AN: Well, if there was one chapter that I absolutely fearful about putting up, it'd be this one. Anyway, please read it and tell me what you think. Thanks for Arvel and Cizzymac for making this chapter make sense, and I look forward to hearing from you all.
Chapter 4: Building Family
He had been curled over a piece of glass when she arrived. Piece by piece, he picked up the jagged shards between his index and forefinger and dropped them into a small paper bag.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Cleaning," he mumbled, suddenly feeling like a small child being scrutinized under her gaze. "What do you want?"
The little old woman walked into the room, standing over him as though she were ten feet tall. "You've spent a long time breaking things. All I want is for you to fix one of them."
He released another sob, and curled in on himself, releasing the glass onto the floor again. 'What a nice sound,' he thought as he stared at the floor, oblivious to the red-brown stain that sat just beside him.
"Get up, you've cried enough tears for all of you, now," she said, but the tone of her voice never changed. It remained cold and stoic, dripping with malice. "And it's never done you any good." She set her sizable piece of luggage on the ground, unzipped it, and began digging through a veritable pile of 8 1/2 by 11 paper.
Mr. Urashima dropped a piece of glass against another piece of glass. It still sounded pretty.
She dug out a very specific sheet of paper.
"What is that, Hin--"
"Don't address me so familiarly, you're no family of mine." Her voice cut through his words like glass. "And this." She held the paper out to him, "This is how we start fixing everything."
Keitaro woke up with a cat on his neck.
"Gak." For the most part, he wasn't really surprised. Or maybe he was just cynical? It was getting hard to tell.
Of course, Kanako was sleeping weirdly. She was sleeping across the top of him. Literally. Her body lay on his chest, her head resting against the floor, and her hands sat firmly on his face and his thigh. Her legs just dangled helplessly off the futon. It was as though she tried to climb into his futon, but gave up and just opted to sleep mid-attempt.
Kuro had at some point in the night opened his door (Which wasn't physically possible... and yet....) and decided to stretch out and go to sleep...On his neck. "I hate you," he rasped at the cat, and set about trying to sit up without waking Kanako. Kuro was promptly shoved off, and just as quickly landed on its feet. The floppy eared cat ambled about in search of a new comfortable bed. It settled on Kanako's book-bag, and hopped inside; there, it poked its head out and opted to simply stare at Keitaro with wide kitty eyes.
"Tch." Keitaro scoffed at the cat. "What?" Idly, Keitaro wondered how this cat was still alive after nearly 3 days of not being fed. In fact, Kuro looked healthier than ever. "You thrive on misery, is that it?"
Kuro gave a short yowl, and disappeared inside the bag. "That's what I thought." He gave the dozing Kanako a nudge against her head, smirking at the way her long hair spilled everywhere. "I'm gonna have to fix your hair before you go back to school, you know that?"
"I'm never going back to school," was Kanako's response, drooling from her mouth and raising a hand to her eye as she tried to wipe the sleep away. "Daddy?"
"Not even a little bit." He mumbled, resting his hand under her head. "You gotta get up."
"Whyyyyyyyyy?" She drawled, ignoring the way he cringed at the sound.
"Because you aren't gonna make breakfast."
Kanako deflated at that. "But I like it here." She snuggled harder against his chest. "Why do we have to sleep in different futons, anyway?"
"Look," Keitaro said with a sigh and sat up. "Tell you what. When we get a chance, we'll push the futons together. That way you can make it into the bed before you fall asleep."
"I made it into bed!"
Keitaro raised an eyebrow.
"Uh huh. So can I get up and make breakfast now?"
She seemed to put serious thought into his request, her finger pressed against her lips as she did the thing where she looked like she was thinking with her eyes scrunched closed and making "Hmmmmmmm" and "Haaaaaaaaa" noises.
"You're doing this on purpose now." His stomach growled, and so did his voice. "I'm hungry. Move."
"Daaaaaaaaad." She whined as she allowed herself to slide off of his body and onto the floor like a wet noodle, flopping onto her side and looking up at him. She reached out and took his hand, lacing her fingers with his. "Every morning should be like this."
He couldn't help but crack a smile at that. "What, waking up in weird positions and having an empty stomach?"
She rolled onto her stomach, and released his hand as he stood up out of the bed. He looked down at her, and gave a sigh.
"You're not sleeping like that."
The sound she made was much like the sound Kuro made when he poked it with a stick. She made even stranger slurring sounds when he grabbed her from under her armpits and dragged her from the floor to the futon.
She tilted her head and smiled up at him. "Make sticky buns!"
"Uh huh. I'm gonna feed you mud."
"No you're not!"
"Uh huh. I'm gonna go ask one of the girls to find some mud, and then I'm gonna stick it in the oven for you. How many scoops do you want?"
"Ewwwwwwww!" She grabbed his wrist, and pulled Keitaro's palm over her mouth to hide her face. "Ewwwwwwwww!!!" Soon enough, however, she broke into giggles, and let his hand fall limp at his side again.
Giving a dramatic sigh, he shrugged. "Fine. Fine. Sticky buns for breakfast. Go back to sleep, Kana."
