**Note: If you want to read a much prettier version of this story go to:
Ghost in the Machine
By Diane Long
Note: This story picks up after the events of "Little Ryoko".
The smells of fresh grilled fish and miso soup hung thickly in the air, accentuated by pungent accents of garlic and pepper. Everyone at the table was eating with gusto except an adult Washu who was scanning the living room as she munched on a pickle. The late afternoon sun turned her hair into a deep shade of orange with pink highlights.
"Ryoko?" she called, after she had swallowed.
"Yes?" came the distracted reply from somewhere overhead.
"It's dinner time. Come eat."
"Oh. Right." Ryoko stuck her head over the side of her favorite rafter sniffing with interest. "I'll be down in a minute."
"You wouldn't want to be rude to Sasami, would you?" Washu asked gently, knowing Ryoko would drift back into her book without a little prodding.
"No, way. I'm coming." Ryoko teleported, book in hand, to her usual spot beside Tenchi at the table. She picked up her utensils, stuck her nose back into her book, and continued to read while she ate.
Washu shook her head in amused annoyance. Ryoko's manners hadn't been much improved by recent events. However, she had been denied the pleasure of reading for so long, no one could really blame her for this specific infraction.
Tenchi cast a glance over to his silent seatmate. It was strange for her to be so quiet. Or was it strange that she wasn't paying any attention to him? He felt displaced somehow. He shook his head a little to clear his thoughts. As he reached for the mustard he noticed Washu eyeing him knowingly. He quirked an eyebrow at her, but she only shrugged and went back to eating. He didn't dwell on it too long, one never knew what Washu was plotting, and it really was better not to push.
"What are you reading there, Ryoko?" asked Ayeka in a disapproving voice.
"It's a book about how annoying princesses meet their ghastly ends. Want to see?" Ryoko asked offering the book to Ayeka.
"Ryoko," Tenchi groaned.
"What?" Ryoko asked, a paragon of innocence. "That's what this book is about." She showed him the front cover.
"Fairytales by the Brothers Grimm," he read aloud. "I should have known."
Ryoko grinned maliciously. "That's right, I'm doing some very practical research here." She eyed Ayeka. "These earth writers sure know their stuff."
Tenchi just shook his head and went back to eating.
"What?" Ayeka asked not getting the joke.
"Hmmm." Ryoko cast her glance about the table, and then scooped up a beautiful red apple from the fruit basket. "Apple, princess?"
Washu nearly choked. It was amazing to see how well Ryoko's intellect was reasserting itself. Her wit alone had always been enough to peel the paint from the walls, but now that there was some content added in, Ryoko was amazing to behold. If she kept up soaking in information at this rate, Ryoko would be able to defeat Ayeka with words alone. Washu glowed. Her daughter was the smartest girl, besides her own mother, in the house. Just like old times.
Ayeka looked at the apple doubtfully. "Why do you want me to eat that apple?"
Ryoko smiled sweetly and widened her eyes. "No reason, really."
"No, thank you," Ayeka said firmly, convinced Ryoko was up to something.
"Oh, well." Ryoko set the apple back in the bowl. "Ever thought about spinning then?"
Washu wiped her mouth with a cloth napkin and rolled her eyes. "You do realize those things won't work with out an enchantment, right?" she asked Ryoko.
Ryoko bit her lip. "Oh, right. Damn."
"I'd cast one for you, if I hadn't promised Tenchi not to kill anyone within 200 feet of the Shrine," Washu said smiling coyly at Tenchi.
"Since when has that ever stopped you," Ryoko muttered under her breath.
"No back talk," Washu warned, only half-joking.
Ryoko's answer was a protruding tongue as she teleported away from the table, taking a bowl of rice with her.
"So disrespectful!" Washu muttered, a tiny smile playing across her lips anyway. Things were going unbelievably well between she and Ryoko. She got to her feet and smiled at Tenchi. "I'm off to feed my specimens. Please come and get me if I'm not back in time for Battle Action Droids."
"Sure thing, Washu." Tenchi returned her smile. Ryoko hadn't been the only one to under go a change recently. Washu had become much friendlier and willing to spend time outside of her lab. It was nice to see her so happy.
Up on her beam, Ryoko continued reading for fifteen minutes, with one leg dangling over the side. She kicked idly as she finished the last few pages of her book.
"Ryoko, are you going to help with the dishes or not?" came a voice from underneath of her.
Ryoko peered over the edge and saw Ayeka glaring up. "Oh, is it my turn again so soon?"
Ayeka merely crossed her arms and waited. The tip of her foot peeking out from the hem of her kimono tapped out her annoyance.
"Don't worry, I'll get to it later. Just let me finish this chapter first!"
"Break it up you two, it's time for the TV show!" said Washu rushing past Ayeka towards the couch.
"Oh, my show!" exclaimed Ryoko as she flew to join Washu.
Ayeka shook her head and took her own seat. Once a slacker, always a slacker.
Ryoko picked up the remote control and selected the channel, taking a moment to crank up the volume. "It's better when the explosions are loud!" she exclaimed settling back into the couch.
Washu nodded in agreement. "But not so loud it overdrives the speakers," she amended. "The crackle annoys me."
"It's fine," Ryoko assured her. "That bothers me too. My ears are too sensitive."
Washu grabbed Ryoko's earlobe and pulled her head over and looked deeply into her ear canal. "Hmmm, interesting."
"Hey! Leggo!" Ryoko shouted trying to wriggle away.
Washu produced a small flashlight and shone it into Ryoko's ear. "Looks like you could stand to take a bath, little Ryoko."
"Ha," Ryoko glowered.
"Seriously, you still aren't hearing Brownian motion are you?" Washu asked, sneaking in a little hug.
"Not since you adjusted my auditory nerve. I'm just talking about my typical sensitivity." Ryoko felt the hug and gently tried to pull away.
"Oh, that makes sense," Washu said releasing Ryoko and tossing the flashlight into a dimensional pocket.
"How sensitive is your hearing, Ryoko?" Tenchi asked sitting down on the other side of her.
Ryoko shrugged. She didn't like Tenchi knowing the ways she was different from a typical human being.
Washu peered around Ryoko's shoulder with a mischievous grin on her face. "Let's just say she can hear you digesting your dinner."
"Urg," Tenchi said queasily his hands covering his stomach.
"Washu!" Ryoko snapped. "Cut it out!
Washu complied. Ryoko was starting use 'Washu' only when she was annoyed with her. So it was better to behave and get called 'mom' than to annoy her progeny. A little better anyway.
"It's not a big deal, I just imagine that sounds pretty gross," Tenchi comforted, patting Ryoko's hand. "Hey… your hands are like ice." Tenchi started chaffing her fingers.
Ryoko looked away. She had been feeling rather chilled for the past day or so, but hadn't wished to draw further attention to herself by mentioning it. "Ah, it's nothing…." She began, but quickly changed gears when she saw Ayeka staring jealously at the two of them.
"Oh Tenchi, I'm so cold!" Ryoko cried snuggling up to Tenchi, all the while shooting nasty grins to Ayeka.
Tenchi, having felt her icy hands, was genuinely concerned. He reached behind him and grabbed an afghan from the edge of the couch and wrapped it around Ryoko's shoulders. "Is that better?"
"Mmm-hmm," Ryoko sighed, continuing to lean against Tenchi.
Tenchi was pleased to allow this. Given the current absence of her physical teasing, he found that he was actually enjoying the opportunity to be close to Ryoko.
Washu watched the pair, not certain if she should be amused or concerned. Ryoko was supposed to be impervious to cold, then again since the autumn temperatures remained mild, this was probably just one of Ryoko's more successful attempts to get attention from Tenchi. Washu chuckled softly. That girl would never give up.
In a hazy dreamscape, Ryoko sat on a plain wooden chair and stared at the young woman standing before her. She had the sweetest eyes and a gentle smile, and something about her body language suggested constant mischief. She was so pretty too. Ryoko found herself liking this woman and hoping that she liked her back.
The woman grinned. "Don't you recognize me?"
Ryoko pondered. "Well, you do seem familiar."
The woman sighed. "I'm so sorry."
"For what?" Ryoko asked cautiously.
"For you. For me."
Ryoko leaned forward. There was something important here. Something she was missing.
"You've found me again, but you can never really be me anymore. Too much has happened," the young woman said sadly tears welling in her yellow eyes.
Ryoko gasped in recognition. "Yes I can! I'm trying really hard. Give me some time!"
"Ryoko! You are so changed that you didn't even recognize me!" The woman's light blue hair bristled in agitation.
"But I didn't ask to be changed. Neither did you!" Ryoko wailed.
Her more innocent self nodded. "It's a shame, but that doesn't change anything. Its too late." She started to walk away.
"Wait! Please don't leave me!" Ryoko tried to get up, but found she was tightly bound to her chair.
The now distant figure waved. "Don't try to be me. You can't do it. I'm lost to you."
"No! I can be normal again! I know I can!" she shouted, tipping over the chair as she tried to get free. All around her the dreamscape shifted as she heard the faint voice of her innocence mourning for both of them, her tears splashing like the sound of a stream.
Ryoko shivered in her sleep and scrunched up into a tighter ball, trying to keep warm. The cold had brought her dreaming mind to the surface of wakefulness and the sound of real running water worked its way into her awareness.
Running water? Now, that was odd. Ryoko cracked open an eye and immediately discovered she was not on her rafter. She was outside, on the bank of the river, and from the looks of it the sun was just beginning to rise. Ryoko sat up and stretched her aching bones, the sadness of her dream still clinging to her. It looked like she had fallen asleep out here while she had collected stones by moonlight. She could feel the rocks bulging in her left pocket.
How strange, falling asleep was usually a purposeful act for her, something she decided to do. Not something that crept up on her unawares. She rubbed her neck trying to remember the last thing that had happened before she drifted off. She had been drinking sake, and admiring the new stones she had selected for her collection. She looked to the side to see the sake bottle lying on its side, half full. Now that was really odd. She shrugged, dwelling more on the dream than how she fell asleep in the first place. Her heart ached and her body was freezing. It was time to go home. Hopefully breakfast would be ready now and a hot cup of tea sounded really good. Being with her family sounded even better. Ryoko picked up the bottle and flew towards home.
She quickly reached the Masaki household and touched down in the front yard. As she phased through the front door she saw Ayeka sleepily making her way down the stairs.
"Rough night, princess?" Ryoko teased trying to shake off her funk.
Ayeka eyed the large ceramic sake bottle. "I could say the same for you, Ryoko," she muttered.
Ryoko smirked. "Well, don't be too jealous that you can't be as fun as I am."
With that, she teleported up to her rafter to hide the sake. Razing Ayeka was fun and all, but there was no need to get into it with Washu who had made her opinions about Ryoko's drinking very clear. Ryoko paused on her beam, a small smile tugging at her lips. Even though having to answer to her was a pain, Ryoko didn't want to disappoint Washu. After so many years of being alone, of being almost mechanical, to care what anyone thought of her was so strange.
It was nice too. Not that she was ready to admit that to anyone right now. She would, in her own time. But things needed to slow down for a little while. As evidenced by her dream, the old memories were too much and confused her. She wished she could just have one a day instead of having them all seething around behind her consciousness. It often made her feel like she was torn between two people who wanted her to pick sides. Other times it seemed like her remembered self had given up on her, and she felt like a discarded doll. Maybe Washu could do something about that for her. She paused in her thinking as her highly sensitive ears picked up the sound of Tenchi entering the dining room. Ryoko smiled and teleported down to the table and took a seat besides him. She winked at him and reached out to drown her sadness in a hug.
"Good morning, Ten… oh tea!" She changed directions and poured herself a cup of steaming liquid instead. She wrapped her cold fingers around the warm china and sighed in pleasure. She sipped carefully, still enjoying the novelty of flavor.
"Good morning, Ryoko," Tenchi said wistfully. He hated to admit it, but he missed her hugs. He smiled. "That must be some tea!"
Ryoko lowered the cup from her lips, but kept her fingers wrapped around it. "It is very good."
Tenchi waited for her to offer to pour him some. It soon became obvious that the offer wasn't coming when Ryoko took another sip and closed her eyes in pleasure.
Ayeka slid into her place at the table. "Good morning Lord Tenchi. Would you like some tea?"
"I'll pour my own, thanks," Tenchi said not looking away from Ryoko.
"Oh." Ayeka looked from Tenchi to Ryoko, a small frown creasing her brow. This certainly wasn't good.
Tenchi reached for the teapot and poured a cup for himself. "Would you like some more, Ryoko?"
"Yes, please." Ryoko set her cup down so that Tenchi could refill it.
Tenchi almost chuckled as he poured. It was disconcerting to see Ryoko use her manners. It still wasn't consistent, but when she wasn't fighting it Ryoko was more polite than he would have ever imagined. And it was rather endearing, to see such manners from a space pirate.
Ayeka fumed. This wasn't going well at all!
"Ayeka?" Tenchi queried, waving the teapot. "Tea?"
"No thank you," she sniffed. Imagine being asked after that monster woman.
Tenchi shrugged and set the teapot down.
"So little Ryoko, where were you last night?" asked an adult Washu as she took her own seat.
"Out," Ryoko said firmly between sips of tea. This mother thing was nice, but it didn't mean that Washu suddenly had the right to monitor her activities.
Washu frowned. "Out doing what? You blocked our link, so I couldn't follow your thoughts."
"I know." Ryoko didn't want anyone to know about her rock collection.
"I'll tell you what she was doing." Ayeka smirked. "She was out drinking sake. I saw her dragging in, bottle in hand this morning."
"Ryoko…" Washu said tiredly.
Ryoko glared at Ayeka. "See if I keep your secrets anymore."
Ayeka paled. Maybe that had been a bit harsh. Ryoko knew a little too much for things to swing this way.
"Good morning!" Sasami said bringing in breakfast. "Did you find any nice rocks last night, Ryoko?"
"Errr…" stalled Ryoko, a deep blush dotting her cheeks.
"Rocks?" Tenchi asked.
Washu's expression changed from annoyance to understanding. There had been a time when Ryoko had destroyed all of her pockets because of her habit of pocketing every pretty stone that came across her path.
"Ryoko told me she was going to look for some rocks on the riverbank last night. The moonlight helps you find the pretty ones, right Ryoko?" Sasami asked blithely, scooping rice into everyone's bowls.
Ryoko set her cup down on the table and stared into its depths. "I guess."
"Did you find any?" Tenchi asked with interest.
Ryoko dug into her pocket and handed Tenchi three stones without comment.
Tenchi examined each one in turn. "Wow, these are really nice. I like this one the most though." He held up an oval, greenish stone.
Ryoko looked at it and smiled. "I like that one too. Did you see the small vein of mica on the side?" she asked shyly.
Tenchi looked closer. "Oh yeah. That is nice."
Washu watched the interaction with a dreamy smile. Ryoko didn't seem to notice, but her behaviors had changed. With her memories intact, and a budding relationship with her mother, Ryoko didn't need to be so clingy to Tenchi anymore. She had other outlets for her emotions now. And an unexpected side effect was Tenchi's increased interest in Ryoko.
"How long have you been interested in stones?" Washu asked encouragingly.
Ryoko bit her lip. It was hard to know if they would understand or not. She wanted to tell them, but what if they thought she was horrible? She dug at her rice in agitation.
"It's okay, honey." Washu reassured her.
Ryoko quirked an eyebrow at the pet name, but let it slide. "Ever since Kagato first controlled me," she said. "I used to collect stones from the places we would… places that we would destroy," she finished in a shamed whisper.
Washu sighed. She had hoped Ryoko would have remembered that she had always been interested in geology. Would the specter of Kagato ever leave them in peace? "May I ask why you took the stones?" she asked hoping to jog Ryoko's memory.
Ryoko shrugged. "Because they sparkled. They were pretty."
Ah well. Maybe her distant memories would clarify over time. Washu rested her head on one hand. "And you always had a weakness for shiny things. Didn't you?" she asked trying to change the subject.
Ryoko laughed. "You know I did, Mom. Remember those diamond bits on your drill?"
Washu giggled. "Your first pair of earrings I think."
"Until you figured it out and made me return them."
Washu wagged a finger at Ryoko. "Don't make me sound mean. What happened next?"
Ryoko smiled. "You taught me how to grow crystals, and we made a pair of earrings from those diamonds."
"Two pairs!" Washu corrected, brushing aside her hair so Ryoko could see a small diamond winking in her earlobe.
"That's right," Ryoko chuckled.
