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|
“Hey!” Sasami yelled from the kitchen. “There’s someone at the front door, and I’ve got my hands full with dinner!” A minute later, when it was obvious no one had done anything about the visitor, the princess sighed, wiped her hands and hurried off to greet the visitor. It was amazing how five minutes in front of the television could render people deaf, she thought as she opened the door.
“Hi.” The stranger was a tall young woman with teal-colored hair, and she was wearing the unmistakable uniform of the Galaxy Police. “Princess Sasami, am I correct?”
“Yep, that’s me!” she beamed. “Are you here to see Mihoshi?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” the young woman replied. “I’m Kiyone Makibi, Detective First Class. Mihoshi was my partner until recently. Is she around?”
“Well, not right now,” Sasami said, opening the door wider and motioning for Kiyone to come in. “She’s up at the shrine with Grandfather, but she’ll be here soon for dinner. Would you like to join us?”
“I’d appreciate that, if it isn’t too much trouble.”
“It’s not. I always make a lot more than I need to,” Sasami grinned.
“Oh?” Kiyone smiled. “Are you used to getting visitors from other planets around meal time?”
“All the time,” Sasami laughed. “Come on in. I’ll introduce you to everyone.” She guided the officer into the living room. “Everyone—this is Kiyone, Mihoshi’s old partner! This is Tenchi, and that’s my sister Ayeka.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Kiyone nodded.
Tenchi rose to his feet and bowed. “We’re honored to have you as our guest. So you’re Kiyone, huh? I have to admit, this is a surprise.”
“Yes, I’d have to agree,” Ayeka said. “Mihoshi had indicated that you’d died in the line of duty during a case involving the theft of ‘ultra-energy’.”
Kiyone blinked a few times. “Died? No, I think I’d know if that happened. And just what is ‘ultra-energy’?”
“You know,” Tenchi laughed, “we never really did find out ourselves!”
“The truth is,” the officer said as she sat down, “I got promoted to Headquarters about the time Mihoshi ended up here. I came out to talk to her about…GP business.”
“Well, rest assured she’ll be here in a few minutes,” Ayeka smiled. “Mihoshi has yet to miss a meal while she’s lived here.”
“Hey, who came in?” came Ryoko’s voice from the bedroom. “Did my sake delivery finally show up?”
Kiyone made a mental head count, based on Mihoshi’s reports. “That would be…Ryoko?” she asked.
“Indeed it is. Would you like to meet her?” Ayeka led the officer to the bedroom. Ryoko was sitting up in bed, watching television and indulging in a bit of sake. “Ryoko, may I introduce Officer Kiyone Makibi. She’s Mihoshi’s former partner.”
Ryoko gave the newcomer a careful scrutiny. “She looks awfully alive for someone who fell into a vat of ‘ultra-energy’. Whatever the hell that was.”
“Sounds like it wouldn’t be pleasant,” Kiyone said wryly. “Honored to meet you, Ryoko. You have quite a reputation in the GP.”
“I’ll just bet.” At that moment the back door slid open, and Mihoshi could be heard asking if she’d missed dinner, she really hoped she hadn’t, but she’d fallen asleep on the shrine steps and she was really really hungry. “Sounds like your partner’s here,” Ryoko smirked.
“Yep. That’s Mihoshi, all right.” Kiyone nodded farewell and walked back into the living room. “Hello, partner. Long time no see.”
Mihoshi froze. “Kiyone,” she said in a very small voice.
“Sure is. You’re looking good, Mihoshi.”
“Umm. Thanks. You too, I guess.”
“Dinner’s ready!” Sasami called. Everyone headed for the dining area in response, Kiyone among them. She couldn’t help but notice that her old partner was less than thrilled to see her, though, and wondered if Mihoshi knew her true purpose for coming. Well, they’d get to that soon enough. From the look of things, Princess Sasami was every bit the master cook the reports claimed she was, and frankly, Kiyone couldn’t wait to see for herself.
* * * * *
Kiyone and Mihoshi sat on the back porch steps and stared out at the lake. Dinner had been wonderful, and the two old partners had settled down to talk over some of Sasami's cocoa. Kiyone held the mug in her hands, savoring the warmth as she searched for the right words to open the conversation.
“Nice night,” she offered.
“Yeah,” Mihoshi nodded.
“Nice people,” Kiyone said.
“You seem to have found yourself a home and family.”
Kiyone sighed and rolled her eyes. “Just like old times.”
The teal-tressed detective sipped at her mug. “So that was the infamous space pirate Ryoko?”
Kiyone counted to ten and reminded herself to make open-ended questions. “What happened to her?”
Mihoshi shrugged. “She got sick.”
“Mihoshi.” Kiyone took a deep breath. “This…isn't a social call, you know.”
The blonde policewoman glanced down at her cocoa. “I kind of figured that, Kiyone. I mean, once you got that position at headquarters, you never wrote or called me. I just figured you wanted to forget about me. So when you showed up…”
Kiyone started to make a plausible excuse, then stopped herself. “I'm sorry,” she said instead. “I should have been more considerate. After all, we're partners.”
“Were, you mean.” Mihoshi's eyes were starting to fill with tears.
This wasn't going the way Kiyone had planned. She bit her lip and decided to force the conversation back to the main topic. “Mihoshi,” she started again, “the auditors have noticed some discrepancies between your reports, your ship's travel logs, and the GP ship monitoring system. There're some…indications…that you've been making trips without requesting permission first.”
“I'm afraid so. The brass would like an explanation.”
