Hi, Nodoka here. It's been a while, but I think it's time I started a new fic. Just a little information on where this fic picks up – it begins early May, 2000, after Keitaro's confession to Naru in hospital (which was not reciprocated, as I'm sure everyone can remember) and his subsequent release, but before Naru goes on field trip to Kyoto and Tsuruko first arrives on the scene.

It always seemed to me that these four weeks or so passed pretty much without comment – odd, given the slightly strained situation which was bound to be noticed by the other residents. Not to mention how it feels to be well and truly shot down......so, what would happen if something had tipped the balance? Especially if a couple of members of the Hinata-sou possessed a few secrets which would change their way of thinking.

But it's been too long for me to keep yakking, and I imagine that most people have skipped to the start of the chapter anyway. Just want to quickly say thanks to Rach and Bob for their help, and also to Cizzymac for writing a cracking fic which kept me entertained for many an hour whilst on hiatus.

So, on with the fic.

Disclaimer – All characters contained within this piece of writing belong to Ken Akamatsu, and this piece is written purely for enjoyment. No gains financial or otherwise have been made through the publishing of this fic.



Parallel Lives – Chapter 1



Parallel.

A word which seems so simple, but is deceptively complex. It is one which speaks of togetherness, yet simultaneously of distance. For even though lines moving in parallel move together ever onwards, they can never, ever meet.

Lives can be lived in parallel, often happily so. Knowing there is someone who is close by, someone who can be relied upon when help is needed can be a comfort to many. However, to a few, living in parallel with another is a fate akin to a life sentence.

Because the distance between them will never disappear.

So it was with a certain violet-eyed girl called Shinobu Maehara. The smallest and most placid of her peers – those being the residents of the Hinata-Sou dormitory – and hence 'protected' from the fate she wished for with all her being. Forced into a path alongside the man she desired through the good intentions of others, held at arms length for her own apparent benefit. And whilst her desires were strong, the grip of others upon her was stronger still, never allowing her to close the infinitesimal space between herself and a bespectacled Ronin who had little idea of his position in her affections.

But…..what would happen if something had changed? Something to tip the balance even a shred, to diminish her loyalty to her peers, or to elevate Keitaro even more highly in her regard? Enough to make the desire pushing her closer stronger than the hands holding her back?

What would people make of it when the impossible happened?

When parallel lives meet……



It had been a long, long few weeks.

Far longer than any weeks should take to pass, in Keitaro's opinion. Not that anyone ever asked for it, but if anyone had enquired of the ex-ronin as to how long each week of the previous four had taken to pass, he would (after staring into space through puzzled brown eyes which secretly wondered why you were asking) have told you at least two months.

Each.

Not much to do, in truth, when you're laid up with a leg that looks like it's been hit by a car, mangled by a thresher and then given a good steam rolling to boot. Boredom sets in pretty quickly, even for someone who is a dreamer by nature.

Try being a dreamer who'd found the aforementioned dreams smashed and beaten in the same manner as his aforementioned leg.

Resting back against his pillows with a long sigh, Keitaro wished for the seven-thousandth time that when the Tokyo-U dome had fallen, it had either missed him completely or done a much better job of crushing him beyond recognition. Staring blankly at the sight above him, the probable ex-ex-ronin wished he hadn't.

The ceiling board hadn't moved in the weeks he had been home, not once. In his heart of hearts, even with the way things were between them, Keitaro hoped that Naru cared enough to check on him once.

Just once.

But no.

Not a single occasion.

Anything would have been nice. Even the sight of a pair of spectacles glinting at him as she berated him for missing his first term. A bit of simple scorn would have filled a hole. Hell, Keitaro was even beginning to miss the patented Naru-punch.

Well, maybe he wouldn't go that far…..

But whatever the case, the last genuine memory the man-with-one-leg had of the girl of his dreams was her retreating back. Retreating from…..

'No'. Keitaro swore mentally. 'I'm not going there again.'

