The Finest Mask
She had changed her hair first. It was the most obvious thing. Hair was one of the basic characteristics people used to identify each other. Dye wouldn't do. It was too easy to detect and took too much effort to maintain. Instead she'd sought something much longer lasting. She'd opted for the enzyme treatment. It was easily ingested and the effect lasted for years, even as the hair grew. Perfect, especially as she intended to grow her hair longer.
Keitaro looked up from the papers that lay on his desk and rubbed his temples wearily. It was at times like this that he remembered being out in the field with more than a little nostalgia. He'd liked the adventure of it, enjoyed the opportunities to travel and the new experiences. But for Keitaro the real joy of being a field archaeologist lay in the thrill of being the person who actually made a find. To him archaeology was halfway between being a detective and being a treasure hunter. You studied the facts, drew conclusions, made some guesses when everything else failed and then you got to see if you were right. The actual process of digging, uncovering a new piece, carefully cleaning away the grime to find out if it was what you thought it was . . .
And now I'm stuck here instead, Keitaro thought as he tipped back in his chair until it was propped against the wall and put his hands behind his head while stretching his legs out in front of him.
I shouldn't complain. Being made curator of a collection like this at my age is a pretty big deal. Everybody says so. Good for my career.
Eyeing the paperwork in front of him sourly Keitaro decided he'd done enough work for the evening. Everyone else had already gone home. He let out a small groan as he stood up, feeling the muscles in his lower back spasm as he straightened up after too many hours spent hunched over a desk. The physical activity was something else Keitaro missed about doing field work. Nowadays he barely had time to run through a couple of basic kata in the morning. He had always derived a certain satisfaction from manual labour.
Which is why I'm currently working in a pokey little office, Keitaro told himself wryly as he locked the door behind him and made his way down the corridor towards the elevator. With a mental wince Keitaro tried to shrug off the depression he was feeling.
Admit it, this isn't about your office, which is actually pretty nice, and it isn't even about being a curator instead of working in the field, which won't be the case forever. It's about being back in Tokyo.
Where Naru is.
She hadn't liked the thought of surgery. She was too proud of who she was to want to give up her identity as thoroughly as that, but in the end she'd acceded to the necessity. She was making a fresh start, after all. Nonetheless, she'd kept it to a minimum. Between the changes to her hair and the new laser surgery that altered the colour of her eyes she'd judged that only minor alterations to her nose and cheekbones would be necessary. The time that had passed since she'd seen him last would do the rest.
Keitaro suspected that Seta and Haruka thought they were being clever, contriving this excuse to send him back to Japan. When the prestigious new Museum of Ancient Cultures had opened in Tokyo they'd asked Seta if he'd contribute a selection of the artefacts he'd discovered in the pacific while searching for evidence of the ancient terrapin civilizations. Seta had been agreeable, provided that his protégé, Urashima Keitaro, travelled with the collection to oversee it. The MoAC had accepted Seta's terms with a readiness that had surprised Keitaro, but their offer of a guest position for him on their staff had been nothing short of astonishing. To him, that was. Seta had almost seemed to be expecting it. When Keitaro had wondered aloud why the museum was being so generous his mentor had dropped another surprise in his lap.
"You're actually quite well known, you know," Seta had told Keitaro several months ago while they'd been sitting in a pair of old canvas folding chairs, enjoying a quiet beer each. At any dig where it looked as though they'd be staying put for awhile Seta would find a spot that afforded them a good view of the whole site and put the chairs there. Then he and Keitaro would retire to the chosen spot at the end of the day to discuss the day's work and relax for awhile. Seta would gaze at the controlled disaster zone that any dig eventually came to resemble. Keitaro had learnt that Seta liked to look at the overall picture, even though it was often one that only he could see. On this particular evening Keitaro could hear Haruka arguing with Sara, though they were far enough away that the sound was somewhat muted. His aunt didn't always accompany Seta on his digs and only allowed Sara to because she managed to keep her grades up through distance education. Seta's adopted daughter would occasionally try to sabotage their internet connection to avoid having to hand in assignments, but somehow Haruka always caught her at it. Keitaro imagined this was probably what their current argument was about, but on an evening this beautiful, with the sun setting over the ocean, the birds making their own unique music and a couple of beers inside him Keitaro was unfazed even by the thought of his aunt in a temper. He was absolutely relaxed. Or he had been, until a moment ago.
"I'm serious," Seta had replied easily. "You've built up something of a reputation."
Keitaro had started shaking his head.
"But I've just been following you around, helping out-"
"And making some fairly significant discoveries in your own right," Seta had added.
"I think this would be good for you," Keitaro's mentor continued. "It's a chance to write some papers, work out the details of some of those theories you've been working on. Minding the collection won't take up too much of your time once the exhibit is set up. You need to have a body of written work to build a career as an archaeologist – and you should take some time to relax and enjoy yourself as well."
