The sorceress sat in her high-backed velvet chair, absently passing a cleaning rag over her crystal ball. Before her stood a table, five tarot cards face down on the surface. Around her was a square of lit white candles. Barely visible in the darkness directly ahead of the sorceress, beyond the candles, was a doorway that connected Hirosaki Chikage to the mundane world beyond.

Hirosaki?

"Is that who I am?" she whispered, gazing at the opaque ball on her lap. "Is that . . .?" She dramatically paused. "Who I really am?"

The ball glowed softly before the light melted into an image. A facial shot of a teenage man nearly a year older than her. Chikage blinked as she took in his measure. He seemed a typical city fellow, yet there was . . . an untamed WILDNESS within him. Best noticed in his eyes, she mused, relaxing herself. Yes, to most normal people, this fellow would probably seem plain. Dull, actually. But Chikage was certainly NOT a normal person. Not by far.

"Are you him?" she whispered.

She stared at the cards before her. A hand touched the far right card. It was flipped. The Emperor, the card that normally symbolized the imposition of structured order on chaos. "Family," Chikage whispered before staring once more at the image in her ball. "Yes," she breathed out, closing her eyes as her hand gently caressed the ball. "You are he, aren't you?" The barest hint of a smile tugged her mouth as she committed the image to memory.

"Ani-kun."

Suddenly, the image changed. Chikage watched as it morphed into that of another person, this time of a young woman possessing profound grace and beauty. Yet, like Ani-kun – in fact, even more so than Ani-kun – this one also contained within her heart a cauldron of wild fury. Who was she?

Someone who might take Ani-kun away?

Her hand fell on the second card of the suite. The Temperance card, ward against excessive hope. Chikage blinked. "So it is not meant to be. Not this round," the sorceress mused before she smiled. "But you will not take Ani-kun away from us, will you? For you need us just as much as Ani-kun will need us, won't you?" She closed her eyes as images, visions, flooded her mind.

"Ane-kun."


Lonely Souls
by Fred Herriot

Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.

Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot


WRITER'S INTRODUCTION: This story – which is something I've been working with over the last decade, since right before 9/11 – is set immediately after the end of both the Yatsura and Ranma manga series. It also includes the set universe in The Senior Year (not including the changes to certain races as depicted in the Phoenix From the Ashes universe). In the Sister Princess anime timeline, this is just before the start of the series, though what was depicted there really wouldn't factor directly into this series. Note that all Romanisation systems used in PFTA (Hepburn for Japanese, McCune-Reischauer for Korean and Hànyǔ-Pīnyīn for Mandarin) will be used here. Oriental "family name-first" name order will also apply in this series.

In the 2011 update to the story, writer's notes will be contained at the end of every chapter.


THE PROLOGUE, "A" SIDE – LIGHT BEFORE THE DARK

"Baka Kā-san! How could she ask Lum to cook tonight's meal?"

An annoyed Moroboshi Ataru stormed down the street toward the one place in Tomobiki he could call a refuge from the madness which had haunted him for so long: Tampopo's Rāmen and Beefbowl Bar in the town's restaurant district. And yes, this night, several days into winter vacation, he needed that refuge.

Not that he would always seek that, he mused. Truth be told, if he had the chance to sit down and talk it over with Lum, he could show her the error of her ways. After all, he had many catastrophic encounters with Oni cooking (one time, he got turned into twins; another, a pseudo-werewolf) to show Lum that what might be good for an Oni's palate wouldn't be so good for a Terran's.

But, no!

Not this time.

When he got back from the library, Lum was busy cooking . . . well, Ataru didn't know how to describe the pile of SOMETHING in the pot. Before he could wonder what was happening, his mother came downstairs, announcing that she and her husband were going out for the evening. So, because it was some important Oni holiday – which one it actually might be, Ataru didn't hear – it only seemed right to have Lum cook dinner. Before Ataru could protest, his parents stepped out, his mother parting with a warning: "DON'T run off to Tampopo's like you always do, Ataru!" Then she added, as if in spite, "I told Lum-chan and Ten-chan to make sure you stay put. Honestly, I wish I never had you!"

Remembering that, Ataru grimaced as he turns down the street that led right to Tampopo's front door. His mother's warning didn't matter in the long term; Ataru had developed many ways of getting clear of Lum and Ten when he wanted to be left alone. The many times – WAY too many! – Moroboshi Kinshō had said THAT to her own son flowed back through his mind's eyes. Baka ahō Kā-san! Did she honestly think that he was just going to TAKE all that crap from her for the rest of his life? Did she honestly believe he wasn't hurt EVERY time she said that, acted as if he didn't matter? Stupid, selfish bi- . . .!

Ataru sighed, his pace slowing. Damn, he really shouldn't think things like THAT, should he? Yeah, his mother was a jerk and idiot. But still . . .!

And his father? Ataru snorted. What did that fool ever really do? Hide behind his paper and desperately try to ignore it all. Or, when Kinshō finally cornered him to say something, Muchi would go spout some nonsense.

Of all the things that Fate could've dropped on Ataru's head, did she have to drop the worst parents in Creation Itself on him?

That ALMOST made a marriage to Lum worth it, Ataru sighed as he turned off the street and approached Tampopo's door. Once he and the Oni were bonded, he could persuade her to take him from this dump, leaving the idiots at school – and ESPECIALLY his parents – behind once and for all. Let's see how the jerks here liked life WITHOUT their favourite alien princess around to fawn over!

Yeah, it'd be almost worth it, Ataru mused with a smirk as he opened the door and stepped into Tampopo's. "Konban wa, Tampopo-chan!" he called out.

"Irasshaimase! Konban wa, Ataru-chan!" Kamekichi Tampopo looked up from her stove behind the counter. Then, quickly noting the depressed mood on her favourite customer's face, she frowned. "Oh, what happened now?"

Ataru sat by the counter. "Kā-san's being her usual bakayarō self and left making dinner tonight to Lum. Usual, please."

"Sure thing." The stocky cook got to work making a beefbowl with shrimp and marinated beef. "Didn't you get a chance to talk Lum out of cooking dinner or did Kinshō sweet-talk her into ignoring anything you said?"

"The latter," he answered with an uncaring snort. "By the time I got back from the library, Kā-san and Tō-san were about to go out on the town and Lum was making . . . " A shudder raced through him as he remembered the scene in the kitchen. "Well, making something. What, I've no idea whatsoever!" He gave her a grimace. "And personally, I really don't WANT to know what it is."

Tampopo shook her head. "Stupid girl! When's it going to sink into her skull you're not an Oni? When you die from food poisoning? When your heart's destroyed or you're crippled? She should know better than that by now!"

Ataru nodded. "Yeah, I know, I know. Still, just before I came in, I was thinking of one GOOD benefit of marrying Lum."

She gazed curiously at him, an eyebrow arching. "What's that?"

"That when we're married, we can move to her home planet and leave Baka Kā-san and Baka Tō-san behind once and for all. It shouldn't be too hard to make Lum's parents ignore what they promised those two when we had to deal with Elle."

Tampopo laughed. "It'd serve those two idiots right!" She wagged a knowing finger his way before turning back to the stove.

Ataru sighed, and then he stood up. "Be right back."

"Okay."

He headed to the washrooms. Tampopo watched him go, a sigh escaping her. "They'd be better off without all the idiots flying out of the woodwork at them all the time," she muttered to herself, and then she blinked as the front door opens, heralded by a wind chime over the doorway ringing. "Irasshaimase!" She looked at the door before sighing. "What are you doing here, Jariten?"

Floating by the door, Ten ducked the annoyed stare Tampopo sent his way. He himself had been through enough encounters with the cook to know that he'd get away with NOTHING here. Besides, being hit by that huge spatula Tampopo used when she made her Super-duper Special okonomiyaki HURT! "Um . . . " he began, trying to not appear threatening. "I'm s-sorry ta come in here, T-t-Tampopo-o-o-onē-chan, b-but Lum-chan was wondering where that a- . . . " He caught himself before Tampopo winged him with a throwing spatula; the cook HATED it when people called Ataru "stupid" or things like that in her presence. "Um, ah, wh-where Ataru is." He chuckled. "I mean, dinner's ready."

A knowing hum escaped the cook. "You of course mean dinner for yourself and Lum, NOT Ataru-chan, right?" she wondered.

Ten blinked before stammering, "W-well, you see . . .!"

Tampopo turned the heat on her stove down, and then she walked over. Ten tried not to flee as she approached him; he knew that, despite her girth, the cook could move like LIGHTNING when she really wanted to. "Jariten, I'm going to tell you something. And you will listen and when I am done, you will go home and tell Lum the same thing, okay?" At his nod, she sighed. "Ataru-chan cares for Lum very much. If they didn't have to deal with nosy busybodies like you all the time, they'd probably be formally engaged if not married by now. But as long as people like you and all the fools at school – and ESPECIALLY Ataru-chan's parents – keep presuming you all have the right to stick your noses where they don't belong, they'll never get there. I'm sure that will make Lum VERY unhappy. Won't it?" She stared knowingly at Ten.

"Um . . . " He shuddered before nodding. "Um, yeah! I guess so."

"Alright, then." Tampopo smiled, and then she jolted on feeling a hand on her shoulder. She turned, blinking. "Ataru-chan?"

"It's alright, Tampopo-chan." Ataru smiled before he stared at Ten. "Yo, Jariten! Why don't you get Lum to get some plates of . . . " He paused, trying not to look repulsed. "Er, what was that she was cooking, anyway?"

The Oni blinked several times, and then he chuckled. "Oh, it's . . . "

"It's okay, Ten-chan."

The voice caused everyone to turn towards the open doorway, where Lum stood, an ashamed look on her face. Ataru blinked. "Lum."

"Gomen, Darling." She walked in, keeping her hands to herself. She had gone through her own troubles with Tampopo every time she tried to drag Ataru away from this place, especially when she tried to make something "special" for him. Those incidents had decreased since some time before the Second Tag Race, but Lum wasn't going to assume all was well between herself and her Darling's friend. "I should've realised that you'd be really scared of my cooking."

"I . . . " Ataru chuckled. "It's okay." He stared at Tampopo before turning back to his would-be "wife." "Did you bring . . .?"

Lum shook her head. "No. As soon as I realised that you'd come here, I threw it out. Besides, it tasted a little too flat."

Gazing at her, Ataru wondered if Lum wasn't making that up. Then again, did it really matter? "Hey, it's okay," he declared, reaching over to squeeze her shoulder before waving her in. "Let's have something to eat. I assume what Kā-san said about this bein' some big holiday on your planet's true, right?"

Lum nodded. "Un . . . "


Chikage stared at the suite before her.

She then picked up the first card.

The Three of Cups.

"A reunion?"

She then turned the next card in the suite.

The Emperor.

A glance to the crystal ball.

"Ane-kun!"


"Liberation Day?"

"Hai." Lum then bit into a fork-full of kimch'i tchigae, a fried version of Korea's most well known food dish. The Oni (both, in fact; Ten was working on his second plate!) appreciated Tampopo's willingness to give them something spicy. "It's the anniversary of our liberation from a race known as the Seifukusu. It happened about . . .!" She paused to do a quick calculation before a sad smile crossed her face. "Oh, nine hundred years ago as you tell time. It's the most important holiday on our calendar."

"Bad?" Ataru asked before sipping his water. He didn't mind having kimch'i – for one born in Japan, listing Korean dishes such as komt'ang, sŏllŏngt'ang, kalbit'ang and samgyet'ang as some of his favourite was peculiar – but he couldn't eat it every day. "These . . . Seifukusu?"

Lum shuddered. "They were monsters. Still are, in fact. That's part of the reason we had to come to Earth, Darling."

"So in other words, if they'd shown up at the same time as you people did, we'd have had a choice between 'bad' and 'worse,' right?" He nibbled some rice before wincing on seeing a hurt look move across her face. "Oh, damn! I'm . . . "

He slapped his forehead. Lum wanly smiled. "It's alright." She bowed her eyes. "I suppose you have a right to think that, especially now."

Ataru gazed at her. "Lum?" Getting no response, he smiled. "I see." He then hoisted his glass of water. "Well, Happy Liberation Day. Kampai!"

He toasted her. Lum stared at him, and then she beamed. "Hai! Kampai!"

"Kampai!" Ten echoed them, lifting his glass.

They touched glasses, and then drank. "Well, this is a lot better," Tampopo mused as she moved to clean the table behind where Ataru was seated. "See what showing a little restraint can do, Lum?"

"Tampopo-san . . . "

The front door opened. "Irasshaimase!" Tampopo automatically called out as she looked at the doorway. A girl Ataru's age stepped in and headed to the counter. The newcomer was dressed in a hooded tracksuit with running pants, the hood drawn over her head to ensure people didn't get a clear look at her face. Watching Ataru, Lum and Ten converse, the cook placed herself in front of the newcomer. "What would you like?" she asked in a quieter tone of voice.

"Essiac tea," the brown-haired, brown-eyed girl replied. She then glanced briefly at Ataru out of the corner of her eye.

Tampopo got to work, lowering her voice to a bare whisper; the newcomer would still hear her. "So you decided to come back now."

"There is no choice," the newcomer replied as the chef prepared the tea. "Matters abroad are turning against the Oni. Within a day, the United Nations will learn of a war between Lum's people and one of their more passionate enemies. The people in the United Nations are now looking for any excuse to see Lum permanently sent home. This conflict will give them that excuse; after all, they would desire to ensure such a conflict will not affect anyone here."

Tampopo blinked. "It's that bad?"

The newcomer nodded. "It is that bad. It would be best to resolve matters now. I will intercept Ataru when he goes to the washroom."

