Zero Tolerance


By Diane Long

AN: The clip of the third OVA, with yet another girl to compete for Tenchi, really torked me off, so I had to write a Ryoko-centric fic to make myself feel better. I hope you enjoy it too. Also, I want to thank Entry Plug for his inspiration for this opening scene. I had always thought the night in the lab was a horror, and his rendering of it inspired my own take.


Chapter One: Ice



Cold.

It was so fucking cold.

Suspended in the frigid darkness, Ryoko willed her body to shiver, trying to generate some heat. Despite her force of will, nothing happened. She had been hanging there too long and her body was too cold and stiff to respond. Her arms were held out from her shoulders by metallic claws, stretched past her elbows' abilities to stay loose and flexed. Her whole upper body burned with lactic acid from over-extension.

The darkened room was without heat and her tiny red tank top provided her body no protection. The rest of her was naked, except for a silver ring hovering around her hips, its gadgetry effectively nullifying her powers. Below the ring, her legs, pricked over with bumps of goose flesh, hung limply, adding to the strain on her lower back.

She hurt. She could handle hurting though. She had been hurting in one way or another for as long as she could remember. But the cold and the dark were eating at her, making the pain worse and if that wasn't enough, the silence was driving her out of her mind.

There wasn't anyone to help her. She was forsaken. Again.

Heaving in a desperate breath she tightened her weary vocal cords and screamed. The cry bounced off the hard edges of the lab in a long series of echoes before dying away completely.

There was no reply.

Ryoko's head tipped forward as she fell into a series of dry sobs. "Please, please, please," she begged. "I'll be good."

Those were words she had once used with Kagato, when his punishments seemed to surpass her ability to withstand them. Sometimes it worked with him and he would show some modicum of mercy. Why wouldn't it work with Washu? Hadn't Kagato learned everything from his former teacher?

No sooner than she made the comparison between her two tormentors, the shackles around her wrists sprung free. Shocked and exhausted, Ryoko dropped to the floor, the metal ring around her waist clanging terribly as she fell against it.

She lay there for a moment, dazed and not quite comprehending her freedom. The hard concrete of the floor was even colder than the air had been against her bare body. Using all of her concentration, she summoned the first warm garment that came to mind: A copy of Ayeka's winter coat. As it appeared over her, she huddled in its warm confines as she tried to make sense of her situation.

She was having a difficult time keeping the present and her past memories from blurring together. Kagato had taken her…. No…. Washu had trapped her. Washu had lied about why she wanted Ryoko in the lab, and then proceeded to run test after test on her…. Or was it just more punishment from Kagato? No, it had been Washu this time. Washu had forgotten to let her go, and had left for the night. Washu had treated her like a stupid, forgettable, experiment. Just like Kagato used to do.

Struggling to her hands and knees, Ryoko crawled out of the metal ring, and began to creep towards the door that would release her back into the Masaki living room. A reject. A thing. That's all she was to Washu and Kagato.

Was that all she was period? Could two such smart people be wrong?

Reaching the door Ryoko pushed through and was momentarily blinded by bright sunlight. She used her hands to block the light from her eyes, and still being on her knees she lost her balance and tipped forward onto her face, smashing her nose against the hardwood floor.

"Ryoko, are you okay?" asked Sasami's sweet voice.

"Is that my coat? What are you doing wearing my coat?" demand Ayeka's rather nasal voice.

Pushing up on arms trembling with fatigue, Ryoko tried to make eye contact with Ayeka and give her a saucy grin to cover up her weakened state. All she managed to do was drool and roll an eye back into its socket for a moment. Nothing seemed to be working right. The crawl out of the lab must have used the last of her energy reserves.

As she lay there exhausted, Ryoko watched a worried Sasami in her carrot apron lay down her soup ladle on the kitchen table and Ayeka slowly rising from her seat, her look of annoyance shifting to one of concern.

"R-ryoko?" Ayeka asked. "What happened to you?"

"Good morning, everyone!" Tenchi said, his voice coming ahead of him as he came down the stairs. "What's for…" he paused as he saw the strange tableau before him. "Hey, what's going on?"

"Tenchi! Big brother! Something is wrong with Ryoko," Sasami cried out rushing to Tenchi's side.

"Yes," Ayeka added quietly, moving to join them. "But we do not yet know what has happened."

