be overlooked somehow, was far from normal herself.

Narusegawa Naru, a fellow ronin three years his junior, motioned for him to hand the piece of paper over. They had been studying in his room for the past four hours, and despite the beautiful day outside, they had remained diligently on task. "Kei-ta-rohhhhhh…" she growled in a warning tone, waggling her fingers expectantly. Still, her lips curled ever-so-slightly at the edges, betraying her underlying sense of playfulness. The rapid approach of spring had all put them in good spirits, which made studying almost fun.

Almost…

"N-narusegawa," he pleaded, "Please, I can grade my own practice test." He sweatdropped, scooting away from her slowly to put some distance between them. "Just give me the red pen, and-"

"Hey," she leaned over, sending him scrambling away with the test in hand, "I helped you study for that literature test for ages now, and I want to see how you did!"

"Narusegawa!"

Her laughter rang as a beautiful bell as she began chasing him around the room, never catching the sense of panic in his voice. "Keitaro, let me see the test! I can grade it twice as fast as you can, slowpoke!"

He huffed, dancing around their table as he tried desperately to keep ahead of her. Graded or not, he knew exactly how well he had done on the literature test. If Naru somehow found out, there was no telling what she would do. His imagination, however, provided more than enough incentive to keep him going through the painful stitch developing in his ribs.

"Narusegawa!" He decided to switch tactics, screeching to a halt with outstretched hand. Naru had just enough time to slam her heels into the floor, sliding to a stop inches before her nose was pressed into his palm. Taking a few seconds to catch his breath, he said, "Narusegawa, please; this is ridiculous. We're acting like children."

She huffed right along with him, leaning down upon skirted knees. "You're right." She agreed.

"Now," he spoke calmly and forcefully, pushing his glasses further up on his nose, "Let's sit down and both start acting like adults again, and I'll grade this test. All right?"

Her features sobered immediately as she nodded. "Of course, Keitaro. I suppose we were acting rather foolishly."

Keitaro fought hard against the grin that threatened to surface on his lips. It actually worked! Maybe he would have to try being forceful more often with Naru. Things always seemed to go more smoothly with her when he showed a little backbone, assuming he didn't show too much backbone.

"Say, Keitaro?" she asked as they started back towards the table. He looked over at her, enjoying the amiable peace between the two for however long it lasted.

"Hmm?"

The devilish gleam snapped back into her eyes as she exclaimed, "Yoink!" and snatched the paper from his hand unexpectedly. She laughed once again, racing over to the table and pulling out the practice book's answer guide.

"Narusegawa!"

"Oh, don't be such a baby." She insisted, already working on marking up his incorrect answers. Her good mood quickly faded, however, as she saw the sheer volume of red creeping onto the page. Keitaro couldn't even look her in the eyes, but almost regretted spying her hands as they began shaking with rage. "Keitaro," she intoned after finishing the marks, "What happened?"

"Poor grading curve?" he asked, hoping a little levity would help lighten the storm clouds gathering in her eyes. It was something he had tried in the past, and it looked as though the results would be just about the same this time, too.

"You're the only one who took the test." She informed him with a tick in her cheek. Drawing in a deep breath, she added at the top of her lungs, "SO YOU CAN'T BLAME IT ON THE CURVE!!!"

"Narusegawa, I'm so sorry!" he cried, bowing so low as to knock his head onto the table with a loud bang. Rubbing his forehead, he groaned, "I don't know what happened."

She acted as though she didn't even hear him. "I helped you study for that all week, you baka!" Though she was plenty angry with him, she hadn't punched him just yet, which maybe was a good sign. Thoroughly disgusted, she began rifling through his stack of books and papers. "Where's your notebook? You took notes while you read the books just like I told you, right?"

"I-"

There was no time for him to stammer out an excuse as she found the notebook, extracting it from the jumbled pile. She began flipping through its pages faster than the human eye could follow. Everything seemed fine, up until she reached the halfway point on his literary notebook. Textual notes and character analyses vanished in a flash, replaced by doodles and sketches.

"What the hell is this?" she demanded, holding up the notebook to get a better look at it.

She flipped the page and saw a portrait of Kitsune grinning back at her. The trickster's inked image was cradling a cup of sake identical to the one that the original was often found with. Another page flew by, and this time Shinobu's smiling face greeted Naru's growing rage. Su was next, riding atop a rather large mecha-tama, both with unnaturally wide smiles and flashing, mysterious eyes. Motoko, Mutsumi, Haruka, Sara…they were all there, staring back at her where Keitaro's hard work was supposed to be.

"I-I-I-I…" he stammered, reaching weakly for the notebook.

She would have none of it, however, turning indignantly to keep it from him as she continued through the pages. There were landscapes, portraits, scenes of the Inn's daily activities, but scarcely any of the notes she thought he had been taking. Ironically enough, her quest through the book came to rest on a portrait of her. The greater irony was the bright, brimming smile that her two-dimensional counterpart wore, smiling back at the world with love and kindness that was devoid of the real article at the moment.

Her glare rose from the page, burning a hole right through the middle of his face. "You mean to tell me that you wasted one whole week doodling?" Before he could even respond, she slammed the notebook shut, tucking it beneath her arm. "I wasted an entire week helping you on that damn test, and you do this to me?"

"Naru-"

"BAKA!" She cut him off with her shrill screech of fury. She drew her arm back, launching a fist straight into his face with alarming force. Keitaro had no choice but to accept the brutal lash with bone-crunching good humor. He flew back, crashing into his dresser and sliding onto the floor as the world spun like a top.

"Naru, please…" he begged with loopy eyes and drooling mouth, "I'm sorry."

His vision came back into focus just in time to catch her legs as they disappeared up into the hole leading to her room. "And don't expect any more help from me, you ass!" she cried, slamming the board with her Liddo doll back over the hole with an echoing 'crack!' of finality.

Keitaro sat up with a groan, rubbing the growing red welt in the middle of his face. How could he have screwed up so badly? It wasn't that he tried to be stupid, it just sort of…happened. He picked up the reading list for Tokyo U's entrance exam, scanning over the long line of titles he was supposed to have known inside and out. It wasn't as though he hadn't read them, it was just…well, as Naru had seen in his notebook, he made a much better artist than a literary critic.

With a sigh, he sat back down at the study table, resolving to crack down harder on his wandering attention. He would prove to Narusegawa that he wasn't just a waste of time.

But first he would prove it to himself…
* * *
His aching, tired hands swept across the polished hardwood floors, adding yet another coat of wax to the already gleaming planks. With all of the studying he had been doing lately, he had been neglecting his duties as the manager of the Hinata Inn. Of course, that was before Haruka had stopped by. Her inspection, combined with a rolled-up newspaper, had sent him from his studies into a fit of frenzied cleaning.

"Keitaro!"

Kaolla Su, Hinata's own living ball of energy, came sliding down the hall at breakneck speed. She skated upon his freshly-waxed floor with supernatural grace, sliding past him upon yellow socks wearing her ever-present grin. A pair of impish blue eyes flashed from her golden skin as she grabbed his shoulder, swinging about and flipping high into the air, finishing her handstand by perching atop his shoulders.

"Keitaro," she sang again, "Hurry hurry!" Her heels dug into his ribs as if he were her horse. She ignored his indignant wailing, laughing with carefree abandon and wriggling about. "You'll miss all of the yummies if you keep scrubbing like that!"

Keitaro stood up, keeping the scrappy teen balanced with practiced ease. It wasn't the first time he had served as her steed, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. "What are you talking about, Su-chan?" he asked patiently, steadying her with his free hand. "And please don't scuff the floor! I had to put on three coats to make it shine like that!"

"Keitaro?"

A heavy 'clomp, clomp, clomp' came thudding steadily down the hall. With a sinking feeling sliding down into his stomach, he turned around. Sure enough, Kitsune was making her way down the hall, wearing a ridiculous alpine get-up complete with enormous, spiked hiking boots. Glancing behind her, he spied a long line of gashes in the ancient floorboards, clearly marking the path she had taken up the stairs.

"Gah!" he screamed, wringing the rag with frustration. "Kitsune, you're killing me here!"

"Hmm?" She glanced back with a shrug, tugging at her uncomfortable lederhosen. "Oh, forget about that. Take off those rags already! Shinobu has packed a picnic lunch for us, and Haruka-san is going to take us on a hike around the Hinata Forests."

The heavy groan she received in response caused her eyebrow to shoot up. He shook his head, emptying his lungs with a deep sigh. "I can't," he informed her. "I have to finish cleaning the inn, and after that…" His thoughts flittered briefly to Naru's disappointed face, framed by stacks upon stacks of books. "After that, I have a lot of studying to do."

"He's not coming?" Shinobu's head peeked around the corner. Upon spying Keitaro in his cleaning rags, her eyes watered with tears. "Oh! I'm sorry, Sempai! I didn't mean to spy, honest."

"It's all right, Shinobu." He reassured her before turning back to Kitsune. "I still have to dust the halls, clean the bathrooms, and scrub the kitchen…" he cast a quick glare of annoyance. "And now I need to re-wax the floor."

"Honestly," Kitsune laughed, "If you keep this up, I don't know which you're going to turn into first;" She grabbed Su and swung her about, carrying her under one arm like a plank. Su, of course, was delighted, remaining ramrod straight and clipping Keitaro on the chin as Kitsune turned. "A bookworm or a dust rag!" she snickered, giving him her patented smirk.

"Dirty, boring Keitaro!" Su sang, kicking her legs as if swimming through the air while Kitsune hauled her down the stairs.

Keitaro groaned, rubbing his jaw where Su had clocked him while taking his rag back up in his other hand. He knew that Kitsune and Su were just playing around, and Shinobu would probably leave him plenty of leftovers in the fridge to snack on later. Still, his aching heart couldn't help but feel a little left out. With the Tokyo U test just a few months ahead, he and Narusegawa had been pushing themselves to the limit trying to prepare for their fourth and second attempts (respectively). That left precious little time for fun and games.

'Well,' he thought to himself, 'With the girls out of the house, I can scrub the bath without walking in on anyone…' The notion brought him little comfort as he knelt down once more, taking the bottle of foul-smelling wax from his pocket and applying a generous amount to his odious cleaning rag.
* * *
Naru leaned against her elbows, kneeling down at her table. Her eyes stared blankly down at an ordinary spiral notebook framed by the wayward locks of amber brown hair trailing down around her face. Time hadn't been an important factor for quite a while as she found herself entranced by Keitaro's sketches, flipping between the pages to gaze upon picture after picture.

"He really is a good artist." She admitted begrudgingly, smiling at a drawing of Su bothering Shinobu in the kitchen. She would never know how he was able to capture the emotion of his subjects; the pure, undiluted joy of Su's antics rang through in the picture just as clearly as Shinobu's frustration and helplessness. "Now, if only he could study as well as he drew-"

Her voice failed her as she turned the page once more. Naru's own face beamed back at her, and for a moment she felt disoriented, as if she were staring into some strange mirror. Only after she pulled back in surprise did she regain her senses, realizing that it was the same picture she had shouted at Keitaro for drawing earlier.