Seta had laughed to himself before continuing, his tone thoughtful.
"After all, being brilliant won't get you anywhere if no-one knows about it."
And that was how Keitaro had found himself back in Japan, a priceless collection of artefacts in his care. If he was honest with himself Seta had been right it being an opportunity. The work he'd been able to accomplish while acting as curator for the collection had been rewarding and the attention he'd received had been somewhat flattering, even if he didn't really see the point of it. But it had turned out that Seta had had another motive for getting him to accept the offer. Keitaro hadn't been pleased when he'd found out. The conversation he'd had with Haruka over the phone had been fraught with tension.
"I can't believe you did this without telling me," he'd exclaimed.
"Would you have gone if you'd known?" Haruka had asked him evenly.
"No! And that's the point. You had no right to spring this on me!"
Haruka had been unsympathetic.
"I don't know what's going on between you and Naru, nephew, but whatever it is you need to get it out of your system."
"What does that mean?" Keitaro had asked sourly.
"How long has it been since you spoke to her?" Haruka asked rhetorically. "Other than to say hello, I mean. You moved out of the Inn after your first year at Toudai and you've hardly spoken to her since. Four years is a long time. The girls still ask about you when I stay at the shop."
Keitaro hadn't answered, gazing sightlessly at the wall of his hotel room. His first time back in Japan in nearly two years and there'd already been a message from Naru waiting for him at the hotel. Apparently Haruka had called her in advance to tell her he was coming and where to find him.
"Hey, Keitaro, you still there?"
Only someone who'd known Haruka as long as Keitaro had would have been able to detect the faint note of worry in her voice. It was enough to break Keitaro out of his funk.
"Yes, I'm still here. Is this the real reason Seta wanted me to go with the collection?"
"Don't be stupid," Haruka replied, sounding somewhat annoyed now, all trace of sympathy gone from her voice again. Her tone grew somewhat acerbic as she continued.
"Seta really did want someone to go with the collection to make sure it wasn't mishandled, and you're the only person who's really qualified for the job. And I know he had reasons of his own for wanting you to spend some time in Japan, which I'm sure he discussed with you. I just decided that it was a chance for you to sort things out with Naru as well."
"I've never thought of you as a matchmaker," Keitaro observed, a trace of annoyance creeping into his voice as well.
"All I said was, 'sort things out'," Haruka had replied at the time. "I don't know what happened between the two of you, but I know you need to deal with it."
"Oh," Keitaro had said quietly. Haruka hadn't said anything else on the subject and after they'd exchanged goodbyes she'd hung up.
I suppose Haruka was right about my needing closure, Keitaro thought now as he strolled down the street, headed for a nearby restaurant where he often had dinner, but that didn't make it any easier.
After that had been the changes she made to her posture and walk. Months of practice had altered her body language and the operation to lengthen her legs had changed her walk completely. The pain had been incredible, but the changes that occurred in the way her body moved were worth it. It was that, more than anything, which would ensure she fooled Haruka as well as everyone else. The increase in her height by several centimetres would only add to the effect.
Naru's message had mentioned a place and a time. She'd be there, the message went on, and she hoped he would too. As he picked at his fish and stared out the window at the cars passing by on the dimly lit side street Keitaro remembered that evening.
She looked good, Keitaro admitted to himself. More than a few male heads turned as Naru entered the restaurant and paused to look around before finding him and heading in his direction. Her black skirt ended just above her knees and the matching suit jacket subtly emphasised her figure. A white dress shirt, black stockings and black high heels completed the outfit. Keitaro felt his spirits sink a little at the sight. Naru had dressed to impress, which meant she'd dressed to impress him. That would only make things harder. He was dressed well himself, but for very different reasons, in a sharply tailored casual suit that was the only really good set of clothes he owned. He'd worn it tonight as a kind of armour, hoping that a touch of formality would help to insulate him from whatever happened. It was beginning to seem like a futile effort.
"Hello Keitaro," Naru said as she reached the corner table he was sitting at. Her smile was small but warm and Keitaro felt the familiar fluttering sensation start in his stomach.
How can she still have this effect on me? Keitaro wondered as he stood to pull the other chair out for her. Naru's smile grew warmer at his action and the fluttering in his stomach worsened.
"Hello Naru," he'd replied as she sat down. They'd kept the conversation light for most of the evening. He'd asked about her job and learnt that she was working as a high school teacher. She'd asked after Seta and Sara and he's told her they were doing well. But after the waitress had cleared away their desserts Naru leaned across the table and took his hands in hers.
They were very warm, Keitaro noticed, and her skin was very smooth.
Naru wasn't looking at him. She was staring down at her lap, her head tilted forward so her bangs hung over her face, and then she spoke.
