Disclaimer: Love Hina is owned by Ken Akamatsu, that kooky manga-ka of song and stage. Should he, or any of his friends/coworkers/associates/pets ask, this story will be removed from the web ASAP. I'm not making money on this, Ken… don't sue me.
Motoko woke that day feeling strangely uneasy and edgy. It felt to her, as she dressed, that a storm was on its way – the kind of general foreboding that dark clouds and damp smelling winds bring to old sailors and well-trained cattlemen. Looking out the window as she headed towards her door, she found that the skies were a bit gloomy, but she still felt that it was more than that.
Something would change that day. She was sure of it.
Things were quiet in the Hinata sou, leading Motoko to believe that she was the only one awake, but when she reached the kitchen, she found Shinobu tooling about, clearly too caught up in the act of making breakfast to notice her. Not wanting to startle the girl, Motoko cleared her throat.
"Good morning, Shinobu."
"Oh, good morning, Motoko-sempai," Shinobu said politely, glancing over her shoulder at the other girl, "did you sleep well?"
Motoko took a seat at the table. "Reasonably," she murmured, looking at the clock over the stove and noting the time. "You're up very early," she observed, "and… are we having company? That seems like a lot of food."
Shaking her head, Shinobu replied, "No, I just wanted to cook something special for Sempai's birthday."
Without a prefix, 'Sempai' meant that Shinobu was talking about Urashima. Every resident of the Hinata sou knew this quite well.
Motoko had not known it was his birthday, however, and mentioned this to Shinobu.
Leave it to him to have a birthday during the coldest month of the year.
"Oh, I know," Shinobu said, drawing the swordsman's attention back to her. "He told me that he doesn't really like people making a big deal out of it, so he doesn't talk about it a lot – and since it's so soon after Christmas, no one has any money left, so he feels guilty if people buy him presents."
Surveying the spread the younger girl was making, Motoko murmured, "Wouldn't this be considered making a big deal out of it?"
Though she was facing away, Motoko was sure that Shinobu was blushing. "Well, yeah," she said softly, "but I think it's a big deal, so…"
Motoko felt that pressing the issue would only embarrass the girl, so she left it at that.
"I'm going out to train."
The blade had always been a comfort to Motoko. Simply drawing it immediately calmed her jangling senses… or rather, dulled the sensation of wrongness she had awoken with. What is this feeling of imbalance? she thought, giving her sword a few perfunctory swings before acknowledging that she was too unfocused to practice effectively and wandering back into the Hinata. It… it isn't just today, she realized suddenly, it's been building for a while, I just pushed it aside as unimportant. I suppose it won't be ignored anymore.
What 'it' was, she still did not know, but she felt that it would be in her best interest to find out before it grew from an irritation into a distraction.
"I'm going out," she informed Shinobu, grabbing a roll off of the table and starting for the front door. "I don't know if I'll be back in time for breakfast."
"I understand," Shinobu nodded, barely looking up from her cooking, "have a safe trip."
Motoko opened her mouth to say that she wasn't going on a trip, but closed it again without saying a word.
Perhaps… a little trip would do her good.
"I might not be back today, Shinobu."
The younger girl did not look up this time, as her attention was too focused on what she was doing, so Motoko simply left, walking purposefully down the front steps of the Hinata and into the town without once glancing back.
Whatever awaited her, she decided, would be met with her eyes open and her blade prepared.
Or so she thought.
( 0 0 0 )
"Mama, I wanna go hoooommme!"
Motoko rested her head on the train's glass window, trying her best to ignore the whining of the child five seats up from her.
The destination of the train was Kyoto, a place she had not been since she had nearly ended up married to Keitaro. Actually, Motoko wasn't entirely positive that it was headed to Kyoto – she had not really paid attention when she bought her ticket. She had boarded on impulse after walking around town for three hours, feeling that perhaps a change in venue would help clear her thoughts (and help warm her freezing backside), but she was still conflicted and uneasy.
