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


A few minutes earlier:

Kodachi glanced out of the corner of her eye at the two girls she had taken so much pleasure in teasing — okay, tormenting — for almost two years. Akane was keeping close to her fiancé with Usagi right behind them, but Ranma had insisted on walking without help, saying that whatever drug the Mentalist had used had worn off enough that she could handle herself. It had even been true, so long as she took it slowly — very slowly, in the beginning. But the redhead was recovering at a rate that the Kuno heir found surprising. Perhaps the sheer size of her ... his reserves is impacting the drug's effectiveness?

More than that, Kodachi was worried. A seed had been planted with Hanh's death and found fertile soil: how were the Kuno retainers going to react to their lord's death? There must be others as unhappy with the situation as Hanh had been, but unlike her shadow they hadn't been unhappy enough to set themselves up for failure and now Ukyo and Konatsu were dead and the Cat Café a massive hole in the ground. And there would be a brief window between her brother's death and her own recognition as the new Lady of Nerima by the Emperor — most likely, the majority of the ninja clan that had served the Family for generations would accept her authority in advance, but would they all? She didn't know — and if they didn't, and considered themselves honorbound to avenge the killing of the lord to whom they owed their allegiance ...

At first, she hadn't been all that worried, counting on the effects of that drug to keep Ranma out of the coming confrontation — all of the others, really; Akane would have been willing to stay behind to guard her temporarily helpless fiancé from any Kuno retainers that might stumble across her (the fact that she was pregnant would help; come to think of it, she hadn't mentioned that little fact to Ranma yet, had she?), and the blonde slave would have been happy to stay with them. But now Kodachi was scrambling for another excuse, there had to be some way to keep her new friend from killing a man he had come to respect, a respect that had become obvious in their idle chatter during the rest breaks of their sparring sessions. Not that the redhead had been exactly talkative about her time with her master, but the undercurrent had been clear. And Kodachi suspected that Ranma didn't know she knew just what the faint chill in the air around the redhead meant — her new friend was using the Soul of Ice to keep her emotions under control. She suspected Ranma had been using it since hearing of the death of her adopted sister. Yes, this had all the earmarks of a spectacular clusterfuck, and definitely not as pleasurable as her last one.

Honor, she decided reluctantly. It'll have to be honor. There is no earthly way that Ranma will accept a pragmatic excuse to give up his quest for my brother's death, and he knows I've been reading up on the various codes around the world, so he ought to believe me — at least, enough to let me talk him into doing what he wants to do, anyway. Of course, that means I'll have to finally pick one. Though why any sane person wants one ... The memory of Hanh's body flying toward her flashed through the gymnast's mind, her friend's head canted at an angle that had sent a bolt of fear through her ... the faint smile on the ninja's face as the life faded from her eyes... Kodachi forced the images away, pulled up the memory of the day Ranma had lectured her on the importance of honor, used the memory as a shield against her own pain. No, Ranma is right, even the honorless need honor in others to live, or have anything worth living for. And if I wish to keep the friendship Ranma seems to feel for me, I will need it as well.

Thinking of the book she'd found and studied, as much to annoy her brother when he learned of it as for its actual value, she smiled with bittersweet humor. The World's Honor had been an iconoclastic work, for the Empire at least. Certainly, a survey of the various forms of honor found throughout the planet's dominant cultures was not particularly controversial, but Kuramochi Seiji's assertion that they were of equal value with Bushido because they served the same basic purposes had been considered heresy by the more conservative members of Imperial society — including her tradition-bound stick-up-the-ass brother. But for all of its value as a stick with which to discreetly poke at her jailor, it had been truly useful for its ostensible purpose. So, ride tall, shoot straight, fear whatever God actually exists if any and no one else, dance with the one what brung you, and never back out on a handshake. The Americans' code of honor it is — one of them, at least. No surprise that when the ultimate individualists have to choose a code to build their society upon, they go with 'all of the above'. How those anarchists have managed to stay a single nation ...

Kodachi glanced around, focusing again on her surroundings, and the increasing volume of the sounds of destruction drifting through the halls — they weren't all that far from the command center and were going to be encountering the mob at any time, they needed to settle this. "Ranma, Akane, hold a moment, we need to talk," she called out softly.

The others stopped and turned to face her, Ranma leaning against the wall and crossing her arms in an attempt at nonchalance, Akane and Usagi on each side surreptitiously eyeing the girl between them. "What's up?" Ranma asked.

