Twelve years ago.
"Where we going, Daddy?"
Genma Saotome looked down at his son and the wide blue eyes that stared up at him in question as they walked along the dirt countryside path. The Saotome patriarch adjusted his pack and favored the boy with a stern, but tender countenance. "Master Honsho. He'll help teach you how to fall."
"Fall?" A young Ranma blinked, suddenly staring at the same path upon which they walked. He too had his own pack and occasionally struggled to maintain the pace his father had set. "But falling hurts!"
"Falling only hurts if you don't do it right," The father explained patiently as both rounded a bend on the trail and the trees around them. "Falling without getting hurt is the first lesson of Anything Goes, son."
The boy nodded, his determination renewed with the explanation. Besides, who wouldn't want to fall without getting hurt? He had fallen several times playing, and that was never any fun. His eyes returned to his father, who had taken to cleaning his glasses off upon the white of his gi. "Does Master Honsho live all the way out here?"
"No," Genma corrected, returning the lenses to his nose and wrapping their wire supports around his ears to ensure a slip-less fit. "First, we're going to visit... a friend."
The boy's mouth formed into a silent 'Oooh'. While Ranma didn't notice the slight hesitation in his father's explanation, he did notice the modest house just becoming visible beyond the bank of trees they had been winding around for the past hour. To Ranma, it was just a nice looking house nestled in the countryside. Of course, Ranma didn't have the life experience that his father carried, who knew it to be completely at odds with the environment around them. It stood out- unnaturally so -as if somebody had lifted a Meiji period residence and simply dropped it upon the parcel of land before them.
Ten minutes and an easy hike brought them across the clearing and up to the house's door. Ranma simply looked around curiously while Genma steeled himself for the meeting. Unlike his son, he had been advised of just who he would be talking to. His hands raised to rap the sliding door's frame, only to be stopped by a soft, feminine voice.
"You may enter."
Genma frowned, but complied with the advisement, sliding the door open and stepping inside. Ranma followed, his head on a swivel, as he took in the lavishly appointed interior. A light haze hung across the room and he picked out the scent of cloves as his eyes traced over statuettes and porcelain of every manner. The furniture was ordinante wood, which meant nothing to Ranma aside from the fact that it was well-padded and- His observations stopped as he came upon the central couch and found a woman lounging upon it. She had red eyes and absolutely pale skin. His father had already noticed the woman as well, noting that she looked so frail that a stiff breeze would more than likely break her. A languorous smile inhabited her face and she took another drag of the long-stemmed opium pipe, allowing it to drift from her mouth like a lazy fog.
She may have looked incredibly fragile, but that only lent to her beauty, as did the black lace, full-length dress that wrapped around her curves enticingly. The bottom lacy garment was split to the thigh, allowing a pale leg to be exposed to open air and to any that might wish to admire it. The top similarly exposed the entrancing curvature of the woman's breast, ending in spaghetti straps that hung about the shoulders. Her neck was wrapped in a lace choker and her midnight black hair bound by several antique pins that trailed red tassels from their ends. On any other day, Genma might have considered getting to know the woman better. On any other day, he was also certain that his Nodoka would have approved of such sordid debauchery. He was a manly man in her eyes, and it was only right that he expressed that measure of himself by taking mistresses so long as his heart remained hers. But such thoughts were purely academic, because today was not that day, and Genma knew it. With that thought firmly fixed in his mind, he decided to get down to business.
"Names are not important here," The woman cut him off gently, maintaining the lazy smile. She shifted along the couch, propping herself up onto a pillow. "Nor are contracts, written or otherwise. Nor is your business with me, but Hitsuzen itself."
"I'm Ranma!" The black-haired boy blurted, already excited to be in the presence of the strange lady and all her stuff. "Are you a martial artist, too?"
"Not now, son," Genma glanced down, urging his son to silence. Instead, the woman's smile increased fractionally.
"A martial artist? No," The woman shook her head, sliding off the couch and kneeling to the boy's height. Genma's face turned worrisome as the disconcerting female's attention turned upon his son. "You may call me Yūko. I grant wishes."
The ponytailed child's eyes suddenly widened and he blurted the first thing that came to mind. "I wish for-!"
A single, delicate finger found its way to his lips. "Only adults may wish here, Ranma-kun."
Yūko let a small chuckle slip from her lips, drawing back to her full height, still looking upon the boy with amusement. "But I do require a martial artist such as yourself for a task."
"What kinda task?" Ranma wondered aloud, staring up at the woman and oblivious to the slight change in his father's attitude. Genma had subtly shifted his weight, ready to intervene personally if necessary. No, the woman wasn't a martial artist, but she was dangerous in some nebulous way, that of which he was certain. Until her intentions could be further discerned...
"I have a friend who will need watching while your father and I talk," She explained, glancing over her shoulder. "Mokona?"
Motion caught Ranma's eye with the word and the young martial artist watched as a small black creature bounced out from around the hallway corner. At first, he wanted to label it a rabbit with the long ears as its principal identifying feature, yet it had no fur to speak of and its black body was entirely too round for any normal rabbit he had ever seen. Its face seemed to be curled into a permanent smile and its forehead was adorned by a single blue jewel. Ranma cocked his head, staring. "What is it?"
"Mokona," She addressed the round creature as if it were a person. "This is Ranma. Ranma, Mokona. Please show our young guest around the house, please?"
The bejeweled rabbit nodded and bounced over to Ranma, nudging him. The boy stared for a moment, then looked back up at Yūko, excitement dancing in his eyes. The woman smiled charitably at him. "Mokona would like you to follow him."
The black nearly gelatinous creature bounced, then bounced away, disappearing into the hallway. Ranma watched it go, barely held in check until his father also nodded. With that silent permission, Ranma was off and running through the house chasing Mokona. Silence lingered between the remaining pair for a moment before Yūko herself broke it. "Sakana referred you, I believe. Something concerning your son?"
"Her... fortune to my wife," Genma began tepidly, unsure of how to proceed. "I normally don't indulge in such matters, but..."
"Of course," Yuko nodded gently, returning to her couch. "I have found her visions to be quite reliable, though you would already be aware of that. It would also be the reason you are here, now."
The Saotome patriarch simply nodded. "She foretold that he will not see his eighteenth birthday. She said he will be consumed by shadows, afraid and utterly alone. As his father, I will not allow that to happen."
"Indeed," The pale woman acknowledged in a vaguely interested tone. "And to what lengths, Genma Saotome, are you willing to go; to ensure that outcome does not take place?"
"I've been training him," Genma shook his head, finding a plush seat across the woman for himself. "Much sooner than I would prefer, but..." His voice trailed off for a moment before his attention focused directly on the woman. "I would do anything to spare him that fate."
"Anything?" The martial artist recognized the lilting in the utterance of the single word question, a subtle advisement that the terms of her assistance may very well hinge on that very condition. Even so, he had already been given some idea of what to expect and nodded solemnly. Yūko held him with her red eyes. "Very well. Know then that the price is three-fold, such is his importance to Hitsuzen."
Genma merely nodded. "Whatever is necessary."
"Truly, but do you speak for your wife and son as well?" For the first time, the lazy smile disappeared and a serious visage bore back into him.
The implication was clear, but he had made this trip, fully aware that what he was asking would not be cheap by any means, and the fact that such bargaining might include his wife and son was, at this point, merely a formality. "I... I do."
"So be it. The first price is yours," Yūko nodded, rising back up from the couch and crossing the living room to an armoire. She pulled open one of the drawers, withdrew a booklet, and handed it to Genma. "It must be followed to the letter."
"The legendary Cat Fist?!" The Saotome flipped through the aged book, his eyes widening, unable to believe the newfound fortune in his hands. The technique itself had been whispered in martial arts circles for decades, but to actually... A frown began to surface across his face as he began to process the steps, happening finally upon the last page. He looked up from the booklet to Yūko in disgust, then back down to the text, realizing the price he was to pay for the first time. "Eh... Everything?"
The pale mistress nodded, completely serious. "Everything. The second price shall be paid by your wife. She will lose her fondest desire for him, to be exacted one decade hence. Both shall affect him and thus be his price."
Genma Saotome, co-heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts, simply stared at the booklet in his hands. Even though it represented the physical manifestation of the price he was to pay, all three now weighed upon him heavily. His price was to torture his son; to repeatedly throw his only child into a pit of starving cats. His wife's price... Genma felt his insides grow cold. He had a pretty good idea of what that would be, but how both would in turn affect their only child...
"I... Is this absolutely necessary?"
"If your son is to see his eighteenth birthday," Yūko replied softly. "Were it within my ability to lessen the cost, I would. I am merely a tool of fate and destiny, however, and Hitsuzen wraps tightly around your child." She paused with a sad smile. "But you have already made your choice, haven't you?"
Genma Saotome simply nodded, watching as the black rabbit thing rounded the corner, followed by his gi clad son with a smile on his face. The martial artist fixed that smile in his mind and nodded once more.
"Yes. Yes, I have."
A Time Apart
"Ranma, stop fidgeting."
Ranma fidgeted in spite of the Senshi's advice, taking another look back over her shoulder to see if the evil monster had lost interest. Sadly, it had not, and was still tailing them from a length of about fifteen paces back as they were escorted through the grand hallways of the institute for higher magical education otherwise known as the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"I swear that damn thing has been following us since we left the train platform." The redhead huffed, trying to ignore the source of her consternation
"That's because it has," Setsuna Meiou simply rolled her eyes with the whisper. "Remember what I said about familiars?"
"So, why's a magical cat gotta be following us?" Ranma frowned, taking another worried glance back. A pair of knowing yellow eyes met his own and he flinched, returning back to their path of travel and their magi escort.
"It was probably instructed to," Setsuna quipped with an amused edge of humor. Ranma sniffed with mild contempt. "You did destroy half the train."
"I didn't destroy half the damn train," Ranma rolled his eyes dismissively.
"That's right, Miss Pluto," Konatsu came to the pigtailed girl's defense. "Miss Ranma only destroyed one car."
Ranma opened his mouth to agree, only to watch the guardian's smile widen. The Saotome cast a dry look Konatsu's way. "Thanks a bunch, 'Natsu."
"Oh, my pleasure, Miss Ranma!"
The pigtailed girl merely grumbled at the kunoichi's chipper response, though it had managed to pull most of her attention away from the furry beast following them and concentrated on the people they in turn were following. There was, of course. the giant from earlier, eclipsing every last member of their impromptu party by several magnitudes. Then there were the people her own size, one black man in the colorful purple robe, the anorexic looking one in a suit, and the girl with dyed hair and leather pants. In terms of a physical threat, they posed none whatsoever, but they did have the magical twigs, and Ranma remembered her own encounter with them quite clearly.
Another group of wizards approached their party from the opposite direction. Their conversation dropped to hushed whispers as they passed, staring. Ranma threw a harsh glare back at them, prompting them to return to their course of travel with more enthusiasm. They wouldn't be the first, not the last to quite suddenly hush upon rounding a corner or passing by to catch sight of their group.
Ranma turned back to Setsuna with a grumble. "Okay, I get the train, but why do they still gotta be staring at us?"
"I would wager that it is not every day two Senshi step out from twenty thousand years of history to walk amongst them," The Mistress of Time returned evenly, then added for emphasis, "Guardian Saotome."
The martial artist's thought process stuttered for a moment before rebooting, shaking her head as the implications swarmed her thought process. The requisite that she arrived at Hogwarts in her female aspect became painfully apparent quite suddenly, as her brain pieced two and two together with a muted groan. Setsuna let a slightly mischievous smile play along her lips as they were let around another corner and to the doorway that was their destination.
