This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.
Special note—thanks to Beloved Wife for helping me proof this monster and alternately encouraging/threatening me to get it finished, and to Dark Jetzer for doing the beta reading.
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Some Time Later|
The August sun beat mercilessly upon the land. The nights were warm, the days brutal, even in the shade of the trees surrounding the Masaki shrine. The heat sapped every ounce of strength from those it touched, making the simplest of tasks an ordeal. It had been so hot that everyone had been eternally grateful to Mihoshi the last time her ship had hit the lake, giving everyone a wonderful dousing.
It was a time when it was so very easy, once one had escaped the direct sunlight, to curl up somewhere and drowse for an hour or two. It was even easier to ignore the alarm clock and the morning bustle and just keep one’s eyes closed for just a little bit longer.... In theory, at least.
“Well, isn't this special.”
At the sound of Ayeka's voice, Ryoko slowly lifted her head and looked around groggily, trying to get her bearings. The late morning sun was pouring through the windows; between that and the vision of the enraged Juraian princess, Ryoko realized that she'd slept far later than usual. The strange thing, though, was that she felt like she hadn't slept in days.
As the former space pirate slowly pulled herself into a seated position, Ayeka continued her passionate tirade. “I TRULY hate to disturb your beauty rest, dear--especially as you're in such DIRE need of all you can get--but today is YOUR day to wash dishes, and Sasami can't start lunch until you take care of the dirty pots and pans from breakfast. SO GET YOUR LAZY SELF OUT OF BED AND GET TO WORK!”
Ryoko shut her eyes and counted to ten. She wasn't really in the mood for her daily Ayeka Harangue. “All right, all right,” she muttered, waving the raging princess away. “I’ll be there in a minute. Don’t get your kimono in a knot.”
“Hmmph.” Ayeka turned away, nose firmly pointed to the sky. “Rest assured Tenchi will know who didn’t shirk her duties today.”
“Really? Maybe Tenchi will also find out who ate the last of the ice pops yesterday while he was in the field.”
Ayeka’s face twisted. “That was an accident!” she screamed. “I thought there were more!”
“There were more,” Ryoko grinned. “You ate them as well, if I recall.”
“You…you…you monster!” Ayeka balled her fists tightly, trembling with fury. “Get downstairs and start your chores this instant!”
“Yeah, yeah. Bite me, Princess Prissy.”
Ayeka screamed and stormed out the door; Ryoko bade her a cheery wave and looked around for something light-weight to wear. One dress and quick clean up later, Ryoko closed her eyes and willed herself through the floor.
She looked down and blinked. She hadn’t descended a centimeter.
“Okay, let’s try it again.” Deep breath, concentrate, exhale…nothing.
“Very funny, Washu.” Obviously the resident mad scientist was up to mischief for reasons unknown. Well, Ryoko wouldn’t play her silly games. With a deep sigh she rolled up her futon and put it away, then simply walked downstairs to the kitchen. That would show her.
* * * * *
One huge pile of dishes, a hearty lunch, and another pile of dishes later, Ryoko yawned and decided a nap was in order. Yes, naps were definitely a good idea—particularly when they were taken up on her favorite rafter beam, far away from maddening crowds and obnoxious princesses. Smiling to herself, Ryoko willed herself into the air.
She scratched her head, trying to figure out where Washu had hidden the shields. This was getting ridiculous. A girl might lose her self-confidence if this kept up, even one blessed with as much of it as Ryoko. She grit her teeth and demanded her body to ascend. It reluctantly obeyed, taking far longer to get there than it should have. Ryoko sighed heavily as she fluffed her pillows, wondering why she’d been feeling so dragged out lately. The lethargy had started about two weeks ago, but up until now she'd been able to hide it from everyone. But this latest thing, the loss of her powers, this was more disturbing. Especially if someone - nosy Jurai princesses in particular - told Washu, who would demand she come in and submit herself to a round of medical torture.
“No.” If she got right to work, she could probably volley a few verbal snipes at the princess that would most certainly drive any lingering concerns right out of her head. If she could add a few jibes about Tenchi in there, Ayeka's jealous rage would almost certainly wash away any memory of Ryoko's weakness. It was comforting to know the princess was so predictable-- it had come in handy on more than one occasion.
Ryoko poured herself some sake. It was probably the weather. Or maybe she’d been pushing herself too much lately. Or maybe she had a virus or something. It certainly was nothing to worry too much about. After all, even if she couldn’t fly or pass through things, there was always her sword. Ryoko held out her hand and created a small energy globe, then squeezed it tightly.
It reached the approximate size of a butter knife before flickering out of existence.
Ryoko resolved to stay out of trouble until this little situation cured itself. She then set the sake aside and closed her eyes for a nice long nap, which if luck were in her favor would feature a few dreams with Tenchi as the star.
* * * * *
“Washu, I'm worried about Ryoko.”
The greatest scientific genius in the galaxy--just ask her--reluctantly turned her attention away from her holotop and regarded the latest in the day's long line of intruders. “What is it, Sasami?”
The young princess looked down at the floor. “Ryoko's not acting right. Haven't you noticed?”
Washu frowned. “Not really. Her last three catfights with Ayeka have certainly ranked with the best of them. What makes you think something's wrong?”
“Well…” Sasami shuffled her feet nervously. “I've had leftovers from every meal this week.”
“And that's evidence of a problem?” Washu laughed.
“I never have any food left over!” Sasami cried. “Ryoko always grabs anything that's still there at the end of the meal and gobbles it down--and she laughs about empty plates being good luck! But lately there's been a lot of stuff left over--and there's more each time.”
Washu was still smiling, but she was rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “I think Yosho had a talk with her about how the household budget was getting strained…”
“When's the last time Ryoko listened to anyone other than Tenchi?”
“And there's more.” Having gotten the scientist's attention, Sasami grew bolder. “She's been walking downstairs instead of just floating through the ceiling and walls. Mihoshi noticed that. And Ayeka said that Ryoko's been oversleeping a lot lately. The other day, she was doing dishes and broke two glasses and three plates. They just slipped out of her hands, and she didn't even move to catch them before they hit the floor!”
The seeds of concern, firmly planted, now took root in Washu's brain. “Ryoko's reflexes are fast enough to catch them. And clumsy isn't a word I'd use for her.” Had she been blissfully missing all this? For how long? The idea of having been inattentive towards her daughter was disturbing.
“And you know how much she loves the onsen--we all went up last night, but Ryoko said she was going to stay here and watch television. We came back to the house and she'd gone up to bed--and it wasn't even past nine!”
“Hmmm.” Washu sifted the evidence through her brain. Individually, every piece could easily be explained away, most simply by saying 'it's just Ryoko'. But put all together, a very disturbing puzzle was forming…
Ayeka's scream broke through her reverie; Washu raced out of her lab, Sasami close behind. The older princess was standing in the middle of the living room, fists tightly clenched and eyes focused up around the ceiling. Following her gaze, Washu gasped at what she saw.
A limp Ryoko dangled in mid-air like an unstrung marionette, surrounded by a ring of tiny guardians. Ayeka slowly lowered the other woman to the ground, where Tenchi and Mihoshi were waiting.
“She was lying up there sleeping, just like she always does this time of day,” Mihoshi explained to Washu as Tenchi carried Ryoko carefully to the couch. “And it was like all of a sudden, she lost her balance or something, and started falling!”
“Falling? Ryoko?” Washu hurried to the couch. “Why didn't she just teleport down like she normally does?”