Kodachi took a deep breath and unconsciously crossed her arms in imitation of the redhead. "When we find my brother, he's mine," she said, voice flat.

"What!? No!" Akane shouted. "After what I've ... he's done —"

"Easy, Tomboy," Ranma broke in to say. "We both have claims — yeah, ya had ta act as second fer yer dad, but ya haven't been spending the last few weeks in Kuno's bed. I think you ... an' yer sisters ... owe me fer that."

Akane's mouth snapped shut on another shouted objection, her expression shifting from fury to guilty remorse in a heartbeat. "Ranma, I —" she started, reaching for her fiancé's hand only to pause, her gaze sharpening.

Kodachi suppressed an unladylike snort. Is she only now noticing how cold Ranma is?

"So, why you an' not me?" Ranma asked, her gaze fixed on Kodachi.

"Because I shoot my own dogs," Kodachi replied shortly.

All three girls stared at her. "You what?" Ranma asked.

"I shoot my own dogs," Kodachi repeated, smiling tightly at the others' confusion. "It's an American term — they get very attached to their dogs, and if one got rabies and became a danger to everyone it was its owner's job to kill it. They even made a movie about it, 'Old Yellow'. That seems rather apropos to our circumstances, does it not?" Sobering, she finished, "He's my brother. I'll deal with him."

Akane and Usagi said nothing, though the martial artist had a sympathetic expression Kodachi had never expected to see her former sort-of competitor show her. The Tendo and a distinctly greenish Usagi looked at a thoughtful Ranma.

The redhead finally nodded. "All right, you get first go. But if yer life is in real danger I'm steppin' in."

Kodachi glanced toward Akane, then down at the girl's stomach. Akane froze, then closed her mouth, undoubtedly swallowing a promise to jump in as well — the girl was actually able to pick up a hint if it was blatant enough. Good. Stay out of it, and you won't have a fight with your lover about staying and risking your baby. Focusing back to find Ranma staring expectantly at Akane (and with increasing confusion, undoubtedly at the lack of her usual insistence that she was a martial artist, too), Kodachi bowed and said, "I thank you for recognizing my honor. After the way I treated you I would have no right to object if you decided that I had none worthy of respecting." She straightened without waiting for a response. "Usagi-chan, you don't need to see this. Once we meet some of the mob and convince them you are our friend —"

But the slave was shaking her head, her jaw-length blond hair whipping across her cheeks even as her arms lifted to hug herself over her maid's apron. "No. I know I can't really do anything to help, but I need to see what happens."

Kodachi glanced at Akane, and the Tendo gave a faint nod. "No, Ranma," the Kuno heir said, overriding the redhead's protests. "She's been a part of this almost from the beginning, she has a right to be there at the end." And maybe concern for her safety will help keep you out of it. "Let's get this over with."

/\

She had been right, it had taken less than a minute after they started forward again to encounter the first of the mob. The initial meeting had been ... uneasy ... until the newcomers had been reassured by Ranma and especially Akane that the Kuno heir was on their side. The obvious fact that Ranma's sole garment was Akane's blouse hadn't helped, but for once the way Akane had hated Kodachi had turned out to be useful as well as amusing. Ranma was known for his forgiving nature, Akane much less so — if she was willing to give her longtime very public enemy a pass, the rioters weren't going to second-guess her. Especially considering the stories that had circulated of how she'd plowed through the Hentai Brigade before Ranma's arrival shut it down. Now the four moved through a sea of people chanting Ranma's name, the crowd growing ever larger as the shouted mantra attracted others to join and take up the chorus.

And then the four turned into the corridor leading to the command center, the mob immediately behind them falling silent, and they walked the final yards toward the stunned young man in traditional samurai robes staring at them.

/\

Usagi did not want to be there. As she walked alongside her new friends, the chant of her mistress's true name beating in her ears, she could feel the bloodlust in the air she moved through, the need to rend and tear, to see blood on the walls, all focused through the redhead in front of her, and more than anything she wanted to be back in her bedroom in the home she'd grown up in, her covers tucked up under her chin, and her mother there to keep away the monsters that walk by night.

