Chapter 2 – Growing Closer

Seven months ago, the planet Jurai was sacked by an ancient foe, one who was only remembered as a nameless villain in an early imperial legend. During the Jurai royal family reunion, when most of the Juraian nobility returned home, very few of the attendants knew of the threat looming closer to their lush world. Even fewer were prepared when the blast wave of NVO energy swept over the surface of the planet, taking both the power and consciousness from every noble it touched. Only those expressly enveloped in Tsunami's wings were spared this fate.

Jurai Nagi remembered the moment clearly. Following her rescue from the enemy's clutches, she laid in a palace infirmary, recovering from the psychic torment of Jezibel Kimitan. At her side sat Capt. Jurai Tensho, her estranged father. Their first meeting after nine years, so much was different: the feel of his hands clasping hers, the gray streaks in his jet-black hair, the new lines etched in his face. She wanted to express how she missed him and held tight to his lessons, but words failed her with her tiredness. Likewise, he wanted to tell her how he thought about her and followed her career, but his tongue also forsook him. Neither knew the other anymore, and both yearned to find that connection again.

Thankfully, Ken-Ohki mewed to Tensho, and the soldier gently scratched the little creature's head. The white cabbit purred softly, softening the man's cocoa-colored eyes.

"He's your partner then?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, father," she answered, glancing to her ally. "We've been together for a long time now."

He scratched the cabbit carefully under his chin, causing Ken-Ohki to lift his head slightly.

"He certainly does care deeply about you," Tensho added with a smile starting to cross his lips.

"As I care for him," she noted, her eyes trailing toward her father's face.

In that moment, the huntress felt some relief and contentment, some normalcy in her violence-filled life. Nostalgia warmed her heart, reminded of how he had read her stories and legends as a child. They would have talked the rest of the night if Fate had chosen differently.

Sadly, when Tensho opened his mouth to speak next, his eyes widened at Nagi's purple hairband. The item pulsed with a white light when a shield of light cracked reality over the huntress's sheets, a Light Hawk Wing. At the time, neither was familiar with the construct, and unease took them both.

"What is that?" Nagi asked.

"I'm not sure, but your hairband is pulsing with it."

Ken-Ohki hissed at the wing as it grew translucent and enveloped Nagi in its protective embrace. The huntress rose from her bed, confused by the field surrounding her, trying to touch it, to remove it.

"What the hell is going on?!" she demanded from the ether. "What is this?!"

With no warning, a wave of red light swept over the room, washing over everything and everyone in the room, save Nagi. Ken-Ohki curiously mewed at the ruby front as it passes harmlessly over him. However, the wake of the energy wrapped Tensho in a shroud of pain, his body tensing, his breath hissing through clenched teeth. He grabbed his arms and stumbled backward from his daughter's bedside, his eyes tightly closed.

Nagi called out to him as she and Ken-Ohki leapt from the bed. Her arms caught her father and eased him down to the floor when his own strength gave way. Within seconds, his body fell limp in her embrace, his consciousness ebbing from his face. Cradling his form, she called to him, demanding and then pleading for him to answer her, while the wing's protective shell faded along with the amaranth wave.

Tears appeared at the edges of her crimson eyes, the first in nine years. Her heart shattered, all the warmth she felt spilling away into loss and hate. Her small partner's consoling mews and rubbing gave no solace. Despite her accumulated strength and skill, her father had been stolen from her again.

As the other survivors of the NVO attack gathered to mount a counteroffensive, revenge was all that Nagi could see or feel. Katsuhito and the knights, Azaka and Kamidake, explained their three-team scheme to fight their enemy. Nerti Ro detailed all her knowledge of the enemy's weapon systems. The huntress merely seethed in her rage, silent a distance away from the others. She listened intently to every detail, memorizing them, already planning her own means of attack.

At last, Tenchi asked the one question Nagi had waited to hear.

"Then, who's in each group?"

Promptly, Will Pii answered, "I want a shot at Liaens. I've chased him and studied him for the past few months. I know his current strategies and abilities."

Nagi knew of Edward William Pii vaguely. Like her, he was a bounty hunter, though he was far less remarkable. His missions had always been closer to search-and-rescue than apprehension, and she could now see the reason sitting right next to him. The blonde-haired Nerti Ro had been kidnapped by the enemy three years ago, and he had been readying himself to save her. The bounties he received only funded his search for her, each mission investigated with a hope of finding a clue to her whereabouts. Avenging her, and himself, were his true motives.

Coldly, Nagi commented, "And, you have a fresh vendetta."

Pii's head swiveled over to her, an irritated curl to his lip. Though a black visor concealed the glare of his brown eyes, Nagi could tell her words sliced straight to his true purpose. However, she was not prepared for the retort.

"You're one to talk after chasing your own half-sister because of your 'mommy issues'."

Fury boiled beneath Nagi's cold facade as her attention spun back to him.

How dare he! she seethed. How dare he compare…!

Aghast, Nerti called to her would-be rescuer, and he sighed heavily, knowing he had crossed a significant line. An awkward silence followed for a moment before the sage words of Masaki Katsuhito settled the matter.

"I agree that your knowledge of the man will be helpful," he said, motioning to Pii, "but your hotheadedness is a detriment."

A slight grin curled Nagi's lip before the legendary prince turned to her.

"As is your pride."

The grin vanished from the huntress's face, her eyes sliding to Katsuhito's knowing gaze. He could see the same vindictive feelings dripping from her words and mannerisms. Admittedly, she knew the truth in his words, though she remained silent, her arms folding around her chest.

The great man then turned to his grandson and said, "That is why you need someone more centered to balance you both."

When Nagi first met Tenchi, she could not see what Ryoko desired in him. He was so ordinary, so boring, some common boy from the edge of the galaxy. Numerous worlds had thousands of young men just like him. His defeat of Jurai Kagato changed this opinion, though his lack of self-confidence and indecisiveness continued to irritate her. Everyone else in the room supported Tenchi's inclusion in the main attack party immediately.

"And you?" Katsuhito asked the huntress.

The purple-haired woman spun away, drawing her cape around her shoulders.

"I'll handle my part of this," she answered coldly as she left them in the infirmary.

Walking amongst the fallen bodies of Juraian nobles did not improve her mood. Her feline eyes glimmered in the dim light of the corridors, seeing quite clearly as she stepped around the unconscious people. Silence pervaded the palace, despite the actions of the other survivors.

Nagi furrowed her brow, frustrated. She wanted to act, immediately, mercilessly. She wanted to inflict pain on those who had hurt her father, hurt her. This affront superseded her vendetta against Ryoko. Her hands clutched her arms tightly, holding them close while her emotions burned hotter.

Shortly, the huntress reached the grand ballroom. The elegant décor laid torn and toppled by the collapsed nobility from their throes when the red light washed over them. Wine glasses were shattered, platters of food scattered across the floor, tapestries pulled loose. Nagi walked around the debris and people, slowly making her way toward the great glass doors and the terrace beyond.

There, in the Juraian moonlight, she stood watching the wind shudder the leaves of the magnificent trees. Her features were softened some in the silvery light while her cape billowed around her shoulders. The natural quiet was calming, the babbling flow of the water in the canals, the rustle of the leaves.

Gradually, her scowl melted away to a distant gaze at the beauty before her. She had not looked upon the grandeur of her home-world in nine years. She remembered the feel of the wind on her face and hair, the smell of the oxygen-rich atmosphere. Hidden deep within her heart, the girl she once was wept.

Footsteps behind her grabbed her attention. She glanced back to meet the gentle eyes of the younger of the two knights, Juraiko Kamidake. His red hair flared around his around his brow, flowing much like the white gi and hakama that wrapped around his body. At his side was his crimson staff key, its headpiece ornately craved like leaves sprouting from the central orb. One golden ring orbited silently around this portion of the device, waiting for the commands of its master. Across his right cheek, the Mark of Rage rose from his chin much like the leaf-motif of his staff, unlike the more claw-like appearance for other Juraians, or Nagi herself.

"Are you well, Lady Nagi?" he asked in a most genteel manner.

Her cold stare answered him, halting him a few steps away. Her eyes scanned over him in the awkward silence before her eyes met his.

"Should I be?" she retorted.

"You seemed upset leaving the briefing with Lord Yosho," he said.

Nagi could hear the concern in his words. While she did not conduct herself as a lady like Ayeka or Sasami, the huntress was taught some of the customs and etiquette of Jurai. Chivalry would dictate a young man to console a young woman after an insult. Kamidake came of age in the first court of Jurai and was likely a consummate warrior and gentleman.

"I realize the Terran hunter's words were insulting to you…"

With a scowl, she answered, "What would you know of it, knight?" She had her hapless target, and the venom in her words would not be denied. "You who were raised by nobility, honored and revered… what would you know?"

Then, she felt his hand rest on her shoulder. A chill rushed through her as he spoke softly to her, understandingly.

"I know what it is to be a stranger in one's own home, to come back after everything has changed."

Nagi knew the story. Kamidake and Azaka fought alongside the first Jurai king against a great threat to the empire. After the great battle was won, both were sealed away in the Sacred Place until another menace arose. Millennia passed before the pair were awakened by Katsuhito to help topple Kagato's coup d'etat. Everyone they knew had long since died. Many of the customs had changed. The empire had grown far larger. No doubt, the knight had felt much the same way she did now.

"Skill and reverence, as well as time, can isolate as much as shame and prejudice, Lady Nagi."

Her scarlet eyes rose to meet the lavender of his, but they grew cold as she slapped his hand away.

"Get your hand off of me!" she barked. "I'm not some wilting flower like these regal ladies on the floor! I don't need your sympathy, let alone want it!"

Taken aback, Kamidake lowered his eyes and took a step away. Respectfully, he bowed to her, his words apologetic and just as genteel.

"Very well, Lady Nagi… My most sincere apologies for making such an assumption…"

Quietly, he rose and turned away, leaving her in peace. The huntress's eyes also lowered as her fists gathered at her sides. Venting her frustrations on this good man helped nothing, not even really relieve her concerns.

Stupid, she berated herself.

Spinning back toward the terrace, she admitted to herself that his kind manner took her off-guard. She was far more accustomed to men underestimating or fearing her, rather than speaking in such a respectful and sympathetic way. Gazing out at the groves of Jurai, she wanted to shake the incident from her mind and refocus on the battle to come.

Naturally, Ryoko had other plans.

"You're a moron," the former pirate said loudly across the ballroom. "You know that, Nagi?"

The purple-maned woman scowled as she peered back to see her half-sister floating over the fallen Juraians.

I don't need this right now, she thought.

"What do you want, Ryoko?" she answered icily.

"When a guy like that talks nice to you, you should let him," the Ryoan answered, her feet touching the floor near her sibling.

Irritation boiled within Nagi. She could feel her cheeks burning, thankfully cloaked by the darkness of the chamber.

"What concern is it of yours?"

Abusing her levitation ability, Ryoko just reclined slightly in midair, folding her legs under her and resting her chin on her hand.

"I am your big sister."

How that stung. Nagi felt her whole body tense, her breath hiss between her teeth. She hated that Ryoan blood in her veins. It tore her father away. It linked her to a world of criminals. It made her despised and pitied. She rejected it, all it offered, even this sibling standing with her.

"I don't acknowledge any kinship with you."

Ryoko just rolled her eyes and sighed heavily, her head shaking.

