The problem with young people nowadays is that they have far too much time on their hands, and no attention spans at all!
Hmph. When I, the young and beautiful Cologne, was growing up, we kept ourselves busy! Going outside and getting fresh air, exercising AND studying. Why, we would have thought nothing of reading through books ten times the size of this entire fanfic to date. Plus we remembered what we read! None of this needing to drag an old woman out of her sick bed in between chapters so she can tell the slower readers what they should already know.
Take, for instance, the entire running rivalry between Chris and Aaron. The main characters, remember them? I bet you expect me to tell you all the details leading to their fight last chapter. Well, I am not here to make your life easier. Struggling to overcome adversity makes us stronger. Suffice it to say they really didn’t like each other and Chris beat Ukyou/Aaron almost to death. I swear, that girl should really learn to start avoiding these kinds of things. Has she gone two chapters without being beaten nearly to death yet? You know I never would have been in that kind of situation.
Then again, I am not insufferably rude to everyone I meet.
I assure you, I know how to handle myself. I know that I was rendered insensate by that crude supervillain poseur Gyro, but how was I to know, when he claimed to have the power of a god, he was telling the truth? Thankfully, all the young ladies I was escorting failed to die and that girl Sailor Moon showed him that it is foolish to underestimate the so-called ‘weaker sex’.
Now, to once again bring the easily distractible readers up to date, don’t forget that Tethys is still alive and is now exploring ‘humanity’, while this young boy Vega, who would be nice enough if he could stop killing people, has arrived with his brainwashed all-girl commandos to kidnap Ukyou.
I guess it really is a curse, to be living in interesting times.
C&A Productions Presents
A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 14: Don’t Stay
Kaorinite placed the serving tray down on the bedside table. The little brat was ignoring her again. Her face was buried in her palms, and she was trying very hard to keep in the shadows of her lamp-filled room. Oh. She must have had another ‘episode’. Kaorinite smiled.
“Hotaru,” Kaorinite said, keeping her voice as smooth as silk. “Your tea is ready.” Hotaru continued to ignore her. That was all right. Kaorinite had spent the last two years learning which buttons to press. “Your father is out of town today, so I guess when he comes back, I’ll tell him you were refusing to eat again?”
The little girl shifted slightly. There were twin flashes of white, not quite enough light to see her eyes, but enough to tell she was glaring. Kaorinite smiled and stood up, crossing her arms under her ample cleavage. Being reminded how much growing up she had yet to do was another one of Hotaru’s pet peeves.
“Just leave it,” Hotaru said, her voice hoarse.
“You know I can’t do that,” Kaorinite said in her most mockingly apologetic voice. “You have a habit of not doing things that are good for you. And I’m stuck making sure you do.”
The girl shifted in place, but made no move to approach the tea set. Kaorinite just continued to smile mockingly and waited. Hotaru would break. She always did.
Of course, it was just a little demeaning that she had to find these small pleasures in breaking the spirit of a little girl. She would have much preferred to be helping the Professor in his research, or even just tormenting a human or two to death. But Professor Tomoe had asked her – her specifically! – to look after his daughter.
There was nothing she would not do for the Professor.
Moving slowly, Hotaru eased out of the shadows. She was short and frail; slight in that way that only children on the cusp of puberty were. Her shoulder-length black hair reflected the half-dozen dim lamps, and her violet eyes were glaring at Kaorinite with brimming hatred.
She waited until Hotaru had poured herself a cup of tea before dropping the next bomb. “By the way, Hotaru, the school called today…” She trailed off meaningfully. Of course, the school had not called. They never called. Hotaru was the daughter of the headmaster and owner. She could probably have burned down a building, and they wouldn’t have called.
Hotaru froze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. The tea kept pouring until it began to leak over the edge of her cup. With a small gasp the child dropped the cup, kettle and all. It made a surprisingly loud crash in the unnaturally silent room.
Kaorinite didn’t pause. She just clicked her tongue and leaned down to start cleaning up. She was half finished before Hotaru started speaking.
“Kaori… what… did they say?”
“Hmmm? I don’t really recall off hand. More of the same, I suppose.” Kaorinite stood up. “I wrote it all down.”
“Wrote it down…?” Hotaru gasped. There was real terror in her voice. Kaorinite allowed what could have been mistaken for a sympathetic smile to grace her features. “W-why…?”
“So I can give the message to your father,” Kaorinite explained matter-of-factly. “Really. I can’t keep concealing these violent outbursts of yours from him forever, Hotaru.” She flicked a hand through her luxurious hair. “I swear, the trouble you put your father the Professor through. Do you know how busy he is, looking for a cure for your condition? If it wouldn’t break his heart to hear about how you keep mistreating your classmates, I never would have agreed…” She trailed off into an artful sigh and shook her head.
It was really a fine art, carving away at a child’s feelings like a surgeon. The trick was to make it seem like none of it was done out of malice. Only when Hotaru was convinced that she was the one in the wrong would her self-loathing grow. That hatred would feed the presence inside her. The very presence that created her violent outbursts, and their accompanying amnesia. It was really a vicious, and perfect, cycle. But then again, the Professor was a genius, and he knew exactly what a nascent little Messiah of Silence needed.
Hotaru was close to tears now. Kaorinite turned away slightly, looking for a garbage can. “But this is really too much. I think it’s time you stopped treating your father so cruelly, wouldn’t you agree?”
Hotaru was about to start begging, Kaorinite could see it in her eyes. Then all the lamps went out. Kaorinite blinked, and felt her skin shiver as a sudden cold breeze filled the room. She flicked her eyes towards the window, and saw the white lace curtains fluttering like ghosts in the breeze. And silhouetted behind the curtains was a menacing figure. He was upside down, only his torso visible within the sunlit rectangle. His arms were crossed in an X over his chest, with three long thin shadows extending from his right hand. As the curtain rippled in the breeze, the shadows occasionally cleared away to reveal the silver glint of three metal claws.
“Who’s there?” Kaorinite hissed, sliding in front of Hotaru. She heard the girl gasp and fall back on her bed.
With patient grace, the figure slid into the room. He landed in a soft crouch on the black carpet, his arms extended out to either side. The open window now let in enough of the afternoon sunlight that the lamps were no longer necessary. Kaorinite narrowed her eyes and sized him up.
He was tall, which was obvious even in his crouch. His body was covered in taut, lean muscle, all the more obvious as he wore no shirt. A tattoo of a snake curled around his torso and arm, with the head resting just above his heart. His entire face was hidden behind a simple white mask, featureless except for the eyeslits and a strange rune beneath his left eye. It wasn’t any mystic symbol that Kaorinite was familiar with, however. The man slowly rose to his feet, his soft brown ponytail flicking in the breeze. Once he was fully upright, Kaorinite could see he was wearing some sort of ritual costume she vaguely recognised as European.
“My apologies for interrupting,” the man said in an elegant, cultured voice. He had a European accent, but spoke Japanese flawlessly. “Allow me to introduce myself…” He slid his right arm across his chest and bowed deeply. “I am known as Vega. It is truly a pleasure to be in the presence of such beauty.”
Kaorinite sneered. If this intruder thought flattery would stall her wrath, he was greatly mistaken. She eased herself into a more comfortable stance, and slowly let the limits on her magic release. Behind her, she could feel her hair begin to whip and snap. For now, it appeared to be just the result of the wind.
“What are you doing here?” Kaorinite demanded.
“Ah,” Vega held up one finger. “Allow me to check one thing first. I wasn’t expecting two of you.” He reached into his red sash and withdrew a small black object. She saw his ice blue eyes flicker down towards it. “It appears that you, my flame haired beauty, are not the one I am looking for. That is… delightful.” He looked up at her, his pupils shrinking to pinpricks and his voice growing… hungrier. “That child is but a budding rose, but you… you are in full bloom. Your perfect beauty demands to be plucked, now, before it can fade away.”
Kaorinite barely had time to register this before pain exploded across her cheek. She screamed, but her voice was overshadowed by the crash the bed made as she smashed through it. A hand rose involuntarily to her face and touched the tender flesh as she lay briefly in the wreckage. Then she snarled and opened her eyes, using her other hand to prop herself up. Vega was standing where she had been, his arms crossed as he chuckled at her. She could hear Hotaru gasping somewhere nearby.
“Get up,” Vega said pleasantly, his mad pinprick eyes boring into hers. Kaorinite allowed a smile to cross her face again. Pathetic human. He was fast, but had no idea what he was up against.
Kaorinite exploded to her feet and thrust her hand at him, screaming and focusing her magic. Like a wave of lava, her brilliant red hair erupted from behind her and swept into him. He had just enough time to blink in surprise before he vanished under the mass of her magically expanded tresses. A second later there was a tremendous crash as she hurled him through the wall.
Her hair shrank back and Kaorinite began to laugh. Vega was lying against the wall of the other room, which had been dented by his impact. But he was still. She raised her hand, ready to follow up, when she heard a small gasp.
Kaorinite turned and glanced at Hotaru. The girl was huddled in the corner, her eyes wide and focused on the woman who, up until now, she had thought was only her governess. Well, this would be inconvenient. For two years, she and the Deathbusters had worked meticulously to keep the truth from the still-developing Messiah.
Unfortunately, it appeared someone else knew of their plans. Someone had sent that man. Well, she would make him talk. He would experience exquisite pain for upsetting Professor Tomoe’s carefully prepared timetable. She glanced back…
He was gone.
Kaorinite frowned and spun in place. There was no sign of him.
“Kaori… you… you’re protecting me?”
“Hush, child!” Kaorinite snarled and looked back at her. “Of course I’m…”
“LOOK OUT!” Hotaru screamed, pointing behind her. Kaorinite blinked. When had Hotaru developed those vivid crimson freckles? And why did her chest sting so?
She glanced down slowly. The blades that emerged from her left breast were slick with blood. It dripped from the tips in a steady, inevitable manner, forming a dark pool on the carpet. Kaorinite tried to gasp, but found her breath escaped her. She felt a soft pressure on her shoulder. Her eyes flicked to the side and she saw the white mask of Vega as he began to whisper into her ear.
“So beautiful, isn’t it? The colour matches your hair. Sad that I am forced to cut our dance so short, but my new charge and I must be off soon.” He chuckled, and Kaorinite’s eyes returned to Hotaru’s face. The girl’s eyes quivered in fear and horror, and in that moment she found herself loathing the brat more than she ever had before. She was… she was… for this brat? For HER? She wanted to scream against it, but she couldn’t breathe and everything was so cold…
“When you see all my other lovelies in the afterlife, be sure to give them my regards,” the voice whispered in her ear just before the darkness filled her vision.
Pink glared at Akane’s back. The group of them were moving steadily through the woods away from the mountain. There had been some Chronos patrols around, but they were so disorganised and panicked that they had been easy to slip by. The old woman and Sailor Moon were still unconscious, and being carried by Shampoo and Akane respectively.
Every time she saw Akane still walking, Pink almost felt like attacking her. Or something. Anything. Why did she have to be alive? It had all been going so perfectly! They’d rescued the precious Sailor Senshi Chris was convinced were important, they were going to escape, and Akane was oh-so-nobly sacrificing herself to make it all possible.
When Pink got to the rendezvous, she would have told Chris about it. The dead man would have been horrified; even heartbroken. But it would be done. Akane, that girl whose opinion he’d been obsessing over ever since they’d gotten to Japan, would be dead. Nobody could blame Pink for it, either. There was simply no downside.
But somehow, Shampoo – Shampoo, ALWAYS Shampoo! – and Sailor Moon had ruined everything, and Akane was still alive.
Worse yet, she was… changed. Neither had talked about what had happened in Mount Minakami, but it was obvious that whatever it was had affected them deeply. Shampoo and Akane walked in silence, their eyes far away and yet simultaneously focused sharply, as if they could see some destination in the distance that was invisible to the rest of them.
Of course, it seemed everyone had been oh-so-deeply affected by Sailor Moon’s display of sheer power. Pink’s lip curled. She’d even caught her twin looking at the unconscious girl in awe (Or was it wonder? Reverence?) more than once. Pink had thought better of them… well, some of them. That light that had washed over them, that feeling of… of something…
Power. That’s what it was. Power, plain and simple. Anybody could inspire awe if they had enough to back it up. Pink spitefully crushed an insect under her foot. To that bug, SHE had been a terrible, vengeful god. Sailor Moon wasn’t some pure and holy saviour. She was a girl – a klutzy, stupid girl. Who had power. But anybody could have power, if they knew how.
Not that Pink wasn’t impressed by the show. Like the others, she had felt the force of the titanic struggle above. She’d heard Sailor Moon’s plea for aid, and the sheer force of it had even made her want to help. Briefly. She’d watched as Sailor Mercury and Jupiter had raised their little wands and given their own power to the effort. And she’d seen that light, that overwhelming light.
They’d walked out of the mountain without incident. There had been a patrol of what was probably zoanoids once, but were now nothing but stunned humans, staring blankly at the wall as the group moved past them. Pink chuckled darkly. Too much ‘purity’ for them to handle all at once.
She tore her eyes away from Akane’s back and towards the only other person who could keep herself from staring at the unconscious bimb. At some point when Pink hadn’t been looking, Sailor Mars had transformed back to her civilian self. She was still holding the wand, though. Every now and then she’d stare at it and mouth something to herself, before quickly turning her eyes to anything other than Sailor Moon.
It had taken Pink three attempts to overhear what she was saying. “Why couldn’t I…?” Pink had noticed, of course, that when Rei tried to offer her power up to her precious princess, it hadn’t come. But in the midst of the other events, she hadn’t thought about it.
Rei obviously had. Every movement she made, every nuance of her face shouted as to her shock, shame, and fear. Pink smiled secretly to herself. Just more proof there was no such thing as ‘purity’ the way idiots like the Sailor Senshi believed in it.
There just wasn’t. Pink knew better.
A movement caught her attention from the corner of her eye just as she saw Akane and Shampoo swing around and begin to draw back into defensive stances. But they almost immediately relaxed as Chris walked into view. The new body she had given him was, Pink noted with approval, still in fairly pristine condition. It was covered in dirt, and a few twigs and leaves were stuck in the fiery hair, but there was no actual damage that Pink’s practiced eyes could see, and no sign of rotting.
“Well, I see you made it,” Chris said. His tone was slightly inquiring, but mostly filled with relief.
“Yes,” Akane said immediately, “but we need to get out of here quickly. Chronos won’t be distracted for long.”
Chris nodded. “Let’s walk, then.” He fell into step beside them, but his glassy eyes kept wandering over to Sailor Moon. Pink almost laughed at that. Just like everybody else, Chris couldn’t tear his eyes away from her for more than a minute.
Of course, that meant he wasn’t paying attention to Pink, which wasn’t acceptable. She stepped up her pace slightly, drawing up to behind him. “We didn’t see those Team 5 zoanoids you talked about, so I suppose your side of the plan worked too, over.”
He was forced to crane his neck back a bit to look at her. His eyes were typically unreadable as they stared down at her – that body was so tall – but his expression was neutral too. Very carefully neutral. “Yes, it worked,” he said shortly. “But what happened with you guys?” He looked at Sailor Moon again. “I can guess the ‘what’, but I don’t know the ‘why’.”
Akane didn’t reply for a long moment, so Sailor Mercury jumped in. Probably because she was feeling useless and wanted to reassert her role as the team’s exposition expert, Pink thought to herself with a smirk. “After we were rescued from our cells, we were confronted by someone called Reichmann Gyro.”
Chris swore suddenly and hit a tree, causing it to splinter. “Damn it! I’m sorry. I thought you’d be safe from them. They don’t normally act personally.”
“They?” Mercury inquired.
“Zoalords,” Chris explained. “There are two of them in the mountain. They’re the leaders of Chronos, the upper council. They’re also unbelievably powerful, far more than even Team 5.”
“Well, I can believe it,” Makoto said, punching a hand into her first. “That guy laughed off all of our attacks. If it weren’t for Akane, we might all be goners.”
Akane gave Makoto a weird look. It wasn’t angry precisely, more… stern, like a parent glaring at a child who had spoken out of turn.
Chris, meanwhile, had turned his attentions to Akane. Pink’s smile didn’t change, but once again she felt hatred for the ought-to-be-dead girl swell. “Akane?” Chris repeated. “I thought Sailor Moon had done something…”
“Sailor Moon did,” Akane explained. “I just helped.” She looked at Shampoo, and the purple-haired girl nodded, as if understanding something. Pink ground her teeth, wondering not for the first time what had actually happened up there. She’d have to force the story from Shampoo as soon as possible.
“Sailor Moon summon glowing silver stone,” Shampoo said shortly. “Help from friends, she blew away Gyro-monster.”
“Right…” Chris said slowly. “I guess that could happen. Very lucky you got away. I’m sorry. Obviously I should have planned this out better.”
“Yes,” Akane agreed. After a moment, she added, “But we all learn from our mistakes.”
“So what now, over?” Pink spoke up, drawing Chris’ attention back. “We’ve rescued them, but we’re going to have to go somewhere with them.” Suddenly, she felt her twin’s eyes on her back, and she felt a surge of bile in her throat as she remembered the promise Link had extracted from her. “Maybe we should leave Tokyo for awhile. There’s some other places to go where we could hide these people from Chronos, over.”
“Maybe…” Chris said. “We’ll talk it over when we get back.”
Akane glanced up at the overcast sky. It would probably rain soon. The sun was dipping below the clouds now, turning the western heavens a brilliant crimson. Beside her, Usagi was sitting on top of a small dumpster. Akane shook her head as the girl gave a squawk before sliding off and onto the dirty alley floor.
“Are you okay?” she said, without looking.
“I’m fine…” Usagi murmured petulantly. She stood up, rubbing her backside. “Why do we have to wait here, anyway?”
“Because Chris and Cologne need to make sure that the area is clear before we head over.” Akane nodded towards the end of the alley. Just beyond, barely visible through the metal mesh fence and the piles of garbage, a small building was visible. It was an abandoned Chinese restaurant that Cologne had led all their families to before they had started out on their quest to Mount Minakami.
That had been almost two days ago. Akane shielded her eyes as the first drops of rain began to fall. It seemed like a lifetime ago. She looked over at Usagi. It had been a lifetime ago.
“Hmmm? What is it, Akane?”
Akane glanced around. Pink and Link were at the opposite end of the alley, arguing with each other. Ami and that new girl, Makoto, were a little closer, but both were crouched under one of the only available pieces of cover as the rain started. Rei was up near the fence. The only person within earshot was Shampoo.
“Usagi…” Akane coughed. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, about… what happened… at the mountain.”
“Huh?” Usagi blinked and looked at her. Then her expression slowly faded from vapid to sympathetic. “Oh. That. Well… I don’t know exactly what happened myself, Akane…”
Akane held up a hand, silencing her. “Why… isn’t really important right now, Usagi.” The blonde blinked, and Akane continued before she got any more confused. “I just want you to promise me… that you won’t tell anybody about what happened.”
“Won’t tell anyone… but why?”
“It’s just…” Akane struggled to find the words. She had never been a poet, so how could she explain it? The feeling… the finality of death? It was like nothing anybody ever experienced, and Akane just couldn’t think of anything that felt or seemed quite the same. So, as usual, her mind shied away from it. Already the entire experience was growing hazy in her memory. She knew that she had felt something… something BEYOND, but her mind could no longer hold what that something was anymore. It was like smoke: the harder Akane tried to hold on to it, the more it slipped away. “I can’t explain it, Usagi. I just don’t want everyone to know.” Akane looked up. The fine drizzle was blurring the border between the dull grey buildings and the equally dull sky. “I don’t want that to be how everyone… defines me.”
“Okay…” Usagi said. It was clear she didn’t understand.
“Just do it for me as a favour, okay?”
“Uh-huh!” Usagi nodded her head rapidly. “Anything to help out a friend, Akane!”
Akane smiled and clapped her on the shoulder. But when she looked down, the first eyes that she met were Shampoo’s. The purple-haired girl smiled and nodded as well. Of course, they had already come to an understanding, but it was nice to see that Shampoo still understood.
Two blurs landed in the centre of the alley. Akane didn’t flinch. Her danger sense hadn’t even twitched. Chris and Cologne stood up, the former much taller than the latter in his still-unblemished body.
“The coast is clear,” Chris said in Adon’s distinctive nasal voice.
“Are you sure?” Akane asked as she slid down from the dumpster. The rain was making her long hair damp now, and it lay limply on her shoulders. Annoyed, Akane pushed it away.
Chris smiled slightly. “Cologne is.”
“There are no zoanoids hiding in wait for us to lower our guard this time,” Cologne assured everyone. The only signs of her injury that remained were a darkening of the skin around the side of her face, no worse than a sunburn. Apparently, Cologne knew a thing or two about those healing techniques Dr. Tofu was supposed to be teaching Ukyou.
“Well, let’s not wait here any longer.” Akane started towards the building, gesturing for the others to follow. “We’ll catch cold if we stand around in the rain.”
Chris stepped aside as Akane brushed past him and took up the rear as everyone crossed the street. They were about halfway across when Akane heard someone snap their fingers loudly. She turned back just in time to see Pink smirk and hear her declare, “Of course. It’s the Nekohanten, over!”
“Excuse me?” Cologne asked her. Everyone else just gave her mildly annoyed glances, except Chris, who sighed in a long-suffering fashion. Pink just shook her head, waving aside everyone’s looks. Akane shrugged and stepped up to the door.
She had barely set her fingers on the knob when the door flew open. Suddenly someone was dragging her inside! They swallowed her up in a bearhug! Akane reacted without thinking, driving her knee into that of her attacker with as much force as she could. In a second she was free, as the figure arced across the room and impacted with the wall.
“Well, that’s Akane, all right.”
“Nabiki?” Akane looked to the side. Her sister was sitting at one of the tables, drinking tea and nibbling on some cookies. That boy Ryouga was next to her, using his huge backpack as a seat, bamboo umbrella balanced on his shoulder. He was staring out the window at the rain, a frown on his face.
“Is he alright?” Mrs. Tsukino asked mildly. She was near the kitchen, a tea set and plate of cookies balanced in her hands. Akane followed her gaze to see her father slowly sliding out of the Soun-shaped dent he had created in the wall.
“Dad!” Akane gasped and ran across the room. She grabbed her father and cradled his head in her lap. His eyes didn’t seem to want to focus on anything, and he was moaning slightly and clutching his… uh… Akane looked away.
