Chapter 5 and Epilogue

'Love letter'

Cologne, Elder and Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku looked at the copy of the letter on her desk. She had read it a dozen times. It was obviously a forgery since she knew she never wrote the letter. The problem was that there would be no way, other than her word, to prove it.

It was bad enough that the handwriting and signature were identical to her own. What was worse was that every Joketsuzoku Elder by force of habit included specific and personally identifiable validation markers in every letter and document they wrote, even a draft of a letter contained these markers, and this document contained the proper markers. Cologne sighed and picked up the letter again and read it...again.

"My dearest Son-in-Law' began the letter. 'My time in this life grows short but, thanks to you and yours, I go to my rest with a smile on my face. A smile that you, my most dear son-in-law, placed there. For I know, more than I ever dreamed possible, that the future is secure. Not just the future of the Joketsuzoku but the world's future. Saffron will be contained and the dark shall be kept at bay."

Cologne paused and took a breath before continuing to read the words she had long committed to memory. "Saffron will be contained." Cologne repeated the line aloud. "And the dark shall be kept at bay." She wiped at the tears that began to fall again. "Oh for that to be true." She continued reading.

"Once I schemed to bring you under my control. A scheming driven by fear of that dark. A fear so great that I would have done anything, no matter how cruel or depraved, in order to prevent the dark from consuming the world. Thank the gods that I failed in my scheming for when I look at your children and the children of your allies I see our salvation. A salvation that I almost, in my fear, prevented from appearing. If I have any remaining regrets in this life it is that you never gave Shampoo a child. Forgive me a final conceit but that child would have been...exceptional." The letter went on for another page in a similar vein.

It was signed. "You most loving and fortunate Great Grandmother, Kho Lon of the Joketsuzoku."

Cologne put the letter down. "Your children and the children of your allies." She said thoughtfully. "It's as if this was written by me in another place...another time." She said. "Can it be?" She asked herself. "And if so, how?"

Dinner that night was memorable, at least for Hika, for several reasons. Kodachi had placed Hika between Kiko and Shampoo. At first Hika found being next to Shampoo nerve wracking but she realized that this was a test of their earlier resolve. At first Hika stiffly and studiously avoided speaking to Shampoo but Kiko made that impossible to maintain as she pestered the purple haired Joketsuzoku with questions about her territory in Kita and then would follow the question up by asking Hika her opnion of what Shampoo was doing. Hika found it next to impossible to ignore Kiko. As she answered a question or expressed an opinion, two things became obvious. The first was that more times than not she agreed with Shampoo's approach and the second was that her stammer seemed to vanish. Hika was not sure which of those facts surprised her more.

"Shampoo's method of concealing ...some of the shipments is very clever." Hika found herself saying. "I know Ms. Kuno does something similar but I think Shampoo has come up with an interesting improvement."

Nabiki nodded. "I quite agree, Hika." She said. "Though I am surprised and a little disappointed you hadn't passed your idea to me and the others." She said to Shampoo.

"Please forgive, Lady Kuno." Shampoo replied. "I still testing idea and..." She shrugged. "And until today, Shampoo not sure she still be running Kita."

"I can accept the first explanation." Nabki said. "The second..." She shook her head. "Ideas are what I want." She pointed out. "And what I expect." She said. "If anything you made it more difficult for yoruself by not sharing your idea." Nabiki smiled her best Ice Queen smile. "Among other things."

Hika chewed her lower lip. "I think I'd have to agree with Shampoo on this." She said hesitantly. "You could have very easily given control to Cologne." She said. "And Cologne might have undone any changes Shanpoo made."

"There is that." Agreed Nabiki. She sipped from a glass. Fruit juice much to Nabiki's disappointment. "One the other hand it might also have...resolved matters sooner."

As dinner continued and Hika was, by the efforts of Kiko and Kodachi, kept in the conversation something else surprised Hika. Shampoo was intelligent, well read and creative. 'Why didn't I see that before?' She asked herself. A sour smile appeared on Hika's face. 'Dumb question.' She answered herself. 'Since when did...Hikaru see women as anything but sex toys?' Hika sighed.

"Is something wrong, Hika?" Shampoo asked hesitantly. "Shampoo hope she not say anything to offend."