"God, no wonder we hated each other for so long…"

Frigidly, the huntress spoke, "We still have unfinished business, Ryoko."

"What?" the cyan-haired woman answered. "I'm not breaking laws anymore, bringing 'disgrace' to your 'good' name."

"You've done enough already."

Seriously, Ryoko extended her legs to the floor and walked toward her sister. Nagi could see the playfulness melt away from her enemy's amber eyes. This woman standing before her was not the drunken criminal she had sought for years. Those eyes read differently, no longer with desperate or malicious intent. They spoke of solitude and loneliness, familiar again.

"What does that have to do with you? I didn't take you from your dad's house. I didn't force Mom to leave your dad."

She doesn't get it, Nagi thought. How could she?

"No, but your mother's blood was the cause," she retorted as the pair began to circle one another slowly, their eyes locked. "Your crimes only worsen the fact."

Ryoko stopped, her hands sliding to her hips. Her eyes narrowed, and her teeth gnashed. The huntress knew that insulted feeling, the same she experienced when someone spoke poorly of her father.

"It takes two to tango, Sis. Your dad had as much to do with you being born as Mom did."

And, that emotion flared brightly in the huntress, her eyes burning crimson as she halted and faced her old foe.

"Don't call me 'Sis'," she said quietly, the words sour in her mouth.

Then, Ryoko's eyes blinked, her head cocking slightly to the side. A smile grew along her lips just before she started laughing, so hard that she had to brace her hands on her sides. Nagi only grew more irate as her eyes narrowed, her voice seething.

"What's so funny, Ryoko?"

"I get it now!" the Ryoan answered, calming her laughter to a chuckle.

"What?"

"You're jealous!" the former pirate burst with another short guffaw.

"Jealous?!" Nagi recoiled, completely unprepared, dumbfounded. The notion was foreign, repulsive, that she would or could envy this vain, lazy, deplorable woman standing before her.

"Yeah," the elder sibling explained, circling her old nemesis again. "I've had the wild life, with you chasing behind. I've now got a nice home on Earth, and you don't, Sis."

As the initial shock ebbed, Nagi's mind considered the implication, that all her desire to fight and defeat Ryoko was just her own jealousy, sibling rivalry. Her motives flew through her thoughts: revenge, justice, honor. She wanted revenge for losing her father, but Ryoko had no active part in that. She wanted to bring this brigand to justice, but she has been pardoned, forgiven. She wanted to restore her family's honor, but almost no one knew they were related. In light of the past few hours, all those reasons collapsed.

Then, Ryoko added, "Instead of chasing after my life, why don't you get your own," before leaning closer and whispering, "maybe your own man?"

"Shut your mouth!" Nagi barked back.

Despite the sense that the elder sister spoke, she always seemed to temper it with insult. Still chuckling to herself, the cyan-maned woman spun away and sighed to herself. The huntress folded her arms and stood firm at the doorway, watching her old foe lean against the terrace's handrail. The Ryoan's hair seemed so pale in the moonlight, much like a ghost or spirit, just like her name.

"You remember a couple years ago," Ryoko asked, "right before Tenchi took Kagato down?"

"I do. What of it?"

"I've always wondered why you helped us then."

Wasn't it obvious? Nagi thought. Isn't it more obvious now?

"Ken-Ohki wouldn't let Ryo-Ohki fight alone. Then, there was the fact that Kagato could very well come for Father."

"If you say so," the other answered in a huff, with a grin crossing her lips.

The purple-haired woman joined her sister's side and met her gaze cooly, her irritation simmering.

"Do you imply that my decision had something to do with you?"

"No, not at all," Ryoko answered as her smile widened. "But, you did just now."

Hardly! the half-Juraian thought, a sneer crossing her lips. I wanted your head for myself, Ryoko, no other reason. Why can't you understand that?

Ryoko glanced at the floor for a moment, her smile fading away. Again, Nagi could see that loneliness in her sister's eyes, hear it in her voice.

"You are my sister, Nagi," she said, "whether you like it or not."

That was the truth of the matter, despite the huntress's vehement denials. They were similar, too similar. Perhaps that was why Nagi despised Ryoko, knowing that only a few changes in circumstances would reverse their standing.

Or, do I envy her position?

Ryoko faced her sister in the moon's luminance, adding, "If you want, we can settle our old score after we deal with Jezibel."

She spoke with no hesitation, no fear, no bravado. The former pirate was genuine in her promise. To Nagi, this was strange. They had only ever spoken to one another over crossed swords or with threats. This, their longest conversation, painted a different picture of the sibling the huntress so hated. For a moment, she considered waiving this offer.

Still, she thought, it is matter to be sorted, after the witch.

"Agreed," Nagi spoke aloud.

A swift displacement of air drew their attention toward the ballroom. There, two mechanical figures stood, their heads rising to target the two sisters. Both were cast in a female form, but their blue steel construction had sharp edges, corrugated plating, unrefined, rushed to completion. Their eyes glowed a bright red, cold, emotionless, puppets.

With only a moment's hesitation, Ryoko's hand gripped her scarlet katana, and Nagi drew her saffron rapier. Side by side, the pair readied to defend themselves while a voice arose from the two machines. Both knew the speaker, the same who had recently invaded their minds, stolen their most private thoughts.

"Ah, I see the blast wave also ignored you, Lady Nagi, as well as your dear sister."

Jezibel Kimitan's voice licked at the huntress's ear like a serpent's tongue. She remembered how this woman had twisted her mother's words, tempted her with her heart's desire for vengeance and justice. Every word came smoothly, lusciously. The witch could elicit a man to murder his beloved, or entrance him into a private hell with no reprieve.

"Must be that fiery Ryoan blood in your veins."

Nagi's fist gripped her sword tightly. Her rivalry with Ryoko paled with the hate she felt for this vile creature. The Kimitan woman played with her memories, twisted her heart, and aided in the fall of Jurai, including her father.

"I will see your blood soon enough, witch," the huntress swore.

"Still 'daddy's little girl', I see," Jezibel huffed. "Nice that…"

"Why don't you just shut up," Ryoko interrupted, her hand on her hip, "so we can kick your ass?"

Admittedly, Nagi cracked a small grin at her sibling's words. Though she remained silent, she seconded the sentiment, poised to strike.

"Very well," Jezibel laughed through the hollow machines.

The hands of the gynoids ignited with black flame as they rushed at the sisters. Ryoko vanished in a whoosh of air while Nagi just stepped aside and severed the arm of the closest machine. However, Jezibel continued laughing, amused as metal tendrils sprouted from the wound and dug into the missing appendage. Within a moment, the arm was reattached and functional once again, the damage sealing itself shut.

"Dammit!" Ryoko cursed when she reappeared at Nagi's side. "These bitches regenerate just like the original!"

"Lovely feature," the huntress commented, cautiously observing their opponents.

"Just come quietly," Jezibel offered. "It would make this far simpler."

"Go to hell!" Ryoko spouted.

"Not happening, Kimitan," Nagi echoed.

The metal females turned to face the sisters again, the obsidian flames flaring around their clawed fingertips.

"Excellent," Jezibel hissed, pleased.

One gynoid darted at them, spurring both to leap into the air. The other machine shot upward at Ryoko, who deftly slid aside to avoid it. Nagi's foot briefly touched a tabletop before she leapt at her sister's foe and drew her violet whip. The shimmering lash snapped across the robot's chest, scorching a gash into the chassis before a burst of energy flew from her sword's tip through the chest of the machine.

While Ryoko engaged the unharmed gynoid, Nagi hovered for a moment, watching their first victim land and regenerate its armor. Battling these machines would not be easy. Even the detonation of a Ryoan blade proved insufficient to disable one of these devices permanently. The sisters landed together and backed away, weapons ready, hearing the cackles of the Kimitan witch from the vocal systems of each robot.

"What a great display of your skills, but witness how little they matter."

The sisters stood back to back, each eying one of their foes when another voice called from across the room.

"Stand down, machines!"

Nagi blinked in surprise when she saw Kamidake swinging his staff into his hands.

He came back? she questioned herself.

"… Another unexpected interruption…" Jezibel remarked, annoyed.

The enemy opposite Ryoko swung its arm toward Kamidake, the plating of its palm shifting open, the black flame growing stronger.

"Kamidake!" Nagi called out.

Distracted, she did not see the other figure rush at her, the flames dispersing from its hand. She reacted too late when it grasped her whip and hand, immobilizing them. Her blade did manage to pierce its side before she was slammed into the opposing wall.

Nagi struggled against her captor, kicking, twisting her blade, all to no avail while the other machine eluded her sister and the knight, vanishing from sight.

"Release her!" Kamidake ordered, advancing toward them.

However, Nagi and the machine faded from their sight, reappearing in the colonnaded corridor upon the enemy's command ship. Emerald light highlighted the columns around the chamber, as well as her features while she fought to free herself. Drawing her sword from her captor, the other machine grabbed her sword hand, the two restraining both her arms, holding her fast.

Stupid! she berated herself.

Jezibel's laugh resounded off the stone-like walls of the room, sickening the huntress's stomach. She had already felt the witch dig through her memories once and had no desire for a second taste. In the darkness, she saw two green eyes open slyly, devious and vile.

"'Nearby, another figure struck the Enemy'," Jezibel quoted.

As the villainess walked into the dim light, Nagi could see the vile, delighted expression on her enemy's face. Jezibel Kimitan dressed closer to an academic or noble than a warrior. She wore a sleek, split gown and cloak, cut low around her bosom, which was more appropriate for seducing a drunken man than fighting the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy. Her fiery red hair was teased up with a patch dyed orange to elicit a better comparison to flames. This woman manipulated, plotted, enjoying every moment of torment she created within her victims. Nagi knew this firsthand, and was disgusted by her presence.

"'In his right hand burned the Light,'" she read from a data tablet in her hands, "'but his left was consumed by the Dark. I asked my protector who he was, and the answer was'…"

With a twisted smile, she raised the tablet at her side as her eyes slid to Nagi's.

"… 'the Child of the War.' From the journals of Queen Jurai Achi, the very same that Liaens kidnapped all those ages ago."

Nagi watched as Jezibel set the tablet against her belt, where it attached with a soft click. The huntress kept her breathing calm and paced, eyes on her opponent, observing her body language, her weaknesses.

Arrogant, prideful, she analyzed. Image-conscious, controlling.

"And you, a child of a Ryoan and a Juraian, the two factions from the great war between their empires…"

Deface her. Hurt her image. Show her that she has no control.

In a few strides, she stood before Nagi and quickly grasped the huntress's chin in her hand. Nagi struggled, but the gynoids held her fast while Jezibel's smile widened, pleased.

"You even hovered in the air," she whispered, "just like your dear sister."

Fluid flew from Nagi's lips and splattered across Jezibel's face, causing her to recoil backward in surprise and repulsion. The telepath's confident and pleased smile eroded away to a raging scowl as she wipes the spittle from her skin.

"How dare you…!"

The huntress merely licked and rubbed her lips together, cleaning her appearance, her eyes never leaving Jezibel.

Get mad, Nagi thought. Make a mistake.

"You mongrel bitch!" Jezibel threatened angrily, her teeth bared. "I could erase your mind with a thought!"

"Then, do it," the purple-maned woman answered, cooly, calculatingly.

The enemy glared hatefully while Nagi just leveled her gaze back, repeating her ultimatum.

"Do it if I infuriate you so much."