“Akane…” he said in a squeak. “I’m so glad you’re safe…”
“Yeah…” Akane coughed. “Sorry about that, Dad.”
“Let me have a look at him,” Mrs. Mizuno said as she shooed Akane aside. The blue-haired woman examined her father while Akane stood back, feeling more embarrassed than anything else. While she did, everyone else started gasping and running up to hug each other. Ami walked up and stood next to Akane, giving her mother a slight smile. Akane looked at the girl for a long moment.
“Aren’t you… going to say hi?” Akane asked in a whisper.
“She’s busy,” Ami pointed out, a slightly wistful look in her eyes. “I’ll give her a hug when she’s finished with your father.”
“I… yeah…” Akane nodded. She looked around and wandered away. Dad would find her as soon as he could walk again. Kasumi had taken over serving tea now that Mrs. Tsukino was busy hugging and crying over her daughter. Mr. Tsukino was satisfied to be looking stoic as he gazed on lovingly. They actually looked to have calmed down quite a bit, thankfully. Chris was standing opposite Ryouga and Nabiki, with Pink at his right hand and Link having left him to sit by herself at one of the tables. Mr. Saotome was sitting in one corner, rubbing his neck nervously as Mrs. Saotome sat next to him, chatting amiably with him in a one-sided manner as she polished a katana. Rei had wandered away from everybody else, as had Makoto. Cologne had vanished into the back, leaving Shampoo to guard the door. Akane went over to join her.
“So… now what we do?” Shampoo asked once Akane was next to her.
“I wish I knew,” Akane said slowly. “We can’t hide here forever. And we can’t confront Chronos directly. Usagi can beat one of those zoalords… but twelve?” Shampoo nodded and gripped the pommel of her sword. “Making sure Usagi is somewhere safe until she can master that crystal is the most important thing, I guess.”
Shampoo just nodded again. Akane glanced back at the group.
“…don’t worry about a thing, Dad!” Usagi was saying happily. “I can handle myself against these monsters. No sweat!” Akane winced and began to walk back in. She believed in Usagi – in Sailor Moon – but that didn’t mean she needed the girl getting an unrealistic idea of what exactly was going on.
“Right, Da,” the little boy standing next to Mr. Tsukino piped up. Akane recognised him, knew he was Usagi’s brother, but couldn’t remember his name. “Usagi is a for real superhero.”
“That’s right,” Usagi said, chuckling as she reached down and ruffled his light brown hair. “Your big sis is a genuine saviour and everything!”
“Of course,” the boy said in a mockingly sweet tone as he pushed her hand off, “you’re more of a second-rate superhero. I mean, you run around in like a ballerina costume and everything and use love powers.” The boy made a sick face. “Yuck. If only I had a big brother like Ukyou. Now there’s a man’s man! He’ll break your spine just for looking at him funny!”
Chris burst out laughing. Akane winced. Usagi’s eyes narrowed and she placed her hand on her brother’s head, ruffling his hair with perhaps a little bit more friction than last time.
“Is that right, twerp?”
“Yes it is!” The boy made an attempt to grab his sister’s arm, but she somehow avoided that. “I can’t help it if you’re such a girly wuss! Who wants to be a hero like that? I want to be like Ukyou when I grow up!”
Usagi blinked. “I certainly hope not…”
“Quite so,” Mrs. Saotome broke in primly. “Ukyou is a delinquent and a bad influence. Not to mention he lacks manners, respect and common courtesy!”
Akane took one look at the boy’s star-struck eyes and sighed. “I think you’re having the opposite effect…”
“Well,” Mr. Tsukino interrupted with a soft clearing of his throat. “It doesn’t really matter, either way.” He clapped his daughter on the shoulder. “Everything should be okay now. You don’t have to fight the monsters anymore.”
“Huh?” Usagi said in confusion. The man’s declaration had grabbed the attention of everyone else in the room as well. “What are you talking about, Dad?”
“Well,” the man cleared his throat nervously, obviously not comfortable with all this attention. “It appears that I was right. The authorities are going to help us out… just not our authorities.”
“What are you talking about, Mr. Tsukino?” Akane asked directly.
“Actually, that sounds like my cue!”
Everyone turned and stared as the front door slammed open. Standing in the doorway was a girl, who obviously knew everyone was paying attention to her and didn’t mind one bit. She reached up and flicked her long blonde hair off her shoulder, causing her star-shaped earrings to jingle in the light. Her eyes were smouldering crimson and her lips were curled in a delicate smile. She wore a tight, shoulderless, low-cut red dress with a hemline that barely reached halfway down her thighs. Standing with one hand on her right hip, she allowed everyone in the room to get a good look before she started speaking.
“I guess my sense of timing is just too perfect…” the girl started in a slightly American-accented voice.
“Actually, you had us wait outside…”
“SHHH!” she turned and made shushing gestures to someone out of sight beyond the doorway. Akane blinked. That couldn’t have been the voice she thought it had been.
“Can I come in now? It’s cold, and…” the familiar voice said.
The girl turned back to everyone, and struck her pose again. “As I was saying…”
“You’re Sakura Yamazaki,” Pink said with a yawn. “So what does the CIA want with us, over?”
Sakura stared at Pink. “But… how… who?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know, over?” Pink replied, smirking. Chris gave her a long look, to which Pink responded with an exaggeratedly innocent shrug.
Sakura gave the Chinese twin a glare and then shook her head slightly. She closed her eyes, struck her pose again and started to open her mouth.
“Heya, doc! What you doin’ out here in the rain?”
That had not been Sakura’s voice, Akane noted.
“The young lady asked me to wait outside while she introduced herself,” the voice, which Akane was now sure was Dr. Tofu’s, responded.
“Oh. Really?” Ranma’s female voice replied. “Well, forget that. I ain’t waiting out here for some chick to finish talking. We’ll catch cold before she’s finished!”
Akane’s eye twitched, though only about half as much as Sakura’s did.
“Hey, move it, would ya?” Ranma asked needlessly as she shoved Sakura aside and stepped into the room. “Hey guys.”
“Where have you been, boy?” Genma demanded loudly.
“Uh…” Sakura said, standing beside the door with one finger raised.
“None of your business, Pops!” Ranma snapped.
“You will respect your father, boy!”
“Father? Boy?” Mr. Tsukino said.
“IT’S A TEMPORARY CONDITION!” Nodoka screamed as she grabbed the tea from Kasumi and flung it at Ranma. She blinked, and then her head snapped back as the kettle bounced off her forehead before the ceramic broke apart and the hot tea splashed over him.
“Well, now I’ve seen everything,” Ami’s mother said mildly.
“It really is quite cold out there, I hope you don’t mind if I come in and… Oh hi there Ka-K-Kas…”
“Oh, no you don’t!” Sakura snarled, then slammed her fingers into Dr. Tofu’s forehead with a meaty whack. A small paper ward hung rigid in front of his face for a second, before the doctor fell back out of the door like a toppling statue.
“So, now that I’ve saved all your lives… AGAIN! Maybe you’ll let me speak…” Sakura hissed in a tone that brooked no argument.
“By all means,” Ami said, gesturing for her to start.
Sakura nodded and, once again, assumed her pose. She glared at everyone, daring them to interrupt her. No one did.
“My name is Sakura Yamazaki, and I am the answer to your prayers.”
“Eh, I’ve seen hotter.”
Ranma yelped and ducked as the girl flung a chair at him.
“If you are quite finished,” Sakura said, then sighed. “Fine. I’ll make this short.” She held up one finger in the air. “I have been sent to this city on a special executive order directly from the President of the United States. I am hereby authorised to offer every single person in this room asylum with the United States government, effective immediately.”
A short silence filled the room.
“That’s right,” Mr. Tsukino said, sighing. “This girl found us while you were gone and offered us all safe haven. So, it all works out for the best. Right, Usagi?”
“Wait a minute!” Akane interrupted before Usagi could respond. “How? Why? What is going on here?” She glanced at Sakura. “Do you even know what it is we’re running from?”
Sakura made a show of buffing her nails on her dress before responding. “Oh, of course I do, Akane Tendo.” She smiled smugly and flicked her eyes across everyone in the room. “Chronos. A conspiracy of monsters that has infiltrated the highest offices in almost every nation in the world. A conspiracy so wide-ranging and so powerful that for most people, confronting it is nothing less than a death sentence.” She flicked her hand through her hair again. “But I… am not like most people.
“It’s been almost three months since I pretty much started saving the world single-handedly,” she explained without a hint of self-deprecation. “You see, I am a trained spiritualist, with senses far more advanced than most of you can imagine.” Akane glanced at Rei, who seemed not to be paying attention. “It was only a matter of time before I started discovering the zoanoids that worked for my superiors. Of course, as the youngest active field agent of the CIA ever, it didn’t take me long to convince my supervisors of their existence.
“From there, I spearheaded the US’s secret war against Chronos. One zoanoid at a time, we’ve been cleaning house. Zoanoids and… other things.” Sakura tossed her head and stared at the ceiling. “I would have to say the turning point was when I personally saved the President’s life from Chronos assassins in a dramatic battle in the Oval Office. I’m up for a congressional medal of honour for that one. You DO know what that is, right?
“But the most important thing, to you…” Sakura looked down and pointed, sweeping her hands across the gathered people. “America is perhaps the only nation in the world that is now free of Chronos control. If, no, when those monsters come, they will find us a people ready and willing to defend ourselves.” She lowered her arm to her side. “Of course, we can’t fight these kinds of battles with just my dazzling abilities. That is where you come in. In exchange for safe haven and political protection, the US needs people that can help them defeat Chronos.”
She looked at Usagi. “People like Sailor Moon, who can transform zoanoids back to human form.”
She looked at Ranma. “People like Ranma Saotome, who can fight monsters with his bare hands and win.”
She looked at Chris, and her eyebrow raised as she smirked. “Even people like you, whom most would call a monster, but who we can and will help.”
She stepped forward and opened her arms wide. “So, you can see why this is such an important opportunity. If you come with me to America, you will be safe. Your families will be protected. You will gain full American citizenship and be paid and treated well for your service. And your service will be in the noblest cause of them all! Together, we will save this world from the monsters!”
Sakura’s voice reached a crescendo before dying off suddenly. The entire room was silent in the wake of her speech. But that didn’t last long.
“Count us out, over,” the Chinese twins said in eerie unison.
Akane glanced at them. At some point during the speech they had gravitated back towards each other. Chris was standing slightly behind them, his expression unreadable. But he was staring at her. As his glassy eyes met hers, he looked away sharply.
“It’s obvious we’re going!” Mr. Tsukino said sharply. “This is exactly what we need, Usagi. You’ll be safe, and we don’t have to worry about Chronos anymore.”
“I don’t know, Dad…” Usagi said softly.
“Well, it’s a nice speech,” Akane picked up as Usagi trailed off. She turned back to Sakura. “Your plan will do a lot of good for America. But what about Japan?”
“Japan?” Sakura said, her voice dropping slightly.
“You know what I mean.” Akane stepped forward. She knew everyone was paying attention to her, but didn’t really care. “Who is going to stay here and protect Japan? These monsters are everywhere, and without people here who know the truth, Japan is ripe for the plucking. If you take all of us away, who will stand up to the monsters?”
“Well…” Sakura reached up and pinched at something immaterial in front of her nose. “You aren’t the only people in Japan who can fight this…”
“But I am guessing that you plan on making this offer to as many as you can,” Cologne said. “I’m right, aren’t I? This is just a particularly good catch. But if you’ve been at this for any length of time, you’ve already been finding people and smuggling them out of the country for weeks, if not months.”
“The old troll is right, we can- ow! What did you do that for, I was agreeing with you, ya crazy old bat! OW!” Ranma rubbed at his forehead and glared at Cologne. The old woman smiled at him and shrugged.
“I see…” Sakura sighed and nodded. “To tell you the truth… I can see your point. And I do sympathise.” She folded her arms, and her face became serious – although, was she actually using her arms to deliberately push up her… no. Akane shook her head. It had to be her imagination. “My mother is Japanese. This country is part of my heritage. More than that, it has a place in my soul.” She closed her eyes. “But fighting Chronos here is a losing battle. The Americans have weapons, troops, and resources that the Japanese simply don’t have. There are a lot of people like you that live there already, martial artists and psychics that they are recruiting to the cause one by one. America, quite frankly, stands a chance. Even if you alerted everyone in Japan… I don’t think this country can survive a war with Chronos.”
She looked up, and Akane saw a deep, passionate determination in Sakura’s eyes. “When I say America is planning to save the world, I mean it. They have to save themselves first, but then they will start to bring the fight to Chronos. We will free Japan, and all the other countries. I will MAKE them do the right thing, if I have to.”
“I believe you will,” Akane stepped up so that she was within arm’s reach of the blonde girl. “But this country is my home. There are things here that need to be saved.” Akane turned back and looked at Chris as she said that last sentence. “I, for one, plan on staying here.”
“I won’t hear of it!” Dad yelled, dashing up from the back of the room. Akane dodged his attempt to grab her in a bearhug of fatherly love, but didn’t manage to avoid him altogether. “Akane! We have already decided. It is SAFE in America! You’ll be safe there!”
“I can’t live with just being safe,” Akane informed him placatingly. “Dad… I’ve seen what kinds of monsters Japan is facing now. I can’t run away from that. I have to fight and protect people, here. In America… I’ll just be one person. Here, I can make a difference!”
Dad paused and looked into her eyes. Akane stared into his, willing him to understand. She couldn’t tell him that… that she had died. That she had come back. That SHE had come back. There had to be some reason for that. There had to be a purpose, a reason that she had not been allowed to move on to whatever fate awaited her. And she knew that whatever that purpose was… it was not in America. She had brought something back with her, and whatever that was… it didn’t feel right to leave Japan with it.
“I…” Dad sniffed, and his eyes began to blur with tears. But they weren’t his usual tears. There was no hysteria or despair in his face. He was smiling as the tears traced paths down his cheeks one drop at a time. “Akane… I understand.” He nodded. “You do me proud, my daughter.” He pulled her into an embrace, but not one filled with fierce possessiveness. It was gentle and intimate, in a way Akane had almost forgotten her father could be.
She realised she was crying as she hugged her father back. She almost relented there, in his arms. The enormity of what she was doing almost crashed down upon her. She knew that it was very possible this would be the last time she saw her father. She could die. But death no longer seemed so awful anymore. Because Akane knew that there were some things more important than death. Because she knew that, if she tried hard enough, she could win no matter what Sakura said about her chances.
“Yeah, I’m staying behind, too,” Chris said as he stepped away from the wall. “I wish you the best of luck, Miss Yamazaki. But I can’t be tied down to one country right now.”
“I’m staying, too!” Usagi declared proudly.
“No!” Mr. Tsukino said at almost the exact same time that Akane did.
Akane pulled free of her father and walked over to the ditzy girl. Usagi was smiling at her, and her eyes were filled with so much hope and… respect? Usagi respected her? The idea that Usagi was looking up to her made Akane feel uncomfortable.
“I know what you’re going to say, Akane,” Usagi said in a calm, clear voice. “But it isn’t true. I’m not too important. I am just a girl, like you are. And I believe we can win this battle, just like you can. Would you deny me the opportunity to help the people I have come to love here?”
“No…” Akane said, grimacing. So this was what the expression ‘coming back to bite you in the ass’ meant.
“Young lady, I can’t accept this!”
“Dad…” Usagi turned back to her father, and touched the side of his cheek. His mouth opened and closed for a few moments as he gazed into his daughter’s eyes. Slowly, the fight drained out of him. Usagi just gave him an infectious little smile. “It’s okay, I know you’re worried. But you don’t have to be. Just trust me. It will all turn out okay. Nobody has to be sacrificed. Especially not the entire nation of Japan.”
“I…” Mr. Tsukino reached up and his hand twisted futilely in the air an inch from his daughter’s cheek. “I just love you too much, Usagi. You’re my little girl. You can’t be the saviour of the world. You’re just the same girl who kept your mother and I up all nights when you were teething…”
“I love you, too,” Usagi drew him down and embraced him. She whispered something into his ear, and the man seemed to crumble into her. It was amazing that she could support his weight. After a moment, Usagi released him into the arms of her mother. The woman leaned over and pecked her daughter on the cheek.
“I love you,” Mrs. Tsukino said. “Promise me you’ll be safe.”
“Everyone will be safe,” Usagi replied, with a voice that made you believe it was the truth.
“Well, uh…” Ranma coughed and shrugged. “I’m stayin’ too, ya know? I mean, I believe in all this stuff Akane said. But, really, all my friends are still here and I need to help ’em out.”
“I suppose that includes that Ukyou person as well,” Mrs. Saotome said in a level tone.
Ranma turned to his mother, scratching the back of his head. “Aw, Mom, didn’t we already talk about this?”
“Yes… we did,” Mrs. Saotome walked up to him, her eyes narrow and her stride brisk. “I still think that Ukyou won’t do anything but get you in trouble. He is nothing but a bad influence.”
“Mom, don’t be like that…” Ranma groaned. “Ukyou isn’t…” Ranma stopped talking as his mother pressed a finger against his lips.
“But you are determined… and I understand how you feel,” Mrs. Saotome said softly. “I just wish you weren’t going to be leaving me so soon… not after we just found each other again.”
“Ah… don’t get all mushy on me, Mom,” Ranma stepped back and rubbed his neck again. “It’s not like this is goodbye or anything. I’ll still, ya know, write, or visit… or something, when I have time…” Ranma slowly trailed off. Perhaps he was embarrassed, perhaps he had nothing more to say, perhaps it was the deathgrip Nodoka had with his other hand that was slowly turning his fingers white.
“You will write, won’t you?” she said pleasantly.
“I…” Ranma gasped and tugged futilely at his hand.
“Not like how your father promised to write, I mean.” Mrs. Saotome smiled in a vapid, malevolent way. “You really will write, and visit?”
“Ah! Ah!” Ranma began to nod frantically. “I’ll write! I swear!”
“Good,” the kimono-clad woman said and released his hand. “Now give me a hug.”
Akane, feeling a bit embarrassed, turned away as the two embraced. She glanced at Shampoo, who was mainly ignoring everything that was happening around her. Except she kept casting annoyed glances at the door. Akane blinked and followed her gaze. Dr. Tofu’s legs were still sticking in through the doorframe.
“Can Shampoo just kick him out or drag him in?” Shampoo said to Akane with a grumble. “It annoying watching rain make him only half soggy.”
“Oh, drag him back in,” Sakura said, waving her hand. “He’s coming, whether he knows it or not.” She jerked a thumb in Kasumi’s direction. “After all, she is coming.”
“Yes,” Soun said, sighing and stepping away from Akane. “I’m just glad my other two daughters will be safe with me. They don’t have any reason to stay…”
“Actually, Daddy,” Nabiki cut their father off and rose to her feet. “I won’t be coming with you.”
“W-what?” Soun gasped. “But… but you can’t…”
“Take care of myself?” Nabiki smirked. “Like Akane can? Is that what you were about to say?” She shook her head. “You’ve always been a short-sighted man, who didn’t realise that power doesn’t just come in the form of a fist.” Nabiki walked up to him. “I’m not going to America because I CAN take care of myself. I have unfinished business in this country.”
“Oh…” Dad backed away from her, his expression briefly fearful. Then, in a flash, he began to smile. “Oh. I see.” He chuckled. “You just want to stay behind to be with your fiancé. I can certainly underst-“
“Shut up!” Nabiki growled. Soun blinked, and everyone else turned to stare at the confrontation. “This has nothing to do with Ranma. In fact, if I never see him again, it will be too soon.” She turned away and started walking towards her table, where Ryouga waited patiently.
“Nabiki…” Dad took a deep breath. “Are you walking away from me? From your family duty?”
“Yes, Father, that is exactly what I am doing.”
“I won’t allow it!” He pointed firmly at the floor in front of him. “I may let Akane endanger herself and leave my sight… but hers is an honourable goal! You are walking away from your family’s honour, and I won’t allow that. I am your father and you are still a child… you will obey me!”
“Make me,” Nabiki shot back, not turning around. Soun opened and closed his mouth for a moment. She continued before he could recover. “What kind of honour would you have me follow, old man? Ranma is a jerk, and a sex-changing freak…”
“Hey!” Ranma and Nodoka shouted in unison.
“…and I would marry him for… what? To carry on the dojo?” Nabiki gestured around, towards the walls covered in peeling old wallpaper. “Look around, old man. There isn’t a dojo anymore! There is no ancestral home, and no ancestral honour either. If you want your precious heir so badly, put your faith in Akane. I, for one, have had enough of this family!”
“Nabiki, you don’t mean that…” Kasumi said, her voice catching.
“Don’t think I don’t, Kasumi,” Nabiki shot back. “It’s about time all of you started opening up your eyes. This isn’t a world where we can afford to be soft or oblivious. And all running and hiding is going to do is make you stay that way.” Her eyes turned to Akane. “At least Akane, I can respect.” She flipped her hair and smirked. “I just came here because I wanted to pick up my stuff, anyway. Come on, Ryouga. We’re leaving.”
“But it’s still raining…” the boy said. Akane thought he looked very sad, especially when he was looking at Nabiki.
“That’s what your umbrella is for,” Nabiki shot back as she stalked over to the door.
Akane’s sister ignored her father as she waited for Ryouga to meet up with her. Then, with a soft click, they were both gone from sight.
“Why do we have to keep them separated, over?”
“Because,” Chris whispered back, feeling that phantom headache coming on again, “if we don’t keep Tofu and Kasumi apart, he’ll… well, you KNOW what he’ll do.”
“Exactly!” declared Pink with a smirk. “That’s his only character trait! I want to see it! Come on, it’ll be fun, over!”
“No,” he grated. “Go bother Shampoo or something; that’s what I gave her to you for.”
“And don’t think I don’t appreciate it,” Pink nodded. “But what have you done for me lately, over?”
Chris gave her a withering look, and Pink raised her hands in mock surrender before striding from the common room with a light laugh. Chris shook his head. She liked knowing about the manga way too much. You’d think that someone who found out they were apparently a fictional character would be bothered, at least somewhat. But Pink, it seemed, was no ordinary nutcase.
He glanced over to the other side of the room. Akane and a still-soggy Dr. Tofu were sitting across from each other at one of the dusty tables, having a conversation. Despite his best intentions, Chris sidled a little closer to them. He was just a bit curious as to how Akane planned to say goodbye.
