Zero Tolerance

By Diane Long

Chapter Seven: Many faces of Love

The hot sun glared down on the old mountain, and the sky shone a harsh, unrelieved blue with no clouds to soften it. The bamboo groves rustled dryly as weak breezes occasionally stirred their leaves. The cicadas droned on endlessly in complaint, and the cuckoos higher in the mountains occasionally called to one another out of boredom.

Their bodies casting long shadows, Tenchi and Ryoko stood facing each other in the shrine's courtyard. Tenchi wore his typical training uniform of blue sweatpants and a white tee-shirt. Ryoko wore what was once known as her battle uniform, the red and black spandex-like material stretching over her curves like icing on a cake. She had her hair up in a pony-tail and was watching Tenchi closely, her body tense and ready to spring. Looking on from a small distance, Yosho leaned against his jo, looking unruffled in his white dogi jacket and light blue hakama.

Tenchi lunged forward and grabbed Ryoko's wrist. Keeping his weight forward, he waited for her to counter his movement by taking a step back, shifting her own weight, and pushing him over from her center.

Instead she just looked at him blankly, her uniform conducting its own warfare on his senses.

"Ryoko," he hinted under his breath, trying to ignore how she looked in her uniform, "cross step back." He feinted with his own leg to give her the right idea. The puzzled expression on her face was adorable, and Tenchi found he didn't mind just standing there, watching her.

"Right!" she said with a nervous smile and stepped backwards, stiffly jerking Tenchi along with her, mainly because of her strength.

"Relax Ryoko," Yosho instructed. "You may be able to muscle Tenchi around, but a stronger foe will require that you move from your center. That is why I had you leave your gems at home today. You are trying to learn what to do without strength."

Ryoko blew a strand of hair from her lips and glanced down at her empty wrists. "Yes, Sensei."

"Try it again," Yosho said with a wave of his hand.

Chewing on her lip and narrowing her eyes, Ryoko took up the ready stance, with 60 percent of her weight balanced on her front foot. She offered her arm to Tenchi and he tried to repeat his earlier grab.

"Wait!" she cried, pulling her arm out of his reach before he could connect. "I wasn't ready!"

Tenchi chuckled at her antics. Who would have thought that this Ryoko would have no martial training what-so-ever. He had always thought that Washu had been Ryoko's earliest instructor, but it turned out that Kagato had been her only teacher in that regard. So this Ryoko was starting from scratch.

"Teeenchi!" Ryoko whined, her honey-alto making even that tone of voice pleasant on the ear. "Don't laugh at me! Give me a chance to set up this time." Again she placed her self in the ready stance.

"Ready?" he asked, trying not to notice how the black designs on her uniform seemed to draw attention to her breasts.

She nodded with a look of fierce concentration and her eyes tracked Tenchi's hand as he grabbed her wrist. "Okay, I step back," she whispered, "and turn." She matched the words to actions, taking Tenchi with her in a wide circle.

"Hey, that was better!" he encouraged. She had moved him quite well. He could already tell that even without her gems, she would be a powerful fighter once she gained some technique.

She frowned and shook his hand off of her wrist. "You were just being nice."

Tenchi just shrugged. She always thought he was taking it easy on her, even when he wasn't. True he often cut her more slack than the others, but he just couldn't seem to help it. "Come on now, it's your turn to attack me," he said with an encouraging wink. He readied his stance and offered his arm.

Grinning like a bandit, Ryoko bypassed his arm and tackled him. "Grrrrrrr!"

Completely caught off guard, he staggered backwards and tumbled to the ground, with her riding his chest all the way down, her nimble fingers finding his most ticklish spots. "Hey! Stop!" he gasped between laughs.

"ENOUGH!" Yosho said in a voice edged with ice.

Ryoko froze immediately and looked up at her teacher, her eyes wide with shock at his tone.

Yosho pushed his glasses up his nose with a finger then crossed his arms. "Ryoko. This is a serious undertaking, and I expect you to treat it with more respect."

Ryoko wilted under the master's gaze and words. She hung her head and crawled off of Tenchi, sitting in seiza beside him, eyes hidden by her long bangs and her hands clasped in her lap.

"Your mother is concerned about your problems with balance and coordination and I have promised her that I would help you," Yosho continued sternly. "You know this, correct?"

Ryoko nodded, curling further into herself.

"Do you want me to break my promise?" Yosho asked coolly.

Ryoko sniffed and shook her head. "N-no, Sensei," she quavered in a small voice.

"Then you must take this seriously and behave like you would in any class. Do you understand?" Yosho asked, moving to stand before her, blocking the sun so she sat in his shadow.

