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|
Ryoko could not believe three weeks could pass so damned slowly. Days came and went with almost maddening slowness, and it was all she could do to keep from screaming with sheer frustration. There was so much time and so little at hand to fill it with.
She slept late into the morning. She spent an hour or two poring over the huge collection of books and manga in Nobuyuki's library, and on more than one occasion wondered if Tenchi really knew what his father kept in there. She helped the best she could with the chores, especially those that enabled her to sit down while working. She spent many an afternoon in the onsen, soaking in the warm waters and sipping at sake. She watched her soap operas. She sat with Tenchi, Mihoshi and Sasami in the evenings before calling it a day far earlier than she used to.
Ryoko chatted with Sasami as the young princess prepared the daily meals. She tried to conduct a decent conversation with Mihoshi a few times, to no avail. Tenchi took her to town for ice cream and other quick trips (she'd worked things out with Ryo-oh-ki to a point where no one could tell she was floating, not walking). She even tried to talk to Washu, but the scientist was rarely in a mood to do more than give curt answers and occasionally wince. Ryoko wondered if the stress was giving her mother headaches, but those questions usually resulted in “I'm fine, I'm busy, go on and find something else to do besides pestering your poor mother.”
She occasionally tried to start an argument, but Tenchi would just smile and shake his head, Sasami would giggle, and Mihoshi…well, there was no point in starting a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent. Though it killed her to admit it even privately…Ryoko missed Ayeka. A little. Sort of.
Every so often, though, something unexpected would happen, temporarily alleviating the tedium. There was, for example, the afternoon when Yosho had come down from the shrine and joined Mihoshi by the clothesline. Ryoko was sitting in a chair on the porch, sipping at some water and reading manga and completely oblivious, or so it appeared.
“Mihoshi,” Yosho began, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I was wondering how you were.”
“Oh, I'm fine,” Mihoshi assured him. “How are you?”
“I'm well.” Yosho looked around nervously and cleared his throat. Interesting, Ryoko thought. “I…noticed you haven't been up to the shrine lately. Some of my regular visitors commented on your absence as well.”
“Really?” Mihoshi continued pinning laundry on the line. “Well, you know how it is. With Ayeka still gone, I have to help out down here more.” She flashed a shy, beguiling smile at him. “Have you missed me?”
“I…yes, I have,” Yosho said, a slight stammer in his voice. “You…brighten the shrine when you're there, Mihoshi. People have commented on how friendly you are to them.”
“Gee, that's sweet of you, Yosho!” Mihoshi reddened slightly as she giggled. “Well, maybe I could come up a bit more, if you really miss me that much.” Her gaze suddenly turned sly. “I didn't think an 'old man' would be that interested, that he'd come down from his shrine just to see if I was okay.”
“You're not an old man, though, are you?” Before he could reply, she was bouncing merrily up the steps back into the house. Yosho stood there, watching her go with his mouth slightly agape, then he realized Ryoko was watching. He glared at the amused woman. “Do you have something to say?” he asked gruffly.
“Yeah. You're doomed.” Ryoko chuckled. “She's on to you, Yosho. You'd better give in.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” the priest grumbled as he headed back to his shrine, Ryoko's laughter ringing in his burning ears.
* * * * *
Ryoko was lounging in the onsen with a magazine and bottle of sake one afternoon when a large shadow passed overhead. Glancing up to see what was disturbing her personal time, she was stunned to see a long, sleek ship, unquestionably of Juraian design, hovering overhead. It didn't look like anything she'd ever encountered in her travels.
A very familiar voice came booming from the craft: “ATTENTION, SPACE PIRATE RYOKO. I KNOW YOU'RE THERE, YOU DEMON WOMAN, AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW YOU AREN'T GETTING AWAY THIS TIME. MY SHIP IS FAR FASTER THAN THAT TIRED LITTLE CABBIT YOU USE.”
A grin spread slowly across Ryoko's features. “Ayeka.”
''OF COURSE, KNOWING YOU, YOU'LL NO DOUBT TRY TO ESCAPE. UNLESS YOU'RE…WHAT'S THE TERM THEY USE?…OH YES. 'CHICKEN'. YOU CERTAINLY WOULDN'T WANT TENCHI TO THINK THAT, WOULD YOU? NO MATTER HOW TRUE IT MIGHT BE.”
“Keep talking, Princess,” Ryoko muttered, still grinning as she slowly worked her way out of the pool and mentally summoned Ryo-oh-ki.
“SO LET'S MAKE THIS SPORTING, SO I CAN PROVE TO TENCHI ONCE AND FOR ALL WHO THE BETTER WOMAN IS. YOU GET YOUR SILLY LITTLE CARROT-EATER, AND WE'LL HAVE A RACE--ONE LAP, HERE TO PLUTO AND BACK. WINNER TAKE ALL. WHAT DO YOU SAY?”