“-are you trying to say, Akane?” Tofu was saying. He was still rubbing absently at the lump on his head.
“I’m saying that, ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always looked up to you, Doctor Tofu. You were the only man – no, the only boy I’ve ever met who I really thought was an adult. I guess I’ve just sort of… well, I did have a crush on you for years, and I just couldn’t tell you about it.”
“…” was Tofu’s response. Chris couldn’t really read his expression; it was sort of blank, like he was trying to figure out how to respond without either hurting her feelings or encouraging them. For his own part, Chris was a bit surprised. Akane’d never confessed her feelings in the manga.
But, then again, this was a different Akane, wasn’t it?
She chuckled a bit. “I know exactly what you’re thinking, doctor. You’re looking for the way out of this, aren’t you?” She smiled up at him. “Don’t worry about it. It was just a schoolgirl crush. You’ll always be a friend, but I don’t think I’ll ever see you in quite that way anymore.”
“Well, um…” Tofu cleared his throat. “I’m glad you… told me about that, Akane. I know you’ve grown up to be…” he paused, obviously carefully choosing his words, “…an attractive young lady…”
Akane started giggling again, but suppressed it with one hand while waving the other at him. “No, no, I think you’ve got me all wrong. It’s not you, Doctor Tofu. It’s me. I’m just not the same blushing schoolgirl that had a crush on you. You understand?”
Tofu smiled a bit whimsically. “Not particularly.”
“It doesn’t really matter.” She patted Tofu on the shoulder. “Listen. All I want you to do is work up the courage to ask my sister out sometime. I think you and her will make a good couple… really, you’ve got lots in common.”
Doctor Tofu laughed nervously and rubbed the back of his head. “Well… I guess taking relationship advice from a sixteen-year-old isn’t the strangest thing I’ve done in my life!”
“No, probably not.” Akane smiled, a little sadly, and stood up. “I’m certain we’ll say goodbye again before you leave with Sakura, but I want to wish you all the best of luck. Someday, when this is all over, we’ll all…” She paused, and looked out one of the windows for a moment. When she spoke again, it was slow and thoughtful. “Some day, we’ll all sit down, talk about all of this, and laugh. All of us.”
Tofu didn’t have much to say, and Akane pushed away from the table. She didn’t seem surprised to see Chris. As her eyes fell on him, she quirked her head to the side and walked past, towards the kitchens. Chris shrugged and followed.
They passed through the kitchen where Kasumi and Mrs. Tsukino and Nodoka were all preparing dinner and chatting. It looked good, and Chris’s lips twitched. Eating was definitely one thing he missed about being alive.
Akane led him back to the pantry, which was empty except for a musty smell Chris could barely notice and what looked like an ancient bag of potatoes spreading roots in the corner. Once they were inside, she turned around and looked at him, crossing her arms. “So, where are you planning to go now?”
“There’s a school called Ohtori Academy. I want to speak to a man there, so that’s my next destination.”
“What about the Sailor Senshi?” she asked. “They’re staying in Japan. Are we just going to leave them here?”
Chris considered that. “No, that’d be too dangerous. They should come with me, get them out of Tokyo and away from Chronos until this blows over a bit.” He paused for a moment. “You said ‘we’, not ‘you’. Is that significant?”
Akane nodded, and Chris felt a vast wave of relief wash over him. “But I have conditions, if you want me to come along,” she said seriously.
“I told you I’d do whatever you wanted me to,” he replied. “I meant it. Anything. Ask.”
“First off,” she said, holding up a finger, “we have to find a safe place for the Sailor Senshi. I have a feeling you’re going to be moving around a lot, and that’s not going to be good for them.”
Chris nodded. They were kind of young to be trekking all over Asia on foot, fighting god-knows-what. Of course, Akane was young too, but she was a martial artist and thus much tougher. Besides, he needed Akane. “I’m not sure where, but we’ll find someplace. Japan’s a big country, and if not here, maybe somewhere in China.”
“Maybe…” Akane said noncommittally. “But beyond that, are you really serious about doing anything I say?”
He stepped forward, and tried to look her in the eyes, WILLING her to understand what this meant to him. He needed her. He needed her moral centre. Without it… he thought back to the slaughter of the Chronos village, and shuddered. “Akane, I know it’s strange, but I really feel I need your help. Need it. I can’t think of someone else to turn to. And because of that, and because I’m taking you away from your own life, and because I trust you, I swear on everything I hold sacred I will do my absolute best to do whatever you ask me to do.”
The reply was short and simple. “Don’t kill.”
He paused. He knew what she meant, of course. He almost immediately wanted to protest, remind her about the rotting, remind her that it wasn’t his choice. But… he had figured she’d make a condition like that. If that was the price of her help… maybe it was twice as good for him. “All right,” he said. “I won’t.”
She smiled and nodded. “Good.” She reached over and tugged absently at a strand of her long hair. “By the way, when do we leave?”
Chris shrugged. “I figure I’d wait for Sakura to come back and pick up the others, so everyone can have some time with their families.”
“Good,” Akane repeated. “I’ll have to get Kasumi to cut this before she goes.”
He raised an eyebrow. He’d only really just started to get used to seeing ‘long-haired Akane’, as he’d once thought of her. It was sort of ironic, her breaking off her attraction with Tofu then getting her hair cut, as she’d grown it out to try and attract him in the first place. Reversed order from the events of the manga that would never happen. “Oh? What made you decide to do that?”
Akane tugged at the lock again, stared at it with an unreadable expression. “This is the kind of style a schoolgirl wears.”
“No, really, Mom, I’m cool with sleeping on the floor, really.”
“Nonsense!” Nodoka replied, chuckling to herself as she pushed Ranma along the floor. He sighed and started actually walking. Besides, his heels were getting rug burn.
“Fine, whatever.” Ranma shook his head. He was not looking forward to tonight.
“Don’t sound so enthusiastic,” Nodoka chided him sarcastically. “I’m sure this Shampoo girl is a nice person and the two of you will have a lovely time together.”
“Mom, she’s tried to kill me, repeatedly.”
“That reminds me of how I met your father…” Nodoka sighed. “And now you two are betrothed. So it is very important for you to spend at least some private time with each other.”
“All she’ll do once we’re alone is try to kill me again!” Ranma complained loudly.
“Well, put that training of yours to good use then!” she replied cheerfully.
“Besides, Son-in-law, I have it on the best authority that Shampoo will not attempt to kill you tonight.”
“AHH!” Ranma screamed and began to wave at Cologne, who remained perched on his head despite his best efforts. “Where did you come from?”
“China,” Cologne explained. “And I am going to be spending tonight keeping two mischievous young girls from interrupting you, so I expect my efforts not to be wasted, eh, Son-in-law?” She nudged him in the shoulder with her staff.
“You’re both crazy!” Ranma shouted as they shoved him in the doorway. The door slammed closed in his face. He heard them yell something encouraging through the wood and then their laughter receded down the hallway.
There was a long, metallic rasp behind him. Ranma felt his pigtail levitate away from his neck. Maybe, if he didn’t turn around, she wouldn’t be there.
Not that he was scared.
Just… uh… just that he didn’t like hitting girls.
Ranma stood there for almost a minute. The rasping continued, slowly driving a spike into his mind. He gritted his teeth, but it didn’t go away. He closed his eyes, but it didn’t go away. He covered his ears… okay, then it became softer, but still didn’t go away.
Finally he sighed and turned around.
Shampoo was sitting on the single-width cot, running a whetstone up and down the length of her wickedly curved Chinese sword. She looked up at him and narrowed her red eyes. “Hello,” she said evenly.
“Wow… fancy meeting you here.” Ranma grinned and rubbed the back of his neck. His pigtail refused to settle down.
“Stupid,” she said, hefting the sword. “Catch!” she grunted and hurled it towards him. Ranma’s eyes widened and he clapped his hands together, capturing the blade with only a few centimeters to spare. He blinked, and slowly lowered the weapon.
“Uh… don’t you need this for the killing?”
Shampoo gave him a disgusted look. She shifted in place, the hem of her short Chinese dress riding a bit up her thigh. Ranma started looking at other things, until she rose to her feet. “No, it for provoking.”
“Provoking?” Ranma shifted his grip on the sword so he had one hand free. “Uh… provoking what? I ain’t gonna attack you.” Ranma was beginning to think that the chances of tonight turning into a mad struggle for survival were growing slimmer. He wondered why he felt disappointed.
Shampoo glared at him and stalked straight up to him. Ranma backed up, but the door got in the way. Soon, she was standing only a half-meter away from him. She stared up at him, her red eyes flashing like little flames. “Yes you do.” She gestured at her chin. “Counter-attack! Right here!” Ranma raised one eyebrow. “Or Shampoo hit you!”
“Uh… no?” Ranma attempted.
The purple-haired girl sighed and slumped a little bit. “Fine. No have to hit hard.” Shampoo paused and looked at him again. “Hit here…” she gestured at her chin. “Fast as you can.”
“Oh, I can do that without hitting you!” Ranma said, grinning. He leapt up, bounced off the ceiling with one hand and landed across the room. Shampoo stood still for a moment, then slowly turned to look at him. “See, watch!” Ranma said as he lifted up the pillow on the cot. He flipped it in the air and swung Shampoo’s sword in a flashing arc. The pillow exploded as he neatly bisected it. Ranma grinned and narrowed his eyes. Then the blade became a grey flash, a whirling tornado of metal around him. He finished with the sword held at his side, and every single feather in the pillow drifted to the ground, neatly divided in two.
“Stupid!” Shampoo threw up her arms. “Now we no have pillow! Why not just hit Shampoo?”
“Uh…” Ranma started to scratch his neck, but realised he was holding the sword in that hand and decided against it. “I guess I just don’t want to muss up that pretty face,” Ranma said with a shrug.
Shampoo rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Give back sword.”
Ranma flipped it towards her and she caught it easily. He watched her for a second to see if she would come at him but instead she just leaned it against the wall. Ranma nodded and walked over to the corner and sat down.
“You can have the bed,” Ranma nodded towards the cot. “I’m used to sleeping in awkward positions.”
Shampoo gave him an odd look, then walked over to the bed before sitting down. Ranma looked away, since her hemline was riding up again. “You learn Tenshin Amaguriken, is right?”
“Huh?” Ranma blinked. “Amaguriken?” He paused. “You mean… that chestnut in the fire thing?” He quirked his head to the side. “Yeah. Ukyou taught me it.”
Shampoo nodded. “You fast. Strikes too fast for Shampoo to even follow.”
“If you say so,” Ranma shrugged. “I just found out today that was the point of all that.” He grinned. “Course, I guess I would have thought the idea of training that way was stupid if Ukyou told me that was the goal.”
“Ranma strong, fast, tough… more than Shampoo,” the girl said evenly. “Shampoo no beat you, no matter how many time she try.”
“Well, yeah…” Ranma grinned. “Don’t feel bad. I do that to a lot of people.”
“Lot of people no have to marry you.”
“So… uh… I’m sorta gettin’ the idea you ain’t into this marriage thing as much as your granny wants you to be, huh?” Ranma said, chuckling nervously.
Shampoo ignored his question. “Great-grandmother realise you no come with us. You no like Chris. And twins no leave him.”
“Uh…” Ranma sighed. He guessed that Cologne had probably figured it out pretty easily. After challenging Chris eighteen times so far tonight (and being turned down nineteen ‘just in case’) it had been pretty obvious the two of them had… issues to resolve. “Guess not.” Ranma shrugged. “I’m not really ready to settle down yet, I suppose. Not that I don’t think you’re cute, in that exotic, emotionless killer way, but I just don’t think I need to be thinking about girls is all.”
Besides, girls just tied you down. Ranma needed to get together with a girl who wouldn’t get in his way and could maybe follow him on his adventures. Some girl who wouldn’t want him to stay home and do all that responsible boyfriend stuff. Somebody like Ran, maybe.
Ranma shook the thought aside.
“Stop complimenting me,” Shampoo told him flatly.
“Uh…” Ranma shrugged. “You have fat calves.”
She threw her sword at him again, and he caught it. “Hey!”
“No insult me either, stupid.” There was a brief pause as Shampoo readjusted her hair. “You staying in Japan. She look for you later,” she continued matter-of-factly.
“Uh… okay,” Ranma replied. “But you don’t want to marry me or nothin’, right?”
She gestured for her sword back again. Reluctantly, Ranma handed it over. Then she leaned forward and thrust it so the tip hovered a millimeter in front of Ranma’s nose. “Shampoo use this to cut her heart out before she marry you.”
“Well…” Ranma smiled thinly. “At least it’s sharp.”
Why was every girl he knew a psycho?
“But…” Shampoo pulled back, settling her sword on her shoulder neatly. “Shampoo no can do anything. Was tricked into promise.”
“Well, that isn’t right…” Ranma said. He frowned and smacked his fist into his palm. “I know! I’ll just never agree!”
Shampoo’s eyes narrowed happily and she leaned back against the wall, smiling like the c… dog who ate the canary. “Good,” she said. “Just no get married, or Shampoo have to kill wife.”
“Oh…” Ranma blinked. “I’m cool with that, I guess.”
Shampoo nodded, reached up, grabbed the collar of her dress and pulled it off. Ranma’s eyes bugged out. She wasn’t wearing a bra. He snapped his eyes shut.
“What are you doing!?” Ranma screeched. “I thought we weren’t getting married!”
“Keep down, stupid,” Shampoo said. Ranma felt something soft slap into his head. “Wrap this around head if no want to see.”
Ranma inched his eye open. She had thrown her dress at him. He groaned and tossed it aside, still keeping his eyes closed. “You like doing this, don’t you?”
“Yes. Don’t forget, Shampoo still hate you. Your fault all this happened.” There was a pause. “And also your fault Shampoo sleep in bed filled with feathers. Stupid.”
Ranma sighed. It was going to be a long night.
ZX-Tole flung another hunk of machinery away. Behind him, he could hear the crack and groan of shifting rubble as Derzerb and the few remaining Gregoles continued to dig through the destruction. At least Derzerb was no longer complaining that the work was ‘beneath him’. Telling him that they needed to pitch in because nearly half the zoanoids in the mountain had suddenly been transformed back into normal humans hadn’t worked, but slapping him down just once had.
ZX-Tole kept his own doubts to himself. The blast had nearly gutted the mountain, practically breaking it in two. Even Commander Gyro could not have possibly survived something so apocalyptic. But Doctor Valkus seemed convinced that the commander was still alive underneath all this rubble. So they dug until they found him, or his corpse, one of the two.
“I found something!” a Gregole yelled from nearby. ZX-Tole dropped the concrete slab he was carrying and jogged over. The Gregole was pointing down at the twisted wreckage, and ZX-Tole’s segmented eyes immediately saw the human arm pinned beneath a large chunk of metal. He snorted and crossed his arms as best as his huge carapace would allow him. “It’s a human arm. The commander would have been in his battle form. Just pull it free and take it to all the other corpses. Doctor Valkus wants to study them…”
“Yes, sir,” the Gregole replied crisply. He knelt down and began to pull on the arm. ZX-Tole was half-turned around when the hand jerked to life and grabbed onto the Gregole’s wrist. The unfortunate zoanoid only had a chance to gasp… before its body spasmed once, sharply. Its torso curled so far back that ZX-Tole heard its spine snap like a twig. Blood gouted from its mouth before the creature fell back. ZX-Tole backed up a step.
Then he felt it, the overwhelming presence in the back of his mind. He groaned as the telepathic pressure pushed at the inside of his brain with so much force he thought his skull would crack. The overwhelming will commanded his obedience, and with a roar he reached down and tore free the last of the wreckage that covered Commander Gyro.
The commander lay still for a moment, his naked human body covered in numerous small cuts. Then his eyes flew open and he sat upright as if he had been spring-loaded. He reached out and snapped his hand around ZX-Tole’s wrist, the fingers pushing so hard it made the chitin there turn white from stress.
“Did you see it!?” Gyro gasped in awe.
“See it?” ZX-Tole replied in a quavering voice. He had never seen a zoalord’s full power. But considering what the commander was doing to his normally impervious armour in just his human form… “Is there something wrong?”
Gyro turned his head slowly, his purple and yellow eyes boring into ZX-Tole’s red segmented ones. He grinned. “The crystal…” the commander said slowly. “That magnificent glowing crystal…” He began to grin. “It was stronger than me. Stronger than any zoalord!”
“That’s impossible…” ZX-Tole began, but the man cut him off with a wave of his hand and a stinging psychic rebuke.
“No, I saw it…” He smiled, his eyes flashing. “It was so beautiful… it almost destroyed me!” He laughed. ZX-Tole was beginning to wonder if the commander had perhaps lost it. The idea did not comfort him. Zoalords were terrifying beings, the closest thing to a zoanoid god. The idea of an insane god-being made his stomach twist in knots.
“You think I’m mad, but I’m not,” Gyro explained, his voice suddenly cool and collected. “I’m more sane than I have ever been.” This time, his smile was dark and serious, filled with malicious glee. “I’ve finally found the thing I’ve been looking for all these years. The one power that can defeat a zoalord.” This time his laugh was brief, but dangerous.
“Go. Tell Valkus that he doesn’t need to spy on me anymore.” Gyro stood up. “I’ll open up all my files to him. I’ll reveal every bit of my secret research.” He laughed. “What does the guyver unit matter anymore? When there is a crystal like that in this world, after all?”
ZX-Tole had no idea what the commander was talking about, but he was just as glad when the man released him. He walked away from the closest thing he had to a god, and worried.
Telulu walked up the stairs, shifting the files she was carrying from one arm to another. The house was quaint, almost prosaic. She certainly wouldn’t have pictured it as the home of the leader of the Deathbusters. The door at the end of the upstairs hallway was open, so she strode briskly inside.
Or that was the plan. She stopped in mid-stride at the sight which greeted her. The room was destroyed. The bed was shattered. One of the walls was missing entirely. Plus, of course, the bloody corpse on the floor.
“Kaorinite?” Telulu said, disbelievingly.
Telulu looked up and saw the Professor standing at the far side of the room. The dim light of the lamps left shadows that partially obscured his body, and his face was entirely hidden save for the silvery gleam of his glasses and the flash of his teeth.
“Kaorinite is dead,” the Professor declared grimly.
“Worse, they took the child,” Eudial said as she stepped from the other room through the hole that had previously been a wall. She was carrying a jury-rigged scanning system which consisted of a long television antennae wand and several other common household items.
“Child?” Telulu asked.
“The Messiah,” Professor Tomoe informed her. His voice shifted and cracked, wavering from mania to deadly earnestness. “Somebody attacked us where we were most vulnerable and stole our most precious commodity!”
“I see…” Telulu said. “Well… that isn’t so bad, then.”
There was a long silence in the room. The Professor turned towards her slowly. Eudial did so less theatrically, but her shocked expression told how she was feeling.
“What… did you say?” The Professor’s voice was nothing but calm now.
“While losing the Messiah of Silence is a blow to our plans,” Telulu replied, her voice confident – she adjusted her glasses with one hand while she held out her file-folder with the other – “I’ve been up all night doing research, and I believe I have discovered another way to allow us to draw master Pharaoh 90 into our dimension.
“You see, the Messiah is the only one who can access the power of the Holy Grail… but I propose that we don’t need the Grail at all. Any sufficiently large concentration of spiritual energy can serve as the proper beacon. My scan of the bio-etheric current through the plant life around here shows a marked increase in the quantity of ambient spiritual energy…”
“You must be joking,” the Professor said in an odd, gentle voice. It was like he was talking to a child. “You want to use plants to summon Pharaoh 90?”
“That oversimplifies my proposal…”
Telulu gasped and staggered back as the Professor slapped the papers from her hand.
“Your proposal is meaningless,” the Professor told her in a strong voice. “I’m certain you believe in it. But the plan for the Messiah WILL work. Your theory is nothing more than a hypothesis. It is untried, untested and unproven.” He stepped forward, just enough so that his face remained in shadow. He lifted his arms up, spreading them like wings. “It is more obvious to me now than ever that we are vulnerable. I was right to keep our operation hidden. We have strong enemies, who are more ruthless than I imagined.” He tilted his head back. “She is not dead… I would know instantly if she were. So there is no reason to abandon our timeline. All our resources must be directed towards rescuing her.”
Telulu bowed her head and knelt down. She began to recover her papers. She had to admit that the Professor was, technically, right. She had no actual proof that her theory was correct. He knew the Messiah was their one sure way to succeed. But still, she had stumbled upon something. Her research had proven that there was something immense and powerful beneath the land of this city. How could she ignore it?
“I see you are still hesitant to believe in me, Telulu,” the Professor said softly. He patted her on the shoulder and she looked up into the gleaming reflection of his eyes. “Very well. I see that your heart is not in this, and I understand.”
The man looked over at Eudial. She stood up straight, and smiled.
“Eudial, I will entrust you with the responsibility of locating the Messiah.”
“You can count on me, Professor!” she replied crisply. She flicked a long red lock over her shoulder and smirked towards Telulu.
“I too, will be devoting most of my time to the search,” the Professor continued. Then he turned towards Telulu again. “To you, Telulu, I delegate the Daimon Project.”
The Daimon Project. Telulu frowned. They had still not found a way to mass-produce Daimon in this world. Pharaoh 90 had been able to send only a handful of his children to Earth to pave the way for his coming. For the most part, the Professor had been spending his time working on that very same project. Normally, Telulu would have been overjoyed to work on it.
But she knew what it was: busy work. They didn’t trust her anymore.
“I will do my best…” Telulu said softly.
“Excellent.” The Professor nodded and stepped past her and out of the room. “I will be in my lab.”
Telulu finished collecting her research as the leader of the Deathbusters strode away. There was a click as Eudial stepped in front of her. Telulu looked up into her senior’s menacing scarlet eyes.
“You should know, that just because I’m going to be busy being the Professor’s right hand, that doesn’t mean I won’t be keeping an eye on you.”
“I will succeed in the task that has been set before me…” Telulu forced out from between clenched teeth.
“See that you do.” Eudial strode around her and out of the room.
Telulu rose to her feet, clenching and unclenching her fist.
Then she smiled.
She looked down at her research.
