** Note **
** Tenchi Muyo! and related characters, locations, and situations are the property of AIC/Pioneer and used here without permission.
** Created as an entry for the One Guy and a Fish Fanfic Review Christmas Fanfiction Contest by Diane Long and Krin Dreamweaver.
** /Note **
The Stars Are Brightly Shining
Despite the insulating layers of coat, sweater, shirt, undershirt, and mittens, Tenchi shivered against the cold. At least, he firmly told himself that it was the cold. He was most definitely not shaking because he was holding back tears. Men did not do that, and Tenchi was going to be a man, just like his Daddy.
"Daddy doesn't cry," Tenchi mumbled into the neck of his coat and stared hard at fat flakes of snow dribbling down from the sky. "He never cries. Except that time when he hit his thumb with the hammer, but he wasn't really crying. Not because he was sad." Tenchi looked up surreptitiously at the stone beside him. It always felt, when he sat on the wide, flat stones before the old cave, that there was someone else there. Perched atop one of the upright rocks, or even sitting right next to him, sometimes.
And, sometimes, when he looked just right, he could even see someone.
Tenchi looked up to see a figure approaching along the path, bundled, as he was, in soft shades of green.
"Tenchi!" The old man called as he neared, "It's time to go into town and get the tree and cake, Tenchi."
"Okay, Grandpa!" Tenchi replied loudly. Then, in a hushed tone to the almost-there figure beside him, "I gotta go. I'll come back later."
"What a cutie," Ryoko thought to herself as the young boy chased after his grandfather. She touched the rock where he had been sitting with a transparent hand, trying to soak up any radiant energy he might have left behind. Why was it always so cold here? It had never been this cold in space.
A snowflake spiraled past her nose and she blew at it, trying to change its path. But just like everything she tried to do in the physical world, she could not influence it. She used to not care. The darkness of the cave had once been a soothing balm, a deep slumber she had been craving for thousands of years.
But now she was awake again. All because of one little boy who had caught her interest as she turned over in her sleep from one century to the next. And now she that had her eyes upon him, she couldn't turn away, and sleep was impossible.
Now she waited for him, to watch him to see what he would do. Sometimes he could see her too, she knew it from the ways his eyes twinkled when he found her sunning herself, always desperately seeking warmth, at the mouth of the cave. It was worth waiting for days just to be acknowledged in that kind glance.
It made her feel strangely nice when he looked at her like that.
But he had been sad today. She could feel it in the way the cold burned around him. She wanted to touch him, warm him, let him know it was okay. But like the snow, he was out of her reach.
It was strange, having something that mattered to her. Strange to want something, to desire a connection.
She sniffed, faintly catching the smells of balsam and cinnamon. Something was in the air. Something was going on. Tenchi was even more excitable than usual these days. And what was all of this about cake? And trees? They had plenty of trees, she could count six from where she sat.
There was so much she didn't understand. So she settled in to wait till he came back.
* * *
"Can we get that one?" Tenchi asked, pointing to one of the bewildering array of Christmas cakes arrayed behind a screen of protective glass. He looked up curiously to make sure his father was paying attention and, upon finding him fully occupied with a boring white cake further down, tugged urgently at a sleeve.
"Huh? What, Tenchi?"
"That one," Tenchi repeated, pointing to the cake he had found.
"That one?" His father asked, leaning down to look at the cake. It was on the bottom rack, nearly hidden in a corner. "I don't know, Tenchi. It's awfully blue, isn't it?"
"It's pretty," Tenchi said defensively. The light blue frosting dominating the confection seemed soothing. It reminded Tenchi of something he could not quite identify.
"Why don't we get one of these? Your mother always liked these, with the little nonpareils on them."
Tenchi frowned at the white cake near the top of the display. It was over his head, so he had to stand back and on his toes to even see it. It was the kind they always used to get, but it just didn't seem right to have that kind of cake this year. They had not had a cake at all last year. And the tree only had lights on it, because they could not figure out where the box was with the balls. Not that anybody had really felt like trying very hard.
"Mommy's not here," Tenchi said, sounding more indignant than he had really wanted to.
