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


"Father, Father, Father, you really should have listened to our suggestion and moved on to greener pastures."

Hiroshi was unsure if his sigh at the sound of the rough voice was from resignation or relief. On the one hand, even after almost a year of intermittent training his fighting skills were close to nonexistent — for Nerima, at least. He'd simply been too busy learning the ropes as Nabiki's right-hand gofer to train much. But on the other hand, he'd been keeping himself tucked out of sight in the chapel of Juuban's newest Christian church for hours without moving. He wasn't stiff, he'd at least learned avoid that, but he was ready to move.

"Hey, maybe he's looking to make himself into a martyr, like the rest of the losers the kurisuchan are always gassing on about. He's certainly stupid enough to be one, ignoring our earlier warning. What do you say, guys, should we accommodate him? You think your Pope can use a new saint, Father?"

Hiroshi tapped his communicator in the short pattern signifying MOVE, then rose and stepped around the low wall of the choir's 'loft'. He picked up the staff that had been lying down out of sight on one of the pews, then ambled down the aisle toward the small band of four twenty-something otokodate thugs facing off against the preacher. Hiroshi had to give the Reverend William Jenkins points for staying cool under pressure. He actually seemed amused by the threats, even with those threats being punctuated by a display of a variety of pointy objects (though the two with sais were purely showing off, especially considering that the way they were holding them shouted their lack of skill — he might actually be more experienced than those yahoos). Of course, if Hiroshi's suspicions about just what Father Bill had been before he became a minister were true, the priest probably really did find the thugs more amusing than anything else — even leaning on the cane he needed to walk.

As if to prove Hiroshi's assessment true, Father Bill was smiling wryly. "You boys didn't do your homework," he asked, chuckling. "I'm Anglican, not Catholic, the Pope is no Pope of mine."

The head punk — Daisuke, Hiroshi thought, one of the leaders of the street thugs working for the Juuban otokodate (as opposed to a Neriman otokodate 'thug', Hiroshi thought wryly, thinking of his abrupt change in career paths almost a year ago and trying to ignore the shiver that went through him at the name of his dead best friend) — tapped his small knife on the priest's chest. He demanded, "Do you think I give a fuck which pissant collection of barbarians you belong to?"

The priest's grin grew hard. "You should," he said, "I am very different from the kurisuchan you know."

Daisuke began to snarl a response, only to break off when the tap-tap of Hiroshi's staff on the church floor finally registered. The thug glanced over toward Hiroshi and stiffened, then turned away from the priest to face him. "Who the fuck are you?" he demanded.

Hiroshi stopped six feet away from Daisuke and (apparently) leaned on his staff — the staff that had become a standard accessory in Nerima and was rapidly spreading through Juuban. He shrugged nonchalantly. "Nobody important, just someone concerned about an apparent assault on a holy man."

"What 'holy man'?" Daisuke sneered. "I don't see a holy man, I just see a gaijin sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. You following his example? Do you know who I am?"

Hiroshi grinned. "Yeah, I do. You're an attack dog for the Juuban bottom-feeders pretending to be otokodate. Your job is to keep things nasty here, so more kids will join your pack — which is why you're threatening Father Bill, he's getting in your way." He laughed when Daisuke gaped at him like a beached fish.

The laughter blew away Daisuke's shock, his mouth snapping shut as his face flushed with anger. He started to step forward, knife rising, when one of the others grabbed his shoulder.

The underling hissed, "Daisuke, that's Hiroshi, he works for Tendo."

Daisuke paused and examined Hiroshi before nodding. "I think you're right," he agreed, and suddenly grinned viciously. "You called me an attack dog?" he said to Hiroshi. "Better an attack dog than an errand boy. I'm surprised you had the guts to come alone."

Hiroshi grinned back. "What makes you think I came alone?" he asked. "Guys, why don't you say hello?"

The door leading from the chapel to the class rooms swung open, and several teenage boys stepped through, while two boys and a girl walked through the open doors to the street. None of them were carrying staves, but the boys were holding large knives (Hiroshi had been told they had been designed over a hundred and fifty years ago by an American named Bowie — he was glad that he'd never meet the man), and the girl held a very illegal revolver (for her, anyway — she wasn't samurai). They were all wearing the blue-and-red colors of one of Juuban's new street gangs.

The four thugs looked around uneasily at the latest to join the party. Hiroshi didn't know if they recognized the five teenagers, but even if they didn't, the sheer cold-blooded menace the newcomers seemed to radiate should have been enough to make anyone nervous.

Daisuke glanced at his followers, and was smart enough to realize that he'd just lost the confrontation. Turning back to face Hiroshi, he snarled, "We know where your family lives!"

