This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.
Special note—thanks to Beloved Wife for helping me proof this monster and alternately encouraging/threatening me to get it finished, and to Dark Jetzer for doing the beta reading.
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Some Time Later|
The loud clattering of wooden practice swords smashing against one another echoed around the Masaki shrine. Tenchi and his grandfather punctuated each attack with a long battle cry, weaving and parrying as they battled. Their clothing grew dark with sweat as they faced off over and over, neither ceding an inch to the other.
Yosho had to admit he was impressed with the boy's progress. Despite the abbreviated schedule and the stresses at home, Tenchi's skills had continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Feints and various dirty tricks that would have stopped him cold even six weeks ago were now avoided with ease. At this rate, the boy might actually manage to get the better of the old man some day.
Yosho peered up at the late September skies and scowled, raising a hand to stop the training exercise. While the sun was still shining, there was a growing line of dark blue off on the horizon. “A storm is coming,” he informed Tenchi. “I think we'd best call this session over and prepare for its arrival.”
Tenchi looked at the gathering clouds and nodded. “Feels like a strong one.”
“Hmmm. So you can sense its power from this far?”
“Well, kind of.” Tenchi shrugged, his eyes still focused on the horizon. “I've been trying to do those exercises you taught me. I guess they're working.” While the boy was talking, Yosho abruptly brought his practice sword up and send it flying toward his grandson's head. Tenchi didn't flinch at all, merely brought his own sword up to parry the blow. “Nice try, Grandpa.”
“Very good. You're improving.” Yosho tried to kick the boy's legs out from under him; Tenchi's sword swooped down and smacked his grandfather on the kneecap with a sharp crack. “Ow. Very…good.”
“Thanks.” Tenchi glanced toward the shrine, where Mihoshi was sweeping the grounds; the lovely detective looked up from her work, spotted Tenchi, and waved. “I'm glad Mihoshi returned yesterday instead of today. She has enough trouble bringing her shuttle in as it is. I'd hate to see her trying to land in the middle of a typhoon. Did she ever say where she went? She was gone an awfully long time.”
“No, and I didn't pry. Her duties as a detective often require her to leave unexpectedly and for long periods.” Yosho took the practice sword from his grandson and limped toward the shrine. “How is your artwork coming along?”
Tenchi winced slightly. “Oh, just fine. Give me twenty or thirty years and I might be able to draw something recognizable.”
“You're working at it too much. This is supposed to be a hobby, a way to relax.”
“I know, I know. I just feel like I'm not getting anywhere with it.” Tenchi sighed and rubbed his neck. “I kind of feel obligated to keep at it, though. Ayeka spent all that money on the stuff.”
“That's the wrong attitude to take. Relax and simply capture on paper what your soul sees.” Yosho peered up at the gathering clouds again. “But for the moment, you'd best get down to the house and prepare as best you can. I think this is going to be a very powerful storm.”
“Okay, but I don't think it'll be too bad. Washu said she's developed a force shield system that will protect both the shrine and the house in case of trouble.”
“Tenchi, I've learned many times over the years that it never pays to rely too much on anything but the proven solutions. Go on and cover the windows. If Washu's device works, all we're out is a bit of effort. If not…better safe than sorry.” Tenchi nodded and hurried off.
Yosho shook his head and smiled to himself as he reached the edge of the shrine grounds. Mihoshi was waiting for him, a glass of ice water in her hands. “Thank you,” he said.
“No problem. That was quite a workout you two had,” Mihoshi commented, falling into step with him. “You know,” she added with a sly, shy smile, “I just don't know how an old man like yourself can do all those things, especially against a young boy like Tenchi.”
“Now, Mihoshi, we've had this discussion before.”
“I had Yukinojo run some projections, and you know what? He says there's no way you can look this old, even if Funaho took root! Isn't that neat?”
The woman was impossible, Yosho thought to himself. “Mihoshi, did you ever consider that, if I were truly a younger man--which I'm not--I might have very good reasons for keeping the guise I'm wearing now?”
“Oh, sure. I understand completely.” Mihoshi hugged his arm; Yosho trembled slightly at his body's reaction to her proximity. “But you don't have to keep it up around me.”
A sharp, cold wind blew past them. Mihoshi shivered. “Gosh, I don't think I'm going to be able to get down to the house in time, Yosho. Can I stay up here till it blows over?”
“If you promise to cease all this talk about my not being an old man, yes, you may.”
“Pooh.” She pouted prettily, then jumped as the first icy raindrops hit her skin. “Okay.”
* * * * *
“What the hell do you think you're doing?” Washu demanded. She was watching Tenchi slap a long board over one of the first floor windows. Ayeka stood beside him, holding the piece steady as he hammered a nail to each corner. “That's completely unnecessary. I told you, I've got this completely covered.”
“Better safe than sorry,” Tenchi said through a mouthful of nails.
“Bah! Behold…my latest invention!” Washu held up a small remote control. “This is the Washu Extraordinary, Perfectly Impenetrable Shield System! Storms, plasma blasts, aluminum siding salesmen--nothing can pass through my shield unless I so will it!”
“Miss Washu,” Ayeka said as she centered the next board in place, “While I would certainly appreciate such a magnificent invention protecting us…I would suggest you develop a new name for it. One that doesn't have such rude initials.”
“Huh?” Washu rubbed her chin, then blushed. “Oh. Well, that's the beta name, anyway. Got a point there. I never did too well in Marketing Your Inventions back at the Academy. Anyway, there's no need to be doing all this work. One push of this button…” Washu looked left and right to make quite sure Mihoshi was nowhere in the vicinity. “…and our worries are over!”
* * * * *
Ryoko sighed, savoring the warm water as it soothed her tired, aching body. The onsen had become more and more her personal haven these days, certainly a better one than that damned bedroom. She might have to sleep in it, but she sure wasn't going to spend the day there. No damned way.
