Chapter 25:

It was somewhat like a round peg in a square hole, but that wasn't quite right. It wasn't quite that bad. A rhomboid peg in a square hole, maybe.

It was the best analogy Ami could think of as she sat in class, listening to the teacher. The long trip she had taken to the Moon Kingdom, and the many years she had lived there, had changed her, but not so much that she couldn't force herself back into her original shape. It took a continuous effort, but she could make herself fit into that square hole which Japanese teenage life demanded.

She was sorely tempted to just leave school entirely. The mathematics and science lessons were a complete waste of time. Most of it was just a repeat of what she had been taught prior to her trip to the past, and the parts which were new were far from difficult. In fact, Ami had actually derived many of the same formulas herself over the years with the help of Spinel and the others. The literature and humanities classes weren't quite as bad, but they really weren't her major focus of interest. Overall, Ami found she received very little benefit from the teachers' instructions in the classes she was forced to attend.

Maybe in a few months, once things had settled more, she could start considering other options. Maybe there was some test she could take to place out of school or something. That would be for later, though. In the meantime, she had to maintain the charade for her mother and for the population at large.

Revisiting the analogy, even better than a rhomboid peg, Ami felt more like a rectangular peg. It was like a square, only so much more. She knew more, was more, than before that long trip to the Moon Kingdom. Granted it was a rectangle with a missing...

Ami, bit down hard on that thought before the lump in her throat could form. Don't think about him. It would do no good to start crying again, especially here. Thing of something else; something positive.

There were some silver linings to the situation. As the years had progressed in the Moon Kingdom and their respective responsibilities had grown, Ami had seen less and less of both Ranma and Minako. They cherished the times they could meet, but there just weren't enough hours in a week to spend much time together. Since returning to Tokyo, Ami was able to see both of them much more frequently. She now had a chance to meet Ranma maybe two or three times a week, and she saw Minako almost daily. It was nice, and it was an especially timely change of circumstances, given how lonely she felt since the loss of...

No, no, no. She forced herself to change track again. She looked for something else to focus on; something safe. The book in front of her. Geodesic deviation. It was a nice, safe topic with which she could engage her mind.

It was a shame that none of the classes here taught such interesting concepts. There was so much more available in this world beyond the basics the teacher kept droning on about.

The Moon Kingdom had known more than 20th century Tokyo on many subjects. Aetheric manipulation, transmaterialization, metafigurine. However, it was equally true that they knew things here that the people in the Moon Kingdom hadn't even known they didn't know. Pseudo-Riemannian manifolds, energy conditions, Minkowski spacetime. These could have solved so many roadblocks they had encountered while on the Moon. And all of that was from reading a single book. It had referenced other books, which in turn referenced others.

Ami had a reading list all written out, and it was expanding by the day. Her major bottleneck was the speed with which Ranma could help her borrow them from the Mizuharo University library, seeing how that was the only nearby library which stocked the majority of the titles she was looking for.

A lesser bottleneck was the speed of mail. She had started some correspondences with a couple of the authors of those books, and the return messages had seemed promising. She could imagine in the future, as her correspondences developed, that the delay needed to transport some of those letters around the world would become a greater issue. However, for now, she had more than enough books to keep herself occupied between missives.

So, as dictated by the square hole of her old life, Ami spent her time in school, diligently learning. However, learning was not the same thing as paying attention to the teacher. In the humanities she had to pay some attention, as learning about the great literature of the Tokugawa Shogunate was something outside the realm of her expertise. However, for the sciences, and especially in mathematics, she would instead focus instead on whatever book was at the top of her reading list.

Never mind that it must have been obvious to everybody in the room, including the teacher, that she was reading a different book to everybody else. More than half of her reading list was even in a foreign language. However, as long as she answered all the questions correctly, not even the teachers bothered to question what the school genius was doing. It still barely managed to fit into that square hole, at least to the extent that nobody questioned it directly.

One thing that Ami regretted, though, was not having Spinel around to consult with. Ami had always been a bit more for the experimental, practical side of science. She could do the theoretical aspects of research as well, but Spinel was the person who really shone in that area. She had always been good at synthesizing large, abstract theories and understanding their implications. More importantly, she had been even better at figuring out the discrepancies and oversights of a broad sweeping conjecture. Ami intuitively felt there were holes in the theories she was learning about, but it would take her time to figure out why she felt that way. If Spinel had been around to bounce ideas off, Ami was sure that that time would be halved, at least.

Ami was so lost in thought contemplating how a Lorentz boost would affect the representation of a collection of events on a spacetime curvature and the practical implications of that transformation that she barely noticed the teacher calling out, "Mizuno-san."

"Mizuno-san," Ishida called out a second time, louder. Ami wondered who that was, and why he or she didn't answer.

With a sudden flash, Ami realized that that was her. She looked up from her book at the teacher and said, "Yes."

"Mizuno-san, can you tell us the implication of these formulas?" Ishida asked, tapping the chalkboard to his side. It was fairly normal for a teacher to occasionally ask a question to make sure she was actually paying attention.

Ami obediently stood up, looked at the diagrams on the board, and did some quick calculations in her head.

"It means that at a given distance, all objects will accelerate at the same rate due to gravitational pull, irrespective of their mass," she recited.

Of course that was assuming it was in a fully Hilbert compliant environment, and that the prevalent aetheric energy, life energy, and all the other forces that Ami had mentally classified as known dark energy were orthogonal to the plane in question. None of that was marked.

"Very good," Ishida said.

Ami sat back down, and returned to her book.

A rectangular peg into a square hole. It could be made to fit, but only painfully.

Meanwhile, she slowly tried to expand that hole ever so slightly so that it wasn't quite as much of a stretch to fit into. People changed all the time. She just tried to give the appearance of changing faster.

"Stand. Bow," the class representative announced, signaling the end of class.

Ami stood up, as expected, and bowed, as expected as well. Lunch was next, and that meant that Minako was on her way to meet Ami along with Usagi and Makoto, and probably Haruka and Michiru as well. That should be fun. She had the most amusing piece of news for her fellow time traveler.

"Onigiri again?" Usagi complained, interrupting Ami's introspection. "Mom is so boring."

Ami had never realized how immature Usagi and Makoto were. They were probably no less mature than she had been when she was their age, and definitely no less mature than Minako had been, but that had been years ago. She found it far harder to relate to them now than she could have ever imagined before being thrust into this situation. Haruka and Michiru as well, although for different reasons.

"You can have some of my lunch, I made extra," Makoto said, bringing out her customarily enormous lunch box. "Do you want any, Ami...chan?"

There had been the most momentary of hesitations before she had said the "chan."

With the revelation of their strange trip through time, the relationship Ami and the other two unwilling time travelers had with the rest of the Sailor Senshi had changed. But that was fine. They would just need to find a new relationship. It was a bit awkward for a while, but Ami was sure they'd figure something out eventually.

"No, I'm fine with my sandwiches," Ami said. It had taken her enough time and experiments to put together something which was fairly tasty, after all. She hadn't realized how much she had relied on certain common ingredients and spices until her nearest source of them was hundreds of thousands of kilometers and who knew how many millenniums away.

Minako was on her way to meet Ami and the others for lunch when something caught her eye. It wasn't anything too special, just a boy with long hair, but something about him struck her as a bit odd. Something wasn't quite right. He kind of reminded her of Ranma, in some strange way. She decided to follow her hunch and took a detour to follow him. She found out moments later that his name was apparently Yaten and that he was probably a celebrity of some sort, given how several people, mostly girls, kept approaching him.

She didn't bother to hide herself as she followed, there being no real reason to do so, so she wasn't at all surprised when she turned a corner to find him standing there, staring directly at her. He said curtly, "I'm not going to eat your lunch."

"Okay. That's a relief, I guess," Minako said, a bit confused. Of the things she had expected Yaten to say, reassurance that he wasn't going to steal her meal was not one of them.

"I see. Well, if you want an autograph, make it quick. I'm a busy person," Yaten said coldly.

"Why would I want an autograph?" Minako asked.

"You mean you don't know who I am?" Yaten asked sharply.

Whoever he was, he definitely wasn't the most friendly person Minako had ever met. That was fine, though. Minako had dealt with worse before. Interesting people came in all different forms, and Minako was growing increasingly sure that Yaten classified as an interesting person.

"Not really, although I take it you're an important personality of some sort, seeing how everybody else is acting around you," Minako said.

Yaten stared a bit, and then said, "I don't think I've ever heard anybody say it quite like that, but yes, that's one way to put it. So, if you don't want to give me your lunch, and you don't want my autograph, then why are you following me?"

"I'm not sure, actually. It's just, you remind me of a friend of mine," Minako said. "Do you maybe practice martial arts or something?"

A look of shocked surprise crossed Yaten's face. He hastily asked, in a much less frosty way than before, "A girl I remind you of? Where is she? Can you introduce us?"

Well, that cemented it. Yaten definitely classified as an interesting person.

"It's funny how you assume my friend is a girl," Minako observed.

"Well, of course," Yaten said, somewhat more composed than before. "It's natural for girls our age to have more girl friends than boy friends. Or is your friend a boy? Maybe a boyfriend, for somebody as cute as you?"

It was fast thinking and a deft explanation, plus the distracting flattery, but Minako knew enough to see that that wasn't the real explanation. There was definitely something deeper going on here. It probably would be good to introduce them, then, albeit for different reasons. Ranma was good at figuring out people's secrets.

"No, you're right, she's a girl," Minako said. If Yaten was looking for a girl, then it was better to offer him what he wanted. "I was just wondering why you assumed that. When and how do you want to meet?"

"You mean she doesn't attend school here?" Yaten asked, a bit surprised.

"No. She's a bit older. She's already graduated," Minako said.

"Why not meet at the studio then?" Yaten suggested. He handed over a business card, proclaiming him as a member of The Three Lights. "The address is on the bottom there. Do you think we can meet today after school? Who knows? If she's as cute as you are, then maybe we could sign you both up for a contract."

