A Love Hina story
by Brian Randall
Disclaimer: Love Hina belongs to Ken Akamatsu, Kodansha Comics, Shounen Magazine Comics, TV Tokyo and Pioneer Entertainment.
Notes: This draws some elements from the original story of Urashima Taro.
Year one had been a failure. An abysmal failure.
Year two had been more hopeful. Hours turned to days turned to weeks turned to months of solid study. He was confident that he would make it. But he hadn't. Another failure.
Year three had been another. Not expected at all. His study was serious enough that he hadn't believed failure possible — until he had taken the test. But it was nothing but a failure.
Year four was the latest. It wasn't even over yet, but he knew — he knew what it was, and what it would have to be.
"Taking a break?" The old man. Teacher. Guide. Confidante, perhaps. Maybe even a role model.
"Yeah. Just resting."
"Well, shade's a welcome respite in the heat of the desert."
"Yep. Is this a good dig?"
There was a pause then, as the older man walked beneath the canvas sunshade, and took a seat on a closed cooler. He drew a cigarette from a pocket and lit it, taking a long, deep drag. When he exhaled, the smoke blew out in a long plume. In the dead air, the plume hung still, slowly expanding along a flat, curved plane, much like a crane's feather. "I think so," he said at length. "I'm not sure yet. I might have gotten myself a partner. I'd like that."
"Well, I…." He let the words trail off, wondering what defense he could readily pose against that. "We'll see."
[Meddler and Warrior]
"I would like to think that there is something there."
"Oh, I know there is. You want to lay a claim on him, daughter of Ida-Ten?"
The immaculate swordswoman raised an eyebrow. "And you can speak that name? I would have believed the very thought would pain you."
"Alcohol dulls all pains." The other woman allowed a grin to flit across her face for a moment. "You're avoiding the issue."
"Not entirely. His path draws along many lines, some which bring him closer to me, others to you."
"And the rest?"
"The sky, the shore… the dragon palace. Perhaps even the pillar of the heavens. Who is to know the ultimate conclusion?"
"She would, I think."
The swordswoman stiffened, one hand dropping to her sheathed blade. "And she would not say, if she did. You would meddle more than even your kind should, to ask."
"Peace! Peace!" Hands waved in protest, the same smile returning. "I'll make no move, yet."
"As I am constrained by my elders. Who then can make a move?"
"The child of Marisha-Ten, the Sea Princess, and… our dreamer friend."
"Your meddling worries me. A well-grounded but hopeful dream is no evil thing."
"Oh-ho! You think that if the right cards are played, he could be another Sakata Kintoki, do you?"
The swordswoman dropped her hand from her weapon and blushed darkly. "Golden boy or not, he will be what he will be."
"Fine, fine… now tell me why you count two out?"
"Of the one, I will not speak, even if I discover the reason. For the other, I could not guess, save to say that she wishes to observe more than meddle at this point." She paused, her blush fading. "As I would advise you to do. Regardless, it is time for the game to begin again. She comes."
Sticking her tongue out at the swordswoman, the other woman allowed herself to say, "Spoilsport," before vanishing from sight.
[Earth and Sun]
Hot… so hot….
After a few hours of work, the actual process of digging seemed to… change. The shovel slid in with a grating and hissing resistance, causing the hairs on his arm to stand on end, and his skin to prickle. The resistance of the earth as he levered the shovel downward, and then hauled it upward made his back protest.
But the more he did it, the more the movement became a relaxing manta, and the sound a soothing whisper. It wasn't until the tip of the shovel hit something solid that he paused, realizing that more hours had passed since he had become accustomed to digging. The sun had passed behind a stand of tall palm trees, giving him shade, and a cool breeze rustled his tank top, making him wonder as its surprising surrender… but it was a near victory, he realized, moving the shovel to one side, and leaning against it to relax.
His sweat-slicked skin had nearly soaked the garment through, and he felt a bath wouldn't be amiss.
He looked up sharply, smiling when he saw the older man. "I think I did," he admitted.
"Want to dig it up, or take a break? You've been working yourself pretty hard!"
"I'd like to catch my breath."
"Smart. Have some water." The older man produced a bottle of water, and handed it to him. "Drink it slowly."