"Offend?" Hika asked. She shook her head. "No. Just thinking." Hika looked at Ranma. "Do you mind if I ask you so-so-something?" Hika grimaced and squeezed a fist.

"Let me guess." Ranma replied. "You want to know something about...the curse?" He asked. Hika nodded. "Go ahead."

"It's not a cu-curse, is it?" Hika asked.

"Depends on what you mean by curse." Ranma replied easily. "But if you mean it the way I think you mean it, then no, it isn't." Ranma leaned back and picked up his wine glass a took a sip. "At least when it comes to the curse we have." He added. "I can't speak for Shampoo or Ryoga or Mousse." He said. "Speaking of which, where is Mousse?"

"China." Shampoo replied. "I think he finally get hint." She said with a slight smile. "I not know Ranma." She added. "Sometimes Shampoo think changing sex harder then being ca...little animal." Shampoo shivered slightly. "Shampoo be very, very happy if she never man again." Shampoo turned to look at Akane. "Shampoo not know how you do it."

"It helps to be a bit of a per..." Akane looked at Kiko. "It helps to be open about it." She said instead. Akane put a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Of course it doesn't hurt that Ranma likes it when I turn guy." She leaned over and gave Ranma a quick kiss on the cheek. "Gotta give Baby what he needs." She cooed.

Ranma smiled in response. Ranma returned his attention to Hika. " I met once told me that the curse had a purpose." He waved a hand. "Not that it's alive or anything but it does seem driven to fulfill a...need." Ranma tapped his chin with a manicured and red polished finger. "He told me that if I had never been cursed I probably would have ended up, well, like you... I mean like Hikaru."

"Like...Hikaru?" Hika asked slowly.

Ranma nodded. "Yeah." He replied in amused tones. "A total jerk." He pointed a thumb at Akane. "Wouldn't have the Tomboy, that's for sure."

"Yeah, but you would have had Uk-chan." Akane said. She reached across Ranma and squeezed one of Ukyo's hand. "Good old, Uk-chan." She said. Akane frowned. "Cause that would have meant that I didn't.." She said in emphasis. "Have Uk-chan." Akane squeezed Ukyo's hand again. "Thank the gods for the curse." She said feelingly. Akane leaned back. "Yeah, and if that guy was right, which he probably was." Akane grinned.

"He is going to be impossible to live with." Ukyo muttered. She wiggled a little in her chair. "Cool."

"I think the Tomboy; stop that Uk-chan, " Ranma placed a hand under the table for a second. "Later." He said to Ukyo. "Anyway, I think the Tomboy was going to say that you were supposed to get cursed."

"That or die." Akane added. "Or go crazy."

"Cr-cr-crazy may still be an option." Hika replied. A quiet chuckle went around the table.

"That was very good, Hika." Kiko said in approval. "I think Madam Demille would approve." The table chuckled again.

"Crazy is always an option, Hika." Ranma said. "Even for me." Ranma shrugged. "The trick is not to fight it." He said. Ranma waved a hand at Hika to indicate her female form. "For someone like you or me being female..." Ranma stopped. "I can't tell you what to do." He said. "But I can tell you this; the world looks different as a woman." He said. "Not better or worse, just different." He said.

Hika nodded. "I no-noticed." She said.

"I bet." Ranma agreed. "But back to your orginal question, for Hikaru changing into a woman was the worst curse imaginable, for might be better described last chance." He said seriously.

Later that evening, after she had bathed, Hika tried to sleep and found that sleep eluded her. Thoughts of the days events and, surprisingly, thoughts of Shampoo kept intruding. Hika's hand strayed to her slightly rounded belly and she rubbed her belly thoughtfully. Hika shook her head. 'I wish I could just talk to her.' She thought sadly. 'Shampoo's really the only one who...' Hika felt her thoughts slow to a halt. 'She really is, isn't she?' She thought to herself.

Hika threw back the covers and got out of bed. She put on a quilted robe against the cool night air and walked the door of her suite. Hika hesitated for a second then opened the door.

One of the many Kuno retainers was sitting in a chair just outside the door. The retainer stood quickly. "Is there a problem, Miss Hika?" He asked.