Tenchi approached Ryoko slowly with Sasami timidly trailing him. "Ryoko? You okay?" He paused a few feet from her, worried lines appearing on his brow.

The thin line of drool still trailing down her chin, Ryoko attempted to speak to reply, but only managed to croak out something not understandable.

"What was that?" Tenchi asked, edging closer.

She tried again. "I'm fine," she said, in a cracked parody of her usual voice.

"Don't be ridiculous," Ayeka chastised. "You are in terrible shape." She crossed her arms, looking regal and cross in her violet robes.

Tenchi squatted near Ryoko's head and offered her his hand, but Ryoko's limited attention was focused on Ayeka.

Ryoko frowned up at her friend and rival, who seemed to be shifting between her normal self and an image of her father, the emperor of Jurai. "A- Ayeka?" she asked in a rusty sounding voice. Ryoko squinted and shook her head to clear her vision. That seemed to help the shadows of Asuza fade away.

Ryoko was again trying to right herself into a seated position, when a small, house-slippered foot connected with her head and knocked her flat again.

"Ooops!" Washu said brightly, stepping over her prone daughter. "I didn't see you moving there!" She sniffed appreciatively as the lab door clicked shut behind her. "Breakfast smells great!"

Ryoko groaned and made no attempt to rise.

Tenchi, Ayeka and Sasami turned suspicious eyes onto the short scientist.

"What?" she asked looking severe in her formal Galaxy Academy uniform.

"What did you do to Ryoko, Ms. Washu?" Ayeka asked in a tone that had caused nobles to flinch. "She may be nothing but trouble, but that gives you no right to harm her."

Washu just blinked. "That's LITTLE Washu, if you please."

"Just answer her question," Tenchi bit off, showing more anger than he would usually reveal to his guests.

Washu looked down at Ryoko lying under her. "I was just doing a few maintenance checks. Nothing major, really. Right little Ryoko?"

Not looking up, Ryoko dully whispered, "Right," as a shiver trembled through her body. It didn't do to disagree with Kagato. She squinted. No that was Washu, not Kagato.

"You're cold!" Tenchi exclaimed, running to the TV area to grab a blanket.

"Of course she is. I had to test her imperviousness to temperature last night. She made a new tolerance record… almost thirty degrees Kelvin," Washu boasted.

Tenchi knelt down on one knee at Ryoko's side, wrapping a plaid polar fleece throw around her. "That's terrible!"

"No, it's good news. It means her powers are evolving, just like I had hoped," Washu clarified.

Tenchi gently chafed Ryoko's arms through the blanket. "I meant it was a terrible thing to do to a person! What if she gets sick?"

Washu rolled her eyes with a negating flick of her hair. "Ryoko doesn't get sick. She is tougher than a cockroach."

"But she suffers!" Sasami said in a wounded voice. "She feels pain. She is feeling pain right now. Can't you see it?"

Washu blew her bangs out of her eyes in annoyance. "Hey, why is everybody picking on me? Ryoko doesn't mind, do you, Ryoko?"

Ryoko pushed her face into Tenchi's chest. "Whatever," she mumbled, hoping her tormenter would just be quiet and let Yosho end her suffering forever. She closed her eyes and waited for the final blow. No it was Tenchi holding her, and they were not fighting.

"It looks like she minds to me," Ayeka murmured with disapproval.

"Don't tell me what to do with my number one creation! I am Washu! I am The Greatest Scientific Genius In The Universe!" Washu said hotly and moved forward as if to take Ryoko from Tenchi.

Ryoko flinched at the word 'creation'. Kagato only thought of her as a big toy. Something he owned and could tinker with at will. As much as she wanted to be a person, Washu always found a way to remind her that she really wasn't one. Washu wasn't so different from Kagato, really.

Having felt the movement under his warming hands, Tenchi regarded Washu sadly. "Creation? What about your daughter?" he asked, shifting so that Ryoko was out of Washu's immediate reach.

"Daughter, creation, what's the difference? I made her either way."

"It makes a huge difference!" Sasami yelped. "Ryoko has feelings!" She ran over to her fallen friend and dropped to her knees. "I love Ryoko and seeing her hurt like this is terrible!" Sasami threw an arm over Ryoko's shoulders and squeezed tightly.

