Love Hina: Outsider Looking In

Chapter Nineteen

All Keitaro could do was hope that he hadn't entirely bungled the impromptu interview he'd given to the several media outlets present at the YI—the moment he got off his bike, exhaustion struck him and he very nearly collapsed. Race officials held him up, though, and only allowed the media to ask him a few questions before they whisked him off to a waiting ambulance to make sure that he wasn't hurt.

Keitaro remembered looking down at the heavy medal wrapped around his neck and feeling it in his fingers. He'd dreamed of wearing one like it before, a hundred times, but actually having one was almost unbelievable. For a long time, Keitaro really wasn't sure if he was awake or asleep, because everything he was experiencing was too good to be true.

Then he heard a voice that he hadn't heard in person for months, calling his name. He looked up and saw two faces that meant more to him than anything else in the world, and then he struggled past the several medical technicians still examining him. He hadn't seen his parents in months, after all, and that they'd flown halfway around the world to see him in his moment of triumph meant more to him than he could express.

They took Keitaro to a nearby hotel after that to shower and catch a quick nap. After that, they gave him a tracksuit (courtesy of the company whose logo was emblazoned across the chest) and took him back to the YI finish line to talk to the media a little more, but more importantly, so that he could shake hands with competitors and fans alike, swamp email addresses, and so that the several companies who had funded the race could talk to Keitaro's father—his manager, for that day at least—about the business opportunities that would come to the youngest participant and winner of the Yokohama Invitational in history.

After that, they went back to the hotel and let Keitaro sleep more until it was time for dinner.

Keitaro's mother had always been rather liberal, after all, she'd allowed her only son to participate heavily in a sport with high potential for broken bones and worse, but when she saw how skinny he was under his tracksuit, she insisted on serving him thirds and fourths, even though Keitaro protested that he wanted to keep his lean physique for at least a few more weeks. Keitaro's father, on the other hand, spent half the evening beaming, and the other half testing Keitaro to see if his ability to read Japanese had finally gotten up to scratch, and it had.

"What I really want to know," Keitaro said, as he followed his parents to their hotel, "is how you—"

"Whatever it is, it can wait until later," Keitaro's father said. "More importantly, son, let's talk about you. What do you want to do after this?"

Keitaro saw the way his father was looking at the medal still draped around his neck, and smiled. "This doesn't change anything. I'm going to go to school no matter what, even though I'm not sure about what I want to study yet. I have to talk about that to you and Mom, actually—and Professor Nawaz. He teaches cram school and some classes at Tokyo U, and I've made friends with him. He's from Islamabad too."

"I'm glad to hear that," Keitaro's father said. "Hold on… Nawaz, from Islamabad… do you remember your good friend Mister Afridi, the old record store owner—"

"Anyway, Keitaro," his mother said, "we're both very proud of you, and what you've done—and what you're going to do. We talked about that this whole evening, but now, tell us… how have you liked Japan? And how are you getting along with your grandmother?"

At those words, Keitaro's father stiffened and turned away. Then he reached into his pockets and lit up his first cigarette in years. For his part, Keitaro tried to speak—failed—and then finally managed to tell his mother that he'd rather wait until the next morning before opening that can of worms.

It was strange going back to Hinata Springs. For years, Keitaro had felt that he hadn't really had a home; he'd moved back and forth between DC and Islamabad so frequently that it was hard to tell which culture he identified with more. It didn't help that the primary relationships in his life, those he had with his parents, existed independently of where they lived.

Now, though, Keitaro had a home. The moment his parents drove into the miniscule Japanese village, he felt a sense of relaxation that he realized, for the first time in his life, was the feeling of being home. It didn't matter that he still wasn't sure about—well, anything—Hinata Springs had become his home over the past several months, and the people he'd lived with in his time there had, in a way, become like family to him.

It gave Keitaro pause when he thought about that, but it was true. Even the younger girls, who he was most distant from, clearly looked up to him, and he knew each of them well enough that it wasn't fair to say that they were friends and that was all. On the other hand, there were still distances between them, secrets that would never be told no matter what.

And that had resulted in problems. Kitsune, for example—and Keitaro still didn't know what he was going to do about that.

He was brooding, he realized, but so was his father. His mother was driving, so she wasn't able to glance at either her husband or her son very often. But when she did, she looked concerned, and it was because they refused to make eye contact with her. This wasn't just a homecoming for Keitaro; his father hadn't been back in Hinata Springs for over a decade, and it looked like if he had had his way, he wouldn't have come back ever.

And as they got closer to the back roads that led to Hinata Inn, Keitaro's father grew more and more obviously uncomfortable.

"Hey, Dad," Keitaro said, "why don't you and Mom take a walk around… you know, for old time's sake? I'll head inside and pack up some stuff, and join you later."

They pulled up to the stairs that led up to the Urashimas' estate. Keitaro's father took one look at the monolith that lay beyond them and nodded, and that was all.

Keitaro was alone as he made his way to Hinata Inn, and it didn't matter that he was as much a part of the place and its history as anyone now, or that he was wearing the gold medal that indicated that he was a world famous mountain biker—he was nervous. It was as bad as when he had gone there the first time, all those months ago…

Or, perhaps not. Now, Keitaro could read Japanese fluently, and now he knew better than to wander into the hot springs.

But he felt as out of place he had the first time when he entered Hinata Inn and looked to see if anyone was at home. So much had happened in the past two days that Keitaro wasn't sure about the relationships he shared with the girls. He wanted to be friends with them, certainly, but what had happened was certain to have changed something between them.