“Well, that was the weird thing, you know?” Mihoshi's eyes were wide and fearful. “It was like she was trying to, but nothing was happening! If Ayeka hadn't been here…”
“Enough,” Washu snapped. “Tenchi, take her to my lab.”
* * * * *
One by one, they congregated in the living area and sat down. Sasami fetched tea and snacks periodically, but no one ate more than a bite or two. Every so often Ayeka would rise and walk to the window, gazing out at the lake for a long time before returning to her seat. Mihoshi struggled valiantly to remain awake but slowly sank into a deep slumber, resting her head against Yosho's shoulder. The crown prince turned Shinto priest made no effort to move the drowsy woman, but merely remained quietly still as he stared at the table.
Tenchi sat by himself, hunched over slightly, turning the master key that served as his sword around and around in his hands. From time to time he glanced over at the closet door that led to Washu's other-dimensional lab, his jaw tightening as he wondered what was going on in there.
The hours crawled by. No one spoke. Sasami sat close to Ayeka; Ryo-oh-ki lay trembling and softly mewing on her lap, her cries almost mournful in tone and adding to the general gloomy mood of the silent room.
The slightest sound reverberated around them as sunlight slowly retreated from view. When the door to Washu's lab flew open, the bang very nearly caused five coronaries. And when they all turned toward the noise and saw the expression on Washu's face, an icy feeling of dread crept through their souls.
Washu regarded them for a long moment, and then took a deep breath. “Ryoko is dying.”
“What?” The words were out of Ayeka's mouth before she could stop them.
“She's dying. And I can't cure her.” The ageless genius wrapped her arms around herself. “I've run all the tests I can think of, programmed every possible scenario into my computers, and the answer is invariably the same. Ryoko has less than six months to live, best case scenario.”
“But…how?” Tenchi found himself on his feet, sword in hand as if to do battle with whatever had felled Ryoko.
“Kagato.” Washu looked out the windows, her facial expression unreadable. “So far as I can tell, at some point during the period where Ryoko and I were his captives, he performed some genetic remapping on her. He programmed a special virus into her cellular structure, keyed to his bioelectric frequency. So long as he was alive and she remained close to him, everything was fine. But if Ryoko escaped him, or Kagato died somehow…the virus would activate a few months later.”
“But Brother Yosho captured Ryoko and placed her in the cave for seven hundred years,” Ayeka said. “Why didn't the virus activate then? Why now?”
“The key lies in the gems Ryoko derives her power from,” Washu replied. “Normally, her cells absorb that energy and use it as she needs it. The virus has twisted that function so that now the gems' power is poisoning her, killing the cells even as they absorb more power to keep her going. When Ryoko was in the cave, she had no access to the gems and so the virus did not activate.” Washu clenched her fists. “He was a clever bastard.”
“I see,” Tenchi said slowly. “And then he showed up for Ryoko before the virus could activate, and basically reset the timer.”
“Yes.” Washu closed her eyes. “He set things up so that if she somehow gained her freedom, it would be a short victory, followed by a painful, nasty death.”
“So…what can we do?” asked Mihoshi softly.
“Nothing,” Washu said dully.
“I can’t believe that,” Tenchi blurted.
Washu stared at him. “Tenchi,” she said tiredly, “I have taken the samples, performed the examinations, triple-checked the results, studied the readings, attempted every possible treatment I can think of, and I have come up with nothing. Now, if you think you can top all that, then please come into the lab with your incomplete high school education and show me where I’ve gone wrong.”
“I…” Tenchi blushed for a moment, then straightened back up, determination shining in his eyes. “I can’t accept this, Washu. We’ve been together for a long time, and we’ve faced long odds before. We’ve always come through, always found a way to win. We’ll do it again this time. We won’t let Ryoko die.”
“Tenchi…” Washu’s eyes closed.
“We could contact Mom,” Sasami suddenly suggested, her eyes bright. “Maybe she could bring some doctors here and help you out, Washu!”
“I could access the GP records and see if they ever found any traces of Kagato’s labs,” Mihoshi jumped in. “Maybe we could get lucky and find something there!”
“In the meantime, we can make Ryoko comfortable,” Ayeka suddenly declared. “We can keep her from overextending herself. We can summon assistance for Ms. Washu, in the hope that someone might find a way to overcome this…this thing…”
“WILL YOU LISTEN TO ME?” Washu screamed, silencing everyone in the room. The petite scientist was shaking violently, her eyes tightly shut. She took a deep breath, regained her composure, then opened her eyes and regarded the shocked expressions facing her. “Listen. If it makes you all feel better, makes you feel like you’re doing something, then you go right ahead and do whatever you want. But I’m telling you now; none of these ideas are going to pan out. Ryoko is going to die, and it isn’t going to be pretty.”
“I’ve never known you to admit defeat,” Ayeka declared angrily.
“I’ve never known you to have much love for Ryoko,” Washu replied.
Ayeka's face flared crimson. “While it's true that Ryoko and I have had our…differences,” she said tightly, “this is no time to hold grudges or waste time on silly schoolgirl feuds. And I find your comments most insulting, Ms. Washu.”
Washu's shoulders sagged slightly. “You're right. I apologize, Princess Ayeka, and you're quite right about one thing. We should concentrate on making her comfortable. While my lab has plenty of space, it's hardly the proper place for someone to rest.”
“Her sleeping area isn’t very private,” Mihoshi said, then smiled. “She can have my room, and I’ll take hers!”
“That’s very kind of you, Mihoshi, but at some point we’ll need a room on the ground floor. She’s going to require a lot of care before it’s over, and most of what we’ll need is down here.” Washu turned to Tenchi. “If you could contact your father and ask him to design a room—maybe something adjoining this area—I can create it and attach it to the main house.”
“I’ll call him tonight. When it’s done I could bring my bed down for her,” Tenchi said.
“That depends on whether you come as part of the deal,” came a familiar voice. Everyone turned as one toward the doorway to Washu’s lab.
“You don't need to go to all this trouble,” Ryoko was standing in the doorway, leaning against it with deceptive ease. “I'm fine, really. Washu exaggerated. Give me a couple days to rest, a few hours in the onsen, and some really good sake, and I'll be good as new. Honest.”
Washu's eyes grew narrow. “Daughter,” she said quietly. “This is no time to be in denial.”
“This is no time to be giving in!” Ryoko yelled. “Look at all of you--I can see the pity in your eyes! Well, I don't want it! Do you hear me? I don't want any of you doing anything special for me! I'm Ryoko, damn it, and I will not be pitied!”
Without warning her legs gave out from under her, and she tumbled helplessly to the floor. Tenchi, Washu and Ayeka all reached her at the same time. She looked up at them, her eyes wide and frightened for just an instant, then a cocky grin split her lips.
“Although…I might just accept a hand up.”
* * * * *
According to Yukinojo’s internal chronometer, Mihoshi’s next scheduled patrol wasn’t for approximately three days. It came as no little surprise to the AI, then, to find the ship being summoned from its subspace haven. The determined expression on his mistress’ face when she came aboard was no less worrisome. “Mihoshi? May I ask what we’re doing?”
“We’re going up to the main ship,” she said firmly. “Let’s get moving.”
“And…what might we be doing once we get there?”
Mihoshi was running through her pre-flight checklist, and for once was doing everything by the book. “We’re going to call Grandfather, and then we’re going to run a few data retrieval searches.”