The problem was that, in truth, he had nowhere else left to go. Despite the hindrance of a caretaker with a leg in a cast the Hinata-sou was, internally at least, the best it had looked in ages. Wooden floors shone like glass, not a cobweb could be found in the nookiest of nooks or the most cranny of crannies, and the hot springs were a joy to behold. Getting into the aforementioned springs was another matter, Motoko having to (peacefully) deter the man from polishing the boards any more after the fifth bruised buttock sustained from stepping on slippery decking with wet feet.

So all the work was done, to a standard even the most stringent hotelier would applaud. And while it was true that some of the exterior needed painting (Haruka and Motoko had seriously chewed him out when they found him trying it) sensible limits had been set. And fulfilled.

For the first time in forever, the Hinata-Sou's Kanrinin had genuinely nothing to do. Even the workbooks stacked upon his shelves were useless – all the knowledge they contained was on how to get in to University. Now he actually had…..

So he had absolutely nothing to do but think.

And, try as he might, the same old thoughts wormed their way into his mind. It was like trying to defy the mists with a hand-held fan, or defeat shadows with a single torch. Even when they weren't visible, they were still there. Just waiting for the chance to approach when you, inevitably, turned away.

Then they came.

Relentless as the tide.

As every road leads to Rome, every avenue Keitaro's mind took somehow led him back to the same place. The moment the die was cast, and came up zero.

It had to be the most difficult response to receive. Approval, denial, rejection – all of them he could reconcile with, at least after a fashion. But nothing? Nothing at all? What did that mean?

It meant nothing.

With teeth gritted, the Kanrinin slipped the pillow from beneath his head and buried his face in it, willing the world to just go and do something else. To leave him alone for a while, so he could forget.

Just a few hours would be enough……

……It was unfortunate for the man that he chose that moment to blot out his vision; had he not he may just have seen the board that made part of his ceiling tilt open briefly, just for a few seconds. Taking the sight below, and the muffled noises emanating through the pillow, the viewer gave a tiny sigh before allowing the board to fall silently back into place.



Mitsune Konno had more vices than the average workshop. At the present moment in time she was currently indulging in two of them – those being manager-bating and swindling. It was a simple act to combine them; all she needed to do was perch on Keitaro's lap and push herself (in every way conceivable) into the man's face.

She'd taken candy from this baby enough times to alert the Child Protection Services. And had no intention of stopping.

"So, you gonna cut me that slack, Kei-kun? 'Cause if ya do, I could let a few things hang loose meself, y'know?" The focus of her attention was sweating nervously, unsure whether he wanted an interruption or not. Interruption would stop proceedings going any further than it already had, but it was a toss-up whether the interrupter would consider the current situation worthy of punishment.

"I-I can't Kitsune-san. I'm behind on this month's collection as it is." True enough. Problem was, Mitsune Konno really didn't care.

"Ah, c'mon! I don't want much, just 'til the end of the week." Sliding closer, the sliver-blonde grinned foxily as she felt her target tremble. She only needed another tiny nudge, she knew. "If ya really want, I could ask real, real nice….." Predicable as a house of cards in the breeze, Keitaro folded.

"Um, you don't need to do that Kitsune-san. I can wait until the end of the week." Staring into the mortified face before her from barely millimetres away, the fox-girl felt a tiny and unholy tingle run the length of her spine.

Oh yes. She was good.

"Ta very much, Kei-san. Ah'll make it up to ya, promise." Sliding off her perch (and hearing a barely-smothered groan as she did) Kitsune slunk over to her favoured chair in preparation for the next horse race. The Three-Ten at Yuma was due off any second, and she had a 'hot' tip.

"Ugh. What a disgraceful display." Motoko groused, entering from the kitchen. "Honestly, do you have no shame Mitsune-san?"

"Not when it comes to making a buck or five. Or ten. Or, well, you get it right?" Glancing at the stiffly-posed kendoist, the girl snickered quietly. "Y'know, if ya took the sword outta where it's holstered an' loosened up once in a while ya might understand."

"Not all of us come devoid of morals." Motoko ground out, before rounding on the one-legged man so quickly he jumped. Hopped. Or something. "And you Urashima-san, do you possess no spine?"

