"I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself."
- General Robert E. Lee
"Is THAT why I never get promoted?"
- Ken "Snake" Yakata
Black Dragon Productions presents...
A Guardian sequel/spinoff...
Which also happens to be a Sailor Moon crossover...
All characters not created by me don't belong to me. Like, duh.
Knowledge of Guardian is required for full enjoyment of this fanfic. An unstable mind fueled by black rage and madness is NOT required, but recommended nonetheless.
Notes: Story may contain references to stuff in Guardian that haven't happened yet. To answer any and all inquiries to this effect, YES, that stuff will eventually happen.
Other Notes: Sounds, 'dialogue within character's mind/computer', 'thoughts', (side comments)
No Plan Survives Contact With Ranma's Love Life
Ranma had seen his share of bad ideas.
Actually, when he was given time and reason to think on the subject, he had seen far more than his share. He had also seen and usually been subjected to everybody else's share of bad ideas.
Oh, sure, he had his own moments: entering an Amazon tribe's local tournament, winning back unwanted fiancees that had "abandoned" him, and most of the time he had taken on the guise of a woman deliberately to fool someone, he had suffered calamitous consequences.
But however bad his own plans were, he was infinitely more concerned when one of his friends, rivals, or allies had a proposition for him. One might have assumed that this was because most of the people in his youth that might have come up with them either wanted him dead or as a husband, but this hadn't changed much after he had joined the DAPC, although at least he had met one person whose ideas seemed both to work and didn't end with him in the blast zone of high-yield explosives.
Ranma idly wondered what Asuka would think of his current predicament.
"You look AWESOME," Junko said, clasping her hands together as her eyes sparkled, "I'm serious. If you didn't already have a hot little 'borg waiting for you to sweep her off her feet, I'd be ALL over you."
Ranma looked in the mirror uncertainly. His hair, normally poorly-brushed and haphazard, had been geled down and combed over one eye, while his shoddy casual clothes had been replaced by a red collared shirt and black slacks, keeping his usual color scheme, if nothing else.
"It does suit him, doesn't it?" Tiro admitted, looking proud yet somehow defeated at the same time.
"Okay, fine. Can you hand me my belt?" Ranma asked, gesturing to the strap that held his ammunition, flashlight, and assorted other police gadgets and items.
Junko snorted and swatted the offending item away. "Nuh-uh. You're not wearing anything that tacky on your awesome super-hot cyborg date. You're wearing a normal belt."
"But what if I need to reload? Or contact headquarters? Or-" Ranma was cut off as Tiro spoke up.
"No. We'll have your weapons the entire time. Look, we'll be with you the whole time to intercept problems, so you just enjoy a normal, peaceful date without any kind of fighting or work," the lecher insisted, looking unusually sincere about the idea.
Ranma looked almost startled at the idea. "That... What's that even LIKE?" he asked, before something more important caught his attention, "wait, what do you mean you're going to be with us? Is this a double date?"
"No way, I'm not going to go out with Tiro!" Junko said with a laugh while Tiro's face darkened. "We'll be following you two the whole time to take care of any problems, make sure you don't wimp out on us, and of course keep track of any SEXY developments."
"So you'll be peeping on us," Ranma deadpanned.
"I liked the way I said it better," Junko retorted, "but so what?"
"We're doing this for your sake," Tiro insisted, clapping a hand on the taller man's shoulder, "because we want you to SUCCEED. We're a team, you know?"
"Succeed in what?" Ranma asked uncertainly.
"Sexytimes," Junko and Tiro said in stereo.
"You know, I never realized it before, but you two are really annoying when you work together," Ranma mused out loud.
"Oh, please. We can be way worse than this," Junko said, rolling her eyes, "check this out."
She stepped back with her fellow lecher, and the two grinned in a curiously rehearsed way.
Junko suddenly thrust a fist into the air as Tiro clapped a hand over his becep while flexing.
"Operation: Banging Metal!" they said in tandem, leaning forward as if for a camera.
"LEAVING," Ranma snapped as he walked out of the fitting room.
"Well, THAT took forever," grumbled Hotaru as she staggered out of mountain cavern, covered in dust and her clothes torn and ragged, "if I'd known the cavern was so deep under the mountain I would have kept the star seed intact long enough to just teleport out of there." Her lightsaber swung loosely from a clip on her belt, occasionally slapping her thigh.
The young Sith glanced up the mountain, spotting buildings above the treeline. It had been some time and a great deal of traumatic mental shenanigans since she had first started climbing this mountain, but she still remembered that there was supposed to be a resort on top, which meant food, baths, and transportation. She dearly needed all three.
"The power to unmake reality at my fingertips, and I STILL can't find some clean water or summon a bucket of fried chicken," she said as she started climbing through the overgrowth, "ultimate power really is pretty useless as soon as you're no longer fighting witches and hellspawn."
Suddenly feeling an urge to prove herself wrong, her eyes picked out four large rocks sticking out of the side of the mountain, and she reached out a hand in their general direction.
One by one the rocks were wrenched from the earth, tearing free in small bursts of dirt and scraps of foliage to float in the air unsteadily.
With another hand gesture the rocks approached Hotaru and then arranged themselves in the air in front of her like the steps of a staircase, each one floating about the same distance from the mountain slope, but with its flattest surface facing upward.
With a pleased grunt of approval, Hotaru started to ascend the makeshift steps, and each time her feet would leave the rock she had been standing on, it would rapidly move underneath the others to take a new place at the top of the steps.
"Okay, so ultimate power is good for witches, hellspawn, and hiking. Still can't make chicken though," she said to herself.
As she continued climbing her mobile staircase, she had to marvel at how easy she found it. Whether stairs or wild mountainside, climbing was still quite an exertion, and she remembered a time when this level of effort would have brought her lungs very near their breaking point.
Yet here was Hotaru the Sith, descending stairs without even winding herself.
Despite her being hungry and thirsty, Hotaru felt better than she could ever recall outside of her Senshi form; her breath came easily, her heart rate was stable, and her muscles didn't ache from any exertion more intense than walking.
Was this what being a normal, healthy person was like? Being able to do things like climb stairs without being pushed to exhaustion? If so, she could get used to it, Silence powers be damned.
Her form had filled out somewhat in the hours since she had culled that cancerous legacy from her soul, as if the ancient magics had been holding back her natural growth since puberty and had finally been released, and her body was fighting to make up for lost time. Though she hadn't had a mirror to look at for weeks, her arms were now slightly more muscled than other girls her age, likely due to her brief training under Nal'Shek. Her hips had also filled out enough that she didn't actually need her belt anymore, though she didn't necessarily feel good about that.
Hotaru's moving staircase started to flatten out as she approached a tall, sturdy wooden fence built into the mountainside. She could also see wisps of steam rising up from behind it. A bath. Perfect.
Raising one of the stones higher with her mind, Hotaru jumped up on top of it before leaping over the fence, tucking her body into a ball as she spotted the steaming water.
"BANZAI!" she shouted, her face splitting into a grin as she landed in the water with a tremendous splash. Her heart pounded from the sudden excitement, and yet it didn't prompt any of the intense muscle pain or choking gasps that she had grown used to.
Bursting from the surface of the water, she sucked in air greedily as layers of dirt were rinsed off of her hair and face, and Hotaru raised her arms to start scrubbing her hair.
She halted when she noticed that she was not alone. This wasn't a total surprise, as she was always more or less aware of living things around her now, and had sensed other people in the water as she had jumped.
That the people were male, and quite naked, shouldn't have been much of a surprise either, but it was nonetheless.
Hotaru flushed a deep red as she walked through the water toward the entrance to the inn, very deliberately not making eye contact with any of the men who were gaping silently and covering their private parts.
"Stupid Force powers can't even tell the difference between a girl and a boy," the purple-haired girl grumbled as she stepped out of the water and made her way to the changing room, "I sure hope lightsabers are waterproof..."
She opened the door and stepped in quickly, ignoring the shout of surprise from the young man who had been in the midst of taking off his boxers.
"Don't mind me," Hotaru said, waving her hand briefly toward the boy as she stepped past him, "I didn't see that you're wearing Sailor Venus print briefs."
"Oh, thank Christ," he sighed in relief, quickly stripping off his underwear before stuffing them in a locker and heading into the bath.
Emerging from the changing room, and still sopping wet, Hotaru turned to the side and entered the women's changing area, deciding she might as well finish washing before heading out.
After entering the room she stripped off her torn and dirty clothes, looking at the threadbare articles in disgust. Besides the fact that they were damaged and filthy, none of them even fit her anymore thanks to her sudden magic-induced growth spurt. With a tired grunt, she tossed everything but her belt and the lightsaber attached to it in the trash.
She moved to put the belt in a locker, but hesitated as she passed by a mirror, finally catching sight of her full reflection.
Hotaru stopped to look herself over, meeting her image with a critical gaze. Her hips were wider, her shoulders broader, and her breasts fuller than before. Her legs had thickened and become more muscular while her hips had widened into feminine curves. Her face was flush and more rounded, and her hair seemed thicker as well as longer (it had been some time since she'd had it cut, after all).
She was still short, but now Hotaru looked like a short young woman rather than a malnourished pre-teen. Her entire body seemed to exude a vitality and strength that was completely new to her, and she couldn't help but smile at the changes.
She decided not to weigh herself on the scale next to the mirror, though. She wasn't that eager to see how much different she was in kilograms.
"Well, new powers, new strength, and a new body!" Hotaru mumbled to herself as she smiled into the mirror, "maybe this Force thing is all it's cracked up to be after all!"
It was then that she suddenly felt a horrific surge of energy coming from the bathing area, like a sudden boil bursting up through the surface of her Force-senses.
"Oh, for the love of..." Hotaru groaned as she vaguely recognized the feeling, and as she tossed her belt in the locker, she held up her lightsaber in her right hand. She was going to need it.
"I hope this didn't happen because I moved the rocks or something," Hotaru mumbled as she exited the changing room and entered the bathing area proper. "I'm serious, if I can't even shift a few pebbles with my mind without summoning fell horrors from Hell, I am going to be SO mad."
Many people would have been staring curiously at the girl mumbling such dark and bizarre things to herself and holding a large metal cylinder in one hand, but as Hotaru entered the bathing areas she noticed that all of the women who were presumably ordinary people just taking a bath were absolutely still, their bodies not unconscious yet still unmoving, as if they had been frozen in time. All except for a single girl near the back who was dumping a bucket of hot water over her shoulder-length brown hair.
Hotaru couldn't really say she was that surprised by now.
"Okay, lay it on me," Hotaru said with a sigh, "what's the story here? Dark Kingdom? Alien invader? Rebel from the future? Stop me if I get it right." It wasn't like her to approach an obvious threat so cynically, but the combination of recent stress and development of new abilities made her reluctant to be cautious. She had REALLY been looking forward to bathing and eating.
The brunette started scrubbing her hair, not looking directly at Hotaru. "Keep going."
Hotaru's eye twitched. "Okay... Descendant of Nal'Shek? Security system from the Moon Kingdom to hunt down traitors? Sith hunter? Warp daemon possessing a human?"
"Getting warmer," the strange girl said as she slid further into the water, her head craning up to stare at the sky.
Hotaru frowned. "Crazy daemon cultist?" she guessed, her Force senses reaching out to probe the girl.
She felt human, but was awash with the Force. And not merely the raw energies that Hotaru drew upon to float rocks about, but rather the corrupted, malevolent, willful Force energy that had so many times threatened to split her mind asunder and devour her essence. The girl's soul had... accepted it. Seized it. Fed upon it, even.
The girl's mouth broke into a smile that seemed slightly too big for her face. "Bingo! You win!"
Hotaru shuddered as she confirmed her growing suspicions. Unbidden, horrific images of her last encounter with a daemon crept into her conscious thoughts, and Hotaru had to double her mental defenses and calm herself to keep the bile from rising to her throat.
"All right, let these people go, now! Or I'll cut you up like the last Force witch that got in my way," Hotaru demanded, though even to herself the threat sounded curiously timid and empty. She had no idea why; she was armed and prepared for battle, while the other girl was lazing about in bathwater, not even keeping eye contact. Yet, there was some strange pressure that depressed Hotaru's confidence and made her keep glancing at the exit.
The girl suddenly laughed, and though her own voice was light and pleasant, like a ringing bell, it seemed like there were two or three other voices laughing along with her, their voices faded but barely audible in the background of her mirth. Those voices were rough, gutteral and disturbing, and they made Hotaru's skin crawl.
"You think you can fight me? The petty psyker has barely learned to crawl and suddenly you want to fly?" Her laughter trailed off into giggles. "My dear Hotaru-chan, I have no intention of snuffing you out so soon."
Hotaru took a step back, though she really wished she could be having this conversation in the hot spring itself. Her shivers weren't entirely due to the strange girl; it was a little cold, and she was still naked. "You know who I am?"
"I do now. One glance and your secrets are mine," she said with a smirk, "but that's pretty rude, when you don't even know my name, hm? I'm Yumika, Herald of Chaos."
And with that, Yumika dipped her bucket into the water and then splashed more hot water onto herself.
Hotaru started to massage her forehead. "Okay... so what? What do you want? Why did you do this?" Really, it was extremely irritating how Yumika put her senses on full alert without displaying any sort of aggression.
"What do I want? Mmm." Yumika frowned as she put down the bucket. "You are rather new to your powers, aren't you? You take one look at me and become blinded to everything else around you. Not good. If I was serious, you'd be dead by now."
Hotaru, alarmed by her words, shut the seething cauldron of hateful power that was Yumika out of her mind's eye, immediately spotting three other forms behind her, on the roof.
"Ah, you see the harpies? You should probably take care of them," Yumika said as she stepped out of the spring, walking toward the young Sith, "the people in this inn will return to their senses when the daemons are gone, none the wiser... Unless one of them are killed, of course. You'll have quite a lot of explaining to do, then!"
Yumika calmly walked past Hotaru, and the purple-haired girl raised the lightsaber slightly, thinking to just take the girls' head off and be done with her before turning her attention to the daemons.
As soon as it crossed her mind, however, the thought was abolished. Attack Yumika? That was ridiculous. She'd be annihilated in a moment, and all those in the inn would be slaughtered helplessly.
Yumika stepped past, and Hotaru craned her head to look at her new targets. They were hunched, humanoid creatures, covered in thick, ugly brown fur and boasting great feathered wings on their backs. Long claws curved from their fingers, and their teeth were needle-sharp, but otherwise they did not look particularly dangerous, lacking the disturbing, mutagenic features of the one she had fought in the mountain.
They were also clearly waiting for her to confront them. The first two leapt off the roof, their wings spreading and lifting them up thanks to the hot air currents from the spring.
Hotaru reached up to sieze one of them with the Force, but surprisingly found it much more difficult than she expected to move the creatures telekinetically, like she was trying to handle a thrashing fish while her hands were coated in oil.
