Love Hina: In Love, and War, Don't Get Eliminated!

A Fan Fiction by Jason Low

Disclaimer: Everyone owns their own things. Please play nice.

    The residents of Hinata House were enjoying supper together in the dining room, with the doors slid open and the breeze wafting through the house.
    "Ahh, that feels good," Su said, gobbling down the little bit of food left on her plate. "I like the springtime!"
    "Yes, the sun is setting later these days," Motoko agreed. "I admit it's nice to have daylight after seven in the evening--"
    "Seven?!" Naru said, shooting to her feet and grabbing for Keitaro's arm, trying to steal a look at his wristwatch. "Is it past seven already?"
    "Gggkk!" Keitaro gasped, wincing as his arm was twisted around in an unnatural way.
    "Just about," Shinobu said, working to clear the table. "What's so--"
    "Thanksforthedinneritwasgreattalktoyoulaterbye!" Naru said, leaping from the table and racing towards her room.
    Keitaro rubbed his wrist to regain circulation in it. "Wh-what was that all about.." he wondered aloud.
    "Oh!" Kitsune realized a moment later. "It's Tuesday night. It's Fortress time."
    "Fortress time?" several of the folks gathered there echoed.
    "Yeah," Kitsune nodded, leaning back in her chair, hands behind her neck. "'Take The Fortress'. It's a game show on Channel 4. It's one of her favorite shows, ever since school."
    "What's it about?" Keitaro asked.
    "I have seen this," Motoko declared. "Contestants must go through punishing physical tests in order to advance through the competition."
    "What does the winner get?" Su asked.
    "Nothing," Kitsune said, sounding dejected.
    "That doesn't sound very rewarding," Shinobu supplied.
    "They get experience and knowledge," Motoko insisted. "They learn of trial and error, and the price one pays for being careless."
    "I guess," Kitsune smiled. "But I know I'd go for a big cash prize myself!"
    "Excuse me," Keitaro said, standing up and bowing, then heading for the hallway.

    Naru blinked as the Liddo-lid rose into her field of view, blocking the television. "Heyyy!"
    "Sorry," Keitaro apologized, pushing it aside as soon as possible so Naru wouldn't have to crane her neck for long. "May I join you?"
    "I guess," she said, waving him aside. "Just don't block the picture."
    "Thanks," he said, climbing up and sitting crosslegged on the floor, off to one side of her. He looked at the screen and saw a man trying to swing on ropes, Tarzan-like, over a muddy pool of water, while being assaulted with volleyballs from below. "You like this, huh?"
    "It's great," Naru smiled. "One of the funniest things I've ever seen."
    "Oh?" Keitaro said, watching the screen carefully.
    "Ooooh," Naru winced, as the contestant took two simultaneous volleyballs, one to the face and one to the groin area, and lost his grip on the rope, tumbling headfirst into the messy pond below.
    "That had to hurt," Keitaro observed.
    "I'll bet," Naru said. She grinned and said, "You'd be one to know, I guess, from all we do to you."
    Keitaro smiled and laughed nervously, not sure what he should say to that.
    "Don't worry," Naru said, turning her attention back to the TV. "I'm too busy to do anything right now."
    "You're really into this, aren't you?" Keitaro said.
    Naru nodded again. "The punishment they go through is phenomenal! Anyone who gets through this course safely, I have to give them my admiration. They're pretty brave and fearless in my book."
    "Really," Keitaro mused on Naru's comments. In the next competition, currently on-screen, two competitors were trying to charge up a slippery slope while lobbing water balloons at a Styrofoam castle, all the while dodging other water balloons being fired at them by 'guards' inside the castle walls. Even without getting hit by a balloon, one of the competitors slipped on the plastic surface, and tumbled down the slope, bouncing off Styrofoam rocks and trees on the way.
    "Yeah," Naru said. "Just watch! Here's where it gets good."
    Keitaro did watch, and couldn't help laughing every now and then, and at other times flinching and feeling empathetic for the combatants on the show.
    "That was okay," Naru said as the ending credits rolled. "But there're so many other episodes that're way better than that."
    "I'll have to keep an eye out for it," Keitaro smiled.
    "Okay," Naru said. She grinned and held up a fist. "Now go away so I can get into my pajamas and go to bed."
    "Eheh," Keitaro sweatdropped, edging quickly towards the Liddo-lid.
    Once he was downstairs, he quickly signed onto the Web. One of the last screens in the credits roll on the show was how to become a contestant, and it referred to a website. Checking it on the computer, he found the application form and gaped at the entry fee--fifty thousand yen.
    He opened another window and checked his finances, realizing he had, after groceries, exam and study supplies, and other expenses, just over 5400 yen to his name.
    Keitaro picked up the phone, thought for a second, and dialed.
    (I have no choice, if I want to get in on this,) he said. (I can't ask anyone else.)
    The other end was picked up, and Keitaro said, "Aun.. er, I mean, Haruka-san? I have a big favor to ask.."