And then there was Kitsune.

Thinking about her was painful. What she had done was in the past, but it was evidence of poor character… wasn't it? She'd changed so much in the past few months, but she'd kept a lot of herself from him, and that wasn't right, since he was her boyfriend. But then again, he wasn't her boyfriend, not really. It had been he who had asked her to wait until after the YI and the Tokyo U entrance exam, after all.

But they weren't just friends, either. They had kissed several times, and Keitaro was sure that when his life had settled down, he and Kitsune really would start to get serious about what was between them. Now, though… that just wasn't possible, was it?

Keitaro made his way into his room and the few articles of luggage he was carrying down next to his bed. It occurred to him just how clean his small living space was. Wherever else he'd lived, his rooms had been messy and disorganized, but here, they were neat, tidy, and organized. And it wasn't just that he hadn't brought many of his possessions with him, either. Over the months, he'd accumulated a healthy number of books and other odds and ends, but still, his room remained clean.

Japan had changed him, he realized. It had changed him a lot.

No one had been downstairs. And after Keitaro did a quick sweep up the girls' rooms on the second and third floors, he observed that no one was there, either. Even Naru's room was precisely the same as she'd left it.

Thinking about her made his eyes harden. She was crazy and she'd attacked his friend—and she hadn't paid rent in the past month. Keitaro wasn't sure about the intricacies of landlord-tenant laws in Japan, but something like that had to have given him the standing to evict her. He would look into that as soon as he could, and once he did, nothing would stop him from sending one last email to Naru and then starting to carry her things down to the street.

For now, though… he was just wandering around in an empty house, alone with his memories.

Keitaro made his way out of Hinata Inn and back down the stairs that led to town. He glanced at the mailbox and remembered that no one had been there to check it for the past several days, so he did, and found two letters inside.

He opened the first one and read it without reaction. But when he opened the second one, he stopped, halfway through, and then sat down on the stairs so that he could read it again. By the time he was finished, he was in tears, and that was because after a decade and a half of dreaming, he had been accepted into Tokyo University.

His medal was concealed in his jacket except for a small piece that allowed anyone who glanced at him to see the gold it was made out of sparkle. The letter that was the culmination of most of his life's hopes was clenched tightly in his hand, except for when he straightened it out to read it again.

It was signed by the dean of admissions, congratulating Keitaro on his accomplishment. An embossed seal at the top of the document showed that it was an original, and Professor Nawaz texted Keitaro a brief message: Congrats—on both of your achievements. No matter how hard he tried to believe that this was some kind of trick, he couldn't think of how that could have been. He, Urashima Keitaro, really was going to study at Tokyo University, and the letter in his hand was proof of that.

When he accepted that, fully and truly, he started to smile. Then, he started to laugh, and then he literally started to dash to and from passersby so that he could shake their hands and accept their congratulations. This was the sort of behavior that would only be tolerated if a Japanese was doing it, but Keitaro was Japanese and Hinata Springs was his hometown.

He looked forward to telling his parents the good news, but there were so many different ways to tell them that Keitaro couldn't settle on any one. Apart from that, he was enjoying the anticipation of it far too much to go and do it right away. Besides, it was a beautiful day: the sun was shining and the temperature was just at that point where it was comfortable to wear anything from shorts and a tee shirt to a suit.

He felt freer and more alive than he ever had before in his life. The YI was over—he'd won it—and the Tokyo U entry exams were over—and he'd gotten into Toyko U. For the first time in months, there was nothing pressing to do, and for that matter, there wasn't all that much that he could do, since he was still strained from the exertions of the day before. For once in his life, Keitaro was doing the best possible thing by just relaxing and walking around, and enjoying the still quietness of the hot springs town.

Now that he thought of it, he still didn't know Hinata Springs very well. When he went to town, it was almost always either in passing or to stop at the supermarket for supplies. Back when he'd just arrived in Japan, he'd always intended to just wander around the area for a while, but he hadn't made time for it—so it had been postponed again and again, until now. Now, Keitaro was finally going to spend some time getting to know the fringes of the town that had been his home for months.

Despite its proximity to urban Japan, there were parts of Hinata Springs that weren't very developed. Keitaro made his way past several of these: empty lots, a few abandoned buildings, and some parks that had once upon a time been carefully maintained by a small army of servants. In time, he found himself wandering into an area that seemed bizarrely familiar, though he couldn't realize why. All he knew was that he felt an inexplicable need to sit down in the center of a small upraised wooden structure that still had a few grains of sand left in it.

He did this for some time, grasping at fragments of memories that infrequently rose in his mind. It was at this time that, from the road connecting Hinata Springs to the next town over, Haitani and Shirai approached.

Keitaro stood up and dusted himself off before rapidly approaching his friends. He recognized them immediately, and after a moment, they recognized him too. They were each understandably jumpy after what had happened on the train, but once they saw that the tall figure approaching them was Keitaro, they relaxed and simply walked faster.

"Haitani, Shirai—what are you guys doing here? And Haitani, are you okay?" Keitaro asked.

"Ah, I'm alright," Haitani said. "The bitch dislodged two of my molars, but they got reset and cemented in place. It wasn't really that bad, and the stuff they give you at the hospital is actually pretty nice. What's it called, Shirai? Morphing? Morph-ine?"