The third one used her moment of distraction to dive straight toward her, its claws outstretched and its jaws wide open to rend its prey apart.
The third daemon was precisely the reason that Hotaru hadn't invested too much energy into attacking the first two, however. Her other hand, rather than activating the lightsaber, twitched in the direction of a loose water bucket, sending the wooden container up and smacking the diving harpy in the face, covering it.
The creature flailed about as it careened onto the ground, being unable to correct its course and equally unable to complete its attack.
PSSSHT! As the harpy wrenched the bucket off its head, Hotaru finally activated her weapon and stabbed it down into the winged daemon, spearing it through before she ripped the laser blade upward with a snap of her wrist. The harpy seemed to come apart from the gash across its body, the creature screeching angrily as its life force seeped out into the air like a dark, noxious gas.
The other two harpies had circled around, seeming to be more wary of their enemy. That suited Hotaru just fine, since the creatures didn't seem to have anything in the way of ranged abilities.
VZZZRT! Pointing a single finger into the air, a dark blue whip of electricity snaked into the air and struck one of the flying daemons, the crackling arc curling around it and causing the creature to convulse badly as its flight path turned into an uncontrolled dive.
It crashed into the spring with a splash, spraying water all over the still-frozen women but still doing nothing to snap them out of their reverie.
Hotaru took her lightsaber with both hands as the last harpy rose up and then dive-bombed her, dropping too quickly for her to pull something in the way or launch any kind of projectile to stop it.
It also ensured the daemon had no way to dodge.
Vsash! Hotaru's lightsaber slashed upward, bisecting the harpy and sending the two halves of the daemon spinning away on either side. On her left arm the daemon's claws scratched against her hip purely by chance, drawing three thin lines of blood down her leg.
As the hunks of harpy bounced and rolled away, Hotaru quickly checked on the flesh wound, focusing her senses for any indication of unnatural poisons or any other lingering daemonic taint. Once she was satisfied that there was none, she swiped a hand over the cuts, healing them almost instantly.
"Huh. That it?" she asked alound, her lightsaber still humming noisily above the gentle sloshing of the steamy spring.
Bloosh! The water suddenly burst upward as the earlier harpy, burnt and stunned but not destroyed, made a final attempt at Hotaru's life, and its scorched and twisted jaws distended horribly as they reached for her face.
Thwack! Hotaru slugged the lowly daemon bare-fisted, not even deigning to use her lightsaber on it. It was sent sprawling across the ground next to the spring, and then smacked into a large stone lantern placed near the edge of the retaining wall.
Hotaru thrust out a palm, and then raised it, causing the lantern to rise unsteadily out of the ground and shift over the staggered harpy.
CRUNCH! The daemon let out a pathetic squeal as it was ground flat beneath the heavy stone, and then it fell silent as its body began to vaporize, the feathers molting rapidly as flesh and bone disintegrated.
Shooft! Hotaru deactivated her lightsaber, frowning at the wisps of brown smoke where the daemon used to be.
"Whoa, did anyone else feel that?"
Hotaru glanced about as the civilians were suddenly reawakened to the normal flow of time. All of them seemed dizzy from the experience, but unharmed.
"Oh no, I think I feel a migraine coming on," grumbled one older woman as she rubbed her forehead. Then she glanced to her side, and nearly jumped in surprise to see a purple-haired girl entering the spring, a decidedly displeased expression on her face and a strange-looking flashlight in her hand.
"Oh! Hi! I didn't see you come in!" she said.
"Yeah... You all seemed pretty distracted," Hotaru mumbled as she slid into the water, sighing as her tensed muscles loosened up.
"Hey... Did somebody move this lantern?"
Hotaru ignored the disoriented ladies, and a sullen expression crossed her face.
That fight had been easy. Too easy. WAY too easy. Like, "reasonably well-trained police could have handled it if they didn't freak out about fighting inhuman abominations" easy. Those harpies had been nothing like the vile creature that had clawed its way to reality from within her own mind, and Hotaru was pretty sure Yumika had known they wouldn't be more than a workout for her.
They hadn't been summoned as a threat, a test, or even an entertaining diversion. They had been an introduction.
'Who was that girl?' Hotaru thought, brooding silently as she slid further into the water up to her chin, 'Herald of Chaos? What's that supposed to mean? She must have known I was going to be here... What does she want?'
Yumika had wanted Hotaru to know about her, and that she was aligned with the dark, hateful energies that infected the Force. And apparently, nothing else. The people in the inn seemed to be unharmed, the daemons had been crushed, and what little damage she had suffered purely by chance had been healed already.
"Chaos..." Hotaru mumbled to herself as she reached for a bucket to wash her hair.
Hotaru turned to the lady who had spoken to her earlier, waving off her concern. "It's nothing, don't mind me."
"All right, but..." the older lady chewed her lip nervously as she pointed to Hotaru's right hand, "is your flashlight going to be okay in the water?"
Hotaru sweatdropped as she glanced at her lightsaber, which was already dripping wet from the steam that had condensed on its surface.
"Yeah, probably," the purple-haired girl said before dumping the bucket over her head (though she was careful not douse the ancient weapon).
"Ah, do you really need a flashlight in here? It's barely the middle of the day," the helpful - though rather nosy - woman asked.
"It comes in handy," Hotaru mumbled as she scrubbed her hair with her free hand, "there are some nasty animals out here, you know. A good 'flashlight' can take care of them."
"Actually, I didn't know," the lady asked, "I've worked at this inn for almost five years, and I've never seen anything more dangerous than a raccoon."
Hotaru froze. "Wait. You're a hostess here?"
"Yes, that's why I was so surprised earlier," the older woman explained, "I never saw you enter the inn, and we don't have any more guests scheduled to arrive today."
Hotaru sat up straighter, intrigued, "So, then, if a guest wanted a meal, you could get it for them?"
"Yes, I would. Which family are you with?"
Hotaru ignored her question, leaning in closer, "And since you were completely stunned by the Herald's sorcery earlier, that means your willpower can't be all that impressive, right?"
The hostess was silent for several seconds. "Wait... What?"
"To think that you were the owner's niece!" the inn hostess said, wearing a pressed kimono as she started collecting dirty plates from the low table in the middle of the room.
Hotaru squatted before the table, greedily gulping down more tea. She hadn't experienced decent civilization in weeks, and she was sparing no effort to make up for lost time.
"Gulp! Yeah, sorry you didn't get the message," Hotaru said as she waved a hand in the woman's general direction, "but it was supposed to be a surprise for my uncle."
"You mean your aunt," the hostess said as she stacked half a dozen trays atop each other to prepare to take them away.
"Yeah, sure, that. Could you bring me some onigiri to go, please?" Hotaru asked, making another wave of her hand.
"Oh, certainly! Poor thing, you must have been starved from your trip!" the hostess said as she glanced over the empty plates. Half a dozen in her hand, and the strange girl with a serious attachment to flashlights was already working on cleaning off the last three.
"Yeah, especially with all the life-and-death fighting and constant energy use," Hotaru mumbled before popping a piece of nigiri into her mouth.
"The what now?"
"I asked if you could make that two orders of onigiri," Hotaru lied, waving her hand once again.
"Sure thing, darling!"
After a few more minutes, Hotaru had polished off the last of her food, and the young Sith collapsed onto her back.
"So this is what it's like to eat until you're actually full," she said blissfully, "I don't think I've eaten that much food over an entire week before. Being healthy is awesome!"
As good as she felt now, she knew that she had serious matters to consider. Between the appearance of Yumika and the destruction of Sailor Saturn, she had a lot on her mind even putting aside that she had been missing for weeks without a word to her parents or friends.
'I hope everything's okay with them,' Hotaru thought, pulling the yukata she had "borrowed" from the inn tighter around herself, 'they should be okay, but they're probably really worried about me.'
Then she brightened. 'Well, I guess it doesn't really matter! As soon as the next bus to the train station gets here, I'll be on my way home! No point in worrying about it now!'
Asuka flinched as a horrified scream came from down the hall, and sharply turned away from her computer where she was writing up an analysis of Rei's biology.
"Was that Ami? Hunter! I told you to leave her alone!" the bluette snapped.
Hunter promptly nudged her leg from behind, reminding the police captain that he was resting right behind her.
"Oh, damn it, what now?" Asuka drew her sidearm and gestured toward the alien warbeast at her feet, and then she dashed down the hall toward the stairwell, where she had heard the scream.
Seeing no evidence of fighting or incursion, Asuka moved to one room with its door cracked open and pulled the door open the rest of the way, preparing herself for a whole range of scenarios.
Unfortunately, none of those scenarios included her cousin typing furiously at her computer, ashen-faced.
"Ami? What's wrong?" Asuka asked, lowering her pistol but not putting it away just yet.
"It's Hotaru!" the genius Senshi asked, her voice shaky and her heart pounding, "I think something's happened to her! The Mercury computer detected an energy surge with her crystal wavelength, and now it's not reading anything! She's... She's..."
Asuka quickly holstered her weapon and then drew the other woman up in a tight hug from behind, hearing Ami's voice trail off into choked sobs.
'Damn. No idea what she's talking about, but I guess this girl was a friend of hers,' Asuka thought.
"Usagi can't access the ginzuisho..." Ami murmured, wiping her eyes as she leaned into Asuka's embrace, "and we can't contact Pluto... She's gone. She's really gone."
"Ami, I'm so sorry," Asuka said, feeling slightly awkward to be comforting someone rather than ordering or berating them, "listen, is there anything I can do? Start an investigation? Assault a base? If you know who did this, we CAN get them."
"I have no idea," the genius Senshi said listlestly, finally pushing away her computer and staring up at the ceiling, "who could have done this? We all thought she'd be okay because she was transformed..."
Ami grit her teeth, and then slammed a fist onto the table next to her computer. "Damn it! Why weren't we out there looking for her? Maybe if we'd all searched together-"
"Ami, it's okay," Asuka said firmly, swiveling the younger woman's chair around so they could look in each others' eyes. "I'm not sure who this girl is or what she is to you, but I know you've been working frantically at that computer every day, and that you've had a lot to deal with between terrorist attacks and vampire uprisings. This is NOT your fault. You've done plenty, and there's no reason to think things would have turned out better if you'd worked yourself half to death to find this girl. Obviously if you had any good leads, you would have followed them up."
"I... I suppose," Ami said, some color returning to her face as she stared down at her feet, "but still, I... I wish I could be SURE of something, here! Senshi do not just keel over and die! Something big definitely happened!"
Asuka nodded. 'Ah, so she was a Senshi, huh? Better remember the name.' "Do you think her parents know?"
Ami shook her head. "I should tell them. In person," she mumbled, standing up slowly. Though her voice was, as expected, still sad, Asuka was glad to see that she had at least broken her cousin out of her initial panic and horror.
"I can tell the others... later. Haruka will probably want to go to the site and find out what happened," then she grimaced, "even if it means demolishing half the mountain."
"Well, need some help with that, you let me know. I've got plenty of dullards who the general public would rather see digging up mountains than patrolling its city streets."
Ami offered her cousin a tepid smile. "Thank you, Asuka-sa-"
"Asuka. Just call me Asuka," the police captain insisted, "it's way too awkward having you be so formal when all your friends address me like I'm their roommate or something."
"Thank you, Asuka," Ami corrected, "I appreciate your help."
"Well, at least somebody does," the police captain said wanly, stepping aside so Ami could get by.
The younger bluette didn't budge.
"Well? Are you going to head out now, or wait?" Asuka asked.
Ami gulped and pointed toward the door, where Hunter was poking his head in and watching the exchange, clearly ready for violence and perplexed by the lack of heated emotions and frenzied combat.
"Right, right. Hunter, go away," Asuka said, swatting the zergling over the nose, "come on Ami, I'll walk you to the door."
"Thank you again. I REALLY appreciate it," Ami said, her relief palpable.
Ranma scratched the back of his neck nervously as he waited next to a fountain, keenly aware that Junko and Tiro were laying out of sight on the other side of the plaza.
'Why the heck do they find it so much fun to meddle with my love life?' the pigtailed man thought. He didn't really resent it, as he was used to much more destructive interference in his affairs, but it still perplexed him as to why Junko would want him and Usagi together. Or him and anyone, for that matter; this wasn't the first time that the redhead had tried to pair him up with a co-worker.
Tiro was a natural voyeur, so Ranma could understand his support, at least a little. Though it still surprised him that the lecher was going to such lengths to watch another man on a date.
"I can't believe I'm doing all this work to watch another man on a date," Tiro grumbled as he checked the audio coming from the bug on Ranma's shirt. Ranma wasn't talking to himself, so there wasn't anything to overhear, but the sound of the fountain stream hitting the basin was crystal clear.
"Oh, come on. You can't tell me you don't appreciate the romance here," Junko said, nudging the other officer in the shoulder, "a confident but lonesome super martial artist and an adorable, insecure cyborg girl, living, working, and patrolling together! Once separated by the man's indifference and the girl's destined lover, at last the obstacles between them crumble away before their love!"
The redhead grinned as she clapped her hands together. "And then, sexytimes!"
"You make a compelling argument," Tiro admitted, "though it's too bad we won't actually get to watch that last part. Ranma's way too sharp for that."
Junko nodded regretfully. "Yeah, actually I agree. I'm pretty curious as to what that would be like. My own experience with robots was pretty one-sided."
Tiro took up a pair of binoculars, and then put them down again. "Wait, what did you just say about ro-"
"Look! There's Usagi-chan!" Junko pointed out.
"R-Ranma-kun! Hi!" Usagi said, her face flushed as she crossed the plaza. She was wearing a striped blouse that clung to her waist and a daring miniskirt with no socks, though her shoes were a pair of simple sandals.
"Yo! Usagi!" Ranma waved to the cyborg as she approached.
Once she stopped in front of him, she stood silently, trying to think of something to say as a sudden awkward feeling dominated the mood.
"So, your friends put you up to this?" Ranma finally asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Usagi sighed. "Yeah. Oh! N-Not that I wouldn't want to go out with you otherwise! It's just that, you know-"
"Yeah, I know," Ranma said, nodding his head, "it's the same for me."
"Ah, so that's where that outfit came from," Usagi said, glancing down at Ranma's clothes. She wasn't sure Ranma even OWNED a shirt with buttons before today.
Then, feeling her mood lighten, Usagi turned around in a circle. "Mina-chan mostly picked these clothes out. Well, except the shoes."
"Why not the shoes? Do you like sandals?"
Usagi stopped turning, and she looked away in embarrassment. "She, uh, thought I should wear heels, but..."
"Ah, the heels broke under your weight?" Ranma asked, slipping his hands into his pockets.
Usagi flushed red as she refused to make eye contact. "It's not my fault! I'm made of metal!"
"Yeah, I know, chill out," Ranma said, finally feeling at ease as he rubbed Usagi's head, "let's go eat something."
"I hear that!" Usagi replied, brightening instantly.
"Hey," Junko mumbled as Minako approached from behind.
