WRITER'S NOTES:  I was very taken away by a short fanfic on the way Ataru looks on himself, so I was tempted to write a sequel.  Not as nasty as parts of "The Senior Year" that I wrote some years back...I hope.  ^_^  I bring in the Wizard from the "Spells 'R' Us" universe (thanks to Bill and the many other people who've written for the series) and I elaborate more on the character of Tampopo Kamekichi (who I introduced in my ASFR-inspired fanfic "The Galatea Syndrome" and plan to have appear in "Urusei Yatsura Twenty Years Later").  I also toss in for spice to the mix the Master PC concept first created by J.R. Parz.  A gracious nod to him, of course.  My TSY character Chigaiko Inu also appears here.  She first appeared in "Darling's Secret Date," then later appeared in the side stories "Children of Eternity" and "Revenge and Redemption."

*    *    *


"The End of Tribulation" or "Here's Tariko!  Sayonara, Ataru!"
by Fred Herriot

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


Tampopo Kamekichi sighed.

        She had done that a lot as of late.  The boy she had chosen as her latest kouhai hadn't been doing well.  That whole business with the idiot prince and his mushrooms was only now starting to blow over.  She had arranged things to ensure that Rupa and Carla would have an "accident" on their way back to Yaminokuni.  One tagged with a message warning them never to come Earth's way again...or next time, the accident would be much worse.

        *Terminally* worse.

        Still, Ataru needed help.  A lot of it.  As his image flashes through her mind, Tampopo emits another tired sigh.  He was such a sweet man deep down...once you got past the mask he projected to everyone else, even Lum.  The mask that earned him the reputation he had.  The mask that shielded a very shy, insecure young boy who actually feared most women.  A boy who lived under constant abuse from all around him, including his worthless parents.

        A boy Tampopo feared would die before he could be saved.

        She sighs.  With her subtle influence, she had forced the United Nations to "punish" Lum for her part in the mushroom episode by sending her and her countrymen home for the rest of summer vacation.  Naturally, Lum tried to resist, but the U.N. waved the threat of the Holy Inquisition of Zephyrus.  The Urusians as a whole were a headstrong, reckless lot, but not THAT much.

        Well, she had a month now.

        A month to do her best to save Ataru, then set him on his way.

        A smile crinkles her lips.

        She knew exactly how...

*    *    *

        The wizard sighs as he wipes the counter of his store.  It had been a profitable time in this part of the world.  Well, time to move on and see if he could help people along...


        He blinks, then notices a woman standing at the doorway of Spells 'R' Us.  Stocky but quite strikingly beautiful in her own way, with brown hair cut to mid-neck and brown eyes, vaguely Japanese in looks.  She was dressed in a dark gi-like tunic with chopsticks and spatulas stitched on it, black form-fitting pants disappearing into slip-on shoes.  While on the surface, she seemed a normal restaurateur, looks were deceiving, the wizard knew.

        VERY deceiving.

        "Sumimasen, Mahouzukai-sama," she bows her head.  I'm sorry, most honoured wizard.

        "Irasshaimase, Kamekichi-san," he beckons her within.  Be welcome here, Miss Kamekichi.

        "I do speak English," she offers.

        "That's alright, Miss Kamekichi.  I haven't tried my latest translation spell yet and you offered the opportunity."

        "I'm pleased to help test it.  The accent is quite nice."

        She walks in, then begins to scan his wares.  The wizard gazes at her.  Yes, he had heard of this one.  One cursed by powers even he couldn't understand to spend eternity seeking out and helping lonely souls gain peace to their hearts, love and happiness in their lives.  From what others had told him, she had yet to fail once in her self-appointed task.  Yet why would she seek him out?

        "Is there something I could help you with?" he wonders.

        "Yes," she nods.  No doubt, this wandering mage would be perfect to help her.  "Ah...!" she picks up a small crystal.  "Just what I needed," she nods.  "Do you take yen?"

        "Certainly," he blinks.  "I'm sure you realize that crystal only works for one week's time."

        "It will be long enough for my purposes," she sighs, then stares at him, drawing her change purse and extracting several thousand yen notes.  More than enough to pay for it, the wizard knew, running the dollar-to-yen conversion in his mind.  "I also would desire you come to Tokyo, near where I live now, for a time."

        "To help one you've chosen to help?" he wonders.

        "Yes," she sighs.  The wizard places an assuring hand on hers.  She carried her concern for her latest "principal" like Atlas carrying the Earth on his shoulders.  "I could loose this one."

        "I fail to see how I could help someone like you."

        "You can," she hands him the money.  "In many ways, given how much you've aided others, you're perfect for what I have in mind.  When you meet him, you will understand what I mean.  People decry him for being nothing but a pervert, an enemy to all things female, a curse on their lives and society.  He is not.  But given his current situation, the emotional baggage which threatens to crush his heart and soul, a drastic solution is needed.  You can provide that.  As for the 'how,' I'll leave that to your discretion."

        He blinks, then nods.  "I'll be there very soon."

        "Domo arigatou gozaimasu," she smiles.  Thank you very much.

        "Dou itashimashite," he nods.  You're welcome...

        Ataru sighs contently as he walks down the street, his stomach full thanks to a sumptuous meal of rice, shrimp and beef Tampopo had cooked for him at her restaurant.  At least he could get away for a while from his parents' damned screaming.  Good ol' Tampopo!  In a world which seemed to turn more and more against him every waking moment, there was one place where he could truly feel at peace, be his real self.  He couldn't do that, not even for Lum, but he always seemed more at ease when he was around Tampopo.

        He never asked why this was so.

        After all, why risk a sure thing?

        Looking up, he blinks on seeing a quaint storefront before him.  Odd, he hadn't noticed that there before.  Spells 'R' Us, eh?  Well, maybe he could do some browsing around.  With that, he steps up, then walks in.  "Irasshaimase," the owner beckons, smiling at him.  "May I help you, Ataru-san?"

        Ataru stops, staring at the elderly gaijin with the horn-rimmed glasses, wearing the kimono-like robe stitched with moon and star symbols.  "You know who I am?"

        "I wouldn't be the wizard I am today without being able to quickly comprehend the identity of potential customers."

        Ataru blinks, feeling a chill surge within him.  "Sumimasen," he nods, turning to leave.  "I didn't mean to disturb you."

        The older man blinks, then flusters, scratching the side of his head.  "I apologize," he chuckles.  "I forgot what Tampopo-san told me about your past encounters with people like myself, Ataru-san.  Please, I assure you, I won't sell you anything dangerous."

        Ataru stops, staring quizzically at him.  To the wizard, he seemed like a lost, hurt boy realizing that he may have found a new friend.  In truth, he WAS a lost, hurt boy.  Even the wizard didn't need Tampopo Kamekichi to tell him that now.  "You know Tampopo-chan?" he wonders, his voice a timid near-whisper.

        "I'm acquainted with her," the wizard nods.  "As a matter of fact, she spoke quite highly of you to me when we last met.  I might have something specifically for you, Ataru-san.  Wait a moment, please," he turns to one of his shelves.

        Ataru blinks, then walks back to the counter as the wizard draws out a small ring case.  Walking back, he opens it, revealing a beautiful ruby the size of a one-yen coin in a silver holder.  "This is a Ideal Wish Ring, Ataru-san.  What it does is that it grants the wearer one single wish.  But the wish the Ring grants is very specific.  The wearer must request that he or she becomes the ideal person he or she desires to become."

        Ataru blinks, then stares at the ruby.  "That's sounds pretty kinda limited, I guess," he reaches it to draw it out, then slips it onto his right ring finger.

        "Not really.  Actually, it can be the best thing that can happen to someone, Ataru-san.  But there's a trick to this."

        "Always is."

        "Alright.  The person who wears the ring can reject the wish in one's weeks time if they're not satisfied.  After all, such a change in oneself automatically affects the people around them.  If you feel you don't want this, you can walk away from it.  But if you do want to walk away, you only can do it within the week of taking the wish.  After that...you can't change back."

        Ataru blinks, then nods.  "Alright," he stares at the ring.  "I'll give it a try.  'Sides, there's an escape clause in this and you are Tampopo-chan's friend.  She's never once steered me wrong."

        "She's like that," he chuckles...

        Sometime later, Ataru whistles happily as he walks home.  Well, that was a pretty interesting encounter...and pretty cheap for him, too.  The ring, a real ruby, only set him back 5000 yen.  Lucky for him that he had some money to spare over.  Whenever Lum and that brat Ten stayed with them, he never seemed to get ANY money from either of his parents.  Damn them...


        Ataru sighs, staring at the night sky overhead.  Lum.  The person he loved more than anything else in the world.  The one special thing (outside Tampopo that is) that had made his damned whole live just a BIT bearable.  The person he HAD to drive away from him, for her sake most of all.  She didn't deserve to be exposed to the brutal emotional scars that had nearly shredded his heart and soul since he was born.  Yes, it had to happen.

        Once he was out of Lum's life, she would be safe.

        He loved her...

        He loved her enough to drive her away.

        Noticing a park bench nearby, he walks over, then sits down, staring at his new ring.  Ideal Wish Ring, eh?  Well, maybe this was worth a try...and besides, that wizard WAS Tampopo's friend.