Hika hesitated again before answering. "I couldn't sleep." She answered finally. "I you know if...Shampoo is still awake?"

The retainer raised an eyebrow then raised his wrist to his mouth and relayed the question. After a moment he nodded and lowered his wrist. "Ms. Shampoo is still awake." The retainer looked at Hika curiously for a second. "You will need to be escorted if you wish to see her."

For a moment Hika almost walked back into her room. She even turned and looked at the door. Hika turned back to the retainer. "I...I wo-would appreciate the escort." She said.

"Very good, Miss Hika." The retainer replied. He waved a hand. "It's this way." He said. Hika walked in the direction indicated and the retainer followed though he maintained a distance of a couple meters. Hika found herself appreciating the consideration.

Shampoo's suite, the one she shared with Ranma, Akane and Ukyo was also on the third floor though in a separate wing. The silently following retainer waved Hika from the door and knocked. After a short pause the door opened and Shampoo was framed in the open door. She was wearing blue silk pajamas, covered by a silk robe. "Ah, Ms. Shampoo." The retainer said and bowed. "Are you free to receive a guest?" He asked.

"Guest?" Shampoo asked in surprise. She looked down the hallway and saw Hika. "Oh, Hika." Shampoo said. "Of course, of course." Shampoo said. She looked back into the suite. "Maybe it better if...maybe some place else?"

"There is a small study." The retainer pointed back the way he and Hika had come. He looked at Hika. Hika nodded. "If you would follow me." The retainer led the way back down the hallway and to a door. It opened into, as the retainer had put it, a small study. "Tea?" Asked the retainer. Again he looked at Hika. Hika nodded again. "The tea will be here shortly." The retainer reported. "Will there be anything else?" He asked. "Would you feel more comfortable if there were a" He asked.

Hika looked at the retainer then at Shampoo. Finally Hika shook her head. "I...I th-think..." Hika squeezed her hand into a fist. "I think Shampoo can protect me if anything...happens."

The retainer raised an eyebrow. "That was not my meaning but...if you are sure." He said questioningly. Hika nodded.

Hika walked into the small study and curled up more than sat in an over large chair. Shampoo took possession of a smaller chair that was situated at an angle to Hika's chair. Hika sighed moodily. "Miss Hika." She said quietly.

"What that, Hika?" Shampoo asked.

Hika looked over to see Shampoo looking at Hika with a look that combine concern and nervousness. "What?"

"You say, Miss Hika." Shampoo said.

"Oh." Hika replied. "that." Hika sighed again. "That's what..." Hika pointed to where the retainer was standing quietly just outside the door. "He called me. Miss Hika." Hika chuckled and rubbed her slightly rounded belly. "I don't think Miss applies." Hika looked up as Shampoo giggled. "Oh so you think that's funny?' Hika asked. Shampoo giggled again and nodded. Hika grinned wryly in response. "Yeah, I suppose it is."

Shampoo nodded again. She gave Hika a speculative look. "Hika?" She asked. Hika looked up. "Why you want see Shampoo?" Shampoo asked.

"Couldn't sleep." Hika replied. "And...there must be something wrong with me." She said. She rolled her eyes in self disgust. "That's an understatement." She said. Hika sighed. "I just needed someone to talk to." She said.

"And you..." Shampoo began. She stopped. "What you want talk about?" She asked.

Hika chewed her lip. "I don't know, anything." She said. "Anything other than deportment or makeup or...I don't know."

Shampoo giggled. "Ms. Kuno really make you take deportment lessons?" She asked. Hika nodded sourly. Shampoo giggled again. "Okay, we not talk about deportment." She said. "Why not we"

HIka smiled slightly. "I'd like that, Shampoo." She said. "I'd like that...a lot."

Hika and Shampoo talked long into the night. The Kuno retainer who originally accompanied Hika was replaced by another retainer. It was a conversation that brought, for both of the women, revelation after revelation. Hika's earlier reassessment of Shampoo kept on being validated. Shampoo was as smart, as creative as Hika thought. What was the most surprising was that Shampoo could at times be funny. Shampoo even did an impersonation of Cologne that made Hika laugh so hard she started to gasp for air.