"Err, I'm not sure," Shirai replied. "Anyway, Keitaro, did you lose your phone or something? We must have called you a hundred times… we got so worried that we came here from our place in Tokyo"

"It must have gotten low on power and shut off," Keitaro said. "I just didn't get time to juice it up, what with the YI and all. And by the way, guys, I… I won it."

Keitaro unzipped his jacket halfway, exposing the gold medal draped around his neck. Shirai and Haitani each stared at it for a full minute, before sharing a few smiles.

"We watched it on TV, from the beginning," Haitani said. "You came out of nowhere, Kei—the cameraman didn't even get you on screen until you were at the finish line. How did you even do it?"

"It's a long story," Keitaro said, shaking each of his friends' hands in turn. "I'll tell you about it another time."

"Alright, but you have to tell us what happened to those two guys who fell off the cliff," Shirai said. "The officials said that no one was mortally injured, but someone was taken to the hospital by helicopter. We know, because we were there when it happened."

"Well, one of the guys who fell off of the cliff was me," Keitaro said, "and the other guy… you said that he's alive? Not even mortally injured?"

"That's right," Shirai said. His eyes then narrowed as he noticed the way Keitaro's shoulders seemed to slump, and then tighten again when he said that. "Why?"

"Another time," Keitaro said, shaking his head and turning away. "I just—I need to collect my thoughts about that," he said. "And call a lawyer."

There was silence for a moment. Then, Keitaro snapped his fingers and looked up. "Hey—you guys must have stopped at your place in Tokyo on the way here. Did you get your letters from Tokyo U?"

"Yeah," Shirai said softly. "Both of us did."

"So did I!" Keitaro said triumphantly. He pulled out his acceptance letter from his coat and opened it up so that both of his friends could see the seal on the top and the signature at the bottom. "Three for three—hey, that means we'll be studying together, right? Congratulations, guys!" He laughed out loud for a few moments, and in time, Haitani and Shirai joined him. It therefore took Keitaro some moments to realize that while both of them were laughing and smiling, they were doing so in rather forced, weak manners.

Keitaro stopped laughing. He folded his letter up and put it back into his jacket.

"You… didn't get in, did you?" Keitaro asked.

"No," Shirai said. "And Haitani's waitlisted. So, I guess that makes it… one and a half for three, eh, Keitaro?" He tried to laugh, but gave up after only a moment.

Keitaro didn't know what to say. He reached out to place his hand on Shirai's forearm but stopped himself when he remembered that physical contact like that was only acceptable between people of opposite genders, or girls. Guys couldn't comfort one another like that. They couldn't comfort one another… at all, really.

"So… what are you going to do now?" Keitaro asked.

Shirai sighed. "I'm going to go back to the US. I did pretty well on my SATs, so I think I can get into Georgetown or something for public policy… or maybe I'll go into business and engineering somewhere else. Either way, I'll be following one of my parents' footsteps." He laughed. "I'll be in Japan a lot, though. These past few months have been…" his voice trailed off and he shook his head.

"Besides, I need to keep up with you, Mr. Tokyo U. You're going places, and besides, we've been friends for a long time now, even though we don't see each other that much. We really have been friends for a long time, haven't we?" he repeated.

Keitaro had to remind himself again that physical contact wasn't acceptable among guys. So, he grinned, and agreed. "Yeah. Best friends. For a very, very long time," he said. He then turned to Haitani. "What about you? What are you going to do, if… you know?"

"If I get into Tokyo U, I'll go there," Haitani said. "If not… well, then, I'm going to cut all of this off," he said, indicating his long hair, "and then I'm going to get on the first plane to Paris and join the Foreign Legion."

Haitani joked a lot, but just then, his voice was flat and low and serious. Keitaro glanced at Shirai—he was shocked, too—and it was a moment before he could come up with words.

"The Foreign Legion? As in, the French Foreign Legion?" Keitaro asked. After Haitani nodded, he continued. "Are you… sure that you've thought it through, man?"

"J'ai pensé à ce sujet car j'avais quinze ans," Haitani said. He looked at the expressions on each of his friends' faces and laughed. "My parents put a lot of pressure on me to get into Tokyo U. Maybe yours did too, but not like mine. If I get in, things will change—at least, that's what I tell myself—but if I don't… then I can't deal with their disappointment anymore." He reached up to stroke his hair, and in that motion, his sleeve fell open, revealing a telltale series of scars on his wrists.

"So if I don't get into Tokyo U… well, it might be a long time before I see either of you again," Haitani said. "They say that that school can make or break fates… well, it's true in my case. If I get in, my parents might not look at me the way they do anymore, but if not… then they'll never look at me again."

There was silence for a long moment. Eventually, Haitani broke it.

"Anyway, we came here to make sure that you were okay… and you're okay, so it's time for us to go. Shirai should pack, and I… guess that I should, too. Just in case."

"Yeah," Keitaro said. "Just in case."

The three friends shared one last look. Keitaro moved forward—stopped—and then held out his hand and shook with each of his friends once more. Then, Haitani and Shirai turned to leave him, walking their own paths in life once again.

But something about what Haitani had said stuck with Keitaro. Tokyo U, the object of untold thousands of Japanese students' passions… it could make or break fates.

With that in mind, Keitaro reached into his jacket and took out the first letter he'd taken from the mailbox. Then, after reading its contents again, he turned his phone on, ignored the low power warning, and began to format an email.

Business was good enough that she could take a few days off. Anything beyond that, however, was too much.

Haruka hadn't bothered walking up to Hinata Inn when she had returned to her hometown. The house on the hill wasn't her place, her place was where she was: hard at work in her tea shop, sweeping and smoking a cigarette. That's how it had always been and that was how it would always be.