Ryoko nodded sharply. "Yes, sir."

"Then prove it by carrying forty buckets of water from the garden down below to the shrine's garden, two full buckets at a time," Yosho said, glancing towards the mouth of the staircase.

"Yes, sir," she whispered, visibly wincing at her punishment, rubbing at her gem-less wrist with her thumb.

Tenchi followed her movement and clucked lowly under his breath as he remembered she was without her power source.

"Tenchi and I will be waiting in the office for you to finish. When you are done we can continue your training. Tenchi, come," Yosho said.

Tenchi looked to his grandfather, wondering if that punishment wasn't a bit too harsh. Forty buckets? Twenty trips up those stairs? "Jii-chan…." he began in a whisper.

Looking down at Tenchi, the older man cocked an eye brow that wordlessly asked his grandson if he might also like to cart water up all those steps.

Tenchi quickly looked away, hoping he wouldn't end up making things harder on Ryoko.

"Ryoko, take care not to drip. I will check when you are finished and every drop on the stairs will mean an extra set of buckets," Yosho clarified.

"Yes, sir," she murmured, tears in her voice.

Yosho turned and made his way towards his office. "Come," he said as he passed Tenchi.

Tenchi sighed and placed a comforting hand on Ryoko's shoulder. She sniffed, but did not look up. "I'm sorry Tenchi."

"It's okay," he assured, giving her shoulder a squeeze. "I'll see you later." He left her side, letting her have some privacy to pull her self back together. Like her old self, she didn't like to let other's see her tears. The only difference now was that she cried more freely, even if she tried to hide it. Sad movies summoned tears for her with regularity, and even a poignant TV commercial had once left her sniffing.

Tenchi shook his head. If she cried more than before, she certainly laughed even more. She laughed when she was surprised, amused, mildly embarrassed, and sometimes seemingly for the pure joy of it. Some days he could hear her laughter echoing down the mountain side while he worked the fields.

Tenchi paused at the door to the shrine office and removed his shoes. Ryoko was so sensitive, felt things so strongly. It was like the center of her being was a bottomless well of emotion. Getting to know her this way never ceased to awe him. To think this had once all been crushed and worn away made his stomach hurt. He couldn't bear to ponder the specifics of what had been done to deaden such a spirit.

"Are you coming in or not?" Yosho inquired from where he knelt by his desk, setting out tea things.

Tenchi went the rest of the way into the shadowed room. After the bright sun, the relative darkness seemed cool and restful. "Grandpa," he started carefully, "with all respect, wasn't that a little harsh?" Ryoko's shame at her chastisement seemed punishment enough.

Yosho's face remained placid as he poured hot water into a small, ceramic tea pot. "Sit. Have some tea."

Tenchi obediently knelt by the table. He wanted to say more, but knew he might have already said too much. As sensei and sempai, it was Yosho's prerogative to conduct teaching as he saw fit.

Yosho poured pale green tea into two bowl-like cups and set the pot to the side. He took up one cup and blew gently on the steaming liquid.

Tenchi followed suit, trying to glance discreetly through the open door into the shrine courtyard. There was no sign of Ryoko. She must have begun her punishment.

"She will be fine," Yosho stated calmly.

Tenchi took a sip of his tea, pulling the liquid noisily across his tongue, tasting the high notes of the fresh flavor at the back of his throat. If he wanted his grandfather to talk he would have to wait him out. Yosho would happily let Tenchi fill the silence while contributing nothing himself. So Tenchi waited in silence.

"Even without her gems, she is very strong. You know this," Yosho said into his cup of tea.

Tenchi nodded, looking carelessly out the door. Ryoko was strong physically, but her heart was fragile. She had been very embarrassed. He worried about how strongly she felt her emotions when it came to the negative ones. She might be depressed for the rest of the day.

Yosho sighed, and shook the cup so the tea swirled just below the rim. "Being a good teacher means knowing the proper lesson to teach."

Tenchi looked more directly at his grandfather. He had not been expecting this vein of discussion.

"Someday soon, you will be a teacher, Tenchi. When that happens, you will need to look at your student and decide what they need to learn. When a student needs to know many things, you must decide in what order to teach them." Yosho took a loud drink of tea, emptying his cup. He looked into Tenchi's eyes for a bare moment. "Would you give a beginning Kendo student steel or wood first?"

"Wood," Tenchi said firmly without taking a moment to think.

"Wrong. Have you learned nothing from me?" Yosho asked with a frown. "First one would teach them basic stance and footwork, then weaponless katas. The wooden sword comes much later."

