Disclaimer: the rights to all anime series depicted in this story are the excusive properties of the original creators. Should any of the copyright holders request it, this story will be removed from the web immediately.

Perceptions

(Love Hina Echo)

Part 4 – Red Wine and 'Good' Dates

By Random1377

Keitaro toyed with his fork and glanced around at the décor of the restaurant he was in, studiously trying not to notice how quickly his date drained her glass of wine. "S-so," he said nervously, "do you come here often or…"

Misato smiled as he trailed off, setting her empty glass down and motioning the waiter over for a refill. "You know, we're already on a date… you don't have to keep dropping corny lines."

"Sorry."

Lacing her fingers together, Misato rested her chin on the backs of her hands and gazed steadily at the uncomfortable young man. "And you don't have to keep apologizing," she said. "If you had any idea how cute you are when you say and do stuff like that, you'd go out of your way to say stupid things and trip over your own feet."

The fork spun from Keitaro's fingers and dropped to the floor with loud clatter.

"Then again, it must be hell keeping up with the dishes at your place."

Keitaro laid his hands flat on the table, staring down at the backs of his hands with a look of guilty accusation – as if they were responsible for making him look like an idiot. Looking up was a dangerous proposition, since (somehow) several of Misato's buttons had come undone during dinner, offering him a tantalizing view into her shirt. It was not a bad view, he decided as he stole his fifth peek, but he was still unsure of what she had in mind. She came on so much stronger than any of the girls at the Hinata Sou that he had no real idea of what to do or say when he was with her.

"Tell me something about yourself, Keitaro," Misato asked suddenly. "I know you manage a dorm full of underage girls and you're trying to get into college – and that you like art – but beside that, I don't know anything."

"They're not… all underage," Keitaro mumbled, his fingers twitching as if they longed to grab his spoon. "But, umm, I don't really have time to have a hobby or anything like that since I'm always doing something for the Sou or for school."

Misato nudged his wine glass closer to him, encouraging him to take a drink. Once he had swallowed, she softly asked, "So does that mean you don't have time for a girlfriend?"

"I don't know," Keitaro said awkwardly, "I've never had one. I don't… I don't know how much time it takes…"

Laying her hand on top of his, Misato said, "I'm pretty low maintenance."

"O-oh…"

Keitaro stared into Misato's eyes, painfully aware of her slightly open shirt and her flower-scented perfume and the gentle pressure of her fingertips on the back of his hand. It was a powerful combination, and though he was scared as all hell, Keitaro felt himself leaning forward in his chair, dizzy with the realization that the gorgeous woman sitting across from him might be on the verge of closing the distance between them and giving him a non-accidental, willing kiss.

"Keitaro," Misato said quietly. "Your… forearm is in your spaghetti."

"Wha-aww, man!"

The moment, obviously, was lost. The rest of the meal was spent in quiet, light conversation, but Keitaro could not keep his eyes off of Misato. From the increasingly broad grin on her face, though, he could tell that she was enjoying the attention. He reassessed her looks every five minutes, finding them well above the average, and causing his brain to lock in a repeating cycle of doubt and uncertainty. Several other items were knocked over, but Misato always managed to avoid getting anything on her, and as they stepped out of the restaurant it was Misato that held the door for Keitaro and held her arm out for him to take.

"They… they'll never let you back in there you know," he observed as they began to walk down the street towards the woman's car. "I think I ruined that tablecloth."

"I'm sure they have something that takes wine out of fabric," Misato assured him, "don't sweat it. Did you like the wine, Keitaro? You didn't have much."

Keitaro chuckled weakly. "I'm not much of a drinker," he admitted. "I get… silly if I have too much."

Whereas you, he added, recalling the number of glasses the woman had knocked back, drink more than Kitsune… and you're barely even slurring your words.

Arching an eyebrow, Misato said, "Silly, huh? I'd kind of like to see that some day." She stopped and leaned against a nearby building. "So," she said casually, "am I… dropping you off, or did you have something else in mind for the rest of the evening?"

It took several tries for Keitaro to successfully swallow. "I, umm, well you probably shouldn't d-drive right now," he observed. "Is there anything else you want to do around here?"

