(oo0/8/0oo)

Splitting Heirs

Chapter Seven

(oo0/8/0oo)

Disclaimer:

"Ranma 1/2" was created by Takahashi Rumiko, and is licensed to

Shogakukan Inc., Kitty, Fuji TV, and Viz Communications Inc.

"Tenchi Muyo" was created by Kajishima Masaki, and is licensed to

AIC/VAP, NTV, and Viz Communications Inc.

All original characters belong to me.

(oo0/8/0oo)

Somewhere…out there. Waaaaay out there.

Ryouga had no idea where he was. While that wasn't so unusual for the young Hibiki, the place that he found himself was. Large was the first thing he thought of. Large and dark. With lots of windows and…wow those stars looked awful close! Close and…hey! Why were they moving like that?

Ryouga stood before the expansive window and scratched his head. Somewhere, in all of his travels, he was certain that he had seen something like this before, but for the life of him he couldn't remember where. He continued to contemplate the mystery for several moments when he felt something jostle him slightly.

"Ite!"

The voice was soft and reminiscent of Kasumi's in a way that brought images of Akane to Ryouga's mind immediately. It was a blissful moment that the Lost Boy savored. He could see it now – Akane would be out in the yard playing with the children, while he cooked supper. A cool breeze would flow through the house, carrying cherry blossoms into the living room. Someone would call out at the gate…Oh! Look who dropped by! It's Nabiki and her boyfriend. Oh! And there's Kasumi and her husband! She smiles at the happy little family and says…

"I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?"

Ryouga blinked. That wasn't right. Was it?

"Um, sir?"

The lost martial artist shook his head and looked into the eyes of a very tanned, blonde haired woman. Her carriage and manner spoke of deep caring, and she carried a well-worn broom in her hands. An immaculate apron was draped over a homely dress that again brought images of Kasumi to his mind. She smiled sweetly at him, putting him totally at ease for the first time in months. What sweet peace! It was almost like being in the presence of his mother again!

"Are you alright?" Her voice was filled with sudden concern, causing Ryouga to quickly wipe his eyes.

"Yes M'am. Thank you for asking." His voice was hoarse with brimming emotion, but he swallowed it and offered the nice woman a soft smile. He was rewarded with a stunning smile from the woman that made him feel very warm and fuzzy inside. All she had to do was ask in that moment, and Ryouga would have died for her.

"You wouldn't happen to know the way to Galaxy Police Headquarters, would you?" Ryouga wept inside at the injustice. Her one boon, such a small request, and it was the one thing in the universe that Ryouga Hibiki couldn't give her! He shook his head in shame and tried to hide his face from the woman.

Damn you Ranma…why do you have all the luck? Ryouga cursed his black luck inside and out until he felt a gentle hand on his arm.

"Are you lost too?" The pretty woman's voice was filled with such compassion and concern that Ryouga wept. Such a selfless soul!

"It's okay. Don't cry. We'll just ask someone else for directions." Ryouga gruffly wiped his eyes on the back of his sleeve. "Now then, where to start? Oh!" Ryouga's eyes flared at the alarm in the woman's voice. He scanned the area for hostiles but found only the woman.

"This place is a terrible mess! Will you help me?" Ryouga nodded. Finally! Redemption! The woman's smile was dazzling. To Ryouga's surprise, the woman produced a broom from nowhere and handed it to him. "Thank you so very much mister…?"

"Ryouga Hibiki." He bowed deeply.

"Thank you Ryouga-kun. Cleaning is so much more fun with help." And with no further ado, they began cleaning the corridor. It took quite a while for Mitoto Kurimitsu to introduce herself (and she was certainly embarrassed that she hadn't earlier), after all there was so much to clean!

It took Ryouga a great deal longer to realize that this wonderful woman looked very familiar.

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Nagi woke to Ken-Ohki's alarm and immediately cursed what he was showing her on the main screens. A Juraian blockade of five ships, including the Emperor's no less, stood between her and the planet beyond. She noted with some happiness that Funaho, Misaki, and that damn Seto woman were present here as well. It was a surprise, but a nice one all the same. A proximity alarm sounded as a warning shot flew across Ken-Ohki's port bow.

"All stop Ken-Ohki." The cabbit answered his master's orders immediately. "Open hail to the flagship." The view of the blockade shrunk and moved to the right as a Juraian communications officer responded to her hail.

"I am Nagi, Seneschal to House Y'Teinyo. I humbly request permission to speak with her majesty, Funaho Masaki Jurai." A long moment of silence stretched as the officer looked off screen.

"Permission denied Nagi-dono. Please lower your shields and prepare to be boarded."

"WHAT? Why?"

"Nagi-dono, we humbly ask that you comply with our request."

"Give me one damn good reason why I should." Ken-Ohki began tracking five subspace signatures, materializing around them – effectively cutting off any escape. When she returned her gaze to the screen, she saw the familiar face of Grand Admiral Obeyimi.

"Uncle Yuzuka?" The older man made no motion to greet her warmly or alleviate her growing confusion.

"It is with great sadness Nagi Y'Teinyo, that I must place you under arrest."

"On what grounds?" Nagi demanded.

"Aiding, abetting, and harboring the traitor, Segota Kamiki."

The curse that slipped from her tongue was nothing remotely feminine, as she raised her hands. She knew that she could escape if she wanted to. Uncle Yuzuka knew it too. She was only complying out of respect for her late husband's uncle, and her friendship with Funaho.

"This is not an admission of guilt, Uncle Yuzuka. I know my rights, and I demand a full inquiry on this matter."

"Duly noted. Do you wish to have legal council?"