This tactic was a gamble, but as the huntress waited, she did not feel the thoughts and taunts of the telepath seeping into her mind. Impotently, Jezibel's fists gathered at her sides, frustration joining the rage already twisting the enemy's face.

"You can't. If it was that easy, you would have taken my mind when I first got here," Nagi reasoned before she added, "And, if you wanted us dead, you would have done it already as well."

The sneer faded from the opponent's face. She wanted something from them, both Ryoko and Nagi, something that necessitated them both being alive, though perhaps without their free will.

"What do you want from us?"

Icily, Jezibel softly ordered her two guards, "Release her."

Once released, Nagi slid back a few steps, flexing her fingers around her rapier and whip, readying herself. The two gynoids drifted to the edges of the room, facing one another, leaving their mistress to her guest.

"I want to stop you both, Nagi, to prevent what you will soon do."

"If so," the huntress answered, confused, "why not simply kill us?"

"If it were my choice," Jezibel mused, humored, her twisted grin returning, growing with each word, "I would have murdered your both, and taken that lovely prince and handsome knight for myself."

Sick creature, Nagi thought as a slight scowl crossed her own brow.

"So, you're not the mastermind here, nor is Liaens. Then, who is?"

"If you only knew…" Jezibel laughed to herself.

"Enlighten me."

The telepath shook her head, answering, "She'd much rather explain it to you herself."

However, her laughs fell silent when a shot of violet left Nagi's blade.

"That was not a request," she retorted icily.

"You certainly were raised by the Jurai royal family," the opponent commented, her displeasure becoming more palpable. "Only they are so arrogant and still retain their dignity."

"Tell me who pulls your strings," Nagi demanded one last time as she leveled her weapon for a second shot at Jezibel's chest, "before I cut them."

The telepath's eyes glowed a brighter emerald, as did her fingertip. She twirled her finger slowly in the air, taunting.

"Then do it, if I infuriate you so much," she mocked.

Let's see how well you fight, Nagi thought as she let another bolt fly from her rapier's tip, directly at Jezibel's heart.

However, the villainess stepped aside effortlessly, the shot passing her harmlessly. Surprised and confused, Nagi fired again twice more, but the telepath simply laughed as she dodged these blasts just as easily. The huntress was dumbfounded while Jezibel gathered an orb of greenish light to her hand.

"You think ahead too much, mongrel."

She threw this energy construct at Nagi, who lashed it aside with her whip.

Anticipation, the purple-maned warrior thought. She's reading my anticipation, my surface thoughts.

"This will be most… fun," Jezibel commented, levitating and gathering a second orb.

After a moment, the telepath darted directly at the huntress. Just as Nagi thought to dodge and snap her whip at her opponent, the emerald-eyed fiend slid away from the lash and lobbed her energy pulse exactly where Nagi was stepping. Reacting, the half-Ryoan leapt into the air to avoid the impact. Gliding to the side, she escaped the dust cloud of the blast, and heard her opponent's laugh rising from behind the cloud. She saw the green eyes glowing first before the telepath slid forward, her feet a few centimeters from the floor.

"Nice reflexes, and use of that dark Ryoan power latent in your veins."

She's prodding me, Nagi reasoned as her teeth gnashed. She wants me angry, on the defensive.

"Not that you like it that much."

The dust settled, revealing Jezibel standing with her arms folded, unprepared, yet with her twisted smile. Nagi glared back coldly, again analyzing her foe for weaknesses, but the telepath chuckled once more.

"Care to try those ideas of yours, Lady Nagi?"

"I'm no lady," she answered, her weapons held firmly.

The huntress flew forward, attacking with every combination attack she had devised and been taught between her whip and rapier. Each time, the telepath dodged effortlessly to the side, barely escaping. Jezibel was playing with her, pushing her frustration higher. Occasionally, the vile woman would lob a pulse of greenish light where Nagi thought to slide. Reacting, she would leap or hover around the impact, drawing her cape around her to deflect the debris.

Damn her, Nagi thought. She'll keep at this until I wear down.

Jezibel just grinned to herself, rushing at Nagi once again. However, after dodging the whip, the telepath's attention was pulled aside. Sighting the opportunity, the purple-maned woman leapt forward, drawing her sword to strike. Her opponent caught a glimpse of the blade and spun away from the huntress.

But, this time, she did not leave unscathed. The saffron rapier left a bloody gash in the cloak and shoulder of the green-eyed fiend. Nagi landed and turned to her foe, ready to strike again. Jezibel held her arm, tensing at the wound, hissing pain through her teeth. Seeing the blood, her pleased smile corroded into a hateful scowl, her eyes rising to meet those of her prey.

"I'll deal with you in a moment."

"I think not," Nagi retorted.

She launched forward, but a motion at her side spurred her to dart upward to avoid it. Looking to the side, she saw one of the gynoids with its arm extended, burning with black flame.

"Unit One, defend me," Jezibel ordered, her eyes burning a deep emerald toward Nagi. "I have business elsewhere."

Nagi landed carefully as the robot stepped between the two women.

"Confirmed, mistress," the simulated voice answered.

She's accessing someone, Nagi reasoned, watching Jezibel's gaze grow distant. She's weak. However, glancing to the robot, she gnashed her teeth and added, If only this machine wasn't in my way…

The huntress snapped her whip at the machine, which blocked with its arms, both enveloped in the dark fire. The purple lash wrapped around its left arm as she pulled, forcing it off-balance. At this, Nagi lunged forward with her blade, but the gynoid rolled to avoid the thrust. However, this only tightened the energy cord around its arm. With another pull, the unit was forced to stand, though it clawed at the lash and severed the beam. Before it could resume its attack, Nagi flew forward, her sword clashing against its cross-arm block. With a crack, her whip wrapped around its leg and pulled its foot forward, toppling it backward. Then, the coup d'grace followed, a thrust directly into its chest.

From the wound, more black flame hissed free while the machine flailed and jerked in some mechanical agony. Coldly, Nagi pulled her weapon free and returned her attention to Jezibel, whose eyes dimmed, returning to their normal state. With a scoff, the telepath grinned and applauded the huntress's victory.

"Brava, bastard child. You've damaged one of them."

Nagi glanced back to the machine, noticing its tendrils already repairing its chassis. However, the cracks did not completely seal, and black fire still licked at the edges of those wounds from within.

More severely than it can repair, she noted to herself.

Yet, her main focus remained on Jezibel as she leveled her sword and said, "Your business is with me, bitch."

I'll have take her quickly, Nagi schemed. If she's threatened, she'll call these damned things on me again.

As she began to concoct her attack, the telepath's eyes glowed a subtle green again, and her smirk curled along her lips.

"A new tactic? You don't rightly believe it will work, do you?"

A blast rocked the room, a doorway punched open by scarlet, crimson, and violet light. While Jezibel staggered from the impact, Nagi turned to see Ryoko, Kamidake, and both cabbits rush to her sides. The huntress grinned to herself and glanced to her impromptu allies.

"Took you long enough," she commented sarcastically.

"You always were slow at finishing the job," Ryoko quipped back.

Kamidake's voice was softer and more grave than the sisters as he said, "Are you injured, Lady Nagi?"

"I'm fine," she answered before motioning to the wounded telepath. "She's not."

Jezibel scowled in return while Ryoko cracked her knuckles, quite ready for her part in this battle. Kamidake raised his staff and aimed its headpiece at the villainess, his fingers adjusting their grip.

"Jezibel Kimitan, yield and surrender."

She replied simply, "Units, attack."

Unit One, the damaged gynoid closest to Nagi, reached for her leg, but she stepped aside and sliced through its hand. Kamidake then knocked the mangled machine across the room with the blunt end of his staff. The remaining robot, Unit Two, awoke and rushed the allied group, its claws aflame with darkness. The knight leveled his staff before him, his eyes set on this new threat.

"I will take this one," he said before dashing at his opponent.

Ryoko formed her crimson katana and glanced toward Unit One, rising back to its feet, before turning her attention to Jezibel. Nagi, however, kept her focus on Jezibel.

You can read my surface thoughts, witch, the purple-maned huntress thought. You will pay for what you've done here.

The telepath sneered while Nagi stated to her sister with certainty, "Jezibel's mine."

"Ours, sis," Ryoko corrected with a grin. "Save me a piece."

"Then, hurry, Ryoko," the younger sister answered as they raised their swords at their respective opponents. "And, don't call me 'sis'."

The pair shot into the air at their adversaries. Engaging the telepath once again, Nagi's initial strikes with her whip and sword were avoided as before, but in the fray, Jezibel winced as her cloak fluttered over her open wound. The emerald glow in her eyes dimmed, giving the huntress her opening. Her whip snapped around the villainess's neck, and her next strike dove from above. Jezibel's green power gathered in her palm before tossing the power at her attacker. However, an obvious counter was easily redirected by the half-blood woman.

Landing a distance away, Nagi pulled on her whip, forcing Jezibel off her balance and to catch herself unceremoniously on the floor. Another tug made the telepath look up toward her opponent, though with a furious and hateful sneer.

"Not used to pain, master telepath?" the huntress mused.

Jezibel's hand flared with emerald light and shredded through the whip's bond. As she rose, her face was written with hate, spite, and embarrassment.

"Shut your mouth," her words boiled, no taunts, no pride, only deadly intent.

Nagi slid into an offensive posture, her sword leveled at her foe.

"Let's see how well you do without your foresight."

The huntress leapt at her foe, her feet flying just above the floor. Jezibel floated backward, both her hands glowing with her power. She dodged the first sword strike, but Nagi spun, letting her whip fly and snap across the telepath's chest. The villainess cried out while the half-blood woman completed her rotation, thrusting her sword at her enemy's chest. Jezibel's shimmering claws grasped onto the blade and diverted it to cut along her other shoulder, issuing another hiss of pain.

As the huntress followed her weapon forward, her opponent reached to rake those vile talons of light at her back. However, Nagi rolled aside and back to her feet, immediately lunging with another sword thrust. Unprepared, Jezibel leapt back to regain distance.

Outside of the mind-scape, Nagi thought, you are nothing, 'master telepath'.

She swiped and thrusted at Jezibel, who had increasing difficulty in dodging, many times resorting to her hands to block and divert.

I will see you dead, Jezibel Kimitan.

Ultimately, Nagi's sword clashed against Jezibel's hands once more, and the huntress slid away, cracking her whip around her foe's waist. Pulling on the line, the telepath was jerked forward, right to where Nagi prepared to thrust. As Jezibel blocked with her left hand, the half-blood woman just caught a glimpse of her enemy's right, energy pooled, ready to be released. Nagi turned her head to the side, but the blast caught her temple, knocking the purple hairband from her head.

While her hairband clattered to the floor, its housing cracked, Nagi rolled aside and collapsed, her vision askew, her senses dulled. She vaguely remembered her weapons falling from her hands and the calls of Ryoko and Kamidake. She felt Ryo-Ohki and Ken-Ohki rub against her hands and forearms, but could not remember hearing their concerned mews. Ken-Ohki's telepathic connection became a murmur, barely recognizable in her thoughts.

But, Nagi did recall when Ken-Ohki's mental voice suddenly became silent. She forced her eyes to focus, willing herself through this evident concussion. She could see Ryoko, Kamidake, and the cabbits all staggering, sick, disoriented. Across from them, Jezibel Kimitan's eyes blazed the deepest jade, her teeth gnashing, sweat rolling down her cheeks, the power gone from her hands, revealing cuts and lacerations from the recent exchange.