“Oh, honey, you are ON…” At her command, Ryo-oh-ki leaped into the air and transformed into her spaceship form, howling with joy at finally getting to have some fun. Ryoko slipped her clothing on--she missed being able to generate it at will--and asked Ryo-oh-ki to take her up. Seconds later she was sitting in her command chair, licking her lips and rubbing her hands with glee.
“All right, Princess. Whenever you're ready…to lose, that is,” she called to the Juraian ship.
Ayeka's image popped up on the com-screen. “On the count of three, then…you do know how to count to three, don't you?”
“Ho, ho, ho. Prepare to get blown away, little girl.” Ryoko gave the order, and Ryo-oh-ki shot heavenward. Moments later they'd left Earth behind and were en route to Pluto, top speed. To her shock, however, Ayeka's ship was right behind and gaining fast. “Wow,” Ryoko whistled. “Daddy must have opened the purse strings for this one.”
The two ships roared neck-and-neck past Saturn. Ryoko's smile had grown into an almost feral snarl. “Go, Ryo-oh-ki!” she bellowed, urging her on. “Show her what you've got!”
“Ryu-Oh,” Ayeka said from the bridge of her craft. “Floor it.” The Juraian ship edged ahead for a heartbeat, then Ryo-oh-ki caught up.
Meanwhile, Mihoshi was just finishing her periodic report when Yukinojo reported two ships were violating the speed limits established for this zone. “The first ship is unidentified, but apparently Juraian in design,” he stated crisply. “The other is…oh dear.”
“What?” Mihoshi cried, staring at the radar screen that showed the two craft zooming past her position.
“Mihoshi, the other ship is Ryo-oh-ki.”
“Oh boy! Ayeka must be back!”
“Mihoshi, they are both in violation of several speed statutes.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Mihoshi watched the two icons loop around Pluto and start their return journey. “Well, that's okay, Yukinojo. They're just having fun.”
“And besides, I can give them the tickets at dinner!”
* * * * *
They sat on the back porch after the evening meal, taking in the incredible Technicolor sunset and feeling pretty well satisfied with life for the moment. “Nice race,” Ryoko finally offered.
“Yes, it was,” Ayeka agreed. She sipped at a cup of tea. “Who did win, anyway?”
“I'm not sure. Let's call it a draw. Maybe we can have a rematch once Ryo-oh-ki recovers.” The cabbit was sound asleep on Ryoko's lap, snoring softly.
“That would be fun,” Ayeka said, nodding. “Remind me, though,” she added, “to sedate Mihoshi beforehand. As if I was going to pay those tickets.” She snorted at the thought.
“They certainly burned up quickly,” Ryoko noted.
“Fire will do that.”
“That it will.” Ryoko watched the sun make its final descent; the stars were just beginning to come out above. “I didn't miss you one bit, you know.”
“Really?” Ayeka hid a smile. “Well, I certainly didn't give you more than a very occasional passing thought, myself.”
“Occasional? Princess, I didn't know you cared.”
“It was very occasional.”
Ryoko laughed. “Okay, okay. I might have missed having you around. But just a bit. There was no one to argue or fight with.”
“It must have been traumatic for you,” Ayeka said solemnly, then broke into a laugh. “It's good to be back, though.” She fell silent for a moment, then cleared her throat. “I wanted to apologize for what happened that one day, when Mother showed up,” she began.
“No,” Ryoko said, shaking her head. “I shouldn't have hit you like that.”
“You had every right to.” Ayeka lowered her head. “Ryoko…I can't promise that I won't fuss and bother you in the future. We both know better.” She smiled slightly. “But…when I do offer to help and you say no, I'll try to respect that.”
“I appreciate that.” Ryoko closed her eyes. “It was so beautiful up there today…I felt so alive and free. Sometimes I wish I could just stay out there forever.” A sigh escaped through her lips. “But I open my eyes and here I am.”
“Yeah, aren't we all?” Ryoko shook her head and smiled ruefully. “Don't you think you ought to see Tenchi now?”
Ayeka prayed that her blush couldn't be seen in the growing darkness. “I'm sorry?”
“Tenchi. You remember? The guy we were fighting over.” Ryoko chuckled. “Don't play dumb with me, Princess. I'm sick, not blind.”
“I…thought you'd have already captured his heart, lock and key,” Ayeka said, trying to joke.
“Ayeka, the two of you were putting out pheromones all through dinner,” Ryoko laughed. “It's okay, really. God knows there's no future between Tenchi and me, so you might as well be the one to make him happy.” She slowly rose to her feet, disturbing Ryo-oh-ki’s slumber. The cabbit meowed in protest, glaring at her mistress momentarily before claiming the warm spot where Ryoko had been sitting.