Yukinojo was starting to get that odd electronic buzzing in his circuits that always came moments before disaster struck. “Mihoshi, what will we be looking for?”
“Any references to Kagato’s hidden laboratories in the Galaxy Police’s databases, and from there we’ll expand it to any database we can access.”
“Kagato?” His robotic voice could not, of course, mimic human emotional states, but there was definitely a tremor in Yukinojo’s tones. “Mihoshi…first of all, that data will be highly classified, and secondly, Kagato was a most dangerous felon that we have no jurisdiction or authority to investigate.”
“I don’t care,” Mihoshi said firmly. “Ryoko’s sick, and if we can find any information on Kagato that will make her well, then by golly we’re going to do it, okay?”
Yukinojo was tapping into Washu’s computer systems; it took only a moment to find the files on Ryoko. After a moment or two, the faithful robot nodded his metallic head. “We certainly will, Mihoshi.”
* * * * *
There were certain…protocols that the daughters of Lady Misaki were expected to follow. It was therefore understandable that she was less than pleased by her oldest daughter’s greeting on the com-unit.
Misaki’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Little Ayeka?” she said with an undercurrent of warning in her tones.
“Mother, we need the finest geneticists in the Empire to come here as soon as possible,” Ayeka continued as if she hadn’t heard. Beside her, Sasami winced and crossed her fingers in hope that the coming explosion wouldn’t be too bad.
“And why is this such an immediate need, that my daughter would speak so disrespectfully to me?” Misaki asked sharply.
“Mother, this is no time for silly games,” Ayeka snapped. “Ryoko is dying from a genetically-engineered virus. Washu doesn’t believe there is a cure, but I want a second opinion.”
Both her daughter’s words and the way they were delivered took Misaki aback for a moment. “I see,” she finally said. “My little Ayeka must be distressed. Not only does she speak disrespectfully to her mother, but she also questions the findings of the greatest scientific genius in the universe.”
“Mother,” Sasami pleaded, jumping into the fray in hopes of putting an end to it. “This is an emergency. Please…I don’t want Ryoko to die.”
“Well…” Misaki closed her eyes and pondered the situation. “All right,” she finally replied. “Have Washu forward the relevant data to us, and we will have our experts review it en route to Earth.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Ayeka and Sasami said in unison.
“And when I arrive, Ayeka, we will talk,” Misaki said in farewell. The com-unit display went blank; Ayeka and Sasami looked at one another.
“Boy,” Sasami said, “Are you ever in trouble, Ayeka!”
* * * * *
“Well, what do you think?” Ayeka asked.
Ryoko leaned against the doorway and gave the new room her careful scrutiny. The two outer walls were lined with windows, giving her a stunning view of the lake and woods. A comfortable recliner and table sat beside the far wall directly opposite the bed. The inside walls were painted a light blue with white paint sponging to give them the look of clouds on a bright day and a feeling of flying. A brand new bed, complete with down comforter, awaited, with a nightstand and lamp close by in easy reach. A combination closet/wardrobe sat against the other inside wall. A calendar hung on a nearby wall, displaying a stunning photo of cherry trees in bloom. A door that most likely led to a private bathroom completed the visual tour.
“Very nice. Very Western,” Ryoko finally stated. “Who’s it for?”
Ayeka’s eyes narrowed. “You, of course.”
Ryoko shook her head. “There is no way in hell I’m going to spend a single night in there, Princess. Look at it. It’s so cheery and bright and…and perky…that it makes you want to puke. That’s not a room to sleep in. That’s a room to get sick and die in. That’s not for me. No thanks. I’ll stick to my old room.”
“How dare you?” Ayeka exploded. “Do you realize how hard everyone worked on making this for you? How much effort, to say nothing of how much money, was spent so that you’d have a place to be comfortable in? This has nothing to do with you dying, Ryoko. You’re sick. You aren’t going to be able to handle the stairs soon. The least you can do is show a little gratitude and appreciation to everyone!”
“Fine. I’m grateful.” Ryoko turned away and slowly shuffled toward the dining area. “But I’m not setting foot in there.”
“You…you ungrateful witch!” Ayeka’s face was crimson. “You just wait! One day soon you’ll require assistance, and I guarantee I will not lift a finger to aid you! Not one single finger!”
“I’m not asking you to!” Ryoko exploded. “I don’t want anything from any of you! Just leave me alone! I’m fine!”
“You are NOT fine, and you KNOW it!”
With a cry of rage, Ryoko suddenly whirled around and unleashed a small fireball at Ayeka. The princess reacted instantly, throwing up a force shield, but instead of dissipating upon contact, the energy globe bounced off at an angle and went flying into the living area, straight for Mihoshi. The winsome detective screamed and lifted a plate to protect herself with, and unbelievably, the ball angled off that as well and went roaring into the main hall. A second later, a scream of equal parts surprise and rage was heard.
Ayeka and Ryoko froze, staring uneasily at one another.
Washu appeared in the doorway. Her unruly mane of red hair now had a large part right up the middle, giving her the appearance of wearing a reverse Mohawk.
“I’m going to assume there’s an explanation behind this,” she said calmly. “And it had better be a good one.”
* * * * *
“Tenchi, PAY ATTENTION!” Yosho punctuated the admonishment with a swift kick to the back of his grandson's knees, sending the boy flying into the dirt. The old man stood shaking his head as Tenchi lay there unmoving. “This is pointless,” Yosho said quietly. “You've forgotten everything I've taught you.”
Tenchi slowly rose to his feet, dusting himself off. “I don't feel like practicing today.”
“I see.” Yosho glided into an attack stance, his practice sword poised to strike. “Let us hope then that your enemies never choose to attack you on a day when 'you don't feel like practicing'.”
Tenchi suddenly threw his own sword into the dirt and headed toward the shrine, his back to his grandfather. “Tenchi?” Yosho could have applied a second lesson--the dangers of turning your back on an enemy, even when it was just a practice session--but it would have had no more impact than the first. Sighing, he picked up the boy's sword and followed his pupil's path back home.
He was sitting on the steps of the shrine, wiping his face with a towel and looking generally irked with the world. Yosho said nothing, merely took the swords inside and put them away, then returned with two glasses of water. He offered one to Tenchi, who took it without a word.
They drank in silence, simply sitting side by side and staring out at the hot afternoon. “I know it's difficult for you,” Yosho finally said.
“Yeah,” Tenchi said after a moment.
“Much can happen in six months, but you must never forget that nothing might happen as well.”
Yosho looked out toward the tiny bluff where his daughter--Tenchi's mother--was buried. “I sometimes forget how young you are,” he said. “Death is still a new concept for you to deal with.”
“It's not the first time,” Tenchi snapped, his eyes burning.
“You were very young when she died,” Yosho replied evenly.
“I still remember.”
Tenchi looked down at his feet. “I…don't remember everything, though. How did Dad handle Mom being sick?”
Yosho closed his eyes and sighed. “I have never been as proud of your father as I was during that time. He had to work, of course, but he somehow convinced his superiors to allow him to do so at home. He never complained, and he always kept her smiling and happy, even during the bad times.” The old man turned toward Tenchi. “He couldn't do everything, of course, so you came here to stay. That was the beginning of your summer visits.”
“I wanted to be there, with her,” Tenchi said softly.
“She wanted you there as well. You were her greatest pride and joy.” Yosho bowed his head. “Nobuyuki moved heaven and earth to make your mother comfortable right up to the end. When she finally died, I think the strain caught up to him with a vengeance. It took him some time to recover.” Another sigh escaped the old man. “In some ways, I wonder if any of us truly recovered from her death.”