I must move, she ordered herself. I will move.

Close to her hand, she saw her hairband, its purple housing cracked and shattered. Her gaze centered on the crest embossed on its side, using it to help her focus. Her father gave her the item, their family heirloom, special, unique. Her fingers curled around it, gripping it tightly, its housing crumbling away. Beneath laid a vine-like structure, much like Tenchi's sword or Ayeka's tiara, the crest crystallized sap from a royal tree.

Touching the device, Nagi could feel a current flowing through her, connecting her to the Juraian artifact. She focused her will and pushed herself upward, her head unsteady, her feet unsure, held aloft by her desire to end her opponent. Her crimson eyes fell on Jezibel Kimitan, confused and surprised. The huntress felt the flow within her and directed it toward the newly revealed hairband key. Glowing a brilliant forest green, it wrapped around her hand snugly, its crest sparking a violet color.

Fear wiped across Jezibel's face, both at the key and at the regal color shimmering in Nagi's eyes.

"The fifth key…?!" she whispered.

'Nearby,' Nagi recalled in her hazed thoughts, 'another figure struck the enemy.'

"'In his right hand burned the Light'…" she concluded when her key created a regal purple blade, thin and delicate, but quite deadly.

A second Mark of Rage scrawled down her right cheek, mirroring the one on her left, bringing a symmetry to her face. Jezibel's eyes lost their power as she began to shift her energies back to her hands, but in a single stroke, Nagi thrust her Juraian edge into Jezibel's abdomen. At that moment, a plume of emerald light radiated from the telepath's eyes, her life ebbing away. The huntress, however, tightened her grip on her weapon and drew her weapon to the side, cutting through her enemy's side, ending her.

The corpse collapsed while the green light shot away into the distance. Nagi likewise fell to her knees, her will spent, her forced focus waning. She could now feel the blood rolling down the side of her face. While her blade vanished, so did the mark on her right cheek, leaving its left-side kin.

She remembered slumping into someone's arms, but by then, her eyes had already closed. She felt Ken-Ohki perch himself on her shoulder, his worries streaming through her ebbing consciousness. With a soft sigh, she shook her head and reassured him.

"You stubborn-ass bounty hunter…" Ryoko huffed softly a distance away.

Nagi chuckled as she relaxed into the protective embrace around her. Rest was all she wanted now. The witch was dead by her hand, and that was satisfaction enough for now.

X X X

Jurai Nagi's crimson eyes opened coldly. Icy waters showered down over her head and shoulders from the waterfall above her, chilling her body throughout. Her hands were clasped below her chest, the fingers wed except for the index digits, which were aligned upward together. Standing ankle-deep in a natural pool below the falls, she steeled her resolve, refusing her desire to shiver and seek warmth. Dressed only in simple trousers and chest wrappings, the freezing waters cut deeply into her, each strand of muscle tightened.

A short distance away, Masaki Katsuhito also stood beneath another branch of the falls. Nagi could see him, sublimely breathing as the water's embrace seemed to consume him. Likewise dressed in a simple tunic and trousers, the legendary warrior seemed a statue against the hard flow pounding down upon him. His posture and hand position were flawless, well-practiced. None could doubt his mental focus or his physical prowess, least of all the huntress.

Nagi closed her eyes to refocus herself, to push the biting cold away. She flexed the muscles in her shoulders and thighs, wanting to be a pillar like the man opposite her. However, with every action, the cold grew deeper. Every attempt to warm herself was temporary, or served the reverse purpose. Her teeth gnashed together, and her breath hissed between them, despite her efforts to breathe through her nose.

Then, Katsuhito's eyes opened, and he stepped from the falls, calmly, purposefully.

"That's enough for today," he said.

Immediately, Nagi leapt from the icy pool and grabbed her shoulders, rubbing them quickly and firmly. Katsuhito, however, simply walked to a nearby boulder and took one of a pair of towels. The other he tossed to his pupil before he began to dry himself. She promptly wiped the offending droplets from her skin, though her chest wrappings and trousers were soaked and just as cold.

"You did well," the teacher commented as he wrapped the towel around his neck, "but you are wasting a lot of your body heat."

"It-t w-was f-freezing," Nagi retorted, her teeth chattering as she clutched the towel about her shoulders.

"All the more reason to keep the heat inside you," he added, resting his hand on his chest, "rather than yielding it to the water."

The purple-maned woman sighed softly and nodded. Every ritual was a lesson, a part of his Way. Sparring taught patience, timing, alertness. Kata taught technique, breathing, and flow. Physical endurances like this icy shower trained the body, weakening to strengthen. However, through the ordeal, the great man stood firm and unfazed.

How could an 80-year-old man stand in an icy mountain waterfall and not leave shaking? she asked herself.

From the beginning, Nagi acknowledged that he would not openly tell her some reasons for his training. Admittedly, much of her skill at combat came from experience, not from formal education. Many questions she asked were answered only by "In time, it will be clear." That response came to grate against her, so she stopped inquiring.

So long as I learn to control my powers, she reasoned.

Katsuhito glanced toward his apprentice. He knew well her present intent, to improve rapidly and surpass her sister. Ordinarily, he would encourage a rivalry between two students, much like he did with Tenchi and Ryoko months ago. However, unlike the flirting playfulness of the young couple, Nagi's designs were tainted with anger. That emotion and its dark kindred were no doubt the reason for her recent frustrations in practice. The onsen incident a week ago left her feeling wronged, and she wanted compensation.

"You won't change my mind," she stated clearly, her eyes sliding to meet his.

"I had no intention of doing so," he answered, slipping on his wooden sandals. "You and your sister should settle this matter for yourselves."

"Half-sister," she corrected, forcing her lips not to sneer as she did the same.

The master acknowledged this with a nod as he took his gi and hakama, folded on another boulder. The student did the same while her instructor turned to the path down the mountain.

"Let's get home," he said. "Sasami will have dinner ready soon."

Rubbing her shoulders, Nagi commented, "I'd like to take a shower before then."

"Then, we should hurry," the man answered before bursting into a run down the path.

The huntress scowled before rolling her eyes and running after him. Her muscles and bones ached from the cold eating into her. This first week of November had seen the temperatures dip lower, nearing freezing in the higher elevations. Standing in the icy runoff only made those numbers feel far worse.

As she ran after her instructor, Nagi thought about the past week since she and Ryoko destroyed the subspace onsen. Admittedly, both of them had been drinking, but the cyan-maned woman was spewing nonsense and slapped her across the face. However, Washu forbade both of them from enjoying the replacement onsen she was constructing. She has gone so far as to change the DNA recognition circuit on the door for both of them.

I am not to blame here, the purple-haired woman fumed.

While she stewed over this slight against her, the aches gradually disappeared in her run. Dodging roots and limbs, keeping pace with Katsuhito ahead of her, her muscles were warmed by the activity. Still, she struggled against this waning stiffness, pushing herself harder, wanting to pass her teacher. However, he kept a steady pace, followed an optimal path, avoiding most of the obstacles and pitfalls with minimal action. Though Nagi would certainly crush the old Juraian in a pure footrace, she was not able to overcome him here.

Then, her foot was caught, and the ground came rushing up toward her face. Swiftly, she raised her hands, stopping her face a few centimeters from the rocky terrain below. Her scowl only grew as she felt the abrasions along her palms, and looked down to the offending root around her ankle.

If I'd been flying… she thought frustratedly.

Temptation crept into her mind. She knew well how to fly and could easily dart back to the Masaki estate. The flight would only take a couple of minutes, and she could have a warm shower. It would be easy, practically effortless. However, this would break Katsuhito's edict against using her powers yet.

What's the damned point? she contested. I want to learn to control my powers and my key, not run through the woods!

Her hands dug into the soil as she glared at the rocks, wrestling with the idea, the temptation, the cold seeping into her again from her wet clothes. She pushed back onto her heels, breathing slowly, carefully through her nose, calming herself. Finally, she stepped around the root before continuing the run.

If I break his rules, she reasoned, he won't teach me.

Soon, Nagi reached the front door to the Masaki house and entered the premises. The warm air starkly contrasted the chilling clothing on her skin. She quickly rid herself of her shoes and donned some indoor slippers before scaling the stairs toward the bathroom. Much to her displeasure, steam and the sounds of falling water seeped outside. Frustrated, she slammed her fist into the wall next to the door and stormed to her room.

Ryoko preening herself, no doubt, she boiled.

Her room had originally been Nobuyuki's, but with rooms coming short in supply, Washu offered her offices for extra bedding. Nagi promptly declined, citing the good doctor's questionable motives, so the widower took the offer himself. He had moved all his furniture from the room before she first arrived, and she has since decorated it in her own spartan fashion. Her boxes still stood piled along the walls, but they had drawers, which functioned much like a clothes chest. Her bedroll was curled in a corner beneath a low loft, where she would find herself sitting and gazing out the small window at the lake. Nearby was a small bed, certainly Ken-Ohki's by the few stray hairs of white. On the desk rested several files on her current bounty targets, many referred from the GP from the letterhead.

Close to these stood a framed picture, a little torn and slightly faded, of Nagi's father, Jurai Tensho. In the image, he was visibly younger, his hair lacking the graying streaks and his face the recent lines of aging. His black hair was shorter around his face and styled to stand away from his face, look more common with young officers. However, his tan-colored eyes had a distant gaze to them, much like the somber smile on his face. On his brow rested a purple band, the same that she would wear as a hairband, and later realize was the fifth key of Jurai.

Shutting the door behind her, the huntress grabbed a towel from her one of her boxes and began drying herself. She unwrapped her chest and tossed the icy cloth away, quickly wiping away the cold moisture on her sensitive skin. Likewise, the trousers were thrown aside before the towel rubbed down her legs. After drying, she wrapped a blanket tight around her and fell into the desk chair, relaxing into its seat and the warmth shrouding her.

"Damn it all," she sighed as she rolled her head back, her eyes closing.

For a few peaceful moments, Nagi's mind cleared, and she simply enjoyed the warm feeling of her blanket and the silence of her room. Her body ached from the past few days' training, but that soreness ebbed as she rested alone. She melted into the chair, finally releasing the tension that she could not in practice. Her shoulders rolled, digging deeper into this comfortable feeling.

A ringing noise then broke her reverie. The huntress's familiar scowl crossed her eyes as she rolled her head forward, irritated once again. Her crimson eyes fell on a small device resting near the files, rectangular in shape with an illuminated keypad along its surface. Nagi had acquired it a couple years ago, this mobile communications unit, specially scrambled to prevent traces to her location. Above the item, a translucent panel was projected, displaying the Juraiji equivalent to "Incoming Call".

Probably another clueless detective, she thought.

Admittedly, Nagi was not as active as she had been in the past. The training with Katsuhito had been consuming much of her time, which had made her stellar apprehension rate drop. Living in the Masaki home, she had not contended with her usual transient life style, and its associated detriments. Much like Ryoko, the younger sibling had moved from job to job, hardly seeing beyond the next mission. Now, with her lowered presence, some GP detectives had taken the initiative to seek her out, much to her dismay.

Reaching forward, her fingers danced on the keypad, and the panel changed to read, "Caller: Jurai, Tensho". Surprised, her eyes blinked wider, not expecting this particular caller. With a keystroke, the panel shifted to a full image of the modern, middle-aged Jurai Tensho, complete with his age lines and longer, graying hair. Nagi bowed her head with her introduction.