"Mmmm... Okay." She responded, making herself a tightly wound burrito in his blankets. "Love you, dad."
"I love you too. I'm not your dad." He might have walked out with that, but when he slid open the door, at his feet laid a neatly folded robe and, sitting atop of that, a pair of thinly framed glasses. Sitting next to both of those was a card with his name on it, written in lovely cursive. He'd have to thank Haruka later.
Escapism is the act in which someone attempts to get away from a situation that one finds undesirable, or more than that, unbearable. The thought of something being unbearable is purely subjective. The idea of an unbearable situation is not quantifiable, but is ultimately and wholly tragic. The truest tragedy, however, is the thought of child finding the world unbearable at such a young age.
Enter Shinobu Maehara. Her smallish hands kneaded at the powdery dough on the table in front of her as though she had been doing it her whole life. She hummed to herself in quiet, dulcet tones, losing herself to the patience and rhythm of the sun filtering in through the windows and the music of the crows coming to roost just outside the door.
The morning was perfect. Everything was fine. Here, she was not the loser at school who could not talk to the few people she considered her friends, because a crippling shyness. When her hands were slicing a sweet bun in half with a bread knife, she was not failing in any number of courses at school. When she was taking a perfectly concocted rice pudding out of the refrigerator, she was not-
"Can I help?"
Shinobu squeaked in surprise, her hands clamping down on the bowl of pudding.
Keitaro gave her a small smile and gestured down at the apron he was wearing over his robe. "You kind of beat me to the punch. I was going to do a bit of cooking myself." The swelling in his eye had gone down considerably since the other day, and that certainly made him easier on the eyes, and far less intimidating.
Or maybe it was that she was seeing him when he did not look like he was about to pound someone into the ground.
"U-um." She had to remind herself that he was in her domain. Manager or no, Shinobu knew the kitchen like she knew she hated math. She gave a firm nod. "Yes...um, okay."
He nodded and reached for the dough sitting to the side, pausing as she reached for his wrist, and just as quickly pulled her hands back, as if startled by her own actions. "U-um... wait."
Looking up at her, he gave his best smile. "Don't worry, I washed my hands."
"Oh." Blushing, she looked down at the tray of dough. "Um... ?"
"Just Keitaro, please. No need to get so formal, right?"
"Ahh... sorry. Keitaro," Saying his given name seemed particularly wrong in her mouth. For a moment, the two of them worked in a nervous silence, both trying to find the proper words to start a civil conversation.
In her timidity, Shinobu spouted the very first question that came to mind. "Is Kanako really your daughter?" She clapped a hand back over her mouth. "Oh! I didn't mean... um...."
Keitaro looked up at her, mostly nonchalant, before looking back down and kneading the dough slowly with his mostly healed, but scarred hands. "That's fine," he replied, smiling to set her mind at ease. "Nah, Kanako isn't my daughter. She's actually my sister."
"But... how come...--?"
Lifting a wad of perfectly rounded dough covered in honey sauce, he set it on the pan, ready to be baked. "When she was little, I had to take care of her." Idly, he thought of Grandma Hina as the words came to him. "I guess I did too good of a job."
There was something of a companionable silence as both went back to their respective jobs, Shinobu sticking the first tray of buns in the oven, and turning back to mold the rest. "So, what's your name?" he asked, breaking the silence as he placed the final wad of dough on the pan.
"S-sorry," she stuttered, silently reprimanding herself for not giving her name when he did. "I'm Shinobu." There was another awkward pause as the two stood across from one another. Keitaro sat down on a nearby stool. "I... um..." She held up her finger, and placed the second tray in the oven. "I go to school here, and... um... Sorry, I'm not very interesting."
His smile became a bit bemused at that, and he gave a short chuckle. "I dunno but, shouldn't you leave that up to person you're talking to?"
"Um..." She looked down, and began blushing harder. "Umm...... what..." She was pondering at how old he was. It was not that he had wrinkles or anything. On the contrary, Keitaro was youthful despite the bags under his eyes and the tiny scars that marred his knuckles and his slightly swollen lip. He certainly appeared far too young to be the manager of the Hinata House. But speaking to him, regardless of his young voice, Keitaro sounded much older than he looked.
"Um... how old are you?" She asked somewhat brazenly, desperate to fill the awkward silence that his previous statement caused.
"How old do you think I am?"
"Um...25?" She squeaked the answer out, and nearly dashed out of the room when he gave a sudden bark of laughter.
"Close. 19." Standing up, he moved across the kitchen towards the sink, and picked up a rag. "You're a funny kid, you know that? You must be pretty clever in class, huh?"
And just that quickly, her kitchen, her oasis, was shattered, and she was brought back to the painful realization that she was not an ace student, an expert chef or somebody that was even remotely likable by her peer's standards. She was just Shinobu. "Can... can you finish cooking for me?"
Keitaro was taken aback by the sudden change of tone in the room, and knew better than to try to stop the girl. He certainly didn't know her well enough to try for grabbing her arm. He opted to give the girl a simple nod. "Yeah, no problem."
