Disclaimer: Tenchi Muyo/No Need For Tenchi is a product of Pioneer/AIC. As such, I'm getting no compensation for writing this fiction other than my own enjoyment and to bring pleasure to the fans of this wonderful series.

Forward: This is Book Number One of my normal Tenchi series: The Possibilities are Endless. These stories will not be connected to each other unless it is mentioned as a sequel to a previous story in the forward. I'm using a cover title to make it easy for readers to find the stories and to read them in the order I wrote them.

I would appreciate any C&C about this work. My two E-mail addresses are:

V_Bashaw@hotmail.com

Horosha@RC_Books.zzn.com

The events in Book One occur eleven months after the events recorded in Tenchi OAV Second Season. If you have questions about the story or how I portrayed the characters please read the notes at the end of the book. I have created a glossary of Nihongo words, idioms and titles to help readers understand them, included are some Juraigo words, idioms and titles I created for my works. The glossary can be found in TMFFA Crossover section, under the title Strange Days. The butterfly motif I use here for Ayeka wasn't created by me but by a good friend of mine, Literary Eagle, for her own fanfic series, "Confess to Me."

My prereaders for Book One are Donald Dortmund, Jurgen, Pixie of Destruction, JB747, and BlaqueTalon.

If I can get in on time, this story will be my entry for the Ayeka Fan Club Contest. Wotatsu has given me permission to post this story before the contest deadline if I couldn't wait. So I did.

Dedication: This series is dedicated to the people who brought Tenchi Muyo in life: Hayashi Hiroki, Kajshima Masaki, Hasegawa Naoko, and Kuroda Yosuke.

Warning: Just like the Tenchi Muyo OAV this work contains adult language and situations (including some ecchi scenes), so any minor should get parents' permission before reading it.

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Tenchi Muyo

Series Title: The Possibilities are Endless

Book One Title: Teardrops of Startica

A Fan-Fiction by Horosha

Copyright: December 19, 2001

Prologue: Achilles Last Stand

"I feel so cold," Ryoko murmured, her weakened sight no longer saw the product of her attack, the ash shadows of the nine godlings not ten feet away from her collapsed body. Twenty yards further up from where these creatures had confronted the uchu kaizoku, was the crystal encased body of Sasami, who was barely aware of the great cost her friend had paid to save her. In the distance, the cyan-haired woman's fogged mind heard the continued battle between Tenchi and Khyron, a higher dimensional being from Tokimi's realm. This being had kidnapped Sasami/Tsunami in an attempt to blackmail Tokimi into giving up her rulership to him. A ghostly smile found its way to Ryoko's pale lips for she was confident Tenchi would defeat Khyron, since the god's followers didn't possess life anymore nor held his hostage for him.

Ryoko tried to lift her head to watch Tenchi's battle but it didn't even move, leaving her amber eyes the sight of a powerless Gem on her outstretched right arm. With Katsuhito's support Ayeka asked Tenchi to return the two remaining Gems to Ryoko so she could save Sasami while Tenchi fought Khyron. Ryoko's mind filled with gladness at accomplishing her part of the plan, even if it meant she would die. Death didn't frighten her, not like it did mortal beings. She had sent the godlings ahead to forewarn the land of the dead, Yomotsu no Kuni, her pending arrival, such was the release of all the power of the Three Gems had achieved.

Washu warned her not to use her Gems at their highest setting, her mother's fear plain in those big green eyes for she knew her daughter's body wasn't mature enough to control the unrestrained divine power the redhead once welded as Tokimi's youngest sister. Although Ryoko had promised her mother she wouldn't go beyond her own limitations, the oath's foundation turned to sand when she and the other women found their way barred by the godlings. Mihoshi took out two of Khyron's underlings with Ayeka matching the score and Washu outdid both of them by exterminating four of luminescent beings, but with her feminine comrades rendered unconscious by overwhelming numbers, Ryoko was left facing nine of these powerful entities. Ryoko sliced and diced her way to within a few feet of Sasami's frozen terrified face before being driven back by the creatures' combined abilities. Ryoko couldn't stop herself, her love for the littlest princess drove her to reach within her Gems and release all their energy in one pulse of destruction. The godlings didn't get a chance to feel pain or horror, they felt only awe because only the unveiled Khyron equaled the goddess beauty Ryoko showed at that moment.

A blurred image entered Ryoko's field of vision, a black and pink blotch with ruby pools, surrounded by a halo of purple. 'Ayeka-san, take care of my Tenchi,' Ryoko tried to say but only gibberish came out of her impaired vocal cords. The image dropped toward her until it filled her sight then the spiky-haired women felt two hands lift up her head so it could rest on something soft, something containing the Jurai princess' scent. After her numbed skin felt the hands travel to her forehead, her catlike ears heard Ayeka's voice like it was coming from a great distance, "Ryoko-san, I will not allow anything to bring suffering back into Tenchi-sama's life."

The last thing Ryoko's senses revealed to her were the sounds of a waterfall.

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Chapter One: Homeward Bound

Masaki Residence

The Jurai Battleship, Inu-Yasha, broke through the low overcast that hugged the hills around the valley containing the Masaki home. Upon the wooden deck, between the house and the blue lake, Ayeka stood with a horde of small cargo pods next to her. Twenty steps behind her stood Mihoshi, Katsuhito, Tenchi, Washu and Sasami with Ryo-ohki on the little one blue hair, their eyes caught in a malaise of confusion and pain.

Unable to restraint himself any longer Tenchi asked, "Ayeka-san, can't you wait until Ryoko has recovered enough to see you off, I know she would feel hurt if her best friend left without each exchanging words of farewell."

"Iie, Tenchi-sama," tenseness in Ayeka's words, her back to her friends, "I must not delay my leaving."

"Then let me go with you, oneesama," Sasami's voice pitched high by a tear soaked tone.

"Iie, Sasami," a coolness in Ayeka's reply, "okasama, Funaho-okasama and I have concurred that your studies under Washu's tutelage are too important to be interrupted by such a trivial thing as demands by ambitious nobles for visits by the two unmarried princesses. They will have to be satisfied by the visit of one."

"But Ayeka-neechan . . . " a plea in Sasami's words, her hands reaching out to her sister.

"Baka Sasami wa (Silly Sasami!)!" Ayeka chastised her sister, "we both know how much you love your freedom here on Earth and how alien the Juraijin nobles would be to you, after all you were eight-years-old when we journeyed from Jurai, seven-hundred years ago. You would suffer misery if I gave in to your appeal because your wings weren't clipped, like mine were, by Juraijin etiquette and court properness."

Ayeka's blunt words pomaded Sasami's boundless love for her sister, causing the child to spin around and she hugged Tenchi with small pink hands, her head against his waist and with tears flowing unchecked. Behind Sasami the spin had dropped Ryo-ohki to the ground and the cabbit gave the older princess a confused stare, unable to understand Ayeka's reasons for causing her friend's pink eyes to leak water. Mihoshi was the first to recover from the shock Ayeka's words brought to them and she asked with bold concern, "Ayeka-san, wasn't that a little too harsh wa yo!" Mihoshi's worry switched to airy guessing, "I mean, Sasami-chan was worried about how lonely the trip to Jurai would be for you."

"Dozo Sasami, I just want to protect you from the naked appetite of those who see you as a wedding chest to power," a genuine note of shame in Ayeka's words.

Sasami's sobbing slowed then ceased before she turned to face Ayeka, who also turned to face her kin and friends. The blue-haired princess gave the purple-haired princess a slow nod of understanding but the pain was still visible in her watery eyes. Ayeka gave a weak smile and said, "Okasama said her and Funaho-okasama will be visiting you while I'm gone, so my absence will go unnoticed."

"Ayeka-dono, when are you coming back?" Washu asked.

"As soon as I can, Washu-san," Ayeka replied. Anguish bubbled up into her throat but she hid it by saying with false gaiety, "Tell your musume I'll expect her to be in fighting shape by the time I get back ne."

"Ii ne," Washu calmly replied. Ayeka noticed something wasn't right about the way the redhead looked at her for it was as if the diminutive scientist knew the true reason for Ayeka's departure. For a second Ayeka lifted her mental shroud so the child-woman's penetrating vision could see the true nature of the First Princess of Jurai. Washu gave no physical response to Ayeka's demonstration of trust but the slim princess saw a new emotion in those green eyes, respect.

"Sayonara," Ayeka softly said as a bluish-white light surrounded her.

"Sayonara," five voices returned, in seconds Ayeka was gone.

"Miya," a note of sad farewell in Ryo-ohki's voice.

After the ship disappeared into a subspace transgate, Tenchi asked, "Miho-san, how much time do we have before Funaho-san and Misaki-san get here?"

"Seto-san told me they would be here in nine days," Mihoshi answered quickly.

"And when did Seto-dono intercept you on your patrol route?" Washu carefully asked.

"Two days ago," Mihoshi was puzzled by Washu's suspicious stare.

"Wouldn't that mean we have seven days before their arrival?" suggested Washu.

"Oya, Maa! You're so right, Washu-san," Mihoshi eyes wide with awe, "I don't know what we ever would do without your genius."

Tenchi sighed as he looked to the blue heavens but Washu gave the blond bombshell a very suspicious look for she wondered if there was sarcasm or just child-like wonder in the policewoman's reply. Giving up on deciding which it was the spiky-haired lady said, "Dewa, that doesn't give us much time," then a devilish smile gained a foothold on her girlish face, "Tenchi-dono, are you ready?"

Tenchi gulped with nervousness before saying, "Are you sure Ryoko is fit enough?"

"I had to seal Ryoko-chan in my lab after I told her about my plan," Washu's grin became Cheshire Cat's size, "just to keep her from jumping the gun."

Tenchi's agitation increased tenfold by Washu's words and he said, "I just envisioned the first time as something intimate, just between Ryoko and me."

"Having second doubts, are we?" Washu's voice went flat.

Remembering what was at risk, Tenchi banished his apprehension and said, "Iie, I have no doubts."

"Gu! Gu!" Washu's gleefully voiced and in seconds Tenchi found Ryoko's mother hands against his back as she propelled him toward the house's front door while adding, "Just to get you in the mood, I've prepared a little hideaway for you and Ryoko-chan in a private part of my lab," when the two passed into Washu's lab, only fragments of Washu's description reached Mihoshi's, Ryo-ohki's, Sasami's and Katsuhito's ears, "A big bed . . . sea shore sounds piped in . . . pheromone scented air . . . the Kama Sutra . . . "

Once Washu's voice couldn't be heard, Sasami asked Katsuhito, "Jiichan, will Washu-neechan's plan save Ayeka-neechan?"

Placing his right hand upon his sister's head, between her twin ponytails, Katsuhito looked down into those pleading pink eyes and gently replied, "Washu-dono can only give Ayeka the means to save herself, nothing more."

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Chapter Two: Drops of Jupiter

Tenjya, Royal Palace, Jurai

In a small alcove near the entrance to her garden, the First Princess of Jurai was surrounded by the distant sounds of the ball, celebrating her return to Jurai, but the retching of Ayeka's stomach overcame the happy voices and the joyful music. The slim lady pulled her red handkerchief from her pale face but she didn't need to see the fresh speckles upon it to know she had blood on her lips and chin. A quick glance out of her concealment brought a sigh from her spirit for she had made it here without anyone noticing her exit let alone the wave of dizziness that almost toppled her as she stood next to her father, greeting the young nobles seeking dates from her.

When Ayeka first reached Jurai, she had gone to her family's doctor but it was more to confirm what she already knew, she was dying. It wasn't the psycho-physical loss of Ryu-oh's death that caused this terminal sickness, it was the minimum amount of her own life-force, the divine spark in all creatures, that brought this about, the price she willing paid to save Ryoko for Tenchi. These thoughts again conjured from her memory why she could make such a sacrifice, how on a storm filled night she had found Tenchi and Ryoko sitting on a carrot pillow on the third floor, holding hands and in a flash of sheet lightening her ruby eyes saw the young man's lips say the words the princess had waited for him to tell her. The thunder had covered her running retreat and only Sasami knew about Ayeka's discovery for the littlest princess held her sister's shaking body as fragments of her broken heart rained from her eyes. By the next day Khyron and his godlings had attacked the house and made off with Sasami before Ayeka could resolve her own situation: return to Jurai as her duty as the First Princess of Jurai demanded or stay on Earth with the extended family she still cared for. As with Yosho, circumstance made Ayeka's choice hard but easy to bear, her father would keep her secret safe from Tenchi and the others so the declining health and death of her body wouldn't scar their happiness.

A change in the tempo of the orchestra's music prodded Ayeka into smoothly removing an eight-inch black case from a concealed pocket in her regal kimono. With a touch, the oblong container popped open to show a mirror in the top part and several shades of face powder, an eyelash brush, a small gold rod of lipstick, a silver rod of eyeliner and a flat brass container of eye shadow. With practiced skill the slim princess wiped the red specks from her face then retouched her makeup, making sure her lips were perfect. A small smile graced Ayeka's features when she remembered the welcome she received when her feet touched Jurai's soil for the first time in seven-hundred-years. The shocked looks some of the nobles gave her, especially the ladies, at her fire engine red lips, pink powdered face, rouged cheeks, enhanced eyelashes and pine tree green eyelids. She was sure the pillars of rigid properness shook within many a noble's soul at what barbaric customs the First Princess of Jurai had brought back with her journey across the galaxy and her stay on that backwater planet. She had already caught snippets of palace gossip about nobles complaining to Azusa about Ayeka's appearance along with her father's reply, "This is my musume, take it or leave it." Most remained, strong was a noble's hunger for the kind of political power her marriage to their son would bring them. What actually surprised Ayeka was the pop craze her face had caused, even at this ball she saw noblewomen of all ages wearing makeup just like hers, some even looked good in it. This wasn't something Ayeka had planned on, it just happened this way for her colored face was meant to distract people's attention away from how pale, fragile, her body looked just as the contact lenses were used to cover how unusually red her eyes looked sometimes.

Making a last check of her appearance, Ayeka stopped herself from heading back to the ball as her eyes drifted to the glass entrance to her most treasured spot on Jurai. With little regret she turned her back on the hot festivities and walked out into her garden. The cool air of early winter cleared the remaining vestiges of her nausea as her steps took her further into the pleasant darkness and it wasn't long before the path took her to the crowning touch of her garden, the fountain showing Tsunami blessing the union of Horosha and Washi.

Standing before the marble beauty, Ayeka's heart felt the homesickness she had been experiencing since arriving on Jurai three weeks ago. 'I hope okasama and Funaho-okasama will soon arrive from their visit with Sasami and the others,' the purple-haired princess thought, 'their company would help with my longing and I need to prepare okasama for my passing.' She could imagine how tearful Misaki would be and the warm comfort the queen would give her daughter. Seeing the blissful expressions on Horosha's and Washi's chiseled faces, Ayeka whispered softly, "At least I saw the love ongakukashu sing about."

It was at that moment, Ayeka heard the pickings of musical notes mixed with the splashing of water drops from the stone Tsunami's outstretched fingertips. The princess' ruby eyes scanned her surroundings but she couldn't find the source. On soft slippers she worked around the fountain's right side where she found the origins of the music, a seated man with head bent over as his hands slowly played a sixteen-string Juraijin lute. For unknown minutes, Ayeka watched the musician play a few notes, adjust the knobs of his lute's strings, play another series of cords, break off for some seconds of thinking before strumming another set. In the end the man's teeth gleam in the moonlight as he smiled in satisfaction and started to stand. With this clue Ayeka said, "I hope you play the final version of the song to me, it sounds beautiful."

The man pivoted in her direction to reveal a wide-eyed surprise on his face, a look that froze Ayeka's mirth in her throat because it was an exact copy Tenchi's bogeyed shock, then her mind locked on the shoulder-length black hair tied into a heavy braid and the warrior reflexes his turn showed. With barely audible sound, the purple-haired princess asked, "Oniisama?"

With automatic reaction the man pulled himself to a stiff stance, bowed deeply to her as he nervously said, "Domo arigato for the compliment, Ayeka-oujosama!"

Again Ayeka was shaken by the sameness of his voice to Tenchi's but her sharp eyes were already picking up differences between the man before her and her kin. He was at least two hands taller than Tenchi or Katsuhito and the light from Jurai's four moons showed his eyes were neither Jurain ruby red nor human dirt brown instead they were an emerald green. Smiling at her own foolish reaction, Ayeka said to the jittery man, "Do you know you look like my oniisama."

"Funaho-joosama has told me the same thing and Misaki-joosama said I was as squeezable as Yosho-ojosama," the man commented then rubbed his left hand over his ribs, "although I wonder if his ribs popped like mine did."

Ayeka let out a little laugh, which drew out the tension from the man's frame. At this point the princess realized she didn't know the name of the man, who was dress in a tan kimono with a dark red obi around his waist. So the princess asked, "So you are an ongakukashu, eh . . . "

"Ara, gomen nasai for my bad manners," the man grinned to hide his awkwardness, "I'm Kubiha Tatsu."

Ayeka's eyes widen slightly when she recognized the surname, as the one used by Grandmother Seto when she is in her space pirate's role, then she said while taking a few steps closer to get a better look at the man, "I thought I knew all of Seto-obasama's relatives."

"I . . . I just arrived at court a . . . a few days ago," Tatsu fumbled over his answer with sweat on his brow, "from my home on Ranma Twelve."

Ayeka's eyes went owl-size at the mention of one of the most famous pirate planets, located inside the Milky Way's core, amongst the blackholes, quasars and cosmic storms known as the Megami's Workshop. Now she knew why he looked like Yosho and Tenchi, he was a member of her grandmother's pirate family, the secret branch of the Royal Family of Jurai. With carefully chosen words Ayeka asked, "You are obasama's musuko?"

With a slow nod Tatsu added, "I'm Misaki-dono's ibokyodai."

"Okasama never mentioned she had an ibokyodai," Ayeka wondered aloud, now only a few steps away from Tatsu she saw how young he looked.

"Misaki-dono didn't find out about her kaizoku kin until after you and Sasami-oujosama left to find Yosho-ojosama," Tatsu informed his cousin with well-measured words, "In fact, I'm here because Azusa-dono asked Seto-okasama to send her kaizoku heir to him because there was a dynastic crisis at Jurai."

With fear soaked words Ayeka asked, "Did otousama tell you what the dynastic crisis was?"

"Iie and I've not asked Azusa-dono either," a weak smile upon Tatsu's face, "I don't want to draw anyone's attention because my legs are so thin here," Tatsu's smile became lopsided, "let me go after some renegade uchu kaizoku or search for a buried treasure, there I'm ace-of-aces, but here at the heart of Jurai, where words remove heads or give you power, I'm a fish-out-of-water."

Tatsu's modesty disarmed Ayeka's worries but then a question formed in her mind, so she put voice to it, "For being okasama's ibokyodai, you look no older than her. Do you have a Space Tree too?"

"Iie, I'm still youthful because my otousama's side of the family is very long lived," Ayeka heard pride in Tatsu's answer, "some even say they are immortal."

Finding Tatsu's words refreshingly honest Ayeka looked at the Juraijin lute that was strapped across his waist and asked, "I see one of your hobbies is music."

Ayeka was surprised when Tatsu's face blushed and he shyly answered, "Actually this is my profession."

"Nani?" Ayeka smiled at how much he reacted just like Tenchi.

"I'm kind of the black sheep of the family," Tatsu's face going even more scarlet, "I didn't want to go into either one of our kazoku's businesses, so I became a vagabond, earning a living playing my music and helping Seto-okasama from time to time."

"How good are you?" Ayeka was enjoying his embarrassment.

"I always thought I was good," Tatsu's words full of uncertainty, "would you . . . would you like to listen to one of my songs."

"I would like to hear the song you were working on when I found you," Ayeka decided to extend her company with this humble man.

"Dewa, ii ne," Tatsu answered as his left hand held the lute's neck while his right came to rest lightly on the strings over the instrument's cavity, then he continued, "although I shouldn't do it."

"Naze wa?" Ayeka was surprised that anyone on Jurai would say such a thing to her because most would jump at the chance to please her.

"Dewa . . . there's this wakai josei . . . I've been trying . . . to get the courage . . . to make her notice me," again Tatsu's cheeks went red.

"A wakai josei!" Ayeka grinned at how such a powerful looking man could go weak at the knees by his attraction to the fairer sex. The princess then asked, "How long have you known her."

"Not long . . . eh . . . actually I've known her for several months," Tatsu backtracked with fright when a questioning look touched Ayeka's features, "it's just she seems so distant from me, her world is filled with nobles and ladies-in-waiting while my world is occupied by murderers and women of loose morals."

Recognizing her uncle's situation as similar to the one she had with Tenchi, Ayeka said with friendly assurance, "If you don't sing your song to her, if you don't let her know how much you are attracted to her, how can you feel sorrow when she ignores you," then Ayeka's voice gained an edge of sadness, "or when he picks someone else to love."

It was then Ayeka's vertigo seized her body and her legs turn to jelly, only Tatsu's hands upon her shoulders stopped her fall and he asked with alarm, "Ayeka-san, doka shimashita ka? (Miss Ayeka, is anything wrong?)"

With cold sweat upon her forehead, Ayeka gave Tatsu a brittle smile before saying, "I must have drunk too much Carneia wine," Ayeka's ruby eyes looked toward the fountain before returning to Tatsu's concerned face, "let me sit on the fountain's edge and I'll listen to your song."

"Ii zo (Okay then)," Tatsu agreed, then he carefully guided Ayeka to her seat before taking a few steps away from her and returning his hands to their previous position. The rich notes were called forth from willful strings as the tune found a home in the slim lady's perfect ears. After the introduction was played, Tatsu's alto voice harmonized with the melody:

Now that she's back on her homeworld,

With drops of Startica in her hair.

She acts like summer and walks like rain,

Reminds me that there's time to change.

Since the return of her stay on another world

She listens like spring and she talks like moonlight.

Tell me, did you sail across the sun,

Did you make it to the Milky Way?

To see the lights all faded

And that heaven is overrated.

Tell me, did you fall for a shooting star

One without a permanent scar

And do you know how much I missed you

While you were looking for yourself out there.

Now that she's back from that soul vacation

Tracing her way through the constellation.

She checks out harmonics while she does niku-ki

Reminds me that there's room to grow.

Now that she's back on her homeworld

I'm afraid that she might think of me as plain old Jane.

Told a story about a man who was too afraid to love

So he never did learn to fly.

Tell me, did the wind sweep you off your feet.

Did you finally get the chance to dance along the light of day?

And head back to the Milky Way

And tell me, did Tsunami blow your mind

Was it everything you wanted to find?

And do you know how much I missed you

While you were looking for yourself out there.

Can you imagine no love, pride, duty?

Your best friend always sticking up for you

Even when I know, you're wrong.

Can you imagine no first dance, no first love romance, no stellar conversation?

The best ocha that you ever had and me.

Tell me, did the wind sweep you off your feet.

Did you finally get the chance to dance along the light of day?

And head back toward the Milky Way.

Tell me, did you fall for a shooting star

One without a permanent scar

And do you know how much I missed you

While you were looking for yourself.

When the music and words faded from the air Ayeka said with a heartfelt tone, "Subarashii, Tatsu-sama! (Magnificent, Lord Tatsu!)"

"I . . . I'm glad you like it, Ayeka-oujosama," Tatsu's words showing how much pleasure Ayeka's words gave him.

"It was very good!" Ayeka added with conviction.

"I really can't take full credit for it," the black-haired man admitted.

"Ara?" Ayeka was taken aback by tall man's confession.

"Honto, I changed a few words here and there but the song was created by a group on my homeworld," Tatsu explained.

Ayeka was truly enjoying what she considered a minor miracle. Here in the center of a galactic empire, where every noble strut and crowed his maleness to all the perfectly groomed ladies, within her own private island from all that arrogance there stood a man unafraid to show the inner workings of his heart to a perfect stranger. The purple-haired princess wanted to show her gratitude for his company but when she tried to stand, her body moved a few inches up before dropping back down, her spirit chilled by the knowledge her legs were as unsteady as a four-month-old babe's.

"Dewa, Ayeka-oujosama, I think we better head back in before our absence attracts people's eyes," Tatsu suggested as he slung his lute onto his back, took a few steps toward her and offered his right arm to the seated lady. Noting the man's words showed no knowledge of her plight, Ayeka saw his invitation, to walk back with her arm intertwined with his, as a chance for her to save face in front of this most unusual person. With a pose meant to disguise her weakness, Ayeka used to her left hand to take hold of the offered arm so she could pull herself up on quaking legs.

"You know I've never realized Jurai could look so beautiful," Tatsu causally commented.

"People have always thought our world would be like any other interstellar capital, all nature squeezed out by the humanoid masses but that is not true," Ayeka concentrated to keep her voice pleasant as she walked fearfully forward with the green-eyed man.

"I can see that," Tatsu's eyes scanning his surroundings with admiration, "a palace constructed from a living tree, the surrounding homes and buildings built the same way and beyond the forest city are fields of wild flowers, orchards of fruit trees and jungles teeming with untamed beasts."

Listening to Tatsu's words Ayeka started to notice something, instead of each of her steps taking the remaining strength from her legs, the shivering limbs slowly became steady and refreshed, furthermore the dizziness lurking on the edges of Ayeka's consciousness cleared. She was puzzled by this improvement but she put it down as a temporary event, tomorrow her physical deterioration would return. Then a new thought entered her mind, what would her parents think of her being so close to such a man as Tatsu, a man who didn't seek the status his noble blood gave him nor the power within the Pirate's Guild as Seto's son. This silent question also led her to another one, why had her father requested Seto to send her son, her love child, to him. Tatsu's illegitimate birth would render him unsupportable for most Jurain nobles as the Emperor's new heir, so other things would have to happen before he could become a legitimate contender. Tatsu told her he hadn't known the reason for his summons and she didn't want to spoil this moment, with some political question, for his mere physical closeness, his gentle spirit, seemed to stabilize her body.

When Ayeka and Tatsu reached the steps that would take them back into the palace's ballroom, three figures in regal splendor came out to meet them. Seeing Azusa, Misaki and Funaho, Tatsu let go of Ayeka's arm and placed some distance between them. Ayeka realized her body no longer needed the tall man's support but she found herself missing his gentle gallantry, yet this loss was quickly forgotten when Ayeka saw her mother and cried in a childish tone, "OKASAMA!"

"AYEKA-CHAN!" Misaki shouted in a mother's way as she dashed forward and used her very strong arms to scooped Ayeka up. With voice full of unshed tears, the blue-haired queen cried, "My AYEKA-CHAN, my OUJO-CHAN, I've MISSED you so much!"