"Father."

"Hello, my dear," he answered with a warm smile. "How are you?"

"Well, and yourself?"

"Managing. Hi-Ryu is still moored on the throne-world for maneuvers." He grinned to himself as he added, "Admittedly, many of my men like the arrangement. They've been spending more time with their families."

His daughter raised a brow as she asked, "Are you eager to return to Ryua?"

"Part of me is," he accepted with a subtle nod, "though I have enjoyed being home again."

Nagi lowered her eyes, remembering the manor where Tensho raised her. Within the hollowed interior of a Juraian oak, the home rose easily three stories at the center of a grand estate stretching five square kilometers. From her bedroom there, the young girl could see a field of royal teardrops, planted by one of her ancestors, and a garden, surrounding a central fountain and rimmed by a stone walkway. Within her first home, numerous rooms stretched down a long hallway on the second floor, most of them empty. Each was elegantly decorated with hand-carved furniture, both from the enveloping tree and from external sources, the pieces all bearing a floral motif. The main hall had several portraits of the royal lineage, her family, each successor wearing the purple band around their forehead. As a child strolling through the corridor, the grandeur and history overwhelmed her, who now wore the hairband herself.

"How is the manor?" she asked distantly.

"It's a bit more dusty, I'm afraid," he chuckled to himself. "Many of the staff have moved on since we…" He stopped himself and corrected, "… I last regularly lived there."

She glanced up toward him again. "Do you plan to return there, permanently?"

"I'd like to," he replied kindly, "if I can get Hi-Ryu posted to the throne-world again."

"That is possible now," she commented with a little brightness to her voice, "given the royal family's acknowledgement."

"True," the captain said with a smile, "though you could claim it in my stead."

Tensho has asked this of her before, both after the reunion and after the Manhattan incident. Like any father, he wanted the best of his daughter: the best home, the best life. As a Juraian noble by birth, she could claim her familial estate and live on the throne-world like a lady of the court. She would be protected and respected, at least in theory.

However, the huntress knew better, as did he. While she has been officially acknowledged by the royal family, acceptance was another matter, and neither believed that Nagi would become a "regal lady". Thinking through the stories of her ancestors, most of them had broken some Juraian taboo at some point, whether speaking bluntly and overtly against the emperor or actively disobeying a royal edict. Her father's intimate relations with her Ryoan mother were not out of character for her family, though like those before him, he too was ostracized and shunned by the other branches. Nagi, though, would rather live off-world without her rank than live with it amongst those who shunned her.

"That's not my place, Father," Nagi sighed heavily.

"Well, I had to try," Tensho chuckled.

The purple-haired woman nodded and accepted this. Then, the officer closed his eyes and took a careful breath, his expression growing more serious.

"Nagi, you know why I've called."

"I do," she answered coldly, her eyes sliding from his. "The matter is between Ryoko and me, no one else. Lord Yosho has sanctioned the match."

"She's not your enemy," he stated plainly. "She is your sister."

"Half-sister," Nagi corrected, her crimson eyes narrowing. "Of all people, you know that best, father."

His brows twisted, concerned and also disappointed. Ryoko had been only an infant when he first became involved with her mother, and he remembered holding and feeding the cyan-haired child. He saw her learn to walk, heard her first words, and had hoped to become her father as well. However, this would never be realized. After Nagi was conceived, Jurai stepped forward and ordered this young family to be torn apart. Initially, Tensho would not stand for this affront, but the royal family's unrelenting edict weighed heavily on both him and his beloved. Finally, she made the choice for him, making an offer to the nobility to depart Jurai for Ryuten with Ryoko, to leave Nagi with Tensho. He hated himself, for not stopping her. He hated the branch families, for tearing his heart out of his chest. He hated everything, except his newborn daughter, who became his world.

"Nagi, please," he pleaded, "what will fighting her solve?"

"She is a vulgar woman," the huntress hissed, "and she should be taught humility."

"There are many who would say the same of you, dear," he commented softly.

Smoldering hotly, her crimson eyes slid back to his, but he refused to relent.

"Is that it," he asked, "seeing yourself in her, and her in you?"

With a deep, long breath, Nagi answered, "I'm sorry, father. This is something I must do, for myself."

"Nagi," he sighed, "fighting her will change nothing. You both share your mother's blood. Neither of you can change that fact."

Her eyes lowered, narrowed. "I'm well-aware of that," she replied before her eyes rose back to his, hard and certain, adding, "but I will defeat her, unequivocally and decisively."

Tensho massaged his forehead firmly. She's just like her mother, he thought frustratedly. They both are. He could see her in both of them: the stubbornness, the passion, even some of their tastes. This did warm part of his heart to know that the woman he loved lived still in her daughters, but it also frustrated him to have watched these two young women battle one another. Neither would yield, neither admit defeat. As stubborn as they were, as passionate about their rivalry, he genuinely doubted that the victory of either would alter their relationship at all. Still, he did not want to watch his beloved's daughters fight like this.

"Please, dear," he pleaded once more, "take time to reconsider this choice, and your reasons for it."

Respectfully, the daughter nodded and answered, "I will, father."

Though, it will change nothing, she thought.

X X X

Ryua Ryoko's amber eyes frowned with frustration. Again and again, she swung her weapons against her opponent, but each time, they were dodged or deflected. Her hands gripped tightly at each hilt while she spun, whirling attack after attack upon her foe.

Dressed in a white gi and red hakama, the Ryoan woman wielded a pair of bokken, each pounding against the single implement held by her opponent. Her cyan mane was tied behind her head into a bloom of spikes, clearly showing her elfin ears and the feline features of her eyes. Her nose flared when her foe braced his bokken in his free hand, letting both of hers slide along its edge impotently.

Her nemesis then swiped at her, forcing her to kick away and regather her defense. Masaki Tenchi rose against her, dressed in a white gi and blue hakama. As always, his raven-black hair was tied in a tail behind his head, though its length was greater than before. Cool and focused, the Juraian prince met her gaze as he held his weapon before him, both hands on the hilt.

In a moment, his blade dropped toward his right before he slid toward her, a slash approaching fast at her left. At once, her right sword crossed her body to meet his, while she swung the left down towards his collar. However, he knelt and rolled to her left, avoiding the strike entirely and rising back to his feet.

The two turned to face one another anew, and she rushed toward him, a scowl on her brow. The woman struck with her left, but the man deflected it. The Ryoan thrust with her right, and the Juraian dodged it. Their strikes accelerated, the cracks of their wooden weapons hammering a percussive beat to their dance.

With every missed strike, Ryoko's glare became harder, more frustrated, until Tenchi swept beside her and tagged her rear with the flat of his blade. At this, she threw her bokkens onto the ground forcefully.

"Dammit!" she cursed loudly. "This isn't helping anything!"

Tenchi lowered his sword and approached her slowly. He had seen the frustration building, felt the tension and expended strength in each blow they exchanged. However, being Ryoko, she never said anything, though he had a fairly clear idea as to the cause. The onsen incident last week had infuriated her, and she needed some form of release.

Of course, being Tenchi, he had not pried, leaving her to stew over the matter and reveal it in her own time. Now, he could see the trouble this issue was causing her. In their last sparring match a week ago, she had held her ground against him, even laughing and flirting when he tagged her, or vice versa.

"Ryoko," he said as he rested his free hand on her shoulder, "talk to me. What's wrong?"

Her amber eyes turned to meet his, and for that moment, he could see the seething anger she was holding inside. However, she lowered her eyes from him, hiding that part of herself.

"It's nothing, Tenchi," she sighed as she folded her arms. "I'm just off today."

The prince dropped his bokken and walked before her, resting both his hands on her shoulders, his eyes looking directly at hers.

"Ryoko, please," he pleaded, concern on his words. "It's been bothering you for a week now."

Quietly, he waited while his girlfriend wrestled with herself. Since he has known her, Ryoko had never been adept at showing her true feelings. The cyan-maned fury would usually put forth a passionate bravado to mask whatever really motivated her. In the past month, he had actually seen more of her than he had in the past three years, as she began to open herself to him. The process had been slow, and she would slip back into her old ways. However, his patience had now begun to reward him.

"It's not fair, Tenchi," Ryoko grumbled, her golden eyes rising to his once again. "I did nothing to start that fight, and I get locked out of the onsen."

"What happened, Ryoko?" he asked carefully. "You two haven't exactly talked much since she moved here."

"We don't exactly mingle in the same 'circles'," she said sarcastically.

Sweat beaded in his hair as he agreed, "Fair enough, but you are sisters, right? You two do have some things in common."

"That was what I was trying to tell her when she got pissed off," Ryoko retorted. "I was asking her how her training with your granddad was going."

"What did she say?"

"Nothing," she answered, rolling her eyes. "She was practically a brick wall."

"Then, what did you talk about?" the prince asked quizzically.

"What else?" the Ryoan rhetorically replied, her eyes sliding back to his knowingly. "Men."

Tenchi blushed at this while her hands glided from her arms and along his sides, holding him close. The pair had grown quite close in the past month, despite the young man's caveat not to rush into intimacy. He greatly enjoyed his time with her on their dates, as well as just laying on his bed, or hers. However, he did still find himself a bit self-conscious about some of the kisses and caresses, partially because of his inexperience in romance.

"Don't worry," Ryoko said with a sly grin on her lips. "I didn't tell her anything juicy."

"Well, thank you for that," he chuckled nervously, lightly scratching behind his head.

"She's clearly jealous," she purred, "even though I know a couple guys she could easily have if she wanted."

"Is that what you talked about?" he gulped, blushing still.

"Yeah," she said with a sigh, "until she slapped my sake out of my hand."

"Wait," Tenchi interjected, confused. "Why'd she do that?"

"Hell if I know!" she retorted. "Here I was, trying to help her out, and she starts bitching at me!"

The prince felt his stomach sink. In her piratical days, his girlfriend had broken numerous laws, sometimes with the best of intentions. On one such occasion, she robbed a Juraian bank to recuperate the money she had selfishly squandered when the household made its way to confront the usurper. However, her good intentions often were masked by her rash and shortsighted methods.

"And, how exactly were you going to help her?"

"I was hoping to set her up on a date," she said plainly, pushing a lock of hair aside her brow.

Tenchi was not prepared for that response. Immediately, his mind went blank wondering what man Ryoko could possibly pair with her half-sister, the cold-hearted and very violent bounty hunter.

"A date? With whom?"

"Well," the Ryoan woman started as she leaned closer and whispered softly into his ear, "Kamidake!"

His eyes popped open as he jerked back. "The knight Kamidake?!" he blurted out.

"Yeah," she acknowledged with a devious sparkle to her eye, "I saw how he looks at her, and how she looks back."

Admittedly, Tenchi did not know the crimson knight very well, nor his azure partner. Both were great warriors from the first court of Jurai who had been sealed away after a great battle. Katsuhito had raised them to aid in defeating the usurper during the coup d'etat, and both had also participated in the defense of Jurai and Earth in the last few months. Of course, those all were quite stressful times, and Tenchi did not take the time to talk with either man at length.

However, as he thought back to the reunion on Jurai, Kamidake was present when Nagi's father revealed himself. He also volunteered to accompany Ryoko to the enemy's vessel to rescue the huntress. During the recent incident in Manhattan, Tenchi spent a significant amount of time in the infirmary from his wounds while protecting Ryoko, but later heard that Kamidake was likewise wounded, protecting Nagi.

