The characters contained within this story are owned by Takahashi
Rumiko and Takeuchi Naoko. No infringement of copyright is intended.
This work to be distributed for free, unchanged, crediting the current
author.

Thanks to my pre-readers:
Ben
aevan http://aevan.virtualave.net
Kevin D. Hammel http://www.anime.sobhrach.com/~khammel/
Blood Blade http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Towers/5920
Mike Rever
Robert MacNab


This story is dedicated to the letter F and the number 8.


Visit my website at
dzillman@ozemail.com.au
http://www.ozemail.com.au/~dzillman/fire
_________________
/ \
| Destiny's Child |
\_________________/


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Epilogue 1: A Learning Experience
---------------------------------


"I'm home!"

The door slammed, and Michiru was just in time turning around to be
able to catch a bundle of black haired energy as it tried to run past
her. The smaller girl's hug was not exactly what would be called
enthusiastic, but it she was no longer struggling to get away like she
had yesterday. It was still only two days since Michiru's worst
nightmare had come to life, and now she was just glad that she could
hold onto some of the happiness that she had one had.

Two days ago, Michiru's world had come crashing down in chaos.
Awakening to a shout, she and Haruka had been treated to the idea that
their dear foster child Hotaru had been killed in cold blood by her
brother. The fact that she herself was going to be dead soon after that
made little difference - almost comforting really - but the thought of
her beloved Haruka dying had turned the knife in the open wound of her
soul.

Michiru had survived the torturous six hours that followed as Setsuna
and Haruka tried think of a way they could defuse the bomb that
threatened them, but she was more dead than alive the whole time.
Losing Hotaru had hurt her more than she could comprehend, and the only
thing that had brought her back to the world was when that same girl -
presumed dead - walked into the room.

Seeing Hotaru alive and having her save all three of the Outer Senshi
from certain death was enough to break the last bastions of Michiru's
mental defences. Holding Hotaru in her arms like she was clinging to a
life preserver, Michiru had cried in earnest, sobbing uncontrollably
even as Hotaru had tried to talk. It had taken hours to her calm her
down, and hours more before Hotaru, Mars and Sailor Moon had been able
to explain things.

Michiru would have believed what Hotaru told her without needing the
other two girls there, but her spouse and occasional housemate
definitely needed the support of the Inners' calm voices. Calm voices
that sometimes were the only source of reason in the room. Michiru
would never forget the brief moment where Sailor Moon stepped between
Sailor Pluto and Sailor Saturn. Both held weapons crackling with barely
contained energy, and each wanted to kill the other. Only when Sailor
Moon risked her life did Sailor Pluto finally raise her weapon and
disappear into the time stream. Saturn had silently morphed back into
Hotaru, glaring at everyone in anger until Michiru had picked her up
and placed her on her lap.

Hotaru had been so startled by that action she had not reacted for
several precious moments; at least, they had been precious to Michiru.
Overcoming her shock at still being treated like a little girl, Hotaru
had slapped Michiru and leapt back to her feet. It had not been a hard
blow, but the meaning was clear enough to everyone: she might look like
Hotaru, but this little girl was someone else entirely.

That simple act of rebellion seemed to calm Hotaru, in many ways it
seemed to shock her as much as it had shocked Michiru. No matter what
their thoughts on that matter, it did quiet everyone for a while, and
allow Rei to talk. Rei needed to be the one doing the talking, because
she both knew everything and was not as blinded by emotion as everyone
else in the room. Unfortunately, it was also at that time that Sailor
Moon needed to leave. Without Sailor Pluto, there was little danger of
her Senshi killing each other, and since she was still an ordinary girl
with parents that worried, Sailor Moon had bid them a good night and
wished Rei the best in mending relations.

It was from that point on that everyone had finally gotten the
explanations out into the air and everything was cleared up. It had all
been so confusing, it still was, but Michiru understood one thing:
things would never be the same. The girl she loved and had raised as a
baby was gone. Intellectually she admitted that Ranma had every right
to be angry and confused, but it did not help the pain.

When night had fallen, Hotaru had left with Rei, and it was like
watching a piece of their life walk into the darkness. Michiru and
Haruka had both invested so much love and time with the child, it hurt
so much to see her walk out on them. Michiru had cried almost
continuously for two hours after that.

She was still holding onto her partner and sniffling when there was a
soft knock on the door late that night. When Haruka opened the door, it
revealed someone that they were not entirely sure that they would see
again; Ranma, in his boy form. He was tall, proud and strong, but there
was something in his eyes... A pain, a loss, a recognition of the truth
perhaps.

He had looked at both Michiru and Haruka, and Michiru could feel her
heart break all over again. Just looking into his eyes, she could see
that he understood their confusion and loss. From the way that he stood
in the doorway and nervously shuffled, it was obvious he was not
entirely sure why he was there either. As the silence stretched and
became unbearable, Haruka had eventually forced herself to start
speaking.

"Ranma---"

"I ain't calling you 'Mama' and 'Papa'... I was just wondering... Can
I... Can I stay here tonight?"

They had both nodded with some trepidation, but Ranma had simply come
in and walked off to his room. They had not stopped him, nor had they
even tried to ask him what had brought him back. It was her fear that
had not allowed her to question it, but somehow, Michiru hoped that her
daughter was still with them somehow, and she felt something for them
still. All Michiru really wanted then was for Ranma to change back into
Hotaru and call her "Michiru-mama" like she once had, but the girl was
quite certain that would not happen any day soon.

Blinking her eyes, Michiru realised that she was still holding Hotaru,
and both of them were in the house. A small, gentle finger raised to
her face and gently brushed across her cheek removing a trail of
moisture.

"Don't cry, Michiru-san. Things aren't that bad."

Michiru strengthened her hug for a moment then set the girl down,
ruffling her hair. This Hotaru was not the same one that they had
raised, that was evident to everyone. She was too tall, too mature, too
wise in the ways of the world. Far too wise in the ways of fighting and
death for the cherished child of Kaiou Michiru. Maybe others could not
see it, but when Michiru looked into this eyes of this adult in a
child's body, she could see her daughter.

She had never asked Ranma or Hotaru what made her come back that night.
Nor had she ever questioned why the girl wanted to stay with them.
Somehow, to do so would be tempting fate, and Michiru counted herself
satisfied that she could have Hotaru back with her in whatever form the
girl took.

Although she had meant well, Hotaru's recent gesture was another spike
through her heart. Michiru's child might have done exactly the same
thing, but she would not have called Michiru by her name. It was always
"Mama", more familiar, closer, friendlier. Knowing that she could not
have everything in the world, Michiru put on a happy - if slightly
strained face - and smiled back.

"Hey, what are you doing hanging around in the kitchen with us old
women? Don't you have a hot date with Rei-chan tonight?"

Hotaru blushed and playfully slapped Michiru's hand. "Hey, it's not
like that! Tonight they're going to introduce me to the rest of the
Senshi. You ought to know that, you're going to be there!"

Michiru turned Hotaru around and pushed her towards the living room.
"Yes, but we're going later. Now go say hello to Haruka and get
changed."

Without a sound, Hotaru dashed through the house. Michiru sighed.
Tonight would be difficult. Not because of Sailor Saturn; she knew that
Hotaru or Ranma would be able to control themselves. It was Setsuna
that worried her. The Guardian of Time had not deigned to show her face
in the last two days, and it worried Michiru that Setsuna might be
planning something against Saturn. But if Setsuna set herself against
the newest Senshi, Michiru knew which side she and Haruka would take.
It would be a definite blow to the team if they had to do without the
Time Senshi. But blood is thicker than water, and even if the new
Hotaru was not as much her daughter as she once was, Michiru would
still fight for her to her last breath.

Leaving her foster mother behind, Hotaru dodged a couple of walls and
sprinted straight at Haruka. The fact that Haruka was sitting on the
couch reading a newspaper, and there was a wide coffee table separating
them did not make any difference to her. Just before she hit the table,
Hotaru launched herself into the air and over the obstacles. Haruka
spotted her in mid air, but before she could even drop her paper,
Hotaru had passed overhead, doing a brief handstand on the blonde hair
to give her the final spin she needed for a perfect landing.

While the carpet was still flexing from the impact of her white cotton
clad feet, Hotaru threw her arms around the blonde girls neck, lightly
applying a choke hold. "Come on, Haruka. You said you were supposed to
be good at martial arts. Anyone could have attacked you then. What
could you be reading that's so interesting?"

Haruka cleared her throat and smiled a little as Hotaru released her
hold. The idea of herself as a father figure to Hotaru had been blown
out the window, and she had wondered if there was any place for her in
the strange family that was struggling to find its form. Since that
night, she and Ranma had not really talked to each other. Glad that
Hotaru had been the one to make the gesture, Haruka kept her tone
light, just for the hope of being able to find some sort of common
ground with the latest Senshi.

"Just keeping up on the latest race results."

"Car racing _again_? You're going to be able to come to the park this
weekend, aren't you?"

"The park? But I thought..."

"What? Just because I've regained my memories doesn't mean I can't
enjoy getting some exercise, can it?"

Haruka grinned. She knew that Michiru still felt that their girl was
inside this new person, and now maybe she was beginning to agree. A
phone call to Rei and Chibi-Usa yesterday told her that Ranma and
Hotaru had been lively, youthful, irreverent and full of energy, but
she somehow could not get past the idea that someone four hundred years
old should act differently. Then again, they had met Saturn Knight on
several occasions, and he did not seem to be the all wise, all knowing
person that Haruka expected of someone that had spent centuries in
various monasteries.

"Oh, I suppose in that case you think that you could take me in a
wresting match now, just because you've gained a few inches. Hmmm?"

Hotaru laughed. This was better, Haruka had been far too serious for
the last couple of days. "Well, I was going to change and show you what
a real man can do, but I suppose you need every advantage you can get."

Coughs and splutters shook the broad shoulders under Hotaru's arms.
That jab about Haruka's sex and her attraction to Michiru was almost
enough to get her angry, but she decided to take it in the tone that it
was meant.

"You what?! Leave that eight foot walking stick of yours at home, old
woman, and I'll show you a thing or two."

Hotaru released her, one arm brushing almost absently across Haruka's
shoulder as the small girl walked away. Halfway across the room, Hotaru
paused. She hesitated a couple of times, the finally flashed a smile.
"Thank you, Haruka-san."

Raising her left hand, Haruka gently touched the spot on her neck where
their skin had touched. Her little girl was still alive. She was Ranma,
but... but she was still their Hotaru. Tossing down the paper, Haruka
walked into the kitchen. Maybe Michiru had a better idea what was going
on than her.