Tenchi listened with a smile. Like everyone else, he enjoyed tales of Ryoko and Washu's more innocent times together. "Where is your pair, Ryoko?"
Ryoko's smile faded. "Gone," she said shortly.
:: Kagato took them from you, didn't he?:: Washu asked mind-to-mind.
:: What didn't he take?::
Without a word Washu removed one of her earrings and handed it to Ryoko. Ryoko, also not speaking, took it and fastened it into her right earlobe. The two shared a smile and went back to eating.
"Can I see your collection sometime?" Tenchi asked Ryoko.
Ryoko paused. "See it?" she asked with concern.
Tenchi looked confused. "Sure, it sounds interesting."
"You want to see it?" Ryoko asked again. She had always hidden her collection from Kagato. He took away anything that made her more human.
:: No one will take it from you,:: Washu comforted through their link, sensing Ryoko's worry.
Tenchi titled his head to one side trying to understand the strange vibe he was getting from Ryoko. "But only if you want to," he amended.
"Um…"Ryoko hesitated. It was hard to deny Tenchi, but she really just couldn't share this right now. "No. I'd rather not." She looked at him sadly, her eyes begging him to understand.
He looked shocked. "Oh. Okay." He stared at her a moment before he looked down at his rice, not eating.
He's mad at me now. Her gut twisting in anxiety, Ryoko set her chopsticks down and pushed back frown the table. It seemed that not so much had changed after all. She still didn't know how to get along with people. She always said the wrong thing. With out a word, she teleported to the roof.
She wasn't there for long when she heard the hiss of a dimensional portal opening behind her. She knew who it was, but offered no greeting. What did it take to get some privacy around here?
"Ryoko," Washu said firmly.
"What do you want, Washu?"
"Oh, it's 'Washu' now, is it?" Ryoko could hear Washu tap her foot impatiently. "What's eating you this morning?"
Ryoko rolled her eyes and firmly shut her link with her mother. "Nothing." Ryoko frowned as she felt Washu testing the mental barrier, obviously trying to find a way around it. "And don't you dare pry into my thoughts."
Washu stopped immediately. She hadn't known Ryoko could detect her probe. She sat by Ryoko and drummed her fingertips against the roof. "It's amazing how 'nothing' can ruin a perfectly serene morning," she said lightly.
Deciding there was no further peace to be had on the roof, Ryoko prepared to phase away. But Washu had anticipated this. She grabbed Ryoko's arm as she began to calibrate the spaces between her molecules. The contact stopped and reversed the process. Ryoko remained solid.
She looked at Washu in dismay. "Since when could you do that?"
Washu smiled wryly. "Since a certain five year old discovered yet another way to avoid bathing." She looked Ryoko in the eyes. "Promise not to bolt?"
Ryoko nodded stiffly, and Washu released her.
"You always were one to run from your problems," Washu stated. "Life doesn't work that way."
Ryoko grumbled under her breath, then lashed out, " Who asked you to get involved? I'm FINE."
"Oh little Ryoko, you know you can't lie to me," Washu said in a small voice.
"Well, why do you care?"
Washu shot her daughter a sideways glance. "Excuse me, but weren't we sharing a warm, fuzzy moment just minutes ago? About our earrings?"
Ryoko reached up and roughly removed the diamond stud and placed it in Washu's hand. "If you want it back, just say so."
Stunned, Washu reverted to her child size and rolled the earring around in her palm. "You know that wasn't what I meant," she said, her voice thick with hurt.
"Arg. I know… I'm sorry." Ryoko hung her head. Here she went again, hurting people.
Silence hung between them for a moment.
"I'm having a hard time… I mean… I don't understand…well… I don't have the words…" Ryoko faltered.
Washu took one of Ryoko's hands. "Then don't use words."
Understanding, Ryoko reopened their link and let her unhappiness flow out towards her mother.
Washu stiffened, morphed back into her adult self, then threw her arms around Ryoko as the pain filled her mind. In images and feelings Ryoko showed her how she felt off balance by her new memories. How she could watch them and see how she used to be, to know how much Washu had loved her, but yet how distant it all seemed in the context of her more recent existence. How the old Ryoko was a paragon of virtue that the present Ryoko could never recreate. Flavors of failure and worthlessness mixed it all together and formed a brew of confusion and loneliness. Washu could clearly see how Ryoko was floundering between her past, present, and future selves.
"Oh darling!" Washu exclaimed, stroking Ryoko's hair. " I had no idea."
"I'm so lost," Ryoko moaned. "Who am I? I see my past and want to be like her, but I don't know how anymore. So much has changed."
Washu tightened her hug. "But Ryoko, you have me again. I can help you."
"Just tell me what you want."
Ryoko met Washu's eyes openly. "I want to normal, I just want to find out who I am," she sniffed again then sneezed softly.
Washu patted her back absently, caught up in thought. She could see the true spirit of her daughter in that moment. The one who had faced so much abuse alone, the frightened child. It became clear to her that this reawakened soul was not merging with the warrior that had protected it for so long. Intervention was needed. And she knew just who to ask for help.
"You want me to what?!" Ryoko shouted, rising to her feet from a kneeling position.
"Sit," said Yosho firmly.
Yosho gave Ryoko that silent, but grim look that had successfully quelled Tenchi all of his young life. And it worked on Ryoko too. She sat back down, but unlike Tenchi, she did it without meekness. If her glare had any physical properties at all he would have been impaled on her chagrin.
An adult Washu, seated on a cushion beside Ryoko, looked worried. This therapy session was not going well at all. They had been trying this for weeks, and it seemed like things were only getting worse for Ryoko.
Yosho folded his arms and spoke calmly. "As I was saying, it is time for you to take a risk. You need proof that those realities of your life with Kagato are untrue here. We can make little progress until you trust us more."
Ryoko shifted her sullen gaze to the floor. Right, she was going to trust the man who had been the second captor in her life.
Yosho leaned against the wall. "You have forgiven me, haven't you?"
"Yes," hissed Ryoko.
"Really?" Yosho asked in a tone of amused disbelief.
Ryoko's head snapped up. "You're mocking me!" she growled.
Washu reached out a tentative hand. "Ryoko…"
Ryoko twisted to face her mother, her face flushing in anger. "And, you!" she seethed, clenching her fists.
"First you let Kagato take me, then you experiment on me, and now you send me to my tormentor for HELP?!"
Washu recoiled, her face ashen.
Yosho's heart quickened. Finally they were getting somewhere. "Direct your anger to the right source, Ryoko. It is not Washu who you are angry with."
Ryoko launched to her feet. "The hell I'm not!" she all but screamed. "I knew Kagato was up to something! I knew it! I tried to tell Mom, but she wouldn't believe me!"
Washu groaned and hid her face in her hands, her own memories of the past rushing to her.
"She couldn't get her eyes out of her microscope long enough to discuss it with me!" Ryoko ranted. "She told me I was being a brat!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Washu whispered through her fingers.
Ryoko was hovering now, so agitated that she couldn't keep her powers in check. "The night he came, do you remember that Washu? Do you remember me begging you not to let him in the house?"
Washu could no longer respond. Her lungs were so tight with misery she could barely breathe, let alone talk.
"Why were you scared?" Yosho asked quietly.
"Because that bastard had been secretly trying to hack into my system for months. I felt it." Ryoko was losing steam now. Instead of shouting, she spoke in a soft distant voice. She continued to hover, sitting Indian style in the air, her blue and yellow kimono tucked under her knees.
"Tell me more."
"It started subtly. A weird feeling here and there. Then one day I was doing some homework at Mom's office at the Academy, and suddenly I couldn't write anymore. My hand was frozen. I turned around and saw Kagato watching me through the glass window of the office door. His expression said everything. Then I knew for sure."
Yosho watched Ryoko closely. "Are you aware you have been calling Washu your mother just now?"
Ryoko winced. "I suppose I am."
"You must be very angry at her," Yosho observed.
Ryoko sighed, looking away from Washu. "Sometimes I hate her."
Washu sucked in a sharp breath.
"Hate is a strong word," Yosho cautioned.
"I know. Maybe that's not the right word, I'm not very good with words." Ryoko's lip quivered uncertainly. "But I used to be, didn't I?"
"You are getting better everyday. I can see a difference." Yosho smiled encouragingly.
Anger was creeping back into Ryoko's voice. "Just think what I might have been like if my past had been different. If Kagato hadn't taken me, I would be smart! I would be able talk as prettily as Ayeka. I would be educated."
Washu had removed her hands from her face, and a lone tear was tracing its way down her cheek. This was what she had feared the most. Ryoko could sense the intellectual difference between her selves. And the memory recovery was only going so far in restoring Ryoko's old knowledge base. And beyond that, she hadn't been able to further develop it in the last 5,000 years. That must feel horrible.
"Just look at me. I'm just a stupid, ignorant space pirate. I can't catch up. I've lost too much time. I'll never be like Ayeka," Ryoko ranted, tears filling her eyes.
"You want to be like Ayeka?" Yosho asked in surprise.
"No!" Ryoko shouted. "I don't want to be a prissy princess. But I would like to be graceful, and…and… gentle."
"Really?" Yosho had never expected this.
Ryoko rolled her eyes and snarled. "Yes, really. Do you think I like it that everyone is afraid I will destroy something every time I get mad? And whenever something goes wrong around here, people just assume it's me. I guess its because I'm so ignorant, what do I know? And no one believes anything I say. They either think I'm stupid, or they don't trust me."
"Ryoko, that's not true…" Washu began.
"Stop," Ryoko said dully. "Just yesterday, in your lab when I said you should use the titanium tank for your new reactor, you ignored me and used the steel alloy. And when it blew up, you didn't even acknowledge that I was right."
Washu hung her head, realizing she had completely blown off Ryoko's advice without realizing it. She should have paid more attention. After all, having Ryoko in her lab and interested in the proceedings had been one of her greatest wishes. And what did she do? She railroaded over her daughter, just like she did everyone else.
"You don't think the 'Greatest Scientific Genius in the Universe' would have ignored the advice of even her most well matched colleagues?" Yosho asked.
Ryoko considered. "You do have something there. But my point still stands. Because of my past, I turned out…badly."
Yosho took a mental note to work on Ryoko's self esteem later. Right now, they needed to work through her anger and the pain. "So, you are angry that this happened to you?"
"Yes, It's like I never had a chance to be angry. After Kagato took control, it didn't take long for him to eliminate my emotions. This is new to me."
Yosho patted Ryoko on the back. "It's okay to be angry. But you have to deal with it."
"So how…?" Ryoko asked.
"By talking it out. Talk to your mother." Yosho opened the sliding door and stepped outside of his shrine office. "And Ryoko, be respectful." With that, he shut the door leaving the two of them alone.
The women eyed each other uneasily. They had mastered sharing their thoughts with each other in moments of extreme emotional crisis, but a calm conversation was new territory for them.
"Washu…Mom…look, I don't know how to talk about this. Let's just drop it. He won't know."
Washu shook her head. "You are too important to me to let this go. If we don't work this out, things will never get better. Don't you want them to get better?"
"Yes. But this is so hard."
"Well let me start. You might remember that my physical confinement was longer than yours was. I spent 5,000 years regretting not listening to you. Accepting the blame." Washu hung her head. "I don't usually make mistakes like that."
"Why? Why didn't you believe me?" Ryoko asked, lowering her levitation till she sat on the floor by Washu.
Washu laughed hollowly. "Because you were in the middle of a horrible, adolescent, teenaged attitude problem. Your hormones were so chaotic and strong that you were constantly moody and hated everyone. Your wildly fluctuating chemical levels interfered with our mental link. Everything you said felt like a lie, true or not."
Ryoko looked stunned. " I had no idea."
"Of course you didn't! It was a design flaw. Your Masu genetics were warping your natural puberty out of control. I didn't want to worry you about it. I worked round the clock trying to figure out how to stabilize your pituitary gland."
"That's what you were so busy with."
Washu grabbed Ryoko's hands desperately. "Yes. And you came to me almost every 15 minutes to complain about something. It was hindering me from helping you, and I was worried and frustrated. And sweetie, you and Kagato had never gotten along. So when you came to complain about him, I just lost it. And we both paid for that."
Ryoko looked at Washu. "Look, I know in my mind that you would never have allowed this to happen if you could have stopped it." She touched her own chest tentatively. "But in here it hurts so much. After all that has happened… I must be such a disappointment to you."
"Oh, Ryoko!" Washu enveloped Ryoko in a comforting embrace. "That's not true." Washu struggled to find the right, soothing words. It had been so long since she had acted like a mother. Could she remember how to do it?
Ryoko accepted the hug and sniffled into Washu's shirt. "How can you not be? You are so smart, and I don't know anything. I don't even know myself."
Washu stroked Ryoko's back, and as with all mothers the right words rose to her lips when she really needed them. "Little Ryoko, I love you so much. I loved you before you got your memories back, when you were just the space pirate in your mind. And I wanted you to love me back. Remember?"
"You see? I love you for who you are right now. That's all you need for me. If I had wanted a perfect replication, I would have just cloned myself. That would have been easy." Washu paused and gently tucked a strand of pale blue hair behind Ryoko's ear.
"But I didn't want that, I wanted a unique daughter who was her own person. And my little Ryoko, one thing about you that is exactly the same as before is your fierce independence. You are your own person, just like you were before all the bad things happened."
Ryoko's arms slid around Washu and hugged her back. "But in the middle, I didn't even belong to myself." She shivered at the memory. "I was a marionette."
"And it was my fault that happened to you," Washu whispered into Ryoko's hair. "I'm so sorry, I wish I had done so many things differently. Can you ever forgive me, daughter?"
Ryoko tightened her arms. "Don't be stupid. I already have."
Washu let out a great breath in relief. "Thank you, I'll make it up to you, I promise."
Ryoko was silent, not really wanting to say that some things just couldn't be made up for. Some things were best forgotten.
Washu felt the silence and hurried to fill it. "First of all, let me tell you I have seen big changes in you recently. You don't sound ignorant. Your vocabulary and reasoning ability have risen quite a bit, 67% to be exact."
Ryoko pulled back and looked at her mother quizzically. "You know it that precisely?"
"Well, I'm a scientist don't you know. I've been keeping track of the data."
Ryoko found that very comforting, as it meant that Washu wasn't just being kind.
"Second of all, its time you went back to school. You are absolutely right in that you have a lot of catching up to do!" Washu said gleefully, pointing one finger into the air as if she had stumbled upon a brilliant idea.
"Back to school? Where?" Ryoko asked unhappily. She had really enjoyed her freedom lately.
"The Science Academy of course. You were a student there, you know. In the accelerated program," Washu said proudly.
"You want me to leave my Tenchi?!?" Ryoko bellowed.
"Hold your horses. We can build a connection to the school through pseudo space. It will be just like when Tenchi goes to school. You can come back every night." Washu grinned. Ryoko was so cute when it came to Tenchi.
"But…but… school? That sounds like a lot of work!" Ryoko worried.
Washu lightly cuffed Ryoko's ears. "Well, yeah it's work. You don't get to be a genius just sitting around. Geeze!"
"Well, I don't know if I want to go to school!" Ryoko groused, getting to her feet and stalking to the door.
"Well, I'm going to register you right away. For your own good."
"Whatever," Ryoko said phasing so she could escape through the wall.
Only instead of going through, she smacked right into it face first. "Ow!" She glared at Washu. "Very funny!" With that, she successfully phased through the wall.
"But I didn't do anything," said Washu, concern edging her voice.
As Ryoko emerged from the shrine office, she saw Tenchi sweeping the walkway. He noticed her and waved.
"Hey," she said simply as she alighted near him.
Tenchi saw the signs of recent tears in Ryoko's eyes and smiled kindly. "How are you today, Ryoko?"
"Great! Couldn't be better!" she lied breezily.
"You act like you don't believe me Tenchi," Ryoko said with her lower lip jutting out into a firm pout.
Tenchi continued sweeping, and chuckled at her expression. "Grandpa told me to keep an eye on you two."
"Oh. There was no need, my Tenchi. Washu and I just needed to have a little discussion."
"And how did that go?" Tenchi knew that Ryoko and Washu had been working on some very difficult issues. He didn't like to see either of his friends in so much pain. Grandpa kept telling him that this would help both of them in the end if they could last through the tough spots. Tenchi just wished it would be easier for them.
"Oh! You care about me! How sweet!" Ryoko threw her arms around his neck and hiked one leg around his waist.