Ryoko regarded Ayeka intently. “If I can't be his, I'd rather you be the one than anyone else. I mean that.”
“Go on. I'm sure he's waiting somewhere out there for you.” Ryoko made a lazy wave out toward the lake. “I'm going inside and watching television with Sasami. And if we're really lucky tonight, Washu might come out and grouch at us.”
“What's wrong with Washu?”
“Who knows? She's holed up in her lab like a hermit crab, and when she does come out on those rare occasions, she looks like someone's hitting her head with a brick.” Ryoko yawned and stretched. “Good night, Princess.”
“Good night, Ryoko,” Ayeka said, not moving from where she was sitting until she was quite sure the other woman was inside and settled in.
Then she went off in search of Tenchi.
* * * * *
Sasami was performing her daily ritual of gathering everyone for lunch when she came across Ryoko in an unusual place. She was inside the bedroom they’d created for her benefit, sitting on the edge of the bed and running her fingers along the never-used comforter. Her expression was thoughtful as she traced the rose patterns on the cloth surface.
Ryoko jumped slightly at the young girl’s voice. “Sasami? Oh, I was just…thinking, that’s all.” With an effort she lifted herself from the bed and steadied herself. “What’s for lunch? I’m starved.”
“Lunch?” Washu’s voice roared through the doorway. “Who could possibly think of lunch when she could behold my latest and most incredible invention to date?” The petite scientist appeared seconds later, almost manic in her greeting. “Well? Are you going to just stand there, or are you going to come see?”
“All right,” Ryoko said tiredly. “Just give me a minute, okay? I don’t get around as well as I used to—as you’d know if you bothered to come out of your lab every so often.” She closed her eyes and concentrated, summoning Ryo-oh-ki to her side.
“You can’t keep that up forever,” Washu said, her eyes narrowing slightly. “That takes a great deal out of her, and you’re asking for her help more and more every day.”
“Ryo-oh-ki doesn’t mind,” Ryoko snapped as the cabbit appeared through the far wall; she meowed in greeting and jumped on her mistress’ shoulder. Ryoko’s body rose about an inch off the floor, and together they drifted out of the bedroom to see Washu’s new toy.
It sat in the center of the living room, a mixture of rich Corinthian leather and metallic pieces painted bright red. Control panels were embedded in each armrest, and the seat appeared to be quite well cushioned. No wheels could be seen; instead, it hovered a few inches above the floor, much as Ryoko was at the moment.
“Great,” Ryoko said after a moment. “The ultimate high-tech Lazy Boy. I’m thrilled, Washu.”
“A high-tech…” Extreme annoyance flashed in Washu’s angry green eyes. “This, my dear little Ryoko, is in fact a beyond-state-of-the-art hoverchair, designed for maximum efficiency and comfort. It can be operated either via the arm-rest controls or through direct cybernetic commands—it’s been programmed to respond to your brainwave patterns. It’s silent, it’s efficient, it’s environmentally safe…and it’s for you.” She motioned for Ryoko to sit down in the contraption.
“You have got to be kidding,” Ryoko replied.
“Can I sit in it?” Sasami asked eagerly. “It looks really cool!”
“Go right ahead, Sasami,” Washu said tightly, her eyes never wavering from Ryoko’s. The young princess climbed eagerly aboard, putting the chair through some basic maneuvers and giggling as she made it spin and rock. Caught up in the excitement, Ryo-oh-ki leaped from Ryoko’s shoulder to join her friend.
Ryoko fell to the floor like a sandbag.
Ayeka had been descending the staircase; she froze in mid-step, a hand to her mouth as she watched Ryoko struggle to sit up. Sasami’s face was white as snow as she quickly stopped the chair and hurried over to the fallen woman. Ryo-oh-ki was already there, her eyes wide as she trembled and begged forgiveness in her strange tongue. Washu remained where she was, wincing slightly but saying nothing.
Ryoko finally righted herself. She looked around at the spectators and sighed. “My turn,” she said, reaching toward the chair. To the surprise of all but one of them, it ly moved silently over to her side. With Ayeka and Sasami’s assistance, Ryoko was quickly and properly seated. She had to admit, it was pretty darned comfortable. Glancing down at the controls, she pressed a button at random and gasped as a foot massager hummed into life.
“Wow,” she breathed, savoring the feel of the vibrations against the soles of her feet. “I could get used to this really quick. Thanks, Washu!”
“You’re welcome,” the scientist replied.
“What else does it do?” Ryoko asked eagerly.
“Well…” Washu paused, swaying for just a moment before recovering. “It’s connected to my computer servers, so you can call up a version of my laptop and surf the Internet. It can reach about twenty miles an hour, but I wouldn’t push it too far. It has retractable headlights, a CD/DVD and eight-track player…”
Washu glared at her daughter. “I like eight-track, thank you very much.”