They were standing outside it seconds later and Kingsly Shacklebolt rapped against the decorated wood with enough force to ensure the occupant inside would notice. The black man waited patiently for another moment until a voice sounded through the wood barrier.
"Yes, yes. Please bring them in."
The trio, flanked by their Auror escort, stepped into the room whose dominant feature appeared to be an exotic clutter of scrolls, books, unusual and undoubtedly ancient artifacts; alongside what looked to be unstable multi-colored liquids contained within thin glass containers. While Konatsu peered curiously at the contents, Ranma found herself wallowing in a moment of deja vu. While the room certainly catered to an eccentric nature, it also reminded her of a certain old ghoul's back room at the Neko Han Ten... Complete with an old ghoul, she almost chuckled, staring at its sole occupant. He was the quintessential old wizard, draped in a brown robe with swirling designs while a white beard, and spectacles dominated his facial features.
His gaze snapped up from the old tome he had been engrossed in and stood up from behind his desk, studying his new visitors intently. "And these would be them."
Their escort parted, allowing the old man a direct line of sight to his new visitors, and Setsuna stepped forward to meet him halfway with a courteous smile. "A pleasure to meet you in person, Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore."
"Damn, that's a mouth full," Ranma mumbled, prompting an unexpected chuckle from the aging wizard in spite of the offended looks from their wizard escort.
"And yet another humorous reminder as to why I haven't heard it uttered aloud in decades," Dumbledore smiled easily. It was equally infectious, causing Ranma to smirk back at the well-received humor. "Though in truth, I am not sure which is the larger irony: having been burdened with such a cumbersome title or hearing it spoken aloud by a living Guardian of the Old Silver Millennium."
"Now professor," The frail Caucasian wizard stepped forward with protest. "There's no proof that they are, in fact, the Queen's chosen. They could very well have instigated-"
The professor in question simply raised a hand to John Dawlish's protests, favoring him with a patient look before turning back to the trio in his silence. His eyes considered the trio for another moment before focusing on the emerald haired woman before him.
"I would assume you to be the Guardian of Pluto; sister to Queen Serenity herself... And alive, no less. The rumors of your demise appear to be greatly exaggerated," The professor drawled, briefly consulting an ancient book that sat open to the right side of his desk. Setsuna merely inclined her head graciously before his study moved on to the redhead before the slight smile returned. "And Guardian Red; an apt description if I may say so."
Ranma's mouth opened then closed, her psyche warring between the old man's obvious humor and the indignation of having been recorded in the annals of history as 'Guardian Red'. In the end, she resolved the dilemma with an unladylike snort, realizing the aging professor gave as good as he got. "Just Ranma's fine."
Dumbledore chuckled slightly with the nod of acknowledgment before moving on to the third of their group. He studied the smiling kunoichi for another moment before turning back to the leather-bound book, flipping pages. After another bout of silent reading, he returned his attention to her with a slightly lost look. "Though I must apologize, the records don't appear to be complete with regards to your fellow guardian...?"
The black-haired neo-girl simply stood with a nearly oblivious smile until realizing that the entire room was looking at her now. "Oh! My name is Konatsu, a mere kunoichi, Mister Professor-san!"
"He's on loan to us," Ranma motioned to the ninja to her right with a nod as the neo-girl dipped into a respectful bow
"He... is, is he now?" The professor arched an inquisitive eyebrow, studying the ninja for any feature that would betray the kunoichi's true gender. When that couldn't be established, Dumbledore's study flicked back onto the martial artist. "A fellow Starlight, perchance?"
Ranma blinked as the old man successfully brought his thought process to a grinding halt. If anything, it was the absolute sincerity of his question that caused her pause and effectively bypassed any rebuttals she possessed concerning her own questionable status as a Starlight.
"Eh, not... quite." The redhead did her best to shake the question off with a sincere answer.
The curious eyebrow remained, and now every wizard in the room was eyeing the kunoichi, who gave a sunny smile back. A certain giant, in particular, was left gaping, staring at the girl for a measure before chewing on his knuckle indecisively. Dumbledore looked from Hagrid to the girl and back, finding he could do little more than shrug. "Quite fascinating."
"I would be remiss in expressing my concerns as well, Professor," Shacklebolt forwarded with marginally more tact than his cohort. "The history of the Fall is available in any book store, let alone any first year with access to the ground's library and a case of hero-worship."
"Indeed, indeed," Dumbledore conceded the point with a slight nod, then glanced over to the youngest wizard in the room. "And your opinion, Miss Tonks?"
The young woman with streaks of purple dyed into her predominately black crop of hair shrugged, looking at the three she had been tasked to escort. "They aced a Dementor in front of a score of witnesses."
"Which could very well be nothing more than an elaborate deception!" The frailer wizard argued back. "Besides, everybody knows you cannot destroy a Dementor, which means they either engaged in illusionary magics or-"
Every eye in the room tracked a dark pink crystal as it bounced across the professor's desk, the finger length jewel tumbling to a stop before the headmaster himself. Their eyes stared at the crystal for a moment, then traced their way back to the emerald haired woman who had dispensed it.
"Mister... Dawlish, I believe? Was correct on one point," The Mistress of Time commented, her red-eyed gaze sweeping across the present audience while Dumbledore himself had picked up the crystal for study. "The Dementor was not destroyed when we engaged it on the train."
She turned to the redheaded martial artist at her side, now tired of the man's prattle. "Ranma, please destroy the Dementor."
"You can't destroy-!"
A pernicious grin spread across Ranma's face as she stepped forward, past her escort to the professor's desk. Dumbledore reluctantly handed the pink shard to Ranma, who in turn flipped it through the air in a shallow arc. The gem glittered in the ambient candlelight for a moment before she caught it between a seemingly delicate finger and thumb... And applied pressure. At first, there was little to see aside from the girl's wrist muscles flex ever so slightly. Seconds later, a slight fissure began to crawl up the shard's length, slowly branching out throughout its crystalline structure.
The assembled wizards were riveted to the spectacle and Saotome held off for a few more moments to allow a sufficient amount of drama to build, before ending her theatrics by applying the fullest measure of her strength to the soul shard. Its structure buckled instantly, the soul shard's containment ruptured into boiling shadow.
The swirling vortex screamed as it twisted out of Ranma's grasp, prompting her to take a hasty step back as the Dementor attempted to reassemble itself back onto their plane of existence, but continued to lose physical cohesion as it did do. The shadow continued to evaporate from its mass and a bony claw grasped outward, attempting to anchor itself in space even as an oppressive negative aura settled across the room.
Wands had been pulled out into the open now as all four wizards took aim on the chittering Dementor, only to watch as the claw was sucked back into the vortex that continued to roil violently from the room's center. It screamed one last time and exploded into a brilliant ball of light that nearly blinded every person in the room. Streamers of light began to peel away from the nexus and the feeling of hopeless depression faded. Each line of light that whipped away through the walls diminished the nova's mass until it finally faded away, leaving the wizards pointing their wands at a soft glow where the negative energy wraith had previously resided.
Seconds later, the room's door's burst open as an older woman clad in a black robe and sharp witches hat forced entry, quickly followed by two male wizards; all with wands drawn and primed.
"Professor, are you all right?" The woman's eyes darted to and fro before centering on the dispersing cloud of sparkles, then his guests as her heavy English accent expressed her concern. "We felt the wave of dark emotion and the wards reported a Dementor manifesting in this very room..."
"Yes, yes, Miss McGonagall," Professor Dumbledore raised his hand to calm the witch. "The guardians were merely verifying their... credentials." The headmaster paused, turning back to Tonks, John, and Kingsly. "Unless there are further challenges as to the veracity of our guest's identities?"
The black mage simply shook his head while the white woman simply stared at the space the Dementor had occupied. The pasty Caucasian mage opened his mouth, then closed it, thinking for a moment before reopening it. "We...um... reserve the right to interview the... guardians concerning the Hogwart's Express incident, of course."
"At their leisure." Kingsly Shacklebolt added tepidly.
"Very well," Professor Dumbledore nodded, reaching back to his desk to pull a folded piece of paper. "As for myself, I am quite satisfied that our Guardians are who they say they are. The correspondence from Miss Pluto was more than sufficient, let alone the dispatching of something previously thought to be unkillable and releasing the souls contained therein."
"I apologize if its contents were too personal, professor," The emerald haired guardian bowed respectfully. "I had to ensure that I had your attention, especially with the increase in Dementor activity."
"We are quite prepared to deal with the Dementors, Guardian," Dawlish interrupted, trying to regain a mote of control over the situation. "Specific-"
"Just like ya dealt with the one on the train?" Ranma commented in an innocent tone, looking at her fingernails as if to ensure their integrity.
"A rogue, Guardian Red," The mage stressed, and Ranma suppressed the mental wince that her official title prompted. "We have specific controls in place to govern their movements. More than likely what you have detected was the Ministry of Magic pressing them into service in order to guard Hogwarts against a very dangerous-"
"Wait," The man was cut off a second time, this time by Setsuna herself. She turned fully toward the speaker and pinned him with a dangerous look. "You're using negative energy wraiths to guard children?"
The wizard crossed his arms while his face took on offense. "The Ministry of Magic is perfectly capable of controlling-"
"Do not presume to lecture me, little man," Setsuna stepped into the man's personal space, her gaze threatening to burn him down were it to manifest in a physical manner. Auror Dawlish flinched as power flared around him suddenly and her cold words continued to override his argument. "I have lived longer than your ancestors have walked the Earth and forgotten more about these creatures than you can ever hope to learn. Know this, Dawlish: You do not control Dementors. They wait. They bide their time. And when they are ready, they strike. If they move anywhere, it is because it is to their advantage, not your manipulations."
"We have spells to ward them off..." He returned, but weakly. The Mistress of Time continued to stare into him until the mage's words died off. Setsuna simply shook her head and stepped away, turning back to the professor.
"Using Dementors to guard a school is akin to presenting a buffet to a starving man and asking him not to eat," She sighed, still barely able to believe the situation they had walked into. "How many?"
Dumbledore's gaze flicked unhappily over to the Ministry of Magic representatives, and Kingsly Shacklebolt sighed.
"Nearly three hundred."
Setsuna's jaw clenched with the number and only the control developed over centuries of patience kept her simply teleporting out of the tragedy of incompetence unfolding before her.
Ranma watched her reaction out of the corner of her eye, never having seen her fellow Guardian so close to losing it, and stepped in for her. "I'm assumin' you all got somethin' worse out there if yer willin' to field soul-eating ghosts?"
"Sirius Black is a well-known terrorist of the wizarding world," Dawlish responded carefully now that he had tasted the power and temper of the first guardian. The last thing he needed now was to anger both; especially this one. "He was responsible for the confirmed deaths of two prominent wizards, escaped from Azkaban itself and the Ministry has information that he is heading for Hogwarts on what is believed to be a personal vendetta."
Ranma had wandered over to a side table and picked up something that looked like a brass gyroscope during the explanation. Her finger flicked one of the free axes, causing a ring to spin. She didn't even bother to look up. "You buyin' into this too, Old man?"
Dumbledore stared at the redheaded girl that looked to be barely a fraction of his age, then to the Guardian Pluto who was watching his reaction intently. Their kunoichi escort merely watched curiously from the sidelines, and the professor considered his answer carefully. He had, in fact, protested the move with the Ministry directly, but the fear of Black's escape from a place that one supposedly did not escape from had already taken hold. That, and he had his own suspicions, but little in the way of proof or leverage to directly defy the Ministry's decision; even in holding his position as Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot.