The Professor had told her to locate a way to mass produce Daimon. He had never told her how she should work on that project. Her smile widened. Perhaps… there was more than one way to prove her theories were correct.
“That’s it… relax. Don’t try and force it. Just let it flow naturally.”
Aaron nodded as Akira cupped her hands around the glass. Her breathing was deep and even. Aaron could feel her chi flowing around her body, radiating out from her in waves. Her aura was deep, but hard to decipher. He was beginning to learn that a person’s mood was often reflected in the quality of their chi, but Akira’s wasn’t easy to discern. While he watched, the girl created a tiny but intense ball of white light between her hands.
The leaf in the water twitched, then steadily rose. The water began to dribble over the rim of the glass. Ukyou reached in and pulled the glass away. Akira’s eyes snapped open.
“Water,” Ukyou explained. Akira nodded, but her face was still confused.
“How did you do that?” Matsudaira asked, her voice awed. She wasn’t even looking at the two of them anymore. Instead, her eyes were locked on the screen of one of the high-speed cameras she had set up.
“You’ll have to be more specific, Matsudaira,” Aaron responded.
“The water. You created more of it!”
“Not really…” Aaron picked up the glass again. The water level had returned to almost normal. “The chi Akira produced is water-aspected. It interacted with the water in the glass like pumping air into a balloon, causing the liquid to expand. But, as the chi… evaporates, the water returns to its normal state.”
“Fascinating…” Matsudaira muttered.
“As for you…” Aaron turned his attention back to Akira. “The water aspect means that you have an affinity for health, vitality and change. Also good for social interaction and adaptation.”
“Okay…” Akira frowned and picked up the glass. “I still don’t see how this is supposed to help me.”
“Well…” Aaron ran a hand through his bangs. “Your aspect is more supposed to be a guide than a straitjacket. The idea is to identify what your strength is, as well as your weakness. For instance, earth is the aspect opposite water and thus probably your weakest trait. Earth is all about resistance and stability. It’s up to you how you want to work with that knowledge. You can train to emphasize your strengths, or shore up your weaknesses. You can even go for a more well-rounded regime, like Ranma has.”
“Ranma…” Akira grumbled. “I don’t think I’ll ever catch up with him.”
“I know the feeling.” Ukyou smiled. For some reason, Akira had taken an instant dislike to Ranma. Every time they were in the same room together, the girl kept giving him the evil eye. Ukyou attributed it to their first sparring match, where Ranma had simply outclassed Akira in almost every way.
The three of them turned to see Ran and Ranma walking down the park path towards them. Ukyou felt a surge of jealousy at how close Ran was to him. Ranma, for his part, didn’t seem to notice. He was lost in thought. A rare condition if there ever was one.
“Ah, I see Ukyou is using her magic water trick on you,” Ran said once she was a little closer.
“You tried this, too?” Akira asked. She was deliberately not looking at Ranma.
“Nah, not my cup of tea,” Ran said, waving her hand dismissively. “All this serious martial arts stuff I leave to you guys. I just want to be able to keep up enough to get all the pictures.” As if on cue, Ran’s eyes drifted over to the equipment Matsudaira had set up. “Oh. My. God.” She squealed in delight and ran over to crouch beside it. “Is this the Nokia test bed model? And is that a five function auto/manual zoom? And…” Her eyes sparkled and she touched one of the components in awe. “A complete Swiss-crafted timing modulator with integrated computer-assisted shutter control?”
“Uh… yes…” Matsudaira blinked.
“They aren’t even supposed to be MAKING these yet!” Ran cooed. “You HAVE to tell me where you got it!”
“Actually, I have no idea…”
“Well, that won’t do!” Ran stood up and thrust a finger under the brown-haired scientist’s nose. “I’ve been looking for a replacement for my old model for too long. And if you have access to state of the art equipment, then I must find out how!”
“Well, it’s something to do with military clearance…” Matsudaira coughed into her hand. Obviously she was not comfortable being the one at the receiving end of a barrage of questions.
“Military, huh?” Ran rubbed her chin. “Now, most people would think of that as a challenge. But then again, most people can’t offer you the kind of things I can.”
“Things you can…”
“Like exclusive info on the martial artists of Tokyo!” Ran leaned forward, thrusting her face right next to the frazzled woman’s. “You want to know how these people function, right? Well, I can get you access to some of the best this city has to offer. Not just Ranma and Ukyou, but the greatest fighters of the Tokyo high school system! But wait, there’s more!” She stepped back. “I also have extensive files on all the fighters across the globe. I am your one-stop shop for all the latest information on the underground circuits and the exclusive tournaments!” Ran smirked and crossed her arms. “Now isn’t that worth just one little piece of cutting-edge military-grade photographic equipment?”
“Well…” Matsudaira adjusted the cuffs of her labcoat. “If it were up to me, I would say it is. But I was told in no uncertain terms not to…”
“Ah, c’mon!” Ran threw up her hands in disgust and walked a few steps away. “You’re going to let something like rules hold you back?”
“Leave the poor woman alone,” Aaron chided Ran. She rolled her eyes and sat down next to Ranma. He was grinning like a loon and shaking his head.
“As it is, I’m already breaking a few rules,” Matsudaira pointed out. “You aren’t even supposed to be out in public. Especially given that you aren’t fully recovered.”
Ukyou glanced briefly at the crutches that had allowed her to come out this far. Three days of healing, and she still was hardly able to even walk on her own. If it hadn’t been for the techniques she had learned from Doctor Tofu, she probably still would have been bedridden. But even after all her training, she was still years away from being able to recover half as fast as Ranma did from even minor injuries.
“We can’t train all-out if we’re stuck inside,” Aaron explained. “It’s bad for the furniture.”
Matsudaira chuckled. “I guess not. And if I want to see more of this chi in action, I have to let you train, right?” The woman smiled. She looked remarkably kind when she smiled. “Besides, what Mr. Kunikida doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
“Ah, you guys don’t have to worry anyway.” Ran began to flip a pen between her hands. “Those girls, the Dolls? They don’t seem that interested in attacking Ukyou at the moment.”
“What makes you think that?” Ranma asked.
“The fact that they followed us here and then split?” Ran replied with a shrug.
“Followed us?” Ranma gasped.
“Yeah, didn’t you guys notice?” Ran looked around, raising an eyebrow. As everyone shook their heads, Ran whistled. “Well, I can understand in Ukyou’s case. They haven’t been coming within a city block of her. But they’ve been following all of us around ever since that confrontation three days ago.” Ran stretched and yawned. “I guess they’re doing standard information gathering. You know, trying to figure out our habits, our strengths and weaknesses.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this sooner?” Ukyou snapped.
Ran blinked. Then she paused and tapped her lips thoughtfully. “Guess it didn’t occur to me to be concerned.” She shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like I’m one to object about other people prying into my life, huh?”
“Maybe we should be getting out of here, then?” Akira said. She looked distinctly uncomfortable. Aaron reflected on how easy it was to forget the unassuming girl was even there. She had a tendency to fade into the background when you weren’t paying attention to her.
“Nah.” Ranma waved her down. Akira gave him a slight glare, but didn’t protest. “The four of us can handle those three. They know better than to attack us out in the open.”
“I guess,” Aaron mused. He still rose to his feet. “I just don’t like the idea of having an enemy out there and not being able to confront them.”
“Once you get better, you’ll be able to help us track them down, Ucchan. No worries.”
“That isn’t what I meant, Ranma.” Aaron sighed. He glanced up at the mostly clear sky. Summer had arrived. The wind was brisk but warm now.
“Well…” Ranma rose to his feet and started stretching. “We should begin training, right? You up to sparring yet, Ukyou?”
“Oh.” Ranma turned to Akira. “Well, since I know Ran is going to turn me down, I guess that leaves you?”
Akira rose to her feet. She dusted off her leather pants and adjusted her slightly oversized motorcycle gloves. Then she looked up at Ranma and nodded, her short brown hair bobbing with the motion.
The two walked out and assumed stances, before they began to strike at each other. Aaron watched, his eyes critical. He could sense their auras flaring and snapping about their bodies. He closed his eyes, and could still feel the energy flowing about him.
“Matsudaira, maybe you can help me out.”
“What?” There was a click as the woman adjusted something on her equipment. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I need you to help me out.”
“Oh. Yes. I see.” She paused. “But how? I’m not able to fight like they are…”
“I want you to quiz me.”
“Ask me questions. The topic doesn’t matter. Obscure trivia. Science. History.”
“Uh, Ukyou, that sounds more like school than training,” Ran said briefly. “I thought you and Ranma were avoiding the whole school thing.”
“It is training.” Aaron opened his eyes. “Of a sort. You see, the way I figure it, chi has got to be good for more than just making us strong and fast, right?” He gestured towards where Ranma and Akira were still sparring. Ranma was flowing elegantly around all of Akira’s attacks. Gouts of dirt and grass exploded as Akira’s missed shots ripped up a bit of the landscape. “I’ll never catch up with Ranma on pure physical ability. I know that now. Not to mention the people who are even better than him out there.” He clenched his fist.
“But suppose chi can also enhance other talents? I’ve already met people who seem to be more amazing prodigies than they have any right to be. Guys who can disguise themselves as pretty much anything. Girls who can do things with plants that would amaze botanists. What if they were ALL using chi?”
Aaron lowered his hand. “I’ve already grown good enough that I can sense minute changes in my own chi. I want Matsudaira to quiz me so that I can see how channelling my chakras affects how quickly I can learn, retain and remember information. Maybe I can unlock a whole new study of the principles of chi…”
“I don’t know…” Ran tapped her lips and shrugged. “If it was possible, you’d think somebody would have thought of it by now, right?”
“Maybe.” Aaron sighed and sat down. “But it’s all I have.” He pointed at Ranma, who had just sent Akira flying across the small clearing they were using as a practice field. “I can’t be as good as Ranma. Not quickly enough for it to matter. Too many people want me dead, and they keep showing up with too much strength for me to fight.” He smiled. “But so far I’ve been able to outthink them, and… with a bit of luck, I survived. But maybe if I concentrate on my own strengths, I can compensate for my body’s weakness.”
“That sounds logical,” Matsudaira agreed with a nod.
“I just wish I was still on speaking terms with Doctor Tofu.” Ukyou ran her fingers through the grass. “He would have been a great help in developing this new field of study. He probably would have enjoyed it, too.”
“Ah, don’t worry about him, Ucchan,” Ranma called as he helped Akira to her feet. “He’s probably half-way to the States by now.”
“Oh. Well then… the WHAT!?” Ukyou stood up too quickly and her body protested the ill-treatment with many small painful flashes.
“Didn’t I tell you guys?” Ranma said, blinking.
“No…” Ukyou said slowly.
“Yeah.” Ranma shrugged. “It’s the reason I’ve been able to go pretty much where I want the last few days. Mom and Dad, the Tendos, Tofu… and uh…” He snapped his fingers a few times. “You know, those people who the Sailor Senshi are related to?”
“The Sailor Senshi’s families…” Aaron blinked.
“Yeah, I don’t know their names. Anyway, they all went off with this chick from the CIA.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Ran held up her hand. “Back up, stud.” Ukyou glared at her. “First, what exactly is going on? And second, why didn’t you tell us about it?”
“Well, because it wasn’t really important, was it?” Ranma sat down and rested his chin on one fist. “I mean, I can live without Pops just fine. And it’s not like I ever really got attached to any of the Tendos, or even knew the Senshi’s folks at all.” He shrugged. “I guess I just got distracted with guarding Ukyou. I’m the only one who can stay with her at night, after all.”
“Why?” Ran asked, then immediately amended, “I mean, why did they leave?”
“I never really got the scoop on that,” Ranma shrugged. “Apparently they pissed off somebody pretty important and the CIA was offering… uh… what’s that word for when people give other people a safe place to stay?”
“Asylum?” Matsudaira provided.
“So, Akane and everyone are gone?” Aaron felt a slight pang at the thought. Not that he would have protested them leaving. Akane deserved better than the kind of life that being a friend of him would give her. Aaron and Ukyou had too many enemies. There were too many battles they had to fight. Akane would have fought them willingly… but he and Ukyou had treated her like dirt for her friendship.
“Nah. Akane was going to help out that Chris jerk.”
Ukyou’s jaw dropped.
“Tell me you just didn’t say that.”
“Chris?” Matsudaira frowned. “You mean, the same animating intelligence that has been raiding the aragami lately?”
“Uh… I guess.” Ranma scratched the back of his neck. “I just know he’s a cowardly bastard who won’t even give me a man-to-man fight. Why Akane would want to hang around with him is beyond me. But hey, chicks are crazy.”
Ranma looked up, obviously wondering why everyone else present was glaring at him. Ran hit him first. He scowled at her and rubbed his brow, but there was no real anger behind his expression.
“Akane went with Chris…” Aaron clenched his fists. His knuckles turned white. That wasn’t good. Chris was… Chris was dangerous. Akane had no idea what she was getting into. She would just be playing into his hands. He wanted to leap to his feet, to charge off. He didn’t know where he would be going, or what he would do when he got there. Yet he needed to do it. Akane was getting in over her head. Chris had something inside him, something dark and uncontrollable. A worse darkness than the one inside he and Ukyou. He rose to his feet, ready to order everyone to get ready to move out…
No. Ukyou looked down at the dirt. Akane wasn’t a fool. She had the right to make her own decisions. Chris was still capable of reason. He might still be saved. Maybe Akane could help him? It was clear he wouldn’t let Ukyou come near him as anything but an enemy.
“Ukyou?” Akira brought Aaron’s attention back to the outside world.
“I…” Aaron sighed. He consulted Ukyou and they agreed. There was nothing they could do about Akane. But Ranma, on the other hand… “Ranma. Think hard. I want you to tell me everything that happened.”
And so Ranma told them.
Tethys hated eating.
It was such a disgusting practice; to actually physically devour your food. She picked up another takoyaki ball and placed it in her mouth, savouring despite her instincts the taste of the expertly-prepared morsel. She hadn’t even had a mouth for most of her existence. It was only since she had merged herself into Hayato’s shell that she had developed it.
But eating allowed her to regain energy without having to drain it from humans. True, absorbing the life essence of human beings was more efficient and faster. This method, however, had one major bonus.
Tethys smiled and thanked another customer. He smiled back, took another circumspect look at her breasts and paid for the meal before wandering off to eat it. Tethys shook her head and popped another takoyaki into her mouth.
The real benefit was that it didn’t draw the wrong kind of attention. Here she was, in the centre of one of the greatest concentrations of humans in the entire world, and they weren’t even noticing her. Well, no more than they paid attention to any other attractive woman in a slightly revealing vendor’s outfit. She resisted the urge to sneer. She was even getting more business than Hayato ever had.
Her eyes scanned the crowd, all these little people unaware of the wolf that was standing in their midst. Yet, even so, they looked scared. People walked in hurry. Their eyes darted into every shadow. Whenever they bumped into each other, they would jump back and stand stock still. They were afraid.
Hayato had never remembered his world being like this. In the Japan he knew, people generally walked around without fear. But that had changed. His world had changed. Tethys knew why.
They were always in the news now. Battles between beasts and humans with the strength of beasts that destroyed buildings, shopping plazas and even entire neighbourhoods. Stories from across the oceans that were even more frightening, of cities, mountain ranges… even entire countries losing contact with the outside world. Filtered stories from those who had fled from ‘demons’ and ‘vampires’ and ‘zombies’ that were slowly settling into all the minds of all these little humans.
There would be a war soon.
The humans would find out about the Dark Kingdom, or some other enclave of monsters. Or maybe another one of those enclaves would attack in force… and there would be war.
And the humans would be ready. They already had the martial artists. People like Hayato and Ukyou who could fight monsters. And the Sailor Senshi.
Tethys frowned and popped another ball into her mouth. She could no longer ignore it. That had been what she had felt. The Silver Crystal reborn, the legendary Ginzuishou active once again. She had been alive once to feel the harsh light of that magnificent weapon. She knew that it alone had defeated an entire army of youma, every general in its army, its leader and their invincible goddess Metallia with one fell swoop.
Against the power of the Ginzuishou, the Dark Kingdom would perish again. With the Ginzuishou and all the soldiers that humanity could muster from the ranks of martial artists, they would be crushed.
Yet they were continuing as if nothing was wrong. Hayato had pointed it out to her, when she had run into Nephrite. He hadn’t even recognised her. He wasn’t even aware of what was really going on. She could see it in his smug eyes. She had followed him and watched him gloat over stealing the life force of a single human. She had almost laughed at the pitiful harvest his plan had yielded.
The Dark Kingdom was stuck in an old war, playing a hand that was already doomed to lose. Even in her present state, with what little she had learned and all she had mastered of human strategy, Tethys alone could probably destroy the Dark Kingdom…
Her hand stopped. She stared down at the takoyaki ball in between her fingers. She really hated eating. It was so… so human. She threw the ball into her mouth and smiled.
Then again, these did taste really good.
Fevrier knelt and bowed her head. She knew exactly the angle her head was supposed to be at in relation to the floor. Her right fist was planted exactly the proper distance from her left knee. She had stopped before even entering the room to adjust her hair, so that not a lock was out of place. Her posture and pose were perfect.
Vega wasn’t even paying attention to her. He leaned back in his chair, elegantly swirling a glass of wine in one hand while the other stroked the end of the armrest. It was impossible to read his expression behind almost featureless white mask. But his eyes could be seen. They were not focused on Fevrier, or the other two Dolls that were in the room.
They were focused on the girl in the corner. She had been here three days, and the only time she had stopped crying was when she was feeding herself or sleeping. Her constant whining – which ranged from barely audible sobs and moans to ear-splitting wails and plaintive cries for her ‘Papa’ and every nuance inbetween – annoyed Fevrier. Vega would not let Fevrier or her sisters discipline the brat. He just kept watching her. Marz had told her, when they were alone, that she suspected that Vega was not planning on taking the girl to Lord Bison at all.
Not that Fevrier could blame him. The girl was not a suitable candidate for their ranks. To be a Doll was to be perfect. To be a Doll was to be chosen. You were the elite. Hand-selected, molded by the most intense training, driven by the most cutting-edge technology and fuelled by the greatest force in existence; all these things were what made a Doll. Few could withstand the demands. There was no ‘acceptable’ level of performance. Every Doll either achieved their goals, and achieved them perfectly… or they Washed Out.
Fevrier had known a girl who had Washed Out… but such things were best not thought of.
“Lord Vega,” Fevrier said meekly, her head bowed still. Vega turned his eyes towards her. He did not bid her speak, but she did so anyway. “We have collected the data on Ukyou Kuonji’s new allies. Marz has compiled the information, and we know everything there is to know about Ukyou, her friends and this Japanese paramilitary unit, the Terrestrial Administration Centre.”
“I see…” Vega said with a sigh. He swirled his glass absently.
“We finished our data collection almost two days ago. As it stands, we have waited three days since our initial assault.”
“If you would forgive me…” Fevrier did not cringe. Her expression and posture remained perfect. Her voice remained exactly at the most pleasant tone and pitch. Perfection was something lesser beings sought. It was what a Doll WAS. “Can I ask why we have not initiated a new assault plan? We have more than enough data to pull off a successful extraction. If you would assist us, we would not even need to requisition supplies from any of the local Shadowloo cells.”
Fevrier had not wondered why Vega had ordered her and her sisters not to contact any of the local cells. It was a common command, since Vega often travelled in his civilian identity and went to great lengths to conceal his connection with Shadowloo activities. Fevrier just wished it wasn’t required in this case. Shadowloo was a global syndicate, which could provide a staggering level of hardware and human resources in any large city. Having access to any of that would have made her job much easier.
“The assault will wait for now,” Vega informed her. Fevrier did not question his decision, she only nodded. But Vega started to explain himself anyway. “Don’t think I don’t sense your impatience. But I know of things that are happening that you do not. There are plans in place that a rash action could disrupt.” He was looking at the girl again.
“Marz.” Vega snapped his fingers. The blue-haired doll sprang to her feet with an affirmative shout. “Are you certain that girl is one of these… Sailor Senshi?”
“Not one hundred percent,” Marz noted cautiously. “The girl has the exact same effect on the chi around her as the Senshi do, however. If my readings are correct, she has a great deal of ‘magic’ to her, if such a thing exists.”
“I see…” Vega swirled his glass again. “Then why hasn’t she manifested any special abilities?”
Fevrier looked over at the girl. She was sitting in the corner. Her eyes kept drifting across the room. Her face was stained by tears. She was in one of her quiet moods, but still hiccuped in sorrow every now and then. Fevrier did not break her perfect composure to frown at her, but nonetheless felt vexed. The girl was upset over nothing. She wasn’t even being mistreated. Vega was treating her practically like a princess. She had full freedom of movement within the suite… just not to anywhere outside it.
“I don’t know, Lord Vega.” Marz hesitated. “Perhaps we should contact Thailand. The scientists there are better suited to the sort of exhaustive testing you require.” The girl’s eyes widened slightly at the word testing.
Vega stood up slowly and started walking towards her. He let his glass fall from his fingers, and Satsuki caught it without a sound. Satsuki did almost everything without a sound, however. He stopped less than a meter from the girl. She cringed away from him. His face was still hidden by his mask, and now his back was to Fevrier.
“Lord Bison is occupied at the moment and not to be contacted.” Fevrier looked up. Disregarding the fact that Marz had suggested contacting the lab, not Lord Bison, the news was still strange.
“You have been in contact with him then, sir?”
“Yes.” Vega chuckled. “He contacted me yesterday. Remember that powerful transmission two days ago?”
“The one from the doomsday cult?” Marz asked for clarification.
“Yes.” Vega reached out and ran a hand through the girl’s dark hair. She shied away from him. “Bison seems to think that the cult has access to a superior form of genetic science. And considering their transmission came from a floating fortress in the middle of the ocean, and that they were immediately besieged by the American naval fleet, he decided to investigate the matter… personally.”
“Ah.” Marz nodded.
“Of course, he also plans on checking into some other matters soon after.” Vega looked back at Marz. “Like how he has lost contact with all the Shadowloo cells in Britain, and so forth.” He chuckled. “I suspect he will be unavailable for quite some time.”
Marz nodded and knelt down again. Vega did not want them to contact Lord Bison. Fevrier could read him like she could a book. He may have trained them, taught them all they knew of fighting… but he was not their true master. Lord Bison had taught them to look for the signs. He had always suspected one day Vega would betray him. Vega did not know they had their own ways of communicating with their master. Ways that did not require Lord Bison to have access to mundane lines of information. Ways that involved their connection to Lord Bison’s very life force through the power of his Psychodrive.