"Do I need it?" She didn't like the way this was playing out.

"It is greatly endorsed."

Damn. Out of the fire and into the cook pot.

She nodded and waited for the docking lines of the other ships to secure themselves before commanding Ken-Ohki to stand down. The cabbit miyah'ed unhappily as Nagi was escorted under guard from the bridge.

(oo0/8/0oo)

"Where did you get this?" Admiral Tozin looked up from the display at his right to address the figure on the main screen of his study.

"It was recorded first hand, late yesterday afternoon, sir."

"They're making this entirely too easy." Tozin reclined back into his chair and steepled his fingers before his lips. "Compile it with the other footage and send it to our third party. Make certain that it is released on this evening's broadcast."

"Done."

Tozin sighed and returned his gaze to his spy.

"You have something else to report."

"Yes, sir. Segota has been detained, along with the Y'Teinyo woman."

"That is good to hear. What is Segota's condition?" Tozin picked up a data pad and updated his timetable.

"Comatose as of the ninth hour, standard clock, sir."

"Projections."

"I am certain that he will be well enough to be revived sometime late this afternoon." The agent paused and checked something off-screen. "The earliest that he will be questioned, will be around the fifteenth hour, standard clock, sir."

"More than enough time to make my resignation." The Admiral said with a smile.

"Sir?" Tozin raised an eyebrow at the breach of etiquette.

"Something more?"

"Sir. What of the young men?"

"They are formidable, and an unknown factor in the game."

"Shall I dispose of them?"

Tozin tapped his chin thoughtfully.

"Not as of yet. Gather as much information as you can on them. Standard fare - weaknesses, favorite foods, relation to the royal family, etc…I want a complete picture of these two before we make a move against them."

"Understood."

"Liberty and Justice." Tozin's voice was solemn.

"Liberty and Justice." The mole's face disappeared from the display, leaving Tozin alone to prepare his resignation speech.

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Seto-sama. That name alone had started and ended wars. The woman behind the name was meant to be feared and reverenced in the same breath. She was a shrewd connoisseur of intrigue and once she had set her mind to obtaining something, nothing could stand in her way.

Absolutely nothing.

"…and so I toss the Gekkaja inta th'head o'the Dragon Tap." Seto-sama's eyes sparkled with an intensity that made it plain to anyone looking that she was already making plans for "Ranma-dono." The fiancées knew it, the other members of the royal family knew it, heck, even Ryo-ohki knew it. Some people were furious, others prayed for poor Ranma's soul, and Little Ryo-Ohki decided that now was a good opportunity to snatch some carrots from the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the one person that should have seen all the signs was oblivious to the obvious.

"Since I wasn't gunna make it ta th'water in time, I had ta come up with somethin' pretty quick." Ranma pantomimed cradling Akane's doll in one arm while summoning his chi. The room was warm enough to create a small whirlwind that made a bowl of rice crackers lift off the table and floated in the air for a moment. Mihoshi clapped happily as the bowl danced in front of her face.

"The attack went an' broke the tap and reset the spout so that it was facin' up."

"Formidable." Seto-sama purred. Her eyes smoldered with unspoken hunger that went completely over Ranma's head. His fiancés however, did not miss the look and smoldered where they sat with a ghostly blue aura dancing around their bodies. All three scooted around the table to flank Ranma so that they could glare at Seto-sama unimpeded. The martial artist shrugged and then continued with his tale.

"I thought so too." He grinned smugly as Akane growled in embarrassment. "Well, th'water shot up and cured Akane and…." The young man fidgeted for a moment and blushed.

"And?" Seto-sama raised one elegant eyebrow and smiled slightly. Ranma shrugged again and snatched up the bowl of rice cakes as his miniature tornado gave out. He tossed one into the air and deftly caught it on the tip of his nose, then bounced it back into motion before snatching it out of the air with a loud chomp!

"And then we went home."

Akane growled and tried not to blush too hard when Seto-sama looked in her direction. It was all too easy to remember that day – the fear, the regret, and the hope. Not to mention the conflicting emotions that followed.

"A storyteller he ain't." Ryoko deadpanned, pulling a long draw from her sake bottle.

"You should play poker with him." Nabiki grinned from her seat next to the former space pirate.

"That bad?" Ryoko said with a grin.

"Couldn't bluff his way out of a wet paper sack if his life depended on it." Nabiki didn't even try to hide her smirk. "I take the shirt off his back all the time." More than one set of eyes split their hateful stares between Nabiki and Ranma.

"HEY!" Ranma protested. "I can beat the pants off anyone!" The whole innuendo sailed over his head. Nabiki shook her head and sipped her tea. Had he been able to see the faces of his fiancées, he would have run screaming back to Nerima.

Seto-sama grinned possessively over the brim of her fan at the young, if not clueless martial artist. She produced a deck of cards with a flourish and slammed them on the table in front of Ranma.

"Challenge accepted."

"The shirt off his back you say?" Ryoko glanced between Ranma and Nabiki. Nabiki nodded grimly and wondered how Ranma managed to get himself into these situations. "I'm in!"

"Me too!" Misaki chirrped.

"Deal the cards." Washu crowed from her floating pillow as it drifted closer to the table. Mihoshi clapped her hands and started to shuffle the deck. More players continued to flock to the table, but none so surprising as Sasami and Ryo-Ohki. Ranma felt a chill run up his spine and wondered how and when he had lost control of the situation.

(oo0/8/0oo)

"First Captain Kiyone Makibi reporting for duty, M'am!" The former GP operative stood at stiff attention before Funaho, her face schooled and calm. First impressions were an important thing to the former detective, which was why it had always been a chore to work with Mihoshi.