"I know that," Nobuyuki said gently, "but-"
"We can't have Mommy's cake without her," Tenchi grumbled stubbornly. He stared at the blue cake in the corner, wondering what he liked so much about it. Blue was hardly his favorite color.
"Okay," sighed Nobuyuki. Tenchi looked up, startled. He could not remember ever winning an argument with his Daddy before. "But not that blue one. How about one of these green ones?"
Tenchi scooted closer and peered in at the cakes. Most were a deep, forest green and decorated with red flowers or silver and gold...the non-something things that Mommy liked so much and Tenchi could never remember the name of. A lot of them were really nice, and Tenchi had to admit that they were prettier than the blue one. There was just something about that color...
"Can we get that one Daddy?" Tenchi asked, pointing to a medium-sized green cake dotted with chocolate drops and sugar flowers. There was a big snowman in the center in nearly the same color icing as the blue cake.
* * *
"Yes Tenchi," the old man replied, lowering the newspaper he was studying on the couch. He smelled like sandalwood, but that was normal. Grandpa always smelled like sandalwood.
"I think he went out for a walk," Katsuhito explained, seeming slightly hesitant to Tenchi's curious eyes. "Down the mountain to the lake, maybe."
"Oh," Tenchi agreed. That meant Daddy was at Mommy's grave. He was always 'down by the lake' when he went there. Tenchi didn't understand why his father went there so much. Whenever Tenchi went it was just sad, because Mommy wasn't there. "I'm gonna go for a walk too, okay?"
"Of course, Tenchi. You know your way. You won't stay out too late, though?"
"Huh uh. It's snowin' and I wanted to build a snowman and go-" Tenchi paused, remembering that he was not really supposed to go to the cave.
"Go play at the cave?"
Tenchi blushed and toyed with the carpet with his toes, staring down at the intricate design. Grandpa's house was full of things like that. They looked simple and old, but up close they were all detailed and complicated. Tenchi considered that his grandfather's house was really a lot like his grandfather, that way.
"Why do you go there so often?"
"Okay, don't tell an old man, then." Something in his grandfather's tone made Tenchi want to tell him. Maybe the way he seemed to really not care. Like he already knew, and if Tenchi did not tell him it would only be Tenchi that looked silly.
"I dunno," Tenchi said honestly. "I just like it there."
"You don't go in, do you? You know it's dangerous in there, Tenchi."
"I know, Grandpa," Tenchi sighed. He had had this lecture lots of times already. "I just sit around outside. One time I roasted some sweet potatoes."
"But why there? That's a lonely place, Tenchi."
"It's not lonely." Tenchi did not want to talk to his grandfather about the presence he felt at the cave again. Grandpa always said it was a forest spirit being 'mis-che-vous'. That meant that it liked to play tricks, but Tenchi could not remember it ever playing any tricks. It just sat there with him. Sometimes he felt like she was trying to touch him.
Tenchi looked up at his grandfather to find the old man staring curiously at him. A moment later he shook his head and shuffled the newspaper in his hands. "You go on, then, Tenchi. But don't be out late or you'll miss dinner."
"Okay Grandpa," Tenchi agreed, already across the room and struggling into his coat before his grandfather had finished speaking. He wanted to make a snowman out in front of the cave to keep the person there company. He thought she looked really lonely, the times he caught a glimpse of her. A snowman was not much company, but Tenchi thought it would be better than nothing.
* * *
A small, grey squirrel bounded across the patches of snow and sand at the cave's entrance. Its nose quivered and it sat up on its haunches sniffing the air as it flicked its tail nervously. It eyed the apparition seated on a stone to its left and began digging in earth, looking for a stash of nuts.
Ryoko watched it carefully, noting it's perfect little whiskers, bright eyes and tiny claws. She liked the animals that lived here. They all seemed able to see her, which helped her remember she was real, not just some shadow of a past time. She enjoyed the simple, peaceful lives of the animals too. That was much better than Ryoko's life used to be, and she found the animals around her cave to be good teachers about living.
Would she ever be free of this cave to live her own life? Would he ever set her free? She chafed her arms with her hands and held on to hope.