"Keitaro . . . I didn't invite you here just to talk about our jobs and ask how everyone was. I wanted . . . I wanted to talk to you."
"What about?" he'd asked carefully, wishing he wasn't so aware of the scent of her perfume or the delicate crescents made by her neatly trimmed nails as her fingers twined with his. It occurred to him that to an outside observer they might look like lovers and the thought almost made him laugh, but he restrained the impulse. It would have been a bitter laugh.
"About . . . things. You know," Naru said pleadingly, peering out at him from behind her bangs now, "about what happened."
Keitaro just nodded, his thoughts whirling.
Our first year at Tokyo U . . . it's strange how dreams never quite turn out how you expect them to when you finally get your hands on the substance of them. I thought it was going to work out, I really did. After I got back from America it really seemed like I'd be together with Naru, but every time she I tried to get close she'd back away. I told myself to give her time, that I was being pushy, but I only wanted to know that her feelings for me were as strong as my feelings for her. The hell of it is I'm pretty sure she did love me. Maybe she still does now. But she could never say it. I begged her to and she couldn't say she loved me. I don't know what it was that held her back, only that it was stronger than her feelings for me.
"I, well, I still like you," Naru told him when it became apparent that he didn't intend to speak, shifting uncomfortably in her seat as she spoke.
"You like me," Keitaro repeated her words wearily. "After all this time, all you can say is that you like me. Naru, I told you I loved you and you ran away from me," Keitaro said tightly. "You ran away from me. I don't think you'll ever be able to admit your feelings."
He pulled his hands away from her and buried his face in them. The hurt he'd felt the night they'd celebrated surviving their first year – her first year mostly, since his had been so haphazard – was still with him. He'd challenged her to admit her feelings as he already had and she'd run away instead. It had led to the only real fight they'd ever had, and their break up when Keitaro had said he didn't think he could stay with Naru if she couldn't say she loved him. He hadn't really meant it, but she'd thought he had yet still hadn't been able to say the words. That had decided him. When Seta had invited him on another dig shortly after, he'd gladly accepted. And then hadn't bothered to come back.
"You know," he muttered wretchedly, a moment later, "if you could say it now, if you could say you loved me, I think I might just be willing to give us another chance, but I know you won't be able to."
As he spoke the words Keitaro was surprised to realise he meant them. His head may have finally given up on Naru, but it seemed his heart still couldn't quite let go.
It's not always a good thing to be an optimist, he reflected.
"Keitaro I . . . I'm just not . . . I don't know," Naru trailed off, her voice sounding unhappy and hopeful all at once.
"If you don't know how you feel by now Naru then you never will," Keitaro told her sadly. Naru had looked stricken by his words. He'd seen her angry and he'd seen her happy and he'd seen her sad, but he'd never seen her look like this. Keitaro still wasn't sure – and probably he never would be – but he thought that Naru's expression had been one of realisation as well as her obvious misery. Realisation of what, he couldn't say. Maybe that he was right, or maybe of something else altogether that had simply been triggered by his words. Either way Keitaro had witnessed in Naru the same transformation he'd gone through himself four years ago, when he'd realised they were never going to be together.
Seeing it happen to Naru was even worse than going through it himself.
After a few seconds of silence Naru had slowly stood up. She wasn't entirely steady on her legs, but Keitaro hadn't tried to help her. This was a parting of the ways in which there was no room for friendly gestures. She'd nodded to him, the movement brief and controlled as though moving too suddenly would cause her pain, and walked away. He'd waited a few minutes, paid the bill, and then walked out into the night.
And that, Keitaro thought now, was that.
The finishing touch of her physical transformation had been the changes to her speech patterns. The caress of a skilled surgeon's scalpel on her vocal cords had given her a rich contralto. This was one of the few changes that she considered a genuine improvement rather than just an exchange of appearance. Her new voice was sexier, capable of getting a man's attention before he'd even seen her. She liked it - and it would also be a useful tool. The alterations to her vocal cords had an additional benefit that she'd been counting on – they forced her to relearn how to speak. By starting her speech therapy with English – and working on her Japanese after she'd mastered the foreign language - she'd given her Japanese a completely natural American accent. She was rather proud of that trick.
Keitaro flushed as his stomach rumbled. The two dozen grade school children he was leading through the exhibition of Seta's collection giggled and snickered at the sound while their teacher raised an eyebrow at him. Skipping breakfast this morning after not finishing his dinner last night had clearly been a mistake.
"Actually, the larger breeds of ancient terrapin probably made a similar noise to warn off their enemies," he ad-libbed. There were only a few more exhibits to go and after another ten minutes Keitaro was done with the tour. Strictly speaking such activities weren't part of his responsibilities but he liked to lead the odd tour group himself, especially when they were school students. Sharing his knowledge with other people, especially when he could get them interested, was something that he enjoyed a great deal. After bidding the children and their teacher goodbye Keitaro decided a trip to the cafeteria was in order. As he stepped out into the corridor he turned in the direction of the cafeteria and never saw the person coming the other way.
