by Mark Andron and Time Lady
Time: At this point, who really cares
Place: Well, the KnK sounds good to me ^_^
Tsurugi: Yes! No Zuni’s as a kickoff point!
Tsu is then thwapped by a number of RLs, and is dragged off to his starting position in this affair.
Tegan enters the Park Hyatt, temporary location of the residents of the KnK, and heads up to the upper levels. She reaches the door of the room assigned Tora. Noticing that the door is already part way open, she steps inside. “Hello?” She knocks on the door. “Anybody ho--” Tegan sees an open suitcase on the couch in the living room, part way full of clothing. She also notices a passport, which she picks up and examines. As she thought, it belongs to Tora.
Tora comes out of the bedroom, a stack of clothing in his arms. He notices Tegan taking a rather large interest in his passport. “It’s not the best picture, but it serves its purpose,” he says.
Tegan jumps. “Ah! Don’t spook me like that!”
“So what to what do I deserve the honor of this visit?”
“I was going to... what in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is all this for?”
“I’m going on a trip.” Tora starts putting the clothing into the suitcase.
“I can see that, but where are you going on this trip?”
“Well, I’m going to mainland China.”
“Yep. Going to pay Pop a visit. I wanted to check up on him and my sister.”
“‘Pop’? ‘Pop’ as in the Jusenkyo guide?”
“Yeah. I always pay him a visit from year to year. I owe him so much, you see... He was the one that found me after I fell into the Spring of Drowned Man and started to raise me like a son. I don’t know if I can ever repay him for that. But with these visits, at least I can try” Tora puts the last piece of clothing in the suitcase, then closes and locks it. “We didn’t get a chance to really visit when I went there with the others.”
“So when do you leave?”
Tora turns to face Tegan. “Later tonight.”
“I couldn’t get a better flight, and I know for sure that he’s around this time of the year.”
“I... guess this is good bye and good luck, then.”
“Why would you say that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why don’t you come along? It’ll give Pop someone else to talk to...” He gently grasps Tegan’s hand with his. “And I really could use the company.”
“I don’t know... this is all so... sudden...”
Tora takes off his sunglasses. “I would really appreciate it if you would come with me.”
“But it’s... Jusenkyo. Not the kind of place that I want to visit again.”
“I understand.” He pauses and looks into Tegan’s eyes. “What if I promise not to take you to the springs?”
“And if I promise to show you the most incredible sunset that you have ever seen?”
Tegan sighs. “All right then, I’ll come.”
“Good.” Tora pulls out a pair of airline tickets. “‘Cause I’d hate to have to give this second first-class airline ticket to Vince.”
Tegan stares at the ticket for a moment, then at Tora. “You... you... what _am_ I going to do with you?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something. <G> Now I suppose we should head to your apartment to get your things. I’ve pretty much gotten everything I need.”
“So who else knows about this trip?”
“All Ling-chans know is that I’m going on a trip. I asked her to keep an eye on the place while I’m gone.”
“You didn’t tell PATE?”
“Should I have?”
“No, I guess I should.”
Tora glances at his watch. “We really should get going. The plane does leave tonight.”
Downstairs, Tora tosses his suitcase into the trunk of Tegan’s car, then gets into the passenger seat next to Tegan. She starts the car and pulls away.
“A little warning about this trip would have been nice,” says Tegan. Tora just smiles at her. “Good thing for you I had my passport updated recently. It’d be really hard explaining why my appearance changed so drastically when I tried to go through customs,” she continues.
“How come you had it changed?”
“In case I had to go to the states for some emergency.... you never know.” Tegan falls silent
“Trying to figure out what to tell PATE... I should tell the staff, too...”
What you need now is a nice, relaxing vacation.”
“Jusenkyo is the *last* place I would consider relaxing.”
“Trust me. Besides, I’m not letting you out of this.”
Tegan sighs. “How long are we going to be away anyway?”
“I’m planning a week at the most. Even I eventually get tired of Jusenkyo.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
A few minutes later, at Mystic Manor, Tegan goes into her office, followed by Tora. Ro is sitting at a desk going over supply invoices with Jake. PATE is sitting in front of a computer while Feathers tries to teach her how to use it. “Infernal machine,” PATE mutters, “is its use necessary?”
“Forty years ago it wasn’t,” replies Feathers. “But in today’s day and age it’s necessary. You might as well learn sooner or later.”
“Hey... where’re Leo, Ryuji, and Penny?” asks Tegan.
“Leo went out to price some construction materials for repairs. He won’t be back till this evening. Penny’s around someplace,” replies Ro. “Ryuji’s in the game room with Pikachu.”
“Is something up?” Feathers asks.
“Well... I’m going out of town for a few days...,” answers Tegan.
PATE glances at Tora. “Oh?”
“How come?” asks Ro.
“Uhh...,” begins Tegan.
Tora smiles. “I invited Tegan to come with me to visit my adopted father. I need the company.”
Feathers also smiles. “I see.”
“We’ll only be away a week or so,” adds Tegan. “But I haven’t been away for any extended period of time since I started running the building....”
“Do not worry. The building will be able to run if you are not here,” PATE assures Tegan.
Feathers adds “We can hold down the fort.”
“You sure?” asks Tegan.
“No problema,” says Ro. “Enjoy yourself.”
“ Okay...,” says Tegan. “I better get packed... Thanks a lot.”
Tegan and Tora leave the office and head upstairs. PATE turns to Feathers and Ro. “Do not tell Leo where Tegan will be” she tells them.
“Si. Yo comprendo,” says Ro.
“Yeah,” adds Jake. “After he went ballistic in the restaurant that time and tried to take a chunk out of Tora...”
PATE nods and looks in the direction Tegan and Tora went. “I do not believe he would be able to handle that.”
“Oh dear... you mean Leo...” begins Feathers.
