Disclaimer: See Prologue.
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This fanfic is based on the manga and anime and borrows facets from both of them.
"" Spoken words
Loss and Redemption
Chapter 9: It Is Better To Have Loved and Lost, Then Never To Have Loved At All
LIME CONTENT WARNING!
NOTE: A complete LEMON version of this chapter is posted at AdultFanFiction.net and MediaMiner.org
Keitaro never returned to bed that night after seeing the shooting stars. There hadn't been any point; he'd never be able to fall back asleep, so he decided to practice his katas. He got up from under the tree he had been resting against and treaded across the ground into a clearing adjacent to the cabin. Once there, he took a deep breath, quickly looked to make sure that none of the other residents were around, got into a ready position and drew his sword.
The highly polished steel gleamed like chrome in the moonlight, and the stars were brilliantly reflected by its surface. When Keitaro silently commanded himself to begin, the blade swept downward in a silent arc, effortlessly slicing through the air. When the blade reached the terminus of its swing, it was quickly reversed and brought back up in a soaring slash. Intertwined with these strikes, Keitaro walked in the step patterns that Motoko had tried to teach him.
While he was still nowhere near his sensei's skill level, his movements no longer resembled an epileptic seizure. For Keitaro, the katas were familiar now. In their order, repetition, and distillation of complex movements into simpler ones, Keitaro found comfort. The repetitive motions had a calming effect on him, and he hoped that calming himself down would enable him to think clearly.
Keitaro's body did its best to remember what it had been taught by Motoko, while his brain, which was only directing his movements enough to ensure that he didn't stab himself, was flooded with images of the two women he loved. He remembered from his first meeting with Naru in the bath to her questions from earlier that evening and everything that had happened in between. Motoko and Naru's displays of rage. The affectionate side that they both showed him. Even the feel of their lips against his. Especially the feel of their lips against his. The sight of the two of them lashing out at each other in the bath.
'This isn't fair!' he raged. 'I love the both of them, but I have to choose only one!' He punctuated this thought with a particularly vicious swipe that felled a three-inch diameter tree. He didn't even notice what he had done. When the kata was complete, he repeated it without hesitation, as his mind desperately tried to think of a way out of this predicament without hurting anyone.
If he didn't make a decision soon, it was likely that they'd end up seriously hurting each other, and he'd never forgive himself if that happened. Keitaro kept repeating the kata again, and again, and again, all of the time being emotionally tortured by the prospect of what he needed to do. What he HAD to do.
'Ugh, I shoulda brought some booze,' was the first coherent thought to pass through Kitsune's head when she woke up. She smacked her lips in distaste at the feeling in her mouth and slowly oriented herself in the cabin. She glanced over at the clock. '5:47? Goddamn swordsmen and their need to train in the middle of fucking nowhere.' She'd take a climate-controlled health spa any day of the week over this 'back to nature' shit, even though Su had modernized the cabin extensively. Hell, right now she'd kill to have her own futon back. She was going to have bruises for days.
As her bleary eyes wandered over the interior of the cabin, she noted that the other residents seemed to be rousing themselves as well. There were assorted groans and grumbles from the other residents who weren't used to sleeping in cabins. Belatedly, Kitsune realized that they seemed to be missing one person. "Hey, where's Keitaro?" she asked sleepily.
At this question Naru and Motoko, who had been getting up with the agility of a pair of arthritic bronze statues, awoke instantly, as though a switch had been thrown. They both jumped to their feet, looked at Keitaro's sleeping bag and sure enough, it was empty. They then glared at each other and were about to level accusations, when they both realized that if the other had run away with Keitaro, they wouldn't have come back to gloat. Any further accusations that they might have made were forgotten as Sarah called out, "Hey look, the dork's outside!"
The female residents of Hinata House scrambled outside, and only the fact that Shinobu had been between them kept Naru and Motoko from shoving each other out of the way to get outside first. They all piled outside and stopped at the sight that was before them. Keitaro was working his way through a kata, and his movements were now a little more polished than what they had seen before. But it was the look on his face that attracted their attention. There was a frantic expression on his face and the look in his eyes bordered on madness. He also looked like he hadn't slept in a week, and the sheen of sweat that was visible was testament to his near exhaustion.
As the women watched in silent contemplation, Keitaro continued the kata without any indication that he'd even noticed their presence. He completed the final slash of the kata, placed the blade back into its scabbard, and fell to one knee breathing hard. Seconds later, he drew the blade, stood up and began performing the kata again.
"Sempai!" Shinobu cried out, concerned that if he didn't rest, he'd drop dead.
The shout broke through his intense concentration and caused him to miss his footing. This lead to him collapsing heavily into the dirt, his ragged breathing the only movement from him.
The girls all ran to his side, concern for his well being temporarily overriding all other rivalries. Motoko and Naru, their acrimony shelved for the moment due to their mutual concern for Keitaro, helped him to his feet. He looked like he'd aged twenty years in one night, and he had to lean heavily on the two women just to stay up. They managed to lead him into the cabin and laid him down on his sleeping bag.
"Keitaro, how long were you doing that?" asked Motoko in a subdued tone.
"A couple of hours," he rasped in reply, trying to get his wind back.
"You can't stay here," Naru said. "You've got to come back to Hinata House to rest." She looked over and saw Motoko nodding in agreement.
"Pardon me?" asked Motoko faintly.
"I can't go back, at least not yet," Keitaro replied. He looked up and saw the concerned looks on all of the faces, especially Motoko and Naru. "I, I have to make a decision, but I need time to think about it. I need to be alone."
Naru and Motoko's eyes widened as the implications of Keitaro's words came to them. Neither could bring themselves to speak, as they realized that heartache was imminent for one of them.
"Isn't, isn't there some other way?" stammered Kitsune.
"No," Keitaro answered with a sense of finality. "I can't let the situation go on any longer. One way or the other, this must end."
"Why, why, why can't you decide now?" Naru replied in a voice scarcely over a whisper.
Keitaro found himself unable to meet anyone's eyes as he replied, "It wouldn't be fair. Even this way isn't fair, but it might be a little less unfair."
An eerie calm descended over the little cabin. No one spoke, as everyone was afraid to break the silence. Only the faint hum of Su's portable nuclear reactor could be heard. Finally Keitaro could be heard whispering "I'm sorry," over and over like a mantra.
Wordlessly, Shinobu began preparing a small breakfast, but everyone shook their heads to indicate that they weren't hungry.
"How long?" Motoko asked when she finally gathered up the courage to speak.
"A couple of days," replied Keitaro. He was curled up in a ball, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
Neither Naru nor Motoko knew what to say to that, so they reluctantly began to pack up in preparation to go home. The sight of Naru meekly acquiescing to what Keitaro had said shocked Kitsune. She grabbed Naru's arm in a surprisingly strong grip and dragged her outside.
Once she'd pulled Naru a respectful distance away from the cabin, Kitsune hissed at her, "What the hell are you doing? Why aren't you making your case to him?" The forlorn look on Naru's face was the most disconcerting thing she'd seen in a long time, and considering recent events, that was quite a feat.
"I, I can't do anything more," Naru replied morosely. "It's his decision. It's always been his decision."
"Then tell him how YOU feel!" snarled Kitsune.
"When?" replied Kitsune, her eyes opened wide in surprise.
"When he got back from the picnic," Naru replied. "He knows I love him, and I think he loves me."
"Then why are we having this conversation?!" exclaimed Kitsune.
"Because he also loves Motoko, and she loves him."
"How do you know that?" Kitsune asked sceptically.
"She tried to give herself to him in the bath."
"How, how do you know she…" Kitsune couldn't get the rest of the question out coherently, so Naru gave her an answer.
"Because I was in the bath too, trying to do the same."
"…" was Kitsune's only response. She stood there, her jaw in the vicinity of her ankles, unable to think of a reply to that bombshell. Finally, Kitsune recovered her composure enough to speak. "Is that where you got the, uh,-" she pointed to her own eye.
'I really need a drink,' thought Kitsune. "What now?"
"I wait," Naru said bitterly. "He wants to be alone, and I don't want to upset him anymore. He doesn't want me and Motoko to fight either, so I can't even fight for him. There's nothing I can do anymore but wait."