Folders and papers went flying as he ran into a young woman carrying an armful of documents, though she managed to stay upright somehow.
"Ah! I'm so sorry!" Keitaro exclaimed, instinctively kneeling down to start gathering up the scattered papers.
"No, no, it's alright," she replied, sounding amused. Her voice was rich and melodic, prompting Keitaro to look up to see who he was talking to.
She was beautiful, of that there was no doubt. For one light headed moment he felt the way he often had during the beginning of his time at the Hinata Inn. From his position her legs – long and shapely – were the first thing he noticed, but her long mane of gleaming dark auburn hair and clear green eyes caught his attention as well.
"Is something wrong?" she asked him innocently in her honey smooth voice, eyes twinkling.
"Oh, um, no not at all, I was just getting these for you . . ." Keitaro trailed off, feeling foolish, but the woman didn't seem to notice his discomfort.
"Thank you, Urashima-san," she said, holding out her arms and gesturing for him to return the documents he'd gathered up.
"How do you know my name?" he asked in surprise as he handed them back to her.
"Everyone's heard about the exhibit on ancient terrapin cultures – and the handsome young professor who's been sent to oversee it," she added with a mischievous smile that made his pulse quicken.
I think she's flirting with me, Keitaro realised with some surprise. Even more surprising to him was the pleasure which filled him at the thought.
Well she is pretty . . . but after everything that's happened recently I'm not sure I'm really interested in starting a relationship.
Keitaro was about to dismiss the woman from his thoughts, beautiful or not, when he remembered Seta advising him to relax a little while he was in Japan.
What would Seta say if he was here now? Keitaro wondered. Probably something about not wasting my youth. And I suppose he'd have a point.
Keitaro regarded the woman in front of him thoughtfully.
Well why not? It might not lead to anything. It might even help me get my mind of . . . other things.
Another thought struck him a moment later and he laughed out loud.
"What's so funny?" the woman he'd run into a minute ago asked him.
"I just realised," Keitaro replied, "that I don't even know your name."
"It's Chiko," she told him, returning his smile with another one of her own. "Takara Chiko."
"Chiko it is. I was just about to have lunch. Would you care to join me?"
"I would," she told him, "but I need to drop these off first."
Chiko indicated the documents cradled in her arms with a tilt of her head and Keitaro nodded his assent.
"I'll walk with you, if you don't mind."
"Not at all," Chiko replied with a smile.
The hardest part had been covering her tracks. The mechanics of it might have been straightforward, but her feelings on the matter . . .
In the end she couldn't quite bring herself to fake her own death. She could imagine how her family would react to that, not to mention the effect it would have on Keitaro. Instead she simply sent them increasingly infrequent letters from America and eventually allowed her correspondence to fade away altogether. She found an internet business that would send birthday and Christmas cards automatically if she provided them with addresses and personal details and paid on time. Creating the paperwork that identified her as the American born daughter of two Japanese immigrants took some time, but posed no real difficulty once she figured out who to bribe.
The wonderful thing about Chiko, Keitaro thought as he prepared for their date, was how easy she was to talk to. The day they'd met he'd fallen naturally into conversation with her about all sorts of things. She'd asked about his time in the pacific and he'd told her about rushing to cover up a dig in preparation for an unexpected hurricane and Seta's misguided attempts to explore the slopes of a minor volcano that hadn't been quite as dormant as they'd been led to believe. Keitaro had learnt that Chiko was the daughter of Japanese parents who'd immigrated to America before she was born. She'd studied arts at a university in America before travelling to Japan on a work study program to be an English teacher at a high school for a year. When the year had ended Chiko had decided she didn't want to leave and had worked in a series of part time jobs since. The secretarial position she currently held at the museum was the latest of these. They'd been dating – Keitaro had to admit to himself that that was what they were doing – for nearly three months now. The truth was that Keitaro was still a little uncomfortable with their relationship. It was nothing to do with Chiko – she was smart, interesting, thoughtful, beautiful, fun and sexy – but Keitaro was uneasy with the idea of defining what it was they shared. They were generally considered a couple by their peers. That sometimes made Keitaro regret that the two of them hadn't been more discreet, but until recently he'd been telling himself that they were just two people who went out together and enjoyed each other's company, on several levels. Somewhat ironically, it was his deliberately casual approach to their relationship that had allowed them to grow as close as they had. Lately it had been getting harder to hold on to the comforting illusion that what they had was 'nothing serious' and deep down Keitaro wasn't sure he really wanted to. But he didn't want to be 'in' a relationship, either. Keitaro knew why he felt that way, though he didn't care to focus on it. After everything that had happened in his life he just didn't want to tie himself down. Not so soon, anyway.