Hiroshi didn't lose his grin. "You're Nakajima Daisuke. You still live at home with your mother, Sakue, your father's dead. You are the oldest of three children, your oldest sister attending university and your younger sister still in high school. Your family's home mortgage is with the bank owned by Juuban's Takada Family. They are currently allied with Meioh-dono in thanks for what's she's done for Juuban, and are your personal lords — the new rules preventing a noble from calling in debt owed by commoners not under his authority whenever he chooses don't protect you. It would be a shame if Lord Ren chose to make use of his right to call in your debt, I doubt you'd be able to repay it. Your entire family might end up having to put yourselves up on the auction block to cover it."

Cocking his head to one side, Hiroshi thoughtfully considered the suddenly pale thug. "Though I suppose your bosses might float you the money — you've been a loyal foot-soldier, they're bound to return that loyalty ... right?" He glanced at the other three thugs. "Let's see, Arai Mushanokoji, Shintaro Eiji, and ... SaitouNobuyoki, right?" He grinned as the three also paled. "Yeah, we have files on you three, as well," he said. "We did our research before deciding to help out in Juuban."

He straightened, the grin vanishing as he turned grim. "Now I think we're done here."

The thugs glanced around at the teenagers surrounding them. There was only one more of the Tendo people than their four — but from the focus of the thugs' gaze the massive 'knives' (really, they were short swords in all but name) and the revolver the girl held oh so casually were a lot more intimidating than the hand-length blades they'd brought. After a long, tense moment, Daisuke nodded toward the door to the street.

The boy that had come through that door, Ho Kan, shifted well out of the way as the thugs approached, and they silently walked out.

Daisuke turned around in the doorway, and quietly asked, "Do you think this is over?"

Just as quietly, Hiroshi replied, "No, it's only the first skirmish. I'm sure we'll be seeing each other again."

Daisuke simply nodded, then turned and followed his underlings. Ho Kan walked over to the doorway and looked out, then closed the door and turned the deadbolt.

As soon as the door closed, Hiroshi collapsed into the nearest pew and started to shake, his heart pounding in his chest.

Father Bill stepped over and placed a hand on Hiroshi's shoulder. "You did well, my son. You showed admiral self-control as long as it was needed. There is no shame in getting the shakes afterward."

"Thanks, Father." Hiroshi took deep, almost gasping breath after deep, almost gasping breath until he finally relaxed, his heart rate no longer so noticeable.

The priest dropped onto the pew next to Hiroshi. "You weren't bluffing, were you?" he quietly asked.

Hiroshi shook his head. "No, Father, I wasn't."

Father Bill sighed. "I thought so. Was it really necessary to threaten their families?"

Hiroshi shrugged. "We aren't Americans, Father," he replied. "We don't put as much value on our own lives as you do, but families are important — even extended ones. Why do you think the punishment for treason still includes selling the traitor's family into slavery? And that's actually a weakening of the original law — before it was changed, the rest of the family would have been crucified right next to the traitor. No, Father, if I had threatened them, we'd have simply gotten blood all over your new floor and kicked off a gang war. Now they'll pull back, wonder how much we know about them, wonder if the Takada Family is really on our side instead of staying neutral like the Families and Clans normally do when it comes to squabbles between otokodate gangs. By the time they move against us, we'll be so firmly planted here in Juuban that they'll never know what hit them."

"But if they had attacked you, there still would have been that blood all over the floor."

"And we would have left at least one of the four alive to deliver the message we gave them, then done exactly what we'd promised to their families. It would have the same effect either way."

Hiroshi pushed himself to his feet before adding, "If it makes you feel better, Father, I suspect Nab — Tendo will ask Meioh-dono to buy back any of the families that get sold into slavery once Juuban is ours, at least the family members that don't work directly for the otokodate infesting the district. It'll add more weight to Meioh-dono's rep and help Tendo sleep better at night. Along with the knowledge that Juuban won't become a false otokodate recruiting center and replace Nerima as the the perversion capital of the Empire."

He strode over to the other teenagers. Misake, give your gun to your brother," he called out to the raven-haired girl. "You'll be staying here until relieved. If any so-called otokodate show up to attack Father Bill don't interfere, but make sure you get pictures so we know whose families to target."

Misaki nodded, handed off her revolver to the boy next to her and strode past Hiroshi to the still-sitting priest. "Looks like you have a new secretary for awhile, Father," she said with a friendly smile.

Hiroshi motioned for the rest to follow him. At the door to the street, he turned around. "You're not in America anymore, Father," he said, "and it's a hard world. But if we all do our part, maybe — at least here in Juuban — it'll be a better one."

When Hiroshi arrived at the pest-infested hole he was bunking at, he was surprised to find a courier waiting for him with instructions to report to Nabiki in person — immediately.

/oOo\

Kasumi hummed softly to herself as she swept the hallway between the kitchen and the family room. She was smiling as she replayed her memory of the stunned expression on Hiroshi's face when he stumbled out of Nabiki's bedroom/office. From what the matriarch of the Tendo family had overheard through the cracked open door, Nabiki had taken Meioh-dono's advice to delegate to heart in more ways than one, and promoted Hiroshi from primary gofer to temporary head of Japan's newest otokodate gang while she was on vacation. Apparently, that promotion had been something of a surprise.