The squirrel found a nut and was making short work of its withered hull with its front teeth. It kept a wary eye on Ryoko as it ate, but seemed satisfied with her stillness. Then, for some motivation Ryoko could not fathom, it dropped its nut and bounded up into the highest branches of a conifer.
Ryoko watched it climb higher and higher, wondering what had spooked it. Then the sound of snow crunching beneath booted feet caught her ears and she smiled. Her little Tenchi was coming back to pay her a visit. She chuckled when he stomped into view, completely unrecognizable beneath his many layers of coats, scarves, mittens, hat and earmuffs. Only the tip of his nose and his big brown eyes were visible. He was just adorable.
He trundled into the clearing and stopped short, looking straight at her.
Ryoko's heart quickened. Could he see her again? That would be wonderful.
"There you are!" Tenchi chirped excitedly, running up to her and looking her in the eye. "Why can't I see you sometimes?"
Ryoko smiled, still a relatively new sensation, and shrugged. Who knew how this imprisonment worked?
Obviously excited about having a chance to communicate, Tenchi jabbed a thumb into his chest. "My Name is Masaki Tenchi!"
She nodded to show that she understood. She knew that anyway, from the time his was an infant she had known his name.
"Well? What's your name?"
"Ryoko," she said, but she knew he couldn't hear her. She couldn't even her it herself. She followed the movement of her lips with a light touch to her throat to tell him she couldn't really speak.
Tenchi's eyes crinkled in thought. "That's okay Lady! I'll give you a name!"
Ryoko straightened and looked at him expectantly. This should be interesting.
"Grandpa says that a demon sleeps here," little Tenchi said with authority.
Ryoko's shoulder's drooped. She didn't want this boy to think of her that way. It hadn't been her fault. Why couldn't anyone understand that?
"But you are too pretty to be a demon!"
Ryoko brightened and graced him with a shy smile. Her? Pretty?
"But you still live in the demon cave, so I'm going to call you Oni-chan!" Tenchi proclaimed mischievously.
Ryoko giggled silently and nodded. Coming from him, she didn't mind that title.
"And now, Oni-chan, I am going to play in the snow!" Tenchi scampered to the deepest snowdrift and began scooping up snow. As he did this the top of a narrow, tall stone came uncovered, its dark grey hue contrasting with the bright snow. Tenchi paused and looked at it, obviously considering something.
Ryoko drifted closer, hovering above the frozen ground, to get a better look at what he was doing. He had seemed happier than before, but his expression was changing. What was wrong?
Tenchi was now scraping the snow away from the rock and mounding it into a narrow rectangle at its base. He looked up at Ryoko's curious face then back down to the stone and the snow. "This is what Mommy's grave down by the lake looks like, Oni-chan."
Ryoko nodded seriously, knowing how heartbroken this boy had been over the loss of his mother.
Tenchi picked up some lose sticks from the ground and stuck the little bundle in the snow at the base of the stone. "And this is like the incense daddy lights when he wants to talk to mommy." Tenchi knelt formally in seiza at in front of his snow grave. "And this is how we pray." He looked up at Ryoko and motioned for her to kneel by him. "You too."
Ryoko settled beside him, the snow showing through the outlines of her knees. She looked at him with worry. This wasn't his typical kind of play. Why was he so sad now? What had made him miss his mother more than usual?
Tenchi bowed his head and clasped his hands in front of him. "Hi Mommy. This is my friend Oni-chan. Mommy, we went to get the Christmas cake today. Daddy wanted to buy your favorite, but I told him we couldn't without you." He sniffed. "I miss you mommy." He stopped, sniffing again. "It's not Christmas without you here." He wiped at his eyes with a mittened fist. "Come back mommy, come back for Christmas."
Ryoko's lips curled downwards as he started to cry in earnest, with soul shattering little sobs.
What to do? How could she help him? She floated in front of him so he could see her, but he wasn't looking, his eyes were screwed closed in grief. Ryoko gritted her teeth and focused, trying with all of her being to make her hand solid. She tried to wipe away his tears, but her hand just passed through his face like it usually did.
Tears of frustration formed in the corners of her eyes. This little one did not deserve to be sad. He deserved to be happy and carefree. She wanted to help him, but she could do nothing. She settled for kneeling very close to him and pretending to pat his shoulder as he cried and cried.
