The Harem Saga

EPISODE 3 And If I Fall

It seems so far to goIt took so long to get hereNow I'm saying things I swore I'd never sayAnd I'm afraid again

I thought I had it in meI used to be so sureThere I was stronger than everHere I am blaming the hurt

And if I fallI will find a way back to my handsI'm the only one who can help me find my feetAgainSweet little fighterSweet little scarSweet little fire in my heart

It seems so easy nowEverything I dreamed about when I was a childIt looks like a good place hereSo I think I'll stay for awhile

And if I fallI will find a way back to my handsI'm the only one who can help me find my feetAgain

You came here screamingAnd never stopped to listen to your one and only prayerA place for you somewhereSweet little fighterSweet little scarSweet little fire in my heart

Title: "If I Fall"Artist: Tara Maclean

ACT 1 - SATURDAY

The school year in Japan ends in March, and the graduation ceremony is held on a Saturday night near the end of the month. On this particular night, the winds were brisk and it was snowing lightly. Tenchi was is in his room, donning his school uniform for the last time. The last few months had seen him going through a final growth spurt: he was taller now, his shoulders had broadened a bit, and his voice had deepened a little. The most noticeable change had been to his face, which was now leaner and more planar. His uniform now fit snugly, and he had to struggle to with it.

Nobuyuki's voice echoed up the stairs. "Tenchi! I'm going out to warm up the van. Hurry up!"

"Ok, Dad," Tenchi answered, "I'll be down in a minute." He finished brushing his hair and picked up the stack of wrapped gifts from his desk. One last inspection in the mirror, and then he exited his room. He was feeling a bit nostalgic, knowing that a chapter in his life was now closing. That thought was still in his mind as started down the stairs — and then he saw the six females in his life waiting for him at the bottom. He stopped momentarily as he examined them. The five humans were gorgeous: though they were wearing conservatively styled dresses, each had modified her outfit to enhance her natural attributes. And little Ryo-ohki had been thoroughly shampooed and combed, and wore a festive child's dress. As he slowly descended the stairs, they bowed in unison, the four oldest nearly salivating as they waited for him.

"Good evening, Tenchi," they all said.

Tenchi stopped again and stared, speechless.

"What's wrong, Tenchi?" Ryoko asked. "Don't you approve?" She indicated their clothing.

"You're all very...beautiful. You take my breath away."

"Oh, he noticed!" Mihoshi said.

"How could I not?"

"What are you carrying, Tenchi?" Washu asked.

"Oh, uh, I have gifts for each of you."

"Shouldn't we be giving you a gift?" Ayeka inquired. "You are the one graduating tonight."

"It's my way of saying thank you for all the time and patience you've shown to me."

Washu spoke for all of them: "It's the least we could do for our future husband."

Tenchi felt a pang of guilt. Not over having proposed to all of his off-world house guests, but that he simply did not have the money to purchase the proper symbols. He had explained this to his alien entourage several times, but their answers were always the same: "Rings aren't important, intentions are important." Still, his greatest wish was that he could have placed a proper ring on the hand of each of them. He finished descending the staircase and distributed his packages. While Ryoko, Ayeka, Washu, Mihoshi, and Sasami opened their gifts — in varying degrees of precision — he knelt and handed the last gift to Ryo-ohki, who had resolutely maintained her humanoid form. Her hands were clumsy, and Sasami giggled while watching her attempt to open the package.

"You'd better help her, Tenchi, I don't think she's up to it yet," Sasami advised.

Tenchi gently removed the gift from Ryo-ohki's fingers, and opened the wrapping paper. He was listening to the appreciative sounds around him, and smiled at their reactions. He extracted a small box from Ryo-ohki's wrapping, opened it, and showed her the necklace inside. It was of the choker type, made of elastic material and festooned with little baubles shaped liked stars and carrots. Ryo-ohki "Miya!"-ed enthusiastically, and pulled her hair back to allow Tenchi to fasten the clasp at the back of her neck. She rewarded him with a big hug. As he stood, he noticed that each of the ladies was fastening a brooch to her dress. Each was an elaborate flower, decorated in the colors of the owner's eyes and hair: gold and cyan for Ryoko, red and violet for Ayeka, green and red for Washu, blue and yellow for Mihoshi, and pink and blue for Sasami. He received enthusiastic embraces from all five of them.

That's when Tenchi's father opened the front door and leaned in. "Father is already waiting in the van. Let's get going or all the good parking spots will be taken!"

############

The graduation ceremony was one of those events Tenchi was frankly willing to forget. It was held in the school gymnasium, with rows of folding chairs down the middle to hold the graduates, while the parents and family were seated in the bleachers. The room had a stage, which was where the faculty, podium, a couple of flags, and a table full of envelopes were placed. All the graduates were dressed in their school uniform, which to Tenchi's way of thinking made them look like so many dominoes stacked together. He daydreamed his way though the proceedings, looking for friends and familiar faces — it wasn't hard to spot his entourage: in a sea of black and gray hair, their rainbow-hued tresses were impossible to miss. He waved discreetly at them once, and was rewarded with his father's camera lens pointing at him like a sniper scope. It might have been embarrassing if half a hundred other father's weren't performing the same ritual. Talk about boring.

He managed to stay awake, though, and was grateful when each row of students was instructed to stand and join the queue for the stage. It moved briskly, as each student was allowed just so much time after his/her name was called to walk across the stage, exchange bows with the Principal, accept their diploma from the teacher at the table, and hustle down the opposite stairway. His only really embarrassing moment came when he accepted his diploma and the applause from his personal cheering section drew all sorts of attention. Fortunately, he only blushed, rather than the dreaded nosebleed.

They were reunited at the reception in the cafeteria after the ceremony. Refreshment tables lined one wall, and the room was packed with knots of students and their families. Nobuyuki took plenty of photos of Tenchi with and without his ladies. And then Nobuyuki and Yosho wandered away to exchange pleasantries with old acquaintances, and Sasami dragged Washu and Ryo-ohki off towards the refreshment tables.

Tenchi soon found himself in the center of a small crowd. His classmates stood about in mute astonishment, wondering how Tenchi had managed to keep silent all this time about these exotic foreigners. They openly stared at Ryoko, Ayeka, and Mihoshi: the boys focused on Ryoko's cleavage and fang-like teeth, Mihoshi's long legs and shapely derriere, and Ayeka's regal posture and classy carriage; the girls concentrated on their hair and eyes, and Tenchi heard whispered comments about iridescent dyes and colored contact lenses. Finally, Tenchi's friend Amagasaki screwed up the courage to ask him who they were. "They're my family," he answered, pride tinged with embarrassment. Then a ray of inspiration hit him: "They're here from California."

Mihoshi whispered a question to Ayeka: "Where's California?"

Ayeka, ever in the know, replied, "On the closest edge of the continent due east of us. The lifestyle there is similar to the colony on Jotaken."

"Oh," said Mihoshi and Ryoko, familiar with the reference. They smiled broadly for their clever Tenchi.

############

Washu, Sasami, and Ryo-ohki worked their way discreetly down the tables, sampling the various entrees. Sasami's discerning palette identified ingredients and judged proportions, and Washu made comments about the colors. Neither, frankly, was impressed.

"Remind me to fix Tenchi's favorite dinner tomorrow," Sasami told Washu. Washu agreed.

Ryo-ohki remained alongside Washu, munching on a carrot and looking into the faces of those who stared at her. One young child tugged on his mothers dress and pointed at the cabbit, asking in a loud voice if Ryo-ohki was a baby werewolf. He was silenced for his efforts. Ryo-ohki blinked back innocently at him, and Washu had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing out loud.

############

"Masaki, you are such a wimp," said one heavily muscled young man. Tenchi bridled, but pointedly ignored him. So he turned to Ryoko, and asked, "Are you a cousin of his?"

Ryoko batted her long eyelashes at the posturing young man. "Actually, we're engaged," she purred, her arms entwining around one of Tenchi's. Ayeka cleared her throat and shook her head, but Ryoko ignored her.

Tenchi studied the boy through half-closed eyelids. Ryoko, Ayeka, and Mihoshi felt his Power level flicker. From opposite corners of the room, Yosho, Washu, and Sasami felt it, too, and looked their way curiously.

"What can you possibly see in him?" muscle-boy asked.

"I'm attracted to his big...heart," Ryoko replied coyly.

"Marriage before college?" one bespectacled girl asked, clearly disapproving.

"Maybe he's skipping college," said the young man, looking at Ryoko enviously.

"Oh, I'm going on to college," Tenchi replied. "Just not in Japan."

"Are you attending one of those Southern California colleges? You are so lucky," the girl with the glasses looked jealous, too.

Tenchi could have told her the truth, that his great-grandfather had insisted that he attend an academy on Jurai (several hundred light years away), but decided against it. In fact, he looked at the gorgeous alien attached to his arm and announced, "You look thirsty, Ryoko. Let's find some punch. Come on Ayeka, Mihoshi."

############

The ride home was full of chatter, as the galactics compared notes on clothing, munchies, people, and the evening as a whole. The only universal agreement was that Tenchi looked handsome in his school uniform.

"I can't wait to take it off," he replied.

"I'd be happy to help you with that little chore," Ryoko said sweetly, snuggling against him.

On his other side, Ayeka just sighed. "You are so predictable, Ryoko."

"You're just mad because I suggested it first, " she said to Ayeka. To Tenchi, she whispered, "This time, let me unfasten the buttons."

"What do you mean, 'this time?'" Ayeka snapped.

"I really don't think it's any of your business, Little Princess."

"If it involves my fiancée, it becomes my business!"

"He's my fiancée, too, and it really doesn't concern you!"

Tenchi rolled his eyes and sighed. He wasn't really exasperated, or maybe not as much as he used to be. If it weren't for the high volume, he could tune them out. Washu and Sasami turned around and leaned over the seat back in front of him.

"Tenchi, did you sample those chocolate stars on the end of the first table?"

"Yes I did, Sasami. Actually, I thought they were pretty good."

"You liked those? E-w-w-w-w, I thought they had too much sugar in them."

He was going to say something else, but didn't feel like shouting over the noise. He raised one hand to signal a pause, then brought both hands over his head, around the shoulders of his seatmates, and back to his chest. Ryoko and Ayeka made a strangled sound as Tenchi squeezed them into his armpits. "Now, I'll make a deal with each of you ladies. If each of you can stay completely silent until we get home, I'll give you a big kiss." There was the unmistakable sound of hands being clamped over lips, and the back of the van grew suddenly silent. "That's much better. Now, what were you saying, Sasami?"

Sasami giggled, and then returned to her evaluation of the chocolate stars. Beside her, Washu looked down at Tenchi's seatmates, and just happened to see them exchanging conspiratorial winks and sly grins. Then they noticed her watching them and stuck out their tongues at her. Washu was just considering the best way to exploit this information when Mihoshi gasped and said, "There's a ship anchored in the lake!"

"Can't be," Nobuyuki said from the driver's seat. "The lake is frozen over."

"Not any more it isn't," Mihoshi replied. She was straining to see out her window, and both Sasami and Washu leaned over to look where she pointed. It wasn't late enough to be truly dark out, but the blowing snow made visibility difficult. They could barely discern the outlines of a curved shape rising beside the dock, though it was nearly hidden by the steam wraiths that slithered off the choppy water.

"She's right," Washu said. "Looks like the lake was heat-flashed. The ship's engines must be keeping the water from re-freezing."

"Isn't your GP cruiser submerged in the lake, Mihoshi?" Sasami asked.

"No, I parked Yukinojo in the meadow behind the shrine. Washu put a cloak over it to conceal it."

"Pesky spy satellites," Washu muttered.

"I think it's an Imperial shuttle," said Mihoshi. "But it looks like a short-range model. That would mean a long-range transport up in orbit."

"And it would appear they've already made themselves at home," Yosho said from the front seat. "The living room lights are on. I guess we'll be meeting our guests in short order."

"Damn," Tenchi grumbled, accompanied by another Power spike. Every eye in the van turned to look at him. Tenchi rarely cursed. "Looks like they wasted no time coming for me."

############

Nobuyuki parked the van near the front door, and everyone piled out quickly. Their coats were soon flecked with snowflakes, and their heads were wreathed in mist.

"There is only one set of tracks," Ryoko said. She had phased through the side of the van and flown down to the ship. She had also considered just phasing through the vessel's side and taking a peek at the interior, but decided it would accomplish nothing. And she wanted to be with Tenchi. He was obviously upset, which made her upset. And she didn't like being upset.

"Well, let's go greet our guests," Yosho answered. He started for the door — but it opened before he could reach it, and a figure in flowing robes stood framed and back-lit.

"Mother!" Yosho gasped.

############

"I've only been here a short while," Funaho explained. "And it took me that long to figure out how to turn on the lights."

"Sorry about that," Nobuyuki said, not knowing what else to say. He couldn't help it if his house lacked the Juraian standard semi-sentient appliances. This was Earth, after all, a backwater little frontier world.

Funaho just waved it aside. "No need." She was sitting on the sofa, with Sasami and Ayeka flanking her. Yosho and Nobuyuki sat across from them, and the remaining residents either sat on the floor or leaned against the wall. Coats had been hung, shoes had been removed, and water was slowly coming to a boil on the stove in preparation for hot tea. "I'm just sorry I missed Tenchi's graduation."

"You didn't miss much, Lady Funaho," Tenchi replied. He sat in a corner with Ryoko clinging to him. He was unusually quiet, and appeared to be brooding.

"But I got plenty of pictures!" Nobuyuki exclaimed. "And I'll be happy to give you copies when they're developed."

"Thank you, Mr. Masaki, that is very kind. Oh, where are you going, Sasami?" Sasami had bounced off of the sofa and was walking briskly towards the kitchen.

"I've gotta go check on the water. I'll be right back. Tenchi, would you help me, please?"

"Sure," he replied, too polite to refuse. He struggled to his feet and strode off after Sasami. Ryoko watched him go, torn between the need to be sociable and her desire for her fiancée. She sighed and leaned back against the wall.

"Sasami, do you really need my help to look at the pot?"

"No, but if it's boiling I could use your help getting it ready."

"Oh."

"And I wanted to ask why you're so upset."

"Isn't it obvious? I probably ought to go pack."

"Don't you want to go to Jurai?"

"Not yet. I thought we'd take care of all of these weddings first. And I just wanted a taste of freedom before I tackled my new responsibilities."

"Oh, you want a vacation. Here, help me lift this." She handed him a pair of towels and gestured towards the pot.

"Yeah," he said, tipping the pot so that's its contents would run into a serving pitcher. "That, and I'm just tired of being ordered around so much."

"Are you so sure she's here to fetch you back?"

"Watch your hands. No, I'm not positive, but the timing sure is coincidental."

"Maybe you should just give her a chance to explain herself. How many cups are up there?"

"Six. Let me grab a couple more. And a carrot for Ryo-ohki."

Sasami had to smile. Even though Tenchi was anxious, he was still considerate of his friends. They placed the tea set on a tray, added the tea, spoons, napkins, and the cabbit's treat. Tenchi lifted the tray carefully. "Tenchi? Please promise me that you'll be patient with her?"

"Ok," he sighed. "I promise."

############

Tenchi carried the tray into the living room and set it on the coffee table. Ryoko noticed that the tension seemed to have gone out of his posture; he wasn't smiling, but he'd lost that caged animal look. She caught Sasami's eye and flashed her a thumbs-up. Sasami smiled and nodded. Tenchi settled back onto the floor with Ryoko, and allowed her to rest her head on his shoulder. Neither said anything, just watched Ayeka serving tea.

The topic of conversation finally came around to her reason for being on Earth. "I've come to take Tenchi and you girls back to Jurai," Funaho said. She expected some reaction, but got total silence. "Is there a problem?"

"Yes there is, Mother," Yosho replied. "We have four weddings to plan and perform."

"Four weddings? I thought you were holding just one large wedding. Either way, I assumed they were to be held on Jurai."

"No, we haven't really decided. At the moment, we have tentatively settled on Ryoko's and Washu's ceremonies here, Mihoshi's on her home world, and Ayeka's on Jurai."

"Why would you want to hold any of the ceremonies here?" asked Funaho.

"Because we have no other friends or family," said Washu, "and we met him right here. We wanted Yosho to perform the ceremonies."

"At the same time?"

"Certainly not. Ryoko's will be first, and then mine a month later."

"A month?" exclaimed Funaho. "Why so long?"

"You gotta allow for the honeymoon!" Washu cackled, her eyebrows wiggling with lecherous exaggeration.

"And mine will be a month after Washu's," Mihoshi added. "It will take my mother and I at least that long to plan for it. Not to mention travel time."

"Ayeka?"

"Mine is last out of simple logistics. And I thought you and Mother might need the extra time to plan for a royal wedding. As I recall, they can be rather ostentatious."

"Don't forget my betrothal banquet," Sasami added.

"You're right, of course, on both accounts. Do you ladies have actual dates set?"

Yosho cleared his throat. "No, nothing was going to be settled upon until after Tenchi had graduated. And a chance to discuss details with family members, of course."

"Maybe we ought to just elope," Tenchi said from the floor. It was not a joke; it was not meant as one, and it was not received as one.

Funaho said (as tactfully as possible), "That's not a very helpful suggestion, Tenchi."

"Oh? And what's so important happening on Jurai that won't wait? I would like to remind you that I agreed to go there, but I didn't agree to a timetable. Each of these wonderful ladies deserves her own special day, in the place of her choosing. And I..." Tenchi had half-risen from the floor when he uttered a strangled sound and released a tremendous Power surge. He convulsed once and collapsed. Ryoko caught him before he hit the floor. There were startled gasps from around the room.

Washu scrambled over to examine him, growling at least once for everyone to get out of her light. "Take him up to his room, Ryoko, I'll get some things from my lab and be right up."

Ryoko nodded once, cradled Tenchi in her arms, and teleported up to his room. She gently laid him on his bed and pulled the covers over him. She sat beside him, leaning over his chest to study his face. "Not now," she whispered softly. "This can't happen now. I waited centuries for you. You're the only man I've ever loved, and the only man who ever loved me."

"I thought that's why we were getting married," he whispered back. His eyes opened and looked into hers. He was disoriented, and his voice was strained.

"If anything ever happened to you — "

" — then you'd raise our children to be proper little pirates."

"We don't have any children," she chided him, a lump in her throat.

"Yet," he corrected her, attempting a smile.

There were voices in the hallway outside his room. Washu opened the door, allowing Ryo-ohki (in her quadruped form) to slip in and hop onto the bed. She climbed onto Tenchi's chest, "Miya"-ed with concern, and curled into a ball.

"Hey," Ryoko snarled good-naturedly, "take a hike. That's my spot."

Ryo-ohki ignored her.

Washu sat between Tenchi and Ryoko, waived a portable sensor over him, checked his pulse, and took his temperature.

"What's the diagnosis?" he asked.

Washu shrugged. "Beats me. I don't see anything wrong. Tell you what, Tenchi: I'll put together a little gizmo in my lab tonight, and I want you to wear it for the next few days. It will monitor your vital signs and send them down to my lab. Maybe that way we can get a handle on this thing."

Tenchi nodded and absently scratched Ryo-ohki behind her ears. That's when he noticed that she was still wearing the necklace. He also noticed Ryoko and Washu were still wearing their brooches. "It's getting worse, isn't it?"

"I won't lie to you, Tenchi. Yes, it's getting worse. But I don't think it's serious yet. The best thing you can do now is to get some sleep." Rising, she pulled Ryoko to her feet and pushed her towards the door, where several faces were peering in. "Doctor's orders: the cabbit stays, the rest of you leave." Washu watched them as they all filed out, giving Tenchi their encouragement. Just before leaving she bent down to kiss him on the forehead. "Don't make me a widow before we're even married, ok? Or, at least, not until you sign the insurance papers."

"I'll see what I can do," he answered around a yawn.

Washu extinguished the light and closed the door. She quietly descended the stairs, only to find every eye in the room looking at her expectantly.

After a moment of silence, Funaho cleared her throat. "Would you please explain what is going on?"

Washu settled on the floor next to the coffee table and poured herself a cup of tea. "Two months ago we started observing a change in our boy. He entered into a late growth spurt that added five inches to his height and nearly twenty pounds to his weight. No real surprise when his appetite suddenly increased. But in the last couple of weeks he's started showing some mood swings that are totally uncharacteristic, and in the last few days he's begun releasing these Power spikes — which appear to be growing in intensity. We notice them the most when he's irritable or stressed. We just figured it was nervous reaction to his high school graduation and planning for the weddings, but I'm beginning to think otherwise."

"How serious is it?"

"It's too early to tell," Washu replied. She looked at the assembled faces. "The best thing you can do for him is just don't make a big deal of it. He'll be embarrassed about it in the morning, and a little teasing is to be expected. Just don't make a fuss over him."

ACT 2 - SUNDAY

Tenchi took his time getting dressed. When he discovered that he had slept in his school uniform, it triggered memories of the evening as a whole and its spectacular conclusion. He almost dreaded going downstairs, but his stomach growled insistently at him. Even more immediate was his need to use the toilet.

He was just leaving the bathroom when he encountered Ryoko. She was standing by his doorway, her hands on her hips and legs braced, effectively blocking his exit. "It's time to pay up!" she said sweetly.

"What are you talking about, Ryoko?"

"We made a deal last night, remember? In the van, driving back from your graduation ceremony? I remained completely silent until we got home, and now I want that kiss. A big kiss, I believe you promised. So come over here and pucker-up!"

Tenchi couldn't help grinning. He opened his arms and she slid right into them, planting her lips squarely on his. It was long and enthusiastic, and at its completion he gently pried her arms off and stepped away from her. She had a dreamy smile on her face. "Was that satisfactory?"

"Um, hmm," she nodded.

"And now I believe it's my turn," said Ayeka, standing behind him, arms crossed and head tilted to the side. "You made the same bargain with me, and now it's time to collect."

Tenchi chuckled and reached for her. She stepped into his arms, raised her face, and pressed their mouths together. It was tender and protracted, and at its termination he gently disengaged from her. She, too, had a dreamy smile on her face. "Will that suffice?"

"Very much so," she whispered.

"Now, can I go eat breakfast? I seem to have worked up an appetite."

"Yes," Ryoko and Ayeka chorused, and watched him descend the stairs. They waited until he was in the kitchen — out of earshot — before they looked at each other and doubled-over with laughter.

"That was terrific!" Ryoko said.

"It did seem to work quite well," Ayeka replied.

"I wonder how many more times we'll get away with it before he figures it out?"

"Probably not many. You saw the look on Washu's face last night?"

"Yeah, she was trying to decide whether to tattle or cut into our action."

"Well, we shouldn't press our luck — "

" — But we should strike while the iron is hot! That's gotta be one of my best ideas yet."

"Yes, it would be, if it had been your idea, but since it was my stratagem — "

"It was not!"

"It was, too!" They both growled at one another before backing down. Ayeka took a moment to straighten her kimono before offering some sage advice. "You know, you might let him up for air sooner."

"Oh, look who's talking, miss diving-for-tonsils. I could've sworn I heard a vacuum-seal pop when he finally pried you off," Ryoko smirked. "You're just mad that you had to settle for sloppy seconds."