Kitsune opened her mouth to rebut her friend's arguments, but found herself unable to think of any alternatives. 'She's right,' she realized sadly. 'It's his choice now.' She then noticed that the corners of Naru's eyes were moist, so she stepped over and embraced her friend in a hug. No words were spoken, as none were needed.
Back inside the cabin, in the recently installed shower, Motoko was having similar thoughts. 'In a few days I'll know whether or not I'll have Keitaro at my side,' she mused as she rinsed the shampoo from her hair. Things had finally come to a head, and Keitaro would be choosing between her and Naru. Personally, she didn't want to wait, she wanted him to choose her right now. 'But, if he wanted me, wouldn't he have said it?' Keitaro hadn't actually told her he loved her, and he had been in love with Naru. 'Might he be thinking of how to soften the blow when he tells me?'
Deep down, she was frightened that her emotional outburst in the bath was going to push Keitaro right back into Naru's arms. Irony defined. An attempt to stop her rival from being with Keitaro would seal her own defeat. Motoko tried hard not to think about how'd she handle it if that occurred.
Despite the warmth in the bathroom, her hands were shaking as she reached for a towel.
Motoko dried herself off and got dressed, trying to put up a brave and confident front. She failed miserably. She was a nervous wreck when she exited the bathroom and took grim satisfaction from the fact that Naru seemed to be in the same state. As the two of them passed each other, more was communicated in a two second glare off than could have been said in a two-hour debate. But because of Keitaro's words, an uneasy truce was silently agreed on.
As Naru closed the bathroom door behind her, Motoko took a look at Keitaro. It appeared that he hadn't moved, and he almost seemed to be in a fugue state. He appeared unaware of anything happening around him, and Motoko figured he wouldn't react if all of the Hinata House girls stood naked in front of him. Realizing that there was nothing more she could say or do in her own defence, Motoko resigned herself to finishing packing up for the trip home.
Just as Motoko had figured, Keitaro was oblivious to all of the activity in the cabin as the girls cleaned up and packed for the trip home. When they were all ready to go, Shinobu told him, "S, sempai, there's food in the fridge and some clean clothes in your bag. Take, take care sempai."
With this, Shinobu, Su, Sarah, and Kitsune bade their farewells to Keitaro and walked out.
Now, only Motoko and Naru were left. Neither wanted to leave, and they both wanted the last word with him. They realized that neither would let the other stay behind so they silently agreed to leave together.
"Goodbye Keitaro," said Naru.
"Take care, Kei-kun," said Motoko.
With these goodbyes they left the cabin, and left Keitaro free to decide their fates.
Now all was silent, save for the sound of Keitaros' breathing. For a few moments he just sat there, nearly catatonic. Then he slowly got up and staggered to the shower. He knew that some difficult decisions had to be made in the next few days, but for now he'd get cleaned up and answer his body's demands for sleep. Once he was rested, it would be time to decide which of his two beloveds he was going to tear the heart out of.
The trip back to Hinata House was a subdued affair, with three distinct groups walking in loose formation. Naru and Kitsune were the de facto leaders by the simple fact that they were at the front of the column. A few feet behind them, Sarah, Shinobu and Tama-chan made up the second group. Bringing up the rear was the last group, Motoko and Su, with the former walking silently, and the latter riding on the formers' back.
Naru and Kitsune had attempted to have a conversation as they walked, but Naru had quickly realized that her heart just wasn't in it. Kitsune had noticed Naru's onset of sombreness and had gamely tried to hold it back with talk, but she had found herself overwhelmed. Now the two of them just trudged forward, the prospect of returning to familiar surroundings the only thing that motivated them to head home. Since they weren't able to talk to each other, they were left to their own thoughts to pass the time.
'Why can't love be enough?' Naru thought sadly. 'I love him, he loves me, why can't it just be that simple?' It wasn't of course, as few things in life were. If it had been that simple, the present situation wouldn't be happening, and she and Keitaro would be continuing their sometimes confusing relationship. 'Why couldn't I have been more decisive earlier? Why did I go along with trying to fool Tsuruko? And why are people able to love more than just one person?!'
Naru risked a discrete glance behind her, and saw Motoko, her face showing an expression of someone lost in thought. A surge of anger passed through Naru. 'Why did you make Keitaro fall for you? You knew I cared for him, didn't you?' She knew that she'd never actually said this to either Motoko or Keitaro, but she'd expected her friend to be able to figure it out, and therefore not make a move on him.
'Maybe she didn't know,' another voice in her psyche responded. 'You never admitted it. Besides, where the hell were you when they were getting close?'
Naru flinched at the internal rebuke. She tried to give an answer that would satisfy her strongest critic, herself, but she found that she couldn't come up with a suitable explanation for why she'd left. 'I just needed to get away,' sounded pathetic to her own ears, and Naru tried hard not to think about that as she continued towards home.
Kitsunes' thoughts were also in turmoil, as she recalled the previous two or so months. 'I don't believe it's come to this. So, who's 'loverboy' going to pick?' Kitsune thought unkindly. 'He's broken up a friendship and completely fucked up the whole situation because he didn't have the balls to be honest with Naru. Although it's not like Naru would have been delighted to hear the truth from him anyway. She'd probably have screamed 'pervert!' and sent him airborne.' Kitsune was unhappy that she was thinking of her friends in such unflattering terms, but she was trying to be objective. 'If those two idiots had just been mature enough to talk to each other about how they felt, this woulda never happened!'
Kitsune released a breath and tried to calm herself down, as getting worked up would not accomplish anything. 'At least she and Motoko aren't at each other's throats. But can they survive waiting until Keitaro makes his decision? Can the house?' Kitsune then resolved to try and keep Motoko and Naru from confronting each other for a while. They were both calm now, but with their passions for Keitaro running high, a conflict of a severe nature was possible.
The middle group, which was also acting as a buffer zone between Naru and Motoko, was the closest to being 'normal'. While Shinobu was still upset at her decision to let Keitaro go, she hadn't been directly involved in the conflict that had recently come to a head. As well, Sarah, who may have developed a little respect for Keitaro but still had absolutely no affection for him, kept talking to her and forced her to respond rather than lose herself in he own thoughts.
Their conversation stayed on subjects that weren't related to the love triangle, as Sarah had no interest in what Keitaro decided. She no longer despised him, but she didn't care for him either, and her feelings towards him could be called indifferent. Though the two of them talked for quite some time, with Tama-chan contributing a 'myuh' every once and a while, nothing of any real importance was discussed.
At the 'six' position of the convoy, Su was at one of her favourite places, riding piggyback on Motoko. It felt strange to have the hyperactive youngster on her back again after so long. Su was doing everything that she used to do in this position, but Motoko no longer was the same person she'd been two months ago. She'd been forced to come face to face with her inner demons, and confront the loneliness that she had always tried to lock away.
She almost hadn't survived the confrontation. She'd been ready to kill herself when the depression had been too much, and only desperate intervention by Keitaro had saved her life. That one act of kindness had shattered her impression of herself and had started her on the long, difficult road to recovery. She admitted to herself that she no longer needed Keitaro to survive. No, now she WANTED him. She'd lashed out in jealous, blind rage when Naru had tried to take 'her' Keitaro, and now because of that fight he was going to choose one of them.
Motoko continued walking, forcing herself to try to be a little more upbeat for Su's benefit. She wasn't that successful however, and Su's natural energy and exuberance were tempered by Motoko's downbeat mood. Eventually, even Su found herself slipping into quiet reflection, and the reserved caravan continued to journey home. Finally, the long trip that none of the travellers would ever recall in much detail ended, and at the foot of the Hinata House steps, an old friend waited.
"Hello everyone!" called out Mutsumi.
'It figures…' "How are you Mutsumi?" replied Kitsune.
"I'm fine, how is everyone?" she asked, her beatific smile still in place.
Kitsune pondered how to reply to that for a few seconds before she said, "Things could be a lot better."
Mutsumi's smile lessened ever so slightly. "What do you mean? And where is Kei-kun?" she asked as she started looking around for him.