"Ryoko!" Tenchi mock protested, secretly pleased. It had been a while since she had hugged him like this. Then he noticed she was just hugging him, and wasn't trying to grope him at all. She wasn't even teasing him. "Ryoko?"
"Hmmm?" she asked, distractedly circling a finger on his chest as she stared over his shoulder obviously lost in thought.
"Is there anything you would like to talk about?"
"Not really," she said snuggling closer, but her heart wasn't in it.
The both turned to look as they heard the door to the office slide open upon Washu's exit.
Washu frowned and walked over to them. "Ryoko? I need to talk to you."
Ryoko frowned. "I'm busy now," she said squeezing Tenchi for emphasis.
Washu pulled up her laptop and typed rapidly. "Don't worry, this won't interfere with your flirting!"
Washu smiled thinly, but was too worried to get full enjoyment out of embarrassing Ryoko. "How long have you been having problems with your powers?"
"I'm not having any problems."
"Ryoko, you just walked into the wall."
"That was the first time. And besides, I was distracted," Ryoko grumbled.
"I hope that's all it is."
"God, don't smother me!"
Tenchi pursed his lips, picking up on Washu's concern. He looked closer into Ryoko's face. "What's that on your nose?"
"Huh? Let me see," Washu said crowding in, almost tipping Tenchi over. "I don't believe it. It's blood from when you hit your nose on the wall."
Ryoko rubbed a finger under her nose and looked at the read smear on its tip. "So it is. So what? I've bled before."
Washu saved her work and banished her computer. "Not over a little tap. Something is wrong. We need to get to the lab as soon as possible. Let's go," Washu said in a flat, professional voice.
"What? No way! I'm fine."
"Ryoko, listen to Washu. It sounds like something is wrong with your powers. You should let her check you out," Tenchi urged, gently pushing her away.
She snorted. "There is nothing wrong with my powers."
Washu pulled on Ryoko's arm. "Let's go. Now." She was in her full professor mode now, power and control radiating from her. She would brook no further argument.
"What's up with the two of you? If you don't believe me, I'll show you!" Ryoko launched herself high into the air, stopping to hover and look down at them.
::Get down here this instant. That isn't safe if your powers are malfunctioning,:: Washu thought at her sternly.
Ryoko crossed her arms and turned her head to one side, indicating her refusal.
"Come on, Ryoko, this isn't funny!" Tenchi shouted.
Ryoko looked over at him, her expression slightly guilty. She nodded, but decided to end with a loop-de-loop to prove her point. She arched her back and extended her arms as she flew up and over. As her feet were clearing the space her head had been, she suddenly squawked and waved her arms. Losing all momentum, she plummeted towards the ground despite her wild flailings to correct her position. Unable to pull up, she hit the ground squarely on her right shoulder with a sickening crunch.
"RYOKO!" Washu dashed to her daughter's side.
Tenchi was close behind and they both dropped to their knees beside Ryoko. Her eyes were closed and a thin line of blood was dripping from the corner of her mouth. Her nose was bleeding again.
Washu summoned her computer and typed franticly. "This isn't right. She shouldn't be hurt. She CAN'T be hurt by something so minor."
Feeling terribly helpless, Tenchi carefully took Ryoko's hand. "Wake up Ryoko, please wake up."
But he received no response. Ryoko was out cold. "Washu, is she going to be okay?"
Washu didn't look up or stop typing as she spoke. "It's hard to say away from all of my equipment, but her body seems stable. She won't die from this fall. But I'm worried about more than that."
Ryoko's eyes fluttered open. "T-tenchi…?"
"I'm here Ryoko," he soothed. "What do you mean Washu?"
But Washu's attention was all on her daughter now. "Little Ryoko, how do you feel?"
"It hurts… why does it hurt so much?" Ryoko whimpered.
"Just try to relax. It will be okay." Washu turned to Tenchi. "It should be okay for you to pick her up, as long as you watch her right shoulder. Let's get going."
Soon Ryoko was safely ensconced in a comfortable bed, deep within Washu's lab. All around her, different diagnostic and monitoring machines whirred and buzzed. Ryoko slept restlessly, the pain constantly waking her up.
Near by Washu was busily examining the data from her recent tests. Something was definitely wrong, but what was it? Ryoko had a slight fever, only two degrees too high, but Ryoko's system should never need to vary in temperature. Ever.
And her white blood cell count was incredibly elevated. It was as if her immune system was trying desperately to fight some infection. But all of Washu's scans had come up with no signs of bacteria or viral strains in Ryoko's system. And she wouldn't expect to find any normally. Ryoko's blend of Masu and human DNA ruled that sort of thing out.
Even odder were the heavy, mottled brusies that were spreading out on Ryoko's body. It should take more than a bad fall to cause these sort of hematomas. What the hell was going on?
Ryoko groaned and shifted in her sleep, causing Washu to abandon her computer and go over to the bed. She looked at the IV drip and adjusted its flow so Ryoko could get a slightly higher dose of pain medication.
"Oh little Ryoko, if you only knew how worried everyone was, then you would know for sure how much you mean to all of us. But sleep is what you need right now. I'll tell you later."
Ryoko quickly shifted back into her slumbering state. Washu tucked the covers under her chin and went back to her desk.
A soft bell on Washu's computer chimed as the results of another test were done. Pulling up the file, Washu licked her dry lips. "Her myelin sheaths are deteriorating? How strange." She paused to think. "But that makes sense. No wonder her powers are unreliable. The Masu energy can't flow well under these conditions." She sat back in her chair and pondered. What was going on? What had changed? Ryoko had been designed to be impervious to illness, yet suddenly she was sick.
Washu tapped her feet as she thought. She used to be the leader in genetics back in the day. But that was a long time ago. The field must have moved on, with eager new geniuses to guild its progression. She certainly hadn't been keeping up with the literature. Maybe it was time to call in a consult. Her brow furrowed at the thought of so publicly admitting she was behind the times. But that was only her pride. Ryoko was far more important than that. And besides after this was all over, she could accompany Ryoko to the academy and do some catching up herself. She pulled up an old colleague's email and sent a brief missive and attached the data. Now she could only wait.
"Washu," Ryoko's voice whispered.
Washu quickly got up from her chair and rushed to Ryoko's bedside. "You should be asleep! I gave you enough pain medicine to knock you out for days."
"Don't forget how quickly my system metabolizes drugs," Ryoko chuckled weakly. "I never could stay high for long."
"I don't even want to know about that. Do you hurt?"
"Yes," Ryoko said evenly. "But I can take it." She looked calm and in control, barely betraying the horrible pain Washu knew she must be in.
Washu sighed, hating to see the tough act as much as she hated not being able to sooth her daughter's discomfort. "That's why I wish you could sleep. Then you wouldn't have to suffer."
Ryoko smiled, happy to have someone who cared whether she lived or died. The last time she had hurt this much, she had been alone in the dark. "Is there any water?"
Washu went to her desk and poured a fresh cup of tea. "Will tea do?"
Ryoko nodded, not wasting strength on needless chatter.
Washu sat on the bedside and set the tea on a small table beside it. She gently slid an arm around Ryoko's left shoulder and lifted her up. With the other hand she took the mug of tea and pressed it to Ryoko's lips. "Take your time. Drink it slowly."
Ryoko sipped the tea, coughing a little as it hit her dry throat. She took two more sips before Washu took the glass away. "Thank you."
"Your welcome, my well mannered little Ryoko," Washu said laying Ryoko back down.
"Ouch! Ryoko whimpered. "What's wrong with my right shoulder?"
"You fractured your collar bone when you fell."
Ryoko's eyes widened in disbelief. "You're kidding."
Fear colored Ryoko's expression, she knew how impossible that was. "What's wrong with me?"
Washu closed her eyes briefly, then answered. "I wish I knew."
Before Washu could say more, a deep bell chime resonated from the far recesses of the lab. Washu thought for a moment and then shook her head. "Now that's service!"
"What is it?"
Washu walked towards the area of the sound. "Believe it or not, it's a doorbell. I forgot that I still had a door connected to my old office at the Academy. Be right back." A door appeared in front of Washu and in a moment she was gone, the door disappearing with her.
Alone at last, Ryoko let her mask fall away and winced. She was in agony, every nerve ending seemed to radiate an angry heat into her very bones. It even hurt to breathe. The pain in her shoulder paled in comparison to this. Something was very wrong. Her powers were failing, she had actually broken a bone, and her internal workings were obviously out of control. Was Washu's greatest experiment finally over? Maybe this was how something like her died: It just stopped working, like a broken toy.
A rush of air heralded the re-appearance eof the subspace door. As it swung open, Ryoko could hear voices.
"… sorry it took me so long to let you in Marcus, that door hasn't been opened in over five thousand years. The lock was rusted tight!"
Out stepped Washu and a kindly looking elderly man who was carrying a small leather satchel.
"That's all right Washu. I figured that you had forgotten it with all you had been through," he said as his eyes rested on Ryoko who now looked emotionless again. "And there she is, your beautiful daughter. Do you remember me Ms. Hakubi?"
"Dr. Vilella, is that you?" she asked softly.
He chuckled. "Indeed it is. Though I half expected you to ask me for some candy first."
A tired smile graced Ryoko's lips. "It's good to see you."
Washu stood by silently while Dr. Vilella sat on the edge of Ryoko's bed and gently took her hand. "It's good to see that you have been freed from your torments my dear. I have fretted much over you since we last met."
"You knew I was controlled?"
"I suspected. Kagato left a few clues that those with the eyes to see could understand. And the sweet child I knew was not the space pirate we all saw on the news."
Ryoko's smile strengthened as her heart warmed. It felt so good to know that the entire universe had not given up on her.
"Alas, no one would believe a handful of eccentric academics when we went to the Galaxy Police. I'm sorry."
Ryoko squeezed his hand. "You tried. That means more to me than you will ever know." A single tear glistened in the corner of her eye, refusing to fall.
Dr. Vilella peered down at her with a kind smile. "And now I hear you are sick. Can't you stay out of trouble?"
Ryoko shrugged, then winced as the pain in her right shoulder flared.
Dr. Villella touched her collarbone lightly. "Try not to aggravate that fracture, little one. I have a few questions to ask you. And if you are a good girl I have a lollipop for you."
Ryoko rolled her eyes but asked, "Strawberry?"
"We shall see. First, have you been feeling unusually cold or hot lately?"
Ryoko considered. "Well, I guess I have been feeling cold. But I noticed the most, oh, about a month ago. I was really cold for a couple of days. Then it got better, but now that I think about it, it didn't completely go away."
"A month ago? Why didn't you say anything to me? You are not supposed to feel cold!" Washu demanded, her unhappiness clear in the rising pitch of her voice.
"Washu, you know I expel misbehaving parents. Please behave," Dr. Vilella said firmly.
"Sorry, Marcus," Washu said crossing her arms and staring at the floor.
"Now where were we? Oh yes… have you been feeling tired? I forget, do you need to sleep at all?"
Ryoko tapped her chin with a finger and thought back. "Not normally. But again, about a month ago I fell asleep without trying. That's very unusual."
"I'll say," Washu muttered.
"Washu, please. I need to get a decent medical history here."
Instead of replying, Washu marched over to her chair and dragged it back to her computer. She plopped down and started typing.
Dr. Vilella winked at Ryoko. " Have you been sick at all, any colds?"
"Not really. I don't get sick like that," Ryoko responded.
Washu spun around in her chair. "Wait, that's not true! Remember when we were talking on the roof about three weeks ago? You sneezed!"
"Yes, you did. I can't believe I didn't see that for what it was," Washu said yanking on her hair in agitation.
"Hmmmm. Thank you for your help, Ryoko." Dr. Vilella dug in his pocket. "And as I promised, here is your treat." He offered Ryoko a bright red sucker.
Just like in the old days, Ryoko had the cellophane off in a flash and the sucker tucked into the pouch of her cheek. She sucked on it nosily, and it soon became apparent that she was drifting away into sleep. Before long her breathing deepened and her eyes sagged shut.
Dr. Vilella smiled. "She never was big on 'thank-you', was she Washu?" he asked as he got to his feet and joined the distraught scientist at her computer.
"Thank goodness she's finally asleep. How did you do it?" Washu sighed, resting her head on her hand.
"That lollipop has an advanced opiate hybrid bonded to the sugar. It's the bond that will keep her metabolism from expelling the medicine so quickly. She should be out until the candy completely dissolves, or you remove the lollipop."
"Was it really strawberry flavored?" she asked softly.
"You were always good with details, Sensei."
Dr. Vilella patted Washu on the back. "You haven't called me that since you left for your post doctorate training. You must be worried."
"I am. I finally get my daughter back, and now I'm afraid she is dying. Can you help me?" Washu sniffed, holding back tears. It would be so easy just to break down and cry on the shoulder of this man who had been first her teacher and second her most trusted colleague.
Dr. Vilella folded his arms around Washu and held her close. "First let me say how happy I am to see my favorite student back from the dead. We all thought you were lost."
Washu hugged him back. "Thank you, Marcus. I'm sorry I didn't contact you after I was freed. My hands were full with Ryoko. She was very changed."
Dr. Vilella let Washu go and sat on a chair next to her. "I know. Your family has always come first with you. As a myopic scientist, I have always admired you for your balance."
Washu laughed wryly. "Ryoko would not agree with you I fear. I've changed too."
"Little Washu, how could you not?"
Washu nodded, and went back to the important matter at hand. "Do you know what's wrong with her?"
"Indeed I do. Your data and her history confirmed my guess. We have been seeing this reaction in certain creations like her recently."
He paused as he saw Washu's lips tighten and her back go ram-rod straight. "Be calm, Washu. I know you do not like that word applied to your daughter. But fundamentally, she is a creation of a certain type, and defining her as such will help us understand her problems."
With a terse jerk of her chin, Washu nodded for him to continue.
"Her cells, her very molecular structure, are degrading. It is much like cancer in humanoids."
Washu grinned. "Well that's a relief! Cancer is easy to cure!"
Dr. Vilella held up a cautionary hand. "It's not the same, and there is no cure."
"So far, we have only been able to buy these children of science some extra time."
Tears began to gather in Washu's eyes. "How long?"
"Maybe six months. Maybe less."
A single tear splashed on her cheek. "Why is this happening?"
Dr. Vilella cracked a knuckle. "The only common thread we can find is excessive manipulation. If these creations have had their systems frequently adjusted, changed, or calibrated, the organic tissue cannot handle the stress. The cells stop replicating correctly, and abnormal cells predominate until the body shuts down."
"You mean 'dies'," Washu groaned, rubbing away her tears. "Again, this is the work of Kagato! I was enough of a scientist to know that her system would not tolerate excessive experimentation." She leaned forward and buried her face in her lap. "Damn him to hell for all he has done."
Dr. Vilella laid a comforting hand on her back. "I'm sorry. This is why I came right away and in person. I wanted to tell you myself, even though there are others who are more knowledgeable."
Washu sobbed into her knees, a deep keening that rose from her heart and tore through her mouth like a lost soul fleeing Hades. "I can't do this again. I can't bear it."
Dr. Vilella brushed a tear from his own eye. "I wish I could help. Ryoko deserves so much more. Before you disappeared, she was like a granddaughter to me. I've adored that child since she was a concept I told you would never work."
Washu froze. "Wait a minute!" she called out around her tears. You said there were others like her, but how could that be? As far as I know there is only one like Ryoko."
"Things have changed Washu. Don't forget how long your – sabbatical - was. Others have followed your path."
Washu looked up, her eyes flashing. "How closely did they follow though? Tell me, what are the basic life base components of these other children?"
"Well, it's mostly a mix of human DNA and minerals, sometimes cybernetics."
"Aha!" Washu leapt to her feet, her long hair swaying with her movement. "But you see, they are not the same at all! Ryoko was made from my ovum and MASU genes! She is very different."
Dr. Vilella thought quickly. "You are right. No one else was able to harness the Masu's energy without mass destruction. This next generation of children is more stable, but much more mechanical."
Washu grabbed his lapels and pushed him against the wall. "Don't tell me to give up on my own daughter! There is a lot of work to do, and you had better help me, or I will do something I won't regret!"
Dr. Vilella smiled and snapped his fingers. A sudden blue web of energy gently plucked Washu off of his jacket and held her safely suspended in front of him. "Calm down. And try not to forget who taught you everything you know."
Washu struggled against her bonds. "Let me go! I need to help her. I can save her, I know it!"
"Washu Hakubi, your ego was always your biggest problem. You cannot do this on your own. I'll admit that I have more hope than before, but we need all the help we can get. She needs to go to the Science Academy so the experts can help her as a team."