'Too far removed from the political arena,' he reminisced bitterly. But now... Now the first Guardians were present. Now there was a chance that his protests would actually carry weight...
"No, Guardian, I do not."
"Professor..." Kingsly frowned, his voice tinted with disappointment. Dawlish's cheek merely twitched, but he held his silence after being soundly rounded on by the Guardian of Pluto.
"While I respect your positions as Aurors, the use and number of Dementors is by far disproportionate to the threat Black represents, regardless of his crimes or future intentions," Dumbledore shook his head with regret. "Especially considering the environment in which they are being deployed."
"Which means you're all either incompetent in needin' this much firepower to catch a bad guy or you're gettin' set up," Ranma finished for him, causing even Tonks' eyes to widen while the old witch choked down her own cough. The redhead finally turned her seemingly uncaring gaze back to their Auror escort. "So, which is it?"
Both elder mages remained silent against the charge, though it was obvious from both of their expressions that neither was particularly pleased with the choices presented. In the end, the robed wizard conceded the point with a sigh. "We will relate your concerns to the ministry, Guardian Red."
The martial artist frowned mentally at the wizard's failure to be baited by her comments but threw an indifferent shrug his way as her parting shot regardless. The pale Auror's cheek twitched again but declined the invitation to rebuke her and instead followed his partner's lead and made for the door. Tonks chuckled silently behind the pair with a smile, leaning back into the doorway before fully exiting. "We'll keep you apprised of the situation, Professor, Guardians."
The room's remaining occupants watched the solid wooden door click closed behind the woman, whereupon the Professor's rigid posture slacked with a sigh. He turned back to his guests, shaking his head. "I do apologize for that, Guardians. Nobody was expecting two living legends to step out of the annals of history, and I would imagine some are taking it better than others, as you just witnessed."
Ranma simply shrugged as if such discord was beneath her notice while Setsuna nodded patiently. "Nor is it our intention to unduly upset that which already is, though there may be less choice in that than my abilities to influence."
Dumbledore simply nodded sagely with the advice, before forwarding his concerns. "Then if I may ask, when may we expect things to become... unduly upset?"
"We have some time before events seem to become entangled," The Princess of Pluto explained. "While I don't have the visibility I would normally operate under, we're estimating a month on the outside. The Dementors are a clear sign that the forces mentioned in my correspondence are afoot."
"Vampires, demons, Nazis... That sort of thing," Ranma quipped as if said encounters were commonplace.
"Nazis?" Vice Headmistress McGonagall arched an eyebrow, by passing up on the opportunity to comment on the other factions that would- in any other company -be considered the more exotic topics. She shook her head in dismay and remembrance. "They were quite unpleasant the first time. Must we endure a second?"
'And I wasn't around in this timeline to stymie Hitler's obsession with the dark arts,' Setsuna thought to herself quietly, wondering if the task had instead fallen to these people in her stead. There simply was no Nazi resurgence in her native reality and that was because she had cut the Reich's knees out from under it. Their expedition to Antarctica had mysteriously vanished. Their quest to obtain the Ark of the Covenant failed. The Mayan Mask of Death and Rebirth... The Guardian had been there at every turn, ensuring no headway was made by Hitler concerning magical advancement. Here, she hadn't been.
Here, they were back.
Leftovers. Ranma's own description was remembered. Setsuna merely nodded for the benefit of her audience, as if the Nazies were yet one more nuisance among nuisances. "Unfortunately, yes. I suspect they have been biding their time and marshaling their resources."
"Another Sorcery War would be quite inconvenient," The professor agreed, tapping his index finger on the desk as he rolled the implications around in his mind. "We were able to hide the last conflict in the fog of the Second World War. An open conflict in the here and now, however..."
"Thus our concern," Setsuna confirmed the old wizard's concerns and openly addressed her own. His response had all but confirmed her speculation as to the outcome of the Reich's magical obsession. "Too many things are coming to a head within a short window of time. I've been around too long to put stock in that sort of coincidence."
"Indeed," Dumbledore merely nodded, rising from his desk. "Of course the Aurors are now aware, but I shall make my own inquiries in order to shore up our vigilance."
"As we will endeavor to remove these threats before they come to fruition." The emerald haired woman approved, relaxing slightly now that their principle mission within the school had been accomplished. A tentative alliance had been secured. Anything more than that, only time would tell.
"Then let us adjourn to a less official setting," The aging wizard stepped out from around his desk, leading the way to the door. A kind smile accompanied his face as he opened the door and stepped into the hallway. "I think a tour of your legacy would be most appropriate."
"Our legacy?" Ranma parroted without comprehension as the professor beckoned them to follow. Setsuna merely smiled, while it was Minerva who provided the explanation.
"Why of course, Guardian Red," She explained, her utterly serious voice sounding all the more grave under the thick English accent. She motioned to the grand hallway they were now walking along, her hands sweeping grandly across everything within sight. "This. Hogwarts. Everybody within. Everything standing around us exists solely because of the intervention of the Queen and her Guardians."
Ranma blinked. Sure she was good, and Setsuna had all but said the same, but the reverence in this woman's voice made it all but impossible to accept. She shook her head. "Look, there were plenty of people keepin' the shit from hittin' the fan that day. We ain't-"
"And the battlements, poised to break, to reap and kill for hatred's sake," McGonagall quoted as if she were the narrator of a play, interrupting the redhead with soft prose. "Her soldiers fought to no avail against the demon horde threatening to assail. Enter the Starlit Guardian, her mane a-fire; whirlwind in hand. Against the host she made her stand..."
"Waitaminute," Ranma stared in disbelief as the very event she spoke of was witnessed firsthand in the mind's eye. "You made a song about that?"
"The incident is clearly recounted in history texts as, I believe, mister Shacklebolt mentioned earlier." Dumbledore mentioned over his shoulder. Ranma's cheek twitched. She was used to being good. She was used to being known for being the best. Hero worship was on an entirely different- nearly humbling -level, however. "I don't recall a single year that at least one of the houses hasn't reenacted the ballad as a class project."
"Told you so," Setsuna cast a whispered snicker her way, to which the redhead frowned further.
"...Though we were quite under the impression that you had fallen in battle, Guardian Pluto," The woman's snickering abruptly died and it was Ranma's turn to smirk as the professor continued. "Your death was quite the memorable scene in Act Four."
"I seem to recall learning the charm to turn my hair the exact shade of yours in my second year, Guardian Pluto," The headmistress mused with fond remembrance. It was Setsuna's turn to feel her cheek twitch almost imperceptibly as the aged woman continued. "Though how you survived being impaled by that many swords was beyond me."
"Yes, how did you survive?" Dumbledore glanced back curiously as he continued to lead them down the grand hall and finally around a corner. "Mister Badonckle's ghost will be quite disconcerted if he has to rewrite the defining masterpiece of his career as a playwright."
'Because I wasn't there,' the answer came immediately to mind, though it wasn't one she dare let slip beyond her lips. Telling them it was a dimensional twin would only cast further doubt on the entire chain of events, so she opted for the truth...
...After a fashion.
"My soul is tied to an artifact of power." She replied smoothly, noting Ranma's own concerned glance over how much of the truth she was about to tell. "When I pass on, my spirit is anchored and reincarnated naturally."
"Hmmm, so not a Horcrux?" The graying professor cocked his head, weighing the similarities. The comparison jarred the guardian slightly, causing her to shake her head.
"Goodness no," Setsuna elaborated before any misunderstanding could take place in the face of such a vile technique. "Unlike a Horcrux, I actually die and am reborn, infancy-and-all. Only the insane would take the karmic penalty of bearing a Horcrux spell."
...Not that she would be telling him that her karma penalty for trying to bypass the aforementioned reincarnation via the time gates was getting sucked through a twelve dimensional straw of glass and landing here.
"Indeed," Dumbledore stroked the length of his long beard, apparently lost in thought. His pace slowed for a moment and he returned his attention to the emerald haired woman. "Though I am reminded that we may encounter such an individual through our mutual quest. He is rather a sore loser."
"And just how sore is this loser?" Ranma inserted herself into the conversation while trying to get a feel as to just what a Horcrux was and how it related to Setsuna's reincarnation ability. The professor turned a brief smile at the guardian's descriptive for Voldermort, but it dropped away as quickly as it appeared.
"He has divided his soul amongst six artifacts if my sources are to be believed," The headmaster returned solemnly. "One has been found and destroyed, though he will remain quite resilient until the other five are dispatched."
"Just means more of his ass to kick then," Ranma nodded amiably, earning an inquisitive look from the old man. While the Annals of the Fall provided a good deal of insight as to the background of the Queen and her other guardians, this one was all but unknown and the insight of actually meeting her in person was particularly fascinating. She cloaked herself in an oddly abrasive self-confidence that- while utterly sure of herself -seemed reluctant to take things too seriously. That, and he was more than happy to have an actual guardian of the realm participate in the... Dumbledore smiled internally at the redhead's prose. The ass-kicking of Voldermort.
"Do you believe this mage may be involved in the events we're present for?" The Senshi of Pluto inquired, to which Dumbledore nodded easily.
"Undoubtedly." The professor admitted readily. "His ambition is power by any means necessary; even if it means to damn his very soul. He has tried this once and I have evidence he is doing so again, though few in the Ministry want to believe such."
A chime sounded, echoing through the hallways as if to punctuate his missive and for a moment there was silence. But only for a moment. Setsuna and Ranma watched as the corridor suddenly exploded with activity as students were disgorged from the adjacent classrooms to fill the hall with movement and chatter. The apparent chaos never reached their group, however, as the multitude of students seemed to have enough sense to make way for the professor himself, who was invariably greeted with a polite greeting or deferential nod. Most seemed engrossed in their own activities to notice the professor or his entourage as they made their way through the crowd and into a central antechamber comprised of a massive, twisting stairwell that coiled overhead. It too teamed with the activity of the Hogwarts student body, but it also teemed with other activity...
...The structure itself was moving. Ranma Saotome stared as sections of the stairwell seemed to detach at seemingly random, glide overhead and reattach to some other portion of the wall, all while students transversed the steps without concern for their own safety.
"The Grand Staircase," Minerva gestured to the spiraling, interwoven structure of steps upon noting Ranma's attention focused upward. "Created by one of the school founders during Hogwarts construction to impede any potential invasion."
"Invasion?" Ranma glanced back over to her host, who nodded solemnly as the Headmaster himself led them to the foot of the stairs.
"The darker days of magic, Guardian Red," The assistant headmistress nodded. "After the Landing, the survivors lived under the constant fear of demonic resurgence while magic itself was feared by the natives that had somehow escaped the arch queen's infernal spell. When Hogwarts was built, you might say it was engineered with a wee amount of paranoia in mind."
"And only those intimately familiar with the day to day operation of the fortress would be familiar with the patterns," Setsuna guessed, earning a nod from Dumbledore himself as the group took to the first flight of stairs.
"Of course, Hogwarts thankfully hasn't seen an invasion in over seven hundred years," The professor explained as he led the group around a stairway bend then stopped. The stairs at his feet promptly drifted away, spiraling up and through the other aerial components of the structure. Ten seconds later a new piece locked itself in place at his feet and he stepped forward, continuing the conversation. "These days we use the Grand Staircase to build house camaraderie amongst the students."
