Sisters Are We

by Rob Morris

THE 2000'S, KAMAKURA

The momentous meeting one month before played out to one logical conclusion inside the Kaede Inn. Doctor Kurama sighed as he responded to the girl that was his heart, wherever that love finally led. Part of loving Nana meant giving her whatever she wanted, even when doing so meant possibly losing her forever.

"Hai. Arika-San is your biological mother."

Kouta felt Yuka hold him close. This was wonderful news, even if it potentially threatened the union of their patchwork family.

"This is wonderful news for you, Nana-Chan. It must be like the answer to a prayer."

Nana looked at Yuka, and smiled lightly.

"It is wonderful-it means Hana-Chan is my Imouto-I am an Onee-Chan-and my-my Mama always wanted me. But Papa? Nana is confused."

Kurama had been up all night studying the hospital tests he had insisted the residents undertake after the dreadful final battle with Lucy. What they revealed made finding Nana's mother seem as surprising as finding fried rice in a restaurant. But he kept to the subject at hand.

"Go ahead, Nana-Chan. I will answer everything I can."

Nana looked a bit embarrassed.

"Papa, Nana thought that the girl called Number Three was her older sister-and that maybe Nana had a twin. That's what one of the guards said-back at that awful place, where Papa was always so lonely."

*Of course she thinks of me first*

"The guard had it wrong, Nana-Chan. You and Number Three are only connected through me. You see, she caused me to father Mariko so that she was born like you and Lucy. She was a very sad little girl. When she did that to me, she was actually repaying what she saw as my kindness, because I objected to the way she and the others were treated-not enough for it to help them-or so many others..."

Kurama's memory flashed back to a talk he'd had with the newly-captured Lucy, accusing Diclonius of refusing to co-exist. This was at a time when he was euthanizing infants to protect two girls dear to his heart, and a time before he knew the vile secret depths of the Kakuzawas' insane agenda. He now wondered if that harsh talk, in the direct wake of her friend's death at Kurama's own hands, hadn't cemented and centered Lucy's hate on him, leading to the long list of those she took from him, including almost Nana herself.

"Papa?"

"Kurama-San, may I fetch you some tea?"

"Yes, Kouta-San-that would be great-except you and I are going out for coffee. It's important."

"Ummm-can Yuka come?"

"No, Kouta. I'll have the place to myself, and I could use some rest. You go out and have fun."

Whether it was a feeling of newfound confidence or the loss of her rival for Kouta's hand, Yuka had become more able to be apart from him, even if she still preferred they always be together. Nana rose.

"Mayu-Chan, let's go. Today we meet Arika-San's husband, my birth-Papa's brother. I hope he likes me."

Mayu put Wanta on the leash. Little Hana would be heartbroken if they showed up without the growing pup. But Kouta motioned to the girl, and pulled her aside.

"Mayu-Chan-remember when that Professor took Nyu from us? You were the only one who was smart enough to ask if he was really her uncle, and we know now he wasn't. Do you understand me?"

Mayu patted her cell-phone case.

"I understand, Kouta-San. If these people mean to hurt Nana, I will call you immediately."

Their fists met tenderly, Kouta knowing the secret of Mayu's touchiness about embraces and other contact.

*He respects me so-and yet I have only recently even begun to call him Father. I will prove worthy of your trust, Kouta Oto-San.*

The man could still be pushy, though less so now that the great secrets of their lives were out. He could still be a bit obtuse as to poor Yuka's feelings, though that too was changing. But the nicest thing about Kouta remained unchanged : his standing offer of a place to stay, so long as you needed one and he had room. Even Anna, who came there by way of a deal struck by Yuka's mother and kept mainly to herself thus far showed gratitude for his little efforts.

"Well, we're off-please give Nozomi-Chan our best."

Ever since Nozomi's worries caused by her injury during the attack on their home had proven unfounded, she had spent ever more time at school regaining her edge through practice. Nozomi would probably never be known as a role model confidence and self-esteem, but the change in her to those that knew her was nothing less than seismic. She had stated her goal and dream to be someday helping create or sponsor an opera or musical play about Nyu. Twenty years from then, Three Names And Two Horns would be a genre-busting international hit. The lead would be played by a girl named for the lead protagonist and taught how to sing by Nozomi herself.

As the girls departed, so did the men, leaving a somewhat-relieved Yuka to lie back and read her assignments without the threat of assassins, rivals, and rival assassins. Only Anna, who kept to her room and who was not to be disturbed by terms of the deal that brought her there, was still in the house, but she was not a factor in Yuka's plans.

Ani-San, the bakery merchant once so kind to Mayu during her hard times, handed some croissants and coffee to Doctor Kurama and his new young friend. The spring air near the oceanfront was bracing to two men who had seen far too much.

"But Kurama-San, I haven't even graduated yet."

Kurama cursed himself each time he tried to reach out with an arm that was no longer there.

"Kouta-San, the college was funded largely by the Kakuzawas' fortune, to serve as a legitimate front, and a shelter to move their work to, should they need it. Without that funding and the threats Chief Kakuzawa made against the families of the staff, many will leave before finals this year. It is a chance for you, and it is needed for your fellow students. I can see to it that you draw at least an Assistant Professor's salary immediately, and I can make the same offer to Yuka."

Kouta thought of his dear charges, and of rice bowls that never seemed to stretch far enough, or have enough peppers or meat sprinkled in them. Even with the part of Anna's deal that lifted the burden of utilities bills from them, things were tight.