        "Okay, Ring...make me into what my ideal state should be."

        He jolts, then feels his whole body glow as the ring showers him with sparkles of pinkish light.  His conscience seems to fade for a second as nausea sends him down, then he blinks as new energy surges through every cell of his being.  "Whoa...!" he gasps, his voice shooting up several octaves, then the energy surge fades, his eyes fluttering closed as he passes out...

        "Oi!  Oi, Onee-san!  Wake up!!  Onee-san!!"

        "Huhn...?" a confused grunt escapes her lips as her eyes flutter open, then she notices a curious-looking girl staring at her.  Oh, damn, passed out.  "Oh, jeez, what time is it...?"

        "It's late," the younger girl supplies.  "Are you okay, Onee-san?  You were asleep!"

        "Yeah...I..." she starts, then pauses as her eyes focus on the younger girl.  "Who're you calling 'Onee-san'...eh?!" she stops, then raises her hand to her throat.  "Why's my voice strange...?!"

        She stops, shock stealing her voice on seeing a slender hand before her eyes.  Blinking, she rises, then shudders as her sense of balance goes haywire for a second.  "Oh, shit..." she grunts, then feels herself relax.  As if her mind was quickly adjusting to her body's queer dimensions.  With that, she walks over to a public fountain to gaze on her reflection.


        Ataru's ideal self...was to become...A GIRL?!

        Her jaw hangs from her face as she reaches up to feel that gently-sculptured countenance.  Her hair was still brown, as were her eyes, but her face...jeez!  Beautiful, but with a tomboyish slant to it.  And her body...?  A gulp escapes her as she reaches down to the plump mounds under her shirt.  Well, at least she had a bra on underneath to hide her headlights.  Eh?  Why wasn't she so bugged about having a bra on?  A gentle squeeze, then she shudders as a warmth surges through her.  Yep, they seemed real.  And...?

        "Onee-chan, are you okay?"

        She stops, then stares at the younger girl before her cheeks flame in embarrassment.  "Oh...o-oh, s-sorry," she flusters, then laughs.  "I just had this really weird dream about someone trying to turn me into a..."

        "A what?!" the girl wonders.

        She blinks, then struck by inspiration, mockingly shudders.  "A mean, ecchi boy!" she lowers her voice to a sickened whisper.

        "Oh, you mean Ataru Moroboshi, huh?!" the younger girl hums, then nods.  "Yeah, Kaa-san warned me about creeps like him!"

        The older woman jolts, then sighs.  Well, the illusions of a perverted Ataru WAS what he had wanted others to believe!  What would the woman who once WAS Ataru expect?  "True, but don't always believe what your mom tells you," she admits, then sighs.  "Thanks for waking me up, anyway!  Who knows what OTHER ecchi boys are out there anyway!  There's gotta be more than Ataru!"

        "Yeah, that's okay!  What's your name?!"

        The girl blinks, then smiles.  Damn, these flashes of instant inspiration were pretty nice to have.  "Watashi wa...Hana Tariko desu," she provides.  I'm Tariko Hana.

        "Weird name," the girl admits.

        Tariko blinks, then nods.  The name, in Japanese order, would probably best translate "girl of flowers from the other village."  "Well, my grandmother named me.  She was...odd," she smirks, then kneels to pat the younger girl's shoulder.  "You better go home now, Imouto-chan.  Your mom might be worried about you."

        "Okay!  'Bye, Tariko-neechan!"

        Tariko watches her go, then sighs.  "'Big sister Tariko,'" she mutters, then stares at her ring before blinking.  What the?!  The ruby was gone!  What had happened...oh!!  The wizard told her she could end the wish anytime she wanted to for the next week.  Well, she should at least give it a try.  "Time to have some fun," she turns back home, then stops.  "Oh, shit, I forgot about Mom and Dad!" she exclaims, then her brow furrows as she thinks.

        A scowl then crosses her lips.  She knew what would happen the instant she'd walk into that house.  Another tirade of "I wish I never had him!" from his mother, his father ducking behind that damned newspaper of his and ignoring everything.  "No fuckin' way I'm going back there!" she snarls, then turns around again, heading off to Tampopo's Ramen and Beefbowl Bar...

        "Well, this IS quite the change!"

        "Eh?!" Tariko blushes, then laughs as Tampopo beckons her to the counter, sitting down.  Damn, she found it so easy to walk around like a normal girl.  Just a gentle sway of the hips.  Not too much, though; no need to look like some brainless tart from titillation shows like "Baywatch."  "That's right, I forgot that wizard was a friend of yours!  Yeah, this is quite the change for me...and it's a bit of a problem, too," she sighs.

        "You mean your parents and everyone else?" Tampopo asks.

        "Yeah, you got that right.  I don't want to even THINK of what Lum might do if she comes back and sees me like this."

        "Have you chose a name for yourself in this form?"

        "Hai.  Tariko Hana."

        Tampopo hums.  "That's an interesting name, Tariko-chan.  'Hana' is your grandmother's maiden name, right?"

        Tariko blinks, then sighs, looking down.  "Hai..." she shakes her head.  "Gods, it's been years since I last saw her.  I can't believe she just renounced Mom and Dad like she did.  I still don't even know why!  Every time I asked Mom about Grandma, I always got this 'Who cares about her?!' lecture."  A sad sigh.  "I miss her so much, Tampopo-chan.  I always thought she was so nice."

        "Yes, that's true," Tampopo hums.  "You know, for a mother who always says to you 'I wish I never had you,' it mystifies me that she's cut you off from your grandmother so well."  Another hum.  "Then again, with your grandmother's connections to Zephyrus and elsewhere, I think your mom might not like the idea of having your grandmother come back into your life now that Lum's there."

        "Yeah, you got that right.  Instant those two guys from the Inquisition showed up to 'escort' Lum and Ten to Uru, Mom almost had a coronary," Tariko chuckles, a surge of sadistic delight at her mother's fear flashing through her.  "Too bad for her."

        "Yes, too bad for her.  Look, why don't you stay with me for the next while?" Tampopo gazes on Tariko.  "I don't mind the company and you can use the chance to experiment with your new self for the next week before you have to make a choice."

        "You don't mind?!" Tariko gapes.

        "You're my friend, Tariko-chan!  And no, I DON'T mind at all!" Tampopo grins, batting Tariko's nose playfully.  "C'mon, you've got a week before you to enjoy life as you deserve to enjoy it.  Just relax.  We'll get some shopping done tomorrow so you can have some change of clothes, okay?"

        Tariko blinks, then smiles.  "You're the greatest, Tampopo!"

        "Always am!"


        "Ataru-chan, what did you DO to yourself...?"

        The plain-looking girl staring at the computer screen gapes at the image of the young woman on the viewing screen of the Master PC program.  Chigaiko Inu had got a hold of the Master program a week ago through an anonymous e-mail.  Having used it to do away with the leukaemia ravaging her (not to mention other things to make her life safer), Chigaiko used it to spy on her favourite subject.

        A subject that by the looks of it had just lost his mind!

        Or...should she say "her" mind?

        With that, Chigaiko types a question.  A minute later, the Master program answers:

<Comment> Ataru Moroboshi has employed a mystically-powered ring to alter himself into his physically, mentally and emotionally ideal self.  As a female, she now calls herself "Tariko Hana."  This spell is temporary for one week's duration.  If the spell is not freely cancelled by Tariko Hana, she will remain female for the remainder of her life. <End Comment>
<Warning!> While frozen in her female form while wearing the Ideal Wish Ring, Tariko cannot be altered physically by the Master PC program. <End Warning>

        Blinking, Chigaiko hums, then uses her mouse to change the subject name to INU CHIGAIKO.  Thank the gods that the Master program accepted names loaded in the Japanese family name-first pattern.  Once her image appears on the screen, dressed as she was now in a T-shirt and shorts, she types:

<Command> While Ataru Moroboshi is playing the role of Tariko Hana, you will address her as Tariko Hana.  You will know that Tariko was once Ataru and confide same to her in private.  However, for Tariko's sake, you will NOT, by word or gesture, make others see that Tariko was once Ataru.  You will do all to support Tariko in her exploration of her new self.  You will be a friend she requires at this time.  No matter what, however, you will NOT influence Tariko in her decision to stay or revert back to Ataru. <SEND>

        Chigaiko shudders as a feeling washes over her, then a wry grin crosses her face.  "Let's see how she likes this," she types:

<Command> In the case of Tariko Hana, you are functionally bisexual and feel an attraction to her.  You will desire her as you desire Ataru Moroboshi as a man.  You will do all to demonstrate to Tariko that you can love her while she is a girl. <SEND>

        Another shudder, then Chigaiko grins as Tariko's image flashes through her mind, a warmth tickling her loins.  "Oh, Tariko-chan, we're gonna have some fun," she purrs in anticipation...

        The next morning...

        "Where's my son, Tampopo-san?!"

        Tampopo blinks, then stares intently at Kinshou Moroboshi, who had just stormed into her restaurant, no doubt incensed that Ataru hadn't returned home last night.  If there was one real source of all of Ataru's years of pain and misery, the ramen bar owner scowls to herself, here she was.  "I've no idea where he is," she admits.  "Perhaps he's finally decided he's had enough of your abuse and left your home...say up to where his grandmother lives?"

