A Love Hina fanfic by Aondehafka
Disclaimer: the Love Hina characters are owned by Ken Akamatsu. This story is based on the anime, not the manga.
Shiori Maehara gazed up the long flight of stairs. It had been well over three years since the last time she was here, well over three years since she'd left without her daughter. It still pained her to think back to that time, and how she and Toshi had been hurting their daughter without even realizing it. Well, their marriage had died long ago, but there was still one beautiful thing left from it... and it was past time for Shiori and her daughter to make some new, good memories.
She took a deep breath to fortify herself, both emotionally and physically—that was one impressive flight of stairs, after all. It took several minutes for her to reach the top, and by the time she did, her body was demanding that she stop for a few minutes more to rest. However, Shiori's spirit felt better for the climb, as if each stair had been one step further away from the burdens she'd carried with her.
Still, no matter how good her spirit felt, her legs were making their protests known in no uncertain terms. Shiori leaned against the wall, taking pleasure in the warmth of the sun on her face and the stones at her back, and enjoying as well the sight before her.
She wasn't the only one in the courtyard. There were two other young women present, who were watching over a gaggle of toddlers. Shiori watched the tenderness that fairly beamed from their faces and the gentleness in their motions as they moved among their charges, and felt a pang of remorse at the judgment she'd placed, sight unseen, on the Hina girls so long ago. She was glad there had been such a place as this for her daughter.
"Mom!" The cry echoed up the stairway behind her. Turning and looking down, Shiori saw her daughter for the first time in nearly four years. "Sorry I'm late!" Shinobu called, before sprinting up the steps in a dead run. Even knowing that her daughter must have had plenty of time to familiarize herself with the stairs, Shiori was very impressed. Then her daughter was right there with her and the two of them were sharing their first hug in far too long.
"Dear, that was amazing. And you're not even out of breath?" she marveled, pulling back to get a better look at her daughter. A small frown creased her brow. "Shinobu dear... is the reason you're late because you're involved in after-school theatrics and they ran late today?"
"Oh, do you mean this?" Shinobu gestured at the tattoo that covered nearly her entire right arm. The dragon's coils fairly gleamed in the sunlight, blue and green and crimson scales seeming at least as real as Shinobu's own flesh. An impartial observer would have described it as a beautiful piece of art, but there weren't any such observers present just then. "No, Mom, it's real. Keitaro gave it to me for my fourteenth birthday."
Shiori hadn't yet finished gaping by the time another person came onto the scene. Her horrified, dumbstruck mind didn't manage to recognize him before he spoke up. "Hello, Ms. Maehara," he said with a bow. "You might not remember me, but I'm Keitaro Urashima. The manager here." With that as her clue she did remember him, though he seemed to have aged much more than he ought to in the few years that had passed. To Shiori's eyes, he now looked old enough to be her daughter's father.
"Oh Keitaro, stop that!" Shinobu said with a giggle and a playful punch to his arm. "This is my mother; you don't need to put on that silly 'just the manager' act for her." She linked her arm in his, then half-turned to look at her mother again. "Come on, Mom, you've got to meet everybody else."
Shiori hadn't yet recovered enough to do more than dazedly follow where the other two led. It was a short walk over to the center of the courtyard. The group of children hadn't grown any larger, but the two women watching over them had been joined by one more. "Mom, this is Kaolla Su," Shinobu said, gesturing to the newcomer with her free arm, "and this is Naru Narusegawa, and Motoko Aoyama." The girls bowed and murmured words of greeting.
"And these are our kids by Keitaro!" proclaimed Kaolla, breaking from her earlier formality with a smile as bright as her skin was dark. She rattled off a number of names that failed utterly to penetrate the chaotic clamor of Shiori's mind.
"Yes, that's right." Shinobu gave Keitaro one last affectionate squeeze, then withdrew her arm from his and knelt down. "Come here, Kenji, Sakura," she cooed to a pair of toddlers, who immediately broke into laughter and staggered toward her. "Come say hello to Grandma!"
It started small and inarticulate, just a faint moan at the back of her throat. It didn't stay unnoticeable long, though—finally taking an action of her own seemed to have broken the bonds of disbelief and dismay. The noise quickly gained in strength and power, rising into a wail of desperate negation.
With a gasp and a shudder, Shiori sat bolt-upright in bed. The immediate transition from a bright, crowded courtyard to the current solitary darkness left her reeling, unable for long minutes to manage anything close to coherent thought. At last, though, she recovered enough to process the fact that she'd just awakened from a dream. No, not a dream, she corrected herself immediately, but a full-blown, cold-blooded, sharp-edged nightmare.
It took nearly ten minutes for the last of the adrenaline to drain away. When it did, it left her feeling both cold and miserable. It had been so long since she'd seen her daughter, circumstances having conspired to move Shiori to a different island a few months after Shinobu had gone to stay at the Hina Inn. It had been hard to do that, knowing that it was going to take her even farther away from her precious child, but there just had been no choice. Nowadays, all they had were letters and phone calls, and even those had become less frequent over the years.