Mihoshi's head snapped up as she turned toward Kiyone. “So they sent you, thinking you could either persuade or bully me into getting one,” she said with unaccustomed anger in her voice.
“Mihoshi, it's not like that…” Kiyone started, though of course it was.
“Kiyone. I'm not stupid, no matter what anyone at headquarters thinks.” Mihoshi rose to her feet and turned to face her old partner. “Do you want to know where I've been? Do you? Huh? Well, I'll tell you. Yukinojo and I have been tracking down and investigating Kagato's old hideouts, that's where!”
Kiyone paled. “Kagato?”
“He's the one who did this to Ryoko, okay? So I thought maybe, just maybe he might have left something behind that might help Miss Washu discover how it was done, or maybe how to fix it! And I'm not sorry I've been doing it, and I'm not going to stop, either, so you can go right back to headquarters and tell them what they want to know and I'll resign, too, if that's what they want, because I don't care anymore! I just want to help…my…friends…” Mihoshi quickly turned away, her shoulders shaking.
Kiyone couldn't believe what she'd just heard. Until his recent death, Kagato had been at the top of the “Most Wanted” list, and he was certainly ranked as one of the most dangerous felons ever to have faced the GP. His confrontations with them had invariably been brief and bloody. His old lairs, while long deserted, certainly had to be booby-trapped against intruders. And yet here was Mihoshi, risking everything--her career, her life--all in the hopes of finding something that might cure a former space pirate who had coincidentally been Kagato's slave from all reports.
Kiyone wondered when the universe had gone completely nuts and why no one had bothered to notify her about it.
She had an obligation to report this to headquarters. And once she did, it'd most certainly mean the end of Mihoshi's career, no matter what her grandfather said or did. Some things could not be ignored. And Kiyone…she'd go back to her office and sit down to the stack of reports that never seemed to get any smaller no matter how long she worked, and read them one by one, and make recommendations that never made any difference, and wonder for the rest of her life if hell truly was getting what you’d wished for.
Kiyone rose to her feet and put a hand on her partner's shoulder. “Mihoshi…”
“What is it, Kiyone?”
The detective sighed. “Look. If you aren't going to tell me what you're up to…”
“…if you aren't going to come clean with me…”
“…well, my duty's clear. I'm going to have to stay here and keep an eye on you until I find out for myself, won't I?” The grin on Kiyone's face was unmistakable.
A small smile started to form on Mihoshi's lips. “You'll…stay here? With me?”
Kiyone shook her head sadly. “You're not giving me much choice, are you…partner?”
“I…guess not…partner!” With that Mihoshi flung herself against Kiyone, hugging her tightly. They went inside a few minutes later, arm in arm, still talking:
“By the way, Mihoshi. Everyone kept asking me about some case? Something about 'ultra-energy' and universe-destroying devices, and how I died in the line of duty?”
“That’s what she called it.”
Mihoshi scratched her head. “Gee, Kiyone. I don't know anything about that. Sometimes they just seem to make these things up out of nowhere…”
* * * * *
“She's certainly made her mark in a short time, hasn't she?” Ayeka commented. She was sitting on the edge of Ryoko's bed; the two women were enjoying their morning tea and watching Kiyone through the picture window. The intrepid detective was attempting to install a homing beacon at the edge of the dock, and from the look of things it wasn't going well.
“Yeah, she's a real go-getter.” Ryoko sipped at her own cup and smiled. “Can you imagine two people more unlikely to work together than Kiyone and Mihoshi?”
“I couldn't possibly,” Ayeka replied with a smirk.
“I tell you, Ayeka, I have never seen two people more ill-suited to be friends in my life. Unbelievable.”
“You should hear the language out there,” Ryoko said. “And you thought space pirates were profane… Kiyone could give them lessons, let me tell you.”
“Well, to be honest, she has been a great deal of help.” Ayeka ran a fingertip around the rim of her cup. “It's been nice not having to do quite so much around the house. I'm going to miss her when she and Mihoshi leave next week.”
“Oh? Where are they going?”
“They said something about a classified assignment.” Ayeka turned toward Ryoko. “Have you…talked with Washu at all?”
“No.” Ryoko shook her head. “I haven't seen her since that blow-up. I guess she doesn't care any more.”
“I hardly think…” Just then a cry came from the kitchen; Ayeka was instantly on her feet, heading to the bedroom door. “Sasami?”
“Oh, grozit!” came the answer; Ayeka's face turned sheet white upon hearing her sweet, innocent sister using a word that was never used in polite company. “I cut my finger with the flarking knife! Could you get me a bandage, Ayeka?”
“I…yes, yes, of course…” Ayeka recovered from her shock and hurried out. A moment later, Ryoko listened in on a stern lecture from the princess to her younger sister about the use of proper language at all times, that a princess never said such foul and coarse words, and wherever did she learn such things?
“Well…from Kiyone,” Sasami replied.
Ryoko leaned back against her pillows and chuckled. “Yup. Definitely made her mark around here, for sure,” she said to herself.
* * * * *
November's chill had taken hold. The skies had shifted from bright blue to gray, the clouds from cotton white to drabber shades. The leaves had abandoned the trees, making the land much more stark and barren than before. It was a time for sleeping, for hiding...for dying. Ryoko stared out the bedroom window and nodded in understanding and commiseration.
The hoverchair sat in the far corner of the bedroom, rarely used now. It took so much effort to get in and out of it that Ryoko was left with little energy to do anything else. She was content with her television, her windows, and the never-ending dramas taking place just outside her bedroom door. Everyone went by her room at one time or another; she could easily watch and listen to what was going on.