“And you, little mouse…” Vega crouched down. He reached out, and this time he ran the stiff blades of his claw through her hair. So gentle was the metal caress that not a single strand fell. “What secrets do you have locked inside you? What will it take to unlock them? Perhaps something more than mere imprisonment, then…”
“Leave her alone…”
Fevrier turned without much surprise. The boy on the wall hadn’t moved in almost a day. He was in his ‘mundane’ form. His clothes lay in tatters about his frame, and he was naked from the waist up. His physique was moderately impressive. It was not the hard, lean muscle of a martial artist, but still showed signs of superb conditioning. Now those finely maintained muscles were criss-crossed with scars and fading bruises. His chin was slowly raising, and his hard blue eyes fixed on Vega’s back.
“Back away from her, you monster!” Mamoru hissed. He had been more vocal ever since they had returned from their mission and… it had happened. Fevrier wasn’t sure how to describe it. The boy had simply opened his eyes and suddenly transformed, but not in the manner he had before. Instead of a top hat, domino mask and formal wear, he had morphed into an elaborate and archaic set of armor. Marz had been alarmed by the sudden rise in his power level. Fevrier, being cautious, had rendered him unconscious. He had transformed back shortly thereafter. Marz had explained that someone had apparently been trying to tap him for magical power, or perhaps he had been trying to transmit it, but couldn’t be sure. Either way, Fevrier did not regret her decision.
Ever since, Mamoru had been more vocal. He constantly insulted and goaded Vega, or made demands of him. Fevrier did not know why Vega tolerated his presence. Perhaps he found him amusing. Perhaps he realised that if the girl he had kidnapped Washed Out, then he would need the boy to find another. But Vega’s patience could only be pushed so far. He had given the Dolls leave to work out their frustration on the boy whenever they felt like it. Since that amounted to whenever he tried to talk to them, he had learned to stay quiet with only them in the room.
“What business is it of yours, boy?” Vega stood up and began to walk towards the bound prisoner. The boy gritted his teeth, and as usual there was the soft groan of his ropes straining to hold him. Fevrier looked and saw the little girl’s eyes staring at the boy. They were filled with shock and worry.
Of course. Fevrier had caught the two of them talking often when she walked into the suite. She had shooed away the girl and punished Mamoru, but they were always at it.
“It’s my business to stop monsters like you!” The boy reared back his head and, with a loud gurgle, spat at Vega. The glob of spit struck the side of Vega’s mask and began to slide down. Vega paused.
Fevrier and the rest of the Dolls moved back.
Vega reached up and touched the offending substance. He flicked it away with graceful, elegant disdain. His voice was calm and measured when he spoke.
“To touch this mask, is like unto touching my face.” He reached out, his fingers hovering mere millimeters from Mamoru. “So… did you really just intend to spit in my face, boy?”
“Yes.” The boy smiled. “I don’t back down from monsters like you.”
“So be it.”
Mamoru screamed as Vega lowered his hand almost casually. The cuts he left in the boy’s chest were shallow but savage, and bled freely. Then Vega proceeded to disassemble him. It was like a hypnotic dance. Vega moved with a grace and beauty that made his violence, his cruelty seem almost like art. The blood that spurted from Mamoru showered out, and Vega bobbed and weaved through it so that not a single drop touched him. He was laughing.
Fevrier raised her hand, ready to signal Satsuki to go prepare suitable arrangements for disposal-
Fevrier saw the girl running before she collided with Vega, of course. But she had been ordered to not harm the child. A Doll was perfect, and obeyed orders perfectly. She did not interfere as the girl rammed all her eleven-year-old mass into Vega’s legs. It was not enough to knock Vega more than a step, but it did cause him to stop.
He looked down. The girl was clutching onto his legs. Her arms were shaking and she was barely standing. She was crying, of course. Vega could have removed her with ease. He wouldn’t even have had to hurt her.
“Stop hurting him! Stop!” she cried.
“So… the mouse reacts to something after all.” Vega stretched his arm over her. His claw hovered above her head. Drops of blood slowly dripped from the tips of the blades to splatter in her hair.
“Please! Please stop hurting him!”
“Hotaru!” Mamoru gasped. Fevrier looked at him in some surprise. He was still alive, even if he could barely lift his head. “Get away… from him…” The strength was draining from his voice.
“Please, mister… don’t hurt him!” The girl was shaking even more violently now. “He’s the only one… the only one here… the only kind…”
“Do you have something to ask me, little mouse?” Vega’s voice was kind. The girl looked up at him, and didn’t flinch away as drops of blood fell on her pale, tear-streaked cheeks. “Just ask me, little mouse.” He gestured at the boy on the wall. “Ask me.”
“Please stop hurting him,” Hotaru gasped. “I ask you to please stop hurting him.”
Fevrier did not even see him move. There was just a flash and suddenly Vega’s claw was buried up to his fist in Mamoru’s stomach. The boy screamed. He continued to scream as Vega laughed; a high-pitched, joyous laugh. Then he twisted the claw, and the boy’s scream grew louder.
“STOP! NO!” The girl began to pull and bang at Vega’s shin. He ignored her, still laughing and continuing his grim business. “You’re killing him!” The girl was screaming now, her voice louder than it had ever been before. “Please! PLEASE! Don’t do this! I’ll do anything! Oh god, don’t kill him because… don’t kill him… not like…”
The girl’s voice was dissolving into chokes and sobs now. “Not protecting me… not again… please don’t… oh… no… not again… not protecting me…”
“Lord Vega!” Marz screamed, a second too late.
Vega was blown back. He sailed over the heads of the Dolls. Fevrier shielded her eyes. The girl had just erupted with some sort of strange force. A bright field of burning scarlet energy surrounded her. She was standing, her back hunched. Her breathing was slow and deep. Her eyes flickered with red light. Fevrier reached down and pulled her pistols from their holsters. She heard Satsuki draw her sword.
Vega grabbed them both by the shoulder. Fevrier looked back at him. He was unharmed. He did not even have so much as a scorch mark. He said nothing, but his eyes told them to wait and watch.
The girl was turning towards them. Her eyes were flickering crimson and her hands were twisted into claws. She was smiling. The scarlet dome still surrounded her, and on her forehead flashed a small purple symbol, like an inverted ‘h’ of some kind.
“Hotaru…” Mamoru groaned. He was staring at the girl, his expression full of shock and something else… Awe? Fear? Pride? Then his eyes rolled back in their sockets and his voice rattled once before he slumped in his bindings.
For a long moment, the silence in the room reigned supreme. The girl’s face seemed to be twitching, her smile fading and reappearing. It was as if two people were trying to form entirely different expressions on the same face. Then, as suddenly as if someone had flicked a switch, the light around Hotaru vanished. She slumped forward to her knees. But her eyes flashed around to stare at Mamoru, and her face filled with horror.
She leapt to her feet with more speed than Fevrier would have given her credit for. Her hand slapped over the vicious, mortal wound in the boy’s stomach. Fevrier shook her head at the futility of it. Even Aprile, the best medic Fevrier knew, would have been able to do nothing for such an injury.
When the light began to leak from between Hotaru’s fingers, Vega’s hands tightened their grip on Fevrier’s and Satsuki’s shoulders. The pressure quickly passed from uncomfortable to painful to nearly bonebreaking. Neither Doll so much as changed expression.
The light was soft and white, and it flowed out from Hotaru. It started small, just a bauble of translucent energy. Then it began to expand, exploding out in concentric waves. The light creeped first up Mamoru’s stomach, then his chest, then slowly across his entire body. Fevrier could see Marz typing frantically at her computer.
Finally the girl gave a small whimper and collapsed. The light faded from around Mamoru gradually, as if reluctant to cease its work even with its master no longer commanding it. When it cleared away, Mamoru was healed.
Not completely. His body was still covered in shallow scratches, and a tiny bruise could be seen where Vega’s claw had entered him, but all his serious injuries were gone. He was unconscious.
“See to the girl.”
Marz leapt to obey Vega’s order. She crouched beside Hotaru, took her pulse and checked her breathing. “She’s exhausted.” Marz looked up at Vega. “Her body is entirely drained. She has the minimal level of energy to maintain autonomic functions…” Marz checked her computer. “She should live. Her energy is recovering, if slowly.”
“Excellent.” Vega stepped forward. “Now… now I know what I need to do.”
Vega watched the girl. She was pretending she was asleep. She was hoping he had forgotten about her. Vega had given her every indication that he had. But unless she started acting soon, his plan would fail. The Dolls were enthusiastic, but even they couldn’t spend all night with their love-making. He needed her to move before they finished…
Vega smiled to himself. Hotaru was standing up. She kept flicking her eyes about the room. She couldn’t see Vega, of course, but then she was a little girl. A useful little girl, but still a child.
She trod lightly over to the wall. Mamoru was hanging there still. He had only regained consciousness once since this afternoon’s little drama, and then only briefly. Hotaru leaned down by his leg and her little fingers began to work at the clasps on his bindings. They groaned softly in the dark, but the girl started as if they had been a cannon shot.
“Hotaru…” Mamoru said softly. Maybe he hadn’t been as asleep as Vega had suspected he was.
The girl shushed him. She leaned down and began to undo his bindings again. “Be quiet. You have to get out of here,” she whispered harshly.
Mamoru nodded in the darkness and waited. Hotaru finished with his right leg and moved quickly to his left. Her fingers moved more deftly the second time and soon the boy’s legs were free. Hotaru looked up and stretched, but her tiny fingers could not reach the bound boy’s wrists.
She gave a little gasp as Mamoru’s legs suddenly encircled her. She looked up into his face and he smiled, his teeth flashing white in the darkness. With a long groan the boy strained and struggled, steadily lifting Hotaru upward with just the strength of his legs. His body sunk and the bindings on his wrists creaked dangerously as he placed all his weight and hers on them.
Reaching the wrists, the girl began to quickly work on his left hand. Vega shook his head. He could see where this was going. It took her a minute to get his wrist free. Then she yelled out as Mamoru suddenly arced down the wall. He lost grip on her and the frail girl landed harshly on the plush carpet (recently cleaned). Mamoru cried out in pain and concern as all his weight suddenly fell on his other wrist.
But Vega had to give him some credit. He snapped his free hand down and was suddenly holding one of his roses. With a deft flick of the wrist he shot the flower upward and it cut him free. He fell with some grace to the floor.
“Get out of here!” Hotaru whispered harshly as she rose to her knees.
“Not without you…” Mamoru extended his hand towards her. The girl reached her own hand up hesitantly, but paused. It was time for Vega to step in.
Vega fell from the ceiling like an avenging angel. The boy didn’t even have a chance to react before he was kicked away from the girl. The window behind him broke apart spectacularly as Mamoru flew through it and onto the balcony.
Vega landed elegantly next to Hotaru, his arms spread to his side. Mamoru was climbing to his feet. Even as he did, rose petals flashed around him. In a second, he was clad in his tuxedo and top hat. In one hand he held a gentleman’s cane as if it were a sword. Vega tilted his head. He could hear the Dolls coming.
“Get away from her, monster!” Mamoru roared.
Vega stood up slowly, and calmly extended his left arm towards the petrified girl’s neck. Mamoru went still.
“Run away, boy,” Vega offered.
“I’m not leaving without Hotaru!”
“You are not leaving with her unless you challenge me,” Vega said with a grin. “We both know how that went last time.”
“This time will be different!” Mamoru stepped half-way into the room, his eyes determined behind his domino mask.
“Ah ah ah!” Vega gestured for Mamoru to stop, which the boy did. “Since you were such a insignificant challenge last time, I think I shall change the terms of this fight. First, I shall defeat you without moving from this spot.” Vega raised his left hand slightly. Hotaru bent back her chin to keep the tips of his claws from digging into her flesh. Even so, they brushed against the skin of her neck with enough force to turn the flesh white. “Then I shall fight you with just my right hand.” Vega curled said hand into a fist.
Mamoru’s eyes widened in shock and horror. So the boy had guessed the game, then. Vega had meant every word of his pronouncement. Truth be told, he wasn’t even sure he could defeat the magically empowered young man with such harsh limitations. But that was not the point. The point was that if Vega was hit, jostled even the slightest bit… the result could only be bad for poor Hotaru.
Vega grinned. He could hear the Dolls charging up the hallway now, and so could Mamoru. A part of Vega wanted the boy to accept the challenge. He wanted to test himself, not just in the fight against Mamoru, but his control over his left hand to prevent all his work with the girl from going to waste.
“Choose quickly, Mamoru Chiba,” Vega said eagerly. “In moments, it shall all be academic.”
“You monster…” Mamoru backed away, one step. His eyes turned to Hotaru. Vega glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes.
“Leave me,” Hotaru pleaded stiffly, trying not to move her chin as she talked. Brave words, but only words, Vega knew. Her mouth said one thing, but her eyes pleaded for him to save her. Vega had seen such pleading too often in the eyes of others to mistake the look for anything else. The girl wished for mercy.
Mamoru might have done the stupid, heroic thing, but Vega distracted him. Mamoru spun and caught the black disc that almost slammed into him. He blinked as he saw that it was not a disc at all, but a small black notebook computer with the Shadowloo winged skull emblazoned on it. Vega had been keeping it tucked in the back of his sash until now, but the Dolls were almost here.
“All my data,” Vega told him. “All my hideouts. I expect you to come back for her, after all.”
“Why are you…”
The door crashed inward. The three Dolls had dressed hastily, but were all prepared for combat. Fevrier led them, her pistols already drawing a bead on Mamoru. Satsuki came in behind her, her body partially vanishing into the shadows as she ran. Only the light glinting off her blade made seeing her possible. Marz was about to charge, but she paused when she saw what Mamoru was holding. Her mouth widened.
Mamoru took one look at Fevrier’s pistols, then he stepped back. With a deceptively simple push of his legs he vanished from Vega’s sight. Fevrier cursed and stared down at her guns.
“What is the matter?” Vega said calmly.
“Jammed…” Fevrier replied in disbelief.
“Then clean them more thoroughly in the future!” Vega snapped angrily. “After him. You’re letting him escape!”
“Yes, Lord Vega!” Satsuki and Fevrier cried out as they ran onto the balcony. They both vanished upward, leaping after the boy. There was a chance they would catch him. There was a chance they would learn everything that Vega had done from him. Fevrier would figure out that her guns had been deliberately jammed… even if Vega had used a scrap of cloth from Hotaru’s dress to do it.
Vega caught Marz’s shoulder as she charged past. She turned to look at him.
“He has your computer.”
“Yes, Lord Vega.”
“He knows too much. Kill him. Kill anyone he talks to. This is your maximum priority.” He paused. “I expect to either hear of your success when you return, or be reporting your death to Bison.”
Marz stared at him for a second. She understood the order. Vega rarely gave it, but it was his authority to do so. He released her shoulder and the blue-haired Doll leapt away into the night. He watched out into the darkness for a moment, chuckling softly to himself.
Those Dolls, they were too dangerous to have around for what he had planned. Hotaru was not destined to become the latest of Bison’s slaves. She would instead be the key to his undoing. Bison was the greatest challenge, the one force that Vega could never have bested. But perhaps, with her magic, he could even the odds. However, the Dolls would never have allowed that. Already they were on the verge of reporting his activities to Bison.
That wouldn’t have done. It would have ended the game too soon. Vega had served as Bison’s toady for too long to let the game end like that. But the battle of wits was about to end. The true, final battle would soon begin.
And oh, what a glorious battle it would be. It, and all the beautiful battles to come.
Kusanagi heard the bike approach before he saw it. The roaring engine sent pigeons scattering in all directions, and the mutt from three doors down began to bark and whine. Then the motorcycle skidded around the corner. The rider was bent over the controls, the entire weight of his machine threatening to spill over at any second. His leather-clad knee skimmed along the pavement, leaving a black streak across the road.
A car that had been innocently taking some salaryman home screeched as the driver brought it to an abrupt halt. The bike skimmed along the road, and the edge of the rider’s skull-adorned helmet came within centimeters of the car’s grill. Then the bike righted itself and shot down the street again.
Kusanagi smiled. It was a nice bike. He had never been much into machines, but he understood the appeal of motorcycles. He had never really had a use for them since he could get around town much faster on his own… but he had always wanted an excuse to ride one.
The rider reigned in his bike like a horse, pulling it around in a complete one-eighty in order to park in front of the house. Kusanagi raised an eyebrow as the boy kicked down the stand and shut the machine down.
With a single leap, he sprung from his tree and across the road to land in front of the rider. The boy started when Kusanagi dropped down in front of him. He grinned, long red trenchcoat falling down behind him, as the boy fell back into some sort of martial arts stance.
Kusanagi chuckled and rose up to his full height, which put him at least a head and a half taller than the rider. He couldn’t have been much older than fourteen, and had the figure of a little boy. His tight leather biker gear creaked slightly.
“And what are you doing here, kid?” Kusanagi demanded.
“Who the hell are you?” the kid demanded in a gruff voice.
“Just a friendly neighbour,” Kusanagi explained. “I just thought someone like you seemed a little out of place in this neighbourhood.” It was true, to some extent. Kusanagi wasn’t really a neighbour. To be so, he would have required a home. But he had spent so much time in this part of Tokyo that it felt more like home than anywhere else. This was where he had watched over Kaede. This was where he now watched over Momiji, so that she wouldn’t suffer the same fate as her sister.
“I’m here to see a friend of mine,” the kid explained.
“Which friend?” Kusanagi smirked and crossed his arms.
“None of your business, carrot-head,” the kid said with a growl. Kusanagi felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. It was like the kid was surrounded by an invisible aura of menace that he could feel in his gut. But Kusanagi didn’t let scary things he couldn’t see slow him down. “Now get out of my way,” the kid demanded.
“Are you gonna make me, pipsqueak?”
“I don’t want to hurt you…” The kid shifted forward a bit. “…but I will.”
Both turned to look as the newcomer exited the house. Kusanagi sighed. It was Kunikida’s new ‘houseguest’. She was dressed in a long black trenchcoat and baggy black pants, contrasted by a thin white t-shirt.
“Ukyou…” The kid turned towards the houseguest and seemed to calm down. “You know this jerk?”
“Indeed.” Ukyou sighed and ran a hand through her bangs. “Akira, this is Kusanagi. He’s a… friend of Momiji. You know, the girl who lives here?”
“Oh…” Akira turned to face him again. His mirrored visor stared into Kusanagi’s face for a long moment, and he found himself suddenly feeling uncomfortable. “Ohhhh…” the kid said meaningfully, then shook his head and shrugged.
“What ‘ohhh’? What do you mean?” Kusanagi snapped.
“Nothing.” The kid turned to Ukyou again and reached under his neck to undo the straps on his helmet. “Listen, Ukyou, we need to talk…” With a clean jerk, the kid removed his helmet. He shook his head, letting his short brown hair flow free. He smiled, his pretty face lighting up and…
Whoa. That was no dude.
“You’re a chick!” Kusanagi yelled, pointing accusingly at Akira.
“Uh… yes…” Akira backed away from him.
“For cryin’ out loud!” Kusanagi threw his hands into the air. “Aren’t any of you people normal?” Ukyou raised an eyebrow at his comment, but didn’t respond. Akira just sort of looked down at her feet and shuffled them. “First that Ranma girl is actually a guy, and then you turn out to be a girl, and now the biker kid is a girl and… augh!”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Kusanagi,” Kunikida said as he stepped outside. He was chuckling to himself. “These martial artists seem to be an eccentric lot by nature.”
“I don’t know why you put up with them…” Kusanagi growled and crossed his arms again.
“They needed my help,” Kunikida sighed. “Anyway, I suggest the three of you come inside.” He grinned reassuringly. “After all, Momiji made cookies!”
“Yay, cookies!” Akira cheered and dashed inside.
Kusanagi blinked. “‘Yay, cookies’?”
“Akira is a complex girl…” Ukyou explained with a little smile before she turned to follow her friend. Kusanagi glanced at the old man, who could only shrug.
Momiji had indeed made cookies. When Kusanagi made his way in she was standing over the stove, placing the last of them in a small paper-lined basket. She looked over at him and smiled. He paused, his breath catching temporarily. Damn… why did she have to look so much like her sister? It made his heart hurt. Momiji then turned and started towards the table… and her feet caught on something, and then she was falling.
Momiji screeched as she plummeted and Kusanagi couldn’t help but chuckle. That was the Momiji he knew. Kaede would have never fallen like that. Of course, he could have caught her, but then she wouldn’t have fallen with her skirt flapping about in the breeze and he would have lost a perfectly good chance to peek at her panties. It was then that Akira shouted and sprung into action. Kusanagi stared as the black-clad girl moved like a flash, her hand reaching out and… catching the basket of cookies. Then she snapped the basket back, catching a small black morsel that had been sent flying. And then another, and another. Her free hand shot out in the other direction, snatching bits of cookie from the air with lightning-fast precision.
Momiji collided with the floor face-first. She lay on the ground, backside thrust into the air, her skirt spilling hopelessly down her body. Oh, she was wearing the little penguins today.
“Thanks…” Momiji said with a groan.
“Not a problem…” Akira said with a sigh, then she looked down at Momiji… and froze. Her eye twitched, and the basket fell from her suddenly nerveless fingers. The sound of the basket striking the floor caught her attention and she stared down at the spilled contents in horror. “Ah! No! Five second rule! Five second rule!” In another flash Akira bent over and quickly began to pluck the spilled cookies from the ground and place them in the basket. She sighed once she was finished and reverently placed them on the table. Momiji slowly picked herself up. The cookies were black as charcoal, but a quick sniff and a tiny bite proved that they were edible… if not spectacular.
Everyone else grabbed a cookie with varying levels of enthusiasm. Well, except Ukyou, who seemed to be distracted by the papers she was reading. Kusanagi glanced at them out of the corner of his eye and saw they were all printed on the TAC’s stationery. He also saw a few folders marked ‘secret’ or ‘classified’ sitting next to her.
“So?” Momiji said as she sat down across from Kusanagi.
“Not bad, princess.” Momiji blushed and clasped her hands together. She really did look cute when she wasn’t trying to be all serious.