"Ah…..guess not Motoko-san." Keitaro weakly offered, quailing beneath Motoko's flinty gaze.

"Humph. At least you have the honesty to admit as such. Sometimes I wonder if you are a man at all….." Ignoring a visible wince from the target of her ire, Motoko announced her intention to hone her swordsmanship and strode away up the staircase, leaving Mitsune clutching a ticket stub and Keitaro really really wishing he had a distraction.

It turned out he didn't have to wait long.

"Um, Sempai?" Glancing up, Keitaro matched gazes with the one ray of light in his decidedly gloomy world. It was a light that only flickered on when it didn't think anyone was looking, and had a habit of going 'eep' when he thanked it a little too vigorously, but all the same Keitaro valued it like the last glowing coal in a dying fire.

"Shinobu-chan?" The girl in question smiled prettily, a hint of flush creeping onto her cheeks.

"I thought you might like some tea Sempai."

Keitaro never got the chance to answer as the front door announced the entrance of another house mate.

"Kitsune-chan, you're not wasting your money on horses again?" Naru sighed in exasperation. "The last time you had a winner they had to send the cheque by telegram."

"Nah. Today's the day Naru-chan!" The sliver-haired girl cheered, waving a ticket in the air.

"Yeah, same as yesterday. And the day before….." Belatedly realising more people were in the room, Naru's honey eyes flicked up briefly to take in the pair across from her. They paused for a split-second, before she decided to take her usual path through such situations.

Pretend they didn't exist.

"…..Well, don't forget the five-hundred you owe me." Tapping her friend on the shoulder, the girl made to leave before pausing. "Oh, and have you been in my room? Someone's moved my rug, I was wondering if it was you."

"Nah, not guilty." Mitsune easily replied, eyes fixed solely on the television before her.

"Ah. Well, rest assured that I'll be keeping an eye out from now on….." Leaving the threat openly echoing in the room (aimed at people that weren't there, obviously) Naru vanished away up the stairwell.

Silence reigned, excepting the tinny commentary pouring from the television.

"…..Sempai?" Shinobu looked on with worry creasing her brow as Keitaro stared into the middle distance. It took what seemed like an age for him to crawl out from whatever stone he'd hidden under when his erstwhile love interest had strode into the room, and when he did he had no interest in tea.

"Uh, no thanks Shinobu-chan." Pushing himself up in one (semi) fluid motion, the man grasped the crutches placed beside his chair and slipped one beneath each arm. "I've got some decking that needs tidying up, so I can't sit about all day. I wonder if there's any varnish left over from the last job?" Spinning on his good heel, the man turned to make his exit.

"Sempai." Shinobu didn't shout, or even raise her voice. But something in the voice stopped Keitaro dead.

"Shinobu-chan?"

"Sempai, a-are you….." Suddenly realising she had an audience including her long-time crush and a slightly despondent looking Kitsune, the petite teen's bravery fled in an instant.

"Oh, don't worry about me Shinobu-chan." Patting the girl paternally on the head (something that made her squirm in displeasure) Keitaro pogoed his way out of the front door with surprising speed, sliding the door shut with a crutch as he did.

Shinobu and Mitsune stared at the closed portal.

"Ah, damn. Another loss." Turning back to the television, the silver-haired vixen crumpled the now worthless betting slip in her hand. "Well, nothin' for it. Time for some TV-therapy!" Flicking over to a nondescript soap opera, Mitsune relaxed back with a sigh, already engrossed.

Shinobu blink-blinked.

"Ah, Kitsune-san? Don't you think that was a bit harsh?"

"What?" Craning her head up, the professional layabout regarded Shinobu though her slitted eyes. "Whatcha mean?"

"I mean……Naru. And Sempai. And, uh….." The girl trailed off, nervous beneath a calculating gaze.

"Nah. Not really. I guess our beloved Kanrinin has done something to piss Naru off. Again." Returning her gaze to the moving pictures in front of her, the fox shrugged lazily. "Nothing unusual 'bout that."

