A/N: Huh, looks like I'm back with the next chapter of Growth. My problem seems to be I get a lot of ideas for new stories but tend to lose steam after the first chapter. If I can get a second out it usually gives me the motivation to continue. I hope you enjoy reading this chapter. Ironically I actually wrote about 6 pages before just dropping it and doing something else. But I'm glad I picked it up again. I really like this story. Also, I noticed that people thought Naru was a bit over the top. Yeah, sorry that had to happen. I tried to make her a bit more confrontational to irk Keitaro on, but things kinda spiraled out of control. Don't worry, she'll get better, I promise. I don't like bitchzilla Naru either. Anyway, here we go, but first a thanks to my reviewers.

AlreadyFallen, Amric, anonymous, Redsoxfanatic, sacki san, TheFallenAngel, Minamoto Shiko, Conquer4eva, Shiko, TwilightZekk, panuru4u, Pleading For A Update, somelittleasiankid, qwepou, OniGanon, Otaku-D, JWM, Martrex, MitoFreal, Ranshin, kayarn, Seo, Gigerfan, petran, AzureSky123, Rioes, NefCanuck, Gmusick, feifiefofum, Al, Jihi, aleduth, dennisud, Peacmaker, TimeReaper, Zefrn, Sci-Di Raptor, Shuuyin, Metroidvania, Sullimike23, Wonderbee31, and Lunar Knite

Thank you to all my reviewers!

Disclaimer: I do not own the franchise Love Hina. However, I do own both Yuki and Rikka as figments of my imagination as well as any hijinks they are included and the effects they have on the characters of the franchise Love Hina. We hope things have been clarified for you. Please enjoy the show.

Growth
Chapter 2: Through the Red Tape
By Irritus185

Mortality is a concept inherent to all humans. They are born, they live, and eventually that life comes to end much like the flame on a candlestick. Sometimes the flame will burn slowly and softly, going out with the greatest and simplest of ease. And sometimes it will roar brightly, licking through the wax with reckless abandonment before being snuffed out as quickly as it had been lit.

Why do people live? Is it only so that may circle the globe in utter hopelessness, completely aware of their all-too-short lifespan? Or is there something deep down within humanity's psyche that exclaims of an idea much greater, much more important than the imminent eternal sleep that awaits us all? It is something that will never truly be known, as humans are a creature innately incomplete and unable to understand the darker parts of the world?

But what of the people that were close to those that passed away? Can they still survive in the world as themselves? Or will something inside of them change – a loss that can never be filled after the void has ripped through them? It tears through their souls, leaving an endless hole that eats away at them. But whether they are strong enough to fill that void with others or keep it as their immortal grief all depends on how strong they are, and how well they can deal with that horrible grief.

However, there are just some parts of mortality people will never come to understand or deal with no matter how strong they are. For they are the ones who are not old enough yet to deal with the terrible truth that arrives with the cold steel scythe and the cloaked figure that wields it in a never-ending job that it neither wants nor enjoys. They are the babes of society, the lambs of the world, and sometimes, sometimes…they just cannot deal with the hand life has given to them. So they either deny or break.

And God just looks down on them with pity…for there is nothing he can do at all.

These feelings of ungraspable despair tightened their way around Keitaro's heart as he gazed upon the electronic screen. There, in undeniable block letters, was the word "DECEASED" under two photos of a man and a woman. Their names proclaimed they were Yuki's parents, one Haru Tsukihime, father, and one Natsuki Tsukihime, mother. Haru had died a great deal ago, around the time Yuki had been born. However, Natsuki had passed on only recently – one week back.

They were both dead? Was that why he had found Yuki sleeping in an alleyway, because she had no place to stay after her mother had died? Didn't she have any other relatives to care for her? An aunt, a cousin, a grandparent, anyone? He blinked when another revelation hit him. She had been wearing what he thought might be a funeral outfit…Had she been abandoned right after her mother's wake? How could people be so cruel as to leave a poor child behind…How could they do such a thing, and ignore an innocent so clearly in need? His hand unconsciously gripped Yuki's tighter, causing her to wince. She sucked it up, though, not wanting to cause more worry for Keitaro.

Haruka was the first to recover and, upon noticing that her nephew was in no position or state of mind at the moment to start asking questions, tore her gaze from the monitor to the police officer. He stared back, not a mote of emotion except for the frown plastered on his face. "Would…" She cleared her throat to prevent herself from choking on her words. "Would you mind telling us what happened to her parents?"

The officer chewed on his bottom lip absently. Without a word he tapped a few commands into the computer and brought up two separate screens holding the Tsukihimes' vital information. "Father died due to an accident. Some truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into group of people. Killed about five of them, the father included. And the retard got away without a scratch. How's that for being a lucky bastard?" He raised his eyebrow at Haruka, who was glaring at him warningly. He took no heed in her threatening stare and continued. "Mother died because of a venereal disease." The other two adults' eyes widened at this. Yuki grew confused, not aware of what a serious matter her mother's illness was, wondering why the two had suddenly become very rigid.

Keitaro coughed. "Y-you mean that she had…"

"Must have picked it up somewhere. Her records indicate that after her husband died she began working in a Soapland located in Tokyo." He cancelled the windows and began to pull on the jacket to his uniform. "Sad really. They really should check out their clients before doing that kind of crap. Though I guess it's an occupational hazard just like any other job."

Keitaro stiffened. He could not believe the man's callous attitude towards the whole situation. Yuki's parents were dead, her mom suffering till her last breath from a fatal disease, and he acted as though it were like cutting your finger while cooking. Keitaro began to shake, his fingers slipping from Yuki's to ball up at his waist. "How…" His voice was quivering and unstable, his tone beginning to crack. "How could you say something like that!" he cried. Keitaro swung his fist out before clutching it to his chest. "How could you say something so…thoughtless, like it was the most common thing in the world?" Tears began to gather in the corners of his eyes.