And just as Shinobu made her way to the threshold of the kitchen, both of them flinched as a shriek tore through the Hinata House. "Yeeeeeaaaaaaaaaah ha ha ha ha ha!"
The next feeling Keitaro felt could not have been described as anything other than a distinct feeling of dread, as though Kuro had finally come to end him, once and for all.
Su was probably the strangest of all the girls in the Hinata House. At first, an untrained eye might say that this was because of how inescapably intelligent she was, how indescribably high her IQ was, and how inarguably insane she was. This was not wrong, but it also was not the point. Those with sharper eyes might have found themselves intrigued by how, in a house of broken women she was, arguably, the most undamaged person there and somehow retained her innocence in a place like the Hinata House.
But more than that, Su was simply really, really friendly. Which, perhaps, was the strangest thing about her.
It was when Kanako opened her eyes that she began receiving a crash course in Su-isms. When she opened her eyes, Kanako was staring at bright jade eyes, a healthy blush, and dusky caramel skin. But most prominently, she noticed the absolutely sunny smile that ran across the girl's face, exposing her many pearly white teeth.
Kanako could not help but smile back. Hers was a small, shy smile that was not unlike Shinobu's.
But Su had experience with Shinobu, too. "Heyas!" Su said, hanging upside down from her Super Special Automatic Spiderman sticky rope, her hands clasped tightly around the retraction mechanism, which was built in the shape of a donut. "I'm Su! Who's you?"
Kanako tilted her head in wonder and, suddenly, she felt her own smile grow in magnitude. "I'm Kanako." The smaller girl began unraveling herself from her burrito of warmth, pausing to give Su another excited glance before removing herself from the blankets all the way.
"Ohhhhh!" Su squealed at the sight of the younger girl's blue and yellow pajamas, pumping her fist out for effect. "Happy Banana Family! You watch that show?!"
Kanako, sitting on her knees and smiling up at the other girl, gave a quick smile. "Yeah! That's one of my favorites!"
"I want to eat them all!"
And the bond was made. Just that quickly, Su had Kanako under her thrall.
"I want a banana right now!"
"Me−" Kanako stopped and tilted her head and thought about it. "Daddy's making sticky buns for me today!" Kanako suddenly clambered out of the futon by kicking the blankets off of her body.
"Wait!" Su grabbed her arm with a vice grip, yanking Kanako back. "We gotta tell Naru and Kitsune it's time fer' breakfast!"
"Huh?! But...-- But he's making them for me!" Kanako protested, and tried to yank away from Su, only to realize just how tight the girl's grip actually was. "Ow! Let go!"
"No!" Su snapped. "You would tell your daddy if it was dinner time, right? Kanako was taken aback at how serious Su had gotten all of a sudden. The way the girl's brows furrowed and her eyes squinted and her lips pursed. Somehow, the dark skinned girl managed to look serious, despite hanging upside down.
The smaller, black haired girl gave a firm nod.
"You're right. So--"
"OKAY!" The sun rose again, and Su smiled as wide as she could as she yanked Kanako closer. "I'm gonna pull us all the way to the heavens!"
It was with that, that Su hit the 'retract' button, and Kanako learned exactly what it meant to fly.
- - - - - - - - -
Naru wasn't exactly like most girls her age. In fact, in some ways, she was more like a 14-year-old girl. She was stuck in that awkward phase where she felt strange in her own body, insecure, but always seeking security in something other than her own confidence. It was because of this that she, for the most part, despised men. How could she understand why guys liked her body, when she barely liked it herself?
She tried her hardest to be more presentable whenever she could, especially when she was out and about. She tried to live up to the pressure of being one of the best cram students in Japan, of constantly being hit on because everyone else thought she was pretty... but she never really saw it herself.
But today, that was neither here nor there. Today, her concern was less on her choice of clothing; an old baggy sweater that smelled like home, and sweatpants that hung around her waist just right. Nor was it on the way her hair wound up in knotted braids and hung down to her waist. Naru was busy studying astrophysics. A subject that was one of 51 that had a 30 percent chance of appearing on the Tokyo U tests.
Of course, that was a rumor of a rumor of a rumor, and the source may have been drunk at the time of conveying the information.
She scoffed at herself, "Stupid." But that didn't stop her from reading the next paragraph. "At the end of the 19th century, it was discovered that, when decomposing the light from--"
Liddo Kun crashed upwards in a wild arc, and landed just next to the reading girl's lap. Naru flinched, and began staring toward the hole in her room, wide eyed and confused as two people came flying out.
She was fairly sure she'd never seen Su do that before.
"Bwa ha ha ha ha!" Su landed on her feet, her finger pointed towards the sky, laughing maniacally even as Kanako landed on her butt.
"We did it! Heya Naru!"
The oldest girl in the room stared at Su and Kanako as though they'd both grown two heads, then looked back at her astrophysics book, then back at the two girls. Naru sighed a martyr's sigh, and waved the two over to the kotatsu. Optimist that she was, there was no way she was going to get any studying done with the hurricane that was Su in her room now. It was best to just ride it out.