"It's just, well, wrong. Something isn't making sense."

"It'll blow over. Always does." Kitsune said idly, clearly more interested in the screen than the conversation. "Much as I like the guy, Naru's way outta his league. He's got a lotta work ta do before he'll be on the level with her. Part ah that is penance, an' he's just in the middle of another session. He'll be fine, betcha." With that, the girl returned her attention to the box, considering the case closed.

Shinobu gaped at the back of the silver-blonde's head.

It took the schoolgirl a good few minutes to mechanically make her way back to the kitchen, mind spinning. Back in her place of familiarity, she clutched tightly onto the nearest worktop and stared at the nondescript pattern upon it.

'Have you no backbone, Urashima-san?'

The fingers tightened their grip.

'Part ah that is penance, an' he's just in the middle of another session. He'll be fine, betcha.'

Why was it so easy to ignore someone's misery? Just on the assumption that it would go away, the way it had every time before. More times than she'd cared to count.

He'd never ignored theirs……

Naru's silent rebuttal, more effective than words could ever be.

It was extremely lucky for the china population of Shinobu's kitchen that they were all out of sight, as they were all in mortal danger at this moment in time. Violet eyes searched out for something, anything, to vent a feeling she'd never really come across before.

Fury.

How the hell had it come to this? Was the rest of the world blind? He never said a word, but then again why should he have to? But no, everyone else in the Hinata-sou went about their everyday business, either unaware or uncaring.

The floors were too shiny, the hedges too severely trimmed. The smiles were too wide. History suggested that what was meant to happen was for Keitaro to float about, miserable as a duck in an oil slick, making it clear to anyone and everyone how sorry he was. Then all would be forgiven. The end.

Until the next chapter.

Not this time.

What really got to Shinobu was the way that everyone just went on with their everyday lives, waiting for their Kanrinin to pick himself up and dust himself off.

What really really got to Shinobu was the way that he tried to do just that, or at least appear to. Played the usual role with the usual lines, as if living the part, believing the act to be real. At least she got rounds of thanks and platitudes galore for each meal she put hours into, even if they were mechanical from time to time. But not once had anyone mentioned to Keitaro how nice the grounds looked, or how spotless the place had become.

Shinobu felt sick.

Herself apart, who cared?

Well, everyone in truth.

But who demonstrated it?

No-one. Kaolla did in a way, but it was a way that required a masochistic streak to appreciate it. If only the little Molmolian realised it…..But then again everyone was guilty.

Including her.

Shinobu very nearly was sick.

Stood on her own, passing judgement on all and sundry, when she was culpable as anyone. Such as only moments ago, how much would it have taken to stand up and demand Naru's attention? Or actually ask Keitaro how he was?

Such a coward……

Hissing between her teeth, the girl set to work on the evening meal while swearing not to make the same mistakes again.



Naru frowned in puzzlement.

The room was off-kilter, again. Hard to say what it was, but something wasn't quite right. Nothing was missing, broken or messy. In fact, the whole place was almost too tidy, as if whoever was coming in was so meticulous at replacing anything moved that they left the place neater than they found it.

This narrowed the potential candidates down quite a bit.

Only two residents were that good. Kaolla was irreverent, Naru had no doubt furniture would be anywhere and everywhere if she'd decided to visit. Mitsune was too sloppy. Someone would have noticed were Haruka in the building that often. And Keitaro was just too clumsy to do it, especially on one leg.

Naru was unsure whether she was relieved or disappointed it wasn't him.

That left two.

And Naru had no doubt that Motoko would be direct if she wanted something. The thought of the swordswoman slipping in and out of the room in secret was utterly preposterous. So, ridiculous as it seemed, elimination left Shinobu. Again, what purpose she had actually doing so was beyond her reasoning, but the logic seemed conclusive.

Hence the University student reaching out to rap knuckles on her younger friend's door.

"Come in!" Obeying the summons, Naru slipped the door open to see the purple-haired teen knelt on her futon, folding a piece of paper with a slight furrow to her brow. Wedging it securely into the waistband of her blue skirt the schoolgirl looked up at her, eyes not entirely welcoming. Something that confirmed Naru's thoughts straight away.