"I'll do it. But I'll need lesson plans for the remainder of this year, and at least some of next."

"Done. My late, brilliant, but often lazy colleague usually left his work to his assistant Arakawa-are you familiar with her?"

Kouta actively resisted saying just how familiar with her he was.

"I think I met her when we found Professor Kakuzawa's body. Kurama-San, his head had horns. Was he like Nyu and Nana?"

Kurama gulped some coffee.

"No. But he and his father the Chief thought they were, and that misconception is the most tangible source of all the misery we have suffered, and that the world will now suffer."

Stunned by this, Kouta shifted to the topic that had brought them there.

"You said you found things in the results of our tests taken after Nyu-after I-after all that was done with."

Kurama nodded.

"A piece of bone fragment was removed from near your left eye. At first, I assumed it was from Lucy-from Nyu's skull."

"No. I was careful when I fired. My mind was on automatic for the entire time."

Kurama tried to imagine grieving over the woman he had known as Lucy. He still found it impossible to contemplate.

"It wasn't from a Diclonius. It was from a Human, with DNA nearly a match for your own."

Kurama gave him the bone fragment, sealed in clear plastic like a pendant piece.

"It is a piece of spinal column, from a girl not yet mature."

Kouta kissed the piece, and put it in his pocket for safe keeping.

*Kanae. Though it tore my heart to do so, I avenged you. Please try and forgive her when you meet, as you always forgave your foolish onii-chan.*

"Many thanks, Kurama-San."

"You are welcome, Kouta. But we're not done. The hospital records from the night of your family's murder indicated you suffered a mild stroke. But current scans show no signs any blood vessel was ever stressed. There is more. Nozomi-Chan's throat has not only recovered from its rough treatment, but the genetic flaw in her throat has also been corrected. She will no longer need to fear the loss of her singing voice, or at least any more than does any operatic singer. My next question is horribly intimate, but I must ask. Did Mayu-Chan ever suffer sexual abuse?"

Kouta closed his eyes.

"In her original home. Kurama-San, she has told no one. Even I know only by accident. Please-she is not ready to speak of this, even to Nana-Chan, and her confidence is a sacred charge to me."

Kurama nodded.

"Nana-Chan suffered damage to that area of her body when she slipped after an impact at the Institute. Yet these tests show both girls to be virgins beyond dispute. What is more, both have healthy, viable reproductive systems."

Kouta recalled some of what Kurama had told him of Diclonius girls.

"But she's a Silpelit. You said they're supposed to be short-lived and sterile."

The pain of losing Nana earlier than they should was evidently a sore subject for both the man who had given her hope, and the man who had given her a home.

"Yet her aging has stabilized, and she can now become pregnant. All of you healing so dramatically and in so many seemingly impossible ways I can attribute to Lucy's act of healing you with the others nearby. But for Nana to change so leads me to a conclusion I'm not sure I care for."

In the months since they finally met, Kurama had taken the biology student aside and explained to him much about the Diclonii, most especially the two he knew as family. Kouta drank some of his coffee, then nearly choked at the implication of Kurama's words.

"Has Nana-Chan-become the new Queen?"

As two men talked of things intimate and troubling, the girls they had spoken of were on a far happier path, at least for the moment.

"I wish I had known my family's name. Maybe then I could have looked them up earlier."

Mayu was turning street corners, following Nana who knew the address. But the landmarks and the houses were beginning to look horribly familiar.

*Be calm. We're not going there. And if we see them, and they so much as scold me, well, then, my sister is a horned girl.*

"Nana-Chan, their name would not have helped you. It's a very common family name, remember?"

Nana seemed to strain a bit, then recalled what Mayu meant.

"Oh! Mayu-Chan has the same family name as my family. I guess it is pretty common, after all."

"Yes. A teacher of mine once said that it was like Smith is in America. It means-NANA? Why are we here?"

The small house was known to Mayu. It was the house where a good old Papa had been replaced by a very bad new one. It was the house where a girl had her innocence and wide eyes taken from her forever, and where she had been treated as an obstacle by the one who gave her life.

"Hmm? Well, this is where Arika-San and Hana-chan live with Hana's Papa, my uncle. Mayu-Chan, what's wrong? You look pale!"

"Nana-I can't be here. Please, sis-don't make me go in there. I have to leave."

"But it's such a nice house, and this day is so important to Nana, Mayu-Chan. How can you not be here for it?"

"Please, if you love me-"

The debate was cut off by a yelp from Wanta, who ran towards a small figure darting towards them.

"Wanta-Chan! Ohhhhh-WANTA-CHAN! You're so fluuuuuufffyy!"

The natural alignment between puppy and small child made Mayu unable to leave, even if her skin seemed to be leaving her body, trying to avoid entering a small, well-kept house she saw as living Hell on Earth.

"Mayu-Chan, what's wrong?"

Arika-San was already standing there, having run after little Hana. Her face was gentle and kind. Mayu knew Hana would never have to face being told of her unimportance from this woman.

"Nana-Chan? Arika-San? I once lived here. In this house. When it belonged to my mother."

Girl and woman both stared in shock at this.

"Nana-Chan? Watch Hana-I'll be right back."

The two younger girls and the dog all watched Mayu shake almost unto convulsion.

"Nana Onee-Chan? Will Mayu Onee-Chan be all right? She can sleep and get better in Hana's room-it's right over there."