"Do you mind talking inside?" Kitsune inquired.
"No, not at all." Now her smile had returned to full strength.
"Then follow me." The group walked up the steps and entered Hinata House, removing their shoes as they entered. Once inside, Motoko and Naru excused themselves and walked away. Su and Sarah set off to explore more of the hidden passageways, and Shinobu went to the kitchen to start dinner. Now only Mutsumi and Kitsune were left in the living room.
"What's going on here?" asked Mutsumi, a puzzled expression on her face.
"I'll explain shortly, lemme go get us something to drink." With that Kitsune headed up to her room, and went to the closet. Reaching inside, she opened a box that had 'FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY' written on it, and pulled out a bottle of Booker's bourbon. Retrieving two glasses she went back downstairs and poured two stiff drinks. "Kampai!" she toasted and drank.
This bourbon was stronger than anything Kitsune usually drank, approximately 136 proof, and it made even her cough. She was slightly dismayed to notice that Mutsumi had knocked hers back as if it had been water. Once the burning had passed, Kitsune croaked out, "Alright, I'll tell you what's going on."
Kitsune then proceeded to explain everything that had happened since the last time Mutsumi had visited. Keitaro and Motoko's increasing closeness, Naru's return, the picnic, the war in the bath, Motoko's 'training trip', how they had followed them, the near eruption of violence, and Keitaro's imminent return. By this time the two of them were two thirds of the way into the bottle, and Kitsune was becoming worried that that the house would get damaged from all the spinning it was doing.
Mutsumi had listened to Kitsune's story with rapt attention and now she seemed to be just slightly off her normal self. For a few moments, Kitsune was certain she saw traces of sadness and regret on Mutsumi's features, but when she looked away for a second they were gone. 'Prolly never eben there.' At this point Kitsune was even slurring her thoughts. 'Musbe my maginashun,' she figured.
Mutsumi gathered her thoughts for a few moments, and considered what Kitsune had told her during the increasingly drunken valediction. Thinking about what she'd heard caused her to briefly remember her own attraction to Keitaro. This flash of memory caused her normal megawatt smile to dim slightly, but her own alcoholic flush made it difficult to notice unless one looked carefully. Forcing her expression to return to normal, she finally responded to what Kitsune had told her. "That's… unexpected. So what do you think Kitsune? You've seen what's occurred, who do you think Kei-kun will choose?"
Kitsune, her thought processes completely addled by now, hadn't noticed the subtle change in Mutsumi's expression and behavior. "I dunno," she mumbled. She then poured herself another drink with a shaking hand, knocked it back and proceeded to pass out sprawled on the sofa.
Mutsumi watched as Kitsune answered the bourbons' siren call and went unconscious. She got up, rolled Kitsune onto her stomach and picked up the bottle of bourbon. Not knowing what else to do with it, she tilted her head back and finished off the last of the dark amber liquor. She set the now empty bottle on the table, and with a steady stride that would have passed any field sobriety test, she set off in search of Naru.
Naru was currently trying to relax in the bath, but knowledge of what would happen in a couple of days prevented her from doing that. She was also trying to forget the kiss that Motoko had given Keitaro last night, and his reluctance to tell her why he'd stayed with Motoko. Her mental struggles were interrupted by a rush of bubbles on the surface of the water. 'Huh? Is that…?' Seconds later Mutsumi shot through the surface of the water, completely drenching Naru.
"Hello!" sang out Mutsumi.
'Why can't she just walk in like everyone else?' wondered Naru. She finally got over her surprise and said, "Hello Mutsumi."
Mutsumi walked over and sat down next to Naru. "I wanted to talk to you about Kei-kun," she announced without any preamble.
Naru closed her eyes and sighed. She really didn't want to talk about Keitaro now. "Mutsumi, I-"
Naru didn't get the chance to finish as Mutsumi interrupted her with, "I think you should tell him how you feel."
Naru sighed again and slumped even lower. "I did," she whispered.
"But, but I don't understand. Why hasn't Kei-kun chosen you then?" Mutsumi asked with a confused look on her face.
"Because he loves Motoko as well," Naru replied softly.
"Why do you think that? He's known you for a long time, you were childhood friends. He hasn't known Motoko that long, and everyone said that she used to hate him."
"Not anymore," Naru muttered darkly, recalling Motoko's attempt to seduce Keitaro in the bath, which had interrupted her own attempt. "She cares for him, and he practically admitted that he loved her." Naru let out a short, mirthless laugh. "They were sleeping in each others arms Mutsumi, how can I compete with that?"
Mutsumi's eyes widened slightly at that. This was a tidbit of information that Kitsune hadn't mentioned, but it was possible that she hadn't known. Naru looked like she was revealing a secret source of inner pain, and maybe she hadn't wanted to share it with anyone earlier. She pondered this new information for a moment before responding to Naru's revelation. "So, so Kei-kun and Motoko have slept together then?" She didn't have to specify that she didn't mean just 'sleep'.
Naru slumped down to the point that her chin was touching the surface of the water. "I, I don't know, but I guess not."
"Then why would them sleeping together matter?" Mutsumi asked. "After all, you, Kei-kun and I slept together that one time while studying, and nothing happened then, did it?"
Naru flushed at that memory, but she found herself nodding slowly in agreement. "That, that's true…, but…"
"And you two shared a room in Kyoto didn't you?"
Naru somehow managed to blush and blanch at the same time. "How, how did you…?"
"Tama-chan said you told him," Mutsumi replied with her same brilliant, and unreadable, smile in place. Naru decided that Mutsumi would be a formidable opponent at poker. "Did anything happen then?"
"No, NO! Nothing happened!" Naru responded quickly.
Mutsumi's smile became even broader. "Then who says that Kei-kun would sleep with Motoko?"
Naru was unable to respond to that. She had admitted to herself that Keitaro wasn't the pervert that she had accused him of being, that it was simply her jealousy over what she saw as him flirting with other girls. When she forced herself to logically consider what Mutsumi had said, without letting her emotions influence her decision, Naru found herself agreeing with what Mutsumi had been telling her. However, there was still doubt in her mind, and she gave voice to it. "He, he spent a great deal of time with Motoko," she said quietly.
Mutsumi paused for a second as she considered Naru's words, as well as what Kitsune had told her. "But why wouldn't Kei-kun pick you regardless?" asked Mutsumi.
"What do you mean?" Naru's tone was still pessimistic, but now the faintest glimmer of hope was in her eyes.
"You're his first love, right?" For a second, sadness flickered over Mutsumi's face and then vanished. "He knows how you feel for him, you've been through a lot together right?"
"That's true," Naru replied with a sense of cautious optimism
"Then why wouldn't Kei-kun choose you? He's probably trying to think of the best way to do it without hurting anyone's feelings."
This made sense to Naru. Keitaro always tried not to upset anyone, and would always put the feelings of others before his own. He didn't want to hurt Motoko, so he was figuring out a way to let her down easy. Mutsumi's theory made sense, and Naru latched onto it as though it would save her life. She was still a little uneasy, but she felt well enough now to smile for the first time that day. "You may be right," she told Mutsumi.
"I hope so," Mutsumi replied.
"So do I," answered Naru.
At this point the conversation turned to more mundane topics, and took on the appearance of two old friends catching up on current events. Naru was grateful to Mutsumi for helping to lift her spirits and reassure her that she had a very good chance of winning Keitaro.
Upon arriving home, Motoko had headed directly for her room and locked the door behind her. Where Naru had had Kitsune and Mutsumi to encourage her, Motoko was basically left to fend for herself. Su would be there for company of course, but it wasn't Su's company she wanted at night. She sighed to herself. 'It's only been a few hours and I already miss him.' She tried to force herself to not consider the possibility that she'd never be close to him again.
The room felt… empty without him. SHE felt empty without him. Despite her best efforts, she'd ended up thinking about the differences between her and Naru's relationship with Keitaro. She'd come to some of the same conclusions that Naru had, but unlike Naru, the conclusions filled her with a sense of dread.
Naru had so many things going for her that Motoko didn't; she was older, had some of the same interests as him, and they had worked together for over a year and had become close. Most telling of all, Naru was his first love, how could he not want to be with her?
