January 15

Hinata City, Japan

"Ready for the next question, Keitaro?"

"Shoot, Naru."

"Okay. What is the capitol of the Canadian province of British Columbia?"

"Oh, that's easy. It's Vancouver."

Naru shook her head. "Wrong."

"Say what?"

Naru turned the book so that her study partner could see and pointed to a map. "See? The correct answer is Victoria."

"Aw, man! How could I have forgotten that?" moaned Keitaro. "I was studying that just last night."

"Don't have an aneurysm," said Naru. "You've gotten more questions right tonight than you have wrong. That's not so bad."

"Easy for you to say Ms.-Top-in-Japan-on-the-Mock-Exam," grumbled Keitaro.

"You're pretty much a shoo-in on this test."

"If all you're going to do is whine and feel sorry for yourself then I'll go back to my room and study by myself!" snapped Naru. "The exam is in the morning and top marks on the cram school test or not I want to be as ready for this as I can."

Keitaro looked abashed and his eyes feel to the floor. "Yeah, you're right. I…didn't mean what I said it's just…I'm really nervous. That's all."

Naru gave Keitaro an appraising look for a moment and then shrugged. "Okay, since it's the night before the exam and we're both pretty stressed I'll cut you a break and not sock you one for saying something like that to me."

"Uh, thanks," gulped the ronin. "Ready for your next question?"

"Fire away," said Naru, confidently. "I've really been kicking butt on these history questions tonight."

"Okay. Who was the commander of The Spanish Armada?

A) The Duke of Parma

B) King Phillip II

C) The Duke of Medina Sedonia

D) Francis Drake

E) Lord Howard

"That isn't too hard," said Naru. "Lord Howard and Francis Drake were part of the British forces who fought the Armada so clearly it wasn't them. I'm pretty sure it was King Phillip II."

"Sorry, no."

"Say what?!" Naru reached across the table, snatched the book from Keitaro's hands and began to read.

"Phillip was the ruler of Spain at the time and the one who sent the Armada to attack England. But the guy who was in charge of the Armada itself was the Duke of Medina Sedonia," supplied Keitaro.

"Gah! How could I make a mistake like that?" groused Naru. "If I'd just paid more attention to the question itself I'd have gotten it right."

"I think the stress of everything that's been happening around here lately and studying for the exam is getting to the both of us," said Keitaro.

Naru took a deep breath, sighed and nodded. "I think you're right. Knowing that I'll be taking the preliminary exam in less than twelve hours is getting to me a bit. I mean, right now I feel so antsy it's hard to sit still."

"Same here. Today I cleaned the bath area and the second floor hallways, ran some errands for Haruka, got kicked in the head by Su and helped Shinobu with the dishes. That's in addition to trying to study every free moment I had. I should be ready to drop but instead I feel totally wired."

"You wanna take a little break?" asked Naru. "My brain could use some downtime."

"Sounds good. How about we go to the convenience store on Nishioka street?" suggested the ronin. "I wouldn't mind a snack. Besides, I just really want to get outside for a little while and move around a bit."

"Fresh air sounds like just the thing," said Naru. "I'll meet you at the front door in a minute. I just want to pop back to my room and grab a jacket real quick."

"See you in a few," said Keitaro as his study partner stood up to leave.

Minutes later the duo met in front of the entrance to the Hinata House. Without a word spoken the two headed down the long staircase that led to the street.

"I can't believe how quickly the snow melted," mused Keitaro as he and Naru strolled through the quite nighttime streets of Hinata City.

"Yeah, after such a white Christmas I was surprised too," said Naru. "I hope this means spring will come early this year."

"Looking forward to the sakura?"

"Yeah, I am," confirmed the auburn-haired girl. "We always have a big cherry blossom viewing party with lots of stuff to eat and drink. Your grandma told me that it was a Hinata House tradition once."

"It has been for a long time from what I understand. I remember there being a big party here during sakura season once when I was a kid," said Keitaro. "I remember my folks made a special trip here to Hinata City because the blossoms were supposed to be really pretty that year."

He then chuckled. "Oh man, I just remembered. Both my folks got really sloshed at the party. My mom had a hangover for two days and my dad almost drowned when he fell in the river behind the main building. Aunt Haruka managed to pull him out just in time. Boy, was she mad! I don't think he'd ever been chewed out by a junior high school student before."

Naru giggled loudly. "That sounds hysterical. But I'll warn you right now our sakura viewing parties are just about as crazy. Two years ago grandma and I had to physically stop Kitsune from pulling her clothes off and going streaking!"

Keitaro gulped and felt his face flush. Don't let Naru see you having dirty thoughts! Don't let Naru see you having dirty thoughts! Don't let Naru see you having dirty thoughts! Don't let Naru see you having dirty thoughts! he thought.

Lucky for Keitaro Naru was too busy reminiscing to notice. After a moment she turned to Keitaro and gave him a half smile. "I just realized this will be your first sakura viewing with us."

"Huh? Oh, yeah, I guess so," fumbled the young ronin. "It's hard to believe I only moved in back in October. It feels like much longer. I guess it's because so much has happened these last few months."

"Things have gotten more…interesting since you moved in, that's for sure."

Keitaro scratched the back of his head and looked away from Naru. "Um, is that interesting in a good or bad way?"

Naru stopped and gave the Hinata's manager another appraising look. Then she cracked a small, mischievous smile. "That kinda changes from day to day."

Keitaro feel his heartbeat quicken at Naru's smile. "And just what kind of day is today?"

Naru's smile got a bit bigger. "Today? Today…I don't mind having you around." Before Keitaro could form a reply Naru turned away and picked up her pace. "Come on, Keitaro. We're almost there."

"Uh, yeah, right. I'm coming!"