It's like I'm missing something, she thought, ignoring the mother's reply as she focused on herself. Missing something… or maybe anticipating something? I feel as if I should-
"I said we'll get there in a minute, shut up!"
A sharp crack drew Motoko's attention. The child, it seemed, had incurred her mother's wrath and earned herself a light slap across the face… somewhat of a harsh punishment for nagging, Motoko thought, but not completely out of line. As a warrior woman, she had seen her fair share of corporal punishment, though it had been some time since anyone had dared to slap her.
"Brings back memories, doesn't it?" a voice at her side observed. "Though mother was far more patient than that woman, she did have a breaking point."
Motoko was out of her seat in an instant. "Sister," she said, automatically lowering her eyes in deference, "I… I didn't see you there…"
"No," Tsuruko said brightly, "even if I hadn't been masking my ki, you were too focused on yourself to have noticed a flock of geese, let alone your own flesh and blood."
"What do you want, sister?" Motoko wondered.
"Mmm… just wanted to see you," Tsuruko mused, glancing around at the train's other occupants. "That's it."
"And you thought public transit was the best place to find me?"
Tsuruko shrugged absently. "I was passing by the train station and I felt your turmoil."
Motoko frowned. "That's… very impressive."
"Isn't it just?" Tsuruko said serenely, "Now give me a smile and show that you're happy to see your big sister."
A sickly half-grin was her reply.
"I've been keeping tabs on you, you know," the older Aoyama said without preamble. "You seem… lost, little sister. What's on your mind?"
On the verge of asking what business it was of hers, Motoko suddenly blurted, "I'm missing something."
Tsuruko smiled indulgently. "Indeed," she said calmly. "Your uncertainty is coming off of you like sweat, little sister… it's what drew me to you."
"Drew you?" Motoko wondered.
"Yes," Tsuruko said quietly. "The bond between sisters is strong. I felt your restlessness from miles and miles away, so I came to see you."
"Our school doesn't teach skills like that," Motoko murmured. "You're toying with-"
"I told you it was the bond of a sister," Tsuruko interrupted, "and no, out school does not teach skills such as that… at your level."
Motoko eyed her warily. "I… wasn't aware that there were any higher levels."
Tsuruko gave her another angelic smile. "Of course a student at a lower level would not know of the higher ones until she was ready for them," she said sweetly. "It's only common sense to think that a person would not know everything there is to know about a certain subject at such a young age… wouldn't you agree?"
Uneasily, Motoko said, "Why are you really here?"
It galled her that she could not even manage to meet her sister's eyes.
Smiling at the top of her sister's head, Tsuruko replied, "I can feel you verging… aching to move forward… knowing you're missing something vital… confused and unsure. I'm here to help you, little sister."
"So help me," Motoko said expectantly. "I… suppose I have to say please, of course, so… please, sister, help me reach the next level of training."
Tsuruko's smile never wavered.
Motoko wondered if maybe this wasn't some kind of bizarre prank.
"Or rather," Tsuruko corrected after a moment, "I can't simply tell you. Come now, little sister… you didn't think it would be easy, did you?"
Of course not, Motoko thought tiredly, nothing worthwhile in this world is easy.
Swallowing her pride, she mumbled, "What advice do you have for me, sister?"
Looking pleased at her younger sister's deference, Tsuruko said, "You must face a trial."
"Well of course," Motoko sighed, "another trial. So, what is it then?"
"I can't tell you."
Motoko's hands clenched in her lap. "Then… I won't ever progress?" she asked softly. "I'm stuck at this level? That's what you came to tell me, sister? That's… that's so cru-"
"You must make amends with someone you do not like," Tsuruko cut in coolly. "Your pride must give way to your innermost heart's understanding. You must surrender something that you feel you can never surrender to someone whom you would never consider surrendering it to."
"I… I don't understand," Motoko confessed. "Please, sister… I don't understand."
Smiling patiently, Tsuruko concluded, "You know what you must do… you know who must play a part… and you know where you must go to begin."
