"Not I"

By Diane Long

Chapter Five

Ryoko dragged a red and white plastic lounge chair into her front yard. She ran back inside of the house for a moment and emerged wearing a purple and lime-green string bikini; carrying a large bottle of water. A pair of tortoiseshell-rimmed sunglasses perched on the top of her head, effectively holding her pale hair out of her eyes. Situating her chair so she had a good view of the lake through the blooming larkspur and delphiniums, Ryoko settled in to the chair and slid her sunglasses down over her eyes. A gentle breeze caressed her skin as the hot rays of the sun quickly warmed her down to her bones. Ahhh, warm. If winter was her least favorite season, summer ranked at the top of the list. As long as the air stayed dry, she loved the heat. And today there was hardly any humidity at all. She stretched her long legs and relaxed even further.

A pair of small white butterflies danced and hovered over the blooming flowers as a barn swallow dived over the lake searching for insects. Such a peaceful day. Having a garden was certainly nice, no wonder Ayeka got into it so much. Ryoko sneered at herself. It was a good thing Washu's systems maintained this garden, because a gardener, Ryoko was not. As her thoughts turned to Ayeka, she wondered what everyone else was up-to that day. Particularly Ryo-Ohki. The cabbit had better luck getting carrots at the Masaki's so tended to hang out there more often than not. Little traitor.

Ryoko had been in her home for over a week now. Moving out was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions she had made in her life. She had her own space and still got to see most of the gang everyday as she fulfilled her obligations with Washu and Katsuhito. Even so, she kinda missed having them around when she was away from them. Sometimes being 'across the lake' felt very far away.

Or maybe it was that she missed the old days?

Maybe she missed Tenchi?

Bah! This kind of thinking got old fast, and according to Washu, just lead to pain. Everyone was fine and she, Ryoko Hakubi, was having a nice tanning session. Not that she tanned. Not that she missed anybody.

Much.

She cracked her toes as she wondered if they were watching the afternoon soaps over there. Maybe she should just wander on over and hang out for a little.

No, she had joined them for the soaps yesterday. One day off wasn't going to hurt.

"Oh Ryoko! How are you?" Mihoshi called as she made her way across the bridge spanning the lake. She was dressed for the weather in a bright yellow bikini top and very short jean cut-offs. A straw heat shaded her eyes as she held it down with one hand to keep it from blowing away.

Ryoko sat up in her chair and waved. "Hi Mihoshi!" she yelled energetically. "Whatcha got there?" she asked spyng two bottles in Mihoshi's other hand.

Mihoshi opened the gate to Ryoko's yard and stepped inside. "Beer of course! You looked so comfy out here. Can I join you?"

"For a beer you can do what ever you want!" Ryoko laughed. "But I don't have another chair for you."

"That's okay, look at Washu made for me!" Mihoshi took out a small orange cube from her pocket and threw it on the ground. In a puff of pink smoke, a full-sized black lawn chair appeared - right in the middle of Ryoko's flowerbed.

"Ack! My Peonies!"

"Ooops!" Mihoshi giggled, removing her chair from the bushy plant and scooting it over by Ryoko's. "You have to pee? Is that what you said? Please don't mind me, I can wait for you."

"No, I was talking about my flowers," Ryoko groaned.

"If you really have to go, you shouldn't hold it. That's bad for you," Mihoshi said firmly, standing with her hand on her hip, the cold beers held tightly in the other hand.

"I don't have to pee. Give me a beer and sit down!"

Shaking her head with clear misgivings, Mihoshi sat on the lounger and leaned back, handing Ryoko a beer. "It's your body, Ryoko."

"Which wants to pound you," Ryoko grumbled.

"What was that?"

"Oh. isn't it a great lake view?" Ryoko reframed, not really wanting to fight. Mihoshi was Mihoshi, after all.

"Yes it is!"

The two women sprawled out and closed their eyes, soaking in the rays and sipping their beers.

"Ryoko?"

"Mmmm?"

"I wish I had my own house too."

"How come?"

"With you gone, Ayeka makes me do more chores."

Ryoko raised up on one elbow. "Mihoshi, I never did any chores."

"I know, but now I get blamed for not doing yours as well as mine," the blond whined.

Ryoko smirked. "That's rich. Is that why you really came over here?"

"Well, sort of. I needed a nap." Mihoshi paused. "You mad?"

