Gosunkugi made his way to the boiler room and looked around. There was no sign of any woman. He hoped that it wasn't some sort of a trap. Pluto was definitely out to get him, but then who wasn't these days?

"Pluto-san? This is Hikaru, Rei's ah… husband. Are you there? I brought clothing for you."

"Don't call me that where someone might hear! Just leave the clothes and get the hell out!"

Gosunkugi frowned uncertainly, dumped the grocery sack full of old clothes on the floor and then noticed a steel equipment locker with its door hanging slightly open.

"Er… Are you in there?"

"Yes! Just go!" Setsuna was feeling pretty crowded. There was a floor buffer that was pressing her in an uncomfortable place.

"I can't. Someone might come down the hall and there's no place to hide out there, even for me. I'll just turn my back." Gosunkugi turned, and then swallowed nervously. His talent for being overlooked wasn't good enough for loitering.

Setsuna glared, padded out and picked up the clothes. The enemy thought that she was defeated, but her little locker-break had been invaluable. She had calmed down, swallowed her rage and considered her goals. After ten thousand years she had almost despaired, but Queen Serenity wouldn't have chosen Setsuna if Setsuna knew how to give up. This setback was still just barely manageable. She might not have the advantage of detailed foreknowledge gained from the time gate, but she still knew in general terms how the timeline should unfold. It would be infinitely harder, but the Kingdom would live again!

The blouse was a little tight and the skirt a bit short, but she was finally dressed. Narrowing her eyes, she considered hitting Gosunkugi in the back of the head with the hammer that she had found in the locker.

"Can I turn around now?" Gosunkugi hated having his back to her. From what Rei had told him, she was dangerously crazy.

"You may." Setsuna eyed him coolly, deciding that there was always a later. He represented an unacceptable distortion in the timeline as well as a violation of the Queen's Regulations, but one that could be dealt with at leisure. The senshi were not permitted to form outside attachments, but Rei would tire of such an unprepossessing specimen in time. Until then, she would try to make use of him to learn more of the being called Happosai. He was also a convenient handle on Rei.

Gosunkugi turned and swallowed. She was crazy-mean, but Pluto was also supermodel hot. Not that he needed any more of that sort of heat in his life.

"Are you going to be alright without me?"

Pluto snorted contemptuously, brushing him aside as she walked out of the door.

Shrugging, Gosunkug followed her to the stairs, but exited at the next fire door, leaving the building via the loading dock instead of going out the front doors. Now was his chance!

-

Soun woke, feeling the bed rock. He yawned, smiled and opened his eyes. "Kimiko?"

"That's what you kept calling me last night."

Soun's head whipped around and he stared. An astonishingly beautiful, oddly ageless Eurasian woman stood framed against the curtains, her long cascade of red hair floating spectrally at ankle length, flowing and rippling like a river of fire. She wore nothing but a big smile.

"Gak!" Soun's eyes bugged out as a few details of the previous night emerged. He recalled being far gone with drink and talking with her at the bar. Things faded to a sort of naked blur at that point, although a few vivid mental snapshots remained. He could feel that he had used a good deal of ki last night, so this woman should have no complaints. Soun, not so happily married in his youth, had used the skills that he had gained in the martial arts to develop his own art, a marital art that was meant only for Kimiko. Together they had explored this new art form until they had been nearly as one. Now he had betrayed her, had forever destroyed the sacred bond that had tethered him to the past.

Oddly, he felt no impulse to cry.

"Well, I hope that you like what you see." The woman laughed at his befuddled expression and then shook out her hair, a long and involved process. "I had quite a lovely time last night, Soun. You must be one of the most talented men on earth. Thank you."

"Er… um, you're quite welcome… Beryl." Blinking several times, he desperately recalled the etiquette that he had learned in such situations his younger days. It would not do to send her away without at least giving her breakfast. Sitting up, he cleared his throat. "Would you care to join me for some breakfast?"

"Perhaps after we shower." She turned and smiled invitingly over the creamy skin of her shoulder at him. "Won't you come along and help me with my hair?"

-

Huffing and puffing, Nodoka let her sword hang for a long moment, resting her tired arm. Genma took a good deal of beating.