Haruka gazed sadly at the younger man. Her nephew really was too empathetic for his own good. He would take everyone's and anyone's sorrow onto his own, even if he had never met the person before in his life. He would cry, weep, and suffer if it meant that the world would be a little better because of it. But this time, it did not matter how much sadness he took upon himself, it would not make the situation any happier or bring Yuki's parents back to their physical realm. It was just wasted liquid.

The officer looked at Keitaro. "Because it is the most common thing in the world." He grabbed his keys from the off the table, dropping them in his pocket. "Shit happens, kid. Get used to it. People die for various reasons; dying from an STD is no different from dying from a regular disease." He nodded at the three and began to walk off towards the entrance of the station. Upon noticing that they weren't following, he looked over his shoulder. "Well?"

Keitaro reacted dumbly. "Wha?"

The officer frowned. "Are you going to come with me or not?"

"Where?"

He sighed, pulled his cap down a bit, and turned all the way around. His foot began to tap on the floor impatiently. "Look kid, I ain't got all the time in the world for you to come to grasps with human mortality. I'm taking the girl to child services no matter what choice you've made yourself. Now, are you going to come with, or do I have to take her down there myself?"

Haruka answered. "We'll come as well." She knew what the policeman was saying was true, devoid of any tact or not. She shook Keitaro's shoulder lightly, signaling him to start moving. He glanced at her, his eyes still slightly unfocused. She gestured. They cleared up a little, though still cloudy, and he nodded. Reaffirming his grip on Yuki's hand, as if to make sure she was still there, he followed Haruka and the policeman out of the building.

GGGGG

The two sat in the empty room, the drapes on the windows swaying gently in the breeze. Keitaro's eyes traveled over the large desk in front of them. It was of simple design yet made an impact regardless, its mahogany sheen giving off a bit of light. Strewn across the top were various paperwork, folders, and a few personal effects. It gave the room a warm, familiar feel, and Keitaro felt at ease as his crossed leg bounced on the other every so often. He looked at the remainder of the room, taking note of the large bookshelf crammed full of law, family, and children psychology books. Almost absently, he got up from the chair and walked over to it. Haruka watched but said nothing as he slowly slipped a book of its nesting.

He flipped through the pages, his mind memorizing a few words and phrases. However, it was like he was looking through an opaque curtain, the meaning of the sentences muted and jumbled. His mind was still collecting the pieces that it had been dashed into only a couple hours earlier and frantically attempting to put them back in the proper, working order.

He jumped slightly, the book almost falling from his fingertips when the door opened. Both of their heads turning, the relatives saw a middle-aged woman, the roots of her short, brown hair just turning gray with age, walk into the room and smile congenially at them. "Hello, I assume you two are the Urashimas? I am Ryoko Fujimiya, the chairwoman of this establishment. May I ask what it is you came to see us about?"

"Is Yuki okay?" Keitaro hadn't seen the little girl since they were separated and shuffled off to various parts of the building, Haruka and Keitaro to the chairwoman's room, Yuki and Rikka somewhere else. He hoped that they were being treated fairly, and that the workers here wouldn't fuss over Rikka's presence. He was certain Yuki needed her there more than ever now.

"The little girl? Yes, don't worry, she's quite fine. We had her moved to where the other children that reside here play. She was well received by all of them. In the meantime, we did some checks on her background with that police officer that escorted you." She gestured to Keitaro, who understood and took his place back in the armchair. She walked around to the other side of the table and sat down with effort, her joints groaning uncomfortably to remind her of her age. Her face tightened before relaxing as she settled down. She moved a few items around on her desk so as to see the two more clearly while she continued to speak. "The poor dear's gone through quite a bit, it seems. And it doesn't look like she'll have it any easier for a while."

"What do you mean?"

"Yuki doesn't have any other living relatives. Her mother was the only one left to take care of her and, unfortunately, thanks to her passing away recently, she now has nowhere left to go. Her apartment will have the contract revoked now that her mother can no longer fulfill it, and she would have eventually found her way here. It's too bad, but sadly it happened all too often. Her running away didn't help matters, and it was only a matter of time before the police found her. If that weren't enough, there's no telling how badly she was affected mentally due to both her mother's death and subsequent short life on the streets." Fujimiya sighed quietly and rubbed her thumbs into the corners of her eyes. "It would appear that the only piece of luck that had happened to her was your discovery of her, Mr. Urashima. For that, I heartily thank you."

Keitaro blushed faintly at the praise. He scratched the back of his neck. "Umm, thank you." He looked up. "But what now? What's going to happen to Yuki?"

"There's not much to say. Now that she no longer has any guardianship, she will fall under the custody of this establishment until further notice. She may stay here, or she may be moved to another one more suitable for her. This is, of course, until she is either adopted or becomes of legal adult age. In either case, the government is now responsible for her well-being and we intend on doing so to the best of our abilities."

"I see…" Keitaro fiddled with his hands for a moment before looking and opening his mouth. After not saying anything, he closed it then opened it again. Again, he couldn't find any words to say. He tried anyway. "Umm, would I…I mean, would it be possible…that is to say…"

Haruka looked at him. "Keitaro…" She knew what he was going to say, what he was going to ask for. She knew this would happen the moment he found out that no one else could take care of Yuki. It was just like him, his ability to want to do good without thinking of the consequences. Unfortunately, the desire to be benevolent not tempered by common sense would only lead to an invariably horrible conclusion for all sides of the problem. Keitaro had to think about this, he had to consider exactly what he was asking entailed. Damnit, he had to know. "Are you thinking straight? Have you even considered what you're going to do?"

"But I…! I…!"

"Keitaro! This is not something you can do on a whim! This is something that's going to alter both your and that little girl's life forever."

"I know that! I know that but…"

Fujimiya glanced at the two of them. Her face formed into a frown, the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes tightening as they narrowed. "Mr. Urashima, how old are you?" she interrupted.

"Huh?" Keitaro looked at her and dumbly scratched his cheek. "I'm going to be twenty in about a month."

"Are you married?"

"What! No! No, I'm not!" He shook his hands frantically in front of him in denial.

"Do you have a steady job?"