Kanako stared at Naru curiously for a moment, drinking in the girl's baggy clothes and big circular glasses and twisty hair. She never noticed Su already dashing over to the kotatsu, hiding her legs underneath.
"Hey." Naru gave a soft smile, recognizing the terrified girl from the hot spring, even with her hair down. She gave Kanako a slight wave. "Are you Su's friend?"
Su gave a loud cheer, complete with the waving of the hands, while Kanako gave a nod, and took a few tentative steps forward.
"Well, there's plenty of space over here for you."
"Yeah!" Su's fists were still pumping in the air. "Come and sit with us, Kanako!"
"Tch," Naru scoffed, "don't get so excited, Su."
This, of course, had absolutely no effect on Su's hyper activeness, and in fact had the opposite effect. Su was just as quickly on her feet, grabbing Kanako by her wrist, and pulling her back to sit down across from Naru.
The black haired string bean had no idea what was happening until it was too late. One moment she was standing in the back, being coquettish, and in the next she was sitting face to face with the glasses-clad girl. Su was scary fast, sometimes.
"Kanako's a pretty name." Naru started, giving her best friendly smile. It surprised her to see Kanako smile back. "You've got a cute smile, too."
The string bean planted her hands in her lap, and blushed warmly at her words. It was one thing to hear from her dad, but a complete stranger? Kanako nodded vigorously at the girl. "Daddy says I'm cute!" She chirped, missing the way Naru's eyes narrowed at the mention of her dad.
"So, why do you keep calling him dad, anyway?" Naru asked, tilting her head and pointing the eraser of her pencil at Kanako.
"Because he's her daddy, Naru!" Su yelled, her hands raised high into the air.
"No way! He's like, my age!" Naru tapped Su on her forehead, causing the girl to tip backwards. "He even said he wasn't her dad."
Kanako, being Kanako, simply raised her nose, and pursed her lips. "I call him daddy because he's my daddy!" There was absolutely no doubt in her voice as she spoke. No wavering or confusion, only a fiery spark in her eye. "And he's the best daddy in the world. He gets me whatever I want and always comes to save me whenever I'm in trouble!"
Su lay on the floor, wide eyed. "That is a good daddy."
"Uh huh." Kanako nodded once, and turned to the tanned girl. "He's really the best, plus he's REALLY strong! He carried me all the way from the train station to here!"
Naru snorted at that. The girl couldn't have weighed more than 50 pounds, from the look of her. After another cursory glance, Naru was willing to bet that the girl's hair made up most of the weight.
"Wow." Su gave a low whistle. "Why am I here when I could be riding his shoulders right now!" Su was up like a gunshot and dashing towards the door without another thought.
"Wha?!" The thought processed more slowly for Kanako, and she sat there for a moment, staring blankly at Naru. The older girl shrugged. And then a lightning bolt struck Kanako as the thought came crashing down. Instantly, she was on her feet. "On my daddy's shoulders?! NO!"
She made a mad dash for the door, only for Su to run back in and flip over the girl's head. In one smooth motion, she slid the door closed, and made sure to hold it closed.
"Oh yeah, Naru! Mr. Manager Man is making us sweet buns!" Sure, Kanako had said that he was making sweet buns for her, but we're all family now, right?
"Hmmm?" Naru raised an eyebrow. "He's really making breakfast for us?"
For a moment, both were interrupted by the muffled banging of tiny fists on wood, and a not so tiny voice, yelling, "Su, you stay away from my daddy's shoulders!"
"Yep!" Su cheered over the noise. "I'm about to go tell Motoko. You tell Mitsune!"
"Right." Naru gave a nod, and watched as Su took a deep breath, swung open the door, and then flipped right back over little Kanako's head.
"Yahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!" Kanako yelled.
"Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" Su laughed.
Keitaro watched with sagged shoulders as his younger sister chased a darker skinned girl down the stairs. This was the very same sister who had just been screaming a scream that caused his heart to jump into his throat. A scream that forced adrenaline into his arms and legs and made him chase after her like a dog after a rabbit.
He exhaled, and unclenched his fists.
"This is gonna take some getting used to," he muttered as he watched Naru walk out of her door, across the hall, and tap her fist against the door frame. It was only a moment before the door opened, and she casually stepped inside.
He turned around to walk back to the kitchen.
He was living with a bunch of girls.
Two of which were around Kanako's age.
One was a little older.
The other two were his age.
"It was hard enough when only Kanako depended on me." He walked back into the kitchen, leaning heavily against the counter as the complete weight of the Hinata House fell on his shoulders. He ran a hand through his hair, and tried not to think of the days when it was just he and Kanako. "Things weren't much better then..."
He could not think of a time that he had seen Kanako so lively around anyone beside himself, and he nodded slowly as he turned and pulled open the oven.
"Yeah, I definitely did the right thing bringing her here," he told himself as he checked the steadily swelling buns. "Definitely."
Idly, another thought crossed his mind. "I wonder how long she can keep running like that?" Kanako was many, many things. Athletic was not one of those things.