If anyone else was in Misaki's embrace, their lungs would be lonely of air but with Ayeka or Sasami, a mother's tenderness they would receive and Ayeka did for several minutes. Then Misaki lifted her head from her daughter's left shoulder, looked carefully into her offspring's face before announcing, "Ayeka-chan, you look sick!" The queen's pause allowed Ayeka to sweat bullets at what she was sure was her mother's next words, "I'm taking you straight to bed!"

With a dramatic spin Misaki carried Ayeka up the steps like a mother would carry a sleepy child. Ayeka looked over her mother's left shoulder, silently pleading to Tatsu to get her out of this embarrassing predicament but the man responded with wide eyes and a shake of his head. The strong man's response produced a small smile on Ayeka face and a mental note, 'Tatsu was gallant and daring but not suicidal.' There was also something else Ayeka's ruby eyes saw before Misaki took the other three out of her sight, she viewed Funaho getting on her toes to kiss Tatsu's right cheek and for a moment her father's eyes lost their diamond-cutting stare.

As the two ladies reached Ayeka's apartment the purple-haired princess heard muffled gaffs coming from the two guards and she gave both of them a withering stare. Both guards gained a porker face but big grins appeared once Misaki closed the door behind her. Once inside Ayeka noticed her personal maids weren't around and so asked, "Okasama, where are Sakura-san and Lum-san?"

"Oi, they been assigned to help the Yosu ambassador," Misaki said absentmindedly as she went into Ayeka's bedroom and placed her daughter on a stool in front of a light blue, gold emboldened vanity.

"May I ask why?" her dressing table's mirror reflected Ayeka shock while her mother removed the bindings from her daughter's ponytails, allowing the silky purple hair to fall freely.

"Because they won't be necessary, Ayeka-chan," Misaki replied as she removed the bindings from her own sky blue hair.

"They won't be . . . " Ayeka stopped herself when the mirror in front of her showed the servant's unrolled futon near the foot of her bed, on top of the futon's deep green comforter was one of her mother's beautiful nova-colored nightgowns.

Seeing her daughter's line-of-sight, Misaki simple said as she picked up a seashell hairbrush, "I'm going to stay with you at night until you get all better."

Anguish stabbed into Ayeka's soul as she spun around, stood up and said with emotion choked words, "Okasama . . . I'm . . . not going . . . to get better . . . I'm . . . I'm dying."

As Ayeka broke into sobs her mother's gentle arms again held her daughter in a solid embrace and she spoke strong love in her child's right ear, "Your otousama told me but I won't accept it." Then with her own salty waters mixed with her daughter's, the blue-haired queen added, "If the colors are drained from your eyes I will be here to read for you, if your body loose its strength I will be here to wash it for you and if your hands cannot put food to your lips I will be here to feed you, until Tsunami-megami comes for you."

After a good cry Ayeka looked up into her mother's own wet cheeked face, who said cheerfully, "Ima, why don't I finish brushing your hair and put it up while you clean your face, then you can do my hair before we go to bed, ne?"

"Ee," Ayeka answered with renewed spirit.

**********

Chapter Three: Gotta Serve Somebody

Ayeka's apartment

Ayeka woke up in better spirits than the previous three nights. She was even able to eat some steamed rice, pickled plums and miso soup with her mother at the marble table in the ruby-eyed princess' antechamber. As they finished the meal, a guard opened the door and Funaho entered with a package under her right arm. Ayeka saw a phantom of concern pass over her stepmother's face before being replaced with a friendly smile.

"Oneesan, how was your morning so far?" Ayeka smiled when she heard the passionate love for Funaho in her mother's tone.

"Busy as usual, Oneesan," unlike the Misaki's declaration Funaho's words showed a more quiet love for Ayeka's mother. Then the black-haired queen looked at Ayeka and asked politely, "Ayeka-dono, I was wondering if you can help me with something?"

"I'm always at your disposal, Funaho-okasama," Ayeka answered with conviction.

"Ayeka-chan, do you think that wise," Misaki's words full of a mother's worry.

"Hai, okasama, I want to help for as long as I'm able to," Ayeka assured while she took hold of Misaki's hands.

"Oujo-chan, you are so brave!" Misaki's quick arms embraced her daughter in a tender hug. Usually the blue-haired queen's extreme response would embarrass the slim princess but now the feeling of strong arms around her shoulders, the scent of her mother's perfume, lifted her spirits.

Warmed by Ayeka's positive response, Funaho walked over and sat in an unoccupied chair next to Misaki. While Misaki continued her embrace, the older queen in her canary-yellow Jurain kimono said, "An emergency has come up demanding both mine and Misaki-san's . . . eh . . . Misaki-chan's attention," Funaho quickly changed when her beloved gave her a glare, "So I was hoping you would handle the Fukuju for us."

Ayeka eyes went wide at the honor and responsibility her stepmother was offering her while Misaki beamed with pride. The Fukuju was the Jurain ceremony of submission and obeisance. Three weeks before Startica, the ritual would be held in the palace's shrine. Before Goddess Tsunami's altar the Emperor and one of the Empresses or a male and female representative of the Royal Family would accept the submission and obeisance of the head of each noble family within Jurai's territory. By remembering the significance of what Funaho was asking her to do, Ayeka's vision locked on the package her stepmother had brought in and said, "Is that what I think it is?"

"Hai, it is the joosama's garments and her symbol of authority for the ritual," Funaho asked simply.

"How long before the ceremony?" Ayeka's tone full of barely contained excitement.

Taking Ayeka's enthusiasm as a sign of acceptance, Funaho replied, "We still have a couple of hours."

"Ayeka-chan, let us go back into your bedroom and get you ready," Misaki cheerfully suggested as she finally let go of her daughter.

"Hai!" Ayeka couldn't stop her bubbling joy from coming out of her voice. With her mothers on each side of her, the three noblewomen passed into the princess' bedroom where the purple-haired princess sat before her vanity.

"So how should I do my face?" Ayeka's spirit dipped a little from worry that she might desecrate the ceremony with her necessary disguise.

"Don't worry, Ayeka-dono," Funaho's brown eyes full of support, "I think your makeup will add a certain amount of gravity that has been missing from the ceremony in the last thousand years."

"Besides Ayeka-chan, you're a fashion statement to many of the freethinking women of Jurai," Misaki proclaimed before changing into a more practical tone, "her lips need to remain red."

"Honto, but I was thinking a sunflower yellow band across the eyes, upper nose and cheekbone," Funaho critically suggested.

Warming to the idea Ayeka said, "Ee! With my eyes lined in black instead of blue."

"With her face, neck and upper chest powdered in white instead of pink so it will offset the garment's black," Misaki added.

"Un!" Ayeka brightly said while picking up her lipstick.

After Ayeka's face was readied Funaho carefully unwrapped the package, this action brought a little squeal of excitement from Ayeka's red lips as her ruby sight saw the shinny garments and her right hand instinctively touched the queen's symbol of authority.

"Oi, my oujo-chan is becoming so grown up!" Misaki said with tears of joy as she did a double hug of Ayeka and Funaho, being careful not to rub off any of Ayeka's makeup.

**********

The hall to the Transporter Pad

Jiyu stifled a yawn as his fellow guard, Wakako, gave him a smirk. Guard duty at the transporter room covering the Space Trees complex was usually a boring assignment. Sometimes one of the members of the Royal Family would use the transporter pad but most of the time it was assembly of technicians, engineers and scientists that took care of the unbonded sentient trees and built the ships for the bonded ones, only when a major ceremony was going to take place did things liven up here. Today was Fukuju and it was the reason why both guards were in their light blue and white dressed uniforms. It was also why the tiny communication device in Wakoko's right ear told her of the arrival of the nobles at the other transporter pad and their delivery to the chamber. The six-foot-three-inch tall woman guard had already reported that the male representative of the Royal Family was waiting, within the transporter room, for the female representative to join him. It was then she saw Jiyu suddenly snap to attention, Wakoko joined him when her one empty ear caught the echoing sound of boots. It was only a few minutes before a threesome appeared in the two guards' vision, a woman with two female guards flanking her.

With every booted step, the feel of the tight garments over her body and the weight of the symbol of the queen's authority on her right hip, Ayeka felt the fear of her weakness melt away from her consciousness. She knew the symbolic importance of Fukuju since she was a child, she knew the proper words and the conduct the female representative must do during the ceremony but now her spirit was lifted by emotions words could barely describe, unrestrained freedom and sexual empowerment. Ayeka now fully understood what Queen Akane did when she established this ritual, it was to declare the Jurain Queen's dominance over her space pirate husband and his riff-raft underlings by the only means they would understand, violent naked power. This new enlightenment also gave Ayeka a new angle on why all major decisions by the Emperor were made with the queen's approval and why she always held the post of the Commander of the Royal Bodyguard, the Kishi Jurai. The queen's husband ruled by her authority and she protected this covenant with her life, an authority and duty now shared by her mother and her stepmother.

As Ayeka neared the transporter room's twin doors, she couldn't stop a little smile from playing across her lips when she saw the physical response her presence stimulated in the two posted guards. The princess remembered the first time she saw an Earth woman wearing a suit similar to the one she was wearing, she and the rest of the family was watching a British entertainment program called the Avengers. About halfway through the episode the female lead appeared in all her glory and only her quick hands prevented Sasami's pink eyes from seeing such a demonstration of feminine mastery. In Kurashiki, the slim princess would be shocked by the sight of girls barely into womanhood walking by in leathery miniskirts, knee-high boots and tiny shinny bras. The straw that broken the camel's back occurred when Ryoko appeared one day in a female punk rocker suit with silvery chains that hang from her wrists to the chain belt around her waist. In indignation the slim lady marched up to uchu kaizoku and told the cyan-haired woman in barely controlled words, that while she could understand the allure of showing one's dominance, the appeal of the sexual openness of the young Earth women, for Ayeka's peace-of-mind and the need for ladylike behavior to be demonstrated by someone Sasami looks up to, could Ryoko not wear the leather clothing in front of the littlest princess and certainly not with chains. With a strained voice she ended by using one of Grandmother Seto's favorite Jurain idioms, "a lady uses chains she does not wear them." Surprised by how important this was to Ayeka, Ryoko had mutely agreed but later the princess found out that the ample lady asked Katsuhito about Jurain use of leather and chains. After Sasami was in bed, Ryoko transformed into her punk rocker suit without the chains. While the shinny clothes didn't increase Tenchi's uneasiness beyond the level it usually reached when Ryoko teased him, it did produce a mixed response from Ayeka, she felt both inferior and proud. Inferior that she wasn't brassy enough to show her womanhood like Ryoko but proud that a member of her sex did.

When Ayeka came to a stop, the swirl of her full-body red cloak allowed tantalizing peeks at her wardrobe, even with the gold buttons keeping the cloak closed. Dry was Jiyu's mouth at the sight of the princess' feral makeup but he went absolutely stiff all over at the sight of the boots' spiked heels. In contrast to her partner's response, Wakoko's red eyes burned with superiority over all males when she caught a sight of the coil of seasoned leather attached to the purple-haired princess' two-inch wide belt. With one shaking hand and one steely hand, the two guards opened the doors for her highness and her honor guard.

Walking into the room, Ayeka was prepared to meet Azusa and give him the proper greeting as required between a noble father and his noble daughter. What her sight granted her, causing her stride to falter, was the figure of Kubiha Tatsu. But there was more because upon his left shoulder was a mon but not the one used by the Kubiha, it was one used by the Kamiki.

With some chagrin upon his lips, Tatsu stepped up to Ayeka, gave a proper bow and said, "Konnichiwa, Ayeka-oujosama."

"Konnichiwa, Tatsu-sama," Ayeka returned with a bow before a questioning look appeared on her face.

Tatsu held up his red gloved hands with palms up while saying, "I had absolutely no knowledge last night I was going be doing the Fukuju with you or I would be wearing the mon of one of the official branches of the Oken Kazoku Jurai."

Not certain she could blindly accept his explanation Ayeka turned a critical eye upon the person, who was now her partner in this ceremony. From head to foot it looked like someone had grabbed a rainbow out of the sky and stitched it upon him, a light blue shirt, pale red pants with gold trim, a bright yellow vest with pea green armlets, creamy brown boots, an obi of blazing orange and finally a multicolored scarf tied around his head. Noting the princess scrutiny Tatsu slowly did a three-sixty turn while good-naturedly asking, "How do I look?"

Remembering Tatsu's background Ayeka replied, "You look like an uchu kaizoku kunshu (a space pirate lord) of twenty-thousand-years ago."

"Domo arigato, Ayeka-oujosama," Tatsu gave a toothy smile as he replied to Ayeka's compliment.

"And how do I look?" Ayeka used the words to hide the way the man's smile made her heart beat a little faster, like Tenchi's always did.

"Like a tora-onna (tigress) ready to protect her children," Ayeka makeup was the only thing preventing the colorful man from seeing the princess' bluish but his last words left her speechless, "and you would only need to command me and I would fight beside you."

A moment of silence passed before Ayeka could ask, "What about the wakai josei you were trying to gain favor with?"

"The wakai josei liked the song when I sang it to her but her attention left me as soon as something new came along," a note of sad finality in the tall man's words.

Stepping close to the man, Ayeka's black-gloved right hand come out from under the cloak and touched the raven-haired man's left arm before saying, "Such a flower as you will be picked by a kirei onna na (beautiful girl)," then astonishment hit Ayeka at how forward she was once again to a person she had just met last night. Ayeka quickly recognized the cause of her attraction to Tatsu and admonished herself mentally, 'it not fair to him for me to impose my longings for Tenchi-sama upon him,' then the shameful lady said as she dropped her hand back underneath the cloak, "Forgive my audacity, my eyes grow dizzy by how much you remind me of someone I care very much for."

With gentleness Tatsu said, "You worry needlessly, Ayeka-oujosama, being a love child and a wanderer has taught me tolerance of others' anguish."

Finding her apology accepted Ayeka allowed herself a smile as she countered, "But this is not true anymore ne?"

Tatsu rolled his emerald eyes upward while shaking his head, then he focused on Ayeka before saying, "You remember I told you about a dynastic crisis," Ayeka nodded, "Dewa, Seto-okasama and Utsumi-sama used your celebration ball to announce that since Misaki-neechan was now of the Masaki-zoku, they were going to adopt me as their heir, acknowledging me as Seto-okasama's musuko and Utsumi-sama's heir."

Ayeka couldn't stop herself from giggling at discovering someone else had become a victim of one of Seto's careful set traps. Hearing the princess' levity only spurred Tatsu to finish his story, "Then this morning, Azusa-dono dropped in at my new apartment in the palace to 'ask' me if I would do the Fukuju for him because a galactic emergency precluded him from taking part in the ceremony," the tall man made sure Ayeka realized that her father had used a tone that meant his asking was a command.

Trying to keep a straight face Ayeka said, "You could always sneak away."

"And have Seto-okasama drag me back, kya iie zo (oh no!)!" but Tatsu's fearful tone was quickly replaced with a one of stoicism, "Besides I'm a Kamiki now and such a cowardly act would bring shame upon my new kazoku."

Taking a couple of backward steps, Ayeka gave Tatsu a deep bow before saying with proper syntax but keeping a smile upon her lips, "Then as your meigosan (niece), Masaki Ayeka Jurai, let me welcome you into the Oken Kazoku Jurai, Kamiki Tatsu Jurai."

"Again Domo arigato, Ayeka-oujosama," Tatsu returned the bow but made sure his wasn't as deep as hers.

"Iie, do not address me with that honorific," Ayeka corrected in a tone she would reserve for a child, "now that we are of equal rank, you may address me as simply Ayeka just as I will call Tatsu."

"Just as long as you don't address me as ojisama (uncle)," Tatsu cheerfully added, "I don't want to feel that old na!"

Just then one of the guards cleared her throat. When the two nobles looked at her, she said, "It's almost time."

New concern entered Ayeka's ruby eyes and she asked, "Tatsu-sama, do you know what to do?"

"Your otousama told me to follow your lead and to do whatever you tell to do," Tatsu calmly answered.

Again marveling at how a man of his heritage would trust her unquestionably, Ayeka closed her eyes so she could cleanse her mind of these thoughts, allowing her training to take over. When her ruby orbs opened again Tatsu saw a regal coolness in them as her vision moved from him to one of the guards. With steely words the princess said, "Michiyo-sama, bring me the bag."

"Hai!" Michiyo's sharp reply alerted Tatsu that the ceremony had begun. With dramatic steps the female guard approached them while removing a medium-sized black bag from underneath her white obi. Carefully the woman opened the bag and held it open with both hands at waist level. With her right hand, Ayeka reached into the bag but the sound of jiggling metal reached Tatsu's ears before his sight showed him the overflowing silvery chain in hand of the woman cloaked in blood. Without missing a beat Ayeka faced Tatsu and said with harsh words "Ima kaizoku kuzu (Now pirate scum!)! Raise your hands and receive my bindings!"

Hesitating due to his surprise at Ayeka's words, Tatsu held his arms out to her at chest level with palms down. With supreme poise Ayeka used her left hand to unbutton the cloak's lower buttons so she could more easily use both hands with the metallic links. As the princess lifted the links above the man's outstretched hands and paused over his wrists, she glanced at his face and found his green eyes wide with awe but the chains did not cause his orbs to move from down to up, it was her black-encased body. At first Ayeka was rocked by how much his look was like the one Tenchi gave her when Ryoko had unveiled the princess' body at the onsen so many months ago. Yet underneath this remembrance she couldn't stop herself from relishing in the way Tatsu's intense gaze saw how her black boots smoothly covered her legs all the way up to the middle of her thighs, how a space between her boots and her leather panties revealed her creamy white flesh, how her gloves ended just above the elbows and the center piece revealed every bit of her athletic body before ending just under her all-purpose leather bra, not one that cheapened her womanhood but enhanced it. But even further down in Ayeka's soul, another feeling came floating up to the surface of her mind so she put soft whispered words to it while she gently wrapped the light chain around Tatsu's wrists then around the segment between them so the princess could hold both ends in her right hand, "Tatsu-sama, understand what I'm about to do is part of the core of our traditions, a part of the foundations of the Oken Kazoku Jurai. Some of the things I will do will be caused by the newness of you to our most secret practices and I wouldn't have to do them if otousama was here instead of you, in a way this is your initiation."

The worry in Ayeka's barely audible words brought comprehension to Tatsu's face and he gave her a slight nod of acceptance. Quickly the princess hardened her heart and brought a scalpel into her voice once again, "Kimi! Mekake (You! Concubine)! We go to meet what is left of your uchu kaizoku crew!"

With a commanding bearing Ayeka made her way to the transporter pad with Tatsu trailing her but she felt no tautness to the link of chain between her and Seto's son. This knowledge called up a new feeling from the very roots of her soul for this raven-haired man, fondness. Not because he looked like Yosho, not because he sounded or sometimes acted like Tenchi, it was because of his mix of admiration for her womanhood and his blind trust in her judgement.

When Ayeka, Tatsu and the four guards boarded the transporter pad, the pad's surface lit up and the six disappeared only to appear in a room of a much different appearance. Unlike the reassuring feeling of the living wood of the Jurain palace, Tenjyu, the inner chamber was made of crudely cut granite with a white marble altar in front of the transporter pad and an even large room before it. Ayeka knew this temple to Tsunami was located underneath Tenjyu's roots as she also knew it was the place where fearful people had sacrificed their first born to the creator of the Space Trees before Tsunami's avatar came to teach them the true nature of the goddess. Thanks to the memorial to Horosha and Washi, the purple-haired princess knew this was also where Queen Akane hatched her plot to bring the space pirates, who attacked and captured Jurai, under Tsunami's command.

The honor guard moved forward first to take up preselected positions around the carved stone before Ayeka and Tatsu came forward. As the two came around the white object, both saw a room filled with a sea of multicolored clothed men and women, each was a descendant of the original space pirates that had married Jurain women to form the first noble families of Jurai. Like Ayeka, they were trained from birth to become the heads of their family clan either by consent, misfortune or death, a part of those lessons was the Fukuju. Depending on gender the lesson was taught differently but the results were the same, submission and obeisance.

Three feet in front of the altar Ayeka stopped and with her hands behind her back, she switched the chain to her left hand and with a dramatic tug brought the green-eyed man to stand on that side of her. The purple-haired princess' heart was racing but she kept the mask of icy arrogance upon her face as she jerked the chain down and crudely said, "Mekake! On your knees!"

Tatsu dropped to his knees like a well-trained dog performs a trick and kept his face staring straight ahead. With words repeated by every queen since Akane first said them, Ayeka voice ringed with pride, "You thought when you killed our men, when you treated us as slaves and Tsunami-megami's offspring as tools that nothing would hinder your status as masters of Jurai but THAT WASN'T TRUE!" Ayeka turned to her left so her right hand could grab a clump of Tatsu's black hair. She yanked his head back and her vision saw a questioning look in the man's face. She looked back at the people and venomous words came from the princess' raging lips, "Now those who MURDERED my oneesans are DEAD and those who made US into MEKAKES are now OUR MEKAKES!" Ayeka's head came down and her lips mashed hard against Tatsu's lips, giving him a brutal kiss that had no love in it. When Ayeka's lips parted from Tatsu's, with her sight she saw her lipstick smeared upon his ravished lips, the princess soundlessly mouthed a single word he could only see, "Gomen." Ayeka saw understanding in Tatsu's eyes but then he did something that surprised her, he slowly licked his lips.

With speed Ayeka buried her startlement back under the ceremonial mask, releasing Tatsu's hair so she could turn to face the crowd and she said with triumphant tone, "Those ships you put Tsunami-megami's offspring on are now under the command of their bondmates, the crew you put on them to hold the bondmates hostage have returned to the slime they came from. With Tsunami-megami's aid," Ayeka voice reached a thunderous level, "THE PEOPLE OF JURAI ARE FREE!"

There was no cheering from the crowd, no sound of applause from them for they represented not the winners but the losers in this coup d'état. Then Ayeka's right hand pulled her cloak to her left shoulder so only her head was visible above a field of blood before she said with icy certainty, "You few have survived this retribution because you didn't abuse my people or rape your wives but you still must choose. Come up here to submit and obey my will, the will of Tsunami, or feed the altar behind me with your beating hearts."

There was a ripple of hesitancy in the crowd before the oldest of the new clan leaders, Ito Junco, stepped forward as required by the rite. Up the steps to the altar platform did the man go while Ayeka threw back her cloak with her right hand so the fullness of her leathery maidenhood was revealed. A slight widening of Ito's eyes was his only reaction to Ayeka's wear and the coiled whip on her right hip, such was his self-control. Without a pause the nobleman knelt on his hands and knees in front of the Ayeka while she moved her right foot forward. With perfect timing the sea green-haired man kissed the toe of the princess' boot, then he stood up and presented her with the representation of his office, his craved lightsabre hilt. Ayeka gave a shake of her head before coldly saying, "Place it before my mekake, he is still your buchou."

Without a visible response Ito purposely stepped over to Tatsu, went to one knee, carefully placed the hilt on the floor in front of the chained man, stood up and walked down the steps. The next person to come was the oldest noblewoman amongst them, Hagio Moto, as required by the ritual. Although dressed like the noblemen, the noblewomen followed a different course for instead of prostrating themselves before Ayeka, Hagio's face bloomed a smile just before she shared a hug with the princess and both gave the other a kiss upon the right cheek. Unlike the men who gave submission and obeisance at Fukuju, the noblewomen of Jurai gave one more thing to the queen of Jurai or her female representative, their gratitude. Before stepping back down Hagio placed her wooden hilt next to Ito's.

So the procession of the Jurain nobles proceeded, with each performing the functions required of them by custom and tradition of their culture, until the point came when Yoshida Akimi came. Ayeka was barely able to keep the joy then the sorrow from her face when her ruby orbs caught sight of her childhood friend. Ayeka had avoided Akimi and any of her friends of seven-hundred-years-ago because she feared they knew her too well. Ayeka was afraid they could penetrate her mask of false health and cheer, and the princess didn't want that, she only wanted to die in peace and in privacy without pity, without feeling the languishing pain of others around her. She knew her mother and her father and Funaho wouldn't pity her or cry needlessly over her death but she was very certain others could not, like Akimi, the only boy her father allowed to be her close friend.

Now here was Akimi standing before her, no longer a boy with big black eyes and long coppery hair, he was now a man of many centuries with a head of razor short hair but it was his eyes that confused Ayeka for she found no kindness in them, they were rock hard. He bent his legs, bowed his back to kiss her boot but his frame snapped up with unreleased kinetic force and then he did an unspeakable act, he threw his sword hilt at Tatsu, causing the man's head to lurch left when the object bounced off his face to land with clatter on the cold granite floor. Ayeka stood in shock as Akimi just looked at her with fury then beamed a contemptuous look at Tatsu before he spun one-eighty and started down the steps.

Ayeka's face changed from astonishment to recognition to eye-twitching anger before her hair-trigger rage went off. Those closest to the platform saw the black tip of the whip touch the floor noiselessly before in a fluid motion, the princess cranked her right arm back, then her left leg stride forward as she cracked the forked tongue whip toward the departing man. Every person close enough could see Akimi's face go bloodless as the black leather wrapped around his neck and a strong pull sent him crashing backwards on the gray steps. With a little looseness Ayeka released the noble's neck but in the same motion she sent the black leather snaking out again, leaving Akimi's right earlobe a gory mess to match the red burn on his neck. Again and again the serpent torn through Akimi's clothing, skin and flesh as he twist and duck in agony with no one daring to move to help him.

In the midst of Ayeka's rage, her sickness came. First it was the slight cough producing a coppery taste in her mouth just before she felt the edges of her consciousness go fuzzy, breaking her rage. Even with the borders of her sight dissolving into darkness, Ayeka couldn't stop the whip from bringing suffering, she knew in her dimming mind that Akimi must be forced to correct his behavior, only Akimi could stop the whip. With another cough Ayeka felt flecks of moisture upon her lower lip and the feeling in her legs disappear. As the last part of Ayeka's sight blurred and her right arm became unmovable, her left hand felt something take hold and firmly squeezed it. Suddenly the darkness, that threatened to overwhelm Ayeka's being, loosened its hold and in less than a minute all but the fuzzy feeling disappeared, it was like fresh air reaching a drowning man. Looking down Ayeka's sight brought a sigh of relief from her for Akimi was in humble prostration before Tatsu but it was another part of that view that brought surprise to her mind, Tatsu's right hand held her left hand.