"Umm…no, not at the moment…"

"Do you have a permanent place of residence?"

Keitaro could not even find the words to answer that question. The odds that this situation would happen were astronomical, and so he had no idea on how to react to it.

Fujimiya sighed. "Have you ever even owned a pet before?"

"Well, there was this…" He stopped suddenly, his confused face suddenly flushing and contorting with anger and annoyance. "Hey, you can't possibly be insinuating at the idea that taking care of a pet and a child are the same thing! That's completely-"

"Preposterous?" Keitaro calmed down at the mix of bemusement and sternness on her face. She settled down and smoothly folded her hands on the table. "Yes, it is. And if you had answered that question earnestly, the conversation would have ended here and I would have sent you out with another word spoken. Caring for a child is much harder than ever caring for a pet, even if they are similar in some regards. While a pet merely requires food, shelter, and some affection, a child needs someone to look up to as well, someone to guide them through life until they choose the path they will take. This is something that cannot be accomplished with a frivolous attitude." She took a hand and rubbed her eyes again. "Unfortunately, it still happens all too often, and some of the children that live here are proof of that."

Keitaro fell quiet. Haruka reached over and squeezed his knee gently. "See, nephew? This isn't something that you can choose to do on the spot. You have to think about what the responsibilities and consequences of such an action are." She repeated herself. "You have to know."

"But I…" His voice sunk to almost imperceptible levels. "I just want to help her."

"I understand that, Mr. Urashima, and if it made any difference, I believe you would make a fine caretaker through your compassion alone. Yuki is obviously attached to you, and an unkind person wouldn't be able to do as such. However, compassion is not enough. If it were, perhaps the children of this world would be much better off. But the plain and simple truth is – it isn't. It's sad, but it isn't."

"I know that, better than anyone, but…" His tone indicated that his words did not exactly correspond with his thoughts. He groaned in frustration. "Isn't there anything I can do?"

"You could help her find a family more suited to her. Or, if you were devoted, get a good job and fill out the requirement for being an adopter candidate. However, the process would be lengthy, and Yuki might go to another family long before you became eligible." Fujimiya felt a twinge of pity as she looked at the boy. But it was for both his and the young girl's own good. She had to look out for the children that were brought to this establishment. That meant that she had to make that both they and the people that adopted them would work out. It was depressing, but this young man did not have the things necessary to be a good provider.

"I…I…" Keitaro felt as though something was engulfing him. A pitch darkness wrapped around him, cutting off all movement, not even letting him breathe properly. On one hand, he knew that what the older women said was true. He wouldn't be a proper person to raise Yuki. He was homeless, had no job, and also was a ronin, which would be no help in achieving the previous two goals. On the other hand…He mentally hit himself. What good would that do? No matter how strong he felt about the girl, it wouldn't make a difference in the heart of matters. He still had to raise her in an environment that could not. In the end, the decision was clear.

"I…I underst-"

"What if I adopt her?"

"Eh?"

The two turned to Haruka, a firm grim look planted on her. Her legs were crossed, one on the top of the other; her arms were as well, lifted to just below her bosom. Her eyes gave no inkling as to what she was thinking.

Fujimiya managed to get her jaw working again. She took a deep breath and smiled pleasantly. "I'm sorry, what was it you just said?"

"I said…" Haruka looked back at her, her arms slowly beginning to uncross. "What if I adopted her?"

"Aunt Haruka…?" His eyes were bewildered.

Her eyes shot to him and back, one twitching slightly. "It makes sense, doesn't it? I own both my own residence and a somewhat successful business, and am also a well-respected member in my community. This should meet any of the requirements needed. I also run a dormitory that was left in my care by my mother as well as all its tenants, so that should prove that I am responsible enough to care for another human being."

"Um, but, Haruka, you aren't married…"

Her eye twitched again. "I'm well aware of that, Keitaro, but are you trying to ruin your own case here?"

"I'm sorr-"

"I beg your pardon!" Fujimiya started from her chair, almost rising to her feet. However, she stopped halfway through, thought better of it, and then sat back down again. Collecting her voice, she looked at Haruka, a glint of steel in her eyes. "I'm sorry, but you can't just take the young girl in as if on a whim. You have to-"

"I understand," Haruka interrupted again. Her face was stoic but her eyes were anything but. A cool yet stormy shade of brown swirled in her irises. "But as we can both see, Yuki is very attached to Keitaro. I'm not sure how deeply, but it's obvious she's formed a bit of a dependency on him. You want to see what happens when you take away that dependency when she needs it the most?"

Fujimiya said nothing. She had a degree in child psychology so she knew what Haruka was saying was true. Looking for something or someone to believe in, Yuki had latched on to the first person that had shown her some kindness. Whether that attachment would grow into something more was yet to be foreseen but the woman had to admit that what she had gleaned from Keitaro showed a healthy pillar for the girl to cling to until she was ready to be a bit more independent. She set her mouth in a stern line. "What do you suggest?"

Haruka forced herself not to smile. "Let me adopt Yuki for the time being. I have all the credentials needed so that shouldn't be a problem. However, let Keitaro be the one to take care of her. He can prove to you that he is a worthy candidate for adopting and then Yuki's guardianship can be transferred from me over to him."

Keitaro said nothing, only gazed in awed praise. He couldn't believe what was happening. Haruka was doing all this for him?

Fujimiya remained silent, her face and body language pensive. Her mind was a whirlwind of thoughts and electrical synapses blazing, going between pros and cons, weighing out the good and bad consequences. Finally, she sighed.

"Very well, then. I will allow the situation to take place." She looked at Keitaro, whose face had split into a wide grin. "I will give you a probationary period in which you can prove your own credentials for adopting Yuki Tsukihime. In that time you must gain a permanent place of residency and a legitimate job. Also, I will perform periodic psychoanalysis reports on the girl to make sure that she is in a safe and healthy living environment. However…" Her eyes became hard and her features sharp. Keitaro swallowed at the harsh look she was giving him. "If I, for any reason, find anything wrong with her, I will take Yuki back without question. She is just a child and putting her in danger, no matter how happy she is, is not something I will tolerate. I have to think of her future well-being as well as her happiness. And I will make you face the full brunt of the law. Do you understand me, Mr. Urashima?"