When Kanako made it to the bottom of the stairs, she was panting madly with her hands on her knees, practically wheezing as she came to a slow stop in front of Su. The very same Su who had her index finger pressed against her own lips, and was shushing the tired girl.
"Geez... we just ran downstairs... anyway, we gotta be really quiet! Motoko's practicin' her kendo outside!" She whispered fiercely at the younger girl.
"W-who!?" For some reason, Kanako was whispering too; winded and wheezing, but whispering nonetheless. She didn't really know why. "I don't care about that! You stay away from my daddy's shoulders—Hey, are you even listening to me?!"
Su was not. She was peering just around the corner, watching as her very favorite perch, Motoko, went through the motions of her daily morning routine. Inevitably, Kanako grew more curious and less interested in defending her father's shoulders. Su dropped to one knee so that Kanako could look on as well.
Motoko, meditating as she was, knew they were coming the second they'd left Naru's room. This, however, did not deter her from finishing her exercises.
"Tchhh!" Exhale through the mouth, continue to breathe steadily. "To mould the mind and body." She whispered, extending her blade as far as she could, feeling a slight gust graze the whole of her body as she remained still. Holding the blade as still as she could, she stared forward towards the sunrise.
"To cultivate a vigorous spirit." Pressing most of her weight back on her heel, she used the other to pivot, swinging the blade fast as quicksilver against the red dawn, painting a mirage of dancing fire that was as beautiful as it was menacing.
"Wooooow." Kanako peeked past the railing of the staircase, so that only her eyes and twin pony tails stuck out. Her eyes wide with excitement, she rested her elbows on the ledge and kept watching. Looking down at Su, she grinned.
"It's like in the movies..."
Su never looked away. "Nah. This is way cooler than that."
They both went silent as Motoko's dulcet voice broke through the air.
"To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo, and to hold in esteem human courtesy and honor." With one clean swipe, she thrust the blade forward, and with another, she brought the blade into her sheath; briefly her eyes fluttered at the sound of metal against hardened leather.
"To associate with others with sincerity." She dropped to both knees, her back remained erect, and her palms pressed against her lap. The swordswoman exhaled and bowed low to the sun, pressing her forehead against the ground. "And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself."
Kanako was completely shell shocked. She simply stood there, even as Su darted out from under her and dashed towards the swords-woman. The way the sword shined against the sun, the way every slash seemed to give rise to a warm blend of dawn and colors.
"I want... I want that." She whispered to no one in particular. "I wanna do that."
"Hello down there!"
Su's voice broke her out of her reverie, and soon enough, she was staring at an empty garden. Motoko was standing over Kanako, seemingly not at all bothered by the way Su sat on her shoulders, her hands resting on her head.
"So you're Su's new friend, hm?"
"U-um... yes!" Kanako sputtered, desperate to find the words that seemed to evade her. "Y-you... ahhh... it was-!"
Motoko raised an eyebrow. "Oh no..." She couldn't help it as she spoke. Would she truly be surrounded by fangirls forever? A sigh escaped her lips, and she tried to sneak past the star struck Kanako.
"That was soooooo cool!"
Motoko kept walking, and inevitably, Kanako followed.
"You gotta teach me that!"
"I can not." Motoko responded as quickly as she walked; equal parts trying to get to breakfast, equal parts trying to eliminate what seemed to be a half-Su, half-fangirl thing.
"Awwwww, why not?"
Motoko walked faster, and Kanako walked faster. Su simply giggled and started using Motoko's hair as the reigns, and kicking her feet against Motoko's shoulders.
The oldest girl obliged Su, and broke into a small jog.
"Why do you wish to learn?"
Kanako, panting madly, answered as best she could. "It... haaaa... it was really pretty!" She exclaimed.
"Pretty?" Motoko did not slow her pace. If she didn't make to breakfast soon, Su might start to get antsy. "What could you possibly find pretty about the art of--"
"It's an ART!?" Kanako leapt into the air, and gave a whoop. "Can I learn? Please?"
Su also raised a fist and cheered. "Art! Art! Let's draw a banana!"
"Let's draw a sword!" Kanako joined in.
Motoko ran a hand over her face. "Truly? How long, Kami? What have I done to deserve this?"
And it was in pleading with her God, that Motoko walked into the kitchen, and found her very male manager in a bath robe standing next to a tray of sweet buns. They were steaming hot, still; golden in color and with the way the sweet buns on the bottom dipped and undulated due to the weight of the buns on the top, they appeared to be soft to the touch, sitting atop a silver platter.
"Hey." He gave a slight wave with the spatula in his hand.
Motoko had Su on her shoulders and a fangirl following her around and now Shinobu was gone. And where were Naru and Mitsune?!
"Where is Shinobu?" Motoko demanded.
"Oh. My morning has been going fine, too. Thanks." Keitaro responded with a raised brow and without missing a beat, turned his attention to the blonde haired girl sitting on Motoko's shoulders. "You must be Kanako's new friend, I saw you all playing earlier."
"Heyas Mr. Manager Man!" The Molmol girl exclaimed. "Ya really made us breakfast, huh?! Huh?! Can I eat em' now?!"
