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

"So it was a complete fiasco," Gendo said, face expressionless as he gazed across his work desk at Katsuragi Misato.

His officer in charge of the Ikari Clan's black operations nodded where she stood, carefully not wiping at the sweat beading her forehead. "Yes, my lord, it was. Our people barely made it over the estate wall before they were cut down and attacked from behind, and were unable to remove the communications equipment from their dead before leaving and so making it impossible to claim they were members of the mob."

"I see." Gendo gazed sternly at his subordinate over steepled fingers for long minutes. "And to what do you attribute our failure?"

She hesitated for a brief moment, before her shoulders slumped with a sigh. "In all likelihood, we're compromised," she reluctantly admitted. "Meioh-san — Meioh-dono, now — had her hired guns in place well before the attack started. And an impressive group of 'hired guns' they were, too, a unit of the Shogun's own crowd control — even if the Kuno retainers hadn't somehow maneuvered to attack our ronin from the rear, the issue would have been settled when the mini-tanks showed up."

"I agree." Gendo maintained his hard gaze for another long moment, before twitching his shoulders in a faint hint at a shrug. "And that is why we've come out ahead." He smiled thinly as Katsuragi visibly fought not to sag where she stood, then pointed to the seat beside her and waited until she settled into it to continue. "Our lost assets are some Kuno arms that would lose most of their value as soon as Meioh-dono begins putting her own mark on her security's weaponry, and some reliable but easily replaced ronin, all in an operation that was a hasty toss of the dice anyway. In return, we have learned of the existence of a probable mole among our people. Do you believe that mole is likely to know of our long term plans for the now-Meioh Family?"

"I do not believe so," Katsuragi answered slowly, silently noting that their vendetta against the Kuno Family was still on, in spite of the change of Name. "This operation was purely military, and mercenary at that. I have been reviewing which of our people knew enough about the Nerima operation to supply Meioh-dono with the details, and who they regularly come into contact with, and there is no overlap between the two operations other than the two of us that I can find."

Gendo considered the raven-haired woman's statement, then nodded. "Good enough for now, though I will want to review the relevant records later myself. So, I am sure you must have some preliminary proposals for how we smoke out the mole."


Almost an hour later, Gendo watched the door to his office close behind his departing black operations officer. As soon as he heard the door latch click into place he jerked to his feet, knocking his office chair back. Ignoring the chair careening across the room, he strode to the window of one-way glass and snarled out at the mid-morning view of his wife's ancestral estate as he hammered his fist against the wall, then again. We could have had it all! A little luck with the street samurai, we had everything ready to go to take advantage of the sudden power vacuum, and then that common-born bitch had to interfere!

Sucking in one shuddering breath after another, he slowly fought down his raging anger-filled hate until he finally brought his expression back under control, then turned back toward his desk. This isn't even a setback. In a few years the Plan will come to fruition, and I will be the guiding power of a united Empire, ready to begin the process of bringing peace and order to the world — and the last blood of the man that shattered Yui's spirit and killed our children will be blotted away.

Pulling back the seat he'd knocked away, he sat and reached underneath to press the button that brought up the desk's monitor and slid the cover away from his keyboard. But it seems that Meioh-dono may be setting herself up as an obstacle to both my goals, so let's see just what assets she has available.


Nabiki strode past the slave that had escorted her through the maze that was the Kuno mansion into the conference room, and slammed to a stop at the sight that greeted her. When the call had found her at the hospital asking her and Xian Pu to attend Nerima's new Lady to discuss Ranma's future, she had expected to find herself joining Kodachi and worried that the last surviving Kuno was reverting to type and intended to keep Ranma for herself — it could even be said to be reasonable, considering the hit the Kuno finances would take from an early complete payment of what the Kuno Family owed 'Ranko', thanks to that insane auction.

But while Kodachi was indeed waiting for her in the well-lit room (the Kuno retainers had overridden her little virus faster than Nabiki had expected), she wasn't alone, nor was she occupying the seat at the head of the long conference table. The emerald-haired woman sitting in the room's pride of place was pale, baggy-eyed from lack of sleep — and instantly recognizable to any Japanese that closely followed the business news feeds. Nabiki's mind raced for reasons for the fashion mogul's presence and seating arrangement, and came up with an incredible but obvious answer.

As the last surviving Amazon in Nerima stepped around her, Nabiki bowed. "Meioh ... -san? This is a surprise."

Setsuna motioned to the seats to her left, across the table from Kodachi. "As it seems you've guessed, it's Meioh-dono now, the announcement from the Imperial Palace has already been sent to the Houses and should be hitting the news feeds at any time. Nabiki, Xian Pu, please sit." As the two teenagers took the indicated chairs, she continued, "Anything new at the hospital?"

