I am the Alpha and the Omega.
Or, at least, that's how I thought of myself. Live for a dozen millennia or so, and you start forgetting that you're eventually supposed to shuffle on. I am Setsuna, last princess of Pluto, last intact legacy of the House of Serenity, last retainer to Her Royal Highness Serenity III, last survivor of the Terran War, last witness to the crimes of Lady Beryl, last this, last that...
And I have found that I can't last.
Saying I'm old doesn't cover it. I'm beyond old. I watched as Earth slowly rebuilt civilization from the ashes of war. I nudged here and there, to bring this new Terra to something a Beryl would have difficulty despoiling. Sometimes the work has been fun; remind me to tell you sometime about that whole Melchizedek thing. Other times... not so much. I have killed - an infection of malaria here, a plague there, the occasional assassin - all in the name of reshaping the world to what it needs to be. I have so much blood on my hands that the thought of washing it off doesn't even enter my mind.
Except on nights like this, when I feel everything I've done. I've sat in the court of Louis XVI, calmly suggesting how supporting the upstart American colonists would embarrass the British, even as I could see Louis' head awaiting the guillotine's blade. I've walked through Constantinople as the rats and fleas did their work, knowing how it would empower those who survived even as it killed in the millions. I even smiled at the body of my last husband, Atilla, as the potent wine bested him, knowing Roman culture, if not its society, would survive. I see every body I've laid to rest, every man, woman, and child betrayed by my cause, and every soul that cries out for vengeance.
You see, I have finally succeeded in my charge - which means it's time to count the cost. The marriage is tonight. Was tonight, sorry; I'm just a little inebriated at the moment. Usagi and Mamoru are married. Their power is sealed and in tune to such an extent that if Beryl were still around, she'd need a human sacrifice at the level that started the Terran War - and while such an event is possible, there's no way it could happen in the next fifty years.
Which leads me to my current dilemma. I want to relax. No. I don't want to relax. I want to live, or die. Let me rest in quiet seclusion, or let my bones feel the punishment of crimes far beyond murder. No in between, no more sins, no more manipulations like I've been doing. I have to decide - tonight - if I should leave. Take it on the chin for the next two millennia, or retire to that boat waiting for me in the Bahamas.
Oh, wait. Captain Kidd "appropriated" that boat, didn't he? I could buy a new one, I guess. Money was never an object. Only duty. And Guardian of the Gates of Time was never a light duty.
There have been a few people through the ages who could handle the responsibilities of the Gates of Time. Most are unknown, even their dust forgotten who they were. There are two alive now. One has been far too ravaged by time. But the other has incredible potential, the like that comes... well, comes about once every three hundred years or so. It takes a special gift to see through the chaos of time.
And, by an amazing coincidence, both will be in the same building, at the same time, tomorrow at noon. This will be my one chance. If I do not hand over the reins...
No. There is no choice anymore. It is time.
Her entrance stopped me cold.
In the village, we've had more than our share of deities and demons pass through. With the magic that courses through the Bayankala, it's no great surprise. Some come for the hospitality; some come for the scenery; some come for fun or mischief.
She... I hadn't seen her in over half a century. Dark skin, more like what could be found from India than China or Japan. Violet eyes that seemed to see through everything and everyone. Lustrous, long dark green hair that flowed down her back like a waterfall. As always, she hadn't aged a day - and I first saw her when I was a child. Her clothes, while adjusting to the styles of the day, were always noble, and always distinguished; her lavender suit simply matched this time period, just as the black cheongsam had centuries ago.
I took a deep breath, and pulled Son-in-law and Great-granddaughter in close. A diplomatic embarrassment here could be... bad. "See the woman who just entered? She... is the Oracle. She is one of the celestials that come through the village on occasion." My eyes turned to them, my look conveying the seriousness of the moment. "Be polite."
I glanced around, for once grateful that Mu Tsu was out on delivery. The last thing the Joketsuzoku need is an angry demigoddess. The Oracle never came on vacation; for her, it was all business. Oftentimes, when she entered the village, death followed. Her first visit in my lifetime was to personally destroy Pu Rashu before she sacrificed the tribe to open a gate to the demon plane. The last visit to the village was a warning to flee the area; the next day, foreign armies met and destroyed the ground we had called home. I hopped up to her, bowed, and motioned her to a table in the corner. "Greetings, Oracle. To what do we owe this honor?"