"Still, Ryoko," Tenchi stammered, "he's a Juraian knight, and she's…"

"A bounty hunter," Ryoko completed for him. "So what, Tenchi? If they're interested, why don't they take a shot?"

"Well, isn't it a bit complicated," he asked, "him on Jurai and her here on Earth? And, doesn't Jurai have a lot of social classes?"

"To hell with society bullshit!" she barked back. "That didn't stop me from going after you!"

Sweat beaded in Tenchi's hair as he said, "We also didn't know I was part Juraian until after we met."

"Come on, Tenchi!" she sighed as she rolled her eyes. "Nagi's got a rod so far up her ass, that she can hardly bend over. Admit it. She could use someone to lighten her up."

"Is that how you suggested it to her?"

"More or less, yeah," the former pirate answered, glancing to the side.

He took a slow, deep breath and sighed, "No wonder she slapped your drink out of your hand." Gently, he cupped her cheek and said, "Ryoko, think about how Nagi sees all this. I remember what her dad said about how she was treated on Jurai."

"I don't think he'd do that to her," she muttered.

"No, I doubt he would," he admitted, "but I don't think that's how she heard it. I mean, if you think about it, her dating Kamidake wouldn't be that different from her dad dating your mom. And, she's very sensitive about that."

Tenchi could see the realization in Ryoko's amber eyes. She knew now what she had said to spark the fight, as well-meaning or light-hearted as it had been. For a moment, guilt crept into her face. Since the reunion, since learning of her connection to Nagi, Ryoko had shown genuine concern for her sibling, in her own way.

Then, her brows furrowed, her eyes closing with a heavy breath. He could feel her tense in his arms, feel the anger starting to flow off of her as she thought back to the incident in the onsen.

"That still doesn't excuse what she said."

Worried, he asked the obvious question, "What did she say?"

"… That I was sleeping with you…"

"That's… never bothered you before…" he said with a bit of blush to his cheeks.

"… I know, Tenchi," she whispered, her eyes turning back to his, "but it's different now…"

The prince saw it again, guilt, heavy guilt. Truthfully, Tenchi did not yet have the skill his grandfather did at reading people, but he had learned well. The young man's main flaw was not gullibility, but rather his trusting nature. However, living with Ryoko for three years has taught him to be less so, particularly with someone who is adept at lying, and omission.

Yet, his concern for her tempered his response. Her anger was very real, unlike than the facades she has worn before. Whatever was really said hurt her, enough to break her armistice with Nagi.

He snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her closer as he whispered, "Please, Ryoko, what did she say?"

Her teeth gnashed as she fought the answer that passed from her lips. "… That I slept with you… while Ayeka was here…"

Chills rushed through him, and his heart sank deep into his chest. He could feel the same guilt clawing its way into his chest as she did. Dumbfounded, words abandoned him.

"She said that I was why she…" Ryoko whispered, her voice tainted with regret, anger, and frustration.

Tenchi and Ryoko had not discussed Ayeka since she left Earth. She told them all that she had to reflect on her life, to recover from what was done to her in Manhattan. Her words did hold truth in them, but all three of them knew a second, unspoken reason she wanted to leave.

"… That… was too far, Tenchi," Ryoko hissed, "so I slapped her… and then we fought…"

The prince glanced aside, his emotions confused and in disarray. Like Ryoko, he was angry at Nagi for saying something so cruel, particularly to her own sister. He sympathized with the huntress some, considering Ryoko's own callous remarks.

But, his own regret and guilt seeped into his mind. His indecision was one of the pressures that had fueled the darkness that had been consuming Ayeka. His choice had broken her heart, allowing room for that shadow to overwhelm and nearly destroy her. Moreover, he could do nothing to undo what happened.

Gently, Tenchi stepped out of Ryoko's grasp and sat on a nearby log, his brown eyes set on the ground below silently. Ryoko followed and sat with him, her hands clasped in her lap as she glanced over to him, watching his lost expression.

"Tenchi, are you mad at me?" she asked.

Softly, he answered, "A little, yeah, at both of you."

She rested both of her hands on his knee and looked into his eyes. "I'm sorry, about what I said and the onsen."

"I know," he answered with a nod, "and I forgive you both."

Quiet passed between them while Tenchi continued to push through the haze of his feelings. Ryoko moved her hands back into her lap and lowered her eyes as well.

"It's Ayeka, isn't it?" she whispered somberly.

"Yes."

Her hands clasped tighter as all her fearful doubts leaked into her thoughts. Tenchi could hear the strain in her voice as she spoke to him.

"She's why you… don't want to…?"

He blinked and slowly turned to face her.

"Ryoko, no," he said softly, gently. "She's not why."

He could see tears at the edges of her eyes. While Ayeka lived in the Masaki estate, she and Ryoko definitely had had their differences, but in that time, they also shared a great deal. They watched the same shows, drank together, and hatched plans together. While neither would openly admit it, they did become friends, as well as rivals for the same man's affections.

"Do you love her, Tenchi?" the cyan-maned woman asked quietly, fearfully.

A knife went through his heart. He had cared for both of them, as well as all of the tenants who had come to reside in his home, even Nagi. Ryoko and Ayeka, however, were the two for whom he felt the strongest, but he knew what she meant now.

"Not like I love you, Ryoko, but I do care about her." His eyes lowered, shame in them, as he added, "I never wanted to hurt either of you… It's not your fault Ayeka left. It's mine."

The tears rolled down her face as he continued taking the blame for himself. "I'm the one who said nothing. I'm the one who led you both along. I'm the one who broke her heart. It's my fault."

He could feel his heart bleeding, tears rolling from his own eyes. "I hurt her, someone I care about, so why should I be happy?"

As the guilt welled in his heart, he felt her fingers gently caress his cheek and turn his face back to hers again. Her golden eyes met his, honestly, no deception.

"Because you're a good man, Masaki Tenchi. You try so hard to make everyone else happy. It's your turn, time for you to be a little selfish."

She drew him closer until their lips touched, hers parting to join with his. For a moment, the couple shared a gentle kiss before their mouths separated, allowing their eyes to meet once more.

"I love you, Tenchi," she whispered softly. "Let me carry some of this blame with you."

Silently, he nodded as they slowly and warmly embraced one another.

X X X

Stillness surrounded the Masaki shrine as the sun's dying rays painted a golden hue over the forest. In a familiar clearing, Jurai Sasami sat beneath a great oak, Ryo-Ohki and Ken-Ohki resting in her lap. Dressed in an older kimono of her sister, the Juraian teenager stroked the pelt of each cabbit gently, evoking a rumbling purr from the furry creatures. Her rosy eyes somberly lifted to the well-trod ground before her, beaten flat and lifeless by years of martial practice. Today would be no different.

At her side, Hakubi Washu leaned against the tree, her arms folded as she waited. After her recent dealings with her colleagues at the Science Academy, the researcher rather welcomed a spectator sport. Admittedly, she also had personal interest in today's match, given that the participants destroyed one of her more enjoyable creations.

Near the center of the clearing, Masaki Katsuhito stood idly, waiting the two challengers to arrive. This match was inevitable, though he had hoped for more time to pacify the younger sister's fury. As both were his students at different times, he had accepted their match, provided they abided his conditions, the foremost of which had him as referee and judge. Truthfully, he was curious to see how the two would handle against one another in a fair contest: no special powers, no special weapons, only bokkens and their skills. In observing them, he could gauge how to adapt his curriculum from one to the other.

From his right, the elder sister entered the clearing, Ryua Ryoko. Around her shoulders, she wore a deep blue cloak, fastened near her neck with a circular broach. A relic of her piratical days before arriving on Earth, she thought it appropriate for her match with her half-sister, the feared bounty hunter. Similarly, her cyan spikes of hair were tied behind her head, much more practical for her current intent. Walking at her side was Masaki Tenchi, acting not only as her supportive boyfriend, but also as her second. Being the oldest of Katsuhito's students, Tenchi knew his stipulations and rules and had practiced with Ryoko regularly these last two weeks in preparing her. Together, Tenchi and Ryoko took their place to the legendary warrior's right, both bowing respectfully to him, to which he reciprocated in kind.

From Katsuhito's left, the younger sister arrived, Jurai Nagi. Her cape billowed around her while she stormed directly to her instructor and opponent. She stiffly bowed to them both, though her crimson gaze never left Ryoko's amber eyes. She heard Katsuhito's words distantly as he reviewed the rules for their match, accepting each with a slight nod. Her thoughts only craved swinging her weapon at her half-sister, not words.

On the referee's instruction, both women removed their cloaks, revealing the respective combat attire and weapon of each party. Ryoko once more was wrapped in scarlet flames, while her sibling kept to her preference for violet. At the hip of each warrior was a bokken, newly cut in identical designs, giving no advantage to either party. Next, they both removed their respective ethereal weapons, Ryoko her bracelet and Nagi her hairband. As agreed, neither would be using their innate energies for this match, so the items were unnecessary. The cyan-maned combatant handed her mantle and jewelry to Tenchi, who gave her a brief kiss and a few words of encouragement. In kind, the huntress offered her equipment to Katsuhito, who then passed them to Tenchi as well. She needed no encouragement. She would have beaten her sister before, if not for the selfish interference of Jurai Ayeka.

Tenchi bowed to his grandfather before joining Sasami and Washu on the sidelines. The cabbits raised their heads and mewed their support while the pair slid back and readied themselves. The scientist hummed softly to herself, eying each participant and the tension in her body. Nagi was certainly more strained, angry, but Ryoko seemed relaxed, calm. Sasami watched the two as they drew their swords and took their ready stances. Nagi's form was perfect, strong, but Ryoko's was looser, less powerful.

For a moment, the princess's vision blurred, and she saw two women, one in black and one in white, facing one another with silvery swords drawn in much the same way. Crimson and azure sparked from where their blades clashed when the first strike met, blinding the teen for a moment.

With a gasp, Sasami broke from her reverie, just as Katsuhito raised his hand between the two sisters.

Once his hand fell, Nagi rushed toward her opponent, her weapon already falling, slicing the air above her. Ryoko's eyes widened in the moment while her bokken rose to block, her sister's sliding off along the edge. Stepping aside swiftly, the cyan-maned woman cleared her foe and swung herself, but her little sister swiped just as quickly, clashing with her again.

However, the force of Nagi's blow knocked Ryoko's sword to the side, opening her guard. Luckily, the huntress's swing flew wide, giving the former pirate time to slide away and regather her defense before the next strike came. When the attack arrived, Ryoko stepped aside, her blade tapping her opponent's to the side, just deflecting the blow. All of Nagi's strength and momentum fell toward her half-sister in each assault, but the elder sibling glided away, directing the incoming aggression away.

Nagi's teeth ground beneath her lips, her scowl growing increasingly more heated and frustrated after each misdirection. She watched Ryoko's focus, her calm, her easy passage through every affront. Every strike was pushed aside like a satin curtain, effortlessly. This woman no longer feared the huntress, neither the desperate criminal nor the panicked prey.

After one last avoidance, Ryoko crouched and raked her foot along the ground under Nagi, rending her from her footing. As she toppled, the purple-haired warrior rolled to her side, soon recovering her feet before her sister could capitalize on the circumstance.