In her room, Hotaru sat on the end of the bed and looked at her
reflection in the mirror. It was a girl's face, girl's body and girl's
clothes, but somehow that did not matter as much to her anymore. Ever
since she had become Sailor Saturn, she realised that she did not
really mind being a girl. Not any more; she was part girl now, she knew
it was well within her abilities to force the shape changing magic to
only respond to freezing water, but somehow that seemed wrong. She was
a boy at heart, but Hotaru found that she no longer minded being a
girl.

Of course, that was not to say that she fancied boys or anything. Like
her disturbing 'parents', Ranma firmly believed that he only had
interest in girls, but he saw himself in a different light to them. For
him it was natural, for them... For them, it was a lifestyle choice.
That was what Rei called it, and if he could not understand it, well,
they were not hurting him with it, so he would not hurt them about it.

Gently placing her fingers on the mirror, Hotaru traced the outlines of
her face, no longer wondering who the woman was that drowned in the
spring to give her this body. She knew who she used to be, so much of
that was clear to her now. All that remained was to try and understand
who she was in the present.

After he had explained everything to Haruka and Michiru, Ranma had gone
back to the temple with Rei. They had a spare room there, she had said,
you can stay as long as you like. He had almost taken her up on the
offer, but something stopped him. He had not been able to explain to
Rei why he had needed to go back to the Outers' home that night. Last
night he had again tried to tell her why he was staying there, but it
was not until this afternoon that he truly understood his own
motivation.

He loved Rei. Ranma knew that deep in his heart. He knew it with all
his soul. He also knew that she loved him, and that someday - when she
was ready - he would ask and they would be married. His not wanting to
live with her now had nothing to do with that at all. Certainly, he was
a little tense after four hundred years, but after waiting that long,
he could wait as long as she needed to be ready.

This afternoon he realised that his motivation for staying here was not
from the love of a man and a woman, it was the love of a family. He
might be four hundred years old, and he might have only lived with
Haruka and Michiru for the last four months, but he could remember them
all so clearly. Those four months were the most enjoyable months he
could remember since he had lived with Akane.

Living with the Outers was so simple, so pure. He loved them, and they
loved him. There were no secrets, no hiding who he was, no questionable
motivations. They were a family, with each and every person loving each
other. That was why he had to come back here. Not just for the pain
that his leaving would cause the girls, but for the pain it would cause
him. Their family was so perfect, to lose it would be a crime.

What they once had was gone. There was no bringing it back. Not now,
not tomorrow, never. However, Ranma fervently believed that they could
make something else. Something different, but still good. It would need
work, care and nourishing, but he could see them becoming a family of
sorts again, maybe a similar sort of family to the Inner Senshi; Queen
Serenity had described them as being all sisters in some way. Ranma
knew that their efforts to make this new family would not be in vain.
Mixed with his other memories, they already had the basics, a level of
love and understanding that went beyond description: the love of a
little girl and her parents.

That was why he had reacted so violently when he received his memories
back. Something this perfect cannot exist, they told him. This much
happiness and love is just not possible. If it is not possible, and it
is not real, then it must have been a deliberate effort to deceive him.
That was what had hurt him the most, the memory of having something so
perfect, only to have it stolen away and shown as a deception.

Even when he had found out the truth, he had still tried to deny it,
clinging to the comfortable reality that he was used to. To accept the
idea that he had just tried to kill his foster parents, to accept the
idea that he had caused so much pain to people who loved him; it was
almost too much to bear.

Getting up from the bed, Hotaru began to undress. She kept a small
kettle in her bedroom, so warm water was always on hand. As Hotaru grew
into Ranma, he smirked and flexed his muscles; the mirror told him he
looked much better as a guy than a girl: check out those biceps!
Dragging a shirt over his head, Ranma began hunting around for a set of
pants that would fit him. He knew that he had put them here
somewhere...

Family...

Ranma liked that word. It rolled off the tongue, it said whole worlds
of information in just the one word. Family... Walking down the hall so
he could get back to the kitchen, he reflected that 'family' was enough
reason in itself to stay here. Theirs was no ordinary family but it was
no less real.

Like any family, they would have their disagreements; their ups and
downs. He felt like a lost relative coming back, a prodigal child
returning. He was confused about so many things, not the least of them
was his "parents". He knew so many conflicting facts about them, it was
hard to sort out what was right. Relying on his emotions was no better,
since he had blind desires to both kill them and trust them implicitly.
Just sorting out what he felt about them was something that would take
time, but it would be worth it in the end.

When he reached the kitchen, Haruka and Michiru were busy talking, so
he kept his footsteps light so as not to disturb. Before they both
realised what was happening, he gathered them into a hug and held on
tight. Holding the two women, he was pleasantly surprised when they not
only failed to flinch, but they returned the hug equally. Ranma was not
sure why he had done it, this was certainly the first time that he had
initiated any sort of emotional contact with them, but it felt right.

Even friends could hug each other, right?

As they stood in the kitchen, each held the other and understood better
how things were. Hotaru was no longer their daughter, and they were no
longer his parents. He was their daughter, their brother, their best
friend, their wise uncle and aunt all rolled into one. To him, they
were parents, friends, and equals. Age was not an issue; they were all
likely to live for longer than they would wish to count. His sex did
not matter; he changed it as easily as heating a cup of water.

What mattered was time, understanding, and love. They were a family,
and that was all they needed now. Time would lead to understanding, and
with understanding would come the love that they all desired. For now,
each would be content that they were together and working towards a
better future.

* * *

Walking into the Hikawa Shrine, Ranma ruminated on how such simple
things could become so complex. Since Queen Serenity had needed her
Senshi form's speed to get to the Shrine last time, then staying that
way until she left the Outers' home, Ranma had never actually seen the
girl behind the disguise magic. To add to the confusion, when Hotaru
and Rei had been trying to explain things to the Outers initially,
there was so much concern over killing each other and Hotaru's survival
that Ranma's true form did not even rate a mention until after the
Queen left.

Knowing that he needed to decently introduce himself to his team mates,
Ranma had asked Rei to organise a meeting with the Inner Senshi.
Surprisingly enough, it had been the fire Senshi herself that had
recommended waiting an extra day. Looking back on it, Rei's suggestion
that he spend the day trying to understand his feelings for the Outers
had been time well spent. He had reached an understanding now. He was
surer of himself, more in control now that his memories had had enough
time to settle down and merge cleanly.

Of course, the Inners had reacted in a manner entirely predictable to
anyone who knew them. Even the studious Ami had insisted on a party for
their newest member. Rei had not been forthcoming about Ranma's dual
identity, simply saying that Ranma was back in her life, and Sailor
Saturn had recovered her memories. Sailor Mars was clearly enjoying
being the only one in possession of all the facts, and although she
would never admit it to anyone, she could understand how omniscience
had easily become addictive to Sailor Pluto.

"A party..." Ranma said as he walked into the shrine. He might have
spent hardly any time here in the last four months, but he still
remembered every stone and every piece of wood.

A slow smile brightened his face as he walked to the front door. "A
party sounds just right."

When Rei slid the door open, she was wearing a very familiar red dress.
It was ankle length, and tight in all the right places. It showed
nothing indecent, but somehow it seemed to offer the suggestion of
everything it went to such precise efforts to conceal.

"Whoo... Ahh..." Ranma chuckled nervously for a moment. "I think that
means I got the measurements right."

"Come here, you. You made me wait all day yesterday for this, so..."
Showing that she was the bolder of the two, Rei engulfed Ranma in a
hug, holding him against her tightly. For four months she had learned
to live with her feelings, hoping that they would diminish in time,
only to learn that they did not. Now she had Ranma back in her life,
she did not intend to lose him. If it meant that she needed to be open
and honest about her feelings so that he would never be tempted to find
solace in Ukyo's or Makoto's or even Shampoo's arms, it was something
she could easily live with.

Placing a hand softly on the side of her face, Ranma moved away from
her slightly. He moved slowly, sure and experienced in the arts of
being with someone you loved. When he bent his head down, Rei looked up
at him and smiled, closing her eyes, losing herself in the warmth of
his mouth and his love. The kiss was warm, tender and gentle. It was
not urgent or demanding; they had an eternity to explore their
feelings. It was love, commitment, and companionship.

Breaking for air, Ranma again held Rei close to him. He smiled ruefully
when he noticed that they were still standing in her doorway, an open
spectacle for anyone that came to the shrine. Not that it mattered, of
course, but he liked to know when he was on display.

"What time are the others coming?"

Rei smiled even more, closing her eyes as she felt the deep, warm
vibrations of his chest when he spoke. "Soon, I guess. I asked one of
them to be here three quarters of an hour early. Since that was thirty
minutes ago, she should be here soon."

"So your saying we have time for another kiss?"

Rather than let words waste their precious moments, Rei simply tilted
her head back and let that be message enough. They were still in the
doorway when a small cough caught their attention. Rei tried to back
away, but Ranma kept one arm around her waist as he turned to face the
sound of the person who had arrived.

Usagi smiled at them and the politeness to blush and look slightly
abashed at having intruded. Chibi-Usa - who was standing next to her -
just looked up at Ranma and Rei with wide eyed wonder.

"Umm... Sorry for interrupting guys, but we were sort of waiting here
for a while. I guess... heh, heh... you were a bit busy..."

Then, before anyone could move, Usagi grabbed Rei's hand and dragged
her off to the corner of the building. Getting a questioning look from
Ranma, Chibi-Usa just shrugged. She had no idea what her mother was up
to most of the time, why should now be any different?

"Rei!" Usagi whispered fiercely. "What is _he_ doing here? We have to
get rid of him! We can't have him around when Sailor Saturn gets here
and we do introductions, even if he is your boyfriend."

Rei smirked, knowing she would enjoy every last moment of this. Taking
Usagi's hand, she pulled the shorter girl back towards the other two.
In a voice loud enough to be heard by all of them, Rei pushed Usagi
forwards and introduced her.

"Now, may I present her most Imperial Highness, Queen Serenity! Or
Sailor Moon as we usually call her."

Stumbling slightly, Usagi turned around and gave Rei a quick glare
before she tried to babble her way out of the revelation. Before she
managed to say "Well, you see, that is, I..." Ranma had already
reacted.

Stumbling backwards, slightly, Ranma pointed a shaky finger between the
girls. "You're saying _Usagi_ is Queen Serenity?! What? Next you're
gunna say that Chibi-Usa is really Sailor Moon!"

To his eternal horror, Rei's Cheshire Cat grin grew even broader as she
nodded her head. Ranma was still staring between each girl trying to
understand something he would have deemed impossible just a few minutes
ago. Usagi was a ditz, a bubble headed definition of the word "blonde";
she must have been about as far from the heroic and poised Queen
Serenity as he could imagine.

