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|
Kiyone woke up just before dawn. She donned her Galaxy Police uniform, packed her personal belongings and neatened the room up in general before heading downstairs. She peeked into Ryoko’s room, and to her surprise found no one keeping watch, not even Tenchi. She found that more than a little odd, because Ryoko had made it quite clear she didn’t like sleeping alone at night. Kiyone shrugged and quietly slipped out.
Sasami was in the kitchen starting work on the morning meal. “Kiyone!” she cried in surprise. “Why are you all dressed up? What’s the suitcase for? You’re not leaving us, are you?” Tears were brimming in the young girl’s eyes as she asked the last question.
The detective smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, Sasami, but I do have to go. My superiors want me back so I can make my report, and…” She sighed heavily. “I’m afraid they aren’t going to like everything they’re going to hear.”
“Are you coming back, Kiyone?”
“I don’t know, Sasami. I’d…like to. I’d very much like to come back. But it depends on the GP.” She didn’t add that with what she suspected was going to happen once she disclosed her activities, Kiyone would be very fortunate to get a foot beat on Rigel, much less a posting here. “I’ve really enjoyed being with you all, Sasami. I wish I could stay, but…” She shrugged helplessly. “I’m a Galaxy Police Officer, sworn to uphold and obey the law, and I have to do what I’m told.”
To her surprise, Sasami lunged forward and hugged her tightly. “I hope you come back, Kiyone! We need you! Ryoko needs you! Please come back!” Kiyone put an arm around the sobbing girl and soothed her as best she could until the tears stopped flowing.
“You be good, Sasami. Take care of everyone. Tell them why I had to leave, would you?”
“I will, Kiyone.” Sasami wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Be careful.”
“Sure thing.” Kiyone flipped an easy salute and hurried out the door, mystified at why tears were threatening to flow from her own eyes. Allergies, she told herself. This place was driving her allergies crazy. Had to be it.
She summoned Yagami and waited for the ship to descend. It was cold this morning, especially so with the sun not yet risen, and Kiyone shivered slightly despite the insulation built into her uniform. She stared at the lake and the trees that surrounded it, drinking in the splendor of the scenery one last time. She was going to miss it.
“Kiyone! Ki-yo-ne!” The detective turned in the direction of the voice; it was coming from the staircase leading to the shrine. Mihoshi was racing toward her, also dressed in her official uniform and looking visibly distressed. She stopped just short of Kiyone, gasping for breath and trying to tuck everything back into place.
“Oh, thank goodness!” she wheezed. “I was afraid you were going to leave without me, Kiyone!”
“Mihoshi, I was heading back to GPHQ,” Kiyone said, confused. “You’re supposed to stay here, remember?”
“Nope,” the lovely blonde officer said with a shake of her head. “I’m going with you.”
“Mihoshi, I have to make my report,” Kiyone said slowly. “I’m going to get into a lot of trouble when they find out why I’ve dragged my assignment out. Believe me, you don’t want to be there.”
“Yes, I do,” Mihoshi replied crisply, straightening up into a proud military stance. “I’m the reason you came out here. I’m why you never reported back. I’m going back and tell them that it was all my fault and not to blame you for any of it. And if you get punished, then so will I!”
Kiyone gaped at her partner’s resolve. “Mihoshi, you do not want this much heat. Let me take it. It’s okay.”
“Nope. I got you into this, and we’re going to see it through together. Because we’re partners!”
“But what if they don’t let you come back here?” Kiyone asked.
Mihoshi hesitated for a fraction of an instant. “It doesn’t matter. We’re partners, and partners stick together no matter what!”
Yagami was on final approach, guided by the homing beacon Kiyone had installed just a few weeks—had it really been so short a time?—ago. “You’re sure about this?” she asked Mihoshi. “I can’t talk you out of it?”
Despite her dread of what was coming, Kiyone smiled. “Okay then—partner. Let’s get on board and get going.” She signaled Yagami to bring them up, and the two officers faded from sight just as the sun peeked over the edge of the horizon.
* * * * *
Ayeka had never known a more glorious morning. She’d awoken slowly from a deep slumber, warm and safe within Tenchi’s arms. She'd felt deliciously lazy, and had contented herself for a long time with just propping herself up on one elbow and watching him sleep. At long last duty (and the bathroom) called, however, and she reluctantly slipped out of the bed, leaving her beloved with a tender kiss on the forehead before heading down the back stairs.
“Good morning,” she said to her sister. “What’s for breakfast? I’m starving.”
Sasami giggled. “Where were you last night, Ayeka? You sure weren’t with me, and you weren’t in Ryoko’s room. Is there something I ought to tell Mother about?”
“If there is anything worth telling her, Sasami, I shall do it myself.” She picked up the dinner tray they used for Ryoko’s meals and started assembling a nice variety of tidbits for the ailing woman’s breakfast. “Was Ryoko awake when you went by?”
“Not yet.” Sasami carefully placed a cup of tea on the tray. “Oh, Kiyone left this morning, and Mihoshi went with her. She said she had to report back to headquarters. Ayeka, you don’t think she’ll get in trouble and not be able to ever come back, do you?”
“If Mihoshi went with her, I doubt it’ll be too bad for either of them.” Ayeka smiled slightly. “Hmm. If Mihoshi’s gone, I suspect we’ll see Brother Yosho down here this morning.”
“I’ll bet you’re right!” Sasami exclaimed. “I’ll put an extra place out for him!” As her younger sister bustled around the table, Ayeka carefully lifted the tray and walked toward Ryoko’s bedroom. She hummed a happy little tune under her breath, unable to let any dark forebodings ruin the happiness of the moment. “Ryoko?” she said brightly as she entered the bedroom. “I’ve got your breakfast!”
The sick woman was awake and in a semi-sitting position under the rumpled covers. Her golden eyes were firmly fixed on the television screen, and her jaw was tightly clenched. Ayeka hesitated for a moment, her good mood suddenly wavering just a little bit. “Ryoko?” she repeated. “I have your breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry,” Ryoko replied in a brusque tone. Her eyes remained locked on the television.
“Are you sure? You didn’t eat much last night, and Sasami made a number of your favorites…” Ayeka set the tray carefully down over Ryoko’s lap; the next instant, she was flying backwards as tray, plates and food came flying back at her courtesy of Ryoko’s arms.
“GET OUT!” Ryoko screamed, her eyes wild with fury. “GET OUT!”
Ayeka had fallen against the wall, paralyzed at the sudden outburst. “Ryoko, what’s wrong?” she asked, though she suddenly suspected all too well what the answer would be.
“BITCH! LIAR! YOU PROMISED, DAMN YOU! YOU PROMISED!” Having already used up her main artillery, Ryoko was now throwing the cell phone, remote, drinking glass, tissue box and anything else she could lay hands on at Ayeka, who raised her arms to block the heavier items. “DAMN YOU TO HELL, YOU PROMISED!”
“YOU SWORE TO ME! YOU WOULDN’T LEAVE ME ALONE! YOU PROMISED, DAMN YOU! AND NOT ONLY DID YOU BREAK YOUR WORD, YOU TOOK TENCHI AWAY TOO! DAMN YOU, AYEKA! DAMN YOU TO HELL!”
The princess stood there quietly as Ryoko’s tirade continued. She made no move, no comment or protest over the other woman's hoarse screams. Chunks of food dripped slowly down her robe, finding new places to permanently stain the fabric. Broken china lay scattered at her feet. And still Ayeka waited until Ryoko’s screams had dimmed to hoarse sobs and her arms grew too weary to throw anything further.
The princess knelt down and carefully gathered the pieces of the shattered dishes, placing each one back onto the tray. She then scooped up the globs of Ryoko’s meal and deposited them atop the fragments. Next, Ayeka retrieved the napkin from the rejected breakfast and cleaned her hands. She concluded by picking up the cell phone, remote, drinking glass, Derek Jeter bobbing-head doll, Game Boy, tissue box and other discarded items and putting them on the far table for later. Finished, she lifted the breakfast tray and left the room without saying a word.
Washu was standing by the refrigerator. She gave Ayeka and her soiled clothing a thoughtful scrutiny. “Problems?”
“I’m afraid so.”
The scientist nodded. “Why don’t you let me stay with her today, then?”
Ayeka poured the remains of Ryoko’s breakfast into the garbage can. “I would very much appreciate it. Sasami, I’m going upstairs to get my personal items for a bath. I’ll have breakfast when I return. Is that all right?”
“Sure, Ayeka.” Sasami’s eyes were wide with shock. “Is…is Ryoko okay?”
Ayeka hesitated before answering. “No, I’m afraid not,” she said with a sigh. “And to be honest, she has every right to be angry with me. But don’t worry,” she added with a pat on her sister’s shoulder. “It will all work out. You’ll see.”
“No it won’t!” Sasami suddenly cried out, her eyes filled with tears. “Stop lying, Ayeka! It’s not going to get better! It won’t work out! Ryoko’s gonna die!” And before the elder princess could stop her, Sasami ran away toward Nobuyuki’s library.
Washu made no move to stop her. “Poor kid,” she said quietly. “This has been so hard on her.”
“On all of us,” Ayeka nodded tiredly. “I’ll talk to her later. But I think you’d better see to Ryoko before she gets upset again. I’ll be upstairs.”
* * * * *
Tenchi stood on the second floor landing, unsure of what to do. The next flight of steps would take him down past Ryoko’s room; his original plan had been to go there and apologize to his friend for having deserted her the night before. Ayeka, however, had advised him to keep his distance for the time being. Staying away, however, went against his every instinct.
He hadn’t meant for last night to happen. It had been an incredible, wonderful experience, and he’d treasured every minute in Ayeka’s arms. Given the cost, though, he wasn’t sure if it had been the best thing to do. From the look of things, Ryoko wasn’t going to be around much longer, and Tenchi felt driven to comfort her, make things as easy on her as he could. And he’d turned around and done this to her. Fine guy he was…
The phone in the front hall started ringing. Tenchi hurried over to the other staircase to get it, feeling both guilty and relieved at the same time. “Hello, Masaki residence,” he said into the receiver. “Oh, hi Dad! Uhhh, things are going okay here. Ryoko’s a bit weaker, but she’s…fine. Yeah, we’re going to get the holiday decorations out this weekend or next. Ayeka’s already starting to plan for…”
Tenchi froze as his father’s words drifted into his ear. “You…don’t know…if you can make it.” His eyes narrowed. “Lot to do at the office, huh? Sure Dad, I understand.” His hand wrapped the receiver in a death grip. “I understand that while I’m here having to take care of a dying woman, you’d rather take the coward’s way out! Don’t hand me that crap about Mom…I don’t care! I had to live through it too, you know—in fact, I had to live for a while afterwards without either a mother or a father, if you’ll recall, because you were too busy crawling into a bottle…! I don’t care, Dad! Come home or don’t, I really don’t care! You’ve already made it clear that you don’t give a damn about Ryoko! Good-bye!”
