I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi or Naoko Takeuchi.

The guard at the front gate of the formerly Kuno/now-Meioh estate discreetly sniffed as Nabiki strode past him, but not discreetly enough and Nabiki suppressed a wince. Her reflexive tendency to keep secrets had really turned around to bite her this time — if Akane had known that Nabiki was meeting Meioh-dono for lunch, she wouldn't have suggested that she join her, Usagi and Ranma at the local gun range that morning. But Akane hadn't known, and Nabiki hadn't known enough to realize just how much the smell of gunpowder would cling to her clothes. Or maybe I'd still be in this fix even if Akane had known about my lunch date — it's not like little sis has used guns much, perhaps she wouldn't have known, either.

Either way there hadn't been time to return to the dojo to clean up and change before her lunch meeting with Nerima's first Lady, but when she'd called to say as much and apologize profusely (not to say grovel, if one was being blunt) Meioh-dono's secretary had ultimately told her to come as she was.

Then she was at the massive front doors of the mansion, and one eyebrow rose when one door swung open to reveal that selfsame secretary rather than the servant Nabiki had expected. "Hey, Nabiki, glad you made it, let's go." Miliko turned to lead the newcomer to her luncheon, commenting as she did, "You weren't kidding about your new aroma. I don't think gunpowder is going to be the latest popular scent any time soon."

Nabiki's other eyebrow rose — 'business casual' was one thing, but this level of 'casual' was one that Nabiki hadn't experienced even in school, at least not in her last two years after she'd become known as the 'Ice Queen'. She asked, "It won't be a problem?"

"Not at all, you'll see," Miliko replied, then changed the subject to the new government building that was finally under construction, and how happy the servants would be to get all the outsiders out from underfoot. ("Even if they're too well trained to say anything, you can tell.")

Nabiki listened to the conversation stream with half an ear — making generic responses at the appropriate moments and filing away possibly useful tidbits — while most of her attention was on the wealth on display in the corridors. She frowned as they walked along, her frown deepening with each new hallway they turned into. Finally she interrupted Miliko to ask, "Where are we going? This isn't the way to the dining room I visited last time I was here."

"Oh, we aren't going there," Miliko responded blithely. "After you called Meioh-dono instructed the servants to shift the luncheon to her private quarters."

"What?!" Nabiki's head whipped around toward her guide, just as Miliko stopped by a nondescript door (well, nondescript for this mansion) and slid it open.

"Here you go, enjoy!"

Nabiki hesitantly stepped into a parlor and looked around at the cozy setting (easy chairs for relaxing, a large screen TV on the wall and a wireless computer console below it, a small table), then jumped slightly as the door slid closed behind her. This was turning out to be as far from a typical business lunch as one could get, and she was feeling very off-center. Then she noticed a doll off in one corner sitting in a small chair by an equally small table, and remembered the young girl being raised by the two girls about the same age as Nabiki, that had moved into Meioh-dono's home ... and bed. She grinned at the memory of the excitement that had caused. The nobility had been scandalized, of course — taking lovers was nothing unusual, though lovers of the same sex were — but having them actually move into your home just wasn't done. But the common people had loved it—not only did they get to contemplate a bunch of stuck-up better-than-you's with their noses out of joint, but it was obvious to anyone watching the three with a clear eye (four when Haru ... Hakura ... Hotaru! ... joined them) that the relationship wasn't based on just pleasure and money, and the commoners loved them for it — even the Christians, in spite of the 'sinful' relationship.

With the sight of little Hotaru's toys reminding her that there was more to her host than a canny and quietly ruthless businesswoman turned Lady, Nabiki took a steadying breath and called out, "Hello?"

"In here!"

The call came from the open doorway directly across from the door to the hall, and Nabiki strode through to find a small dining room, empty of people but with another open door to her right leading into a bedroom. The bedroom tastefully decorated in blues, whites and greens was also empty but had two other doors. The closed one was obviously not her destination — the name 'Hotaru' spelled out in Latin alphabet blocks stuck to a piece of wood, obviously without benefit of a straight edge from the way the letters meandered, made that clear. It reminded her of the signs she and her sisters had made for their bedrooms when they were children. Smiling faintly at the memory, Nabiki strode over to the open door, only to pause at the sight of the two women in a sunken furo to one side of the immense bathroom.

Kuno — no, Meioh Kodachi lifted a hand in greeting, then popped the bite-sized sandwich she was holding in her mouth. The former Kuno was instantly recognizable even though she was no longer wearing her hair in an off-center ponytail.