"But I'm her mother!" she shouted as she pounded the web with her fists.
"As such, you are biased and incapable of the sort of detached thought necessary to solve this puzzle."
Washu screamed in frustration. "I need to be there for her this time! It has to be me!"
"Is your pride worth her life, Washu?" he asked quietly.
Washu stopped moving, mid punch and slowly lowered her fists. "Of course not."
"Then send her to us. Let us help her."
"Can't I come too?" she asked in a small voice.
"Not for now. You will be in the way."
Washu hung her head, hating this helpless feeling. She hadn't felt this way in a very long time. But still, it had to be done. Too much was at stake. "Fine, take her. But I am holding you personally responsible for her well being." She looked up, and the fierce glint in her eyes spoke of her seriousness.
"A responsibility I accept gladly. But she cannot come with me. I don't want to risk the effects of a pseudo space transition on her unstable cells. She will have to come the old fashioned way."
Washu crossed her arms and tried to be cool. "So what do we need to do?"
Assured that Washu was past her fit, Dr. Vilella released her. "We stabilize her condition tonight, and send her to Jurai on your fastest ship tomorrow."
"Then let's get started," Washu said grimly, reaching for a pair of rubber gloves. "That is, if you will allow me to assist."
The lights were dim in the hospital wing of Washu's lab. Cool air flowed silently from hidden vents, and from the audio system came the sound of a sparrow's chirp. All of this had been done to ensure Ryoko's comfort. She was so afraid of lightness isolation that Washu had programmed these little details into the environment so Ryoko would not dream of the cave while she endured her enforced slumber.
"Ryoko…Ryoko… can you wake up a little?" An adult Washu whispered into her daughter's ear.
Ryoko stirred a little, muttering under her breath.
"Ryookooo…." Washu said again, drawing out the name in a fond mother's whisper. She softly stroked Ryoko's cheek, letting physical sensation anchor Ryoko to the wakeful world.
Ryoko's eyes fluttered, and opened minutely. "Hmmmphf?"
Washu brushed Ryoko's bangs out of her eyes and spoke simply so her drug addled mind could comprehend. "You are very sick. You have been sleeping. You need to go away so you can get better."
Ryoko's eyes closed again, but she replied. "Go 'way?"
"Yes. You have to go and get help." Washu placed a small kiss on Ryoko's forehead.
"You coming ?" Ryoko asked groggily.
Washu bit her lips and tried to hide her own pain. "No sweetie, I need to help you from here."
Ryoko's eyes snapped open, more lucid than before. "You're leaving me?" she quavered.
"No, I'm not leaving you. I'm sending you ahead. I'll come later. Soon, sweetie, I'll come soon," Washu whimpered, her own pain almost too much to take.
A fat tear worked its way out of Ryoko's eye and slowly coursed down her cheek. "Don't leave me behind. Please don't leave me again," she sobbed weakly, her voice barely above a whisper. It was clear that she had not completely woken up, and was caught somewhere between dreams and memories.
Washu sank down to her knees and looked Ryoko in the eye. "I'm not leaving you. I promise."
Ryoko wasn't coming out of it. That medicine had worked too well. Washu pulled a syringe of enhanced epinephrine from a dimensional pocket and quickly injected the hormone into the fleshy part of Ryoko's upper arm.
Ryoko winced, and lifted a weak hand to touch Washu's cheek. "Don't you love me anymore?"
Washu choked and grabbed Ryoko's hand and pressed it to her lips. Even with as much progress as she and Ryoko had recently made, they still rarely spoke of love. "Don't be silly. I love you more than anything."
"Then don't make me go. He'll hurt me."
"Washu? Who will hurt her?" asked Tenchi from behind Washu. He had come to tell her the ship was ready.
"It's the drugs," Washu whispered. "She's in another reality. I think she means Kagato."
"Momma, I don't trust him. He'll do something bad."
Washu kissed Ryoko's hand again. "I believe you. I believe you, you hear me? I won't let Kagato anywhere near you ever again."
Ryoko settled into a quieter state as her body began to shake off the opiate, but watched her mother with innocent eyes. She was clearly confused and worried. "Then why make me leave?"
Washu tucked Ryoko snugly into her blankets and tried to explain again. "Listen and try to remember. You are going to the Science Academy because you are very sick. I can't come for very good reasons. Tenchi is going with you instead. He will make sure nothing bad happens to you," she soothed. She looked back over her shoulder, her eyes narrowing. "Right, Tenchi?"
Tenchi gulped and scratched his head. "Right Washu!" He looked over her shoulder at the weak creature that barely resembled his good friend. "Don't worry Ryoko, no one will hurt you with me around."
Ryoko looked up at him, recognition flaring in her eyes. "Tenchi?"
"Hi, Ryoko," Tenchi said quietly, not really knowing what else to say.
Washu saw the increasing lucidity creeping into Ryoko's eyes as her wakeful system was burning off the painkillers. There was something she needed to say. Something Ryoko needed to understand. Then Ryoko could sleep again.
She used her index finger to tilt Ryoko's face closer. "Ryoko, I cannot go. I want to come more than anything, but it would cause more harm than good. I have no choice. Please don't ask me to explain. Just understand."
Ryoko nodded, very much herself again. "I think I know why. But I don't want to leave you, not now."
"I'll come as soon as the doctors give me the green flag. I'll come as soon as I can."
"Thank you. Please hurry," Ryoko tried to smile, but she looked numb.
"I will. Now open your mouth for another pain lozenge." Washu took a sheet of the pills out of her pocket and popped a dose out of its protective foil.
"I'd rather not."
"But Ryoko… the pain…." Washu gripped the opiate drop in her palm. "Your last dose hasn't completely worn off yet. It gets worse, trust me."
"I know. But I don't like sleeping all of the time."
"I've slept enough in my life." Some of the world-weariness was creeping back into her eyes, reminding Washu of Ryoko's many trials. She knew more than enough to make an informed choice.
Washu nodded in uneasy assent. "That makes sense. It's time to go then." She handed the package of pain killers to Tenchi.
Ryoko looked away. "I…" she trailed off into silence.
Washu backed away and held her hands behind her back. She didn't even attempt to speak as Tenchi gently pushed the hovering bed towards the lab door. Knives of guilt and remorse stabbed through her heart as she watched Ryoko go. Even though she had no choice, it felt like she was once again abandoning her daughter. She opened her mouth to speak, to say good-bye, but no words would come. What if she never saw her little Ryoko alive again? How could she waste this chance to spend every possible moment with her?
"Mother," Ryoko said firmly, and Tenchi stopped pushing for a moment. "You are broadcasting again."
With a start, Washu slammed shut her telepathic link to Ryoko and blushed.
Ryoko smiled, her eyes glassy with the pain she was now feeling more intensely. "So what? Now I know. I know they won't let you come because you are a damned bossy, know- it-all. It's okay. I'd figured."
Washu smiled tightly, knowing Ryoko was putting up a brave front for her. However, if this made the parting easier for Ryoko, Washu could pretend too. "Show some respect, please." She paused. "Let's go, then."
Soon they were out on the lawn, gathered before the transformed cabbit, a strong breeze toying with their hair and whipping their garments around with a capricious whim.
Ayeka came forward and kissed Ryoko on the cheek. Ryoko jerked away, mostly out of surprise, then smiled at her friend. "Don't get all mushy on me, princess."
Ayeka returned the smile and handed Ryoko a book. It seemed like an adventure story, but embedded in it were many lessons about deportment and graceful manners. Ayeka knew more about the pirate's desires than other people thought.
Ryoko looked at the book with interest. "What's this for?"
Ayeka covered her face with her hand and sniffed. "To give you something to do besides harass Lord Tenchi on your journey," she said haughtily and stepped back so Sasami could speak to Ryoko. Ryoko smiled and caressed the book. Maybe reading could help her forget the pain.
Sasami came forward and handed Ryoko a cloth wrapped bento box, and burst into childish tears. "I made this for you in case you get hungry. Please get better. You have to come back, you just have to!" She leaned forward and cried into Ryoko's lap.
Ryoko patted her head with loving strokes. "Aw, don't cry for me Sasami. I'll be okay. I promise."
Sasami sniffed and backed away. "You'd better, or I'm not cooking for you anymore. Ever!" she threatened fiercely, rubbing away her tears.
"Thanks Kiddo, for everything," Ryoko said, waving the bento box at Sasami. Sasami burst into tears again and threw her arms around Ayeka, crying into her sash.
Ryoko frowned and reached a trembling hand towards the little girl. Ayeka shook her head firmly and hugged her sister. "She will be okay. You know how tender she is. Don't worry."
Washu approached her daughter, her eyes deep pools of conflict. "I hate to see you go. I'll come as soon as I can. The very moment they say so, I'm going through the pseudo space connection. I'll be there in minutes."
Ryoko nodded bravely, not trusting herself to speak. One fang protruded from her upper lip and worried her lower lip, betraying her mental state.
Washu took a deep breath, and summoned her ability to act silly. This had to be kept light, for Ryoko's sake. "So you listen to the professors and do what they say! No back talk, no attitudes, no inappropriate nudity. These people will be your teachers when you get better, so make a good impression!" she lectured. "If you don't I'll hear about it!"
"Okay, okay. Fine," Ryoko pretended to grouse. "Let's just go. I can't stand all of this chatter."
Washu caught Tenchi's eye and motioned for him to beam the two of them up and get on with it. Long good byes just hurt more. He nodded, and soon he and Ryoko were inside the ship. Everyone on the ground could see Ryoko propped up by a window, looking down at them.
As Ryo-Ohki lifted into the air, Washu saw a sorrowful Ryoko pressing both of her hands against the glass as they pulled away. Just like she had done as a baby and wanted out of the birthing chamber. Even worse, it was just as Ryoko had done after Kagato had imprisoned Washu in a crystal. That was one of her worst memories.
At first Ryoko had often sent her astral form to try and communicate with Washu in the reversed dimension. But Washu could not respond, for a long time even their link had been severed by Kagato. She could still hear Ryoko crying and begging for Washu to help her, to make the nightmare stop. Seeing Ryoko in that headspace again threatened to break her heart….
… From inside the crystal, even though her eyes were shut, Washu could see her direct surroundings. It wasn't natural, so it had to be a little torture Kagato had cooked up for her. Imprisoned in her own mind, Washu fretted. How was she going to get out? What was happening to Ryoko? It was maddening to have their link severed like this. She spent every moment caught between trying to find away out of her cell, and worrying about her daughter. She wished she knew what was happening. There was no sense of time here. Days or years might be passing! What was happening? How was Ryoko faring?
And when that question was answered, she immediately regretted it. With a familiar sound of matter transfer, Ryoko's astral form teleported into the reversed world. Washu mentally cried out in despair at what she saw. Ryoko, her little girl, was standing before her, obviously beaten and starved.
She wore her training suit, and it sagged from her skinny frame. Ryoko had lost so much weight. That bastard was starving her. But even worse was the collection of fresh and scabbed over abrasions on Ryoko's face. Limping, Ryoko approached the crystal and laid both palms against its smooth surface.
"Mom, is that you? Mom, are you hurt?"
Anxious eyes peered in at Washu, who appeared to be either dead or sleeping.
"Answer me, please! Don't leave me here! You have to help me!" Big tears rolled out of Ryoko's eyes. "Help me! Help me, please. Mommmy!" Her speech was getting hysterical as she slid into a crumpled heap at the base of the crystal, sobbing inconsolably. "I want to die. Please let me die."
Washu clawed at the barriers around her mind, trying to tear free. I'm here! Hang on little Ryoko! Hang on! Damn, she was sealed in perfectly. She couldn't get out. She could only watch, nothing more.
"So there you are my daughter," said a hated voice. "What have I told you about coming in here?" Kagato appeared behind Ryoko with an angry frown.
"I'm not your daughter!" Ryoko hissed and struggled to her feet. "What did you do to my mother? Why won't she answer me?"
"Well, stupid girl, that would be because she is dead."
"Oh, yes. I killed her, and keep her down here as a trophy. And unless you want to end up the same way, I suggest you return to me on the other side."
"Mom! Mom! Show me he is wrong! Do something!" Ryoko choked out. "Do anything. Just move a little. Please don't be dead." Ryoko shouted pressing her face against the crystal.
Kagato snapped his fingers and Ryoko froze.
"Honestly, Washu. What a horrible mother you are. This child is so prone to histrionics. Whatever was your point?" Kagato wondered out loud.
Washu growled silently, her fury knowing no words.
"You have nothing to say? Well that's a first." Kagato smirked. "It's been two weeks, and already your little machine is showing so much progress. Watch."
He cleared his throat. "Ryoko! Come to me!"
Ryoko's head snapped up, her eyes a deep, poisoned green. Her fangs were suddenly protruding from her lips and half-crouching she stalked over to Kagato and awaited her next command.
Washu hated the changes. The ferralness and predatory behavior were new, and terribly disturbing. He was making Ryoko into an animal, stripping away her humanity. And it had only been two weeks.
She did so, staring blankly ahead. Expressionless, Kagato kicked her hard in the ribs, sending her scudding across the floor.
"Ryoko, what do we say?"
"Thank-you," she stated tonelessly.
"Good girl. Now come back for more. Crawl. " He switched his gaze to Washu. "Amazing isn't it? She's like a whole new person. When I kicked her before, she just tattled to you. My, how the tables have turned. And you can't stop me, Washu."
Crawling on her knees, almost back to him, Ryoko's eyes cleared. She shook her head and staggered to her feet. "Stop doing that to me!" She pivoted away and ran towards Washu.
Washu's heart soared. Ryoko was resisting. There was hope!
"Damn!" Kagato shouted and shot a bolt of energy from his hand. It hit Ryoko squarely in the back, knocking her face first into the crystal, her nose breaking from the impact with a gruesome splatter of blood. Ryoko slid to the floor, unconscious.
Kagato's astral form strode over and roughly lifted the girl into his arms. "Damn you for all of that free will you gave this thing, Washu. I will stomp it out. I will crush it out of her, with my own fists if I have to!" He whirled away, his robes flaring, and teleported away.
Washu was alone again. With no way not to see, she watched her daughter's blood dry into a deep brown crust as she helplessly listened to the silence….
Shaking her head to chase away that horrid memory, Washu cracked her knuckles and stalked back to her lab without another word to the others. There was plenty to do on this end, and this time she was not a helpless fool. Even so, her body was shrinking as she walked. Shrinking back to the body size that she had once worn to protect herself from despair.
Aboard Ryo-Ohki Ryoko closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it felt like not to hurt. She could feel her very mitochondria heave and twist as they tried to keep up with the energy demands of her mutating cells. She could feel that extra energy spilling uselessly into the synapses of her nerves as the natural conductors had long since eroded away. That was the source of the fire beneath her skin. And the more energy that was wasted, the harder her cells tried to make more. Her pain was getting worse, and she was getting weaker.
"Ryoko, can I do anything for you?" asked Tenchi's voice, his worry clear in his quiet tones.
She opened her eyes again, feeling the bruised circles under them ache as her skin stretched. She must look like hell. She almost asked for him to leave her alone, but then she understood how doing nothing was hurting him.
"I'm thirsty," she said quietly.
So quickly that she suspected he had the water ready and waiting, Tenchi pressed a glass of water to her lips. She drank gratefully, slowly draining the cup. She took great care not to look at him while she drank, and turned away to watch the stars slide by the window when she had finished. Being helpless did not sit well with her.
But instead of going away like she had hoped, Tenchi sat quietly at her side, making no demands of her, just being there.
She looked at him out the corner of her eye, not turning her head. He just sat there, watching her, his arms balanced on his knees, the empty cup held loosely in both hands. He saw her look and smiled.
"Why did you come?" she asked.
"Because you needed me."
She tried to laugh, but came out only as a small puff of air. "I don't need anyone."
Tenchi scooted his chair closer and earnestly peered into her face. "Ryoko… stop. I know you better than that."
She looked away, out at the beautiful stars. "I suppose you do," she grumbled. "Let's just look at the stars." Then a whisper, "I love the stars."
Without a word, Tenchi took her hand in his and gave it a squeeze. He directed his gaze out the window and enjoyed the view. As he watched, his heart softened even more towards Ryoko. Even at her toughest, she had always loved the stars. It had been his first clue that any softness existed beneath that crusty persona she projected to the world. How well he remembered stumbling across her in the carrot patch one evening. She was lying on the ground and for once was not intoxicated. She had been so absorbed in her stargazing that she had barely acknowledged him. That had been quite a surprise, and for the first time he had begun to think of her as more than a pirate. He was having even more of thoughts now.