"Nah, you can hide out over here anytime you want."

"Even. even at night?"

"What?" Ryoko slid her sunglasses up and squinted at Mihoshi.

Mihoshi picked at her beer bottle's paper label. "Well, I shouldn't say this.but."

Ryoko continued watching her friend.

"Um. well. Tenchi and Ayeka make these really weird sounds."

Ryoko held up her hand. "Mihoshi, I don't really want to hear about that."

Mihoshi sat up and pointed the lip of her bottle at Ryoko. "I'm sorry, Ryoko, but I have to tell someone or I'll go crazy!"

"Okay," Ryoko said reluctantly.

"It's really loud. Tenchi sounds like he is stuck on the toilet," Mihoshi grunted a few times to make her point. "And Ayeka sounds like a. a. cat! Mee-ah Mee-ah!"

Ryoko choked for a moment, then a large laugh burst free from her lips, the beer that had been in her mouth spewing onto her legs. "Mihoshi! That's terrible!" she laughed.

"I know," Mihoshi said mournfully. "And it goes on like that for hours every night."

"No, I mean you shouldn't say things about people like that. Sex just sounds weird sometimes," Ryoko corrected still chuckling.

Mihoshi took a long pull of her drink and stretched her back. "Trust me, I know what sex sounds like." She pulled her hat over eyes. "And it sure doesn't sound like that."

Ryoko tried not to get beer up her nose as she fought down more laughter. She knew Tenchi and Ayeka had been having sex, hell she could smell it on them. Being confronted with evidence of something she had been denied of Tenchi was painful. But to hear them lampooned like this, it was like a weight had lifted from her heart. Washu was right. Mihoshi was smarter than she seemed. Ryoko pushed her sunglasses down and fell back into her chair. "Well, the door's unlocked at night. The couch is yours as needed."

***

As the early morning sunshine brightened the tones of her blue and yellow striped dress, Ryoko stood in front of the Masaki residence's front door, trying to decide if she should knock or just walk in now that she didn't technically live there anymore. It was the first time she had come over uninvited and she hadn't thought about this before. As she debated, disturbing images of Tenchi and Ayeka making out on the couch ran behind her eyes. Some things she did not want to see. Ever.

She rapped on the wooden edge of the paper screen three times and waited, listening distractedly to a Cuckoo crying up in the mountains.

Tenchi answered the door, his curious expression saddening when he saw Ryoko. "Please, Ryoko, you don't have to knock. You can come and go like anyone else here."

She smirked and struck a cocky pose. "You don't really want to say that to a spice pirate. Who knows what might happen!" She meant it, she was starting to feel more like herself again, and that opened up lots of fun ideas.

He grinned and stepped aside so she could enter. "Ha, ha, Ryoko."

Ryoko levitated slightly off the floor and floated behind Tenchi and wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her breasts into his back. "So," she breathed into his ear. "How's Ayeka in the sack?"

"Ryoko!" he shouted, his face turning a strange splotchy pink. "I cannot believe you asked that!"

"That good huh?" she cackled giving him a final squeeze before releasing him.

"Ms. Ryoko!" Ayeka shouted as she came upon the scene. "I can't believe my eyes!"

Ryoko smiled happily at the sincere annoyance in Ayeka's voice. "Maybe your vision problem is a result of generations of royal family inbreeding!" she shot back effortlessly.

"Oh! You!" Ayeka fumed, her fists clenched tightly at her sides, her full purple robes hiding the rest of her physical reaction to the taunt.

Ryoko folded her legs into the 'Indian style' position and hovered above Ayeka's head. "A tradition," she continued, "that I see you and your nephew have opted to continue."

Tenchi smacked his lips together, his lifetime-worth of incest taboos overriding his new social order for a moment and casting him into utter mortification.

"You're upsetting Lord Tenchi!" Ayeka snapped as six mini-logs appeared by her head.

"So that's the 'Lord' you were calling out to last night," Ryoko mused. "I heard you all the way across the lake!" she taunted, Mihoshi's story giving her plenty of teasing ammunition.

Ayeka's anger-flushed cheeks paled. Now it was Ayeka's turn to stutter. "R-r-really? You heard?"

Ryoko looked seriously at her friend and nodded. "That is. nope! I lied," she said, words not matching her actions. "But now I know what you did last night!" she whooped floating over to pinch Ayeka's cheeks. "My little girl is growing up!"