“But I can’t take all the credit. Miss Ukyou helped me out a lot…”
“I didn’t do anything,” Ukyou responded quickly. Kusanagi looked at her again. Then he blinked.
“What the hell?” He reached across the table and grabbed Ukyou’s chin and pulled her face up to look him in the eyes. Yep. They were definitely black little flowers there instead of the usual human iris.
“Do you mind?” Ukyou snapped, knocking his hand aside.
“I thought you were human,” Kusanagi said accusingly.
“She is,” Kunikida reported. “According to every test Matsudaira could run on her, Ukyou here is one hundred percent biologically human. The shape of her eyes seems to be some sort of strange scar tissue or allergic reaction.”
“Mmm… cookies…” Akira announced as she threw two more into her mouth. Everyone turned to stare at her, as the girl had already put five others in there. She closed her lips with some difficulty and began to laboriously chew. Her blissful look never left her face, even when she began to choke and turn blue as something went down the wrong pipe.
“I’m glad you like them…” Momiji grinned absently, sweating just a little bit.
“Just like mom used to make,” Akira explained. “Mind if I have more?” Momiji nodded needlessly as Akira had already started piling more onto her plate.
“Where did Mr. Ranma go, anyway?” Momiji asked as Akira began to annihilate the contents of her plate. “I made so many because of him…”
“He and Ran are out exploring some leads for me,” Ukyou explained. She didn’t sound happy about her statement for some reason.
“Leads?” Kunikida asked pointedly.
“I told you about the Sailor Senshi leaving town?” Ukyou explained. “And their families. I wanted them to check up on some other people I know that are involved with those girls.” Ukyou tapped her fingers on the table absently. “If Chronos is involved… I want to know how much they know.”
“Chronos?” Momiji asked.
“Never mind,” Kunikida said a little too quickly. He looked significantly at Ukyou, who slowly closed her mouth instead of explaining. Kusanagi raised a set of eyebrows. They were keeping something from Momiji? He frowned.
He had never really trusted Ukyou. The old man seemed to trust her, though exactly why was beyond Kusanagi; she was dangerous, and her enemies apparently even more so. He thought it was stupid for Kunikida to let her stay in his own house. But when Kusanagi had asked about it, the old man had just said ‘This is the only place where I can keep it secret’, and refused to explain.
“Oh!” Momiji sprung to her feet. “I forgot! Does anybody want some tea?”
“Yesh pwease,” Akira managed to say as she pounded on her chest to try and drive down some more of the cookies she was eating.
Kusanagi stood up, shaking his head. While watching the kid try and choke herself to death was amusing, this was all getting a little too domestic for his tastes. Hanging around the house was just no fun without that guy Ranma to rib off of anyway. He began to turn to make an exit. Maybe he would come back a little later and finally get around to seeing just what that ‘martial arts prodigy’ could do when he wasn’t sucker-punching you.
There was a harsh clatter as Ukyou stood up suddenly. Kusanagi looked back over his shoulder at her. She was staring at one of the walls. Kusanagi turned his gaze in the same direction but only saw the spice rack. Then he heard it. Gunshots.
“You hear it, too?” Ukyou asked.
“Yeah…” Kusanagi stepped around the table and began to roll up his sleeves.
“Hear what?” Kunikida asked, concerned. The two girls were also blinking at the standing duo.
“A battle…” Ukyou explained. “It’s getting closer!”
“A battle…” Kunikida blinked. Then he leapt to his feet. His chair clattered to the floor behind him as he sprinted over to his trenchcoat. He began to fish in his pockets.
“What’s going on?” Akira said somberly. She was standing now too. Momiji hadn’t yet risen to her feet, but her expression was becoming more serious by the second.
“Four blocks away… no, three and a half…” Ukyou cocked her head to the side and closed her eyes. “Four life forces, powerful ones. Whoever it is, they aren’t holding back.”
“Martial artists?” Kunikida said as he pulled his cellphone from his pocket. “But you heard gunshots. I thought you people didn’t use guns.”
“Some of us do. Like that Doll from the other day.” Ukyou said and stepped forward. Then she stopped, wincing. She reached down and clutched her side.
“You’re still not recovered,” Akira pointed out.
“I know…” Ukyou sighed.
“I’ll protect you!” Akira shouted and sprinted from the room.
“Wait!” Ukyou held up her hand, then let it drop with a sigh. “Kids these days…”
“I think she can handle herself.” Kusanagi said with a shrug. “She seemed pretty tough.”
“Kusanagi!” Momiji yelled as she stood up. “You go out there and help her right now!”
“Hey, this sounds like one of those martial arts things…” Kusanagi threw up his arms. “I’m strictly concerned with aragami hunting. Which is what keeps you alive, in case you’ve forgotten, princess.”
Momiji glared at him, her cheeks puffing out as she held her breath. He sighed. If he didn’t do anything, she would be giving him that look all week.
“All right, all right…” Kusanagi walked over to the window and flipped it open. “Did anybody ever tell you you’re a brat, Momiji?” Kusanagi smirked and chuckled, leaping away before the girl could start yelling at him. It was just too easy to get a rise out of her. Not like Kaede-
Don’t think about that.
Kusanagi leapt onto the roof and scouted the area. It didn’t take long to spot the fight, although it was more of a chase. A single man was dashing along the rooftops, his long black cape flapping like a flag in the bright afternoon sunshine. Behind him were three girls, all dressed in skintight black bodystockings. Kusanagi leered. He wouldn’t have been running from three girls that looked like that and…
Oh. The redhead in front was shooting at him.
Well. Whatever, then.
The man in black had reached their street and he leapt again. It was an impressive leap, and probably would have helped him clear the entire street. It was just that about halfway across the redhead levelled one of her pistols and fired again.
The bullet must have grazed him. He gasped in pain and spun out of control. With a painful-looking crash he fell just short of one of the houses on the other side of the road. Kusanagi bunched his legs and leapt, flashing across the distance to land next to the guy.
He was tall, and wearing a tuxedo and top hat, of all things. He was also wearing a domino mask. He had landed sprawled out on the lawn, but was trying to regain his feet. The shoulder of his outfit was ripped open, and an ugly red line ran across his exposed flesh. Kusanagi glanced across the street.
The redhead was standing there, calmly levelling her weapons. Kusanagi had never been afraid of guns. His partially aragami physique could shrug off trauma that would kill a human being, and he regenerated much faster from such severe injuries. But the girl wasn’t aiming at him.
Then she staggered back, dropping one of her pistols. Kusanagi’s eyes flicked back, following the path of the acorn that had knocked her weapon loose. Akira was standing in the street, her hair billowing around her head in the breeze. She did not look pleased.
“Hey!” Akira shouted. “Why don’t you pick on someone who can fight back?”
The girl glanced at her. She was a bit taller than Akira, and much better developed. Not that this was saying much, considering Akira apparently hadn’t ‘sprouted’ yet. Even so, she couldn’t have been over seventeen years old. But her eyes… they weren’t the eyes of a little girl. They were the eyes of a killer.
“Satsuki, Marz… deal with her,” the girl said quickly.
Akira ducked suddenly. Another of the girls, a brunette this time, seemed to materialise from the shadows. A silver flash was all Kusanagi saw, and a few strands of hair were suddenly floating in the air above Akira’s head. The tree she had been standing beside toppled over, cut cleanly.
Akira spun on her heel, and suddenly her duck turned into a leap as she came up foot-first and caught her opponent square in the chin. The older girl flew backwards, losing her grip on the old-fashioned sword she was carrying. But another girl leapt down behind Akira, her elbow coming in steep and catching the biker chick off-guard. With a cry, Akira fell to the ground.
Kusanagi was about to run over when he heard the gunshot. Acting on instinct, he threw himself back. He felt the bullet roll along the edge of his chest and hissed in pain. A small geyser of dust exploded from the grass behind him, and the front of his shirt shredded in the wake of the bullet’s passing.
He glanced up, and saw that the girl had retrieved her other pistol. She was also leaping down from the rooftop, and suddenly both guns were blazing. Yelling a choice curse, Kusanagi leapt backward. The ground he had been standing on shredded.
The girl landed on the ground. Then she stepped sideways and cartwheeled off a tree, still firing with both weapons. Red flashes followed in the wake of her motions, and Kusanagi saw roses seemingly sprout where her feet had been. He glanced back, and saw tux-boy flinging a steady stream of the flowers at her.
“Idiot!” Kusanagi shouted as he took cover behind a car. The windows exploded around him, showering him with glass. “Get out of here!”
“I’m not going to run away from people trying to help me!” Tux-boy explained as he dived to the side. Without Kusanagi in the open, pistol bitch had turned her attention back to him. Kusanagi growled and flexed his arms. With a painful jerk his blades tore free of his forearms.
“Just stay down! I’ll handle this!”
Kusanagi leapt over the top of the car. Bullets whizzed by him as he rolled forward. He kicked sideways, but not fast enough to avoid a bullet that tore a gouge along his side. Green blood flashed out behind him in an arc as he charged. He was roaring at the top of his lungs. The girl matched his charge with one of her own.
They met in the street. She leapt up and Kusanagi responded in kind. Her feet flashed up and she struck him in the chest, kicking away. He fell back. She flew up. Her pistols trained straight downward. Kusanagi caught the oncoming ground with one hand and pushed it away.
The pavement tore apart. She fell back down, vanishing behind a geyser of dust. The veins in Kusanagi’s arms bulged. With a roar he launched himself through the dust.
The girl was caught off-balance. She had been trying to slip sideways on him, but he barrelled into her with a flying bearhug. The air exploded from her lungs and she skidded backwards along the ground. Kusanagi latched onto her waist and grit his teeth as some of the skin was rubbed off the arm trapped under her.
Kusanagi had caught one of her arms, pinning that gun uselessly to her side. The other was free. Her pretty face was twisted in a grimace of pain as they came to a stop. She still managed to swing her other hand around and place the barrel of the pistol against Kusanagi’s forehead.
A rose appeared, its stem sticking straight through the barrel. The girl’s eyes widened. Kusanagi grinned. With a roar he stood up, then flipped backward. The woman had time to gasp before he drove her face-first into the pavement.
Kusanagi let go slowly and rose to his feet. “Thanks,” he shot towards tux-boy. He wasn’t sure if he could have survived a headshot, and was glad enough that he hadn’t been forced to find out.
Kusanagi turned to see how the other fight was going.
Akira wasn’t doing well. The blue-haired chick was keeping her busy, but the real problem was the brunette. She kept appearing on Akira’s blind side, striking whenever it appeared that the biker was gaining the upper hand. That forced her to abort her attack and just narrowly avoid being gutted. Then her other opponent would step in and deliver a punishing strike.
Kusanagi stepped forward, ready to put a stop to that-
“Kusanagi! Behind you!”
Momiji’s warning came a second too late. With a pain-filled roar, his entire body jerked forward. A geyser of green blood erupted from his chest. He gasped for air and fell forward onto his knees.
He was able to turn and stare incredulously behind him. The girl was still standing. Granted, she was hunched over slightly, and her face was a mess of bruises and small cuts, but she was still holding her gun as steadily as ever.
What did it take to put these people down?
Tux-boy tackled him from the side, and Kusanagi was pushed out of the path of another bullet. The girl hissed, but Kusanagi wasn’t about to let her get off a second shot. Ignoring the pain he leapt sideways, pulling tux-boy along for the ride.
Behind him he heard Akira cry out in pain. He glanced over and saw her staggering back towards the house. She was clutching her left shoulder, and blood was oozing between her fingers. Her luck appeared to be running out.
“Go help the girl!” Kusanagi yelled at tux-boy as they landed behind another car.
“But you’re injured…”
“I’m fine!” Kusanagi grunted and clutched the hole in his abdomen. “I can survive something like this a lot better than she can.” The boy looked at him skeptically. “Go, damn you!”
Tux-boy frowned, but nodded. He dashed away, sprinting only a few steps ahead of a barrage of gunfire. Kusanagi carefully took off his trenchcoat. He frowned at the hole in the back of it. He really, really liked this coat.
He dropped it on the ground and stood up. He glared at the girl. She was about to see what kind of a terrible mistake she had made.
“Okay, bitch,” Kusanagi growled. He clenched his fists and grit his teeth. “It’s time to put you down!” Kusanagi threw back his head and let his power release.
Blue fire surged from all seven of his mitama. His shirt disintegrated as his muscles suddenly expanded and great, bony spines erupted from his back and sides. His green hair whipped about in the wind. His shoes were torn apart as his feet grew nimble claws. He roared in relief and excitement.
The woman only stared at him for a moment. Then she started firing. Kusanagi grinned and slid sideways. She might as well have been throwing sticks, as he completely encircled her before the bullet even reached his previous position. The girl paused, and he let her notice him before he struck back.
With a roar he thrust his fist at her. A bolt of blue lightning flashed from the mitama on the back of his hand and straight into her chest. The explosion threw her back with enough force that she crashed through a concrete wall surrounding someone’s house.
“Kusanagi?” Momiji gasped. He turned and saw the others all staring at him. Kunikida and Momiji were both standing in front of their house, nearly identical shocked expressions on their faces. Ukyou was standing behind them, but her expression was only a dark frown.
“This is just my battle form,” Kusanagi explained, mostly for Momiji’s sake. He turned and started to walk towards the other two bodystocking girls. They had both turned away from Akira and settled into combat stances in front of him. “You two had better give up. I can’t completely control how much damage I dish out in this form.” He raised a hand, clenching and unclenching his fist. “I’ve never killed a human before. But don’t think I won’t start now.”
“Satsuki,” the one with blue hair said as she started to circle right. “I will give you the time to deal with him.”
Then with a roar she charged. Kusanagi shrugged and flashed forward. His knee caught her in the chin, and she floated backward for a moment before he thrust his palm into her face. Grabbing her around the skull, he continued running along the street. Her body flapped in the air behind him until he reached a large tree. With a roar he bound forward and cracked her head against the tree with enough force to nearly shatter the trunk.
Kusanagi’s elation was short lived. Even as he released the blue-haired girl’s head, she sprang to life again. She snapped her arms and legs around him, pinning his limbs to his side. He stared in shock. She was ramming her own arms into his spines and blades. Already blood was beginning to run as his battle-form cut at her.
“Are you insane?” Kusanagi growled. “I could tear you apart without even trying!” But he hesitated, because unless he WANTED to tear her apart, there was no way for him to escape her vicelike grip. Even as he realised this, he looked behind him.
The brunette had appeared soundlessly there. She was already swinging her wickedly sharp sword in an arc that would neatly bisect his neck. But her teammate was holding him so tight she couldn’t possibly avoid killing her, too…
Kusanagi had a moment of terrible understanding. They were willing to die to kill him. He closed his eyes, realising he had been caught flat-footed. Even if he tore free of her grip now, it would be too late to prevent the other girl’s blow. He said a silent prayer to whatever gods would listen, that he would find Kaede waiting for him in the afterlife.
He never got there.
Kusanagi opened one eye, unsure why he wasn’t dead. Then he saw the brunette completing her swing, but with most of the blade gone. The rest of it was stuck point-first in the soft loam nearby. Kusanagi blinked, and then he saw a tiny spatula quivering in the bark of the tree.
He glanced over to see Ukyou giving him a thumbs up. He also saw Akira standing just behind the brunette, her entire body bent forward.
“Take this!” Akira screamed as she stepped forward and thrust with both hands. Her palms collided with the brunette. Blue light exploded in the wake of her strike, and Kusanagi could swear he saw a flaming blue skull in the flash. The next thing he saw, the brunette was skidding down the street.
Then Akira turned her attention to the girl still holding onto Kusanagi.
“Allow me,” she offered in a cheerful tone. She grabbed the girl by both shoulders and somehow twisted her limbs so that she was forced to let go. The blue-haired girl screamed out as Akira practically wrenched her arms out of their sockets. With his arms free, Kusanagi reached up and grabbed her head, then brought his own forehead down with as much force as he could.
The collision hurt a little, but it caused her legs to loosen. With a stiff cry Akira tossed the girl back, and she landed sprawled out on the road. Her uniform had been torn in many places by the razor-sharp spines of Kusanagi’s battle form. Akira was breathing hard, but there was a nasty little smile on her face.
“Marz, Satsuki, withdraw!”
Kusanagi turned around in shock. The redhead was not only still standing, she was running away. He growled and stepped forward, about to pursue.
“Kusanagi, stop!” Ukyou shouted. He glanced at her.
“You can’t chase them down like that!” Ukyou gestured around the neighbourhood. “If you start attacking her all out, you’re going to tear apart half of Tokyo!”
“People will get hurt, you moron!”
“They’ll get away…” Akira pointed out. Already Marz and Satsuki had gotten to their feet and were leaping away. Kusanagi boggled. What would it take to keep them down?
“Let them…” Ukyou crossed her arms. “I suspect they’ll be back.” She turned to glance at tux-boy. “They haven’t finished their mission.”
Tux-boy looked at Ukyou for a moment. “Are you Ukyou Kuonji?”
The man in black sighed and slumped a little. “Good.” He stepped forward and reached into his cape. “I need your help. I need you to help me save a little girl.”
Ukyou’s face was expressionless, but she nodded solemnly.
“…once I eluded the Dolls, I went to ground for a few hours.
“I was trying to find Sailor Moon. But for some reason, I can’t seem to find her. I’ve never really had a problem doing so before. I’ve always felt connected to her… even more so since I felt her call out for help a few days back. But it just didn’t matter how I looked, Sailor Moon was gone.”
“Sailor Moon left town a few days ago,” Ukyou explained. Akira glanced at her again. Ukyou was standing at the window, staring out into the street. Her back was to everyone else in the room.
“I’ll explain later, Tux-boy. Continue.”
Akira sat back and tried to absorb the story. It seemed so strange, like everything else that she had learned about since meeting Ukyou. Magical warriors? He looked so normal now that his fancy clothes had faded away. He was wearing a sweater and pants borrowed from Mr. Kunikida that were slightly too large for him. Which was better, Akira supposed, than walking around in the shreds of his pants and no shirt. Momiji was still blushing when she looked at him.
“I decided to come here because Vega and his Dolls have been talking about you a lot. They’ve apparently been sent here to capture you for some sort of experiments…” He trailed off, but Ukyou didn’t even react to his announcement. “And since you’ve helped out the Sailor Senshi in the past, I knew I could trust you to help me.”
“So…” Kunikida leaned forward and lit a cigarette. “You want us to help you rescue this girl, Hotaru, I take it?”
“Yes! Of course I do!”
“We have to help him out, Mr. Kunikida,” Momiji stated firmly.
“I don’t really think this is our problem at all.” Kusanagi frowned. He was leaning against the wall, his hands laced behind his neck. His shirt hadn’t been replaced since he had transformed back from his ‘battle form’, but he was at least wearing his trenchcoat again.
“How can you say that, Kusanagi?” Momiji asked in shock.
“I’m just saying that this isn’t our problem!” Kusanagi barked. “I’m here to protect you, princess, and to destroy the aragami.”
“But it’s a little girl, and she needs our help!”
“No!” Kusanagi pushed off the wall. He pointed at Ukyou’s back, but she didn’t even glance at him. “She needs their help!” He turned to face Momiji, and held up one clenched fist. “These martial artists ain’t like normal people, and they ain’t like aragami either. Ukyou said it herself: normal people have no business getting involved in their battles. The only thing you would accomplish by stepping in, Momiji, is getting yourself hurt!”
“Kusanagi…” Momiji’s voice was soft, almost wounded.
“Damnit, old man!” He spun on Kunikida in a fury. “How could you get Momiji involved in this foolishness?”
“We don’t have much choice…” Kunikida leaned back in his chair and puffed on his cigarette for a moment before continuing. “This battle, or one just like it, would have found its way to us eventually. There are forces at work here that run deeper than one little girl.”
“He’s right, Momiji,” Ukyou spoke up suddenly. “Kunikida, you should stay out of this fight. We’ll deal with the Dolls. And Vega.”
“Ukyou, you’re still injured!” Akira stood up suddenly. “You shouldn’t get involved.”
“I don’t think I have much choice.” Ukyou shook her head. “I can’t leave Hotaru with that maniac, much less with Bison. They are playing around with forces that are far more dangerous than anything they can imagine.”
“How dangerous?” Kunikida asked seriously.
“Apocalyptically dangerous. End of the world dangerous.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Kusanagi scoffed.
“I wish I were.” Ukyou shook her head. “Either way, Ranma and Ran are on their way back. Once Yaegashi finishes hacking that computer Tux-boy brought, we can track down Vega.”
“I don’t think you quite know what you’re dealing with,” Kusanagi said with a sneer. “Those three chicks aren’t just tough, they’re suicidal. Even I couldn’t knock them out.”
“That’s because they’re more than just martial artists.” Ukyou walked towards the table. “While you were fighting them, I examined their auras. They aren’t like normal human auras. They’re tied together somehow, and drawing their life force from some sort of outside source.” Ukyou sat down, grimacing as she bent her legs. “With a normal martial artist, you damage them enough and eventually they run out of chi, or life energy, to continue fighting. But every time you damage one of the Dolls, they just draw in more power like a sponge. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to knock them out.”
“What are you saying?” Akira asked pointedly.
“She’s saying what I already knew.” Kusanagi sighed and walked away from the group. “If you want to stop them, you’re gonna have to kill them.”
“Well…” Kunikida stroked his beard and sighed. “It would be regrettable, but if it is necessary…”
“NO!” Ukyou punctuated her outburst with a stiff strike to the table. The wooden table bounced in place. “We aren’t going to kill them!”
“Why not?” Kusanagi shrugged. “They’re suicidal, and want to kill all of you. Or worse.”
“Because they’re victims… they’re just…” Ukyou stopped. She closed her eyes. “No. It’s deeper than that.” Ukyou’s voice had taken on a strange intensity. Akira, and everyone else, grew quiet as she spoke in a soft but forceful manner. “I just won’t be a party to it. Not to save my life. Not to save Hotaru’s. Murder is the ultimate sin. Killing in self-defence? Killing to protect? These are justifications.” Her eyes opened, and Akira saw more fire in her gaze than she had ever seen before. “It’s too easy to justify murder. One life to save your own. One life to save another. Then where next? How many steps down the road to hell do you have to walk before you say ‘I’ve gone far enough’? Because I don’t think that there is any turning back. I don’t think innocence, once lost, can ever be regained.