"No, not since Kuno-dono's ... since your people first found us," Nabiki replied. "Nodoka is still under observation after the operation to reattach her hand, and Kasumi is still sleeping off her sedation. Ranma and Akane?"

"Still the same, Ranma under sedation waiting until his mother can be there when we wake him up. Akane apologizes for not being here but she doesn't want to leave his side, even if Usagi would still be with him. I'll have someone take you to her when we're done here."

Shifting her attention to Xian Pu, Setsuna said, "Xian Pu, I am sorry for your loss. I know there is nothing that can replace your great-grandmother and friend, but if there is anything I can do to help, please let me know."

Xian Pu stiffened, face twisting with angry grief. After taking a moment to get herself back under control, she nodded jerkily, then winced. "Shampoo do that. Why Shampoo here? Should be with Nodoka and Kasumi." Guarding them, seeing how their current guards were trying to kill them just a few hours ago, she didn't add but Nabiki heard anyway.

Setsuna seemed to hear it as well, and a crooked smile crossed her face. "This won't take long, at least for you," she assured the Amazon. "It's about Ranma's curse. Am I correct in assuming that whatever is needed to unlock it was at the Cat Café when it was destroyed?"

Shampoo nodded. "Is true, everything there. Shampoo know everything needed, but some very very rare. Only place Shampoo know where found is home, and Shampoo maybe not welcome there now, death of great-grandmother too too big blow to village and it because of Shampoo Kiss of Marriage."

"That will not be a problem," Setsuna said firmly. "I'll see to it that you have an escort from both Meioh Security and the Imperial Army, and blood price for the loss of Mu Tse and an elder of Ku Lon's standing, doubled for the treacherous way they were murdered. Perhaps also an offer of alliance and employment would be welcome? I could certainly use warriors of your people's caliber and honor, and I imagine Nyucheizu could use the foreign currency."

"That matter for Council," Xian Pu answered shortly, then sighed and gave a (this time careful) nod of respect to the older woman. "But Shampoo grateful for help, maybe able go home."

"It is the least I can do after all you have lost. Let me know when you are ready to return to Nyucheizu and I'll make arrangements."

Xian Pu hesitated for a moment, then added, "Meioh-dono understand, unlock maybe not work? Sometimes yes, but too too often no."

Setsuna nodded. "I understand. We do the best we can, and what happens happens."

Shifting her focus back to Nabiki, she continued, "Nabiki, I know Ranma will have to give his approval once he is awake, but I thought we could have a preliminary discussion of his future."

Nabiki shrugged. "Why me? I'd think Akane would be the one you want to talk to, if you want to influence what Ranma does with his life."

"Normally yes, but in this case I want to discuss his future legal status, and for that I believe you are the best choice."

Carefully keeping herself from stiffening, Nabiki smiled tightly. "I see. Yes, I suppose I'm the best choice, at that. You are planning to free him?"

"Of course, it isn't like I'll be able to hold him now that Kuno-dono is dead. But there's a problem."

"The amount that Kuno bid for 'Ranko' at the auction?" Nabiki hazarded.

Setsuna nodded. "Yes. I know, I bid almost as much, but I have other uses for those funds, along with what I can bring in from selling excess holdings — I'll be buying the freedom of as many of those forced into slavery during the Kuno hostile takeover of Juuban as I can, as well as providing them with a buffer until they can get back on their feet."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Very noble of you," she said, a hint of mocking doubt in her voice. "I imagine that will do wonders for your reputation among the commoners. But yes, that will take a good deal of cash, and dumping that many holdings on the market all at once is going to really cut into what you can get for them if you're trying to sell them in a hurry." She grinned suddenly, a harsh, hungry grin. "You could just let me know what the present value of the total owed to Ranma is and I could use that to do some bidding of my own."

Kodachi snorted laughter from where she sat as Setsuna raised an eyebrow of her own. "Unfortunately, as I said, part of the reason I'm selling off that property now is in order to pile up cash, not just relieve debt and overhead," the emerald-haired woman said, then smiled. "But I believe you will like my counteroffer — all the Kuno plantations on the island of Hawaii."

Nabiki froze, mind boggling. That was ... was ...

"I understand that the fair market value of those plantations is somewhat higher than the present value of what I owe to Ranma," Setsuna continued, seeming oblivious to Nabiki's shock, "though the total is likely lower than what you could purchase if you joined the bidding as you suggested. However, the plantations will also be centrally located and so easier to manage."

And right at the edge of the Empire closest to the United States, Nabiki thought. She had spent hours at the hospital while waiting for word on Nodoka and watching over her sleeping older sister, thinking furiously the entire time about where to go from there — and Setsuna's offer, both income and location, had just expanded the possibilities exponentially. Of course, both plantations and income will belong to Ranma, not me — well, 'Ranko', officially — but I don't think he'll mind the use I want to put them to... "As you said, I'll have to run it by Ranma, but that would probably be acceptable," she replied, then shrugged. "You can assume that he'll go for it — unlike his father, money as such has never meant all that much to him. So long as his mother and my sisters are cared for, he isn't going to care much about the details."