Shampoo, for her part, has always known Hikaru was intelligent and talented but Hika had a sensitive and vulnerable side that Hikaru would never have shown, let alone admitted to. 'If only Hikaru had half the heart Hika has.' Shampoo found herself thinking over and over. 'If Hikaru had shown even a hint of Hika's soul I could have loved him.'

Finally the conversation between the two slowed as Hika, and to a lesser degree Shampoo, finally began to succumb to the long evening. Shampoo smiled as a Hika fell asleep. Shampoo stood and lifted Hika in her arms. She carried Hika out of the small study and down the hallway. The retainer on duty made to take Hika but Shampoo waved him off with a shake of her head. Shampoo easily carried the sleeping pink haired woman down the long hall and to Hika's room. She waited until the retainer opened the door and carried Hika into the suite and then to her bedroom. Shampoo placed the sleeping Hika into her bed and covered her with a blanket. Hika wiggled a little and rolled over but did not wake. Shampoo looked down at the sleeping Hika for a minute before turning and walking out of the bedroom and to her own room.

When Shampoo got back to the suite the lights were out and there were no sounds from the other room. A fact Shampoo was grateful for and she made her way to here bed. Though she was tired, sleep eluded her for a while as she tried to sort out the day. Then one thought intruded. 'She couldn't sleep and she asked for me.' Shampoo smiled, rolled over and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning Shampoo was awakened by a knock on her bedroom door. "Yes?" She mumbled sleepily.

"Time to get up, Shampoo." Akane's voice came through the door. "You're having breakfast with Nabs."

Shampoo sat up in the bed and stretched. "I be right there." She called. Shampoo climbed out of the bed and threw on a robe. She walked to the door and opened it. "Good morning." She sang cheerfully, 'It beautiful day, yes?"

"You, um, seem to be in a...good mood, this morning." Ukyo said to Shampoo.

"Shampoo in wonderful mood." Shampoo corrected cheerfully. "I hope you no mind, but if Ice Queen want see me for breakfast, better get ready." She said with a smile. "Not want keep Ice Queen waiting." Shampoo giggled cheerfully and hurried into the bathing area.

"Okay." Ukyo muttered. "I am officially weirded out." Akane nodded in agreement. "Think the bimbo has been into the herb cabinet?" Ukyo asked.

Akane shrugged. "Dunno." She replied. "But if she is, we'd better ask Ono to make sure he has a good supply of whatever she's smoking." Ukyo laughed in response.

It was less than an hour later when Shampoo, Ranma, in male form, Akane and Ukyo sat down for breakfast with Nabiki. Also at breakfast were Kimi, Kodachi, Noriko, Kiko and Hika. To everyone's surprise, Hika and Shampoo greeted each other with smiles. "Good morning, Hika." Shampoo said brightly. "did you sleep well?"

"I think it was one of the best nights sleep I've had in a long time." Hika replied. "And you?"

"Oh Shampoo sleep like baby." Shampoo replied.

Kiko leaned closer to Kodachi. "Mother, Hika isn't stuttering." She whispered. Kodachi nodded in agreement. She and Kiko watched as Hika and Shampoo went over to the serving table and selected items for breakfast. The two women bent their heads over the table. Every so often Hika or Shampoo would giggle. "Mother, did Hika just giggle?" Kiko asked in awe. Kodachi nodded slowly.

"Ladies, and that includes you Ranma, please be seated." Nabiki said. Ranma grinned in response. "We have much to do and discuss this morning." Nabiki continued. "Tatewaki sends his regrets but..."

"Too much estrogen for Bokken Boy?" Ranma asked in an amused voice.

"Something like that." Admitted Nabiki. "Now, if we can get down to business." Nabiki extended her hand and Kimi placed a folder in that hand. Nabiki took the folder, placed it in front of her and opened it. "The first order of business is Shampoo and Kita." She said. "I have no reason to replace Shampoo in her role nor have I a reason to look for such a reason." She said. "Akane has advised me of her agreement with you Shampoo." She continued. Nabiki shook her head. "Never bargain from weakness, Shampoo." She said in tones of mock despair. "Much as I love you baby sister." Nabiki said to Akane. "I think you took advantage of Shampoo."

"Shampoo didn't seem to mind." Akane replied cheerfully. "She did keep coming back for more."