“Yes,” says PATE. “It is best if he is simply told that she has gone out of town and it is left at that.”
“No wonder he’s been acting so moody lately,” says Feathers. “And that must explain why he... did that awful thing back in the restaurant....”
“I will go and talk more with Tegan.” PATE disappears, reappearing in the apartment. She walks to Tegan’s room. Tora is seated on the bed next to Tegan’s suitcase. Tegan walks back and forth between her closet and the suitcase. She sees Tegan is busy and goes into the living room.
“You know,” says Tegan. “I really could have done with a little more warning. What’s the weather supposed to be?”
“It shouldn’t be that cool.”
Tora watches as Tegan keeps pulling clothes out of her closet. “I thought you wanted to keep this down to 1 suitcase for clothes.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Tegan manages to get the huge pile of clothes into one large suitcase, then she goes to her dressing table and begins gathering her toiletries.
“I can’t believe you managed to get all those clothes into just that one case,” he says in astonishment.
“I’m used to efficient packing. I used to travel a lot.” She packs her makeup case, then turns to a small flight bag. She tosses in three books, a portable personal CD player, several CDs, and a small jewelry holder, then zips it closed. “That should do it.”
Tora picks up the large case. “Then let’s go.”
PATE is sitting on the couch in the living room, watching TV. She looks up when Tegan and Tora enter the room. “I guess we’re ready to go,” says Tegan.
“Tegan,” says PATE, “a word with you before you go.”
Tegan looks back and forth between Tora and PATE. “Uhh... sure.... Tora, could you take my bags down to the car?”
“ Sure.” Tegan tosses him her keys. He picks up the suitcases and takes them out.
“Is making this trip wise?” begins PATE.
“Why do you ask?”
“You two will be away... together... for close to a week.”
“You’re not going to start that whole chaperoning thing again, are you?”
“Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
“This *is* very sudden...”
PATE sighs. “Very well. As it appears I will not be able to dissuade you, then enjoy yourself.”
“Thanks. Think you can hold down things here?”
“All will be as when you leave.”
“Then I’ll see you in a week.” Tegan grabs her black beret and slips it on over her ears. PATE watches Tegan leave with a measure of apprehension. Shrugging it off, she goes into her room to work out. After going upstairs to say goodbye to Ryuji and Pikachu and after leaving a note for Penny, Tegan gets out to the car. Tora, feeling at ease, leans against the car.
“Ready to go?” he asks.
“Yeah.” She gets into the driver’s seat while Tora comes around to the other side. “When we get to the airport, I’ll have to use the spell Corindaen programmed into my control bracelet.” Tegan sighs. “At least here in Nerima, people don’t seem to have a problem with a woman with cats ears and tail.”
“Well, considering all the usual weirdness that happens around here, cats ears are probably refreshingly normal.” Tora gets in and shuts the door behind him.
“My ears ... normal?” Tegan starts the car and pulls out of the parking lot.
“Just remember, it is Nerima.”
“You know, sometimes I just want to whack you.”
“I’ll have to do something about that. You seem to be saying that more often.” Tegan glares at him. “I wouldn’t dare change you, though.”
Tegan shakes her head. “Oh... I give up...”
Tora hangs his head. “Sorry.”
“So... is anyone going to meet us at the airport?”
“Well, since my friend RJ is going to be too busy with work, we’re either going to have the committee, Pop, or one of Pop’s amazon friends meet us.”
“It’ll probably be Pop, though.”
“I vaguely remember him from my... last visit....”
“Oh... Look, if you’re having any seconds thoughts about this trip, now is the time. I would understand.”
“No. I promised.”
“Okay. Just let me know when you’ve had enough and we’ll head back the next morning.” Tora is silent for a moment. “Was Jusenkyo really that bad an experience for you?”
“Only falling in the pool. Trust me. That was bad enough.”
“I guess. It must have been horrible to go from a human to something else.”
“It was a shock... but everyone says I’m lucky, since my cursed form is mostly human, and the same gender.”
“There have been worse curses. Pop’s told me of most of them.” Tora pauses as a shudder passes down his spine. “Whoa...”
“Just had this weird feeling. Kinda hard to explain. It was ... no, not deja vu ... it was like you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know what ... “
“Never mind. It’s gone now.” Tora looks his head out the side window.
Shaking her head, Tegan concentrates on finding a parking space in the airport parking lot. Tora doesn’t say anything as she pulls into what seems to be the only available spot in the entire lot. He quietly gets out of the car, and after Tegan opens the trunk, he pulls out both suitcases, carrying them both to the terminal.
“I hate airport parking lots,” grumbles Tegan as she shoulders her flight bag and locks the trunk.
Tora looks at the rows of cars around them as they pass by. He then looks back at Tegan. “Any place like this bothers me. Too much like a maze.”
“Navigating them isn’t the problem. Finding your car when you get back is. Now come on.” Tegan leads Tora towards the terminal. Tora adjusts his grip on the suitcases and then matches Tegan’s stride. His eyes keep wandering around, trying to memorize where they’re going.
“Let’s see... row 24... space 92...” Tegan takes a paper out of cat space, makes a note, then shoves it back in.
“Whatever. Close enough.” She smiles. “I should’ve brought Opus’s car. No way you can lose that clunker. You can see it a mile off.”
“Where in the hell did he get that thing anyway?”
“I don’t know. Meanwhile, it’s rusting in my parking lot. I use it when I don’t want to get my car damaged.”
“You don’t want to let PATE get her hands on it?”
“The day I teach her to drive, it’s going to be in the clunker. That thing is indestructible.”
“Hopefully she doesn’t ask me for pointers.”
“I’m hoping she forgets about learning to drive, period. Right now, learning the computer is keeping her busy enough.”
“Maybe she should take a few courses at GNIT.”
“You can talk to her about it if you want,” says Tegan as they finally come to the entrance of the airport.