"Not really," Ayeka smiled maliciously. "I am quite certain that he enjoyed the main event much more than any tedious preliminaries."

The air between them crackled with energy, but Sasami's voice defused the impeding violence with a call to breakfast. Ayeka's haughty "Humph!" and nose-high march down the stairs were matched by Ryoko's sneer just before she teleported directly to the kitchen.

############

Tenchi was in a pretty good mood as he sat down to breakfast. Sasami carried a brimming pan in from the kitchen and gave him a big smile, Mihoshi set a tray down on the table in front of him and gave him a giggly kiss, and Washu clamped her arms around him from behind and planted a kiss on his cheek — all the while fastening a necklace full of odd-shaped instruments around his neck. "Don't take these sensors off until I tell you to," she whispered in his ear. A moment later Ryoko materialized over her spot and sat down, followed shortly by Ayeka; they ignored each other, but pointedly leaned over and kissed his cheeks.

Funaho watched the whole parade with a bemused smile, exchanging meaningful glances with Yosho on her left and Nobuyuki on her right.

"So many pretty ladies, his mother would be very proud," Nobuyuki leaned over and whispered.

"It didn't use to be this peaceful," Yosho added. "Too much competition. Many meals ended in fireworks."

"I can see why that would occur," she replied, one eyebrow raised.

Breakfast proceeded with little fuss, particularly when it was apparent that Tenchi had not lost his appetite. In fact, he wolfed down his food, to much general amusement. It was at the point where they were making noises about the day's activities that Funaho interrupted.

"Perhaps this is as good a time as any to call a family council. You should all be made aware of recent events. Can we adjourn to the living room? I believe we can talk comfortably there."

No one objected, and so a general transition from room-to-room began. Not surprisingly, there was small flurry around Tenchi as he found a comfortable spot on the floor, and Funaho found herself sitting next to Sasami and Washu on the sofa this time. She heard Yosho mutter something about 'musical chairs' under his breath, and Nobuyuki just shook his head.

"Thank you for indulging me," Funaho said. "But first: it is time for you remove your disguise, Yosho."

"Is that really necessary, Mother?" Yosho asked, his voice flat and betraying no emotion. "No one here will understand why I wore it for so long."

"Then it is time to make them understand." Her son squirmed, and her voice hardened ever so slightly. "That was a command, Yosho."

"Then the prince must obey," he replied reluctantly. There was a blur, and his hands and face no longer appeared as the old shrine master. He was once more the young, vigorous-appearing warrior of old.

Ayeka: "Yosho! Why didn't you reveal this to me?"

Ryoko: "Oh, no..."

"Go ahead, Yosho, explain your actions."

His reply was slow and hesitant, directed towards his half-sisters in a voice with a higher, vibrant timbre. "After seeing to Ryoko's imprisonment, and to the safekeeping of my Royal Tree, I wandered about these islands for a few years. I was astonished to find another Power adept here, like myself...like my mother. A beautiful young woman named Itsuki. We fell in love, we were married, and we settled in this valley so that I could keep watch over Ryoko's sleep. After six centuries, though, she made her decision to raise a family. I knew I would lose her, of course, and it took her a while to convince me, but in the end she won out. After Achika's birth, she began to age normally, so with the aid of my tree I began to modify my appearance to match hers. It would have been very cruel for her to live with an ageless husband while she watched her own features whither away. By the end, I had grown accustomed to this facade — it matched my soul, you see, and I saw no reason to dispense with it."

Nobuyuki interrupted him. "Excuse me a moment. What do you mean, she started to age normally?"

"I'll answer that," Washu said. "Female Power adepts will remain vigorous and effective until they begin reproducing, at which point they revert to a normal human lifespan. It's nature's way of preventing overpopulation."

"Are you from Earth?" Nobuyuki asked Funaho.

"Yes. I was born on the island of Honshu nearly one thousand years ago."

"Then, why are you still alive?"

"I have been bonded to a Royal Tree for most of my life, which enabled me to overcome this cycle. Without that symbiosis, I would have been at the mercy of the natural order."

"So, when my Achika made the choice to raise a family..."

"...she knowingly gave up the chance of living for thousands of years, just so she could spend a normal life with you. She must have loved you very much, Mr. Masaki."

Nobuyuki looked first at Yosho, then at Tenchi. "And what about my son? How long will he live?"

"There's really no way of knowing," Washu answered. "He's a tremendously strong Power adept. He may live for a thousand years, or he may only live a few decades."

"What's the average life span for a male — what did you call it? — a Power adept?" Nobuyuki asked.

Washu shrugged. "A couple hundred years, usually. Unfortunately, there's another snag: the men compete for dominance, and only a few adepts truly survive to maturity. It's the male half of the population control mechanism."

Tenchi spoke up. "Wait a minute, I'm eighteen now — "

"Physically, you're an adult," Washu replied. "But an adept's skills and strengths take much longer to develop. It will be another thirty years before you reach full maturity. And then god help any man stupid enough to challenge you."

"Is dueling legal in the Juraian Empire?" Mihoshi asked.

"Yes," Funaho replied, "but normally only the gentry indulge in such activities. Not surprisingly, they are almost all Power adepts of one level or another."

"Just what do you mean by 'Power?'" asked Nobuyuki. "You keep tossing that term around."

"Power is a generic term for the ability to manipulate matter mentally," Washu answered. "You Earthlings use terms like ESP and Psionics, but it's all the same thing. We prefer the term Power because an adept does not contain within himself or herself sufficient energy to accomplish the feats they are capable of. The driving energy has to come from somewhere else. Some adepts are able to convert potential energy into kinetic energy, or extract it from ambient sources in the environment, or draw directly from artificial sources like electrical circuits. And then there are those rare few, like Tenchi, who can tap directly into the underlying fabric of space itself. During their fight on the Souja, Kagato had sealed off every source of energy he could think of — including borrowing energy from Tsunami. He had extensive overlapping shields in place. What Kagato didn't predict (and couldn't prevent) was that Tenchi could summon the Lighthawk Wings, which pull their energy directly from the quantum vacuum. Put bluntly, Kagato was outclassed and outmatched. And while he may have had more energy stored in Souja's crystals than Tenchi was able to process, he couldn't focus it all effectively. He paid for his mistakes in the end."

"Thank you," Ryoko whispered to Tenchi, leaning over and kissing his cheek.

"As a rule of thumb, the low end of the scale involves simple information exchanges of one sort or another, like clairvoyance or telepathy, while actual matter manipulation becomes much rarer. In theory, every human is born with the capabilities; in practice, only 1 person in 1,000 begins to display any of the basic level capabilities, and the percentages get correspondingly smaller as the difficulty increases. The actual number of true Power adepts may only hover at one in 100,000,000. Of course, since there are trillions of humans spread across the galaxy, that opens the doors for an awful lot of adepts. And, don't forget that not all adepts are equal. There are superstars among this class, as well. You happen to be in the same room with several of them." Washu shrugged. "We galactics have been able to duplicate these phenomena mechanically for a long time, but there has always been a certain appreciation for those individuals who are able to do it naturally. Rather like comparing a photograph to a hand-painted portrait — the photograph may be more convenient, and maybe even more accurate, but the artist's efforts are seen to add a layer of expression that is lacking in the photo."

"That helps...somewhat. At least I know it isn't magic," Nobuyuki said.

"Trillions of people?" Tenchi muttered.

"Yes," Washu replied. "However, even though there are many interstellar empires, there are very few worlds like this one. Earth is at that unique transition period where high technology is spreading from isolated pockets to the global community, and when that happens population control will take firm effect. For now, though, it is a genetic hothouse — there are more people on this planet than on any four Juraian worlds. And the population is still increasing! It's no wonder there are more potential Power adepts here than anywhere else in this sector of the galaxy. If I were a geneticist, I'd be petitioning the empire to let me establish a research station here."

"Why don't you?" asked Funaho.

"I have my own genetic research to conduct," she replied, looking meaningfully at Tenchi.

Funaho looked again towards her son. "Tell them the rest, Yosho."

Yosho sighed. "I will die not long after Ryoko leaves this planet."

"Huh? What do I have to do with this?" Ryoko demanded

"Your gems have been feeding energy to my Royal Tree for the last seven hundred years, and it has been sustaining me from that reservoir. Once you and Tenchi leave for Jurai, and take those gems with you, that nourishment will be cut off. I'm already past my prime, you see."

"You mean you've been siphoning off my energy all these years?" Ryoko said angrily.

"Calm down, Ryoko," Washu said. "It's not his fault. And anyway, if he hadn't survived this long, then he never would have sired Achika. And if Achika hadn't been born, then neither would Tenchi."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Ryoko admitted grudgingly.

Tenchi: "Now I'm confused. If the women live centuries longer than the men — "

"That was why the symbiotic relationship with the Royal Trees was developed," Washu said. "The trees have long life spans, but they lack mobility; humans are short-lived, but are highly mobile. What a Power-sensitive human receives is a life-sustaining flow of energy that will keep him or her vigorous through and beyond the normal reproduction cycle; what the tree receives is vastly increased mobility and a chance to reproduce in many environments. The trouble is, there aren't many trees."

"That's what you intend for me, isn't it, Lady Funaho? To bond with one of the Royal Trees."

"Yes."

"What about Ayeka and Ryu-oh? Her tree has been nearly destroyed two or three times."

"It will recover, as long she stops taking it into combat so often," Washu replied. "You know, the thought occurs to me that Yosho's tree may still be mutable."

"How so?" Funaho asked.

"If it's been receiving supplementary energy from Ryoko all these years, it may have never fully rooted. If that's the case, it might be possible to restore some of its original configuration."

"That's assuming it wants to. That's assuming I want to." Yosho's face was closed and his voice was toneless.

"I was referring to the technical issues, not the emotional issues."

"Perhaps we should discuss that topic later," Funaho said. "And since we are dispensing with facades, Little Washu, perhaps you should revert to your proper appearance."

"Why? I'm very comfortable with this form."

"I find the image of my great-grandson marrying a pre-adolescent very disturbing."

"Tenchi hasn't complained."

"Then consider doing it as a personal favor for me."

"Well, I should probably get used to it anyway." Washu's figure blurred as she morphed into her adult form, her body growing and her voice deepening due to the transition. "Is this better, Lady Funaho?"

"Yes it is, Washu. Thank you for indulging me. Now, perhaps I should review a few facts — which I'm sure you are all very well aware of, but please bear with me. Just over seven centuries ago, Ryoko and Ryo-ohki artfully slipped through every layer of security around Jurai and attacked the palace itself, destroying numerous military installations and residential enclaves along the way. She failed to retrieve any of the Royal Trees, and Yosho went roaring after her, swearing to capture or kill the infamous space pirate.

"What followed was a deafening silence on the fate of both hunter and hunted. Many on the council were concerned because Yosho, as the oldest child, was by Juraian law the legal successor to Emperor Azusa. Many were just as glad to see him gone, since he also had the sad misfortune of being my son, and therefore a half-breed. Many eyes were even then looking to Ayeka as the First Crown Princess, since she was the next-oldest child and a full-blooded Juraian. And once again the distasteful discussion of half-breeds vs. purebloods reared its ugly head in Council meetings. Ayeka was more focused on finding Yosho than any inheritance concerns, and her much-heralded rescue mission was just the diversion Azusa needed to shelve the whole controversy. We even allowed Sasami to sneak aboard Ryu-oh, since that conveniently placed all of the heirs out of reach.

"During the reconstruction period that followed, Ayeka's rescue mission slipped out of the media limelight and was allowed to fade from public attention, and we asked the Galaxy Police to keep a discrete eye on Ryu-oh's location. 700 years may seem a long time, but with the intervening crises to worry about, and knowing you ladies were reasonably safe and secure, the time actually passed quickly. (You were definitely missed at home, though — Misaki and I spent many an evening pining for our children.)

"And then two years ago Tenchi freed Ryoko, and Ryu-oh followed Funaho's beacon into this solar system. Recent history from your perspective. What you don't know is the full consequences of your actions. Tenchi, last night you asked what is so important happening on Jurai that won't wait for your weddings? Quite a bit, actually.

"First, we submitted Mihoshi's report to the Grand Council for discussion, and someone on the council promptly leaked the unclassified data to the media."

"Unclassified?" Ayeka asked.

"Anything not related to the Royal Trees." Funaho replied. "That's privileged information, protected by a sworn oath, and anyone caught making such information public will get charged with treason. As it was, the bulk of the data released was about Tenchi. And needless to say the media had a field day with it: not only was Crown Prince Yosho alive and well, but he had an heir of his own; and the heir is a heroic paladin with Power attributes not seen in generations. This was followed a few months later by Baron Kitsune's interview, and the whole empire learned that the heir has won the heart of not one but five Power adepts. You cut a very romantic, swashbuckling figure, Tenchi, and you have no idea how eager the media is to get their hands on you."

Tenchi's shoulders slumped and he groaned audibly, accompanied by a mild Power spike. "Oh, great."

"There's already talk about a knighthood in your future." There were gasps around the room, and more than one hug for Tenchi, who was looking more miserable by the minute. "We found it very amusing that in the rush to get on the pro-Tenchi bandwagon, the little matter of your genetic heritage has been conveniently overlooked."

"No one cares that I'm only one-eighth Juraian?"

"Not with the public. And not with the majority of Council members, either. You can summon the Lighthawk Wings, which is a virtual stamp of approval of your pedigree. But there is a reason for our concern over your schedule. By tradition, most marriages are serially monogamous; polygamy and polyandry are seen occasionally; and rarest of all are the cluster marriages, which contain multiple wives and husbands. But, according to Juraian law, extra care must be taken to preserve the royal lineage. In essence, all parties have to be Power adepts, at least one of the consorts must be full-blooded Juraian, and the line of succession begins with the oldest offspring. In case the first-born becomes incapacitated or deceased before producing any heirs, then the line of succession reverts to the next oldest child. When applied to present circumstances, since Yosho is forced to remain on this planet, he cannot assume the throne. The line of succession now falls to his heir — which means you, Tenchi. You are legally Crown Prince, and in due time you will be required by Juraian law to assume the throne. Ayeka once again reverts to the 'spare' heir."

"What if I don't want to?" Tenchi asked. "I don't have the training for it, nor the inclination. Ayeka would make a much better monarch."

"That may be true, but it is also irrelevant — the law remains. Anyway, before we debate that issue any further, you should consider a few facts.

"First, if you abdicate in favor of Ayeka after assuming the throne, then you become subject to the law and may have to divorce your other wives. And Ayeka could then avail herself of the privilege to collect multiple consorts.

"Second, have you given any thought to children? I saw that leer, Ryoko, and I meant actual production, not practice." Ryoko blushed, there were chuckles around the room, and Tenchi reached over to hold her hand. "It becomes a very important consideration due to the line of succession. I would give serious consideration to postponing that decision for a while, for the reasons stated earlier.

"Third, this is a painful thing for me to say, Tenchi, and could be even more painful to deal with, but the simple fact of the matter is that your great-grandfather doesn't like you very much. Not only were you sired away from Jurai, and thus away from any influence he might have had in picking your parents, but you have already demonstrated your superior Power attributes. Rather than taking the prudent and less inflammatory route of mentoring you in private, he is going to attempt to manipulate you publicly."

"I knew it!" Ayeka said, simmering. "As soon as he tried to foist me off on that idiot Lord Seriyu — "

Tenchi reached over and took her hand, calming her instantly. "Forewarned is forearmed." He started to say something else when another Power spike erupted, this one very intense and protracted. Tenchi's back arched, and he closed his eyes in concentration or pain. Ryoko and Ayeka could feel his hands shaking, and everyone else watched with more than a little apprehension. The attack passed after a few moments, and Tenchi opened his eyes to some very worried expressions. "As I was saying, every little bit of information helps us prepare for the coming...discussions."

"Tenchi, would you like some tea?" Sasami asked.

"No thanks, Sasami. I'm fine." And he gave her a lopsided smile to ease her concern.

"Sasami, Dear, how do you feel about all this?" Funaho asked. "You're awfully young to be worrying about marriage."

"No I'm not. Ayeka was betrothed at an even younger age. Besides, I've already linked with Tenchi — why would I want anybody else?"

"What do you mean, you've already linked with him?"

"Through Tsunami."

"I don't understand."

There was shimmer in the air behind Sasami, and the ethereal form of Tsunami materialized. "That's because Sasami and I integrated many years ago, and Tenchi and I integrated just recently."

"Tsunami! What brings you here?"

"I was summoned."

"By who?"

"I called her," Sasami replied. "Actually, she's been listening the whole time." Tsunami and Sasami exchanged smiles.

"Tsunami, would you please explain how you are integrated with my half-daughter and my great-grandson?"

Tsunami recounted her rescue of Sasami during Ryoko's attack on the Jurai Royal Palace, and her rescue of Tenchi during Kagato's attack.

"I see," Funaho replied after a long silence. "Then please accept my deepest thanks."

"Am I already bonded to Tsunami?" Tenchi asked.

"Yes," Tsunami answered.

"Then that explains my ability to summon the Lighthawk Wings."

"No, that ability comes from within you. We are merely linked."

"Tsunami, can you bond to both Tenchi and Sasami at the same time?" Washu asked.

"Yes."

Washu started chuckling. "This just gets better and better!"

"Would you please explain that statement?" Funaho asked wearily.

"I told that emissary you sent last year that this was going to happen. I just didn't expect it so early."

"Expect what so early?"

"The linkage. Ryoko, Ryo-ohki and I have always been linked, and now this link between Tenchi and Sasami — "

" — And my link with Ryoko," Tenchi added.

"What link?" Ryoko asked.

"I was in Washu's lab when Dr. Clay kidnapped you, but I heard you call my name."

"You did? Really?"

"Yes. Really."

"I remember that," Washu said thoughtfully. "I thought you were hearing things at the time. Funny I didn't feel anything just then..."

"Why don't I feel a link with Tenchi?" Ayeka interrupted.

Ryoko chuckled and smirked. "Do you want me to answer that?"

"Oh, be quiet, Ryoko. Actually, Ayeka, it requires an emotional trigger. You've been keeping your feelings too tightly controlled. I'm sure that will change after the wedding — most likely on your honeymoon!" Washu said with a cackle.

"Thanks for the help, 'Mom.'"

"Any time, Little Ryoko. As I was saying, I warned the emissary that we would begin linking to each other, and Tenchi was going to be the linchpin. I see it's already started."

"Why haven't I felt a link with Tenchi?" Mihoshi asked quietly. "I'm an empath, after all — feelings are my specialty."

"I'm guessing you already have," Washu answered, "it just gets lost in the noise from everyone else. Maybe you should try a little meditation, or maybe bio-feedback."

"Could you help me?"

"Sure. In fact, I have just the piece of equipment in my lab to wire you up to!"

"Washu!" Tenchi growled.

"Just kidding, just kidding," she replied.

"Perhaps we should take a break," Yosho suggested.

Everyone began standing and stretching, drifting off to attend to various activities. Funaho turned to address Mihoshi, who was still sitting on the floor. "Mihoshi, are you alright?"

"What? Oh! Sorry, Your Majesty. No, I'm fine."

"You were staring off into space. Were you daydreaming?"

"No, I was concentrating."

"On what?"

"I was trying to isolate Tenchi's feelings from everyone else in the room."

"Is that difficult to do?"

"Yes. There are so many people in here right now, it's hard to extract just one source. And since everyone in here is related, the normal barriers have been removed: everyone is expressing themselves openly and honestly and very emotionally."

"Mihoshi, how do you feel about this marriage? It's a very unusual situation."

"Tenchi is a very unusual person. It doesn't surprise me that whatever circumstances he's involved in will require unusual arrangements."

"But don't you feel jealous of the other ladies? Having to share your husband, and all?"

"Well, it's only natural. But my parents were often away on GP business, usually at the same time. My brother and I never seemed to have enough time with them. So my parents scheduled special times for each of us, where each us of had their attention exclusively. Some of my fondest memories are of my special times. I think Tenchi has something like that planned already. Besides, I probably won't be around much."

"Oh? Why?"

"As a Galaxy Police person, I will be away on assignments or on patrol on a regular basis."

"And you don't think you will be reassigned to into Jurai's district?"

"Eventually, I suppose. I'll put in the request, naturally, but I can't guarantee anything. I'll also talk to my grandfather about it."

"Would it help if I talked to your supervisors, too?"

"Oh, that would be wonderful! Thank you, Your Majesty."

"Since we're going to be related soon, why don't you just call me Lady Funaho."

"If you wish, Lady Funaho," Mihoshi blushed with embarrassment.

"What do your parents think of this marriage?"

"Oh, they're quite excited. I sent them a photo of Tenchi and I, but I made them promise not to say anything publicly until it was officially announced."

"Do they know the circumstances about how you met him?"

"No, I keep my letters home pretty vague. I told my grandfather, though. He was already aware of most of the details."

"Will you be writing a report about our being here this weekend?"

"Well, my orders were to report anything in this system that involves the Royal Family. But as this is a family meeting about family issues, I will probably just mention that you were here for Tenchi's graduation. It hardly seems worth an analysis."

"I completely agree with you, Mihoshi."

############

"I'm afraid I have trouble thinking of you as my grandfather now," said Tenchi. He and Yosho had drifted over to stand by the front door, watching the falling snow through the windows.

"That's understandable," Yosho replied. "Placing a new face on an old figure is a shock to anyone."

"Grandpa...why didn't you rescue Ryoko from Kagato? You're much more experienced than I am."

"I could not. I fought him briefly, remember, and he just toyed with me. His using Ryoko was a simple diversion; had I dispatched her, I still could not have beaten him. Only you could do that."

"Are you so sure?"

"Yes. I cannot summon the Lighthawk Wings. And that is only the beginning of your abilities."

"But I saw you use a Lighthawk wing during your fight with Ryoko!"

"No, the Tenchi-ken is able to project a small shield, and that is what you saw. My own Power expression is centered on clairvoyant and precognitive talents, although I do have some modest psychokinetic abilities."

"That would explain those large leaps you made. And I can see where your other talents would be real useful for a swordsman."

Yosho nodded. "Indeed. But, I cannot even match my own father's Power level — you have already overshadowed us both."

"Everyone says that, but I find it hard to believe."

"Your belief doesn't change any of the facts. But your belief will affect the speed at which you respond to them. To deny your talents will only postpone their inevitable emergence. To embrace them will make their acceptance and integration that much easier. Have faith in yourself, Tenchi. Everyone else here has faith in you." He put a hand on Tenchi's shoulder, as a gesture of support.

"Grandpa, would you return to Jurai if you could?"

"I don't know. Washu's comment came as a complete surprise. I will have to think about it. In time, perhaps..."

############

Sasami was puttering around the kitchen, checking her supplies for that night's meal, when she heard footsteps. She looked up to see Mihoshi walk into the kitchen, pour herself a cup of tea, and then sit at he regular place at the table. She was alone, and she had a pinched look on her face. Curious, Sasami sat down across from her. "What's up, Mihoshi? Why aren't you out there with everyone else?"

Mihoshi stared at her for a moment, before focusing on her face. "Oh! I didn't realize you were there. Sorry, Sasami. Did you say something?"