"That is my impression as well," Setsuna agreed. For a moment she leaned her elbows on the table and rubbed at her eyes, before straightening and pushing a button built into the table in front of her. A door behind her slid open, and several slaves stepped into the room. "Very well. Nabiki, Xian Pu, why don't you two check in with Akane? Then, Nabiki, I can have the steward I've just inherited give you a quick overview of the plantations in question. You can go over the details at your leisure. Xian Pu, before you return to the doctors' clutches as the hospital, make a list of the ingredients you need for unlocking Ranma. I have some connections of my own, you may not need to return to Nyucheizu for them."

The two girls bowed, made their farewells, and rose to follow their new guides from the room.


Kino Makoto rose from her couch and turned off the wall-mounted monitor used for watching shows, then tossed the remote back to where she'd been sitting. The online news-stream from Nerima was long past hard news on the riots and stunning rise of a commoner to Head of the lording, and deep into speculation as to what those events meant. The only new news was the first partial list of the dead from the Cat Café explosion, and it seemed that there wasn't going to be a similar list for the dead from the attack on her previous home of two years.

She briefly considered calling Ami again to see if she'd found Usagi, but decided against it. The call monitor at the Kuno — Meioh — estate remembered Makoto and had been kind enough to locate Ami where she was helping with the clean-up and connect her before, but now that Makoto knew her friend was unharmed the call monitor wasn't likely to be as understanding. And if Ami had been able to find Usagi, the somewhat ditzy blonde would have already called, falling all over herself to apologize for not calling earlier and making Makoto worry about her.

Fresh tears spilled down the brunette's grief-roughened cheeks, determination crystallizing as she remembered the images of the burned out lording government offices and auction center, and the bodies strewn across the Kuno — Meioh — estate lawn, the call from Haruka, of all people, gently advising her not to visit the Hikawa Shrine that day because the rest of the Senshi would be there celebrating a good man's death. Striding into her bedroom, she pulled the suitcase she'd been given along with her freedom and started tossing in her clothes without a care for neatness or wrinkles. She'd be taking her phone with her, after all, Ami could call her with news of Usagi wherever she was.

"Going somewhere?"

Makoto whirled to find Sailor Pluto standing in the doorway, the black-and-white fukued woman leaning on the Garnet Staff. Instantly, Makoto's henshin wand was in her hand, lifting over her head — and she froze as Pluto shifted, straightening and lifting her staff to point it toward her. There was no way she would have time to transform before Pluto could respond, and even the weakest Dead Scream she had seen would be enough to blow her across the room, through the window and into the street — four stories above street level.

She stood there frozen in place for a long minute, before relaxing. She turned to place the wand on her dresser and resumed packing. "You can have that back, I won't be needing it anymore."

"Keep it, it's yours even if you aren't working for me," Pluto said quietly. "Where are you going?"

Makoto glanced over to find the Senshi of Time again leaning on her staff. "Anywhere but here," she replied shortly.

"You haven't been working in the hospital kitchen long enough for it to matter to other employers, how are you going to make a living?"

"If I can't find anything else, I'll just have to go back to whoring — it worked for me for the last two years with Kuno-dono, after all."

Pluto sighed. "It isn't the same, you know that."

Makoto slammed the suitcase shut and whirled around. "What do you care?!" she shouted, fresh tears rolling down her cheeks as she shook with the effort to keep from throwing herself across the room at the emerald-haired woman. "You got what you wanted, your title, your power by stepping over a good man's dead body, now go away and leave me alone!"

Pluto simply gazed levelly at her for a long moment, then said, "Would you consider waiting to leave until after Kuno-dono's funeral? You should be there, and Usagi could really use the company."

"Usagi? You know about Usagi? Is she all right?"

"Of course I know," Pluto said, "she was right in the middle of that ... mess. Physically she's fine, emotionally she's a wreck. Will you attend the funeral? I think you and Usagi may have been the only people in the world to actually love him."

"I ... I ..." Makoto wavered, anger at Pluto briefly warring inside her with concern for her friend and memories of her former master, then quickly nodded. "All right, I'll stay that long."

"Thank you. I'll let you know when it is as soon as the arrangements are made, and send someone to pick you up." Pluto hesitated for a moment, then added, "Afterwards, ask Usagi what happened, how it came to happen — she might feel better to talk it out with someone else that actually cared about Kuno-dono, and you might rethink your decision to leave."

She stepped over and picked up the discarded henshin wand. "I'll hold onto this for you until you want it back, whether you stay with us or not." Without another word, she turned and walked out of the bedroom.