The Oracle looked to the other customers. "I suggest you let your customers finish their meals, then close early, Elder Khu Lon. We have much to discuss."
Only centuries of control kept my hands from shaking. I made my way to the front of the store and turn the sign to 'Closed'.
The conversation turned almost maddeningly banal as we waited for the customers to leave. The Oracle ("Call me Setsuna," she says. Heh.) complimented me on the tea and asked about the daily workings of our lives. The relationship between Son-in-law and my Shan Pu came up, of course; while I maintained the official tribal telling of the engagement, the history of Ranma, Akane, Ukyou, and Shan Pu was laid bare in all its glory. I didn't like the direction the conversation was headed. Son-in-law was clearly the focus of her attention - and I dare not go against her wishes.
The last customer left, the door was locked, and the curtains pulled down. No doubt she sensed my agitation. She sighed, took another sip of her tea, and looked up to the ceiling, her eyes focusing skyward as she gathered her thoughts. The very move made me want to run to the nearest mountain and bury myself beneath it. Whatever concerned her was going to involve pain, and a lot of it - and likely for Ranma.
"Once upon a time, the Earth - indeed, a great deal of this arm of the galaxy - was ruled by a set of royal families, headed by a queen, Serenity the Third. Magics the world could scarcely dream of bound a thousand worlds together in harmony. We ruled in peace; I, as princess of the ruling house of the planet you now know as Pluto, was a part of that court."
I nearly choked on my tea. The only thing that kept me in my chair was my responsibility as tribal elder. When a demigoddess starts telling you her life story, it's best to either run away or plead for mercy. The Oracle didn't like the story, either; her words came with the whisper of ghosts and the soft rumble of distant explosives.
"We were betrayed. A noble based on this planet sought to usurp Serenity's power - and was willing to sacrifice the lives and souls of her people to do so. She made a deal with a demonic entity known only as Metallia, and used the demonic hordes from that sacrifice to lay waste to the kingdom." Her breath shook - whether with fury, sorrow, or basic shock was hard to say. "Most of the planets were laid waste, or their populations annihilated when the magical barriers failed. My home and all my people were reduced to a floating block of ice in the darkness. Venus was baked to death, Mars became an unbreathable nightmare, and the Moon was left a smoking crater. That was twelve thousand, four hundred and thirty-eight years ago."
For perhaps the first time, I understood the field of play that the Oracle - no, Setsuna - worked with. While I've always known that humans were sometimes pawns in the games of deities, I had misunderstood the stakes of that game. It wasn't just one group of people against another. It was all groups of people against annihilation.
And that realization made my concerns for this meeting all the more palpable.
"Serenity gave her life to save the few remaining pockets of humanity. Beryl was imprisoned in the hell she'd chosen, never to be allowed release until the forces of life were ready to see her punished for her crimes. Until then... there were two tasks that needed to be fulfilled."
"To safeguard the life still there, and to destroy any demonic forces still remaining," Ranma replied.
I nearly choked upon hearing the words. One does not give answers to the deities unless asked!
The look in Setsuna's eyes, though, was far more answer than I ever wanted. I knew in that instant why the Oracle wanted Ranma. Ironically, it's the same thing both Happousai and myself wanted from the boy. All that remained was for the words to be said and the offer given.
"Indeed, Ranma. Those were the tasks that were required in the aftermath. For that, only two Senshi remained, both specifically trained and equipped for the job. The first, a young princess of Saturn, was given the task of destruction. She went to the planets where the demonic hordes had set up, and destroyed them entirely. The second task, of rebuilding and cultivating the human habitats that remained... was given to a young princess of Pluto."
She drained the last of her tea. I moved to refill her cup, but was stopped by a gentle hand.
