Epilogue - The Woman Who Digs Her Family
KINGDOM OF MOLMOL, AUGUST, 2001
Haruka Seta, nee' Urashima, held her man in a tight grip, fully intending to never let him go.
The door to their room was closed, and Sarah sent off to sleep with Su and Motoko. They were all alone for many miles. Their activities would not be heard.
"I think…you better stop."
Haruka leaned up close and smiled in Seta's goofy face.
"I may just never let you go."
Haruka, you see, was holding her man tight. But she was not embracing him.
"Ruka, it hurts!"
For you see, Haruka was holding her man—by his manhood, and not at all in a tender way. Noriyasu Seta was learning just how tough an immortal's nails can feel, as they slowly close around a region the toughest of men get antsy about.
"Even if you kick me square in the jaw, I'm not letting go."
"You know I wouldn't—even if that would stop you."
Gambling hard against an angry woman, Seta called her bluff.
"Unless you want this to be a very technical kind of marriage, I have to ask you to let go."
She did, but a quick close of her hand like an arcade's mechanical claw reminded him of his constant peril.
"Why in the hell did you have to involve him?"
"I needed his help in getting the artifact---"
Her disdainful look was followed by another claw motion.
"Don't make me call Old Hank, Seta! He's over 100, but he'll whip the truth out of you if I ask him to."
"Do you have to remind me about you two?"
"Hey…he's as Human as the next man."
"But I was the next man!"
"Geez—you never figured that out that we tricked you? I don't have a grandpa complex. You were—the first man—and one of the only ones, too."
"Thanks—but you're not gonna call him, are you?"
Haruka sighed. Old Hank was the supreme legend of all archeologists, and the subject of multiple feature films. He was also Seta's sempai, and the terror displeasing the old man held for Seta made Motoko's relationship with Tsuruko seem like Shinobu's relationship with Keitaro.
"Not if you tell me the real reasons why you grabbed up my nephew, moments from achieving his childhood dream."
"Well, his being immortal does mean I'd have someone sure to reach Toudai alive."
"That's a start. But I always know when you're holding back."
"I had reasoned out that Kaolla Su was Molmolian royalty by the marks on her head. Since the Molmol Military was not in a mood to listen to me, and I knew Su was sweet on him, I figured he might be able to speak to her at best, or serve as a distraction at worst."
"Why? I've told you everything."
It was possible, maybe even likely, that some of the Urashimas' 'family secret' had been transferred to Seta by his times with Haruka—particularly one just two months before. But for all this, he was not an Urashima, and as Haruka began to punch at him, he was reminded of this anew.
"You allowed those two kids to have their dream transferred over to this madhouse, where that lovable little lunatic went nutsier than usual!"
Each punch came ever closer to its mark, the same area Haruka had targeted just a minute ago.
"That caused the fax to feed those lonely girls' dreams with the idea they could still step in and take him!"
If bluffing, she seemed quite serious as each blow was barely dodged.
"You single-handedly managed to roil up underlying tensions that could have..."
She stopped just shy of hitting her target, in part because an inner voice told her not to, and in part because only the arena for the madness could be laid at his feet.
"…that could have erupted at almost any time, over anything. Honey—I don't want to be upset with you. But those are my kids, and they really don't need any help in the crazy making department."
He got up, and held her as he often did when her rages were all spent.
"Why was this time so different than every other crazy time?"
"That I can answer. Kei and Naru were never so determined to reach the finish line. Su was never more out of anyone's control. Kitsune was never so blinded by her feelings for Keitaro, to the point where angling pushed her past simple pain in the ass into intestinal blockage territory. Motoko's still so knew to admitting her feelings—or that she even has them—that another chance at Keitaro was irresistible. Poor Shinobu has always felt crowded out, and trusted the wrong people to help her say what she wanted to. She still came very close to back-stabbing Naru, though. When she told me about the airship, I actually grabbed her skillet and broke off its handle on a rock, in front of her. She didn't complain. She gets it. But I wonder if the others do. It's like—what was usually fun and games, or part of how they got along, turned from slapstick and misunderstanding to just plain cruel and vicious. Now it has me worried—Hey!"
She pointed at him.
"You STILL haven't told me the real reason you absolutely had to grab him. Hubby, there's one more, and I want to know it."
Seta finally gave in.
"I wanted him at Toudai to challenge me for the right to finalize our love there. I knew at least you and Naru would follow. I had to beat him in front of the two of you. I wanted to be that superhero sempai in Naru's eyes one last time, and I---"
His face had the look it had when she mock-threatened his manhood.
"---I had to beat him in front of you. I had to finally, once and for all, win you from him."
She shook her head.
"What in the hell are you saying?"
"Ever since you mentioned this determined little boy, I've felt like I was in competition with him. He's far from all you ever talk about, and you're not all he talked about while we were in America. But any time one of you mentions the other—it became clear that you were talking about something more than a cousin, nephew, or even a sibling. Each of you was talking about your first love. But beating the nervous kid I found when I finally met him would have meant nothing. So I took him, trained him to his best potential—and only then was I ready to best him and really claim your love, once and for all."
She smiled, sniffed, and wiped a tear from her eye.
"That is, without a doubt, the sweetest---"
And Then She Belted Him Across The Chops.
"---and at the same time the DUMBEST thing I have ever heard from you. Keitaro and I---"
Seeing that her new husband was unconscious, she also saw just how much he looked like someone else. Haruka placed him in bed, put a pillow beneath his head, and tucked him in before kissing him on the cheek.
"Keitaro and I have got to resolve some things."
Wandering out to the beach to work out some thoughts, she was surprised to see her nephew digging for artifacts at a time she was certain he'd be going seismic with Naru. She thought back to the first time he had ever called her 'Auntie'. She then asked him a tender question as typical of their relationship as it would be unexpected by one who didn't know them.
"What the hell are you doing?"
The talk that followed would speak of family secrets, and of feelings she hadn't always made clear to him, but that he knew of anyway. It also spoke of the war to come between the sisters of the Hinata-Sou. By the time all was done, she had never felt closer to her nephew, and also dared to think that her feelings for him were now completely resolved.
To be fair, she was much closer to her nephew.
MID-TOWN TOKYO, THE MORNING OF AUGUST 18TH, 2001
"I'm here to see Doctor Kashigawa."
The secretary was an older American woman, somewhat heavyset, but inherently friendly looking.
"Oh—you must be Emily's friend. She said she was looking forward to seeing you."
"Well, this isn't a social visit. But I will be glad to see her. Is she the group therapist I saw listed on the placard?"
The woman laughed.
"No. Doctor Hartley still handles that, and Emily would never think of infringing on Sempai Bob's territory. She was named for his wife, after all."
Haruka shook her head.
"I never knew that. But then, she and I were never as close as we could have been."
"Another one, huh?"
The woman extended her hand.
"I'm Carol, by the way. As for Emily, let's just say I sometimes think she spent her childhood drumming up future business for when she became a psychologist."
An older, mostly balding American man walked up to the desk.
"Carol, is my salaryman group here yet?"
"Waiting in your office, Bob."
"D-Did you confiscate all their sharp objects?"
"All the metal ones. Though I think Samara-San may try to commit seppuku with a piece of really stale baguette."
The man shook his head.
"You can leave Chicago…"
Bob looked at her.
"Ever run a long group therapy session?"
Haruka thought it over.
"For about the last eight or so years."
"That—that's a pretty long one."
Bob disappeared into his office. A moment later, Haruka heard a voice that used to give her hives.
Short-cut hair, elegant clothes, as always she looked like a woman most men would bypass Haruka in favor of—just as they always had, when those men were boys—and the two women were girls.
"Kashigawa. Repairing the mental wounds you inflicted on the greater Tokyo area?"
"It does pay the bills. It finally replaced the nose you broke!"
Carol nodded before speaking.
"You two are really good friends, aren't you?"
Doctor Kashigawa shrugged.
"You know me too well, Carol. Hold all my calls. If Urashima is giving in and actually taking me up on my wedding gift, it must be juicy."
Once inside, Kashigawa opened her arms.
"C'mon—we've been there and back."
Haruka did in fact hug her, a thousand old insults exchanged coming to mind and only making them feel all the closer.
"Now, 'Ruka—your Granny never thought much of psychiatry, and neither did you. So what brings you here?"
Haruka sat down on the couch.
"Emi—I think I may be losing my mind."
"That covers a lot of ground. Is it your new marriage?"
"No—my marriage is something I'm afraid of losing in all this, though."
"Okay—being a mother for the first time?"
Haruka rolled her eyes.
"Try for the fifteenth time. Ryobo, remember?"
"Not quite the same thing."
"Yeah---but it's not Sarah. We've been good for a long time, and now we're even better."
"Granny Hina okay?"
"Oh, sure. She gets to make all these plans and schemes and remotely puppeteer all of us while traveling the world. Why wouldn't she be fine?"