Tenchi slammed the receiver into the base unit so hard the phone cried out in self-defense. “Damn it, damn it, damn it…” he whispered, eyes tightly shut and fists clenched. “Why does he always manage to run out on me when I need him…”
* * * * *
Sasami sniffled softly as she studied the page of the manga sitting directly in front of her. She absently wiped her nose on the sleeve of her dress as she carefully read the page panel-by-panel, balloon-by-balloon. She’d found the shoujo in a far corner of Nobuyuki’s library, apparently too dull and tame for Tenchi’s father to spend much time with. Sasami, on the other hand, found it utterly enthralling and a welcome way to escape the real world for an all-too-brief amount of time. She’d worked slowly through the stack, reading about half a book a day, the better to keep from losing the distraction too quickly.
Ryo-oh-ki sat beside her, munching happily on a carrot. The cabbit had been spending more and more time with Sasami of late, seeking solace in the presence of another innocent soul. Whenever Sasami turned to the next page, Ryo-oh-ki would look up from her snack and give the new panels a long look; whether or not she understood a thing was open to debate, but Sasami liked to think that she did. It made things a little more special to share them with a friend.
Too embarrassed by her outburst to find Ayeka and apologize, Sasami had opted for the haven of her little dark corner. Sooner or later, she’d have to emerge and start lunch, though lately she’d begun to question why she bothered, because it seemed like no one was eating much, and to get the entire household to sit down together was a Herculean task. She weighed her options and decided that it wouldn’t hurt too much if she just went a bit further than normal and finished this book today. There were plenty more to go, after all.
“Boy,” Sasami sighed. “I bet Pretty Sammy could cure Ryoko somehow, don’t you, Ryo-oh-ki?”
A sad “Miya” was the cabbit’s only response.
* * * * *
Ayeka returned from the onsen to find her older brother waiting in the living room. He was wearing his 'old man' guise, which she found vaguely disconcerting. “Brother Yosho. I believe I owe you an apology,” she said, bowing slightly in respect.
“I believe I owe you one too, and an explanation as well,” he replied, bowing to her in turn.
“Let me put these things away,” she said, nodding to her bath items, “and perhaps we could go to the shrine and talk. Maybe over some tea and a few of Sasami's little cakes. I think this conversation should be a bit more private.”
“I'll wait here for you.”
style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Ayeka nodded and hurried up the stairs, sparing a quick glance into Ryoko's bedroom as she passed. Washu was sitting on the far side of the bed, apparently watching television with her daughter. Ryoko could not have possibly missed Ayeka's walking by, but her gaze stayed fixed on the TV screen.
Brother and sister walked slowly up the long staircase to the shrine. “Would you rather I changed?” Yosho asked.
“You know,” Ayeka said with a smile, “to be honest, I prefer you this way. It's what I've come to think of you as.”
“As you wish.” Ten steps passed before he spoke again. “I'm sorry, Ayeka. I should have told you…or shown you.”
“I gave it a good deal of thought aboard Ryu-Oh.” Ayeka turned toward him. “Was it because you were afraid I'd insist we go back to Jurai and marry? Because you wanted me to stop loving you and fall for Tenchi instead?”
There was no anger in her voice, which relieved him somewhat. “Both, to some extent,” he said. “Ayeka, I will always love you, but I'm afraid it was never the kind of love you were hoping for.”
“I know,” she replied softly. “And there was the whole issue about your heritage…”
“That was the truth. Our union…and the decision on which of us would rule, emperor or empress…would have divided our world beyond all hope of redemption.” He sighed and shook his head. “Nonetheless, I should have been truthful with you and told you long before now, instead of slipping up as I did.”
“Did anyone else know?” Ayeka asked.
Yosho chuckled. “Mother. Which by extension would include Misaki and Father. Possibly Washu. Sasami, through her link with Tsunami, might. I don't know. Beyond that…” He shrugged. “Ayeka, there is one other reason I kept this guise. When my wife and daughter died…I felt old. I've lived here seven hundred years and had many wives and children. I've seen them all born, live and die. Far too much death.” They'd reached the main grounds of the shrine; Yosho paused and stared at the place he'd called home for all those years. “Death wearies the soul, Ayeka. When those two died…” His voice caught for a moment, and Yosho bowed his head as grief overwhelmed his heart. “I loved them so much, Ayeka. Their deaths wounded me more than a thousand battles had ever managed to do. When I buried them, prayed over their graves, I swore that I would never again let anyone get that close to me ever again.”
A soft weight fell upon his arm; Yosho looked down to find Ayeka's hand resting there. “I'm sorry,” she said quietly.
He nodded his thanks, then resumed his trek toward his rooms. “I raised Tenchi during the summers, as well as during the times when Nobuyuki was overwhelmed with his own grief or work. I kept a distance, training him for what I knew would one day come.” He looked over at his sister and smiled sadly. “Do you know what the problem with wrapping yourself up with secrets and loneliness is, Ayeka?”
“The problem is that one day you realize it's far too comfortable a prison. And by that time it's far preferable than doing anything that will free you from it.”
“Oh?” Ayeka said lightly. “And where does Mihoshi fit in with all this?”
“Mihoshi,” Yosho said, his smile reflecting the tenderness in his voice. “I underestimated Mihoshi. A fatal error for any warrior to make, wouldn't you agree?”
“She got through your defenses. You shame me with your weakness, brother.”
“I love her, Ayeka.”
She smiled slightly. “I rather got that impression yesterday.” Ayeka was rewarded with an uncharacteristic blush from her older brother. He opened the door and let her pass through first, following a second later.
A few minutes later, tea had been prepared and served. “Ayeka, there is something I must tell you,” he said.
“You got her pregnant, didn't you?” Ayeka said slyly.
“No, no,” he chuckled, blushing again. “Nothing like that, I assure you.” He struggled to resume a more somber demeanor. “Ayeka…at the end of the year, Masaki Katsuhito will be leaving the shrine. He's going to travel around Japan, visiting his brethren priests and enjoying his retirement. His replacement will be a young man…a cousin. His name is Masaki Yosho.” The old man's appearance flickered then faded, revealing the true visage of her brother.
“I see.” Ayeka sipped at her tea. “And…will he be bringing a wife along?”
“Mihoshi's got you, brother. I suggest you consider the…proposal…carefully.”
Yosho leaned back from the table and sighed. “You’re as bad as Mother. Did you know that?”
* * * * *
The morning's overcast sky had darkened by lunchtime; now a sharp, cold rain streamed from above, making the world an even chillier place outside. Washu had just the solution, though: two cups of hot cocoa and her new video game, “Killer Robots”. Unlike conventional game units, though, this one had no controls save for two small cybernetic relays, one on either side of the forehead. The players on the screen reacted according to their masters' very thoughts, and at the same speed.
“Cool game,” Ryoko said as her player used an energy sword to carve up a particularly nasty opponent. “How many levels?”
“As many as you want. It gets tougher as you go deeper, of course, but when it senses you're tiring of the game, it'll jump you to the final stage.” Washu's avatar was scooping up pieces of the wreckage, assembling a truly kick-ass weapon. “Those fools at Nintendo will never know what a gold mine they could have had. But oh no, they had to choose that stupid little monster game. 'Gotta catch 'em all'. Hmph.”
“You never let go of anything, do you?” Ryoko took a sip of cocoa; her character in the meantime came within centimeters of becoming robot chow. “Damn. Where's the pause button?”
“Next release. I promise.” They continued the game in silence for a while, then Washu glanced over at Ryoko for a moment before speaking: “I've been thinking.”
“Good for you.” Ryoko was taking on a four-armed opponent and was only half listening.
“Remember that crystal I was trapped in back on the Souja? The one Mihoshi freed me from?”
“Mihoshi brought back a lot of Kagato's files on her little secret jaunts. Among them were the specs to recreate that crystalline structure.”
“Sounds good. And you're telling me this because…” Two-armed.
Washu sighed, exasperated. “Ryoko, a major problem with this virus is the time factor. I started out way behind, and I was never able to take the time to properly analyze it. So I was thinking…” She took a deep breath. “I was thinking about putting you in a crystalline stasis chamber, just like the one Kagato had me in, and keeping you alive that way until I find a solution.”
“No.” Scrap heap.
“I said no, Washu.” Ryoko turned toward her, her golden eyes blazing. “I mean it.”
“Will you listen to me?” Washu demanded. “Given time, I can cure you! You'll live--you'll be with Tenchi…”
“How much time?” Ryoko asked quietly. “A year? Ten? Twenty? A century? Five centuries? How long, Washu? As long as it takes? Is that what you're saying?”
“Anything he could do, I can fix,” the scientist declared. “Just give me the chance, Ryoko! I swear, it won't take more than a few years!”
“You willing to promise me that?”
Ryoko laughed. “And at the end of 'a few years', you know what you'll do? You'll look at me in there and say, 'I'm close--just a few more years, little Ryoko'. And a century or two later you'll come back and say, 'I'm on the verge of a breakthrough, Ryoko, any time now!' And you'll keep sliding that deadline back further and further, and I'll be trapped in that thing. It's the cave all over again, Washu. I won't do it. I'd rather die.”
“Are you that eager to throw your life away?” Washu screamed.
“I'd rather die than not live at all!” Ryoko cried back.
“Ryoko…please! I swear to you, I'll set a time lock on it. You tell me how long, and I'll set it so that no one can change it. Please…” Tears were shimmering in Washu's emerald eyes.
“Washu, don't you see?” Ryoko pleaded. “It's no good. You do this, I can't move on. You can't move on--you'll be trapped, working on something that you might not ever be able to fix. Tenchi and Ayeka…they've moved on. They're together. If I go into this thing, he'll hesitate on making it permanent…hell, she might too. I don't know.” Ryoko watched her avatar get blown into a million bytes by a robo-dragon. “Shit. You really need a pause function on this, Washu.”
“Sorry.” Washu's eyes were closed so tightly that no tears could leak out.
“Washu…Mom…I know this is hard on you, but…” Ryoko shook her head. “No. Let me go.”
“Ryoko.” The woman-child scientist leaned over to embrace her daughter tightly. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…”
“It's going to be okay, Mom. Really.”
* * * * *
“Are you ready?” Ayeka asked quietly. She and Tenchi were standing in the living room, preparing to enter Ryoko's bedroom and ask her forgiveness. Four days had passed since that fateful night; Washu and Yosho had more or less taken over the 'guardian' duty of sitting with Ryoko, but the princess had decided that the situation needed to be resolved once and for all. Washu had reported that Ryoko was spending more and more time dozing during the day, which boded ill.
“I guess so.” Tenchi looked distinctly uneasy --while that night and the subsequent encounters with Ayeka had been nothing short of wonderful, guilt and the knowledge that he'd hurt Ryoko had nagged at him continuously. “You think she'll accept our apology?”
“We can only offer it and hope for the best,” Ayeka responded primly. “Now let's go in, chins up, and be properly humble.” She led the way toward Ryoko's bedroom, Tenchi a few steps behind and looking miserable.
Washu was sitting by the windows, absorbed in some holo-laptop work. She glanced up at the visitors and nodded briefly, then returned to her task. Ayeka took a deep breath and smiled. “Ryoko? Are you…busy?”
The former space pirate's eyes had been closed; now they slowly opened to reveal a pair of dully, weary golden eyes. “Ayeka?” she croaked. “Tenchi?”
“Hi,” Tenchi said with a weak smile.