Makoto watched her leave, wiped at wet cheeks, then turned around to empty her suitcase of the clothes she had just finished stuffing into it. It seemed she was going to have to get ready for her shift at the hospital kitchen, after all.


As soon as she was out of sight of the bedroom, Pluto stepped to the Time Gates and sagged in relief, leaning on her staff — that had been too close, another fifteen minutes, and Makoto would have been out the door, Pluto would have had to chase her down, and she had no idea when she would have found a big enough block of time in the rest of the day to get away from her new minders.

As it was, she'd used the need to get to her old business office and secure her data from the inevitable hacking attempts by the really big guns now that she'd moved into the major leagues as an excuse. And from what she'd found before making the excuse of visiting the washroom to get away from her new bodyguards and make this little side trip, she was a little late (not that she'd kept anything not business related on those particular machines).

And I used up just about as much time as I could afford with my little talk with Makoto, she thought, straightening with a sigh, before reverting to her business casual-dressed civilian form. For a moment she eyed the Gates, considering taking the time to check what the likely future might be, but finally shook her head. The same reasoning that held when she'd passed through on her way to see Makoto still held now — she'd taken a quick glance to see that a future was now visible, the cusp point was past, but she had too much to do over the rest of the day and into the night. Whether the news was good or bad, she could not afford to be shaken up emotionally while taking the reins. And it isn't like what you see would make a difference over the rest of the day, anyway — your new responsibilities are what they are, whatever the future might bring won't change that.

But as she stepped back to her corporate office's washroom, she resolved yet again that as soon as her immediate fires were put out she was going to do the deep background checks on her new retainers as only she could do to learn which could be trusted with her double life and add them to the bodyguard detail she already had, and recreate her buffer against the rest of the world.


Nabiki tried to ignore her rising tension as she walked past the patrolwoman guarding the front gate to the Tendo dojo (noting distantly that apparently her call to the lording law enforcement from the hospital had produced some effect). She couldn't see where Ryoga had blown out the outside wall but she could feel it, sending shivers down her spine as she remembered — Nodoka rolling across the floor, tangled up with a ninja; her kicking the ninja off of the Saotome matriarch, and crawling out from under the desk where she'd been hiding; the thunder of Kasumi's gunshots mixed in Nabiki's mind with the roaring explosion of Ryoga's ki attack; Nodoka beheading a ninja with her wakizashi even as her katana sailed toward the corner, her hand still gripping the hilt. And mixed in with it all the stench of violent death, like she'd never imagined.

Reaching the door, she found her hand shaking so hard she was unable to fit her key in the lock. She turned around to lean back against the door and slid down to sit in the entryway. This is home! Our home, she thought as she fought for control. This is where we grew up, where mother and father died, where our children will be born and grow, and that is not going to be ruined just because a bunch of honor-blind bootlickers tried to kill us all here! Slowly she fought her shivering down, and finally stood and tried the lock again. This time, she was able to open the door and step inside her home.

She was instantly very happy that Kasumi had stayed at the hospital. The middle Tendo had already been pleased with her older sister's decision to stay at the sleeping Nodoka's bedside — while Nabiki had been relieved when her sister had broken down after they were safe at the hospital (a Kasumi that could apparently shrug off gunning down three men would have had her seriously worried), the eldest Tendo's hysterics had been extreme; it was just as well that Kasumi was with professionals for now in case it happened again. Now, the faint stench of death gave Nabiki a hint of what was coming and she was glad Kasumi wasn't with her to see what was waiting for her.


She had been right, it was bad — law enforcement had removed the bodies, but hadn't cleaned up the drying blood and gore splattered liberally around the hallway and her room and soaked into her bed and the stench permeating the second floor was almost overpowering. She'd hastily grabbed her laptop and moved down to the family room, where the first thing she'd done after hooking up to the network connection (the power was back up as well, the lording's maintenance people were suspiciously quick) was contact a cleaning service to remove her mattress and sheets and clean up the drying blood and gore, and a furniture company to deliver a new mattress. But the cleaning service wouldn't arrive for an hour and the mattress until the cleaning service was finished, and she settled down cross-legged at the low table to review the reports from her team leaders of the previous night's activities.

"I'm glad to see you made it through last night's chaos."

Nabiki shrieked as she rolled to the side, a hand scrabbling at her pocket for the revolver she'd taken from her sister and the laptop flying away as her flailing legs knocked over the table. She leaped to her feet with her back to the wall, and pointed the gun gripped by shaking hands at the intruder — then slumped in relief, gun dropping to hang by her side, and giggled hysterically at the sight of Juan de Oro stretched out flat on the hardwood floor as he held her computer up, keeping it from a disastrous collision with the same floor.

The Hispanic-Apache American chuckled as he rose to his feet. He righted the table and set down the laptop, then turned to face his host. "That'll teach me to play the mysterious visitor with someone that has just been through a life-or-death struggle," he commented ruefully in his flawless Japanese.