Misato arched an eyebrow and looked around. "In this neighborhood?" she asked coolly. "I'd rather not, really… it's a little dirty."

Keitaro looked up, his face going instantly crimson as he realized that they had strolled into a small district of love hotels. "I didn't m-"

"Keitaro."

"Y-yeah?"

A pleasant shiver ran down Keitaro's spine as Misato put her hands on his chest and leaned closer to him. "What I meant," she whispered, "was that I don't like these places." Leaning closer still, she concluded, "But my apartment isn't far from here…"

"Is… is that right…?" Keitaro breathed, nearly melting as Misato slid her hands up and clasped them gently behind his neck.

Misato nodded and wet her lips, easing herself closer to Keitaro and tilting her head slightly to the side. "Would you like to go there, Keitaro?"

There was a profound silence as Keitaro desperately tried to un-stick his brain.

Is this our first date? he thought with sudden, random clarity. I mean, we went out for coffee… was that a date, or was it just a meeting? Is this a second date? Should… should we even be TALKING about stuff like this yet…?

Keitaro closed his eyes as Misato drew him in close, his heart racing in his chest as the woman's lips barely brushed against his. "We could stay at one of these places if you'd like to," she breathed. "I like my own bed better, but if you're in that big of a rush, I don't mi-"

"Let's go to a movie!"

Misato blinked as the young man slipped out of her arms. "A… huh?"

Plastering a huge smile on his face, Keitaro said, "There's a movie theatre right over there! Let's go see a show, huh?"

Whaaaaat am I doing? he thought, uttering a huge, booming laugh as Misato gaped at him. She said she wanted to… and I'm just… God, what is WRONG with me? I just don't-

"That's an adult theatre, Keitaro."

Ketiaro paled. "Is… is that right…?"

Misato cocked her head to the side. "You're a funny guy," she mused. "I mean, if you'd rather watch it than do it yourself, that's cool, but umm… I'd rather participate, you know? Unless you want to do that and then that, because, you know, whatever gets you going, I guess…"

Resisting the urge to slap himself in the forehead, Keitaro managed to mumble, "I… I just meant a normal, regular movie… without… without sex…"

"Should I have you home by eleven, too?" Misato asked, pursing her lips as she regarded the flustered manager. "All the children's matinees are over by four in the afternoon, Keitaro. In case you hadn't noticed, this isn't really a kid-friendly city – and I doubt you'll find a movie without some kind of sex or violence in it these days."

Keitaro's voice was almost pleading as he said, "I meant I don't want to see a p-porno. I just… wanted to see a movie."

Shrugging, Misato muttered, "Well you could have just said that, you know."

To Keitaro's immense relief, she took his hand and led him out of the red-light district.

"You're so jumpy," she murmured as they walked. "You really should loosen up, Keitaro."

Keitaro opened his mouth to reply.

"Especially if you're going to be spending the night."

Keitaro closed his mouth.

Why am I fighting this? he thought, stealing a glance at his date as she put her arm around his waist and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. She… really wants to… to…

The thought trailed off as Misato suddenly came up short and whispered, "Ah screw it."

Keitaro's eyes widened in shock as Misato turned to face him, putting her hands on the sides of his head and pressing her lips to his in a quick, passionate kiss.

"There," she declared, releasing him and letting him stumble back a step. "It's out of the way – now we won't have to worry about whether or not our first kiss will be awkward."

Taking his hand, she led him into the movie theatre.

She did not notice that his face had frozen into a mask of surprise and disbelief until halfway through the movie… and then she simply smiled and gently pushed his gaping mouth closed before resting her head on his shoulder and wondering how she could get Asuka and Shinji out of the apartment for an hour or two.

( 0 0 0 )

"I'm… home…"

Keitaro's knees felt like they were made of jell-o as he pushed the door to the Hinata Sou open.

"Keitarrrrrooooo!"

"Whuff!"

The air was forced from his lungs as Su (who had clearly been crouched in anticipation of his return) hit him low and hard, her shoulder connecting with his solar plexus in an open-field tackle that would have made any football coach tear up with pride.