Motoko let out a long, tired sigh. "I don't know anything," she said uncomfortably. "All I know is that-"
"Sister," Tsuruko cut in, her voice still warm… though much firmer and more direct than before. "You're over thinking, little sister. You have the answers inside, you're just hiding them from yourself because you're too scared to face them. I cannot be your dues-ex in this matter, Motoko… this is a path you must tread alone."
Glancing around to see how many people were watching their off conversation, Motoko thought, Alone? Well… I should be used to that by now…
After a few moments of studying her younger sister, Tsuruko gave her a soft smile. "I thought you might react this way," she said, putting a hand on Motoko's shoulder. "So I brought a gift for you to pave the way." Reaching into her gi, she pulled out a small, silk-wrapped bundle and handed it to her younger sister.
Pulling a corner of the fabric back, Motoko gasped, her eyes shooting to Tsuruko's as she sputtered, "This is… I can't… that man gave you this as a wedding present! I can't take-"
"You can," Tsuruko whispered, "you will… and you must." She moved her hand up to tousle Motoko's hair. "It is mine to give, and I feel that it will help you gain what you most desire."
Forcing Motoko's hands to close around the bundle, Tsuruko stepped back.
"Do not give it lightly, little sister," she said evenly. "It's barely six o'clock… spend the rest of the day thinking about what you truly want out of life, and then make your choice at the witching hour – no, not because it is significant, but because… I've always liked it." With a final smile, she stepped backwards, her timing flawlessly carrying her out of the opening doors of the train and into the bustle of the evening rush hour crowd.
Motoko blinked… and she was gone.
( 0 0 0 )
Keitaro yawned expansively, stuffing the last few bits of trash into the garbage and smiling down at where Shinobu sat dozing at the kitchen table. "Shinobu-chan," he said, gently shaking the girl awake, "Shinobu-chan… it's late, you should go to bed."
"Hmm…?" Shinobu hummed, rubbing at her eyes as she looked blearily around the kitchen. "Sempai… is it… is your party over?"
Keitaro thought back over the past few hours. Kitsune dancing with a light shade on her head… then trying to get Keitaro and Naru to kiss and promising him a 'special' birthday present if he followed her to her room, followed by Su and Sarah giving him their birthday kicks and punches (their version of the classic pinch to grow an inch) all while Shinobu had desperately tried – with varying degrees of success – to keep things under control.
All in all, it had been quite an evening.
"Yeah, finally," Keitaro nodded. "Everyone else is asleep already… I'm just cleaning up."
Shinobu immediately rose to her feet. "Oh, no – don't," she said quickly, "it's your birthday, you shouldn't have to-"
"I'm done," Keitaro cut in, "it's fine, Shinobu… you worked too hard today for me to make you clean up too." Trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn of her own, Shinobu tried to protest again, but Keitaro simply waved it away. "Go to bed, Shinobu," he said, patting her head affectionately, "and thank you for a wonderful birthday."
Though she had planned to confess her feelings after everyone else had gone to bed, Shinobu found herself stuttering a goodnight instead and turning a rather bright shade of crimson. It was probably the hundredth time she had decided to confess, of course, but his birthday would have been so perfect. With a deep sigh, she promised herself that it would be soon – yes, definitely soon.
"Don't trip over Kitsune," Keitaro advised, "she's passed out in the hall… couldn't quite get her to her room."
After the girl had gone, Keitaro took a final look around the kitchen, nodding as he found everything relatively clean, and clicked off the lights, making his way towards the stairs leading to his room.
"Urashima," a soft, hesitant voice called as he crossed through the foyer, "Urashima… wait a moment, please."
"Oh, Motoko," Keitaro said politely as the girl stepped out of the shadowy living room, "umm, hi."
Nodding in acknowledgement, Motoko assessed him for a moment before asking, "Was your birthday enjoyable?"
Keitaro nodded, still looking awkward as he said, "Yeah, we had a good time. We tried to find you to join us for the party – which lasted pretty much all day – but you weren't around…"
"Yes," Motoko said, "I had… something I had to work out."