Motoko had only been 'married' to him for a few months; even with their increased mutual attraction, he'd admitted that he still cared for Naru. She'd never be able to win him, never be able to be with him, never be able to make love to him.
Motoko's eyes widened and her cheeks went scarlet at that thought, but she would no longer deny that she wanted him. 'I, I never even told him I loved him,' she thought morosely. She'd implied it, of course, but she'd never actually said those three little words. Now it looked like she'd never be able to, for if, no, WHEN, Keitaro chose Naru, she'd bury all of her feelings and let him go. She'd train him hard, but at night it would be Naru who helped him relax, while she sat in her room alone.
Time lost all meaning as she sat there, thinking about a life without Keitaro, until Shinobu knocked on her door and told her dinner was ready. Motoko had no appetite, so she politely declined and stayed where she was. Besides, she didn't want to face Naru, for it would be easier to honour Keitaro's request not to fight with her by avoiding her.
It was too early for bed, but the oblivion of sleep appeared to be better than anything that the waking world could offer her now. She went to the washroom, brushed her teeth, and came back to the room. She changed into her nightshirt, laid down on her futon, and turned off the light. That's when Keitaro's absence finally hit home. She had grown so accustomed to the warmth and feel of him next to her that sleeping alone now felt cold and empty.
Suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of grief and loss, Motoko was unable to stop the tears from coming. She grabbed Keitaro's pillow and hugged it to herself, the faint smell of him lingering on it providing her little comfort. Never in her entire life had she felt so alone. It was made all the worse by the fact that now she knew what she had lost; before the marriage loneliness was familiar to her, almost welcome. Now it was the worst feeling that she had ever endured.
She fell asleep crying and murmuring his name. Her dreams were a kaleidoscope of tortuous images of Keitaro and Naru, the two of them smiling at each other, holding hands, laughing, and even kissing. The two of them were completely happy together, while she was forced to watch their joy from afar, her lonely, empty heart aching a little more with each scene. Mercifully, she awoke from her nightmare long before dawn. The redness in her eyes testimony of her crying in her sleep. Fear of seeing those images inspired her to get up and get dressed. She wasn't feeling at all tired, and she figured she could drive away the images away with the familiar rhythms of kendo.
Grasping her sword and bolting to the roof, she figured that she'd get in some early practice. But when she finally reached the roof after a frantic dash, she was once again reminded of Keitaro's absence. The only reason she'd started morning training was to take advantage of the extra time to train Keitaro, and she later came to secretly enjoy spending the early morning with him.
A sensation of great despair came over Motoko, and she slumped down against the railing and stared numbly into space. The sounds of night faded away, and left her in a world of her own. She relived the happier times she had spent with Keitaro, terrified beyond measure of losing them if she didn't try to remember them. Time lost all meaning for her, until the first rays of the sun began to peak up over the horizon. She flashed back to that first morning, and the words she had spoken to him over two months earlier. 'It's always darkest before the dawn.' With every fiber of her being and down to her very soul, Motoko hoped with all her heart that there was some truth to that saying.
For the next two days, Hinata House was the sight of an unusual game of avoidance. Motoko and Naru made a point of avoiding each other whenever possible. The two of them would not eat or bathe at the same time and if they encountered each other in the hallways, they'd both turn around. The lead to aborted conversations, as the avoidance would override everything else, including the rules of politeness.
To make an delicate situation even more volatile, Mutsumi moved into Motoko's old room, and her reasoning was that she was providing emotional support for Naru. She also provided a drinking partner for Kitsune, who had been hit with a multi-megaton hangover, and she had sworn off drinking, and had kept her vow all the way until lunch.
To Motoko, it seemed that everyone in Hinata House was either in Naru's corner supporting her, or at the very least figured that Keitaro would choose her when he came back. For her, each minute of each day was torture, and she had the strangest feeling of detachment from the situation. It made her feel like she was watching a movie where she knew something bad was going to happen, but she couldn't do anything to stop it.
Even sleep was no longer a blissful oblivion for Motoko, as the tortuous images continued to haunt her dreams. One nightmare in particular had had a very traumatic effect on her and shook her to her very core.
It had started out innocently, as bad dreams usually do. 'What, what's going on? Where am I?' Motoko couldn't see anything, it was like she was surrounded by dense fog. She seemed to in an auditorium of some kind, but she couldn't make out any details. Gradually it became clearer, and she was able to start hearing little snippets of conversation.
"Took them long enough, didn't it?"
"He looks so handsome in that tuxedo doesn't he?"
"I always cry at weddings."
"Don't those bridesmaids dresses look hideous?"
"Who designed them, Ray Charles?"
With a start Motoko realized that she was in a church, and it appeared that a wedding was about to occur. As everything became clear, she realized that Keitaro was standing at the altar, his friends Haitani and Shirai flanking him. Motoko found herself blushing as she discovered that he did look handsome in his tuxedo. 'He, he's looking at me!' Motoko realized. Joy blossomed in her heart as it dawned on her that he was waiting for his bride to join him. With a surge of bliss she started to walk down the aisle to join him in holy matrimony.
Or at least she tried to. She discovered that she couldn't move, it felt like her feet were set into concrete. She tried to call out to him, to say that she couldn't move, but she found that her voice didn't work. She looked down desperately to try to figure out why she couldn't move and was shocked at what she saw.
This wasn't a wedding dress. No sane or even insane bride would have called this abomination a wedding dress. It was… puke-green, with puffy shoulders, a slit leg, and far too much chiffon. No woman would have been caught dead in a dress like this, for even a corpse would re-animate itself enough to strip off the offending garment, rather than wear it for all eternity. Even dogs would be reluctant to relieve themselves on this abortion in satin.
'I'm a bridesmaid!' Motoko thought to herself in pure panic. 'Then who is Keitaro…' the thought trailed off as a sudden moment of clarity struck. When the wedding march started, Motoko found herself unwillingly looking behind her to see the bride, hoping against hope that this was a terrible mistake. Her hopes went unanswered, as she saw Naru standing behind her, resplendent in a white wedding dress. The look on Naru's face was partially concealed by the veil, but bliss was clearly visible, along with a shade of triumph.
As Naru walked by her, Motoko tried to lash out, scream, anything to disrupt the proceedings, but she found herself unable to move or speak, and no one seemed to notice her distress. When the minister asked for any objections, Motoko had been incapable of calling out. Unable to look away, or even close her eyes, she was forced to watch Keitaro and Naru declare their love for each other and seal it with a kiss. Finally the minister presented Mister and Misses Keitaro Urashima, and Motoko was finally able to speak, but her scream of "NO!" was drowned out by the cheers of the other guests.
Motoko bolted upright, sweating and breathing heavily, all thoughts of sleep driven away. Tears then flowed without hesitation, as she believed that this had been no mere dream, but a premonition of some sort. Dreams like this made Motoko feel a little like a man on death row, she knew what was coming and dreaded it, but at the same time wishing that it would just happen so it would be over and done with.
Once it was over she'd be able to move on with her life, but right now she was in a sort of limbo that was driving her absolutely insane. And so she reacted with equal parts dread and relief on the third day when she heard Su's exuberant voice sing out, "Hey everybody, Keitaro's back!"
As Keitaro Urashima slowly walked up the stairs toward Hinata House, his pace slowed by trepidation of what was likely to happen, he reflected on the couple of days he had spent alone at the cabin. The days had been full of soul searching, reminiscing, reflection, and pondering the future. To an outsider, having to choose between two beautiful, wonderful women might have appeared to be a joy, but to him it had been three days of utter hell.
It had been a long, difficult process trying to figure out what he heart was telling him, but he had finally come to a decision. It had been a close choice, closer than anyone might have realized, but his mind was made up. He was going to walk in there and tell the woman he was in love with that he wanted to be with her, and take back some control over his life. The violence and jealousy were going to end today and he was going to make sure that nobody came between him and his beloved again.
So why did he have a powerful urge to go back to the cabin and contemplate the matter for a little longer? Say, thirty years?