"After the war, any civilization on Earth had been destroyed. The powers I wield are chronological in nature, so I could see the myriad possibilities the future offered, and make any adjustments necessary to preserve and cultivate the world we see today. These are not easy decisions; the people that can claim me as their murderer are far too numerous to contemplate. I have been - I am - the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. I have ruined crops, I have sent plagues to ravage civilizations, and I have pointed the arm of war to turn nation against nation. And yes, I have personally killed those who stood in the way of that goal. I am famine, plague, war, and death. And I do it so that life might continue and prevail." She sighed at that moment; I saw not the imperious goddess, but a tired, young-old woman. "My primary goal is done, oddly enough. Finished last night. Saw my princess married to her prince. One day, with the magic they're just beginning to understand, they'll rebuild the empire so painfully lost. Which means... if there is ever to be a change in the position, then now is the time."
Shan Pu figured it out before Ranma. I felt sorry for my great-granddaughter then. She'd fought so hard the past year, only to lose to something she couldn't fight against. To her credit, she didn't utter a word; only wide eyes and a shudder let me know of her revelation. Ranma, of course, took a bit longer.
"You want me to become your heir."
Setsuna nodded slowly. "You can see through chaos. Not many people can. In fact, it's a gift that comes around maybe once every couple hundred years. There are only two people other than myself who can see and understand the Gates of Time... and both of them are in this room. Unfortunately, one has already been far too ravaged by time."
Her eyes turned to me once more, and for the first time, I understood and accepted what was going on. This was the price I paid for the gifts I was given, and I would not shirk that payment - no matter how much it hurt.
"This is your choice, make no mistake. The cost is beyond anything you could possibly imagine. But... this task must be done, and I can't do it anymore." She held out her hand, resting it near both myself and Ranma. "Would you care to see what lies ahead?"
I can't win.
Oddly enough, that news doesn't feel as painful as it should. Maybe because Spatula Girl, Crazy Girl, and Kitchen Destroyer can't, either.
I'm used to it, in a way. I was never good enough. I worked hard, training to perfect my art long before the dawn came, and ending long after dusk had fallen. I was the best warrior among the other girls my age, so good that none of them could even touch me. They were no competition. No, my competition was much closer to home. From my earliest days of learning the art, all I heard was, "Great-grandmother could stand on one hand at age five", or "Great-grandmother was already learning the advanced techniques of the school by age eleven", or "Great-grandmother had already become Village Champion by age thirteen." I wasn't competing against the other warriors. I was competing with a ghost in an old woman's body.
Well, I finally earned the title of Village Champion - at age sixteen, true, but still earned well before anyone expected. And, as my first act as Village Champion, I challenged a vagabond girl and her pet panda, who were eating up my prize.
Ironically, even in that shameful defeat, opportunity presented itself. Airen was like Great-grandmother - powerful in the art to a breathtaking degree. To bring him - and her - back as my husband would have been a truly momentous achievement. We, together, would have produced strong daughters, ones that could measure up to the warriors of old, and help the tribe into an increasingly uncertain future.
I know, now, how silly that is. Oracle took all of us to... I don't even know how to begin describing the place. Imagine a holy circle, one ringed on several levels with metal instead of stone, with a crater inside the inner ring. Beyond the holy circle... nothing. I looked off in the distance, and could only see darkness. I couldn't even see where the floor ended and walls began.
Oracle explained the circle - the Time Gates, she called them - and then touched a pillar. Within the circle, a sphere lit up, with images flashing through in a seemingly random pattern. Some images were normal, pleasant life. Others... were anything but.
The scary part about all of it was the look in both Airen's and Great-grandmother's eyes. I could only make out the most basic of images from the Gates - a face here, a moment there. It was all a mess and a jumble to me. But Airen and Great-grandmother... they were taking in so much more. Whatever I saw as a mess, they understood, with the kind of clarity that only comes in a life-or-death fight.
After a minute, Airen backed away from the Gates. She wandered close to the void, and then vomited. I walked up to her, concerned for her health.
The look in her eyes was one of pure agony. Her words let me know that at least part of that agony was for me.
"Shan Pu... I'm sorry."
The words stopped me cold. "Why you sorry, Airen?"
She just shook her head. "I... I can't marry you, Shan Pu. Can't marry any of you."
"A... any of us? What you mean?" I knew. I didn't want to know, but I knew.
Airen... Ranma... took a deep breath. "Setsuna, what is the one constant of all potential Guardians of the Gates of Time?"
Oracle took a step back from the Gates. She looked tired. "They are all women - and must be female to use the Gates. A great deal of yin ki, to use local vernacular, is required to use the Gates and the mana energy of Pluto to its highest potential."