It felt strange to see herself smiling; her childhood wasn't home to the happiest of her memories, and the photographs that her parents and friends had taken reflected her misery as a little girl. Life had gotten better when she had moved to Hinata Inn with Kitsune, but there weren't many pictures as proof.

But that smile…her picture's face radiated joy as a sun would light, but brighter and with greater purity. The other Naru's hair flowed gracefully, far more so than she could ever seem to get her hair to lay, no matter how much or what kind of conditioner she used. How on earth had Keitaro drawn something so beautiful? She had certainly never smiled at him like that! Or had she? Naru couldn't tell where she and Keitaro stood anymore. Of course, it was all that moron's fault. One moment, he seemed to be the kindest, most caring individual she had ever known. The next…well, this morning was a perfect example.

She just kept staring at her doppelganger for what seemed like hours, enraptured and perplexed at the same time. Her picture was more beautiful than Naru had ever considered herself to be. Was that how Keitaro saw her? His confession of love to her back at Christmas suddenly popped into her mind, and her confusion grew in leaps and bounds.

A sudden knocking at her door snapped her out of her revere. "Naru-sempai?" Shinobu's voice called softly from beyond, "Are you in there?" Naru managed to slam the notebook shut before Shinobu could slide the door open. The youthful middle-school student caught the tail end of Naru's frantic action. Her hand flew to her mouth in embarrassment. "Oh, I'm so sorry! Am I interrupting?"

"Nothing!" Naru insisted suddenly in a loud voice, "I was just studying, that's all!" At Shinobu's inquisitive glance, she realized that she had overreacted just a hair…a giant's hair, that is. "I mean," she replied smoothly this time, "Of course not, Shinobu. What can I do for you?"

"W-we were just wondering if you would like to go on a picnic with the rest of us."

"A picnic?" She seemed to recall Kitsune and Motoko talking about something like that this morning. Unfortunately, thanks to Keitaro's laziness, she was behind her own schedule, and planned on spending the rest of the afternoon catching up. After informing Shinobu of as much, she asked, "Is the Baka going along?"

"Sempai?" Shinobu shook her head. "No, Haruka-san stopped by to join us, and she expressed some…displeasure…at the way Sempai had been keeping the Inn."

Naru smiled at the thought of Haruka's methods of persuasion. "Good. A little work may flush all of the daydreaming out of his system." Shinobu was just about to leave when Naru added, "Shinobu, did Keitaro say anything about cleaning the bath?"

Shinobu thought about it for a moment. "No, it sounded as though he had quite a bit else to clean. I don't think he's going to do the bath today."

"Perfect." Naru rose to grab a fresh towel from her closet. "A hot soak might be just the break I need."
* * *
Keitaro leaned back, placing his hands against his spine and pushing forward. He was rewarded with a series of loud cracks from his spinal column that would have disgusted the girls. Being bent over for three hours or so with a rag in hand seemed to age his backbone by decades in just a few minutes…

With his back prepared for the intense scrubbing ahead, he reached into the cleaning closet and pulled a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner, pouring a generous amount into his bucket. He'd just take water from the bath to scrub the surrounding slate. No need to haul any from inside.

He walked down the hall with a whistle on his lips. Even though his limbs ached and his joints creaked in protest at the sudden spike in effort, he felt much better than he did that morning. Cleaning always gave him some time to let his rampaging emotions and hormones to settle down, giving him a sense of inner peace. It must have been the feeling of Zen that Motoko got from her Shinmei martial arts, only his involved more bleach and fewer bruises.

Thoughts of the previous morning led to thoughts of Narusegawa. 'Of course,' he remarked glumly, 'All of my thoughts usually lead to her.' Sometimes he wasn't sure about what was between them. This morning was a prime example; one minute she was laughing and playing with him, and the next…pow!

He sighed, reaching for the door leading outside to the bath area. "At least with the girls gone, I can have some peace and-"

The door slid away, and Keitaro was greeted with a little slice of heaven, soon to be followed by a lot of hell.

"Kei-ta-roh…" Naru, clad only in a thin white towel wrapped around her slender figure, was standing on the other side of the door. Her eyes blazed with visible rage, an inner fire that spread to cover the rest of her ivory form and cast the room in a dangerous mood that reflected her own. "God damn it," she snarled, advancing on him with bare feet and clenched fists, "Can't you go four hours without being a pervert and a moron?!"

"What are you talking about?" he backpedaled desperately, trying very hard not to stare at anything he shouldn't be looking at. "Look at me! I'm wearing my cleaning clothes, I thought you were with the rest of the girls on a picnic!"

Like so many other times before, his pleas fell on deaf, furious ears. "Liar!" she spat, breaking into a full run. Keitaro spun in place, matching her sprint and raising her a few steps to keep out of her reach. "Come back here! You are so dead, Urashima!"

Naru's words stung deep, but he didn't have time to feel bad, as he still feared for his life. "As tempting as that sounds…exit, stage left!"

He snagged the nearest doorknob, not looking or particularly caring which of Hinata Inn's many (many!) rooms he selected. Keitaro braced himself for some intense shoulder pain, using the handle to stop himself too quickly for Naru to react. The plan worked like a charm, and Naru skidded past him on perfectly polished floors still slick with the wax that he himself had put there. However, it didn't take her long to recover, so he threw himself into the room without hesitation, slamming the door behind him. If he could just make it out the window…

Naru completed her u-turn and ran back to the door. Though she had been running at full-tilt, her breath came in slow and even, tempered by her adrenaline-boosted anger. With one quick glance at the room number she allowed herself a slight smile. She approached the door cautiously, just in case it flew open and caught her in the nose.

Her callous, cocked knuckles rapped gently on the door as she took up position on the side it opened to. "Keitaro?"

"Yes, Narusegawa?" his reply was muffled by the thick oak door.

"Come out of the closet."

Keitaro exited the linen closet, cursing his stupidity and terrible, terrible luck. Only he would try to escape the wrath of a hell-bent Naru via one of the few rooms in Hinata Inn that did not possess sliding bay windows. Maybe he was an idiot… He had an apology all ready on his lips, but he knew very well that Naru would never hear it.

Before he could even speak a single word her fist flashed up and forward, catching him in a vicious uppercut that sent him flying up, into, and through the next three floors of the Inn. Each floor broke away at his back, sending waves of pain flooding his senses and assaulting his brain. It wasn't until he made his own exit in the roof that he finally blacked out, slipping into blissful unconsciousness as he sailed across the sleepy town of Hinata and off towards parts unknown.
* * *
Haruka set the picnic basket down, spreading a blanket across a small patch of grass in the clearing that Su and Sara had found just moments ago. "This looks like a good spot." She muttered around her omnipresent cigarette. "Nice job, girls."

"Exploring is our business!" Sara crowed, taking a seat on the soft blue fabric next to her partner.

Su already had a fork and knife, and was in the process of working Tama's shell open before Shinobu swept in frantically and stole the tiny turtle away from her. "Hey!" Su complained, swiping at Tama with her monkeylike toes to steal her back from her classmate, "I was eating that!"

"You can't eat Tama!" Shinobu insisted, cradling the tiny turtle tenderly.

Tama, for the most part, was oblivious to how close she had come (literally) to the jaws of death, and simply mewed and waved at the disappointed, starving Su. True to her nature, Su quickly forgot her disappointment when Haruka reached into the basket and produced a bunch of bananas. The elder Urashima nearly lost her hand as the tiny foreigner snatched the fruit from her fingers, cackling with joy. "Yay! Bananas are better than turtles anyhow."

Haruka shook her head, then waved as she spotted Motoko and Kitsune exiting the forest and heading their way. Her fingers brushed against the quilt they knelt on, rubbing the soft weave appreciatively. "Shinobu," she asked, "Isn't this the blanket you were making?"

Shinobu seemed to brighten at the attention to her handiwork. "Oh yes, Haruka-san!" she nodded vigorously. "I've been working on it for weeks now. I planned on giving it to S-sempai…" she trailed off with bright red seeping into her cheeks.

"Well," Kitsune threw her a wink as she and the swordswoman approached, "I'm sure he'll appreciate it, but you'd better watch out for Naru." Her finger waggled with mock-warning, sending the easily excited teen into a fit of babbling.

"N-n-n-no!" Shinobu wailed, "I didn't mean anything like…oh, I mean, Naru-sempai…Auaaaa!" her hands flapped aimlessly as tears welled in her eyes.

"I believe Kitsune was teasing you, Shinobu." Motoko knelt gracefully, setting her sword down within easy reach. True, it was a picnic, but a true master of Shinmei took no chances, nor did she let her guard down. "Furthermore," she added with a sidelong stare at the trickster, "I believe Naru-sempai may disagree with her."

"Oh, she talks a lot," Kitsune agreed, accepting a thermos from Haruka and taking a long, grateful gulp of water. "But I have a feeling that her feelings are pretty clear, if you catch my drift."

Motoko shook her head, taking a sandwich from the basket. 'Surely,' she thought as she began to eat with the others, 'Naru-sempai has not given her heart to such an individual as Urashima…'

Kitsune seemed to catch on to Motoko's thoughts. Sensing another opportunity, she elbowed Motoko in the ribs with a grin. "Then again, maybe we have a third competitor for Keitaro's heart, eh?"

Motoko spat her mouthful of peanut butter and jelly out onto the grass, coughing and choking thanks to Kitsune's comment. "Urashima?" Motoko said in a strangled voice, "And myself? I would sooner be struck by flying pigs!" she insisted more loudly than she had intended.

Destiny, taking its own cues from those who played its game, decided to step in. As the argument moved into full swing, with Motoko's loud insistences and Shinobu's wailing denials vying for supremacy, there was a soft whistling from the sky that grew steadily. It was several seconds before Kitsune, who was the first to notice it, quieted the other two. "Do you hear that?" she whispered.

Before any could respond, a comet struck their blanket, a comet with a very familiar shape and scream. It landed right on top of the basket of food that had been so lovingly prepared by Shinobu, dragging it and her blanket deep into the ground as it cratered. The picnicking women were lucky by comparison; they were blown back by the force of the object's landing, landing several meters away in individual heaps.

Keitaro groaned, pulling himself out of his self-made hole in the ground with throbbing muscles. He hurt everywhere, and he had no idea where he was, but the important thing was that he had survived yet again. "I'm alive!" he shouted gleefully, throwing his hands into the air.

"S-sempai?"

Shinobu's voice drew his eyes back downward. He spied her, sitting back from the blast radius with Haruka and Kitsune. Not far from them, Su was busy pulling Sara's head from a series of large tree roots, where it had gotten stuck when she had gone flying back from his explosion. "Shinobu?"

"M-m-my picnic…" Shinobu's eyes were filled with more tears as she pointed at Keitaro's chest. He looked down, seeing a mess of peanut butter, jelly, tuna, fried chicken, cole slaw, guacamole, chips, and other assorted foods pasted across his front in a mosaic of the young cook's efforts. "A-a-a-and my bl-blanket…"

Looking down further, he spotted a pile of tattered blue fabric lying at his feet, and could only assume that this was the blanket she had been working on so hard for the past few weeks. There wasn't much left of it, and what little remained was half-buried and covered with mud.