Tenchi's eyes widened and he seemed faint as he staggered against the wall.

"Get your paws off of me!" Ayeka complained, her pale cheeks turning pink once more. She sent her mini-logs over to encircle the pirate. "I should teach you some manners!"

"Bring it on!" Ryoko sang out, ready to play.

Ayeka growled and made as if to hurl a plasma charge at Ryoko, then she paused and considered. "Before or after breakfast?"

Ryoko yawned, going along with it. "Oh after, definitely."

"Will you be joining us today then?" Ayeka asked formally.

"Yep. I promised Sami I might."

Ayeka walked toward the table, using the logs to gently escort Ryoko to the table.

"Hey let me go! I'll be good," Ryoko pretended to plead, begging on her hands and knees.

Ayeka politely hid a smile behind a hand. "No lies at breakfast please."

Tenchi followed them with a distinctly dazed expression on his face. "What just happened?" he asked the room in general.

Washu joined him and patted his shoulder. "Just the natural order of things resuming its usual course. Don't let it bother you." She looped her arm through Tenchi's and escorted him to the table.

Noboyuki, in casual wear, dashed through the living room. "No breakfast for me, I'm going to miss my bus into town if I don't hurry! My film has been developed."

Everyone waved after him until he had his shoes on and was racing out the front door. With her last wave, Ayeka released her hold on Ryoko.

As the Jurian power field faded away, Ryoko slid into her old seat at the table on one side of Tenchi. She leaned back and shot Ayeka a questioning look, to which the princess responded with a slight nod. Satisfied that she wasn't pushing her luck too far this morning, Ryoko relaxed and poured herself a cup of good, strong, tea. That had been fun.

Mihoshi was already at the table looking groggy as she contemplated her own tea. Her pink blouse was on inside-out and her yellow hair was only half- way into its typical ponytail.

"Rough night?" Ryoko asked, unable to suppress a snicker.

Mihoshi nodded significantly and rolled her eyes.

Katsuhito entered the room and sat by Mihoshi in time to catch the exchange. "The wind was still last night, and you know how sound carries," he contributed.

Ayeka kept her eyes downcast, clearly choosing not to take the bait.

"Ryoko!" Sasami exclaimed happily as she came around the corner with a large bucket of rice from the steamer. "What a nice surprise!"

"Miya!" Ryo-Ohki agreed from her perch on Sasami's head as she waved a small paw at her sister.

Ryoko grinned. " I ran out of beer and eggs," she teased. "So I thought I would come over and mooch off of you."

Sasami smiled. "You are welcome anytime," she said scooping rice into bowls and passing them around the table. "There is always plenty of food."

Ryoko didn't miss that her place setting had been out and waiting for her. "Particularly when you have Tsunami predicting the future for you, eh?"

Sasami giggled and nodded.

Ryoko laughed. "We really need to be more careful with our secrets around you, Kiddo. I bet you have the dirt on all of us!"

Ayeka and Tenchi joined her in laughter much to Sasami's chagrin. "I don't ask her about anything personal, I promise!" she protested, her checks warming with a faint blush.

Ryoko hooted. "You really haven't asked how many brats your sister will have?"

"Ryoko, that's enough," Ayeka said faintly, rubbing a nervous hand over her belly.

Sasami, looking a tad guilty and a tad mischievous, leaned over and whispered a figure in Ryoko's ear.

Ryoko stopped laughing abruptly and looked at Ayeka with round eyes. "Wow."

"Wow what?" Ayeka demanded. "I insist that you tell me this instant!"

"I thought thirteen was unlucky number on earth. I guess you'll prove them wrong," Ryoko said with respect in her voice.

"Thirteen is an auspicious number in many cultures," Katsuhito pointed out.

"Thir-thirteen?" Ayeka stuttered. "Oh my." She was gripping her belly now.

Tenchi, who had missed the end of the conversation while he had been talking to Washu, turned to his wife with concern. "Are you okay?"

Ayeka's hand fluttered to her mouth. "I just don't feel very well, my Tenchi."

"You don't think it's morning sickness do you?" Ryoko asked as seriously as she could.

Ayeka squeaked and staggered up from the table. "Excuse me!" she gasped and ran from the room, Tenchi hot on her heels.