    The next afternoon, Keitaro was on the phone, carrying out an energetic conversation.
    "Hello. I'm calling about the.. yes, Urashima. Yes, Keitaro. Yes? Really?? You're sure? Excellent! Thank you very much! I'll be there!"
    He turned around and pumped a fist, eyes shut as he daydreamed of his success. "Yes!" he said to himself. "I'm in--"
    He opened one eye as he sensed a presence there, and found Naru and Kitsune staring at him, having just returned from a shopping trip.
    "--er," he said, stopping and putting a hand behind his head nervously. "Hello, you two!"
    "In what?" Naru asked.
    "You're in," Kitsune explained. "What're you in?"
    "Oh.. um.." Keitaro thought about it for a moment, and finally directed his reply to Naru. "I entered myself in that Fortress show."
    "You did?!" she blurted out. "Why??"
    "It.. looks fun," he said, smiling, telling a half-truth. "I figured, anything you like must be good. Right?"
    "Can I come? Please? I promise I'll cheer you on!" Naru said, rushing Keitaro with a gleeful look on her face.
    Keitaro recoiled with an initial shock of surprise, but then inwardly grinned and cheered his success. Outwardly, he smiled and nodded. "That sounds like a great idea. I knew you would be interested, so I arranged for a spectator's ticket just for you." He blinked and stammered to Kitsune, "I-I'm sorry, I never thought of getting a second one.."
    "That's okay," Kitsune said, smiling. "From what I hear, the entry fees are pretty brutal. I'm sure I can get a ticket of my own."
    "When is it?" Naru was asking Keitaro. When he didn't answer her immediately, she grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him violently. "Whenisitwhenisitwhenisitwhenisit?!"
    "Guaa!" he gasped as he was shaken. When he regained his breath, he said, "They.. they told me that from the information I sent in, I'm perfect for the episode being filmed three weekends from now."
    "Really?" Naru grinned. "That's great! I can't wait." She winked. "If only you'd apply yourself that hard to your schoolwork."
    "But--I do--" Keitaro protested. "I just happened to luck out--"
    Meanwhile, Kitsune edged past the bantering friends and thought to herself for a few moments. As Naru and Keitaro went down the hall, Kitsune went over to the telephone and dialed a familiar, memorized number.
    "Hi," she said when the other end picked up. "It's me. Are you taking bets on Fortress episodes? ... Good. Three weeks from now, I want to put 5,000 on a contestant named Urashima."


    The residents of Hinata House gathered outside the front of the complex to send off the contestant and watchers.
    "Do good!" Su exclaimed, bouncing up and down.
    "We'll be watching, Sempai," Shinobu contributed.
    "I know you will apply your lessons learned in our sparring, Urashima," Motoko smiled. "I too will watch in anticipation of your success."
    "Eheh. Thanks guys," Keitaro said, scratching the back of his neck. "Hopefully I can do you proud."
    "Keep him in line, Narusegawa," Haruka said casually as she walked up. "I remember what it's like on these excursions."
    "Haruka-san!" Naru said, horrified. "I'm just going to watch the show--it's not what you think at all--"
    "I'll keep an eye on them both, Haruka," Kitsune grinned. "You can trust me."
    "Good," she nodded, taking a puff on her cigarette and turning away to sweep at the ground with her broom. "Have fun."

    The train let the trio off a few blocks away from the filming location of the TV show. From there, it was a short walk to the parking lot, and they would then split up and go their separate ways; one to the contestants' standby area, and two to the spectator's viewing area.
    The three of them glanced at an area of the parking lot where the show's ambulance and emergency crews were. "What's that about?" Naru wondered.
    "Looks like a car accident," Keitaro observed.
    "Good thing we took the train," Kitsune said, urging Keitaro and Naru towards the studio building. "Come on, hurry up! The quicker you get in there, the quicker you can get started."
    As they stood in line, they saw another commotion ahead of them. "Now what?" Kitsune said.
    Keitaro leaned out and looked at the view before them. "Uh..?! Mutsumi?!" he gasped, running forward.
    Naru blinked. "What?!" she said, cursing under her breath as she gave chase.
    True enough, the brown-haired girl was collapsed on the pavement up ahead. Tama-chan was resting on her head, waving a flipper towards the approaching trio, as a crowd began to gather.
    "Mutsumi?" Keitaro said, crouching before her. "Are you okay?"
    The girl stirred, then slowly opened her eyes and smiled. "Oh! Urashima. How are you?" she said lethargically.
    "What are you doing here?" Keitaro asked as he helped the girl to a sitting position.
    "I'm going to play a game!" Mutsumi declared joyously as she regained her strength. "They said it was right up my alley."
    "They have a category for anemics?" Naru wondered aloud.
    "Oh, my, no," Mutsumi answered, putting a hand alongside her cheek to hide the blushing. She stood up and shook her hair free and said, "Today's team involves people who have taken entrance exams more tha one time. Are you entering, Ms. Narusegawa?"
    "What?? No!" Naru said, seeming a little miffed at the implication. She looked to Keitaro. "Wait a minute.. is that the same team as you, Keitaro?"
    "Wha?" Keitaro said, blinking and thinking about it. "I.. guess so, they never really told me.."
    "Oh! You've entered, Urashima?" Mutsumi said. "That's great news! We can play together!"
    Naru blinked as Kitsune put a hand on her shoulder. Kitsune shook her head a little, and Naru shrugged it off, silently resenting the implication she was jealous.
    "That's.. great," Keitaro said nervously. "I hope you're up to this, though. It looks like a pretty violent game."
    "I'm sure we'll both do fine," Mutsumi giggled. "We'd better hurry, the line's moving again."
    "Get moving," Naru agreed in a quiet whisper into Keitaro's ear, "before I ruin my promise and give you some 'punch'."
    Keitaro gulped and nodded, urging Mutsumi ahead. "Let's get on with it, then!"
    "Good luck, you two," Kitsune called out, before yanking a scowling Naru out of the way of the other entrants filing in behind them. "And you," she said to Naru as they ducked out of the line, "let's get some good seats before they're all gone, okay? And you need to take a few deep breaths."
    "I'm fine," Naru insisted. "So what if the two of them will be running around getting wet and dirty together? I--"
    "Yes," Kitsune nodded firmly, "You could've entered this game as well. If you wanted to."
    Naru frowned pathetically. "I've got a reputation," she whimpered. "If I admitted I failed my exams last year.."
    Kitsune chuckled and led her friend off. "As I suspected," she said. "Now let's go get a drink and find some good seats, okay?"

