Chapter 13: A Choice between Heaven and Earth

Understandably, Keitaro was a mite surprised at the news of his demise. So too, seemed the other two people at that table, in particular the female who gave the messenger a swift elbow into the ribcage. "Don't mess with him Koushiro, tell him the whole story!"

"Gesh, okay! Damn Haruna I'm sorry! I thought I was telling him the truth!" Koushiro guarded himself from another swat of Haruna's hand. "Okay, alright!... Sorry kid, what I meant to say is that you're sort of on the periphery of life and death if that makes any sense... You're not dead as a doornail per say, but you do have a little more than just a foot in the grave."

"What my nimrod husband is trying to say is that you're caught in the middle of life and death. Your soul is still clinging to your body back in the living world, yet still you're dead enough that your consciousness has slipped into this world... That's why you're sittin' here talking to the three of us right now. And from the looks of ya, you seem pretty solid, which means you're a lot closer to croakin' than I originally thought. You understand anything I'm sayin'?"

"No, not really... To be honest, this would've made a lot more sense to me if you'd just come out and told me I was dead!... I was expecting as much..." Keitaro sighed and hung his head before suddenly remembering the girls back in the bath. "Wait! Naru and the others were here too?! Does that mean they died too?!"

"No, not at all... Sit down and get a grip on yourself..." Keitaro complied as Haruna stuck a toothpick in her mouth. "Those girls you saw weren't your friends per say... In the physical sense at least. They were impressions, or what you could call a spectral clone of your friends, created using your fonder memories of them. They're not the real thing, but as close as you get."

"Spectral images... They sure didn't feel like ghosts to me..." Keitaro turned bright red, as he recalled the various body parts rubbing up against his. "Hold on, why would there even be ghosts of Naru and the other's here? Where am I?"

"You haven't figured that out yet?" The big man laughed. "This is heaven boy, or at least your personal version of it."

Haruna explained further, Keitaro hanging on every word. "When someone dies, and God deems them worthy, they're rewarded with their own personal piece of heaven. Which in most cases, they're simply sent back to the time of their life when they were the happiest. For you, that time was obviously here in Hinata with Naru and the rest of your friends."

"Heaven..." Keitaro said, more so to himself, almost forgetting he wasn't at that table alone. He wasn't overly shocked by what he was hearing, nowhere near as much as he should be. In all honesty, with all the crap he had to put up with on a day to day basis, very little surprised him anymore. Even something as bizarre as what he was experiencing, and yet there he sat feeling almost numb to it. He never really believed in an afterlife... The whole concept of life after death seemed somewhat pointless to him. Then again, he never imagined being dead would feel no different from how it felt while he was alive. Then again, maybe that had something to do with the fact that he wasn't officially dead just yet.

"You okay kid?" Koushiro asked Keitaro as he stared off into space. Eye contact was required to snap Keitaro back into reality.

"I'm sorry, I'm not acting at all like somebody who just found out his dead, am I?" Keitaro laughed. "Guess I'd already made my piece with it... Say, I don't mean to be rude, but who exactly are you guys? I feel like we've met, but I know we haven't..."

"Oh, we've been around," Haruna smirked. "You never noticed us, but we were around, that's the way it was supposed to be. Please excuse us for our rudeness, we should've introduced ourselves at the start. The big guy over there is Rao. My name's Haruna, and this cockroach next to me is my husband Koushiro."

"Cockroach! Come on, you've been on me nonstop for weeks now! What happened, I thought you said you were gona try being nicer to me?"

"And our vows also stated until death do us part, and yet you're still hanging around. You get what you get."

"And what I got was one big migraine..." Koushiro huffed, but audible enough to earn him a swat across the head.

"Don't mind them," Rao said to Keitaro, who seemed fascinated as he watched the ghostly couple bicker. "They've always been like that, long as I've known the buggers."

"Um, Excuse me but... Are you guys..." Keitaro hesitated, searching for the right words to finish his sentence. "Um, have you passed on?..."

"Hah! Yes lad, some time ago... Those two lived and died towards the end of Japan's feudal era... I've been dead quite the while myself, though more recent then them."

"When did you die?... Uh, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Well, let's put it this way. Your great-grandmother Hina was my granddaughter... I still remember the look on her father's face when he told me Keiko was having a baby... Sadly, my time on Earth ran out before she even took her first steps..."

"Wait... You mean we're related?"

"Aye boy, what did you think we were? A wandering band of spirits who found an empty bar and decided to throw a party? Urashima's have always watch each other's backs, even long after death. Hinata House and the land surrounding it has always been sacred to us Urashima's, so a handful of us stay behind in the human world to watch over the place. With a demon like Motai lurking in the background, it was more or less a necessity."

Koushiro injected himself into the conversation. "We guardians usually go in shifts of about fifty years or so before we change places. There isn't a set time table for the shifts though... The portal between the living world and the spirit world located just outside Hinata House is one of the easiest to pass through on the entire planet. Most other portals are near impossible to access, expect for the occasionally insanely powerful spirit. It just goes to show you how important the link between Hinata and the Urashima family actually is."

"Well, listen to you," Haruna mocked. Koushiro's blood was already boiling. "You talk like quite the expert, even though there's not a drop of Urashima blood in your veins."

"Hey, I took the name didn't I? That's not normal for a guy, especially in the age we lived in! Besides, if I'm so unworthy, then why was I even allowed to become a Guardian in the first place?! They don't exactly give that job away!"

"Because I went to bat for you stupid... Though, in retrospect, I'm not sure why I bothered. Guess I'm just a sucker for misery."

"You just wanted somebody to torment, that's all it was!... Your favorite form of entertainment, spousal abuse..."

"Guardians?" Keitaro looked up at Rao, who grinned as he nodded.

"You betcha, and ironically our current shift began around the same time you were born. I suppose that's why we developed a particular fondness for you, after watching you grow up. And you were so different from the rest of us! The Urashima's come from a long line of warriors, and then you come along, this skinny awkward boy proficient at nothing. It figures you'd turn out to be the one who'd destroy Motai, save the world, and seal the Urashima's legacy. Our family has never done a damn thing the traditional way though have they?"

"Or the easy way..." Haruna added.

The conversation continued to morph and transformed into a set of several separate squabbles between his three alleged ancestors. An idea Keitaro would've found difficult to swallow if not for the rather obvious family resemblance with Rao and Haruna. Keitaro again seemingly vanished from the room as the others conversed, and Keitaro wasn't all that upset with that. He wasn't hearing anything they were saying, his mind was on another plane entirely.

"Hey, kid," Rao said as he nudged Keitaro with his elbow. He slid a tall glass of mystery liquid in front of the younger man. Keitaro nodded his head in appreciation, and took a sip. "It's a lot to absorb I know. It took me a good month to finally accept that I was no longer among the living. You get used to being dead after a while... It's literally like learning to walk and crawl all over again."

"I'd find it so much easier to accept if I felt even the slightest bit different from when I was alive...If everything around me didn't feel more like a mirage than reality, I could swear I was still on Earth as we speak. I feel like I'm dreaming even though I'm wide awake and aware of everything that's around me."

"Aye, that's likely because you're not quite totally dead yet, I keep forgetting that little tidbit myself... You'd be the first even semi-live one we've had here in well... Ever, but ya do have a bounce of life in ya that I've never seen in anyone I've met here on this side before... Aye, that explains it, that makes total sense to me now."

"I'm glad it does one of us! If I'm still alive, then why am I here? How do I get back if I'm not dead, and how will I know if I die sometime before then? Being dead I can handle, but I would appreciate a definitive answer one way or the other!"

Haruna smirked, and finished off her drink. An abrupt silence hit the table as Haruna looked towards her male cohorts. They nodded back, and sat up from the table. Rao looked down at Keitaro and said. "I think you best hear that from Haruna. See ya around boy."

Keitaro watched in utter befuddlement as the two ghostly men seemed to vanish from the room rather than just simply exit it. This left Keitaro alone, starring across the room at a woman that was a blonde, but otherwise a dead ringer for his Aunt Haruka. Alone with her, and seemingly a million questions that all lacked answers.

"It's amazing how much faster time flows from this side," Haruna began, breaking the silence. "It doesn't feel like it was all that long ago that you were in diapers. Now, you're seated at this table before me, the greatest hero that the Urashima family has ever known."

"Yeah, about that..." Keitaro shifted in his seat uneasily. "I appreciate you saying that, but I'm not sure how much of a hero I really am... All I want to know right now is one thing... Am I alive, am I dead, or am I stuck here either way?"

"That depends," Haruna replied. "Which do you want it to be?"

"Well, alive preferably... But what exactly do you mean?"

"The point is this Keitaro... It's not everyday that somebody gets the opportunity to save the world, and then makes good on it. That kind of deed doesn't go unnoticed. Because of that noble sacrifice, the power at be has decided to give you a choice..."

Haruna paused, so to give Keitaro the opportunity to offer his say, and he did so. He all too generically asked. "What kind of choice."