A few minutes later the pair arrived at the nearby outlet of the Lawson convenience store chain. "Welcome!" greeted the clerk, a young woman with bleached hair and a slightly nasal voice.

"So what do you want?" asked Keitaro as he glanced around the store.

"I think I'm in the mood for something sweet," said Naru. "How about some chocolate bread?"

"That sounds good to me to. Should we get something to drink to?"

"Yes. We might not be feeling it right now but we really worked ourselves hard studying tonight. Get something that'll give us back all those electrolytes and stuff we must have worked off."

"Like a sports drink then," said Keitaro. "Is Aquarius okay?"

"I like Pocari Sweat better," replied Naru. "You grab the drinks and I'll get the bread, okay?"


The housemates quickly secured their snack, paid for it and headed back out into the cool night air.

"Ah, the air feels really good right now," said Naru.

"How about we go somewhere else for a bit? I don't feel like going back to the Hinata just yet."

Keitaro nodded in agreement and looked around the area for several moments. "Say, how about we go to Shin Odori Park? It's just a few blocks from here if I remember right."

"That sounds really nice," said Naru. "We could go and sit on those benches down by the duck pond. I've always liked it there."

"All right. I used to go there and feed the ducks with grandma when I was a kid." Keitaro then gave a little chuckle to himself. "Now that I think about it, I haven't been to Shin Odori Park since I moved here. Boy, this little run to the convenience store is really turning into a nostalgia trip."

"For you and me both," added Naru. "Anyway, shall we be off?"


By some unspoken agreement neither of pair spoke until they reached the part and found a comfortable bench with an excellent view of the duck pond. The moon was bright and the sky was cloudless. The only sounds to be heard were the chirping of insects and the quacking of ducks. The pair settled on the bench and began to watch the ducks as they enjoyed their snack.

"Feeling any more relaxed?" asked Keitaro, eventually.

"I am," said Naru. "Getting out for a bit was just the thing I needed."

For a while the two were again quite. It was Keitaro who ended up speaking first.



"Do you think you're ready for tomorrow?"

Naru took a deep breath, huffed and then gave a small smile. "It's weird. If you'd asked me that back at the house I'd have said 'no' because I was so tense. But out here…all the stress and worry seems to be gone. I feel like I could take the test right now and pass it with flying colors."

Keitaro gave his housemate a smile and a look of admiration. "I'm not surprised you feel that way. You are #1 in Japan on the practice exams. I don't think getting into Tokyo U will be too difficult for you. Me, on the other hand…I know it's just the preliminary test, which I've passed twice before, but…I'm still not all that confident in myself."

Naru returned the ronin's look with a hard frown. "With an attitude like that you're going to fail for sure."

Keitaro blinked. "Huh?"

Naru's frown deepened and she leaned in to look her companion in the eyes. "Get this through your thick head, Keitaro, and do it now. If you go into the testing center tomorrow with an attitude like that you'll fail for sure."

"That's easy for you to say," responded Keitaro. "You don't have having failed to get into Tokyo U twice already hanging over your head."

At that Naru's frown went away. "Don't you believe in me?" she asked quietly.

"What!?" sputtered the ronin. "Of course I do! I know you're not going to fail!"

"That's not what I meant," retorted Naru, anger creeping into her voice. "I mean I've spent all this time working together with you to get us both ready for this test. Are you telling me that all that time was a waste? Didn't I tell you I thought you could make it? Didn't you promise me we'd go to Tokyo U together?"

…go to Tokyo U together…

Those words rang in Keitaro's like bells in a cathedral. For a moment the face of the little girl from his promise floated about Naru's features. Then that image faded and he saw Naru wearing her glasses with her hair in pigtails; the clothes she'd worth when they'd made that promise to each other on New Year's Day.

To our double entry!

Without even thinking about it Keitaro reached out and grabbed Naru's hand. "You're right, Naru! I've been studying harder than ever and I've had the best tutor in all of Japan to help me. Tomorrow I'm going to take that test and I'm going to kick ass! I will keep my promise to you!"

Wow, thought Naru as she looked at her study partner. I've never really seen Keitaro this fired up before. He actually seems a little…cool.

God, she's beautiful, thought Keitaro. She smells really nice too. Is that perfume or her shampoo? Why didn't I notice how good she smelled before?

It was then that the pair noticed that their faces had drifted very close together and that they were still holding hands. Carpe diem, though Keitaro as he closed his eyes and leaned in for a kiss.

Instead he got a punch in the face. The ronin sailed through the air for several yards before slamming into a tree with a bone-jarring jolt.

"Just because we were getting a little touchy feely doesn't give you the right to get touchy feely!" howled Naru.

"I should have known it was too good to last," muttered Keitaro through the pain.

"And I should have known you were going to try something cheap when you suggested we come here," said Naru, angrily as she began to stomp out of the park.

"Naru! I didn't mean too--"

Naru stopped and whipped around. "I don't want to hear it, Keitaro! I was actually having a nice time with you until you decided to try and be perverted. Now unless you want another knuckle sandwich I don't wanna see your face again until tomorrow at breakfast! If you're lucky I might not still be pissed by then."

Without another word Naru stormed off into the night.

"Aw, man," grumbled Keitaro as he got to his feet. "Why does something like this always happen whenever I think Naru and I have started to make some progress?"

After heaving another sign Keitaro headed back to the bench and plopped himself down. "I suppose I'd better give Naru a head start. If I were to run into her on the way back to the Hinata she'd just deck me again. I've had enough of that for one day, thank you very much."

And so the ronin found himself in the park staring up at the stars with the moon as his only companions.

About forty minutes later Keitaro, his shoulders deeply slumped, trudged through the main door of the Hinata House. "I'm home," he sighed softly to no one in particular.

"Hey! Who's there?" came a voice from the nearby common area.