"You seem a bit distracted," Sasami replied. She was kind enough not to say 'more than usual,' which is what her sister would have added. Sasami liked Mihoshi, even if the others in the house found her difficult to relate to.

"I was trying to concentrate on Tenchi," she replied. "I was trying to identify his emotions in there, but there were so many disturbances that I just couldn't get a firm fix. Actually, that bothers me, because I've never really had that problem before."

"Maybe you're trying too hard."

"Well, that could be. I was trying to see if we have a link, like he and Ryoko do. Like he and you do. Washu thinks we do, but I don't feel it."

"What do you think it should feel like?"

"I don't really know. I don't think it would be like telepathy, but I would expect it to be stronger than what I read from everyone else. What's your link like?"

Sasami shrugged. "Like talking to him, but a lot more limited. Simple ideas, strong feelings. I can tell when he's upset, or happy, or hungry. Sometimes I can show him my dreams, or parts of them. It's nice to have somebody to share with."

"What about Tsunami? Don't you talk with her?"

"It's different with her...like hearing an echo of my own voice. But Tenchi is a separate person, so it feels more like a normal conversation. It's hard to describe."

"Actually, I think I have a pretty good idea. If you don't mind, I think I will just sit in here where it's quiet, and try to figure this out."

"Ok," Sasami said, grinning at her friend. She went back to her recipe cards and inventory.

############

Ryoko had slipped into one of the corners, trying to decide if this would be a good time to retreat to her rafter. If it weren't for the fact that Tenchi would probably be real annoyed with her, she would have done it already. That's when she realized that the Imperial Consort was standing in front of her, smiling politely, and effectively blocking her in. She returned the smile, albeit hesitantly. "Yes, Your Majesty?"

"My son tells us you wish to become Tenchi's bodyguard," Funaho said. "He speaks very highly of your fighting prowess, your situational awareness, and your vigilance. And your devotion is beyond question."

"Uh, thanks. I'm glad he's satisfied with my credentials."

"Palace security is partly my responsibility, as is finding qualified personnel. You would fit in quite nicely, assuming you are able to adapt to my team."

"Your team?"

"There are security details attached to each member of the Royal Family, to provide round-the-clock coverage, as well as covering activities outside the palace. All these functions require a coordinated effort, with information sharing, backups, training in state-of-the-art hardware, and periodic updates on possible threat assessments. I have a small, but very proficient staff."

"I hadn't realized that there was so much involved in guarding someone," Ryoko admitted.

"You would be a very valuable asset — but we don't tolerate mavericks. And you would have to learn to take orders. Oh, don't look so dubious, Ryoko. Can't you see the benefits in working with a team of professionals to help protect your husband? And they would rest a little easier knowing someone so formidable was standing beside Tenchi. It's all for mutual support."

"I'll have to think about it."

"And while you're thinking, I have another idea for your consideration."

"Oh?"

"I'm also responsible for intelligence gathering. And I'm required to send unscheduled inspection teams into military installations, to test and evaluate their readiness. I've looked over the Galaxy Police's dossier on you, and your exploits for Kagato are impressive. I could use someone like you, too. Perhaps paired with Mihoshi..."

"Mihoshi? You'll have to explain that one for me, Your Majesty."

"Call me Lady Funaho. Mihoshi has three talents that make her an ideal partner for you: she has a great eye for details, she has incredible quantities of luck, and according to Washu she is simply pure death to complicated machinery. What you couldn't phase through she would easily disrupt. And I can't think of a better source of diversions."

Ryoko couldn't help laughing. "That's quite a picture you paint, Lady Funaho. Have you talked to her about it?"

"No, but getting her reassigned as a liaison to the Royal Intelligence Service should be no problem. It might even add some stability to her marriage with Tenchi, since she would be home more often."

"Let me think about that, too, ok?"

"Of course. It will be a few months before you settle on Jurai, so there is plenty of time to ponder. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask."

Ryoko idly twisted her brooch — she'd slept with it on — and admitted that it would be fun to take Ryo-ohki back into the space lanes again, only this time as a privateer rather than a pirate. She might even learn to like The Ditz. Her eyes rested momentarily on Yosho, and she shuddered; she feared that face. The grizzled, gray-haired image had not scared her like the young warrior, and it had been difficult to equate the elder shrine-master with the man who had defeated and imprisoned her. Only one thing could make her stay in this house now: Tenchi. His back was turned to her, but she would know that figure anywhere. She felt the old craving rising in her, the need to embrace him and hang on for dear life, and the only reason she didn't teleport beside him that very second was the need to be civil to his powerful great-grandmother. At that moment Tenchi turned and glanced at her briefly, his lips twitched into a quick grin, and the word "Later" caressed her mind. She gasped.

"I see that link is very real," Funaho said.

Ryoko blushed. "Is it that obvious?"

"Yes it is. I envy you. Ryoko, how much of your past does Tenchi know about?"

"Not much. He hasn't asked, and I haven't offered. I've always been afraid it might scare him away."

"I doubt much would deter that boy when he sets his mind to something. You won't be rid of him so easily."

"I sure hope you're right," Ryoko said, momentarily unsettled by the sheer thought of life without Tenchi.

"What was it like, those years with Kagato?"

"A constant nightmare. He kept me in stasis most of the time, feeding me information subliminally. Usually it was about the next target, but sometimes just behavioral skills; he wanted me to be a proper little saboteur, or spy, or thief...whatever he needed. Mercifully, he reserved the most terrible deeds for himself — I never did any kidnappings or assassinations. But for me, the worst part of my missions was observing the people around me. I saw what I was missing, what I thought I'd never have. Even the simple pleasures were forbidden, because he was thought they might trigger some rebellion on my part. I was deathly afraid to even sample them, because then I would be punished. And his punishments were awful. Some of his assignments were so bad that I just refused to obey — so he'd take control of my mind and turn me into a damned marionette. The raid on Jurai was like that: I refused, he enslaved me, and I was forced to watch helplessly while he committed atrocities with my hands. You wouldn't believe the nightmares I have."

"It's amazing that you survived all of that, and your imprisonment on Earth as well. It says much about the strength of your character."

"Thank you."

"You appear to be making a solid recovery."

"That's because I've had one single focus for the last two years."

"And what is that?"

"Tenchi." She put a great deal of feeling into that one word, and that brought the subject turning around once more. He studied her for a moment, excused himself from his conversation, and crossed the room.

"What's wrong, Ryoko?" Tenchi whispered into her ear "You seem upset about something?"

"I am," she whispered back. "Can we talk somewhere in private?"

"Uh, yeah — we can go to my room. That should be private enough."

Ryoko embraced him and teleported them directly into his room. Once, there, she did not let go of him. And Tenchi, sensing her distress, maintained his own embrace.

"Ok, what's wrong?" he asked.

"It's Yosho. I can't...his face...Tenchi, I'm frightened of him."

"I can't say I know how you feel, but I can appreciate the way you feel. I'm having some difficulty myself."

"No, you don't know how I feel. Tenchi, that face was the last thing I saw before I was locked in my tomb. I can't look at that face without feeling the centuries of cold and dark rushing over me again, burying me alive. I know it doesn't make sense, but I can't help it. If you weren't here I'd be gone in a flash, and I'd never come back."

Tenchi sighed. "Would it help if you stayed here until lunch-time? He'll go back to his own quarters afterward."

Ryoko was relieved. "I was hoping you'd offer. Thanks." She smiled mischievously, and said, "Actually, it would help even more if we both stayed here until lunchtime; I know a way to make the time pass eventfully."

Tenchi chuckled. "Now I know you're feeling better. Look, the wedding is only a few weeks away..."

"I know, I know," Ryoko pouted. "But you can't blame a girl for trying, can you?"

"What are you going to do in here for the next few hours?"

Ryoko climbed onto his bed and crawled under the covers. "I'm going to take a nap. Now, why don't you tuck me in? And call me when lunch is ready."

############

"Ayeka, Dear, you keep staring at Yosho." Funaho had encountered Ayeka coming out of the kitchen, where she had gone to talk to her sister. The princess had been standing quietly, looking at her half-brothers back.

"Am I? I don't mean to."

"Are you having second thoughts about marrying Tenchi? It's understandable, finding out that your original betrothed is not only still alive, but still young and virile..."

"I will confess that I occasionally wondered what I would do if that question ever arose. It seemed an unlikely event."

"Yet, here it is."

"Yes, here it is. But I can honestly say that there is no real question. Yosho may still retain his youth, but I've looked into his eyes and there is not much joy there. He left me long ago, with no intention of ever returning. He met and married another woman, raised a family, and now his heart is full of memories with no room for anyone else. But Tenchi is young, and handsome, and has every intention of staying with me. I could not live without him."

Tenchi stood at the top of the stairs and paused, cocking his head to one side. He descended slowly, looking around the room, and then crossed over to her. "Ayeka? Did you call me?"

Ayeka looked astonished, giggled, and then wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. Tenchi was surprised, and responded a bit nervously knowing a bemused Funaho was watching them. "Yes, I called you. I think Sasami needs your help in the kitchen."

"Oh. Ok." He walked around them and into the kitchen, shaking his head.

Ayeka giggled again. "Now we have a link, too!"

"And you don't object to sharing him with the other ladies?" Funaho asked.

Ayeka sighed. "It is still a source of strife. I will admit that I am jealous when I see him with the others, but I keep telling myself that it is necessary." She shrugged dejectedly. "I just have to learn to accept this situation, and remind myself that the private moments may be few and far between, but are well worth the price. This arrangement was not Tenchi's idea, and I think he agreed to it simply because it seemed the path of least resistance. I am also giving more credence to Washu's warning that he will need all of us in the years to come. Tell me, Funaho, how did you learn to accept my mothers presence in your marriage?"

"I very nearly didn't." She idly rubbed the jewel implanted in her forehead, the Imperial marking denoting her rank as senior wife. They both knew the original circumstances, Funaho from experience and Ayeka from narrative. Azusa Masaki had steered his crippled starship into a forced landing in southern Japan, ca. 13th Century CE, when he had sensed her Power level. Curious, and with ample time on his hands while he repaired his ship, he had investigated. The subsequent courtship and marriage, while something of a whirlwind in their own right, were nothing compared to the tempest they encountered when she was presented at court. Much of the Juraian aristocracy did not approve of the inter-racial marriage of their future emperor, who considered such a move as the dilution of his bloodline. The birth of their son Yosho caused a great schism within Juraian society. The subsequent discontent nearly resulted in civil war, which was averted only when Azusa agreed to take a second wife. The law was modified and Azusa married Misaki, who was the choice of the nobility. "Your father was emperor by then, and quite eager to establish his authority. When he yielded to the demands that he take another consort, I was crushed. I offered to accept a divorce and to return to Earth, but he would not listen. He had compromised enough, he declared, and to permit me to return to my homeworld would show too much weakness. Fortunately, your mother and I established a working relationship early on. We are closer now than sisters, and we adjusted to the circumstances long ago."

"And I'm sure we will, too."

############

"Sasami? Ayeka said you needed my help."

Sasami looked up from the pot she was stirring and frowned. "No, I don't think so. Sorry, Tenchi."

"Oh, that's ok."

"But she needs your help," Sasami said, pointing to where Mihoshi was sitting. Her head was in her hands, and she appeared pretty dejected. Tenchi walked over to the table and slid into the seat Sasami had vacated.

"What's up, Mihoshi?"

"I can't feel you," she replied absently.

Tenchi reached across the table and took her hand. "Can you feel me now?" He smiled, hoping the joke would lighten her mood.

It didn't. "I can feel your hand, but not your heart," she said forlornly.

"I don't understand," he replied, not for the first time.

She looked into his eyes. "I want a link like you and Ryoko share, or like you and Sasami share. But I can't even read your emotions while you're sitting right in front of me. It's like you're only half there!"

Tenchi stood and walked around the table, stopping behind Mihoshi's chair. He put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed gently. "I don't know what to say, other than I love you."

She put her hands on his and leaned backwards into his chest. "That means a great deal to me."

"You know," he said, "maybe not being able to read me is a blessing in disguise. Don't you get fatigued by all of the emotional backwash from everyone around you?"

"Yes," she replied slowly.

"If you could read me more intensely than anyone else, wouldn't that cause you to burn out? Like an overloaded circuit?"

"I hadn't thought of that," she said, perking up. "And it makes sense." It also explained why she had never had this problem with her previous boyfriends — she had never linked with them (but she wasn't going to mention that little item). She stood up and spun around so fast she tipped her chair over, locking her arms around her startled fiancée. "Then we really are linked! Oh, I'm so happy!" And she pulled Tenchi into a passionate kiss.

Sasami watched from the stove, grinning. She could feel Tenchi's confusion, and she could see Mihoshi's relief. She liked happy endings. Now, what should she make for dessert?

############

Washu was standing at the front window, looking out at the lake. Funaho moved silently over to stand beside her.

"It's still snowing, I see," Funaho said.

"Yes," Washu answered. "It will probably snow all day."

"I don't see much snow on Jurai. I had forgotten how beautiful it is."

Washu turned to smirk at her. "As long as your car isn't stuck in it! So tell me, Lady Funaho, is it my turn now? I've been watching you working the crowd."

"I'm just surprised that you agreed to this marriage, Washu. You were such a confirmed recluse for so long after your first marriage."

"So you know about that, eh? That damned Mihoshi..."

"Don't blame her; it was in the dossier that the Galaxy Police compiled after your kidnapping."

"Well, circumstances have a way of changing your outlook on life."

"Circumstances like Tenchi?"

"Yes. Actually, he's redeemed all of us, one way or another."

"How so?"

Washu turned and indicated the other residents of the house. "Shall we look at specifics? Two years ago my Ryoko was buried in a crypt, a bitter lonely soul with no hope for happiness, let alone freedom, and haunted by memories that could damn her for all eternity. Tenchi freed her body and her heart, and now she has dreams and hopes again.

"Two years ago Ayeka was in stasis, seeking her half-brother or vengeance on his killer. Not only has Tenchi dispelled the desire for either, but she has had to willingly get her hands dirty and learn to get along with ordinary people. The haughty princess has been humanized...and she will be a better ruler for it.

"Two years ago Sasami was in stasis with her sister. She simply dreaded the life she had been leading. She was plagued by nightmares, she had no real friends, and running away with Ayeka was a golden opportunity. Here she has a stable home, where her talents are appreciated and given free rein. Tenchi is the anchor in her life, now, and she turns to him when she needs to be comforted.

"Two years ago Mihoshi was on her way to a breakdown. Long periods of isolation while on patrol, no proximity to family or friends, a growing reputation as a jinx, and accused of nepotism because of her highly placed relatives. It's no wonder her performance ratings had been dropping steadily. I don't think she would have lasted much longer in the Galaxy Police, and that could have dealt her a crushing blow. Since meeting Tenchi, she has turned her life around."

"What about you, Washu? How has my great-grandson redeemed your life?"

"Aside from the trivial stuff like love and affection? I want to bear his child." Washu was watching Funaho's face, and smiled at the reaction she saw there. "Don't look so shocked, Lady Funaho, it's really a very logical decision.

"My first child was taken from me because I lacked the prestige or the wealth to keep him. My social standing and pedigree wasn't good enough, and my husband's family thought I was incapable of raising our son in an 'acceptable' or 'proper' environment.

"My second child was taken from me because I wasn't strong enough to protect her. What was worse, I knew she was being abused and corrupted, and I was totally powerless to do anything. I couldn't even close the link we shared, so I felt the echo of every horror she was subjected to.

"But my next child will be born into the Imperial Family, at the absolute top of the social structure. And the child's father will be the mightiest mortal in the galaxy." Her voice turned to steel, and her eyes simmered. "No one will dare raise a hand against me or my baby. Not ever again."

############

Tenchi lay in the shallow end of the pool, his head anchored out of the water, while the rest of his body sloped down the incline into the steamy water. He cleared his mind of all thought, just letting the heat seep into his muscles. Those Power spikes were worrying him, and he thought about them while he idly played with his sensor-laden necklace.

He heard their voices before he saw them, watching their bare feet through half-raised eyelids. Ryoko settled into the pool on his right side, Ayeka on his left, Washu beyond Ryoko, Mihoshi beyond Ayeka, and across from him Sasami and Funaho settled into the deeper water. They each wore nothing but a towel (even uninhibited Ryoko wore one, out of deference to Lady Funaho); at one time Tenchi might have felt nervous about the arrangement. But he had learned through hard experience never to enter the onsen without a towel of his own, because his solitary baths often ended in ambushes. He didn't even flinch when four pairs of feet draped themselves over his legs, prodding and digging teasingly. There was the clatter of dishes and the unmistakable sound of a sake bottle being opened.

"Tenchi," Ryoko cooed, "would you like a little drink?"

To everyone's surprise, he answered in the affirmative. He rarely drank anything alcoholic, but he was definitely in the mood today.

"Here, Sir Tenchi," Washu said, handing him a cup.

"Please don't call me that," Tenchi replied. "I don't deserve to be knighted."

"You most certainly do deserve it," Funaho said. "And there are three knightly orders on Jurai that agree with that assessment, or they wouldn't be competing for the honor."

"I'm no hero," he said through a mouthful of sake.

"You are to these ladies. You freed them from Kagato."

"It was a group effort — it took all of us working together."

"Yes, they helped; but in the end it was you who went toe-to-toe with that monster in his own lair, completely alone. You not only rescued them, but you saved the lives of millions of people on this planet that he would have butchered for his own amusement."

"Damn straight!" Ryoko muttered. "I've seen him do it."

"I didn't fight him for glory, or a title. I fought to free my friends. I was angry, and scared."

"And you shouldered your fears and faced him anyway. If that isn't heroism, what is?" Funaho asked.

"Can we talk about something else?"

Wisely, Funaho dropped the subject. She could see that her great-grandson was truly modest and troubled by the whole topic. It could wait for another time. "Very well. Tell, me ladies, what do you intend to do on your honeymoon — besides the obvious, of course. Ryoko?"

"Well, since we're kinda limited on funding, I suppose we'll just find a hotel near a beach somewhere." She looked at Tenchi for confirmation, but he was staring into his sake.

"Ryoko, Dear, you will be marrying a prince of the Juraian Empire. Funding will not be an issue; I'm reasonably sure we can have sufficient resources transported here and converted to the local currency in time for your honeymoon."

"Well, if that's the case — I want to go on a cruise!"

"Huh?" Tenchi muttered, looking up.

"The cruise ships that sail this planet's oceans are equipped with casinos and restaurants and nightclubs and swimming pools and sundecks and private cabins with room service. I want a whole week of exciting days and intimate nights!" She elbowed her fiancée, trying to share the vision she was seeing.

"Sounds like fun," he agreed.

"Then consider it arranged," Funaho replied, making a mental note to discuss the details with Yosho later. "Washu? You're next in line, what do you have planned?"

"I think we'll just spend the week in my lab curled-up with a good book."

"That doesn't sound very memorable. What book are you talking about?"

"A local text called the Kama Sutra."

Tenchi choked on a mouthful of sake, and Ayeka and Ryoko took turns slapping his back.

Funaho watched with one raised eyebrow. "I take it this book contains something significant?"

"I prefer to think of it as inspirational," Washu replied, grinning wickedly. "I found it not long ago while looking for pertinent reference materials. It contains some extremely interesting suggestions for experimental research. And don't worry, Tenchi, I have a large stock of vitamin supplements and anti-inflammatory crèmes on hand. Just in case."

Tenchi reached for the sake bottle.

"Ah, I see. Mihoshi, what about you?"

"Well," she giggled, "There is a luxury resort in close orbit around one of my home system's gas giants. I hear it has absolutely spectacular views of the cloud formations, as well as the rings. And the food is supposed to be five-star."

"I would think you'd get enough space travel in your line of work."

"Uh, actually, the suites also have variable-balancer controls. And there are some zero-gravity experiments I'd like to try." She blushed under the astonished looks she received.

"What kind of experiments?" Washu asked, intrigued.

"Well, there was a raid on an orbiting brothel in the Zeta Artenis system a year ago by one of our vice units, and among the documentation they recovered were some training manuals for new employees. I hear they were pretty extensive."

"Have you read any of these manuals?" Washu asked, a calculating smile spreading across her face.

"No, but I can get copies."

"Care to exchange information?"

"Sure, if you will — and some of those supplements."

"Deal!" Washu said, extending her hand.

Mihoshi shook it, satisfaction painted on her face.

"Hey, wait a minute!" Ryoko interrupted.

"Yes, just what do you two think you are doing?" Ayeka chorused.

Washu just smiled sweetly at her Companions. "What's the matter, ladies — feeling left out?" Ryoko and Ayeka both had the decency to blush at the discreet reference to their own little arrangement.

Tenchi groaned and drained his cup.

Across the pool, Funaho was biting the insides of her cheeks. "Ayeka, Dear, what about you?"

Ayeka stirred her sake for a moment. "Something traditional. A cruise through the home system, perhaps, or a week at one of the tropical island resorts. I haven't really given it much thought."

"I would highly recommend that you do."

"Is four months long enough to plan for a royal wedding?"

"It will have to be, unless you'd care to postpone it for a while?" Funaho saw the look in Ayeka's eyes and smiled. "No, I didn't think you would. I'll send a courier 'bot to the Royal Chamberlain in the next couple of days, with a list of details and suggestions."

"Thank you, Funaho."

"And what about you, Sasami? We don't want you to be left out of these discussions."

"I figure I'll get my betrothal banquet after Ayeka's wedding," Sasami replied. "I've heard her banquet was pretty spectacular, and I want one like it."

"I think that's a very sensible idea," Funaho smiled and placed her hand on Sasami's shoulder. "I'm sure Misaki will look forward to planning it with you."

"Well, I'll have a few things to say about the food," she said. She noticed all the grins around the pool. "What?"

"There is something else I am concerned about," Funaho said. "I had to adapt to Juraian cultural traditions when I left this world, and I made many mistakes in the transition. It was a difficult period, and I would spare you ladies some of that grief. Perhaps we should discuss some of the marital traditions common among the upper castes."

"Uh, oh," Tenchi muttered. "I'm not sure I should listen to this."

"I think you should. You do have a stake in it," Funaho answered with upraised eyebrows.

"Does this involve that whips-and-chains thing?" He looked over at Ayeka, who nodded. "I've heard this already, Lady Funaho. I'm not sure I agree with it."

"Nonetheless, you should be aware of it. Ayeka will be expected to uphold the traditions."

"Absolutely," Ayeka confirmed. A frown was forming on her face, as the other females present exchanged confused expressions. "You agreed to it, Beloved."

"I agreed to try it, yes. But I also said that we might need to modify it a bit. Coming from a backwater like Earth, the idea takes some getting used to." He looked to his great-grand-mother. "If you don't mind my asking, Lady Funaho, did you accept the practice?"

"Not completely," she answered. "I have some difficulty with the instruments, and I will admit that assimilating some of the deeper concepts has been a challenge. Fortunately, Lord Azusa was willing to make some compromises." She smiled. "Of course, I was the daughter of a daimyo, and before leaving this planet I received some training in the exotic arts. My husband has had little to complain about." The smile softened. "And that is why we should discuss this now. I am aware of the traditions that Ayeka will bring to the marriage bed, but I wondered about what you other ladies may be asking of Tenchi."