“Maybe I will.” Tora mentally sighs, relieved that he can still talk to Tegan without making her upset.
Briefly Tegan stops and activates the masking spell on her control bracelet. Tora blinks in surprise. “Corindaen still felt a little guilty after my accident. He programmed a spell into my ward control bracelet. It hides my appearance for about four hours.”
“I see,” says Tora. They check their luggage and then begin the trek to find their gate.
“You were saying something about parking lots being bad?” Tora looks around for any sign of the gate for their flight.
She looks up at one of the screens, then at a sign. “Parking lots are worse. The gate should be this way. Come on.” Tegan takes Tora’s arm.
“All right, all right, I’m coming.”
“Move,” she says, playfully punching him in the arm.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!!”
Somehow, Tegan manages to navigate through the terminal, getting them to the correct gate with time to spare.
Tora looks up at the terminal sign, then at Tegan. “I keep forgetting that you’re more used to terminals than I am.”
“Hfil yes. I’ve been navigating them most of my life.”
Tora puts the suitcases on the ground, and then stretches his arms. “Well, are you still sure you want to do this?”
“I told you. I promised.”
“I know. It’s just that this is our last chance to turn back. It’s all or nothing at this point.”
“You’re not changing your mind, are you?”
“I need to get away from Nerima for awhile. I’m going no matter what.”
“Like I said. I promised.”
“All right then.” Tora notices an attendant opening the gate, and then holds his arm out. “Shall we?”
“Let’s go... before I really do change my mind.”
Tora smiles, and then takes their suitcases to be loaded onto the plane. He checks his passport to make sure that everything is in order, and then checks to see if Tegan is still behind him. Tegan searches her purse for her passport.
“You do have your passport, don’t you?”
“Yes. It’s down here. Give me a second....” She rummages around a few more minutes before pulling it out.
“It is the up to date one, isn’t it?”
“Yeah... I trashed the other one.”
“OK. Now come on, let’s go before anything happens to keep us here.”
“Okay.” Tegan allows Tora to drag her through the line of waiting passengers.
An attendant checks their passports, does a bit of a double take, and then looks up at Tegan and Tora. Tora lowers his sunglasses to partially reveal his eyes. The attendant shakes his head before he hands them back. Tegan starts to become uncomfortable with her tail lashed around her waist. They finally make it to their seats on the plane without further incident. Tegan takes the window seat, and Tora sits down beside her. He notices that she’s fidgeting in her seat. “I think you can take out your tail. The spell hides it, and you don’t have to worry about it brushing up against anything while you’re sitting here.”
Sighing, Tegan unties her sweater and unwraps her tail from her waist. After looking down the aisle to see if anyone’s watching, she stretches it out, then wiggles it to shake out the kinks.
“Yep. That’s not comfortable. At least the hat is tolerable.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, I think I’m going to snooze for a bit.”
“You have to wait till we take off. All that pre-flight stuff to go through.”
Tora sighs. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a plane.”
“I’ve noticed,” Tegan says dryly.
Tora says nothing in response, not willing to say anything stupid now that they’re in the plane. Sighing, Tegan sits back and listens to the stewardess’ spiel about oxygen, life masks, etc. Finally, the plane takes off and the seat belt light goes off. Tegan reaches into her flight bag and pulls out the book the Wizard gave her on the cat people.
Tora sits back in his seat, his hands gripping the arm rests, tight enough that his knuckles turn white.
“You’re not a nervous flyer, are you?” asks Tegan.
“Whatever makes you say that?”
“The death grip on your seat.”
“Flying was never one of my strong suits.”
“Trust me. It’s just as easy as riding in a car. Put your headphones on and forget about it.”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me. I’ll deal with it.”
“Okay.” Tegan puts on her own headphones,, the kind that are like small fitted earplugs, since regular headphones don’t work with cat’s ears. Then she opens her book to a bookmarked page.
Tora remains motionless, his knuckles still white. Except for a little turbulence, the flight is uneventful. Tegan manages to get through several chapters of her book. She looks over, and notices that Tora is still in the same position. She reaches over to pull Tora’s sunglasses off, and notices that he’s asleep. Smiling, she decides not to disturb him until they are ready to land.
Tora’s eyes shoot open shortly after Tegan goes back to the book she was reading. He looks over at Tegan, and says nothing for a moment. “How much longer until we land?”
“Not long. Probably about a half hour or so.”
“Good. I think I’m starting to lose feeling in my hands.”
“I told you to relax. You’ve already slept through most of the flight.”
“Have I? I guess I have.” Tora slowly pulls his fingers away from the armrest.
“See? That wasn’t too hard.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Just relax.” Then she mutters under her breath “big baby...” Tora glares at Tegan, and then sighs, realizing how useless it is to argue with her. A short time later, the “Fasten Seat belts” light comes on as the plane begins its descent.
“Well, are you ready to enter China again?”
“I’m not the one having problems with the flight.”
“That isn’t what I ... oh, forget it.” Tora straps himself in. Grinning, Tegan takes off her headphones, stows her book and fastens her seat belt. The plane lands on the runway, and once all three wheels are on the ground, Tegan can actually see Tora relax.
“Remind me not to try taking you into cat space. If you can’t handle an airplane, I don’t think you can handle that.”
“It’s just that ... it’s been awhile since I’ve been in a plane. I still need to get used to it.”
“Uh huh,” she says dryly.
Tora unbuckles his seat belt. He sighs. “Remind me what was it that attracted you to me?”
“I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Tora looks past Tegan and out the window. He finds it still hard to believe that he’s back here again.
Meanwhile, Tegan is wondering why she let herself get talked into going. “I hope PATE hasn’t blown things up... maybe I should have left a message with Corindaen before I left... “ she thinks.
“Come on. Pop’s probably waiting for us.”
“We have to wait till the plane pulls into the gate first.”