**********

Palace Hospital

Ayeka stood alone before the tank of thick water-like substance that kept Akimi's body weightless while its healing properties closed wounds, repair damaged organs and suppressed pain. The princess still wore the leathery garment but she kept it well hidden under the buttoned red cloak. With some anguish the princess picked up a mike, pressed a button and said with unsteady voice, "Akimi-sama, can . . . can you hear me?"

A headset upon Akimi's head brought oxygen and communication to the man so a ragged voice came into the headphones covering Ayeka's ears, "H . . . Hai."

"Akimi-sama, why did you do it?" a need for understanding in Ayeka's voice, "In Tsunami-megami's jinja, in a ceremony to the will of Oken Kazoku Jurai, you knew I would have to punish you for such an forbidden act."

Instead of answering Ayeka's question, Akimi's tortured voice asked, "Why did you turn away from us?"

"Nani?" startlement in Ayeka's counter.

"Did we do something to anger you?" heartbroken tone in Akimi's words.

"Iie . . . iie you nor the others have done nothing to displease me," Ayeka answered truthfully before sadly adding, "until now."

"Then why did you avoid us?" Akimi voice gained a desperate tone.

"Because . . . because I have changed and I didn't want you or the others to see I wasn't the person you once knew," Ayeka hoped this answer would satisfy Akimi.

"What shame did that imo (hick) inflect upon you?" anger made its entrance in Akimi's words.

"Nani?" Ayeka's reply full of confusion.

"What did that ketsu-nuke jan do to you that makes you hide from us, your friends?" demanded Akimi.

"What happened to me wasn't caused by Tenchi-sama," Ayeka own anger touched her words but she firmly suppressed it before she continued, "It is just that I'm no longer the person you or the others remembered. The seven-hundred-years of searching for my oniisama have made me a stranger in a world I can function in but I'm not a part of."

"Is that why he was there when you did the Fukuju?" Akimi's tone showed he was trying to understand what Ayeka told him, "To give you someone you can be a part of?"

Finally realizing the mistake Akimi was making, Ayeka put a frustrated but sympathetic tone to her answer, "Kya Akimi-sama, the person you saw next to me wasn't Tenchi-sama."

"It wasn't?" confusion in Akimi's words, "But his face, the way he looked at you, like you were his and only his."

"You made a simple mistake much like the one I made when I first saw him," Ayeka gently rebuked her friend, "the man you saw was Seto-obasama's musuko, Kubiha Tatsu, who was adopted by Utsumi-ojiisama as his own musuko and heir," Ayeka clarified.

"Kubiha Tatsu? . . . But . . . but  . . . " the rest of Akimi's reply was drowned out when a female voice thundered into the regeneration room from the entrance, "AYEKA-CHAN! Are you ii ne?"

Ayeka barely had time to remove the headphones from her head and turn around before Misaki's strong arms tenderly enclosed over her daughter's body. Funaho took the electrical device from Ayeka's pinned right hand as the princess' said with an embarrassed sigh, "Okasama, I feel fine."

Misaki's ruby eyes looked deeply into Ayeka's with a mother's concern before Funaho suggested, "Ayeka-chan, since we're here why don't we have Kessho-isha (Doctor Kessho) check you just in case."

Knowing this was the only way to calm her mother's fears, Ayeka gave in, "ii wa."

Dr. Kessho has been the Royal Physician for the ruling family for as long as Ayeka could remember, his shoulder-length white hair and a face of endless wrinkles were always there when she was sick or when she got hurt doing kiddy things. When the three women entered his examination room, the ancient man asked, "Misaki-sama, Funaho-sama, could you wait outside na?"

"Oh course, Kessho-sensei," a touch of humor in Funaho's words at the gruffness of the doctor's words but then Misaki nervously asked as she stood protectively in front of Ayeka, "Can't I stay?"

"I prefer the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship but if I must make allowances for mother hens then I must," Ayeka was surprised by Kessho's answer but then she saw him move over to the instrument table before he asked, "Misaki-chan, I believe you haven't had your Iteza Flu shot yet na?"

A secret smile flashed across Ayeka's face when she heard Dr. Kessho addressed her mother as a child and she had to bite her lip when nervous sweat drops appeared on Misaki's forehead as the doctor picked up with his right hand an oversized syringe with a very long hypodermic needle. With the medical instrument the long-haired man walked to the refrigeration unit and retrieved a small bottle from it. As the doctor inserted the needle into the rubber top and pulled the syringe's plunger back, he asked, "Now roll up your sleeve, Misaki-chan."

"I . . . I think I'll wait outside," Misaki's words full of fright, "Ayeka-chan is a big girl!" Without waiting to be excused, the blue-haired queen turned and fled out the door.

Kessho let out an explosive laugh, Ayeka's face broke out in a full grin and Funaho commented with amusement, "Every since oneesan was ten-years-old, she's been afraid of needles because she hugged a porcupine when we visited my homeworld to show my first born to my ryoshin."

"I really hated to do that to Misaki-sama," Kessho's tone suggested otherwise, "but I need privacy with my patient."

"If that's the case," Funaho easily catching the hint, "do you have a spare examination room where oneesan and I could wait in?"

"Hai, room 10000," Kessho gave Funaho a knowing look.

"Gu, the way oneesan's nerves are in, it would help soothe her if I give her manzuri (ten-thousand-rubs)," Funaho explained calmly before exiting the room to join Misaki, Ayeka knew what Funaho meant and she noted Kessho didn't bat an eye when the black-haired queen acknowledged the doctor's suggestion.

"Dewa Ayeka-dono, why don't you take the cloak off and lay down on the examination table," Kessho ordered. When Ayeka removed her cloak, the lifting of his right eyebrow was his only reaction at what Ayeka was wearing and the whip still attached to her belt but he did comment while she gracefully lay on the table, "You know some of my patients would have heart attacks, if they saw the Saishono Oujosama Jurai in such erotic garments and only a yancha otto (a naughty husband) should view such an instrument of authority."

"I was performing the Fukuju when . . . a friend was injured there," explained Ayeka with a look of shame on her face.

"Was it proper and correct na?" Kessho asked as he pushed buttons on the table's command keyboard.

"Hai but I still feel guilty," Ayeka sadly replied.

"Gu," Kessho returned, then added when Ayeka looked up askance, "Even when someone does something according to Juraijin traditions, an honorable person will feel regret if the act causes suffering."

Ayeka smiled at Kessho's uplifting words and softly said, "Domo arigato."

"No reason for such misplaced kindness, ojosan," Kessho downplayed Ayeka's appreciation as he examined the table's monitor, "I'm just some old sawbones."

"I still hold dear your thoughtfulness," Ayeka countered.

"Did you have an attack during the Fukuju?" Kessho changed the subject.

"Ee," Ayeka concentrated on the preceding events, "my vision narrowed and blurred, my limbs nerveless and my mind dazed, I feared I was going to faint."

"Did you?" Kessho asked as he adjusted a knob on the command keyboard.

"Iie, it slowly cleared," Ayeka replied then added with a confused tone, "Strangely I felt refreshed afterwards. The only reason I came here was to find out why Akimi-sama did what he did. It was okasama and Funaho-okasama that insisted I see you."

"Interesting," Kessho remarked as he studied the information on the table's monitor, "although there is new scar tissue on the polyps in your lungs, the decline of your bodily functions has stabilized."

"You mean my ki is regenerating?" surprise in Ayeka's voice.

"Iie, at the level your ki is at, its metaphysical energies can neither regenerate nor maintain your physical existence."

A look of confusion filled Ayeka's ruby eyes, "But you just said my body has stopped declining."

"Tadshii," Kessho nodded his white-haired head, "yet there's no evidence why the deterioration has ceased and there's no reason to believe it won't start again."

"So I have been given some borrowed time," Ayeka suggested with wonder.

"If I believed in miracles I would say a kami has taken an interest in you," Kessho said but not with much belief.

"You believe in Tsunami-megami?" Ayeka countered playfully.

"Tsunami-sama is a manifestation of something greater than man's mystic search for divine ryoshin, who punish the bad and confront the good," Kessho answered roughly before calming down and adding, "She came to us in our clay huts, merged with a simple tree and gave the people of Jurai a chance for greatness."

"So for you, Tsunami-megami is a physical being and not a megami?" carefully questioned Ayeka.

"It's all my scientific mind will accept," Kessho replied honestly.

"Dewa, do you think I should stay the night?" Ayeka's question returned to why she was here.

"Iie, you can resume your normal routine as Saishono Oujosama Jurai." Then a note of friendship entered Kessho voice, "Just don't exert your body too much, ojosan."

Ayeka got off the table, both bowed to the other and then she turned to head out while putting her cloak back on. Just as the princess reached the door, the doctor said with a drop of mirth, "Remember to knock on the door of the room where Misaki-sama and Funaho-sama are waiting."

Ayeka gave the physician a knowing look before saying with false haughtiness, "Kya, Kessho-sensei! It would be improper for me to enter a room without knocking first, especially a room where my okasama and Funaho-okasama are together, 'alone'. I haven't done that since I was Sasami's age."

**********

Chapter Four: The Story in Your Eyes

Ayeka's Apartment

Ayeka walked toward the entrance to her garden at a relaxed pace. She had woke from a peaceful night sleep with a determined thought in her mind, she had to find her old friends and let them know she hadn't forgotten them. After helping her daughter to dress and put on her makeup, Misaki had to leave because of a call from Funaho, so Ayeka ended up eating a light breakfast alone with her thoughts. So far the only unusual happening was her mother's selection for Ayeka to wear today, an Otomeza styled one piece blue suit with images of golden poppies flowing down the billowing leggings, allowing a hint of the wearer's femininity to appear around the waist. Ayeka started to object to the clothing being too informal for the court but this was effectively shot down when Misaki told her of her parents' decision that today was Ayeka's day off. Knowing defeat Ayeka put the cloths on but now, as she put down her teacup, she smiled at her remembrance of the way her mother's face glowed with a look the princess recognized as the cat-who-ate-the-carney. Without the many layers of cloth that was normal for a Jurain kimono, Ayeka couldn't help feeling a little naughty yet she knew both her mothers were loving the way her makeup, clothing and non-Jurain attitudes were shaking up the conservative elements of Jurain society. Her mothers' cat-and-mouse game could cause Ayeka's quest, to reestablish her ties with old friends, to become part of the palace's rumor mill. This was something Ayeka didn't want for it could reveal her deception but the only way to avoid notice was for the princess to go to her stepmother, Funaho, since she was the Inspector General of Information.

'I hope Funaho-okasama does not find my request so trivial that it shows disrespect for her office,' Ayeka's ruby eyes reflected the worry in her soundless words.

With a few well-placed questions the guards informed Ayeka that Funaho was with Misaki, in Ayeka's garden. To find her mothers were in her garden, left the purple-haired princess puzzled but at the time she only put it down as coincidence, since both queens had the means to communicate their commands to their staffs without having to be in an office or the throne room. Ayeka could remember the times Sasami and she would be playing with Misaki or Funaho, when either one of them would touch a small button on their collar to say something to someone or the comb in their hair would glow bluish-white for a minute or two before they would continue the play.

Passing through the garden's entrance, Ayeka was barely able to see a pair of heads, one blue and the other one black, just above the pink rose bushes. At a correct pace the princess followed the path to this part of the garden but as she rounded the corner and reached the other side of the sweetly smelling flowers, the slim lady's feet frozen to the ground as her wide eyes caught sight of a little girl with her mothers, a child with pink amethyst eyes full of sunshine.

Ayeka didn't know if she made any sound or her appearance had caught Funaho's eye, she was only able to perceive her stepmother's head turned in her direction, give her a happy smile before looking again at Ayeka's sister and saying, "Sasami-chan, I think someone you wanted to see has just arrived ne?"

The child, in an Earth styled pea green shirt and skirt with a pair of lemon yellow bows upon her arms, turned on bare feet to look in the direction Funaho indicated, then a whoop of joy lifted from her plain lips followed by a shout, "ONEESAMA!"

With speed only matched by Ryoko's flight, Sasami ran across the field with arms stretched out to her sister. Ayeka had already gone to bent knees without hesitation, she wanted so very much to hug a sister she hadn't been apart from for seven-hundred-years but now the sickness had kept them separated for the last five weeks. The little one was only a couple of feet away when Ayeka noticed how Sasami seemed be more real than the things around her but no time was left for the slim lady to react because as the child entered her sister's embrace, the blue-haired princess passed right through Ayeka's body. With bugged eyes Ayeka fell backward upon her rump with her mouth hanging open and arms still reaching out, then a child's voice filled her left ear with an English word, "Gotcha!"

Wordlessly Ayeka looked over her left shoulder at Sasami and saw how her sister's eyes reflected the mischievous nature of her soul. Anxiety gripped Ayeka's heart, over the unsuppressed energy making the child's body glow, until she looked questionably at her mothers and found them smiling and giggling at her concern. The mirth around her made the older princess realize the answer to the nature of her sister's gentle radiance, so she said with relief, "This is Tsunami's doing ne?"

"I asked Tsunami-megami if I could visit my okasama and Funaho-okasama and she said hai," Sasami's ear-to-ear grin matched the tone of her words.

Turning around to face Sasami, Ayeka asked, "So this is your astral body ne?"

"Ee," Sasami gave a quick nod.

"And your body?" Ayeka's curiosity found a home in her tone.

"My body is asleep in our room with Ryoko-neechan," the little wonder told her sister.

"Ryoko-san sleeps in our room with you," new confusion entered Ayeka's words, "but I thought she would be sleeping with . . . " Ayeka barely caught herself in time.

Sasami's face gained a shy look as her entire astral body blushed vividly before she said softly, "Ryoko-neechan sometimes sleeps with Tenchi-niichan but mostly she sleeps on your futon so I won't feel lonely at night."

"So Ryoko-san keeps you company at night?" Ayeka was touched by Ryoko's concern over Sasami's loneliness.

"Oneesama, Ryoko-neechan is right next to me so she can whisper in my ear while I'm here," Sasami answered, then the little one let a string of giggles from her mouth before she could stop them. With a mischief in her eyes, the youngest princess said, "Ryoko-neechan just said you better come home soon, it's so boring without your . . . eh . . . without you to kick around," the little one had changed her words when she saw her mothers join them.

With anger made false by the smile upon her face, Ayeka countered, "One of Ryoko-san's dream stories," then the slim lady's smile was touched with sadness, "I'm not sure when I will be back."

Sasami started to say something but stopped and her head turned slightly to the left, then she looked deeply into Ayeka's eyes and said with a dignified tone, "Ryoko-neechan just told me that she and Tenchi-niichan won't have their wedding unless you're here too."

"A WEDDING!" Misaki's voice burst out with glee as she bent down so her face was just inches from Sasami's before asking, "When!"

An uneasy look appeared on Sasami's face as she said, "Ara . . . when oneesama returns."

Misaki pulled up to her full height and seemed to bounce upon her toes as she said in rapture, "Then WE must come too!"

"We!" squeaked Sasami, the girl knowing full well that Ryoko wasn't going to be happy about this development.

"Who's going to preside over the wedding?" Funaho's tone showed she was getting caught up in Misaki's excitement. Ayeka got off the ground but edged her way over to Funaho so she would be less of a target for one of her mother's hugs.

"Oneesama," Sasami was barely able to overcome her dread at what was coming next. Ayeka couldn't stop herself from smiling at her sister's discomfort but surprise caught her mind when her right hand felt something slipped into its fingers.

"Ne Ne! Perfect!" the air filled with Misaki's joy before she turned to Funaho and asked with puppy dog eyes, "We can go wa yo?"

Never able to deny Misaki anything Funaho nodded before saying in a delightful tone, "Since this is a royal wedding, I think it's the obligation of the Oken Kazoku Jurai to be there."

"SUBARASHII (WONDERFUL!)!" the word leaped from Misaki's lips as her arms scooped up Funaho and she danced lightly in a circle, the look of pure joy shared by the two queens showed everyone there just how much each tenderly held the other's heart.

Noting the relief and happiness on Sasami's face as she watched their mothers, Ayeka took a few steps away from the group and brought her right hand up to see what Funaho had slipped her, it was a folded piece of paper. Opening the parchment the purple-haired princess silently read the words, 'Seeing the way you reacted to Akimi-sama, I believed your objective today would be to find the rest of your old friends. I took it upon myself the duty to find them for you but soon I found my search may bring you sorrow for besides Yoshida Akimi, only one other person has survived the passing centuries, Isaka Yoko. I have also prepared someone to take you to her and to keep you company should you need it. You will find the person waiting for you at the aerodrome.'

Looking over, Ayeka found both her mothers' bent down to Sasami's level and asking the child all sorts of questions about the wedding. Finally unable to find a graceful way to exit from the rain of questions, the blue-haired girl desperately said, "Dewa mata (See you later!)!" Then the little one disappeared in a cloud of lifelike fireflies. Finding the object of their attention gone the two queens stood up with questioning looks upon their faces. Misaki turned to where she last saw Ayeka to ask her daughter about Earth customs but found her oldest daughter had disappeared too.

**********

Royal Aerodrome

It took fifteen minutes for Ayeka to reach the helopad but she wasn't prepared for the sight waiting for her there. Balanced upon a black cushioned seat, with a yellow and black stripped helmet hanging from a handle bar grip, she found Tatsu reading a manga with undivided attention. Ayeka was surprised by this development but it was the objection underneath the young man that locked her gaze, a yellow-jacketed H-D2150 Hoverbike. Weighting in at over six-hundred-pounds, the H-D2150 was the best one-man hoverbike in existence with room for a passenger behind the driver and carrying cases on the side for light travel, with the ability to reach five-hundred-kilometers-per-hour. Ayeka even remembered Washu saying the military version of the H-D2150 could be fitted with a life support unit and a subspace drive for stealth missions since its size made it almost invisible to sensors and it used an eighth-generation, cold fusion power plant. Ayeka felt all light inside with the possibility of riding such a machine, especially when she saw the matching purple helmet and padded body suit on the seat next to the man. The ruby-eyed princess eagerly closed the distance between them without the young man detecting her presence due to his green eyes filled with the images and the words of the manga, whose own body suit was the same color as the bike's. Wanting to keep some shed of proper behavior, Ayeka only trusted herself enough to clear her throat.

Tatsu's emerald eyes gained the size of the hoverbike's headlight as he jumped off the cushion with the manga going behind his back as he fumbled his apology, "Gomen . . . nasai, Ayeka-sama! I . . . I . . . I didn't hear you come in!"

"You are forgiven, Tatsu-sama," Ayeka was glad Tatsu's chagrin hid from the man her hunger for the thrill of riding the machine next to him, "Funaho-okasama told me you are my guide to Isaka Yoko's home."

"Hai, I'm to be your guide and escort for today," Tatsu hurriedly answered as he took a sideward step to his left, hit a button with his left finger so he could drop his manga into the just opened carrying case, then pressed the button a second time to close it.

"So you are an otaku of manga?" Ayeka used her teasing tone to cover her coming to stand next to Tatsu while her left hand gingerly touched the vehicle's handlebars.

"Ee," Tatsu gave Ayeka a sheepish grin, "I've been hooked on them since I was a kodomo." Tatsu turned to his left, picked up the purple helmet and body suit with both hands and turned back to the princess to offer them to her as he said, "You're ready?"

"Un!" Ayeka saw Tatsu's right eyebrow rise when she couldn't stop her delight from tingeing her answer but he kept silent as he filled her hands with the helmet and the body suit. As the princess lifted the suit up to see if it would fit her, she suddenly realized the kimono she usually wore would have caused problems that the Otomeza one-piece avoided. 'I can believe Funaho-okasama fathoming my future actions from my discussions with Akimi-sama but okasama's selection of these cloths could mean they both are plotting something together,' Ayeka thought. As the slim lady pulled the snug suit over her thighs, she noted with a small smile how Tatsu had quickly turned away so to give her some privacy. As Ayeka pushed her arms down the purple sleeves and pulled the zipper up, her ruby eyes watched the new prince making a last check of his hoverbike. It took just his fingernail removal of speaks of dirt from the chrome and his quick polish of the headlight to show why he wasn't perplexed by her excitement because he felt the same thing.

Ayeka looked at the other machines in the aerodrome to keep her impatience from interfering with Tatsu's normal routine, but her ruby eyes darted back when she heard him get on the hoverbike. With his right hand the black-haired man pulled out a multisided cube and put it in a hole on the hoverbike's control panel. As the young woman placed her right hand on his left shoulder the young man looked over his left shoulder and said with certainty, "No sidesaddle, Ayeka-sama, it unbalances the hoverbike."

"Oi, gomen, Tatsu-sama," Ayeka hadn't realized she was about to do something wrong.

Tatsu gave Ayeka an understanding smile as he kindly said, "It's a common mistake many young ladies make, Ayeka-sama." His hands took hold of the hoverbike's safety belts and continued his words, "Just copy the way I'm seated and place your safety belts over your shoulders and around your waist."

Ayeka did as instructed, finding two footrests just in front of the side carrying cases which drew her legs in a zigzag angle. After the purple-haired princess locked the safety belts together, Tatsu courteously asked, "Ayeka-sama, please give me the suit's umbilical cord."

"Hai!" Ayeka allowed her own voice to reflect her excitement while she handed her suit's umbilical cord to Tatsu. Taking the tube from the princess' right hand the man pressed it into a hole, instantly Ayeka's helmet visor slip down and she felt the padded suit inflated so it was a perfect fit. It was at this time that Tatsu pushed the hoverbike's on switch.

Ayeka couldn't mistake it, from the tip of her toes to her crotch she felt life between her legs, rhythmic vibrations that caused her ruby orbs to half close as an erotic sensation ran up her body. An amused voice came over Ayeka's helmet mike, "This is the first time you've ridden a hoverbike na?"

"Un . . . " Ayeka's eyelids flew up at just how much of her arousal she accidently let into her response and she tried to cover her tracks, "Hai, Tatsu-sama, this is my first time!"

"Dewa, don't worry about the experience giving you a high," Tatsu reassured Ayeka, "It did me the first time."

"It did?" Ayeka was relieved Tatsu had mistaken her physical reaction to be like his.

"Ee, even now I'm still addicted to the unfettered freedom that only those who can fly can feel," Tatsu admitted with deep emotion in his voice.

Aware that Tatsu had just confessed something very personal to her, Ayeka said in a small voice, "It's the way it fires the embers of my imagination with desire, the way it makes me want to feel the wind playing with my long ponytails and for my eyes to catch the dizzying passing of the landscape below me."

"Desire for another?" carefully suggested by Tatsu.

"At one time I thought I found someone who could fulfill my desire," Ayeka couldn't stop her words, the pain causing her ruby eyes to glisten, "someone who could fill the emptiness within me and make me complete."

"And now?" Ayeka wasn't sure Tatsu's tone was sympathetic or guilty.

"Even through I still care for him," Ayeka willed vainly to calm herself, "I now believe I wanted him so the pain of my loss would make sense."

"The loss being Yosho-ojisama (prince)," Tatsu tentatively offered.

Finding the atmosphere of isolation caused by the helmets to her liking, Ayeka continued to open up to Tatsu, "I thought I could transfer my desire for my oniisama to Tenchi-sama, that he would accept me and he would give his ai to me but it was a falsehood, what Earthlings call a castle in the air."

"He didn't daisuki, Ayeka-sama?" again Ayeka wasn't sure of the emotion in Tatsu's question.

"He thought of me like he did Sasami," the taste of watery salt in her mouth, "as he saw her as his imoto he saw me as a onee."

"So you've returned to Jurai because there's nothing to keep you away," Resignation in Tatsu's tone.

Ayeka stopped herself from telling Tatsu about her sacrifice and her forthcoming death. Her uncle had already shown he liked her and he was attracted to her as a woman but the princess didn't want sympathy for a dying relative. Instead she lied, "I made friends out there and Sasami is with them but Jurai is where I belong, now."

The finality of Ayeka's reply was punctuated by the increase of pressure from underneath as Tatsu leaned forward to take hold of the handlebars where his right hand slowly turned the grip forward which made the hoverbike lift a few feet off the ground so its four-pylon landing gear would automatically retract. Then Ayeka heard Tatsu say, "Tenjyu, open helopad exit."

Ayeka red orbs watched the helopad exit open enough to allow the hoverbike to leave. The princess adjusted her balance as the vehicle increased its height to ten feet as it moved through the wooden doors, then the machine steadily moved horizontally as it performed several looping circles, soon it left Tenjyu far below as it reached five-thousand feet. A little fear touched Ayeka's heart but then Tatsu's voice reached her ears, "If you feel a little frightened by the height, you can lean forward and hold onto me. With these padded suits on, I couldn't tell if you were male or female."

"I'm the Saishono Oujosama Jurai . . . " it was then that the hoverbike hit an air pocket, causing the machine to drop ten feet. With haughtiness banished by need Ayeka's hands grab onto Tatsu's upper chest, " . . . and I would be happy to accept your kind offer." Was it static the slim lady heard over the mike or was it chuckles?

The hoverbike continued its climb to ten-thousand-feet where Ayeka stared at the beauty around her, the palace below her, the surrounding canopy of the forest-city and on the distance horizon the rising of Jurai's tiniest moon. After executing a five-minute circle so Ayeka could enjoy the view, Tatsu said, "I understand you like to fly fast?"

"Hai!" Joy in Ayeka's reply.

Ayeka felt like her stomach must have been left somewhere behind as the hoverbike moved from four-kilometers-per-hour to four-hundred-kilometers-per-hour in sixty seconds. The princess was also sure the moon in front of her looked much bigger.

**********

Isaka Yoko's Home

Tatsu's hoverbike had come to a slow stop and was steadily losing attitude after traveling over an hour in a westward direction. Scanning the surrounding terrain, Ayeka found the rolling hills, fields of wild flowers and perfectly maintained orchards very familiar, it took the sight of the tall black tree coming into view to summon a cry of recognition from her red lips. Hearing the slim lady's spontaneous joy over the open mike, the black-haired man asked with mirth in his voice, "Ayeka-sama, is something wrong?"

"It's Tekko, the summer home of the Oken Kazoku Jurai," Ayeka's delightful tone couldn't match the emotions the images in her mind called up from within, of the days she played with Yosho, Sasami and her friends in the house and the surrounding land.

"Honto, it was up to five-hundred-years-ago," Tatsu said as his right thumb flicked the switch, which dropped and locked the hoverbike's landing gear in place.

Curious by the tall man's answer Ayeka asked, "Do shimashita (What happened?)?"

"Isaka-sama uncovered a plot for a sneak attack on Jurai," informed Tatsu as he made his final selection of a landing site for them, "but the success didn't come without a price, Isaka-sama's otto was killed as they transmitted the information to Jurai. With a broken heart the noble lady decided to retire from public life and to show their gratitude, your ryoshin gave Tekko to her."