Mayu already knew where she was pointing. Hana's safe wonderful place was the same place Mayu's safety and wonder had been spilled across a floor she was forced to clean up after.

"Is that her?"

"Oh, God-In-Heaven-Mayu-Chan?"

The man who emerged drew an instant smile from Hana, and a look of slight anxiety from Nana. But for Mayu, he was the final straw. No, he was not the monster that had hurt her. But apparently, he was the supposedly dead man who permitted that to happen.

"Papa?"

Back at the common eating area by Enoshima Park, Kouta made a wild but not insane guess about Nana's possible new status.

"Perhaps it's like those movies and TV shows with Immortals and swords. Nana-Chan is of Nyu's kind, and was present when she, their most powerful one, died. I..."

Kouta froze, and began to breathe hard. Memories of the gentlest and yet the most unspeakably savage being he had ever met came back without ever having been gone. The touch of her naked back against his at an age when he was just figuring out why he would want to turn his head. The smile on her face at zoo creatures so mundane to him and so trans-cosmic in her wide pretty eyes. The spray of blood from his little sister's innards, with him praying to be kicked in the shins one last time. The spray of blood from her own brain, as the pain of her grotesquely melted body rose to such heights, even the murderous demon inside her pleaded for death, which he at last granted. Now a spray of ice water shook him out of this. Kurama looked concerned but unapologetic.

"I suppose that loving a horned girl is never easy, no matter how you slice it."

"I didn't love her-not after what she did. She-how could she?"

Kurama shook his head.

"I've seen her in too many situations leading to death to ever ask that. My question would be why she almost never killed while she was with you. It paints a picture of Lucy that is very complex, even with knowing about Nyu. A picture vastly more complex than I am sometimes prepared to accept. You lived a miracle, Kouta-you all did. For the love and acceptance you gave so freely, a devil meant to wipe mankind away let herself be killed instead. Maybe it's you who are the mutant, to find a heart I would have sworn wasn't there. Perhaps it was she who was meant to weed out certain folks and make way for an evolution of compassion in our poor stupid species."

"But-will Nana-Chan become like her-like she could become?"

"I can't believe she would. If Nana is part of a new evolution, it is not the Diclonius, but the one I spoke of with you. The horned girls that are out there now may be acting like devils, but they are ones we have bred through contempt and indifference. Nana is like no one else-but Nana."

A third voice was heard, one wholly unfamiliar.

"Are you fellas discussing the horned girls from the news? Because I knew one, once. I went to school with her-sort of."

Kouta was about to gently send the man on his way when Kurama stopped him.

"Please-tell us all about it. We're biologists studying the horned girls, and anything would be a help."

He sat down and nodded.

"It was right before the government cleaned house at the Kamakura Children's Welfare Center-the orphanage. It was rotten in those days. I was only a few years from just walking out the front door the way a lot of us do. I was almost lucky. No one wanted a kid who wasn't their own blood, but when I got picked, I also had no relatives anywhere, so there was no one to object to my being adopted-they were good people, needed an Onii-Chan to ride herd on their little ones, and I obliged. It was a lot like having a good boss, you know?"

Kouta was now listening intently, but stopped the man.

"Wait-you were happy to have no relatives? But if you had, someone would have been able to take you in, right?"

"Kouta-San-Japan has fewer orphans in centers like the one he mentioned than almost any other country. The flipside of that is, those who are in them exist in a Catch-22 limbo. Many people do not wish to adopt a child they have no blood relation to, yet also, not all relatives are willing to take a child related to them by blood into their home. Yet at the same time, they will block efforts to let others adopt the child, feeling it diminishes the family's standing and worth to allow someone of their clan to take another name."

The friendly intruder nodded.

"A load of the kids there were like that. The worst-off was the one we called the Devil. Wealthy aunt with a business, could have afforded a kid and handed them off to servants, no sweat. But yeah, this aunt also refused to let her family's honor be tainted by letting the Devil be adopted. Honor? She was in advertising. I mean, advertising and honor? When called out one day by her angry charge, she slapped the living crap out of the poor kid-and it wasn't even that bad what they said to the Aunt. So the Devil became an unholy terror, young age aside, and kids twice that age steered clear. Way too good at revenge and more."

Kouta hated hearing this.

"You called her the devil because of her horns?"

"Horns? No, Bro-the Devil wasn't our horned girl. She kept to herself. No, in our little town by the River Styx, the Devil went by the name Tomoo."

While this man added to a picture of a dead girl, a living one who felt dead inside met with a man who she had thought surely was dead.

"Papa? How can you be alive?"

Arika had taken Hana and Nana to their living area, while the reunited father and daughter stayed in the kitchen.

"She told you I was dead? Why doesn't that surprise me? Mayu-Chan, my tale is a difficult one. You may yet hate me for it, but I ask you to keep an open mind."

Mayu wanted to scream that she had been understanding long enough, but thought of Nana, like her sister, and Hana, who was, apparently, sister to both of them.

"Please tell me your story."

The man saw his child flinch when he tried to pat her on the head.

"I will. I married young, to a woman of pretty looks and a sharp mind, but not a lot of confidence. The only man capable of awakening her self-esteem was her beloved older brother. He was a good man-you always liked him, and he and his family liked you. But they are all gone now. The word was, they were one of several families who were victims of the notorious serial killer, Kaze No Kaede. Your mother went wild at the police station when they asserted that the killer was capable of tearing people to pieces without ever laying a hand on them. They had her in psychiatric lock-up for a month. When she came out, she was no longer the same woman I had known. Her lack of belief in herself had always been an obstacle to our love. But after her brother died, it was like she lacked a soul."