If only Tenchi were here too. That wonderful night still shone in Ryoko’s thoughts and heart. In the days immediately following, she’d half-hoped that he might ask for another rendezvous, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to happen. Ryoko wondered if it just hadn’t been that good for him. At the time she’d thought he’d been as enraptured as she, but her experience was limited and she couldn’t be sure. Plus, there was the whole thing with Ayeka to consider. The princess wouldn’t be above demanding “equal time”.
She opened an eye and looked up at the darkening sky. “Uh-oh. Guess it's time to get back to the house.” Regretfully, Ryoko pushed herself out of the pool, grunting with the effort. “Damn…now I'm losing my upper body strength, too.” She summoned the hoverchair to her side and gripped the closest armrest to pull herself into a standing position.
She hadn't noticed how wet the wooden floor was, nor had she counted on losing her balance. Before Ryoko knew what was happening, her feet had slipped out from under her.
Her head hit the floor with a sickening crack.
* * * * *
Tenchi and Ayeka turned as one in her direction; the petite scientist was staggering around blindly, hands pressed tightly against her skull as she cried out again and again. The shield control tumbled out of her grasp and hit the ground, shattering into a thousand tiny pieces.
Tenchi raced over to Washu's side just as the rain started coming down steadily, gathering her up and half-carrying her inside the house. Ayeka spared the now-useless control a single hesitant, regretful glance, then hurried to follow him in.
Once inside her lab, Washu seemed to regain her equilibrium. “All right,” she said thickly, fingers pressed tightly against her temples as she squinted at Tenchi, Ayeka and Sasami. “We'll be all right in here. I can get the shield up in time…just requires a bit of re-routing of the power couplings. Give me a minute or two and I'll have it all set.”
“Washu,” Tenchi said, “are you sure you're all right?”
She waved him off , as she stumbled towards a long, tall array of ominous-looking electronic machinery with hundreds of flickering lights playing across it and the occasional flash-crackling of sparks from inside. “No problem at all…for the greatest…genius…” she mumbled. “Just a few buttons here and there...and this...and this.” If anyone noticed the trembling of her fingers as she made the adjustments, no one commented. “All right. This should do it.” Washu pressed one final button and threw a switch.
Her laboratory plunged into utter darkness.
* * * * *
Ryoko's head was throbbing; fireworks of red and yellow exploded under her tightly-shut eyelids. Disoriented, dazed, she lay against the slick floor of the onsen and tried to keep the bile rising in her throat from spilling out. With a Herculean effort she managed to force her eyes open, just in time to watch the ugly black clouds sweep over the dome and unleash a terrible torrent of rain upon the world.
“Least…I'm in here…” Ryoko muttered, slowly raising an arm to her head and rubbing it gingerly. “Safe…”At that instant the lights in the onsen flickered out, plunging the entire area into darkness.
Disoriented, Ryoko squinted and tried to make sense of her surroundings. The sound of water slapping against rocks, stone that seemed to rise up all around her, and the dark, the dark that never went away…to her dazed mind, she could only be in one place.
Seven hundred years is a long time to be trapped inside a cave, imprisoned in a damp, dark cell deep within the earth. It might be tolerable if you were asleep for the entire time. You might emerge with only the slightest case of claustrophobia.
The problem was, Ryoko had awoken on occasion during those long seven centuries. Despite Yosho's careful preparations, from time to time someone managed to breach the defenses through blind luck and managed to stir the demon from her rest. When it did happen, he had to descend into the prison, get rid of the idiot, and slowly convince Ryoko to go back to sleep.
And then there had been August of 1945.
While her seven centuries of confinement had freed her from Kagato and bound her heart to Tenchi Masaki, it had also given birth to a most powerful claustrophobia that she could never completely shake. And right now, naked, vulnerable, confused…Ryoko felt the universe closing in all around her, imprisoning her for eternity.
It was a raw cry that came from the very core of her being. Eyes wide, unseeing, she summoned every iota of power still remaining within her and sent it flying straight up. It smashed into the glass dome encircling the onsen and shattered it, sending shards flying out in all directions. The icy rain and wind poured through the new opening with a roar, enveloping the still-screaming Ryoko completely.
* * * * *
“I'm here.” He gave up his battle with the windows and hurried to Mihoshi's side. She was trembling, eyes wide with terror as the wind whistled dangerously outside. The rain hammering against the tile roof sounded like machine gun fire. “Let's head into the shrine itself; it's better protection.”
Yosho shut the connecting door behind him and placed a thick beam into the slots on either side. He wasn't sure if it would hold against a storm of such magnitude, but at this point he'd err on the side of safety. The shrine was hundreds of years old, solidly built, and had survived far worse than this.
Mihoshi said, “I don't understand, Yosho. Washu said her shield would protect the shrine…what could have happened?”
“I don't know.” Yosho offered a quick prayer that Tenchi had managed to put up some protection for the house. “At this point, speculation is useless, so let's concentrate on getting through this intact.” He moved carefully but confidently through the shrine's dark confines toward Mihoshi. “Are you all right?”
“I guess.” She was shivering, holding her arms tightly around her body. “I’m cold.”
“One of the disadvantages of not having a fire,” he commented, sitting down beside her. “Mihoshi, we'll have to…stay close together…in order to share our warmth. Would that bother you?” In reply she immediately snuggled up against him; Yosho tried to ignore the pleasant sensations running through him as he instinctively wrapped his arms around her. “Better?”
“Oh yes.” Her head fell against his chest. “Much better, thank you very much.”
“Good.” Yosho tilted his head and concentrated. He could hear the rain's continuous pounding on the walls and ceiling, the wind's terrifying wail as it rushed about madly outside. Not for the first time he thanked the gods that he had this shrine as a haven. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, no easy feat considering the lovely young woman that was a bit too disturbingly close for comfort.