        Kinshou jolts, then snorts.  "Heh!  I made damn sure he'd never go to that cow ever again!!" she sneers.  "Personally, I'd love to do everything to get you out of his life!  You've butted in too much between Ataru and everyone else!  Now, where is he?!"

        "Have I really?" Tampopo remains calm.

        The few breakfasters there are silent, having never seen a confrontation between their host and the mother of Tomobiki's most infamous resident.  "Funny that you should care in the first place, Kinshou.  Aren't you the one who always says to him 'I wish I never had you?'  Every day since long before Lum blasted her way into his life?  Some mother you turned out to be," a chuckle escapes her.  "As a matter of fact, last night before he left, I distinctly heard him say that he now wished strongly that you'd have a heart attack and die so he didn't have to put up to your abuse anymore."  She then turns to her counter.  "And as I said before, Kinshou, I don't know where he is.  He didn't tell me where he was going.  Now get out before I put you in the hospital for disturbing my customers."

        Seeing the larger woman reach for her pizza-flipping sized B.A.S. (Big-Ass Spatula) hanging over her head, Kinshou pales.  Lum had been beaten enough by Tampopo over the last year and more for Ataru's mother to realize that the ramen stand owner was someone she couldn't intimidate.  With that, she turns, marching out, looking like a puppy with her tail tucked between her legs.  With that, Tampopo relaxes, turning back to the counter.  "Idiot won't realize what hit her when the truth comes down," she hums.

        "Oi, Oba-san, does Ataru's mom say that to him all the time?" one of the customers, a boy from Tomobiki High School, asks.

        "Hai, she does.  Once a day on average before Lum came, then it increased to maybe three times a day after she came.  What's worse, Lum's never raised a finger to stop it.  That's part of the reason I drive that idiot Oni out of here every time she tries to drag Ataru back home.  He doesn't need more of that abuse."

        The student blinks, then turns back to his meal.  Inwardly, Tampopo grins.  He'd start spreading a new rumour once he caught up with friends...and with the way the rumour mill worked in Tomobiki, everyone would learn a very dark detail about life at the Moroboshi home.  One that DIDN'T necessarily reflect badly on Ataru.

        Now, what would Chigaiko do...?

        "'I WISH I NEVER HAD HIM?!!'"

        Chigaiko gapes, stunned at what Master PC just picked up from the thoughts of the current patrons of Tampopo's Ramen and Beefbowl Bar.  She set up a "silent sniffer" macro that would warn her of enemies of Ataru going close to Tariko and maybe realizing what was going on.  With the way people in Tomobiki thought of him these days, she made the command really simple:  "Everyone in Tomobiki-cho save the members of the Inu family and Tampopo Kamekichi."

        Shuddering, Chigaiko locks in on the student who was now in the bar, then calls him up on the Master PC board.  "Oh, so it's Kosuke-san, isn't it?" Chigaiko hums, then nods.  He always seemed good for spreading rumours.  Now time to spread a bombshell:

<Subject> Kosuke Gisei
<Command> You will begin informing your peers at school about what Tampopo Kamekichi told you concerning Ataru Moroboshi's strained relations with his parents.  You will feel sorry for Ataru for having such abusive parents in the first place.  You will realize that some of Ataru's behaviour towards everyone else may be attributed to his lack of parental love.  You will openly express an opinion which would support Ataru's rejection of his parents at the soonest time possible. <SEND>

        Nodding, she then calls up a blank page:

<Subject><Multiple Subject Option> All citizens of Tomobiki-cho
<Subject><Exception> Muchi Moroboshi, Kinshou Moroboshi
<Command><Macro Create><Title> No Parents
<Define Macro "No Parents"> A rumour will spread in a short time concerning Ataru Moroboshi's relationship with his parents, a rumour that demonstrates a gross lack of parental love shown to Ataru.  You will feel sorry for Ataru for his having such abusive parents in the first place.  You will realize that some of Ataru's behaviour towards everyone else may be attributed to his lack of parental love.  You will openly express an opinion which would support Ataru's rejection of his parents at the soonest time possible.  Also, you will be cold and indifferent to Ataru's parents after learning of the rumour. <End Macro Definition>
<Command><Macro> Execute Macro "No Parents" <SEND>

        "Let's see how you like this!" Chigaiko grins...


        "Wow, thanks for getting me all this, Tampopo-chan!  I really appreciate it!!"

        "My pleasure...and thank you very much, Esmerelda-san, for helping my cousin get a new wardrobe," Tampopo beams, nodding to the proprietress of Esmerelda's, London native Esmerelda Stevens.

        "It's my pleasure, love," the Englishwoman beams, then turns to gaze on Tariko, now draped in a loose-fitting, beige, summer-weight sweater and a thigh-length, flower-embossed skirt.  "I'm so sorry to hear you lost everything in that fire, Tariko-san."

        "Oh, it's okay!" Tariko blushes.  "Some of that stuff was so darned old, maybe having a fire whip through helped more than hurt me.  Arigatou," she bows gracefully.

        With that, the two women leave Tomobiki's most popular ladies' boutique, carrying bags of clothing as they make their way back to Tampopo's shop.  Tariko had been surprised to learn Tampopo had discovered a private banking account, now holding a sizable stash compatible to Shutaro Mendou's allowance for a full year, set aside for Ataru by his great-grandmother Kimaenowakai Hana.  Since Ataru might not exist within a week's time, it seemed senseless to just leave that money sitting there in a bank gathering interest.  How Tampopo managed to convince the bank people to let her have access to it, Tariko didn't know and thought it smart not to ask.

        "Ohayo, Tariko-san!"

        Tariko jolts, then turns to see a plain, brown-haired woman walk up, in a Tomobiki High Jackrabbit basketball tank-top and jeans.  The former blinks, then smiles.  "Ohayo, Chigaiko-chan!  How are you...?" she jolts, eyes widening as she claps her mouth shut, her face paling as she realizes her mistake.

        Chigaiko laughs, slipping an arm around Tariko's.  "Relax, I know who you really are," she winks.  "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone.  How are you doing right now?"

        Tariko blinks, then eyes Tampopo.  "Something tells me you set this up," her eyebrow twitches annoyingly.

        "It could be said," the restaurateur chuckles.  "C'mon down to the shop and I'll explain it to you both."

        They head down to the shop, Tampopo flipping the CLOSED sign to OPEN.  Tariko takes her bags, then heads to her guest bedroom to set them down before returning to the counter.  Tampopo is already at work preparing Chigaiko's favoured fried noodles with shrimp and vegetables.  "So how do you know about me?" Tariko wonders as she sits down beside Chigaiko.

        "Chigaiko-chan here has a special computer program that allows her to spy on anyone within a hundred kilometres of her machine," Tampopo explains.  "Rather dangerous little thing called the 'Master PC' system, but I trust Chigaiko enough to let her make use of it.  After all, it helped her cure herself of leukaemia."

        Chigaiko is stunned.  "YOU KNOW?!?!" she bolts to her feet, then her eyes widen.  "YOU sent that to me!!"

        "Hai," Tampopo nods.  "I discovered Master PC about five years ago, when it first started circulating around.  It can't affect me, but I held onto a copy just in case, then ensured it could never be passed around anywhere in Japan.  I shudder to think of what might happen if some unscrupulous fool got their hands on it.  But when I learned of Chigaiko's private crush on your other-self, Tariko-chan, I felt it'd be perfect for her to get a copy."

        Tariko blinks, then her eyes widen in shock before she stares on Chigaiko, her voice hushed.  "You...Chigaiko-chan...?"

        "Hai," Chigaiko blushes, bowing her eyes.  "You're the only person who's ever bothered to remember my name, said 'good morning, Chigaiko-chan' to me when we go to school.  Do you realize the other members of the school basketball team don't remember my name?  It's either 'Hey, you,' or they call me by my number," she points over her shoulder.  Tariko knew Chigaiko was given number "4," one of the two VERY bad-luck numbers in Japanese culture.

        Tariko gapes.  "I...I never knew..."

        "I can understand that," Chigaiko smiles.  "After all, you've had to put up to Lum for the last year and more, not to mention all the shit people here've given you because they're so damned lazy, they can't bother to think things through.  I'm amazed that you've been able to last for so long with all that crap dumping on you."

        "Not as long as you think," Tariko admits.

        Chigaiko blinks on seeing the sadness in the other woman's eyes, then she reaches over to draw her into an embrace.  "It's okay, Tariko-chan.  I understand.  It'll be okay..."

        Gentle sobs escape the other woman...


        The wizard smiles.  So Tampopo had things well in hand before asking for his help.  That was good.  With that, he moves to shift the store elsewhere.  He'd come back in a month or so to see what was happening.  After all, that was when the alien girl Lum would be back.  He might be needed then...

        The next day...

        "Eh?!!  I can't believe that!!"

        "It's true," Kosuke Gisei snorts, now sitting across from Momoe Marubeya.  Momoe was one of Mendou's most ardent fans in Class 2-4, which meant that she would gladly do ANYTHING to ensure Ataru Moroboshi and Lum stuck together.  Kosuke, like all the other boys in the class, always dreamt of the chance to score with the beautiful Oni-Urusian clan chief's daughter, so he would gladly welcome it if Ataru and Lum broke up.