Commitment is dangerous, a voice in his mind agreed. If you give too much of yourself to one person you can loose everything.
Keitaro put such thoughts out of his mind as he studied his reflection critically in the bathroom mirror. His apartment was too small for the bathroom to contain anything other than a shower, but the bathroom itself was quite nicely appointed and its fittings included the full length mirror he was currently standing in front of. He'd given up on the tie a while ago – he could never get them to hang straight – but since he was wearing a casual suit it didn't matter too much. It was one of the main reasons he preferred the style – that and the fact that Chiko liked them.
Face it, Keitaro told himself, you're starting to really fall for her.
And that was a problem, because his time in Japan was almost over.
She would have to change her personality, as well as her appearance, if she truly wanted to succeed. But she could do that. She had years of new experiences to draw on, and she'd found new interests in her time away. Years to think about it had also given her a new perspective on how she'd treated Keitaro before. Fitting all this into who she had been was difficult, but hardly impossible, especially not when she thought of it as character growth.
Keitaro strolled through the festival with Chiko leaning against him comfortably, his thoughts once again on his impending departure. The collection had only been loaned to the Museum for six months – a period of time that was almost over.
"A yen for your thoughts," Chiko murmured, her breath brushing against his ear as she spoke.
"Hmmm?" Keitaro replied distractedly.
"I meant, what are you thinking about? You seemed lost in thought."
Keitaro sighed. He didn't really want to have this conversation.
"You'll be leaving soon, won't you?" Chiko asked him suddenly. The way she said it, it was not really a question.
"Yes," Keitaro replied quietly, dreading her response to his admission.
"Will you be coming back again?" she asked softly.
It was not the response Keitaro had expected. Neither tears nor anger would have caught him by surprise. He'd been prepared for both pleas and accusations, but not for calm acceptance and a hopeful offer.
"I don't know," Keitaro told her, his surprise causing him to utter the first words that entered his mind.
"I mean," he continued hurriedly as he felt Chiko stiffen, "I don't know when I might have a reason to come back again."
Chiko made a little 'humph' noise that Keitaro correctly interpreted as indicating displeasure. Mentally reviewing what he'd just said Keitaro winced as he realised his unintentional insult.
"Ah! I'm sorry!" he exclaimed hurriedly, "I didn't mean it like that! I just meant-" Keitaro halted in mid sentence as he felt Chiko shaking against him.
"Chiko?" he asked worriedly, "are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Chiko replied and Keitaro felt a surge of relief as she turned her face towards his and he realised she had been laughing, not crying.
"You're so easy to tease Keitaro," she told him smilingly and Keitaro couldn't help but smile back.
It's been years since I've made a fool of myself like this, he reflected wryly.
But then Chiko's expression sobered and Keitaro felt his own tension returning as it became clear that they'd reached the serious part of the conversation.
"I care about you a lot, Keitaro, and I think you feel the same way about me."
Unconsciously, Keitaro nodded his agreement.
"I don't like the thought of your leaving, but I understand how important your work is to you. I suppose that I'm asking you if . . . if what we have together means enough to you that you're willing to find a way for us to keep seeing each other even though our lives make it difficult. Does it?"
Keitaro looked into her gleaming green eyes with something approaching awe. Put like that maintaining their relationship didn't seem so impossible – or so frightening.
"Yes," he replied, that simple word coming from him far more easily than he'd expected. "We'll find a way."
Chiko's smile was luminous.
"That's all I needed to hear."
Eventually there was just one thing left to do.
She had to choose a name.
She decided on Chiko. Takara Chiko.
She felt it was appropriate.
Keitaro straightened up with a groan as he felt the muscles in his lower back protest the movement.
I should do less of the grunt work, after all that's what interns are for, he told himself wryly. But even as he thought it Keitaro knew he was kidding himself. He enjoyed the physical aspect of his job too much to give it up. Not the backbreaking physical labour that constituted a larger part of archaeology than most people realised, but the act of personally making a find, carefully digging around it and extracting it, and then carefully cleaning it and determining what it was. It was one of the great joys of his life.
"Not yet," Keitaro replied, looking up as he answered Seta's question.
"Mmmmmm." Seta's tone was thoughtful. "I know you were enthusiastic about the directions we found on that Chenlia Dynasty vase, but I'm starting to think that . . ."
"Hey! HEY! I've found something here! You've gotta see this!"
"You were saying?" Keitaro asked Seta with just a trace of a smirk as the excited shouting of one of the Toudai interns reached their ears. He didn't wait for an answer before levering himself out of the hole he was standing in and heading for the source of the commotion at a jog. Seta followed, shaking his head bemusedly.