“Anyway, it’s got a special heating system for the cold weather, a pair of drink holders, stereo speakers, a cellular phone option, and whatever else I could think of at the time.”
Ryoko nodded, impressed. “Anything it can’t do?”
Washu nodded. “Stairs.”
“But…” Ryoko shook her head. “My bedroom’s upstairs…”
Washu motioned to the unused bedroom. “There’s always that one, little Ryoko. Time to stop being obstinate and accept your limitations.”
“I’ll…think about it,” Ryoko conceded reluctantly.
“Miss Washu,” Ayeka said, “this is certainly an incredible device you’ve developed. But…don’t you think it’s a bit too futuristic to be seen in public, such as in town? Won’t people talk?”
“Are you kidding?” Washu laughed. “This is Japan. People will just figure it’s the next thing from Sony. But, if it bothers you,” she added, “there’s also a ‘mirage’ feature that will send a signal to strangers’ optical nerves. They’ll see a plain old wheelchair.”
“Washu, I’ve got to admit, you really outdid yourself this time,” Ryoko said. “Thanks.”
“You’re…welcome,” the scientist said. Her mouth clamped tightly shut, and her fist clenched spasmodically. “If you’ll…excuse me…I’ve got a headache…”
She was back in her lab before anyone could respond.
* * * * *
The throbbing in Washu's head started diminishing the instant the door to her lab shut. She stood still for several minutes, taking deep breaths and performing a few handy mental discipline rituals to shove the pain deep in the back of her mind. She couldn't let it distract her. Ryoko's life was at stake.
Once she'd regained her mental equilibrium, Washu hurried over to her main workbench. She'd been experimenting with an amino-acid compound, trying to unlock Kagato's virus from a different angle. Sighing, she took a long look through the spectroscope results--nothing. Another failure, the latest one in a long line. She typed a few notes into her computer and went on to the next test.
Given that Kagato's bioelectric frequency had kept the thing from activating in the first place, it logically stood to reason that, if Washu were able to duplicate that signal, the virus might shut down, resulting in an indefinite stay of execution that would give her enough time to eventually eradicate it. Unfortunately, the bastard's death had complicated things. Washu was contemplating a time travel trip to either get a few scans or simply snatch Kagato and keep him under lock and key, laws of time and space be damned. The latter had a certain appeal, she had to admit; Washu was dying to administer five thousand years of payback.
It would take a lot of time and resource allocation to build the time machine, though, and Washu just wasn't confident that it would work out. She kept the scheme on the back burner, though, and every now and then she'd take a few hours off to tinker with a prototype. It helped keep her mind off the situation…and the pain.
Washu gasped as a sliver of agony slipped past her barriers and stabbed into her brain. She had to keep working. Food could wait. Sleep could wait. Priorities.
Time was the enemy.
* * * * *
After dinner, Ryoko watched television with Sasami, Ayeka and Tenchi. One by one, they made their good nights and headed upstairs. When the television stopped being interesting, she thumbed through a few magazines, then painstakingly worked herself into the damned chair and headed to the kitchen for a snack. She wandered outside and stared out at the still lake; the moon's reflection upon the water seemed to make a path to the horizon, calling to her to follow.
She shook her head and sighed audibly, then headed back inside and made her way to the first floor bedroom. Someone had thoughtfully turned the bed covers back. It had probably been Ayeka; it was certainly the kind of thing she’d do. Thankfully, there was no mint on the pillow. Ryoko stared at the inviting confines for some time, then turned away. Her gaze fell upon the calendar hanging on the wall. “Wrong month,” she muttered to herself, ripping the old pages off until it was up to date.
Her eyes drifted back to the bed.
With a grunt of effort Ryoko extricated herself from the chair and managed to end up on the mattress without falling. She suddenly realized that getting undressed was going to require some help, but decided to just sleep in what she was wearing. There just didn't seem to be any point in making a fuss about it.
Ryoko tucked her legs under the covers and pulled the sheets up around her chest. Only then did she look up at the ceiling for the very first time. A soft gasp flew from her lips as the night sky danced above her.
Nobuyuki, knowing whom the room would be for, had designed the biggest skylight ever seen. It was almost like being on the roof again.
“Thank you,” Ryoko whispered to the darkness, and lay there awake for some time, staring up into the night.
* * * * *
Mihoshi took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and stepped out the airlock. A second or so later, her feet sent a small cloud of dust into the air as they met the ground. She sneezed and waved the tiny gray fog out of her face, then moved carefully forward, eyes narrowed and determined.
“Can you hear me, Yukinojo?” she called.