“Tenchi.” The boy looked up to find Yosho staring intently at him. “This is going to be a very long and difficult journey for you--for all of us. Ryoko is going to need a great deal of care, and I suspect she will not be the most pleasant or willing of patients. We will all be under a great deal of stress. People will grow angry and scream at one another over the most trivial of matters. Do you understand me?”
“That is why we must never forget the need to take time for ourselves--to escape the situation at times, albeit briefly. Tenchi, we will reduce your practice time to twice a week. In return, I am asking you to take at least one afternoon and get away from here. Do something you enjoy. Perhaps even take Ayeka out as well, for I see the signs. She is determined to be Ryoko's sole caregiver, and I fear Ryoko will save her most venomous outbursts for Ayeka. We must also look out for her, for she will not willingly do so herself.”
“Ryoko's already called her a few things,” Tenchi replied. “Even threw a sake bottle at her.”
“Believe me, it will get worse,” Yosho nodded. “And for all her pride and bravado, Ayeka at heart is a very fragile soul. She will need someone to support her and be a friend. Can you do that, Tenchi?”
“I think so, Grandfather.”
“Good.” Yosho smiled at him. “Why don't you go back to the house, then, and take Ayeka to town for some ice cream? I suspect she'd enjoy an afternoon out--there won't be many opportunities in the future.”
“All right.” Tenchi rose to leave, then hesitated. “Grandfather?”
“I'm sorry for my disrespect.”
“Quite all right.”
“You're very welcome.” He watched Tenchi head toward the stairs leading to the house; when the boy was quite out of sight, Yosho closed his eyes, his shoulders slumping slightly. “So much death,” he murmured to himself. “And now I must watch another who has grown close to my heart fade away. I am old and tired, Funaho…so very tired…”
“You're not old.” Yosho almost jumped out of his skin; whirling around, he found the lovely Mihoshi standing in the doorway, yawning and stretching in a most distracting manner.
“I…didn't realize you were here,” he finally said.
“Oh, sorry!” Mihoshi sat down beside him and yawned again. “It was so warm today, I got really sleepy, but who could take a nap with all that yelling and screaming going on? So I thought I'd come up here, because it's so peaceful and all.” She looked at him with those impossibly earnest blue eyes. “It's okay, isn't it?”
“Of course it is,” Yosho found himself assuring her. “You said there was some arguing going on?”
“Oh yes,” she replied breathlessly. “Ayeka and Ryoko. It must have gotten really mean, because Ryoko said something about this whole thing being the best thing ever to happen to Ayeka because short of selling herself it was the only way she was ever going to get a man, and Ayeka screamed something back and ran up to her room and slammed the door shut!”
“I see.” Tenchi, he said silently, forgive me for sending you into a battle zone. “Mihoshi, you are more than welcome to visit whenever you like. You brighten an old man's day.”
She smiled slyly at him. “Oh, you're not old.”
“I beg your pardon?” he chuckled.
Mihoshi raised her hand and spread her fingers. “You don't walk like an old man,” she said, ticking each reason off on a digit, “you don't really talk like an old man, you certainly don't fight like an old man, and…and…” Her face went blank as she struggled to recover her list of evidence. “And…well, you just aren't an old man, and that's all there is to say about that!” She lifted her chin in proud defiance. “I am a detective first class, you know. I'm good at spotting things.”
Yosho recalled his mother's words about Mihoshi's reports and suddenly felt more than a little uncomfortable. “Yes, of course you are,” he said hurriedly. “But I assure you, Mihoshi, I've been here over 700 years, and although Funaho keeps me alive, I have aged a great deal.”
“It doesn't add up,” she said with a pretty shake of her head. “You aren't an old man. I bet you're wearing a disguise.”
Yosho heard a noise and spotted an elderly couple approaching the temple. Miracles did occur in this day and age, he thought in relief. “Mihoshi, we will discuss this another time,” he said quickly. “I must tend to these people. But I assure you, what you see is what I am.”
Mihoshi watched him rush off and smiled. “We’ll just see. Detective First Class Mihoshi is on the case!”
* * * * *
“How bad was it?”
“It was nothing, Tenchi.” Ayeka pressed her ice cream against her lips and looked away. She had been nothing less than grateful when he'd made his kind offer to take her into town for a while. Ryoko's sheer fury and viciousness had been almost too much for her to take; the temptation to return fire had been nearly irresistible. The princess had told herself that it wasn't really anything personal, that Ryoko was just aiming at the most convenient target, but some of the barbs had hit far too close to home.
“I don't know,” Tenchi said. They were strolling down the sidewalk, pausing here and there to peer into the storefront windows while enjoying their treat. He'd seen the pain in her eyes the minute he set foot in the house and knew that everything Grandfather had warned him about was going to come true. They were definitely in for a long, difficult time. “Ryoko can hurt you with her mouth almost as well as she can with her sword, from what I've seen.”
“It's only words.” Ayeka paused by a jewelry store, studying the long rows of diamond rings and necklaces on display. Her monthly allowance could have easily paid for everything there, but it was the ideas, possibilities, and dreams behind the trinkets that made her heart ache just ever so slightly. She had no reason for such feelings, she chided herself; someday her dreams might become reality, which was more than poor Ryoko could say for the moment.
“Words can cut too. Sometimes more than swords.” Tenchi sighed and wished for more experience with girls. While she seemed to appreciate his company, Ayeka's thoughts were definitely elsewhere, and his efforts at cheering her up were going nowhere. Grandfather made things look so easy; within days of the arrival of each houseguest, the old man had charmed every woman utterly and completely while Tenchi had stammered and blushed. “Hey!” he suddenly blurted out as they passed one particular storefront. “Wow…I haven't been here in years!”
“What?” Ayeka shook herself from her reverie and turned toward the window. “Where are we?”
“This is an art supply store,” he explained. “Back when I was eleven, I was interested in art. My father saw some of my drawings and rushed down here--bought me everything he thought I might want to use: pencils, pastels, watercolors, an easel, you name it. I kept up with it for a few years, then kind of lost interest.” He peered into the store. “Boy, that brings back a lot of memories.”
Ayeka gave him an appraising look, then smiled. “Let's go in,” she ordered. Before he could react she had moved past him and opened the door; Tenchi could only stumble in behind her. She was regarding the place with a practiced, critical eye as she stepped up to the counter. “How do you do,” she said in a crisp, polite voice that radiated authority. “My friend here would like to take up drawing and painting again--what would you suggest we purchase to get him started?”
“Ayeka, you don't have to do this,” Tenchi stuttered as the proprietor all but fell over himself to fulfill the young woman's request.
She regarded him with that regal look that always left him a bit in awe. “I want to do this,” she replied quietly. “You were kind enough to bring me to town; this is my present to you. Now, are you going to accept my gift, or are you going to show me disrespect by protesting further?” A ghost of a smile played on her lips.
“I…” Tenchi rubbed his neck and smiled. “Thank you, Ayeka.”
“You are very welcome.” She handed the proprietor a plastic card that made the man's eyes boggle; he gathered up the purchases and carried it for them, leading them to the door while thanking them profusely every step of the way. Ayeka nodded gracefully to him as he held the door open for her and handed the bags to Tenchi.
“I don't know what you did there, but he was sure impressed,” he commented as they continued on their way.