Ryoko let her mind wander as the stars flew past the window. The stars represented peace to her. When Kagato wasn't teaching her, or she wasn't busy carrying out orders, she would teleport out of the Soujya and float weightlessly in the nothingness of space. All around her, the twinkling dots of distant stars and the closer giant balls of burning gas would dazzle her with their beauty. It was all so pure, so unreachable that she could pretend that she was a star too. She could hide as a small light hidden amongst billions of brighter lights, so insignificant that no one would notice her, or even care if they did.
There had been a time during her enslavement that she had tried to kill herself. That had been the only reasonable method of escape back then. But Kagato had found her in time to repair the damage, then inflict his own as punishment. From that moment on her life was lost to her. So the stars had become her only escape. Suspended in the blanket of space, she could come as close to nihilism as possible, and exist without thought, a small speck of energy in the cosmos.
Even from within her introspection, she became aware of Tenchi's grip and flushed. So much had changed. While she still loved the stars, she no longer wanted to be one. She was reawakening to her very own sense of self, and found that existence for its own sake was worth everything she had been through, even if she was struggling with her sense of identity. The understated strength in Tenchi's grasp, the simple human contact, this was something for which she would endure her old torments a thousand times over.
"What are you thinking about?" Tenchi asked.
"How lucky I am."
Tenchi took her other hand. "You've got to be kidding!"
Ryoko leveled a weary gaze at him. "I don't expect you to understand this, but I am lucky Tenchi."
"How can you say that?" His voice raced up the scale to land in an incredulous pitch. "Life has been so unfair to you, Ryoko."
She licked her lips and coughed. "Unfair yes, but things have worked out for me, better than I had ever hoped, my Tenchi."
"In what way?"
Well, I have you. I have a mother again. I have people who care about me. Me. The most hated person in the universe has a family, she thought to herself. Out loud she only made a little contented sound and shrugged. There were some things she wasn't ready to say, even to Tenchi.
Tenchi released her hands and opened the bento box Sasami had sent along. He could tell Ryoko was done talking for now and didn't want to push. "Hungry?"
He selected a plump tuna roll and waved it so the aroma would waft under her nose. "Not even hungry for Sushi?"
Ryoko turned a pale green and retched. She pinched her nose with one hand and weakly waved away the fish with another hand. Her eyes scrunched shut she groaned, "Take it away."
Tenchi hurriedly removed the offending food from her vicinity, quickly reminded that however tough a face Ryoko put on, she was very, very sick. "Ryoko, please, you need to eat."
Nausea still lying heavy upon her, Ryoko shook her head no.
Determined, Tenchi refilled the glass of water, and used a fresh pair of chopsticks to select a plain rice ball. "Come on, try."
Ryoko opened her eyes and regarded the rice ball with a look that would have been better directed at a rotten slab of meat. "I don't want it."
"I'm worried about you. Won't you do this for me?"
Ryoko nodded her assent with a sigh, steeling herself to ignore the lancing pain already tormenting the back of her throat. She couldn't really deny Tenchi anything.
Which was what he was counting on, for her sake.
She had slumped down from her seated position, so Tenchi sat by her on the bed and used his own body, one arm behind her back, to support her. He first gave her a drink to moisten her dry pallet, and then pressed the rice ball to her lips. She took a tiny bite, chewed and winced as the rice abraded the tender lining of her throat when she swallowed. Tenchi noticed this and gave her more water to wash the food down.
As she took her next nibble, Tenchi murmured, "You can take some pain medication, you know."
Ryoko shook her head and continued forcing herself to eat. "If I have to die Tenchi, I want to be awake when it happens."
Tenchi stiffened and held her closer. "Don't talk that way. You are not going to die."
"Like you would care," she grumbled, the elevated pain making her irritable.
Tenchi put down the food and carefully grasped both of Ryoko's shoulders. "Hey," he said sternly. "I care."
Ryoko looked into his eyes and saw more than she had ever hoped to see. "Do you?" she asked hopefully.
She looked so vulnerable just then. So needy. And he was feeling the same. Ever since she got her memories back, he had seen more of her true self. Things he had only seen in a rare flash before. His confused feelings for this woman had begun to clarify in the last few months. Of course, that was when she had begun to need him less, spending more time with Washu or up on her rafter reading. He had missed her, even as he fell in love with her, wondering if he had missed his chance. Now she was going to die unless a group of unknown scientists could find a cure.
His head had drifted closer to hers as he thought and he felt the warmth of her breath on his lips. Her eyes were wide with surprise and still locked with his. He could tell by her expression that she had not expected this to happen. Yet she wasn't pulling away, and the current of air mingling with his own was coming more rapidly now. Maybe there was still hope.
"I care very much," he whispered hoarsely. He shut his eyes and closed the distance between them, pressing his lips to hers in a gentle kiss. He felt her sharp intake of breath, then felt her body relax as she leaned into him. Her lips felt wonderful beneath his own and tasted faintly of strawberries. This kiss was firm, they were connected by the soft skin of their mouths, both of them yielding and pressing simultaneously. Following his instincts, Tenchi pulled his lips away slightly and captured her upper lip between them. Ryoko sounded a little cry and rubbed the tip of her tongue along his bottom lip.
Preparing to further deepen the kiss, Tenchi gripped her shoulders tightly.
Ryoko cried out in pain and pulled away, breaking the kiss.
Letting go instantly, Tenchi opened his eyes to see a set of angry bruises on her shoulders. They were his handprints. "Oh, no. I'm sorry, Ryoko," he said on the verge of tears.
Ryoko looked down at her shoulders and winced. It looked as bad as it felt. "It wasn't you Tenchi, I think my platelets are almost gone. Washu said this might happen."
"Say it so I can understand it!" he demanded franticly.
"My blood can't clot anymore. So I will bruise very easily."
"Does that mean if you were cut, that you would bleed to death?"
Ryoko closed her eyes and nodded.
"Ryo-Ohki, we need to go faster!" Tenchi shouted.
The cabbit responded with an agonized meow and the sudden change in momentum almost threw Tenchi off the bed. The stars were streaking past the windows at a dizzying speed.
"Ryo-Ohki can't keep this up very long," Ryoko whispered, slumping against Tenchi.
"She'd do anything for you," Tenchi said laying Ryoko down. "As would I."
Despite the pain, the taste and feeling of the kiss was still upon her lips. Why had he kissed her now of all times? "Tenchi, I don't need your pity."
Tenchi slid off the bed and kneeled next to it, smoothing Ryoko's hair. "That wasn't pity."
She smiled then, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "Ten-chi…" It was clear the pain was worsening quickly now.
He offered her a pain lozenge. "Please take this. There is no need to suffer."
"Ryoko, please. I'll be here when you wake up. I promise."
Looking lost, Ryoko opened her mouth and Tenchi slid the drop under her tongue. He leaned forward and kissed her softly. "Rest now. Dream of strawberries and sake."
Almost immediately her eyes sagged shut, and her breathing evened out into long full breaths. She was asleep now. The next challenge would be to wake her up.
A deep green light encased Ryoko's body and bed as the several scientists and students stood around her and pondered her condition. As she lay motionless several monitors kept track of her vital stats.
"Professor Washu was correct!" exclaimed a tall woman with shocking lemon hair tied back into a tight bun. "The Masu energies make this case completely different from the others."
"Yes, but I think it makes it worse. Those inherently chaotic energies are even less stable in a situation like this. She is degrading rapidly," replied a thin man with no hair at all.
Dr. Vilella leaned close to a monitor and clucked his tongue. "I would agree with you, but something about her humanoid DNA is protecting her from this. Something I don't really understand."
The others peered at the monitor.
"You see? This is really a triple helix form, not the standard double. The third loop mostly hides behind the second, but if you look here and here," he pointed, "you can see the third strand arching out a little."
"What does that mean, Sensei?" asked a shy graduate student from the edge of the crowd. To be allowed in here with such prestigious scientists was such an honor that she barely dared to speak. "I mean, isn't half of her genetic material human?"
"Ah, Diamie, good question. You see, her mother isn't exactly human."
The young woman tilted her head questioningly. "But… I have seen holograms of the great Dr. Hakubi… she seemed very human."
Dr, Vilella smiled gently. "When you meet her, you understand what I mean."
Diamie gasped. "She's coming here? The GREAT DR. HAKUBI?" She looked like she might faint.
He chuckled. "Yes, any minute."
Almost before he had finished speaking, a loud ruckus emanated from the hall. They could hear a shrill, feminine voice shouting, " Get out of my way. I do not sign autographs," accompanied by the sounds of people being shoved away.
The door to the lab slammed open and, a panting adolescent Washu stormed in, her bright red hair swirling around her head like an angry cloud. Her face twisted into an odd mix of anger and concern as she scanned the crowd and demanded. "Where is my daughter?" The crowd parted to reveal Ryoko.
Dr. Vilella stepped forward and placed a calming hand on Washu's shoulder. "I take it you got my message? Thank you for coming so quickly."
"What's wrong?" Washu asked, grabbing his hand. "I didn't expect you would send for me so soon." Her face paled. "Is… is… she?"
"She is stable except for her blood cell lines. Her platelets are zero and her hemoglobin is dangerously low."
Washu frowned. "Then give her some artificial serum until her bone marrow rebounds!"
The sound of pens scratching on paper filled the room as the students and scientists alike took down every word Washu said.
She paused for a moment and quirked an eyebrow. "Hmmm?"
"Dr. Hakubi, if you were not consumed with worry you would remember that Ryoko's needs will not be meet by even the most generalized universal donor serum we have," Dr. Vilella said politely.
Washu picked up on his signals and realized he was in full professor mode. Not that she cared. "Marcus! She will die if we can't transfuse her!"
"That's why you are here. You are the only match."
"You mean you want to do an outdated, antique, person to person transfusion on my daughter?!" she yelled, ready to punch him for his stupidity. "No one has done that for thousands of years!"
Dr. Vilella, placed his hands on Daimei's shoulders and gave her an encouraging squeeze. "That's why my student is here. Her thesis work is about this very subject."
"Her THESIS?!" Washu squawked. " I used to teach here too, ya know!! A thesis is just a warm up exercise for the dissertation, which is still like playing house! I need real data here!"
Diamie flushed and looked at the ground, shamed beyond words.
Washu caught this and took a deep breath. No matter what, shaming sincere junior scientists was not her style. She had loved teaching, and would never tolerate another professor behaving as she just had. Besides, she knew it was the only way. It was time for a little trust.
"I'm sorry my dear," she said, patting the young woman's hand. "I'm sure you can see I am under pressure here. What do I need to do?"
Diamie smiled thinly. "Please do not apologize, Dr. Hakubi. Please allow me to say what an honor it is…"
Washu smiled again. " 'Professor Washu' will do. Continue."
Diamie coughed at taking such a liberty with a legendary figure, but still trudged on. "Professor Wa- Washu, I will need to hook you and your daughter up to a phlebotomizer that I have just restored. A constant stream of your blood will be filtered through its sanitizer systems and transfused into Ryoko."
Washu took a folded fan from out of her belt and tapped her chin with it. "That seems sound. In fact, I remember running one of those things when I was in graduate school myself." She grinned, falling into teacher mode herself. "But aren't you forgetting one little thing?"
Diamie stuttered, her mind quickly scanning her research into the topic. "Oh no! Your mass! You are too small to get enough blood without harming you!" Diamie bowed deeply. "My apologies for being so stupid."
Washu laughed, Marcus made all of his students admit their stupidity. He even got her once, not that she really had been stupid. "Don't worry about it! Watch this!"
The student's eyes widened as Washu's form suddenly shot up several feet into an adult version of her former self. "This will do, don't you think?"
Diamie nodded mutely and gestured for Washu to recline on a bed besides Ryoko as the rest of the people continued to furiously take notes about the proceedings.
Within an hour, Washu's life giving blood was seeping into Ryoko's system adding strength and vitality to her remaining intact cells.
Washu closed her eyes and listened to the faint sound of Ryoko's breathing. This was almost as it had been when Ryoko had shared her bed in the past during thunderstorms. She smiled at the memory of her now fearless daughter being afraid of a little electrical discharge. She had never really understood that….
….Washu awoke and spit a fuzzy ear out of her mouth. She opened an eye to see Ryo-Ohki half lying on her head, half lying on the pillow. Where Ryo-Ohki was, Ryoko couldn't be far behind. Rising up on one elbow, Washu looked to see Ryoko lying on her back, spread eagle, taking up three fourths of the bed. It was amazing how such a little girl could take up so much space. She made a mental note to see if there was something out of kilter with Ryoko's dimensional overlay pattern in the morning. In the distance lightening cracked followed by the low roll of thunder. Ah, that's what brought little Ryoko here tonight, Washu thought with a bemused smile.
Ryoko's eyes snapped open at the sound of the thunder and she stiffened.
Washu smiled down at her five-year-old. "I'm here. There's nothing to worry about."
Ryoko rolled sleepy eyes to Washu. "It pinches," she complained crankily. "I don't like it."
Washu pulled Ryo-Ohki off of her pillow and handed her to Ryoko. "Here, hold Ryo-Ohki. She'll protect you.
Ryoko took her pet and curled onto her side, cuddling into her soft fur. Washu in turn curled around Ryoko, placing a protective arm over her.
The lightning cracked again and Ryoko cried out in fear.
Washu tightened her hold on her and whispered. "The lightening is up there and you are down here. You are safe. Sleep now."….
As she lay there, feeling her blood flow away, Washu remembered the long slows breathes her daughter always took when she slept. It made her miss the old days more than she usually did.
::Ryoko?:: she thought across their link. ::Can you hear me?::
::Mom?:: came a weak reply. ::Where are you?::
Washu reached over and took Ryoko's hand. ::I'm right here. Can you feel that?::
::Barely. Drugged still?:: came Ryoko's faint, half asleep response.
::Yes, and at the Academy. They are taking good care of you. Are you okay in there, my little Ryoko?:: Washu asked, referring to the enclosed spaces of Ryoko's sleeping mind.
:: Hmmmm.:: Ryoko answered, projecting a calm, happy feeling instead of words.
Washu squeezed Ryoko's hand, happy she wasn't having bad dreams.
::He kissed me, momma. He kissed me,:: Ryoko said hazily as her consciousness drifted away from the link.
Washu let her go, an unshed tear of happiness pooling in her eye. At last, Ryoko had had that first kiss she had dreamed about for so long. Bless Tenchi for that. If anything happened, at least Ryoko had had that.
"Er… professor Washu?" asked a timid voice. "We have all we need now."
Washu felt the IV being removed from her arm. Damn medieval devices… that HURT. She opened her eyes. "What now?"
The student clasped her arms behind her back. "Dr. Vilella asks that you return home now, Doctor. He and the other are working out a solution."
"He can't be serious!" Washu exclaimed, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed.
"Ummm…well…." The student looked mortified.
Washu slowly got to her feet, feeling a little woozy from her loss of blood. "What's your name?"
"Listen Diamie. I am the greatest scientific genius in the universe and know more about my Ryoko than any of those old goats who call themselves your professors."
Diamie nodded dumbly.
Washu's eyes narrowed as she took an unsteady step. "And I am not going to stand by idly while they screw this up! Do you understand?"
Looking rather frightened, Diamie nodded again.
"Then take me to them, please."
Diamie gulped, knowing that either way, she was in big trouble. But since her idol was giving her a direct order, it seemed best to obey.
As they were leaving the room a flash of lightening illuminated the darkened windows and was followed almost instantly by a low roar of thunder.
Washu turned to watch Ryoko as she felt a weird feeling of static arc across their link.
Again the lightening sounded, and this time Ryoko's breathing halted with a glottal stop, before resuming its previous calm pattern. Washu dashed over to the monitors and read them closely. Her eyes widened with recognition. "So that's why," she breathed, an old mystery solved, "she could feel it!"
"Professor Washu, there is nothing to worry about. It is just a student working on a weather assignment nearby, this equipment is running off a back up generator just in case," Diamie informed her.
Washu turned around smiling. "Never mind that! I have the answer. Hurry, take me to your Sensei!"
The pair dashed down the hall, pushing the slow and the gawkers out of their way, until they skidded to a halt outside of Dr. Vilella's office. Washu pushed through the door and stopped the hushed conversation going on inside with a look.