At this point, Washu interrupted: "Excuse me, please. Just what whips-and-chains tradition are you talking about? Ayeka, are you a closet dominatrix?" Ryoko and Mihoshi just stared open-mouthed.

"I would not describe our traditions so crudely, but there are similarities."

"Tenchi, maybe you should escort Sasami back to the house," Washu advised.

"That is unnecessary," Funaho interrupted. "There is nothing we will discuss that she hasn't heard already."

"Yeah," Sasami added. "I've been watching Mommy teach Ayeka the whip techniques for years. I can't wait to try them myself, when I'm older!"

"Oh, God," Tenchi said.

"If you think I'm going to allow anyone to chain MY Tenchi and take a whip to him — " Ryoko growled.

"He is not just 'your' Tenchi. He never has been." Ayeka took a deep breath to keep her temper in check. "And the application of the whip is very discriminating, it is not intended as a — "

"I DON'T CARE!" Ryoko exploded.

"May I handle this?" Funaho asked.

"Please do," Ayeka replied.

Tenchi started to reach for the sake bottle again when the tremors started. He likened them to a caffeine buzz. He also became aware of a roaring in his ears, of sweat beading out across his skin, and a growing nausea. He was trying to decide whether he should make an effort to get to the Men's changing room — and the toilet in it — when he became aware that the conversation around him had ceased, and everyone was watching him.

"Tenchi, are you alright?" Washu asked.

He decided this wasn't the time for macho posturing. "No," he answered. "I feel...odd."

"Is it the sake?" Mihoshi asked.

"I don't think so," Washu replied. "He's not flushed, he's pale. And I felt his Power level flicker." With a gesture, she summoned her terminal. She typed several sets of commands, pursing her lips as she watched the results. "I think you might want to go lie down, Tenchi."

"Yeah, I was just thinking that myself." He lurched to his feet, and started walking slowly towards the dressing room. Ryoko materialized beside him and grabbed his arm seconds before he staggered. "Thanks," he whispered. He fought the nausea and growing disorientation. She got him through the changing room door, and sat him down on the bench near his clothes. "I'll be ok, now," he told her.

"Do you need help changing?"

He attempted a smile for her, "Still trying to get me naked, huh?" But the smile was even weaker than the joke. "No, I'll manage. And if I do heave, there's no reason for you to sit here and watch. Go on back and join the others. I'll call you if I need you."

"Promise?"

"Promise." She kissed him and teleported out of the room. He briefly considered crawling over to the toilet and forcing the situation, but decided against it. It took a concerted effort to dress himself. His ailment was manageable as long as remained occupied, so once he had finished putting his clothes on, he decided to walk back to the house. He opened the door and slipped quietly away, making every effort not to disturb the women who were involved in an animated discussion.

He was sweating profusely, and his coat felt heavy and stifling, so he removed it. The cold air felt welcome, and the breeze dried/froze the sweat on his face. But the glare off the snow was giving him a headache on top of his other symptoms. The longer he walked, the more nauseated he became, and the roaring in his ears increased, and the disorientation got worse. He wasn't really surprised when he fell.

He sat up, feeling around for his jacket, and was surprised to discover that he was sitting on wooden planks. "Oh, great," he muttered, "How the heck did I get out on the dock?" He forced himself onto his knees, which took a lot of effort. Sweating, dizzy, on the verge of puking his guts out, and now stranded on the dock, he wondered what else could possibly go wrong. His answer was a Power spike. It started in the small of his back, surging up his spine like a boiling wave. When it reached his shoulders it simultaneously rolled up his neck and over his head while foaming down his arms and into his fingers. His hands jerked away from his body as the Lighthawk Wings flashed unbidden into existence. By then he wasn't really aware that that they had appeared, because his back had arched and a scream erupted from his lips.

"What was that?" Washu felt the Power spike, as had her Companions. She watched her monitors showing the spike — except it wasn't a spike, it was a surge, and it was increasing in intensity. "Where's Tenchi?"

"He's still in the changing room," Ryoko replied.

"Go check on him." This didn't look good, and she sounded worried.

"He's not in there!" Ryoko had partially phased through the wall, so only her head was showing. They were all feeling the Power surge now, and their faces mirrored each others concern.

"Spread out and find him."

"There he is!" Mihoshi gasped, pointing down through the wall of the onsen towards the dock. They clustered around her, shocked by what they were seeing: Tenchi was on his knees, screaming at the sky, while the Lighthawk Wings hovered before him.

Except the wings didn't behave normally. They were twisting and curling like wind-blown leaves, erratically changing in brightness. Until with one savage coordinated movement they elongated and widened and englobed their master, swallowing him whole like a three-jawed mouth.

There was a collective scream from the onsen, and six pairs of eyes stared in horror at the pulsing sphere that lay on the dock where Tenchi had crouched moments before.

Ryoko teleported across the distance instantly, forming her black jumpsuit around her the moment she appeared over the globe. With an angry cry she tried hurling needle-like blasts of energy across its surface, and then attacking the sphere with her energy sword. Her attempts produced nothing but showers of sparks.

By this time the others had dressed and hurried to the dock, watching Ryoko snarl in frustration.

Again, Washu summoned her shadow-like terminal. "Well, I'm still getting telemetry readings from my sensors. That shell is allowing oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, so he's not in any danger of suffocation. His metabolism is slowing down, though; heart rate, respiration...almost like's he's going into stasis. It also looks like there's no gravity in there."

"I'm going to try and phase through that shell," Ryoko announced.

"No," Tsunami's voice rang loudly in their ears. Moments later she appeared between the galactics and the sphere. "If you attempt a forced entrance you will kill him. That is a controlled environment, and you would disturb the balance."

"But I've got to free Tenchi from that prison!" Ryoko exclaimed

"Tenchi is not being held against his will. He created that cocoon himself."

"And how do you know that?"

"I have witnessed this process before."

"A cocoon?" Washu asked. "Why would Tenchi need a cocoon?"

"Every chrysalis instinctively protects itself during metamorphosis," Tsunami answered.

"What are you saying, that our Tenchi is a pupa?"

"Yes. It will be three or four days before his metamorphosis is complete, and for his safety you should not interfere."

"Tsunami, how many times have you seen this process?" Funaho asked.

"I've seen four complete transformations in the last 20,000 years. I have seen five incomplete ones."

"Incomplete? What do you mean?"

"They died. Survival is not guaranteed."

"Transformation?" Washu asked. "Into what?"

"An adult."

"Who were the four people that survived this process?" Funaho asked.

"Emperor Ashisato, Emperor Fusatane, Empress Mineko, and Emperor Kuniteru."

"Why did they attempt this?"

"They could not prevent it. Anyone who summons the Lighthawk Wings is changed forever."

"Did Tenchi know about this price?" Ayeka asked.

"There is no 'price.' You do not understand."

"Maybe you'd better explain, Tsunami," Washu said.

"Many centuries ago, Emperor Ashisato was trying to unite the people of Jurai against the threat of an invasion. He needed a tool, or a weapon, or a symbol, something to rally his subjects. I offered him the knowledge he sought. I offered Tenchi the same knowledge. One of the side effects for any mind that wields the Lighthawk Wings is reorientation, and the brain must physically adapt to process the Power. But the Lighthawk Wings are not the final goal; they are merely secondary instruments."

"Secondary instruments?" Washu said slowly. "Ah: metaphorically speaking, you need tongs to hold the tool that is being forged."

"Yes," Tsunami replied. "The observer sees only the outward manifestation, and perceives the Lighthawk Wings as the ultimate goal, when the true goal is the alteration of the mind."

"What is the nature of this alteration?"

"Expanded perception. Enhanced manipulation. Few minds are capable of such stretching, and few hearts are compassionate enough to accept the responsibilities. Tenchi was genetically suitable for it, but it is his personality that truly made it possible. He is a very rare and unique person."

"He sure is," Ryoko said quietly.

"I remember the stories about Emperor Ashisato," Ayeka said. "He was said to be a tremendous adept. In fact, it was he who first named the Lighthawk Wings."

"Do you know what inspired the name?" Washu asked.

"Yes. The Lighthawk is a Juraian butterfly."

############

Washu found him standing on the edge of the cliff, sake bottle in hand, leaning over and looking at the rocks far below. "What are you doing here, Tenchi?" she asked.

"Contemplating my future," he answered. He swished the alcohol around in the bottle before leaning back to drain a big gulp. It dribbled down his chin as his Adam's apple bobbed. "That's close enough, by the way."

She stopped. She had been walking slowly towards him, hands held loosely at her side. She cursed silently, but kept her face impassive.

"And if I see that keyboard of yours appear, then this conversation will end very abruptly."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Let's just say it's the most direct solution to a difficult situation."

"I don't understand."

"I've lost my identity, you see. I no longer fit in any more; not at home, not at school, not...anywhere. I don't know about where you come from, but on this world — at least these islands — the male initiates the courtship, and the male does his level best to protect and support his family. So let's see: you ladies have been aggressively chasing me since Day One, so I lost that role. And any one of you ladies could incinerate me without any effort, so there goes my role as protector. And you're all either very rich or very powerful or both, so I'm locked out of the breadwinner role, too. You've emasculated me (I think that's the word). I've always wondered what you ladies saw in me, but I think I understand now: strong women prefer weak men (you know, opposites attract, and all that). With all the attention I get, I must be a real weakling. Anyway, you've put me in a dress and turned my world upside down."

"You know, if you really feel that way, just say the word and we'll all leave."

"You'll be leaving anyway, whether I say the word or not." He took another long draught from the bottle.

Washu noticed how flushed he was getting. "You want to explain that?"

"Simple mathematics, Professor. You and Ryoko are immortal. Ayeka and Washu and Mihoshi can expect to live several centuries at least. Me, I'll be worm food in about 60 years, and worn-out long before that. Sixty years is just a drop in the bucket for you galactics...barely a one-night stand. So, it doesn't matter when you leave, the result is the same."

"Really, Tenchi — "

"You know, maybe that's why your ex-husband left you when he did. He wasn't selfish or spineless, maybe it just dawned on him that both he and your son would grow old and die and you wouldn't age a day. Maybe he didn't want to feel your pity, or for you to feel his envy. It wasn't cowardice, it was compassion."

Washu was speechless. Through so many years of bitterness and despair, she had never considered that angle before. She stared at Tenchi open-mouthed.

Tenchi drained the last of the sake, and shook the bottle upside down, watching the spittle arc earthwards. "Good to the last drop," he muttered. He looked over the edge of the cliff again, lost in his own thoughts. He finally realized Washu was staring at him, and smirked at her. "You know, in all the months you ladies have fought over me, embarrassed me, and harassed me, not once have you ever asked what I want. It's always been about what each of you want."

Washu found her voice. "And just what do you want?"

"A friend," he answered. "Someone to talk to, to share secrets with, to bitch to when life takes a dump on me. I've never really had anyone like that. Dad is always gone, or just plain distracted; Grandpa talks in riddles and keeps his distance; and the guys at school wouldn't believe any of the stuff that happens to me. Who do I have to confide in?"

"You could talk to any of us. We'd listen."

"Yeah, right, while you're groping my crotch. You're all as obsessed with sex as my father."

"You would be, too, if you'd ever tried it." It just slipped out, and she slapped her hand over her mouth hoping to prevent any more blunders.

Tenchi just sneered at her. "Good old Washu, predictable as always." He grasped the long neck of the upended bottle like a sword, and began walking slowly though a kata.

Washu noticed that, half-drunk as he was, he still moved fluently and gracefully. She took a deep breath before asking, "What are you going to do now, Tenchi?"

"Observe one of the local customs."

"Which custom?"

He answered with a word she didn't recognize, even among the list of Japanese slang terms she was familiar with.

"I don't know that one."

"Look it up."

"I can't — I need my keyboard, and you won't let me raise it."

"Oh, go ahead," he sighed, finishing one kata and starting another. He moved perilously close to the edge a couple of times, causing Washu to hold her breath, but he slid through the movements either unaware or unconcerned by the danger. Both possibilities frightened her.

She raised the keyboard and connected to the Internet, running a scan on the term he'd provided. She also started a program to open a dimensional door directly beneath the cliff, one which would ferry him safely back to her lab — assuming she got it positioned directly in his path. She'd only get one shot at it. Her search program signaled its completion, and when she looked at the entry the blood drained from her face.

"Tenchi, you can't seriously be considering this," she said.

"Oh, yes I can," he replied.

"Why?"

"Why not? Choosing the circumstances of one's demise is a very time-honored tradition on these islands. The numbers have been growing among my age group for the last few decades, ever since rock star Yukiko Okada threw herself off a roof, and it really doesn't cause much notice anymore...except to the immediate family, of course." His speech was starting to slur as the sake worked on his system. "And my immediate family is so dysfunctional, they'll never notice."

"Of course they'll notice," she replied. "We'll all notice, Tenchi. We love you."

"Yeah, right."

"Is this your way of punishing us?"

"No, I'm not punishing you. I'm not educating you, either. Just think of it as removing a leash." He staggered as he stepped away from her. "It's bad enough that I do care for all of you, but it hurts even more to know that it's never going to amount to anything. At least this way it's a clean break, for all of us." He turned and faced the cliff. "Sayonara, Little Washu."

"Tenchi, wait!" She frantically typed the commands that opened the doorway immediately below his position. But he had anticipated her, and he lurched unsteadily along the cliff edge. She tried desperately to reposition the opening, but he moved too quickly. She was so busy typing that she missed the moment he actually hurled himself over the edge. When she looked up to locate him, it was too late. He was gone.

She screamed, and kept screaming, thrashing about in anguish and horror — until she found herself sitting on her bed, half of the bedclothes pulled into fistfuls around her knees. Her heart was pounding and her breaths came in staccato bursts.

It had been a dream...a nightmare.

"Lights!" she whispered, and the ceiling lamps lit. Her bedroom was very sparsely furnished: the hoverbed, two hutches, and a dresser. No decorations and only a carpet for color. Though she normally relished her privacy, the room suddenly seemed very isolated.

Her nerves settled while she reviewed the nightmare. It was very disturbing, not only the things that Tenchi had said, but what he had done. None of it made any sense, since it was so out-of-character for him. Nonetheless, she shivered.

She decided that she didn't really want to be alone. And she missed Tenchi.

Washu pulled a robe out of one of the hutches, located her slippers, and passed through the door leading into her lab. She emerged a few moments later in the Masaki house, listening to the internal supports creaking and the wind caressing the windows. She wandered about the house, looking for everyone. Funaho had accepted Yosho's offer to sleep in the shrine's guest quarters, and so was not in the building. Nobuyuki could be heard snoring in his room, but all of girls' rooms were silent and empty. She finally found the missing occupants in Tenchi's room. Peering into the semi-gloom, she discerned three figures crammed onto Tenchi's bed: Ryoko was snoring into the wall, Ayeka teetered half off the edge, and Sasami lay sandwiched between them. Tenchi's spare futon was spread across the floor beside the bed, and Mihoshi was sprawled across it like a loose-jointed swastika.

Washu's first thought was that poor Tenchi would have to fumigate his room before he could sleep in it again. But her cynicism softened a bit as she studied her future 'sisters' — they missed Tenchi, too, and had gravitated here because this room smelled and felt like him. It wasn't even hard to imagine him sitting at his desk, struggling with his homework.

Washu sighed, succumbing to her emotions. She closed the door, climbed onto the futon, and prodded Mihoshi off to one side. She heard a soft thump and a sleepy "Miya" as Ryo-ohki rolled off the bed, and a moment later the cabbit clambered onto the futon and under the covers beside her.

Washu had to admit, she did feel better in here.

ACT 3 - MONDAY

Yosho sat at his desk in the shrine office, addressing the endless list of documents and correspondence that seemed to come with his position. You would think a priest would spend his time sitting and meditating on the higher aspirations of life. Such was not the case, however. He shook his head ruefully. There was a knock on his office door, which surprised him — it was still snowing outside. Who would bundle-up just to visit his office in this weather? "Come in."

Ayeka entered and closed the door behind her, brushing snow off of her cloak and shedding her boots. Yosho admired her graceful movements, and watched silently as she made herself comfortable.

She studied her half-brother discreetly. He had not restored his facade, and his youthful face was slightly tilted to the side. His arms were folded, patiently waiting for her. She seated herself in the guest chair.

"What do you need, Little Sister, that would bring you out in such miserable weather?"

"I wanted to talk to you privately," she replied.

Yosho turned to the ever-present teapot, placing two cups on the table and filling them slowly. "It must be about something very important."

"It is important — to me." She accepted the cup and warmed her hands around it. "What was she like, Yosho?"

"You mean Itsuki?"

Ayeka nodded, sipping her tea.

Yosho had been expecting this conversation, sooner or later. He rose quietly and entered his quarters, returning moments later with two framed photographs, which he handed to her. He settled back into his chair while she examined the photos. Though both were formal portraits, they were taken worlds apart — literally. The first was of a very young Yosho, looking tall and proud in his Galaxy Academy uniform. Next to him sat an apple-cheeked beauty with deep dimples, almond-shaped eyes, and short emerald hair that partially obscured the right side of her face. Where Yosho managed to convey an austere dignity, she gave the image of restrained mirth. Her eyes twinkled, and the corners of her lips rose ever so slightly. They sat very close together. The figures in the second portrait resembled the first in placement and position, but here they wore traditional Japanese garments, and the woman's hair color had become a lustrous black — like Yosho's. The date in the corner identified the photo as being taken in the 1950's. "I don't understand, Brother."

"On Earth, her name was Itsuki. She is not dead, though she no longer lives here. We met at the Galaxy Academy, 700 years ago. Her name was Airi Magma."

Ayeka's heart was in her throat. "So this is Airi. She's ...lovely."

"Yes, she is. She likes to cook, and sing, and play practical jokes on people. She is much like Sasami." He placed both photos on the table, adjusting them for convenient viewing.

"I...didn't realize...she was Tenchi's grandmother."

"She found me here just after World War II. She had been searching for as long as you had."

"She found you first." Ayeka whispered, considered the implications.

"Yes. We had much to discuss; much had changed over the centuries."

"Yet you still loved her."

"Yes, and she still loved me."

"And Achika?"

"The daughter of Katsuhito and Itsuki Masaki."

"She didn't stay."

"No, she returned to her post at the Galaxy Academy after Achika's death, once more Airi Magma."

"Why didn't she reveal your location? Many of us were still concerned...?"

"Because I asked her not to. Because Ryoko had not yet been freed from her cave."

"Did Itsuki...Airi...know about us?" Ayeka asked, watching his eyes.

"Yes."

"Didn't it concern her — or you — that you broke our betrothal bond?"

"Yes, of course. We were prepared for the consequences, even after our daughter Minaho was born. In the end, it became a moot point."

Ayeka was silent for a while, lost in thought. Yosho refilled their cups while waiting for her response. Finally, she said, "You must miss her very much."

"As much as you would miss Tenchi, if he fails to emerge from his cocoon."

"Do you still feel he should not sit on the throne?"

Yosho shrugged. "He is very compassionate, very honorable, and very brave. But politics has a way of sullying a person's character, of corrupting their morals. With his high ideals, I'm afraid he could be very vulnerable to the darker elements. He lacks your trained instincts and skeptical demeanor."

Ayeka raised one eyebrow. "I don't know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult."

"It was an observation," Yosho replied. "A personal assessment. Perhaps with you there to advise him — "

"I would have been your advisor, too," she interrupted softly.

Yosho looked at her sadly. "We were never in love, Little Sister."

"I was."

"But I wasn't. Our marriage was arranged, based upon politics rather than sentiment. We could not have worked together."

"I was happy with the arrangement."

"We have discussed this before, Ayeka. We both know that a power struggle would have erupted eventually. What is really troubling you?"

She studied her tea for a moment, hoping to discover strength or inspiration. "I feel that a great karmic wheel is about to roll over me again; that both times I have fallen in love it was with a man who would inherit the throne, who didn't want it, and then who was taken from me mere months before our wedding. I feel cursed."

"It is an interesting coincidence," Yosho agreed, "but nothing more. I don't believe you carry any curse."

"I wish I could be as certain," she replied, looking out the window towards the lake.

############

Washu found Ryoko sitting on the sofa, staring vacantly at the television. "What's on?"

"I dunno," Ryoko replied absently. "I really wasn't paying attention."

"Well, if you aren't busy, this would be a good time to continue looking for your trousseau." Washu ported her dimensional keyboard over to the sofa and sat beside her daughter. She placed Tenchi's monitor program into background and cleared the display. Fingers dancing across the keyboard, she tapped into the Internet and navigated to one of the search engines.

"I'm not really in the mood, Washu."

"I know, Ryoko. But it will help to take your mind off of Tenchi for a while, especially for something he's going to appreciate. Your wedding is the first one, and it might take me a while to assemble the components."

"Oh, alright." Ryoko shifted across the sofa to sit beside Washu, for a better view of the displays.

"Did you decide on any particular style? You were thinking about traditional Japanese the last time we talked, but you also saw a couple of French designs that caught your eye."

What followed was a dispirited examination of designer websites and bridal registries. During the previous conversation on this topic, Ryoko had been highly animated and repeatedly dragged Tenchi over to the terminal to look at successive images; now, her heart simply wasn't in it. But Washu persisted, knowing this distraction would ease her daughter's worries (and her own, if truth be told). Finally, though, it simply ran out of steam.

"I'm sorry, Mom, but I just can't focus on this now. I know you're just trying to help, and I really appreciate the effort. But let's do this later, ok?"

############

Washu nodded and sent the keyboard back into the corner. On one hand, she was disappointed that they had accomplished so little. On the other hand, Ryoko had called her 'Mom' and meant it — and that in itself was worth the effort.

Mihoshi and Funaho were in the kitchen, preparing ingredients for lunch under Sasami's watchful eye, and exchanging frequent grins. It was probably the brightest spot in the house, and for a while no one mentioned Tenchi or glanced towards the dock. Funaho and Sasami had actually done this many times before, but there had been such a long interruption that Funaho was feeling out of practice. Mihoshi had more recent experience, and she discovered that she and Funaho worked very efficiently together. They were enjoying themselves.

"Funaho, are you going to stay here for the weddings?" asked Sasami. She was watching a large kettle, and was determined not to let it boil over.

"I really don't know, Sasami. I would like to, but there is much I should be doing at home. I hadn't intended to be gone for more than a few weeks." She stacked the vegetables she had been cutting into neat piles, reaching for more.

"Well, the first one is only four weeks away — and it takes over a week just to travel one way to Jurai. You'd just have time to get there, and then you'd have to turn around and come right back. Mihoshi, would you check on the rice for me? Thanks. It would be easier if you just stayed."

"Well, I'm already imposing on your limited space..."

"I can always go sleep in my ship, Lady Funaho, if space gets that tight."

"I can always go sleep in my ship, too, if it comes to that."

"In your shuttle?" Sasami asked.

"No, my tree ship is in orbit. There's room enough aboard for everyone. Are there any more carrots over there, Mihoshi?"

"There were a moment ago." There was a faint "Miya!" from the doorway, and the sound of scampering feet.