"I just need to … to … sleep," Ryoko rasped with obvious difficulty. Somehow Sasami seemed to be sitting right there beside her, yet at the same time she seemed to be falling from a great height amongst the royal space trees. What was going on?

"Where? You don't even have a bed Ryoko!" Sasami shouted, getting worked up.

"No bed?" Tenchi asked, sheepishly. "I didn't realize."

"She can use my futon Sasami," Ayeka said briskly. "With both of our blankets. That should warm her up."

"I'll just take her back to the lab. Hand her over," Washu ordered.

"I don't think so," Tenchi said, eliciting a glare from the red head.

Sasami moved away as Tenchi slid his arms under Ryoko's body. Ryoko grunted as Tenchi lifted her into his arms, leaving the plaid blanket behind on the floor.

Washu watched, grinding her teeth as Ryoko's friends unconsciously formed a protective barrier between her and her mother.

"Ready for bed?" he asked heading towards the staircase.

Ryoko nodded as they began to ascend the stairs.

Washu huffed in annoyance, throwing up her hands. "Fine, take the crazy girl, but what about breakfast?" she whined at their backs. "I'm hungry!"

Sasami turned around, her normally sweet lips pulled back into an angry pout. She opened her mouth, but stayed her words when she felt Ayeka's hand on her shoulder.

"Let me." Ayeka turned her attention to Washu. "Perhaps your energies would be better applied in planning how to apologize to Miss Ryoko."

"Apologize?" Washu stuttered. "For what?"

***

Ayeka carefully pulled the curtains closed so that the small bedroom was shielded from the early morning sunshine.

"Okay, the futon's ready!" Sasami said holding back the sheets so Tenchi could lower Ryoko inside the nest of warmth.

"Would you like to borrow a night gown instead of that heavy coat?" Ayeka asked.

Tenchi paused as Ryoko shook her head 'no', then he carefully laid Ryoko in the bed. Sasami pulled the covers over her friend as Ayeka heaped on more blankets. Ryoko immediately curled to her side, facing away from her friends as she snuggled into the blankets. Tenchi looked at Ayeka for guidance. He had no idea what to do next. He didn't really want to leave, but he thought he knew Ryoko well enough to know that she would rather be alone while she recovered.

"Are you warm enough, Miss Ryoko?" Ayeka asked.

"Mmm-hmm."

Sasami delicately touched Ryoko's shoulder. "Do you want to sleep now, Ryoko?" she whispered.

"Yes," Ryoko returned, her voice sounding painful.

"I'll make some tea for your throat when you wake up," the youngster promised.

Ryoko hunched her shoulders in what might have been an attempt at a nod or a shrug.

"Okay, Sasami, let's go," Ayeka said taking her sister's hand and leading her out of the room.

Still reluctant to leave, Tenchi hovered by Ryoko's side.

"Come along, Lord Tenchi. We can check on her again later," Ayeka prompted.

Nodding, Tenchi joined them. "See you later, Ryoko," he said wondering if she was still awake.

As the trio walked somberly down the stairs, Sasami tilted her head and looked up at her older sister. "Ayeka, what do you think is wrong with Ryoko's voice?"

Ayeka bit her lip and was silent.

"Ayeka?" Sasami asked again.

Tenchi noted the TV set as they came back onto the first floor landing and it gave him an idea. "You know how we get all excited when we watch American football on the TV?"

Sasami nodded.

"Well, the last time my favorite team played I yelled so much that I almost lost my voice. Remember?"

Sasami tilted her head to one side, clearly not getting the connection.

"Yes, Lord Tenchi was hoarse for a few days after that game," Ayeka added. "That is what happened to Ryoko."

"But why would she need to yell so much?" Sasami asked innocently.

Tenchi winced, not wanting to explain the tortures he thought that Washu was capable of performing on any 'guinea pig' she could get her hands on.

"Well," Ayeka began as they gathered by the base of the staircase.

"That's what I want to know," Washu snapped, saving them from having to answer. "I just had her hanging there. You'd have thought I had forgotten about her or something," she said getting up from the couch.

A perplexed frown tugged at Tenchi's features. "Did you?" He wondered what had gone on that would leave someone as strong as Ryoko in such a state.

"Of course not. I had a reason for what I did."