"Take your ease Captain." Funaho gestured to the pillow across the table from her. The small shrine office was comfortably small and had a wonderfully relaxing view that Kiyone had come to associate with all Juraians. "Please forgive my family's absence. They are attending to matters of state this afternoon."

Kiyone knelt at the table with a soft smile. "No apology is necessary your majesty. I understand completely."

"Soon, I am certain that you will." Funaho's knowing grin made Kiyone shiver. "Do you have any news from the Grand Admiral before we begin your briefing?"

Kiyone nodded and set her tea aside. She produced a data pad and carefully pushed it across the table. She watched the First Queen's face carefully, noting only a slight lift of the woman's eyebrow at the report. To anyone that knew Funaho well, the gesture would have been tantamount to screaming.

"This is…disturbing. When were they brought on board?"

"Right before I left. Both are in custody, but Lord Segota was injured fairly badly. He should be awake soon, and the Grand Admiral is awaiting your presence before beginning the interrogation."

"I see. Do you have anything else to report?"

"No, Funaho-sama."

"Very well, then shall we get down to business?" Kiyone nodded. "Kiyone Makibi, fourth daughter to the Pachisa of Indolin, Duchess of Thurin. You were awarded twenty-seven citations for bravery, four commendations for uncommon valor in the rescue of your comrades in arms, and twelve golden rings for injuries sustained in the defense of civilian lives." Kiyone couldn't help but sit a little taller as Funaho detailed the highlights of her career.

"You were awarded your Detective First Class status nine months into your tour of duty with the Galaxy Police and maintained an immaculate record. Until…"

Kiyone slumped, as if someone had cut her strings.

"Mihoshi."

It was such a damning word.

"Coupled with Mihoshi Kurimitsu you closed a record number of ten thousand, four hundred and ninety seven cases, but you also caused record breaking property damage in the process." Kiyone nodded sadly. "In spite of all this amazing stress, you were able to function and even flourish. It is because of this that you were chosen for this assignment."

The former detective smiled gratefully at the woman seated before her.

"I will not lie to you, Captain. You will soon look back on everything that you have experienced to date, and wish to return to those times." Kiyone swallowed roughly. Just the thought of Mihoshi being preferable to this mission was…sobering. "Tenchi-dono has a knack for attracting the attention of powerful entities. And while we are certain that he can weather any storm that they might throw his way, it is the smaller foes – those that Tenchi might not deem as a true threat, that we concern ourselves with. It will be your job to keep him safe, and to keep him out of trouble." Kiyone nodded and smoothed the skirt of her dress uniform uncomfortably.

"We are also making an addition to your assignment. One that will require much more vigilance I am afraid." Funaho sipped her tea and then continued with a smile. With a small, yet graceful gesture, a floating black screen appeared before Kiyone displaying an image of a young man's face.

"May I present to you Ranma-dono. Yosho's second grandson."

The former detective looked at the young man's roguish grin and immediately classified him as a troublemaker. Information began scrolling up the side of the picture and the more that Kiyone read, the wider her eyes became. When the file finally reached its end, Kiyone was staring blankly at Funaho from her pillow. The Inspector General calmly sipped her tea and waited for Kiyone to gather herself.

"You've got to be joking." Her voice was a whisper. Funaho calmly set her tea aside and placed her hands in her lap.

"We've only scratched the surface. For all intents and purposes, we are still becoming acquainted with Ranma-kun."

Kiyone absent-mindedly began rubbing her temples. "Can I kill his father?"

"Nodoka's husband is being taken care of as we speak." The small smile that Funaho gave was anything but warm.

(oo0/8/0oo)

Somewhere in Brazil

"What exactly…wheeze…did you mean…cough…by…GASP!…'Oh, Crap! They finally found me!'…wheeze… Saotome?" Soun wailed. He deftly dodged yet another glob of blue green gel and made a mental note that he wasn't as young as he used to be. His heavy breathing made him curse the day that he had taken up smoking.

"Heh! Heh! Just like the old days, eh, Tendo!" Genma yelled over his shoulder. The fact that the man's face was extremely pale wasn't lost on the Tendo patriarch. Genma knew more about these strange men than he was letting on.

"…give you…old days!" Soun growled, ducking under yet another volley of goop. He made a vow to beat the tar out of Genma for doing this to him again.

(oo0/8/0oo)

The Masaki Shrine

Kiyone nodded and looked back at the report before her. This assignment was going to make her ulcer come back with a vengeance she just knew it.

"Do you have any other questions?" Funaho poured more tea for Kiyone.

"I am assuming that this will be an undercover operation?" The detective was surprised when Funaho shook her head.

"Considering your past with Detective Kuramitsu, I am afraid that any pretense of subtlety will be lost. The two of you are too well known."

"What angle am I going to use then?" Kiyone's brow furrowed in confusion.

"Instructor." Funaho glanced at the Captain from her teacup.

"Instructor?" The word came out as a squeak.

The First Queen of Jurai reached across the table and tapped an oversized oval jewel on Kiyone's uniform. The deep blue dress uniform glowed for an instant before changing into the standard issue white of a Galactic Academy Instructor.

"Please…" Kiyone pleaded in a hushed whisper. "…please tell me that you are joking."

Funaho patted the woman's arm and smiled.

"We have the utmost confidence in your abilities, Captain."

Kiyone just wept. First Mihoshi and now this! What had she done in her last life to deserve this?

(oo0/8/0oo)

Ranma was certain that Nabiki had done this on purpose. He had never truly beaten the Gambling King, and it was a real sore spot for him. It was her way of keeping him humble. But today…today was going to be different!