    The red team's preparation and waiting area was packed with people as Keitaro and Mutsumi arrived.
    "What made you want to get involved in this?" Keitaro asked Mutsumi as he picked out a helmet in the team's crimson color.
    "Oh, I've been a fan of this show for years," Mutsumi said. "I never thought I'd get a chance to try out for it, until they announced this weekend's teams. I'm eager to give it a try! I just hope they give you time to rest in between all those events. They look really punishing."
    "I'm sure they do," Keitaro smiled. "I think they'd have to, to dress wounds and such. Er! Not that I think they really let people get badly hurt."
    Mutsumi giggled. "Of course," she said, "how silly of me." She fastened the helmet onto her head. "Are you ready?"
    "Sure," he nodded, and let her head out ahead of him into the course.

    "Here they come," Kitsune nudged Naru, and pointed. Both teams were spilling forth from the locker rooms/bunkers, and waving at the cheering crowds while heading to the gathering area.
    "Can you see them?" Naru asked.
    "Hang on." Kitsune peered through the binoculars for a bit longer, then nodded and handed them over to her friend. "Right there. A little right of center and in the back."
    "I see him," Naru said, smiling. Keitaro was looking around and waving at the crowds, as if they were all there to wish him well. "You fool," Naru giggled.
    The loudspeakers cut in and the host talked to the spectators while waiting for the hundred or so contestants to assemble. "Hello, and welcome to the Fortress," the man in the garish parody of a seagoing captain's uniform said. "Today you will bear witness to the most difficult competition around! These brave souls will be competing against one another to excel in twelve events and finally storm the Fortress itself and possibly win the day! Are you ready to meet them?"
    The crowd of spectators cheered wildly.
    "Good," the 'captain' said, nodding vigorously so he could be seen by the crowd--despite the fact he was projected on a giant television screen just behind him. He turned to the two groups, outfitted in two different colored helmets--red, and blue. The 'captain' pointed to the red group and said, "Here we have students who are the embodiment of the phrase 'try, try again'. Every one of the members of the red team is on at least their second or third try through entrance exams!"
    The crowd cheered and all the members of the red team shook their fists in the air to acknowledge them.
    "And the blue team is another group that knows the virtue of patience and hard work! Say hello to the archaeologists! Yes, fans, today it's the spelunkers versus the flunkers! So get ready to.. Take The Fortress!"

    "The wha?" Keitaro said, looking over at the blue team. "Who are they?"

    "Archaeolo.." Kitsune mused. She put two and two together, thought of the car crash in the parking lot, and realized something. She lifted the binoculars to her face again and peered..

    "Well, fancy meeting you here," a man on the blue team said to Keitaro and Mutsumi.
    "Seta?!" Kitsune breathed.
    "What??" Naru gasped, yanking the binocs away. "Where?!" she demanded. "Oh! Seta!"
    As Naru hopelessly waved frantically towards the assembly area, as if Seta could pick her out of the crowd, Kitsune sat and mused for a few moments. (Urashima and Seta together in one place.. and Naru watching them both.. Wait a minute... Urashima is all but immortal.. and Seta never gets too badly hurt when, not if, he wrecks his van..)
    Kitsune called over a nearby concession worker. He had cola, popcorn, peanuts, ice water, and a number of other things in his carry-all. To Kitsune's relief, he also had small slips of a certain kind of paper.
    "Yes, my good man," she grinned. "I want to put down 5,000 on contestant Seta."