"What kind of a mother am I?" Shiori whispered, blinking away tears. For all she knew, all those terrible things could have truly happened to Shinobu! She certainly hadn't been there to watch over or guide her daughter!
After a few more minutes of pain and turmoil, Shiori could hold back no longer. She got out of bed and headed to the phone.
"Wh... wha?" Shinobu muttered groggily, sitting up from her futon. Who in the world would be calling at this hour of the night? After the instrument rang twice more, she got up and hurried to it, hoping to keep anyone else from being awakened. "Hello? Hinata Inn," the sixteen-year-old managed through a yawn.
"Sh- Shinobu?" Her mother's voice, and especially the tone in which she'd spoken, quickly jolted the girl toward full alertness.
"M- Mom? Mom, are you all right? Why are you calling so late!" Shinobu asked with a gasp.
Shiori didn't answer right away, too busy with the rueful revelation that of course calling like this was going to frighten her daughter. "I'm sorry, dear," she eventually replied. "Nothing's wrong, there's no trouble or anything. I just... I wanted to talk to you. It's been so long..."
Shinobu shook her head worriedly. "Mom, you can't fool me," she said. "I could tell by how you sounded that you were really feeling awful. Are you sure nothing bad has happened?"
"Nothing except a dream," came her mother's sad voice. "It... it was terrible... all those horrible things that had happened to you." A pause, then she continued, "But what hurt the most is just that it reminded me... that it hit me all at once, how long it's been since we've seen each other..."
"Oh, Momma... I'm sorry."
"No, sweetie, I'm the one who should be. I'm the one who's let it be too hard for me to make the time and sacrifices I need, to spend any time with you." Shiori was silent for a while, wrestling with frugality, inertia, and the remains of her dream-induced fear.
Before she could get the words out, Shinobu beat her to the punch. "Would you like me to come for a visit?"
"What? No!" Shiori nearly bit her tongue as the thoughtless answer registered. So quickly she nearly tripped further over what she was trying to say, she continued, "I mean, it should be me! I should be the one coming to you!"
"But isn't it hard for you to do that? With things how they are with Grandma, and your job...?"
"Yes..." Shiori nearly whispered. "But a parent should be the one making sacrifices for their child. Not the other way around."
"It won't really be that hard for me," Shinobu said as encouragingly as she could. "You know I do most of the chores around the inn instead of paying rent. Well, business here has been doing really well for a while now, and everyone voted to give me a small wage! It's not much, but I've got enough money to come visit my mother, who misses me and, and who I miss too..."
"But... dear, it should... I should..."
"And if I come out there, I can see Grandma too," Shinobu said, sensing her mother's weakening. "Please, Momma. I want you to feel better, not make things harder for you."
Shiori sighed, and smiled for the first time that night. "All right, dear. If you're sure."
"I'm sure," Shinobu proclaimed. "Now... what kind of dream was it? If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine. But you said it had awful things happening to me?"
By now the dream wasn't looking so terrible any longer; her daughter's warmth and care and thoughtfulness had banished the last traces of lingering fear. "It was really rather silly, dear," Shiori said with an embarrassed laugh.
"Please tell me anyway," Shinobu said firmly. "I want to make sure you know that nothing bad has been happening to me, especially nothing bad enough to give my mother a nightmare."
"Well... all right." Shiori's cheeks were glowing a healthy shade of pink by the time she had finished relating the dream.
"A tattoo?" Shinobu repeated, for the fourth time. "Okay, Mom, seriously. What did you have for dinner last night?"
"I know, I know, it was ridiculous," Shiori admitted, but feeling glad she'd got it off her chest.
"Yep," Shinobu confirmed. "The only thing you got right out of all that was the other girls' names, and even then there's others living here than just Kaolla, Naru, and Motoko." Shiori knew that from the letters they exchanged, after all; why her mother's dream hadn't also dragged Kitsune, Mutsumi, and Nyamo into that ménage à ludicrous was a mystery. But then again, Shinobu supposed it was fitting in a way. As crazy as the dream had been, it would just be foolish to expect it to be internally or externally consistent.
Well, at least her mother had been worrying about things that simply weren't true. If the focus of the nightmare had been a girl who sometimes felt awfully sad and lonely for her mother and father, Shinobu couldn't have reassured her that her dark visions were utterly groundless. "I'm certainly not going to make you a grandma anytime soon," she said briskly. "And the thought of Keitaro seducing anyone, let alone all of us..." She couldn't hold back the giggles. "I'm sorry, Mom. I know it hurt when you dreamed it, but it's just too silly."
"That's more than all right, Shinobu dear," Shiori said. "Hearing you laugh about it makes me feel even better."