Ryo-oh-ki was dozing down by her feet. Ryoko stared at her faithful partner and shook her head sadly. They'd been bonded as far back as she could remember, but soon the time would come where Ryoko would have to sever that connection. She couldn’t bear the thought of her friend suffering through what was coming; more importantly, she didn't want Ryo-oh-ki to follow her down that one-way path. She'd have to talk to Washu about that soon, assuming the scientist ever spoke to her again…
“So let's talk.” Ryoko’s eyes snapped open. Washu was standing in the doorway. Her hands were hidden behind her back, which was a dead giveaway that the scientist was up to something. Frankly, Ryoko was too tired to care. She just hoped that whatever it was, it wouldn't hurt much.
“Hi, Mom,” Ryoko said with a weary wave.
“Little Ryoko.” Washu came to the side of the bed and sat down, her hands folded very carefully one above the other. “Ryoko…I'm sorry. For what I said. For what I did. For…everything.” Her voice had trailed off gradually, making the last words very hard to hear.
“I'm sorry, too, Washu.” Ryoko moved her hand over Washu's and gave them a squeeze, just enough to confirm her suspicions. “Now, why don't you stop playing games and tell me what you’re hiding in your hands?”
Washu's green eyes flashed. “I was trying to apologize, Ryoko. I don't appreciate your insinuations.”
“Fine. I’m sorry for being so suspicious. Now…what's hidden under your hands?”
With a long-suffering sigh, Washu opened her right hand, revealing a tiny metallic band sitting daintily upon her palm. “This is something that might help both of us…if it works.” She carefully picked it up with her fingertips and motioned Ryoko to lean forward. “I want to place this on the back of your neck.”
“What's it going to do? Paralyze me?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” Washu scooted up closer and pressed the tiny device into place. It stuck to Ryoko's skin without difficulty, and stayed in place. “We're just going to trick your nervous system and brain, that's all. You see, right now your nervous system is transmitting the pain signals up to your head. Thing is, I'm intercepting those signals and rerouting them into a back corner of my cerebrum. Unfortunately, the pain is reaching a point where it's becoming too difficult for me to concentrate on anything other than blocking it out, so we have to change tactics.
“This little invention will override those pain signals before they reach your brain, in effect telling it 'you're not hurting'. Therefore, I won't have to shunt those waves over, and I'll be able to relax. Now, there will be some risks involved--you could cut or burn yourself and not know it--but you're staying in bed most of the time now, so it’s not as critical a concern.”
“Do it,” Ryoko said quietly. “How will you know if it works?”
“Trust me, I'll know. Activating…now.” Ryoko felt no change, but the tension in Washu's face seemed to dissipate within seconds. “Oh, my. That is such a relief…” She glanced over at her daughter. “And you?”
“Wonderful.” Washu's body seemed to be sagging all at once. “Just wonderful.” She leaned over and kissed Ryoko's cheek. “I'm going back to my lab and sleep for a day or two to recover. Don't worry--if you run into trouble or it suddenly shuts off, I'm still connected to your head and I'll know immediately.”
“Okay.” Ryoko fell back against her pillows and closed her eyes for a moment. “Washu?”
The scientist paused in the doorway. “Yes?”
“Let's deal with that when I've recovered. All right?”
“All right.” Ryoko closed her eyes and sighed. “Washu?”
“I’m…” It was so terribly hard to say something so silly and meaningless. “I’m not going to see the cherry blossoms, am I?”
Washu’s head bowed. “No, Ryoko, I don’t think you will.”
“Okay.” Ryoko allowed herself three tears…all right, four…then shut the ducts down. “Thanks, Washu. For everything.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll see you later, little Ryoko.”
* * * * *
Tenchi surrendered to the inevitable and opened his eyes. The night sky was incredibly clear, so much so that he was able to lie in his bed and identify the constellations without more than a moment's hesitation. There were traces of frost on the skylight panes, hinting at the cold that was to come all too soon.
With a soft grunt he slipped out of bed and put on his slippers and yukata. The bedroom door glided open at his touch; Tenchi thought about Ayeka, sleeping quietly one floor down with Sasami, and the urgent ache in his heart stirred once more. That week at his father's apartment had been one of discovery and excitement. Many lines had been crossed, but there was a final one still standing, and neither he nor Ayeka had been completely willing to go past it, tempting though it had been.
He loved Ayeka. He wanted her in the worst way. He wanted to hold her and touch her, to kiss her lips and caress her soft hair, to say the things that burned inside his heart.
He loved Ryoko. He wanted to hold her close and comfort her. He wanted to somehow take all the sickness away and make her whole again. He wanted his laughing, wild and wonderful demon to fly into his arms one more time and never leave.
Tenchi paused by the stairs, leaning against the wall as he struggled to keep the tears away. He wanted to make everything all right, for all of them. He'd had such hopes and dreams, waiting for the day when he could tell them he couldn't possibly choose between them because he loved them both too much. And on that day they'd tell him the same thing, and they'd marry on Jurai and have children and live happily ever after.
It had been a wonderful dream.
He crept downstairs to the first floor and peered into Ryoko's room. She was sound asleep, snoring softly, her hair in wild disarray. Kiyone was sitting in the oversized chair by the window, staring intently at some handheld device. She looked up and smiled. “Just checking my mail. You know how it is.”
“Yeah.” Tenchi rubbed the back of his neck. “Look, I couldn’t sleep tonight, so if you’d like to…”
The detective regarded him for a minute or two, then rose gracefully to her feet. “Don’t mind if I do. Good night, Tenchi.”