Genma, comfortably situated on the ground at her feet, in a position that his art called 'the closed gate,' peeked up at his tired wife, fondly admiring the play of muscles along her back.

"Would you like me to massage that, Dear?" Genma winced as her tired look turned into an indignant glare. The sword was raised for more whacking.

Behind them, a sleeping dragon woke.

"Oooooooh, my head. It feels like… POPS! I'm gonna- going to kick yer fat panda butt clear back ta China!" Ranma staggered to his four legs and winced. "Ugh. Say, could I get some warm water?"

There was no reply. He looked up and saw that everyone was ignoring him in favor of the alien spaceship that hovered ominously overhead. Even his mom was staring upward, frozen in mid-whack.

Ranma watched for a moment, unsure if this was a bad thing or not. On the one hand, the aliens that he had met so far seemed to be shockingly reasonable people. On the other hand, most new people that he met wanted nothing more in life than to kill him as painfully as possible. Were aliens all the same? What would these new aliens be like?

Nabiki, switching automatically to Big Sister Mode, grabbed Akane up in a submission hold and dragged her behind the armored bulk of the dragon. No one else noticed.

The ship glided downward with a slow, dreadful majesty that sort of awed Ranma. He felt his throat flex and realized that his dragon body, acting purely by reflex, was ready to use its own method to fry the aliens should they threaten any of those that were his.

The ship grounded and suddenly vanished, revealing Ryouko, Washu and Kasumi, the latter holding a very strange animal.

"Oneechan!" Nabiki's eyes bulged out with amazement, her angry burden forgotten.

"N- Nochan?" Washu stared at her daughter, a regal looking woman armed with a sword, obviously caught in the middle of chastising the worthless jerk that she had married.

Ryoko grinned a hello at the obviously befuddled dragon and then examined her sister for the first time. The woman was stoic and formidable in appearance, with only a slight resemblance to herself and Washu. The face and hair color were suggestive of Washu, but the eyes were somewhat milder.

"Let me go!" Akane struggled fruitlessly against her sister's hold. Nabiki had learned the hold the hard way from Kasumi, who had passed it down from their mother. Nabiki had needed the move to control her violent little brute of a sister when it became absolutely necessary to restrain a tantrum.

Akane was utterly mortified that Nabiki could still carry it off.

"Oh, right." Nabiki let her fall, full mercenary attention riveted on this new datum. A profoundly simple equation was forming in her mind.

Friendly Aliens + Super Nice Kasumi Astoundingly Rich Nabiki.

"Meeeyaaaa!" Ryo-Ohki writhed ecstatically under Kasumi's expert petting. She had found a great new friend.

"Who are you?" Nodoka narrowed her eyes at the read haired woman. "You look familiar."

Genma stood, frowning suspiciously at the aliens. Aliens were from space. It probably had something to do with that Pluto woman. Pluto was in space, right? Screw space. Reacting without thought, as his training demanded, Genma snatched his wife up and vanished like a bad dream. Akane let out a loud squawk as her form disappeared an instant later, the slipstream of the Saotome family passage blowing Nabiki over and coincidentally dragging Kasumi right into Ranma.

"Meeeeyahhhowwwwch!" Ryo-Ohki protested loudly as she was involuntarily pressed into the sharp surface of the incredibly hard reptile.

The dragon swallowed. "Hehehehe! Funny thing, that's almost like a c- c- cat. But it's not. N- N-Not a c-cat. Not a… a… C- C- C- CAT! AAAAAAAAH! CAT! OH! OH! IT'S A C-CAAAAAT! A DAMNED C-CAT! OH, NO, A C-CAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!"

Ranma sprang violently away, mind swirling and disintegrating into blind terror as he clawed his way into the air, fleeing to the north at just under mach one.

"Ranchan, wait!" Ignoring absolutely everything and everyone else, Ukyo demonstrated the famous single-mindedness of the Kuonji, instantly pounding off after him.

"Oh! Oh! Oh, dooty! I'm so sorry, Ranma!" Kasumi blushed and put a hand over her mouth. A huge, deadly-looking dragon falling into a blacked out psychotic episode was not a reassuring sight. Hopefully he would get over it before he ravaged some poor unsuspecting city.