Tampopo finished with the tea, and then she set the cup before the newcomer. "It might've been better if you came earlier, Negako-san."

The newcomer took that in before she shook her head. "Too many things were still unknown to me when the Onis first came to Earth." She sighed, and then took a sip before adding, "Plus, there was the matter with Nagaiwakai."

"Have people figured that out yet?"

"I have. Then again, is it truly relevant in the end?"

"True." Tampopo nodded, and then she walked into her kitchen. She came out a moment later with a greenish-red pepper. "Lum, how'd you like to try this?" She handed it to the Oni. "It's a Jalapeño pepper from Mexico."

Lum took the pepper in hand, and then she bit. She jerked as the hot spices danced around her mouth before she swallowed it. "That's good!" she replied with a smile before she handed it to Ten. "Try it."

The younger Oni took a bite. "Wow, this IS good!" He whistled as he gazed on their host. "Where'd you get this, Tampopo-onēchan?"

The cook chuckled. "There's an international food market down in Shinjuku I raid every once in a while. I'll give you the address if you want. Here, Ataru-chan, give it a try." She handed another one to Ataru.

Ataru picked it up to take a tentative bite. He jerked as his mouth nearly exploded from the avalanche of hot spices, and then he gulped down some water. "Whoo!" he breathed out. "Man, how can the Mexicans eat this stuff?"

"It's just as tasty as kimch'i, Darling," Lum noted.

Ataru took several deep breaths to cool his mouth down. "Well, not all of us are blessed with a high tolerance for spices, Lum," he stated with a dry chuckle, and then he stood. "Be right back. I gotta raid the water cooler."

He headed back. Not noticed by Lum or Ten, the newcomer stood to head back herself. "Oh, dear!" Lum sighed as she reached over to nibble on the pepper Tampopo gave Ataru. "If Darling has a problem liking something like this, he definitely couldn't enjoy a Liberation Day festival back home."

Tampopo smiled. "Give him time, Lum. That's how a proper relationship develops. It requires time and patience . . . "

An inhuman scream echoed from the direction of the washrooms. "DARLING!" Lum cried out as she leapt up to fly back and look in on Ataru.

Tampopo's eyebrow twitched with annoyance as she turned to look herself. "Which I think Negako-san still needs to learn," she added in a mutter.

Tampopo and Ten watched as the stranger – her hood drawn away from her head – carried a dazed Ataru from the washrooms. Lum trailed her as the stranger placed him in his chair. She touched several places on his head and the back of his neck. Getting a closer look at her, Ten was instantly struck by the resemblance to Ataru, especially when it came to hair and eye colour.

As if she was . . .!

"Is he alright?" Tampopo wondered.

"What was done five years ago is easily undone," Negako reported. "When he recovers, he will be in shock as his memories return to his conscious mind."

Lum blinked. "'Memories?' What's going on here?" A surge of fear and confused worry crawled up her spine. "Who are you, anyway?"

Negako stared at her, causing the older Oni to stop and gape as her facial features become clearer to the latter. "Lum! Let her work," Tampopo called out. "Ataru-chan needs help first. Explanations can come later."

Lum gazed on the chef before grudgingly nodding.


"An ill air."

Standing in the empty lot he currently used as his campsite, Cherry's eyes were narrow as a hollow wind warped past. He then turned to his saucepan. Drawing out ingredients, he allowed them to go into the pan before waiting for an image to emerge. When it did, his eyebrows arched.

"'Memory?'" the aged Buddhist monk read before he turned to gaze heavenward. "What can that mean . . .?"


"Something has awoken."

Sakurambō Sakura stared at her crystal ball, a present from her fiancé, Ozuno Tsubame. Within it flashed an image of Ataru, turning from a crowd shrouded in darkness. The Shintō shrine miko/nurse gazed closely at the image of the crowd, quickly picking out certain details. "Something awakening in Moroboshi which will prompt him to leave Tomobiki?"

She gazed towards the ceiling. "What does this mean . . .?"


"Darling, are you alright?"

Ataru moaned, a cacophony of sound, images and feelings hazing out Lum's plea. "Leave him be, Lum," a strange woman said. "He needs time to adjust."

That voice.

Why was it so familiar?

Who . . .?

Was it . . .?

"Who are you, anyway?" Ten then asked.

"Jariten!" Tampopo scolded.

The stranger then: "Patience, Jariten. All will be made clear soon."

Her?

The one who was once inside me?

The one I let free.

"Onē-san . . .?"

"Darling!"

Opening his eyes, he found himself gazing at the ceiling of Tampopo's restaurant. In the blink of an eye, a familiar face popped into view. He gazed at her before sighing. "Oh, Lum. It's you . . . " he rasped as his head rolled right . . . and then he found himself staring into HER eyes. Ataru blinked several times as he took in her looks, and then he sat up before reaching out to touch Negako's face. "Onē-san?" he whispered. "Is that you?"

Negako seemed to freeze. She then lightly smiled. "Yes, Ataru."

The others remained quiet as they watched this strange reunion. His gaze turned inward for several minutes as he recalled events five years before, when so much had been deliberately blanked out. He then stared at Negako. "She made you do this?" he wondered, an edge appearing in his voice. "Didn't she?"

Negako nodded. "She did. At the time, she convinced me that it would be safer for you that all knowledge of me – not to mention the abilities my being inside you bestowed you – was suppressed. She . . . " A pause, and then she closed her eyes. "She convinced me that allowing any ties between yourself and Nagaiwakai to remain intact would do you no good. At that time, I did not . . . " Another pause. "Comprehend the full extent of Kinshō's selfishness."

Lum blinked. "Darling's mother?"

"Yes." Negako gazed briefly on the Oni before she turned back to Ataru. "If I had truly understood then what I do now, Ataru, I would not have denied you your memories and knowledge when we were separated. For that, I am sorry."

Ataru cupped Negako's chin, a delighted smile crossing his face. "You mean that, don't you?" he wondered. "You really mean that?"

"I have said it," Negako replied, her lips curling slightly upward.

"Darling!" Lum growled. "If she said she's sorry, you can't . . .!"

Ataru waved the Oni down. "Lum, you don't understand!" An exasperated sigh then escaped him as he shook his head, his eyes turning heavenward. "Oh, damn! This'd be easier if things hadn't bit me in the ass five years ago."

"Among other places," Negako added.

Ataru jolted. He then stared at her before another delighted grin crossed his face. "Well, I'll be damned! You can tell a joke after all!"

Negako winked. "Much that I most often do not see the necessity of expressing emotions, Ataru, it does not mean that I cannot tell a joke."

That was true, he thought, though Negako's add-on to his comment was as dry as Sahara dust in mid-summer. "Yeah, you got that point, I guess," he mused with a chuckle. He then glanced at Lum, quickly noting the frustration etched into her face. "Oh, gomen! Gomen, Lum!" He caught himself before indicating Negako. "I guess you need to understand what's going on here with Onē-san."

"It would be appreciated, Darling," Lum dryly noted. "Your parents never said a single thing about you having a sister."

Sensing her sarcasm, he took a breath. "Well, it's like this . . . "


Minutes later, a geyser of electricity shot through the roof of Tampopo's Bar, echoed by Lum's cry of, "SHE DID WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?"

Seeing the lightning from the town park, Ataru's parents blinked before exchanging a look. "Good grief! What's that idiot son of ours done now?" Kinshō demanded, imagining the social fallout of yet ANOTHER of Lum's temper-tantrums as news of this latest incident spread across town.

If she only knew . . .


"YOU MEAN TO TELL ME SHE MADE NEGAKO-SAN BLANK OUT YOUR MEMORIES OF YOUR FAMILY JUST BECAUSE YOUR MOTHER HATED YOUR GRANDMOTHER?" Lum screeched.

"That's right." Ataru, unaffected by Lum's lightning – a decided change from all the other times the Oni had lost control of herself while she was close to him! – nodded. Negako was currently enjoying her tea. Tampopo and Ten busied themselves inspecting the damage in the ceiling. "Don't ask me why this happened between Obā-chan and her." His voice dripped with scorn as he added, "Try as I might, I couldn't make her understand why I hated it."

"What could you expect, Ataru-chan?" Tampopo mused as she glanced over her shoulder. "After all, that's the way Kinshō's treated you all along."

Lum gazed at the cook, and then she turned to stare at Negako. "So Tampopo-san knew what happened all along. Did you tell her, Negako-san?"

"No need," Negako reported. "Tampopo possesses her own . . . 'mission curse,' if I may describe it as that. She is compelled to seek out children who have suffered either emotional abuse or abandonment from their parents or other immediate relatives, and then aid them into bettering their lives."

Lum blinked. "Her family, too?"

"No, Tampopo herself. She is much more than she seems, Lum."

Lum gazed at Tampopo before she shrugged. "I guess so."

"You're not bugged by that?" Ataru wondered with an arched eyebrow.

"Darling, on a trading station near Uru, there's a being – his name's Koruneko – who's believed to have lived for thirty thousand years," Lum said. "I've been bugged whenever Tampopo-san's moved to shield you from me or the others, but I've never ONCE been compelled to attack her like I went after Shinobu after we first met. I assume that's because of some empathic power . . . "

"Let me have my secrets, Negako-san," Tampopo warned.

"Your choice." Negako reached into her top to draw a folded document, holding it out for everyone to see. "The Court of Special Appeals has prepared this for your approval, Ataru. It concerns your legal status vis-à-vis Kinshō and Muchi. I have asked to become your guardian for the remaining time you are underage. The Court approved my petition four days ago. The necessary modifications to the Moroboshi family koseki have been done. All the concerned ministries are presently aware of what has happened. When you become twenty, you will then be acknowledged as the new Patriarch of the Moroboshi Clan."

She handed it to him. Ataru took it and opened it before he gazed nowhere in particular. "When did Grandma die, Onē-san?" he whispered.

"The eve of the sixth day of your first tag race with Lum."

Lum jolted, and then she bowed her head. "Darling, I'm so sorry."

Ataru smiled on feeling her hand grip his. "Dōmo, Lum." He squeezed her hand before he opened the document and began to read.

"You should realise, Lum, that if Ataru does allow me to become his legal guardian, your engagement to him will then have no legal standing in Japanese society regardless of how long you've lived with him and his family," Negako warned as she stared on the Oni. "I believe even your planet's laws state such an engagement cannot stand since they demand the heads of both clans must have final say in a coupling between members of two different clans."

"Hai, that's true." Lum nodded, a twinge of worry flashing deep in her heart. She then shook her head, spitting out, "But if those idiots believed they could manipulate me into keeping Darling down just to get their hands on his grandmother's fortune, they're wrong! VERY wrong!" She looked to the ceiling. "I can only imagine what Daddy will think when he learns of this!"

Ten smirked. "He'll hit the roof!"

"And most likely, fly through it," Negako added.

Everyone stared at her. Ataru grinned. "You're getting there, Onē-san." He turned back to the document in his hand. After he finished reading it, he declared, "Well, this seems clear enough to me." He then noted a place where his signature had to be applied. "Tampopo-chan, can I get my hanko?"

"Alright."

Tampopo headed into the kitchen. Lum's eyes widened as she gazed on her would-be husband. "You keep your hanko here?" she asked.

He chuckled. "Yeah. After you came – and please, Lum, don't take this personally! – I felt I had to find a place where I could keep the very important stuff in case things went crazy. Besides . . . " He nodded towards Tampopo as she returned from the kitchen, a small case in hand. "Tampopo-chan is, believe it or not, a special 'notary public' with the Family Registrar of Japan." He then grinned. "It sure shocked the hell out of me when she told me that."

Tampopo sighed. "I felt becoming that was necessary just in case instances like this happen. Can I see that, please, Ataru-chan?"

"Hai." Ataru handed the document over. He then noticed the pained look on Lum's face. "Hey! What's with the rainy-day look, Lum?"

The Oni closed her eyes, feeling both of them sting with tears. "I guess I haven't done much to really earn your trust. Have I, Darling?"

"Hey!" Ataru reached over to cup her chin, tilting her head up so she could gaze into his eyes. "Now cut that out. Look at it this way, Lum: Would you WANT to continue living under a lie like this?"

"No! Of course not! But . . .!"

He playfully tapped her nose. "But nothing. Okay, a lot of illusions just got flushed down the toilet tonight. But it isn't the end of the world. It's a new beginning, Lum. For you AND me. What happens, now those idiots are out of the way, is between us to figure out. There's no dishonour in letting this fall apart. Not for me, not for you and not for your family." His eyebrow arched as he gave her a knowing look. "What's wrong with that?"

Lum considered that before nodding. "Hai, if you think so, Darling."

Hearing them, Negako remained silent, though her eyes were busy scanning the walls and ceiling of Tampopo's establishment.

Hmm. Freshly painted.

Some fools thought they were SO intelligent.


"Kaneda-san, is this possible?"

Kaneda Isamu, a special agent of the KCC – the agency within the Justice Ministry that normally dealt with intelligence and counter-intelligence matters in Japan – gravely nodded. "Yes, Gospodin Tuchenko, it IS possible. Indeed, if the Court of Special Appeals is involved in this, it is not JUST possible. It will happen just as Moroboshi-kun and Moroboshi-sensei foresee it."

The other intelligence officers seated in the secret monitor room, located two blocks from Tampopo's, nodded understandingly. Gazing at the others, Isamu felt a sense of amazement bubble up once more in his heart. Elsewhere in the world, these people's friends and co-workers were busy working to undermine each other in pursuit of their home governments' overall goals. But here, in the one place on Earth where uncontrolled contact between Terrans and other races was allowed, these people had been forced to become . . . well, if not true friends, at least working acquaintances. Intelligence they gathered on aliens was pooled here, and then distributed to their mission controllers in their countries.