The redhead's eyes tracked another piece floating parallel to their position with a group of the aforementioned students idly chatting. It dipped down and out of sight. Ranma turned back to his hosts but found her attention suddenly diverted by a painting they were passing on the way up to the next balcony. In fact, she could have sworn it was staring at her. She let the throng of students pass as she studied the figure depicted in the frame; A older man bereft of hair. He had a long, pointed nose with tiny round glasses set on their bridge. He was obviously Caucasian, probably even English, but it wasn't his general appearance that held the martial artist's attention. It was the subject's eyes.
They were actually following her.
"What the hell?" Ranma murmured as she stepped closer to the eerily lifelike portrait. The crowd flowed around her, paying her occasional glances as she closed within a few steps of the wall hanging portrait. That was when it cocked its head prompting Ranma to jerk back, blinking with surprise.
"Do I know you?"
"I... ah... you..." Ranma's mouth opened to answer the question on reflex, but the still functioning portion of her brain realized she would be talking to a painting and thus failed to provide anything intelligible to answer with.
"Oh, bother. Another first year," The old man within the frame shook his head in disappointment. Ranma arched an eyebrow at the reaction. After mumbling something beneath his breath the portrait turned its full attention back on the redhead. "I'll wager you don't even know who I am, either."
By now the painting's uppity attitude was wearing down the healthy dose of disbelief Ranma had suffered and the teen cocked an eyebrow. "Can't say that I do."
"Of course not. How can I, William Pascal, Grand Crocker and Overseer of the first Tri-Wizard Tournament expect you, a first-year gibberling with little more common sense than to talk to random portraits, to know a clearly famous historical figure when you see one?" The old man favored Ranma with an air of superiority and boredom as it continued to complain. "The injustice of it all is quite obscene. Apparently, scholarships are low-hanging fruit in this day and age. An extremely low hanging fruit."
Some of the students had gathered around the redhead as the old man continued to complain until she rolled her eyes. "You're a real ass, you know that?"
"I'm... I'm a what?!" The figure suddenly slapped a hand over his mouth, clearly aghast at the girl's coarse language while prompting the student around her to snicker. "Such foul, uncouth language! I have a right mind to summon an instructor to reprimand you and your house!"
"And I got a right mind to draw a mustache on that bony face of yours," The redhead smirked now that she was fully in her element. As if to make the point, she glanced back over her shoulder to the small assemblage of students watching the humorous exchange. "Yo, anybody got a pen?"
"You... You wouldn't!" The old man grew alarmed as the girl chose one of the feathered quills offered to her. She gave the speckled feather she had acquired an odd look before divining its purpose. Ranma took a menacing step forward and the portrait panicked. "You... You'll serve detention for this! Points will be deducted! Scores upon scores of points shall be deducted if this perversion continues!"
The redhead was smiling maliciously now as she brought the quill to bare.
"Guardian Red!" Ranma's attention was torn away from the painting and to the voice echoing from overhead. Several stories above her was a section of stairwell floating lethargically upward. Peering over the side was professor Dumbledore, Miss McGonagall, Setsuna, and Konatsu. The eyes of the students around her suddenly widened and hushed, reverent whispers began to float around her.
"Well that's inconvenient," Ranma stared at the ascending platform of stairs, then out into the intervening space where the Grand Staircase continued to shift randomly. A series of calculations were made and she stepped over to the banister. She hopped up on its railing and threw a cheeky smile back at the portrait. "Catch ya later, Crocker."
The painting was ready to protest the abbreviated title she had favored it with when she backflipped off the railing in a blur, sailing through open air for roughly half a second before hitting the opposite wall's horizontal cobblestone surface. Gasps and incredulous eyes followed her lithe form as she impacted on the surface feet first and used it as a springboard to her next target: Another section of stairwell already floating through the air above her. The jump was perfect and she had more than enough momentum to grab its banister with her hands, pivot upward with the grace only achievable by an Olympic gymnast to handspring up and away to the wall-hugging stairwell overhead.
Ranma landed dead center on the next stairway, prompting several students to scatter before she broke out into a sprint up the steps and off the end which would have resulted in a dead drop for anybody else. The martial artist floated through the air, flipped off another stairwell swinging into position from the right, and gracefully arced through the air one last time on a ballistic path that deposited her directly onto her host's own platform. Dumbledore and Minerva stared with wide eyes as the girl recovered from her crouched landing. Konatsu merely smiled politely.
"Sorry about that," Ranma offered, gesturing down below. "Got sidetracked."
Setsuna Meiou rolled her eyes, feigning annoyance. "Show off."
Somewhere below, half a dozen gawking students finally recovered their wits after having watched the girl fling herself over the edge of the Great Stairwell and ascend five stories without the aid of a single spell. They were just about to return to their schedules when they were interrupted by a horrified male pitch.
"MY FACE!" All eyes turned to the agitated painting. "MY BEAUTIFUL FACE!"
It was then the assembled students turned back to notice that the portrait of William Pascal, Grand Crocker, and Overseer of the first Tri-Wizard Tournament now wore a crudely drawn mustache courtesy of the quill balanced atop his decorated frame.
"It's an imaging sorcery of sorts," Albus Dumbledore explained as he and the Headmistress led their guests down a new corridor. Unlike the previous ones or the stairwell, this one was almost completely empty and the few people they had passed so far appeared to be faculty, not students. "A spell is woven into the paint with a few offerings from the subject, whereupon the paint is applied to special animus canvas by the painter."
"So it ain't alive?" Ranma cocked her head, remembering just how indignant the portrait had acted.
"More a snapshot of life." The Professor corrected as they continued to walk toward an aged oak door reinforced by bands of steel. An attendant standing to the side snapped to attention, bringing his wand up to point straight up before his face. Albus nodded and the guard quickly dismissed the wand, retiring it back into the folds of his robe. The aged headmaster returned to their conversation. "The more complex the spell and skilled the wizard, the more lifelike detail to be captured. They can range from simple animations to what you encountered along the staircase."
With Ranma engaged in conversation, Setsuna watched Headmistress McGonagall step forward and produced a set of keys bound to an iron ring, from which she selected one to be inserted into the door's plate iron lock. The loud clack its turn produced brought a halt to any further conversation. The elderly woman stowed the keys then rapped sharply on the upper left corner of the door, then the middle. Something clicked and the headmistress took a breath.
The door's knob instantly reacted to the word by popping out slightly. She took it and inserted it into the left side of the door's frame, where one of the steel bands happily accepted it into a receptacle that Ranma could have sworn wasn't there before, where it locked in place with a click. A simple turn was all it took afterward to open the door, admitting the group into a single, dimly lit chamber. The illumination was provided through a skylight fixed at least ten meters overhead to focus light down upon the room's single feature: a lone pillar standing at its center. A small royal purple pillow sat atop the moonlit pillar with a finger length gem resting upon it.
Miss McGonagall stepped aside and inclined her head respectfully for Professor Dumbledore, who in turn continued toward the pillar. He touched the gem with his wrinkled index finger and it glowed with faint pink light. "First Healer? May I have a word?"
The pink light strengthened within the previously clear crystal and traces of light began to coalesce before the old man. The light twisted and gradually took the shape of what appeared to be a ghostly apparition; a woman in her sixties clad in an elegant robe. Long hair cascaded down, though its original color was lost to the pink monochrome. She looked up to the professor with a gentle smile.
"What knowledge may I impart?"
"I have somebody I believe you may wish to meet," Albus gestured to the wide-eyed martial artist whose face looked like she had just seen somebody rise from the dead. In fact, she wasn't too far off. The woman was older, certainly, but the features weren't that far removed from somebody long since passed from the land of the living... Specifically twenty thousand years ago.
"Avril?" The woman turned and a perplexed expression formed upon her face even as Ranma herself fought to work her lips with the woman's name. "But you can't be..."
"Voiceprint confirmed. Appearance confirmed. Lifeforce signature match. Probability match: Eighty-three point five percent," The ghostly image took a single step forward, cocking her head as she scrutinized the martial artist. She paused, piercing the martial artist with a soulless stare. "Final verification: Upon first meeting you, how many renewal crystals did Healer Avril D'Lencia attempt to ply you with before determining their ineffectiveness?"
"Ah, renewal crystals?" Ranma stumbled, still coming to grips with talking to a ghost that was clearly not the person she once knew. "Those glowing crystals that broke the moment I touched 'em? Two, I guess."
The woman smiled and some semblance of life returned to her features. "Correct. Compiling advanced AI set... Done. Security protocols amended. Administrator privileges amended. Please stand-by, Ranma-kun. I have a personal communication for you from Avril D'Lencia-actual."
"Saotome?" Setsuna wondered aloud with some concern over Ranma's reaction; Her eyes flicking from Ranma to the Ghost, then to Dumbledore and Minerva who contented themselves simply to watch events unfold. The redhead took a quick glance back at her and shook her head to indicate she was clearly just as clueless; almost jittery.
The assembled group watched as the ghost's image flickered slightly, aging a decade before their very eyes. This version of the hologram looked distracted by something out of their field of view for a moment before turning back to them with a kind smile.
"So it appears our efforts shall bear fruit after all," The older woman greeted the redhead in the here and now with a deferential nod as she began to speak. "Or at least I will assume such if only to allow myself some small hope for the future based on the dim recollections of an old woman. If you are where I think you are- or should I say 'when' I think you are -then we of the Landing have not simply survived, but thrived enough to where this data crystal has been gifted to you countless generations beyond my own. It is a debt of life and gratitude impossible to repay to either yourself, the late Queen, or her Guardians."
Ranma was utterly still as the woman paced the chamber slowly while she spoke, renewing her narrative with a sigh. "Our new existence here on terra firma has hardly been idyllic as you can imagine, and the crystal you now watch this upon is one of the few salvaged from the Fall. It contains not simply my own journals and records of the Landing, but a special present for you, Ranma-kun. It is our token... My token of gratitude. Thank you, Guardian Saotome. Thank you for watching over us in our most desperate hour and if I may, ask you to watch over our descendants as well. May our hopes and prayers always light your path, dear Starlight."
The woman stood silently, hands clasped with a sad smile before fading out and being replaced by a visage Ranma knew well; the Avril she had met some twenty thousand years ago. The woman smiled kindly for the martial artist. "This crystal and the data contained herein are now at your disposal, Guardian Saotome. Should you require my assistance, please do not hesitate to ask."
"Yeah... I'll... I'll do that..." The shell-shocked redhead mumbled, all but wallowing in the memories of a time long since past from the land of the living but barely a month old to her.
The remaining members of their party watched in fascination, but it was the Professor who broke the tepid silence softly. "I think we should allow the Guardian a moment to herself."
Setsuna's gaze flicked from the patiently waiting hologram to the still martial artist. The Mistress of Time nodded and the four filed out quietly, leaving Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts, to her thoughts.
The door closed with the lightest click, sealing the redhead inside while the four contemplated the events within. One of their number was more in the dark than the other three and he chose to raise his hand like a student in class.
"Who was that and how does she know Miss Ranma?" Konatsu inquired politely, carefully stepping through what was evidently a weighty topic by what he had just witnessed.
"Avril D'Lencia is- was –the First Healer of the landing," Professor Dumbledore took the lead in explaining who they had just encountered. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, recalling the details and his many conversations with her avatar himself. "She was a hero, a legend in her own right. The survivors of the Fall were a small, ragged group stranded on a hostile world under the constant threat of demonic resurgence and the hostile native remnant. The First Healer was one of the few masters of her art to accompany us."