It was at that moment that Rei's other close friends also chose to walk
up. Three other girls, each bearing a close resemblance to the Sailor
Senshi. Because of the effect of the disguise magic, he was not
certain, but he could feel a settling in his stomach. Their timing was
right, they were always with Rei, and she was Sailor Mars. Added to the
fact that the fastidiously honest Hino Rei had just fingered two of the
girls as being Sailor Senshi...

"Sailors Jupiter, Mercury and Venus, I presume?"

The three girls had their arms full with food, so they did not try and
attack her physically, but their collective gaze was so cold it could
have frozen a lake. "Rei-chan, I know he's your boyfriend, but how
could you tell him?"

Smiling so much she though that her face would split, Rei turned
slightly and gestured at Ranma. "I'm sorry, Ami-chan. May I present
Saturn Knight?"

After months of being "poor Rei-chan, whose boyfriend ran away", she
was enjoying her moment of triumph out of proportion. Despite that, Rei
loved being a showman. The flash, the ceremony, the ability to pull
facts out of thin air. Knowing what everyone else was only guessing at
made things so much fun. It was like revealing the truth of a fire
reading, but here there was no doubt or confusion and none of the
tiredness that came with the effort of trying to read the future.

With Ranma being a little slow on the uptake, Rei gave him a nudge with
her elbow. Shaking himself out of his stunned state, Ranma moved away
slightly and brought on his power. With his reawakening two days ago,
he had full control over his powers, allowing him to become Saturn
Knight or Sailor Saturn at will. With neither fuss nor fanfare, his
ordinary clothes vanished, swirling softly into the mask, formal suit
and cape that was the trademark of the Knights of the Moon Kingdom.

Hushed awe came from all around. Suddenly, everything was clear to the
Inners. They were not just here to meet Sailor Saturn, they were here
to meet the whole family. Now that they had seen it, Ranma's revelation
made sense. It was obvious that all of the royalty from Saturn would be
reincarnated into the same family, making Ranma and Hotaru, brother and
sister. It also meant that...

Ranma smile matched Rei's as they watched understanding wash over
everyone's faces. Everyone was just as easy to read as their memories
slowly brought another fact to the fore, bursting the bubble of their
joy. Saturn Knight was royalty by marriage. The man in the cape
standing next to Rei was the destined husband of his own sister, the
little girl they knew as Hotaru.

Just as quick on the uptake as everyone else, Chibi-Usa was the first
to speak, and she voiced the thought that they all shared. "Ewww.
That's icky! She's his sister!"

Rei could not hold in her mirth any longer, and before she knew what
had happened, Ranma had caught her in his strong arms as her body-
shaking laughter stole her balance. When Ranma placed her on a small
seat, she placed a hand on his arm in thanks, but even then she could
not laughing. With tears of joy streaming from her eyes, it took two
tries to get the words out, but the effort was worth it.

"But then again..."

With a fond look down at Rei, Saturn Knight grasped the Silence Glaive
firmly in his hand. With a sly wink and a nod of his head, Ranma again
activated his magic. Rather than the pomp and flash of a normal Senshi
transformation, Ranma was better versed in the ways of magic. His
transformation was purely physical, since his other normal forms -
male, female or Saturn Knight - still had access to the full Senshi
magic.

Before their eyes, the assembled Inner Senshi were treated to the sight
only one person had ever seen before. Weight and years slipped from
Ranma like water from an ice statue in the hot sun. His black clothes
shrunk across most of the body, changing to a white bodysuit and dark
skirt that left no question as to the sex of the wearer.

Looking like a recruiting poster for a legion of magical girls, Sailor
Saturn stood there grinning from ear to ear. Her enjoyment of the
stunned looking girls ended quite suddenly when she felt Chibi-Usa's
little fist beat into her side.

"Hotaru!" She burst out, sounding betrayed. "How could you do that to
me? I thought you were my best friend. I thought your liked me. How
could you lie to me all that time? How could you pretend to be Hotaru,
pretend to be my best friend in the whole world when it was all a lie?
How could you say you were Hotaru when you were really Ranma? It's...
It's not fair!"

Releasing the Silence Glaive to go back into storage, Sailor Saturn
turned and gathered the reluctant Chibi-Usa into a hug. Although her
friend was obviously not keen on letting Saturn hold onto her, she was
not able to escape, as the Senshi held her firmly but gently. Leaning
her head on her little friend's shoulder, Hotaru spoke in a voice
choked with emotion.

"It wasn't pretend, Chibi-Usa. None of it ever was. Sometimes...
Sometimes I might have thought I was pretending to be a girl, but I
wasn't. I know that now. I... I've always been Sailor Saturn, just like
Rei was always Sailor Mars, even before she realised it. Ever since I
was born, all those years ago, I've always been Sailor Saturn, just
like I was Saturn Knight."

"It's not that, not much," the pink haired girl countered. "I... I can
understand that, but... But why did you have to pretend to be my
friend?"

"I never had to pretend that, Chibi-Usa. Not once, not even for a
single second. When I first got to Tokyo, I didn't have any friends.
When I started being Tomoe Hotaru, you were the first person to be nice
to me that whole time. I like you Chib-Usa. You're my friend, my very,
very special friend. Never, ever forget that."

"But... But I'm just a little girl. Rei-san told us that you were four-
hundred years old. You must be so smart, and know so much. I'm just a
little girl, how can you say your friends with someone like me? Your so
much better than I am, you know so much more."

Standing back, Hotaru placed her hands on her friend's shoulders and
looked into Chibi-Usa's hurt and confused eyes and tried to make her
understand. "Just because I'm older than you are, doesn't mean I can't
be your friend. I like you for who you are. Not for what you know, or
anything else. You're a really, really nice person, Chibi-Usa. I like
you a lot. I never wanted to hurt you or pretend to be something I
wasn't, but... But back then I wanted to be cured, I just wanted to be
normal Ranma, to have normal friends like you and Rei and everyone
else. That's why I never told you the truth about myself. I... I was
afraid of what you would think. I was afraid you wouldn't like me
anymore if you found out I was really four hundred years old and turned
into a boy.
"I... I'm sorry, Chibi-Usa."

Blinking her big, pink eyes several times, Chibi-Usa fought to come to
grips with what she had just learned. When she saw him transform, she
had been certain that Ranma was just pretending to be the nice little
girl that Chibi-Usa had called Hotaru, her friend. Making a decision,
Chibi-Usa lunged forwards and caught the slightly taller girl in an
embrace.

"You're still my friend?"

"Always. I'll always be your friend, Chibi-Usa. Always. And I'll never
hide anything from you again."

After a time, Sailor Saturn looked up and noticed all of the other
girls standing around. Although they had not been as close as Chibi-Usa
and Hotaru or Ranma and Rei, they were all friends to some degree or
another. Although accomplished at hiding secrets from the world
themselves, it came as a shock when you realised that someone you knew
and liked had been hiding something as big as this.

Listening to Sailor Saturn's, Ranma's, explanation to Chibi-Usa, the
girls began to understand that what she said, she not only meant for
Chibi-Usa, she meant for all of them. It must have been hard for
someone like Ranma, trying to adapt to life in Tokyo after so long
away. Just being able to meet people and speak with them as friends
must have been worth almost any sacrifice. If that meant hiding who you
were, and sometimes lying to them a little... Was it really any
different than when they told someone that they did not know who the
Sailor Senshi were?

Usagi was the first to move as she stepped forward from the ring of
girls. Putting her arms around Sailor Saturn and her daughter, she
tried to make them feel the same understanding that she felt, feel the
same love and hope that she did. "Welcome home, Hotaru. Welcome to the
team."

As though a signal, Usagi's words spurred everyone else into action. In
no time, all the girls were cheering crying and joining in the general
feeling of happiness and reunion. Taking their time, Saturn hugged,
cried and laughed with each of the girls, sharing in their good wishes,
and their acceptance into their special team of people.

Makoto was the last in line, but it was an attempt to ensure she would
have the longest, rather than any reluctance. Having just released the
bubbly, enthusiastic Minako, Hotaru turned to find Makoto kneeling next
to her, sweeping her into an embrace as tight and desperate as the one
she had shared with Chibi-Usa.

Feeling tears on her shoulders, Hotaru knew that there was nothing she
could say to ease things with Makoto. In the same way that Chibi-Usa
had been Hotaru's special friend, Makoto had claimed a special place in
Ranma's heart. Not the same place that Rei and Sailor Mars held, but
the place of a friend, a companion, someone you could trust and rely
on.

"I... I'm sorry, Mako-chan."

"Don't... Don't say you're sorry. We both know that it couldn't have
worked out. But... But it was nice to pretend, even... even if I sort
of knew from the beginning that I couldn't have ever gotten Ranma.
Would... Would you be able to change back? To become him again?"

Concentrating, Hotaru triggered the magic in herself, growing greatly
to become a martial artist they all recognised. Water still triggered
his "curse", but with effort, he could start it himself, changing sexes
if he needed to. It was not easy, but it was a lot more convenient that
needing a glass of hot water. Especially if you happen to be holding
onto someone at the same time. Still holding onto Makoto as he changed,
Ranma drew her to her feet, so that her head rested on his firm chest,
and her arms now encircled his well muscled form.

"It feels... It feels so nice to hold you like this, Ranma. Just like I
always imagined it would."

"Hey... Mako-chan. It's OK, you don't have to be sad."

She murmured her assent, but Ranma could tell that her heart was not in
it. "It's true, Mako-chan. You've got a long, long time. I'm sure
you're going to find the right guy, it's just time. And that's
something you have plenty of. We all do. I had to wait three hundred
and fifty years to find Rei-chan, but I'm sure you can do it much
faster, especially with the rest of us helping."

Blinking tears out of her eyes, Makoto look at the man she had been
pursuing so adamantly and wondered if he was right. Was she chasing him
because of who he was, or because of who she wanted him to be? Maybe
she had been deceiving herself, thinking that Ranma returned her love.
Maybe even that had been an illusion to, she thought as she realised
just how little it had hurt when she realised she had lost him. Unlike
Rei, Makoto had gone on with her life, hunting other boys. Ranma had
been... a dream, nothing more really. An awfully nice dream, she
realised, but just a dream. The right man for her was still out there,
still waiting to be found.

"If you could finish pawing my boyfriend," an acidic voice came from
beside her. "Then perhaps we could go inside and start setting up some
of this food."

Blushing all the way to the roots of her hair, Makoto jumped away from
Ranma, realising that Rei was right. In her entranced, thoughtful
state, she had accidentally let her hands wander, and well, Ranma
looked to be as embarrassed as she was. Not to mention that the other
Senshi all were doing their best to look in another direction. Of
course, Ranma did have a very nice butt.

"Sorry, Rei-chan."

"That's OK, Mako-chan." The fire Senshi and mistress of the shrine
replied as she slipped an arm around said boyfriend. "I've know I can
trust you, and I'm beginning to understand that I can trust this idiot
too."