Today was the day that all his blood, sweat, and manly tears paid off! He had trained hard after his defeat, and now he was going to show her that Ranma Saotome was a force to be reckoned with in every arena!

"BWHAHAHAHAHA!"

The entire table looked up at Ranma as he stood on the table and laughed. Every woman in attendance blinked once and then of one accord laid their cards face up on the table.

With a hefty sigh and in one great voice, all present (save for the celebrating Ranma) groaned. "I fold."

(oo0/8/0oo)

The silence was terribly uncomfortable for the quartet as they walked along a well-worn path just above Funaho's pool. Nodoka hadn't realized that her father had allowed her to lead the small group. If she had, she would have chosen a place that was less…painful to visit.

"Pardon me?"

Nodoka paused and looked at the beautiful young woman at the right of her father. It was hard to believe that Minaho-san was her half sister – it was even harder to believe that she was over two hundred years old. It was wonderful to have a sister again, but unfortunately Minaho didn't share Nodoka's feelings. The woman had been aloof, bordering on frigid whenever she was around Nodoka.

Not that Ranma's mother could blame her. It was one thing to know that your father had been unfaithful to your mother – it was quite another to be confronted with the evidence first hand. Thus, Nodoka tried her best to make the woman feel at ease. There was no sense in adding more fuel to the fire.

"Yes, Minaho-san?"

"Where are we going?" The question wasn't exactly rude, but it wasn't exactly polite either. Nodoka was saved from responding by her father. It was currently difficult to see him as such, what with his youthful features restored to him once again. The smile was the same, as were the eyes, but everything else seemed…off.

"A very sacred place Minaho-chan." Yosho's voice was carefully controlled as he looked up the path expectantly. This answer seemed to quell any further questions from Minaho or from the fourth member of the group. Not that Nodoka's grandfather had said so much as a word since they had begun their walk – but Yosho's answer seemed to satisfy Azusa's curiosity as well.

Nodoka began walking again, keeping her tumbling thoughts and anxieties to herself. She crested the rise and paused before a small shrine settled on the side of the path. With great reverence, she took small ladle full of rainwater and poured it over a moss-covered stone housed in the shrine. When she was finished, she stepped off the path and took three steps into the forest. Yosho mimicked her and came to stand beside her, waiting patiently for Azusa and Minaho to offer their respects to the shrine guardian.

When the pair had performed the ritual, Nodoka turned and plunged deeper into the forest. She allowed her feet to carry her – they knew the way, regardless of how over grown the trail had become. In the mean time, her mind drifted back to a time when love and laughter had echoed through this part of the forest.

A gasp from behind her and to the right brought Nodoka from her reverie. She blinked, taking in the flowered grove with a sad smile. Her father had done a wonderful job tending to her mother and sister's shrine. The sense of peace that she had craved for so long, soothed her tired spirits. There was little doubt in her mind that Mother and Achika still resided here – the warmth that she was feeling was evidence of that.

Without any preamble, Nodoka made her way across the grove to the stone altar that her father had built at the base of a young Kamfer tree. Yosho had done an amazing job in carving the monument to his deceased wife, and the additions that he had made for his daughter were equally complimentary.

"Eternity is no bar to the string of Fate."

Nodoka jumped at the sound of her grandfather's deep voice. He had positioned himself directly behind her and reached out to caress the stone before him. His fingers traced the water worn grooves that Nodoka had always considered decoration before. Looking at Azusa, she noted that his eyes were slowly tracing the designs, as if he were…reading?

After a long moment, Nodoka felt the emperor's hands on her on her shoulders. He squeezed tenderly and then stepped away. Confusion and curiosity filled her breast as she half turned to look at her father. His eyes were not on the shrine, but rather on Minaho, who stood with her hands covering her mouth. Tears ran freely down her cheeks as she too read the stone. Yosho made a move to comfort her, but she pulled away as if burned.

"How could you?" The accusation was bitter and cold as Minaho turned on her father. "How could she?" The beautiful woman hissed. Her features were ugly, twisted by the anguish and betrayal that she had found in this place. It hurt Nodoka to see. Her father simply pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and sighed.

"We had our reasons, Minaho-chan."

The sound of flesh smacking flesh shattered the peace of the grove, leaving a sudden emptiness in the pit of Nodoka's stomach. Her father picked his glasses up off the loam where they had been knocked from his face, and carefully folding them tucked them in his robes. Nodoka stared at Yosho and noted with detached fascination that that she was truly seeing her father for the very first time. The man behind the mask was handsome and stoic. There was no escaping the weight of his station now, and he accepted it with stoicism.

"You lied to me! You both lied to me!"

"We protected you."

"From what?" Minaho demanded. Yosho sighed again and chanced a gaze at Azusa, before looking at his eldest daughter again.

"Your mother and I wanted to live your own life, Minaho. We didn't want you to be overly affected by the machinations of the Throne."

"LIAR!" Power laced Minaho's voice, causing Yosho to step back guardedly. "You kept me from knowing my family! You let me believe that you were dead!"

"It was better to let you live in ignorance…"

"Don't give me that!" Minaho cut in angrily. "You forsook me for your other family! You pushed me aside for some Terran slut and her brood!" The words flew, and from the shame in Minaho's eyes Nodoka knew that she hadn't meant them. Still she and Azusa were surprised when Yosho's hand lashed out, slapping his oldest daughter across the face.

"You will not speak of my wife and daughters in such a manner." Nodoka shivered as once again history repeated itself before her eyes. Tears swelled in her eyes, but she found herself moving any way. She quickly and quietly gathered the stunned Minaho in her arms and held her close. The other woman squirmed at first, but found it impossible to break Nodoka's embrace.