Nabiki sobered at the reminder of the previous night. Taking a deep breath, she stepped away from the wall. "Yes, it will," she said shortly.

She knelt down and shut down the laptop, then rose and motioned for de Oro to follow her before leading him to the dojo. Inside, she opened a hidden panel and pressed a button, waited until a light flickered green and a faint hum filled the air, and turned to lean against the wall. "It's safe to talk now, any bugs that might have been placed since last night will be useless. So, why are you here? Looking for an answer while I'm still in shock from last night?"

De Oro broke off looking around the dojo to refocus on the girl, and shrugged. "Now that you're rich, or will be, it'll be much harder to contact you discreetly in person — and before then, the Shogun's investigators are going to be crawling all over this. Actually, I'm a little surprised I had as easy a time getting in here as I did. And I'm sure you've been considering my offer of membership in the Children of Israel since I first made it."

"Yes, I have." Nabiki gazed evenly at the crusader for a long moment as he calmly returned her regard, considering the 'rich' comment, before she mentally shrugged. Don't start thinking he's omniscient, she warned herself, it wouldn't be that hard to figure out. She sighed and slid down the wall to sit cross-legged on the floor. "Sit," she said, waving at a spot a few yards in front of her.

As de Oro sat, Nabiki considered, then slowly said, "If you had asked me yesterday morning, I would have said yes in a heartbeat. But I learned something about myself last night. In spite of my views on how corrupt, blind, stupid, and self-righteous our rulers are, I'm still samurai, unable to hide in a hole while others fight for my life. I doubt those others are ready to abandon the Empire and its Emperor even after this, so I can't either — their fight is my fight. So, I'll have to decline your offer. However, as you said I'm looking at a sudden windfall, and I'm not just going to sit back and let the system that killed my father and the rest go on its merry way, either. So, would you be satisfied with an ally?"

"An ally." An eyebrow rose. "And who exactly would I be allying myself with?"

"The otokodate," Nabiki replied, then chuckled as de Oro's other eyebrow joined its partner. "Did you know the otokodate started out the same way as your Mafia, as supposed protectors of the common people from the abuses of the samurai? That was what their public relations said, anyway. I think it's time for the otokodate throughout the Empire to return to their mythical roots — and what do you know, I have a lording right here that just had its resident otokodate wiped out, waiting for someone to step into the vacuum."

De Oro nodded thoughtfully. "That is going to get seriously bloody once you expand beyond Nerima," he mused, "and you're going to be involving yourself in some rather ugly businesses."

Nabiki shrugged. "Smuggling, prostitution, gambling, and protection rackets? Sure. But the gamblers will be honest, the prostitutes will be willing and their basic needs seen to, and the protection will be real — I think I'll shut down the loan sharking. As for 'bloody', it's a good thing that I'm starting in the lording with more and better martial artists than anywhere else in the world, isn't it? And so many of them unemployed. I'll have plenty of muscle, and recruit more as we expand — I suspect that not all of the otokodate are the scum of the earth, some will change their ways if given a chance. You can find romantics everywhere, even in the gutter."

"True," de Oro agreed. "So, if we are to be allies, just what do you bring to the table? I can't imagine that you would be willing to strike directly against the worst masters or you would be joining us."

Nabiki replied, "Offhand, two things. First, I'll be shutting down the illegal slave trade in all areas I control. Considering what's available through the legal slave trade, the illegal variety basically caters to sexual perversions of some of the elites or get shipped out of the Empire, so that fits in nicely with my theme of defender of the common people. Second, since the payment Meioh-dono has offered Ranma — excuse me, Ranko — to pay for her freedom consists of Hawaiian plantations. How would you like a new conduit for smuggling escaped slaves out of the Empire and supplies and arms into it, for whatever guerilla forces you do set up? For a fee, of course — I'll be otokodate, after all — but a minor one. Ranma won't stand for anything more than a token."

De Oro's jaw dropped in shock as he stared at her for a long moment before managing to recover his composure. "Yes, that is a ... substantial ... offer — generous, even. What can we offer in return? It sounds like you have everything covered."

"Mostly, consider it my way of getting Ranma to go along with my plans. He'd be more comfortable with your people than who I'll be hanging with, anyway," Nabiki replied nonchalantly. "There is one thing, though, and fast ... I need at least one preacher, preferably a handful. Not too many to begin with, though, that would be too obvious."

"Preachers," de Oro repeated flatly.

Nabiki grinned at the wary tone. "Yup, I need Christian preachers to set up camp in first Nerima, then other lordings whose otokodate I bring under my control. And they have to be your variety — our Shinto Christians' pacifistic streak doesn't sit well with samurai, and the pacifists running the Underground Railroad aren't much better. I don't think pacifism is something your own preachers dabble in."

"Not hardly," de Oro replied with a snort. "No, they're more into smiting the ungodly. I didn't think you were a believer."