Offering a bit of bait to try to speed things up too. Not the most elegant job, but it might serve to entice a less suspicious person. It wasn't necessary, though. Minako was just as eager that Ranma meet him. She said, "I'll check. I think she's free, but if not today, then tomorrow, definitely. I'll be sure to let you know. I assume I can reach you at the number on the card?"

"Yes. Just tell them that I said I thought you showed promise. The name's Yaten, by the way. They'll put you through to me or somebody else who can arrange things," Yaten said. He handed over a CD case as well, saying, "Have your friend take a listen to our latest song as well. I'd like to hear what you both think of it next time we meet."

"Okay, will do," Minako said, taking the offered object. She wasn't sure she actually had a CD player, but that shouldn't be too much of an issue. Most likely at least one of the Sailor Senshi would.

"Sorry, but I need to go. I'm looking forward to hearing from you," Yaten said. He then walked off in a decided hurry.

Minako couldn't help but feel that something important had just happened. However, she didn't think she could do anything else about it for now. She wasn't nearly as good at reconnaissance and information gathering as Ranma was, and it wasn't like her network here was even a fraction as developed as it had been on the Moon. Also, lunch was still waiting, and she still wanted to try out the latest results of her experiments on Ami.

Project Jula Berry Juice. It was relatively inconsequential, but Minako had way too much boredom-filled time to spare, and it was something to do. She thought her mixture was a bit off and that it needed something like nisau to add a bit of extra kick to it, not that she had any idea where to get anything like that in Tokyo, but she was curious to hear Ami's opinion as well.

Minako returned to her previous path of heading to the tree they had decided to use as a meeting place for lunch. Unsurprisingly, considering her detour, the others were already there.

Ami was eating a sandwich and seemed to be rather disengaged from the conversation at hand. Her face had a hint of splotchyness to it and she didn't look nearly as energetic as she had usually been on the Moon. Normally Minako would have asked what was wrong, but given recent circumstances, she already knew, and there wasn't much she could do about it. Ami seemed to be working through things well enough on her own as time went by. However, Minako still made a mental note to check up on her friend later in the day in a more private venue.

"He reminds me of Mamoru-san," the girl with her hair in a ponytail was saying as Minako approached. Makoto. The tough tomboy with an equally prominent feminine side.

"No way. Mamo-chan's way better," the girl with twin buns in her hair and twin ponytails said. Usagi. The immature princess with a seriousness normally hidden by her youthful demeanor.

"You don't mind if I take Seiya-kun all for myself, then," Makoto declared.

"You'll need to fight off tens of thousands of other fangirls," the tall girl with short hair said. Haruka. The brash and fiercely protective race car driver.

"You sound almost envious," the girl with long, wavy hair said. Michiru. The mature and elegant violinist, who tragically ended up with a Jusenkyo curse.

"How could I be when I have you, Michiru?" Haruka asked, earning an approving look from Michiru.

"That's fine. I can take them. This must be fate. After all, they came to this school, and Seiya-kun looks just like my old boyfriend," Makoto insisted as Minako took a seat in the circle between her and Ami.

"That looks delicious. Did you make that all yourself, Makoto-chan?" Minako asked.

Makoto had a large box filled with various culinary confections, like octopus-shaped sausages, and fruits cut into the shapes of stylized bunnies.

"I did," Makoto said proudly. She offered the box towards Minako and said, "Here, try some."

"Thanks," Minako said. She took one of the pieces of fruit and popped it into her mouth. The slice of apple was sweeter than she remembered, but it didn't have half as much of a tart flavor as she had expected. It was a bit unusual to her tongue, but it was quite tasty. She said, "It's delicious too. It must have taken you forever to make."

"No. Not too long. Just an hour or so," Makoto said.

"Very impressive," Minako said, nodding. "By the way, do any of you have a CD player?"

"A CD player? What for?" Michiru asked.

"Somebody gave me some CD to listen to, but I don't have a player," Minako said.

"I have one at home. You can come by after school to listen," Usagi offered.

"Thanks, but it'll need to be later. I want to find Ranma-chan first to make sure she's there as well," Minako said.

"What? Why?" Haruka asked.

"I'm not sure why. It's just a hunch. If I had to guess, I'd guess that Ranma-chan will probably figure something out about these Three Lights from this. She always does," Minako said, holding out the CD in question.

Haruka, Makoto, Michiru, and Usagi all looked at her strangely.

More notably, Ami didn't react at all. Minako would have expected some comment from Ami corroborating what she had said, possibly adding an example or something as well. However, Ami stayed silent. That was proof enough for Minako that Ami wasn't paying attention to the conversation. Seeing how they were supposed to be trying to re-establish relations with the other Sailor Senshi, Minako decided to do something about it.

"Ami-chan," Minako said, turning to her friend, "are you planning on joining us for lunch?"

"Oh, Minako-chan. Sorry. I was just thinking about energy conditions and if they are applicable to some of the ideas I've been toying with for aetheric energy storage units," Ami said.

Minako took a look at the others in the circle. Michiru was tilting her head with a curious look on her face, whereas the others looked just as baffled as Minako felt. Well, she had just the thing to bring things to a more general topic everybody could relate to.

"I see. Well, here, try this. I'd love to hear your opinion," Minako said as she pulled out a thermos and several cups.

"What's that?" Usagi asked.

"I'm trying to recreate a drink called jula berry juice. It's something we drank on the Moon all the time, but since we don't have any jula berries around here..." Minako said with a shrug, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken. "Want to try some? I brought enough for everybody."

"Count me in," Makoto said.

Haruka and Michiru shared a look, and then both said, "Sure."

"Sounds like fun," Usagi said.

Minako poured the first cup, and handed it to Makoto. As she did so she said, "Now, it's still a work in progress, so don't judge me too harshly."

"I won't. Thanks," Makoto said. She took the cup, took a drink, and then spat it out to the side, coughing harshly.

"You drink that?" Makoto gasped out between coughs.

"I guess it's a bit strong. Sorry I didn't warn you," Minako said. She turned to Haruka and Michiru and asked, "Still want to try?"

"O..of course," Haruka said, under the watchful gaze of Michiru. However, her thanks was decidedly muted as she took the cup from Minako.

Haruka took a hesitant sip from the cup. She didn't spit it out, but her face sharply puckered in reaction. A few seconds later, after she had recovered, she said, "That is strong. Here. Your turn, Michiru."

Michiru took the cup from Haruka like it was a grenade. However, seeing how she had pressured Haruka into trying a drink, she was stuck as well. She took a tiny sip. Her face took on a strong pucker as well and she started coughing. In self-defense, she put the cup down before she spilled it.

"Here's a cup for you too, Usagi-chan," Minako offered to Usagi.

"No, Usagi-chan," Makoto quickly interrupted. "Trust me, you really don't want to try it."

"If you say so, Makoto-chan," Usagi said quickly. She pulled her hand back and looked relieved for having been saved by one of her protectors, albeit in a less conventional way.

"Suit yourself. Here, Ami-chan. What do you think?" Minako asked, offering the same cup she had poured for Usagi to Ami.

Ami took the cup and, without hesitation, took a large drink. As she did so, the others stared carefully at her face, undoubtedly trying to determine if Minako was playing some large, crude joke on them. However, Ami went through none of the theatrics that the other three had. After she finished swallowing, she said, "It's not quite right. It's not spicy enough, and it's missing something. Like that flavor you get when you simmer nisau into a soup."

"Yeah, I was thinking something similar, but no idea how to get anything like that around here, unless you happen to have some hidden away somewhere I don't know about," Minako said.

"True. That could be a bit of a problem," Ami agreed. She took a second drink, swished it around in her mouth, and added, "Besides that, it needs a bit of something else as well, like supathu or some such."

"I hadn't noticed that, but now that you mention it, it's a good point," Minako agreed. So she now had two unobtainable spices she needed, not just one. That was just lovely.

Ami took a third drink, then shook her head as she said, "It's missing something else too, but I don't know how to describe it. You might need to ask Ranma-chan. She was always better in the kitchen than I was."

"That's a good idea. I'll need to talk to her later today about some things, anyway," Minako agreed, already thinking ahead to discussing Yaten with Ranma and planning the best way to handle the situation.

"Still, it's pretty good for what it is. Mind if I have some more?" Ami asked.

"Sure," Minako said, pouring another cup for Ami.

"So, you really did drink stuff like that on the Moon?" Makoto asked, vaguely in shock.

"That's what I said, isn't it?" Minako said.

"What kind of life did you live up there?" Haruka asked.

"It's an acquired taste," Minako said with a shrug. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to have just five minutes with Spinel-chan's garden."

"If you manage it, I could use some rineri myself," Ami agreed. "Actually, that reminds me. Take a look at this, Minako-chan."

Ami handed over her Mercury Computer.

"What is it?" Minako asked as she took it.

Ami explained, "It's just something I found while looking around in the control room computer yesterday. I was searching for when and how they had reconfigured the castles to allow for the storage of corporeal objects in non-traditional spaces. You know, like we had been trying to do for years but could never crack. While there, I..."

"What!" Minako exclaimed as she saw what was on the screen.

"What is it?" Usagi asked.

"This. Here," Minako said, pointing at the computer. "As quoted by Aquamarine, the last prophecy bespoken by the great oracle Minako-sama was, 'When the Kin of Silence joins the Daughter of Earth, the Circle Of Planets shall be complete once more.' What is this?"

Ami gave an impish laugh at Minako's response, which was undoubtedly the intended reaction. That was a good sign for her friend's mental state, at least.

"I thought you might like that, Minako-sama," Ami said, emphasizing the last. "Apparently the Terra Kingdom had a group of people they called Seers who found out about us centuries after we left. They spent a great deal of time combing through the old records of our lives to try to come up with prophecies of the future. That was one of my favorite ones. 'Last prophecy,' they called it, seeing how it was supposedly the last meaningful comment on the future any of us had ever outright said. It sounds so grandiose, doesn't it?"

