I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, or anything in the GURPS Ogre, GURPS Reign of Steel, and GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol settings published by Steve Jackson Games. Everything else is mine.
Princess Serenity continued to pace back and forth between the concrete walls of the meeting room in the center of the makeshift headquarters they had managed to create on the fringes of what was left of Tokyo. The headquarters wasn't much, of course, equipped with what they'd managed to scavenge in the ruins and more than a little cramped — the meeting room's table had been put together from bits and pieces and had six rickety chairs from five styles scavenged from various businesses — but she felt the need to move as she fought the anger that had simmered at her core ever since Haruka had called to tell her that she and Michiru were temporarily breaking off their part of the operation and coming in, and the rest of the operation needed to be put on hold.
Her lips twitched in amusement for a moment as she considered how her pacing would have worked out (or wouldn't) if she'd still had her early long hair and hairstyle, and her original clumsiness. But out of necessity her long twin tails had been hacked off years ago, and her clumsiness had been banished by harsh experience soon after.
But the brief moment of levity faded as quickly as it came, and her burning anger swept back as her thoughts returned to her errant Outers. The problem was that operations couldn't just be stopped and restarted on a whim. Yes, the word had gone out through the communicators Artemis and Luna had provided to all the various infiltrating teams to go to ground and wait for her word to resume, but that didn't mean they were safe — even laagered up, one of the Tokyo Zonemind's scouts could stumble upon a party at any time, and she might not learn of it until they failed to report in.
Stop this, Haruka and Michiru know all this. If they're still willing to put all those lives at risk — put the operation at risk — they must have a good reason.
As Serenity reached one concrete wall and turned around, her eyes crossed her current bodyguard standing to one side of the doorway (assigned by Minako, in her position as field leader), and a spike of guilt mixed with her anger at the reminder of just how quickly an operation could go wrong — Morisato Mitsuhide, a son of one of the two extended families that, along with the Senshi, were the reason the Tokyo Resistance was as effective as it was in spite of limited resources. And whose sister had been killed less than a month before. Kolgrima's infiltration and destruction of an important robofac had gone off without a hitch, but a Stalker had stumbled across the team assigned the job of keeping her backdoor open and summoned help, and the survivors had been forced to retreat before she could reach them. Between her lack of supporting firepower and a prematurely alerted enemy, she'd been swarmed and pulled down. Since then Serenity had missed her brother's soft happy laughter filling the headquarters ... she even missed the pranks.
We need Setsuna. The thought had been occurring to her often, more and more through the fourteen years that had passed since the Rise of the Machines. Not for Setsuna's advice — though the self-declared princess had felt that she understood the ancient woman better with each year of war that passed ('princess' because she refused to allow herself to be called a queen until the Zoneminds were defeated and Crystal Tokyo established), she wasn't ready to trust her yet, not for guidance. Nor for her ability to look into the future — again, Serenity didn't trust Setsuna to tell her everything about their future. No, what Serenity lusted for was Setsuna's ability to look into the present — to search their targets, routes of travel, the territory around their hidden refugee camps ... perfectly, and undetectably. If only the Resistance had had that kind of intelligence, Kolgrima might still be alive —
"Mama Serenity, we're home!"
Serenity whirled at the sound of Haruka's cheerful lèse-majesté, lips again twitching slightly as amused relief and even a bit of nostalgia warred with fury — she missed being simply Usagi. Remember, they know how much risk they put our people in, find out why before beating them about the head ... and ...
Serenity's thoughts stuttered to a halt as the emerald-haired woman she had just been thinking of walked into the room behind the other two surviving Outers. She looked surprisingly clean, considering how many years it had been since a proper shower, much less bath, had been available. And her clothes weren't tattered and worn.
Setsuna acknowledged Serenity's presence (and shock) with a whimsical smile, but the smile died as abruptly as it had sprung to life as she turned to walk over to the princess's current bodyguard. "Mitsuhide, I'm so sorry I wasn't able to save your sister," she said softly. "When Kolgrima was killed I was —"
"In Zone Tel Aviv, I know, Grandmama told me," Mitsuhide said. "You told us when we joined the Resistance that our Auntie Set-chan couldn't be our guardian angel, that you had your own work. Kolgrima knew that, and what she was risking."
Setsuna pulled him into a hug. "Thank you, for understanding," she whispered, voice quivering, before breaking the embrace to turn to a princess stunned silent. Auntie Set-chan? Setsuna took a deep breath before saying in a voice now steady, "Princess Serenity, I would like to introduce you to some people that have come a very long way to help with your current vital operation."
She turned toward the doorway the Outers had entered through, and Serenity's eyes widened as a second Setsuna stepped through, followed by another Haruka, Michiru ... Hotaru? Serenity lost track of the others following as her eyes locked on the counterpart of her long-dead friend. What is their Setsuna thinking? Serenity had reluctantly decided over the years of leading the Resistance — and sending people to their deaths — that Setsuna's decisions in the case of Hotaru had been right, or at least inevitable, and now her counterpart was bringing the future sacrifice here? Where it would be impossible to keep her ... them ... from learning she had died, how she had died? What was Setsuna ... either or both of them ... up to? That they were up to something was a given, there was no way the woman that had sacrificed her own happiness along with her daughter to keep the rest blissfully in the dark as long as possible would inflict that foreknowledge on their counterparts.
Serenity shot a searching glance at the two Senshi of Time standing side by side beside her Haruka and Michiru, all four of them grinning in amusement (undoubtedly at her expense), then turned back and opened her mouth to greet her unexpected guests ... and for the second time had her thoughts stutter to a halt as she stared in shock at the redheaded and raven-haired teenage girls that she had never seen before, at least not in person, and realized just how different the newcomers' history must be. Because she had seen the two before — in old photographs, in a photo album Kasumi had shared with her on one of their few shared lazy afternoons: Ranma's girl form, and Kasumi's decades-institutionalized and years-dead youngest sister, both as teenagers.