Ranma beamed at them, running an hand under the silken black hair that
cascaded down Rei's back to run a tickling finger across her spine.
"And who were you calling an idiot, tomboy?"

"Oh? A tomboy, am I?" Rei queried and she retaliated, seeking to tickle
his vulnerable ribs.

"Um?... Guys?... The food?" This time it was Rei and Ranma's turn to
look embarrassed. Nodding, they separated, and picked up some of the
bundles of food that the arriving girls had brought, helping to bring
it into the house. Rei had prepared things there for an evening of
talking and eating, but the others had gone a long way to providing the
snacks that they would need to keep a crowd of hungry teenagers fed,
especially when that group contained a pair of motor-mouths like Ranma
and Usagi.

Once they had the food safely in the kitchen, sure that the
refrigerated food would not melt or run, Ami broached the question that
must have been on so many of their minds. "Ranma-san... If you don't
mind... What was it like? When you grew up? What have you really been
doing all this time?"

Picking up a piece of celery and crunching on it, Ranma wondered where
to start. It did not take long for him to decided the best place, and
he smiled as he had his first chance to relate this to a group of
friends in many, many years.

"When I was little, my father took me on a great training journey, to
make me the greatest practitioner of Anything Goes Martial Arts in the
world. You have to remember, this was a long time ago, and people took
this sort of fighting much more seriously then. We did not really have
guns in Japan then, it was fists and blades that made up armies.
"Anything Goes was the greatest form of martial arts in Japan in that
era. My father was one of the two great masters at that stage, and he
and his friend used to train people for the Shogun, creating the
soldiers that would defend his life and protect the people of our great
nation.
"One day, before I was even born, Pop and his friend got this idea into
their head about assuring the continuance of the School, of making the
next generation even better than this one. Well, I was about sixteen
when I first met Tendo Akane and---"

It was not a story that could be told quickly, nor could it be told
simply. By the time two hours had passed Ranma was still talking about
the time that he and Akane had been called to Kyoto to personally face
the challenge offered by the then-High Warlord of the Shogun. Although
quiet compared to his current life, the days of his youth with Akane
would not be considered quiet by any normal standards. The Senshi's
lives were hardly normal, but by comparison to what they were learning
about Ranma, they seemed staid and dull.

As it was approaching full dark outside the shrine, a quiet but firm
knock could be heard. Excusing herself from the party, Rei went to
open the door, only to return shortly with a pair of tall, smiling
women. Gracing the Inners with their presence, Haruka and Michiru waved
hello and laid out another couple of plates of food.

Amidst a chorus of greetings and well wishing, Haruka claimed a couple
of spaces on some cushions, and Michiru loaded up a plate with some
finger food for them to share. Since Ranma was still in his male form,
everyone watched with some nervousness as the girls said hello to him.
As far as most of them knew, the last time that Ranma and the Outers
had met had been when he had been Saturn Knight, their mortal enemy.
After all, it was easy to forget that in a different shape, Ranma had
really been their adopted daughter for the last few months.

Noticing the tension in the room, Michiru smiled and placed a hand on
Ranma's arm. "It's all right, everyone. Ranma and us... We've worked
things out."

Aside from Rei - who was aware that Ranma was living with the Outers
and generally feeling well disposed to them - Ami was the first to
understand. Placing a hand over her mouth, Ami let out a delicate
little laugh. "Oh! That's right! Ranma is Hotaru-chan and... Oh my,
Ranma. Whatever was it like for you? Can you remember what it was like
when you were a little girl?"

Smiling around one of the dumplings Michiru had brought, Ranma nodded
solemnly, or as solemnly as possible while stuffing your face. "Gulp!
Actually, Ami-chan. That's sort of the main reason we're all here
today. It, sort of got pretty messy for a while."

"What happened? Usagi told us that Sailor Saturn was back and
threatened to hurt Michiru-san and Haruka-san. I was so surprised, I
dropped the book I was reading. Hotaru-chan always loved her parents so
much."

Looking embarrassed, Ranma faced away from the studious girl. "I... I'd
rather not talk about it. It wasn't exactly one of my best moments, and
well..."

Ranma trailed off, and for a while the silence stretched. Everyone was
wondering about a graceful way of ending the difficult moment when
Usagi managed to stick her foot in it, and end the problem completely.
"And what about Setsuna-san? I thought she'd be here if anyone was. You
didn't do anything to her, did you?"

"Yeah," the other Senshi with long blonde hair added. "You were pretty
mad at her last time I saw you. Usagi-chan couldn't stop talking about
that thing you did with the Glaive at the top of Mugen Academy's tower
for weeks afterwards."

"Well... I sort of went for a look for her and then we---"

"---We talked about it. Didn't we, Ranma?" A frosty voice from the
doorway interrupted him and completed his sentence."

"Umm... Yeah... Talked about it..." Ranma looked confused for a moment,
then gave the dark haired Senshi standing in the doorway a cheeky
smile. "Same way I talked to---"

"---Yes. Well. I came. I was at the party. Now, if you will excuse me,
I will be going home. Goodnight." With a short, sharp nod, Setsuna
turned on her heel and walked out the door. The entire time she had
been there, her face had shown no emotion, but the mask she wore was a
different one from the expressionless mask she usually effected.
Tonight it was a hard, rigid shield, holding back some obviously fierce
emotion.

"Wow. I've never seen Setsuna act like that before." Makoto began.
"What did you say to her."

Ranma shrugged nonchalantly and reached for sweet bun sitting near his
queen. "Not much..." Chomp!... "You didn't want that, did you, Usagi-
chan?"

* * *

It had happened yesterday. An epiphany, a feeling of complete
understanding.

Ranma had awoken that day, resolving that it was a day to be spent
ironing things out with her new housemate. Lying there in bed - as a
girl since Ranma was more used to sleeping that way - Ranma had
reflected on Rei's advice to him as he said goodbye to her at the foot
of her shrine. "Talk to them." She had said. "Listen to them."

Since they had been up until almost three AM last night, it was late
when Ranma got out of bed, almost seven thirty. Most people might not
regard that as very late, but Ranma was used to waking around four in
the morning for a jog and a workout. This morning felt odd without the
workout, but the time spent with Michiru and Haruka last night had been
worth it. She was not sure just how she felt about them yet, but she
knew she was more certain than she had been just hours before. She also
realised that there was so much they had all misunderstood for so long.

Sitting on the end of her bed, Ranma tried to think of all the things
she needed to get done that day. There was Michiru and Haruka of
course, and they would be first, by dint of the fact that would share
her breakfast with them. Then there was Setsuna, the so-called Guardian
Of Time. The name itself was enough to make Ranma give a most ungirlish
snort of derision. Guardian Of Time, her cute little butt! Anyone
having access to the Gates Of Time was asking for trouble, and trouble
was something that Ranma could do without for a while.

What could she do about it, though? She was here, potent and dangerous
to be sure, but there was no way that she could get in contact with
Setsuna unless the elusive Senshi wished it. She needed to find Setsuna
and stop her. The Gates Of Time were not supposed to be in the
possession of any one person. No matter what Queen Serenity might say
on the subject.

Just thinking about the problem like that seemed to bring its own
solution. A solution so full blown and perfect, Ranma knew that it
could not have been her own. An instant after considering the
possibility of how to stop someone with access to the Gates Of Time and
how to close down that access, Ranma had the answer. That sort of ease
spoke of interference, and the sorts of spells Ranma suddenly knew
spoke of Lina Inverse.

Ranma might have deeply respected his ancient teacher of magic, but he
could not help groaning slightly at what Lina had done. He could
understand why Lina would go to such measures to ensure that no-one
knew how to get to the Gates, but it was frustrating to realise that
she had embedded such important information in his subconscious without
even giving him a hint.

What Lina had done was provide him everything he needed. Without doubt,
Ranma now understood exactly what he needed to do. With no more effort
than changing into his Senshi form, Ranma would be capable of
transiting to the Gates Of Time. By that simple spell - and with really
was incredibly easy once you knew it - Ranma could follow Setsuna
wherever she might flee. In essence, because Ranma had been
concentrating on how to find a threat to the human race that had fled
to the Gates, she had opened the door on a whole new swath of memories
and magic.

Apparently, some time when she had been training with Lina all those
many decades ago, the Sorceress had taught him everything she knew
about time travel and the Gates. Then, she had sealed it all. Perhaps
that was another reason that Lina had not taught him a large quantity
of White magic, since it would not have taken a great healing spell to
break the seal Lina had put on the knowledge. On the other hand,
without the proper thought trigger or external influence, Ranma would
never have known she had access to the Gates Of Time.

Temptation. That was what it all came down to. Temptation. After all
this time of seeing her own faults, Ranma was quite capable of
admitting she was not perfect. True, she was better than everyone else,
and probably closer to perfect than anyone else she knew, but she was
still subject to temptation. Lina had known that Ranma might have been
effectively immortal, and that over the centuries, the desire to use
the Gates would have become greater each and every day. As the burden
of living in isolation grew, so would the desire to go back and change
the one thing that had tarnished so much of her life. Jusenkyo.

Giving into that enticement would have been enough to cause an
irrevocable, and possibly unrecoverable, paradox. The world would have
been shattered on the anvil of causality, and it would have been her
fault for teaching him about the Gates Of Time.

All that had changed when Ranma had been thinking about a villainous
fugitive that had fled to the Gates as sanctuary. This was a threat
that was greater than Ranma's temptation. A threat more dire and needy
that the risk he presented. True, he might still go mad in time, but
Lina had included a treat to help him with that too.

Now that she knew she could find Setsuna - or Sailor Pluto as she
probably would rather be called - it was time for something more
pressing: breakfast. Not having eaten since early yesterday on the way
to Rei's, Ranma's stomach was growling like a panda awaking from
hibernation, and Ranma had first hand experience with how that sounded.

Making up a tray of miso, rice, fish, bread, coffee, tea, rolls and
some other assortments that she had found in the fridge, Ranma laid out
the table. She could have done it quietly enough to ensure she would be
able to eat undisturbed, but she wanted company. Too many things had
remained unsaid last night, and she wanted to say them now, to be able
to think about them as she went off to face this challenge today. More
importantly, if anything today was going to cause her to work out some
frustrations on Sailor Pluto, Ranma knew that it would be her next
meeting with the women posing as her parents.

She was right in many ways. When Haruka and Michiru first came down,
they instinctively treated Hotaru as the same girl she had been two
days ago. That ended quite quickly when Ranma stated point blank that
she would not tolerate it, but things got progressively better after
that. She might not have chosen them as her friends initially, but
Ranma was forced to admit that when you were not trying to rip each
other throats out, the girls could be quite decent company.