        However, neither person was totally insensitive to Ataru's situation.  "I mean, you should've seen it in Tampopo's yesterday!  Hell, Mrs. Moroboshi actually bragged about the fact that she did something to keep Ataru from his grandmother!  You believe that?!"

        "That's awful!" Momoe covers her mouth in disbelief, then she looks at her tea.  "Maybe that's why Ataru chases girls around so much.  He wants to find someone who's willing to respect him."

        "Yeah, that's true...and it's no wonder that he doesn't really want anything to do with Lum when you get down to it!" Kosuke snorts.  "She hasn't respected a damned thing about him since she came here last year!  Hell, according to Tampopo-san, Lum's never ONCE raised a finger to stop Ataru's mom from hurtin' him!!"

        Momoe takes that in, then sighs.  "I always knew that Oni was a bitch, but I never thought it was THAT bad!"

        "Oi, Lum's not that bad!!" Kosuke cries defensively.

        "Oh?!" Momoe's eyes flare.  "Gods, Kosuke-kun, didn't that shit with the mushrooms convince you?!  She held the whole damned PLANET hostage just to make Ataru say 'I love you!'  Yeah, I'm angry that he didn't give in, but you really have to wonder what type of person'd threaten to kill five billion innocent people?!"

        Kosuke blinks, then sighs.  "Yeah, that's true...oi, check that out!" he points out the window.

        "Eh?!" Momoe looks, then her eyes widen.  "Gods!!"

        The coffee shop was located beside a public fountain.  Seated at one bench nearby was a tomboyish woman with brown hair and brown eyes, now playing a six-string guitar.  Beside her was another woman, one Momoe recognized as a classmate though the other woman's name presently eluded her.  And gathered around them were a group of elementary school girls, all clapping in pace with the tune.

        "New girl...who is that?" Momoe wonders.

        "I recognize the other one; don't know her name, but she's in our class," Kosuke rises.  "C'mon, let's go listen."

        Momoe nods as they pay their cheques, then step outside, walking over to join the slowly growing crowd around the minstrel.  She was strumming a folk song in English.  *Is that Bob Dylan?* Momoe wonders as she and Kosuke sit at a nearby bench to listen.

        Tariko's eyes lock on Momoe for a second, then she turns back to the Gordon Lightfoot tune she was strumming, "Now and Then."  Few in Japan knew of the Canadian troubadour, but Ataru had always liked him.  The guy was a better, more pleasant folk artist than Bob Dylan, even if Dylan-sensei got better press.  Besides, this impromptu concert in the district square allowed Tariko the chance to try out the changes Chigaiko gave her thanks to Master PC...

        The previous night...

        "Play guitar?"

        "Hai," Tariko nodded as she and Chigaiko relaxed in the latter's bedroom.  The Ideal Wish Ring sat on the table beside the computer.  "I always wanted to learn.  When I visited Grandmother's farm, I got the chance to play with one of the monks who live with her.  But when Kinshou and Muchi..." now that she was separated from Ataru's parents, Tariko refused to call them "Mom" and "Dad," "...cut me off from Grandmother, I lost the chance to practice..."

        "Alright, that sounds pretty fair," Chigaiko turned to her computer.  "Let's try this," she then typed:

<Subject> Tariko Hana
<Command> You now possess the skill to play 4-string, 6-string, 12-string, acoustic and electric guitars at the level which will make you successful if you go professional.  With that skill, you also now possess the skill to read guitar sheet music, automatically memorizing what you read.  You will also possess the chance, as you experience grows, to write your own music. <SEND>

        Tariko blinked as a strange feeling coursed through her, then noticing a guitar (it belonged to Chigaiko's older sister) sitting nearby (that had brought up the conversation topic), walked over to pick it up, sitting it in her lap.  Using her fingernails, she strummed the guitar, then checking out all the notes she could play, played a quick medley.  "Hey, it works!!"

        "Yosha!!" Chigaiko beamed, then hummed.  "Okay, let's do some more changes," she then typed:

<Subject> Tariko Hana
<Command><Macro> Execute Macro "Basics" <SEND>
<Command><Macro> Execute Macro "Lum Repellant" <SEND>
<Command><Macro> Execute Macro "Lan Repellant" <SEND>
<Command><Macro> Execute Macro "Shinobu Repellant" <SEND>

        "What's all that?!" Tariko asked.

        "Well, my 'Basics' macro is a good health guarantee," Chigaiko explained.  "It eradicates any disease organisms inside you (that's how I got rid of my leukaemia), enhances your body's strengths to the ultimate a human your age can go, ensures you can't pass on any genetic deformities to your children (if you decide to have them) and enhances your lifespan to triple that of a normal person.  All that can be passed on to your children, by the way."

        "Uh-huh," Tariko nodded.  "I assume the 'repellant' macros are designed to make Lum, Lan and Shinobu behave themselves, right?"

        "Hai.  The 'Lum Repellant' simply creates a reverse-magnetic field around you.  If Lum tried to zak you, she'd end up zakking herself.  A few doses of that will definitely make her think twice about bothering you in the future.  The 'Lan Repellant' both makes you invulnerable to her youth-sucking power and makes you see what sort of psychotic bitch she is deep down.  The 'Shinobu Repellant' does the same sort of thing as the 'Lum Repellant.'  Miyaki uses her chi to give her strength when she gets upset; it's like what martial artists can do at times.  If she's within ten metres of you, that strength'll be cancelled out and she'll be helpless."

        "Could you make a 'Jariten Repellant' and a 'Rei Repellant' while you're at it?" Tariko crossed her arms.

        "Oh, that's not necessary for either you or me," Chigaiko laughed.  "Rei makes me sick even when he's human, so I just ignore him.  I...and you...are strong enough right now to toss him out the nearest window even if he's in tiger-bull form.  As for Ten, the best way to make him go away is to hurt his feelings.  Fire's a hard substance to manipulate even with Master PC, so I figure the best way to get him is call him a naughty boy in public.  Hearing that from a girl'll hurt him really bad.  I've always hated the fact that he's been allowed to get away with so much and you've got more than enough reasons to hate him."


        "Bravo!  Bravo!!"

        "Eh?!" Tariko jolts, then turns to see Momoe standing nearby, loudly clapping.  "Oh...oh, arigatou!!" she laughs, scratching the back of her head as she stands, bowing.

        "Play some more, Onee-chan!!" one younger girl cries out.

        "Yeah!!" another cheers.

        Tariko's cheeks heat even more, then she sits, her fingers moving to strum out another song.  Before she could move to sing a word, the ugliest person she had ever seen as either Tariko or Ataru appears before her eyes.  "It's Fate!!!"

        "Cherry!!" Chigaiko yelps, then jolts on hearing someone's skull hit something metallic!!

        Everyone now sees the diminutive Buddhist monk buried under Tampopo's B.A.S., the ramen stand owner's nose flaring as fire burns deep in her eyes.  "Sakurambou-san, what are you doing harassing my cousin?!" she icily inquires.

        "'Cousin?!'" Cherry springs out from under the spatula, then leans into Tampopo's face, now on stilts.  "I know very well that this is not your cousin, Tampopo-san!!  I can SEE who h-..."

        ***WHANG!!!!***  Cherry soars into the sky.  "I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU SAY OR THINK, YOU MOOCHER!!!!!!" Tampopo snaps.

        "It's Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate...!!!" Cherry wails as he disappears into the morning sky.

        "What a jerk!!" Kosuke shakes his head.  "Man, that guy's an even worse pain in the ass than Ataru!"

        "Or Lum!!" Momoe sneers, then turns to Tampopo.  "Oi, Tampopo-san, did you say this is your cousin?!" she indicates Tariko.

        "Hai, this is Tariko Hana," Tampopo beams.  "She's staying here for a week deciding whether to come live with me."

        "By the looks of it, I might stay for a lot longer, perhaps even go to school when the new term starts," Tariko smiles.  "Who knows?!  I might even be in your class; you do go to Tomobiki High, right?" her eyes then fall on Momoe.

        "I...h-hai, I do!" Momoe nods, her cheeks reddening.

        "Do you really want to go to Tomobiki High, Onee-chan?!" a younger girl wonders.  "I mean, that school's full of Onis!"

        "You must mean Lum and Lan," Tariko smirks.  "Well, Tampopo-chan here told me that she heard straight from Ataru Moroboshi himself that he's going to DUMP Lum once and for all!"

        "What?!!" Kosuke exclaims, then turns to Tampopo, wide-eyed.  "Oi, Tampopo-san, is this true?!!"

        "Hai, it's true!" Tampopo nods.  "You see, Ataru's going to renounce all relations with his parents once and for all!  When he does THAT, he'll also renounce his so-called 'engagement' to Lum!!  And then he's going to move north to live with his grandmother!  I bet you all didn't know that on Uru, the head of CLAN has final say in inter-clan marriages...and Ataru's grandmother is head of HIS clan.  When he dumps his parents finally, I'll bet his grandmother will be so happy to have him back, she'll get the United Nations to drop-kick that annoying Oni back to Uru...and Lum won't be able to do a single thing to stop it, either!" she whispers the last part.

