There was a brief knock before the door slid open and Shinobu peeked in. “Urashima-sempai, your tea is ready… Are you okay?”
Keitaro’s form, slumped over the chest of drawers, managed just enough energy to wave a dismissive hand in Shinobu’s direction. “Please… set it on the counter, I’ll come out for it later.”
Shinobu’s eyes clouded slightly. “Did… Did your test results… ah, the tea is getting cold! I’m sorry! I’ll have it warmed up for you in the kitchen!” She drew the door hastily shut and footsteps could be heard running through the hall outside.
A few minutes later his door was opened without prelude by Motoko, and Keitaro felt the chill of cold steel against his neck. “I discovered Shinobu crying in the kitchen,” Motoko quietly explained. “When I asked what ailed her, she said `Keitaro…’ and went back to crying. If you have hurt her or taken advantage of her… I’ll carve you up.” The blade was withdrawn and the door closed as Motoko stalked out.
Keitaro roused himself from the dresser and glanced around the room. The envelope with rent, the all-important envelope, was still missing. He’d searched everywhere he could think of. Even Kitsune denied involvement, and for once he believed her.
Things couldn’t sink any lower.
Keitaro stared across the mist-shrouded expanse that stretched away from the bridge on either side. It was on this very bridge that he’d watched his promised girl leave him forever; it was here that he’d first met Shinobu without realizing it; it was here that he’d waved goodbye to Naru when she’d gone to college. Right now Naru’s promise to wait for him seemed meaningless and empty. She hadn’t visited or even called.
His life was in a shambles. He was disgraced in front of the entire household for losing the precious rent money. His aunt must believe him to be a worthless slacker, and he couldn’t bear to think what Grandma Hina must think of him. And Naru… Keitaro was almost glad she hadn’t come to visit, for fear of having to face her.
The mist swirled ominously around the bridge. Keitaro’s resolve grew. “I’ll do it,” he murmured to himself. “I’ve got to have some courage, in the end. It’ll be over soon…”
There was a sudden splash. Keitaro was shocked out of his depression by the sound. It was followed very closely by the sound of a young girl’s scream.
“Hey…” he called uncertainly. “Somebody down there?”
“I’m drowning, you fool!” the girl’s voice yelled back angrily.
Keitaro blinked for a second, then vaulted the edge of the bridge and plummeted into the water. The courage which had driven his urge for suicide earlier sustained him as he fished about frantically, trying to determine where the girl had fallen in.
At long last Keitaro emerged onto the bank, a strange girl clinging to his back. In the moonlight Keitaro could see her cute face, rich black hair, and strange facial marks. The hammer strapped to her back was an oddity, as were her clothes, but Keitaro cared for none of that at present - she was someone who needed his help.
“Come on, you’re probably soaking and freezing… let’s get you out of those,” Keitaro offered. The girl just looked at him strangely. Keitaro glanced back and realized that his hands had slipped from supporting her legs to grasping her backside. The girl closed her eyes and got a very serious expression on her face.
“Set me down.”
Keitaro did so. The girl drew the hammer from her back.
When Keitaro awoke, he was laying on a bench near the bridge. His clothes were dry and he didn’t feel cold anymore. Nearby the girl was polishing her hammer. Her hair, now that it was dry, had a shine even in the moonlight. Her face was one of the prettiest he remembered seeing. But even beyond that, there was something…special about her, something he couldn’t place.
“How did I end up here?” he asked in confusion.
“I dragged you up here. Now, I don’t have any more time for stupid questions. I’ve heard all of them already so I’ll just answer them now. What’s my name? Ummm, you can call me Clarice. Why am I here? To save your life. Why did I jump in the water to save your life? Well it stopped YOU from jumping in, didn’t it. And I’m a goddess, so don’t give me any trouble. No, I don’t have any wings or anything like that.” The girl - Clarice - got a pleased expression on her face and begin to smooth out folds in her dress. Keitaro stammered.
“Come on, did I get them all?” the girl demanded. Keitaro nodded mutely.
“All right then. So…um, if you don’t mind my asking, why were you going to jump anyway?” she asked.
Keitaro shrugged. “… Too many reasons to go into.”
“What, the money business, and that girl, Narusegawa?”
Keitaro gawked. “How did you know about that!?”
“I just told you, I’m a goddess, remember? It’s my business to know. And to help. I grant wishes, you know.”
Keitaro frowned. “Yeah? I wish I’d never been born.”
Clarice glanced over, then up into the night sky. “You know, that’s not a bad idea. Thanks!”