"Hey," Minako mumbled back as she took up a position next to Tiro, peeking over the top of the bench, "is this a good peeking spot? It's a little far to hear anything."
Tiro kneeled down on the other side of Junko. "Got that angle covered. They're just making awkward small talk for now."
Junko frowned. Something about what just happened didn't seem right.
"Okay, good," Minako offered, looking somewhat depressed, "I still can't believe no one makes high heels out of steel. There's got to be a market there SOMEWHERE."
After a moment, Junko figured it out: Tiro had been kneeling to her right before Minako had arrived and settled on the same side. He had then changed positions and was now on her left.
Tiro had willingly moved to avoid being squeezed between two voluptuous young women.
"I tried to get her to record the whole thing herself, but she's too shy," Minako continued woefully, "and Ami-chan refuses to hack into her brain computer thing, so-"
"Mina-chan, is there something different about you today?" Junko suddenly asked, "like, maybe something that people might find... threatening?"
"Huh? Threatening?" Minako asked, having no idea what the redhead was talking about, "actually, now that you mention it, I've felt REALLY good ever since I tried to tell Rei-chan about our hookup plan down at your base. I can't really put my finger on why."
"Maybe she got jabbed with a stimpack?" Tiro suggested as he peered through the binoculars, "like, one with the stronger virus mixes before Seras weakened them to get rid of the side effects?"
Junko frowned. A decent enough guess, except that wouldn't necessarily make Minako a threat to anyone, and wouldn't agitate Tiro's razor-sharp survival instincts. Looking at her fellow police officer, Junko had to consider that his movement was a subconscious reaction, a shift that even he didn't notice outright.
As interesting as these theories were, and possibly important, Junko still dropped them immediately once Tiro informed her that their target was moving.
"This is gonna be so much fun!"
Ami took a deep breath as she beheld the house that Haruka and Michiru shared, steeling herself for the task ahead.
Of course, she had been steeling herself for the past hour, going over dozens of ways to break the news, thinking of all the possible responses she might have gotten, and then divising ways to answer those questions, too.
She still felt woefully unprepared.
"I really should have told Usagi first, and let her come with me," the bluette mumbled. Leaders were supposed to do this sort of thing, right? She had enough on her plate being the brains of the Senshi and the voice of reason. Why did she have to be the bearer of bad news too?
Evidently Ami had been standing in front of the Outers' house shuffling her feet for too long, because she suddenly heard the front door open as Haruka stepped out.
"Ami? It is you! What are you doing here?" the masculine blonde asked as Michiru came up behind her, the both of them looking annoyed.
"Ah. Well..." Ami trailed off, noting that Michiru looked bemused, with her hands crossed under her breasts, while Haruka was trying not to glare as she gave Ami her full attention. "I don't suppose I'm interrupting something, by any chance?"
"We were just discussing our respective histories as far as flirting outside our relationship goes," Michiru said evenly, her smile betrayed by the vein throbbing on the side of her head.
"There's a difference between flirting and appreciating beauty!" Haruka snapped, her hands clenched into fists.
"I can't believe you can say that with a straight face," Michiru quipped, sweeping a lock of hair behind her ear.
Ami desperately wanted to back off here, telling herself that the couple was already preoccupied with their romantic troubles and didn't need any more stress at the moment. But her conscience would have none of it, and the genius Senshi swallowed before she locked her back straight and spoke.
"I have some... news," Ami hedged weakly, "it's about-"
"It's Hotaru!" Haruka said immediately, her eyes widening as Michuru's jaw fell open.
"Yes, it's about Hotaru," Ami continued slowly, taking deep breaths, "she-"
"She's okay!" Michuru cried, all traces of irritation vanishing into joy and relief.
"No, no she's not okay," Ami said sadly, shaking her head, "she's-"
"Yes she is," Haruka corrected, pointing at Ami.
"Stop cutting me off!" the bluette snapped suddenly, surprising both Haruka and Michuru and silencing them. "Listen, something big happened to Hotaru recently, and... I can't guarantee she's still alive."
"Of course she's still alive," Haruka said, sounding absurdly sure of herself.
"Would you stop arguing with me?" Ami snapped again, wondering why the couple was so sanguine about her news. "What makes you think she's fine, anyway?"
"Well, she looks okay from here," Haruka said, still pointing.
Ami blinked, and then turned around to see that Haruka had not, in fact, been pointing at her, but rather at the taxi cab parked on the street where Hotaru was negotiating the fare with the driver through the window.
"That'll be 3000 yen even, kid," the driver muttered.
Hotaru, who was still dressed in a Yukata with her lightsaber stuck in the obi, waved her hand in front of the driver's eyes. "I already paid," she said simply as she picked up her carry-out box of onigiri.
The driver, a man of caucasian descent, frowned. "What, no tip?"
"I gave you a tip too," Hotaru replied, waving her hand around again.
"Yeah, right. Kid, you could hypnotize the whole world and it wouldn't hide the fact that you're a cheapskate," the driver spat before he turned away and started to drive off.
Hotaru was in the midst of turning away as he sped off, grumbling about greedy foreigners wanting extra money just for doing their jobs, when she was suddenly enveloped in a hug that tested even her newly improved fortitude with its strength.
"Hotaru-chan! You're alive! Thank god!" Haruka cried as she crushed her adopted daughter against her chest.
"Haruka, careful! You might hurt her!" Michiru said, paling slightly at Haruka's exuberance.
Haruka quickly dropped Hotaru, her face flushing. "Oh, right, right! Sorry, I..." then she trailed off as she held Hotaru at arms' length, "actually, you felt surprisingly solid, kiddo. What happened to you?"
Hotaru scratched the back of her head as she smiled nervously. "Evil space wizard. Locked me up in an underground mountain lair for a long time while I trained in an ancient combat style from the stars."
"And they didn't have a phone in this mountain lair?" Michiru asked sternly.
"Nope. Sorry, Michuru-mama. I couldn't find any way to contact you until I was already on my way home," Hotaru explained.
"Well, as long as you're okay, that's all that matters," Haruka admitted, hugging her daughter again, though less tightly. "That aside, though, you really have filled out well."
Michiru gave a sigh, and then turned around. "You see Ami-cha-" she stopped as she realized that the genius Senshi wasn't behind her. "Where did Ami go?"
"I think she was heading into the house when Haruka-papa grabbed me," Hotaru said.
"Huh. Well, I think you should talk with her before you go. She seemed to think something bad had happened to you," Michuru said.
"Heh heh... Really?" Hotaru asked nervously, a sweatdrop rolling down her head. "Something bad? Like what?"
Before either of the adoptive parents could properly start delving into their nightmares of the wide variety of tragedies that could have befallen their daughter, Ami emerged from their home, staggering slightly as she made her way toward the three Outer Senshi.
"Ami! We found out why Hotaru was missing all this time!" Haruka called out as the bluette approached.
"Swell," Ami murmured, her gait unsteady, "what happened?"
"Evil space wizard," Hotaru said with a shrug.
"Yeah, those guys suck," Ami muttered, walking past on her way toward the street, "anyway, I'll let the others know you're okay. Later."
"Wait, Ami-chan!" Michuru called, "didn't you have some kind of news from before?" She was a bit worried about how Ami was acting like she had just suffered a concussion, but the young genius had seemed sure that something was wrong with Hotaru despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.
"Right, yeah, news," Ami said, halting as she turned her head around, "you're completely out of scotch."
"We are? Wait, how did you know that?" Haruka asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"I figured it out when I emptied the second bottle and couldn't find a third," Ami said before she hiccupped, "oh, and also, Sailor Saturn has been destroyed. Might wanna look into that. Nice to see you again, Hotaru-chan. Bye."
Both of those revelations were shocking enough that it took Haruka and Michiru several seconds to move their gazes from Ami's stumbling retreat from their house to Hotaru's embarrassed expression.
"Okay, so..." Hotaru said awkwardly as she carefully avoided eye contact, "I decided that 'planet-breaking Senshi of Destruction' wasn't really what I was looking for as a career going forward, you know? So I KIND OF absorbed the evil space wizard's knowledge and used it to purge my Sailor Crystal."
Michiru planted her hands on her hips. "You are SO grounded."
"Eugh..." Hotaru sighed wearily.
The crackle of flame suspiciously resembled cackling laughter as it spread over the brightly colored flesh, unmaking the bulging and warping imitation of matter and returning it once more to the wispy river of power that was the Warp.
Sailor Pluto glared down at the daemon as it died, its mouth lolling open to show rows of uneven, needle-like teeth and its tongue, bearing a flickering blaze at the end like some magical pilot light, twitching as it hung out of the gaping wound inflicted upon the creature. A single eye stared up at Pluto, the only one the horror had left, and even as the creature's existence was undone it stared at Pluto not with hate, pain, or fear, but rather all-consuming interest, a fascination that seemed almost mocking to come from an enemy staring at its killer."
Within seconds, the daemon was gone, and Sailor Pluto had turned away, seeking the next target.
But there was no other target. The Gates of Time crackled and sparked, but no monstrosity leapt from them. Though great streaks of black scorch marks decorated Pluto's sanctum, there was no trace of the enemy, only the combat. Every one of the invaders had crumbled into vapor, and every scaly appendage that had breached the Gates of Time had been beaten back.
Sailor Pluto was actually fairly stunned at the lack of opponents, and she had to take a moment to gather her wits.
She had won. She had beaten back the tide of monsters spawned from the artifact she was supposed to be guarding. That was good.
Taking a look at said artifact, she could see that it was sparking and that long, curling tendrils of coruscating lightning kept lashing out from the doorway. That was bad.
Hefting the Garnet Rod, she shoved it into the opening, and invoked a series of words completely foreign to every other being in the universe. With a violent shudder and a suspiciously rusty-sounding creak, the Gates of Time were sealed and deactivated, stopping anyone - or anything - from using them for any purpose until the bearer of the Garnet Rod undid the seal. That was good.
With the sealing of the Gates, Sailor Pluto finally noticed the retraction of a sustained time-stasis effect, which had apparently been covering her sanctum. The flow of time had always been more malleable and erratic here just from proximity to the Gates, but what she felt being withdrawn was no accidental fluctuation in the time stream brought about from her flinging destabilized temporal energy about with desperate abandon. It had been deliberate, controlled, and slipped into place while the otherwise vigilant guardian had been busy fighting for her life. Something - and she had a good idea what - had altered the flow of time in her chamber so that it was different than the flow in the rest of the universe, using the daemon assault as a distraction.
That was almost certainly bad.
She had been fighting for at least two hours, by her estimate. Maybe more, but it was hard for her to judge. It wasn't as if she kept a bloody clock in the nexus between space and time.
How much time had passed in the outside world?
Her first thought was "none" since she often used stasis effects to do her work before the Gates while freezing time on Earth. She quickly discarded the idea. There was no value in launching a futile attack at her while precisely nothing happened during the time she was distracted. The opposite effect, that her trial at the Gates of Time amounted to days or even weeks outside it, was far more likely.
Okay, so she might have been incommunicado for a week. A month, at the most. And so long as she had the Gates sealed to prevent further corruption or Warp incursions, she couldn't check to see what had happened during her absence.
That left her with only one feasible method for checking on the Senshi and eventually seeking their help to find and eliminate the source of this corruption. A method she despised and never would have resorted to under anything less than extremely desperate and uncertain circumstances.
Sailor Pluto had to ask for help.
Luna perked up as she heard the sound of footsteps approaching, and then got to her feet, assuming it was Makoto or Minako having come to feed her and Artemis.
It was an awkward arrangement, not because either they nor the cats had a problem with it, but simply because Luna and Artemis were now the only occupants in what had formerly been Rei's home. The very fact that one of the Senshi had to arrange a special trip to feed them continually underlined the fact that the Senshi of Mars was effectively no more, and that Rei's new incarnation was far enough separated from her old life that she couldn't be bothered to take care of her friends' cats anymore.
Luna really wanted to move out of the oppressively empty apartment, but unfortunately the moon cats still didn't have anywhere else to stay, as the dorms occupied by the remaining Inner Senshi still did not allow pets, while both Ranma's home and the DAPC headquarters were evidently off-limits to cats in particular.
Luna had never received an explanation as to why that was, but Ami assured her that if she had been allowed into headquarters she would have just been killed and eaten by something named "Hunter" anyway. So she let the topic slide.
"Makoto? Is that you?" Luna asked as she stepped into the kitchen, being reasonably surprised that she hadn't heard the sound of the front door open.
Once she saw who waiting to meet her, she was surprised for a completely different reason.
"P-Pluto! You're back!" the moon cat exclaimed, watching as the guardian of time - in her Senshi form, with the Garnet Rod resting in the crook of her arm - prepared some tea in the kitchen, looking for all the world like she belonged there.
"Yes, I am," Pluto said simply as she put the kettle on, not glancing at her host, "there were some altercations that I needed to resolve."
Though Luna looked curious, Pluto turned toward her and spoke again. "Luna, I am going to ask something... unusual of you, and I would appreciate it if the other Senshi never knew of it."
Luna raised an eyebrow at that. Pluto wasn't exactly known for being forthcoming and transparent, but it was unusual for her to ask secrecy of others. "Very well. Is something wrong?"
"Yes, yes I believe something is quite wrong," Pluto admitted as she glanced at the rapidly heating kettle, "but I don't know the extent of the damage. Tell me, has anything... STRANGE happened in the past week or so?"
Luna's neck nearly bent with the weight of her sweatdrop. "Strange? Ah, well... In the past week, you say? So one week, specifically?" On the counter, the phone started to ring.
Pluto frowned. "No, not just in the past week. If anything strange happened before then, you should tell me that, too." As it so happened, she wasn't really clear on when it was that she had last been on Earth. As the guardian of time, keeping the "current" time and date was a useless nuisance to her, and as a result she hadn't known the date or even the month in which she was last among her compatriots.
Luna was completely confused, wondering if this was some sort of test, or maybe some sort of complex practical joke. Something strange? The past two weeks had REDEFINED strange amongst a group which had never been exactly normal. But wouldn't Pluto know about all of that? Did she want details, Luna's opinion, or what?
"Well, putting aside the major surprises," Luna began, speaking louder to be heard over the ringing of Rei's kitchen phone.
"What major surprises?" Pluto asked immediately, startling Luna.
As Luna trailed off, the phone stopped ringing, and the answering machine turned on.
Beep! Hey Rei-chan, it's Ami. Just wanted to let you know that Hotaru-chan came back today. She seems fine, but Sailor Saturn's gone. Probably gone for good, now that Usagi's gone borg and lost her ability to use the Ginzo... Ginzuush... her magic rock. Sorry, I'm a little drunk right now.
Clunk! Luna cocked her head to the side as the Garnet Rod slipped from Pluto's fingers and onto the floor.
After a brief pause, Ami's message continued. Wait, sorry. I completely forgot you don't live there anymore since you're a vampire... Well, then hopefully Luna and Artemis can hear this. You guys do keep complaining about being out of the loop. Whatever. Bye. Click!