He was immediately overrun with guilt, and was about to apologize when he heard a fierce shriek of rage from behind him. "Urashima!" The voice filled him with a sense of impending dread and a familiar ache. He turned around slowly, face hanging with fear and apology, to face Motoko.

The warrior woman was already on her feet, sword in hand and cheeks flushed with anger. That was nothing new to him. What puzzled him was the absence of her tunic. The only thing keeping her modesty was the several yards of tape she wrapped around her chest, which seemed worse for wear after his landing. The sinking feeling in his stomach did a sudden dive as he looked down at his hand. Sure enough, he had somehow managed to snag her shirt on the way down, tearing it off of her when she had gone flying.

"I will ensure you a quick, painless end, Urashima." Motoko promised him with a growl, advancing with growing menace in each step. "It is far better than you deserve."

"Oh, I'm dead." Keitaro murmured under his breath. Out loud, he wailed, "Motoko-chan, please wait! I can explain!"

Oddly enough, it seemed to work. Motoko halted in her tracks, though her sword did not lower so much as an inch. "All right then. Let's hear it."

Keitaro was caught off-guard; he hadn't actually expected Motoko to allow him to explain, and so didn't really have anything prepared. "Well, I was heading for the women's bath-" he started lamely.

"You what?"

"When I stumbled into Naru-"

"You what?!"

"And she was only wearing a towel, so she thought-"

"You WHAT!?!"

'This is not going well…' Keitaro moaned inwardly as Motoko raised her sword.

The air around her swirled as she gathered her chi, focusing it into the blade. "Zansuken!" her voice rose above the isolated whirlwind, exploding in tandem with her chi. The invisible force struck Keitaro like a sledgehammer, knocking him high into the air towards parts unknown.

"Sorrrrrrrrrr-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" he wailed into the stratosphere before winking out of sight.

Kitsune pulled out a pair of binoculars, tracking Keitaro's path through the heavens. "Whoa." She whistled, "You really clocked him good that time, Motoko."

Shinobu tugged at Motoko's elbow, whimpering pathetically. "Motoko-san, you're far too hard on Sempai…" She glanced over at Kitsune with the same hangdog expression. "And it isn't any laughing matter, either."

"You're right," Kitsune remarked as Motoko stuttered at a loss for words. As Shinobu turned to gather the remainder of their picnic, however, she leaned in towards Sara, who was now free of her snag. "I'll bet you fifty yen it takes him an hour to get back to the Inn." She muttered low enough for Shinobu to remain oblivious.

"You're on, Fox-lady!" Sara grinned, shaking her hand.
* * *
Keitaro's eyes burned as he flipped the page of his latest text. He tried to force his exhausted vision to focus on the tiny words, ignoring the pounding headache drilling at his temples or the thousand aches and pains that his two unexpected flights earlier that day had left him with.

His stomach rumbled with hunger, but he paid it no heed either. It hadn't been easy to ignore Shinobu's gentle insisting through his closed door to come down for dinner, and it had been torture to ignore the sumptuous aroma of the meal itself, but still he pressed on. Naru's words dug into his back like a dagger, and he was bound and determined to prove her wrong. Hence, he had been reading…and reading…and reading…ever since he had dragged his sorry carcass back to the inn.

However, his heart was only halfway into it. The other half kept an ear trained on the room above, listening to the thumping footsteps and muffled mutterings coming from upstairs. From the sounds of it, Kitsune had stopped by for a visit. He couldn't hear what they were talking about, but he was pretty sure he had heard his name come up more than once. Whether or not it was spoken of kindly was still a mystery.

"Argh!" Keitaro slammed the book shut, rubbing his eyes to chase the blazing pain away. This was ridiculous! He had been reading these books since the middle of the afternoon, and it was nearly midnight. Besides that, wondering whether or not Narusegawa was still mad at him was driving him insane.

Out of the blue, Naru's voice rose to become just barely audible. "-stupid, worthless pervert!" the end of her sentence echoed through the floorboards.

His head dropped with a sigh, falling onto his knees. Well, at least that mystery was solved, unless Naru had somehow met another stupid, worthless pervert in the last twelve hours. Keitaro could feel hot tears of embarrassment welling up in his eyes. He struggled as hard as he could against them, but they trickled down his cheeks one by one. It had been a long, terrible day; he had managed to make Naru mad twice, destroyed Shinobu's beautiful blanket, and he was fairly certain that Motoko was still out for his blood.

He pulled out his sticker book, flipping quickly to his favorite page. Just as always, his two treasured photos smiled back at him, right where they had always been. It was sad to think that in the many months he had been at Hinata Inn, there were only two happy memories with Narusegawa he had any substantiation of. Her eyes beamed back at him twice, her lips smiled doubly, but the voice above had grounded him back to reality.

Disgusted, he tossed the book aside and instead reached for the duffle bag he kept in his closet. He began stuffing random clothes and objects into the bag. "That's enough." Keitaro assured himself. He had worked and worked, and he was no better off than when he had started. No, he was worse; he was beaten, ridiculed and hated from all sides! No one should have to take that, so why should he? "No one cares about what I do around here! No one cares whether or not I'm even alive!"

It may have sounded pathetic, but it was true; he never once heard a "Thanks for cleaning our bathrooms, Keitaro," or, "Wow, you fixed the hot water heater all by yourself? That's great!" No, it was always "pervert" this, or "useless" that…well, they wouldn't have to worry about their useless pervert anymore, no sir!

Besides that, no one would ever miss him, not unless they needed something to work their knuckles against. Since day one of arriving at that stupid Inn, all it had been for him was skyrocketing trips on the end of Narusegawa's fist, or a trip to the hospital courtesy of Motoko's sword, or even (God help him) a first class one-way ticket to pure, unadulterated pain on Su-chan's latest mecha tama. "Not any more!" he promised himself, sealing the oath with an upraised fist.

He blinked in surprise as the bag filled quickly. It seemed that he grew quite efficient under the heady influence of blinding rage and bitterness. He cast one last, longing glance at the book of pictures, wondering if he should take it along. Part of him wanted to keep it, but he knew better. It would be nothing more than dead weight, memories of a life he would have to give up.

He sneered, feeling a rush of power. This was the new Urashima Keitaro; one who wouldn't be pushed around, or stepped on, or…or…anything! "From now on, Urashima Keitaro is his own man, starting," he added, "With leaving his horrible hell hole!"

"What's this?" A deep, regal male voice behind him tsk'd admonishingly. "Running away again?" The comment was accompanied by a low chuckle, resonating in the small room Keitaro had been given.

Keitaro turned around, wondering if Kentaro had somehow managed to sneak into his room for the sole purpose of making fun of him. It was therefore understandable that he was surprised to find a stately gentleman dressed in a rumpled black suit, complete with coattails, leaning against the wall next to his door. His graying brown hair was hidden beneath a coal black top hat, which framed an enigmatic smile that suggested he was far wiser than his years suggested.

Keitaro screamed, forgetting his claims of independence and courage in a flash of cowardly fear. He scrambled backwards, tripping over his table and landing flat on his backside. "Help! Robber! Thief!" he screamed, sliding on his bottom until he struck the opposite wall.

"It won't do you any good." The man assured him, taking his top hat from his head and tucking it under his elbow. "None of them can hear you. It's just you and me."

"Y-y-you k-k-k-killed them?" he whispered in horror, eyes growing wide with terror.

"What?" the gentleman seemed taken aback, straightening with surprise. "Good heavens, no! The girls are fine." He strolled forward, walking around the table until he loomed over the petrified manager. Keitaro offered no resistance as the man took his top hat in hand once more, popping it onto the boy's head. "I just said that they can't hear us. Dear lord, why would I murder a hotel full of innocent young girls?"

Keitaro's cowardly quivering made the top hat sink low over his ears, covering his eyes. "T-t-then you're going to kill me?"

The gentleman sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Okay…okay, I can see we're going to have a problem." he mumbled. "Look, I'm not here to kill anyone, okay?"

"W-who are you?"

"Oh, silly me." He admonished himself with a slap to his forehead. "I suppose if a strange man came knocking about my room unexpectedly, I would be a bit disconcerted as well. In fact-" he glanced over, seeing that Keitaro's fear hadn't diminished. "Oh. Right." Clearing his throat, straightening his tie and taking his top hat back in hand, he introduced himself with a formal flourish. "My name is Charles Dickens, author extraordinaire at your service, Mr. Urashima."

"C-charles Dickens…" Keitaro stopped quaking, his panic overridden by curiosity and confusion. "Charles Dickens? As in "Tale of Two Cities, lived in the eighteenth century, been dead for over two hundred years" Charles Dickens?"

"Um, yes." Dickens raised an eyebrow, tugging at the brim of his top hat. "Is there a problem?"

Keitaro leapt to his feet in a huff, infuriated that this psychotic maniac in a tattered outfit had broken into the Inn, and even angrier that he expected him to swallow that load of tripe. "You can't be Charles Dickens!" he shouted, "He's dead! In fact, he's very dead!"

"Well of course I'm dead, you fool. I'm a ghost." Dickens sighed as Keitaro failed to grasp the rationality of the explanation.. It seemed as though he had been through this discussion many times before, and was not looking forward to yet another spinning of the explanation. "I couldn't very well shamble up to your door like a hideous, rotting zombie, ring the bell and invite myself in for tea and crumpets, now could I?"

"Umm…"

"You know, it isn't easy being dead!" Dickens continued to wail on, pacing the length of the room with short, angry steps. "You do your best, writing some truly inspiring works, spending your life trying to create something entertaining and innovating, something to really get people thinking, and what happens?"

"Uh…"

"Your life work boils down to nothing more than a source of boredom for high school and college students." He sighed, collapsing onto a chair in the corner. "It just isn't fair," he complained, rubbing his temples.

Keitaro seemed to ponder the problem for a moment before picking up his copy of A Christmas Carol. "Well," he said brightly, "As long as you're here, maybe you could tell me what you meant here on this page?" He flipped the book open, pointing to a highlighted section. "I'm having trouble grasping the metaphor."

Dickens leaned forward, rubbing his chin. "Oh, of course." He reached for the book, but then came to his senses and knocked the volume from Keitaro's hand. "Wait a minute!" he cried, "That's not why I'm here!"

"Well then, why are you here?" Keitaro asked impatiently. There was a pause before he added, "And why aren't you speaking in an old English accent?"

"First off," Dickens sighed, "I've been dead, not in a hole in the ground. Do you realize how many different kinds of people have gotten into heaven over the years?" His tirade paused for a moment as he reflected, "Well, not all that many, actually," He tapped his foot, shaking his finger with shame broadcasting into Keitaro. "But don't think I haven't noticed how atrocious you people have gotten with grammar."

Keitaro face-faulted into his hands, groaning with impatience. "Can we skip to the part where you tell me why a dead British author is hanging out in my room?"

"Right." Clearing his throat once more, Dickens continued, "I'm here to keep you from making a grievous mistake."

