[FFML] [Mai Hime, Future] First Contact

John Biles john at biles.us
Tue Aug 18 00:01:36 PDT 2009


First Contact


By John Biles

Series:  Mai Hime (future)

Home Page: http://www.thekeep.org/~wombat/Stories/MaiHime/index.html

*************

Shinichiro's Saga:

    I teach at Tomihara Academy on Hokkaido in the town of Hiromura.  It's
close enough to Sapporo for me to go there if I feel the urge for urban
civilization and far enough away to be totally peaceful most of the time,
other than accidents, idiots getting drunk, and that fool who kept going
past my house on his stupid snowmobile every night at two in the morning
last winter.  And it has a nice beach.

    This is my second year of teaching and I love it here for all that I
complain about it.  That's just my nature.  I had to fight to get what I
wanted growing up and you had to hit my parents over the head roughly a
million times to get them to understand things.

    I understand it all better now that I have students.  I fear I'll end up
like them once I'm a parent.  If I'm a parent.  I waffle back and forth on
that issue.

    I am an art teacher; I inherited Father's intellectual talents and
creative skills and didn't get much of Mother's more academic intellect,
other than my knowledge of art history.  I am good at math, but I didn't get
it from either of my parents.  But I think I got her bone-deep stubborness.
Which is why we fought so much.  And still do.

    I am an art teacher; this is an uphill battle.  I've had a lot of
success at getting students interested in art and a lot less success at
getting them to produce something worthwhile instead of crap.  To give a few
examples--

    It was Wednesday.  A hot summer Wednesday and this school has no air
conditioning.  Fortunately, I am skinny and handle this well.  Some of my
students are slow-roasting in their black and silver uniforms which look
great but are basically giant heat magnets in summer.  Mind you, summer here
is pretty weak compared to some parts of the world due to how far north we
are.  The one time I went to Africa I learned what REAL heat is like.

    Ookiku Yori is a short, slender blonde girl.  She's a good artist, but
she's basically obsessed with Desert Rose, a magical girl show which I hate
with the blazing fury of a million suns.  I hate it because it is full of an
almost infinite amount of bullshit.  You would think a seventeen year old
would not be hypnotized by a show intended for nine year olds, but you would
be WRONG.

    I understand the appeal of fannishness; I really shouldn't obssessively
watch the Diadochi, but I can't help myself.  The fact that I can make Aunt
Midori run screaming just by describing thirty seconds of it only adds to
the appeal, but it's so human about all the primal emotions of love and hate
and fear and joy and hope and full of humans being terrible and wonderful at
once.

    I suppose I have an excessive fascination with those moments in which we
aren't good or bad but both at the same time.  The forty-seven Ronin
avenging their master by pretending to be worthless.  The willingness of a
mother to kill to protect her children.  The brutal heroism of war.  The man
who gently kisses his wife and ensures his children will be taken care of if
he dies, who then goes down to the slums and muscles people for a
loanshark.  We are at our most human when we do wonderful things in a
terrible way or terrible things in a wonderful way.

    Desert Rose, on the other hand, is all about blowing up monsters with
love, friendship, toy tie-ins, and really god-awful speeches which reinforce
social mores.  It has all the emotional depth of a Happy Meal toy.  Less,
since toys like that often require kids to use their imaginations.

    Then there are the 'love affairs' on the show, which bear about as much
resemblance to real love as I bear to Mount Fuji.  Which she is obssessed
with, which is probably why she has never had a boyfriend at seventeen,
which is pretty much pathetic.

    However, I am not paid to judge her love life, which is probably for the
best.  Rather, to judge her art, which has been bent and twisted by the
stupid art style of Desert Rose.

    She can draw anything inanimate quite well.  But all her people have the
distorted art style of the Desert Rose manga and anime, which is to say
everyone has giant eyes and are stupidly slender except for muscles and
breasts.  And all older people are, for some reason, midgets, which annoys
me most of all.  Older as in 'grey-haired'.  The adults are not midgets, but
it's often hard to tell them from the teenagers, since everyone over about
thirteen exists in a kind of art limbo of indeterminate age with big eyes
and big breasts.

    This painting assignment is 'a perfect summer day WITH NO BODIES OF
WATER'.  Without that stipulation, I end up with most of the boys doing
half-naked women at the beach.  Now, I appreciate half-naked women as much
as any man.  But since most of them can't actually handle anatomy very well,
the end results tend to make Baby Jesus not just cry but start killing
people the way he does in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

    It's really for the best Alyssa didn't make me read her books of
Apochrypha until I was too old to imitate them.

    Unfortunately, I can't get proper models with my tiny budget, and if I
did show them a naked woman, I'd have to chain them down so they didn't
either drive her insane or wank themselves to death.  Then the parents would
rip out my heart and eat it.  We have anatomy books, but apparently the boys
and half the girls go blind and can't actually percieve what is in them.

    Anyway, Ookiku-san never goes crazy with trying to come as close to
painting naked women as possible without quite crossing the line honestly;
the women usually don't.  Except for Nagayama-san, but since she actually
can draw naked women competently, it usually comes off well.

    Rather, her current work, close to completed, consists of Desert Rose
herself and her lover, Emir Wallayah, sitting on the lee side of a sand
dune, holding hands and looking up at the moon and the stars with two camels
nearby.  It's so close to being just about perfect that its failure to cross
that line infuriates me.

    The problem, of course, is that the two of them are skinny like
beanpoles and she's allegedly twenty and looks fifteen and he's supposed to
be fifteen and looks twenty and they're both remarkably pale for people who
have lived in a desert since they were born.  In other words, she's
perfectly captured the show's art style and then connected it to really real
looking sand and stars and camels so it JARS.

    Plus, it is Desert Rose, which I hate with a burning aluminum fury.

    Love.  That show doesn't know anything about love in all its real glory
and terror.  Love that makes people break sacred oaths and...

    Let's not get into that.  If I start ranting about... anyway.  Moving
on.

    "Ookiku-san, very nice sand," I told her.

    "Thank you, sensei," she said, smiling brightly.  She has a very
cheerful smile even though her family is falling apart.  Which is probably
why she clings to a naive show for little kids.  To escape the mess at
home.  Her father's business failed and now he is working on beating up his
kids and drinking himself to death and he needs to hurry up on the drinking.

    I do what I can, but really, there isn't a lot I can do other than try
to avoid making her life hellish here.  I wish I could do more.  That's the
hardest part of teaching, I've found.  You can't change the families,
however much you want to.

    At least he hasn't hit her yet; it's the smaller kids who can't possibly
fight back.  And since no one in the family will report to the police and I
can't prove anything, I can't do anything but get frustrated. So I try to be
gentle with her despite my usual gut reaction to seeing anything connected
to Desert Rose, which is the urge to soak it in gasoline and watch it burn.

    "However, the art style of the people doesn't match the rest of the
picture," I told her.  For about the two millionth time, I think.  If I
count all her art.

    "You can't really do cel-style art with these tools, which is what I
prefer," she said.

    "Do you do that at home?" I asked.

    "Sure, I could bring some if you want, tomorrow."

    I am torn between wanting to encourage her and knowing that the art will
be full of those damn Desert Rose characters and thus the urge to throw
myself of a bridge will haunt me the whole time.

    But it's my job to encourage my students and if she can get over this
stupid obsession, I think she has great potential.  "Sure, you can show me
at lunch tomorrow."

    "Okay, sensei," she said, smiling brightly.

    I made some more criticisms, then turned to the next student, Hosoto
Masumi, who I expected would probably have painted women in bikinis
sunbathing.  He is tall and sturdy with short black hair; he's on the soccer
team and very good at it.  To my surprise and pleasure, he was working on a
picture of the school soccer team scoring a goal.  There were a vast number
of problems including the fact that the goalie appeared to have
double-length arms but that was okay.  Best to encourage him to improve on
this.  It's no masterpiece, but it's new and unexpected and that pleases me.

***********

    We are not allowed to date other teachers, which is frustrating, because
I would be on Nakamori Ume like white on rice if I could.  She's tall and
bosomy with short brown hair and bright green eyes and an excellent sense of
style.  She is one of the science teachers and mostly teaches chemistry and
I find her fascinating.

    She usually wears contacts, but she was wearing glasses today.  I
regretted that because I love her eyes.  She pushed a box across the table.
It was a nice ceramic lunch box with a lunch she'd made for me.  And it had
Desert Rose painted on the lid.  Her grin told me she enjoyed teasing me.
But my hunger and anticipation of her good cooking made me take it anyway as
I pushed a lunchbox across to her; it was simple brown wood but with a brown
bear painted on the lid.

    We make lunch for each other as we're both bored of our own cooking.
And it's a way to flirt.  She uses a little too much pineapple, but
otherwise, she's very good.

    "So how are things today?" she asked as she opened up her lunch and
found the chicken and noodles I made for her.

    Mine was pickled vegetables, shrimp, and rice.  Excellent.  I dug into
it enough to show my enthusiasm and appreciation, then replied, "The usual
mix.  Some good, some bad.  Wishing I could do more about Ookiku's
situation, but there's really nothing I can do."  Nothing frustrates me more
than failing at something for a lack of options.  Doing something and
failing, I can handle. Inability to do anything, I can't, which is why I've
pretty much withdrawn from the ongoing family crisis.  I'm pretty much
useless in a monster war.

    Better I stay out of the way and let the experts handle it, much as I
don't like being basically useless when my family members could die.  But
sometimes, there's just nothing you can do.

    Nothing that WORKS, anyway.  I'm too old to be that gullible any more.

    She sighed.  "I know, I know.  She stopped doing the homework and now
she's bombing my class.  She just sits and doodles in her notebook during
class and she always smiles.  She can't really be that happy."

    "No one can really be that happy," I told her.  "But she doesn't want
other people to worry about her, so she puts up the front."  I sighed.  "I
wish I could say I hadn't seen it before, but I have."

    "You'll see it a lot more," she said.  She's been here for four years
and her parents were teachers too.  "Just focus on what you can do for them
or you'll go crazy."

    I've got lots of practice in that, dealing with my family and its
secrets.  Pretty much all I can do is to try not to get in the way.

    "Yeah," I said, sighing.

    "So, going out with us tonight?" she asked.

    I really shouldn't go out on a Wednesday night when I have to teach
tomorrow, but it's cheap drinks night or whatever they call it down at the
Riki Tiki, and a bunch of us will be going down together.  More importantly,
Nakamori-san will be going and thus I will be going.

    "Yes," I said.  "I can't stay too late."

    "Oh none of us can," she said.  "But I'd rather go a shorter time for
less money than blow all my salary getting drunk on the weekend anyway."

    "Sensible," I said.  Though she doesn't actually drink that much.  I've
never seen her more than tipsy after knowing her for over a year.  "We can't
party like college any more."

    "Exactly," she said.

    We ate quietly for a while and then a shadow came over me.  An all too
familiar one.

    Tomikami Sora, my great bane.  Tall, dark, handsome, and a giant
asshole.  He drank his way to a literature degree and now he acts like he is
king of this mountain.  Which I wouldn't care, except part of being king is
ensuring everyone else is a peasant.

    "Ahh, eating from a lunchbox made for an eight year old," he said.  "You
never change, Sanada-san," he said.  "You've been obsessed with that stupid
show for children for years."  He acts like he's known me forever;
thankfully, we only met my senior year at Sapporo University.  He got sent
there because his parents wanted him somewhere far away so as to not
embarrass them.  I went there because I was far better than most of their
students, so they threw a cloud of money at me and I could pay for it all
myself and didn't have to depend on my parents.

    That we ended up at the same small school makes me crazy sometimes.

    "I am NOT," I said.  "Shouldn't you be off seducing underage women?"
I'm pretty sure he actually wants into her skirt, not those of underage
girls.  But a ton of the students get crushes on him and he's been punched
out by three student's fathers and he's rather touchy about it.  But since I
hate his guts, I have no interest in being fair.

    "Says the man with a Desert Rose lunchbox," he said smoothly.  He must
be in a good mood; he didn't take the bait at all, dammit.

    "It's mine," Nakamori-san said cheerfully.  "I'm a big fan and I made
him lunch."

    Thank you, Nakamori-san, I thought.  "And I made her lunch," I said and
watched him frown, just for a moment before he put his smile back on.

     Marusato Yoko now came into sight, having found us.  I had to stop
eating in the Teacher's Lounge; she kept finding me and trying to give me a
lunch.  Which I wouldn't mind, except she has a huge crush on me and I am
determined to NOT end up like my Father.

    Who probably would have been fucking her by now, at my age.

    Dammit.

    So we were eating at one of the tables behind the science building; the
science geek kids occupied the other tables.  I know most of them because I
also have to teach math.

    Marusato Yoko is a mediocre artist at best, but she takes my class so
she can see me every day.  She's rather better at math, but that means I
have to see her in TWO classes a day and try to pretend she's not making
eyes at me.

    If I ever find out who hacked into my car's hard drive and replaced all
the music files with songs like 'Hot for Teacher', 'I Wanna Be Your Gurl',
and 'Don't Get Too Close to Me', I am going to kill them with lasers from my
eyes and swords from my mouth.

    Of course this happened when I was driving Nakamori-san home.  She just
laughed and laughed and then copied everything onto her SongzCard.  And
dumped its contents to my hard drive for me until I had time to go reupload
my music to it.

    God, I wish we were allowed to date each other at this school.

    Marusato Yoko is on the softball team, so she's in good shape.  Rather
plain face, light purple hair cut short, bright orange eyes.  If she was six
years older and done with college, I'd probably give her a try.  But she's
sixteen and I'm twenty-three and I want to keep my job and not be crucified
by her well-off father, the LAWYER.

     She keeps making me lunch, as I said, which is sweet, but she's not
actually very good at it.  She headed our way and Tomikami Sora now said, "I
see your girlfriend is here, Sanada-san."

    "She is my student, not my girlfriend," I said to him.  "She might go
for someone like you with an empty head she can keep spare softballs in,
though."

    "Hi, sensei," Marusato-san said cheerfully, holding out the lunchbox,
which was made of plain white plastic with Hello Kitty embossed on the lid.
I...we don't have time for me to rant about Hello Kitty or I will never
finish this tale.

    Suffice it to say that when the aliens drop rocks on every human city to
destroy us because we do not deserve to live, the rocks dropped on Japan
will have Hello Kitty images carved on them so we will know why we are being
annihilated.

    "I'm sorry, Marusato-san," Nakamori-san said.  "I'm afraid that I made
Sanada-san lunch and vice versa.  How about if you give it to Tomikami-san?
He doesn't seem to have a lunch."

    "I...," he began.

    Marusato-san looked disappointed but turned and offered it to
Tomikami-san.  "I don't take lunches from students, especially not ones with
parents prone to sue people," he said harshly.

    She looked crushed, then said, "I'm sorry, sensei," and ran off.

    "Going for the Mr. Congeniality award, I see," I said to him.  "Way to
stomp on a student, Tomikami-san."

    "That was mean," Nakamori-san said, frowning.

    "That is how you avoid getting sued," Tomikami-san said.  "At the rate
these kids fling themselves at you, sooner or later, you're going to be in
serious trouble," he said.

    "They do not fling themselves at me," I said angrily.  I'm not like
Father.

    "Whereas no woman who's actually our age will touch you with a ten foot
pole," he continued.

    Doesn't he have ANYTHING better to do than hang around sniping at me?
God, I hate him.  And his stupid Porsche.  Which he has because his parents
give him a bunch of money.  He doesn't need this job; he's rich and useless
and I don't know why he hangs around here taking up space someone
intelligent could be using.

    "Touch, touch, touch," a familiar voice said as two female arms slid
around my chair and my torso just below my chest.

    Nakamori-san's eyes widened in surprise and Tomikami-san jumped back a
step.

    "See, you're wrong," my dear sister Alyssa said, then looked up at
Tomikami-san's face.  She's taller than most women in Japan, taller than
Nakamori-san by quite a bit, but still shorter than I am - and shorter than
Tomikami-san, too, though he's not quite as tall as I am.

    I couldn't see her face, but Tomikami-san now got a look as if death had
just stared him in the face and showed the appointment to collect his soul
in five minutes.  "I think I need to go review my next lecture," he said.
"Good day."  He moved quickly without actually running.

    Everyone was staring at us, and I had a feeling the entire universe
would know a tall beautiful blonde had hugged me at lunch in a few minutes.


    Alyssa turned to Nakamori-san and her face changed to a bright smile.
"You must be Nakamori Ume, it's very nice to meet you."

    "I didn't know you had a girlfriend," Nakamori-san said weakly.

    "I am his elder sister Alyssa," Alyssa said.  "Little brother, haven't
you shown her any of our family photos yet?"

    "He never talks about his family unless I beat it out of him,"
Nakamori-san said, now looking very curious.  "I'm not even sure how many
siblings he has."

    "He is our dear little baby brother, the most creative and best looking
of us all.  Kind and gentle and dedicated."  Her voice was very soft and
loving and it embarrassed me hugely.  "I am the youngest of his elder
sisters, and then there is Nao who is in the middle and Miyu who is the
eldest," she said.  "Our father is an art teacher like Shinichiro-kun, but
he doesn't have Shinichiro's math skills, which I instilled in him."  She
was still hugging me and the students were all whispering and I think I was
redder than a tomato.

    "Alyssa is a genius; she's good at everything except the laundry," I
said.

    "I had an important debate to prepare for!  It's kind of hard to keep
track of Donatist arguments and underwear at the same time, you know,"
Alyssa said, briefly frowning.  But then she smiled again.  "I won the
debate, but I had to spend two months of saved allowance to replace the
laundry I destroyed."

    Nakamori-san laughed.  "Well, it's nice to meet you, Sanada Alyssa."

    She usually goes by her birth name, Sears Alyssa, but she didn't bother
to correct Nakamori-san to my surprise.  For that matter, I could see she
was wearing a nice blue suit-dress instead of her regalia, though she was
wearing a copper cross on a silver chain and her class ring from the
seminary. She was also wearing her class ring from Fuuka, to my surprise;
she rarely bothers wearing it, but she had it where a wedding ring would
normally be worn.

    "Nao-oneechan is around here somewhere," Alyssa said with clear
affection in her voice.  "I thought she was following me."

    Since when did she call Nao-san 'Nao-oneechan' or say it so
affectionately?

    "I don't suppose..." Nakamori-san said hesitantly.

    Alyssa whipped out her smartphone.  "Sadly the picture will be small,
but here goes."  A few keystokes later, she displayed a picture of the six
of us.  I was in my archery gear and so was Mother; Father was wearing a
nice black suit and Alyssa, Nao, and Miyu were all in casual clothing;
Miyu's blue headscarf looked odd to me then and still does.  Mother thinks
it looks nice on her, though.  "Shinichiro was number one in our prefecture
and got third in the regionals his senior year.  Mother coached the team
that year and they got sixth in the region, second in the prefecture."  She
sounded very proud.

    I was very proud.  I coach the Archery team here in addition to my other
duties and display my trophies proudly, even though...well...you know.  It's
just a sport for me.  All it can ever be.

    "Wow, that's great.  I knew he was a brilliant archer.  I do a little
shooting myself," Nakamori-san said modestly.  She's quite good, in fact.
Better than most of my students, though not as good as Yoshimiya Robert, who
I think stands a chance of scoring in the top five in the prefecture this
year.

     Nao now came into view around the corner of the building; she was
wearing a battered old white and black concert t-shirt, blue jeans and
paint-splattered blue denim overalls along with a paint-splattered baseball
cap that once proclaimed allegiance to the Ham Fighters and now proclaimed
allegiance to red and green blotches.  A silver cross dangled from a leather
cord around her throat.

    She came over and hi-fived with me.  "Yo, bro," she said.  "How's it
hanging?"

    "About as well as it ever does," I said.  "Did you get lost?"

    "Bathroom called."  She turned to Nakamori-san and shook her hand
enthusiastically.  "Hello, I'm Sanada Nao, one of Shin-chan's big sisters.
I work in daycare."

    Shin-chan?  No one has called me that in over a decade.  THANKFULLY.  If
I find out who made that damn cartoon, I am going to rampage.  ENDLESSLY.

    Nakamori-san laughed in such a way as to show she knew the cartoon but
had somehow never made the connection before, thank you, God.
Unfortunately, now she had.  NO THANK YOU, God.

    "It's nice to meet Shin-chan's middle sister," she said.  "I'm Nakamori
Ume.  I teach chemistry here.  And run the Chemistry and Alien Research
Clubs."  The Alien Research Club is pretty much actually a science-fiction
club that also runs some websites and a set of networked computers which are
donating processing space to some search for intelligent life or something
like that.  I'm not good with computers like Miyu or Alyssa.

    I run two clubs myself--Art and Archery.

    "Oh God, don't get Alyssa started about aliens," Nao said, burying her
face in her hands.

    "There are no aliens," Alyssa said.  "God only created mankind."

    "It's entirely ridiculous to think that we are the only sentient race in
a universe this large," Nakamori-san said, frowning.  She's quite certain
other species exist and she's fought the administration pretty hard to keep
the Alien Research Club alive even if it doesn't actually do all that much,
so far as I can tell.  "And humanity wasn't created, it evolved."

    Nao and I looked at each other.  We absolutely could not allow this
argument to go any further or we would both be plunged into the very bowels
of hell.  Aliens AND creationism.  Sweet baby Jesus, save us now.  Alyssa is
probably right, but she can't actually prove any of it, so this is going to
be a nightmare.

    "If you and my dear little brother are done eating, Nakamori-san, do you
think you two could show us around your school?  This is our first visit,
and I'd like to see it before little brother has to go teach," Nao said a
little wheedingly.  "Also, little brother, can I model for your students?  I
dressed so it won't matter if it gets messy."

    Given my students don't paint by flinging it from a distance, she could
have worn something clean.  "Sure," I said.  They could use a model to work
from.

    "I'll be talking to the music teacher," Alyssa said.  "I contacted him
once I knew we were coming."

    But didn't bother to contact me.  Typical.

    "I'm sure he will be happy to have someone of your caliber."  I turned
to Nakamori-san.  "She's a brilliant singer."

    "Let us finish really quickly, then I would love to show you around,"
Nakamori-san said.

    We quickly stuffed our faces, then I showed them around the campus.
There's a dorm, the Science Building, Humanities, Administration, and the
Gymnasium.  We have a small pool and a field with some bleachers that has to
fill in for all sports, though we have a few practice fields.  We have a
goatload of picnic tables.  Most students eat at them unless it's really
super-hot, as the Cafeteria (in the administration building) has no air
conditioning and tends to smell odd.

    Nao and Nakamori-san traded many embarrassing stories about me; I about
wanted to die by the end of the tour.  At the same time, it was strangely
nice to have them there.  I'd never invited them before for a variety of
reasons, from cost to worrying what would happen, but it seemed like
everything was going well.

    "What brought you two all this way?" I asked as lunch came to an end and
it was almost time for Nakamori and I to go back to class.

    "Mother and Miyu-oneechan will be here around dinner time.  They're in
Sapporo taking care of some business; we decided to take some time off and
come up with them.  Father wanted to come, but he has to teach tomorrow,"
Alyssa said.  "I arranged for a substitute to teach my classes."

    "What do you teach?" Nakamori-san asked.

    "Philosophy, Theology, and Business.  At a small Catholic University in
Osaka."  She actually does teach some classes, but they're online classes,
giving her the freedom to suddenly show up in Hokkaido.

    "Why don't you come out to dinner with us tonight, Nakamori-san?  Mother
will pay for you, of course," Nao said.

    "Me?  I wouldn't want to intrude," she said, though I could see in her
eyes she was just being polite.

    "It's no bother.  I'm sure Mother would like to meet you," Nao said
wheedlingly.  "Please?"

    "Okay, if it's not a bother," Nakamori-san said, smiling.  She has very
good manners.

    "Not at all.  Any friend of Shin-chan is a friend of mine," Nao said,
smiling brightly.

    I squirmed a little; don't call me Shin-chan!

    We said our goodbyes, Alyssa went to go help the music teacher, and I
went with Nao to teach one of my math classes, geometry, during which she
did crossword puzzles in a book and played some sort of game which involved
slaughtering orcs on one of those handheld game machines.  Which I don't own
one because my twitch time is poor.  Hers, on the other hand, is ludicrously
good.

    Sculpting was next. Which didn't actually require a model, but Nao's
actually a decent sculptor - if not up to my level - so she helped me
demonstrate how to put rose decorations on the bowls they're making right
now. However....

    Aoto Yosushi - one of my students who thinks he is funny, when in fact
he is not funny at all - said, "Shin-chan-sensei, are you going to teach us
to..."  He suddenly paused and he fell silent and paled.  I followed the
line of his eyes which led me right to Nao, though she seemed to be smiling
brightly.

    I don't know how she does that.

    "Only I get to call my brother Shin-chan," Nao said firmly, patting my
shoulder.  "And I only get to make crayon jokes when he's been bad."

    Thank you, Nao, I thought.

    I got everyone down to work and circulated; they were all better behaved
than usual, which I won't complain about.

    Having Nao was actually a big help and thankfully, she was well
behaved.  She can be a huge trouble maker, but instead, she shut down all
the trouble and I was extremely grateful.

    It's not my birthday, is it?  No, my birthday was three months ago.  I
went home for it and we had a pretty nice party which for once wasn't
interrupted by a crisis.

    I can't think of anything really special around this time of year.

    She modelled for my advanced painting class and did a great job too.
Mind you, I still can't properly teach them anatomy with models with
clothing on, but the school has rules, etc.  Also, I shudder to think what
Nao would do if I wrote her a blank ticket to make trouble like that.

    Though she is being well behaved today and I am seriously grateful.
Nakamori-san likes to tease me but she has some restraint.  Nao doesn't.

    Normally.  But today, she does.  I guess she must be really happy about
something.

    After my last class, I went and suited up for archery.  To my surprise,
Nao borrowed an outfit and suited up too.  "I didn't know you shoot," I told
her.

    "I am entirely terrible, but this way you'll look even better when you
show you can outshoot Alyssa and I," Nao said.  "Assuming she manages to
drag herself away from singing."

    "I'm not there to show off for my students," I said.

    "Not for THEM, duh," she said.  "Your woman."

    "She'll be at her clubs," I said.  "And she's not my woman, she's just a
friend."

    Nao just grinned at me.

    And now I understood.  I don't know why, but they've decided to 'help'
me with her.  Oh God, this is going to end in fire.

    I was quite stunned when we got to the archery range and there was a
small army of students assembled to watch us.  Most of my students looked
rather nervous, though Yoshimiya Robert and his younger sister Ann both
looked very confident.  Probably because they're the very best.

    Mother was there along with Miyu, both of them garbed up for shooting.
Alyssa was there, but still in her suit-dress, in the stands with
Nakamori-san, chatting about something.  I could see the Alien Research Club
and the Chemistry Club were both there too.