“You have to draw a line. A bright shining line and say, ‘This far, and no further!’ I refuse to compromise myself by allowing myself to commit murder, no matter how justified. That is my bright shining line. That is the one boundary I will not cross. Not just because I think it’s the right thing to do, but because I need to. I won’t pretend I’m a perfect person; I’ve done plenty of things I’m not proud of. I can’t take them back. I’ve already compromised too much of myself. Not one step further.”
Ukyou looked up at Kusanagi. The orange-skinned man was gazing at her intently. His expression was not condescending, or angry, or joking like all the other times Akira had seen him. He looked impressed.
“Okay,” Kusanagi nodded and stepped back over to the table. “You’ve convinced me. I’ll help you out.” He looked over at Momiji, who was watching Ukyou with a slightly awed expression. Akira felt the way she looked. “But Momiji stays out of this.”
“Don’t argue with them, Momiji,” Kunikida said sternly. “Remember that you have your own responsibilities. As the Kushinada, your duty is to protect the people of Japan from the aragami.” His voice and face softened considerably before he continued. “I know you want to help, but you can’t save the world. Part of being an adult is realising that there are some problems that you simply can’t solve. If you keep trying to pick up every victim, eventually you’ll be carrying so many people on your back that their weight will drag you down with them.”
“It’s just… unfair…” Momiji sighed and cupped her chin in both hands. Ukyou smiled a little at that.
“Life usually is,” Kusanagi said. He was trying to sound gruff and cynical, but his tone was too gentle to carry it off.
“That still leaves us with what we’re going to do,” Akira pointed out.
“She’s right…” Tux-b… er, Mamoru said into the silence that followed her statement. “The Dolls won’t give up. They’ve been hounding me relentlessly for over a day now.” He frowned and clenched his hand into a fist. “This is just like Vega! That monster wanted this to happen!” His knuckles turned white. “I should have stayed and fought!”
“What do you mean?” Ukyou asked directly.
“Vega and the Dolls, they’ve been at odds with each other for days.” Mamoru gritted his teeth, his words coming out in a hiss. “He keeps trying to get them out of his way, so he can do whatever it is he has planned for Hotaru.” He stood up with a yell. “I should have seen it! He LET me go! He gave me something that the Dolls can’t possibly return to him without. He wanted them to come after me. He knew I would come to you. He wants us to fight them to the death! He planned it all! Monster!”
“Calm down, Mamoru!” Ukyou barked. He didn’t seem willing to calm down; he kept shaking with anger and guilt. Akira stood up slowly, drew back her hand, and slapped him. He gawked at her.
“You won’t do anybody any good if you can’t think straight,” Akira said. “So you walked into your enemy’s plot?” Akira slowly began to sit down. “Earlier this year, someone kidnapped my brother. To save him, I took control of his old gang and went out looking. I was angry, and let my anger get control of me. I fought a lot of people, let the violence between the gangs escalate. I didn’t realise I was playing right into the hands of the person who had kidnapped my brother.” She sighed and rested her chin on her hands. “I’m not proud of what happened. It took a good friend of mine to tell me what I was doing wrong, how I was working for the enemy even as I tried to thwart him.” She looked up at Mamoru again. “But I learned something. In these kinds of situations, you have to stick together. Together, as friends, we can defeat Vega and do so without killing the Dolls.”
Mamoru paused, looking down at her. Then he smiled, an act which lit up his face. Akira saw Momiji blush out of the corner of her eye. She smiled back at the young man, but her smile was small and shy.
“You’re right.” He shook his head and sat down.
“Then it just remains to decide how to deal with the Dolls without killing them…” Kunikida said. He pulled his nearly vanished cigarette from his mouth and snubbed it out in a small bowl.
“Well…” Momiji tapped the table. “If they’re drawing on some sort of outside energy source, why don’t you just shut off their connection to it?”
“Heh.” Ukyou shook her head. “Simple and elegant. I like it.” Then she frowned slightly. “The problem is how. The source of their energy is the Psychodrive… and forgetting that I don’t even know where that is with any more precision than ‘Thailand’, it’s also guarded by Bison, the other nine Dolls, and the rest of Shadowloo.”
“Maybe there’s a way to do it on this end?” Mamoru suggested.
“If Sailor Moon were here, maybe.” Ukyou ran a hand through her bangs. “Basically what Bison did to them was take normal girls and brainwash them, then fill them with his own energy. Sounds like exactly our errant moon princess’s cup of tea.” She looked at Mamoru. “I don’t suppose you have any way to unbrainwash people in your bag of tricks?”
“Not that I’m aware of…” Mamoru laced his fingers together. “Granted, my memories of Tuxedo Kamen are still vague, but I don’t think I have any mystical powers like that.”
“Brainwashing?” Akira asked.
“Yes.” Ukyou nodded. “Pretty sophisticated stuff too.”
Akira frowned. Her mind flashed back to the beginning of the year. She remembered Roy and his friends attacking her, and that absent, savage look in their eyes. Even after they had been driven off, the American students had still been enemies. But later, Batsu and his friends had fought them and driven the evil from them somehow. And Ms. Kyoko and her friend the teacher had also been dangerous. But nothing Akira could do could snap them out of it, not until Batsu and Kyosuke showed up looking for Hinata.
Kyosuke, whose brother had been behind the brainwashing.
Kyosuke, who knew a lot about what had been going on, but always played things close to his chest.
Nobody else had questioned how it was that only Batsu and Kyosuke seemed able to knock people back to their senses just by defeating them. Akira had always found it strange. But now that she thought about it…
“I know someone who can help.” Akira stood up. “If someone is controlling these girls against their will, I know someone who can put an end to that.”
Fevrier held up her hand. It was shaking. She took a long breath. She could feel the power inside her. Every cell of her body was singing. Even her hair hummed with the invisible force. It was pure, awesome and magnificent.
If she didn’t get control over it, she would die.
She released her breath. The hand began to shake less. It wasn’t good enough. Her body ached. The beating she had received at the hands of Mamoru Kusanagi would have crippled, even killed a normal person. Only the power had kept her from crumbling under the assault… the same power which would rip her apart unless she mastered it.
Fevrier closed her eyes and concentrated. The Psychopower. It was pure. It was unfiltered, unrestrained aggression. It was passion and power to a level that was inhuman. This was both its blessing, and its curse. Psychopower was unrivaled power, as much more potent than chi as chi was more potent than human muscle alone.
But the human body was not designed to handle it. Even Lord Bison could not stand to channel too much at once, lest his body disintegrate under the strain. Fevrier and her sisters had been altered, perfected, so that they too were able to channel that power. But they were nowhere near Lord Bison.
Fevrier opened her eyes. Her hand was still. She would have smiled, but the instinct had been so thoroughly eradicated that it was easy to repress.
Opening their bodies to so much of the Psychopower at once had been dangerous. But Vega’s orders had been clear. The young man known as Tuxedo Kamen had to die, regardless of the consequences. She curled her hand into a fist. The amount of Psychopower she had been forced to absorb should have killed her. All the scientists had told her that she should have fallen apart long before that.
The scientists were fools. They thought that Fevrier was the last of a failed series. Dolls incapable of manipulating the Psychopower at the level that Lord Bison wished. They were obsessed with their experimental new toys. But Fevrier had just proven them wrong. She was perfect. Her body could handle more than they thought.
Fevrier glanced up as Satsuki faded out of the shadows nearby. The Japanese Doll was still shaking slightly. Satsuki was another of the old guard, and hadn’t even drawn in nearly as much as Fevrier had been forced to in that battle.
“Where?” Marz asked. The final Doll of their task force was sitting in a chair nearby. Her torso, arms and upper thighs were covered in bandages. The bleeding had stopped, however.
“They’ve split up into two groups,” Satsuki explained. “The girl Akira left with the primary target. The others remained at the house and took an unmarked white van to another location: a warehouse by the waterfront.”
“Why didn’t you follow the primary target?”
“Because that wasn’t the primary target,” Fevrier said as she stood up. “It was a ruse.”
“So I suspected.”
“Prepare yourselves.” Fevrier held up her arm again, the red gauntlet that covered her entire forearm glinting in the light. “We’ll attack while they think we are chasing their deception.”
“Is that wise?” Marz asked, but she was also standing up. “Our bodies haven’t recovered entirely from the last combat. Our battle abilities are not at one hundred percent.”
“We will do it.” Fevrier looked into her sister Doll’s eyes. “Vega is up to something. He sent us out after the boy, knowing full well we would encounter resistance we couldn’t overcome.” She lowered her fist. “But he underestimates us. We will accomplish our mission because we are perfect! Once we are finished, then we shall report Vega’s activities to Lord Bison.”
The other two Dolls nodded. A second later, the room was empty but for a curtain blowing restlessly in front of the open window.
“The sun had set, and not a soul could be seen walking the streets of this forgotten corner of Tokyo. The city lights glowed faintly in the distance, and flickering pools of light descended from the unreliable street lamps. On all sides nothing but black, windowless, uninviting warehouses loomed. The air was damp, and the daylight heat was now fading away.
“The building was modest, like any other around it. Outside, you couldn’t have told it from any of the others. Inside it was practically empty, except for a pile of boxes covered in a tarp in one corner. The only other object of note was the large white van parked in the centre. It could have been a scene from any of a thousand other warehouses, anywhere in the world.
“But it wasn’t. In this room, an epic battle was about to be waged. A blow that would be struck in silence and darkness would be made against the predatory forces of the underworld. Shadowloo, a criminal cartel so large it astounds the imagination, was after something here. But the government of Japan was not about to let them have it. Brave law enforcement officers, working with concerned citizens, were preparing for a confrontation with this enemy.
“The tension in the room was reaching a fever pitch…”
“Man. This is so BORING!”
She threw up her hands in frustration and leaned back in her chair. She was already balancing it on the back two legs, and the shift only further threw off her balance. With a small eep Ran began to pinwheel her arms and kick her legs in a futile attempt to regain her centre. But her years of martial arts training via observation deserted her and she tipped backward-
Ranma grabbed her arm and she came to a halt. Ran stared down at him. He was smiling and shaking his head, his deep blue eyes flashing. Ran grinned back at him.
“Well?” Ranma asked.
“Thank you, maybe?”
“Hey. I had it under control.” Ran put on a mock pout.
“You did?” Ranma’s smile turned into a grin and his eyes began to flicker mischievously.
“I will have you know, stud, that I have trained long and hard at looking like I wasn’t in control so that I- ACK!”
Ran should have seen it coming, but was still caught off-guard when Ranma released her. The back of her head collided with the concrete floor and she cried out in pain. He was laughing at her. Well, two could play at that game.
She rolled over and made an exaggerated moan. She grabbed the back of her head and curled partly into a fetal position, moaning and groaning all the while. She even managed to squeeze out some crocodile tears. Ranma stopped laughing instantly. He was suddenly standing over her, his own chair clattering to the floor.
“Ran?” Ranma gasped out. “Aw, man. I didn’t mean to really hurt ya! C’mon Ran… it ain’t that bad, is it…”
“I think…” Ran groaned. “I think you broke my… medulla oblongata…”
“Ah shit! Not your oblong!” Ranma began to wring his hand in worry. “Quick, someone get that doctor chick over here and…”
Ranma trailed off. Perhaps it was because Ran’s tears were no longer faked, but instead caused by her overwhelming case of the giggles. She turned over and watched as his face went from shocked, to annoyed, to bemused in a matter of moments.
“Geez, Ran,” Ranma said as he offered her his hand. “Don’t go scaring me like that. I thought you might be really hurt.”
Ran let him pull her to her feet. She also made sure to stagger forward as she did so, forcing him to catch her in his arms. “I was hurt, you dumbass.” Ran felt her chest pressing against his. He was warm. His scent was much stronger here, when she was next to him. “I’ll be lucky if I don’t have a bruise there, and…” Ran trailed off. What was that smell? It was… soft. It tickled at the back of her memory.
She looked up into his face, and he was looking down at her. His cheeks were slightly flushed. Ran felt heat rising in her own.
“If you two are QUITE through…”
Ranma and Ran shot apart. Ranma started whistling off-key and rubbing the back of his neck, trying to look nonchalant. Ran, for her part, gave Ukyou a glare.
Ukyou was sitting at the small table set up behind the van. She and Mamoru were playing a game of cards. But her new black lotus eyes were staring expressionlessly, fixed totally on Ran. She resisted the urge to smirk or stick her tongue out. There wasn’t anything really hostile about the way Ukyou was looking at her. It was just… uncomfortable to be stared at like that. It was like Ukyou was peering straight into her soul, but just didn’t care. Getting new eyes had only upped the creepy factor of her gaze.
“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to, Ran,” Ukyou explained. “I’m certain you have school tomorrow.”
“And miss this story?” Ran chuckled. “You’re getting a little transparent, Ukyou.” She held up one finger and waved it at the girl. “I gave you a chance. In fact, I gave you a lot of chances. Three days worth.” Ran winked at her. “No use getting jealous now.”
“Jealous of what?” Ranma asked obliviously.
“Nothing, Ranma,” Ran responded easily. “Just girl talk.”
“Oh. Right.” He shrugged. Ran chuckled and shook her head. Whenever Ranma wasn’t being annoyingly pig-headed, he could be endearingly dumb. Really, he and her made a perfect couple. The only thing Ran had to do was decide how best to break the news that they were dating to him. Ranma, she figured, needed a light touch.
“I think Miss Kuonji wants you to at least keep the noise down,” Mamoru said delicately. He placed a card on the table. Ukyou, without even looking, picked it up, shuffled her hand, and placed down her cards.
“How do you do that?” Mamoru asked with a sigh.
“I cheat,” Ukyou replied matter-of-factly.
“I can’t help it if I’m bored out of my skull.” Ran retrieved her chair and sat back down at the table. “I’ve gone three days without a major scoop. The anticipation is getting to me, is all.”
“Ran, this isn’t about a newspaper story,” Ukyou explained calmly as she began to deal out the cards again. Mamoru stared down at the cards on the tiny table for a moment, then sighed and picked up his hand anyway. “Lives are at stake.”
“I know that, Ukyou,” Ran replied, a little sarcastically.
“If you’re really bored, tell me more about what you found out this afternoon.”
“What’s there to tell?” Ran shrugged. “We couldn’t find any of them.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“Well…” Ranma broke in as he sat down opposite Mamoru. “We went to all the addresses, and none of them were there. The racer chick, the violinist or the little kid.”
“I know where Hotaru went…” Ukyou said slowly. “But the other two Outer Senshi…” She frowned slightly. “They shouldn’t even be awake yet. Chronos would have no reason to attack them. Are you certain it was only four girls that Chris took with him when he left?”
“Uh… if you mean four besides all the ones from China and Akane…” Ranma paused and looked down at his fingers for a moment. “Yep. Four of ’em.”
“What about you, Tux-boy?”
“Could you please stop calling me that?” Mamoru asked plaintively.
“Force of habit,” Ukyou said with a shrug and continued without pause. “Did Vega mention anything about the other Senshi while he was holding you?”
“I think he did…” Mamoru frowned. “Apparently the device that the Dolls built for him detected nine Senshi, only eight of which were in the country. He never mentioned anything about going to check on the Outer Senshi…”
“Well, if he did, there is little we can do about it for now…” Ukyou sighed. “Isn’t that right!”
Ran blinked as Ukyou suddenly whirled in her seat. Her trenchcoat flared out and her hands flashed out from under it. Spinning silver flashes crossed the room and embedded themselves in a shadowed corner of the warehouse. The tiny sound of their impacts echoed in the silence for a moment. A figure faded into view, standing in the corner. Her body was exactly in the middle of the cluster of throwing spatulas.
Ran watched as the figure stepped forward. It was one of the girls from the hospital attack. She was still dressed in a skintight black bodysuit. On her arms were a pair of red, open-fingered gauntlets that covered her entire forearm. She was also wearing a tiny military cap on top of her short brown hair. There was a hiss as she drew a katana from the sheath on her back.
How had Ran failed to notice her? She glanced at Ukyou, who was standing but still using the back of her chair for support.
“Stealth compromised… Proceeding with mission. Primary target acquired!”
The girl gave a shout and charged forward. Ranma was already running to meet her. There was a clatter as Mamoru rose to his feet, and in a swirl of rose petals (rose petals?) was suddenly clad in a top hat, tuxedo and opera mask. He was about to follow Ranma when Ukyou grabbed his arm.
“There are still two more…” she explained.
Ran watched him nod in understanding out of the corner of her eye, but most of her attention was riveted on Ranma. Her fingers twitched. She wished she still had her camera.
He had reached the Doll with amazing speed, but she was not caught off-guard by his charge. She crouched and thrust her hand at the ground. A plume of smoke erupted around her. Ranma cursed and barrelled through it, but the Doll had already leapt high into the air. She came down at his back, her sword gleaming in the electric lights. Her blow didn’t even come near Ranma, as he continued out from under her at full speed.
With a cry, the boy flipped forward. His feet caught the wall and he spring-boarded back at her. The girl landed. Her eyes turned to him. His fist caught her solidly in the side of the face. She didn’t even cry out in pain as she was driven off her feet.
Ranma caught himself with one hand and cartwheeled past her. Her hand flashed up and Ran saw a half-dozen tiny daggers leave her palm and start speeding towards Mamoru.
Acting on instinct, Ran kicked the table. The plastic object flipped forward and caught Mamoru in the back of the knees. He cried out and toppled over, but the throwing daggers passed harmlessly over his head. Ukyou stepped neatly to the side, avoiding his collapse.
As she did so, Ukyou’s hand flicked upward again. Her own shuriken-like weapons flew up into the rafters. Ran followed their path, and saw two more black-clad figures leaping apart. They fell the two stories from the roof, landing in graceful crouches. One had vivid fuchsia hair, while the other’s was a sharp blue. Otherwise, they were practically identical in build, outfit, and expression.
Mamoru rose to his feet. He was now holding a cane in one hand, almost like a sword. Ran slipped into her own combat stance. Even if Ukyou’s senses were more acute than hers – she grimaced at the professionally embarrassing omission – Ukyou was still too injured to fight. Ran would have to help keep her alive.
“Main priority objective is also present,” the blue-haired girl noted to her companion as she stood up.
“Excellent. We can complete both objectives at once,” the redhead replied. “Satsuki, Marz…” The leader drew a pair of pistols from behind her back. “Keep the others busy while I deal with the primary target!”
“I don’t think so!” Ranma roared. He was already airborne, his body flipping in a neat arc as he flew over the leader’s head. The girl snapped her guns up and fired, but Ranma was already landing. With a cry, he burst forward and sunk his fist into her gut. Her entire body buckled over his fist, but her expression did not so much as flicker.
Even as their momentum carried them forward, the leader swung up her hand and pistol-whipped Ranma. He cried out in shock and stumbled to the side. She continued flying straight and smashed with a deafening bang into the boxes at the back of the warehouse.
“Ranma!” Ran dashed forward. As she did, she reached into her bulky vest and drew out a few spare papers. With a flick of her wrist she snapped them straight, and another flick sent them flying after the redhead. Her target’s eyes fixed on the incoming projectiles, but she didn’t even flinch as the sheets flashed past her on all sides. She might have been right not to worry, if Ran had been aiming for her.
The Doll’s head snapped up and her eyes widened as the pile of boxes groaned ominously. Ran grinned. The cables that had been holding the boxes in place made wild cracking sounds as they whipped through the air freely. The boxes, already shaking from the redhead’s impact with them, didn’t need much more convincing to start tumbling out of their neatly arranged piles. The girl had only enough time to throw her arms over her head before the entire mass washed down on her like an avalanche.
“Hah! Take that!”
The air exploded from Ran’s lungs as she was tackled to the ground. She heard the whistle of more throwing daggers flashing over her head. She looked down, half-expecting to see Ranma. Instead it was Mamoru who was rising to a crouch over her. He turned and grinned down at her.
“One good turn deserves another, hmm?”
“Thanks!” Ran laughed and flowed to her feet.
Ranma was busy nearby, duelling the blue-haired Doll. He was flowing with amazing grace, his body dancing around her blows. Even as he did, his limbs flashed forward and struck her. Her body would jerk and snap backward with each blow, but she was simply not going down. It was eerie, as the only sound from their battle was the meaty thunk of Ranma striking her. Ran could see from his expression that it was beginning to unnerve even him.
“Akira…” Ran looked over to see Ukyou speaking into a small walkie-talkie. “Tell Kusanagi it’s time.”
Ran’s attention was wrenched away as Mamoru gave a war cry and suddenly met the brown-haired Doll in mid-air. His cane met her sword with a metallic ring and sparks flew between them. They passed each other, their weapons flickering in an intricate exchange before their paths diverged. Even as they landed, the two immediately turned and sprung back into the air, directly towards each other.
But just as he prepared to strike, Mamoru was suddenly blinded as the Doll threw a smoke bomb in his face. He gasped, and his defence fell. Ran cursed and drew back her hand, snapping taut another paper. But she wouldn’t be fast enough, that ninja Doll was lightning-quick and her blade was already arcing in towards the boy’s abdomen…
Then the wall exploded. The shockwave was enough that Ran was knocked off her feet. The world tumbled end over end before she found purchase and halted her roll. She glanced up, but the air was empty. She heard a masculine groan from nearby and turned to see Mamoru getting to his feet. He was clutching his stomach, and an angry red line traced its way down his chest. But the cut was shallow, and while bloody, was far from life-threatening. It didn’t take her long to find the ninja Doll, who had been blown further into the warehouse by the blast.
“Hey, everybody!” a new voice roared. A figure strode into the room through the hole that had been blown through the wall of the warehouse at floor level. He was inhuman. It wasn’t just the orange skin and green hair: his body was simply not human. Huge overlapping blue plates covered his shoulders, and green bony spines emerged from his back to form a fork over his head. Wickedly curved green blades emerged from his forearms, and even his elbows had dangerous-looking spikes thrusting from them. He was naked from the waist up, and three small blue objects glowed eerily from the centre of his breast, matching the ones he had on each palm. The cuffs of his pants had been torn to shreds, and he was standing on two clawed feet. “Time for round two, isn’t it?”
With a roar, the newcomer flashed forward. Ran blinked and missed his entire charge. All she saw was Ranma and Mamoru’s opponents go flying. They both collided with the back wall with enough force to leave a huge dent in the concrete, before falling to the ground less than a foot from each other. The monster landed a few feet away from them, grinning. His sharp teeth flashed in the light.