“My family's credit card. I never leave home without it,” she smiled.
“Ayeka…I can't thank you enough for this, but I think I should warn you…don't expect anything great out of this. I'm way out of practice.”
“Nothing worthwhile ever came immediately,” she said. “Otherwise it wouldn't be worthwhile.”
“Boy, I can sure tell you're related to Grandfather,” Tenchi muttered. Ayeka's eyes widened at the remark, and she laughed--it wasn't forced or spiteful, but soft and sweet and almost magical in its music. And hearing that lovely sound from her, it seemed to Tenchi that it was only natural to lean forward and kiss her briefly on the lips in reply.
She froze momentarily in surprise, then moved into the kiss and responded in kind. They parted a second later, staring into each other’s eyes and trying to comprehend what had just happened. “Uhhh,” she whispered. “Tenchi…”
“I'm sorry,” Tenchi blurted out, blushing furiously. “I don't know why I did that…”
“I'm…glad you did,” Ayeka replied in a shaky voice. She felt incredibly light-headed, her body tingling as though some incredible power had shot through her.
“So…am I.” He glanced over her; she was looking incredibly sweet as he smiled shyly at her. Ayeka couldn't help but smile back. “I guess we'd better get back, huh?”
“Yes,” Ayeka nodded, wishing privately that they could run away together and never go back to that house and its harsh reality.
* * * * *
Ryoko saw their return; she was sitting on the roof, enjoying the sunset with a bottle of good sake to keep her company. It looked like they'd been in town, judging from the shopping bags Tenchi was carrying. Well, good for them, she thought sourly as she took a swig from the bottle. Princess Prissy obviously wasn't wasting any time in staking her claim. Damned Jurai Royal Family, they were all alike, striking at the first sign of weakness. To hell with her, and to hell with…Tenchi, she thought, sniffling slightly. She didn't need them. She didn't need anyone. She was Ryoko.
“And Ryoko is drunk.” Washu's flaming red hair—all of it, she must have regenerated the burned bit--popped up over the edge of the roof; a second later the rest of her appeared, much to Ryoko's dismay. The petite scientist stepped gracefully over to where Ryoko sat and made herself at home. “Willing to share?”
“You're underage,” Ryoko replied, taking another long pull from the bottle.
“And you're still drunk.” Washu suddenly had the bottle in her hand; Ryoko panicked for a moment, fearful that her mother would go and pour the contents out, but instead Washu simply poured herself a small cup and sipped at it thoughtfully. “But at least you get drunk on the good stuff.”
“Give me that.” Ryoko tried to snatch the bottle back, but Washu held it just out of reach. “Damn it, Washu, give it back!”
“We never talk any more,” Washu said calmly.
“We never talked, period.”
“Of course we did.” Washu took another sip from her cup. “You just never listened.” Her eyes followed the slow descent of the sun into the horizon. “You have a right to be angry,” she said after a comfortable lull.
“You're damned right I do.”
“Just make sure you're aiming it at the proper target.”
Ryoko turned to glare at the placid Washu, whose gaze was still fixed in the distance. “I said I was sorry for torching your hair already! What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Be angry at Kagato for all he did to you, both this and a hundred other things you haven't told me about. Be angry at me, because I wasn't there when you needed me, and because I didn't catch this until it was too late.” The scientist's eyes now focused on her daughter. “But don't scream and slap at Ayeka just because she happens to be standing there and she's willing to bear the brunt of it. That isn't fair and you know it.”
Ryoko sighed; her shoulders slumped as she looked away. “I…don't mean to,” she finally said in a quieter voice. “It's just sometimes…I get so angry…it hurts so much, I have to get rid of it somehow. And Ayeka…”
“Ayeka will most likely marry Tenchi, have his children, live happily ever after with him, and you won't,” Washu finished for her. “She makes the perfect target for your rage. And she knows all this too and feels guilty about it, so she lets you take it out on her.”
“Maybe.” Ryoko felt a nudge and turned; Washu was offering the bottle to her. She took it and sipped at it this time. “Washu…I wish…”
“I'm doing everything I can,” Washu replied. “But Ryoko…it might not be enough.”
“I know.” A tear slid down Ryoko's cheek. “I should have known better. He'd never let me be happy, not for long. I should have known…”
“No one expects you to be a saint, Ryoko,” Washu said quietly. “As I said, you have a right to be angry. But…use some discretion in expressing it. Can you do that for me, my daughter?”
Ryoko nodded, unable to look Washu in the eye.
“All right,” the scientist said quietly.
“What is it, little Ryoko?”
“I…” she hesitated for a minute or two, struggling with the words. “I’d really like…to see…cherry blossoms. One last time.” Ryoko turned her golden eyes toward the scientist. “Is there any chance…?”
Washu pondered the possible answers and settled for a ‘middle of the road special’. “I’ll do everything I can, Ryoko. I promise you that.”
Washu rose to her feet and stretched. “I'm going inside. Joining me?”
“No,” Ryoko said, shaking her head. “I think I'll stay out here for awhile…if that's okay.”
“Of course it is, Ryoko. Good night.”
“Good night, Washu.” Ryoko looked up at the night sky, which was only now starting to reveal its stellar tapestry of thousands and thousands of tiny lights. It was hard to see them, though, through all the tears.
* * * * *
Sasami had wondered how long Ryoko’s efforts at good behavior would last. That she’d made it almost five days without a blow-up was nothing short of miraculous, especially given how Ayeka’s continual smothering and fussing could drive a saint insane. This morning, however, looked to be the end of the line.
“Come on, Ryoko!” Ayeka said, trying to coax her extremely reluctant charge out of bed. “Mother and the scientists are due in today, and you haven’t even bathed yet! We’ve got to get you prepared!”
“Leave me the hell alone, Ayeka! I didn’t ask you to bring them here, and I’m not going to see them! Just get out of here and let me sleep!” Ryoko pulled angrily away from Ayeka’s grip and tried to bury herself back under the quilt and into the futon.
“I will do no such thing,” Ayeka snapped. “You are going to get up and make yourself presentable. These people are coming to help you, and the least you can do is stand before them without reeking of sake!” She reached down and yanked the futon back, exposing Ryoko’s bare skin to the universe. “Sasami, get Ryoko’s bath things, will you?”
“I don’t know, Ayeka,” Sasami said doubtfully. “Maybe we should just leave her alone. I mean, Mother will want to visit and have some tea before starting anything, don’t you think?”
“We have called these people away from their homes and families,” Ayeka said primly, “and the least we can do is allow them immediate access to their patient. Now I’ve had quite enough, Ryoko. Get up and get moving this minute, or I will be forced to…”
Ayeka never saw it coming. Even ailing, Ryoko was still a formidable fighter, and the roundhouse right she unleashed was almost a blur to Sasami’s eyes. Fist met face, and Ayeka literally flew backwards, slamming into the far wall so hard the plaster cracked. But that wasn’t what terrified the young Juraian princess; it was the expression of sheer, naked fury on Ryoko’s face that paralyzed her.
“BITCH! YOU WANT MORE? DO YOU? HUH? DO YOU?” Ryoko slowly rose to her feet, her fists tightly clenched as she shuffled toward the huddled Ayeka. “I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE ME ALONE! I TRIED TO BE NICE, BUT YOU DIDN’T LISTEN! WELL, I’VE HAD ENOUGH, PRINCESS! WHEN I’M DONE WITH YOU, YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE TO WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE!”