Keitaro looked over to see Kitsune's head pop up over the edge of one of the couches. "Oh, it's just you, Keitaro. I should have guessed."

"Hey, Kitsune," greeted the ronin, halfheartedly, as he took off his shoes. "What are you up to?"

"I came down for a late night snack and then decided I didn't feel like carrying it back to my room. So I just ate right here to save myself the trouble of having to bring the dishes back down again later."

The ronin saw a dish with some unidentifiable crumbs on it and an empty bottle of beer on the table in front of the couch. "I see. Say…have you seen Naru by any chance?"

At that the foxgirl arched an eyebrow. "Naru? Oh yeah, I've seen her. She came in, muttering nasty stuff about a certain ronin to herself and marched right up to her room just after I came downstairs. I didn't know she even knew words like that."

Keitaro buried his hands in his face. "Dammit! I really screwed up tonight."

"Hey, hey, don't be like that!" said Kitsune, cheerfully. She then patted the seat next to her. "Come on, Keitaro. Come over here and tell me what happened. It might not be as bad as you think."

Reluctantly the ronin went over to the couch and sat down. "I don't know if I want to talk about this," began Keitaro. "I mean, it's personal sort of stuff."

Kitsune again arched an eyebrow. "Are you saying the two of us can't share personal stuff?"

"No! No! Not at all!" sputtered Keitaro as he wildly waved his hands in denial. "I didn't mean it that way!" After a moment the ronin calmed down and sighed. "I suppose you're right, Kitsune. It's just…I'm not really used to people wanting to hear about my personal problems."

"Well, we've got a special thing between us," said Kitsune, sincerely. "You were there when I needed someone to talk to so it's only fair that I repay the favor. Besides, I'm Naru's best friend. So it's not like she isn't going to come and tell me all about it sooner or later anyway. Wouldn't you like me to hear your side of it too?"

"Ugh! I hadn't thought of that," moaned Keitaro. "Since you put it that way…" With that the ronin filled his housemate in on the events of earlier in the evening.

"Whoa! Keitaro! You actually tried to kiss Naru!" gasped Kitsune. "Wow, she was wrong about you. You actually do have some balls!"

"That's good to—What?! She said what about me!?"

The foxgirl scratched the back of her head in embarrassment. "Uh, oops. I think that was supposed to be a secret."

A low groan escaped from the ronin. "Oh, this clinches it. Naru hates me now for sure."

"She does not. Just tell her you're sorry tomorrow and I'm sure she'll forgive you."

"You're sure? I don't want her mad at me when we take the test tomorrow."

"Naru can be a real grump sometimes but she'll get over it," assured Kitsune. "Believe me, I've pissed her off more than a few times myself and she always comes around after she's had some time to get it out of her system."

"I suppose that is the only thing I can do." Keitaro then stood up and stretched a bit. "It's getting a little late. If I wanna be ready for the test tomorrow I think I'd better turn in."

"I think I'll grab a late night bath before I hit the sack," said the foxgirl as she stood as well. "I'll put the dishes away once I'm done."

"Goodnight, Kitsune."

"'Night, Keitaro."

The pair then headed off to their destinations. But after a few steps Keitaro stopped and turned around.

"Uh, Kitsune?"

"Yeah?" said Kitsune as she too stopped.

"Thanks for listening to me tonight. I really needed that."

"No problem. What are friends for, ya know?"

Keitaro scratched the right side of his face in a nervous manner. "Right. Friends. I, uh, just want to say that talking with you tonight and the other night…was pretty cool. This place being the mad house it usually is I don't really get the chance to just sit down and talk with anyone much. I think it'd be cool if…we could talk some more from time to time. Not just when something is bothering one of us. Like friends and all."

Kitsune smiled. "Yeah, that does sound pretty cool. The Hinata really can be insanity central sometimes. I suppose us actual adults need to stick together a bit, don't we?"

"Um, I guess so."

"Okay then, Keitaro, I'll take to you later. That'll be another promise between the two of us."

It was now the ronin's turn to smile. "You've got a deal."

With a silent nod the pair then headed off.

Several minutes later Kitsune sat contently in the Hinata's hotsping bath. A bottle of sake sat on a small trap that floated in the water nearby. The foxgirl's cheeks were flushed slightly red and it wasn't from just the hot water.

"Oh, now this is the life," sighed Kitsune in contentment. For a time the foxgirl sat merely enjoying the bath and her drink. Then an amused grim danced across her face.

"I still can't believe Keitaro worked up the guts to try and kiss Naru. Either he's really found some new confidence in himself or he wanted to put that supposed immortality of his to the acid test."

Kitsune took another long sip of sake. "Now that I think about it, it must be the former. Keitaro seems to have become a bit stronger than he was when he first came here. I'd have never shared my problem with my folks with him the way he was then."

The foxgirl frowned. "Crap, my folks. I really am going to have to start coming up with something to get them to back off of the idea of me going to America with them. The Hinata's my home now and…well…everyone here, as strange as they may be, really are like a family to me."

Kitsune turned and looked up toward the Hinata and located the darkened window that belonged to Keitaro's room. "That includes you too, ya dumb ronin. You haven't been here long but despite being a guy somehow you fit right in. That little conversation we just had shows it. I don't open up to just anyone. This fox likes her secrets.

"It's funny. The last time I opened up to a guy like that…" The foxgirl frowned again. She then reached for the sake bottle, grabbed it and knocked back a very long drink. "No, I don't think I want to think about that tonight. No point in ruining a perfectly good evening with bad memories."

After another long drink that finished off the sake Kitsune climbed out of the bath and headed for the changing area.

After taking his leave of Kitsune Keitaro had returned to his room, changed into his pajamas and settled down on his futon. But try as he might the ronin couldn't keep his eyes from drifting to the slat of wood in the ceiling that covered the entrance to Naru's room.