        "WHAT?!?!" Momoe exclaims.  "But what about Mendou-san?!!"

        "What about that guy?!" Tariko blinks.  "Tampopo-chan's always told me that Mendou's gotta marry some man-phobe...what was her name again, Chigaiko-chan?" she looks over.

        "Asuka Mizunokoji," Chigaiko provides.

        "WHAT?!?!?!" Momoe yelps.  "Mendou-san marry THAT girl?!!  Oh, no, we've got to save him!!!"

        She races off in a cloud of dust.  Tariko watches her go, then shakes her head.  "Strange girl!"

        "You got that right!" Kosuke smirks, then stares intently at Tariko.  "Oi, Tariko-chan, you busy sometime...!"

        Two fingers grab him by the nose and squeeze hard.  "It's very nice being a lesbian!" Tariko smiles knowingly.  "It means I don't have to put up to creeps like you!  Now get lost, hard-on; I'm busy with these little ones," she indicates the younger children.

        Kosuke jolts, then quickly backs off as Tariko sits down, strumming out "Pussywillows, Cat-Tails."  Tampopo and Chigaiko sit down, drawing in some children so they could hear better.  Kosuke watches the concert, then turns away, shaking his head.

        "A lesbian?  Man, what a waste!" he mutters...

        That night...

        "What did you do to Ataru?!"

        Tampopo slams down her B.A.S., catching Cherry before he could dodge!!  "I did nothing save help him get control of his life, you moocher!" she snarls.  "What's it to you?!"

        "No doubt, he's too worried about where he's going to get his next meal," Tariko, now working to clear tables, snorts.

        Cherry lunges over to stare into the younger woman's eyes.  "Ataru, you must change back!!" he exclaims.  "You cannot allow yourself to be seduced this way...!"

        Tariko's fist smashes him into a wall!  "What an ugly face!!" she exclaims, then turns back to the table.  "Sorry, jerk, I'm not interested in being your handy meal-ticket anymore!"

        "It's Fate..." Cherry moans, dropping to the floor.

        Tampopo walks over, picking him up as she moves to the front door.  "And I've told you a thousand times, Sakurambou, you are FORBIDDEN from entering my establishment!!  Now GET OUT!!!!"

        A well-placed drop-kick sends Cherry soaring into the night.  "It's Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate...!!" he wails.

        "Idiot!" Tampopo mutters, then turns only to see Sakura now standing in her path.  "AND THAT MEANS YOU, TOO!!!!" her B.A.S. comes down to bury the hapless Shinto priestess into the floor!

        "How'd she get in here?!" Tariko demands.

        "That...hurt, you know..." Sakura moans; she wasn't used to getting such harsh treatment from anyone, even Tampopo.  But from what Cherry just told her, she knew she had to do something to put things concerning Ataru/Tariko right.

        "I don't know; I've rarely dealt with her," Tampopo reaches down to yank Sakura to her feet.  "What do you want?!"

        Sakura shakes off the cobwebs, then stares Tampopo in the eye.  "I came to speak to Moroboshi and make him revert back to normal."

        "Ataru-chan's not here anymore, Sakura...and you've no RIGHT to bother Tariko-chan.  You wish me to make you BETTER understand that point?" Tampopo growls, the B.A.S. rising to strike.

        "Hold it!" Tariko calls out.

        Sakura relaxes; Ataru's lust for her was coming forth to take control of him/her again.  Good, she could use that...


        The Shinto priestess is slammed into the wall by the force of Tariko's punch!  She collapses to the floor, her eyes wide with shock and disbelief.  Tariko glares at Sakura, her eyes ablaze with a year's worth of buried rage and hatred.  "Do you think I've never noticed what an incompetent JERK you really are?!  What a FAKE you are?!" she snarls.  "Oh, yeah, you're cute and all that, but I know YOUR shell is hollow because you're nothing more than your uncle in a nicer-looking package!" she thumbs the door to indicate Cherry.  "Too bad I don't WANT that anymore...since in the end, all you've ever caused me is trouble since you sicced all those disease demons on me when we first met!" Tariko purses her lips, then spits out.

        The spittle hits Sakura's cheek, causing the priestess to jolt, then she gapes at Tariko.  The younger woman sighs, then turns away.  "All I give you now is mokusatsu!" Tariko snarls.

        Sakura blinks as Tariko storms off, then yelps as Tampopo yanks her to her feet before sending her flying out the door.  "NOW GET OUT AND STAY OUT!!!!" the ramen stand owner bellows.

        Sakura smashes head-first into the telephone pole across the street, then drops to the sidewalk.  The door slams shut behind her as Sakura staggers up, leaning against the fence as she shakes the cobwebs from her brain before gazing at Tampopo's place.

        "Mokusatsu," Tariko had said.

        Silence with contempt.

        A shiver of fear rips through the priestess.  She had sensed some days ago that something big was about to hit Tomobiki, but she never guessed THIS would happen.  It was as if...no, it just simply WAS...Ataru deciding that he wanted nothing to do with Tomobiki and had decided that removing himself from the equation was the most effective way to do just that.  That would set EVERYONE off-kilter even if they didn't realize the bond between Tariko Hana and Ataru Moroboshi.  Even if Sakura chose to reveal that to everyone, which she knew would only make matters worse for her and everyone else in Tomobiki, she knew it simply wouldn't help in the end.

        For she also knew of the Wizard of Spells 'R' Us.

        Shaking her head, she turns towards her shrine.  Ataru was gone.  Tariko now lived in his place and had decided who she would open herself up to.  None of Ataru's so-called "friends" from school clearly fit that category.  The genie, filled with hatred, anger and all the dark things an abused child felt, was free of the bottle and there was no way it could EVER be re-captured.

        And there was nothing anyone in Tomobiki, not even Lum or any of her outer space friends, could do to change that simple fact...

        The next morning...

        Kinshou shudders indignantly as she walks towards the district market.  Ataru had been gone for three nights, without a single phone call or any other message indicating where he was.  Insolent idiot, how DARE he put her through this?!  Every day, every DAMNED day, since he was born it seemed, it had been one thing after the next, especially since Lum came into their lives!  Didn't he care?  Didn't he understand how much she, his mother, slaved for him?  How much she put up to the gossip of others about him?

        "I wish I never had him..." she mutters.

        "Oi, there she goes again!" a snorting male voice hums.

        Kinshou stops, spinning around to see several boys staring at her.  They seemed some of Ataru's classmates.  "What a pathetic old bitch!" one openly sneers at her.  "Always putting Ataru down every chance she gets!  Kosuke was sure right about that one!!  It's no wonder that he wants nothing to do with his parents anymore!!"

        "I'd dump 'em for sure!" another snorts as they head off.

        Kinshou blinks, her eyes widening in shock and disbelief.  She then glances around the street, noting other passers-by, regardless of age, staring balefully at her.  The contempt in their eyes sends icy chills racing through her heart.  It was as if she was now in a kangaroo court, facing the accusations of all of society...

        ...about the way she treated her own son.

        Quickly, she makes her way into the market, ducking stares from those around her.  She had to get home.  Had to get back to the safety of her house, shut out those hateful words!  With that, she goes into a favoured meat-stand.  The owner, a plump elderly gentleman, gazes at her, then sighs, looking away.  "I will not serve you, Moroboshi-san.  I suggest you leave right this minute and never darken my premises again."

        Kinshou stops, her eyes widening.  "Wh-what...?"

        "I've heard what people've said about you and how you and your husband have raised Ataru," he gazes at her, the chill in his voice projecting the perfect level of contempt.  "My daughter told me about what was said in Tampopo-san's restaurant some days ago when Ataru left you.  And to believe that every one of us in Tomobiki blamed your son for what's happened since that Oni girl came.  How could you fail your own child...Buddha, how could you ABUSE your child like that?!  Now, leave my establishment, Moroboshi-san.  I will not do business with the likes of you anymore."

        Kinshou blinks, then quickly withdraws, her feet stumbling as she ducks the storm of accusing stares following her every step.  In minutes, she slams the front door of her home closed, then sinks to her knees.  "Ataru..." she mutters.

        "Honey, are you home?" a voice calls from the living room.

        She blinks, then rises, heading into the living room to see Muchi sitting there.  A shocked, downcast look is etched on his face.  "What happened?" she demands.  "Why are you home so early?"

        "They let me go," he declares.

        "WHAT?!?!  WHY?!?!"

        His eyes flash under his glasses.  "What's being said about us and our son, that's why?!" he snaps, then points to a piece of paper on the table.  "You best read that."

        Kinshou walks over, then opens the sheet of paper, noting that it was two sheets stapled together.  The top sheet was a letter, the writing clearly Ataru's, though neater than normal:

"Now I've come to understand why Grandma wanted nothing to do with either of you anymore.  You're both a pair of lazy, selfish fools who can't learn to blame yourselves for a change.  Always blaming me for it.  To believe that I took that shit from both of you for the last sixteen years.  Well, I won't take it anymore; I've come to see myself and my life in a better light and it won't have either of you in it anymore.  Screw you both and everything you've said and done *supposedly* for me since I was born.  By the way, Lum's going to get a copy of what's attached to this, plus a letter to his dad asking him to ensure their people never come to Earth again.  Let's see how you enjoy life without Lum or Jariten since you never cared one bit about your own flesh-and-blood..."

