It's the third and final segment of this lovely little trio. Hope you liked it thus far, and please enjoy this final installment as well.

Disclaimer: While I've managed it settle my debt to only being $900 in the hole, suing me is useless considering you might get an old band t-shirt and a broken shoelace at best. I own nothing except those characters which I create.

~CB~

A New Beginning

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"Shinji-kun!! Get up, you're going to be late again!!" The young boy tumbled out of bed, quickly pulling on jeans and a shirt before combing his hair and heading for the door at a run.

"Gomen, obassan," he said quickly as he gave Motoko a kiss on the cheek while grabbing his lunch and bag on the way out the door. Even though he was only ten, he was now tall enough that he could  do so without jumping in the air a few inches. "I'll be home after school!!"

"If he doesn't get detention for being late, that is," added Kitsune as she came in with Keiko on her back, the three year old babbling happily as she waved at everyone around her.

"Considering he's one of the top runners at his school, if he tries hard enough he'll make it," replied Motoko with a grin. "I vaguely remember Keitaro being that fast, though his was more from running away from us being a pervert, not because he practiced regularly to make the Track team."

"Different motives, same result," commented Kitsune as she placed the toddler on the floor and watched her crawl around before pulling herself up on a table and tottering unsteadily on her feet around the room. "Motoko...she's doing it again."

"Hm?" Motoko turned around, smiling gently as she saw Keiko walk over to her with her arms stretched out. "Keiko-chan is such a big girl, isn't she? Yes she is. Come here, you!" She swung the child up in her arms and onto her shoulder, Keiko laughing happily all the while.

"Hehahah!! Mama!! More mama!!!"

"Not mama," Motoko corrected her as she put her back down and went to help Sizu tie her shoes by the door. "Obassan. Can you say it? O-ba-ssan."

"Mama!"

"No, obassan, Keiko. Not mama."

"...oba-mama?"

Motoko sighed as Kitsune laughed behind her hand, Keiko's interest suddenly being captivated by the fly that buzzed by her head as she reached for it clumsily.

"I think you're going to have to work on that one some more," suggested Kitsune as she tried not to break down laughing while walking out of the room.

"Bye, Obassan," said Sizu as she gave Motoko a kiss as well, Alicia appearing at her side with the usual shades and jean jacket for their walk to school.

"Bye, honey. Be good and listen to your teachers," cautioned Motoko as she kissed her back, smiling at her as well. "Alicia-san will pick you up again, ok? I have to take Keiko for her check-up."

"Hai, obassan!" Sizu waved as Alicia took her hand and they walked down the steps of the Inn together towards the school.

"Mama," whispered Keiko, tugging on Motoko's long skirt with her eyes wide with innocence. "Noodles?"

"You just had breakfast, though," replied Motoko as she picked the little girl up easily. "Hungry?"

"Yup."

"Alright..."

"Arigato, Mama!"

Motoko tickled the girl with a teasing smile. "I'm not your mama..."

"I don't understand why you don't let her call you that," commented Kitsune as she sipped her morning glass of wine while reading the paper. "You're the closest thing she's had to one since Naru died." Though her heart ached slightly at mentioning her deceased friend's name, time had finally given her the ability to mention it without her heart going to pieces or the need to cry later in private. "It's not like her father's around anymore to take care of her either, or to mind if she calls you Mama," added Kitsune a little bitterly, her lips twisting into a frown.

"Kitsune-san! Don't say that," chided Motoko as she placed Keiko in her highchair and brought over a small portion of the breakfast noodles in a bowl. A bib went around Keiko's neck, then she was set loose on the food which mainly ended up on her or the floor rather than in her mouth. "Kei-...Urashima-san will come home someday."

"You've been saying that for three years, Motoko," snapped Kitsune, laying down the paper abruptly. "A few months, and I would have understood it. A year, which is stretching it, maybe. After two years, forgive me but I've given up hope that the coward is coming back at all. Chances are, you are going to be Keiko's Mama until she turns 18, so you might as well get used to her calling you it."

"For all you know, Urashima-san has another wife already, and is just waiting for the right time to return," retorted Motoko, Keiko ignoring their argument with the usual 3 year old bliss. "Which means Keiko-chan already has another mother, and doesn't need me to interfere  with it. Urashima-san loves his children, and he will come back for them someday"

"He doesn't care about any of us!" exploded Kitsune, rising suddenly. "What do we have to show for these last three years from him?! A few yen every few months, a card on the kids birthdays, and your promise to them that he will come back! He's not going to return, Motoko!" At this tears began to fall down Kitsune's face, ones that represented the resentment and anger she held inside. "He was always the one constant we could depend on in our lives, but he betrayed us by running away. Why don't you just give it up?!!"

"Because." Motoko held out her arms to the sobbing woman, a small corner of her mind noting how much she'd changed in the last three years. "I have no choice. For Keiko, for Shinji, for Sizu, and most of all for Naru...for them, I'll never give up hope."

"You're a stubborn fool," snapped Kitsune, wiping her tears on her sleeve as she leaned against Motoko, the kendo woman just letting her finish releasing her emotions and being a comforting presence at the same time.

"Perhaps." Motoko smiled wryly at this. "But who's the true fool, the one who's stubborn or the one who believes in them in the end?"

"I don't know." Kitsune shook her head and pulled away, grabbing a tissue to blow her nose with. "You're right, as usual, though. I just...he should have been back by now, shouldn't he?"

Motoko shrugged. "Who knows? That is not for me to decide, Kitsune. All I do know is Hinata-sou and his three younglings will be waiting for him when he returns."

"Hai..." Kitsune looked at her reflection in the sink and grimaced. "Eh...I'm going to go wash up and then get to the Tea House. Haruka will kill me if I'm late again, and looking like this." She shrugged and disappeared into the bathroom down the hall.

"Morning, Motoko-chan!" cried Su as she skipped into the kitchen, grabbing a banana and sitting on the counter to eat it. Even though she was always in her adult form now, she had an air of childishness about her that she wouldn't be Su without.

"Good morning, Su-chan." Motoko turned and looked at Keiko, who's noodles were gone. Well, at least gone from her bowl, several had ended up in her hair and on the floor as a result of her messy eating habits. "Ai, Kei-chan! So messy...let's go get you all cleaned up." She lifted her out of her highchair and headed for the hot springs, nodding to Shinobu who was entering the kitchen on her way out. Motoko, as she bathed the squirming Keiko in the warm water, used the time to reflect as she usually did since she had so little time to herself anymore.

So much had changed in just three years.  Shinji was growing up so fast, and while he didn't have a male influence at home he seemed to be coping alright with Motoko and the rest raising him. It's not like he'd been allowed to grow into a spoiled mama's boy, her and Haruka had seen to that. But still, she wished his father had been around for those big times in his life; like when he won his first race or placed in the school spelling bee.

Sizu, well, while she wasn't as academically bright as her brother, nor as athletically inclined, she was growing up to be quite the artist and had paintings and drawings that covered the walls of her room and the refrigerator. Several of the teachers at her school had commented on her ability, and some had recommended private schools she might want to attend in the next few years to further her abilities. Had Motoko the money, she would have started her there now, but funds were rather tight and they could hardly afford to send them to the school they were at as is.

Keiko had grown so much as well, her fourth birthday only a few months away and Kitsune and Shinobu planning on making it something special. She'd learned to talk rather quickly, it seemed, and most of the time babbled on and on about the things she'd seen that day. Though she was slightly too much like her mother for her own good. While Naru-Super punch had been perfectly alright on Keitaro when he was being a pervert, it was not acceptable on small boys who stole her toys and she couldn't go to the local daycare as a result of it. Seeing as she'd never seen her real mother do it in the first place, Motoko wondered just how she'd learned it but decided it must be an inborn trait in the Narusegawa line.