Keitaro nodded erratically, his voice shaking. "Y-yes, ma'am. I…" He shook his head, trying to calm himself down. "I do."

"Very well." She opened up a drawer and began to rummage through it. "I will need you to fill some papers out…" She directed this at both Haruka and Keitaro. "Before we can begin to get started. Normally it takes about a week for the adoption to be completed, but since yours is a special case it will probably about two or even three. Until everything is signed and wrapped up, Yuki will have to stay here. You may only take her with you when everything has been completely verified."

Keitaro nodded sharply again, his eyes locked with Fujimiya's. This time, his voice was loud and strong. "Yes, I get it."

They spent the next hour or so pouring over the stack of papers, filling in such things as names, dates, medical records, and the like. Keitaro thought his head was going to explode from all the various questions but he figured that to help Yuki he could brave a few mountains of tedious paperwork. When they were finished, Keitaro let out a sigh and leaned back in his chair. He then began to fidget with his hands.

"Can I see Yuki now?"

Fujimiya nodded and smiled. "Yes, you may. Allow me to lead you to where she is."

The two followed the chairwoman down a series of halls until they found themselves in a small courtyard behind the building. Keitaro searched the premises until he found Yuki surrounded by a few other children, that same soft smile dancing on her face. Before he could call out to her, she had already noticed him and was quickly making her way towards the trio. She didn't run but rather walked at a fast pace, Rikka swiftly following at her side. She stopped in front of them, glancing uncertainly. He extended a hand in response, which she immediately caught onto.

Keitaro smiled. "You having fun here?"

She slowly nodded, not saying a word.

Keitaro didn't know how to broach the subject, so he just stood there, staring out at the yard where some of the children continued to play and a few others watched them with growing interest. Haruka, having enough with her nephew's wishy-washy attitude, spoke up. Yuki looked up at her as she talked.

"Yuki, do you like Keitaro?" Her answer was a hesitant and shy nod. "How would you like it if Keitaro adopted you? You could come stay with him and me at Hinata-sou." The girl froze at the mention of the name, and Haruka mentally cursed as she remembered the first impressions given by the rest of the inn's tenants. But it seemed that the idea of staying with Keitaro and her overrode that, because Yuki just gave the same hesitant nod as before. She discreetly sighed in relief at the gesture and then looked at Keitaro. "Well, nephew? You going to do anything other than just stand there?"

The young man jumped in surprise. The emotions that flowed through his face showed that he had been absently thinking about something else. Finally it settled on sheepish embarrassment. He scratched his nose, nudging his glasses aside. "Oh, yeah." He bent down on one knee, looking Yuki in the eye. "Yuki, you're going to have to stay here a few more weeks. After that, you can come home with me and Haruka." At the downcast and almost betrayed look on her face, he quickly added, "But don't worry! I'll visit you every day! That's okay, right?" He directed that last question at Fujimiya.

"Yes, you may visit her as much as you like. Actually, I would recommend it. It would be good for both you and Yuki."

"Rikka?" The small voice caught their attention. Yuki was clutching at the snow-white cat again.

Fujimiya frowned. "I'm sorry, Yuki, but Rikka can't stay here with you. Some of the other children are allergic to cats, and we can't allow something that could possibly harm them to be around all the time." She glanced at Keitaro. "You'll have to take her back with you, and I'm afraid we can't let her back on the grounds anymore."

Keitaro didn't bother to argue. It would be a pointless endeavor and he didn't feel like angering the woman over something like this. He smiled ruefully and collected the cat from Yuki's arms, cradling her in his own. Rikka seemed displeased by the transfer, almost as if she recognized what it signified, but she stayed calm and didn't resist.

Keitaro stayed and talked with Yuki a bit more, promising that he would continue to see her as much as he could before the little girl was escorted into the building by an orphanage employee to show Yuki her room and around the place. Keitaro spared one last look at the pale blonde's tiny back before sighing, thanking Fujimiya for the help she had given, and then leaving the building with Rikka in his arms and Haruka in tow.

Keitaro looked up at the sky before muttering quietly, "Thanks, aunt Haruka."

She didn't make a motion to hit him, only lighting a cigarette before just holding it between her lips. "What for?"

"For everything. For helping me with Yuki and with the chairwoman."

"You're a good kid, Keitaro. I'm sure you'll be a fine caretaker for Yuki."

He snorted. "My parents would think otherwise."

"Bah, your parents are idiots at times. Bro isn't the smartest man in the world, and your mom is a very stubborn woman. I can see both of them in you, so it isn't surprising you've turned out the way you have."

"Like how?"

"A naïve and gullible blockhead who doesn't know his left from his right half the time."

"Hey!"

"But you're sweet, and your heart's in the right place. That alone is enough for anyone, let alone me." She curled up a finger and flicked the boy in the forehead. He squawked in indignation. "But work on your brain a little bit. Honestly, I can hear it atrophying from here."

"This coming from the women whose lungs probably looks like a coalmine."

"Oi, cigarettes are good for you. I can still smack you around whenever I want."

"Don't remind me. I can still remember each time you hit me. When did you get that halisen, by the way? I don't remember it at all."

"Eh, picked it up some time after I opened the teahouse. It's good for dealing with unruly customers and blockhead nephews."

"Ow, that really hurts."

"Well, at least it seems like your wit is getting better."

The two fell into mindless banter, Keitaro's face a myriad of emotions, his hands moving in wild gestures yet still managing to keep Rikka in place. Haruka kept her apathetic expression, occasionally letting a chuckle or smile to slip out unattended or unnoticed. They walked through the streets, the sun beginning its descent in the sky, the horizon lighting up a burning red, orange, and yellow.