She was content about it, she mused, because she was close enough to people to enjoy their company, but far enough from them that things were simple. On the other hand, she couldn't ignore the painful sense of longing she felt when she looked at the couple in her shop. It was comprised of her elder brother and his wife, and they had barely taken their eyes off of one another since they'd entered. And a moment later, another couple entered—Professor Nawaz, Haruka recognized him in a second—and his wife, a fair skinned woman with a slight stature and pleasant smile.

She served them and was about to continue sweeping when the door opened again. And when she saw who had entered, the cigarette she was smoking fell from her lips.

Noriyasu Seta lit up a cigarette that was identical to the ones she smoked. He then smiled at her roguishly, and said, "Haruka… it's been a long time."

For a moment, she did nothing and said nothing. Then, the corners of her lips twitched into a smile.

The ninety-ninth stroke was perfect. And then, a second later, the hundredth was too.

Good—the days she'd taken off of practicing her swordsmanship to prepare for her jiu jitsu test hadn't seen her skills drop. Now, Motoko was skilled with a blade as well as her bare hands, and the pristine cloth she had tied around her waist was proof of that. She was the pinnacle of perfection as far as her family was concerned: silent, deadly, detached, with a sense of right and wrong powerful enough to let her make even the most complicated of moral decisions in seconds.

And she still had so much left to learn. If there was one thing she'd learned from her time at Hinata Inn after Keitaro had arrived, that was it: that there was so much that she didn't know.

On the other hand, she was no longer the woman she had been. Now, she didn't hate men on sight, for one thing—she actually accepted that some of them—maybe even most of them—were people that weren't that different from her, with their own personalities and struggles. And although she'd regurgitated the slogans about perseverance and hard work that she'd been force-fed from the cradle dutifully, now, she truly believed in them.

That was because she'd seen the power of abiding by those sayings. And as much as her family fancied her the picture of determination and mental strength, they didn't know Keitaro like she did. They didn't know that he'd prepared for two of the most legendarily difficult competitions in the world, all while managing a dormitory filled with eccentric young women. They didn't know that he'd done this while maintaining friendships and familial ties, while starting a relationship of his own.

They'd try to tell her that such challenges were below a woman of her standing. But she knew better than that. It wasn't weakness to be engaged with the modern world—that was just part of becoming a functional, well-rounded human being, and that was the only kind of human being that could truly be called strong.

Motoko sheathed her sword and went down from the roof back to her room. She took her gi off, and after only a moment of hesitation, put on a set of clothes she'd purchased in secret some weeks before, but only now had the strength and confidence to wear. They were neither more nor less than a simple pair of dark, fitted jeans, and a shirt that clung to her frame almost enough to make it clear that she was a woman.

Then she packed her bags with her clothes and possessions. It only took moments, since she had so few of each, and when she was finished, she turned to leave.

Then she turned around and hastily took a pen and sheet of paper from one of her bags. She'd have sent an email instead, but she didn't have a computer or phone, and barely knew how to use either.

"All," she wrote, "I would like to thank you for the months of happiness and memories I have found here. It was truly an honor to get to know each one of you, but now I must be going. To become a greater warrior—" she paused, scratched out that sentence. "To become a greater human being, I have to continue forward alone. Therefore, my path may not intersect with any of yours anymore. Sincerely, Motoko."

She reread it. And even though she had received only the most cursory of educations in the literary arts, she knew it was robotic, bland, forced, false. But it was the best she could do, because her own emotions were no better than that. She left the letter on the bed after adding a postscript, and then she left Hinata Inn for the last time.

"My path may not intersect with any of yours anymore, but I'll do my best to see that it does. I have a year to prepare for the next round of Tokyo U entry exams, and I intend to make the most of it.

"Love, Motoko."

"It's always so hard to go back to school after a vacation," Kaolla complained. "Our teachers are such a bore."

"Maybe, but it's important to study hard," Shinobu replied. "And in a way, it's nice to get back into the swing of things, isn't it."

Kaolla sighed and rested her hands behind her head. "I guess so. But you have to agree that our teachers are terrible."

"Only some of them."

Hinata Inn's reserves of food and supplies had been depleted in preparation for its residents' brief vacation, so Shinobu drew Kaolla out of the path home toward a nearby supermarket. They had a lot to buy, and she needed Kaolla's carrying it back.

The two girls made their way directly to where the raw ingredients were sold: vegetables, noodles, rice, spices. As they did, they passed by a vending machine and the group of teenage boys trying to persuade it to give them an extra can of soda by shaking it until it rattled. Shinobu shivered as she walked by and tried to look down, but it was too late—one of them caught her eye.

"Well, hello, beautiful," he said. That earned him a round of snickers from his friends, and much to Shinobu's dismay, they started to follow her and Kaolla.

Shinobu tried to walk faster, but Kaolla didn't seem to sense the danger and was simply wandering around at her own pace. Shinobu couldn't abandon her, but at the same time, the guys were getting closer and closer, and laughing and talking to one another more and more excitedly. Motoko wasn't there—Naru wasn't there—Keitaro wasn't there—so Shinobu turned around and faced her foes.

"Leave us alone!" she said. "We don't like your jokes and we don't want to talk to you. What are you doing, hitting on young girls anyway? Don't you have any dignity?"

She had spoken loudly enough that several of the store's patrons were turning to see what was going on. The boys she'd told off had stopped approaching her, but rather than looking embarrassed or angry, they just looked annoyed.