Mayu tried to recall all this, but only some of it came together. To a girl under five years old, life was a simple thing, with remembrance not always following a logical pattern. She knew that Mama was unhappy sometimes, though figuring out exactly why was beyond her.

"Was that when you left?"

"No. I was a husband, and a father. Leaving was something I would have to explain to my parents, and to myself. But your mother rarely left our room, and never left our house. You were an obligation she met, but increasingly only just so. I tried a few times to shake her out of it-each time she would wreck the house in retaliation."

This time, Mayu did remember seeing her mother act like one of her playmates after too much sugar. It had seemed almost funny at the time.

"But you did leave, didn't you?"

The man showed Mayu a finger with a deep scar.

"That scar is from microsurgery. She bit it off and swallowed it after one confrontation. That time, it was my parents who said I should take you away and get a divorce. I should have done it immediately. But I was determined to try one last time to reach her. I made her seeking psychiatric help a condition of our continued marriage. She responded by saying that she would allege to authorities that I was a bad father, a pervert who would harm you. I should have called her bluff-but I became fearful, and so let her keep you all those years."

Mayu fought back a grim thought about a woman she had not liked for some time.

"But I meant nothing to her! She told me as much before I fl-before I left."

The man she was also not incredibly fond of at that moment nodded.

"As yourself, her child, someone she needed to care for when all she cared about anymore was herself? No-you meant no more to her than I did. But as a possession? As a mark that she was still doing what polite society demands of a mother? To say nothing of your value as someone who must pay attention to her? In all those sad respects, she would never have given you up."

As Mayu heard tell of a past both familiar and alien to her, Nana talked with a mother who had always wanted her.

"You call this man Papa?"

It was a tender conversation, but it was not without tension.

"He is Papa. I used to think he was my real Papa. Loving him and being loved by him kept Nana sane through many bad moments."

Arika tried not to be defensive, but her greatest regret now sat in her home and on her couch, accusing not with words, looks or gestures, but with her very existence.

"It just feels like he took you away from us so he could have you for himself. Was what he said about you killing us one day even partly true?"

Nana sighed, and wished she were as good at words as Yuka or Kouta.

"You've seen the news reports."

"I've seen little girls being fired at by armed men and responding. Their powers scare me, but if someone shot at me, and I could do what they-what you do-I don't know what might happen."

Nana recalled her Papa chatting with Kouta over dinner.

"Do you ever have to scold Hana?"

Arika looked over at the little girl asleep with a guardian pup in her lap.

"Of course."

Nana felt almost dizzy. Her real mother, her real sister, her uncle, and now Mayu her own cousin? But a girl who knew intense pain the way most know aching feet quickly found her center.

"Arika-San-Mama-imagine if she decided that she wanted a puppy of her own-"

"She does."

"-and then imagine she just brings a stray home, and you say she can't keep it. How would she respond?"

Arika nodded.

"She would pout-in which case I would either have to scold her more, or wait out her tantrum."

Nana removed her headpieces, revealing her horns, before restoring them. She then gently reached out and tickled Hana's feet, causing her to smile in her sleep, and patted Wanta on the head, all without laying a finger on either of them.

"Now, how would all that go if a small child could do the things I can, and aged twice as quickly as well?"

Arika saw her eldest child with new eyes.

"Your father and I grew up next door to each other. I even called him Onii-Chan. He used to tease me so hard, and I would get so angry, and I swore that if I could make him stop laughing at me, I would...ohhhhh. So it's as simple as all that? These girls like you are doomed because of the timing of their abilities coming to be?"

Nana recalled the voice. The one she had heard on a bare few occasions, the one that Barbara had accused Nana of ignoring, and the one that Nyu tried to tell an angry Kouta drove her to kill his family.

"There may be something else, but Nana isn't qualified to speak of it-it may not even be true. Mama, rest assured Papa Kurama-Dono did the right thing in my case. As time goes by, I will tell you all I know-that I promise. But now I have a question. Mama-if you had been able to keep me, what would you have named me?"

Arika resisted for a moment. This would be tough.

"Hana."

Arika teared up.

"I named your little sister after you. To keep you alive, to refuse to admit that you could be lost forever. I thought perhaps, if I offended your spirit, it would force you to come back. Just-as you have."

Nana looked over again at the napping child. A small look of resentment came and went, replaced by a growing smile.

"All right then. But for giving away my name, I charge you and Uncle with making certain that every happiness and every joy that was not mine because of my horns also belongs to Hana-Chan."

Arika reached over and touched her eldest daughter right behind her horns, brushing the flesh-ridge. Nana's face blushed purest red.

"What was that about?"

"That was a joy that will always be yours alone. As a baby, you loved it when your father touched you there. Oh, what will we tell Hana? We can't have her blabbing at school about you, but I think she should know. And what of the incredible coincidence with Mayu-Chan?"

Nana pulled her mother close.

"We will handle it all. And don't worry about coincidences-we who live at Kaede House aren't impressed by them anymore. Mama, while Mayu and Uncle talk-I will tell you of a girl we called Nyu. I warn that it will be very easy to hate her-but try also to understand her, for she was worth understanding."

As Nana began a much-told tale, a young man spoke to Kurama and Kouta about events they only thought they knew of.

"Now, you'd think that all we older kids had to do was corner Tomoo and his bunch, and that was that. Boy, did we learn otherwise."