At the sound of that voice, Sasami gasped and whirled around to find her mother standing there. Misaki’s stare could have burned through titanium; even Ryoko paused in her tirade to freeze under that terrifying gaze. The odd thing was, Misaki’s body posture was relaxed and confident, not ready for battle. Somehow, that scared Sasami even more.
“Ryoko,” Misaki continued in a perfectly calm voice. “We can do this the easy way, or we can try the difficult route. The choice, my dear, is yours.”
Ryoko’s fury diminished slightly, but only slightly. “I didn’t ask for you to come. I just want to be left alone. Go back to Jurai.”
“So be it. Azaka. Kamidake.” The twin guardians instantly appeared inside the room on either side of Ryoko. “Your last chance to be civil, Ryoko. What do you say?”
Ryoko glanced at her potential captors, then at Ayeka. Her shoulders slumped, and it seemed as if all her energy simply poured out of her at once. “All right,” she said in a small voice. “All right.”
“Thank you, my dear.” Misaki removed her cloak and wrapped it around the naked woman. “You may leave, my friends,” she ordered Azaka and Kamidake. “Sasami, please escort Ryoko up to my ship; I shall be there presently with Ayeka.”
“Yes, mother.” Sasami hurried over to where Ryoko was half standing, half swaying, and took her hand. “We’ll be there in just a second, Ryoko, don’t be afraid.”
“I hate doctors,” was the last thing heard before the pair shimmered out of sight.
* * * * *
Misaki knelt before her daughter’s huddled form. “Little Ayeka, that was not terribly bright of you. Now sit up and let me take a look at that.”
The Princess’ left eye was swollen shut, the skin around it turning ugly shades of crimson and purple. “She hit me,” Ayeka mumbled, wincing as her mother gingerly probed the area of injury. “Mother, that hurts!”
“Think of it as a lesson.” Misaki helped the girl to her feet. “Let’s get up to the ship, and we’ll get that fixed in no time. Then we’re going to have a little chat.”
Ayeka shivered in anticipation as they teleported heavenward.
Misaki was waiting in her private quarters for Ayeka; once the physicians had corrected the damage to her face, the princess hurried to join her mother, cursing herself every step of the way. After all this time, after all the adventures and trials she'd endured, Ayeka still found herself feeling like a five-year-old trying desperately to please her mommy.
A cup of tea was waiting for her, placed before the chair directly opposite her mother's. Ayeka bowed slightly before seating herself, then wrapped her hands around the warm cup and waited for the lecture to begin. But Misaki said nothing, merely sat there quietly contemplating her own tea. The silence grew overwhelming, almost oppressive.
“I…was wondering where Mother Funaho was,” Ayeka finally said.
Misaki looked up at her daughter. “She is with your father, away on some pressing business of the Empire,” she said simply. “I left them when I received your request.”
“Thank you for coming, Mother.” Ayeka closed her eyes. She could feel it coming; she'd seen the hint of the storm behind her mother's eyes. She just wanted it to strike and be done with. Perhaps that was why she abruptly blurted out: “I know I mishandled the situation this morning, Mother.”
Misaki paused in mid-sip. Her eyes regarded her child carefully. “You certainly did, Ayeka. Now,” she continued, setting the cup back down and pouring herself a fresh portion, “why don't you tell me what you should have done?”
Ayeka bit her lip. “I suppose…I shouldn't have been so…bossy. I should have backed off.”
“Dear, you shouldn't have been up there at all.”
“But…” Ayeka's eyes widened. “Mother, she needed to get dressed and prepare herself for today.”
“It seemed to me that she could have done all those things by herself. She needed no assistance from you or Sasami.”
“Mother,” Ayeka said heatedly, “we knew you were arriving at some point in the morning. She needed to be properly attired to meet you…”
Misaki smiled slightly. “Considering Ryoko's history, I would hardly consider her absence upon my arrival to be a grand insult. Now, what she did to your father's throne seven hundred years ago--that was insulting. But tardiness, especially in her condition? It's nothing, little Ayeka. You worry too much about appearances and propriety. Leave her alone until she asks for help.”
“She'll never ask for help,” Ayeka said with a trace of disgust. “She'd sooner rot than have me assist her.”
“Then simply leave her alone, dear. Didn't you hear me?”
“But…Mother, she's sick. I can't just abandon her!”
“Why not, if she doesn't want your aid?”
“Daughter?” Misaki echoed placidly. “More tea?”
“What? I mean, yes, please.” Somehow the argument had gotten derailed, and Ayeka had to pause and put her thoughts back on track. “Mother,” she finally said after a quick sip, “I can't just ignore Ryoko if she's in trouble. I…I just can't, that's all.”
“Good.” Misaki nodded happily. “My eldest daughter is finally growing up. But Ayeka, you must remember that both of you have lessons to learn. Yours is to only render assistance when requested to.”
“To learn to ask when it's truly needed.”
“I don't think she'll ever master that.”
Misaki sighed. “You'd be surprised what the most stubborn heart can learn when it has to. Now, on to other things. How is Ryu-Oh?” Her eyes grew wide and slightly teary. “I spoke to her earlier—she was so glad to see me. In fact, she informed Mizuho and Karin that you never come to see her any more.”
“Mother,” Ayeka said lightly, “we both know that Ryu-Oh is a fussy little thing that can never get enough attention to suit her.”
“Yes, yes,” Misaki laughed. “But you know, part of that might be because she feels all cooped up in that admittedly lovely chamber. Perhaps,” she concluded carefully, “you ought to consider taking her back to Jurai and give her a new ship to run.”
“Now?” Ayeka hesitated. “I mean, certainly she’s large enough to be transferred—Washu said something about using time compression on her—but…Mother, is this really the right time to being doing something like that? Ryoko…”
“Ryoko,” replied Misaki firmly, “does not need your assistance at this time. She’s made that quite clear, I’m sure you’ll agree. A few months from now, this might not be the case. Best to take care of this now, I believe. There’s plenty of room on my ship, and the round trip shouldn’t take more than three weeks.” She poured herself another cup of tea. “Your father,” she added slyly, “has reserved a new prototype ship body that the craftsmen of Ryuten are quite proud of. Very sleek and speedy. I suspect Ryu-Oh would very much like one.”
“Well,” Ayeka said slowly, turning the situation over in her mind. “I suppose now would be the best time…I imagine Sasami will want to stay here, though.”
“Tenchi and Yosho can watch her,” Misaki nodded happily. “So it’s settled. We’ll transfer Ryu-Oh when the doctors are finished and be off shortly after!” She clapped her hands gleefully. “Wonderful! By the way,” she added casually, “How is Tenchi?” She was rewarded with a deep blush on her daughter's cheeks. “Ah. I wondered.”
“Mother,” Ayeka said in a very small voice, “I…love him very much. And I think he loves me.”
“Have you made love yet?”
The blush turned deep crimson. “Mother!”
Misaki waited patiently. “Well?”
“No.” Ayeka bowed her head. “There have been…a few kisses. Nothing important. That's all.”
“So far.” Ayeka opened her mouth to protest, but Misaki raised a hand for silence. “Ayeka, listen to me. A situation such as this…tension gives rise to passion. Today, you share an occasional kiss with Tenchi, and I have no doubt you treasure these moments most preciously. But as time passes and tensions rise…one kiss becomes many. A held hand becomes a caress. An embrace becomes the entwining of bodies and souls. Don't tell me it won't happen to you. It might; it probably will.