Haruna finished off her drink, and tapped her fingers against the table. She'd rehearsed this speech at least a hundred times already, it was that important. She had to relay the message to Keitaro in just the right way. "From the moment I started this sentence, you have 24 hours Keitaro, Earth time... A portal between this world and the Earth realm will stay open for the time being in case you decided to go back to Earth, and reclaim your earthbound body. You other option is to stay here in your heaven... Where basically, you're every need and desire will be filled... And I mean every need. You have 24 hours to decide what you want to do Keitaro... I'm aware you probably think you're mind is already made up, but you have to remain here the full day's time and think it over... I have a feeling that decision is going to be a lot harder to make than you might think..."

"Twenty-four hours?... What'll I do until then? I don't have much experience in the after-life...."

"You can do whatever you want to do... Why don't you go visit some of your friends? I know they've been dying to see..." Haruna smiled, and sat up from the table. She vanished from the room, much like Rao and her husband before, leaving Keitaro alone with his thoughts. For that one moment, Keitaro could not remember another time he'd ever felt so alone.

********

Keitaro's feet got antsy. He wasn't frightened by his newfound surroundings, but they were certainly intimidating. Not nearly as inviting as you'd expect Heaven, allegedly, to be. As little as exploring this hazy paradise appealed to him, staying put was less appealing yet. Off he ventured into a maze of hallways and empty rooms, each more pointless than the next, and yet they seemed to drag on forever.

"This is insane! I know it didn't take this long to get from the bath to the bar! Is this even supposed to be Hinata House? I'd poke my left eye out just to see something that looks familiar... A doorknob, a shingle, anything!"

Just as he was ready to pull his hair out, something of interest finally caught his attention, or rather his nose. A smell that just happened to be the most delectable aroma ever to tickle his nostrils. He followed that smell around the corner and into one of the infinity of empty rooms. With a single step, it seemed he walked straight out of his dream world, and back smack into reality. Into the Hinata House kitchen, or at the very least a damn good replica. From the tables, to the walls, to the adorable little cook slaving over the stove. Keitaro stared at the back of her blue-head as she hummed cheerfully to herself. Caught off guard by the sudden change of atmosphere, Keitaro could only mutter her name.

"Shinobu?..."

Shinobu tensed up, surprised to find she wasn't alone in that kitchen. She turned slowly, and her smiling face greeted the wayward soul. "Sempai, you've arrived just in time! Dinner will be ready in just a minute!"

"Dinner?" He'd require some more time working on multiple word sentences.

"Isn't this a little bit much?!" Keitaro gawked at the spread Shinobu had set out for him.

"I might've gotten a little carried away," Shinobu snickered as she sat down next to him, her palm spread across her jaw. "I fixed up a little bit of everything... Japanese, Chinese, Thai... Couldn't decide on just one, so..."

Keitaro nodded in approval as he took a bite. His eyes began to water. "Holy fucking shit..."

Shinobu chuckled out loud. "Not quite the response I envisioned, but the reaction was definitely what I was hoping for!"

"This really is heaven," Keitaro squeaked. His plate was clean long before he was ready. Strangely, he wasn't starving for more, but he didn't feel anywhere near full either. Stranger yet, he noticed Shinobu wasn't partaking in the feast, electing rather to watch him enjoy his meal. "Um, sorry I'm so rude making a pig of myself! You haven't even made a plate yet have you?"

"Don't worry about me, I'm not even hungry. This meal was special... Just for you. This is a very special day for us after all..."

Keitaro didn't think hard on what Shinobu had said, at least not at first. His head rose slowly and even more slowly rolled to the side, where his eyes locked with Shinobu's. . There was a warm light of love shinning in those blue eyes of hers, warm enough to make Keitaro blush. She looked every bit the part of the loving budding homemaker that liked to call him Sempai. The only clear difference between the two was the uncharacteristic confidence in her voice when she spoke, though Keitaro didn't even notice this. For the moment, he had no inclination that this wasn't the real flesh and blood Shinobu, as his heart filled with fondness for this young girl. A fondness that had never quite reached the peak he was feeling now.

"Special in what way?" Keitaro asked stupidly, not even remotely thinking about what he was saying. He had yet to even realize he was staring at her, though that may have been because Shinobu wasn't making any light of the fact that he was.

"Because this is the day you came home," Shinobu replied simply, and the answer shot clear over Keitaro's head. "I'm sorry, can you excuse me for a second? I need to check on something. Just keep enjoying your dinner okay?"

"Okay?..." Keitaro muttered, surprised at her abrupt exit from the kitchen and a little disappointed. His thoughts wouldn't stray from Shinobu even after she was gone. "She seems older somehow... Especially in the che..." Keitaro caught his tongue and mentally slapped himself. "What are you doing Keitaro?! This is Shinobu we're talking about, that's just sick!"

Consumed with thoughts of Shinobu, and subsequent efforts to justify them, he failed to notice the fiend lurking in the shadows. A blonde head slowly rose from below the kitchen island, the owner's eyes beaming with gleeful evil. From her tiptoes, she slowly snuck up behind her prey, and Keitaro would not detect her presence until it was too late.

"Head's Up Keitaro!"

Keitaro stiffened at the sound of Su's screeching voice, and braced himself for impact. Su landed with her usual vigor, and lassoed her arms around Keitaro's neck... And all with surprisingly little friction or discomfort. It was a perfect landing really, like a bird coming to rest on a perch almost. Su laughed her trademark cackle, and peeked around Keitaro's shoulders at the boy's flushed faced. "Hiya Keitaro! What were you thinking about so hard, that you didn't even hear me comin'! Ewe, your face is all red Keitaro! Your havin' dirty thoughts? Naughty, naughty, naughty!"

"No, no! No more than usual..." Keitaro frowned at his choice of words. Meanwhile, his head was experiencing a light drizzle as Su got her first good look at the feast Shinobu had prepared for their landlord.

"Wow, wow! Check out all that food! What, no banana's? But, oh Teriyaki!"

"There's plenty to go around Su," Keitaro grinned. "Help yourself."

Su took all of five seconds to take Keitaro up on that offer, and five more before she was shoving the contents of a bowl of rice and noodles down her throat, and at alarming speeds. Even while carefully picking around the vegetables and tossing them to the side. Keitaro snickered at the big smile on Su's face as she chowed down. She was just as vibrant as ever.

"Try chewing at least a little bit Su... If you start chocking, the only Heimlich I know is the double stomp to the gut variety!"

"I be careful," Su gurgled as bits of food spewed forward. She proved herself right, as the last bite was consumed and a glass shattering belch followed after. "Excuse me!"

"You're excused..." Keitaro winced, as he wiped crumbs and spittle off his cheek. This Su appeared more the real deal than even Shinobu. Keitaro wouldn't have thought it possible to match that energy level. "You're certainly in a cheerful mood."

Su nodded her head enthusiastically. "Su's been looking forward to this day for a long, long, time! I'm glad your back big brother... Life is so much more fun here with you..."

"Thanks... But you do remember that I'm not your brother Su..." Keitaro said, though Su didn't seem to hear him, or at the least ignored it. She hummed cheerfully as she scanned the table for the next entree to attack. This wasn't the first time Su had referred to Keitaro as big brother, but for some reason, it was definitely the oddest. Luckily, Shinobu broke the tension as she found her way back into the kitchen holding a tray that looked suspiciously like desert. Su's eyes drew the ice and whipped creamed bananas like a magnet to a penny.

"Whoa, yummy! Is one of those for me?"

Shinobu seemed surprised by Su's presence in the kitchen, but by no means upset by it. "Sure, I made plenty just in case!"

Keitaro watched in awe as Su wolfed her sundae down in a series of frenzied gulps. As soon as she finished, she lifted another desert from the tray and handed it to Keitaro. "You better eat up! You'll be sorry when you wake up Keitaro, and every last bite is in my belly!"

"Thanks," Keitaro said, giving minimal thought to Su's choice of words. That same girl spontaneously leapt from the table and skipped her way out of the kitchen, Keitaro watching after her in wonder.

"You going to try it?" Shinobu asked sweetly with a smile to match on her face. It took Keitaro little more than a second to realize she was talking about the desert. He took a bite, and his mouth had another orgasm. Shinobu continued in the familiar position of staring affectionately at her beloved Sempai. Keitaro felt more unnerved by her gaze this time around. Probably caused by all those impure thoughts circling through his head before.

"This is wonderful Shinobu!... I can't wait to see the other's reaction when they try this..." Shinobu's responded with silence, something Keitaro hadn't expected. He looked up from this desert to see Shinobu squirming in chair looking flushed. Much closer to the appearance usually seen from Shinobu. Needless to say, this change in demeanor drew concern from Keitaro. "Shinobu, is something wrong?"

"No, nothing at all! Everything's gone as perfect as I imagined it..." Shinobu laughed, turning red as a tomato. "I just... I'm sorry, I'm so bad at this... Only..."

"It's okay Shinobu, it's only me. You know you can tell me anything..."

"Oh, I do wish it was as simple as you make it sound..." Shinobu's sheepish laugh did little to stall her apprehension. "Things like this have never been easy for me... I just want you to know how much you mean to me Sempai..."

Keitaro felt his chest tighten. "Well, of course I do... I think, well at least I have a general idea maybe..."