"I should have figured you would have gotten your way," Dr. Vilella said tiredly. "Well, you might as well know. Ryoko is fading too quickly. We might have been able to figure out a solution with more time… but…"
"Never mind that now!" Washu said impatiently, barely containing her excitement.
"Washu, my friend." Dr. Vilella got up from his desk and moved towards her. "Don't make this harder. Ryoko is dying. Actively dying."
"Gah!" Washu growled, clenching her fists, her arms hyper-extended down her sides.
"You should go sit with her, or you will regret it," he murmured, trying to gently usher her out.
"Ahhh! Just shut up and listen to me! I've figured it out! But you're right we need to hurry! We need to get Ryoko and take her to your lightning machines."
Stunned, the gathered geniuses stared at her with out moving.
"Now!" she bellowed, heading out the door.
Her volume broke their trance and soon all were running down the hall, towards the medical wing.
"The lightening should reset her Masu energy levels. We just need to blast her hard enough for the shock to change the ionization of her mitochondria. That should change the direction her atoms spin, allowing her system to build up an incredible atomic charge!"
Washu's entourage chattered excitedly at this idea as they ran. Many had heard of her intellectual prowess, but to experience it first hand was something else all together!
"Then, the resulting energy burst should destroy all the abnormal cells, while her healthy half Masu cells should be able to resist damage. If all the bad cells are destroyed, they cannot replicate!" Washu continued gleefully.
"You don't… you don't intend to electrocute your own daughter?!" gasped an upstart young genius, eager to outsmart such a famed professor.
"From the inside out!" Washu confirmed with a smirk, not-so innocently tripping the younger scientist so he sprawled flat on his face and was quickly left behind.
Feeling in the home stretch Washu allowed her self a little comfort by crowing, "That's right! I am STILL such a genius!"
As she laughed, the world around her flashed grey and pitched in impossible directions. Washu doubled over and landed hard on her knees. Behind her dazzled eyes images of Kagato menaced her and reached out with clutching hands. "No!" she howled, lurching to her feet, clutching her head in her hands. She tried to continue towards Ryoko's room.
Again the world flashed out and Washu could see the shadow of a tall man with tiny glasses perched on his nose. The shadow jeered and gibbered, his every gesture causing her agony. Shaking her head, Washu drove the vision away. ::Ryoko?!?:: she screamed down her mental link. There was nothing.
Washu opened her eyes and faced her concerned colleagues. "Something's wrong! Something's terribly wrong!" her anguished whisper ended in a shout. Without another word, she got to her feet and sprinted alone towards Ryoko's room. Her mouth dried with fear when she saw the door they had shut behind them now stood wide open. Who had been in there?
Reaching the doorway, Washu looked in, franticly turning this way, then that. Her horrified gaze found Ryoko's bed empty. Laying on the pillow was an old Jurian wanted poster, featuring a photograph of a demonic looking Ryoko. Even more horrifying was the spilled blood bag, with the red word 'Justice' smeared upon the white sheets.
"She was what?" Tenchi asked unbelievingly. The extended family had gathered in the Masaki living room to hear the news.
"Taken," Dr. Vilella said shortly. "I had feared this would happen if word of her presence leaked out."
An adolescent Washu stood silently looking out the window, arms crossed, her back to the rest of the group. Her face was blank, almost stony, as she looked without seeing into the night. She kept mentally calling out to Ryoko, but there was nothing at the other end of the link. Ryoko was either dead, in a coma, or her illness had progressed far enough to disable the link. None of these options were heartening.
Tenchi was confused. "Why?"
Yosho sighed, and shook his head, uncertain whether to be frustrated by Tenchi's stupidity, or thankful for his forgiving nature. "Tenchi, Ryoko is hated on Jurai. There are millions who wish her death."
Tenchi closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "But it wasn't her fault!" he said vehemently.
"No one but us knows that. And if they did, they wouldn't want to believe it."
"This is terrible!" Tenchi yelled, getting agitated. "We have to help her!"
Dr. Vilella nodded. "Of course we do, we just need to figure out how the mob got in, then we can better target our search."
"It was an inside job," Washu said coldly. "Think about it. No alarms, no forced entry, no sign of a struggle. Someone just walked into her room and took her." She turned around, a nervous tick in her left eye telling everyone she was barely in control. "It was someone on your team, Marcus."
"But I was so careful…."
"But not enough." Washu silenced him with her stare. "If you will excuse me, I need to find my daughter before she dies." Washu turned on her heel and walked stiffly to her lab.
Tenchi followed her with his eyes. "We need to help. What can we do?"
Ayeka got to her feet and set her teacup on the coffee table. "I am going to call my father. I will not let the council turn a blind eye to this madness."
Mihoshi, just beginning to wake up from a nap on the couch started to cry when she heard the news. Then she stopped, looking determined. "Kidnapping is definitely illegal! I'm going to talk to my grandfather! The Galaxy Police won't stand for this!" She fished her pink cube out of her hair, and moments later they could hear her shriek as she fell into the pond.
Sasami Grabbed Ryo-Ohki by her front paws and dashed towards Washu's lab. "I'm gonna help too!"
"Hey! Wait for me!" Tenchi shouted, tearing after her.
Far away from her friends Ryoko twisted in her sleep, strange dreams of Kagato tormenting her mind. He kept stealing her away and taking her to dark caves. Just now he was holding her under a deep pool of freezing water. She could feel the cold carrying the life out of her flesh. It was so dark. She hated the dark. And he was laughing, telling her she would have drown for 700 years. He might even forget about her, then it would be forever.
::Help!:: she tried to scream, but the water filled her mouth, leaving only her mind to call out in vain. ::Please help, me!::
::!!!:: came a startled, but unnoticed response.
Ryoko stopped struggling and hoped she would die. The cold of the water felt like the sting of a thousand bees.
::Ryoko?! Is that you?:: a faint voice whispered in her mind.
::I'm drowning,:: she told it simply.
She felt a pulse of terror from the voice. ::Where are you?:: it asked.
::The cave,:: she whispered. ::Sacred. Scared. Scared.::
::Ryoko, I need you to tell me where you are,:: the voice insisted, breaking up like a weak radio signal.
Ryoko whimpered. ::Don't leave me alone, he put me here! I don't like it here.::
::Ryoko, honey you are fading, where are you? Just tell me…:: the voice faded away to nothing.
::Hello? Hello?:: Ryoko called out, but there was no answer. She was alone in he dark. Even Kagato had abandoned her. She wished that even he would come back. But he didn't, no one did. Before long she blanked out, unable to cope with her deepest terror.
When she regained consciousness, she regained her pain, tripled from what it had been like on the way to Jurai. Her dreams were forgotten, repressed for her own sanity. As far as she was concerned she was still at the Science Academy. And from the pain, it seemed that those stupid scientists weren't helping her at all. She cracked open an eye, but the darkness did not change. She opened the other eye, just to be sure. Darkness pressed in all around her and magnified her pain.
"Hey!" she croaked, meaning to bellow instead. "Turn on the lights! It's too dark in here!"
She heard a muffled sound, the grinding of metal upon metal. She squinted, discovering that she could move nothing more than her own eyes.
"What gives? Hey! Hey!" she shouted now, her voice siphoning strength from her growing fear.
Again, she heard the metallic sound and then some scraping.
"Are you listening to me? Let me out!"
Without warning the darkness was replaced by a blinding light, and the top of her world peeled away. Unable to shield her eyes with her hands she clamped her eyes shut and turned her face as far to the side as it would go.
"You've seen better days, pirate," sneered a male's voice.
Ryoko stiffened. She didn't know that voice. And its tone was threatening, full of fury. She forced her eyes open and looked up. Dazzled by the light, she couldn't read his expression, but it became clear to her that she had been lying in some sort of sealed container and this man had just removed the cover.
"Who are you?" she asked trying to sound tough.
"Who am I? Well that's a good question. You could say that I am a lonely widower. You might even describe me as the man whose little girl was killed way too young," he said softly, a building fury lapping at the edges of his words.
Ryoko tried to see his face. "I don't understand."
"Don't lie to me you murdering witch!" he shouted, his fury released. He grabbed her shoulders and roughly pulled her up to a seated position. "Its time to pay-up," whispered in her ear. "I'm your executioner." He let go and allowed her to fall helplessly back, her head cracking against the metal of her prison.
Ryoko closed her eyes in fear. Was this what she thought? Had the people of Jurai decided to take their revenge? This was bad. Very, very, bad. And even worse, in her heart she believed they deserved to take it.
"What? No threats? No denial?" the man scoffed. "You disappoint me."
Ryoko opened her eyes and looked at him, this time her vision was clear enough to see the pain and bitterness etched across the man's features. She had no words to say. She closed her eyes again, old shame creeping over her like a death shroud.
The man shrugged and began to close the container again. "Be that way. When the others get here, you'll talk. Count on it."
Ryoko opened her eyes and saw the light leaving her. "No, please. Not that," she begged softly.
"What you don't like your coffin? Get used to it."
The lid slammed into place and Ryoko could her the grating of what she now knew to be locks. The darkness and close air pressed upon her heavily, taking her back to the worst moments of her life. As slow tears leaked around her scrunched eyelids, she thought of her Washu. If only she could help her this time. The link was dead and she wanted her mother.
Washu spun around and jabbed a finger in Tenchi's chest. "I'm telling you, I had contact with her a moment ago! Something horrible is happening! We have to find her! Pronto!"
Tenchi closed his hands around Washu's fist and squeezed it gently. "Little Washu. You know more than the rest of us then. Think, Washu. Were there any clues?"
Washu wrenched her hand free and paced around the room one hand tugging at her hair, while the other was held tightly behind her back. "I'm pretty sure she was hallucinating, those drugs she is on are very powerful."
Ayeka placed a hand on Washu's shoulder. "Ms. Washu, just tell us what you saw. We might pick up something you missed."
Washu stopped abruptly and tilted her head towards Ayeka, her face holding a rigid look of pain. "Fine. Here is what my little Ryoko was seeing. She was reliving her capture by Kagato and her entombment by Yosho all at once, the two events intertwined. In her own mind, she is imprisoned again." Washu drew a ragged breath and clenched both of her fists close to her chest. "She is suffering horribly."
Tenchi winced and hugged himself wondering if Ryoko's fragile emotions could withstand a second round of her worst nightmares.
Ayeka also looked pained, but was closely examining Washu's words. "Then, she must be contained somewhere dark and cold."
Washu looked up, immediately following Ayeka's logic. "Yes, cold and dark. But that could be anywhere!"
Ayeka frowned. "Indeed. I wonder…"
::Mother,:: came a weak cry across Washu's link accompanied by quick images of tombstones and pine boxes.
""Shhh!" Washu hissed at Ayeka as she grabbed her temples and concentrated on the faint thought, trying to trace it. Unfortunately, all was silent again, and despite her desperate calls, she got no further response.
"Little Washu, was it her?" Tenchi asked, his eyes lighting with hope.
"Yes, but just a whisper. Tell me Ayeka, where would you go to bury someone alive?" Washu asked angrily.
"B-buried alive? Oh no!" Ayeka paled. She shuddered at the mere idea of it, then her eyes narrowed as a sudden thought hit her. "In the ruins of the old palace, there is a special cemetery and memorial for Ryoko's victims. That has to be the place."
Washu grabbed Ayeka's hand and pulled her towards the door. "Do you know how to get there? Lets get going!"
Ayeka gently, but firmly reclaimed her hand. "Ryo-Ohki knows the way. Just tell her it is where my garden used to be. Hurry, go now."
"Ayeka?" Tenchi asked uncertainly as Washu took off towards the ship.
"I'll be along shortly Tenchi. There is something I have to take care of first."
Tenchi nodded and followed Washu. Ayeka frowned and strode towards the communication center. It was time to call in brute force. This sort of behavior must not be allowed.
Ryoko lay in the darkness, trying to get comfortable even though was lying on something sharp that hurt her back. She tried to calm her mind by thinking about the good things that had been happening in her life recently. She tried to imagine her rafter in the Masaki home, so high and nice with a plump pillow to recline upon. Sometimes she even had some sake up there.
Still the darkness taunted her. Overwhelming darkness and she couldn't move. Thoughts of the rafter could not hold it at bay.
She swallowed hard and tried to think of Tenchi, of his kisses. He had kissed her, he cared about her. He would take care of her.
Those kisses were out of pity for a dying woman, the darkness whispered. It wasn't real.
Ryoko tried to remember her childhood with Washu. Going to the best interactive children's science museums almost every weekend, playing together. Getting hot fudge sundaes on the way home. Washu loved her.
But Washu couldn't save you before, and she can't this time either, the writhing shadows snickered. Besides, you aren't that same little girl anymore. Why would she even want to save you?
Giving up, Ryoko broke into dry tears, gasping for breath. She was going to die here. There was no way out. The darkness was eroding her body.
She heard the locks opening again. Was it Washu? Was she saved? This time she closed her eyes firmly so as not to be blinded when the casket's lid was removed. But she could feel the warm sunlight on her skin and was immediately comforted. The smell of fresh air and pine resin filled her nostrils chasing away the morbid smell of musty death.
"Did you enjoy your time with my daughter, Ryoko?" asked that man again.
Ryoko's stomach flipped as she realized what she had been lying on. She opened her eyes slowly and saw the gaping face of a skull nestled very close to her head. She whimpered and pulled away.
The man physically hauled Ryoko out of the casket and cast her aside. Her legs too weak to bear her weight, Ryoko folded into a kneeling position with her arms tightly bound behind her back. She looked around to see that she was in a cemetery. Nestled among the remains of a stone building were countless grave markers that looked too new to belong among ruins. There was something familiar about this place. But she was distracted from that thought when she saw all of the people gathered amongst the grave markers. Their eyes filled with hate and blood lust, all directed at her. Her victims had come to her at last.
Her powers were completely gone. She could not defend herself, and it was clear that they knew it. So this was how it would end. It was fitting somehow.
"So, Ryoko. Plead to us for mercy. We want to hear it," the same man, obviously the leader, said loudly projecting it so the crowd would hear. They laughed darkly, enjoying their revenge.
Ryoko hung her head. She had granted her victims no mercy.
Her silence maddened the crowd who took it for insolence. They muttered angrily, shifting around so the group seemed to boil.
"Why don't you break those ropes and kill us all?" the man taunted again. "Just like you did our families!"
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"She's sorry. Well that makes it better. That fixes everything," he jeered. He hefted a stone, a little larger than his hand. "We finally get to give you back your heart. Feel how soft it is."
With that, he lobbed the first stone at her, catching her in the chest, a large purple bruise blooming immediately. Ryoko grunted, but did not fall over. She met his eyes and tried to project her regrets.
The next person, a small child, came forward with her own stone. "This is for my grandma!" She lobbed the stone forward weakly, her young arms too little to have much power. The stone clipped Ryoko on the chin, leaving a small bruise in its wake.
Ryoko tried to smile at her. "Don't blame yourself for this later, it was their idea. It's not your fault"
Enraged at her words, the rest of the crowd began throwing their stones in earnest. Ryoko screamed as they hit all over her body and head. Soon she was down, her skin a mottled mass of greens and purples. Her consciousness faded into nothingness, and still the rain of stones came, people dashing over to reuse stones that had bounced away from her body after impact.
**ENOUGH** shouted a voice that seemed to shake the heavens.
The crowd paused as what seemed to be an angry little girl appeared out of thin air to stand over Ryoko, her face distorted into a rictus of rage.
"I should have known you would have found us Washu," the leader said resignedly, holding his arm cocked for his next throw. "Step aside."
Washu looked him in the eye. "I will not. I will not allow anyone to hurt her!" Washu recognized this man from the team of scientists that had been treating Ryoko. This was the traitor. She tucked that thought away for later, keeping her focus on the task at hand.
Washu spared a quick glance down at Ryoko and was horrified to see the battered and swollen flesh of her exposed skin. She was mutilated beyond recognition.
::I don't know if you can hear me or not, but I'm here, little Ryoko. You are safe now::
The absolute silence that met her thoughts frightened her. Ryoko was either comatose or dead.
Washu threw her head back and screamed, her voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. She felt her body expanding to its adult size and beyond, it felt as if she were filling up the entire dimension with her presence. Something deep inside of her stretched, she could feel its hold on her thinning, becoming more taut as it threatened to snap. The deep reserves of power she had always sensed buried within her flared like the agitating surface the sun, sending towers of magma into her mind. An old warning echoed across her conciseness. To do this, to accept this power would begin a process that would repeat a chain of cataclysmic events. Something terrible would happen.