"I knew it, I knew it, I knew it all along!" Keitaro declared that night as they were all sitting round the campfire. It was a larger group than he was used to on these digs. In times past it had just been him and Seta, sometimes accompanied by Nyamo and/or Haruka and Sarah. Nowadays there were assorted interns, assistants and labourers as well.
"But how did you know, sempai?" one of those selfsame interns asked, eyes shining with just a touch of hero worship. Keitaro smiled. He found it somewhat ironic, on the odd occasion that he happened to think on it, that he who had dropped out of Tokyo University after his first year (and several failed attempts to get in) commanded so much respect from Toudai students who would do something he never would: graduate. It was weird and not something he usually thought about, but occasionally it felt kinda good.
Reminds me that you don't have to be a Toudai graduate to accomplish something in life, he thought to himself. Graduating from Toudai had become a lot less important to Keitaro after his falling out with his 'promised girl' but that didn't keep him from feeling the odd pang of regret.
"Well," he said now, resolutely putting thoughts of the past out of his mind, "I've always maintained that the absence of roads and large fixed structures didn't necessarily indicate that the ancient terrapin cultures didn't have the ability to build them. They were semi-nomadic after all, and the bulk of their lives were focused on the sea in any case. That pretty much precludes any need for permanent dwellings or roads – why build them when it's quicker to travel by sea and the coastline is the most habitable part of your country? The quality of the pottery items we have recovered, plus various references to an established holy site were what led me to believe that we'd eventually come across something like this."
Seta smiled with benign amusement as he watched Keitaro in full lecturing mode, half a dozen young men and women paying close attention. Practical experience had substituted nicely for scholastic efforts in Keitaro's case.
"And so the student outstrips the master," he murmured to himself.
With her transformation complete all she had to do was reinsert herself into Keitaro's life. She'd kept track of him over the years and as his career began to blossom getting news of him had become easier. The Museum of Ancient Cultures' announcement of a new exhibit of Professor Noriyasu Seta's work had rated a mention in most of Tokyo's major newspapers. One of them had mentioned that a Urashima Keitaro would be escorting the collection and taking a guest position at the University. After that it hadn't been too hard to get a secretarial position there.
As Chiko smiled at him from across the table Keitaro couldn't help but smile back. It had been a wonderful evening, the first time he'd been able to see Chiko properly on this particular visit home. The fact that he was actually in Japan primarily for work reasons rather than to see her had kept them from meeting up properly until a week after his arrival, even though she'd been there to meet him at the airport and had attended several of his lectures. The interest surrounding his discoveries had kept him too busy to make more time for the two of them the way he was able to when he came to Japan primarily to see her.
"This so frustrating," he said, not realising he'd spoken the thought aloud until a moment after he'd said it.
"Words every woman wants to hear when she has time alone with her boyfriend for the first time in months," Chiko responded wryly.
"I didn't mean it like that," Keitaro replied, after quickly determining that she was teasing him rather than genuinely angry. "It's just trying not being able to see you as often as I want to. Especially when we're actually in the same country for a change."
"I know," Chiko agreed, her expression turning serious, "but your work is important to you, so you have to go where it takes you. I understand that." After pausing for just long enough to let her words sink in, she added, "it doesn't mean I like it."
"I don't like it either," Keitaro told her with a sigh, "but I can't see a way around it." In his annoyance, Keitaro didn't immediately notice the thoughtful gaze Chiko had turned on him.
"What is it?" he asked.
"What would you say," Chiko said slowly, "if I told you I knew a way for us to see a lot more of each other?"
"Are you serious? That'd be great!"
"I agree, but . . . you said you next dig would only last a few months. Is that right?"
The sudden change of subject threw Keitaro for a moment, until he realised exactly what Chiko meant.
"Oh . . . yeah, it's a short one," he said slowly.
"Well if you're not going to say it," Chiko said after an uncomfortable pause, "then I will. I could go with you on your next dig."
For a moment Keitaro felt as though his heart had stopped.
It's too much he thought. It's too soon!
But then he managed to get his panic under control – and oddly enough it was because of Chiko. There was nothing demanding about her expression, nothing pushy. She had made a suggestion, not a demand, and judging by her expression, Keitaro realised, she was more than a little nervous that she was going to be rejected. He didn't understand until later that it was that which had decided him, made it so easy for him. Chiko feared rejection from him but didn't let it keep her from following her heart. She had the courage that the one other woman he'd loved did not. At the time, Keitaro only knew that letting Chiko come with him suddenly seemed right.
"I'd like that," Keitaro told her.
The smile she gave him made him think he might just have made the smartest decision of his life.