Shinobu interrupted, speaking as if her words were being played off a record. "I don't hate myself, but I hate the way I am sometimes... I thought I was so brave that night I told you I loved you. So terrified, so regretful, but I felt so brave… But you know, now I realize I'm not brave… Sure I might've acted brave for about ten seconds the other night, but that's not real courage. If I was really brave I'd be able to express what's in my heart each and every day without being ashamed of what's in it, while not being afraid to take that ever present risk of being hurt.…"

"I don't want to be that meek feeble little girl anymore… I don't want to be consumed by other people's perceptions of me… I want to be able to hold my head up and not be embarrassed because others know how I feel about you Keitaro. I want everyone to know how proud I am at how much I'm in love with you. Regardless of what happens or doesn't happen between us, you'll always be my first love Keitaro… And because of that, you'll always be that much more special to me…"

Keitaro's jaw nearly unhinged itself. He had no idea where that had come from, or how to respond to it with anything other than an uhhhhh... "Shinobu I..."

"Hmm... Did you need something Sempai?" Shinobu asked, carrying on as if nothing out of character had just happened.

"No, No..." Keitaro said, unsure he wanted his mouth to go where his head was trying to take him. Was this truly how Shinobu felt, or something she thought he would want to hear? Was this even really Shinobu? How much of this was a fantasy, and how much of it was real? Was any of this real? "That's, without a doubt, the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me... I had no idea you felt that way..."

"Of course I do," Shinobu responded, her expression unwavering. "Nothing makes me happier than knowing you're nearby..."

"I see... Then I guess it would make you sad if I said I wasn't going to stick around wouldn't it?..."

"You're going to leave?!" Shinobu shrieked in dismay, and at that moment couldn't have resembled her earthbound counterpart more. "But you just got here!!!"

"Calm down, I didn't say that...I just haven't quite made up my mind yet..." Keitaro chose his words carefully. He had to treat this conversation with kid gloves. He wasn't sure how real this Shinobu was, or if she was even real at all. Just how real could a figment of your imagination be? At least, judging from Haruna's explanation, that's what it sounded like they were to Keitaro. He equated it to speaking to the voices in your head as if they were real people. This Shinobu's emotions certainly appeared legit. "This all makes less and less sense by the second..."

"What doesn't make sense?"

"Nothing!... Sorry, didn't mean to say that allowed..." Keitaro chuckled and rubbed at his stomach. "Whoa, man am I stuffed! That meal was fantastic Shinobu! Well, better get started on these dishes..."

"Oh, don't worry about it, I'll take of these Sempai."

"By yourself? No way, there's way too many..."

"This is nothing really... I've handled much worse than..."

Keitaro grabbed Shinobu's hand as she reached for his plate. Keitaro smiled, as he looked up to her and said. "I want to help you Shinobu."

Shinobu's cheeks tinted red as she smiled the same shy smile he'd seen on that face a million times before. He was more confused than ever.

********

Even the heavens seemed out of place... But then again, what were the heavens supposed to look like from heaven itself? Just as they appeared to him now apparently, Keitaro thought to himself, as he lay atop the roof of Hinata. He shifted to his side, and stared off at the silhouettes of the mountains in the distance, illuminated by the moonlight just enough for the naked eye too see. Nighttime seemed to have swooped in like an owl after a field-mouse, though Keitaro had to admit that this world seemed much more realistic in the night. Did that mean he was closer to death now? As welcoming as this world had felt at times, that was a fear that would not release its hold on him.

"I guess this world isn't so bad... If only it wasn't so... Permanent."

"What are you doing up here Kei-kun?"

That sweet voice was all too familiar to Keitaro, and strangely comforting. Not that Mutsumi's voice wasn't typically soothing, but Keitaro would normally expect to feel a bit more on edge around his housemates, especially after the events that unfolded shortly after his arrival in that world. And especially around a girl wearing a generously see-through nightgown, generous enough to make it apparent she wasn't wearing anything else underneath it. Keitaro's cheeks popped a blood vessel, the boy covering his nose as he turned his head away.

"Mutsumi!... Just admiring the view... The mountains look beautiful at night."

"Don't they though... There's nothing like a full-moon is there?" Mutsumi smiled up at the sky. She tossed her hair off her shoulder, and then sat down next to Keitaro, arching her back with her hands behind her. "Kind of brisk out tonight isn't it? It's getting awfully late Kei... Naru got worried when you weren't in your room.""She did?" Keitaro made sure not to look directly Mutsumi's way... Though it took heaven and hell for him to resist. "How did you know you'd find me up here?"

"This is where you always disappear too when you need to think... We're well aware of what you're going through.. And that the next twenty-four hours aren't going to be easy for you..."

Keitaro snapped up into a sitting position. "What?!... You mean, you guys know?..."

Mustumi blushed, then chuckled as she placed her knuckles just in front of her mouth. "Oops... I probably shouldn't be saying anything but yeah... And we're here for you... And we really want you to stay with us."

"You... Want me to stay?..." After some delay Keitaro lay back down, and stared up into space. Mutsumi lay down next to him... Very close to him. She placed her hand on his chest and slowly slid her fingers and palm up and down his chest. Keitaro looked into Mutsumi's face, and his eyes locked onto her smiling visage. He was frozen, unable to move even if he'd wanted to.

"I have a confession to make to you Kei-kun... Something I've always wanted to tell you, but kept to myself... The truth is Kei-kun that I've been lying to you for a while now... You see, I am the little girl you made your promise to... I realized that basically since the day we met... I mean, come on, we were trying to get into school for the exact same reason. Well almost the same reason... You see, the reason I was trying so hard to get into Tokyo U was the hope of being reunited with someone who was a very good friend to her at a time in her life when she hadn't any and really needed one... You however... Your reasons were so much more romantic... Everything you've worked for up until this point in your life... Every hardship you've suffered through, everything you've been through that's made you the person you are today... It was all for the soul purpose of getting into Tokyo U and finding that little girl that you wholeheartedly believed you were destined to fall in love, and spend the rest of your life with... That promise of yours meant the world to you in an age where promises and people's word mean less and less everyday. How would you have felt if you found out that the girl you'd been waiting so long to find was trying to fulfill that same promise but only to reunite with someone she considered a very special friend?... What kind of person would I be if I took that away from you? I just couldn't do that to you... Besides, after seeing you and Naru together, I knew I hadn't a shot in hell..."

Mutsumi's smile faded as she glided her fingers through his hair. They reached the back of his head where she gently clutched a handful of his brown locks, sorrow filling her eyes as stared into his. "You have to come back to us Kei-kun... You have no idea how much you mean to your friends... How much you mean to me... I don't want to have to imagine how things will be around here without you... It's just too sad!"

Keitaro wrapped his arms around her and held on tight, as Mutsumi sobbed into his shoulder. He wouldn't dare let go, though there was one thing he did not understand. "How can I come back to you, when I'm already here?"

Mutsumi looked up at him. She'd stopped crying, but her eyes were still moist. She didn't answer, but Keitaro didn't care anymore. He moved his fingers through the back of her hair, as he talked to her. "You really were my promise girl after-all?... Guess I shouldn't be totally surprised. No, I'm not at all in fact..."

"Are you disappointed?"

"Of course not! Don't even think that... It does complicate things a bit, but..."

"No, it doesn't have too... That's the thing Keitaro. That promise we made was sweet, but a vow you made when you were a kid shouldn't determine your future. I'm perfectly content with the way things turned out... Though there is one thing..."

"Wha..." Before Keitaro could get a word out, Mutsumi's hand cupped his face. She pulled him forward and pressed her lips to his ever so gently. She met little resistance as she deepened the kiss, feeling Kietaro's hand clasp around her wrist. With a gasp, their mouths parted, and Mutsumi pressed hers to his again, and one last time. Keitaro never once complained, and in fact didn't want to stop and seemed a tad crestfallen as Mutsumi pushed away from him.

Mutsumi sat up, adjusting her hair as she smiled and said. "Oh my, that was certainly worth the wait." Keitaro sat up next to her, but that was as far as he'd planned things out. He sat there dumbly as Mutsumi stood upright.

"I'll give you some time to yourself now..." Mutsumi said, smiling as she looked off in the distance. "It truly is a beautiful view isn't it?"

"Sure is..." Keitaro mumbled, not taking his eyes off of Mutsumi. Mutsumi turned her back to Keitaro, and her smile broadened. She'd planted the seed, now it was up to the others to seal the deal.

*******

Keitaro sat near the edge of the roof, legs folded and looking at nothing in particular. His thoughts were consumed with Mutsumi... Her lips most of all, as they pressed into his. They tasted like honey, sort of... Certainly he'd never experienced anything so pure or exhilarating. It was totally different from the incident in the bathhouse where he'd felt awkward, out-of-place, and just down right afraid for his life. That moment with Mustumi though... Just felt plain right. In fact, if Mustumi hadn't walked away, there was no telling how far things might've gone, and Keitaro doubted he would've regretted it. Mustumi was his promise girl after all, so maybe this was the way it was supposed to be.

Keitaro put his hand over his lips. "I've never felt quite like this before... It's like I'm floating on air... Is it something about this world that makes me feel this way?"