"Alright, but couldn't you have just said that, instead of making a scene?" one of them said. "Besides, you're not little girls. How old are you, fourteen? You're not a child anymore, and besides, how old do you think we are?" He gestured at himself and his friends, and for the first time, Shinobu saw that the tall, dangerous-looking teenaged boys she'd always feared were really not that much older than her at all. And when they walked past her to leave, she saw that the leader of the bunch, the one who had done the talking, was almost exactly as tall as she was.

She barely realized it, though, and that was because of what he'd said. She wasn't a child anymore, not even in the eyes of a stranger who didn't know that she lived away from her parents and took on responsibilities that would crush many adults. And she wasn't sure about how she felt about that.

Regardless, it didn't take her long to tear Kaolla away from where the bananas were sold and get her to make the purchases and start to head back to Hinata Inn. Still, on the way back, Shinobu found herself dwelling on the fact that she could no longer think of herself as a child, and what that meant for the future.

"Kaolla," she said, "after you finish high school… what are your plans? You're going to serve your country, right?"

"That was my original plan," Kaolla replied, "but now, I'm not sure. I want to go back home someday, but for now, the opportunities we've gotten are hard to pass up."

"That's true," Shinobu said. "I can't believe we got the emails already… how do you think the others will react when we tell them that we've gotten into Tokyo U's fast track program for rising high school students?"

Keitaro looked over the email he'd written. He thought about deleting it and throwing the letter that had prompted it into the gutter, but after a moment of deliberation, he hit send.

Then he sat back down in what he finally realized had once been a sandbox and let things happen as they would without further intervention from him.

"So," she thought dully, "this is what it's like to get your stomach pumped."

She still wasn't sure about what had happened. Her memories of the past few days were unclear, in no small part due to the amount of drugs still in her system. But she'd been told—at least, she thought she'd been told—that two days before, she had swallowed a cocktail of painkillers and sleeping pills and fallen into a street. She had just missed being hit by a car, and when she'd come to, the first thing that they'd asked her was why she had had such a quantity of drugs all at once.

And Naru had told them that it was because she was trying to recover from a severe headache and lack of sleep from studying too hard for the Tokyo U entrance exams. The doctors had seen that happen before, a hundred times, so they had made a few marks on their clipboards and walked away without another word. They didn't consider for a second that Naru hadn't been trying to recover from anything, and that she hadn't fallen into a street—rather, she'd thrown herself into a street, apparently too impaired already to get the bus she was aiming for to hit her.

She'd failed, though. Just like she'd failed the Tokyo U entry exams. Her punishment was to be trapped in a hospital bed, half-reclined, attached to an IV drip and several diagnostic machines. She couldn't do anything, couldn't go anywhere, couldn't talk to anyone—not that there was anyone left who would talk to her. She'd isolated herself from every single last person on Earth who might have spoken to her. She had nothing, not even a purpose in life after she'd failed the Tokyo U exam. She had no one—not her family, not friends, not contacts from years ago who she'd parted company with on good terms. All that she could do was lay there, covered in flower-patterned sheets, and think about what she'd do differently next time to make sure that she was successful. She wouldn't bother with drugs, they were too unreliable. Next time, she'd just step in front of a bus, or throw herself off a skyscraper, or jump into the sea.

But for now, she was stuck in the hospital, all by herself. No one knew that she was there, and even if they did, no one would care that she was there. She had nothing to do but to drown in the terrible position she'd put herself into—even the TV mounted in the corner of her room didn't work.

Eventually, Naru turned on her side and tried to get some sleep. That was when she realized that her possessions had been organized and placed on the chair next to her bed. Her clothes had been laundered and her cell phone, even then, was blinking to show that it was fully charged… and that it had several notifications in queue.

Naru reached over, straining against the cords attached to her somewhat, and took up her phone. She typed in her password and began to scroll through the messages that popped up on screen, and when she did, she realized something that surprised her.

After she'd left Hinata Inn, she hadn't been forgotten about. Her friends there had tried to contact her repeatedly, via text messages, emails, and phone calls. Kitsune had tried almost daily, and the rest of them hadn't given up until just a few days ago, when she had tried to intercept Keitaro on the train.

But there was even an email that had been sent to her after that. In fact, it had only been sent a few minutes before—and it was an email, from Keitaro. Naru opened it up and saw that while the subject line was blank, the body had a single sentence written in it.

"Congratulations on your acceptance to Tokyo University."

Naru didn't realize that she'd opened up the photo attachment until some moments later. Then, she looked at the embossed stamp at the top of the letter. She read it over once—twice—three times—and then she shut her eyes and let her phone fall into her lap. Tears began to silently stream out of her eyes, and she wasn't sure if they were the result of happiness or sadness.

She'd gotten into Tokyo U after a lifetime of dreaming, and yearning, and studying, and struggling for it. But the reason she'd set herself on that goal, so many years before, was a man who she'd insulted so viciously that he surely never wanted to see her face again.

But wasn't that only because he didn't know who she really was? Keitaro only knew her as Narusegawa Naru, but if he came to know her as the girl of his memories, the one who he'd promised to attend Tokyo U with… then things would surely change between them. She'd be forgiven, and they could look forward to their shared future together. As for Kitsune… it was sad that she'd have to give Keitaro up, but that couldn't be helped. Keitaro was Naru's, and he had been from since each of them could remember.

Naru sat up. She disconnected herself from the leads attached to her and put her clothes on. Then, she walked out of her room, stepped into the nearest elevator she could find, and watched a small team of nurses race into the room that had been hers just as the doors closed.