"Tenchi!" Katsuhito's voice rang out like a shot. "Come away from there right now!"
Ryoko looked over to see her captor staring at her angrily, as if she were hurting his grandson.
Ryoko shot away from with small boy and faced Katsuhito with open hands, her arms out stretched. She shook her head fiercely and silently repeated the words "I would never hurt this one." A tear rolled down her cheek. He had to understand! She would never harm Tenchi. The mere thought of it made her sick.
Tenchi, still crying, stumbled over to his grandfather and threw his arms around his legs.
Katsuhito looked between Tenchi and the nervous space pirate. "What has happened here Tenchi?"
"I want my mommy. It's Christmas and I want her here!" Tenchi shouted into his grandfather's pants leg.
Katsuhito sighed. "I do too, Tenchi." He rubbed his grandson's back. "Let's go back to the house."
Tenchi pulled away and wiped his eyes. "But I need to make Oni-chan's snowman. She will be lonely if I don't."
The old man looked to Ryoko as she hovered meekly by the mouth of the cave, shivering and hugging her self. "Sometimes loneliness is necessary Tenchi."
"That's so sad grandpa," Tenchi said watching as his friend began to fade away.
"Very sad," Katsuhito agreed, steering Tenchi towards the path. "Let's go." As they went he looked back over his shoulder and cast Ryoko a long, appraising look before he and Tenchi disappeared around a bend in the path.
"I would never hurt him," Ryoko whispered, letting the cold overtake her as her essence faded back into the earth, to join her body at the roots of the mountain.
* * *
Tenchi liked to draw. He had, as far as he could recall, always liked to draw. In fact, some of his very oldest and most hard-to-remember memories were of sitting on the living room floor in his family's house with a sheet of paper laid out before him, a scattering of crayons close at his elbow, and a bright stick clutched carefully in his fingers to coax the lines out of his head and into reality.
Despite the enjoyment Tenchi derived from his favorite pastime, he had a problem. No matter how hard he tried, things never looked on paper the way they did in his head. It was very frustrating, sometimes, to have a picture sitting right there in the big dark space where they formed somewhere just behind his eyes, but not be able to make the crayons move the way he needed them to. The pictures in his head always looked just like real life, but the ones on the paper never did. Daddy was always so proud when he brought him a drawing, but Tenchi knew he was not as good as his father made out. No matter how hard he tried, his pictures never looked good enough. Never like the perfect ones in the study at home, hung up on the walls in frames and made with the funny blue colors on the so-thin paper.
Screwing his face up in frustration, Tenchi squinted angrily at the page stretched out on the floor before him. He lay on hardwood floor of what was once his mother's bedroom, in some legendary time that Tenchi could hardly imagine, when she was his age.
Usually Tenchi liked sleeping in that room because, despite the furniture being just like all the rest in his grandfather's house, it all seemed somehow so very inherently to belong to his mother. But now she was gone, and no matter how much Tenchi wished, he knew she would not come back for Christmas. It was hard to understand why she had to...go away. Hard to understand why she could not come back to take care of him and Daddy, even though all the other boys at school still had their mothers to take care of them. It was so hard that, sometimes, Tenchi would pretend she wasn't really gone forever. She was just away visiting someone, or she was in the hospital still, sick like she was so much. Wherever she had gone, she would be back soon and when the moon was dark and the night cold, she would be there again to tuck in his blankets and sing the bedtime song for him.
Lying there in the room that was once hers, though, Tenchi could not pretend. He knew that she was gone and she would never come back. She was not away visiting, or sick in a hospital bed. She was- Tenchi forced himself to think the big, black, awful thought. She was dead. Not dead like on television where they came back sometimes, but really, real-life dead. Tenchi remembered that it took his father a long time to explain that, and he felt stupid, now, thinking about how hard it had been to understand why Mommy could never come back from the hospital again. He felt bad for making Daddy talk about it so much. Daddy never talked about it anymore. He hardly ever even talked about Mommy anymore. And when he did, it was scary because sometimes it was like he was pretending that she was just away visiting too; and for a reason Tenchi did not at all understand, it was very frightening that Daddy had to pretend, too.