She didn't care.
Her fury knew no boundaries, her heart was splitting into shards as her daughter lay motionless beneath her. The one person who had made everything worthwhile was slipping away, was leaving her. She had failed Ryoko again.
**WASHU. DO NOT DO THIS.**
Washu let the progression of power idle and faced Tsunami. There was something she should remember here, something important. She noticed that both she and Tsunami were giants, the hordes of Juraian people were but insects at their feet. Washu raised a hand to her head in confusion.
**IF YOU FULLY TRANSFORM, YOU WILL RECLAIM THE POWERS IN THE GEMS. AND RYOKO WILL DIE.**
Washu pulled in a sharp breath. **SHE ISN'T DEAD?** Her voice rolled doff the mountains like distant thunder.
Tsunami drifted closer, and kissed Washu's cheek. **NO, NOT YET.**
Washu frowned. **THESE MONSTERS HURT HER. THEY MUST BE PUNISHED.**
Tsunami took Washu's hand and smiled sadly. **I CANNOT ALLOW YOU TO ACT AGAINST MY PEOPLE.**
She continued, **IN RETURN FOR YOUR TOLERANCE I WILL GIVE YOU THE CURE YOU SEEK.** She handed the partial goddess Washu a crackling ball of lightening. **YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.**
Below, Tenchi, Ayeka, Yosho and Mihoshi had arrived and were gawking at the two women towering above their heads into the sky. One was Tsunami, and the other was…. Washu? But she looked different, more elongated and elegant. Her science academy uniform had been replaced by an flowing green gown with a golden metal band that framed the bodice, seemingly forming the letter 'W'. As the women spoke, the sounds of their voices took on the booming quality of gale force winds. All around them the ancient trees of the original palace bowed and creaked with tension.
Understanding flared in Yosho's eyes, and he held a restraining hand on Tenchi's shoulder as he made a move to run to Ryoko. "Don't get too close!"
"But, look at Ryoko!" Tenchi shouted, struggling against his grandfather. "She is hurt!"
"Tenchi," Yosho commanded with quiet authority. "There are greater forces here. Have faith."
Above their heads Washu was holding a large writhing ball of energy, and looking at the miniscule form lying prone at her feet. She nodded and cast the ball downwards, quickly covering her eyes and looking away.
Ryoko shrieked as the energy hit her and enveloped her in a writhing envelope of power, burning away her restraints and clothing. Her skin smoked as the power streamed into her body and burned away the malfunctioning cells. Run off power shot from her eyes and mouth in great beams of light as the energy cycled through her. And then it was over, her bruised and charred body laying limply on the soil, her eyes and mouth slightly open.
Tsunami lightly touched Washu's elbow, encouraging her to look. Washu hesitantly removed her hands and looked down upon Ryoko. Washu began to shrink down to mortal size, stopping at her adult form, her clothing transforming back into the science academy uniform. Tsunami followed suit and soon both goddesses were kneeling over Ryoko. Washu gently gathered her into her arms and held her tightly.
Tsunami embraced Ryoko from the other side, and a gentle glow arched between she and Washu covering Ryoko in a shimmering warmth. The burns and bruises were quickly wiped away and Ryoko drifted from a coma into a deep sleep as she rested on her mother's shoulder.
Washu breathed in the fresh, healthy scent of her daughter and held her more tightly, a quiet sob shaking her body.
Tsunami smiled and released her hold on the pair. They would forget. They would all forget exactly how this happened very soon. She waved a hand causing a deep blue, star spangled blanket to cloak Ryoko's nakedness. All was done, and there should be no lose ends. She looked at Yosho and frowned. Here was one who would remember.
Yosho bowed deeply, telling her the secret was safe.
Smiling again, Tsunami nodded and faded away as Ayeka snapped out of a trance and ordered the garrisons of soldiers she had brought with her to arrest the mob.
Ryoko sat on a marble bench in Sasami's formal garden and fidgeted in her even more formal dress. The indigo silk felt smooth against her skin, but the many layers of it weighed heavily upon her. Ayeka dressed like this, not her. She longed for her own simple stripped dress or close fitting leggings and slitted skirt. Those were clothes you could be comfortable in, those were clothes you could fight in. If anyone attacked her now, she would just tip over and be trapped by layers of kimono.
A soft breeze tickled her nose with the thick scent of wild roses, and she tried to relax. Today was the day.
"I thought I would find you here," Tenchi said softly from behind her.
"Hey," she said with out turning.
He took hold of her upper arms and leaned over her shoulders, breathing into her ear. "You look beautiful in blue."
She smiled and tilted her head so that his lips were brushing against her. She closed her eyes and sighed. This was like a dream come true. Even so, she had to be honest. "I hate this dress."
Tenchi chuckled, and sat on the bench besides her. "Come on. We have been here a whole month, and this is the first time we've made you wear it."
"Hmmmm." Ryoko smiled, thinking of the fun she and Tenchi had shared over the last month. She tilted her head and met his eyes. "It has been a nice vacation, ne?"
It had been very big of Ayeka to accept responsibility for Ryoko so she did not have to wait this last month in jail. They were all calling this a vacation, and not the period of probation before Ryoko's trial.
He smiled back and moved forward to kiss her. He wasn't afraid of this anymore, in fact he wanted to kiss her as much as he could. He pressed his lips against hers and wrapped his arms around her lightly, fearing to crease the fabric of her dress.
Ryoko noticed this and frowned, pulling away, the half connection frustrating her. "Another reason to hate this dress."
"Well, maybe later you and Tenchi can pick up where you left off last night on the couch!" Washu cackled from out of sight.
"Mom!" Ryoko snapped with a bright blush.
Washu strolled into view, her arms tucked behind her back, an expressive leer on her face. "I saw all of it!"
She tapped her forehead. "I felt a lot of it too!" She straightened her back and clasped her hands under her chin, her eyes wide and shimmering.
"At first I thought it was just more kissy face. But then…ohhhhhh!" Washu walloped Tenchi on the back. "Then you copped a feel!" She giggled. "I didn't know you had it in you!"
"MOTHER!" Ryoko shouted.
Washu continued laughing. "You two are so cute!"
Tenchi buried his head in Ryoko's neck and groaned. "Does she ever give up?"
Ryoko shrugged. "What do YOU think?"
Washu turned serious. "It's time. Are you ready Ryoko?"
Ryoko stiffened, fear chilling her, even under her many layers of clothing.
Washu offered her hand. "It has to be this way if you want your life back. Come now."
Ryoko took Washu's hand and struggled to her feet, the kimono impeding most of her motion. Also, even after a month of rest she was still weak from her illness. Tenchi pushed her up from behind while Washu pulled. Ryoko gathered her balance and, with the two most important people in her life on either side of her, she went to trial.
It was a long affair, dragging into many days without recess. News reporters from all over the universe kept a constant media feed going so billions of curious minds could follow every moment. First, a sample of the families of Ryoko's victims emotionally pled their case, showing pictures of their loved ones in happier times, telling of the pain of their loss. They asked for the death sentence and an opportunity to throw the switch themselves.
Throughout the testimonies, news cameras were trained on Ryoko's tormented face, watching her reaction to every hard truth. Sometimes she cried, other times she just shut her eyes and pursed her lips. She was raised high on the platform of the accused, but was not alone. Ayeka had made unique provisions for this trial and had added two more chairs. The entire time Tenchi and Washu were there to comfort Ryoko with hugs and whispered comments. As the universe watched these tender exchanges, people began to wonder if they knew they entire story.
As the last of the plaintiffs left the stand, Mihoshi made her way to the witness box and said her piece.
She twirled a strand of blond hair around her finger and smiled at Ryoko. "Ryoko Hakubi is not all that bad. Sure, she blew up lots of planets, but she often shares her sake with me, you know?"
Ryoko shifted nervously and eyed Washu. Washu bit her lip and shrugged, wondering what had possessed them to allow Mihoshi to testify.
Mihoshi laughed. "And when she shares her sake, she doesn't get drunk and start fights with Ayeka!"
Ryoko buried her face in her hands and moaned. They might as well take her to prison now.
"Ryoko is a real character. I mean, she seems all tough, but she is really nice. She watches over us while we sleep, and even does some of the chores when she thinks we aren't paying attention."
Mihoshi smiled and waved at Ryoko. "Hey Ryoko! Remember that time when I had a police call and you souped up Yukinojo so I could make it to the scene quicker?"
Ryoko waved back weakly and nodded.
"Well, those two girls would have died of space exposure if I had been any later. You saved their lives."
"Two versus two billion!" Someone shouted from the gallery. "Let's skip this and execute the pirate!"
"Silence!" the judge roared. "I will not have a repeat of last month's mercenary justice in my courtroom. Any more outbursts like that will earn any of you six months in prison!"
Ryoko sat stonily, realizing she had no chance at all. She should have escaped when she had the chance.
"Anyway, Ryoko is a good friend who isn't as mean as she looks. I'm done now!" Mihoshi hopped down from the stand and was swiftly replaced by Ayeka.
She coughed and looked regally at the audience. "I am Ayeka first princess of Jurai, your princess. As you know, I have had good reason in the past to wish ill upon Ms. Ryoko. But I no longer do. As you will hear later, Ryoko was forced to do her ill deeds, and had no choice at all."
A loud grumble filled the hall, but no one dared to speak too plainly.
"Ms. Ryoko has saved my life many times and has proven herself to be a woman of high moral character whose loyalty is unquestionable." Ayeka met Ryoko's glance and smiled warmly.
Ryoko returned the smile shyly, openly acknowledging Ayeka as a friend. She leaned her head on Tenchi's shoulder and allowed herself to relax a little.
"So, members of the court, please bear in mind that the tool of evil is not evil in and of itself. And remember that your princess would not lie to you." She bowed deeply and left the stand.
"Tenchi, aren't they going a little too quickly?" Ryoko whispered. It had taken days to even get to their turn and now it was almost over.
He patted her hand and kissed the top of her head. "Trust us."
There was a small delay as Washu left her place by Ryoko's side and took the stand. She looked coolly over the audience. " I know you all know who I am. You also know that I was kidnapped 5,000 years ago. Doesn't it seem funny to you that this was exactly the same time Ryoko, who was nothing more than a bright student at the Academy, suddenly turned into evil incarnate? Don't you see the connection?"
She paused and spread her fingers, causing her laptop to appear. "I want to show you Ryoko before that time."
She hit a button and a large screen was projected on the wall behind her. The first picture showed Ryoko at roughly three years of age sitting in the dirt surrounded by a pile of rocks. She had one shoved in her mouth and was closely examining another. "This is Ryoko already on her way to be a interstellar geologist."
The next picture featured Ryoko and Washu vouging for the camera in front cave's entrance. Ryoko seemed around nine years old. Both she and Washu were wearing spelunking gear including hard hats with little lights mounted on the front. "This was from our first trip to the mammoth caves on the seventh moon of Jurai. Because of what was done to my daughter by lord Yosho as punishment for her crimes, you won't ever find Ryoko enjoying this hobby again. She was sealed away in a subterranean lake for 700 years. Now dark and small places frighten her to the point of danger. She is so traumatized that she could do herself harm if she was ever in a situation like this. You might even say she has already been punished enough."
The next picture showed Ryoko at 14, receiving an award from Dr. Vilella at the Science Academy. She was dressed in a kimono very much like she wore today and looked like a miniature, differently colored version of Washu as she grinned broadly, clutching at her award. "Here you see Ryoko receiving the coveted junior scholar award. Her annual research project had disproved an old and much accepted paradigm about mineral formation." She looked over at Ryoko. "I was so proud of you that day. You were showing the world you were a genius, just like your mom."
Ryoko swallowed thickly, and smiled tremulously back, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
"And lastly, here is a picture that shows you just who Ryoko was the day before she was taken." This picture showed a teenaged Ryoko in a kitchen, holding a blender above a large bowl. There was chocolate batter sprayed all over the walls and Ryoko, it was even in her hair. Her eyes sparkled with innocence as she sucked the batter off of a finger. One eye winked at the camera, guilelessly admitting blame for the mess.
Washu left the picture up as she concluded. "Yes, the day before she was enslaved, my little Ryoko was trying to make brownies because I wouldn't give her any more money to buy some from the bakery. She didn't go blow up the commissary in rage, or steal some because she could. She was just a typical kid making a big mess."
Washu paused and put her heart into her voice. "You can't tell me that this same person, destroyed her first planet two months later. It doesn't follow. Because of a flaw in Ryoko's design, Kagato was able to control her completely. She had no choice. No choice at all."
Against the backdrop of the photo Washu proceeded to carefully describe exactly how Kagato was able to control Ryoko. She provided carefully crafted exhibits to make her point more clear. Soon, the audience was drowsing, but the judge and jury paid close attention and took copious notes.
"And that," Washu concluded, worn out herself, "is why there is absolutely no fault to place on Ryoko. None at all. Zip. Zero." She looked the judge in the eye as if she expected an exoneration on the spot.
The judge blinked sleepily at her, but to his credit he had followed everything she had said. "Thank you Dr. Hakubi, you may take your seat. Its time we heard from the defendant herself, then we will recess. Mr. Masaki, please Join Dr. Hakubi below." He gestured to an empty bench. "Ms. Hakubi must testify alone."
Ryoko flashed Tenchi what was supposed to be a brazen, devil-may-care smile. Instead it came off as a small spark of emotion on her otherwise dead face. Tenchi hugged her and climbed down the staircase, leaving Ryoko all alone. She stared passively at her hands and awaited instruction.
"Will the defendant please rise?"
She struggled to her feet, the weight of the kimono seemed to have tripled. Still she looked down, not daring to meet the judge's eyes.
"Please state your name for the record."
"My name is Ryoko Hakubi, sir," she whispered, her voice only audible because of the room's sensitive microphones.
"Please look at the bench, Ms. Hakubi."
Ryoko slowly raised her head and met the man's eyes. She was surprised to see no hate there. No love either, just an even, impassive stare.
"You are charged with the murders of countless Jurai citizens and members of Jurai protectorates, as well as massive property destruction. Do you understand these charges?"
"Yes, sir," she said softly.
"How do you plead?"
Ryoko looked down again, wracked by her familiar guilt. Did it matter that Kagato had controlled her? She had still done those things. Her body had been the cause of so much destruction.
"Ms. Hakubi, I recommend answering promptly."
Ryoko quickly glanced up, showing she had heard the judge. Looking demure in her dark dress, she turned around to face her accusers sitting in the courtroom. The hate in their eyes was unbearable. She could feel it rolling at her in waves. They wanted her to die. They needed her to die, or they would never find peace.
"Ms. Hakubi let me inform you that silence is interpreted by this court as a plea of guilty," the judge intoned.
Washu jumped up and leaned her hands against the wooden railing of the enclosed the bench she shared with Tenchi. "Answer him for God's sake, Ryoko!" she bawled. "What are you doing?"
"Dr. Hakubi," the judge warned, "One more time and you are out."
Washu ground her teeth and tried to connect to Ryoko through the link, but found it completely blocked.
Ryoko turned around and clasped her hands loosely in front of her. "Sir. I… I…"
"Are you guilty or innocent, Ms. Hakubi?"
Ryoko craned her head behind her and looked again at her victims. There was only one thing she could do for them. There was only one thing she could do for the innocent young woman she once was. She straightened her shoulders and looked the judge squarely in the eyes.
"I am guilty."
The court exploded into chaos, with Ryoko's few supporters crying out in despair, and her many detractors cheering in victory.
The judge nodded gravely. "Then there is no need for a recess. Prepare for your sentence."
Ryoko nodded and squeezed her eyes shut. She tried not to think of the pain she had caused her loved ones. Her need to atone was eclipsing every other desire.
"Ryoko Hakubi, the sentence for murder is…" The judge broke off as a blue glow emanated from the empty seat to his left, the seat always left open as a symbolic testament to Tsunami's just presence at every trial. The blue glow intensified until the goddess was completely in the material plane. The room was silent. This had never happened before in the recorded history of Jurai. No one knew what to expect next.
"Your Honor," Tsunami addressed the judge in normal human tones. "I would like to submit my testimony before you pass judgement."
He nodded mutely.
Tsunami gestured and the room fell into darkness, the silence only broken by a single whimper from Ryoko. "I would like to submit the experience of Ryoko for the court's benefit."
The darkness was replaced by a dim light, and it soon became apparent to all that they were looking through Ryoko's eyes, and that they could hear her thoughts as well. Before them, just beyond the glass hull of a ship they could see a blue green planet….