Ryoko laughed softly, clearly trying to hold it all in. She pushed her bowl of rice aside and laid her arms and head on the table to hide her face, but her shaking shoulders gave her away anyway.

"Was that really necessary?" Washu asked, a tremble of laughter hanging on to the edge of her words.

"And I did not say thirteen!" Sasami protested around a laugh. "That was mean!" She tried to frown at the pirate, but an impish grin kept wiping the sour look away.

"You can tell her later," Ryoko said from under her arms.

"If you come with me and apologize," Sasami insisted.

"Oh, okay," Ryoko agreed, sitting back up. "I just couldn't help myself. It was a as good as old times."

"Someone's full of vinegar this morning," Washu observed taking a sip of her tea. "Between this and your way in from the front door, you've had quite a morning."

Beaming, Ryoko picked up her rice bowl and dug in her hashi. "Yup," she said, shoveling a large amount of rice into her mouth. "It's nice to be here for breakfast," she said through a mouthful of food.

"Lonely?" Katsuhito inquired as he slurped at his tea.

Ryoko shrugged, not wanting to start sharing her feelings so early in the morning. And besides, she wasn't really certain herself. It just felt good to be there.

"Bored?" Washu asked shrewdly.

That was a safer question. "I guess so." Ryoko sat her now empty bowl back on the table. "It's been kinda, you know." she trailed off and took a gulp of tea. Great, now she was spilling her guts at the breakfast table.

Washu nodded. " I think I do." The genius's expression was pinched for a moment before it cleared again.

Ryoko looked her mother in the eye for a long moment and nodded at what she saw there. Maybe the spill was worth it. "So what do you do?"

"I sleep!" Mihoshi chimed in, even though she wasn't following the conversation.

Used to such outbursts, Washu smoothed down her shorts while she thought of the right answer. "I keep busy."

Ryoko examined the bottom of her teacup, watching the small leaf fragments drift about. "Too busy, Washu."

"Oh so you want balance too?" Washu asked dryly. "My Little Ryoko is becoming so mature."

"Shut up," Ryoko groused. Her earlier good mood was fading in the face of all this thinking.

"Do you need more to do?" Katsuhito inquired. "My sword collection could use a good polishing."

"You can polish them by sticking them up your." Ryoko began to shoot back, but paused at the eager look on Sasami's face. "Up your.nose," she ended lamely.

"Man," Sasami groaned.

Ryoko let a single fang slip over her lip as she smirked at the youngster. "You only think you know what I was gonna say."

"You were going to tell him to stick it up his ass," the girl replied smartly.

"Sasami!" Ayeka screeched from the bathroom.

Ryoko jumped to her feet. "Damn, she has ears like a owl! I'm out of here before I get blamed!"

"Ryoko!" the older princess bellowed, but the pirate was already gone.

***

Ryoko appeared in the woods just beyond the shrine. She followed an ancient set of stairs, so old and well hidden she doubted that even Katsuhito knew they existed, up the hillside. Sunlight filtered through the trees and cast a dim glow upon the forest floor.

:: Don't forget, you have lab duty with me this morning,:: Washu nagged.

::Yeah, yeah, I know. I'll be there. Just give me a few minutes, okay?::

::Not a problem, my dear.::

As she walked, Ryoko put her hands behind her head and pondered. Things felt better lately. It was easier to have fun again. But it was weird, sometimes. Feeling better, made her feel more. what? Isolated? She wanted have fun, but not all by herself.

Was she really lonely?

Maybe Washu was right. Maybe she needed more to do. Her daily rounds with Washu and Katsuhito had seemed like too much at first, but after she had gotten into the routine, she found herself with way too much time on her hands.

Time that let her ruminate on Tenchi and her own flaws. She needed to do more than watch movies and play video games all day. That had gotten boring quickly. Her new home was wonderful, but it was also very quiet. It got to her sometimes.

But she couldn't go raise hell at Tenchi's house every time things got too quiet. Well she could, but it wouldn't be welcomed.

Which could lead to her not being welcome. That was not what she wanted at all.

She titled her head up so she could watch the sky through the tops of the trees. So what should she do? Maybe she needed more noise. Maybe learn to play an instrument? Nah, that sounded like too much work.

Sasami made lots of noise in the kitchen. Should she develop her cooking skills? Again, too much work.

Then, what?