“Ryoko, we came to apologize for what happened the other night,” Ayeka jumped in. “While it wasn't intentional, nonetheless we betrayed our promise to you, and…”
“S'okay,” Ryoko nodded tiredly.
Ayeka blinked. “What?”
“It's okay.” Ryoko sighed and struggled to sit up; Tenchi was there instantly, slipping his arms around her waist and hoisting her into position as Ayeka re-adjusted the pillows behind her back. “Thanks, Tenchi. Take your time letting go, okay?” She smiled slightly at his resultant blush, then turned back to Ayeka. “If you want my forgiveness, you've got it. Things happen. Don't give it another thought.”
“Oh.” Ayeka struggled to regain her mental equilibrium; this hadn't gone the way she'd expected it to. “Well,” she said brightly, “in any case, I did bring a peace offering of sorts.” She retreated to the doorway and came back with a large bottle. “I was going to give you this in a few weeks anyway--for the holidays--but I thought an early present would be nice.”
Ryoko squinted at the bottle. “I don't recognize the label. And coming from me, that's saying something.” She motioned for Tenchi to get the sake cups out of her bedside drawer. “So what is it?”
“Oh, this is very, very special. Trust me.” Ayeka opened the bottle and poured a small libation into the cup Tenchi held up. He moved it to Ryoko's lips and let her sip a small mouthful. A few seconds later Ryoko's eyes were wide with astonishment. “Like it?”
“My god, that's smooth,” Ryoko gasped. “I could swear I’ve tasted this before, but I can’t recall when. Let me think.” She gasped as recognition struck. “This is the stuff your mother served me back when I was on her ship, isn’t it?”
“Indeed,” Ayeka said proudly. “Grandmother Seto's private label. Very exclusive stuff. You should feel honored to be given a bottle.”
“I don't think I can feel a damned thing at the moment,” Ryoko said, still stunned by the sake's effects. “Tenchi, I want another sip. Wow…”
“I got a bottle from Mother back when she was here,” Ayeka continued, pouring some of the sake into the serving bottle. “As I said, it was supposed to be a Christmas present, but I didn't think you'd mind receiving it a little early.”
“Not at all,” Ryoko whispered. “God, this stuff is incredible…”
Ayeka filled two more cups; she handed one to Tenchi and kept the other for herself. Tenchi looked at the contents dubiously, having seen the potency of the stuff up close. “Drink it,” Ayeka ordered. “This is special. To Ryoko,” she said, lifting it in salute. “To…my friend. My best friend.”
“Thank you,” Ryoko said in reply. “Now gimme another sip, Tenchi.”
“Here,” Ayeka said, offering her cup. “I think he's going to need a minute or two to recover first.”
* * * * *
The first snowflakes of winter were just starting to spiral down from the sky when the beacon by the lake hummed into life. Washu noticed it from her post by the window; she summoned her holo-laptop and punched up a program that made great and unauthorized use of highly top-secret satellite monitoring systems. “Interesting,” she murmured to herself. “It's Yagami, not Mihoshi's ship. Two life forms aboard.” She rose from her chair and went to the doorway. “Sasami? Ayeka? We're about to have company!”
The princesses were standing on the dock as Yagami glided effortlessly into position. Seconds later, both Mihoshi and Kiyone appeared as the huge ship slipped into its subspace berth. “Hey, everyone!” Mihoshi cried, throwing her arms around Sasami. “We're back!”
Ayeka smiled and nodded to Kiyone. “I'm glad to see you were able to return, Detective. How did it go?”
“Well, that's the interesting thing,” Kiyone remarked with a sly grin. “We'd agreed to confess to everything, so needless to say they weren't too happy with either of us. But I figured Mihoshi'd be okay because of her grandfather.”
“Uh, yeah,” Mihoshi said, blushing slightly and staring down at her feet.
Kiyone glanced at her for just a second, then continued. “Imagine my surprise, though, when I find out that none other than Lady Funaho and Lady Misaki of the Jurai Royal Family sent letters to the GP on my behalf, thanking them for allowing me to stay on and assist in the ongoing protection of their daughters during a difficult time.”
“Really,” Ayeka said, pure innocence in her voice. “How very kind of them to do so.”
“So what it comes down to is…”
“Kiyone gets to stay here!” Mihoshi interrupted excitedly.
“Mihoshi…” The teal-haired detective smiled. “Yeah, I can stay here as long as all of you need me. I did get an official reprimand on my permanent record, though, so I can pretty much kiss a promotion back to the home office good-bye for a few years.” From the look on her face, it seems that Kiyone could live with that.
“Well, we're glad to have the help right now. We're trying to get things ready for the holidays, and the more hands, the merrier.” Ayeka nodded toward the house. “Let's get out of this cold. I believe Sasami has some cocoa on the stove…”
“Uhhh, gee,” Mihoshi said, blushing slightly. “I was…kind of…thinking about going up…to the shrine first…”
“Mihoshi's in love with Grandfather,” Sasami giggled, making the detective turn even redder.
“Go on, Mihoshi,” Ayeka said with a smile. “I know he's missed you.” They watched her hurry toward the stairs leading to the shrine, then headed for the house. “I’m glad you were able to return, Kiyone,” Ayeka commented. “We could use the help, frankly.”
“No problem. How is Ryoko, anyway?”
Ayeka shook her head. “Not good. She’s sleeping more and more. Washu spends most of the day in there. We take turns staying with her at night.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kiyone.
“Aren’t we all,” Ayeka nodded. “Aren’t we all. I must say, however, that I’m surprised the GP was so lenient about the situation, especially in allowing you to return. That’s the last thing I was expecting, to be honest...even with the pressure that my mothers can apply.”
“Yeah, well,” Kiyone said, with just a trace of uneasiness in her voice. “Sometimes people surprise you when you least expect it, I guess.”
* * * * *
“You’re sure about this,” Washu said quietly. She stood at the foot of Ryoko’s bed, drumming her fingers thoughtfully against the wood frame as she watched her daughter struggle into a better sitting position. “There’s no guarantee this is going to work, you know.”
“It’s got to be done,” Ryoko said. “I can’t let her suffer when…it happens. And she will, Washu. And I can’t bear the thought of her…” She shut her eyes tightly, struggling to keep tears from streaming out. A moment or two later and her composure returned. “Okay. Let’s get them in here.”
“Very well.” Washu went to the bedroom doorway. “Sasami? Could you come in here for a second? And if you could, bring Ryo-oh-ki with you?”
“Sure thing!” the young princess called. She walked in a minute later, the furry cabbit perched atop her head like a bizarre hat. “What’s up?”
“Sasami,” Ryoko said softly, “I want to give you a present. It’s something very special that I know you’ll love. Is that okay?”
“Well, it’s not the holidays yet,” Sasami said. “But if you really want to, Ryoko, I guess it’s okay. So where is it?”
Ryoko smiled faintly. “On top of your head.”
“Huh?” The girl’s eyes rolled upward. “But…you mean…”
“Someone’s got to take good care of her when I’m gone, Sasami. You’re her best friend after me. I trust you to look after her and give her lots of love and attention. She’s going to need it.”
“But…Ryoko…” Sasami stammered.
“Ryo-oh-ki, c’mere, you little stinker.” The cabbit hopped from her perch down to Ryoko’s lap in one easy motion. “Good girl.” Ryoko stroked her bondmate’s fur with tender care, her eyes soft and a bit misty. “Are you ready, Washu?”
“I’m ready, but I don’t think this is going to work.”
“Shut up, Washu. I know what I’m doing.” Ryoko closed her eyes and concentrated. Ryo-oh-ki stiffened a moment later, then crouched and hissed angrily at her mistresses, adding an enraged “Miya!” for emphasis.
“Listen to me, Ryo-oh-ki,” Ryoko murmured. “Listen to your mistress and obey.”
“I warned you,” Washu commented.
“Damn it!” Ryoko opened her eyes and stared down at the furious cabbit. “Listen to me, you little hairball! Let me sever the link, and then Washu will connect you to Sasami! Will you cooperate?”
“Miya!” the cabbit retorted angrily.
“Ryoko!” Sasami gasped. “You mustn’t…”
“Ryo-oh-ki,” Ryoko said, shaking her head, “you have got to let me do this. You can’t follow where I’m going. This is for your own good…”
With a soft pop, the cabbit changed into her young humanoid form. She pointed a furry finger at Ryoko. “Rule. Number. One. Always. Stay. With. Mama.” She added a firm “harrumph” to her statement.
“Ryo-chan, you can’t go with me…”
“Where. Mama. Goes. Ryo-oh-ki. Goes.”
“Rule. Number. One…”
“I know what the damn rule is, but…” Ryoko looked up at Washu. “Some help here, huh?”
“I could force her to sever the link,” Washu replied quietly. “But it would be very painful for her. Is that what you want, Ryoko?”
“Washu…I don’t want her to die because of me!” Tears slid down Ryoko’s face. “Please!”
“Where. Mama. Goes…”
“Oh, honey, no,” Ryoko sobbed, taking Ryo-chan in her arms and hugging her tightly. “No, no, no, you mustn’t follow Mama. Do you understand? You mustn’t follow Mama this time.”
Ryo-chan’s eyes grew wide with confusion and fear. “Rule. Number. One. Always. Stay. With. Mama!”
“Please, Ryo-chan. You mustn’t!” Ryoko’s body was shaking from the force of her crying. “Don’t!”
“Ryo-oh-ki.” Washu’s calm voice captured everyone’s attention immediately. “Come here, sweetheart.” Ryo-chan popped back into cabbit mode and hopped despondently over to the scientist. “Honey, Ryoko is going somewhere for a long time. She wants you to stay here with Sasami so you’ll be safe. You wait here with Sasami until Mama comes back. Do you understand me?”
“Miya?” Ryo-oh-ki’s eyes were teary.
“You stay with Sasami. You wait for Mama. That’s what Mama wants you to do.”
“Miya…” The cabbit was clearly uncertain about these instructions, but it certainly was better than what Ryoko had been attempting. Ryo-oh-ki looked first at Ryoko, then Washu, then back at Ryoko, and finally hopped into Sasami’s waiting arms.
“Take good care of her for me,” Ryoko said softly through her tears.
“I promise,” Sasami said through her own before she hurried out the door. Washu watched her leave, then sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed, rubbing her eyes.
“You think she’ll do what you said?” Ryoko asked.
“That was a smart thing to do.”
Washu sighed again and smiled tiredly. “Of course it was. I am the greatest scientific genius in the universe, you know.”
* * * * *
“Oh dear. It seems as though we end up having to wade through more things every year,” Ayeka said. She, Kiyone and Sasami were rummaging through one of the walk-in storage closets in search of the holiday decorations. As always, no one could remember who’d put things away last year or where they’d been stored. This meant, of course, that the search party started on the first floor and worked their way upstairs until the decorations had been found.
Kiyone was examining a shelf lined with dusty old contraptions. “What’s all this?” she asked.
Ayeka glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “Oh, that all belongs to Tenchi’s father,” she said. “He loves electronic gadgets, you see—he has to have the latest devices, especially cameras and recording equipment. The minute he gets a new version of something, though, he just throws the old one in here.”