Shinobu and Su had both returned after their second year in America, the little chef with a Master in Culinary Arts and Su with a Doctorate in Mechanics and Technology. Su had signed in since then with a Japanese toy company and was now their top toy designer, creating and building some of the most innovative toys the corporation had ever put on the market. Shinobu had gotten a job had one of the top restaurants in Tokyo and was saving up for one of her own, which she planned on opening as soon as she had the money.

Kitsune had persuaded Haruka to make her a partner in the Tea House and now often as not ran it while Haruka went away on trips of her own. She now had an entire wine rack covering one wall and had become more of a connoisseur rather than an alcoholic, drinking sake and wine more for the pleasure of its taste rather than the pleasure of being out of control. Not that she didn't get plastered every once in awhile, but those times were becoming few and far in between.

Alicia was still hanging around, though she'd supposedly graduated years ago, and worked random jobs that seemed to change from week to week. Shinobu she let take over the meals mainly, and paid full rent on her own, but even Motoko had to wonder just what the girl did in her spare time as she disappeared and reappeared at random intervals of time.

And then herself...she hated to admit it, but raising little Keiko and the other two had brought out feelings in her that she thought she'd never need or use. To think such a small, priceless creature depended on her to live...it made her want to be the best guardian she could be, right down to wearing skirts and blouses when she went into the schools so she looked like all the other moms there. Not that she minded so much, if she wore a full one it gave her almost the same amount of movement as her kendo outfit. And Haruka had said many times that she looked much better in the older style of clothes rather than the new flashy stuff. She even had a few kimonos that she pulled out on the occasion, but most were of fancy silks and she only wore those for special events. Her sword skills were as sharp as ever, though, and while she hadn't made much progress that which she did know had been honed down to perfection.

Keiko showed Motoko her pruning fingers and indicated she wanted to get out, the kendo woman complying quickly as she dried and dressed them both before heading out to the main room of the Inn to begin the daily chores while Shinobu or Su watched Keiko for her. She'd reminisce over the last few years later, right now she needed to get to work!

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Kitsune and Alicia chased the three children around the back yard, Su off to the side under some new contraption of hers. Set up on some concrete blocks, she kept her goggles over her eyes as she used the blowtorch while she called commands to the young man who sat on the top programming the controls with his computer. With the same blonde-white hair, green eyes, and extremely tan skin, he could have passed as Su's twin. Luckily, he was only her third cousin twice removed, as well as one of her helpers who worked for the company as well when building things. The man was a computer genius.

"Extent of configuration so far?"

"Nearly to 100%. Just give me a minute here, cousin."

"Don't call me that, Lou-kun." She paused and stuck her tongue out at him. "It's just Su-chan."

He smirked. "Whatever you say, cousin." He pushed a few more buttons before closing the laptop and swinging down beside her, a pair of pliers and screwdriver in hand. "Now what's bugging you?"

"This little bit right here...what do you think?"

"Reroute it or redo it all so you don't have such a tangle right there. It's up to you, though you might not have a choice if you've got a deadline with this one..."

"Nope. Go get some paper and redo it all. I'll get to work hooking up the steering and boosters."

"Ok!" He got back up and grabbed some sheets from a notebook, soon completely absorbed in the detailed drawings. "Hm...I might have something here!"

"Alright, just a sec..."

Motoko stood on the roof and watched everything below her with a soft smile, her kendo outfit on and sword at her side as she resumed training once more. She badly needed to take another training trip to the mountains where she could hone her techniques in the silence of the wilderness, but with school drawing to a close and Keiko's birthday so close...she would wait until all the festivities were over before she took such time for herself. Besides, there was always the usual trip the beach Tea House and she wanted to be sure not to miss that.

"Motoko-san, could you come help with dinner, please?" asked Shinobu from the doorway to the roof. "I know you're busy, but we have so many guests tonight..."

"Guests?" Motoko paused, giving Shinobu a confused look. "I knew Lou-san might be staying for supper, but who else is here??"

"Kitsune has two of her friends in the house sampling some of her wine downstairs," explained Shinobu as she ticked them off on her hands.

"Jacque and his sister Marie, the French twins?"

"Hai, and Haruka-san invited Seta-san and Sarah-chan over for dinner. Including us, that makes 13, I think. For that many, I could use an extra set of hands...?"

"Certainly." Motoko followed the younger woman down the stairs to the kitchen and began the necessary steps to prepare a meal, one that would be enough to feed the hungry crew that was with them.

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Alicia sipped her wine delicately as she listened to the conversation around her, staying silent as usual unless asked something directly that she could answer. Kitsune was tittering away with her friends about their latest rare wine find, a red something or other from the 1920's. Shinobu was talking animatedly with Su and Lou about an invention of theirs that she could program directions into and it would do the cooking for her. Keiko was stuffing as many handfuls of rice as would fit in her mouth, and Shinji and Sizu would comparing ideas for what to do that summer. And Sarah, who was 20 at this point, and had finally decided to grow up, was holding an actual conversation with Seta, Haruka, and Motoko on Seta's latest finds at the 'Night Walker's' site. Not much more had been found, but there had been the occasional artifact uncovered that kept them looking for more.

"By the way," said Seta out of the blue as he gulped down the last of his tea and gave them all his usual careless grin. "Where is Keitaro-kun? I would have thought he was here by now."

The room went deathly silent, Shinji and Sizu turning immediately to look at Motoko who had gone more white than usual.

"You mean," she said in a soft whisper. "He's not with you anymore?"

"He quit over a year ago," replied Seta, his face slowly becoming less and less careless, and more worried. "I argued against it, believe me, he was the best helper I'd ever had! But still, he insisted it was time. Keitaro said he had one final stop to make, and then he was coming home. Do you mean he hasn't shown up yet?"

"Obassan, what's he talking about?" asked Shinji quietly, his eyes brimming with tears. "Where's otosan??"

Sizu let a few tears slide down her cheeks as she jumped out of her seat and came to cling to Motoko's side. "I want papa, obassan!! Where is he?? Doesn't he love us too??"

"Shh..." Motoko rose and picked up the little girl, taking Keiko as well and Shinji following close behind.

"Gomen," sighed Seta. "I...after he left, he seemed so sure of himself...I was sure he'd come straight here and never asked him where his stop was..." He rose to his feet and bowed, Sarah rising as well. "I think I've caused enough trouble for tonight. Goodnight Haruka-san, everyone. Arigato for the meal." He then left, Sarah close behind with an unusually sober look on her face.

Haruka stood and went after them, already reaching for the cigarettes in her pocket. "I'll walk them out..."

"I think it's time for us to leave as well," added Jacque as he rose quickly, Marie standing as well before they bowed as one. "Arigato, Shinobu-san. The food was excellent."

"Hai, arigato," his sister repeated.

"I'll do the dishes," offered Kitsune as Su and Lou drifted from the room back to their project where they continued to work on it in a subdued manner, the rest of the household going about their business as well.

"Kitsune-san?" asked Shinobu in a sad voice, her calm exterior on the brink of breaking.

Kitsune turned from the sink slightly, a dish and soap in hand. "Hai, Shinobu-chan?"

"Do you think....has sempai abandoned us?"