“Good night.” Tenchi headed over to the chair and sat down. The desk lamp was on, giving the room a gentle glow; ever since the onsen incident, Ryoko had refused to sleep unless at least one light was on in her room. There had been times she'd demanded that they all be kept on, but lately one had been enough. Quietly, carefully, Tenchi slipped out of the chair and adjusted her blankets, then sat back down, watching her sleep.
He glanced over at the table and to his surprise discovered his sketchpad sitting there. Then he remembered--he'd brought it in last night and must have left it here. Tenchi wondered if Kiyone or anyone else had taken a peek in it, and with a sudden flush of embarrassment hoped they hadn't--this was the one that had the sketch he'd done of Ayeka while they'd been away, the one that had led to…all that.
He flipped through the pages and found it: his first nude. Ironically, it was the best thing he'd done to date. Ayeka's eyes seemed to smolder as they stared up at him from the paper, beckoning, commanding him to drop the silly sketchbook and join her this instant...
Tenchi flipped quickly to a blank page.
His gaze fell upon Ryoko again. She looked so frail in sleep, so very young and innocent. For a long time she'd been plagued with nightmares, memories of her time as Kagato's servant and the terrible things he'd done to her. Now she was too weary to scream and thrash. She looked so beautiful like this…so beautiful and fragile…
Tenchi retrieved his pencils and started drawing. His eyes never left her. His hands guided the pencil here, then there, thin line, thick line, blur. It seemed to take forever to finish, but when he finally looked up at the clock less than an hour had passed. Yawning, he set the sketchbook aside and leaned back in the chair, closing his eyes for just a minute or two, that was all, just to rest them…
* * * * *
Sasami shuffled down the stairs, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and yawning. It wasn’t easy having to be the first one up every morning, but the smiling faces around the breakfast table always made it worth the trouble. Before she headed to the kitchen, though, the young princess crept into Ryoko’s bedroom to see how she was doing.
It looked as though Ryoko was all right; her breathing was slow and steady, and her expression was relaxed and peaceful. Sasami made sure her blankets were snug, and had started to leave when she spotted Tenchi asleep in the corner chair. His head was lolling to one side, and the soft snore coming out of his open mouth was distinctive to say the least. Sasami had to restrain a giggle.
She noticed the sketchbook on the table and snatched it up. Tenchi was usually so embarrassed about his work that he kept his books tightly shut and refused to allow anyone to see the contents. This was too good an opportunity to sneak a peek. She was about to start from the beginning when the just-completed sketch of Ryoko caught her attention.
Sasami’s giggles quickly died, replaced by a soft sniffle. She stared at the illustration for a long time, amazed at how Tenchi had captured so much with such simple tools. She glanced back at him, bit her lip, and quietly hurried back over to Ryoko’s bed. With great care she rested the sketchbook on the bedside table so that the piece would be the first thing Ryoko saw when she awoke.
Sasami spared it one last glance, then hurried for the kitchen and the start of her day.
* * * * *
Tenchi awoke suddenly, stirred to consciousness by a cabbit jumping upon his full bladder. “Hey!” he protested, glaring down at Ryo-oh-ki. “Was that really necessary?”
“Morning, Tenchi.” Ryoko was also awake, sitting up in her bed with an odd expression on her face. His brain still somewhat foggy, he wondered just what time it was; Ryoko had been sleeping in more and more lately. He pushed Ryo-oh-ki off his lap and started to rise to his feet—then noticed that Ryoko was holding his sketchbook. How the heck had it gotten over there?
She turned it around and held it up toward him; sure enough, it was the sketch he’d done last night. “It’s beautiful, Tenchi,” Ryoko said with unexpected tenderness in her voice. “Is this…is this really how I looked?”
Ryoko turned the sketch around to view it again. “She looks so beautiful,” she said softly. “I couldn’t believe it was supposed to be me. Thank you, Tenchi.”
“Now then,” Ryoko said briskly as she flipped back through the pages. “Let’s talk about this one of Ayeka…”
* * * * *
Washu didn't generally like to lie to people, especially her daughter. There were times, however, when it was the simplest way to get things done with the least amount of fuss. Given her haggard appearance when the pain blocker had activated, no one would have had any reason to believe that the scientist might be doing anything other than sleeping for a few days, as she'd announced.
If they'd known the truth, things might have gotten a bit more complicated.
It had taken Washu two days to complete the time traveling mechanism and get the bugs worked out--the critical ones, anyway. Once she was reasonably confident of success, Washu stepped onto the access cubicle, set the device to send her back seven hundred and five years and to a very specific location in the time/space continuum, and flipped the activation circuit.
All those years she'd kept mental contact with Ryoko while trapped in that damned crystal had paid off. Kagato had spent six months hiding on his base at Yunogo II while planning Ryoko's assault on Jurai. Since the Washu in this time/space point was imprisoned, there was no possibility of running into herself. Ryoko had been sent out on some piracy acquisition work, leaving the bastard alone. Which was just how Washu wanted things.
Not that she hadn't taken precautions. A simple phase transducer kept her a heartbeat out of sync with the continuum. Washu was therefore able to take all the readings and samples she wanted without arousing her former student's considerable paranoia. All the same, it was so terribly hard to stand there and watch him gloat over his scheme, even though Washu already knew what the outcome would be. She wanted to reach out and strike him down right there and then, but she couldn't. If nothing else, it would have sealed Ryoko's death warrant and really thrown the timeline out of whack.