“That looks like an old camera,” Sasami said, pointing at a Kodak Brownie.
Kiyone picked it up and turned it over. “Hey, it’s still got some film in it. Wonder what’s on it?”
“Heaven only knows, given Nobuyuki.”
“I bet I could develop this roll on Yagami. I mean, I’ve got all kinds of equipment up there; surely something could do the trick. Why don’t I take it up later and give it a go? Might be fun.”
“All right,” Ayeka nodded. “You never know, there might some photos of Tenchi’s mother on it, and I know he’d appreciate those.” She pulled out a box and opened it. “No, these are Bon decorations. Sasami, let’s try that closet on the second floor instead…”
* * * * *
A few hours later, Ayeka and Ryoko were having tea in the bedroom. Ryoko was having one of her “good days” and had invited the princess to join her. “I swear, no matter how we put things away, there’s always an inch of dust on them when we find them again,” the princess declared, adding a sneeze for punctuation.
“I must have put them in the attic last year,” Ryoko said. “Sorry I forgot.”
“Not a problem, dear. Sasami’s outside dusting everything off. We can probably begin putting decorations up tomorrow. If you’re up to it, perhaps you could get out of bed and sit in the living room—act as a consultant of sorts.”
“Let’s wait and see,” Ryoko sighed. “I never know how I’m going to feel. Lately it’s all I can do to stay awake.”
“I understand.” A tap at the door caught Ayeka’s attention. “Ah, Kiyone. Do come in. Were you successful in developing those pictures?”
Kiyone grinned lasciviously. “Oh, you bet I was. And let me tell you something, Princess—these aren’t for Tenchi’s eyes!” She handed each woman a few photos and watched their reaction.
Ayeka’s face turned white, then beet red. “Oh my,” she breathed.
Ryoko almost choked on her tea. “Holy…” She brought the pictures closer to her eyes. “That can’t be…”
“That most certainly is Tenchi’s mother,” Ayeka breathed. “In the…flesh.”
“And nothing else,” Kiyone added.
“I think I remember this.” Ryoko swapped photos with Ayeka. “Yeah, now that I think about it, I’m sure I do. It was the middle of summer…” She closed her eyes for a second. “You know, come to think of it, that might have been the day Tenchi was conceived.”
“You’re joking,” Ayeka gasped.
“No, I’m pretty sure that’s right.” Ryoko stared at the photos again. “It was a hot July afternoon, and they’d come up to the cave to cool off. Nobuyuki had the camera, and Achika stripped down, then posed for him. When they were done with that, she used the key to the gate—don’t know how she got that from Yosho, to be honest—and they slipped into the upper section of the cave and went at it right in front of me.” Ryoko sighed. “I’d always hoped that Tenchi would be just like his father…”
“He can be,” Ayeka said in a small voice.
“Hey, what’cha all looking at?” Sasami asked as she came into the room. “Did you get those pictures developed, Kiyone? What were they of?”
Ayeka quickly scooped up all the photos and tucked them in her robe. “Nothing you’re of an age to see, young lady.”
“Aw, I never get to see the good stuff.”
“I’ll tell you something,” Kiyone said to Ryoko. “I’d like to meet a guy who can convince a proper young lady to pose like that. He must really be something.”
“Oh, he is,” Ayeka nodded. “The word ‘hentai’ is pretty accurate.”
“Nobi’s not that bad,” Ryoko said. “He’s okay once you get to know him. He’s just lonely, that’s all.”
“My God, the illness has reached your brain and you’ve lost your wits.”
“Bite me, Princess,” Ryoko said with a smile. “If you really want to meet him, Kiyone, he’ll be here for the holiday party.”
“I thought Tenchi said he wasn’t coming,” Sasami said.
“They talked a few days ago. I don’t know what was said, but the old man’s coming, that much I know.” Ryoko closed her eyes and settled back down into the covers. “I hate to kill the fun, everyone, but I’m pooped.”
“No problem,” Kiyone said. “I’ll sit down by the window and finish some paperwork.”
“Feel free,” Ryoko murmured, already halfway to dreamland. Ayeka shooed Sasami out of the bedroom, then stared at the sleeping woman for the longest time. “Poor dear,” she whispered, then hurried off to her next round of chores.
* * * * *
“It’s snowing again,” Ayeka commented. White flakes were flying above her head, accumulating slowly along the edges of the skylight. From what she’d heard, such weather—this was the third snowfall in three weeks—was unusual in Okayama. Still, it had a certain magical, almost romantic quality to it. She and Sasami had gone on a couple of nighttime walks up to the shrine, and the soft reflection of light against the drifts had made the world around them seem so soft and reassuring.
“Hold still.” Tenchi was sitting in front of his easel, studying his latest subject with the critical eye of the would-be artist. Given that Ayeka was lying on his bed without a stitch of clothing on, he would have far preferred gazing upon her body from a different perspective, but she’d declared that her favors now had a price tag; he had to work on the portrait for at least an hour first. He’d agreed to this deal with some grumbling, but much to his surprise he was finding the exercise to be almost as satisfying as the recreation afterwards—in fact, the other day he’d spent almost two hours working on the painting, putting the princess in a pretty snit that had taken a great deal of snuggling and tickling to get her out of.
Rather than aggravate themselves with denial and noble sacrifices, Tenchi and Ayeka had instead accepted this new stage of their relationship and embraced it rather enthusiastically. They kept it quiet and discreet, making sure that their sessions didn’t interfere with their time with Ryoko. But since that first night, Tenchi had found himself falling deeper in love with his princess, drawing comfort and strength from both her physical and emotional presence. He hoped that he was doing the same for her.
To be utterly honest, Tenchi was beginning to find the concept of a world without Ayeka in it to be unbearable. And that was leading him toward a new thought.
“Naughty boy,” Ayeka teased from the bed. She stretched out into a rather provocative, come-hither position. “Thinking up new ways to ravish me?”
Tenchi smiled and shook his head. “Get back into position, please. And knock that pouting off. You’re distracting me.”
“My dear Tenchi, you are so easily distracted it’s almost no fun to try.” Ayeka poured herself into a new, even more seductive pose. “Hmmm?”
“Ayeka…” Tenchi rolled his eyes, but set his brush and palette down. He wiped his hands off and walked over to the bed, but instead of joining her, he instead knelt down beside her. “Ayeka…I want to ask you something.”
Her eyes widened slightly, but she stopped the flirtation and grew serious for the moment. “All right. Go on.”
Tenchi glanced down at the floor. “Ayeka…” He looked back up into her eyes. “I love you. I can’t…I don’t want to live without you. I want to marry you.”
She smiled gently. “I feel the same way, Tenchi.”
“It’s just…” He sighed in frustration. “The whole thing with Ryoko…your father…your mothers…I don’t know what to do!”
“Come here.” Ayeka held out her arms, and Tenchi moved into them without hesitation. “Let’s be honest, Tenchi. Ryoko is not going to be around too much longer. As for my parents, both Funaho and Misaki would be very pleased if we were to marry, and if you were to present yourself to Father at court and declare your loyalty to him, I don’t think he would object to our union, either. You are going to have to ask him, though.”
“I know,” Tenchi sighed, closing his eyes and savoring the warmth of her body against his.
“Tenchi, none of this is going to be resolved any time soon. I can wait until then. I think it’s the fair thing to do.” She kissed his cheek. “I love you, Tenchi Masaki, and I will be honored to be your wife someday. I accept your proposal. When the time is right, we will make it official. For now, we have our words and our hearts, and that’s all I really need. Is that enough for you?”
Tenchi nodded. “I love you, Ayeka.”
She smiled up at him. “Then show me, my Tenchi.”
* * * * *
Ayeka was sitting in Ryoko’s room, knitting a sweater for Sasami and keeping watch. Unbelievably, it was still snowing, the drifts growing deeper and deeper by the hour. Kiyone and Tenchi were outside shoveling and sweeping in a valiant attempt to keep a path to the shrine open, but it was starting to look hopeless. Of course, if they didn’t keep stopping from time to time to throw snowballs at Mihoshi and each other, they might get further, but still…
“Ayeka!” Sasami came running into the room. “Tenchi’s father just called! He can’t make it home for the holiday parties!”
“What?” Ayeka looked up and put a finger on her lips. “Quietly, Sasami. Ryoko’s sleeping. What is it?”
“The snow’s shut the city down—nothing’s running!” Sasami whispered. “No cars, no trains, nothing! And the news reporters are saying they don’t know when stuff will start back up!” Sasami started to cry. “And I was going to make his favorite salmon recipe too, Ayeka!”
“What’s up?” Kiyone appeared in the doorway, her cheeks blazing red from the cold. “We decided to call it quits out there for the moment.”
“Yeah. Mihoshi made it to the shrine steps and ran off, so it wasn’t fun any more,” Tenchi grinned.
“Shhh!” Ayeka pointed to Ryoko.
“Don’t mind me,” Ryoko mumbled, her eyes still shut. “It’s not like I’m paying attention.”
“Sorry, dear,” Ayeka said in apology. “Minor crisis. Would you like us to move it out to the living room?”
“Nah, I’m curious now. What’s up?”
“Sasami said Tenchi’s father called. He’s stranded due to the snow,” Ayeka said.
“Figures,” Tenchi muttered, his face darkening slightly. “I knew he’d find a way…”
“Don’t mind me a bit,” Ryoko said. “I was just trying to sleep, that’s all.”
“Wait a second. Hold on,” Kiyone said, lifting a hand for quiet. She fished around in her coat pocket and retrieved a small handheld device. “Tenchi, can you give me his precise location?”
“He’s at his office right now,” Sasami cut in. “Here’s the address.”
“Just pretend I’m not here. Be good practice for when I’m gone,” Ryoko noted.
“Okay. Give me…oh, half an hour, and tell him to go up to the roof. I’ll pick him up in Yagami.”
Tenchi’s jaw fell open. “You’re going to use your Galaxy Police vehicle to go and pick my Pop up?”
“If you want, I could close my eyes and lie real still…”
Kiyone grinned. “Sure! Why not? After all, it is the holidays. And frankly, Tenchi, I’ve been looking forward to meeting him!” She winked at Ayeka, who blushed slightly and smiled back. “Don’t worry about it, Tenchi. I’ll stay low orbit, stealth mode. No one will know I’m there. I’ll have him back in an hour, promise.” She winked at Ayeka one last time before heading out of the bedroom; a minute later, Yagami emerged from its subspace berth, then slowly soared heavenward.
“You know, just when I think I’ve seen everything around here, something comes along and surprises me,” Tenchi said to no one in particular.
“Anybody got a lily I could borrow?”
* * * * *
Nobuyuki Masaki was freezing his butt off. He stamped his feet and clutched his coat around his waist more tightly, wondering why on earth Sasami had told him to wait up on the roof for his ride home. Heaven knew that Ryoko wasn’t up to any kind of a trip, so what the devil was going on?
He hated the cold and snow. Hell, he hated this time of year in general. It always reminded him of her, and while the years had reduced the pain somewhat, it never seemed to take very much to bring it all back with a sharp ache, especially around the winter holidays. If Tenchi hadn’t begged him to come home, Nobuyuki might have just stayed in the office and gotten some work done. Lord knew that there was plenty of it sitting in there.
He lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “Come on, come on,” he muttered to the sky. “I haven’t got all day, and I’m cold…” Suddenly, he felt a warm glow all around his body…then everything around him vanished…. and a heartbeat later he was standing on a small circle inside a huge spaceship, with a stunning young woman with long teal-colored hair smiling at him.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Masaki,” the angelic vision said. “I’m Detective First Class Kiyone Makibi, and this is my ship, Yagami.”
“Pleased to meet you, Detective,” Nobuyuki said with a nod as he stepped down from the transport pad. “You can call me…”
Before he could react the young woman had snatched the cigarette from his mouth and rubbed it out on the floor. “No smoking on my ship, sir,” she said politely but firmly. “Those things will kill you, and frankly, I think that’d be a damned shame, don’t you?”
There was a thought deep inside the mind of Nobuyuki Masaki, one that wasn’t yet fully formed, born only of long-unused protocols and courtship rituals and general hopes and dreams. The thought, and it couldn’t possibly have any basis in reality because the very idea was so ludicrous as to be instantly dismissed, was that this incredibly beautiful young woman might just possibly be flirting with him.
“This way, Mr. Masaki.” The Detective gestured toward a doorway. “I thought that perhaps you might like to fly up front with me. It’s a short trip, after all, and I thought you might enjoy the view.” She smiled again, and that thought came right back to the front of his head, and this time it was refusing to be dismissed.
“Thank you, Detective. And…” He took a deep breath. “Please. Call me Nobuyuki.”
“I’d be happy to, if you’ll call me Kiyone.” She graced him with another smile before leading him down the hallway, staying just far enough ahead of him so that he could appreciate the fine construction…of the ship, of course.
“By the way, Nobuyuki,” she was saying, “I understand you’re quite the photographer…”
* * * * *
Nobuyuki noticed it the instant he set foot in his house. A woman had taken charge of the place. There wasn’t anything you could put your finger on and declare to be a definitive sign. It was something about how everything was arranged in just a certain way, how flower vases were placed in the perfect locations, how certain colors were emphasized and others were diminished in importance. A long time ago, this house had been blessed with the care of a beautiful woman, and without her strength and wisdom to sustain it the looks of the place had suffered somewhat. Now, Nobuyuki could sense a restoration of order, and he was fairly certain who was behind it all.
“Father Nobuyuki,” Ayeka said, kissing his cheek and taking his briefcase from his hand. “We’re so glad you were able to make it after all.”
“Well Princess, I’d say the thanks for that goes to Miss Kiyone here,” he said with a shy smile for the detective. “It was quite a trip from that perspective.”
“Have ship, will deliver,” Kiyone replied with a salute.
“Sasami has some hot cocoa waiting in the kitchen. Kiyone, if you’d take Father’s suitcase up to his room on the second floor, I’d be grateful.” Ayeka had taken Nobuyuki’s arm and was guiding him through the house while giving orders all the while. The woman was going to make a great empress someday; he wondered if Tenchi was going to survive marriage to her.
“How is Ryoko?” he asked.
“She might be awake,” Ayeka replied. “She’s been sleeping more and more, but I’m afraid we made quite a commotion earlier while figuring out how to get you here.”
“Well, it’d be terribly rude not to say hello.” Nobuyuki headed over to the doorway and tapped on the frame. “Ryoko?”
“Hey, Nobuyuki.” Ryoko waved weakly from her bed; the television was on, proudly displaying “Sumo Deathmatch”. “Glad you could make it home. How are you?”
“I’m okay.” He sat down on the edge of the bed. “What about you?”
“Oh, slowly dying, same as before.” She smiled faintly. “Sorry. Mom says it’s a coping mechanism, but Ayeka thinks it’s just me being obnoxious.”
“It’s okay.” Nobuyuki rolled his hat in his hands. “Listen, Ryoko. I know I’ve been a stranger around here…”
“Don’t.” She placed a frail hand on his arm. “I understand. Really.”
“Well, Tenchi didn’t feel quite that way…” The elder Masaki sighed and shook his head. “You know, I’ve really tried to raise him the right way. It sure wasn’t easy, what with my wife gone and my own problems, but I did try, I really did. I guess I didn’t always listen to my own teachings, though—especially about how a man doesn’t run from a bad situation, but faces it instead.”
“Yeah, well,” Ryoko sighed. “Tenchi’s young. He can be a real turd sometimes, you know?” She motioned for Nobuyuki to come closer. “Would you believe he and Ayeka are screwing each other silly, and they think I don’t know what’s going on?”
“Are you serious?” Nobuyuki gasped.
“Every chance they get. But they go upstairs, and it must be killing them to have to be so quiet and not make any noise....but you know, there’s nothing wrong with my hearing. I catch everything, beginning to end.” She winked at the older man. “He’s definitely your boy, Nobi!”
“Ryoko…” Nobuyuki blushed and pulled back. “If you want, I’ll have a word with him. I thought Tenchi could be more discreet and respectful toward others, but if this is the case…”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Ryoko snorted tiredly. “I could care less. If it makes them happy and helps them forget about things around here, more power to them.” She sighed. “It’s not like I’m going to be around much longer to stop them, you know.”
“Yeah, yeah. Everybody’s sorry.” Ryoko’s eyes suddenly brightened somewhat. “Hey, Nobuyuki. Can I ask you something?”
Ryoko leaned over slightly. “Okay. Don’t try to deny it, because we all know better, but over the past year or two, you’ve peeked at Ayeka and me while we were in the onsen, right? Admit it, you have, haven’t you? More than once, too, I’d bet. Huh?”
Nobuyuki turned beet red. “Ryoko…”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Ryoko’s smile was almost feral. “So tell me…which one of us was the sexier, me or her? Come on and 'fess up, I won’t mind if you say it was her. Mind you, I won’t believe it, either…”
The elder Masaki sat there for a few minutes, desperately in search of some sort of reply that would get him off the hook without ticking anyone off. Unfortunately, the whole thing with that lovely detective had completely thrown him off balance, and this teasing from Ryoko wasn’t helping any. Finally Nobuyuki sighed and shook his head. “Okay, okay. You were the sexier, Ryoko. And it wasn’t even close.”
She smiled and leaned back against her pillows. “Damn right it wasn’t.”
* * * * *
Nobuyuki was unpacking his suitcase when a knock on the doorframe caught his attention. Tenchi was standing there, looking very ill at ease but determined. “Come on in, son,” the father said, waving the younger man into the room. “Have a seat. I was just putting my things away. Looks like we’re going to have quite a party this year, doesn’t it? I saw some of what Sasami has fixed for dinner, and I must say that the sake selection is the best I’ve ever seen it…”
Nobuyuki let the cheerful front fall. “Okay, Tenchi,” he nodded. “Go on.”
Tenchi cleared his throat. “First off, I want to apologize for the things I said to you over the phone. I know we settled it a few days later, but still…you’re my father, and you deserve a face-to-face apology. So…I’m sorry.”
Ayeka’s influence was definitely everywhere, Nobuyuki thought to himself. “I’m sorry too, son. You had a point. I was avoiding the situation here. It…brought back reminders.”
“You really loved Mom a lot, didn’t you?”
Nobuyuki looked out the window. The snow was still falling steadily, with no end in sight. “Yes. Yes, I did, Tenchi. And when I found myself without her, it was almost more than I could bear. It took me a long time to recover from that loss. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ve ever gotten over it completely.” He turned toward his son. “And I know all too well how I failed you as a father during that time, Tenchi. I’ve regretted it ever since.”
“It’s okay, Dad. Things worked out.”
“Not the way I wanted. The way…we…wanted.” His eyes drifted back to the window. “Still, the universe doesn’t always care about how we might want things to be, eh?”
“I guess not.”
“I am sorry about Ryoko, son. I know you care for her.”
Tenchi nodded, then looked away. “She’s going to die soon.”
“Washu know how much longer she’s got?”
“She’s guessing about a month, probably less.” Tenchi looked down at his hands, then returned his attention to his father. “Dad,” he said after taking a deep breath, “you promised me that when I found a girl I wanted to marry…”
“I thought so.” Nobuyuki reached into his trouser pockets and retrieved a small box. He handed it to Tenchi and smiled. “I wish your mother were here to see this. I know she’d have the perfect thing to say right now. All I can do is tell you I’m proud, Tenchi, and hope you and Ayeka are very happy.”
“I wish…” Tenchi closed his eyes, trembling. “I wish things were…different.”
“Tenchi.” Nobuyuki put his hands on his son’s shoulders. “Times like these can tear people apart. But they can also bring two people closer than ever. I think you and Ayeka are going to come out of this and have a good, long life together. I really do.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Tenchi blushed slightly and moved away from his father. “I…have to go take care of some stuff. See you at dinner?”
“Sure thing. When are you going to give her the ring?”
“Soon, Dad. I promise it’s going to be soon. See you later.”
“See you later, son.”
* * * * *
She almost jumped out of Tenchi’s arms in surprise; music was blaring from the karaoke machine, but it could barely be heard over the joyous cheer that erupted when she emerged from her bedroom. An impromptu toasting to her health—kind of silly when you thought about it, but the sentiment was nice—was instantly arranged as Tenchi carefully set her down on the couch with some fluffy pillows to support her and arranged her brand new cherry-blossom robe around her legs. Before she knew it Ayeka was there with a sake cup.
“Happy holidays, dear,” the princess whispered, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek before hurrying off to some other task.
Sasami was next, placing a plate of various snacks on her lap. “Better eat up!” she giggled. “Mihoshi and Kiyone are eating like they haven’t had a meal in weeks!”
“You know, they’re always like that,” Tenchi said with a smile. “Makes you wonder if the GP feeds their officers, doesn’t it?”
“Well, looks like Kiyone has an excuse.” Ryoko nodded toward the other end of the room, where the teal-haired detective was holding a rice ball up to Nobuyuki’s mouth while he attempted to record the party on his brand new digital camcorder.
“Guess that makes her eating for two, huh?” Tenchi laughed. “Man, who would ever think that she’d be flirting with Dad?”
“Oh, let them have their fun, Tenchi. It’s a party,” Ryoko said. She picked up a tidbit from her plate. “Mmmm. This is good.”
“She’s been cooking the last three days,” Ayeka commented, popping back over from whatever she'd been doing. “Wouldn’t let anyone help her, shooed us all out whenever we passed through. Terrible manners. I’ve failed in my duty as her guardian.”
Ryoko grinned back, then hesitated as her nostrils picked up an odd scent. “You wearing a new perfume for the occasion, Princess?”
“No.” Ayeka laughed brightly. “And I assure you I bathed this afternoon.”
“Never mind. My sense of smell is probably haywire.”
“With everything Sasami’s made, I’m not surprised,” Tenchi nodded.
“I see Yosho’s decided to ditch the disguise,” Ryoko noted. The senior Masaki, young and dark-haired, was sitting beside Mihoshi and discussing some deep topic with Washu. “What’s up with that?”
“Oh, he’s in love,” Ayeka sighed. “He’s decided to send Katsuhito away and replace him with the handsome young priest. I believe Mihoshi had much to do with the decision.”