    NO PRESSURE.

    "Hello, Mother," I said, coming over and giving her a kiss on the
cheek.  She was wearing a gold cross necklace; Miyu had a white gold one.
But they were both otherwise dressed in traditional archery gear.  "I didn't
know you were coming."

    "I didn't think I'd be able to come up until about 2 hours from now, but
things went quickly.  False alarm, thankfully."  She gave me the look and I
nodded.  Order monster business no doubt.

    "Hello, big sister Miyu," I said to her and she smiled brightly but
fakely at me.  Mind you, you have to know Miyu to know it was fake, since
she never actually smiles that brightly.  She clapped me on the shoulder.

    "Let's show off a little," Mother said softly.

    IE, let's overshadow you to your students. They're both better than me,
Mother by decades of practice, Miyu because she is totally superhuman and
could probably shoot a fly off my nose without hurting me at 200 meters.  I
couldn't beat either of them in a million years and that's with Mother not
able to use her powers here.

    On the other hand, my students could do with seeing what a true master
can do, not just my limited skills.

    Nao said, "You could shoot an apple off my head."

    "I'm pretty sure that violates school regulations," I said.  "And would
be incredibly dangerous."

    "Does anyone here have an apple?" Mother asked.

    I stared.  "Mother, I am pretty sure we can't do that."

    One of the students hurled an apple down to her.  Two others threw
baseballs.  She handed them to Nao.  "Throw them across the target range."

    Now that we could do.  I made sure the baseballs were not stamped with
the baseball team's logo.  They were not.

    Nao got into position and I cleared my mind as Mother taught me when I
was little and first started shooting.  I took all my emotions and worries
and everything and shoved them into a fire in my mind and let them burn up
until there was nothing but me and the bow and the targets about to go in
the air.

    Mother tied little ribbons she'd brought to the arrows and then we
opened fire.  I would have hit both baseballs and the apple; but on the
apple, all three of us managed to bounce our arrows off each other and no
one hit anything. I nailed both baseballs, as did Mother; Miyu's arrow
nearly knocked hers out on one of them, but it bounced. So Miyu only ended
up with one, to my surprise.  Was she holding back?  Or just not used to
archery?  Possibly the other arrows were throwing her off.

    Then we opened fire on the static targets.  We all did much better
there.  I got eight bullseyes out of twelve shots; Mother got nine and Miyu
only got six.  She must have thrown that one.  Though I know she normally
fights with a gun or melee weapons.  She has no archery mode.

    Everyone was cheering and I felt a little embarrassed, though pleased my
total score was up from last time.

    Then Mother and I started teaching and I got my best students to show
off for the audience; they loved it and the crowd went crazy for them.  It's
nice to be appreciated.

    Mother nodded approvingly as she watched the Yoshimiya siblings shoot.
I've tried to teach them all what Mother taught me but they're best at it.

    I ran the rest of the club through their paces; a lot of them had a hard
time of it due to not being used to so many people watching.  But if we're
going to compete, they have to get used to it.  I worked with them,
correcting stances and offering an encouraging word to all and most of them
were doing better by the end.

    At one point, as I working with one of my freshmen, I heard a sort of
strangled noise; when I turned, I saw Tomikami-san leaving at high speed.  I
blinked in confusion, but decided it was best not to look a gift horse in
the mouth.  When had he gotten here?  Normally, he'd be with the literature
club, I think.

    We eventually finished and I went and cleaned up and changed back into
my normal teaching clothing.  Mother was now wearing a blue suit-dress like
Alyssa's, while Miyu was wearing a blue blouse and a knee-length white
skirt.  And the headscarf, which I still think looks silly on her.

    Mother was talking to Nakamori-san, which made me nervous.  As I
approached, though, they were discussing how much hotter the southern
islands are right now than up here on Hokkaido.  "The beach was nice, but
really, it's too hot there."

    "I've gone to Okinawa for summer vacation a few times," Nakamori-san
said.  I imagined her in a bikini and rather liked the image, then tried to
make myself stop thinking of it.  I am trying to stop having dreams that
can't come true.  "If you're still here on Saturday, we could go to the
beach."

    "That would be nice," Mother said.  "We'll have to see."

    I assume if they got a false alarm, they'll likely leave tomorrow,
though.

    But we'll have a good time tonight, I think.  I'm feeling optimistic.

************

    "So, the fire alarm goes off and Shin-chan starts running through the
house with a pot on his head yelling "FEAR!  FIRE!  FOES!  AWAKE!," Alyssa
said.  "Then he tried to save me from my coatrack."

    I was six, okay?   I WAS SIX.

    Mother was laughing loudly and Miyu was smiling, sincerely, I think and
Nakamori was laughing so hard she almost fell out of her chair.

    I had forgotten half these stories.

    Deliberately.

    Listening to someone I like, being told my every unintentionally
humorous act for the last two decades of my life, was starting to eat at my
nerves.  Though thankfully, Tomikami couldn't hear any of this.

    I pray.  Please, God, don't let him hear any of this.

    We were at Batu Khan's House of Barbeque, a rather good Mongolian
Barbeque place.  Mother was paying and we were all eating a lot.  I was very
hungry for some reason.

    "So, I had best be fair and volunteer my own embarrassing story,"
Nakamori-san said.  "As Sanada-san only eats this much when he's
frustrated."

    "I am not frustrated," I mumbled, then ate more noodles and bannana
pepper and I think this is turkey.

    "When I was...seven, I think, I went on summer vacation to Grandmother's
house in Akita Prefecture, by Lake Towada.  We would go swimming and wander
around the woods.  I couldn't sleep one night; I convinced myself I had
heard music in the woods, so I climbed out the window and went in search of
it," she began, idly picking at her food.

    "That's a nice area," Mother said.  "I've been there a few times."

    Nakamori-san nodded.  "I got totally lost, of course, then fell asleep.
Everyone woke up the next morning and totally panicked.  They had to call
out everything in the universe, pretty much, to find me.  Then after all
that, I managed to wander up to the house unseen.  My butt ached for a week
when Father was done spanking me," she said ruefully.

    I laughed, then put a hand over my mouth.

    "It's okay, laugh," Nakamori-san said.  "I've done enough laughing at
you tonight, it's okay to laugh at me."  She laughed.  "I was a really
insane little kid, I'm lucky I'm alive.  I think someone found me and helped
me get back, but I probably dreamed half of it."

    "Alyssa would try to build vast cities out of playing cards, then trap
herself in a corner or a cul-de-sac because she was so focused on the part
she was doing at any given time, she never saw the big picture," Miyu said,
smiling, and Alyssa laughed ruefully.

    I laughed pretty loudly; she was still doing that when I was old enough
to notice.  Then I would try to rescue her and she'd get mad I knocked it
down.

    Nakamori's family lives in Hakodate, I learned; her parents are divorced
and she has two older brothers. Like me, she's the baby of the family.  I
don't talk much about my family because we have secrets.  She talks some,
but I learned a lot more tonight, like the time she thought all the yams in
the house were out to get her after watching some old cartoon and how her
family struggled with a fish in their aquarium that was too pretty to kill
but kept eating the other fish.  (He got his own tank.)

    We finished eating and walked back to my apartment, where Mother had
parked her van.  Nakamori-san lives downstairs and I live upstairs, so it
was convenient for everyone.

    As we walked through the park my apartment complex is next to, I heard a
scream and then running.  I could see Ookiku Yori coming towards us through
the darkness.  Mother, Alyssa, Nao, and Miyu all suddenly went to Defcon 3;
you could tell by how they stood and the shift from casual relaxed faces to
alertness.  Nao glanced at me, then at Nakamori; can't go to killer nun mode
in front of the unknowing teacher, after all.

    Sigh.  I hate keeping secrets.  When I was a kid, I kind of thought my
elder siblings and Mother and Nao must be involved in some kind of
espionage; I was rather stunned to find out the whole truth.  That I pretty
much didn't matter and was, at best, a liability.  They were all magical
princesses and I was nothing.

    So I had to get away, set up on my own where I could matter.

    But now it's followed me here.

    DAMN IT.

    "What's wrong, Ookiku-san?" I said, taking her hands as she ran over to
us.  She shivered as I held them.

    "There's some kind of something.  A wild animal, maybe, running around
here!  I was just trying to do my homework!," she said.

    In the park at this hour.  Probably because the beatings have commenced
at home.  I winced.  I can't even solve a problem like that, a perfectly
normal one that doesn't require magical powers.

    "It's okay.  There's probably stray dogs or something roaming around,"
Nakamori-san said kindly.  "Why don't you come with us back to Blue
Apartments and we can call your parents to come pick you up?"

    "Dad's out drinking and Mom's too tired from work," Ookiku said and I
grimaced.  Delightful.

    "Well, we can walk you home.  Where are your books?"

    She pointed off to one of the lamps, under which sat a bench with her
books on it.

    I looked around; no sign of dogs, monsters, or whatever.

    "Okay, Alyssa, come with me, I'll get the books.  Then we can walk
Ookiku-san home," I said.

    Alyssa pulled out a can of mace and passed it to me, then got another
one out of her purse.  I wondered exactly how many she had.

    We made it to the books when a black furry shape charged us, drooling
and barking.  We turned and sprayed it in the face, then ran as it staggered
off.  It was a rabid looking dog.

    I'm not sure if it was just me, but Miyu looked actually disappointed it
was just a messed up dog.  Delightful.

    I called emergency services so they could contact animal control,
however that works here, then we headed to my apartments and drove her home
in Mother's van.

    "It's really not safe studying in the park at night," I said to her.

    "Thank you for worrying, sensei," she said smiling at me.

    Worrying?  A RABID DOG TRIED TO BITE YOU.  It's not worrying if you KNOW
it is a bad idea.  "A dog tried to kill you."

    For a moment, she looked utterly exhausted and scared, but then she
rallied and smiled brightly.  I ached for her.  How can she keep that up?
"It's okay, sensei."  She paused.  "I'm Ookiku Yori.  Nice to meet you all."

    I suddenly realized I hadn't even explained who all these people were
and felt an idiot.  "This is my mother, Sanada Yukariko, and my elder
sisters Miyu, Nao, and Alyssa.  Father is way down in Osaka and couldn't
come but the rest of them decided to drop in on me," I said.  "By surprise."

    "They came without warning.  They showed no mercy!," Nao said, then
laughed.

    I didn't get it, but her laughter was infectious.

    "You're really sensei's mother?" Ookiku-san asked Mother as she drove.

    "Yes," she said.  "He almost came out backwards and oh, I remember
giving birth still, even over twenty years later."  She smiled at
Ookiku-san.  "Children are difficult, but there's no greater reward than to
have reached my age and to see you are surrounded by strong, kind, loving
children of whom you can be very proud.  I never expected to be a mother,"
she said.  "But I am glad I became one."

    Miyu smiled her usual serene smile, Alyssa smiled very brightly, and Nao
had her usual crooked smile that makes her seem naughty.

    Mother loves me, which is hard for me to believe now, knowing the
circumstances of my conception...my Father...I can't believe...he would be
so horrible.  If he could do that to her...I can't understand why they
stayed together all these years or how she could forgive that.  I used to...

    I don't want to be like Father, but the thing I do best, I got from
him.  And now I have to be ashamed of him and I hate it.  Sometimes it
creeps into my mind when I'm trying to do art and just poisons the whole
thing.

    How could she ever forgive him?  How?

    They like to think they're the realists and yet they all act like none
of those terrible things they did happened.  My family is made up of people
who did horrible things.  And were never really punished for it.  How can I
be part of this family without ending up tainted myself?

    I could feel myself riding the depression spiral down again and I forced
myself to break out of it.  Ookiku-san doesn't need me to collapse in a
puddle of my own guilt and frustration at my family history.  Her problems
are worse than mine.

    "You really look good for a woman who gave birth four times," Ookiku-san
said, then looked embarrassed.  "I'm sorry, that was really rude."

    "I was thinking that myself," Nakamori-san mumbled, looking embarrassed.

    "I get lots of exercise and don't drink or smoke," Mother said.  "So
I've had a long time to work it all off.  But I'd happily give birth four
more times for my daughters and my son if I had to," she continued.

    We wouldn't be worth it, I thought, then knuckled my forehead.  PERK UP,
I told myself.  No moping.

    I was at least faking good cheer when we got to her family's tiny little
house.  This neighborhood is full of little fenced lots and tiny two-story
houses built after World War II.  Due to stray bombs taking out a good chunk
of the town.

    Crazy civilian bombing bastards.

    But that's another rant entirely.

    You could see various kid's toys scattered around the lawn when she
opened the gate.  Nakamori-san and I walked her up to the door, though she
said it wasn't necessary.

    Her mother, a scared looking middle-aged brunette, answered the door and
now looked relieved and quickly pulled Ookuri-san in.  "Thank you for
bringing my daughter home," she said.

    "It's okay.  I'm her art teacher, Sanada Shinichiro, and this is
Nakamori Ume, her chemistry teacher," I said.  "She's a very good student,
and every student is important to us."

    "We were glad to walk her home," Nakamori-san said, then explained about
the dog.

    "No more wandering off at night for you; it's not safe.  I told you,"
her mother said lecturingly.

    "Yes, mother, I'm sorry to make you worry.  I love you, you know,"
Ookuri-san said to her, trying to smile.

    "I know," her mother said, touching her forehead to her daughter's.
"Anyway, thank you both," she said to us.

    "Glad to help," I told her.

    We said goodbye and on the way back to the car, Nakamori-san said to me,
"That was very nice of you."

    "She is a good student, and I do worry about her," I told Nakamori-san.
"Her father is drunk and violent and broken down and bitter and taking it
out on everyone and I don't know what to do."

    "We can't fix the whole world," Nakamori-san said, patting my shoulder.


    Given it was made by an evil god in order to have something to torment
and rule, it's not surprising we can't fix it.  I want to believe there is
something better and sometimes I do, but I have to take God's existence on
faith, whereas I know for a fact that this world was crafted and ruled by an
evil bastard who tried to induce my family to murder each other.

    If I ever meet that fucker Nagi, I am going to hit him in the head with
a shovel until he blows my head off or one of his monsters eat me.  And that
idiot Mashiro too, who just sat back and let her evil husband destroy
everyone I love.  Yeah, yeah, master plan, fuck you for everything that
happened to my family and you scampering off and leaving us holding the
bag.

    "What's wrong?" Nakamori-san asked me, sounding worried, her hand on my
shoulder as I shivered, feeling a burst of utter rage and hate.

    I choked it down, hard as it was, standing there with my eyes closed
until it faded.  I wish I hadn't had to get used to this.  But given I can't
even...Dad, how could you be such a bastard?  How?

    I stamped and crushed all my rage and shoved it into the fire.  I let it
burn, until I was calm, and I could act without thinking because thinking
was only going to make me crazy right now.  There was nothing but me and the
void; I learned to do this as part of my archery training, but it's useful
any time I need to squelch my emotions.

    "She's out in the middle of the night because her stupid father either
is beating her or she's afraid he will and I can't prove anything and the
police won't do anything because they don't give a flying fuck."  My voice
was cold; I usually don't speak when I'm like this because it creeps people
out.  "Probably because they beat their own wives."

    Nakamori-san grimaced.  "They're not that bad."

    "They won't do anything.  Everyone knows what is going on and no one
does anything and it's making me crazy," I said very calmly and flatly.  You
know, I wonder if Miyu is like this all the time; I sound kind of like her,
intonationwise.

    "You have to let go of it, or you'll go crazy.  We can't change the
families, Sanada-san," she said, hand on my shoulder.  "It's very noble of
you to wish you could help her, but there's only so much we can do."

    "I know," I mumbled.  I'm powerless in mundane things as well as
magical.  Might as well get used to it.  Ugh.

    We went back to the van and drove back.  Nakamori-san chatted with my
family while I sat there in the void so I wouldn't start yelling or crying
or do some other stupid over-the-top thing which I am overly prone to do
when frustrated.

    When we got home, I said, "I have some decaf coffee if anyone wants
some."  By which I mostly meant Nakamori-san, but I suspected Mother and Nao
would want some too.  "And some sweet tea."  Which I learned to make from
Alyssa, who has a taste for it.  It's more an American thing than a Japanese
thing, but I like it.

    Nakamori-san looked torn, shifting back and forth on her feet.  Mother
said, "I could definitely go for some coffee."

    Miyu gave me the look which told me she knows I am suppressing myself.
I couldn't tell if she approved or disapproved.  "You should come try
Shin-chan's sweet tea.  It's very good."  Thank you, Miyu.

    "Okay," Nakamori-san said, glancing at me, then smiling.

    My apartment is tiny; there's a bedroom, a bathroom with a shower, and a
living room with kitchenette.  I have a sofa that's seen better days, a low
table, a TV, and that's it.  Oh, and two speakers I can plug into my
SongzCard, which I now did so and put on some classical music, which Mother
loves.  And Alyssa too.  Nao prefers loud, discordant music, and Miyu just
goes along with whatever Alyssa wants.  Nakamori-san is more of a
traditional rocker, so I mixed some in from that directory too.

    Then I got everyone sweet tea or coffee as they desired.  We ended up
discussing politics of all things.  Much to the surprise of everyone, the
socialist party has been clinging to power by its fingernails the last few
years, but now the ministry is coming apart in a welter of scandals and
suicides and under-ministers being caught cross-dressing or fondling aides.
It's a huge trainwreck and I can't take my eyes away from it.

    Schadenfreude really shouldn't make you feel better, but I was back to
normal by the time Nakamori-san finally had to go.  I walked to the door
with her.  "See you tomorrow," I said, smiling.

    She stood there, shuffling on her feet and glancing over my shoulder.  I
didn't look because I can guess any of a variety of things Nao was probably
doing right this minute and I didn't want to know.  "I had a really good
time," she said.  "Everyone's probably going to wonder what happened to us,
though."

    "Well, is there any reason we can't tell them we went out with my
family?" I asked her.

    She gave me an odd look I couldn't read, but then she smiled.  "No
reason at all."

    I don't get it.  You'd think I'd understand women better after growing
up surrounded by an army of them, but I don't.

    Five will get you ten Nao is making fun of me right now, though.  I
understand THAT.

    "Will you all be staying through the weekend?" Nakamori-san asked
hopefully.

    "I think we have to..." Miyu began.

    "Yes," Mother said firmly.

    I'm not sure if my sanity can survive that much togetherness, but I
recognize the 'decision made and ratified' tone of voice from loooong
experience.

    Nakamori-san smiled very brightly now.  "Good.  Why don't you all come
down to my apartment for breakfast, then?"

    "Oh, I would hate to impose on you like that," I said.

    "We'll bring the coffee," Mother said.

    I whispered, "You'd better make a lot, Nao eats enough for three
people."

    "I HEARD THAT!" Nao shouted, but then she laughed.

    Nakamori-san laughed and said, "I will."

    We stared at each other for a few seconds.  She's so beautiful.  Don't
stare at her chest I told myself.  Just look at her eyes.  She has beautiful
green eyes, like a verdant field of grass on a summer day.  I could just
stare into them forever and ever.

    We stared at each other for a while, and then I said, "What time do you
want us?"

    "We have to be at school by eight, so we'd best shoot for six thirty so
we can eat at leisure," Nakamori-san said.

    "Okay," I told her.

    "I'd better go," she said, then she ran off.

    "Bye!" I shouted after her.

    Then I closed the door and went and had some more sweet tea.  "Do you
have a hotel room?" I asked.

    "We should crash here tonight," Mother said, "If you don't mind.  And
then tomorrow, we will get a hotel room."

    "You don't have to stay just to give us an excuse to go to the beach," I
said.

    Mother stared in surprise, and I grinned a little.  I have known you for
over two decades, Mother.  I've learned a few things in that time.

    Nao began laughing and Alyssa smiled.

    "We hardly ever get to see you," Mother said.  "So unless a crisis comes
up, we can stay a while.  And really, it's easier than going back home and
then coming up on the weekend itself."

    "She wanted you to kiss her," Nao said.  "You can't just do a Dan,
Shin-chan."

    I would tell her not to call me Shin-chan, but that would just make her
call me Shin-chan more.  "It seems to have worked for him," I said.  I'd
gotten an e-mail from his mother who was crowing over her son having a
girlfriend.  I pray Mother doesn't do that whenever I have one.

    Nao frowned.  "Yes.  Which shouldn't be legal."

    Alyssa giggled.  "Are you proposing a love police, Nao?"

    "Shut up," she mumbled and chugged her coffee.

    I smiled a little at that.  "So how long did you spend practicing our
family's imaginary history and status?"

    "Two days," Alyssa said.  "It took me about two hours to write out
everyone's briefing, then we drilled on responding correctly and not being
inconsistent with each other and on what we could admit to and what to cover
up."  She fingered her cross on a chain.  "Did we do a good job?"

    "You all definitely could run scams with the best of them," I said.
Part of me was aggravated they hadn't, say, asked me about this, and part of
me felt very happy they were willing to go so far to make my life easier.

    Nao grinned.  "Good."

    Alyssa came over and hugged me.  "We love you, little brother, and we
just want you to be happy."

    "I love you too," I said softly and Nao made gagging noises, but she was
smiling.  It was just teasing.

    "Sibling love IS the purest," Nao said, then laughed.

    "That's enough, Nao," Mother said firmly.

    "It's okay," I said.  "If Nao didn't tease me, I'd think she was someone
else."

    Alyssa gave me a final squeeze and let go.  "So what was bothering you
at the student's house?"

    "Am I that obvious?" I mumbled.

    Alyssa handed me my sweet tea, then sat down with hers on the couch.  I
sat down on the floor next to Miyu, who was sprawled out laying on her back,
studying the ceiling.

    "Extremely.  You only go blank-face when you're making fun of Miyu or
else if you're trying to hold in an explosion," Nao said.  "We can read you
like a book, you know.  And I'm sure you can read us."

    Most of the time, yes.

    "Whereas you clearly can't read Nakamori-san as she definitely was
hoping for a kiss," Nao continued.  "Is she going to have to wave a sign or
something?"

    "We are not allowed to date by the rules of the school," I said.  "I
could lose my job or she could lose hers or we could BOTH lose our jobs."

    "Oh yeah, like that sort of thing stops anyone in this family," Nao said
dismissively.  "Rules like that are never enforced unless the principal
hates you."

    "Also, Tomikami-san would definitely seize the chance to nail my ass to
the wall," I replied.

    "Nao, not everyone is a rule-breaker like you," Alyssa said chidingly.

    Thank you, sister.

    "I'm just saying, love doesn't come often and you have to seize it with
both hands when it does," Nao said, drinking more coffee.  "Dammit, you got
anything with caffiene in it?"

    "You shouldn't drink anything with caffieine this late, especially since
we have to get up early," I told her.  "So we won't be late for breakfast."

    "Anyway, if your parents had stuck to the rules, you wouldn't exist,
Shin-chan," Nao said.  "So you shouldn't hold back.  It's pretty clear she
likes you."

    Yes, please rub in that my parents kicked morality in the face and then
stole its wallet and that I only exist because they broke sacred oaths and
spat in God's face.  Thanks, Nao.  I would have started yelling, but it was
late and I didn't want to get worked up and then not sleep, so I just forced
my anger down and drank some tea.

    Mother shifted uncomfortably, then said, "He's old enough to make his
own decisions.  Don't badger him, Nao."

    "It's for his own good," she grumbled.

    Alyssa patted my shoulder and looked sympathetic.  See, she's kept her
oaths.  I just wish I didn't have to know what she did and tried to do
before she took them.

    I said, "Mother,  you can have my bed.  I'll bring the futons out here
and Nao can take the sofa since she's short enough to fit it and Alyssa and
Miyu and I can sleep on the futons."

    "Ahh, sibling love threesome," Nao said, grinning.

    I didn't even dignify that with a response.

    "Acceptable," Miyu said.  She won't sleep anyway unless she feels she
needs to fake it for my benefit.  So she'll probably run systems checks for
a while with her eyes closed until we all pass out, then go pray or go
jogging or something.

    Alyssa smiled.  "Been a while, Shin-chan."

    When I was little and had nightmares, I'd go climb into her bed and
she'd hold me until I fell asleep. I eventually got too old for that, but
sometimes I miss it when I have nightmares, which is all too often since I
learned the truth.

    I laughed.  "Yeah."

    We talked a little more and then everyone went to bed.  I was on the
right side of the futon, Alyssa was in the middle and Miyu on the left.
Alyssa put an arm around each of us.  "Goodnight, Shin-chan, Miyu."

    "Goodnight, Alyssa-neechan, Miyu," I mumbled, then slid into sleep.

**************

    I was in school, trying to teach, when the trouble started.  Nao was
modelling for the students again when I heard a car alarm go off outside.
MY car alarm.  Probably it was just flaking out, but I had to be sure.
"I'll be right back."  I ran outside and found someone had covered my car in
dozens of circles of pinkish meat.  I stared mindlessly.  What the hell?

    Nervously, I approached, getting a stick and poking it, just in case.
I'm not sure what I thought might happen. It fell off and took a circle of
paint with it.  SHIT.

    Now they all fell off, leaving my car a patchy mess, with irregular arcs
of blue paint all over it and large bare or mostly bare spots.  The meat
stunk too.

    As I stared, mouth wide, Tomikami-san came out and started laughing.
"Man, that's the greatest gag ever if you can afford it."

    "What the hell is going on?" I demanded angrily.

    "Bologna.  Put it on someone's car and leave it in the sun and the acids
and preservatives and stuff leak into the paint and mess it up.  Someone
spent a lot of money on this, as it's pretty expensive here in Japan."  He
laughed loudly.  "Well, back to class."

    "You did this, you bastard!" I said angrily.

    "You can't prove it," he said.  "Bye, loser."

    "YOU BASTARD!  I can't afford to fix this!"

    "Not my problem," he said as he retreated.

    I shook with rage.  But what could I do?  Attacking him would get me
fired AT BEST, in jail at worst.  I couldn't prove anything and there were
no witnesses.

    There was nothing I could do unless I got lucky and someone saw him do
it, but he wouldn't be that sloppy.

    so long as you have no power, everyone will walk on you and never
respect you

    I blinked.  Had someone said something?

    /Hail Mary, Full of Grace/

    I could hear Miyu's voice this time, echoing in my head.  Why was Miyu
praying inside my head?

    miyu tells herself that her sins will be forgiven, but we both know
she's talking to an empty void for the gods may forget but never forgive

    Okay, this was creepy.

    /The Lord is with thee./

    I could see Tomikami walking away, whistling cheerfully and chewing on a
piece of sausage.  It smelled oddly tasty.  And must smell a lot if I can
smell it from here.  But he can always afford fancy food and I eat cheap
fish and rice most of the time.

    money is power too, so of course you don't have any and you will always
be walked on by the tomikamis so long as you don't have any

    "Shut up!"  I didn't know what the hell was going on, but the last thing
I need is my own internal voice of despite PLUS Miyu praying a prayer I have
heard roughly 2 trillions times and said a few billion myself growing up
Catholic.