They stared at each other in silence for several moments, until Keitaro finally cleared his throat and averted his eyes.
"Well," he said uncomfortably, "I've gotta wake up in the morning – you know, lots of cleaning and… and stuff, so… goodnight."
He moved to leave, but came up short, flinching in anticipation of another birthday whipping as Motoko laid a hand on his shoulder. "Before you go," she murmured, "I have something for you."
Keitaro glanced over his shoulder. "You don't have to give me anything," he said, eyeing her sword's sheath in case a sound beating (a gift he had received many times before) was what she was thinking of. "It's after midnight – not even really my birthday anymore – and… and you don't have to get me something just because I'm the manager or because you think you have to."
"I'm not shallow enough to give a gift like this for those reasons, Urashima," Motoko said flatly, "why must you make even a small gesture of kindness so difficult for me?"
"Just… stupid, I guess," Keitaro said weakly. "I'm sorry."
Motoko closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Please accept my gift," she said formally, reaching into her gi to pull out a small, carefully wrapped package. "And please accept my apologies for snapping at you."
There was another moment of profound silence as Keitaro gaped, open-mouthed, at Motoko, unable to believe that he had just heard her apologize to him.
Holding her hand out, Motoko said, "H-happy birthday, Keitaro."
In spite of the girl's hesitance and clear reluctance, Keitaro's hand moved very slowly as he reached out and took the small package from her, holding it gingerly – in case it was explosive – and whispering, "Thank you… Motoko."
Motoko waited as Keitaro unwrapped his gift, her hand falling unconsciously to the comfortingly familiar grip of her sword.
"It's… a rose," Keitaro said slowly. "Is it silver?"
Forcing her hand to leave the blade, Motoko said, "It's steel, Keitaro… silver is shinier."
"What does it mean?"
Though her instincts told her to simply turn tail and run, Motoko found herself explaining, "It means that something hard can still hold beauty… and that something that seems to be one thing, may be another." She took a deep breath. "It means that I… am not perfect, but that I hope you will accept me as I am."
Keitaoru blinked in confusion. "Accept you?"
"As a friend," Motoko said quietly, "as… an equal, I suppose. I feel that, perhaps, I've been very hard on you, Urashima-san, and it was recently pointed out to me that sometimes the most difficult of relationships can sometimes be the most rewarding."
"But we don't have a relationship," Keitaro said uncomfortably.
Motoko drew a calming breath. "I know that," she said patiently, "but what I'm trying to tell you is that I would like to have one. I… it is hard for me to say this, but I… I'm rather fond of you, Keitaro." She ground her teeth. "Please don't gape at me like that," she grumbled, "it makes this more difficult."
Keitaro frowned so hard he gave himself a headache. "So you want to have a relationship with me?" he finally mumbled, flinching in preparation of the backlash this bold statement would bring.
"A friendship," Motoko corrected more forcefully than she'd intended. "A friendship is a kind of relationship, Keitaro. Lord, it's hard for me to say this to you, do you know that? Every instinct in me tells me that you're a cretinous loser pervert, and that I should save everyone time and heartache by just beating you until you leave this place."
"Gee," Keitaro said awkwardly, "you really know how to make a guy feel loved."
"And that is my flaw," Motoko said quietly. "My heart tells me one thing, while my previous experience with men tells me another – and I don't know which to believe."
Taking a deep breath, Keitaro said, "I don't… really know what you're asking me to do here, Motoko."
Motoko was unable to contain her frustration. "This is too hard," she whispered. "I can split a stone or divide a demonic soul from an innocent one from a hundred yards away… but I can't make you understand that I'm asking for help – sister was right, I am weak." Slowly, she drew her blade, offering it hilt-first to Keitaro.
"Wh-what do you want me to do with that?" Keitaro spluttered, his tone clearly showing his concern that the girl was planning some sort of assisted ritual suicide.