“Sorry. It’s just that China ... well, if I start acting really weird, go ahead and knock some sense back into me.”
Tegan grins. Tora notices the grin, but says nothing. The plane taxies into the runway. After being given the all clear, Tegan stands and hides her tail again. Tegan and Tora get their carry on luggage and disembark. They head off into the terminal to get their suitcases.
“I hate the baggage claims department,” Tegan mutters to herself.
The luggage soon comes without problems. Tora picks up both suitcases, and then hands one to Tegan. “You might want to make sure that everything is in there.”
“There is a reason why I put the valuables in my carry-on,” she replies dryly.
Tora sighs. “I know, but still....”
“*sigh*... OK... give me a second....” She puts down her case and rummages around. “Everything’s here.”
Tora pops his suitcase open and quickly looks around. “Everything’s here, too.”
“Okay. So where are we supposed to meet whoever’s going to meet us?”
Tora takes a quick look around, and then spots a short chubby man sporting a regular army uniform and carrying a sign in Chinese that reads “Tora” in some very sloppy Japanese writing. Tora points in that man’s direction. “That’s him.” Shrugging, Tegan follows Tora. She deactivates the spell, as it is nearly expired anyway.
Tora guides Tegan towards the person he pointed out, carrying both suitcases. He stops in front of him, puts both suitcases down, and lifts his sunglasses. In Chinese, he says “Long time no see, Pop.” The man looks into Tora’s eyes, and an expression of incredible joy forms on his face. In Chinese, he cries out.
“It is you! My son!” He hugs Tora about the waist.
“[Chinese] Pop, you’re embarrassing me” Tora goes back into normal Japanese. “Pop, this is Tegan.” The Jusenkyo guide lifts his head up and looks past Tora to look at Tegan.
“Uhhh... hi...” she says nervously.
“[Chinese] Well, my son, this is her?” Tora nods. The guide lets go of him, takes Tegan’s hand, and then kisses it gently. “I honored to meet you.”
“Uhhh... thanks...” she replies.
“Pop, where’s Plum?” asks Tora.
“My adopted sister.”
“We forget... Plum planned visit to mother’s family. We made plans several months ahead, so she could not change plans. She will be away two weeks,” explains the guide.
“Damn,” says Tora. “I wanted Tegan to meet her.”
“It’s okay,” says Tegan. “Maybe another time.”
The guide looks at the suitcases. “I hope you can still ride bike. I no have car yet.”
Tegan tries to hide a grimace. “Bike riding was never one of my strong suits. But I’ll try to manage...”
“No worry. I sure you can handle it.” The guide looks at Tora. “We go now, yes?” “Just point the way, Pop.” Sighing, Tegan follows them outside. The guide leads them to a set of bicycles. Tora straps Tegan’s suitcase to the guide’s bike, and then his suitcase to his bike. He notice Tegan’s hesitation on getting on to her bike. “You gonna be okay?”
“Honestly? I haven’t been on a bicycle since I was 12... and that wasn’t for very long.”
“Oh. If you want, you can ride with me. This isn’t like the bike at home, so I’m not going to try anything funny...”
“You want me to ride on the handlebars?”
“Whatever you feel comfortable with.”
Tegan sighs. “There might be an easier way... if I shift into cat form.”
Tora nods. “You’re right. Just don’t dig your claws into me like you did the last time, OK?”
“That was only because you were trying something stupid.” She shifts into cat form.
Tora mutters, “I wasn’t doing anything stupid, you just panicked...” He picks up Tegancat and puts her inside his jacket, zipping it up so that only her head is showing. “Comfy?” Tegancat purrs and snuggles against Tora. Tora smiles. He whispers in her ear, “Just think of this as another of our cuddling sessions.” He checks that Tegan is secure in his jacket one more time before climbing onto the bike and pedaling behind the guide.
Tegancat closes her eyes, preferring not to watch. The movement of the bicycle and the beating of Tora’s heart lull her into a doze. In what seems like an instant later, Tegancat feels a pleasant sensation. Something behind her right ear. Her eyes slowly open, and then she realizes that Tora is scratching her. “Hey, we’re almost there.” Tegancat blinks sleepily as she looks around at the scenery. She sees the rolling hills passing her by, and then bamboo sticks standing out of multiple pools of water. Remembering her last visit, Tegancat shivers and presses herself closer to Tora. Somehow, this time, the place feels even more surreal than the last. She ducks her head down in his jacket.
“I know this isn’t going to make you feel any better, but we’re not going to be anywhere near there.”
Tegancat just meows. “This is more than close enough, thank you very much.” From the tone of her meows, Tora can tell she’s not very happy about the proximity to Jusenkyo.
“We’re almost out.” Tora scratches her ear again. “Don’t worry.” Tegancat meows again. After a couple of minutes, the sight of the pools of Jusenkyo is behind them, and they stop in front of a modest house [by north American standards] instead of the simple cottage that Tegancat remembers. Tora slowly brings his bike to a stop as the Jusenkyo guide is climbing off his bike. He then unzips his jacket and gently lets Tegancat land on the ground.
She steadies herself on her legs before shifting back to cat woman form. This voyage through Jusenkyo was... disturbing... unlike her last trip. It felt almost like she was walking on her own grave. Tegan tries to put it out of her mind, then looks at the house.
“This is new...” she comments.
The guide turns to face Tegan “Is very strange story. After last visit of big group from Nerima, one come by and say he fix my house. Next thing Plum and I know, whole house is rebuilt.”
Tora blinks in surprise. “This must have been after I left.” The guide nods.
“It certainly looks a lot more spacious than the last one,” says Tegan.
“He start building and not stop,” says the guide. Tora unstraps his suitcase from his bike. “Now there is couple of guest bedrooms, running water ... but no phones or TVs.”