"I need to relax," Keitaro muttered to himself. "Kitsune was right. Naru will forgive if I just tell her I'm sorry. She always has before."

The memory of the park and the pre-punch conversation the pair had floated back to him and Keitaro smiled to himself. "Well, it was cool while it lasted. Plus, it's been a while since Naru and I talked like that. Just person to person. Actually, now that I think about it, almost all we've talked about these last few weeks has be stuff related to the test. That…kinda sucks.

"Damn! Why can't we talk more often about…normal stuff? I've been living here almost three months and I still don't know that much about Naru. I don't what her favorite TV show is, or her favorite band or…or even what she wants to study when she gets into Tokyo U!"

Keitaro heaved a sigh and frowned. "I guess I could just ask her that stuff. But I don't want to seem like I'm prying. Besides, Naru seems to be a pretty private person. I think the only people around here she's really opened up to are Kitsune, grandma and maybe Haruka.

But it's not like I could get anything out of any of them. Grandma's gone off who knows where, Haruka's not the sort who'd ever tell me anything like that and Kitsune, as wild as she may be, doesn't the seem type to share anything truly personal Naru might have told her no matter how small. That is what best friends do, after all."

The ronin turned on his side and tried to make himself more comfortable. "Now that I think about it, I can see why Naru confides in Kitsune. She is pretty easy to talk to. Heck, she was the first of the girls here who actually tried to make me feel welcome."

Keitaro's thoughts flashed a few memories of his first day at the Hinata across his mind causing him to give a little chuckle. "Boy, I'll never forget that day. I meet all the girls, almost got killed by them and even got to touch a pair of boobs for the first time. I know Kitsune grabbed my hand and put it on her chest just to screw with my head but still…" The ronin grinned a small grin. "Man, those were some nice boobs! All big and soft and pert!"

The ronin suddenly bolted upright and looked around wildly. After several moments he breathed a sigh of relief. "I can't believe I said that without Naru or

Motoko busting in here to bring down the wrath of God on my head. Note to self; watch it when it comes to the talking out loud."

Keitaro settled himself back down on the futon and willed himself to relax. After a few minutes he felt his eyelids growing heavy. "Maybe I should look on the bright side of today. I managed to have two, count 'em two, actual conversations with two cute girls. Maybe that fortune wasn't so messed up after all. Maybe…I'm finally learning how to talk to girls."

With that Keitaro let his eyes close and was fully asleep moments later.

January 16

Hinata City, Japan

The loud buzz of the alarm roused Naru Narusagawa from her sleep with a minimum of effort. After shutting the alarm off she stretched and looked out the window. The January sky was clear and the golden hues of dawn could still be seen fading slowly outside.

"This is it," Naru smiled to herself. "Today I get one big step closer to Tokyo U!"

After washing up and changing Naru headed down the main staircase with a noticeable spring in her step. Even from the stairwell she could smell the breakfast Shinobu had made. As usual it smelled wonderful. But the auburn-haired girl came to a dead stop once she saw that someone had been waiting for her halfway down the stairs.

"Uh, good morning," said Keitaro, weakly.

Naru scowled. "Well, it seemed like it was going to be that way until you showed up."

Keitaro mentally sighed. This was going to be just as hard as he'd imagined. "Look, Naru, you're mad at me and you have every right to be. I shouldn't have tried to kiss you last night and I'm sorry."

The scowl on Naru's face was gone but her expression was now solidly neutral. "Go on," she bade.

Oh, she's really going to make me work for this, thought the ronin. Well, I made my own bed. I guess now I have to lie in it. "I'm not really sure what else I can say. When we were talking it felt like we were really, really connecting and I just kinda got struck by how really pretty you were and the night was so nice and…"

"Keitaro, you're babbling," interrupted Naru.

"Uh, right. Right. Look, Naru, I let myself get caught up in the moment and did something really dumb," said Keitaro, earnestly. "The only things I can think to say are that I'm sorry and that even if you don't forgive me I'm going to do my best on that test today. Because I made a promise to you and I'm going to do everything I can to keep it!"

A long, slow moment then passed between the pair. Naru then huffed in annoyance. "Part of me still wants to hit you again for last night. But after that little speech I'd feel like I'd just kicked a puppy."

"So does this mean you forgive me?"

Naru rolled her eyes. "Yes, Keitaro, I forgive you! Just keep those perverted lips of yours away from me or I'll make 'em good and fat! Got it?"

"Perfectly," replied the ronin who was clearly relived.

"Good," said Naru. "Now either go downstairs or move. Our breakfast isn't going to get any warmer and if we don't show up soon Su might eat our share."

"Good point," said Keitaro.

With fences between them now mended the duo headed downstairs.

As fate would have in Keitaro and Naru managed to arrive just in time to stop Su from eating their share of breakfast despite Shinobu's fervent pleas for her to stop. Fortunately one stern look from Motoko was all it took for the strange foreign girl to relent.

After that breakfast was eaten quickly but without incident. Once the dishes had been cleared away the residents of Hinata House gathered at the main entrance to see the Tokyo U hopefuls off.

"Here's your bag, sempai," said Shinobu. "You left it under the table during breakfast."

"Oh, thanks a lot, Shinobu," replied the ronin. "I didn't even notice I'd forgotten it."

"Jeez, Keitaro, get on the ball, will you," chided Naru. "Isn't your exam registration ticket in there? If you don't have that they won't you take the center exam."

"I know. I know." Keitaro hoisted the bag over his shoulder and gave the young girl a warm smile. "You really saved my butt on that one, Shinobu. I owe you one!"

Shinobu blushed deeply. "It, it was nothing, sempai! I was just trying to be helpful."