If it did, Keitaro just might find himself able to get used to it. A deep descent into space was interrupted as a rock smacked him between the eyes. It took a moment for the sudden shock to pass, and the pain to finally register. "What the hell?!"

"Sorry, I kept callin' ya, but you weren't respondin'." Keitaro jumped slightly as Kitsune's head popped into view from below the roof. Smirking, she held a bottle of Sake she shook proudly in her hand.

"Kitsune, what the hell?! Get up here before you break your neck! How are you even?..."

Kitsune pulled herself up on the roof with ease. Keitaro looked, but there wasn't ladder or anything of the like present to show even the faintest hint of logic as to why she seemed suspended in mid-air. Kitsune made herself cozy, seated next to Keitaro, twin shot-glasses pinched carefully in one hand and a bottle of Sake in the other.

"How's it hangin'?" Kitsune handed Keitaro a glass, which he accepted off of mostly reflex. "I did think twice about interrupting you, but then I thought to myself, he's up there on that roof all alone, I'm sure he could stand for a drink. Was I right?"

"Sure, why not..." Keitaro submitted, seeing little harm in a drink or two. Maybe it would help ease the nerves a bit. Kitsune poured him a glass, which Keitaro eyed suspiciously though only briefly before knocking it back. He found the drink pleasantly sweet to the taste, his eyes relaying his surprise. He generally disliked the taste of alcohol altogether, but this he liked. "Wow, that's good... I think I'll have some more of that."

"There's plenty where that came from, so drink up..." Kitsune watched contently as Keitaro quickly consumed his second helping, while her first remained neglected other than an occasionally twirl as it rested in her hand. Her expression was thoughtful, and the words she chose relayed something Keitaro hadn't expected for a conversation starter. "I'll be honest, I was looking for an excuse to come up here and see you... I couldn't find one, so I decided the hell with it and came up anyway. I do want to say I'm sorry if I came on a little strong in the bath. You know me though; I have a bad habit of doing whatever feels good to me at that moment without really considering the people around me. We really didn't mean to get carried away."

"There really isn't anything for you to be apologizing for, you didn't do anything wrong. I just got a little freaked out... Guess I wasn't prepared for all the attention I was getting!"

"Is that so?" Kitsune smiled coyly, as she traced a heart on Keitaro's chest with her index finger. "You want to pick up where we left off then?"

"No, no! That's alright..." Keitaro shrugged his shoulders as his heart rate hastened. "I'm not quite ready for that... Not that I'm totally against the idea or anything but... I mean, don't misunderstand me, I'm not trying to sound perverted or anything!"

"Relax, will ya!" Kitsune chuckled as Keitaro covered his head as if expecting something to come flying towards it. "Nobody here is going to think any less of you for feeling the exact same urges the rest of us feel."

"You're kidding?" Keitaro's skeptical tone threatened the borders of sarcasm.

"You really don't understand us much do you?" Kitsune sighed as she squeezed his hand in her own, having found it lying defenseless next to his leg. "You should stick around for a while, and get to know a side of us you've never really seen before..."

"When you put it that way..." Keitaro nearly swallowed his tongue as Kitsune crept closer. She pressed her forehead against his neck, and he again found it difficult to keep his head above his testosterone.

"So, does that mean you've decided to stick around then?" Kitsune asked innocently, though it worked to the contrary of her intentions. That one sentence seemed to remind Keitaro that this wasn't Kitsune seated next to him. Not the Kitsune he knew at least, a fact proving increasingly easy to forget. "Forgive me, am I being too forward again?"

"Not at all... You're being you..." Keitaro said, as if critiquing an actress. "And that's perfectly fine with me."

Kitsune smiled, and for a brief second, Keitaro almost thought he'd caught her blush. She stayed quiet, though however brief it would turn out to be, looking somewhat uncertain of herself. She just seemed so... Alive, only further blurring that line between what was real, and what was... More real? Finally, Kitsune shifted back into gear, and poured them both another drink.

"I've been saving this for when you woke up. Oh well, I'll just have to drink for the both of us." Keitaro eyed Kitsune awkwardly as she downed her glass. Assuming his ears were playing tricks on him, he preceded to enjoy his own drink, which amazingly tasted better than the first two.

"Wow this stuff is great!... I can barely taste the alcohol."

"What's the point? The alcohol just doesn't numb me like it used to... I guess you and the rest of the gang have had that effect on me Keitaro... I don't have to put on a front to get people to accept me, like I used to do. I can be myself here, and that's why Hinata House is so important to me. This is the only family I've ever really known, and your part of that family Keitaro. If we lose you, we all lose a piece of ourselves...."

"Kitsune..." Keitaro felt that pinch at his chest again. What he could see of Kitsune's eyes did not show any angst. He couldn't call it joy either, so what would be the right word? Contentment maybe? Having let his guard down, Kitsune was able to sneak her hand in and press it against the side of his face. His was barely conscious of his own hand atop of hers, mesmerized at a glimpse of the rarest of sites, that of a vulnerable Kitsune. Vulnerable maybe, but still well within herself. She leaned forward and kissed him softly on the cheek, near his jaw.

"As much as I may want to, I don't wana effect your decision anymore than I may already have." Kitsune propped the sake bottle in front of Keitaro, before rising to her feet. "Now you don't drink this before you come see me, you hear? We'll all be waiting for you, whenever you decide to wake up."

"Wake Up?..." Keitaro didn't think to long or hard on Kitsune's choice of words as she walked towards the edge of the roof and promptly jumped off. "Kitsune no!"

Keitaro raced towards the edge of the roof, but when he looked down found Kitsune standing on the ground perfectly intact. She looked up and waved. Keitaro shut his eyes and sighed in relief. By the time they reopened, Kitsune was gone. Keitaro sat upright, but that was as far as he moved as his eyes scanned over this version of Hinata. The spot on his check still burned from Kitsune's peck. The girls in this world were certainly more affectionate than the ones back home.

Keitaro soon recalled that time was not on his side. Drooling over Kitsune and Mutsumi wasn't going to bring his problem any closer to a resolution. How much of his twenty-four hours had he used up? Rao did mention that time at least appeared to pass faster on this side then in the Earth realm. In hindsight, he probably should've asked Haruna if she meant twenty-four Earth hours or twenty-four other worldly hours. How long was a day in heaven?

Again, Keitaro berated himself for letting his mind shift off topic. His concentration, fleeting as always, drifted as some rustling in the trees to the side of the house distracted him. It sounded like something was swiftly moving through them. His curiosity just wouldn't allow him to stay away. The rustling seemed to lessen as he approached, only enticing him further. The entire western side of the house was draped in forestry, so much so that Keitaro could've sworn Su had designed the layout herself. Then again, it wasn't a jungle landscape, but still... Keitaro tried searching within the trees from anything that might be lurking about, but found visibility limited. Then, in a patented Keitaro move, he slipped on a loose shingle, and dove headfirst off the roof screaming into the night. The scratching attacks of the branches and leaves were enough, but his head was spared from cracking against the ground. Keitaro found himself upside down four feet or so above the ground, suspended by a thick branch that had lodged itself trough his belt buckle. Keitaro hung there in disbelief. He could've stayed on Earth and dealt with this crap.

"I see your dexterity and common sense haven't improved in death. Pathetic Urashima..."

Keitaro's eyes darted about for the source of the voice, but couldn't find it. Then his ears caught the sound of an apple being bitten into. His eyes followed that sound a bit more effectively, though it did help that Motoko glided right into his view. Each step she took seemed in perfect rhythm with the world surrounding her, Motoko projecting the ultimate image of grace and confidence. So taken in by her image, Keitaro forgot he was hanging by his blue jeans, though the blood rushing to his head soon reminded him.

"Motoko!... Could you help me out here please?... I seem to be stuck."

Wordlessly, Motoko's katana removed the branch from the tree, and Keitaro dropped to the ground like an acorn. Motoko showed little concern, and slight amusement as Keitaro rived on the ground before finally sitting up. He shook the dirt out of his hair and complained. "Damn, I see pain hasn't been made obsolete in this world... Dirt tastes about the same too..."

"Stop whining, we both know you can take it," Motoko huffed as she unexpectedly looped her arm through his, and helped him to his feet. Keitaro smiled bashfully and thanked her. "I've seen you survive much worse."

"Well, that doesn't mean I want to make a habit out of the experience," Keitaro said, though unsure as to why other than lacking much idea of what else to say. "Really though, thank you. Didn't want to spend what might be my only night in heaven, stuck in a tree!"

Keitaro missed it, but a faint twinge of hurt flashed in Motoko's face, before flashing a smile Keitaro caught on the backend. It was a warm honest grin Keitaro loved to see Motoko share, but something rarely directed towards him. In fact, really never before tonight. "Forgive me, I was trying not to disturb you. I don't wish to put an undue pressure on you as I'm sure the other's have... I'll be on my way now."

"Wait, you don't... Have too leave..." Keitaro said, and could've stopped right there, for that was all the convincing Motoko would need. Still, he continued. "I mean I don't mind you girls hanging around... It is actually helping with my decision to talk with you guys. I do have twenty-one good years on Earth, yet I know so little about this place.... You're the most level-headed clear minded person I know, so if there's anyone here whose opinion I can trust, it would be yours."