'Oh, that's right. The one I don't choose will probably hate me,' he chuckled to himself without humour. He heard Su's voice announce his return, and that meant that he was committed now, no turning back. Not that he would have anyway, but now it was absolutely not an option. Willing his pace to increase slightly, he made his way down the path towards the main entrance. He entered, put down his backpack, took off his shoes and walked into the rapidly filling living room. He noticed, to his slight surprise, that in addition to the Hinata House regulars, Haruka and Mutsumi were there as well, greeting him and welcoming him back.
'So much for privacy,' he thought miserably. "Hello everyone."
There was a collection of greetings called out to him in response, but through it all there was a sense of tension and nervousness. The largest sources were, naturally, Naru and Motoko. Naru looked like she was having trouble staying still while Motoko had a nervous air about her. Keitaro felt another stab of guilt and shame for letting things get like this and it stiffened his resolve to act.
"It's, it's good to see you all again," he said quietly. "I hope everything's been O.K. while I've been gone."
"We're O.K.," replied Kitsune off-handedly.
"That's good," responded Keitaro. He discovered that he couldn't bring himself to look either Motoko or Naru in the eyes, as he was afraid that what he might see there would strip away his nerve. He did notice that everyone was giving him an almost expectant look. They wanted him to voice his decision, but they didn't want to ask him to do it. 'No time like the present,' he thought without any enthusiasm.
"I, I've decided what I want to do," Keitaro said as he continued to look at the floor. "I've realized what I truly want, and what I need to do." He finally looked up at everyone and took a deep breath to steady his nerves before continuing. Once he'd successfully lowered his heart rate to about 160 beats per minute, he began to walk towards Naru and Motoko.
In unison, the two women stood up slowly, each of them both anticipating and dreading this moment. They both happened to glance over at the other, and they saw that they were both wearing nearly identical expressions.
Keitaro stopped before the two women, his face not betraying any of the nervousness that he was experiencing. He took a moment to briefly look both of them in the eyes.
Then he stepped toward Motoko.
He took her hand in his.
Went down on one knee.
And made his decision known.
"Motoko, we were given no choice when Tsuruko 'married' us, but now I'm doing this freely. Will you stay with me for the rest of my life?"
Motoko and Naru both stood there in shock, both of them not believing what was happening. Motoko reacted first. "Yes…," she replied weakly, before she found the strength to agree more enthusiastically. "Yes! YES! I'll stay with you Keitaro!" she cried out as she kneeled down and embraced him, a gesture he returned.
Naru just stood there, feeling the world start to spin around her. She momentarily staggered before she regained her footing. She felt numb. She wanted to get angry and lash out at Keitaro and his reaffirmed bride, but she found herself unable to work up any emotions, like they had been amputated.
Naru was wearing a blank emotionless mask. Then she blinked once, twice, three times. Tears started to well up in her eyes and the look of someone who has had their very soul ripped out washed over her face. With tears unabashedly flowing down her cheeks, Naru turned on her heel and ran for her room.
"Aw Christ!" raged Kitsune. 'Why'd it have to be like this?!' She got up from the sofa, planning to chase after Naru. She glanced at Keitaro, fully intending to tear his head off later. But in spite of how bad he'd made Naru feel, she found herself feeling a little sorry for him. 'You're going to have to live with this, aren't you. Maybe that's enough punishment.' With that thought she went running after Naru, concern for her pushing all other thoughts out of her head.
As Keitaro held Motoko, who was openly crying tears of joy, he felt a sense of peace and serenity come over him. It was though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and in many ways it had. The ordeal of having to choose between two women he loved had been unbearable, and now that he held the woman he had decided he wanted to be with, all seemed right with the world.
There was only one thing marring his current feeling of happiness. The anguish that Naru was undergoing made him feel terrible. Keitaro was deeply in love with Motoko, and he absolutely wanted to be with her, but he was still human, and the sadness that now gripped Naru would have elicited tears from a stone. He even briefly considered trying to comfort her, but he knew that he belonged with Motoko, and that Kitsune could do a better job of comforting Naru then he could anyway.
Gently disengaging himself from Motoko's embrace, Keitaro walked over to Haruka and with his head down asked, "Aunt Haruka, would you mind looking after Hinata House for awhile?"
Haruka had been expecting something like this but still asked "Why?"
"I, I think it would be best if Motoko and I left for awhile. It's going to be uncomfortable to have everyone here right now." Keitaro looked up and saw understanding in Haruka's eyes, with the tiniest hint of disapproval as well. The disapproval in her eyes was far more evident in the eyes of the others in the living room. He took some comfort from the fact that Motoko was softly nodding in agreement with his idea.
Haruka also figured that it would be for the greater good if Keitaro and Motoko left for a while. With them gone, perhaps Naru could start the healing process more effectively. Besides, after what the two of them had been through, they probably needed some quiet time together. "Will you two be coming back?" she asked.
"Yes, I just don't know when," Keitaro replied. He then walked over to Motoko, took her hand and the two of them went upstairs to their room to pack.
Haruka stood where she was, idly noticing the departure of the other residents from the living room. The house felt 'wrong' to her somehow, as if it's life-force or energy had been drastically altered, and perhaps it had. She wasn't too concerned about it though, as she was certain that with time it would return to its original health. She just hoped that its residents were as resilient as it was.
Kitsune had known Naru for many years and had seen her when she was upset before, but she had never seen her as heartbroken as she was at the moment. There had been nothing that she could say to her, so she had just been a shoulder for Naru to cry on. Naru had been crying for over five minutes without stopping, her tears forming damp spots on the shirt Kitsune was wearing. Kitsune wanted to say that things would get better, that she'd be alright, but she knew that those words would sound hollow to Naru. They even sounded hollow to her.
Naru was in her own private hell, facing the reality of having lost Keitaro again. The first time she had lost him, it had taken weeks for her to get herself composed enough to face him again. But this time was much, much worse. Keitaro hadn't been forced to marry Motoko this time, he had chosen her. The conflict between Motoko and her might have forced him to act, but he had still chosen Motoko over her.
It was more painful then the situation with Seta had been, because deep down she knew that she had been too young for him. She had believed that she and Keitaro were meant to be together, and having him choose to be with another had cut her to the very core. Keitaro was gone, and this time there would be no second chances. He'd said it himself, he was in love with Motoko. She wasn't sure she could face either of them again, or if she could forgive Motoko.
Kitsune listened as Naru's sobs finally began to ebb away. She continued to hold Naru and stroke her hair; eventually Naru stopped crying, and the only sound in the room was Naru's shuddering breath.
"Why?" Naru whispered faintly.
Kitsune sighed and tried to think of what she could say to answer Naru. The first thought that came to her was that Naru shouldn't have run away. If she'd stayed, Keitaro would have stayed closer to her. She didn't say this, as Naru was already feeling bad and didn't need to have salt rubbed in her wounds. In the end Kitsune said nothing, figuring that Naru needed to vent more than she needed to talk.
"What am I going to do now?" moaned Naru. "I have to let him go again." Naru felt another wave of tears well up inside her, but she tried to hold them back, and tried to be strong. She didn't completely succeed.
Kitsune thought back on everything that had lead up to this situation and tried to figure out what would happen now, and how things were going to change. Still unable to answer Naru's questions, she simply continued to try to comfort her. 'Never thought I'd need to do this. I figured Motoko would be the one needing support.' She regretted not being able to do more to keep Keitaro interested in Naru during her absence, but she honestly didn't know what else she could have done.
Looking over Kitsune's shoulder out the window, Naru saw Keitaro and Motoko walking down the stairs, carrying a pair of backpacks. It appeared that the two of them would be leaving Hinata House for a time and she was glad for that. Now she wouldn't have to face them, or act civil towards them, and she'd be able to begin the healing process.
But at the same time it was the final nail in the coffin of their relationship and she was still heartbroken over that. The sight of the two of them leaving confirmed their commitment to each other and the fact that she'd lost him to Motoko. Unbidden, an English expression she had learned while studying came to her. 'It is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.'