It was then that Naru realized that she wasn't alone in the elevator. Someone had been going down before she'd gotten in, and that someone was a muscular guy with a cast on his arm. He had long brown hair, somewhat like her, but he was taller than she was. A lot taller.

Naru swallowed and faced forward. She didn't fear men—rather, she hated them—but this guy was scary. When she'd glanced at him, she'd seen an expression on his face that made her shiver where she stood. It didn't help that the elevator they were in was almost claustrophobically small, and that she could see his reflection in the polished metal of the elevator's interior. He was getting closer to her.

She felt a hand on her hip and tried to squirm away, but there was nowhere to go. She told him to stop, and he did, for a second, before she felt that same hand on another, more private part of her body. Fear almost overwhelmed her, but she turned around to slap him across the face. He caught her hand, however, and squeezed it until it hurt.

"Narusegawa Naru," he said in a terrible, familiar voice that made chills go up and down her spine. "Do you really not recognize me?"

"Kentaro, let go, please, it hurts," she begged him. He laughed and released her, at which point she pressed herself into the corner of the elevator and glowered at him, cradling her hurt hand. "You bastard. You haven't changed since Korea."

"Damn right I haven't changed. You haven't changed much, either, Naru. You're still useless, except for one thing." He laughed again and advanced on her, but she spoke before he could smother her.

"I heard that you lost the Yokohama Invitational," she said. "What a shame. And look at your arm—you poor thing, that was your good arm, wasn't it?"

He sneered. "I might have lost the YI, but I still have my pride. And this arm," he said, lifting his uninjured hand, "is just as good."

Then he slapped her, harder than he ever had before. She felt every ounce of muscle he'd gained over the past few years, as well as the full effects of the mental and physical anguish he'd suffered over the past days, as well as the results of her taunting in that blow. She saw strange balls of light flicker before her vision and the next thing she knew, she was on her knees, blinking hard and feeling the hot wetness of spilled blood run down her cheek.

And he was laughing at her. The elevator had reached the ground floor and was opening its doors—but he pressed the button that closed them and advanced on her again.

She almost let him. Almost. Then she remembered one of the last things her father had ever told her, and what he'd spent a year trying to teach her.

"It's a shame I'm not wearing heels," she said below her breath.

Then she stood, took off one of her shoes, and held it in her hand. Before Kentaro could tell what she was doing, she struck him across the face with it forcefully enough to knock a tooth out of his mouth. He fell to the ground, unconscious, and Naru left him—though not before she took a set of keys from his pocket.

She only hoped he drove a car, as she left the elevator and made her way into the attached parking lot. After all, she couldn't drive a motorbike.

He'd been sitting there for over an hour, and he still didn't know why. Every time he stood up to leave, he felt a compelling force sit him back down again, so he knew that there was something important about that old, forgotten wooden structure filled with sand. But what could it be? He'd never been there before, not on this trip to Hinata Springs anyway, and the only other time that he'd been to Hinata Springs in his life, he had been a little kid.

So if he had been where he was before, it had been years and years ago, almost before Keitaro could remember. But something had happened there, and whatever it was, it had been important. That was why Keitaro had been there for an hour, and that was why he would continue to be there until he remembered… whatever he had forgotten.

He heard an approaching footstep, looked up, and found himself face to face with Kitsune. She was only a few yards away, and on her face was such a profound sadness that it almost hurt him to look at it. Keitaro stood up and took a step towards her—but then, he stopped himself. He stared at her, though she was right in front of him, until she spoke.

"Can we talk, Kei? Please?" she asked.

Keitaro felt himself smile. He nodded and took a step closer to Kitsune, so that they were almost but not quite side by side. Neither of them spoke for some time—they just walked, enjoying the cool weather and the relative silence of the abandoned sections of Hinata Spring.

"So," Keitaro said eventually, "I think this is the best time for you to really tell me about you, Kitsune. You said that when everything was over, you'd be an open book for me, and… everything's over now, so… go ahead."

Keitaro could see her out of the corner of his eye, looking this way and that. She didn't answer for a long time, but when she did, it was clear that she tried to choose her words carefully, but had failed.

"I guess I'll start at the top," she said. "I've had a terrible relationship with my parents from the time I was born, and that's because my uncle… well, he's not actually my uncle. He's my father." She shut her eyes, sighed, and kept walking. "They never even told me about it. But when I found out about it, it explained everything—why my uncle always wanted to be close to me, but my dad never let him, why my dad hated me and yelled at me every time I stuck a toe out of line, why he hit my mom, and why she never did anything to stop it. It's why my uncle gave me all of that money when he died.

"I think it's also why my mother committed suicide. Or why they say she did," Kitsune said. "I came home one day, and my dad just… looked at me, said, "The bitch is dead," and that was that. I was out of the house in an hour, and that was when he told me that he wasn't actually my dad. That was the first time anyone told me about it, so… I called my uncle. He brought me to his house, and I was there for a while. We never really talked about anything, but... when I came home from school, he'd ask me how my day was, and if I did badly on a test, he wouldn't shout at me for hours and call me a failure. But then he died." Kitsune sighed. "He gave me all of his money, but… I guess it just wasn't enough. I'd lost my mom and my uncle in the space of about a month, and when I tried to call my dad, he told me that if I ever contacted him again he'd call the police. That fucked me up for a long time, and that's what led to… everything else.