In the time I had been trying to convince Ranma that he belonged to me, I had seen many an out, many an excuse, many a loophole to use to my advantage. As I thought about these words, one came glaring out at me. "Is okay, then! Airen be girl-type when working with gate, and boy-type when... with..."
Great-grandmother's eyes stopped me. The look was one I'd never seen from her: pity. The warrior in me railed at the thought: I didn't need anyone's pity! She walked over, took my hand, and led me to the Gate.
"Child... this is not a job in which your husband can simply leave his tasks behind or waiting. Ranma is being called - and, if what we saw is any indication, the world needs her. Yes, her. She could be a man, true... but not in her heart, not where it matters. This job destroys the people it accepts. She is called to be a warrior - no, a general - and this is not a calling she can ignore." Great-grandmother pointed to a particular image, shimmering for a moment in the maelstrom. "See him? He has about a twenty percent probability of being elected to the Russian presidency in eight years. Problem is, in pressure situations, he gets mildly paranoid - and stands a high probability of wiping out the Earth in nuclear holocaust once in office. Now, suppose you were in Ranma's shoes. What would you do about him?"
The question left me stumped. "Um... kill before twitchy man become president?"
Great-grandmother raised an eyebrow. "For a crime he has yet to commit?"
I took a deep breath, then nodded. "Will save lives, yes?"
Great-grandmother nodded slowly, and sighed. "But the deed still has to be done - and that was one of the easy dilemmas in there. What Ranma is being asked to do is to give up everything she is in order to see humanity survive and thrive. It's not just about being man or woman. It's about being human or... something beyond human. Ranma is being asked to decide who lives and who dies. There is no calling more profound than that."
"But... but Airen..."
"Shan Pu?" Ranma's voice stopped me; her blue eyes met mine. "I... I'm really sorry, but this is something I have to do. We talk about giving up - sacrificing - for the Art. We all know that's bull. We do what we do because the weak need to be protected. And... sometimes that means deciding who lives and who dies. No matter how much it hurts."
Great-grandmother wrapped an arm around me. "There is... no shame in this." She wiped her eyes; in all of my years, I had only seen Great-grandmother cry once before - at Mother's funeral. "There is... sadness, yes, but no shame. Celestial intervention trumps any laws we have. If you wish, we can go home."
"But..." A stray thought lanced through my head, even as the tears came down. One last chance. I knew I couldn't have Ranma, but... My eyes focused on Ranma's through the tears, my intention plain. "One time? Make strong daughter?"
I expected Ranma to blush and stammer, like every other time sex had been mentioned. Instead, she cocked her head to the side in thought. "There were possible children of ours in there. I... I don't know. I'll have to think about it."
Oracle nodded. "Ranma... that's probably not a bad idea - at least, in one form or another. It will probably help to keep you grounded, as you look on and see your descendants thrive. On the other hand, it could give you a decision you don't want, if one of your kids threatens the future." She looked down. "I had a husband and two kids back on Pluto when war broke out. They didn't survive."
Ranma shook her head. "I can't believe I'm even considering it, to be honest. I always thought..." She snorted. "Well, so much for that. Setsuna, I'm going to need time to sort my affairs before I take full control."
"I suspected as much," Oracle replied. "I factored in about a year or so of transition - up to three, if you really need it. That way, you get done what you need to get done back home... so you can get done what needs to be done here."
"Okay," Ranma replied. She looked over at the Gates, touched a pillar, then silenced them. "Take us home, Setsuna."
As the Oracle grabbed my hand and took me away, I couldn't help but chuckle.
Once again, I wasn't good enough. Great-grandmother... Ranma... they worked an Art that I didn't recognize. That no one else recognized.
And... in an odd way, that was fine. They could have their art, and pay the cost for their art - a cost I can't know. On the other hand, I still had my art, and I still had a life. Without Airen, yes. But my life. I would get by. Someday. Maybe.
It's all changing.
Not that I'm complaining. Oh, no, certainly not complaining after the last two weeks. The very idea brings a slight flush to my cheeks, as I remember just how incredible Mamo-chan was...
But change always brings some loss. Such as now.