"Nooooooooooooooo!" Washu, reverting to a teary eyed child form, caused a terminal to appear in mid-air and set it to searching for advanced cloaking technology. "Come back, No-chan! Mommy loves you and will certainly punish that nasty man for you!"

"Wow! The invisible guy had to be Ranma's dad, but what in the fifty greater hells is wrong with Ranma?" Ryoko had been talking to Kasumi and knew something about the Saotomes, but Ranma's terrified reaction to the cabbit had her baffled.

"How Demon-Tail and Crab-Hair Girl know husband?" Narrow eyed and simmering, Shampoo considered summary action. These could well be new rivals, as yet unattached to Ranma, and thus eminently suitable for Amazon Obstacle Removal.

"Silence!" snapped Cologne, in Mandarin. The girl was an obsessed idiot. Hopefully that would change after a few children. "Show proper respect, girl. These are powerful folk." Turning to Kasumi, she essayed a somewhat strained smile. Life around the Son in Law was certainly never dull. "Good morning, Child. Won't you introduce us to your friends?"

-

Soun sat waiting at the table, sunk in gloom, knowing that he had utterly betrayed the sacred memory of his wife. How was he to enter her home, to bow to her shrine, to speak with her beloved daughters and to live on in the knowledge of his gross disloyalty? He was a ruined man, a lost soul living on only for his daughters. Now there was not even the prospect of a peaceful afterlife to look forward to.

Soun sighed. He had never thought that there could ever be another for him, not after the perfection that he had shared with Kimiko. He had never wanted another. Crumbling a bit of toast from the bread basket, his mind's eye wide open and staring into the bleakness that he had sown with his drunken lust, Soun felt the tears begin to drip down his face. Why could he never stand up to that evil little monster?

Soun wiped his eyes as he went over the bizarre chain of circumstance that had lead him to his present dilemma. Could there be another person in the universe quite so stupid as he?

A hand was suddenly on his shoulder.

"Are you all right, darling?"

Soun looked around and froze, heart hammering. It was her, Beryl, the agelessly beautiful woman that he had betrayed Kimiko with, come to eat breakfast with him. His heart, near to bursting, suddenly slowed as he found a measure of calm. How could he possibly be so attracted to someone so different from Kimiko?

"I will be, my dear." Pulling himself together, he stood and pulled back a chair, seating her. "Please forgive me, Beryl. I have much on my mind."

The woman cocked her head, seeing the tears. He had told her all about his life the previous night and she knew that he was feeling very guilty. Besides, he was a fundamentally good hearted man as well as being a truly unbelievable lover. She could forgive him anything at all.

"That's all right, Soun. We were both very drunk last night and both of us were hurting almost beyond human endurance." She picked up the menu and smiled at him, well pleased with the first full morning in her new life upon the world that she had once ruled. She had tasted power, mastery, triumph and despair, but never anything like the freedom of an ordinary life. "I can help you."

Soun smiled at her, feeling a sudden rush of warmth. "Thank you."

-

"Cat fist." Washu's voice was completely uninflected as she paced angrily. "How terribly interesting. My grandson suffers from random psychotic breaks and my daughter was used as a brood mare and abandoned. That Genma is certainly an interesting fellow." Much painful research would be in store for the panda-man.

"Genma is a dead fellow." Ryoko snarled, floating three feet in the air, her eyes glowing a solid scarlet. "I will find him. I will make him pay."

"Husband and Mother In Law no is really wanting Panda-man hurt." Shampoo was feeling quite intimidated by these alien-in-laws, but she seized her courage to speak up for Ranma's sake.

"Genma isn't exactly the worlds greatest person, but he spent a long time teaching Ranma." Nabiki was also reluctant to speak, not wanting to alienate the aliens. "Ranma wouldn't want him killed. Roughed up maybe, but not killed."

"Genma is a great martial artist, but an unbalanced fool. He knows nothing beyond his art, but he thinks of his art all of the time." Cologne was reluctant to admit it, but honesty was best with these otherworldly folk. "You may find him harder to take than you could imagine, Ryoko. I myself would have dealt with Genma long ago but the Son In Law is sadly attached to his father."

-

"Let me go!" Akane's arms were hanging limply with exhaustion down Genma's broad back, her hands occasionally brushing the ground as Genma jumped, weaved and generally covered vast stretches of ground at a terrific rate.