"You were an oracle, Minako-chan? Incredible," Usagi said. "What's that prophecy mean?"

"I don't know. I never said anything like it," Minako answered.

"They had this big analysis of the history of the quote and what it all probably meant, but from what I can figure out, it basically traces back to what you said back at Aquamarine-chan's, just before we disappeared," Ami said.

"So I did say something like that?" Minako asked, genuinely confused. "What did I say?"

"Remember how you said something about how I was comparing Setsuna-chan to Sailor Saturn bringing the Silence," Ami explained.

"Vaguely," Minako said, "but what does that have to do with some circle of planet or some such?"

"Apparently the Seers in the Terra Kingdom managed to figure out that Terra was also our Earth, hence their calling Ranma's daughter the 'Daughter of Earth.' Between that, the time which had elapsed since the events in question, Aquamarine-chan's misremembering our discussion of a temporal causal loop as us talking about some circle of some sort, and some creative interpretation, you end up with that," Ami said.

A strange look crossed the faces of Haruka, Makoto, Michiru, and Usagi. Intellectually, they all had already known of Ranma's and Setsuna's relationship, it having been one of the numerous things they discussed at the group meeting they had had after the travelers had returned to Tokyo, but that was very different to emotionally accepting it. Apparently none of them was quite comfortable with the idea that Ranma had been a mother. Minako wasn't sure if it was because they viewed Ranma as being about their age, if it was because they viewed Ranma as being male, or if it was because Ranma's daughter was the vaunted Setsuna. Probably some combination of all three. In that sense, it might have been good that Setsuna hadn't actually been at that Sailor Senshi meeting, as it might have disturbed things a bit too much. Minako didn't pay them too much attention, though. They'd eventually grow accustomed to it.

"I see," Minako said. "And the Terra Kingdom really took that stuff seriously?"

"Apparently. Another one I liked was, 'The kiss of the Goddess of Love will foretell the destruction of all her partner holds dear,'" Ami said, with a quirky smile.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Minako lamented. Unfortunately she knew exactly what that referred to. Another civilization, another era, and that rumor still wouldn't die.

"What's that supposed to mean, Ami-chan?" Usagi asked.

Ami started explaining, "You see, there was this..."

"No!" Minako shouted, cutting her off. "We are not starting all that up again."

"Sorry," Ami said to the others with a shrug. "There were other ones too, like, 'The fires of Mercury shall remain everlasting for the impure.'"

"That sounds kind of ominous. Is that some threat of some kind?" Haruka asked.

"As far as I can tell, they're talking about hot water taps," Ami said.

Minako rolled her eyes and said, "And here I thought Tanzanite-dono was pretentious."

"There's a whole mess of them," Ami said. "I can show you how to find them in the control room after my martial arts lesson today, if you want."

"You're going to a martial arts class? But didn't you say you trained a bunch with Saotome-san already?" Makoto asked.

"I did, but I can't exactly tell my mother that. She insisted. She's worried that I might get kidnapped again, and wants to do something to make sure I can defend myself. Today's my first class," Ami said.

"Won't that get in the way of your juku?" Usagi asked.

"It's fine. My mother thought it was more important than the extra studying I'd have in juku for a few days of the week," Ami said. Of course, Minako knew that what Ami was learning in those juku sessions was similar to what she was learning at school, which was to say nothing at all related to what she was supposed to be learning. "Too bad my lessons won't be with Ranma-chan, though. That would have been fun."

The problem was that Ranma wasn't actually licensed to teach martial arts. Technically she hadn't been licensed to teach while they had been on the Moon either, but somehow it had seemed less important back there when they had thought they'd never see anybody they knew ever again and that the school would die out with her if she didn't teach anything. Now that they were back in their original world, the principle of needing to be licensed to teach was much more important to Ranma than before. Given her years of experience in teaching, in perfecting her own abilities, and in essentially founding her own branch of the school, Minako had no doubt that Ranma could get a license in short order, assuming getting a license was even possible from Happosai.

"You mean you won't be learning from Saotome-san?" Usagi asked.

"No, I won't be. Ranma-chan doesn't have an official license to teach yet. Maybe later, if she can find the grandmaster of the school, she can get a license and I'll be able to switch. Or maybe I can seem to learn fast and then just quit once my mother is reassured."

"So where will you be going?" Makoto asked.

"It's with a Kobayashi-sensei. He has a dojo near here, and one of my mother's fellow doctors recommended him," Ami said. "I'm not looking forward to it. It'll be tough."

Minako agreed. It would be tough to hide her true strength and play along without going crazy. Minako wasn't sure she would be able to handle it if she had been forced to attend the classes in the same circumstances Ami was.

"Tough? Won't it be easy after all the stuff Ranma-san has taught you already?" Haruka asked. It was clear that she hadn't heard the same message that Minako had.

"It's more complicated than that," Ami said with a sigh. "If you mean purely physical activity, you're probably right, but that's not what I'm worried about. I'm supposed to have little to no experience with martial arts, so I can't exactly go in there and do things exceptionally well without raising numerous questions about how I already know these things. Also, if I start performing too well, it might call into question the whole story of how I had been kidnapped in the first place. I'll need to act as a neophyte, but that will be really hard to do right, seeing how I've already had a lot of training. It's not natural to make the same mistakes as an inexperienced person. It's like how it's difficult for professional singers to sing like amateurs. They can intentionally sing badly, but people who are skilled can tell the difference. I'll need to somehow be good enough at being bad to fool Kobayashi-sensei and the other people in the class."

Minako suddenly had a good idea. They were trying to re-form some friendships and team bonds, after all. She said, "Maybe one of you can go with Ami-chan. It'd help to have another new student to distract the teacher."

Also, unspoken, was the idea that Ami would also be able to imitate some of their bad behaviors to better emulate a less skilled practitioner of martial arts. She didn't say that, though, seeing how that might be interpreted as an insult against the others.

"Makoto-chan, you like martial arts, don't you?" Usagi asked.

"I do, but I don't know about this," Makoto said.

"Come on, Makoto-chan, it's a great idea. It'll be a good chance to spend some time with Ami-chan, and it'll be a lot of fun. Maybe you could even start practicing with Ranma-san later, too, if he ever gets his teaching license," Usagi said.

"Then why don't you go too, Usagi-chan?" Michiru asked.

"I would, but I have a date with Mamo-chan after school today," Usagi said evasively. Strange how she had been available to help Minako listen to a CD, but somehow this date suddenly took priority as compared to a martial arts lesson. However, Minako didn't call Usagi out on this, and nobody else mentioned it.

"It would certainly help me out a lot if you came for at least my first class, Makoto-chan, but you don't have to if you don't want to," Ami said.

"Oh, why not? It's only one class, right? Who knows? It might be fun," Makoto said.

Ranma gave out a bright laugh, clutching her stomach. Through this, she declared, "It's... it's just your face looks so weird. It's perfect."

"What?" Tomaru protested back, despite half-facing away from Ranma.

Overcome by her expression of levity, Ranma was forced to sit down on a bench. She then leaned back a bit, playfully kicking her feet up as she did so.

"Hey, everybody. Midori-chan's agreed to do the puppet show!" Ishiro announced animatedly to the small gathering of people, including Ranma and Tomaru.

"Shota-kun always takes Midori-chan's side," Yuu said, again only half-facing the group around her.

"Yeah," Akane agreed. "You love Midori-chan, don't you, Shota-kun?"

"Wh..what are you talking about?" Ishiro asked, turning only his head to face Akane.

"Oh... Shota-kun is shy..." Ranma said humorously. She sprang back to her feet and skipped over to Ishiro. There, she lightly slapped his shoulder with the fan she held in her hand. "What's wrong, Shota-kun? Say something."

"I'm not shy!" Ishiro protested up into the air. "Stop picking on me."

"See?" Ranma declared with a giggle. "He takes everything so seriously."

"Midori-chan!" Ishiro shouted out.

"Okay. Cut, cut," Nobuyoshi announced, interrupting the group. "Much better, Tomaru-san. Ishiro-san, you're still looking way too upset. You're supposed to be with your best friends. Relax and have fun with the teasing. Akane-san, try to look more angry when you say your line. You're jealous, remember?" Nobuyoshi declared. All three named actors nodded at the feedback. "Let's take it again from the, 'Let's go to the party on the 15th.'"

"Sensei," Ishiro protested to Nobuyoshi, "can we take a break?"

"Yeah. We've been at it for an hour already," Yuu agreed.

"Right, it's only been an hour. You kids these days have no dedication," Nobuyoshi said. He then gave a sigh and shook his head. "Fine. I should probably check how Takashi-san, Natsuko-san, and Kouji-san are doing anyway. We'll have a 10 minute break."

With that announcement, the naive frivolity of Midori sloughed away from Ranma, and the world was suddenly a bit less bright, simple, and happy.

It was a bit unfortunate that Ranma was a woman right now. She had been trying to spend more time as a man, even if it still felt remarkably strange. It was a matter of growing accustomed to the form she would probably be spending a substantial portion of her time in the foreseeable future in, seeing how it was her official identity in this world. It was also a matter of respect for Akane. However, seeing how Midori's role was a female one, Ranma didn't mind the excuse to return to her more natural form for the moment.

"Ranma-san, you're amazing. You're totally meant to be an actor. You do a better Midori-chan than I can, and I'm actually a real girl," Ai said to Ranma as Akane approached her.

Ranma had spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle her Jusenkyo curse, and whether she should be open about it or not. There was some value in keeping her two different forms separate, but maintaining multiple personae in close proximity was always tricky, especially for extended periods of time. The fact that Ranma didn't actually have complete control over the transformations just clinched it. She couldn't really see any reason to keep it a secret, either, and it made things much simpler if it was public knowledge. If in the future she needed to start separating her two forms, or if she needed to create alternative identities for whatever reason, she could do so at that time.