"Hi Shinobu-chan."

"Good evening, Naru-san." Again, the tone was slightly too clipped. Deciding that bush-beating was something she wasn't very good at, Naru slid the door closed behind her and stepped forward.

"Can I ask you something Shinobu-chan?"

"Ask away."

"Why do you keep coming into my room?"

Ironically, at that very second, a pin dropped. Both girls heard it, but paid it no mind.

"I'm sorry, Naru-san? Your room?" Shinobu cocked her head, genuinely confused.

"Yes. Someone keeps coming into my room, and it can't be anyone else. It's all just a bit too…..neat." Naru stated plainly, hands on hips.

Cue blank stare.

"Naru-san, why on earth would I want to go into your room except on laundry day?"

"I've got no idea. That's why I'm asking." At the accusing tone, Shinobu started to look a little bit…..cross.

"Then maybe you should ask yourself why it's such a sure thing I'm sneaking into your room. Do you think I'm something weird, like an obsessive-compulsive cleaner who can't stand the thought of mess behind closed doors?"

For a split-second Naru appeared to actually consider it. Shinobu didn't like that either.

"You don't really?!"

"No. No no nonono, not at all! I just don't see how it could be……anyone else……" At about this moment the brunette seemed to realise how ridiculous she sounded.

"Right." Her host said crisply, standing quickly and smoothing her long skirt down. "Now, I have somewhere I need to be. If you would excuse me."

"Uh, I'm so-" Naru never got the chance to finish as Shinobu swept past her and pulled the door open, before turning on her heel and giving her a more intense glare than she'd expected.

"Leave." Taken aback, Naru found herself in the hallway before she remembered moving.

The door shut behind her with something approaching a slam.

Blinking slowly, Naru waited for her mind to catch up. When she eventually regained the ability to speak, she summed up the situation quite succinctly.

"What the hell?"



Inside the room Shinobu glared at the closed portal for a few seconds, eyes narrowed in annoyance.

"How dare she….." The girl muttered, turning on her heel and striding over to her mirror. With some effort the fist uncurled into a hand, and plucked a crumpled strip of paper from her waistband. Unfolding it briskly, she scanned the words yet another time, unsure why it caused a prickling sensation inside her stomach. It might have been the way the words were scrawled on what was blatantly a torn sheet of notepad paper, or maybe the words themselves.

'Shinobu. Meet me at 9, in my room. Su.'

It was…..unsettling. Su was never brisk. If the letter had contained some kind of reference to bananas, or a smiley face sketched beside the signature, it would be classic Kaolla. But this time, nothing.

If Su wrote a letter like this, it was worth finding out why.

Folding the paper neatly again, the violet-ette regarded herself in the mirror. Letting her eyes scroll over her diminutive frame, Shinobu felt her eyebrows crease into a frown and the corners of her mouth droop without conscious thought. Resigned eyes took in slim shoulders, an equally slim chest, and hips that barely caused a ripple in the skirt washing over her legs. A sigh escaped before she knew it was coming – a sound eloquently expressing her opinion on the figure staring despondently back at her from beyond the glass.

Tearing her gaze away, Shinobu pushed such depressive thoughts to the back of her mind. Suddenly purposeful she smoothed a few wrinkles from her white blouse, before nodding firmly and turning for the door.

If Su wanted her at nine, that was when she'd have her.



"What's up with Shinobu?" Mitsune shrugged idly, swilling clear liquid around a glass as she considered her good friend's question.

"Ya got me." Tilting her head back the vixen swigged a mouthful of the liquid before proffering the glass towards Naru, an offer politely refused with a shake of the head. "Dunno girl, perhaps she's gettin' cranky in her old age."

"All the same, she nearly bit my head off. Actually, I'm surprised I've got my limbs intact." Easing into her deckchair and tilting her head back to enjoy the late spring air, Naru exhaled loudly.