Date someone? It came out of the blue, the idea that she was free to search for love. Or at least to date. Yeah right. First, she needed to meet someone. And second, they wouldn't be Tenchi, and at this phase in her life that meant she wouldn't be interested. Though they would make a lot of noise when she punched them out for being fresh. It'd be noisy all right, but too messy.

"Yow!"

Ryoko pulled herself out of her thoughts and looked for the source of the high pitched sound. Pausing her steps, she waited, and it sounded again, off the path to the right. Ryoko floated towards the sound, listening. Whatever it was sounded frightened and helpless, two things Ryoko couldn't stand to hear anymore. She had to make it stop.

"Yowl!"

Ryoko zeroed in on the sound and peered over the side of a rotten, fungus covered log. To her surprise, she saw a feeble grey and white kitten pawing at its mother. At its dead mother. A fox or something had ravaged the older cat, and it seemed she had come back to her litter only to die. It was a horrible scene, the dead mother and her dead offspring huddled around her in silent lumps. Only this one had managed to survive, and it seemed on the verge of losing its battle.

Her heart went out to it immediately. It was just like her, abandoned and alone.

There was no way she could just leave it like that, leave it to die.

Ryoko gently scooped the kitten into the palm of her hand and held it to her chest, its little heart beating rapidly against her. "Hush. It's all right."

The pitiful animal writhed in her hand and tried to suckle on her thumb. When no milk came, it cried out again, the hopeless, bereft sound stabbing into Ryoko's troubled heart.

Sometimes she felt like she didn't have a mother either, but in her deepest heart she knew that wasn't true. Yeah, she was lonely, but she wasn't alone. Like this little guy, he didn't have anybody.

"It'll be all alright," Ryoko whispered to the kitten. "I promise."

Afraid of what teleporation might do to the weak creature, Ryoko flew back to the Masaki residence as swiftly as she could, shielding the animal from the rushing air with her hands. Remembering Tenchi's invitation to move freely, she slid open the front door, shoes still on, and pelted to Washu's lab and knocked on the door with her knuckles.

:: Mom! Mom! Let me in! Hurry! It's an emergency!:: she thought at Washu.

The door swung open on its own and Ryoko rushed through.

"I'm over here," Washu called, making her way over to her daughter. She was wiping her hands on a white smock that went down to her knees. ::What's the problem?:: There was a funny overtone to the mental voice, a mix of happiness and thick tears, though Washu's face was carefully neutral.

Not noticing, Ryoko held the kitten out, firmly supporting it. "I found this guy out in the woods. He looks sick," she said urgently. Then haltingly, as if she were embarrassed, she asked, "Will you help him?"

Washu watched her daughter with suddenly ancient seeming eyes, a small smile curving over her lips. "Of course. This way." She turned and led Ryoko to the more medically equipped portion of her laboratory. As they approached it, the lights went from a dim illumination to a bright shock of light, revealing a shiny medical examination table.

"Place him on the table, please," Washu requested in a professional voice.

Ryoko nodded and laid the kitten down on his side. He made a small cry as the cold surface touched his fur and Ryoko soothed him with gentle strokes of her finger. "Hey, Hey," she murmured.

"Please step back while I scan him."

Ryoko complied reluctantly, holding her hands in front of her, the fingers nervously laced together. "What's wrong with him? Can't you hurry? Is he okay?"

"Calm down. He is not going to die on the spot. To answer your very excellent question, he is dehydrated and malnourished," Washu said, reading from a monitor as she spoke.

Ryoko nodded, looking grave. "Will he make it?"

Washu smiled gently. "With some work, I believe so. He seems to have a lot of spunk. Like someone else I know."

Ryoko grinned at her mother, both for the good news and the endearment. "What do I need to do?"

Washu pulled on some plastic gloves and carefully inserted an IV into the kitten's paw. "I'm going to get him hydrated first, then all you will need to do is bottle feed him whenever he cries, which will be 'round the clock, and keep him warm for the next three weeks. That means keeping him with you at all times. Think you can do that?"

Ryoko reached out and began to pet the kitten. "That's no problem."

Washu attached the IV to a small bag of saline solution. "You know, you used to bring me hurt animals all the time when you were a kid," she reminisced.

"Mmmm," Ryoko murmured. "He's soft."

Washu let it go, knowing Ryoko was not one for going down memory lane. "What are you going to name him?"

Still petting, Ryoko considered. "'Tenchi'?" she half-asked.