Kashigawa wrote in her notes.
"No resentment there, huh?"
"Definitely something there, but that's not what's bugging me. Emi, I've been having dreams about being with this guy I know."
"Right after finally marrying Seta?"
"I'm not proud of it. But the dreams still come."
"Dreams will come, Urashima."
Haruka looked out the office window. It had a nice view of the city.
"I know that. If it were a movie star or fantasy figure, I'd have no problem. I'd just ask Nori to dress up as them. He's always game for mixing things up. But it's a real guy---someone I've known since we were kids."
"Someone I'd remember?"
Haruka clammed up and sat down after that. Emily Kashigawa sighed.
"May I remind you that we aren't catty teens anymore, and that I won't run out and tell everyone we know?"
Haruka nodded, and gave in.
"Yeah. It's just—I never thought I'd be in this kind of position. Emi, the guy in my dreams?"
She breathed in before speaking.
"It's my nephew."
Kashigawa wrote something down, seemed to be recalling something, and then looked at Haruka while shaking her head.
"Little Keitaro? Kei-Kun, The Baby Boob-Grabber? You---you have a thing for a boy who must be what, sixteen years old?"
Haruka shook her head as well.
"I trained him to grab all of you like that. And Emi? He's twenty-two."
"No---no, he's not. Maybe---maybe eighteen."
"—a big for his age going-on nineteen—"
"Twenty-Two. Emi, I'm thirty, and he's eight years younger than me."
Kashigawa continued to shake her head.
"Which would make him---oh, my God! A baby I cooed at and tickled is twenty-two, and one of my oldest friends has turned into an incestuous pedophilic stalker with latent maniacal tendencies---"
Kashigawa caught Haruka's glare.
"—err—but she's good people. So? Can I see a picture?"
Haruka produced a photo of the two couples at Toudai in Molmol.
"Ooooh—our little pal seems to have filled out—to say nothing of the rest of his body. Who's that with him?"
"That's Naru---his---his fiancée. Seta is sempai to both of them."
"You know her?"
"I know of her. When I first set up practice, the girls of the Hinata-Sou used to provide me with an endless stream of boys and men—some girls, all badly traumatized. Dried up suddenly about three years ago---wait—you don't mean?"
"Grandma made him landlord. They tried their damndest to get rid of him. He was forever walking in on them while they were nude---"
"In a hotel with an onsen? Imagine that."
"Emi, don't apply logic to their relationship."
"Okay I won't. Besides, it's not those girls he conquered that concerns me. It's the aunt he appears to have done that to. How long have you had this itch---I mean these dreams?"
"They've really only gotten explicit of late."
"Of late? Does that mean you've dreamed of this geeky little hunk before?"
Haruka sank on the couch a bit.
"Really—all my life."
Kashigawa phrased her next question carefully.
"How many of them have been explicit?"
"None—till last night."
Haruka was actually blushing.
"Just shy of it."
"So what happened?"
"We—were like those Highlander stories—like we were some kind of long-lived---errr—"
Kashigawa raised an opened palm.
"Listen, 'Ruka. The day we had that big fistfight over who Juni liked better? We both hit each other in the nose. An hour later, I practically had my face iced over, trying to keep the swelling down. The only thing you faced was Grandma Hina ripping you a new one. We all kind of got what you were—that, and we---kind of dropped Kei-Kun a few times when we played beach-ball with him."
"Why were you holding him for beach-ball?"
"Well, he was the ball. It was those damned Jell-O shots. He seemed to like it—but this one time a little girl crawled over and bit me on the ankle for doing that---noooo! You're kidding!"
"And she was sickly back then, to boot."
They got back on subject.
"Emi, I'm starting to have sex dreams about a kid who I was supposed to protect from lecherous old perverts—like me."
"Backtrack a bit. Was this or was this not the first really explicit dream?"
"It was the first one where we got naked, or in the clinch."
"Okay. What happened in the others? Near misses?"
Haruka shook her head.
"They only recently took on even a romantic air, let alone a sexual one. Usually, it's just been us being happy together. When I was a kid, and school got me down, he'd be there in my room, and we'd play board-games. When I was a teen, we'd walk down to the flavored ice stand. It's never even been a steady thing. Sometimes, I'd have these dreams when we hadn't seen each other for years. The arcades, the boardwalk, a long bike ride. All of it always innocent."
She wasn't quite fighting back tears, but her rise in emotion was apparent.
"When I lost my folks, Grandma did her best—I mean even above and beyond what everyone knows and loves about her. But she is of a different generation, and sometimes, I still felt so damned alone. The rest of the family tried to help. But I didn't want to belong to all of them. With me and Keitaro, it was like we had our own little family—just us two. Yeah, he'd break down and cry and give up like every five seconds, but every other five seconds he'd just keep on. We had each other, and that was all we needed—except for food, clothing, a roof over our heads---you get the picture."
"You know—all of us envied you having him."
"None of you envied me anything."
"Baka! Two things a girl that age always thinks will solve all her problems is a boyfriend and a baby. In him, you had both. So what do you think changed in your relationship?"
"I guess it all started when he came back to manage the Sou."
Haruka thought back.
"They could not stop beating on him in those days, and he could not find his way past doing something that embarrassed and humiliated himself and everyone else. Bonus points if it involved Shinobu."
"Shinobu the screamer?"
"Three or so of your former residents also made their way here. Shinobu Maehara's lungpower and tear duct capacity is a thing of legend. Did you know that some people don't think that anyone really lives at the Hinata-Sou? They say it's haunted. That a group of wailing banshees there eternally torment a poor lost soul, and their wails can be heard even at Fuji's summit."
"Aren't banshees Irish? Anyway—they pound on him—and they demand of me that I throw him the hell out."
"I could not have been more delighted."
"That these psychos were pounding on your nephew?"
"He could take it. It was always mental strength he lacked. A woman's raised voice held more terror for him than any physical torment. Heh. Naru still doesn't know that, for about a year before he left for America—his pain threshold had gotten so high—he had to force himself to cry during her beatings."
"Don't ever tell her that. People hate it when they learn their partner's been faking it."
"Anyway, my delight came from the fact that these whiny brats—who I love dearly—finally had their comfortable wool festival broken up. Grandma had dropped a sausage bomb in their midst, and this one was not going away—until he did—in which case they all fetched him right back."
Doctor Kashigawa chuckled.
"True love, huh?"
"Oh, you wouldn't have survived saying that during the first year—maybe even during the second. But it became pretty clear that he was now 'their pervert'. One time, they took down another group of girls bothering him at the beach. Stripped and then tied them up by their bikinis, even gave him permission to look. He promptly cut them down, of course—at which point they offered to have him move in with them, away from the 'witches'. He never even considered it—and then the girls beat him for looking at the ones they stripped—that they had given him permission for—etc."
"And—you're the one who came to see a psychiatrist? Haruka, it sounds a lot like you're very fond of all these kids."
"Shinobu, everyone just wants to protect. Su's the same, except they also want to maybe one day figure her out. Motoko tried to build a shield against the world of men—but Kei was always breaking things. Kitsune is Kami's vengeance on me for Grandma—that's why I gave her my old job when I left. Naru---Naru---"
Kashigawa noted some of Haruka's body language.
"Naru apparently has you forming a fist."
Haruka punched the couch.
"One day, I came home to find he had a black eye from her. Do you have any idea how hard she must have gone at him, to leave a mark that's visible? I came that close to batting her around myself—but I knew he would have felt more pain than she would have."
"And you care about his pain."
"You don't hold a baby and then stop caring because they're too big for that now."
"Ruka, I've certainly heard about this girl in passing from others. Let me hear your take on her."
Haruka raised a finger.
"Too late, shrinker. I already tumbled to the thought that Naru and I are a lot alike, and that Kei and Seta are too. We're good with that. I thought I'd put all this behind me."
"Ruka, I think I nailed something down here. Your dreams haven't been predatory---they've been progressive. What were some of your more recent ones?"
"Shopping—dancing. Grabbing some taiyaki and lemonade. Happy stuff."
"What changed between those dreams and the big one?"
Haruka had seen this before, but never quite so starkly.
'The baby had become a man. The man chose his wife—and it wasn't me."
She lay back.
"Ok. Completely pathetic now."
"Why? Because a surrogate mother figure is a bit jealous that her son chose her daughter?"
"Emi—I have a man. A frustrating one, but one I love. I have a nephew, and he's chosen a girl of like nature. I'm deliriously happy for all of us. In that light, I'd like these dreams of abusing my love for him to go away."
"I rather think they will. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they were done with. You may still dream of your nephew—but I think the cycle of dreams may have ended last night. Ruka, feelings get released—they don't get resolved entirely. The man you call your nephew is less than a decade your junior. You've both watched each other grow—that's incredibly alluring. Never discount that. You say the boy has become a man. In that dream—what were you about to do?"