    /Blessed art thou among women,/

    I pulled my own hair.  "Miyu, can you please stop broadcasting into my
head or whatever you are doing?"

    she doesn't care what you want, only what Alyssa wants she only
tolerates you because Alyssa is trying to alleviate her guilt for her sins
by treating you nicely so she plays along.

    "That is not true!" I said, wondering why I was trying to argue with a
voice in my head.

    /and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus./

    Tomikami looked back at me.  "You working on going crazy?  Fine by me.
When Nakamori is crying over you going to the madhouse, it'll be easy to
seduce her.  Not that you'll ever find the strength to go any further than
trading lunches," he said.  He held up a piece of dried meat.  "Jerky?"

    you and jesus have lots in common  your mothers broke sacred promises to
have you, had sex with people they weren't married to and you both have
miraculous powers or wait your mother has the powers and you have nothing
but things will try to kill you anyway to get to them no doubt

    "You stay away from her, you bastard!" I shouted.

    "You're the bastard," he said amiably.  "Not that she knows about it.
YET.  You like to pretend to be respectable, but let's face it, your mother
was a holy woman and your father ruined her and turned her into a liar and a
murderer.  You can try and pretend otherwise, but you come from a family of
monsters and like them, you're just  a monster with a good mask."  He held
up the dried meat again.  "Jerky?"

    /Holy Mary, Mother of God,/

    "We are not monsters!  I am not a monster!" I shouted at him angrily.
"They couldn't help themselves!"

    "There's a convenient excuse for anything."  He finished off his
sausage, then said, "I'll remember that one when I have my way with
Nakamori-san.  After I bribe them, just to be sure, of course."  He then
offered me the dried meat again.  "Jerky?"

    only monsters have power so long as you try to be pure you will only be
impotent and trampled on not just by him but everyone so long as you are
afraid of power you can never have any you have to want it and seize it with
your own two hands or you will lose everything in the age of chaos

    "I won't let you!" I shouted, running towards him.

    "You can't stop me, you weakling," he said and casually shoved me to the
ground, then held out the dried meat to me.  "Jerky?"

     /pray for us sinners now,/

    "I DO NOT WANT YOUR DAMN JERKY!" I shouted, then tried to calm myself.
Freaking out over him being a freak just is...it doesn't accomplish anything
I want.

    it would be so easy to deal with him if you had any power but you're not
a woman so you never will their way

    There is no other way to power.  I tried.  I blew a huge amount of time
chasing fairy tales and lies.  Some college kids blow money on beer, I blew
all mine on magic that didn't work.  I should have known better.  In the
end, it amounted to nothing.  I am powerless and there's no way to change
that.

    /and at the hour of death./

    I tried to get up but he just kicked me down.  "Stay in the dirt where
you belong.  Now I'm off to take your woman."

    "I'll make you pay for this!" I shouted.

    "No you won't," he said.  "Your threats are impotent because you're just
a powerless little piece of meat.  Useful for your family to expiate their
guilt by being nice to you, but that's all.  Until they get mad enough to
show their true colors by killing you."  He walked off laughing and I fought
the urge to cry.

    is that all you want to be don't you want better than that

    "Yes!  But it's all I can get," I mumbled.  "I can't even hide from my
family successfully, let alone deal with someone like him or Ookiku's damn
father or even protect my car.  And if I fall in love with someone, they'll
just be a target even if I can't kill them by my own direct bungling."  I
felt utterly miserable.

    it doesn't have to be this way but you have to change the rules to win a
game rigged against you

    I was raised to play by the rules, much as Nao always urged me
otherwise.  If we don't play by them, we turn into monsters who do whatever
they want, whatever the consequences to others.  Humans are sinful creatures
and we have to limit ourselves or the beast takes over.

    /Amen./

    (Wake up, Shin-chan, you're thrashing like crazy.)

    I'm not thrashing, but now I have Miyu AND Alyssa and some anonymous
voice of evil in my head and Tomikami is laughing at me.

    without that 'beast', you can only be a sheep to be shorn, fit only for
the slaughter is that what you want out of life to let others protect you
while you cower in the back and lie on the ground beaten

    What the hell is going on?  Am I going crazy?  Maybe this is it, I've
finally snapped and now I'm going to do something horrible just like
everyone else in my family.  It's like waiting for the shoe to drop except
the shoe is made of neutronium and contains the entire American nuclear
arsenal, rigged to explode on contact.

    Then I shook physically and I could feel Alyssa's hands on me and she
said, "Shin-chan, stop babbling about going crazy and wake up!"

    Please, Lord, don't let me have been speaking my entire mental monologue
as I slept again.

    Then the world cracked open and I was in a dimly lit room with Alyssa
leaning over me looking worried.  "Shin-chan, are you okay?"

    "I'm fine," I said.  I hate these dreams.  Though this one was rather
low-key.  No fading out on a burning Sapporo or anything.

    I heard Miyu whisper, "The fourth sorrowful mystery."  She was kneeling
next to the couch, praying the rosary.

    Alyssa sighed and hugged me tightly.  "It's okay.  You could not
possibly be safer than you are here with us.  We would all die to protect
you, you know."

    And I would just die.  As I can't protect anyone.

    I rested my head on her shoulder.

    "Dammit, Miyu, I can't sleep if you're going to pray the rosary into my
ear all night long," Nao mumbled.  "Can't you pray silently?"

    "It feels like I have gone mad and I am talking to myself if I pray
silently," Miyu said.

    Nao looked over at Alyssa and I.  "Am I interrupting you two making
out?"

    "No," Alyssa said, ignoring Nao's teasing.  "Shin-chan had a nightmare."

    "Oh yeah?" she asked.  "What about?"

    "Nothing," I said.  The last thing I want is sympathy.  I just want to
sleep.

    "C'mon, you can tell me.  I had a really nasty one where I fell down
into a gorge and got stuck and no one found me and I starved to death."  Nao
shivered but it sounded to me like she ENJOYED it.

    It made me shiver too to think of it.  "Have you ever heard of something
called bologna?" I asked.

    "You had a nightmare about baloney?" Nao asked, confused.

    "If you knew the contents of it, you would have more nightmares," Miyu
pronounced.

    "Someone covered my car with it and it destroyed the paint job," I
mumbled.

    "Don't worry, modern paint isn't vulnerable to things like eggs or
processed meat any more," Alyssa said, stroking my hair with one hand.  "How
did you dream about bologna if you don't know what it is?"

    "I probably saw it on TV one time or something," I said.

    "Don't worry, your car is just fine and you're safe and everything is
going to be okay," Alyssa said comfortingly.  "The four toughest people on
this island are right here and we won't let anything happen to you or your
car.  It's going to be okay.  Why don't you pray with us, Shin-chan?"

    "I reaaaaaly can't sleep with three people praying into my ears," Nao
mumbled.

    "You're going to pray with us," Alyssa firmly.

    "But I need to sleep," Nao whined piteously.

    "It's good for you, SISTER Nao," Miyu said firmly.

    Nao grumbled, but that's how I ended up kneeling in front of my couch at
two in the morning, surrounded by nuns.  I think I fell asleep in the middle
of the second joyful mystery.

***********

    Breakfast turned out to be chicken fried rice and fruit and it was very
good.  I drank a huge amount of milk; I love milk.  Mother fried herself an
egg to put over her rice; she likes it like that.

    We had a cheerful morning conversation; I was feeling much better and
rested and we drove to the school; I wanted to make sure with the principal
there wouldn't be any trouble with having my family around.

    As I should have expected of our principal, he simply put them to work
to save the school some money.  Miyu ended up being sent to help
Nakamori-san teach, Alyssa ended up helping the music teacher, I got to keep
Nao as my assistant, and Mother went to work on what passes for our
gardens.  I was rather surprised they went along with it, but I guess it
beat sitting around waiting for me to get off work.

     My first class is trigonometry. Marusato Yoko, who has a crush on me,
is in it.  Nao is terrible at math, so I simply introduced her as my sister
and she sat quietly and feigned not being bored out of her skull.  I was
surprised she didn't just play her game thing.

    However, by about five minutes in, she figured out about Marusato's
crush.  This couldn't end well.

    After the first class but before my second class, which is a drawing
class, she went over to Nao and talked to her quietly.  I spent the whole
time twitching at my desk and trying to work on grading homework, but I kept
wondering what Nao was telling her.

    She seemed rather subdued in drawing class and her drawing of Nao (who
modelled) involved devil horns.  I made sure Nao didn't see it, but I had to
laugh.

    Then came painting class.  Ookiku Yori was there, smiling brightly as
usual.  Nao said hello to her and I noticed something on her arm, a rather
new bruise.  "What happened?" I asked.

    "Oh, I fell down," she said ruefully.

    "Fell down," Nao said flatly.

    I could feel my blood start boiling.  Dammit!  I sent her home to get
beat up by her own damn father.  I forced myself calm, but I think she could
tell something was wrong.

    "It's okay, sensei," she said.  "It doesn't hurt.  Don't worry."

    The more she says that, the more it's like having knives labelled
'failure' driven into me.

    Nao smiled her way through class, but afterwards she came up to me,
looking stormy.  "How long has this crap been going on?  This is why you got
so angry last night, right?"

    "Yes," I said.  I'd released the void as I'd calmed down enough not to
shout and rant.  And teaching from it creeps my students out.  But I was
still pretty mad.  "It's utterly terrible and I don't know what to do."

    "Cops as useless as usual, I take it?" Nao asked.

    "They're probably afraid they'll be caught beating their own wives," I
said.

    "I know," she grumbled.  Then, weirdly, she smiled at me.  "You really
are a good teacher, Shin-chan."

    "I feel like a shitty one, not able to do anything about this.  I can't
even talk to her about it because she is afraid to lay burdens on others," I
said, staring at the floor.

    She forced my chin up.  "You love your students and when they hurt, you
hurt.  You CARE.  I had a few teachers like that, like Midori-san.  But not
enough.  As for laying burdens on others, let us help," she said urgently.
"This sort of thing is part of what we deal with when we're not shooting
things or killing monsters with saint's fingers."  She looked extremely
serious.

    "I ought to be able to solve this myself," I said, frowning.

    "I ought to have had a normal childhood instead of my mother being sent
to a hospital for years and being abandoned by my family.  But now I have a
real family and family take care of each other.  I can't paint worth shit.
I couldn't teach as well as you do, either.  Your students love you.  A
little too much in that one girl's case, mind you.  But you're not used to
counselling abused women.  Or dealing with that kind of broken home like we
are.  We're professionals who have years of experience and training.  I
can't teach your class; this isn't your area of expertise.  Pass us this and
we can take care of it.  That's the important thing, right?"

    "Right," I said softly.  Part of me was glad to see something could be
done and part of me felt that once again I couldn't do anything myself; I
had to be saved by my family.  What use is moving out if I have to call them
in to solve my problems anyway?

    By the end of the day, my sense of desire to see something be done had
won out over frustration at least for now.  This isn't about my pride, it's
about keeping her from getting clobbered any further.

    Mother agreed to make that a priority; she and Nao and Miyu would go to
see the family on Friday while Alyssa came to school with me.  Alyssa was
going to debate the question of aliens existing with Nakamori-san at the
Alien Research Club on Friday; thankfully, I had to teach the Archery Club
and could avoid it, though I knew they would probably continue the debate at
dinner.

    Mother also secured a room in the town's motel, so they wouldn't have to
all sleep on the floor, though Alyssa asked to stay with me to my surprise.
But I didn't mind.  I cooked dinner for everyone; pork ribs, noodles, corn,
and broccoli.  I am a pretty good cook, unlike Father, who can only cook
things that come out of a box or bag with instructions, and everyone enjoyed
it.  Nakamori-san had dinner with us and we had a very nice conversation.

    Mother, Nao, and Miyu left early; Alyssa, Nakamori, and I hung out
longer, drinking more of my sweet tea.  They ended up in a discussion of
trends in the chemistry industry, so I worked on grading homework while they
entertained themselves.

    Nakamori-san finally said goodbye and went down to her apartment and I
went and took a shower and put my pajamas on.  Then I worked on grading
while Alyssa took hers and changed.  She then came out and sat down by me,
studying the homework.  "You should have done physics like I told you.  It's
pretty much all math."

    "I wanted to be an artist and to teach art," I said.  "Even though..."
Even though Father is also an art teacher.  And I am pretty brilliant with
math.  "Teaching art is what I'm best at."  Maybe I should have taken her
advice.  I don't like Physics as much, but you don't get a bunch of students
obsessed with drawing women in bikinis in Physics, either.  Drawing them
BADLY.

    "You're really marvellous, much better than Natasha's freaky, horny
boyfriend."  She grimaced.  "He practically drooled on me, Shin-chan,
whereas you're a real gentleman with Nakamori-san, whatever Nao's hormones
may say."

    Why has everyone started calling me Shin-chan again when I spent YEARS
trying to get them to stop?

    "Thank you, big sister," I said to her.  "I've always tried to treat
women well, unlike Father."

    She sighed.  "That was years ago; he's much better now, Shin-chan."

    We stared at each for a while, then both looked away.  We've had that
fight before and neither of us wanted a fight right now.

    "Anyway, it's pretty clear she likes you, so just be yourself and it
will all be fine.  A slow, gentle flame burns longer than a quick eruption,
anyway," she said, patting my hands.

    "That's true," I said.  Quick eruptions lead to my parents.  I grimaced
again, but tried to make myself smile.  But that made me think of
Ookiku-san, which made me want to explode.

    Alyssa held my hands, looking worried, while I struggled with myself.  I
finally calmed myself down and she said, "It's going to be okay, brother."

    She took me outside and we looked up at the stars from the balcony; this
apartment building basically faces the park; there's a concrete walkway
running outside the doorways on each floor, giving us a shared balcony of
sorts.  I'm up on the fourth floor and you can get a pretty decent view of
the sky at night, though the southwestern quadrant of the sky has a pretty
strong glow from Sapporo and its suburbs most nights.

    I like painting starscapes, so I found this soothing.  Which she knew,
which is why she did it.

    Orion is probably my favorite constellation, in part because it's always
so easy to find.  It's pretty much a big pentagon with four stars in the
'belt', plus connected trailing lines of stars for the limbs.  Draco and the
Big Dipper lurk nearby, making them easy to find.

    I always see it as a Dipper with 8 major stars, rather than as a
'bear'.  I know the formal name is Ursa Major, but I just don't get the bear
thing.  It looks like a ladle to me.  I can see the 'wagon' thing too that
some cultures tie to it.  Maybe a bear pulls the wagon.

    "Are you ready for your debate tomorrow?" I asked.

    "I'm ready.  I hate to take your future girlfriend apart, but I will
show no mercy in defense of the truth," she said.

    That's my sister.

    "I don't think the Alien Research Club will be very receptive to
religious arguments," I told her.

    "Oh, I have far more than that.  Professor Sasaki and I have honed our
arguments to a razor edge with years of debate.  Except no one ever lets us
finish."  She sounded frustrated.

    Because we value our sanity, I thought.  "Like what?"

    "The utter lack of any evidence these aliens exist.  The universe is so
big, it ought to be overrun with aliens by now if they actually existed.
Certainly we'd be picking up transmissions, visited by probes, etc.  Unless
they all nuke themselves quickly once they reach a tech level high enough to
do anything we can notice, anyway," she said, sighing.  "Which is rather
plausible.  I'm surprised we've made it nearly a century without using
nuclear weapons on each other again."  She shook her head.  "Life clearly
exists in other dimensions and wants to invade ours as we both know, but not
in outer space.  Outer Space is a pretty picture created by the Obsidian
Lord for arcane purposes to focus cosmic power, not a place where things
live."

    "I don't think you can cite the Obsidian Lord, though," I told her,
smiling a little.

    She sighed.  "I know.  We have to keep such things hidden.  So long as
we can.  It's getting harder.  Harder to hide anything, especially this.
The government has got to suspect, but I have no clue what it's doing about
it if anything."

    Probably nothing.  It's too busy going down in flames.  Pretty flames
that are interesting to watch but which aren't really good for us.  But
that's how humans are.  If we don't have power, we're impotent and if we
have it, we go crazy and abuse it.  It's a paradox and I don't see how to
avoid being crushed by one side of it or the other.

    Stupid police.

    "Is it going well?" I asked.  Part of me doesn't want to know.  It's not
like I have any part to play in all that.  But it is my family and they're
out there putting themselves in danger and I love them, even if it isn't
always easy.

    "The heat is slowly turning up," she said, sighing.  "But Mai finally
got serious...which we totally forgot to tell you."

    I'm used to it.

    "I'm sorry," she said, probably reading my face.  "With you all the way
out here, you don't end up in the gossip network."  She sighed, then looked
up at the stars.  "Mitsu Kagami, Harada Erica, Crystal, Natasha, and Kasumi
are all Hime now.  Dan isn't exactly a Hime, but he has some of the powers
of one.  Probably all of the physical prowness."

    My breath caught.  "But he's a boy."  Harada...oh, right, the daughter
of Aunt Mai's old friend Harada Chie who became a Hime herself recently.
"Wait, is this Mitsu Kagami Shun's girlfriend?"

    "We knew she was a Hime but the others got powers and didn't bother to
tell us until monsters nearly ate them," Alyssa said.  She sighed.
"Incredibly stupid of them."

    "What's this about Dan?" I asked, telling myself not to get my
expectations up but unable to help it.

    "He seems to have turned himself into a living Hime Star or something."
Alyssa frowned.  "We're not sure what the he...what he managed to do to
himself."

    I smiled a little.  I can tell how aggravated she is she doesn't
understand by her nearly but not quite slipping into actually cursing.
"How?"

    "A Namcub is a self-enforcing prophesy," Alyssa said.  "By speaking it,
you make it real.  The Hime Star proclaimed the rule of the Obsidian Prince;
periodically, it had to be renewed to keep it in force by re-enacting the
circumstances of its original creation.  Well, Dan managed to find one
carved into a wall and read it and now there are five new Hime and him.
Seven if you count Aoi and Chie, but they came before it and most Namcubs
don't reach backwards in time," she said.

    "Most?"

    "The Order's records of the Throckmorton affair, if true, would mean
that history somehow changed so it never happened.  I think it's actually
someone's idea of a joke, but we'll never know," she said.

    "Please tell me you're joking," I said.

    She rubbed her forehead.  "Yes, I thought you'd get it," she mumbled.

    I laughed.  "Who created it?  The one Dan read."

    "Assuming we can trust it, which I would be wary of, the Crystal
Princess did."

    I scowled.  "I wouldn't trust anything she made any further than I could
throw her."

    She felt my arm.  "You could probably throw her a good distance.  You're
stronger than me."

    I couldn't help but smile at the thought.  Even if I shouldn't smile at
tossing someone in a wheelchair.  But she's an evil manipulating bastard, so
I will make an exception.

    "So he's become a kind of living prophesy?" I asked.

    "It's inside him.  And apparently sometimes tries to communicate, though
all it can do is recite itself," she said, frowning.

    I grimaced.  Creepy.

    "It would appear there is one slot left, except there's at least two
potential candidates, maybe more," Alyssa said.  "Shun and Nagiki Junko,
Crystal's new girlfriend."

    "Shun?" I asked, feeling my brain start twisting itself into knots.

    "He seems to have a limited ability to tap Hime energies which could be
a sign of powers starting to manifest or could be...well, we don't know.
Maybe it's a side-benefit of being a Hime's most important person," Alyssa
said.  "We should probably test Takumi and Kazuya, see if they can do this."

    I can't afford to start hoping again or I'll go crazy.  But I can't help
it.  I tried for so long and nothing worked and I was such a gullible,
hopeful idiot.  And now I've adjusted to it but now...

    Dammit.

    Alyssa's sudden quick gasp told me she'd just made the right mental
connections in her brain to know what I'm thinking.  "I...Shin-chan..."

    "It's okay," I said.

    "If I could just wave a wand..." she said almost desperately.

    "I know," I said.

    "I'll let you know what we find out," she said softly, then took my
hands.

    "Thanks, big sister," I said softly.

    She smiled a wobbly smile at me.  "It doesn't change anything in my
heart.  You know that."

    I expect my smile was just as wobbly.  "I know.  You've always loved me
like me like your own brother."

    "You are my own brother," she said firmly.  "Nothing can or will change
that, ever.  We love each other and nothing will ever come between us."

    It already has, but there's no way to change that.  Except...dammit.
"Nothing," I said firmly despite my own inner turmoil.

    Yoshiba Tatsuya, my neighbor who works an afternoon to early night shift
chose this moment to announce his presence by saying, "Holy shit, you have a
sexy foreigner girlfriend."

    Tatsuya has an ugly face but a great body and could probably kill me
just by looking at me.  But he's basically a nice guy who wouldn't hurt a
fly.  Jump to the wrong conclusion, though?  He's GREAT at that.

    "This is my sister, Sanada Alyssa.  My older sister," I told him.  "Not
my girlfriend, which I don't have one."

    "I thought you and Nakamori were doing it," he said.

    You thought Tatsuba-san had a boyfriend for three weeks when what you
overheard was her bitching out her cat as she tried to wash it.

     "No, we are just friends and co-workers."

    "My brother is a gentleman who practices chastity, whereas your hands
are suspiciously shiny in the starlight," Alyssa said sharply.

    Alyssa does not know I have had sex and will never find out until I
marry someone, if I can help it.  Though I haven't had a lot of it.  But I
am trying to not be a lust-driven maniac like Father was.

    "It's that damn dust remover, sticks to flesh like crazy," he said.
"I've been cleaning computers and putting in parts and taking out parts and
rebooting the damn things all night."  He works for some company that runs
servers for people and he's a technician.  "And that's all."

    "And looking at porn no doubt," Alyssa said sharply.  "Also, you're
looking at my breasts.  Which even if they are quite nice, you shouldn't
do."  She tried to cross her arms across her chest and waggle a finger at
him at the same time, which ended up looking silly.

    "I do not look at porn on duty!," he protested.  "And it's a free
country.  I can watch all the porn I want."

    "And that's why you're going home to an apartment by yourself," Alyssa
said.

    "That's enough, sister.  Given we're both out here in our pajamas, it's
a logical mistake," I told her.  "Lay off him, he's a good guy.  Helps me
out with all my technical problems."

    She frowned, but said, "I'm sorry, Mr....?"

    "Yoshiba Tatsuya," he said.  "I thought he was an only child."

    "He has three loving sisters who dote on him and love him very much,"
Alyssa said firmly.  "He usually comes to see us because it's cheaper for
one person to come down than the whole family to come up."

    "Sister, huh," Tatsuya said.

    "Yes," she said firmly.  "I am chaste and do not lust after men and I
especially do not lust after my own kin."

    He studied her.  "What a waste.  So you're into women?"

    "..."

    "She's sworn an oath not to have sex outside marriage," I told him.
"Which is called chastity."

    "Oh.  What a waste.  Anyway, you two enjoy your little game," he said.
"Just try not to make too much noise when she breaks her oath.  Good
night."  He went into his apartment.

    For about a second, all was silent.

    Then I put a hand over her mouth so her shouting wouldn't wake all the
people already in bed like we ought to be.

    Eventually, she calmed down.  "He thinks...he thinks..."

    "He thinks we're our parents," I mumbled.  "I wish I didn't know that."

    For a moment, I thought she would either faint or fall over the
railing.  Then she said, "We'd best go inside before more people GET
STUPID."

    We went inside and sat down on the couch.  Alyssa put an arm around my
shoulders and rested her head on it.  "It's not easy being chaste in a
society that mostly mocks it," she mumbled.

    "I greatly respect you for it," I told her.  Which is part of why
learning the full story of how my parents met was so devastating to me.

    "Well, you understand.  You're chaste too.  Unlike that awful slut
Natasha is dating.  I think he's drooled over every single female member of
the family," she grumbled.

    I'm sort of chaste.  I should be....I don't want to be like Father.  But
I've never had the strength to say no when it was actually offered, just the
strength not to go booty-chasing like some people do.  Which means I haven't
had a lot of sex, but I have had some, whereas I think Alyssa really is a
virgin and always will be, given she's a nun with an oath of chastity.  I
admire her strength.

    "He's a teenage boy.  They can't help it," I told her.

    "You were never that sort of drooling booty-chaser slobbering over
married women," she said firmly.

    I hid it better than most kids my age.  And with the family, my brain
thinks 'kin' not 'possible mate'.  Whereas, he has no reason to think that.

    But I'm still eight in part of my sister's mind, anyway.

    "I take it he hit on you?" I asked.

    "He was taking my clothing off inside my head," she said.  "HIS head."

    I began laughing and she frowned at me, crossing her arms across her
chest.

    "So he was telepathically putting images in your head of you naked?" I
teased.

    "Shut up," she mumbled, staring at the floor.

    "Is he really that bad?"

    "He's terrible," she said firmly.  "Natasha's boyfriends are never any
good but he's the absolute worst.  Stupid, rude, horny, determined to end up
a burned out rock junkie."

    I frowned.  "He's on drugs?"

    "Not yet, but that always happens to rock musicians.  Hooked on drugs
comes with the territory," she said firmly.  "His vision of his future is
entirely based on teenage illusions that it's easy to break into rock music
and do it for life.  Though he is a pretty good artist."

    Now I was curious.  "What's his style like?"

    "Very realistic.  Makes people a little too skinny but otherwise good
grasp of anatomy.  Focuses too much on women in bikinis."

    I let loose one of my rants on that subject, which clearly pleased
Alyssa, who was laughing by the end of it.

    She gave me a gentle squeeze with the arm she had around my back.  "It's
always nice to spend time with you brother.  You're just what I always hoped
for in a brother."

    I felt embarrassed at that.  "I could be a lot better."

    "You shouldn't be so down on yourself," she said firmly.  "You are a
wonderful person, unlike the rest of us.  You have nothing to be ashamed of
or to atone for.  When I was little, I never thought I'd have any siblings.
I didn't know what family really was.  But now I understand and I'm very
lucky you exist and I'm part of your family."

    "We're glad too," I told her.

    She yawned.  "We'd better sleep.  I suppose your bed is too small for us
both to fit in it, though."

    "Yes," I said.  "Do you want a futon or the couch?  The couch is comfier
but easier to fall off."

    "Couch is fine," she said.

    I got her set up, then went to bed.

**************

    At some level, I knew that I was dreaming this time.  Which didn't stop
me basically experiencing it as if real even though it bore little
resemblance to my normal life.

    Mind you, I thought for a while about pursuing becoming a yabusame
archer.  But I'm Catholic, so being a professional performer of a particular
Shinto rite, cool as it is, would be problematic.  But it's an incredible
honor for an archer and very cool to watch.