"Oh, that Ryo-ohki!" Sasami scowled, looking around for the cabbit. "I should've known better than to leave any sitting out. Mihoshi, there might be some in the refrigerator, on the bottom shelf."

Mihoshi giggled, and went to look.

Sasami sighed with exasperation. "Some days..." She was stirring the kettle again, when a thought occurred to her. "Funaho, if your ship is so big, we could all travel aboard it to Mihoshi's wedding, and then on to Jurai!"

"Well, yes, it is possible. I think I could squeeze her ship onto my hanger deck. Thank you," she said to Mihoshi, who was handing her more carrots.

"For that matter," Mihoshi said, "I could stay on board Yukinojo and just escort your tree-ship, if there wasn't enough cabin space. Regulations would permit that. How finely do you want these cucumbers cut, Sasami?"

"About the size of a coin. Are Father and Mother coming to any of the weddings?"

The smile faded from Funaho's face, and her shoulders slumped slightly. She put the knife down, wiped her hands on her apron, and turned slowly towards Sasami. Mihoshi stopped cutting to observe. "No, Sasami, they aren't."

"Why not?"

"Misaki can't come become she has to attend to her duties." Sasami's mother was head of the Imperial Bodyguard, which necessitated staying full time near the Imperial Body. "And Lord Azusa won't come because he doesn't like Tenchi."

Sasami stopped stirring the kettle, looking at her half-mother with a wide-eyed, hurt expression. "But why? Tenchi is his great-grandson, and these girls are so nice..."

"I know, Sasami, I know. Your father doesn't like Tenchi because Yosho broke tradition. It only got more difficult when Achika married Nobuyuki. And Tenchi made it even worse when he declared his intention to marry all of you. There has been no dishonor, but your father has lost face. And it really hasn't helped any that Tenchi can summon the Lighthawk Wings."

"But why should that matter?"

"Because Lord Azusa cannot. For many generations, it has been the tradition for young princes to challenge their fathers for the right to rule. When the reigning monarch can no longer defend his throne, then it is time for him to step down. That is how your father became emperor."

"You mean, Jurai's monarchs don't rule for life?" asked Mihoshi.

Funaho shook her head. "No. That is the case with some of our neighbors, but not in Jurai. And the fact of the matter is, Tenchi is strong enough right now to claim the throne. Lord Azusa doesn't stand a chance, and he knows it. He's jealous, and nervous, and he's having to deal with some unruly barons who think this might be an ideal time to stir up some trouble." Funaho smiled, and said, "Speaking of stirring, Sasami, you should attend to your kettle."

Sasami did so, but she had lost much of enthusiasm.

"What about Ayeka's wedding? It will be held on Jurai. Will they even come to my sister's wedding?"

"I hope so," said Funaho.

ACT 4 - TUESDAY

Ayeka still couldn't decide if she was cursed.

The storm had blown itself out, leaving several inches of fresh snow that sparkled in the early morning sunshine. The sky was an achingly beautiful blue, the breezes were gentle, and the Masaki household was infected with cabin fever. Ayeka was one of the first to bundle up and trudge down to the dock. Her footprints crunched amidst the trampled residue of previous visitors, and the reflected glare from Tenchi's cocoon was blindingly bright. No snow clung to its surface, and it still felt warm to the touch. She hoped this was a good sign.

She was reluctant to return to the house, and her feet automatically turned towards her private refuge — her half-brother's Royal Tree, Funaho (christened thus to honor his mother). She struggled through the drifts, leaving churned snow and intermittent breath-clouds in her wake. Funaho's pond was frozen hard enough to support her weight, but prudence and habit confined her route to the stones connecting to the center isle. She brushed snow off of her favorite root, redistributed her cloak, and settled herself into a comfortable position.

Funaho recognized her, emitting a friendly trill and a few beams of coherent light from the leafless canopy above her. Ayeka smiled warmly, and patted the root in greeting. "Good Morning, Funaho, I trust you are feeling well today?" The sounds and lights modulated slightly, and then faded. Ayeka sensed the great presence around her, now in a semi-dormant state. "Sleep well, good friend, I will try not to disturb you."

Ayeka's smile melted as she considered the earlier question. She didn't feel cursed, but fate had a way of dealing her some cruel ironies. She had stumbled upon this world while searching for her half-brother, to whom she had been happily betrothed for many years. During her long sleep in stasis, he had met and married another woman, sired a daughter, who had in turn married and sired a son of her own. Ayeka faced a very rude awakening when she finally found Yosho; she had been devastated. But, oh that grandson! Her heart quickened just thinking about Tenchi, and their many quiet moments spent sitting on this very spot. The cruelest irony could well be facing her in the next few days: that she was doomed to repeat a cycle of heartbreak.

Another whim of fate: after Yosho's disappearance, she had become first in line for the throne. She very much liked that idea. She greatly enjoyed being addressed as the First Crown Princess. She had assiduously studied not only her father's techniques and machinations, but those of the successful monarchs before him. How very ironic, then, that her successful effort to find Yosho alive and well had resulted in her demotion. There had been a moment of hope, when Yosho acknowledged that he must remain on this world, but it faded with the realization that the title now fell upon his grandson. If she ever hoped to attain the throne, she must stand on Tenchi's corpse to reach it.

She sighed, feeling guilty for failing to remain objective, and even more guilty at the result of her analysis.

Yosho had been right: had he stayed, there would have been a power struggle — she would not have been content for very long to remain in his shadow. And yet, the thought of assuming the same role with Tenchi did not disturb her greatly. She could not explain the difference, and yet there clearly was one. She had stated publicly that if her beloved truly wanted the throne she would stand aside...and now it looked like fate was going to take her at her word. Well, so be it; Tenchi would need guidance, and solid advice, and who better to whisper those words in his ear than his own wife? Political pillow talk (the phrase brought a smile to her face) was a very old custom, indeed. Tenchi's greatest strengths were as a negotiator and consensus-builder, and his reign was liable to be very prosperous and peaceful. She liked the idea that history would record their rule as a beneficent one.

Assuming he survived his present predicament, she corrected herself morosely.

She watched the wind nudge the barren branches of the trees across the lake, sending clumps of soft white snow tumbling to the ground. It seemed a good analogy of her own life: innocent dreams unbalanced by the winds of chance and left to hurtle into oblivion. Her childhood fantasies had focused on handsome princes and daring rescues and royal weddings — so far, she had accomplished two out of three. But she should also consider her options if that third dream never materialized. She only had one option, really: assume the throne herself (if Yosho's sole heir died, then the line of succession moved to Misaki's descendents).

Suddenly, the thought of being crowned Empress lost much of its luster.

############

Ryoko sat on the snowy rocks outside her cave and shivered. It wasn't the temperature that chilled her, since the biofield that encircled her (capable of shifting from her black battledress to her favorite teal housecoat to her environmental vacuum shield — and even a tail when the mood suited her) had swathed her in a thermal jumpsuit. No, the chill she felt was caused by the ache in her soul that no amount of insulation could protect against.

Deep in this mountain lay the cavern, and within it the pool, that had imprisoned her for seven hundred years. Yosho had placed her there, rather than killing her outright, sealed in the cold and dark and virtually forgotten about. During those centuries of isolation, when her astral body could disengage for short times and distances, she had wandered across this mountainside and watched the inhabitants. She had observed them out of curiosity, learning their language out of boredom, and brooded away the years. She had been harboring her energies, slowly growing another power gem. It would be fragile, of course, and modest in capabilities, but it would be sufficient to assist her escape and perhaps even settle an old score.

The gem was nearly complete, and her scheming had reached a fever pitch, when he came into her life.

Just an infant strapped to his mother's back, escorted later by his grandmother, he looked upon her astral form without blinking or cringing. There had been no judgment in those eyes, and no fear, either. And as his awareness altered with age, from visual sight to mental linkage, he kept returning to this cave. To be alone with his thoughts and dreams and triumphs and tragedies. And as she watched him, the bitterness in her life began to ebb, and she found other emotions creeping into her heart to fill the void. Her plans began to change.

And when he freed her, she was awash in emotions. He released her in ignorance, and had unknowingly injured her with the Tenchi-ken, and had fled in fear from her desiccated appearance. She was angry, and hurt, and confused, and inexperienced, and responded the only way she knew how. And even that failed her: the semi-sentient Tenchi-ken retained its memories (along with her true gems), and not only recognized his DNA but the subconscious responses of an experienced fencer: she'd lost the fight and her gem as well. And in the aftermath, as she waited with baited breath to see what he would do, he actually bowed and apologized for the pain he'd inflicted. His eyes contained no deception, no arrogance, only sorrow for what he'd done. No one had ever treated her like that before. Looking back, that had been the pivotal moment, the turning point, when she'd fallen in love with him.

And now that man was trapped in a sphere of his own creation.

And she was powerless to help.

And she had to wonder, what would become of her if he failed his task? What if he...died?

Not only had the statute of limitations expired on her crimes, but Lady Funaho said she had been publicly forgiven for her sins. She could walk down any street of any town on any planet in the Juraian Empire with complete freedom. The thought actually frightened her — she'd always been viewed with suspicion and fear, and treated accordingly. The only real security she had ever known, where she had felt welcomed and accepted, was right here. This place had become her home. And her family. And her mind recoiled at the thought of losing them.

Of losing him.

############

Mihoshi climbed through the woods and snowdrifts until she emerged into the meadow. She was panting, and vowed to ease back on Sasami's cooking and exercise a little more often. She wasn't worried about her figure so much as she was her readiness. The Galaxy Police performed routine physicals, and anyone not maintaining established norms would get reassigned to a desk job. She wanted to remain on active patrol.

At least, in the past she had wanted to remain on active patrol. Until Lady Funaho had hinted that such long absences could put a strain on her upcoming marriage. How could she and Tenchi build a solid relationship when she would be gone for weeks or months at a time? Would his feelings for her change? Would her feelings for him change? Even though she loved the GP, she loved Tenchi more, and would resign if her career got in the way. She may be scatterbrained, but she wasn't stupid — she could see and set priorities just as well as anyone else.

She stood at the treeline and looked up the hill, where her ship hovered silently beneath its masking shield. From beneath the cloak she could plainly see Yukinojo and the shadow it cast, but from above the sleek GP patrol vessel was invisible. Yukinojo's architects had placed a large ventral fin in back near the engines, committing the ship to water docking and obviating the need for landing gear. Fortunately, the energy required to keep her ship levitated was minimal. Yukinojo recognized her and lowered the gangway from the rear airlock. Huffing and puffing, she entered her ship. The artificial intelligence greeted her perfunctorily, informing her that it had monitored no other traffic into this system other than Lady Funaho's tree-ship, which was parked above them in a synchronous orbit, hiding from the locals behind a cloaking field of its own. And Yukinojo had received no communications from the sector GP office. If the AI had been programmed with anything more than rudimentary emotions, it would have expressed profound boredom.

Mihoshi made her way to the bridge, shed her coat, and draped it over the navigation console. She checked the logs to verify that everything was normal, and then dropped into the pilot's seat. She opened her private computer directories and searched until she located the graphics file she wanted. With a few keystrokes, she displayed on the master monitor the image she had sent to her parents recently. It was a photograph of her and Tenchi taken last autumn by his father. They had been sitting on the front steps, talking quietly, when Nobuyuki had caught them by surprise. It was her favorite picture, and she had a hard copy printed and mounted down in her cabin.

Her parents had been delighted when she'd told them about the young man she'd fallen in love with, and astounded when she told them his identity. She had sworn them to secrecy, at least for a while, and was pretty sure that they had kept the news to themselves; but knowing her mother, Mitoto had probably already started making plans for the wedding. She had so wanted to introduce Tenchi to them, as well as her brother, Misao, and his wife, Mashisu.

She stared at the monitor for a long time, gnawing on her lip. She was worried about him. She didn't really understand what was going on, but nobody else seemed to, either — and that's what scared her the most.

"Yukinojo?"

"Yes, Mihoshi?"

"Can you scan that energy bubble down on the dock?"

"Yes, Mihoshi. It is composed of a high-frequency energy field. It appears to be a containment structure, rather than a defensive shield. I have identified the sole occupant as Tenchi Masaki. He is in a reduced metabolic state, but otherwise unaffected. Logically, he is the source of the energy field, but I cannot locate any evidence of a portable generator or broadcasting device."

"Can you locate any similar instances in your memory?"

The AI was silent for a moment, scanning its extensive record system, before responding. "No, Mihoshi. There are no corresponding entries in the registry. However, I must remind you that the majority of my archival space is devoted to criminal profiles, rather than scientific or medical documentation."

She sighed. There would be no easy answers. Down in the house, the concern for Tenchi's safety was palpable. There was a genuine (if unspoken) fear that he might not emerge alive from that bubble. And she had to face the fact that he might be gone from her life forever. Her career would absorb her grief, of course, just as it had when Kiyone disappeared. Just one more scar on her heart, and probably another mark on her service record — somehow, it would be her fault. As usual.

Maybe she really was jinxed.

############

Washu retreated to her lab. There was a special place she reserved for just such moments, when she faced an overwhelming problem or the all-too-frequent need to be alone. She went to her observatory

The room was small, just big enough to contain a desk, a chair, a computer terminal, and a wall-mounted video display. The desktop contained a collection of 2-D and 3-D photographs of her daughter on one side, and only three items on the other:

(1) A 3-D snapshot excised from a sensor log during last year's hypnosis experiment, showing Tenchi just after summoning the Lighthawk Wings. The photo brought a lump to her throat every time she looked at it.(2) A framed photograph of Tenchi in the fields, taken by his father. Tenchi was leaning on his hoe, wiping sweat from his brow and talking to Ryo-ohki. This photo brought a lump to her throat, too, but for a different reason.(3) A stuffed toy guinea pig, given to her by Tenchi at Christmas. Her most prized possession.

The monitor was plugged-in to the subspace communication networks transmitting across half a dozen interstellar empires, including Jurai. She could look at real-time broadcasts from hundreds of planets, space stations, trade routes, and even research installations. Today, it was focused on the dock just ten meters from the Masaki's front door. Telemetry data was superimposed over the glowing sphere, telling her that nothing had changed in two days.

In this room she could laugh mirthlessly, scream obscenities, and weep in frustration, safe from prying eyes. And in the past hour, she had done all three.

She felt helpless, which she absolutely despised.

Though her eyes were focused on the screen, her mind was focused on her memories. She had been hurt so badly in the past, once by a faithless husband and once by an invidious assistant, that she tended to dismiss most men as villainous or untrustworthy or incompetent or self-absorbed. Supplementary research (i.e., occasional affairs) between the two events had only confirmed her opinion that decent men were as rare as supernovae. So she had sworn off them. Probably forever.

Until the young supernova in the photographs had rescued her from captivity.

Suddenly, old feelings had re-emerged, and old dreams had come visiting in the night. The shock of reuniting with her daughter was nothing compared to the impact Tenchi had made on her. The mighty Washu had fallen in love...and she was just flat-out giddy, an embarrassing reaction easily disguised by her eccentric behavior. She caressed the brooch she had worn for four days, trying to draw more comfort out of it. But the magic charm could not hide the fact that Tenchi may not survive his present circumstances. Fate had snatched happiness from her grasp twice before, and fate could do it again now.

Her computers had sifted through the history of the Juraian Royal Family, looking for similar such incidents over the lifetime of the dynasty. Tsunami had been right: there were detailed accounts of the four monarchs who had successfully deployed the Lighthawk Wings. Those rulers had been prodigious adepts, and just as able peacemakers. Each had overseen a golden age of sorts. There were also disturbing references to other family members who had attempted the transformation — and then had disappeared abruptly from the public records. Next she had attempted to correlate the psychological profiles of the survivors with Tenchi's profile, but had failed due to insufficient data. She was, to put it simply, flying blind.

She sat for a while staring at the screen, aroused only by motion captured by the camera. Lady Funaho and Sasami were walking down to the dock, placing their hands upon the cocoon, their mouths moving soundlessly. Washu could have turned up the gain on the microphone, but chose instead not to eavesdrop. This group of characters had become her family. Her extended family, she corrected; she wanted to start her own family with Tenchi.

She hoped desperately that she'd get the chance.

############

Sasami ran her hand along the cocoon, feeling its warmth and squinting against its internal radiance. It pulsed slowly, in rhythm with Tenchi's heartbeat, just like the Lighthawk Wings did. She had expected the surface to be smooth, but it had a grainy, pebble-like texture. It made her think of a giant egg, which lessened its ominous appearance somehow.

Of all the people in the house, she was the least concerned. Not only could she still feel him through their link, but she had suffered no precognitive dreams about this event. Not one. Tsunami had made several appearances since Funaho had arrived, but she hadn't seemed overly anxious about Tenchi's confinement. Sasami had a hunch that Tsunami was in contact with him, but just not revealing it. She shrugged; let Tsunami keep her secrets for now — Sasami would learn them eventually.

She looked over at her half-mother. Funaho was definitely worried about her great-grandson. Sasami was aware of some of the controversy surrounding Yosho, and Funaho's deep disappointment that Yosho could not (or would not) follow their father onto the throne. She had asked Ayeka about it a couple of times, but her sister had always dodged the question, as though Sasami was incapable of understanding the answer. Funaho was more willing to discuss such topics. And she generally did a better job of it. Even Sasami could see that Funaho had high hopes for Tenchi; well, they all did.

Funaho had arrived at their doorstep expecting everyone to be ready to leave with her; their reluctance, and then this cocoon business, put quite a crimp in her plans. Sasami liked having Funaho around, and hoped that she would stay for the weddings. Sasami had been talking with Ryoko and Washu about what kind of wedding cakes they wanted, and refreshments and special meals. She was looking forward to these challenges, and had been told she could get any ingredients and assistance she wanted. And she fully intended to take them up on it.

Sasami picked up a clump of snow and smeared it onto the cocoon. The snow sizzled off like a frying egg. She repeated the process several times, just because she liked to watch it. Her attention drifted over to the lake, where Funaho's shuttle lay semi-submerged in the steamy waters. Its engines were keeping the center of the lake warm, but she could see ice forming along the banks. Funaho was looking at the shuttle, also, contemplating something. She must have decided to wait, because she turned back towards the house.

Sasami joined Funaho; while it was tense in the house, it was cold outside, and there was no visible change to the cocoon. Washu would let them know if anything changed, and Sasami had to think about starting lunch soon.

She sent a message down the link to Tenchi, wishing him well. There was no answer, only mental static.

ACT 5 – WEDNESDAY

Tenchi drifted back to consciousness. He was instantly aware that something was not right. For starters, he was floating, a condition he had encountered before, but usually in rather bizarre circumstances. He opened his eyes, and knew that he was right back in bizarre circumstances again. "Story of my life," he muttered — and then realized that he had been able to hear himself. The glowing bubble he occupied was quite warm, though the air was a bit stale. He estimated the sphere to be no more than three meters in diameter, and ambient light shone from every point on the wall. There were no strong shadows, but there was no glare, either. And there was no apparent way out.

He didn't panic, because he was remembering the events that had put him in this spot in the first place. He also became aware that he wasn't alone.

"How are you feeling, Tenchi?" Tsunami's voice seemed to rattle around inside the globe, and a moment later she shimmered into visibility.

"Well," Tenchi replied, rebounding slowly off the wall, "this is a rather tight space. I would get creeped out if I didn't know that I'd built this bubble."

"So you remember? That's good. Are you ready to begin your lessons?"

Tenchi nodded, aware that the motion started an unstable oscillation. Weightlessness wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

"Close your eyes and open your mind," Tsunami instructed. Again, these were actions Tenchi was quite familiar with. "The first thing we are going to do is show you how to shift your awareness."

"I'm lost already."

"Then let me explain," she said patiently. "Imagine a house with many windows, all looking upon a courtyard. The view from each window will be different, though the courtyard remains the same. Do you understand this?"

"Yes."

"It is possible to gather vastly different amounts of information from each window. I'm going to show you how to move from window to window, and to look upon the world with different types of awareness."

"Was I able to do this before?"

"Only partially, and then only in a restricted manner."

"But now I'm different." It was not a question.

"Now you are different. Now you are physically able to do this, and many other things as well."

And so it began. She showed him what his own mind looked like: an amorphous fog that extended well beyond his body, without any discernible edges, lit from within by many pulsating patterns of lights. The fog seethed with complicated eddies and currents, which reminded him of photographs taken of the planet Jupiter. He might have been satisfied just to watch himself for a while, but Tsunami urged him to expand his perception beyond himself, and beyond the bubble. At first, he saw the many little minds in the waters of the lake beneath the dock, appearing as moving pinpoints of lights, like candles or lanterns swaying to unseen breezes. Looking further outward, he could perceive the minds of the creatures in the woods around the lake, each looking like a fog-enshrouded streetlight on a rainy night, made small and diffuse by distance. He gasped aloud when he saw the much larger minds of those humans in the house nearby, each a constellation of glittering lights embedded in a turbulent nebula.

And then Tsunami revealed her true form, and Tenchi very nearly passed-out in fright.

Tsunami was an enormous mind, whose size and scope rivaled the thunderclouds that sailed majestically over his homeland. He had known all along that she was a powerful being, but he simply had no concept of just how vast and ancient she really was. The word 'Tsunami' in Japanese means 'Divine Storm', and he knew without a doubt that her chosen name was extremely appropriate. She waited silently for him to adjust, to comprehend — and then to grow curious about the wisps of fog that extended not only into his bubble, but into the Masaki house. The former was obvious, and he soon found a way to trace the latter tendril to its terminus: it was solidly anchored in one of the minds, whose signature he recognized as Sasami. Tsunami's and Sasami's minds fused seamlessly. They were assimilated.

He looked again at the tendril that reached into his bubble, and realized that their minds melded together as well, though on a much smaller scale. What should have been scary, wasn't. It was comforting, in its own way. He could almost feel Tsunami sigh with relief. "I'm glad this doesn't frighten you, Tenchi."

"Well, it did at first. But this is way too cool to be frightening." She urged him to examine the minds of the humans in the house. Once he looked, he could see the filaments of thought that comprised the linkages he had forged with the galactics. They seemed so fragile, so tenuous, compared to Tsunami's links. He picked one of the links and followed it down to Ryoko. Her mind, like his own, seemed formless and unorganized. He sent a question back to Tsunami: "How do I communicate with something so...chaotic?"

"You are trying to place your own order on her mind. Ask instead how she views herself. You humans are so visually oriented that you must relate everything to images. Sometimes this can be very limiting."

So how does Ryoko view herself, he wondered. Almost as soon as he asked, the mindcloud shifted, condensing inward, and in moments he was looking at a familiar, though bare-naked, female who was curled into a fetal position. What he could see of her face seemed lined in pain and anguish. He had always seen her as strong and independent, but she saw herself as very insecure and vulnerable. Her life had been pretty miserable, all things considered. She could be brash and irritating, but she couldn't really help it — social skills are learned as children, not as adults, and she had never really had a childhood. That her inner core was still generous and compassionate was simply remarkable. He felt an overpowering urge to comfort her, so he placed a hand on her shoulder. It startled her, and she jerked her head up and around frantically. Relax, Ryoko, it's just me. She couldn't physically hear him of course, but his thoughts rippled down their link.