A pang of sorrow for her friend's loss was mixed with guilt as Ayeka became aware how some things have changed around her while she was on her quest to find Yosho. With the events that happened during the Fukuju, the discovery of Seto's son and the loss of friends to the passage of time, it dawned on the slim lady it was improper for her to shut herself into a private world, only allowing her parents in. She saw how this strategy hurt others and caused misunderstanding, so to correct this mistake was the reason she was here but now she found another: a chance for her to visit old memories.

When the hoverbike came to a rest at about fifty yards in front of Tekko, Tatsu unhooked their umbilical cords, which caused their helmet's visors to slide open and the protective suits to decompress. With merriment in his voice, Tatsu said, "Ladies first."

Ayeka couldn't help but give a smile at his humor as she climbed off the bike with as much properness as possible. Both took their helmets off but the new prince kept his back turned to her as he said causally, "This is the first time I've been here."

It didn't take a super genius to know why he didn't face her so Ayeka unzipped the padded suit and quickly got out of it while answering, "It's a wonderful place to have fun and to get away from the stiffness of the palace. You can come here and be yourself."

When Ayeka folded her suit, put it on the hoverbike's seat and looked up, she found Tatsu had silently removed his suit and the sight of what he wore made her cover her mouth to hide her oh-and-ah. The colors were a normal evergreen and evening blue but the pants were short and very tight and the shirt was in the same condition, he might look like her brother and he sometimes sounded like her brother's grandson yet while those two had the build of deadly dancers, here her scarlet vision showed her a wrestler's power. It would have been an awkward situation for Ayeka, if it wasn't for Tatsu's scarlet cheeks caused Ayeka to giggle behind her hand, which in turn made the facial fire spread to his ears. With a stammer the tall man said, "I . . . I . . . I didn't mean to cause you any complications, Ayeka-sama. I just dressed this way because the suit makes me sweat a lot."

With the blush still visible on Tatsu's face and his apology fresh in Ayeka's ears, the princess realized that amongst his newness there was some familiarity to this man standing before her. The princess quietly stored this thought for later as she asked Tatsu a question to distract him, "How is my face?"

Tatsu focused on the question and replied, "Only the purple ayame (iris) is equal to your beauty," now it was Ayeka's turn to have roses in her cheeks while the smiling man added, "but you might want to freshen it up."

Ayeka took out her makeup kit, cleaned and corrected the damage caused by the earlier tears and smudges from the helmet's contact before putting it away and then said, "Tatsu-sama, I hope you don't mind if you stay out here while I'm visiting Yoko-sama."

"Ayeka-sama, your will is mine," Tatsu gave Ayeka a flashy grin as he continued, "I do have my mangas to read."

"H . . . Hai," Ayeka gave Tatsu a feeble smile to hid the startlement in her reply, then she turned and walked toward Tekko's entrance as she mentally wondered, 'did Tatsu-sama know he just used a part of the wedding oath?' It was at this point that the purple-haired lady's mind conjured up a mental picture, of the black-haired man as he was dressed now, and focused on the red wristbands just below his hands. A kernel of thought gained birth in the princess' mind but before she could give food to it, the door she was walking to opened and a person she hadn't seen for seven-hundred-years filled the entrance.

The sight before Ayeka stopped her like she walked into a stone wall for in her mind she imagined Isaka Yoko like she was when the princess left Jurai all those centuries before, a young woman with auburn hair and a physical appearance that made her the pearl of the Jurai court. Empty shock came first replaced by crushing grief as Ayeka's eyes filled with tears at the sight of the white scars that crisscrossed Yoko's face and the colorless orbs in her eye sockets. Adding to Ayeka's soulful pain was the bright smile on Yoko's wounded lips and the happy bow she gave the princess as she said with pleasure in her voice, "Konnichiwa, Ayeka-oujosama."

Composure fled Ayeka's body as she closed the space between herself and Yoko's, where she fiercely hugged her friend in a shaking embrace as anguish filled her cry, "KYA SHINGU-CHAN (Oh Little Pearl!)!"

Yoko's left hand tenderly held Ayeka by the top of her back as her right hand glided down Ayeka's silky hair while her soothing voice said repeatedly, "Maa . . ."

**********

Tekko's Sunroom

It had taken sometime to get Ayeka to stop weeping at Yoko's loss but the noble lady's gentle words sealed the princess' tear ducts, "Oujo-chan, please don't cry. My injuries happened so long ago."

Ayeka's right arm and Yoko's left arm encircled the other's waist as they walked into a room near Tekko's top limbs, where a thick glass dome allowed Jurai's sun to bathe the users and where a marble table, a ceramic teapot with cups and two cushioned wood chairs waited for the two ladies.

"But Shingu-chan, I . . . I should have stayed abreast of what HAPPENED to my friends here on Jurai," Ayeka's voice showed the guilt and pain that threatened to overwhelm her again.

"Oujo-chan, you were busy searching for Yosho-ojisama," Yoko's beautiful voice reassured her friend.

"But during my search . . . and after I found . . . my oniisama and Tenchi-sama, I didn't even THINK to find out how you or Akimi-chan was doing," Ayeka's horrified eyes couldn't leave Yoko's scarred face.

"Then I'm glad for you, Oujo-chan," Yoko melodiously countered, "It means your life was full of adventures."

"That is no excuse, Shingu-chan," Ayeka's shot back, "Look what happened, I come home and find Akimi-chan all twisted up with anger and you unable to see the beauty around you."

Hearing the annoyance in Ayeka's voice Yoko smile broadened and she said, "That's the Oujo-chan I know so well." Ayeka opened her mouth but Yoko pushed off from her and ran toward the table surrounded by chairs as she called over her left shoulder, "Besides I'm not as helpless as I look."

"SHINGU-CHAN, DON'T!" fright in Ayeka's words as her mind filled with the only possibility that would happen to her friend. It was in total surprise when her scarlet vision saw Yoko reach out with her right hand to successfully grab the back of the chair and lightly bounce over the left armrest so her body landed perfectly on the chair's cushion. Ayeka came up to her auburn-haired friend and her mouth did an imitation of a live fish-out-of-water before words came out, "Nanto?"

Yoko let out a long sigh before saying as she waved her hand at the empty chair, "Oujo-chan, you have allowed tears of blood to blind you."

Ayeka knew the truth in Yoko's statement as she sat in the offered chair before she said, "I know circumstances have made it hard for me see clearly."

With a forgiving smile on her face, Yoko said, "Use your family's meditation technique to banish the inner storms so your mind can become calm."

Ayeka did as Yoko told her to do and as each fear, doubt, guilt and anguish dissipated, a new image reached her eyes, one that showed Yoko's eyes are not dead white but full of bluish-white light. In reaction to the new sight the slim lady asked again, "Nanto?"

Yoko smoothly tipped the teapot to fill the cups, decorated by images of Startica Bells, before she answered, "I and my Tree Ship, Tanpopo, were traveling with my husband and his Tree Ship when mercenaries ambushed us to prevent us from delivering some information to Funaho-joosama. My husband was killed, his Tree Ship was destroyed and I was left barely alive, lying on my bed with my ki matching my shredded face. In this state of mind and body I heard a surprising sound, I heard a child crying."

A knowing look appeared on Ayeka's face as she took the offered cup from Yoko's left hand and took a sip of the steaming green tea as her friend continued, "With eyes sightless I asked, 'Who is crying for me?'

"A voice I recognized answered between sobs, 'Atashi warui . . . Yoko-neechan . . .'

"I tried to push the pain from my voice as I said, 'Sasami-chan, how did you reach here?'

"It was then I heard an older version of the child's voice sadly answer me, 'Gomen nasai Yoko-dono, we tried to come to your aid but we arrived too late to save your otto.'

" 'Donata?' I asked but then the scent of Startica Bells touched my nose and I knew who it was. I attempted to stand but my body only screamed and I fell back on my bed.

"As my agony lessened, I heard Sasami-chan cry to me, 'Please, Yoko-neechan, please let me help you.'

"I was confused as to how the kochan could help me but I wanted to confront her so I said, 'I would not mind if you got me a drink of water.' After a minute or two I felt something soft and wet brush again my right cheek. Hot pain laced my lips but they were cooled as water trickled over them and I drank it up. Still I heard Sasami-chan crying.

"Then Tsunami-megami said to me with care, 'Yoko-dono, we can give you a chance to live and to see again but it will change you. Will you accept our aid?'

"I didn't fully understand what Tsunami-megami was offering me but I knew I wouldn't live much longer and I still wanted to finish my mission or my otto's sacrifice would have been in vain. I said, 'Hai.'

"In moments I heard Sasami-chan's crying very close to me, then I felt drops of warm water bathe my face and fill the hollows that once held my eyes, it didn't take me long to realize they were Sasami-chan's tears raining upon me. Then the agony that raked my body melted away as a feeling of ecstasy gave wings to my ki. I don't know how long I was caught up in that joyous state but when my mind cleared and I opened my eyes, I saw a world my physical vision never gave me. Next to me was a wet-faced but happy Sasami-chan yet what awed me was the sight of Tsunami-megami's image surrounding the kochan and the goddess said to the kochan, 'Sasami-chan, you did gu.' Like the light of a passing star the two disappeared."

"So you know Sasami's secret ne?" Ayeka ruby eyes glowed with happiness as she took another sip of her tea.

"Hai," Yoko answered with wonder in her tone, "Sasami-chan is more than Tsunami-megami's bondmate, they are one."

"And you, Shingu-chan, what is this new world your sight gave you?" curiosity in Ayeka's words.

"I see the ki that inhabit all things," Yoko answered after a sip of her tea, "I can see if it is weak or strong, violent or calm, happy or sad," Yoko's tone gained a serious note, "but even more my vision can see through the eyes of any of the bondmates of Tsunami-megami's offspring."

Yoko's last statement locked Ayeka's right hand as she was bringing the teacup to her red lips, with a questioning look upon her face. Yoko smiled at her friend, reached over the table to take hold of Ayeka's left hand before saying with compassion, "I saw your sacrifice, Oujo-chan and I know what it is doing to you."

Ayeka slowly placed the teacup on the table so her right hand could join the others then she said with emotion laced words, "I'm trying to be brave, trying to behave as an oujosama should but at times I see," then tears start to glisten in her eyes, "of Sasami . . . of Washu-san . . . of Mihoshi-san . . . of Ryoko-san . . . of Tenchi-sama."

"You miss them wa," affection in Yoko's words.

"I thought when Tenchi-sama made his choice, I would just come back here to Jurai and return to my duties as Saishono Oujosama Jurai," Ayeka used her right hand to pull out a dark red handkerchief to take her unshed tears away, "but I found in the two years I was there, they became more than just friends to me, they became my kazoku."

"Yet you are here on Jurai," Yoko squeezed Ayeka's left hand.

"Because I didn't want them to see me suffering and not be able to do anything about it," Ayeka words became weighted, "I also want to prevent them from trying something desperate to save me."

"I understand, Oujo-chan," a sad smile upon Yoko's face, "I will keep your secret."

"Domo arigato gozaimasu, Shingu-chan," appreciative look on Ayeka's face.

For a few hours Ayeka and Yoko exchanged stories about their adventures but as the sun passed from morning to noon, Ayeka remembered someone was waiting for her and she said, "Shingu-chan, I have taken up enough of your time, so I should be going."

"Oujo-chan, please come back any time you need someone to talk to," Yoko offered with a bright smile.

"I will," Ayeka returned the smile.

The two ladies got up together and the auburn-haired noblewoman escorted the purple-haired princess to the front entrance. At the opening the two exchanged bows but as the slim lady turned to leave, her friend said, "Oujo-chan, she waits for you."

"Nani?" confusion in Ayeka's tone as she faced Yoko.

"Can you not feel it," Yoko gave Ayeka a knowing look, "where your bond to Ryu-oh once dwelled?"

At the time of her insight to Yoko's unique nature, Ayeka had sensed something else, something from that place where Ryu-oh was once a part of her. She had assumed what she felt was a ghost of her former bondmate, like when someone feels a hand or a leg that is no longer there. Now her friend's words awoke in the princess of another possibility and she asked, "Will I find her there?"

"Lift the veil surrounding her and find out," Yoko replied.

Ayeka stood before Yoko for a time, her thoughts racing over the meaning of her friend's words before her eyes widened as her mind located the only likelihood. The princess nodded to the noble lady before walking away.

When Ayeka reached the yellow hoverbike her eyes scanned the surrounding and found its owner sitting on a fallen tree trunk, just in front of the orchard. Ayeka's smooth walk to the seated man conjured memories of her past summers at Tekko, of the times she, Sasami and their friends would raid the orchard of its delicious fruit. As before, Tatsu was so engrossed in his manga that he didn't hear her approach. Feeling a little mischievous Ayeka asked in a pleasant voice, "What are you reading?"

Tatsu was momentary startled but he partly turned to her and calmly said, "Gunsmith Cats."

"Oi, that is a Nihonjin manga," Ayeka puzzled as to how something from Earth could get to Jurai.

"Hai, I got hooked on them after Seto-okasama brought some back from when she visited you and the others," Tatsu sheepishly said, "Since then I worked out a deal with your oniisama to get copies of new ones," then he gave the princess an inquisitive look, "I didn't know Yosho-ojisama had a fondness for Regina fire peppers na?"

Ayeka let a little laugh through her defenses before saying, "I think he enjoys baiting others into eating them and watching the results." The purple-haired lady stepped around the decaying wood to stand before her cousin and then added, "As for me, I enjoy sweet tasting fruits."

"Like those, hanging from these trees?" a hint of a dare in Tatsu's voice.

With a wish for childhood's forgetfulness to return to her and the hunger to once more taste stolen goods, Ayeka suddenly broke away from the black-haired man and ran toward the orchard. Seeing his dare taken up, Tatsu placed his manga down, placed a small rock on it to keep the wind from blowing it away and then chased after the quick-footed woman. Ayeka was mildly surprised she was only winded when she reached the nearest pear tree, expecting bloody coughs as a reward for her rash act. Not willing to risk climbing up the tree, Ayeka stretched upward on her toes in a vain attempt to reach the closest pear. When Tatsu finally reached the disappointed lady, Ayeka pleaded, "Please, could you help me get one?"

The glimpse of what a wonderful child Ayeka had once been brought a grin to Tatsu's lips as he bent his knees and locked his fingers together while saying, "I'll give you a boost."

"Arigato, Tatsu-sama," Ayeka thanked Tatsu before positioning her body and she took a step back so her left leg was on his interlocked fingers. Then the slim lady pushed herself up and the tall man slowly raised her as she balanced on her left leg with arms outstretched. Concentrating on maintaining her equilibrium, it wasn't until the pale round fruit was before her ruby eyes that she reached with her right hand and pick it from the tree. It was at that moment of triumph that she felt her left leg pushed out from under her and she let go a squeal of fright but she found her fall interrupted when her bottom landed on a pair of strong shoulders. With illuminating shock upon her face she found a shaggy black-haired head between her bent legs with its face in the proper direction and firm hands holding her knees. Ayeka's gladness at being lucky enough to hold onto the pear was replaced with a thimble of anger as she said, "You nearly made me leave my hips with that act, why did you do that?"

"It was the easiest way to get you down," Ayeka was very sure she heard mirth in the man's voice.

"Dewa, you can let me all the way down now," Ayeka hurriedly commanded for she was itching to taste the firm meat of her hard won treasure.

"Why don't you let me carry me to the hoverbike first na?" Tatsu suggested, "that way you can eat your stolen prize before someone catches us with it."

"But I wei . . . eh . . . you might step in a hole and hurt yourself," Ayeka quickly corrected her words but then blushed at the tone of affection she had used.

"I don't mind, you're light upon these shoulders," then mischief entered Tatsu's voice as he made a noisy sniff, "Besides, I like you right where you are . . . OUCH!" Ayeka thumped the top of his head with her left hand to let him know she knew exactly what he meant, then shock filled her face at what she had just done and she quickly apologized, "Gomen, gomen, Tatsu-sama! I did not mean to do that!"

"Being an eye of ocha da zo," Tatsu cheerfully accused his passenger as he slowly turned on his heel and began to walk toward his distant hoverbike, "you must've been a wondrous child na."

The man's words returned Ayeka to her childhood memories and with a child's delight she took a big bite out of the round pear, the sweet flesh crunched between her white teeth as its sticky juice ran down to her chin. Taking another bite she remembered the looks of concern on her mothers' faces when she, Sasami and their friends wouldn't have much of an appetite at dinner, after a day of roughhousing, yet how could they ignore such a tasty fruit from Funaho's homeland.

With half of her delicious treat gone, Ayeka realized that her carrier hadn't tasted any of it. Slowly the princess bent down so to bring the whitish fruit within reach of his lips. Ayeka saw a look of thanks upon his sunny face then he carefully took a bite, munched it slowly before saying, "Delicious, Ayeka-sama." But then Ayeka went stiff when the face of the man below her gained a shy look. A bright blush touched every part of the princess' face, as she realized her simple sharing of the fruit between them meant she had indirectly kissed him and the tall man's look meant he knew it too. Ayeka opened her mouth then closed it then opened it again only to close it again, her thought to deny she was indirectly kissing him warred with her desire to fill the loneliness deep inside her. Even with her mothers' love, her father's support and the reestablishment of her friendship with Akimi and Yoko, there was still an empty place in her soul, the place a lover, a husband fills. She once believed Yosho would close this hole in her being and later she hoped Tenchi would stop the pain the emptiness brought her but neither proved her savor.

Ayeka's indecision brought a third thought into her mind, was she, was her heart attracted by someone who could pass for Yosho's twin, whose words and deeds sometimes echoed with Tenchi's shy kindness yet with boldness neither of her past loves' had, was she falling in love with a man she had only known for the last three days. This and the other two thoughts gave way to one overwhelming belief in her mind, like before was she mistaking kindness for passion and even if he did truly love her, did she have the right to sunder his soul when she died. With her inner self, caught in the raging storm of her own making, Ayeka suddenly heard a hiss of impatience slashed through her consciousness.

Looking around, Ayeka's ruby sight saw nothing that could have created such a noise but it took only another second for her to conclude that the origin of the sound came from within her, from the place where Yoko told her to go. At first the slim lady hesitated at doing it due to Tatsu's presence but her desire for guidance, even from the person she suspected was there behind the veil, won out.

"Tatsu-sama, would you put me down at the log?" Ayeka softly said. Hearing the wounded nature of her words, Tatsu gave her a nod. At the fallen tree the tall man stopped and touched the ground with hands and knees so the purple-haired woman could simply walk from his shoulders. Ayeka carefully sat against the trunk, so her long hair wouldn't tangle with the dead tree's brittle twigs, brought her vision to her companion and precisely said, "I'm going into my consciousness to meet someone," then she added with a heartened smile, "do not worry, I will be fine."

"Ii zo," Tatsu's tone showed again his trust in her judgement.

Bringing her legs into a lotus position and closing her eyes, Ayeka used the family's mediation technique to balance the yin and the yang with her mind. As her awareness dropped through the many layers of her selfness, a fuzzy image filled her inner eye. It didn't take long for this vision to crystallize into a field of wild flowers. Looking around, the princess found a little girl not far from her, dressed in a white child's kimono with pink cherry blossoms embroidered upon it. It didn't take her long to recognize the child who was  making the crown of flowers with her little hands, not with that wild cyan hair on her head. Lifting her amber eyes to look at the princess, the girl joyfully called out in a childlike version of a very familiar voice, "Ayeka-chan, look at what I made for you!"

It was now that Ayeka first looked at her own image and found she too was a child again, wearing a light blue kimono with the red-black Monarch butterflies upon it, also in her hands she found a ring of yellow and white flowers. Wading through the flowers that came to her waist, the purple-haired child made her way to the top of the little hill where she knelt next to the girl with cat's eyes. Without hesitation the happy child placed her crown of flowers on Ayeka's head and the princess returned the flavor by placing hers amongst the sea colored curls. Both children gave happy smiles to the other before the ruby-eyed child said, "You know this isn't very original, Ryoko . . . chan."

"So bite me, Oujo-chan," a Cheshire Cat's grin on Ryoko's face.

"I think I WILL," an impish grin on Ayeka's lips as she lunched herself into the air.

"OME (HEY!)!" Ryoko shouted as Ayeka landed on top of her and they sank underneath the multicolored ocean.

"Don't PINCH me there!" Ayeka's hot voice came out.

"Watch the HAIR, watch the HAIR!" Ryoko voice thundered as a small hand clutching cyan hair rippled between the petals.

"No KICKING!" Ayeka fired back as the flashes of cyan, purple, blues and white showed small bodies tumbling down the hill.

"Then stop biting my ANKLE!" a glimpse of a bare ankle with teeth marks skimmed over the flower faces.

"But YOU said I could!" Ayeka's reply was made nasal by a hand twisting her petite nose.

When the two children reached the bottom of the hill, they rolled apart and ended up facing the other, breathing hard but gladdened grins upon their faces. It was Ayeka who spoke first, "Domo arigato, Ryoko-chan, that felt gu."

"It felt great, Oujo-chan," delight in the amber-eyed child's voice as she began to float a few inches above the carpet of flowers, "you don't know how maddening it can get without having someone you can blow some steam off with. I can't do it with Sasami-chan or Tenchi, Mihoshi-san is too good-natured, okachan gets out-of-control and Katsuhito-san always finds a way to turn-the-tables on me."

"So whose idea was it for us to appear as shitei?" Ayeka asked, her curiosity plainly visible upon her face.

"Washu-okachan thought it would help you if our first contact was made as nonthreatening as possible," Ryoko replied as she crossed her legs before the child with the ponytails, "besides I wanted to see if it was true about you looking like Sasami-chan when you were a chibi (kid)."

"When did you realize we were linked?" Ayeka crawled over and knelt beside her floating companion.

"When I woke up after the battle," Ryoko's voice took on a serious tone, "three days before you left."

"Nanto?" Ayeka was sure she didn't give away any clue to her true nature until just before she left and only to Washu.

"Okachan knew something was going on right after the battle when she saw this," Ryoko reached with her right hand to pull down the kimono's collar so her throat could be seen and then she half-raised her arms so the sleeves would drop down, with both actions done three blue gems were revealed: one just below her thorax and one on each wrist.

The sight of the Gems brought whispered words from Ayeka's lips, "Ryoko-chan, I only wanted to save your life, I did not think this would happen."

"It's more than that, Ayeka-chan," playfulness in Ryoko's tone as the uchu kaizoku's face came within inches of the princess', "by placing Ryu-oh's and much of your ki into me, we are now bondmates."

Ryoko's revelation rung truthful to Ayeka but it brought a new fear to her heart, "Who told you . . . "

"Tsunami-megami came to me while I was still unconscious from the battle," seriousness in Ryoko's voice.

"Then Sasami . . . " Ayeka fright echoed in her incomplete question.

"Iie, Tsunami-megami has kept your coming death from her," Ayeka saw Ryoko's amber eyes glisten, "Sasami-chan knows something is wrong with you but she thinks it's because of Tenchi's decision that you left us and she hopes you will return," then Ryoko's voice became soft, "Sasami-chan wants her oneesama back and so do we."

"Does Tenchi-sama know?" Ayeka barely able to keep her voice steady.

"Hai and he, okachan, Katsuhito-san and Mihoshi-san are very proud of you," admiration in Ryoko's words.

"I'm glad," Ayeka sighed as another demon was put to rest.

Ryoko turned and placed her hands on Ayeka's shoulders before saying, "Ayeka-chan, promise me something."

"Nani, Ryoko-chan?" Ayeka replied.

"Promise me you won't stop living," sincerity in Ryoko's words.

"I might not have much choice in the matter," Ayeka countered.

"Just promise me you won't take from me the friend I call Oujo-chan," Ryoko stubbornly returned.

Seeing Ryoko would take only one answer Ayeka said, "I promise."

Giving a happy smile Ryoko hugged Ayeka, which the princess returned, then the amber-eyed girl said, "Oujo-chan, I think your new friend is getting worried."

Reminded of the world beyond the field of flowers Ayeka remembered one of the reasons why she was here, "Ryoko-chan, you have been watching me ne?"

"Ara . . . Yapi," Ryoko replied uncertainly as she lifted her hands from Ayeka's shoulders.

"Then what do you think of Tatsu-sama?" Ayeka quickly asked before her courage failed her.

"I think any shojo would swoon if he paid just a tenth of his attention to her that he has given you," Ryoko lightly answered.

"Ryoko-chan, be serious," Ayeka's tone more to check her own fluffy feelings for the man, "I have only known him for less than three days."

"I'm being serious, Oujo-chan," Ryoko's grin touching her catlike ears, "when I say that I'm sure every piece of him would taste YUMMY!"

"RYOKO-CHAN!" Ayeka's eyes reaching saucer size, "such language from a future Oujosama Jurai is not proper!"

"Nani?" Ryoko was confused by Ayeka's statement.

It was now Ayeka's turn to wear a crocodile grin as she said, "Do you not know, that according to Juraijin tradition, once you marry Tenchi-sama you become an Oujosama Jurai."

"Me, a notarin (brainless) oujosama like you," Ryoko made a face at such a possibility.

"So expect your wedding to be a major event," Ayeka gaining some pleasure on seeing the tables turned on the uchu kaizoku for once.

"Tenchi and I have already decided on a small wedding with just our close friends," Ryoko countered an authoritative tone.

"Ne ne, you might want to talk to Sasami about that," Ayeka prepared her final shot.

"What do you mean, Oujo-chan?" Ryoko's old flames returning to her words.

"Sasami let slip to our okasamas about the wedding," the fire in Ryoko's eyes showed Ayeka's dart had hit a bull's eye.

"So that why Sasami-chan wrapped herself in smoke whenever I've been with her," a sharp edge to Ryoko's words but this heat quickly drowned in Ayeka's laughter. Realizing she had lost the initiative Ryoko switched into tease mode as she said, "So when are you going to tell this Tatsu-san that you would like to be his esu efu?"

The shock of Ryoko's question brought to Ayeka was in seconds replaced with painful anguish as tears suddenly spilled from her ruby orbs and her voice sobbed, "I . . . I . . . am afraid . . . I'm doing . . . the same thing . . . I did with . . . Ten . . . chi . . . sama."

Ayeka's child form felt small arms take hold of her and her purple-haired head buried itself in the other form's shoulder. A cyan sea filled her watery vision while the warm embrace called up more words, "Do I see . . . only oniisama . . . only Tenchi . . . sama in him . . . and . . . not what he . . . he . . . really is?"

"Of course you do, Oujo-chan," strength in Ryoko's response, "and I can tell absolutely he's lost his head over you."