    So, in the dream, I was dressed up in the full regalia, from the
Ayahigasa (a ritual hat with a sculpture of a frightening spirit face) down
to the Igutsu (traditional Japanese shoes for horse riding), armed with a
Motoshigetou bow, and riding a horse, ready to perform the Yabusame.  A huge
audience was watching as I launched my charge and shattered the traditional
three targets with blunted arrows; the Yabusame is a religious rite, so you
use weapons that won't shed blood, even if it's basically representing
shooting people right under their samurai helmet visor.

    Everyone started cheering and I smiled broadly, waving to everyone.

    Nakamori-san ran up, dressed as a noblewoman of the twelfth century,
which is to say, almost entirely unrecognizable with her face painted white
and heavily made up, dressed in ornate clothing with a fan which showed a
seascape.  "Nasu-san, the Heike have stolen the local nuns as they retreat
to the sea!  You have to stop them!"

    I took her by the hand and somehow hefted her up to ride behind me; I
was now clad in twelfth century armor, though I still had the bow.  "Let's
go."

    We rode out of the temple and off across the countryside to the shore,
where a huge Genji army stood on the shore, roaming back and forth in
frustration.  The Heike clan's forces were off shore, too deep for a horse
to swim but apparently stuck without a wind.  I could see, however, they had
my Mother and my nun sisters tied in place to serve as figureheads and were
forcing them to pray for a divine wind.

    Didn't the divine wind WRECK the ships it hit, though?

    Of course, trying to force my family to call on God's power for your
corrupt purposes was pretty much asking for trouble.

    In some unseen manner, Nakamori-san had now changed into a black and
burgundy ninja outfit and her fan now showed a variety of roses.  She had a
red rose tucked into her hair.  "Ready?" she said softly.

    I nodded and addressed the forces of Genji.  "Despite the fact that none
of you can restrain your gonads for five seconds, I will nevertheless
destroy your enemies for kidnapping my family!"

    "Go get em, son!," my father, Genji Wateru, shouted, waving his fist in
the air and the army cheered.

    I rode out across the water, my horse dancing lightly on the surface of
the wave and Nakamori-san began hurling her fan; it would touch a mast and I
would unerringly shoot at it; the fan would then dance away and the arrow
would snap the mast off, sending the sails flying into the sea.  In my spare
time, I also shot the ropes off my kin and they began to rampage.

    My arrowheads were made of red copper and a rose was carefully engraved
onto each one; when they hit, a red rose sprouted from the broken off stump
of the mast or the figureheads which my family was tied to.

    The Heike shelled me with arrows, but they bounced off my armor, and
soon they began fleeing their own ships as I approached; many sank due to
jumping into the water in full samurai armor.  Not too bright.  I was going
to be diving for refugees forever, I could tell.

    By the time I reached the boats, my family had pretty much taken down
the forces of the Heike or sent them overboard; we leaped lightly up onto
the deck and joined them.

    I was still being hugged when I woke up, feeling rather silly, but
smiling.  TOTAL wish fullfillment dream, but that's okay, I deserve one of
those every once in a while.

    I had dreamed, sort of, of being Nasu no Yoichi, probably one of the
most famous of all Japanese Archers and someone I've admired ever since I
was little.  After the battle of Yashima, the Heike escaped in their fleet
and taunted the victorious Genji by putting a fan on top of the mast of one
ship and daring them to shoot it.  So Nasu no Yoichi rode out into the water
on his horse and SHOT IT DOWN.  He later became a Daimyo, lost that, and
eventually became a monk, founding a line of temple bosses that lasted until
the Americans blew the temple to bits in World War II.

    I wrote a paper on him in high school.  Very cool.

    I'm generally not big into samurai stuff, though the best of it can be
pretty fascinating.  Humanity at its best and worst at once again.

    It would be...don't get my hopes up again.  Don't go wishing for what I
can't have.

    Dammit.

    Alyssa was my assistant / model today, while the rest of my family was
off sticking their noses into the Ookiku family affair.  I prayed it would
go well.

    I had lunch with Alyssa and Nakamori-san in our usual place behind the
science building.  "Your father is coming up tonight, right?" Nakamori-san
asked.

    "Yes, he'll be getting into Sapporo late and Mother will meet him there,
then they'll come join us all tomorrow and we'll go to the beach," I told
her.

    "I bet you will turn a lot of heads, Sanada-san," Nakamori-san said to
Alyssa.

    "Not intentionally, but I can't help it that I am beautiful," Alyssa
said.

    She's so vain.  It's true, but she's vain about it and can't tell.

    Nakamori-san laughed.  "Ready for our debate?"

    "I am ready for victory," Alyssa said.

    "Me too," Nakamori-san said.  "I dreamed of First Contact last night,"
she said a little wistfully.

    "Who were the aliens?" I asked curiously.

    "Blue-skinned...I guess they were kind of like space elves," she said,
sounding embarrassed.  "We picked up their transmissions and I used the
instructions to build a space ship, which you painted with special paints to
keep the radiation out."

    "Oh, I was in it?" I asked curiously.  Anti-radiation paint...had I read
that in a book as a kid?

    "Yes, you and my Alien Research Club were the crew and we flew into
space and made peaceful contact with the aliens and came back and were
touted as heroes and got medals and everything."  She laughed.  "I guess it
sounds kind of grandiose."

    "It's a nice dream," Alyssa said.  "I'd like to see other planets too."

    "Even if you think there's no life there?" Nakamori-san asked curiously.

    "I think it would be wonderful to look up from the Moon and see the
Earth hang in the sky or to look up and see Jupiter hanging hugely over
you," Alyssa said, smiling.

    That might make a good painting gift for Alyssa's next birthday.  I
could do her walking on Titan with Saturn hanging in the sky with its
rings.

    "You both have the same smile," Nakamori-san said, gesturing with her
chopsticks back and forth between us.  "I can tell you are siblings.  It's
very cute."

    I smiled brightly.  She's so beautiful.  I wish this school didn't have
its stupid rules.  But nothing I can do about that either.

****************

    Mother arrived just before I started my Archery coaching for the day.
"How did it go?" I asked her.

    "It's going to take some work.  As usual, she is reluctant to take big
steps and little ones here won't accomplish anything.  So long as she won't
report him and won't leave..."  She sighed.  "She insists everything is
okay, but it's clear it's not.  But I referred her to some local people and
her to them."

    I rubbed my forehead.  I shouldn't feel satisfied my family got stymied
too; it was entirely petty.  But I felt better about my own lack of luck
seeing them hit the rocks too.

    "Are you going to watch Alyssa debate or help me out?" I asked.

    "Dear, you know me.  I am not stepping into the middle of that.  I'd
rather wrestle a bear," she said.

    I laughed.  I don't know why Alyssa gets so pedantic about it, but then,
we all have our crusades, I suppose.

    I was correcting the stance of one of my mediocre students when I
started hearing very loud voices.  Sounded like the debate was getting
rather heated.  I had been afraid of that.  Alyssa can get really worked up
sometimes.  I've never actually seen Nakamori-san get seriously mad.  I've
seen her bang her hand, or trip and fall or various other things that just
make a flash of anger, not prolonged anger.

    My curiosity gnawed at me.  I told my students to keep shooting and went
to take just a peak.

    Nakamori-san was delivering a passionate address which I couldn't
actually understand but seemed to be arguing that the universe was too big
for life to evolve only once on a single world by chance; the odds were too
good it would happen a lot.  She looked rather angry, especially when Alyssa
responded with, "Because life didn't evolve, it was created."

    I had a feeling they'd gone that 20 rounds already.  I stared at
Nakamori-san; she was magnificent in her anger, eyes blazing, so much
excitement and passion.  I wanted to paint it desperately, to bottle that
moment; the sheer power of it excited me tremendously.  This is exactly the
sort of thing which interests me artistically.

    I wanted to kiss her so much.  God, she was beautiful like this, so
powerful and strong and authoritative.

    It's something I envy in my siblings; they are so powerful in their
anger, and my anger always comes off as petulant.  And whiny.  I don't want
to be petulant and whiny.

    I needed to get back to my students, so I waved, then snuck out and went
back and finished teaching shooting.  A bunch of my students kept giving me
curious looks but wouldn't explain why.

    When we were done, Mother came up to me, smiling.  "You look very
happy," she said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

    "I feel happy," I said.

    "How was the debate going?" she asked.

    "They were really getting into it.  I just hope they don't stay mad at
each other or tomorrow is going to be difficult," I said.  Which I had been
worried about.

    Mother laughed nervously.  "Well, she and Professor Sasaki argue about
this all the time," she said.

    "We don't normally let them continue, though," I told her.

    Mother licked her lips nervously.  "We'll see."

    "Where are Nao and Miyu?" I asked.

    "Investigating and looking for somewhere to go out to eat tonight before
I have to go down to Sapporo to meet Wateru-kun.  So you will have to take
Miyu and Nao back to the motel when it's bedtime."

    I nodded.  "Well, we should go see if they've killed each other."

    The answer was 'not quite'.  They were, in fact, still going at it, now
locked in an arcane debate about the question of how we actually know
things.  Nakamori-san had been, in my opinion, doing better earlier, but in
this area, she was no match for Alyssa, who took graduate level epistomology
courses.

    I probably would have just stood there forever watching them go at it
because Nakamori looked so magnificent, but Mother said, "I'm sorry to
interrupt, but we all need to go find my daughters and debate where we are
going for dinner."

    Nakamori-san now saw me and looked very embarrassed.  I walked up to her
and said, "You looked magnificent when you were debating.  I wish I'd had my
camera or could paint it super-fast."

    "I...really?" she said in surprise.

    "Passionate and strong and very convincing," I said to her.

    She turned very red now, but then smiled very brightly.

    "Hah!  I hadn't even unleashed Hume's analysis of why cause and effect
is only an assumption, NOT a fundamental, unchallengeable basis for
argument!" Alyssa said.

    "Keep Hume leashed, dear.  We can debate whether or not there's a
connection between you crowing in triumph and people getting aggravated
later," Mother said, then patted Alyssa's shoulder.  "Hume's skepticism is a
double-bladed sword, anyway."

    "Yes, and one he was inconsistent with, if you read, say, his History of
England," Alyssa said.

    "Yes, but it has political intent, which usually leads to special
pleading," Mother said.

    "Too true," Alyssa said, having calmed down now.

    Nakamori-san stared at them, then she whispered to me, "Are they always
like that?"

    "Mother is smarter than she sometimes lets on," I whispered back.
"Alyssa's the genius of the family, though."

    "I think I nailed her pretty hard on the science," Nakamori-san said,
starting to walk with me as we headed to the parking lot.  "But I was over
my head once we got into the philosophy."  She sighed.  "Why is someone so
rational a hard-core creationist?"

    "It's a long story," I said.  "You ever hear of Thomas Aquinas?"

    "Not even slightly," she said.

    "Look him up, then put him on a strict diet for a few years...
decades... and give him a sex change and you'll have my sister," I told
her.  "She does teach at a seminary."  If only part time.

    "True," she said.  "It's kind of weirdly fascinating to me.  Such a
potent mind defending such claptrap."

    I wish it was claptrap, I thought.  But it's not.

    "I just tend to be skeptical because I don't feel you can prove anything
does exist just by saying the numbers make it likely it exists, but there's
no actual evidence we can see, touch, measure, or analyze."

    She looked somewhat uncomfortable, then sighed.  "Well, it's the job of
science to make predictions we can't prove at first, then prove them."

    "Good luck in that," I told her.  "I just hope they're friendly if we do
find them.  History shows us that most first contacts lead to first
conquest."

    She grimaced.  "I know.  I know."

    The Orphans being the perfect example but I can't tell her that.

*************

    We decided on pizza.  Miyu was mellow as usual, Mother seemed happy that
Father was coming, and Nao looked pretty frustrated.  Nakamori-san and
Alyssa had gotten over the fight, thankfully and were busy talking about
teaching; I mostly listened but made some contributions.

    Once we got our pizza, I asked Nao, "What's wrong?"

    "People who try to sweep all their troubles under the rug and pretend it
is all fine drive me insane," Nao said, frustrated.  "That woman needs to
get out."  She glanced at Nakamori-san, who didn't notice.  "Mother shot
down plan B."

    I suspected plan B involved Nao seducing drunken abusive Dad and then
scaring him shitless.  Mother chose wisely; that could backfire even if it
would be satisfying.  Leaving aside the fact that Nao shouldn't be seducing
people anyway, given she's a nun.  But I think she regards the chastity oath
as just a suggestion.

    "Ugh, it's expensive for us to stay, but I don't like leaving without
this resolved either," Nao said, then viciously attacked her pizza.

    "Yeah, I know exactly how you feel," I told her.

    She looked up at me and we stared into each other's eyes for a few
seconds, then she smiled wanly at me.  "Yeah, you do."  She paused and
glanced over.  Nakamori-san was watching us and now Nao looked confused.
"What are you looking at?" she asked.

    "I find it really interesting how you've all rubbed off on each other.
Seeing little pieces of Sanada-san in all of you and vice versa," she said.
"It makes me wonder what people would think of seeing me with my family."

    "We're pretty different from each other," Nao said.  "But yeah, I guess
you do pick up things from people."

    "I can see where he got his desire for justice from," she said.

    We both turned red at that and Mother smiled brightly.

    "That can be a pretty frustrating trait to have in this corrupt world,"
Alyssa said.

    Nakamori-san said, "Not giving up on your desire for justice in a
corrupt world is much more admirable than holding to it in a pure one."

    "True," Nao said.  "This world is a mess."

    "You can't carry all the world's problems on your shoulders," Mother
said.  "You just have to stake out your territory and clean that up.  If you
can do that, you've succeeded."

    I wish I could say I'd cleaned up my territory.

    Aoshiba Yoshio, the other math teacher who also teaches computers, now
entered with his wife and kids and came over to us to say hello.  "Hey,
Nakamori-san, Sanada-san, these some college friends of yours?"

    Mother laughed.  "I'm his mother, and these are my lovely daughters."

    He stared at her, eyes wide.  "Wow.  I hope I age that well."

    "God has blessed us with good health," Mother said, fingering her cross.

    "Or something," Aoshiba-san's wife said.

    Aoshiba looked at Nakamori-san, then my mother, then me and grinned.
What was he thinking?  "I'm one of Nakamori-san and Sanada-san's co-workers,
Aoshiba Yoshio.  I teach Math and Computer Science.  Nice to meet you all."
He then introduced his wife and kids.

    We chatted a little while about the school and I talked about Mother
having coached me in archery and then he headed on, still smiling.

    "He's cheerful today," Nakamori-san said.

    Alyssa was smiling widely.  "You two are so cute."

    "What?" Nakamori-san asked in confusion.

    Alyssa grinned widely.

    Mother headed off to Sapporo to eventually meet Father after dinner,
while I took the others back to my place to basically just hang out.  Mostly
we watched TV and made fun of it all.  Miyu can be pretty devastating when
she cuts loose.

    Eventually, I took Nao and Alyssa back to the hotel; Miyu asked to stay
at my place to my surprise.  I suppose that does mean she can pray in the
living room all night without disturbing anyone.

    I'm not sure why she bothers to put on pajamas when she isn't going to
sleep.  They were black with yellow giraffes all over them.  So I put on my
red ones that have black and white pandas.  That seemed to amuse her.

    "You want some coffee, since you won't actually sleep?" I asked.

    She gestured at the couch, sat down, then pointed at the place next to
her.

    I blinked, then sat down next to her.  "What's up, Miyu?"

    She now took my right hand with her left, interleaving our fingers.
"You are aware that I care about you, correct?"

    "I care about you too," I told her.  Though I'm not sure any more what
'care' exactly means for a robot.  Most of the time I forget, though.

    "I am not good at expressing such things," she said.  "My programming
was designed for only expressing affection to my bonded master."

    Alyssa, of course.  I nodded.  "Well, we humans have to figure it out
too.  It doesn't come as instinctively as people act like it does."

    "I have noticed," she said.  "Nevertheless, you are important to me and
I regard your physical and emotional wellbeing as a very high priority in my
decisionmaking.  Her voice had an odd quality to it.  Miyu can perfectly
mimic intense affection, but this was delivered with her usual calm.  Or was
it?  She seemed a little strained.  I wondered if it was an effort to show
emotion without seeming fake about it as her various shows for public
consumption seem to me, since I grew up with her and got to see the
difference.  "I struggle, however, to show how I feel without using the
subroutines I know you know are designed for me to fake emotions."

    I smiled a little; it was like she read my mind.  For all I know, she
can.  "It's okay.  I love you, big sister and I know you love me."

    She put an arm around me and held me silently.  I did the same with
her.  "So how did they take it?" I asked softly.

    "How did who take what?" she asked.

    "The kids.  The truth.  About...everything."  They'd be better off not
knowing.  I wish now that I was still blissfully oblivious.  But I am kind
of curious.  I wish I could say I expected them to do well, but I don't.
It's uncharitable of me, but teenagers are at the worst possible age to
suddenly get super-powers.  And I'm not jealous at all.

    I really am a crappy liar.

    "Some of them took it well, but with anger, such as Shun.  Others seemed
to take it pretty well and calmly like Dan.  It has caused Kasumi to become
much stronger and mature."  Her voice wobbled just a teensy touch talking
about Kasumi.

    "Telling her she was going to die worked, then."  I think my voice was
rather disappoving.  I certainly thought it wasn't a very good idea.

    "It was necessary," Miyu said.  I could tell she was telling herself
that.  "It worked."

    "It hurt her a lot," I said.

    "I know.  Growth is painful.  It was necessary," she said firmly.

    "Was it?" I asked.

    "Given she has powers now, yes," she said.  "It would have been better
if her training had begun at an early age as yours did."

    "I asked to learn to shoot," I said.  "I don't think Mother and Father
would have trained me in fighting at all without that."

    "I would have started you then," she said.  "It is more urgent for
someone not expected to have powers than someone who is," she continued.
"You are a superb archer, a skill useful for sport or for combat."

    "I'm not that great," I said to her, staring at the floor.

    She squeezed my hand gently.  "You should not lie to yourself.  You are
an exceptional archer due to your close to two decades of practice.  And you
continue to practice.  While you may not be able to summon a magical bow or
bind an Orphan to yourself, you are an asset, not a liability.  You should
not dwell on negative thoughts."

    "You shouldn't lie to make me feel better," I mumbled.

    "I have never lied to make anyone feel better in my life.  I find the
truth is best."  Then she frowned and actually looked guilty.

    I cocked my head at her.  "What is it?"

    "I could not find the strength to tell the children my past sins," she
said.  "It was terrible and weak."

    "It's okay, big sister," I told her.  "Those days are behind you."

    "They believe I am the same as Alyssa, receiving artifical powers," she
continued.  "Shizuru found the strength to confess, but I did not.  I am
highly disappointed in my own behavior."

    "I couldn't have told them in your shoes," I told her, squeezing her
hand.

    "You would never have committed my sins.  Your heart is pure and cries
out for justice, mine simply blindly followed Alyssa in doing whatever she
wanted to do.  Which was to sin abundantly in those days."  Her voice was
judgemental, turned on herself.

    "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself," I told her.  It was long ago and
she has atoned abundantly.  I hate it when my family all turn on themselves
and beat themselves up.  They've changed for the better.

    "Neither should you," she said.  "Your sins are as nothing.  You are
approximately 12,038% less damned than I would be if I had not repented and
done penance.  And sitll probably holier."

    I laughed.  How do you even calculate that?  "You're far more holy than
I, big sister."

    "As Alyssa would say, do not sell yourself short, little brother," she
said, smiling at me.  "Tomorrow should be a lot of fun."

    "I hope so," I told her.

    "I should pretend to sleep now," she said, and I laughed loudly.

    "You don't have to pretend anything with me, sister," I told her.  "I
know the real you."

    "I just wish you would see the real you in you," she said firmly.

    "I know my limits," I said, kissing her forehead and standing up and
stretching.

    "Break them.  We only grow by smashing our limits and moving beyond
them. Otherwise, they will become chains that destroy you," she said.

    "All the wishing in the world won't give me the powers I don't have and
can't get," I told her.  I'm not going to hope.  Not now.  I don't want to
break my heart again.

    "I would give you powers if I could, so you could fight with us," she
said.

    I know.  But you can't.  I'm just shit out of luck.  I have to accept
that or go crazy.

    "Thank you," I said.  "See you in the morning."  Then I went to bed.

************

     I had another nice dream of being Nasu no Yoichi, riding around saving
people and beating foes up.  Only a dream, but now I'm wondering if maybe my
subconscious is hinting I ought to do a painting of him.  I've done pencil
and ink sketches but never an actual formal painting.

    I could do him shooting the fan, but I need something with more human
drama to it.  It's cool, but everyone knows that story.  And basically, he
was just awesomely showing off.  A story needs stakes.  Though I suppose
pride is a stake for some people.

    Miyu made breakfast, which meant pancakes, but that was fine by me; I
went and got my sisters.  I get frustrated sometimes but I love them too.  I
guess all families are like that.  The powers and things just kind of
magnify the scale.

    "Bring your archery gear," Miyu said.

    "Really?" I said in surprise.

    "Father will wish to see how good you are," Miyu said.

    I felt a little embarrassed but smiled.  "Okay."

    "So will Nakamori-san," Nao said, grinning.

    I mumbled incoherently and she laughed.

    Mother was going to meet us at the beach; Nakamori-san was going to take
Nao, while I took Alyssa and Miyu in my car.  Nao had asked to ride with
her; I feared what Nao would tell her.

    I wear boxers at the beach.  Father always wears a speedo; he's in good
shape so he can show off.  I suppose I could too, but I get embarrassed.
Nao wore a red bikini; Miyu wore a white one and Alyssa had a yellow
one-piece, about as modest as bathing suits get, which is to say, not really
very much.  Mother wore a red one piece with white stars all over it, the
five pointed kind.  I thought it was rather nice.  Most of the time, you
can't tell how busty Mother is, as she tends to dress modestly and when she
wears her habit, it tends to cloak any figure.  But it's blatantly obvious
when she wears a bathing suit and she got a lot of attention. Mind you, all
of my sisters did, and so did Nakamori-san and I.

    Nakamori-san, by the way, was wearing a black one-piece with equations
all over it in yellow.  Alyssa loved it and asked her where she could get
one, which quite flattered her.  Nakamori-san has an extremely nice figure
and I had to keep reminding myself not to stare.

    During one such bout of not staring, Alyssa whispered "ecchi" in my
ears, but it was in a fond way, unusual for her.  This made me more
embarrassed.

    Father had a knowing grin which made me somewhat nervous; it's never a
good sign when he looks like that.

    It turned out, however, to be much better than I had feared.  I was in
the middle of swimming when three people walked up and joined us.  My Aunt
Shiho, her daughter Natasha, and a grinning teenage boy who suddenly lost
his smile when he saw Alyssa.

    Tiny tendrils of smoke curled out of Alyssa's ears and she ducked down
in the water to hide everything but her head.  "Who invited monkey boy???"
she shouted.

    "I did, so SUCK IT," Aunt Shiho said, flaunting her body in a green
bikini.  Natasha wore a blue one; the boy, who I guess must be the
boyfriend, wore a purple and black speedo.  He wasn't bad looking, but he
wasn't as impressive as, say, Father.  He looked pretty comfortable in it,
though.

    She sauntered over to me and gave me a hug.  "How's my dear little
nephew?" she asked.

    "I'm quite good," I told her, smiling.

    "I had to come see your girlfriend," she whispered to me.

    Have they already started telling everyone in the family I have a
girlfriend?  We're not dating!  Even if...dammit.

    Gin and Alyssa were making faces at each other; how utterly
undignified.  But funny.  Natasha now came over and gave me a hug.  "How are
you, cousin?" she asked.

    "I'm very well," I told her, then whispered to her, "Nakamori-san
doesn't know anything about everything."

    "I'll be careful and not show off," she whispered back.  "I don't want
to cause you any trouble."

    Natasha and I have always gotten on pretty well.  We both were born out
of wedlock, though my parents got married and hers didn't.  I'm not half as
crazy as her, though.

    "This is my boyfriend, Houseki Gin," Natasha said.  "He's an artist like
you, cousin."

    Gin shook my hand.  "Nice to meet you, Shinichiro-san."

    "Nice to meet you," I said, studying him while Aunt Shiho and Alyssa had
an argument over his presence which I tried to ignore.  "Gin, Natasha, this
is my friend Nakamori Ume; she teaches chemistry at my school."

    Gin looked her up and down.  "Hot."  He paused, and Natasha elbowed
him.  "I mean, nice to meet you, ma'am."  He sounded a little stiff, and
shook her hand, trying to look at her face, but his eyes kept sinking down
to her chest.  Typical teenage boy.

    Then he jumped back a step after looking at me; I'm not sure why.
Natasha said, firmly, "Don't worry, he won't do it again, Nakamori-sensei."
She shook Nakamori-san's hand.  "We brought some images of some of his
paintings to show you, cousin.  I would have liked to bring the originals,
but not much room on the train."

    "I'd be happy to look at them," I said.  "They'd better not all be women
in bikinis, though."

    "Umm...some of them aren't...I mean, I have lots of nature scenes too,"
Gin said, then mumbled something to Natasha.  Did he just say 'cue'?

    "I'd be curious to see them," Nakamori-san said, smiling.

    Gin looked at me, shuffled on his feet as Natasha whispered to him,
looking frustrated, then he said, "Are you going to show off your artillery
skills for us?"  He looked frustrated.  "I mean archery!"

    They clearly needed to practice this meeting some more, I could see.
"Sure.  I think we have some fruit; I could shoot it off your head."

    He looked terrified for a moment, then Nakamori-san and I started
laughing.

    "He wouldn't actually do that to you," Nakamori-san said.  "He's just
joking."

    Aunt Shiho turned around.  "Gin, go see if Reito is still waiting for
the parking space he wanted and drag his ass down here if he is still
dawdling.  And see if the others are here yet."

    "Yes, Shiho-san," he said and ran off.

    "Others?" I asked Natasha.

    "Mom heard 'beach party' and had to come, and then I invited Kasumi to
come and Kasumi wanted to bring her boyfriend and things sort of snowballed
and so Kasumi, Hayao, Dan, Sanae, Erica, Erica's parents, Dan's parents,
Kasumi's parents, her bratty brothers, Uncle Reito and maybe some others are
coming.  Also, Mom's boyfriend is supposed to show up."

    "..."  I stared.

    "My goodness, that's a lot of people," Nakamori-san said.

    "And everyone wanted to meet Shinichiro-san's girlfriend," Natasha said.

    I blinked.  "What?"  Oh great the family grapevine now has everyone
thinking Nakamori-san and I are dating.

    I could see Mother was trying to break up the Aunt Shiho and Alyssa
fight, while Nao was egging them on.  Nao loves to see a good fight; not one
of her better features.

    "Cousin, are you drifting into fantasy land again?" Natasha asked.