I should have seen this coming. For all Setsuna's poker-face showed, her eyes never lied. It hurt her, more than any of us, to be a Senshi. She had been around when the Moon Kingdom had died, and those wounds had never really healed. The pain was still fresh and raw for her; after thousands of years of vigilance and loneliness, it's a wonder that she stayed sane.
She needs to walk away, that much is certain. More than anything else, she needs time away to heal. I know her, at least I think I do; she'll be back, just not wearing the royal uniform. Also, with my recent marriage, it's the perfect time for another change.
Setsuna had been incredibly specific on the refreshments to be served. This made me curious, but Setsuna had dismissed it all with a smile. Makoto had made her chocolate-chip cookies, and lots of them. Sometimes it's scary just how much Sailor Pluto gleans from the Time Gates, if she knew enough to ask for large amounts of Mako-chan's best. Even before Setsuna and her replacement arrived, we'd all had our share, and were in gooey bliss by the time they entered.
As the new girl entered, I took note of the details. She was short, maybe only a centimeter or two taller than myself, but she carried herself with confidence and grace. Her chest size was larger than mine, unfortunately. Red hair was tied back into a harsh pigtail. Her outfit was as far from Setsuna's usual haute couture as possible - a short-sleeved Chinese shirt, baggy silk pants, and slippers that were slightly oversized for her feet. Her muscle tone surprised me; she clearly was involved in some form of exercise.
Makoto's eyes widened far more than mine, and she whispered nervously in my ear. "Usagi-chan? Is she the new Sailor Pluto?"
I nodded. "Why do you ask?"
Makoto shook her head. "Setsuna needs a replacement, and she gets one of the best martial artists in all of Japan. She can't even leave her post without going out in style." Her smile, though, soon vanished. "Usagi, if she's joining our group, then we may be in for some tough times ahead."
I frowned. "Why's that?"
"Setsuna retires and gets a world-class martial artist to replace her. Either we're about to face something nasty real fast, or we're in for the training regimen of our lives."
I nodded slowly, taking in Mako-chan's suspicions, and resumed my examination of her. My heart went out to her, as her face had the same form of 'cute' I was familiar with; while I like my looks, sometimes I think a queen - or a Senshi - should look more regal, like Rei or Michiru. She wore no makeup, surprisingly; not that she needed much, as her face and skin had a healthy glow to them. I finally reached her eyes, a brilliant shade of blue, and stopped.
Those were a Senshi's eyes. Those eyes weighed everything carefully, looked at her surroundings like a hunter. Past battles - yes, battles, no one who knew could mistake it for anything else - added a touch of sadness to the gaze. Most important, though, was the strength behind her eyes. She wasn't breaking. She'd learned the cost of failure somewhere; once committed to a cause, she wasn't going to fail that cause.
I stood up, walked to her, and bowed deeply. "Hi. I'm Usagi. It's good to have you as a part of our group."
"Wasn't this to see if she was fit to be a part of the group?" Haruka asked from the back. A small frown crossed the new girl's features at that, causing Haruka to hold a hand up defensively. "Not saying you can't do the job; it's just that we're a team, and we need to see if you fit."
I simply smiled at her; the smile seemed to disarm her concerns. "It's okay, Haruka. I can see it in her eyes." My head tilted slightly. "You've fought before. No one doesn't have a look like that without some sort of experience. Also, you don't give up - not when it matters the most." My smile widened. "And... Setsuna wouldn't have recommended you without reason. Am I right?"
Her eyes widened in surprise at my answer, then nodded; behind her, Setsuna nodded as well, clearly proud of her new charge.
"Then you belong here. I bet you could probably teach us a thing or two about fighting youma, as well." My grin turned mirthful. "Sorry. I'm just enjoying being able to surprise a Sailor Pluto - even one in training."
That got a chuckle out of everyone - even Setsuna, who put her hand on her charge's shoulder. "Everyone, this is Saotome Ranma. She has agreed to take over my duties and responsibilities as Sailor Pluto."
Ranma bowed and introduced herself in the formal manner, at which point the real introductions began. The news of her school raised eyebrows, as the rumors from Furinkan made those of Juuban seem tame by comparison. We learned of her childhood, growing up on the road with her father as she was trained in martial arts. Schooling was haphazard at best, as her father was singularly focused on her training. It was at this point that the conversation got interesting.