"No way. That is just too weird, even for you," Washu sad with a firm shake of her head.

Ryoko agreed with a sheepish nod. "Hmmm. How about 'Sake'?"

Washu tucked a strand of pink hair behind her ear. "Well that fits you, but it doesn't seem to fit this little guy. He's barely a shot glass of cider."

Ryoko nodded. "Yeah. Hey, how about 'Ghost'. I mean, he almost was one."

The kitten chose that moment to break into a weak purr, barely audible, but Ryoko could feel it under her hand.

Washu grinned. "I think he likes it."

***

Ryoko emerged from Washu's lab with a small blanket covered bundle cradled to her chest and a miniature bottle in her right hand. Several hours had passed since she had entered the lab, and she could hear a new program playing on the TV.

"Ooo! What do you have Ryoko?" Sasami asked excitedly running over to her friend.

"Do you wanna see?" Ryoko teased.

"Yes! Yes!" Sasami laughed.

"What do you have there, Ryoko?" Ayeka asked from her place on the couch.

"Well," Ryoko began as she walked to the couch, Sasami following very closely. "I'll show you if you're not still mad at me for this morning."

Ayeka smiled. "Of course I'm not. It was just another if your crude attempts of humor after all, and my sister is capable of policing her language on her own, despite your poor influence on her," she sniffed.

Ryoko stopped in her tracks, a wide smile splitting her face. Ayeka was treating her like she used to. Finally! "You have a dirtier mouth than Sasami when you get going," she teased, continuing on her way to the couch.

Ayeka met Ryoko's eyes and smiled. "Who, me? You rotten space trollop!" she teased right back.

The three shared a laugh as Ryoko sat down on the couch by Ayeka and was soon sandwiched in by Sasami. Ryoko carefully moved the blanket to reveal the sleeping face of the kitten.

Sasami squealed with delight and the kitten opened one yellow eye half-way. "I'm sorry to wake him, he's just so cute!"

"Indeed," Ayeka agreed. "Where did you find him, Ryoko?"

Ryoko related the story while the kitten showed-off his needle sharp fangs in a wide, tongue curling yawn.

"Poor little fellow," Ayeka sighed scratching under the kitten's chin. "He's lucky you found him."

"What did you name him?" Sasami wanted to know.

"Ghost," Ryoko said cradling him in her arms and pressing the bottle to his muzzle. He immediately took the nipple into his mouth and began to suck greedily, bringing his front paws up to grip Ryoko's hand.

Ayeka and Sasami cooed at how cute he was.

"Watch this," Ryoko said and pulled the bottle away from the kitten. He growled a milky growl deep in the back off his throat and pulled the bottle back with his paws, tiny beads of splashed formula forming on his whiskers.

"Oh! So cute!" the sisters exclaimed.

Ryoko beamed down at the creature in her arms, she was filled with happiness to be a nurturer instead of a destroyer.

The three young women were engrossed with watching the kitten feed when the sharp sound of a camera shutter caught their attention. They looked up to see Noboyuki with his camera in hand. "It's important to document the arrival of new family members," he said softly, moving in to take more pictures.

Ryoko smiled and cuddled into the kitten, mugging for a shot. Ayeka and Sasami snuggled in on either side and beamed at the camera as well.

"Good, good," Noboyuki encouraged while he came closer, taking pictures as he went.

Ryoko took the bottle away and held Ghost up so that his paws failed in the air as he squalled his displeasure at having his meal removed. After Noboyuki finished taking the picture, she wrapped the kitty back in his blanket and continued to feed him. "Okay, photo-time is over."

Noboyuki snapped the lens-cap on the camera and ran a hand through his rich, black hair. "It looks like Ayeka here isn't the only one who will make a good mommy."

Ryoko flushed, then stiffened, turning to Ayeka and quirking an eyebrow. "Mommy?"

"Well," Ayeka began, her own cheeks turning pink. "Your teasing wasn't that far off the mark this morning, Ryoko.

"What? You're knocked up? All ready?" Ryoko demanded her vice raising in pitch with every word.

"Well, in a matter of speaking, yes," the embarrassed princess admitted.

Sasami nodded happily. "I'm gonna be an aunt! Yippee!"

Ryoko snickered and tickled Ghost's belly. "I thought you were putting on some weight, but I just assumed you were already letting yourself go."