Kitsune sighed and bowed her head, forcing the tears that welled up in her eyes not to come. "I hope not, Shinobu. For the kids, all of us, and even just Motoko's sake, I hope not..." She sniffed lightly. "Motoko-chan always kept saying he'd return someday, that he would come back to us...but now...I don't know what to think anymore."

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Motoko sat beside her bed and the three little bodies that had insisted upon invading it for the night, Shinji and Sizu on the outside with little Keiko all curled up in the middle. She was still fully clothed with her sword at her side, sitting cross-legged with her elbows on her knees and her hands clasped in the middle where her chin rested lightly. Moonlight streamed around her, giving it a surreal feel, but the tear tracks down all three faces were very real indeed and it had taken hours to reassure the children that their father would still return someday. But even Motoko had begun to doubt her own words, for if Keitaro had finished his work, then where was he now? Maybe Kitsune had been right, maybe he had abandoned them...

Time passed as she sat there in meditation, the old grandfather clock down stairs striking two when she felt a slight tremor pass through the house that rose her from her light trance. Standing silently, she checked on the sleeping children one last time before she noiselessly glided out into the hall, checking each room with the same soundless caution as she went. Her sharpened senses picked up on what had woken her the first time, a slight patter of footsteps that came from the downstairs It wasn't any of the girls in the house, they were too heavy, and Seta-san had left a while ago...

Slowly walking along the hallway, she came to the stairs and swiftly went down them while drawing her katana at the same time. Reaching the bottom step, she was about to head towards the front where she'd originally heard the noise when she saw a shadow in the kitchen, and then the definite outline of someone whom she did not recognize...

"HIKEN ZANKUUSEN!!" she cried, letting the ki blast fly in a fit of anger that someone would dare to enter their home without permission. The figure was caught unawares and sent flying into the wall, Motoko then approaching cautiously with the tip of her sword still pointed at whoever it was as the dust slowly began to settle. He sat up slowly, coughing to clear his lungs of the dust and wiping his eyes at the same time.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded, the light from the moon hitting her from the window above his head, giving her the look of a wrathful angel.

"I...uh...gomen." He stood up slowly, dusting off his worn jeans and buttoned down shirt as he did. He reached over and flicked on the light, Motoko's katana staying up all the while. "Long time no see, eh Motoko-san?"

She let the katana drop in surprise, frozen where she stood as she visually took him in. Those green eyes...even if they were now covered by contacts and not glasses, that goofy smile even if it was to a tanner, more weathered face, even just the way he stood even though he'd obviously gained some muscle with time. "...Kei-...Urashima?"

"PAPA!!" Sizu jumped unexpectedly from the top of the stairs, Keitaro catching her skillfully and enveloping her in a huge hug as Shinji appeared at the top of the stairs, sliding down the rail before throwing himself at his father.

"Otosan!"

"...papa?" Keiko stood sleepily at the top of the stairs, Keitaro swinging Shinji on his back so he could carry them both up the steps, jumping three at a time, to pick Keiko as well and smother them all in one big hug. He then walked back down, a huge grin on his face the whole way. The fact was not lost on Motoko that he carried them all rather easily as well, something the Keitaro of old would never have been able to do.

"I'm home," he assured them as he practically radiated his love for them with is smile alone. "I missed you all so much...!!"

"I knew you'd come home," whispered Sizu, wiping away her tears on his shirt with a huge smile. "Obassan, you were right!"

"I'm always right," replied Motoko, giving her a gentle smile, though her face took on a distracted look as the other residents of Hinata-sou began to rise from their sleep because of the commotion on the stairs.

"Keitaro-kun!" cried Su as she glomped on him as well, the kids making room for her in the hug.

"Su-chan! You haven't change a bit!" Su paused and felt his arms with a smile.

"Ooh! You have though. Looks like you got some muscle there, Keitaro-kun!" She winked at him, then let go so the others could greet him as well.

Keitaro shrugged humbly. "Oh, just a little. Oh, and this is for you!" He pulled out a bag of banana lollipops, which she grabbed and thanked him happily.

"We were afraid you'd never come back, sugar," teased Kitsune, forgiving him immediately as he pulled out a bottle of sake and handed it to her. Giving him a hug, she took her new prize and disappeared into her room with it.

"Sempai!" Shinobu gave him an excited hug, drawing back with a blush a few moments later. "We're glad you're back, sempai!"

"I'm glad to be back, Shinobu-chan," he replied enthusiastically, bringing out a cute little Chinese umbrella. "Here."

"Oh, thank you sempai!"

"What did you bring for us, otosan??" asked Shinji as he tugged on Keitaro's shirt, Sizu looking at him with a sparkle of mischief in her eyes.

"Want presents!" added Keiko with a huge smile.

"Okay, okay..." He pulled out a hand made doll for Keiko, a beautiful fan for Sizu, and a wooden boomerang for Shinji. "Here ya go, kids!"

"Arigato, otosan!!"

"Pretty!!"

"Awigato!"

"You're welcome, guys." He gave them another round of hugs and kisses, letting them hang on his legs and arms even though it hurt his back because he missed them so much.

"It is good to see you back, Urashima-san," commented Alicia from beside the stairs, one of the few who were fully dressed and not in a bathrobe. She bowed and he bowed back, bringing a richly carved cane from behind his back and placing it in her hands.

"It is good to see you're still with us, Alicia-san," replied Keitaro as she examined it with her hands. "A little something I hope you'll accept for your time as our chef."

"I accept it, arigato." She bowed slightly and smiled at him, waving goodnight to the rest before she tried out her new cane on the way back to her room.

Keitaro turned and looked at Motoko, the last adult still left with him downstairs. "Eh...Motoko-san...?"

"Welcome back," she said abruptly, bowing to him before she gathered Keiko -who was sitting at her feet with the doll- up in her arms and headed up the stairs. "Shinji, Sizu, it's time for bed. You can spend some more time with your father when you get home from school tomorrow." They immediately stood and followed her after giving Keitaro a kiss goodnight.

"Hai, Obassan. Goodnight otosan."

"Coming. Nite papa."

"Goodnight, Sizu-chan, Shinji-kun, Keiko-chan..." He watched as they disappeared upstairs, leaving him alone to go and sleep in his room. His room. Those two words sounded so strange after being away for so long...but finally, he was home.

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Motoko sat at the kitchen table with the book of the Inn's finances in front of her, trying to find some day she could take just a few more yen off of one or other of the budgets without cutting things too close and still making the bills on time. Perhaps she could take out half the landscaping budget, cancel the usual help that came in, and find time to prune and cut everything herself...Shinji and Sizu had gone off to school long ago, and Su had borrowed Keiko to go and test some toddler's toys for the company she worked for, so she had the entire house to herself for once.

Hearing the floorboards creak outside in the main hall reminded her that it was not entirely empty after all.

Keitaro...

His name reverberated in her mind, making it hard to concentrate for a second before she shoved it out of her head entirely and got back to work. The door to the kitchen opened and she glanced up, seeing Keitaro stride in confidently and get right to work on making himself a pot of coffee. Something was different about him, though she couldn't quite figure out what. All she knew was it was the same something that had thrown her off balance last night and made her so short with him.

Then again, she wasn't entirely sure how she felt about his return period. A quick check of his left hand showed he hadn't gotten married again, a wave of relief washing over her for some reason. Or at least she hoped he hadn't, so hopefully she'd still be needed to stay and take care of the kids. But what if he asked her to leave? Or was merely waiting until an appropriate time to tell them the good news? A wave of sadness washed over her, for she'd grown to love the three younglings very much...