"And I can run all the way up the stairs, but that's nothing special," Shinobu added. "They're nowhere near as high as you dreamed them."
"I know. I remembered that after I woke up. I wonder why that stood out so much in the dream, the stairs being so high and yet you handled them easily," Shiori mused. "Probably because I already knew that you cook and clean and keep house for everyone. That takes its own kind of strength and endurance, and lots of it." That interpretation seemed reasonable enough, and it sparked another thought. "And if they decided you ought to be paid even on top of staying rent-free, you must be doing a wonderful job," her mother said warmly. "I'm very proud of you, dear."
"Th- thanks, Mom." Shinobu smiled, wishing her mother could see it.
Silence stretched between them for a moment, broken by Shiori's hesitant, "Shinobu dear? Would... would this Saturday be too soon for your visit? I know it's only the day after tomorrow... or actually, technically, I suppose it's just tomorrow. But that timing would work out well for everyone out here, if you could come over in the afternoon and stay the night with us..."
"That is awfully short notice, Mom," Shinobu said hesitantly. Sensing more than hearing her mother's sigh on the other end, she continued, "But that's okay. I can make it then. Can I call you back tomorrow to get directions, talk about just what time to get there, and all that?"
"That sounds wonderful, dear," her mother replied. "And I'm sorry again for waking you up."
"It's all right, Momma. I love you."
"I love you too, dear. Good-bye," Shiori murmured, the word ending in a yawn as drowsy warmth began to steal over her once more. She hung up the phone and went back to bed, where she would spend the rest of the night in peaceful, happy slumber.
Not until the click of her mother's departure had been followed by two minutes of dial-tone did Shinobu hang up. Shiori was back in bed and fast asleep by the time her daughter walked away from the phone stand. In further contrast to her mother, the younger Maehara was now quite wide awake.
Once she'd begun moving, there was nothing sluggish or hesitant about Shinobu's progress. In the blink of an eye she was standing outside the door to another room. Here she stopped, listening as closely as she could. A few moments of concentration were enough to reassure her that only the deep, even breathing of sleep was sounding on the other side. She passed through the door, strode over to the double-sized futon, knelt down next to the figure on the left, and shook her awake. This took some doing, even for Shinobu Maehara.
"W- Wha?" Su eventually said, through a yawn nearly wide enough to swallow her friend whole. "Shinobu? Wha's happenin'?"
"Kaolla, wake up!" Shinobu hissed, trying to convey urgency without volume. "I need my best friend's crazy genius brain working at more than a couple percent!"
"Okie-dokie," the Molmolese princess murmured, sitting up straighter and scrubbing at her eyes. "What's the problem?"
Despite Su's general air of attentiveness, Shinobu could see a certain glaze in her eyes that suggested she remained ready to fall right back to sleep. Time not to mince words. "You've got thirty-six hours to figure out a way for me to hide these," she held up her hands and produced a soft crimson glow from the gems embedded in her wrists, "and this." She tossed her head, sending her spiky cerulean hair dancing.
"Just that? Not your figure too?" Not waiting for an answer to what even her still-sleepy mind recognized as a pretty stupid question, Kaolla replied, "No problem. I actually did that a whole year ago, after I realized I wasn't gonna be able to reverse the effects of the experiment."
Shinobu blinked, then was quiet for so long that Su almost dozed off waiting for her reply. "Why didn't you tell me way back then?" she eventually asked.
"Didn' bother, you were havin' too good a time with the powers..." the princess mumbled, her eyes drifting closed as she lay back down and snuggled close to her bedmate.
"Okay... and I guess this is the first time I've ever really needed or wanted the disguise, but still..."
"C'mon, Shinobu, lemme sleep," Su whined. "If you wake up Keitaro, you're only gonna be hurting yourself, ya know."
Shinobu grimaced. "Good point," she whispered. Since she and Kaolla alternated nights, giving Keitaro Sundays all to himself for extra rest and recovery, if she messed up the sleep he was getting now she'd be the one sharing tomorrow night with an overtired husband-by-Molmolese-law. "Okay, good night, Kaolla. Sorry for waking you up, and thanks for thinking of the disguise thing even before I asked for it."
Her eyelids drifting closed just slowly enough for her to see her friend teleport away, Kaolla reflected that Shinobu might need more than just her aid. The best disguise field in the world wouldn't do jack for a year's ingrained habits. Oh well, if mad scientists somehow managed to catch her friend and co-wife for study, she and Keitaro could always bust Shinobu out with the OmniTama mark VII. Another raid like that last one would be fun, the princess thought as she sank back into the elysian fields of slumber.
Yes, this story is complete. No, there won't be any sequels or prequels. No, I don't own the characters of Tenchi Muyo. Yes, I'm evil.
This story was written primarily for the impact of the revelations of the final scene, so please don't post reviews that spoil the surprise.
Thanks to everyone at the Refuge who gave C&C.