“No problem with that. I’ve got my cell phone for emergencies,” she says as she retrieves her own bags.
The guide holds the door to the house open. “I think you like what I do to place.”
“Explain what you mean by that, Pop.” The guide only smiles in return.
“This should be interesting,” she murmurs.
They enter the house, and inside instead of the minimalist furniture that the both of them were expecting, they see something more modern. A sofa, fireplace, white walls, and many other things that seem out of place. To top things off, the floor is wooden, giving the place a slight wood cabin feel.
“Nice,” says Tegan as she looks around. She glances at Tora, who appears very surprised.
“Oh my... [Chinese] Pop, I don’t recall giving you _that_ much money the last time I sent. Where did you get the furnature?” The guide only smiles in response.
“Well, where should we put our bags?” Tegan asks.
The guide starts walking down a hallway off to the side. “Room this way.”
“Okay.” Tegan picks up her bags and follows the guide to a small bedroom, furnished simply with a bed, a dresser, and a mirror. A window looks out on the yard.
Across the hall, Tora’s room is much like Tegan’s. He tosses his suitcase on the bed and heads over to Tegan’s room. He knocks.
“Come in,” she says as she opens her suitcase.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Definitely a change from when I last came through here.”
“Yeah. I guess he wanted to try and catch up with the times as much as possible.” Tora pauses. “I wonder how much the rest of the countryside really has changed.”
“You want to go exploring? We just got here...”
“Don’t worry, I don’t want to head out anytime today. I figure the rest of today is going to be spent getting used to what Pop has done with the place.”
“Okay. I’m going to get unpacked before this stuff wrinkles.”
Tora spots Tegan pull out something furry, which she then blocks from view. “Would you mind if we had a look around tomorrow?”
“Sure. Whenever you’re ready.”
“Thanks. If you need me, I’ll be catching up a bit with Pop.”
“Okay. No problem.”
Tegan continues her unpacking, the muffled sounds of a conversation in Chinese entering the room. Every once in a while, she hears spurts of laughter. “Well, at least he’s glad to be here,” she thinks as she puts some of her clothes into the dresser. A few more minutes finds Tegan fully unpacked, lying on her bed, and continuing her reading of the book on the culture of the cat people. The sounds of conversation still come in, but the burst of laughter become less frequent. Tegan is curious, but leaves Tora and his adoptive father alone. She takes out her CD player, puts on the earphones, and pops in a Christine Lavin CD.
Losing herself to the book and the music, it takes her a moment to notice Tora standing at the door. She raises an eyebrow. “Aren’t you supposed to be talking with your father?”
“We finished catching up about a half hour ago.”
She takes out her earphones. “So... what do you want to do now?”
“Would you like to head outside for a bit? Not for a long trip, more like a short walk.”
“Why not?” Tegan slides off the bed and follows Tora outside.
Tora takes Tegan’s hand, and they slowly walk through the trees and hills surround the guide’s home, Tora making sure that they’re heading away from Jusenkyo. As they walk, they both feel something. Something they haven’t felt before, and yet it seems familiar. They take turns leading one another, the feeling in them dragging them forward. Their hands tighten on one another as they venture further.
A sharp cold breeze brushes against their skin, making Tegan shiver slightly. But the shivers don’t stop once the breeze has passed. With each step further, the shivers increase. He tries to wrap an arm around her, trying to comfort her without success. He catches a glimpse of her eyes, which are focused on the ground in front of her, and sees that the familiar sparkle isn’t there. He also notices that her tail is lashing away wildly, like a cat that is cornered with no way out. He tightens his arm around her, and wonders what could be causing her to act this way.
He blinks a couple of times, and notices that everything around them has become darker, the ground, the plants, and even the sky. Dismissing it as nothing but shot nerves, he tries to ignore it. And then he hears whispers, coming from seemingly nowhere and everywhere at once, chanting but one word: “why”. He finds himself trying to hold onto Tegan tighter, trying to dive into her eyes to escape, but her eyes are still fixed on the ground in front of them. Her shivering has become full trembles, bringing her to her knees. Tears form in her eyes, looking for a way out.
He kneels down beside her, trying to use her troubles to hide his. “I’m here, Tegan.”
“Tora ... I ...”
“I ... I feel like ... I ... died here ...”
“Shh shh shh ...don’t talk.” He wraps both his arms around her, hugging her while her head rests itself on his shoulder. “Don’t talk like that,” he thinks.
A short distance away, a woman is walking a particular trail. On closer observation, the woman proves to be a cat woman, apparently in her late thirties. Looks, in this case, are misleading. It has been a thousand years since she walked this particular trail. The memories surrounding the place still strong. Still painful. She mutters to herself, “After all these years, and it still looks all the same.” She continues her walk, quietly cursing herself for the mistakes that she had made her centuries ago. Suddenly, she hears voices. She looks towards the accursed meadow and sees two people. Her heart pounds when she sees the long pink hair and black tail of one of them. “No...” she murmurs to herself. “It can not be...”
“Come on, kitten. We’re no where near Jusenkyo at the moment. There’s nothing to worry about here.” Mentally he adds, “I hope.”
“Don’t ... don’t you feel it, Tora?”
He tries to hide behind bravado, but a slight tremor in his voice betrays him. “Feel what?”
“The feeling ... that you’re walking on your grave ... and it wants to take you back.” The tears building in her eyes are finally released, flowing down the sides of her face.
The strange cat woman watches them. She raises her staff and casts a brief spell. Her eyes widen. “Impossible!” She watches them for a moment. “I must speak with them...”
“Something happened near here, Tora ... something horrible ... “
“But you’ve never been near here. How could you ...” There is no response, save more trembling and the burying of her face in his chest. “Goddess ...” he whispers.
“A most fitting term coming from you.”