The rain of tears slowed yet Ayeka's lips quivered as she said, "But . . . but . . . it has only been . . . three . . ."

"So what," Ryoko's words took on impatient sharpness, "you don't have to wait five-thousand-years like I did to find ai again."

"But when I met Tatsu-sama . . . he said he was . . . attracted to another onna . . . " Ayeka's dainty arms held onto Ryoko as if her life depended on it.

"Masaka!" Ryoko shook her head with disbelief as she added, "Oujo-chan, do you believe everything a man tells you!"

"What do you mean?" sniffed Ayeka.

"Don't you get it," Ryoko putting strong love in her words, "Tatsu-san only said that so you wouldn't peg him as just another suitor for the Saishono Oujosama Jurai."

"Honto ni?" a fragile hope in Ayeka's voice.

"I'll bet he was waiting all day in your garden just to sing that song to you," Ryoko's words full of confidence, "Besides what words like, 'she acts like summer and walks like rain' or 'she listens like spring and she talks like moonlight,' who else could he be talking about other than you."

"Do you really think so?" Ayeka's hope becoming yearning.

"Look at the way he blushes when he's with you," mirth returned to Ryoko's words, "his body is scorched because of you."

"Yet I know very little about Tatsu-sama?" Ayeka's princess training kicking in, "Other than being obasama's musuko and an ongakukashu."

Ryoko broke their embrace and held Ayeka at arms' length as she looked her friend straight in the eye, "Then do a little snooping if that's the only way you can accept him as your koibito."

Ayeka's puffy face showed she took heart not only with Ryoko's advice but also the affection she found in the uchu kaizoku's amber eyes. With a nod Ryoko said, "I think it's time for us to part before your boifurendo (boyfriend) gets really worried about why you were crying."

"You mean I was actually crying wa yo?" Ayeka's voice reflected how horrified she was at such a private act being seen by another.

"Hai," Ryoko's grin showed she scored a direct hit on Ayeka's ego.

Quickly recovering her composure Ayeka shot back, "I still do not know if I can accept such a bakemono as you as my bondmate."

Ryoko's grin reached Cheshire Cat's size as she countered, "do you think I like being connected to such a bag of bones like you."

Because each heard the love they had for the other, one last hug was exchanged between the two before Ayeka said, "Sayonara, Ryoko-chan."

"Oujo-chan, you . . . " Ayeka paused when she heard the great difficulty Ryoko was having in getting the words out, " . . . you could have had Tenchi to yourself . . . why did you . . . "

Ayeka knew this question would come since she would have asked the same thing had Ryoko done the deed. With what nobility a child's body could give her, the princess clasped her hands before her waist and used a righteous tone in her reply, "I could have performed the duties of his okusan, I could have bore his children and been at his side, even if it meant I would never see Jurai again, but at night with his warm body next to mine, I would know there is an emptiness in his kokoro that I could not fill, that I was a pale substitution for the woman he truly loved and I would hate myself for not having saved you."

"Oujo-chan, remember your promise," Ryoko's fading form said, "I don't care if your whole kazoku comes as long as you're at my wedding."

"I will try," Ayeka softly said.

"You will try what, Ayeka-sama?" Ayeka heard the response but it wasn't Ryoko's voice.

Ayeka eyes popped open and she found a very concerned Tatsu firmly holding her right hand. Reaching up with her left hand, the princess found her face moist. Dodging the question, Ayeka carefully pulled her right hand from Tatsu's hold and retrived her makeup case. Tatsu silently smiled as the purple-haired lady next to him cleaned and fixed her face. But unknown to the man, Ayeka was using this action not only to not answer his question, to hide her conversation with Ryoko, she was using it to cover the fact she had felt something when her hand parted from his grip, like a static charge of electricity.

When Ayeka closed her makeup case, Tatsu asked as he stood up and offered his right hand, "Ready to head back, Ayeka-san?"

Curious, Ayeka accepted the help up. Again she felt the tickle of energy from his touch and she wondered wordlessly, 'Did my emotional state prevented me from feeling this before?'

Seeing the perplexed look on the slim lady's face, the tall man asked, "Is something wrong?"

"Iie, just trying to recover from meeting my new bondmate," Ayeka quickly covered her suspicions.

"Ara," Tatsu's tone showed he accepted her half-truth.

The trip back to Tenjyu was uneventful but Ayeka's mind was full of Ryoko's counsel and the new aspect she had discovered of the man she was sitting behind.

**********

Chapter Five: They Can't Take That Away From Me

The corridor outside Ayeka's Apartment

It was the later in the day of her journey to Tekko, Ayeka was heading for her apartment and her mind was so full of consuming thoughts that it took a clearing of a throat to snap her attention to the person she just passed by. Whirling around her ruby eyes brought startlement to her face as she said, "Otousama! I'm so shamed by my rudeness in not greeting you properly!"

"Ayeka, it is pleasing for me to see you in such good health," a touch of warmth in Azusa's calm voice as he clasped his strong hands in front of his body dressed in a dark brown and deep green formal kimono.

"Arigato," relief in Ayeka's one word reply, glad for her father's tactfulness but then the reason for her temporary blindness came to the forefront and she asked her long-haired father, "Otousama, do you know where Akimi-sama is? I went to the palace hospital to talk to him but Kessho-isha said he had been released because his wounds were healed."

"Akimi-sama has been given the assignment of being in charge of security for our ambassador at Zyra Prime," Azusa's tone going neutral, "I believe he has already left."

"I wish he had left a message to let me . . . " Ayeka's angry response to the news was cut off by a sudden thought, 'Maybe he was not given the option to tell me, maybe someone was afraid of what he would tell me?' During her walk to and from the palace hospital, the slim lady was rethinking the events of the past three days in accordance with what Ryoko had suggested and she quickly came to a conclusion, a conclusion she decided needed confirmation, "Otousama, can I ask you a question?"

For the third time in her life, Ayeka saw sorrow in her father's ruby eyes before he responded, "Ayeka, let us go to your room, I have a feeling your question should not be answered where unsealed ears can hear the answer."

"Hai!" Ayeka was surprised by Azusa's willingness to make time in his busy schedule for her.

Before they reached the door that was flanked by two guards, Azusa pressed a hidden button on his collar and then said, "Takeuchi-san, move my appointments back an hour."

"Hai," a disembodied voice replied.

As the two entered the princess' apartment, Azusa gave the two guards a hot glare and both of them broke into a sweat as they knew what the Emperor's unvoiced command meant, 'if one word of what I am telling my daughter gets out, you both will find yourself at the Hegura Penal Colony.'

Inside the spacious meeting room decorated with living plants in bloom, Ayeka properly asked, "Otousama, would you like to sit?"

Azusa gave a nod as he walked forward and sat in a large chair near a vase of purple lilacs but as Ayeka turned to go to her chair she heard her father ask, "Yokereba Ayeka (If you like Ayeka), would you sit next to me?" It was the sadness in his voice that pulled the young woman around so she could see the barely disguised plea in her father's scarlet orbs. With obedience born of love Ayeka walked over, sat on the overstuffed stool that went with Azusa's chair and faced her father.

Looking up into Azusa's bearded face, Ayeka found not the Emperor's stern face or the position's detached objectivity, instead there were no barriers to hide the warmth he had for his eldest daughter. With some trepidation the purple-haired woman placed her left hand on his right and then asked, "Otousama, are you, okasama and Funaho-okasama helping Tatsu-sama?"

"So you deduced our aid to him?" Azusa asked.

"With hindsight and a friend's counsel, I saw how a stranger was allowed to meet me in my garden, how you and okasama made sure we were together for the Fukuju and how okasama dressed me in the most practical cloths so Tatsu-sama could take me to Yoko-chan," Ayeka's tone filled with a hunger for understanding.

"When you told us you were returning to Jurai, I believed you had outgrown your fascination with Yosho's mago and decided your duty as Saishono Oujosama Jurai was once more important to you," Azusa slowly answered as his right hand turned over and gently clasped Ayeka's hand, "but when you told me how you sacrificed Ryu-oh and most of your ki to save Hakubi Ryoko, after she had rescued Sasami, I felt only one thing, pride. After thinking of you as just my musume for seven hundred years, I found myself instead facing a grown onna, one who knew the value of the things kept within one's heart, one who no longer kept selfish thoughts.

"So when Tatsu came to me with a request to seek your hand-in-marriage, I at first bulked at the idea of invading your privacy for I wanted to let you live your last days as you saw fit," Azusa's left hand found its way onto Ayeka's head, "but your okasamas convinced me Tatsu is a good man, who should be given a chance to fill your life with happiness."

Ayeka placed her head in his expansive lap and drew comfort from the stroking of her hair by his hand, then she asked, "Is that why Utsumi-sama adopted Tatsu-sama, so he would have the status to marry me?"

"In a way, Ayeka," Azusa kept his voice calm, "but even in matters of the heart, you must remember that I'm the Kotei Jurai (Emperor of Jurai). Even with kazoku decisions I must take into account what is necessary for the survival of Jurai. I must keep a clear mind about your illness just as I do about Sasami's special nature."

Lifting her head from his lap, Ayeka looked up at Azusa with some shame at keeping such a secret from him but her father only smiled and carefully squeezed her hand before he continued, "If I had been in the same position as you, to keep Sasami's ki whole, I would have done the same thing yet this special nature makes impossible Sasami's marriage to any of the noble houses of Jurai or any other within our domain."

From her tutors and experience at the Jurai court Ayeka continued her father's statement, "Because should you die or retire and oniisama refuses to take the throne, Sasami as Tsunami would be too powerful instrument to be given to any power-hungry noble and she would not be accepted as an unwed kogo (empress)."

"The chance you might find joy with Tatsu and marry him," a thorn of pain in Azusa's voice, "would also prevent a civil war from consuming Jurai."

"By making Tatsu-sama your heir should no other option be open to you," Ayeka finished her father's words.

"Ayeka, I ask you only to give him a chance to win your ai," Azusa carefully asked.

"Hai, I will," Ayeka promised as she put her head back in his lap and her father continued to stroke her silky hair. For uncounted minutes the two remained in this way, each gained succor from the aura of love surrounding them.

**********

Ayeka's Bedroom

After her father left, the woman with the wooden tiara upon her head made her way to her bed, where she reached underneath the pillow to retrieve a bracelet with a crab-shaped gem in the middle. Ayeka placed the circlet upon her left wrist, closed the catch and pressed her right thumb on the red ruby. It took only moments for the red gem to change its color to blue and just a few more seconds for a transparent laptop to appear on the light blue-covered mattress.

Again as countless other times, Ayeka was thankful for her parents' decision to ask Washu to tutor her, Sasami and Tenchi. At first the little genius wasn't thrilled with the idea of teaching again, especially since she would be doing it at what she considered to be the idiot level. But when Seto, Ayeka's grandmother and Washu's daughter by adoption, added her voice in support of the idea, the redhead gave in. As it turned out the role of tutor produced an unexpected side effect, the return of Ryoko as Washu's daughter. Because Tenchi was going to be in the class with Ayeka, Sasami and Washu, Ryoko automatically decided she had to be there to make sure none of the other females try anything with 'her Tenchi'. Of course Washu didn't spare her daughter the necessity to learn just like the other students. Normally Ryoko is a lazy thinker, depending on her mother to do the complex science and inventing but Washu knew better, she remembered Ryoko before Kagato erased her original personality. Using Ryoko's fear of looking stupid in front of Tenchi as motivation, Washu carefully used tests, assignments and readings to reawaken Ryoko's love for engineering. All the other students showed a quick mind once Washu toned down the techno gobbledygook: Ayeka displayed a proficiency in computer science, Sasami showed she was very knowledgeable about biology and Tenchi gave hints of a liking for mathematics. Then one night a scream woke Washu from her sleep and brought Tenchi running out of his room and into the lab, with the rest of the household right behind him. There, the group found Ryoko standing over her class project, staring at a gash that ran the length of her right hand and her mouth moving but making no sound.

'Ryoko-chan, what's wrong?' Washu used her link with her daughter as the redhead took hold of the hand, the wound already knitting close.

"OKACHAN! I REMEMBER!" Ryoko shouted as she scooped Washu into her arms and hugged the child-woman. Ryoko's tears poured onto Washu's face as the ample lady repeatedly said, "I remember, I remember, I remember . . . "

It took only the light touch of Washu's mind to Ryoko's to cause the cyan-woman's tears to be mixed by her mother's salty waters, this was when Tenchi stepped forward and asked, "Washu-chan, what does Ryoko remember?"

In a blink-of-a-eye Washu was no longer the woman in a child's body, instead she was once more a fully-grown adult. Now her arms could fiercely hug her daughter before she turned to their friends and answered in joy soaked words, "Five-thousand-years-ago Ryoko-chan cut her right hand while building her first project for me. Because the situation was the same now as it was then, it triggered a massive information retrieval to occur."

"I thought you said Kagato-san erased Ryoko-san's memory before she was an uchu kaizoku?" Ayeka inquired as she came forward to stand next to Tenchi.

"Just as on a floppy disk, a compact disk or a memory crystal, the chemical footprints we call memory can be suppressed, written over or destroyed by physical damage but Ryoko-chan's regenerative ability prevented permanent loss," a triumphant fire in Washu's green eyes, "it took a simple accident to give me my MUSUME again!"

As a sign of gratitude for helping in Ryoko's recovery, Washu gave each of her students, including Ryoko, a platinum bracelet with a crab-shaped ruby gem in the middle of it. The little scientist told them that by placing it on their wrist and putting their right thumb on the crab, it would give them access to a transparent laptop just like hers. The see-though terminal would give the user admittance to a special partitioned area in Washu's mainframe as well as a set of programs.

After the Washu's OS logo disappeared to be replaced with a wallpaper picture of her family on Earth, Ayeka busily typed in the commands needed to give her the information necessary to start her quest. It took only a slip of the tea she kept on bed's nightstand for the first part of the information to appeared, Tatsu's record from the Kishi Jurai. The Kishi Jurai was an organization under Misaki's control but it supplied not only personnel for bodyguards, it also was the manpower source for Funaho's department. Since Tatsu was of royal blood, the Kishi Jurai would have a record of them protecting him whenever possible. The first part gave his name (Kamiki Tatsu a.k.a. Kubiha Tatsu), date-of-birth, his mother's name (Kamiki Seto), his father's name (Nami Yukio), blood type (AB) and occupation (Ongakukashu). The history the slim lady read confirmed what Tatsu said about himself except for one critical part the man hadn't mentioned, thirty-four years before Ryoko's attack on Jurai, Tatsu saved a badly wounded Azusa and a helpless Funaho from the before mentioned uchu kaizoku. A small smile appeared on Ayeka's face as she thought, 'So that is why Funaho-okasama kissed Tatsu-sama on the cheek.'

The next part of the history made the purple-haired woman suspicious, for the next seven-hundred-years there was nothing on Tatsu until he reappeared eight weeks ago, when his wreaked spaceship was discovered by Funaho and Misaki, on a Class M planet in a previously uncharted system. 'Why nothing on Tatsu-sama for seven-hundred-years and then my okasamas rescue him while following the same course I used to reach Jurai,' Ayeka wondered.

With determination Ayeka decided her next action was to hack into Seto's personal computer. After successfully getting through the safeguards and firewalls, her ruby eyes locked on the information she had feared she would find there, a file containing letters of regret for the honorable death of her grandmother's son, Kubiha Tatsu. From the different sorrowful notes Ayeka pieced together how Seto's son died, Ryoko had killed him but the long battle allowed Azusa's Space Treeship, Kirito, to take her father and Funaho to Jurai. This information brought a new insight into Ayeka mind, 'Ryoko-san didn't react when she saw Tatsu through my eyes, even though she killed him,' she knew Ryoko did take pride in being a legendary uchu kaizoku but harbored deep guilt within her psyche of the people she slaughtered.

As Ayeka touched the ruby crab to shut down the laptop, her mind went over the clues with increased calm. It was obvious to the princess that her family here on Jurai had carefully planned this little operation, may have involved her extended family on Earth but the reasons seemed many. As she changed her clothes to a more nondescript fashion, the princess thought of her family's reasons: Azusa clearly showed he had to plan with hardhearted practicality for what would happen when his daughter died, Misaki and Funaho wanted her to be happy in her last days, Sasami wanted her sister back and Ryoko hinted the rest of her earthbound friends wanted the same thing. Ayeka made a quick check with her bedroom mirror to make sure her disguise was good enough, including the removal of all her makeup. The purple-haired woman's spirit sank a little when saw how her color of her eyes and lips made her face look even more ghostly white. Then a ramrod determination put fire in her ruby orbs as she thought, 'I must not let my vanity to stop me, I must discover Tatsu's nature and not only for my own desire.'

Coming out of the bedroom Ayeka suddenly came to a dead stop for before her sat the last person she was thinking of, Seto. "Gomen nasai, Obasama, I didn't hear the guards announce your admittance," surprise very visible in Ayeka's words and face.

The corners of Seto's lips lifted up into a flinty smile and she stood up while saying, "That is because I came in by other means."

Ayeka gave an instinctive glance at the living room's open window, before mentally berating herself for forgetting that Seto, Misaki and Sasami used Tenjyu's bark and limbs to make secret visits. Putting on a pleasant smile Ayeka asked, "This is a happy occasion, I have not had a chance to meet you since my return to Jurai. Would you like some ocha?"

Ayeka could see her grandmother's cherry-colored eyes give her the once over before answering, "From your green hooded cloak and plain brown dress, I would say we have little time for ocha, ne?"

Only Ayeka's hood prevented Seto from seeing the paleness of young princess' face, when she realized her garb gave away her intentions, but it was Seto's next question that stopped her attempt at a witty reply, "Ayeka-dono, did you find the answers you were seeking when you invaded my personal computer?"

"Nanto . . . " Ayeka started to ask.

"Ayeka-dono, you forget I lived with Washu-chan for many years," Seto walked over so she stood within arms' reach of the princess, who's face had the look of a child caught with her hand-in-the-cookie-jar.

Aware deception or white lies wouldn't work with her grandmother Ayeka decided to lay her cards on the table, "The man who others call your musuko is actually someone under false gilding."

Closing her eyes didn't stop the pain from showing on the tall lady's face as she replied, "Tatsu-dono would have been honored to have this man carry his name."

Accepting Seto's sorrow, Ayeka was somewhat taken aback by her grandmother's tone of acceptance. With some perplexity Ayeka asked, "But he isn't your true musuko?"

"For me, for Jurai," the blue-haired woman opened her eyes as certainty filled her voice, "he is my musuko."

These words made Ayeka wonder within her mind, 'Does obasama miss her musuko so much she would accept another to bring him to life or is there another reason?'

Ayeka was brought out of her silent musings when Seto asked, "Ayeka-dono, I would like you to do something for me."

Noting the thread of affection in her grandmother's voice, Ayeka put love in her reply, "If it is within my power, obasama."

"For your own sake, Ayeka-dono, could you give Tatsu-dono a chance," Seto thoughtfully asked.

"A chance for what?" Ayeka's reply showed that the woman in the dusty blue kimono confused her.

Seto placed her right hand on Ayeka's left shoulder before saying with tender words, "A chance to make you happy."

Again taken aback by Seto's directness, Ayeka fumbled out, "even . . . after reading . . . the file on him . . . I know only a little about his true character."

"But you going to change that wa?" gentleness in Seto's question.

"The Kishi Jurai report said he has been performing at the Aka Dokutsu, a club in the city," Ayeka admitted.

"So you plan to watch him without him knowing about it wa yo," Seto gently probed as she lifted her hand from Ayeka's shoulder.

"I want to know if the gentleness I see in him and affection I feel for him," Ayeka words full of emotion, "is not my projection of oniisama or Tenchi-sama upon him, clouding my sight of his true nature."

"Then we better leave, Ayeka-dono," Seto suggested as she walked toward the window.

"Ara?" Ayeka's purple eyebrows went up at what Seto's movement seemed too indicate.

"Ayeka-dono, you won't be conspicuous with Misaki-dono's men following you everywhere ne," mischief in Seto's wise words.

Ayeka quickly caught up with her grandmother but hesitated as she leaned out a little to see the distance they would have to scale to reach the ground. With a little fear Ayeka said, "Obasama, I don't know if I can do this, the sun has already set so it will be dark by the time we are halfway down."

"Don't worry, oujo-chan," Seto took hold of Ayeka's left hand with her right and gave a comforting squeeze, "I will go first so I can guide your feet to the right footholds."

"But I could suffer a sudden attack . . . " Ayeka wanted so much to do this but feared her weakened condition.

"Then we will do this a special way," Seto countered with a sparkling voice as she bent her long legs, "I'll carry you down, piggyback."

"Obasama, are you sure?" a genuine concern in Ayeka's words.

"Upon my flesh and bones I have carried Misaki-chan, Azusa-chan, Sasami-chan and you, oujo-chan, it is a weight I would gladly bear," Seto countered. Noting the tone of unconditional love in her grandmother's words, Ayeka climbed onto the tall lady's back, wrapping her legs around the woman's board hips and locking her hands over the still firm breasts.

Looking neither up nor down Ayeka kept her eyes upon Seto's blue hair but her guarded trust was replaced with awe when her ears filled with a little ditty being hummed by her carrier. Even with the load upon her back, Seto showed a goat's grace with each downward step and handhold. As they reached the middle of Tenjyu, Ayeka tensed body relaxed as Seto's cheerfulness washed away all of her childish doubts, by the time Jurai's first moon crested upon the night's horizon, they were down.

**********

Tree City

With Seto's aid it was a breeze for Ayeka to leave the Tenjyu's grounds undetected, but now she had to navigate the tree city unaided for even with her hooded cloak and her purple hair in a bun, the princess feared her tiara would give her presence away. A further complication was the crowded nature of the walkways in the city. Whenever she visited the cities on Earth or Jurai, the slim lady had someone as a guide but the personal nature of her quest made this option unusable. So for better part of an hour, Ayeka wandered about before her increasingly fear of failure overwhelmed her fear of being discovered. Carefully looking at the passing people, the ruby-eyed woman selected a man carrying a Jurain ten-finger flute.

Holding her right hand up to catch the blond-haired man attention, Ayeka cautiously asked, "Onegai shimasu, could you tell me where the Aka Dokutsu is?"

The man with a couple of days worth of stubble on his face gave Ayeka a civil smile before doing a half-turn and point with his instrument at the huge tree he was walking from, "On the third floor, next to the Aoi Ai."

"Go . . . Goshinsetsu o makoto ni arigato (Thank you very much for your kindness)," Ayeka's autopilot politeness kicked in to overcome her wide-eyed shock.

Misinterpreting the young woman's reaction as nervousness, the green-eyed man gave the princess a toothy smile as he said, "Goseiko o (Good Luck) on your first night!"

"But . . . but . . . " Ayeka sputtered out but the man had already walked away from her.

Indecision weighed down Ayeka's frame as she stared at the entrance, she knew such places existed even on such a perfect planet as Jurai but she never thought her journey for truth would take her to such a place. With purpose and properness warring within her mind it was then she heard a snicker from the back of her mind. This unvoiced sound created an instant response, Ayeka pulled herself to full stature, girdled her courage and headed on strong steps for the tree's entrance. Unnoticed by the slim lady, the man who answered her question had stopped to watch her from a distance, when he saw her decisive steps he said to himself, "Shinjare'kka yo (Man! Unbelievable)! A shinkai (virgin) at her age!"

Upon entering the tree, Ayeka glanced at the directory on the wall to make sure the Aka Dokutsu was on the third floor. It was. With ramrod purpose the cloaked figure made her way to the teleport pad. Stepping onto the device she thought of her destination and was transported to the pad on that floor. Following the numbers above each door, it didn't take long to find the club although the well-groomed men, in very formal Jurain kimonos, standing in front of the entrances to both the Aka Dokutsu and the Aoi Ai were one of many clues, the princess also noted the oblique static fields over the openings preventing snoopy people from seeing the clientele.

With head down to hid her face, Ayeka tried to go by the single guard at the Aka Dokutsu's entry but the tall man put his meaty hand in front of her face and then said, "Gomen, only members are allowed through here. If you're an employee, you must go into the Aoi Ai first and use the linking access."

Ayeka jerked her head left and up to look at the man with stormy eyes but she bit her tongue to stop herself from declaring her authority, instead her left hand touched the palm in front of her face and with a little slight-of-hand, a Jurain 10,000 yen note appeared between her index and middle fingers while she said at a volume that the guard at the other door couldn't hear, "Can I get an unsigned membership card with this?"

The guard whistled under his breath then his callused hand closed over the currency note and he gave Ayeka a neutral toned, "Ee."

Ayeka took only a few shocked steps after going through the static field, before the club's sight, the smell and the sound stopped her cold at the welcoming desk. The music coming from the club's sound system hurt her ears with its loud aggressiveness, the odorous mix of powerful pheromone perfumes crinkled her nose and the two-by-three blackboard behind the long bar on the room's left side, with prices next to words, brought blood to her face because although the princess couldn't specify what horse riding, a handy-pandy special or skin lip was, she did recognize the term, white-lily-in-the-valley. Mihoshi told her Washu once offered to do it for Tenchi and the blond woman gave her a police description of the act. The expansive room was dominated by two things, the already mentioned bar and an elevated forty-foot circular stage in the middle. The stage had musical instruments at the small section of the circle, which allowed everyone a clear view when a performer was using the stage. Tables and seats formed three circles around the stage, the first two ovals were made of small tripod tables with four chair-like stools around each of them while the last circle was of freestanding booths with heavy tables covered with cherry red tablecloths. Except for the wall taken up by the bar, the other walls were lined with intimate booths with the right one having a hallway entrance in the middle of it, a sign over the doorway's top, Ai Aoi.

Just as Ayeka started to recover from the initial assault on her psyche, a new discovery dropped her jaw, the waitresses. The waitresses were from the various races of the Milky Way and beyond, yet each was a match for what Juraijin culture considered beautiful, with all the correct feminine bumps and features. The eyes or skins or hairs did not paralyze the princess' mind, instead the costumes held her vision. Unlike the upscale karaoke clubs and bars her extended family on Earth went to, where the waitresses wore conservative uniforms, what she saw here shocked her sensibility. She saw one woman, made to look like Misaki, sitting at the bar seductively licking her male customer's left ear while her left hand massaged a growing bulge in his pants. Another woman of mature years wore the image of Seto as she slipped underneath a table she shared with a man of the same age, only seconds pass before carnal hunger owned his features with only the ground touching tablecloth preventing others from seeing her experienced mouth in action. This wasn't true of the Funaho lookalike with her royal kimono lifted up so her exposed thighs could grasp the seated young male's manhood, a sweaty lock of her pale green hair had slipped out from under the black wig she wore as her small feet rhythmically lifted her body up and down. These three acts caught Ayeka's attention yet there were other waitresses dressed as Kishi Jurai, Galaxy Policewomen and other symbols of authority, their clothing slightly modified from the original so easy access could be gained by hand, tongue, fleshy pole or foreign objects to the women's most private parts. The less adventurers men and women in the club offered shouts of encouragement to the already mentioned couples, as well a few others scattered about the spacious room, or gave teasing hoots to blushing customers of both genders as their selection led them to a private booth or down the hallway to the Aoi Ai for a more long-lasting session.