"So... yeah, there's THAT," Luna muttered, "but you probably already knew about it. I mean, it's hard to imagine becoming a cyborg and a vampire could slip under your radar."
Sailor Pluto took a deep breath.
Makoto staggered into the apartment, her ears ringing.
"That was the LOUDEST profanity I've ever heard," Makoto grumbled as she hauled a bag of cat food up onto her shoulder, "what did Artemis do now, Luna?"
"I didn't do anything!" Artemis protested as the white moon cat emerged from the bedroom. His fur was standing on end and his eyes were bugging out. "I was just sleeping when all of a sudden the room shakes and all I can hear is swearing!"
As Makoto puzzled out the degree of Artemis' innocence, a quite ragged and exhausted-looking Sailor Pluto emerged from the kitchen.
"Oh, hey Pluto," Makoto said casually as she stepped by the older Senshi to get the can opener, "you wouldn't happen to know where Hotaru is, would you?"
Pluto's eye twitched. "She's back home safe, last I heard."
Makoto started, looking surprised. "Really? That's a relief! We didn't know what happened to her!" the ponytailed girl started cutting open the cans of pet food with renewed cheer.
"She seems to have lost her Senshi powers," Pluto continued.
"What?" Makoto stopped, then shrugged and kept going. "Well, it's not like there's much demand for blowing up planets in our fights. And Hotaru's a little frail to be fighting, anyway."
"It has come to my attention that she's the THIRD Senshi to have lost her powers," Pluto continued.
Makoto gave her a curious look. "What? No, that's not true."
Any relief the guardian of time might have felt was painfully short-lived as Makoto went on to explain, "Rei-chan hasn't lost any of her powers. If anything, they're just stronger now... and powered by human blood."
"And... Usagi?" Pluto asked hesitantly.
"She has lost her powers, or at least can't remember how to use them anymore, but with all the missiles and lasers and whatnot she's got going on now, she might not miss them," Makoto explained as she emptied the cans into a pair of saucers, "but really, shouldn't you already know about this?"
"My omnipotence has been severely curtailed for the... UNforseeable future," the ancient warrior explained, "I believe a malevolent force specifically distracted me from predicting and observing these incidents."
"Oh! We were wondering why we hadn't seen you around for a while," Makoto said as she placed the saucers on the floor. "Come and get it!"
Luna and Artemis very specifically did not come and get it, probably because they were still spooked by hearing the unflappable Senshi of Pluto strip the paint from the walls with her profanity.
"So what has been done about this, if anything?" Pluto asked. It still felt extremely uncomfortable to ask someone else for news, but was still slightly less awkward than having absolutely no clue what was going on in the timeline she was supposed to be shepherding.
"Well, we flattened the vampires that turned Mars, and I think Usagi and the cops did something to those terrorist bastards that geared up Usagi. We still don't really know why they did that, though."
'Ugh. That reminds me. Those idiot fanatics still have the chronosphere,' Pluto thought.
Makoto picked up Artemis and Luna's water dishes and started filling them up. "We probably would be all over the terrorist thing, but Usagi-chan's been adapting so well to being a cyborg that she's really not that worried about them," Maokoto admitted, "it's really come in handy since she joined the DAPC."
Makoto whirled around at the sound of something breaking, and was quite confused to see Pluto still standing there in a perfectly unassuming pose with her hands at her sides and a neutral expression on her face.
There was also a large hole in the wall next to her, and bits of crumbling drywall stuck to the knuckles of her glove.
"Did... Did you just punch the wall?" Makoto asked, unsure whether she should be amused or disturbed.
"No, of course not," Pluto said evenly, "but on a more important note, the Senshi CANNOT be allowed to get involved with the Department of Abnormal Phenomenae Containment. Least of all the princess. I must speak with her immediately and correct this."
"Uh... Okay, not that I'm saying you're wrong or anything, but why do you seem more concerned about that then her being a cyborg?" Makoto asked, "or for that matter, Rei-chan being turned into an undead, blood-sucking predator?"
"Do I seem concerned?" Pluto asked calmly.
Makoto glanced at the wall. "A little bit, yeah."
The guardian of time rolled her eyes before answering, as if she was indulging an overly curious child. "Well, for one thing - and this is just for starters - if you're around them for too long Snake will almost certainly kill you."
Makoto frowned. "Okay, yeah, that's a pretty good reason. But Usagi seems to like the work, and apparently she's bulletproof, so you might need more than that to convince her."
"I'm sure I'll manage," Pluto said, "these other matters are... not less catastrophic than involvement with the DAPC, but there is also little that can be done about them. In any case, I must speak to the princess at once. Do you know where she is?"
"Not really," Makoto said, scratching her chin, "I know she's out on a date with Ranma, but only Minako-"
WHAM! Makoto winced as the hole in the wall went from fist-sized to person-sized.
"By the way, Rei-chan was also hired by them," Makoto deadpanned, "and she might need the income, because she is NOT getting her deposit back for this place."
Pluto, well aware now that any illusion of unflappable wisdom had been completely ruined, all but snarled as she spoke. "No. NO, this will NOT happen. Saotome Ranma is to have NOTHING to do with the Princess."
"Oh, why not?" Makoto asked, finishing filling the water bowls and placing them on the floor. "I mean, she and Mamoru are in a rough patch right now over the cyborg thing, and if nothing else, I think it will be good for him to realize that he can't just break up with her whenever he feels like it and expect Usagi to be waiting for him to come back with open arms."
"What's at stake here is a little more than just Usagi's wedding plans," Pluto said, forcing herself to calm down, "the problem is SAOTOME."
"What's the problem with Ranma?" Makoto asked. "He seems way more decent than Snake. Or that Tuko guy. Or Yamazaki. And honestly, Kyle is nice enough, but-"
"That man eats timelines," Pluto interrupted, "the reason the princess, and all of you, should stay as far away from him as possible is because he has a peculiar habit of taking fate and stomping it flat."
Makoto looked startled by the revelation. "Wait, are you saying he's some kind of monster, or..."
"That depends on your point of view more than anything else," Pluto groused, "he is not malevolent, nor do I believe he defies destiny deliberately. I can even say that much of his interference within the timeline has been for the good. But it does not change the fact that simply being near him can unmake your future."
Then she shook her head. "But even that may be somewhat trivial at this point. Something has emerged, Jupiter. A power that we thought had been laid to rest eons ago."
Luna and Artemis finally gained the nerve to peek into the kitchen through the hole in the wall, and saw Makoto nod decisively.
"All right, fine. So what's the threat?" Makoto asked. After the robots and vampires she had wanted to get back into action anyway.
"Magic, Makoto," Pluto said, staring irritably at the head of the Garnet Rod, "this time, the enemy is magic itself."
"All right, now aim for the top, not the base or the middle," Ranma explained, "it's harder to hit but it's the only way to knock over something like that."
Below him, Usagi was leaning over a countertop aiming a pop gun at a large teddy bear with an eyepatch and a pirate hat. "Should I aim for the hat?"
"No, you'll just knock the hat off, and that won't get you anything," Ranma said, "right in the forehead is best. Like target practice."
Usagi frowned as she stared at the bear, and a moment later a white targeting crosshair appeared over the bear's forehead, while a black one appeared below it, wavering slightly. She moved the rifle barrel up, and the black crosshair moved appropriately, until the black circle fit over the white circle and the crosshairs flashed red.
Pop! The cork shot out of the rifle, and the bear rocked back from the blow, teetering on its plush rear before finally rocking forward back into place.
"Awww..." Usagi whined as the booth manager chuckled.
"Almost had it! Give it another shot?" the portly man asked with a grin.
Ranma clicked his tongue as he flicked at the now empty rifle. "Not enough pressure in these things. I don't think you could win that thing with these guns."
As Usagi pouted, Ranma suddenly had an idea, and leaned in to whisper to his date specifically so that the curious booth manager couldn't hear.
"All right, gimme another!" Usagi said, frowning cutely as she slapped more money on the table.
As the manager took the bill and stepped aside, Usagi took up one of the pop guns and slowly and deliberately took aim. At the same, one of her spider-like repair droids emerged from underneath her miniskirt and dashed down her leg - its path conveniently obscured from the booth manager - before it crawled up the wall of the booth and onto the stack of pop-cork rifles that were piled at one side of the counter.
The booth manager waited patiently as the rather dim-looking blonde swept from one side of the prize rack to the other, apparently unable to decide on an item.
"Usagi-chan, wait, use this one," Ranma said suddenly, interrupting her before grabbing a certain rifle from the pile.
The booth manager raised an eyebrow as she swapped guns, and then once again took aim at the large bear.
POW! The cork smashed the teddy bear clean off its rack, sending it spinning end over end before it hit the ground.
"Yes! Got it!" Usagi cheered as she pumped a fist in front of the surprised and suddenly suspicious manager.
"Just a minute," the portly man said, taking the now-empty rifle and looking it over. It sure seemed to be one of his pop-guns, and there was no obvious evidence of tampering besides the surprisingly powerful shot. And although he was wondering exactly what the pigtailed guy had whispered to his girlfriend, he'd been watching the both of them the whole time.
With a mild sigh of regret, the manager gave up looking for foul play and retrieved the pirate bear, handing it to Usagi with a reluctant "Congratulations".
"All right! Thanks!" Usagi said brightly as her repair drone scuttled up onto her shoulder before quickly slipping under the shoulder of her blouse.
The manager's eyes bugged out. "Did... Did I just see a spider crawl down your neck?"
"Don't worry, that's just where I keep it," Usagi reassured the man, who began to gape.
Ranma wordlessly took his date by the shoulders and started leading her away.
"That doesn't count as cheating, does it?" Usagi asked once the two of them were out of earshot of the booth manager, "using my drone to pump up the air in the gun?" She still had her arms wrapped around the pirate bear as she allowed herself to be more or less pushed down the sidewalk.
"Nah, you're still using his gun, so it's fair," Ranma reasoned, "it's cheating the way I usually do it, by flinging little pebbles too fast for the eye to see after the shot."
Usagi nodded. "I guess that makes sense."
"And it's flat-out illegal the way Snake does it, by insisting he use his own gun. Which is why they have posters of his put up all over the convention center now," Ranma explained, pointing to one such poster stapled to a utility pole, "so never use your own weapons at a game booth, or you'll be banned forever. I swear carnies have like a cartel or something."
"Ooh! Cotton candy!" Usagi cheered, suddenly dashing away from Ranma toward a small snack booth.
"Okay, this is on me," Ranma said as he joined her at a more casual pace, taking a stick for himself with one hand while placing some money on the counter with the other.
Usagi, having her hands full of plush bear, extended a servo arm from her shoulder, startling the cashier as the articulated mechanical arm seized the stick of a cotton candy puff in its steel clamp.
"Wh-What is... Are you..." the young man at the register started to stutter.
"It's a prosthetic," Usagi explained suddenly before the clamp rotated 180 degrees to hang the cotton candy down in front of her mouth.
The cashier did not seem satisfied by the answer, though he recovered enough to take Ranma's money and start digging around for change. "I thought prosthetics were for people who lost limbs in accidents and stuff."
Usagi nodded as she bit off a chunk of her cotton candy. "Yeah, I lost most of my body. Though it wasn't an accident at all."
Ranma just shrugged at the young man's confused expression and led Usagi away again.
"So what else should we do?" Ranma asked, "there are more game booths on the other side if you want, or we could catch that movie."
Usagi thought about it as she glanced out at the large concrete pier that stretched into the bay. They were currently walking along a boardwalk resort next to a cruise liner company, and her eyes skipped from a winding roller coaster track to a massive cruise liner that was moored opposite the fair games.
"You know, when I was a kid I always thought it would be cool to go skating along a roller coaster track," Usagi said, her eyes shining as she thought of herself zipping along the track with her rocket boosters burning, "but I am kind of hungry. We could sneak onto that cruise liner and check out their buffet!"
Ranma scratched his chin. "Well, that first one is seriously dangerous, while the second is pretty much stealing, which is against the law."
Usagi flushed as she lowered her head. "Oh, right, well, I was just thinking out loud, I didn't-"
"Yeah, so was I," Ranma admitted as he pointed to the ocean liner, "let's sneak into the liner first. We'll hijack one of the rowboats next to the pier, then scale the hull opposite the dock, where they won't be watching."
Usagi promptly brightened again. "Okay!"
"Did they just steal a boat?" Minako asked, pulling down her sunglasses as she stared out at the pier.
"Well, we don't call it stealing, we call it confiscating for official purposes," Junko noted, "and sometimes we even return them! Totally different from stealing."
"Huh. Lost sight of them," the blonde murmured as Ranma's pigtailed black head and Usagi's twintailed blond one vanished behind a massive ocean liner making port, "think they're trying to lose us?"
"Nah. If they wanted to lose us, one of them can leap tall buildings in a few good bounds and the other can fly. I don't think they'd settle for something as romantic-comedy-esque as trying to escape in a dinghy."
"They're sneaking onto the ship," Tiro noted as he bit off part of a hot dog, his headphones linked to the bug on Ranma's clothes hanging around his neck.
"They're sneaking onto a cruise liner to get some privacy?" Minako asked, turning around.
"No, they're sneaking onto a cruise liner to get lunch," Tiro corrected, "and with the price of a withered little hot dog around here, I can't blame them."
Junko sniffled as she smiled happily. "Abusing her police status for her own petty desires already! Usagi-chan really is one of us!"
Tiro frowned as he finished off his snack, suddenly looking more serious. "Hey, girls, is it just me, or... does it seem like they get along... TOO well?"
Minako and Junko looked behind them, their expressions puzzled.
"What do you mean?" Minako asked, "they're not getting along well enough to tongue wrestle, so as far as I'm concerned there's room for improvement."
"No, seriously, think about it," Tiro said, scrubbing his head with his hand, "they're acting just like any other best friends spending the day together. If they weren't male and female, there'd be no way to guess they were on an actual date. But it's like they're barely aware of each other. There's no tension, no feeling here."
"Huh. Yeah, actually, I think you have a point," Junko admitted as she planted her chin against her knuckles, "I guess I didn't really notice because I expect every pairing to end with a sexual encounter so long as they can keep from literally hitting each other."
"So what do you think's going to happen?" Minako asked, looking somewhat upset.
"They'll have a blast, eat themselves fat, and then go home to their separate bedrooms," Tiro said with a sigh, "they already have a good relationship, so why risk the drama?"
"No! No way!" Minako said, her eyes narrowing, "this is not some nine-year old's play date! This is supposed to be Usagi's big night, where she reaffirms her womanhood and finally cuts the emotional leash that Mamoru has her on! No way am I letting her pass on this opportunity because she's not in the mood!"
"Yeah! And I want to study the ramifications of cybernetic intercourse directly!" Junko complained, crossing her arms under her breasts, "there's serious science to be done, here!"