"Take it," Motoko said simply, "nothing more."
Keitaro frowned. "I always thought that if I touched your sword you'd have to kill me for its honor, or something."
Motoko averted her eyes. "Please take it," she said softly. "It… means something to a swordsman to offer her blade to someone she thinks of as an inferior… if you don't take it, I… I won't ever be able to rise above my current standing."
"I don't understand."
Closing her eyes, Motoko intoned, "Please relieve me of this burden I bear… and make me more than I am…"
Uncertainly, Keitaro looked from the blade to Motoko's face, completely at a loss for words.
Motoko shivered as her blade was taken from her, leaving her feeling powerless and weak… naked and defenseless.
"So, ok, I took it," Keitaro said, making her open her eyes. "Here."
Hugging herself to keep from reaching for the blade, Motoko said, "I'd like you to hold it for me, Keitaro."
Confused, Keitaro looked at the keen edge of the sword. "For how long?"
Managing a wry smile, Motoko whispered, "One year."
Keitaro's cry of shock drew the attention of Naru, who happened to be wandering back from using the bedroom. Glancing down the stairs, she spotted Keitaro standing in front of Motoko – or rather, in the low light, with her glasses off, she saw Keitaro standing over a bowing figure in a gi and threatening it with a sword.
Of course, Naru could not let this slide.
The Hinata manager went a sickly shade of white as he heard the familiar war cry, instinctively holding the blade out in front of him as he whirled toward the source of the sound. "N-Naru!" he stammered, backing against the wall as the girl began stalking down the stairs towards him. "I'm not… this isn't… I didn't do anything!"
Pushing her sleeves up as she came, Naru growled, "Really… some people never learn! Motoko, did this pervert touch you? I know you can protect yourself, but-"
As Naru drew alongside Motoko, the dark-haired girl laid a hand on her arm. "Naru," she said gently, "come here…"
Naru frowned as Motoko gestured her closer, listening intently as Motoko whispered into her ear. "No," she gasped, jerking away and gaping at the younger girl, "a year? With him?"
"Yes," Motoko said calmly, "and it's difficult enough for me to be doing this… please don't make it any harder, Naru."
"But… but you can't," Naru protested. "This is wrong – especially with him!"
"Umm, excuse me," Keitaro said cautiously, "can someone tell me what's going on?"
Casting him a withering glance, Naru muttered, "You took Motoko's sword from her… in the Shinmei School when someone offers her blade to someone else, it means she is giving it as a gesture of servitude."
"Servitude?" Keitaro exploded, looking at the sword as if it might suddenly twist in his hand and run him through.
"Servitude is the wrong word," Motoko said levelly. "The meaning of the ritual is more along the lines of apprenticeship… a swordsman gives up her blade for a year and puts herself in the care of the person she gave the blade to, spending the time learning the craft or trade that person possesses and serving as somewhat of a valet or servant, though she still has the right to refuse to do anything the 'master' asks, if it's degrading or unwholesome."
"But I don't have a trade," Keitaro blurted.
"Unless you count failure," Naru snorted. "Really, Motoko… this is pointless. I mean, I don't know everything about your school or anything, but what you're doing doesn't make any sense to me. Going a whole year without touching your sword, just to apprentice in loserhood? Be realistic. Why don't you just take the sword back and go to bed?" She lowered her voice to a mumble. "You're obviously too tired to think straight."
Keitaro held out the blade. "Naru's right," he said softly, "I've just barely gotten into Toudai after like, three years of trying – I don't really have any skills to teach you or anything."
Motoko's brow drew down as she looked from Keitaro to Naru. "This isn't easy for me, you know," she said angrily, "and I'm not enslaving myself to Urashima, I simply-" she cut herself off, clenching her hands into fists and counting to ten to calm herself. Once she had herself under control, she fixed her eyes on Keitaro's and said, "How many times has Naru hit you?"
Keitaro switched the blade from one hand to the other and back again as he counted on his fingers, smiling weakly as Naru glared at him. "Er," he replied finally, "some…?"