After packing up what they would need for an extended trip away from Hinata House, Keitaro and Motoko said their goodbyes to some of the residents and asked Haruka to pass on them on to Naru and Kitsune. Not having any other place to go, they decided to go back to the cabin, as it was available, and with Su's improvements it would be comfortable enough for an extended stay. Few words had been spoken since Keitaro had made his choice, as the two of them were too emotionally drained to speak, and the prospect of leaving Hinata House was proving to be a barrier to conversation.
Motoko was also having some mixed feelings. She was happy that she hadn't lost Keitaro, but she was also feeling sympathy for what Naru was going through. She understood the anguish that Naru had to be feeling, as it could have just as easily been her that was passed over.
When they finally reached the cabin, Keitaro opened the cabin and found that everything was just as he had left it. It wasn't much of a first home for him and Motoko, but it would have to do. He looked up and saw Motoko giving him the soft smile that he was beginning to love seeing and he tried to return it, but he found that his heart wasn't in it.
"Are you alright Kei-kun?" Motoko asked him.
"Not entirely Moto… Mo-chan," Keitaro replied.
Motoko had a good idea what was bothering him but still asked, "So what's wrong?"
"I never wanted anyone to get hurt," he whispered. "I never wanted anyone to get hurt because of me."
"Do you think that there was anything you could have done to stop it?" she softly inquired.
Keitaro didn't respond for a couple of moments, but he finally said, "No." He took a shuddering breath and continued. "Doesn't make it any easier though." He walked over to his sleeping bag, sat down on it and placed his head in his hands.
Motoko sat down next to him, took him in her arms and let him cry on her shoulder. He didn't wail uncontrollably, he sobbed quietly, taking comfort in his wife's arms, as he tried to get past his feelings of sadness. When the sobs started to die down, Motoko asked him, "Will you be okay?"
Keitaro took a deep breath and replied, "Yes, just, just not now. Motoko, could you hold me for a while? Please?"
She didn't answer, she layed down and pulled him close to her, stroking his hair and whispering softly in his ear. They stayed like that until it was time for bed. They both got undressed, cleaned up and then they both got into Keitaro's sleeping bag. By unspoken agreement, nothing happened between the two of them except for a quick goodnight kiss, and Motoko held Keitaro all through the night.
The next morning they both got up early and resumed their training regimen, mostly so that they would have something to do together. After they finished training, Keitaro just brooded for a while, while Motoko went for a walk. They did talk, but it was mostly about innocuous topics, as neither wanted to discuss relationships at the moment. Keitaro was able to smile at Motoko without feeling sadness, but there was still tension between the two that thwarted any deeper conversations.
Finally Motoko decided it was time for them to talk. After dinner, when she had come back from another walk and Keitaro was still brooding, she down next to him and asked him, "Are you feeling better Kei-kun?"
"A little," he replied.
"May I ask you a question?" she inquired.
"Go ahead," he replied.
"Why did you choose me?" she asked softly.
Keitaro closed his eyes and sighed. "I decided after a lot of thinking."
"I thought about everything that's happened since I came to Hinata House, both good and bad." He turned and looked at his wife, an embarrassed smile on his face. "I didn't exactly have the best first impression, did I?" he asked.
A thin smile graced Motoko features. "That's putting it mildly," she said dryly.
"I thought about everything that happened between Naru and I as well as between you and I," Keitaro continued. "The successes, the setbacks, problems, everything. I came to realize that I had developed feelings for the both of you."
"I, I suspected that," Motoko replied softly.
"I, I came to the realization that I love Naru. Completely, with all of my heart. I always have and I think that I always will."
"Then, then why…" began Motoko before Keitaro interrupted her.
"Because loving someone isn't the same as being in love with someone."
Motoko's expression became confused and she stammered, "I, I don't understand…"
"It, it happened during the training, sort of. Do you remember that night on the roof?" Keitaro didn't have to explain exactly which night he meant.
"Yes. I don't think I'll ever forget that night," Motoko replied quietly.
"Me neither. I've never seen anyone so low as you were that night. I guess I made a promise to never let you get that low again. I did everything I could to keep your spirits up, especially in the training." Keitaro paused in his monologue at this point, and a distant look came over his face as he recalled what had happened two months ago.
After shaking his head slightly to focus on what was currently happening, Keitaro continued talking. "When you were training me, you were so alive, and it was beautiful to see after that night. As I was learning to fight, I was also learning to love seeing you like that, and I eventually fell in love with you Motoko. That's what lead to my decision. While I'll always care for Naru, I'm in love with you. You're the only woman I ever want to be with, and I never want to lose you."
Motoko got up and turned away because she didn't want Keitaro to see the tears in her eyes. She wiped them away and turned to face him. Keitaro had gotten up as well and was reaching for her when she said, "I love you Keitaro. I wish I'd told you earlier, and I've got a lot of time to make up for."
Keitaro was about to take her in his arms and embrace her when…
Years later, when Keitaro and Motoko were asked what exactly had been the deciding factor in making the marriage official in every sense of the word, they blushed. Then they both got similar smiles, a far off look in their eyes, and they both replied, "An earthquake."
At that moment an earthquake struck. It wasn't a large one, only 3.8 on the Richter Scale. Enough to rattle windows, scare tourists, and generally cause a brief surge of panic. It also had the effect of causing Keitaro and Motoko to lose their footing and fall back onto Keitaro's sleeping bag. When the tremor stopped and the two of them got their nerves under control, they realized that they had fallen on top of each other. With a sense of déjà vu, Keitaro looked up and saw Motoko's face just inches from his own.
The world seemed to vanish around them, until only the tiny cabin remained, the soft hum of the power source filling the silence, the surprisingly gentle artificial lighting casting soft shadows on the young couple. Despite the fact that it was rather late in the evening, the temperature in the cabin seemed to rise slightly, and Motoko and Keitaro found themselves breathing slightly harder then they would have done normally.
This time, when his hand reached up to caress her cheek, he was in full control of its actions. With that one gesture, all of the nervous tension between them disappeared, and other intense feelings came roaring to the surface. Motoko acted first, leaning down and kissing Keitaro deeply, causing him to freeze for a moment. Then he snapped out of it and returned the kiss, wrapping his arms around her, pulling her close and meeting her tongue with his own.
Motoko shifted slightly, positioned herself so she was straddling Keitaro's waist, and slowly started rubbing herself against him. Keitaro's body took immediate notice of the contact and one part went rigid, causing him discomfort at its confinement. Motoko felt his hardness against her and instead of feeling awkward, she was emboldened by it.
She broke the kiss and started gently kissing him in the neck, just under his ears. As she heard his breathing go ragged, she stopped briefly and whispered into his ear. "Kei-kun," she said huskily, "you know that little nagging voice?" Before he could respond she continued, "It's not saying a word."
With his mind currently considering other things, it took a few moments for what Motoko was saying to register with Keitaro. When it did he blushed heavily, and he attempted to say "Me too," in a confident and assured voice. What came out was a high pitched squeak that almost brought Motoko to giggles.
Motoko was becoming very aroused, but she was still in a slightly playful mood. When she managed to successfully fight off the giggles, she reached up and removed Keitaro's glasses. Out of curiosity she tried them on and discovered that they put everything slightly out of focus. In her best attempt at impersonating his voice, which wasn't very good, she cried out, "Augh! Motoko, I'm sorry, please don't hit me!" She then broke out in laughter, quickly joined by Keitaro, who had also thought it was funny. She then carefully placed the glasses to the side and resumed kissing Keitaro.
Keitaro was now extremely aroused, and he wanted Motoko, he longed for her. However, he was also a twenty two year old virgin. He knew what he was supposed to do, sort of, but he was uncertain of what was appropriate. He figured that the male banter he had overheard was probably not the best source of information, so he tried to play it by ear and keep his nervousness in check.
They were both nervous, but young love is all about discovery, as the two of them found out that evening. Despite some problems, it all ended well for the two of them.
About ten minutes after they finished, the two of them finally decided that they needed to move and Keitaro carefully rolled off Motoko and lay next to her. He then pulled her into a tight embrace and kissed her. "I, I guess that makes it official."
"Motoko Urashima," Motoko replied. "I could learn to like that name."
Hearing Motoko say that reminded Keitaro of another decision he had made while walking back to Hinata House. "No, Keitaro Aoyama."
