Disclaimer: Love Hina and its characters are the intellectual property of Ken Akamatsu, copyrighted to TV Tokyo and licensed to Central Park Media.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

And so the conversation had led them here. Three losers sitting in an empty teahouse which had remained empty since they had entered it. They didn't notice the time flying outside of the tea house, they didn't notice the sunlight pouring from the open door fade from the vibrant yellow of afternoon into the lurid orangey-red of sunset, and finally succumb to the pale shadows of the starry moonlit night.

The injection of sake and beer in their systems made them strangely all the more aware of their personal failures and of the absurdity of their surroundings. An unlikely camaraderie had formed between the three bit players in a span of hours as if it had been days. They were amazed by the effects the alcohol had upon them.

Haruka had given them a warning that last call would come around midnight, which was when her generosity and patience with their loitering would reach its limit. If they weren't clouded by alcohol, and if the very idea wasn't contrary to her usual behaviour, they would've thought that Haruka was being sympathetic to them.

That was all well and good for them. They had wondered how circumstance had strangely led them to talking candidly like this. It started upon entering Haruka's tea house earlier that afternoon.

Shirai had looked from side to side - he was caught in the middle of two morose men. He could feel the heavy burden between the two of them. The overhanging resignation made him so uncomfortable, he had to adjust his collar. It was a very uncomfortable situation for the three of them, and any attempt to cheer them up would have been a useless effort.

He kept quiet to his best friend, and to that formerly rich boy, as he wordlessly followed them to an empty table. The three of them sat, the two bespectacled losers across from the busboy, and they looked at each other in an awkward silence.

Oh, he had tried to make conversation.

"So, I see someone else is joining us today! Hey... I've seen you around here often... and, er... it appears I don't know your name..."

"Sakata Kentaro." The light brown haired boy said formally and curtly. He looked evenly at the shorter man. "Now you know."

Shirai looked away sheepishly. "Yes... Now I know it. Sakata... that's a very interesting last name. Doesn't that belong to-"

"Yes." he said quite shortly. Then he started again, haltingly trying to bring himself to say it. "My... my family owns the company."

It sounded very difficult for the boy to get out that information, so Shirai did not press any further into personal matters. But how was he to ever talk to the guy? Another topic came to mind, and he decided to make another attempt at small talk. "I think I saw you on TV once! It was on that variety show... I forget the name, but it was after Naru won the idol contest an-"

"Yes. I was her manager." Then said no more.

"Oh." Shirai dropped his head to look at the polished surface of the table. He stared at their reflections on the shiny veneer. This silence was getting quite tedious. They needed to get over whatever it was that was weighing them down. "Food for thought?"

The two doldrums looked up.

"Food. You know, to eat?" He had their attention, and with that, he smiled. "I did quite well today! Got paid to do what I love, and I'm feeling generous. A late late lunch, well rather, early dinner, for all of us, on me!"

A little confused, the busboy looked around, trying to see if his employer was watching. "I don't know... I mean, I think I used up my break time and... and... there might be more customers coming along in a bit..."

Effortlessly shuffling out of the kitchen, Haruka came out with a tray of three cups of steaming green tea. She laid the tray on the table and looked down on them in that deadpan way of hers. "It seems pretty slow at the moment. So what will you three have?"

When she had said that, the three looked up at her, surprised. They could have sworn that if not for her poker face and bland voice, she was actually being hospitable to them. In retrospect, maybe she was...

Looking back on it right now, their slight inebriation would only allow them to believe that it was just wishful thinking for her to act like that. Then again, if they were sober, they would most likely have the same thoughts upon her demeanour. So her behaviour was dodgy since they had no frame of reference for such... kindness?

But onto Kentaro's reaction at that time. "H-Haruka-san... Shouldn't I-"

"No one is going to come in for quite some time. I'd think that working here, Kentaro, you would know the trends in the day. So I'm asking you three again: what will you have?"

Tentatively they accepted the filled tea cups on the tray. She was giving them a break, for once. Well, not that she even paid mind to them, let alone gave them a hard time in the first place. Only when they acted up did they get knocked back down. This was nice; someone was at least paying attention and being charitable to them.