But she was years past that — her home had gone up on the auction block, her family had as well and been scattered only the Powers knew where, and a young man had seen her shaking in fear up on the auction stage, had bought her and brought her to a new home where he had treated her with kindness, patience and undeserved respect, and eventually she liked to think love (if not the exact kind she had dreamed of). And now she and her friends — well, her friends, anyway — were going to kill him.

Then they'd turned the corner into a new hallway, Ranma and Akane in front Kodachi falling in beside the blonde slave behind, and Akane hissed, tensing. Usagi looked around the raven-haired girl, down the hallway, and gasped at the sight of her master standing in the center of a room she'd never seen before. He was still dressed in the robes he'd donned before leaving his quarters, but with dark splotches on them visible in the dim emergency lights. His eyes met hers, and she thought she could see pain at her apparent betrayal. Her shivering increased as the distance narrowed, and she found herself abruptly gagging as an indescribable stench washed over her. "Wh-what is that stink?" she gasped out.

"Death," Kodachi said, glancing toward the shuddering girl. Her stern gaze softened. "It isn't too late for you to go back," she murmured. "You really don't need to do this."

Her hand over her mouth, Usagi shook her head jerkily.

Kodachi sighed. "Very well, but at least stay in the corridor. You'll be in the way inside the room, and from the smell you don't want to be walking on that floor."

Usagi swallowed hard and nodded just as jerkily.

Then they reached the end of the hallway, and her master backed up as Ranma and Akane stepped into the room and split right and left to opposite sides of the doorway. Kodachi stopped in the middle of the doorway between the other two martial artists.

Usagi squeezed in beside Kodachi, forcing the Kuno heir to step to the side to make room. The younger girl looked into the room, and instantly wished she hadn't at the sight of pieces of ... two? three? four? ... bodies scattered on the floor in what seemed an endless pool of dark blood. She whipped her gaze up to look at the consoles and screens with their frozen images that filled the walls, to focus on anything but the carnage on the floor, and froze as she realized that she'd recognized one of the disembodied heads. Almost is if they had a will of their own, her eyes slowly shifted down to stare at the shock- and pain-filled face of the Master of Servants, eyes empty of life staring at her.

With that, she lost her fight to control her rising nausea. Whipping around she dropped to her knees and noisily emptied her dinner onto the rug covering the hardwood floor and spattering her hands and forearms. Without a word, Kodachi crouched beside her, putting down her weapons and pulling Usagi's short-cut hair back away from her mouth as the young slave fought to stop retching.

As Usagi sat back and desperately untied her apron to use to wipe herself clean of her own vomit, she heard her master say, "Truly, Saotome is a monster beyond all belief; not only does he once again warp my beauteous loves to rage against the true object of their affections and makes use of their bodies, but to ensnare another sweet flower in his sorceries and send her to such a scene! I already knew him to be a perverse coward, heartless and without honor, but surely he has now shown himself to be a true lover of pain and degradation of the innocent!"

"You're one ta talk, Ukyo's dead — my best friend an' sister. So's Konatsu, an' the Amazons, whoever was in the café when it blew, all at the hands a' yer goons. An' who knows what they left behind at the dojo — my folks, Akane's sisters." It was Ranma's voice, but like nothing Usagi had ever heard from her mistress. The older girl's voice was one of the things about her that Usagi had come to love, as expressive as her face — joy, pride, worry, nervousness, despair, gentle patience as she tried to train a klutz, her every mood laid bare to the world. But this voice was cold, as implacable as the glaciers the blonde had seen in a documentary for school, grinding inexorably down out of the Roof of the World.

For a long moment Tatewaki was silent, until he finally managed to reply, "That ... that was not by my orders. Pyo-san —"

"— even brought in a mind raper ta fix me an' Akane, make us fit yer dreams," Ranma cut in. "You'll find his body down in yer basement. But even if Pyo wasn't obeyin' yer orders, he was yer man, workin' ta make yer twisted delusions real. No, you're a mad dog, an' ya need ta be put down."

/\

Kodachi sighed and rose to her feet, tucking her ribbon into her sash and taking a club in each hand. That's my cue. She offered a hand to Usagi. The slave finished wiping her arms and dropped her soiled apron on top of her dinner before taking the offered hand and standing.

"Remember, stay in the hallway," Kodachi murmured, turning and striding into the control room even as Usagi spasmodically nodded. Almost instantly, Kodachi was stepping in blood — no way to avoid it, really, she found it hard to believe that three — no, four — bodies had that much blood in them. The wood floor didn't help, even with what had been spattered across the consoles and screens. She was going to be seeing this room again, in her nightmares. They all were. That's if you survive — focus!