He nodded, doing as the man instructed. The refreshing liquid left him feeling restored, and he sighed with contentment, handing the empty bottle back to the man.
"Maybe you should sit down and catch your breath?"
"Ah… I'm okay, Sensei."
"All right. Then why don't we see what you found?"
He nodded, shifting his grip on the shovel and carefully scooping more sandy earth to one side. A small wooden chest was revealed, with brass fixings. Crouching, and lifting it carefully, he studied it, frowning. "What's this?" he asked, cocking his head to one side.
"Many things," the old man said quietly. "At the moment, nothing. Were you ever given a box?"
"I… think so. Ah, that's where Tamago came from, actually."
"Hmm. There's a first sign for you."
[Daughter of Heaven, Son of Ocean]
She leant against the rail before her, pursing her lips, and allowing the cigarette there to bob slightly up and down, unlit in the cool night air. "You're coming back, hmm?" she asked the night.
No voice answered her, but something happened, a man taking form from a shadow behind her. He stood illuminated in the darkness after a moment, solid and real, but staring up at the moon, even as she gazed at the sea.
"I like answers more than silence," she said, frowning slightly.
"Fair enough. I'm back, I'm back. He's coming back, too."
She turned her head to one side, almost far enough to see him. "I feel sorry for him."
"Then again, you know how it's going to end, don't you?"
"I could." She paused, and her cigarette lit itself suddenly, spreading a tiny glow against the darkness. After puffing slightly, she exhaled, the smoke diffusing in the night air, long streaks finally thinning and vanishing. "But I haven't looked. I think I already know, and to be right… would break my heart."
"Ah," he said softly. "So that's how it is."
"He is my blood kin. How could I not care?"
"But you're not his mother."
"True enough. I'll miss her, too."
She shook her head, taking a long drag from her cigarette. "You know the story. Whatever he wants, he has to go home. And there's nothing I can do without forcing his choice for him."
"Then I shall follow him," the man said, turning to look at her, and clasping his hands together behind his back. "Would that be better?"
She did not turn to face him. "I'd like it, but all the same, it would change things… perhaps too much. I would have liked him to follow in your footsteps, my love. That's the path I would have wished he would pursue, if he had chosen my favored."
"Then she is my favored, too, though you honor me more than I deserve. Tell me what I must do."
"You know too much to do anything. The story will play itself out. How he chooses… Your favored — your true favored — will do as she must. It is simply the way of things."
"And… if this had never happened?"
"If 'this'? I cannot spot what changed." She blinked, raising a hand and tossing the cigarette away from her as a tear rolled down her cheek. "But it was something… and something, I think, that was not meant to be. Were things otherwise…. But our role in this play is nearly done, and I'm left taking care of a house of meddlers."
"Let us finish this. I must stay to watch over the young one — she is too innocent to be left with those who will remain. You must find a successor."
"There is one here who would serve in that capacity. If this is to be done with, I'd just as soon not leave your side. But at the same, despite what you say, I must watch over him for a while yet."
Turning to face him, the woman cocked her head to one side. "Is that so?"
"I will not interfere," he promised. "One of my kin will watch him for me." And with that, he was gone.
The woman shook her head twice, and then she too was gone.
A day of defeat. Tragedy. Failure.
The day was a death of hope, for him. To return home with all of his things….
Attempting to get into the college for so many years… if he had gotten in the first time, then he would be nearly done by then.
The life he faced was not the life he desired, but it was the life he was going to lead. He paused, stopping on the street and looking at the building that he had lived so much of his life in. Biting his lip, he thrust his hands into his pockets, and shook his head. "What now?" he asked quietly.
Returning… returning would be a permanent change. It was something he couldn't undo; not now.
He jerked, pulling his hands from his pocket, and spinning about in surprise. He blinked, eyes widening at the woman standing behind him. "Otohime? What are you doing here?"
"Ara… I was on my way home, but I stepped out of the train to buy some udon, and it left without me. Then I went to see the sights while I waited for the next train, and ran into you! Where are you going?"
"Ah… well… this is where I live," he managed apologetically, gesturing to the building. "My… my parents are probably waiting for me inside."