Upon her return, Washu immediately set to work on her radio-spectrometer, adjusting the settings to Kagato's bioelectric frequency. With that done, she hunted through the clutter--oh, now that she could think clearly, she was going to have to do something about all this mess! -- until she'd found the most recent cell samples from Ryoko's body. If she was right, Washu was certain that the virus would shut down, enabling the cells to regenerate and repair themselves.
Her hands were trembling as she moved the barrel of the mechanism into position. Washu bit her lip, then decided that a thirty-second barrage would be a good starting point. She took a deep breath and pressed the start button.
Thirty seconds could seem like a lifetime on occasion.
Once everything was powered down, Washu retrieved her clamps and carefully took the sample dish over to her scanners. Her foot tapped against the floor in a crisp staccato beat as her awesome machines analyzed the cells and summarized the findings. When the report at long last came up on her computer screen, it was all Washu could do to keep from screaming.
There’d been no change. The virus was still very much present and working its evil upon the dying remnants of the cells. Obviously Kagato hadn’t believed in second chances, for himself or for Ryoko. And the hell of it was, despite her hopes and prayers Washu wasn’t really all that surprised.
It was over. She’d tried everything she could think of and then some. She’d wasted three days on a time machine for nothing. All her notes, all her samples, all her tests and equations had been wasted. The greatest scientific genius in the universe had been beaten, and the cost would be her daughter’s life.
* * * * *
“Washu? Washu?” Mihoshi looked around the silent, shadowy laboratory and scratched her head. “That’s funny. She’s usually right here, Kiyone. Miss Washu? We’ve got some more data for you!”
Kiyone was over by the holo-laptop. “Nothing’s on the screen. Are you sure she’s around?”
“I’m here.” The two detectives jumped at the sudden emergence of the person they’d sought as she walked slowly towards them. Kiyone’s eyes narrowed as she watched the scientist approach; her gait was halting, a bit off-balance, and there was definitely a sway—no, more a lurch, to her movements. Washu’s green eyes were a bit too wide and vacant, and Kiyone could have sworn there was a slight slur to her speech. She could reach only one logical conclusion based on the evidence.
“You’re drunk, Washu.”
The scientist smiled and slapped the detective’s arm. “Can’t put anything past you, can I? No sir, you’re just so sharp you’re going to cut yourself someday.” She stumbled over to her cushion seat and carefully clambered aboard it. “So, Mihoshi,” she said, damn near killing herself getting the syllables out. “What’cha got for me this time?”
“Here you go,” Mihoshi handed over a data storage unit. “Hope this helps.”
“It probably won’t, but thanks anyway. You’re both good girls. Make your mothers proud, I’m sure.”
Kiyone stepped forward. “Washu, you want to tell us why you’re utterly plastered?”
Washu closed her eyes as she set the unit on a nearby table, then took a deep breath. “I am not ‘plastered’. I am what is commonly known as ‘shit-faced’. Also called ‘snockered’, ‘bombed’, ‘totalled’ and several other terms that you’d know nothing about, being nice girls whose mothers raised you to be respectable. As for why…well, let me put it this way.” She paused to put her thoughts together and focus her eyes. “Mihoshi. Kiyone…I want you to know how much I’ve appreciated your hard work. I know that this could get you into deep trouble with your superiors. Your loyalty to Ryoko is commendable.” She glanced down at the floor. “But this is the last time. Don’t go out on any more hunts.”
“But…” Mihoshi’s blue eyes were wide. “I don’t understand, Washu. We thought we might find a way to beat this thing!”
Washu shook her head—several times more than necessary. “Nope. I thought so too, but the fact is, we can’t. Too little time, too little known about the virus…” Washu sniffled and wiped her nose with the sleeve of her tunic. “We gave it the good fight, but sooner or later we have to face facts. I won’t have you two endangering yourselves needlessly. If you want to help Ryoko now…spend time with her. Take some of the strain off Tenchi and Ayeka. Make these last weeks good ones for my little Ryoko. Can you do that, please?”
“Of…of course, Washu,” Mihoshi said in a shaky voice. “Sure thing.”
“If there’s anything else you need us to do…” Kiyone began.
“No, but thank you for offering,” Washu cut her off. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to be alone for awhile so I can continue drinking myself into oblivion.”
* * * * *
Kiyone carefully shut the door to Washu’s lab behind her and sighed. “Well, Mihoshi,” she said tiredly, “what do we do now?” She glanced to her left and her right, but her partner was nowhere to be seen. “Mihoshi?”
A quiet sniffle from the living room sofa caught Kiyone’s attention. Sasami was sitting there, legs curled up under her and wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “She went out the door,” the girl said. “I bet she’s going up to be with Grandfather. She does that a lot lately.”
Kiyone bit her lip, a bit surprised and almost a little bit hurt at Mihoshi’s abrupt departure. In the past they’d always confided in one another, sharing secrets, fears and concerns during their long tours of duty aboard whatever ships they’d been assigned to. For Mihoshi to suddenly turn to someone else was…disturbing.
At the moment, though, it appeared that the young Juraian princess was in need of some consolation. Kiyone smiled and sat down beside her. “You look upset,” she said. “Want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know,” Sasami replied. “Ayeka and Tenchi are fighting in Nobuyuki’s library. Can’t you hear them? They’re getting real loud.” And as the detective concentrated, sure enough, angry declarations could be heard drifting into the room from down the hall.
“…business who or what I draw, Ayeka!”
“…concerned about you, Tenchi…obsessed with Ryoko…page after page in…”
“…mad because I’d rather draw her than you, isn’t it?”