There's an art to moving on slick surfaces, keeping the weight balanced on a secure leg while stepping, the other leg loose and flexible. It wasn't a skill Kodachi had learned training in her Art, rhythmic gymnastics rings didn't have plastic coating. Rather, she'd acquired it after a few embarrassing encounters with 'the redheaded harridan' — her ambushes of other schools' rhythmic gymnastics teams hadn't prepared her for facing an opponent equal in skill in a 'wild' environment. But she had persevered and learned, and while she'd actually been feeling a little guilty lately for the way she'd tormented Ranma and Akane, as she moved past her former toys further out onto the blood-slick floor, feet firmly placed and knees slightly bent, she was grateful for the experience. This dimly-lit, blood-splattered room was about as far from a rhythmic gymnastics martial arts ring as it was possible to get.

Her brother was practically sputtering, denying Ranma's charge of insanity and pleading with her to "again throw off the glamour of the foul wizard that had so long held her in abusive thrall." Though his tone seemed a little ... hesitant, maybe ... uncertain. Was he finally realizing just how badly he had mishandled things with his two 'loves'?

Kodachi took a deep breath. If so, it's too late. Time to end this. For a brief moment, she considered just attacking without warning — one quick whip of her ribbon, doing deliberately what she'd done accidentally to Hanh, what their retainers had done to the Amazons... No. Ranma is as honestly honorbound as any I have known, and he may see this as a duel. If I just kill my brother, he may never trust me. She stepped forward, toggling the buttons that popped the spikes in her clubs.

Her brother's eyes flicked toward her. "You at least, I am not surprised to find here arrayed against me," he ranted, voice firming, hesitance gone. "Was all your study of the ways of honor simply a blind, behind which you pursued your true intentions? Did the honorless coward need to ensorcel you, or was it enough to simply offer to make you head of the Family?"

Kodachi smiled back at her brother, a superior, haughty smile designed to infuriate. "No, actually I have you to thank for being here — if you hadn't forced the time and inclination to study upon me, I would never have realized that just because our people are hidebound and blinkered doesn't mean that the same is true for all others. So as I choose to accept responsibility for my own family's pointless atrocities — 'to shoot my own dog', as the Americans say — defend yourself."

Of course, being 'honorable' didn't mean being stupid. Even as she spoke Kodachi stepped carefully to the side, and by the time Tatewaki finished gaping at her and ignored his wakizashi to bring the Family sword up into a two-handed ready position, its forward angled blade canted toward her and glowing with ki for those with the ability to see it, she had placed herself between Ranma and her brother. Let's see you use one of your air pressure strikes with your precious 'pig-tailed girl' behind me, she thought with a smirk, before frowning slightly. The feel of the ground under her thin-soled competition slippers had changed, gone from slippery to a cold firm grip in a couple of steps. Risking a brief downward glance, her eyes widened at the sight of the blood at her feet, frozen. Ranma's Soul of Ice! It has strengthened — She broke off the thought; she'd worry about her friend's mental state later, at the moment it had given her an opportunity.

Shifting her stance slightly, Kodachi abruptly leaped upwards in a backwards flip over the redhead behind her, her feet slammed into the monitors lining the wall above the console, and she pushed, thrusting herself up into an arc over her brother. Even as she passed over his head, one ki-reinforced club swung for his temple as the other moved to block his inevitable strike ... and in that instant she almost lost the fight — and her life — as Tatewaki swung his katana up to meet her. Only the fact that Kodachi's club managed to twist the blade out of alignment even as the club's head was sliced in two by the strike saved her life. The flat of the Kuno blade smashed into her side, and her graceful arc turned into an out of control tumble before she slammed into the monitors behind him, dropped to the console below them, and rolled off to knock aside the seat in front of it and fall to the floor.

Kodachi rolled to the side as the air pressure from Tatewaki's follow-up swing blew the chair apart in an explosion of steel and wooden shrapnel and continued on to smash into the console she'd just fallen off of, sparks showering out as the console shattered under the impact.