Tenchi smiled wryly. He had been tricked again. Multiple choice questions with his grandfather often did not present all possible answers. He really needed to take his time when answering those questions. "I see."

Yosho grunted in mild disgust. "Do you? Then, tell me how this applies to our young Ryoko?"

Tenchi's smile grew at that turn of phrase. Even though her body had grown back up, her innocence still made them all think of her as a young girl. "So, she is not ready to do training with us?"

Yosho rolled his eyes. "She is training, right now, as we speak."

Tenchi picked up on the clue. Hadn't his grandfather mentioned that Washu wanted Yosho to help with Ryoko's balance and coordination? "You have her carrying water in both hands to help her balance?" he hazarded.

"There is hope for you after all," Yosho said dryly. "Yes, that is why I told her not to drip."

"So it's not a punishment then?"

Yosho rubbed his chin. "The best lessons often teach more than one thing at a time. She needs to learn what is acceptable behavior and what is not. That is why there will be twenty trips instead of five or ten."

"Hmmm," Tenchi murmured, not agreeing that her behavior had been so inappropriate.

Yosho chuckled, picking up on Tenchi's discontent. "You are biased. Think: What would have happened to you if you had ever dared behave as such around me?"

Tenchi's eyes widened as thoughts of smacking slaps from the flat side of a bokken came to mind.

"Exactly. While you required bruises to learn, Ryoko has had enough of that in her life, don't you think?" Yosho asked, his eyes half-closed.

Thinking of Ryoko's past, and in particular how she had been put into the cave by his grandfather, Tenchi could understand why Yosho would be reluctant to cause Ryoko unneeded physical pain. He looked to his grandfather and nodded his understanding.

Later, as dusk was settling about the mountain in saturated shades of purple and blue, Tenchi found Ryoko kneeling on the stairs. She had changed out of her uniform and was wearing a blue and white patterned cotton yukata tied with a muted yellow obi. Her hair was down again, tumbling about her head in a series of untamed spikes. He liked how she looked when she wore traditional garments. On closer inspection, Tenchi noticed she was trying to hide a damp spot with a layer of fine dirt and leaves. He thought back to his grandfather's words. Hiding the drips wasn't the point of today's exercise. "Ryoko!" he called, his voice thick with disappointment.

She straightened up and gave a guilty laugh, trying to hide her deceit with her zori as she rubbed her hands together. "Uh! Hey there, Tenchi."

"What are you doing?" he asked sternly.

"Ummm…." she looked to her shoe and back to him, biting her lip. "I'm… uh… just standing here. Boy, am I tired after all of that!" Her dirty hands sneaked behind her back.

He crossed his arms. "Ryoko. It's not nice to lie."

She flushed and looked away. "Oh." She dragged her foot across the pile of leaves and dirt and exposed the splash.

"Why did you lie to me?" Tenchi asked, wishing she hadn't.

She looked back to him, her eyes glinting in the light of the rising moon. "I was tired," she whined. "It took me forever to carry all of that water up there. I don't want to do another trip."

"Is it worth your honor to escape another set of carrying?" he asked gently, wanting her to really understand why it was wrong to lie. She used to lie so easily. He didn't want her to go back to that.

A lightning bug buzzed around her head, flashing its glowing fire as it alighted in a bush that grew alongside the stairs. Ryoko held her finger out to it as she considered, her brow furrowing into a frown. "Of course it's not." She gave up on the insect and came closer to him and looked him in the eye. "Why do you have to be like that?"

He swallowed, her closeness making him uneasy. As much as he was falling into the role of big bother and protector, he still couldn't help reacting to her physical presence. It made him feel guilty when his body yearned for her. "Like what?"

"So noble." She tapped the tip of his nose with her index finger. "Like you never tried to get out of a chore."

It was his turn to flush. "Well, that's different." She always found him out. He should have known better than to get sanctimonious with her. Now he felt foolish.

She stepped back and put her hands on her hips. "Oh is it now?" She laughed merrily. "I love it when you go all big-brotherly on me. 'Is your honor worth it?'" she parroted.

"Hey!" he protested, fighting to hold the upper-hand. "Show your sempai a little respect!"

"Okay Sempai, listen to this! 'Honor is in what you do, not what you say', " she quoted, trying to sound wise, but failing because she was still laughing, with little giggles punctuating each word.

Giving up, he rubbed his forehead and laughed with her. "And where did you hear that?"

"My mom," she said importantly. "Who also said 'lies are just a different perspective of the truth'."

"She said that?" Tenchi groaned, thinking that perhaps he and his grandfather were taking on too big of a battle.