Hearing the Japanese officer's reply, Grigory Alekseyevich Tuchenko, an agent of the Russian SVR – and the KGB when the Soviet Union was still a single nation – nodded. Beside him, Mark Reilly of the CIA snorted. "It's about fuckin' time, if you ask me. You know, every friggin' time that bitch said 'I wish I never had you' to that poor guy, I seriously dreamed of the day I'd take a gun and shoot her dead!" He shook his head in disgust. "How can any mother say that to their own kid, for cryin' out loud? Now hearin' that . . .!"

He waved to the computer linked to the various fibre-optic sensors that could potentially allow these people to eavesdrop on almost any conversation in Tomobiki. Seated nearby, Basel Wallis, a long-time agent of the British SIS, sipped his tea. "I dare say, my friend, justice is truly about to be served."

"Agreed." Ling Chai of China's GAB – and the only woman in this particular work group – nodded. She then turned to the Japanese agent. "How soon will this Special Appeals Court make this happen, Kaneda-san?"

"In all effect, Comrade Ling, it HAS happened." Isamu then smiled knowingly. "Strange to see a Japanese court of law move so quickly, eh?"

Laughter filled the room. René Falqués, an officer of France's DGSE, hoisted his coffee in a toast. "It is, mon ami, a delightful change."

Basel smirked. "Bloody right about that, René! So once the dear boy is finally free of those monsters who sired him, what then?"

"I suspect that when he becomes of age, he will likely publicly declare them rōnin and remove them from the Moroboshi Clan's family register," Isamu explained. "Even though it wouldn't technically make any real changes to their legal status – not like the old days – it would still have an impact. That fate is greatly feared in my society, my friends. Even if – ESPECIALLY if! – Kinshō's birth family agrees to take Muchi on and they switched over to using her maiden name, it is too late. The news of that action will spread thanks to those private investigators companies employ to ensure their workers' 'purity.'" His mouth twisted; having spent some years before the First Tag Race working as a liaison officer with the CIA at their headquarters in Langley, he had come to personally despise that particular aspect of his native culture.

"As bad as being discovered to have burakumin ancestry?" Grigory asked.

"Not THAT extreme, but close." Isamu sighed. "I suspect when it is all said and done, Muchi will lose his job. They will most likely be forced to relocate elsewhere. That in and of itself will mark them as odd." A wry smile crossed his face. "Yes, my friends, as I said, they will be marked for life by this. If Ataru-kun wants revenge against his parents for all they've done to him – especially given what we just heard now – this is the way to do it."

Basel nodded. "Good for him."

"Hear, hear!" Mike whooped. "Well, now that those two are out of the way thanks to this Negako – whoever the hell she is! – we can concentrate on doin' what our governments want us to do now: Get rid of Lum."

The others nodded. Having lived in Tomobiki since the First Tag Race, the intelligence officers had been appalled by the behaviour aliens like Lum had shown. Yes, Moroboshi Ataru's behaviour was quite appalling in its own right, especially when it concerned anything female and beautiful that had the ill-luck to cross his path, but that didn't concern Isamu and his co-workers. Many times over the last year, they asked themselves, "They call US uncivilised?" Thus, when orders finally arrived from their controllers concerning finding a way to see Lum and her countrymen expelled, they got to work with a vengeance.

The Second Tag Race had left too vile a taste in many people's mouths.

René sighed. "Easily done, mes amis. Once Lum is no longer engaged by either Earth or Oni law or tradition, she technically has no reason to stay on Earth. We know she came here to pursue a marriage with Ataru, do we not?"

"But what if Ataru DOES want to marry her?" Mark asked the DGSE officer. "I mean, it's pretty obvious now he really does like her deep down."

"I think, my friends, we'll have to wait on discerning that until matters with Comrade Moroboshi settle themselves out," Chai cut in. "At this time, I believe we have messages to send to our friends back home?"

The others stared at the GAB officer, nodding.


Chikage turned a card.

The Hierophant, symbol of the pursuit of knowledge.

"Many watching Ani-kun?"


"Ataru? Lum-chan? Are you here?"

The door closed as Muchi and Kinshō walked into the foyer connecting the living room and kitchen with the stairs to the second floor. Noting the silence that responded to her hail, Kinshō frowned as she ascended to Ataru's room. "Ataru?" she called out. "Lum-chan? Ten-chan? Are you here?"

She slid the door open before she stopped, her jaw dropping on seeing the empty room awaiting her. ALMOST empty, that is; Ataru was seated at the windowsill, gazing outside. "Ataru!" Kinshō growled as she stormed into the room. "Why didn't you answer me, you stupid boy? Where's Lum . . .?"

The door suddenly slammed shut behind her, causing Kinshō to spin around. She jolted on seeing Lum standing by the door, a hooded look etched on the Oni's face. "Lum-chan!" she gasped. "What's going on?" She tried not to shiver as she took note of the look on Lum's face. While Lum was on Earth, Kinshō shared legal custody of her with her husband. But even with that, Ataru's mother knew not to push matters too much with her would-be daughter-in-law.

"I would've appreciated learning when Grandma died, you know."

Kinshō then froze as a chill as cold as an Arctic wind freezing her. She then shakily turned to gaze on Ataru. His eyes remained closed as if he still did not want to gaze upon the woman who had given birth to him. Sensing the iron control he presently projected, Kinshō turned sheet-white.

He remembered. Everything.

"A-a-Ataru, wait," she feebly stammered. "You don't understand . . . "

"So it's true?" Lum growled, sparks flashing over her body as she fixed Kinshō with a glare that could melt neutronium. "All because you hated your MOTHER-IN-LAW, you took advantage of Darling's kindness to another sentient being. THEN you tricked Negako-san into blanking Darling's memories of the only elements of his family who LOVED him? Then, when Ten-chan and I came, you goaded us into keeping him here, forcing us together so you could embezzle HIS inheritance when we married and leave him with NOTHING? WELL?" Lightning snapped in her hands, causing Kinshō to leap back. "Is it true? IS IT?"

"Lum, don't!" Ataru called out as Kinshō nearly crumpled on herself. "Don't bother!" He shook his head. "She's not worth it."

Lum stopped. "You're right, Darling. She's NOT worth it. Neither is her husband. Maybe it's time we left them once and for all."

"Hai, the stench is getting high here, I guess." Ataru smirked as he glared at Kinshō. She shuddered before she gave him a pleading, hopeful look. His fists clenched, and then he relaxed as he summoned a gob of spit, firing it into the floor by her knees. She recoiled, looking nowhere in particular, stunned that all that she had done to secure her future had crashed so easily.

"You and your husband are both dead to me, Yamaguchi Kinshō," he then declared in a frightfully neutral voice. "As of today, all legal rights you had concerning me have been stripped from you. I no longer consider myself your son. But you won't get any satisfaction from that, I assure you." He then held up a finger, a knowing smile crossing his face. "Negako-onēsan is my legal guardian now. I don't think you'll be able to do much against her, eh?"

Kinshō gargled, her face turning white as the image of that living machine of destruction, a being born from the carefully-preserved knowledge of over a millennium's worth of ninjutsu grandmasters, flashed through her mind. Lum walked around her, taking Ataru's hand in her own. "Darling, shall we go?"

"One more thing." Ataru glared once more at the woman who was now his mother only by genetics. "When I become of age, you will both be stricken from the clan register. I strongly suggest you make up with your relatives, Kinshō. Then again, given what a greedy bitch you are, I have to wonder if they'd WANT you back!" He turned his back on Kinshō for the last time. "Let's go, Lum."

"Hai!"

Lum boosted Ataru into the air. They then flew out the window, Ataru's mocking laughter tauntingly trailing their path towards Tampopo's.

In the empty room they left behind, Kinshō remained still before an outraged scream escaped her. "DAMN YOU, YOU OLD COW!"

A lightning bolt then jabbed through the window to fry her!


Chikage turned a card.

Judgement, symbol of honesty.

"Freedom for Ani-kun."


Next morning . . .

"So where did you sleep last night?"

"Where do you think?" Lum gave the stocky cook a pouting look, and then she grinned as Tampopo placed a kimch'i-laced beefbowl before the Oni for breakfast, her hand reaching over for some chopsticks. "Ten-chan was pretty mad about it because Negako-san kept him away from my ship."

"I wanted to see what you were doing, Lum-chan!" Ten moaned before jerking on feeling Negako's finger stab into his forehead.

"That is none of your affair, Jariten," Negako declared. "Leave them be. Your cousin is happy with Ataru. Be thankful for that."

"Yeah, Ten. You really shouldn't worry about it now." Ataru slurped down his rāmen with rice cakes, and then he slyly grinned. "Unless you want to find Mako-chan and start practising things with her?" he mused.

The young Oni gagged. "NO WAY!"

Laughter escaped everyone else but Negako. In the brief time she had come to know this strange woman, Lum had learned most "normal" human emotions were alien things to Moroboshi Negako. In many ways, Negako reminded Lum of CAO-2, the robot teacher who had been one of hers, Benten's, Oyuki's and Ran's instructors when they were in galactic middle school. Then again, given what her Darling had said about his adopted sister's overall abilities, Negako could probably reduce CAO-2 into a pile of scrap metal with the touch of a finger.

Lum stared at Negako. "So what has to happen now with Darling?"

The ninjutsu grandmaster – the title was automatically seen as hers given the knowledge and fighting skills that was her very birthright – sighed. "I will have to make repairs to Ataru's immune system before indoctrinating him in the Art. Not here in Tomobiki, of course. Ataru's classmates, especially Mendō Shūtarō, Aisuru Satoshi and their many peers, would greatly fear his 'evolving' from an annoying nuisance into a being who could effectively kill them with but a touch of a finger." She gazed knowingly at Lum. "To most bullies, nothing panics them more then when one of their victims turns the tables against them, especially in front of others. A public duel between Ataru and Shūtarō would, if executed properly, destroy Shūtarō's reputation, especially among those women who fawn over him. Satoshi or his friends? Same result. Perhaps even worse if Ataru fights Sedoyama Keizō in public. Or Rei, perhaps?"

Lum jolted on hearing her former boyfriend's name. She then cautiously exhaled, "Ran-chan won't like that at all, Negako-san."

"Do you fear Ran might strike back at Ataru in revenge?"

"Probably, especially now that Ran-chan and Rei have become so close."

Ataru shook his head. "Somehow, I don't think Ran-chan will ever get much out of that jerk, Lum. All he cares about is food, food and more food! Ask any yatai owner here in town." He glanced over at their host. "Hey, Tampopo-chan, how many of 'em have been cleaned out by that pig, anyway?"

Tampopo sighed in exasperation. "Too many to count. Lucky thing I can deal with idiots like that. Though it IS strange that he always tries to come here every time he visits Tomobiki, even with Ran ready to cook for him." She hummed as she considered the point. "Maybe I've brained him too much?"

Ataru laughed. Negako shook her head. "Not exactly."

Everyone gazed at her, surprised by her willingness to defend the pilot who had, for a long time following the First Tag Race, come close to killing Ataru so he could "win" Lum back. Ten blinked. "Why'd'ja say that?"

"Rei suffers from dyslexia and dysphasia."

Ataru gaped. "Dyslexia AND dysphasia?"

"I've heard of dyslexia, but not dysphasia," Lum reported.

"Dysphasia is where a person has an inability to properly vocalise his or her thoughts," Tampopo explained, and then a thoughtful look crossed her face. "No doubt, because of that, his hunger and the fact that he can't fly like other Oni, he must've been ostracized by his peers when he was Jariten's age."

Lum nodded. "He was."

Ataru winced. "Jeez! Poor guy."

The door then opened. "Irasshaimase!" Tampopo called out automatically. Her eyebrow then arched on seeing who stood there. "Oh, Jay-san! Kay-san! What brings two of the venerable 'Men in Black' to my establishment today?"

"A good morning to you, too, Tampopo-san," a silver-haired American in a black business suit greeted as he slipped off his Ray-Ban glasses.

Gazing at the two agents of the United Nations Special Committee on Alien Affairs – the "Men in Black," as they were nicknamed – Ataru was immediately reminded of Mendō's personal bodyguards/aides, the Kuromegane. However, compared to the SCAA field agents, the Kuromegane were a pack of stumbling incompetents. "And a good morning to you." Kay nodded at Ataru and Lum.

"Ohayō, Kay-san! Jay-san!" Lum nodded to Kay in return, and then his partner, a young African-American with a moustache and goatee. "So what brings you people over to see us today? Nothing wrong, I hope?"

Kay and Jay exchanged a look. "I'm afraid, Lum, we've got some real bad news," the former then reported. "Can we talk in private?"

Ataru and Lum blinked, exchanging a look.


Chikage looked at the five cards spread before her:

Death, the ultimate symbol of endings;

The Tower, marking the presence of powerful forces;

The Eight of Wands, another symbol of endings;

The Five of Cups, marker of loss and good-byes;

The Eight of Cups, marking the time to move on.

Such an ominous suite meant only one thing:

"War."


"The Noukiites?"

Everyone sat in a back corner booth. The sign had been changed to CLOSED and the curtains drawn to guarantee privacy. Kay shook his head. "Afraid so. About seventy hours ago, a colonial militia squadron staging from Machibusu sneaked over the line into Noukiite space to raid a convoy of refugees leaving Okusei for one of the Dominion's newer colonies beyond Noukiios itself."

Ten gaped. "The Noukiites have new colonies?"

"Five, all terraformed, though no one knows how or who did it." Jay sipped his coffee. "The Inquisition is investigating."

Ataru's jaw dropped in surprise. "You mean the Inquisition doesn't know? That's being really off the ball, even for THOSE guys!"