Tenchi? Is that you? Apparently, she couldn't see him; then he remembered that he was converting a foreign awareness into familiar visual analogies, and the face he was seeing was not a real face at all, just a useful construct.

Yes, Ryoko, he replied. He placed his other hand on her other shoulder and squeezed gently, just as he had done often in the 'real' world. He began messaging her back, watching the muscles slowly unknot, feeling her shoulder blades moving in circles. He was surprised to see sparkles dancing around his fingers, and her skin glowed ever so subtly.

She purred. Oh, Tenchi...

He started to smile, until he noticed what looked like a gaping wound on her scalp. It looked raw and swollen with pus. He was confused for a moment, wondering where the hell she could have picked up such a cancerous-looking infection without his having observed it. He had to remind himself that it was another visual analogy, that this was not a physical wound in the normal sense. He intuited that he was looking at the festering injury that represented her memories of enslavement; memories that were still pestilent with grief and anger and guilt. Very gently, he placed his hands around the wound and began kneading it, forcing the bile out.

Tenchi, what are you doing!

It's time to let go of that pain, Ryoko. Kagato is gone; you're with ME now. As he continued to knead the wound it began to shrink, ever so slightly, and much of the inflammation faded. She relaxed visibly, and slowly started to uncurl. Full healing would require many such sessions, but he didn't think she'd mind.

He started to withdraw, and she panicked when she felt him disengage. Wait! Don't leave me!

I'll never leave you. He sent a wave of Power down their link, expanding it many times its previous size. She gasped with realization. And with delight.

And then he was alone once more. He felt Tsunami watching, approvingly.

He chose another link and followed it to Ayeka. How did Ayeka see herself? The mindcloud condensed down into her recognizable figure, clothed in regal finery, and bound tightly in chains. Tenchi was more than a little surprised; he'd gotten the impression that her months on Earth had been reasonably pleasant and free of Imperial responsibilities. Apparently, he'd misread her, and to some extent this would explain her often reclusive moods — she was ever mindful of the duties waiting for her back on Jurai. Tenchi touched one of the chains, and felt it loosen slightly. Ayeka stirred from her reverie. Be calm, Ayeka, it's just me. he sent to her.

Tenchi? How...?

We have a link, remember? He pulled on the chain and felt it come free. Before it faded from his hand, he instinctively recognized it as an obligation. He grasped another and tugged, but it held fast. He considered for a moment just why the first yielded, but not the second, and decided that the first had something to with him. Which meant that he could only ease some of the anxieties in her life. He began methodically tugging on all of her bindings, but was only able to remove three more. Ayeka became aware of her increasing freedom.

Tenchi, what are you doing?

Let me share your burdens, he replied. He placed a hand on her face and watched a cloud of sparks swirl about his fingers. Her skin rapidly absorbed them, and she gasped in pleasure. He sent a Power surge down their link and watched it swell and thicken. Ayeka felt it, too, and giggled, a smile wrapped across her face.

Tenchi's awareness returned to the confines of his own mind. "Two down," he muttered, more to himself than the observing Tsunami. He chose another link, and found himself looking at Mihoshi's mind. Not surprisingly, Mihoshi wore her Galaxy Police uniform. The surprise was the dark cloud that encircled her head and shoulders. Tenchi extended a hand into the cloud, which felt clammy and cold. He identified it finally as a jinx, which she had convinced herself was all too real. He sent a power burst down his hand into the cloud, shattering it into hundreds of wormlike fragments that started to dissipate. She became instantly aware of the change. Tenchi grasped her shoulders, watching fireworks twinkle around his hands. Her eyes widened. Mihoshi?

Tenchi?

Yes, Mihoshi, it's me.

I, I can sense you! Sort of...

I'm using our link, Mihoshi. Can you feel me now?

Oh, yes. Yes! This is what I wanted! But what did you just do?

Banished your jinx. You're free.

She was characteristically Lucky, too, because her predictably exuberant reaction led her to the immediate discovery that she could embrace him. Their junction was wreathed in sparks and lights, and he felt an incredible tingle spreading through him. Oh, Tenchi! She started to babble and gush, but was interrupted by the Power surge he sent down their link, expanding it. He disengaged quietly in her ensuing stupefaction, still reeling from the experience.

He was starting to feel fatigued. With a deep mental sigh, he grasped the next filament and followed it down to Washu. He was not really surprised to see her wearing the uniform of a student. Tenchi supposed it was probably the most stable time of her life, and thus was the reference point around which everything else revolved. He had always considered her behavior a tad eccentric (which sounded less harsh than 'loopy'), because she had spent so much time in isolation. That she had survived at all, against all the odds stacked against her, said much about the strength of her will and the power of her mind. That Ryoko shared many of these traits was no surprise, either. Washu?

Tenchi? Ah, then we have a link, too. Did you just visit Ryoko?

Yes.

I was feeling some pretty strong emotions from her. That would explain it

Were you expecting this?

No, but it doesn't surprise me.

Well, maybe this will surprise you. First, he sent a Power surge cascading down their link, enlarging it like the others. Then he placed his hands on her shoulders, and watched the sparks being absorbed into her skin.

She emitted a satisfying gasp. Oh, my! We...we should discuss this further.

We will, he said, retreating.

He paused, looking at the glowing strands-cum-cables that connected his mind to theirs. They seemed to sparkle with an inner fire of their own. He had a momentary image of reins, rather than chains, of eager steeds just waiting his commands. He laughed it off, knowing full well how his future wives would react to such a suggestion: he'd be lucky to escape with minor bruises.

Grasping the last slim filament, he followed it to Sasami. As with the others, at first all he saw was a mindcloud, but this one was different. There were layers to it, the outer fringes of which formed a smoky column leading back to Tsunami. When he made the conversion to a decipherable image, what he saw was disconcerting: Sasami was dressed in her everyday play clothes and an apron, smiling happily, but she was embedded within the ghostly image of Tsunami. Like crystal matryushka nesting dolls. In fact, both Tsunami and Sasami were clearly watching him. You can see me?

Yes, of course! Why, couldn't the others see you? Her reply had an odd echo to it, as if she and Tsunami were speaking together.

No.

Sasami/Tsunami shrugged, accepting the fact with equanimity. So, what now?

This, for starters, he said, and sent a Power surge down their link.

Sasami/Tsunami blinked, but that was about it. That's much better, Tenchi. Thank you.

He reached over (through Tsunami!) and grasped Sasami's hands. The now-familiar flow of sparks and lights that appeared around her small hands was repeated around Tsunami's ethereal limbs, and they shared an expression of delight.

Like Mihoshi, she reached forward and embraced him. Soft lightening jolted through his system, until he was released. Oh, boy...!

That's enough for now, I think. We'll talk later. Tenchi withdrew and slid back along the link.

He was very tired now, and opened his eyes to look upon the inner surface of the globe. Tsunami's projection floated into his visual field, a satisfied smile on her face.

"That was very impressive for your first effort. I am so pleased, Tenchi."

Tenchi nodded his thanks, waiting for his feet to orient in the proper direction. He reasserted control over the Lighthawk Wings, and the globe promptly split along three seams. Cold air and gravity rushed in through the expanding cracks, and sunlight burst upon him in golden shafts. His feet crunched into the snow, and his normal weight returned with a sagging lurch. Each glowing wedge shrank back into its proper wing shape, and the wings returned to their basic "Y" configuration, hovering obediently before his chest. He dismissed them with a gesture, and they faded away.

############

They were all sitting around the breakfast table, picking at their food and glancing occasionally towards the incandescent sphere on the dock. Nobuyuki had just departed for the office, and the remaining occupants had resigned themselves to another day of waiting anxiously. The oppressive silence was suddenly shattered by startled gasps, clattering utensils, and spilled drinks, as one after another each galactic reacted to Tenchi's presence in her mind. And then it ceased as abruptly as it had started. Funaho and Yosho stared at the radiant faces of the ladies, and then at one another. They could tell that they had just been excluded from something, but they couldn't gauge the significance of it.

Sasami recovered the fastest, being the youngest and the most experienced in such matters. "Oh, wow — that was neat!"

"Was it real?" Ryoko whispered, receiving an affirmative nod from Ayeka.

There was a sudden shimmer in the air, and Tsunami's form materialized beside Sasami. Her face was wreathed with a triumphant smile. "He's ready," she announced. They all looked at one another, and then out the window — and then to the living room, where Washu's keyboard alarm was chiming discordantly. Washu hurried to see what had triggered the alarm. Everyone else was soon crowded around her.

"Well, what is it?" Ayeka asked.

"Tenchi's vital signs are returning to normal. His metabolic rate is accelerating, his brainwave activity is coming back down into standard parameters, and — " No one was listening. Everyone was clustered around the front window, rubbing the frost off the panes of glass. What they could see set them to cheering: the sphere was retracting, withdrawing back into its three-winged configuration — and then vanished completely. It left Tenchi standing on the snowy dock, staring absently out over the lake, the gentle breeze ruffling his hair and shaking his clothes. Clouds of steam hovered about him and dissipated on the wind.

Ryoko phased through the wall and blinked across the distance in a heartbeat. She grabbed him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. They were clear, and his muscles felt relaxed and pliable. "Tenchi? Are you ok?"

He smiled. "Yeah, I think so." He looked into her bloodshot eyes and asked, "Are you ok?"

"I am now!" she sighed and wrapped her arms around him. Her Tenchi was back, and that's all that mattered. She was vaguely aware of footsteps, and then Ayeka's voice demanding that she move over. Ryoko shifted, nestling against his right ribs while Ayeka took her traditional spot on his left. Ayeka was speaking but Ryoko wasn't listening — her eyes were closed and she was focusing on his even, steady breathing. She didn't open her eyes again until she heard rapid footsteps, and then she barely had time to brace herself before Sasami barreled into them, clutching Tenchi's waist and burying her face in his chest. Seconds later Mihoshi joined them, slipping her arms through whatever gaps she could find, and snuggling tightly against his back.

They stood that way for several moments, until Washu, Funaho, and Yosho came walking down the dock, snow crunching lightly beneath their feet.

"It doesn't appear there's any room for you, Washu," Funaho said.

"That's ok, I can wait for my turn."

"Aren't you cold, Tenchi?" Yosho asked.

"Not now," he replied, indicating the thermal blanket draped around him, which giggled in four different voices.

"How do you feel?" Funaho asked.

"Well, I'm awfully hungry, and I could use a hot bath, but otherwise I'm fine."

Tenchi's stomach emitted a thunderous growl, which caused Sasami to recoil from his chest. "I guess you are hungry. I'll go make you some hot food, Tenchi." And she ran laughing into the house.

"And I'll help you with that hot bath," Ryoko said, leering seductively.

Predictably, Ayeka answered before he could. "I think not! You aren't married yet, and the proper amenities will be observed!"

"Oh, stuff it, Little Princess. He needs some TLC, and I'm the most qualified person to provide it."

"Says who?"

"Says me!"

Tenchi groaned, from hunger and resignation. Some things would never change. But he smiled nonetheless.

############

Tenchi pushed himself away from the table. He was finally full. The others had been eating breakfast earlier, but not with much enthusiasm. They seemed to be taking a much more active interest in it now, since he was back in the house. He felt just a little self-conscious about their staring at him so much — he just wished they'd blink a bit more often. "That was worth waiting for, Sasami."

"I'm glad you liked it, Tenchi. Are you sure you don't want some more?"

"No, I'm stuffed. Now, about that bath..."

"Hold on a second, Tenchi," Washu interrupted. "Before you go getting all scrubbed, I'd like to run some scans on you. Think you can spare a few minutes down in my lab?"

Tenchi nodded, wondering how they could stand to be around him while he was so fragrant. No one seemed to mind, however. "When?"

"Right now, if you're ready."

"Sure." He climbed to his feet — followed by everyone else. "Uh, this could be rather boring. Are you all sure you want to tag along?"

"Are you kidding?" Ryoko answered, grabbing onto his arm. "We've been kept away from you for four days. That's four days too long. We aren't letting you out of our sight."

Ayeka latched onto his other arm before Mihoshi could grab it. "Please proceed, Washu."

So down they went into Washu's lab, back to the dark recesses where ominous machines populated the corners. Washu sat at her desk and engaged various monitors, summoning seats for her guests, and producing a box of sensors. She had him strip to his waist, and started attaching the sensors to various parts of his exposed torso, arms, and head. She had to smile to herself, because in spite of the attention he was going to receive upstairs, she got him first. And since the bulk of the weight he had put on in the last few months was muscle, she was enjoying these intimate preparations thoroughly. Once everything was properly secured, she kissed his cheek and returned to her console.

"What do I now?" He walked into the middle of the open area and started stretching and limbering-up.

"Just a minute," she answered, entering commands into the computers. "Just start moving around. Calisthenics or something."

"I have some suggestions," offered Ryoko sweetly. Tenchi gave her one of his pained looks, and she just giggled. Ayeka groaned.

"Actually," Yosho offered, "why not perform one or two kata?"

Tenchi liked that idea. The basic patterns were a good warm-up, and much more rewarding than simple exercises. "Did you bring a bokken with you?"

"No. But you could use the Lighthawk Sword."

Tenchi nodded. Performing a kata is much like moving meditation. The goals are predetermined, so the mind is not forced to concentrate on anything at all (and if it does need a focus, then it is free to examine foundation attributes like muscle movements and balance and proper technique and correct breathing). Within the flurry of movements is a calm center, like the eye of a hurricane, and a chance to build energy rather than expend it.

His awareness looked inward. He saw new pathways, felt Power conduits that had been expanded and reinforced. He had been afraid of the Lighthawk Wings before, and even more afraid of the sword, and now he could see that it had been the proper response: he had not been fully equipped to deal with such energies; he could have gotten badly hurt. But now, the landscape had changed. There were new capabilities, expanded possibilities, and he needed a new frame of reference, something familiar yet applicable. It didn't take long to find a usable analogy: if he had been a car, then his stock engine and drive train had just been replaced with high-performance racing equivalents. As he stood there, he mentally engaged the 'engine' and put himself in idle. He couldn't see his forehead, but the Emblem of Power flashed into visibility across his brow, pulsing rhythmically.

The first kata began from a standing posture, and used the action of shifting the bokken from the left hip to the right hand as a way to initiate movement and enter the proper mindset. Tenchi lacked the bokken, but he had a ready substitute available: he located and crystallized the quantum pattern for the Lighthawk Sword. A ball of blue-white light coalesced out of the surrounding air to fill his open his right hand. The glowing sphere extended along an axis parallel with his palm, forming a meter-long cylinder that then flowed outwards into the familiar shape of the sword. He studied the weapon for a moment, hefting its weight in his hands, savoring its balance. He had done this before, of course, but he had to marvel at the ease with which he did it now. No hesitation, no fear, and he was aware now of all of its properties, ready to serve in ways he never could have imagined.

He located his grandfather and bowed respectfully, mentally shifted into 'first gear,' and brandished the sword as he began the first kenjutsu pattern. The Sword sparkled in his hands, as he directed Power into the weapon. It left a shimmering wake in the air behind it, and repeated passes of the blade painted the air with a curtain of light. After four days of inactivity, the play of muscle against sinew felt invigorating. He was so glad to be active again that he passed through the first kata and into the second without pausing. And then into the third

He decided it was time to push the envelope, and mentally shifted into 'second gear.' The Emblem on his forehead and the weapon in his hands both flared with new energy, and he yielded to the desire to push himself, as well. He began moving faster, swinging harder, taking deeper breaths. He completed the fourth kata and moved into the fifth, the sword singing through the air like a hunting siren. The aurora that encircled him thickened with repeated passes of the sword. And at prescribed intervals, one of his hands or feet would pierce the veil with a punch or a kick. The fifth kata passed into the sixth, the patterns becoming increasingly more complicated and wide-ranging.

Tenchi shifted into 'third gear,' pushing himself faster and harder. His breathing was becoming labored, drops of sweat were being flung from his head and arms as he stalked the imaginary opponents of the seventh kata. The Sword writhed through the darkness like an incandescent snake, hissing and coiling and darting everywhere. As he started into the eighth kata, he toyed with the notion of shifting into 'fourth gear,' but decided that prudence should be observed with his first venture. He ended the ninth kata with a flourish and an ear-splitting kiai. He bowed towards his teacher, chest pumping, skin flushed, drenched with sweat, and eyes blazing with zanshin.

None of his Companions moved. They just stared open-mouthed at him.

Tenchi shrugged, removed Washu's sensor pads, and headed for the exit and that hot bath. He was quietly relieved when no one followed him.

############

Lunch was more sedate than breakfast had been. Everyone still watched Tenchi eat, but there was more concern and less enthusiasm. This morning's chatter was absent. Now that he had bathed and changed clothes, he felt calmer. This time, he stared back.

Washu finally broke the silence. "I think now would be a good time to go over the results of this morning's examination."

"Go ahead," Tenchi said around a mouthful of food. "I'm all ears."

"More like all teeth," she corrected. They exchanged smiles. She summoned her terminal, and after a few keystrokes a large screen formed in the air above her. There was a rustle of bodies as the diners shifted to see the screen. "You haven't seen this yet, Tenchi, but the rest of us watched it first-hand. And I will say up front, it is quite impressive."

Tenchi's image appeared on the screen, stripped to the waist and peppered with sensors. He spent a few moments pacing and stretching, talking to someone off-camera. After a pause, he frowned in concentration and the Emblem of Power appeared on his forehead. Another short pause, and the Lighthawk Sword appeared in his right hand. He bowed towards a point off-camera, raised the sword into the ready posture, and proceeded into the kata. After several moments of chained techniques, there was a slight hesitation and then both the Emblem and the sword brightened visibly. Tenchi realized that this is how it must have looked when he 'shifted gears.' At this point Tenchi's movements became faster and harder to follow. The Sword's energy wake became noticeably more persistent. A moment later came another hesitation, and then the Emblem and the sword flared even brighter. His movements were now so rapid that they blurred into transparency, nearly masked by the sword's ever-deepening contrail. The exhibition ended abruptly, with Tenchi standing quietly amidst the fading wake. Washu froze the image.

"Washu, why did you speed that up so much?" Tenchi asked.

"I didn't," she answered. "That's how fast you were really moving. And what the log doesn't show is what the rest of us felt during your little display — we were practically mesmerized."

Tenchi was speechless. They were all looking at him, a mixture of concern and awe. He drained his tea before looking once more at the screen. It took a moment to find his voice. "So, what's happened to me? Did I mutate into Sonic the Hedgehog? Am I even human any more?"

"Oh, you're still very human. In fact, according to Tsunami, you're more human than the rest of us."

"Huh?"

"Tsunami told us that once inside your cocoon, you would metamorphose into an 'adult.' I didn't know what she meant at the time, but I think I do now. As a complete organism, Homo sapiens contains a lot of undeveloped potential. We galactics have had a head start on you colonials, but not all that much. I think you leap-frogged all of us, Tenchi. You are not so much a superman as you are a fully-realized man. It's what the race as a whole will evolve into, eventually."

"That doesn't explain how I was able to move so fast. No human being can move like that."

"You can."

"How?"

"Applied Power. You know what psychokinesis is, don't you? Mind over matter. It's one of the basic manifestations of Power adepts, and there are plenty of examples around here all the time: Ryoko hovers and flies, for instance. Well, instead of using Power to defy gravity, you use it to defy inertia. Same principal, different goal. You probably used PK to push your limbs, too. None of your muscles were modified by your transformation, Tenchi, but your brain underwent a 37% increase in neuron connectivity. Your astral pattern and psycho-layer pattern were heavily modified. Anything that has to do with higher mental processes and Power manipulation was upgraded. In a nutshell, you move faster, you react faster, your Power attributes have gone through the roof, and I wouldn't be at all surprised at any perceptive talents that start coming on-line. I've been saying all along your potentials are off the scales; well, those potentials are starting to be achieved. You've changed from a pussycat into a tiger in less than a week."

Tenchi just shook his head. The image on the screen had a feral, predatory look; but that's not how he'd felt. Exhilarated, maybe...hyper, even...but not angry. He voiced his concerns.

Washu nodded. "That's good to know. We wouldn't want our husband to become an arrogant, domineering prick, now would we?"

"Or another Kagato," Yosho whispered. The temperature in the room dropped suddenly.

"Well, I fully intend to listen to my counselors — my wives — to prevent that from ever happening."

"Just another reason you'll need all five of us. Of course," Washu's face broke into a smirk, "one of the truly interesting experiments we have to look forward to is just how many of your new traits will be passed on to your offspring: OUR children. We ought to raise the standards significantly!" Her cackle had the desired effect of lessening the tension in the room.

"I hope this means he isn't going to do everything quickly," Mihoshi said, and then blushed under the astonished stares directed her way.

"If it does, that just means more repetitions per evening," Ayeka mused. She did not redden under the gazes, just smiled appreciatively.

In fact, four contemplative leers were soon focused on Tenchi.

"It always comes back to sex, doesn't it?" Tenchi sighed.

"And your point is...?" asked Ryoko, smiling like a hungry cat.

"You should do well in the Great Game," Yosho observed.

"What Great Game?" Tenchi asked.

"Washu described it earlier," Yosho replied. "Male Power adepts compete among themselves for dominance. It's not only a biological imperative, but it's woven into the very fabric of society. Every human organization in the galaxy has some form of it. You cannot avoid it; you will be Challenged."

"What if I don't want to play in this Great Game?"

"As I said, you cannot avoid it."

"You're serious?"

"Absolutely. Not only will your honor be at stake, but often your life as well. I was Challenged many times."

"Did you ever lose a Challenge?"

"No, or Ayeka would have been First Crown Princess long ago."

"Great. Just great."

"Actually," Ayeka said slowly, "there might be a way to discourage any frivolous Challenges — maybe even all of them."

"How?" he asked morosely.

"Release that video we just watched. As long as it can be verified as authentic..."

"I encrypt all my sensor logs for that very reason," Washu informed them, "as well as date/time stamp them."

"Yosho, wouldn't anyone watching Tenchi execute those forms seriously reconsider issuing a Challenge to him?" Ayeka asked.

"I can't speak for others, of course, but I know I sure would."

"Who do you release the file to, so that it gets maximum distribution?" Washu queried.

"I can answer that one," Funaho responded, "the Grand Council. There's already a media leak among the members, and I guarantee that such a tempting revelation will not only find its way into public news sources, but into many baronial security organs as well."

"Maybe we should also add a message from Tenchi to my father, allaying any fears of a Succession Challenge anytime soon," Ayeka offered.

"That's an excellent idea," Funaho said. "In fact, perhaps it should be tailored to a more a general audience..."

Washu turned to her ever-ready keyboard. "Let me make some notes..."

############

Washu opened the dimensional doorway and stopped. The house was quiet, which it definitely hadn't been when she went into her lab to prepare for the next recording session. She closed the door softly and started searching room-by room. What she discovered was:

* Mihoshi was snoring her way through a nap on the sofa.* Ryoko was snoring her way through a nap on her rafter.* Funaho and Yosho were deep in conversation in the kitchen.* Ayeka and Sasami (and Ryo-ohki) were sleeping in their room.* Nobuyuki was still at work, as usual.