“I kind of like him this way, to be honest. Did I ever tell you how he got me to go to sleep in the cave?”
“No, and I really don’t want to know.”
Tenchi suddenly groaned. “Oh, God. Washu’s heading for the karaoke machine.”
“If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll go deaf before she starts.”
Ayeka sighed. “We could never be that fortunate.”
Washu wasn’t performing any of her notorious “science lecture” songs for a change. This time she’d chosen the classic “My Sweetheart is a Nobel Prize”.
“I think I miss ‘Protons, Photons Synchrotrons’,” Ryoko muttered to Tenchi. “Where’d she get this one?”
“Some group called ‘Les Horrible Cernettes’. She found them on the Internet.”
“Wow. You really can find anything out there, huh?”
Tenchi sighed. “Sadly, yes…”
* * * * *
The new karaoke group “Resident Officers” was rocking down the house with “Cardiac Arrest” when Kiyone’s wristband started beeping. “Damn. Got an alarm to check out,” she sighed. “Sorry, everyone.”
“That’s quite all right,” Yosho said. “We understand that sometimes your duties must take precedence.” He brought Kiyone her jacket and helped her slip it on.
“Well, don’t let my absence keep you all from a good time. Don’t wait up!” Kiyone headed for the door; outside, Yagami was slowly emerging from its hyperspace berth.
“Wait,” Ayeka said, puzzled. She looked over at Mihoshi, who was still seated, looking somewhat embarrassed. “Aren’t you going with Kiyone?”
“Well, umm, y’see, I can’t,” Mihoshi stammered, staring down at her feet. “I was, well, golly, kind of put on, you know, restricted duty.”
Kiyone had paused at the back door, hand resting on the frame. “Mihoshi…”
Tenchi scratched his head. “You were? Why’d they do that?”
“Well, you see…” Mihoshi’s face was crimson.
“Mihoshi, you don’t have to say anything…” Kiyone said.
“…I’m kind of a little bit pregnant…”
Kiyone slipped away unnoticed as the room exploded.
* * * * *
Tenchi lowered Ryoko gently back into bed. “Thanks,” she said as he pulled the covers up around her. “For everything, Tenchi. I mean it.”
“No problem,” he smiled. “Did you want me to stay with you tonight?”
“Not necessary,” Washu said as she stepped around him. “I’ve already claimed that privilege. After all, it is a mother’s duty to stay with her sick child.”
“Your maternal instinct picks the strangest times to kick in,” Ryoko snorted. “Good night, Tenchi.”
He leaned over to kiss her. “Good night, Ryoko. See you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here. Hopefully.” She made a face and shooed him out, then sighed and closed her eyes. For a long while the room was silent save for the ticking of her new Kit-Kat clock, a gift from Nobuyuki.
“So,” Washu finally said.
“So,” Ryoko echoed.
“Yeah. It was pretty nice.” Ryoko smiled. “She has no idea, does she?”
“Most likely not. It’s far too early. She doesn’t have an enhanced olfactory sense like we do.”
“Yeah.” Ryoko sighed. “You know…I always hoped I’d have a baby someday.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Washu settled herself into the oversized chair and stared out the window. “Ryoko, there’s still time to begin formulating the stasis crystal…”
“If I had more time, I could save you. You could have a baby…lots of babies…with Tenchi…”
“Washu, I’ve made up my mind. No thanks.”
“Damn it, Ryoko…” Washu looked away, sniffling.
“Good night…Mom.” Ryoko sighed again and drifted off to sleep. She never heard Washu’s return benediction a moment later.
* * * * *
“So what did Grandpa say?” Tenchi asked. He motioned for Ayeka to enter his…well, their bedroom, more or less, ahead of him. “Did he know about Mihoshi?”
“I don’t think so. He was just as shocked as the rest of us.” Ayeka slipped out of her holiday robe, neatly folded it up, and set it over the desk chair. “I can’t wait to see how he explains this to Mother Funaho.”
“Do you think he’ll marry her?”
Ayeka smiled as she slipped out of the rest of her clothing. “Perhaps. Time will tell. Why aren’t you getting ready for bed, Tenchi? Going to sneak off on me?”
He grinned, but his expression was tense. “Uhh, no, of course not. I just…wanted to give you this.” He extended his hand toward her; a small box sat in his palm, waiting for Ayeka to claim it. When she opened it, she gasped in surprise.
“Oh my.” The diamond, nestled securely within the gold band, glittered in the faint starlight. “It’s lovely, Tenchi,” Ayeka whispered as she held it up. “I don’t know what to say…”
“It was my mother’s.” Tenchi drew her close. “Now it’s yours. If you’ll…have me as your husband, that is.”
“Thank you.” Ayeka’s eyes shimmered for a moment; she blinked the tears away and sighed. “Tenchi…I don’t feel…right…about wearing this on my finger right now. Ryoko…”
“I understand,” he said, wincing.
“However…” Ayeka retrieved her holiday robe and slipped it on. “Wait here. I’ll be back in a moment. Get ready for bed.” A few minutes later she returned and removed the robe again; the ring was now nestled between her breasts, held in place by a long golden chain.
“There.” She sat down beside Tenchi and caressed his cheek. “Now no matter where I am, our commitment will be beside my heart.”
“I love you, Ayeka.”
“And I love you, Tenchi.” She snuggled in beside him and closed her eyes. “Now go to sleep.”
* * * * *
“Damn stupid bikers…” Kiyone gritted her teeth and stumbled toward the house, cursing every step of the way through the snow. “Wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t do as they were told, oh no. Had to make a fight of it…idiots. Ought to just leave them all in the hold till after the holidays…”
She half-noticed that a light was on in the kitchen. Sasami had probably done that, bless her heart, so that Kiyone wouldn’t be walking into a completely dark house. She was a good kid; she didn’t deserve to have to watch the household go through all this dying stuff, especially at her age. And to take on all the cooking chores, too…it astonished Kiyone, not only that Sasami did them willingly but also that the others just took her efforts for granted.
Kiyone shut the door behind her and slipped off her boots. Her right shoulder was aching where she’d bulldozed one of the more reluctant bikers into his cell. She wondered if she’d be able to find a heating pad for it.
“Hey.” A familiar, masculine voice drifted over from the kitchen. Kiyone padded into the room to find Nobuyuki sitting at a small table, two cups of cocoa and a plate of cookies waiting. “Thought you might be wound up when you got in, and I couldn’t sleep, so…”
“Thanks.” Kiyone smiled as she sat down, but her expression quickly became a grimace as her shoulder protested. “Ouch.”
“Yeah.” She rubbed at the ache absently. “Just sore. No big deal.”
“Here.” His hands were warm and strong, and before too long the ache had receded to an occasional twinge. Kiyone was in no hurry to tell him that, though--no hurry at all.
* * * * *
“Let’s see…” Washu squinted at her laptop screen. She was sitting snuggled under the heavy covers in bed beside Ryoko, sipping at sake and brainstorming for possible solutions to the crisis. Since it looked like nothing was going to stave off the Grim Reaper at this point, she reasoned after her third glass, it was time to look ahead.
Washu hiccupped and frowned. “Vampire,” she muttered as she struggled to type. “Nah, that wouldn’t work. First thing she’d do is make Tenchi one too, and the rest of us would be involuntary blood donors for the rest of our lives.” She finished typing, then celebrated with another cup, poured from the bottle standing open on the bedside table.
“Zombie?” Washu blinked a few times and considered the notion. “Nope. They smell, their skin is dry and flaky, and she’d spend so much time in the onsen her body would melt, and we’d never get the stain out. No way on that one, either.”
“Hmm…could always record her brain patterns an’ jus’ make a new body. Did it once, by golly, I coul’ do it again. Yup. I could. ‘M greatest damn sci…sci…’m damn smart, thass what I am. Yup…” Washu really meant to record this idea, she really did, but time and tides of sake took their toll on her brain. The scientist’s head slipped back against the pillows and Washu went down for the count.
* * * * *
She was standing in her old auditorium at the Science Academy, dressed in her academic robes and peering out at all the shadowy faces filling the room. They’d come here to learn from the greatest scientific genius in the universe, and she was ready to share her wisdom…most of it, anyway.
Washu consulted her notes and cleared her throat; the auditorium instantly fell silent. You could almost touch the electric anticipation that pulsed through the room. “Very well,” she said in a crisp, clear voice. “Today we are going to discuss ‘Project Ryoko’, one my greatest achievements and one that we can certainly learn a great deal from. Lights, please?” In response a spotlight flickered into life, revealing a glass case a few feet behind Washu. Inside the case was the nude body of a breathtakingly beautiful young woman.
“Now then, the goal of ‘Project Ryoko’ was simple—to create a child from my DNA without any messy paternal figures. If successful, I would have my own daughter, one that no one could take away from me. Due to the nature of this experiment, of course, security had to be strictly maintained. I had to be very careful about who assisted me and how much I allowed them to participate.”
“I helped her,” Kagato said to the students around him. “She couldn’t have done it without me, you know.”
“That’s right, Kagato, you were a big help when you weren’t being a major pain in the ass. Here…” Washu reached into her robes, found a cookie, and tossed it his way; he caught it in his mouth and happily munched it down. “Now, to continue, in the initial design stages I determined that in the event I couldn’t protect Ryoko, she should have abilities of her own for defense and attack. Hence, the flight, intangibility, and teleportation features, as well as the energy manipulation factors.”
“That was my idea,” Kagato interrupted. “You could say I was Ryoko’s father.”
“Well, we could, but we won’t.” Washu threw him another cookie. “By using my ovum in combination with certain DNA patterns…” Kagato opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off with a third cookie. “Where was I? Oh yes, the ovum, the DNA, and the Mass, I had the materials all prepared.” She stepped back to the glass case and rapped it with her knuckles. “So, we preheated the oven to 350 degrees and put her in for nine months, and voila! I give you Ryoko.” The glass lid slid back, and the naked young woman slowly sat up. She stared blankly at the audience, then absently scratched herself.
“Ryoko. My daughter,” Washu said proudly. “Powerful, beautiful, intelligent…what man could possibly ask for more, I ask you? Together we were going to travel across the galaxy and explore its wonders and mysteries. It was going to be a wonderful time. I had everything planned.”
“Wait just a minute!” Kagato stormed onstage, his cape flapping behind him. “You can’t do this, Professor. You promised that I could play with her first! You promised that I could have her for the first 5000 years!”
“Kagato…” Washu fished around in the pockets of her robes. “Damn. Out of cookies.”
“Well, then. I see there’s no point in arguing, is there?” Kagato sneered. He stood before Ryoko and made several flamboyant stage-magic gestures over the dazed young woman. “There! See how you’ll like her when I’m dead and gone, Professor! So there!”
“Security…” In response to Washu’s call, Tenchi came forward with his sword and neatly cut Kagato apart. “Thank you. Now, if we may continue without further interruption…”
The crowd gasped. Washu turned around, only to find Ryoko collapsing. As she watched, her daughter grew more pale and withered by the moment. “Ryoko! No! You can’t do this…we were going to have so much fun…Ryoko, you’re embarrassing me, young lady, stop it this instant…” She looked out toward the audience. “Is there a goddess in the house?”