"I don't know anyone who's more helpful that you, Shinobu. Things would be fifty times more crazy around here without you."

The young girl blushed deeper.

"Plus, if Shinobu wasn't around we'd have to eat Naru's cooking more often," added Kitsune.

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with my cooking!" retorted Naru.

"Except that it looks like it comes from another planet," replied the foxgirl.

"I think Naru's cooking is yummy!" exclaimed Su.

"See! Su likes my cooking!" said Naru.

Kitsune gave Su an inquiring look. "If that's true then why do you always put extra curry on your food when whenever Naru cooks? About three times as much as you normally use at that."


"Correct me if I am wrong, but does not the bus that goes to Hinata University arrive at the stop down the street in exactly one minute?" interrupted Motoko.

Everyone glanced at a nearby wall clock and saw that the kendo girl was indeed correct. "Crap! We're going to be late!" chorused Naru and Keitaro before dashing out the door at breakneck speed.

"Thank god we made it in time," sighed Naru in relief as she plopped down in one of the bus' seats. "I swear, I think we must have broken some kind of sprinting record."

"No kidding," agreed Keitaro as he sat down next to her. "My heart's pounding so hard it feels like it's going to burst right out of my chest."

"You sure that's just not nerves?"

"Well, I guess it's some of that too."

"If it is any comfort you're not the only one who's nervous."

"Just relax. I know you're going to do fine," assured Keitaro. "As long as you stay cool and do your best I'm sure you'll crush this exam."

Naru gave her companion a little smile. "Yeah, you're right. I'm sure I'll do just fine on the test. Heck, I'd better. I've got promises to keep."

Promises? thought Keitaro. Shouldn't that just be "a promise"? As in the one she and I made on New Year's Day. Should I ask her what she meant? Nah. I'm sure it was just a slip of the tongue. Besides, I don't want to do anything to get on Naru's bad side right now.

About twenty minutes later the bus arrived at a stop across the street from Hinata University and the pair quickly climbed off.

"This is it. Showtime!" said Naru as she took a moment to look at the campus' main gate.

Next to her Keitaro nodded. "Yeah, this is it. This is where both or lives take a turn for the better!"

"Okay, Keitaro. Let's go do this!" said Naru, enthusiastically.

"Good luck to us both!" replied Keitaro as he flashed a thumbs up sign.

Naru returned the thumbs up and with that the duo headed toward the gate and their appointment with destiny.

Later that afternoon Kitsune, Motoko, Su and Shinobu sat waiting in the common area of the Hinata House.

"I believe it is now past the time that Naru and Urashima are due to return," said Motoko in a matter of fact tone.

"The last test should have ended about forty minutes ago so they should be here soon," said Kitsune.

"Naru and Keitaro need to hurry! Shinobu said she's not going to start dinner until they get here and I'm starving!" complained Su.

"Oh, I can see them coming up the stairs!" called Shinobu who had been standing sentry by the door.

The other three girls quickly scrambled over to the entrance area. Moments later Keitaro opened the door and he and Naru stepped through.

"Sempai. Naru. Welcome home," said Shinobu.

"Well, how'd it go?" asked Kitsune. "Don't keep us waiting!"

"Yes, we are eager to hear how the first day's testing went," added Motoko.

"Did you bring back any food?" whimpered Su.

The hangdog expression on Keitaro's face answered their questions for them.

"He's been like that the whole way home," sighed Naru.

Naru's words seemed to snap Keitaro back to reality. "Well, I did my best," the ronin began. "I don't think I did too well on the English, history and math parts though."

"Which just happed to be the parts we were tested on today," informed Naru.

Keitaro sighed deeply. "You see, I found myself running out of time with a lot of questions still blank. So I just had to go with my gut for a big part of the test."

"So you don't think you did well?" asked Shinobu, concerned.

The younger girl's voice brought a smile to Keitaro's face. "Don't worry, Shinobu. I promised you girls I'd get into Tokyo U and that's what I'll do come hell or high water."

"A laudable attitude," said Motoko with a nod of approval.

Kitsune shook her head slightly. "Jeez, Keitaro. You and promises, huh?"

The ronin gave a little chuckle. "Yeah, I guess you have a point there. Still, when I make a promise I take it seriously."

"Don't starting worrying about how you did on the test right now," said Naru. "We've still got the second part of the test tomorrow. If you start thinking you did bad now you'll psyche yourself out and do even worse tomorrow."

"I guess you're right," nodded Keitaro. "I'm really spent from that test. I think I'll go take a nap until dinner is ready. Could someone give me a call then?"

"Resting now seems wise," replied Motoko. "I shall call for you when the meal is ready."

"Could you come get me too?" asked Naru. "I think I'd like a nap as well."

"Of course."

"Thanks a lot, Motoko," said Keitaro and he and Naru turned to go upstairs.

"Yeah, thanks," called Naru.

After the pair had headed off upstairs Su turned to Shinobu and gave her a huge set of puppydog eyes.

"Shinobu, could you please start dinner now!"

Shinobu repressed a little sigh and nodded. "Okay, Su. I'll go start dinner right now. I hope you're in the mood for Italian because I'm making spaghetti tonight."

"I want extra meatballs!" cheered Su.

"I guess that means Italian is just fine with Su," chuckled Kitsune.

Motoko just nodded her agreement in silence.

January 17

Hinata City, Japan

Campus of Hinata University

"Time's up!" announced the man standing at the front of the classroom. "On behalf of everyone here at Hinata University I'd like to wish all of you the best of luck to all of you."

"God knows I'm going to need that luck," muttered Keitaro as he stood from his seat and gathered his things. He then headed off to the front of the university library where he'd prearranged to meet up with Naru.

Sure enough Naru appeared just a few moments after Keitaro arrived at their rendezvous point.