"You're too late." Keitaro informed him sadly. "I already failed the literature practice test, and Narusegawa's furious with me." Perhaps, though, with a literary genius helping him, he could pass the next practice test and really impress her…assuming he was staying, which he wasn't.

Dickens thwapped him upside the head, sending the ronin stumbling. "No, you ignoramus!" he cried, "I'm here to keep you from running from your problems, thus ending the painful, idiotic cycle of worthlessness that you seem to self-perpetuate."

Keitaro's head tilted in confusion. "Huh?"

Sighing once more, Dickens tried to dumb it down for him. "I'm going to show you," he said slowly through gritted teeth, "That running from your problems is a bad, bad idea. Okay?"

"Why shouldn't I run away?" Keitaro demanded bitterly.

"That's what I'm here to show you!" Dickens shouted.

Keitaro's expression remained blank for a few moments as Dickens silently fumed. Suddenly, Keitaro was blessed with a moment of revelation. He grinned, shaking his fist in victory. "Oh, I get it. I get it." He crowed. "This is just like A Christmas Carol, right? This has Kitsune's fingerprints all over this." He grinned smugly at the now-obvious fake with folded arms, wondering where the trickster had found this superb actor. "Let me guess; you're going to tell me that I'll be visited by three ghosts, and that they'll tell me to change my ways, right?"

"Of course." Dickens humored him for a moment. "We always happen to have an extra three or four ghosts lying around. Would you like Abraham Lincoln? Maybe Confucius, or Beethoven perhaps?" He snatched up the copy of the book in question once more, smacking Keitaro's forehead with a quick, hard blow. "If we were going to bombard you with ghosts, they certainly wouldn't have started with me!"

"You mean, you're it?" Keitaro asked dizzily, shaking off the literary assault.

Dickens huffed. "Yes, I'm it. Is that going to be a problem for you, Mr. Urashima?"

"No, but…well, why you?"

"Good question." Dickens smirked ruefully. "I'll be sure to tell you once I know myself." He began rubbing his hand together briskly, giving Keitaro an encouraging grin. "Now, shall we begin?"

"Huh?"

Dickens gestured to his door, stepping back to allow Keitaro to go first. "Step through this door," the author informed him, "And you'll be transported on a fantastic journey of self-discovery."

"Down the hall?"

Dickens grumbled something inaudible into his palm before grabbing Keitaro by the scruff of the neck. He slid the door open and tossed the young man through, following quickly and slamming the door behind him.
* * *
Keitaro stumbled forward, striking the hard, cold ground in a graceless belly flop. He pulled his chin out of the dirt, spitting out a mouthful of grass and topsoil as he hauled himself onto his hands and knees. "This has to be the worst dream I've ever had…" he coughed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Why couldn't it have been the one with Narusegawa and the vat of whipped cream?"

"Because it's vile, inappropriate and profoundly disturbing."

Rising to his feet, Keitaro turned to face his deceased director with chagrin. "Right. I almost forgot about you." He groaned. Dickens merely tipped his hat to the lad, smiling that enigmatic smile once more. Keitaro ignored the author, rotating full circle to take in his surroundings. "Hey," he remarked, "We're outside of the Inn."

Indeed they were, standing out in front of the Hinata All-Girls Dormitory. The sky was a blanket of black infinity, dotted with a thousand pinpoints of brilliant light. A soft, gentle breeze shifted through the trees, whispering their timeless secrets to deaf and unappreciative ears. Keitaro heard a clattering from upstairs, followed by a shrill, familiar scream.

"What's going on?" Keitaro jumped at the scream, knowing without a doubt that it was Shinobu. He tried to bolt back through the doors of the Inn, but Dickens reached out and stopped him with a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Why are we outside?" He stopped, remembering their exit through his door. "How are we outside?"

Dickens looked up, following along as the clatter traveled further down the hall somewhere on the third floor of the Inn. "It's a little tough to explain." He began uneasily.

Motoko's voice echoed from above them, and a blast of wind and chi blew out one of the windows, taking the frame and screen with it. Even though he had seen it thousands of times before, the scene seemed strangely familiar. Suddenly, a figure burst from the open window, sprinting across the rooftop. His face was obscured by a pair of glasses, and a handkerchief wrapped ridiculously under his nose.

Struck with a sudden attack of déjà vu, he watched the figure make an amazing leap from the roof to land safely on the ground. As he sprinted away, Keitaro looked upward, spying the girls as they watched the figure run. "What's going on?"

"Don't you recognize him?" Dickens asked. He pointed upwards as Keitaro shook his head, turning their attention as a woman who bore a striking resemblance to Haruka began talking to the girls. "Don't you know where you are?" His eyes twinkled with amusement. "Don't you know when you are?"

"No…" Keitaro whispered. It was impossible…They were…

"That's right." Dickens nodded, "This is the night you ran away, right after you thought you failed the practice exams." He took Keitaro by the arm, leading him at a brisk pace towards the entrance of the Inn. "Come on, we'd best hurry. Wouldn't want to miss the best part, now would we?"

Keitaro didn't struggle against his insistences as he dragged them up the stairs, leading them towards the scene of his desertion…that is, the other Keitaro's desertion. It was only natural to feel a bit disconcerted at encountering one's own past, especially when it wasn't a particularly fond memory. The author led him about as if he were in a trance, wide-eyed and disbelieving.

They reached the top of the stairs, encountering the gaggle of girls gathered about the broken window, holding a powwow with his impatient, apathetic aunt. She held the note that he had written as a farewell to them all. Haruka handed it around to each of them to read, waiting patiently as one by one, they passed it to the next after gasping in disbelief.

Shinobu was the first to speak, though her tiny, gentle voice was choked with sobs. "S-s-sempai has run away. He doesn't want to see us any more. Auuaaaaaaa!"

"I think it has more to do with his crushing sense of humiliating failure," Kitsune shrugged indifferently, leaning up against the wall and handing the note to Motoko. As cold as her words were, it wasn't hard to spot the glum on her face, nor the melancholy glinting in her shifting eyes.

Motoko tore the note in half, not bothering to finish it. Her hands shook with poorly contained rage as she let the tattered remains of Keitaro's heartfelt goodbye flutter uselessly to the floor. "Urashima is a fool and a coward," she gritted her teeth, clenching her fingers into white-knuckle fists. "He has not the courage to face his own shame."

Su poked curiously at the letter's halves, looking up at her elders with confusion. "Where's Keitaro gone?"

"I don't know, Kaolla." Haruka chomped down on her cigarette, looking out past the edge of the property line, where Keitaro had stolen into the night. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, the night air had a definite chill to it. It blew in through the shattered remains of the window, reminding her that her nephew had nowhere to go out there.

"When is he getting back?" she asked with wide, watery eyes.

"I don't know that, either."

"How come?"

Kitsune spotted Haruka's growing irritation and grabbed Su's mouth, dragging her over. "Look," she said, looking between the lot of them, "It doesn't matter what happened. We have to go out there and find him."

"Agreed." Motoko's hand strayed to the hilt of her sword out of reflex before she caught herself. "Urashima must be found. He…He lacks the strength to survive on his own out there." She glanced over at Naru questioningly. "Naru-sempai?"

Naru had been quiet the entire time, keeping her eyes glued to the floor. It may have been Keitaro's mistake, but he could have sworn he saw a tear running down her cheek. He approached her slowly, still unsure of this supposed 'intangibility' that Charlie-boy had assured him of, and bent over to peer down into her face. Before he could get close, though, she swiped at her face with the back of her hand.

"Naru?" Kitsune laid a hand on her best friend's shoulder, using its twin to keep the squirming Su in place. "Naru, are you all right?"

There was a moment of pregnant pause before Haruka stalked off, muttering something about checking the restaurant in case Keitaro tried calling or going there. Motoko led Shinobu off, trying to console the sobbing young girl, assuring her that she would take her out to look for the wayward manager. Kitsune and Su lingered only a moment longer, watching Naru's relative inactivity with growing concern before moving off to head out on their own search.

Keitaro couldn't believe his eyes as he watched them all head out to look for him. He remembered clearly how it had been Naru who had found him, but he had never known how much concern the others had shown him, even after such a short time together.

Quivering uncertainly, he watched Naru for what seemed like forever, breathless as she stood there with an uncertain look on her face. Her eyes swept back out the window, gazing across the town from the Inn's high perch set atop their lonely hill. For a while, all she could do was stare out into nothing with lips curved downward. Suddenly she seemed struck with a thought, breaking her trance with a short, excited gasp.

"I know where he'll be." She murmured, straightening excitedly. Keitaro had been standing so close to her that he couldn't react fast enough as she whirled unexpectedly from her post, racing off. He cringed, expecting them to collide and tumble painfully to the ground. Instead, Naru passed right through him as if he weren't there, leaving nothing but a warm, tingling sensation, only far different from the warm, tingling sensation she usually left him with.

"Well?"

Keitaro opened a single eye, watching her receding form run gracefully down the hall. He glanced at Dickens, realizing that he had forgotten all about his supernatural guide. The stately Englishman stood to the side, leaning against the wall where Kitsune had only moments ago. He had produced a long, elegant pipe, which he puffed on absently as he smiled at Keitaro's disconcertment. "It's a little odd the first time, isn't it? Having people walk through you, I mean. It took me years to get used to it."

"They…" Keitaro stammered, watching as Naru's poetry in motion rounded the corner and disappeared. "She…"

"Yes," Dickens nodded, blowing a smoke ring up and watching it float to the ceiling. "At the moment, young Ms. Narusegawa is on her way to intercept you at Tokyo University. I expect she'll be back with you…that is, the you of the past, in an hour or so."

Keitaro staggered back over to the window, overwhelmed by the sheer impossibility of encountering his own past. Leaning heavily against the frame, he spotted Naru as she ran out the door and down the steps, off to catch up to his past self. "Why did you bring me here?" he turned to ask Dickens.

His companion stepped forward to join the lad, and together they watched Naru disappear into the darkness. "Do you see what happened when you ran away?"

"They were worried about me." Keitaro mumbled, still unable to believe what he had seen. "I disappeared, and they were all concerned. They went out looking for me." Dickens gave him a nod, glad that the message had gotten through to him. "But," he added, which caught the author's attention, "This was different than it is now. I completely blew it this time."

"Different?" Dickens raised an eyebrow questioningly. "How is it different? It's the exact same situation!" He pulled his top hat from his head, rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers, frustrated.

"Naru's been helping me for months now," Keitaro explained, enjoying the cool breeze against his face as the crickets and trees continued to sing their song of the night. "And besides that," he continued, "You should have seen how mad she was at me today." He chuckled contritely, unable to help seeing the cosmic humor. He had worked so hard to fit in and fly right at the Inn, and now it was all coming apart with just a few mistakes. "And she wasn't the only one. I'm pretty sure Motoko has a place all picked out on her wall for my head. And Shinobu…" Shinobu was the dagger in his heart that stung almost as much as Naru's; the fragile, gentle girl idolized Keitaro, and she did so much for him, to say nothing of the rest of the Inn. Just the thought of making her even half as upset as he had made her today broke his already-shattered heart.