    "I do NOT drift into fantasy land," I said, hands on my hips.

    "Our school does not allow teachers to date, so it's best to squelch any
such rumors," Nakamori-san said firmly.  "So don't go around telling people
that," she said.

    Natasha paused, then got an evil grin.  "Ahh, so you're officially not
dating.  Got it."

    Wait...

    "Very good," Nakamori-san said, smiling.

    Now everyone's going to think we're dating but hiding it.  And will want
to help us.

    So dead.

    This smelled like a Nao plan to me.

    The beach was soon swarming with my kin and their hangers on.  I met all
the various new boyfriends and girlfriends of my cousins.  Sanae seemed like
a nice girl and Nakamori-san took a definite shine to her and they ended up
talking shop with Miyu and Alyssa.  Hayao, on the other hand, struck me as
my Father at age sixteen and I instinctively distrusted him.  If he isn't
just out to get Kasumi into his bed and run, I don't know his type.  But I
do.  I grew up with one of those, even if Father is pretty thoroughly under
Mother's thumb.

    Now.

    Kasumi was totally different than I remembered her; she was wearing a
green and black one-piece (as usual) but looked infinitely more comfortable
with herself than I had seen her in a long time.  She walked like...not
Natasha, but say, my Mother.  Someone comfortable in their own skin.  It was
good to see she wasn't afraid like usual.  And her mother seemed much more
comfortable too.  Her father was definitely in his element and looked very
happy and went round chatting up everyone.

    I don't really know Erica or what she's like, though she seemed happy to
be here.  I had to wonder why she didn't have a boyfriend when everyone else
had brought one, though.  Well, it's not like you can go down to the store
and get one whenever...well, you can, but it's prostitution.

    Aunt Shiho's boyfriend is Robert Cooper.  He's in his mid-thirties and
works for Shell Solar as a project manager.  He was very strong; kind of
ugly face in my opinion but the rest of his body was very nice.  He'd make a
good painting, I think.  I caught him staring at Nakamori-san's chest for a
few seconds, until he noticed me scowling at him, then Aunt Shiho dragged
him around to everyone.

    "Everyone keeps staring at your chest," I muttered, aggravated.

    "Well, I am kind of proud of it," she said.  "It got me a lot of
boyfriends back in high school and junior high."  She sighed.  "I wasted a
lot of time on men when I should have been studying."

    "You're incredibly beautiful," I said.  "So I can't blame them for
looking.  But your whole body is nice."  I paused.  "I mean, well, it is
very nice.  You have nice legs and these long slender arms and..."  There
was something odd about the palm of her left hand, which I was holding up,
which I had never really noticed before.  "What's this?"

    "Acid burn," she said.  "It never quite healed right.  It doesn't hurt
or anything."  She looked me up and down.  "You're pretty good looking
yourself, Sanada-san."

    "Not really," I said.  "I do keep in good shape."

    She ran a hand down my chest and I shivered a little.  "Very good
shape," she said, smiling.  "I should get more exercise, really."

    "Well, I'd be happy to have you exercise with me," I said.

    "Okay," she said, smiling more.  "I can do that."

    We went swimming for a while, and then I noticed Erica was just sitting
on a towel in her blue and orange one-piece, watching everyone have fun
while she looked depressed.

    I've been that person.

    I went through a period where I SPECIALIZED in being that person.

    I sat down by her and said, "Hey, I'm your eldest cousin, Sanada
Shinichiro.  Your parents were classmates of my aunts and uncles, right?"

    "Yes," she said, relaxing a little and adjusting her glasses.  "You're
Sister Yukariko's son, right?"

    "And my father is Ishigami Wataru, yes," I told her.  "I was born when
your parents were still in school."

    She laughed a little nervously.  "Yes.  I'm adopted, though."

    "So are my sisters," I said.  "And really, this family is one big
adoption of people who adopted each other as siblings, right?"

    She looked at me in surprise for a moment, then said, "You know, that's
right."

    "Did they refuse to let you bring your boyfriend or were you just
unlucky enough to get stuck watching everyone else with their new
accessories?" I asked.

    "Unlucky," she mumbled.  "Everyone's  just kind of..."

    "Paired off?" I said softly.

    She stared at her knees, which she'd pulled up to her chest.  "Yes."

    "I know how much that sucks," I told her.  "Look, some of my students
are down the beach a little.  If you'd like to meet them, you could hang out
with some people your own age and won't have to watch us old people or watch
your cousins get smoochy."

    "I really sh..."  She closed her eyes and I waited patiently.  "Yes.
I'm kind of shy, but I need to get over that."

    I smiled.  "Good. They're all pretty nice, so you don't have to worry."

    "Also, if they did try anything, there's a small army here which would
come kill them," she said.

    I laughed loudly.  "Did you ever hear about the time Miyu saved me from
some bullies?"

    "No," she said.

    "It was like this..."

************

    Watanabe Hiro was the king of the thugs at Saint Mark's, where I went to
school in Junior High.  I hated it, but it was Catholic, so the folks sent
me there.  It was right next door to Saint Anne's, a girl's school.

    Watanabe hated my guts because I wasn't an ignorant punk like him and
actually obeyed the school rules.  But especially because I'd gotten him in
trouble twelve times by telling the teachers about his beating people up.

    So he came for my ass as I was waiting to go home for summer vacation.
He fought in the traditional art known as 'I am big and strong and will hit
you a lot, mostly in the chest and stomach'.  I, on the other hand, learned
unarmed combat from my sister Nao, which means I bite, pull hair, gouge
eyes, kick people in the balls, pull their pants down, kidney punch and do
anything else that might convince you to go away or fall down.

    I saw Miyu coming and yelled for help, but she just watched us fight,
leaning against the gymnasium.  All his buddies were ringed around us.  So I
kicked Hiro in the balls a second time and pulled his face down onto my
knee, then pulled his shirt up over his head and then fell down when he
managed to blindly headbutt me.

    He got a hold on me, so I bit his hand.  While he was screaming and
trying to get his shirt down, I sucker punched him, spun him around and rode
him down to the ground, putting my weight on his back.  Then I tried to wipe
the blood coming out of my nose.  "Thanks a ton, sister," I mumbled.

    I was kind of annoyed she hadn't done anything.

    Then his seven buddies all came at me at once.  I sent one of them
running by clawing his cheek with my fingernails, but they grabbed me and
pushed me up against the wall.  They were about to take turns whipping my
ass when Miyu grabbed two of them, one in each hand and used them as clubs
to clear out the rest.

    Two of them ran and two of them got beaten down by the two she was
holding, then she tossed those two.  I was whipping the last one's ass
myself by that point.

    I was a mess; Miyu was untouched.  Alyssa now arrived.  "Shin-chan,
where are you?" she was shouting.

    I was supposed to be out front but had been chased back here.

    "Oh God!," Alyssa shouted and ran over to me.  "Are you okay?"

    "I'm fine," I said, then bled on her blouse from my nose when she hugged
me.  "Mostly," I mumbled.

    "What happened?" Alyssa asked frantically.

    "These guys tried to beat him up but he took them out," Miyu said to
Alyssa.  "He fought well.  Nao will be proud."

    I later asked her why she hadn't done anything before the mob attack.

    "You were winning," she said.

    "You wouldn't have let that guy whale on Alyssa," I told her, feeling
pretty angry.

    "Alyssa would not have been winning at your age," Miyu said.  "You
handled it well."

    "I'm a mess and Mother lectured me on getting into fights.  And why did
you tell Alyssa I beat them all?"

    "There were people watching you didn't see, who got there just in time
to see you surrounded by bodies.  By the time you return, no one will be
willing to mess with you and they will have convinced themselves you did it
all because they are stupidly proud and don't want to believe a girl beat
them," she said.  "You have to focus on the war, not just this individual
battle."

    "Looking to the war doesn't do me much good if I get my ass beaten," I
said to her.

    "I would not let you get seriously hurt," she said firmly.  "But you
could handle it.  So I let you handle it.  We're not made to be lone
islands, but you do have to be able to stand on your own two feet.  You
could handle it.  Any time you can't, I will cover your back.  And so will
the rest of us."

************

    Back to the present.

    "So don't worry, it's a mixed group and they're all pretty decent,
though some of the guys may want to draw you in your bathing suit, but,
well, you know how it is," I said to her.  "But we have your back if they
get too fresh or something."

    "Okay," she said, and I took them down and introduced them to the group,
which included Ookiku-san and Hosoto Masumi from one of my painting
classes.  He's a good guy, maybe a little obsessed with soccer.

    Ookiku-san pulled me aside and I tried not to look at her arm bruise.
"Sensei, I have bad news for you," she whispered.

    I blinked, then frowned deeply.  "Yes?" I said nervously.

    "I think the whole softball team will be here in maybe fifteen minutes.
Which means Marusato-san," she said, then glanced up the beach at
Nakamori-san.  "And, well, you know."

    With all her family problems, she's trying to look out for me.  I felt a
huge surge of gratitude mixed with anger that her own problems aren't being
solved.  "Thank you very much," I said.  "It was kind of you to warn me."

    She looked at the sand and kicked it idly.  "I...sensei, I hate to
ask..."

    "You may ask me anything," I told her firmly.  "I owe you."

    She blinked, then smiled a little.  "Can I talk to your mother?"

    Talk to my mother?  "Whatever you like," I said, and took her,
introduced her to Mother, then Mother and Father went aside with her.

    Nakamori-san came over to me.  "What's going on?"

    "Mother went and talked to her Mother yesterday about getting them some
help," I said softly.  "Mother deals with this sort of thing
professionally."

    "Good," she said, patting my shoulder.  "I feel better too."

    Mother and Ookiku-san were still talking when the softball team showed
up with Coach Hosotazi Keiko.  She's a tall, skinny brunette; she and the
whole softball team were wearing blue and gold one-pieces which matched.
They looked pretty snazzy.  All the students had accessorized to try to
stand out; I hoped they weren't going to lose all that jewelry and scarves
and whatnot.

    I could see Marusato-san; she hadn't noticed me yet.  Unfortunately, I'm
too tall to hide behind anyone but Father.

    She soon came our way, only to pause when she reached me, looking at
Ookiku-san and my parents.  "She's not in trouble, is she?" she asked,
worried.

    "Mother is good at counselling people," I said softly.

    Her eyes widened, then she frowned.  "I was going to invite you to come
swim with us, but I guess they need you here."

    "Sanada-san and I can spare a little time to play with you all before
dinner," Nakamori-san said, taking my hand.

    Marusato-san's eyes widened.  So did mine, I think.

    Then Nakamori-san took off with me in tow.  "See if you can beat us
there!" she said, laughing as we ran.

    Marusato-san won, of course; I have very strong arms, but my legs aren't
as good as a softballer's legs need to be.

    We played with them for a while; my other group of students joined us as
well, and eventually, my nieces and nephews and their lovers joined us for a
while and I introduced everyone.  Once we had them all properly entangled,
the two of us slipped back to the adult group to play some volleyball.

    After a while, Father pulled me aside; this couldn't possibly be good, I
had a feeling.  He took us downwind so our voices would carry less, which
made me more worried.  "What's up?" I asked.

    "So this is the girl you're sweet on?" he asked.

    There is really nothing I less want a lecture from Father on than the
whole topic of love or relationships.  But I have never been any good at
lying to him. "Yes."

    "So what's the problem?" he asked.

    "Our school forbids teacher dating."  I pointed a finger at him.  "Don't
even say it."

    "Dating a co-worker can be hazardous," he said, to my surprise.  "Are
you really planning to stay here permanently, though?"

    "I don't have any particular ambition to roam school to school," I
said.  "It's a good job, pays well enough to live on and I'm not going to
magically find male students less obsessed with naked women at some other
school."

    Father gave me a dubious look.

    "What?" I asked, irritated.

    "You do realize how many naked women you drew at that age, right?" he
said.  "Kind of hypocritical of you."

    "I'm not a teenager any more!," I told him.  "And I wasn't that
obsessed."

    "I had to keep finding them and throwing them out before Alyssa could
find them," he said, grinning a little.

    I scowled.  "That only happened once.  And I drew lots of other things."

    "I'm just saying...," he began, but I'd had enough.

    "Whatever."  I stalked off back to the rest, while he followed me,
sighing exaggeratedly.

    Fortunately, he kept his mouth shut after that and I got a good mood
back pretty quick from going swimming, which I like to do.

    Ookiku-san came up to me afterwards.  "Are you having a good time with
your girlfriend, sensei?" she asked.

    "I don't..."

    "I know the school forbids it, but it's pretty obvious you two are
dating and everyone knows it except people who blind themselves to the
obvious," she said, glancing off down the beach at Marusato-san.  "I mean,
here you are, introducing her to your family.  Who are very nice."

    I suddenly wondered what exactly Nakamori-san thinks of our
relationship.  Or if she'd heard any of this.  "Seriously, everyone thinks
this?"

    She nodded.  "It's kind of obvious, but I think the Principal kind of
ignores it because you're both good teachers."

    "..."

    She blinked.  "Did you think no one could tell?"

    Why does no one ever tell me anything?

    "Tomikami-sensei is totally jealous of you two, I think.  Which is a
pity, as I think Coach Hosotazi likes him."

    "..."

    "Umm, I shouldn't gossip," she said a little nervously.  "But thank you,
sensei!" Then she ran off to her friends.

    I could see Erica kissing Hosoto-san, and I stared mindlessly.  Girl
moves faster than even Natasha, I guess.  Maybe not as shy as she looks.  I
studied, but it was pretty clear she liked it and didn't mind it at all.

    I glanced around and saw Natasha watching the two of them with a 'My
Work is Done' look on her face.  Oh boy.

    But I'm not her father and she seems happy with it and they'll probably
never see each other again, so I guess it's okay.  I'm sure it's better than
watching other people kiss, which I noted Kasumi and Hayao and Dan and Sanae
were doing.

    For that matter, so were Erica's parents when I looked back.

    Now I wanted to kiss Nakamori-san but was nervous about trying.  Does
everyone really think we're dating?  I guess a lot of Japanese couples do
avoid being very passionate in public.

    Maybe she thinks we're dating.  We do spend a lot of time together,
visit each other, eat dinner at each other's place, make lunches for each
other, and so on.

    I certainly want to date her, and if everyone actually thinks that...but
it could be everyone actually thinks that inside Ookiku's head and not
reality.  Though now the family seems to think we are.

    Nakamori-san came up to me and asked, "What are you thinking about,
Sanada-san?"

    "Kissing you," I said, then wished I could turn back time or set myself
on fire by mental command.

    She glanced around at various couples being affectionate, then said,
"Sounds good to me."

    I froze in place for a moment.  I shouldn't do this, we will get in so
much trouble.  So much trouble.

    And then I was kissing her and felt happy as... something very happy.
It felt wonderful and left me breathless.

    "Finally," she said softly, then smiled very brightly at me.  "I was
starting to wonder if you were really interested."

    I felt like the biggest idiot on Earth.  But I was a happy idiot, so for
once, it wasn't so bad.

    "We could get fired," I mumbled.

    "I don't think they bother to enforce that very much," she said.  "Or
Fred and Kuo would be in big trouble."

    Fred teaches English; his real name is Mutou Fumio.  Everyone just calls
him Fred because he lived in America for a long time and just tells everyone
to call him by his first name.  His fake American first name, mind you.
Inahori Kuo teaches political science, and goes by "Kay" if you happen to
run into her when she's with Fred down in Sapporo pretending to be other
people who merely resemble our co-workers.  What an amazing coincidence.

    Well, in for a dollar...I can't actually remember the expression.  So I
kissed her again to try to jog my memory.

    I still couldn't remember it, but I didn't care.  I put my arms around
her and pulled her tight, touching her forehead with mine and smiling.
"Then let's do it, Ume-san.  Let's take the risk.  I don't...take risks
easily.  But I can for you."

    "I used to take too many risks," she said, kissing my cheek.  "I'm happy
to gamble on this with you."  She smiled and we kissed one more time on
general principle.

    Alyssa came up to us with Reito in tow.  "Come swim with us."

    "Yes, master," I said, laughing and pretty soon we were in the water.

    After some splashing around, Reito said to me, "How about a race?"

    I looked around.  "Hmm.  We need something to race to and back."

    Alyssa pointed to a buoy.  "To that and back."

    That would work.

    Not many members of the family can threaten me in swimming, but Reito
certainly can.  He's very good and I'm just pretty good.  I actually took
the lead, but he reached the buoy just ahead of me, then beat me by half his
torso on the way back.

    "Good job, Reito-san!," Alyssa said to him, smiling.

    "Thanks," he said, smiling at her.

    "You were great, honey," Ume-san said and kissed me.  Mmmm.

    Reito said, "Now you two race."

    They stared at us in surprise.

    "We showed off, now you get to," he said, smiling.

    They were soon swimming, each trying hard to outdo the other.  Neither
of them were bad swimmers, but they aren't great, either.

    "Good luck," he said to me.  "Has someone actually briefed you on what's
going on?"

    "Yes," I told him.

    I glanced off to where Dan and Sanae were basically playing 'keep away'
with a beachball while a bunch of other much shorter kids tried desperately
to get it from them and they both were laughing.  "So it seems like Dan and
Shun may well both become Hime."

    "If I understand, Dan seems to have the physical abilities but no weapon
or Child," Reito said.  "Yet.  And Shun has shown signs that he might become
the Sixth Child."

    I frowned.  I shouldn't be jealous, but I am.  And maybe double
frustrated I never got anything to work.  Mind you, I was stupidly gullible
in my desperation on a lot of it.

    "Dan's fairly responsible, but Shun..."

    Reito sighed.  "Hime power is based on emotion, which isn't easily
compatible with being disciplined, wise, etc.  At least at their age."

    I patted his shoulder.  "I know, I know.  I was a stupid teenager."

    "Me too," he mumbled.

    "So you and Alyssa..." I said hesitantly.

    "We're good friends," he said firmly, watching her swim.  She and
Ume-san kept alternately taking the lead.

    I don't know what to think about the two of them.  I respect Alyssa for
her keeping her oaths.  All of them. Which Miyu has done too, but Miyu
doesn't face sexual tempation.  Whereas, I think Alyssa and Reito would make
a good couple but Alyssa really shouldn't start anything with him.

    On the other hand, if Mother had kept to her oaths, I wouldn't exist.

    Ugh.

    Alyssa won the race, then flopped down on the sand next to the two of
us; Ume-san did the same next to me and I took her hand.

    "You made it look so easy," Alyssa wheezed out.

    "You can start swimming with me every day," Reito said.  "That will get
you in better shape."

    "Perfectly...fine...shape..." she mumbled into the ground.

    "We should swim too," Ume-san mumbled.

    I could definitely go for that.

**************

    Later, a man approached us; it was Hayashi Masao, the local Shinto
priest.  He's only been here a few months, after the old priest got sick and
retired.  I think.  I don't pay a huge amount of attention, but he comes by
the school on festival days.

    I wasn't too surprised to find him here; I think he's doing the
middle-aged crisis, lust for much younger people thing.  I pray I won't be
like that.

    He was pretty blatantly checking out my students and cousins as he came
our way, which hugely irritated me.  Especially as I could tell most of them
weren't too happy with this.

    I stomped his way.  "Shouldn't you be running your temple instead of
harassing young women?" I asked.

    "I am just walking along the beach," he said.  "I cannot go blind just
because young ladies are here.  Besides, all flesh is a trap and an
illusion."

    "I'd be less worried if I thought you actually believed that."

    Alyssa was now by my side.  "Scat, you old pervert!"

    "This is a public beach!  I can go where I want to," he said.  "Anyway,
I am not here to ogle; I am on my way to go bless some fishing boats."

    "By walking along the public beach when the boats are back the other
direction," I said skeptically.

    I then heard a great and terrible noise behind me, followed by Aunt
Shiho saying in English, "Bobby, see that priest?  BRING ME HIS HEAD."

    "Honey, I don't think I can just kill a priest for you."  He sounded
amused.

    "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Aunt Midori and Professor
Sasaki said in unison, then laughed.

    I blinked.  What?

    Hayashi-san froze and stared at Aunt Shiho, then looked very angry.
"You!  You're that whorish girl!"

    "You're the bastard who used to peep on me back at the temple!  Who was
insane enough to give you a job?" Aunt Shiho demanded.  "Why did you crawl
out from under your rock?"

    Wait, this was THAT guy?  I think I'd heard of him, but totally
forgotten the name.  "This is that guy, Aunt Shiho?"

    He grimaced.  "You lying little bitch!"

    Then he seemed to realize my entire family was glaring at him.

    Mr. Cooper said, "He used to peep on you?"

    "When I was around sixteen, he'd peep on me when I was changing or
showering or...Grandfather eventually caught him and threw him out."  Aunt
Shiho looked pissed.

    "Okay, he dies," Mr. Cooper said, striding towards him.

    Hayashi-san ran like a bat out of hell.

    "Ugh.  I wish I had remembered his name."  I have no clue how Shinto
picks its priests.  Most of them seem like they're hereditary to me, but I
never paid attention.  Maybe I can complain to the principal.  He'd know
what to do.

    "He's a priest here?" Aunt Shiho said.

    "Yes," I told her.

    "I still hate that bastard," she said, grimacing.  "Only Bobby gets to
see me naked."

    He grinned; clearly he enjoys that.

    I might point out she's pretty close to naked in that bikini, but I know
better than to set off landmines with my face.

    Sometimes.

    We ended up with a huge amount of barbeque being delivered.  Mr. Cooper
ordered it and paid for it all.  I think he likes to show off his money.

    He certainly was showing it off.  And man, it was great barbeque.

    Some of my students ended up eating with us too, and I could see Erica
holding hands with Hosoto-san.  Erica pushed her glasses up her nose with
her other hand, then smiled at me and winked.

    I hope she's not making a mistake, but I guess it can't really do any
damage.  Her parents didn't seem to mind.

    And well, I did kind of encourage her, though I didn't quite expect her
to go that far with anyone.

    That far.  I sound like Alyssa.

    As I munched on my barbeque chicken (SO GOOD), I could see Kasumi
chatting with her boyfriend.  Oddly, he was staring very intently at her
legs the whole time as he ate and talked to her.  Which seemed odd to me,
though admittedly, Kasumi has very strong legs and I expect he's a leg man.
He didn't look so much horny as determined, though.  Why determinedly stare
at someone's legs?

    Gin, by contrast, tended to tilt his head up, apparently staring at
foreheads or over people.  This looked rather odd itself.  Natasha seemed
amused by this.

    I could see Alyssa coming their way and I shouted over to them, "Gin,
Natasha, come over here and show us the art while we eat."

    It was hard to critique art displayed on a smart phone in much detail,
but it discouraged Alyssa from whatever disaster she was about to inflict.
He was actually very good, to my surprise with a good grasp of anatomy.
Probably from actually seeing naked women.  Even if Natasha is rather more
endowed than most women.

    I blinked at the picture of Aunt Akira and Uncle Takumi; he can do
slender women, too.  In fact...  "Did you get Sanae to model for you?"

    He stared at me.  "You can tell?"

    "Aunt Akira actually should be more muscular," I told him.  "Her face is
really good and I like the composition and the theme."

    "Damn," he said.  "You have any of your art with you?"

    "A little, but a lot of it hasn't been digitized," I told him.  "Maybe I
can show you tonight or tomorrow."

    Ume-san kissed my cheek and went to go talk to Alyssa and Reito while I
talked shop with Gin.  Natasha clearly could only about half keep up but
stuck with us.

    "Do you sculpt?" I asked him.

    "A little.  Not much experience," he said.  "Hmm, how about if I do a
sketch of you and your girlfriend?"

    "Actually..."  I went and rustled up my parents and my sisters and let
Gin pose us and then draw everyone.  This took a while but I thought the
results were pretty good and my parents got a big kick out of it.  Then
Father hauled off Gin to talk to him.

    "Is that good or bad?" Natasha asked me.

    "I think the answer is 'yes'."

    She laughed ruefully.

    After dinner, Miyu stood up.  "I have a proposal," she said.

    "Five!," Nao shouted.

    Miyu blinked at her.  "I think it is time for the archery contest."

    "Is there a prize?" Natasha asked.

    "I'll buy the winner the best bow available that they want," Mr. Cooper
said.

    "Honey, you don't have to," Aunt Shiho said.

    "Fine by me," he said.

    Man, I've had my eye on this one bow...

    Mother looked at me.

    I looked at her.

    Sorry, Mother, but if it's within my power, you're going down.

    Doing everyone shooting took forever.  Most of those gathered were
mediocre shots.  Professor Sasaki surprised me by doing about as well as my
experienced but not top of the line students.  Erica did a little better
than him, though she'd said loudly she was no archer.  Aunt Akane was
remarkably terrible, though everything hit the target.  Alyssa was pretty
good, good enough to get on our high school tournament team.  I hadn't
realized she had that much experience.  Ume-san did better than Alyssa,
though not quite up to the best members of my team.  Nao could hit the
target.  Mostly.

    Natasha looked extremely frustrated she did poorly, especially since Gin
did better than her...which is to say, mediocre.  Dan went very slowly, and
impressed me by doing very well, just a little worse than my top students.
Kasumi was remarkably terrible like her mother, which rather confused me.  I
know they don't fight with bows, but you'd think two Hime would do better
than that.

    Reito was very good, good enough for college competition to my
surprise.  But I guess he drills a lot with weapons to survive going monster
hunting.  But the real competition for first was Mother and I.

    I could see her face go blank as she stepped up and began firing away.
The results, of course, were extremely good and hard to beat.  Everyone
began cheering, and now she smiled.

    I stepped up with Ume cheering me loudly and my sisters and Father too
(though they'd cheered for Mother as well).  I concentrated, clearing my
mind and imagining myself as Nasu no Yoichi.  I could see the dream in my
mind, riding across the water and shooting the masts of the ships and the
masts breaking and falling into the water, and Ume-san's fan darting from
target to target.  I imagined the fan dead center on the bullseye and then I
started shooting.

    Twelve shots.  Eleven 10s and one nine for a total of  119 points.
Better than the Olympic record, but we were only shooting at 30 meters.
Olympic archers shoot at 70 meters.

    Further, I had only tied Mother, who had done the same thing.  I was
rather boggled we'd tied, but she couldn't be holding back.  I was sure of
that.

    So we moved the target out to fifty meters.

    It was harder to maintain the void as my excitement tried to surface.
Mother looked utterly calm, but she had to feel it too.  I was holding my
own against one of the Hime.  Against Mother.  She didn't have her powers,
so it wasn't as impressive as if she had possessed them, but I could tell
Mother wasn't holding back.  I think she held back at the school to make me
look better, but not now.

    I wanted that bow.  I wanted to beat Mother.  Petty, yes, yes.  I wanted
this so bad I could taste it.  But I had to beat down wanting.  Silence
desire.  Nothing but me and the void and the bow and the archer in my mind.