Around eleven, Ranma packed up the breakfast dishes and accepted
Michiru's offer to clean them. When she told the tall, blonde, boyish
Senshi that she was going for a walk, Haruka had quickly offered to
join her, but Ranma had demurred. She did not intend to tell anyone
that she had access to the Gates, so visiting Setsuna would have to be
a private venture.

Out of the house, down the road, over the hill and in the park, Ranma
hid behind a tree. She knew no-one had followed her. Not only did she
have great evasion skills, but she had inherited an enormous level of
trust from her time as a girl in the Outers' care. Michiru and Haruka
had said they would let her do what she wanted undisturbed, and she
believed them. Intellectually, her older memories made her rile against
the blind trust buried in her heart, but she understood that it was
real, and they deserved it.

The reason Hotaru - what was a name other than a convenient way to
label the body - hid behind the tree was privacy from others who might
stumble through her section of the park by accident. Changing to Sailor
Saturn was not the concern it was for her that it was for the other
girls, but even then she took care with her secret.

In a short, unimpressive sequence, a small dark haired girl in a dark
skirt and deep green blouse became the Senshi of Creation and
Destruction, Sailor Saturn. In less time than it took to say "Oh my
goodness, Sailor Saturn is going to beat up Sailor Pluto", the small
Senshi vanished, moving into the time stream as only a select few
could.

Thick white fog surrounded Sailor Saturn in every direction she looked.
The indefinable otherwhere that was home to the Gates Of Time. The
ultimate magical object to have ever been created by the human race. A
device so powerful, it even rivalled the invidious Mazoku. Speaking of
which, it should be around here somewhere.

Turning and walking felt funny in the semi-lit internal luminescence of
the fog. There was no sun here, so there was also no sunlight. Nor was
there any lamps, torches or electric light. Here, light just _was_. In
the same way that the fog _was_. It existed in this place where nothing
else did, and that existence provided its own substance of reality.

There was no set direction to move, just forward, toward the Gates.
That was the only way you could move here, even if you did not know
where the Gates Of Time actually were. Towards or away. Pick a
direction, any direction, and that could be towards them, since they
were the only thing here. If that basic concept was confusing and gave
you headaches, you had no business messing with something as delicate
as time travel.

"You!"

Sailor Pluto's hate filled shout brought Saturn's head around to face
her. There she was, tall, elegant, and very, very angry. Striding
through the fog, she advanced to meet Saturn as the smallest Senshi
finally drew close enough to the Gates themselves. How you can draw
closer to something that was more a concept than a physical item was up
for debate, but Saturn knew she was almost at the Gates. At this
distance, she could feel their power, seductive and alluring, just as
Lina had described it.

"It's me. And I'm here to shut you down."

Planting her feet wide, Pluto held the Key to the Gates Of Time like a
staff. Light rolled off the massive garnet set into the top of it, and
Saturn could almost feel the hatred emanate from the otherwise composed
woman. "I've guarded these Gates for thousands of years, and only three
times have I failed. I shall not fall to someone like you."

Planting the Silence Glaive into the ground beside her, Saturn sized up
the bigger woman. Was there any chance of talking her into submission?
This was Pluto's ground much more than it was Saturn's, and she did not
really want to fight if she did not need to. "Three times? I though
Queen Serenity said it was only twice."

Briefly, pain and shame twisted their way across the Time Senshi's
features, but resolution and anger finally crowded them out. "Three.
Chibi-Usa was an accident, and she hasn't done anything wrong. The Dark
Moon Family was a mistake, but we managed to stop them before anything
serious happened."

"That's two. What was the third?"

"You would not remember the Mil-Cothans and their beautiful floating
cities. Long before the rise of the modern nations, I watched from
here. The Mil-Cothans... discovered the Gates. I could not stop them
when the sent an army in here, and look what happened. They managed to
keep me from my duty as Guardian Of The Gates Of Time for less than a
month, and now they are no more. Not even a memory of them remains in
any mind but my own. Erased from the universe by their own greed and
foolishness.
"The time paradox they created wiped themselves and their entire
existence from history. Nothing remained, nothing at all. No people, no
cities, none of their great literary works. Even the name of their
people is only known by myself. Everything else... never existed.
"I will not allow you to do the same!"

With a determined yell, Sailor Pluto ran forwards and swung the Time
Staff in a great wide sweep. Rather than dodging, Sailor Saturn tried
to catch the weapon, seeking to disarm her opponent and end the battle
quickly. What did not expect was the strength of the blow. Rather than
being parried and diverted from its course, the key shaped Staff
continued inexorably through its arc, catching Saturn in the stomach,
and hefting her backwards.

Gasping in pain, Saturn made herself roll to the side. Gods! That thing
was heavy, but Pluto wielded it so easily! The blow she had taken felt
worse than anything Ryoga had ever landed, and if it was not for the
additional magical armour provided by her Senshi form, Saturn was sure
that each and every one of her ribs would have been broken. As it was,
she could barely stand in time as Pluto brought the Key in for an
overhead swing, designed to catch the girl as she tried to get up.

"I shall not lose this time! Ahh!"

Pluto yelled in anger as she again swung at her adversary. Rather than
try to parry this time, Saturn tried to take advantage of the thought
that the Staff must be truly massive to afford such a wallop.
Unfortunately, Pluto managed to reverse direction with unbelievable
ease and caught Saturn on the temple with a light tap just as the girl
was beginning her Amaguriken attack.

While Saturn's speed punching was sufficient to knock the tall woman
back several steps with even just a few blows, the feather light tap of
the Staff was almost enough to lift off Saturn's skull. Neck
complaining miserably, Saturn felt the side of her head from where she
lay on the ground, several metres away at the end of her flight. She
was amazed to discover that the only thing that seemed to have kept her
brains from leaking out all over the end of the Staff was her now
heavily dented tiara.

"Wh- What the heck is that thing?"

Smirking, Pluto advanced again, warily, but with confidence. "This is
the Key. The Key to the Gates Of Time. In this whole place, there are
only two things that are really, honestly _here_. This Key, and the
Gates themselves. While I hold the Key, you cannot take it from my
hands, nor can you stop it."

When she got close enough, Pluto began striking at Saturn again, but
the smaller girl back-pedalled furiously, dodging the potentially
lethal strikes. "It is nothing dangerous, but it is anchored to reality
in ways you cannot begin to comprehend. In normal time, it is nothing
more than a staff, but here, it is indestructible and invincible.
Frankly, I'm surprised that you managed to survive either of those
blows. I've split plate armour with a single hit, and I'll split you
too!"

Anger was making Pluto faster, but it was also making her sloppier.
That invincible weapon made a very difficult target, and were it not
for Saturn's substantial martial skills, she would have been a stain in
the mists of time long ago. Finally, Pluto over-extended just a touch
too far. Not even her Senshi enhanced speed would allow her to bring
back that crushing weapon in time to stop Sailor Saturn's attack.

Clear purple eyes narrowed in concentration and determination, Saturn
launched herself inside Pluto's guard, catching the woman with a
staggering series of blows, to send her reeling and flailing.
Deliberately letting her adversary get a grip on herself, Saturn stayed
away for a time.

"It doesn't have to be this way, Pluto. We're on the same side. You
don't have to fight me!"

"No! Your small mind cannot begin to comprehend the powers of the
Gates. None but I may have access, for only I have withstood the
temptation they pose. I alone can guard the Gates. I alone!"

Dodging another series of increasingly frenetic attacks, Saturn
persisted. "I don't want the Gates. No-one should have them. Please, we
have to stop this!"

"Never! I will never surrender their power to you!"

Reluctant to grievously injur the woman she knew was a friend and ally
of her queen, Saturn spun under a sweeping horizontal strike that would
have left her a foot shorter if it connected. Moving with a speed that
almost blurred in the mists, Saturn was past and behind Pluto before
the woman could react. A short jump placed the young girl on Pluto's
back, and she wrapped the larger woman in a sealing embrace almost
instantly.

With Saturn's leg's around her waist and her small, unreasonably strong
arms hooked under Pluto's armpits to immobilise the Senshi's arms,
Saturn was faced with a mouth full of green hair, but was otherwise
safe. Pluto could do nothing but walk around, and in this empty
vastness, there was nothing but themselves and the Gates to use as
weapons. As desperate as they might be, neither even considered using
the Gates Of Time as a weapon in their fight. Beating Saturn against
their stone arches might have loosened her grip, but Pluto knew that
the risks of such an action were enormous.

"Let! Me! Go!" Pluto fumed through clenched teeth as she struggled
against Saturn.

"No! I'm doing this for your own good. I have to seal the Gates before
something happens, something we'll never know to regret."

"No! I cannot fail! I have withstood them for so long, I shall defend
them forever! I have seen the future! I know that I alone stand
Guardian over the Gates Of Time!"

That was enough to shake the little Senshi. She could tell be the
frantic honesty in Pluto's voice that this was the truth. Plain and
simple, Pluto had told her that she could not win, that somehow,
someday, Pluto would again stand watch over the Gates, would again have
control over their fearsome power.

The shock of that terrifying revelation was enough to distract Saturn
for a crucial moment. Although she never slackened her grip on Pluto,
she did not notice it as the woman let the Time Staff, Key to the
Gates, slip lightly through her fingers until she held it much nearer
the end. All she could manage was a slight twist of her wrist, but it
was enough. Enough to send the unstoppable Time Staff bumping into
Saturn's right thigh.

With a scream of agony, Saturn released Pluto and fell to the ground.
Her leg was bent at a horrible angle, and tears blurred her vision.
So... This was how it ended. She was going to lose to Pluto. Maybe
Pluto was really the Time Senshi. She had said that she had seen her
future, and her future was at the Gates. Pluto alone would hold the
power of time...

Time...

Pluto stood above the small girl, a manic look of glee on her face as
she raised the Time Staff...

Time...

Yet another block faded from Saturn's mind. An unfurling of secrets
best left hidden...

Time...

That fate Key began to descent, terribly, horribly fast to Saturn's
pain wracked senses...

Time...

"DARK DOME: ENCLOSE!"

From her position on the ground, surrounded by slowly curling mists,
Sailor Saturn looked up at the featureless black sphere in front of
her. Previously known only to one other person alive, the Dark Dome
Enclose was Sailor Pluto's most potent weapon. With the power of her
time-based magic, Pluto was capable of sheering off a section of the
universe from the flow of time. Now she was not alone in that
knowledge, as one other possessed it, and she too was a Senshi with the
magic to cast it.

From Pluto's personal perspective, no time would have passed from when
Saturn began to speak the words, to when the spell was released. To
Saturn, she was alone again, accompanied only by a perfect sphere
holding the temporally enclosed Sailor Pluto. Lina had done it again.
Just when Saturn believed that there was no recourse, that there was no
hope, Lina's heritage revealed yet another hidden layer.