Nabiki shrugged again. "I'm not, and to tell you the truth, Deus Vult makes me almost as nervous as Allahu Akbar. But what we — the Nerimans — just did ... there just isn't room for it in our worldview. The occasional urban riot to protest injustice, sure. But even in the case of the Forty-seven Samurai, they attacked their dead lord's enemy, not their own lord — and they turned themselves in and committed seppuku, afterward. To cold-bloodedly connive in the killing of their own lord, even if not sworn into his service, and then just walk away?" She shook her head. "Let's try to avoid guilt trips and spontaneous confessions now that it's over. Besides, it would make recruitment easier for the organization I'm going to be setting up."

"So you want to offer them another worldview, that justifies their actions?" At Nabiki's nod, de Oro chuckled. "And not even a religion you hold to yourself. It's too bad you didn't join us, your practical streak is just what we need." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a memory stick. "This will probably be the last time we meet in person. Give me access to a network, and I'll set up an online contact link then be on my way."

Nabiki nodded and rose, quickly turned off the dojo security, and led him back toward the house.


Akane sat alone beside the infirmary bed where the female form of her once and hopefully future lover lay sleeping, one hand gently stroking the soft, freshly cleaned red hair as she fought to sort out the maelstrom of emotions ripping through her: joy, anger, grief, rage, fear, jealousy, all mixed together.

It had all seemed so simple when Ranma finally laid out his plan to the family — Ranma would be locked, sold off, spend a week or so in Kuno's bed until that nutcase found some excuse to try to grab Akane, use the Cat Fist to break the Adjustment and kill Kuno, get unlocked so 'Ranko' (mostly) disappeared, and they would live happily ever after.

Now it was weeks later than she'd expected, and they were alive and Kuno was dead. But so were Ukyo, Konatsu, Uncle Genma, Ku Lon and Mu Tse, Auntie Nodoka had lost a hand and they didn't know yet if the reattachment would take, Kasumi had killed at least two people and was in a drugged sleep after going into hysterics, and Nabiki had just called on the cell phone she'd left behind when she and Xian Pu visited to pass along that Daisuke was dead, shot by a Kuno ninja just as he was entering the mansion with the mob.

And earlier when Akane had asked how soon the curse could be unlocked, Xian Pu had reminded her that the answer might be never.

She broke off stroking the flame-red hair to gently clasp a still hand. We really messed this one up, didn't we, Ranma? What if the curse didn't unlock? What if her baby had two mommies instead of a daddy and a mommy? She had no problem imagining a redheaded Ranma helping raise their child. She could put up with everyone thinking she was a lesbian — it wasn't like they were likely to get in her face about it, and if they did when Ranma was around ... A grin flickered across Akane's face at the thought and disappeared. She didn't even have a problem imagining sharing a bed with Ranma, so long as they were just sleeping, but doing that with the redhead? Every time Akane's thoughts circled back to it, it made her queasy.

But you don't have any problem thinking about Usagi doing 'that' with Ranma, do you? she thought, the jealousy in her confused maelstrom roaring to life, shaking her where she sat as she remembered the long hours that the younger blonde had spent with her in this very room before being called away, sitting on the other side of the bed, holding Ranma's other hand as she told Akane about Ranma's time in the Kuno mansion and Akane told her stories about Ranma's chaotic life. Certainly Usagi didn't have any problem thinking about doing 'that' with the redhead, if the lust that Akane thought she sensed mixed with Usagi's love and concern was any indicator, when she spoke of the nights when Ranma had trouble sleeping and they'd shared a bed, or the fun of trying to help bathe a reluctant, squirmy redhead like a good body slave was supposed to. It just wasn't fair! Just when Akane finally had a clear field with her fiancé, another challenger showed up, and one that wasn't going to push Ranma away by throwing herself at him.

Be fair, Akane, she thought to herself. Remember, you're the one that encouraged her to seduce Ranma when you were worried about his sanity. And if the lock is permanent, will Ranma want to be celibate the rest of his life? Will you? If he's stuck as a girl he could do a lot worse than Usagi.

But Akane didn't want to be fair, Ranma was hers!

Then Akane started in her seat as Usagi dropped back into the chair across the bed — the youngest Tendo had been so caught up in her thoughts that she hadn't noticed the younger girl come in. Usagi had the strangest look on her face, a mix of guilt, joyful wonder, and confused, desperate longing, and tears were running down her cheeks. The hand that reached out to stroke the sleeping Ranma's cheek was shaking.

All jealousy vanished in an instant to be replaced by concern, and Akane asked, "Usagi, what's wrong?"

Usagi looked up. "Nothing's wrong, I'm free. I'm going home."

"Free? Home?" Only now did Akane notice that the blonde wasn't wearing her slave chain. Hesitantly, she said, "But Usagi, you don't have a home, do you? Wasn't it sold at the same time ..." as your family, she choked back.