"Thanks," Ranma said.

"Don't tell anybody, but I think you're better than even Natsuko-san is," Ai whispered to Ranma.

Ranma knew what Ai was referring to. Natsuko's mannerisms didn't quite carry the personality of either the playfully innocent Midori from the beginning of the play, or the crushed and cynical Midori at the end of it. The most notable issue was her eyes, which never changed throughout the whole plot. That, plus countless other minor discrepancies, some of which Ranma couldn't even verbalize, made it clear to Ranma that Natsuko wasn't entirely authentic. If Ranma had met somebody like that on the Moon, she would have immediately started discretely following that person until she could figure out what was being hid.

"She's right, you know. You really are good. I meant what I said before. You're wasted in physical education," Nobuyoshi said. "Just give me the word, and I'll sponsor your transfer. I'll escalate it up to the dean of the school if I have to. From what I heard, Nao-sensei will support you too, after what you showed her at that rehearsal last week."

"Thanks. You'll definitely be the second person I'll tell if I decide to switch," Ranma said.

"Of course. I wouldn't dream of preempting your wife," Nobuyoshi said with a laugh. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check how our budding young director and the stars of our show are doing."

As the director walked away, Ranma turned to his wife and said, "You did great, Akane. Your Reiko-chan's gotten much better." She wasn't near good enough to be the star of the show, but her growing vocal abilities, and more importantly her growing confidence, were well on their way to being good enough to fill the minor role she had for the rendition of "Growing Up." When the actual show happened, in about two months, Akane should be more than ready for it.

"Thanks," Akane said in response. "Sorry you got dragged into all of this."

At first Ranma had intended to just watch Akane during some of her rehearsal sessions. It was a reason to spend time with her once-and-current wife to get to know her a bit better. However, on that first day, one of the actors had called in sick, and rather than fill in himself, Nobuyoshi had handed Ranma a copy of the script and asked him to fill in so the practice could continue normally for the others. One thing had led to another, and now her filling in as a placeholder for whomever was missing or was a bottleneck for rehearsals was a regular occurrence whenever Ranma did come to visit. Currently that meant filling in for the star of the show, Natsuko, who instead was busy practicing the rejection scene which formed the climax of the play with her co-star, Kouji.

"That's okay. It's fun, and if I can help you and everybody else out, then so much the better," Ranma said.

Getting to know Akane was a slow process. The intellectual analysis of character, behaviors, and daily patterns was habitual for Ranma. She might have lacked Minako's knack of making friends and influencing people, but she had gotten good at understanding what people were thinking and feeling throughout the years, even if she didn't always know how to handle it. However, forming an emotional connection with Akane was much less intuitive. It was especially uncomfortable to let Akane, a practical stranger despite being her wife, get to know the real Ranma.

"How'd you get to be so good?" Tomaru asked Ranma.

Years of practice, and knowing that countless lives, not in the least her own, depended on doing everything perfectly, sometimes for weeks or longer on end. The time she had been caught by Scapolite had been a particularly terrifying and tragic demonstration on the importance of doing things right. By this point, it was natural to slip on and slip off different personae as the situation demanded. Not that Ranma would ever say that, especially in front of a group of casual acquaintances.

Instead, Ranma just gave a non-committal shrug.

Ranma noticed Akane was on the verge of saying something, probably something self-defensive in a humorously insulting way, but had then thought better of it. Akane instead said, "It sounded like you were really thinking about what Nobuyoshi-sensei was saying. Are you actually considering switching your degree?"

"I'm thinking about it. There's more to life than just martial arts," Ranma said.

"Are you serious?" Akane asked. Surprise was so clear in her voice and face that Ranma expected everybody had been able to read that one. It seemed like Ranma had once again just broken the mold from what Akane had expected.

In many ways, Akane had the harder job between the two of them, getting to know the new Ranma, as memories of the Ranma from before her life in the Moon Kingdom would still be fresh in her mind to compare against and interfere with her efforts.

"Why not? If Ranma-san joins acting, then you two could spend all day together," Ai said. "It would be so romantic."

"That sounds like a terrible idea," Ranma disagreed. Anger grew in Akane. That wasn't good. Ranma quickly continued, explaining, "I know several marriages where the husband and wife worked together, and a lot of them fell apart. Many people can't stand spending all day, every day with a person. It's much harder than it seems like it should be, no matter how much in love you are."

Akane nodded a bit at his explanation, her anger dissipating for the most part.

Tomaru added, "I guess, but there are other groups too. A friend of mine is in a different production entirely. They're putting on some play about a vampire."

Of course they were, as evidenced by the numerous posters which had been strewn about campus advertising the upcoming show. Also, for those willing to infer a bit, as Ranma had somewhat implied earlier with her comments about her consideration of switching degrees despite thinking spending all day with Akane every day was a terrible idea. All of that should have been clear enough to those who had been paying attention, although Ranma's personal knowledge of that play would probably be less clear to the population at large. However, she wouldn't be surprised if somebody in the group already knew that, especially as they were all pursuing acting degrees and thus were in that particular circle of gossip. In fact, she was a bit surprised Tomaru didn't already know, seeing how the plight of Nao's group was fairly newsworthy and he apparently had a friend in that production.

Tomaru continued, irrespective of Ranma's thoughts, "I think it's called 'Karumeru,' or something."

"I think the play you're referring to is called 'Carmilla,'" Ranma said for their benefit. "It's about a lonely girl named Maria, and the vampire who preys upon, befriends, and then betrays her. I know all about it already."

As she spoke, she pulled out the pen which had been holding her hair in the bun Midori usually wore it in, letting her hair fall loose. She shook her head a bit to aid it in settling naturally as she lightly tossed the pen onto a nearby desk. She also dropped the fan she still kept in her hands onto the bench next to her.

Ranma then adopted the fragile look Carmilla had during the daytime, leaning heavily on the bench next to her. All of a sudden, the world seemed darker; colder; lonelier; and much, much scarier than it had moments ago.

"There was a time I used to like roses. Back then, when I still had my health, I used to love walking in the woods. Playing in the sunlight. In the streams. In the fields," Ranma said in a soft, strained voice which still somehow managed to project across the whole room. She forced herself to stand on her own two feet and laboriously walked a few steps.

"I loved it all. I had so many friends. They used to compliment me on being a good dancer. I was truly happy." She stopped, reached down, and picked up the pen, now an imaginary rose, from the table it had settled on. She slowly brought it to her face.

"There was a time I used to like roses. Oh, how I loved them." Her arm fell forward again, lacking the energy to carry even the slight burden of the rose. The flower negligently slipped away from her loose hand and dropped carelessly to the floor.

"But those days are no more." She felt so very alone, except for the bright spot of Maria, her one and only friend. A friend who was always on the verge of disappearing, if she ever learned the truth. A friend she was slowly being forced to kill, but who would live on within her forever. Silent tears slowly fell from her eyes.

And then it was over. The dark, dichotomous world of Carmilla evaporated away and she was back to normal. She wiped the tears away from her now clear eyes.

Akane, Ai, Tomaru, and a just-returned Yuu stared, mesmerized by the performance.

"What was that?" Yuu asked in surprise, being the first to break out of it. If only she could use that same voice while on stage.

"Where did you pick that up?" Akane asked as well. Surprised again. It seemed Ranma was full of unexpected surprises for Akane this session.

It was all too common a question asked of Ranma, but this time there was an easy answer she had no problem giving. Of course, Nobuyoshi had literally told them not 10 minutes ago. Who did they think Nao was, or what that rehearsal had been about? All of the posters advertising the upcoming performance of "Carmilla" had Nao's name on them as well, after all. However, it seemed like they either hadn't noticed, or hadn't put the pieces together.

"Nobuyoshi-sensei asked me to help out a friend of his with her play last week. That's that Nao-sensei he mentioned earlier. Her group is having a bout of bad luck. Apparently Yuriko-san, the actress playing Carmilla, broke her leg. Normally her part would just be covered by an understudy, but Rumi-san got infectious mononucleosis and is bedridden. Nobuyoshi-sensei asked if I could help them out like I do here sometimes," Ranma explained. As she spoke, she reached down, picked up the pen on the ground, wiped it clean, and started restoring her hair back to the tight bun Midori usually wore it in.

"That does sound like bad luck. When did all this happen?" Ai asked.

"I got involved about a week ago," Ranma said. Just like Nobuyoshi had said, or at least heavily implied, a few minutes earlier as well.

"Wait. You're that weird, acting genius Risaki-chan was telling me about?" Tomaru asked, shocked.

Ranma gave another shrug. She hadn't heard that one at the rehearsals, but wouldn't be surprised if somebody had called her that.

"Does that mean that you'll be playing Carmilla in the play?" Akane asked.

"I don't know yet. I'm supposed to find out today," Ranma said. "Nao-sensei wanted to ask the others in the group if anybody wanted to take the role first. It is the biggest part in the play after Maria, after all, so I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people want it. If nobody else is interested, though, I think I will."

It might be a good thing as well if nobody else wanted the role. The play would be a good test to see what she really felt about acting and if she really wanted to change her degree. Of course there were numerous other degrees she was considering as well, including staying with physical education, but if she were to switch, acting was one of the degrees she was partial to. However, for the moment, acting was just a fun use of her skills.

"And when were you planning on telling me all of this?" Akane asked. Oops, mad again. Only slightly this time. Ranma wasn't quite sure why.

"I was planning on mentioning it at dinner after I found out if I was going to be in the play or not," Ranma said. Now that she thought about it, she probably should have mentioned something to Akane earlier. After all, she had already mentioned it to Ami and Minako. Maybe she should have invited Akane to a rehearsal as well. Well, she knew Akane's afternoon today was clear, so maybe she would be interested. "Actually, Akane, do you want to go to rehearsal to see later today? It's at 2:00."