The steel in Ayeka's mettle melted from the sexual heat her ruby eyes saw and it took a voice from her left to stop her from bolting for the exit, "Konbanwa, may I help you?"

Turning in that direction, Ayeka found herself staring at her mirror image, ruby eyes with a halo of purple hair properly split into twin ponytails and a slim body dressed in the most beautiful black Jurain kimono embroidered with images of white doves. In those mirror eyes Ayeka didn't find wickedness or dull soullessness instead there was the sweetness of happiness. It was this goodness that shored up Ayeka's spirit. Taking Ayeka's silence for shyness, the young woman behind the welcoming counter asked, "Are you waiting for someone?"

Ayeka gave a silent nod.

"Then why don't you rent one of our private booths?" the woman gave Ayeka a honey smile.

Again Ayeka gave a silent nod as she held out a large Jurain currency note, she didn't want any part of her voice to hurt this kind lady's feelings.

"Did you want to leave your cloak here?" a syrupy tone to the look-a-like's voice as the green bill was delicately plucked from the princess' fingers.

Ayeka gave a negative shake of her head for she didn't want her tiara to reveal her identity.

"Ii ne," more than ever the checkout girl was sure she knew the nature of the cat holding the hooded woman's tongue, then her eyes looked beyond Ayeka as she called out, "Yui . . . eh . . . Ryoko-san, could you take . . . " the woman paused so Ayeka could give a name.

Using her renewed spirit, Ayeka barely said above the loud music, "I'm Ayame."

Giving the princess a soft smile, the Ayeka look-a-like refocused on something beyond the princess and again shouted, "Ryoko-san, can you take Ayame-san to a private booth?"

Ayeka's eyes went wide as she finally picked up on the name her double used and she turned just as her ears heard the answer coming from behind her, "Of course, Ayeka-san."

Ayeka's vision found a tall body with amber eyes crowned by cyan hair, white fangs upon red lips and catlike ears bookend a sharp featured face but the slim lady's lips quivered with withheld laughter as a manly-womanish voice said, "This way, Ayame-san."

The young woman watched the two figures leave but her mind quickly locked upon the proper posture of the cloaked lady's walk. She pressed a button on counter and then said, "Akuma-chan, I think someone very special just came in."

"I'll be there in a moment," a girlish voice came over the young woman's camouflaged earphone.

Following the transvestite, Ayeka couldn't keep a Cheshire Cat's grin from her face as she felt Ryoko's scream of indignation followed by, 'I'll rip me off of him! I'll really ragiri (penis cut) that he into a she!"

'But Ryoko-san, the ryosei (both sexes) looks just like you wa yo!' mirth in Ayeka's mental statement.

'Just as yours does!' Ryoko countered.

'Indeed, the shojo does,' calmness in Ayeka's return.

'It doesn't bother you?' puzzlement in Ryoko's words.

'The ojosan was nice to me,' pride found a home in Ayeka's explanation, 'she showed a regalness in bearing my image.'

'Dewa, I'm out of here!' Ryoko let out and before Ayeka could ask her bondmate to stay, she heard someone noisily clear his or her throat.

Ayeka refocused her sight on the drag queen, whose head nodded at the empty booth next to them before saying, "Ayame-san, will this do?"

"Ee," Ayeka kept her answer short so her amusement at Ryoko's irritation wouldn't confuse him. She found the booth spacious with a small bolted table surrounded by a deep circular couch with multicolored pillows.

Ayeka took a step to the entrance but hesitated for a second as she remembered who was next to her. Like he was reading her mind, the womanish man said, "Don't worry Ayame-san, only when you're ready and you've chosen a partner, will you be serviced the way you want it in total privacy," then he showed her the control board on the inside wall of the booth, "this controls the obliqueness, one-way vision and soundproofing of the static field at the booth's entrance."

Again Ayeka reminded herself of the nature of her journey to this place as she moved around the booth's table and sat in the middle of what she found was a very soft coach. When she looked up at the Ryoko double, he asked, "Can I get you something to drink?"

"Do you have sake?" Ayeka hopefully asked, the last time she had any sake was months ago, when Ryoko found her staring out at the lake near the Masaki home, her mind imprisoned by a black depression as she remembered the events of seven-hundred-years ago. The cyan-haired woman took the purple-haired lady to the floating onsen where both got drunk. In the end, the princess shattered the bars of her cell and her new friend tenderly hugged her shaking body while words, about an unremitting search for unrequited love, matched her teardrops.

"Expensive but we have only the best here," the waitress answered with a grin then added, "Chilled or heated?"

"Heated," in a few minutes with a saucer cup in her right hand and a small ceramic bottle before her, the princess gave a pleasant sigh as the liquid warmed both her body and her spirit.

Ayeka's right hand set the static field to one-way and allowed the sake to relax her as she surveyed the coming and going of waitresses, clients and barflies. The musicians had come on stage and were tuning their instruments when the princess' roaming orbs noted two odd groups, anywhere else they would have gone unnoticed but here they stuck out like a sore thumb.

One group was sitting together at two of the small tables in the first ring. Dressed in clothes that spoke of a middle-class upbringing, the four young men and four young women carried laughter in their eyes, gave friendly shoves at teasing words and poured drinks for each other. To Ayeka these youths were most likely students from one of the academies, maybe even from the Galaxy Academy.

This joyful atmosphere the young ones were immense in was a total opposite to the icy ire surrounding the other group. Seated at one of the freestanding booths, the young men in highborn regalia showed their emotional state with shifting eyes, flexing fingers and the deathly stares they gave the waitresses while nursing their drinks. What bothered Ayeka a lot was the older youth among them, obviously their leader due to the way the others looked at him and nodded at his every utterance, because he looked familiar.

Satisfied with her scan of the room and not caring to practice any voyeurism, Ayeka changed the setting of the static field to solid but didn't make it soundproof, so she would know when Tatsu came on stage. Ayeka downed another shot of sake with her head tilted up so she only heard someone pass through the static field and then asked the princess with a light sweet voice, "Ayame-sama, I hope you are enjoying yourself?"

As Ayeka's lowered cup revealed a face just above the rim, the princess gagged and spattered as sake went up her nose. With gapping mouth astonishment, Ayeka choked out, "Sa . . . Sasami!"

"Yatta (Cool!)!" glee came from the lips of the young girl with blue hair and pink eyes, "I've never gotten this kind reaction from anyone before."

The young one's voice of puberty jarred Ayeka's critical mind into action as it sized up the sight before her. Yes, the female before the princess was short, even close to Sasami's size, but her eyes were a darker pink than her sister's, suggesting contact lens-covered irises of a different shade. Furthermore her clothing was a smaller version of a woman's kimono instead of a child's kimono. While this knowledge did bring relief to Ayeka's stunned mind, it also brought hot words from her lips, "OJOSAN, you might find this FUNNY but I for one find someone of your tender years in this place and in that COSTUME very disgusting!"

The humor in the Sasami look-a-like was instantly replaced with wounded pride as she shot back, "Shukujo (noblewoman), I'm not a chibi nor do I have a shinkai (virgin shell)."

"I find it hard to believe you could be more than twelve," Ayeka's righteousness very evident in her tone, "thirteen at the most."

The little woman stepped around the table and placed her left hand on top of Ayeka's right hand while saying with certainty, "I might not have okii chichi (big tits) like you, shukujo, but I do have karasugai (very dense pubic hair)," then an unsettling glint entered her cotton candy orbs as she moved the princess' hand toward her, "Would you like to make sure by touching my asoke (pussy), feel my thing?"

Ayeka jerked her hand from the short one's grip with loathing plain on her face and in her words, "You are an akurei!"

"Iie, shukujo, I'm Akuma Mayko," the blue-haired woman said with a perverted grin as she gave Ayeka a deep bow and promptly banged her head on the edge of the table.

"Eeee . . ." a painful cry came from Mayko's lips as she dropped upon the coach next to Ayeka, her perfect hands holding her blue-haired head.

The blow from the table showed to Ayeka that golden hair existed underneath the young woman's wig. Unable not to feel some sympathy for the person next to her, the princess said, "I don't see why you must wear such disgraceful attire, especially since the spin gold you have for hair is much more beautiful."

The sobs stopped as hands dropped to reveal inhabited gaiety dancing in the youth's eyes as Mayko said, "But my clients have a naku (howl) at the sight of an oujosama going down on their kyuri (cucumber)."

The young woman's enthusiasm clicked in Ayeka's mind why this little one loved what she did, it was a game to her. With careful words the slim princess said, "Don't you think it is wrong to look like a kodomo just to fulfil some kochikan's horrible fantasy?"

"Isn't it wrong to murder children who have no kazoku, no father, no mother," Mayko countered with old pain making her face cold, "children who must live in sewers to avoid the death squads and eat from garbage dumps while priests praise from gold studded churches?" Ayeka's heart was ripped as she heard the awful hate in the little one's tone as she continued, "I was lucky, a woman of your world stopped an aobuta (blue pig officer) from caving in my skull. She offered this life to me and I didn't question it, not for a moment," then her eyes filled with raw certainty, "This is heaven, where I wear Jurain silk upon my body, eat wonderful food and sleep in soft beds."

"But this will not last forever," Ayeka felt the suffering of the short woman next to her.

"Don't worry, Ayame-san," Mayko winked at her, "I have the most prized kemomo (hair peach) in all of Jurai and every man and a few women want to nibble it and feel its juices running down their chin," then the lightness of her tone became serious, "I'm saving as much of my money as possible for I have plans," a deadly look filled her face.

Ayeka opened her mouth to ask another question but her train-of-thought be interrupted by a high-pitched, male voice coming over the speakers, "Konbanwa, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Aka Dokutsu, where all cares are left at the door and all fantasies come true."

"That's Haiiro-san giving his opening monologue," a bored look on Mayko's face matched her tone, "ever since he saw Cabaret on JC11, he gets all dressed up in black, paints his face white and has us call him, Haiiro-san, such a stupid name."

"In this place you will find the megami of pleasure has bestowed our angels with the most heavenly bodies which will lift you on wings to nirvana," a seductive tone in the mannish voice, "and each of them will remember your name just like it was their first time."

A few barks of laughter came from the audience.

"And each of our angels is of perfect virtue," a playfulness to his words, "each able to bring beauty to their pillow talk and each able to touch the sky with their carnal song."

More voices joined the laughter.

"You don't believe me?" a note of shock in the voice, "You don't accept my word?"

The laughter became stronger.

"Then ask them!" a daring tone in the words before the voice gave a wicked laugh.

"Arigatai (Thank goodness), that's over with!" a bitchy tone to Mayko's words.

"I sort of liked it," then Ayeka quickly added when the youth looked cross-eyed at her, "In a perverse way."

"Not after you hear it day after day after day," bluntness in Mayko's voice, "the only reason he's up there is because the customers like him," then the short woman's words gained a hopeful tone, "at least he's a good opener for Tatsu-san."

Hearing Mayko use Tatsu's first name instead of his surname, Ayeka asked with interest, "You know Ka . . . eh . . . Kubiha-san?"

"Ee!" pleasure in Mayko's response, she then turned the static field control to one-way before asking, "You see the crowd out there?"

"Hai," Ayeka's ruby eyes saw there were many more out there than when she first came in.

"Before Tatsu-san came two weeks ago, the people came to get drunk, watch us shake our ketsu on the stage and/or get laid," Mayko's voice matched the youthful enthusiasm her body showed, "Now they come to listen to his singing as well as all the above."

"I see," Ayeka noticed that part of the crowd was made up of girls as young as Mayko, the princess didn't like that.

"In fact, some of my friends here are whining about their chitsu (vagina) is hurting from getting too much action," mirth in Mayko's voice, "since he came."

"NANI!" Ayeka face just inches from Mayko's, with daggers in her ruby eyes.

"From the new customers," wide-eyed fright in Mayko's face.

"Oi," Ayeka said in a small voice, the slim lady realized she overreacted.

Now it was Mayko's turn to stick her face right under Ayeka's nose and she spotted the princess' tiara that Ayeka tried to hide under her purple bangs. With pink eyes full of knowing, the short woman shouted, "Ne ne! You're the one!"

"The one?" Ayeka's pretense at ignorance caused her answer to sound hollow.

"His kore (girlfriend), baka wa!" Mayko countered as she made a fist with her right hand and raised her little pinkie with its nail facing Ayeka.

"Ara . . . eh . . . dewa . . . " Ayeka sputtered in indecision with forehead wet with sweat.

"You know every shojo here has made a play for him," Mayko went dreamy eyed with clasped hands beside her right cheek, "to have such a iro otoko (sexy man) holding me, kissing me, loving me," the short woman gave a slow sigh before she continued, "But he said a kindly no to me and the others. A tachiyaku (masculine homosexual), who hangs out here, even tried but he got even a more negative answer, punctuated by an aza (a black eye)."

Sweat had gone from forehead to chin as Ayeka bit her lip as she realized she was part of this club's rumor mill.

"Then three days ago those students started to come in," Mayko pointed at the group of young men and young women Ayeka had spotted earlier, "they said they were here to hear Tatsu-san's music but one of the waitresses overheard that tall shojo, with the long chestnut hair, talk about checking out the Saishono Oujosama Jurai's new raba (lover)."

Ayeka's eyes reached planet size at the implications of Mayko's statement made but before she could push out her denial, the blue-haired woman continued, "For the last two years we heard the oujosama and her kawaii imoto were staying on Earth with a shonen she daisuki," then Mayko eyes gained a knowing look as she locked Ayeka's gaze into hers, "but something happened and now you're back on Jurai, the owner of Tatsu-san's kokoro."

"But . . . but . . . it's . . . not . . ." Ayeka's fumbled words are stopped by a roar of voices as limelight focused on a figure appearing from behind the musicians on the stage. Ayeka's mouth clicked shut as her cheeks went bright scarlet at the glittering chains against the background of a total black, short sleeved jumpsuit Tatsu was wearing. To a non-Jurain the chains running from the neck-collar to his black fingerless gloves and the chain belt around his waist would mask what every Jurain in the house could see, the little silvery chains upon his wrists. To every noble house within the empire of Jurai, Tatsu was proclaiming himself a noblewoman's man. 'The red bands he wore when he was with me was to hide the pale markings the chains would leave,' Ayeka's revelation filled her mind, 'Ryoko was right, he loves me and only me.'

With a small mike attached to his black-haired head, Tatsu reached the middle of the stage when the long-haired woman with the students stood up and walked to the edge of the elevated platform. Seeing the tall lady approaching, the green-eyed man walked to the same place and crouched down. A spark of jealousy lit up the princess' ruby eyes at the friendly smile the man gave the woman but it quickly turned to complete surprise when his eyes lifted up to stare straight at where the cloaked booth hid the hooded princess, at her side she heard Mayko let out a snicker before saying, "It looks like your disguise didn't fool anyone."

With Ayeka's mouth silenced by the eyes that never left hers, Tatsu stepped slowly back to the middle of the round dais before his hand touched the mike and his words full of affection came out of the speakers, "Konbanwa, everyone. Tonight is special for me because the kami, who spin, measure and cut my thread of life have decided to weave it with another string so there will be color in my gray existence. So tonight I will sing a song I've written with my ki and give it to the one I want to be together with, for all my future days."

"Uaa! He's going to sing to you!" Mayko's words fat with romantic notions.

The musician with the ratty mustache strummed a stringed instrument that produced deep sounds like a mandolin as Ayeka watched Tatsu closed his eyes and relaxed his frame. After the drummer used a whisk to add a soft sandy sound to the tune, Tatsu's voice came in:

My eyes looked at days past,

Remembered the caterpillar you were,

The little smile you would give me,

The cheeks with love's bluish,

But with dainty hands left unfilled,

Due to the shell of protocol.

Some call you princess,

Some call you highness,

They only see the caterpillar.

I've heard the quiet sobs,

I've seen the silent tears,

I want to kiss your face dry,

I want to hold you tight,

So I can heal your broken heart.

Some call you princess,

Some call you highness,

They only see the caterpillar,

But I've seen your purple wings.

Upon the fields of Troy,

You walked in terrible majesty,

But you gave life instead of death,

All in the name of love.

Some call you princess,

Some call you highness,

They only see the caterpillar,

But I've seen your purple wings,

Unfold from your broken shell.

When darkness filled your sight,

When the void robbed you of feeling,

When the ashes are your only food,

Your soul will be with mine,

You won't be alone.

Some call you princess,

Some call you highness,

They only see the caterpillar,

But I've seen your purple wings,

Unfold from your broken shell,

Lifting you up into the sunny sky.

Ayeka's mind was trapped by the romantic passion she heard in Tatsu's words, her heart caught in the love she saw in his green eyes. Mayko looked first at Ayeka then at Tatsu and back to Ayeka before sighing with adoration, "Mechakucha gu (Fucked-up good)!"

Mayko's comment jarred Ayeka out of her trance and she gave the little one an inquisitive look but before any words could be exchanged, a movement grabbed her vision. The princess looked beyond the booth to see Tatsu no longer on the stage, instead he was making his way to her. At about halfway to her Ayeka noticed Tatsu's head turn to his right and by following his line-of-sight, she found the group of nine young noblemen, she had spotted earlier, was on an interception course with him. Tatsu continued his walk to the princess but found the last few yards blocked by the stony youths.

"Teme (Yo Asshole)!" one of the youth to Tatsu's right growled, "Datoyari-sama would like a word with you."

Ayeka could tell Tatsu didn't like the way he was addressed by the youth but he patiently turned to face the young man, who Ayeka had deduced to be their leader, but before the red-eyed man could say anything, Tatsu said, "If this is about me becoming Kotei Jurai, I will help my okasama as a musuko should," then he glanced in Ayeka's direction while adding, "and to find someone to share my life with."

Taken aback by Tatsu's directness, the one identified as Datoyari said with chilled words, "I have no objections to you being Ayeka-oujosama's koibito nor your marriage to her. You see, many of us no longer see her as Saishono Oujosama Jurai, so great has she been corrupted by the heresy of non-Juraijin ways, which was allowed by already polluted ryoshin."

"I find such words coming from uchu kaizoku stock to be amusing," Tatsu gave a very unfriendly smile to Datoyari as he sidestepped around the group but kept facing them.

"That blood has been filtered pure from our veins and the vestiges of that past will be purified from Jurai na," Datoyari eyes flashed with fanaticism.

"I would be carefully of speaking the words of revolution," Tatsu words took on warning tone, "Tsunami-megami still protects the Oken Kazoku Jurai."

"Tsunami-megami is a myth created by superstitious primitives to explain the Ko-Oh-Yoku (Lighthawk Wings)," contemptuous tone in the younger man's words.

"If you say so," Tatsu took a tone used by parents on unruly children, "Just remember the wave of change can't be controlled once it is unleashed."

"Oi, we don't plan to rid Jurai of the Oken Kazoku," Datoyari slyly said, "just subjugate it."

"Then I hope you will earn a star," venom in Tatsu's declaration, "You'll have stiff competition from the dozens of other noble plotters."

As Tatsu started to turn his back on the group so he could continue his journey, Datoyari wickedly said, "Ara, but mine has the best chance of success for while Ayeka-oujosama is beyond redemption, Sasami-oujosama is not."

Tatsu frozen in his tracks, slowly turned toward Datoyari before saying with a low tone, "Nani?"

Seeing he had finally scored a hit, the floppy youth in a bright yellow and even brighter green men's kimono ignored the menace in Tatsu's voice, stepped beyond his friends to continue his insidious words, "Such a kodomo as Sasami-oujosama may have picked up some bad habits from Ayeka-oujosama but such layers of impurity can be ripped . . . " The youth with long green hair was unable to finish his statement for in an instant his feet were no longer firmly on the ground, instead they were dancing on air with the rest of Datoyari's body, hoisted up by Tatsu's right-hand grip on the youth's neck.

"You touch Sasami-chan and no rock you will crawl under shall save you," a violent death was promised in Tatsu's voice and then with a little flex of his right arm he tossed the young nobleman into the booth where the group came from, "now take your yakichi (dwarfs) and leave my sight."

During this time, Tatsu's mike broadcast the words exchanged between him and the youths with a very predictable result occurring, Ayeka was getting mad. With each slur to her and her loved ones, with every treasonous word, the fire behind her eyes burned ever brighter. Mayko saw the purple fire in Ayeka's face and she sneered at the fallen nobleman with relish, "I hope you like things hot."

When Datoyari's companions rushed to their fallen leader, they found him storming back onto his feet and he reached underneath his obi for a cylinder object with his friends aping him. That was the last straw for Ayeka for without a lost moment, Ayeka's tiara burst into a bluish-white light while she shouted, "IIE WA YO (NO!)!"

Gasps of surprise matched shocked faces as every lightsabre and pistol found a home on the room's red ceiling. The sight of helplessness on Datoyari companions' faces brought awe to Mayko's voice, "Aaaa (Ohhh) . . . "

With red anger in his eyes, Datoyari snarled, "We don't need our lightsabre to teach this upstart what his real place is on Jurai."

Fiendish smugness filled Datoyari companions' faces at the prospect of a nine-to-one fight but this was short-lived as they beheld the students get up from their chairs and step next to Tatsu. A student with white hair, who looked like he went to the same barber as Ryoko, cracked his knuckles as he said with eagerness, "I haven't kicked a noble's ketsu in a while, so let's add our hands to this fight, Li-chan."

"Of course, anata," the tall woman reply with snuggles in her voice for the short man as she took up a battle stance next to him, her hair pilled underneath the woven red-and-black checkerboard hat, although loose strands of brown stuck out here and there, then she called over her shoulder, "How about you, Ach-chan?"

The man with the buzz-sawed haircut and tailored red suit gave a frosty smile as he said, "Nothing would please me more than to defend the honor of the oujosama. I'm sure Le-chan and Jaf-chan would agree with me."

A young dishwater blond woman in a pea green miniskirt gave a silent nod while the redheaded man, whose hand she was holding, gave a confident smile before saying in a dramatic voice, "Let's get dangerous."

"Six versus nine is still a little uneven," A man with blackness as his features appeared next to Li, "I hope you don't mind if I join you, Li-chan."

"You are always welcomed, Horo-chan," huggles in Li's warm words which earned the newcomer a glare from the wild-haired man.

"I would suggest you don't interfere in your betters' business," Datoyari's words to the students were full of contempt.

"This ketsu-nuke jan thinks he has a teppo (gun) in his pants," Jaf's tone showed he didn't like Datoyari's words.

"When he only has an ikibari (a lively needle)," Le-chan finished for her mate as they both stood next to Ach.

Hearing the last comment, Datoyari let out a roar and charged forward with his men right behind him. The action unglued Tatsu, who shouted, "LET'S DANCE!"

The club's bouncers moved forward to stop the fight before it got going but Mayko clicked the static field to two-way and gave a quick slicing motion with by her right hand which halted the big men, then the short woman gave a thumb up with the same hand and the hefty guys got the rest of the club's customers out of the fight zone. When the fight's first punch was thrown the band on the stage started to play the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."

High pitched screams mixed with the thundering music told everyone watching that Datoyari's men had found out how dangerous it was to fight a pair of wildcats like Li and Le for nothing was sacred when women fought. The rest gave as well as they got with Mayko shouting encouragement to Tatsu and the students until a painful moan stopped her. Looking up, the woman with the ponytail wig found Ayeka with her eyes rolled up into her skull, with sweat pouring off of her face and shattered words passing through ashen lips, "I . . . must . . . not . . . give . . . in," the princess' body started to sway, " . . . cannot . . . let . . . them . . . hurt . . . Tatsu-sama . . . "

With full fright of what was happening to Ayeka, Mayko shouted at the top-of-her-lungs, "TATSU-SAN, OUJOSAMA!"

The attack that came was like nothing before but Ayeka fought it, pushing her spirit to help the one who loved her, the one she loved. But with ruby vision laced with barely recognizable images, feeling the wings of darkness closing over her consciousness, she couldn't stop her body from sagging and falling backwards. With just a sliver of her wakened mind left, she felt strong hands catch her and she heard a distant girl's tearful voice call her name.

**********

Tenjyu Hospital

"Oujo-chan, it's time to wake up," Ayeka heard Ryoko's voice.

Ayeka's eyelids fluttered open and she found herself in her child form again, under the covers of her bed, in her private room just like it was when she was Sasami's age, all pink, pale blue and fluffy. Also, held in her eyesight was Ryoko's child-like body with amber eyes full of concern. With some curiosity the purple-haired girl asked, "Ryoko-chan, you seem to be interested in my childhood ne?"

Ryoko's small body climbed onto the bed and sat next to the prone princess while saying, "Maybe it's because my memories of that time are like colorless pictures, I know they're mine but there's no emotion in them," then Ryoko wrapped her small arms around herself as a romantic look filled her childish face, "not like the ones I have of Tenchi," lastly the cyan-haired girl gave the princess a tender look, "or the ones I have of you, Sasami-chan, Mihoshi-san, Katsuhito-san or Nobiyuki-san."

"And Washu-san?" Ayeka carefully asked as she looked up at her friend's joyful face.

"That is the gift my past gave me," Ryoko's reply full of warmth as she started to float just above the blankets, "they showed okachan does love me as a daughter."

"Even if it is in a strange way," Ayeka teased as her dainty left hand quickly honked Ryoko's small nose.

"I wouldn't want it any other way," the uchu kaizoku's fanged mouth made a pretense at biting the princess' retreating hand.

Ayeka sat up in bed and said to her friend, "Then I do not mind if you are inquisitive and domo arigato for saving me."

"It wasn't me, Ayeka-san," Ryoko gave her friend a cattish grin.

"Oi?" Ayeka's surprise filled that one word.

Ryoko shook her head before saying, "Look at your right hand."

Ayeka brought the before mentioned appendage to her face and she saw a golden radiance covered it from her fingertips to her elbow. With an unasked question on her face, she looked at Ryoko, who said with relief, "You almost died, Oujo-chan, giving Tatsu-san a chance against that ketsu-Datoyari, now it's Tatsu-san's turn to save you."