The young man again seemed relieved to be unburdening himself.

"He never had all his group around at the same time. One or more of them was always watching and waiting for the workers-us pounding on little ones was about the only thing they couldn't fudge away if it got reported to higher-ups. So we all got pranked, but couldn't do anything. Little creep actually demanded money a few times-till we told him we'd take our chances with breaking some heads in that instance. Wish we'd held our ground."

Kouta was beginning to smell a rat and nearly said so.

"So this little kid with attitude ran a place as rough and tumble as that?"

"Hey! None of us were saints-I wasn't-except once. But he did okay for himself in a place where nobody did okay. One time, I snuck off with my girl-and somehow the creep had pictures. I'dve caught Hell for it, so he made me part of his network. Assigned me to do to someone else what someone had done to me. I knew who it was already. It was this little girl who hung around him-liked to look all innocent but delighted in being 'secretly bad'. So he sends me out to see if 'Horns' has anything that he can use to break her."

Kurama found himself in the odd position of hoping Lucy won.

"She resisted him?"

"In the worst way possible. She shut herself down to the degree that nothing he did short of hitting got any rise out of her. We all started to whisper that, whether she was Human or not, we wished we could piss him off the way she did. So I followed her outside that one day, and caught her playing with a puppy. That was it. This girl we all teased and harassed and more just to please this little devil found someone to love. So I lied to Tomoo, said Horns found a corner where she cried-'Oh That Meanie Tomoo!' and he had his victory. I was off the hook, and for a month, everything seemed all right."

Kouta took one of his pastries and handed it off.

"Thanks. My folks do feed me, but things have been tight. Well, I see Tomoo pull one of his stunts, and I see his little girlfriend befriend old Horns. I could have said something, but I was off his radar, and didn't want back on for the sake of a girl who wasn't my friend. I mean, when you're older in those places, they won't hesitate to beat the crap out of you when you misbehave. No reason to, since you're leaving soon. It was soon after that I passed a room and heard Tomoo and his gang laughing. I heard the puppy squeal in pain-till it stopped altogether. I wanted to do something-but I ran. Not an hour had passed, and I got up the nerve to check in on it all-and I screamed. There was no sign of Horns or her puppy-but the Devil and his followers were chopped into pieces."

He smiled.

"When I got my head together, we all cheered. Nobody liked those four kids. Maybe we hadn't been nice to Horns, but the thought that we wouldn't be kowtowing to a miniature Godfather made even that place bearable. When one of the workers-a woman barely seven years older than me-started pounding on me, I let her-and wouldn't you know that was when the state inspectors walked in? I'm sorry that orphans nowadays have to be shipped to Fujisawa-but they have no idea what they would have faced, if the Devil had been able to keep it up and pass it on, in terms of the power they wielded over us."

He got up to leave.

"I have a job, I keep my little sibs in line still, and I survived that place, long enough to see it shut down and the devil staked through. But you know what? I still wonder if Old Horns ever found a better place-and until the day I die, I will hear that puppy as it died. So what have you two found out about horned girls?"

Kouta answered.

"That, their destructive power aside, they often want the same things as the rest of us, and like the rest of us, have the capacity for great good and great evil."

The young man left, and Kurama drank down the rest of his coffee.

"Kouta-we must make a trip to the Kamakura Police Department. An old wrong must be undone."

As this unplanned trek began, the awkward reunion between father and child continued.

"Leaving you behind was the hardest thing I ever had to do."

Mayu was not in an acquiescent mood.

"And yet you did it. You left me with a woman who, by your own words, no longer had a soul."

He did not threaten or remind her of the place of parent to child in their world. He merely nodded.

"Maybe if my brother hadn't died so suddenly after my niece was born, I would have manned up and gotten my head together on your behalf. I arrived to your mother in time to see this 'Kurama' take the baby away, and leave her in shambles. But this was a woman who actively wanted my help, and who accepted my love. And when our love produced a child, all she could talk about was that child's happiness, and a vow to one day find her other child. With each attempt to see you turned away, I became fearful that the false charges she threatened me with could be used to take Hana away. As I became ever more fearful, I thought that you might end up like her. Much later, when I learned that she had remarried, I wondered what sort of man would even want her."

Mayu actually understood everything he was saying, and if it had been about someone else, she might have urged that this person understand his pain and torment as her vicious mother and her vile lies ruined everything.

"I can tell you what sort of man wanted her-I can tell you what he wanted from her-I can tell you why I finally left this house-and they are all the same answer-PAPA!"

She only slightly regretted her words, as the pain hit home for him along with the final realization of the consequences of his departure.

"I'd read that he was arrested for molesting a train-goer, and then shot by an SAT agent he got on the wrong side of. It was right after that your mother left town in a damned hurry, as his victims all came forward. I demanded this house from her for next to nothing as she fled-and I threatened to give her to one of her husband's victims' families if she didn't also surrender you."

He finally managed to look at her.

"She told me you had been lured off by a pimp named Kouta, and that she no longer knew your whereabouts. Not that she cared-that much she made explicit."

Mayu shook with fury, and then dialed her cell-phone. After a brief call, she sat back down with the father who had tried but failed.

"She lied to both of us. I have called Kouta to come and get me. I will be civil to your wife and to you, and I will try and be there for Hana, should she need me. But I cannot forgive you for leaving me when all you had to do was stand up to a bully we both know was full of hot air. Now, if you ever wish to be forgiven-you will sit there and listen to the story of a Pimp."