"I'd like to point out that, although I agree with you in spirit, you're both crazy," Tiro mumbled, "besides, we already smashed them together, dressed them up, and are even stalking them like a bunch of sick, perverted weirdoes. What more can we do?"
The three of them pored over that problem for a while until Junko shrugged. "Well, there's always kidnapping."
"What?" asked Tiro and Minako simultaneously.
"Kidnapping. Ranma's girlfriends get kidnapped, like, ALL the time. It's uncanny, really," Junko explained, "it's one of the reasons why I think Usagi would be perfect for him, actually; anyone capable of capturing her would have to have so much power that we'd end up dealing with them anyway, so it's not like she's inviting extra trouble for us."
Hundreds of thousands of light years away, a sleek-looking space craft bristling with weapon batteries and dotted with glimmering jewels started to move, its engines glowing softly as its knife-shaped bow swung elegantly to the side.
And then, as its crew detected someone in the deep void tempting fate, it began to accelerate, vanishing in moments as it breached the walls of reality to speed it to its destination.
"But anyway, I also think it would spice things up, you know? Usagi seems like the type to crush on a knight in shining armor, and Ranma's easily at his best when saving people in distress," Junko explained.
"Okay, fine, but how does that help?" Tiro asked. "Are you suggesting that WE kidnap her? That's-"
"That's brilliant!" Minako said, grinning.
"I was going to say 'the worst idea in the world,' actually," Tiro admitted.
"No, leave this to me!" Minako started looking around. "Over there, behind the crab restaurant! That's a good spot! Come on!"
"Mina-chan, it's possible that, in the rush of emotion and sexual tension that we're TRYING to project upon our friends, that you've lost sight of reality," Junko warned as she and Tiro followed Minako into a narrow space between two buildings, "Usagi is like, 500 percent weapon. And while Ranma is only 100 percent weapon since he can't cram extra weapons into his body, he's really good with what he has. Wouldn't it be better to wait and see if someone else attacks?"
Minako rounded the corner, and was quite satisfied to see that there was nobody behind the restaurant. "Perfect!"
"What Junko was trying to imply without actually saying is that they'll kill you dead," Tiro said bluntly as he joined the oversexed women behind the eatery, "seriously, I know you have a rep and all, but Usagi is a clumsy walking armory and Ranma is... Well, Ranma is Ranma. If you don't give up the ruse in time the man will take you apart for threatening Usagi."
"Don't worry about it, I know what I'm doing!" Minako said, not convincing the two officers one bit. "Venus Crystal Power, make-up!"
Although Minako couldn't help but notice a distinct lack of bright lights that usually surrounded her when she uttered that phrase, such concerns were completely pushed aside by the dizzying rush of power flooding her body as her costume stretched over her skin.
Her vision was briefly obscured by darkness, and then that darkness seemed to split apart from the middle, opening her field of vision again.
As her transformation finished, Sailor Venus nodded to herself. "All right, now I just need a disguise to-"
"Holy crap!" Tiro shouted as he drew his sidearm and aimed it at the surprised and alarmed heroine. "What happened to you?"
Venus blinked, uncertain what he was talking about.
Junko looked shocked, but tried to calm Tiro down. "Wait, hold on, will you? That's probably just some kind of alternate transformation or something."
"Alternate what? What are you two freaking out abo-" as she raised a hand to beckon to the pair of police officers, an important detail caught her eye: her glove was not white, with an orange trim. Instead, it was an inky black, with a pair of uneven orange streaks that led from her wrists to the back of her hand.
"Oh. OH. THAT'S what you were talking about," Venus said awkwardly as she glanced down at her body, "okay, yeah, I don't actually know what this is all about."
"You DON'T?" Tiro asked incredulously, though he put his pistol down. He didn't really get any danger vibes from the blonde, though he also felt curiously unwilling to get close enough to touch her.
"Mirror, anyone?" Sailor Venus asked, holding out her hand.
Junko quickly provided a makeup compact, and Sailor Venus held it out at arms' length to get a good view of herself.
Her new outfit was somewhat similar to Usagi's in that it was a rubbery, form-fitting suit that was mainly black. Hers, however, was also decorated by a series of irregular, bleeding orange stripes, like the inverse of a tiger's pelt, and several of them bled together to form the sigil of Venus on her chest (which she couldn't help but notice was better emphasized now than in her previous costume).
What seemed strangest, however, was the head: her entire face up to her forehead had been covered by the curious wetsuit-like costume, forming a mask with a single white stretch over her eyes that apparently acted as a visor (given that she could see through it). The suit, however, didn't touch her hair, leaving her blond mane exposed, along with her trademark red bow that sat atop it.
"Well... I guess we can skip finding a disguise, then," Sailor Venus said as she snapped the compact closed.
"Uh... Wait, you seriously didn't know about this?" Tiro asked. "We should get you checked out, then! Mercury does those convenient all-purpose scans, right? I'll call-"
"No time for that," Venus said, straightening her back as she gripped her hands together, reveling in the way the suit felt like her own skin, "we're only going to have one shot at this. I'm going to go ahead and snatch Usagi at the first opportunity."
"Why would we only have one chance? We know where they live."
"Less thinking, more doing!" Venus shouted, gripping one hand into a fist.
"No, Tiro's right. This was a stupidly dangerous plan to begin with, and now we're just ignoring a serious and suspicious change in one of our friends," Junko pointed out, "we usually try to limit ourselves to one incident of major neglect per operation."
"Look here!" Sailor Venus shouted suddenly, feeling herself get irritated at the way her friends were questioning her outfit, "you realize that if Usagi and Ranma don't get down tonight, that means that NONE of us are getting laid, right? Do you want that?"
Junko looked startled, and stepped back. "Well, no, of course not, but... wait, why would that effect us getting-"
Sailor Venus stepped up to a nervous-looking Tiro, and then extended a hand to him before she again interrupted the frightened and confused officers. "I know the risks here. I realize that something important has happened to me, and that I should really have it looked into before I embark on any crazy shenanigans. But Sailor Venus is a woman of action, and there are people that need my help so that they can start fondling each other. So I need you to trust me. Without questioning any of the things I'm saying right now."
A tear actually slid down Tiro's cheek as he steeled himself and saluted. "I... I still have the bug on Ranma, and a flare gun. If I hear something from him that would put you in danger - well, more danger, anyway - I'll shoot one up so that you can at least have some warning. Godspeed, Venus!"
Sailor Venus nodded sharply before vaulting up into the air, grabbing onto the edge of the restaurant roof and pulling herself up with ease.
The two officers left behind stared up at where they had last seen their companion, and several seconds passed until Junko spoke.
"So what do we tell everyone if she dies?"
Tiro considered the question briefly, then answered, "We'll tell them that at least it wasn't Snake's fault, like everyone expected."
The screams of thrilled and frightened passengers mixed with the rattling of metal shuddering against metal as the roller coaster train passed to the peak of the tracks, the cars halting briefly in front of a steep descent.
The screams intensified as the trained pushed forward, diving down the tracks at speeds that, while certainly impressive to the passengers in the cars, were carefully calculated and tested to be safe.
It was worth noting, as Usagi landed unsteadily atop the peak behind the coaster with her rocket boosters glowing brightly, that neither she nor the man squatting on her back had the benefit of any safety assurance besides their respective disrespect for their own mortality. Even so, Usagi's first concern, as usual, involved food.
"Should we really be doing this right after eating?" the blond cyborg asked as steel hooks ending in wheels folded out of the sides of her feet and clamped onto the tracks. "I don't want either of us to get sick!"
Ranma, who was holding Usagi's shoes with one hand while holding on to the top of her head with the other, decided to slip into a full seated position, letting his legs drop under Usagi's shoulders. "Well, I've been pretty much immune to motion sickness since I was eleven, and you can just close your stomach off, right? If you can even get sick in the first place."
"Oh! Okay, then!" Usagi said, staring down at the descent as her jet boosters angled themselves to thrust her straight forward.
"Hey, make sure you're not going so fast that you crash into the car ahead of us!" Ranma warned, showing a remarkably minimal amount of foresight.
Usagi frowned. 'Hey, computer, can you figure that out?'
'Tracking target coaster car average speed... Complete. Measuring unit Cyber Moon thrust for acceleration match against decreasing linear-'
'Actually, never mind that. Do I have brakes?' Usagi asked, cutting off the stream of gibberish.
"We'll be fine!" Usagi called out, bending her knees as she prepared to take off, "hang on tight!"
Sailor Venus grinned under her new mask as she spotted her target atop the roller coaster. Yesterday she would have been shocked at the sheer recklessness required to do something like hurl yourself down a roller coaster track at jet engine speed, but right now, for whatever reason, she was feeling curiously sanguine about threats to life and limb.
Possibly because her own plan involved assaulting and provoking two of the most powerful people she knew just for the sake of getting them worked up. Who was she to judge?
Moving along the rooftops, Venus vaulted up over an arcade, clearing a booth between her and the roller coaster with ease to grab onto one of the pieces of steel scaffolding supporting the tracks.
She started to pull herself up, but then hesitated as she felt something strange about her grip on the scaffolding. Rather than pulling herself up on top of the steel beam, she placed one palm flat against the side of it, and then did the same with her other hand. And then she hung there, her palms adhering to the vertical surface well enough to support her weight.
"I can scale walls! This is awesome!" she said to herself. This must have been what Usagi had felt after being changed into a cyborg: the sudden feeling of invulnerability, the liberating feeling of your mobility suddenly expanding, and the feeling that you could tear iron apart with your bare hands!
Venus suddenly latched onto the steel beam above her, and braced herself to pull.
'ACTUALLY, maybe it's a little bit much to start ripping apart the supports to a roller coaster just to test how strong I am,' she thought, reluctantly letting go of the beam.
A sudden roaring noise alerted her to her target above, and she glanced up just in time to see Usagi and Ranma literally rocketing down the coaster tracks, a fan of sparks jetting out from behind Usagi's seemingly bare feet.
"Hmmm... Just gotta wait for a good moment when they're separated," Venus mumbled. She idly wondered what other things her mysterious new transformation was capable of. Would it replace her old power like Usagi? Would it modify and overcharge them like Rei?
Watching her "prey" as they zipped down the tracks, Venus began to worry that they were going to crash into the car ahead of them, as the pair of superhuman cops were moving far faster than the coaster train was, and the gap between the two speeding objects was shrinking fast.
Usagi, thankfully, had accounted for this eventuality, and a loud shrieking noise - that made Venus' skin crawl, for some reason, as if her outfit was shuddering against her flesh - followed an even bigger shower of sparks as the cyborg girl applied the brakes built in to her rail grips.
In addition to stopping Usagi long before she was in danger of colliding with the coaster train, this had the added "benefit" of flinging Ranma off her shoulders and sending him flying through the air and then through the wall of the coaster car maintenance shed.
With her target thus separated from her protector, Sailor Venus vaulted up a pole and then jumped from beam to beam, rapidly approaching the stunned and confused Usagi.
Usagi's eyes widened as she stared at the hole in the wooden wall of the shed, only faintly aware of people from the roller coaster car ahead of her shouting in surprise from seeing her on the tracks behind them.
The coaster operator was shouting at her too, and seemed to be trying to stop the coaster train behind her, but that was hardly important to her now.
'Stupid, stupid, stupid! I did it again! Why do I always injure Ranma with my clumsiness?' Usagi bemoaned as she unhooked her feet from the tracks, 'seriously, I checked for brakes but didn't think about a seat belt? Stupid!'
She adjusted her engine boosters to go collect her date, but before she could lift off, the cybernetic woman was suddenly tackled from the side, lifted from the tracks, and then carried off into the air.
Usagi was so stunned by this that at first she didn't react at all, still staring at Ranma's crash-landing point as it grew more and more distant.
"Muah ha ha! I have you now!" cackled a distorted but curiously familiar voice next to her.
Finally snapping out of her shock, Usagi whirled her head around to see what, exactly, had suddenly seized her and carried her away.
The woman - for it was impossible to mistake the curvaceous figure for a male - certainly looked somewhat creepy in the black and orange suit, but any fear or outrage Usagi felt didn't survive a hard look at the mysterious kidnapper's hairstyle and rather out-of-place bow, much less the symbol brightly portrayed on her chest.
"Uh... Mina-chan?" Usagi asked, a sweatdrop rolling down her head, "is that you?"
Sailor Venus landed heavily on the ground from her dramatic leap, startling other people on the pier as the boards underfoot groaned from the impact.
"Mina? Who's that?" Venus said, droplets of sweat appearing on her forehead, "I'm the sexy super-villainess, the Venusian! You, my dear, are coming with me!"
Usagi's eye narrowed. "Uh huh. 'The Venusian'? Really? You couldn't even choose a different planet?"
"That's enough, my lovely little captive! It appears your man has emerged!" Venus cackled, turning to face the roller coaster.
Ranma sighed as he poked his head out of the hole he had made in the maintenance shed, wondering if he'd end up having to pay for the damage to the carnival ride.
'Who's supposed to pay for damaged or destroyed buildings on a date, anyway? You'd think there'd be an etiquette thing for that,' he wondered to himself as he searched the tracks behind him for his companion. 'Does the guy have to do it, or do they split the bill? Or do I get off the hook because it was her idea?'
Despite some yelling at him from the operating booth of the coaster, Ranma's first concern is that Usagi wasn't where he had left her, out on the tracks.
'Oh, there she is,' he thought as he glanced some commotion on the main boardwalk adjacent to the carnival ride, 'wait... is she being kidnapped? Seriously? Damn it!'
Ranma groaned as he leapt away from the maintenance shed, grabbing onto the scaffolding and swinging down toward the ground. 'I knew it. I KNEW dating again was a bad idea! It just brings everyone trouble,' he groused as he landed at the edge of the crowd, causing it to part in front of him as the nearby civilians recognized a confrontation and evacuated the area.
"Okay, what is it this time?" Ranma asked, gesturing to the figure wearing some sort of full-body wetsuit and mask. He had to admit it looked good on her, in a sexy villainess kind of way, though the bow on top of her hair looked completely out of place.
Sailor Venus suddenly slung Usagi over one shoulder, eliciting an awkward squawk from her captive and incidentally showing off Usagi's underwear to the martial artist.
"I'm Meteora!" Sailor Venus shouted proudly, her voice booming yet still distinctly feminine, "I'll be taking your girlfriend for a little ride, Saotome! You don't mind, do you?"
"Meteora? What happened to Venusian?" Usagi grumbled, still having no clue what was happening but resigning herself to being a captive.
"Hush! I'm making this up as I go!" Venus hissed back under her breath.
Ranma shook his head. "Yeah, that's not happening, lady. Why don't you just put Usagi-chan down, and we can-"
Venus cut him off by thrusting an arm at him, and a thick black chain suddenly burst from her wrist, capped by a dagger-length spike.