"I was—about to be with him—the way a woman is with a man—because that's what we both are now. And I called him dense."
"Your dream wasn't some carnal desire to make your Grandma cry—it was celebrating your first love finding his own happiness. The imagery in the dream was just you realizing that while you would probably never be with him—now you could. Sometimes a possible if unrealized relationship can be as powerful as a consummated one. Because they are also transformative. Like alchemy, you've watched your little man turn from lead to gold, and you feel golden as a result. Let yourself feel that way---and if you happen to get a little dream action from it—eh. Never hurts."
The phone buzzed.
"That would be Carol. Our time is up. You, Mrs. Seta, just used up a very expensive wedding gift."
Another quick hug, and the two parted company. As she left the office, Haruka heard Doctor Hartley say to Emi that he missed someone called Carlin. Outside the building, her cellphone rang.
"You're sure? That moron---and the moron that married him. Thanks, Doctor."
She rang her new—likely temporary—home.
"Sarah—you and your Dad meet me at the Sou. Oh? Try and stop me, little lady. And tell him the doctor's visit was a very positive one."
Her purpose all her own, Haruka calculated the time needed for her new family to hook up with her old, and decided to do some shopping. She would be one of two or three stiff gusts to still strike the Hinata-Sou.
"Five in the afternoon? That has to rival some of my best."
"You look disappointed."
Mitsune in a borrowed bathrobe shrugged at Naru, wearing just an oversized T-Shirt.
"I was hoping to get a start on my training as Ryobo."
Keitaro, wearing the other half of what Naru wasn't, yawned and stretched.
"Mitsu, we just went through the longest day I can ever remember, and that includes my leg and all the failed Todai entrance exams combined. Your training can wait for tomorrow. As Grandma always says, if you took that kind of sleep, then that's what you needed."
"But I kind of wanted to start working down my debt-clock, so to speak."
The earnestness in her eyes secretly did for him what a thousand snarky rubs never could have. But all he did was place his hand on her shoulder.
"Your debt-clock started counting down as of yesterday. When that day comes, we'll celebrate that and the day we almost fell apart together---errr—yeah."
Naru placed a hand on the other shoulder and offered a smile.
"It's over, Mitsu. We've all eaten of humble pie."
"You weren't the one who was almost thrown out."
"You weren't the one who almost threw her sister out."
Mitsune tried to smile.
"Say—any of that humble pie around? I'm starved."
Shinobu emerged from her room, happily wearing proper pajamas—but not quite having adjusted them for where they clung to her emerging figure.
"Sorry—all the barley soup and eggs are gone—I didn't cook much yesterday."
Keitaro picked up the phone and called for Okonomiyaki from a delivery place, along with a large Margarita Pizza. While he did this, Motoko emerged with Su. Her robe was open, but revealed only her body wrap. She gave a surprised Keitaro a look that seemed to say : *You have seen more.*
"It was as Urashima said. So great a battle as that was bound to leave us brutally exhausted. Sisters—and brother—we have cause to look back in both shame and pride. We had a great deal to settle—and almost lost a great deal more by avoiding directly dealing with it for so long. Mitsune—if I, in the process of explaining myself, portrayed myself as the purer party in all this, rest assured, it was not a lie I myself believed."
"I'd just as soon say goodbye to saying sorry, Motoko. But it isn't done. We still have two or three more strong gusts coming through."
Mitsune had said that very absently, a fact Naru noted.
"And you know that—how?"
Since she suspected, but did not know for certain, it was not precisely a lie.
"Don't know. It's like—I can feel something coming in the air tonight. Oh, Kami. Guess my punishment for taking the sake doesn't end, does it?"
Luckily for her, Shinobu spoke up.
"I just hope, if I ever do anything that wrong again—it still doesn't involve anything like that cab ride."
Keitaro, who had been on his way to Molmol with Seta, naturally hadn't known of this.
Shinobu looked at him, and felt a twinge she was still new at fighting down.
"When the fax from Grandma came through, we all piled in to go after you. My head wasn't on straight—I just wanted to get to you. But we kind of made sure Sempai Naru wasn't aware of the fax, or in the cab, and we told her to take care of the place and---"
Shinobu thought that the prior night's talk was as bad as things would ever get between her and Keitaro. The look on her sempai's face—one of the purest disappointment imaginable---was one she swore deducted points from her very soul.
"Never again, alright?"
"Keitaro, stop it! She and I had this out. Can't we have done?"
He honked the girl's nose.
"I'm not upset. But as sempai, I demand better of her, even in her worst moment."
Shinobu hugged him after that—but he had no idea just how much she wanted to mount him, right then and there. The moment of being shamed had somehow done more for her desire than a thousand comforting words and pep talks—and those had never been slouches.
"As sempai, you have that right, and I will live up to your highest expectations."
Naru noted the near-ecstasy Shinobu was in, even if her man didn't.
*Someday, I'm gonna have to have a long talk with that girl. Then again, he gives such good shame.*
As Mutsumi entered, Mitsune motioned for everyone to gather in the living room.
"Sorry to break this April-May hugfest up, but since everybody's here, I have some ideas for this place that are best heard by all concerned. Okay?"
The last but not least member of the Sou flew in from the onsen, and settled on, of all people, Motoko. Su squealed in delight.
Mutsumi smiled broadly.
"I think the bad vibes coming from here kept Tama-Chan away. Maybe it is all nearly over."
The small turtle's facial muscles always seemed capable of actually forming a smile, and this evening was no different. Mitsune swore she could feel the tiny creature's joy, but put that aside for more practical matters.
"During our little set-to—before he clobbered me—our brother pointed out to me that this place has been on the edge of profitability for some time—even with yours truly excluded. I'd like to change that—and it uses an untapped resource to do it."
Su raised her hand.
"Isn't that illegal? And I think it's unfair to expect Keitaro to keep all those guys in line, and making sure they pay up."
Mitsune—and nearly everyone else—had been expecting something from Su, so she was quick but firm.
"Not that resource, Su. I meant taking in outside tenants for the warmer months. Maybe May through October—the times themselves aren't important—but that would also create a natural customer base for the Tea Room."
Keitaro raised not an objection, but a concern.
"If there's one thing I know about, it's privacy concerns. We do have unused rooms on both floors—but there's bound to be people seeing our bodies and our business. People we don't know, and who—no offense—are more like than not to file assault charges or lawsuits."
"Gotcha there, Bro---and also way ahead of you. In fact, you two happy humpers showed me the way. We take one of the floors just for us—and we double up for those four or five months. Be a bit of a pain—but we could also waive any talk of rent increases. It'll be kind of like what Kanako proposed—only without a creepy incestuous ulterior motive."
Naru saw the doubt on Keitaro's face.
"Hey—I think she has a good idea."
"I could double up with Su, Mutsumi or Motoko. Especially in non-school months."
Mutsumi showed her agreement.
"That even leaves one room a single. If one of us needed space, or if you two fought, there's a safety valve."
"Urashima, is there a reason why this could not occur?"
Keitaro shook his head.
"Technically, no. But practically—this place probably has not been up to code for some time—and if we get some bureaucrat in here, checking every last centimeter in the hopes we have to bribe them for something—I don't see how we can make it. The idea itself would make this place a going concern again, and give us some real reserves. But in order to make that happen by next spring or summer—we'd need seed money for deep repairs and renovation—likely including the Tea Room once we got inspectors in here. Money like that doesn't just come falling from the sky."
It is a truism that, for good or ill, Keitaro Urashima never learns to avoid making certain statements. For at that moment, a mechanical turtle clad in golden and jeweled plating flew in from the outside. Su jumped up and grabbed it.
"Mecha-Tama Aurum! I gave this to my brother and sister to deliver official correspondence."
The shell popped open—which notably creeped out Tama-Chan, who had seen the same thing happen to cartoon turtles. A folded-over envelope popped out, and the royal construct departed. Su opened it.
"It has your Molmolian army bonus checks in it."
There was one check for everyone present, plus four or so more again, which confused some people. Mitsune shook her head.
"Su, you said that I wasn't getting one."
"Uh-huh. Technically, that's still not your bonus. It's payment for collateral damage—sorry about your room."
Mitsune stared at the excess of zeroes.
"It's okay kid—that was Kitsune's room. I'm Mitsu-Ryobo. I don't need reminders of drunkenness and chundering. Though I do plan to tie one on when we have our anniversary to-do."
Keitaro, Mutsumi and Naru stared harder at their checks.
"Su, we never signed up—we were on the other side, remember?"
Su grinned rather sheepishly.
"I---kind of signed you up, Onii-Chan—so that you would have to obey my orders. That was wrong, wasn't it?"
Motoko shook her head.
"She will be the death of me. Su—why did you get a check?"
"Errr---because I was such a good recruiter, signing up all those people?"
"You mean either at gunpoint or fraudulently?"
"We have an aggressive recruitment program."