"Welcome home!"

"Th…anks…"

As he was flat on his back, Keitaro could not do much to prevent Su from leaning forward and pressing her nose against the side of his neck. "Uck," she complained, "you smell like hussy! You better go take a hot shower, or Naru's gonna pound you flat!"

Though he did not doubt this fact, Keitaro was not in the mood for a hot shower. A cold one, sure, but a hot one? Not a good idea.

Yeah, I think I've had enough hot for one night, he thought tiredly. That… wow, she's… wow…

It was strange, he decided, to think that he had 'escaped with his purity' when he left Misato's apartment. Though he had tried his best to get her to understand that he wasn't quite ready to take that step with her yet, Keitaro had found himself sitting in Misato's kitchen, looking around at the dated appliances while his date had a none-too-quiet argument with the redheaded girl who had called him stupid just a few days prior.

The idea that he had been about to get lucky kept going over and over in his mind, and it would take several days for him to fully understand why he had mumbled, "Gotta go, see ya later," and slipped out of the kitchen while Misato was still arguing. And in the ultimate twist of fate, now he was on his back with a girl straddling him and complaining that he smelled like another woman.

God hates me.

"What the hell are you two doing?"

Really… really hates me.

"N-Naru," Keitaro stammered, craning his neck to look past Su's shoulder. "We weren't… doing anything, really!"

"Now you're in trouble," Su (unnecessarily) informed him, glancing over her shoulder to tell Naru, "Keitaro was out sleeping around!"

Naru stared at the younger girl for a moment… then slowly turned away. "Well he is a man, after all."

"But… but Naru!" the tiny foreigner stammered. "I thought you… you, ummm…"

Keitaro averted his eyes. He had never seen Su at a loss for words – ever. It made her seem younger somehow, and Keitaro realized with a flash of insight that dating Misato had far deeper implications than he had first guessed.

"Don't leave the front door open all night," Naru said quietly. "I'm going to bed."

A cold, icy feeling stabbed into Keitaro's stomach. "W-wait," he blurted. "Naru, wait, I…"

He fumbled for words, but nothing seemed to fit. It was not as if he wasn't seeing Misato, after all. He hadn't slept with her, but (if Misato had her way) that was just a matter of time, so what could he say to Naru to get her to stop walking away?

And did he want her to stop walking away?

"Stop!"

Naru looked over her shoulder, blinking in surprise as Keitaro – with Su still clinging to him – rose to his feet.

"Don't…don't be like that," he pleaded, barely aware of what he was saying as Naru stared at him and Su slowly climbed off of his side. "I'm still here, you know – and I'm not going anywhere. I'm not…" he drew a deep breath, trying to get hold of himself, "I'm not that… shallow, ok? I like her – I do, I'm not going to lie… but I like you too, Naru, and… and I like everyone here at the Sou. I… I don't know if it means anything to you, but I didn't do anything with her tonight."

Naru turned away, and from her tone Keitaro could tell she was forcing herself to speak as she said, "It wouldn't be my business if you did, you know."

"But-"

Keitaro staggered as Su abruptly threw her arms around him. "I told you!" she said triumphantly. "I told you he wasn't that kind of guy!"

Gently loosening Su's grip, Keitaro ventured, "You do believe me, right Naru?"

Keeping her back to him, Naru slowly nodded. "I believe you, Keitaro," she whispered. "And if you say you won't leave, I believe that too. Just remember that no one else can run the Hinata Sou, ok? You… you have an obligation to be here, you know."

Smiling weakly, Keitaro put his hand on Su's head. "I know. I won't let you down – any of you."

No, he decided, he wouldn't leave. He liked Misato, and perhaps it would grow to be more some day… but after their date, and the reactions of his two tenants, Keitaro decided that he wasn't quite ready to be what she wanted him to be.

She'll understand, he thought, allowing a joyful Su to drag him into the Hinata Sou. We can just… let things cool off a bit, and then… then we'll see.

Continued…

Pre-read on this chapter was done by Hawker-748, who helped me salvage the trainwreck that was the original ending.