Dickens took a few more puffs from his pipe, then tapped the remaining tobacco from the end over the edge of the windowpane. "I think that's enough of the past," he nodded to himself, replacing the pipe in his jacket. He began moving down the hall, tapping on various doors experimentally as if searching for something very specific. "Let's move a bit further ahead in the timeline, shall we?"

Keitaro followed him, curious of his new activities. "Where are we going now?" he asked, catching up with a few quick steps.

Dickens knocked upon a door, stopping suddenly with a smile spreading slowly on his features. He ignored Keitaro as the young man plowed into him, not expecting the sudden halt. "Ah, here we are." He turned, opening the door once more for Keitaro. "So, you think the girls won't forgive you, eh?"

"Yes.." Keitaro peered into the door, more confused than ever. An empty room stared back at him, one of the many unused rooms in the Hinata Inn. He wasn't sure where Dickens was going with this.

"Well," the author clapped his hand on Keitaro's shoulder, "Why don't we go see them about the matter personally?" Keitaro began to protest, but Dickens used his leverage to toss Keitaro through the door, just as he had before. Tugging on his top hat, he strode through purposefully, making sure to secure the door behind him as he left.
* * *
Keitaro tumbled once more, taking another fall thanks to his old pal gravity. This time, his face faulted into a hard, flat wooden surface, polished so well that he crashed not so much into the wood as he did his own reflection. Pulling himself away from his duplicate, he looked up with dizzy eyes, trying to put the familiar surroundings into order.

Dickens stepped gracefully over his woozy ward, taking his jacket from his shoulders and draping it over one of the coat hooks mounted on the wall of the Inn's entranceway. "Here we are," he said brightly, popping his top hat on another hook smartly.

"How'd we get downstairs?" Keitaro asked, picking himself up. His hand found purchase on the wall as he leaned heavily, trying to better gauge his environment. They had just come through the front door of the Inn, somehow moving from the upstairs hallway all the way down to the first floor. "Why are we here?"

"We're back in the present." Dickens informed him, lending him an arm to help him past the entrance and into the living area. He considered his own words for a moment before adding, "Or rather, the present from your perspective."

They walked forward, still unseen by the world around them. It was a good thing, for Keitaro was unsure how Motoko, Shinobu, Sara and Su-chan would be able to handle an eighteenth century author standing in their living room. They were gathered in the living room as they often did on evenings. Motoko was kneeling upon the floor, polishing her blade with great care as she ran a soft, blue cloth across the black weapon again and again. Shinobu was likewise working hard, with needle and thread in hand rather than blade and polish. The tattered, useless remains of her beautiful blanket sat next to her on the couch, along with several other scraps of differently hued fabrics.

Su and Sara, in the meantime, were running about the living room, lifting paintings and pushing furniture aside. As always, Sara was trailing after Su with a tiny notebook in hand, filled with scribbles and scrawling that were unintelligible to the normal, sane eye. Keitaro had to back up quickly, or risk Su running right through him as Naru had moments…or months?...ago.

"What-"

Dickens shushed Keitaro with a finger to his lips, pointing to the girls in the living room. "Just watch," he admonished the boy gently, "And listen."

Motoko continued with her repetitive, calming task for several minutes, unperturbed by Sara and Su-chan's unruly behavior. However, every now and again she would glance up at Shinobu as the young girl worked diligently on her blanket. After a few moments, she laid the sword gently to the ground and placed her hands on her knees. "Shinobu," she addressed the child, "How are your efforts going?"

Shinobu looked up as if suddenly coming out of a trance. "Hmm? Oh, fine, thank you!" She blushed at the attention Motoko was giving her pet project, unused to any acknowledgement from Hinata's resident warrior. "I've found what little scraps I could," she indicated the collection of multi-colored mass of fabric to her left. "I'm afraid it will have to be a patchwork quilt," she smiled ruefully, "But it will still be just as good."

Motoko nodded. "It is a shame Urashima's foolish carelessness destroyed the first. There are times when I am not certain of him, Shinobu-chan."

Shinobu shook her head, smiling. "Oh, I don't mind. I know that Sempai would never do anything like that on purpose. Besides," she added, "This is the first time I've ever tried anything like this. If anything, it gives me the chance to practice more."

"Yeah!" Su popped into existence right behind Shinobu's position on the couch. "This one is way better than the old one!" she exclaimed, snatching the blanket from Shinobu's gentle grip. The blanket whirled around her shoulders as she tied the ends together around her neck, draping the cloth behind her back as a cape. "I'm Su-chan, defender of Hinata!"

Sara appeared as quickly as Su had, snatching up one of the squares of cloth and tying it around her face as a bandana, covering her mouth and nose. "And I'm Sara, her trusty and loyal partner!"

"Come, Sara!" Su shouted, dancing away from a protestant Shinobu, "Let's away to our secret lair!" She took off running, sliding towards the stairs with Sara hot on her heels.

"Kaolla!" Shinobu chased after them like a shot, skidding on Keitaro's polished floor. "Don't take it into your room! All that swamp water will ruin it, and I just washed all that dirt out of it!"

Keitaro watched the girls disappear up the stairs in silence, listening to the bumping and clattering that their ruckus caused. Motoko mirrored his unseen vigilance, continuing to gaze after the girls were long gone. Then she gathered her sword, sheath and polish, walking quietly towards the stairs in a far more orderly manner than her companions had left.

"Well," Dickens smirked at Keitaro's speechlessness as Motoko ascended the stairs. "What do you think?"

"Shinobu isn't angry?" Keitaro asked. It was no surprise that Motoko hadn't forgiven him yet, but that Shinobu wasn't holding his thoughtless landing against him… "She isn't angry." He said again with more certainty.

"Well of course she isn't." Dickens rolled his eyes, sighing. "Have you ever seen that girl hold any sort of grudge over anything? I swear," he rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, "You people here don't deserve a tenth of the kindness and love that she has for all of you."

Keitaro could scarcely disagree. He went over to the couch and tried to pick up one of the shreds of Shinobu's beautiful blanket, but his hand passed right through it impotently. He looked over at Dickens, who merely nodded in response to his unspoken question.

"Now," Dickens said, "Let's move along upstairs, shall we?" He strode over and took Keitaro by the arm, leading him towards the stairs.

"You aren't going to throw me through another door, are you?" Keitaro asked warily, keeping his feet planted firmly despite the author's pushiness.

"No," Dickens assured him, "We just got here, after all. We still have some others to see, don't we?"

Keitaro's eyes went wide with horror. "You don't mean…"
* * *
"He's nothing but a stupid, worthless pervert!" Naru exploded, downing the tiny cup of tea in a single gulp and slamming it down onto her study table for emphasis.

Charles Dickens had phased through the doorway, leading Keitaro gently by his insubstantial hand into Naru's tiny domicile, set directly above the manager's own quarters. "Ah yes," he nodded with satisfaction, "I do believe this is where we left off, don't you think?"

Keitaro merely stood there, slack-jawed at the horrible breach of privacy that he and the author were committing, as Kitsune calmly poured her friend another glass of Oolong tea. "Well," she allowed with her famous poker face, pouring herself a cup after Naru's was full, "I suppose there's that."

Naru knocked back this cup as easily as the first, banging it so loudly on the wooden table that Kitsune feared her china set would be made incomplete by the end of the night. "Seriously!" Naru growled, folding her arms. "I mean, just look!" She tossed Keitaro's notebook over, opening it to the page where his sketches started replacing the literary notes. "That baka did nothing all week but doodle and draw these dumbass pictures. I wasted a whole week-"

"Hey," Kitsune held the notebook aloft, eyeing her likeness with an appraising look, "This isn't half-bad!" She began flipping the pages, grunting with approval at Shinobu's portrait, then Motoko's, then Su-chan's. "In fact, these are damn good."

"That's not the point." Naru sighed, frustrated.

"So you think they're good too, eh?" Kitsune countered.

Naru grew flustered and red-faced at the jab, snatching the notebook back before her friend could come across her own picture in the book. "I've seen better drawings at a drunken caricatures artist's booth." She insisted, placing the book underneath the table. "Besides, you're missing the point entirely."

Checking her watch, Kitsune saw that this entire ordeal had drained an hour of her life that fate was probably never going to give back to her. "And the point would be?" Kitsune asked, "And please; keep in mind that we've already been over Keitaro's perversion and idiocy…many, many times…"

"The point," Naru said slowly, "Is that for one entire week, I sat down with him, pouring over cliff notes, reading sections aloud, highlighting paragraphs, and explaining metaphors to that…that…that loser!" she spat, her voice growing with every new activity that she and Keitaro had gone over. "And when I leave him to his own devices, this is what I get; a book full of drawings, and a failed practice test."

Keitaro's head hung in shame at Naru's venomous exposition. Every word of it was true, and worse, he had enjoyed every moment of it. Not the part where he had let Narusegawa down, of course, but rather the time that they had spent working together; it had been one of the few weeks since getting to know her that they had worked almost flawlessly in tandem, producing a harmony that he had never before experienced in his life.

The eyebrows on Kitsune's face shot up in surprise. "Hold on," she said with upturned palm, trying to slow her frantic friend down, "You're telling me that you spent an entire week studying, every day, from sunup to sundown, without a single break?"

"Of course." Naru nodded proudly. "The tests are less than two months away. That's why we even worked through meals." Her proud features fell when Kitsune began rolling across the floor, laughing so hard Naru thought tea might come pouring out of her ears. She let this continue for a few seconds before growing red with anger. "And what, pray tell," she fumed, "Is so damn funny?"

"You!" Kitsune giggled. "You're an absolute riot." Naru only grew angrier at this, so Kitsune decided to stifle the majority of her amusement. She sat up, stuffing the rest of her laughter down with a deep, forceful breath. "Narusegawa," she explained to the young ronin, "You can't just study your life away…"

"I'm not." Naru huffed defensively. "Just until the test is over."

"But don't you see," Kitsune insisted, "If you keep this up, you'll burn out before you even make it to the test!" She saw Naru's confusion, and decided to clarify further. Picking up the book, she began flipping through Keitaro's section of actual notes. Sure enough, the diligent student had dated them for reference. "Here!" she pointed to the last entry, tapping it for emphasis as she showed it to Naru. "His last notes were taken just two days ago. He didn't start to flake out until after five straight days of studying."

"So?" Naru didn't get it. If she could keep up her studies, she didn't see why Keitaro couldn't.

"So?" Kitsune smacked herself in the forehead, wondering how someone as smart as Narusegawa could be so very thick at the same time. "You baka!" she exclaimed, "You practically worked him into the ground! No human being can work for a week straight, meals included, and ever hope to keep their sanity for long! Even you," she added warily. "You've been awfully irritable and moody around everyone lately, especially Keitaro."

"I have NOT!" Naru shouted without thinking. She clapped her hand over her mouth in horror, realizing that she had essentially proved Kitsune bang-on right.

"Then again," Kitsune added in a sly, sneaky voice as she gathered up her floral tea set, "There may be another reason for your mood swings when Keitaro's around." She saw Naru beginning to build up a rather vocal rebuttal, and so added, "You know, Naru, I've been up here for over an hour now, and you know what? You've been talking nonstop about your so-called 'pervert' the entire time."