Knowledge of the Gates was protected by secrecy. Knowledge of how to
reach them was stolen from the world, hidden in Ranma's subconscious
until earlier that day when she released it. More dangerous than the
Gates themselves - for as with all Gates, they could be shut - were the
magical spells that took their power from the Gates. Spells such as the
Dark Dome Enclose whose very power strained the boarders of reality
whenever it was cast.

It was a terrible burden. Now Saturn understood what Lina had done and
why. With the power at her fingertips, she could rule the world. She
could do anything, be anywhere, and be undefeatable. By the nature of
their magic, these time spells took no time to cast. The mere stating
of the words were retroactive, as was the building of the magic. It
took a finite time to cast a Time Stop or Dark Dome, but they took
effect instantly, a quirk of the fact that a successful spell must have
been cast, and therefore it was impossible to interfere with the spell
as it was being cast.

Time travel hurt the head.

Temptation hurt too. When Lina had sealed these spells inside her, she
obviously knew what she was doing. No-one should be able to resist
their temptation for as long as a Senshi might live. The chances to use
such spells as these were too numerous to count. No accident need
happen ever again, since Ranma now possessed the capability of
preventing any misfortune from ever coming to pass.

With a shaking hand, Saturn looked at the surface of the sphere that
held Sailor Pluto captive. "How? How did you do it? All those years?
All those centuries? How did you stay sane? How did you stop from doing
what you could have done?"

With grim certainty, Saturn knew that she could never achieve the same.
She was mortal, she was human. Better than most, she was no stranger to
desire and being able to resist it, but she could feel a gnawing dread
that she would not be able to resist a fraction as long as Sailor Pluto
had done. What sort of person could stand by and watch someone fight
and be hurt when you knew you could bring instant victory against any
foe?

Sailor Pluto was who, but what sort of person was she? Saturn's respect
for the ancient Senshi had risen immeasurably in just the few moments
that she had access to the same magic as Pluto, but she could not
understand the woman. How? How could she have guarded these infernal,
tempting Gates all those millennia and not given in to temptation?

A slight shift of position made Saturn again realise that it was not
only her head that was hurting, it was her leg also. Looking down at
her leg, Saturn gritted her teeth and pulled, setting the bone to
straight. In the white, eerie silence that surrounded the Gates Of
Time, a scream echoed, travelling infinite distances to nowhere.

Given time, her leg would heal, and be none the worse for ware.
Healing, revitalising Ki was already coursing though the damaged flesh
and broken bone, helping to knit and mend, even as Senshi magic was
healing in its own way. Full health was only days away.

With a start, Saturn wrenched her eyes away from the Gates. Some sort
of insidious calling was enticing her to use the Gates, to go backwards
just those few vital minutes and stop Pluto hurting her, or even going
forward, accelerating time on her leg so that it would heal in minutes,
not days. She would be strong! She would resist!

Flicking a glance at the sphere, Saturn cursed and began to pull
herself to the Gates. She would not be strong and resist, guarding the
Gates for all time; she would do what she came here for in the first
place and end their menace. When she had left the normalcy of reality,
she had been set on sealing the Gates, preventing Pluto from ever
accessing that power. Within instants of her gaining the full power
associated with them, those thoughts had fled, leaving her thinking of
how she could try to stay sane while guarding them herself.

Realistically, there was no need, and Sailor Saturn knew that was the
one option that was truly open to her. She needed time to rest to heal
her leg, and that could best be gained waiting here, outside the normal
reality. If the desire to take advantage of the Gates was this strong
minutes after becoming their master, how would she fare days later when
her leg was healed?

Now close to the Gates, Sailor Saturn bowed her head and reached out a
white-gloved hand. Pressing slightly, she radiated magic and felt the
slight resistance that Lina's memory told her was the interface between
then and now. That infinitesimal barrier between past, present, future
and the never that the Gates resided in.

Opening her eyes, Sailor Saturn looked at the infinite capacity for
good, evil and power and began to chant.

"Gate of Time,
"Anchor to all eras and doorway to all days:
"Bestow the powers of the Gate unto my key.
"Grant unto me your powers!"

The very air began to throb and hum, and Saturn felt a massive power
begin to roll over her from within the Gate. This was not an
uncontrolled power, but instead the exact opposite. This was the
creation of the very controls that held the Gates Of Time in check,
that sealed the time stream from the fissure they represented. For now,
Sailor Saturn was forging a new Key, a new access to the Gates Of Time.

With a start, Saturn almost broke the spell as she felt the massive
magic beginning to affect something she never imagined possible. The
Silence Glaive, her weapon, supposedly immune to all magic, was
altering, changing, and growing into new powers. At the base of the
staff, the plain metal tip receded, and a ball of pure, flawless
Flourite appeared. A forth Talisman brought into creation by the power
of the Gates Of Time.

In front of her, Saturn's modified Silence Glaive hovered waiting for
her. As much as it pained her, Sailor Saturn brought herself to a
standing position, balancing on her one good leg. With a hand made pale
through fear of what she was doing - and to some degree shock from her
wound - Saturn took the Glaive. Within her hands, she could feel its
new power, no longer as benign and innocent as her beloved Glaive used
to be, she would never be able to forget the power she now wielded.

Taking the business end of the Silence Glaive, now a second Key to the
Gates Of Time, Saturn inserted the business end into the Gates and
again chanted.

"Key!
"Become the chain of caution!
"Under my power as a Guardian Of Time,
"Let only two unbind what one has made safe...
"SEAL!"

With a slight flash, the Gates Of Time sealed. So momentous a concept,
so lightly expressed. In truth, the sealing was unspectacular. The
Gates Of Time were a tool, designed for effect, not display, and like
all good tools, they were designed to be safe. With the use of either
of the Keys that now existed, she or Sailor Pluto could seal the Gates
in an instant. However, only with their agreed cooperation could they
together overcome the seal, freeing the Gates for use once more.

Waiting the days necessary for her leg to heal was difficult and
boring. While it was made easier by the fact that she was outside of
time and therefore would arrive back at the same instant she left if
she desired, that did nothing to make it any less boring. All Saturn
had for company was a closed Gate, looking for all the world like a
heavy wood and iron gate of ordinary manufacture. That Gate and the
black ball that held Pluto cut off from the flow of time.

Once her leg was healed and she was sure that she would be able to
survive freeing the no-doubt enraged Senshi, Saturn readied herself.
With her modified Silence Glaive, she had a weapon the equal or
superior of Pluto, and with her martial skills, victory was assured.
That was no reason to take chances, so Sailor Saturn was standing,
braced and ready for action when she finally cancelled the spell.

Following the action she had commenced before she was imprisoned in the
spell, Pluto's staff crashed into the ground. Rather than rising again
to fight on, Pluto sunk to her knees and gasped. Cautiously, Saturn
watched her until she was sure the woman was not going to rise. Taking
a step closer, she realised that the mighty, invincible Sailor Pluto
was crying.

"What?... Are you all right?..."

"Don't touch me! Just stay away! You don't understand what you've
done!"

"I do! I've sealed the Gates Of Time! From now on, only together can we
open them!"

There was a flash of hopeless anger in Pluto's eyes, but all too soon,
that faded into grief again. "You've doomed us all. Only I can guard
the Gates... Only I..."

Taking another step closer, Saturn started to reach out for the woman
shoulder when Pluto spoke harshly. "Just go. Leave me alone. Just...
Pray you realise what it is you have done before it is too late... Only
I..."

For a moment, Sailor Saturn debated staying. She did not want to
abandon the Senshi. Especially now that she realised what an incredible
job she had actually done guarding the Gates through the oppressive,
mind warping centuries. But Pluto did not want company, and she could
not make any trouble with the Gates if Saturn was absent.

Content that the danger was contained, and somehow wishing she could
have done more for her recently vanquished foe, Sailor Saturn nodded
once, and disappeared.

When she arrived back in normal time, she was again in the park. Soon
she was a normal girl on a normal day. Others may notice the change in
the appearance in the Silence Glaive, but no-one would ever know its
cause unless Sailor Pluto or Sailor Saturn revealed its secret.

Both Sailors were old experts at keeping secrets.

* * *

One thing Ranma had never appreciated before was the difference between
being rich, and knowing what to do with a lot of money. Ever since he
had lived with the Amazons, he had been rich. Rich in a purely monetary
sense, of course, since he had always been rich in spirit no matter
where he lived, thanks to his life with Akane. Now that he had some
more friends, he began to appreciate what could be done with money.

Money, he found, did not have to be spent ostentatiously. Being rich
was not necessarily about chandeliers in every room and a dozen
servants. Being rich and having style, that was what made the money
worthwhile. Somewhat to his surprise, Ranma had found that style was
something that Michiru and Haruka had in spades.

Ranma would have been perfectly happy sitting, camped around a fire,
nothing for a seat but the ground or a convenient log. No food but some
simple rice. Of course, now that he was here, there was nothing wrong
with have Rei over for dinner in much nicer surroundings. The Outer's
House, as everyone seemed to be calling it, was the perfect place for
entertaining, and Michiru certainly knew a lot more about dinner
parties than he did.

Dinner, cooked by Michiru and Ranma, had been served at a large,
expensive wooden table. Soft candles had lit the meal, glittering off
the inlaid gilding of their chopsticks. The cushions were soft, the
music was softer, and the company was grand. Despite the quality of the
accoutrements, the company was what really made the meal. True, Haruka
and Michiru were there, but so was Rei, and that made all the
difference from Ranma's perspective.

At the end of the meal, they retreated to the living room, to share a
pair of couches. Demonstrating yet another of his hidden talents, Ranma
brought in a large block of ice, and proceeded to turn it into fine,
shaved ice deserts. Settling back on the couch with Rei, Ranma smiled
his thanks to his housemates. He could have taken Rei out to dinner,
but somehow the home-cooked touch made it special, and the two girls
had much more experience entertaining than he did.

Looking at the Rei reclining against Ranma's side, Michiru smiled and
moved closer to her own partner. "Well, Rei, do you have any plans for
the holidays?"

"Not really," Rei confided. "I've been spending so much time studying
for exams this week, there hasn't been time to think about it."

"She's not kidding! I almost had to tie Ami-chan up just to stop her
from dragging Rei-chan to another study session tonight."

"Hey! Thursday's exam is very important!" Rei said with mock
indignation in her voice.

Seeing no-one else was going to offer any suggestions for Rei's
holiday, Ranma spoke again. "Well... What do you think of a real
holiday? We could swim to China and visit a few old friends..."

"China?!" The chorus was universal.

"China? But isn't that were that crazy girl Shampoo lives?"