Now, the ex-pirate stole the offensive. She launched forward, her sword clashing time and again with Nagi's blade: high to the head, low toward the legs, mid-range toward the abdomen. Each time, the huntress blocked firmly, never yielding. The strikes were weaker, but far faster, searching for a vulnerability to exploit.

Ryoko could see the realization in her sister's eyes, the anger melting into caution. Her younger relative held her ground, despite the flurry of attacks, but no retaliation could be returned. The gaps between strikes shortened, pushing her, cornering her. This woman no longer intimidated the Ryoan, neither the dread huntress nor the apex predator.

The cyan-maned fury lastly struck once more, issuing all her momentum and might into the impact. As her opponent stumbled back, Ryoko leapt into the air and spun her weapon at her foe. However, Nagi tucked her shoulder and rolled away, leaving only air for her sister.

The two then faced each other once more, deeper breaths, sweat beading on their faces. Nagi licked her dried lips and took a slow breath, calming her beating heart a bit. Ryoko cracked her neck, her breath hissing softly between her teeth.

Washu's brows rose, interested. Of course, she had known the extent of Ryoko's original powers after her gratuitous use of them. However, seeing her fight with only her wits and a bokken actually impressed the scientist. Perhaps the tigress could change her stripes. Now, the genius focused on her opponent. How would she adapt? What would be her counter?

A knot hung in Tenchi's gut watching this match, concerned. True, his girlfriend had improved significantly, but she was still yet to master the style. He could see several of her weaknesses, and while Nagi lacked the same mastery, she had far more years of experience. He saw her crimson eyes narrow, tactically assessing her foe, the anger giving way to her training. She was far from defeated with that initial exchange. Of course, he did want to interfere as Ryoko's boyfriend, not that she would let him.

Katsuhito kept close to the action and observed the two carefully. He could certainly see Tenchi's influence in the way Ryoko wielded her blade, as well as how Nagi had let her emotions control her. Yet, like Tenchi, he saw the huntress's eyes shift. She had learned, if stubbornly, and now seemed to accept those lessons. Inwardly, he grinned and anticipated the next exchange.

While Ryo-Ohki and Ken-Ohki witnessed the battle quietly in Sasami's lap, the Juraian teenager held her arms closely. She had seen sparring matches between young men on Jurai. In particular, she and Ayeka often joined Juraihelm Ramia to watch the contests of her little brother, Rumiya. However, those matches were controlled, regulated. Though Sasami was not trained to fight herself, she could see the ferocity in Nagi's sword. She wanted to hurt Ryoko, her own sister. Unpleasant emotions boiled in Sasami's heart, familiar ones: sadness, anger, betrayal. She easily put herself into the cyan-maned woman's place, having her sister wish harm upon her.

Then, a chill rushed up her spine.

Ayeka would never… she thought. Why did I…?

Before she could continue her thought, Ryoko and Nagi dashed at one another, their swords connecting with a loud crack of wood. Each turned their blade against the other's, leveraging their weight and strength against the other, looking to break the other's guard. Between their weapons, the sisters met gazes, drinking deeply of one another's focus and determination. Ryoko received the bitter, jaded spite that had welled in her younger sibling. Nagi felt the conflicted, uneasy affection that had grown in her elder relative.

The cyan-maned woman slid aside, raising her hilt for the huntress's blade to grind down and off hers. In that moment, the former pirate kicked her lead foot at her opponent, but the purple-tressed warrior spun away, swinging her weapon up at her foe's abdomen. The elder's bokken blocked this attack before she whipped around herself to strike once more. The younger denied the hit.

Tenchi and Katsuhito could both see the change. Both swords moved freely, clashing, blocking, striking. The pair became fluid, dancing around one another, circling each other, the cracks of their weapons growing softer and more constant. Ryoko's muscles tightened as her blows increased in strength. Nagi's shoulders loosened as her impacts became faster. The elder stood firm while the younger dodged. Each fed upon the other's strengths, adapting, mimicking, complementing, learning.

Finally, Nagi's kiai broke the monotonous impacts as she knocked Ryoko's bokken back, hers already flying down to strike again. The cyan-maned woman drew away, but the huntress was already on her, a second kiai focusing her breath, and her blade, through the elder's defense. The former pirate's weapon shattered into splinters, the broken edge spiraling aside and into the ground a distance away.

The purple-haired woman could see the surprise in her foe, hear the gasps of those watching. The moment held still. Victory stood before her, ready to be taken, after many years of chase and conflict. A smile spread across her lips while she savored drawing her weapon for the final blow.

Ryoko's golden eyes widened, but quickly met her sister's, seeing the rise of the weapon, the confidence.

Then, she saw the flaw.

Nagi's strike came fast and hard, all her energy, her frustration, her fury, directed solely at her sibling. Ryoko spun to the side, the blade barely missing her shoulder and back as she danced closely around the huntress. With all her force sent into her assault, Nagi could not react in time when Ryoko stood behind her, wrapping an arm around her neck, and edging the broken bokken to her temple.

Immediately, Katsuhito called for the match to end, whence the Ryoan released her little sister. Nagi collapsed to her knees, dumbfounded, her mind spinning from the final exchange, victory stolen from her so quickly. The wise Juraian announced the cyan-maned woman the clear victor, garnering applause from both Tenchi and Washu. Ken-Ohki hopped his way to his mistress's lap, mewing up to her, sending his condolences to her mind. Though Ryo-Ohki was pleased her mistress had won the match, she joined her white counterpart, nuzzling against Nagi's free hand.

The huntress closed her eyes, the realization finally filling her heart. Defeated, she was now honor-bound by the stipulations of the match. She must fulfill a single request of her sister.

Ryoko knelt at Nagi's side and smiled softly to herself, catching her breath. Gently, she tossed aside the broken hilt and offered her hand to her kin.

"Now, Sis," the former pirate spoke, "you're going to ask that handsome knight out on a date. Deal?"

Heavily, the huntress sighed with her nod, dropping her bokken and taking her sibling's hand.

"Dammit, fine."

Confused, Sasami's brows twisted at this brief conversation.

"Wait," she said. "This was all about Nagi dating a knight?"

A deep blush crossed the purple-tressed woman's face as Ryoko laughed, spurring a snort and chuckle from Washu as well. Sweat beaded and rolled down Tenchi's hair while Katsuhito just folded his arms, and grinned to himself.

X X X

Alone, Masaki Tenchi strode down from the shrine, reflecting on the recent match. Watching the sisters fight had reminded him greatly of his own sparring engagements with his grandfather, particularly the shattered bokken. Whenever the young man saw victory within sight, his mentor would do the very same maneuver to wreck his resolve. "Giving up already?" he would chuckle. Naturally, Tenchi did learn the counter move in the Juraian style, involving fighting with the hilt and broken blade.

However, Ryoko resourcefully switched to grappling instead when the legendary man had trained her. Both Katsuhito and Tenchi had been surprised at her solution to the problem, the younger never having considered it. The grandfather chuckled, pleased at her ingenuity and tenacity. No doubt, he had seen something similar in his experience, but had not expected it from her.

After the match, Nagi wandered quietly back to the house with Sasami and the cabbits consoling her loss, and asking about this "date with a knight". Washu trailed behind them, cackling to herself while she replaying the bout on her ethereal laptop. Ryoko shared a kiss with Tenchi before Katsuhito politely interrupted to pull him aside for some words. While her annoyance was certainly apparent, she relinquished her boyfriend for the moment.

Together, the two princes walked toward the shrine, far away from the earshot of the women. Once they entered the priest's office, Katsuhito broke the silence.

"Ryoko has improved a good bit since I last saw her."

"She has, Grandpa," Tenchi answered. "We've been preparing ever since the match was set."

Sagely, the great man nodded before he took a seat on the floor next to the window, his legs beneath him.

"And, Nagi's gotten better, I think," the young man added, sitting similarly across from his grandfather.

"She's a lot like her sister, talented but very stubborn."

"Yeah, I can only imagine," Tenchi chuckled.

With a kind smile, Katsuhito poured both of them a cup of tea, which the former student accepted respectfully.

"How are you and Ryoko getting along?"

"Pretty good, I guess," Tenchi blushed as he sipped his tea. "She really likes going out to clubs and dancing."

"She's a spirited woman, Tenchi," the nobleman commented plainly, "and she's matured since coming here. You should be proud to be with her."

Distantly, the younger fellow glanced to the side and nodded. "I am, Grandpa. She's great, and I love being with her, around her."

Watching him closely, the elder prince observed the changes in his heir: a tightness in his body, deeper breath, the long gaze. In training Tenchi and Ryoko between the reunion and the recently events in Manhattan, Katsuhito had witnessed the two growing closer firsthand. He knew well the heated gazes the two had exchanged when they believed him unaware. Ryoko, naturally, made little pretense to conceal her affections, though Tenchi had kept his feelings closely hidden then, for rather apparent reasons.

Though now openly affectionate, the legend's protege still held some of his feelings to himself, particularly the guilt that was bleeding into his voice and gaze.

"We've started talking some about taking a trip together, just us. I'm not sure yet, really."

Listening to Tenchi describe this proposed vacation, Katsuhito could feel the young man's apprehension. The priest had seen the source of his grandson's trouble and raised his sword to stop her. Honestly, he could see why the boy was so afflicted, as his growing passions had driven her farther down her ill-fated path, even if this was not his intention. The great man knew that feeling very well.

"What do you think, Grandpa? I mean, you know the galaxy far better than either of us."

"You should go," Katsuhito said plainly.

"Are you sure?" Tenchi questioned. "After all…"

"Tenchi," the elder gentleman interrupted, quieting the boy. "Do you love her?"

"Yes, I do," he answered without hesitation. "I just…"

"Then, you should put her first," the reply came again.

Tenchi turned back to his grandfather, their eyes meeting. Looking deep into his senior's sight, the young prince could see experience staring back, and a familiar feeling ringing in his voice.

"Your regrets are becoming doubts, Tenchi," he warned, "and they will devour you."

A somber expression crossed the young prince's face as he listened to the teacher's knowing words.

"You can't change what's happened, nor to whom it happened. Even if you could, I expect you know well that the effects could become very dangerous."

Tenchi thought about all the temporal troubles from his excursion to 1970 and the balancing act of finding and ending Kain to save Achika. He had thought briefly of using Washu's equipment to return to 1997 and spare Ayeka the corruption that followed. However, the more he considered the idea, he could not see how to rescue her without interfering with subsequent events. Earth, and perhaps Jurai, might have fallen without the power she gained through her torment.

Katsuhito rested his hand on his grandson's shoulder and added, "She has made her choice and is safe from harm. Let her go."

The young prince glanced down into his tea, looking at his reflection on its surface, his brows furrowed somberly.

"It feels wrong, Grandpa. She was so hurt."

"I know." The legendary warrior patted his protege's shoulder as he added, "She's a strong woman, though she might not realize it herself, and she is hardly alone."

Slowly, the boy's eyes rose back to his elder's as he continued, "She will heal, as will you. However, you have a woman here who loves you, and needs you."

Tenchi had acknowledged how Ryoko had changed often in the last two months, how she had matured. She thought more about the consequences of her actions and better controlled her passions, like in the match with her sister. As he just admitted, she now spoke with him about future plans together, wanting to spend her time with him. Recalling the time after Kagato's coup ended, he remembered how lonely he had been, his worry for her, and his elation when she returned. He now found it difficult to picture his life without her, and wondered about the reverse.