Naru was left speechless, flabbergasted by Kitsune's flattening words. Her friend took the tray of tea settings in hand, bidding her goodnight with a grin as she slid the door shut. Left all to herself, save for her unseen observers, Naru could only stare in shock at the door with slackened jaw.

"I don't believe it." Keitaro had never seen anyone leave Naru speechless. He said as much to Dickens, but the older man quieted him before he could say much.

"Careful," Dickens cautioned him with bemusement, "Or you'll miss the best part."

The two watched in complete silence as Naru moved back to the notebook, first pouring over the notes, then the pictures, over and over again. The pages' edges were growing bent to conform with the crook of her thumb as she flipped through, coming to rest on her favorite picture.

"That smile…" Naru murmured, running a finger absently over her doppelganger's radiant features. "That smile…" she repeated, her voice growing hoarse. Before Keitaro knew it, tears had welled up in Naru's delicate brown eyes, wobbling dangerously at the edges of her vision as she peered down at his sketch. "Oh, Keitaro," she whispered, unable to hold the tears back any longer. "I shouldn't have gotten so angry at you."

She saw several dark spots splotch onto the picture, spreading across the sweater/skirt outfit that her likeness wore. It took her a second to realize that they were her own teardrops. With a pathetic sniffle, she wiped the tears away, sniffing loudly in the process. She laughed, imagining that the entire scene must have appeared pretty amusing from the outside. She wondered what Keitaro would think…

"Keitaro," she murmured, rubbing her red, puffy eyes. She saw herself through her own mind's eye, looking back on the past with a clean point of view. All of the punches, all of the yelling, and especially this week…she had pushed him hard, a lot harder than usual. "I guess we were both to blame, eh?" She couldn't help but chuckle, laughing at the irony. "Of course, you'll never say anything, will you?"

"Of course not," Keitaro said without thinking. He stared at the young girl, entranced by her emotional trip. "Narusegawa, it was-"

She deteriorated into a ball of sobs once more, pushing the notebook aside and laying her head upon the table to cry without abandon. "Why can't I just tell you?" she wept to no one in particular. Her shoulders shook violently with each new tear that soaked the sleeve of her favorite yellow sweater.

Keitaro's jaw slipped another few inches towards the floor. He stumbled back, unable to speak as he fell to the floor with a loud *thud* that he was sure Naru would hear. She was oblivious to the world, however, and besides which, she still could not detect any trace of his presence. Still, he couldn't help feeling sick for his this horrendous breach into her privacy. His arms and legs scrambled beneath him as he tried to get onto his feet to flee.

He managed to carry himself to the door, running blindly for the door until Dickens stepped between him and the exit. He bounced off of the elder man, surprised at his solidity when everything else had been insubstantial. "What's the matter, Keitaro?" Dickens asked him sweetly, leaning over to help him up. "Are you surprised by the truth?"

Keitaro's eyes stung bitterly as he looked back at the sobbing Naru before swinging back around to rest on his guide. "This can't be real." He insisted, "Naru hates me! She wouldn't…she couldn't…"

Dickens took him by the shoulder, leading him away from the scene. They stepped through the wall and out into the hallway. "The truth can hurt, can't it?" At Keitaro's silence, he began dragging him further down the hallway towards another destination. "It just might not hurt the way you think it would."
* * *
They phased through the wall once more, entering the plain, dojo-ish domicile that was Motoko's room. As always, her floor was immaculately clean, with her suit of Kendo armor and kung fu movie posters lining her walls. Dickens led his young charge into the room with a smile on his stately features.

He pulled his pocket watch from his vest, flipping the cover open and checking the time. With a short nod, he snapped the cover closed, draping the watch's elegant gold chain across his stomach as he placed the ticking mechanism back into his pocket. "Ah," he remarked, "Just in time!"

He glanced back to say something else, but stopped short as he caught sight of Keitaro. The manager had his hands clamped over his eyes, defiantly trying to struggle against Dickens' grip. The author was not a strong man by any means, as could easily be imagined by his profession, but for some reason Keitaro was still unable to break his hold. "I am not doing this any more!" Keitaro boldly insisted, stamping his foot. "What we're doing is wrong! We're looking into other people's private lives!"

Dickens considered his objections for a moment, still unseen by the sightless boy. "You truly care that much about these girls?" he asked.

"Of course!" Keitaro insisted loudly, never uncovering his eyes. He took an experimental step back, finding that Dickens' grip has loosened a bit. "I would never do anything to-"

Dickens interrupted, "Then why are you going to abandon them?" Keitaro was unable to come up with a coherent answer to this. With a sigh, Dickens forcibly pulled the hands from the babbling boy's face, pinning them to his sides. "Well, if you can't think, then just watch." He groused irritably.

Keitaro stood, transfixed by the room. He had only been inside a handful of times, never truly feeling comfortable entering Motoko's sanctuary. Now that he was smack in the middle of it and undetectable, however, he took in the sights, the sounds, even the smells of the room with full abandon. Her room had a pleasant aura about it, as if it were a source of inner peace waiting for the right soul to tap into it. And right then, that particular soul was standing in front of the mirror, staring serenely at her own reflection.

"Mo…Motoko-chan?" Keitaro couldn't believe his eyes for the umpteenth time in the last hour. Standing right before the duo was a gorgeous testimony of the beauty that the opposite sex possessed, wearing a gorgeous kimono with a flowing autumn print. Flowers and leaves swirled in beautiful patterns, shifting slightly as Motoko turned to examine herself in the unfamiliar garment. There was a small smile planted on her lips, something that he definitely did not get to see often enough.

"Quiet lovely, isn't it?" Dickens asked him. As Keitaro nodded dumbly, he continued, "Her sister sent it to her months ago. At first, she wouldn't even take it out of the box, afraid to even touch it."

"Why?" he breathed, risking a step forward. Of course, Motoko did not see the two of them, or they surely would not have had enough time to even repent to their respective deities. It still felt wrong, peeking in on her life like this, but somehow, it also felt…reassuring. This was a completely different side of Motoko, one he was sure she didn't share with anyone else. As opposed to her usual, indomitable warrior self, this Motoko seemed almost human. "She's beautiful." Since her sister's visits, she had begun wearing more everyday clothing; skirts, shorts, blouses and the like. Still, she had always comported herself with a sense of dignity and professionalism. This Motoko took joy in her feminine form rather than a defensive stance towards it.

"Yes…" Dickens nodded his agreement as Motoko twirled in the mirror, smiling down at her reflection. "You know, before she met you, she would never have even thought of wearing something like this. Now look at her; she has a closet full of brand new, beautiful clothing, and it's all thanks to you."

"Me? What did I do?"

Dickens reached over, smacking him on the back of the head. "Doesn't that lump of gray matter you use as a spacer between your ears keep track of anything?" he demanded irritably. "You were the one who showed Motoko that she could be strong no matter what she looked like. You showed her that the true power lay within her, not within the strict lifestyle she had adhered herself to." He locked eyes with Keitaro, trying very hard to put the importance of it all across. "You opened a whole new world to her, Keitaro."

"I opened…" Keitaro considered Motoko as she considered herself in the mirror. It was true that he had told her all of these things, and had even helped convince her sister that Motoko was better off exploring who she was before choosing the path she would walk for the rest of her life. Still, had he really had that much of an impact on her? Had he made that much of a difference on any of them?

The author seemed to pick up on his thoughts, elbowing him. "I know what you're thinking," he assured the manager with a slow, even tone, "And the answer is yes." He glanced over at Motoko, seemingly to make another point. However, his face became beet red as the warrior began undoing the sash of her kimono, obviously done with her one-woman fashion show. "Whoops!" he exclaimed, covering Keitaro's eyes with one hand while pushing him out the door with the other. "Looks like it's time for us to go!"

The walls allowed them through once more into the hallway, where it was dark, cool and eerily quiet. Pulling the hand from his eyes, Keitaro looked at his moral guide questioningly. "Now what?"

"Well," Dickens mused, "Unless you're convinced…" he looked at Keitaro hopefully, but received a negative head-shake in response. Heaving a sigh, he began examining the windows on the other side of the hallway, sliding them open and closed with great interest. "Then I suppose there's really only one place left to go." His features abruptly brightened as he found the right window, sliding it wide open.

"Where's that?"

Before Keitaro could inquire further, Charles grabbed him by both shoulders, giving him a hearty shove towards the window. The Inn's manager stumbled towards the dangerous opening, seemingly meeting his doom at the hands of his own clumsiness as he tumbled over the edge of the window's frame and out into the yawing three-story drop.

Dickens looked down, calling after the boy. "The future!" he announced loudly. Then, taking a deep breath to steel his nerves, he leapt out the window feet first, falling after Keitaro at breakneck speed.
* * *
Keitaro landed violently, coming down in a graceless heap onto something hard, gritty, and vaguely warm. His eyes were squeezed shut as he struck the ground. However, it wasn't the bone-crunching, agonizing fall that he had been expecting. Rather, it felt almost as though he had simply tripped and fallen to the floor, and not out of Hinata's towering windows. He felt a light impact quake through the ground a few feet to his left, and could only assume that it was his cruel mentor following in his footsteps.

"Where are we now?" Keitaro groaned. His glasses had been knocked askew in the landing, leaving him almost completely blind. All he could see was a bright reddish-orange landscape, blurred next to a blue-gray sky. He straightened his glasses, and was at once filled with a terrible sickness.

The beautiful town that had once been Hinata, the town famous for its hot springs and hospitality, for its tea houses and a violent, short-lived teenage pop star, was gone. In its place was a poor facsimile, composed entirely of nothing more than coarse, rust-colored sand and dirt. From atop the Inn's towering hill, Keitaro could see the entire landscape of where the town should have been. Small piles of rubble lay where houses and businesses had once stood proudly, now mere collections of rotting, sun bleached wood and crumbling concrete.

The air around them felt heavy, and left a bad taste at the back of Keitaro's throat. A perpetual haze framed the sky, filtering the once beautiful sun's life-giving light into a mockery of its former self; cold, uncaring, diluted. What little plant life that remained in the desolate desert tried in vain to soak up this new kind of sunlight, and the brown hues spreading across the one time green foliage was testimony to how ineffective the new order had become.

Swallowing his fear, Keitaro turned around to look at the Inn. It had fared better than some of the other buildings in the city, but was a far cry from the warm, loving home he had come to call his own over the past months. There wasn't an ounce of paint on the place that wasn't cracked or peeling away from its rotted wooden paneling. The entire west wing, where Motoko and Su-chan had once lived, had completely collapsed in on itself. Each window pane had been meticulously broken in, spreading glass both inside and outside of the Inn's cadaver. Their beautiful hot spring, which had been the girls' favorite place to relax, was nothing but a crater and a memory now.

"Oh my God…" Keitaro whispered, fighting down the urge to vomit. He surveyed the destruction like a zombie, wide-eyed and horrified beyond any rational thought. "This is our future? This is what happens when I run away?"