"Don't you want to see them?" she asked, blinking curiously.
"Oh, well… I… I'm afraid," he admitted. "I failed to get in again. That's four years of failure. I don't know how to show my face to them, now. I just… four years of work for nothing."
"I know what you feel, Kei-kun," she said, taking another step closer to him. "I failed, too."
He was surprised to hear that, and stared in silence for a moment. "Really? I… I know Narusegawa got in, but I thought… I thought you did, too."
She shook her head, looking away. "I didn't, Kei-kun. I'm going to run away for a little while, and then I'm going to go home. I'm not sure what to do, either."
An intense desire flared up in Keitaro's heart, and he took an impulsive step forward. It wasn't simply for her body, it was something deeper, though he couldn't quite put his fingers on what it was. "Mutsumi…."
She smiled at him, a hint of… sadness? No, that had to be an illusion… or maybe it was for her own testing failure. "Would you like to come with me?"
He blinked, shaking his head, and was about to refuse, but…. "I… I… I don't want to go home yet. Well… okay, Mutsumi-chan. Let's run away together."
A tear glimmered for a moment in the corner of her eyes, and she held a hand out to him.
He took it, frowning curiously. "What are you crying for?" he asked, worried.
"I'm happy," she said quietly. "But a friend of mine… is going to be very sad, and I feel sad for my friend."
"Ara… Let's go, Kei-kun."
He nodded slowly, tightening his grip on her hand gently. "Okay."
"Aaaaaand… that's the last of it." She nodded to herself, surveying the collection of carefully packaged boxes.
"Getting ready to leave?"
She turned to face her friend, and smiled. "Yep! I'm done with college, so I'm ready to move out."
"Why did you decide to go to college, again?"
Frowning thoughtfully, she tapped a finger against her lower lip. "It was a promise…." She blushed faintly, as she remembered the promise. "Ah, it's not important."
"If you say so. Everything packed up… What a shame! How long have we known each other here?"
"I'm not sure," she admitted. Her friend offered one of her trademarked grins, and pointed behind her.
"Is that yours, too?"
She turned around to look, and saw a feather drifting from near the ceiling of her room, rocking back and forth with strangely deliberate motions. Blinking, she watched it stop rocking, and begin to spin in a wide, lazy circle, finally coming to rest atop the small stuffed animal that she set atop the wooden board covering the hole in her floor.
Crossing the floor, she studied it closely, frowning in consternation. "A crane's feather?" she mused. "I wonder how that got here…." Shaking her head, she gathered the stuffed animal. "Can't believe I almost forgot this—" her words cut off, as the feather, precipitously balanced across the nose of the creature, crumbled into ash, blowing away on an errant breeze.
Before she could say anything else, the animal, too, crumbled into ash, fading into nothingness before her very eyes. The last bit remaining stuck between two of her fingers — not the dull gray ash, but the small tag that had been affixed to the creature. The characters scrawled there in childish handwriting glowed briefly gold, and then faded, leaving her holding a blank tag.
She opened her mouth to question her friend, but the other woman giggled, and waved a hand.
"I'm sorry, Kitsune," she said, shaking her head. "What were we talking about? I must not be paying attention — I just forgot everything!"
"Nothing to worry about, I assure you."
The swordswoman stood in her place at the peak of the roof, facing eastward. Her long hair billowed out behind her, and her arms were crossed over her chest as she stared at the rising sun. "It would seem then that our pretenses are not needed any longer."
"Maybe, maybe not," a voice answered her, another woman climbing onto the top of the roof, and staring out over the city. "Pretense or not, I've kind of taken a liking to the place, daughter of Ida-ten."
"As have I," a much more tremulously voiced young woman said. "And its purpose need not be abandoned forever."
"You speak the truth, daughter of Marisha-Ten," the swordswoman returned. "And all the same, I cannot leave in good conscience while a kitsune remains to meddle with innocents. Such illusions are unkind to those who deserve better."
"I think you don't see everything that there is on that issue," a fourth voice said, this one from a darker-skinned young woman as she too appeared, sitting on the peak of the roof just behind the swordswoman. "What harm as she wrought? All her mischief was merely that, you realize."