"The only one I had in those days was Naru," Kitsune said. "Everyone else… all of my friends from school and swimming, they left me, eventually. But not Naru. She's why I was eventually able to lay off of the drugs. She tried to get me off of booze too, but it was too hard. And I still had to rely on guys for a while to give me enough money for rent and stuff, because I didn't want to waste my uncle's money. Funny—Naru never had a problem with me using those guys… all of those guys. I can't give you a specific number, Kei, but if I had to guess… it's probably over a hundred. You were supposed to be the last one, you know," Kitsune said. "I started to plan it out the moment I saw you. You were smart, fit, young, and well-connected, but you were also naïve. You were the reason I gave up drinking, not because of some stupid bet. I gave up drinking because I needed you to have a higher opinion of me, so that eventually, I'd have you so infatuated with me that I'd own you. I planned to use you for as long as possible—for the rest of my life, even. You're going to become rich enough that I could have done that."

"And let me guess," Keitaro cut in. "That was the plan… but at some point, you don't know how, but… things changed, didn't they? Isn't that right, Kitsune?"

"Yes," Kitsune replied. It was then that she realized how impossible her story sound. Even Keitaro was smiling at her and shaking his head, and when she saw that, she struggled to stop herself from crying.

There had to be something she could say to convince Keitaro she was telling the truth, even after being dishonest with him for so long. There had to be something she could do to show him that her feelings for him were true. But Kitsune couldn't think of anything, and though she continued to look at Keitaro, he kept moving farther, and farther away from her.

But that wasn't just because of what had happened between them. A motorcyclist had arrived on the scene and, after struggling to brake for a moment, had run headfirst into a streetlight. The driver had been thrown clear to roll across the road for a few painful yards, and when Kitsune saw who it was, she froze.

Narusegawa Naru was back in Hinata Springs.

Adrenaline stopped her from feeling pain. But when Naru lifted her arms and saw the lacerations running them up and down, she knew that she'd be in agony in moments. It was just due to sheer luck that she hadn't severed an artery, but she'd been cut up badly enough that she was even then being infected by untold thousands of bacteria.

She tried to stand. Her ankle gave out and she almost fell, but someone caught her under the shoulder and lifted her to her feet.

"Thanks," she sputtered. She'd hit her solar plexus on the bike handle when she'd crashed, and was still struggling to catch her breath. But when she saw who had helped her up, she lost it again.

It was Keitaro. His face was stern and serious as he dusted Naru off and looked her over. She tried to stand on her own, but that almost made her faint. The next thing she knew, he had lifted her into his arms and was carefully lowering her to the ground.

"Don't push yourself," he said. "You're not hurt badly, but you're in shock. Focus—breathe in and out slowly. Don't look away from me and don't try to do anything. Just breathe."

He was still holding her arms firmly, because she had struggled against him the moment he had let her down. He was a lot stronger than she was, she didn't know why she'd never realized it before. He'd lifted her off the ground and restrained her without trying. And now he was staring at her with such intensity that she couldn't have looked away if she'd wanted to. Now that she allowed herself to notice it, she appreciated just how exotic his eyes were, and his face—so lean and well defined—was so close to hers that she spent a few seconds simply drinking in his beauty.

And then he stood up and stepped back. He continued to stare at her, but it was no longer with the urgency and concern that he had a moment ago. Now, he was suspicious of her—angry at her, even. So, Naru was left to pick herself up off the ground as Kitsune finally jogged over to see what was going on.

"Why are you here?" Keitaro asked. "And why did you use a bike? You can't drive a bike."

"I know," Naru said. "But I couldn't wait for a bus or a train. I had to come back to Hinata Springs, so I—I took the first opportunity. I had to see you, Keitaro, I—" she swallowed. "I'm… ready to tell you what I was going to say in the train."

By now, the cause of Keitaro's anger was clear: he was scared. He was almost hyperventilating and his hands had clenched into fists. Even though Kitsune was trying to talk him down, he didn't visibly calm until Naru sat back down and looked away, careful to keep her hands visible. She couldn't harm Keitaro from such a position; she wasn't even sitting up straight. And when he saw that, he began to breathe more normally.

"So say it," Keitaro practically spat. "This is your last chance, so make it count."

Wetness began to bead in the corners of Naru's eyes. "Alright, I'll tell you," she said, struggling to play for time while she found the words to use. "But Keitaro… don't you recognize where we are?"

For some reason, those words made Keitaro re-examine the forgotten sector of Hinata Springs that he'd wandered into. He looked down at the wooden beam that Naru was sitting on and saw it, for the first time, as more than cracked, empty industrial waste. Once upon a time, it and the several other wood beams it was connected to had enclosed something.

Keitaro stepped past Naru. The ground behind her had messily grown in, but he nudged a few of the plants there with his foot. They pulled out of the ground easily, because they weren't in soil—rather, they had grown in sand. And the twisted, rusted bits of metal around them weren't the remains of I-beams or shopping carts. They had once been painted a playful color of red and welded together to form, undeniably, a playground.

He knelt down without realizing it and placed a hand into the sand. His shoulders heaved, and as Kitsune moved to comfort him, Naru spoke again.

"I remembered who you were right after I took the test. That was why I tried to find out on the train," she said. "And if I'd remembered sooner…" She could no longer stop herself from crying. "I'm so, so sorry about everything I did. I treated you so badly, just because you were a guy—I didn't know that you were the one I had promised!"