"Husband, stop! You have left our son!" Nodoka hung over his other shoulder, also limp.

"The boy can handle almost anything." Genma had little time for idle chit chat with either of them, concentrating on cloaking his presence and running like the wind.

Akane caught Nodoka's eye, frantic with worry. Both women were exhausted from their ineffectual beating on the Anything Goes master. Nether could lift an arm.

"But it was an ALIEN SPACE SHIP!" Akane shouted. "How is he supposed to 'handle' it? What about Kasumi and Nabiki?"

Genma grimaced. "It was the right decision, Akane. You are the most important to the future of the schools. Don't worry, girl, the boy is there. He will take care of them and of himself."

"LET ME GO RIGHT NOW!" Akane, with terrific effort, began slamming her fists into Genma's back.

-

"This big knife belongs to Nodoka?" Washu picked up the Saotome honor blade and eyed it, skeptically. "How primitive can you get? This thing doesn't even have a vibroblade setting. It probably can't even cut metal."

"It is a four century old katana, one of the first of its type to appear in Japan. Auntie Nodoka carries it as titular head of the Saotome clan." Kasumi would ordinarily have never spoken of such things, but this was family.

"Maybe she would like it fixed up a little." Washu wasn't impressed with four centuries. She had shoes that were older. "Okay, then tell me why my daughter is the head of Genma's clan."

Kasumi sighed, wishing that Nabiki wasn't listening. "Uncle Saotome's mother was killed in a fire when he was a young boy. His grandmother found herself without an heir and despaired of her grandson's fitness to continue the line, until he began dating Auntie. She trained Auntie Nodoka in the Saotome Martial Art and presented the blade to her as a wedding gift. Saotome means 'Rice Planting Girl.' The Saotome matriarchs have ruled over their clan for as far back as their records go."

"Interesting." Cologne looked keenly at the blade. "Four hundred years, you say? That would be about the time of the last schism. The hilt is clearly Japanese, but the blade… the blade is very like Amazon work of that period."

Nabiki blinked, thoughtfully. "It would certainly explain a few things. Auntie told me that the reason Genma was so driven to join the Anything Goes school was because the Saotome Art is never taught to the boys."

Shampoo stiffened, utterly thrilled. "Airen doubly belong to tribe!" Ranma was an Amazon Prince by right of conquest, but as a naturally born Amazon he would be entitled to certain secrets that outsiders never learned.

"I would not be at all surprised if he did." Cologne smiled. Ranma's talent in the art was an anomaly, something that simply should not exist outside of the tribe. The rest of the Human Race had stopped breeding for strength long ago. No normal boy should have been able to defeat Shampoo so easily. Of course Ranma was nothing like normal.

"Ranma and Nodoka belong to me. Only to me. No one will force them into anything." Washu glared at the group, having heard Ranma's side of the tale from Ryoga and Ryoko.

"Shampoo is no needing force." Shampoo giggled, flushing. "Ranma is Husband to Shampoo by choice. Twice Ranma deliberately defeats Shampoo in formal challenge. If no want marriage, then why make challenge?"

"He's an idiot that can't stand losing." Nabiki snorted.

"So it's like that, is it?" Ryoko smirked. She already liked Shampoo.

Kasumi shook her head. "Ranma has a great many arrangements. I fear that the whole sorry thing is just another test of his father's devising. Women of every school of Martial Arts hound him and because of it Ranma must inevitably create an Anything Goes school of lying and manipulation. Uncle Saotome would treasure such an art."

Nabiki paled while everyone else blinked, shocked at this glimpse of this Machiavellian inner Kasumi.

"Well, that's all right with me! The more the merrier." Washu pulled out a couple of fans, fans with the characters for 'great grandchildren' emblazoned across them. She began to dance.

"Crab Hair truly Great Grandmother to airen." Shampoo had seen Nodoka do the exact same thing. "Sneaky Girl! Make compass to find Airen! Honorable Mother In Law will seek also."

"You can find Ranma?" Washu was suddenly in Nabiki's face. "Get to it then."

Nabiki looked into the little girl's ancient eyes and swallowed her impulse to bargain. "Of course, Mrs. Hakubi."

Washu smiled. She liked smart people. "You can call me Washu-chan!"