Shirai smiled and sipped his cup of tea first; this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he would play it up as best as he could. "Then I'll have three servings of today's special! Bring your best drinks! I'll pay, I'll pay," he reassured the present company. "And come back quickly with them, beautiful..." He winked at the older woman.

She shot him down with a withering stare. "Don't push it," she said, then turned away with their orders.

Shirai smiled. He had watched her closely - the slightest twitch of a smile curled at her lips at the joke.

Haitani shook his head at his friend. "You... you are seriously disturbed. First you rant on and on about your fascination and knowledge of magical girls, and now you're hitting on Keitaro's aunt. Lolita complex or Oedipus complex, make up your mind!" He glared at the stooge, and then the look changed to a humourous twinkling of his eyes. "You... You're an idiot, you know that?"

"I'll shut up then. What else is there to talk about until our food comes around?"

Shirai remembered that the air felt lighter at that moment. The smirks tugging on the corners of their lips helped lift the brooding tension. They leant back, relaxing in their seats, and they craned their necks to look out the open doorway. The silhouette of the inn atop the hill was still there, and they looked away from it.

And that was how it led to them sitting as they were now, in the night, under the fluorescent lighting. Noses and cheeks coloured rosy with their drink, feeling a little loosened and strangely aware.

Shirai was the most aware in such situations. Then again, he was the one who drank the least when it came to such social events - he needed to keep his wits about him. Somehow, his memory failed him as to how in the short course of the evening, or long course of the day, the subject wandered over to the most obvious: that inn that sat on top of the hill. They had their own lives going on (mundane as they were) and even if they were to never be involved in the affairs of the inn, they couldn't help but return to it in their words.

He recalled looking outside earlier, when it was sunny, and found that they were caught under Hinatasou's shadow.

Shaking his head, Shirai remembered bits and trails of their starting conversation. Mostly observations on their working lives. It was strange that now the joint job hunt with Haitani would split them up. Haitani was telling them about his day at the Hinata town grocery store as their stock boy. His friend griped about how it was such menial work, but work was work, and he had to take it. To which he himself comforted him that his ship would soon come in... he just wasn't at the right port.

Haitani was idly twirling his then emptied cup after a small tirade of the under appreciated toiling he went through, day in and out. "Stock the shelves, clean up the aisles... it's the same. I have to set everything up like new for the day, and by the end, I have to start again." He looked up to see his best friend's lips curling up, a bit of a distant look in his eyes. "And why are you smiling? What have you been doing at your job?" he asked almost accusingly.

"Oh... same as you. Behind the scenes work." This was where Shirai felt a secret sense of pride at what he was doing. Technical and powerful at the same time.

"You still haven't told me what you've been doing."

Of course, Shirai's smile had grown bigger as if he was about to reveal some great and grand secret. So he told them that he was a stage hand at one of the small theatres near the Toudai campus. He was quite content with handling the technical aspects of each production, making sure every touch of lighting and sounding enhanced the mood. It was quite funny because he was the one to manipulate what everyone felt by the subtle changes to the eyes and ears. In fact, content wasn't exactly the word to use, he was downright almost power happy with his small position.

So he was a geek. So they were all geeks in one aspect or another, but at least they were actively scraping and gathering every day for... for what, they did not know.

And that was the funny thing about not knowing anything.

Shirai did not know if it was the alcohol fogging up his memory like breath on his glasses, but something was obscuring his vision. He could vaguely recall that with some great clarity earlier in the day, he had come to the realization that his place, as well as Haitani's place, in this town felt like nothing more like bit players to some grand story.

It happened, when in a twist of déja vu, the comic resentment he and Haitani had felt when they played the horse (both ends!) had resurfaced when he watched the rehearsal for the play he was working with. It was caused by the commotion that happened before a scene:

The actors on stage had been rehearsing their lines while a shield bearer and a horse stood in the background.

Every mark had been hit without error until said shield-bearer and the horse's two ends jumped up onto the leading man.

"Now taste the bit players' wrath!" the trio cried as they commenced the mock beating.

An exact reminder of the summer play.

And it was in that moment of witnessing comedic relief that Shirai felt shocked, like the wind was knocked out of his lungs. The rest of the day, he almost felt bitter and angry that in the grand scheme of his life, he and one whom he came to consider his brother were reduced to pawns. And all day, he thought about the situation. The more he thought, the more he felt aware that he was merely a performer, just like those who were involved with the great big inn. They were just someone who could fill the space in the background; just living, breathing, talking props that could provide the same laughs as a banana peel or pie in the face could.