There were times even now when she had trouble believing her life was real and not some dream or delusion her subconscious had created. Even though she'd dedicated years to achieve her goal and had never let the thought of failure cross her mind, she supposed that on some level she must have believed that her plan was doomed to failure. Either Keitaro would see straight through her disguise, or he wouldn't be interested, or worst of all he'd have already met someone else. But none of those had happened and there were still times when she felt the way she had as a child on Christmas morning, overwhelmed with glee, excitement and anticipation. They had, in fact, been dating for nearly two years now and she was going on his next dig with him. Knowing all this did not make it seem any the less incredible.
Keitaro couldn't entirely keep his hand from trembling as he slipped the small package into the inside pocket of his jacket.
I haven't been this nervous since . . . well, probably not since I sat the entrance exam for Toudai the last time, he reflected.
Letting Chiko come with him on the dig had worked out far better than he'd expected. It had been the first time he'd really 'lived' with someone else, in that particular meaning of the word, and he'd half expected trouble. Instead, it had all worked out perfectly. Keitaro had had a lot of romantic notions about true love and destiny when he was younger, and to tell the truth part of him still clung to those beliefs even now. But he was older and wiser, and life had taught him an important lesson: love was not enough, on its own, to make a relationship work. Just because it was the most important thing didn't mean it was everything.
But the last few months with Chiko had showed him that they had more than just love. Their lives just seemed to fit together. During the day he worked at the dig site while Chiko worked at her new job as a graphic designer, using the net to keep in tough with her clients. Sometimes she helped out at the site if the mood took her. In the evenings they'd have dinner and talk, or sometimes they'd go for a moonlight stroll along the beach and no words were necessary. Their lives functioned smoothly in tandem, working together, combining, but never clashing.
He was happy.
Chiko was happy.
Keitaro had decided that this was how he wanted his life to be. Hopefully Chiko felt the same way.
It was a truly beautiful evening. The setting sun left fiery trails in the sky and on the calm ocean. Chiko rested her head on Keitaro's shoulder, their bodies fitting snugly together.
"Yes?" she murmured.
"There's something I wanted to ask you."
Deep breath Keitaro, don't hesitate, don't think about it, just say the words. And mercifully, he was able to follow his own advice. He pulled the jewellery box out of his pocket and the words spilled out of him in a rush.
"Will you marry me?"
Chiko stiffened against him before a tremble ran through her and then she pulled away to look directly at him. Her face was pale and nervous. For an awful moment Keitaro thought she might be about to say no. Then she smiled.
"You look good, nephew," Haruka told Keitaro as she gave his collar a final yank.
"Thanks, Haruka," Keitaro replied as he checked his appearance one more time, "but isn't the best man supposed to be helping me out now?"
"Yeah, but Seta's useless with this stuff. I already had to sort out his tie and now I'm doing yours," Haruka muttered as she straightened the offending item of clothing. Keitaro looked seriously at her.
"Do you think I'm doing the right thing?" he asked her suddenly. Haruka sighed and rolled her eyes.
"Pre-wedding jitters huh? Does she make you happy?"
"Do you make her happy?"
"Yes. I think so."
"You do and you know it. So quit worrying."
"Yeah." Keitaro grinned. "Thanks for the pep talk Haruka."
"No problem. Now get out there already!"
The sight of Chiko standing barefoot on the beach took Keitaro's breath away. She wore a simple white sundress that swirled around her legs in the faint breeze that was coming off the ocean. Seta stood off to one side, holding the ring and a local island priest who was an old friend of Seta's. Their marriage wouldn't be legal in Japan, but Keitaro didn't care. They could get that all sorted out later. As he walked towards Chiko Keitaro had the sensation that he was dreaming all of this. He could feel the warm sun on his face and the sand beneath his feet, even smell the salty tang of the ocean, but it all seemed to be happening to someone else. Then he was suddenly standing next to Chiko and her smile made everything real for him. The priest said some words that Keitaro didn't pay much attention to and then Seta was pressing the ring into his hand and Chiko was smiling more brightly than ever and wasn't he meant to say something now oh that was right –
Looking into Chiko's eyes in the moment before they kissed Keitaro knew that this was the best decision he'd ever made.
Chiko smiled gently at her husband's sleeping form that evening. She'd fallen for Urashima Keitaro almost from the moment she'd met him. His kindness, honesty and unthinking generosity had made an indelible imprint on the heart of a scared and insecure little girl. As she'd grown older Chiko had realised just how special he was. Keitaro had the oddly childlike quality of always seeing and believing in the best qualities of anyone he met, no matter what. Some people might have called him naïve or even stupid, but Chiko saw it as purity of heart. She'd fallen in love with him all over again, but not in the way she had as a child. Her feelings had scared her at first, when she'd identified them. How many girls wanted to marry their own brother and start a family with him? But Chiko had never allowed herself to be bound by the rules others laid down. Thinking about it logically she'd realised there was no compelling reason why they couldn't be together. He wasn't a blood relative. It wasn't incest in the technical sense of the word and other people's prejudices on the subject didn't concern her. The only problem was persuading Keitaro to her way of thinking. It wasn't that he didn't love her, but when she'd finally found the courage to broach the subject with him – just a month before he'd left for the Hinata Inn – he'd made it clear that he did not see her that way.