As they finally approached the teahouse, Haruka invited him in to rest a bit. It would take all he had to convince the tenants to allow to stay for even the night. Privately, Keitaro wondered if this was the "safe and healthy" environment that he had promised Fujimiya. However, it wasn't like he had any other real promising options at the moment. He had to deal with what he had and hope that it would work out in the end. He sighed miserably. He was so very screwed.

Haruka was setting down a tray of tea and crackers when one of her employees called out for her. The young women with long, black hair and brown eyes moved closer, the teahouse's personal apron mixing well with her jeans. "Shishou, there was a fax addressed to you."

The housemother raised an eyebrow and removed the cigarette. "Hmm? From who?"

"Your mother, Urashima Hinata."

Keitaro's head lifted up from the table, his look interested. He had stopped stroking Rikka's head, who seemed bothered that she was no longer the center of his attention. She remedied the situation by sinking her claws into the boy's fleshy thighs. He gave a yelp and jumped up, Rikka falling to the ground in a graceful tumble. He glared at her and she responded the way cats do, with a disinterested yowl, and began to wash herself. Keitaro grumbled darkly before turning back to Haruka.

"From Grandma?"

She nodded. "Yeah, I e-mailed her at the address she gave shortly after you arrived. I had hoped she would know what to do but I didn't expect her to answer so soon." She turned to the young girl. "And? What did it say?"

The girl played with her apron's strings restlessly. "It said that only either you or your nephew could read it. I didn't go any further because…well…" Her sentence trailed off and she avoided looking Haruka in the eyes.

She understood. While she was a fair employer, she did make sure that both her employees and her customers understood and respected the concept of privacy. The few times any of them had tried to pry into her personal life had been swiftly dealt with. They still didn't know what exactly had happened to that rather pushy salesman or why when anyone else saw him again he had that nervous tic, but they weren't ecstatic to find out. She told the girl to go bring it to her, and within a couple minutes was perusing through it.

It was then that the most unusual thing happened. Keitaro wasn't quite sure, but at one point it looked like Haruka's face had shifted into something resembling complete and utter shock. But that was impossible; his aunt was never really bothered by anything and thus the emotion that he thought had appeared on her face didn't exist to her. It must have just been his imagination. She quickly went back to reading and finished the entire packet of papers within several minutes.

Setting them down, she ignored Keitaro's questioning look. She then took one long drag on her cigarette, upturning her head and blowing the smoke up into the air, the smoke dispersing as it move outwards. She then ground it into the ashtray and lightly tapped her head in frustration. Just as Keitaro was about to ask her what was going on, she put a finger to her mouth and slid the packet over to him. He looked at it and then at her.

"Just…read."

He picked the pile of papers up and quickly flipped through them, acting as though they would detonate if he did something wrong. The pages stopped for a second and he blinked. Turning back the pages, his eyes scrolled down and stopped on a couple of particular sentences. His brain froze.

He looked up at Haruka then back down at the papers then up at Haruka again. She simply nodded, her mouth forming into a small and exasperated frown. She groaned. Keitaro looked at the papers, tilting his head to the side.

Something snapped in his mind.

It started out as nothing and then grew. What was nothing more than a small snicker grew to a loud chuckle and then to uncontrollable laughter. The café's other patrons stared at him oddly, as though the boy was going insane. The ones closest to him shifted a bit away, and the few female employees made sure to give his table a wide birth.

Keitaro just ignored them and continued to laugh.

GGGGG

The steam hung heavily in the air, permeating everywhere with thick tendrils and opaque curtains. It weighed on the skin and made it feel like one was moving through a body of water rather than just walking. The scratching noise of rough linen and bristles on stones echoed in the air, a persistent melody that could easily lull one to sleep if they didn't pay attention. The sun was high in the sky, so the overall surroundings of the place were akin to being locked in a sauna with the heat turned all the way up.

Keitaro took a break from scrubbing the hot springs floor, retrieving a rag from his pocket to wipe away the sweat and moisture that had collected on his face. Absently he thought on how the motion had become so common the last several days and he wondered if he would become so used to it that it would be like second nature. Oddly enough, he found the idea somewhat of a comfort.

But to get used to this…? Keitaro raised the broom and looked at the still scummy parts of the ground. "How the heck can this place get so dirty so quickly?"

It had been about a week since he had become both owner and manager of Hinata-sou (that still sounded odd to his ears no matter how many times he said it), and he was still trying to get used to the situation.

His jobs weren't all that bad considering. All he had to do was clean the hot springs on a daily basis, wax each of the hallway floors (all three levels) on a daily basis, fix any holes or divots that seemed to appear both mysteriously…and not so mysteriously (where the heck did the foreign girl get the funds to make all those explosives with?) on a daily basis, tinker with the boiler every other day, cook food that he didn't even eat on a daily basis, and also…

He hung in his head in shame as the list went on and on (on a daily basis). Were those girls actually trying to kill him? No person had to do this much work all by themselves. He had done a lot of menial chores back at home in his parents' confectionary store, but they didn't even come close to brutality like these women did.

Keitaro sighed again. But at least that meant that he was becoming more responsible, so it would be that much easier for him to be seen as a good provider. If he could handle something as complicated as this, perhaps he would have a leg-up for taking care of a child. He almost burst out laughing when he realized the naivety of that idea.

Yuki would take a lot of work, there was no doubt. But at least he was willing to make the effort and try to better himself before he had to ultimately take the responsibility of raising her. The last few days had been closing in on the young man as he begun to fully realize the severity of his situation.

Would he be bale to take good care of Yuki? Would he be able to give her all she ever wanted? Would he even be able to give her what she needed? Would she always have a warm home to go to, good food to eat, or nice clothing to wear? What if she got sick; would he be able to nurse her back to health? What about when she started asking the BIG questions, would he be able to answer them?

Keitaro nervously thought about when that time would come. He barely understood them, so how would he explain them to Yuki? On that matter, when it came to education, would he be an okay person to help her in her studies? He grimaced. A two-time ronin teaching a five-year-old the basics in mathematics…It was like the beginning to a bad joke or something.