"No." Motoko responded at the same time Keitaro did. "You--" She broke out into a terrible blush, but Keitaro seemed perfectly content to ignore and carry on without her.
"And you can call me Keitaro... or Mr. Manager Man." He looked up at the tiled ceiling in thought. "I guess it doesn't really matter." This girl didn't seem like the type to heed his preferences anyway.
"And you can call me Su! Kaolla Su!"
Keitaro opened his mouth to ask whether it was one or the other.
"Do not ignore me, male!" Motoko barked, her hand reaching for the hilt of her sword. "Where is Shinobu?!"
Keitaro tilted his head to the side only to catch a glance of black hair and banana pajamas running at him.
He sighed. Why couldn't she ever greet him normally him normally? The small girl clasped his hands in hers and stood on his toes, giving him a big smile.
Motoko raised an eyebrow. "Daddy?"
"Yup!" Kanako chirped, holding on tight to his hands and leaning back. "Upside dowwwwwwwwwn!"
"Not really." Keitaro muttered, rolling his eyes as Motoko took another menacing step forward.
"If you are her father, you should accept the responsibilities that your actions have brought you!" She withdrew her sword, and held it at the ready. "You... you're the worst kind of man."
Keitaro simply set his jaw, and gently released Kanako's hands before shoving her behind him.
"You want to talk to me about responsibility? How about you put the sword away in front of my sister and her friend?" He snapped back. He couldn't help the sneer on his upper lip, or the clenching fist. He had no idea what he was going to do to someone using a sword, or if he could do anything at all.
"Ohhh..." Su watched with wide eyes. "He looks like bro now."
"Don't change the subject." Motoko snapped back. "I should cut--sister?"
Keitaro nodded, his fists were trembling now, even more than the girl that was clutching his pants-leg for life.
Motoko, watching the pair curiously, sheathed her sword with a quick a swipe, and gave a cursory bow. "I apologize, then. It was a false- Su, would you please remove your hands from my eyes?"
"Sorry! I almost fell off when you bowed!"
Motoko gave a sigh. "I apologize for accusing you, Mr. Keitaro." She finished.
"Uh... it's fine, I guess." He said, nervously scratching the back of his head as Kanako began tugging his pants leg. "Uh, hold on a second." He kneeled down to Kanako's level, and tilted his head closer to hers.
Apparently, she had a secret that she just had to tell.
"What's up?" he whispered.
"I wanna be a NINJA." She tried to whisper... but she was really, really bad at it. Motoko simply stared with wide eyes. She could see where this was going from a mile away.
"Really?" Keitaro raised an eyebrow. "Last week you wanted to be an werewolf."
"They don't have swords. Ninjas got swords. I'm gonna be a ninja." Kanako nodded. "Daddy, can I be a ninja?"
"Sure, I don't know anyone who knows how to use swords. Do you?"
Both Keitaro and Kanako glanced back to look at Motoko. The swordswoman just ran a hand over her face. Keitaro nodded to Kanako.
Kanako suddenly began nodding back eagerly.
"I can ask Miss Mokoko!?"
Motoko rolled her eyes.
"It couldn't hurt." He turned to Motoko again, and stood back up to his full height. "Miss Mokoko. Kanako has something she wants to ask you."
"My name is Motoko." She hissed. She could not appear to be weak, especially to some man. Now, his adorable sister on the other hand...
"I dunno, I kinda like Mokoko... and I could call you KoKo... which sounds like cocoa.... Mmmmmm. I like cocoa." Tendrils of drool began to pour from the sides of Su's mouth as her imagination took over her brain.
The rest quickly went back to the conversation at hand, leaving Su to make her own strange connections alone.
"Kanako, I am not a ninja."
"But you know how to use a sword, right?"
"Okay! Ms. Motoko, could you teach me how to use a sword so I can be a NINJA?" She bounded up to the older girl, and gave her best winning smile, showing all of her pearly whites in the process.
Motoko looked up at Keitaro for help, but he just shook his head and mouthed the words, "One week."
She nodded at him, and unfortunately, Kanako saw this as a nod to her as well.
"I'm gonna be a NINJA!!!" She cheered, and punched Keitaro in the leg.
She looked up at him expectantly.
"Oh. Owwwwwwww!!!" Suddenly, he was slain, and dropped to his knees. "You got me... Kanako." And then he fell on her.
"Auuuuugh!" Kanako suddenly began flailing madly as she collapsed under her equally scrawny brother, who weighed about as much to Kanako as the Hulk would to a body builder. "Su! Su! Get the dead man off of me!"
"OOOOOKAY!!! Su's got him under control!" A quick flip forward, and Su was off of Motoko's shoulders and straddling the back of his head, while pounding it with her fists.
Motoko just watched with something of a smile on her face. Whatever it was that she had originally expected from her new male landlord, this was not it. And she wasn't sure if she minded at all.
- - - - - - - - -
Whatever Naru had expected from Mitsune Konno when she first walked in, this was not it, either.