"You are no longer a boy, Tenchi," Katsuhito said, drawing his hand back and sipping his tea once more. "What you do now defines you as a man."

Thoughtfully, the young prince likewise sipped his tea. After a moment, he took a breath and asked knowingly, "What was her name, Grandpa?"

"Haruna," he answered softly.

"Care to tell me about her?"

Now an hour later, Tenchi descended along the path from the shrine and heard Ryoko's voice laughing aloud nearby. Quietly, he followed a narrow, recently blazed trail to find her kneeling next to a grave marker in a small, secluded clearing. Composed of a deep, glassy obsidian, the burial marker rose flush to the ground, inscribed with Juraian script translating as "Ryua Ryoshu".

"She never saw it coming!" she chuckled. "The 'unbeatable' bounty hunter was so focused she burned all that time to strike!" She scoffed and shook her head. "After all that, she had to gloat!" Smirking, she added, "I guess since she's chased me so long, I shouldn't be too surprised. I wonder if she gets that from her old man. She certainly didn't get it from you."

Tenchi cleared his throat softly, drawing her attention back to him. Ryoko smiled widely and added, "Well, that's all I really needed to say, Mom. I think my man has finally finished with the taskmaster."

The prince bowed toward the gravestone with a soft apology for his interruption before she rose and hugged him close and tight.

"What took you so long?" she asked, stealing a kiss. "I had enough time to go tell her about the whole fight, among everything else."

"I'm sorry, Ryoko," he said apologetically. "He needed to talk to me about some shrine business. It took longer than I thought."

"Is he still trying to rope you into taking his place?" she queried, a brow lowered in annoyance.

"Yeah," he replied, scratching the back of his head lightly, "it's a big decision, and he's not really getting younger."

"Hey, he can get one of those guys from another shrine, right?"

Tenchi nodded. "Yeah, he could, but do you really want someone who doesn't know about what goes on here?"

For a moment, Ryoko's lips pursed in thought before she answered worriedly, "Okay, you have a point, but what about your art? You're starting to get good."

"Artists aren't really known for making lots of money, and I need to support the household somehow. Besides, I could draw in my off time."

She rested a finger on his forehead and poked a bit roughly. "That's my time, Masaki Tenchi."

Sweat beaded in his hair as he grinned wryly. "Right, right…"

He glanced over to the gravestone, which presided over the final resting place of Ryua Ryoshu, mother to both Ryoko and Nagi. Tenchi had met her, in a sense, nearly three months ago in Manhattan. Just after he confessed his love for Ryoko, the beautiful figure of Ryoshu stepped out from the black fire of the NVO distortion. Her spiked, fallow hair fell in a long tail to her ankles, fanning at its end. Though her red and black gown blended into the shadows around her, he could discern her figure, which seemed voluptuous like Ryoko's. However, her gait and bearing were shared with Nagi, particularly the cool blue glare she gave them both upon their meeting.

Yet, the green marks along her face and neck, as well as the blue sclera, signaled who he was actually meeting. Within the Ryoan body was the power and mind which gave the people of Ryua their great abilities, Tokimi. From all the evidence he has seen, this godlike entity has been the impetus behind all the recent turmoil in their lives: Kagato, Kain, Liaens, and perhaps others.

After the goddess's defeat in Manhattan, Ryoshu's body was recovered without damage from the remnants of Tokimi's masked attire. While Nagi was silent on the matter, Ryoko asked Katsuhito that their mother be laid to rest here on Earth, hidden away from "that bitch". Understandingly, he accommodated her request. Since then, Tenchi had worked to divorce Tokimi's twisted voice from the image of his girlfriend's mother.

"How was your talk?" he asked kindly.

"One-sided, as usual," Ryoko quipped back. "She never really liked hearing my stories."

The young prince watched a distant warmness flicker into her eyes as her mind drifted into nostalgia. He smiled softly and kissed her lips ever so lightly.

"Why's that?"

With a smile, she scoffed, "Because I'd tell her about how I beat up the boys in the guild. Would your mom like hearing how you whipped all the neighborhood kids with your sword?"

Wryly, he nodded. "Okay, I could see that, though why did you tell her that you beat up your sister?"

Her palm cupped his cheek and lightly patted it while she answered, "I think she'd like to know that we did it as peacefully as we did." She paused, leaning her lips closer to his. "And," she whispered, "I think she'd like to know that Sis is going out with one of the first knights of Jurai," before kissing him again.

He reciprocated her affections, drawing her close against him as the sun rays began to vanish from the horizon. Carefully, he broke the kiss and motioned back to the house.

"Why don't we head home? It's really starting to get late."

"Fine," she retorted, "if you insist."

Stealing another kiss, she slipped from his arms and took his hand before the pair bowed respectfully to the gravestone. As the sounds of night began to surround them in the dying light, Ryoko nudged closer, spurring Tenchi to wrap his arm around her shoulders. At that moment, he realized that he had left Ryoko's bracelet, Nagi's hairband, and both cloaks back at the shrine.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he apologized, stopping in mid-stride. "I completely forgot both your stuff and Nagi's at Grandpa's."

She hesitated for a moment before she waved the topic aside, answering, "I don't really want to deal with the old man tonight."

With a nod, the couple continued into the growing darkness, the late autumn chill closing around them both. Gently, her arms snaked around him while he glanced down at her, their eyes meeting. The moonlight above glimmered off her irises, causing them to illuminate in his shadow. He slowed his gait to kiss her forehead lightly.

"Like a little lost kitty," he whispered.

She rolled her eyes and slapped his chest softly. "'Lost kitty', my ass!"

Tenchi chuckled and sighed hard, melting into her as she did into him. Over the next few steps, his gaze grew distant with thought before he whispered, "Do you think she'd approve of me?"

Ryoko furrowed her brows. "Who? Nagi? Who cares what she thinks?" she replied flippantly.

"No," the prince stated, "your mother, the real her."

Stunned, her golden gaze lowered to the ground while he continued, "It's like with my mom. I lost her when I was very young and never really knew her." Nostalgia filled his eyes as he smiled thoughtfully. "Traveling back to 1970, I saw a side of her I never knew, or at least never remembered."

The memories of the former pirate drifted back to their jaunt into history, how she and Ayeka infiltrated Achika's house under the guise of transfer students. The raven-haired girl was vibrant, coyly flirtatious, not at all what she expected from Katsuhito's daughter. Still, she saw some of Tenchi's strength peeking through her, particularly when her power awoke so briefly.

Sadly, the cyan-maned woman envied her boyfriend's memories of his mother. When Ryoko now recalled her mother's image, the beautiful face was marred by leaflike markings tracing down her cheeks and neck. She remembered how the hands which carried her as a child commanded dark lashes that burned her beloved and her sister. The eyes which protectively watched over her scowled disapprovingly, even spitefully, at both siblings. That desecration of her mother's form still churned hatefully in Ryoko's heart.

She clutched Tenchi a bit closer as she whispered softly, "Mom would love you, Tenchi."

"Why's that?" he whispered back.

"Because you did what she kept trying to do," she answered, glancing back up to him, "get me out of the guilds."

His eyes met hers. "Can you tell me about her?"

"Mom…" the former pirate began, "she could be so wildly different at times." She motioned to the left with her head. "When everything was going right, she was very kind." She scoffed with a slight smile, "She volunteered to teach the other guild kids literature with me. She'd also bandage up all the boys' scrapes from… well, being boys…"

Ryoko then motioned to the right. "But, when someone pissed her off, she could be a cast-iron bitch." She laughed to herself, "There was this one time when a couple guys and I were out pinching purses. We each took turns being the lookout while the others snatched the coin pouches or card-folds of our marks. I swear, when Mom found out, she nearly tanned all our hides!"

Tenchi smiled warmly listening to her story, hearing about Ryoko's past, as well as her mother's. His arm kept her close as she shook her head and continued, "Now, she was pretty lenient on kids. If you wanted to see her explode, you should've seen her argue with the pirates. Over and over, the guild leaders kept badgering her to work with them, especially with me already apprenticing." Her eyes closed with a wide smile. "If you think that I have a filthy mouth, you should have seen her rattle off curses in Juraian, as well as old Ryoan and a couple other languages I don't know. Her hands would grip so tight and spark real bright when she was ready to go off."

Kissing atop his beloved's head, the prince commented, "She sounds like you."

Blushing, she lightly slapped the back of his head. "I'm not some school teacher, Tenchi!"

Chuckling, he braced his head playfully and added, "Okay, okay."

Soon, the Masaki estate stood before them shrouded in the shadowy dusk. Lights from the windows illuminated their passage toward the door, sharp contrasts falling over the couple.

Softly, the young man asked, "You miss her, don't you?"

"Of course, I do," her response came, honestly. "I loved…"

I'm not your daughter! her memory screamed out. I certainly hate your ass!

In that moment, the shadows configured as they did when Tokimi first appeared in the NVO distortion, a colonnade corridor of darkness. The image of her mother, tough with a good soul, blinked back to the face used by the goddess, cold with vicious intent. The happy memories blurred with the twisted ones.

Ryoko stopped on the threshold of the house. Within her, the feelings of affection for her mother and hate for the dark goddess wrung taut in her heart. The conflict between those two visages and the words she said to each brought a shame to her eyes, despite what her intellect told her.

"Tenchi, my mother, the woman who raised me…" Ryoko began, turning to Tenchi, raising her eyes to his, "she was my family before Ryo-Ohki, before I came to Earth and met you and everyone else here." She looked aside, her brows glowering. "Sure, others in the guild acted like, or tried to be, a family, but it wasn't real." Then, her hands slid up her shoulders, pulling her arms close and tight against her body, her voice wavering with stronger filial emotions of spite and disgust. "And then, to have that bitchwear her face like a…!"

A scowl etched itself into her face, and tears appeared at the corners of her eyes, real tears. Sympathy twisted into his heart watching her react to his question, and he placed himself in her position: if someone tried to take his mother's place, to corrupt her memory. No doubt, he would feel just as wronged, just as dirtied.

Then, he remembered it was his question that sent her down this path. He hung his head somberly and wrapped his arms around her, tight and warm against the night's chill.

"I didn't mean…" he began.

"I know you didn't," she interrupted, snaking her arms around him and pulling close to him.

In that moment, he kissed her forehead gently, apologetically, and she replied by kissing his neck, her hands raising along the back of his neck, urging him closer. His eyes opened briefly and met hers, feeling drawn into her passionate emotions as he lowered his lips to hers. The night fell silent to them, only the breath and touch of the other filling their immediate concerns for the next few minutes.

Yet, when they broke the kiss, the chill nipped at them again, despite the heavy beating of their hearts and the warmth of each other's breath and touch. In silence, Tenchi opened the door for his beau to enter, whereupon he wrapped his arm around her again and escorted her up the stairs to her room. There, she cracked the door open as he stood aside, steadying his heart to leave for the evening.

Then, her hand clasped his wrist, her golden eyes staring deep into his. Her gaze still held its fiery luster, but seemed darker, keener. Her grip was tighter, insistent. He could feel her arm shake slightly, wanting to pull him to her once more.

"Stay with me," she whispered, deeper in tone, heated in quality.

Loneliness, he heard ringing in his mind. Most of her life, she had been alone. When she had genuine affection, like her mother or Nagi's father, it was torn away from her. Now, she had found warmth in him, for her, and she wanted to keep it nearby, always.

Tenchi yielded himself to her, stepping forward into her embrace, and the door closed quietly after him.