"Please don't fight." She whispered. The tears that had been held in check for so very long were bursting forth. All of the lost time that existed between her and her father vanished in light of the suffering that her sister had endured.

"Release me!"

Nodoka shot her father and grandfather and hooded glare that sent both men from the grove. Minaho squirmed and fought her half sister weakly in the attempt to gain the leverage to free herself.

"RELEASE ME!"

"No sister. Not until you promise to tell me what is written on the altar."

"Release me I say! I am no blood of yours!" Minaho threw herself back, but Nodoka refused to loosen her hold and tumbled into the soft grass. She was certain that they looked quite the sight, rolling amongst the leaves, but she didn't care. "You will release me!"

"I will not!" Nodoka barked, increasing her hold on Minaho and causing the other woman to growl. "I have lost one sister, and I do not plan on losing another!"

Minaho ceased her struggles and Nodoka relaxed her hold a little to reposition herself. Yosho's eldest daughter used the opportunity to her advantage, flipping Nodoka off of her and rolling away from the other woman. In a surprising display of grace and agility, the Saotome matriarch performed a mid air roll and landed lightly at the entrance of the grove, cutting off Minaho's escape.

"Move." Minaho demanded coldly. "Or I will be forced to remove you."

Nodoka smirked. For those that knew her son, they would see that he came by the gesture honestly. It was as infuriating and smug to Minaho as it had ever been to Ryouga or Mousse.

"Not until you have done as I requested."

"What right do you have to demand anything of me, harridan?"

Nodoka shrugged and cracked her neck expectantly. "If you don't, I will be honor bound to redress the slight you offered my mother and sister."

"You are two hundred years too young." Minaho's grin was anything but pretty.

Nodoka sighed and settled into a loose ready stance and beckoned her half sister forward.

(oo0/8/0oo)

Yosho winced and rubbed the bridge of his nose as the sounds of screaming and name calling filtered down to him from the grove. The colorful epitaphs brought back so many memories from Nodoka's childhood. He grimaced and tried not to laugh bitterly at the thoughts.

"If you had accepted the throne rather than chasing after Ryoko, all of this could have been avoided." Azusa's voice was damning, heaping even more blame on Yosho's slumped shoulders. The unspoken "I told you so" drifted heavily on the air between father and son.

"I don't need you to lecture me on the foibles of parenting, father."

Azusa snorted. "If not me, then who?"

Yosho laughed. It was a bitter thing too, causing Azusa to raise an eyebrow at his son.

"We are quite the pair, aren't we?" Yosho sighed and glanced down at his hands. The wrinkles that he had hidden behind for so long were gone, replaced by his natural youthful skin.

"Like father like son." Azusa admitted settling down beside his son. "Where did I go wrong?" Yosho looked at his father, and for the first time saw genuine regret in the man's eyes.

"Do you really want to know?" Azusa nodded and leaned back against the tree trunk, waiting for Yosho to continue. The displaced prince sighed and mimicked his father. "You stopped being Daddy." Azusa looked askance at his son.

"We all have to grow up, son."

"Some sooner than later." Yosho said bitterly.

"I did what I thought was best." Azusa's voice was starting to turn gruff and defensive. Yosho looked up the hill and sighed.

"Don't we all?"

(oo0/8/0oo)

Tenchi stretched his back and set the basket of carrots aside. The afternoon had become rather hot, and he was looking forward to a nice, tall glass of lemonade. He doffed his boots and called out to the rest of the house, but no one answered back. He had expected Sasami to respond, or at the least to be tackled by Ryoko. He looked down at the carefully placed shoes and scratched the side of his head. The silence was more than a little unnerving, especially when confronted with the evidence that no one had left the house.

Moving carefully he entered the house. Mihoshi and Misaki were raptly glued to the television, watching some cartoon with large vacant eyes. The police detective was stretched out prone on the floor with Ryo-ohki curled up and pillowed on her bottom. Tenchi put the image out his mind and moved on. If they were watching television, then things couldn't be as bad as he had expected.

He came to the sitting room and immediately left after feeling the charge in the air. He clapped twice for his cousin and prayed for his immortal soul, before moving on to the kitchen for his lemonade. Sugary cute cartoons seemed infinitely more palatable – more so than some how getting dragged into the mess that Ranma had been the center of.

(oo0/8/0oo)

Two hours. That was how long it took to weed out the peasants from the players. Sadly, Ranma's erstwhile fiancées were the first to fall. Second was Ayeka, followed closely by Ryoko (whom Ayeka caught cheating), Mihoshi and Misaki both fell prey to the siren call of Akazuki Cha Cha re-runs an hour into the game.

That left Nabiki, Seto-sama, Washu, Sasami, and surprisingly enough…Ranma. Nabiki wasn't sure how he had managed it, but Ranma had gotten himself a poker face somewhere. She wanted to say that she was proud of him, but the fact that he had whittled everyone's pile of chips down to the bare handful of what they had started with was dampening her spirits. The cards were dealt, and Nabiki's spirits plummeted even further.

"You are a formidable player, Ranma-dono." Seto-sama's buttery voice left Nabiki feeling greasy. "How would you feel about upping the stakes a bit, hmm?" The middle Tendo could only smirk at the vacant look that suddenly appeared on his face. The young man squirmed and rolled his neck nervously.

"What did ya have in mind?" Nabiki could smell the blood in the water already. Ranma was starting to sweat as he looked between his pile of chips and the rest of the players. Akane, Shampoo, and Ukyo watched Ranma from the corner of the living room, wreathed in cold blue flames. It was enough to break a man's spirit, and had Ranma not been so focused on the game at hand he would have run from the table…screaming like a little girl.