    WE TIED AGAIN.  Eight tens and four nines.  116 points.

    There was a big crowd watching us now and we had to chase some people
around to have enough space to move the targets again.  We were now shooting
seventy meters.  The Olympic range.

    Mother did pretty well, but not as well as last time.  To be expected,
of course, as we keep moving the target out.  Ten.  Eight.  Seven.  Ten.
Nine.  Nine.  Eight.  Seven.  Ten.  Nine.  Ten.  Nine.  106 points on twelve
arrows.

    I focused, praying to Saint Sebastian, patron of Archers and once again
imagining myself as Nasu no Yoichi and the target as the mast top with the
fan on it.  I could hear Ume-san cheering for me and my sisters shouting
loudly and lots of people yelling encouragement.

    And I floated inside a quiet island in my mind, one with my image of my
great archer hero.  And then I began shooting.

    A ten.  Another ten.  A seven.  A five.  The five almost broke me; that
was terrible.  I'd heard Father yelling, "I love you, son, but I have to
cheer for your mother, sorry!"  That got me the five because I wanted to
laugh.  I could see Alyssa wince when I got the five.

    I refocused, making the images in my mind stronger, letting the world
fade away totally.  There was the sea and the ships and the horse under me
and my love by my side and the target.  I had to show them.  I had to.  With
her by my side, I could do anything, even beat my invincible mother.

    Eight.  Nine.  Ten.  Nine.  Ten.

    I had to get 29 or 30 points out of thirty to beat her.  But I had no
worry in the void, just me and my bow and Nasu no Yoichi and Ume-san and the
target.

    Nine.  Ten.

    I had to get a ten to win or a nine to tie.

    Everyone was watching super tensely.  I could see Ume-san was trying to
cheerlead for me though it's hard to cheerlead with no pom-poms.

    Miyu was watching me serenely, but focused.  I could remember what she
said to me. "You should not lie to yourself.  You are an exceptional archer
due to your close to two decades of practice.  And you continue to
practice.  While you may not be able to summon a magical bow or bind an
Orphan to yourself, you are an asset, not a liability.  You should not dwell
on negative thoughts."

    Be positive, I told myself.  I can do this.  Eight of my first eleven
arrows were good enough to at least tie mother.  Just forget everything
else.  Saint Sebastian, pray for me.

    Riding across the sea.  The target is bobbing but my soul is still.  I
could forget my armor, forget everything but the shot.

    There was only the distant roar of my hometown and the sound of people
breathing now, except for the little noises Ume-san made as she jumped up
and down for me.

    I reached back and took the arrow and slowly nocked it.  Everything was
gone but me and the target, my steed and the sea and my lady fair and the
fan, waiting to be shot, waiting for me to step into legend by hitting it.

    Everyone would remember my name.

    I could smell the salt, hear the hooves striking the water, feel water
splash onto my legs, feel the breeze on my cheeks, hear the cries of the
army before me and the taunts of the army before me as if I was there.  And
in the middle of all that, I floated serene.

    The arrow was released and took flight and I was the arrow and I rode it
to the center of the target.

    Ten.

    TEN.

    TEN!!!!!!

    Total points, one hundred and SEVEN.

    HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

    Everyone went crazy and Ume-san nearly tackled me with a hug and a kiss
and my bow flew into the air and Kasumi darted over and caught it, nearly
colliding with her mother, who tried to do the same thing.

    Mother dropped out of the void and smiled at me and came over and hugged
me as well.  "Wonderful, my son."

    "Sorry, Mother," I mumbled.

    "Don't be sorry.  We competed fairly and you won by an inch. But an inch
is all you need."  She kissed my cheek.  "Did you pray?"

    "Yes," I said, and she smiled.

    "Me too, but I guess you prayed harder."

    Father came and shook my hand and I felt extremely good.

    I'd not just won, I'd beaten my personal record.  I felt incredible,
like I could do anything.  I rarely feel like this, so it was extremely good
to feel this way.

    We stayed at the beach as long as we could; the sun went down and the
stars came out and the moon was a half moon, waxing.  And it was beautiful
and I was triumphant and I had the woman I love by my side and everything
was utterly and totally perfect.  I was in a triumphant haze of joy and
nothing could bring me down.

    When a group sing-along broke out (mostly terrible, and Alyssa's fault),
I pulled Miyu aside and hugged her.  "Thank you, sister."

    She looked at me quizzically.  "I did not do anything."  She started to
say something, then paused.

    "You told me I was an asset, and for once, I managed to believe it," I
said softly to her.  "I did it."

    "You have always been stronger than you let yourself believe.  Most
people are, if they will only put forth their all when put to the test.
Being pushed makes you make yourself stronger."  She smiled a faint smile at
me.  "I am glad I was able to help you."

    "I can't believe I actually beat Mother."

    "You focused yourself very well.  I could tell.  Be proud of yourself,
brother."

    "I am, sister," I said, smiling.

    I talked to Mr. Cooper and we discussed what kind of bow to get and how
to send it to me.  "This is very generous of you," I told him.

    "You shoot like a dream, Mr. Sanada.  You earned it," he said.

    What a great guy, I thought.  What a great night.

    I am the happiest man on Earth.

***********

    I know people can't actually have sex for hours; it just felt like it.
It was the best night of my life.

    We made love until we were spent; everyone else had gone back to the
motel.  We were going to show everyone around town, then have lunch, then
they had to head back to Osaka.  But I was incredibly glad they had come.

    I dreamed of grand adventures with ninja Ume-san by my side; most of
them didn't make a lot of sense...what would a ninja and a samurai of the
Genpei War period be doing in the Kingdom of Mali or Victorian England?  I
don't know but it was fun.

    I wasn't riding quite the same emotional high as before when I woke up,
but we laid there together for a while, just enjoying each other's
presence.  "Three years," she mumbled.

    "What?" I asked.

    "I haven't had sex in three years," she said.  "Not since I graduated
from college."

    "I haven't had it since my junior year of college so I guess that's
about three years for me too," I told her.  "But this was much better."

    She kissed me.  "I wish we had time to do it again, but we have to meet
your family."

    "We can do it tonight," I told her.  Though I wanted to do it right
now.  But my common sense managed to reassert itself.  I'm so happy.  Alyssa
will kill me if she finds out.  Or be disappointed.  But I couldn't care.  I
shouldn't be running around but God I wanted her so much and we had known
each other for months and months so this wasn't like jumping into bed with
someone you just met. This was love.

    I was so happy, I probably could have just fired heart rays from my eyes
and killed any monsters that wandered by.

    "I had a dream," she said.  "It was...well, very silly."

    "Go on?" I asked her curiously.

    She shook her head.  "Just silly dream adventure stuff.  You know how I
told you about the time I got lost?"

    "Yes," I told her.

    "Well, when I got lost, I dreamed this princess wearing a black and
silver dress saved me from being lost and helped me get home.  Which was
silly as princesses don't roam around the backwoods of Japan.  Anyway, I
dreamed of her again."  She laughed.  "Pretty silly."  She stretched.
"Let's get clean."

    We took a shower and I put my glasses on and I smiled at everything in
the world.

    We almost forgot her purse, so I ran back to her bedroom to get it for
her.  I noticed something rather odd in it as I picked it up.   A clear
plastic tube... with three eggs in it, one end taped shut with scotch tape.


    When I brought it to her, I asked her, "What's that?"

    "Eggshell grenades," she said.  "I originally invented these things
after some trouble in college, inspired by...well, I watched too many ninja
shows, really.  After the dog incident, I made some more."  She went to the
cabinet and got out another tube and gave it to me.  "It's like pepper spray
but you can throw it, basically.  The tube's so they don't break in your...I
guess you'd need to put them in your briefcase you take to work."

    "Thanks," I said.  "I guess you have to aim for the eyes."

    "Or the nose.  Anyway, I'm sure a master archer like you has good aim,"
she said, then kissed me.

    I took them upstairs and stashed them in my briefcase, then put just one
in an old pill bottle which I put in my pocket.  Then I rejoined Ume-san and
we headed out.

    I took everyone around the town and we had a good time, and then
everyone had to go; Mother had wanted to stay but she got a call from her
Mother Superior and had to go, much to her frustration.  I think she wanted
to try another go at talking Ookiku-san's mother into getting out while she
still could.  We looked up their number so Mother could at least try and
call her.

    Ume-san and I caught up on work together, then did it again that night.


    I was inside her with her riding me, my hands on her breasts, when her
phone rang.

    I made wild 'don't answer it' gestures, but she grabbed it and checked
who was calling, then answered it.

    Nooooo!!!!

    "There's a glowing meteorite?" Ume-san said excitedly.

    If this turns out to be aliens interrupting our lovemaking, I will cry.

    "But why are you on the beach, Ookiku-san?"

    I winced.  We have got to do something for that girl.

    "We'll be there as fast as we can," she said.

    I felt incredibly resentful, but I forced it down to a dull roar;
Ookiku-san no doubt needed us more than I needed sex right this second.  We
could start over later.

    We quickly took a shower and got dressed.

    Apparently, a glowing hunk of reddish-pink crystal had washed up on the
beach. Ookiku-san had been there, doing homework, when she'd been spotted by
Tomikami-san and Coach Hosotazi; they'd been out cooking fish around a fire.
Then they'd all noticed the glowing rock; she called Ume-san because she had
her number, and they wanted a science teacher.  I was kind of surprised
Tomikami-san hadn't just given Ookiku-san the boot, but I suppose Coach
Hosotazi had...what was she doing at the beach with that bastard, anyway?

    "Any idea what it could be?" I asked Ume-san as we drove over in my car.

    "Well, I'm just hoping it wasn't glowing red-hot for people to burn
themselves on.  If it plunged out of the sky into the sea, it should have
started cooling off, though."

    We reached the empty beach; it was empty due to school the next day and
work for many.  We could see a red-orange glow in the distance, though.

    We got closer and saw something that left me stunned.  Tomikami-san
stood, frozen, next to the fire, cradling a hunk of glowing pinkish-red
crystal in his hands about the size of a soccerball.  He looked extremely
happy as he stared at it.  Next to him were Ookiku-san and Coach Hosotazi,
frozen in place, both looking very happy.

     About 20 feet away from them was a huge crimson furred dog; take a
mastiff and double its normal size.  I think it looked happy, but I'm not
sure how you tell.  Well, it's tail was wagging as the pinkish-red light
played over it.  Nevertheless, it made me shiver as fear rose up inside me.
It almost certainly had to be one of the Crimson Huntsman's monsters, given
what the folks had told me about them.  And my family is hundreds of
kilometers away and can't possibly stop it there is no one here but ME and
Ume-san!

    That wasn't the worst thing.

    Unfortunately.

    Something else was presiding over this entire tableux and if the monster
terrified me, this was much worse.  It towered over them, maybe as much as
four or even five meters tall.  A giant chess piece.  A giant Knight, its
black metal shining strangely in the pinkish-red light with its eyes made of
the same material as the crystal.  I felt goosepimples all over my body and
noticed Ume-san rubbing her arms.

    Ume-san stared at everything in stark disbelief.  "This has to be some
kind of a prank," she said.  "Giant dog?  Giant chess piece?  Everyone
frozen?" she seemed rather stunned by it all.

    I tried looking around but the light of the crystal drowned everything
else out.  If St. Vrus was here, shouldn't Mother be here?

    But wait, Saint Vrus was white and this is black.  And there are four
knights in a chess set.

    But then...was Ookiku-san or Coach Hosotazi the Hime who controlled it?
But it looked like even the Crimson Huntsman's dog-monster was trapped too.
I couldn't see any sign of someone controlling it; was it just a rogue
Orphan acting on its own?  How did it get here?

    And what the hell could we do about it?

    "This isn't a prank," I said urgently to Ume-san.  "It's a lot worse.
This is very bad.  Get down."  I threw myself to the ground to hide and she
imitated me.

    "You know what this is?" she asked.  "I'd almost think...is it aliens?
But why would they look like Earth things?"  She sounded frantic.

    "I will explain once I can be sure.  I have to make a call," I said.
Maybe they would have some idea what I could do.  There had to be something
I could do!

    St. Vrus, or whatever it is, drifted over to the Crimson Hound and began
to open up.  The inside of it, as I expected, was a giant iron maiden.
Ume-san stared, mouth open.

    Mother didn't answer; I got her answering service.  CRAP.  I dialled
Miyu; she doesn't have to sleep or anything, so...

    On the second ring, she said, "Hello, Shinichiro-kun.  How are you?"

    "Where are you?"  My voice was urgent.

    "26° 19’ 48" N by 126° 48’ 06" E," she said.

    "Where is that?" I said frantically.

    Ume-san began snapping photos with her camera.

    "A touch north of Kumejima (Kume Sima), Okinawa–shoto Islands," she
said.  "We're in a boat trying to chase down a flying haemovore orphan."

    The crimson hound was oblivious as St. Vrus loomed over it, opening his
'jaws' wide.

    "Saint Vrus is here and it's eating a giant crimson hound," I whispered
into the phone.

    "Odd.  My humor recognition program seems to have failed again," Miyu
said. "You will have to explain this one to me."

    "I am not joking, it's trapped two of my co-workers and one of my
students and oh God what can we possibly do?  It's trapped a giant red dog
too."  I was physically shaking; I wanted to DO something but I didn't know
what.

    "Can you send me a photo?" she asked.

    "Can you send my sister a photo?" I asked Ume-san, who was staring in
horror as ever so slowly 'Saint Vrus' moved into position to engulf the dog.

    "What?  Yes, my phone and camera can communicate.  Which sister?  Do
they know something about what's going on?"  Ume-san turned to me,
panicked.

    "Maybe.  I need Miyu to look at this."

    She nodded and sent the image to her.

    And now Saint Vrus or whatever it is closed itself around the dog.  It
began to distort and contort and rattle, but it was clear the dog didn't
have a chance and now it was growing even larger.

    "Saint Vrus is white; this is black.  It is otherwise very physically
similar to Saint Vrus.  You are at the beach we visited?" she asked.

    Ume-san tried to listen in, while we heard weird noises and 'Saint Vrus'
bounced around.  Maybe he'll get indigestion.

    "Yes."

    "I do not think we could reach your location in any less than eight or
nine hours, as it is nearly 7 hours of flying time and we would have to
secure transporation and pass the usual flight bureaucracy twice.  Assuming
we could even get a flight this late."

    I was shaking with fear now.  What the hell could I do?  Besides watch
people die?  The police couldn't stop an Orphan.  The crystal...it must be
providing power for it to manifest, maybe even summoned it.

    "Any idea on the crystal?" I asked, then explained about it.

    "I fear that may be a piece of the Hime Star; it may be the children are
correct to fear that bits of it fell in the ocean and survived."

    DAMMIT.

    "Do you think it would burn?" I asked.

    "Maybe.  It took the power of the Hime to blow up the Hime Star, but a
small chunk like this may be much more vulnerable, especially as it is no
longer part of a greater whole."

    I was breathing harder now.  "So it might burn."

    I could hear frantic conversation among my family.  Then I heard
Mother.  "Shinichiro-kun, what is going on?"

    "Something resembles Saint Vrus and it's trying to digest a monster dog
and I fear two of my co-workers are going to get eaten."

    "I'm calling the police," Ume-san said.

    I don't think the police can stop this but maybe...well, given it's a
minimum of six hours, maybe more, for one of my aunts to get up here,
assuming there even is a bullet train at this hour...  "Call them," I told
her.

    I could hear Miyu say something about the Hime Star.

    I could hear Mother breathing hard.  "Call who?"

    I could hear Ume-san trying to describe what was going on to someone.

    "The police.  No one else can get here before people die," I said
frantically.

    "The police can't stop this," Mother said miserably.

    "What else can I do?  I don't have any powers."  I picked up a rock.  "I
have a rock and Ume-san has a couple of eggshell grenades.  If I run back to
the car, I can get my bow, but they may be eaten by then."  I left my
archery gear in the car after Saturday since I'd just have to haul it up to
school on Monday.

    "She carries hand grenades?" Mother asked in a panic.

    I could hear loud laughter coming out of Ume-san's phone and something
about alcohol.

    "No, it's true!  It's true!" she shouted angrily into her phone.

    More laughter.

    Ume-san looked very angry.

    "They're pepper grenades," I told Mother.

    "You might be able to burn the crystal, but I don't know what exactly
that will do.  It might just release all the power at once and feed it.
Just...Alyssa is calling Akane and Akira."

    "They can't get here for hours," I said.  "Tomikami-san, Coach Hosotazi,
and Ookiku-san are all here and I think they're next on the menu."

    "You bastards!," Ume-san said.  "Can't call animal control at this
hour..."

    Animal control.  I laughed a little hysterically.

    "Shinichiro-kun, there's nothing you can do.  Get back to a safe
distance," Mother said.

    "I can't just watch them die," I said.  I couldn't live with myself.
"There has to be something."

    "Alyssa says we should call it Saint Bosco after the patron of stage
magicians," Mother said, sounding a little hysterical.  "She's very clever,
you know."

    "Mother, I have to do something!  I have to!"

    I heard Mother make a weird noise and now her voice was firm.  "If he
can't see, he can't use his powers on people.  But if you get close enough
to throw an eggshell grenade at him, he will notice you and pin you."

    "What's his effective range?" I asked.

    Ume-san was cursing at her phone.

    "I am not sure.  I don't think I've ever used his powers from more than
fifty meters."

    "And burning the crystal might destroy it?" I asked.

    "Maybe.  But it might just absorb the power as it burns or something.
Shinichiro-kun, what are you thinking?"

    "We have to take the risk or people will die," I said softly.  "I'd
rather try and fail and die than live because I left them to die."

    "Shinichiro-kun, you can't get close enough to hit its eyes without
getting caught," Mother said.

    "Ume-san, do you have some tape?"

    "Yes," she said.  "Just stuff for sealing letters, nothing that great."

    It will have to do.

    "Here's where we find out how good an archer I really am," I mumbled.
"Mother, if I never see you again, I love you."

    "Don't say things like that!," she said.

    "I'll call you back if we live."  Click.

    Sorry, Mother.  I have to do this.  I have to try.  "Ume-san, I have a
plan but it's very risky and I will totally understand if you don't want to
risk yourself."

    She looked torn, looking at them and at Saint Bosco rattling around.

    My phone rang but I didn't answer it.  I couldn't let them talk me out
of this.  Even though I probably should.  But I will feel like a failure the
rest of my life if I don't try this and I am sick and tired of feeling like
a failure.

    "They're going to die if we don't save them," she said softly.

    "Yes, but that doesn't mean you have to risk yourself with me," I told
her.

    "I couldn't live with myself if you died because I didn't help you," she
said softly, then straightened up.  "What's the plan?"

    "I turn into Green Arrow and we turn some of my arrows into eggshell
grenade arrows with tape and then we pray I can nail that thing in the eyes
with them.  Once it's blind, we can try to burn the crystal, which is
enabling it to exist here.  It's an invader from another dimension."

    She stared at me.

    "I know it sounds insane," I told her.  "I promise, if we live through
this, I will explain everything.  Please trust me."

    She stared into my eyes, then said softly, "You know, I always wanted to
be a heroine.  I used to dream of being a ninja who saved people.  I...I
dreamed of going around with you, saving people, last night."

    "Me too," I told her, clasping her hands.  "Now, we have to hurry.  It
won't take forever to digest that thing."

    We took off running and I began praying.

     Most holy apostle, Saint Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus,
the Church honours and invokes you universally, as the patron of hopeless
cases, of things almost despaired of. Pray for me, I am so helpless and
alone. Make use I implore you, of that particular privilege given to you, to
bring visible and speedy help where help is almost despaired of. Come to my
assistance in this great need that I may receive the consolation and help of
heaven in all my necessities, tribulations, and sufferings, particularly in
the battle I am about to fight and that I may praise God with you and all
the elect forever. I promise, O blessed Saint Jude, to be mindful of this
great favour, to always honour you as my special and powerful patron, and to
gratefully encourage devotion to you. Amen.

    I really wish I didn't have a life where I had cause to memorize the
standard prayer to Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes and forlorn hopes
and last resorts.

    We taped the grenades to the heads of six of my arrows, praying they
would hold together under the stress of being fired and that I would be able
to compensate for the change in flight pattern.

    I entered the void, partly to increase my accuracy but also so I
wouldn't piss myself and run away screaming, naked.

    My phone was ringing.  It kept ringing, but I didn't answer.  I had to
do this.  Was this a death wish?  I don't know.  But if they died, I
wouldn't feel worthy to live.  I knew that, and Ume-san felt the same way.

    Which might make us both crazy.

    Ume-san moved into position.  I would draw its attention and hopefully
blind it and she would try and go for the crystal while it was still blind.
Or at least fixated on me.

    Saint Sebastian, watch over me and guide my bow.  Saint Jude, please
help me.  Nasu no Yoichi, if you're listening, I wouldn't mind help from you
too.

    Saint Bosco had finished his meal and now appeared to be trying to
decide who to eat next.  I crossed myself and nocked my first eggshell
grenade arrow.  "TURN AROUND, BRIGHT EYES!" I yelled.  "HALT IN THE NAME OF
THE AUTHORITY INVESTED IN ME BY TOMIHARA ACADEMY!"

    It turned and stared my way and I left fly, but the arrow hit it under
the chin.  It sprouted wings and a horn and began to zoom towards me.  This
left Ume-san free to circle around it and head for the crystal.

    My second shot hit it in the forehead when I overcompensated, and it
didn't get enough in its eyes to blind it.  But now I could see Ume-san had
the crystal.

    I nailed it in the left eye with the third shot, but now its other eye
was glowing and the world started to blur.  Ume-san was running for the
fire.

    I nocked a fourth arrow.  And then the world changed.

**************

    It was a wonderful summer day and my students were hard at work on their
paintings.  I'd chosen a sports theme and it was very interesting to see all
the different sports.  I stopped at Ookiku-san's painting, which featured
angelic beings who were playing a ball game in the air with lacross sticks.
Giant hoops floated in the air guarded by goalies.

    "What is this?" I asked her curiously.

    "It's from the new anime 'Heavenly Lacross Fighter Mikuru'," she said.
"Mikuru finds an injured Heavenly Lacross Fighter Angel and merges with her
to save her life, but then has to try and balance the Heavenly Lacross
season with her normal life."

    "Are the game sequences good?"

    "Excellent."

    "I'll have to check them out.  Everything going well for you at home?" I
asked.

    "Very well, since Dad got a new job so we don't have to eat nothing but
rice and tofu three times a day," she said.  "I like having real meat."

    "Me too," I confessed.  "Very good."

    "How are you and your new girlfriend, Hosuto-san?" I asked him.

    "She and her mother like to take embarrassing pictures of me whenever I
goof up," he mumbled and I laughed.

    "Sorry, Aunt Chie did that to me all the time when I was a kid," I told
him.  "But I have a few embarrassing pictures of my cousin and her I could
give you."

    "Thanks, Sanada-sensei.  You're a lifesaver," he said.

    "Just doing my job," I told him.

    What a glorious perfect day.

    Nothing to do but enjoy myself.

    My phone was ringing.  I tried answering it, but no one was there.  How
strange.  It kept ringing twice, then stopping for a bit, then started
ringing again.

    I had the vague feeling something terrible would happen if I answered
it, so I ignored it and gradually, the ringing got fainter and fainter.  By
lunchtime, I couldn't hear it.

    Ume-san, my family, and I all ate together.  Father and I both teach
Art, though I also teach Math and Physics and Archery, Ume-san teaches
Chemistry and Astronomy, Mother teaches History and Theology, Alyssa teaches
Theology and Business and Philosophy and Singing, Nao teaches football (real
football, not that stupid American version) and wrestling.  (She also
teaches the Health, Sex Education, and Physical Education classes.) Alyssa's
husband Reito teaches Business, Economics, and Kendo.  And Miyu is one of
the school counsellors.  She can be a little harsh, but everyone comes out
of a talk with her stronger than before.

    We were busy gossiping and discussing politics.  Alyssa was trying to
explain how exactly the writings of Bishop Berkeley could be applied to
solve the current exchange rate problems, but I think this was one of her
elaborate jokes where she, Miyu, and Mother would laugh uproariously and the
rest of us would be very confused.

    "So, having established the exchange rate as merely an idea in the mind
of God...," Alyssa began.

    "We rob Peter to pay Paul the differential, right?" Father said.

    We all laughed at that.

    "This actually would be more like robbing Judas, since he was the
treasurer," Miyu pointed out.

    This led into an argument over who became treasurer once Judas committed
suicide.

    I gave Mother and my sisters a hug before going back to work, clasped
Dad's shoulder, and gave Ume-san a kiss.  Reito and I just saluted each
other.

    I saw Tomikami-san on the way to class; he had a weirdly frozen smile on
his face and I suddenly felt uncomfortable.  But then it turned natural.
"You're a lucky man," he said to me.

    "Hey, Coach Hosotazi really is into you.  You've got some good luck
too."

    "Yeah," he said softly.  "It doesn't get much better than this, does
it."

    "You don't need money or fame when you have love," I told him.  "It's a
normal, happy life, like I've always wanted."

    "Me too," he confessed.  "Anyway, we'd best get to class."

    "Yeah," I told him.  I'd always had a normal life.  My parents had met
while teaching at a Catholic school, got married, and had four kids, of whom
I was the youngest.  We'd all ended up teaching at the same school; maybe it
was destiny.  God's will, which is the same thing.  And I'd met a lovely
woman to start the whole story over again.  One day our kids would probably
teach too.

    I had the perfect life.

    it is a lie and we both know it

    Shut up, I told the voice whispering to me.  Sometimes I hear this voice
and it says terrible things, but I ignore it because it wants to destroy
everything I have worked for.

    you did not work for this it is all an illusion of saint bosco if you do
not accept power from me you will die.

    It was a monster's voice.  Trying to get me to be a monster like it.
But I refuse to be a monster.  I don't want power.  I don't need power.  I
can be normal like my family.

    your family is monsters who have done terrible things with their power
this is a lie saint bosco is going to kill ume if you do not save her by
accepting my power

    I refuse to become a monster.  Especially when there is no need for it.
Ume-san is not in danger.  She's perfectly safe and giving her students a
lecture on how to safely handle alkali substances.

    so you value your purity over saving the woman you love you are indeed
more a monster than you think i am

    "I would NOT let Ume-san die!," I told the voice.

    "Honey, are you talking to imaginary monsters again?  There are no such
things," Ume-san said.  "I can show you the twelve step proof again if I
need to."

    "I'm sorry, dear, my imagination is pretty big; I am an artist."

    Just for a moment, I imagined a storm of pinkish-red energy and Ume-san
screaming and a huge chesspiece monster closing in on her.

    No, I couldn't let that happen!  I had to save her.

    But she was right here, safe and holding my hand.  "I think we're going
to have to use the...emergency therapy..." she said, grinning naughtily.