As one true story began, another concluded. Arika shook her head.

"So this Nyu was responsible for all those plane crashes, and the waves that cut through town?"

Nana knew that someone who had never known Nyu would never be able to see all the points that she did. Nana had known an uncaring monster, and Nana had known a girl who loved a man she knew could never forgive her childish, if terrible, attack so much that giving her life for him was not even a question. Plus, hadn't she known many of the same depredations? And didn't a bond exist, since Nyu charged her with taking care of the house when she left for the last time? She actually fought off a chuckle that there would be no more breast-groping till Kouta and Yuka resolved their tensions.

"I can't defend her, Mama. I can only say that the loneliness she felt and the hatred it drove her to, once it had a hold on her, was so deeply inside her, the miracle was that she cared about anyone ever. Despite what those awful people did when they invaded our home, she didn't gain her powers back as Nyu until Kouta was shot."

Perhaps realizing that reasoning out the whole mess with the girl known as Lucy and Nyu was not in her at this time, Arika instead focused on two other recurring names.

"What about these people, Yuka and Kouta? Do they treat you well?"

Nana smiled.

"Pretty much. Kouta can be mean at times, and sometimes Yuka is mean to him-but they are really nice, once you get to know them. Kouta slapped me once, and then made me apologize for attacking Nyu. I hated him at first, but then I realized-he didn't know-or didn't remember-who Lucy really was, so all he saw was me attacking his friend. But when I have needed him, he was there-and one time, he didn't even ask any questions. Kouta misses his little sister so much-he wants to protect all the girls he knows, even if one of them was the one who took Kanae away from him. Mostly, he just seems silly, but in a good, loving way. And Yuka is silly over him. Am I making any sense at all?"

Arika grabbed and held a child who should have been only a little bigger than Hana, but was nearly her own size instead.

"Stay here for at least a couple of days. Watch your uncle and me with Hana. You'll see how much sense you make. But Nana? How do you know all the things you do about Nyu? Some of the things you said-like about her puppy being killed-it doesn't sound like she had time or reason to tell you all that."

Nana's eyes went wide.

"Lucy had a puppy? Like Wanta?"

Arika recalled suddenly the trance-like state Nana had been in as she said some of her story, a state Arika had dismissed as narrative fatigue until that moment. Nana shook her head.

"How could Nana know that? Or about the girl-Aiko Takada? Mama? I'm scared!"

The embrace was renewed, as another piece of the puzzle Kurama and Kouta worked on came into clear view. Across town, another old puzzle was laid to rest. The two men who cared for these young women watched a once-young woman squirm and then break under police scrutiny. The Kamakura Chief Of Police, once an SAT agent till he gunned down a suspect in cold blood, thanked the pair for their efforts.

"It never occurred to my predecessors to question whether or not she'd actually seen the young girls in question kill Ino Takada. Her retraction plus the angle of the wound means that the little girl Aiko is now officially cleared of all charges-may it give her spirit some rest. Kurama-San, I am again in your debt. Cases this cold usually never see closure."

The man who owed his continued, if diminished, career in law enforcement to Kurama's intervention with Chief Kakuzawa withdrew. But Kurama was not to be let off of old wrongs that easily. A woman's embrace made his life a very awkward thing.

"I'm sorry-but to hear that she won't be held responsible for killing that thug anymore lightens my heart so much. I may have hurt him-but he took every opportunity to take it out on her instead, so I have no sympathy. I know they can't arrest that little barfly for keeping her silence-so I'll have to just see to it that my daughter hears of this-when I visit her."

Kouta stepped in to save his new mentor.

"Takada-San, you must understand. Kurama-San was part of the force that was there when your daughter was killed. He was overridden by a harsh and inflexible man, focused only on capturing the girl Aiko was with. He tried to save her, but his superior saw only a quarry and not two girls."

Having been both rescued and verbally curb-stomped, Kurama accepted his role in a not-so long ago tragedy.

"That man is dead. The world is well rid of him. He was what Kouta-san called him - an inflexible sort, and it cost him his wife and child as well."

The woman known as simply Takada to the art world looked thoughtful, and then pulled something from her valise.

"I've treasured these drawings as all I have left of Aiko. Do either of you know the girl in these pictures? Was this the girl she was killed for?"

Hat or no hat, the two men had no trouble recognizing the one who was the dominant figure in their lives for so long. Kurama took point.

"No. This girl's name was Nyu. She was my young associate's cousin, who died recently after a long illness. No-your daughter was taken hostage by one of those vicious horned girls."

"My apologies for your loss, young man. But now she and Aiko are together again."

"It's good to think Nyu had a friend waiting for her, Takada-San. I mourn and praise both our families."

Takada looked at Kurama.

"I hope not all those horned girls are vicious. I would like to paint one someday. I've tried to envision one-"

She pulled out more drawings.

"-but this is all my meditations have netted me."

The scribbles were not a face, or a look, but a number, written in several languages and styles. It was the Number Seven.

A woman who would be content with the rearranged truth given her that day left them, and Kouta waited for a scolding.

"I won't apologize, Kurama-San. Not even if it costs me the position you mentioned."

Kurama waved his hand.

"I do like to think that part of me is dead. And while I do not think this brings peace between Lucy and myself, perhaps her hold on me will diminish now that this old wrong is righted. Besides, your forceful reminder of my role in that tragedy has caused me to think further, Kouta-San. Do you recall what I said about what was recovered from the Chief's underground grotto?"