-

Ukyo plotted fiercely as she sat staring out of the window of the north-bound train. Ranma was almost certainly falling for her. The time that she had been able to spend alone with him had been crucial to the success that she was having, and that proximity had taught her enough about her future husband to give her a better than fair shot at landing him. She had to find him and stand by him before the aliens that he knew complicated matters. The fact that she was making progress scared her as much as it elated her, because now she knew how easily a wrong move on her part could screw everything up.

Glaring fixedly, she considered her possibilities. He had gone north, far north if she was any judge. The pointer turned much more slowly when the target was far away, and it had taken minutes for the toothpick to drift around to Ranma's direction before she had boarded the train.

Whipping out a small railway map, she considered her options. Ranma could cross tremendous distances in a very short time, especially since becoming a dragon. It was important to take many fixes on him, but that was impossible to do from within a moving train. She would be in Tokyo by morning, where she could debark to take a new fix, check on her restaurant and run a few errands before catching the night express north.

She begrudged the time, as there was simply no higher priority than Ranma.

Frowning, Ukyo took a careful look around before pulling a small, very heavy sack from her newly mastered ki fold. She kept the bag shielded from view by her pack as she contemplated it. There was another just like it in the ki fold, Ranma having pressed it upon her as a training aid when he had taught her how to make them. She was moving too fast to support herself as she usually did by selling okonomiyaki, so she was starting to run a little short of ready cash. Her Uncle Ito was working at the imperial stables in Tokyo, and he had always seemed to like her. Perhaps he would advance her some money against the sale of a coin.

-

"Hmpf!"

Sitting by a tiny fire, Ranma crossed his arms. The Old Panda had torn out a bunch of his whiskers and he could feel it, even while he was in his human form. That old man could be so annoying.

Taking a rather nasty old carrot from his stuff-space iron ration, Ranma carefully cut it up into minute bits to flavor the rice, eating the stub. Next, he broke up a mackerel jerky stick, crumbling it into the rice.

Resentfully, he hunched over the bubbling can of road grub and considered the meal that he could have been eating. His mom would have cooked for him, aided by Ucchan, Kasumi and the Old Ghoul.

He had almost gotten the undivided attentions of some of the very finest cooks in all of Japan, but the stupid flea-brained Panda had panicked at the sight of common aliens and thrown that meowing thing on him…

Ranma swallowed. At least he hadn't gone full-cat in his dragon form. Kami-sama help Japan if neko-dragon Ranma ever flipped out and decided that he didn't like people. Or worse, that he loved the tasty, tasty people. On the other hand, the dragon seemed to be a little more resistant to the Neko-ken than either of his human forms. He hadn't completely blacked out, but he had really flown for it.He was so far north that the people didn't even look Japanese.

Moving the billy off of the fire to cool, Ranma considered his future. There was one truly undeniable fact that he had to face.

"That panda took me down!" Ranma's enraged bellow echoed back from the woods around him, briefly silencing even the wind rushing through the trees.

He could turn into a really cool dragon or that dog-thing, but he couldn't FIGHT in those forms. What good was having a cool dragon form if every bald old coot in Japan was going to cold cock him and rip out his beard?

Ranma grimaced, still feeling the phantom pain. Shit, what if the word got out? What if Happosai found out? He was balder than an egg, and wouldn't hesitate a second to skin Ranma alive with a spoon if it would grow one hair on his wrinkled, perverted old head.

"I learned to fight in girl form, I can learn in dragon form." Ranma picked up the can, grimaced and then gobbed his disgusting dinner down with extreme speed. It was truly revolting, almost as bad as something that Akane might offer him.

Throwing the can into the fire, he drew his knees up into a meditative posture and considered his future.

"Can't exactly go home, but home is coming after me. They're gonna catch up with me pretty soon," he mumbled.

Ucchan would find him fast and she wouldn't be able to shake Shampoo and the Old Ghoul. Pops could always find him too, and Mom would force him. That meant Akane and probably Nabiki.

"Nabiki." Ranma frowned. She was probably already selling him off to the circus or something. He personally couldn't see what use a dragon would be unless you were going to eat it, but she probably already had ten separate money-making schemes lined up.

Ranma belched and then sighed, shaking his head wearily.

All of those girls, all desperately chasing him.