He whirls around, snaring the wrist of this new person with his hand. His eyes bulge out slightly as he realizes its like Tegan’s hand, but with different colored fur. His eyelids refuse to close as he looks up at this stranger that has come to them. “Just who in the hell are you, lady?”
She looks into Tora’s eyes and understands. “I am known as Ayla,” she says in perfect Japanese. “I travel through these parts. Your companion appears distressed.” Hearing the strange voice, Tegan looks up at Ayla. She gasps at the sight of the first cat woman Tegan has seen, other than herself. Ayla’s hair is pure white, save for a brown stripe on the left and a black stripe on the right. Her fur is also white, with black and brown markings. By way of contrast, her skin is deeply tanned. There is a stately air about her. She carries a long staff, engraved in Egyptian hieroglyphics and topped with an emerald eyed, golden cat’s head. “I may be able to help her.”
His eyes narrow, and he can taste the bile at the back of his throat, although he does not quite know why. “I don’t think we need _your_ kind of help, lady. For all we know, you could be the cause of our problems.”
His words bite deep into Ayla. “Whatever ... would make you say that?”
After checking Tegan one more time, he stands up to face Ayla. “I never trust anything with a circlet like yours.” He points out a golden circlet upon Ayla’s head, containing three crystals that seem to glow, pulsing with energy. “That damn thing has haunted my nightmares since day one, and I’ll be damned before I let anyone with that ... thing ... try to go near the one person I love in this world.”
She snickers momentarily. “And two others.” Tora tries to get a word in but is unable as he blocks Ayla’s move to get closer to Tegan. “Move aside, warrior. I wish to do nothing but to help.”
“I don’t believe you. Now go home, we don’t want your help.”
Both Ayla and Tora’s eyes narrow and lock momentarily. They both see the other as they once were. Something about her wants to make him strike her, and something about him want to make her pity him. Like quicksilver, he leaps back and then attempts to pounce her. In response, Ayla thrusts her staff out, and a white bolt of energy leaps out from the eyes of the cat’s head, blasting Tora back, crashing him down to the ground with a great deal of force. From his lips escape the words “damn mage...” before his body goes limp and he becomes silent.
“Impetuous youth. Did he not ever learn?” She turns to see a cringing Tegan, both stunned and afraid from what she has just seen. She sits down beside her. “There is nothing to fear from me. Your friend is merely stunned to prevent any further trouble. I did not wish to harm him. Now, please tell me, what has you distressed so?”
She looks over at Tora, and tries to not say anything, to get away, but she feels like something is forcing her to stay, to talk. “This... this place,” She stammers. “I feel like I’ve been here before and that something bad happened. But I didn’t come here on my first visit to Jusenkyo, when I fell in the spring.”
“Spring of drowned cat woman?” asks Ayla, apparently intrigued.
“Yeah. An accident a few months ago made the curse permanent. I’m not really a cat woman, you see. Some potions and stuff spilled on me. They said the combination of potions was unstable, and trying to reverse the effect might be fatal.”
“Interesting,” murmurs Ayla. Her eyes widen when she glances at the pendant Tegan wears. “And where did you get your pendant?”
“Tora ... he gave it me.”
“Where did he find it?”
“Why?” asks Tegan.
“Such pendants belong to a particular religious order of the cat people... a warrior sect. The pendant has a certain significance to the order,” Ayla explains.
“I ... think he told me ... he found it around here, near the pools.” She clutches it tightly. “Are ... are you sure about that?”
Ayla looks at the pendant again. “Quite sure. Each member of the order had theirs marked in a particular way. May I?” She tries to say no, to tighten her grasp around the pendant, but something makes her release it, to let Ayla touch it, and she doesn’t know why. As Ayla opens the pendant, her eyes widen. “This pendant belonged to a warrior... one that I knew many years ago.” She looks at Tora, still unconscious on the ground. “It is very interesting that the pendant should come into his hands.”
“And why is that?”
“Something I see in him reminds me much of the warrior. In fact, this warrior had fallen in love with the same cat woman that drowned in the spring.”
“The... same one? How... ?”
“Because I knew both of them personally,” she states matter-of-factly.
“But... that would make you around a thousand years old...” says Tegan. “You don’t look any older than 35...”
“Thank you child,” returns Ayla with a smile. “I have seen over two thousand summers pass.” Her face then forms into a serious, businesslike expression. “As I said, I will help you. I can sense the pain buried within the both of you, infecting your dreams. I must release it...” She plants her staff firmly into the ground, closes her eyes, and begins chanting. The crystals in her headpiece begin to glow brighter and brighter.
“Wha...what are you doing?”
“Atonement, dear child. Atonement...” The chanting soon drowns out everything else, its soothing, relaxing sounds soon cause Tegan’s eyes to close. The chanting slowly becomes quieter and quieter until there is nothing but momentary stillness. And then there is a bright flash in both Tegan and Tora’s minds.
Inside the great temple of the warrior goddess Pharangese, an acolyte is handed a scroll. “Please see that this is delivered to the elder Janos,” says the messenger. “It is most urgent.”
“I will see that the message is delivered personally,” replies Keisai, one of the many warriors trained in the service of Pharangese. He walks down a long hallway to Janos’ study.
“This message has arrived, my lord.” Keisai hands a sealed scroll to Janos. Janos breaks the seal and unravels the scroll. He lays it down on the table and begins to examine it.
“I knew this would come to us,” says Janos. “And at such an unfavorable time.”
“Our aid has been requested, so that the princess Taygana may be safely escorted to Fan-ro,” replies Janos.
“But surely they knew that the Days of the Misra were upon us?”
“Hmm... Go and bring to me the Mother’s child.”
“But... yes, my lord.”
Keisai leaves the room, and proceeds to the other end of the temple, looking for one particular room. At last, he finds its door, and opens it. Inside, he spots a solitary form in the center of the room in a meditation stance, surrounded by numerous candlelights. He knocks on the door.