Although in some way, the lack of attention on them made them free to pursue what they wanted. They did not feel constrained to some certain expectation of them to stay and heed the call for Toudai or the siren call of blooming sakura... and yet, in this town, they felt like they lost all progress that they had made outside of it. It was like some sort of neutral zone where any and every agenda and ambition was dropped within it, and then picked up as soon as they stepped outside its invisible boundaries. Those who stayed within would stagnate, aimless and pushed to the background, no more than a bit player.

He held on to his thoughts as he would meet Haitani (like they had arranged earlier in the day), and he would tell his friend everything about the conclusion he had come to. But when he crossed the bridge to get to Haruka's tea house, he had passed the town elders, scrutinizing him. Their intense gazes, and the sudden appearance of fog on a warm afternoon, startled him. Startled him so much that his train of thought was derailed. It took him a few moments to collect his thoughts, which turned more and more towards meeting Haitani and less and less of telling him about the fleeting epiphany he had earlier.

All that filled his forgotten mind were simple thoughts of meeting Haitani, hanging out with him, eating dinner, and then going home to read up on his magical girl manga collection before bed.

It was then, as he was starting to go on about his day at work, that it was through the fog of alcohol a spark of recognition flared in his mind before it was so cruelly stamped out by some outside force invading his thoughts.

Shirai shook his head about, trying to get rid of the disturbing shudder that overtook his body so suddenly.

Haitani looked at him strangely. "So?"

"So what?"

"You were going to tell us something funny that you saw during rehearsal today. There were three guys on stage and then you stopped to remember the rest of it."

Kentaro nodded, surprisingly not looking bored at such a mundane story. "So then what happened?"

Shirai blinked, trying to recall the scene. "I... I don't remember. Man, the day really flew by; it was all a blur."

The poor rich boy nodded, shrugging off the stop in the boy's story. "Tell me about it. Whether business is slow or fast, I blink and the day is gone. Wasn't it just the afternoon when we started? It feels like it's almost morning..."

Uncomfortable silence settled over the three of them for a small bit, and Kentaro stretched lazily, trying to bring some new sensation to his back and arms after sitting for hours. He had looked out the door at Hinatasou, even though it wasn't in his line of sight. Just to keep anything from filling the silence, he asked, "Did you visit your friend, Keitaro, today? You two don't usually come here unless it's to see him."

The taller of the bespectacled duo sheepishly scratched the back of his head. "Ahh... No. Up until a few days ago, it was to see Kitsune and go partying, but... we don't do that anymore. Aside from that... when the ronins are busy studying, the inn is off-limits."

Shirai looked down in his sake, both hands circling the warmed cup. "Yeah... we usually feel like such kids whenever we go up there. It's like we stand around outside and ask one of the girls if it's okay for Keitaro to come outside and play. Usually, we just call him up and set up a meeting place and time, but he rarely ever shows up. It's like we can't go inside Hinatasou and get him ourselves." He then looked up at the busboy. "You. You work around here all the time. Haven't you ever been inside?"

He shook his head no in reply. "I popped in once and while, but I never stayed for long. It always feels like I just had to be there, and then I just had to go. Now there's the rare occasion where they need me to help patch a hole in the wall or re-shingle the roof because the girls managed to blow another hole through the building. The only places on the grounds I've been to are here, where I work, and then the small wooded around where I-" Kentaro caught himself before he embarrassed himself and gave away his poor condition. "Where I walk through to get home."

"But you can't live close to Hinatasou... Don't you board at a family townhouse? I don't even think the Sakata estate is located here," Shirai mused aloud.

Kentaro visibly blanched at the family name. "I... I don't live there any more."

Quickly jumping in and turning the tide of conversation, Haitani could only resort to the one thing he knew of: girls.

He clasped his hands together and brought them to his cheek. He closed his eyes and sighed dreamily; the alcohol coloured blush on his cheeks only served to complete his comedic portrayal of a sap in love or thinking romantic thoughts. "Ah... but you must be so lucky to pay them a visit, even if you are the odd-job handyman... But to be in the grace of such beautiful girls..."