The night air was cool. The moon’s soft glow began to fade as a cloud cover rolled in over the city. Keitaro glumly watched the lights of Hinata Inn fade off in the distance.
“Ok,” Clarice announced, jumping to a standing position and pointing up at the sky. “The Lord has decreed that for as long as you wish it, you’ve never been born.”
Keitaro rolled his eyes. Jumping off the bridge must have done something to her, he decided. “Anyway,” he offered, “if you don’t have somewhere to stay tonight, I’m the residence manager at the Hinata Inn up on the hill… you’re welcome to sleep–”
He was cut off by the girl’s laughter. “Hinata? You aren’t the residence manager there. Come on, I’ll show you!” She began striding up the road with Keitaro in confused pursuit.
When they arrived in front of the building, Keitaro gasped in shock. Coming up the steps, he’d interpreted the darkness as lights-out, but the sight confronting him was something completely unbelievable.
The Inn, formerly a well-maintained residence, was a disreputable shamble of sagging boards, half-missing walls and partially dismantled structure. The sign at the front was missing, replaced with a crude announcement: “Closed by order of the City Council for demolition.”
Keitaro fell to his knees, clutching his head in panic. “Wha… What’s going on here?! I was just gone for a few hours!”
Clarice gave the ruin a once-over and glanced down at Keitaro. “You sure you run this place? Looks pretty smashed up,” she remarked coolly.
“But it wasn’t like this just a little bit ago!” he angrily returned. “I… I…they couldn’t have …they must have foreclosed almost immediately! That means the girls have been evicted! I’ve got to find them and apologize. Maybe they’re staying with Mutsumi… that’s got to be it!” He jumped up and dashed down the hill, bound for where he knew Mutsumi’s apartment would be.
When the door was finally opened in response to his insistent knocking, Keitaro breathlessly let out, “Mutsumi, it’s about the Inn, the’ve already started to knock-GACK!” He was cut off when he saw who’d answered the door - an older man, dressed in nothing but boxers, and very hairy.
“I… I’m sorry, but is Miss Otohime Mutsumi in, sir?” Keitaro managed.
The man grunted. “Otohime Mutsumi? Don’t know anyone named that. Did your little princess move away without telling you or something, young man? If she were my daughter, I’d forbid her to date anyone who rudely pounded on the door in the middle of the night.”
Keitaro backed away, repeatedly bowing. “I’m terribly sorry, honored sir, it will not happen again! Forgive my intrusion!” He bowed all the way down the steps until he was out of sight, and heard the door click closed above.
Clarice was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. “Wasn’t your friend in, Keitaro?” she asked slyly.
He turned, his face caught in a mask of fright. “She-she-she’s not there, it was some old man… where could they all be?!”
Quietly, Clarice said, “Keitaro?”
“What is it, Clarice?”
“You got your wish, Keitaro. You’ve never been born. Mutsumi doesn’t live here because she never met you and Naru. She’s back in Okinawa, without the ambition to get into Tokyo University herself.”
Keitaro swept his hand as though trying to knock the statement away from him. “That’s impossible! She’s got to be here…somewhere…”
Clarice shook her head and glanced up at the sky for a moment as though in thought. “Come on,” she snapped, “we need to get moving. This is a dangerous neighborhood.”
Keitaro’s burning need for answers had cooled in the night air, and he was eventually forced to find warmth and a place to sit down. Clarice joined him in a small all-night cafe’ that Keitaro didn’t remember seeing on his trips through the town before.
Sipping his tea, Keitaro sat lost in thought. Clarice sat beside him, looking at him with concern on her face.
“No… I won’t believe it,” he muttered to himself.
“You’ve got to believe it,” she insisted. “The people you knew simply aren’t here because you were never there to act as residence manager. The Inn was forced to close.”
“But… Grandma Hina…”
Clarice was very quiet. “Your grandmother died several years ago. It was having a grandson to look after and visit with that would have kept her going…but without that…” her voice trailed off. “Your aunt Haruka kept it open as long as possible, but in the end, it was too much for her to keep track of. She retired…”
Keitaro was about to respond when a raucious interruption cut through his train of thought. Instantly he recognized the voice: none other than Kitsune. But she sounded drunker than her usual limit permitted.
“I SAID, GET ANOTHER ROUND OVER HERE! These boys and I have a lot… to… celibate…no…celebrate, right boys?” The crowd of men around her cleared for a moment, and Keitaro was able to make out Kitsune’s face. Her hair was in disarray and she was wearing more makeup than he remembered.