    "The first event is about to begin," the captain told the hundred-strong pool of contestants. "Welcome to Sink or Swim!"
    "Oh! I like this one," Mutsumi commented happily, while Keitaro strained to hear the instructions. "You have to run across the stones and try not to fall in." They were gathered before a small river, with an array of large, three-foot-diameter rocks placed across the stream's width, perhaps four or five stones wide and ten or fifteen across.
    "Sounds easy," Keitaro said.
    The captain was continuing with the explanation: "But watch out, because some of the stones got dislodged in the last typhoon to hit the Fortress! If you land on one of those.." An animation on the giant-screen TV broadcasting to the crowd showed a character stepping on a stone which disappeared beneath her, and she fell into the water with a cartoony splash.
    "How many tries do we get?" someone called out from the exam-takers' crowd.
    The captain grinned. "One," he said. "Your team gets points based on how many get across and how far across the rest of the team gets. Everyone stays in contention until the final fight for the Fortress."
    (Not bad,) Keitaro decided. (This I can handle!)
    "Ready?" the captain said, pulling out a sword and waving it towards the playing field. "Lllllet's gooo!!"

    The two hosts were heard and seen by the entire spectator audience at that point, on the big screen and over the loudspeakers. "Hi again everybody and welcome back to Take The Fortress. I'm Ken Akamatsu, with a special guest color commentator today, and I mean heavy on the color!"
    The man beside Ken, in a garish salmon-red and blue suit, nodded. "Right you are, Ken," he said, adding, "First up is Leila Gotmeonminese, a second year music student from Kobe. She was disqualified last year for passing notes in the exam room, a B flat and an E."
    Ken blinked. Where did this guy get that from? It wasn't in the script. He shrugged. (Whatever,) he told himself, and ran with it. "Indeed. And Leila steps up and gives it a good run.."

    "She's never going to make it," Kitsune said nonchalantly. "Watch."
    "I know," Naru nodded, fixing her eyes on the screen. Sure enough, the first one to be picked was usually one of the least likely to succeed, and Ms. Gotmeonminese was no exception. She stepped on one solid rock, and another, and then completely missed the third rock, which swiftly dodged her as she plowed into the water. The fourth rock, however, proved to be immovable, and halted her forward progress entirely, in a huge splash and a gasp as she winded herself.
    "Ow," Naru winced, grinning.

    "Oh! And she's bee-ing a little flat herself," Ken exclaimed as she crashed into the boulder and sank beneath the surface. "That's two points for the red team out of a possible 20."
    "Right you are, Ken," the color man agreed, filling time while the medics waded out and recovered the contestant, dragging her to shore. "With a little TLC and maybe some CPR, she'll be back in fighting form for the next round."
    "Indeed," Ken nodded. "Next up is Iowa Smith, a professor of archaeology from the United States." He decided to try out what his partner of the day had done for the last contestant, thought for a split second, and came up with, "Iowa's a former police officer, now specializing in fossilized sketch artistry--Oh!"
    This last bit was because the man had gotten to the fourth rock and jumped to the fifth, which gave way underneath him. However, he lashed out with a whip at the last possible second, wrapping the tip around a stump on the far shore and pulling himself to dry land, never wetting so much as the soles of his boots.

    "Can he do that?" Naru asked. She thought she'd seen it all, thought she knew all the rules, but this was new on her.
    "The judges are debating now," Kitsune pointed out, gesturing towards the Styrofoam castle projected on the big screen.

    "Wow," Mutsumi said, jumping up and down. "Way to go, Mr. Smith!"
    "You're on the other team," Keitaro hissed at her. "Don't be cheering for them!"
    "Oops!" she said, giggling a little. "My bad.."

    "The judges are going to let it stand," Ken declared a moment later.
    "And why not, Ken?" the color man said. "Ingenuity solves the world's problems! And that's 20 whole points for the archaeologists."
    "They really dug that one out," Ken said, getting into the swing of things. "Now we have Mutsumi Otohime. She's a turtle herder from the south."
    "She's going to have to be a turtle hurdler this morning, Ken," the color man said. "It's a little known fact that the loose stones are actually petrified Malaysian snappers!"
    "Indeed," Ken said.

    "That's your cue," Keitaro said, urging Mutsumi forward. "Good luck!"
    "Thanks!" Mutsumi smiled, and headed off to the start of the course.

    "Here she comes," Kitsune said, peering through the binoculars.
    "This should be good," Naru said wryly.

    Mutsumi jogged up to the river's edge and hopped tentatively to the first rock, which stood up to her pressure. The crowd cheered, and she did a little bounce of joy.
    She hopped to the second stone, and it too held. Her teammates were egging her on, and then the cheers and hollers gave way to a collective gasp as she suddenly tumbled forward.
    Keitaro flinched and watched Mutsumi land in the water with a tremendous splash, unconscious. The rescue teams dove in to extricate her.

    "No! Denied," Ken declared. "It looked like she just lost the will to live."
    "Pulled into her shell, Ken," the color man declared. "And that's the way the turtle turns."

    "I figured as much," Naru said.
    "Oh look who's up next," Kitsune grinned.
    "Who? That clumsy fool Keitaro?" Naru asked, forgetting that the teams took turns on the field. She took up the binoculars and gasped, smiling.

    "Now we have Noriyasu Seta," Ken announced. "Seta deals with the placement of decorative hieroglyphic markings."
    "That's Feng Shwayakaman, if I'm not mistaken," the color man added.
    "Indeed. And here he comes! He hops and skips into a Twisted Lunge, and a Double Yoked Split, and looks like he could go all the way!"
    "Right you are, Ken, and that puts the archaeologists out in front, 40 points to 4. The students' chance to claw back into this game rests on the shoulders of Urashima Keitaro."