"I was talking about your cut of Shampoo's operations." Nabiki said in slightly annoyed tones. "Fifteen percent is too high."

"I thought it very fair, Ice Queen." Shampoo disagreed."It small price to pay for Ranma protection."

"Not when you're still consolidating." Nabiki disagreed. "You need the capital." She said. "Akane, are you willing to renegotiate?" Nabiki asked. Akane waved a hand in agreement. "Good." Nabiki said. "Five percent." She said firmly. Akane looked at first Ranma then Ukyo. She turned her attention back to Nabiki. She nodded. "Good." Said Nabiki. She looked down at the folder. "Next on the Agenda." She said. "Minato ward."

"I thought you going give to Hika." Shampoo said suspiciously.

"I will." Nabiki replied. "When she's ready." She said. "But in the meantime, someone needs to look after the territory." She said. "I propose..."

"Shampoo." Hika interrupted suddenly. "I-if I ha-have..." Hika squeezed a fist. "I'd like Shampoo to look after Minato." She said deliberately. "I her to take care of Minato."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "That's a surprising statement considering your history together." Nabiki said in her best Ice Queen voice. "I was going to propose Kodachi."

"Are you sure, Hika?" Shampoo said. "Kodachi very good choice." She said. "Her women best."

Hika gave Shampoo a resigned smile. "Maybe." She replied. "But..." Hika paused. "Please." She said instead.

Shampoo and Hika looked into each other's eyes for a long moment. Finally Shampoo nodded. "If Lady Kuno no object, I be very honored."

Nabiki frowned. "There are other reasons why I would hesitate to agree." Nabiki began. She stopped when Kimi placed a hand on her arm. Nabiki turned and raised an eyebrow.

"I'd like to suggest a compromise." Kimi said. "Hika, I hope you understand why Nabs is hesitating." She said. "The relationship between the two of you...well, we'd like a few guarantees." She said. "So, I'd like to suggest that Shampoo be responsible for Minato but that Kodachi have oversight." She said. "Until we're...satisfied."

Hika opened her mouth to protest when Shampoo stopped her. "It best idea, Hika." She said quietly. "Lady Kuno have good reason not trust Shampoo and just as many not trust Hika." She said. "I am most honored you ask for Shampoo but...this best." She smiled at Hika. "Besides, this give Shampoo and Hika time to...get know each other?" She said. "Okay?" She asked. Hika looked at Shampoo then at Nabiki. Hika nodded.

"Excellent." Nabiki said. "Kodachi?"

Before Kodachi answered Noriko leaned over and whispered in Kodachi's ear. Kodachi nodded. "I hadn't considered that." She said aloud. Kodachi turned to Nabiki. "Having some of my girls, probably Miki and Fumie, watch over Minato will not be a problem, but I think Hika should acquire her own...headquarters." She said. "Noriko has offered to check the listings for an... appropriate location."

"If Hika want open restaurant, Shampoo know many good chef." Shampoo offered. She smiled at Hika. Shampoo's smile fell. "Hika, what wrong?" Shampoo asked in concern. "Why you crying?" Hika wiped at her eyes and shook her head in response. Shampoo stood and pulled Hika to her feet. "Too much meeting." She declared. "Hika need rest." Without waiting for permission Shampoo took Hika's hand and led her out of the room.

Nabiki watched Shampoo and Hika walk out of the way then turned her attention to Kimi. She raised an eyebrow. Kimi shrugged. "What was that?" Nabiki asked.

"You know for such smart girls, you can be awful dumb." Ranma drawled. "Ow." Ranma rubbed his side where Akane elbowed him. "Akane." He complained.

"That's my sister you're talking to." Akane said. "You not allowed to call her dumb." She said. "That's my job." She added. "Really Sis, how dumb can you get?" She asked. Akane rubbed her nose in a manner reminiscent of Nabiki. "With everything that's happened to her, she's still Hikaru." She said. "Sort of." She said. Akane jerked a thumb at Ranma. "It took Ranma ages to get used to his curse." She rolled her eyes at Nabiki's confused stare. "Mood swings, Sis." She pointed out. "You've accepted Hika as one of your...lieutenants, you're giving her territory, assistance, Heck, you're giving her basically everything she, as Hikaru, lost." Akane rolled her eyes again. "You're being fucking nice to the poor shit and she's so full of guilt and self hate, it's killing her." She said.