The kitsune merely smirked, while an errant breeze played with the swordswoman's hair.
Heaving a pained sigh, the swordswoman shook her head. "It pains me to admit that I realized that; but I do not wish to leave this place. However, that decision doesn't belong to us, does it?"
Another pair arrived on the rooftop. Turning to face them respectfully, the swordswoman, and the paler of the young women both bowed courteously to the pair. The kitsune and the tanned young woman merely nodded.
The woman leant against the man who arrived with, her, and shook her head sadly. "And I want to leave, but you would all prefer to remain anyway?"
The swordswoman looked away. "I have no other calling," she admitted after a moment. "Few evils walk the Earth that can truly be vanquished as I am taught."
"And yet, there's still a place for you, should you wish it," the man murmured. "I am in need of a successor, and the one I had hoped for was not able to take the role I intended. Ida-Ten is one who I have nothing but respect for. Would you serve his will in my place?"
Blinking, the swordswoman nodded stiffly. "It would give my life meaning," she stated firmly. "I would be honored."
"Well enough," he said, nodding. "It will be done. Love?"
"Yes," the woman leaning against him sighed. "So many of us in one place… we make it less real, I think. It is not always a good thing."
The Kitsune spoke again, shaking her head, "I don't know about that. No real harm done… though I have to ask: what's the Sea Princess doing now?"
"My will," the man said, grinning slightly. "And when that's done, perhaps you'll meet my love's intended successor. For the time, however, we will leave what must be done to those who must do it. And that means…."
"I will take care of the foundling," the darker-colored young woman decided.
"And I," the other young woman added. "She is nearly of an age where she can take care of herself, regardless."
"The two of you?" the woman asked, frowning. "That will be something to see. It is good enough for me, then."
A stray breeze passed, and the man's smile widened slightly. When the breeze was gone, so were he and the woman with him.
"Such is the nature of these things," the swordswoman mused. "I can only imagine that it was not meant to be this way."
"It wasn't," the Kitsune assured her. "But I'm not sure where it went wrong, either."
"A pity." The swordswoman offered a faint smile, and vaulted upwards, flipping over in the air, and disappearing below.
"And what were your roles in this?"
"I've done nothing more than you," the darker of the two young women said, shaking her head. "Though I regret that sometimes. What's done is done."
"Are you going to leave?"
"Not until the daughter of Marisha-Ten leaves," she said, smiling softly. "I trust you, Kitsune, but there are limits to my gullibility. The masks we wear are not the roles we play."
"Touché," she murmured. "Then I will take my own leave… except to give you a warning."
"What warning would that be?" the more timid of the young women asked.
"Motherhood may not suit you." Laughing aloud, the kitsune scampered away, vanishing in a mist as she reached the edge of the roof.
"Are we making a mistake?"
"Everything was a mistake. We've meddled too much."
"And what will happen?"
"Something interesting, I think. We must be careful, or the damage cannot be undone. How will he react, I wonder, when he wakes up from his time with the Sea Princess?"
Sitting on the train, he stared out the window, and tapped his feet impatiently. He wasn't sure why, but as soon as he had gone with Mutsumi, his mind had left him. Vague memories of her sad smile and the soft touch of her hands… the backgrounds of those visions were city streets, grassy slopes, and more than that, beaches. But they all melted and blurred in his head, the only constant her, and her whispers of apology to him.
Why would she apologize? They had been gone for a long time… far longer than he had intended, but all the same, it couldn't be that long; neither of them had much money.
Shaking his head, he rose as the train glided to a halt, his bag slung over his shoulder. When it halted, he disembarked, focusing more on the maze of his memories than the road before him. Eventually, he stopped, and raised his head.
But the building before him was not the building he remembered. Casting about, he realized that the other buildings, too, had changed. The name of the street, the address… those things were the same, but it wasn't the home he had known.
Stepping inside cautiously, his eyes widened at a familiar woman standing behind the counter.
She raised an eyebrow, regarding him curiously. "Can I help you?"
"I… Kanako?" he hazarded.
The woman's eyes widened slightly. "You knew my grandmother? I've been told I resemble her… but you hardly look old enough to have met her!"