“Well, not yet,” Sasami said from the front row. “But I will be someday. Sorry.”
“Please, Ryoko, don’t go…don’t do this to your poor old mother…” Washu sobbed. Ayeka appeared from stage left; she and Tenchi picked up Ryoko’s frail body and placed it back on the platform, then slid the glass case over her. They shook their heads sadly, then left the stage holding hands.
“No,” Washu cried as the darkness filled the auditorium. “No. Wait. Look, I’ll do anything!” she screamed. Behind her, an eerie tableau shimmered into life; in the foreground was a strange, exotically featured woman peering down at her, while in the background stood two familiar profiles in silhouette. “Please, you have to help me,” Washu begged. “I…I’ll give you these three gems if you save her! They’ve been mine as long as I can remember! They’re only slightly used! Please…please save her…”
* * * * *
“Morning, Miss Washu,” Nobuyuki said as the scientist stumbled into the dining room the next morning. “Say, are you okay? You look a little the worse for wear.”
“I’m all right,” she muttered. “Just a little hung over. Didn’t sleep well.”
“Here, have some tea,” Ayeka said, handing a steaming cup over to her. “So, Father Nobuyuki,” she continued, “I must say I’m pleased that you’ve decided to stay here until after the holidays.”
“Well, you know how it is,” he said with a bashful grin. “The snow’s still pretty bad out there, and I’d hate to trouble Miss Kiyone for a return ride when I’ll be coming back a few days later. I can work from here just as easily as I can there. In fact, I’ve already called my secretary and told her where she can reach me.”
“It’ll be swell to have you around, Father,” Sasami said brightly. “Well, I guess I’d better get Ryoko’s tray ready. I bet she’s going to be really hungry after that party last night.” The young princess rose to her feet and hurried into the kitchen, Ryo-oh-ki close at her heels.
“So where’s Tenchi?” Nobuyuki asked.
“Still asleep,” Ayeka said quietly. “I thought he deserved some rest.” Suddenly realizing the import of her words, she blushed prettily and concentrated on her breakfast, avoiding eye contact with Nobuyuki, who was regarding her carefully.
“When did Kiyone get in?” Washu asked.
“Oh, about 2:00 or so…” Now it was Nobuyuki’s turn to blush, giving everyone a good chuckle as Sasami hurried by with Ryoko’s breakfast tray. Kiyone let the young girl pass by her on her way to the breakfast table; as she sat down, she wondered why everyone was giving her a knowing look. “What’s up?” she asked, reaching for some fish cakes.
“Oh, nothing much,” Ayeka chuckled. “Nothing much.”
“Hey!” Sasami called from the bedroom. “Can someone give me a hand?”
“What’s wrong, dear?” Ayeka asked.
“I can’t get Ryoko to wake up!”
* * * * *
The household gathered in the living room, most of them remembering all too vividly the similar circumstances back in August. Ayeka sat between Tenchi and Sasami, holding his hand tightly and slipping a comforting arm around her weeping sister. Nobuyuki stood by the back door, staring out at the snow-covered lake and thinking about other times, other long waiting sessions. Kiyone stood close by, glancing worriedly at him when she wasn’t peeking over at Mihoshi; she was sitting with Yosho on the other couch, holding his hand and looking very pensive.
The door to Ryoko’s bedroom slid open; Washu emerged, her shoulders slumped and her face tired and drawn. She leaned against the staircase railing and sighed before turning toward the others: “She’s not dead. Not yet, anyway. But it won’t be very long.”
“What’s going on, Washu?” asked Tenchi.
“Ryoko is slipping away.” Washu sat down on the steps and rubbed her eyes. “She’s withdrawing, falling into incredibly deep stages of sleep and only occasionally waking up. She won’t want to eat or drink, probably, and conversation’s most likely a lost cause. In short, her brain is starting to shut down.”
Ayeka slowly rose to her feet and walked over to the stairway. “How long, Washu?” she asked.
The scientist looked up at the princess. “A week at the most.”
Ayeka nodded, then knelt before Washu and embraced her. “I’m sorry,” she whispered as the older woman broke down in tears. “I’m so sorry, Washu.”
“So am I,” Washu whispered. “It’s all over. We’ve lost.”
The gathering broke up in groups of two and three, each sharing their grief in their own way. No one really noticed Tenchi as he quietly slipped into the kitchen and out the back door, his face tight with determination as he headed for the shrine.
* * * * *
Tenchi had long ago lost track of the time; all he knew was that the darkness had fully claimed the world around him, save for the candles in the shrine and the soft blue aura of his sword. It hovered steadily in the air before him, the gems embedded in the hilt reflecting the firelight as he knelt before the altar and prayed.
Tenchi had no idea if this would work. He only knew that he had to try. He ignored his body's complaints of fatigue and hunger and focused on the sword, renewing his prayers and waiting for the one he most wanted to see.
“Tenchi,” came a soft, familiar voice. It had always reminded him of long walks in the woods, its tones and timbre reflecting the peace and serenity of natural beauty. He opened his eyes and beheld the goddess Tsunami before him, a sad smile on her lips. He bowed slightly in acknowledgement and took a deep breath.
“You know,” she said with a hint of teasing, “if you wished to speak with me, you could simply have asked Sasami.”
“I didn't want her to know,” Tenchi replied, his voice echoing in the dark temple.
“She knew anyway. Sasami is quite aware that you ate nothing tonight, and it grieved her deeply.” Tsunami smiled again, tilting her head slightly. “Ask me what you will, my champion.”
Tenchi took a deep breath. “Take my life in exchange for Ryoko's.”
The goddess shook her head. “I cannot, Tenchi.”
“It is a great gift you offer and does your heart credit, Tenchi. But I cannot do what you ask.”
“Can't?” Tenchi asked a bit more sharply than he'd intended. “Or won't?”
Tsunami's expression was almost mournful. “Believe me when I say I would do anything to spare Ryoko. I would not see Sasami or any of you grieve for one so loved. But there are limits, Tenchi, even for a goddess.”
“I don't believe that!” All his anger and pain exploded through his voice. “I almost died in that battle with Kagato, and you saved me! Why can't you save her?”
“That was different. Your injuries were part of a greater plan. Through them I was able to introduce myself to you and assist you in awakening your power. This…” Her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. “This is destiny, Tenchi. Such an act as you request would have consequences the like of which you cannot imagine.”
“I don't care about consequences! Don't you see? This is my fault! I freed her from the cave! I lured her out so that Kagato could find her! I killed him and…” He felt tears running down his face. “I'm the one who killed her, Tsunami! Me! So I should be the one who…who…” Tenchi could no longer speak; the sobs welling up from his soul had overwhelmed him.
Tsunami took him into her arms and held him close. “Oh, Tenchi,” she whispered.
“Take me,” he sobbed. He felt her fingers tenderly caress his hair, giving what comfort she could. “Take me.”
“Tenchi,” she said softly. He looked up at her face and was surprised to see he hadn't been the only one weeping. “I know your pain is great, but you must not hold yourself responsible for this. It…was unforeseen, but you must believe that out of this sadness, some greater good will come.” She bent down to kiss his forehead. “You have others who need you… Ryoko especially. Even now, she still fears what is to come. You must be there for her. Give her your presence, and the courage to face and accept her death.”
“I'm not that strong,” Tenchi said.
Tsunami smiled. “Tenchi, you are far stronger than you know.”
There was a soft flash of light, and Tenchi suddenly found himself in his bedroom. Ayeka lay in the bed, fast asleep; he suddenly felt incredibly weary. He quickly changed into his pajamas and slipped into bed beside her, snuggling up close against her. His arm wrapped around her waist as he drifted off.
* * * * *
“I thought you said she had a week or so, no more,” said Ayeka. She and Tenchi were standing on one side of Ryoko’s bed; Washu was directly opposite, running one of her bizarre devices over the comatose woman and frowning at the readings. The holidays had long passed, and outside the weather was still cold enough to keep the snow from melting off the ground.
“Are you in some sort of hurry, Princess?” the scientist said evenly, her eyes never leaving the device screen. “Is this keeping you from anything important?”
Ayeka blanched. “Of course not, Washu! That’s a terrible thing to say! I simply meant…”
“I know what you meant,” Washu said, a bit more softly this time, “and I’m sorry for snapping at you, Ayeka.” She shut the gizmo off and sighed. “It would seem that Ryoko is staying true to form; she’s fighting, even though it’s a losing battle.”
“I can’t remember the last time she was really, truly awake,” Tenchi said. “Every so often she opens her eyes for a minute or so, but she never says anything and she seems really unfocused. I’m not even sure she's even known I was here, to be honest.”
“Poor Ryoko,” Ayeka whispered, leaning over to brush stray hairs away from the sleeping woman’s face. “I wish there was something we could do.”
“Sake,” came a hoarse whisper from the bed. Ayeka, Tenchi and even Washu jumped in surprise as Ryoko’s eyes slowly opened. “Sake,” she repeated.
“You never change, you demon woman,” Ayeka said, smiling as she reached behind the bedframe for a bottle. “Here you go.” She held a small bowl to Ryoko’s lips and fed it to her slowly, a sip at a time.
“Not a problem. Did you want any more?”
Ryoko shook her head slightly. Her eyes struggled to focus on the room and the people in it. “Tenchi?”
“I’m here, Ryoko,” he said, smiling as he took her hand and gave it a squeeze. She smiled and closed her eyes; Washu quietly returned to her position and switched her scanner back on. “Ryoko?” she said softly. “Ryoko, it’s Momma. Can you open your eyes for me, little Ryoko?”
Ayeka could have sworn the dying woman managed a chuckle, but Ryoko slowly complied.
“Hello, Little Ryoko.” Washu ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair. “Are you hurting? Is there anything I can do?”
It looked as though the dying woman was struggling to concentrate. Her eyes narrowed and her lips moved silently for the longest time before she managed to speak: “Spring?”
“No, little Ryoko. It’s not Spring yet,” Washu said, still stroking the young woman’s hair. “Just relax, daughter. Let go and rest. It’s all right now.”
There was a momentary flicker of frustration in Ryoko’s eyes, followed by the familiar blank lethargy. “Blossoms,” she whispered. “Blossoms.”
“Honey, it’s all right.” Tears were filling Washu’s eyes. “It doesn’t matter. Let go.”
“Blossoms…” Ryoko said one last time before closing her eyes and falling asleep once more.
Washu sighed heavily. “I swear, even dying she is the most hardheaded, obstinate daughter a mother could ever have…”
“She really wants to see the cherry blossoms,” Tenchi said sadly. “Washu…is there any chance…?”
The scientist started to shake her head, then hesitated. “Well, there is something we could do…” She turned toward Tenchi and Ayeka. “I have an idea,” she said slowly. “I could use your assistance, but…you might not like it.”
“If it helps Ryoko,” Tenchi declared, “I’m in.”
Ayeka nodded firmly. “As am I.”
“Good. Thank you.” Washu took a deep breath. “Let’s go to my lab. I’ll explain everything there, and it’ll give us lots of peace and quiet for preparation.”
* * * * *
Oh, how she’d come to hate Ayeka’s perky voice, especially when she was right in the middle of a nice long nap. Nonetheless, Ryoko opened her eyes to find the princess standing there, a bright smile on her face and cupping something in her hands. “Whatizit?” she asked groggily.