Then there was the anger for him staying away to so long, the relief that he was alright and safe with them once more. Sadness that things had changed, joy that he had found himself again and apparently had worked himself through his grief, and other things too complex to even begin to explain...

"Hello in there..." Motoko snapped back to the present as Keitaro waved a hand in front of her face, a teasing smile on his face. "You home, Motoko-san?"

"Eh...gomen." She felt her face redden, then regained her composure and watched with a grimace as he drank his coffee black. He must have noticed for he cracked a wry grin and sat across from her at the table.

"Old habits die hard," he explained with a shrug. "Seta-san never had enough sugar to go around the crew, so coffee was drunk plain. I guess I just never considered switching back even after I left..."

"You'd think in over a year you would have managed to do so," added Motoko in a low voice before she could stop herself. Turning away, she went back to work as she felt him freeze across from him.

"...then...he told you?" asked Keitaro sheepishly, scratching the back of his head as he tensed for the blast of ki that was sure to come. He was shocked when none did arrive, Motoko merely leveled a look at him that made him wish she had blasted him into the sky rather than look at him with such hurt and mistrust in her eyes.

"He wanted to know if you'd made it back," replied Motoko coolly. "Imagine his and our surprise when no one seems to know where you've been since last year."

"I...let me start from the beginning." Keitaro took another sip of his coffee, a new confidences radiating from him that Motoko had never felt before. "The first year or so I spent burying everything I felt and burying myself in the mounds of work Seta-san provided for me. I made a lot for what I did because I did it well, and all was well on the outside. But on the inside, it was eating me alive. I was a sad, sorry, mess Motoko, and I ended up collapsing a few times from the pressure of it all. Needless to say, that didn't go over very well with Seta-san."

"So, after nearly working myself to death and some strict orders from Seta to pull myself together or get out, I was forced to face it and deal with it head on. Naru's dead, and she's not coming back. Though I still miss her, it's not the same intense sorrow it once was and I know I will go on with my life. Also, I have a responsibility to be here for my children and to find another wife to help me raise them. They deserve at least that much from me. Seta-san helped me rid myself of the negative emotions I still carried by teaching me much of what he knows of fighting, which was no small feat, let me tell you. So, after the second year I packed up and left, telling Seta-san I would be going home soon and setting off for Tokyo I swore I was going to find the perfect wife for me and my family and bring her home with me. I was so sure of myself that I kind of forgot to figure time into the matter..."

Motoko felt him pause, and looked up to see him blushing horribly. "So?"

"Needless to say...I failed. There was no one there I could find that I loved. And I realized after awhile that I was looking in the wrong place, too. So, after year of searching and failing here I am, waiting to see what's going to happen next and willing to take up what I left behind once." Keitaro reached over and touched Motoko's hand, an ashamed look on his face. "Gomen for dumping that load on you, Motoko-san. It was unfair of me, and I should never have run off like I did..."

"It was nothing between friends," replied Motoko, drawing quickly away from his touch and turning to go out the door. "I have other things to attend to, Urashima-san. Excuse me."

Keitaro watched her leave, a sad look in his eyes that could not be hidden even by his new contacts. "Motoko-san..." His eyes did fall on the book that she'd left behind, spinning it around quickly as he recognized what it was. He whistled low to him as he realized just what sort of state he'd left the place in and felt even more guilty than ever, reaching for his check book as he began to figure in how his saved fortune could better help the Inn and it's occupants. "At least I'm not entirely useless..."

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Alicia found Motoko meditating on the roof above the backyard, seemingly watching as Keitaro played with Shinji, Sizu, and Keiko. Su and Lou, who had met Keitaro earlier that evening, still had their project set up in one corner and working away at it vigorously with the occasion shout of triumph and minor explosion of failure.

"You are distracted, Motoko-san," murmured Alicia as she settled herself beside the kendo woman, the richly carved cane she'd received lying across her knees. Some how, though just how Motoko wasn't sure, the young woman practically radiated her trustworthiness as she had the first night Motoko had cried upon her shoulder. She realized for the first time just how much she relied upon the young woman as a friend whom she could talk to as an objective view.

"You're right, I am," admitted Motoko with a sigh. "I suppose I should be grateful that he's back, I no longer have to take care of Hinata-sou, and soon all my duties will once more be his and I can concentrate solely upon perfecting my school of sword ...but, I'm not."

"You changed with the life that was dealt to you and you accepted," explained Alicia slowly with a shrug. "It was stable. Now, another factor has been added in, namely Keitaro-san's return, and now things are less than stable. Where things will settle out has yet to be determined. And while that would have at one time not bothered you, now it does because of the fact that you've changed."

"I suppose you're right," replied Motoko demurely. "But also, Kei-...Urashima-san has returned as well. Were he the same, I don't think I would fear how things will turn out as much. Now...it's like he finally decided to grow up. Naru and he never changed from the time I met them until her death. Within their perfect world, they didn't need to. Perhaps with his loss he finally matured into the man he is now."

The fact that Motoko kept refusing to call Keitaro his first name was not lost on the blind woman. "You never saw him as a man before?"

"He never presented himself as anything more than an older boy with much to learn." Motoko shrugged indifferently.

"Oh." Alicia considered her words, then asked, "Why do you continue to address Keitaro-san as Urashima-san? Formality is something he generally discourages, ne? And it seems you have been friends for years, so why are you so formal with him?"

"I don't know," replied Motoko, biting her lip as she settled her chin on the palm of her hand. "I guess...it's just easier that way."

"Easier how?" Alicia's lips curled into a slight smile. "Easier to keep him at arms length that way? Easier to admit something about him? Or just easier to accept the change in him?"

"I don't know!" Motoko stood swiftly and turned away from the scene below her, tucking her hands into her sleeves reflexively. "That's what bothers me the most. I'm 30 years old. I am the head of my Clan. I have mastered every technique it has ever used within it's school of weaponry. I have perfect control over my body and mind, yet...I don't know my own heart."

"Perhaps you should go talk to Keitaro, and listen to his," suggested Alicia as she walked back towards the door to the inside. "You might learn something."

"What you do-?" Motoko turned around to find herself alone, sighing as she ran a hand distractedly through her hair. She turned and walked back to the edge of the roof, watching Keitaro gallop across the yard with Keiko on his back and Shinji and Sizu hot on his trail. "Why...?" She sat and meditated again, her mind beginning to wander back in time through the path of memories of that which once was. There he was in her mind's eye the first time she'd laid eyes on him staring up at her from the ground, his friends having left him to whatever punishment they should have been inflicted with. Reflecting back on it, she admitted Keitaro had done nothing wrong, and if anything had deserved the right to walk on without being blasted, he had apologized for his friend's behavior, after all...

And then there were all those other times he'd earned her respect as well, and she'd only blasted him around as Naru had done. Rationalizing that she was only following her friend's lead as a lie, one she wouldn't even bother trying to use. She'd always seen him as an older boy, or just barely a young man whom was too clumsy and perverted for his own good. Quite honestly, though, she could remember several times he'd acted with far more maturity than she had and she'd held herself in higher regard that she'd deserved at the time. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black...

Another face suddenly appeared inches in front of hers, a hand waving in front of her eyes. "Anyone home?"

"Eh?!" Motoko scrambled backwards, her heart going a million miles a second as she took in Keitaro perfectly balanced on the railing of the roof where she'd been sitting only a moment ago, a sheepish grin on his face.

"Heh...um, gomen, Motoko-san...I didn't mean to scare you really..." He then tensed up as if expecting a blow of sorts. When nothing came, he looked up slowly and saw Motoko had risen to her feet and was dusting herself off, the sword still in its sheath on her back. A faint blush graced her cheeks, though her face remained as calm as ever as she straightened her clothes. What he could see was her heart going a million miles a minute just from being as close to him as she had been.