Motoko's smile broadened. "I'm uncertain that my word is a trustworthy as you might believe. I'm afraid I may be a bit too basis on the subject. Though, if you wish me to stay, then I won't argue with you..."

"I think I'd like that..." Keitaro said, his voice sounding out of sorts for him... Even he was starting to act differently it this world. Why was he feeling so excited all of the sudden? Perhaps he merely relished the idea of spending a few moments alone with Motoko while not having to fear for his life.

Self admittedly, he had always admired Motoko from afar. Doing so close up was dangerous to one's health. Every move she made was done with such elegance and grace, coupled with a confidence in herself that made her seem on a different plane than himself and the other girls. He couldn't call it a full blown crush like with Naru or even Mutsumi, but she certainly made for one hell of a fantasy. Keitaro guessed he must have a thing for strong woman. Perhaps that was because, realistically, he knew he couldn't physically defend them as well as they were capable of taking care of themselves.

"I mean, that is if you want to stick around... If you don't have anything better you could be doing right now..."

Motoko looked slightly annoyed. "Why are you acting so flustered? It's very unbecoming."

"I'm sorry!.. But I'm always kind of this way..."

"Just relax... Take a couple of deep breaths and calm yourself... How do you expect to make such a life-altering decision with your nerves all waded up as they are?"

Keitaro chuckled sheepishly. "Well, that's a fantastic point in principal, but the decision is what's twisting my nerves all into knots..."

"You're absolutely hopeless... Now sit down!" Motoko forced Keitaro down, by his shoulders, into a sitting position. Motoko took a seat next to him, Keitaro watching curiously as the young kendo master went into a meditative pose. "Now, close your eyes Urashima... Clear your mind of all thoughts..."

"Um, I'll try..." Keitaro closed his eyes briefly before opening his left. "But if I clear my thoughts, then how am I supposed to think over my decision?"

Motoko's right eye opened and glared at her troublesome landlord. The one eye stare down took all of two seconds to convince Keitaro to shut up and comply. "Now, breathe in... And breathe out... Look in your heart and try to focus on what makes you the happiest..."

"But there's so much to choose from! There are great things about both places I like, so trying to pinpoint one thing is just..."

"Urashima!"

"Sorry, sorry!" Keitaro zipped his lip, and to his credit, did try but it took barely more than ten minutes to realize meditation wasn't working for him. "I'm sorry, I appreciate what you're trying to do Motoko, I really do. I don't have a lot of time though, and I'm afraid by the time I manage to clear my mind and gather my thoughts, it'll be too late..."

"I understand..." Motoko said, showing minimal disappointment "I suppose you don't have the time to waste here with me either do you?"

"I didn't say that now! I'm more than happy to have your company I mean..." Panicked Keitaro's nerves eased as he noticed the smirk Motoko was trying to fight. "Oh you were kidding weren't you... You scared me there for a second... Ha, ha..."

"Well, what can I say? You're kind of cute when you're flustered."

"Uh... I thought you said it was unbecoming of me a few minutes ago..."

"I did, but that doesn't mean you're not cute in the process..."

Keitaro's cheeks looked sun-burnt, and his eyes found the ground. Was Motoko actually flirting with him? "Cute?... Really?..."

"Why does me saying that seem to surprise you so?" she asked in all seriousness.

"Um, well... Ah... I'm just not used to hearing that from someone who means it, or isn't trying to manipulate me into doing something I really don't wana do..."

"So... You're saying that being treated the way you deserve to be treated feels odd to you?"

"Yeah... Sort of... I mean, yes... Though the view of how I deserve to be treated varies depending on who you ask... Not that I don't appreciated it, I do... In fact, if you guys hadn't treated me so well since I arrived, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you apart from each other."

"That's not all that unusual. It should be difficult to tell us apart from our other halves on Earth... We're not all that different, myself perhaps least of all. I think the same way she does, I have the same feelings, emotions, and memories that she does... What I lack is her inhibitions, stubbornness, and pride that always kept me from pursuing what I truly wanted."

"But her pride and strong-will are two of the things that make Motoko unique... I wouldn't want to change her for anything in the world..."

Motoko's heart warmed, though those words would seem to be to her detriment. Perhaps the link between the two Motoko's was too strong too notice the difference. Even so, her katana found its way to Keitaro's neck. "Okay then. I you prefer, I can dismember you here were you sit and leave the rest of your perverted self to the maggots."

"No, that won't be necessary! I like this side of Motoko just fine thank you!" And he really did at that. He also noticed how beautiful she looked in the moonlight, and soon found himself staring... Motoko had always been a looker, but there was something about her now... Maybe it was the lack of a scowl on her face, and that Queen to his pageboy attitude she could come across with. Maybe it was just the fact that he could sit there and stare a little without the threat of his face being sliced off by Motoko's Katana. Whatever the reason, she was simply stunning tonight.

"Do you have something to say, or are you going to stare and drool the rest of the night away?" she said, in a tone more reminiscent of the Earth bound Motoko. It took a moment for Keitaro's brain to reactivate.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to stare you just... Look so..."

"You just don't get it do you?" Motoko snickered. Befuddled, Keitaro nearly panicked when he felt his hand inside of Motoko's, but settled upon remembering with near certainty that he hadn't initiated. "I assure you Keitaro, no one here is trying to sway your decision... All we want you to know is, whatever you decide, you'll be just as happy either way."

"Oh?..." Keitaro found himself lost in Motoko's glow yet again... She tightened her grip on his hand, which still somehow felt so soft... Her skin smooth, like silk to the touch. Keitaro finally summoned the courage to give Motoko's hand a squeeze back. Not only did she seem not to mind, but was rather receptive. Receptive enough to lay her head down on his shoulder, again catching Keitaro off guard. He avoided pulling away, and for once sat there and shut his mouth, content with being content.

"I need to go..." Motoko sighed... "I fear I've taken up too much of your time already..."

"That's not true!" Keitaro argued as Motoko lifted her head off his shoulder. "I wanted to be here with you..."

Motoko smiled, and went on like Keitaro had never interrupted. "It would be selfish of me to keep you any longer. You still have much ahead of you... Only..."

"What is it?"

Motoko's cheeks brightened, and she looked... Almost embarrassed. "There's something I've always wanted from you... If find it acceptable that is..."

"Of course, anything you want Motoko."

Motoko's eyes locked with Keitaro's, and the boy immediately regretted his generosity. The look on Motoko's face was deadly serious, the same look you'd see on her face right before she sliced something in half. Keitaro stiffened as he felt a hand on the back of his head. Motoko hesitated briefly before shoving their faces together. Despite the force and undeniable passion behind her lips embrace, Keitaro immediately eased up and returned the kiss, force and all. Even as Keitaro's lungs begged for breath, he resisted, while Motoko's tongue intertwined with his.

"You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that..." Motoko gasped after pulling away.

"So, that's what you wanted..."

"Part of it at least..." She replied, breath still ragged.

"Part?"

A smile worthy of the devil fell over Motoko's lips. "If you had any idea of some of the things we've done inside my head, your eyes would bleed."

His eyes stayed blood-free, but his nose nearly complied. "What kind of things?..." Keitaro gurgled stupidly, as if he didn't already know.

Motoko looked behind her as she headed towards the house. "If you stick around, you may get to find out sooner than later..."

"Really... And I suppose this isn't meant to sway me either?"

Motoko shrugged her shoulders. "What can I say? I lied." Motoko continued towards the house leaving Keitaro in stunned disbelief.

********

Keitaro thought he could lay low and avoid the girls if he hung around outside of the house. Obviously, he was dead wrong about that, and it wasn't until he made his way back inside the old building that he finally found some of that much needed solitude. Now that he had it, he found it wasn't quite producing the desired results. In fact, he'd probably done his clearest thinking during those all too brief but tender moments with his friends. Now, it seemed he'd been deserted, left in a ghost town all to himself.

It was a funny thing, but the layout of Hinata house, seemed to look more and more familiar the longer Keitaro was there. After what felt like a life draining struggle, he finally succeeded in finding the manger's room. It stood void of human life, but everything else remained intact just as Keitaro remembered it back on Earth. Everything, including the hole in the ceiling that separated his room from Naru's. It was comforting to find something that hadn't seemed to change from the cross over to this world from his own, but before he could even take time to relish the thought of that, things took a turn back towards the strange.

Keitaro could hear what sounded like a child's laughter coming from the hall outside of his room, and the sound drew closer with each passing second. He walked outside and was met but a young girl clutching a teddy-bear. There was not doubt about who she was, in his mind, but something just wasn't right about her appearance. The girl's eyes lit up when they caught a glimpse of Keitaro.

"Oni-chan! I've been looking all over for you!" the girl ran over, and clutched her thin arms around Keitaro's waist.

"Kanako?" he said in disbelief, too shocked to even to return her embrace. It was her no doubt, but her appearance flabbergasted him. It had been years since he'd seen his adoptive baby sister... She should've been a teenager by now, so why did she look like the same adorable little runt he knew from before.

"What's the matter?... Are you not happy to see me?" Kanako whined, tears welling up in her eyes.