“I certainly can, Mihoshi. Loud and clear.” The sentient computer had calculated a 99.457 percentage probability that this desolate asteroid in sector 2814 was in fact one of Kagato's deserted hideaways; probabilities weren't facts, though, so it had to be checked out. Of course, the Galaxy Police wouldn't be happy about Mihoshi leaving her post on personal business, so Yukinojo had been forced to do some judicious fudging in the ship's log to cover their tracks.
“You must be careful, Mihoshi,” the computer reminded his mistress. “Kagato was very canny. If this is one of his headquarters, it's certainly likely to be booby-trapped.”
“Oh, don't you worry,” the lovely detective replied. “I'm on the case!” As she spoke, her foot drifted through the beam of an infra-red sensor…and all hell broke loose.
Explosion after explosion roared all around her. Mihoshi screamed and leaped into the air, neatly avoiding instant incineration as an array of flamethrowers fired at the point where she'd been standing. She landed on a pile of debris that promptly collapsed, sending her flying heavenward again. Her screams could barely be heard over the cacophony going on all around her.
Yukinojo activated the ship defensive mechanisms and pushed all external sensors to their maximum range. “Mihoshi!” he called urgently through the chaos taking place outside. “Mihoshi! Are you all right? Answer me! Mihoshi?” But there was no reply to be heard as the walls and ceiling descended to the ground with a mighty crash.
Silence fell over the ruins. Yukinojo struggled to penetrate the dense dust cloud that had risen. “Mihoshi, please answer me!” he called, sounding almost frantic. “Mihoshi!”
And then came the sweetest sound the computer had ever heard: “Owie.”
“Mihoshi? Are you there? Please reply!”
“Yukinojo?” He heard a distinctive sneeze or three over the comlink and would have sighed in relief if he'd had the capability. “Uhh, yeah. I'm fine. Really. Wow. What a mess, huh?”
“Are you hurt, Mihoshi?”
“Uhh, no. I ended up under a console.” There was a long pause; Yukinojo heard his mistress grunting and straining, probably trying to get out of her haven. “Hey, guess what? This is the main computer console, and I think it's still working!”
“Are you sure, Mihoshi?”
“Well, all the little lights are blinking…it must have turned itself on somehow.”
“Very well. Please find the external data outlet and plug my data feed retriever into it, then return to the ship immediately.”
“Will do! Uhh…How’s that?”
Wave upon wave of data assaulted Yukinojo's input port. He set up a buffer queue to store it for virus scanning and data quality checking, then returned his attention to his mistress. “Well done, Mihoshi. You can return to the ship now.”
“Will do. Umm…just where is the ship, Yukinojo?”
* * * * *
In what had become an almost daily ritual, Ryoko was once again waiting for Tenchi halfway between the fields and the house. This time, however, she was using the hoverchair instead of Ryo-oh-ki. She waved cheerfully at him as he approached, straining slightly under the weight of the harvested carrots.
“Looks like quite a crop,” Ryoko remarked. She was toying with the edges of her vest, her hands nervously twisting and turning them about. “I know one cabbit who's going to feast quite well this winter.”
“Assuming, of course, she doesn't eat it all at once,” Tenchi laughed. He waited for Ryoko to slip her arm around his, then resumed his pace, letting her drift alongside him. “So, how are things now that Ayeka's back?”
“Better, but still too dull,” she replied, her voice a little higher-sounding than normal. “Would you believe she refuses to argue with me?” Ryoko rolled her eyes. “She just gives me this indulgent smile and moves on with whatever she's doing. I swear, I liked her better before she went back to Jurai.” A high-pitched giggle slipped past her lips, which she quickly extinguished.
“Oh, I'm sure this is just a brief lull,” Tenchi assured her. “Sooner or later one of you will set the other off.”
“Well, I hope so. She keeps this up and I may start actually liking her a little. Did you know she's teaching me needlepoint?” Ryoko fell silent for a while, trying to control her pounding heart. Her mouth felt as dry as the desert, and she couldn’t completely control the trembling that shot through her every so often. She prayed quietly that he hadn’t noticed her nervousness, then took a deep breath and steeled herself. “Tenchi?”
“Would you make love to me?”
“WHAT?” Tenchi came to a dead stop and turned to face her. “Ryoko,” he stammered. “I…I mean…”
“Look,” she said as reasonably as her shaking voice would allow. “I'm relatively healthy right now, but pretty soon I'm going to be in a lot worse shape. I'm probably going to die. Tenchi…” Her eyes grew wide and pleading, tearing slightly. “I don't want to die never knowing…I want…”
He stared into those hypnotic yellow eyes for a long time, then smiled slightly. “Ryoko…I…” He turned slightly crimson. “It's just that…well, I've never…done that. I might not be…any good…”
“Tenchi,” she said softly. “To be in your arms, to feel you against me, touching me, loving me…that's more than enough for me. I don't care about technique or ability. I want to love you, just once. I don't care what Ayeka might say or think, or Mihoshi, or Washu, or anyone. All I'm asking is for one time, one night.” She looked into his eyes. “I know you love me, Tenchi. I've always known it. And you know I love you. Please?”