Frantically rolling to her feet, slippers slipping and fighting for purchase on the blood-slick surface of the floor, Kodachi dropped the now useless club that had saved her life and yanked her ribbon out of her sash to send it spiraling out toward her brother. She was just in time for the ki-reinforced ribbon's spiral to break up Tatewaki's follow-up air pressure strike — instead of adding one more bloody explosion to coat the monitors, the almost-spent burst knocked her backward against another console.

She gasped at the stabbing pain of a rib snapping and again dropped to the floor. This time, she sent her ribbon whipping out to wrap around one of Tatewaki's ankles and yanked. Another stab of pain from her broken rib forced out a hissing shriek, but it worked — her brother's foot was yanked out from underneath, he hopped in an attempt to maintain balance, his free foot slipped in the blood and body fluids, and Nerima's lord fell backward, head cracking on the floor and arms thrown wide.

Kodachi dropped her last club and scrabbled at her sash, fingers finding one of the packets of sleeping powder she'd secreted there before leaving her suite, and she hurled it toward Tatewaki only to see him roll to the side out of its way instead of batting at it. As his katana flashed out to cut his ankle free — and reduce the length of her ribbon by a third — Kodachi's eyes widened as the packet sailed on to smack into a chair leg. The primer at its base exploded, blowing the sleeping powder into the air ... right next to Ranma. Unnoticed by the two combatants, the redhead had been slipping along the wall. Fortunately, the puff of powder was too low for her to breathe it in.

Right, keep brother dearest focused on me. Kodachi grabbed the club and rose to her feet, fighting through another stab of pain. And no more aerial gymnastics, she thought as Tatewaki also rose and stepped to the center of the room. I think the rib is too far to the side to puncture a lung, but let's not push it.

"Truly, you are skilled in your chosen Art," her brother intoned as he also rose, "to the point that your blatant cheating during competitions was pointless."

Kodachi shrugged, hiding a wince at the fresh stab in her side, keeping her attention focused on Tatewaki and not the redhead moving along the line of consoles behind him. Maybe one more aerial gymnastic routine. "Not true," she replied nonchalantly. "The cheating embarrassed Daddy Dearest, and that was the point. The training itself was for fun."

She circled around toward her brother's right, watching as he shifted to keep her centered. She was going to need to get him to drop the two-handed grip...

Again, she leaped up, thrust her legs back against the console behind her and pushed. Even as she flew up in an arc that would again carry her over her brother to the monitors mounted on the wall several yards to the left of his slave, she sent her shortened ribbon snaking ahead, threw her spiked club at his center of mass, held her breath ... and her brother's left hand released its grip on his katana's hilt to sweep his wakizashi from its sheath and intercept the club, cleaving it in half even as the katana swept to intercept her. Yes! With the last technique she'd secretly developed before their father's death, she directed her ki-saturated ribbon to whip around Tatewaki's right wrist and yanked to pull his hand out of position, alter her trajectory to drop her next to Ranma — and was jerked short as Tatewaki counter-pulled, slammed her down toward the floor.

She managed to twist to land upright, but her feet skidded on the blood- and gore-slick wood, slipped out from underneath her, and she used her ki-controlled ribbon to yank-twist again as she slid toward the wall even her brother pulled on the ribbon himself, throwing her further off-balance. The crack of her brother's snapping wrist was almost drowned out by her thin shriek as one canted foot slammed into the angle where wall and floor met. pain flashed up her leg to meet the stabbing pain in her side when she smashed into the console and she felt another rib go, above the first.

But the thud of steel on wood from the Kuno Family blade hitting the floor made it worth it.

Blinking teary eyes to focus on her brother in a world gone gray and hazy with pain, Kodachi had to admit that, whatever his faults, her brother was a hardy warrior. A second thud signaled his wakizashi dropping as he ignored his broken right wrist to crouch and reached with his left hand for the Family katana.

But even as he began to crouch, Ranma dove forward, sliding across the floor to snatch the katana from underneath her master's reaching hand. Her slide stopped just before reaching the chairs on the other side of the room, and she rolled to her feet and turned to face him, the half-buttoned blouse that was her only garment smeared dark with blood. More was on the tops and inside of her breasts left bare by the blouse's unbuttoned top half. Her hard eyes looked past Tatewaki to focus on Kodachi where she was holding herself up, leaning on the console she had collided with. "Kodachi, ya did good, but I'll take it from here," Ranma said, voice still cold and implacable.