"Babies are not fat!" Ayeka protested her flush deepening with anger. " I am not a pig like you!"

As Ryoko prepared another barb, the front door slid open. Tenchi walked in, stepping out of his shoes in a smooth, practiced motion. He held out the take-out bag so Ayeka could see it. "Honey, I brought you the tacos and hot dogs and ice cream, just like you wanted."

Ryoko let out a belly laugh. "Oink! Oink!" she snorted. "You are going to get so fat!"

Unnoticed by the others, Noboyuki was taking pictures again, capturing the family moment for posterity.

Ayeka jumped to her feet. "At least my child isn't a flea bitten cur with a mangy tail!"

Hurt flashed across Ryoko's eyes and she clutched the kitten to her chest. Sure, she didn't have Tenchi, have a husband, so there were no children in her future. Not that she particularly wanted any, but that had been a low blow. In the back ground, Ryoko could hear Sasami reprimanding Ayeka for her cruel remark. Ryoko straightened her back as she saw Ayeka falter and obviously prepare to apologize. If that happened, all of the ground Ryoko had gained in the last few weeks would be lost.

They had to think she could take it, even if she couldn't, if things were ever going to be normal here.

Swimming past the sting of her friend's words, Ryoko put on a cocky smile. "Oh yeah? Better a tail than webbed feet!" she shot back.

The uncertainty fled from Ayeka's expression and she smiled at the ex- pirate before putting on her own mask of aloofness. "There is technology to take care of that sort of thing," she sniffed.

Ryoko nodded. "Too bad it didn't work on you," she said with a wink. "There's surgery for that you know!"

Ayeka just rolled her eyes. "Do you mind if I eat now? I really must have those tacos."

Feeling calm and relaxed after her favorite past time, Ryoko eased up. "Whatever."

Tenchi smiled nervously at Ryoko, as if he still wasn't sure how to act around her. "I actually brought enough for all of us to share," he said handing the bag to Ayeka.

"No!" Ayeka growled. "Mine."

Ryoko chuckled. "Well I'm outta here before she eats my cat too."

****

Sweating, Ryoko lowered her bokken and twisted it around so she holding it at her side as if it was sheathed at her belt. She tilted forward at the waist and bowed to Katsuhito. "Domo, Sensei."

Katsuhito returned the bow. "You are improving."

Ryoko inclined her head slightly. That was good news, hopefully that meant they would begin sparring soon. She now had a better understanding of the importance of the katas now, but longed for a more satisfying fight.

"Thirsty?" he asked casually.

"Very, but let me check on Ghost chan first." She walked over to a wicker basket and peered inside. "Still asleep," she reported.

"Still carrying him around like a child, eh?"

"I had too, Washu said so. Kittens need to eat a lot," she defended, even though she knew he was teasing her. Carrying a cat around in a basket for four weeks had been hard on her pride.

"I see."

Ryoko paced to the spring and drank several dippers of water so cold it made even her teeth ache. "Ah!" She smacked her lips and brought a full dipper to the old priest.

He took it from her and drank deeply. "Thank you. Are you ready to share your latest Haiku with me?"

She shrugged. "Why not? It's what we do every day. Here or in the office?"

Katsuhito returned the dipper to the spring's basin and walked towards the top stair of the steps leading down from the shrine. "I've a better idea. Come here," he said, sitting down on the paver.

Ryoko followed and sat beside him. The view spreading out before them was always a beautiful one, but tonight they could also see the full moon rising over the lake.

"Let's hear it."

Ryoko pulled a folded piece of paper out of her pocket and carefully smoothed it out.

"Together or not being alone changes you like wind in the sand."

The older man made a noise of agreement in his throat.

"Do you know what I mean?" she pressed in a moment of openness. It was becoming easier to talk to him and Washu about things.

"Tell me."

Ryoko looked out over the lake and at the bright orange orb seeming to fight its way out of the water. "Being alone isn't about who you're with. or not with. It can happen either way."

He rubbed his chin and tilted his head so he watched her profile. "But being alone still shapes us. Yes?"

"Yeah."

"The moon is lonely too, don't you think?" he asked.

"I guess. I've never really thought about it before."

"Look at her now. Alone, and still she is full and strong, and like you she is breaking free."

"But she is still lonely."

Katsuhito took her hand. "In our own ways, so are we all.

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

" No. It just is."