“Yes, Mihoshi?” Without warning her lips were against his, soft, warm and so very pleasant. Caught by surprise, Yosho responded instinctively, and was rewarded with a happy sigh and a gentle caress against his cheek. The kiss seemed to last for a wonderful eternity, and when he finally broke away, Yosho could only shake his head at her next words:
“You don't kiss like an old man, either.”
* * * * *
“Damn!” Tenchi winced as his elbow cracked against something solid; it was the fourth time he'd stumbled into something in the course of trying to find Washu and the console. He was fairly certain one of those painful encounters had been with Sasami, who had cried out and was now sobbing to herself.
It was like trying to swim through a black fog. He had no point of reference, no sense of direction…nothing. A momentary surge of panic shot through him, and suddenly an idea came to him. Tenchi reached down and retrieved his sword; the electric blue blade soared heavenward the instant his hand wrapped around the grip, bathing everyone and everything with its comforting aura.
“Washu?” He spotted her now, much further away than he'd thought. With some embarrassment Tenchi realized he'd been moving in the opposite direction. The scientist was just standing there, swaying slightly and holding her head in her hands. He could almost make out a soft moan as well.
“Washu--we need you to get this running again,” Tenchi said as he drew up alongside her. “Are you all right?”
“Ryoko,” she croaked.
“Ryoko…onsen…terrified…hurt…” Washu moaned again, sounding like she was about to cough up a hairball. “Help her, Tenchi…go now…”
“But Washu, if I go how are you going to be able to see what you're doing?”
“I…I can manage…” With an effort the petite redhead made a gesture with her hand that he more often associated with Ryoko; a small energy globe flickered into life against her open palm, and once she squeezed it, flowed up and out into a sword of her own. A red nimbus flickered against the dead machinery. “Go!” Washu croaked. “Go!”
“All right,” Tenchi said uncertainly. He turned and started for where he thought the door would be, only to run into Ayeka. The princess certainly looked determined, but fear danced just behind her eyes.
“I'm going with you,” she said quietly.
“Ayeka, it's too dangerous out there. Stay here with Sasami and help Washu.”
“Sasami is fine, and I'm no use to Washu. I can protect us from the storm.” She took a deep breath and looked Tenchi squarely in the eyes. “I'm going.”
“All right.” There wasn't time to argue. Together they raced back into the house.
Shattered glass was everywhere; the furnishings were strewn about haphazardly and soaking wet. Tenchi tried to ignore the damage to his home and concentrated instead on getting outside and to the onsen. Icy droplets of rain battered his skin relentlessly, and the wind immediately followed up, slamming into him with near-irresistible force. Tenchi lifted an arm to protect his face, gritted his teeth, and stepped forward…
…and suddenly there was no more rain, no more wind, only a warm glow all around him. Ayeka's tiny guardians encircled both of them. “There,” she said. “Much better.”
“Can you keep this around us as we walk?” Tenchi asked.
“Yes. I don't know for how long, though.”
“Then we'd better get moving.” Ayeka nodded, and the pair slowly set forth. The princess clenched her teeth and ordered her little guardians to move along with them, but it seemed to take an agonizingly long time to make progress. The wind whined as it shot past the edges of the field, and the rain never let up. At one point a huge tree branch flew into view and smashed into their shield; Ayeka gasped in surprise, but their protection held firm.
Tenchi squinted into the storm in search of the onsen. When he finally saw the shattered remnants of the dome, he could not help but wonder what could have possibly done that much damage. He heard a gasp from behind and knew that Ayeka had seen it as well.
The storm seemed to sense their defiance, and in response seemingly increased in fury. Ayeka put a hand on Tenchi's shoulder, partly for guidance and partly for support. Her eyes were tightly shut, her expression fierce as she concentrated on keeping the shield moving along with them. It was taking far more effort than she'd ever managed before; her head was already starting to throb, and every so often a shudder rippled through her, but she did not allow their shield to fall until they had reached the onsen entrance and gone inside.
“Over there.” Tenchi raced over to where he could just make out Ryoko's naked, huddled body. Ayeka all but collapsed against the wall, closing her eyes and struggling to keep from passing out. “Azaka, Kamidake,” she called out to the Jurai Guardians who normally sat outside the main gate, protecting the house. “Come to me.” In seconds they shimmered into view, slowly floating down to the floor.
“Ryoko!” Tenchi took the sobbing woman in his arms and held her close. Ryoko's eyes were wide and unseeing, pure panic the only thing to be found in them. She trembled uncontrollably, and the only things to come from her mouth were hoarse moans and whimpers. “I'm here, Ryoko,” he said softly, pressing her against his body as he carried her back to the more sheltered area where Ayeka sat.
“Here.” Ayeka removed her outer robe and handed it to Tenchi, who quickly wrapped around Ryoko. The three of them huddled together; with a word from Ayeka, the large guardians enclosed them in a force field. The storm wailed on around them, trying every way it could to punish them further, but to no avail.
Ayeka examined Ryoko for injuries. “She's got a bad bump on the side of her head. That seems to be the worst of it.”
“I don't know,” Tenchi said. “We'll have to wait until it's safe to get back to the lab.”
“That could be a while.”
“I'm afraid so. Get some rest, Ayeka. You're exhausted.” The princess nodded and positioned herself against Ryoko's body, closing her eyes and falling asleep quickly. Tenchi sighed and gently stroked Ryoko's hair, staring out at the remains of the onsen and watching the storm clouds roll overhead.
* * * * *
The storm's fury slowly abated as the hours passed; it finally gave up the fight during the early hours of the morning. While many of its windows were smashed and the furnishings lost, the Masaki house still stood tall amid the debris littering the dock and grounds. The long stone staircase that led to the shrine was all but hidden under tree limbs and various jetsam; the shrine buildings themselves were undamaged, a testament to the craftsmanship that had gone into their construction so many years before.
Within its confines, Mihoshi lay fast asleep in the arms of a young, handsome man dressed in the robes of a Shinto priest. A sly smile played on her lips as she stirred slightly, snuggling even closer to his warm body. “I knew it,” she mumbled to the night before drifting back into her dreams.