Realizing that she was gaping, Serenity shook herself free of her shock and turned to her bodyguard. "Mitsuhide, run over to Communications and have them tell Ranma to get here as fast as he can without blowing our cover, and see if we can smuggle Kasumi here from ... I believe she's touring Camp Four at the moment. There's some people here they're going to want to meet. And have someone find food and accommodations for our guests, I'm sure they're hungry and tired." As he slipped out of the suddenly crowded room, she walked around the table to greet each of the newcomers personally (and no one begrudged her spending a little more time with Hotaru and Chibi-Usa).
Finally the greetings and universally awarded hugs were done and Mitsuhide had returned along with several others with rations and to guide their guests to wherever they could tuck away an extra warm body. Her Haruka and Michiru promptly volunteered to share their own cubicle and blankets with Hotaru, of course, an offer just as promptly accepted. As they filed out of the room, Serenity called out, "Setsuna ... and Setsuna, could you stay for a few minutes?"
The two women exchanged glances and simultaneously nodded.
Serenity waited until they were alone and the door closed, then carefully sat in one of the chairs and pointed at the two chairs across the table. She ordered, "Tell me what's going on."
" ... so when Hotaru found out that two of her three mothers' counterparts were almost certain to die during this operation, she insisted we save them and of course Usagi instantly agreed. Considering how badly Hotaru's been affected by the friendly fire deaths — she's obviously been having nightmares — I thought this would be therapeutic and went along."
Serenity stared at her Setsuna's counterpart across the table from her, her head whirling with all the new information that had just been dumped into her head ... Ranma getting worse than locked, Akane joining her when she fled from the Tendo dojo, being found in a tent in a park by the Senshi and joining them to repel the Confederacy's invasion and changing things enough in the process that Hotaru survived, their Firefly's accidental friendly fire that finally won the battle...
"No," she finally said, shaking her head. "No, there's more to it than that. I don't doubt this will be therapeutic for your Firefly — and we certainly won't mind the extra help at all! — but this whole operation is insanely dangerous. With the need to stay in civilian form until we kick it off, the odds some of us are going to face ... even with your people joining us the risk is too great for something we'll probably win on our own, especially with my Setsuna returned to the fold. What aren't you telling me?"
The two Setsunas exchanged glances. "I told you she'd gotten more perceptive," her Setsuna said, "pay up!"
"I'll deliver your case of Westvleteren as soon as I get home," the other said, shaking her head ruefully. "Make it last, those monks are stingy with their beer." Rolling her eyes at the way her counterpart was now smirking, she turned to Serenity again. "While our Firefly's happiness is important, you're right, there's more to it," she agreed, the moment of levity vanishing. "It's Ranma. She's going to have a decision to make soon, and when she makes the right call we'll get to avoid all ... this." She waved her hand to take in the room, and by extension the world beyond it. "But ... she's going to hate it, at least in the beginning. She'll have an easier time accepting it now that she's getting a firsthand look at the alternative ... a much easier time, and a happier life. So will Akane, and that's almost as important."
"Hmmm." Serenity frowned thoughtfully and leaned back in her seat ... and instantly knew she'd made a mistake, even before she heard the crack of the right rear chair leg giving way, dumping her with a squawk just before bouncing her head off the concrete floor. "Ow!" She stood up and mock-glared at the two giggling Setsunas. "You would think that women of your advanced years would be more dignified ... polite," she groused.
"Oh, no, you have it backwards," her Setsuna instantly disagreed. "What you really learn over the centuries is to take your fun where you find it."
Serenity laughed, then looked down sorrowfully at the chair on the floor — one more item to be scavenged from somewhere far from her headquarters and carried back, at some personal risk — to someone else, unfortunately, her people barely let her out of the bunker once in awhile to get some fresh air. No, Setsuna's back, she can pick one up somewhere without any risk at all. And the other two Outers had seemed surprisingly accepting of their former co-mother, minimal conflict within the team. Serenity was feeling better about Setsuna's return all the time.
Shrugging at her lack of a seat, Serenity stepped back and leaned against the wall. She considered what she'd just heard for a moment before shrugging it off. As curious as she was about what made Ranma so important, and her lover with her, it wasn't her business and she had more important things to worry about. Once the zoneminds had been defeated she would again have time for irrelevancies. Straightening, she focused on the new Setsuna and said, "All right, by now Ranma — my Ranma — should be on his way. He's one of my main strategists and the only one that can get back safely, so in the morning we'll discuss how to slot your people into the operation. Let's find you a place to crash for the night. Setsuna ... my Setsuna ... you have your own place?"
Her Setsuna nodded as both Setsunas stood up. "Yes, I do. I'll be back in the morning."
"Good." Serenity walked around the table and pulled her Setsuna into a hug. "It's good to have you back," she murmured.
Setsuna returned the hug. Taking a shuddery breath, she replied, "It's good to be back." Reluctantly breaking the embrace, she stepped away and vanished.
Serenity shook her head with a soft laugh. "I wonder how long it'll take her to start sneaking up on me again?" She turned to the gently smiling Setsuna left behind. "I don't know if we have any cots left, but let's see if we can find you a spare blanket. Or you can share my bed, with Mamoru out with one of the teams there's room." And maybe this night she'd actually be able to sleep, even with her husband and friends in the field...
The chapter title comes from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II, the king bemoaning his inability to get a good night's sleep because of the cares of his office.