Motoko gasped in disbelief. "You, you'd take my name?"
"I'd be honoured to, if you let me," Keitaro replied softly.
Motoko just held him in response, tears of joy running down her face.
After a few minutes, Keitaro attempted to apologize for his perceived failure. "I'm sorry for what happened earlier Motoko."
"Don't be. It was just first time jitters," she replied. That strange gleam came over her eyes again, one that wouldn't have looked out of place on Tsuruko. "Besides, we have plenty of time to practice."
Keitaro felt a grin come over his features. "A lifetimes worth."
They kissed one last time and then Motoko snuggled into his embrace, fatigue starting to claim her. Keitaro was also starting to feel tired, and figured that sleep was exactly what he needed. As he started to doze off, he recalled the look in Motoko's eyes. Fire was back in her eyes, and it was a joyous sight for him to see. He wasn't sure what was going to happen now, or where they would go from here, but he would do anything to stay at her side.
Motoko's last thoughts before she feel asleep were, oddly enough, on the loss that had started her on the path she was on now. When it had happened, she had felt as though she had lost everything and had no worth. But through their struggles, her eventual love for Keitaro, and his love for her, she had finally found what she been seeking.
The two of them faced an uncertain future, but they would face it the same way they would face everything from now on.
Back at Hinata House life, as it always does, went on.
The departure of Keitaro and Motoko had upset the harmony of the entire household. For the next couple of days the house had a deathly pall over it, as each of the residents was forced to consider what Keitaro had meant to them now that he was gone. Naru was the most affected by his departure, and she had retreated to her room, not even coming out to eat or bathe. Eventually, through the combined efforts of Kitsune, Shinobu and Mutsumi, she started to slowly climb out of the pit of her depression. She was still heartbroken, but she was no longer isolating herself from the people that cared for her.
To help Naru with her depression, Mutsumi moved in full time into Motoko's old room. After unpacking all of her things, about two dozen watermelons, she and Kitsune dragged Naru into the bath and had a pleasant chat about nothing, allowing Naru to talk without opening not so old wounds.
Naru started acting a little more like her old self after two weeks of living with Mutsumi. She would sometimes get a distant look in her eyes, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what, or rather who, she was thinking of. But as a couple of weeks went by, she got those looks less and less often. The passage of time was partly responsible for this, but there was another thing that influenced this; Shinobu.
One day Naru entered the bath and found Shinobu already there, with a wistful look on her face. Naru was familiar with that look, as she had been wearing it herself many times in the past few weeks. Remembering Shinobu's feelings for Keitaro, and realizing that maybe they had something in common, lead her to have a talk with Shinobu about him.
At first Shinobu had stammered a denial about her feelings for Keitaro, but the look Naru was giving her told her that she wasn't buying it. So Shinobu told Naru about her feelings for him, when they had started, what she had done, and when they had ended. Or rather, when she had realized that she'd had no chance. She even admitted, in a voice thick with shame, how she had hoped to win him when it appeared that neither Naru nor Motoko was interested in him.
Naru listened in rapt attention, and was a little surprised when Shinobu revealed her aborted attempt to win Keitaro's heart. She wasn't upset with her though, and she secretly admired the younger girls nerve. 'If I had had nerve like that, maybe I wouldn't have lost him.' Since the younger girl had opened her heart to her, Naru felt it was only fair to do the same. She talked about Keitaro with Shinobu, talked about what they had done, how their relationship had progressed, and how little misunderstandings had eventually helped destroy it. They both felt better afterwards, and they decided that talking about Keitaro wasn't so bad after all.
Months went by, and everyone was getting used to a life without Keitaro. Everyone was happy again, even Naru and Shinobu, and the stench of depression had long since been blown away. But one day, an unexpected visitor arrived that knocked everyone off of their pins.
Kitsune had been lounging in the living room, drinking beer and watching the ponies on TV when she looked up and saw a figure standing in the doorway. The long black hair, hakama and gi, and sword caused her to jump in surprise and blurt out "Motoko?!" before she noticed the crane on her shoulder. 'My mistake,' she thought. "Hello Tsuruko."
"Hello Kitsune," replied Tsuruko with a pleasant smile. "May I come in?"
"Sure, come in. Hey everybody, we've got company!" Kitsune called out.
All of the residents, as well as Haruka, came to the living room. To say that it was a surprise didn't do justice to the emotion.
Upon seeing Tsuruko, Naru felt a flash of rage flare up, as she blamed Tsuruko for what had happened between Keitaro and Motoko. She wasn't that upset at Keitaro anymore, as she had let him get away. She'd even buried some of her bad feelings for Motoko, as she had just been following her heart, and she could relate to that.
But Tsuruko had been the one that had started the whole process. She did her best to keep her anger in check, as it would have been rude to make a scene. Besides, beneath the pleasant exterior, Tsuruko was walking death, and upsetting her could result in your lifespan being measurable in seconds.
Tsuruko was her usual charming self, giving gifts to all of the residents. She even had ones for Mutsumi and Haruka, even though she shouldn't have even known they were there. Su and Sarah quickly devoured the candy that had been their gift and started bouncing off the walls like superballs that had been fired out of a howitzer.
As they all drank tea in the dining room, Kitsune asked the question that was on everybody's mind: "What exactly are you doing here?"
"I came to visit my sister and Keitaro," she replied as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"I hate to disappoint you, but they're not here. They haven't been here for almost ten months," Kitsune said.
"So what happened?" Tsuruko asked casually.
Kitsune sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose before continuing. "They, they fell in love and ran away together. We don't know when or if they'll be back." Kitsune couldn't help but notice the slightly pained look that fell over Naru's face.
"I see," replied Tsuruko without much concern.
"Sorry, it looks like you made a trip for nothing-" Kitsune was interrupted as a knocking came from the front door. As Haruka got up to answer the door, Kitsune's thought process seized. "No, it couldn't be…"
As Haruka lead them into the living room, the residents of Hinata House got their first look at Keitaro and Motoko in nearly a year.
Motoko's appearance hadn't changed much, except her hair was now longer. But she moved with pride in her step and a smile in her eyes. She was radiant, she practically glowed she was so happy looking. Everyone had trouble reconciling this image of Motoko with the sombre swordswoman they had all known.
Keitaro on the other hand…
'Damn,' thought Kitsune, 'he's changed a little, hasn't he?'
Keitaro's hairstyle was a little shorter than it was when he'd been the landlord of Hinata House, and its lighter colour, as well as his tan, was testament to a lot of time spent outdoors. He was now wiry, with well-tone muscles on his arms that the kendo outfit he was wearing did a good job of showing off. He had also gotten rid of his glasses, and his facial features had a more chiselled look to them, with the curves of his face having been replaced by angles.
"Hello sister," said Motoko in greeting.
"Hello Motoko," she replied. "Hello Urashima."
"That's Aoyama," Keitaro corrected. Tsuruko raised an eyebrow at that, and an amused expression came over her face.
'Would he have changed it to 'Narusegawa'?' Naru found herself wondering, before she broke off that thought, once again attempting to move on.
While Keitaro wouldn't trade the time he'd spent with Motoko for anything, he had missed seeing everyone. He then took notice of the residents and his smile faltered slightly. He and Motoko had not left Hinata House on the best of terms, and he hoped that there were no lingering bad feelings. Returning his smile to its previous level, he greeted the residents. "Hello Shinobu, Su, Sarah, it's good to see you all again. Hello Mutsumi, Kitsune, Naru…" The last name had been spoken in a slightly subdued tone.
Naru took a deep breath, put on a half smile, and replied, "It's good to see you again Keitaro, and you too Motoko." Her tone wasn't quite as chilly as it would have once been. She realized that she was coming to terms with what had happened, but it would be a while yet before everything was fine between the three of them.
"You look… good, Sempai," Shinobu said, a familiar blush in place.
"Thank you. We've missed all of you," Keitaro replied.
"Welcome back, Kei-kun," called out Mutsumi.
"Thanks. Were you visiting?" Keitaro asked.
"She lives here now," Kitsune replied.