"Whoa!" Surprised though he was, Ranma still managed to pull himself out of the way of the projectile, but was just surprised again when the spike suddenly curved to the side in mid-air to curl around him, wrapping around his abdomen. "Hey! What the hell are you?"
"If you want your girl back, you'll have to do better than that!" Venus shouted with glee as she pulled Ranma off his feet and flung him toward the wall of a cake shop, letting the chain separate from her wrist.
Ranma managed to flip himself around in the air and land feet-first against the wall softly enough not damage it, but was quite frustrated when the length of chain kept trying on its own to wrap him up further to bind his arms and legs.
As he watched the strange kidnapper leap away with her cybernetic victim, Ranma grabbed the end of the chain and started to unwrap himself before it managed to pin his arms. Much to his frustration, the chain seemed to be actively fighting him the whole way. The links were made of some firm charcoal-colored substance and were curiously sticky with some sort of semi-fluid that was dark as pitch and haphazardly strung between and within the chain links, as if the whole length had been dipped in crude oil.
Nonetheless, whatever force was animating the chain wasn't strong enough to stand up to Ranma, and after a few seconds of mumbled swearing Ranma threw it on the ground in disgust. It promptly started to dissolve into nothing, and the martial artist turned away to give chase to this new troublemaker.
"Uhm... Mina-chan?" Usagi asked tentatively as she was carried through the air on Venus' shoulder, her twin tails whipping through the wind behind them. "Did you... turn evil, by any chance?"
Sailor Venus clicked her tongue as she landed atop the ocean liner that Usagi and Ranma had infiltrated earlier. "Well, that was SUPPOSED to be the disguise, but I guess the bow sort of gives it away to anyone who knows me well enough."
"No, but... the costume, the kidnapping, the new powers, the fact you just shot a SPIKE at Ranma-kun..." Usagi began ticking off items.
"It's just an act, girl! Don't worry about it!" Venus insisted. "Besides, I'm doing this for the sake of love!"
"Oh, okay then," Usagi mumbled awkwardly, "but I'm still a little curious about the new costume and powers..."
"Yeah, I know, I'll look into that later. All right, here he comes," Venus mumbled, watching as Ranma followed her path toward the ship. "Come and get me, do-gooder!" she taunted before leaping straight at the pigtailed man while he was still on the pier.
Ranma prepared to meet her head-on to try and grab Usagi off the mystery woman's shoulder, but was forced to turn out of the way when Venus' free hand suddenly extended rapidly, her fingers sharpening and twisting together before stabbing forward like a lance.
Venus landed past him, and the whirled around, her hand suddenly curving and sharpening into a scythe blade that swept over Ranma's head as he ducked.
"Drop the cyborg!" Ranma demanded as he drove a fist into the blonde's stomach, following with a left hook that sent her staggering back.
Ranma was aiming to hit the arm carrying Usagi at the joint to get it to go slack, but suddenly the woman in black and orange leapt backward, her free arm lashing another semi-sentient chain at him.
"Okay, seriously, stop trying to impale Ranma-kun!" Usagi complained. She couldn't see most of the fighting, given that she was facing the opposite of wherever Venus did, but whenever the chain was summoned it made an odd combination of a slurping and rattling noise.
Venus tsked as Ranma grabbed the spike out of the air this time and simply pounded it into the ground, robbing it of most of its freedom of movement. She turned around and started to flee again, leaving the chain behind.
Ranma groaned as the blondes moved down the pier again, and was about to give chase once more when something ocurred to him.
"Why isn't Usagi resisting at all?" Ranma wondered aloud. Sure, he'd always thought it was weird how easy it was for his rivals and various villains to capture girls who were formidable fighters in their own right, but Usagi wasn't just some fighter, she was a living weapon with enough ordnance to level a small city (maybe a large one if she tried, but Ranma didn't give her THAT much credit). He could think of a dozen things off the top of his head that she could have done to at least slow down her captor, but Usagi just seemed annoyed at this whole ordeal.
'Okay, maybe there's more to this than I thought,' Ranma considered, deciding to jog after his date at a much more casual pace than before, 'she's probably in no actual danger here.'
"So how's it look?" Junko asked as she leaned over Tiro, who was watching the whole affair via binoculars.
"Well, it's a good thing we took Ranma's weapons. They seem to be keeping it pretty low-key, so I don't think anybody's going to die after all," Trio explained, much to Junko's relief.
"Hey! Hey, you there! Officer-san!"
Junko clicked her tongue. She and Tiro were in uniform, and the person approaching them appeared to be an employee from the roller coaster group.
"Please help me! There's a bunch of hooligans who were running around on the coaster tracks, and-"
"We understand. We're in the middle of apprehending those individuals," Junko said as she crossed her arms under her breasts.
Below her, Tiro snorted, but said nothing. Junko was better than he was at lying with a straight face, so it was best to leave this to her.
"Currently it looks like they're having some sort of running superhero battle, but as soon as they're done we'll address the situation," Junko said.
The man nodded slowly, looking reluctant. "If you say so. And what about the others?"
"I saw a man in a long coat and a hood just after that girl jumped off the coaster rails, and accidentally ran into him," the civilian explained nervously, "he had a metal mask over his face, and when I bumped into him, his coat opened briefly and I think he had a gun!"
Junko was silent for several seconds. "A... metal... MASK, you said?"
The young man nodded. "It was very well-made. It actually looked like it was part of his face!"
Junko was silent for several more seconds before turning to Tiro. "Tiro-kun, do you-"
"Yep. Now that I know what to look for, I can see six-no, seven of them scattered through the area. Looks like they're taking cover and positioning themselves for an attack," the lecher explained.
"Huh..." Junko planted her fists on her hips. "See? I knew if we just waited long enough a violent calamity would happen on its own. Minako-chan is totally jumping the gun."
"You called it," Tiro agreed, pointing his flare gun into the air.
"Come on, hot stuff! You want your girl back, don't you?"
Ranma rolled his eyes as the girl clad in black started lashing a chain at him like a long, living whip, the spike at the end spinning and jabbing at him wildly every chance it got.
Now that he'd considered the idea though, Ranma could see that this whole affair had been completely staged. Every time this "Meteora" girl got a head start on him, she'd wait for him to catch up, and she didn't seem to be leading him into any traps, either. Besides that, she insisted on fighting with one hand to keep Usagi trapped over her shoulder, even though it was proving to be a massive hindrance.
Ranma swatted the chain spike out of the air, and then stuck his hands in his pockets as the whole chain curled back, like a wary snake. "Are you done yet? I can see you're not taking this seriously, so if you quit it now I won't have to hurt you."
Sailor Venus frowned under her mask. Though she wasn't very familiar with the limitations of her new costume, she had still been going easy on Ranma because of Usagi's complaints. But if he was going to taunt her?
Well, she didn't want to see anybody hurt, but Venus decided then and there that Ranma could lose a little bit of ego and live.
The pigtailed man was reasonably surprised when the blonde's free hand and forearm suddenly swelled up tremendously and then split apart on a horizontal seam, revealing a maw of large, saw-edge teeth that resembled an alligator's jaws in both size and shape. A slobbering, serpentine tongue hung from the side, and a disturbing growl came from the horrifying arm-jaws.
Ranma was actually really interested in what his opponent was going to do with her newly mutated appendage, but Usagi was much less curious.
"All right, that's enough!" the blonde cyborg shouted, suddenly grabbing onto Venus' hair and pulling herself upright.
"Ow! Hey! Stop that!" Venus complained.
"No, YOU stop it! Put me down right now, Minako!" Usagi snapped, her eyes flaring blue briefly.
Ranma blinked, quirking an eyebrow. "Minako-chan? That's you? Oh, now I remember where I saw that bow before!"
Sailor Venus groaned at seeing her efforts up to now finally collapse entirely, and reluctantly set down her fellow blonde. "I was just doing it to help set the mood..."
"That makes no sense at all, but forget that!" Usagi said as she stared at the new incarnation of the Senshi of Venus, "what on Earth happened to you?"
Venus shrugged. "What? It's just a new costume, probably."
Usagi pointed to the other blonde's left arm, which was still cracked open slightly and drooling a small puddle of luminescent silvery fluid onto the ground.
"Oh, that. Right..." Sailor Venus held up the admittedly strange appendage and willed it back to its original form. The tongue immediately slipped back between its teeth, the lips of the mouth melted together, and the entire limb deflated rapidly back into the shape of her hand.
"There! Back to normal!" Sailor Venus said, spreading her fingers to show Usagi.
Usagi's uncharacteristically stern expression didn't budge. "There is nothing NORMAL about this, Mina-chan. What happened?"
Venus sighed and then shrugged. "I don't know, I just transformed and ended up like this. Who cares?"
"I care!" Usagi shouted, throwing her arms up into the air, "what if this is some kind of plot to control you, like Rei-chan, or build a super-Senshi, like..."
Usagi trailed off as flare suddenly shot up into the air, originating from behind a few restaurants next to the roller coaster. "What was that?"
Minako frowned, then narrowed her eyes at Ranma. "You're not planning on attacking me any more, are you?"
"I wouldn't mind, actually. I kind of wanna see what you can do with that arm-jaw thing," Ranma admitted, "but no, I wasn't planning on it."
Sailor Venus sighed in relief. "Okay, good. I guess it's a false alarm, then."
Chak! Click! Ch-chak! Clack! Chnk! Her theory was challenged by the sound and sight of several figures, whom had been scattering amongst the pedestrians, drawing rifles from their long coats and aiming them at the trio. Glowing red lenses glared from underneath dark hoods, and the soft whir of geared machinery mixed with the hiss of pneumatic pistons as the hidden attackers tracked their targets.
There was no time for sarcastic quips, though each of the three had been rushing to think of one. Ranma leapt for the two blondes and dragged them them both to the ground, slamming them prone over the pier surface as the first volley of bullets sailed overhead.
"Shield! Shield now!" Ranma demanded as he released the girls and rolled over so that he could see their new opponents.
"Okay! Got it!" Usagi shouted in a panic, her combat bracers slipping around her forearms before a large hex-grid panel of translucent energy spread from each of them. She sat up and tried to angle them to cover her and Ranma, barely putting the shields in place before a hail of large-bore rifle rounds spattered against them in a blaze of lights and sizzling metal.
"Geez, if they had shown up a little earlier, then I wouldn't have bothered to kidnap you myself!" Venus complained, crawling on her hands and knees over to her friends.
"You guys get up and get to a rooftop or something!" Ranma shouted over the crack of the rifles, "I'll take out the ones near the civilians!"
Before the blondes could respond, Ranma's body vanished in a blur of light blue and disembodied grumbling about his lack of weapons.
"Mina-chan! Do you think you'll be okay on your own, or should I stay with you?" Usagi asked, holding her shields close together in front of her as she stood up uncertainly.
Sailor Venus frowned as she stood behind the cybernetic princess. She honestly didn't know how well her new suit would hold up in a gun battle.
Rather unluckily for her, a couple of cyborgs emerging from behind a games booth behind the pair were more than willing to experiment.
Brak! Brak! Brak! Brak!
Usagi whirled around as she heard the gunshots behind her, and gasped as she saw Sailor Venus staggering as the black and orange "cloth" on her back spasmed and writhed.
Brak! Brak! Brak! This of course left her own back unprotected, and the blond cyborg screamed as several rifle rounds pounded against her shoulder blades, severely testing the resilience of her dermal armor.
She staggered and grabbed onto Venus' arm, and the two modified Senshi spared a moment to lock their gazes (insofar as Usagi could lock gazes through Minako's mask, anyway).
Venus whirled around, the twisted, flattened bullets falling out of her back while a black chain blasted from her wrist toward the nearest enemy cyborg's chest.
Usagi too turned, her shield sweeping in front of another burst of gunfire as a pair of servo arms unfolded from her shoulders, both of them sporting laser cannons as her eyes flared blue.
"Dates are sacred occasions of romance, the refuge of couples from the everyday burdens of their lives!" Usagi called out as gunfire continued pounding against her shields, "for interrupting so many people's special time together, you will not be forgiven!" Usagi's clothes began to shift into her combat bodysuit as a suspiciously familiar red warning began blaring at the edge of her vision. "I am Cyber Moon, andOHGODRUNINCOMINGARTILLERY!"
Igov smirked as he kneeled down at the edge of a rooftop, watching as the girl with the ponytails fled the area before an artillery barrage slammed into the pier, smashing a hole into the boardwalk.
He raised one hand and briefly picked the cigarette out of his mouth as he reviewed the progress of the assault. The cyborgs hadn't done much more than surprise and separate the targets - including that strange one in the black suit and the bow, whom he didn't recognize - which was about all he could really hope for given the caliber of his opponents and the relative weakness of his cyborg grunts.
Still, it would be enough. "Igov taking to field. Keep artillery primed for Igov signal, and fall back after salvo four."
Affirmative, General. May they perish in a storm of flame and iron! came the enthusiastic reply from his skull-mounted radio.
"Indeed, Comrade! Igov engaging!" the Russian said happily as he stuck his cigarette back in his mouth while his chronosphere activated.
Usagi dashed frantically across the pier as the boardwalk disintegrated behind her in several bursts of flame and splinters, several times feeling the pier underfoot shake as massive holes were torn in the structure.
Glancing at a cyborg in front of her which was slowly moving into her path, a red targeting crosshair blinked over it before both of Usagi's lasers activated.
SHWEEM! Two bright red beams cut toward each other, meeting at the middle of the crosshairs before continuing onward as the projector power petered out, slicing the cyborg into a squashed X pattern that had four chunks of the mindless drones tumble onto the ground.
Usagi didn't waste much time observing the grim efficiency of her weapons, and darted behind a large wooden stand for holding fresh fish as gunfire rattled behind her.
Poking her head out, her shoulder lasers rose to attention as well, spitting red lances across the smouldering pier and spearing a few of the remaining cyborgs as they tried to get a good line of fire on Sailor Venus or come to grips with Ranma, who had reappeared in their midst and was breaking them down at close range.
'Warning! Chronoshift detected!' her computer suddenly flashed in the corner, causing the cyborg Senshi to frown.
"Something about this whole thing seems really familiar..."
"Igov is pleased you remember!" came a deceptively cheerful voice from behind her speaking with a perfectly stereotypical Russian accent.
Usagi's laser cannons swivelled around, but the blonde yelped as Igov suddenly grabbed both of the servo arms, bending them away from him and forcing the laser projectors to spin and pitch pitifully as they tried to find a firing angle.
"Igov find evidence that you visit Wraith laboratory recently," the Russian said amiably, the shafts of Usagi's servo arms slowly crumpling in his grip, "Igov disappointed to miss you, so Igov come meet you today!"
Usagi looked over shoulder fearfully, staring up into the glowering red lens of Igov's optical peripheral and the general's rather insincere grin.
"If this is about the computer, it was just a joke! I'm sorry!" Usagi cried, panicking as the Russian loomed over her.