Both Oni blinked, and then they stared wide-eyed at Ataru. "Darling, how do YOU know about the Holy Inquisition?" Lum wondered.

Ataru sighed, and then he shook his head. "Sorry, Lum. I should've mentioned this, though I guess it doesn't matter now. My grandmother was a Righteous Gentile of the Protestant Reformist Church of Zephyrus."

Lum jolted, her eyes widening as his statement sank in. "I see."

"Lady Nagaiwakai was also the one who arranged for us to get our gear." Kay opened his jacket to reveal a Lawgiver, a Zephyrite computer-controlled, photon-plasma pistol with multiple-targeting command and shooting ability.

Ten whistled as he drifted close to Negako's shoulder. "Wow! To believe Uncle chose Ataru to be Earth's tag champ!"

Jay smirked. "Got that right, little guy!"

"What happened?" Ataru asked. "I don't know much about these Noukiites at all, save for them being neighbours of the Holy Republic."

"Well, in a nutshell, think of what Japan did to Korea back at the start of the last century – expanded to a century's length of time – and then tack onto it three very nice colony planets that the Noukiites settled long ago, planets the Urusians want to claim as their own." Kay sighed. "For the last two hundred years, there or about, the Urusians have done almost everything possible to force the Noukiites from those three worlds."

"Like us trying to make the Koreans give up Tok-do," Ataru mused.

"Including illegal attacks by volunteer colonial paramilitary forces over the border on Noukiite settlements," Jay added, holding up a finger.

"That's not true!" Lum protested.

Jay stared at the Oni. "Lum, c'mon! Everyone knows that!"

"I . . .!" Lum stopped herself before she sighed. "Well, I asked Daddy about it once and he denied it, but . . . " She looked down.

"He didn't sound convincing?" Ataru gently prodded.

"Tcha."

"It's alright," Kay breathed out before carrying on, "Anyhow, the Oni militia got close to Okusei. The Ip'ihu bushwhacked them outside the system. They're the Noukiite equivalent of the Oni colonial militia," he added for Ataru's benefit. "Atop that, there were Noukiite naval craft there. They pitched into the fight and captured one of the militia vessels intact. The surviving militiamen were interrogated and made to confess that they operated with secret support from various elements of the government in Onishuto."

"WHAT?" Lum cried out.

"Is this EVERYONE in the Oni government?" Ataru wondered.

Kay shook his head. "Fortunately, no. The Oni have been living under a military junta for the last two hundred years. But in their government, you've got a wide span of opinions. Lum's father is a progressive. Some are liberals working for the day Uru becomes a true democracy. And some of them . . . "

He paused, shrugging. "Want to turn back the clock to something that people wouldn't really like?" Ataru finished.

"Exactly. Well, instant they got wind of that, the Noukiite government sent a secret message to the Zephyrites, informing them that they couldn't continue to tolerate this ongoing disregard of their home space by elements of the Urusian government. To that end, today, an all-out attack was launched on Machibusu, hitting the naval bases and the known militia bases. It was a complete surprise. Details are sketchy, but I'm afraid your people took heavy losses." Kay stared at Lum. "Most likely, by tomorrow, Uru will be at war."

Silence fell as Lum considered Kay's words. She then looked down, her eyes glistening. "Five centuries of hate," she whispered.

Ataru placed a supportive hand on her shoulder. "Lum?"

"Five centuries. That's how long we've known those people. And . . . " She shook her head. "It's like Kay said. Think of what's gone on between Japan and Korea, especially what happened between 1910 and 1945, then . . . "

"The Eo War, the 'protectorate' that led to the Occupation, the Union Revolution, the dispute over Okusei and two other planets, the Ip'ihu, the militia . . . " Jay sighed. "Man, that's one BIG mess to get settled out."

Lum nodded. "Tcha."

"So what happens to Lum?" Ataru wondered. "She could've learned all this from her father if she had to. Why are you guys here?"

Kay and Jay exchanged a look, and then they gazed on him. "Ataru, along with that message the Noukiites sent to the Zephyrites was a warning." The former indicated Lum. "The Noukiites, pretty much because they have no love for the Oni, know about what Lum's presence here has caused. In their eyes, it would be sheer poetry to make her face a Dominion court for violating the Galactic Non-Interference Treaty, of which both Lum's people and the Noukiites are signatories to. Now, never mind that the so-called 'invasion' which led to Tag Race One was a bluff to make several other powers leave us be . . . "

"The Seifukusu being one, right?" Ataru cut in.

"You know about them?" Jay asked.

"Lum told me last night. There're more?"

"One other race, the Ipraedies," Kay provided.

Ataru shook his head. "Never heard of them."

Lum sighed. "Be thankful for that, Darling."

"Well, anyhow," Kay continued, "The Noukiites warned that if Lum and all other Urusians don't leave Earth and return to Urusian space soon, they . . . "

His voice trailed off. "They'll come get her, the little guy here and the psycho-airhead that's living here, too," Jay finished.

Hearing that, Lum's eyes went wide. "They said that?"

Kay nodded. "I'm afraid so."

"There's another way out, you know," Ataru proposed.

"Not a chance." Jay shook his head. "If you're thinking of trying to use your grandma's influence to keep Lum free of the Noukiites, you're DEAD wrong to even try it!" He pointed at Lum. "The instant she goes into Zephyrite space, she's as good as in the dock at Star Chamber on Jiyū."

Ataru winced, Lum turning white at the thought of her facing Star Chamber. The Supreme Blessed and Most Faithful Congregation of the Holy Inquisition, the highest-ranking law enforcement group within the Holy Republic of Zephyrus, was renowned (and likewise feared!) throughout the known galaxy for their ability to track down "heretics" and see them brought to justice, both within and beyond the Holy Republic's borders. Zephyrite justice, Ataru recalled, was brutal. Capital punishment – colloquially known as "excommunication" on Zephyrus – was used for those guilty of serious crimes. And, yes, if you found yourself facing any of the High Courts of Star Chamber – the equivalent of one of the eight High Courts in Japan – your chances of acquittal were small.

"Damn." Ataru sighed before he sensed Lum staring at him. Without hesitation, he drew her into a one-armed embrace.

Lum kissed his cheek. "Arigatō, Darling."

Jay blinked, his jaw dropping in shock. "THIS is surprising!"

"That it is." Kay chuckled. "I'm sorry to ruin the mood even more, but there's one other thing I have to tell you."

Lum stared at the SCAA agent, and then she lowered her head. "I see."

Ataru blinked. "What?"

"You will not be allowed to leave Earth, Ataru."

Eyes turned to Negako. Ataru took a second to absorb that, and then he turned to Kay. "Now, just hold on a second!" he protested. "I'm not going to let Lum go back home ALONE in the midst of a war, for heaven's sake . . .!"

Kay held up a hand. "That's not the point!" As soon as Ataru calmed himself down, the SCAA agent continued, "Look, Ataru, I know you mean well, but Lum's safest bet is to be on Uru, where her father and a whole load of combat troops can protect her. I don't think the Noukiites will press this into a no-holds-barred thing. All they'd want is for Uru to give up claims on Okusei, Kurrusei and Tunchusei, plus disband the colonial militia groups. It's not going to be an intergalactic version of World War Two, alright."

Ataru considered that. He then jolted as a hand squeezed his shoulder. He turned right to see Negako gazing on him, a warning stare etched in her face. "There is another concern, Ataru," the ninjutsu grandmaster advised.

He blinked as her words surged through him. "Hai, Onē-san."

Lum stared at him. "Darling?"

Ataru jolted, and then he reached under the table to squeeze Lum's hand. "I'll explain later, okay?" he told her before kissing her cheek. He then turned back to the SCAA people. "Try not to make this permanent, okay?"

Kay nodded. "We'll try."


"Hey, Ataru. What did Negako-onēchan mean?" Ten-chan asked.

Two hours after meeting Kay and Jay at Tampopo's found Ataru, Lum and Ten on an island located off the northwest coast of Hokkaidō. The teens stared at the young Oni before Ataru sighed. "She means something that has a lot to do with her being in my head from when I was six up to five years ago, when Obā-chan's friends from Magairu discovered she was there." He waved them with him towards a large house. "Let's go to the practice field and I'll show you."

They walked up a stone pathway toward the large mansion that, until just over a year ago, Ataru's grandmother Nagaiwakai called home. Staring at the edifice, Lum was immediately reminded of the Mendō mansion. She was quick to note differences, however. The Mendō home was littered with all sorts of items indicative of the family's ludicrous wealth: Statues, mostly of octopuses (though there WAS that one cursed goat statue, Lum remembered), priceless antiques, old military gear and the like. The Moroboshi mansion on Rishiri-tō, however, was thoroughly spartan in its austerity. Realising that difference between a family of selfish show-offs and a woman who obviously thought it below her to rub her wealth into other people's faces, Lum decided that she would have loved to know Moroboshi Nagaiwakai. Would she have liked me? she mused.

Ataru gazed at her. "Yen for your thoughts?"

Lum sighed before she returned his look. "Gomen. I was just thinking about how much you'll miss now that your grandmother's gone."

"I guess so. I didn't really get a chance to know her, as you can guess, but . . . " He paused, directing her around the house to the farming tract that extended to the volcano located at the very centre of Rishiri-tō, known locally as "Rishiri-Fuji" for its similarity to Japan's highest peak. "Obā-chan was a lot of things, but she was CARING. She was worried about me, even living with them in Tomobiki." His lips twisted into a frown, and then he relaxed. "I wish I understood what happened between Obā-chan and . . . well, you know."

He shrugged. "It'll be okay in the end, Darling," Lum promised.

"I hope so." He stared at the side of the mansion, and then he looked to the fields. Peacefully grazing in the tall grass was a good-sized herd of dairy cattle, about two hundred head, born of both Oriental and Occidental stock. Keeping watch on them was a pair of men dressed in the plain, brown woollen robes of Zephyrite monks. Ataru gaped. "Damn! They stayed behind?"

"They were not the only ones, Young Master!"

The voice caused Ataru and Lum to spin around as something leapt out of the shadows, melting into a lithe teenage woman with long, pony-tailed black hair. She was dressed in a black bodysuit, a sheathed shinobigatana strapped to her back. Ataru's eyes widened. "Jinseiko-chan! Is that you?"

The woman looked up, revealing a well-sculptured face. However, there were laugh lines around her eyes. The eyes seemed hooded. No doubt, Fusegu Jinseiko would carry the pain of her mistress' death to the grave. "Hai, Young Master." She bowed respectfully before she stared pleadingly at him. "Sir, I . . . " she started, and then she collapsed and prostrated herself. "Forgive me! We should've been there for the Mistress! Please, forgive me . . .!"

"That's enough!" Ataru knelt to help the chief of Nagaiwakai's kunoichi troupe, the Kuromoroboshi, up. He tilted her face up to stare into his. "It's over and done, Jinseiko-chan. Yes, I'm hurting. But Obā-chan wouldn't want us to flounder along like this, eh? It's over and done, Jinseiko-chan. Okay?"

Jinseiko blinked before she faintly nodded. "Hai, I understand."

Lum and Ten exchanged a look. Both tensed as a shadow fell over them. "Welcome back, Young Master," a grave voice caused both Oni to spin around and stare UP into a granite-hewn face framed by black hair. His left cheek was embossed with the phoenix of the Holy Republic. "It is good to see you again."

"Brother Sunfire." Ataru walked over, dropping to one knee to kiss the monk's ring. After the Zephyrite cleric, who had been Moroboshi Nagaiwakai's personal advisor, bestowed a blessing, Ataru stood. "It's good to see you, too." He glanced towards the other monks. "How many people stayed behind after Grandma . . .?" He bit his lip before waving around.

"All of us in the cabal who advised her, some of the farm hands, plus Lady Jinseiko and her co-workers," the monk reported, waving the visitors with him toward the herd. "Since matters concerning your problems with those people . . . " – Lum didn't need to guess who Brother Sunfire was talking about – " . . . have been in limbo since the Mistress' passing, we haven't been able to decide what to do. Mistress Negako has been able to help, as has Master Komeru."

Lum blinked confusedly as she looked at Ataru. "'Komeru,' Darling?"

"Muchi's older brother," Ataru provided. "Where is he, anyway?"

"In Peru or Bolivia, the last I heard, exploring Inca ruins." Brother Sunfire sighed. "We tried to get word to those people when the Mistress passed away. I called Kinshō a fortnight after the Tag Race ended." He glanced at Lum. "Unfortunately, all she said in return was . . . " His lips twisted in distaste as he remembered that conversation, and then he sighed. "Well . . . "

"She was happy Obā-chan was dead and that she'd do everything she could to get her hands on Obā-chan's money, right? And that she didn't care who tried to stand in her way, because she was in the right," Ataru guessed.

"In much more vulgar language, I confess." Brother Sunfire nodded in acknowledgement. "Well, the matter is somewhat better, now."

Jinseiko then tensed. "Young Master? Please . . .?"

Ataru closed his eyes. "No, Jinseiko-chan. Leave them alone."

"But . . .!"

He turned to the leader of the Kuromoroboshi. "I said 'Leave them alone,' Jinseiko-chan. Killing those two idiots won't do a thing in the end. Letting them live, in fear of what I COULD do to them, hurts more."

"Ah . . . " Jinseiko balked, and then she sighed, bowing her head. "Hai, Young Master, I understand. Forgive me for my impertinence."

Ataru nodded. "It's alright."

Brother Sunfire sighed. "A pity it happened at . . . "

"Darklight!"

Everyone turned as a monk, a bespectacled fellow who reminded the visitors of Megane, ran up. "What is the matter?" Brother Sunfire demanded.