Motoko snatched the check from Su's hand, and gave it to their landlord.
"Our princess donates this towards the restoration of the Hinata-Sou."
"Yeah—I guess I do—all of it?"
Shinobu stared at her check.
"Su, I told you to deduct the cost of what I broke in your room."
"It is deducted."
"But this is soooo much money."
"Well, did you think I was going to have my friends play a game like that without paying for it?"
Mitsune looked at hers.
"It's enough for me to kick in the upgrade fund—and pay the taverns off. I doubt they'll let me back in, but that's no big. Also—I think I owe us a trip to the boardwalk arcades this Sunday."
"You could pay the Sou off, and just pay the taverns piecemeal."
"Thanks, Bro—but I know my own worst habits. We'll keep to the year for my debts here—like you said, I'll be stuck here anyway."
The pleased look on his and Naru's face made Mitsune feel actual self-worth. It had been a while.
"Sempai---count my money in towards the restoration—minus the rent for this year."
"It's a no-brainer for me. I love this place. I met my two best friends here."
Keitaro waved a hand.
"Thanks, Mutsumi. Thanks to all of you. There's now more than enough money for the upgrades and repairs—maybe even for a few fun things. But I want to go one step further."
Naru sat down, and folded her arms.
"No way, pal! You can't have them all!"
The 'all' stared over at her, and her defiance deflated.
"Gotta work on those trust issues. Oh---wait! Keitaro, that's a wonderful idea!"
Mutsumi's hair-ends seemed to vibrate—among other things.
"The best idea in almost twenty years."
Mitsune caught it next.
"Why not? We wouldn't want things to get boring around here—what with little Bro showing onsen restraint and us all good with him being here."
Shinobu looked confused, till she looked at Keitaro.
"It is OUR dream. Just like you said on the airship."
Su looked about her.
"Am I being punished again?"
Motoko whispered and Su perked right up.
"Wow! Then all your bad memories of Molmol would become good ones."
"More like---they'd have a good ending, Su. Motoko—since we don't want to offend the fates again, will you lead the prayer?"
"I am honored to do so, Urashima."
Motoko fell to both knees, and as she spoke, each member of the household began to join her.
"We do not demand of the fates, nor do we beseech your favor, save in this one thing. We ask that you take no offense in our proclamation of desire and intent---"
They joined hands.
"---that all here, and perhaps more who we do not yet know or who do not yet stay here—will one day soon join our sisters Naru and Mutsumi and our brother Keitaro as students at the great and prestigious Tokyo University. It is our every intent, and we shall fight to overcome all obstacles—but by this we mean no hubris. Let no spirit or power take offense, and for challenges you offer us in this struggle—we humble ones express our gratitude. So Kami Be Invoked."
"So Kami Be Invoked."
Keitaro remembered his four-year-old self simply crying out 'No Matter Who No Matter What' and hoped that these qualifiers would move them out of fate's specific crosshairs. But there were some crosshairs he himself would never leave, as a weight fell upon his back.
"Onii-Chan---how about we go in the onsen?"
"Let me get my trunks, Su."
"Why? I like seeing your thing---and you think I'm cute. You can just give whatever I stir up to Naru."
Motoko decided to play Solomon.
"Kaolla Su may sit in the onsen with Urashima fully nude---"
"Wait! She may do that---only if they are divided by rocks, and not at all touching."
Keitaro picked up what she was doing, and smiled.
"No it doesn't! I like being with Keitaro! I won't try and steal him from Naru ever again. What point is there in him being out there with me if there's all these barriers, clothes, rocks—whatever?"
Keitaro sat her down, and Motoko kept a listen as he spoke.
"We have to live by certain laws and rules, Su. At one time, a man who married a woman wanted to know with absolute certainty that he was the first one to ever be with her, or to see her unclothed. Otherwise, not only he wouldn't want to marry her, but no man of worth might."
"But that sounds—almost like property."
Motoko cut in.
"It was a two-way street as often as not. A man who had been with low women or who had shamed women would not be considered a worthwhile catch. It was always easier for rumors to begin than to ever be squelched. Much as we once rejected our brother for his clumsy nature and claimed it to be mere perversion."
Su smiled, and the other two felt uneasy.
"Well, since Keitaro has seen all of us naked, and we've seen him, then we all have to get married—and since that's not legal in Japan, we'll have to move---"
Motoko and Keitaro glared, and Su bit her lip.
"Can't blame a girl for trying."
"Naru might not see it that way. Nowadays, things aren't quite as strict—but if say, Shinobu met a boy from a strict family, they might not even like knowing that I live here—let alone what we've all seen and touched on each other."
"But you'd never touch anyone besides Naru—I should know."
If Motoko had any regrets about not being the one her 'brother' chose, they would in the coming years be sublimated somewhat by their sparring sessions, and by these tandem lessons to a girl who had once loudly expressed her desire to marry them both.
"The members of this hypothetical family might fairly say that we can offer no guarantees of this. Again, the mere fact of seeing each other in various states of undress—mostly total—might itself force the boy to appease his family and end the relationship entirely."
Su hung her head.
"Poor Shinobu. How will we tell her?"
The teacher pair felt pressure behind their eyes.
"She will get over it, Kaolla Su. But we live in a world where we must be wary of the judgment of others. It is even possible that, were Urashima to do as you ask, certain people might even try to remove you from living here. We already have to re-register you as it stands."
Motoko knew this to be extremely unlikely, since Su's family approved of her life and likely had even more liberal bathing habits. But that thought brought the lesson home.
"Okay—bathing suits—maybe a towel across my chest and shoulders?"
Keitaro played an unfair card.
"But you look so cute in that bathing suit. Besides, if we love each other, how can clothes or rocks really separate us?"
The smile on her face said that the battle had been won. This battle, anyway. As he changed, Su asked Motoko one final question.
"Umm—about that strict family?"
"Do people like them get to always say what's right for everybody else, even if they're not so strict?"
"They don't really, Su. Real life is messy, and goes on around us all, strict or otherwise. In a way, even the loose look to the tight to make sure that things don't get completely out of control. Change is slow—and that is how we tend to like it—in this country and the world at large."
Su went out to the onsen after ducking into her room.
"Bathing suits don't matter, as long as we're together. Besides—Onii-Chan is still Onii-Chan. Something is bound to come off of someone!"
When Keitaro went out, Motoko joined him.
"Still don't trust me?"
"You, Urashima, are a puppy dog. It's Little Miss Strip Chess that bears watching."
In the kitchen, a lesson of a different sort came up.
Naru nudged an increasingly nervous Mitsune.
"So I've dished on some juicy details from the other night—keep your promise."
Mitsune had forgotten this particular dodge on her part.
*Great—like my little lies haven't bitten off enough of my skin.*
"Naru—you know how you'd feel if Kei did this with one of his pals."
"He doesn't have any man as close to him as I am to you. Maybe Seta—but I don't see that happening. I'll even allow for that—if you'll just keep your promise."
Not long before Grandma left and Keitaro arrived, Naru had picked up a drunker-than-usual Kitsune from 'meeting' with her Marine pal. It was a real bother, one Naru said she would forgive if Kitsune merely told her what it was like 'to be a woman'.
"I don't know—considering that I have the hots for him, too—maybe we better not compare notes. I—I messed things up pretty badly between us. Maybe—maybe getting me all hot and bothered isn't a good idea."
The then-trickster had grabbed Naru by the cheek, and promised to do so 'when they had notes to compare'. That marker had been called, and like many a debt of late, Mitsune found herself coming up critically short.
"I've already dished! If you're suddenly all shy about details, then just give me basics. Did it hurt?"
"Kind—of. Not—so much. You know---that's such a personal thing from woman to woman. It varies. A lot."
"Did he use protection?"
Mitsune just sat there, beginning to feel sick to her stomach. Naru kept up her interrogation.
"You know how guys are. They want it all. Gotta hold something back for next time."
When Mitsune would no longer look her in the eye, Naru knew, though she could not believe.
"Why are you doing this to me, Naru?"
Naru knelt down beside the sitting Mitsune, and drew her close.
"You're not serious, are you? Is this like when you convinced me you were really a guy?"
Expecting chortles and gotchas, Naru instead felt tears on her shoulder.
"What do you want from my life? Do you want me to say it?"
"Fine! You and Kei slid into home plate before your oh-so sophisticated Onee-Chan. I'm a---I still can't say it."
Naru pulled back and looked her in the eye.
"Why would you think that would matter to me?"
"I'm supposed to be so cool, so worldly. Instead, I'm a big chicken who always stops short of pop and play."
"But all those guys---"
"A lot of evenings spent alone getting blasted. A lot more since the guys I did know figured out that I drew the line."
"There's no guy you even wanted to do it with?"
"Yeah—your guy. You don't know how many times he helped me upstairs—and nothing. One time, I even threw up on myself just to force him to undress me. I even grabbed myself a handful. He shook like a leaf, but he did what he had to—and nothing more."