His hands rose, nearly of their own accord, and rubbed at his temples. "I… I think I made a mistake." He nodded apologetically, and turned to leave. "Sorry to trouble you."
"You've hardly troubled me, but maybe I could help—"
He had no time to listen to her, running out of the building, and down the street. That place… it fit, as little as he had liked it. What had his sensei told him when he had unearthed that chest, so long ago?
He had called it the first sign.
Pausing in an alley, he pulled a box from his bag. It was the box that he had been given by Otohime after their long vacation, but too, it was the same chest he had unearthed when he had been digging for answers, so long ago. Swallowing a lump of fear back, he realized it was more than simply that; it was the same box that Tamago had emerged from.
With trembling hands, he opened the box, and vanished, nothing more than a crane feather drifting down to mark that he had ever been there.
"Too easy," she murmured to herself, allowing her illusions to vanish.
"I hope you enjoyed yourself."
She turned, widening her eyes in surprise. "Oh! I didn't think I'd run into you here! But then, it's too late, and no real harm was done, anyway."
"Perhaps, perhaps not." The swordswoman emerged from a shadow, and held out a hand. The feather rose from the ground to float across her fingertips, finally balancing upright along her palm. "Nothing you could have done would have changed anything. He will belong to the Sea Princess."
"Your servant, of course."
"In some capacity. More importantly, what was done, here, can be undone."
"Would you undo it, so easily? And how?"
"It is less difficult than you would imagine." The swordswoman allowed a smile to flit across her face.
"Say what you will — what would come of it?"
"Yes, what?" asked another voice, both of the younger women appearing again.
"What should. More importantly, I would ask you why you allowed this path to go as far as you have."
The darker-skinned young woman looked away, shaking her head sadly. "Curiosity," she admitted. "I knew it had been changed, but I wondered what path was there first, before the Sea Princess returned, or the innocent dreamer."
"And what did you find?"
"As I said, events were changed. The true intent is this path, but I cannot say that it is preferable. Let it be undone, and set him back on the path with the dreamer."
"I'll agree to that," the kitsune said, nodding. "She was something of a friend, after all."
The swordswoman nodded curtly. "If it as you say, then we will return things to the way they should be." She narrowed her eyes suddenly, faint power flickering within their depths as she studied the two younger women. "But this time, we must leave all as it was meant to be. The true path is not always the path we require."
The pale-skinned young woman sighed unhappily. "But if the path is to change, then the dreamer will hold him in the waking world — I know in my heart that none of us want that. Not even you, daughter of Ida-Ten, heir to Ocean."
"What would you suggest, then?"
"A truce, where all of us may win the game, if on the surface it would be the dreamer who won."
The kitsune raised an eyebrow, smiling slowly. "Ah, that could work… but at such cost…."
"And such reward," the darker-skinned younger woman countered. "Raising a daughter was not what I would have expected, but this path would grant me a son. One who would be instrumental in the changes that would follow. Very well. I agree."
"Good enough for me!" the kitsune declared.
"And I," the pale-skinned young woman agreed, nodding.
"Unexpected, but I will agree. What of the Sea Princess?"
"She would want the dreamer to be happy, and I believe she would agree."
"Are you feeling any better?"
His eyelids fluttered open slowly, and he tried to make out his surroundings. It was as though he were deep beneath the waves, staring upwards at the sun, wavering and shimmering light spreading across him in a circle, a pair of feathers drifting towards him.
"I think so," he said quietly, as the vision faded into the electric light, and the feathers vanished. "Suu made me listen to the story of Urashima Taro…."
"That old fairy tale?"
"Yeah… I had an awful dream about it, too."
"I… I failed to get into Todai, but you got in, and then I never saw you again."
"… What's so horrible about that?"
He sat up to regard her levelly. "Narusegawa?"
She flushed, and looked away. "And… Anyway, if you study hard enough, you'll make it for sure, this time."
Author's notes: This is (somewhat) the result of a conversation with Edward Simons. One half of it is my impression of the series, the other is Mr. Simons's commentary on what the names of the various characters meant. Now if anyone understands this, I'll be impressed. If you can guess who Suu is the daughter of, I'll be impressed even more.
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