His gentle but firm denial had made that day the worst of her life.
If only he could see me differently, she'd thought at the time. From that thought had sprung an idea and the idea had in time become a plan. And she'd succeeded. Kanako Urashima had become Chiko Takara and now everything had come full circle and she was a Urashima again. Now that she had accomplished the goal she'd worked so hard and given so much for she could barely believe it had happened. They were married – maybe one day she would bear his children. The thought filled her with a joy so powerful it was almost physically painful. As she lay back down next to her husband Chiko had only one thought about everything she'd gone through to be with her love.
You're worth it.
Author's Notes (spoilers for manga)
The idea for this story indirectly grew out of the responses I got for 'Until The Cherry Blossoms Fall.' While they were a lot more positive than I'd expected I did get involved in some discussions which made me realize that a lot of people are kind of vague on whether or not Haruka and Kanako are blood relatives of Keitaro. For the record, Kanako definitely isn't since it's explicitly stated so in the canon (I'm talking to you, JennyJennai) but Haruka must be. I know this because the only way she could be Keitaro's aunt without being a blood relative is by marriage to an uncle of Keitaro's. There's no mention of her having been married prior to Seta - or being widowed, despite the obvious absence of a partner at the start of the canon - even though her past does get examined in the manga. She therefore pretty much has to be the sister of one of Keitaro's parents. All of this reminded me of arguments I used to get into in relation to an arguably incestuous potential relationship in another anime series (I won't say which). I always held that the really worrying thing about incest wasn't the genetic aspect of it, but the psychological implications of two people who've been raised as siblings having a sexual relationship. I'd never considered how that argument would apply to Love Hina until after I wrote 'Until The Cherry Blossoms Fall.' When I did it occurred to me, somewhat ironically, that while a Keitaro/Kanako relationship wouldn't involve the genetic issue that bothers most people it would involve the psychological issue that bothers me. I would be reversing the stance I'd taken in regards to a certain other pairing, but the same argument underlay both opinions. Bearing in mind that Keitaro hadn't recognized Kanko when he met her again in the manga I had an interesting thought: What if Keitaro fell for Kanako without knowing she was Kanako?
And from that thought this story sprang. I've tried to write this in a way that suggests Kanako's feelings for Keitaro matured as she did, which makes her actions less psychologically disturbing to me because it would mean that despite their past relationship she's approaching him simply as a woman to a man she finds attractive. To me that's as close as anyone can get to making a Kanako/Keitaro pairing seem reasonable (and I use the word reasonable in a very relative sense).
A secondary motivating factor for the writing of this story that came into play after I had the idea was the knowledge that in the manga Kanako's arrival is the indirect catalyst for Naru eventually admitting to Keitaro that she loves him. Since Kanako never arrives at the Inn in this story that sequence of events never occurs and Keitaro is left to stew in his own frustration. For those of you who haven't read the manga, or at least not that far, I will only say that in the canon Naru doesn't admit her love to Keitaro until he chases her right across the country (literally). Without the leverage that Kanako's visit indirectly causes, it wouldn't surprise me if she was never able to admit her feelings at all. Thus, this story also became an opportunity to approach one of the recurring themes of my Love Hina stories from an entirely different angle. Please bear in mind, so far as characterisation goes, that I'm writing about these characters after they've progressed into full adulthood.
The mechanics of Kanako's physical transformation are hardly the focus of the story, but most of what she has done to herself is either factual (including the leg lengthening operation) or in the realm of 'probably possible with current or soon to be developed technology.' I allowed myself a little poetic licence to ensure that Kanako had a disguise which would believably last her whole life.
Incidentally to that subject, some people might question whether it would be so easy for Kanako to drop off her family's radar. Based on what we see in the manga and anime, I've always held to the theory that the Urashima family is actually quite disconnected, if not flat out dysfunctional. We never see Keitaro's parents, not even at his wedding to Naru in the last volume, and there's no inkling given of Kanako's existence until the day she shows up. So I figure it's at least possible they could just loose track of her completely.
Chiko, if my Japanese/English dictionary is right, means 'pledge' and Takara means 'treasure' or 'valued object' and actually, I know it's not quite grammatically correct, but it was the closest I could get. I leave it up to you to guess why Kanako chose it for her new name.
There's no such thing as the Chenlia Dynasty. They're just a made up dynasty for the ancient turtle civilisations Seta and Keitaro always seem to be studying in this story.
P.S: Re-released with one small but significant mistake corrected. Please, no spoilers in your reviews.