"Tenchi, we are only working on her balance, not her morals," Yosho said coming down the stairs towards him.

"Hi, Grandpa!" Ryoko said sunnily, her foot once again covering the wet spot.

"Good evening," Yosho said with a smile. "Are you finished?" His eyes went to her little shoe then skipped away as if he hadn't noticed anything.

"Yes!" she beamed, flashing her most charming smile.

"Very good. Tomorrow we will pick up where we left off," Yosho said continuing down the stairs.

"But Grandpa, she…." Tenchi began, feeling the need to set the record straight. He had to set a good example.

"Are you ratting me out?" Ryoko asked in disbelief. "I can't believe it."

Yosho didn't stop his descent. "No one likes a tattletale, Tenchi. You can do the remaining trip for Ryoko if you are so concerned with it."

Ryoko's laugh rang out into the growing shadows, only just covering the sound of Tenchi's squawk of disbelief.

***

Night-time, as it nestled around the remote countryside, had a deep blackness to it, almost like the bottom of the sea. With no street lamps the darkness was absolute and seemed to contain countless spirits moving with motions of the night breezes. Tenchi's body jerked as he awoke suddenly, feeling eyes upon him. He squinted into the pale light cast by the digital display of his bed-side alarm clock. Hovering over him, her features bathed in the eerie green glow, was Ryoko. She pulled back as he sat up scratching his tousled head.

"Ryoko?" he yawned, confused by the sight of her in her once favorite position. Had the whole Zero thing been a dream? Would Ryoko try to climb into bed and have her wicked way with him? He rubbed his eyes and looked into her face as his heart beat sped up in anticipation.

"T- Tenchi?" she began, hugging herself and maintaining her distance. "I had a bad dream."

He let out a yawn as he came more fully awake. She hovered a respectful distance away in a modest pink night gown and was faintly trembling. Her eyes darted around as if she were making sure the room was secure. This was no revisit of the past. Here was his Ryoko, frightened and needing his help. His heart resumed a more typical pace, but he found the need to mound the blankets over his lap to hide his body's reaction to seeing her above him.

"I'm sorry for coming into your room," she said into the silence. "I just… well…" She picked at the lace ruffle going around the neck of the gown. "I…"

"That's okay," he said kindly.

Ryoko touched down and stood on the edge of the area rug, her pink cabbit slippers sticking their tongues out at Tenchi from her feet. "I couldn't tell mom. She is locked into one of the deeper labs. She even cut off the link," she said shyly, clearly needing to explain her presence in his room.

"She cut the link?" Tenchi asked with surprise. Given their past, he had doubted Washu would ever truly let Ryoko out of her 'sight'.

Ryoko nodded, the fear slowly leaving her eyes as they spoke of normal things. "She does that when she is working on something very dangerous and doesn't dare have any distractions."

Tenchi nodded, folding his hands over his lap, just be safe. Even a modest night gown was tempting on someone like Ryoko. He could almost see details beneath the thin fabric. "So, want to talk about your dream?" He squashed down his lecherous thoughts. After all, she had come to him for protection. He couldn't let his body's reaction to her be noticeable, or it would frighten her. That was the last thing he wanted. They had been growing so close. To have her coming to him like this was proof that she trusted him. He couldn't blow this.

Ryoko let her eyes drift away. "Not really." A note of distrust had slipped into her voice.

"Why not?" he asked sounding hurt. "You know you can talk to me."

"It's stupid, really," she said pulling a foot out of a slipper and digging her toes into the rug.

"I can tell you were scared," he coaxed. "That makes it important."

"Mmmm," she hummed, looking at him out of the corner of a big yellow eye. "Promise not to laugh?"

"Cross my heart," he promised, patting the edge of his bed in invitation. "Come here."

"Okay, Tenchi." She slipped her foot back into the slipper and padded closer and alighted on the edge of the bed. She reached for one of his hands and took it into both of hers. "Promise?"

Tenchi gulped as her hand came so close to his lap. His cheeks flushed under the cover of darkness. "P-promise."

"Okay," Ryoko said with a squeeze of his hand. "In my dream I was outside of my house. Not the part that interfaces with the lab, but the part in the other dimension, the one that interfaces with an M- class planet and has a yard." She looked to him to see if he was following.

He nodded and squeezed her hands back. The touch of her skin and sounds of her soft alto whispering to him in the darkness made it harder to control his body. The night made them seem protected from the rest of the world, like anything was possible. He could almost convince himself that kissing her would be alright.

"That side of the house has a big glass front door. It's clear so you can see inside the front hall," Ryoko explained. "I tried to open the door, but it was locked."