"Sure," Akane said, somewhat mollified.

This relationship stuff was complicated. It was slow going, both getting to know Akane, and letting Akane get to know her. However, Akane was understanding, if a bit idiosyncratic at times, and things were proceeding apace. Did Ranma love her? Certainly not. Not yet. But Ranma could see the possibility of love growing at some point in the future, and it certainly wasn't unreasonable to chase after that possibility.

"Oh, I want to see that show now," Ai said.

"Me too. Are there any tickets left?" Yuu asked.

"Last I heard, there were still tickets available," Ranma said. She walked back and retrieved the fan from the bench she had left it on.

"If you do end up playing in it, we should invite your family to watch. Mine too," Akane said.

"Okay, everybody, break's over. Back to positions. Right. Let's take it from, 'Let's go to the party on the 15th.' Ishiro-san, relax. Akane-san, get angry. Everybody else, just like last time," Nobuyoshi announced. "Whenever you're ready, Tomaru-san."

At this, Ranma let the playfully exuberant jubilation of the innocent Midori from early in the play overtake her. She started bouncing from foot to foot as she crossed the slightly more colorful room back to the starting position of the makeshift stage. Suddenly feeling bored, Ranma started twiddling the fan between her fingers as she waited for the first line in the sequence.

Ami wore a bright, new, stiff, and maybe even starched dogi, her mother having bought the martial arts clothing the previous weekend for her. She thought it was a bit silly; as if an enemy would be polite enough to allow a change of clothes before a fight. It was much more practical to become accustomed to fighting in normal daily clothing, not that anybody in the room seemed to agree with that assessment. Everybody else, even the teacher and Makoto, wore a dogi as well, albeit all of theirs were much more worn than Ami's. Still, it helped her look the part of a naive new student, and it wasn't like she would be doing anything at the level where what she wore would matter anyway. However, it was a bit scratchy, which was annoying.

More annoying, she was holding herself in a position which was even more stiff than her uniform, it being the supposedly proper ready position for karate. Kobayashi had placed her in that position, right foot about one meter in front and to the side of her left foot, and arms held stiffly forward as well.

Her position was stable, to say the least, but that was its problem. She felt like she had no mobility. If somebody attacked her from behind she wouldn't be able to properly respond, and if somebody swept out one of her legs she wouldn't be able to recover before falling over. It felt wholly wrong to her, and she had to actively fight her instincts to not adjust her stance.

From what she could tell, though, this was the correct position. Or the expected position, at least, judging by how the others held themselves. Ami had strategically placed herself in the back of the classroom. Presumably the teacher and the other students in the class would assume that she had done so because she was shy. In actuality, she had done this to keep herself out of sight for if and when she made a mistake, and because it made it easy for her to watch the others for imitation purposes.

Ami used her position to visibly look over to Makoto, and then conspicuously moved herself as to try to copy the girl's stance and position. It would be a natural thing to do, a complete novice to trying to imitate a somewhat more experienced friend she had come with. What she hoped nobody had noticed was that she was actually going the other way. Rather than trying to copy Makoto's position in an attempt to look better than she was but making accidental mistakes which meant she wasn't quite as adept, Ami was copying it to mask how good she was and made intentional deviations to make her position obviously inferior.

Despite her best efforts at faking being a neophyte, though, she was sure that if Ranma or Minako had been in the room, they would have noticed something was wrong with her acting in a matter of seconds, and then figured out what was wrong a few seconds afterward. The fact that Kobayashi hadn't noticed that anything was amiss with her actions did little to boost Ami's confidence in the abilities of the teacher, but it was convenient in that it made her deception that much easier.

"No, not like that, Mizuno-san. Hold your thumbs this way. If you leave them inside of your fingers you might break them when you punch," Kobayashi said, pulling Ami's hand out and correcting the intentional misplacement.

Great. That was one more thing she could now do properly. Ami's reputation as a fast learner would help immensely in this regard. Granted she had that reputation more for her intellectual pursuits, but there was no reason to think that she couldn't extend it to physical activities as well.

"Try widening your stance a bit, Kino-san," Kobayashi said to Makoto, who stood in front and just to the side of Ami.

Makoto adjusted her position accordingly.

This was despite the fact that the stance was far too static already, in Ami's opinion. Sacrificing even more mobility for a questionable-at-best increase in stability made no sense to her. It just hammered home how very different karate was to the particular type of martial arts Ami herself practiced.

She would never be so presumptuous as to call it the Ami School of Musabetsu Kakuto Ryuu, but she definitely had a style of martial arts which was distinctly different to the styles used by Ranma, Minako, Setsuna, and the others back on the Moon. It was more strategic, more analytical, and more intellectual than everybody else she knew. What they all shared in common, though, as could be expected given that Ranma had been either directly or indirectly the teacher of everybody else on the Moon, was the emphasis on mobility, adaptability, and flexibility. She knew karate was more structure-based than Musabetsu Kakuto Ryuu, but she had no idea it was so drastic.

Ami feared it would be a long couple of months to years before she could supposedly have advanced enough to graduate from these classes. Even worse, given how different karate was from what she normally practiced, even as the weeks progressed and she supposedly improved, her task here would get no easier. She would just need to remember to fake different habits. It was most vexing.

"Okay, so this is the starting position of the kata we're going to learn. A kata's a series of moves to practice basic techniques. We'll start with a simple one. This one has 27 steps. First punch out like this," Kobayashi said, taking a stance similar to the one that Ami and Makoto had taken. The rest of the class had joined as well.

The next half of the class went by slowly as Kobayashi proceeded to demonstrate each position of the kata, calling out each step as he did so. He went slowly, and spent the majority of the time ignoring the rest of the class to instead pay attention to Ami and Makoto, making sure the two new students were properly mimicking him as they went. Ami had to force herself to pay attention in the off-chance that she would pick up something new. She didn't.

Finally the kata finally came to an end, and Kobayashi had everybody pair off for some sparring to finish up the class. The change of pace from what had felt like a glacial speed of movement was a relief to Ami. She would still need to restrain herself, but at least she could do things on her own terms.

Makoto was paired with a shorter boy by the name of Jiro, whereas Ami was paired with a noticeably taller girl named Reina. When Kobayashi had paired them, he had told Reina to go a bit easy on the new student, although Reina hadn't actually responded to his comment.

Reina had a snide look of arrogance on her face, which was very disjointed to the amateurish way she held herself. Then again, all of the students here seemed rather amateurish, so Ami wasn't in much of a position to really judge them from each other.

As Ami took the stilted position that Kobayashi had taught earlier, she had a sudden thought. Initially she had had a small hope that she would be able to learn something new from this karate school, but it was becoming rapidly clear to her that she wouldn't. This meant that she really had no reason to stay in the class, except to reassure her mother.

One way to get Kobayashi to reassure her mother might be to quickly develop her apparent skills to the point that the teacher would finally declare that she was good enough to defend herself, which would take months to years. It would be against Kobayashi's financial interests as well, so it might take even longer, assuming it was possible at all. However, there was another option. She could take a page from early Minako and just seem lucky. If she could legitimately say that she could, albeit accidentally, beat all of the other students in the class and the teacher himself, she would have a strong argument for no longer needing to take lessons here. In the process, she might also be able to teach the other students a thing or two by showing holes in their attacks and defenses, and she might even be able to shake the worldview of Kobayashi a bit as well.

With that in mind, Ami started planning. She now had a goal for this sparring session: a decisive but accidental win. Of course the limited move set she had available to her and the artificial limitation of the victory need to appear to be accidental made the goal that much harder, but seeing how defeating Reina would be literally trivial to accomplish without those conditions, that only served to make things more interesting. Given this, the first thing she needed to do was gather information.

Ami threw a painfully slow punch, which Reina... blocked? She had thrown the punch as an experiment to try to figure out the way Reina tended to dodge. That her punch was blocked was somewhat unexpected. With few circumstantial exceptions, dodging was just plain superior to blocking. Ignoring the inherent risk of being hit by the opponent, dodging would also cause the opponent to need to compensate for the lack of anything to stop the kinetic energy of the attack, putting him or her slightly off-balance, assuming the attack wasn't a feint of course. Her punch had been telegraphed enough and slow enough that she had been certain that Reina would have moved out of the way, instead of moving her arms to block the attack.

She tried again, throwing an off-balance and weak kick, which Reina blocked again. So it wasn't just a fluke.

As time progressed and her data set grew, the branching tree of potential attacks, responses, and behavioral quirks grew more certain in Ami's mind's eye.

Ami tripped to the side, avoiding a punch, and hopped a bit behind Reina, appearing to try to regain her balance. She clumsily turned around. If she was right, there should be a kick... there. Ami slid back, in apparent fear, tripped, and landed on the ground, safe from injury.

She finally thought she had the mark of Reina. The vast decision tree of actions, reactions, opportunities, and implications was laid out in Ami's mind's eye. She picked the path which seemed most likely to lead to success and began her task in earnest.

She climbed back to her feet, tentative plan firmly in place. Reina would most likely open with a kick, which Ami could sidestep. Her opponent would then either throw a relatively quick backhand swipe, or twist at the torso while throwing a punch to her gut. If it was the former, Ami would duck under it, and if it was the latter, Ami would coincidentally step backwards. In either case, she would respond by performing a slow roundhouse kick, which Reina would block and move sideways away from. This would put in her in a position where Ami could trip forward and end up behind Reina in the process, whereupon Reina would leave a probably opening to her left as she turned.

Ami continued her dance around Reina, watching her opponent get more and more frustrated with each step. As the decision tree continued to evolve as the fight progressed, Ami saw a potential successful outcome appear, and she started taking the decisive steps necessary to lead to that particular branch.