        "Ataru..." she shudders, flipping the page, then a hoarse cry of shock escapes her as she reads:

"I, Ataru Moroboshi, grandson of the Lady Nagaiwakai Moroboshi of the Clan Moroboshi-Hana of Miyagi and Hokkaido, do hereby and for all time, renounce all family ties to my birth parents, Muchi and Kinshou.  In this, I also declare that any arrangements made by Muchi and Kinshou on my behalf, including ALL marriage pacts, are null-and-void.  I declare in this that my grandmother, whom I love and miss so much, is the ONLY person who will, until I am of legal age, have the right to decide such matters of honour on my behalf.  This, I do because it is now painfully obvious that neither Muchi or Kinshou love me now, have EVER loved me, or will love me in the future.  They have used me to further their own ends instead of displaying even a slight hint of parental love.  May my actions be a warning to all who may deal with Muchi and Kinshou; they care not for anything save themselves.  Let them rot in Hell..."

        "NO!!!!" she throws the letter aside, storming upstairs.  She throws open the door to Ataru's room, then stops.  "No...!"

        "He must've come when we were both gone," Muchi calls from the living room; he had done the same thing when he had read that letter, finding only an empty room awaiting him...

        "Young Master, a letter for you."

        "What is it?" Shutaro Mendou remains relaxed, his katana poised to strike, his back to the two Mendou Clan infantrymen who had raced here from the front gate on their motorcycle.

        The shorter of the pair opens the letter, then blinks as the words leap out at him.  "It is from Master Moroboshi," he declares, then reads.  "'Dear Shutaro...I know, despite our past differences, that you strive to be a man of honour every day of your life.  That you live your life this way is your choice, of course.  Please find attached to this letter a copy of my renouncing all relations with those assholes I had to call my parents.  As you can guess, by my doing this, the marriage pact with Lum is made null-and-void...'"


        The soldiers cry out in fright as Mendou's gleaming blade swings in their direction.  "WHAT WAS THAT?!?!?!"

        "Sir, it's the letter!!  It's the letter!!!" the taller soldier pleads, waving the letter before Mendou.

        Mendou shudders, then sighs, turning back as he sheathes his blade.  "What does the rest of it say?"

        The shorter soldier relaxes.  "'I'm sure deep down, you will jump for joy knowing that Lum is free of all obligations to me,'" he continues to read.  "'I want this to happen, for her sake most of all.  Given the shitty way Muchi and Kinshou have treated me since I was born, I feel it is only right to ensure Lum doesn't suffer by proxy the many pains I've felt because for so long, I've literally had NO parents.  Count yourself very lucky; I know your parents are a little strange, but they're much better than mine.

        "'In fact, if you wish to view this as a matter of honour, then know that Muchi and Kinshou dishonoured me and the agreement with Lum's family by literally giving me to Lum in exchange for better jobs on Uru.  Of course, you'll remember the time Kinshou swindled your mother of all that money when Lum's mother first came to visit Tomobiki.  This is the best choice for Lum's sake...and I trust you'll remember your obligations to Asuka while you're at it.  Do not bother sending people to trace me down; they will never succeed in locating me.  If you wish to view what I've done as a form of seppuku, by all means do so.  I trust you will have a good life from this day on.  Ganbatte.  Sayonara...Ataru.'"

        Mendou hums, then walks up to the practice pole, where a wooden mock-up of Ataru's head now stood.  The soldiers stare at him, then the taller one clears his throat.  "Orders, sir?"

        "Eh?!" Mendou stares at them, then sighs.  "Nothing.  Carry on.  There's no need to concern ourselves about this."

        "Hai!" both snap to attention, then jog off.

        Mendou remains in place, then sighs.  *Lum-san will not be happy to learn of this when she returns.  Perhaps there is some way to communicate with her, warn her this has happened...but with the recent incident concerning Rupa and what his grandfather did...?*

        He pauses, then shakes his head.  *You wish me luck, Moroboshi?  How odd to hear that from you of all those I know.  What will you do?  Actually end your life?  Should I...?*

        A light smile then crosses his face.  *No.  If that is your choice, I cannot and will not stop it.  As you said, Moroboshi, I have obligations...not to mention my own dreams concerning Lum-san.  Strange you consider that since you've never cared...or are you simply clearing your conscience before confronting your fate...?*


        Rui Megane jolts, then glances at the ceiling of her small home.  *There he goes again!  What did that poor Ataru do THIS time to get Aisuru-chan angry at him?!*  "Aisuru-chan!  What's wrong?!"

        The thunder of running footsteps heralds the arrival of the leader of Lum's bodyguards.  "He...he...he...ATARU MOROBOSHI, DON'T YOU HAVE A KIND BONE ANYWHERE IN YOUR BODY?!?!?!" Megane bellows...

        ...then yelps as a skillet smacks into his head!

        "SHUT UP!!!!" Rui snaps, then notices the folded letter in hand.  Snatching it from the moaning Aisuru, she opens it, then scans both pages before smiling.  "Well, isn't that nice?!"

        "'NICE?!?!?!'" Megane jolts, glaring hotly into his mother's eyes.  "HOW COULD YOU CALL THAT 'NICE?!?!'  DO YOU REALIZE WHAT'LL HAPPEN WHEN LUM-SAN FINDS OUT WHAT ATARU DID?!?!?!"

        "Yes, she'll probably go home, then I won't have to worry about you parading about trying to win the attention of that Oni girl!!" Rui reaches over to twist her son's ear around to ensure he paid attention to Lecture #2743 About Aisuru Megane's Future (Which Does Not And Will Not Concern An Oni Named Lum!).  "It's time for you to think about university and getting on with your life!"

        "KAA-SAN!!!!" Megane wails.

        He just HATED those lectures!


        "Shinobu, what's wrong?!!" Kimiki Miyaki runs upstairs as the sound of Shinobu's door slamming shut echoes through the house.  Reaching the door, she knocks, then peeks inside.  "Shinobu...?"

        Muffled sobs escape from somewhere under Shinobu's pillow.  Kimiki is quick to notice the paper in her daughter's trembling hand.  Reaching down, she picks it up, then opens it to the second page, wincing on seeing Ataru's message to his EX-parents.  "Well, it's about time he did that!" she hisses, then turns to the first page before her eyes widen on seeing Ataru's message to Shinobu.

        His LAST message to Shinobu, it now seemed.

        "Oh, Jesucristo, why...?!" Kimiki mutters, her eyes misting.

        Ataru's last words to Shinobu were filled with nothing but hate and disgust, both at her for being so vicious...and at himself for being attracted to someone who now reminded him too much of the "spiteful old bat" he was born from.  "I don't want to associate myself with someone like Kinshou as long as I live," he had wrote.  "To be honest, I'm glad.  Who would want someone like you, who gives vent too much to her anger and not shows anything else?  To believe I actually cared for you.  Well, it doesn't matter now.  I won't have to worry about you again.  It's no wonder that I did find myself caring for Lum.  It's no wonder Mendou was happy to acknowledge his engagement to Asuka.  I just hope Inaba knows what he's getting himself into.  I never want to see you again..."

        "Oh, Ataru, why?  Why...?" Kimiki shakes her head, then moves to give her daughter what comfort she could...

        Next morning...

        "Yeah, notices were plastered all over the place, including the school," Ryuunosuke Fujinami sighs, slurping her milkshake as she relaxes across from Shinobu at Tampopo's.

        It seemed odd to meet her best friend in this place, the tomboy muses.  Shinobu warned Ryuunosuke that Tampopo Kamekichi was one person NEVER to be crossed.  From what the tomboy knew, Tampopo had always believed Shinobu Miyaki wasn't the right sort of girl for Ataru Moroboshi and had (until Shinobu voluntarily walked out of Ataru's life when Mendou came) strove to convince him of that.

        "Have you seen him?" Shinobu, now hollow-eyed from crying too much, stares hopefully at Ryuunosuke.

        "Shit, not since after the Tag Race was done," Ryuunosuke shakes her head, then sighs.  "Look, you want my advice?  I say give up on the guy once and for all.  If he don't want to do anything with you, why waste your time trying to go after him?!"

        "Because I lo-...!" Shinobu pauses, then sighs.  "I just don't know, Ryuu-chan.  I just don't know..."

        "Well, he gave me a personal copy and a message," Ryuunosuke holds up two stapled pieces of paper.  "He told me what he told you, then said that since you just don't know what to do with yourself, he doesn't want to have anythin' more to do with you.  He's got no time for folks like you.  If you want to get together with him, it's your choice...but you won't be able to do anythin' to him.  Shit, who lit the damned fire under his seat, I wonder?"

        Shinobu blinks, then sighs.  "Did he say anything else?"

        "Yeah, he told me to disown my dad if I wanted to learn how to be a girl," Ryuunosuke sighs.  "Shit, I never knew that whole mess with his parents, ya know that?  Did you?"

        Shinobu considers the question, then shrugs.  "I heard some things, but...I guess I never paid attention."  A light smile then crosses her face.  "Neither did Lum for that matter.  Strange that he still cares for her despite all she did to him."