Yosho stroked the young woman's hair and smiled to himself. “Yes, you did,” he whispered. “You certainly did, Mihoshi-chan.”
Deep inside her laboratory, Washu continued in her work on restoring power to the vicinity, pausing every so often to try to banish the weariness that threatened to overwhelm her. The soft crimson haze from her energy sword, suspended in mid-air just above her, gave her features an even more haggard appearance. Nearby, Sasami lay asleep, curled up in a tiny ball with Ryo-oh-ki nestled within.
Ayeka, Ryoko and Tenchi slept inside the ruined onsen, oblivious to the storm's departure, to the wreckage all around them, to practically everything except the warmth of their bodies. The guardians kept watch on either side of the trio, leaving their shield up as a precaution.
* * * * *
Tenchi opened his eyes and looked around; he lifted a hand to his face and discovered a small trickle of water sliding down his cheek. Another drop splashed against his hand, then another. Careful not to disturb the slumbering Ryoko, he twisted around and up to find the source of his awakening. Looking up, he could see the morning sky slowly lightening with the approach of the sun. A jagged edge of the onsen dome's remains rested directly above him, and as he watched yet another droplet fell towards him.
Azaka and Kamidake were still at their posts. “Everything okay, guys?” he asked quietly.
“Indeed, Tenchi,” Azaka replied as softly as it could. “We have determined that the immediate danger has passed.”
“For this reason,” Kamidake continued, “we felt it appropriate to deactivate the shield and conserve our power.”
“Hmmmm?” Ayeka slowly stirred from where she was on the other side of Ryoko. She opened a pair of sleepy eyes and peered first at the sky, then around the onsen, then at Tenchi. “Good morning,” she yawned. “I assume we survived?”
“Sure looks like it. I'm a little worried about Ryoko, though.” Tenchi extricated himself slowly from the comatose alien. “You'd think she'd have woken up by now. I'm going to try and find her chair--see if you can wake her, okay?” He rose to his feet and slowly picked his way around the debris while Ayeka pulled Ryoko's limp form over to her.
Tenchi was back within minutes. “I found it, but it's unusable.”
“Where was it?”
“At the bottom of the onsen. Any luck with Ryoko?”
Ayeka shook her head. “Nothing. Tenchi, we need to get her to Washu immediately.”
“Well…” Tenchi considered his options, then sighed. “I think I could carry her in.”
“There's an easier way.” Ayeka laid Ryoko carefully on the floor, then stood up. “Azaka, Kamidake. Please contain Ryoko and take her to the house.”
“Certainly, Princess Ayeka.” A bright globe enveloped Ryoko's body, and moments later the guardians and their charge were gone.
“Boy, what a mess.” Tenchi looked around and sighed. “It's going to take forever to get things back in order. I guess I ought to get up to the shrine and make sure Grandpa and Mihoshi are okay.”
“Go on and do that,” Ayeka nodded. “I'll take care of Ryoko.”
* * * * *
One of the advantages to having the greatest scientific genius in the galaxy living in the house was that she was also the most conscientious scientific genius in the galaxy. Having finally restored power to the vicinity, Washu had wasted no time in pulling up her backup copies of the house and onsen (created every morning) and overwriting the current damaged versions. By the time Ayeka and the guardians had reached the house, it had been completely restored.
They managed to carry the limp, comatose Ryoko to a couch. “I'll need some of my equipment,” Washu said as she examined her daughter. “Looks to me, though, that she exhausted all her power reserves in the blast that took out the onsen roof. This isn't good.”
“Wait. Are you saying SHE did that?” Ayeka gasped.
“I walked around out there this morning while the restore was running. The debris was all around the outside. That meant the damage came from within, and I can think of only one thing that could create a blast of that magnitude. Unfortunately,” Washu added, “I'm afraid it was a one-shot deal, in more ways than one.”
“I'm not sure I understand,” Ayeka said.
Washu closed her eyes and sighed. “Basically, while she had energy in reserve, she didn't have to rely so much on the gem for power. That slowed the decay rate of her cellular structure. Now she's having to draw on the gem exclusively. That means more of the energy that's poisoning her is running through her system. It's accelerating the virus' progression, and the ensuing damage.”
“It's killing her faster, you mean.”
“Exactly.” Washu shook her head, suddenly feeling every bit of her twenty thousand years. “I don't know what this is going to do to her life expectancy. I'll have to run some projections once I know more. In the meantime, we ought to put her in bed and let her recover.”
Ayeka bit her lip. “When…will she recover?”
“I don't know.”
“Well, then FIND OUT!” Ayeka exploded. The withering gaze she received from Washu quickly dissipated her rage. “I'm sorry,” she said quickly. “This is…very hard.”
“Tell me about it,” Washu said more harshly than she'd meant to. “My turn to apologize. We're all under a great deal of stress right now, and it's only going to get worse.”
Ayeka was staring at Ryoko's body. “She's…not going to make it, is she?”
“Probably not, no.”
“I'm sorry, Washu.”
“So am I, Princess. So am I.”
* * * * *
Ryoko slowly opened her eyes and regarded the circle of concerned faces around her. “Who died? Me?”
“I’m afraid we weren't quite that lucky,” Ayeka replied.
“If you two are quite finished,” Washu interrupted, “I need to speak with Ryoko in private. Everybody out. Now.” She watched the rest of the household file out one by one, then turned back to her daughter. “How do you feel?”
“Like shit.” Ryoko closed her eyes. “Don't tell me. I blew it.”
“It wasn't your fault,” Washu said, sitting down at the edge of the bed. “You hurt yourself and panicked. If anyone's to blame for this, it's me.”
“Okay. It's all your fault, then.” Ryoko smiled weakly, then grew somber as the weak joke died. “So…what now?”