She finally located Tenchi outside on the deck, wearing an overcoat and shoveling snow. She snitched one of his heavy sweaters, donned it, and passed through the sliding glass door. Tenchi had not shoveled the snow here yet, and she tried to step in his footprints as she moved to join him. He turned, his face windblown and hair disheveled, but his smile was warm. She stood in front of him, unbuttoned his coat, and slid her arms inside the flaps and around his ribs for warmth. She didn't say anything, just kissed him long and passionately, finally nibbling on his neck before putting her head on his shoulder. "Thank God you're ok."

"Surely you remained the voice of reason and objectivity the whole time?"

"It's very hard for my brain to remain objective when my heart is screaming in panic. I was so worried about you."

"And I'm worried about you — you aren't really dressed warm enough to be out here."

She smiled. "It's only my back that's cold."

"This coat isn't big enough to hold two people."

"So improvise." He did: suddenly he was wrapping a blanket across them. "Where did that come from?"

"I summoned it."

"You what?"

"I teleported it from my room."

She leaned back to look into his eyes. "How long have you been able to do that?"

He frowned. "It just came to me."

"What else can you do?"

Tenchi shrugged. "Well, I can move really, really fast...but you already knew that." He smiled and kissed her forehead. "But I do see hints and possibilities in my mind."

Washu rolled her eyes and put her head back on his shoulder. "And I can see that the next few years are going to be truly interesting ones. You'd better plan on some long visits to my lab."

"Your lab or your bedroom?"

"Both." She was quiet for a while, warm and contented, thinking about the last few days. "Tenchi, you were able to scan all of us during that link, weren't you?"

"Yes."

"Could you read our minds?"

"Nope. It didn't work that way." Her relief was obvious. "Why? Are you disappointed?"

"No...it's just that everyone has some secrets to keep, and I'd like to keep mine."

Tenchi shrugged. "I have no problem with that."

That's what she loved most about him: he was so willing to accept them, without reservations. She hugged him, just because it felt so damn good. "So, what's this mental rapport like?"

"Well, it's not telepathy, nor even empathy, but some form of character assessment or clairvoyant profiling. I can only communicate if I have a link established, but I can send Power through that link. I was able to affect the other person's moods to some extent. And I learned that intimate contact was possible...no matter who initiates it."

"I think you're going to find that change in awareness very useful in the future. Particularly when it come to negotiating with diplomats and politicians." And then a mischievous grin crossed her face. "And speaking of negotiating, just how do you intend to deal with five horny women, anyway? Are you going to draw names each night?"

"No, actually I was thinking of a rotating schedule, spending a week at a time with each of you. That way we can make adjustments for illnesses and absences."

"That's not a bad answer."

"Funaho says our wing of the palace will have six suites, so there should be ample room for privacy."

Her head snapped up, and she gave him a suspicious look. "What do need six bedrooms for?"

"Well, I need an office, and some place to store my clothes," he answered innocently.

"I suppose that makes sense."

"I can honestly say that there will be no more women in my life, if that's what you're worried about," Tenchi said. "I'm going to have my hands full as it is — why would I want anyone else?" He kissed her, and nudged her head back onto his shoulder. "I know there is going to be some jealousy and competition — at least for a while — but I trust that you ladies will adjust. And I know that this whole arrangement can't be really comfortable for any you."

"It's not," she confirmed, "but it definitely beats the alternative. Not one of us will willingly give you up. And your part in this isn't going to be easy, either, you know. You're going to have to fight the tendency to play favorites — unless it's me, of course." She was only half-kidding.

"There won't be any favoritism. Each of you is unique, and each of you is very special. That's why I couldn't choose one over the others." And then he added softly, "And I would rather die than give up any one of you."

It was a sincere statement of fact, bereft of bravado, and it brought a lump to her throat and tears to her eyes. Oh yes she decided, this one was definitely worth the wait. One-fifth of him was worth more than all the others combined. She nuzzled his neck for a bit, and then another thought occurred to her. "Tenchi? Since Yosho and I have both reverted to our true forms, isn't it time you did the same?"

"If you mean what I think you mean, you may not be able to handle it."

"Try me."

So he did: he had been keeping his Power restricted, muted, to shield those around him from its true intensity. He pushed his internal 'throttle' all the way to 'fourth gear', and let it radiate unhindered. He saw the Emblem of Power reflected in her eyes as it snapped into place on his brow. Washu gasped and went rigid, her fingers digging holes into his back. Concerned, he returned to 'whisper mode.' She leaned away from him, staring at him wide-eyed.

It took her a few moments of deep breathing to regain her composure. "My God, that was like being immersed in pure aphrodisiac. Talk about primal reactions! Right now I have an overwhelming desire to drag you to the nearest bed and start our honeymoon two months early. You'd better keep that pheromone-flavored aura under lock-and-key until we build some immunity to it."

"I thought it might come in handy over the next few months," he said, grinning slyly.

"Then you'd better start conserving your strength, because you're sure going to need it."

"I think I can rise to the challenge."

She groaned at the pun.

############

Tenchi spoke: "I wish my great-grandfather a long and happy life, and an equally long and prosperous reign. I have no wish to Challenge him; I would much rather learn from him, and serve the Throne in whatever manner best suits my abilities.

"My wives and I will welcome all guests to our home with open arms. We find greater security in friendship than in martial prowess. However, we would also issue a warning to anyone attempting to interfere in our home life: such an act will be considered a Challenge and treated accordingly."

Though Tenchi's posture was casual, his mindset was not. His awareness turned inward, and once again he mentally engaged his 'engine' and put himself in idle. The Emblem of Power flashed into visibility on his brow, and a moment later the Lighthawk Wings sparkled into existence and hovered in the air before him. With a growing sense of excitement, he directed Power into the wings and shifted:

First Gear — the wings shuddered and thickened, swelling as Power poured into them.Second Gear — the wings broadened and brightened, blossoming under the increasing flood.Third Gear — the wings continued to expand outwards, as the flood increased to a torrent.Fourth Gear — the wings had doubled in size, and throbbed with internal fire.

Power cascaded through Tenchi with a satisfying roar, but the backwash of energy was having a profound effect on the galactics behind him. Where females of many species signal their interest with subtle clues of sound and fragrance, males often respond with resplendent plumage or kaleidoscopic displays. So, too, with human adepts: the sheer intensity of the Power radiating from Tenchi bespoke his suitability and dominance in a game as old as time. Weak-limbed and gasping, they succumbed to the primordial cues hard-wired into their brains. Ayeka's, Mihoshi's, Ryoko's, and Washu's own Power attributes activated in response, synchronizing with his; they became immobilized. Sasami was not so affected, having yet to pass through puberty, but even her immature Juraian genes felt a strong stirring.

Tenchi recognized their distress almost immediately, and opened mind links with all of them. With much fluttering of eyelids and shaking of heads, they threw off the paralyzing effects of his turbulence. Yet, they remained entrained to him, sharing their own faculties in a two-way exchange. The air in the lab roiled visibly.

The wings hung in the air in their Y-shaped configuration. Tenchi stepped forward and through the lowest blade. As he emerged a glistening fog settled around him, crystallizing rapidly into glowing body armor. Tenchi stepped forward two paces, and turned, calling to Ryoko through his link.

TENCHI - Ryoko, will you follow me?

RYOKO - Are you sure?

TRUST - Trust me

She did, implicitly. She walked forward and stepped into the blade. She emerged on the far side, and looked down to see the glowing fog solidifying around her limbs. As her Lighthawk Armor took shape, she moved to join Tenchi. She embraced his right arm, all the while marveling at the lightness and flexibility of her glowing carapace.

TENCHI - Ayeka? Will you join me?

AYEKA - Yes, Beloved, I'm coming

Ayeka stepped through the blade, head held high as befits a Princess. Her aura shimmered and settled as the Lighthawk Armor condensed. She strode to Tenchi's left side and grasped his hand, squeezing it.

TENCHI - Mihoshi? Will you come with me?

MIHOSHI - Of course!

Mihoshi stepped carefully through the blade, trying to avoid stumbling and ruining such a dramatic moment. She, too, was soon cloaked in her own Lighthawk Armor and she walked gracefully over to stand beside Ayeka.

TENCHI - Washu? Will you join me?

WASHU - Yes, Tenchi

And Washu stepped through the blade, scrutinizing the armor that contracted around her. She noted that all five suits pulsed subtly in the same rhythm (Tenchi's heartbeat). She walked over to stand next to her daughter.

TENCHI - Sasami? Will you come, too?

SASAMI - Oh, Boy!

Sasami leaped through the blade, landing lightly and effortlessly. However, the glowing mist did not coalesce into full battle armor; instead, she found herself wearing a diminutive breastplate and girdle, an elegant tiara, and carrying an elaborate scepter. She ran over to stand in front of Tenchi, chin in the air and eyes sparkling.

They all looked into the camera. "We are the Hand of Jurai," Tenchi stated. "We can be opened in friendship, or clenched in anger. The decision is yours."

############

"That was quite impressive," Yosho said. The whole family was sitting around the dinner table. They had all adjusted their seats to face the large screen in the air behind Washu. Her fingers rested lightly on the shadow keyboard below the screen, controlling the video they had been watching. The image frozen on the screen was that of Tenchi and his entourage, encased in Lighthawk Armor and looking very determined. Everyone's Armor had a different look to it, although there was plenty of commonality.

The script for Tenchi's speech had been their first conjugal effort, and it had contained a contribution from each of them. However, dressing each of the ladies in Lighthawk Armor had been Tenchi's improvisation, a spur-of-the moment inspiration he was now regretting. "We look like Power Rangers," he snorted.

"I think we look more like the Knight Sabers," Mihoshi said. "Definitely more stylish than Galaxy Police hardsuits."

"At least we had good solid footwear, not some ridiculous high-heeled monstrosities," Ayeka said.

"Why is mine so different?" Sasami asked. "And where did that scepter come from?"

Tenchi smiled. "The scepter was a gift from Tsunami, so you'll need to ask her about it. You aren't an adult yet, so no combat armor for you. But you are also my betrothed, and I wanted to include you. Actually, I thought you looked very pretty, Sasami."

"Hey, I like my armor," Ryoko said. "Tenchi, did you design it?"

"Nope. You did."

"Huh?" five voices chorused.

"I used the same quantum pattern for all of us. However, it must also tap into the wearer's mind somehow, since it changes to fit body size and shape. Frankly, I don't know."

"The pattern is interactive?" Washu asked excitedly. Tenchi shrugged and nodded, and Washu started typing furiously onto her keyboard. "I suppose that applies to the Lighthawk Sword, as well?"

"Yes. When I used it this morning, I sensed that it had quite a list of functions built into it. One of those was the slicing beam I somehow activated during my duel with Kagato. No wonder the Souja was cut in half."

Washu was cackling quietly while entering data into her terminal, all the while wearing that Sherlock-Homes-on-the-case look of intense concentration. Her fingers stopped dancing with a flourish. "I think we're going to have some really interesting research in the near future."

"I think we'd better concentrate more on the weddings for now," Funaho said.

"'We?' I take it you have decided to stay?"

"Yes, Yosho, I feel I should remain here. I think I need to spend some quality time with my family."

"Alright!" Sasami cheered, and ran around the table to give her half-mother a hug. Ayeka giggled, but nodded approvingly.

"However, I will need to communicate with my secretary aboard my ship. I am compiling quite a list of instructions for him. We'll have to send a courier 'bot back to Jurai in the near future."

"Including these videos?" Washu asked.

"Especially these videos," Funaho answered.

############

Washu was standing quietly on the dock, watching the waves lap against the side of Funaho's shuttle. She was lost in thought, so didn't notice right away when Tsunami shimmered into visibility beside her.

"A beautiful morning, isn't it?" Tsunami asked.

"Yes, it is," Washu replied.

"Waiting for Lady Funaho?"

"Yes."

Washu seemed uncommunicative, but Tsunami was patient. She paused a while before speaking. "You really love Tenchi, don't you?"

"Yes. Deeply. Desperately, even."

"I'm having trouble with this concept. It is so new to me."

"How does Sasami feel about him?"

"A great attachment. But is this the same love that you feel?"

"Not yet. Give her a few more years, and then you'll experience it. He seems to have the same effect on all of us."

"Perhaps not all of us, or perhaps not so profoundly." Tsunami indicated Funaho walking down the dock towards them.

"Am I interrupting a conversation?" Funaho asked when she joined them.

"No, we were just discussing emotions," Washu answered.

"Oh? Which emotions?"

"Love."

"And fear. I sense your fear, too, Washu."

"Are you two linked together?" Funaho asked, eyebrow raised.

"No, but we share a common history," Washu replied.

Funaho acknowledge the remark by raising the other eyebrow. "Just what are you afraid of, Washu?"

"Lady Funaho, obviously I have not been exaggerating Tenchi's Power potentials. He will truly be the strongest adept in the galaxy. And that is not counting the gestalt structure he is building with his wives. What scares me the most is not his potentials, or even the machinations of his rivals, but that historically whenever someone develops an awesome weapon it inevitable draws an even more awesome threat."

"Lady Tokimi," Tsunami whispered.

"Yes, Lady Tokimi." Washu and Tsunami exchanged a long, meaningful look, which Funaho caught.

"Who is Lady Tokimi?"

"What do you know about trans-galactic entities?"

EPILOGUE

Yosho walked slowly around the lake in front of the Masaki house. It was one of those hot, muggy days so common in late August, when the air was turgid and the breezes sparse. The sun poked holes in the green canopy above him, the birds chirped and sang to their own purposes, and the soft drone of insects offered counterpoint to the rustling leaves. White-hot diamonds sparkled off the lake, the occasional dragonfly zigzagged around the banks, and the waves slapped the shore with their ceaseless message.

This was not an aimless stroll, so much as it was a casual one. Yosho was in no hurry, and the robot courier that hovered over the dock would wait patiently for him. It looked like nothing so much as a bus-length section of sewer pipe, two meters in diameter and made of shiny white metal, both ends capped with sensors and engines. He reached the dock and started along it, the warm smell of sun-drenched wood wafting up to his nostrils. His kimono rolled around his legs like a swinging temple bell.

He stopped next to the 'bot and issued the commands that would open its cargo hatch. It scanned him briefly, matching his mental and astral signatures against its memory files. While he waited for the 'bot to complete its confirmation, Yosho looked back at the house. It was silent now, empty but not abandoned. Tenchi and his family had been on Jurai for over a year; but these last four months Nobuyuki had been dating a widow with two young children, and they had become frequent weekend guests. The children often referred to him as 'Grandpa,' which he took a nostalgic delight in. And, of course, there was the occasional galactic visitor dropping in to visit Crown Prince Yosho. He was still wrestling with that title, since he had relinquished it to Tenchi many years ago — only to find out from one of the visiting botanists that his Royal Tree could, in fact, be made flyable again. (In an act of unbelievable generosity and kindness — at least, unbelievable for her — Ryoko had insisted that Yosho retain her two jewels until "something else can be worked out." They were still affixed to the hilt of the Tenchi-ken, which he kept locked away in his quarters. And they still provided life-sustaining energy to his Royal Tree.) He could return home, and thus accede to his father's wishes. Tenchi, for the most part, was as supportive of that idea as he was of his father's new romantic interest. This house had witnessed much healing in the last few years. It was becoming more and more apparent that his life (and Nobuyuki's) were no longer anchored to the graves on the hill. Perhaps it was finally time to move on.

His reverie was interrupted by a soft cough as the hatch opened. The internal lights flickered on, and Yosho leaned over to inspect the cargo. There were a handful of packages within — two of them quite large — and a bundle of letters. Many bore the pressed-wax seal of the Imperial house, the remainder were addressed to him and Nobuyuki in handwritten script. The former would require some careful examination, while the latter would get the immediate attention. Yosho gathered the entire shipment, heaved it out of the bay, and ordered the hatch sealed (he had forgotten to do that once before, and he had nearly shipped a half-starved squirrel off to Jurai). He readjusted the load in his arms, and started for the house.

Yosho placed the packages on the dining room floor, the mail on the table, and himself into one of the chairs. Then he started sorting items into a pile for himself and a pile for his son-in-law. Not surprisingly, he got the bulk of the mail. The envelope that caught his eye first, and piqued his curiosity the most, was from his mother (her handwriting was unmistakable). He opened it slowly and methodically, ever true to his habits.

Dear Yosho,

There are few calm moments here, as you may well imagine, but today is a special occasion and I felt motivated to spend a few moments in quiet reflection.

Today marks the anniversary of Tenchi's arrival on Jurai, and I must say the palace has not been the same since.

One year ago we landed at the capitol spaceport complex, to a totally unexpected — and huge! — crowd of well-wishers and glad-handers, all waiting to see the young prince and his entourage. They were not disappointed. Tenchi strode through the crowds with a well-rehearsed polish, with his new wives (Ryoko, Washu, and Mihoshi) walking very proudly behind him. And behind them came Ayeka and Sasami and I, arm-in-arm and smiling at the crowd. Your half-sisters were very happy to be home, and were completely overwhelmed by their reception. Misaki and Azusa were waiting in the terminal for them, in a private salon, and the reunion was tearful and emotional. Tenchi, for the most part, remained very stoic about the whole experience, having his hands full keeping his brides (particularly Ryoko) well behaved. It was a tentative first step, but an encouraging one.

You already know the details of Ayeka's wedding, and Sasami's subsequent betrothal banquet, so I need not repeat them here. But as part of the overall pattern, they marked the watershed. Tenchi's family has finally settled into a comfortable pattern, and his brides moved into the supporting roles they occupy today.

I mentioned Ryoko; I must say, I like her, Yosho. Once past the initial wariness, she blossoms like a wildflower. She takes her role as Tenchi's bodyguard extremely seriously, and he never leaves the palace without her. She settled into my security team quite nicely, once they gave her the latitude to express her opinions and act accordingly. I find it very comforting to know that in every photograph published of him to-date, she is either holding his hand or looking over his shoulder. And she is very sharp, too; nothing escapes her notice. She is growing into a formidable security agent. And she and Mihoshi have been sneaking away on little errands for me from time-to-time (when such missions don't conflict with their domestic schedule), with some pretty spectacular results. Ryoko is also getting favorable attention from the military. Recently, Tenchi had been invited to speak at the Naval Academy. But he stood at the podium just long enough to introduce her and then sat down, leaving the audience somewhat flustered. They were even more aghast when she started critiquing certain border deployments. Her assessments were challenged, naturally; she countered, and the issue was only resolved in the simulators — in her favor. While the senior staff merely scoffed, the mid-level staff officers quickly recognized her potential and have been courting her ever since. And when she and Tenchi were invited to the annual Army-Navy fencing tournament, they put on a very impressive exhibition: Ryoko demonstrated her full repertoire of talents, and Tenchi unleashed that blinding speed and his own consummate skills (which I am proud to say that he learned from you). I hear the match ended when Tenchi disarmed her, she grappled him to the floor, and then he pulled her into a passionate kiss that received thunderous applause. They had to pry Ryoko off of him, to even more cheers.

Ayeka divides her time between her husband and her father, and relishes the position she has assumed at court. Tenchi says very little during most council meetings, and I wager Ayeka spends a great deal of time coaching and explaining some of the intricacies of political maneuvering to him. She has been approached by several publishing houses eager to discuss the details of her rescue mission. Since it has ended in such a spectacular success, there is a general consensus that it could be an instant best seller in either novelized or serial formats. She usually brushes off their representatives with her regret that she didn't keep a diary, or that Ryu-oh's log was destroyed in the crash. Having spent time among common people (or closer to commoners, at least), getting her hands dirty and seeing the struggles that they face daily, she has assumed the role of spokesperson for quite a number of social and environmental concerns. The liberal press and the Loyal Opposition have been remarkably tame addressing her participation, but the directors and administrators of the various organizations are absolutely delighted. And while Ayeka would never publicly disagree with her father, they have had many private discussions on these topics. And, of course, being the wife of the future emperor, she is assumed to be discussing her opinions with her husband. She can be most persuasive, or so I'm told.

Mihoshi was quickly reassigned as liaison to my office, and I put her to instant use by pairing her with Ryoko. They are good for each other, really, and I can see a bond building between them. Several red-faced base commanders have been given copies of her security debriefings, and the reputation of this pair is growing. They appear to be enjoying these trips immensely (Tenchi even snuck along on one of their missions, but Ayeka threw an Imperial hissy fit when she found out about it). She has become quite the darling of the Galaxy Police public relations department. It's not hard to see why: the Marshall's granddaughter rescued by the emperor's great-grandson, which results in True Romance and a marriage proposal. I guess a large stack of damage reports and complaints lodged against her have conveniently disappeared or been quietly paid-off. I had the pleasure of meeting her family at their wedding. They are a charming lot, all of them career GP in one capacity or another. Mihoshi's grandfather, Minami Kuramitsu, is a wily old fox, and is using his own position — and now her status — as bargaining points with some of the guilds. I say good luck to him.

Washu is less reclusive than she used to be. She divides her time between her post at the Academy and her newly-acquired family. She doesn't appear to be very enthusiastic about her teaching duties these days, or even her modest research efforts; doubtless it has something to do with the majority of administrators and faculty being the same breed of opportunistic vulture as their predecessors. The current board members seem much more eager to exploit her publicity potentials than any real contributions she could make. I don't look for her to remain at the Academy much longer. As for her home life, she and Ryoko will often be found puttering around in her lab, or she will accompany Tenchi out to the practice field for some new test of his growing Power capabilities. She seems far less content to be alone than she used to be — perhaps she is trying to reacquaint herself with the human race.

Sasami seems the least-affected by the relocation. I have heard many comments about how poised and confident she appears. She spends her days with her tutors, and divides her evenings between our wing of the palace and Tenchi's (she has a suite there that she and Misaki have been decorating, but when she stays the night it is either with Ayeka or Ryoko). She insisted on a kitchen being added to the common area, and she keeps it well stocked and well used. Her laughter can often be heard ringing through the hallways — such a wonderful sound! — and she and Ryo-ohki are as inseparable as ever. I hear she still suffers from occasional nightmares, but it doesn't appear to have affected her overmuch; and we have all been the target of her practical jokes — especially Tenchi. It is fortunate for her that he is such a good sport.

And Tenchi himself: your grandson is an extremely impressive young man. You have much to be proud of, Yosho. He rarely loses his temper, is quick to laugh, and seems utterly unconcerned when his wives are arguing (I hear they used to get carried away and frequently damaged the house, but when tempers flare now it rarely takes more than a word or two from him and the participants back-off or take it outside). True to his word, he shows no favorites and dotes over all of them. They adore him. The one time I have ever seem him truly furious was during a Privy Council meeting, when Baron Tennen made some snide comment that was blatantly insulting to Ayeka (his son, Lord Seriyu was once a contender for her hand, you'll recall). Tenchi leaped to his feet even as his Power level soared into what he calls "fourth gear." The Emblem on his forehead was so bright that you couldn't even look at his face, and the Power spike that erupted was felt by adepts all over the capitol. He vaulted over the conference table and went nose-to-nose with the Baron, demanding an instant retraction. He was so angry, and so energized, that the air around him seemed to boil. The Baron managed to squeak out a tolerable apology, but then embarrassed himself even further by emptying his bladder. Tenchi graciously accepted the apology and withdrew, fortunately, since the Baron's clothing was beginning to smolder. Tenchi returned to his chair, but not without failing to beg forgiveness from his great-grandfather for interrupting the meeting over 'personal matters' (Azusa was utterly speechless). As tempers cooled we began to notice a few things: every window in the room had shattered outwards, there were scorch marks on the ceiling over the Baron's seat, and in the midst of the confrontation Ryoko had teleported over to the door and stood barring it with brandished sword. The look in her eyes was death itself — one word from her husband and the decapitations would have commenced. The details of this episode echoed through many a baronial council room (and the media rumor mill) for weeks; Tenchi's stature was raised yet another notch. Incidentally, he has yet to be issued a single Challenge, to his vast relief.