        "Yeah!  Ain't love weird?" Ryuunosuke shakes her head.

        "Excuse me."

        Both turn to see Tampopo standing there.  "T-tampopo-san!" Shinobu stammers, then sighs.  "Is there something wrong?"

        "If you wish to see Ataru-chan one last time before he goes," Tampopo holds up a finger, "...be at the district park wading pool, the north side, two nights from now, eight o'clock.  It's your only chance, Miyaki.  Remember that."

        She heads off.  Shinobu watches her go, then pales as her eyes go wide.  "No...Jesucristo, no!  Ataru's going to kill himself!!"

        The next evening, late...

        "What is that fire in the distance?"

        The Kuromegane tenses, glancing out the window of Mendou's private study at a small, ominous glow of energy emerging from somewhere in the heart of Tomobiki.  "It appears to be a fire at the Moroboshi home, Young Master," the bodyguard reports.  "Shall I confirm what is happening with our intelligence group?"

        "Do so at once," Mendou orders.


        "Dual suicide?"

        "Hai," Chigaiko shivers, her eyes misty as she sips her tea, now at Tampopo's bar.  "It...I didn't use the Master PC program at all, Tariko-chan!" she sniffs, leaning into Tariko.  "I...I had it monitor those two, make sure they didn't do anything to hurt you if they found out...I...I should've stopped them..."

        "No, don't worry about it," Tampopo sighs.  "They depended on their dominating Ataru-chan emotionally to feel safe.  As long as he continued to accept their abuse, they felt it wasn't necessary to change their habits.  When Ataru-chan decided to change the rules, especially by his renouncing them, declaring his grandmother influence over his fate...not to mention what you pulled with you using Master PC to spread that rumour around, Chigaiko-chan...they knew the game was up.  Without Ataru-chan, there is no Lum, no Ten, no anyone else.  They would be left with nothing, plus no means to progress their situation without people wondering what happened to their child, then once learning what did happen...!" she raises her finger in warning, winking.  "What could they do?"

        "How about learning how to treat people better?" Tariko sighs, then shakes her head.  "Pair of fuckin' cowards...!"

        "Do you expect cowards to change their ways so quickly before they are forced to confront the consequences of their crimes?"

        Tariko jolts, then spins around to see a very beautiful woman appearing in her late twenties standing behind her, now in a white, black-splotched kimono with a tiger-striped obi.  Her wavy brown hair is swept up in a high ponytail, revealing elegantly tapered ears.  Her brown eyes sparkle with relief, love and regret.

        "G-g-grandma...?" Tariko stammers, then wailing, leaps into Nagaiwakai's embrace, sobbing into the matriarch's shoulder...

        "You knew all along?!  Why didn't you...?"

        "Come to remove you from them?" Nagaiwakai sighs, then shakes her head.  "I committed the same crime towards you, Ataru-chan, that Lum did.  I knew something was wrong, that you were literally living in an emotional Hell with those two, but I...didn't realize that if I cared for you, love you as a grandmother should love her grandchild, I had a responsibility to see to it you lived well."  Another sigh.  "Also, Kinshou could claim that by my renouncing Muchi, I also renounced Muchi's descendants.  She was prepared to fight me all the way to keep you in her grasp, including literally selling you off to that Oni girl to keep you 'free' from me."

        "And then you had to factor in your being a Righteous Gentile on Zephyrus and how that would've played out," Ataru, who had turned back into a man for Nagaiwakai's sake, sighs.

        "Hai," Nagaiwakai nods.  "There are elements among Lum's race, not to mention those other races living close to Earth, who would automatically go to war if they learned I was prepared to use my powers as a Righteous Gentile to see Earth remain free.  I know, have known since your encounter with that twit Elle, how you would view people fighting wars over you.  You would despise me forever if I forced a Holy Crusade on someone, even to keep Earth safe.  I admire your principles on the matter even if they don't necessarily sync with common sense.  But thanks to the wizard at Spells 'R' Us, not to mention your friends here, I hope you will see the wisdom of forcing bullies to back down finally."

        "Yeah, that's true," Ataru sighs, then stares at the Ideal Wish Ring.  With that, he concentrates, the ring's beautiful ruby disintegrating as he morphs into Tariko.

        Nagaiwakai blinks, then lightly smiles.  "Is this the way you wish to live the rest of your life?"

        "Hai," Tariko nods.

        "As you wish.  If I cannot have a grandson, I'll gladly have a granddaughter," Nagaiwakai nods.  "But what of the people here in Tomobiki?  What of Lum for that matter?"

        "I've already cast the rest of the clowns off.  If they can't stand not having their pet whipping boy around anymore, screw 'em and the horse they rode in on," Tariko shrugs, then glances fondly at Chigaiko.  "As for my real friends, they're with me right here and now.  As for Lum, when she comes back, I'll tell her then."

        "Would you prefer to do that tomorrow night?  Let her see it with her own eyes.  It will teach her much."

        Tariko blinks.  "Would the U.N. allow that?"

        "I can persuade them," Nagaiwakai smiles.


        The next evening...

        "Lum-san!!  What are you doing here?!!"

        Mendou, Megane and the bodyguards all beam as the Oni lands at the entrance to the district park.  Shinobu and Ryuunosuke both remain quiet.  Cherry and Sakura are there, too.  "Konban watcha, minna!  I was allowed to come back early for some reason," Lum shrugs, then looks around.  "Has anyone seen Darling anywhere?!"

        "He'll be here shortly, Lum."

        Lum jolts, then spins around to see Tampopo standing there, a small envelope in hand.  "Tampopo!!" the Oni takes a fearful leap back, eyes confirming that the B.A.S. was slung on the older woman's back.  "N-nan datcha...?!"

        "This is for you," Tampopo hands the envelope over.

        Lum blinks, then noting her name on it, takes it, opening it to read.  The guards move to peer over her shoulder to see the message, but a growl from Tampopo sends them scurrying back in fright.  They had received enough lumps from the overweight cook to know that she wouldn't tolerate ANY tomfoolery on their part when it came to Ataru OR Lum.  Scanning the short note, Lum blinks.  "'Dear Lum-chan...I do this most of all for you...Love forever, your Darling.'  Nan datcha...?" she flips the page, then her eyes widen on seeing the message written there.  "No...!!" she gapes.

        "I assume you haven't been by the house," Tampopo hums.

        "I...iie!!" Lum shakes her head.  "I saw that it was wrecked, but that's pretty normal..."

        "They're both dead."


        Lum's eyes widen, then she looks at the message before staring again at Tampopo.  "Douyattetcha...?!"

        "Suicide.  You profess to love Ataru-chan...and I don't for a minute doubt you do care for him...but from what I understand of what's happened in that place, you never took the time to really clue into what was happening to him.  You never ONCE rose objection to the way Muchi...or especially Kinshou!...treated him," Tampopo remains calm.  "So, a week ago, after someone came and gave Ataru-chan some truly positive encouragement for a change, he decided enough was enough.  Hence, that message," she points to the sheets in Lum's hand.  "Kinshou and Muchi couldn't take that, especially when the truth of their treatment of Ataru-chan started spreading around town, so...well, good riddance to them both, I say."

        Lum's jaw drops, then she blinks as a limousine comes up, a ninja appearing to open the door, revealing a regal-looking woman in a snow-white kimono.  Her tapered ears elicits bugged-out eyes from the Oni.  "You're a Vosian...?" she wonders.

        "Only one-quarter, I'm afraid," the older woman chuckles.  "I am Nagaiwakai Moroboshi, Lum.  I'm Ataru-chan's grandmother...AND his legal guardian now that Muchi and Kinshou are out of the way."

        Lum blinks, then her eyes fall to the golden symbol with six black phoenixes in a circle over crossed swords slung around the older woman's neck.  "A Righteous Gentile...?" she gasps.

        "Protestant Reformist Church of Zephyrus," Nagaiwakai turns toward the wading pool.  "Ah, there's Ataru-chan!"

        Everyone turns, gasping on seeing the man standing there.  "Darling!!/Ataru-kun!!/Ataru!!/Moroboshi!!" they exclaim, racing down to see Ataru facing away from them, a woman at his side.

        Lum lunges to glomp him, but the woman...one of her classmates at school, the Oni realizes, though like everyone else, she doesn't know her name...grabs Lum's arm and sends the surprised alien teen flying into a nearby park bench!  The others stop, staring wide-eyed at Chigaiko as she assumes a protective position before Ataru, arms crossed.  Mendou moves to persuade the girl to stand away, but the sharp edge of Tampopo's B.A.S. at his throat keeps him silent.

        Finally, Ataru sighs, then turns around, the Ideal Wish Ring glowing on his fingertip.  "You didn't need to be that harsh with her, Chigaiko-chan!" he admonishes.

        "I didn't change the macros, remember?!" Chigaiko hums.

        Ataru blinks, then nods.  "Hai, gotcha."

        "It's almost time, Ataru-chan," Tampopo warns.

        "Hai," Ataru takes a deep breath.

        "Ataru-kun...!" Shinobu moves toward him.

        "SHUT UP, MIYAKI!!!!" he roars, causing Shinobu to stagger back.  "I've already said what I've wanted to say to you!!!"