He stood there for long minutes, staring into her face, feeling the warmth of her body against his. Tenchi felt the blush on his skin deepen, and prayed for the right words to say. “Ryoko,” he finally said, “can I…I really need to think about this.”
Her face fell. “Don't worry about it,” she said too quickly, turning away from him. “It…it was a stupid thing to say. I was just kidding, Tenchi. Don't give it another thought.”
“Ryoko.” His hand moved to touch her cheek, gently guiding her face back to his. “It wasn't stupid.” He smiled slightly. “It's just…I mean, this is a big step. For both of us. It's not something I'd ever do on a whim. It isn't…that I don't want to. Please understand that. I just…”
“You just want to talk to Ayeka about it,” Ryoko said with more bitterness in her tones than she'd meant to allow to show. “Get her approval.”
Tenchi hesitated. “Ayeka is a part of this,” he finally said. “It wouldn't be right to do this and hide it from her.”
“Any more than you two have trying to hide your little games from me?” Ryoko laughed harshly. “God, Tenchi, how stupid do you think I am? You two leave separately for a few hours, you come back radiating enough pheromones to stop an army. You share those little looks and start blushing and smiling. I'd be surprised if you two haven't slept together, or come close.” She pulled her arm free and ordered her chair forward, partly out of anger but mostly so that he wouldn't see her crying. “I can't blame you for wanting her. God knows I won't be around much longer.”
“Ryoko!” How Tenchi had managed to get ahead of her, she wasn't sure, but he was leaning forward, palms pressed against the chair to slow its forward momentum. “Ryoko,” he repeated, more quietly this time, but his eyes were blazing. “Yes, I care for Ayeka, and yes, things have gone past 'just friends' with her. But that's all. And what you said…”
“…is true, and you know it.”
Tenchi shook his head in exasperation. “Look, I didn't say 'no'! I said I wanted to think about it, okay? Is that asking so much, especially since you've obviously been planning this for a while? If we do this, I want it to be right. I want it to be…special.” He sighed heavily. “Please, Ryoko. This is something important. It changes things. Give me a little time. That's all I'm asking.”
Ryoko looked into those deep eyes of his and felt her heart twinge. She couldn't refuse him. She never could. “All right,” she finally said, nodding. “I'm sorry about what I said, too,” she added.
“It's okay.” Tenchi motioned for her to resume their trip back home. “No one's expecting you to be 'Saint Ryoko', y'know.”
“Has a nice ring to it, though.”
* * * * *
Ayeka was standing at the lakeshore that evening, apparently staring out at the sunset. Ryoko was hesitant to disturb her, especially if Tenchi had had that 'little discussion' with her, but directed her chair over to the princess anyway. If there was going to be a battle, best to get it over with--but for some odd reason, Ryoko wasn't looking forward to it, this time.
Ayeka's eyes were closed, a gentle smile on her lips. A moment later, the reason for her expression was made clear as Ryu-Oh emerged from subspace. “Hello, you little fuss,” she said quietly. Ryoko cleared her throat; Ayeka gasped and turned toward her. “Oh--you startled me,” she said with a slight laugh.
“Sorry.” Ryoko tried to smile, but it looked painfully forced. “Ayeka…can we talk?”
“Well, I was going to take Ryu-Oh out for a little exercise, but if you'd like to come, I wouldn't mind the company.” When Ryoko nodded agreement, Ayeka brought them aboard the ship and sent the craft heavenward.
For a long time neither of them said anything; Ayeka was in silent communion with her tree, while Ryoko was content to stare at the stars and savor the moment. So rapt was she that it took her a few minutes to realize the princess was watching her expectantly. “Sorry.”
“You wanted to talk about…something,” Ayeka said, her tone implying she knew quite well what the subject would be.
“Yeah.” Ryoko looked down at her hands. “I guess Tenchi talked to you.”
“Yes, he did.”
Ayeka shrugged. “What am I supposed to say, Ryoko? 'Go on, have a great time'? 'Don't you dare, or I'll hate you forever'?” She shook her head. “It's not like I have any claim on Tenchi’s affections, you know.”
“Bull,” Ryoko snapped.
“A few kisses and embraces every so often do not constitute possession,” Ayeka retorted. “If Tenchi chooses to do this, so be it. I won't stop him.”
“You say the word, and it won't happen,” Ryoko declared angrily. “Whether you think so or not, you're a part of this. Yeah, I want this; I want it more than you know. But if it's going to hurt you, then it won't happen. End of story.”
“Oh, come on Ryoko. You -knew- it would hurt me,” Ayeka shot back. “I'd be lying if I said it didn't. And since when have you ever cared about hurting me?”