"Hey, Keitaro," she greeted cheerfully. "So how do you think you did?"

The ronin responded by grabbing Naru by the shoulders and looking her square in the eyes with a look of fear and near panic on his face. "Oh, Naru! I think I blew it even worse than yesterday. Japanese was a huge disaster and I'm sure Biology was just as bad. I just know I've flunked again! After all those things I said last night how am I supposed to face Shinobu and the other girls! I'm the biggest loser ever! I just wanna die!"

Naru responded by belting Keitaro one in the face. However, this punch wasn't as hard as her usual ones and Keitaro was only knocked back enough to fall solidly on his butt. He then blinked and just stared at his housemate.

"First of all, keep your paws to yourself, pervert," replied Naru with unconcealed irritation. "Second, while on a normal day I might agree with that 'biggest loser ever' bit right now you're acting like the world's biggest drama queen.

"Lastly, you don't know anything for sure about how you did until you score your test for yourself. The answers will be in the evening edition of today's paper so just try and relax until then. I mean, do you really want the others to see you acting like that?"

Keitaro hung his head in shame. "You're right. I was being dumb. I was sure I'd failed the center exam the two times I took it before and somehow I managed to pass."

"That's not exactly a positive attitude. But I suppose I'll take what I can get." Naru then held out her hand to the ronin. "Come on, Keitaro. Let's go home."

Keitaro smiled slightly, took Naru's hand and let her help him to his feet. To be safe he made sure to take his hand away as quickly as possible. "Yeah, let's go home."

"So how long do you think it'll be before the evening paper arrives?" asked Keitaro as he and Naru climbed the final steps to the Hinata House.

"Another two hours or so, I guess," replied Naru.

"That's going to be a long two hours."

"I know. Just try and do something fun. That should help pass the time and it'll get your mind off the test."

"That's a really good idea," said Keitaro as he opened the door to the Hinata.

"Fun is exactly what we have in mind!" shouted a voice the pair stepped inside.

A brief shower of confetti enveloped the two Tokyo U hopefuls. Then in the common area they suddenly saw Shinobu, Su, Motoko and Kitsune standing by a long table covered in food. Above the table, stretching across the room was a large banner that read "Congratulations, Keitaro and Naru! Good Luck on the Center Exam!"

"What's all this?" asked Naru.

"What does it look like, you sillies? It's a party for you two to celebrate you taking the center exam!" explained Su as she waved around a pair of pom-poms.

"Go Naru! Go Keitaro! Go Team!"

"Where did Su get those pom-poms?" asked Keitaro.

"Does her school even have a cheerleading team?"

"She didn't get those from her school," said Kitsune as she came over and began to usher her housemates into the common area. "I let her borrow them from my cheerleader outfit."

"You have a cheerleader outfit!?" boggled Keitaro as he flushed red.

"Oh, I've got all sorts of fun things in my room. If you're a good boy maybe I'll show you some of them sometime," teased the foxgirl with a wink.

Keitaro turned even redder and felt a nosebleed coming on.

"Kitsune! Don't encourage him like that!" yelled Naru. "You're just putting filthy ideas in his head!"

"I am in agreement with Naru," interjected Motoko. "Such talk will only exacerbate Urashima's deviant tendencies."

"Hey! That's not fair!" protested the ronin.

"Aw, come on. Since when have guys needed anything to encourage them to have dirty thoughts?" asked Kitsune. "Seems to me they do that just fine on their own."

Naru and Motoko began to give Keitaro severe looks.

"Uh, everyone, the food is getting cold," interrupted Shinobu in hopes of defusing the situation.

Luckily for Keitaro this tactic worked and soon a fine little party was underway.

"Sempai, may I ask you a question?" said Shinobu as she refilled Keitaro's cup with sake.

"Sure, Shinobu. Fire away."

The young girl's face seemed to tinge a bit with red just before she spoke. "If you don't mind me asking, how do you think you did on your test?"

Keitaro took a quick drink of sake before giving Shinobu the best smile he could muster. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried. The tests today were harder than I was expecting. All I can say for sure is that I feel I gave it my best."

"If…if sempai did his best then I'm sure you passed with flying colors!" replied Shinobu more loudly and more nervously than she'd planned.

This endorsement seemed to bolster the ronin's smile. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Shinobu. Hey, maybe you should be the one with the pom-poms and not Su. You've really been cheering me on a lot this last few weeks."

Shinobu suddenly felt as if her heart had wings. "You…you…noticed? I mean, I was…I just wanted you and Naru to do your best."

"Of course I noticed and don't think I'm not grateful," said Keitaro. "Naru really helped me with the academic stuff but I think you were the one who did the most when it came to keeping my morale up."

Keitaro was blushing a tad now himself. "When I was struggling with the test I kept thinking about how I didn't want to disappoint everyone after all the support and help they'd given. But…well…I especially did want let you down."

"But, sempai, I didn't really do anything special!" protested the young girl.

Keitaro shook his head. "That's not true at all. You believed in me. Heck, you even looked up to me. I've never really had anyone treat me like that before. Not disappointing you really means a lot to me."


"Hey, you two!" called Kitsune suddenly. "Where did we put the karaoke machine?"

The foxgirl's shout snapped Keitaro and Shinobu back to reality. Both now looked somewhat flustered and embarrassed.

"Sorry if I was laying it on too think there," said Keitaro. "I just wanted to say that I didn't want to let you down because you cheering me on and looking up to me means a lot to me."

"I understand, sempai," replied Shinobu with a heartfelt smile. She then turned to Kitsune. "I think the karaoke machine is in the utility closet down the hall."

"Okay then! Let's get some music!" said Kitsune as she headed down the hall. "Naru, you're up first!"

"What?! Why me?" demanded Naru.