"Forgive me." The younger monk, Lightstar Firewind, bowed to Ataru before he stared at Lum. "We received a call from the Special Committee concerning you and your fellow Urusians, Miss Redet. You're going home. Tonight."

Hearing that, Ataru jolted, and then he looked nowhere in particular, his hands clenching. Ten seemed lost as he hovered close to Lum. Lum's eyes went wide on hearing Lightstar's statement before she bowed her head. "I see."


Chikage turned a card.

The Five of Cups.

"A parting?"


That evening . . .

A hand slammed down on the table. "Damn it all, Kay! Is there ANYTHING you could've done to stop this? Tried to slow it down . . .?"

Kay held up his hand. "Relax!" The look on his face and his partner's echoed the shock and anger on Ataru's. "The Security Council caught us by surprise. People got wind of your legal separation from your parents – probably from spies who've worked in Tomobiki since after Tag One – then decided that, since there was now no 'legitimate' reason for her to be here, they'd throw Lum off!"

Ataru blinked. He was meeting the two SCAA agents in the penthouse apartment of the Toranoseishin Finances building, the northern of the three tall skyscrapers located in the heart of Tomobiki. "What spies?" he demanded.

"The whole alphabet soup." Jay shook his head. "The KCC, CIA, SVR, SIS, DGSE, Mossad, CSIS, the KCW from South Korea, the GAB from China, North Korea's special forces . . .!" A shrug. "Hell, you name it, they're here somewhere!"

"They came here in the wake of the oil incident, when the United Nations decided to restrict Galactic Federation aliens to Tomobiki," Kay added. "And in a way, I can understand. When the Oni came, Captain Invader spoke to the United Nations directly about their plans for the Tag Race, avoiding any talk with any of the national governments along the way . . . save Japan, of course, when you got selected as Earth's champion. That sure as hell miffed a few people, especially in Washington, Moscow, Běijīng and elsewhere."

Ataru considered the SCAA agent's words, and then he nodded. "Gotcha. When I broke off from those two idiots and the word got around . . . "

"People saw an opportunity to remind the U.N. of who they were 'working' for." Jay scowled as he crossed his arms. "The Big Five called for a vote on the matter six hours ago. It was passed unanimously. THEN Zed . . . " – Zed, Ataru knew, was the Director of the Special Committee – " . . . got told."

"Cute," Ataru grumbled with a shake of his head. "Tell Zed-san he has my sympathies. So tell me: Is this permanent or temporary?"

Kay shook his head. "Don't know. From what Zed said, one representative on the Council – don't know who – said they MIGHT allow the Oni to come back IF Lum publicly apologized for the oil incident, Tag Two and everything else she or her friends from beyond caused that ended up hurting someone here."

Ataru nodded. "I see. So what happens now?"

Before either of the SCAA agents can answer, Kay's special video cell-phone ringed. "Kay," he answered it. "What is it, Zed?"

"A Zephyrite destroyer just pulled into orbit over Japan," Zed reported. "They're transporting Inquisitors down to link up with your team and Dee's team to deal with Lum and her friends. Is Ataru with you?"

"Yeah, he's right here." Kay waved as Ataru walked up.

The older man nodded on seeing Earth's tag champion. "I'm really sorry about this, son." He tried to smile. "I heard things were starting to get better between you and Lum. I wish this didn't have to happen."

Ataru took that in, and then he nodded. "Thanks, Zed-san. Let me see if I can try to get something better from the Inquisition, alright?"

Zed considered that, and then he sighed. "Don't go overboard."

"I'll try not to."


Minutes later, the door leading to Ataru's guest bedroom opened. Looking in, he frowned on seeing a quivering, wet-faced Lum being held by Negako. Also there was Kotatsuneko, who cradled a crying Ten. Fortunately, Ataru understood well about keeping this event secret from certain parties in Tomobiki. Negako assured him earlier that, when she had arrived in town the previous afternoon, she used her shiatsu skills to incapacitate Mendō, Megane and the Stormtroopers. They weren't expected to recover for another two days at least.

Far too late to "help" Lum.

Gazing at the giant cat-ghost, Ataru smiled as he reached over to gently stroke the fur on Kotatsuneko's head. "Thanks for coming."

Kotatsuneko smiled, and then he stared at Negako. "He says he was more than happy to come at this time and wishes the silly humans in New York would be more compassionate about matters," the ninjutsu grandmaster provided.

Ten sniffed, and then he stared at Negako. "You can understand wh-what K-k-Kota-chan says, Negako-onēchan?" he burbled.

"I can understand the language of all sentient beings on this planet, even non-corporeal ones," Negako explained, and then she raised a finger, winking. "Understandable, seeing that, until five years ago, I was one of them."

Ataru sighed. "Yeah." He turned to the door. "Gentlemen?"

Kay and Jay stepped inside. Following the two SCAA agents into the room were two young Zephyrite men in black, ankle-length robes tied with gold cord at the waist. Ataru knew that the Lawgivers would be holstered on thigh straps, easily accessed through a slit in the robe. Seeing the Inquisitors, the Oni began to visibly quake as Negako helped Lum stand. Noting the looks on their faces, Kay and Jay exchanged a look, and then the former reached into his jacket pocket to draw a piece of computer printout, opening it to read:

"Lum no Midorinokaminoke-oni," he began, addressing Lum by her "tribal" name and not her Imperial one, Redet Lum. He looked at Ten. "Jariten no Midorinokaminoke-oni. By order of the Security Council of the United Nations of the planet Earth, under Special Resolution 6964 passed this day in New York City, your visas allowing you to live on Earth, in the town of Tomobiki, city of Hōya, metropolis of Tōkyō, in Japan, a member nation-state of the United Nations . . . " A pause, and then he finished, "Are revoked. Thus, you both will vacate this planet by twelve o'clock midnight local time today, returning to your home planet. Further, under Clause Two of Resolution 6964, neither of you will be permitted to take with you any citizen of any nation of Earth back to your home planet." He indicated Ataru. "To ensure this happens peacefully, Inquisitor-Deacon Malefire and Inquisitor-Archdeacon Skyrain of the Inquisition of the Holy Republic of Zephyrus are here to monitor your departure and return to your home planet." He gazed at the visiting lawmen. "Your Grace?"

The older of the Inquisitors stepped up. "Redet Lum. Redet Jariten." He thinly smiled. His dark eyes radiated such a level of menace, it caused even Kotatsuneko to falter. "I trust your affairs are all in order?"

Lum sniffed, jerkily nodding. "Hai, Your Grace, they are."

"Very well, then." Highridge Malefire stared directly into her eyes. "Be warned, young lady. There are many on this planet that would GLADLY see you dragged to their World Court and face charges of crimes against humanity for what you allowed to happen two weeks ago. Not to mention all the OTHER times you decided your personal desires mattered more than the good health of the inhabitants of Earth, especially when it concerned your 'husband.'" A torrent of scorn echoed in his voice as he uttered that word. "While the United Nations has not seen fit to see you charged, WE will gladly do it for them. But we will respect their desire that this matter is resolved peacefully. Do NOT cause problems if you both value your continued freedom. Understood?"

"H-hai," Lum stammered.

Watching this, Ataru quaked, his fists clenching. Damn it, they didn't need to hold a bloody axe over Lum's head to make her leave the planet! Calming himself, he cleared his throat. "Your Grace?" he called out.

Malefire blinked, and then he turned to Ataru, his icy look melting into a warm smile. "Young Master Ataru." He stood to attention as he politely inclined his head, his companion doing likewise. "I was overjoyed to be told by Brother Darklight Sunfire of the wonderful news concerning the restoration of your memories and your final parting from those heretics you once called your parents. If you wish to see those heretics properly punished for their many barbarous acts against you and your truly most righteous grandmother . . .?"

"Thank you, Your Grace, but I believe leaving them to wither on the vine, with no access to Obā-chan's wealth, is punishment enough." He shook his head. "I realise I have no right to ask this, but I will. Regardless of how the Six Churches may look upon Lum, I'd strongly hope that you and your comrades will see to it she and her cousin receive a safe escort back to Oni space."

The deacon – a man equal in rank and responsibility to an assistant police inspector in Japan – blinked with surprise. "An . . . unusual request, indeed, Young Master. Considering her many acts against your own person . . .!"

"That I would've hoped to have resolved with Lum without interference," Ataru cut in. "Sadly, I accept now that such a chance has been taken away. But I hope for such a chance in the future. Surely, you can understand that."

Malefire's eyebrow arched, and then he sighed. "Please understand why I must say this, Young Master. But I feel you are TOO forgiving to this woman, not to mention those who've allied with her." He stared wrathfully at Lum.

Ataru closed his eyes. "Perhaps. But forgiveness is an option I choose to exercise, Your Grace. That is my right, is it not?"

Silence fell as he considered it. A chuckle then escaped Malefire's lips. "It is. Very well. Your friends will make it home, whole and hearty. Besides, I doubt the Noukiites will foray anywhere close to Toshitto."

Lum's would-be husband nodded. "Thank you, Your Grace."

With that, Malefire's eyes hardened as he gazed on Lum. "You have fifteen minutes to say your good-byes," he flatly announced. "No more."

Lum jerkily nodded. "H-hai!"

The Inquisitors walked out of the room. Jay and Kay exchanged a look, and then the former patted Ataru's shoulder. "Nicely played."

With that, the SCAA agents stepped out, followed by Kotatsuneko. Ataru watched them go, and then he turned to Ten. "Didja really mean that?" the younger Oni asked as he floated up to stare into Ataru's eyes.

"Yeah, I meant that." Ataru placed a hand on Ten's shoulder. "Now, listen to me, Ten. I want you to promise me something. I want you to keep an eye out for Lum, okay?" He pointed to Lum, and then he held up a finger to emphasize his point. "And tell Benten-san and Oyuki-sama to help keep an eye on things, too, alright? It's time for you to become a big boy now. Can you do it?"

Ten blinked, and then he shakily straightened himself. He bit his lip, trying not to break down and cry. "O-okay!" he rasped out.

"Alright." Ataru squeezed Ten's shoulders. "Now, remember, Ten. Wars are not fun, not one bit. Don't take chances, okay?"

"Indeed, he is correct," Negako spoke up. "The fact that Ataru is willing to turn his back on such a matter does speak highly of him."

Ten blinked as he looked at her. "But you're gonna t-turn him into a great warrior, N-Negako-onēchan, j-just like you and Nassur-chan are . . . "

"Jariten." Negako stepped up to him, placing her hand on his other shoulder. "There is a simple philosophy in our clan when it comes to war: 'Wars do not make one great. Wars normally make one dead.'"

"In other words, don't fight unless it's for the right reason and there's no other choice but to fight," Ataru added. "Okay?"

Ten sniffed. "O-okay. I guess you aren't such an idiot after all."

He tried to smile, looking down. "Yeah, guess not," Ataru mused with a chuckle, and then he stared at Lum.

"Come, Jariten," Negako bade. "We best leave them be."

She walked Ten out. "'Bye, Ataru." The young Oni waved.

The door closed behind them. Ataru sighed, and then he turned back to Lum. She smiled as she sank into his embrace. "Darling . . . "

He kissed her forehead. "Gomen."

"I love you."

Ataru tensed. "Lum . . . "

The Oni stared into his eyes. "Darling?"

He returned her look. "What do you want me to say now, Lum?" he quietly asked. "The truth? Or what you've always wanted to hear from me?"

Lum considered that. "The truth," she whispered.

"Okay." He nodded. "The truth is this: At the least, I looked on you as the most wonderful person ever to enter my life. There were so many times ever since you came where I pinched myself, wondering what the hell I did to deserve you. Maybe . . . " He bowed his eyes, shrugging. "Maybe my doubting it so much lead to a lot of the problems we had. I'm sorry. If . . . " He bit his lip. Tears streaked down his cheeks. "If we had the chance, I'd have learned HOW to love you. That we could've made something special just for us. And . . . " He took a deep breath before drawing her close to kiss her forehead. "I hope if the chance comes, you'll come back, Lum. I really do."

"Darling." She pulled away, bowing her head. "I'm sorry I presumed so much, let them . . . " She gazed out a window at the city beyond. "Let all of them trick me into trusting them so much instead of you. I . . . " She gazed at him. "I promise if I come back, I won't let it happen again."

Ataru smiled before drawing her close. They passionately kissed, and then pulled apart to gaze into the other's eyes. Both were crying. "Be careful, okay?" he whispered as he cupped her cheeks in his hands. "If these guys have that long a grudge against you, it isn't going to be pretty."

Lum nodded. "I will."


Ten minutes later, Lum's scoutship, towing Ten's starboat, lifted away from Tomobiki for the final time. Launching from her lot near the Moroboshi home at the same time, Aruka Ran's rose-hued scoutship joined its tiger-striped counterpart over downtown Shinjuku. Both arced into the heavens, as if they were flying to the bright Moon overhead. Then, a grey-hulled Zephyrite destroyer, a flamingo-shaped craft about the same size as Captain Invader's command battlewagon Kashin, slipped in behind the two Urusian ships.

On the streets of Tomobiki, people stopped to watch, many pointing and calling out to their friends as the word quickly spread. Watching from the top of the Toranoseishin Tower, Ataru shook his head. "Guess none of those people expected something like THIS to happen, eh, Onē-san?" He sighed as he stared at Negako. "You guessed something like this would happen, didn't you?"

The grandmaster remained nonplussed by his unspoken accusation. "Yes, I did. There were many scenarios in this situation. Indeed, some might conclude that my restoring your memories – thus leading to your rejection of Kinshō and Muchi – DID make this happen. I could have chosen to stay away and let you live in ignorance. But if that happened, one of several things might have occurred that would have lead to a far-less pleasant conclusion for you and Lum.