    "Oooh, I like that."

    But was this really real?  It had seemed so vivid.  But really, this was
much better than reality.

    Reality...

    I was never this lucky in reality.  I...

    this is your last chance snap out of it or i will find someone less
pathetically weak willed than you who cannot be bought by the illusions of a
rip off the strong survive and the weak die show me strength or i will
abandon you whatever potential you may have

    "The weak should be protected by the strong!  The strong shouldn't abuse
their strength!" I shouted at the voice.  "With great power comes great
responsibility!  Aunt Nao always taught me that."

    Mind you, she ripped it off from a comic book.  But it's true.

    ahh yes she was so responsible being a prostitute and robbing men what a
great use of cosmic power petty theft and underage prostitution mind you if
i had been free i would have recruited her in a heartbeat she understood but
then everyone who taught you morality was tainted there is only power and
what you choose to do with it serve me and you can save them otherwise you
can die in an innocent dream once saint bosco finishes eating the real
version of your girlfriend serve me or die i will not ask again

    There had to be another way.  A power that wasn't so corrupt and
was...but maybe any power would do if it meant being able to save and
protect those I love.  Was innocent impotence better than power that might
corrupt?  Not everyone who had used the Hime power...

    "Come on, honey, I'm eager and waiting," Ume-san purred into my ear,
running a hand across my chest.

    She wasn't in danger.  I didn't have to choose between purity and
power.  The voice was just trying to trick me.

    Ume-san nibbled on my ear gently, her tongue playing across my ear and I
felt myself getting turned on.  Why was I bandying words when I could be
making love to my girlfriend?

    At school?  Ume-san would not make out with me at school.  She has some
dignity and we might be fired.  Plus, even if the school had no rules
against it, we'd be teaching, why am I not teaching right now?

    Something isn't right.  Voices in my head offering me power, Ume-san in
danger and not in danger at the same time, everything is so perfect.

    Life isn't perfect.  If I've learned anything it's that when someone
offers you lemons, it's because they've spoiled.

    But maybe I'm just sabotaging myself.  I've always been good at that.
Giving up before I finish, feeling like I can't ever win so I don't even
try.

    "You were willing to risk your life for someone you dislike, maybe even
hate.  To put your life on the line.  That's the action of a real hero,"
Nasu no Yoichi said.

    I started, as did Ume-chan.  I think the voice of evil in my head
started too.

    i am not the voice of evil just the honest voice of power we both know
what power can do but unless you have power you are nothing but something to
be trampled on

    "I'm not a hero.  I'm just sick of feeling guilty and impotent," I said
softly, staring at the floor.

    Ume-san continued to caress me, trying to lead me away.

    "You don't have to be impotent or a monster," Nasu no Yoichi said.  "You
just have to aspire to greatness and hone your skills until they bring you
power.  Until you become the best and can overcome anything by your
greatness.  As I did when facing the Heiki."

    he is lying you cannot save her without real power would you rather she
die and you keep your innocence skill and aspiration mean nothing without
real power

    "Not every choice is either/or," Alyssa said.  "Avoid false
dichotomies!  Life often requires trinary or even more complicated logic."

    "Skill and aspiration let you beat your mother the Hime at archery,"
Nasu no Yoichi said.  "Let me help you."

    "Come on, ignore them, let's go have some fun and forget about danger
and monsters and heroism," Ume-san said.

    But the real Ume-san would never say that.  She's a responsible teacher
who will risk herself for those she loves and her friends.

    How can I do less and ask to be her lover?

    "What do I have to do?" I asked Nasu no Yoichi.

    He held out his hand and on it sat a ring made of silver with a Japanese
style bow on it in steel.  "Take this ring and become the Knight of Steel.
And Nakamori-san will fight by your side."

    he is just trying to own you once you put on that ring you will serve
his purposes do not be a fool

    They were probably both trying to use me.  But I couldn't escape this
illusion or save everyone without power.  Not all my kin were corrupted by
power.  Surely I could keep my center.  Not become a monster.

    I refused to accept that my choices were impotence or monsterdom.

    I took the ring and put it on.  "Let's go."

    The world exploded and now I could see Ume-san frozen in a dream as
Saint Bosco opened up wide to devour her.  Pinkish-red light glittered
around everyone; I prayed we hadn't just mutated Ookiku-san and our
co-workers.  The light glittered around Saint Bosco as well, and he was
bigger than I remembered.

    I hoped throwing the crystal in the fire had helped instead of hurt; the
fire itself looked perfectly normal now.

    I seized the void again, letting my emotions melt away and becoming one
with my bow, imagining myself as Nasu no Yoichi again, letting him guide my
fingers as I floated serenely in the void above it all, assessing the
situation without anything to distract me.

    "Ume-san!  We can fight it!  You just have to break free!  I need you to
fight by my side!"

    Suddenly, Ume-san's eyes glowed silver and she snapped alert and now she
dove and rolled past Saint Bosco as it stabbed at her with its horn and
missed.  It was huge and powerful but clumsy and slow now.  It was slow and
bloated like anyone is after a heavy meal.

    She reached into her purse and pulled out a pair of eggshell grenades,
one for each hand.  "Water reacts with ferrous metal to produce an oxidation
reaction commonly known as rust, weakening it.  Rust will eventually corrode
even the strongest iron, like this iron maiden monster."  I could see she
now wore a ring which matched mine.  "I will strike its eyes and you can
shoot them out once they are weakened."

    I nodded and nocked an arrow, standing ready.  She pelted its eyes,
which began to rust at an accelerated rate.  It howled in agony and rage and
I fired.  Or more precisely, Nasu no Yoichi fired while I directed his
fire.  Saint Sebastian prayed for him and Saint Jude prayed for both of us
and I thanked them for their help.

    Twang. One eye was put out as the arrow bit deep into its skull,
piercing deeply.

    Twang.  It lost its other eye and now it was blind.

    Tomikami-san, Coach Hosotazi, and Ookiku-san clutched their heads and
swooned, still glowing softly.

    My phone was ringing again but I ignored it.

    It didn't matter, here inside the void with the saints empowering me and
Nasu no Yoichi firing for me.

    "The ocean," Ume-san said.  "Follow me!"

    I followed her into the ocean and Saint Bosco tried to pursue us.  But
we didn't mind the sea water, whereas Saint Bosco now found it eating away
at him.

    "Salt water corrodes iron ten times faster than exposure to air moisture
and the more salt, the more corrosion," Ume-san said, grinning the smile of
victory.

    Saint Bosco tried to give chase, but blinded, he kept wandering off
course.  Meanwhile, I kept firing at him every time I could stop and take a
shot, and the arrows bit deep into its metal frame.  Gradually, it noticed
it was coming apart and tried to flee the water, but instead crashed around
irregularly through the waves as we continued to assail it with arrows and
eggshell grenades.

    It now snapped in half when one of my arrows knocked out something
inside it.  Its bottom half fell into the ocean and dissolved away, and its
top half now came apart into shards which hit the water and burned into
black dots.  The dots boiled away into the sky and vanished into the
darkness of the night.

    We won.  WE WON.

    I let the void dissolve away and felt Nasu no Yoichi leaving me.  He was
replaced by a surge of triumphant joy and desire as I stared at Ume-san, who
stood near me, soaked from head to toe.  We grabbed each other and kissed
frantically, arms around each other; I nearly dropped my bow into the
waist-deep water.

    My phone rang; it's pretty waterproof, thankfully.  I ignored it just a
few seconds longer, then we headed back to the others.  I pulled out the
phone and then studied the ring.  What did it mean?  Had I really spoken to
the ghost of Nasu no Yoichi and made some kind of contract with him for
power?

    Wait...knight...had I just bargained with the Silver Knight?  But we
didn't know what he wanted or if he was friendly?  Had I just found a
smoother person to sell my soul to than whoever the voice of embracing
monsterdom had been?

    Maybe I was going to end up like Uncle Reito.  Please, Lord, no.  But
thank you, Saint Jude.  WE DID IT.

    I would angst later, for now I had to assure Mother I was alive.

    I took the call.  "Hello, Mother."

    "My boy, my boy, my boy," she said urgently.

    "I'm still a boy," I told her.  "And Ume-san and I just killed 'Saint
Bosco'.  Even if he sounds more like a clown than anything else."

    "Blame Alyssa," Mother mumbled.

    "HEY," I heard faintly.

    I could hear pandemonium at Mother's end, everyone trying to shout
things to me at once.

    "Anyway, we won.  Everyone survived, and I think they're okay."  The
glow on them had gone out and they all seemed to be breathing normally,
though I'd have to get closer to be sure.  "We lured him into the ocean and
he rusted and I shot him to death."

    Mother said something incoherent to me then I could hear her telling
them and then lots of happy shouting and she said, "And the crystal was
destroyed?"

    I asked Ume-san who told me, "It burned up in the fire."

    "It burned up in the fire."

    "I'm very, very proud of you," she said.  "I was very worried for you,
my dear son."

    "Thanks.  I think we'd better get someone up here to help me poke around
and try to figure out where that big crimson hound it ate came from, as I
have no clue how to even start looking."

    "We will see if Akane and Akira can come help you and we will join you
once we're done here as we need to put this thing down," Mother said.
"They'll call you soon, okay?"

    "Okay," I told her, feeling simultaneously nervous and excited.  I had
power.  Real power.  But who was giving it to me and what was the cost going
to be?  Please don't let me end up having to fight my family.  Please Lord,
please.

    But I had done what I had to.  I had chosen the less nasty looking road
to power.

    Please let it be less nasty.

    We checked everyone's pulse; they seemed perfectly healthy, just
unconscious.  They woke up after a little bit, confused.

    "Are you okay?" I asked them, even Tomikami.

    "It was glowing and then I had this dream..."  Tomikami-san said.

    "Me too.  I made a wish on it and then I dreamed about my wish," Coach
Hosotazi said.  She turned a little red and glanced over at Tomikami-san.

    "Yeah, I made a joke about wishing on a falling star, so we all wished
and then I dreamed my wish," Tomikami-san said.

    "There was this thing...," Ookiku said, shivering.  "I must have dreamed
it."  She frowned.  "Where's the meteorite?"

    "It must have burned up," Ume-san said.  "Probably the glow came from a
chemical reaction which consumed it while you all were hallucinating.  It
must have released gasses as it broke down."

    "Come to my office tomorrow, I'll check us all out," Coach Hosotazi
said.  She's also the school nurse.

    Tomikami-san looked frustrated, while Ookiku-san looked thoughtfully at
the quiver on my back and my archery gear.

    "Why are you armed?" Tomikami-san said, noticing it himself now.

    "Dogs have been attacking people at night, you know," I said.  "I saw
one here so I got my gear out of the car."

    "It's true, sensei," Ookiku-san said to Tomikami-san.  "It happened to
me a few nights ago."

    "Was there a dog...I think I saw a big red dog," Coach Hosotazi said.

    "We had to chase one off while you all were hallucinating," I said.

    "It was a beautiful dream," Ookiku-san said softly.

    "The best part of a dream is the chance to make it real when you wake
up," I said.

    Coach Hosotazi glanced over at Tomikami.  Tomikami studied the fire.
Ookiku-san nodded to me.  "Thank you for coming, sensei."

    "Yeah," Tomikami-san said.

    "Ookiku-san, do you want a ride home?" I asked her.  "You shouldn't be
out this late."

    "Yes, sensei, I'm going to need my sleep.  And I'm sure Tomikami-sensei
and Coach Hosotazi would like their privacy back."

    "We weren't...we're not..." Tomikami-san spluttered.

    "It's okay," I told him.  "We won't tell anyone."

    He stared at me in surprise, then said, "Thank you."

    "You're welcome."

    Coach Hosotazi smiled brightly.  "Good luck to you two, too."

    I laughed a little nervously.  "You're welcome."

    We took Ookiku-san home; I wanted to go back to what we'd started
earlier, but I had to tell her the truth. As much as I knew it.

    "What's going on, Shinichiro-kun?" she asked me.

    "You know how my sister Alyssa insisted the world was created?" I asked
her.

    "Yes," she said.  "She seemed remarkably sure of it for someone so
rational."

    "My family killed the god who gave the world its current form when most
of them were in high school," I said.

    "..."

    I explained the story of the Festival to her.  She stared in obvious
disbelief, which didn't surprise me.  I didn't confess the full extent of my
family's sins because that is their business to confess, but I did talk
about my parents.  She needs to really know what I'm coming from.

    "However, it's pretty clear what happened to us wasn't the same.  Though
we should probably check for any new tattoos."  I studied my ring.  "Did
Nasu no Yoichi talk to you during your dream or what?" I asked her.  Surely
Nasu no Yoichi can't have become a god handing out powers to people.  Then
again, maybe he did.

    "I didn't see him," she said.  "I...umm..."  She laughed embarrassedly.
"This character from a cartoon I watched as a kid talked to me.  Science
Ninja Amaya."

    "Oh, I remember that one.  They tried to be educational, but Alyssa
would pull her hair out because half the science was wrong," I said,
smiling.  "She had eggshell grenades."

    "Yes," Ume-san said, a little embarrassed.  "But that show helped
inspire me to go into science even if it got a lot of things wrong.  I was
afraid to take a shower for a week after the sodium monsters episode."

    "My chem teacher in high school nearly set the ceiling on fire trying to
demonstrate how sodium reacts with water," I told her.  "I was afraid to go
to chemistry for a while."

    "She offered to help me against the monster," Ume-san said softly.  "And
it felt like she was inside me when we were fighting.  I could just pull any
kind of grenade I needed out of my purse as long as it had some kind of
scientific basis."

    "So you could corrode iron quickly with water, but no 'DEATH FOG'
bombs," I told her.  "I assume you did something which sped up the effects
of the ocean too."

    "It was weird.  It was like...it was like a video game, almost.  Where
you are telling your on-screen avatar to do things.  So you're giving the
orders and something else is carrying them out."

    "My feeling too," I told her.  "My aunts can summon up a kind of pet,
known as a Child.  But I think maybe we summoned pets INTO us.  And then
they fought at our command using our bodies.  And they're heros and heroines
we admired."

    We were sitting on her couch; I stood up and said, "Stand up, please."

    She stood up.  I took her ring and studied it; it was a silver ring with
an ivory inlay of an eggshell grenade for a signet.  Perhaps not the most
dignified of symbols.

    The silver made me suspect that we'd somehow sworn ourselves to the
Silver Knight, but maybe not.  If we had, he was content to make deals by
proxy.  We didn't even know what the deal WAS.

    "Try picking me up," I told her.

    "There is no way I can pick you up," she said.

    "Try it," I said.

    She picked me up by my shoulders and lifted me; I manuevered a bit so I
was now perpendicular to the ground.  I could tell I was stronger.  "How
hard is it?" I asked.

    "It's easy," she said softly.

    We went outside; she could jump all the way to the roof; I could jump up
to the third floor balcony.  But my arms were a lot stronger as we found out
from a little arm wrestling.  She could run faster than me, to my surprise.

    "This is incredible," she said, staring up at the sky.

    My phone rang.  It was Aunt Akira.  "There is a midnight train which
reaches Sapporo at six AM.  But you have to teach, right?"

    "By the time you got here, we'd have to teach and we can't skip as
Finals are Thursday and Friday and then it's summer break.  So you might as
well get some sleep and catch one of the morning trains."

    "So you beat it?" Aunt Akira asked.  "Did you...are you..."

    "I am not sure what I am," I told her.  "But whatever I am, Ume-san is
one too."

    "Did anyone get hurt?"

    "No, we're both fine and we managed to save our co-workers, who think
they hallucinated the whole thing.  I think Ookiku-san may have realized it
was real, but didn't press things," I told her.

    "We will be there by the time you get off work, then.  Does she know
everything?"

    "She knows the important stuff," I told her.  I licked my lips
nervously.  "She's strong enough to lift me over her head now."

    "Good, she can give you a beating when you get depressed," Aunt Akira
said.  "In place of Alyssa."

    I laughed nervously.  "I'll see you soon."

    "I'm glad you're okay," she said.  "See you tomorrow."

    "See you."

    It was only now that I looked down at myself and realized I was wearing
one of Ume-san's Alien Research Club shirts and that she had misbuttoned her
blouse.  I pointed this out to her and her eyes crossed.

    "Well, hopefully, they won't tell anyone," she said.

    "I don't think they will," I told her.

    She looked up at the sky.  "It's a good thing the semester is almost
over.  I don't know how...how common are these monster attacks?  This
is...this is likely to eat a lot of time, I would think.  And being teachers
keeps us pretty busy."  Ume-san is pretty pragmatic, which is good, as I
need someone to hit me with reality every so often.  Mind you, with my
temperment, sometimes that means hitting me with the GOOD parts of reality.

    "Not very," I told her.  "But I get the impression they happen more
around people like us."

    "..."

    "But yes, we may have some trouble combining teaching and this," I told
her.  "However, the semester is almost over, so other than making sure no
more giant crimson hounds are going to show up, I think we shouldn't have
any trouble before finals."

************

    Ume-san and I had decided we'd best stick to family names at work, to
avoid sending too many 'fraternizing' signals.  We just had to avoid too
many clues for a week and then we would be free to be intimate for the
duration of vacation.

    Ookiku-san came to talk to me after class.  "Sensei, I'm moving out
whether Mom does or not, once the semester is over.  I've seen..."  She
sighed.  "I think if I go, she will go."

    "Where are you going?" I asked.

    "To stay with relatives," she said.  "They've agreed to take me.
Hopefully, Mom will come too."

    "Good luck getting her to go.  And I hope you'll be happy with your
kin."

    "Some things will be better, others worse.  But they're family, right?"

    "Yeah," I said.  "Family can make you crazy and it can lift you up."

    I clapped her shoulder gently.  "Good luck and God bless."

    "Thanks, sensei.  I..."  She hesitated and looked around.

    I waited.

    "Good luck to you too," she said softly.

    "Thanks."

    To my surprise, Tomikami-san showed up at lunch and proceeded to hand us
two lunchboxes.  "Here's our way of saying thanks," he said to me somberly.

    I blinked.  "That's nice of you."

    "It's Kobe beef," he said.  "I had too much of it, anyway."

    "Thank you, Tomikami-san," Ume-san said.

    "You're welcome, Nakamori-san," he said.  "I hope you both like pickled
vegetables."

    "I do," I told him.

    "I'm off to eat myself," he said.

    I fought the urge to laugh.

    "See you," Ume-san said to him.

    It was indeed pretty good.  Very high quality beef cut into little
cubes, noodles, a good sauce, and some very good pickled vegetables.  The
box had two small compartments.  One had some sort of odd thing with cabbage
and carrot bits and...was that mayonnaise?   It was kind of sweet and I
decided I liked it.  The other compartment had a tiny little brownie.  Nice.

    "I wonder if he made it or if Coach Hosotazi made it for him," Ume-san
said.

    "I'm grateful either way."

    I got halfway through lunch, then saw Marusato-san looking at us from a
distance.  She looked somewhat forlorn, then looked at Ume-san as if she
could explode someone's head with her eye rays.  For just one tiny second I
panicked over whether maybe she could.

    Then she ran off.  I sighed.  "I don't know what to do."

    "I will talk to her later, Sanada-san," Ume-san said.

    "I hate to rope someone else in, Nakamori-san, but it might be best we
recruit someone who isn't directly involved," I told her.  "I can ask
Aoshiba.  He's got kids, so he likely has been through this with his
daughters."

    "Good idea."

    He was happy to do so; I hoped it would turn out alright.

    Aunt Akane and Aunt Akira had gotten a hotel room by the time school let
out; I picked them up, and introduced Aunt Akira to Ume-san.

    "Is there somewhere private we can talk and take a look at what you can
do?" Aunt Akira asked.

    "There's a park about a half hour from here; it won't have many people
on a Monday evening, so we could get into the woods there and show off," I
said.  The idea of showing off made me pretty excited, though I was also
nervous about how far I may have stuck my own and Ume-san's head in a noose.

    "You about gave everyone a heart attack," Aunt Akane said as we headed
out to the park.

    "I'm sorry," I said.  "There was no way to wait."

    "I would have done the same thing," Aunt Akira said.  "I am sorry you've
been dragged into this, Nakamori-san."

    Ume-san sighed.  "I couldn't leave them to die.  Or let Shinichiro-kun
take it on himself."

    "Yeah," I said.  "I just feel good I was able to save them."

    "Me too," Ume-san confessed.  "That just gives you a huge rush."

    "Yes, it does," Aunt Akane confessed in turn.

    "Battle can be very enjoyable.  So long as you never lose," Aunt Akira
said somberly.  "Or if it is just practice for fun."

    "And we don't know the consequences of losing," Ume-san said nervously.

    "Well, tell me what it was like," Aunt Akira said.

    We related our experiences.

    Aunt Akira said, "Hmmm.  Well, something comes to mind that is half good
and half bad."

    "Go on?" I said.

    "Normally, you have to kill the Hime's Child to defeat them and
do...whatever happens to their most important person.  It sounds to me like
if your Child possesses you, it might be necessary to kill you to defeat you
in the same sense.  But that's only speculation," she said.  "Being beaten
unconscious might do it.  Can I see one of the rings?"

    I'd put mine in my shirt pocket so I wouldn't have to try to explain it
at school.  However, I was driving.  Ume-san had put hers in her purse and
now took it out and passed it to Aunt Akira.

    She studied it.  "Metal and Air," she said.  "Elemental themes.  Though
Metal seems an odd element for an archer."

    "I fire metal arrows," I said.  "And Samurai did wear a lot of metal."

    "You can be pretty stubborn, that's a kind of earth or metal trait,
right?" Ume-san said, teasingly.

    "I am not stubborn," I said firmly.

    That everyone grinned at me made me only more determined.  "I am NOT
stubborn."

    "Hmm.  Can you use your powers with the ring off?" Aunt Akane asked.

    "We can test that when we get there."

    It turned out that we still had enhanced physical prowess without our
rings on, but we couldn't actually do anything else without them.

    "These must be your Elements," Aunt Akane said. But I had a feeling
whatever we'd done to ourselves probably didn't line up one for one with
normal Hime abilities.

    I entered the void and called up Nasu no Yoichi's image to my mind.  I
heard Ume-san, Aunt Akane and Aunt Akira all gasp as I did so.

    "What?" I asked, my voice very flat.

    "We could see him fade into view and drop down inside you.  Now we just
see you," Aunt Akira said.  "I think you are merging with your Child."

    "But Childs aren't normally like humans in shape," Aunt Akane said.

    Ume-san looked thoughtful for a moment, then concentrated; I could see
Science Ninja Amaya drop down into her.

    We showed off our ranged attack skills; I could tell Ume-san greatly
enjoyed coming up with grenade ideas, though she mostly used confetti
grenades to avoid making a huge mess.  I drove a lot of arrows deep into and
through trees.

    "See if you can summon a Child," Aunt Akira now said.

    I looked around but we'd gone enough into the woods that no one was
going to see us.  I concentrated, though I wasn't sure what I was
concentrating on.

    There was a shimmer of light and suddenly a horse appeared, along with a
parked motorcycle.  The horse looked like a totally normal (if large) brown
horse with a silver saddle; the motorcycle was white with burgundy trim.

    "Sweet," I said and mounted up.

    Ume-san hopped on to the motorcycle, then looked utterly surprised and
pulled a key out of her purse. The motorcycle started with a roar; she
twisted the throttle and sped off through the trees.  "Wow, I know how to
drive it!"

    She got on a motorcycle and tried to drive it with no experience???

    I then got my horse moving and we raced around through the trees.  My
horse was unnaturally fast for a horse, but seemed otherwise normal and not
particularly powerful in combat.  But I could shoot pretty well from a
moving horse, I learned.  Excellent.

    The saddle was too big; it seemed to me like it was designed for someone
to ride behind me.  I pointed this out.

    "It does look like it's designed to make it easy to have a passenger,"
Aunt Akira said.  "The same applies to Nakamori-san's motorcycle."

    I was not feeling any urge to commit homicide on my aunts, which I hoped
was a good omen.

    "You know, it's possible maybe they managed to forge some kind of new
power by their wills.  The Namcub seemed to indicate this was possible,"
Aunt Akane said.

    "I hope you're right, but we have to plan for the worst," Aunt Akira
said.  "Though I can see one potential problem for both of you.  No melee
capacity.  No Child to fight for you and you both are ranged attackers."

    "I do know some fisticuffs I learned from Nao," I said.  "Though it's
basically the ancient art of fighting extremely dirty."

    Ume-san parked her motorcycle.  "I can hardly believe this is all real,"
she said, staring at it.

    "I know," Aunt Akane said.  "But you're not alone to figure it out
without help."

    "Science Ninja Amaya could take on people unarmed," Ume-san said.
"Let's try sparring a little."

    Aunt Akira nodded and came at her unarmed.  Ume-san was very mobile, but
not mobile enough.  She could have easily beaten up a mugger, I think, or
even a cop, but watching Aunt Akira in motion was just incredible, like
something out of a ninja movie.  She pretty quickly beat down Ume-san and
pinned her on the ground.

    "You are much more accurate with your grenades than your fists," Aunt
Akira said.  "Though I think with more training you could be very
impressive."

    Ume-san nodded.

    Then Aunt Akira kicked my ass, but I put up a better fight than Ume-san
did. I have more experience and training, though.

    "You should both come down for your vacation and let me train you,' Aunt
Akira said. "Aside from when - or if - we go to France, I will likely be
training the children intensely and you both would benefit from it.  I'm
sure Shinichiro's parents would be happy to put you up."

    "We'll talk about it.  At some point, we're going to go visit my
parents," Ume-san said.

    "You can't tell them about this," Aunt Akira said firmly.  "I'm sorry,
but we have to keep it as secret as we can."

    "My parents would never approve," Ume-san said, sighing.  "I'll have to
emphasize you teach Math, Shinichiro-kun, or they may lecture us until the
cows come home."

    I grimaced.  Great.

    "Shinichiro-kun is a very good artist," Aunt Akane said.

    "Thanks, Aunt Akane," I said, dismounting and making my horse...go
wherever he came from.  I think I may have to start carrying horse snacks.

    "Yes, but my parents assume all artists are useless idiots," Ume-san
said.  "But really, that's just my uncle."

    We did some more experimenting.  I could summon a bow, I discovered; it
looked completely like a normal bow.  I could also summon arrows for it;
they looked totally normal.  But as with shooting with a normal bow, I had a
huge amount of power behind my shots.

    "Hmm. I could probably make special heads for your arrows, to hold my
summoned grenades; we could get extra range on grenade effects that way,"
Ume-san speculated.

    We did some more futzing around, then tried to come up with a plan for
how to find any Crimson Hounds or other monsters on the way back to town.

    However, the town officially had no known magic points in the Magdalene
Records, according to one of Mother's friends in the Order who had looked it
up for her.