"Were it not for Her Grace, the Landing might not have survived, let alone prospered to the degree it has," Miss McGonagall added in a sage tone, nodding. She turned to the aged wizard with a half shrug. "I would think her advocacy should all but eliminate any naysayers."
"There shall always be naysayers, Miss McGonagall," Dumbledore nodded his agreement even through his expressed doubt. He turned, instead to Setsuna. "Our doubt, however, has been decisively eliminated. We are at your service, Guardian Pluto."
"Hmmm, another test now?" The emerald haired woman arched an eyebrow, to which the old man smiled graciously. Setsuna produced her own knowing smile. "Then I shall take you up on your offer of services, as it were."
"What do you require of us, Guardian?"
"Armaments," The Senshi of Time answered decisively, causing the two wizards to send her curious looks. Setsuna answered their unspoken questions without prompting. "I intend to make this conflict as one-sided as possible. If any other artifacts of power have survived the Fall, I will need help in locating them."
"I do think we might be able to provide such assistance," The older woman supplied with the slightest hint of a smile playing about her lips. "Our faculty scryers shall be at your disposal. Would tomorrow be convenient, Guardian?"
"Supremely," The green-haired woman nodded amiably.
"Then once Guardian Red has finished, we shall arrange for your stay," Dumbledore advised with her agreement. Setsuna looked like she was about ready to object to his offer, only to watch the old man wave it away by hand before she could voice it. "It is late and I shall not be found a negligent host... Especially when it concerns two Guardians of the Silver Millenium..." Dumbledore offered a nod to Konatsu. "...And their allies."
The Senshi's objections were forcibly squashed by Miss McGonagall's motherly smile. "I'm afraid we must insist."
Unwilling to offend their hosts and the promise of a new alliance, Setsuna Meiou simply inclined her head graciously. "We would be happy to stay the night."
Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes School of martial arts and impromptu living legend tore his gaze away from the pendant he held dangling overhead in contemplation to the polite impacts being imparted upon his room's door. He gave the multifaceted teardrop-shaped jewel another glance before palming it and the golden chain it was attached to, addressing the presence at the door.
"It's open," he advised, rocking up to a sitting position upon the couch he had been previously lounging in contemplation. The heavy oak door clicked open and the black pigtailed boy watched as the Guardian of Time admitted herself into the chamber. Gone was the fuku or anything that advised the outside world of her guardian status, replaced by a thick, light pink robe. Emerald hair shifted to the side as the woman glanced to and fro, inspecting his room as she walked in.
"It's bigger than mine," Setsuna commented, obviously referring to the room he had been assigned by their wizardly benefactors.
"Wanna trade?" Ranma offered, half in jest, half in seriousness. He glanced around, reminded once again that he had somehow been roped into staying in yet another ostentatious bedroom. "Not like I need all this space."
"It is an expression of their gratitude, Ranma-kun," The woman smiled as she sat down on a well-cushioned chair next to his sofa. The fuzzy robe fell away to reveal a perfect leg as Setsuna crossed hers. Whether the act had been more teasing on her part or completely coincidental wasn't clear, but Ranma's gaze flicked down involuntarily to trace its curves for the briefest moment before returning his attention to eye level. Fortunately, her continued study of his room spared him of any embarrassment that may have come from the lapse. Her attention finally returned to him as she explained. "There are some days when one must swallow their pride and accept the grandiose as a matter of obligation and protocol. Today is such a day."
"Like the whole duchy thing, huh?" Ranma rolled his eyes, prompting a teasing look from his counterpart.
"Oh, don't think it's all luxury suites and Mercurian fire wine," Setsuna chuckled, lounging back in her own chair. She closed her eyes in remembrance. She reopened them with mirth dancing in their red irises. "I can assure you there are innumerable stuffy balls and inspirational speeches waiting to ambush one at every turn."
"The voice of experience, huh?" Ranma teased back, prompting the woman to chuckle.
"Indeed," She replied serenely, enjoying their banter. The smile faded after a moment as her study found the golden chain hanging in his right hand. In truth, it had been the main reason for her visit and she produced a solemn, knowing look. "The ghosts of the past are never easy to deal with…"
Ranma kept a neutral expression, briefly glancing at the faceted jewel in hand before returning to Setsuna with slightly more weight on his soul than before. "The voice of experience?"
Setsuna allowed a sad smile to creep onto her lips once more. She took a moment of silence before continuing. "I watched my world die by fire. Friends… Family… Loved ones… Unlike here, there were no survivors, save my sister's last act to send the girls forward. It was quite… quite a shock when they first began to awaken."
Ranma nodded, unwilling to interrupt the tale that so closely mirrored his own experience in the here and now. "With them came the memories of the past. All the wounds I had sought to cauterize through grief and time long-since passed were reopened." Setsuna glanced up from her folded hands. "It took me a while before I could face any one of them as the all-knowing pillar of knowledge and guidance I was to represent."
Another moment of silence for the dead long past from the living filled the room and it was a full minute before Ranma broke it with his own sigh, shaking his head. "Hell, it was only last week and next thing I know she's... That."
'That' represented the crystal in his hands, the last will and testament of the late Avril D'Lencia, First Healer and Hero of the Landing. Setsuna also knew what was left unspoken—The fact that his last recollection of her was a thirty-some-year-old woman; a woman catapulted into old age and death within the space of days… A woman he had fought alongside reduced to holographic recordings and an AI approximation overnight. The emerald haired guardian took his hand, cupping them and the crystal into hers. Ranma looked at her with a mixture of confusion and wonder.
"Cherish those memories, Ranma," The guardian responded to the unspoken question gently. "When all else is lost to time and things turn to dust, you will still have those. Painful as they are sometimes, each and every one can be a treasure." Setsuna gave his hand a final squeeze and a sympathetic smile before rising out of the seat to turn to the door. "Good night, Ranma-kun."
Ranma nodded involuntarily with her advice as she turned toward the door, thinking on her words. "Night 'Suna."
The woman paused slightly, cocking her head to momentarily consider her new name before continuing to the door and closing it behind her with a soft click. The teen's eyes invariably fell back to the crystal in his hand. After a moment, the pigtailed boy voiced a soft question to the empty room. "Did ya have a good life, Avril-chan?"
The faceted teardrop glowed pink and the empty space beyond began to pixelate, writhing and twisting into a human form. The thirty-year-old healer materialized before his eyes as expected. Cast in pink monochrome, the holographic woman spoke with a kind smile. "She did, Ranma-kun. Avril D'Lencia-actual lived to two hundred and thirty years old, married, and gave birth to three children. She was instrumental in the stabilization and success of the Landing, living to see eight grandchildren and twenty-three great-grandchildren."
The AI paused, cocking her head as if to consider something before continuing. "Her bloodline is still thriving to this very day. Would you like me to compile her genealogy for reference?"
The unexpected question caused Ranma's mental train of thought to shift, but he smiled to himself as a layer of doubt and self-recrimination faded away with the answer to his question. At least something had gone right back then. The entire magical castle thing around him? Too far removed. It still hadn't registered even if he knew the cause and effect intellectually. But Avril? That was something personal. Something good. The martial artist turned his attention back to the patiently waiting hologram with lighter spirits. "Sure, why not. Maybe later, though."
The pink-hued woman merely nodded serenely. "Done. Will there be anything else?"
"Nah, you've done enough," Ranma smiled at the representation of Avril D'Lenica. "Thanks… Avril-chan."
The woman inclined her head graciously and faded from existence. Ranma watched her disappear then returned his gaze to the crystal in hand contemplating just what he had inherited. The pink glow likewise faded. He stared after if for another moment before rising himself, determined to—
"It's open," Ranma stated again, wondering just who was at the door. He was just donning the gold chain and data jewel it bore around his neck when the door swung open to admit his newest visitor. He glanced back to greet his new arrival, but the words never made it out of his mouth. Setsuna Meiou was already stalking across the room with purpose, her red eyes and enigmatic smile for him and him alone. Ranma blinked at the advancing woman. The pink robe from her last visit was gone in favor of her guardian fuku and the pigtailed boy was once again reminded that it did wonderful things for her toned physique. The deliberate sway in her walk made it impossible to ignore his fellow guardian as she advanced.
"Ah, Setsuna?" Ranma swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry as the woman stepped into his space with a smoldering look. He took a voluntary step back, but it served to delay their meeting by exactly one point eight seconds. "what's going—"
His missive was sealed by her lips and her arms snaked around him to cut off his escape. Ranma's resistance was short-lived as she deepened the kiss while applying her body to his in full. Her hands found his and began to guide them down her back as an open invitation to enjoy everything she had to offer. Somewhere through it Ranma's higher brain function simply cut out and with it, active resistance. It wasn't participation per se, but The Senshi of Time was providing all the participation necessary for the both of them. She pushed him back and onto the couch where he simply fell into a sitting position. Setsuna followed the wide-eyed teen down, straddling him along the waist.
She stared down at him with that mysterious smile and the pigtailed teen's cheeks pinkened. Part of it was the intensity with which she favored him. The other was their position, knowing there was no way she could miss the involuntary physical reaction to her proximity.
"Ah... ah... Setsuna...?" The martial artist gibbered, trying to reconcile the actions of the woman sitting on top of him with the aloof one that had just left the room. "What...whateryadoing?"
"Cheering you up." She advised breathily, leaning down to apply herself to Ranma in full. Waves of vibrant green hair fell around him as her warm bosom pressed against his chest.
"Ranma, I forgot to mention that WHAT IN NINE HELLS IS GOING ON HERE?!"
The lust-borne haze Ranma had been lured into was blown away by the surprised screech and his head snapped to the source: A woman standing in the open doorway. She too had emerald green hair, red eyes and wore an expression nearly as stunned as his. The Setsuna straddling him merely smiled as if she had expected the outburst and lifted herself off, brushing her hair aside as she turned to her identical twin wearing a fuzzy pink robe.
The Sailor Pluto in the doorway stared, her head snapping from her doppelganger to the equally shellshocked martial artist and back, gaping for several moments before actually recovering enough to speak her mind. "What are you doing?!"
The playful smile never left the other's lips and she turned a knowing gaze to Ranma. "I thought I made that perfectly clear, don't you?"
"Ah, that's not-! I mean... What the hell?!" Ranma blurted, staring at both as the feeling of impending doom seemed to become a very tangible thing around him. Two Setsunas. And he had just been caught in a very compromising position with one of them. So dead.
"We cannot be using the Time Gates for such... such... frivolity!" The robe-clad guardian all but screeched, striding into the room to confront her twin.
"That's not what we said in Venice, hmmm?" The other suggested, causing her counterpart's brow to crinkle.
"That was over a thousand years ago!"
The uniformed Pluto nodded as if the objection were beneath her notice and held her hand out into empty air. The time key materialized along a line of light, it's golden length dropping into her hand. The woman brought the staff back to lean across her shoulder, stepping by the other Sailor Pluto as she did. She paused, leaning into the woman's space with a secretive smile.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," She whispered just loud enough to where Ranma was sure to hear as well and left for the doorway. She was gone a moment later, leaving two dumbfounded Guardians in her wake.
An awkward silence followed Ranma Saotome and Setsuna Meiou as their faculty guide led them down one of the many grand halls that seemed to comprise the makeup of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This particular grand hall had been built with equally grand windows that perfectly framed the morning rays spilling across the castle fortress, painting the lush forest landscape beyond them in vibrant color and light.