"And magical too!" interjected Shirai.

Haitani had glared immediately at Shirai. "I don't understand your taste in girls... You sure scared the crap out of me when you first started talking about magical girls and talking to animals and then inspecting that Su gaijin! She must've been, like, fourteen years old at the time! She's now fifteen! You're twenty one! You must have some lolita complex..."

Shirai crossed his arms. "This coming from the guy who was talking about wanting Shinobu to jump into his arms... And she was thirteen, now fourteen! You've got me beat by one year for being the bigger loli-con pervert."

"Hey, at least I was thinking about Motoko too."

"But you're still a perv."

Both eyes turned on Kentaro when they heard him chuckling.

Haitani raised an eyebrow at the busboy. "Weren't you their manager?"

That stopped his snickering. "I was Naru's manager..."

"And you were Motoko and Shinobu's manager." The taller stooge held his chin in his hand, thinking.

Shirai nodded. "Oh yes... If I recall, they were the short-lived Sword and Flower pop team..."

Kentaro clutched at his head and curled up, trying to block out the memory of that failure. "Argh... Naru was the one who sunk my little studio, but those two... that stupid last-ditch Sword and Flower act... that was the final nail in the coffin. It didn't help that Kitsune stole the cashbox from the office. I was ruined by the girls of Hinatasou... and appropriately so. They are, they will be, my downfall..."

Shirai and Haitani looked at the cringing boy, slightly disturbed by the depressing candidacy. They had watched Kentaro as the busboy looked down and became quiet. His fist clenched and unclenched in his hair as he fought with himself, trying to see the worth in opening himself up to two strangers about his failures. Bitterly, he rationalized that he was drunk already, and he was so poor and low on the Hinatasou pecking order, so he may as well humiliate himself further. There was no further he could sink.

It was a small sound, choked in his throat. He was trying to keep his voice steady and was mentally biting back the impulse to let the floodgate of emotion and tears break. His voice deathly serious, but pathetic and wavering, he told everything he could remember about his fall from privilege. He had lost everything after that pop idol fiasco, and he was on shaky ground with his family - they barely even contacted him anymore. The only time he had made some real ground towards some reconciliation with them was close to the spring. But it was dashed when he piloted his multi-purpose vehicle to fly Naru over an island in her search for Keitaro (who ran away again). She had simply taken the opportunity from him, and probably in a moment of weakness or compassion (he couldn't tell which, not even now), he let her take it.

The duo, keeping a calm about them, nodded their heads, remembering that the girls were distraught enough to interrogate them on their supposed friend's whereabouts.

Kentaro had continued, saying that his irresponsibility at losing such a precious machine (he believed it was a prototype for their industrial empire) had cost him any other chance of being accepted into the family again. He fervently believed they denounced their only son, citing him a failure for losing his business, for losing an important piece of technology, for not even attending a prestigious post-secondary educational institution, and for being reduced to a peasant. He confessed that he was living in the small back woods near the inn, his shiny red car his only shelter. He raised his head at that moment, the effort bolstered by what was left of his stubborn pride, and he revealed his tear streaked cheeks to his drinking companions.

He looked at them, daring them to damn him. He steeled himself for their laughter and felt relief and disappointment when they continued to look at him.

Their faces were not mocking nor neutral, but they revealed resignation and pitied understanding. Two pairs of eyes, though they looked right at him, seemed downcast in the same shame and depression that he and they so commonly felt. They knew exactly what it felt like to be overshadowed by expectations and lack of expectations and failing, failure, never being seen as more than what they were.

Then they smiled.

They smiled. Lips curled up and actually radiating some mirth and spirit, a contrast to their straightforward, downcast eyes. Smiles saying that they could make the most of things, and the could change things if they tried enough. Almost resigned smiles hinting that they would most likely fail at their dreamy sentimental striving, but with enough cynicism and realist impositions, they wouldn't be too disappointed. They were already disappointed and would continue to be, but they could only work past it and find some way to smile. Find some way to smile at (or despite) their mediocrity.

It was enough.

And they started to laugh.

Haitani grinned and took a swig of his beer. "Those girls... They'll all be our downfall, my friend." He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and grinned. "I don't know how many times I've been swindled by Kitsune... Wasted money on, well... this!" He raised his empty beer bottle and slammed it on the table. "Urashima-san! Can we get another round here?"