Dickens, having somehow reclaimed his jacket and top hat, had produced a small black book from his pocket and was in the process of flipping through its pages, scanning the text as quickly as his experienced eyes would allow. "Wait…wait…" he muttered, running his finger across a series of lines. Suddenly, he smacked himself on the forehead with his palm, snapping the book closed with a short, barking laugh. "Oh, silly me!"

"What?" Keitaro asked, feeling a small glimmer of hope. Was there still a way to undo this horrible future?

"I brought us to the wrong future." Dickens chuckled, oblivious to the devastated landscape around them. How the writer could laugh in the middle of a war zone, Keitaro would never know. "This is what happens when Kaolla Su tries to take over the world with her mecha-tama, version six."

"Guh?"

"I really must have a chat with that girl." Dickens admonished himself, making a mental note to pop in on Su-chan later. "Anyway, let's adjourn to your future…that is, a future without you. Shall we?" He and Keitaro walked to the ruined entrance of the Inn, stepping around a rather disturbingly familiar skeleton dressed in colorful scraps of cloth, and holding a small sake cup with a lipless grin on its face. "Right this way!" he intoned cheerfully, pulling on the entranceway door. It came easily off its hinges at the slightest tug, pulling away into Dickens' hands. He tossed the door aside, gesturing for Keitaro to step through. This time, the manager was able to traverse the boundaries of space/time like a gentleman, rather than being tossed onto his fanny.
* * *
The duo found themselves entering the Inn's small, comfortable dining room, currently devoid of any of its residents. A sharp burning smell wafted from the adjoining kitchen, filled with spices both foreign and stomach-turning to either one of the gentlemen present (and yet not present) in the room. Somehow, though, the smell was almost familiar to Keitaro, as if he had experienced it before.

Kitsune walked into the room, dragging behind her a bucket and scrubbing mop. This Kitsune was unlike any Keitaro had ever seen; she was dressed in rags, both tattered and smelling of cleaning chemicals. They reminded the manager of his own scrubbing togs, only these looked much better on Kitsune's curved form than they ever had on Keitaro's wiry, scrawny body. Her face, however, was completely alien to her features. Her eyes were rimmed with dark black circles, bloodshot and ancient before their time. Legs unused to any sort of real work were trembling with effort as she dragged herself to her chair, collapsing into it as if totally spent.

"Su-chan!" she called in a hoarse voice. "Su-chan, when will breakfast be ready?"

"Soon, Kitsune-san!" Su's voice called from within the kitchen with an uncharacteristic lack of joy. Sizzling sounds escaped from the small crack in the door, combined with a short yelp of pain from the inexperienced cook.

"What's going on here?" Keitaro looked to Dickens, who had once again taken to leaning casually against the wall. "Why is Su cooking? And what's with Kitsune's get-up? She never cleans!"

"This is the future, Keitaro." Dickens explained with a shrug. "Three months after you ran away, give or take a day in either direction." He looked over at Kitsune, who had slumped against the table in a deep exhaustion. Though they couldn't see her face, it wasn't hard to tell that her mood was low enough to scrape the crud from the bottom of her shoes. "Hinata Inn cannot run without a manager, as you're personally aware. So," he continued, "When you left, someone had to fill your shoes."

"But, why Kitsune?" Keitaro scratched his head. He loved Kitsune just as much as any of the other girls (with the probable exception of Naru, naturally), but she would hardly be his first choice for the manager of the dormitory.

"Kitsune felt guilty about all of the nasty things she had done to you." Dickens elaborated, shaking his head with pity at the overworked, youthful girl. "All of the months she skipped out on rent, all of the chores she tricked you into doing, all of the times she stole money from you."

"I never…wait a minute," Keitaro stopped himself, "She stole money from me too?"

"So," Dickens acted as if he weren't even listening to him, "When Haruka began looking for a new manager, Kitsune stepped in and offered her services. She felt as though she owed it to you to take care of the family. I think she was one of the saddest when you left, you know."

Keitaro couldn't help but feel a little surprise. Out of all the girls, Kitsune was the closest to him in age, her birthday falling only a few months behind his. He never could have guessed, though, how much she apparently understood how much he went through. For her to do something like this… "It doesn't look like she's having an easy time, does it?" Keitaro observed sadly.

"No." Dickens agreed. "Of course, you know how much work it is, don't you?" Keitaro nodded, knowing full well how much work being manager of the Inn was. He never minded the effort, though, as long as he had known it was all for them. Turning his attention back to the burning smells coming from the kitchen, he asked, "So why is Su cooking? Where's Shinobu?"

"Shinobu?" He shook his head, laughing out loud. "Oh, Shinobu is long gone, my friend. As soon as her parents found out that the person responsible for her took off into the night, they pulled her out of the Inn like a flash. I believe she's living with her mother at the moment," he lamented sadly, "But she'll be swapped over to her father's for another six months or so soon enough."

Keitaro felt horrible. He staggered back, clutching at his overturned stomach. He had almost forgotten that Shinobu's parents had entrusted him with watching over her. It wasn't hard to imagine what they thought of him once they found out he had run away…again.

The door to the kitchen flew open, parting for Su and a plate full of indescribable red goop. "Flying nourishment attack!" Su cried, flinging the plate onto the table with a flip of her wrist. The plate struck before Kitsune could react, sliding into her head while it was still resting on the table. Half the plate of curry was tossed onto her head, seeping into her unruly silver hair.

"Su!" Kitsune cried, trying to shake the beans and beef out of her hair. "God damn it, why do you always pull this crap?!" She looked up, seeing Su's fallen face. Tears were welling up at the edges of the effervescent girl's eyes, and her lower lip trembled. "Jeez," she swore under her breath, standing up and wrapping a hug around her younger neighbor. "I'm sorry, Su."

"I'm trying real hard to do it right…" Su sniffled, burying her face into Kitsune's chest. Her eyes stung from the conglomeration of cleaning products stuck in the fox lady's clothes. "I really am…"

A loud thump echoed from down the hall, signaling the arrival of another customer. Keitaro gaped in incredulity as Motoko entered the room. She was dressed in her old Kendo outfit, sashed at the waist with a strip of black satin. Her hair, which once flowed gloriously down by her waist, was cut drastically short above her ears. She carried her sword at her side, her hand never straying far from its hilt.

"What in hell happened to Motoko?" Keitaro exclaimed, pulling back with surprise. When he had first met her, she had possessed the appearance of a hardened warrior; tough, perhaps, but still distinctly female. Now, though, she was positively butch. "She…she's…"

"Hard-core?" Dickens supplied helpfully. "I'd agree. It would seem that you were the one to bring out her femininity, Mr. Urashima. You convinced her that she could be delicate and yet still strong, yes? Well, when she saw that you abandoned everything that you believed in, she figured that everything you had told her was a crock of lies as well. So…Presto!" he waggled his fingers, as if revealing the end of a phenomenal magic trick. "We have a brand new Motoko, one who will probably shave her head and join the marines if she thinks it proves her to be anything but 'delicate'."

Motoko walked by, ignoring the two invisible specters as she took her place down at the table. Su ducked back into the kitchen, bringing out the swordswoman's plate of curry in addition to her own. The three of them sat down, beginning their meal in total silence. It was an alien sight for Keitaro to see compared to the hive of chattering activity their meals usually were.

Sara trotted in from outside, wearing rumpled clothes that appeared to have been on her for at least half the week. "What's for breakfast?" she asked, and then stopped in her tracks at the sight of the foreign concoction. "Oh, bleck!" she gagged, "Not that stuff again!"

Kitsune sighed, trying very hard not to lose her patience again. It had been wearing thin these days, and was only getting thinner. "If you aren't going to eat, could you at least go see if Naru would like a plate?" she requested of the Inn's youngest resident.

"Sure," Sara nodded eagerly, then sobered. "But if Shinobu's cooking couldn't get her to come down, then I don't see how this crap will." Her comments were mostly ignored as she moseyed into the kitchen, seeking out Naru's plate of curry.

"Narusegawa…" Keitaro snapped his fingers, suddenly realizing what was missing from the entire picture. "Narusegawa! Where's Narusegawa?"

"Shall we go see?" Dickens began too late, as Keitaro was already sprinting up the stairs. His feet pounded against the hard oak floor paneling, driving him higher and deeper into the depths of the Inn, until finally he stood outside of her room. His gasps were more to steel his quaking nerves than from the dash his lungs had just been put through. With hands outstretched, he used his unfamiliar status as a nonentity to pass through the door itself, leaving it in place as he entered her room.

He felt his heart shatter into a thousand infinitesimal pieces at the mere sight of what was once Narusegawa Naru. A poor likeness of his love sat at her study table, hunched over a half-dozen open texts. The hair that she had taken such pride in was nearly unrecognizable, bunched up in a pony tail of filthy, unkempt locks. Even the pair of antennae that usually stuck up from her scalp hung in greasy, droopy curls.

Her tired eyes went from one book to the next, scanning word after word, but Keitaro wasn't entirely certain that she was actually seeing any of it. Her pencil hung limply in her fingers, suggesting a lack of strength that her gaunt features confirmed. Were he to guess, he would place the last time she had left the room for any significant period to be just around a week.

A soft knocking came at her door. Keitaro was the one to turn, moving to answer it before remembering that he wasn't technically 'there'. "Naru?" Sara's voice came through the door muffled and devoid of its usual brash obnoxiousness. The door slid to the side, revealing the youthful sprite with a plate of Su-chan's vile concoctions. "Narusegawa, I brought you some foo-"

"I'm not hungry." Naru's reply was brisk and brief. She never even took her eyes off of the page she was reading. "Please take it down stairs and put it in the refrigerator for me."

"Naru!" Sara set foot into the room, finally getting Naru's attention with the violation of her territory. As Naru looked up with eyes full of annoyance, Sara took on the most pleading tone she could assemble. "Naru, we're all really worried about you. All you do anymore is study, you don't ever leave your-"

"If you don't mind," Naru said in an icy voice, "I'm behind schedule. Could you please leave me to my studies?"

"Naru-" Sara tried again, but both she and Keitaro could see that the discussion was over. Naru had already gone back to her reading, scribbling and jotting down notes every now and again. With a sigh, Sara reversed her course and left the room, sliding the door closed behind her.

It was all Keitaro could do not to fall to his knees and cry. He simply stared openly at Naru as she studied like a woman possessed, her stubby pencil scratching feebly at her millionth piece of paper.

"Not a pretty sight, is it?"

Keitaro couldn't say for sure how long he had been in Naru's room, or when Charles Dickens had arrived. He didn't care, either. "How could this happen?"

"Take a look at the wall." Dickens pointed him in the right direction, indicating the far wall next to her windows. "Look familiar?" There, taped hastily in place, was his sketch of Narusegawa. It hung in a lopsided fashion, smiling back at the world with a face that had not graced the real deal's own features for months now.

"Wait a minute," Keitaro turned on Dickens. "You said we were three months into the future. The tests have already taken place! Why is Naru studying so hard?" If Dickens wanted him to believe that Narusegawa could possibly fail the entrance exams for a second time, then his opinion of Urashima Keitaro was in need of a readjustment.