    "Maybe the crystal let the hound break through," Aunt Akane speculated.

    "I think it must be connected to the dog attacks.  And what kind of
stupid monster would break through at the same place as another monster that
could hypnotize and eat it?" I asked.

    "Your friends probably enabled the illusion monster to break through by
making wishes on the crystal," Aunt Akira said.  "The Crimson Hound may have
sensed its power and hoped to devour it to grow stronger."

    "Or someone had the power to summon it and knew the chunk of the Hime
Star was coming," I said.

    Ume-san listened quietly; I suspect she felt she was in over her head a
little.  It is all a lot to adjust to.  I keep alternating between being
terrified I've fucked myself and ecstatic that I can really be a part of
this.  That I can carry my own weight.

    Please, Lord, don't let me get possessed.

    I got mail while driving; I checked it when we got back to town and went
to get some noodles for dinner.  'FUCK FLYING HEADS' was the message from
Nao.  I laughed.  That's our Nao.

    We got some food and took it home.  Ume-san printed out a map of the
town and began dividing it into a grid for searching, making notes of places
with spooky town tales about it, supposed ghosts, etc.  This way we could
search methodically for any kind of magic zone.  If that didn't work, we
would come up with another plan.

    My aunts could search in the day; we would join them at night as much as
we could.  Unfortunately, finals were coming up and likely to eat a lot of
time.

    But we had to work around our jobs.  Aunt Mikoto had taken over Aunt
Akira's students for a week, but we didn't have that option.

     We did a little searching that night, but didn't find anything.

    The next morning, however, the town newssite announced 'Shrine Priest
gone missing, Police Baffled'.  The priest of the shrine had apparently just
vanished with no sign of violence and all his meager possessions left
behind.

    We kept searching and couldn't find a magic zone.  The shrine was
quiescent.  Now, anyway.  The combination of missing priest, the tendency of
shrines to be built over weakpoints, and a lack of other evidence made us
conclude that the priest had something to do with it but he'd flown the coop
or perhaps been taken when his hound got eaten. But why hadn't he been there
with it?

    Assuming he had summoned the hound.  However, it seemed more plausible
the Hime Star fragment had called up a Child like Mother's than that it had
somehow responded to their wishes by summoning a Crimson Hound.

    My aunts went back and we finished out the semester and turned our
grades in; I had to miss Aunt Mai's birthday party because I had to get
Finals graded by Monday and her birthday was on Saturday.  (For that matter,
Monday was Crystal's birthday and Tuesday would be Natasha's.)  I made sure
to send them presents.

     We had decided to go visit Ume-san's parents first, then go down and
stay a while with mine to train and everything.  There was, however, a last
minute complication.

    We both got called in when we went to turn in our grades.  "I waited on
this for the semester to end to avoid disrupting your work," the principal
said.

    I knew what was coming.  I could see Ume-san knew too.

    "A student reported you two have been engaged in fraternization," the
Principal said.  "Pictures and everything.  Is this true?"

    This is why I hate breaking rules.  I don't want to be like my father,
but I also hate getting in trouble for breaking them.  And I never get away
with it.

    "Who is accusing us?" Ume-san asked.

    "One of the softball team, Marusato Yoko," he said.  He showed us
pictures of us kissing and holding hands and the like at the beach.

    Yeah, we fucked up.  DAMMIT.

    "She's just taking revenge because she had a crush on me and I didn't
reciprocate," I said bitterly.

    Ume-san looked very unhappy with her.

    "Is it true?" he asked.  "I will have to put you both on probation and
then fire you if you violate it," he continued.

    There is no way I am going to break up with Ume-san just to keep this
job.  Maybe I am a stupid romantic, but...

    "So we would have to break up," Ume-san said.

    "Yes," he said.  "It's against the rules."

    "No matter what, this is going to be the worst visit with my parents
ever," she mumbled.

    Probably not as bad as a few I've had with mine.

    "Can we talk about this?" I asked.

    "Yes," he said.  "We don't reopen until September, so you don't have to
decide right this minute.  I can just quietly table the issue until you
decide or see if you have other opportunities."  He sighed.  "I'm sorry, but
I can only 'fail to notice' if no one shoves it in my face.  My apologies."
He sounded rather mortified.

    "Thank you for being understanding, sir," I told him.  "We'll discuss it
and inform you as soon as we can."

    "Okay.  It would be best if I know by the end of the week."

    "Yes, sir," I said softly.

    Ume-san looked very angry in the car.  "That filthy little backstabber."

    I was pretty mad... but we *were* breaking the rules. It's not like she
was blackmailing us or something - though it was a low blow.

    Or maybe I am overly used to the universe crapping on me.

     I made pork and fried rice for dinner, and we discussed our options.
Pretty quickly, we decided that we definitely did not want to break up - so
one or both of us would have to quit.  Which neither of us wanted to do, but
I had an idea.

    "I hate to do this," I said.  "I've worked hard to become independent of
my family.  But I have an aunt who runs a school."

    "Who might hire us?"

    "I really, really hate to do this," I told her.  "But on the other hand,
we would still get to teach and we'd have a boss who knows how everything
goes.  With...everything.  You know."

    "I can hardly believe this is real," she said.  "That girl is going to
pay, though."  She frowned.  "Little backstabber."

    "Let it go," I said.

    "You were always kind to her and she repaid you by stabbing you in the
back.  I won't tolerate someone doing that to my boyfriend," Ume-san said
firmly.  "It's time to make my famous stink bombs."  Her eyes lit up and she
reached into her purse and pulled out an eggshell grenade.  "This gives me
ideas."

    "Honey, we're not kids any more.  Petty revenge shouldn't be our style,"
I said to her.

    She frowned.  "I have to do something."

    I could call Nao.  She is queen of revenge.  Or Aunt Shiho, the other
queen of vengeance.  But we need dignity.  Dignified revenge.

    The problem is that those in my family with any dignity generally aren't
into revenge or have foresworn it, like Aunt Shizuru.  Though she is
probably my most dignified Aunt who would know how to snub someone subtly in
a non-childish manner.

    "Conference your phone to mine and we can call my Aunt Shizuru."

    I explained the situation to Aunt Shizuru.

    She laughed softly.  "Take pictures of you kissing and send them to
her.  Make her wallow in your happiness as it will bring her pain," she
said.  "Really, though, it's best to avoid revenge," she said sadly.

    "I have to do something," Ume-san said.  "She needs to learn not to spy
on people and to not try to destroy their happiness."

    Aunt Shizuru sighed.  "I understand how you feel.  But that kind of
anger just eats away at you."

    "Which is why I'm going to vent it," Ume-san said.  "Then forget she
ever existed."

    "Thanks for the advice, Auntie."

    "You're welcome.  Have you tried asking Fumi for work?"

    "That's next, likely," I told her.  "I hate to lean on the family like
that, though."

    "It is fine," she said.  "I fear things are going to grow worse and you
will need a boss who is on the inside of our team."

    That's true.

    I'm sorry, Ume-san, to drag you into this.

    God, I've lost my job I worked so hard for.

    I felt a sudden very intense burst of anger at Marusato-san.  It would
be...no, no, no.  I entered the void to squelch my burst of rage.

    "You're right, Aunt Shizuru," I said. "Thanks for the advice.  I'm going
to call Aunt Fumi."

    "You're welcome, Shinichiro-san," she said.

    Before I could hang up, however, she asked, "Can you tell me more about
your new abilities?  I only have had a second-hand report."

    I told her everything we'd learned from experimenting.

    "Hmm," she said.  "Have you met Natsuki's new boyfriend?"

    "Mr. Smith?  I've only heard vague stories."

    "He may possess a Child," Aunt Shizuru said.  "His assistant Dorothy
definitely possesses the physical prowness of a Hime," she continued.  "But
I haven't seen it in him.  It may not be obvious, though."

    "You think they may have done...whatever I've done?"

    "Maybe," she said.  "Though one of them definitely has a distinct
Child."  She sounded a little worried.  "Though another thought comes to
mind."

    "Hmm?" I asked.

    "I wonder if he will approach other men in our family," Aunt Shizuru
said.

    "Maybe," I said.  "Uncle Yuuichi, I think, has enough skill to appeal.
I think...if this is the Silver Knight...he's looking for people who have
worked hard to become good at something.  And who want to do great deeds
with it.  That would be Uncle Yuuichi all over."  Aunt Mai's not going to
like that.

     "Haruka is another possibility," she said softly.

    "Yes," I told her.

    We discussed this a while longer, then we said our goodbyes, and Umi-san
put a hand on my shoulder.  "What's wrong?"

    I let the suppressed rage drain out of me and let go of the void.  "Just
a burst of being really angry at Marusato-san."

    "That's exactly how I feel," she said.

    "Let's make some photos," I told her.

    Most of the photos were unsuitable, since we didn't want to be busted
for pornography.  Well, most of them were unsuitable because they sucked,
too.  It's hard to make out with someone and then have sex with them while
trying to take photos of the work in progress.  We kind of got carried away.

    But one of the first photos of us just kissing very hard was fine.
Though I made sure to wipe out the pornographic ones; best to take no
chances with them wandering off into other hands somehow.

    First things first, though. I wanted to secure us work before anything
else.

    I stared at the phone for a long time while Umi-san made us lunch.
Finally, I called Aunt Fumi.

    "Hello, Shinichiro-san.  I hope you're enjoying your vacation.  I know I
will enjoy mine," she said.  "Though being administration means my work is
rarely really done."

    "Well, I...I lost my job," I mumbled.  "I had to either dump my
girlfriend or dump the job."

    "That's awful," she said sympathetically.  "Your Mother called up to
brag about you and your girlfriend the other day.  She was very
complimentary and really happy."

    "I hope I'm right to be happy about that and I haven't just messed
everything up," I said.

    "Believe in yourself, Shinichiro-san," she said.  "I take it you need
work?"

    "Yes," I said.  "I utterly hate to ask you."

    "It's fine.  Family take care of each other.  Though I feel bad you'll
miss the gentle Hokkaido summer and have to experience baking alive with
us."  Aunt Fumi's voice was gentle and sympathetic.  "I'll need you both to
come down and fill out some paperwork," she said.  "And so we can find you
two an apartment."

    "I really shouldn't ask you for a favor like this," I said.

    "It's fine," she said.  "You're a good teacher and I won't mind having
some more backup here in case of an emergency.  Also, I'll be happy to have
more of the family nearby.  It gets a little lonely sometimes.  Having
everyone here a few weeks ago was very nice."

    I never really thought of that.  But it made me smile.  "Thank you, Aunt
Fumi."

    I had Umi-san conference in and we discussed all the necessary
arrangements, and then we thanked her and sent letters of resignation to the
Principal and a taunting photo to Marusato-san.

    Filthy little...

    I made myself calm down.  No making with the crazy now more than ever.
We have a duty as...as people of power to be responsible and not abuse our
powers, no matter how much filthy little backstabbers...dammit.

    We went up on the roof to look at the stars that night.  "Let's go see
your parents soon," I told her.  "They may even be happy you're going to
work at a more prestigious school than you were before."

    "They will.  They're good scientists, but a little shallow.  Mom was
really disappointed I went to teach high school instead of becoming a big
research chemist like her or a big engineer like Dad," Ume-san said, holding
my hand.  "But I wanted to teach, not just make money and work myself to
death.  I will call them tomorrow, see when they get off.  Just be ready for
some intellectual snobbery."

    I have Alyssa for a sister.  I think I'm immune to that.

***********

    Ume-san's parents are named Gina and Norio.  Gina is actually a Japanese
name that means "silvery" and is not a foreign name AT ALL, as Gina will
tell you VERY FIRMLY when you meet her.  She's a research chemist and her
father is a civil engineer.  They live in Hakodate.

    Hakodate is a nice city of about three hundred thousand; it was one of
the first places in Japan opened to foreign visitors back in the 1850s.  So
far as I can tell, Nakamori Gina greatly regrets this; Nakamori Norio
doesn't seem to care but basically trails helplessly in his wife's wake
while she pontificates.  Endlessly.

    We'd gone out to eat shortly after arriving; they picked us up at the
station in their jeep.  I like jeeps, so riding in the back with my hair
whipping about was fun.

    The Dancing Turtle was a good seafood place.  I had snapping turtle
soup, which was very good.  Everyone else was eating crab.  "Hmm, Fuuka
Academy does have a pretty good reputation these days," Ume's mother said.
"But there were some huge scandals a while back."

    "That was when Ume-chan was still in diapers," her father said, slowly
digging out crab meat and dipping it in a red sauce he also used for the
french fries he had with it.  French fries with crab?  I'm pretty sure
that's forbidden somewhere in the Bible.  If he's dipping it in ketchup, I'm
pretty sure that's one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  "Over twenty years ago."

    "Some nun was running around having intercourse with the teachers and
got pregnant," Ume's mother said.  "What a terrible person.  Probably ended
up a prostitute."

    "Honey, you say that about any woman you don't like," Ume's father said
amiably.

    I ate with one hand so my other hand could pound my leg in order to
avoid shouting incoherently which is useless with people like this.  Ume-san
glanced at me.  "That was long ago and best forgotten, Mother."

    "And the art teacher set the place on fire as a performance piece,"
Ume-san's mother continued.  "Would you like some of my cucumber,
Sanada-san?  It's extremely good."

    "Thank you," I said stiffly, taking some.  Even at his most evil, Father
would not have burned the school as an art piece.  He HATES 'performance
art'.  "Would you like to try my zucchini?"

    "Thank you," she said firmly, taking some.  "Hmm, not bad.  Maybe a
touch too much vinegar."

    "The cucumber is just right," I managed to say.  There is no point in
having a fight with this person, I told myself, though I wanted to scream
and shout.

    "On the other hand, some stupid foreigner soldiers also got involved and
shot a bunch of students.  I don't know why we tolerate that sort of thing,"
Ume-san's mother said.  "And everyone keeps giving their children stupid
foreign names too."

    I thanked God that Crystal wasn't here.

    "I mean, they have invented some useful things, but really, their women
are all whores."

    "Honey, that's enough calling people whores for one day," Ume-san's
father said.

    "I waited until marriage to have sex with you, dear.  But these modern
women just slut around."  She looked over at Ume-san.  "I hope you two have
been chaste."

    "No," Ume-san said.  "Why are you being twice as cranky as usual,
Mother?"

    "I am not," she said firmly.

    She sounded rather like me in denial; weirdly, it cheered me up.

    "Secret Project X hit a snag and the entire experiment was contaminated
by an idiot night janitor deciding to burn incense," Ume-san's father said.
"She is understandably wroth.  He was fired, of course."

    "But I am not cranky about it," Ume-san's mother said firmly.  "I
thought you'd stopped being so slutty, dear."  She said this so amiably.

    Ume-san's father sighed and stuffed french fries in his mouth.

    French fries with crab?  That is just so wrong.

    "I am a grown woman and I will do whatever I want with my body," Ume-san
said irritably.  "You no longer support me; you no longer get to tell me
what to do."

    "You never would have finished your degree if I had let you keep
sleeping around with everything that moved.  You had no taste and no
discretion," Ume-san's mother said amiably, picking more crab meat out.
"White sauce, please, dear."

    Her father pushed the little bowl over to his wife.  She dipped her meat
in it and ate it.

    "You know, if you do the math, you might notice that my oldest sister
was born only seven months after you got married, Mother," Ume-san said.
"Remarkably large preemie."

    They glared at each other.

    "Now, now, she's a grown woman," Ume-san's father said.  "I'm sure you
two can find something else to fight about if I'm paying this much money to
watch an argument."

    They both sighed and grumbled, then Ume-san's mother said, "So you teach
math and archery?"

    "Yes," I said.  "And art."

    Ume-san's mother said, "I suppose teaching art pays more than most full
time artists make."

    "Unfortunately true," I told her.  "Neither of my parents are all that
great at math, so I suppose I must have absorbed it from my sister Alyssa by
osmosis or something."

    "Why did your parents give her a stupid name like that?", Ume-san's
mother asked.

    I grimaced, feeling angry. Alyssa took a lot of crap over her name.  "I
don't know, Gina, why did your parents give you a foreign name?"

    "It's not foreign!," she said angrily.

    "It's a perfectly fine name.  Both of them," Ume-san's father said
firmly.  "So let's drop it.  Unless you want me to tell them about the dog
naming story."

    Ume-san's mother grimaced.  "No.  So she's a mathematician?"

    "She has Ph.D in Theology, an MBA, and a Master's in Philosophy.  She
teaches at a Catholic university in Osaka."

    "She must be very smart, then," Ume-san's mother said approvingly.

    "She is brilliant," Ume-san said.  "We had an incredible debate about
whether aliens exist."

    "I know the math says they must, but I expect if they actually existed
right now they'd be here stealing our jobs," Ume-san's mother said.

    The rest of us all laughed and she stuffed her face, clearly not happy
we found this funny.

    "What do your parents do?"  Ume-san's mother asked.

    "Father teaches art and Mother is a counselor for battered women and
other people in trouble," I told her.  Not the full truth. I really wanted
to say 'She's the nun you were badmouthing earlier, so apologize now!', but
I didn't want a pointless fight.  Not when I was just meeting her parents.

    "They're very nice," Ume-san said.

    "That's a hard job your Mother chose.  Our lousy society has a lot of
women in trouble," Ume-san's mother said, then sighed.

    Ume-san worked on her rice and carrots.

    I told her about the Ookiku-san situation and she was very sympathetic.
"Poor girl.  I hope her family gets the help it needs."

    "Me too," I told her.

    We chatted about my Mother's work with women for a while and once we
ate, we all went down to the old Goryokaku fort, which is now a park and has
a very nice viewing tower.

    It was a fun trip but I had a feeling this would be a long three days.

*************

    Inevitably, of course, we then had to have the argument over where I
would be sleeping.  Ume-san's old bedroom was now the guestroom with a
double bed, where whichever kid was visiting would stay with their spouse;
another room was set up for visiting grandkids with several futons.

    "He can sleep on a futon in Keiichi's old room," Ume-san's mother said
firmly.  Keiichi was Ume-san's older brother, now long married, moved out
and with kids of his own, down in Tokyo.  His old bedroom was now the
visiting grandkid bedroom.

    "He can sleep with me," Ume-san said.  "I am a grown woman and if I want
to sleep with my boyfriend, I will."

    "Tell her no, dear," Ume-san's mother said to her father.

    What made this worse for me was my suspicion we'd have to go through
this again with Mother and Father.

    "If I hear anything, I'm going to make you both go get a hotel room," he
said.  "But if you keep it quiet, I don't care."

    "Honey!" Ume-san's mother said.

    Ume-san grinned.  "Sorry, Mom, you lose."

    "Virtue is dead," Ume-san's Mother said, sighing.

    "Seven months," Ume-san said sharply.

    "It would have been eleven if our first wedding attempt hadn't been
wrecked by that damn earthquake," Ume-san's mother said.  "And we'd been
engaged for a year!"

    "Blah, blah, special pleading, blah," Ume-san said, arms folded across
her chest.

    "Honey, it's better to just move on," Ume-san's father said patiently.

    "It's better to fight to the last ditch," Ume-san's mother said.

    "Anyway, we're going to bed," Ume-san said.  "Together."

    I took her hand.  "See you in the morning."

    Alyssa is going to freak out on me.  Ugh.

    We went up to the room and began changing for bed.  Ume-san smiled.  "I
feel weirdly grown up."

    "What?" I asked in confusion.

    "I've had that argument before but usually Dad backs Mom up.  This is
the first time I won."

    I kissed her cheek.  "My parents probably won't approve either."

    "Your mother is in no place to complain. Nor your father," she told me.


    I finished putting on my pajamas.  "I know."  I sighed deeply, feeling a
little depressed.  "I know."

    She hugged me tightly.  "It's okay.  You shouldn't feel guilty because
of how you were concieved."

    "I know," I said.  But I do anyway.

*************

    We climbed Mount Hakodate on the hiking trails on our second day; it was
a lot of fun and the view from up there at night is incredible.  Ume-san's
Mother seemed less cranky for which I was glad.  I guess she just had a big
head of steam to blow off and now she could relax a little.

    We visited some museums the third day, and hit some nice restaurants;
the next morning, we hopped a bullet train to Osaka.  Mother and Father,
Alyssa, Nao, Miyu, and Uncle Reito were all waiting for us.  I got hugged a
lot and Mother hugged Ume-san.  I even hugged Dad.  I couldn't be mad at him
for once.

    "Did you bring your giant limo?" I asked Uncle Reito.

    "Just the van," he said.  "The limo is too hard to park."

    "Just to get this fight over with, Shinichiro-kun and I will be sharing
a bedroom," Ume-san said.

    I winced.  I hadn't intended to just whack the parents in the face with
it.

    "I expected you would," Father said.

    Mother made a face, but said, "Okay.  You're both old enough to make
your own choices."  I could tell she didn't approve but knew she couldn't
win this fight.

    Nao said, "Well, duh."

    Miyu and Uncle Reito didn't say anything.

    Alyssa tried to say something but her jaw flapped soundlessly.

    I went over to her and whispered to her, "I'm sorry to disappoint you,
Alyssa, but I haven't actually been a virgin since I was sixteen.  I should
have been honest with you before."

    "Good," Ume-san said, then bowed to Mother.  "Please help me adjust to
this new life.  It's all so...I can hardly believe it's real."

    "I know," Mother said sympathetically.  "We all will help you, of
course."

    Alyssa still looked like I had blown her brain circuits out.  "Alyssa?"
I asked softly.

    She stared into my eyes, then stared at the ground, then said, "You
should have told me the truth."

    "I know," I told her.  "We have to do too much lying for this family
already."  I sighed.  "I just didn't want you to be disappointed in me."

    "I'm a lot more disappointed about the lying than the sex.  Boys can't
help it, they're stupidly horny," she said.

    "You just don't want to admit the real reason you claim to hate
Natasha's boyfriend is that you're hot for him," Nao said to her.

    "I AM NOT HOT FOR THAT LITTLE FREAK!" Alyssa shouted.

    Everyone on the train platform stared at us.

    Mother buried her face in her hands.

    "We'd best get going," Uncle Reito said.  "Lots to do today."

    "Come on, sister," I told her.  "You can chew on me in the car until you
feel better."

    I got an extremely long lecture on why lying is a sin and then she
wanted to give me a penance, but Mother insisted I go do confession with
someone outside the family.  At least in this case I wouldn't have to lie to
the person hearing my confession, which I've had to do a few times in the
past.

    Coming home to our house where I did most of my growing up once we moved
to Osaka was kind of strange.  It was pretty much the same as it had been on
my last long visit.  But now I had Ume-san with me.  And I was really one of
the family now.

    Or a traitor bomb waiting to go off.

    Dammit.

    Aunt Miyu took me aside after I got settled in; we went to her old
bedroom.  She and Alyssa and Nao usually stay at their order's abbey here,
but Father can't live there, so he and Mother keep our old house.  My
sisters sleep over here frequently, though.

    We sat down on her bed and she put an arm around me.  "Shinichiro-kun, I
can tell you're worried."

    "I'm fine," I insisted.  It's utterly futile to try to lie to Aunt Miyu,
but I couldn't help myself.

    "We still aren't sure what you have done to yourself, though I suspect
you are now of the Silver Knight's chosen."

    I winced.

    "Nevertheless, as you know, Alyssa and I started out as enemies of this
family.  And now we are part of it.  You did what you had to save people.
Our motives were much less pure, but we have found redemption and love
here.  Even if I have to beat you unconscious at some point, I love you.  We
will not let you be taken.  If he tries to chain you and use your body as a
garment, we will get him out and we will free you and you will be safe."
Her voice was a little more intense than usual.  "You are one of us and you
always have been."

    I shivered, the fear welling up inside me.  "I'm scared, Miyu.  Of what
I might end up doing or being used for."

    "God loves you and so do I.  We all sin, whether we make bargains with
extradimensional entities or not.  We just have to pick ourselves up off the
ground afterwards and atone and move on."  She held me firmly as I began to
cry on her shoulder.

    "What have I done?" I babbled into her shoulder.

    "What you had to, to save people," she said.  "Just let it all out."

    I cried for a very long time, and felt a lot better afterwards.  "Don't
be afraid," Miyu said.  "We both know you will do the right thing."

    I wish I knew that.  But I did feel better.  "Have you told them yet?" I
asked her softly.

    She stared at the floor.  "No.  I should.  I must.  They must hear it
from me but my lips will not say it."

    "I'm sure they will still love you like I do," I told her.

    "Fear is a terrible thing," she said softly.

    "Amen," I said to her.  Amen.

*************

    I don't know if I've moved forward, moved backwards, or maybe some of
both.  I've gotten what I wanted for so long, but of course, it's already
blown up in my face and has a timebomb probably tied to it.

    But what else could I do?  I couldn't let them die.  And now I've
dragged Ume-san into it.  And managed to make her lose her job.  I'm lucky
she doesn't hate me.

    I wish I had a better temperment that didn't always make me see the
darker side of things.  I'm the king, I think, of looking gift horses in the
mouth.

    My phone rang; it was Ookiku-san.  "I've made it, sensei," she said.
"I'm with my kinfolk now.  I talked Mother into coming with me."

    "Good," I told her, feeling better.  It's the little victories like this
that let me get through my internal storms.  "Have a fun summer vacation."

    "You too, sensei.  You have fun with Nakamori-sensei."

    I laughed.  "Trust me, I will."

    "Have a nice summer, then.  I just wanted to let you know I was okay.
Thank you and thank your family for helping me.  And thank Nakamori-sensei
for me too."

    "I will.  God bless."

    "May your god bless you too, sensei.  Goodbye."  Click.

    One door closes and another opens, I guess.

    "You done monologuing to yourself in the back yard, Shin-chan?" Nao
asked.

    "I am not monologuing to myself," I told her.  "And don't call me
Shin-chan."

    She laughed.  "It's time for us to go over to Akira's dojo so she can
kick all our asses at once.  You're coming, right?"

    "Yeah," I said.  I couldn't help but smile despite my worries.  "Time to
show off my Nao-Fu."

    "Dirty fighting is the one true path of enlightenment," Nao said, then
laughed.  "Let's go, brother.  Your girlfriend is already in the car."

    I took my sister by the arm.  "Let's go show them how it's done."

    "Shin-chan, show me groin kick," Nao said, and started laughing and so
did I.

    "Sensei, can you break a tree like that?" I asked.

    "Tree has no nuts, no kidneys, no hair to pull.  NEVER fight tree,
Shin-chan.  It can't be defeated," Nao said, laughing.

    Everyone thought we were crazy by the time we reached the car.

    Sometimes my family makes me insane.

    But sometimes I wouldn't trade it for any other family in the world.

    I just hope that isn't what I did when I accepted Nasu no Yoichi's
help.

    Saint Jude, pray for me.  I think I am going to need it.
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