I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi or Naoko Takeuchi.
"You're sure everything's packed?" Akane asked yet again from where she stood by the open sliding doors separating the family room from the back yard, little Ukyo in her arms.
Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Yes, little sis, everything's packed," she replied with a long-suffering sigh, then added with a slightly malicious grin, "And even if we forgot anything, we'll be with Kodachi — the Meioh fortune is more than large enough to buy anything we missed."
Akane made a face at the mention of Kodachi but didn't respond, returning her attention to her baby. Nabiki knew she was less than happy that the Meioh heiress was included in their little working vacation — was, in fact, making all the arrangements. Nabiki had actually thought for a bit that her little sister would back out. But in the end Ranma had refused to go without his wife, and Akane's desire to get her husband out of the house ... out of Nerima ... for a while overrode her lingering distaste for her former rival. Even though her husband was going to spend the entire trip as her 'wife' (the plantations they would be touring were owned be Tendo Ranko, after all), and there were those rumors from before the Blowout about Kodachi's sexual escapades —
Giggles interrupted her train of thought, and Nabiki glanced over at where Usagi was catching up with her friend, Ami, a few yards from Ami's mother getting acquainted with Kasumi and Nodoka. Nabiki wasn't sure what to think of the blue-haired teenager, she was getting mixed signals. From what Usagi had said her fellow former slave was brilliant but bookish and quiet, which seemed true enough from what little contact Nabiki had had with her. And the girl didn't move like a fighter. But there was something about her nonetheless ... she might not have the moves of a fighter, but she had the feel of one — of someone confident in her ability to deal with whatever came at her. The dichotomy was confusing, especially since there was nothing in the girl's background to explain it, and Nabiki had long since learned that confusion was a bad thing.
Relax, being an otokodate boss is making you paranoid. She was a slave less than a year ago, in Accounting no less, and from her records she's been busy with school since reuniting with her mother. She's no threat, however she feels. Though from the look Ranma had given her when they met he had picked up on it, Nabiki thought. But it was Ranma — Ami was Usagi's friend, so he'd apparently shrugged it off before demonstrating his curse to the wide-eyed Mizunos and leaving to grab the waterproof soap 'she' would be using during the trip and get changed (in both senses of the word).
A voice sounded in her earbud, one of the discreet lookouts she'd hired and scattered throughout Nerima as she had seized control of the Nerima underworld. "Tendo-san, it looks like your ride is arriving." The voice sounded ... amused?
She wasn't worried about up-close threats to her personal safety, she was after all in the middle of Nerima and had some training herself. By Neriman standards she was the next thing to untrained of course, a total civilian, but by normal standards she was ... not bad. Good enough that she thought she could keep herself alive long enough for a real martial artist to come to the rescue, at least, assuming the threat wasn't at Akane's level or higher. And there was always a real martial artist within screaming distance. Snipers were another matter, so Nabiki had lookouts posted at the few high points in Nerima. Now it seemed those lookouts had other purposes. (There'd been a few discreet inquiries from the local police about those lookouts, but they had apparently decided on a 'see no evil' policy for Nabiki's activities — she still didn't know whether that was their own initiative or orders from Meioh-dono).
"Everyone, our ride is almost here," she called out. "Kasumi, there's still time for you to throw a few things in a bag if you've changed your mind. You'll be here alone if you stay."
But Kasumi broke off her conversation to simply smile and shake her head. "Thank you, little sis, but I will be fine. With the house empty and the daily tasks reduced, I will be able to focus on some projects I've been putting off. That will be vacation enough for me."
"Skipping some of the world's best beaches for some house cleaning? Nobody would believe it, Kasumi, but you're weird." Nabiki suppressed a frown, forcing her usual smirk instead. She wasn't sure she believed her big sister — Kasumi had her usual serene mask in place, but she had an edge of anticipation that didn't accord well with a few long-deferred household projects and staying behind meant no more bed time with Ranma. (And hadn't it been a shock when she realized that Akane was sharing Ranma with Kasumi? If the former Ice Queen had still had her old betting pools she would have set the odds so high that some lucky gambler would have cleaned her out.)
Just then the chime of the bell at the front gate sounded and Kasumi hurried from the family room through the sliding doors to the yard, followed by Akane. A few moments later an "Oh, my!" came back to those still in the house.
Nabiki's eyebrows lifted, there had been a great deal of amusement in that exclamation. She quickly joined her sisters at the gate. She wasn't surprised to find Kodachi there, other than that she was personally announcing her arrival rather than lounging back and letting a servant ring the bell — as reformed as she'd seemed lately she was brought up a member of the nobility, even if at the lower rungs (in status, anyway, if not accumulated power). Which was why Nabiki was surprised to see the line of three huge limousines parked behind Kodachi with guard vehicles before and behind. Apparently, the Meioh heir had decided to start the vacation with the ostentatious style she'd left behind with the Blowout — those limousines were so large that they would need a police escort running ahead of them to clear the roads on the way to the local airport (where, Nabiki presumed, the Amazon bodyguards she had requested would be waiting). So for whom, exactly, was Kodachi putting on a show?
Nabiki commented, "I thought you were turning over a new leaf."
"I've run into a small problem," Kodachi replied, "I'll tell you about it on the way to the airport. Shall we be off? Just tell these gentlemen" — she motioned to a handful of husky men in Meioh livery behind her — "where the luggage is."
Kasumi quickly said, "I'll show them. If you will follow me?"