"The Noukiites are not the only factors to be considered in this matter, Ataru. As James and Kevin could have informed you, there are many governments on Earth who would have done anything to see our planet rid of Lum and her friends. Fundamentalist factions from a dozen religions. Ultra-conservative social groups and industrial corporations who, for whatever reason, would not have blinked an eye if Lum was coerced to their cause. What of Lum's friends? Those you know and those you do not? What trouble could have arisen from that quarter, perhaps?" She sighed, turning to gaze on the city. "Knowing you as I do, I chose the scenario which led to the most peaceful solution for all."

He considered that. "Yes, it was that, wasn't it?"

"I am pleased you agree." She turned her back on the cityscape, heading for the stairwell. "Now, it is time for you to learn exactly WHO you are. We best leave Tomobiki long before the sun rises, before any of the fools who normally preyed on you – those I did not personally disable myself, of course – decide to seek you out and try to ascertain what happened. Agreed?"

Ataru winced. "Yeah, I can do to not see any of those dorks for a few months, I suppose. What about school and all that?"

"I will have Reigi arrange your withdrawal from Tomobiki High School as we are travelling, plus ensure no one like Shūtarō learns of it," Negako stated as they stepped inside, heading towards the suites where she and Ten had stayed last night. "You can be inserted into another school if you desire. But that should not concern you at this time, Ataru. Other matters are more important."

He nodded. "True, true. So where are we going?"

"You will see."


"This is NHK BS News at fifty minutes after the hour." The reporter gazed at the camera. "Early this morning, Internal Affairs Minister Kōga Mogataru announced that the Oni-Urusian princess Redet Lum, who has been residing in the town of Tomobiki in Hōya, was expelled from Earth late last night at the direct order of the United Nations. Also forced to leave Earth, potentially never to return again, are Lum-san's cousin, Redet Jariten, and a friend and former middle school classmate of the Oni princess, Aruka Ran. When questioned by reporters, Kōga-daijin reported that the 'Second Tag Race' factored heavily into the United Nations' decision to see Lum-san expelled . . . "


"WHAT?" Mendō Shūtarō bellowed.

He then cried out as he clutched his chest, searing pain overwhelming him. "Lum-san . . .!" he rasped, his eyes rolling into his head.

"Young Master!" his bodyguards and servants screamed as they swarmed him.


"The room is bare?"

"Yes, Young Mistress." A Kuroko bowed his masked head to the woman he served. "It appears Moroboshi-sama moved out of his home two days ago. On overhearing his parents, it appears someone has granted Moroboshi-sama the legal right to renounce all links to his parents. He has taken advantage of it."

"Do you wish Master Shūtarō to learn of this, Mistress?" another Kuroko, kneeling beside his co-worker, asked.

"No." Mendō Ryōko shook her head, and then she looked away. "Ensure he does not learn of this for the time being."

Both Kuroko nodded. "Yes, Mistress."


"Lum, expelled? And Ran and Ten-chan, too?" Miyake Shinobu blinked as the unreality of the moment hit her like an avalanche. She then stared at her parents, Toshoba and Kimiki; the Miyake family was enjoying breakfast. "Who on Earth would ever have imagined something like that happening?"

"I wonder what happened to Ataru-kun," Kimiki mused.

"Doesn't say," her husband noted as he read his paper.


"CURSE YOU, ATARU! THIS IS ALL YOUR FA- . . . URK!"

Aisuru Satoshi – "Megane" as he was known to friends and classmates – gasped before slumping into his bed, his hand clutching his heart. Staring at him from the hallway, his mother Rui shook her head. "Serves you right for worshipping that . . . that ONI all the time!" she spat out.


"Momoe-san, what's going on here?"

"I've no idea whatsoever, Nabiki-san," Marubeya Momoe relayed over her cell phone to her friend. "I don't know when I can get more information, either! But I AM going to find out about this! If she's really gone . . . "

"Hai, hai, got you . . .!"

CRASH!

"BAKA OYAJI! THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!"

"What was THAT, Nabiki-san?"

Tendō Nabiki glanced at the door of her bedroom. She was dressed in her kimono. "By the sounds of it, Ranma-kun just got wind of Otō-chan's and Saotome-ojisan's LATEST brainstorm," she muttered. "Anyhow, I've got to go."

"They're too young to get married now, Nabiki-san."

"Agreed. That's why it won't happen. Keep me informed, okay?"

"Right."


"It is clearly a conspiracy against the Goddess!"

"Agreed!"

"Where is the Great Evil now?"

"No idea! We're searching for him, but it seems as if he has vanished from the Holy City itself! Should the President be informed?"

"Immediately!"

"Hai!"


"An ill-wind," Cherry mused, gazing at the morning air.


By that time of the day, the potential object of interest to many in Tomobiki was crossing an isthmus of sand littered with seashells towards a five-kilometre wide island sitting in one arm of the Sagami Bay south of Tōkyō. Like Negako, who walked ahead of him towards Ōmure-jima – Promised Island – Ataru was dressed in hiking gear, a backpack slung over his shoulders. His eyes darted from the sand at his feet to the water to the island. They then stopped on focusing on what sat on the island's highest point: A gold-brown statue resembling a nude, smiling, super-deformed pygmy dancing the hula. "I've got to say this, Onē-san: That has GOT to be the weirdest statue I've ever seen! Even the octopus statues on Mendō's pad have more class!"

"I do not consider myself a connoisseur of artwork, but many people, I believe, will agree with you, Ataru," Negako replied as her eyes warily turned left and right as she gauged how close the sea was from her feet.

Ataru sensed the tremor in his sister's normally ramrod-straight body. He squeezed her shoulder. "I'd think you'd finally be over your hydrophobia."

Negako relaxed, touched by his concern. "It has been difficult."

He chuckled. Within minutes, they stepped into the lee of the Island, making their way to a ladder to get them onto First Street. Climbing onto dry land, they stretched themselves. They then turned as a wry-looking gentleman in his sixties came up. He projected the air of the classic old man of the sea. "Ah, Negako-san! There you are! I see you brought your brother with you!"

Negako stared at him, nodding politely. "Indeed, I have. Were arrangements with Welcome House made for Ataru's accommodations?"

He nodded. "Hai! Hai! All ready to go! Maybe when you leave the island next time, you'll take the boat like normal people do."

"Onē-san's not 'normal,' Jii-san." Ataru patted Negako's shoulder before he looked at her. "What exactly IS Welcome House, anyway?"

"The island's youth hostel," Negako explained. "This way."

Going this way for five minutes lead Ataru and Negako to a dead-end lane. Past an archway announcing they had just come to WELCOME HOUSE, they found themselves looking at a three-floor Victorian-era commons. That was framed on the side closest to the shore by a three-floor rotunda topped with a lightning rod, the other by a circular chapel complete with bell tower. Negako directed her brother towards the rotunda. "Nice place." Ataru then whistled before he took note of several lights being on in the rotunda. "We alone?"

"No, there are others here. Children of parents who work on the mainland or abroad," Negako reported as they walked into a foyer framed with stairs to their right leading to the second floor. Under the second floor overhang was a hallway and doors leading to a central room. Negako guided Ataru to his right past that to the first apartment, located beside a storeroom. "Here."

Ataru noticed that a sign with his name was posted there. "Guess they think of everything." He opened the door to look inside.

POP!

POP!

POP!

POP!

"WELCOME HOME, BIG BROTHER!"

Ataru balked, his eyes wide. Confetti from noisemakers showered him as he blinked, stunned to see four girls awaiting him there.

To his left sat a girl of about sixteen, with golden-brown eyes and long brown hair, part of it styled in beautiful French braids. She was dressed in a ruffled shirt with string tie over a thigh-length skirt.

Sitting in front of the girl with the French braids was a pixie-cute eight-year old with royal blue eyes and dirty blonde-brown hair done up in side ponytails. She wore a gold dress with string tie and a black petticoat.

To Ataru's right was a slender woman, about his age, with royal blue eyes and brown hair done up in twin Usagi-like ponytails (without odango). She was draped in a black-and-blue T-shirt and a false-leather skirt.

Sitting before that girl was a cute twelve-year old with maple-fudge eyes and neck-length brown hair partially covered by a white headband. She wore a green-and-white seifuku top with a blue-and-white plaid skirt.

Negako stepped up beside him, nodding. "I see you received my message."

The girl with the long ponytails smiled. "We had to rush some things to make sure Onii-sama's homecoming was done right, Onē-sama."

The girl in the seifuku blinked. "Onē-chama, didn't Onē-chama say that Onii-chama would be coming with Onii-chama's girlfriend?"

The girl with the braids stared at the other girl. "Kaho-chan, didn't you see the news? They sent Onii-chan's girlfriend home."

"That means Onii-tama and Onē-tama can read to Hina even more!" the youngest girl gushed as she leapt up to hug Negako's legs.

Ataru blinked, and then he shook his head. "Er . . .!" He slapped the side of his head. "Not that I don't mind the reception, but what the heck's going on here, anyway? Why are you girls calling me 'big brother' . . .?"

"They have more than enough reasons to do so, Ataru." Negako smiled, and then she proceeded to perform introductions. "May I present Tanenobu Karen," – she waived to the girl with the French braids – " . . . Eigo Kaho," – the girl in the seifuku – " . . . Sukeyama Sakuya," – the oldest girl.

"Don't forget Hina!" the youngest then chirped.

"Ah, yes. And Saeru Hinako. They . . . " Negako then turned to gaze in amusement at Ataru. " . . . are your half-sisters."

Silence.

More silence.

Still more silence.

Sakuya blinked. "Onii-sama . . .?"

Ataru swayed. "Half-sisters . . .?"

He dropped, his eyes spiralling as his mind overloaded from that stark bombshell. "Onii-chan!" Karen called out as the girls crowded him.


"So what made Onii-tama faint, Onē-tama?"

"You should've warned him ahead of time, Onē-sama!"

Ataru moaned as he found himself staring at a glass ceiling crossed by timbers in a pentacle pattern. The room that ceiling topped was circular, the walls an evergreen shade. Looking to his right, he found himself staring into Hinako's worried face. "Onii-tama, are you okay?" the young girl asked.

Ataru blinked, and then he reached over to gently touch the young girl's nose. "You're . . . really . . . my sister?"

"Ah! I see you have recovered." Negako stepped into his viewing range, leaning down to gaze into his eyes. "And yes, as I said before you fainted, they are your half-sisters, Ataru. You all share the same father."

He took that in, and then he sat up. A quick glance around revealed that Karen, Kaho and Sakuya were presently sitting beside a large, round table. A dining room, he noted. Ataru then stared at Negako. "How the hell is THAT possible, Onē-san?" he sharply demanded. "I mean, when did . . .?"

"During the early part of his marriage with Kinshō, Muchi often did work for both Nagaiwakai and Komeru on Ōmure-jima," the grandmaster reported, placing a hand on Hinako's shoulder. "It appears that at that stage of their marriage, Muchi had not emotionally committed himself fully to Kinshō. Fortunately, since he was Nagaiwakai's youngest son, there were many on the island receptive to his feelings. Karen, Kaho, Sakuya and Hinako . . . " – she indicated each of the girls as she named them – " . . . all eventually resulted from that."

Ataru sighed. "And everyone says I had no tact?" he muttered to himself before burying his face into his hands.

"It's alright, Onii-chan." Karen sat beside him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Believe me, I always wondered why Tō-san . . . " She stopped, and then she sighed. "Well, my stepfather, I should call him – was always distant to me when I was growing up. But when Onē-chan came and told me the news, I . . . " She shuddered, her joy radiating from her like a nova. "Oh, it made me feel so happy to know I have a brother, not to mention sisters, too!"

She indicated Negako and the others. "Kaho really liked it when Onē-chama came and told her the truth!" Kaho gushed, and then she knelt before Ataru. "Now Kaho can cheer Onii-chama while he's training with Onē-chama!"

Ataru blinked. "Er . . . well . . .!"

"It's alright, Onii-sama." Sakuya placed a restraining hand on Kaho's shoulder as she gave him a smile. "This is all new to us, too!"

"Hina's happy Onii-tama is here!" Hinako declared as she walked over to hug one of Ataru's arms. "Now, Onii-tama can take Hina out to find Kuma-san and read books to Hina and eat fruit parfait with Hina and . . .!"

"Hey! He's OUR big brother, too, you know!" Karen gently scolded.

The sisters exchanged wary glances. A grin split Hinako's face. Soon, laughter filled the dining room. Even Negako seemed to have room for a smile. Ataru watched this, and then he took a breath before shrugging. "Well, this will take some getting used to!" he announced with a chuckle, pulling himself out of Hinako's embrace, though he held onto hers and Karen's hands. He then stared at Negako. "I take it Muchi never knew about any of this."

"No," Negako replied with a shake of her head. "Nagaiwakai ensured there was no way that Muchi, Kinshō, Komeru or anyone else would learn of this. After all, given the way our clan's leadership succession works . . . " Negako then indicated Sakuya with one hand, an eyebrow arching knowingly.

Ataru nodded. "Gotcha. Instant she comes of age – I think we have to get her on our family register, too – she becomes the next Matriarch."

"Exactly." Negako nodded, and then she blinked, her eyes turning up.

"Onē-chan, are you alright?" Karen immediately asked as the others stood up. She then looked to the ceiling. "What's wrong?"

Negako sighed. "It appears Shirayuki does not listen."

Sakuya blinked as she gazed on the grandmaster. "Shirayuki-chan? You mean she's the one who made those awful kimch'i rice puddings last night?"

"Um, Onē-san, who's this Shirayuki anyway?" Ataru wondered, his stomach automatically doing a flip-flop on hearing the phrase "kimch'i rice puddings." To him, it sounded like something Lum might have created on a mad lark.

