She yawned, a long, stretchy cat's yawn that tensed all the muscles in her back. Midnight. The night prowler, having concluded her late vigil, was ready for slumber. Golden eyes closed in deep contentment; the happiness that comes to the one who sleeps and dreams.
For Ryoko did dream.
Her eyes opened. Where am I? She sat up cautiously, taking in her surroundings. She was in a bed, that much was clear. A soft and warm, if unfamiliar, bed, which happened to contain... Tenchi! Wildly she searched the room, her heart pounding out circles around her lungs. There. There it was, a wedding dressed of palest blue and white draped with graceful casualty across a chair.
Her mouth dropped open as emotions piled one atop the other. She had won. Won what? Victory. Over who? How? She was so dazed. She tried to remember; she thought long and hard, but no answer surfaced. No matter, she would ask Tenchi. Gently she shook him. "Tenchi?"
"Hmmm?" An eye opened, a brown eye full of warmth and caring. She flushed.
"Tenchi, why did you choose me?"
He laughed. "Reliving the glory? Because. You are Ryoko, with no strings attached. You trusted me, as Ayeka did not, and when I found myself reciprocating that trust, it then blossomed into something more."
Ayeka... Ayeka... oh, yes. A sudden idea popped into her head. Friend. Huh? Said the conscious half of her mind. Friend, the unconscious side repeated firmly.
A thought strayed into her mind. "How is Ayeka handling this?" Handling what?
Tenchi frowned. "She's upset, of course, but certainly calm. All the same, I think it's much better that we eloped."
Ryoko found she was starting to recall experiences triggered by their conversation. By now she had pretty much grasped the entire situation, except for one thing...
Tenchi was speaking. "But we had probably best go back now. The others will be wondering if we're alright, and Sasami promised she'd tell everyone several days ago."
"Alright," Ryoko said, "we'll go."
Scenes blurred, flashed, stopped. Where am I now? She thought, but her memories came to her much faster than before. She and Tenchi were standing in front of a crowd of people, and she was situated quietly by his side. She looked at them, recalling their names carefully, picking out their faces from the group. The small one, she is Sasami. And on her shoulder, Ryo-ohki. Ryo-ohki is important to me somehow, I think... um... oh yes. Now I remember. And that is Washu. Wait a moment... Little Washu. That's right. And who is that over there?
Ayeka. Friend. Ayeka. Friend.
We are friends because... we share a common goal, she decided, yes, that was the reason. It was a bit fuzzy.
Tenchi was speaking, mere explanations, but Ryoko wasn't listening. She was studying Ayeka-Friend. The kimono, she recalled that clearly. And the dark purple pigtails, falling silkily down her back. And the small, refined face, the ski-jump nose, the big, expressive eyes. A determined visage.
She felt as if she were missing some important detail, something that would clarify what this Juraian princess meant in the tapestry of her life.
The crowd was gathering around them, full of congratulations. I have Tenchi, Ryoko thought, a smile curving on her lips.
A lone figure stood away from the crowd. Something compelled her to seek this figure out.
Ayeka turned away. "Well, Ryoko," she said in a dull voice, "I suppose you're happy."
"I suppose you would be too," Ryoko said cuttingly, acting the only way she knew how toward this... Ayeka-Friend.
"Just get away from me," Ayeka screamed, turning her back on the space pirate.
They all came to her. Ayeka, it's all right. Ayeka, just because... Ayeka, I didn't mean...
He didn't mean. Tenchi didn't mean...
Oh yes. No she remembered. That was the missing detail.
The shared a common goal... to get Tenchi.
Well, she had won. Ryoko versus Ayeka... and Ryoko had come out on top... But Tenchi had said, he didn't mean. He didn't mean to upset her? He didn't mean to hurt her?
He didn't mean to choose Ryoko?
She confronted him about it, that night. "You went to her," she said. "You told her you didn't mean - and then you stopped. Didn't mean what?"
He shrugged. "Didn't mean to hurt her so. Ryoko - my love. But Ayeka - still my friend. Don't read too much into it, Ryoko. It is nothing."
Ryoko growled. "Just the same, if she comes between us, I will kill her."
"Ryoko!" Tenchi yelled. "You are not the murderer you pretended to be! Don't voice empty threats!"
"Empty threats! How dare she even attempt to take you away!" She glared at him, then started to cry. Ayeka-Friend... Ayeka-Rival... Ayeka-Friend... Ayeka-Rival... Her mind was so foggy. Ideas collided, good memories of Ayeka, bad memories of Ayeka, Friend memories, Rival memories. Who is this Ayeka? her brain screamed. Find out, it answered in kind.
Tenchi was looking at her. "Ryoko, are you all right?"
She got up and marched out of the room.
Ayeka lives in this room, I know that. She cracked the door open a smidge, and was relieved to find it empty. Now she could snoop in peace. She slunk into the room and stared about. There was nothing of interest; nothing to provide a link to what Ayeka meant to Ryoko, nothing to clear up the point of whether she was Ayeka-Friend or Ayeka-Rival.