At those words, Kitsune placed a hand over her mouth. She was starting to understand why Keitaro and Naru were looking at each other the way they were, and why Keitaro was actually telling Naru that it was alright. Everything she had done to him was alright, because of a promise they had made to one another when they were just children. And the way they were staring at each other… Kitsune couldn't bare it.

"Keitaro, what happened to your friend?" she asked suddenly. "You know, the one whose mouth was hurt… he's alright, isn't he?"

"Yeah, I saw him just now," Keitaro said vaguely. He blinked, tore his eyes from Naru, and glanced at Kitsune. "He wasn't hurt badly at all."

"I'm sorry about him," Naru said quickly. "I was just so angry that I couldn't talk to you that I lashed out, and he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I-I'll send him a letter, or an email or something, as soon as I get a chance."

"Yeah, that would be good," Keitaro said. "But… is there anything else you're sorry for, Naru? Apart from the way you treated me and Haitani?"

Naru looked up at him. Keitaro could see the confusion and misunderstanding on her face, and there was no way it could have been contrived. Kentaro had taken responsibility for trying to run him down both times and throwing the rock through Hinata Inn's window, and as for the water heater explosion… that must have been the ultranationalists. If Naru didn't have a strong enough penchant for violence to throw a rock at Keitaro, then she certainly didn't have it in her to blow up half a house and put the lives of her friends at risk. She hadn't done any of the things Keitaro thought she had.

"Oh—I'm sorry for what I said to you, Kitsune," Naru said. "I'm sorry for what I said to everyone else, but especially you. You've been my best friend for so long, and I treated you like that because I was having a tough day… I'm sorry."

Kitsune's eyes flickered toward Keitaro once when Naru spoke to her. When she was finished, Kitsune nodded—then she reached down, took Naru's hand, and brought her to her feet so that they could hug. A moment later, Keitaro joined them, touching Naru for the first time in a very, very long time.

"It's okay," Kitsune said softly. "What's in the past is in the past. Let's just… do the best we can from where we are." She felt Naru nod into her shoulder and stepped back some moments later, along with Keitaro. But Naru held Keitaro by the wrists, preventing him from moving too far away, and looked into his eyes again.

"But… what about our promise, Keitaro? That's not just in the past… is it?"

"No, of course not," Keitaro said automatically. He tried to smile at Naru, but then he understood what she was really asking.

He looked at Kitsune for a moment. Then he looked back at Naru. They were both young, attractive woman with bright futures ahead of them, but that was where the similarities stopped. Keitaro didn't know Naru as well as he knew Kitsune, but he knew that they were entirely different people. And that was why he knew that the choice he made then was the right one.

Keitaro placed his hands on top of Naru's.

"Some things will never remain in the past," Keitaro said. "But what's really important are the decisions we decide to make in the present."

He stroked her fingers for a moment. Then he brushed her hands away from him and stood in front of Kitsune. He held her hands and searched for words for a moment, but failed. So he stepped forward and kissed Kitsune, and in seconds, she started to kiss him back. They held one another close as their kisses deepened, and while Kitsune cried for one reason, Naru cried for another.

It was almost too much for her to bear. After everything she'd been through, things weren't going to work out for her after all. The promise she'd made all those years ago, that had sustained her through the most difficult times in her life would never be fulfilled. Keitaro had chosen Kitsune instead of her, and they looked so happy together that it hurt. She'd never, ever find that happiness in her life, no matter how hard she tried…

At least, not with Keitaro.

Naru suddenly realized that she wasn't crying anymore. In fact, she was smiling at Keitaro and Kitsune, because they were her friends and she was happy for them. And she was going to keep her promise—after all, she was going to go to Tokyo U with Keitaro. There, she would finally be able to close the last few sad chapters of her life.

But new chapters would begin for her, as well as Keitaro and Kitsune. They'd have so many new opportunities as they entered Tokyo U that it would be hard to keep track of them all. Kitsune was a national-recognized athlete and author, and Keitaro was an internationally-recognized athlete. Naru would have to work hard to stand with pride around them, but she already had ideas about what she could do to make her place in the world.

As far as Keitaro was concerned, though, he'd found his place in the world, and that was in the arms of the woman he loved. He would make other goals, certainly, but his primary goal would be to remember that and stay true to it, and the same was true for Kitsune.

A long time later, Keitaro and Kitsune drew apart from one another. He lost himself in her eyes for a few seconds, but something a hundred yards behind her distracted him. A lady, barely five feet tall and gray haired, was watching them and smiling to herself, as if everything had gone as planned.

(This is the first Love Hina fanfiction that I have finished, so thanks to all of you for the support and interest in this piece. I enjoyed writing it a lot, and it's really helped me improve my skills. To those of you who have supported me by reviewing a lot of my chapters and leaving behind useful or interesting comments, feel free to drop me a PM. If you do, I may send you a special chapter I have prepared for true supporters, which is a brief XXX-rated description of Keitaro and Kitsune's first night together.

Anyway, I hope the ending wasn't too sunshine-and-lollipops, but I had to do it. Most of the things I have written have ended on very dark notes, so it was nice to write something that wasn't terribly depressing for once.

Now, I must regrettably announce that this will be the last major fanfiction I will publish on this profile. I have been thinking about dropping this profile for a while, but I think the time has finally come to do it. After so many years, this profile just has way too much momentum and memories attached to it for me to change and improve myself. I am very nearly at the point where I can consider myself a serious writer, and to jump the final few hurdles, I'll really need to up the ante.

So, for the last time (disbarring any brief oneshots)… goodbye, and thanks again for all of the support.)