Washu closed her eyes and gathered her thoughts. “Now…things become difficult. You're going to require a lot more assistance. Things you could do yesterday aren't possible now. Someone will have to help you in and out of your chair, assuming you regain enough strength to manage it. Someone will have to bathe you. Someone will have to help you use the bathroom…”
“Washu!” Ryoko's eyes glittered angrily.
“Someone will have to help dress you,” the scientist droned on. “Someone will have to pick up things you drop. Someone will have to clean you up when you get dirty. Someone will have to pretty much be with you, or nearby, for the rest of your life.”
“Which is?” Ryoko snapped.
Washu bowed her head. “If we're lucky, another three months.”
Blood drained from Ryoko's face. “No.”
“That's a best case scenario.” Washu's eyes were still closed. “I'm sorry, daughter.”
“You're…sorry? Is that the best you can do? Damn you, Washu! Damn you to Hell! This is all your fault, damn it! You should have spotted this ages ago! You should have fixed it! You should have done something!” Tears filled Ryoko's eyes as her anger spilled over. “You're the greatest scientific genius in the galaxy? And you let Kagato do this to me and never saw it? Genius my ass!”
“I have tried everything I could possibly try,” Washu said tightly, her emerald eyes flashing. “What in the hell do you think I've been doing in my lab, Ryoko? I've spent every minute of every hour testing this, trying that, all in an attempt to find some way to beat this! And then you go and in one stupid, idiotic moment of childish panic manage to cut short any additional time I might have had to stop this!”
“Because YOU managed to screw up the power!”
“Because YOU weren't careful and hit your damned head!”
“Well, if you hadn't been IN there in the first place…”
Washu lunged forward, her face now inches in front of Ryoko's. The younger woman recoiled at her mother's rage. “I have been in there protecting you from a very painful, very ugly death. You have no idea what your body is going through, because I have been taking every bit of pain that goes through your nervous system and routing it into my mind, just to spare you. If it weren't for me, you would have died weeks ago in the midst of terminal epileptic fits!”
“Really? Here, then. Let me get back out of there for just one minute!” Ryoko felt Washu's mental presence withdraw…and suddenly, her entire universe unraveled, shattered beyond recognition from a tidal wave of pain that knew no beginning, no end, just an eternal presence. It was agony that no scream could adequately express. It was the stab of millions of icy needles jabbing deep down to the bone all at once, withdrawing, and striking again, over and over and over and over and over and…
“Ryoko!” Suddenly Washu was in her head again, and the tidal wave was slowly ebbing away, farther and farther with every heartbeat. Somewhere in middle of it all, Ryoko remembered to breathe, and slowly, carefully, she turned toward Washu, who sat there looking utterly horrified, tears trickling down her face as she whispered apologies and denials under her gasping breaths.
“Washu…” The word seemed to take an eternity to voice.
“Ryoko, I’m sorry. Forgive me. I lost my temper,” Washu begged. “Forgive me.”
“Leave.” The word fell like a dead weight between them.
Washu nodded and hurried out, still weeping, leaving Ryoko to deal with the blessed silence and the uneasy realization that the room around her was most likely the majority of her universe from now until the end.
* * * * *
Autumn arrived in the storm’s wake. The trees around the shrine exploded into glorious hues of red, yellow and brown. The wind now carried a slight chill, and sunset grew earlier with every passing day. The forest creatures scurried about frantically, building up stores for the approaching winter. Jackets and sweaters appeared in drawers and on hooks by the door. Cocoa replaced tea as the beverage of choice.
On one particular day, the late afternoon sky was a brilliant Technicolor masterpiece. Tenchi was sitting outside on the deck, trying desperately to capture the moment with his array of pastels. His eyes darted back and forth, from the sky to the paper on his lap. His hands reached for first this color, then another, quickly filling the white space on the page. As he worked, a growing sense of confidence welled up inside; this, he just knew, would be the breakthrough piece, the one that justified all the hard work up until now. This would be the one he could show to everyone with pride.
He heard Ryoko approach him from behind, but kept on working. She was completely dependent on the chair now, and knowing that hadn’t improved her mood one bit. She was surly, combative and sarcastic to everyone she encountered; the other day she’d actually made Sasami cry. Tenchi had forced the ailing woman to apologize, but not before he’d received a good dressing down as well. He wondered what he was in for now.
Ryoko pulled up beside him. She glanced down at his work in progress, then looked up at the subject material. After several moments of consideration, she rendered her decision: “It stinks, Tenchi.”
“Oh come on, it's not that bad,” he chuckled. Inwardly he cringed, sensing all his enthusiasm sinking into the blackness.
“Yes, it is.”
“My picture, or life in general?” Tenchi asked.
Tenchi glanced down at the piece, sighed, and nodded sadly. “I hate to say it, but you're right. You'd think after all this effort, I'd start showing some improvement.”
“No, no, I’m sorry,” Ryoko said quickly. “It's fine, Tenchi, really. Head and shoulders over the last one.”
“That was done this morning.”
“See? You're getting better every time.”
“Yeah, right.” Tenchi shut his sketchbook and sighed. “If it weren't for the fact that Ayeka bought all this stuff for me and keeps asking to see what I've done, I'd give this up in a heartbeat.”
Ryoko snorted softly. “Getting in practice for marriage, huh?”
“What's that supposed to mean, Ryoko?”
“Well, what do you think?” She smirked at him. “You're doing things you don't like because you want to make 'the little woman' happy. Ayeka will snap her fingers and you'll be right there, ready for your marching orders.” She glanced away. “Have a nice life, Tenchi.”
He almost fired back a stinging retort but caught himself. “What's wrong, Ryoko?”