        Shinobu falters, then sinks to her knees, tears streaming down her cheeks.  Ryuunosuke kneels to comfort her, firing Ataru an icy glare loudly declaring "You hurt her again, you answer to me!"

        Ataru ignores her.  "This, if you're all wondering, is called an Ideal Wish Ring," he lightly smiles.  "I bought it from a wizard Tampopo-chan knows a week ago tonight when he briefly made a stop in Tomobiki.  It gives me the chance to experience what my *ideal* state emotionally...and physically...would be.  I tried it and..."

        The ring flashes, showering Ataru with energy as he morphs into Tariko.  Once the ruby has vanished, she slips the ring off her finger, then tosses it into the air.  "NO!!!!" Cherry screams as he tries to chase after the glistening band...

        ...then he gasps on feeling Nagaiwakai's exposed katana at his throat.  "No, Hayao-kun.  You can't interfere this time."

        Everyone watches the ring as it falls into the pond, then flashes briefly as it disintegrates!  "There," Tariko sighs, then faces everyone else.  "Now the spell is permanent."

        "Y-you..." Megane stammers.  "Wh-why...?"

        "Oh, I didn't do this blind," Tariko smirks.  "The wizard was kind enough to warn me ahead of time that whatever choice I made would have consequences.  But as this, I realized that I was no longer afraid of my parents, much less most other women.  And you, Aisuru-kun, actually thought I was THAT perverted?" she glances at Megane, an eyebrow arching, then she smiles.

        "You mean...all the glomps and that...you never ONCE...?!" Ryuunosuke hotly demands, her fists quaking.

        "No," Tariko smirks.  "When you live with someone like Kinshou Moroboshi as your mother, someone who took perverse delight in blaming ME for EVERY damned, stinking thing that went wrong in HER life and in HER marriage, you tend...I tended...to fear all women in the same way.  I don't hate women, Ryuu-chan...but I've always been...afraid of how vicious you can be to those like me."

        A pause, then, "You may not understand the way I feel...hell, you probably don't WANT to understand how I feel since you're all more comfortable seeing me as the 'cancer of Tomobiki'...but that's the truth," Tariko sighs, then stares at Shinobu.  "I'm amazed now that I actually cared for someone like you, Shinobu.  In my eyes, you're too similar to Kinshou emotionally for my comfort."

        Silence, then, "Then...why this, Darling?"

        Tariko stares at Lum, then bows her head ashamedly.  "All what I did...was meant for one purpose.  To drive you away from me, to convince you to seek a destiny other than marrying me.  But..." her eyes fall anew on the Oni, "...it wasn't because I hated you.  Not one bit, Lum-chan.  It was for the totally opposite reason."

        Lum blinks, then floats over to gaze into Tariko's eyes.  "Darling...d-do you...?"

        Tariko smiles, then leans close.

        "Atashi no kirei Lum-chan o itsu mo aishiteru."

        I'll always love you, my beautiful Lum.

        Lum blinks, then her cheeks redden.  "Soo datcha..." she then beams, then leans close to Tariko's ear.  "Uchi no kirei Darling o itsu mo ashitedatcha," she kisses her cheek.

        "Um...b-but, L-lum-san...!" Megane stammers.

        "Nan datcha?" Lum stares at him.

        "Um...h-he's a sh-she right now..." the bodyguards' leader protests, then spins on Tariko.  "Oi, if you think...?!"

        "That's why I'm leaving Tomobiki," Tariko smirks.

        Everyone falls on their faces!  "'LEAVING?!?!?!'"

        "Yes," Nagaiwakai cuts in, sheathing her katana as she walks over to slip her arm around Tariko's.  "My granddaughter and I have a decade and more to catch up on and we'll be doing it without any outside interference," her eyes fall on Cherry and Sakura, then she gazes on Lum.  "We both have much to atone for when it comes to my grandchild, Lum...but if, as Ataru, he was willing to suffer all that humiliation at the hands of these fools just to protect you, then who am I to argue that Tariko loves you?  The question that now must be asked is this:  can you love your Darling as a girl?"

        "I..." Lum jolts, then sighs.  "I don't know."

        "Well, now you've got the chance to decide that without what happened in either Tag Race hanging over your head," Tariko smiles, then leans over to kiss the Oni.  "And if you decide otherwise, I'll understand.  Sayonara, Lum-chan.  Kesshite wasureraremasen."

        Goodbye, Lum.  I cannot forget you.

        With that, Tariko and Nagaiwakai leave.  The former exchanges a subtle nod with Chigaiko, who winks in return.  The others don't notice; they're too busy trying to make sense of the information overload dumped onto their heads.  Lum watches them go, then sighs, turning to leave.  Megane is the first to notice what the Oni is doing.  "Lum-san...wh-what are you going to do now...?" he stammers as Lum watches the limousine drive off, heading north.

        "Go home," Lum shrugs.  "Darling wanted to give me the chance to think things over.  I'll think them over.  Ja!"

        She flies off.  Silence follows her...


        Three weeks later...

        "Ohayo, minna!!  Tadaimatcha!!"


        Lum jolts on hearing the relieved cries of dozens of boys, then she sighs, floating into her chair.  She pointedly ignores the boys fawning over her as she pulls out her books.  Even if a lot of the classes at Tomobiki High School were backward by her standards, she did enjoy coming here.  Strangely, the empty desk beside hers doesn't draw a second glance from the Oni.

        "Oh, Lum, ohayo!  Welcome back," Shinobu walks up, sitting two seats ahead of her.  "Did you hear about Ataru-kun's parents?"

        "Hai, I did," Lum nods.  "Not that it bothers me that much.  Those two were just awful when it came to Darling!"

        "True," Shinobu sits down, opening her own books.

        "Lum-san!!" Mendou snaps to attention beside the Oni's desk.  "I...first, I must express my condolences at what happened between you and Moroboshi...but may I...?!"

        A bookbag smashes him down!  "MENDOU-SAN!!!!" the girls wail, then gasp on seeing who threw that bookbag.

        "Just a second here!!" the stern-looking brown-haired woman in the black sailor suit uniform modelled after the standard Tomobiki High girl's uniform, a tiger-striped tie around her neck, hums, arms crossed.  "Just because Ataru-chan is no longer obliged to marry Lum doesn't give you the right to fawn over her, Slick!"  Her eyes then rake over Megane and his three cohorts.  "Ditto with you four little goofballs, too!!" she adds with a growl.

        The boys are quick to back away from the new girl, shivering on seeing the blue battle aura forming around her.  "Ohayo, Darling!" Lum flies over to gently embrace Tariko.

        Mass face-fault!!!  "'DARLING?!?!?!'" everyone exclaims.

        "Hai," Tariko smirks, then fondly gazes at Lum.  "After all, when I talked to Ataru-chan last, he told me that I was to see to ALL of Lum-chan's needs.  Physically, emotionally AND spiritually!  Ne, Lum-chan?" she draws her in for a kiss.

        Cries of disbelief echo through the classroom.  "Ne, Darling," Lum meows playfully, then glares balefully at her five normal pursuers.  "And don't you creeps even THINK about it!!"

        Mendou and the bodyguards back off, the confusion on their faces quite apparent.  Watching this from her seat, Chigaiko grins.  A little use of Master PC the night Ataru finally vanished from this life ensured all who were in attendance (save Lum, Nagaiwakai and Tampopo, of course) would forget the connection between Ataru Moroboshi and Tariko Hana.  Once that was done, Ataru could be laid to rest once and for all time.  But Ataru wasn't totally gone.

        His name and image could still be used if necessary.  Tampopo had thoughtfully procured a "replica doll marble" from Spells 'R' Us, which would (for a maximum of one week's time, which could be broken up into smaller periods if necessary) create a magical but lifelike replica of whoever the caster wanted.  That had not been put to use yet, but the need might arise.

        Better to be safe than sorry.

        The last three weeks had provided Tariko the chance to fully adjust to being a woman, with all its necessary demands.  Chigaiko had spent those weeks with Tariko up at Nagaiwakai's farm in Rishiri-tou, as (secretly) did Lum.  That had presented them with the chance to forge a special understanding between the "ghost" of Class 2-4 (as Chigaiko was often called by everyone else) and the Oni.  One very warm, loving understanding, Chigaiko shudders as she remembers last's night tryst aboard Lum's scoutship.

        *Be glad when the house is fixed up, not to mention exorcised of the bad spirits,* Chigaiko sighs as she draws her books, wishing she could whip up a house on the computer.  Master PC had helped both her and Lum accept Tariko, but it couldn't do everything!

        Tampopo's, that moment...

        "So she's on her way," the wizard smiles.

        "With hers, Chigaiko's and Lum's thanks to you for your help in it," Tampopo toasts him with a glass of herbal tea.

        "My pleasure as always.  They might be repeat customers sometime in the future.  Anyway, are you moving on?"

        "Iie, not yet," the restaurateur shakes her head.  "Tariko-chan needs the chance to fully adjust to being what she is, so she needs as many friends at her side as possible.  She's got ten years to pretty much make up with Nagaiwakai, not to mention firmly establish her relationships with Lum and Chigaiko.  Besides, this area seems to have its fill of kids in need.  We'll see..."

        "Good luck to you, then," the wizard toasts her...

*** The End ***