"Igov had to organize firing squad for that server," Igov said somewhat bitterly, his friendly demeanor evaporating, "then was forced to upload playback of execution to other servers as warning. Was massive waste of time."
"That's not really my fault!" Usagi complained.
"True, Igov admit it; this but crushing you rather cathartic, so Igov will do this anyway," said the Russian cyborg before suddenly pulling his arms in opposite directions, tearing Usagi's servo arms out of their shoulder ports in a burst of sparks and ripped metal.
"AAAaaahhhh... huh," Usagi's initial scream faded as she blinked, "actually, that didn't hurt at all. I guess those arms can't feel pain."
"Acknowledged," Igov said as he reared back a leg, "now let us check rest of you."
Halfway across the city from the sudden ambush in his apartment, Mamoru Chiba suddenly snapped to attention.
"Usagi!" He could feel the usual warning that his fated lover was in danger, and as usual wasted no time in transforming into his alter ego in a flash of light and flurry of rose petals.
Tuxedo Kamen rushed toward the window and threw it open, but hesitated just before he leapt out.
Turning around, the masked guardian picked up a broom, and then took off his top hat and cape, placing both atop the broom head before he took a deep breath and stuck it out the window.
BLAM! The broom shook in Kamen's hand as a shotgun blast peppered it, and in the next instant Tuxedo Kamen was out the window, having snatched his hat and cape from the decoy and sprinting like all the terrors of Hell itself were hot on his heels.
As the damaged and discarded broom bounced onto the ground outside Mamoru's apartment, Snake emerged from the rose bushes in the garden outside, a deep frown on his face.
"Tsk. Clever son of a bitch. I'll get him next time," the American promised darkly, his utterly pointless and baseless grudge deepening as he slunk back into the bushes.
Sailor Venus slowly picked herself up, having been caught close enough to one of the artillery blasts to be knocked to the ground. That aside, though, the effects of being caught WAY too close to a heavy mortar shell were curiously muted; her body throbbed all over, but she was completely in one piece, and the ringing in her ears had faded in seconds, despite the blast being deafeningly loud.
Glancing down at her body, she saw that much of her new costume had been shredded, leaving wide expanses of bare, but conveniently unharmed, skin between the writhing strips of black and orange.
Writhing. Okay, yes, her costume was definitely writhing like a living thing, and the black strips were definitely regenerating and spreading back over her, repairing itself to once again conceal her soft, vulnerable flesh.
'All right, maybe there might be more to the costume change than I considered,' Venus thought as the dark fluid of her costume crawled up over her eyes again. She knew that, logically, she should be alarmed and probably terrified at being wrapped in possibly living goo that was able to alter her hands into gigantic, snarling, toothy jaws. Yet somehow her nerves were calm, and she felt no revulsion or need for caution.
Of course, that also could have been because she was still in the middle of a battlefield, and had far more immediate and obvious threats to contend with, one of which was now aiming a heavy automatic shotgun at her head.
Lashing out her hand, a chain smacked the shotgun to the side just before it discharged, tearing strips of the wooden pier to hot splinters just next to the Senshi's leg. Lunging to her feet, Venus slashed her hand at the cyborg, her fingers swelling and tapering to long razor claws in the split second before they shredded flesh and bone alike, ripping the harder metal components out in a spray of cerebral gore.
Brak! Brak! Another burst of gunfire slammed into her side, though she had realized by now that the bullets seemed to do little serious damage to her. The impacts themselves felt like bee stings, complete with a lingering pain mild enough not to hinder her movement. Significantly unpleasant, surely, but no longer lethal.
Whipping around as the decapitated cyborg wobbled comically, Sailor Venus fired another chain, this time sticking the spike at the end into the cyborg's abdomen.
"Get over here!" she shouted, pulling hard with the arm attached to the chain while she clenched her claws into a fist. That fist suddenly swelled even larger while short, curved spikes emerged around the knuckle, and Venus felt a definite increase in that hand's mass as she swung at the incoming soldier, smashing the over sized knuckles into it and utterly crushing the chest armor as well as most of the chest behind it.
As the cyborg jerked and quaked from most of its bodily structure shattering, Venus grabbed hold of the spike still embedded in its stomach and then, with but a thought, melded the spike with her hand at the same time that it lengthened and flattened into a proper blade.
Shwwwk! Wrenching her new sword-arm upward, Venus released another spray of bodily and mechanical fluids into the air before the two halves of the dead cyborg collapsed.
"Well... that was... different," Sailor Venus mused, glancing at the long, curving blade that her left arm had become, and the mace head that had become of her right. They had even melded perfectly with her color scheme, the blade edges and spike points standing out in bright, blazing orange to the oily black of her weapons that used to be arms. There were other colors too, but that was mostly because of gore smeared over them.
It was strange. Minako Aino was not fond of close combat at all, but she had resorted to it immediately here, almost as a reflex. More to the point, she had brutally and without hesitation ripped through the bodies of things which - if perhaps far enough from humans to kill without worrying about repercussions - looked an awful lot like people, and bled like them too. Bled a LOT, in fact.
Sailor Venus probably would have reflected further upon her transformation, but another round of gunfire jarred her back to the matter at hand, though thankfully the salvo didn't seem to be aimed at her this time.
Turning, she watched as Ranma took on a group of three cyborgs, wrenching the gun from the first one and then pulling it in front of the return fire from the others. He then started a short-range firefight using one of the cyborgs as a shield.
'Well, as expected, Ranma can handle himself. I wonder how Usagi's doing?' Sailor Venus thought as she began searching for the other blonde.
"AAAAAAAAAUGH!" screamed Cyber Moon as she flew through the air without the aid of her jet boosters. "OW!" a burst of wood shards blasted upward as she bounced off the pier, and before long she was rolling haphazardly toward the edge of the dock.
Thonk! The cybernetic Senshi yelped again as she slammed face-first into a huge anchor leaning against one of the pier supports, which stopped her momentum toward the water at the cost of another of another chunk of brain cells.
'Okay, so Usagi-chan isn't doing so well,' Venus thought as she looked over to where her princess had come from, 'and no wonder...'
Venus' face darkened as she recognized the figure stomping over the breadth of the boardwalk.
"Not you again! Back for round 2, are you?" Sailor Venus shouted, her hands shrivelling to their normal proportions as she glared at Igov.
The effect was mostly lost as Igov couldn't see past the white visor patch over her eyes, but the Russian halted nonetheless before tapping the peripheral unit over his ear. "Igov does not recognize you. Do you have grievance with him?"
"Damn straight I have grievance!" Venus shouted, her fingers suddenly lengthening into talons. "Today the Senshi are going to take you down!"
Igov quirked an eyebrow. "Igov not sure what you have to do with Senshi, but will not matter in two second."
"Venus!" Cyber Moon shouted breathlessly as the inside of her skull rang with the sound of alarm klaxons and her computer helpfully highlighted the area around Venus that was about to be demolished. "Move! Artill-!"
BOOM! BOOM! BA-BOOOM! The cyborg girl flinched as her friend started moving too late, and was subsequently swallowed by explosions. Horrified, she staggered to her feet even as much of the pier collapsed into the water in front of her, salt water mixed with soggy chunks of scorched wood raining down onto the boardwalk.
"Young women these days are into all sort of troublesome thing," Igov said with a sigh as he clasped his hands behind his back, "cybernetic enhancement, vampirism, living combat suit... Igov not be surprised to find cultist witch among you next."
"Hachoo!" went Hotaru.
"Bless you," Haruka said, offering her adopted daughter a tissue, "so what were you saying about your curfew?"
As she wiped her nose, Hotaru glanced around to make sure Michiru hadn't entered the room, and then waved her hand in front of Haruka's face. "I was just saying, I don't really need a curfew."
"Yeah, I guess you don't really need a curfew," Haruka said reluctantly, as if the judgment had been the result of hard negotiation and debate.
"And grounding me is a little harsh. I'm not a kid anymore," Hotaru continued, repeating her hand gesture.
"Okay, I guess it is unreasonable to ground you just because you destroyed Sailor Saturn, one of the guardians of our solar system, in exchange for a creepy old man's dark powers which he had used to try and possess you," Haruka said with clear regret, "it's unfair to treat you like a child when you show such good judgment."
Hotaru frowned, and then waved her hand yet again. "Also, you should think of a better way to phrase that for when Michiru-mama asks."
Cyber Moon clenched her teeth as her left arm split apart, revealing yellow tubes of crackling energy while her hand broke apart into a field projector for the disruptor cannon.
"It's time someone sent you to the trash compactor where you belong!" she shouted, aiming the two shuddering barrels in the Russian's direction.
Just as her targeting scanner appeared, the general thrust his left arm forward, a small cartridge bursting out of his own hand toward her just as waves of white and blue started to wrap around the general.
Moon switched her attention to the incoming munition instantly, and lashed her free hand at the cylinder, trapping it with a tractor beam and freezing it in place in the air. With a snap of her wrist, she sent the grenade hurtling to the side, letting it land on an empty stretch of pier that had been mercifully spared damage until the concussion grenade tore a hole in it.
The process barely took three seconds, but when she once again moved to focus on her opponent, he was no longer in front of her, and she was getting that irritating warning about chronoshifts again.
"In Soviet Russia..." Igov began as he grabbed Cyber Moon from behind, seizing her shoulder before wrapping his arms around her torso and crushing the surprised blonde against his chest, "trash compact YOU!"
"AaaaaaaAAAAAAARGH!" Sparks spat from grinding metal plates as Usagi's body was slowly squeezed within Igov's grip, her dermal armor collapsing and internal mechanisms folding under the intense pressure. "L-Let me... GO!"
"Igov wonders if your cybernetics are compatible with cyborg soldier body," the Russian general mused happily as he felt the smaller cyborg's internal structure slowly crumple, "Igov like to recycle, you see."
"I'll recycle your skull after I take it off your shoulders!" came a familiar, and angry, shout from behind the two cyborgs.
WHAM! The anchor that had previously met with Moon's cranium suddenly smashed into Igov's, staggering the Russian as the sheer mass of the object proved far more than he could shrug off. He didn't let go of Cyber Moon, however, and the blonde yelped as her captor threatened to fall forward on top of her.
"Let her go you Commie jackass!" Ranma growled as he let the anchor drop to the ground, drawing the rifle he had taken from one of the cyborg grunts.
As Igov tried to shake the blow to his head, Ranma took aim at the Russian's left elbow at point-blank range, almost touching the gun's muzzle to Igov's coat.
Brak! Brak! Brak! Brak! Sparks and bits of metal flew as Ranma tried to shoot out Igov's elbow to loosen his grip, and a rumbling growl came from the general as Igov came back to his senses.
Thwack! Igov swung out the arm being shot up, striking Ranma in the stomach and sending the martial artist hurtling painfully through the air.
This gave Cyber Moon the opening she needed, though, and she forced her jet boosters to open and fire, despite a lengthy bit of red text scrolling across her field of view that seemed to be trying to explain why that was a bad idea.
BLAM! Moon's boosters vomited a massive fireball as they exploded, though this at least managed to separate her and Igov by blasting them apart with violent force.
Between the explosion and the severe blunt trauma, Igov was desperately trying to reboot his vision, which kept flickering between static and a shaky, grayscale view in front of him that kept lagging like a broken video game.
"Resourceful as always, little pests," the general spat, "but you will pay for your earlier incursion! Igov will see to this!"
"You already ruined our date, smashed up the boardwalk, blasted my friend, and my ribcage feels like a crushed soda can!" Cyber Moon complained as she stood up, smoke belching from the scorched exhaust jets in her back. "Isn't that enough?" Ranma was standing up opposite the Russian, nursing a spreading patch of blood spreading through his shirt.
Igov blinked as his visual sensors seemed to stabilize, only being interrupted occasionally by flickers of static. "Actually, you have point. Igov should quit while ahead."
Then he moved his hand up to tap the peripheral mounted over his eye and ear, preparing to designate the next artillery target, "but Igov always greedy, yes?"
Kapwang! The Russian cyborg's head suddenly pitched to the side as a .50 caliber round smashed into into it, breaking the radio system built into Igov's skull and prompting a long string of foreign expletives.
"Nice shot!" Junko said, lowering her binoculars as she pumped a fist into the air.
Tiro let out a breath he was holding as he pulled up the scoped anti-material rifle. "Thanks. I wish I could have gotten it when he was crushing Tsukino, though."
"Hey, any little bit helps," Junko pointed out as she raised her binoculars again, "I'm surprised you even keep a gun that big in your car."
"That's Snake's doing, obviously," mumbled the lecher, "always wanting me to be ready to fight at a moment's notice."
"It can come in handy," Junko agreed as she dropped her binoculars again. "So! Yutchzky's looking pissed. You want to flee in terror toward the streets or into the ocean?"
"OCEAN. No way that iron monster can swim," Tiro said, nodding, "ladies first."
"Don't be too proud to scream!"
Sailor Venus slowly opened her eyes to behold an endless expanse of murky blue.
Water. It was water. She was in the water.
As her mind realized this, backtracking to the brief series of events that had led to her tumbling into the ocean, her surroundings started to become clearer, with details fading into focus all around her. Bits of wood and blood swirling in the ocean currents. Small fish, scattering around her. An artillery shell that had struck water without detonating, its twisted, warped metal form spinning in slow motion as it sank.
'Am I alive? I... I don't feel anything.' Despite the very real possibility of severe injury, she forced herself to remain calm. She had faced death before, and she would do it again with the dignity expected of a warrior.
'You are NOT dead,' whispered a voice in her head, freaking out far worse than the possibility of shuffling off this mortal coil.
'The hell? What? Who are you?' Venus demanded, trying to move her head around to search her surroundings. It was difficult, as her entire body felt numb, but with some effort she managed to crane her neck forward enought to glimpse her own body.
She was mostly naked, which was slightly surprising if not quite a problem at the moment. The only traces of her mysterious new outfit were several thick black strings wrapped unevenly around her torso and legs.
'I am... Venus. Minako. Us. We are one.'
The Senshi of love was not so easily mollified. 'No, what are YOU? As in, where did you come from and what do you want?'
'What am I...' The voice sounded curious as it repeated the question, and Venus watched in alarm as the threads of darkness wrapped around her seemed to expand and then rise up off of her, stretching into a new form. This amorphous blob of costume formed what looked like the head of her new outfit, complete with a white strip where her eyes would be.
Her costume stared down at her, its semi-liquid body writhing and fraying in the water. 'Your word. Alien.'
'Okay, fine. So what do you want?' Sailor Venus thought, fairly bemused.
'Host... Partner... To become one with you, Minako. To learn. To live. To become your weapon and your shield.' In the middle of what approximated the creature's "chest", a bright, glimmering jewel poked out from the folds of liquid black, 'Together we will become Sailor Venus, destroy your enemies, and save-'
'Hey! Is that my sailor crystal?' Venus thought angrily.