"So. Do you have a boyfriend?" Minako asked. She would be curious about something like that...
Ranma sighed. "Um... I like girls."
That earned eyebrows from the group - and smiles from Haruka and Michiru. "Any girlfriends, then?" Haruka asked.
Ranma took a deep breath. "It's... complicated. Setsuna, do you have... oh, you do."
"Advantages of being the Senshi of Time, Ranma," Setsuna replied. She handed a thermos over to Ranma, who unscrewed the cap.
"See, I, um... wasn't born a girl. I was actually a guy up until about a year ago."
Okay. That was unexpected. While I know a tiny bit about such things... "Um... how?" Rei squeaked.
Ranma sighed. This was clearly an old and tired story to her. "When Pop and I were training in China, we came across this old training ground, the Cursed Pools of Jusenkyo. Turns out the place was the site of some nasty magic from the Terran War, and the place still hadn't healed. Anyway, the way the magic worked was that each spring had its own curse. You get splashed from the water of the spring, you get turned into whatever animal or person had drowned there. Hot water changes you back to normal once you're splashed, but cold water brings the curse right back. Anyway, Pop got splashed in the Spring of Drowned Panda... and I got dunked in the Spring of Drowned Girl. So... the body I was born with looks like this." She then poured the contents of the thermos on herself.
One thing I've learned over the years is to appreciate the reactions from each of the Senshi. Michiru and Haruka? Positively horrified. Ami was clearly torn; her Mercury Computer was showing her readings like nothing she'd ever seen, but Ranma was a grade-A hunk with a physique that demanded attention. Rei, Makoto, and Minako, of course, were not so divided. I could have kissed Hotaru at that moment, as she merely cocked her head to one side and smiled.
Sensing a rise in tension, I moved closer to Mamo-chan, and snuggled up next to his arm. Sometimes the alpha male needs to be soothed once in awhile. I looked at Ranma's eyes as he caught their reactions.
No surprises, no changes; not even the color had changed. Same person, different body. For all intents and purposes, Ranma's change meant nothing. Though I did have to stifle a giggle at the thought of this boy in Setsuna's fuku...
"Um... how does your curse interact with Senshi powers?" Ami asked.
Another deep breath. For a moment, I wondered what in the world Setsuna had done to find this person, and if it was worth the cost he was clearly paying. "It doesn't, to be honest. To do this means becoming a girl. Yes, I'll be able to change into a guy when not transformed, but I've seen the future. If I do this, I'll be female for such a large portion of time that, in any way that really matters, I won't be a guy anymore."
I squeezed Mamo-chan's hand to let him know my love, then approached Ranma with as much of a regal bearing as I could muster. I grabbed his hands and looked him in the eyes once more. "Ranma? I... Thank you. Your sacrifice is..."
He shook his head. "I've seen what's coming. This needs to be done." He turned around; Setsuna already had a glass of water for him. "Besides... in an odd way, this may have been the only way it could have ended well." He poured the water over himself, and shrank back to her former body. A soft chorus of "awww" came from behind me. "Pop pretty much made it so that there was no way I could keep my honor. He engaged me to multiple women so that he could steal their dowries."
A few cries of outrage came from the other Senshi; before they went any further, Setsuna stepped forward. "I can handle most of the problems - and, in fact, have forestalled most already. Ranma's transition to replace me is going to be difficult enough as it is without his father's idiocy getting involved. Mind you, his father will pay in one form or another... but Ranma should be fine."
Ranma turned around to face Setsuna, her eyes questioning. "What do you have planned?"
The look in Setsuna's eyes said it all. She had rarely been one for outward displays of emotion, but the twinkle in her eyes let everyone know the mischief in the works. "Ranma... when you get as old as I am, you learn to turn revenge into a fine art. Trust me. Your father will be fine. He just won't like it."
I couldn't help but grin. This woman before me, someone who could pull a practical joke and enjoy it, was the real Meiou Setsuna. The charge she'd been given had kept her hidden from everyone until now.
As I looked out at the other Senshi, I wondered what else these Senshi responsibilities were doing to us. Conversations for another day, no doubt - but I would be having them with each of my friends soon. For now, our newest Senshi needed to know she was home. I put my hands on Ranma's shoulders and looked her in the eye.