Kitsune’s bleary eyes focused - or tried to focus - on Keitaro. “Hhey, cutie,” she slurred. “Come on over and have a drink with Kitsune-chan. I don’t remember your name but that ain’t important!”
Keitaro got up and approached the table in disbelief. “Kitsune… what’s happened to you? This isn’t like you at all!”
“Shure it is,” she mumbled, then brightened. “Hey, let’s go! I wanna get reacquainted!”
Keitaro blinked. Kitsune stood unsteadily and almost fell into him. He could feel her body press up against him in a most suggestive manner, much moreso than the Kitsune he remembered would willingly do. “You …recognize me, Konno?”
She grinned drunkenly. “Nope, not at all. But you know my name, so I guess we musta…y’know, met before. So where we goin’, stud? Your place?”
Keitaro backed away slowly. “This isn’t right… this can’t be you, Kitsune. I’m sorry!” He stumbled out of the cafe’. Clarice slipped past the drunken girl staggering her way back to the crowd and followed him out onto the darkened street.
“How much more do you want to see, Keitaro?”
Keitaro shook his head. “This can’t be real… this has got to be another one of my bad fantasy dreams or something…”
“I’m afraid it’s no dream,” Clarice said gently.
Keitaro stumbled past the sign hanging on the door of the Maehara’s old restaurant: “Out of Business.” He let himself slide up against the wall and stop moving. His knees almost gave out, and Clarice rushed forward to catch his fall.
“What… what happened to Kitsune?”
Clarice shrugged a little. “Without the Inn, without you and Naru as her `project’, without Naru around as a friend, she fell into …a slump.” The girl shuddered a bit.
“But she’d never become like that! She’s too strong to let herself…”
Clarice cut him off with a wave. “Is anyone really strong enough on their own? Don’t we all need each other sometimes? She needed Naru, and Naru needed you.”
Keitaro sucked in a breath. “Naru - what happened to Naru?”
Clarice pointed. “She’s thataway. Well… you might not like it.”
He glared at her. “What is it?!”
“See for yourself,” the girl shrugged.
The snow-covered steps of Tokyo University glimmered in the moonlight as Keitaro and Clarice approached. The dead calm might have seemed peaceful and ethereal once, but to Keitaro it was like a dreadful omen. Off to the left, three people were hovering around a beat-up van.
Keitaro peered carefully into the distance. “That’s Seta’s van! And that’s… Naru!” He began sprinting and slipped after only five steps, crashing down in a heap. Clarice hunkered down beside him.
“She’s not who you remember,” Clarice sighed. “She’s as romantically inept as you are… she never got over her crush on Seta, but she can’t get involved with him. She-- ok fine, go find out for yourself!” she yelled, as Keitaro regained his feet and once again dashed in the direction of the van.
He stopped short of the three, still loading pottery into the back, and hunched over to catch his breath as each of the three turned to look him over.
“Do I know you?” she mumbled. It was Naru, but with her hair tied off and her glasses on, in her usual school attire. None of her normal vibrant energy came through in her voice. It was as though she was sleeptalking.
Keitaro blinked. “… Seta? Do you know me? Sara?”
Sara shook her head and stuck out her tongue. “Don’t think I’d want to!”
Seta patted Sara gently on the shoulder and smiled, “Let’s be polite! You apparently know me, young man, and this is my daughter Sara of course, and this is my teaching assistant, Naru.” He indicated each in turn. “Did I forget to give you a homework assignment or something?”
Keitaro shook his head violently, “N-no! Please, just tell me… when did Narusegawa become your assistant?”
Seta tapped one finger against his chin for a few moments, looking up at the sky. “Hmm, that would have been a year ago, maybe a year after she graduated… I’m sorry she never tried to get into a university, but,” he laughed, “she’s been so wonderfully helpful!” Naru hung her head a little to hide the sorrowful expression on her face, but said nothing.
Keitaro grabbed hold of Naru’s arms and shook her. “Naru! Don’t you remember me? Please… hit me… please, remember…” he cried. He could feel hot tears running out of his eyes, but seconds passed without anything happening. Naru only looked away and mumbled, “Please… let go of me.”
Keitaro’s grasp faltered and he began slowly backing away. Then he ran, like a man possessed, into the night.
The snowy streets seemed endless, and the usual background of revelry and joy that pervaded the city sounded like a hollow mockery. Keitaro ran and ran, tears streaming down his face, shouting and sobbing. After uncounted time he was forced to stop and lean up against the wall of a building to regain his energy. After a few seconds of panting he began to realize that he wasn’t the only one crying.