"To be honest, I'd be kinda annoyed if ya came into my room and accused me of rootin' through your stuff." Mitsune replied easily, taking another swig of her drink and peering out at the illuminated cityscape before her. On a fine late-spring night, the area in front of the Hinata-sou was an excellent place to enjoy a drink or chew the fat. "Girl's growin' up ya know? Fifteen this year."

"I know, I know. I can't blame her for being unimpressed. All the same though….."

"Yeah, does seem kinda extreme. Never knew Shinobu to be the type." Finishing the contents of her glass, Mitsune decanted another generous measure into it from the bottle waiting patiently beside her. "I can't think of anythin' you did that'd make her so pissed either. I reckon ya could hold a bonfire of all her possessions an' only get smaller portions for a week as punishment."

Naru chuckled at the image.

"Mind you, haven't seen much of Su either in the last few days. It's unlike her to be laying low."

"Ah, the girl's like that. The longer the silence, the louder the noise when it ends." Smiling broadly Mitsune offered the glass to Naru again, this time successfully.

"It makes me worry. The last time she went underground for this long was after watching that film by Miyazaki. Ten days later I wake up to find the Hinata-sou has grown legs and is making a beeline for Hokkaido." Taking a more moderate sip of liquor, the brunette passed the glass back to her friend, a slight flush colouring her face as she did. "It took some time to convince her that when she wanted to go on holiday, using a train causes a lot less hassle."

"Yep. Can't deny it wasn't fun though. 'Specially when we scared seven years off that farmer's life….." Laughing lightly, the fox glanced at her friend out of the corner of one slitted eye. "I reckon it all coincides with when you-know-who came home."

"Maybe….." Once again accepting the alcohol and taking a sip, Naru shrugged. "Perhaps he's upset them somehow."

"He sure as hell has you riled. Ya only drink when somethin' is on your mind." Leaning over, the fox tipped a little more sake into the glass, smiling as her friend took another sip without even realising it. Mitsune's very own interrogation technique – the half-empty glass. Keep the glass half-empty, and the one holding it had no idea how much had slipped between their lips.

She couldn't deny a tinge of regret at using the technique on Naru, but hell, needs must and all that. It had been weeks since somebody upset the apple cart, and it irked the fox no end that she didn't have the whole story, or even a paragraph. Information was her currency, and she never liked not knowing the state of the market.

Okay, in truth she was nosy and intrusive.

No-one was perfect.

"It's nothing Kitsune-chan."

"Right, the kinda nothin' that has you in a funk an' our beloved Kanrinin half-way outta his mind." Grinning, Mitsune took a swig right from the bottle herself. "C'mon Naru-chan, tell big sis all about it."

"Off-limits, Kitsune-chan." Naru replied flatly, swilling clear liquid around the glass disinterestedly.

"Ah, how about a little clue? Did he spy on you or somethin'?"

"I said cut it out. I'm not about to play twenty-questions with you either." The student growled, growing annoyed with her persistent companion.

"Okay, okay. I got it. Sheesh, you start takin' what Shinobu's on?" Secretly, Mitsune was alarmed. Normally Naru would have gone off like a gun in a library the very first chance she had. Even on a bad day, the girl could be teased open like a tight knot given a little work by her long-time friend. For her to pull the shutters down and shut up shop completely…..

"Sorry. I'm not in the mood for games." Naru muttered, peering downcast into the depths of her glass as if searching within for answers. Judging by the way she threw her head back and drained it, there were none forthcoming.

Mitsune studied her friend, taking in the drooped posture with an experienced eye. The eye widened momentarily as a novel thought came to mind.

What if it was actually Naru responsible for the current mess?

"Sorry Naru-chan. Just a bit concerned for ya, that's all."

"I know, I know…..but you don't need to be. I'll sort things out with that baka soon enough." There was enough of a warble to Naru's voice to raise one of Mitsune's eyebrows.

"Really? I ain't seen ya this worked up since….."

Seta.

The name wasn't spoken aloud, but both women heard it.

