Love Hina belongs to Ken Akamatsu.
A/N: My other story, Patchwork Love, has had me exploring the softer side of Naru. This short scene was inspired as a byproduct. Consider it a tribute to a misunderstood character who is all too often demonized.
Keitaro sat alone at a table located on the aft deck of the Otowa Maru, bound for Okinawa. He'd spent the last several minutes admiring the newest addition to his Print Club photo book, the very first to include someone other than himself: a girl, no less!
Narusegawa smiled shyly up at him from the page. Her eyes twinkled brightly with mischief and she rested one of her long, delicate hands on his shoulder. It was a gesture of trust and comfort that she'd never shown him before.
Too bad she hadn't even realized it was him at the time. That she was more comfortable with a complete stranger than a man she'd spent the past several months living under the same roof with spoke volumes about their relationship. Or lack thereof, as the case happened to be.
Keitaro exhaled a morose sigh. Even after learning Narusegawa wasn't his promised girl, he couldn't help but be attracted to her. She was so beautiful and intelligent. Though she had something of a temper, sometimes he'd catch a glimpse of her vulnerable side, and he saw a shy and sweet girl whose smile could light up the world. And, it may have been the masochist in him, but he even liked her angry, impulsive side. He'd never had much of a spine himself, and he admired anyone assertive enough to stand up for themselves and be heard.
Still, he appreciated Narusegawa's unguarded moments best, when the brow of her face smoothed and the edges of her lips crinkled up to produce that pure, radiant smile. The fact that they were so rare only made him appreciate them all the more.
"What's with that goofy grin? Thinking about something perverted again?"
Keitaro froze on the spot as a young woman slid into the seat adjacent to him.
"What do you have there?" his companion, whose photo he had been admiring, asked curiously. "Some sort of book?"
Before Keitaro could think to block her view or snap the book shut, Naru was already scrutinizing the single sticker he'd deliberately framed in the center of its own page. Great, now that wasn't conspicuous.
Evidently, Naru agreed.
"What is this?!" she exclaimed loudly enough that he cringed at the sound of her voice. "You're drooling over my picture, ogling me like a piece of meat?!"
Before he could protest, she snatched up the picture, stalked furiously to the closest railing, and threw it over the side.
As soon as he realized what was happening, Keitaro leapt to his feet and cried in anguish. "No! Stop!" He clutched at empty air in a vain attempt to catch the fluttering scrap, but could only stare helplessly as the ocean breeze carried it away over the vast, blue horizon.
He let out a strangled wail and hung his body limply over the side of the railing, his vision blurring as his eyes began to well up.
"What are you getting all worked up about?" Naru demanded. "It's not like I tore up your precious book. It was just one dumb little sticker."
Keitaro blinked and felt something warm run down his cheek. He locked his jaw, fighting desperately not to frown and faced Narusegawa.
"You had no right."
"Is that really what you think?" Naru scoffed. "That picture was of me and it was taken without my consent. The way I see it, I have every right to reclaim and do whatever I want with it."
"You're the one who jumped into the booth with me at the last second!" Keitaro protested.
"Well I didn't know it was you in there at the time," said Naru, rolling her eyes. "I wouldn't have made that mistake if you hadn't tricked me."
"Tricked you?" Keitaro spluttered in disbelief. "I could barely see you without my glasses! And how could you not recognize my voice? We've only been living in the same apartment for about four months, now!"
"How could you not recognize mine?!" Naru countered.
"Maybe because I hardly know what it sounds like without the loud, angry shrieking all the time! I can count the number of time you've actually been nice to me on one hand."
He regretted his words when he saw hurt flash in her eyes. He was about to apologize when Naru recovered from the momentary lapse and cut him off.
"Why should I have to be nice to you? Some strange man we've never met before just waltzes into our lives and takes over the all girls dorm where we live and you expect us to just accept that? You're the outsider, here. I don't have any reason to ingratiate myself to you."
A rising tide of shame and humiliation swelled in Keitaro. Narusegawa had a point.