"Ranma, no matter who or what you are, you are family. If you need help, we'll be there. This is... this is something beyond war: this is survival. And in times like these, we need to look out for each other." I then hugged her close. "Welcome to the Senshi, Saotome Ranma."
After a second, long arms reached around both of us as Mako-chan joined in the hug. Soon all of the Senshi came forward, each wrapping themselves into the group hug. I was proud of them, and happy; I knew each of them had made sacrifices to be here, and was glad they had decided to stay. This was my family, just as much as Mama and Papa and Shingo at home, and I would die for these people if called to.
Setsuna and Ranma may have their probabilities and their possible timelines, but Crystal Tokyo was already a reality. It was already being built in their hearts. It would become reality in time... but it was already a certainty to me.
Left in the middle of the night; took only his backpack and himself, and left enough money to cover his expenses while here. Kasumi didn't give the details, but said that the amount left would probably take care of college, too. Don't know where he got the money, but we could sure use it.
When Ranma left everything behind, he wasn't kidding; he even left his name. Daddy and Mister Saotome are having a fit, of course. They can't see the irony of it all: the son of a thief escapes like a thief. One thing Ranma was good at was picking up moves... and he certainly picked up that one well.
Not that I blame him. The pressure was getting to be too much. Once the Magical Girl Recruiting Drive came to the house, Daddy and Mister Saotome were trying everything they could to get the two of us married. Ranma always seemed a step ahead of them, but it was going overboard. Heck, it wouldn't surprise me if Daddy and Uncle went on a "training trip" in the next few days to try to find him.
They're not going to find him. We all heard about him becoming the next Sailor Pluto. He even told me what he had to do, how he had to look into the future to solve these problems before they became problems. If Ranma doesn't want to be found, Ranma isn't going to be found.
And I'm not sure what I'm supposed to feel about that.
When I heard what he was going to go through, it was like he'd caught some terminal disease. Within a year or two, the man I loved would be dead. No chance of marriage, little chance of children... he was going to waste away in front of my eyes, and all that would be left is this magical girl I'd see on the news. I hadn't hurt so bad since Mom died.
But... and in some ways this made it worse... he made me an offer. If... If I was still willing to be in a relationship with her, she would take me in. Live as a couple. For all time, if need be; seems the world is about to become something really strange in the next decade or two. We could be together... not necessarily forever, but for a very long time.
Which leads me to the last question. Do I want to be with her?
There's been only one thing keeping me from screaming "Yes!" Ranma let me know the sort of person I'd find if I went looking. Eventually, I'd find a young woman, active in the martial arts, polite and dignified, a bit of a bookworm because she's trying to catch up on her studies. Alternatively, if I wanted it, I could find a test-tube with some frozen white stuff inside it, which I could use to...
Ewww. I think I'd rather take the young woman, to be honest.
But could I be with her? Really be with her?
There's just so much entangled in that question. If I go to be with her, I become one of those... lesbians. You know... girls who like other girls. I HATED being called that when I was in junior high, just because I wasn't good at cooking and because I liked martial arts. It got worse in high school. Have dozens of boys try to beat you up and force themselves on you every day, and it does wonders for your identity sexually. Most of the girls thought I was a lesbian because I kept on winning, or a tease because I didn't choose anyone. Sometimes I wonder if Kunou made his stupid speech just because he'd heard through the grapevine that I wasn't a 'normal' girl. Needless to say, my opinion of 'lesbians' was probably formed somewhat negatively from that.
Could I really embrace the label they gave me? It hurt so much to hear back then. If I take it in, I may be hearing those words for the rest of my life.
But... except for Shampoo... I never heard those words with Ranma. I think, with Ranma there, I wouldn't mind those words so much.
Ranma left gifts under each of our pillows last night. Nabiki, of course, got the pittance of money she believed Ranma owed her. Kasumi, though, made out like a bandit, and got the lion's share of any cash to keep safe until we go to college. For me, though... she left a name and a number, if I ever wanted to talk about the decision or if I ever wanted to find her. I think I've heard of this "Kaiou Michiru" person; not sure where from, though. Anyway, Ranma wouldn't have left her name without reason.
The only question left is... to call, or not to call? I have time. Ranma said I had time, and I've never known him to lie - at least, not on something this important.