Except an open book.
A diary. How convenient. She floated over and flipped through the pages, reading bits here and there, examining several less-than-flattering descriptions of herself, and growing angrier by the moment. She reached the last the entry, dated for that day. She read:
I lost him. I suppose I should have known as soon as he and Ryoko just happened to disappear at the same time. No, I should have known earlier than that. All I pursue flee. I suppose that is why I have come to my decision. I will do it at the shrine, of course, where my blood can mingle with the stones at last two will become one. Good-bye.
She dropped the book in shocked horror. Ayeka-Friend. She had to stop her. Out the door she catapulted and towards the shrine, her heart pounding, her thoughts a muddle. She raced franticly up the stone steps, her golden orbs trained on a dark silhouette only visible to her cat's eyes. She pounded up, screaming, "Ayeka-Friend!" as loud as she could manage. There was no movement. Could she not have heard?
Her mind was not sharp enough right now for teleporting. Her eyes began to make out shapes as she drew closer, shapes that did not belong to the mass silhouette. She made out the shape of the knife as it plunged into Ayeka-Friend's throat.
Ryoko flung herself on top of the body and cried. Gently she removed the blade from the pale skin and thrust it away.
It's what you wanted, isn't it? part of her said cruelly to herself. Ayeka-Rival, not Friend. She is dead, and you have Tenchi. What more could you want?
"Ayeka-Friend," she whispered in answer, and fled the scene.
She didn't return until the next day; she entered her and Tenchi's room with her head low. He was there, standing by the window. She expected his grief, his bewilderment, his sadness. She did not expect him to say, "How could you?"
Her head snapped up. "What?"
He turned to face her, his brown eyes red from anger. "You said you'd kill her, and you did. Why did I marry a ruthless killer?"
"But Tenchi!" Ryoko gasped. "No! Ayeka was my friend!"
He laughed bitterly. "Ryoko, Ryoko. Your fingerprints are all over the weapon." He turned away from her. "If only I had chosen Ayeka..."
She hurled herself to the floor and sobbed.
The incessant ringing of the radio alarm clock woke her from her illusion. She remembered the main point of the dream first as she struggled her way into consciousness; she had gotten Tenchi. She enjoyed that part, until the rest of the dream flooded her mind, the memory of Ayeka's death, and how Tenchi had rejected her...
The alarm clicked off and the radio clicked on. A long, low note sounded, mirroring her mood and signaling the end of the piece. "That," said the DJ, "was Pavane for a Dead Princess, by Mau -"
A moment later the radio was only a pile of dust.
She practically fell into bed; it had been a long day. Long days were common in the Masaki household, what with the fighting and longing and hoping that was constantly going on. She had stayed up later than usual. Later than even Ryoko. Despite her fatigue, she couldn't sleep.
But now Ayeka collapsed and dreamed.
She was not perturbed when she awoke in a completely unfamiliar room. As a Juraian princess, she was used to sudden foreign situations. The pleasant sensation of being in a warm, clean little bed was normal enough. What surprised her was that sleeping next to her was a familiar face, a peaceful face... Tenchi's face.
For a moment her mind went blank.
She resisted the impulse to scream and leap with joy, quieted herself, and looked around hopefully. She wasn't entirely sure what she was looking for until she saw it. A long, flowing white wedding dress, accented in palest purple.
Victory. Over... somebody. Hmmm. Desperately she tried to recall the details of the wedding. She knew none. She tried to remember whom she had beaten. No haunting faces floated into her mind; none of the right ones, anyway.
One question surfaced: Why did Tenchi choose me? She didn't know that either. No matter, she would simply ask him. "Tenchi," she whispered, waking him. "Why did you choose me?"
He smiled, exhibiting an expression that made her want to laugh and cry and dance and live all at one time. "I told you," he said quietly, "because you are Ayeka. You are gentle and sweet when you are not fighting with Ryoko, and I was drawn to your good sweetness for love."
Ryoko. The name seemed familiar, and yet... She searched. Her long years of involvement in politics gave her only one answer: ally. Ally Ryoko. Wait, that couldn't be right... but it was all she knew at the moment.
Something occurred to her. "How is Ryoko handling... us?"
Tenchi frowned a bit. "Relatively well, I believe. Not happy, but that's to be expected."
Facts were starting to add up, make a point, tell a story. But she still didn't have a good picture of what was going on.
Tenchi was speaking. "I suppose we should go home now. Sasami promised to tell everyone we eloped a few days ago, so everyone should be over the surprise by now." He smiled, and therefore Ayeka smiled too.
Colors danced and flashed about her in tight military formation before settling on a single scene. She felt as if she knew the group of people standing before her, with Tenchi at her side. She made a careful study of their faces, counting off their names one by one, left to right. Certainly she recognized Sasami, her own sister, and dear Ryo-ohki. And Washu. A crazy scientist, she remembered, but a genius. But who was that, standing to one side?