"Osamu Shirayuki. She lives here, too," Negako explained. Her eyes then narrowed as her ki senses picked out additional details from one of the rooms two floors up. "Karen, have some cold water prepared. Aria, Rinrin and Yotsuba are with Shirayuki in Rinrin's room. They were affected as well."

"Hai!"


Pitchers of ice water and glasses were quickly set out on the dining room table. Negako went upstairs with Sakuya, Kaho and Hinako as Karen set things out. Ataru offered to help, but was waved down by Karen. "It's alright, Onii-chan," the younger girl said. "You just arrived. We're used to this."

Ataru sighed. "You mean bad cooking?"

"Well, Shirayuki-chan really, really, really tries her best when she cooks something," Karen moderated. "But then again, she hasn't had much time to practice. Her parents left her in the House's care only two months ago."

"Where did they g- . . .?"

The doors flew open. He and Karen watched as the others streamed into the room. Negako carried in two girls, though Hinako held one's hand. Sakuya carried another piggyback-style. Kaho helped a fourth stagger in. The newcomers were placed in chairs, and then glasses of water were poured for them. Seeing that, the newcomers grabbed the glasses and chugged them down. "Ah!" one gasped, scratching the back of her head. She was a girl of fourteen or so, with brown eyes and mauve hair bob-curled at her shoulders, held down by a big, black bow tie shaped somewhat like cat ears. She was wearing a white blouse with tie, black vest and matching black skirt, plus thigh-highs and mary janes. "Oh, how could Hime make such an awful mistake with her kimch'i rice puddings?"

"It's okay, Shirayuki-chan!" the girl beside her replied as she poured herself another glass. She was on the near side of fifteen, with brown eyes and dark brown hair cut short at her neck. She was draped in a green, ankle-length, full-sleeve cheongsam-like skirt with white collars, welding goggles on her forehead. "It's like science! You gotta keep testing to make it right."

"Maybe it was that oven you built, Rinrin-chan," the newcomer to Ataru's right noted, her voice tinged with east end London. Around the same age as Rinrin, she had gold-brown eyes and shaggy brown hair done up in side-by-side ponytails at the back of her head. Further indicating she was part-English was her clothing: A tie with the Union Jack painted on it, wrapped over a white shirt, that topped with a red vest, gold skirt and black stockings, the whole topped by a cape Sherlock Holmes might wear. She had a spyglass in her pocket.

The last of the quartet was a ten-year old dressed in something straight out of the period Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived in when he wrote about his detective: A blue-and-white, ankle-length hoop skirt with bow ties, gloves and more crinoline lace trimming than you could shake the proverbial stick at. A bonnet, the hair tied in four buns at the back of her neck, covered her platinum hair. As she finished her glass of water, her purple eyes suddenly fixed on Ataru, and then they went wide with recognition. "Ah!" She smiled, her voice airy, her accent strongly flecked with Paris. "Nii-ya!" she cried out. "Nē-ya brought Nii-ya to be with Aria like Nē-ya promised!"

"EH?" everyone gasped as the other newcomers stare at Ataru, the Sherlock Holmes-wannabe taking a close look with her spyglass.

Shirayuki bolted up, grinning delightedly. "Nii-sama?"

"Aniki! You're here!" Rinrin gushed.

"Ani-chama!" The Holmes-wannabe shuddered before she bopped the top of her head with her fist. "Yotsuba's slipping! Yotsuba should've checked that if Ane-chama's here today, then Ani-chama came with her!"

Ataru jolted, his eyes going VERY wide before he started to sway. "No, not you, too . . .!" he moaned before collapsing on the couch.

"BIG BROTHER!" all the younger sisters cried out.


"Aniki, are you okay?"

"Ani-chama sure didn't check THAT pretty well!"

Ataru moaned, and then he sat up, noticing that TWICE the number of girls was staring worriedly at him. Breathing out, he jolted on seeing a hand holding his left arm at the wrist. Attached to that was Aria. Hinako was on his other side. "Onii-chan, are you okay?" Karen asked. "Do you want some water?"

"I . . .!" he stuttered before exhaling. "Onē-san, if this is your idea of a surprise, I have to confess, it's working brilliantly!"

Everyone except Negako laughed. "Yes, they are also your half-sisters," she said as she indicated each of the newcomers. "Yotsuba Nemain Dunn, Hatoyama Rinrin, Osamu Shirayuki and Aria Claudia Jeanne Michelle des Beauchamps."

"Um . . .!" His eyebrow twitched, and then he waved. "Hi, girls!"

"Oh, Nii-sama! Hime's so happy Nii-sama's here!" Shirayuki clapped her hands in anticipation before a thoughtful look crossed her face. "Hime should try to make something good for Nii-sama so he can feel at home here with us!"

Rinrin's eyebrow arched. "Um, Shirayuki-chan, do you really want to give Aniki a taste of those rice puddings you made last night?"

Shirayuki balked, and then she sighed. "Sō desu no . . . "

"Well, it doesn't mean to stop trying, Shirayuki-chan." Ataru gazed at her. He then hummed, turning to see that Yotsuba was scanning him intently through her spyglass. "And what are you looking at, Yotsuba-chan?"

She smirked. "At Ani-chama! Yotsuba is going to keep checking Ani-chama until Yotsuba learns all of Ani-chama's secrets!"

"Oh?" His eyebrow arched as he snapped the spyglass away from her. SHE then got the look-over. "And WHO checks the checker?"

Yotsuba gargled as some of the others laughed. Ataru then jolted as Aria gently tugged his sleeve. "Nii-ya." She smiled at him as he stared at her. "Did Nii-ya walk with Nē-ya to see Aria?" she asked. "Aria hopes so. Nē-ya doesn't like coming here because Umi-san scares Nē-ya."

He took that in. Returning Yotsuba's spyglass to her, Ataru then patted Aria's hand. "Don't worry, Aria-chan." He winked playfully at the young Parisian. "Nii-ya made sure Umi-san didn't scare Nē-ya."

Aria impishly shrugged. "Kusun."

Suddenly, a rolling sound echoed through the dining room, causing everyone to look up. "What's that?" Sakuya demanded.

"Sounds like Mamoru-chan skating around," Kaho reported.

Negako was nonplussed. "Ah, the others are coming now."

Everyone looked at her. "'Others?'"

Ataru paled. "You mean . . .!"

A sharp crash! echoed from overhead, causing people to look up as part of the glass ceiling fell away, soaring seemingly right for Ataru's head. "ANII! ANĒ! EVERYONE! LOOK OUT!" someone screamed from above.

Before it could hit, a flash of steel ripped it in half, sending the pieces to either side of the room. As the people in the room – save Negako – immediately crowded around Ataru, a lithe form landed on the table, and then she flipped to the floor. "Anigimi-sama, Anegimi-sama, minna-sama, are you all right?" the newcomer asked in a voice tinged with the Ruhr Valley of Germany.

The questioner was a woman Sakuya's age and height, with blue eyes and long black hair tied in a high ponytail. She was draped in a pink top and black hakama over lace-up, high-heel boots. A naginata rested in her hand. Before people could say a word to her, someone else landed hands-first on the table, and then somersaulted to the floor beside the naginata-welder. "Haruka-chan! Mamoru-chan!" Karen called out on recognising them, and then she gasped as she looked at Negako, stunned disbelief flashing in her eyes. "Them, too?"

The second newcomer was a girl of thirteen though looking more mature. She distantly resembled Rinrin, though her chocolate-shaded hair was shaggier. A cap covered most of that. As befitting one who was a serious sportswoman, she was dressed in a dark green spandex bodysuit topped with a green-and-orange track top. In-line roller blades covered her feet and sunglasses were perched on her forehead. "Sorry about that, everyone!" she then apologised. "I was trying to get down the stairs, but when I saw Anii, I got too excited . . . "

"And you might've killed some of us were it not for Haruka-chan," Sakuya said as she sent the skater an annoyed look, waving to the naginata-welder. "Good grief, Mamoru-chan! You KNOW the people running the House don't like it when you skate around indoors on your roller blades!"

Mamoru looked miffed. "So?"

Ataru stared at Negako. "Them, too?"

Negako indicated each girl. "Tenhiro Haruka. Itō Mamoru."

Hearing their names, the newcomers perked, and then they turned to gaze affectionately at Ataru. "It's so good to meet you at last, Anigimi-sama," Haruka declared as a blush crossed her face. She then clapped her cheeks as they reddened to the shade of cherries as she spun from her brother. "P-poh!"

Mamoru grinned. "Yeah! When Anē told us you can run marathons and all that 'cause of that alien girl, I got really excited!"

Ataru took that in, and then he stared at Negako. "Is that all?"

The ninjutsu grandmaster moved to answer, and then she turned towards the doors as a voice almost as timid as Aria's called out, "Hello? Aneue-sama? Did you finally come with Aniue-sama . . . oh! Hello, everyone!"

People turned as a girl about Haruka's age, possessing blue eyes under a set of round-frame reading glasses and long black hair in a thick braid, stepped in. She wore a white shirt and black vest over a green, ankle-length skirt. Beside her was a beautiful golden retriever as big as Hinako. "Marie-chan, what are you . . .?" Karen began before she spun on Negako, pointing to the newcomer. "Onē-chan! You don't mean that Marie-chan's . . .?"

"A half-sister. Yes, Karen. Ataru, this is Susumu Marie. The dog beside her is her pet, Michael," Negako did introductions.

Marie stared at Ataru, and then her cheeks flamed before she started to sway. "Oh, Aniue-sama! I'm so glad you . . . you . . . "

She collapsed. "Marie-chan!" Sakuya cried, and then she gasped as a blur ripped past her to land beside Marie before her head bounced off the floor. That blur became Ataru as he carried Marie to the couch. "Onii-sama . . .!"

"Marie-chan, are you okay?" Hinako called out as Ataru sat Marie down, and then he moved to pour the dazed girl a glass of water.

A star-shaped patch of light appeared on the dining room table, causing everyone to gasp as they spun around to look. The light faded, revealing a girl Sakuya's and Haruka's height, draped in a solid black cape from neck to toe, a witch's pointed hat perched on her head. Mamoru tensed on recognising the newcomer. "Oh, man! You don't mean . . .!" she moaned. "Her, too?"

The newcomer whipped off the hat and cape, revealing a girl Sakuya's age with purple hair in a bun at the crown of her head and very dark eyes. Under the cape, she wore a button shirt, red tie emblazoned with a white Gothic cross, plaid vest, ankle-length grey skirt and a black blazer. As everyone relaxed, she stared at Ataru, giving him a wave. "Ya, Ani-kun. I see all's well."

Sakuya sighed. "Chikage-chan, too?"

Ataru stared at the sorceress, and then he sat down beside the dozing Marie. "Excuse me, please," he muttered before passing out.

Everyone stared at him, and then they exhaled, even Negako. "I see Ani-kun took THAT very well," Chikage noted with a titter.


Ataru eventually recovered, and then he was introduced to the sorceress. Afterward, he moved into his room. Negako took up residence in a spare bedroom on the third floor, located between Rinrin's quarters and the men's furo room. Once everything was squared away, Shirayuki headed into the kitchen, located between Kaho's bedroom and the foyer on the ground floor, to whip up a feast in Ataru's honour. To ensure the would-be chef didn't make mistakes – especially when it came to their brother – Sakuya stayed with her to be the taste-tester.

As that happened, Ataru took some time to visit everyone in their own rooms to spend time with each. He learned something of their stories, how they came to be in Welcome House and what happened to their mothers and stepfathers.

Ataru was quick to learn that Marie was an orphan. Her mother had died of ovarian cancer when she was in junior kindergarten; her stepfather having passed away the previous year, pretty much of a broken heart.

Chikage's mother and stepfather, along with her maternal grandfather, were presently "indisposed." Whatever that meant.

Haruka's mother had passed away two years before thanks to pneumonia. Stricken with grief, her stepfather was currently somewhere in Southeast Asia on a wandering quest similar to the Australian Aboriginal "walkabout."

Rinrin's stepfather had died in a laboratory accident, but as of yet, her housewife mother had not elected to come back to the Island.

Sakuya's mother disappeared sometime after she entered junior high school. Try as people might, no one had yet learned what might have happened to her. That broke her stepfather's heart; he had died two years ago.

The others' families were intact, but all were currently off the Island, working either in Japan or abroad (that being the case of Karen's, Yotsuba's and Aria's families). Ataru understood; no doubt, when Negako met his sisters, the fact that they were ALL born out of wedlock – and the fact that their being born out of wedlock might soon go public – must have hit their parents hard.

He also learned that none of them had either stepbrothers or stepsisters, but they all had friends, save a social recluse like Chikage.

By the time their details were implanted into Ataru's mind, dinner was served. Shirayuki's determination, added to Sakuya's watchfulness, produced a meal that, while not up to Kamekichi Tampopo's standards, was scrumptious! Of course, Ataru did not engage in the rapid-fire eating style he sometimes used when he got challenged to a "lunch duel" back at Tomobiki High School. Not only was that pretty rude, but Shirayuki clearly wanted those who ate her creations to enjoy every last morsel. Ataru was MORE than happy to oblige.

After dinner, Rinrin brought in her Rinrin Viewer, a flat-screen 150-by-120-centimetre television with built-in Internet modem, touch-screen controls and high-speed central processor. Everyone pitched in to mount it on the wall. Once it was in place, Rinrin tried out the Viewer's latest modification: An AI that was programmed to allow voice-activated Internet surfing. After the links were tested, Ataru and the sisters began visiting Web sites from Japan and abroad, all by the power of their own voices (using written notes on addresses kept by Karen).