Oh, Yosho, how I wish you were. The palace has never felt so vibrant! Tenchi and his ladies fill their wing with constant music and laughter and bickering and activities — in short, it is full of life. For instance, there is a daily ritual that Tenchi's wives are loath to miss: tea-time. They all gather in the common area and watch their favorite soap opera, munching on snacks and discussing the convoluted plot quirks endlessly. Which gives Tenchi the opportunity to sneak off to his garden so he can commune with nature or schmooze with the groundskeepers. Afterward they stalk him like a pack of wolves, dragging him off to the onsen, or kitchen, or even shopping. On one such occasion I witnessed Ayeka and Mihoshi leading a reluctant Tenchi down to the ballroom, with Ryoko floating behind, and Washu and Sasami bringing up the rear. The girls were all laughing and chattering, Tenchi groaned with resignation, and I couldn't resist the urge to tag along. It seems that they had retained the services of a noted dance instructor, and they were eager to learn the latest dances. Poor Tenchi was exhausted by the time lesson was over, but it was an absolutely hilarious hour.

You'll notice that in the portraits that accompany this letter, Washu hasn't started to show, yet. When her little bombshell hit the media, Tenchi's other wives were barraged with questions (after all, this child becomes first in the line of succession). Ayeka made the classiest statement ("It just demonstrates our husband's generosity that he would not deny any of us our heart's desire.") and Ryoko made the most direct reply ("I'm happy for her — naturally! — and this way Tenchi's parenting skills will be fine-tuned by the time I need them"). Privately, they are all thrilled, and without exception have stated that if that's what Washu wants, fine — but they're not ready for motherhood yet. Many evenings of late have been spent gathered in Washu's suite decorating the nursery, drinking and snacking, and teasing Tenchi.

The botanist that Washu dispatched to Earth returned with encouraging news: your Royal Tree can be regenerated. That is truly heartening news, and it even brought a smile to your father's face. I trust that your response will be favorable; we are already gathering the necessary equipment and personnel for the task. I know of your reluctance, my son, but your duties — and your family — are here on Jurai. We want you to return, and we will all support you against any lingering discontent. Just look at what Tenchi has accomplished: he's only one-eighth Juraian, and one of his wives wreaked catastrophic damage on the capitol centuries ago, but he has been welcomed with open arms. You will be, too.

Love,

Mother

Portraits? Yosho decided that the two largest packages must be the indicated portraits, and reached for them. They were each tightly wrapped in packing material, sealed against jostling and all manner of accidents and mishandling. He peeled the material easily off the first one, and set it upon one of the chairs, stepping back to study it.

It was a photograph of Tenchi and his family, doubtless the official 'sanitized' version released for public consumption. Each of the subjects had been strategically positioned and dressed for maximum psychological value — it had Funaho's fingerprints all over it:

* Tenchi sat in the center, providing the focal point for the entire group. He was dressed in a conservative business suit of sumptuous fabric, tailored to his broad shoulders. Around his neck he wore the medallion bestowed upon him during his knighting ceremony. His smile was open and honest. To Yosho's eyes, he looked much like his mother, but some of his father's heavier jaw line was apparent as well. He had the bearing of confidence and vigor so typical of the young.

* In front of Tenchi sat Sasami, wearing very petite and feminine robes that enhanced the pink of her eyes and the blue of her hair. Her smile was mischievous, and her eyes were partially closed as though contemplating the appropriate prank to pull upon the viewer. Upon her lap sat Ryo-ohki in her quadruped form, bathed and brushed and wearing the necklace that Tenchi had fastened around her neck the night of his graduation ceremony.

* On Tenchi's right sat Ryoko, with her arms loosely wrapped around his elbow. She wore a suit similar to her husband's, although cut differently to flatter her figure. Glittering on her collar were the rank and insignia badges that declared her allegiance to Funaho's intelligence and security network. Her cyan-colored hair was as haphazard and spiky as ever, but it framed the golden eyes that considered the viewer as coolly as any predator contemplating its next meal. This was the Heir's strong right arm, and you had better take her seriously.

* Behind Tenchi's right shoulder stood Mihoshi, wearing her Galaxy Police dress uniform, her hand placed upon his shoulder. On her chest were the commendation medals given to her for participating in the Kagato and Dr. Clay episodes. Her smile was wide and genuine, and her position next to Tenchi's ear spoke of advice and gut feelings passed along to the intuitive side of her husband's brain. That she also stood near Ryoko (the other half of Funaho's infamous intelligence team) was a statement of solidarity between Juraian security and interstellar law enforcement.

* Behind Tenchi's left shoulder stood Washu, swathed in the robes of a preceptor, mirroring Mihoshi's posture. She'd made no effort to control her long red hair, other than combing it. It spilled across her shoulders like a mane, and her head was canted slightly to the side, one eyebrow raised, as though inspecting the viewer rather than the other way around. She was obviously the source of scientific and technological advice for the logical hemisphere of her husband's brain.

* On Tenchi's left sat Ayeka, with her husband's left hand sandwiched between her own hands. She wore the full finery of a member of the Juraian Imperial family, extravagant and richly embroidered. She was the epitome of pomp and power, and symbolized the lineage that extended for generations into the past. She was expressing confidence to the viewer that there would be no interruption in the bloodline of the House of Jurai. She sat closest to her husband's heart, and thus represented his conscience.

Yosho was quite impressed. As an example of propaganda, it made quite a political statement. However, this was not the image he carried in his heart. That image was much more apparent in the second portrait, which must have been taken only moments after the first:

* Sasami and Ryo-ohki were both leaning backwards and twisted to the right, looking upward and laughing. Tenchi's wives were all leaning over to kiss their husband, and all were flashing the knuckles of their left hand towards the viewer — so that the camera could record the magnificent wedding ring each wore.

* Tenchi's broad smile radiated contentment. He had finally gotten his wish.

====================== Author's Notes ==========================

As is usual, I came late to the party. I watched the 13 "Tenchi Muyo" OAV episodes with my youngest daughter (a teenager) and got hooked, and then discovered it is ten years old and out of fashion in Japan these days (summer, 2001). It appears to be going through a twilight period of sorts here in the States, but having watched a couple of the movies and some of the television episodes, I have to say a good story has been terribly diluted by all the mutations to other mediums. How sad.

So, call me a purist. I'll stick with the OAVs, and mourn what might have been.

This story takes place after the OAV series. I've probably stretched the official storyline and canon concepts to the breaking point, but I intended merely to "flesh-out" some interesting threads and possibilities. I hope I didn't do any serious damage.

The characters of Tenchi Muyo were created by Masaki Kajashima and brought to North America by Pioneer LDC. This story, while incorporating names and situations held under copyright by others, is copyright 2001 by Jeffery L. Harris.

This story comes entirely from my imagination, and is not, nor intended to be, canon. Please do not send the legions of lawyers after me...it's not worth their time, or mine.

Any questions or comments should be directed to:

Jeffery L Harris

Subject: "And If I Fall"

CUT SCENES

Being eight months pregnant had its advantages and disadvantages, or so Washu rediscovered. Being constantly uncomfortable was the big disadvantage (she'd forgotten just how much); being given first pick of every choice spot was the big advantage. After a period of trial-and-error, she had decided that one particular end of the sofa was about the coziest spot in the common area: it had the softest cushion, the firmest back, the best view of the video screen, and the closest proximity to the bathroom. She staked her claim and no one contested it.

So here she was, sitting on her de facto throne, reading a book, and discreetly watching her daughter wander aimlessly through the small collection of rooms that served as the hub for their six suites. The kitchen, the bathroom, the onsen — Ryoko drifted through them all. Finally curious about the cause, Washu closed her book with a sigh and set it on her lap. "Ryoko, Dear, what's the problem?"

"I'm bored," Ryoko replied, sitting a full meter off the floor, her legs crossed tailor-fashion. She had the remote control, and was randomly selecting channels. Nothing suited her.

"Well, where is everybody?"

"Tenchi's in his office, Ayeka and Sasami are stuck in some conference with their parents, and Mihoshi is at some GP function downtown. I don't really have anything to do."

Washu set her book on the end table, patted the empty cushion beside her, and invited Ryoko to join her. Ryoko did, floating across the room before settling onto the sofa. They each sat half-twisted, facing one another. "It's not like living on Earth was, is it?"

Ryoko shook her head. Tenchi was in high school then, now he spent his mornings at one of the universities here on Jurai. Many an afternoon was spent escorting her husband and his other wives to various ceremonial and political gatherings. She was generally too busy to pay much attention — she was fully engaged watching their backs. And when they were all in the palace, her boss (Tenchi's great-grandmother Funaho) often had a string of meetings and classes and training sessions for her to attend. But today, the schedule was absolutely empty. And therefore dull.

"What are you reading?"

"One of Tenchi's text books. He asked me to help him study, and I thought I'd go over the course material."

"How is it?"

"Pretty lame, if you ask me. A lot of liberal claptrap and the author's private rants. Just so much bilge. I could do a better job, frankly."

"Then why don't you?"

That gave Washu pause. "That's not a bad idea, Ryoko."

"For that matter, you could start a series of text books, for grade school though university." She gestured towards her mother's abdomen. "Seems to me that you have a ready test audience."

"That's a marvelous idea! I'll have to give it some serious consideration."

There was a moment of silence. "Washu, can I ask you something? It's kinda personal."

"Go ahead."

"Did you and Tenchi talk about having kids, before you got pregnant?"

"Yes, we did. Without his approval and support, it wouldn't have happened."

"Don't you think it was rather soon? I mean, we've only been married for a little over a year..."

"I've been waiting a long time, Ryoko. Once I found the right man, I didn't want to wait any longer."

Ryoko nodded. She knew all about waiting in general, and waiting-for-the-right-man in particular.

Washu took Ryoko's hand and squeezed it gently. "Have you and Tenchi discussed children?"

Ryoko nodded slowly. "Yes. He thinks I'll make a good mother."

"So do I."

Ryoko smiled at her. "Thanks." The smile faded. "But I'm not sure we can have any."

"What makes you say that?" Washu asked, frowning.

"Well, I spent all those years with Kagato, desperately hoping I wouldn't get pregnant, and the last year with Tenchi kinda hoping that I would get pregnant. Nothing has happened. I'm worried that nothing can happen."

Washu chuckled kindly. "Nothing has happened because I disabled those functions when you were a child. Once Tenchi freed us, I ran diagnostics on you to make sure that Kagato had never tampered with my blocks. For whatever reason, he left them in place. So you can relax, my dear: all of your plumbing is intact and accounted for."

Ryoko's face lit up, her smile radiant. "Then you mean...?"

"Yes, just let me know when you're ready. Twenty minutes in my lab will turn everything back 'on.'"

Ryoko leaned close and squeezed Washu's arm. "Thanks, Mom."

Washu returned the gesture, feeling very content. "I should warn you, though, that once it's done it's a permanent fix. You'll be on birth control like Ayeka, Mihoshi and me."

"I think I can handle it," Ryoko beamed.

Washu nodded. And then she felt movement across her abdomen. She brought her hand (still grasping Ryoko's) up to her belly, and placed the back of her daughter's hand on top of the little ripple. Ryoko's smile softened, and she giggled. "Next time you and Tenchi discuss the subject, you should be able to answer him with some confidence."

"Discuss what subject?" Tenchi asked. He was standing in his office door, arms outstretched in a yawn, a thick book in his left hand. The two ladies turned and looked over their shoulders. "Oh, I'm sorry. Am I interrupting something?"

"No, Dear," Washu smiled.

Ryoko slid across the sofa and indicated the gap. "Why don't you join us?"

Tenchi was mildly suspicious (past experience had proven this to be a prudent reaction), but he nodded and closed his office door. He walked around the sofa and sat in the proffered space. "What were you ladies talking about?"

"Children," Washu answered. She placed his hand where Ryoko's had been, and he felt the movement, too. He grinned.

"Tenchi, Washu says that I can have children. Isn't that great!"

"Well," he said, his tone of voice turning serious, "she has got a pretty good head-start on you..." Washu poked him in the ribs. "Ow! What was that for?"

"For being droll when Ryoko is so excited," Washu replied.

"I'm sorry, I was only teasing," he said to Ryoko. She showed her forgiveness by kissing him. "I think that's wonderful news. But, I didn't think that you wanted a baby so soon."

"I'm not sure that I do. But now I know that it's possible, which makes all the difference. Oh, I'm so happy!"

"And I'm so tired."

"Just what do you have to be tired about?" Washu asked.

"This history text is slow going," he replied, indicating the book on his lap. "I'm fighting sleep and a headache trying to wade through it. And since my Juraian isn't fluent yet..."

"Maybe you need something to take your mind off of it for awhile," Ryoko suggested innocently.

"Yeah, maybe I do," Tenchi replied as rubbed the back of his neck. He realized too late that he'd just fallen into a trap, as Ryoko's arms snaked around him, accompanied by her lecherous laughter. He had no chance to resist before they disappeared.

Washu chuckled. She knew where they were. There was a muffled shout from behind the door to Ryoko's suite...doubtless the ever-conscientious Tenchi was trying to return to his study and his assignment. He should have known better by now: his wives had spent the last year experimenting with Juraian marital customs, including ways to restrain their husband. Ryoko favored brute strength and rope, Ayeka preferred the traditional manacles and chains, Mihoshi opted for disorienting him in her variable-gravity bed, and Washu employed the accessories of her various costumes. Tenchi couldn't escape via teleportation — yet — but he was getting very tolerant/patient/devious, forcing his wives to be continuously creative. She felt a twinge of envy when she heard the second yelp, but dismissed it — she would have plenty of opportunities later. It was her week, after all.

At least Ryoko wasn't bored any longer.

############

Ayeka enjoyed these meetings. It gave her an opportunity to leave the palace and visit Parliament. The parliamentary campus was a collection of administrative buildings and historical structures dating back thousands of years, all centered around the tower that housed the council chamber. The council chamber itself was an oval-shaped room dominated by an oval-shaped wooden table, the ring of chairs around the table, and the vaulted ceiling which capped the many fluted columns. Windows filled the gaps between the columns, allowing natural light to mix with the overhead luminous strips. The marble floor was kept polished and scuff-free, despite centuries of continuous use. But permeating the room was the feeling of Authority, of decisions debated and decided for the trillions of souls who populated the planets of the Juraian Empire.

Her father, Emperor Asuza, traditionally sat in the middle on one side of the table flanked by his wives. The Heir Apparent traditionally sat behind him and to his left, where he/she could learn statecraft by observation. Once upon a time, her half-brother Yosho had held this seat, quietly listening. On a few occasions she had occupied the seat, eagerly attentive to the debates. Now Tenchi sat there, attended by two of his wives. Ayeka sat to his left, wearing a business suit and conservative makeup. Ryoko hovered behind them both, dressed in the dark gray jumpsuit typical of security personnel. Both ladies kept their eyes in constant motion, although for different reasons — Ayeka followed the discussions, Ryoko followed the gestures of the council members.

Over the course of time, Tenchi was developing a grasp of the politics and personalities — and a growing disgust with the whole process. To his way of thinking, too much time was spent posturing and maneuvering. He lacked Ayeka's appreciation for this slow-motion form of gambling, as well as her patience and perseverance. But he was making the effort, which pleased Ayeka greatly. However, sometimes temptation got the better of him, and he would yield to the urge to do something unpredictable. He would later justify each action as an effort to keep the contentious council members off balance — or to irritate his great-grandfather. For instance:

* Tenchi had insisted that Ryoko be allowed to hover above him, rather than stand behind him, while performing her duties. It bothered many of the council members that she floated like a tethered balloon, glaring at everyone suspiciously. It might have gotten into a heated argument if Empress Funaho hadn't stepped-in to support her operative/great-grand-daughter-in-law, and silenced the Emperor with one of her measured glances.

* Another time, Tenchi had brought Washu along. She had only recently started wearing maternity clothes, and he seated her prominently to his right — where she was the most visible — as a subtle reminder of the line of succession. Again, Funaho had bestowed her blessing upon the maneuver. (Ayeka wondered if there wasn't some collusion going on between her half-mother and her husband...not that she minded.)

* On still another occasion, Ryoko had reported that a half-dozen council members were passing around some object at one end of the table. Curious, Tenchi had requested that Ryoko concentrate all her senses on the object. She complied, he focused on the object through their mind link, and in his first public display of the ability he teleported the object into his waiting hands. (It turned out to be a rather exotic statuette.) He gave it a cursory glance before passing it over to Ayeka, who studied it briefly before passing it on to Ryoko, who gave it a very thorough inspection. Their actions had two immediate effects:

(1) All conversation ceased, and the Emperor was forced to turn around and see what had caused the interruption. When prompted for an explanation, Tenchi had apologized for the disturbance, reported his wife's concern over the object being passed around, and offered to return it to its owner after the meeting.

(2) Tenchi had demonstrated yet another Power attribute, heretofore unknown, in a casual and offhanded manner. No one had heard or seen Tenchi and Ryoko exchange any kind of communication, yet they had clearly done so. And Tenchi had defended his wife's actions publicly. Doubtless there would be additions to the secret dossiers each of the council members had on him and his family. Which was the whole point.

* Tenchi's now-infamous response to the insult directed at her by Baron Tennen. Her chest inflated with pride every time she thought about the incident, and her eyes drifted reflexively to the spot on the ceiling that still bore the scorch marks (the shattered windows were more easily replaced).

At the moment, Tenchi looked bored: his head drifted from side-to-side listlessly, his eyelids were propped open, and he rarely spoke (preferring to let the princess do the talking). Ayeka should have been irritated by his seeming lack of interest, except that she knew how false that impression was. Not only was he following the talks closely, but he had shifted his mental perspective into the alternate modes available to him. He had opened mind links with both of his wives, and was feeding information to them as actively as they were answering his questions...not to mention their colorful observations. This gestalt linkage made these normally dreary meetings not only bearable but actually entertaining. To wit:

Ryoko - Who's that big-chested bigwig with the silver hair?

Ayeka - Really, Ryoko, such a crude description.

Ryoko - So? It fits. Who is she?

Ayeka - Countess Rikori. She usually attends these meetings, rather than her husband. Why do you ask?

Ryoko - The Countess just slipped something into her blouse, down between her —

Tenchi - We get the picture, Ryoko. Was it very large?

Ryoko - Nah. Looked like a coin purse.

Tenchi - The Countess thinks she's being clever. (Tenchi sends them his mental assessment)

Ayeka - E-e-e-w-w. Why a spider?

Tenchi - She's weaving a web of intrigue, I gather. Does she have many allies?

Ayeka - Mostly the men sitting around her, though I don't believe they've been all that supportive of late.

Ryoko - Probably got tired of sleeping with her.

Ayeka - Now I'm getting a mental assessment...and it's not pretty.

Ryoko - Speaking of pretty, isn't that woman at the far end of the table the same one who was flirting with Tenchi at last week's Royal Ball?

Ayeka - Yes, now that you mention it. And she's still showing some interest.

Tenchi - Ladies, please.

Ayeka - We're just protecting you from the predators, Beloved.

Ryoko - Yes, Darling, just consider it another Security service.

Tenchi - Is that why I never get a moment of privacy?

Ayeka - Rubbish. You have plenty of privacy.

Ryoko - Why would you even want to be alone, with such a loving family to keep you company?

Tenchi - To keep my sanity. For that matter, while you're so busy watching over me, who's watching over you?

Ayeka - Whatever do you mean?

Tenchi - Don't think I haven't seen the hungry glances cast at you ladies.

Ryoko - Really? Like who?

Tenchi - There was an Army major at that ball who couldn't keep his eyes off of you, Ryoko. And when I scanned him, this is what I got. (Tenchi sends them his mental assessment)

Ryoko - What kind of bird is that?

Tenchi - A male peacock. The flashier his plumage, the more successful he is at attracting females.

Ayeka - Ah, that would be Major Timotin, an adjutant to General Abe. Vain and ambitious, just like your peacock. He's had quite a string of mistresses, or so I'm told. None ever stay with him for very long.

Ryoko - If still waters run deep, then he must be a parking lot puddle.

Ayeka - What about me, Beloved?

Tenchi - That black-haired, square-jawed man in the brown robes eight seats to our right.

Ayeka - Baron Lemidjin? You must be joking.

Tenchi - I'm afraid not. His intentions are quite clear. (Tenchi sends them his mental assessment)

Ayeka - The weasel suits him, though I fear the hunger in his eyes is for my position, not my person.

Tenchi - Don't be so sure.

Ryoko - Maybe we should hook him up with Countess Rikori.

Ayeka - What a charming idea.

Tenchi - Maybe you should just stay away from him.

Ayeka - Tenchi, you sound jealous!

Tenchi - Maybe I am. He is handsome...

Ayeka - You have no reason to be jealous of anyone, Beloved. I only have eyes for you.

Ryoko - Yeah, that goes for me, too.

Tenchi - Well, you ladies have no reason to be jealous, either.

Ryoko - But we don't radiate a Power envelope like you do. You draw them out of the woodwork. I repeat, you need protected.

Ayeka - Absolutely.

Ayeka looked over at her husband, noticing the conceding smile on his face. He reached across to take her hand, at the same time reaching over his shoulder for Ryoko's waiting hand. She and Ryoko exchanged grins, for once in total agreement.

Author's Notes

The above vignettes were originally part of the Epilogue section for "And If I Fall," but during the final editing period I decided they were a bigger hindrance than a help (they contributed nothing to the final tone) and so were excised.

My intention had been to relegate them to the "bit bucket," but after reading BGlanders' recent piece "Disillusionment" I found myself reluctant to do so. I don't know why, really; even though they may be mildly amusing, once taken out of their original context they are meaningless. However, rather than abort them outright, I decided to submit them to the TMFFA...as inspiration for fellow fan-fic authors, perhaps, or simply an unwillingness to see my efforts erased. I can honestly say that I probably got more pleasure out of writing them (and the story they were removed from) than anyone else will reading them. Maybe this is true of all writers.

The characters of Tenchi Muyo were created by Masaki Kajashima, and brought to North America by Pioneer LDC. This story, while incorporating names and situations held under copyright by others, is copyright 2001 by Jeffery L. Harris.

These stories come entirely from my imagination, and are not, nor intended to be, canon. Please do not send the legions of lawyers after me...it's not worth their time, or mine.

Any questions or comments should be directed to:

Jeffery L Harris

Subject: "Cut Scenes"

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