"Hai. His head, and the head of a young boy who was the product of his raping Nyu's poor mother. A creature like Nyu herself, who the sick bastard intended to be her mate."

Kurama knew a great deal more had been found there, but that was the extent of what he could tell Kouta about at this time.

"Kouta-that boy was not three years old."

"I don't follow you."

Kurama raised a finger.

"The Chief's recorded files as he lectured Lucy said that, once we knew of her existence, we knew of her mother's. But we only learned of her existence three years prior to her escape. I helped the autopsy on that boy. He was over seven years old, with no signs of premature or rapid aging like in most Silpelits. I'm a fool. I had wondered how the Chief and his son had such extensive facilities already in place for a threat supposedly so recently emerged. But I never asked those questions, did I?"

Kouta caught on.

"So Chief Kakuzawa knew of Nyu and horned girls many years before anyone else? What does that mean, Kurama-San?"

"It means that many of our assumptions about his plans may also fly out the window-and that, if we don't wish to be up against the plans of a serial movie villain, we had better ascertain the true timeline of certain events-including who the Chief may have had as allies inside and outside Japan. This war is currently a series of small but brutal battles, Kouta-but it will erupt in full, and Kanagawa's current immunity cannot be guaranteed, especially if Nana has become the new Queen."

Kouta stopped and looked at him.

"Say that you will protect her always."

"I won't. Because to let Nana come to harm is not a part of me. I will not forgive you asking that again, Kouta, no matter how I've wronged you or others."

Kouta nodded.

"For that I do apologize. But if people with enough force came to my home-I would have no way to stop them-and then they would have to kill us all. I don't want that, but these forces tend to decide what they will and justify it unto themselves."

"Then step up and become part of those forces and help make the choices that-your phone."

Kouta answered it, and heard an upset young woman.

"Of course I'll come-you're where? Are either of them-good. All right, sit tight and I will get you, Mayu-Chan. I promise."

Kouta sighed as he hung up.

"Of all the places on the map to end up-the map?"

Kouta looked at Kurama.

"If Nana is the new queen or something like it, could we use her instincts to map out Diclonius concentrations?"

Kurama sighed, and showed that he was indeed a Papa at heart.

"If-and only if-she wants to. But would it even be necessary for her to do so? Such concentrations would tend be marked off by blood-or would they? After all, Lucy hid herself for five years before I even realized she existed, and she had no place to hide. But who among Humans would hide these girls-and for what purpose?"

The question hung in the air as the men went to seek the girls who waited for their arrival. One finished her tale in the meantime.

"...and I am ashamed and saddened that it took such a thing for me to finally trust a man who had put himself out on my behalf, but that was how deeply the scars Mother and her new husband left ran in my soul. Kouta-San is no pimp-but I will say that, he is such a man of worth that if he were to ask such a horrid thing of me, I would at least know there must be a very good reason for it."

The eyes of the man called Kenjiro showed signs of fighting back tears.

"It is good-to know that you found such a worthy, and that he cares for you with so little asked in return. Mayu-Chan? I wish to someday be forgiven by you. Can this be?"

There it was, like a pinprick of golden light in the utter solid darkness of the girl's past. Finally, one of the people who had made her life a living hell asked for forgiveness. Granted, it was the least guilty party involved, but it still felt like a string of Olympic Gold victories in the heart of Mayu.

"We are both alive, Papa-and anything is possible. As I said, it took almost losing Kouta to see how I treasure him. Please-give me time."

With this small hope offered, Kenjiro began to smile.

"All you want, and all you need. You can even stay here whenever you want."

The thought alone seemed to put Mayu on the verge of hyperventilation. But a hand grabbed her own.

"I'm here, Mayu-Chan. I'm here."

Mayu meant no insult to Kenjiro as she looked at Kouta, and whispered a single word.

"Pa-Pa!"

Yet for all that lack of intent, it brought forcefully home to a man the price of not standing up to a bully. Seeing his sad look, Mayu chose to introduce the two-as well as putting off telling of and explaining her feelings for Bando-San for another visit. This one had already seen enough twists.

"My Papas are not perfect men-and that is why I treasure them both."

In the living room, Arika sat with a man she had every reason to hate.

"Would she have grown up to kill us?"

Kurama looked down.

"I came to see such things as a given. But I have recently learned even the worst enemy I will ever know was once just a child like Hana who loved a small dog, and that even assumptions about the history and timeline I thought I knew certain may have no validity at all. Yet those changes are also valueless-for the problems with the horned girls persist outside of schemes and lies. If they are not our replacements from God, then I must instead view them as a wake-up call as to how we all treat each other. The question, Arika-San, is not whether Nana-Chan would have become your killer, but whether she would ever have realized the difference in time. Three is a dangerous age to become a demigod, and it sadly makes the burnt and bloody path before me clear."

Kurama then produced a photo of himself holding two horned babies.

"One is Nana-Chan. The other-was my own sweet but dangerous Mariko. I would die now and lead a second life of pure torment gladly if I only knew that they were both alive and whole and loved from cradle to grave."

He looked at Hana, so like that ideal face for Nana, and smiled.

"Now, I believe you have a surprise or two for that sleepy-head."

As the adults assembled in the front room, and Wanta darted between all his favorite humans, Arika instructed her littlest girl.

"Hana? Do you remember when poor cousin Akio got sick?"