"No, of course I am..." Keitaro said gently, just as he always spoken to her. "I just wasn't expecting to see you here. I'm really happy to see you though, it feels like it's been forever."

"Kanako's happy to see her big brother. Just don't forget your promise that we're going to run grandma's inn together once I grow up! I think I'm gona go play for right now though."

"You go do that," Keitaro ruffled her hair, and watched her as she skipped away. She didn't seem any different from the starry-eyed little girl that used to follow him everywhere he went. "She hasn't changed a bit after all these years... How is that possible?"

"Probably because that's the way you remember her," A welcoming voice answered, his rhetorical question. Keitaro turned and found Naru leaning up against the wall next to the door of his room. She was wearing a pair of her favorite flannel pajama's, buttoned up only half way, exposing bare flesh down the center of her chest. "You haven't seen her in years, so your mind had no way of processing what she might look like today. That, and this was the age she was at when you were the fondest of her."

"That makes sense... Naru..." Keitaro stood up, and greeted Naru, thankful to have run across her. He was hoping to see her at least once before his time here was up. "I guess that would go the same for all of you wouldn't it?"

Naru answered by taking Keitaro by the hand and slowly leading him into the manger's quarters. Short on words as she closed the door behind them, Keitaro found himself shoved against the wall as Naru's mouth hungrily attacked his. This was different than before though, with Motoko, Mutsumi, or even Kitsune... There was none of the innocent heartfelt emotion behind her lips that sent his chest a flutter. There was nothing but pure lust, and though Keitaro felt it just as badly, it still unnerved him. He grabbed Naru's wrists just short of his pants.

"Naru, stop please! I can't do it this way, it's not right!"

"Why not?" Naru's disappointment was only outdone by the intense agitation she was feeling. "I've been waiting for you patiently for nearly twelve hours, and your just going to shove me the side?! What the hell is wrong with you?! I don't believe for a second that you don't want this too!"

"Want to is not a factor trust me..." Keitaro grumbled through gritted teeth and flaring hormones. "It's not the right time... My first time is too important to me to ruin it by doing something that will make me regret the way it happened... Until I decide where I need to be, I think I'll just keep my pants on."

"But... Keitaro... Why do you have to say stuff like that? The least you could do is let me stay mad at you!" Naru wept, sounding increasingly desperate with every word she spoke. Near tears now, she buried her face into Keitaro's shoulder. He wasn't quite prepared for that.

"Naru... You really wanted me that badly?... If it makes you feel any better, that does make me feel really, really good!..."

"You're an idiot..." Naru muttered, but with little to no venom behind those words at all. "I feel like I'm fighting a battle I can't possibly win, it almost makes me want to give up trying."

"What exactly have you guys been fighting for? Certainly not just for me I hope... There's got to be more to your life than just pleasing me."

"I don't know what you did to me Keitaro... Everyone says I've changed since you came to Hinata House..." Keitaro listened intently, even though Naru didn't seem to directly be answering his question. "Face it, you're a dorky, dimwitted, klutz who couldn't tie his own shoelaces without falling over and pulling down some poor girl's skirt. How could I possibly be affected by someone like that, I told everyone... But I believe it now Keitaro... If anything, I guess the most important thing you taught me was how not to take myself so seriously..."

Keitaro's eyes met Naru's as she looked up at him teary eyed, but with a glow that made his heart race. God, he was going to lose it if he wasn't careful. "I'd love to say things are going to be different once you come back to me Keitaro, but I'm not sure I can promise that. A person can't completely change over night you know? You're still going to be a dimwitted pervert, and I'm still going to be a hot-head who'll punch first and ask questions later... But the more I think about it, the more I realize I don't want things to change. I don't want you to change, I'm happy with you just the way you are believe it or not... And I can only hope that you feel the same about me..." Naru paused for quite some time before continuing. "One thing I can promise you though Keitaro... I'll never pretend I don't care anymore... I'm done pretending you don't mean anything to me. I can't come out and say I love you, because I honestly don't know what love is... I thought I was in love with Seta once, but the feelings I have for you are different on so many levels that I just don't know how to tell which way is up...But I promise we'll find out together, if you just come back to me."

Keitaro cupped Naru's face in his hands... Through her eyes he saw straight into her heart... And his own. "You're absolutely right Naru... This place is wonderful... You're wonderful, and I'm sure if I chose heaven over earth, I doubt I'd ever live to regret it... But if I stayed ,it would be living one big dream, and the problem with that is that my entire love life has been lived out in my dreams... I want a chance to live it... The next time I kiss you I want to have earned it, and I don't even care if you smack the snot out of me afterward."

Naru's arms dropped to her sides, as Keitaro's hands left her cheeks. Following a sigh of surrender, she said. "Does that mean you'll be going home then..."

"...Yes..." came Keitaro's blunt reply, though with some hesitation. "Don't think I wasn't tempted, you guys are a difficult bunch to turn down... But I've known all along what I needed to do, and the way I see it... I have an eternity to spend in the afterlife, but I won't get another chance to live."

Keitaro backpedaled towards the door, but Naru made no attempt to stop him. Keitaro took a long hard look at her before making his escape. Naru smiled as he disappeared from her view. "We knew you wouldn't let us down Keitaro..."

Keitaro ran through the halls of Hinata in a desperate search for anyone who could help him. "Haruna! Rao! Anybody, can you hear me?" Keitaro opened door after door, and was subsequently faced with repetitive and very empty rooms. With every second that passed, he felt his window back to Earth shrinking. Had he waited too long? Was he stuck here in the sprit realm? Surely one of his ancestors would've warned him that his time was growing short... But no, they were nowhere to be found, and Keitaro had no one else to turn to. Or so he thought at least...

"Keitaro? You haven't left yet?" Naru crept up behind Keitaro, forcing his feet off the ground. Unsure of what to make of her presence, he grew confused and wary.

"It's not by choice, believe me... I don't know how to get back, and I can't find Haruna or the others anywhere!"

"Silly boy, calm down... I'll help you..."

"You will! Oh thank... You..." Keitaro's voice broke as Naru drew closer. She looped her arms around his neck, and nestled her nose behind his ear. "Calm down... And wake up..."

"Huh." Keitaro stiffened. "Wake-up?"

"Close your eyes..." Naru whispered into his ear. "And wake up..."

********

Naru grimaced as movement to her right disturbed her sleep. Without waking, she stretched out, and nestled her face into the back of Keitaro's neck. Further movement finally broke forced her eyes open. Through the sleepy haze, she saw Keitaro sleeping soundly next to her. A sad sleepy smile crossed her lips. She tightened her grip, and soon fell back to sleep.

Naru awoke roughly an hour later to find her arms empty. Panicked, she patted the spot where he'd been laying, apparently to ensure that he hadn't turned invisible.

"Good morning..." said an unseen male voice. Her heart nearly stopped beating. "You were sleeping so soundly, I didn't want to disturb you."

For Naru it seemed to take forever for her head to turn, and an eternity after for her eyes to meet with his. Keitaro's bashful smile gave away just how anxious he felt, but underneath all the nerves he couldn't have been happier. For all of Naru's longing and praying for this moment, all she could manage to say was simply... "I'm dreaming..."

"I sure hope not! I've had my fill of dream worlds for a while," Keitaro chuckled. He couldn't have anticipated Naru's reaction, nor had he any clue as to what she'd suffered through over the past several days. Keitaro hadn't been back long enough to even begin to grasp the weight the prospect of his loss had on his friends, and it's not farfetched to believe that the naive apartment manager still wouldn't have the slightest clue even with time. His cynical side would still be surprised to hear that the girls even missed him. This was something even his thick skull couldn't miss, and that was the look on Naru's face. It transcended any simple sensation or relief. "Naru?..."

Naru found herself lost for words as she touched his face, needing that little extra proof to confirm that this moment was indeed real. She so badly wanted this to be real, more than anything, and until proven otherwise, she was damn sure going to treat it like it was. "Oh, Kei... You idiot!"

Keitaro instinctively braced himself, but rather than getting smashed in the face, he got roped by Naru. Keitaro's smirk didn't completely shield the shock he was feeling while tears of joy splashed against his neck and shoulder. "Wow... It's great to see you too..."

Their reunion was interrupted as the door thrust open. "What's all the racket going..." Motoko stopped short of a full sentence. In the middle of that room, Naru clung to a sheepish looking, and very alive Keitaro.

"Oh Motoko! This isn't what it... Oh hell, fuck it. It's exactly what it looks like, but would you mind giving me a minute to enjoy the moment before you chop my head off?"

Motoko's knees gave out on her and hit the ground. "He lives..."

Keitaro looked back and forth from Motoko to Naru, struggling to comprehend the two very different, yet both very out-of-character reactions of his two friends. "Um... Could someone tell me exactly how long I've been out?"

********

The sounds of laughter and glasses clinging rang throughout the halls of Hinata. With the return of it's landlord, the lively yet comforting aura of the old building seemed to return with him. Naturally, Keitaro's remarkable victory over death called for a huge party to be held in his honor. The reluctant guest of honor had spent the better part of twenty-four hours getting poked, prodded, and grilled by just about everyone that ever meant anything to him throughout his young life. Even his grandmother and sister were there. The event couldn't have been more perfect, though Keitaro would've preferred less of a fuss over his return. This was Hinata though, and Keitaro understood that a celebration was inevitable, especially with Kitsune roaming the grounds.