“What's wrong?” She looked at him as if he'd suddenly grown horns. “What's wrong? Why Tenchi, whatever could be wrong? I mean, just look at me. The infamous space pirate Ryoko, stuck in a glorified wheelchair, a helpless cripple, slowly dying and getting to watch her rival snag the guy she loves in the bargain. Of course, I did get one helluva night with you—one night, period. No more, no less. Heaven forbid you do more with me than Ayeka would allow.” Ryoko took a deep breath. “What’s wrong, Tenchi? Why, nothing at all. You ask me, this is just a peachy-keen way for things to be. Don't you think so?”
“That’s…not fair, Ryoko,” Tenchi said, blushing. “Ayeka had nothing to do with…all that.”
“She didn’t? Then why haven’t you asked for another night with me, Tenchi? Was I that bad? Was it that lousy? For God’s sake, I’m a man’s dream come true—all I can do is just lie back, spread my legs, and take it! I think you’d be thrilled with that sort of opportunity!”
“It isn’t that!” he yelled back. “You aren’t up to…that sort of thing!”
“Who says?” Ryoko screamed. “You never asked! Who said I’m not?”
“Washu did—because I asked her!” Ryoko flinched; Tenchi shut his mouth and took several deep breaths to center himself before speaking again. “You can't give up, Ryoko. There's still time.” Tenchi stared out at the lake and the horizon beyond it. “We've beaten the odds before…”
“Oh, shove it, Tenchi. Grow up. Face facts. I'm going to die.”
“Washu is still looking for a cure…”
“And she's not finding one. And she's not going to find one. Will you get with it, Tenchi? Do you know how sick I've gotten of your ‘gung-ho’, ‘never give up’ bullshit? Do you know how stupid you sound? Do you have any idea? You are so deep in denial you're seeing pyramids. For God's sake, Tenchi, wise up and stop trying to motivate me. God, I'd rather you were like your father and just avoided me rather than play cheerleader. You make me sick.”
Tenchi looked down at his feet. “Dad’s…got a lot of work at the office right now.”
“Your dad is a coward who doesn’t have the balls to watch another woman die in his house.”
“That isn’t fair!” Tenchi suddenly rose to his feet, his cheeks blazing crimson and his eyes flashing with anger. “My father stayed with her to the very end! He did everything he could! You don’t have the right to judge him, Ryoko! You weren’t there!”
“Neither were you,” Ryoko pointed out. “He sent you here. And he kept you here afterwards because he didn’t have the guts to be a decent father, either!”
Tenchi’s arm was pulled back, ready to snap forward and slap her, but he somehow found some measure of control. “You leave my father out of this, Ryoko. You have a problem with me? Fine. If that's what you want, that's what I'll do, Ryoko. I won't…play cheerleader…any longer. I'll stay out of your way. Enjoy yourself.”
“Believe me, anything is better than listening to you,” Ryoko noted as Tenchi stormed back into the house. She refused to watch his departure, keeping her gaze squarely fixed instead on the shine on the hill. Once, it had been child's play to get there; she'd simply jumped into the air and let the winds carry her. Now, it sat a universe away.
Ryoko bit her lip and willed herself not to cry. It wasn't worth it. He wasn't worth it.
“Was that really necessary?” came a familiar voice from behind her.
“Go away, Yosho.”
He stood five steps away, his features impassive. He let the silence grow a few more moments before speaking again: “I’ve spoken with Ayeka. She and Tenchi are going to stay with Nobuyuki in the city for a week. Sasami is going to visit Taro's family.”
“I get it. Leave Ryoko to her own devices for a while. Let her see how damned helpless she’s become as she tries to clean up, dress, fix her own meals, all that stuff that used to be so easy. Then return, have a good laugh at her expense, and she’ll be so humiliated that she’ll be glad to let them walk all over her.”
“An interesting theory, but incorrect.” Yosho bent down to retrieve Tenchi’s discarded notebook. He thumbed through it slowly, studying the drawings with a critical eye. “Hmmm. He’s doing far better than he thinks. These show a great deal of promise.”
“So why are they leaving?” Ryoko demanded.
“To get away from the stress that has built up here in recent weeks. You need not worry, however. I will be taking care of you in their absence.”
Yosho nodded. “Me. Don’t be surprised, Ryoko. I tended to you for seven hundred years; a week or two is not that great a task.”
Ryoko snorted. “All you had to do back then was make sure I was asleep. It’s going to be a bit more complicated this time around, old man.”
“Then I shall embrace this as a new opportunity to learn.”
“Oh God,” Ryoko groaned. “I’m doomed.”
* * * * *
Day Two of Ryoko’s Captivity was no better. Dinner the night before had consisted of something called “Kentucky Fried Chicken”—it had been crunchy, greasy and altogether unpleasant, though Yosho had devoured four pieces. Ryoko had paid the price this morning for that awful meal; while she did penance in the bathroom, he apologized through the door and promised to get more traditional fare for the evening.
Ryoko could hardly wait to see what he considered ‘traditional fare’.
“Well,” Yosho said as he returned to the room, a game board under one arm. “What do you say to a match?”
“Sounds good. You feed me any more of that poison and I’ll use it to set you on fire. What is this?”
Having set the board down on the bed, he was now placing small figures on it in a very precise order. “This is a game of strategy called ‘chess’. I thought you might enjoy learning how to play it, since we have so much free time on our hands this week.”
Despite herself, Ryoko was rather fascinated with the little game pieces. “What’s this one called?” she asked, picking one up from the far corner.
“That is a rook, or castle.” Yosho went down the two rows, identifying each piece and its possible moves. “Now, the goal is to pin your opponent’s king down—that is called ‘checkmate’.”
“Sounds easy,” Ryoko said, frowning slightly as she tried to remember which piece did what.
“Oh, that’s what they all say at first,” Yosho chuckled. “Your move, Ryoko.”
* * * * *
They were engaged in yet another round of chess; Ryoko had discovered a surprising love of the game and its complex strategies over the past few days. Outside, night had fallen and a soft rain splattered against the windows, but Ryoko’s room was warm and brightly lit, the better to continue the latest in a long series of matches.