“What is it, Keisai?” asks Toran.
“How did you...,” begins Keisai. “Never mind. The Elder Janos has asked for your presence.”
“He has, has he?” Toran stands up. “Very well, Keisai. Take me to him.”
Keisai begins to lead Toran back to the chambers of Janos. “Why do you fear me?” asks Toran.
“I do not fear you,” replies Keisai.
“Do not lie to me, acolyte. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Well, it is just that... you are the only warrior that is a half breed, and one of the few raised under the mother herself,” says Keisai.
“And that worries you?”
Keisai and Toran finally arrive at the chambers of Janos. Keisai opens the door, and they both enter. Janos puts down a scroll he was examining, and rises from his seat, “Ah, good,” says Janos.
“And how is it that I may serve?” asks Toran.
“An appeal for our aid has arrived,” Janos tells them. “Our order is asked to accompany Princess Taygana to her destination. And of course, many of us are required to prepare for the Days of the Misra, especially the Elders.” Janos pauses. “But, our order must give assistance, for it is our way. So I am sending you, Toran, to assist them. Keisai is to go with you.”
“What?” protests Keisai. “You send us out on our holy days? I’ll--”
Toran cuts him off. “We are honored to serve.”
“What?” asks Keisai in astonishment. “Toran! Have you gone mad?”
“Quiet, acolyte.” Toran turns to Janos. “When do we leave?”
“Immediately.” commands Janos. “Gather your supplies and go at once.”
“But, my Lord!” Keisai protests.
“We shall not fail. Come, Keisai, we must leave,” says Toran. Toran grasps Keisai’s arm and pulls him out of Janos’ chambers. Once the doors close and they have walked some distance away, Tora releases Keisai’s arm.
“ Would you please explain to me what that was all about?” asks Keisai.
“I will explain all once we have left this place. Until then, you simply must trust me, Keisai.”
“Enough. The walls are thin here. Once in private, I assure you I will explain all. Now let us retrieve our equipment. I will see you at the stables.” Tora walks off in the direction of his quarters.
Keisai shakes his head for a moment. “The Mother’s child...” He walks away, wondering what exactly what Toran had in mind.
In a large city about two days journey from Jusenkyo, plans for travel are underway. Ayla, a powerful cat woman mage of 1500 years, has noticed a trend in the declining populations of cat kind. Her solution is to unite the scattered kingdoms of cat people through marriage between royal family. Ayla’s latest accomplishment is the engagement of Princess Taygana of Mi-yar to Prince Zaden of Fan-ro. Adama, king of Mi-yar, fully supports Ayla and her endeavors. The betrothal contracts are signed. The dowry is paid. As soon as Taygana’s secret escort arrives, she will depart to her wedding in the kingdom of her betrothed.
Ayla enters King Adama’s private office. The king, a handsome cat man with golden hair and black fur, sits at a desk, studying several scrolls. Queen Girene, a cat woman with light pink hair and brown fur, sits next to him, writing. They look up at her entrance. “Ayla, how do the preparations progress?” asks King Adama.
“All will be ready on time, my lord,” replies the mage.
“And the holy warriors from the temple?” asks the king.
“Two of them, as you requested,” responds Ayla. “One has been a member of the order for about 3 years. The other was raised by the late mother superior herself. He has about a year and a half before he will be released from his vows. They will arrive in 2 days.”
“Excellent,” exclaims Adama. “And Taygana?”
“Your daughter is in her chambers, probably throwing a tantrum as usual.”
“Ayla,” interjects Queen Girene, “is this wedding necessary? Taygana is still so young. She and Kiyomi first turned 16 a month ago.”
Adama touches his wife’s hand tenderly. “No younger than you were when we wed, beloved.”
“My lady,” begins Ayla. “We have discussed this before. After the War of the Magi, it become painfully obvious that the widespread kingdoms of the cat people must unite before we are wiped out.”
“It must be Taygana,” adds Adama. “Kiyomi still has two years before she will be released from her commitment to the temple of Bastet, and Ikumi and Hikari are too young to make this particular match.”
“Your eldest, Prince Shinko, is satisfied with his union with Princess Makora of Ven-ka. Their union served to unite 2 of the kingdoms already. Potential suitors are lined up for the other three princesses and the two princes,” states Ayla.
“I understand that Taygana’s wedding to Prince Zaden of Fan-ro is necessary, but still, something does not sit well with me,” says Girene.
“A mother’s concerns at her daughter’s leaving home,” says Adama. Remember, beloved, Fan-ro is only a weeks journey overland.
“Ayla, how much longer before we will be able to travel through cat space?” asks the queen.
“It will be at least another year before the fallout from the War of the Magi clears enough for the cat people to easily travel through cat space,” replies Ayla. “I myself would prefer traveling to Fan-ro through cat space. The prospect of spending a week on horseback is not one I look forward to.”
“Are you certain the journey will be safe?” asks Adama.
“Yes, your highness. Attention will be thrown on the ambassador’s caravan. Anyone who might be looking for the party will find the caravan of carriages, servants, grand pavilions, and a decoy for the princess. I will take the princess along a lesser known and used route through Jusenkyo.”
“But where will you stay?” inquires Girene. “You will not be able to set up pavilions suitable for the princess.”
“Do not worry my lady,” Ayla assures the queen. “Along the route are several villages. If we do not find accommodations by dusk, I can easily conjure a small pavilion.”
“I still have ill feelings about this wedding,” repeats Girene.
Meanwhile in the family chambers of the palace, Princess Taygana is in her bedroom, trying on her wedding kimono. The gown is white, embroidered in black, silver and gold in the tradition of the cat people. The princess’ loose, hot pink hair cascades over the white silk, which contrasts the black fur on her hands. Princess Kiyomi sits in a chair, watching her twin sister try on the kimono. Kiyomi’s coloring is the reverse of Taygana’s. A veil covers Kiyomi’s black hair. Pink furred hands peek out from the voluminous robes of the acolyte of Bastet. Two small cat girls with golden hair and brown fur sit on the bed.