Usagi nodded, smiling shakily, wonder shining in her eyes. "Yes, it was, and I'll miss it, but 'home' is people. Remember what Nabiki said about Meioh-dono's plans? She decided to start with the Juuban slaves here in the mansion. Ami's already gone back to her mother, and Meioh-dono's bought and freed my parents and little brother and has an apartment in Juuban we can use until we're back on our feet. I'll be leaving to join them as soon as I say goodbye."

She looked back down at Ranma and her eyes darkened. Finally, she bent down to softly kiss the sleeping redhead on the forehead, then straightened. "Could you give her this when she wakes up?" she asked, holding out her closed hand across the bed. Akane instinctively reached out, and Usagi spilled her slave chain into the Tendo's palm. "In memory of what I hope were some good times mixed in with the bad, with her own little slave," the blonde said, rising to her feet and wiping at her wet cheeks. "And now I have to get going, my family's waiting. I know I don't really need to ask, but take good care of her for me, please?"

Akane nodded, stunned speechless that a prospective fiancée was actually walking away. Usagi turned to stride toward the door as the other girl stared at her. Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it, DAMN IT! Why does she have to be so nice? "Usagi!" Akane called out. When the blonde girl paused on her way through the door and turned around (stumbling slightly and catching herself on the doorframe), Akane said, "When you get settled, call us. We're in the online listings."

Usagi paled, eyes widening. "Do you mean it?" she demanded.

Akane nodded. "Yes, I do. With Ranma's father and friends dead he'll need all the friends he has, and if it does turn out that we can't unlock the curse, she will need them even more."

Usagi squealed as she threw herself back into the room, and Akane "uumphed" as the blonde landed in her lap and hugged her hard. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Usagi whispered in her ear.

Akane sighed and hesitantly returned the hug. "You're welcome," she replied. "Now go, your family's waiting for you."

Now smiling brightly, Usagi bounced off her lap and almost skipped out the door. I don't believe this, Akane thought as she watched the younger girl leave, now I'm asking them to stick around!


Setsuna sighed in relief as she stepped from her bedroom to the Time Gates. Of course it wasn't going to be her bedroom for long and her security, beefed up by retainers that she had just inherited, were going to have a sleepless night covering a building not really up to Family security standards, but she'd been able to argue that the formerly-Kuno mansion wasn't exactly secure at the moment, either. Tomorrow night she would be moved into her new Family estate — and have her new quarters swept for surveillance by people she already trusted. But for only the second time in the long night and day and now night again since the assault on the Kuno mansion, through the trip to Kyoto to see the Emperor and back, and the whirlwind of apparently-hasty decisions and planning, she'd managed to reach a location she knew was surveillance-free. And this time, she'd finished at least the preliminaries of setting herself up as Lady; it was time to take a look at what the new future held. Then she could finally fall into bed — empty, unfortunately.

Oh, quit whining. It isn't like you haven't already talked with Michiru and Haruka about how we can 'coincidentally' meet while you're fixing Juuban, and have them end up moving in with you. Besides, as tired as I am, I doubt I'd even notice if the both of them were waiting completely naked and covered with whip cream. But the warm bodies to snuggle up to would have been nice...

The emerald-haired woman shook herself out of her reverie, stretched (wincing slightly at the pops and crackles), transformed into her Senshi form, then leaned on the Garnet Staff and focused tired eyes on the Gates and began a review of the coming weeks and months.

Let's see, Ranma's a bit of a mess, no surprise there, but the curse actually unlocks — eventually — and he has a lot of support this time; things look good with Ranma and Akane, a healthy baby girl; lots of tension between Akane and Usagi, but Ranma doesn't see it, Usagi is giving them lots of space, and Akane isn't physically attacking her, so I guess that side of things counts as a plus.

Oooh, Nabiki's a busy little girl and scary as hell, beautiful.

Ami accepts her role as Sailor Mercury, Usagi as Princess Serenity, Makoto sticks around, good ... none of them trust me much, and they pull Venus in for their own little clique; good that they're more independent and thinking for themselves — the Empire has no place for major players that trust unconditionally and think the world is a happy place — not so good that the Senshi are splitting into two camps, I think I'll call that one a wash. I'll have to come up with some way to bring everyone together while preserving that independent streak. Looks like the veil between us and the Others strengthens a bit, attacks are almost nonexistent, good, gives more time for training up our new recruits — ouch, that one looks nasty; the Princess handles it well, though, she's certainly matured a lot. Hey, she's actually training, fantastic — going for samurai status? Considering Ranma and Akane, I suppose that makes sense ... ? She's really determined, too, that image is as crisp and clear as it gets — she's going to make it happen, regardless.