As she fell around Reina in seemly clumsy panic, Ami noticed Makoto, Kobayashi, and a couple of the other students had stopped what they were doing and were now watching. There was an occasional titter of laughter from the other students as her pratfalls continued, and Ami was forced to draw upon her own Soul of Ice technique to force herself to observe the situation in a clinically detached manner to suppress the grin threatening to break out on her face.

Reina's look of bemusement from the start of the fight had long since turned to frustration, and it was now coming closer to anger. Having fought against Minako before, Ami knew exactly how annoying a ghost-like opponent could be, especially when it looked like they weren't actually doing anything besides getting lucky. This did little to help Reina's form. Her attacks were getting looser, and her defense was getting sloppier with larger and larger holes appearing in it. It was exactly what Ami wanted.

Eventually, Reina threw the haymaker punch Ami had been maneuvering for. It was wild, fostered by an emotional need to do something to finally inflict some pain upon Ami. It was a tremendous punch which would have hurt if it hit, but it was all power and no control. In fact, it was so badly out of place that even if Ami had stood still, Reina would still have missed her. But Ami had no intention of just standing still. Letting one's emotions get that far out of hand was a grievous mistake, and Ami would make sure that Reina would find out exactly why.

Ami intentionally tapped her right foot up behind her left one as she stepped forward, forcing herself into a trip. She flailed forward, seemingly wildly, and with a precisely calibrated amount of force smacked her opponent in the face with the palm of her hand. It was a strong hit and it knocked Reina back and onto the floor. Ami intended it to be enough to make a painful mark but to leave no real injury.

As Reina fell, Ami completed her own self-induced fall just beside her, using her free hand to deftly catch herself. She landed with a large enough impact to look impressive without actually being placed in a position to hurt herself.

Behind her she could hear chortles of laughter desperately trying to be suppressed surrounding the room. Ami quickly scrambled to her feet in a visibly clumsy way and turned to see the results of her actions.

A large red palm print was already visible on Reina's face, and it was growing brighter and larger as she watched. Perfect. It did absolutely nothing to hide the look of loathing which Reina now sported. Ami had no doubt that, if given the opportunity to, Reina would have gladly put one of Ami's arms in a cast. Ami took the opportunity to subtly ease herself into a casual-appearing defensive stance in case things escalated to that point.

"What's going on here?" Kobayashi's voice interrupted, ensuring it wouldn't get to that point. Despite that, Ami didn't relax one whit. "What happened?"

"She... she hit me," Reina immediately accused, apoplectic.

"It was an accident. I tripped. I'm sorry," Ami said with as much innocence as she could. "But I'm confused. Isn't that the point of a sparring match?"

"An accident? You're supposed to fight seriously, not just get lucky while falling. You... just... ugh!" came Reina's retort.

"Calm down," Kobayashi scolded, cutting her off. Reina fell silent, although it was clear she had more she wanted to say, if not actually physically do, to Ami. "I'm sure it was an accident, but if a beginner can hit you like this, even by accident, it means you were being sloppy. You have to always pay attention, no matter who your opponent is."

As Kobayashi continued his lecture towards Reina, Ami came to a conclusion. Playing the part of the incredibly clumsy yet lucky fool was surprisingly fun. With any luck she would be out of the class in the next couple of weeks to months, but in the meantime, rather than being a frustrating waste of time, this class might actually turn out to be an entertaining little diversion. Her original idea of being able to teach the other students, and maybe even Kobayashi, something as well also appeared valid, assuming they actually were paying attention.

Koyabayashi then turned to Ami to continue his lecture targeted to her. Ami prepared to nod at all the right times with an appropriately studious look on her face.

Minako was bored.

Most of her time back in the Moon Kingdom had been spent doing official business of some sort or another. Beyond just leading the guards, there had always been enough projects which had required supervision and situations which had required handling that she had always been kept busy. Between that and her less official business, like socializing with her numerous friends and the various people who just liked to gossip, her days had always been filled with more things than could reasonably be done by any one person.

Since coming back to Japan, she had none of that. No bureaucracy to oversee and make sure was operating properly, no random problems to look into and help get resolved, and no people dropping by just to chat. Just the long school days filed with various boring trivia that she couldn't bring herself to be interested in.

Suffice it to say, Minako was finding it difficult to reintegrate into her former life.

The other Sailor Senshi and Artemis still seemed generally inclined to treat her as the airhead she had been as a teenager. However, they also had reason to think that she might have changed recently, and at least they were giving her a chance to demonstrate her true capabilities.

The people who didn't know about her trip through time, including her teachers and classmates, still treated her very much like the stereotypical irresponsible teenage girl she appeared to be. This lack of respect wasn't just limited to the classroom either. Minako had tried getting involved with civil society outside of school, but nobody in Japan really paid any attention to an apparent teenager, especially when that person was a girl. She knew what she was capable of, given her past experiences, so it was just that much more annoying to not be taken seriously.

This left Minako with a great deal of free time on her hands. A great deal of monotonous, boring, tedious, free time. As much as anything, this was her reason for trying to recreate a jula berry juice equivalent. To be clear, she missed the taste and sensation of the beverage, but she wasn't especially dying to have any. It was merely a way to pass the time. If she had anything more meaningful to do, she would have spent her time there instead.

It was the exact opposite problem that Ami had, as they had both discussed countless times before. They both desperately wanted to change their position for the other's. Well, Ami desperately wanted Minako's position. Minako would have somewhat preferred Ami's position, although truth be told, if she were actually in it she probably wouldn't have appreciated it very much. Certainly, neither of them were envious of Ranma. It was true she had substantially fewer obsolete expectations placed upon her than Ami and Minako did, but that was grossly outweighed by her turning male with hot water, and her reunion with a wife she barely knew anymore.

It wasn't like Minako was a hapless victim trapped in her situation either. She had several ideas for more productive things she could do to fill her time. For example, she could train the other Sailor Senshi. Given how most Sailor Senshi fights played out, learning how to throw a punch or kick would be of questionable value, but learning defensive ideas and improving agility and flexibility would certainly be useful, regardless of the nature of combat. Learning tactics and practicing teamwork would be invaluable as well.

Outside of Sailor Senshi related activities, she could possibly start working community service or some other type of non-profit work.

She could even return to her childhood dream of becoming an idol, seeing how she was being treated as a child again. She did have a contact in the industry now, after all, what with that strange conversation and offer from Yaten earlier.

Really, there were any number of things she could do, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.

She was in the process of weighing these options, and several others, carefully, trying to decide which direction she wanted to go. However, she knew she would need to decide on something soon; not because of a specific deadline but instead out of sheer boredom.

In the meantime, when not experimenting in the kitchen or planning her future, Minako filled her time by wandering around the city. She was accustomed to knowing every street, alley, nook, cranny, building, and atmosphere of both the palace and Serenitatis, and she wanted to regain that same familiarity with Tokyo. It passed the time, and for at least half of the things she was interested in doing, that information would be useful.

Right now she was looking around in a slightly disused part of Tokyo. She wasn't exceptionally worried despite the slightly abandoned ambiance around her. She knew more than enough to take care of herself from mundane threats without even needing to transform into Sailor Venus.

Even so, it wasn't the most savory part of the city, so it came as a mild surprise when a familiar voice called out, "Minako-chan!"

Minako turned to face the shout, and saw a cute couple approaching her. The man she didn't recognize, although he did seem familiar for some reason. He was rather attractive, despite his slightly ill-fitting clothing. The woman, on the other hand, she did recognize. Haruka. That was the cue which allowed her to figure out who the man was. It was Michiru.

"Hey!" Minako called out towards the pair with a wave. Once they were close enough that she could talk without shouting at the top of her lungs, she asked, "What's with the male form?"

"Somebody sprayed Michiru while watering some plants on the second floor," Haruka answered. "I can't believe how careless some people are."

"Don't blame that woman. It's like Saotome-san said; water seeks me out or something," Michiru said, his voice surprisingly calm.

"If this happens so often, why don't you bring a bottle of hot water with you?" Minako asked.

"You mean like this one?" Haruka asked irately, holding out a thermos with its open cap down, obviously empty.

"And this one?" Michiru asked as well, likewise holding out an empty thermos.

"Oh," Minako said, a mixture of chagrin and disbelief in her voice.

"I'm starting to see what Setsuna-san meant about Jusenkyo having some plan or something. Sometimes it feels like there is a higher power deciding I should be male, and there's nothing I can do to change that," Michiru said.

"Then why bring the hot water at all?" Minako asked.

"It's not always. Usually it's just a random splash and I can change back without a problem, but sometimes it seems like I can't get hot water fast enough," Michiru explained.

"I tried carrying a backpack full of it for a while, and even that wasn't enough one time," Haruka added.

"If that's the case, then why do you think Jusenkyo wants you to be male right now?" Minako asked.

"It's not like we get some memo or something every time Michiru transforms," Haruka swiftly answered, speaking with the slight scoff of somebody explaining what seemed to be obvious to somebody perceived to be less intellectually advanced.

"We're not even sure it's true. It's just the conclusion we came to based on something Setsuna-san said a while ago, plus that time we went through a whole backpack of water. If it really is true, then Jusenkyo must have a really twisted sense of humor sometimes, like that noodle incident a few weeks ago," Michiru said with a blanch, matched by a blanch Haruka had on her face as well.

That piqued Minako's interest. Reading between the lines, it was obvious there was a story of some kind here. She asked, "Really? What happened?"

Haruka and Michiru exchanged a glance, causing Michiru to blush a fairly prominent red.

"Never mind that," Michiru said. "If nothing else, I've learned how bad Saotome-san must have had it for the past few years. I feel bad for how casually we treated his curse."

"Speaking of which, you seem to be taking it all rather well," Minako said. She vaguely recalled it being exceptionally trying when Michiru had first received the curse. Minako didn't remember any specifics, just lots of crying and lots of carefully watched words around Michiru. Certainly she hadn't remembered this well composed young man, without anything too notable about him except his slightly damp and slightly ill-fitting clothing.