"And this?" Ayeka asked as she glanced back at her radiant hand.

"He's in your room at the palace's hospital, holding your right hand with both of his," Ryoko took hold of the little princess' left hand, "using his ki to refresh your own ki, to repair the damage your body suffered when you used your Jurain power."

With this new information confirming a theory she had been putting together, Ayeka carefully asked, "He has done this before ne?"

"Hai," Ryoko reluctantly acknowledged.

"He is the reason I'm still alive, wa?" ventured Ayeka.

"Un," an edge of dread was in Ryoko's one word answer.

"Why is Tatsu-sama doing this?" Ayeka voice went up a notch.

"Because he loves you," Ryoko answered simply.

"Ryoko-chan, there is more here than his feelings for me," Ayeka voice dropped to a whisper, "or mine for him."

"What do you mean, Oujo-chan?" Ryoko was confused by Ayeka statement.

"Ryoko-chan, how much do you know about the political structure of Jurai?" Ayeka's face showed she was very serious.

"Dewa, up to three days ago I thought it was like other monarchies I've seen in space and on Earth," a ghost of a smile on Ryoko's lips, "but that whip and leather act I saw two days ago made me wonder a lot."

"Two days ago," Ayeka eyes went a little wide, "but that was yesterday!"

"Mo, Ayeka-chan, you've been asleep for the past eight hours" Ryoko smiled with some envy, "with Tatsu-san kneeling by your bed, his hands holding yours, his lips touching your fingers."

Ayeka was touched by Tatsu's demonstration of love but she steeled her mind to continue her train of thought, "Since the accession of Akane-joosama to the throne of Jurai, the responsibility of the most powerful woman," then Ayeka remembered her mothers, "or women of Jurai is to protect the people of our domain from the greed and the lust for power of the hungry individuals within the noble houses."

"In other words the Joosama Jurai is the real power behind the Kotei Jurai," Ryoko surmised with eyes wide with delight.

"The day-to-day operations and most of the decisions are made by my otousama," Ayeka clarified defensively, "but either okasama or Funaho-okasama could step in and modify any of his decisions, should either one of them feel he has gone beyond his traditional office."

"So they have him under their thumb," Ryoko stated more than questioned.

"The covenant between the Onna Jurai (Woman of Jurai) and the Uchu Kaizokus (Space Pirates) still exist not only in ritualized words but also in everyday life," Ayeka put as much firmness as she could in her child-like voice.

Then something hit Ryoko mind and she said, "Tatsu-san helping you affected this ancient agreement wa?"

"Hai," now Ayeka's voice shook with sadness, "If he is the only reason I'm alive, the only reason I continue to exist, many on Jurai would see me as his mekake, unfit to become joosama."

"Oujo-chan, I know you as do others," Ryoko eyes flashed with anger, "They know you're a kick ass onna who is no one's mekake!"

"But there are others like Datoyari-sama," hate in Ayeka's voice, "who would use it to topple the Oken Kazoku Jurai, to found a new dynasty where only they have the power and only they have any rights."

"So what will you do?" heaviness in Ryoko's question.

"I still need more answers to my questions," Ayeka looked deep into Ryoko's catlike eyes, "and I venture to say I'm only going to get my answers from Tatsu-sama." It was with those last words that she noticed the soft light around her right hand had faded away.

Seeing Ayeka's line-of-sight, Ryoko said with a gentle tone, "It looks like Tatsu-san has choose to give you some privacy when you truly wake up."

On impulse Ayeka leaned over to Ryoko, kissed her friend on the cheek and then said, "Sayonara, Ryoko-chan."

"Oujo-chan, daisuki da yo (Little Princess, I love you)!" unshed tears caused flakes of gold to shimmer in Ryoko's eyes as her small hands hugged her friend.

"Where we fought shoulder-to-shoulder upon hellish battlefields," Ayeka returned the hug with much tenderness, "where we killed for each other, where we died for each other, where we wept for each other, we came to love each other as oneesama."

"For he today that sheds his blood with me," Ryoko responded with heart, "shall be my brother."

"So you did pay attention to the movie ne," Ayeka accused her friend with a knowing look.

"I still like the newer version better," Ryoko sniffled while rubbing the tears out of her eyes.

"I prefer the older film," Ayeka said in a matter-to-fact tone.

"Of course you did," Ryoko replied with a false sneer, "with all those dashing tin cans on horseback and flags flying."

"While you can't take your eyes off the blood and gore of the battles," Ayeka surmised with a smile.

"What can I say," Ryoko shrugged her shoulders as a touch of pride and guilt entered her words, "for most of my life I was an uchu kaizoku, the ultimate warrior and a ruthless killer. I've seen and caused the same kind of death and horror those fighters suffered and I understand it well."

"But you are more than that, Ryoko-chan," Ayeka put certainty in her voice, "you are Washu-san's musume, you are Tenchi-sama's koibito and you are my oneesama."

With this final touch of spirits, the world within Ayeka's mind dissolved and Ayeka opened her real eyes. She lay on a bed with white sheets while her room's four walls were just as white, only her scarlet vision showed the closet door where she would find her clothes. It took only a second for her to feel something flat and square in her right hand. She brought it to her eyes and found it to be a business card with Juraigo words upon it: Ayeka Fan Club.

It was then she knew why those students were so interested in Tatsu and in her but it didn't stop her from saying, "Why would anyone devote a fan club to me?"

Ayeka then felt some writing on the back of the card and turned it over with her dexterous fingers. On the back she found these words: "You represent every romantic spirit in the universe." Under the words was the drawn image of a dragon in flight.

**********

Chapter Six: Butterfly

Ayeka's Apartment

Ayeka sat before her vanity dresser thinking about how to fix her face for her meeting with Tatsu, Misaki stood behind her using a stiff-haired brush to get the tangles out of her daughter's longhair. There was a frightened softness to the way Misaki was pulling the brush though the purple hair that worried Ayeka, like it was her mother's way of cherishing something she would never do again. Deciding that her mother's silent sorrow must end, Ayeka reached up with her right hand to take hold of the blue-haired lady's right hand at the top of the princess' purple head. With words full of love, the offspring of the beautiful lady said, "Okasama, no matter what happens today I want you to remember me with fondness, with happiness, and help otousama because he will need your warm support."

All pretenses dropped from Misaki's figure as the brush clattered to the floor when her strong arms and soft hands surround Ayeka's smaller frame. Making cooing sounds to her mother, Ayeka heard the door to her bedroom open. Looking up she saw Funaho looking at the pair with heartfelt love in her brown eyes. With strong words covered in tears, Ayeka's stepmother said, "Tatsu-dono is waiting in your garden."

Ayeka gave Funaho a nod of gratitude and then glanced at Misaki then back to Funaho. With clear understanding, the black-haired queen walked over and gathered her beloved spouse into her caring arms. It was then that Ayeka decided makeup was unneeded for this encounter and her simple light blue to a dark purple kimono with red obi would suffice. Getting up she gave each of her mothers a quick kiss of farewell before leaving.

The walk to her garden allowed Ayeka to organize the many questions in her mind, but in the time not measured she found herself standing before Tatsu, who spent the same time sitting on the rim of the water fountain while admiring the approaching princess. When the purple-haired lady reached him, the black-haired man stood up and gave her a respectful bow, which she returned.

There were a few minutes of silence which Ayeka used to take a measure of the man dressed in a maple leaf colored kimono with a wide green obi, then Ayeka ventured her first question, "You are not the original Kubiha Tatsu?"

"Iie, I'm not he who saved your otousama and your okasama by sacrificing his life," Tatsu's tone stayed neutral.

"Although obasama has declared you her musuko," Ayeka probed.

"Seto-okasama gave me the name, called me her musuko and Misaki-imoto accepted me," remembrance brought a smile to Tatsu's face, Ayeka knew that the tall man had received one of Misaki's patented killer hugs.

Absorbing the information just given her, Ayeka asked, "Is it true that for the past four days, you have been keeping me alive?"

"Hai, it's true," Ayeka could tell Tatsu didn't like to admit it.

"Why did you do it?" Ayeka's tone showed how serious this question was.

"There is a simple reason, Ayeka-san," Tatsu's eyes flashed with fervor, "ai shite'ru yo (I love you)!"

The voice and tone so much like the way Ayeka envisioned Tenchi's would be, should he tell her the same thing, "How is it you can love me with so much force when you have only known me for these past few days?"

"I've loved you since the day I was born," Tatsu said.

Hearing complete conviction in his words, Ayeka stepped within arms' reached of the tall man and asked, "What are you?"

"I'm a creation of love, of the kind loved ones have for another," gentle words came from Tatsu's lips, "and of hope born of desperation."

Tatsu's words triggered in Ayeka's mind the promises she had made to Ryoko, to her father and the others. With words solid in their deduction Ayeka said, "You are a clone of oniisama ne?"

"You're almost right, Ayeka-san," Tatsu gave a lopsided smile, "I'm a clone of Tenchi-sama."

After so many surprises Ayeka didn't believe she could be caught off guard again but she was. She had believed that Tatsu could be a clone of Yosho, created by her father in the event his son refused the throne and something happened to his daughters. In a dumbfounded tone Ayeka started to say, "How can you be a clone of . . . " but then her own mind locked upon the answer in Tatsu's green eyes, "Washu-san."

"Tadshii, Ayeka-san," Tatsu replied with approval.

Then Ayeka remembered something from the barroom fight and asked with a knowing look, "Is that why you showed such affection for Sasami?"

"Such a being of goodness like Sasami, must always be protected," Tatsu answered with warmth, "so her gentle hugs can heal broken hearts."

"But you are so much taller than Tenchi-sama ne?" confusion returned to Ayeka's words.

"I'm as Tenchi-san will be when he is twenty-five years old," Tatsu explained.

Taking what Tatsu already hinted at Ayeka asked with an affectionate tone, "They did this for me wa?"

"They wanted to give you a reason to live," Tatsu voice full of hope, "a reason to stay with your loved ones again."

"But the events leading to my decisions happened only a couple of months ago," Ayeka's words held confusion, "How can a person like you, be created in such a short ellipse of time," then added with serious tone, "even by the greatest genius in the universe?"

"The little genius was able to deduce, from Ryoko-san's condition and your already deteriorating body, what had happened and she told Seto-okasama," Tatsu firmly said, "together they decided I was the best chance for them to reawaken your desire for life."

"So Washu-san finally got her 'sample' wa yo," a thread of dislike in Ayeka's voice.

"Ryoko-san gave it to her okasama," Ryoko grinned at Ayeka's discomfort.

Having an idea at how Ryoko got Tenchi's sperm, Ayeka quickly asked, "I can barely see how you can be Tenchi-sama's clone but how is it you also have his kindness and his inherited power?"

"I'll answer the last part of your question first," Tatsu's right hand patted the space next to him on the fountain's rim, "but it is complicated."

Taking up his offer Ayeka sat next to Tatsu and then the man asked, "Do you remember the Masu?" Ayeka nodded as her eyes lit up with expectation of what the black-haired man was going to tell her, "Tsunami-megami told Washu-san that a clone wouldn't have Tenchi-san's ability to command the Ko-Oh-Yoku, so the little genius combined Tenchi DNA with Masu and placed the amalgamation in one of her ova, just like she did when creating Ryoko-san."

"So Tsunami-megami was involved in this little conspiracy wa?" Ayeka was awed by the goddess participation.

"Tsunami-megami grieves for the loss of Ryu-oh but she shares Sasami-chan's love for her neesan," Ayeka heard the deep affection Tatsu placed in the last word.

Not ready to give her last question Ayeka requested, "Please continue ne."

"Washu-san then used two of her new inventions to complete my birth," Tatsu's carefully explained, "a personality duplication device and a time-space distortion machine."

Knowing Tatsu was probably not using the titles Washu had originally created for her devices, Ayeka said, "I presume the first machine created a copy of another person's nature," then her voice gained an icy tone, "but the second one sounds like Washu-san's Dimensional Tuner wa."

Tatsu grinned at Ayeka's reaction before he continued, "The time-space distortion machine is based on Washu-san's research on the Dimensional Tuner but instead of recreating reality around it, the machine creates a singularity within a containment field inside of it."

"So the device aged you," Ayeka stated.

"In a sense, Ayeka-san," Tatsu smiled, "Washu-san told me what the machine did was it sped up the normal progression of time so I was in the machine for twenty-five years but only seven days passed for everyone else."

A stab of doubt nailed Ayeka's heart and her voice went hollow as she said, "Washu-san's personality duplication device made you experience Tenchi-sama's life."

It was like the man could tell what the princess was thinking for Tatsu gently asked, "Do you know why Tenchi-sama picked Ryoko-san?"

Even through she had turned her back to that question when Tenchi made his choice, she still felt bewilderment over losing him to Ryoko, so she gave the man before her a slight nod.

Tatsu took her hands in his and then carefully said, "There was no way you could have known but Tenchi-sama has been in loved with Ryoko for almost sixteen years."

Ayeka felt her doubt turned to pain as it spread throughout her whole being but she steeled her spirit and asked, "Nanto?"

But instead of answering this simple question Tatsu asked, "What is Ryoko-san like when she is around Tenchi-sama and the others?"

Puzzled by the change in direction but willing to answer the question, Ayeka replied, "Even after her merging with Zero, Ryoko is either a whirlwind of joy," a vexed look appeared on Ayeka's face, "caressing Tenchi-sama and whispering hentai words in his ear," now a friendly look found a home on the princess features, "or a sleeping neko curled upon a wooden beam, bathed in the warm sunlight with the whole world passing underneath her."

"Nothing in between na?" Tatsu asked. Ayeka gave a slow nod and then the tall man continued, "The cause of this behavior is something I know Ryoko-san hasn't told you."

"What do you mean?" Ayeka was starting to get impatient with this slow build up.

"When Yosho-ojisama defeated Ryoko-san, took away her Gems and imprisoned her with the cave it was done for a purpose," Tatsu put persuasion in his words, "Your oniisama knew, as did Tsunami-megami, of Ryoko-san being the puppet of Kagato-san and they decided the only way she could be saved was by breaking the demented character her master had created in her over the thousands of years."

The pain Ayeka had felt vanished as sympathy for Ryoko washed across her soul while Tatsu continued, "Like an onion, as each century passed a layer of Ryoko-san's personality was peeled away. Like the Christians' Lucifer she screamed defiance from her hellish prison but the isolation, the lack of even a tormentor, reduced her from a once proud akurei no hakai into quivering crushed soul, pleading for an end to her captivity," then a touch of anger entered his strong words, "but they misjudged."

"In what way, Tatsu-sama?" Ayeka wanted to know the complete truth.

"Originally Yosho-sama and Tsunami-megami believe it would be his musume, Achika-sama, who would free Ryoko-san from the cave and shape the akurei's new personality with her natural gentleness and strength of character," it was here a sound of grief that shook his voice, "but my . . . Tenchi-sama's okasama was meant for a different destiny and Ryoko-san wasn't freed."

Ayeka saw Tatsu's struggle to control his sorrow, held her peace and waited. When passion's war was ended by discipline, Tatsu continued, "Five years passed before Achika-sama gave birth to Tenchi-sama but Yosho-sama's joy at having a mago was crushed by what he and Tsunami-megami found in the cave, Ryoko-san was dying."

Ayeka's hands tightened their hold on Tatsu's hands, it was as if her own heart was caught in the words she heard, "The last years of terrifying loneliness had gone beyond destroying the warped personality Kagato had imprinted upon Ryoko-san, it now ate anyway her very ki, siphoning away the life force while leaving behind an empty vessel," then Tatsu's harsh tone gave way to a jubilant one, "it was at this point an akachan told them the way to save Ryoko-san."

"Sasami," Ayeka ventured a guess.

"Ee," Tatsu gave Ayeka a knowing look, "Sasami-chan never held anything against Ryoko-san for what happened to her on Jurai, seven-hundred-years ago. In fact she felt nothing but sadness over Ryoko-san's imprisonment," Tatsu's green eyes showed pride for Ayeka's sister, "so your imoto helped Ryoko-san when the chance came. She told Tsunami-megami that the only way to heal Ryoko-san's inner wounds was to give her something to care about."

Ayeka's face gained a knowing look as she said, "So Tsunami-megami gave Tenchi-sama to Ryoko-san."

"Tsunami-megami bonded Ryoko-san with Tenchi-sama much in the same way you are now bonded with Ryoko-san," Tatsu's voice gained a loving tone.

"It allowed Ryoko-san's astral body to leave her cave and share in Tenchi-sama's life," Ayeka remembered the times Ryoko told her about watching Tenchi growing up from a laughing child to a happy young man.

"It was more than that, Ayeka-san," a sound of regret was in his words, "it made the kodomo aware of Ryoko-san's existence."

Ayeka knew what was coming next but she held her warring emotions in check, only the slight trembling of her body gave away her anguish. "At first he ventured to the cave out of inquisitiveness whenever his ryoshin took him to see m . . . his ojiisama," now renewed was the grief in Tatsu's voice as his words continued, "but all that changed the day Achika-sama died," tears slowly made their way down his cheeks, "Tenchi-sama's heart bled tears as his feet carried him to the cave entrance, with his okasama's umbrella clutched in his tiny hands. There he fell to the ground to cry out his sorrow and he found comfort from a ghostly figure."

Feeling the need to do something Ayeka took her left hand from Tatsu's grip, fished out her red handkerchief and started to dry the young man's face with tender care while she asked, "But Tenchi-sama didn't seem to daisuki with Ryoko-san when I found them on Earth?"

"Would you want your friends to know you are in ai with your invisible childhood playmate na?" a grin found its way to Tatsu's face, "and he even convinced himself that the spiky-haired woman was just a figment of a child seeking companionship at his ojiisama's jinja," then Tatsu's eyes gained a knowing look, "but deep in his subconscious mind he was obsessed with the Ryokoakurei."

"Ryoko-san was not just his make-believe playmate," Ayeka suddenly understood what Tatsu was leading to, "she became his surrogate okasama."

"Whenever Tenchi-sama went to the cave, he found a soothing presence there that lessen the sorrow in his heart and reinvigorated his happiness," Tatsu's voice gained deep calmness, "and in the core of his being, the man who was once a boy didn't want to lose that solace."

"So Tenchi-sama was ai suru with Ryoko-san," Ayeka's doubts were revived by her own words, "it just took time for him to remember it."

"Of course Ryoko-san didn't help by almost smothering Tenchi-sama with her kisses, drowning him with her ai," mirth in Tatsu's voice but again his face took on an affectionate look as he said, "but there is something you should know, Ayeka-san."

"Nani?" Ayeka couldn't keep misery from her question.

"If it wasn't for the bond between Tenchi-sama and Ryoko-san," certainty reflected in Tatsu's eyes, "he would have become your raba, that is how close you came to claiming him as your own." Then Tatsu brought Ayeka's left hand up to his face and pressed its palm against the right side of his face before adding, "And there is something you should know about me, Ayeka-san."

"Ara?" the slim princess' eyes shone with delicate hope.

"Although I have Tenchi-sama's memories," Tatsu turned his head slightly to the right, "I don't have the bond Tsunami-megami created," then he kissed her palm before he finished, "so my heart was freed to find boku no kanojo (my she)."

Tatsu's words lifted Ayeka's spirit out of her foggy doubts but her happy face gave way to a questioning look as she asked, "You said you were in the containment field for twenty-five years but Tenchi-sama is only eighteen-years-old?"

With a chagrin look upon his lips, Tatsu said, "Those last eight years represented my last day in the containment field and it was the same day your okasama and Funaho-sama arrived at Tenchi-sama's home." Ayeka's face took on a whimsical look as she anticipated the young man's next words, "Washu-san used another of her inventions, a three-dimensional-mind-projection device, to allow Misaki-sama's and Funaho-sama's minds to enter the dream world my consciousness had been growing up in."

Ayeka couldn't keep herself from giggling when Tatsu shivered at remembering those times and his words gained a painful quality, "For EIGHT years I was TRAINED by your okasama and her onee!"

Ayeka frowned at the derogatory tone Tatsu used and she told him with an edge of a threat in her voice, "You will show proper respect for my okasama and Funaho-okasama."

"You weren't with them 'alone' for EIGHT years, being trained to be the perfect groom for their musume," Tatsu's rolled his eyes to the blue heavens.

A knowing look came upon Ayeka's face as she said, "Is that why Funaho-okasama kissed you that first night I saw you?"

"At dawn's light in my dream world, Funaho-sama would come into my room, kneel by my futon and kiss me on the cheek to wake me up," a touch of a smile upon his face.

"Funaho-okasama did the same thing for oniisama when he was growing up and even when he would visit us while going to the Ginga Akademi (Galaxy Academy)," then Ayeka's voice took on a thoughtful tone, "it means Funaho-okasama has accepted you as okasama's ibokyodai."

"It seems I impressed Funaho-sama and Misaki-sama enough to accept me as something more than a way to save their musume's life," surprise was evident in Tatsu's words and face.

Ayeka barely heard Tatsu's last words as her mind focused on Tatsu's comment about being trained as the perfect groom for Ayeka, 'Tatsu isn't just an older version of Tenchi-sama, this man before me is MY vision of Tenchi-sama. I told okasama and Funaho-okasama how I wanted to give Tenchi-sama's birthright to him, how I wanted to train him by my hand and by my heart to be my consort.' Then an icy thought pushed through her joy and she suddenly pulled her hands away from Tatsu and bounded from the fountain's rim to stand a few feet away from him with her back to him.

"Ara . . . anoh . . . nani?" shock thundered in Tatsu's exclamation as he half stood with his right arm reaching out toward Ayeka.

"Were you responsible for saving my life last night?" an icy calm within Ayeka's question.

"Hai," Tatsu stood to his full height, "and I would do it a thousand times just to have my arms holding you."

"And before that night when my ki became weak during the Fukuju," Ayeka voice reached a freezing level, "you revived it."

"It is how my powers were shaped by Washu-san, Misaki-sama and Funaho-sama," Tatsu took a few steps toward Ayeka with his right-hand still reaching out, "to give you a chance for a long and happy life."

"And what about Jurai?" Ayeka's tone held only logic's coldness.

"Azusa-sama will wait for Yosho-ojisama to come to his senses and take the throne," Tatsu voice carried a note of uncertainty for Funaho and Misaki had warned him about Ayeka's loyalty to Jurai, "even if it takes a few thousand years."

"But I know oniisama better than Otousama does," slowly turned to show rivers of tears upon her cheeks and her words had all the characteristics of glaciers, "I know oniisama has turned his back on Jurai but I won't."

"What do you mean?" Ayeka could see the fear in Tatsu's eyes and words, "All I'm offering you is my heart and a chance for happiness."

"In a world where blood with fill Tenjyu's halls," the green grass before the princess sprinkled with salty rain, "My oniisama won't take the throne, Sasami merging with Tsunami-megami will rule her out as heir and I will be perceived as too weak to become joosama because of my dependence upon you."

"But it can be kept a secret," Tatsu knew this was a feeble argument, "just look at how Sasami-chan's secret nature has been hidden from the nobles."

"Only because Sasami is kept safe on Earth," Ayeka felt hollow for she knew her own words robbed her of a chance for contentment, "under the scheming gaze of nobles, no secret is safe."

"But that is countless centuries in the future," Tatsu pleaded with his own eyes glistening with unshed tears, "like grains of sand upon a beach walked by the Kami."

"Iie, Tatsu-sama," Ayeka felt her heart breaking again, "the blood of uchu kaizoku flow in the nobles of Jurai and only our traditions keep its cruel nature in check."

"But how will your DEATH prevent this from happening?" Tatsu stepped close to Ayeka with his hands almost touching her shoulders.

"Because you will be here, Tatsu-sama," the ice in her voice finally breaking into sobbing sorrow, "to take the throne, to . . . wed . . . a strong okusan."

"Kya! Do you think I WANT some noble suke to share my bed with?" real anger now found its way into Tatsu's words as both his hands grasped Ayeka's hands and brought them to eye level, "can't you SEE, can't you FEEL, my kokoro in your hands?"

The last bit of Ayeka's discipline was dissolved by Tatsu's touch and she fell against his body as she sobbed, "I do . . . I do . . . my itoshii."

Feeling Ayeka starting to slide down his body, Tatsu's strong arms embraced her and he allowed both their bodies to sink to the ground. With two hearts so close together, with two bodies touching the other, it was without forethought the first kiss came as it was with the second and the third. Yet with each kiss Tatsu could taste the salty anguish in the princess' soul and as their lips part for the fourth time, the purple-haired lady said with crushing finality, "I'm a withered tree unable to bear fruit."

Looking down into ruby eyes full of vulnerability, aware that all the barriers surrounding Ayeka's feelings were gone, Tatsu put force into his tone as he said, "There is another way, Ayeka-san."

Her body wrecked by the desires of her spirit, wanting to trust the man who held her with such tender strength, Ayeka found Tatsu's next words full of purpose, "I can merge my body and ki with yours."

Such disbelief was Ayeka's that her voice stayed silent which allowed Tatsu to continue, "Both Funaho-sama and Misaki-sama believed your response to the first option would be negative, so Washu-san retained in me the Masu's ability to merge with other life forms," the black-haired man's right hand slowly rubbed the top of the purple-haired lady's own right hand, "Ryo-ohki used it to merge with the Masu entity that tried to kill Tenchi-sama and Ryoko-san used it to assimilate with Zero," taking Ayeka's wide-eyed look as a sign of worry the tall man added, "your current body would be a template for the new body, you'll be taller because of my mass becoming part of you but the proportions will remain feminine."

Hope burned afresh in Ayeka's heart but Tatsu kept his serious tone as his words continued, "But there are dangers in what I purpose, Ayeka-san. Both Ryo-ohki and Ryoko had Masu DNA but you do not," then the brown-eyed man's filled with fear, "the act of merging will cause agonizing pain as every cell in your body is combined with the cells in mine, as our DNA is rewritten into one," his voice dropped to a whisper, "you could go through all that torment and be left with a shattered ki."

The fire of hope brought heat to Ayeka's soul and she replied with resolve, "And what do I have now, itoshii?" the inner fire shining in her eyes, "My mind is fearful that every exertion will coat my lips with blood and death awaits at the edges of my vision," then Ayeka's tone turned to heartfelt concern, "but what of you, will you survive wa?"

"Does it really matter if I survive na?" Tatsu tried to lighten his voice, "I'm but a shadow of Tenchi-sama, created to show you that as long as you live there is a chance to find someone who will love you just as much as you love him."

"MO!" Ayeka's words echoed all of her zeal, "I will not accept such a occurrence."

"But . . . " Tatsu started to say.