The Dolls got up. They rose in silence, their expressions not changing.
He roared again, and snapped his hands out. Blue lightning exploded from the gems on the back of his hands and caught both girls in the chest. A titanic concussion drove all sound from the room and caused Ran’s skirt to flap madly around her legs. She was able to brace herself and keep from being sent flying.
When the dust cleared, the orange-skinned monster was standing where he had been. A five meter wide section of the back wall had simply vanished. The Dolls were lying in a crater his attack had melted into the floor, black scorch marks radiating outward from their bodies. Their body-stockings had been partially disintegrated by the blast, with only barely enough left to preserve their decency.
The Dolls got up.
One had blood leaking from the corner of her lip. The other couldn’t open one eye. But they both moved with the same ease. The monster growled, and flashed forward again. Ran literally didn’t see him move, just saw him suddenly materialise with his fist embedded in the gut of the ninja Doll. His palm came up and caught her in the chin, and she was sent flying outside. The other Doll was moving to strike him from behind, but the monster simply vanished out from under her fist. He appeared behind her and his knee came up and caught her in the side. Her body bent in a way Ran thought the human body wasn’t supposed to. Then his fist smashed into the back of her skull and she flew out of the building to crash into the body of her companion.
The Dolls got up.
“Oh c’mon! This is insane!” the monster growled.
“Kusanagi! Back off!” Ukyou yelled.
“I have them…”
“You’re going to kill them at this rate!” Ukyou shouted back. “Don’t you have any control at all?”
“I can hold back…” Kusanagi replied, but his voice sounded unsure.
He looked back suddenly as the Dolls charged him. He snapped his arms up, his wicked blades coming into ready position. Then he snarled, closed his eyes and vanished. Ran gasped, half-expecting to see the two girls suddenly cut in two. Instead she heard a metallic clatter as Kusanagi landed on the van behind her. The Dolls carried through their attack, but without a target they stumbled to recover.
“Their bodies are still absorbing Psychopower…” Ukyou said as the Dolls regrouped. “No matter how fast you injure them, they compensate with more power. We can’t defeat them with brute force.”
“We can,” Kusanagi replied with a snort. “You just have to kill them.”
“We can defeat them without killing them,” Ukyou said in a way that made you believe her.
The Dolls had walked over to the fallen crates, and with a series of slashes from her sword, the ninja doll freed their leader. The redhead slowly climbed free of the wreckage.
“That’s what you’re here for, right, Kyosuke?”
Sometime during the commotion, Kyosuke and Akira had stepped through the hole into the building. Akira had obviously ridden here on her bike, as she was still wearing her helmet. Kyosuke was looking as dapper as ever, his white school uniform pristine even with the jacket unbuttoned. He strode towards Ukyou purposefully, adjusting his thin glasses easily with one hand. He was as handsome and clean-cut as always, his features refined and his blonde hair well-trimmed.
Ran remembered the time she had asked him out, only to be gently but firmly turned down. She sighed and shrugged.
“You must be Ukyou,” Kyosuke said evenly, his voice pitched so as not to carry far. He was addressing her, but his eyes were on the Dolls. The three were spreading out, but obviously unwilling to make the first move. Ranma and Mamoru had fallen back to the van, and both held themselves in front of the others in a wary posture. Without a word, Akira stepped up and placed herself between the two guys, forming a wall between the Dolls and everybody else.
“Indeed.” Ukyou replied in a near whisper. She glanced at Kyosuke’s face but then back at the Dolls. “Akira tells me you can unbrainwash people.”
“Akira thinks highly of my abilities.”
“I need to know if you can or not,” Ukyou said in a voice like frost. “I don’t have time to be coy. Those girls are victims of mind control. If we don’t find some way to break it, they will literally fight us until we kill them.”
“I see… that is serious…” Kyosuke frowned and stood up straighter. “But I’m not being coy. I know a thing or two about how to break the spells my family uses to temporarily control others. But this… this might be out of my league.”
“I don’t have time for it to be out of your league,” Ukyou snapped. “Listen… I’ll explain to you how they are connected to the power that is controlling them. If you know how it works… can you undo it?”
“I can certainly try…” Kyosuke raised both hands and cracked his knuckles.
“Ranma, Akira, Mamoru!” Ukyou shouted. “Keep them busy, we need time!”
“You heard the lady…” Mamoru said as he stepped forward. “We best-” He cut off as Akira stepped forward and barred his passage with her arm.
“You’re injured. Stay out of this.” Akira’s tone of voice brooked no argument.
“Ranma and I can handle this,” Akira insisted, her voice echoing from under her helmet.
“Yeah, take a breather, Tux-boy,” Kusanagi called down playfully. “If things start going bad, I’ll just step in and mop up anyway!” Everyone gave him a quick glare and his expression turned to one of honest confusion.
Just at that moment, the Dolls burst into action. Everyone dove for cover as the redhead started firing. But Ranma and Akira both rolled along the ground and started sprinting towards the Dolls, who were closing fast. Ran rose up from behind the overturned table.
“Take the redhead, Ranma!” Akira shouted. “I have the other two!”
“Right!” Ranma agreed.
The redhead gestured with two fingers towards Akira and then turned her full attention on Ranma. Her companions nodded, then broke off to close in on Akira.
Ran clenched her fists and observed. She didn’t really want to get involved anyway. She was the impartial observer. She shouldn’t even have interfered in the first place.
But dammit, these were her friends. Ranma and Akira, Kyosuke and even Ukyou were all people she liked. But she wasn’t as good a fighter as any of them, and she knew it. So Ran forced herself to breathe, and watched. And waited.
Ranma approached his opponent more cautiously this time. She bounced back, both guns blazing. Ranma danced between the bullets. His body was barely moving as he avoided her attacks. One shot he eluded just by tilting his head to the side.
But the Doll was making it hard for him to close. She moved with nearly as much grace as him. He chased her up against the wall, but she only ran straight up the side of the warehouse. She never missed a beat, her guns always tracking on Ranma’s position. Ranma followed her, his own feet moving so fast he practically flew up the side of the building.
The Doll pushed off, spinning herself into a headfirst dive towards the floor. Even as she did, she laced her guns behind her back and fired up at Ranma. He responded with an elegant backflip. The fabric of his shirt rippled in the wakes of the bullets as they traced paths around his spinning body. But he landed without a scratch on him. The Doll had to tumble forward when she reached the ground, and then Ranma was upon her.
Ran stared. She hadn’t even realised that Ranma could move that fast. It wasn’t the blinding, impossible-to-follow speed of Kusanagi, but it pushed that boundary. Ranma’s face was a mask of concentration, his forehead gleaming with sweat.
He caught the redhead as she rolled to her feet. His hands flashed out, and suddenly she was disarmed. Her guns went skittering across the concrete floor. Seeing her chance, Ran yelled and sent a paper flying. It caught one of the guns dead-centre, slicing it in two. She looked and saw that the other was now stuck to the floor by a red rose.
After that, Ranma simply took the Doll’s defences apart. She obviously wasn’t as good at hand-to-hand, and it showed. Ranma caught both her arms and flipped her over with a twist of his wrists. He drove his knee into the small of the redhead’s back and twisted both arms behind her until Ran could see her shoulder bending at an unnatural angle. Her legs kicked feebly, but she was pinned, and from her expression, she knew it.
Only then did Ran realise she had completely forgotten about Akira. Feeling guilty, she turned towards the other battle.
It was obvious what the Dolls’ strategy was. The blue-haired Doll would attack Akira directly, while the ninja Doll would sneak around and attack her from her blind side when her defence slipped. Except Akira wasn’t even fazed by this tactic. Every time the brunette would come in with her sword, Akira would snap around with a backhand or sidekick and send her flying.
The blue-haired Doll didn’t fare much better. She tried to charge in and attack Akira while she was distracted, but Akira must have guessed her exact move. With a twist of her body, Akira would flow away from the strike. Then she would uncurl and drive a devastating blow into the Doll, sending that one flying too. Akira would then resume her stance, and calmly wait for the two to approach her again.
This happened three times while Ran watched, until finally the blue-haired Doll made a major mistake. She punched with too much force and was thrown entirely off balance. Akira grabbed her wrist and pulled her forward. Her leg came up and pummeled the girl along the side five times, then Akira flipped her into the air. With a cry, she followed her up and struck. She was moving so fast, Ran could see flashing afterimages of her body as she lashed out with more punches and kicks than Ran could count. A final blow sent the Doll hurtling straight down, where she collided with her partner.
The two Dolls fell together in a heap. Akira plummeted down on them like a meteor, hitting them in the back. Even as she did, her fists drove down on either side of them like pistons. The ground cracked as Akira’s blow turned the floor into another crater, and cracked again as Akira pushed her fists into the concrete. It took Ran a second to realise that Akira had just pinned both of the Dolls, one under the other.
“Could someone give me a hand here?” Akira called out.
There was a light tap as Kusanagi landed beside her. He nodded and reached down. Sometime during the fight he had changed into a more human form; the spines and blades and shoulder pads were gone now. He helped Akira drag the two Dolls to their feet, and both were soon holding one in a firm, unyielding grip.
“Score one for the good guys!” Ran said before she whooped and bounced into the air, swinging her fist victoriously.
Aaron was missing something.
He kept trying to pin it down, but it was elusive. Whatever it was, it kept fading away when he tried to recall it exactly. It was like a name that you had on the tip of your tongue. He knew it was there, he knew it was important, but he just couldn’t put the concept into words.
And he knew that if he didn’t, something was going to go horribly wrong.
The trouble was that his line of thought kept getting distracted. Ukyou and he were still reeling from the psychological blow of finding out that Chronos was here. The Guyver plotline… it was too dark, too awful. There was no way that it could have co-existed with the same kind of world that spawned Ranma 1/2 and Sailor Moon.
Heck, there was no way that Ranma 1/2 and Sailor Moon should have co-existed, when they thought about it. How could no superhuman martial artists have shown up for the entire five years of Sailor Moon? And Street Fighter, and Rival Schools… heck, with them and King of Fighters and a dozen other series’ out there. None of it should have turned out the way it did.
And, in fact, it wasn’t.
Here they were, watching characters from four different series’ interact. Vega had kidnapped Sailor Saturn. It was like someone had just taken as many manga, anime and games as they could and put them in the same world, without taking any time to phase them together. And now… they were bustling up against each other. The whole thing was tearing itself apart. Plotlines and characters were being sent off in strange new directions.
Aaron’s knowledge of everything that had come before, all his precious knowledge of the manga, and anime and video games… it was almost useless now. How could he predict the future, when things were interacting in such unpredictable ways?
And still, he was forgetting something. Something important.
Kyosuke took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was attractive, in a refined and intellectual way. Ukyou wasn’t exactly blushing and fawning over him, since Aaron had forced her to repress those instincts. But even so, he wasn’t unpleasant to look at.
Aaron looked away, and found himself finding Ranma. He was standing near one of the holes Kusanagi had blown in the building, with Ran at his side. Her eyes narrowed, but her anger was short-lived.
She wanted to get up and walk over to him. She wanted to tell him everything. She wanted to confess what was in her heart… but how could she? Her heart was divided. Ukyou loved Ranma, but Aaron emphatically did not.
“I think I can do it,” Kyosuke said without much conviction.
Aaron turned his attention back to the young man. He had replaced his glasses and was looking down at the papers Aaron and he had been using. Together, they had been hashing out the basic arithmetic of mind control. They had been at it for over an hour, and Aaron was feeling mentally exhausted.
“Are you certain?” Ukyou looked into his eyes. “We might not get a second chance.”
“I’m as certain as I ever will be.” Kyosuke tapped the papers. “I can use the spell to sever their connection to this outside energy. If what you told me is accurate, their entire psychology has been custom built… a long and complex system of brainwashing above and beyond anything my family has ever attempted.
“The key is that the energy in their bodies is Psychopower, which is really just Bison’s own chi amplified to inhuman levels. They feel such a fanatic loyalty to Bison because their life force is tied to his. His will has essentially turned them into extensions of his body, with no more freedom than a hand or a foot. By severing that connection, we should force their own will to take over.”
Kyosuke placed one hand on the table, and his voice became hard and serious. “The problem is that this will only sever them from the Psychopower. They’ve been so conditioned to obey Bison that their own wills are weak. It is likely that even after I break the connection, they will continue to follow his commands.”
“We’ll worry about that bridge later,” Ukyou said, waving her hand. “For now, we just have to break them free of Bison. We can worry about helping them rediscover their humanity later.”
Ukyou stood carefully. She grabbed her crutches and started over to where they were keeping the prisoners. Kyosuke followed her wordlessly. He didn’t comment about her weakness, which she appreciated.
The Dolls were all tied up in the centre of the warehouse, far away from anything they could have used to escape. Tux-boy, Kusanagi and Akira were all standing guard, and Ukyou had personally searched them all for hidden weapons. Finding every item hidden on the brown-haired Doll had been quite a chore, but Aaron’s senses had finally discovered them all. The Dolls sat silently, their expressions stoic and unconcerned. Ukyou wondered how much of their humanity was left. She didn’t have time to babysit them until they were capable of their own decisions, and at the same time couldn’t just let them loose because they would just return to Bison.
And… Bison would kill them. Somehow, Aaron knew that he would.
“Do it,” Aaron ordered with a nod at the girls.
“Everyone, stand back a bit,” Kyosuke said as he gestured for more room around the Dolls. “I’ve never tinkered with this technique before.”
They all stepped back a respectful distance. Except Ukyou. Aaron just opened his senses as wide as he could, trying to take in everything that happened.
Kyosuke walked up to the three of them and placed his hands on their foreheads one at a time. As he did, a thin, invisible trail of chi formed between his fingers and their foreheads. It was small, and impossibly complex… a mix of wind and water and void chi in some sort of helix shape that Aaron couldn’t quite see clearly. It was sinking directly into the Doll’s heads, rooting itself in the centre of their Wind Chakras.
Aaron could see the Psychopower reacting already. To say the Dolls were connected to it was a misnomer. The Psychopower was not being beamed directly into their skulls like some sort of laser. Instead, the power just seemed to permeate the area around them. It had taken Aaron a moment to figure out what was happening, but when it became clear he only got more worried.
The Psychopower was everywhere. It flowed through the world like an ocean… and like an ocean, it was full of constant waves. And all those waves flowed across the world from over the sea, from Thailand, from the Psychodrive.
But in most cases, the Psychopower was weak; barely noticeable. Around the Dolls, it grew stronger. Their bodies were actually acting like tiny Psychodrives, gathering and enhancing and transmitting the venomous chi.
Kyosuke gestured abruptly, and the chi helixes he had been forming briefly sparked into visibility with a phosphorescent flare. The Dolls all screamed, and the Psychopower around them seemed to waver… then it simply fell away. Like watching a tide recede, the dark chi sunk into the depths of the earth until there was no more there than normal.
Ukyou began to grin. Then the redheaded Doll fell over. Her eyes were glassy. She wasn’t breathing. A second later, her companions collapsed one by one.
“What?” Tux-boy shouted.
“What’s going on!” Kyosuke roared.
Akira knelt down beside them, and her hands touched the blue-haired Doll’s neck. She looked up, her eyes quivering. “No pulse…” she breathed.
“Oh no…” Aaron dropped his crutches. That was what he was forgetting! Bison… Bison had done more than give them a fraction of his power. He had tied their very life force to his own. Without him, without the Psychodrive and the power it would provide them with… “…they’ll all die,” Ukyou said slowly.
“All this for nothing!” Kusanagi growled. “You should have just let me-“
“Shut up!” Ukyou roared. She staggered over and knelt down next to the blue-haired Doll. “I won’t let this happen!”
“Ukyou…” Akira sounded concerned.
Aaron placed both hands over the Doll’s heart. He began compressions. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. He stopped and tilted her head back and began to breathe into her mouth. He repeated that again. And again.
“Ukyou, that won’t help…” Kyosuke said slowly.
“Shut up and help me!” Aaron roared. He would not lose them. He would not be responsible for this. They would live!
Wordlessly, Mamoru knelt and began to do CPR on the redheaded Doll. Akira started on the last one. Aaron stared down at Ukyou’s hands as they went through the motions of keeping them alive.
He could see it. The chi in their bodies, it was so feeble. The best doctors in the world could not have saved them. No amount of medicine could undo the damage done to their souls. With such a small life force, they simply would not survive. But he refused to give up. His hands keep pushing. The brain could survive, what… two minutes without oxygen? Five?
He had to keep them alive until some solution could be found. He had to. There had to be some way of bolstering their life force. Like a transfusion would keep the heart pumping…
Ukyou looked up at Mamoru. He was back in his civilian identity. He was wearing almost the same clothes as that one episode, the time in Sailor Moon S when he had been forced to use his own life force to keep Chibi-Usa alive after her heart crystal had been stolen. Aaron’s eyes narrowed.
“You have to save them!”
“Huh?” Mamoru looked up at them. His expression was confused. “Me? But how?”
“You have it in you!” Aaron barked. “Your magic. You can bolster their life force with your own. Share with them a bit of your chi, enough to keep their hearts beating!”
“What are you talking about?” Mamoru frowned and stared down at the chest of the girl he was trying to save. “I have no idea what kind of power you think I have… but I don’t have it!”
“Yes you do!” Aaron roared. But his mind was saying something, something about the moon cats and… he ignored that part of his memory. He needed this to work.
He wouldn’t let it not work.
It had to work.
“You can do it, Mamoru!” Ukyou snapped out her hand and grabbed him by the wrist. Something inside of Aaron stirred. He stared up at her. “Find it in yourself! Somewhere in that swiss cheese memory of yours is the secret to saving their lives!”
“You don’t think I wish I knew?” Mamoru roared back. His eyes glistened. “These girls will die because of me! Because their death was more useful to Vega than mine! I don’t want them to die, but I just can’t do anything about it!”
“Yes! You! Can!” Ukyou and Aaron roared as one.
They needed it. They needed it to work.
It could work.
It would work.
It will work.
“Do it, damn you!”
Mamoru’s eyes widened, and Ukyou gasped. Something seemed to ground through her. For a moment, she felt light-headed, as if she were falling. Aaron’s mind reeled back… There was something there, for a moment, just a moment. It was so huge, so profound… It was like seeing the face of God. And then it was gone.
Ukyou blinked, and only realised someone was holding her when she heard Akira shouting her name. She shook her head clear and pushed herself free of the smaller girl’s grasp.
Mamoru was kneeling in front of her. His eyes were staring upward at the heavens, and his face was filled with a sort of religious awe. A soft golden glow was fading from around his body, the same golden glow that was sinking into the bodies of all three Dolls.
And they were breathing.
“What happened?” Aaron asked.
“I don’t know…” Kyosuke knelt down next to Mamoru and began to examine him critically. “You were yelling at Mamoru to do something, and then suddenly the two of you exploded with this blinding golden light.” He looked back at Ukyou. “I don’t know how to describe it. It felt so… strong. So full of life and energy. But at the same time… it felt wrong, too.”
Aaron opened his mouth to say something, but his voice failed him.
What had happened?
Had Mamoru done it?
Yes. That had to be it. He must have found his secret power. Aaron smiled. That was the only explanation. Tux-boy must have found that part of himself after all. Trust a Sailor Moon character to come through like that when the chips were down.
“They’ll live?” Ran asked.
“Yes… I think they will,” Ukyou responded with relief. Mamoru had obviously fainted, but he looked okay. It appeared that everything had worked out. They had won.
Everything would be fine now.
To Be Continued…
Blade: One chapter more to halfway! Woo-hoo!
Epsilon: Yep, it actually looks like we almost might finish this!
Blade: Provided they don’t release any more KOTOR games, since we’ve dropped from five chapters ahead to two!
Epsilon: But… the HK-47!
Blade: I know… I know. Also, Mission. I should totally introduce Mission in Hybrid Theory, don’t you think?
Epsilon: Right. All we have to do is come up with is some completely logical and non-asinine reason for characters several thousand years before “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” to show up.
Blade: Hmm… hey, we have Sailor Pluto! What else is she good for if not deus ex machina? She can totally hire them to kill Ukyou. Except Carth. Carth sucks.
Epsilon: Well, yes. Carth could get killed. Pluto can blame it on Ukyou, and then all the Jedi will go “screw this Revan shit” and charge over to destroy Ukyou, Dark Lord of the Grill.
Blade: Then we can have the Jedi versus the Aragami versus the Vampires versus the TAC versus the Americans versus Chronos versus the Dark Kingdom versus the Deathbusters versus Shadowloo versus a small cute kitten!
Epsilon: And then, just when things can’t get any worse… BROLLY shows up!
Blade: And it’ll be the best fanfic EVAR!
Epsilon: We are teh awesome!
Blade: We’re so awesome, we can totally write author’s notes without saying anything about the story!
Epsilon: Let us consult our Jedi prophecies to see what will happen in Chapter 15.
Blade: “One who will bring apathy to the Force”? Huh.
Epsilon: Also, this!
“You children,” Vega said, laughing in a slow, refined manner. “You always think you know everything.” He shook his head, then raised his clawed hand into the air and gestured them forward. “I think this will be a glorious battle. Don’t you?”
Ukyou opened her mouth to respond, but she suddenly stopped. She turned slowly, her eyes widening. Ranma watched her mouth the words ‘not now’ as she turned. Then Ranma heard it: a loud, repetitive chopping sound. Growing louder every second.
No. Not louder.
Ranma stepped back and shielded his eyes as the helicopter burst up from the side of the building. The wind tore at his shirt and hair; he felt his pigtail flailing wildly behind his head, slapping him painfully on the back of the neck. The others had all turned and stood in shock as well.
The aircraft was small, no larger than a large van. It was pure white, and spun gracefully in place so that it presented its side to them. There were four women inside.
Akira tackled Ukyou to the side. A moment later three balls of light slammed into the roof where she had been. An explosion ripped up the roof. Wood and shrapnel flew in all directions. Ranma stood his ground, deflecting it with a hundred perfect jabs. Nearby, Ryouga just frowned as the debris bounced off him.
As the echo of the explosion died down, Ranma could hear Vega laughing. His face was turned skyward, and his arms were spread out as if he were trying to embrace the heavens.
“This is just too perfect!” Vega laughed again.
Hybrid Theory Chapter 15: Easier To Run