"I won't deny that it's still hard, but when you four disappeared, we thought you had all died. It kind of put things into perspective, if you know what I mean," Michiru explained. He reached over and gave Haruka a small hug as he spoke.

"I see what you mean," Minako said. She did know what he meant, too, and there really wasn't anything else to say.

"So, what are you doing around here?" Haruka asked in what seemed to Minako to be a ham-handed attempt to change the subject.

Minako was more than happy to let the subject change and said, "Nothing too special. Just looking around and trying to relearn the area."

"I see," Haruka said in response. "I should have..."

What Haruka should have was to remain unspoken, as Minako roughly shoved her and Michiru to the side. She used the counterweight to push herself to the ground in the other direction. She hoped her intuition was right, or she would have a lot of explaining to do.

"Galactica Spear!" a voice shouted out from behind her as they fell. Minako turned as she landed, and rolled to her feet.

A strange woman stood just behind Minako, her arms held out. She had on a fluffy top and some dark shorts. More unusually, she had two giant mouse-like ears and what appeared to be a long thin tail behind her. None of those features looked like costume props.

Their attacker announced, "I thought I'd be able to get your Sailor Crystals without a fuss. Well, no matter. Sailor Iron Mouse will have them in the end, no matter how much you struggle."

Between how she was dressed and what she had said, Minako made the natural leap to assume that this strange woman was Sailor Iron Mouse. Moreover, based on that as well as what she had done, it was also natural to assume that she was an enemy with no small power. As such, Minako pulled out her henshin rod, raised it high, and shouted, "Venus Crystal Power, Make-up!"

The power of Venus enveloped Minako with the same euphoric intimateness it always did, embracing her and filling the void which she never remembered having when not transformed. It had a different flavor than it had had in the past when on the Moon, but it was still as warmly welcome as a family member who had returned home after years spent apart.

Haruka and Michiru must have come to a similar conclusions, because moments later she heard the two of them shout out "Uranus Star Power, Make-up!" and "Neptune Star Power, Make-up!" respectively.

As the lights around Sailor Venus faded, she had to fight down the impulse welling up inside of her to give a speech. Apparently, since their departure, somebody from the past had decided to embed that particular aspect into the Sailor Senshi magic, although for what reason she couldn't tell. She wasn't sure who had added that particular compulsion, but she really wanted to have some words with them and send them into some real-life combat situations.

Even more, she really wanted a sword. However, she didn't have her crystal one, and she didn't have the time needed to create one she could reliably use with her magic, what with an enemy being right in front of her. Then again, she also had two allies in this fight, and she couldn't really remember ever fighting beside either of them before, so it might not matter. In close combat, unlike with ranged combat, it would be much more likely that they would get in each other's way than to actually be able to coordinate an attack. If it had been Ami or Ranma beside her, she might have considered going to hand-to-hand fighting, despite being unarmed. As it was, it seemed like it would be ranged combat this time.

Minako kept her distance and splayed her fingers in the direction of her opponent. Before she realized it, she shouted out, "Radiant Sparkle!"

The shout hadn't been intended. Another silly impulse. She would need to talk to Ami about that at some point. However, for this attack against an enemy who already knew where she was, it wasn't the biggest deal.

Sailor Venus's attack was an extremely quick one, and it served as an excellent probe. The five beams of energy had a wide arcing pattern, and each beam only hit with enough force to knock over an ordinary man, and only if he was caught unaware and wasn't bracing himself. She didn't want to use any of her more serious attacks without first being sure the situation warranted it, and even then she preferred to have her opponent tagged with a Lover's Kiss first. Even better would have been if there was a hyperspace barrier set up, but seeing how Sailor Mercury wasn't here, that was impractical.

The most important features of her attack was that it only used one hand and that it was simple enough to execute that it allowed her to concentrate on other, more urgent things. Other things like pulling out her communicator and signaling the ongoing battle to the other Sailor Senshi. As she did so, Sailor Venus danced to the side to stay mobile and concurrently watched the result of her attack as she moved.

The beams split from where they had started and then converged on Sailor Iron Mouse. Her target crossed her arms in front of her and took the hit, being pushed back a meter or two but otherwise appearing unharmed. It wasn't too unexpected a result from the probe.

"Guided by the new era..." Sailor Uranus started announcing once she had completed her own transformation.

Sailor Venus really would need to have a talk to the two of them about timing and priorities at some point. Speaking of priorities, though, that talk would be better served when an unknown enemy wasn't a clear and present danger.

"What a weak attack," Sailor Iron Mouse said, ignoring Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune's speech in favor of the actually fighting Sailor Venus. "This is how it's done. Galactica Clutch!"

Sailor Venus was already moving before Sailor Iron Mouse had finished calling her attack. A giant cloud of something emerged and flew where Sailor Venus had been standing a second ago. She was long gone by that point, instead having jumped to the other side of the street.

"We don't have to fight, you know. What are you looking for? Maybe we can help," Sailor Venus called out. It was worth a shot. Negotiation had solved more than one confrontation in the past.

"... Neptune, appearing elegantly!" Sailor Neptune announced from the sidewalk on the other side of the street from Sailor Venus, finally finishing the long introduction she and Sailor Uranus had started.

Sailor Venus would definitely need to have a talk about priorities at their next Sailor Senshi meeting. That, and the fact they had stood still as they had been delivering their speeches. It seemed that Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus had a relatively weak grasp on combat tactics. Mobility, cover, accuracy, and positional awareness were essential for ranged combat. Standing still in plain sight while announcing your position was just foolish.

"You're right, we don't. Just give me your Sailor Crystals. I promise to make your death painless," Sailor Iron Mouse said.

"World," Sailor Uranus shouted out. She had her arm above her head, and a ringed sphere of magic hovered in the palm of her hand. "Shaking!" Sailor Uranus finished, pointing her arm at the woman.

The attack flew towards Sailor Iron Mouse, who dodged to the side. The orb continued on its flight path, creating a substantial crater in the road some distance away, and causing Sailor Venus to internally wince. Collateral damage, while unavoidable at times, was not a good thing. An attack which missed could easily ruin a life, by destroying a business or a home, or by outright killing a bystander. In this case, the road was now ruined and would need repairs before traffic would be able to use it again. Avoiding collateral damage like this was one of the reasons she preferred weaker attacks early in a fight until more drastic measures were proven necessary.

Sailor Iron Mouse said, "That's also weak. Could it be you haven't unlocked the true potential of your Sailor Crystals yet? Lucky!"

Sailor Venus had no interest in listening to her opponent rant. If she wanted to talk, Sailor Venus would be more than willing to take advantage. She sprang up against the wall to her side and pushed off horizontally through the air in a path perpendicular relative to Sailor Iron Mouse. As she flew, she unleashed a Blinding Curtain, suppressing her impulse to shout it out.

This attack cast a massive flash of directed light, with the intent of suppressing or disabling its target. The surprise, and thus the effectiveness, of the blinding attack would be mitigated to a large degree by calling it out. It was a support maneuver, not a damage dealer, in many ways like Sailor Mercury's Sabao Spray. For that matter, it would have been convenient if Sailor Mercury was around as well. The glare the Sabao Spray would have added to the attack would have made it much more effective, in addition to the visibility impairment Sailor Mercury's attack did on its own.

Sailor Iron Mouse gave out a shout and reflexively put a hand in front of her eyes. Much too late, of course.

Sailor Venus was already preparing her follow-up as she continued through the air. Once she touched the ground, she pointed out her arm and silently cast a Love-Me Chain towards the now hopefully blind Sailor Iron Mouse. With any luck, she would be able to subdue her and figure out what to do next.

"Deep Submerge!" Sailor Neptune shouted out from where she stood, in the same place where she and Sailor Uranus had begun the fight.

Sailor Iron Mouse jumped away from the two attacks now streaking towards her, in a direction vaguely towards Sailor Venus.

Sailor Venus silently swore, dropping the Love-Me Chain attack. Instead she changed tack, jumping forwards to intercept Sailor Iron Mouse. It wasn't ideal, but this was as good an opportunity as any, and if she didn't do this now, it would only get more risky as time went by. From her experience, she knew the blinding effect of her attack would mostly fade in at most a minute, and she had no desire to try this maneuver against a fully-sighted opponent if she could help it.

She approached as quickly as her enhanced speed allowed. Time seem to slow as she closed. She was a leg length away, then an arm length, and suddenly she was close enough. She reached out with her index finger, and tapped Sailor Iron Mouse while casting a Lover's Kiss.

Goal accomplished, she piked her body, letting her trajectory carry her over Sailor Iron Mouse. She performed a flip, twisting herself as she fell so she never lost sight of her target, and gracefully landed on her feet.

"That attack was even weaker than theirs. I barely felt that," Sailor Iron Mouse announced, squinting towards Sailor Venus. "Let me show you how it's done. Galactica Spike!"

Sailor Venus dodged to the left. A spear of magic lanced towards where she had been standing, and started veering away from her. Apparently Sailor Iron Mouse was using some form of magic which was reactive to her Lover's Kiss as well. The attractive force of the magical beacon she had planted wouldn't be enough to fully pull the attack back to its caster, but it was enough to foul its aim. The partially controlled attack flew outward and landed against another wall, cratering it. The building was still standing, but its structural integrity would need to be checked at some point.

"World Shaking!" Sailor Uranus called out again, sending out another attack. Sailor Iron Mouse tried to dodge away again, but aided by the earlier planted Lover's Kiss, the attack flew true. It landed on the target and knocked her back several meters. While it looked painful, Sailor Iron Mouse didn't look injured as such.

"Like I said, weak," Sailor Iron Mouse taunted again.

"You won't win here. You're outnumbered, we have reinforcements on the way, and I haven't even started using any of my big attacks yet. Give up. We don't need to fight. Maybe we can find a way to help you," Sailor Venus tried negotiating again.