She almost chuckled.
"After he left—all worked up—I heard Motoko spotting his excitement, and then pounding him for it. I was jealous—because at least they were getting some kind of action."
Naru held her closer.
"Was it religious?"
"Who? Me? No. I—was born very close to my parents' wedding. I always got the impression that they had to put some things off because of how I showed up. I always felt like I'd done something wrong, just by being born. Naru, I could never make a kid feel that way. Even if Keitaro had just taken the cue to try and plow me when I left myself open, I don't think I could have—and I'm in love with hhhh--im!"
Naru felt her own tears starting, and fought to keep control.
"He wouldn't think any less of you, and neither do I. For pity's sake, you keep the one supremely responsible thing you were doing a secret? Hey—what about protection?"
"It has a failure rate. It wasn't me being responsible, Naru. I was scared. Listen—did you two use it?"
"We---we're planning to."
"You---you will—or I will climb into bed with you and sing Phil Collins all night. You two have a dream—don't trade it in for a violent little nearsighted whiner we'll all love anyway."
As they talked and laughed a little more, the humor of the moment caught up with them, as the cautious Mitsune urged restraint on the reckless Naru.
With the onsen door open, Shinobu and Mutsumi observed Su snuggled up against Keitaro.
"I couldn't do that with him. Su's content to just be next to him. I'm not. Not anymore."
Mutsumi looked at her younger friend.
"I could. But that's because I remember when we were girls and boys almost in name only."
"Have I lost anything, Mutsumi?"
"Not unless Kei's been keeping something from us."
"How did I know you were going to say that?"
"Oh, you're so serious! Shinobu, I've had years to accept that it wasn't me and him. You only had that confirmed recently."
"It isn't just Sempai anymore. Mutsumi—I've thought about it, just like anybody else. Lately, though—it's all I can think about. It doesn't help that the man I love is actively loving another while I try to sleep—but that aside, what was once a stray thought is now 90% of my thoughts."
Mutsumi stroked her hair.
"Part of growing up, my lovely girl. Guys think they have it bad, thinking about it almost 100% of the time, but the truth is, that keeps them on an even keel. When they really think about it hard, what's higher than 100%? But us? When we shoot from 90 to 99, it feels like an earthquake. You think it was just romance had all of you stabbing Naru in the back like that?"
"Hey! Mmmm---I guess I deserve to hear about that for a while."
"Actually, both you and Motoko deserve to hear about it forever. She's supposed to have honor, and you're supposed to love both sempais enough to bypass any such scheme. But Su and Kit—Mitsune caught it because they had done so much else to put people off. You and Motoko had good track records, and the smarts to apologize early and often."
"Sempai Naru was that upset?"
"She wasn't happy—and none of that is my point, Shinobu. What all that points to is just being cognizant of what your feelings can drive you to. Keitaro literally loves you too much to let his attraction override his common sense. Not every guy will act that way, if they know you are interested."
Shinobu got off subject, just a little.
"His common sense? Tell me there aren't men twice his age who don't date girls younger than me."
"And are those men anybody you'd ever even want to know?"
"No. But I resent this line that says : Jail, scorn, abuse—all for two people who love each other showing it in the way God made us to show it."
"Oh, Shinobu—treasure these times—they will not come again. The man you moon over and watch scary movies with will soon have a wife—maybe kids. You will have suitors galore and no time for old sempai---"
"That won't happen—I won't allow it. I cannot imagine him not being some part of my life. He's my best friend, Mutsumi. Even if not for sex, he takes me seriously. But sex is still on my mind, and I think that either thinking about it or loving sempai or both are going to drive me flat out of my mind. When does it stop?"
"Oh, she wants it to stop. Shinobu, I would lay odds that there is no age a woman can reach that puts her beyond the feel of the urge driving her to distraction."
The onsen trio came back in, and quickly got dressed. Mitsune and Naru emerged from the kitchen. A knock came on the lobby door, which Keitaro answered.
A fist came through the doorway, knocking Keitaro flat. Haruka emerged, grabbing her nephew back up---and then kissing him long and hard and deep full on the lips before releasing him to an equally stunned Naru. Shinobu looked at Mutsumi.
It looked to all present like Haruka had lost her mind. She pointed at her doubly assaulted nephew.
"Get out of my dreams."
She pointed at her future niece.
"My nephew is not a punching bag."
She pointed at her replacement.
"My nephew is not an ATM."
She pointed at the young royal.
"My nephew's head is not a trampoline. I have already instructed my daughter that it is also not a testing ground for the durability of ancient artifacts."
She pointed at the samurai, who stopped her.
"He is also not a practice mokujin."
"Bright girl. I might also add that he is not an emotional clearinghouse---"
She looked at Shinobu, who shrank from her gaze.
"---nor is he to be casually labeled a 'jerk' by a little jerk who never seems to get he's trying his best with an emotional minefield!"
She pointed back at her nephew, who feared for his safety on a few levels.
"You could have done a lot more to stop all this---"
She gestured at the rest.
"—but leave it to these geniuses to exceed even our culture's rules about using such adversity to become stronger. Do you know what it actually takes to elicit my sympathy? I don't have any real sympathy!"
Having gotten most of her nearly-decade long burden off her chest, she added something recent.
"Now---kiss and make up---end this unseemly conflict."
Mitsune actually smiled.
"About twelve hours too late, Auntie. We got there late last night."
Keitaro shook his head.
"Auntie—you didn't drive all that way for that, did you? I'd feel terrible if you did."
Haruka sat down, stunned.
"You bums actually did it. Without me. I—I can stop worrying. Wow."
"I—I feel kind of left out."
Haruka puzzled for a second, then caught on.
"Take some iron supplements—and wear a freaking bra!"
Mutsumi looked confused.
"Alright for the supplements. But I always wear a bra."
All heads turned in her direction at that, and then towards Shinobu, who nodded.
"They require their own wash load. At times, it frightens and saddens me."
Mitsune fought down so many slingshot comments, it was painful. Haruka gestured for her blood and his fiancée to sit down next to her.
"Naru—let me make up for what I did to Keitaro, just before."
"Ummm-how will you---mmmmmm—"
Naru pushed the kissing fool off of her.
Haruka laughed, and then put her arm around her nephew.
"You did a good job, kid—and now the news—"
Seta and Sarah burst in.
"Stop her! Don't let her solve the conflict of your lives, or you'll never be able to stand on your own two feet!"
"Mom, you promised you'd stay out of----aaaaghhhhh!!"
In a heap on the floor, Sarah looked up to see a smiling Su, who hugged the stuffings out of her.
"I've had a really bad couple of days."
Mutsumi picked a stunned Sarah up.
"Su, you're suffocating her!"
Haruka raised her hand.
"Man O'Mine? They went and solved it themselves. Now can I tell them the news?"
Sarah looked worried—although that could have been from oxygen deprivation.
"You're not breaking up already, are you? Geez, you two are worse than these two."
Naru felt a chill.
"You're not dying, are you?"
This time, she kissed her future niece on the cheek.
"Kind of exactly the opposite, kid. I'm pregnant."
A gleam passed between her and Keitaro, but only Seta knew to catch it.
Haruka patted her stomach.
"You gonna take responsibility?"
Keitaro openly freaked.
He calmed down and shrugged.
"No way. It was only once, and you said you were on the pill."
Laughter passed all around, except for Su, Sarah and Naru.
"Isn't that against the law?"
"I'm being traumatized again!"
"You—YOU TWO TOGETHER ARE EVIL!!! How can you joke about something so---oohhhhhhhhhh!!!"
Seta leaned in close to Naru.
"You know, technically, this does free us up."
"Will you all just stop joking like that? I---eeeeeeeeeee!!"
Haruka could not resist the opening Naru gave them. She looked at Keitaro.
"Emotional, isn't she?"
"Yeah—she's always been that way."
"Are you sure you want to marry her?"
Just to save himself, Keitaro got back up, held and kissed his flustered fiancée.
"It seems like the logical thing to do."
Seta and a still-frowning Sarah sat down by Haruka.
"Kei—you ready to step up and be an uncle? It's only fair."
"Yeah. I had a good teacher."
Calmer now, Naru asked a question.
"Geez, kid. You don't know that yet?"
Before another word could leave Naru's lips, Haruka continued.
"Well, in a way, you and Kei helped set this up. Seeing you two get serious stirred the pot something fierce. We got together about two months ago."
Shinobu shook her head.
"All that craziness in Molmol didn't affect the baby?"
Haruka took the girl's hand, as well as her nephew's.
"Kid takes after its cousin. Shin-chan? Make sure and help my hopeless replacement out? She's gonna need it."
Mitsu took up the challenge.
"Hey-hey! I'm gonna make them forget you so fast, that rugrat of yours will call me Mommy!"
Haruka reminded her of her place.
"At least the kid will never go hungry that way."