The jewel immediately sunk back into the alien suit, out of sight. 'No. I didn't... What crystal? I didn't see any crystal,' it claimed unconvincingly.
'That is totally my sailor crystal! You stole it! That's why you appeared when I transformed!' Venus accused.
'No, I just... borrowed it,' insisted the living costume, 'without permission. It was necessary for the union...'
'All right, look, if you're going to be crawling around over or in me all the time, we're going to have to set some ground rules. But first, put my sailor crystal back!'
The alien creature seemed exasperated as it sunk back down over Venus' body, its pitch-like form seeping over her skin. 'There is not much time. I can only sustain you from suffocation for so long. Above is the enemy.'
A distinct note of smoldering rage was evident in the creature's thoughts as it turned its focus to the battle presumably going on overhead. 'That man seeks to harm our friends! Our loved ones!'
'"Our" loved ones?' Venus wondered.
'Yes,' the living costume answered, brushing aside the question, 'we will save them! We will stop him! We will DESTROY anything in our way!' The alien's agitation quickly exploded into furious hatred, and Sailor Venus could literally feel her chest burning in anger as her costume began to expand over her once again. Its emotions echoed and amplified her own, and the Senshi's concerns about being wrapped in an intelligent alien life form were washed away in a tide of rage.
"Usagi! You okay?" Ranma said as he dashed over to his date while Igov was busy cursing and smacking the side of his head uselessly.
Cyber Moon whimpered as she mentally requested a damage report, and was extremely unhappy to see a complicated diagram of her body appear, all of it flashing red and covered in tiny "DANGER" tags.
"I don't think I am, actually!" Moon admitted, trying to activate her combat bracers and getting only a jolt of pain and a burst of sparks from her wrist as a result. Her entire body ached, and her cerebral computer kept complaining about "core damage" or something.
"First, Igov kill you," the Russian growled as the blades of his Tesla claw emerged from his right arm, turning it into a massive pincer crackling with electricity, "then, Igov track down sniper to take as prisoner. Then, Igov KILL prisoner later, just to make sure it count as atrocity," the general snarled.
Ranma wasted no more time and swept Usagi off her feet to carry her, intending to drop her off behind some cover before returning to fend off Igov by himself.
That plan was shot completely to Hell as Igov swung his Tesla claw at the martial artist, tagging Ranma with a wispy gray tendril. As soon as he did, Cyber Moon found herself moving at a slow walk across the scarred and blasted pier, even though a glance down revealed Ranma legs positioned as if he was sprinting in slow motion.
"Wh-What? What did you do?" the blond cyborg stuttered, demanding a quick survey of her weapons that might still work.
"Is stasis field. Chronosphere energy dispersion unit generate localized time-space pocket around single solid object," the Russian cyborg explained as he walked up to the pair, though he seemed to be moving somewhat unsteadily, "will wear off. But not before Igov gut you both."
"Not if I can help it!" Cyber Moon shouted, sitting up in Ranma's arms to aim a single fist over his head.
Fwoosh! In what Igov had to admit was a very surprising attack, the smaller cyborg's forearm separated at the elbow as micro-jets popped open and activated, launching the disengaged forearm forward in a classic rocket punch.
Clang! Igov swatted the fist out of the air with his free hand, causing Cyber Moon to pale in shock.
"Fool. You think Igov not consider rocket fist when designing weapon arsenal?" the Russian demanded with a condescending sneer that Cyber Moon thought was completely unnecessary under the circumstances. "Is critical design flaw! Cannot use primary extremity as projectile! What if you need later? Like for picking up pieces of boyfriend? Is going to be hard with one arm!"
Bzrt! With a flare of electricity arcing over the three scythe-like pincers, Igov stopped barely two feet away from the couple and raised the weapon over Ranma's oblivious head
Bwoom! The dock underfoot exploded outward in front of the Russian, and Igov staggered back in shock as a massive set of black jaws full of razor-edged teeth burst out of the water and splintered wood to clamp onto his Tesla claw.
"You keep your filthy claws off them!" Venus shouted, pulling herself up onto the pier and revealing that the mouth was attached to the end of her right arm.
"You are one slobbering all over Igov arm... With your arm..." the Russian general started to argue, but trailed off uncertainly. "Igov not even sure what going on anymore." Regardless, he grabbed onto the strange appendage with his free hand, attempting to rip away the snarling maw chewing fruitlessly on his forearm.
Crack! His confusion wasn't helped when Ranma hit him with a jump kick and then bounced off to land behind him.
"Thanks for the hand! Er, mouth. Hand-mouth?" Ranma was very obviously not carrying Cyber Moon anymore, and much to Igov's frustration he couldn't see the other cyborg anywhere.
Sailor Venus grinned under her mask, and the fingers of her free hand morphed into long, vicious claws as she reared it back. "We've got you nooooWAUGH!" She shouted in surprise as Igov tugged her right off her feet and then flung her at Ranma, causing the morphed jaws to come apart in a burst of dark, shredded goo.
Ranma was prepared to catch her, but Venus managed to twist around in the air before tapping the ground with enough force to send her bouncing up over his head to land safely behind him.
"You shrug off bullets, you survive artillery... Just what are you?" the Russian asked curiously, already setting the coordinates for a long-range chronoshift. At this point there were too many unknown factors to try to fight Ranma, especially given that the other cyborg was out of sight and he had already suffered damage to his sensors. Staying was an unnecessary risk, and unlikely to bear fruit.
Sailor Venus idly waved her "damaged" hand that had been morphed into jaws and teeth, and the dripping black ooze retracted itself and hardened back into the shape of a human hand. "Who are we?"
She crossed her arms in an X over her chest, and her costume started to quake and shudder visibly all over her body.
"We are VENUS!" Dozens of black chains wrapped loosely in threads of glowing orange erupted from all over her body, curving in the air and lancing toward Igov all at once.
"Hmph. Dos vidaniya, Venus," Igov said as crackling blue energy wrapped around his body.
Ranma winced as the volley of chains and pointed blades crashed into the spot Igov had been standing, smashing apart the pier and each other briefly before they halted in the air. Then the chains started drawing back, pulling the two-dozen or so weapons with them as they were sucked back into Venus' bodysuit.
"Where'd he go? Watch out!" Venus shouted as her chains vanished into her costume, and her long blond hair whipped back and forth as she searched for their opponent.
"I think he took off," Ranma mumbled, glancing down at the blood stain on his shirt. "I don't sense anything, and he was kind of outmatched between the two of us."
Venus turned toward Ranma, and her mask suddenly came apart, withdrawing from around her face and dissolving into her collar. "What about Usagi? What if he gets to her?"
"I dropped her off in that shop over there," Ranma said, pointing to a small souvenir shack that had been evacuated already, "if he was going after her, we'd know it. Besides, I'm pretty sure we knocked out his scanners already."
Venus sighed in relief, although she still kept her eye on all the convenient high points. "Is she all right?"
Ranma walked over to the game booth he and Usagi had stopped by earlier, and picked up Usagi's stray forearm out of the hole it had made in the structure. "She's hurt pretty badly, but her repair bot things are on it. By the way, when you said earlier that 'we' were Venus, were you talking about me, or..."
The martial artist trailed off as he turned around again, for Sailor Venus was gone.
"Well, that was way harder than it needed to be," Venus groused as she hopped off the top of a restaurant and landed behind it, on the edge of the water.
Junko and Tiro were waiting for her, and the former waved brightly to beckon the Senshi of love over to them.
"Are you okay? You took a few bad hits out there," the redhead asked as Venus approached.
The blond Senshi willed her costume away as she walked toward the pair of officers, and the striped black bodysuit seemed to come apart all around her, the suit stripping itself away into a few isolated strands of darkness that themselves seemed to melt into Minako Aino's street clothes.
"I feel a bit... confused, but I'm not hurt," Minako explained as she held up a hand and observed her palm. A tiny puddle of black ooze leaked into the middle of it, seeming to come from nowhere, "this guy is pretty tough."
"Guy? As in a living thing?" Junko asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"Yeah. It's like an alien that's attached to me or something. I'll have Ami-chan look into it later," Minako mumbled, shrugging, "but forget that, how are our loveable superweapons doing!" she chirped brightly.
"Um... Not that I don't love me some hot gossip, but are you SURE we should shrug off the living alien costume for now?" Tiro asked, wiping some water out of his eyes.
"Look, like I told Usagi-chan, you let ME worry about the completely unknown life form that's attached itself to me without my knowledge and turned me into some sort of living salad shooter," Minako said firmly, planting her fists on her hips, "you just concentrate on invading our closest friends' privacy."
"Well, if you say so," Tiro said reluctantly, walking over to where the radio receiver was stashed underneath an unreasonably large scoped rifle.
"I'm serious, don't worry about it. Right now it's more important to make sure all our efforts so far to set them up haven't been for nothing," Minako insisted, "also, why are you both all wet?"
"Tactical cowardice," Junko and Tiro responded in tandem.
"Hey, how're you holding up?" Ranma asked as pushed open the door to the souvenir booth.
Usagi was seated on the floor in her street clothes, nursing her elbow socket as one repair drone scuttled over her back, tending to the damage caused by the rifle fire and jet engine backfire. The other drone had crawled into her stomach cavity to tend to her internal systems, and a constant stream of mostly incomprehensible data rolled across her field of vision, attempting to keep her informed of the repair progress.
Usagi herself looked somewhat bitter rather than frightened or pained, sullenly turning away from the pigtailed man. "I'll be okay, I think. I'll see Tuko-san tomorrow to make sure everything important is working."
"Yeah, that's a good idea. Here's your arm," Ranma said, holding out the appendage.
Usagi sighed as she took it with her free hand and started jamming it back onto her elbow. "I can't believe I lost to him again."
"Who, Igov?" Ranma asked, snorting and then patting Usagi on the head. "He's been a fighter for most of his life before they turned him into an unstoppable killing machine. You can't take him on alone."
"But YOU do!" Usagi pointed out.
"Yeah, well the same thing applies to me, actually," Ranma said with a shrug, "the important thing is that we all get out of this alive, yeah?"
He gave her another rub on the head, causing the blonde to blush as she finally managed to snap her arm back into place.
"All right. And... thank you for saving me," Usagi said, trying not to make eye contact as her cheeks glowed pink.
"No problem," Ranma said as he leaned down and slid his arms under Usagi's legs, "though you should make sure to thank Minako-chan next time you see her, too. Hup!"
Usagi was startled as she suddenly found herself hoisted up into the air, bridal-style, and her blush got darker as Ranma started carrying her out onto the pier.
"W-Wait! What are you doing? I can still walk!" the cyborg girl protested.
"So what? You're still more injured than I am, and you should stay still as much as possible so your little spider things can do their job. Don't worry about it," Ranma said breezily.
Usagi turned her head away. "But... aren't I heavy?"
"Hell yeah, you are," Ranma said just as breezily.
"HEY!" Usagi shouted, suddenly turning her head back. Her face was still bright red, but for a somewhat different reason now, "you can't just tell a girl that she weighs a lot! Where's your sense of delicacy?"
"It doesn't matter how much you weigh," Ranma said blithely, carrying his date toward the street and into view of a few people who had stumbled upon the scene of the damaged boardwalk after it had been evacuated and were wondering what had happened. "I'll support you and protect you anyway."
Usagi was fairly stunned at how serious he sounded, and froze as he locked eyes with her and continued.
"And if you get even more weapons and get even heavier, then I'll just get stronger so that I can keep supporting you. I'm not going to let you down."
Usagi kept staring up into Ranma's eyes, completely lost for words. That Ranma had survived this long, that he had done as well as he did, already defied belief. She herself had seen plenty of amazing and bizarre things, but the confident power Ranma projected seemed to roll off of him in waves, allowing her to feel his strength and sincerity.
"R-Ranma?" Usagi asked suddenly, stuttering as her blush returned full force, "it's kind of hard to ask you this right now, but..." she gulped, and glanced down shyly, "is there any way you could..."
As she trailed off, Ranma halted and tilted his gait so that they were more or less eye level with each other. "Yeah?"
"Could you... go back and get my other arms?" the blond cyborg said nervously, "Igov tore them off earlier and I think he left them next to that seafood booth."
"Awwwwwwww!" Minako cooed as she, Junko, and Tiro all huddled around a small radio transceiver, "that was adorable! Right up until that last part. That bit about picking up dismembered parts is kind of a turn-off."
"Not all of us can put aside such minor concerns as discarding tertiary limbs for the sake of a good lay," Junko admitted, "besides, Ranma-kun respects practical people! It's still a point in her favor!"
"So after this comes the trek back home," Tiro said, giving a thumbs-up, "and then, sexy times!"
Minako nodded brightly. "Yup! It looks like we're all done here! Nothing can get in their way!"
Tuxedo Kamen frowned as he leapt another rooftop, halting his dash across the city. He could still sense Usagi, but his sense of urgency had faded, a sure sign that whatever danger she was in had abated.
'Well, I think I'll visit her anyway and make sure she's all right,' the reincarnated prince decided, leaping down into an alleyway and emerging onto the streets in his civilian form. 'We haven't seen each other in a while, and I know that she's been getting closer to those lunatic police officers. Maybe it's time we talked things out.'
Hotaru slid her window open and then glanced back at the note she had left on her bed, ensuring that everything was in place before she leapt out into the yard.
Landing in a stealthy crouch, Hotaru glanced about to make sure she wasn't seen, and then idly closed the window behind her with a mere twitch of her finger.
Satisfied that her escape had been successful, and took off toward the street, almost tripping on her oversized pants before catching herself and moving on.
She was currently wearing some of Haruka's old clothes, including an old T-shirt and sweat pants, both of which were obviously too large for her but better than her own wardrobe, which was now all too small.
First, she had to get a new outfit. Luckily Haruka had agreed to that without needing any Force persuasion, so she wouldn't have to use mind tricks to steal herself a new wardrobe. While she didn't feel terribly guilty about tricking people into giving her free meals and taxi rides, she didn't want to make a habit of psionic-assisted theft.
'So first I'll get some real clothes, and then I think I'll go greet Ranma! What'll he think when he sees me again?' she thought, giggling girlishly before leaping up onto the roof of the house adjacent her own and dashing across it.
Deep in the basements of the DAPC headquarters, a pair of bright red eyes glowed fiercely in the stagnant darkness within a certain ornate, sealed sarcophagus.
The target of the irate gaze was a small silver watch that lay at the edge of the container. With not a single ray of light penetrating the area, the watch would have surely been useless to most, but the only occupant of the macabre bed had no trouble observing the infuriatingly slow clock hands.
'As soon as dusk breaks, Ranma and Usagi have got a LOT of explaining to do,' Rei thought to herself.
Daemons diced: 3
Cyborgs smashed: 9 (not counting Usagi, anyway)
Power-up sub-plots approaching full circle: 2
Receipts written up by hypnotized people that will probably determine the outcome of a lawsuit: 2
Really bad ideas that still worked out: 2
End Chapter 14