"Hm? Does Haruka count as one of the girls?"

With a sound of exasperation, Haitani jumped up from his seat and grabbed his friend in a headlock, playfully mussing up his hair. "Keep quiet, you loli-con freak! Why can't you like normal girls? Girls your age?"

"Gah! Get off me!" Shirai finally pried the taller loser off his back and plopped him back into his seat. "Because the only girl our age is a scamming boozer who knows how to use a pair of boobs." He ran his hands through his hair, smoothing it down after getting it all messed up. "Besides, I'd rather have an honest, younger or older, girl who can face her own deficiencies without the need for a crutch. Sake or violence. And you never even got so far as to proposition her... unlike Kentaro here."

Kentaro, who was watching the scene with amusement, nearly choked on his sip of beer. "She told you about that?"

Haitani couldn't help but glare at the younger boy. "It was one the many stories she regaled us with whenever we went out on her little bar crawls. She said she got you good during the festival and taught you a lesson. From what she told me, you surely deserved it... I mean, to even suggest something as sleazy as a roll in the bushes in exchange for information!"

He fumbled for a napkin to wipe away the mess of sputtered alcohol on his face. "I'm sorry I hit on Kitsune, okay? I was drunk when I did it. Drunk, angry, desperate. Not like she noticed; ironic, huh? The lush not recognizing one of her own kind. For my first time acting like a drunken jerk, I sure came off like a natural." He sighed. "I'm sorry I even propositioned her. I'm sorry for a lot of things I did and said. Looking now, I think: how was that ever me? That must have been someone different, someone so out of touch with reality-"

"-someone who was completely unaware of themselves and the people around them," Shirai finished.

The busboy nodded. "Yes... exactly that." He looked to the taller of the bespectacled duo.

The one who was quick to defend the fox. Someone who probably genuinely cared for the girl, but was shut down. Someone who was in a position that was better than his former self. But both were acting like girl crazy letches, nonetheless. At least, at least the other fellow didn't think the way of material goods could win the girls' heart... right? No, no... looking at each other, they were in the same sad boat.

"Like you were forced to wear a mask that made you act like someone you weren't." The pudgier of the two had caught his attention again, and Kentaro couldn't help but nod, dumbfounded that somehow it made sense.

Haruka arrived with another trio of beer bottles, and she looked at them warily. She slowly set down the bottle before each boy, as if questioning the whether or not she should contribute any more to their inebriated state, but she stopped herself when Shirai brought the necessary currency to pay for this serving. The older woman pocketed the money and raised her eyebrows at them, but then shrugged and let them be.

"I'm sorry I hit on Kitsune," Kentaro apologized again, taking another swig from his fresh bottle.

"And I'm sorry I ever liked her, let alone tried to confess to her," said Haitani. "You had the balls to proposition her, which is a lot farther than I'd ever gotten... Ah..." he sighed, having another cold draught of the liquor.

"Maybe it serves you two right for trying to get something you'll never have, or trying to get something someone else already has." Shirai shrugged. "Anyways, if there's one person who has gotten a lot farther than the three of us combined... well, you know who he is, and I'm sure you two envy him for it, huh?"

The bespectacled brother shook his head. "Yes! Argh, that Keitaro! How stupid is he to not notice those other girls! They're all so goddamn hung up on him, trying to get his attention."

"But he only has eyes for Naru." Kentaro nodded his agreement. "It's stupid, really. Why can't he see Mutsumi? Or even Shinobu-chan... if he waited a few years. They are, of course, the nice girls. Really, the nice girl and the nice boy. Doesn't that make sense?"

"What makes sense to Keitaro is a childhood promise he barely remembers."

"Then by that line of logic, Mutsumi is the one he should be going to Toudai with," interjected Shirai.

Masayuki shook his head. "Again, Naru. That contradicts the promise."

Sakata sighed. "Ah, ah, ah. He'll most likely convince himself that it was her all along so he won't feel guilty about breaking the promise with Mustumi. She's practically given the dysfunctional duo her blessing, though why, oh why, she won't stand her ground is beyond me. My rival, dare I say it, deserves someone better."