All of those girls, expecting him to settle down in one place and to somehow morph into a sober version of Soun Tendo.

All of those girls, doomed to disappointment.

Ranma loved having a home, and he liked being wanted, but there was also freedom to consider. He could just see Ucchan, in a business meeting with a dozen cold-eyed gaijin executives, reacting to him bursting through a wall while fighting it out with Ryoga. Pretty soon, he would have to make a damn appointment to have a fight! Was that any way for a Real Man to live?

And Shampoo… Well, her village was just completely crackers. He liked Shampoo well enough, but the rest of the Amazons were whacked. He could just imagine himself trying to be a Chinese farmer with no one around to talk to but a bunch of super bossy crazy women with really nasty spice cabinets and nothing to look forward to but Mousse's monotonously incompetent assassination attempts. It would be boring as hell. And Akane… Akane talked in her sleep. She talked about Ranma's female form and ropes and chains and handcuffs and other things that made him faint with terror.

Ranma shuddered, stood up, kicked dirt over his tiny fire and walked into the meadow, surveying his surroundings. The land all about him was mountainous, like all of Japan, but this flat spot had seemingly been carved out of the mountains through main force.

Puzzled, Ranma frowned, rubbing irritably at the sparse stubble on his chin. Why had such an inviting spot been left empty? If the spot was ancient, it represented an incalculable amount of human labor. There should be buildings or ruins. If it was modern, it should be the site of a farm or an insanely expensive private estate. Every place that was reasonably flat had been cultivated in Japan as a matter of national security since the reign of the first Emperor.

"Probably got another damn thing out here scarin' 'em off," muttered Ranma. He would probably have to fight something. It seemed that there were an infinite number of deluded whack-jobs out there, all of them desperately searching for a first-class ass kicking. He was usually happy to provide that service free of charge to the deserving, but he needed some serious time to think over and integrate the many new things that he had recently learned into his art.

Sighing, he began a meditative Kata, considering his options. Obviously there was another force, a spiritual force besides ki that he could feel and effect. He had used it in a clumsy way to change shape, to attack the cave freak and to untie that stupid chocolate box. The force, call it magic, was external, and could be affected by his internal energies. It could shape and be shaped by ki. But how could he investigate it? Could he learn to use it as easily as he used his ki? No, not while he was still feeling so much rage.

Ranma, noticing the large horned oni emerging from the ground, grinned. He was grateful to the kami for providing him with such a tremendously convenient punching bag.

-

"Majesty, there is a new development regarding the Saotome situation."

The emperor looked up from his papers and frowned at the aid. "Continue, please."

"Genma Saotome and Soun Tendo have repelled a new demonic invasion in Minato Ku. The demons emerged from a portal in the usual manner and fell virtually on top of them. Although paralytic with drink, they proceeded to annihilate the infestation."

"Interesting. I hadn't realized that they were as powerful as that."

"Their master, Hap-

The emperor stopped him with an upraised palm. "Some names are never to be spoken aloud. Utterance of that name is expressly, expressly forbidden under any circumstance within the Imperial Grounds and strongly discouraged anywhere else."

"As you wish, Emperor." The aid cleared his throat, embarrassed. He hadn't known. "The Grandmaster of Anything Goes appeared immediately after the battle and took the two masters away. There was some talk of a 'training mission,' but the venerable grandmaster grew suspicious and our agents had to withdraw."

The Emperor shifted uncomfortably, considering his options. He was well aware of the horrifying blight upon his family tree. He did not wish to be brought to the attention of the ghastly Happosai, mostly because one of his ancestors, a very young Emperor at the time, had made the mistake of asking the wicked old devil just what sort of training he could undertake that would make him the best possible emperor.

Happosai had asked leave to withdraw and consider at length.

The Evil Master's consideration of the problem had been on the order of an hour, because that was how long it took for him to find and to murder the Shogun. He had spent the rest of the evening rapidly dispatching the Ministers of the Left, the Right and the entirety of the first seven ranks of Imperial Advisors, before fleeing the country for a blessedly peaceful century.

The morning had revealed a very young emperor with a decapitated, chaotic government and no living advisors of any stature. He had been forced to take the entire business of government into his own hands, eventually becoming one of the most powerful and respected emperors, thus proving the brutal effectiveness of Happosai's 'training.'