"I'm sorry," he muttered helplessly. "What else can I say?"
"I don't want you to say anything," Naru replied. "That's your problem. You're all talk. It's always 'Toudai' this or 'promised girl' that. If you were half as dedicated as you claim to be, you wouldn't have failed the entrance exam three times in a row."
Keitaro winced. "That's a low blow. I've had this dream since I was a little boy. Maybe I'm not a genius like you are, but I know I can get in if I try hard enough."
"More big talk," Naru accused. "You're starting to sound like a broken record."
Keitaro doubted he could have felt any smaller. He was used to barbed words from others, but for some reason he couldn't quite place, Naru's were particularly sharp and cut him deeply. The worst part was, he couldn't deny the truth of anything she had said.
He sank back into his seat dejectedly and avoided looking at her face. "What do you want from me?" he muttered.
"Me?" asked Naru. "I don't want anything from you."
"Then why are you giving me such a hard time?"
Naru did not reply at first, so Keitaro merely studied his hands. It was about time to clip his nails again.
"Can you look at me when we talk?" Naru said. She crouched down until her head was level with the surface of the table in front of him. "Just because you refuse to look at things that make you embarrassed or uncomfortable doesn't mean they've gone away."
"Then how do you suggest I make them go away?" Keitaro asked wryly and he averted his gaze to the side.
"Have you tried facing them, instead?" offered Naru. She positioned herself in Keitaro's line of vision once more. "You get pretty passionate when you talk about your promise, yet all that motivation peters out at the first sign of trouble. Why don't you deal with your problems instead of avoiding them? Finish the things you start."
"What do you think I've been trying to do?" Keitaro groaned. "I'm stupid, okay? I'm not smart like you are. I admit it. Is that what you wanted me to say? Are you happy now?"
Naru merely stared at him in response. Not for the first time, he was awestruck by the clarity of her eyes. "Are you?" she asked softly.
Keitaro found himself startled at the question. No, he was not happy. That much was obvious to him. He'd been struggling his entire life to fulfill his one real chance at happiness, and disappointed himself and everyone around him at every turn. Even after all the years that had passed, he'd never felt further from his goal.
"Just leave me alone," he sighed tiredly. He didn't care if he sounded like a petulant little child. Further conversation would only continue to erode his already miniscule sense of self-esteem.
"I wish I could," Naru said, "but you're so hopeless by yourself that I'm afraid of what would happen if I did."
Keitaro's mouth twisted into a sour smile. Apparently he was so pathetic that even a girl who hated his guts felt pity for him. "I'll manage. Why don't you go check on Otohime-san? We don't know when she might have another one of her fainting spells."
Naru frowned at him, but didn't disagree. "You have a point," she admitted reluctantly.
"See?" Keitaro said. "Even a dunce like me has moments of inspiration." He waved her off with his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Go."
Naru looked vaguely insulted. "Fine," she relented, but not before she clasped his hand with her own. "We're not done, you and I. I'm not letting you off the hook that easy." Ignoring the bewildered look on Keitaro's face, she smiled and stuck her tongue out at him. "I'll see you later, okay?" Then she trotted away without giving him a chance to respond.
Keitaro blinked. He could still feel the softness of her touch.
"Does that mean she doesn't hate me?" he wondered aloud as he stared at Narusegawa's retreating profile.
Unconsciously, he brought his hand to his cheek. Something slick and glossy rubbed the skin of his face. Somewhat alarmed, he jerked his head away and stared at his open palm.
It was the picture of Naru and him from the photo booth in Kyoto. The very same one he'd just seen tossed out to sea. But how did…? No, surely, Narusegawa hadn't…
He felt an uneasy stirring in his chest as he considered the thought. Suddenly that shy smile he admired seemed even more precious to him.
A/N: Yes, Naru can be inordinately cruel to Keitaro sometimes, whether intentional or not. But she's also the one who pushes him when he really needs it. She challenges him to be more than what he is and, ultimately, he's a better man for it. If she would just curb her violent streak, I think she'd be a good match for Keitaro.