"It's alright," she replied after a few moments of silence, a thoughtful look coming on her face. "What do you want, Urashima-san?"

"Dinner was awhile ago, and some of the girls were getting worried when you didn't show. Alicia-san sent me to check on you...are you sure you're not mad for being disturbed? Gomen, it looked like you were really concentrating on something."

"Hai, it is fine," Motoko assured him lightly with a slight nod. She glanced at the sun and realized many hours had passed since she'd last talked to Alicia. "Though, one has to wonder...how did you manage to sneak up on me like that?"

"Seta-san." Keitaro jumped off the rail and stood up, spreading his hands wide. "That was one of the things he taught me while I was with him. It's amazing all the stuff he knows..."

"You said he taught you to fight, didn't you?" asked Motoko as she began to remove her sword from her back and set it to the side.

"Hai..." Keitaro gulped, becoming increasingly nervous. "Why do you ask, Motoko-san?"

"Face me, then." She assumed the position she'd learned from the judo master down the street, combined with a little of her sword stance as well. "I wish to see what you've learned."

The color drained from Keitaro's face, though he obediently assumed the stance Seta had taught him, which was lose and free of actual structure. "If you want..."

Motoko paused, a sly grin curving her lips. "Scared, Urashima?"

"No..." He paused, then solidified himself. "Let's go! HA!" He jumped up and swung around in midair, fly at her with a well-timed round house kick. She jumped over his attack and drove her hands towards his head. He caught them and used it to spring her over his head, turning quickly and hoping to catch her off guard as she landed in a crouch once more. They battled lightly back and forth, moving back and forth along the roof with neither one giving or taking any ground.

"What do you think?" asked Keitaro as he backed of slightly, a silly grin much like Seta's on his face.

"I think you have yet to prove yourself in some areas," admitted Motoko with a shrug as she suddenly back flipped off the roof, landing on the fence that surrounded the hot springs. No one else was back there taking a bath, so it mattered not. Keitaro ran to the edge of the roof and sweated nervously, Motoko watching him expectantly below. "Something wrong, Urashima-san?" Her lips curved again. "Should I get down and get some tea while I wait for you to take the stairs?"

"Ah...no!" Keitaro jumped after a slight hesitation, using the tree in between them as a halfway point to push off of before he landed across from her on the fence. "Let's go!"

Motoko smiled, something she normally didn't do while in a fight. "Hai. Prepare your-AII!!" The fight was cut short as the fence suddenly fell over, two forms coming from the holes that had suddenly appeared at the base of it. Both fighter's cries of surprise were cut off as they landed in the hot springs, their clothes quickly saturating themselves with water and weighting them down.

Keitaro sputtered to the surface first, coughing as he cleared his lungs and wiped his eyes gingerly so his contacts wouldn't fall out. "Ah...*cougcough*...what in the world? Motoko-san??" He turned around, seeing only a few bubbles coming from where she'd landed. "Motoko-san!"

She burst from under the water gasping for air, coughing violently as she wiped the water from her eyes and struggled to stand upright. Her hands encountered something with a shell and four flippers on top of her head, her bringing it down to her face only to toss it as far way as it would go while backing into Keitaro's arms without realizing it. "Ack!! EVIL TUR-...SHELLED REPTILE!!"

Keitaro instinctively put them around her waist, ignoring the two people who were discussing lightly where their digging had gone wrong. Tama-chan, who had mysteriously returned out of nowhere, just myued at Motoko teasingly and flew towards the back of Hinata-sou.

Keitaro and Motoko both froze as soon as the turtle was out of sight. Keitaro loosened his hold and backed off, coming around in front of her instead. "Gomen, Motoko-san," he said sincerely, running a hand through his sopping wet hair. "Are you alright? I...ah..." He turned around quickly, his eyes having stayed on her face the whole time until just then.

Glancing down, she turned away from him as well as she saw her chest bindings had come undone, probably from the water they'd absorbed and her wild thrashing to get away from the cursed...reptile. Binding them back up as best she could, she closed the top of her gi as far as it would go, holding it there with her hands. "Ah...it's alright, it wasn't your fault..." She turned towards what was left of the fence, seeing Sarah and Seta standing there with a map between them dressed in  miner's clothes with hardhats and spades. "Seta-san?! Sarah-chan?! What are you doing here?!"

"Oh, Motoko-san!" Seta greeted her cheerfully with a wave. "Sorry if you were on the fence. Looks like you took a bit of a swim..." He glanced over at Keitaro, who had cautiously turned back around when he hadn't gone flying into the stratosphere. "Anywho, we're following this map, see? Guess we took a wrong turn somewhere along the line, though, gomen! We'll get this fixed for you."

"Kei-kun!" Everyone looked in the direction Tama-chan had disappeared, Mutsumi running from there with Tama-chan right behind her. "Are you alright, Kei-kun??" Motoko instinctively backed up again, but this time made sure it wasn't towards Keitaro. Reaching the edge of the springs she hoisted herself out backwards and continued to back away, fear evident on her face though she forced herself to remain outwardly calm.

"I...hate...turtles..."

"I'm fine, really," Keitaro quickly assured her as she stood there in distress at the edge of the water, waiting for him to get out there. He did, wading over as fast as he could and accepting the towel she handed to him gratefully.

"Are you sure??" asked Mutsumi again, this time clinging to his arm. "That was quite a spill you took there..."

"Hai, I am sure." He turned and looked around, Seta and Sarah having already disappeared back down the hole and Motoko having just made her escape around the corner of the house. "I should go check on Motoko-san..."

"What were you doing out there, Kei-kun?" asked Mutsumi, a note of distress still evident in her voice. "You look like you're about to collapse!"

"We were just sparring," said Keitaro before he even considered those words. Mutsumi gasped.

"Sparring?? Did she hurt you, Kei-kun? You have many bumps and bruises..."

"No, no. She did not hurt me, Mutsumi, really, it was when the fence fell..."

Mutsumi jumped to conclusions again. "She made the fence fall on you?! How awful!"

"No, Mutsumi!" Keitaro put a hand over Mutsumi's mouth, talking as quickly as he could. "Motoko and I were sparring, and we both jumped from the roof to the fence. See the holes? Seta-san and Sarah-chan came up through them and made the fence fall, sending both of us into the water, ok?"

"Oh...ok." Mutsumi perked up immediately, taking Keitaro's hand in her own and heading for the house. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up!"

"Uh...sure..." Keitaro stumbled along behind, rubbing himself dry with one hand and a damp towel as best he could. "When did you get here, though? The girls had said that you hadn't been around for years..."

"I came as soon as Tama-chan told me you were back in town," explained Mutsumi with a smile. "I...I wanted to talk to you, Kei-kun."

"Well...we're talking now, aren't we?" reasoned Keitaro with a shrug.

"Hai...but," Mutsumi bit her lip, and blushed slightly. "I heard from a cousin you were looking to remarry, Keitaro-kun."

"I was," he admitted, feeling his cheeks get warmer. "Why do you ask?"

"I...you know I always loved you, Kei-kun." Mutsumi stopped and turned, looking at him shyly. "I can cook and clean and children love me...to be given the chance to be your wife Keitaro-kun has been my dream since I met you..."

Keitaro stared at her for a moment, completely shocked beyond words. "Well..." he started after several moments of silence. "I...uh...you see..."