The architecture and scene were, for the most part, lost on both guardians. The awkward silence had not only followed them through this hall, but the preceding ones, breakfast, and all the casual probing Konatsu had attempted throughout their transit. The male kunoichi trailed behind, glancing from one to the other curious as to what had precipitated the condition. With no response forthcoming, he merely followed, hoping a clue to their mutual behavior would present itself sooner or later... Though the occasional eye contact and blushing between the two wasn't exactly a good sign.
Ranma, on the other hand, knew full well as to the cause of silence and felt not only the awkward silence following her around, but the cloud of impending doom as well. Her luck with women had never been what one called fortuitous, even if it had come in absurd quantities. This particular encounter had illustrated that fact clearly, but they usually followed some cause and effect. That cause and effect usually had something to do with the redhead's father. This one, on the other hand...
'What category does this even fall into?' Ranma wondered morbidly as she secreted a glance at the woman studiously minding their path of travel. Mirror clones? Love Potions? Reversal Jewels? The possibilities were endless when it came to Setsuna and her apparently less inhibited twin.
'Make that three Setsunas,' Ranma boggled as the fact was recalled through the confusion. Each had been the same person, yet slightly different. The Silver Millenium version had been the epitome of stoic duty. This one was still that person yet seemed... less rigid? Ranma allowed a small measure of humor to insert itself into the analysis. 'Guess twenty thousand years'll do that to you.'
The third Setsuna. Teasing. Playful. Amorous. The memory of her kiss flashed unbidden through her mind's eye, causing the redhead to nearly miss her next step. If they were all variations on a theme, what did the third represent? 'My death,' Ranma's psyche snarked, wondering what it meant as she attempted to dissect the encounter. On that note, how she was still alive and not smote by righteous feminine fury was still a mystery. Any other woman, even the most moderate of his fiancees would have-
"I must apologize for my behavior."
Ranma blinked, staring at the still rigid woman walking beside him. First, there was the precedent that she was apologizing for the compromising situation she had walked in on. Second, she was apologizing for the other Setsuna's actions when clearly they weren't...
Past. Present. Future? The idea was just forming within the pigtailed teen's head when Setsuna elaborated on it herself. "I'm not sure... what was going through my brain at the time, but that was entirely uncalled for. I hope this doesn't damage our professional relationship."
If the first apology had been unexpected, the follow up was absolutely surreal in Ranma's humble opinion. This time the redhead turned fully to her, eyeing her skeptically. "But that wasn't you."
"It was my future aspect, so it was me in every respect," The emerald haired guardian finally managed hesitant eye contact. "At some point uptime, I must have decided that was a good idea and back-stepped through the time gates to initiate the encounter."
More of 'that' flashed through Ranma's brain and she began to feel warm in spite of the cool air circulating through the grand hall they had almost reached the end of. A large door dominated its end but went completely unnoticed. There was no competition as to which occupied the majority of the teen's attention.
Her name broke the hormonal trance occupying inordinate portions of her brain and Ranma's head snapped over to sight her partner. The Saotome attempted to pick the conversation back up in a seamless manner as last night's memories danced playfully in the background.
"Ah, yeah, no worries," She ad-libbed with feigned ease. Ranma scratched her head nervously, attempting to smile her way through the situation. "My fault too, I guess. After two Setsuna's I shoulda probably realized there would be a third."
Setsuna's eyebrow arched with the impromptu humor, even if it was fueled by uncomfortable nervousness. It was also probably the closest she would get toward acceptance, so she merely nodded. "Thank you. The future is malleable to a degree. Foreknowledge is forbearance, as they say."
"I'll take your word for it," The martial artist nodded, already knowing he was way out of her temporal league when it came to the manipulation of time. And in other areas. Part of her brain was screaming that she didn't need this kind of shit, while the other... A slight, goofy grin unknowingly took up residence upon the martial artist's lips. The Guardian of Pluto noted it, watching its formation curiously.
"What?" Setsuna probed, wondering what had replaced the uncertainty. The redhead blinked, catching herself. The nervous humor returned abruptly as Ranma desperately reached to cover the lapse.
"Heh, at least you could hold your own against the fiancées," Ranma chuckled uneasily, throwing her a fake smile before riveting her eyes back to their path of travel. She sped up her pace slightly to keep up with their guide. The Guardian of Time stared at her nervous counterpart and softly sighed, resigning herself to the fact that would probably be the best she could hope for out of the situation she had somehow led herself into. Worse, it hadn't been corrected as a matter of course. She knew of the event, knew it would cause a problem, yet still hadn't countermanded its occurrence at any point between now and then.
That alone was worrisome.
'What in the hell were you thinking, Setsuna?' She berated herself as they crossed into a smaller hallway. She wanted to say it wouldn't happen, but it had and still had after the fact. Another mental sigh resounded through her thought process. 'The last thing I need to do is traumatize a potential ally like that.'
Her study drifted from the red crop of hair down her back as she thought on the matter, where Ranma's graceful gait did all sorts of wonderful things to her athletic, hourglass figure. Her gaze lingered, absently admiring the cursed work of art until spontaneous realization caught up to her.
Suddenly she knew exactly what her future aspect had been thinking.
Even as she was cursing herself out mentally, their mutual guide had stopped at a windowed door. Upon it was the number '112' stenciled elegantly in black, followed by the words 'Department of Divinations and Scrying'.
"The Professor is waiting for you inside, Guardians," Their attendant advised, turning the tarnished brass knob to open the door. It creaked open and he stepped aside, motioning toward the interior. Ranma peered into the darker room and shrugged, stepping through the threshold. Setsuna and Konatsu followed, soon finding themselves in cluttered space already occupied by two people. One was known to them and he stood aside at the nearest window. Instead of the drab cloak from the previous night, the headmaster was adorned in a scarlet robe, watching as the room's other occupant continued to pour what looked like fine grain sand in the rooms center.
"Ah, our esteemed guests have arrived," Dumbledore noted, stepping around the circle's construction. He gave the trio each a brief handshake as the woman recovered from her kneeling position, brushing away several long strands of frazzled brown hair. The coke bottle thick glasses were her predominant feature, magnifying her eyes to the point of ridiculousness while the heavy cotton dress and baubles adorning her person all but screamed eccentric bag lady to their visitors.
"Oh!" She exclaimed, straightening out the rumples in her plain gray dress as she rose. Her smile was warm in spite of the crazy lady appearance and she enthusiastically greeted the trio. "I never thought I would see my Great great grandmother's vision come to pass, but here you are in the flesh!"
She took each of their hands in kind, giving it a gentle, yet hardy shake. Setsuna's curious look was noted by the Professor, who filled in the blanks. "Guardians, this is Miss Sybil Trelawney, Hogwarts very own Divinations Mistress. She will be helping us locate your artifacts of power."
"So good to meet you," The older woman effused, then gestures to the cluttered room as a whole. "I ask that you excuse the mess... My workspace doubles as a classroom and practical lab much of the time."
Ranma glanced around at the clutter, taking it all in for herself. Stacks for cards. Bags of tea leaves. A crystal ball sat prominently off to the side and somehow the redhead didn't doubt that in a magical castle full of wizards and witches, that particular orb was fully functional. After a moment, a connection was made within her thoughts. If Professor Dumbledore's office had been Cologne's bedroom, then this woman's work space was the closet.
"Think nothing of it," The Guardian of Time offered graciously. "We're merely content that you have deemed us worthy of your gifts.
"Oh, no, nononono!" The diviner insisted emphatically, returning to her work on the floor. She reopened the drawstring bag and continued to meter out sand, this time in straight lines with the occasional glance over her shoulder. "The honor is entirely mine! To have the Guardians of the Silver Millennium here upon my doorstep!"
With that they watched Sybill complete the seal on the floor in different color sands for the various lines and overlapping circles. A burning candle was borrowed from one of the nearby bookshelves and after accidentally scalding her fingers on the liquid wax, began pouring it strategically around the circle. She explained her preparations throughout the process, this time pulling a vial of golden fluid from a shelf, appearing for all intents and purposes to be honey to the untrained eye.
"Artifacts of power can be obtuse and difficult to divine," The woman advised as she poured the honey-like liquid in the shape of a star within the center-most ring. It seemed to disappear immediately upon contacting the floor. "The testimony of one who has touched that which we seek will substantially increase our success in this venture as does knowing their resting place."
Ranma cocked her head with the information, raising her left hand. "I touched two of 'em."
All eyes turned on the redheaded girl. Even Setsuna stared. "You did?"
"Venus's blade and that staff you haul around," The martial artist admitted nonchalantly. "Damned if I can tell you where they are now though. All that action around the gate-"
"You touched these artifacts...?"
"...Near the evacuation site itself?
Both questions came nearly simultaneously from The Senshi of Pluto and the diviner herself, leaving the Saotome blinking. "Uh, yeah?"
"Such valuable aid," Miss Trelawney muttered, suddenly digging through a cabinet. Items were pulled out at random until a pair of beaten four inch scissors were acquired. She snipped at the air reflexively and turned back to Ranma. "Miss Guardian Red, a lock of your hair would be ever so helpful in finding the items which we seek."
The martial artist eyed the woman as if she were crazy. It didn't help that she looked borderline crazy to begin with. Ranma glanced back to Setsuna for confirmation who simply nodded. She dipped her head to allow the woman access to her red mane. A quick, careful snip relieved a four centimeter length of scarlet and the seer then turned to the Guardian of Pluto. "One of these artifacts is yours, am I not correct? The Time Key? Golden in length, the ruby crystal of fate...?"
"You are," Setsuna returned easily, but shook her head. "My reincarnation will undoubtedly interfere with any sample you take from me, however. My cohort's offering should suffice."
Unspoken was the fact that she hadn't actually touched the artifact in question. That had been a different Setsuna. One in the same, though it was the subtle difference that would matter here. The brown haired woman puzzled over the matter, but it was Dumbledore who inserted himself helpfully into the proceedings to spare her any further questions.
"I think we shall need a map of the moon to mark the locations," The wizard stroked his long gray beard thoughtfully. "The older, the better I suspect. I shall send a runner to-"
"I should be able to help with that."
The air shimmered pink and the AI avatar of Avril D'Lencia materialized alongside them, looking to Ranma specifically. "If I may, Mistress?"
Ranma blinked with slight surprise, glancing quickly down to her chest where the necklace bound gem rested. It glowed a soft pink, indicating it's activation. Ranma glanced up with a nod as the surprise passed. "Go for it, Avril-chan."
"She commands the First Oracle..." Sybil mumbled, clutching at the overly large beads of her necklace reverently. Even as she stared in awe, the holographic woman disappeared and was quickly replaced by a three meter wire frame sphere that hung floating in empty air. Various pink squares dotted the surface and detailed topography could be seen amongst the wire mesh.
"I am projecting a pre-Fall map of the Moon's surface," A disembodied female voice explained. The squares began to scroll text beside them, first in some unrecognizable language. Translations were provided below in Japanese and English. "The Evacuation site is here."
The pink tinted Moon rotated across a diagonal axis to center on the capitol, where the depiction promptly zoomed into cityscape detail. Buildings and streets came into view, and with them, the capitol building itself. A prominent triangle was displayed along its west boundary. Small symbols began to spring up randomly around the city, with no less than five within capitol grounds. There was a circle with a canted arrow. Another circle with horns and a cross hanging from it. A similar circle but with only the hanging cross resided closer to the evacuation site. The symbol of a crescent moon sat close by.