"Good sportsmanship. But I'm tired of talking about stupid Keitaro," Haitani sighed.

Shirai sat back, listening and sipping. "Me too."

"But aren't you two supposed to be his friends?"

"We were his friends. But I don't think we ever really knew him until we all walked into the cram school together," clarified Shirai.

"You two were trying to get into Toudai?" Kentaro blinked.

"Not so much trying to get in and more along the lines of trying to meet cute girls and then get in." Haitani polished off his bottle. "Not like it matters. We only got dragged along with Keitaro into that crazy Toudai scheme of his."

"What were you going to do if you did get in?"

"Us?" Haitani snorted. "Snowball's chance in hell. Don't have the grades, don't have the money, don't even have a name-" and he shot a look at Kentaro "-that will get us in there, let alone put us on a recommendation list."

The stout one continued to calmly sip at his sake. "Between the three of us, Kentaro, you have- had the best chance of getting in. Smarts, name, money. Ever planned on going to Toudai yourself?"

Kentaro picked at the paper wrapped around his beer bottle. He let out a sound between a snort and a laugh, a derisive sound that accompanied his glare down at the amber liquid. "No, no. I go- I used to go to K University. Premed, to be exact. But Toudai? I don't know... if I still had the money and connections, I'd go back, take up entertainment management, even minor in business investments. That way, I have something to fall back on, and I'll be wiser in what I put my money into. I can't ride on the family name forever. Anyways, I'd probably go back to K University and finish up with some other degree, if not medicine."

"That sounds pretty reasonable."

"What about you?"

Shirai stared at the former playboy, then withered as he followed suit. "Me? Myeah, business seems good and all. I'm not an entrepreneur or anything like that. I see myself as a miserable salary man, going through the motions until another recession hits Japan. Then I can end my life by dramatically flinging myself out of my office building and kissing the pavement below."

Haitani shuddered. "Ugh... You certainly are a morbid one, aren't you?"

"I'm not a total pessimist! If you were listening, I said until another recession hits Japan. That means I still have some hope we'll get out of this economic slump. Seriously... I don't know. I've always liked computers and I've wanted to work with them, but then again, that market is pretty much saturated. I guess all I have is my creative side. Going with what I have now... maybe dramatic studies, stage and screen. Live my life as a starving artist. Now what about you, Haitani?"

"Yeah, you could use some starving. I don't really know. I guess I'm also going to relegate myself to middle class tedium. Find myself a nice girl who's willing to settle out of insecurity for her own biological clock..." Out of the blue, he slapped Shirai upside the head. "That's for making me start to talk like you."

Kentaro tapped his nose. "Toudai."

"That stupid place. Uh, well... I don't really know. I don't have any idea what I want to do or study. I guess something practical, like a trade. I've always been good with my hands." A lame attempt at the old nudge-and-wink followed. "But I don't think I want to go to Toudai. Too expensive, too much pressure. A lesser-known college or university would be just as good. Sure, there's not so much of a reputation, but I mean, learning is learning. It's not like I'm expecting that once I pass a test and set foot in the building, they'll give me the girl of my dreams and a perfect course for the rest of my life. I'm not expecting too much from a school."

"Unlike Keitaro..." Kentaro said wryly.

"Now that he's actually in there, when's he going to realize that nothing magically changed? He's still living in that house with all those girls and chasing after the most immature, possessive, hypocritical, hypersensitive harpy of them all. And Naru can't get her shit together to realize she's got to make a stand to make things work. Oh, but it's not like it matters to either of them. True love is giving up your own happiness for someone else's sake. And true love is desperate grabs at straws against insurmountable odds."

"Yeah, yeah," Kentaro waggled his bottle in front of him, "and if we all believe in ourselves and make grand promises to get to Toudai, we'll make it too. If we promise under a cherry tree, or kiss under the moonlight, or set our hair on fire at midnight on the summer solstice, we'll get the girl and live happily ever after."

They all sat in silence, finished talking about anything other than themselves.

Surely these were arguments that they had all questioned themselves with before. Why didn't it make sense? Why was Keitaro's life so easy, and yet, so screwed up?

And that was where they conversation had ended up at this moment.