Well, at the very least he now had a place to stay and a somewhat steady, if not all appropriate, job. He had filled in two of the requirements. But as for the environment?

His mind wandering, his thoughts came to rest on the inn's tenants. They weren't bad girls, not really. Sure, he figured some of them would be more at home in a mental institution than the inn but that wasn't their faults, now was it? It was merely the result of a faulty social structure and academic facilities…

He shook his head. Urgh…what the heck was he thinking?

To be honest, he wondered if he would survive long enough until Yuki was released from the orphanage. He did get along okay with some of the girls, but the others…He shuddered when he thought about it.

Maehara Shinobu was a definite cutie. There was no other way to describe her. Soft-spoken, highly emotional, a face you found in those shoujou manga, and cooking skills rivaling four-star restaurants; they all formed a pre-pubescent princess that could cry at the drop of a hat. Oh lord, did she cry…He groaned, remembering the time she had asked him to grab a pan that was out of reach for her and then, due to his natural clumsiness, he tripped over his own feet and brought the entire shelf down on top of him. She had wailed like he had died instead of just receiving a mild concussion and imprint marks of a stainless steel handle on his forehead. But she was a sweet girl. The youngest of the tenants, she had taken to calling him "senpai," though he had yet to figure out why. It was nice to know someone treated him like an actual person…

Kaolla Su (or was it Su Kaolla?) was the epitome of hyperactivity. The way the tanned foreign girl bounced off the walls, floors, ceilings, and him was something that defied both biological and physical laws. One moment she could be scarfing down a meal for three people, the next moment she could be in her room creating some new and horrifying technology, and the next literally hanging off of him and badgering him into early insanity. How many times had it been so far that she snuck into his room and ambushed him when he arrived? Ten, fourteen? It had to at least be a dozen…But he knew she meant well. Living in a country miles away from your own had to make you crave social contact with other people. The only thing he wished was that the second-youngest girl would stop using him as a landing spot for her flying kicks…

Aoyama Motoko was…well, when he watched those old samurai movies Keitaro didn't figure that those people were still supposed to exist…and have strong phylogenic tendencies to boot. The girl…well, the girl flat out hated him, and she was scary. Real scary; like whip a really, very shiny, sharp, and pointy katana at him for the smallest of indiscretions scary. She was one of the main reasons he feared for both his and Yuki's safety. The girl was obviously a little loose, but he dare not say anything that would bring out Shisui (the girl had named her sword.) But, at the very least, the high-school kendo girl appeared to have the interests of the rest of the tenants at heart, so he supposed he could just let bygones be bygones and hope to Kami-sama that she wouldn't stab him to death in his sleep.

Narusegawa Naru…Instinctively Keitaro's teeth began to grind together. Damn demon girl, putting him down like that. The Tokyo University-bound hopeful always managed to get on his nerves, and he for she in turn. Why they got along so badly and where the heck she learned to perform a haymaker like that he'd never know, but he hoped that things would begin to calm down after a while. He had thought he had saw a deeper side to the girl when he found out they both attended the same cram school. On the way back home she had fallen asleep while standing up and had ended up leaning on him. He realized at that point that the girl had worked hard to achieve the highest grades in Japan, so hard that she lost some of her eyesight. She looked so helpless then, so tender…And then when they finally got back she lobbed a right cross into his temple and launched him into a cherry tree thanks to an offhand comment by the fox girl.

Speaking of which…Konno Mitsune, aka Kitsune, aka one of the scariest seductresses this side of Kyuushu. Keitaro blushed as he thought of the woman that was only a bit younger than him. Drunk almost 24/7, a wit that fitted an international spy rather than a freelance writer, and gobs and gobs of sex appeal, and Keitaro realized that if Naru or Motoko didn't kill him first, Mitsune would suck him dry. The woman was an excellent con-artist, and it took all he had to just resist the urge of coming near her when she spoke in that throaty tone and run away as fast as he could. The girl was a ball to be around, but he had a hard time discerning whether she was more dangerous drunk or sober. He didn't feel like testing it out anything soon as at the very best he would end up with several new puncture wounds and a significant drain on his finances. However, when she wasn't busy fleecing him she was a nice person to talk to and an even better person to drink with. He'd probably have to talk to her about that drinking though…

Caught so far in his recollections, Keitaro failed to notice one very detail – that of a tanned blue-and-white missile heading straight for his head.

"Oooiiii! Ronin!"

"Gah!" Su's foot connected with his skull, projecting him backwards. His foot caught in the bucket and he did a rather ungraceful flip into the hot springs below. Floating up, he moved the wet bangs out of his eyes. He snorted in annoyance. "What is it, Su?"

"Nothin'," she grinned. "Just wanted to see how you were doing."

"Oh, just fine, just fine." He gathered himself out of the water, his clothes sagging down. "I was doing alright until you rattled my brains silly!"

"Nyahahahaha! You're so funny when you're mad. Your face gets all scrunched up and crazy-like."

He sighed. "Su, what did you really come here for?"

"Ummm…" She hopped from one foot to the next in agitation, her expression suddenly curious. "When's Yuki finally coming?"

Keitaro paused for a moment before letting out a chuckle. Su had accompanied him the last couple of times he had visited Yuki, intrigued in the little girl that had suddenly appeared and then disappeared with their new manager. She immediately proved to be a good and energetic play-partner, quickly falling into place with the younger children. It was probably a good thing for her that Yuki was coming, as it seemed she was closer in mental age to Su then any of the others were.

"She's coming in the next week or so. There are still a few things that need to be cleared up and sorted out. But the chairwoman said that there wasn't much left to do and that things would finish much more quickly than expected." He nodded and gave a warm smile. "So don't worry, it shouldn't be much longer."

Su grinned widely before jumping and stamping on the ground. "Roger that!" She took a look at the ground and her grin became even wider. "Ronin…" Keitaro cringed internally at the continuous pet name she had labeled him with. "You missed a spot. Look! I can move like I was skating!" As if to prove her point she began to slide around the area, her feet acting as perfect traction on the slippery stones.