Sarah stared at Haruka's stomach with joy.
"Onee-Chan Sarah! I like that. But won't the kid be confused that its uncle calls its Mom Auntie?"
Haruka drew her little one close.
"I lived with it just fine. In fact, it helped make life interesting."
"Okay. But didn't we all part ways five seconds ago, and now we're having a reunion?"
Sarah was hit over the head with a paper plate by her new cousin.
"It's the Sou, Sarah. You never really leave it."
"Huhn. I guess I can't hit you anymore. Bad example for the baby."
Sarah leaped onto Kei's back, and kissed him on both cheeks repeatedly.
"Hey—that's actually kind of fun."
*Wonderful* thought Haruka.
As the delivery food arrived, Naru talked with Seta.
"Should we trust those two?"
He mussed her hair.
"After all, they've been flirting a lot longer than we have."
*He is sooooo goofy* thought Naru. *But a girl never does get over her Sempai.*
Shinobi had pulled Haruka aside for a couple of reasons, one of which she gladly accepted.
"After it's weaned, sure. We'll take a free babysitter."
"Thanks, Auntie. And—Alice-San says hello. We ate at her new restaurant last night."
"Guthrie-Dono? Oh, I almost forgot her. Lousy thing on my part. Thanks, Shinobu."
"Guthrie? That's her surname?"
"It is now. She chose it after—ehhh—"
"She told me all about it, Auntie—I made the same proposal to your nephew that she did to her sempai. He said No, of course."
Haruka pulled the girl's cheek.
"Because he loves you, hotshot."
While this choice was not surprising, Haruka was prouder of her nephew than ever.
"Oh, and Auntie? Arlo-San will be coming to see me here in about two weeks—to meet everyone. I hope it goes well."
Haruka seemed thrown off.
"Shinobu! A boy that young? He must be what, twelve?"
"No, he's not sixteen. Maybe thirteen, going on—"
"Auntie, he's a year older than me."
Haruka's heart sank. The babies were all growing up before her eyes.
*You in there—have a really long childhood! Got me?*
As they saw Kei pounded by the affections of Su and Sarah, Shinobu shook her head.
"Mine or not. Loving that man is going to make me crazy."
"Join the club, kid. Join the club."
Outwardly, Shinobu laughed and smiled. Inwardly, you guessed it:
Mitsune felt a presence. A moment later, Mutsumi and then Motoko felt it as well. Motoko moved Su and Sarah to the onsen doors, and then whispered to Shinobu and Haruka, who whispered to Seta.
"Just sign here, sir."
The food deliverer was about to hand Keitaro a pen. Shinobu knocked it from his hand. Motoko and Mitsune each grabbed one side of the 'man'. Haruka and Seta stood front and back of him.
Naru and Keitaro thought they had all lost their minds.
"Guys? We order from this place a lot. I know this fella."
Motoko mouthed a word at Naru, who frowned.
"Yeah, you know them, Keitaro. You should---he's your sister."
Like something out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, Keitaro unmasked the 'deliveryman'.
"Kana-Chan! What are you doing here—and what were you trying to do?"
The look on her brother's face told Kanako she had reached the end of his patience.
"I should think that was evident, Kei-Kun. As I once said, you and I are never done. I find your recent engagement unacceptable."
"Then you leave me with no choice. I have no sister—she is no longer welcome where I am, or in my home."
The pen, now smoking, seemed to speak of Kanako's intent. But one wasn't buying it.
"What's with you and banishing sisters? Keitaro, there's something you're not seeing."
Haruka cut Mitsune off.
"Look, I told Keitaro this might have to happen. This kid has never listened and never will."
"You, Auntie, never wanted me as part of this family!"
Haruka got up in her face.
"Wrong as usual! You have always only wanted to be in a world containing only you and Keitaro. You wanted to draw a line around him and you, just like these girls wanted to draw a line around themselves and the rest of the world. News flash, kid—it doesn't work! I tried reaching out to my new niece—but she had no use for anyone but the brother she wanted to play house with."
Mitsune looked at Kanako with new eyes.
"You're both still missing something. Kei—how did she get by you? You've always been able to see through her disguises."
Most everyone took note of this.
"That's right. I never knew exactly why—but this is the first time she's ever really fooled me that I can recall."
Mitsune looked at Haruka.
"Also, angry-lady? When in the last several years have you known this girl to so much as take a squat without the say-so of you-know-who?"
Mitsune nodded at Naru, and then Kanako.
"Used to be, you committed the biggest blunder a master of disguise possibly can with him. A disguise artist asks to be seen as someone else. But you always wanted Keitaro to see you as something other than a sister. So at the same time you played dress-up as Naru or Freddy Krueger or whoever, you were making two requests of him. But this time, despite wanting to kidnap him out of love—he couldn't see through you. So it follows that you actually have given up on him—"
Mitsune wrapped up her Holmesian monologue with a shocker.
"---and that you're here because Grandma sent you to do this."
Haruka shook her head.
Seta scratched his head.
"Because she made the same mistake you did, honey. Grandma thought that the girls were still in conflict. That she needed to stage Keitaro's kidnapping to reunite the Sou."
Keitaro frowned deeply, and picked up his cell phone. Haruka stopped him.
"No, nephew—this one's mine."
Kanako protested as she dialed.
"I have admitted nothing! Kuro—now!!"
Shinobu pointed to a black cat happily moving between three dishes—tuna, water and milk.
"We remember your reign here, Kanako."
Kanako looked at her pet sadly.
Haruka got through to her intended party.
"It's me. No---no. They solved that all by themselves—yesterday. Now listen, old woman---we love, worship and adore you, and given your word alone, we'd all march into hell. And maybe these two—and maybe me and Seta—certainly all these girls—needed a kick in the soft underbelly. But do you honestly believe that another staged drama is what they needed after that little megalomaniac nearly blew everything up?"
Haruka covered the phone and looked at Su.
"No offense, honey. I love you."
"None taken, Auntie. Love you too."
Haruka resumed her confrontation.
"You will do whatever it is you see fit to protect, engage and move forward the growth of the children under your charge? Two pieces of news, Grandma. One : So Will I—even if it means going against you. As for Two---you're six to seven months away from becoming a great grandmother."
Haruka smiled smugly, then suddenly frowned.
"No, it's not Kei and Naru! They just started the other night—no, I wasn't watching! Mom—I'm gonna be a Mom, and I'd rather have you with me than against me. I want all my family there. With my luck, your lovable idiot grandson will end up delivering it. But with all that—I will never again simply throw in with any secret plans. The kids are alright, and they're growing up without us. They still need instruction, but they—but we—no longer need to be tricked."
When they hung up, everyone in the room bowed before Haruka. Her nephew spoke first.
"Lady—you have guts."
He helped a woozy Haruka to the couch.
"Yeah—and I very nearly just threw them all up. Kei, did I just do that?"
Kanako moved out of her captors' grip.
"You did indeed. I am glad that I will not be returning to her for now."
"I too, Auntie, directed our grandmother that this would be the last such effort I would take part in. Having fought to accept my brother's love for another, this was difficult to undertake. It broke my heart to do it, as it did for you."
"Actually, I enjoyed it. Telling her off and winning? Kissing Kei till his lungs came out? Telling these psychos what they are? Getting knocked up before marriage and already being married when you find out? Niece—I'm liking life."
Kanako looked at her brother, and then at Haruka.
"How come when I express romantic affection for Kei-Kun, it's creepy, but she's blood, and she gets to soul-kiss him?"
Haruka put on a pair of sunglasses, and kissed her nephew on the cheek.
"Because I make this look good!"
Naru shook her head.
"Nah. It's still creepy."
Keitaro gave his sister a hug.
"Sorry about all that. Been a little on edge."
"Understandable, Kei-Kun. My plan called for overwhelming a disunited group. They were nowhere in evidence."
"Will you stay with us, or go back to Grandma?"
"Neither for now, brother. You see—I have of late located my birth mother. I wish to spend time with her. Kuro—is not fond of her, though. Will you take care of her?"
Motoko nodded at her fellow warrior.
"We all will."
"Your birth mother? Wow, Sis. I'm—very happy for you."
"You will still see me, Kei-Kun. I am and shall always be yours. And I know now that those my brother has chosen to spend his life with are people of a good character."
Mitsune walked up to one she had declared a living source of grief, and lightly embraced her as well.
"Well, since I'm calling him brother too, I guess that does make us sisters, after all. And hey, Kanako? When you see your Mom?"
The woman who would change truly, deeply and sincerely, and yet would always remain at her heart Kitsune, smiled.
"Tell her—I feel fine."
"I think that she will be very glad to hear that. As am I. Everyone—some aspect of what I did in the past was Grandma's will. But for certain parts I cannot ascribe to her plans—I beg forgiveness. You must have all thought that perhaps I was insane."
"My sister? Never."
"Not my future sister-in-law!"
"My niece is alright!"