“What is it, Ryoko?” Yosho said. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and studied the board.
“What happens when you die?”
Yosho chuckled. “That is a question that has infinite answers, depending on whom you ask.” He moved his knight forward and over.
Ryoko scowled. “I’m serious.” Her golden eyes danced over the pieces, considering the possibilities.
“Well, among the major beliefs of this particular planet, many believe in the idea of a glorious afterlife or eternal torment. Others prefer the idea of reincarnation, where one returns to a new life so that he or she may purify the soul by living in a more holy way. There are all sorts of concepts beyond those.”
“Well, you’re a Shinto priest. What does that religion say?” Ryoko slowly pushed a pawn forward.
Yosho considered. “To be honest, Ryoko, Shinto doesn’t concern itself overmuch with death. Many Japanese believe in living Shinto and dying Buddhist.” He smiled slightly and rubbed his chin. “Nice move.”
“Thanks.” Ryoko leaned forward. “So…again…what do you believe happens when someone dies?”
“You’re not interested in what I believe,” Yosho noted calmly. He moved a bishop a few squares ahead. “You’re worried about what you believe might happen. Why don’t you tell me what you think?”
“I…” Ryoko hesitated, her fingers dangling just above her queen. “I’ve done a lot of bad things. You know. I’ve…killed. That’s not acceptable in any religion, is it?”
“No.” Yosho smiled slightly. “Though occasionally it’s…condoned, depending on the circumstances.”
“I’ve hurt people. I’ve destroyed things. I enjoyed doing it, even when he ordered me to.” Ryoko was trembling slightly; she moved her queen and took one of Yosho’s knights. “I’m…a little scared…about…” She sighed and buried her head in her hands. “I’m afraid that when I die, I’m going to go to Hell. Whatever that is.”
Yosho said nothing for a long time, merely stared intently at the board. At long last he slid a pawn forward. “Could Hell be any worse than life under Kagato’s control?”
“What if he’s there, waiting for me?” Ryoko shivered. “Yosho, I don’t want to die knowing that…” A tear slid down her cheek. “I don’t want to die.”
“Ryoko.” Yosho leaned forward and took her hand in his. “Have you ever wondered why I didn’t kill you when I had the chance?”
“A few times.” She looked away from the game. “I let you win, you know.”
Yosho nodded. “You were hoping I’d kill you. I could see it in your eyes. You were so desperate to get your freedom from him, you’d pay any price to gain it.” He smiled gently. “And that is why I didn’t kill you.”
Ryoko blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“Ryoko, when I looked into your eyes just after I’d taken your gems, I didn’t see the monster who’d just devastated my home and a hundred other worlds. I saw a soul in desperate torment—there was a human being inside you, someone who deserved a chance to break free of her past and her captor. That is why I spared you, why I put you in the cave and made you sleep for so long. Because it was what you needed at the time.” He nodded to the board. “It’s your move.”
“Sorry.” Ryoko moved a bishop to take Yosho’s pawn. “I hated it down there,” she said. “I’d wake up, and it was so cold and wet, so dark and oppressive…” A shudder rippled through her body. “Yosho. When I…die…don’t bury me down there. Please.”
He nodded. “What would you like to have done? As I understand it, cremation isn’t really an option with you, though it is very much the tradition here.” He moved his queen to take hers. “Check.”
“Damn.” Ryoko pondered the question and the situation. “What was that supposed to mean, anyway?”
Yosho chuckled. “Tenchi still has very vivid memories of you walking through flames when you first met.”
“Oh, yeah. That.” Ryoko smiled. “That was fun.”
“I imagine Washu designed you to be able to endure a wide range of extreme temperatures. There might not be a flame hot enough to do the trick.”
Ryoko sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I don’t know. I won’t be around to care, really. Do what you think is best. Just don’t put me in the cave, that’s all I ask.” She leaned back against her pillows. “You win. I don’t feel like playing any more.”
“It is getting late.” Yosho put the pieces back in the case and removed the board. “Go ahead and sleep, Ryoko. I’ll stay in here and read from my book of meditations.”
“I’m sorry,” Ryoko said quietly, closing her eyes. “I just…I get scared when I wake up all alone and in the dark. I keep thinking I’m back in the cave.” She sniffled slightly. “Silly, isn’t it? Big bad space pirate Ryoko, afraid of the dark.”
“Tenchi was afraid of the dark for a long time after his mother died,” Yosho said as he settled into the oversized chair by the windows. “Nobuyuki had to keep a light on in his room for a year or two. Oddly, though, he never had those problems when he stayed at the shrine.”
“Really?” Ryoko opened an eye. “You ever figure out why?”
“Yes. He told me once that the ‘beautiful angel at the cave’ was watching out for him.” Yosho chuckled softly. “So the next time you worry about the afterlife, remember that someone thought of you that way.”
“Huh.” She thought about the comment and put it in her heart to treasure. “I like that. ‘Beautiful angel’. That’s sweet…” She yawned and closed her eyes again. “Good night, Yosho. And thanks.”
“Good night, Ryoko. Sleep well.”
* * * * *
“Grandpa? Ryoko? We're back!” Tenchi pushed the front door all the way back and lugged Ayeka's suitcase into the main foyer. The place was still in one piece, which was an encouraging sign. It also looked like Grandpa had kept things picked up; then again, it was probably more likely that he simply hadn't moved anything around to begin with. The old man did have his peculiarities.
“It's so quiet,” Ayeka commented from behind him. “I'm not used to it.”
“Yeah.” In fact, it reminded Tenchi far too much of the days when it had been just himself and his father living there. He'd forgotten how terribly silent and lonely the place could be, and he was pretty sure he didn't want to go back to that time.
Yosho appeared just outside Ryoko's bedroom. “There you are. How was your trip?” He was carrying a tray that held the remains of a slightly-touched lunch.
“It was fine, Grandpa. How's Ryoko? Can we see her?”