"I do not believe I know many songs on our karaoke machine," mused Motoko. "Its selection of traditional Japanese songs is sorely lacking."

"I wanna sing 'VivaRock' song by Orange Range!" cheered Su. "That song's cool!"

"Uh, Shinobu?"

"Yes, sempai?"

"Could I get another refill? If I'm going to have to sing, and I know Kitsune will make me once Naru's done, I'd like something to take the edge of first."

"Oh, of course, sempai."

Shinobu quickly filled Keitaro's cup to the brim.

With the party going full tilt time seemed to fly. Kitsune, confidence in her singing skills enhanced by more than a little bit of sake, was belting out a slightly slurred but still enjoyable cover of Reel Big Fish's "Beer" when the clock on the wall caught Motoko's eye.

If I get drunk well,

I'll pass out on the floor now, baby

You won't bother me no more

And she said

It's ok, boy, 'cause you know we'll be good friends

And I say, I think I'll have myself a beer

The kendo girl waited until Kitsune was finished before speaking up. "Judging by the time I believe that the evening paper is likely to have arrived by now."

The brought the party antics to a halt as the others turned to look at the clock.

"She's right," said Naru. "Come on. Let's--"

"I'll get it!" interrupted Su. The odd foreign girl dashed towards the door and did two cartwheels before coming to her feet and running out the front door.

"Does anyone know if Su's ever taken gymnastics lessons?" asked an impressed Keitaro.

"Not that I am aware of, Urashima," replied Motoko. "Thought the same thought has crossed my mind."

Just then Su came charging back inside with the newspaper in hand. "It's here! It's here!"

"Well, I guess it's time to check our scores," said Keitaro.

Naru nodded. "Yep. It's zero hour. So which of us is going first?"

Keitaro gave a little smile and did an exaggerated bow in Naru's direction. "Ladies first. I insist."

Naru flashed the ronin a good-natured smirk. "Oh, so now you decide to try and act chivalrous. You jerk."

"Flirt later. Grade tests now," prodded Kitsune.

"I was not flirting with him!"

"Of course you weren't. Now get to gradin'"

Naru rolled her eyes and took the newspaper from Su. She then turned and looked at the others, a mix of embarrassment and worry on her face.

"If it's okay with you guys I'd like to run back to my room and do the grading. Doing it with all of you looking over my shoulder…no offence, but that would really freak me out. Plus, I'd have a room full of people seeing every question I got wrong."

"Perfectly understandable," said Motoko. "We will wait here."

"Good luck, Naru," encouraged Shinobu.

"Break a leg or whatever," added Su.

"Go on and hurry up," prodded Kitsune. "I wanna see how fully you aced this."

It was then that Naru and Keitaro's eyes meet. "You're not #1 in Japan for nothing. Let's see that high score," he said with a smile.

Naru nodded and gave her friends a quick smile before dashing upstairs.

"Naru has worked long and hard. I am certain she will do well," said Motoko. "But what of you, Urashima? How did you fair on today's tests?"

Keitaro scratched his head in a nervous fashion. "It's…really hard to tell until you grade your tests. Naru told me it would be best not to worry about the situation until then."

"Wow, that bad, huh?" quizzed Su.

The ronin stiffened as if he'd been shot through the heart with an arrow.

"I'm sure sempai did his very best!" said Shinobu. "I have full confidence in him."

Keitaro's shoulder's slumped in relief. "Thanks for yet another vote of confidence, Shinobu."

The young girl again started to blush. "I…I…was only telling the truth, sempai."

"Do not forget that we agreed to let you stay here upon the condition that you get yourself into Tokyo U," reminded Motoko, sternly. "If you fail you will be tossed out into the street as punishment for lying to all of us upon first coming here. As you agreed."

Keitaro nodded solemnly. "That was the deal. I haven't forgotten."

With that hanging in the air the group decided to simply wait quietly. Twenty long minutes crawled by before Naru came but down the stairs, her expression neutral.

"Well?" said Keitaro.

Naru grinned widely and gave a thumbs up. "I got 766 points. With a score like that I shouldn't have any problems at all with the real Tokyo U test."

A short round of cheers and applause filled the Hinata House. Once they died down Naru strode over to Keitaro and held up the exam answers. "I'm sure you did fine," she said simply.

Keitaro nodded slightly in acknowledgement, took the sheet and headed upstairs. But halfway up the staircase he stopped and turned to look at the girls. "I just want to say that no matter what I get on this test I'm grateful to all of you. You've cheered me on, helped me learn and given me a kick in the butt when I needed one. So…thanks."

"Enough mushy melodrama!" said Kitsune. "Will ya get on with it already! I'm starting to loose my buzz."

"Can't have that, now can we?" said Keitaro. "All right, I'll be as quick as I can."

The ronin then headed for his room.

Keitaro's hands danced quickly across the calculator. The ronin took another look at the test papers and answer sheet. Satisfied he looked back at the calculator and noticed his hand was trembling over the equal's key.

"Okay, Keitaro. Here it is. Moment of truth time." With that the ronin hit the button to tally his final score.

Moments later the door to Keitaro's room slid open. The ronin started to step outside only to notice the girls had gathered around his door. "What the…"

"We couldn't wait anymore," shrugged Naru. "You've been in here almost half an hour."

"Sorry," shrugged Keitaro. "I was being extra careful to make sure I didn't make a mistake." "Spill already!" demanded Su.

"Yeah, inquiring minds want to know," said Kitsune.

"I got a 600!" exclaimed Keitaro. "The cut off point is about 580! That means I made it!"

"I told you not to worry until you saw your scores," chided Naru. "All that studying paid off for us, Keitaro. We're on step closer to Tokyo U."

"Congratulations, sempai!" cheered Shinobu sincerely.

"Rock on, Keitaro!" shouted Su.