Kodachi nodded before carefully seating herself in the chair beside her — however much she might wish it otherwise, all continuing the duel would accomplish was her death. "He's all yours," she replied, and Ranma's gaze shifted back to her master where he still half-crouched, staring up at her. She waited.

Kodachi glanced over to the hallway to find Usagi still standing there, Akane beside her. The blonde slave's wet cheeks shone in the dim emergency lights, and she clutched at the older girl's hand.

"Ranko, please," her brother said quietly, and Kodachi switched her gaze back to the combatants to find Tatewaki had picked up the wakizashi he had dropped and risen to his feet. His eyes were fixed on the redhead that had shared his bed for the past weeks even as he tucked his broken wrist into the folds of his robe. "You don't want to do this, I know it," he continued. "You can fight off that perverse coward's influence."

"No," Ranma replied, voice finally harsh. "No, I have too many dead — Ukyo, Konatsu, Shampoo, Mousse, Cologne-sensei, the innocent bystanders around the Cat Café, maybe Mom, Pop, Kasumi, Nabiki ... I owe 'em a death."

Tatewaki stiffened, but reluctantly nodded. "Very well, let us finish this." He took a deep breath, lifted his wakizashi, and turned slightly to present his left side to his slave.

Ranma waited another long moment, then lifted the Kuno Family blade in the two-handed grip she'd practiced in her sparring sessions with her master, and flowed across the floor toward him as if it was a competition mat and not blood-slick wood. The sound of skirling steel filled the room as she struck again and again, each blow rising, Tatewaki backing up and around the room. He parried her last overhand blow with upraised wakizashi as he stepped back again, and Ranma spun to the side and kicked up, her foot smacking into his wrist. As the wakizashi spiraled away to clang into a console, her katana swept up to slash into his armpit and through his shoulder, and his left arm fell away in a shower of blood.

Tatewaki stepped back without even trying to use his broken right hand to staunch the pulsing blood, his face calm, gaze fixed on Ranma's blue eyes. She gazed back without a word, dripping katana hanging limply at her side, as he dropped to his knees and then fell to his side. Only when his body finally rolled onto its back, empty, unblinking eyes staring at the ceiling, did she turn away and look around.

Akane gently broke Usagi's death-grip on her hand and rushed to embrace her lover, Ranma's free arm circling her waist, and Kodachi stood up from where she sat and stepped cautiously forward. She tried and failed to bite back a whimper at the pain that flashed up from her ankle, but it didn't seem to be broken and she slowly hobbled her way forward. Usagi, also rushing toward Ranma, glanced over at her new owner at the faint sounds of pain Kodachi couldn't keep from escaping, and detoured to her mistress to pull an arm up around her shoulder and circle an arm around the back of Kodachi's waist.

With the blonde girl's help Kodachi hobbled over to stop a few yards from the redhead she'd just inherited with her thumb tucked into her sash. "Ranma, I believe the Kuno Family blade is mine, now," she said softly.

Ranma broke her embrace of Akane and turned to face her new mistress. Her eyes were unreadable but two tear-tracks ran down her cheeks. "Kodachi, remember in the garden that first night, when ya asked me if my honor was worth all this?" she asked, voice unnaturally calm without the cold it had held before.

"Ranma, please give me the sword."

As if she hadn't heard Kodachi speak, Ranma continued, "I was wrong."

Instantly, the thumb Kodachi had tucked into her sash popped another packet of sleeping powder up into her hand and she threw it across the few yards between them. It hit the bare skin covering Ranma's breastbone just above the swell of her breasts, the primer flashed on impact, and the powder puffed up around Ranma's face just as she was sucking in a shocked breath. Within seconds, her eyes rolled up as she dropped the katana and collapsed into the arms of an equally shocked Akane. The raven-haired girl staggered under the sudden weight, and quickly lowered her unconscious lover and herself to the floor before she could fall. With Usagi's help, Kodachi knelt beside them, picking up the katana and taking one of Ranma's hands in hers.

Akane's face had been contorting in anger, but that stopped her. Taking a deep breath, she blew it out, expression relaxing as she did. "Why?" she quietly asked.

"I am uncertain of Ranma's mental state," Kodachi replied equally quietly. "I believe it would be best to let him sleep until we learn what transpired at the dojo."

Akane slowly nodded. "Thank you," she whispered.