Keitaro didn't know whether to laugh at the silliness she was exuding or scowl at the indirect insult. He instead decided to watch her, and then wince in empathetic pain as she slammed face-first into one of the larger boulders littering the springs when she failed to stop skidding. He almost made to go help her, but she picked herself up and grinned good-humoredly, rubbing her palm on her face.

He sighed and went back to work as Su lingered about, alternating between asking him questions and just exploring the area. His work and attention was broken again when he heard someone calling for him at the entrance to the changing room.

"Senpai!"

Knowing that only one person bothered to call him that, Keitaro looked up pleasantly to see Shinobu at the doorway, Rikka curled up in her arms. The cat had taken a shine to the blue-haired girl, and was often seen following her around when Keitaro was in a place she deemed unsatisfactory, like in the wet hot springs or fixing the noisy boiler. The girl fed her and petted her so she was a desired person to hang around. Keitaro waved in greeting.

She smiled in turn. "Senpai, I just wanted to tell you that lunch would be ready soon and…" She trailed off. Keitaro winced again at remembering why.

For the first few days he had been prohibited from eating meals with the rest of the girls for…various reasons. Shinobu had then taken it upon herself to leave a little something for the tired landlord. But…certain happenings had complicate the entire ordeal so it was decided he just eat with them to make things easier for all. Still, the constant looks of annoyance and downright anger were starting to become troublesome.

Seeing that he understood, Shinobu made as if to turn around but then paused, remembering something. "Oh, senpai! There's one more thing I needed to tell you! Haruka said that-"

Keitaro's eyes widened as he saw her heading for a slick patch that he managed to miss. "Maehara, watch out!"

"Kyaah!"

"Mreeow!"

Several things happened at once. Shinobu skid forward, her slippers unable to get any hold on the scummy ground. Keitaro moved towards her so as to stop her from falling. Rikka went flying into the air, a result of Shinobu windmilling her arms to vainly regain her balance. The end result of all of this was Keitaro on his back, the back of his head throbbing in pain when it smacked into the ground; Shinobu sprawled on top of him, dizzy, her body not willing to get up again anytime soon; and Rikka spread across Keitaro's face, stubbornly refusing to budge after being bodily flung in the air. Keitaro quickly found it hard for him to breathe through the thick fur and muscles of the cat covering his nose and mouth.

He groaned pitifully. Shinobu rapidly snapped to attention and, upon noticing their position and the awkward pain Keitaro was in, quickly had a blush flare across her face and sunk into a cascade of tears, wailing something incoherently.

The fiasco caught the attention of the other tenants who, seeing the situation only at that one particular moment, came to one and only one conclusion.

Keitaro was lucky that Rikka was covering his eyes. At least he didn't have to see the torture that was swiftly approaching him in mini-skirts and kendo clothing.

The pain, however, he felt all too well.

GGGGG

Keitaro stood, once again, in the office of the chairwoman of the orphanage, Fujimiya, with Haruka by his side. The difference this time, however, was that Yuki was firmly holding onto his hand, refusing to let go even the slightest bit.

It had been about two and half weeks since he first met Yuki, and now the paperwork had been officially completed and processed. Haruka, being the one that was legally the guardian of Yuki, had to be there, but Keitaro was with her for also quite obvious reasons.

He was amazed with the way Yuki was treated at the orphanage. Each of the children that lived there appeared to be well taken care of, both in the simple but comfy clothing they wore as well as having bright eyes and healthy-looking bodies from proper eating habits. At the moment, Yuki was dressed in light yellow sundress, her slender arms sticking out from the poofy shoulder-length sleeves.

Each time he had visited, Yuki had been so happy to see him. She never ran, never went beyond that shy smile, and never hugged him in front of the others, but the warmth of her hand, the blush in her cheeks, and the gleam in her eye attested to something more powerful and content than anything the ronin had seen before.

Even the other orphans seemed happy to see her off. Keitaro momentarily thought that they would be jealous and even angry that someone who had been there much shorter than them was being adopted before anyone else. But he suspected deep down that they were happy that any of them were going off to a good home. It was the simple gestures like that that made Keitaro wonder about the state of the country, and that perhaps it was much better off than he had thought before.

Fujimiya smiled at the scene before her before addressing Haruka. "Now that you adopted Yuki, the government should send you a weekly stipend of ten-thousand yen per week. Use it for food and clothing and whatever you deem necessary for her growth." She then turned to Keitaro. "You better take good care of her Mr. Urashima. I will assign a date once a month for us to meet so that I can check both her and your progress on matters."

He nodded and smiled. "Yes, ma'am."

She smiled back and then bent over, reaching a hand towards Yuki. The little girl chanced a look at Haruka and Keitaro before looking back at the chairwoman. Slowly, softly, she extended her own and lightly clasped the older woman's hand. Fujimiya smiled even brighter than before. "Goodbye then, Yuki. It was very nice to have you here."

"…goodbye."

Waving them farewell, Fujimiya saw them walk down the street before disappearing over the apex of the hill. She then turned around and walked back into the orphanage, the large doors clicking quietly behind her.

Keitaro made small talk with Yuki, asking her about anything else she had seen, heard, or done at the orphanage that she hadn't told him already. She responded with bits and pieces, talking slowly like she always did, carefully choosing each word before speaking in a very gentle tone. Idly, Keitaro thought about how her speech patterns were very similar to that of Shinobu's. His thoughts and conversation were interrupted by Haruka telling him something.

"Hnn?" He shook his head. "What was that?"

"I said," she repeated with a hint of annoyance in her tone. "Are you ready to go to the store?"

"Store?" His eyes were filled with confusion. "What store?" Had he forgotten to buy some cleaning supplies or perhaps the week's groceries?

Haruka pinched her nose as a pain shot through her sinuses. Why did her nephew have to be so incredibly dense? "Yuki's clothes, you idiot. We have to go get some extra sets of clothes for her. Unless you plan on having her wear that exact same dress every day." Keitaro laughed anxiously and put a hand behind his neck. She frowned and leaned closer. "She needs underwear, too. I doubt your boxers are a good substitute."