"You there." Seto-sama pointed to Akane. The girl blinked and looked at Ukyo and Shampoo. "Yes, you. Fetch me some paper and a writing implement." Akane ground her teeth and set off in search of some paper and a pen. Seto-sama waited patiently until Akane returned with what the woman had requested.

The crowd watched with deep curiosity as the Devil Princess of Jurai carefully wrote. Her smile was unnerving and the only person at the table not squirming was Washu. She finished with a flourish and set the pen down with an audible, clack! She cleared her throat and proceeded to read in a clear, strident voice.

"I, Kamiki Seto Jurai. Stewardess of the Five Rings, Keeper of the Eight Seals, do hereby bequeath to the winner of this hand, the Duchy of Tetsu Izumi – granting the winner all rights, privileges, and responsibilities associated with said estates."

Ayeka gasped, Sasami paled, and Washu grinned.

"Alright! Now things are getting interesting!" The little red headed scientist rubbed her palms together and snatched up the pen and paper.

Ranma and Nabiki looked at each other and then weakly down at their cards.

"Hah!" Washu cried, slamming her paper down on the table. "I see your Duchy, and raise you a custom built ship of my own design!"

"Since when are you a Duchess?" Ryoko bellowed. Everyone winced as a giant tenuki statue smashed Ryoko beneath its weight.

"Baroness." Washu corrected. "I'll tell you more about it when you're older."

Ayeka sidled up next to Washu and carefully glanced at the paper. When she fainted dead away, Seto-sama snatched the falling paper out of the air. After a tense moment, she nodded her head in begrudging respect.

"The Kueas Belt."

Sasami gasped.

"What?" Ranma asked nervously.

"It's a twin star solar system that exports a lot of precious commodities." Sasami whispered. "It's value doubles Seto-sama's bid."

Ranma paled again.

"What kind of ship?" Seto-sama set the piece of paper in middle of the table along side of her bid. Washu smirked.

"Cabbit of course."

Ranma wasn't sure what that meant, but from the ravenousness gleam that suddenly appeared in Seto-sama's eyes, he knew that he was in over his fool head. Again.

"Acceptable. I see your ship and raise you a squadron to accompany it." Washu nodded and scribbled something down on her paper. Seto-sama turned her gaze to Nabiki at her right and quirked an eyebrow. The middle Tendo simply shrugged and laid her cards face up.

"Can't compete with that. I'm out."

Seto-sama turned her attention to Sasami. With a heavy sigh, she took a piece of paper and scribbled something on it. She was glad that Ayeka had feinted. If her sister hadn't, she would have after seeing what written on her bid. Both Washu's and Seto's eyes bugged after they read her offering.

"The Dianichi Protectorate and the Seventh Fleet!" Washu was all but drooling.

"Sasami-chan!" Seto breathed, holding her hand to her chest. "You can't!"

Sasami's face became stony as she looked up at Ranma. Something passed behind her eyes that made him shiver.

"I can and I have, Seto-sama." She said.

"You don't have the authority to…." Something else passed behind Sasami's eyes…something deep and powerful that made Seto's protests die in her throat.

"I have all the authority and backing that I need." It was strange to see the older woman cowed by a girl that looked to be what? Thirteen or Fourteen years old? The tension in the room doubled, weighing down on Ranma immensely. Sasami looked at Ranma and blushed coyly.

"You're the only one left Saotome. How do you expect to compete with all of that." Nabiki's voice was smug. Infuriatingly so. Ranma closed his eyes and bowed his head. He had come this far and done what he set out to do. He beat Nabiki, and showed her that he wasn't a push over. Did he need to go on?

He read Sasami's offering, and while he didn't understand everything that she had written, he knew that she was offering a lot. The nervous look on Seto-sama's face, and the sudden, feverish gleam in Washu's eyes made it clear that she had dug deep. There was no way in Hell that Ranma Saotome was going to be shown up by a little girl.

"Gimme a sec. I'll be right back." Everyone blinked and wondered what Ranma was up to. Those that knew him had no doubt that he couldn't compete with the stakes that had been laid on the table. Sure he was a prince, but he was still a vagabond prince. Everyone continued wondering, some people began daydreaming, others speculating openly – which made more than a few people want to strangle Seto-sama all the more.

There was no way that Ranma was going to end up her sex slave!

Minutes passed by, and Shampoo had to be physically restrained by Ryoko in order to keep her from giving Seto-sama the Kiss of Death. Ranma finally returned, panting slightly and carrying a small white bundle in his right hand. He knelt before the table and carefully unwrapped the snowy silk, revealing a beautifully crafted tanto. The black lacquered wood gleamed darkly in the afternoon sun.

Silence fell across the room.

Ayeka stirred, earning her a jab from Ryoko that woke her fully. Had the tension in the room not been so thick, she would have vented on the former space pirate. As it was, her attention was drawn to the spectacle of Ranma just like everyone else.

He solemnly presented the tanto to each woman in turn, and then with surprising grace and ceremony he unsheathed the blade. There was a flash of light, and poor Sasami cried out reflexively. Ranma smirked at her roguishly and squeezed his hand over all three papers, sealing his acceptance of their bids with a bid of his own.

"I ain't got no ship or property or nothin'. I just got me." He sighed and rolled his head to one side, popping his neck. "So, here goes. I, Ranma Satome, grandson of Yosho Masaki…uh, Jurai, and heir to the Satome branch of the Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu, bet my life and my honor on the out come of this game." He grinned as more than one woman in the room fainted dead away. The women at the table simply sat and stared at the offering. Ranma scooped up his cards, causing Sasami and Seto-sama to jump slightly. Washu just mumbled something about "Guinea Pig" before shaking her head and smiling.