Ryoko thought about that for a long moment, watching the rising moon's reflection shimmer as the lake's water lapped against the pier. Washu was lonely and she hid herself in work. Ayeka's entire life as a princess had been lonely, so she hid herself in Tenchi's love. Noboyuki was lonely without his wife, so he hid in fantasies. Katsuhito was cut off from his home world and family, and he hid himself in the embrace of the earth. Tenchi had never had a mother, so he had taken in all of the girls and hidden in their chaos. They all had their own brand of loneliness and they all seemed to cope.

An oddly enough, so was she.

Ryoko got to her feet and stretched. "It's been fun pretending to be all philosophical, but its time for my favorite TV show."

Katsuhito made no move to get up. "Very well. Your poetry has improved greatly. You no longer have to share them with me."

Ryoko's shoulder's sagged.

"Unless you want to," he amended.

"We'll see," she hedged, sounding happier than she had intended.

She picked up Ghost's basket and teleported back to her home.

***

Ryoko finished off the last of the frozen pizza with shrug. What was so special about freezing them? In her opinion, they tasted better warm. Weird. She scooted back from the kitchen table, leaving her mess for the automatic cleaning system to deal with.

What to do tonight? She walked into the living room and turned on a couple of area lamps, the soft light making the room feel cozy. Maybe some TV later, but right now a nap sounded good.

Sitting on her couch Ryoko lifted the kitten out of its basket and laid on her back, placing the kitten on her belly. It arched its tiny back and yawned.

"My sentiments exactly," Ryoko agreed, gently rubbing behind his ears.

Ghost purred loudly and began kneading Ryoko's chest with his paws.

"I think you are doing all right, little man," she murmured. "No more carrying you around in the basket, it's bad for my image."

Ghost meowed at her in a whiny voice and playfully nipped at her fingers.

"Well too bad," she said firmly. "Life's tough." She gently took his tail and brushed his nose with it. Ghost rolled on his back and immediately began chewing on his tail.

Ryoko laughed softly, and removed the tail before the kitten could harm himself. Ghost snuggled in between Ryoko's breasts and purred deeply, his entire body vibrating. Ryoko sighed and slid her arms behind her head. " I am getting soooo soft."

Ryoko's eyes wandered over to her entertainment console, where she had started displaying framed photographs of the family. Larger than the other pictures and elegantly displayed in a silver frame was a group photo from Tenchi and Ayeka's wedding. Ryoko herself was a part of that photo, but her body was stiff and her eyes were glazed. Closer inspection showed that Washu and Mihoshi were propping her up. Washu had drugged her that day, and Ryoko could barely even remember being there. What stood out the most was her memory of her feelings. She had felt frozen and utterly lost, a feeling that still faintly lingered.

Next to the picture of the wedding was a set of two smaller ones in a wooden hinged frame. On one side a photo showed Sasami teaching Ryoko how to make pancakes, the smiling pair covered in batter. The other side displayed a photo of Ryoko, Ayeka and Sasami feeding the kitten. All three of them smiled for the camera as Ghost fed from the bottle. They looked more like sisters than just friends.

Ryoko looked between the two picture frames and her smile softened. She was still hurt, that fact of life didn't seem to be going away anytime soon, and she was still lonely, but Katsuhito was right, so was everyone.

Life went on. She looked at her dead face in the wedding photograph and sighed. Yeah, she was getting soft, but that was much better than staying frozen. Smiling at her own wisdom, Ryoko closed her eyes and let herself drift off to sleep.

"MEEEOOOW!" Ghost's eyes glinted up at her as his ears titled back.

"What? You can't be hungry already?" Ryoko asked, opening one eyes. "You're just spoiled."

"Yow! Yow! Yow!" Ghost cried, flicking his tail.

"Hush! It's quiet time," Ryoko said firmly, shutting her eyes.

"MEOW! MEOOOOOOW!" the cat proclaimed standing up and poking its wet nose against Ryoko's cheek.

"God, you're worse than that prissy princess!" Ryoko grumbled, hiding her head under a red pillow.

Ghost retreated to her belly continued to howl out his hunger.

Ryoko groaned. What the hell had she done to deserve this? Instead of with Tenchi, she was living with the loudest cat in Japan.

Ghost crawled back up to Ryoko's head and wormed his way under the pillow so he could lick her chin.

Ryoko smiled. It could have been worse.

The End