"There, Ryoko. This is your first test. Let's see how powerful you are," Kagato said calmly.
Ryoko pressed her hands against the glass and watched the peaceful orb spin before her. He couldn't be serious.
"What are you waiting for? Destroy it."
"Stupid girl. Teleport outside. Raise your power. Blast that planet out of existence," he said slowly as if explaining the obvious to a simpleton.
Her mouth hung slack in surprise. He was serious. She had quickly learned to fear him more than anything in the universe, but he was asking the impossible of her.
"Are there people there?" she asked worriedly.
"Of course there are people there! This would be pointless otherwise. Do it."
She backed away from the glass. Oh no, she couldn't do this. Not this. Not hurt people.
His hand shot out and grabbed her shoulder painfully, his thumb digging into the tender triangle where her collarbone joined with her shoulder. "Don't make me ask you again, Ryoko."
She jerked away, her fear of what he wanted her to do bigger than her fear of him. "No!"
"Obey me! Now!"
"No way! Stay away from me!" she screamed turning to pelt down the corridor.
Kagato sighed and took control. Down the hall Ryoko howled and grabbed her head, all three of her gems flaring with a sickly green light. "Fine, we will do it this way. Come to me."
She pivoted neatly on the balls of her feet and walked back towards him her eyes the same green as her gems. Inside her mind she struggled to disobey, but could not. Her own body would not obey her. She paused at Kagato's side and awaited her next orders.
"You will be punished for this insurrection later. But for now, I want to see if you have enough power to destroy that planet."
Without a word Ryoko teleported outside of the ship and charged her hands with as much power as she could hold. While her face was showing no expression, inside she was wailing and clawing at the barriers that bound her free will away from her. This couldn't be happening. All of those poor people! Who would save them?
Unable to stop it, she felt herself lob an enormous energy pulse at the planet before her. The flow of power seemed to go on forever. She had no idea that she even had this much power, where was it coming from?
As her energy reserves spent themselves she watched the hole she had punched in the planet's atmosphere widen and the continents below it heave and twist as great geysers of the ocean flew upwards. Everything was in chaos, the shapes were changing and boiling, and shafts of steam were clouding up from the surface of the planet. The planet seemed to rock and sway for a moment before it paused all motion.
Ryoko felt a pulse of hope. Maybe it hadn't worked. Maybe that planet had defended itself somehow.
Then the planet drew in upon itself, then exploded, shattering into billions of bits that sent a silent shock wave racing towards her.
Instinctively, Ryoko teleported back inside the Soujya. Upon entry, her self-control was suddenly back and she was on the floor sobbing before she even realized she had regained the control to cry.
"No, oh, no!" she cried over and over curling into a ball on the floor, rocking herself for comfort as the shock wave passed harmlessly over the ship.
Kagato watched her with mild interest. He would have thought that sort of reaction had been beaten out her by now. He was pleased with the results of this experiment, and had recorded the entire thing. He planned to release the video to the media to give a face to the carnage. Such a beautiful face too. It was poetic really.
But this kind of reaction had to stop, or she would not be effective. People needed to fear her, not have pity on her.
He crouched down next to her and whispered in her ear. "Don't lie to yourself Ryoko. You enjoyed that. If you felt that badly you would have let that shock wave finish you instead of coming back home to safety."
"That's not true!" she sobbed brokenly.
"Ah but it is. Besides, you could have broken free if it mattered all that much to you. You have before, remember? Face it Ryoko, this is your real nature. You are a killer." Smirking softly, he stood back up and silently left her crying on the floor…
The entire courtroom felt her cry herself to sleep only to wake up to try her first serious suicide attempt since she had been captured. They felt her despair as Kagato stopped her, and ruthlessly stripped her mind of her memories and personality, leaving her as an empty shell awaiting his next command.
Not a word was spoken after Tsunami released her hold on their minds. Every soul in the room reeled under the atrocity of what had happened to this young woman. Many began to cry silently, unable to tolerate the levels of pain they still felt in their own hearts. Even Washu and Tenchi who had known the story were terribly shaken from having to live it first person.
Tsunami leaned back looking grim. "Ryoko is only guilty of taking on the onus for crimes committed by another."
The judge nodded weakly. "Ryoko Hakubi, I pronounce you innocent," he said his head spinning.
Ryoko slumped into her seat, tears of relief springing to her eyes. The hate in the room was gone, people believed in her. What was more, she finally believed it herself. She had been forgiven at last.
Washu climbed the stairs and slid a comforting arm around Ryoko's shoulders. "Are you ready to go home, my little Ryoko?"
Ryoko eased into the warm water with a gusty sigh. It was so good to be home. Yes, this place was her home, unlike anyplace she had been since she was a little girl. She looked up through the Onsen's glass dome and watched the distant stars wink and whirl. She could enjoy the stars from afar now, from the comfort of home. Her legs stretched out, her knees dipping below the surface of the water. Knowing she truly belonged to a specific pinpoint in the infinity of space and time brought warm feelings to the surface of her mind. She had a place to hang her sword. She had people who cared if she lived or died.
Most importantly, she had family. She had a mother who loved her no matter what.
Ryoko slipped deeper into the water, until it came to the upper bridge of her nose. She blew bubbles with her breath, enjoying the gentle plipping sounds they made as they broke through to the surface. So much had become clear over the last two weeks. Well, clearer anyway.
Ryoko closed her eyes and sank deeper, letting the water close over her head. In her mind's eye, she could still see her mother crouching over her, the look of mind blowing rage and protectiveness distorting her features. In that moment, through their link and even as she herself was drifting into a coma, Ryoko had seen into the depths of Washu's soul. The pain, the loss, and the love she bore for her daughter was crystal clear. Washu loved Ryoko with every fiber of her being. Every serious thing she had ever said was true. It was now even more impossible for Ryoko to fool herself into thinking she was alone in the universe. That no one cared. Washu cared, and that love had very quickly found it's way into the darkest and most lonely corner of Ryoko's psyche.
And that changed everything.
There was no need to run, everything was stable here and she was safe. It was hard to be bitter when the warm feelings of unconditional love whispered across a mental connection. And finally, it was hard to be self-destructive when it would so clearly hurt another. Two, others really.
Ryoko emerged from the water and took a deep breath, her thick hair turning a dull gun metal grey and laying flat against her head because of its wetness. She stood up and reached behind her for the little wooden bucket of toiletries that waited by the water's edge. She took up a wash cloth and rubbed it along a bar of simple soap, working up a thick lather. She scooted up and sat on the wooden edge of the planking, with her long legs dangling in the water as she scrubbed her arms and torso.
Tenchi cared too. Somehow she had gone from being a lost, nameless face to being the love of two singular individuals. It was so hard to understand, it made her head hurt if she though about it too much. It was just better to accept it and try to adapt. Just like she had always done, really.
But this would be an adaptation unlike any other she could remember clearly. Now that she had Tenchi's attention, she was at a loss for what to do. Now she didn't need to be outrageous and shock him just to get him to look her fully in the eyes. Now she didn't need or want to blow up a certain snotty princess. The old focuses of her life were superfluous now. How could she fill the void with out accidentally destroying the wonderful changes in her life?
She pulled a leg out of the water and balanced its ankle on the knee of her other leg. She carefully washed between her toes as she pondered the point of her existence. Okay, she had a place to stay: Check. She wasn't a wanted criminal anymore, she didn't have to hide anymore: Check, check. She had her old memories to use to build a better future:… but what future did she want? What future was she prepared for? She never used to think beyond the moment because her tomorrows were never certain. But now it seemed she had a yellow brick road of promise to explore. But where did she want to go?
"Oh! Ryoko… I didn't know you were in here!" stuttered Tenchi's voice, suddenly there when all had been silent moments before.
Her heart skipping erratically, Ryoko sprung to her feet, teetered on the edge of the planking, and fell into the water. She let the water conceal everything below her neck, and self-consciously brushed a water-laden lock of hair behind her ears. Why hadn't she heard him come in?
"Oh. Tenchi." She could feel an uncharacteristic blush searing her cheeks. "Hi."
He stood there, wrapped in his towel, also blushing madly. Yet he made no move to leave. "What… what are you doing Ryoko?"
Suddenly at a loss for words, Ryoko looked down and muttered something about bathing.
"Ohhh. Bathing. Right. That's what Onsens are for!" Tenchi laughed nervously. Still he wasn't leaving.
"What do you want Tenchi?" she asked tensely, hating this awkward feeling.
He just looked at her, his eyes fighting the water's refraction, trying to get a better glimpse at what was hidden beneath the water's surface.
She turned even redder and refused to look at him directly. Wrapping her arms protectively around her breasts, Ryoko stood up, turned away, and slowly waded to the other side of the Onsen. At the other side, she remained standing with her back to him.
Tenchi sighed and turned towards the door. He just wasn't any good at romance. And what was with Ryoko, anyway? This wasn't like her at all.
His hand was on the door when a pocket dimension opened eye level with him. Now peering at him was the annoyed face of Washu. She rolled her eyes and handed him a much folded slip of paper before the opening winked out.
Tenchi unfolded the paper and read Washu's hastily scrawled note.
Geeze!!! Go after her you idiot. She might like to be chased too ya know! -W.
PS this note will self destruct right now!!!
Tenchi hurriedly dropped the paper, just as it exploded like a firecracker, and quickly burned away into nothingness. He looked to Ryoko who still had her back to him and was leaning against the wooden decking of the floor on the far side of the pool. That Ryoko had not turned around, even for this noise astounded him.
And told him Washu was correct. With a steadier expression, Tenchi waded into he water. As he moved slowly towards Ryoko, he looked at her. Really looked at her for the first time. The pale skin of her shoulders and back stretched tightly over firm muscles. The arch of her neck peeping out from under her long hair was beautifully proportioned, like a graceful swell of alabaster in a classical statue. But it lacked the cold quality of stone, there was something warm and soft there too, something that wanted to be touched.
He had seen all of Ryoko's body in the past, but he hadn't been able to appreciate the sight. Something was different now. Was it their new emotional connection? Was he maturing? Maybe it was a mix of everything, but it didn't really matter. He appreciated her beauty now, and wanted to be close to its warmth. The very little revealed to him now teased him and he wanted to see more. He wanted to feel it.
He paused a foot away from her and stared at her neck. Now he could see damp strands of hair curling under her ear lobes, just begging to be brushed away so he could see even more of her skin. The urge to taste that skin became almost over powering, but yet he didn't now what to do. He thought back to the books he had read and the movies he had seen. Nothing seemed appropriate here. And that was assuming she really did want him to touch her. He bit his lip, wishing he had a clue.
"What are you doing, Tenchi?" Ryoko asked, anxiety and anticipation warring in her tone.
Tenchi smiled. Her voice told him, that for all of her big talk, she was just as nervous as he was. He lifted his hands out of the water and placed them on her shoulders, eliciting a small gasp from her. He leaned in and brushed his lips along that beautiful curve of her neck and closed his eyes in pleasure as she purred in her throat. Knowing she enjoyed this was even better giving into the desire to kiss her. He bared his teeth and took a little nibble enjoying the resiliency of her skin.
"Tenchi!" she cried out and threw her head back, the back of her head resting on his shoulder.
"Oh Ryoko," he murmured into her ear. "You are so beautiful. I want to…" he trailed off not sure what it was he wanted. Instead he kissed around her ears and across her cheek, finally stopping to stay a while at her lips. Kissing her, he twisted her around and pulled her close, firmly gathering her body against his. His thin towel did nothing to hide her body from him. The feeling of her curves pressed so tightly against his skin made him flush with a heat he hadn't known would consume him so completely. Every movement she made beneath him sent a shock wave through his nervous system.
He broke the kiss and noted he had backed her against the wall of the pool. He ran the backs of his fingers over her cheek and kissed her briefly before he spoke. "Ryoko, help me. I don't know what you want me to do." He kissed her again, drinking deeply of her flavor. "Please tell me what to do."
A surprising expression of old hurt flashed into her eyes, and she buried her face into his neck. "I don't know either, not really."
Tenchi kissed the top of her head. "I don't understand."
"It's hard to talk about," she murmured.
"I knew I would screw this up," Tenchi muttered angrily. It was clear he had hurt her, and he had sworn never to do that again.
"No!" she shouted, raw emotion fraying the edges of her words. She looked up at him, her eyes glittering fiercely. "It's not you! Never you!"
Tenchi cupped her face in his hands. "Then, please tell me."
She closed her eyes, a forlorn look settling across her features. "Do you really, love me Tenchi?" her weak voice begged for assurance.
"You know I do."
"No matter what?"
"Ryoko, what has happened to you?" Tenchi asked feeling ill.
Ryoko opened her eyes and pulled his hands away from her face. She placed them palm to palm and covered them with her own hands as she carefully selected her words.
"Tenchi, you know that Kagato controlled me for a long time. He controlled me completely, Tenchi."
Oh no. Tenchi's heart twisted as he guessed where the conversation was going.
"And Washu made me beautiful. So… things…things were bound to happen," she said dully, distancing herself from the memory.
Tenchi sighed. Of course they were. How could they have not? He noticed Ryoko looking at him with an anxiety her words did not convey. He smiled at her and gently tugged his hands free, using them to pull her into a loving embrace. He knew that words alone would not be enough to comfort her. "Go on."
"Well, Tenchi, he had turned off my…well…" she paused. "I couldn't feel anything," she finished, her uncharacteristic embarrassment making her voice crack.
"Oh," Tenchi said, not really understanding what this meant.
"So after a while, as I grew older, sex just became another show of his complete power over me. Just another thing I endured, nothing more."
A moment of silence hung thickly around them as they each contemplated the meaning of her words.
She pulled back and searched his face. "Tenchi do you understand? I don't know what to do either."
Tenchi chuckled and squeezed her tightly. "That's okay. We can figure it out. But that's not what has you upset, is it?"
She hung her head. "No. I feel unworthy of you, my Tenchi. All used up."
Tenchi winced as a greater understanding of this woman dawned up on him. She had every meaningful and human experience either stolen or distorted by Kagato. He had cruelly destroyed every avenue of her humanity. It was amazing that her soul had survived intact. Tenchi leaned his forehead into hers, and spoke softly.
"The past only matters in so far as it can hurt you today. Those days are over. While I would do all in my power to take that pain from you, I love the person you are and would not change you for anything."
She cried out, a strange mix of catharsis and a joyous shout. "Thank you, for understanding."
"No thank you," he looked tenderly into her eyes. "I'm the unworthy one."
She smirked and pressed her lips against his, her mood changing with the speed that matched her mother's. "I'll remember that. Where were we?"
Tenchi let her change the subject. "I was about to do this," he said removing his towel and throwing it up on the deck where it landed with a wet slap.
Ryoko's eyes widened. "Oh!"
Tenchi snuggled in closer, smiling shyly as their skin touched. "I think we were right about here."
Ryoko smiled back, a faint blush highlighting her cheeks. "Then I suggest we take this to a place without cameras."
"Don't be a spoil sport, Little Ryoko!" whined Washu's voice out of nowhere.
"Cameras?!?" Tenchi shouted, his nose starting to bleed.
"Shut up, Washu! This is private!" Ryoko growled wrapping her arms around Tenchi.
"I turned all of the cameras off but one!" Washu bargained. "Just a really, teeny, tiny one!"
"No!" Ryoko blasted the remaining camera from its place within a tall tree.
"And my camera hardly counts at all," came Noboyuki's voice.
"Dad!" Tenchi shouted in disgust. "Cut it out!"
Frowning, Ryoko destroyed the family video camera as it sat perched behind a bush.
"WAHHHH!" Washu cried over the hidden speaker. "Then we're coming in there!"
"Be my guest!" Ryoko kissed Tenchi swiftly. "Hang on." In a flash they had teleported away.
Washu burst into the empty Onsen and stamped her foot when she saw she had missed them. Noboyuki was only steps behind and burst into frustrated tears when he realized they were gone. Washu leaned against a tree and smiled. "Don't worry, It was a good thing I thought to install some new surveillance equipment on Ryo-Ohki!"
"Oh Tenchi. Your mother in heaven will be so proud!" sobbed Noboyuki.
Washu looked over at him and smirked, thinking of the market value of that tape. "And so will everybody on the internet," she thought rubbing her hands together greedily.
I hope you all liked my story. Many thanks go out to John Takis for his help with editing, character background tidbits, and encouragement. Please drop me a line at email@example.com and let me know what you thought of this fic!