“I care!” Ryoko yelled. “I wouldn't be here if I didn't care! I'd be in Tenchi's arms right now, laughing about how I finally got one up on you!”
“Well then, what's stopping you?” Ayeka demanded.
“Because you're my friend!” Ryoko cried out without thinking.
The conversation stopped instantly; the two women stared at one another incredulously. “Did…did you really mean that?” Ayeka asked softly.
Ryoko thought about it. “I guess I do,” she finally said. “Yeah. I do. You're my friend. Aren't you?”
A smile slowly grew on Ayeka's face. “Yes, I think so. I am. Imagine that.” She chuckled quietly. “I suppose the next thing that will happen now is we'll find Mihoshi giving Washu advice on scientific matters, hmm?”
Ryoko couldn't help but grin back. “Well, if we can agree to be friends, who knows what's possible? Maybe Washu will find a cure for this after all, you know?”
“You can't give up hope.”
“I haven't…not completely,” Ryoko said, her expression growing somber again. “But every day, it gets a little harder to keep it up.”
“I know.” Ayeka sighed. “All right, Ryoko. You want my blessing? You have it, for all that it matters. I told Tenchi the same thing, and then I sent him up to the shrine to talk with Yosho about it.”
“Yosho?” Ryoko asked, confused.
“Tenchi needs the advice of an older, experienced man so that he can gain an understanding of the right way to go about things.”
“He does have a father, you know.”
Ayeka stared at Ryoko, incredulous. “Do you really think, after that afternoon we spent in his 'library', that I'd allow Tenchi to get advice from Nobuyuki?”
Ryoko hesitated a moment or two, and then began to chuckle. “Oh my god, you're right…” Ayeka's high-pitched giggle kicked in, and within thirty seconds the two of them were helpless with laughter.
“God, we're terrible…” Ryoko said, gasping for breath.
“You know what's worse?” Ayeka wheezed.
“We're fighting over Tenchi again, but this time we're trying to get the other to claim him!” That set off another round of hysteria, this one lasting far longer than the other, until they were utterly exhausted. Ayeka fell back into a chair, still giggling; Ryoko's eyes were closed, her mouth twitching.
“Boy, this is weird,” she finally commented.
“It certainly is.” Ayeka sighed and closed her eyes. “Ryoko…if you're going to do this, it's going to require some advance planning. Would you like some assistance?”
Ryoko opened one eye. “So not only are you giving me Tenchi for a night, you're going to participate in how I'm going to go about it?”
“If you want something done right…”
“Okay. I…could use some help.” Ryoko leaned back in her chair and activated the 'heat massage' feature. It felt heavenly on her back. “Ayeka…one other thing. I…don't really know…how…either.”
“Don't look at me,” Ayeka laughed. “Why don't you ask Washu?”
Ryoko sighed. “She handed me a pile of books, told me to read them and if I had any questions, to come back and see her.”
Ayeka smiled and shook her head. “Fascinating. That's the exact same thing my mother did when I came of age.”
* * * * *
Washu stared at the steady data stream pouring down her display screen. “Where,” she said slowly and almost evenly, “did you get this, Mihoshi?”
“Ummm, gee,” the detective said. “Well, I guess I just kind of stumbled onto one of Kagato's old labs while I was on patrol, you know, Washu?”
“You…just kind of…stumbled.” Washu slowly turned around to face Mihoshi. “While on patrol in the Solar System….you…just kind of stumbled…onto one of Kagato's secret outposts. Despite the fact that I've checked every planet several times and never once found any trace of his work on any of them.”
Mihoshi shrugged. “Well, what can I say? I got lucky, I guess!”
* * * * *
“Tenchi…” He paused in his work in the carrot fields and looked up to find Ayeka waving at him from beneath the shade of his usual lunch break tree. Smiling, Tenchi set his hoe down and trotted over to her side. To his surprise, though, the princess neatly eluded his attempted embrace.
“Ayeka?” he said, confused.
“We need to talk about you and Ryoko,” she said firmly.
“Oh.” He smiled uneasily and rubbed his neck. “Ayeka, if you don't want me to do this, I won't…”
“On the contrary, you will. Thursday night, to be precise. I would suggest you get a bath in the early afternoon and take a nap afterwards, as Ryoko will be doing the exact opposite. That way you'll both be refreshed for the evening.”
“Wait. Are you telling me…you're ARRANGING this?”
“You're…arranging…this…thing…between Ryoko and me?”
“That's correct, Tenchi.”
“And you've got it…scheduled? On a list?”
“Mother Funaho always said it was important to plan ahead and write things down.”
Tenchi sank to the ground, dazed. “I don't believe this.”
“This isn't something that can happen spontaneously, Tenchi. Not with Ryoko's...problems. I offered my assistance as her…friend…and she accepted.”