A quick fifteen minutes later, the luggage was loaded, farewell hugs were received from and given to Kasumi, and the party had separated into three parts, Nodoka and Dr. Mizuno in the first car to continue getting acquainted, the married Saotomes along with Usagi and her friend in the next, and — at Kodachi's insistence — Nabiki and Kodachi alone in the last.
Once the limo was in motion, Nabiki waved at her luxurious, leather-covered surroundings. "So, what's this in aid of?" she asked. "It doesn't exactly fit Meioh-dono's Woman of the People image."
Kodachi, in the seat across from Nabiki, smirked as she opened the drinks compartment and lifted out a bottle of burgundy. She quirked an eyebrow, and when Nabiki nodded she snagged a glass to fill and hand over to her guest. She then poured a glass for herself and put the bottle back, then leaned back and sipped. Finally, she said, "This isn't about Set-chan's image, it's about mine."
Nabiki hid her surprise at the honorific and the soft smile that accompanied it — apparently, the closeness the pair oh-so-tastefully exhibited in public wasn't just a show. "Go on."
Now Kodachi grimaced. "Apparently, my reformation has been a little too successful. We've been getting marriage proposals, and not just from minor lordlings — some of them are from clans that ... will be very difficult to say no to."
"Really?" Nabiki frowned in thought. "I don't see why that's a problem. After all, they all understand you can accept only one — surely those rejected won't take offense too badly. Certainly not so badly that someone as diplomatic as Meioh-dono has proven herself to be can't deal with the fallout."
"The problem is that I have no intention of accepting any of them," Kodachi replied, her face suddenly controlled, expressionless. "If I did I would be expected to produce at least two children — the usual heir and a spare."
"I see," Nabiki responded, mind racing. "And I take it that you have no intention of supplying those heir and a spare?"
"No, I don't. I may be a Meioh now, but I was born a Kuno, the last alive. And I will be the last — I believe the Kunos' instability has inflicted enough harm on our people."
By now, Nabiki was getting nervous. This was the kind of thing that was kept strictly within the family, and had to be learned through deep intelligence assets, not handed out to outsiders. Just how unstable was Kodachi? "Ah ... that is ... remarkably forthright. Does Meioh-dono know of this?"
Kodachi smiled thinly, and Nabiki suspected she knew exactly what her guest was thinking. "Oh, yes, she knows. My tubes were snipped by her personal doctor."
"Oh." Okay, not a young woman from a frequently unstable family finally cracking quietly under the strain. "So just why are you telling me this?"
Kodachi's thin smile broadened into a cheerful grin. "Isn't it obvious? Because I need to blacken my inconveniently too-sterling reputation! Oh, nothing like before, I have my rhythmic gymnastics martial arts schools to think about. Just enough to tweak the noses of the more uptight nobility and make myself less desirable as a marriage prospect."
"And how am I supposed to help with that?" Nabiki asked warily — she had no idea what the answer to that question was, and wasn't sure she wanted to know...
"By having a quietly torrid affair with me on our little tour," Kodachi replied blithely, then broke out laughing when Nabiki's jaw dropped in stunned amazement. Recovering, the heiress continued, "You weren't quite as discreet as you might have been during the time we shared in the furo — especially when I was toweling off — so I thought you wouldn't mind. Nothing too blatant in public, mind, we want the common people delighting in our tweaking of upper-class sensibilities, not recoiling at our crassness. Holding hands in public, maybe an occasional kiss on the cheek, sharing a hotel room with a single bed, torrid make-out sessions while sunbathing in the nude on ostensibly private beaches just within reach of someone with a high-powered telephoto lens and enough money to bribe the right people for access, that sort of thing." She waved a hand airily. "That should do for the more conservative clans. For the rest, having Nerima's newest otokodate boss as a lover should make them back off."
Nabiki was beginning to feel lightheaded from the repeated shocks. "Does everyone know about that?" she demanded plaintively.
"Everyone in Nerima, certainly, and beyond Nerima anyone that really cares." Kodachi frowned in thought for a moment. "I suppose there might be some nobles whose heads of intelligence are so incompetent they haven't figured it out yet, but I doubt it — anyone that blind would have been driven under long before now. So, what do you say, want to help me make some headlines? Just playacting, of course." She hesitated, then added, "Unless you want it to be for real. I've been living like a nun for the past year, I could use a harmless fling."
"Oh, I ... um ... yeah," Nabiki managed to force out, mind racing with thoughts about improved security before she forced them back into line. Kasumi was well-protected, and the vacationers had both Nabiki's and the Meioh Family security to watch over them.
"Yes to which, the playacting or the fling?"
"Uhhhhh ..." Suddenly, Nabiki felt as light as a feather. After the past year, she was tired of being cautious, of second-guessing herself all the time, of making one tough call after another, of ordering people's death and ruin, even if it was in a good cause as well as revenge. Why not? Nabiki realized she was laughing, and her laughter increased at Kodachi's perplexed expression. "Oh, the fling, certainly," she said when she finally fought herself under control. "Why not? It sounds like fun and it's been a long time for me, too."
"Oh, good!" Kodachi touched a button on the door, and a panel snapped open to reveal a digital street map with one red dot crawling across it. Nodding, she touched the button again and the panel snapped closed. "We have just enough time to muss up our lipstick for the press staking out the airport. So ..." She shifted seats to settle down next to Nabiki and leaned toward her, lips parted. She breathed, "Shall we?"
The chapter title comes from the song by the Beach Boys. It seemed appropriate.