Usagi knelt beside the other three girls. Kodachi gave her a strained smile. "Usagi, why don't you take Ranma for a few minutes? Akane needs to tell the mob waiting for word of what has happened — and that it would be best if they went home. I cannot imagine that word of this night's events hadn't gone out to our other holdings before ... whatever happened to our network happened." She looked around again at the frozen images on the majority of monitors that hadn't been broken in the fighting. "Takeuchi is a competent head of Security, he will be here with more of our people as soon as he has enough gathered in one place to not be overwhelmed when he arrives — within a few hours, at most."

Akane nodded and without a word shifted the sleeping redhead over to the blonde slave's lap, then rose and strode from the room.

Kodachi put aside the Kuno Family blade, and reached over to stroke Ranma's hair. She whispered, "No, Ranma, you were right."

/oOo\

Setsuna again strode through the halls of the Kuno mansion, Kuno ninjas and her bodyguards before and behind, several of the ninjas carrying battery-powered lanterns that Lieutenant Shinohara's people had provided — regularly carried along for those times they had to get out of their mini-tanks, apparently. The medical supplies had been delivered; the escorted tank haulers had arrived and left for the hospital with their loads of the worst wounded of the Kuno retainers. And though both ninjas and bodyguards were as alert as ever, the edge had been taken off their tension by the reports from both the police on the roof and ninjas keeping watch along the estate wall that the 'rioters' were quietly leaving the mansion through the same doors they'd entered. Whatever had happened inside, it was over.

Ironically, as her escort was relaxing, Setsuna was fighting to hide the way her own anxiety was ratcheting up with every step closer to the mansion control center. The way the Time Gates had lost all focus meant that after many centuries of having at least some idea of what was coming, she was flying blind — and the last time she'd done that over four centuries before hadn't turned out so well. She had considered ducking into a convenient bathroom and paying a quick visit to the Time Gates to see if they had changed since the fighting had started, but reluctantly decided against it. True, her departure and return would literally have no gap between them. But she wouldn't return in the same position, and she had no idea what kind of security cameras the Kunos' people might have in place.

Oh, stop your whining, she thought to herself. It's not like last time, if things don't work out now that just means they continue as they are — the Time Gates becoming balanced between futures is a good thing!

But the hope and fear warring within her wouldn't be appeased so easily, and as a distraction she considered the three mercenaries that had been searching the bodies on the estate grounds when her little group had returned with the medical supplies. They'd been clearly looking for someone — not bothering to search any of the bodies, just getting a view of each one's face and moving on — and while the snipers on the roof, being Captain Goto's people, wouldn't have fired on anyone that was clearly not a threat, the three wouldn't have known that when they began their search.

I'll have to acquire a copy of the video footage from the night scopes, see if my people can identify them, Setuna decided. People with that kind of loyalty need a better cause to fight for than whatever job their employer of the week has for them.

Then the first hints of death stench hit them, and her escort was suddenly no longer relaxed.

The stench grew worse the closer they came to their destination, until when they turned into the last corridor it seemed to have a physical weight. Setsuna's expression remained impassive, it wasn't anything she hadn't smelled countless times before (if not usually in quite so concentrated levels), but the complexions of her bodyguards' pinched faces were distinctly greenish and even the ninjas were gagging a bit behind the scarves across their lower faces.

Then the ninjas in the lead slammed to a stop. Setsuna waited for a long minute, then prodded her bodyguard in front. "Genpaku, get me through," she ordered.

He glanced over his shoulder at her, then at his fellow bodyguard behind her. "Motoyuki, keep her here," he ordered, and turned back to gently push his way through the ninjas in front of him. Then he was back, looking shaken. "It's safe, just a surprise," he reported. "Follow me."

A few moments later, Setsuna was in the control room. She'd seen the room before in the Time Gates, of course, but never like this — an abattoir to match the stench, awash in blood and gore and pieces of bodies scattered about. Including those of the latest lord of Nerima and the Master of Servants. Good.

Having taken in the gory scene in a glance, Setsuna focused on the huddle of girls in the middle of the room and felt her heart freeze at the sight of a limp Ranma lying in Akane's lap, Usagi and Kodachi kneeling beside the redhead and each holding a hand. Then Ranma's bountiful chest rose with a breath, and Setsuna swayed in place, lightheaded with relief — unconscious, not dead. Whatever else happened — had happened — at least some good was salvageable out of this mess.