“But, Ayeka…” Tenchi looked up at her. “Isn't this kind of hard on you?”
“Ayeka…” He rose to his feet, trying to take her in his arms. But the princess raised one hand and pressed it gently against his chest to halt his progress. “Ayeka?”
“Tenchi…” She looked away from his eyes. “I think you know how I feel about you. But…this is not the right time. She needs your full attention. If we were to continue with our…encounters, it would only divide your heart further. I won't do that to my…friend. So for now…I think it best that we…stop.”
She pressed two fingers against his lips. “Tenchi, you have no idea how it grieves me to do this. But I won't come between you and Ryoko. I can't do that to my friend.”
“Even if it hurts me as well?” he blurted out.
She nodded. “Even if.”
Tenchi's expression was sweetly sorrowful. “I wish…I wish it could be all three of us, together,” he said sadly.
“I wish that too, Tenchi. But right now, wishes don't seem to be coming true too often.” She pulled away slowly. “I have to get back to the house and finish the chores. We'll see you later.”
Tenchi watched her diminish in the distance, then called out: “Ayeka?” She paused but did not turn back. Frustrated, heart aching, he thought of a hundred things to say to her, but all that came out was, “I still love you.”
She nodded, waved, and continued on her way.
* * * * *
Prior to her little sister's birth, Ayeka had been the sole pride and joy of her mother and father. Upon Sasami's arrival, though, parental attention had shifted to the baby as a matter of necessity. Fortunately for the older princess, Azusa's second wife, Funaho, had been more than willing to take the girl under her protective wing. And as she watched Ayeka work over the next few days, Ryoko could not help but notice that the princess had learned a great deal from her second mother.
“All right. Let me see.” Ayeka consulted her checklist. “The music's been selected and the timer's been set for it to play. The candles can be lit just before I leave. You've had your nap, gotten your bath…” She looked up. “Sasami, how are her nails going?”
“Really good!” Sasami looked up from Ryoko's left foot and grinned. “I should be done in just a few minutes!”
Ryoko glowered at the princesses. “You two are just having entirely too much fun.”
“Aw, Ryoko, this IS fun! It's like playing with a really big doll!” Sasami giggled.
“Once you're done and they've dried, we can slip her nightgown and robe on,” Ayeka nodded. “Then we can dab on a bit of perfume, roll out the futon, and you should have just enough time for a little snack before Tenchi arrives, Ryoko.”
“Doesn't this…bother you?” Ryoko demanded. “Even a little? Geez, Ayeka, you'd think you were the one getting laid tonight!”
“I assure you I'm positively seething with jealousy inside,” Ayeka responded. She looked up from her list and gathered up the silk robe and nightgown set she'd bought for Ryoko a few days ago. Their midnight blue hues were a perfect counterpoint to Ryoko's hair. “Here. Time to get dressed.”
“You had better not have the rest of the night timed out,” Ryoko warned.
“Once Tenchi arrives, my dear, you are on your own.”
Sasami was rolling the large futon into position. “Oh, it's got a cherry blossom pattern!” she cried.
Ryoko turned toward Ayeka, tears in her eyes. “Ayeka…I can't…I mean, I know this is…I…”
“You're welcome,” Ayeka said, kissing her on the cheek.
* * * * *
Later that evening, Sasami yawned and turned off the television. “Are you ready to go to bed, Ayeka?” she asked. Ryo-oh-ki, who'd been fast asleep on her lap, stirred and stretched before reluctantly hopping off the girl's lap.
“I need to finish this section,” Ayeka replied. Her fingers expertly guided the knitting needles as she finished the latest row of a large blue-and-yellow striped mass. “You can go on ahead. I won't be long.”
“What's that going to be?” Sasami asked, touching the wool. “Wow. It's really soft, and it looks just like Ryoko's dress!”
“That’s because it's for Ryoko's legs when she's in the chair during the winter,” Ayeka said. “You know how she's always complaining about the cold. I have a feeling this winter will be even harder on her.”
Sasami watched her sister work. “You know, Ayeka, I think you're being really great about Ryoko,” she finally said. “I'm glad you're helping her out and all. And it's like the two of you are becoming good friends at last!”
Ayeka paused in her knitting. “At last,” she sighed softly. She glanced toward the window and the floating onsen as it drifted lazily about. “I hope everything went well tonight, Sasami. I really do.”
“I'm sure it did, Ayeka. Well, good-night!” Sasami headed off to the staircase and her bedroom.
“Good night, Sasami.” Ayeka did six more rows on the blanket before stopping and putting away her work for the night. She reached over and switched off the table lamp, plunging the room into darkness. Her gaze drifted toward the window again, focusing once more on the onsen.
Only then did she let herself cry.
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Five||Some Time Later|