Tenchi looked at the picture on the floor again and shook his head. It was supposed to be Oni-chan, but it did not really look much like her. She was pretty, but the drawing wasn't. It was just a boxy peach figure with a shock of blue hair, and it was not even the right color blue. Staring at it, Tenchi realized why he wanted to blue cake so much. He dropped his crayon in frustration and picked up the paper, crumpling it into a tight ball before throwing it angrily across the room. He did not understand why it should be so hard to make the crayons make the pictures he could see. They were so clear and so pretty, but they just would not come out.
Picking up a crayon once more, gold this time, Tenchi resignedly began to draw. Whether they looked how he wanted or not, the pictures were there and the only way to get rid of them was to make them real. Not that it did much good; there was always another one waiting. This time he found himself drawing a star.
* * *
His grandfather's house was never silent, and every little noise seemed like an explosion as Tenchi crept cautiously down the hallway toward the living room. The only light came in the form of a shifting, winking pattern of colors splashed across the wall and partway down the hallway floor from the lights of the Christmas tree, left on all night to celebrate Christmas Eve.
Knowing that he would be in trouble if caught out of bed this late, but trying to push that fear down deep enough to stop his hands from shaking, Tenchi slunk toward the kitchen. There were presents piled beneath the tree which had not been there the evening previous, but Tenchi did his best to ignore them. He would, perhaps, be able to pause and stare at them on the way back; but now he had a goal and he knew if he stopped to be distracted, he would never have the nerve to start up again.
Tenchi flipped the kitchen light switch slowly, moving it a tiny fraction of a centimeter at a time as though it would somehow slow the sudden flare of light created when it reached that magical point which transformed the room from a shadowy, secret cave to the warmly-lit, comfortably familiar kitchen of his grandfather's house. When that moment arrived, the light seemed so bright that Tenchi was sure it must have made a noise. He froze, waiting for his father or grandfather to come angrily in, asking why he was out of bed so late at night.
When no one arrived for what Tenchi was sure had been at least an hour but the wall clock obstinately insisted was a mere three minutes, he relaxed. The kitchen door was carefully shut, so only a tiny light would escape from beneath it and both bedrooms were all the way down the hall. Daddy and Grandpa would still be asleep and if he was careful they would never know he had gotten out of bed. Tenchi felt bad about sneaking around, because it felt almost like lying, but he knew he would not be allowed to do what he wanted. He did not quite understand why Grandpa had suddenly decided he was not allowed to go to the cave anymore, but he seemed very definite about it. Tenchi thought it was very mean that poor Oni-chan should have to be all alone there, and if Grandpa could see her too, then Tenchi did not understand at all why he did not go talk to her and keep her company. He had never known his grandfather to be a cruel man before.
The knife seemed very heavy when Tenchi lifted it from the drawer and all of his mother's many warnings never to ever play with knives came rushing back in torrents. Tenchi could not remember ever holding a knife without an adult standing behind him before. But he had never cut himself, either, so if he was very, very careful, Tenchi thought he could accomplish his task without hurting himself. He turned away from the counter and headed for the refrigerator, eyes carefully on the knife to make sure it did not jump in his hand and cut him somehow.
How to get the cake out of the refrigerator was not a problem that Tenchi had considered. It was quite heavy. Heavier, in fact, than he thought it had been to begin with, despite being nearly half gone. So, unable to lift the unwieldy plate without having to go put down the knife first, Tenchi simply cut the cake where it sat on the white grill shelf, shivering slightly in the cold air pouring out of the open door. He had dressed as silently as possible before leaving his mother's old bedroom, but the cold still seemed to seep in through his socks.
With a slice of cake wrapped delicately in a paper napkin, Tenchi checked his pocket for the little paper star. It was as close as he could come to the stars that they hung every year on the Christmas tree, but still fell short of the mark. It was not quite exactly even, and one of the points was a little crooked. He could not make Oni-chan's name look like it had been stamped on the star the way they were on the real, metal ones that shone like the stars they iconified on the tree out in the living room. Everyone in the family had one. Even Mommy, though hers was still in a box, sitting with the empty decoration boxes and waiting for when the tree got taken down and all the rest put away. Nobody had wanted to put up Mommy's star, and Tenchi was not sure what would happen to it now. He guessed it would just sit there in the box every year. In any case, Oni-chan's name was in black crayon on top of the gold, and Tenchi imagined he could feel the difference in the waxy textures when he rubbed his fingers across the slip of colored paper in his pocket.