Her messy hair was a pretty shade of almost aqua blue, and her eyes were bright, shining gold; cat's eyes. She wore a tight shirt, and her shorts gave new meaning to the word. But she looked somehow... defeated.
Oh yes. Ryoko. Ally Ryoko.
Why were the allies? Because... because... they sought to gain the same from their lives. Yes, that had to be the reason.
But what was Ryoko in her life?
The crowd surged around them, full of congratulations, but she felt compelled to seek Ally Ryoko out. "What troubles you?" she said quietly, walking to Ryoko's side.
"What troubles me?" Ryoko answered in a high-pitched voice. "What troubles me? Why must you always bait me with your snobbery? Aren't you finally happy? Tenchi is yours, but don't think I went down without a fight!"
She was taken aback. Ryoko was her ally... Ryoko...
Enemy Ryoko. Now she knew. That one fact she needed was in place. Ryoko was not her ally; they both sought from life Tenchi! But she had won. Yet, what if she persuaded Tenchi to leave her?
"Go away!" she screamed. "Just get out of her! Go ruin more peoples' lives!"
Enemy Ryoko's face broke, but her voice was strong as she snapped, "Fine! I'll do that! Ryo-ohki, come here!" Mere seconds later, she was gone in her spaceship.
Ayeka was surrounded by pandemonium.
Tenchi paced up and down their room in agitation. "What did you say to her?" he forced out, anger seeping into his voice.
"I...I..." Ayeka stuttered, frightened.
"I... I told her to go away."
"You what?" He started and stared at her.
"I... I thought she would try to take you away from me. I thought..."
"You didn't think at all! If you had, you would have known that I would never do that! Ryoko is just a friend! But," he said, calmer now, "she is still me friend. And now... she's... gone."
Ayeka didn't know what else to do. She broke down in sobs. Memories flitted unbidden through her mind. Enemy Ryoko trying to take Tenchi away... then Ally Ryoko helping her find him... Enemy Ryoko... Ally Ryoko... Tenchi held her and rocked her back and forth. "It's all right," he murmured, holding her.
Ryoko wanted him.
She got up and went to the desk; got out some stiff crème-colored paper and a pen. She wrote:
It is my understanding that you have been hunting Ryoko for quite some time. I just thought you might been interested to know that she left in her ship, which transforms from the cabbit Ryo-ohki, if that us any help, just today, from the Masaki home, in Japan, on planet Earth. If any of that information can help you track her down, good. And if you happen to shoot her down, even better.
Your Big Help.
She felt better now, and went to bed.
But in the morning she regretted it, and quickly crumpled the letter. Enemy Ryoko or not, she knew she would never forgive herself if Nagi shot Ryoko down because of her. Like it or not, she was Ally Ryoko, who couldn't have Tenchi but could still yet return home as one of his closest of friends. She wrote a new letter.
It was only pride and fear that made me suggest you leave, which I am confident that you understand. I realize that it was a terrible mistake, and my own. This apology is my own, as well, for Tenchi has no hand in this letter, and did not ask me to write it. It is my hope you will return to the Masaki household, as my friend and ally.
Love and good wishes,
She sealed this in an envelope and mailed it that very day.
It was a week later when she awoke to the blasting of the TV set. It was the news; she made a face - what a boring channel. She got up and stretched. Maybe today Ryoko would return.
Tenchi had his back to her, and his face was to the window, but she could tell he was upset about something. "Tenchi?" she said softly. "Is something wrong?"
The news announcer broke in for him. "And in other news, famed space pirate was finally shot down by Nagi and killed in a spaceship crash. Plans for a ceremony in Nagi's honor are underway, and the galaxy is deeply grateful..."
Tenchi switched the TV off. "I saw what was in your letter," he said. "Thanks to you, she left, and that wasn't enough for you, was it? You had to make sure she was not just gone, but dead. The point of no return."
Ayeka gasped. "Tenchi! No! I tossed that letter out; I wrote a new one, begging Ryoko to return home!"
"No." He shook his head. "Nagi did not kill Ryoko. You did. Why did I marry a traitor?" He stared out the window. "If only I had chosen Ryoko..."
She knew that in the dream she had gotten Tenchi. That much pleased her, and she smiled as she slowly awoke. But then the rest of the dream rushed at her in her most vulnerable state, and she raised her hands to protect herself as if the physical movement would prevent the pain.
Ryoko had died, and Tenchi had blamed her, had rejected her. What could possibly be worse? This wasn't how it was supposed to end at all. It wasn't how events had transpire in her lavish daydreams. Something had to be wrong.
She jumped up and rushed into the hall, colliding with another, taller figure. She looked up. "Ryoko!"
Gold eyes went wide. "Ayeka?"
They looked at each other a moment. Then...
"Hmph!" each sniffed simultaneously, and returned the rooms.