"Don't answer me now," said Mutsumi quickly with a smile. "Just think about it, ok? We can talk more tonight."

"Eh...yeah, sure." Keitaro stood there for a moment as she went on down to the main room beside his bedroom door, wondering what in the world he was going to do now. "Even after 3 years of being gone life is complicated...eesh..."

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Motoko quickly slipped out of her drenched clothes, leaving them in the hamper as she reached into her closet...and found she had not one clean gi or hamaka left. Sighing in resignation she pulled out one of her simpler kimonos instead and dried her hair with a spare towel before brushing it out slowly.

A timid knock came to her door. "Obassan?"

"Come in." She was surprised to see Shinji standing there with Sizu and Keiko on either side, all of them looking at her with sad faces. "Hey, what's wrong, you guys? Aren't you glad that your dad's home?"

"We were..." started Sizu, a quiver coming to her chin. "But..."

Keiko took in a huge breath of air and yelled, "Don't leave us, Mama!!" as she launched herself at Motoko. Burying her head in the woman's shoulder, huge tears began to fall down the small girls face as she sobbed. Shinji and Sizu came running in as well, latching themselves to either side.

"You're not leaving, are you??" demanded Sizu innocently. "Kit-chan was talking to Shinobu-chan that you had to return home..."

"You can't leave!" added Shinji passionately. "Who's gonna help us with our homework?? Or tuck us in at night?? Or play with us when we get home from school while the other adults work??"

"Your father could do all that," Motoko reminded him slowly, stroking his hair gently as he wiped his tears on her sleeve. "Besides, you have many other aunts here who would take care of you, ne? If something were to happen and I had to go, you would be fine."

"But we don't want you to," said Sizu pleadingly. "Ever!"

"You can't leave," said Keiko decidedly, wrapping her short arms around Motoko's waist as far as they would go. "Cuz I said so!"

"Kei-chan...Sizu-chan....Shinji-kun..." Motoko sighed as she held them all close, rocking them gently back and forth. "I cannot promise that I'll always be here at Hinata-sou, but I will never leave you entirely." The sun had long set outside and the filled day began to catch up with all of them, Keiko dropping off first to drool down Motoko's kimono and Sizu curling up in a small ball beside her sister soon after. Setting both of them on her bed gently, Motoko let Shinji lay down beside them and sat beside them as a sort of guardian for the moment.

"Motoko-san?" asked Keitaro as he passed her open door. "Have you seen the...oh." He took in the sight of her sitting there beside his three children, all fast asleep in her bed with looks of perfect contentment on their faces. The tracts of tears still there were not lost on him though, and he furrowed his brow in concern.

She merely glanced at him when he sat next to her, kneeling much in the same way she was. Keitaro, though, felt uncomfortable in the silence that surrounded them and opened his mouth to speak.

"Why are they sleeping here?" he asked quietly, careful not to disturb the children from their slumber.

"They were worried about something," replied Motoko as she swept Sizu's hair from her face with a brush of her fingertips. "And then they fell asleep here, with me. They have had a very busy day after all." She glanced over him, anything she was feeling hidden behind a wall of calm. Her pulse quickened, though, waiting nervously to see what he would say next.

"Hai...what were they worried about, though?" he asked softly. "I saw all three of them come streaking from the kitchen awhile ago, but the only other two in there were Kitsune and Shinobu..."

"They heard that I might have to leave," replied Motoko demurely, refusing to look at him at all. "And were greatly upset by it."

"...do you?"

The question caught her slightly off guard, as well as the tone with which it had been spoken. She turned to look at Keitaro, who sat with his eyes resting on his beloved children. "Ah...I do not know...why do you care, though?" Her throat tightened as she thought back to what she'd heard herself earlier, when Mutsumi had practically proposed to Keitaro in the hallway. She'd been on the stairs making her way up and had heard it all perfectly. "You have been offered the chance to marry what could be considered the perfect wife, ne? You are home, and with a wife to take care of the young ones...what need have you of me anymore?"

"What if...what if I-....we needed you just for you," started Keitaro slowly, looking away nervously as he continued. Motoko felt her face redden slightly, feeling like a young girl again when he'd first made bumbles like that years ago. "If you heard me talking to Mutsumi-san...well...I turned her down right after I got changed."

"You did?" asked Motoko in surprise, sitting up a little straighter. "But...I thought..."

"She's a sweet girl," continued Keitaro with a slight grin. "But...she's not the girl for me. She was disappointed, of course, but...I think there are better men who deserve her more than I and she would be much happier with."

"I see."

"Motoko-san?" Both adults looked up to see Alicia standing in the doorway with an unusual look on her face. "Gomen, if I'm interrupting something. But...your sister called."

Motoko rose quickly. "Is something wrong?"

"No, she said to remind you that she was arriving tomorrow with your niece," explained Alicia with a shrug. Motoko froze.

"Eh...did she say what time??"

  Alicia turned to walk off down the hall. "Sometime in the morning. Goodnight, Motoko-san. Keitaro-san."

"Uh...night Alicia-chan."

"Goodnight, Alicia-san."

Keitaro rose as he saw the panicked look on Motoko's face. "Is...something wrong?"

"No..." Motoko looked at him distractedly, then calmed herself out of habit. "No, nothing is wrong. I was just...unprepared, is all. We'll talk more in the morning, Keitaro-kun?"

"Of course." He bowed and walked out of the room past her, pausing as if to say something and then seemed to think the better of it and moved on instead. "Good night."

"Good night."

% =%+%=%+%=%+%=%+%=%+%=%+%=%+%=%+%=%+%=%+%=%

Motoko sat outside Hinata-sou under the front overhang, meditating lightly as Keiko, Sizu, and Shinji played in front of her together. Keitaro was, thankfully, inside and everyone else had gone off to work or to run this or that errand so she once again pretty much had the house to herself.

"Eh...excuse me." Motoko opened her eyes as a shadow fell over her, Keitaro standing there with his hands behind his back. What was he doing out here?? He was supposed to be inside doing chores so she wouldn't have to mention him right away when Tsurako got here..."But I believe this is yours." He pulled out a smallish box, kneeling before her and handing it to her in one motion.

"Keitaro, what are you doing?" she asked in a flat voice, a suspicious look on her face.

"Giving you your gift that I never got to give to you?" He then smiled, rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment. "At the time I didn't think it was a good time to do it...but I'll forget if  I put it off much longer so...here."

"Alright." She took it from him and opened it carefully, setting the lid of the polished wood box to the side as she realized what it contained. Gently picking it up, she studied the inlays of jade and silver that made up the lotus-flower hair comb. "Keitaro-san...I can't accept this..."

"Please, take it," he replied pleadingly with a slight grin. "I...it's the least I can do for the years you've helped me. You deserve more, a lot more than I can ever repay...and I-"

Motoko silenced him with a look. "I deserve nothing." She stiffly placed the beautiful comb back in the box. "Especially not this. Gomen, Urashima-san...but-"

"Motoko-chan?" Both looked up to see Tsurako standing there with Muchiko at her side. The older woman's eyes widened in surprise, and then pleasure as she realized who her sister's companion was. "Urashima-san! You have returned."

"Hai, Tsurako-sama, as of day before yesterday," he replied, rising and bowing low to her. She bowed in return, Muchiko copying her exactly. "It is good to be home."

"I'm glad." She patted Muchiko's head and told her to run along and play, sitting beside Motoko in a single motion. "I assume you have settled yourself in, then?"

"I have." Keitaro nodded firmly, drawing himself up slightly. "They have welcomed me back quite graciously. Arigato for the use of your sister, though, there is no one who could have watched and guarded my children better for me than she."