“Of course you can.” Yosho nodded toward the bedroom. “She's watching television at the moment, but I'm sure she'd be glad to see you.”
“Great!” Tenchi all but raced through the bedroom door, but froze in his tracks the instant he saw Ryoko. She looked drawn, almost gaunt in what light the cloudy afternoon was providing. Her hair, once wild and vibrant, looked dull and matted-down. She was still in a nightgown, and her arms seemed to be much thinner than they had a week before. But most of all, what chilled Tenchi's heart was when Ryoko turned to look at him.
It was her eyes. Those sparkling, mischievous yellow eyes were now tired and defeated and dull.
“Tenchi.” She smiled faintly. “Look that bad, do I?”
“Uhhh…no! Not at all! You're fine, really!” He tried to grin brightly but it felt far too artificial. “I was just…surprised, that's all!” He heard a very audible gasp from over his shoulder and realized that Ayeka was just as shocked at Ryoko's appearance. “It's…good to see you, Ryoko! Really good!”
Ryoko studied her visitors for a minute or two, then shook her head. “You two have got to be the worst liars I have ever come across in my life.”
“Sorry.” Tenchi rubbed his neck sheepishly. “I just…wasn't expecting this.”
“It's okay. Hi, Ayeka.” Ryoko waved at the princess. “Have a good time?”
“It was all right.”
“Get in Tenchi's pants?”
“RYOKO!” Tenchi yelped; Ayeka simply stood there blushing furiously, but saying nothing.
“A lady,” she finally replied evenly, “doesn't tell.”
“So what's stopping you, Princess?”
“Very funny. Tenchi,” Ayeka said, turning toward him, “would you kindly take my bags upstairs? I'd like to talk to Ryoko alone for a while.”
“Uhhh…sure.” He hurried out of the room, hoping desperately that Ryoko wouldn't continue that particular line of questioning. While nothing had in fact happened, it had been a very close call a few times, and he'd rather keep that fact private for the time being. Tenchi was fairly sure Ayeka would keep her mouth shut under normal circumstances, but if she lost her temper all bets would be off.
Yosho was waiting for him in the foyer. “Tenchi.”
“Grandpa…” Tenchi looked down at his feet. “She looks really bad. What happened?”
“Nothing's happened, Tenchi. You're just really seeing it for the first time.” Yosho picked up one of Ayeka's suitcases and headed for the stairs; Tenchi grabbed the other one and his own, then followed. “We've had a fairly easy time of it. A few rough spots here and there, but generally she's been rather amicable.”
“I'm not sure if I like that or not.”
Yosho nodded. “It takes a great deal of effort and energy to fight, Tenchi. Ryoko does not have much of either right now.” He slid the door to Ayeka's room open and brought the suitcase inside. “The last two days, she's chosen to stay in the bed.”
“Grandpa…” Tenchi stood by the window and studied the gray afternoon sky. It was going to be a short autumn; a touch of winter was already teasing the air. “Grandpa, she's going to die, isn't she?”
“I'm afraid that's becoming more and more a certainty.”
“Damn.” Tenchi lowered his head and tried to keep the sudden rush of tears at bay. They'd been threatening to break free more often lately. “Damn.”
* * * * *
“Well,” Ayeka said as she sat down on the edge of the bed. “You certainly look like crap.”
“Thanks ever so much, Princess,” Ryoko half-scowled.
“I take it Brother Yosho chickened out when it came time for personal hygiene?”
“Are you kidding?” Ryoko said with a snort. “He couldn't wait. I told him to go to hell. No way was I letting that lecher touch me. I figured if I smelled bad enough you'd be gracious enough to bathe me instead. And please don’t use that word.”
“Chicken. Brings back bad memories, along with indigestion.”
“Sounds like an interesting week,” Ayeka commented. “You’ll have to tell me all about it later.”
“Okay.” Ryoko nodded. Then with a grin, she added. “So, did you get in Tenchi's pants?”
The blush on Ayeka's cheeks returned, perfectly complimenting her smile. “Not really, but I won't lie and tell you that absolutely nothing happened. You'd never believe me anyway.”
“Good.” Ryoko sighed and leaned back against her pillows. “It…bothered me. The whole thing about…you know.”
“It's all right, Ryoko.” Ayeka suddenly felt the conversation had become far too intimate and personal and quickly changed the subject. “So how was Brother Yosho as a caretaker?”
“Not too bad. The fast-food and takeout places loved him.”
Ryoko grinned. “When we didn't have instant soup and rice crackers, it was either Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, or something from the sushi delivery people. Would you believe he actually had a pizza delivered one night?”
“But none of that is nutritious!” Ayeka declared.
“No, but it was convenient.”
“My God,” the princess said quietly. “Seven hundred years on this planet, and he never learned to cook anything properly. No wonder he married so often. Washu must have wanted to kill him.”
Ryoko shook her head. “Haven't seen her for more than a few minutes here or there. No, wait. There was one afternoon she hooked me up to a bunch of electrodes and took some readings, but I've got no idea why.” A trace of sadness flickered in her eyes for just a moment. “Ayeka?”
“I’ve got…a favor to ask. It’s silly, I know, but…”
Ayeka sat down on the bed beside Ryoko. “Go ahead.”
Ryoko swallowed and took a deep breath. “You see…it’s okay during the day. People are constantly moving in and out and around, there’s a lot of noise, and there’s plenty of light. But at night, especially late at night…” She shivered slightly. “It’s dark and quiet. Even with a light on in here, I…get scared. I have nightmares that I’m back in the cave.” She shut her eyes tightly for a moment. “I hate it.”
Ayeka let her fingers fall atop Ryoko’s hand. “You’d like someone to stay in here with you at night, is that it?”
“Yeah.” Ryoko opened her eyes again. “I know it’s dumb, but…”
“We’ll take turns,” Ayeka assured her with a smile. “You won’t be left alone, I promise.”
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Some Time Later|