    "Go Keitaro! Whoo!!" Kitsune hooted, shrieking across the playing field.
    "Come on, Keitaro! You can do it!" Naru cheered.

    Keitaro tried to psyche himself up for the challenge. He'd stood at the river's edge until they had safely removed Mutsumi to the other side, where she awakened and waved happily at him, believing she had successfully made it across.
    He backed up and shook his arms and legs, as if limbering up, and made sure his helmet was firmly on his head. The captain waved his sword and urged him to get moving.
    (Right,) Keitaro said to himself. He threw himself into a dead run, and leapt completely over the first rock, landing on the second.
    Ignoring the cheers of the crowds, he spent no time at all on that rock, and bounded towards the fourth. In the nick of time, he remembered that the rock he was about to land on was one of the loose ones, and managed to contort himself so that he would land on the rock just to the right of the loose one.
    The crowds' cheers rose in pitch and volume, and Keitaro was elated. He figured he just might equal Seta's standings!
    That thought made him wonder who Naru was cheering on. He turned to see where Seta was, then turned to the impossibly huge crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of Naru.
    Tragically, fate chose that moment to look in on Keitaro as well. His attention was wrenched back to the task at hand, violently, by the sudden realization that there wasn't a rock beneath his forward foot.
    The splash of murky, muddy water was interrupted only by the crunching sound as human torso met stone. It wasn't stone, actually, nor Malaysian snapping turtles as claimed on the broadcast, but plaster and mesh wire over a wooden and foam frame, but it still basically failed to give one bit in response to Keitaro's mass crashing down atop it.
    Finally, the 'rock', which was actually supposed to be fixed in place, ripped free of its moorings and allowed Keitaro to plow on ahead through the water. His chin hit another of the 'stones', this one designed to float and flop about, and it flipped out from under his head after he knocked himself silly with it, then sprung back on its spring to add insult to injury and bounce repeatedly off the side of his head.
    All the while, the commentators were going bananas about the incredible fall they'd just seen, and the crowd was gasping and wincing in empathy for Keitaro.
    One or two people weren't sharing the same emotions as the rest of the spectators, though. Kitsune was giggling in mild shock, her expectations confirmed. Beside her, Narusegawa dipped her head in an exasperated expression, finally letting it fall into her hands as she rubbed her face.
    "Oh, Keitaro," she moaned.

    "Well, that ends the first round," the afro-headed color commentator declared some time later. "The archaeology team is out front by a score of 94 to the students' 19. Come back after the break for our next competition, the fan-favorite Rock and Get Rolled!"

    "Are you all right?" Mutsumi asked as Keitaro was dumped on dry ground by the medical staff. His glasses were cracked and askew, his mouth hanging open, a bit of blood running from his nose. For all the world he looked to be out of touch with reality.
    Momentarily, he shook himself back to consciousness and looked up at her. "Never mind me, what about you?" he said groggily.
    "Oh my," she smiled, putting a hand to her face. "I must have passed out. I'm quite all right."
    "That's good," Keitaro smiled, sitting up. "I thought you were--"
    A bucket of popcorn suddenly bounced off the back of Keitaro's head, sending him flying. As he got to his feet, he looked up and back to where it had come from; in the stands, an almost impossible distance away, Naru was shaking a fist and shouting something.

    "He can't have possibly heard you," Kitsune pointed out.
    Naru sat back down, too furious to be concerned about the stares she was getting from the spectators around her. "He should leave her alone and concentrate on his own progress," she hmph'ed.
    "Shush," Kitsune said. "Seta's starting!"

    "And here's Noriyasu Seta again," Ken said.
    "Right you are, Ken," the color man supplied. "Now maybe it's just that I'm not familiar with the game, but this looks like a giant pachinko board!"
    "Indeed," Ken answered, "with a bit of a twist. The contestants start at the bottom and have to claw their way to the top. At the same time, the fortress defenders will be sending rocks down at them! There's no telling which direction the rocks will go when they hit the pegs, so the contestants--who have to keep up a forward pace in order to avoid disqualification--have to keep on their toes in order to avoid getting rolled."
    "You might say they have to be a little bolder to complete this course, Ken," the color man punned.
    Ken had nothing to say for that, and just watched as Seta began his run.

    Keitaro and Mutsumi watched as Seta ran his way up the course. Three outlandishly-outfitted warriors were pushing large grey boulders over the edge of the playing field, and they bounced off pegs, wedges, and other devices designed to randomly carom the boulders back and forth as they descended upon the contestant.
    "This doesn't look bad," Keitaro mused. "You just have to be quick on your feet and stay alert." He eyed Mutsumi, and said, "You can do that, can't you?"
    "I'll sure try," she giggled, smiling.
    Meanwhile, Seta dodged and rolled and ran up the course, avoiding boulder after boulder as they bounced and rolled their way down towards him. Unfortunately, he paused to reverse direction, and was deemed to have stopped in the course. Still, he gained eight points for his team.
    "Even I can do that," Keitaro grinned.
    "Then go ahead," the captain said, coming up behind Keitaro. "It's your turn."