Keitaro flushed a bright red and agreed wholeheartedly. He squeezed Yuki's hand and motioned for her to follow. She simply nodded.

They made their way into the inside market a few streets downhill. There Haruka lead the two to a small clothing store that specialized in children's clothing for both boys and girls. When inside, she made a beeline for the dresses, dragging Keitaro by the wrist and swerving in and out of display racks. She then forced him to sit down before calling a salesperson to help her take Yuki's measurements. The little girl seemed embarrassed and a little scared as the woman asked her to lift her arms so that she use the measuring tape, but a reassuring look from both Keitaro and Haruka calmed her down enough to go through with it.

And then came the parade of clothing.

Keitaro sat like a statue, watching as Haruka and the saleswoman went through a variety of dresses, long and short, thick and light, and a full spectrum of colors. Yuki bore each of them, nodding or shaking her head to the ones she did or did not prefer, a stack of clothing that she accepted steadily building on a chair. When they were done with the dresses, they went through some pants and shirts as well. Personally Keitaro thought that Yuki looked better suited and cuter in the frilly dresses but some more neutral clothes weren't all that bad either.

Haruka saw him watching them intently and walked over, taking a seat by his side. She nudged him in his rubs with her elbow, and when he looked at her in curiosity she just let out a small grin. "Honestly, nephew," she murmured. "When did you become so lucky as to get a girl as adorable as her?"

Keitaro looked at Yuki. She was trying on a long, pale blue dress accented by white lace that traveled the bottom, neckline, and sleeves of the fabric. It matched perfectly with her sapphire eyes and snow-like hair, making her seem like an ice fairy from out of a storybook. He sighed and then let out a chuckle.

"I really don't know."

Haruka regarded his face for a second before getting back up and returning to Yuki's side to help her with the clothing.

When it came to the underwear, Keitaro was thankfully spared. Aside from a few singles that Haruka and the saleswoman thought fit Yuki perfectly, they bought a couple sets of plain and striped ones. Keitaro was glad he didn't have to be seen scrounging through children panties, as the idea made him want to bash himself upside the head.

They eventually finished, deciding on several dresses, a couple shirts and pants, socks, underwear, and two pairs of shoes. When they managed to ring it all up, Keitaro let out a long breath of surprise. Already he was dipping deep into his already stretched savings, and this was just for clothing! What was he going to do for the other stuff that Yuki would invariably need for growing up right? He sighed as he paid for the clothes. He'd worry about that when he needed to. For the moment, he'd focus solely on getting his ward settled in Hinata-sou.

He just hoped it wouldn't be as hard as the last few weeks had been.

Yuki happily held Keitaro's hand, his other one occupied by the bags of clothing.

Yuki was incredibly joyful at the moment. For the first time in a long while she felt the care and love of someone akin to a family member. She hadn't known Keitaro for a long time, but she could already feel in her heart that he would look after her for the rest of her life.

He had saved her, taken her in from the streets, and she was so glad that he gone even further, accepting her into his home and arms. Keitaro was a good person, and she loved him dearly. Of course, her child's mind certainly had something to do with the whole slightly skewed thought processes, but to her, all that matter right now that he was accepting her without asking anything in return, and she was content.

Papa had died when she was a baby, so she didn't really remember him at all. But Mama had said that Papa was a kind man, a gentle man. He was a man that always looked after them and did his best to make sure they were as comfortable and taken care of as possible. Keitaro was kind. Keitaro was gentle. Maybe Keitaro could be the Papa that she unfortunately never knew.

Papa.

She rolled the word around in her mind and on her tongue. That sounded right, it sounded nice. She liked the sound it created. Maybe Keitaro would like it too.

She tightened her hold on his hand, her little palms hot and dry. Her eyes closed and her mouth widened and tightened. His hands were big and warm too, though maybe a bit moister than hers. That was alright, that was the way that Keitaro was. That was the way that she wanted him.

She stopped when he did, realizing that they had reached the entrance to Hinata-sou. She hadn't even felt herself climbing the stairs, so buried in her own thoughts. She looked up at Keitaro.

He smiled back down at her. His face changed, like he had just realized something. It settled on thoughtfulness and abashed amusement. He put the bags down and got on his knees. Looking Yuki straight in the eyes, he tried to make his tone as soft and assuring as he could.

"Look, Yuki. You're going to be staying here for a while, maybe a long time, and I want you to be as happy as possible. I'll try the best I can, but I know I'll screw up from time to time. But Haruka will help me out and I hope you can forgive me for being an idiot when that happens." He laughed. "And also…you know I'll be taking care of you but I don't think you should think of me as a dad or anything, if you should actually think I'm worthy of that title." He paused for a moment seeing a flash of disappointment but went on. "One is 'cause I'm still not your legal guardian, Haruka is, but also because I don't feel like I'd make a good dad right now. I'm still young and I'm dumb, but I think over time I might be able to become strong enough and smart enough and responsible enough to try and take on that title."

He closed his eyes and sighed. He opened them again and smiled. "So until then, just think of me as an older brother. I think I can deal with being that, at least for now."

Yuki said nothing, her face screwed in confusion, but it cleared up and she nodded slowly.

Keitaro smiled and thought of his next words. But, he realized, there were only a few he could say. And to him, they were really all that mattered.

"Welcome home, Yuki-chan."

She smiled and, standing up on her tip toes, wrapped her tiny arms around his neck. She pressed her lips to his cheek, like a snowflake falling from the frosted sky. Her eyes were bright, her hair waving in the autumn breeze.

"I'm home, Keitaro-niisan."

A/N: Wow…Normally, I 'm not affected much by my stories but for some reason that one ending to the chapter really hit me hard. Ah well, guess I'm only human after all. Yuki's turned into a little cutie, hasn't she? I can't wait to see what happens in the next few chapters. Obviously a lot of problems will have to be addressed, but I'll wait until then to talk about them. Hope to see you next time! And also, please review, and remember, no flames!

Next Chapter – Childrearing 101