No major attacks on my new holdings while I'm divesting myself of the excess, good, looks like the major players decided they could do better seeing what they could get at fire sale prices; some unrest on the plantations as the Emperor's new rules for debt slavery kick in — yeah, having the inter-generational debt go away is scaring a lot of managers, and not being able to just re-buy the same workers year after year as fresh debt is called in is shuffling around the workforce, fun times ahead there. Ouch! Looks like Gendo's making a move, I'll have to short-circuit that without being obvious. Maybe use the illegal research we stopped the raid for, that Kuno-dono turned over to the Imperial Household as an excuse for a Family-wide crackdown?

Okay, the Emperor's stepped back into the shadows again, excellent, the last thing we need is to have everyone decide he's just one more faction in the Great Game — the Empire would probably still tear itself apart, and take the rest of the world with it. And it seems the Great Houses have taken his hint and cooled things down a touch, even better, I can use that downtime to get some pre-positioning done. Looks like Dar al-Islam is up to something — okay, that was sneaky, looks like I'm going to need to invest some resources in southeast Asia and northern Mexico. Or maybe Chile or Argentina? Brazil? This could break up the Spanish Empire with a little luck. Have to keep India free and allied with the Empire, though. I'll have to think about how to handle that mess, this could be the perfect opportunity to take some pieces off the board ... maybe I can combine laying the groundwork with shutting down Gendo's operation — that could do it, blow up his intricate chess game, embarrass Dar al-Islam, undercut the plantation owners in southeast Asia, and draw the attention of the Emperor if not the Shogun to the initial battlefield all at once. Maybe, we'll see.


Long hours after her arrival Pluto again stretched, then ran through some quick limbering moves to loosen up, twisting her torso, spinning arms. The preliminary near-future overview was done, with a mental list of points to research more in depth after she'd had some rest. Now that the first skim was over and looking fairly decent, maybe she could sleep — after one last thing.

She picked up the Garnet Staff and straightened from touching the toes of her boots, then turned back to the Time Gates, and hesitated ... and pondered ... and hesitated some more. When she realized she'd been standing there staring at the Time Gates in neutral mode for almost an hour, she shook herself. Come on, Setsuna, suck it up — whatever the future may be, it can't be worse than it was. And refusing to look isn't going to change it.

Sucking in a deep breath, she activated the Time Gates, bringing up a sharp, clear image of Edo from a distant angle, and pushed it forward farther and farther into the future. Then the image froze, the breath Pluto had been holding gusted out like she'd been punched, her legs failed and she dropped onto her butt. Pulling her legs up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them, she rocked in place with tears streaming down her face and stared at a sight she hadn't seen in over five hundred years — the spires and towers of Crystal Tokyo. The image flickered, shivered, was hazy to the point of being barely recognizable, but her future was back.

I came up with a number of titles for the last episode, following my regular habit of using poem and song titles: Everlast's "Saving Grace," Anne Murray's "A Little Good News," Maureen McGovern's "The Morning After," Alison Krauss's "Get Me Through December," Eastmountainsouth's "Show Me the River," Kipling's poems "The Quest" and "The Hymn of Breaking Strain." Then I heard an oddity on the radio, a Christmas song that was released on a regular album and playing in the middle of the year — "Better Days" by the Goo Goo Dolls.

Christmas is my favorite time of year, the whole Charlie Brown "peace on earth, good will toward men" thing, angels singing to shepherds in the fields, the baby Jesus in the manger, wise men bringing gifts, "merry Christmas" from complete strangers, "A Christmas Carol" on TV in umpteen versions (the Patrick Stewart one is my favorite), the family all gathered together to celebrate, the whole megillah. But somehow that whole Christmas thing doesn't usually include Mary and Joseph on the run to Egypt with the infant Jesus while behind them all male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger are being massacred at Herod's orders, or Jesus dying after being tortured and long excruciating hours on the cross, James beheaded, Stephen stoned to death, or Christians used as torches to light Nero's dinner parties. It also doesn't encompass the massacres and forced conversions carried out by zealous Christians that completely missed the point — "Kill them all, God will recognize his own" was said by a Christian, after all. The world is a lot better than it used to be, but we've paid a high price in blood and pain for that progress and will undoubtedly pay more in the future.

"Better Days"

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days
Cause I don't need boxes wrapped in strings
And designer love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

So take these words
And sing out loud
Cause everyone is forgiven now
Cause tonight's the night the world begins again

I need someplace simple where we could live
And something only you can give
And that's faith and trust and peace while we're alive
And the one poor child who saved this world
And there's 10 million more who probably could
If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

So take these words
And sing out loud
Cause everyone is forgiven now
Cause tonight's the night the world begins again

I wish everyone was loved tonight
And somehow stop this endless fight
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

So take these words
And sing out loud
Cause everyone is forgiven now
Cause tonight's the night the world begins again
Cause tonight's the night the world begins again