“…never have time…”
“…duties around the house….say for you…”
“I’ve never heard them yell like that before,” Sasami said, sniffling as a new round of tears started spilling down her face. “I thought they were in love, Kiyone!”
“Sasami…” Kiyone tried to smile, but one wouldn’t come. “There’s a lot of stress in the house right now. People say and do things they don’t mean because of it. It doesn’t mean they don’t love one another.”
“Like when you yell at Mihoshi?”
Ouch. “Yeah,” Kiyone reluctantly conceded. “Like that.”
“Because it’s really obvious the two of you are good friends and all, but sometimes you kind of get to sounding mean and you hurt Mihoshi’s feelings.”
Well, this was certainly doing both of them no end of good. “Sasami…” she began, but her train of thought was suddenly derailed by a cry of outrage, followed seconds later by a crying Princess Ayeka running past them and out the back door.
“Oboy,” said Sasami.
“You said it,” Kiyone agreed.
* * * * *
“Mihoshi-chan…” Yosho stroked the sobbing woman’s wild mass of blonde hair and held her close, giving her all the comfort and consolation he could. Mihoshi had shown up in tears, saying something about Washu being drunk and it was all over, and before he could say or do anything she’d fallen into his arms. Without knowing quite why, he’d removed his “elderly priest” disguise without her asking and pulled her close, trying to soothe her as best he could.
This wasn’t supposed to have happened. After the death of his last wife…and his daughter…Yosho had more or less decided to keep the aged visage of Katsuhito for good. It was less a disguise than a reflection of the way he truly felt. The deaths of many loved ones through the years had pierced his heart and soul, but for some reason these last two losses had been more intense, more deeply felt. As his daughter’s ashes were buried on the hill overlooking the valley, Yosho had made his decision; he would never again fall in love, never let his heart become so vulnerable that he could be wounded so terribly.
And here was Mihoshi—lovely, gentle, kind, and possessed with a keen mind for things that truly mattered. At first it had been a game, with her repeatedly declaring his appearance as the sham it was, and his gentle remonstrations to the contrary. And at some point…perhaps the night of that awful storm…Yosho had realized the truth of the matter: it wasn’t a game any more. Somehow, she’d managed to work her way into his heart, and she was never going to leave. And for some odd reason, that knowledge didn’t frighten Yosho…if anything, it comforted him.
“Mihoshi…” She lifted her head, tears welling in her eyes and chin trembling. It was too much for him to bear; he leaned gently down and kissed her on the lips, hoping that she might find some measure of consolation there. She must have, because the instant he drew back she moved forward, making one kiss two, then three, then four…
* * * * *
Ayeka ignored the late November chill that whipped through her robes. Though her tears blinded her, she nonetheless headed unerringly toward the staircase that led to the Masaki shrine. Part of her cringed in shame and guilt, knowing that her place should have been in Ryoko’s room, tending to the sick woman, but after the things Tenchi had said and done, she couldn’t stay in that house another minute more.
He’d been so touchy lately. More than once Ayeka had found him in Ryoko’s room, sprawled out asleep in the recliner and his sketchbook sitting on the nearby table. And every morning there were more pages filled with sketches of Ryoko—Ryoko asleep, Ryoko flying, Ryoko laughing, Ryoko lounging naked in the onsen. It was almost all done from memory, with the occasional more current drawing of the obviously ill woman—and each new page shoved a dagger ever deeper into Ayeka’s heart.
She wasn’t jealous, of course. She had no reason to be. That week they’d spent at Nobuyuki’s had made it clear how they felt about one another. While they’d left one line uncrossed, things had been said and done that could never be taken back. But since that time, Tenchi had grown increasingly distant toward her, spending more and more time with Ryoko. Ayeka understood his pain—after all, he’d already endured the similar death of his mother—and tried to be there for him. But her heart ached for just a bit of his attention. Just a little. That wasn’t so much to ask for, was it?
Apparently it was. She’d pulled him aside, voiced her concerns as gently as possible, and asked him to please spend some time with just her, let someone else sit with Ryoko and tend to her. He'd flown into a fury and called her petty and jealous; she'd pointed out to him that he was clearly obsessing on Ryoko as seen by the many sketches he’d done. His anger had grown deeper and hotter, and his replies to her pleadings became vicious and sharp. Finally Ayeka could take no more, and so, flinging the sketchbook at Tenchi, she'd run away.
She’d go to Brother Yosho and ask his advice. He would know the best way to undo the harsh words and bring things back to the way they ought to be. Ayeka smiled through her tears as she reached the last step and hurried toward the shrine’s living area, knowing that her answers lay there.
* * * * *
“You don’t do that like an old man, either.”
Yosho chuckled and kissed Mihoshi’s forehead. His father had been right, all those years ago; no matter what the circumstances, there was one sure way to calm a woman’s distress. Azusa’s wisdom had served his son quite well over the last seven centuries, and it had come in handy today.
Mihoshi wriggled even closer against him. Yosho sighed as her warmth enveloped him, making him deliciously drowsy. “Mihoshi-chan,” he started to say, but she pressed a single finger against his lips to shush him.
“I know,” she said. “Me too.”
And that was the moment that the door flew open, heralding Ayeka’s arrival.
“Brother Yosho,” she began, “I need to…” Her brain finally focused on what her eyes were reporting, and her voice trailed off. She stood there frozen, taking in the sight of Mihoshi lying in the arms of someone who bore a very strong resemblance to a man she’d deeply loved seven hundred years ago... a man whose face was changing rapidly first from a startled expression, to one of shock, then of guilt.