“Here!” Ayeka threw her hands into the air. A cloud of cherry blossoms exploded from them and danced downward; they landed on the bedspread, on the dresser, on the floor, and all over Ryoko, to her delight. “It’s spring, Ryoko! You did it! They’re blooming outside!” the princess cried.
“Spring?” Ryoko tried to concentrate. She could have sworn the last time she’d woken up it had still been January. Must have been one hell of a nap. Still, she couldn’t help but smile as her beloved blossoms lay all around her. She heard a noise from nearby, and turned her head to discover that Tenchi was opening up the windows. A cool breeze drifted around her, capturing the fragrant petals and sending them back up into the air in a lazy dance.
“How’s that, Ryoko?” Tenchi said, grinning.
Her smile grew by the moment. “Nice,” she whispered, her eyes shining. “Nice.”
Washu appeared at Ayeka’s side. “Well, since it seems you’re still here with us,” she said briskly, “would you like to go outside and see the trees?” The scientist clapped her hands, and the hoverchair glided over immediately.
“Trees?” Ryoko sighed. “Yes…”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Tenchi gathered her gently up and placed her in the chair; Ayeka was there instantly, wrapping her up in that wonderful knitted blanket she’d made for the holidays. Ryoko lay back against the seat, warm and secure as Washu guided the chair outside and toward the cherry groves.
The blossoms were everywhere. They lay on the ground and in the water. The petals soared in the air; they covered the roof. Ryoko gasped in delight at the sight and managed a brief raspy laugh. “Did it,” she said to the skies. “Did it.”
“You sure did,” Tenchi said, kneeling down beside her. He took his hand in hers. “I love you, Ryoko.”
“And so do I,” Ayeka said, appearing on the other side.
She was suddenly tired, too tired to say anything. All Ryoko could do was smile at them and hope they knew what it meant. Sleep was overtaking her, a warm, comforting drowsiness that promised relief. She managed to squeeze Tenchi’s hand once before she gave in and closed her eyes.
* * * * *
Washu opened her eyes and slowly withdrew her fingertips from Ryoko’s forehead, withdrawing from her daughter’s mind. She then carefully severed the mental link she’d forged with Tenchi and Ayeka. Once she’d regained her mental equilibrium, she opened her eyes and looked around.
The bedroom was dark save for the night light in the corner. Only the barest sliver of moonlight shimmered on the lake and the snow outside. Tenchi and Ayeka sat on either side of the bed, holding Ryoko’s limp, cold hands. Washu leaned over and kissed her daughter tenderly, tears dripping from her face and splashing against the coverlet.
Ayeka looked over at the trembling woman. “Washu…”
* * * * *
Under normal circumstances, the task of digging a grave in the dead of winter—with solidly frozen ground and four inches of snow on top of that—would be daunting, if not impossible. Fortunately, the Galaxy Police prided itself on stocking its fleet with every tool that might conceivably be needed, and so Yosho, Nobuyuki and Tenchi occupied themselves by watching Kiyone use her laser terrain cutter up at the family plot.
Washu wandered from room to room, unable to focus on anything long enough to be of use. Sasami was preparing a late lunch; Ayeka and Mihoshi were tending to Ryoko’s body. No one had wanted breakfast. Every so often the scientist would pause at the doorway to the bedroom and look inside, but she could not bring herself to physically enter. At long last she went outside and sat in one of the porch chairs on the deck area, oblivious to the biting chill in the air.
Ryo-oh-ki joined her a few minutes later; the cabbit lay trembling on her lap, occasionally giving vent to a heart-rending keen. Washu said nothing, merely continued to stroke the grief-stricken creature in slow, steady, almost automatic motions.
“Washu?” Sasami was standing in the open doorway, apron on and serving spoon in hand. “Lunch will be ready in a few minutes.” When the scientist made no reply—in fact, made no acknowledgement that she’d even been spoken to—Sasami repeated her statement. When no response was forthcoming, the young princess sighed and returned to her work, closing the door behind her.
Tenchi and the others from the shrine had no better success in rousing Washu from her reverie. One by one they gave up and headed inside. She continued to simply sit there, stroking Ryo-oh-ki and staring out at the lake. After some time Ayeka came out to join her, sitting down in the empty seat beside her and saying nothing.
“Thank you,” Washu finally said, her eyes still fixed on some distant point.
“It was…a privilege,” Ayeka said quietly.
“She would have appreciated it.”
“I was glad to do it. She was my friend.”
Washu nodded. “She thought of you as her best friend.”
Ayeka’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. “I…hope so.” She rose to her feet. “Mihoshi and I are finished…we were wondering if you wanted…some time…alone…before we…” She could not bring herself to finish the sentence.
Washu’s head slowly turned toward Ayeka. She stared at the princess for what seemed to be an eternity, then nodded and rose stiffly to her feet. “I’d like that, yes,” she said woodenly. “Thank you, Princess. That’s very considerate of you.”
“Of course…” Ayeka said, but Washu walked past her as if the princess no longer existed in the universe. She moved through the house without a word to anyone and headed straight for Ryoko’s bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
Ayeka and Mihoshi had done a wonderful job. Heeding Ryoko’s wishes, they’d dressed the body in her favorite blue dress with yellow stripes. The women had also brushed her hair back and applied some careful makeup to her face. For all intents and purposes, Ryoko looked as though she was sound asleep. Washu stared at her daughter’s still form for some time, then slowly lifted the left arm up and turned it toward her.
The gem was still there. Washu could sense the power that lay within it…the power that had given Ryoko many of her abilities.... the power that had killed her in the end. She stared at it for a long time, then very deliberately reached out and pulled it free, letting the wrist fall softly back to the bed. Her fingers closed around the small red orb…and in that moment, Washu knew what she had to do.
She didn’t know the why, but she knew the what, and that was enough for her.
* * * * *
Tenchi and Ayeka were in his father’s library; a fresh round of tears had overcome the princess, and he’d led her to a more private place to comfort her as best he could. He held her close, kissed her forehead, and whispered vague assurances to her as she wept. “I’m sorry,” she sniffled against his chest. “It just hit me all at once…”
“It’s okay.” Tenchi had had a similar moment earlier in the bathroom.
“I just…I can’t believe she’s gone, Tenchi, and Washu…she scares me. It’s like she’s not really here, or we aren’t. I’m not sure.” Ayeka pressed her head against him, savoring the warmth of his presence.
“Hey!” Mihoshi’s cry of surprise roused them from their momentary snuggle. “Miss Washu? What are you doing? Where are you going? Washu?” They hurried out of the library and rushed to the back door. Washu was standing in the middle of the snow-covered dock; her eyes were closed, her hands outstretched in anticipation of…what?
Tenchi cried out. He’d been carrying his sword in a pocket of his haori, and without warning the two gems embedded in the base of the hilt flared up and burst free. They left behind two neatly singed holes in the fabric and shot through the window glass with similar ease, melting clean through. The gems shot forward, soaring unerringly straight for Washu’s open hand, in which the third gem waited.
The three gems met. A flash of pure light turned the universe white for a long instant.
When their vision cleared, Tenchi and the others hurried outside to the heart of the soundless explosion. The snow on the dock had been instantly vaporized in a wide radius around where Washu had been standing, but of the scientist herself there was no trace.
“Tenchi…?” Ayeka said slowly.
“Her lab…” Tenchi raced back inside and hurried to the interface door. He gave it a quick tug…and found himself peering into a musty, cluttered closet.
“She’s gone,” he whispered.
* * * * *
Kiyone had thoughtfully provided an antigravity pusher to make hauling the coffin to the grave a bit easier; all the same, the Masaki men were all puffing a bit upon their arrival. The teal-haired detective had placed an expensive bottle of sake in Ryoko’s casket, and Sasami had added a carrot to remind her of Ryo-oh-ki. Tenchi’s contribution had been a small gold ring, carefully placed on Ryoko's limp left ring finger when no one had been looking.
The three men carefully guided the coffin into its final resting place, and Kiyone used her remote control to let it settle within the grave. They stepped back and joined the others in a moment of silent reflection. One by one the mourners left until only Tenchi, Ayeka and Kiyone were left.
“Are you ready to go back to the house?” Tenchi asked.
“Not…yet, Tenchi.” Ayeka smiled slightly. “I’d like a few minutes to myself. Is that all right?” He nodded, giving her a quick embrace before heading down to the shrine. Kiyone was standing by the solid mound of frozen earth, preparing to lower it back onto the grave; she gave Ayeka a questioning glance, then nodded and left as well.
Ayeka reached into her robes and retrieved a small glass jar filled with dried cherry blossoms. “I found this in your room,” she said to the grave. “I…was cleaning. You were a terrible slob, you know.” She half-smiled, half-sniffled, then carefully opened the jar. “I never knew you’d saved these, or why you had. I thought…I thought I’d give them back to you, to take with you to wherever you’re bound.
“I hope…I hope you’re happy now, Ryoko.” Ayeka tilted the jar, spilling the dried flowers out. They drifted lazily in the cold winter air, slowly descending down into the grave and landing atop the casket. “Good-bye, my friend. I’ll miss you.” Ayeka took a deep breath and let the tears come. She’d held them back long enough; it was time to let them, and Ryoko, be free.
“She would have appreciated that.”
Startled, Ayeka turned around. Washu was standing there, but she looked nothing like the woman-child scientist. She was a full adult, tall and curvaceous, dressed in a long black dress with red trim. Around her throat was a choker accentuated with three small red gems.
“Miss Washu,” Ayeka gasped. “You startled me.”
“My apologies.” There was something unearthly about that voice. Something…detached, as if her words were more a formality than truly meant. Ayeka felt a chill race down her spine, but for the life of her she didn’t understand why.
“What happened to you, Washu? Where did you go? Your lab’s gone, you vanished in that burst of light…we were terribly worried about you, you know.”
Ayeka gasped. She felt the blood rush away from her face, sensed the universe spin around her once, twice, three times. “What?”
“You’re going to have a baby. A girl.”
“I am?” Ayeka squeaked.
The princess considered the news. “Oh dear.”
Washu stepped forward and rested a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Ayeka. It will all be fine. You’ll be fine. You have my word on it.” The princess felt an odd warmth shoot through her body but it quickly dissipated.
“Thank you, Washu,” she finally said.
“You’re welcome.” Washu turned away. “Good-bye, Ayeka. Take care of your baby. Take care of Tenchi.”
“But…Miss Washu? Where are you going? Aren’t you going to come back to the shrine with me? Everyone’s been terribly worried about you!” Ayeka started to take a step forward, only to find she couldn’t move.
Washu turned slightly toward her. “You’ll never see me again, Princess. My time here is over. It’s time to…move on, you might say. My blessings upon you and your family, Ayeka. Have a good life, and take care of the special gift given to you.”
“I don’t under…” Ayeka gasped as Washu seemed to fade out, growing less and less distinct with every second. “Washu! Washu, please, don’t go! Washu!”
Ayeka found herself standing alone by Ryoko’s grave. With a heavy heart, she let the last blossoms fall from the glass container, then slowly headed back to the shrine and the others.
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Some Time Later|