"She does that which is placed before her to the best of her ability," replied the older woman with a nod as well. Motoko blushed slightly, keeping her head slightly bowed.

"I do not deserve such praise..."

"You deserve more than praise," cut in Keitaro with an appealing look in his eyes. "Please, accept it. The rest did theirs."

"...very well." Motoko took the box and tucked it up her sleeve in resignation, her sister watching all of this with her usual appraising eye. "I accept it. Arigato, Keitaro-san."

"You're welcome." He rose and bowed to them both, making some excuse to go over and start playing with the children.

"You need to leave now while you still can," said Tsurako as soon as he was out of hearing, putting a firm hand on her sister's shoulder. "I know it will be hard...but you must accept it that your lives do not lie along the same path."

"You made your own path," replied Motoko's traitorous mouth before she could stop herself. "I...um...I mean..." She trailed off, pinned where she was by her sister's intense gaze.

"You wish to stay, then." Tsurako's words were not a question, but a statement, a fact that could not be disproven.

"...hai."

"Why? I thought you said before that he was an honorless, lecherous, weakling male. A pervert who needed to be destroyed, or at least severely punished, for his ways. Why stay in the presence of a man like that?" Tsurako steepled her hands together in front of herself.

Motoko sighed. "He...I don't know. My head says it is for the children, to be with them always as I promised Naru. He has not remarried, and I swore to watch over them in person at least until he has found another wife. Even then I cannot sever my ties with them completely...you understand."

"But your heart...?" Tsurako raised one eyebrow slightly.

Motoko shifted nervously under Tsurako's gaze. "..."

Tsurako noted the faint blush on her cheeks and nodded sagely. "I see. Is he an honorable man, Motoko-san?"

She paused, then nodded. "He is. Most of his 'acts of perversion' are due to his clumsiness, most of which have disappeared since he matured. He is...quite manly..." She averted her eyes, remembering how his clothes had clung to him like a second skin after their unintended dip in the springs.

"He is not a lecher, then?" asked Tsurako, noting the slightly starry look in her sister's eyes.

"No, he is not," Motoko replied firmly, her mouth setting itself in a line. "Those...incidents from our younger years were quite ridiculous, now that I look back on it. I myself was guilty of accusing him of many things that were not his fault. I suppose one could say this attachment I have to his children is my way of making it up to him for the past..."

"I'd say he's long since forgiven all of it," Tsurako murmured demurely. "However, there is something I believe you have not realized yet..."

Motoko straightened up and looked right at her sister, surprise written all over her face. "What is that?"

"What are you?"

"...the Head of our Clan, and Head of the Shinmeiryuu School of Sword."

"What was our father before us?"

"...the Head of our Clan, and Head of the Shinmeiryuu School of Sword."

"And our mother?"

"...one of the Clan he married?"

"Actually no." Motoko's eyes widened slightly in surprise, again the knowledge her sister had amazing her more than slightly as she continued. "Mother is not one of the Clan originally. Granted her blood line is not that far off...but Father still found her and brought her home with him as her bride so the line of the Shinmeiryuu school could be continued."

"...I never thought to ask, but who will the line be passed to from me?" asked Motoko slowly, a thoughtful look on her face.

"You're eldest son or daughter, if you have one," replied her sister lightly. "If not, Muchiko is next in line." She cleared her throat, and added, "And any you...adopt do not count into that. They may learn the way of the sword if they wish and be honorary members of the school...but they will never have any true place in it at all unless they prove themselves worthy."

"I don't understand why you choose to tell me all this now," murmured Motoko uncomfortably. "And there is something else that bothers me as well. If you're implying that I'm....free to what I want with my life in some regards, why did you have to give up the sword after you got married?"

"I didn't have to," explained Tsurako wryly. "I did so because of my own wishes for life. From the time I was a little girl I wanted to be a mother and a wife, like ours. Father wished me to learn the sword, so I did, and I grew to love it as well, but it wasn't what I truly wanted with my life. Kenjou completes me in a way the sword never could, that's why I gave up my inheritance of the Shinmeiryuu school of the Sword. You were always happy with your blade, Motoko-chan, and we assumed you'd never wish to take a mate so informing you of the particulars did not seem to be a problem..."

Motoko turned her head away again. "I still do not know what I wish to do."

"But just so you understand..." Tsurako shrugged broadly. "You are not truly needed back home, Motoko-chan, except for your yearly visits and checkups that you've been making since we first sent you away to board at Hinata-sou. If you were to remain here say...another 15 to 20 due to the fact that Keitaro-san never remarries and you stay to watch his children, we could manage without you." She smiled wanly at this. "I suspect Father enjoys his time as head drill instructor, as well, and would be most appreciative if you didn't return until after his retirement in several years..."

"So it would seem." Motoko smiled a true smile for what seemed the first time in the past few days, looking over at Keitaro who was running around the yard once more with Keiko on his back, being chased by Shinji, Sizu, and Muchiko. "What of Muchiko's training?"

"She needs to attend a more modern school, I think," admitted the older woman lightly. "To send her here to live with her those who could soon become 'cousins' would not be such a bad idea, and you could train her on a daily basis then..."

"That is very true..." Motoko took the box from her sleeve and opened it carefully, drawing out the comb so she could study it once more. On the back her name had been engraved into it in characters that were inlaid with silver. Putting it back, she tucked the box in her sleeve and turned to her sister who was rising slowly.

"Leaving already?" asked Motoko, a touch of regret in her voice.

"Hai, I am needed back home you know," replied Tsurako with a wink. "Letting Father know why you won't be returning for awhile for anything more than a visit. I think he will understand." She bowed. "Good bye, Motoko-chan."

Motoko bowed back with a smile. "Goodbye, onnechan."

Calling Muchiko over to her side, Tsurako bid her a hasty goodbye with some stern admonitions for her to be on her best behavior ever. The pack the young girl had brought with her lay forgotten by the door and Motoko picked it up to take with her upstairs to her own room where Muchiko would sleep. There it was left, Motoko wondering as she left it how much longer it would be hers. Years? Months? One never knew as things changed a little more each day...

"You're sister left," commented Keitaro when he met her at the bottom of the stairs. "I also noticed you didn't go with her." Motoko nodded and smiled ever so slightly, heading into the kitchen with a lighter step than usual. Keitaro followed, puzzled to say the least. "Gomen, if you think this is prying," he started nervously as she began to make a cup of tea for herself. "But...how much longer did she say you have?"

Motoko considered her answer, feeling much more in control than she had the night before. Not that she always had to be in control, and being out of control at time had its pluses, but at least having a clear look into the future made her feel better than before. She allowed herself a small smile, and replied, "As long as I want, really. I am not needed on a daily basis until my father's retirement or death, which ever comes first. And seeing as he's in better shape that most 20 year old males, we're giving him several more years before either of those things are even probable."

Keitaro paused, hoping she'd say more. Seeing she wouldn't, he went on. "And you're staying until then?"

Motoko raised an eyebrow slowly. "Do you want me to leave?" she asked softly with a note of hesitation in her voice.

"What??! No!" Keitaro blushed at his outburst, and settled himself down again. "Ah...no, Motoko-san. None of us ever want you to leave."

"Then," she stated with a shrug. "I will stay." She then smiled, and added, "Muchiko as staying as well, to go to school with Sizu-chan and Shinji-kun. She will be most happy here, I think."

Keitaro beamed and was about to say something when Shinji, Sizu, and Muchiko all ran in, with mischievous looks on their face. Sizu plopped herself in her father's lap and Shinji stood at his side, Muchiko going and crawling onto Motoko's lap as well.