"Really? That's, that's nice," responded Motoko. She was feeling a little uneasy; the return hadn't been completely warm so far. She'd been most worried about Naru, but while she'd seemed civil to the both of them, Motoko suspected that there was still anger festering underneath the surface.
At this point Su and Sarah, still hopped up on a sugar rush, both gave Keitaro a flying kick in the way of greeting. "Heyas Keitaro! Didya miss me?" cried out Su.
"Yeah, welcome back dork!" added Sarah.
As Keitaro got back to his feet with Motoko's help, he rubbed his face, smiled, and replied, "Believe it or not, I've even missed that."
"Well, it's… good… to finally see you two again," said Kitsune in a tone that indicated that she, like Naru, wasn't completely ready to forgive yet.
"So how have you been?" asked Tsuruko, re-entering the conversation once all of the greetings were complete.
"Wonderful, we've been travelling and training all over. We've also visited with my family."
"Oh really?" replied Kitsune. "So what do they think of your bride?"
Wishing that Kitsune sounded more like her old self, but understanding why she wasn't, Keitaro responded with, "They were shocked at first. They didn't know what to think. But, once they saw that we loved each other, they were happy."
Motoko's smile grew slightly at this comment.
"Everyone was happy?" asked Haruka.
"I think so, we met everyone but my sister."
"Sempai, you have a sister?" inquired Shinobu.
"Yes, an adopted little sister, Kanako. Haven't seen her in years though."
"So. You've been happy then," Naru stated quietly.
"It's been great, but mostly because of the company," with that he turned and gave Motoko a peck on the cheek. This caused her to smile, but also resulted in Naru's eyes narrowing slightly.
"Oh yes, I almost forgot. Happy Anniversary you two," congratulated Tsuruko.
Keitaro and Motoko both blinked in surprise, and Motoko turned to Keitaro and said, "She's right, we have been married for a year."
Tsuruko frowned a little. "You forgot Keitaro? I'm a little disappointed. I trust you aren't forgetting your husbandly duties?"
"Husbandly duties?" a confused Keitaro repeated.
"Do you keep Motoko 'happy'?" she asked with a smirk.
It took a second for the meaning of that comment to sink in, but when it did everybody with the exception of Su and Sarah blushed. Even Mutsumi appeared to be a little rattled. Everyone was starting to recompose themselves when Motoko replied with a similar smirk, "Of course he does." The collective face fault caused a few pictures to fall of the walls.
"Thank you SO MUCH for sharing that!" shrieked Kitsune from the floor. She then got up and went for a bottle of sake and poured herself a cup. When she looked up she saw that all of the residents were holding a cup out, wanting it to be filled. Kitsune looked at them and then retrieved half a dozen bottles.
After taking a sip of sake, Shinobu asked, "Sempai, why did you come back?"
"It's time for the duel, isn't it?" he replied, looking at Tsuruko.
A pleased look came over her face. "Yes it is. So your memory isn't all bad. Motoko, is he ready?"
"I have trained him as best as I could, but don't believe it matters," she answered.
"Please explain," said Tsuruko.
"Originally you said that if Keitaro impressed you, I'd be reinstated and the marriage would be annulled. Well, I don't want the marriage ended. We're happy together, and if you made me choose between the sword or Keitaro, I would choose him." She punctuated her words by embracing Keitaro and resting her head on his shoulder.
"I see," Tsuruko replied. A satisfied look appeared on her face and she remarked, "That's about what I figured would happen."
The entire assembled group, with the exception of Motoko, blinked twice. "You mean you planned this?" snarled Naru. She looked like she was ready to charge Tsuruko barehanded, sword be damned.
"Yes," Tsuruko replied matter of factly. "I did it for Motoko's benefit, as I felt that she needed a husband, and I believed that Keitaro was a good choice. Since he was willing to pretend to be involved with Motoko, I gave him the chance to do it for real." Tsuruko then looked at Motoko. "I never had any intention of permanently exiling you. As long as he didn't hold the sword by the wrong end, I would have been sufficiently impressed."
Keitaro felt his face twitch. He'd been had. Tsuruko had played him like a fiddle, utterly manipulated him. He felt a strong urge to draw his sword and take a swipe at Tsuruko, never mind the danger, when Motoko touched his arm. He whirled on her… and stopped. What had Tsuruko done? He was in love with Motoko, and he had no intention of ever leaving her. He now had a quiet confidence that was visible to all, and he was in the best shape of his life.
But most importantly, he was happy. For the first time in his life he felt alive, not just surviving, but truly alive. He knew this was due to the love he shared with Motoko, and being with her.
Tsuruko had manipulated him, but he wasn't upset with how her scheming had played out. Yes, he had been played like a fiddle, but in the hands of an expert player, a fiddle could make music to lift the soul. So Keitaro swallowed his outrage and accepted what life, or more accurately Tsuruko, had dealt him.
Letting out a breath and releasing the handle of his sword, Keitaro bowed to Tsuruko and told her, "Well played."
"Do you now understand the message I gave you?" Tsuruko asked.
He thought back to the letter she had given him almost a year ago. 'Once you have finished you may find that you have found something very precious. Something that you didn't even know you were looking for.' "Yes I do. And yes, I did find it." He then put his arm around his wife's waist.
Naru felt another flash of anger as she realized the full meaning of what Tsuruko had done. It hadn't been random chance, Tsuruko had conspired to match up Keitaro and Motoko, and it had worked fabulously. There was nothing that she could do; it was a done deal. Not so strangely, the strongest feeling she had was a sudden wish to fight Tsuruko when she didn't have a sword with her.
Not suspecting, or perhaps just not caring what Naru was thinking, Tsuruko smiled widely. "Excellent. Let's have no more talk of duels, it's time to celebrate." She produced a bottle of chilled champagne and enough glasses for everyone. She filled them and passed them around to everyone, and then called for a toast. "To the Aoyamas, Keitaro and Motoko." Everyone then took a sip, although Naru felt that the champagne had a bitter taste to it.
'Where the hell did that bottle and glasses come from?' wondered Keitaro as he took a sip.
At this point Haruka noticed that while Motoko had raised her glass in the toast, she didn't drink the champagne. "Don't you like champagne?" Haruka asked her.
"Yes I do, but I don't believe that I should drink," Motoko replied.
"Why?" asked Kitsune. The idea of not drinking was alien to her, and after Naru had been so hurt by Motoko's actions, she didn't care about putting her on the spot.
Motoko hesitated. This wasn't how she had planned it, but now seemed to be the best time. She felt Keitaro give her hand a gentle squeeze, and turned to see him nodding that it was okay. Taking strength and courage from that, Motoko took a deep breath and answered Kitsune's question.
End of "Loss and Redemption"
Author's End Notes:
Yes, that's it. Now some of you are probably wondering why I ended this here. Quite honestly, this is how I intended it to end from the very start. The love triangle is gone, Keitaro and Motoko are happy together and parents to be, and Motoko was even reinstated into the Shinmei School. When I began, I had no plans to go any farther, but now…
I have found myself wondering if I should take the story further. I may yet end up creating a sequel, but it won't be for a while. I have some other stories that I have come up with that I want to work on first. I can only work on one at a time, and these other ideas are next in line. I believe that my next project will be either an Evangelion/Hina story, or a straight Evangelion story, but you never know. I don't have a title or release date yet, but keep checking my author page for details. If anyone would like a chance to pre-read any future works, please, let me know.
If you decide to read the lemon version of this chapter, please feel free to leave feedback here, where it is posted, or you can e-mail me directly.
I wish to extend my greatest thanks to Harvey Bautista, who did a magnificent job of pre-reading. Without him, this story would look quite different, in a bad way, from the way it does now. Thank You.
I also wish to thank everyone who read this story and left feedback, both positive and negative. Hearing from people who read the story gave me increased motivation to write more. You made this first time writing experience quite enjoyable, even though it wasn't always easy.
Once again I would like to invite all readers to tell me what about this story they have found interesting, confusing, enjoyable, or disagreeable. Feel free to email me your response, or post it in the feedback section.
I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed my efforts, and I hope to have more of my work posted in the future.
Thank You All!
P.S. QUICK EDIT BLOWS!