"Hey Naru." The silver haired Mitsune was sitting in a corner, both knees held to her chest, and a bottle of alcohol clenched tightly in her fist. In her other hand was a photograph.
Naru's eyes trailed over the room, taking in the way her friend's bookcase was emptied all across the floor, all trailing towards her, culminating into a simple photo album she had opened on the floor. "Jesus, Kitsune, what did you do to your bookcase?"
"Hm?" Mitsune kept bumping her own leg with the nearly full bottle of sake', and continued staring down at the photos, her eyes furrowed with hurt running across her brow.
Naru didn't even have to look to know what part of the photo album had Mitsune so distracted. "Kitsune, why're you doing this to yourself?" Naru asked, carefully hopping over a precariously positioned pile of books on character building to get to the corner where Kitsune sat. "You're gonna be really annoyed when you have to get all this cleaned up."
A nod was the only answer Naru got, and the only answer Naru expected as she slumped down next to Kitsune, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the other girl.
Kitsune tapped a picture of a silver haired 5 year old playing with a taller man. There was snow everywhere, and her hair was vibrant in comparison. "You remember what he told me that day?"
"No, I don't think you told me this one." Naru said, but she remembered clearly. Kitsune told her any time she was drunk. She supposed it meant something that Kitsune was telling her while she was sober.
"He told me, and this was later that night, he told me that what happened to mom... what happened to him... didn't matter, that he loved me all the same." She raised the bottle in salute to her father. "And now I look at myself, and I still kinda wonder if it's all my fault that I turned out this way."
Naru didn't answer.
"Ya know what's funny Naru?" Somehow, Naru knew it wasn't going to be funny at all. "The way the new manager looked at me is the same way I used to look at dad. And the way he looked at her is the same way I wish dad looked at me. Makes ya wonder, don't it?"
Mitsune snapped the album closed. "Nothin'. What'd you come to visit me for? Is breakfast ready yet?"
Naru stared at the older girl for a long while, she'd known her for a long time... yet something had changed in Kitsune, and she had no idea when that happened. And she had no idea what was scarier: that she did not know when Mitsune had gotten so miserable, or that she had no idea how to help.
"Whoooooooo..." Mitsune waved her hands in front of the brunette's face. "Ya payin' attention to me? Didn't hear a word I said, didja'?"
Naru blinked, and found herself looking staring Mitsune again. "Sorry, yeah. The Manager made sweet buns for everyone." Naru pushed herself back up to her feet. "Coming?"
Kitsune took hold of Naru's arm and pulled herself up, bottle in hand. "Let's go."
"Wait, you have a cat?" Su asked Kanako from across the table, eyes wide with excitement at the thought of a cat in the Hinata House. "Where do you keep him?"
"Oh... Kuro only comes out when he wants to." Kanako responded, idly nibbling on a sweet bun. "He's like magic!"
Keitaro felt a growl growing in his throat at the thought of the cat. THAT cat.
"Ohhh... where is he now?"
Kanako shrugged, and looked at Keitaro.
"I think he's still hiding in your bookbag." Idly, he wondered if he should have zipped it closed.
"Daddy bought it for me because he loves me so much!"
Su gave an "Awwww..." while Motoko just smiled.
"That was very nice of you." Motoko said.
Keitaro responded with a tight smile, and nodded. God, how he despised that cat...
And it was on that note that Naru and Kitsune walked in.
Instantly, the temperature in the room dropped. Naru stiffened, and tried to keep the smile on her face as she sat down next to Keitaro, and Mitsune across from her. For a long while, no one said anything as Mitsune set the bottle on the table, and reached for sweet bun.
"Thanks for breakfast Mr. Manager!" She chirped with a foxy smile, and Naru followed suit.
"Yeah, it was really nice of you to do this." Naru chimed in.
Keitaro never heard that part. He could only feel Kanako's hand on his as he stared dead at Mitsune.
She had barely gotten through her first bite before he spoke again.
"Get rid of it." He said cooly, his jaw clenched. It was hard for him to tell if there was as much anger welling up as there was fear. "Now." His voice was every bit as aggressive as his eyes were.
Naru stared wide-eyed as Kitsune simply finished her bite, and took the bottle into her hands. She recognized that tired look that overtook Mitsune's eyes. The look that only appeared behind closed doors. The complete and empty fatigue in Kitsune's smile was clear only to her.
The silver haired woman simply stood up with bottle in one hand, and her sweet bun in the other. She swallowed and looked back at Keitaro with smile to match her eyes.
"It was good. Thanks." And then she walked away.
Naru shook her head and narrowed her eyes at Keitaro before shoving her seat back so hard that it tipped over, and followed Mitsune.
Keitaro gave a curse, and stood from the table himself, of course, Kanako quickly folowed, taking a sweet bun and stuffing it in her mouth before taking his hand with her own sticky paws.
He never noticed, and he tried to ignore the way Naru looked at him as they walked down the hall, past Naru's door.
"You barely know her," Naru hissed.
But she never got a response. Keitaro kept walking, storming back to the manager's room, even past Shinobu, who finally made like a meerkat, and stuck her head out of her room. The expression she saw on Keitaro's face caused her to go right back in.