"You couldn't open the door?" Tenchi asked, mentally shaking his head and trying to focus on the task at hand.

"No, not at all. When I looked in through the door, I noticed all of the art was gone. All of mom's favorite paintings and the big sculpture by the door." Ryoko pulled her hands away and clasped them in her lap, her voice raising pitch as she spoke faster. "I ran around to all of the windows on the first floor and looked inside. Everything was gone! The furniture, the rugs, the plants! All of it!" She made a small sound of distress. "Do you know what the worst part was?"

"What?" he asked, his heated feelings cooled by her obvious distress. "What was it?"

"When I went back to the front door Mom was standing inside, but she wouldn't let me in. When I asked her why, she asked me who I was. She didn't know me!" Ryoko blew out a large breath if air and released Tenchi's hand, staring down at her fingers. "She –she told me to leave," she whispered.

Tenchi carefully slipped an arm around Ryoko's shoulders, watchful to make sure she was alright with the contact. He wanted to comfort her, not frighten her further. "Then you woke up?" he asked, thinking back to Ryoko's old nightmares of mayhem and destruction. She used to wake him up with her tortured screams almost weekly. If these milder dreams of confusion and disorder were the worst of her dreams now, then every bit of difficulty her change had caused him was worth it.

Ryoko leaned into his shoulder, tilting her head so her spiky hair wouldn't tickle his nose. "Yes." She was quiet for a moment then laughed softly. "It sounds so stupid when I tell it, but it really was scary."

Tenchi tightened his hold on her shoulders. "Don't worry about it. That's why it's good to talk about dreams. Something about saying them out loud steals their power."

Ryoko relaxed, letting her weight rest fully on him, sighing sleepily. She raised her arms and draped them around his neck in a light hug. "Mmmm. You're right." She yawned hugely as she snuggled closer, burying her face in his neck. "Now I'm all sleepy."

Soft. Warm. Round. Those adjectives danced through Tenchi's mind as Ryoko made her self comfortable against his body. This was the way she had felt when she would glomp onto him on those mornings so long ago now. He hadn't appreciated it then, but now he reveled in it. She smelled faintly of vanilla and brown sugar too. She was a fresh baked sugar cookie and he wanted to gobble her up. "Ryoko," he whispered into the ear that had ended up right by his mouth. "I think you should go back to bed now." His voice sounded strained, even to him.

"Carry me," she insisted, her voice dreamy.

Resisting the urge to nibble on that perfect earlobe so tantalizingly close, Tenchi shifted so she sat up a little, slumping without his support. "You're too big to carry now."

" 'Kay," she murmured, falling back against him bonelessly, a small snore escaping her lips.

"Ryoko?" Tenchi asked shaking her a little. "You didn't fall asleep did you?"

A louder snore was his answer.

"Great," he groaned. He gently laid her down the rest of the way on the bed and watched her sleep. It would be so easy to lean over and brush a small kiss across her lips. She would never know, and he would treasure the sensation forever.

No. That was wrong. She trusted him, and he would not break that trust.

He looked at her more closely. Her face was perfectly relaxed, her mouth slightly open with the first signs of drool pooling in the corner. She looked so sweet and trusting. Feeling guilty about even considering taking advantage of her, Tenchi carefully removed her slippers and made sure her head rested comfortably on a pillow. Drawing the comforter over her tempting curves, he chastised himself for thinking about her that way. She trusted him, thought of him as a protector, came to him when she needed comfort.

He didn't deserve her. Not at all.

"I'm sorry," he said reaching over to brush a lock of hair out of her face.

At the sound of his voice, she let out a sleep-filled moan and sighed his name, sounding as if she yearned for him as much as he yearned for her.

Groaning, Tenchi stood up and backed away. Staying here any longer was a bad, bad idea. He grabbed a free pillow and beat a quick retreat to the living room. Perhaps the hard cushions of the couch would help him reach a purer state of mind.

Being her brother was the sweetest agony he had ever known.

To be continued….

A/N: Hi all. Thanks for the great reviews. That is about all that is keeping me going on this one, so you can thank yourself for getting another chapter out. Real life has become even more busy than usual for me, and I hardly have the time or energy to write fiction anymore. However, I like to finish what I start, so I have every intention of taking this to completion. So please stay tuned, even if there are big gaps between chapters. I get to this as I can. Big smooches go out to you all.

Also, here is the skinny on Ryoko's dream. Some psychologists say to dream of looking into an empty house, particularly when it is one's own house, means that one is looking into themselves. It is an issue of searching for identity. Suits our young Ryoko, ne?