"Shampoo's not crazy, Rei-chan. She was just a bit too enthusiastic.
Honestly, I'm sure she didn't know what she was doing."

Concerned that Ranma - and therefore Hotaru - might be planning on
visiting the woman that had nearly caused the end of the world, Haruka
leaned forwards. "Come on, Ranma. I don't think that's such a good
idea. After all, if she did that to you once, she might do it again."

"Haruka's right. What if she poisoned your food again, Ranma? Who would
be able to save you this time?" Michiru's soft tones were cautious but
concerned.

"Well, I... I'm sure Shampoo wouldn't do that again. After all,
Cologne-chan could have done something pretty nasty to her after what
happened. Besides, I was hoping Rei-chan would come with me. That way
we could have a nice time hiking through the forest, seeing the sights,
that sort of thing."

"Cologne? Wasn't she the old mummy that came and visited us just after
we adopted Hotaru?" Haruka queried.

"Yes, dear. Did you know her, Ranma? We thought she must have been a
friend of Shampoo's since she was from the same village. Oh! That
reminds me! We actually have a few cheques for you from her. I was not
sure why, but she insisted on sending simply huge amounts of money to
us every month. All she said was that you came from the same village,
and that made you sisters. Haruka and I were planning on putting them
into a bank account until you were old enough to go to university..."

Michiru trailed away, looking sheepish. From the wistful tone of her
voice, it was easy to recognise just how much she had longed for the
time she would spend with Hotaru, watching the child grow into a woman.
It was a dead dream now, but she could still think about it.

Even as Ranma opened his mouth, Rei beat him to the punch. "Yeah! I
remember now! Cologne was Shampoo's grandmother or something. What
makes you think we can trust her any more than we can trust Shampoo?"

That caught Ranma's attention, and he responded just a little sharply.
"I'd trust Cologne-chan more than I'd trust these two any day!...
Oops... Michiru, Haruka! I didn't really mean it that way, but it is
sort of true. It's just... Well, Cologne-chan is my oldest friend. I've
known Cologne-chan her whole life. It wasn't until she was a grown
woman that I left the Amazons and started wandering around again."

Michiru placed a hand over her mouth, eyes wide with surprise. "Ranma,
I'm sorry. Sometimes it's difficult to remember just how old you really
are. Cologne-san seemed so... old... It's hard to think of her as being
a close friend of yours."

"Well it's true."

Trying to gauge just how well her significant other could trust
Cologne, Rei kept probing. "How did you meet her? Did she think that
you were another one of the little girls in the village like Chibi-Usa
did?"

"Nope. I was her midwife."

There was silence. "You mean... You helped the midwife when she had a
baby?"

"No. I was _her_ midwife. Like I said, I've known her since the day she
was born. I'll never forget the day she opened her pretty brown eyes
and smiled up at me. She was so tiny then... Just a little bit smaller
than she is now."

All around, incredulous stares confronted Ranma. "You... You were the
midwife? But... But..."

Grabbing a handy glass of water, Ranma doused herself and drew her
small form to its full four-feet of height. "I'll have you know, Tenou
Haruka-san that I am a full Mistress Healer of the Joketsuzoku
Amazons!"

"This just gets weirder every minute, Ranma. I think you're going to
have to count me in on this trip. Coming Michiru?"

"Of course! Do you think I could let you out of my sight with a couple
of young girls like Hotaru and Rei around to tempt you?"

"Who said---"

Speaking right over Ranma, Rei began to join in the enthusiasm. Now
that she knew that the two older girls - both powerful Senshi - would
be coming with them, she was sure that there would be no danger to
Ranma. If any of those Amazons tried something sneaky like Shampoo
did... Well... Mars Fire, Earth Shaking and Deep Submerge would surely
end any arguments quickly.

* * *

Hiking up the trail, sweat poured from her brow, and again the black
haired, normally housebound priestess cursed the small girl in front of
her. Long ago - days in fact - Ranma had taken all of the girls' packs,
and was carrying them stacked on top of her own. The fact that Ranma
still led the group, just burned in the difference between her and the
others.

Rei and Michiru could not be considered couch-potatoes by any stretch,
but Ranma was setting a pace in the rugged mountains that they could
barely meet. Haruka, larger, stronger, with longer legs and plenty of
athletic experience was still hard pressed, and that bothered her more
than she cared to mention. She might have been able to take the
indignity if Ranma had been sharing the baggage load with them, but
instead, she was carrying it all by herself.

Worst of all was the fact that Ranma was travelling in his girl form.
Since they were used to the name, everyone called the small girl
Hotaru, but the name did not seem to match the image they had of the
girl. Until recently, Hotaru had seemed to be sick and weak. Now she
could cover twice the distance each day they did - she liked to run
around a lot while they walked - carry the packs, and still be the only
one with energy left at the end of the day.

When the Outers had suggested hiring a four-wheel drive from a nearby
city, Hotaru had rejected the idea out of hand. In her eyes, it was bad
enough that they had skipped swimming from Japan to China, but to avoid
all the walking? That was half the point of the journey. Hotaru had
been willing to forgo the walk from the shore to the mountains due to
the time constraints of Rei's school break, but that was the limit of
her flexibility on the subject.

Visiting Cologne and Shampoo - while the target of their journey - was
not the sole reason for it. Initially, Ranma had intended to spend the
time romantically walking through the mountains of her childhood with
Rei, but the inclusion of the Outers had surprisingly sweetened the
trip.

Rei was often tired from the walking, and not as prone to conversation
as Hotaru. This was the big advantage of having Michiru and Haruka
there. Once Rei was starting to puff heavily from walking up hill at
the same time as talking with the animated and enthusiastic girl,
Hotaru would skip back down the line to where the others walked. Four
days of hiking in the forest had given them a lot of time to talk about
themselves, and that meant more to the three than they had realised it
could.

Despite their closeness for the last three months, they had never
really talked like one adult to another. After all, during the time
that their bonds of love formed, Hotaru was an infant or a child. Now
that she was grown and an adult (mentally if not physically), their
discussions varied, and it added depth to the feelings that she already
had.

The story that had most opened Hotaru up to real friendship was when
the Outers talked about the difficult time they had dealing with
themselves during their battles against the Death Busters. During that
time, all Hotaru had seen was her own, limited and often biased
observations. Now she was hearing it from a different point view, and
some of the actions made much more sense. In many ways, the fact that
two school girls could find the moral strength to make such hard
decisions raised her respect for them more than the revelation that
they had fought so hard. If the decision to risk people's lives had not
been so hard, these would not have been the people she had grown to
care for.

The Outers - and Rei - in turn learned almost the entire story of
Ranma's life. Some of it made them laugh; some made them gasp in awe.
All too often, the tragedy in his life made them cry, and they
understood that it was only Ranma's unflagging good will and sense of
hope and forgiveness that allowed him to be as sane and reasonable as
he was today.

Secretly, Michiru and Haruka also hoped that that same sense of
forgiveness would someday extend to Setsuna. Ranma had adamantly
refused to tell them what he had done to her. Since the party at Rei's
house, they had not seen the Time Senshi for more then five minutes,
and she had not been in good humour at that time.

Cresting a last hill, Hotaru zipped up next to Rei, took her hand and
invited her to gaze down onto the Joketsuzoku village. From where they
stood, they could see the small village laid out before them like an
excessively detailed assembly of doll houses. Small figures walked
around, a stream burbled nearby, and in the distance, Hotaru could make
out the entrance to the valley of Jusenkyo. She pointed out everything
that she recognised aside from how to reach the cursed springs. Simply
being near them was danger enough. Hotaru had no intention of actually
taking her friends there or allowing them to visit by themselves.

As they made their way down the side of the mountain to the valley that
sheltered the village, Hotaru regaled her friends with stories of what
life had been like. The parties, the games, the fighting and the fun;
nothing had been quite the same as Amazon life, no matter where she had
gone. One of the other things that ensured the Joketsuzoku would hold a
special place in her heart was the way she had been treated as an equal
there. No matter where she went, especially in the more "civilised"
countries, she was treated like a child. With the Amazons, she had been
a woman, regardless of her stature or appearance.

As they approached the gates to the village, Hotaru was glad that she
had managed to convince Haruka to dress differently that morning.
Coming from Japan, the girls were well aware how men often looked down
on women; Hotaru had assured them that the sexism in an Amazon tribe
would open their eyes. Also, unless Haruka wanted to keep lifting her
shirt every two minutes to convince some young warrior that she was
really a girl, it would be well advised for her to dress in something
that... accentuated her feminine characteristics a little more.

Consequently, the group that appeared at the gates was a rather unusual
one. Haruka and Michiru were wearing similar outfits - colour coded, of
course. Each girl wore a bright, jungle patterned, one-piece swimsuits,
some tight safari shorts and big hiking boots. The ensemble would have
been uncomfortable if they had been forced to carry a pack, but since
Hotaru was taking care of that, the clothing was actually quite
comfortable in the constant heat of the day.

Rei wore a simple cotton shirt and shorts, also fighting off the heat.
Hotaru, on the other hand, wore a bold, lime green Amazon pants-suit
that she had mysteriously pulled out of her pack that morning. The thin
black slippers she wore should not have been enough to protect her feet
against the twigs and sharp rocks, but to all appearances, they worked
as well as the other's heavy boots. Equally, the delicate silk and fine
embroidery on the tight fitting green suit should have been ripped and
torn after breaking ground through the bushes for them at times, but
Hotaru looked a child fashion model as she lead them up the sentry.

Hello, Hotaru began in the Joketsuzoku's dialect, subtly different
from the surrounding languages. We are here to see the Matriarch,
Cologne.

Needless to say, the sentry was confused. Obviously a child, the girl
was carrying a set of backpacks that was easily twice her height,
almost certainly containing everything for their whole party. Just as
strange was the fact that the girl was presenting herself as the
leader, when it was clear that there were at least two adults with her.
Thinking for a moment, the woman guarding the entrance to the village
decided that she must be a guide or something... Perhaps...

Ask the women what they want here.

Why not ask me yourself? They're with me, not the other way around.

Glowering, the sentry took a step forwards. Impertinent child! Your
mother should have taught you more respect for a warrior of the
Joketsuzoku before she sent you off here.

Concerned by the angry tones and aggressive movement, Rei leaned close
to her small, currently female boyfriend. "What are you saying to her?"

Not sparing the time to answer Rei, Hotaru took a stride forward to
match the sentry and glared up at the much taller woman. You're the
one whose mother failed to teach respect! Are you too blind to
recognise my ceremonial dress? Don't you understand the significance of
this clothing?