"Obviously." Kodachi said in agreement. "And what did I say about watching your tongue when Kiko is around?"

"Sorry Kodachi." Akane replied contritely.

"Accepted." Kodachi replied. "Regardless, Akane is correct." She said. "The poor...thing is obviously overwhelmed." She said. "And just as obviously, Hika and Shampoo have made their peace." She added thoughtfully. Kodachi turned. "Kiko, go with them." She nodded toward the door. "Take Yoshi with you."

Kiko bowed slightly to Kodachi. "Of course, Mother." The young girl said seriously. Kiko turned and followed after Hika and Shampoo.

Kodachi smiled after Kiko. 'So like a Kuno.' She thought in pride. She turned back to Nabiki. "While Hika...rests, we should continue to make plans for Minato." She said.

Shampoo led Hika to the suite she shared with Ranma, Akane and Ukyo and led her over to a couch. "Now you just sit." Shampoo ordered gently. "I see if I get tea." Shampoo walked over to a grill on the wall and pressed a button. "Hello?" She said into the grill. "If someone there, please send tea."

"Tea is already on the way, Ms. Shampoo." A voice replied through the grill. "It should be there shortly."

"Thank you." Shampoo replied and returned her attention to Hika. The pink haired former hit man was still sitting on the couch where Shampoo had left her. Hika had her head down and was occasionally wiping at her eyes. Shampoo looked around and found a box of tissues. She grabbed the box and hurried over and sat down next to Hika. Shampoo pulled out a tissue and started wiping Hika's aface. Hika raised her head and looked at Shampoo for a second then buried her head against Shampoo's shoulder.

"Sorry." Hika mumbled against Shampoo's shoulder. "I don't kn-know why I keep crying." She said quietly. "I wouldn't bl-blame Nabiki if she decided not to gi-give me Minato."

"Shh." Shampoo said comfortingly. "Ice Queen no do that." She said. Shampoo stroked Hika's pink hair. "And you have good reason for cry." Shampoo chewed her lower lip. "All Shampoo's fault." She said.

Hika shook her head against Shampoo's shoulder. "Mine." She disagreed in a whisper.

Shampoo was silent for a moment. "Tell you what." She said finally. "No more blame." She said. "From now on we try do better, yes?" She said. Shampoo felt Hika nod hesitantly against her shoulder. "Good." She said. "We..." Began Shampoo. She stopped at a knock on the door. "Yes?"

"You wanted tea?" Kiko's voice came through the door. The door opened and Kiko walked in. A retainer pushed in a cart while a tall, thin and saturnine looking man took up position just inside the door. Kiko had the retainer place the tea service on a low table. Kiko pointedly looked at Shampoo and then the low table. With a little prodding, Shampoo got Hika to kneel down at the table.

Kiko knelt next to the table and poured tea for both Shampoo and Hika before pouring a cup for herself. "We really should be doing a tea ceremony." Kiko said in slightly disapproving tones. "But this is better than nothing." She said. "Barely." She added. "Mother says the two of you made your peace." She said. "Have you?"

Shampoo looked at Hika. The pink haired former hit man hesitantly met Shampoo's eyes. Hika nodded. "We make peace." Shampoo replied.

"Good." Kiko replied. "Mother will hold you both to that."

Yoshi, from his position near the door, hid a proud smile. 'So like a Kuno.' He thought in satisfaction.

Cologne put down the copy of the letter she had received from Nabiki with a sigh. She had lost count of the number of times she had read it. Each time she'd read it she looked for something, anything that could prove it was a forgery. But,other than the knowledge that she had not actually written the letter, there was nothing, nothing at all. The handwriting, the style, the secret marks, everything was hers. "I wrote this." She said aloud. "Yet...I didn't." She stood and started pacing. "And the way it was my...son in law."

It was frightening. "If I wrote this to Ranma as...son in law." She said. Cologne was old, even by Joketsuzoku standards, and well versed in many of the more arcane and deep knowledge of Ki, martial arts and herbal lore. She walked over to her desk and opened a drawer. She reached in and a box fell into her hands from a secret compartment. She placed the box on her desk and withdrew a key from the sash around her waist. She inserted the key and, with a curious back and forth motion with the key, she opened the box. Inside was a large, leather bound book. Her book. The book that contained her over one hundred years of study and discovery."Then I would have given him this." She said.