"What was it Washu?" Sasami asked tremulously, gripping her hands before her waist.

Washu sighed. "Not that this is any of your business, I had two questions I needed to answer. One was just how much of my daughter was left after Kagato got through with her and Two, how much of that was a re-boot from her assimilation with Zero."

Stunned by Washu's sudden seriousness the others watched in silence as Washu toyed with the pom-poms on her Galaxy Academy uniform.

"Look, I know I haven't known you all very long," Washu began. "It has only been a few months since Mihoshi bumbled her way into my prison and released me." She walked over to the sliding glass door and looked out over the lake. "And I know what you think of me, too."

"Miss Washu," Ayeka soothed, ever the diplomat.

Washu raised a hand to ward off the words. "Stop. You all think, at best, that I'm a little mad. At worst, you think I'm something of a socio-path just itching to get my hands on you."

Tenchi nodded slightly at the small genius. That was exactly what he thought most days and right now he was not inclined to be charitable.

Ayeka's features became neutral as she hid her own opinion, letting silence speak for her.

"I can't say that I blame you, with the way I've been acting," Washu said with a half-smile. "You don't have any other data about me."

"Washu, I've never thought you were a bad person," Sasami said gently. "Just hurt."

A real smile formed on Washu's lips for the merest of moments before it was swallowed up by her melancholy. "Ah, yes, but you've had Tsunami's help to see the truth, no?"

A faint blush dotted the high bones of Sasami's cheeks. "Yes, she has told me a few things."

Washu laughed, but it wasn't a sound of mirth. "Well, what's a secret when you have a goddess sharing your home? No offense Sasami." She shook her head, and placed her hands on her hips. "Let me tell you this: I love my daughter, but the Ryoko you all know is barely a shadow of what she was before. I've spent almost every waking hour since my release trying to understand what has happened to her and how to help her heal from the trauma her mind has been through."

"You mean, Kagato, right?" Ayeka asked.

"You say that devil's name so casually. Like Ryoko's problems with him were no more than that of child going to see an unskilled dentist," Washu complained.

"I know what that man did," Ayeka said darkly.

"No you don't!" Washu shot back. "You just know, rather second hand I might add, about the destruction of royal gardens and space fleets. You have no idea what he was like with a fragile life at his mercy, when he was all alone, secure, and with all the time in the universe!"

"Washu, you don't have to tell us this," Tenchi placated. "We know that Ryoko suffered under his control." How many nights had he heard Ryoko waking up from screaming nightmares?

Washu marched over to Tenchi and jabbed a bony finger into his chest. "Suffer? That's what happens when you eat too many sweets, you stupid child!" Washu spat. "For 5,000 years I watched Ryoko die second by second. The things I saw everyday would make you pass out."

"Sasami, go to your room." Ayeka ordered before her sister could be subjected to tales of horrific tortures.

"But!" the little princess protested. "I…."

"Now," Ayeka growled pointing at the staircase.

"She already knows," Washu put in sadly. "I don't know what possessed Tsunami to show her the gory details, but little Sasami knows everything. I'm guessing that is why she is always so kind to my Ryoko."

Sasami's mask of sweet innocence slipped a little and her eyes took on a haunted sheen. "Yes, I know. He tried to destroy her body and mind in every way, just to see what it would take to ruin her. It was a game to him."

Tenchi watched the exchange closely. Sasami seemed different somehow.

Washu took up the thread, "And when he could not do her in completely, he understood that he had the perfect weapon in his hands. At that point, his torments became more focused, as he tried to shape her into a form most useful to him."

Sasami walked to Washu's side and placed a hand on her shoulder. "As much as he twisted her mind, seeds of her true-self always remained, though they lessened with each millennia," she said in a voice that had turned deeper and more musical than usual.

Tenchi leaned forward. Yes, Sasami was different. Her voice, the words she used even her posture had changed.

Too caught up in the debate to notice any changes, Washu nodded. "By the time Yosho imprisoned her, there was hardly anything left to salvage."

"We all know that Tsunami moved through Yosho to save Ryoko," Sasami said. "But because her spirit was almost gone, it has been very difficult for Ryoko to cope with living a normal life. She is re-growing her self, but the process is slow." As Sasami spoke she seemed to grow more mature and sorrowful.