Shirai had just polished off the rest of his bottle, but he was feeling sobered and aware. "Listen to us... We're blathering on and on about incidents we can't control. We're like some sad otaku talking about our favourite anime and complaining that things in the show aren't going the way we want them to."

"Not like we can even do anything. We're not the writers, nor the directors, nor the voice actors. Not even studio coffee boys."

Kentaro looked out the door, a bit wistful. "What is there to talk about? It's not like we have anything important going on in our lives at the moment. We're just... living under its shadow."

Eyes darted to each other around the table in the silence that followed.

Tentatively, the nerd pair raised their glasses up, and waited for the former playboy to join his bottle to theirs.

"To the goddesses," Kentaro toasted sarcastically. "To the blessings they bestow on fools."

"To their fickle attitudes and bat-shit insane tempers," Haitani sardonically added.

"And to how they continue to bewitch us," Shirai quietly tagged on.

"Kampai!" they cried among the clinking of glass.

The clearing of Haruka's throat brought their raised arms back down. They were embarrassed at such a celebration before the woman associated with the inn.

"I think you boys have had enough."

Her single utterance sent them standing, fumbling for the exit. They glanced back as she picked up their bottles, and for a moment, they thought that pity for them was etched across her face.

Cold air hit their faces, forcing them to open their eyes and see the dark and empty area around them. They sighed, their breath becoming visible before fading away. Somehow, they were tired of seeing anything that remotely reminded them of fog, and they pried their eyes heavenward.

They saw the blinding white disk of the moon, moored perfectly above the tower of the inn on the hill. They averted their eyes to the rest of the midnight blanket, looking at the humble and muted brilliance of the twinkling stars.

The trio scoffed at the audacity of the bright yellow moon, that house to mythical rabbits, men, and princesses; it dared to outshine the only constant in the sky - the stars.

They felt there was nothing more that could be said without repeating themselves.

But it was what was never said that surprised them.

"Let's get out of here."

All eyes were on Shirai.

"What?" Haitani and Kentaro asked.

"I said, let's get out of here. No promises made, but we need to leave because this isn't the place for us. We're going nowhere here, while everything goes someone else's way."

Both young men contemplated the suggestion, drinking in the crisp night air and letting it clear their heads. Their eyes kept high on the stars in the cloudless, fogless night.

"Yeah," agreed Haitani.

"Okay," agreed Kentaro.

They walked away from the teahouse and away from the inn and past the Yakemuri Bridge where the old men of Hinata town were strangely stationed. The old men stared at the trio through beady, wrinkled eyes that twinkled and sparked disapproval, as if walking away were the most unnatural thing in their world.

But the young men paid them no mind and kept on walking past the bridge, not even noticing the tendrils of fog that threateningly formed and licked at their heels but did not dare to touch them.

Tonight was depressingly empty of magic and offering no promises to them, but to Kentaro Sakata, Haitani Masayuki, and Shirai Kimiaki, it held as much potential as the stars in the sky.

Author's Notes
I'll admit it, I adore these minor characters. This story is an add-on to Second Hand Smoke, because I felt that these minor characters didn't have any closure; I explored Haitani and Kentaro's feelings, but it's not like I got them to do something about it. They were stuck in their ruts, and they needed to get out. Plus, Shirai needed his fair share of screen time.

I'm thinking of starting a short series with these three as they try to leave Hinatasou's town and try to come into their own. Of course, they will have their encounters with other minor characters of Love Hina (and probably from other series). As well, leaving the veritable paradise of Hinatasou won't be easy, as the mystical old men have shown.

Hopefully, I can flesh out these half-molded men and give them better character, while still keeping them close to their roots in the anime.

In brushing up my writing skills, I played around with symbolic elements in the story, such as the fog and the stars, and they will play into the future chapters. As well, the movement of time during their conversation was ambiguous, going backwards and forwards, reminiscing about something hours ago and then plopping right into the middle of the present. I felt it was a little sloppy, but it did its job in colouring the strangeness of where they live, or rather, the situation they will find themselves in.

Before I forget, I want to dedicate this story to my wonderful and patient beta reader, Damien Grey (formerly Haitani Masayuki). A great bouncing board for ideas and insights on what aspects of character to explore. Look forward to more of his work in the future of this mini-series.

As always, comments and criticism would be greatly appreciated.

Posted: March 3, 2006