Looking at the book a thought came to her and she opened the book carefully and started searching through the pages. "There was something." She muttered. "Something about a...doorway." She said as she searched. "A doorway made by..." She stopped. "Ah ha." She exclaimed. "The Nanban Mirror." She read the tiny but neat notes under a picture of the mirror. "Happi always claimed it was real." She said under her breath. "I must go home." She said suddenly.

Cologne carefully returned the book to the box and then returned the box to its' compartment in the drawer. At least for now. In the morning she would prepare for her return to China. "Fare thee well, Shampoo.' She thought. 'This is your home now." She thought as she walked out of the room. 'It would be best if you did not return to China.' She thought somewhat regretfully. A thought came to Cologne. 'Still...if would be imprudent to have their children share that concern.' Cologne nodded to herself. "They must feel free to visit...their great grandmother." Cologne cackled. "My legacy is not lost yet." She hopped on her cane and pogoed out the door.

"Good evening." The pretty blond reporter said. "And welcome to Japan Tonight. " The reporter wore a violet domino on her face. "I'm your host, Sumire." She smiled as a picture of a pretty brunette weariing her hair in a helmet cut appeared behind the reporter. The woman was on the arm of a tall and powerfully built man. On the man's other arm was a woman with short blond hair. "Were those baby bumps being sported by both the Ice Queen, Lady Kuno, and her best friend and adopted sister, the Lady Kimi Ota?" The reporter asked. "The answer, when we come back."

"And off." Called the stage manager.

During the commercial break, the reporter went over her notes. A pretty, bespectacled brunette walked over. "Sumire, huh?.

Saatchi laughed. "Hey Mitsui." She replied. She touched her mask. "I just felt like being Sumire today." She grinned. "Besides, it's not like everyone doesn't know." She said. Mitsui Oh nodded wryly.

"Twenty seconds, Ms..." The stage hand shrugged. "Eighteen seconds, Sumire." Sumire nodded in acknowledgement. Mitsui gave Sumire a bow and with a wave walked back to her own desk. "Ten seconds, and five, four..." He raised three fingers, then two, then one. He pointed to Sumire.

"And we're back." Sumire said. "Well it looks like congratulations are in order for Lord and Lady Kuno and for Kimi Ota as well." She said in tones of satisfaction. "I spoke to Lady Kuno earlier in the day and she has confirmed that she and Lord Kuno are expecting their first child." Sumire reached up and caressed the pendant around her neck for a moment. "As it is their first child , Lady Kuno was understandably nervous and held off any announcement uuntil things were...settled.." She smiled sympathetically. "It may come as a surprise to some of her detractors but Lady Kuno is as human as the rest of us. More so then some."

The roll of her eyes was caught by the camera even through her violet domino. "No matter." She said dismissively. Her expression became more serious. "If you recall about a year ago the rumors that began to spring up about some...problems in the Kuno household over the lack of an heir." She said. "And if you remembers I dismissed those concerns," Sumire's expression even through the mask was sad. "It turns out there was some truth to the rumors." She said. "But not in the way some had supposed."

Sumire swiveled her chair to another camera. "Instead of infidelity." She said. "It was infertility." She said. "Their physician, Dr. Tofu Ono, while naturally declining to confirm the rumor of infertility did confirm that the pregnancy , in fact both pregnancies, were the result of in vitro fertilization." She reported. "Dr. Ono has also confirmed, with the permission of Lady Kuno, that both she and Lady Kimi are carrying Lord Kuno's child." She said. "In my conversation with Lady Kuno she explained that Lady Kimi volunteered to carry the only other viable embryo to term..." Sumire looked somberly at the camera. "Just in case." She shook her head. "And they call her the Cold Handmaiden." She said in disgust. "Maybe, finally, this will put an end to some of the nastier attacks on Lady Kimi." She said. "Cold?" She shook her head. "That's not cold, that's love."