    "Too bad for Seta," Ken said. "But next up is Urashima Keitaro again."
    "Maybe he thinks this is the Dragon Palace," the color man mused.
    "I think you're thinking of something else," Ken pointed out.
    "So's Urashima, apparently," the color man said, watching Keitaro run up the course. He glanced over his shoulder a couple of times, at the crowd in the stands. Because of this, he didn't see the two boulders that were converging on him from opposite sides until the last second.
    (They're styrofoam, they're styrofoam,) he reminded himself as he went limp to prepare for the impact.
    If that was supposed to lessen the blow, it failed miserably. Had Keitaro been able to think clearly, he might have wondered why it didnt' feel like styrofoam when the two ten-foot-diameter 'rocks' slammed into him. He was ground in between the two maybe-pseudo-boulders for a moment, then thrown to the ground ahead of the falling rocks, moments before they started rolling down the game board after him.
    "He's down!" Ken exclaimed. "Oh, this is going to hurt."

    "Owww.." Naru said with a frown.
    "All right," Kitsune smiled. "He's two for two so far!"

    Mutsumi looked concernedly at her feet where, as one of the boulders rolled by, Keitaro peeled off it and lay crumpled on the ground.
    "If it makes any difference," she said, "you got eight points as well."
    "Fantastic," Keitaro moaned weakly. "Did Naru see me?"
    "If not," Mutsumi grinned, "she's sure to see it on the big screen in the Crunch Shot."
    Keitaro lifted his head feebly and saw the big screen repeating it backwards, forwards, inside-out, and in super-slo-mo. "Perfect," he wheezed.
    "Otohime!" the captain called out. "Get it on!"
    "Coming!" she called out cheerfully, hopping over Keitaro and heading off to the course.

    "Here's Otohime Mutsumi again," Ken said. "Maybe you're not far off on Urashima's origins."
    "And why not, Ken?" the color man said. "Let's see if she can actually complete this event."
    The crowd watched on as Mutsumi ran up to the start of the course. She kept up a decent pace, dodging rocks on each level as she rose. As she climbed, the boulders got more and more frequent, until it looked like she was about to get squashed.
    "Oh no!" Keitaro exclaimed, but he needn't have worried; just then, Mutsumi seemed to lurch forward and collapse. The rocks bounded safely over her as she fell out prone on the ground.
    This would have been the end of her challenge, if not for the fact she was less than two meters from the finish, and her forward/downward motion carried her over the goal line.

    "Yes!" Kitsune cheered. "Talk about a wild finish!"
    "Talk about luck," Naru frowned, folding her arms across her. Still, she couldn't help but feel a little happy for the girl. Keitaro, on the other hand, had managed to get wiped out on both attempts so far. Then again, Seta had given his team two victories already..

    Over the course of the day, the teams fought hard and carried on through the contests. The archaeology team had amassed 886 points, and the students 809. The final competition had just four people left, drawn randomly--interestingly enough, Seta, Mutsumi, and Keitaro were among the finalists. The last event was worth 50 points for a successful completion, so the game was still either team's to win, and the commentators pointed out that fact.
    "Right you are, Ken," the color man said. "However, the students have a long way to come to win this. One of the competitors is Otohime Mutsumi, who has completed two out of the last eleven events, and those two were just by fluke. And the last member of the student team is Urashima Keitaro, the man who's dominated the Crunch Shots in nearly every game tonight, not completing a single one, but completely destroying himself in the process!"
    "And what are they facing in the final game today?" Ken asked.
    "Well, Ken, it's yet another fan favorite! These four hardy warriors have one last battle before they can take the Fortress, and it's called Spinning Steps of Doom! There are ten large, wide stairs to the doors of the fortress, and then it's all over! But it's not going to be that easy, of course." The big screen showed several massive blocks of wood, twenty feet wide and five feet tall and deep. They were placed just slightly apart and each a little higher than the other. Last but not least, they were attached on each end to swivel axles, allowing the blocks to roll along their long axis at the slightest touch. The big screen demonstrated all this as the color man continued: "You've gotta have a light step to make it up these stairs, or you're going to get walked on!"

    Naru frowned. "Oh, man.."
    "What?" Kitsune said. "Think you should've gone in there to wave your team's flag after all?"
    "Heck no," she said, shaking her head. She smiled faintly. "I'm just thinking of what Keitaro's going to look like after this." The square steps left virtually no room between each other when they spun, ensuring a slip and fall would be painful. Keitaro would be a walking bruise by the end of the night.