Startled for a moment, the sentry checked Hotaru's clothes again. What
she had initially taken to be simply an interesting choice of colours
suddenly made complete sense. Rather than being in maiden's pink or
warrior's blue, this suit was in the green of a healer. Equally, the
pattern of the stitching marked it as being more than an apprentice's.
The fine, intricate gold stitching was reserved for a full Mistress,
one of the rare, talented individuals that effectively ruled the
village through their wisdom and influence.

But... But... It's impossible... How could you even know?...

Adopting an expression of benign wisdom and indifference that
unconsciously mirrored the one that Setsuna so often wore, Hotaru
smiled. There were few visitors to the village, and fewer people still
would know what the ceremonial dress looked like, let alone would be
able to make it. That is not something you need concern yourself with.
All you've got to do is take us to Cologne-chan and nothing's going to
happen.

The sentry bristled at the girl's aggressive, challenging tone, but
slowly she retreated. Something was going on here, and the sentry did
not know what it was. There were no Mistress Healers away from the
village, and certainly there could be none as young as this, but... But
she was here for Cologne, and the fact that someone dressing as a
healer chose _now_ to come to the village was too unlikely to be
coincidence.

Your pardon, Mistress. I... Forgot myself. Please, come this way and
bring your servants.

As the sentry turned and walked off, three concerned girls came up to
Hotaru and surrounded her. "What were you saying, Hotaru? What's going
on? Why are you snickering like that?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing... She just asked me to come along and bring my
servants."

"SHE WHAT?!"

The way the shout echoed throughout the village caught everyone's
attention, and Rei had the good grace to blush. Grinning feebly, Rei
waved one to all of the concerned warrior women facing them and then
turned back to Hotaru. "What did you tell them about us, Ranma? I'll
make you so sorry if you embarrassed me in front of all these people!"

"Calm down, you tomboy! When I told her I was actually a healer, she
just figured you must have been my helper or something. Don't take it
personally, I'm a good boss and all, you know."

While Rei fumed impotently, Hotaru set off at a brisk pace, making the
Senshi follow her if they did not want to get lost. The sentry led them
though the village, and Hotaru marvelled at just how little it had
changed in the years, centuries, since she had been here. Many of the
buildings were unfamiliar, having been pulled down for bigger or better
houses, or even just changed for the sake of change sometimes. It was
not until they stopped in front of one particular house that Hotaru
sucked in her breath and realised just how familiar a building could
be.

"That... That used to be my house... I made it not long after I first
came here because I didn't want to live with the other young girls."

Looking up at the simple, wooden structure, the three girls
accompanying her felt as though they had just been able to look into a
piece of Ranma's mind. Finally, they could see things that she had only
ever talked about before. Here was the house, the very same one, that
she had built. Which meant that must be the log that she had sat on
during her lessons, and off to the left would have be the competition
circle. It was like seeing the characters of a book come to life for
the first time.

Cologne... Cologne-chan still lives here? Hotaru's voice was choked
with emotion.

The _Matriarch_ has always lived here. The sentry stressed her
leader's title, offended at the casual way this stranger neglected it.

Not always... She was born over there... Three houses down that
street. I..." Memories made Hotaru's eyes tear slightly, but when the
sentry opened the door leading to the house, Hotaru made herself
follow. Having come so far, she could spend the rest of her time
reminiscing with her old friend.

After Hotaru stepped through the entrance, the sentry blocked the way.
"Only Healer. No foreigner." Her Japanese was broken, but sufficient.

Rei was tempted to argue - she was always tempted to argue with people
that crossed her - but Michiru's soft hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"Don't worry, Rei-chan. Hotaru-chan knows better than to eat anything
she gets from strangers. And we're all just outside. We'll hear it if
something happens in there."

"Humph! Eating food from _strangers_ is not what I'm worried about.
It's the people she knows that worry me."

"Michiru's right, Rei-chan." Haruka continued in a quiet voice. "I
don't think we have to be too worried about Hotaru-chan. Especially if
you look at who's coming over this way."

Looking over her shoulder where Haruka pointed, Rei's eyes narrowed in
anger, then she relaxed slightly. She might like Shampoo's company as
much as a case of sunstroke, but if she was out here, she was not in
there, working her wiles on the unreasonably kind and forgiving Ranma.

"Aiya! It Pervert Girl! What you do here?"

"Don't call me 'Pervert Girl', you bimbo! And it's no business of your
what we're doing."

"This Shampoo Great-Grandmother house. Shampoo make her business, know
if you making trouble."

"Us making trouble?!" Haruka burst out "You're the one that nearly got
everyone killed!"

"What you say? Shampoo no even met you!"

"No, you haven't, but I happen to be a very good friend of Hotaru-
chan's. When you messed with Ranma's mind, you unleashed a... a demon.
Because of your... stupid, childish actions, you almost killed everyone
I know and care about in the world!"

Looking slightly abashed , Shampoo placed a finger on her chin. "Ahh...
So that what happen to Husband. Great Grandmother no say. She say: 'He
alive, but Shampoo may no see for too too long time.'"

"And that didn't bother you? The fact that you might have hurt him?"

"But Shampoo no mean to! Shampoo sorry, Shampoo punished. What more you
want?"

"Its not the fact that you put everyone in danger. It's the way you did
it to someone you claimed to love. How can that be love, Shampoo? Love
is about sacrifice, not about wiping someone's mind so they _think_
they feel something for you."

Their shouting might have continued much longer but for the presence of
another Healer coming out of Cologne's house. This one, unlike Hotaru,
looked close to Cologne's age, and seemed to be built entirely out of
wrinkles. Even her wrinkles had wrinkles on them. Aging gracefully was
definitely not in this woman's vocabulary.

Seeing the village's current Mistress Healer, the sentry paled,
realising the noise that the girls had been making just outside the
Matriarch's hut. My apologies, Mistress Healer. I should not have
allowed them to make so much noise. I shall quiet them immediately!

Slowly, the old crone shook her head. Do not bother yourself. The
Matriarch will not be troubled by it any more.

* * *

When Hotaru entered the house she had once called home, the number of
people who were in there surprised her. To judge by the robes that most
of them wore, this could almost be a complete conclave of the village
elders.

A frightening premonition cooled the blood in her veins as Hotaru made
her way through the crowd. The crowd was too quiet, too calm for what
she remembered a conclave to be. The old women, most set in their ways
and burdened with hidden agendas, should have been constantly screaming
at each other, trying to impress with bluster where logic and reason
failed. If that was insufficient, it was also considered good politics
to challenge your opponent and try to beat her into submission. Hotaru
smirked slightly as she remembered how Amazonian politics were ill
suited to the frail or weak of heart.

Finally making her way to the middle of the throng, Hotaru was faced
with the truth of the gathering. The elders were obviously gathered to
hold a last council with one of their own. A woman that looked as
though she would not be holding that position much longer.

As the stir in the women finally broke through the inner circle,
Cologne rolled her weary head to look at the disturbance. What she saw
was enough to take her breath away, and it was only with great
difficulty that she was able to regain her equilibrium and try to wave
the girl away.

Soap... Please... I never wanted you to see me like this.

Despite the women all around, all ancient and venerated, Hotaru dropped
to her knees and took the thin and frail hand that Cologne was trying
to wave her away with. C-Cologne-chan... What... What happened to
you?

Despite the illness that was obviously sapping her strength, Cologne
managed a brief smile. I got old. Some of us do that, you know.

No! You're not old. You can't be. We... We were running around
together just a few months ago.

I wish... I wish I still could be. But... I haven't been too well
lately.

Please, Cologne-chan. Don't do this. I know you'll be all right. You
have to be.

We all have a limited time, Soap. My time is coming to an end. I
didn't want you to have to seem me like this, because that was why you
left us in the first place... But now that you're here, it means so
much to me.

Gently taking the small woman in her arms as though she was made of the
most delicate china, Hotaru held her close and brushed away a tear that
was sliding down Cologne's withered face. If... If I'd known you were
sick, I would have been here sooner, Cologne-chan. I'm sorry. I... I
waited for Rei-chan and...

But you are here now. Cologne's voice got weaker as a series of
coughs wracked her body. I... I saw you as a little baby, and I was so
worried. I am so sorry for what happened to you. Shampoo did not mean
any harm, you have to understand that. She's just too young to
understand the consequences.

Knowing the guilt of her great granddaughter's actions must hurt more
than the failing of her ancient body. It's OK, Cologne-chan. I
understand. I'm not angry, Cologne-chan. I could never be angry with
you. And I forgive Shampoo too. It was a mistake, but no-one is
perfect.

Cologne placed a hand against Hotaru's face and breathed deeply for a
few moments. I once... fought someone who was perfect... By a
stream... In a clearing... But I lost... To the one I loved.

Her own eyes filling with tears, Hotaru could not say anything. Cologne
knew she loved her, and that was enough. Hotaru could feel the old
woman weakening in her arms when a sudden surge went though her body,
and the ancient Matriarch reached out and grabbed the hand of the woman
who was going to be her successor.

Recognise her! Recognise her as my sister! With surprising strength,
she pulled the old woman closer. Recognise Soap Onna Rope! She left
the village on training, but she was always... one... of... us...

The new Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku looked over at the head of the
small, dark haired girl that held the body. She did not know of anyone
that fit the description Cologne just gave, but they would honour the
last wish of the passing Matriarch.

First one, then soon others gathered in the room left. In time, only
Hotaru remained. As she felt the afternoon begin to change into
evening, she released Cologne, her one real tie back to the days of her
youth. To Hotaru, the time between losing Akane, and joining the
Amazons seemed nothing more than a heartbeat, and Cologne was a part of
that heart. The long separation had vanished the instant they were
reunited. All that she could hope was that one day, when she passed
from this world, Cologne too would be one of the many people she would
see.

When Hotaru left the building, she encountered a group of four silent
girls waiting for her. Dimly, she could remember Shampoo coming into
the room while she grieved. Giving Michiru and Haruka a weak smile,
Hotaru found herself held firmly by Rei. The priestess knew that losing
a loved one was never easy, and from everything she knew, Cologne was
one of Hotaru's closest friends, more like a daughter or sister than
any other sort of friend.

Whispering quietly into Hotaru's ear. "I don't think Shampoo knows
about your curse."

"She wouldn't. Cologne would never have told her." Looking up, she
addressed Shampoo. "I'm sorry about what happened. But... I forgive
you. And I know Ranma forgives you too."

Shampoo smiled and got a wistful look in her eyes. They could tell that
she understood she would never see Ranma again. She did not know
whether he was dead or alive, but her chances of marrying the man now
were the same either way.

Once again Rei whispered to her. "You aren't going to tell her?"

"No. It's be easier for her like this. She still has some of her
honour. If she thought I was alive, she would be bound to chase me
forever."

Standing up, she took Rei's hand and looked at the other two she had
travelled with. "Come on. Let's go back to Japan."

"Let's go home. Together, as a family."

---
End Of Epilogue