Sumire turned to another camera. "This reporter wants to go on record, once again, as demanding that the personal attacks on Lady Kuno and the Lady Kimi stop." She said. "You may not like their politics, you may not like the way they conduct business, that's your right, but when you stoop to lies and character assassination..." She shook her head again. "When all you have is lies and character assassination then you have nothing." She said. "And this reporter pledges to reveal the lies and character assassination as the slander they are." She smiled coldly. "And maybe do a little investigating of my own. My viewers should be assured that if and when I have something to report, it will be verifiable." She said. "That's a promise." Sumire swiveled in her chair once more. "More when we come back."

"And off." Called the stage hand.


Epilogue (Sort of)

Hika Nakamura sat in her favorite overstuffed chair in her suite on the third floor of the Kuno mansion. Cradled in her arms was four month old Ky Shokan Kuno happily nursing away at his mother's breast. Hika smiled down at the baby. "Greedy little thing." She cooed. Hika looked up at a knock on the suite door. "Come in." She called.

As Hika half expected, into the room walked Kodachi and Kiko Kuno. "Good morning, Hika." Kodachi greeted Hika.

"Good morning, Ms. Kuno." Hika replied cheefully. "Good morning, Kiko." Hika looked down at the infant again. "I think you've had enough." She said to the infant. She detached the child from her breast, placed the baby on her shoulder and patted the baby gently on its back. Hika smiled at the quiet burp from the child. "Would you like to hold him?" She asked Kodachi.

"I would love to." Kodachi replied. "What a big boy." She cooed. "Shampoo called." Kodachi said. "She thinks she found the perfect location for your headquarters." Kodachi tickled the baby under the chin. "And she wondered if you'd like to take a look." Kodachi smiled at the baby. "I think it's a good idea." She said. "You need to start...establishing yourself."

"I need to get back in shape first." Hika replied.

"I think you can do both." Kodachi disagreed. "Lady Kuno is more than willing to provide the support you'll need." She said. "And Kiko has volunteered to watch little Ky when you need a break." She said. Kiko nodded cheerfully.

"Thank you, Ms. Kuno." Hika replied. "Thank you, Kiko." Hika looked around. "I'm going to miss this room." She said quietly. "So many memories."

Little Ky began to fidget. "I think he wants his mommy back." Kodachi said. She returned the infant to Hika. "You're not leaving just yet, Hika." She said.

"Not just yet." Agreed Hika. "But soon." Hika looked at the infant. "I think you need a nap." She said. Hika stood and walked over to a crib. She placed the child in the crib. It seemed moments before the baby was asleep. Hika looked down at the sleeping child for a long time. Finally Hika sighed. "I suppose I should call Shampoo." She said to the sleeping infabt. "Mommy has work to do."

Ranma read through the same passage in the red leather bound notebook one more time. "It's been four months." He said.

"So, she's not going to turn back, is she?" Akane asked.

"According to what my double wrote here, probably not." Ranma said. "The odds against turning back were against her anyway." He shrugged. "I don't think Hika will mind too much."

"Probably not." Akane replied. She placed her hand over her flat stomach. "You know, I kind of like the name Akama." She said. "I wonder if she's going to be a sex changer too." She said.

"Don't get your hopes up, Tomboy." Ranma cautioned. "Not everything is the same." He said. "And this time, you're having the first kid."

"Don't listen to him, Tomboy." Ukyo said. "Some things may be different but..." She waved a hand to indicated the three of them. "the three of us are together in both worlds." She shrugged. "And if...Akama, isn't a sex changer, she's still going to be..." Ukyo grinned. "Exceptional."

Author's Notes: Another book done. I'll probably have the blues for awhile until I start writing again. The hardest part about writing, especially an Epic like Queen Rat, is not the stories themselves but the crafting of the stories. It takes a lot of time, patience and emotional involvement. It wears a body out. Once I finish a story I need to take a break until the bug bites me again.

One last thing. If anyone has not figured it out, the letter, the red bound volume and other items were give to Ranma by the Ranma of Couch Trips (Mirror Mirror). Despite the different paths taken, some things were/are the same in both universes. Kho Lon especially. CT Ranma gave QR Ranma some items that he felt would come in handy. Kho Lon's final 'love letter' being among the items.

Happy New Year