"We never thought such a horrible thing."
"A warrior would never so badly underestimate another."
"Like I said—all we sisters are a little crazy."
"You are the sister to my two oldest friends—how could I think that?"
"I said you were probably clinical. Maybe you should take your bonus check and seek help."
All looked at Su. Kanako shrugged.
"The princess of Molmol is nothing if not honest."
Keeping to what Motoko called her hit-and-run nature, Kanako left amidst shadows. When they cleared, Shinobu saw what looked like two foxes in the distance.
"Mitsune? Did she just…?"
"Latex and rubber cement, kid. She's a disguise artist, remember?"
*Maybe someday, Mom—Sis. But I have promises to keep.*
The real food delivery arrived. After they ate pizza and the Japanese 'answer' to pizza, Seta pointed with dread to a certain device that began chirping.
"People—we have a fax."
Haruka folded her arms.
"I'm not touching it."
Mitsune shook her head.
"Yeah. Been there."
"You are the owner."
"Yeah—but for how much longer?"
"Sempai—we will follow you out that door, if need be."
"Wearing only my body wrap, if that's what it takes, Urashima."
At nods from all, Keitaro activated the printer. There were quite a few pages.
*Including names of reputable contractors. How does she always know?*
"It's from Grandma alright. Everyone assemble. This could be it."
"Not a word, Auntie. It needed to be said, and you were the only one who could have said it."
He kissed her on the lips---lightly and quickly.
"You get out of my dreams, too, lady."
Both spouse and future spouse let that one go, and all sat to hear Grandma's words, for good or ill.
"My beloved children. The time for games is at last done, though, I pray, never the time for fun. I suppose if my hand is too evident, hiding it with feints and tricks not only serves little purpose, it also insults those I have raised to be so strong as to finally snap back at me. By standing on your own and solving your own problems, you have exceeded my best expectations for you. You do an old woman proud."
Keitaro made a play of adjusting his glasses, but no one was fooled.
"So let me speak to each of those children in turn. To my great-granddaughter Sarah—try not to hide how much you care with quick remarks. Be a help to your cousin Kei, and a good Onee-chan to that child I fear will be smothered by all the love surrounding it. You have been with us long enough to know—names and blood matter, but so does the family we choose. In my mind, there is no distinction between them."
*I have a Grandma—a real Grandma. I will be worthy of you*
"To my absent Kanako—try and understand her. When she had you, she had been hurt, just as she later caused hurt. Learn the joys of her world, and of being free. Let those shoulders laden with so many disguise uniforms be fitted with only your own robes, as you at long last find out who you are. It is all I or your parents have ever wanted for you. Remember that they are bakers, and when you and your brother did not turn out according to recipe, it took them a time to adjust. Do not mistake that adjustment for resentment."
*I once did, grandmother—even at this remove, I do so no longer.*
"To my laughing grandson, the absent-minded archeologist. You treat her right, boy. What she lost as a child she regained only with little Kei and yourself. Remember that with Ruka-Chan, the second warning is actually the direst, and the time to move to appease her. Do not disappoint me, Noriyasu. You stand at the center of five other lives beloved to me, and to you I leave the burden of occasionally putting aside your own self. "
*These girls can all tear me apart—but only displeasing that old woman really scares me.*
"To my lively granddaughter Kaolla Su. Remember that a ruler is first and foremost a servant, and must live as an example. To create is a terrific thing, but remember that terrific derives from terror. You need not crash into someone child, to let them know you love them. It is as I once told a writer from New York who was staying here : With Great Power, There Must Also Come, Great Responsibility. I never learned what he might have done with my words. Never lose that wild core of yours, that volcano of energy that warms the cold Earth around us."
*I will, Grandmother. My Uncle Benpar often said the same thing—huh—why didn't I remember that till now? Oh well.*
"To our sweet and wonderful Shinobu. It never surprised me to learn that you so deeply loved my grandson. I saw so much of him in you—including the foolish ability to vastly underestimate your own strength and worth. You may worry that your recent actions taken to declare your heart's intent to the one that holds it makes you less than what you were. In fact, you have become more. As you leave the child behind, you and we may miss her. But we will all love the woman you become even more. A child walks in our grasp and under our gaze. A woman walks alongside us, and is one of us. Move on from your sempai, for your sempai he will remain-and this is a wonderful thing. Do not let your love become a tragedy. Let the love of Keitaro Urashima and Shinobu Maehara be the place her heart started, not where it stopped."
*I have been privileged to love three Urashimas in my time. I cannot imagine my life without them. But Grandma---can I have him anyway? Ohhh—move one—move on—slowly.*
"To our Trickster, for we always need the Trickster. Mitsune, you now stand as one of the pillars of the home I built. You may worry about where you started from, or some unknown part of the past altering that which you truly are. Even in a society as ordered and structured as ours, we still remain largely who we choose to be. Because order and structure can lead to hidebound foolishness and even national hubris, we need the trickster as much as the manager. Turn to all you know for aid in growing into both these roles, for they are truly one. And do not let the fact that Konno-San and Konno-Chan cannot figure you out be confused for not being able to love you. I have heard them say you remain their finest wedding gift, wrapping aside. Step up to all that you are, and all that you can be, and you will never need to be concerned about being taken seriously."
*If I am ever once taken 10% as seriously as we all take you at all times, I will know my life is just about complete, Grandma.*
"To the Guardian of The Aoyoma Method and Path : Motoko, life is an opponent that pops out at you, despite your best efforts to anticipate it. You try to grab at it, only to find it soft and undefined. Suddenly, it hardens and comes at you. You try and erect a shield, but it seeks any opening it can find. In its quest to find you prone and unready, it is unrelenting. It will even try to take you from behind. You must not show fear, but resolve that you must accept life inside you. In its thrust and motions, you will find the means to go on, and seek your position in things. Give life a chance, and you may even find that it is you who are seeking life out."
*It becomes obvious that our grandmother sacrificed a career in stand-up comedy. Hmm—I must ask Urashima for a copy of that page.*
"To gentle Mutsumi, I offer no advice save that to always be yourself. It is advice you have followed since you were but a little girl of four, barely in your first training bra. I see no need for you to change that successful approach now."
*Oh, that's right. I think Mother had it bronzed. Love you, Grandma.*
"To my daughter and granddaughter both. I think that the dour uncaring look you always tried to maintain has left your face at last. You have over these years built a family with these girls, and with the first boy to see your worth and touch your orphaned heart. Now you have a true family of your own, Haruka, to replace the one you lost so unfairly. But continue to connect with the one you built within the walls of our home. You are free of having to be impartial, so speak your mind. Never again feel afraid that love leads to loss. Always maintain your connection to the boy who was your best friend, boyfriend, brother, cousin, and nephew. For at your hardest, he has his grandfather's ability to see through to the heart within. At last, hear my command : Be Happy Haruka. Oh Kami, Guide Her To Happiness Always."
*Well, I was deeply connected with him just a while ago. Any deeper, and you might have to have a long talk with your grandchildren, Hinata. But Happy? Yeah, I think I can do that. I'm finally ready to try.*
"To she who would become my granddaughter. I hope that you have at last found another use for him, Naru. I think that you will find it more gratifying than punching him could ever be. He can be a fool, and he can give up far too easily---but you are his match in that, and in many other flaws. The trick will be to alternate your souls' rhythm so that when he is nervous, you are calm, and when you are spoiling for a fight, he is firm in urging peace. Finding that balance will see you through to the end of many hard days—and besides, it's fun. Do not let the perfect become the enemy of the possible. Do not let your expectations ride you over a cliff. I will tell you a secret, Naru : You are even stronger than you believe. You will fulfill my wishes by being his strength when he needs it, as he was yours when your incredible power threatened to overwhelm your tiny body. Share in what he has, and let him share in what you have, and together your only illness will be suffering the envy of others, and your only weakness the weakness you cause in others as they stand stunned at your joy and unity in true love, tested in fire, ice, and everything in between. Stand proud, Naru, now, on the day you take my family's name, and every other day of your long, long—long—we'll have to have a talk about that—lives."
*Lady—you are the best—and you sure as hell know how to produce the best. I will pay him back for every bit of payback. More, I will work to keep well this place you made, where a sick little girl found hope and love to replace the fear.*
"I hope that my grandson will forgive me, for what I must now say. Three years ago, I saw a boy who had repeatedly failed to enter Todai, and who was nervous around girls to an unholy extent. I studied my dear boy's situation, and I determined----"
"What does it say?"
Naru took the pages from him, and he nodded his assent for her to pick up the reading.