"Well," Dickens allowed, pacing around the circumference of the table in a slow, even gait, "It seems that something caused her to lose her confidence. Someone who gave up on his dreams and stole away, abandoning her to her own devices-"

"Naru didn't…doesn't…won't need me!" Keitaro babbled, confused by their displacement in time. "She's smart enough to pass the exams three times over!"

"But not if she doesn't think she can, Keitaro." Dickens explained calmly. "Don't you get it yet? You don't have to be smart, or handsome, or even talented to help someone as long as you can give them something that no one else can!"

"And what could I possibly offer Narusegawa?" Keitaro asked, looking bitterly down at this cheap imitation. "Why would my leaving do this to her?"

"Because you inspire her." The flat telling caught the manager off guard. Dickens used his stunned silence as an opening to continue; "You've failed those bloody exams for three years now, and yet you haven't given up. You've been pushed around, beaten, and bloodied nearly every day you've been here from the start, and yet you still show these girls as much love, caring and compassion as they've ever seen!"

"No!" Keitaro refused to believe that he was that important, that they needed him that much at the Inn. He escaped the room, jumping through the floor and falling awkwardly into his own room. Another shock drove him to a horrified scream as he was confronted with his own room, emptied of everything that made it his. The bookshelf was bare, the desk was completely cleared, and the floors were covered only with a thin layer of dust and neglect…He had been unprepared for this, never expecting to see the place again once he had collected all of his things.

Dickens had somehow beaten him there, leaning against the wall in wait of his arrival. "Face it, Keitaro. These girls love you, and they need you. But if you don't want to stay for yourself, then I can't see how-"

"I DON'T WANT TO LEAVE!" Keitaro sobbed, collapsing on his hands and knees. His glasses filled with tears, spilling over the sides as he shook his head, screaming, "I DON'T WANT TO LEAVE! PLEASE, LET ME STAY!"

The author leaned over, cupping his hand to his ear. "What was that?" he smiled, assured now that his mission was a success. "What did you say?"

"Please," Keitaro whispered gutturally between sobs and sniffles. "I never really wanted to leave. I just…I just thought that no one wanted me here. That they didn't need me around, and that all of our lives would be better off without me around." He looked up weakly, broadcasting panic and confusion with his gaze. "Why?" he asked, "Why didn't you show me my own future? Why did you show me this terrible place?" It was as if Dickens had taken the home and the people that he loved so much and twisted them about, making them all but unrecognizable.

"Because," Dickens informed him as he gently helped the lad to his feet, "Your most endearing quality is also your most annoying, Mr. Urashima; you rarely, if ever, think of yourself. Had I shown you what your life would be like after the Inn, no matter how miserable, we both know that you still would have left."

"What is my life like?" he sniffled pathetically, taking his glasses off and wiping his face.

"Does it matter?"

Keitaro shook his head, clearing his glasses with a swipe on his T-shirt and placing them back over his eyes. "No," he decided. "It doesn't matter at all. I'm not going anywhere." He looked around the empty room, suddenly filled with a sense of revulsion. This was his room, his home, and it was never meant to be empty. "I'm Urashima Keitaro, and I'm the manager around here. Nobody runs away on my watch," he affirmed with uncharacteristic strength, "Not even me."

Dickens brushed his hands together, then tugged at the lapels of his jacket. "Well," he intoned brightly, "I can see that my work here is done…finally." He added with a roll of his eyes. "Now I can finally get back and finish that table tennis match with Ernest Hemmingway. The 'old man in the sea' is sunk for sure this time." He snickered, checking his pocket watch one last time before heading for the door.

"Wait!" Keitaro called to him in a panic. "How will I get back to my own time?"

"Oh, don't worry about that." Dickens assured him with a wave. The distance between the two had somehow seemed to stretch, becoming greater and greater no matter how fast Keitaro ran after him. It was as if someone had taken the ends of his room and was pulling on it, making it longer and longer. "Everything is going to be fine, just wait and see, Mr. Urashima." A bright light began to shine from in front of Charles Dickens as he strolled towards the doorway, blotting out the details of his figure and leaving only a silhouette.

"Mr. Dickens!" Keitaro called uselessly. He tripped over his own feet, sprawling out onto the ground in a jumbled mess of limbs. "Mr. Dickens!" he called again, unsure if the author could even hear him at this point. "Thanks." He whispered, smiling at the man's back. "Thanks for everything."

Dickens seemed to stop at this, as if he had somehow heard the murmur of Keitaro's appreciation when the boy's screams had escaped him. "Oh, and Keitaro? There's one other thing."

"Yes?" Keitaro sat up eagerly, straining to hear Dickens' distant voice.

However, the author's blacked-out image merely stood in the light, which grew brighter and brighter with each passing second. "Keitaro." He said, repeating the name over and over again. "Keitaro… Keitaro… Keitaro…"
* * *
"Keitaro… Keitaro… Keitaro!"

Keitaro sat up with a jolt, feeling his back twinge as it slid against the wall where he had sat while reading the night before. Disoriented, he looked around, finding himself still in his room. However, the dimensions of the space had returned to their normal sense of Euclidian normality, and even better, all of his belongings were right back where they belonged, as if they had never left.

His door slid open, allowing Kaolla Su to bound through with an energetic cry of happiness. She landed in his lap, knocking the wind out of him as her arms wrapped around his neck. "Keitaro!" she cried gleefully, giving him a bone-crunching hug. "I've been standing outside of your door trying to get you to come out forever!" her tone scolded playfully as she backflipped off of his legs, landing flawlessly on top of his desk.

"Wha…who…when…?" he replied groggily, shaking his head. "What's going on?"

Su leapt forward, sailing over him and snatching a book from his fumbling fingers. "Wha'cha reading?" she asked him, scanning the title of the volume with eager eyes. "A Christmas Carol?" Her ADD kicked in as she tossed the book aside carelessly. "Sounds boring. Come on, Shinobu has breakfast ready, and we'll need the energy if we're going to play later!"

"Sure, Su-chan." He assured her, rising on unsteady legs. "Just give me a sec, okay?" He watched her zip towards the door, then remembered something from the night before. "Uh, Su-chan…" he rubbed the back of his neck, laughing nervously. "You aren't working on a new mecha tama by any chance, are you?"

She nodded vigorously, jumping up and down with excitement. "Yeah!" she exclaimed, "I've been working on the Mark III all week! Wanna see?"

"Maybe later," he assured her, truthfully not wanting to go anywhere near the undoubtedly dangerous device. "Just…just make sure you play nice, alright?"

She snapped him a salute, pulling up into an attentive stance that would make a marine bust with pride. "Roger, commander! I'll take out the napalm and remove the nuclear warheads this afternoon."

He watched her bound out of the room, hoping that she was kidding on both accounts. "And no death rays, either!" he shouted after her, only half-serious. With a sigh, he picked up the book that she had thoughtlessly thrown aside, dusting the cover off. Sure enough, the words 'A Christmas Carol' gleamed back at him with golden embossing.

"So…" he said to himself, "It was all a fantasy?" It was kind of disappointing somehow. He had never experienced something so vivid and emotional, just to have it turn out to be a dream. It was the kind of ending that a lazy hack writer would use when he wrote himself into a corner. "Huh. Guess I shouldn't be surprised." He laughed at the notion of someone like Charles Dickens appearing before him and showing him the error of his ways. With another chuckle, he added, "That's the last time I read eighteenth century English literature for nine hours straight, anyway."

Another knock of knuckle on wood echoed through the room. He turned to the door, expecting that Su-chan had grown impatient again. "Come in." he called. However, the door remained in place, and instead the scraping sound came from somewhere above. He saw the ridiculously plump head of a Liddo lower itself down through the hole, somehow oriented to gaze directly at him.

"Good morning, Keitaro." The Liddo spoke with Naru's chipper voice, shaking from side to side. "May I come in?"

"Sure." Keitaro said, surprised at Naru's sudden reversal of moods. The Liddo retracted, and Naru's legs quickly dangled in their place, dressed in a pair of khaki slacks. Keitaro quickly moved to help her down, and was again surprised when she didn't mind the helping hand he placed on her hips to lower her gently to the floor.

She smiled at him with a slight trace of red in her cheeks. "Thanks."

He was about to respond when he noticed a flash of color against her light blue sweater. Glancing down at her side, he saw his literature notebook tucked nonchalantly beneath her arm. "Narusegawa," he exclaimed, suddenly fearing for his life, "My notebook!"

"Hmm?" she glanced down as if she hadn't been aware of its presence, then nodded to him. "Oh, right. I sort of 'borrowed' your notebook last night. I've been going over your notes, and-"

Before she could finish, he bowed in apology, clasping his hands and lowering his eyes to the floor. "Narusegawa," he began, "I'm deeply sorry for letting you down. Please, if you give me another chance, I'll work twice as hard as I did before. I won't let you down, I-"

Her hand snaked out, grabbing his cheeks on either side with her thumb and fingers and squeezing together until he could not speak. "It's very rude to interrupt someone," her eyebrow arched, twitching. He nodded meekly, and she let go, resuming where she had left off. "As I was saying," she clipped, "I've been looking at your notes, and I have to say I was pretty impressed with the first half. The second half, though, needs quite a bit of work."

"Eh?"

She flipped the notebook open, searching for a particular sketch. With an "Ah-ha!" she reversed the book so that Keitaro could see that same sketch of Naru he had done. "See this here?" she asked, pointing to various parts of the picture. "You've got it all wrong. What are you trying to do, make me look fat?"

"Narusega-"

"That's why we're going to go to the park today," she informed him matter-of-factly, "And you're going to do another sketch. And make sure you get my good side, all right?"

He was thoroughly confused at this point, and did nothing to hide that fact. "Narusegawa, what are you talking about? I thought we had to study for the tests…"

"We do." She assured him. "And believe me, we are going to bust our asses, so don't think I've gone soft. However," she added, looking away from him while playing with a lock of her hair, "We've spent way too much time inside lately. I think both of us could do with a break, don't you?" She saw the smile blossoming on his face, but before he could say anything to ruin the moment, she cut in, "But tomorrow, you're taking that practice test again, and I expect better results."

"Absolutely!" he cried, trying to contain the explosion of joy he felt welling up inside of him.

Satisfied, she began heading for the door, but tripped and stumbled over a long, large black object. "Ack!" Turning around, she examined the overstuffed duffle bag lying in the middle of the room. "What the heck is this thing doing here?" she asked crossly, kicking it over to the edge of the wall. When no answer came, she looked over at Keitaro. "Well, don't just stand there, Baka. Shinobu has breakfast ready, and we've got a busy day ahead of us. That picnic lunch you're going to pack for us won't make itself, after all."

"Right." He replied lamely as she strode out of the room, slamming the door behind her. Overwhelmed, he picked up the notebook she had given back to him, still opened to his favorite sketch of her. "This is too weird," he told himself, looking down at the sketch. "It's almost like…"

He stopped as something about the sketch caught his eye. Peering closer, he spied several blurred lines on the page, seemingly warped when a few small droplets of water had struck the paper. He recalled how Naru had wept over this exact picture in his dream, and was filled with a mixture of awe and confusion.

Because it had been a dream…

Hadn't it?