As Tenchi pushed the front door closed achingly slowly, he wondered why he was doing what he was doing. It was almost three o'clock in the morning. He could not remember a time when he had been awake so late. It was so late, Tenchi reflected, that it was almost early. That seemed funny, but Tenchi was careful not to laugh. He could not make any noise until he was already on the stairs. That was the rule he had made for getting away without getting caught, and he was determined not to break it. Not even when he realized, suddenly, why he was sneaking out and risking being caught and getting in trouble on Christmas day itself.
It was, Tenchi reasoned, because Oni-chan had no one to tuck her in. It was dark and cold and she always looked just as lonely as Tenchi had ever felt when he lay in bed at night, with the room so dark that he could not tell when his eyes were open. Mommy was gone and could never tuck him in again or sing for him to make all the nightmare fears go away, but he was still there and Oni-chan, or whatever her real name might be, needed someone there for her, too. Maybe, Tenchi thought as he tiptoed across the frozen stones of the yard about his grandfather's house, if he was there for her, then someday she would be there to tuck him in, when the moon was dark and the night cold.
* * *
Ryoko's astral form curled into a tight knot as she hovered above her submerged body. She shivered and tucked her chin into her chest as the ice-blue light from the water beneath made her transparent form nearly invisible. It was always chilled in the cave, but outside it was so frozen and so white that it seemed worse, even though Ryoko suspected external temperature changes made no impact on her in this form. So as unbelievable was it was, her prison was preferable to an exposed Japanese winter's night. When the sun came back up, she would go back out and watch, but for now she would just be. Meditation was better than thinking. If she thought too much she would remember… things.
So she exhaled and guided her mind past the ice flows creeping through her veins. It was all a matter of control…she focused on her breathing… there was nothing but her breath… in and out… in and out…
Ryoko's eyes popped open. The call was faint, but in her domain, Ryoko could track the progress of the tree roots and earthworms. Tenchi was back. Was it morning already? With a smile, Ryoko passed through the walls of the cave, emerging to find the bitter-bright sparkle of the stars still in the winter sky and a thin slice of a waning moon poised over the swell of the mountainside. There was Tenchi, bundled up, but not so much as before, looking into the rusted iron grate barring the cave's entrance.
"Oniiii- chaaaan!" he called again. "Are you asleep in there?"
Grinning Ryoko slipped in front of him and waved.
"Hey!" he yelled. "It's Christmas, you gotta wake up!"
"But I'm here," Ryoko mouthed sadly, realizing that he couldn't see her again.
Tenchi stopped a booted foot in frustration. "Girls! They sleep too much!"
Despite her sadness, Ryoko couldn't help but laugh a little.
Tenchi dug in his pocket muttering, "Well, I'll be Santa then." He took the paper star out of his pocket and laced it snugly between two of the metal bars of the gate so that it would not blow away. Then he waded through the snow to a stunted cedar tree that grew on the sparsely vegetated mountain slope. He grabbed its small trunk with both hands and stuck his behind in the air as he pulled at it. Grunting, he let go and took a couple of deep breaths before staring to tug at it anew. The shallow roots of the tree reluctantly pulled free of the frozen earth and Tenchi carried the small tree, so small that it was no taller than his waist, and leaned it against the gate, under the paper star. Satisfied, he stuck a mittened hand into his other pocket and pulled out a cloth wrapped slice of cake and set it beneath the tree. He also found a smooth river stone in that pocket and set it under the tree for good measure.
Ryoko watched all of this was a puzzled expression. What was this little boy doing out here all by himself in the middle of the night? And more than that, what was he doing with the objects he seemed intent on heaping against the door to her cave?
"Merry Christmas, Oni-chan," Tenchi sighed, sitting next to the tree and looking up at the stars. "Now wake up so I can go back to bed."
Ryoko floated in front of him, just to be sure he couldn't see her. No reaction.