"Okay, but what does all of this mean?" Ranma wondered aloud, then noticed the solemn faces around her. Only Konatsu wondered like herself and a sense of foreboding settled in her stomach at the unknown she was seeing. She turned to Setsuna, whose own expression was equally grave. "What?"
"They are planetary symbols, Ranma," Setsuna advised softly and began to point them out one by one. "Mercury. Venus. Mars. The Moon." She paused at one in particular, taking a deep breath for herself. "Pluto."
"What's that got to do with..." Ranma began, but her voice trailed off as the placement of the symbols began to register. She couldn't have known what happened to Sailor Mercury, Mars or Jupiter, but she had been personally present for Venus, Moon and Pluto.
They were memorials.
The last recorded positions of the Guardians of the Silver Millenium.
In spite of being comprised of programming and code, the AI of Avril D'lencia seemed to pick up on the gaff and moved to correct it. "My apologies, Mistress. I will remove the markers immediately."
"No, they're..." Ranma paused with the weight of emotion, but pushed through it. She received a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder from Setsuna before countermanding their removal. "...They're fine where they are, Avril-chan."
"If I am correct, this would be your last known position," Dumbledore strode around the map, pointing to the corresponding symbol just beyond the late Sailor Moon's own. It was the lower half of a circle with five lines dropping away from it like rays. The aged wizard turned fully to Ranma. "Can you extrapolate the location of the artifacts based on this, Guardian?"
"I think so," The martial artist murmured, eyeing the map critically. If that represented what she thought it did, there was a chi tornado in hand, ready to be dispensed at that very location twenty thousand years ago. There was one more element to add. "Avril-chan, last location of Beryl."
"Done." The gentle feminine voice advised and a circle inlaid with a cross spontaneously materialized within close proximity of Ranma's. The redhead traced a finger across the map, eyeing the markers of the Moon, Venus and Pluto.
"I think the sword is about there. The staff, maybe there..." She turned back to the Guardian of Time with an apologetic look. "...Wasn't exactly payin' attention to which demon I buried it in."
"As long as it found a home in one of them," Setsuna smiled with a trace of humor, nodding. She turned to Hogwart's resident seer. "Will that be close enough to get a precise fix?"
"Yes, yes, definitely yes," The bespeckled woman bobbed her head enthusiastically. "Are there others we yet seek?"
"A glaive of silence, a mirror of portents and a scimitar of power," The guardian listed, then cocked her head. "And the Queen's Crystal, for all the good it will do us."
Sybil and Dumbledore stared with no small amount of wonder.
"I... I see," The frazzled woman mumbled at the array of weapons mentioned only in myth and legend. Sybil seemed to chew on her own knuckle with uncertainty. "Have... have we any association with the artifacts in question? A general whereabouts would be most helpful. Have you touched...?"
"Unfortunately, no," Setsuna shook her head, recalling the finer details. "Uranus and Neptune went dark in the opening hours of The Fall, presumably ambushed. The glaive was last detected leaving the solar system at escape velocity after Saturn's Silence of the demon Chakravartin just beyond Mars' orbit. The Queen's Crystal... That should still be at rest with her, I would assume."
"Most difficult, most difficult indeed," The frazzled seer mumbled, chewing on her thumb as she too contemplated the obstacles. The sword and the key were all but certainties. The redhead across from her had actually touched them and moreover, could pin down their locations within a few hundred meters. Neither guardian had touched the queen's crystal- mumbled reverence escaped her throat as she thought of the artifact –but it's location was known, too. Though the fate of her Majesty's crystal was far from certain, its acquisition wasn't impossible.
The other artifacts of power, however…
"We will do our best," Sybil nodded emphatically, but qualified the statement hastily. "Definitely our best… But there are numerous, numerous variables involved and I should hate to—"
The emerald haired guardian put a calming hand on her shoulder, breaking the woman's spiral of worry. She found a kind smile favoring her as Pluto spoke. "Your best is all we ask."
The sorceress blinked then smiled, inclining her head respectfully. "Th-Thank you M'lady."
"Preparations will need to be made, of course," Dumbledore advised the guardians, glancing to the bespeckled woman for confirmation. She nodded her agreement. "A few days, I suspect. Until such time I'm afraid you must endure our continued hospitality."
"The horror." Setsuna deadpanned to the professor, who produced a wrinkled smirk of his own before turning back to the faculty seer.
"I was just about to escort the guardians to breakfast, Miss Trelawney," The aged wizard asked politely as he opened the door for his guests. "Would you like to accompany us?"
The woman's eyes widened, but she shook her head, gesturing to the office around her. "The offer is most, most kind. But I have already had mine and there are many preparations to make. Quite many for such an undertaking."
"Then we will leave you to them." Dumbledore nodded and stepped out into the hallway with Ranma, Setsuna and Konatsu in tow. The headmaster glanced back at his guests as they exited, gesturing down the intended path of travel. "The faculty dining hall is in this direction, Guardians."
The nervous scryer watched the four leave, glancing indecisively between the closing door and the red lock of hair held between her fingertips. Sybil let a pent up sigh escape, turning back to the unfinished divination circle and the cramped space surrounding it. A crystal blade. The ruby key of time. A glaive of silence. A mirror of portents. A scimitar of power. The Queen's crystal.
Miss Sybil Trelawney began to chew at her knuckles with renewed uncertainty.
She was going to need a much bigger circle.
Silver plates of food floated gently up and down the length of one of the great tables furnishing the spacious dining hall of Hogwarts School for Wizards and Witches. Each one was filled with various foods to be partaken of as it drifted leisurely by the multitude of students. At the head master's table, one such plate drifted by Setsuna Meiou, who forked a sausage from its silver surface. Ranma's appetite, however, was more demanding and several were relieved from the sterling platter in a blur, only to watch the plate instantly replenish itself by growing more sausages. The crystal glass of orange juice she had likewise nursed through a plateful of pancakes conveniently topped itself off, much to her amazement. The levitating candles and ghostly apparitions flitting to and fro were almost beneath her notice.
Ranma Saotome was in food heaven.
Professor Dumbledore watched the girl's antics with amusement from several places down, marveling at the dichotomy of personalities he was playing host to. The guardian of Pluto was the epitome of duty. She was calm and collected, unlike her boisterous Starlight counterpart. The cross-dressing kunoichi compatriot seemed content with people watching as she consumed a small stack of pancakes in the politest manner possible.
All three were ignoring the attention riveted to their person as the rest of the student body ate at the common tables, murmuring hushed rumors and gossip concerning his guests. The headmaster knew that wouldn't last, however. Eventually one of the students would become brave enough to approach them directly and the celebrity floodgates would open. The Guardian of Pluto would likely endure it as a matter of station. The kunoichi would be too polite to turn it away. Guardian Red, on the other hand… Dumbledore chuckled to himself with the thought. She didn't seem like the type to take being a celebrity lying down.
A presence brushed within close proximity to his person, and the aging wizard glanced up, noting a familiar face as it passed. It also reminded him that there was still business to be taken care of. Dumbledore cleared his throat softly to gain the man's attention.
"A word if I may, Serverus?"
The black clad professor's walk slowed to a halt as he considered his superior and after a moment, nodded. Dumbledore motioned to the empty seat next to him, inviting him to sit down. Professor Snape nodded, though his movements were slow and cautious, as if wary of the meeting. The pale man settled in, carefully setting his plate down as he sat while the headmaster's attentions seemed elsewhere.
"Have you met them yet?" Dumbledore asked conversationally, gesturing to the three guardians at the end of the table. Serverus Snape's wary gaze turned toward the trio, then back to his superior.
"I cannot say that I have, professor." He drawled while still trying to discern the intent behind their small talk. The potions master decided to probe further. "Were you planning… Introductions?"
"Of sorts," The professor replied cryptically, stroking his long, white beard. His full attention returned to the black haired man to his right. "This game of shadows we play… Its rules have always been dictated by who and what we have on hand, no more, no less."
Serverus schooled his face, ruthlessly crushing any emotional tell it might harbor at the mention of their elicit plans. "Continue…?"
"That has changed," The professor stared at the modest goblet of wine next to the fruit plate that had taken casualties to his appetite. He took the decorated stem and began to slowly rotate the glass and the red liquid within. "Two Guardians of the Silver Millennium have graced us with their presence and have indicated a desire to support our efforts."
It was a simple statement from a complex man who was already working through the implications. The headmaster merely nodded, already knowing the conclusions his longtime associate was coming to. "Indeed. As such, I believe it is time to revise the rules of the game."
Professor Snape favored the older man with a penetrating stare. The rules of the game they played were as complex as they were lethal. Lethal for him. Lethal for the man next to him. Lethal to every last student inside these walls. It was a game where the moves were limited and the very pieces turned against them. The dark lord was moving in the shadows, biding his time until…
For the briefest moment, a pained look flashed across his pale expression. It was replaced by the uncaring mask almost as quickly as it had surfaced, but the professor had seen it. The elder nodded almost sympathetically. His sympathy was unneeded however. Snape turned his gaze away from Dumbledore's attentions. "Then dare I ask what you have in mind, Professor?"
"I believe the time for subtly has come to an end," Dumbledore tapped a finger on the table for emphasis as his gaze wandered back to the throng of excited students encroaching on the guardians' table for autographs now that he wasn't there to project an aura of decorum. "The Ministry of Magic will either lend their support or wallow in reluctance, but our time is now."
Snape eyed the growing spectacle of celebrity for a moment before turning back upon the headmaster, his eyes narrowing on the old man as his intentions became clear. "You intend to take the fight to Him."
Dumbledore nodded solemnly. "Fortune favors the bold."
"And the foolish." Serevus concluded pessimistically, but didn't necessarily disagree as his attention was once again drawn down the table to the three guardians. Still, there was one piece of the puzzle missing from this ill-advised venture. He turned back to headmaster. "Tell me, am I to be the fool in question?"
Professor Dumbledore favored the man with a measured stare, then shook his head. "Many things you may be, but a fool is not one of them."
"So what, then, pray tell?" Snape pressed, hoping to cut to the heart of the matter in a timely fashion. The gray haired wizard next to him merely smiled slightly.
"I am removing you from your post as Potions Master, effective immediately." Dumbledore advised gravely. His associate arching his eyebrow skeptically, such was the limit of his shock. "Simply put, I intend to put you in harm's way, Sererus Snape."
The Half-Blood Prince merely frowned. Somehow that did not come as any surprise at all.
Three men and two women gathered in secret.
They were mages, experts in the field of magic and skilled in their own right. They also represented the various faculty of Hogwarts School of Wizardry, though it was the sensitive nature of the topic they discussed that currently drove the need for a more clandestine setting. The subject matter in question was neither for the ears of the students they taught nor a matter to be shared as trivial gossip. In short, it required the highest level of discretion if they were to intervene at all.
"She bares a curse." One of the sorceresses stated lowly, as if raising her voice might very well give their meeting away to unseen agents. The others nodded in agreement and a wizard to the right of her tapped his fingers on the white oak table they sat at, as if to meter his own thoughts.
"I sensed it as well." He confirmed the fact, frowning. "No doubt acquired during one of the many campaigns she fought."
"Albus must know by now." Another robed figure spoke, steepling his fingers to his lips as he spoke. "The taint is subtle, but there."
"Death magic." The second of the pair of witches all but spat the words.
"Did anybody get a closer look at it?" One of the wizards cocked his head and received a nod from the magic practitioner sitting next to him.
"When the students were pressing her for autographs." He nodded, then smiled with slight humor. "Right after she disappeared completely from their sight that is. Scared the bork out of me, popping out next to me in the hallway like that."