"All or nothing baby! Let's play cards!" To his surprise, and utter dread, all three women gathered up the tanto and mimicked Ranma's gesture word for word. Ranma gulped and shuddered as he heard Sasami mutter something about "body and soul" under her breath. The stakes were set, and there was no turning back now.

He laid his three discards down and waited for Sasami to deal him his new cards.

"All or nothing…" He whispered to himself as the cards came his way. As he gathered them up, he swallowed hard. He just knew that this was going to come back and bite him in the…

Whoa!

(oo0/8/0oo)

Sasami looked incredibly sad. Tears were welling up in her eyes too. Seto-sama's face was carefully set, revealing nothing. Washu simply smiled.

"Seto-sama?" Washu's voice was cheerful. The Devil Princess of Jurai placed her pair of twos down with a slight grimace.

"Four of a kind." Washu grinned as she laid her fives down.

"What do you got Sasami-chan?" The young princess laid her hand down, and looked completely miserable. Her cards were nothing but mismatched numbers and suits – a junk hand.

All eyes turned to Ranma who was simply staring at his cards. No one could easily read his expression. Some thought it was wonder, while others claimed it was despair. Ranma looked up at the three women across from him and swallowed hard. His fiancées sidled up next to him to look over his shoulder. Nabiki followed and whistled appreciatively. She tried to pry the cards out of his fingers, but Ranma refused to let go.

Impatience got the better of the other players, forcing them to nudge their way into the crowd around Ranma. What they found was both disheartening and wonderfully joyful in the same breath.

A royal straight flush.

"Formidable Ranma-dono. Truly formidable." Seto-sama's hungry grin made Ranma drop his cards.

Washu batted her eyes and jumped playfully onto Ranma's lap. The fact that she had somehow gone from a girl of about thirteen to a beautifully voluptuous woman of indeterminate age was not lost on Ranma.

"Be gentle with me." She said breathlessly.

Ranma screamed like a little girl and fainted dead away. Good thing too, especially considering the way that Akane and Shampoo were poised over his prone body with instruments of blunt trauma cocked and ready.

(oo0/8/0oo)

Tenchi heard the scream and shivered. He clapped twice again and sent up another prayer that he would somehow escape his cousin's fate. It was a long shot, but hope was eternal…right?

Music from the television drew his attention from his supplication to the heavens. He idly noted the tabloid program that Ryoko and Ayeka were known to watch from time to time had begun, and sipped his lemonade.

He was about to turn away, when he noted a familiar picture on the screen. It was an aerial shot of the shrine. His interest piqued, he took another sip of his lemonade only to spray it all over Mihoshi and Ryo-ohki at the sight of his grandfather and the emperor standing in their birthday suits on the main dock. The cabbit glared at Tenchi, and poor Mihoshi was wringing her shirt out.

Tenchi was too distracted hunting for the remote to gawk at the young woman. By the time that he had found it, both she and Ryo-ohki were out of the room. His finger stabbed the volume button anxiously. The green bars inched their way across the screen at what Tenchi considered a snail's pace. The added noise was enough to rouse Misaki from her impromptu nap.

"…More royal debauchery at its finest!" The image on the tape zeroed in on Yosho. "The mystery of the missing prince revealed! Plus," Tenchi winced as both he and Ranma flashed onto the screen. "…a new mystery unfolds! Stay tuned for the scoop of the century!"

Tenchi groaned and slumped back into the depths of the couch. He draped his hand over his eyes and sighed. So much for the providence of Heaven. A slight shuffling brought his attention back to Misaki who was looking between the television screen and Tenchi.

"It does add twenty pounds!" She squealed in despair and ran from the room crying. Tenchi blinked and did his best not to stare at the retreating woman. He reluctantly returned his attention to the television and braced himself for what was sure to be an uncomfortable experience.

(oo0/8/0oo)

Ranma woke later that evening in what must have been Tenchi's room. Angry voices and laughter filtered up to him from down stairs. The noise was grating and made his head throb. He had hoped that everything had been a bad dream, but his winning hand disabused that idea from where they sat in his lap. He sighed wearily and wondered at this new turn of events his life had taken.

For once he had no one to blame but himself. His despair would have been complete had the sound of someone crying in the corner of the room not distracted him. The light was such that he could barely make out a pair of long blue ponytails.

"Sasami-chan?" He was startled at the raw grief that she saw buried in the little girl's eyes. An unreasonable anger filled him at the pitiful sight before him. Who ever had hurt her was going to pay…with interest. He scrambled out of bed and found himself clad only in his boxers. His state of undress was tabled in light of Sasami's mumbled apologies and her mad dash for the door.

Three long steps cut off her escape, forcing the young princess to back away immediately and hide her face.

"What's the matter?" Ranma demanded. His tone turned cold. "Did someone hurt you?" She shook her head, immediately leaving Ranma flummoxed at what to do next. He'd never been good with emotions, and tears were his single greatest weakness. At a loss, he did the only thing that he could think of to placate the girl – he reached out and touched her shoulder awkwardly.

She spun and crushed him to her in an attempt to bury her miseries in his warmth. There was little that Ranma could do besides return the embrace and hope for the best. She wept for a small while, but Ranma barely noticed. The warmth in his chest at comforting the little girl filled him with such a rare sense of peace that Ranma could only stand where he was and marvel at the sensation.