She bit her lip in worry. Damn. It was cold out here and he could get sick. It wasn't safe up here in the dark either. What if he slipped and fell going home? But he couldn't stay here. It was just too cold.
Her worry grew as Tenchi curled up in a little ball and started drifting into sleep.
Oh no. He couldn't sleep out here. He would die. Her little Tenchi would die. Frantic now, Ryoko floated nervously back and forth across the cave's entrance. She had to do something, but what?
She was as insubstantial as a forgotten idea. What could she do? She couldn't touch him. He couldn't see or hear her. She couldn't really leave the general area of the cave.
Or could she?
When she had tried in the past it had hurt very much, feeling like she was unraveling like a twist of yarn. But Katsuhito could see her. If she could make it to him, she could get help for Tenchi.
Decided, she reached out with her mind and traced the outflow of the power of her gems embedded in the Tenchiken, as it went to Funaho and was then redirected to Katsuhito. Having a general direction she began to fly slowly, but determinedly away from her cave.
It hurt. It hurt. It hurt.
The molecules within her seemed to lose their atomic bonds the further she went, and her astral form lost its clear outlines, leaving her to look like a vaporous mist with a vaguely human shape. But she was getting close. She could feel it.
Her mind was going too. She was stretched so thin. Would her mind snap and her consciousness shatter? She could barely remember why she was doing this.
Why was she doing this? Tenchi. She could forget. It was for Tenchi.
She felt like she was drifting apart.
"Ryoko?" asked Katsuhito in an amazed voice. He stood before her on the path, halfway between the shrine and his house, wearing his pajamas and an overcoat. His flashlight was on and shone through her like headlights through a fog.
"Ten…" she moaned, like a whisper of the wind through the ice sickles, "…chi." She motioned her head back down the path and drifted back the way she had come, her form resolidifying as they went.
Upon reaching the cave she collapsed against the snow and lay there quivering. Phantoms of sweat beaded her brow and she gasped for air as Katsuhito examined his grandson.
"He's fine, just sleeping," he assured Ryoko.
She nodded and smiled, still getting her breathing under control.
The old priest examined Tenchi's offerings. "Do you know what these things mean?
Ryoko shook her head to indicate she did not know.
"Today is a holiday, a festival that we celebrate here on earth. These things a tree, a star, presents, are symbols of this holiday. It means many things to many people. To me it has an element of the divine. To Tenchi it is a time for presents and friends."
Ryoko listened, but didn't seem to get it.
"Tenchi is your friend Ryoko."
She pushed herself up to her elbows and cocked her head to the side. "My friend? I have a friend?"
Perfectly able to hear her, the priest nodded. "It seems so. How did that happen?"
"Well I don't know!" she flared in confusion. "I didn't make him do it, if that's what you mean. He comes to see me. What can I do about it? I'm stuck here."
"I am not here to scold you, Ryoko."
Ryoko looked at Katsuhito, her lip trembling as fear overtook her. "Please let him come back. I won't hurt him. I swear it!"
Katsuhito sighed and looked to the tree that Tenchi uprooted. "This cedar has been here for ever 100 years, stunted by the poor growing conditions. It's a shame really, it was uprooted before it reached readiness." He looked over at the demon thoughtfully. "Do not let Tenchi do the same thing to you."
"What are you talking about?"
"You need to go back to sleep, Ryoko."
"What? But I don't want to! What about Tenchi!"
Katsuhito laid a hand on her shoulder, and she was surprised to actually feel the touch. "Its too early. You will be released very soon. But not soon enough to stay awake."
"I want to stay awake. Please!" She struggled to her knees and begged him. "I want to see him."
"You are only suffering. There is no need for such loneliness and suffering. It can be prevented."
"He will remember you when the time comes." Katsuhito scooped up Tenchi in his arms and regarded the demon. "Tomorrow I will return and make sure you rest comfortably." He turned to leave.
"You will release me someday?" she whispered, barely able to hope that it would be so.
"No, but he will."
She was silent as the meaning of the words soaked into her.
"Merry Christmas Ryoko."
Di's Note: Writing with my good friend Krin has been such a treat and an honor. I'm pleased this contest was here because it gave us a chance to play!