"Where's your sister?" asked Keitaro, worried when he didn't see Keiko among them.

"She's right there," said Sizu as the little girl came parading in proudly with a pillow in her hands, two rings made of daisies on the pillow. "We talked to Alicia-chan, and she told us about some of the American customs they have. Can we show you one?"

"Um, sure," replied Keitaro slowly, though he knew there was something he recognized about all this. Motoko was watching curiously, she rarely had anything to do with Americans, other than Alicia-san, and she'd never spoken to her of such a custom with two rings on a pillow...

"First," said Sizu as she took one of the rings and placed it on Keitaro's left hand and Muchiko did the same, putting it on Motoko's left hand ring finger. "We do this."

"Now," went on Shinji as he pulled out a black book with some paper stuck in it. "She gave me this paper with all the instructions and words to say on it, but it was in English, and she doesn't write Japanese very well, so we're just gonna skip that part and move on again, ok?"

"Oh, ok..."

"Right. Keiko?" The little girl put aside the pillow and stood between them solemnly, her hand spread apart before her in a gesture of great importance. It was spoiled by the fact she was three, but it was good try anyways.

"By the powers investeded in me, by Alicia-obassan, I promounce you hushand and wife! You are married!" She declared loudly, a huge grin on her face when she was done. Keitaro's jaw dropped and Motoko froze, turning a very interesting shade of red.

"M...married?!" stammered Motoko, unable to say any more than that. "Kids, I..."

"What?" demanded the little girl with a frown. "You don't know why?? Well, me an Sizu-chan and Shinji-kun and Muchiko-chan was talking and you love us and we love you and we just figured it was the best way to stay together forever, right?? Afta all, we dun want papa to marry some old hag..."

Motoko rose slowly, forcing her hands not to shake as she reached for the daisy chain ring as if to take it off. "I believe I must go speak with Alicia-san-"

"Wait," said Keitaro quickly, a sheepish look on his face. "I was...going to ask you something, Motoko-san, but it looks like these guys beat me to it." He bowed low and presented her with ring. "Would...would you be my wife, Motoko-san?" He went a deep red from the tips of his ears all the way down below the collar of his shirt, something that looked more than strangely amusing and Motoko felt her lips twitching up into an amused smile despite her desire to remain serious. Still, she also felt in a way that he wasn't groveling before her and was instead offering her something precious from one equal to another.

"You accept, right?!" demanded Keiko as she tugged on Motoko's clothes, a serious look on her face. Motoko picked her up and swept over to Keitaro's side, planting a kiss on both of them.

"Of course I do." Keitaro looked surprised for a second before he came and kissed her back, gathering Shinji and Sizu to him as Muchiko leapt onto Motoko's back. He put the ring on her left hand with the daisy one, and odd combination that looked strangely right. Together the six of them stood there in a huge family hug, because that's what they were now, a family.

"I love you, Mama," whispered Keiko as she planted a big wet kiss on Motoko's cheek, Keitaro beaming as he did the same on the other.

"I love you too, sweety."

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Motoko stood happily on the roof again, watching the four children play among themselves in the yard. After spending an hour together Keitaro had gotten a call from his parents and decided to tell them the great new there and then, now being stuck listening to twenty minutes of congratulations from every member of his extended family who happened to be visiting at that moment.

"Motoko-san?" The kendo woman turned around quickly to see Alicia standing there dressed as if she were going to go out with her cane in hand already.

"Hai, Alicia-san?" she replied.

"Congratulations." Alicia bowed and smiled, then turned as if to walk out again. Motoko stopped her, putting a hand to her shoulder.

"Why do I feel this is the last time I'm ever going to see you?" she asked quietly, concern creeping into her voice.

Alicia turned back around, a gentle smile on her face. "Because it is."

Motoko paused. "...why? Is something wrong that we could help with?"

Alicia shook her head, still smiling. "Nope. My job, I guess you could say, is completed. I just have to go home now, that's all."

"What do you mean, you're job?" Motoko frowned and held on even tighter, refusing to let the young woman out of her grip. "Alicia, there's no reason to run like this, if something happened, let us help you."

"I'm not the one who ever needed any help." Alicia shook herself out of Motoko's suddenly slack grasp and nodded slightly. "But, this I will tell you. Narusegawa-san knew her death was upon her even before the doctors found it and prayed that the gods would help her friends in some way. And so they sent me." Alicia bowed, a slight glow beginning to form around her. Motoko backed off slightly, wonderment and awe showing in her eyes, but never any fear. Somehow, she could not bring herself to fear such a person as Alicia. "Naru never knew what I was, but I still served my purpose well. When the weaker members of Hinata-sou needed someone, you or one of the other strong ones like Haruka-san were there for them. When the strong ones needed someone to help them, though, I was there instead. You trusted me because you felt like you could and should, something that was necessary for me to help you along to way to healing with your loss plus bearing the losses of those around you."

"What are you?" asked Motoko simply, too shocked to say anything other than that.

"I am Love." Alicia shined as her smile grew all the brighter. "I am Comfort. I am Strength. I am everything you need when you need it. To put it quite simply." Her lips took on an odd quirk. "I am me." She began to fade from sight, her form scattering into a thousand bits of light. "And now everyone is happy, just as Naru wished they would be despite her death. I will send her your regards, Motoko-san, and those of the rest as well...goodbye!" And with that, she was gone.

Motoko looked about for a moment, then rushed down stairs to the room Alicia had occupied, finding it empty except for a pair of sunglasses that lay in the middle of the room.

"What are you looking at?" asked Keitaro as he came up behind her, gently wrapping his arms about her waist. "Oh. Alicia-san must have forgotten those when she left..."

"What do you mean, when she left?" asked Motoko, feeling extremely bewildered.

Keitaro looked at her like she'd lost it slightly. "She left this morning for America, don't you remember? She gave a months' notice of when she'd have to leave before I even came, right?"

Motoko blinked, then felt her memory fuzzing up for a moment before everything went back into focus. "Oh...right! I knew that...." Keitaro teased her lightly about it as they walked back out to the yard and watched the children play, arms wrapped around each other and content to just stand there and be together.

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Alicia looked down on them all with a happy smile on her face, her golden eyes shining in a way they never could have hidden behind those sunglasses for all those years. She said only one thing before she left, skipping among the clouds like a school girl.

"Each day comes bearing its gift of happiness, at last they have learned to untie the ribbons..."

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Has no one else found it strange that Motoko's sister passed off the School of Sword to her and no one seemed to make a big deal out of it?? Everything concerning that I did my best with, considering that there were so many possible reasons why for everything. Like why such a post could be shoved from one sibling to the next without an actual reason why. (If there is one in the Love Hina anime after the Spring Special, I haven't seen it so : P And if it's in the Manga, I haven't read it, so : P) Here's the words you might not know about. As for their spellings, I looks all over the place and got so many different spellings of things...here's the best I could do.

Konichiwa-      Good afternoon

Hai-                 yes      

Obassan-         aunt

Sayonara-            Goodbye

Otosan-           Father

Hamaka-         Cross between pants and long skirt

Baka-               Idiot

Kimono-         Trad. Japanese outfit

Gi-                   Over outfit/shirt

Arigato-           Thank you

Gomen-           Sorry

If I missed some, my bad, but I'm not perfect, so you know... Hope you enjoyed it, remember, I OWN NONE OF IT. Please review, though, the author (ME) will love you for it. ^_^

~Crosseyedbutterfly~