"She was quite apologetic and continued on her—oh, right." He continued, resetting his train of thought with the impatient looks from his peers. "It appeared to be a self-replenishing mana trigger tied directly to her ability to change genders. Water based if I'm not mistaken."
"Doesn't sound like much of a curse to me." The first witch stated, seemingly unsure as to the veracity of her colleague's testimony.
"Ah, perhaps not to us." The wizard at the head of the table countered, earning the undivided attention of the sorcerous and his fellow instructors. "A Starlight, on the other hand…"
"That's… Oh, dear me…" The sorceress's eyes widened even as another mage caught up to the same implication.
"…To have your natural birthright ripped away by a capricious curse." He mumbled, seeing the train of logic through to its bitter end. The wizard glanced back to their eyewitness account. "What sort of water trigger, mind you?"
"A variable frequency gradient, if I'm not mistaken." The wizard stated, earning another doubtful look from his audience.
"Temperature based…?" One stated in an almost incredulous tone of voice while another simply shook his head.
"Must be merry hell to deal with in any sort of social setting." The wizard frowned openly now.
He had no idea how right he was.
"Especially if you're part of a race that is used to changing genders at will." The witch next to him shrugged sympathetically. "And if ye wanted to be really evil about it, throw in a water affinity in there somewhere."
And there it was laid bare—The dignity of a Guardian of the Silver Millennium stripped away by a malcontent evil and a devious, seemingly juvenile curse. The geas afflicting her didn't represent a mere inconvenience—it quite literally denied her of her Starlight birthright. It was an intolerable insult to the witches and wizards owing their very existence to the woman that had stared down the gates of hell so that their ancestry would live.
For the five sitting in that room, it was an opportunity to repay a debt long overdue.
For many it is the end all, be all of their existence; a life's goal unto itself, if you will. Ranma Saotome was no exception to that desire, save that her desire for fame encompassed a very specific focus: To be the best. The redhead now stalking the halls of Hogwarts School of Wizardry didn't desire her name in lights or wealth beyond imagination- she simply wanted to be recognized as the preeminent martial artist of her time, if not in so many words.
Few would deny their fame if it were handed to them on a silver platter and fewer still would run away from it. The heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts certainly wasn't one of those people.
Ranma preferred to call it a strategic withdrawal.
Everywhere the neogirl went within the school of magic, she was not just a celebrity, but a hero. Even that was perhaps understating the tsunami of attention she was receiving: They treated her as their savior. Few things unnerved the redhead beyond a childhood event involving large quantities of fish sausage and a pit of starving cats, but her stay at Hogwarts was turning out to be one of them.
The hallway she had ducked into appeared to be empty, allowing Ranma to let loose a sigh of relief. She glanced back around the corner into the more populated hall noting that she seemed to have lost most of her… fans. The word left her with a shiver that had nothing to do with pleasure or excitement and she slumped against the wall now that she had been allowed room to breath.
Autographs. Praise. Pictures. One of the students had even asked her to sign his broom. Blue eyes traced the corridor she now found herself in, finding that it bore the same gothic hallmarks as many of the others she had walked. Gothic scrollwork seemed to dominate the various pillars and walls and while pleasing to the eye, did nothing to help her fix her location within the school itself.
In a word, Ranma was lost.
Lost was still preferable to the alternative so the martial artist took the moment to distract herself, exploring her surroundings with passing interest. The English castle was a stark contrast to the temples and architecture she had grown up around, while her steps through the fractal rays of stained glass portraits acting as a skylight. She stopped to stare upwards into the luminous portrait, finding what appeared to be eight female warriors wielding spears of light against a monstrosity that looked vaguely female.
The girl cocked her head in study before losing interest, continuing on down the hall until it emptied out through an archway and into a large room that was thankfully just as empty as the hall. Unfortunately it was barren, featuring little more than a series of beaten wooden tables that look nearly as ancient as the castle itself. At the front of the room was a stool and…
'…a hat?' Ranma stared at what looked like a patchwork leather hat sitting haphazardly atop the seat. Like the furniture and castle itself, there was no doubting its age even though the pointed cap looked like many she had already seen atop the faculty themselves. That said, it was barely worth a shrug to the martial artist…
…Until it spoke.
"You there," The redhead blinked as her step to exit stalled with its words, causing her to turn back to the source of the voice. The room was still empty, but the hat was now looking at her. Or at least Ranma thought it was looking at her. It's dilapidated folds now seemed to accommodate eyes and a mouth causing the girl to stared as it continued. "I don't believe I recognize you."
"Ah…" Ranma fought for words, cognizant of the awkward fact that she was about to talk to a hat.
'Can't be any worse than talkin' to a painting,' She decided with a hesitant shrug and tried to reboard her train of thought. "Can't say we've met."
"No, no we haven't." The hat acknowledged sagely, then gestured with the point of its crown, waving her in. "But do feel free to join me. Visitors become scarce once the students have been sorted into their respective houses."
"Um, sure." The redhead couldn't bring herself to refuse the polite request, and found herself walking further into the room. Still eyeing the magical hat, she grasped weakly for a topic of conversation. "So… The sorting?"
…Of which she knew nothing about, but the hat seemed pleased to talk about it. "A fine one this year! Hufflepuff seems to be making a resurgence after a bit of a slump in membership. Now if they can only sort out their Quidditch lineup as well."
"That bad?" The martial artist feigned familiarity while awaiting some point at which she could politely extricate herself from the off encounter. The chatty hat would have none of it, however.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they start giving their team a handicap." The headwear affected a putout sigh as it continued, shaking itself doubtfully. "Not much breathing space between the great Gryffindor-Slytherin rivalry, I'm afraid."
Rivalries were something the girl across from the magical hat was familiar with and she nodded in kind. "Sometimes you need a good rival to kick the shit out of you if you're gonna improve any."
"Hmmm, well put," The hat nodded thoughtfully. Then seemed to cock what passed as it's head. "I don't believe I ever got your name, Miss…?"
"Ranma." The girl answered, finding it hard not to smirk agreeably at the headwear.
"Not a student but too young for the faculty… Hmm… A mystery." The cap's brow scrunched, exaggerating it's already numerous folds. "Please, be so kind as to wear me."
"Wear you?" Ranma's own brow arched with the unusual request but decided to humor the unusual garment. She hopped up from her own seat and stepped over to the hat, picking it up carefully. "I guess?"
"Don't be shy. Right on top now." The hat stated imperiously. The prompting emboldened the martial artist who in turn seated the dilapidated hat atop her head where it continued its musings. "Indeed… Very interesting. A strong will there…"
The teen blue eyes were focused upward as the magical construct shifted atop her head with indecision. The experience was a surreal one for the girl, who endured its continued speculations.
"Hardly one for occulmancy… Though there is a taste of shapeshifting in you…" It continued to hum until finally coming to a conclusion. "But that fire… Are you by any chance a chance a defense against the dark arts specialist?"
Ranma cocked her head slightly, crooking a smile. "You could say that."
"Of course you are." The hat returned smugly from atop her head. "That spirit of yours is unmistakable if I must say."
"I'll take that as a compliment." Ranma chuckled moving to extricate the sorting hat as it continued.
"And you should. Though if I could ask a favor…?" The hat asked, forestalling its removal.
"What's that?" She asked and the cap produced an unseen smile from above.
"Once again, I must apologize for the… near riot in the dining hall, Guardians," Professor Dumbledore glanced over at the fuku clad woman and her kunoichi cohort keeping pace alongside him. "It was only a matter of time, I'm afraid."
"If it were only an unabashed ego to mention it was not the first, nor will it be the last such occurrence." Setsuna Meiou simply inclined her head graciously as they walked down the hall, receiving deferential nods from the students as they did.
The shift was obvious to the headmaster now that the dam of celebrity had broken. Normally he would be the one on the receiving end of those respectful nods, and while he still was, the woman next to him eclipsed his presence by several orders of magnitude. She seemed to accept the attention as if it were a matter of station; station that was in fact her birthright.
Guardian Red, on the other hand, hadn't.
More to the point, she had chosen to vanish into thin air at the peak of the onslaught, leaving the throng of students gasping… And thereby inadvertently propelling her fame to new heights. A slight smile edged its way to the old man's lips at the thought before returning his attention to the emerald haired woman.
"Even so, that will be the last such… mob," He assured her, his voice booming across the dining hall already having issued that particular decree. Far be it for his guests- particular ones as important as these –to fear being ambushed at every turn by an overly hopeful student.
Then again, it was hard to actually blame them.
"Though that does leave us a slight problem…" Sailor Pluto nodded agreeably, and if he didn't know any better, a smile to match his own concerning her counterpart.
"…That being the whereabouts of guardian-"
"That's a very interesting hat you've found, Miss Ranma!" Konatsu's purely feminine voice piped, Dumbledore and Setsuna's eyes to swivel first on him, then the martial artist approaching them. To the emerald haired woman's surprise, her partner was indeed wearing a hat on her head.
A hat with a face.
A hat that she was actively carrying on a conversation with.
"Wait, the Queen knighted you?" Ranma arched a brow up at the hat, as she joined the trio. The hat nodded the pointy tip of its leather structure.
"Sir Nigel Fathombottom, after all." The hat stressed his official title in a smug tone, earning a laugh from Ranma before falling silent upon noticing everybody staring at him. The slightest of teasing smiles found the edge of Setsuna's lips.
"New friend, Ranma-kun?" The woman tilted her head inquisitive while Konatsu leaned forward to study the wizard's hat while it seemed to stare back at him.
"Um, oh." Ranma hesitated with their combined attention. He gestured to the attentive assembly, singling out two individuals specifically. "Nigel, meet Setsuna and Konatsu. Meet Sir Nigel"
The Guardian of Pluto merely smiled back while the kunoichi dipped into a respectful bow. Dumbledore Crooked a sage smile. "I see you've made the acquaintance of Guardian Red, Nigel?"
"HA! I knew it." The leather hat's folds shifted with its enthusiasm as it tried to stare down at the redhead wearing it. "A Defense of the Dark Arts practitioner if there ever was."
"Don't you ever get tired of bein' right?" Rolled her eyes upward for the hat atop her head, who in turn responded in a haughty tone.
"Not in the least." The witches' hat smirked through its creases, then subtly turned its attention to the head wizard. "Though if I might make a request, headmaster?"
The wizened old wizard cocked his head curiously as the Sorting hat continued. "While I am quite fond of my pedestal, I find visitors to be few and far between once the sorting has taken place. It does become quite… dull."
"I understand,"Albus Dumbledore stroked the long white hairs of his beard in acknowledgement. "Did you have something in mind?"
Nigel the Sorting Hat merely smiled from atop its new pedestal.
Author's Notes- Yes, it's been a long time in coming. Life, procrastination, writer's block and my perennial case of The Shinies (I'm looking at you Succubus!Ranma) have contributed to vastly delayed work on this chapter. Many thanks to my Patre0n base for poking me with a sharp stick to get things done. The funny thing about that is that its less about financial motivation than it is obligation. People are showing their gratitude and it helps me focus my efforts. Even if you don't hit up my Patre0n, thanks your continued support. You're all awesome :D
Abuse; Special thanks to Frice and Mina for editing services rendered. It's a huge document an a lot to expect from anybody.
Shamless Plug- Patre0n/ozzallos. Yes, ffnet scrubs the correct spelling of the word "patre0n" as well as the URL. In either case, hit up the discord once you're there :D