"Look, I'll be fine. Honestly." Naru stood, passing the empty glass back to her friend. "I'm going to head off and have a bath before bed, so I'll probably see you tomorrow." Waving a lazy hand in farewell and seeing one raised in reply, the slim woman made her way out of the cooling night air.

Behind her, Mitsune upended the bottle and drained it, already making plans. If Naru wasn't forthcoming, there were other ways to get information. But drilling Keitaro could wait.

It was far too nice a night to waste on that.



Shinobu decided to do the most dangerous thing she'd ever done in the whole of her youthful life. Not that it was much of an accolade – she once had crossed the road without looking both ways, and as for that crazy Friday when she'd lit barbecue without a fire extinguisher to hand…….

What was Shinobu about to do?

Enter Su's room without knocking.

The letter had just told her to meet Su in her room, so she was going to do just that. Somehow, the letter just screamed 'SECRET' – she severely doubted that every resident had received a personally addressed letter like her. The best way to make sure things stayed that way was to not stand in the middle of the corridor politely knocking for attention.

Hence, with a deep breath, the girl plunged into Su's room.

It was somewhere between relaxing and unsettling. The flora and fauna within the room resembled a tropical paradise, but at the edge of focus there was always the whirr of a security camera, following her every step.

It was like being a mix of Dr. Livingstone and Solid Snake.

All the same, she made it to Su's abode without any major mishap until the sight of a hammock allowed her to exhale slowly. All the same, she couldn't help but measure her steps through the clearing. Heaven knew what lurked beneath her feet.

Heaven probably wished it didn't know.

"Shinobu-chan." Spinning in surprise, the violet-haired girl stared up at the form of her friend, who was currently looking surprising solemn.

Solemn while hanging upside down from a branch by her legs and eating a banana, but solemn all the same.

"You wrote me a letter Su-chan?"

"Yeah." Flipping easily down from the tree, the Molmolian grasped Shinobu's hand and lead her over to a conveniently placed table and chairs, at which they sat. For long seconds Su gazed evenly at her guest, almost to the point where Shinobu squirmed. Finally, and seemingly satisfied, Su sat back with a grin.

"……So?" Shinobu asked, growing more confused by the second.

"So what?"

"……"

"Sorry, habit." Reaching behind herself, as if from nowhere Su withdrew a pair of bananas and offered one to Shinobu, who took it. Peeling the yellow fruit, the girl took a bite and waited for her host to explain exactly why she'd written her a hasty letter and shoved it under her door.

Unusually for Su, it took only seconds.

"I'm worried about Keitaro."

Shinobu nearly inhaled her mouthful of banana.

"Ulp-" Unclogging a chunk of yellow mush from where it had lodged in her windpipe, the blue-skirted girl took a few quick breaths to replace the air she'd lost. "Worried? What's happened?"

Su simply leaned forward, and stared at her with a cocked eyebrow. It didn't take long for Shinobu to realise it was a stupid question to ask – if she'd begun to notice that all was not well, why couldn't someone else? Feeling a little embarrassed (both at her assumption and the near-choking) the girl held up an apologetic palm. "Sorry, I just didn't expect…..I didn't expect anyone else to notice."

Or care, she added silently.

"Nothing goes on around this place without my knowledge." Su answered, a cheeky grin pinching her mouth.

Shinobu decided she didn't want to know how far that statement went.

"Anyways, it's because of that I called you here." The Molmolian continued, smile evaporating. "I don't know what's started everything off, it happened before Kei came back from the hospital. What I do know is that it's serious……"

Eyeing up her long-term friend, Shinobu wondered what had come over her. Su was meant to be free-wheeling and footloose, a human pinball that bounced from one moment to the next without a backward glance. A living embodiment of joie de vivre.

Suddenly, the violet-haired girl decided to take everything her morose friend said very, very seriously.

"I've been sneaking into Naru's room every day for the last week." Su continued, paying no attention to the gasp from the girl opposite. "I wanted to see how he was doing. Really doing."

"Naru just came by and accused me of being the trespasser." Shinobu interjected, surprised.