“Yosho.” She shook her head for just a moment, as if to deny the truth she was seeing.
“Sister, let me explain…”
“Explain?” she echoed, her eyes narrowing and her features contorting with rage. “Explain, brother? Like you did when Sasami and I first arrived? Like you did when I tried to question you about the moves you were teaching Tenchi? Like you did when I finally found out who you were?” She laughed bitterly. “I hardly think I need any more of your ‘explanations’, Brother Yosho.”
She cut him off with a bitter wave of her arm. “I come here, having sought you for seven…hundred…years. You can’t be bothered to tell me who you truly are—oh no, I have to rely on Kagato for that! And now I find out that the lies didn’t end there—unless, of course, it’s true what they say about pretty things making old men feel young again!
“Fine. Enjoy yourselves. I won’t trouble you ever again, Yosho. You are no longer my brother, so far as I’m concerned. In fact,” she added with a harsh laugh, “you won’t have to worry about running into me at all! I’m getting my ship, and I’m leaving this backward planet once and forever!” She whirled around and stormed out, leaving two stunned lovers in her wake.
Yosho stared at the open door. “Well,” he finally said. “That went poorly.”
* * * * *
With nothing better to do, Kiyone decided to hide out in Ryoko’s room. With Sasami, Tenchi and Washu in such delightful moods, the pirate’s quarters were probably the one place where she could relax without being interrupted, cried on, or yelled at.
Truth to tell, it was a nice place to sit and think. Despite the drab gray afternoon, the scenery was still beautiful, with the lake and the trees perfectly framed in the windows. Tenchi’s father, Nobu-something or other, she thought, must be one helluva an architect to design the place so nicely. Strange that he never seemed to come out to his own house; she wondered idly what the story was there. Kiyone made a mental note to ask Mihoshi sometime—assuming her partner ever showed back up.
And that, Kiyone conceded with a sigh, was her next problem. Her orders had been quite specific: find out what the hell Mihoshi had been up to, make a report, and get the hell back to HQ. Out of friendship, compassion, or just plain boredom, Kiyone had chosen to cover up her partner’s transgressions…no, to be blunt, she’d become an accessory to her partner’s transgressions. And now that Washu had more or less told the GP officers to cease and desist, Kiyone was out of excuses. It was time to head back and take care of business.
The trouble was, she didn’t want to go back.
There it was, plain and simple; she didn’t want to go back. The thought of returning to that horribly cramped office with the small window that looked out on another section of headquarters and the mountain of paperwork that would be sitting atop her desk was too much to bear. A potential procession of never-ending, never-changing days stretched out before her, punctuated with the occasional promotion to a new office and different mountains of work that never made a damned difference in making the universe a better place.
“I want a drink,” Kiyone said to herself.
“Look behind the bed,” came a voice from nearby. Startled, Kiyone looked over to find Ryoko struggling into a seated position. She hurried over to help out. “I’m okay,” the ex-pirate said. “Just reach behind there and pull the bottle out.”
Kiyone complied and retrieved a sizeable bottle of sake—about two-thirds full. “Does anyone know about this?” she asked Ryoko as she examined the label. From what little she’d learned during her stay, this appeared to be fairly good stuff.
“Oh, Yosho does. He bought it for me, after all.” Ryoko nodded to the bedside table drawer, in which Kiyone found a clay container and two cups. “Sasami might know—you can never be sure with her. But the others don’t have a clue. Pour me some, will you?”
“Sure thing.” Kiyone filled the clay bottle and returned the larger vessel to its hiding place. “How are you feeling?”
“Like crap.” Ryoko took the cup from the detective and sipped at it slowly. “Ahhh. That’s nice stuff. I’m going to miss sake when I die. Hey, what’s that?” A loud rumble from outside was making the house shudder slightly; the two women stared out the window and watched Ryu-Oh emerge from its subspace haven. Seconds later the ship was soaring skyward.
“What did I miss?” Ryoko asked.
“Not much. I think Tenchi and Ayeka had a big fight. More sake?”
“Thank you.” Ryoko shook her head tiredly. “You know,” she said after taking a sip, “I wish those two would just forget about me and get it over with. Like I even care any more.”
“Get what over with?” Kiyone asked.
Ryoko looked over at the detective. “Sleep together. Make love. Screw like crazed cabbits. You know?”
“Not lately.” Kiyone poured herself a drink. “Though who knows when I go back to HQ. There were some definite possibilities there.” She grinned and glanced over at Ryoko; to her surprise, the sick woman wasn’t laughing, but instead was staring wistfully out the windows at the barren trees not too far away.
“You know,” she said with a tinge of sadness. “I really wanted to see the cherry blossoms one more time before I died.”
“What’s stopping you?” Kiyone said with false enthusiasm.
Ryoko snorted. “Take a good look. I’ll be gone by New Years at this rate.” She lifted a hand up to her face and examined, then let it fall limply back to the bed. “And you know, I’m starting to think more and more that it wouldn’t really be so bad. At least it’d be over. It’s the waiting that drives you nuts, along with everyone else.”
“No one is in a hurry for you to die.”
“Bull. When I’m gone, Ayeka gets Tenchi all to herself. Sasami doesn’t have to run herself ragged making all my favorite meals—which I don’t feel like eating any more, but I do it anyway because if I don’t she cries all night. Washu can move on to her next experiment…”
“I thought Washu was your mother,” Kiyone said in surprise.