"----I determined that he would soon get his act together, and very likely overcome his nerves based on the first kindness he was shown by a girl. He could not see it, but he was well on his way to having his next attempt be a successful one, and like as not in the company of a wife smart enough to recognize his worth. But I also saw the girls I loved so well living in my dorm. One was a chronic over-preparer, yet not at all prepared to face the possibility of failure. One was mightily skilled, yet so afraid of men a turtle emblem affrighted her. One did not yet see that the party must eventually end. One loved her friends very well but not always wisely—and I feared she might one day destroy the world, if not the universe. The last was a treasure beyond price, but also a fragile flower doomed to die outside the hothouse. Even the girl I myself had raised had forgotten her heart. The way to save that one was to bring a large piece of that heart back again. And he would be the means to save them all. A boy they could not turn away, or injure so badly that he would have to leave. Given time, he would provide his own kick in the pants. I needed him to be their grab at the boobs. Only a quiet explosive like him could pierce their barriers. So to that end, I directed my child and my child's loving spouse to throw their child out of their home, knowing where he would have to come. I also knew this would end his ability to pull himself up, depressed over having been removed from his parents' home. More, simply coping with my girls would put him off his mark as well. Finally, I knew that seeing Naru again would push him back to the memory of the girl from his childhood, and that this too would serve as a stopper to his steady progress. Kei-Kun, forgive me. But your sisters, whether they knew they were or not, needed you, and I would not be there to guide them any longer. Grandson, whether you forgive me or not, let it now be said—given the obstacles you had placed in front of you, you have performed brilliantly and made your grandmother very very proud indeed."
Naru put the pages down. Keitaro sat stunned, but finally managed to speak.
"You know that's not the way it happened. Either she's joking with us, or trying to make me feel good. We all saw how I was when I arrived. Maybe this is even just Grandma's wishful recollection of her only grandson's stumblebum entrance to her inn."
His first love shook her head.
"Auntie thinks it's true, Kei. I remember how worried Grandma was about this bunch facing the real world."
His sweetest love smiled.
"For love and college, you had me thinking thoughts I never had before, Sempai."
His most reluctant love nodded.
"You must admit, Urashima—it sounds like something she would do."
The one determined to win his love and respect chimed in.
"Face it—we scared off everyone else, male and female. I'd have probably drunk myself blind by now."
His wildest love looked giddy.
"She sent you here just for us, Onii-Chan. That's so wonderful."
His gentlest love had not been among the 'saved'. But she spoke as well.
"I can't imagine my life if she hadn't sent you down to play with me."
His newest cousin threw in her two cents.
"So—all of you were the dorks, and he was the cool one? No offense, Kei—but that doesn't quite add up."
"That's because it's not true, Sarah. Either Grandma's mistaken or pulling my leg."
Finally, his true love set the tone.
"Hey! I think it's true—and even if it's not---"
She kissed him.
"—let's just pretend it is. Because it feels right to me."
He kissed her back, and smiled.
"For you—I'd pretend to be an aircraft carrier."
Seta rubbed his head.
"I wonder if I was part of Grandma's plans?"
His wife punched him in the arm.
"You? You were an accident—"
She patted her stomach.
"That stopped waiting to happen."
She kissed him.
"But who's complaining?"
The next day, the Setas planned their lives and activities based on the new arrival. The residents of the Hinata-Sou would enter a long busy period of intense study, training and construction on an inn resistant to being blown up, but not to dry-rot and humidity. Despite a new comfort zone, Keitaro would find himself still getting the occasional bucket thrown at him. Yet for then and there, Naru finished reading the heartfelt words from the founder of the Sou.
"Always remember, my children—your strength lies in each other, and in that, you are each as powerful as all the others put together. You have earned the right to call yourselves family, regardless of who marries or chooses who. Fear less simplistic labels, and think instead of the center of your own hearts, and what you call yourself there. Let no conflict sunder you, let no obstacle forever stymie you, and let no culture, ours or another, place barriers between you and those you love best of all. In moments we are called on to fight, let us all be Motoko Aoyoma. In moments we choose to be better and yet never sacrifice fun, let us all be Mitsune Konno. When called on to serve with joy and verve, let us all be Shinobu Maehara. When we seek to know true inner peace, let us all be Mutsumi Otohime. As we seek to create and not destroy, and to be unashamed in our love, let us all be Princess Kaolla Su. When hard times force our hearts closed, let us find courage to open them once more, and in that moment all be Haruka Urashima. When we find that strength and durability to doggedly pursue our fondest dreams with all of our might let our focus be that of Naru Narusegawa and Keitaro Urashima."
Naru understandably stopped to catch her breath.
"Tomorrow, the world begins, and it is yours to define and shape. Take care of each other in it, and trust in yourself as well, for I have raised no weaklings. Keep to our best traditions, and challenge our worst not with words that can be disregarded, but with how you live your very lives. Yours always until we meet again----"
Naru put down the pages as she finished the story of how her family at the Sou first came together.
END BOOK ONE
About two years ago, I finally broke down and read a story I'd heard about for years. Despite some slapstick anime footage I'd seen on YouTube, it was a much deeper story than I ever could have thought. It was not just about a bunch of psychos slamming on a wimp. I never had a greater and more pleasant total surprise than loving Love Hina.
Then came Molmol. I hated Molmol. I still do. It was hard even re-reading it for refs in this, so blindly furious it makes me. Mine is a minority opinion. I've accepted that. And I have analyzed what happened, to see what buttons it pushed. None of it helped. I'd heard that Akkamatsu-San was anxious to be done with LH, and I thought that maybe that made Molmol rushed, but this is still just my opinion. I loved it all, especially the epilogue. But not Molmol. I'll try and keep it short and harsh.
I felt and still feel that Kitsune's behavior jumped from the fun and merely irresponsible into the slimy and vicious. I feel that Su's actions bordered on the unforgivable. Motoko had already declared, and trying to steal Keitaro made her not merely a flawed Samurai, but a villain. Kanako? We'd just spent an entire volume dealing with her. After she *hit Keitaro from behind after never deliberately hitting him before during the entire manga* I was even angry with Shinobu. Shinobu! Apologies to the brilliant mangaka and to those that have no problem with this arc, but to actually be angry at Shinobu blew my mind. I will also add this : Had Akkamatsu-San simply added a panel where Naru angrily tells a sheepish Kitsune and Su that they would be scrubbing the onsen with toothbrushes for a month, I would never have felt the need to write this story. I've never been a fan of sitcom forgiveness/amnesia for wrongs, and to let those two skate by without even a comment seemed wrong. Maybe there's a culture barrier thing in there, but that is how I felt. Also—half the time I could not tell their motivations for doing the things they did, and Kitsune's 'final' explanation was both arrogant and unbelievable (IMHO, of course)
So a fic was inevitable, but I knew better than to write a simple revenge or bash fic, and more, I didn't want to write it. I like these characters, even pain-in-the-ass Kitsune. Slowly, it came to me. I could write a fic in which the characters' ways of doing things got bashed. We know they changed. In the epilogue, Shinobu is more like early Naru was, and Kitsune is now Ryobo, as per Haruka's wishes. You can't tell me she took that job and still behaved the same as she once did. Also, all of them were now Todai students. So how did we get from onsen-bashes and wacky painful episodes to the almost event-free wedding? That was a story I wanted to write, and more, I could put the characters through hell without doing it for vengeance sake. This also enabled me to get inside the characters' heads, and show why they did what they did. I still went harder on Mitsu and Su, but now it served an evolutionary purpose. Motoko and Shinobu still had things to answer for, but their characters seemed a map to letting them off less harshly. Su and Kitsune had finally been too much like themselves, and it would light a fire around them. Add to that, people living together for a really long time just have issues that can only be glossed over for so long.
So here we are with a fic I hope kept true to the spirit of LH and yet explored some things that the manga probably would not have. I hope that my approach was thorough, and I hope that while harsh, it was never merely vicious. I hope that all who read it enjoy it, and that my lapses in understanding Japanese culture are forgivable, as are the one or two crossovers I popped in here as cameos or refs. Very obviously, I did not create those crossover elements, the songs I used, and Love Hina itself. I humbly thank Ken Akkamatsu, and hope on the off-off-off chance he ever reads this, it does not offend. Many thanks to all readers and especially reviewers.
My current plan is to post the first chapter of Book Two in April, and then to post subsequent chpaters on a monthly basis thereafter. Its title will be : Making Your Way In The World Todai, and will start with Shinobu's dinner date with Arlo. Hint : I plan for it to be a more traditional Love Hina story, so Shinobu please forgive me. Till next time, thank you for reading what is in effect my first animanga fanfic novella.
I will stop and explain three refs : The names of the girls who left the Sou before Kei got there were taken from very young girls in anime who suffered tragic fates similar to the ones they avoided in this story. Ashura was taken from Space Runaway Ideon; Kanae from Elfen Lied; Jung from Blue Gender. Each fate broke my heart a little bit—having several nieces and nephews will make you feel for little ones—and since they avoided those fates here, it was kind of my homage to them.
Thanks again, and I hope to have Book Two started fairly soon.
'Goji' Rob Morris, Friday, March 26th, 2010, 2:45 AM