No member of the Imperial Family had ever dared to ask for Happosai's help again.

Happosai had long outlived the resulting Imperial Proscription, but every Emperor tried to keep track of the rotten old devil and routinely warned his successor to avoid him.

"That is only to be expected. Have they left the city?"

"Yes, Emperor."

"What of the Sailor Scouts?" The emperor was getting a little anxious about his nation's lack of a creditable defense. Fortunately, Tokyo seemed to be the area most likely to be affected by otherworldly invasions and had seemingly developed defenses on its own.

"They are-

"Majesty!" Another courtier arrived, bowing. "Ukyo Kuonji has entered the grounds! She is in the stables!"

"Excellent." The emperor stood. This was a tremendous opportunity, perhaps the only way that he could introduce himself to Ranma's particular clique without resorting to invitations.

-

"What do you think, Uncle Ito?" Ukyo smiled appealingly at her father's oldest brother. Saddlemakers were comparatively rare in Japan and she wanted a really good one.

Ito stared at her, then at the photographs, dumbfounded. She had the money, but… "A dragon? Do you mean a real living dragon, and not some statue or prop?"

"Steely scales, huge claws, terrible fishy dragonbreath and all!" Ukyo gave him a triumphant look. "My Ranma-honey isn't an ordinary man, Uncle. Not at all. He can shape shift, and his best one yet is a great golden fire-breathing dragon of the west."

Ito's mind reeled. "Ranma? Ranma Saotome? I thought that my idiot brother had you dead set on killing him for the 'honor' of the clan!" Ito spoke angrily. His brother was a true nutcase, twisted enough to raise his daughter as a son over a petty incident for which she could in no way share the blame. Ukyo was rather lushly built, and it was impossible to continue the charade, but judging by her masculine language his niece was still somewhat confused.

Ito hadn't formally left the clan, but he had removed himself to Tokyo and refused to remain involved with any of its obsessive ninja culinary arts after graduating from high school. There was little room left in the modern world for a cook that could fight that well, save as an assassin, and Ito Kuonji was not a killer. Besides, he couldn't boil water without creating a biohazard. Lacking much potential in the way of higher education, he had apprenticed himself to a traditional saddle maker and never looked back.

"Kill him?" Ukyo smiled a startlingly wicked smile. "Never. Ranma is mine and I'm going to ride him, Uncle. I'm going to ride him long and hard. But… first, I'll need a saddle."

Ito frowned and then decided not to try and correct the girl. Ukyo was a talented martial artist, perhaps the very best of the clan, even if the clan dismissed her because she was a woman. "Very well, I shall make a small scale model from the photographs and rough something up so that we can discuss design. It would be best if I could examine and measure the… mount in question. Then we-

Breaking off, Ito swallowed and then bowed deeply. "Welcome, Your Highness! May I be of service?" He sent a brief prayer to any god that might be listening that the Prince hadn't heard Ukyo's somewhat smutty sentiment.

The Crown Prince, a married man in his late thirties, smiled easily at the Imperial Functionary. "No, I have actually come to see the young lady."

Ukyo's jaw dropped. She blushed, and then bowed awkwardly. She had no court manners to speak of. "Ukyo Kuonji, at your service, Your Highness."

The prince inclined his head in return, smiling a diplomatic smile that failed to conceal sharp, evaluating eyes. "Tenno Hekio and the Empress would find it convenient to take tea with you at four, Miss Kuonji." That was a little over two hours away.

Ukyo froze in mid bow and swallowed, panic in her eyes. She would miss her train, but an Imperial Request, even one with such ambiguous wording was clearly a command. "But… but… but tea with His Majesty… what… I don't have anything to wear!"

"Nonsense, Miss Kuonji, it will be very much the informal affair. We are all well aware that this was an unexpected opportunity. In fact, the Empress has sent Miss Sato to answer any concerns that you may have." He smiled reassuringly at her and motioned a woman in the quasi uniform of an Imperial Lady in Waiting forward.

-

Kodachi laughed and laughed at the emaciated specimen before her. He looked like death warmed over and absolutely reeked of sex. It was a truly fantastic joke that the dust had missed him.