"And do you hate her?"
Keitaro gave Naru a horrified glance, as if the very idea of this was so outrageous it could barely be spoken aloud.
"Do I… no!" Keitaro he gasped, averting his eyes as Naru shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "I don't hate her… she's… no, I don't hate her."
Motoko turned to Naru. "Can you teach me that?"
"Teach you what?" Naru wondered, "How to hit someone, or how to roll with it so it makes it look worse than it really is?"
With a longsuffering sigh, Motoko reached out, laying her fingers gently on the back of Keitaro's hand and pushing until the hilt of her blade was pressed firmly against his chest. "All I ask," she said evenly, "is that you allow me to apprentice with you – you don't have to do anything… I'll do everything."
"Apprentice in what though?" Naru demanded. "Honestly, you-"
"Please excuse us," Motoko cut in sharply. "This really isn't your concern, and you're confusing Urashima."
Naru looked stunned. "Doesn't concern me?" she gasped. "I'm your friend! Why do you think this wouldn't concern me?"
"If you're my friend, stay out of this," Motoko countered. "This is my choice – my life. Don't interfere if you don't understand why I'm doing what I'm doing."
"Maybe you should sleep on it," Keitaro suggested awkwardly, nervously eyeing the door and wondering if maybe it wouldn't be better to just make a break for it than be between the two hot-tempered women. "I mean, it's past midnight, and-"
"If I put it off, I'll never do it," Motoko cut in, her voice taking on a rather desperate edge as she focused on Keitaro. "Please, Urashima, it's… important to me, on several levels, to do this. Please take me as your apprentice for the next year."
Feeling like a fish out of water, Keitaro looked to Naru for guidance, but the girl simply threw her hands up in the air as if to say, 'Do what you want.'
"…alright," he said quietly, "but I still don't know what you're going to be getting out of it."
Motoko gave him a deep, formal bow. "Perhaps, in time, it will become clear," she said neutrally, glancing briefly to Naru as she added, "to both of you."
"Oh it's none of my business," Naru grumbled, "remember? This is between you and him – forget I was even here."
Before either of them could reply, Naru stomped off down the hall, slamming the door to her room and leaving them in complete silence.
Motoko nodded. "She will get over it, eventually," she said calmly, slowly turning to face Keitaro once more. "I… would like to thank you for accepting me," she said formally, untying her sheath and offering it to him with both hands. "Please take good care of my blade… and myself."
Gingerly taking the sheath, Keitaro slid the blade into it, breathing a sigh of relief as the last inch of steel vanished into its dark confines. "I'll umm… do my best," he said weakly.
Man, he thought, taking a moment to study the girl's face, this is killing her…!
Indeed, Motoko was on the verge of snatching her sword back and beating the man who had dared lay his hands on it with the flat of the blade, regardless of the fact that she had just given it to him. Surely there had to be a better way than this, hadn't there?
But this is what Tsuruko said was required, she thought, forcing her hands to unclench, right?
"How may I serve you?"
Keitaro's jaw fell open at the same moment Motoko realized what she had said.
"Go to bed," Keitaro blurted. "That's… go to bed, it's late… we'll figure out umm… everything tomorrow."
"Very well, S-Sensei…"
The word came so hard for the girl that Keitaro felt bad for her. "Rest well, Kohei."
Motoko's lips compressed into a thin line, clearly displeased at the way this sounded. "Thank you," she said stiffly. "You too."
With a sketch of a bow, she left Keitaro standing alone in the hall with nothing but a sword, a metal rose, and a headache to prove that anything unusual had happened.
Author's notes: I don't know if I can, or should, continue this one. I haven't read all that many Love Hina fics, so I don't know if this idea is cliché or not… and I think I've done enough cliché fics in my 'career.'
Hawker-748 pre-read this fic and put in some serious pointers, since he has mad writing skillz and a working knowledge of Love Hina mythology. Ha… I just used the word mythology to describe an anime. Hehe.