"Do you need something to drink Sempai? Did you get enough to eat? Is there anything..."

"I'm good, I'm good Shinobu!" Keitaro laughed. "Everything is perfect, so don't worry so much alright?"

Shinobu seemed content with her Sempai's approval, and seemed poised to respond if not for practically getting bulldozed by Kitsune. "So, tell us Keitaro, what was heaven like? Not that I'm not unappreciative, but I'm thinking heaven must not be all its cracked up to be if you chose us over there."

"No it was wonderful... Just about everything you'd imagine it would be... Except that, when you're there, you don't feel much different than you do here on Earth... You just feel like you're in a long dream that never quite ends..."

"Is that so... Then how do you know you weren't dreamin'?"

"I don't," Keitaro answered Kitusne with a smile. "It doesn't really matter though, I'm where I want to be, and I'm happy..."

"Really?... Lordy, there must be something back here on Earth you really wanted to turn down eternal bliss..." Kitsune teased as she traced her finger along the side of Keitaro's face, now practically sitting in his lap. "Wonder what that could be... Hmm, you want to finish that business we left unsettled back in that hotel room the other night?"

"What?! No, that's not..."

"Enough you devious little tart!" Kanako barked. She pinched the back of Kitsune's neck, causing her to squeak in pain as Kanako pulled Kitsune off of her brother. "Give my brother some space! He's been through a lot, and he doesn't need you hussies all in his face, or crawling down his pants!"

"They're okay, really Kanako... They're being themselves, and I wouldn't have it any other way..."

Kanako blushed, smiling as she gave her brother a small bow. "Of course, I'm sorry... If you need anything, I'll be close by."

"Thanks..."

Keitaro smiled back at his sister who, though she seemed reluctant to do so, went off on her way. Keitaro found himself with something he hadn't had sine he awoke, and that was a moment to himself. He sat there contently and watched as his friends talked and laughed together. For the moment, it seemed as if life in Hinata had returned to the way it was before Motai was even a thought in their heads. Keitaro would've been content to waste the rest of the night that way, that was if a pair of his friends hadn't been conspicuous by their absence.

Something lured Keitaro to the roof, perhaps it being his experiences in the other world. Any which way, that's where he found Mutsumi, near where the laundry was hung to dry. She noticed him almost immediately, and that all too familiar smile found it's way to her lips. "Hi Keitaro... Why aren't you at the party?"

"Figures, I was looking for you to ask the very same thing... What are you doing up here anyhow?"

Mutsumi drew a blank, lacking an answer to that question. She didn't really have a reason for it, but that didn't surprise Keitaro one bit. Mutsumi never really had any clear motive to her actions, she just did whatever it was that her heart was telling her to do at that given moment. "Guess I don't really know... What brings you out here though? Looking for Naru?"

"Yeah... And you too..." Keitaro stammered, his nerves beginning to peck at him. "There was something I wanted to talk to you about..."

"Yeah," Mutsumi smiled sweetly. "What is it?"

"Well..." A long pause followed. Keitaro had no clue how to attack this topic. In part, because he wasn't completely sure whether he really heard her say what she had, or if he'd dreamt the entire thing. "It's like this... Something you said to me last night, or at least I think it was you... Ha, ha... Man, just when you think things can't get any weirder around this place..."

"Hmm...?" came Mutsumi's murmured response. The far-off innocent look on her face suggested that she had no idea what was coming.

"You... You're my promised girl, aren't you Mutsumi?"

Her eyes grew as wide as Keitaro had ever seen them, as that adorable face turned a shade of red almost as rare. Without a word, Mutsumi confessed everything, even as she scrambled for a plausible denial. Not that Keitaro minded, even with the deafening silence that preceded him taking the hand of his unreasonably shaken young friend. "Judging by your reaction, I take it it's true..."

"But how could?... You were unconscious, how could you have heard that?!"

"Dunno, really..." Keitaro said though this thoughts said otherwise. "I guess the Motoko from that world was right... You guys must be more closely related to the girls on the other side than I thought..."

"Did... You hear everything then?..."

Keitaro nodded his head. "Um-hum..."

"Then..." Mutsumi paused. "Are you disappointed?"

"Do you even need to ask that? It's not like finding out that you were the little girl from my memories is a colossal shock or anything. It was either you or Naru, the odds were dead even. Besides, for me it was never about who the little girl was that I made that promise too, it was meeting up with her again one day... And thanks to you, I finally get to realize that dream... How the hell could I possibly be disappointed?"

Mutsumi felt an undeniable warmness fill her cheeks, but he still hadn't quashed her chief concern. "That's not exactly what I was referring to Keitaro..."

"Oh no?..." Keitaro thought about it, and the answer swiftly became obvious to him. "Oh, I get it... You're talking about the fact that you were trying to get into Tokyo U to fulfill your promise to me... Though not necessarily because you wanted to spend the rest of our lives together and live happily ever after, and your fear that finding that out might crush my soul and stuff?"

Mutsumi was taken back by how bluntly... And accurately he'd laid it out. "Well... Yes... That wars your dream wasn't it Kei-kun?... To attend Tokyo U and reunite with that little girl."

"Yes... It was... But as little as two years ago, that was literally the only dream I had to cling to in order to make my pathetic little existence seem worth suffering through. I was completely miserable, and I convinced myself that if I got into school and met that girl again, then my entire life would turn around..." The warm smile Keitaro flashed her nearly sent Mutsumi's heart bursting through her chest. "But I did get to met her, and my life did change for the better. I finally did get accepted into school, I have wonderful friends now, a job I love, and a future that finally doesn't seem doomed to loneliness and broken dreams. And hell, just because we're not meant to be together doesn't mean we can't sill go to Tokyo U together and live happily ever after does it? Guess what I'm saying is, I don't need that dream to cling to anymore in order to get myself through another day... I'm happier than I ever dreamed of being thanks to you, Naru and the others..."

"Keitaro..." Mustumi cooed, her usual aurora of cheerfulness returning to her. She wrapped Keitaro into a hug, and in it's ferocity Keitaro could feel the weight that had been lifted off the chest of the girl from Okinawa. "I'm so glad you came back to me..."

"Glad to hear it, because you're not getting rid of me anytime soon... I promise that..."

Mutsumi pried herself off of him. Her uncanny cheerfulness appearing to return to her at that exact moment. At least her smile was vintage Mutsumi. "That's one promise I do expect you to keep... How long have I been up here, oh my... We better get back to the party before the other's start to miss us."

"Yeah, you're right... You go on ahead, I'll catch up in a minute."

Mutsumi nodded her head, but did not question him. She hummed a tune to herself, and gave Keitaro a little wave before disappearing down the stairs. Naturally, he couldn't help but recall the other worldly Mutsumi, and just how differently his encounters with both girls unfolded... And yet still, how remarkably similar they both made him feel. He had to be honest with himself... He could've stood out there for weeks debating the topic of his promised girl, and how different things might be now if Mutsumi had told him so even weeks before. Like he told Mutsumi, that promise was no longer the focal point of his life. He was looking towards the future now, and this time not in an attempt to claim something for his past.

Keitaro decided to head back down to the party, only to find his way blocked. Motoko stood before him, steadfast and stern as per usual, not unlike a stone gargoyle protecting the castle from it's perch and looking bored out of it's mind. Her arms crossed, she looked up at him, and Keitaro would never know just how difficult of a time Motoko was having just to look him in the eyes.

"Motoko..."

"Quiet!" she snapped. "I have something to say... And I don't want any advice, condolences, or any other of that insipid garbage you use on the others... Don't insult me with it... I just want you to listen to what I have to say, understood?!"

"Loud and clear! Just tell me what's on your mind..."

"Look, I..." Motoko's lips puckered as if she'd swallowed a dose of rancid cough medicine. "I'm... Sorry... For everything... Calling you a coward, for doubting you at every step of the way even though I'm keenly aware of that moronic way you have of winging your way through adversity... Most of all, I apologize for being so blind to this Motai business, and that because of it, you and the others had to go through all of this..."

"Now stop it Motoko! You can't blame yourself for anything that happened, you weren't even aware of what was going on until it was too late!...

"Damn it Keitaro, just let me do this!" Motoko shouted, stunning Keitaro into silence. Motoko began to shake as she spoke through gritted teeth. "Do you not realize how difficult it is for me to humble myself in front of you! Now that I think about it, who are you to tell me I shouldn't feel responsible for what happened?! I'm a warrior damn it! While you faced certain death and survived, all I could do was sit back and watch with my sword tucked between my legs! Do you have any idea how shameful that is to someone who has dedicated their life to the blade! Then to have to watch you nearly die, while my friends fell apart all around me... Being powerless to do anything about... I'm not used to that Urashima, and it doesn't sit well with me... So don't stand there and tell me how I should feel!"

"I'm sorry Motoko... I didn't..."

"You're doing it again! You're unbelievable! Stop apologizing already! You have nothing to apologize for, least of all to me!"