“The embroiderers did a beautiful job on the kimono...” begins Kiyomi.
“If you like it so much, you can wear it and marry Prince Zaden,” comments Taygana.
“Come now. It won’t be so bad.”
“See how you feel when Ayla ships you off to be the bride of some prince you don’t even know.”
“Have you told Father how you feel?”
“He won’t listen and neither will Mother!” Taygana begins taking off the kimono.
“It’s for the good of the cat people.”
“Everything is always for the good of the cat people!” Taygana drops the sash on the bed. “What about me? Don’t I ever have a say?”
“Ayla said the prince is witty and charming...”
Taygana interrupts Kiyomi. “Ayla *said*! I haven’t met the man.” She carelessly tosses the wedding kimono on the bed and picks up a dressing gown. The younger girls pounce on the kimono and wrap it around themselves.
“It’s so soft,” says Ikumi.
Hikari rubs her face against the sleeve. “I wish I had a kimono like this.”
Kiyomi jumps to her feet and snatches the kimono away from the younger twins. “Stop that! You’ll ruin Taygana’s wedding kimono!”
“Oh, let them,” says Taygana. “Maybe if they destroy it, I’ll be able to call the wedding off.”
Kiyomi smoothes out the creases in the kimono. “It won’t be so bad. What does he look like?”
Taygana gestures at a portrait on her wall. “See for yourself. Mother thinks I’ll learn to love him if I see enough of him.”
Kiyomi walks over to the portrait of Prince Zaden. Zaden is very attractive by cat people standards. His black hair is pulled back to better show his chiseled face. A silver furred hand rests on a ceremonial sword, which matches his warrior’s clothes. Zaden’s amber eyes appear to glow. Kiyomi feels a strange pang in her heart as she studies the portrait. “Taygana, the prince is gorgeous,” she murmurs.
“If you’re so enamored of him, you marry him,” says Taygana flatly. “Besides, those pictures are hardly accurate. I saw the ones Father had commissioned of you and me. By the time the artist was finished, you would think the paintings were of Bastet herself.”
“Taygana, honestly...,” Kiyomi says reproachfully.
“I’ll marry him!” Hikari chimes in.
“Be my guest,” Taygana returns acidly. “I don’t want to marry Prince Zaden - I *will*NOT* marry Prince Zaden and that is *final*!”
“The king has made his decision, your highness. The treaties are signed and sealed. You will obey your father.” Taygana whirls around to find Ayla standing in the doorway.
“How dare you enter my chambers unbidden!” snaps Taygana.
Ayla shoots Taygana a withering look. “I go in the kingdom where I please.”
Taygana doesn’t balk under Ayla’s intense gaze, instead meeting it with her own defiant look. Kiyomi glances nervously between the two, feeling the tension in the room. Suddenly, Hikari and Ikumi bounce up and run over to Ayla. “Ayla! Did you bring any candy for us?” asks Hikari.
Ayla suddenly smiles and looks at the two cat girls. “You know your mother disapproves of sweets so close to dinner.” Ikumi and Hikari groan in disappointment. Ayla looks at them thoughtfully. “Perhaps if you are well behaved at dinner, there may be a special treat for you afterwards. But you must be prompt at dinner... you still have an hour ready yourselves.”
Ikumi tugs at Hikari’s sleeve. “Come on!” Ikumi and Hikari disappear out the door. Ayla watches the girls leave and decides to have a talk with the little boys as well... there might be a rare peace at the family meal. While Ayla deals with the younger girls, Taygana goes to begin her own preparations in her dressing chamber. Kiyomi holds Taygana’s wedding kimono and looks up at the portrait of Prince Zaden. Ayla observes her intently.
“Ayla... is all of this necessary?” Kiyomi asks quietly.
“It is. I wish Princess Taygana would accept it. Things would be much easier.”
Kiyomi looks wistfully at the portrait a minute longer. “I must go prepare for dinner.” Forcing herself to look away, she takes her leave. Ayla goes into the dressing room. Taygana is sitting in front of a mirror while a human servant - a matronly woman in her forties, arranges the princess’ hair. Taygana sees Ayla’s reflection in the mirror.
“Do not lecture me on duty, Ayla. I know my duty. It still does not mean I like it.”
“Accepting and doing your duty is enough. You may grow to like it in time.”
“I doubt it.”
“That remains to be seen. Excuse me, Princess. I must go prepare for dinner.”
Taygana nods. She watches Ayla leave. A tear rolls down Taygana’s cheek, leaving a trail in her face powder.
Unless it was a state function, King Adama and Queen Girene preferred to eat meals away from the nobles in a quiet chamber with their children. Though often with the four younger children present, dinner was hardly quiet. Only the youngest child, who was barely three and who had been fed earlier, was not present. Ayla’s promise to the younger children silenced them for a change. Their effort was admirable. Taygana was also silent throughout the meal, barely picking at her food. Her mother watches, disturbed.
Girene whispers to Taygana “What is wrong?”
Taygana stares at her plate. “Nothing Mother.”
Adama appears oblivious to his wife and daughter’s conversation. “Kiyomi, when will you be returning to the temple?”
“The high priestess has permitted me to remain until a week after Taygana’s departure. The I must return to my duties.”
“I am glad you will be here to see Taygana off,” returns her father.
“Princess Taygana will leave the day after the warriors of Pharangese arrive,” interjects Ayla.
Taygana’s heart falls at Ayla’s words. “Father, may I be excused?”
“You’ve barely touched your dinner,” notes Adama.
“I’m sorry Father. I’m not very hungry.”
King Adama looks at his daughter, then nods. Taygana stands, curtsies to her father and mother, then leaves.