    "Get it on!" the captain shouted, waving his sword.
    The archaeology professor, Mr. Sable, was probably a distinguished old man in his natural habitat. In the game, he'd shed any restraint he normally carried, and threw himself at the playing field with gusto. This game was no exception, and he bounded from the lower landing to the first rotating stair, and pushed off from it with all his might.
    That was his downfall. The stairs were exceptionally easy to spin, and Mr. Sable's feet came out from under him. The square step was spinning when he crashed down upon it, and he was spun around beneath it and spit out into the pool below.
    "Oh! And that has to hurt," Ken said.
    "That's right, Ken," came the response from the color man. "And let's hope he didn't bloody himself, because today's pool has 120 vicious piranha fish stocked within!"
    If the fish truly were there, there was no indication as the contestant swam weakly for shore and pulled himself up onto the grass, moaning and writhing in pain.
    Keitaro wasn't watching any of this. The final event was rather close to the crowd, and Keitaro could finally make out Naru clearly.
    And what he clearly saw was that she had focused her attention squarely on Seta. The archaeology contestant was limbering up, preparing to go right after Mutsumi, who was heading to the stairs now.
    (No way,) Keitaro told himself, clenching a fist. (I'm not going to lose her to him! Maybe I haven't won any of the events today, but I'm going to show her I can win this for my.. no, our team!)
    The crowd was gasping, and Keitaro turned to see Mutsumi, again unconscious, rolling under the stair. To his, and everyone else's surprise, she clung to the stair, and momentum finally broke her loose after she came to the top again. All eyes were on Mutsumi's form as she sailed over the remaining four stairs and landed on the goal platform.
    "Oh!" Ken shouted. "Another amazing finish for Otohime!"
    "Right you are, Ken!" the color man cried out. "That's 50 points for the flunkers, giving them 859! Mr. Sable's 5 points gives the spelunkers 891, and it's still anybody's game as we come to the final two competitors, starting with the spelunker's Seta!"
    Seta waved for the crowd and winked. Keitaro spun and looked at the object of Seta's flirting, eyes narrowing, and saw Naru waving frantically. She spied Keitaro, and stuck out her tongue at him.
    Keitaro turned and watched Seta take off on the stairs. For the first three, he hopped skillfully, barely turning the stairs at all. The fourth one, Keitaro noticed right as Seta stepped on it, was unbalanced. Seta thought he was stepping directly on the perfect balance point, but the stair came out from beneath him, and he went tumbling..

    "Oh no!" Naru said, rising from her seat.
    "Hey! Down in front," Kitsune said, tugging at her friend's skirt. "I can't see!"
    Naru relented, and both of them got to see Seta land in between two stairs, feet on one and head and shoulders on the other. Both spun, in opposite directions to one another, and Seta folded at the waist in a V-shape. He landed in the pool with a resounding splash.
    "A tragedy for the archaeology team!" the color man exclaimed. "That's a total of 906 points for the spelunkers! If Urashima can complete the event, he'll win it for the flunkers, by 3 points!"
    Naru froze and stared at Keitaro. All she could see was the back of his head, but from there it was easy to see the sweatdrop forming.
    Mutsumi, standing atop the platform, called down to Keitaro, "You can do it! C'mon, Keitaro!"
    "Yeahh!! Do it, Urashima!" Kitsune hollered.
    "Good competition," Seta said, as he was carried away, the water mixing with the blood pouring from the back of his head. He flashed a thumbs-up to Keitaro. "Do a good job."
    "Ura-shima! Ura-shima!" someone in the crowd began to chant. Everyone else picked it up quickly, and within a few moments, everyone was yelling Keitaro's name.

    "This is amazing!" Ken crowed. "I haven't seen a competition this close in.. well, ever! The pressure's on for the final students' contestant as he readies at the starting line."
    In the stands, Naru watched Keitaro stretch, then settle into a runner's stance. She closed her eyes for a brief second.
    (Don't look back,) she silently admonished him. (Just go on ahead and get it over with!)
    "I know you can do it, Keitaro," she murmured under her breath as she opened her eyes.

    Keitaro was counting down as he waited for the captain's whistle. All he was focusing on was the goal platform at the top of the stairs. Nothing else was in his field of vision. The only sound in his ears was the pounding of his heart and the air rushing in and out of his lungs. (Three..)
    The fourth step was tricky, he tried to remind himself. If he could only get past that, he'd have it made. (Two..)
    The whistle blew, and time seemed to slow down. Keitaro lunged forward with all his strength, and everything slowly faded to white.

    "Amazing!" Ken hollered. "Incredible!!"
    "Right you are, Ken!" the color man said emphatically. The crowd was going nuts, but Naru had her eyes covered, hunched over in her seat, despite the rest of the crowd all on their feet and screaming and cheering.
    Naru risked a peek with one eye, then both, and gasped as the announcers went on.
    "I don't think I've ever seen a spill like that in all my time on the show!" Ken declared. "That's got to be one of the top Crunch Shots of all time!!"
    "No!" Naru shouted defiantly in protest. Every one of the first nine stairs were spinning madly, with the last one still and immobile. The only thing left visible was Keitaro's glasses, wedged in between the last stair and the goal platform. Every one of the spinning stairs were covered in slimy water, as if he'd somehow managed to ricochet back from the pond back into the spinning steps repeatedly.
    "Yes!" Kitsune laughed, rocking back in her seat and clapping. "Oh, that was awesome! Tell me you saw that!"
    Naru turned her attention to the big screen and watched the Crunch Shot replay, which was going on constantly and resulting in endless cheers from the crowd. Keitaro ran up the first three steps, and hopped almost completely over the fourth. He apparently misjudged his jumping distance, though, and landed squarely between the fourth and fifth stairs, which spun and spat him out the bottom side much like a pitching machine fires off a ball. He indeed ricocheted back into the fifth and sixth stairs, arcing high over the game and falling back down into the fourth and third stairs, then bouncing back up again, and so on, for almost ten whole seconds, bouncing back and forth like a pinball. Finally, he slammed into the tenth stair from beneath, and sank into the murky depths.
    "Keitaro!" Naru called out. She scanned the grassy bank frantically and ultimately found him being pulled from the water by the medics. He was conscious, but bleeding, and looking quite dazed.
    Still, he swung around to the crowd drunkenly, and regardless of the fact that he couldn't see (since his smashed glasses were hung up high above him), threw a toothy grin and a thumbs-up in what he hoped was Naru's direction.
    She blinked and eventually smiled, offering a discreet thumbs-up in return. "It was a good effort," she whispered.