She took a moment to regain her composure, then gently touched the hand Genpaku had laid on her shoulder to steady her before striding forward.

The three girls looked up at her approach, and Kodachi's eyes widened in shock as she recognized the fashion mogul. "Meioh-san, what are you doing here?" she demanded.

Setsuna knelt in front of them, just as heedless as the girls of the bloody floor. "Seeing that your brother is dead, I'm here to make you an offer," she replied. "The House of Kuno is in dire straits — your home estate sacked, your security forces scattered, your resources stretched to the breaking point. The only thing that has kept the attacks on your holdings from crippling you is the Imperial Army taking responsibility for guarding some of your properties. Even now, this estate is being protected by a detachment of the Shogun's security and only unofficially — they are on leave, temporarily hired to train my own security. When they return to their regular jobs, you will have to bring home your own security to replace them and inevitably leave openings for the circling vultures. Alone, with an untested young woman with a reputation as a hedonist as head of the Family, it is unlikely that you will last a month."

Kodachi nodded soberly. "True, most likely. And your alternative?"

"I would like to adopt you." Around them, the ninjas that had escorted Setsuna froze. Her bodyguards were just as abruptly on alert, stepping to each side of her and turning outward to split the room between them. Setsuna ignored them, her eyes fixed on the last living Kuno.

Kodachi stared back for a long moment. At last she asked, "Why would you want to throw yourself into this snake pit by becoming the head of House Kuno?"

"It isn't a matter of want," Setsuna replied, "There's a job that needs doing, and I need the resources and position this would give me to do it. One correction, though — I want to become the head of House Meioh, not Kuno. I have no children nor will have any in the future, so you would be my heir and the line would pass through your children. But the Family name would be mine."

Kodachi gazed at the emerald-haired woman kneeling in front of her for a long moment, and Setsuna could almost see the thoughts flashing through the girl's eyes, considering her options, a task made easier by the fact that she didn't really have any. She glanced around the room at her family retainers present. "What would you do with the Family's slaves?" she asked.

Setsuna shrugged. "Depends on the slave. The college graduates paying off their loans? Nothing. But any from Juuban are going to have their debts paid off and be freed, and I'll be buying and freeing as many Juubanites that were purchased by others as I can. And Ranma will not only be freed, but thanks to how high the bidding went during his auction he'll be a very wealthy young man."

Kodachi's eyes sharpened at the mention of Ranma, an unspoken promise of pain if Setsuna didn't do as she'd said, but then the last living Kuno looked down at the unconscious redhead whose hand she held before reaching out to gently stroke flame-red hair.

"No," she finally said, "there will be no children. We Kunos have done enough damage to the world, I will be the last."

Setsuna waited a long moment, tight nerves singing. When Kodachi failed to continue, she asked, "So do you accept?"

Kodachi nodded without looking up. "Yes, I accept."

Against every effort to prevent it, Setsuna's breath gusted out in relief as the world seemed to float with the weight lifting off her shoulders. When she felt she could trust her voice, she said, "Then we need to get moving. We have a long night and a longer day ahead of us if we are to hold off disaster."


The chapter title comes from the poem by Rudyard Kipling, about the first major battle of the English Civil War:

Edgehill Fight

Naked and grey the Cotswolds stand
Beneath the autumn sun,
And the stubble-fields on either hand
Where Stour and Avon run.
There is no change in the patient land
That has bred us every one.

She should have passed in cloud and fire
And saved us from this sin
Of war—red war—'twixt child and sire,
Household and kith and kin,
In the heart of a sleepy Midland shire.
With the harvest scarcely in.

But there is no change as we meet at last
On the brow-head or the plain,
And the raw astonished ranks stand fast
To slay or to be slain
By the men they knew in the kindly past
That shall never come again—

By the men they met at dance or chase,
In the tavern or the hall,
At the justice-bench and the market-place,
At the cudgel-play or brawl—
Of their own blood and speech and race,
Comrades or neighbours all!

More bitter than death this day must prove
Whichever way it go,
For the brothers of the maids we love
Make ready to lay low
Their sisters sweethearts, as we move
Against our dearest foe.

Thank Heaven! At last the trumpets peal
Before our strength gives way.
For King or for the Commonweal—
No matter which they say,
The first dry rattle of new-drawn steel
Changes the world to-day!