But Kasumi's amusement was short-lived, her smile vanishing as her attempt to distract herself proved momentary and her thoughts returned to the subject of the circular rut they'd worn since her nighttime conversation with her sister — a baby.

She had considered a baby of her own before, from time to time in a 'wouldn't it be nice' sort of way. Then Akane had responded to her little joke by both suggesting that Ukyo could use a playmate and offering Ranma to provide said playmate, and Kasumi's daydreams had crystalized to the point that she was finding herself needing to fight off bone-deep envy of her sister and brother-in-law's joy in their tiny daughter.

When she'd finally realized just how badly she wanted a baby of her own she hadn't been sure if Akane's offer of Ranma as father had been serious. She still wasn't sure — was mostly sure Akane had been joking, actually, from her little sister's body language since — but had run into a serious problem: who else could she find for a father? The only name she could come up with that would be worthy was Ryoga, and the Lost Boy's directional curse could be a major problem — she was at the most fertile point in her cycle now. Besides, there was that directional curse — it was inheritable, and the thought of her child wandering away and ending up halfway around the world was terrifying. No, at the present time it was Ranma or nobody. And Akane had almost certainly been teasing her.

Kasumi's thoughts about a baby had occupied her days and haunted her nights when the nightmares no one else knew about woke her up (unlike others she neither screamed or shouted, nor walked the halls in the middle of the night), until maintaining her usual serene mask had become a strain almost impossible to bear. Still, she'd been able to put off saying anything because there hadn't really been anything that could be done about it. But now her cycle had reached peak fertility and soon Ranma would be using waterproof soap to lock himself in female form for Nabiki's working vacation (after all, the plantations were owned by Tendo Ranko, not Saotome Ranma), and she'd run out of time.

Then the wails of a baby waking up hungry came faintly through the ceiling, and Kasumi straightened and leaned her broom against the wall. That sound over the baby monitor Akane kept with her at all times would pull her away from the dojo where she was training with the others, Nabiki had left with Hiroshi for some thankfully unknown reason (Kasumi had decided that when it came to Nabiki's otokodate activities, she didn't want to know). There would be no better time to have that talk. Kasumi started to shake.

/\

She'd been right, when she stepped into Akane and Ranma's bedroom her little sister was sitting on her bed, baring one breast for Ukyo to suckle at. Akane smiled down fondly at her baby as hungry wails were replaced by contented sucking, then glanced up at her sister. Her fond smile instantly vanished, replaced by concern. She asked, "Kasumi, what's wrong?"

So much for my public persona, Kasumi thought wryly. She took pride in her ability to maintain a serene front no matter what, and her failure now was just one more sign of how badly this was affecting her.

Rather than answer, Kasumi pulled the chair out from under Akane's desk and sat down. She struggled to speak, but found the words wouldn't come. Come on, Kasumi, surely the woman that fought to defend her family can talk to her sister!

Finally, when the clearly worried Akane began to fidget where she sat, Kasumi managed to say, "Akane, when you offered Ranma as the father of my children ... were you joking?"

Akane's worried expression vanished, her face suddenly blank. "You've decided you want a child, then?" she asked.

"Yes, I do. I've been trying to think of another man but the only one I can think of is Ryoga and he's never around because of his curse and I'm fertile now and I don't want a child that wanders off to other continents and and I can't find where Tofu moved when he left and I don't want some random —" Kasumi realized she was babbling and cut herself off.

Akane giggled, the blank expression that had been scaring Kasumi vanishing with the sound. "I don't think I've ever heard you do that," she said with a smile. Then Ukyo started fussing and she glanced down as she bared her other breast and shifted her daughter over. When she looked back up she was still smiling. "No, I wasn't joking. Just — it's hard. Ranma's mine."

"We could use artificial insem —"

"No!" Akane snarled, glaring at her sister for a moment, before relaxing with a sigh. "No," she repeated, quietly this time, "that's no way to make a baby, not unless there's no other way. Babies are made with joy and pleasure and love, not ... tools. I'll talk to Ranma, you can expect a late-night visitor in your bed tonight. The next few nights, too, I think, just to be sure." Then putting on a mock-stern expression, she added, "Remember, this is a loan! No matter how good he is in bed, you don't get to keep him."

She started giggling again as Kasumi felt her cheeks heat up. Kasumi hid her face in her hands for a moment as Akane's giggles turned into laughter, then abruptly stood up and walked over to the bed. She sat down next to her sister and pulled her into a one-arm hug, taking care not to disturb the still-feeding Ukyo. "Thank you, little sis, I love you too," she whispered before fleeing the room. She was lucky she had a lot of cleaning, at least by her standards — she was going to need to keep herself busy if she wanted to avoid a nervous breakdown, and it would also allow her to avoid both Akane and Ranma for the rest of the day. She doubted she'd be able to look either in the eye without blushing, and she had a reputation to maintain, after all — however threadbare it might have become with those that loved her.