Tenchi caught Ayeka's eye and the princess nodded to indicate she was seeing the changes too.

Washu flipped her hair, looking piqued. "If you had told me all of this, I might have been able to avoid last night's research."

A faint, blue mist surrounded the little princess. "Do you really believe that?" she asked in words laced with the presence of another.

Washu paused. "Tsunami."

"Yes, it is I, and I ask you again: Could you have avoided last night?"

"No." It was a whisper, barely heard.

"And did you find out what you needed to know?"

"Yes."

"Tsunami?" Tenchi asked. "What's going on?"

Tsunami, wearing Sasami's body, turned her attention to Tenchi, an ethereal radiance outlining her form. "Somehow Dr. Clay's creation, Zero, managed to duplicate a copy of Ryoko's original neural net along with her current memories. By original I mean the healthy personality that existed before Kagato. Correct Washu?"

Washu nodded, her eyes narrow with some disappointment.

Tsunami turned a grave face to Washu. "When Washu merged Zero with Ryoko she was really replacing Ryoko's damaged mind sectors with portions of the copy. Last night, when she was checking to see how the repaired net was faring she made a frightening discovery."

Tenchi shivered. What was wrong with Ryoko?

Washu slid her arms around her torso and hugged herself. "Yes, it's true. Ryoko's old damaged systems were overriding the back-ups, threatening to erase it completely."

Tsunami lowered her gaze. "And that was the only copy?" she prompted.

"Yes, Zero managed to perform a minor miracle in finding that back-up, it was an event beyond my wildest hopes. I was thrilled to give that back to my little Ryoko. And then it DIDN'T WORK!" Tears beaded along Washu's lashes as she released her hold on herself and balled her hands into tight fists. "Ryoko's only chance at knowing her true self was slipping away. I didn't have time to come up with an elegant solution, it had to be brute force or nothing."

Washu sank to her knees and buried her face in her hands. "I had to subject her body to almost absolute zero temperatures to shut down her Cartesian interface. It was the only way to stop the deterioration of the back-up. Then as I was expunging her faulty network sectors she –she…" Washu stumbled over her words as tears began slipping through her fingers. "She began reliving everything I was deleting… and screaming." Washu groaned. "She was in such torment, but I couldn't stop until the process was complete or she would have had no mind left at all!"

Tsunami carefully folded her knees under her and hugged Washu. "You had to do it, my sister."

Washu didn't hear her. "After all the amends I wanted to make, I ended up being worse than him! I hurt my little Ryoko! And for what? It didn't work in the end. The back-up couldn't hold out against the strength of Ryoko's current neural net. Now she will hate me more than ever! Or worse, she won't be able to tell the past from the present!"

"Sometimes the failures of complex systems have unexpected results. Have faith," Tsunami said.

"With all respect, what do you mean Tsunami?" Ayeka asked with a reverential bow of her head.

The goddess peeking out of a youngster's eyes smiled beatifically. "You will discover my meaning very shortly."

With that the magic was gone and a stunned Sasami blinked at her friends and sister. "Wow."

"Sasami are you okay?" Ayeka asked nervously, rushing over to peer closely at Sasami's face. "That was very strange."

"I'm fine sister, and Washu…!" The child exclaimed happily. "I'm so happy for you!"

"What?" Washu asked, raising her head and wiping at her eyes.

"Mom?" asked a squeaky, yet undamaged voice that was a cutesy styling of Ryoko's rich tenor.

All heads snapped to the staircase where a much shorter Ryoko was paused three steps from the bottom. She stared around in confusion, dwarfed by the folds of Ayeka's coat.

"Mom, where are we?" she asked in the same little voice.

Washu slowly got to her feet and took a hesitant step towards her daughter. "Little Ryoko?"

The little girl's eyes traveled the room and lingered for a moment on each face before staring fixedly at Washu. "Mommy? Who are all of these people?"


To be continued!

More Notes: Yeah, yeah I'm getting redundant in my old age. Many of my stories focus on Ryoko's past, her memories, her childhood and her relationship with Washu. This story has many things in common with "Little Ryoko", my first Tenchi story, but it soon takes off in a different direction. So if you aren't sick of me yet, please hang in for the ride! As always, please email me at shire@one.net with any feedback. Many thanks, hugs, and kisses go out to my friends who helped me on this one.