All too soon, Sasami brought herself under control and wiped her tears away. With a warm smile, Ranma knelt and ran his thumbs across her cheeks to smooth away the ones that she had missed. It was the most natural thing that he could think of to do, and it seemed to work wonders because Sasami blushed and smiled herself. They shared a giggle that turned into a laugh – an honest to goodness, heartfelt laugh. Ranma hadn't laughed like that in ages. They stayed like that, giggling and laughing at each other in the dark for a very long time. When their laughter finally tapered off, Ranma glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.

"You gunna be okay?" He was happy that she nodded her head and smiled. The sadness that he had seen in her eyes was still there, but it was masked and controlled.

"I'm sorry for waking you. It's just that the house is so crowded and I…I didn't know where else to go."

"Don't worry about it. It's better than being splashed or pounded awake." Ranma rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously before looking down at his feet. "You…uh…you wanna talk about it?" He wasn't sure why he had offered, only that it was the right thing to do. "I mean, I ain't much good about talkin' and stuff, but I…."

Ranma found his words cut off by Sasami's finger covering his lips. It was such an intimate gesture that Ranma's gaze immediately shot for the door. All it would take was one person to see them like this and his life would be over. Sasami seemed to note his discomfort and removed her finger with a blush, but not before she kissed him lightly on the cheek. It was Ranma's turn to blush.

"You've done more than enough Ranma-kun." Her smiling voice soothed his nerves immensely, although his eyes did stray to door every now and then.

"You sure, I mean you were cryin' an awful lot and people don't cry unless sumthin's wrong." Ranma continued to prattle on until Sasami reached out and took his hand in hers. He marveled at how tiny and delicate it was in comparison to his.

"An old friend of mine died recently." Her voice was tight with emotion, but she kept it checked and under control.

"Oh." It wasn't the most intelligent thing that Ranma had ever said, but at least it hadn't been the stupidest either.

"He was old, but he had been around for as long as I can remember and I didn't get to say goodbye." Sasami turned her face out to the window and looked up at the nearly full moon. "I'll miss him."

Ranma, for the first time in his life, followed the prompting to keep his big mouth shut. They sat there for quite some time, sitting in the moonlight that crept through Tenchi's window. They didn't speak. Words seemed uncomfortable and empty in light of Sasami's sadness. When she finally stood, Ranma stood with her. Her eyes were level with his mouth, and her nose brushed the base of his chin.

She leaned up, placing her hands on his shoulders for balance and kissed him lightly on the cheek again. It left him feeling warm and strangely invincible…as if he had done something right for the first time in his life. He grinned madly before noting a cool breeze on his bare chest.

Looking down he remembered his state of undress and nearly panicked all over again. He scanned the room but found nothing helpful.

"Uh, do you…do you know where they put my clothes?" Sasami grinned in a way that Ranma wasn't sure that he liked. She nodded and started walking towards the door. "Ehh…Sasami-chan?"

"Yes, Ranma-kun?" The martial artist shifted from foot to foot and scratched the back of his head.

"My clothes?"

"Yes, Ranma-kun." Sasami's widening grin was even more disturbing by the fact that it seemed so out of place. He could easily picture that look on Nabiki or Shampoo, but Sasami? She was the last one that he would peg as a mischief-maker. The Second Princess of Jurai winked at him and blew him a kiss before she left the room humming a pretty little tune.

Ranma hung his head and sighed as he stood there in the darkness. He wept manly tears of pain and sorrow at digging himself deeper into a hole he could not escape. Why, oh why, did he have to be such a manly man? Why? And what was up with Sasami any way? He could have sworn that she hadn't been that tall yesterday….

(oo0/8/0oo)

Azusa fumed. No, fumed wasn't the correct term. Funaho wasn't sure there was an appropriate metaphor to describe her husband's foul mood. It was all that she could do to keep him from ordering the network disbanded, let alone reducing the planet that hosted the tabloid show into it's component atoms. The best that she could do was file an injunction through appointed channels that banned the show from being aired.

Half way through the program the show's transmission had been cut, preventing any more information from being blared across the galaxy. Now all she had to do was set her spin-doctors on the problem and sue the network for slander and invasion of privacy.

Her fear was confirmed though. She had a leak. It wasn't a pleasant thought either.

She had over seven hundred and eighty suspects and very little time to coordinate their interrogations concerning the matter. Her husband was out for blood, and the boys were now officially the galaxy's hottest mystery. If that was all that she had to deal with, Funaho would have felt okay – but the presence of Nagi and Segota just compounded matters. She needed time to put out the fires that she could, before proceeding any deeper into the game. She even went so far as to tell her husband that very fact.

"I need more time Azusa."

"We don't have time and you know it. HEY! I said to leave inessentials behind!" He barked an order to one of the attendants that were packing their belongings. He turned back to his scowling first wife and placed his hands on her shoulders. "The hounds are at the gate, Love. Do we sit around and wait for them to break in?"

"No. We toss them some meat, and while they're distracted we bash their heads in." Funaho growled. Azusa smiled grimly and kissed his wife on the cheek.

"Exactly! I knew there was a reason why I married you."

Funaho glared at her husband through half closed eyes, telling him in no uncertain words what she thought of his flattery – and where he could stuff it.

"So what is the meat going to be?" She had a hunch she already knew, but even she thought it was an impossible undertaking. Azusa's smile was anything but warm.

"We use the boys of course."

Funaho hung her head and wondered when exactly she had lost control of the situation. Maybe Washuu was right, maybe it was Mihoshi's luck rubbing off. Whatever the case, the Inspector General grit her teeth and began barking her own orders. It was going to be a very long night. After all, there was a lot to be done in order to pull off Azusa's plan with success.

(oo0/8/0oo)

End Chapter 7