Hikaru, standing in the Kuno garden, kept his temper. "Please, Miss Kuno, I'm begging you, when will it wear off?"

Kodachi finally laughed herself out. "Oh, Hikaru Gosunkugi, how delicious all of this is!"

Hikaru didn't feel the need to tell her that he had been persuaded to take the name of Hino. He wanted to see her die, but not die laughing. "I'm going to get killed when she snaps out of it, Miss Kuno. I know that I'm not worth much, but I'm still a human being and-

"Your death in that manner would serve a vital purpose for the nation, Hikaru. You should be proud." Kodachi was absolutely serious.

In his heart of hearts, Hikaru was an internationalist that regarded the concept of nationhood with suspicion. He was certainly not the type to volunteer for kamikaze duty. "What purpose is that?" Maybe he could run. Peru. There were Japanese people in Peru. The climate was supposed to be nice.

"You need to know?" Kodachi's eyes widened with pure astonishment. "My assurance that it is so is not enough for you?"

"This isn't the edo period and I'm not your retainer." Hikaru frowned. Who needed Japanese people anyway? Maybe he should go to Denmark and spend the rest of his life stoned.

"Very well, then. The Sailor Senshi, esteemed as they are, seem to have an unpleasant little plan for our future, Hikaru." Maliciously, she presented him with a neatly printed synopsis of the information abstracted from the Bureau of Public Security computers. "You could be nearly as vital to disrupting that plan as my Ranma-samma."

Hikaru was a very fast reader. "Oh. Oh, yuck. Well, I think that's all over with now. That nasty old grandmaster of Ranma's school did something really horrible to Pluto that took away her powers." He smiled hopefully at her. "So there's no more reason to get me killed like a stray dog in the street now, is there?"

"It would be rather amusing." Kodachi didn't really believe it, but by appearing to be cruel, one got great credit for the smallest kindness.

Hikaru lost his temper. "What have YOU sacrificed for the nation lately, lady?"

"More than you know. I fully intend to devote the rest of my life to Ranma's welfare." Kodachi considered that a primary duty. "I will do what I must to help him battle the enemy."

Hikaru snorted. "Like you wouldn't do that anyway, even if there wasn't any enemy."

"If it is impossible to become his wife, then I will become his mistress. If he will not have me as a mistress then I will become his servant in some other capacity." Kodachi was totally lying. She would poison the competition first.

"The cook, perhaps?" Hikaru's tone was acid.

"Why, you-

"Ahem. A message from the Imperial Palace, Miss Kuno." Priory proffered a silver tray, with an envelope on it.

Kodachi picked up the envelope, opened it and motioned Priory to leave. "It seems that we are invited to tea with the Emperor, Hikaru."

"Well before you go, how about doing me the honor of saving my life by telling me how long this love potion is going to last?" Hikaru had already given up on getting anything out of the crazy woman.

"We are both named in the invitation." She looked at his tattered ensemble and sniffed. "You are unfit to go before His Majesty. Come, you just have time to visit my hairdresser and to wash. The maids will take your measurements first and my dressmaker will cut one of Tatiwaki's old suits for you."

Hikaru gaped. "H-How did the Emperor know that I was here?" How did the Emperor know that he was alive? Hikaru didn't like being known.

"How indeed." Kodachi glared after Priory. "You must hurry."

"Not until you tell me what I want to know." Hikaru crossed his arms.

"I could deliver you to the palace perfectly dressed, clean and with a decent haircut, but entirely unconscious, Hikaru." She couldn't let him come from her estate to the palace looking like that.

"You could just tell me, and I'll do whatever you want."

Kodachi sighed. "The effect of the potion is negligible after the first twenty four hours."

"Really?" Hikaru brightened. Maybe Rei really did love him!

Kodachi hid a smirk as two of her maids entered the room. He was so very gullible. In fact, she had no idea how long the powder would last. She doubted if he would be killed though. Perhaps beaten to a pulp and ejected onto the streets in his underwear, but not killed. Gesturing at the stunned boy, she addressed her minions. "Take this and clean it thoroughly. It must be dressed for tea at the palace in one hour. Have Imelda cut one of the suits that Tatwaki outgrew for him. Send Yuyen out for shoes."

Amid a swirl of curtsies, the maids drew a grinning, unresisting Hikaru away.