"Yeah, sorry about that. I figured leaving the room spotless would point suspicions away from me. Who'd believe Kaolla Su would put everything back as she'd found it?" The little Molmolian gave an ironic smile, sensing Shinobu wasn't delighted at being made scapegoat. "Anyways, as I was saying, I wanted to see how Keitaro was really doing. Not knock and ask, 'cause he'd just do what he always does. It's…..it's not good, Shinobu-chan."

"I guessed it wasn't." Perhaps it was the touch of dryness in her tone, but Shinobu suddenly found herself faced with a genuinely cross Kaolla Su.

Unsettling indeed.

"Look, I'm not playing now. Say hello to Queen Kaolla." Seeing Shinobu looking contrite, the Molmolian relaxed her frown. "You think being in a royal family doesn't come with a price? I'm gonna have to make laws and shake hands some time down the line, so when I say I mean something I really mean it."

"Uh, you're right. S-sorry." The girl opposite her looked so small and apologetic that Su couldn't help but smile.

"Ah, it's okay. I still plan on having a good time too!" Clearing her throat, Su went back to the matter in hand. "Anyways, it's not good. In fact it's bad. Very."

"What…..what did you see?" Shinobu whispered, unsure if she wanted to know or not.

"……Let's say that he's got more than a broken leg."

"Oh….." The pair lapsed into silence, one letting her imagination run wild, the other knowing the truth was actually far worse. For the first time in her life, Su was genuinely shaken. Perhaps it was the familial resemblance, perhaps the fact that she genuinely loved Keitaro as much as her aforementioned brother. Or perhaps that the love she felt for Keitaro was of a slightly different nature……

"Well, I-I don't see what we can do……" Shinobu piped meekly, staring down at her interlinked hands.

"Really?"

"Uh……" Glancing up and seeing her tan friend looking back expectantly, the violet-ette shrugged. "Well, when you don't know how something was broken, how are you meant to fix it?"

"C'mon Shinobu-chan. Do you reckon he wants us poking around his business?" Su grinned, showing about twenty teeth. "I'm just gonna keep him up to his eyes in bananas."

"Well, I suppose I could make tea more often."

"That's the spirit!" Exuberance dying down, the Molmolian grew solemn again. "Although, to be honest….."

"…..Yes?"

"……Oh, it's nothing to worry about. Yet." Shinobu frowned at her friend's sudden evasiveness.

"If it's something about Sempai, I want to know." Su smiled tightly, appreciating Shinobu's determined tone.

"It's okay. I'm keeping my eye on things. A smiley face is the best plan at the moment."

Shinobu itched to pry further, but decided to accept the advice. For now.

"Fine. I trust you Su-chan. But if something comes up, please tell me. I-I can't stand by and watch any more, I love Sempai too much to do that….." Belatedly realising she'd spilled beans previously tinned, vacuum-sealed and locked in a Swiss deposit box, the girl turned bright red. Clutching her face anxiously, Shinobu glanced up in fear that the bombshell she'd unwittingly dropped would blow the world upside down.

Su simply grinned.

"About time you said that." With a smile more reminiscent of the Kaolla Su known by the Hinata residents, the girl continued in a far more cheery voice. "Well, I reckon I've done serious about as long as I can handle in one sitting. How about another banana and some home video?"

Nodding in agreement, Shinobu peeled and bit into her snack, too busy rolling Su's evasive statements back and forth inside her head in the hope they would begin making sense. That was, until…..

"Yikes! Su-chan, just how did you get that camera there?"

"Tricks of the trade, Shinobu-chan. Tricks of the trade." Tilting her head to get a better look at the proceedings, Shinobu felt her face begin to heat the room.

"Not that I'm…..complaining, but aren't you technically too young to watch this?"

"…..Aren't you meant to be too?"

"…..Good point. How about we just never tell anyone?"

"Deal."



Well that's chapter 1. Chapter 2 is already written and chapter 3 is three-quarters done.

First time I've ever been ahead of the game, so to speak.

Hope you enjoyed, and see you next time.

Ja ne!

Nodoka Miyazawa.