Motoko even gave the ronin a small smile. "I have noticed the diligence with which you have been studying of late. Now that hard work has paid off. Congratulations, Urashima."

"Yeah, congratulations, Keitaro," added Kitsune. The foxgirl then leaned it close and began to run one of her index fingers seductively in a circle on the ronin's chest. "You know, with this you've got another shot at getting into Tokyo U. I think Tokyo U guys are really sexy."
"That…that's really flattering of you to say," stammered a flustered Keitaro.

"Kitsune!" snapped Naru. "Will you cut that out! You're just--"

"Going to give him filthy ideas," picked up the foxgirl. "Unclench already, Naru. Today's a great day. We should be celebrating!"

"Kitsune is correct," said Motoko, her voice containing a noticeable note of cheer. "We should all be proud of what Naru and Urashima accomplished today. Let us continue our celebration."

"Yeah!" agreed Su. "All that left over food from yesterday isn't going to stay good forever."

"Yes, I have a cake in the refrigerator that I was saving for after we knew your test results," added Shinobu.

Naru huffed but there was clearly a smile on her face. "Looks like we don't have a choice in this. Ready to party, Keitaro?"

Now it was Keitaro's turn to give a thumbs up. "You bet I am. Let's really let loose tonight. Because tomorrow--"

"We have to start studying for the real Tokyo U exam," finished Naru.

"But that's tomorrow," said Kitsune. "For now let's get this party started!"

A chorus of agreement rang out from the other residents of the Hinata House. So began a party that all six of them would remember for many years to come.

To Be Continued…

Author's Notes: After far too long a delay I'm back with a new chapter. I'll spare you the details as to why it took me so long to update. Like most people these days I simply lead a busy life.

Last time I updated I was living in Sapporo, Japan. I'm back in the US now and in this chapter I really got to add in a few little nods to my time in Japan. So with that in mind let's get on with it.

"Sounds good. How about we go to the convenience store on Nishioka street?"

Nishioka was the part of Sapporo I lived in when I was living in Japan. It's also where the university I was an exchange student was located.

My mom had a hangover for two days and my dad almost drowned when he fell in the river behind the main building.

One thing I picked up while I living in Sapporo was two source books for the Love Hina manga. In one of them was a really great map of the whole Hinata House compound and there really is a river just behind the place. You can see it a few times in the manga if you read carefully.

A few minutes later the pair arrived at the nearby outlet of the Lawson convenience store chain.

Lawson is a real convenience store chain in Japan. In a big city you can't go five minutes in a big without seeing one.

"How about some chocolate bread?"

Chocolate bread is everywhere in Japan. It's simply chocolate flavored bread with that sometimes has chocolate pudding in the center.

Aquarius and Pocari Sweat are popular sports drinks in Japan. Yes, the word really is supposed to be "sweat". Personally, I like Aquarius the best. It tastes a lot like Gatorade.

Say, how about we go to Shin Odori Park?

Odori Park is the main park in Sapporo and a place I spent a lot of time hanging out.

I tacked the "Shin" on because in "Japanese" can mean "new." So since I was taking that idea from the real word to the Love Hina world I thought the "new" seemed to fit. However, the duck pond Naru and Keitaro hang out at is based on another park in Sapporo whose name I can't remember.

Keitaro talking about feeding the ducks with his grandma is something I pulled from my own life. When I was a kid I used to really enjoy going down to a duck pond with my grandpa.

"I wanna sing 'VivaRock' song by Orange Range!" cheered Su. "That song's cool!"

Indeed that song is cool. It's also the third ending theme to the anime series Naruto. I used to hear that song all over the place when I was in Japan. But I didn't know it had anything to do with Naruto until I got back to the US and a friend convinced me to watch the show.

Kitsune's choice of songs to sing it something that just kinda came out of thin air. I wanted to sing something that was both reflective of her and could hint at where things will be going between her and Keitaro.

I was trying to think of the right song and I just happened to remember "Beer." I was pretty pleased with myself on that one since I've been a fan of Reel Big Fish for a couple of years now.

FYI, Reel Big Fish have an anime connection in that they sing the English opening of Rave Master.

The main thing I was shooting for in this chapter was to spotlight the dynamic between Keitaro and Naru. I've pretty much been focusing on Keitaro and Kitsune since I started this story. But Naru's the 3rd player in this love triangle so having her spend some time with Keitaro in a casual setting seemed the way to go.

I also wanted to remind people that while he and Kitsune have grown closer Keitaro's still in love with Naru. It was also important here to show both Naru's good and bad sides. I really can't stand Love Hina alternate pair fics where Naru is demonized. So I tried to highlight that while she can be irrational and temperamental Naru can also be an insightful person on a good friend.

Actually, I wanted this chapter to be just about Naru and Keitaro. But when I was finished with the park stuff the chapter still seemed a bit short to me. Since it'd been so long since I updated figured I owed my readers a few more pages. So I decided to take what I originally conceived as Kitsune having a little cameo and the end and turned it into a chance to push her relationship with Keitaro forward a bit. It also gave me the chance for Keitaro, once he was alone, really think about Kitsune and how things have changed between in the last few weeks.

For some reason I had a lot of fun writing the bits where Keitaro was thinking about Kitsune in physical terms. Kitsune's a sexy gal and I think she really his Keitaro on a very visceral level. Having that established and then deepening the emotional relationship between the two really is fun to write.

Another thing I somehow found myself adding was that little chat between Keitaro and Shinobu. I really do think in some ways Shinobu is Keitaro's personal cheerleader. I don't think any of the girls believe in him and want him to succeed as much as she does. So having Keitaro acknowledge that seemed the perfect way to tug at Shinobu's heartstrings a bit more and to set up some thing I have planned for those two later.

That's all I really have to say on chapter. See ya next time.