One of the websites visited was NHK News Online. To Ataru's surprise, the article about Lum's departure from Earth wasn't in the "Top Ten" listings. Quickly shifting to the old news page, they found the entry, and then logged in. Once there, Ataru was stunned to find that certain organisations in Tomobiki had, in the wake of the Oni's departure, finally spoken out AGAINST Lum's presence on Earth. One was the Tomobiki Parent-Teachers Association.

Megane's mother Aisuru Rui had made the PTA's statement:

"'Today, liberation finally came for the people of Tomobiki,'" Sakuya read. "'After two years of numbing uncertainty, interspersed with moments of terror, the Oni girl Lum and her friends from off-world have been driven from our planet, hopefully never to return. Despite the widespread idol-like adoration many of our children, especially those of high school age, expressed towards the Oni, her living in Tomobiki was NOT to the benefit of her long-suffering citizens. We, the parents of Tomobiki, rejoice that the Oni is no longer amongst us. We hope and pray that the United Nations will make very sure that none of her kind visit Earth ever again within our lifetimes.'"

"There's no mention of you, Nii-sama," Shirayuki noted.

Ataru shook his head. "Oh, heck! Don't worry about it. If they didn't say anything about me, I don't care. It means they're too busy trying to think up ways of making me their primary scapegoat for whatever weird thing that might hit that place these days. Especially since I don't live there now."

"Won't you say something about this, Onii-sama?" Sakuya asked.

He blinked before he shook his head. "No. I've no interest in allowing any of those clods to get anywhere close to any of you. You don't deserve that." He then gazed on the Rinrin Viewer. "Still, it is shocking."

"What is, Onii-chan?" Karen asked.

"That there were people in town who hated Lum." Ataru crossed his arms. "I always was under the impression that everyone there liked her."

The others hummed.


That night . . .

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! DON'T GO!"

The four residents of the rotunda's ground floor (clockwise from the front door: Kaho, Sakuya, Hinako and Karen) sat up, wide-eyed with shock as that blood-curling scream echoed through the building. Karen, living in the room next door to her just-arrived big brother, quickly recognised who had done the shouting. "Onii-chan!" she screamed out.

Surging out of bed, she raced out the door as the door to Hinako's room opened, revealing the youngest of the sisters, her eyes tearing as she clutched her precious Mister Bunny. "Karen-chan! Who screamed?" Hinako burbled.

"Onii-chan!" Karen knocked on Ataru's door, and then she opened it to look inside before stopping, her eyes widening. "Onē-chan!"

Negako looked up from a pale-faced Ataru. Staring at this nearly ageless entity she looked on these days as an elder sister, Karen was stunned to see – well, SOMETHING! – etched in Negako's brown eyes. "Onē-chan . . .?"

"No . . . please, Lum . . . don't leave me . . . "

Negako turned to gaze on him as the latter quaked, the nightmare still searing through him. She tapped several points on his face and neck to force him into a deeper sleep. By then, Sakuya, Kaho and Hinako have joined Karen.

"Onē-sama . . .?" Sakuya whispered.

Negako grimaced. "I should have anticipated this."

"Anticipated what, Onē-chama?" Kaho asked.

"The backlash the restoration of his memories would have unleashed, Kaho," Negako answered. "While he was in the amnesiac state I placed him in five years ago, he was unable to properly tap into his learning and intelligence potential. It is no wonder so many in Tomobiki considered him an idiot; he did not have the mental capacity to truly evolve and mature himself as most others do."

Karen's eyes started to tear. "Didn't you realise this when you did this to him in the first place, Onē-chan?" she gasped.

"I did. But at the time this happened, I was too euphoric at being free to foresee the potential dangers I was placing Ataru in," Negako replied as she closed her eyes. She then perked as she detected something. "Interesting."

"What is it?" Kaho probed.

Negako blinked, pulling her hand away from Ataru. "He will sleep better this evening." She stood up, moving to step out of the bedroom. "You may remain here if you wish. I have something to discuss with Chikage."

She walked out. The sisters watched her depart, and then they exchanged worried looks. "There are times I really worry about her," Karen mused.

Sakuya shook her head. "Nothing you can do, Karen-chan. In a way, Onē-sama was abandoned to fend for herself just like Onii-sama. Right now . . . " She gazed on the sleeping Ataru, her eyes tearing. "All we can do is to be there for them. Be the family they both really need right now."

The others nodded before they walked out to return to bed. All save Hinako. The youngest of the sisters walked over to stare intently into her Onii-tama's face. She then took Mister Bunny and tucked that into the bed beside him. She kissed Ataru's cheek. "Good night, Onii-tama," she whispered.

With that, Hinako headed out, closing the door behind her.


"It's natural for Ani-kun to start having nightmares about his experiences in Tomobiki," Chikage stated as she poured drinks from her own spirit locker. None of the bottles, Negako was quick to note, were less than a century old, all of them preserved using techniques vintners and distillers would literally kill to possess. "Though there were times Ani-kun easily manipulated others to do his bidding, the number of real and perceived enemies were often overwhelming. Atop that, elements of Ani-kun's psyche were fractured from the core conscience when you were inserted into him when he was six years old."

"Multiple-personality disorder?"

"Potentially." The sorceress served the drinks, and then she sat across from the ninjutsu grandmaster. "Studies about multiple-personality problems are still problematic even among the various magical communities around the world, Ane-kun. Still, from what I have been able to divine, all parts of Ani-kun are aligned on one emotional path. It is the precise methodology each of those fragments might use in specific situations which differs."

"Keeping him isolated from his former classmates is wise, then?"

A nod. "In my estimation, yes. In fact, if we engage in a campaign where we deliberately place the people of Tomobiki, especially those who stood against Ani-kun the most, in a negative light, it would be healthier for all. Ani-kun – the 'core' of him – could be made to desire never to deal with them again. He would avoid them, frustrating them if they wished to seek him out. They might decide to do so in the wake of Lum's banishment . . . " A pause. "Or they might turn out to be so overwhelmed at Lum's 'loss,' they'd not contemplate seeking Ani-kun out at all. That, I think, would be better. The violent elements of Ani-kun's fragmented conscience, I fear, would kill them all at the first opportunity. And given the skills he inherited from you, Ane-kun . . . "

"It would become, as the Americans put it, a 'turkey shoot,'" Negako finished. "It is fortunate I removed and destroyed the listening device Lum placed in that UFO catcher doll she once made for Ataru. To believe that Lum expressed NO real trust to Ataru, yet she loudly claimed she loved him. I may not be able to feel 'true' love myself, but I know at least it is not THAT."

"Indeed, it isn't." Chikage sipped her brandy, and then she gazed at Negako. "So you noticed the psi-bond Ani-kun has now."

"Do you know who he is bonded to? The part of Ataru's memory from when that bond was formed was damaged when I was placed in him."

Chikage reached for her crystal ball, and then she held it up before Negako. Chanting an ancient incantation, the sorceress smiled as an image appears in the opaque crystal. "This is Ani-kun's chosen one."

Negako looked, her eyebrows arching. "Saotome Ranma?"

Chikage blinked. "Saotome Ranma?" Her eyes widened – whom in the immediate area of the Tōkyō megalopolis had NOT heard of him? – and then one of her eyebrows arched in return. "But Ranma-san is supposed to be . . . "

"A man?" Negako lightly smiled. "So he was born. But as you should be aware, Zhòuquán-xiāng altered that far more than most believe."

"True."

To be continued . . .


WRITER'S NOTES:

1) Names are written in "family name-first" order if the family name is Oriental, which will include Imperial Urusian names, i.e. Moroboshi Ataru, Saotome Ranma, Redet Lum. Names are written in "family name-last" order if the family name is Occidental, which will include Zephyrite and Ellsian names, i.e. Yotsuba Dunn, Sunhair Windrider, Amora de Rosenbach. Noukiite names are written in the order "cast rank-family name gender/birth rank-given name."

2) For those who are unfamiliar with the characters of Sister Princess, the girls have a unique and personalized way when it comes to referring to Ataru (and by extension, Negako). For those who wish to know, that is part of the charm of the Sister Princess characters. So, FYI, here's a list of who speaks in what way (plus how it would be written in Japanese):

Karen – Onii-chan (お兄ちゃん)/Onē-chan (お姉ちゃん)
Kaho – Onii-chama (お兄ちゃま)/Onē-chama (お姉ちゃま)
Mamoru – Anii (あにぃ)/Anē (あねぇ)
Sakuya – Onii-sama (お兄様)/Onē-sama (お姉様)
Hinako – Onii-tama (おにいたま)/Onē-tama (おねえたま)
Marie – Aniue-sama (兄上様)/Aneue-sama (姉上様)
Shirayuki – Nii-sama (にいさま)/Nē-sama (ねえさま)
Rinrin – Aniki (アニキ)/Aneki (アネキ)
Chikage – Ani-kun (兄くん)/Ane-kun (姉くん)
Haruka – Anigimi-sama (兄君さま)/Anegimi-sama (姉君さま)
Yotsuba – Ani-chama (兄チャマ)/Ane-chama (姉チャマ)
Aria – Nii-ya (兄や)/Nē-ya (姉や)

As you also probably noted, Kaho, Yotsuba and Aria speak in third person (using their names in lieu of "I"). Hinako uses "Hina" when referring to herself. Shirayuki calls herself "Hime" (princess). This form of speech and how they talk was used in the Sister Princess anime and the novels Tenhiro-sensei and Kimino-sensei wrote about them. Other special expressions the girls use are as follows:

. . . desu no – Ending to most of Shirayuki's sentences, like the appearance of the "-tcha" at the end of Lum's sentences.

Poh! – Haruka's personal exclamation, substitute for "Oh!", "Oh, my!", "Oh, dear!" . . . well, you get the hint, ne?

Check/Checky! – Yotsuba's favourite words. Often subs this for other words, i.e. "It's not checky!" for "That's not okay."

Kusun! – The sound Aria makes when she becomes upset about something. When you hear her make this noise, watch out!

I did make one change: Karen. In the anime and the novellas, Karen also speaks in third-person. I decided that because she has spent a lot of time traveling abroad, she would be evolving from that habit when she meets her Onii-chan.

3) Information on the Tarot is based on information at the Learn the Tarot site by Joan Bunning.

4) Alphabet soup time! Translations of intelligence agencies' initials:

KCC: Kōan Chōsa-chō (Public Security Intelligence Agency) – State of Japan
SVR: Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) – Russian Federation
KGB: Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (Committee for State Security) – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
CIA: Central Intelligence Agency – United States of America
SIS: Secret Intelligence Service – United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
GAB: Guójiā Ānquán Bù (Ministry for State Security) – People's Republic of China
DGSE: Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (General Directorate of External Security) – Republic of France
Mossad: HaMossad leModi'in u-le-Tafkidim Meyuchadim (Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) – State of Israel
CSIS: Canadian Security Intelligence Service – Dominion of Canada
KCW: Kukka Chŏngbo-wŏn (National Intelligence Service) – Republic of Korea

5) The Men in Black are based on characters from the movie of the same name. FYI, Jay's real name is "James Darrell Edwards III." Kay's real name is "Kevin Brown."

6) Kamekichi Tampopo first appeared in my Yatsura lemon fanfic The Galatea Syndrome. Moroboshi Negako was one of the primary antagonist characters in The Senior Year; in her disembodied form as the Saikō Jinseijutsu (Way of the Supreme Life), she first appeared in the story "Spirit-War Tomobiki"; this is also the story where Moroboshi Komeru first appeared. The concept of foreign intelligence agencies spying on aliens living in Tomobiki was explored in The Senior Year fanfic story "Shinobu - Futures Imperfect" by Phil Gavigan. The Zephyrites, the Seifukusu the Noukiites were two of the new races introduced in TSY; the former made their full appearance in the story "Ataru's First Girlfriend! Arrive Windy-chan!", the Urusians' former conquerors in "Surprise, Darling! You're a Father!" and the latter first appeared in "Arrive Reiko-chan." Darklight Sunfire himself first appeared in "Arrive Reiko-chan." Fusegu Jinseiko and the Kuromoroboshi first appeared in "Tag Race Mark Three," as did Moroboshi Nagaiwakai. Nassur, who was created by Mike Smith, is another character from TSY; he first appeared in "Return of Memory."

7) Translations (all from Japanese unless otherwise noted):

bakaidiot/fool/stupid
ahoidiot (a stronger term than baka)
konban wagood evening
irasshaimasebe welcome (greeting when one enters a restaurant)
okonomiyaki – "as you like it" (pan-fried batter cake with vegetables)
gomen/gomen ne/gomen nasai - I'm sorry
kimch'ifermented vegetables spiced with red pepper powder (Korean)
komt'angbeef-bone stew (Korean)
sŏllŏngt'angbeef and noodles stew (Korean)
kalbit'angbeef rib stew (Korean)
samgyet'angchicken and rice stew with ginseng (Korean)
hankopersonal stamp used to notarize official documents
rōninmaster-less samurai (also a euphemism for failed college exam takers)
burakuminvillage people (euphemism for Japan's "untouchables")
Ip'ihuTribe of the Ravenous Wolves (Noukiite)
Tok-doKorean name for the Liancourt Rocks (Japanese name Take-shima)
shinobigatananinja's version of a katana
kunoichifemale ninja
kuromoroboshiblack shooting stars
ToranoseishinSpirit of the Tiger
odangomeat or vegetable dumplings, similar to won ton
seifuku"sailor suit" style girl's school uniform
kumabear
sō desu nothat's true/it's okay (Shirayuki-speak)
umisea
hakamawide-legged pleated pants
naginataa weapon similar to a pike, traditionally welded by women
NHKinitials for Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai, or "Japan Broadcasting Corporation"