“I'm not here to tell you not to make love with Tenchi. Whether you do so or not is solely your decision--yours and his.” Misaki paused to pour herself another cup of tea. “But you must ask yourself how Ryoko would feel were she to hear or see the two of you together in any embrace, no matter how innocent or passionate.”
Ayeka said nothing, merely stared at the floor. Misaki left her seat and moved to her daughter's side, kneeling down and tenderly taking Ayeka's face in her hand. “Little Ayeka, all I ask of you is one thing--leave these things with Tenchi outside the house. The time will soon come when Ryoko is unable or unwilling to leave it. If you must kiss or touch, go somewhere else--the onsen, the town, or the shrine if you cannot help it. But for Ryoko's sake and your own, draw the line at the front door.”
Tears shimmered in Ayeka's eyes. “I…I promise, Mother.”
“No, little Ayeka. Don't make promises you might not be able to keep. Just do your best to honor the commitment, that's all I ask of you.” Ayeka nodded, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. Misaki hugged her daughter gently, remembering other embraces at other times and wishing with all her heart that she could spare her daughter what was to come.
* * * * *
Makiba Fukiya was arguably the most highly regarded geneticist in the Jurai Empire. His achievements were almost legendary, and the awards and accolades he'd received in his time were too numerous to count. So it was rather odd that Fukiya had apparently forgotten the old adage that the seed never fell too far from the tree.
He'd patiently explained to Princess Sasami that the tests he and his associates were about to perform on Ryoko were going to take a very long time. He'd pointed out to her that the nature of some of the tests required that they be performed in a clean room, and how this required all within to undergo a lengthy, strenuous sterilization procedure. He'd noted that, title and lineage aside, this was not a place for a little girl to be hanging around in, and perhaps she'd be better off going to visit with her esteemed mother.
And Princess Sasami had waited patiently for him to finish, then had announced quite firmly that she was going to stay with Ryoko and hold her hand no matter what, so they'd better find a clean suit in her size, and the sooner they got on with it, the better. And she'd fixed a gaze on him that reminded the scientist of not only Sasami's mother but of her grandmother Seto as well.
They found a suit.
As Fukiya worked, every so often he would glance over at the tiny figure who sat beside Ryoko's bed, firmly squeezing the ailing woman's hand, never letting go once. And Fukiya silently prayed to the Goddess Tsunami that he might find something, anything, to justify that dedication to this woman.
* * * * *
To Ryoko's relief, her stay on the Jurai ship lasted only three days. To her surprise, Sasami was waiting for her in the examination room every morning, and she didn't leave until after the tests were over and Ryoko had finished the little meals she'd prepared before coming up. Ayeka never came by once, a fact that both pleased and bothered Ryoko, though she couldn't say why the absence of the prissy nuisance was even a bit troublesome.
Lady Misaki was nothing but warm and cordial, dropping by every evening to chat about this and that, play with Ryo-oh-ki, and share a glass or two of her mother's special brand of sake. Ryoko had heard whispers about the stuff, but her first sip almost caused a supernova inside her. Misaki just laughed and told her she'd eventually develop a tolerance; Ryoko wasn't sure that would ever happen, if she were healthy or not.
Seven days after her return to Earth, Ryoko came downstairs for a late breakfast to find Misaki sitting on the sofa. She was playing a complicated version of 'patty-cake' with Ryo-oh-ki, who'd assumed her 'humanoid child' form. The two were having a fine old time from the look of it, and despite her weariness Ryoko had to smile. It faded the instant Misaki sensed her presence and turned to glance her way.
“Little One,” she said with a bright smile for Ryo-oh-ki, “you're such a wonderful playmate, but I need to speak to Ryoko right now. Would you go and see if Tenchi needs any assistance in the fields?” The cabbit-child meowed happily, switched to her original form, and bounded off to do just that. Misaki watched her leave, then rose to her feet. “Why don't we pay a visit to Washu?” she ordered - more than suggested - to Ryoko. The two women walked over to the closet door which served as the gateway to the scientist's lab; if Ryoko noticed that Misaki's arm was supporting her weight from behind, she said nothing about it.
They found Washu working beside her menagerie; she glanced up irritably at the interruption, but quickly masked her emotions when she recognized her guests. “Lady Misaki,” she said, nodding slightly in respect. “What can I do for you?” She made a casual wave of her hand, and two comfortable chairs rose instantly from the floor.
“Thank you, Washu.” Misaki waited until Ryoko was comfortable, then took a deep breath. “The doctors reported their initial findings to me this morning. They concur with your assessment. All of it.” Her eyes betrayed no emotion as she spoke. “At this time they are unable to determine a course of treatment that will eliminate the virus.”
“I could have told you that,” Washu snapped. She winced and rubbed her eyes. “I apologize, Lady Misaki. I've been working non-stop on this since I discovered it.”
“Of course. I would add, however, that our top experts will continue their research in hopes of finding some way to solve the dilemma.” Misaki paused, eyeing Washu with a penetrating look. “Washu, are you well?”
“I'm fine,” the petite scientist nodded absently. “Just…a slight headache. That's all. Lady Misaki, thank you for coming out here and providing so much assistance. We're in your debt. I would welcome any future exchanges of information with your people and myself. Now, if you'll excuse me…”
“I understand.” Misaki rose and bowed to Washu, her cape rippling with the movement, and excused herself. Ryoko, however, remained in her chair, lost in thought. Washu returned to her holo-laptop, seemingly oblivious to her daughter's presence.
“I'm going to die, aren't I?” Ryoko finally said. Washu nearly jumped to the ceiling at the sound of her voice.
“No, you are not,” the scientist said firmly.
“You told everyone that I was going to,” Ryoko pointed out. “I heard you say it.”
“I was merely forestalling false hopes, Little Ryoko. I'm the greatest scientific genius in the galaxy, perhaps the universe. Anything that buffoon Kagato could do to you, I can certainly undo. It's just a matter of research and testing.” She winced slightly. “Ryoko, unless you need something…”
“Fine, fine,” Ryoko grumbled, levering herself out of the chair. “I'm gone. Thanks, Mom.” She shuffled out of the lab, her thoughts decidedly dark and murderous. “Nobody wants to be around me these days.” Her mood did not improve when, upon going through the door, she found Ayeka standing beside her mother. “What are you looking at?” she growled menacingly.
“Nothing,” Ayeka said, a bit startled.
“Good. Keep it up.” Ryoko took a deep breath and slowly headed for the door to the outside. “I'm going out to see Tenchi.”
“But…” Ayeka started, but a stern glance from her mother prevented further comment. “All right,” she said weakly.
* * * * *
“Okay, Yukinojo,” Mihoshi said after filing her latest report. “Tell me what you've found regarding Kagato's secret laboratories.”
“I've run several searches,” the robot replied. “The initial query turned up about forty possible locations. Subsequent filtering has reduced the possible sites to fifteen. I am continuing to research those candidates and should have a final list for you by your next report.”
“That's wonderful!” Mihoshi cried, clapping her hands with glee. “Yukinojo, you are so wonderful, I could just kiss you!”
“That's not necessary,” Yukinojo said, but he accepted her buss anyway. “Thank you, Mihoshi. I…enjoy working with you.”
“Oh, wait.” Mihoshi scratched her head, going through her thoughts for the one that had been troubling her of late. “That's it!” she suddenly said. “Yukinojo, I've got another project for you, and this one won't take long at all.”