Huddled against a wall of wooden barrels was a child-sized bundle of rags and cloth. Periodic sniffles and the occasional sneeze came from inside the mess. Keitaro roused himself enough to stumble over to the bundle and draw some of the folds away. When he saw what was underneath, he fell backwards into the snow.
Kaolla Su sniffled again and looked out at him with hooded, red eyes. “D-d-d-d-do you have a-a-a-anything good to eat?” she whimpered.
“Su-chan…? What… what are you doing here?” Keitaro exclaimed, then came to his senses. “Come on, let’s get you out of the cold.”
Through the streets he walked, carrying Su in his arms. She clung to him with a deathly cold grip and said little. At long last he came to a dingy-looking restaurant. The door swung open and Clarice was waiting inside, a look of compassion on her face. For the first time that evening, Keitaro managed a weak smile.
He set Su down in a booth and ordered several rounds of hot tea. Clarice sat opposite, fiddling with one of the decorations on her dress and not looking up or saying anything. She seemed troubled.
At long last Keitaro mumbled, “What happened… to Su?”
Clarice sighed. “She came here… but without the Inn to stay at, she had to find other places to live. And none of them were as, uh, tolerant of her personality.”
“So she’s been freezing in the streets?” Keitaro shouted, then lowered his voice. “I mean… didn’t anyone else…?”
Clarice shook her head. “Anyone else? Who? Nobody you know stayed there. It’s a dangerous area to live in, with muggers and worse prowling the streets at night.”
The weight of everything settled down onto his shoulders, and Keitaro slumped into the booth beside the now-sleeping Su. “I… how could all this have happened?” he demanded. “None of this makes sense.”
Clarice’s voice was serious. “Because of you, your grandmother had decades of happiness ahead of her. She found the energy to turn her unprofitable hotel into a girls’ dorm, where all these girls met… because the dorm was there, Aoyama Motoko moved in, and stories of a kendo girl in the neighborhood kept this one of the safest places in Japan to live. Without a place to call home here, Shinobu was caught up in the divorce and had to leave her few friends behind. Because of you, Naru found someone she could… well, you two could have worked it out, if you’d been born. When Naru ran off to chase after Seta, Kitsune felt abandoned… and so on.” A smile grew across her face. “It was because of you. Everything good in your life has been because you were there, being your usual dumb self.”
“Don’t you see?” she asked. “Your life touched others, and those lives touched still more. You’ve really had a wonderful life, Urashima Keitaro.”
Keitaro leaped out of the booth in a panic, and ran out of the restaurant. Clarice watched him leave, then smiled heavenward.
He found himself on the bridge again, crying. “I want to live again,” he wept. “I can’t stand to see this… I can’t take any more… I want to live again…” He collapsed to his knees in the snow. “I want to live again…”
Her voice pierced the fog in his mind like a brilliant shaft of sunlight. He looked, and saw Naru ed around have been corrected." The enthusiasm she’d held in check bubbled out, and she leaped forward and hugged him tightly. “Congratulations!”
Keitaro, stunned, let the letter fall from his hand and slowly brought his arms around Naru. “Th-thank you,” he whispered. Naru blushed, while the rest of the girls cheered and catcalled.
“Oh yes,” Naru managed through a blush, quickly disengaging from the hug. “The girl who found you said you’d dropped this.” She proffered a thick envelope.
Keitaro’s eyes grew wide. “The rent money!” Quickly he counted it. It was all there, every yen. “I’m saved!” he cheered.
“Oh, there’s one bit of bad news,” Naru frowned. Keitaro blinked.
Another envelope of money was pressed into his hands. He looked up to see Naru’s smiling face. “I’m going to have to be paying extra to commute to University with you, since I’ll be living here. So here’s my portion of the rent. But I’ll expect even better service from our caretaker. Got it?” she demanded.
Keitaro nodded mutely. The lump in his throat wouldn’t have let him say anything anyway. He could feel his eyes welling over with hot tears.
Naru smiled, then guided him over to the couch and shoved him in the chest, forcing him to sit down. “Hinata caretaker-support-squad!” she barked, glancing at the assembled residents. The girls responded in unison, “Yes ma’am!” Naru pointed down at Keitaro, still in shock, and commanded, “This man needs hot tea and his pants are wet from the snow! Get to it!”
Immediately they sprang into action. Shinobu dashed into the kitchen. Motoko headed upstairs to retrieve blankets. Kaolla Su, Naru and Kitsune gathered around the couch, grinning.
“Y… you don’t… you’re not going to … you can’t take my pants off in the living room… Naru, waiiiit!”