"Well then, I guess you'll have to forgive me for apologizing yet again, because I disagree with you," Keitaro smirked awkwardly while his hand rested upon the back of his head. "I can't help but feel guilty, I didn't handle the situation very well as it pertained to you guys... You know, the entire making you guys hate me and then trying to evict everyone fiasco... Not my best idea, that's for sure, but at the time I really that was the right thing to do. Guess I'm just not used to dealing with people that actually care about me!"

Motoko's lip quivered. She quickly covered her face with her hand, as if trying to hide something from the young man before her. Keitaro reached out for her shoulder, but his fingertips stopped short as her hand lowered to reveal a menacing sneer. "Hands to yourself Urashima, if you want to keep it attached to the rest of your person..."

"I would prefer to keep it that way, yes..." Keitaro snickered sheepishly, wiggling his fingers in appreciation that they hadn't been severed, or so it seemed. "On the subject of preferences... I don't feel it's quite as dangerous as it might've been in the past to say that we're friends is it?... So, would it be asking too much of you to just call me Keitaro?..."

It had been a running theme the past two nights, but Motoko's reaction wasn't what Keitaro had expected. She didn't act insulted or amused, but looked rather stunned and that was putting it lightly at best. Again, Motoko bit at her lip, as if trying to fight off something bigger than she was. "Naru was right... You are an idiot..."

"Back to that now huh? It's okay though, not like I can argue," Keitaro snickered, at that point merely throwing together words to keep his end of the conversation going. He didn't seem to mind that Motoko had yet to respond to his request.

"Why can't I hate you?..." Motoko said, seemingly at random. Without question, Keitaro was taken aback. "You've given me every possible reason too...You're a spineless, perverted, worthless waste of skin and bone and yet... At the same time nothing of the sort! At one time you personified everything I hated in the members of your gender, and it was so easy to blame you for everything wrong in my life but now... What is wrong with me?!"

"Nothing I can see... But I will say that I'm glad to hear you don't actually hate me..."

Motoko turned her back to him abruptly, and quickly composed herself. What she'd wanted to say was now out in the open, and she saw no further reason to subject herself to this embarrassment. "I have nothing further to say for the moment... Except that I ran into Naru as I sought you out. She didn't express this to me in any way, but I do believe she'd been waiting for you. I would suggest you not keep her waiting any longer."

"I agree... Thanks Motoko..."

"You're welcome... Keitaro," Motoko replied with a half smile. She nodded towards him with an uncommon respect Keitaro found slightly unnerving. Keitaro himself, gave an instinctive wave as Motoko disappeared down the stairs.

********

Keitaro cursed himself for not asking Motoko exactly where she'd bumped into Naru, realizing he hadn't the slightest clue where to find her. He knew where to start his search however, and that place would also be where the search ended. Near his room, just outside his door really. Naru had propped herself against the wall, arms folded behind her back. Keitaro's breath grew heavy, and got heavier still once she noticed his approach. Naru's smile nearly took his legs out from under him, but for once in his life he managed to stay poised, or at least keep up the appearance that he was. He opened his mouth, and that idea was shot all to hell.

"Hey... Umm..."

"Hey..." Naru's response was every bit as elegant as Keitaro's.

"Umm... I noticed you left the party a couple hours ago, and never came back... I wondered where you got off to..."

"Oh, I just decided to give the other's some time with you... Because I knew once you came looking for me, they wouldn't be seeing any more of you tonight..."

"Eh?..." Keitaro turned white, frozen in place as Naru slipped her hand into his.

"Come with me, and I'll show you," she whispered to him while wearing a smile he'd only seen once from her before. It was the night before, but this time without that daunting voice in his head screaming that there was something amiss. No, he was a willing captive as Naru led him into his bedroom, and closed the door behind them.

********

Naru awoke with a stretch and a yawn designed to chase away the grogginess of the early morning. She immediately looked to her left and noticed something was missing that had been there the night before, yet Naru wasn't concerned in the least. In his place, was a note with Naru's name on it. Curios, she unfolded the paper and read what was written inside.

"There's no doubt in my mind now that heaven couldn't match what I have here on Earth."

Naru smiled, a warmness filling her heart, one that all souls on earth should be so fortunate to experience. She threw on her pajamas, just for a quick fix, and roamed the halls until she found an open window. The rays of the sun seemed to lock her in place as she stared into the morning sky. All of the sudden, everything seemed to make sense, and the future never looked brighter.

********

Naru swiped the sudsy water off her arm, thinking to herself how lovely a mid-morning bath felt to a recently waking and weary body. Apparently, everyone else in the house thought so as well, as most of the harem had amassed in the hot springs that morning. To Naru's right, all but the top half of Kitsune's head was submerged beneath the water as she tried desperately to chase away an alcohol induced headache. The pounding in her skull did nothing to curtail that mischievous spirit of hers, as she eyed her good friend as she hummed happily to herself. She'd noted earlier that morning that she'd never really seen Naru quite as cheerful as on that morning. Not that she was anything special for it, they were all feeling a little extra jubilant that morning, but Naru seemed to exude an added glow to her that one couldn't see with the naked eye. Neither Motoko nor Shinobu seemed to notice, but Kitsune knew Naru a lot better than the two of them did. She had an idea of what happened, oh hell; she knew exactly what they did... And she wasn't above having a little fun with it, smirking as her shoulders popped out of the water. "So Naru... Granted last night is a little hazy for me, but I noticed you and Keitaro disappeared awfully early... Now, where in the world did you two get off too?..."

"That's not really any of your business now is it?" Naru tried not to sound snide, though she did blush every so lightly. "Let's just say that you guys had your time with him, and I had mine... Ours just happened to be shared between the two of us, so let's just leave it at that."

"Really... And as I noticed, it resulted in you leaving his room at the butt-crack of dawn this morning..." Naru's eyes bulged as she turned blood red. "Though at least you did have your jammies on, it's always good to plan ahead."

"It wasn't the crack of dawn!... And I didn't... How do you know I didn't jump down into his room after I woke up this morning?!"

Motoko frowned, and pretended she wasn't listening. Shinobu was a little more animated with her concern. "Um... Exactly what were you two doing last night?.. I mean..." Shinobu looked away, twirling her fingers nervously. "I went to check up on Sempai last night, but I was too afraid to go inside because of... All the weird noises coming from the room."

"Weird noises?" Motoko's head snapped around.

"Yes... Um, like grunting, some yelling, and um... Growling..."

"Growling?..." Motoko said for her own benefit, while Naru was now the one disappearing into the water. "Figures, what else could I have expected from the perverted baboon."

"Um... The noises didn't sound like they were coming from Keitaro..."

"This isn't an appropriate conversation to be having?!" Naru shrieked as she bounced out of the water. Embarrassed to near insane levels, she plopped back into the water and started frantically washing body parts long since clean.

"So Naru's loud..." Kitsune quipped, while mocking thoughtfulness. "Go figure..."

"Don't talk like that in front of them!"

"Fine, fine, I'll keep it PG, geesh... Come on though, you have to share somethin'... Is he a good kisser? I don't think he ever did kiss me back..."

"They were kissing?!" Shinobu nearly fainted, while Motoko muttered something beneath her breath.

"Apparently more than that..."

"Would you all shut up! Sine when is my love-life everybody else's business! Besides, none of you have any evidence I did anything!"

"On the contrary, we have audio! Quick find her panties, there might still be traces of physical evidence!"

"Stay away from my!... Oh wait, I wasn't wearing any..." Naru threw her hands over her mouth, glowing red as the other girls stared holes through her.

Keitaro was passing by the bath, when he heard a loud ruckus coming from inside. "What's with all the racket?" Apparently having learned nothing in two years of living at a girl's dorm, he walked inside. What he found was Naru desperately trying to defend herself from a merciless tickle torture by three of her dorm-mates, who all froze and dropped what they were doing upon noticing the intruder. Keitaro stood there, mouth agape for all of five seconds before suddenly remembering what usually happened next. "Wow... You guys are in here awfully early this morning."

"Never changes does it..." Motoko grumbled, as her sword seemed to materialize in her hand.

The scene shifted to a serene view above the roof of Hinata House on a sunny morning. The peace was shattered by a blurry object that sent shingles flying in every which direction. Keitaro eventually came back down to Earth, landing face first into the shingles beside his next repair project. He laid there for a moment, before sitting up and rubbing the part of his face that made impact. He smiled despite the pain he felt there. "Ah... It's good to have things back to normal..."

The end.

Whew, after 25 years of production it's finally finished! As much as I've enjoyed working on this story, I'm glad to finally have it out from under me. I doubt any ending I could've come up would've been worth the wait I've put you guys through, but I'm not sure how many of you reading the ending of this fic now have been with me from the beginning. I understand now, why fan-fiction writers have such a short life-span, the older you get and the responsibility that comes with it makes it a lot harder to devote time to a hobby such as this. Well, you'll understand when you have a two-year-old crawling into your lap while you're trying to type, just like mine's doing now. :) I am working on another story, but I have no intentions of posting it unless I finish it. I'm not going to risk leaving a fic unfinished like I almost did with this one. Well, hopefully, this won't be the last time you hear from me... Well, until then, I hope you enjoyed the trip.

-Boombubble!