Beside her adopted daughter, Meioh-dono smiled and waved a hand toward an open slot in the bathroom wall. She said, "Strip down and join us. Put your clothes in the slot, and they'll be clean by the time you leave."

Nabiki filed that away without revealing her surprise — that statement implied that the 'meeting' would be longer than the usual lunch. She bowed then followed her marching orders, hastily stripping down and shoving her clothes through the slot before sitting on a nearby stool to soap up and rinse herself off. A few moments later she was easing herself into the steaming water, carefully avoiding the plates loaded with finger food and full pitchers of what she assumed was water that surrounded the furo.

Once she was safely settled and had popped a few mini-sandwiches and pieces of fruit in her mouth, she glanced over at her hostess. "I have to say that this is a marvelous piece of improvisation," she said. "Too bad I can't do the same with my own business lunches, but even if I had a furo like this everyone I've been meeting with are men." Switching her gaze to Kodachi, she added, "But I'm a little surprised to find you here. Weren't you attending an opening ceremony for another dojo for rhythmic gymnastics martial arts?"

Kodachi smiled, as happy to talk about her current passion as Nabiki had expected. "We're calling them schools, some of the martial arts masters objected." She made a face at her mention of the hidebound navelgazers she'd met, then shrugged. "It's a better name, anyway, more likely to bring in students that just want to learn how to defend themselves or for the exercise instead of working toward samurai status. But today's opening was a school for the younger set, so it was short — before we bored all those poor children to death."

Nabiki chuckled, and glanced at the emerald-haired woman on her other side. "Is Hotaru one of the new students?"

Meioh-dono shook her head. "No, she's a little weak for that, but her mothers and I are hoping that she'll grow strong enough eventually."

The small talk stayed light and on personal lives (with Kodachi asking after Ranma, and hanging on Nabiki's stories of the misadventures of caring for little Ukyo) as the three grazed the various plates until that grazing grew thin, until finally Meioh-dono sighed and set aside the glass of water she'd been sipping.

"As fun as this has been, we have things we need to discuss," she said.

Nabiki glanced over at Kodachi, and the Meioh heir smiled wistfully. "I believe you will be more comfortable discussing business if I'm not here," she said, "thank you for the news of how Ranma's really doing." She twisted and rose to step out of the furo and over to the towels. Vigorously drying herself off (Nabiki discreetly eyeing what flashes she could see of the now-revealed well-toned body, Kodachi hadn't discernibly gone soft over the almost-year of peace), she swiftly pulled on her favorite clothes (black leotard of course, but with the addition of a white wrap-around skirt) and was gone.

Once the door closed behind her, Meioh-dono leaned back with a sigh, resting her head on the low wall around the furo and closing her eyes. "To begin," she said quietly, "I'd like to thank you for your help in Juuban. It has been, perhaps literally, a Godsend."

Nabiki froze. While she had donated some of the profits from the Hawaiian plantations she was managing to help out in that economically devastated district of Edo, those donations had been inconsequential — simple markers, to get her name on lists. The ministers that de Oro had forwarded to her and that she was secretly funding, on the other hand, by all accounts were having a real impact. But that link was through Nabiki the rising otokodate oyabun, not Nabiki the spectacularly young corporate manager. But maybe Meioh-dono was just overstating her financial contributions to be polite —

Meioh-dono opened her eyes and refocused on her stiff guest with a weary smile. "Those preachers have been a big help getting the new street gangs under control — those are good kids, just traumatized. They need a focus and an explanation for what happened to them — to their world — and the preachers are giving them those answers ... or at least, answers they can build a life on, whether or not they are actually true. Though I suspect those kids will supply you with a steady stream of foot soldiers as they finish growing up."

She knows. Nabiki forced herself to relax and shrugged nonchalantly. "You're right, they'll come in handy down the road," she said. "But better me than some typical otokodate thug. At least I'm trying to make the world a better place — or our piece of it, at least."

Meioh-dono picked up and raised her glass of water in salute. "Welcome to the club. Feels good to have a purpose beyond your own self-aggrandizement, doesn't it?"

Of course she knows about my high school career, Nabiki thought wryly. Why not? She knows about everything else. "Yes, it does. The price I paid for it was high, though."

"It often is. As a wise man once said, what we achieve too easily we esteem too lightly. Or something to that effect."

For a moment Meioh-dono focused on something only she could see, then shook off her abruptly melancholy mood and straightened. "... proposition," she said.