Ayeka buried her lips into Tatsu's and stopped his plea. When her lips part from his, the man saw great passion in her scarlet orbs, "Ai shite'ru yo, itoshii (I love you, beloved!)!" her strong words absolute, "I do not NEED to find another!"

"Then you know how I feel about you telling me to live after your death, Ayeka-san," the boiling passion in Tatsu's words matched Ayeka's but then he pushed it down so his next words were level, "I just don't know if I will be able to retain this personality after I revert to my Masu form," his eyes dropped down to stare at their held hands, "even Washu-san didn't know," his face came back up and he gave the princess a determined look, "but even if my consciousness is gone I will be with you, body and ki, even in Yomotsu no Kuni."

Ayeka knew from Tatsu's hopeful eyes that the tall man holding her was allowing her to decide which path they would take but that wasn't true. Deep down Ayeka knew her true self, she was always a risk taker. Never in her life had Ayeka taken the easy path: when Ryo-ohki and Ryoko had attacked Jurai she and Ryu-oh had fought them instead of hiding in her room, when Yosho and Funaho-Ki chased after the two criminals she followed her brother as soon as she reached adulthood, when Kagato killed Tenchi she charged forward with Ryoko to rain vengeance on his murderer instead of fleeing, when Ryoko was captured by Dr.Clay she was the first to stride forward to rescue her rival for Tenchi's love, and when Ryoko sacrificed her Gems and her life to save Sasami it was Ayeka who gave it back. With heart, body and soul united in clear purpose Ayeka said to the holder of her love, "my kokoro is yours . . ."

"My kokoro is yours . . ." Tatsu's look showed he recognized this oath.

"My ki is yours . . ." Ayeka continued with her hands going to Tatsu's neck and his hands to her shoulder.

"My ki is yours . . ." Tatsu repeated the words as he lifted Ayeka up with a firm hold.

"Give me the kiss . . ." Ayeka's strong hands slowly pulled Tatsu's black-haired head down.

"Give me the kiss . . ." just a sliver of air was between their lips.

"That will never end," Ayeka whispered the end of the wedding oath so only Tsunami need hear it.

"That will never end," their lips met and it went from a tender touch to passion's fire. Then it happened. Ayeka's mind barely felt Tatsu's body softened under her own body but it was when her mouth filled with honey-like fluid did the princess awakened to what was occurring. The slim princess concentrated to keep herself from choking as the thick substance flowing down her throat, to keep her mind calm as she felt her clothes fall from her body. With eyes kept closed to keep her mind calm, the lady could feel Tatsu's Masu form flow over her pink skin, filling every cavity and lifting her from the ground in weightless suspension.

It was at this point a bluish-white image touched her inner eye and she found a naked adult Ryoko floating before with a happy grin. With a princessly groan Ayeka said, 'Please come back later, I'm busy right now.'

'I'm here to help, Oujo-chan,' Ryoko's grin reached Cheshire Cat's size.

'Nani?' Ayeka had seen that demonic grin before and flashes of the possibilities of Ryoko's intent went through her purple-haired head.

'Etchi! Na koto suruna! Kya!' Ryoko gave a mirthful reply as she cupped her hands in front of her floating form and a ball of bluish-white light appeared in her palms. Serious in voice, the ample lady said with soundless words, 'I can't do anything about the suffering you will go through but I can offer you this wedding gift.'

'Oi, kore wa nan desu ka?' Ayeka was caught off guard by Ryoko's seriousness.

'You'll just have to find out,' Ryoko's response echoed in Ayeka's mind as the glowing form faded from sight but the ball of light remained. Before Ayeka could do anything, the pain came.

**********

Epilogue: Tapestry

Masaki Residence

The early morning sun was just peeking over the blue lake and Tenchi once again found himself standing on the light brown wharf that connected his home to the lake, dressed in his Sunday Best along with Ryoko on his right, holding his right hand with her left, a bouncy Sasami on his left, Washu beside her daughter with lively green eyes, Mihoshi in her smartly pressed Galaxy Police uniform and a cool calm Katsuhito just a step behind the little scientist. Not to be forgotten was Ryo-ohki in her humanoid form as she stood next to Sasami. Some months ago Tenchi watched a good friend leave but today was a much happier occasion, the greeting of guests for his and Ryoko's wedding. Making a last second check to make sure his light green obi was straight, Tenchi glanced at Ryoko, and then checked to make sure his zipper was closed. Satisfied with the last minute inspection, Tenchi asked, "Washu-chan, did Funaho-san say who was coming down first?"

"Funaho-sama told me the Nakodo Oken Jurai Kon'in (Matchmaker of Royal Jurai Weddings) will be the first to teleport down, followed by a contingent of the Kishi Jurai as honor guards for the wedding," then a puzzled look graced Washu's face as her right index finger tapped her left cheek while she glanced at the two tree ships 500 feet above their heads, "although I expected Misaki-sama to relay this information to me."

A string of giggles came out of Ryoko's closed mouth which added Tenchi's puzzlement to Washu's while both saw the pout the noise had conjured onto Sasami's face. Looking behind Ryoko, Tenchi whispered to the little scientist, "Washu-chan, what's going on with Ryoko and Sasami-chan?"

"I don't know for sure, Tenchi-dono," Tenchi heard pride in Washu's voice but noted the sad look on her face, "since Ryoko-chan's bonding with Ayeka-san I can't eavesdrop on her thoughts anymore without her permission."

"I knew there had to be a plus side to having to share a space in my mind with such a ofukuro gyaru (mom girl)," Ryoko's biting words pulled Washu's eyes up but the hurt in those green orbs changed to affection when she saw the same feeling in her daughter's amber vision.

"Some people get to know everything," Sasami's pout deepened to match her moody words, "while everyone treats me like a chibi."

"But you and Tsunami . . . " Tenchi began.

"Tsunami-neechan is just as bad as Ryoko-neechan," Sasami's tone showed she was pissed, "She won't let me go to oneesama or visit okasama or talk to Funaho-okasama."

"Imoto, just consider this as punishment for opening the eyes of your whole kazoku to Tenchi and my wedding," Ryoko leaned forward a little so she could give Sasami a hard look.

Sasami's face took on a guilty look but she still mumbled back, "I didn't do it on purpose."

"Which reminds me," Tenchi said as he returned his gaze to Washu, "Domo arigato, Washu-chan, for offering to house our guests in your lab."

"Except for otousama, okasama and Misaki-okasama who will be staying with me at the jinja," Katsuhito corrected.

"And my ojiisama will be sharing Nobuyuki-san's room with him," Mihoshi chimed in as she checked her side arm to make sure the safety was on.

"Hai," Washu's face lit up with devilish expectation as she rubbed her hands together while staring straight ahead, "I've set up special rooms for your wedding guests."

"I . . . eh . . . ah . . ." a sweat-dropped Tenchi fumbled over Washu's statement.

"Don't hurt your heart, Tenchi-dono," Washu gave the youth a Cheshire Cat's grin, "they won't remember a thing."

"I thought that was the reason," Tenchi said under his breath but added nothing else, he knew full well that this was the price the Jurain royal court would have to pay to Washu for coming uninvited to her daughter's wedding.

It was at this point that a question close to Tenchi's heart left his lips, "Do you think Ayeka-san is with them?"

"Ne ne!" Washu's grin reaching a new size while she looked up at her bright-eyed and bushy-tailed daughter, "I'll say the . . . " the last words of Washu's answer were drowned out by a thunderous musical fanfare.

Everyone on the wharf locked his or her sight on an area of the wharf's dock where a large bluish-white ball of light had appeared. Instantly Sasami let out a joyful shout and charged out at the sphere as it started to condense into humanoid size. At eight feet from the image, with outstretched hands the littlest princess leaped into the air, her momentum to carrying her body into the glowing figure. By the time the child's small hands locked around the form's neck, it was a smiling Ayeka who caught her sister in a loving embrace.

Tenchi's and Mihoshi's mouths dropped wide while Katsuhito's eyebrows shot up and Washu gave a slow nod before saying, "So my calculations were correct about her height being seven-feet-tall."

"Seven-foot-two-inches tall," Mihoshi said in a daze, "two-hundred-and-twenty-one pounds."

"I stand corrected," Washu glared at the policewoman for stealing her thunder.

"And she only took a half-step back," Mihoshi added with awe.

"Hai, Sasami's leap would've taken me off my feet," Katsuhito confirmed with a stoic smile.

With her right hand reaching down to give Ryo-ohki a welcoming pat on the head, Ayeka looked between her sister's ponytails to give the others a sweet smile. This simple act broke the spell Tenchi and Mihoshi were in and they broke ranks to greet Ayeka, but it was a flying Ryoko who reached the two hugging princesses first and her words stopped the young man and the policewoman dead in their tracks, "So you've come to deny Tenchi the right to marry me?"

"As Nakodo Oken Jurai Kon'in," Ayeka's ruby eyes flash fire, "I have the responsibility to make sure only virtuous people marry into the Oken Kazoku Jurai!"

"And what if you find me without a noble bone in my body?" air between the two women seemed to crackle as a wide-eyed Sasami looked back-and-forth.

"Then it is my gimu to find a suitable suitor for Tenchi-sama," Ayeka's back as straight as a ramrod.

"YOU!" a throaty growl punctuated Ryoko's accusation as she curled her clawlike hands.

"Dozo, Ayeka-neechan, Ryoko-neechan!" Sasami's pink eyes matched her tearful voice, "Don't do this!"

It was at this time that Tenchi noticed how Ryoko had to float off the ground to have eye-to-eye contact with Ayeka and he caught Mihoshi's curious comment, "Ee, Ryoko-san will ask Ayeka-san for her answer."

"So what is your answer, oujo-chan," Ryoko sneered with the sun's fire in her eyes yet what rung in Tenchi's mind was how Mihoshi predicted Ryoko's challenge.

"I say to you, bakemono," Ayeka purple eyebrows lowered to match her powerful words, "that since I already have my own otto," with a flourish Ayeka detached her right arm from around Sasami so everyone there could see the two gold circles upon her ring finger, one a delicate-made bride's ring while the other was the thick groom's band, as Ayeka's voice became charged with joyfulness, "I find you a worthy okusan for Tenchi-sama."

Sasami fiercely hugged Ayeka's neck while her sister added, "Don't we, itoshii ne?"

All minds upon that wharf found wonderment when a masculine voice touched their minds, "We do, Ayame."

"It worked!" Washu shouted as she leaped into the air and did a power sign with both hands while a grin flashed across Katsuhito's face.

"Nani?" Tenchi looked back at the hopping girl-woman and then at Ayeka and saw how a floating Ryoko embraced both Ayeka's and Sasami's before saying with intensity, "Oujo-chan, don't you ever leave us again!"

"I didn't know you both watched 'As The World Turns?" Mihoshi innocently commented.

Both Ryoko's and Ayeka's face took on a pensive look as Sasami's pink eyes narrowed and she asked, "Mihoshi-neechan, what do you mean?"

"It's just like the confrontation and reconciliation between Terry-san and Jimmy-san," Mihoshi said with a look of remembrance, "that happened on the show several weeks ago."

"So that was an act?" relief in Sasami's voice touched with accusation.

"We thought it would help everyone to adjust to Ayeka-san's new look," the male voice filled their minds again.

"Our new look, itoshii," Ayeka gently corrected.

"Our new look, Ayame," affection in Tatsu's words.

"You're Tatsu-san na?" Tenchi asked as confusion started to clear from his brown eyes.

"Ayeka is very much like an ayame," Katsuhito said with a light smile on his face as he came up to stand next to Mihoshi before adding, "It seems I can't call you my imoto-chan anymore zo."

"I'm just glad she's in ai with Tatsu-san," Ryoko spin away from Ayeka to protectively embraced Tenchi, "I don't know if I would've won against someone with such mune saiko wa yo (first class tits)!"

"Makes you jealous da ze," Tatsu fired back while scarlet touched Ayeka's cheeks which made Sasami giggle.

"So Ayeka-san, what happened when you and Tatsu-san merged?" curiosity rich in Washu's voice as she gave her daughter a cross-eyed look which the cyan-haired woman responded to by sticking her tongue out, "Ryoko-chan wouldn't tell me anything."

"When the pain subsided," Ayeka hugged Sasami a little tighter as she spoke, "I fell asleep for a very long time," her words took on a fearful tone, "and when I awoke, I panicked because I couldn't feel either Ryoko-chan or Tatsu-sama," then a thoughtful tone came in, "but I saw a ball of light that Ryoko-chan left." At this moment true happiness lit up every part of Ayeka's face, "when my thoughts touched it, it flashed and I felt my ki flooded with Tatsu-sama's consciousness."

"Dan gu!" Washu exclaimed and held her hand up to Ryoko, "lay some skin on me, shojo!"

"Yapi!" Ryoko grinned widely as she gave her mother a high five.

"So I presume this is how your device was suppose to work?" Katsuhito asked while taking his glasses off.

"I can't take all the credit," Washu smiled with pride at her daughter, "Ryoko-chan's new powers made it possible more than anything else."

"New powers?" Tenchi asked with eyebrows going up.

"Ryoko-chan retains the powers her Masu DNA gave her," Washu calmly explained, "but those abilities the Gems bestowed on her have drastically changed thanks to Ayeka-san."

"But I thought there was no difference between Ryoko's Gems and the power that comes from Tsunami-megami?" Tenchi's eyes widened when realized what he just said.

"Listening at key holes again na," Katsuhito coolly said, although beads of sweat could be seen on his forehead as he cleaned his glasses with a tanned handkerchief.

"In a sense they are," Washu chose to ignore Katsuhito's discomfort, "but the original power in the Gems was very raw and unstable."

"So the ki Ayeka-san used to save Ryoko-san is refined and stable," Tenchi carefully surmised, then his face matched his grandfather's at what he carelessly said.

"Why do I feel suddenly insulted," Ryoko gave Tenchi a hurt look but there was wickedness in her tone which caused the young man to sweat even more.

"Crudely said but essentially correct, Tenchi-dono," Washu stepped next to her daughter before continuing, "Ryoko-chan can now weave her powers in much more complicated designs."

"And that design was the ball of light?" suggested Ayeka with approval.

"Tadshii!" Washu smiled at Ayeka's guess, "During your stay on Jurai, I kept testing Ryoko-chan's new powers while carefully keeping a psychological diagram of Tatsu-dono."

"A psychological diagram?" Ayeka wasn't sure she liked the sound of that.

"It's oke, Ayame," Tatsu gentle words filled Ayeka's mind, "I allowed Washu-chan to place a device on me that transmitted a detailed record of my emotional development and experiences to her lab's mainframe."

"With the psychological reproduction the device created," Washu words took up the story, "Ryoko-chan was able to create an ethereal sanctuary for Tatsu-dono's ki and she placed it in Ayeka-san's mind."

"That which makes Tatsu-san unique and special was pulled into the sphere so he could survive the merging and metamorphosis of Ayeka that his Masu nature had triggered," Katsuhito finished with high regard in his red eyes for the achievement of Ryoko and Washu.

"All in a day's work for the greatest genius in the universe," then heartfelt warmth entered Washu's voice, "and the number one musume in the universe." Unexpected Ryoko darted down and gave Washu a peck on the redhead's lips before returning to perch on Tenchi's back, the young man smiled at up at Ryoko's face resting on his right shoulder and he reached down with his right hand to lightly squeeze her left-hand resting on his hip.

"So did . . . " Washu paused to clear the huskiness from her voice, "So did anything else happen?"

"Ara . . . eh . . . dewa . . . " Ayeka's face reached a new level for blushing.

"We did do some cuddling," Tatsu supplied.

"Cuddling my eye," Ryoko smirked, "you two made me so hot I had to have Tenchi yubizeme (finger attack) me."

"That is what you get for eavesdropping, Ryoko-chan," Ayeka smarted back.

"Who's eavesdropping," Ryoko gave Ayeka a wicked grin, "I'm surprised your wooden bondmates don't burst in flames from the heat you Juraijins generate when you hameru (twin orgasm)."

"You three are doing adult-speak again," Sasami frowned at the two women, "you know I'm older than I look."

"I know, Sasami," Ayeka gave her sister a look that was serious yet affectionate, "but there are some things you should not know until you are much older."

"That's what okasama said when I saw her kiss Funaho-okasama," Sasami pouted.

"And when was okasama ever wrong?" Ayeka quickly asked in an attempt to head off any ill-timed words from the others.

"Never," Sasami sighed knowing the subject was closed for now.

"Gu," Ayeka gave Sasami a little nod, "Now, why don't you go fix us some ocha, ii ne?"

"Ii wa," Sasami's face became bright once more as she gave her sister a quick hug before hopping out of the princess' strong arms and running toward the house with dancing blue ponytails trailing behind her.

Once Sasami was out of earshot Tenchi said, "It must've been a shock when you woke."

"It was," both Ayeka and Tatsu replied at the same time, causing both to lightly laugh, then the princess said, "We going have to get use to this new beginning."

"We have a lifetime to learn it, Ayame," sweetness in Tatsu's words.

"Hai, we will, itoshii," then Ayeka refocused her attention to the others, "When I opened my eyes I found my body suspended in a clear jelly-like substance. I couldn't see anything clearly so I groped with my hands and found myself surrounded by some kind of a shell."

"It's a pupa, Ayeka-san," Washu told her.

"Like a butterfly's?" an awed Mihoshi asked.

"Ee," confirmed the redhead uncertainly.

"But where are Ayeka-san's wings?" Mihoshi questioned with sapphire eyes full of good-nature, "Oi, they must be hidden underneath her beautiful kimono."

Ayeka smiled at the look of consternation on Washu's face and decided to continue her story before the little scientist acted on her impulse to do mayhem on the blond bombshell, "With no other option open to me, I used my fists to break out of the shell and I found I was in my room at Tenjyu, upon my own bed." Everyone's attention locked on the purple-haired princess' words, "I lay on the bed, retching to get the jelly substance out of my lungs, learning how to breathe again," then an elegant smile touched her lips, "it was at this point my wet skin felt something warm cover me. I looked up to find my excited okasama had bundled me in a huge robe and was crying tears of joy as she tenderly held me with Funaho-okasama right behind her," a sly look found a home on Ayeka's face as she ended, "you should have seen the look on okasama's face when Tatsu-sama said he preferred Funaho-okasama way of waking people up."

"So that's how your okasan found out you and Tatsu-san had eloped," Ryoko piped in.

Barely able to ignore Ryoko's barb Ayeka continued, "It seemed so strange to look down at my okasama and Funaho-okasama," then an embarrassed look reached her face, "and it took both of them to help me to the furo, where they washed me like a new born kodomo," now a note of suspicion entered her voice, "although I think 'some people' were not brothered by it at all."

"I was a perfect gentleman," said Tatsu defensively.

"I felt something stir in me," Ayeka challenged, then her eyes bugged out and she clapped both hands over her mouth when she realized what she just said.

Ryoko burst into uncontrollable laughter while Mihoshi turned to Washu and she asked without guile, "Washu-san, does this mean Ayeka-san has two asoke?"

"Hai, it seems Ayeka-san's and Tatsu-san's body is hermaphroditic with the mono internalized," interest plain in Washu's green eyes, "although it is an unexpected development."

"I think it was my desire to have children with Tatsu-sama that caused it to happen," Ayeka said in a small voice.

"That makes sense," Washu acknowledged, "Tatsu-dono's Masu nature sensed Ayeka-san's strong desire and made the necessary changes to make it possible."

"It also means Ayeka and her consort will be able to ascend the throne once otousama, okasama and Misaki-okasama retire," Yosho added as he put his glasses back on.

"The necessity of shitei to protect and uphold the traditions of Jurai," Tatsu added with affection, "and to bring more joy into our lives."

"Ikasu (Neat)!" Mihoshi exclaimed as she jumped into the air with arms outstretched, "I get to be a nazukeoya for Ryoko-san's and Ayeka-san's children!"

"So when do the other guests come down?" Tenchi asked while ducking Mihoshi's swinging arms but Ryoko wasn't so lucky.

"In four hours," Ayeka answered, "otousama, okasama and Funaho-okasama wanted to give us some privacy before the royal circus joins us."

"Dewa, we better head into the house before Sasami-chan's gets mad because we let her ocha get cold," Katsuhito suggested which everyone gave a nodding agreement.

Katsuhito led the way with Washu next, followed by Tenchi and Ryoko with Mihoshi right behind them and Ayeka bringing up the rear, but this changed when Ryoko teleported so she could float alongside the treetop princess. Clearing her throat the uchu kaizoku asked the princess, "I was wondering if I could borrow that black leather number, you know the one with the whip."

"Not today," Ayeka calmly replied, "You have to wait until your honeymoon when you are officially an oujosama," then a serious smile touched her lips, "and you can only use the whip if Tenchi is yancha."

"Dewa, if Tenchi isn't ecchi before our honeymoon," Ryoko used a stage whisper and smacked her lips loudly, "he will be afterwards." The cyan-haired woman was very pleased to see the young man falter in mid-stride and to see the wink her mother gave her.

Ayeka rolled her ruby eyes before she added with a sigh, "Can Jurai survived Ryoko-chan's second invasion?"

'With the ai everyone here has for each other,' Tatsu's warmth filled Ayeka's mind, 'it will be like a spring shower.'

'It will indeed, itoshii,' a knowing smile lit up Ayeka's face.

Unseen by Ayeka or Tatsu, are the grins on the others' faces at finally seeing Ayeka's search for love completed.

**********

Notes

Story: This story came from two sources, a debate and a dream. About a year ago I got into a debate with Dav over the reasons necessary for Ayeka to leave the Earth and return to Jurai. We both agreed that the reasons had to be dramatic but when Dav asked for me for specifics causes, I bulked because I didn't want anyone else to use my ideas for a story. Dav got tired of my generalities and he wanted to end our debate, so I suggested an Ayeka story challenge. Dav's reply was a firm no, although he said he would love the chance to shut me up, he already had other irons in the works and that I would be a waste of his time. He was probably right because while I did have some ideas about what would happen to Ayeka on Jurai, I couldn't come up with a plausible reason for Ayeka returning to her homeland without Sasami beside her. I wanted my story to be Ayeka-centric and that wouldn't be possible with Sasami there. My subconscious must have been working on the problem because last December, I had a dream. I saw Ayeka standing before and I asked her why I couldn't go with her. She replied that she was dying. That locked it for me, it gave me the reason for Ayeka deciding to leave Sasami behind with Tenchi and the others, people who could comfort the grieving little princess after her sister's death. Within seven days of the dream, I had the complete story in my head.

One of my prereaders suggested a pre-sequel to this story because of all the events, I have hinted at, going on before the prologue. I might do one but it won't happen until I've finished Strange Days Book Two. The reason I did this story was to avoid the traditional Tenchi-Chooses story, I wanted to deal with the repercussions of his choice, that Ayeka's extended family would continue and Ayeka would have happiness.

Plotline: Not much of this story is original, at its core it's an Ayeka meets a tall dark stranger. What my prereaders selected as original were the ceremony and the nightclub.

Those who have read my other series, Strange Days, know I have included ceremonies and rituals in them because of the nature of both Nihon and Jurai. Like cultures in Europe and other Asian cultures, both of them have traditions centered on ceremonies and rituals that we in the US can barely comprehend due to the young state of our own nation. Just think of the complexity of ceremonies and rituals surrounding a civilization that existed, uninterrupted, for over twenty-thousand-years.

The nightclub was something I came up with from my readings on Nihongo slang. I do know of similar places like this exist in Europe and in Asia (and in the US Asian districts), but I should give you a word of warning. Such places are not for the weak of heart or the timid, in such places you find people in their raw state, gangsters with lots of attitude, sexy soap girls offering their wares, hard working blue-collar men dropping by for a cold beer or a shot of warm sake, Buddhist priest slumming and high school students out for a dangerous fling. Men tourist should be careful what they say and women had better be ready for some aggressive teasing and a proposition or three. Why did I have Tatsu sing in such a place? Because it was in such places that Jazz, the Blues and Rock-N-Roll came into being, from the cathouses of New Orleans, the Cotton Club of Harlem, and the brothels of Hamburg.

Ayeka Fan Club: I hope my friends at AFC don't mind doing the Three Musketeers scene in the nightclub. I thought they might enjoy defending the honor of our beloved oujosama and her kawaii sister.

Characters: One of my prereaders said I come up with weird characters for my stories. What can I say, I read a lot of manga, watch a lot of anime and study real people very carefully. I take all three ingredients, mix them together and bake them at 420 degrees.

Ayeka: Like in my other series, I see Ayeka as a dramatic, complex person. She cares a lot for her family (including her extended family) and is loyal to Jurai (in her mind, her family and Jurai are the same).

Ryoko: A tough exterior used to hide a heart of gold yet an ecchi person.

Tenchi: Although he loves Ryoko, he cares very much for the other ladies and will do anything to help them, protect them.

Sasami: Almost as complex as Ayeka, we have in the littlest princess a person who is both a goddess and a child, learning to be both before becoming a woman.

Washu: The greatest genius in the universe, who loves her daughter and has deep feelings for the others, in many ways they are the family she always wanted. Of course this does stop her from doing experiments on them and she is just as much an ecchi person as her daughter.

Mihoshi: They are more than blond hair, red lips and blue eyes on that head.

Misaki: A mother any child would like to have. Emotionally caring person willing to hug anyone. She loves her daughters as well as her husband and her soulmate, Funaho.

Funaho: A subtle person compared to her opposite, Misaki, yet will to let her children go if it means they will develop into better people. Only Azusa's love and Misaki's warm embrace can penetrate her shell.

Azusa: I think the Emperor gets a lot of bad rap from people. I think he cares a lot for Ayeka and Sasami, maybe so much so he is unwilling to give them up to anyone he sees as inferior. He has also shown he is very loving of Funaho and does care for Misaki.

Seto: From the True Tenchi Novels, Seto is the oldest member of the Oken Kazoku Jurai (five-thousand-year-old). As such, he has a great deal of influence on family decisions. From my own speculations, I believe she is the leader of the Pirate Guild and the adopted daughter of Washu before she became part of the Oken Kazoku Jurai.

Tatsu: An older version of Tenchi with eight years of training thanks to Funaho and Misaki.

Minor Characters: Kessho, Akimi, Yoko and Mayko are what they seem. Kessho is the old wise sawbones, Akimi is the young hot head, Yoko is the blind wise woman while Mayko is the streetwise tart (Mayko is based on a manga/anime character and I've dropped several hints as to which character it is).

Music: I always include songs and poems in my story because music is a major part of all anime, especially Tenchi. Of the two songs, the first one is a slight variation of Drops of Jupiter, by Train, while Butterfly is an original by me.