I just hope I can work up the courage to join her.
There is literally no other place in Crystal Tokyo like it.
The bar is not a dive - nothing in Crystal Tokyo could ever be called a 'dive' - but it is relaxed enough to be comfortable, which is exactly the way its owner and patrons want it. The chairs aren't the stiff, straight-backed kind you'd expect from a restaurant; no, the proprietor was smart enough to deck the place with sofas and recliners, all made of the finest in leather and fabric, so that a customer could relax in a favorite chair with a drink at arm's reach. Wood dominates the landscape, as much of the remaining furniture, including the bar, is made of the stuff. The lighting varies through the place, but is generally kept low; the parties people come to celebrate here are quiet ones at best. Small alcoves line one end of the place for anyone wishing a more private time. In one corner sits a comfortable wooden fireplace, complete with bearskin rug in front; in another, a half-completed game of chess sits on a table, waiting for the next move. Small pieces of artwork line the walls - sometimes a picture, sometimes a painting, but all done somehow to accent the place rather than distract.
And there was no better place for me to be than there.
Tonight was the anniversary, you see. I had given her time. For awhile, I wondered if she would ever come. It was lonely work; without Setsuna-sensei and Haruka and Michiru, I don't know if I could have done it. Then, one night, Michiru herded me into a car, drove me to a nice little restaurant, and practically pushed me inside... to where she was waiting. She had lobster - she'd never had lobster before - and I had the steak. Not sure what the drink was, but ever since then we've tried to find something different to drink on that night.
Setsuna-sensei and her bar have yet to disappoint. Tonight was New Venusian wine; seems the new colonies have developed some great vineyards since resettlement. Past years have included everything from ancient Mercurian Fire Wine to Jadwiga to Benedictine. Of course, as always, the drink is merely a sideshow. The lobster had been sacrificed, as had the cow; both, like me, were waiting for her.
Then she walked in the door. She didn't look a day over twenty-five; you'd never guess that she was one of the original ones. Brown eyes sparkled with amusement; the grace of centuries of living touched her every move. Her black hair was cut short on the back and sides, the result of a long-ago experiment with chest wraps and a man's suit. Her outfit, though, left no doubt that this was all woman, a black cheongsam that showed off her incredible legs while curving around her perfect breasts and hips.
And to think I once called her flat-chested and said her thighs were too thick. Silly me.
We both exchanged greetings; even after centuries, we can excite each other with a simple 'hello'. The talk was simple and comfortable; in many ways, we have different versions of the same job. She found peace as a nanny in the Palace, taking care of the children there, and acting to protect them should danger come. Put simply, she guards the future of Crystal Tokyo. I can relate to that. Occasionally, we hear from one of our children or descendants as they work to rebuild the pieces of the old empire; it's not easy work, but we've never been ones for the easy way out, and they aren't either.
But... for the most part... we just sat there, in silence. Soon the steak and the lobster were gone, and it was just me and her, and a bottle of wine. Her hand reached out across the table, and I obliged by joining mine to hers. I felt her callused hands, the warmth of ki that burns in her veins, and thought how close it could have come to me not having her in my life.
And then I thought of the day she came back to me. Of our first time to share a bed. Of my magic entwining with hers, ensuring she would survive the Great Freeze. Waiting out the long years, exploring the cosmos together until the Earth could come back to life. Having our first child, Kasumi, and watching her grow up. Of countless evenings with her by my side. Of countless mornings of waking up with her. Waiting as our friends slowly came to life. Building - creating - Crystal Tokyo with our magic.
She is me, and I her. And I can't imagine a moment without her.
We finished our drinks and spent some more quiet time together. Without even a word. Sometimes her face was wistful, sometimes genuinely at peace, sometimes happy, but always in motion.
It was when she raised her eyebrow that I knew it was time to go. I suspect she has more surprises waiting for me there; even after all these years, there's so much more to this woman to explore. I purposely don't look for her in the Time Gates, as the real thing is far more interesting, anyway.
Because she makes eternity all worth while.
I wrote this sometime last year; showed it to a few friends, might have released it somewhere... but didn't really do much with it once it was finished. It's a fukufic - or close to it - so it falls under 'guilty pleasure'.
Released to fanfiction dot net: February 28, 2009