"Yes, Mama. He got sick and he couldn't get well anymore, and so did his friend who lived with him. But if anyone asks-he wanted it said that he only had pneumonia. Hana has kept that promise-but she misses Akio. He dressed nice and cooked so well, and his home was always so neat and clean."

Kenjiro wanted to show to both his daughter and his brother's daughter that he could be a man they could trust. So the unspoken doubts he had about Nana's status were put fully aside for all time.

"This is even more important. What we show you now, even the family can't talk about-only us three in private. It's so important that you understand that, Hana."

"Hana understands."

Nana breathed in.

"Hana-Chan, I have something to show you. No matter what you see on TV, don't yell or bite, okay?"

"Nana Onee-Chan! Hana wouldn't do such things!"

Nana then calmly and carefully removed her headpieces. Hana gasped, but Mayu was quick to bring Wanta near Nana, and the little licking machine's approval of the horned girl was all the little one needed to calm her down.

"Nana Onee-Chan-has horns-like those bad girls? But Nana Onee-Chan isn't bad."

Arika nodded.

"Not only is Nana Onee-Chan not bad-she is your real Onee-Chan. My baby, just like you are."

Kenjiro had allowed caution to triumph over love in the past. He made at least a start in showing he had learned his lesson.

"Just as Mayu Onee-Chan is my baby-and your Onee-Chan as well."

The girl actually looked sad for a minute, and the adults grew afraid until she spoke.

"I have two for-real Onee-Samas-and I can't tell anybody? Ooooohh! Mama? What about-"

Hana whispered to her mother, who chuckled.

"No-Wanta-Chan is only family by adoption."

Hana looked at the growing pup.

"Sorry, Wanta-Chan-but we all still love you! Kouta-San? Can I stay over with my Onee-Chans someday?"

Kouta tousled the girl's hair.

"I'll have to ask your Onee-Chans and Yuka-San, Hana. I'm only the Papa of Maple House-I don't have any real power."

Hana stood up and bowed to Kurama.

"Thank you, Kurama Papa-San-for helping Nana Onee-Chan so much when she was lonely and afraid."

Kurama accepted her tiny embrace, and if he thought briefly of one he would not see again in this life, it was understandable.

"If Hana-Chan will say hello to my daughter Mariko when she offers up prayers, that will be thanks enough."

Mayu asked for and got a back-ride from Kouta, while Nana held a new picture of herself and her family, now only a short walk away. Kurama kept his thoughts to himself until they got back to Maple House, and produced an atlas from some used books Yuka had bought.

"Nana-I need you to focus your senses-and tell me if any spot on this map of the Pacific shows signs of Diclonius. Will you?"

"Of course, Papa. Nana is obedient to you."

Over the course of an hour, the simple exercise was repeated five times. Finally, Nana was allowed to go to her and Mayu's room, where Kouta was just closing a book and leaving. Nana chuckled after he left.

"He tucked you in and read you a bedtime story?"

Mayu shrugged.

"I asked him to. It made me feel good. How are you? Is Kurama-San finished with you?"

"I guess. Papa just had me point at a map. I never learned how to read those. Maybe soon. Mayu-Chan? Are you angry with Nana?"

"Why would I be angry?"

She sighed.

"Because Nana made you go back to the place where you knew so much pain and shame. Nana's place like that is beneath the ocean now. But yours we had to go into."

"Nana-whether with you or alone, I had to go back there someday, or live in fear of it forever. We both found our families there again, and we again found out how many hurtful things Nyu did because her pain made her hateful. We have Kenjiro-San, Arika-San and we each have a sister in Hana-Chan, and I know together we will make sure she leads the most wonderful life possible. Kouta-San came at my call, just the way poor Bando-San did before Nyu killed him. I called him Papa without straining this time-and you have Kurama-San in the same house with us now. All is good in my sight."

Nana felt gas build up inside her.

"Mayu?"

"Yes?"

"Did-did-"

Mayu pleaded mentally for Nana not to say it, to no avail.

"Did It Hurt?"

A minute's silence was at last broken.

"Not even with you, Nana-Chan. I will not speak of it. Do Not Ask Me That Again."

Nana wondered what drove her to even ask such a thing.

"I will obey your wish, Cousin Mayu."

Mayu looked over at Nana, and turned her face towards her own.

"Cousin?"

"Our fathers were brothers."

Mayu grabbed her sandal from the floor, and smacked Nana on the forehead lightly, kissing the forehead immediately after.

"Baka! No labels will diminish what we have found together."

Mayu had the last word before sleep took them both.

"Sisters are we."

EPILOGUE

Kurama stepped just outside the gates of Maple House.

"Thank you for coming so quickly."

The female agent looked around.

"You know Kouta and Yuka will flip out if they see me here."

Kurama shook his head.

"They won't. Besides, those two are very forgiving to people that shoot them."

The Agent still checked the perimeter, just to be certain.

"Anna said it was urgent."

Kurama nodded.

"Tell Saseba to get Beijing and Washington on the line. It's that big."

The Agent adjusted her sunglasses.

"They won't like it. You know how they are about outsiders. What's so damned smoking hot in all this?"

"See this map? See this spot? Five times in the past hour-Nana pointed it out as the reddest of red zones for Diclonius' activity-only it's also somehow muted."

The Agent immediately called her superior.

"Arrange a meeting with the PM. Mass existence of horns outside Japan now confirmed. Where? Two words..."

A woman called cold by some found she now felt even colder.

"North Korea."

(To be continued in 'Folly')