“Certainly, Mihoshi. What can I do for you?”
“Okay.” Mihoshi settled down in her seat and leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. “I want you to access the physiology records for Crown Prince Yosho--the last available ones from Jurai. They ought to be about 700 years old.”
“Yosho.” If he were human, Yukinojo would have gulped. “Accessing now…Mihoshi, I do hope you understand that I am violating several laws, both of robotics and the Galaxy Police, to say nothing of Jurai, in doing this…all right. I have his records.” A series of holo screens popped up before Mihoshi.
“Okay.” She bit her lip thoughtfully. “Yukinojo, do a time-elapse analysis of Yosho's bio-record…one for seven hundred years, which assumes he didn't have full access to his tree or the water stuff they use to slow down their aging.” The robot complied, and seconds later the image of an impossibly old man came up on a new screen. “Great, Yukinojo! Transfer that to my data pad, will you?”
“It's done, Mihoshi.”
“Now, let's go back to the original bio-record…and run that again, assuming that he had at least some sort of access to the water and the tree and stuff.” This time the screen displayed a man who looked slightly older than the original picture but was still quite hale and healthy…and handsome.
“I knew he wasn't old,” Mihoshi said softly, smiling to herself.
* * * * *
“Ryoko?” Tenchi and Ryo-oh-ki were returning from the fields, a huge basket of carrots in tow; it came as no small surprise to find Ryoko sitting on a small stone bench by the roadside, apparently waiting for him to appear. She looked utterly exhausted and more than a little bit scared. “Everything okay?”
“I'm…fine.” She flashed him a brave smile that didn't quite work. “Just thought I'd sit here and wait for you. Didn't want to distract you out there with all my charms, you know.” She shot a bawdy wink at him.
“Thanks, I guess.” Tenchi hadn't completely emptied his canteen; lowering the carrot basket from his shoulders, he pulled the water jug out and offered to her. “It's a hot day. Help yourself.”
“Don't mind if I do.” Ryoko drank long and deeply. “Ahhh, that hit the spot,” she declared after emptying the last drops into her mouth.
“Well, ready to head back home?” Tenchi asked, pulling the basket up against his back.
“Uhhh…you know, it's kind of pretty here. Maybe I'll just stay here a while and enjoy the scenery, you know?”
“Are you sure?” Tenchi offered his hand. “Do you need some help, Ryoko?”
“NO!” She slapped the hand away without thinking, then caught herself. “I mean, I'm all right. Really.” She glanced over at Ryo-oh-ki and concentrated; seconds later, the cabbit had jumped onto her shoulder. She rose to her feet gracefully and smiled. “Okay. I'm ready.” She wrapped an arm around his. “Let's go, Tenchi. This is so romantic of you, really.”
“Romantic,” he said, shaking his head. “We're on a dirt path in the middle of a hot afternoon hauling carrots back to the house, and you think this is romantic.”
“Gotta take it where you can, Tenchi.” Ryoko smiled and winked at him again, all the time hoping he wouldn't notice that her feet weren't quite touching the ground the entire way back.
* * * * *
Misaki informed everyone over dinner about Ayeka’s trip home; while all present seemed to take the news in stride, she noticed that both Tenchi and Ryoko weren’t too happy about it. Ayeka sat there quietly, blushing slightly over all the attention and slightly irked that her mother hadn’t let her make the announcement.
Tenchi had pulled Ayeka aside and asked if she’d like to go for a walk, but Ayeka had to postpone the date, to his considerable disappointment. She hurried upstairs to the room she shared with Sasami and started packing for the trip. At one point the princess heard Ryoko’s slow plodding up the stairs, but remembered her mother’s admonition and kept working.
Eventually Ryoko appeared in the doorway, leaning against the frame with calculated casualness. “This is a switch,” she commented. “A member of the Jurai Royal Family running -back- to home.” Ayeka laughed; Ryoko scowled slightly. “What’s the matter, Princess?” she asked, a slight sneer in her voice. “Giving up? Going to let me win Tenchi’s heart?”
“If you think you can do in three weeks what neither of us did in all this time,” Ayeka chuckled, “by all means do so, Ryoko.”
“You’re not coming back. Admit it.”
Ayeka turned and regarded Ryoko curiously. “You heard Mother, didn’t you? Of course I’m coming back. I’m taking Ryu-Oh home and having her placed in a new ship. Then I’ll return. Be careful, Ryoko,” she added with a smile. “I’ll start thinking you might just miss me.”
“Hardly.” Ryoko snorted. “It’ll be nice not having you constantly trying to ‘help’ me. I got tired of all your bossing and fussing really quick.”
“Well, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself immensely while I’m gone.”
“Damn right I will. Who needs you?” Ryoko laughed harshly. “Tenchi certainly doesn’t.”
Ayeka carefully shut her traveling bag, then turned to face Ryoko. “Why are you doing this?”
Ryoko’s face went blank. “Doing what?”
“You are trying to pick a fight, and I’m not going to give you one.”
“Because you know I’ll win. I always win.”
Ayeka rolled her eyes and sighed. “Whatever you say, Ryoko. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some final preparations I need to make.” She rose gracefully to her feet and moved past Ryoko toward the stairs.
“Coward,” Ryoko hissed in her wake. There was no response as the princess descended; Ryoko scowled and pushed herself off from the doorframe. It took a seeming eternity to reach the second floor compared to how quickly Ayeka had, which only made her angrier. But exhaustion was making her fury wane, and by the time she had pulled the futon over her shaking body, it was almost completely gone.
* * * * *
“Is it something I said or did?”
Ayeka laughed and shook her head. “No, Tenchi. It’s exactly as Mother stated. I’ll be back before you know it.” She looked up at the full moon and sighed; tomorrow she’d be out among the stars, heading for Jurai. Strange how she no longer thought of it as home; that was here, with her sister and friends…and Tenchi.
“I’ll miss you,” Tenchi said quietly, looking very forlorn.
“You could come with us,” Ayeka offered, her heart suddenly racing. If Tenchi went along…they’d have time to be alone. There’d be time to talk and learn more about each other. There’d be time for…everything. No Ryoko, no distractions…well, except Mother, but that couldn’t be helped. It’d be a perfect opportunity to build a strong foundation for their lives together.
Tenchi blushed and rubbed his neck. “I don’t know,” he said slowly, effectively shattering Ayeka’s dream. “I mean…what if Ryoko needs me?”
“Ryoko doesn’t need anyone right now. Just ask her,” Ayeka said with a bit more heat than she’d intended.
“That’s not true. She’s been using Ryo-oh-ki to get around,” Tenchi pointed out. “She just thinks none of us have noticed.” He stared at the ground. “She’s getting worse, Ayeka. I…I wasn’t there to help my mother. I was too young. I just feel…”
Ayeka smiled and caressed his cheek. “I understand, Tenchi. I’m sorry. I just…I just wanted to be with you without all of this going on.”
“It would be nice,” he said. His lips pressed against hers, and before too long they were lost in a warm embrace, content with the comfort of holding one another and reluctant to part any time soon.
“I’ll miss you,” he repeated after finally breaking away. Her eyes were still closed, her lips still slightly parted from the kiss.
“Oh, I’ll miss you too, Tenchi,” she sighed.
“Would you like to…just sit on the grass and look at the stars?” he asked, gesturing toward a small mound just off the path.
“Only if you hold me,” she said shyly as she took his hand and let him lead her off the path.
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Some Time Later|