"You alright, Kanako?" He leaned down in front of the girl, and smiled lightly. "Lets move those futons now, okay?"
She gave timid nod and a slight smile, idly knotting her fingers into one another as she looked down at the floor. "M'kay..."
Kanako was lying face down across both futons when someone came tapping at the door. Idly, Keitaro looked up from his desk to the clock.
"Six twenty-three." He huffed, and looked down at the angry thick marks that etched across his sketchbook. What used to be peaceful images of what he saw were now nightmarish in form, hard to look at in general. "Come in." He called.
The day hadn't been entirely unproductive. At the very least, he got a chance to look over what Hina had been doing with the money that came from it's tenants and the tea house but...Well, maybe he'd deal with that tomorrow.
The door slid open, and Shinobu stuck her head in. "M-Mr. Keitaro? Um... dinner is ready."
He gave a slight smile in return. "Thanks Shinobu, I'll be down in a few."
She gave a timid nod, and the door snapped closed, and not five minutes later, there was more tapping; harsher then Shinobu's gentle touch.
With a sigh, Keitaro stood up and walked over to the door... and immediately experienced an ambush very similar to his previous experience. A fist clenched around his collar, and he was surprised that her gorilla-like strength hadn't waned over the years.
Haruka smiled, and cocked her head. "Hi Keitaro," she said, her unlit cigarette hanging lazily from her mouth. "Let's go some place and talk."
There was little to no time to struggle before he was yanked out of the room, stumbling down the stairs, and out the door. She dragged him down the Hinata stairs with little regard for how he fell or how he twisted or if he hit his behind on the way down. At the bottom of the winding concrete stairs, she gave him a shove back, and lit her ever-present cigarette.
"Haruka! What the he--" He struggled to his feet, only to be stopped by a withering glance from the woman.
"I'd watch my tone if I were you, Keitaro." Nothing about her voice gave away her swelling temper. "Cause I'll knock you all the way back home to your daddy and tell Granny you decided to leave."
Keitaro felt a cold nothingness wash over him, like he was being dunked in cold water. Haruka had placed her threat on the table. It dawned on him that he should have been thankful for the warning.
At first, he said nothing while she took a long drag of her cigarette.
"Hina didn't put you in this position so you could play the martyr, Keitaro. And Mitsune isn't your dad."
He winced. "What are you talking about?
"Really? Are we playing the stupid game? Okay." Again, she took another drag, and exhaled. "You want to think you're in a better place now that you're here? You're not."
He said nothing, and just opted to look down and away from her.
"And I can tell. You're piss scared that Mitsune, a woman you met only days ago, is going to hurt you and Kanako because she drinks. You're protecting your younger sister and daughter from a boogey man your father made.
"She's not my daughter, and he's not my dad." He hissed. Haruka remained decidedly unimpressed. "She's a drunk!"
"You're such a child sometimes. You don't get it, do you? You could change everything if you took those blinders off your eyes and stopped seeing your dad every time you see a bottle of liquor. She isn't him, and word of warning? Unless you want to deal with your dad again, you're going to stop what you're doing tonight."
"I didn't stutter, Keitaro. You think if you kept treating her like that I wouldn't react? Then you're bitter AND stupid. Hina raised a family here. All of them. You don't get to choose who's in or who's out. You, as the manager, don't get to pick what to fix, people included."
"That's not my job."
She leaned forward, her eyes deadly serious. "Then get out." She spat just to the left of his shoes. "Why are you here, if not to fix, repair, and take care of the Hinata House. Kei, the Hinata House is more than the premises, so either get in the spirit of things or leave."
For a long while, Keitaro said nothing. And she took another drag.
"Your dad got stuck in his past, and ended up a drunk who couldn't look past his nose. You keep it up and you'll be a bitter idiot who's too busy watching his back instead of the road ahead of him, and in the process, you'll be railroading every other person who stands in your way, including Kanako."
He gave something of a snarl, but just shook his head.
"I would never--"
"We're done talking now. Kitsune and I are gonna go out and have a beer." She raised her voice slightly with her last word, smirking at Keitaro derisively.
After a brief moment's pause, she turned away from him to walk away only to pause mid-step and snap back around.
"Oh, and one more thing. It's adorable that you think that you're the only one in the world who has it bad, but you wanna hear something sad? Wait until Kitsune's good and drunk, and then ask her how she ended up at the Hinata house." She took the last drag of her cigarette, turned around, and flicked it off to the side of the road. "Now fuck off."
AN: Yeah, so this was a bit longer than the last chapter and particularly angry at the end. In defense of Haruka's reaction (preemptively of course, because I have no idea how you will react after reading this initially.), I think that outside of being stoic, she has shown on more than one occasion that she cared about the Hinata girls. I also think that she isn't one to stand idly if she believes that a threat has been introduced to Hinata House. In this case, Keitaro being rather unhealthy for Mitsune.
Anyway, like it or hate it, there it is. Apologies for the strong language; this is the only time you'll see it.
Again, please read and review, and I'll respond as best I can. Thanks much.