Ryoko chuckled. “Maybe, but her maternal instincts leave a lot to be desired sometimes. I mean, look at her. Even now, when the pain thing isn't an issue anymore, does she come out to see me, or talk to me? Nope, she stays in that damned lab of hers, where she doesn’t have to watch me die a little more day by day.” A tear, then two, tricked down Ryoko’s face. “I’ve been alone all my life. For a little while there, I thought…” She shook her head, jarring more tears loose. “But now I’m going to die alone…and lately, that doesn’t sound so bad either.” She sniffled twice, then handed the sake cup to Kiyone. “I’m a little tired. I think I’m going to take a nap, okay?”
“Sure thing,” Kiyone said. “I’ll…take these in to be washed, then come back. That okay with you?”
“Whatever you want to do is fine by me,” the sleepy woman said through a yawn. She closed her eyes and was asleep within seconds.
* * * * *
If she stretched out her hand, the Earth would be completely obliterated from her sight. Out of sight, out of mind. No more worries, no more lies, no more screaming, no more cares. She would be free to do as she pleased. She could go wherever she wanted, do whatever came to mind for as long as it pleased her, then move on to the next distraction.
Ayeka sighed and pulled her hand back, shaking her head at her foolishness, both now and earlier. It served her right; every time she thought about how mature and adult she’d become, minutes later she’d turn around and behave in the most childish way possible. While running away did seem to be a family trait (her father’s side), sooner or later one had to face up to his or her responsibilities and obligations and return. With the exception of Yosho, of course.
Ayeka closed her eyes and apologized to Ryu-Oh. Her orders upon boarding had been abrupt and harsh, and while the tree had obeyed immediately, the princess could tell her beloved companion had been hurt by the tone of those commands. Ryu-Oh eagerly accepted her mistress’s message and asked if they might stop this boring orbit around Earth and actually go somewhere interesting; Ayeka smiled and gently insisted on maintaining the present course for now.
She sat down beside her tree’s pool and let her fingers dangle in the cold water. “I have to go back,” she told herself with a sigh. “There’s Ryoko and Sasami to think of. And Tenchi…” Was it so wrong, she asked herself again, to allow herself a little jealousy? Couldn’t he find just an hour or two in his day to spend with just her? Was that asking so much?
Then again, she mused, in too soon a time she’d have him all to herself. The thought wasn’t much comfort; if anything, it chilled her heart more than a little. Perhaps she was being too possessive and demanding. She’d have to apologize to Tenchi and see how it went from there. And then there was Yosho…
Ayeka sighed and rubbed her forehead tiredly. Was it really all that great a surprise? The clues had been there all along, in retrospect, just as they’d been apparent after Kagato had exposed Katsuhito’s true identity. Either she’d been too blind or stupid to see, or she’d chosen instinctively to ignore the truth. And when it came down to it, what difference did it make? Over time, Ayeka had come to wonder if it was truly Yosho that she’d loved, or the idea of being in love. With Tenchi it was different; there was no question about her feelings. Perhaps it would be best just to let the anger and resentment go and move on. Life, as she was seeing with Ryoko, was far too short and fragile to waste on such things.
Ayeka rose to her feet. “Ryu-Oh,” she said quietly. “Let’s go home.”
* * * * *
The house was dark save for the light in Ryoko’s room. Ayeka let herself in and quietly moved toward the soft aura that flickered around the doorway. Ryoko was fast asleep on her back and covered in blankets, her mouth open just enough for a snore to slip out with every breath. And as usual, Tenchi was sitting in the oversized chair. This time, however, the sketchpad sat unused on the adjacent table. He looked lost in thought, somewhat troubled.
He looked up and saw Ayeka standing there, in the dim light. His features softened almost immediately. When she motioned for him to join her outside the room, he rose quickly to his feet and followed. “I’m sorry,” he blurted out the instant he found her. “I’m sorry, Ayeka.”
She sat down against the back of the sofa. “It’s…all right, Tenchi. I was just as wrong…and I made things worse by running away instead of making them right. Please forgive me.”
“Of course.” His arms circled her waist; Ayeka looked up into his eyes and felt her will melt away under that sweet intensity. His mouth came down upon hers, firm but gentle, and she responded in kind, her hand rising up to caress his cheek.
Tenchi pulled her body closer to his. She swayed slightly and wrapped her arms around him for support, unwilling to be the one who broke the kiss. She never wanted this moment to end; she wanted to be his, tonight and all nights ahead. She wanted Tenchi.
And Tenchi wanted her.
What happened next and how it occurred, neither party was quite sure. But before they knew it, Tenchi and Ayeka lay entwined on the sofa, their clothing discarded to the winds and their bodies writhing and responding to every touch, every kiss, every breath. If either of them heard any sort of inner warning about what they were doing, it was quickly drowned out by their passionate sighs and groans. It seemed to last forever, but it ended far too quickly.
Tenchi and Ayeka lay there for some time, savoring one another’s warmth and sheer presence. They finally parted with equal measures reluctance and embarrassment, gathering up their wildly strewn clothing up and trying not to look one another in the eyes. Ayeka had reached the foot of the stairs before turning to face him.
Tenchi stared at her, the light from Ryoko’s room bathing her in an almost-magical halo. She stood there before him, proud and magnificent, yet shy and fragile at the same time. When she was quite sure she had his full attention, she nodded her head ever so slightly toward his room, the invitation obvious.
After a moment he nodded. They quietly ascended the stairs, leaving Ryoko alone as she slept silently in her room, lost in dreams.
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Some Time Later|