    "Hey! They're home!" Su shouted, lunging for the door. "How was--"
    "Wait," Naru cautioned, stepping in the way, stopping Su short before she could jump onto the aching Keitaro. "He's--"
    "Aaa! Don't spoil it!" Shinobu said, clapping her hands over her ears with a worried expression. "We haven't seen the show yet! It's about to come on."
    The entire household gathered in the common room to watch the show together. Even Motoko and Haruka joined in, watching quietly as the one-hour TV show elapsed.
    "Oooh," Mutsumi said as she watched one of Keitaro's many crashes--this one involving falling off a rope bridge into a 'gorge' below, missing the safety net completely and landing on the styrofoam rocks at the bottom. "I must have been asleep for that one."
    "You sure are on this show a lot, Keitaro!" Su exclaimed, as another Crunch Shot came up with yet another of Keitaro's spills.
    "I, uh, yeah," he said, smiling and putting his hand behind his head in a nervous gesture.
    "Hey, here's another one of Seta's victories," Kitsune said, nudging Haruka.
    "Eh? Oh. Good for him," the elder Urashima said passively, as if she didn't care. Kitsune grinned as she noticed Haruka didn't take her eyes off the screen for a while.
    "Did you complete any of the challenges, Urashima?" Motoko asked, three-quarters of the way through the show.
    "Uhm.. that is, I.." he stammered, pushing his repaired glasses up on his face after they'd slid down again.
    "I see," Motoko said. After a long pause, she added, "At least you tried, I suppose."
    "Yes," Naru nodded. "He tried. He tried really hard." She smiled and winked at Keitaro, who looked like he was about to pass out from shock.
    "Oh! Here's the best part," Kitsune said a few minutes later. The recap at the end of the show was showing the Crunch Shots over again, and every last one of them were Keitaro. The announcer proclaimed:
    "And this deserves a special mention. Never before in the history of Take The Fortress have we seen someone so dedicated to providing us with spectacular Crunch Shots! Everyone's thanks go out to Urashima Keitaro for providing us with material that will be talked about for many, many episodes to come!"
    "Right you are, Ken," the color man concluded. "Urashima embodies the spirit of his team! Never give up and never surrender, no matter how hard you're being beaten along the way!"
    "And congratulations to the archaeology team for winning today's competition, 906 points to 879. The winners get their name on the Fortress Cup! The students each get a copy of our home game--"
    Haruka shut off the TV and said, "I think Motoko's right. Both of you should be commended for your efforts." She gestured to Keitaro and Mutsumi. Then, she added, in a comment that was cryptic to everyone but Keitaro, "I think it was a wise investment after all." She smiled faintly, and turned to go on her way.
    "Oh, my," Mutsumi said. "Thank you!"
    "I wanna see this home game!" Su proclaimed.
    "Come on, I'll show you," Mutsumi said, nodding towards the front room. "I left it with my coat."
    "All right!" Su exclaimed, following Mutsumi out, and dragging Motoko and Shinobu with her, despite their protests. "C'mon, guys!"
    "Ahem," Naru cleared her throat, standing up and facing Keitaro and Kitsune. "I guess I should.. I mean, that is.. you deserve a.." She sighed. "You did well, Keitaro."
    "I.. I did?" he said, pointing at himself.
    "That's what you wanted to hear, isn't it?" Naru asked him. "Like I said before, anyone who goes into a challenge like that deserves a whole lot of praise. I know I'm too chicken to try it out. I'd be too afraid of getting hurt."
    "It wasn't that bad," he said with a nervous smile. "I don't think they'd let anyone get really hurt--"
    "What were you thinking of, then, if not that?" Naru asked. "What was going through your mind all day?"
    "Er!" Keitaro stammered, smiling nervously. "I, um, was, .. uh.."
    "Enough badgering," Kitsune said. "How 'bout we go celebrate?"
    "Fair enough," Naru said, turning to her best friend with a grin. "I guess you're buying, since you won both your bets today, on Seta and Keitaro."
    "Eheh," Kitsune said, smiling and sweatdropping herself.
    "What?" Keitaro asked, looking confused. "How could you win on both.."
    Kitsune finally got up the courage to admit it. "I never said I bet on you to win, did I?"