Nabiki had missed the first few words, her gaze fixed on the high firm breasts that lifted from the water when Meioh-dono straightened — being bisexual was handy, plenty of extra eye candy even if Nabiki was living like a nun (or at least as nuns were supposed to live), but it did cause the occasional problem. When she finally managed to force her eyes north, she found that those breasts' owner was smirking.

"Like what you see?" Meioh-dono asked, then laughed at Nabiki's deer-in-the-headlights look as the younger woman blushed crimson. "Relax, I'm not going to be insulted that you find me attractive — I'd be a hypocrite if I did, considering who's sharing my bed." Taking pity on her poor guest, she lowered herself until her breasts were again covered by water. "Anyway, as I said, I have a business proposition for you. I'd like to sell you the Meioh plantations in Daerah Selatan."

Nabiki froze again, jaw dropping. The Daerah Selatan plantations? Seriously!? Her mind raced as she thought of what she could do with plantations on both sides of the Empire, Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific facing the United States and Daerah Selatan archipelago with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, Australia to the south — if she could just manage that far-flung a business empire (for a moment her shock-benumbed mind considered the quirk of history that had a Japanese territory with a Latin name, before she shoved it aside). "Be great ... I ... I can't ... pay ... manage ... trouble already ... why!?" she babbled.

Meioh-dono giggled at how she'd reduced her guest to incoherency before replying, "Money's no problem, I'll give you a loan to cover the purchase — you'll find the terms very reasonable. As for managing it, that's another reason I wanted to talk to you."

She closed her eyes and leaned back again before continuing, "When you were running your little gang in high school, the qualities you looked for were loyalty and obedience, right? Subordinates that were observant enough, but mainly that would keep their mouths shut and follow orders."

"I ... well, yes, I suppose..." Nabiki managed to get out as her mind finally rebooted.

"That isn't going to work for you, not anymore, too hands-on ... small-time," Meioh-dono said. "You're already stretched beyond your limits, and you're about to lose some of your best managers in Hawaii because you won't leave them alone to do their jobs. You need to learn to pick people you can trust and trust them. Jump on them a bit when they screw up, of course, but give them room to make mistakes and a chance to fix the damage when they do. You only step in if they don't fix any systemic flaws that lead to mistakes or prove to be congenital screw-ups, or start fighting or empire-building. Your job is to provide an overall vision and keep your eye on the big picture."

Nabiki tucked away the fact that Meioh-dono still had well-placed spies among her Hawaiian workforce and undoubtedly would in Daerah Selatan as well, and nodded thoughtfully. "Okay, I can see that," she mused, "but it'll be quite a change in my style. Any books you could recommend for guidance on how?"

"I can do better. Since I'm selling you even more plantations, it would make sense for me to loan you someone to help manage the unification. Yosida-san has been with me for years, and since I became the Lady of Nerima has been handling his new role as troubleshooter flawlessly."

"Okay, sounds good." It also helped make Nabiki an unofficial part of Meioh-dono's business empire (even more of an unofficial part, really), but she desperately needed help with few people she trusted enough to accept help from — and only one with the resources and knowledge she needed at the moment that she trusted that much, if only because Meioh-dono had set her up in the first place. "So why are you selling the plantations to me? I thought you'd enjoy cleaning them up after what de Oro's little attack revealed."

"Those revelations are why I'm selling them to you." Meioh-dono opened her eyes and straightened again, and this time Nabiki was too focused on the discussion to be distracted by the again-revealed breasts (though she did tuck the image away for later daydreaming — Meioh-dono really did have a magnificent body). Her Lady continued, "When you accepted my invitation you called me 'the Commoner's Lady'. That's a handy label, with the reputation that goes with it, but that reputation is one of mercy — of rescuing a young woman ... girl, really ... who suddenly found herself out of her depth and following it up with rescuing as many Juuban commoners as I can manage. If I stomp on the bottom-feeders currently managing my Daerah Selatan plantations the way they deserve that public image of me as Kannon incarnate will be gone, and it's still too useful to me. But after Hawaii your own image is very different, and cleaning up Daerah Selatan will only enhance it. So what do you say, will you buy them?"

Nabiki sighed at the new workload, though at least now there was some light at the end of the tunnel. "You know I will," she said, "and thank you."

"No, thank you," Meioh-dono replied, then glanced past her guest. "And from the light over the bin, it seems your clothes are clean." She rose to stand in the furo and turned toward Nabiki, making her guest's mouth go dry as her eyes involuntarily roamed from water-beaded breasts to trimmed and water-dark green fuzzed pubic mound. "Let's get dressed and join Kodachi for dessert, you'll love it."