"No. If I can't obtain a Sailor Crystal, I'm as good as dead anyway," Sailor Iron Mouse said. She pointed both of her arms forward and started shouting, "Galactica..."

Sailor Venus's intuition screamed at her. Something big was happening. Something she needed to stop. The time for gentle escalation was over. Without waiting to see what Sailor Iron Mouse's attack was, Sailor Venus closed her eyes and clapped her hands high above her head, casting the largest attack she had that could be performed even reasonably quickly.

The attack was fast, not in the least because it was un-aimable. The force of magic shoved her hands apart from where they had briefly made contact, and, despite the fact she cast it high above her head to minimize her own exposure, she could feel the substantial effects of the attack. However, almost as if there was a giant lens directing the flow of magic, the Lover's Kiss attracted the vast majority of the effect, curving it so it was focused like a bank of spotlights on Sailor Iron Mouse.

"Nondirectional Laser!" Sailor Venus shouted out. Oddly, by the time she felt the impulse to do so, the attack was already almost finished, so she didn't bother trying to suppress it. In fact, she felt a bit of pride at the particular name she shouted. Ami had wanted to call it something else, like Star Flare or Nova Burst, claiming that Nondirectional Laser was an oxymoron. However, it was her attack, and she liked the name she had given for it.

The massive outburst of magic interrupted whatever attack Sailor Iron Mouse was trying to perform. Once the effect of the Nondirectional Laser had reduced enough to be able to see again, Sailor Iron Mouse was gone. The only thing left was a single bracelet, which fell to the ground with a light ping.

Sailor Venus rubbed her stinging hands against her equally sore arms, trying to soothe both of them a bit. That attack always hurt to use, even when she had the opportunity to plant a Lover's Kiss first. As she did so, she walked over to the bracelet, now lying on the ground. That it had survived the Nondirectional Laser attack focused by a Lover's Kiss spoke volumes, and she was sure Ami would love to get her hands on it for analysis. However, before she could touch it, it disappeared in a poof.

To the side, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus were still rapidly blinking and rubbing their eyes. Apparently they had been close enough that the non-focused part of the Nondirectional Laser had affected them, and they hadn't been fortunate enough to close their eyes. It should clear shortly, though. With the Lover's Kiss guiding the bulk of the attack, the brightness to the side wasn't even as bright as a Blinding Curtain, and she was sure Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus already could see past the spots in their eyes.

Sailor Venus took a quick survey of the damages. Overall it wasn't too bad. There was a building which would need addressing, and some major road work. Probably lots of questions and recriminations as well. She would need to figure out some way to help out.

Actually, that was a thought as well. Some kind of Sailor Senshi community support and outreach system. At some point, the Sailor Senshi would need to come out from the shadows if they were to be taken seriously, both by the government and by the general population. She was also certain that many people had many questions, and that many people would also be willing to provide help as well if given the chance. Not to mention frequently repairs and reparations were necessary in the aftermaths of their fights. It would definitely be a worthwhile use of her heretofore copious free time to try to get some organization in place.

Sailor Venus just knew that this encounter with this strange Sailor Iron Mouse was the start of something bigger, although she had no idea what that bigger thing might be. Almost certainly, though, there would be more fights before it was all over. This might be a good time to start engaging with the population at large, before things got worse.

She pushed that idea to the back of her mind for future consideration as she pulled out her communicator again to report to the others the events which had just transpired.

Ranma knocked on the door to Ami's home. Habit automatically had him straining his ears to gather any information he could. Who was in the building? Was anybody behind him? How would the person answer the door? All could be invaluable, depending on the circumstances, and it was good to keep in practice regardless.

The fact that Akane was currently visiting Hotaru, Michiru, and Haruka made the task easier than it otherwise could have been. Still, it was noticeably harder to glean any meaningful information here than on the Moon. The omnipresent sounds of Tokyo all around him drowned out the more subtle noises he otherwise would have been able to hear. That, and the distracting presence of Mamoru which always embraced him. He hoped one of these days that the unmistakable presence of his empathic sibling would fade to be routine, but he likewise hoped the warm glow of his presence would maintain its comforting novelty forever. In the meantime, it was slightly distracting, albeit in a good way.

At the thought of him, Ranma felt Mamoru's thoughts perk up in query, to which Ranma abated and apologized. Mamoru then returned to what he had been doing, undoubtedly spending some quality time with Usagi, and Ranma felt his presence return to the regular ever-present comfort it always was.

Despite the distractions, Ranma was fairly confident that Ami was alone as the door pulled open, revealing the woman he had come to meet. She still looked a bit out of sorts, but she didn't look to be in half as bad a shape as she had been the week after they had first returned to Tokyo.

One of the reasons for the visit was to exchange the various books Ranma had borrowed from the Mizuharo University library for Ami to read. Just locating these books had been difficult. He couldn't even understand the titles of most of the books, let alone their content. He had needed to get assistance from a librarian to even locate the strange, foreign tomes.

The other, more urgent, reason for the visit was to pick up the finished henshin rod that Ami had created for him. With the recent attack on Minako and the others, the need for the powers Sailor Terra granted him had become much more urgent.

Despite the fact that he was expected, he saw the look of confusion and lack of recognition on Ami's face. It was a face he was accustomed to seeing. In fact, it was a face he prided himself on inducing sometimes.

"Can I help..." Ami started saying, before the click of recognition appeared on her face. She shook her head and said, "Oh, Ranma-chan, I didn't recognize you for a second. This is weird."

"How do you think I feel?" Ranma asked in return. It still felt strange, being male. Intellectually he knew that he, in his current incarnation, had been born male; but he had spent two lifetimes as a woman, and couldn't help but feel more natural in that form now. Everything just felt a bit strange as a man. The slightly off-balance feel his gait induced when he walked. The tone of voice he heard whenever he spoke. Pretty much everything was just slightly off.

"I can imagine," Ami said while opening the door further to let Ranma in. "My mother is still at the hospital. Can I get you anything to drink?"

He was tempted to ask for some water, not to drink but to transform, but chose not to do so. He still had his pledge, and a glass of hot water was not an unreasonable burden to fulfill his honor, no matter how uncomfortable and annoying it was.

From what he recalled when he had first fallen into Jusenkyo, it didn't take too long to grow accustomed to a different body. The sooner the male form became natural to him, the better, not in the least in case he ever had to fight without any cold water nearby.

"No, I'm fine," Ranma answered. He would be transforming into a woman soon enough anyway, for his upcoming meeting with Minako and their planned trip to visit that strange singer she had met. "Here, I brought your new books."

"Thanks," Ami said as she took the stack of books Ranma offered and placed them on a table next to another, similar stack. She tapped the second stack and said, "These are all ready to bring back. Don't forget to grab them on the way out."

Ranma glanced down at the book on the top of that stack. He couldn't read the foreign title, but it had a rather pretty picture of what appeared to be a colorful grid of lines in a curve. That suggested the book was either really simple or really complicated. Given it was Ami, and the fact that it hadn't been available in any library Ami had easy access to, Ranma suspected it was probably the latter. He half wanted to ask what it was about, but thought better of it. Last time he had asked, Ami had started talking about negative refraction, meta-materials, wavenumbers, and countless other terms Ranma still couldn't rightly even name, let alone understand.

"Here's a list of other ones too, next chance you get," Ami said, handing over a piece of paper.

"Sure thing. Will do," Ranma said, taking the paper covered with Japanese, English, and who knew what other languages. Based on past experience, it would take a fair bit of time with a librarian to even decipher the list, but it was a favor for Ami. She had helped him out more times in the past than he could count, and, more importantly, she was a friend.

"Thanks," Ami said. Then, changing the subject, she asked, "So, what's this I hear about you switching degrees?"

"Have you been listening to Minako-chan again?" Ranma asked, half in exasperation.

"Maybe," Ami said.

"You know Minako-chan. She's always exaggerating things," Ranma said.

"Yes, and you know Minako-chan too. She's always right in the end," Ami said.

"She's not always right," Ranma disagreed. Even as he said it, he could hear the retort in his head. Sure, and Jadeite was really just a friend. Smithsonite was really just a farmer who had exceptionally bad luck raising animals. Rhodonite was really just a playboy philanthropist.

It was true that Minako wasn't always right, but she was right more often than not. That was the main reason that Ranma would be meeting her and Yaten later, after all. Apparently something about the singer had caught Minako's attention, and Ranma had long learned to pay heed to Minako's intuition. If she said something felt strange about the man, chances were that there was more going on than Yaten just being a successful celebrity musician.

If that same intuition was also saying that Ranma was going to change degrees then odds were good that he would end up doing just that, even if he hadn't actually made the choice to do so yet.

"Right," Ami said incredulously. "So, really, what's the deal?"

"It's nothing serious yet. I'm just thinking about it. Physical education is fine enough, but there's so much other stuff out there too. There's that acting thing I told you about before, but psychology and sociology sound like they might be interesting as well. Maybe some economics courses or something. I was even thinking that astrophysics might be fun. Who knows how many days we've all spent under the stars? It might be interesting to learn a bit more about them," Ranma said.

"That's quite the list. When were you thinking on finalizing the decision?" Ami asked.

"Not sure yet. There's that play coming up next week. I figure any decision I make should wait until then, at least, and then probably a week or two more to let things settle a bit," Ranma said. "Actually, that reminds me. Here's a ticket for the show."

Ranma pulled out a thick envelope, took one of the tickets from the stack inside it, and handed it over to Ami.

"I take it this means that you got the part?" Ami asked.

"So it would seem. Nao-sensei said nobody wanted to take such a visible and important role with only one week left to go until showtime," Ranma said with a shrug. He didn't see what the big deal was himself, but the others' reluctance meant that he got a chance to really try out this acting business and see what it was like. He wasn't one to question his good luck, much like he didn't curse his bad luck when it happened as well.

"What's with all those other tickets?" Ami asked, pointing to the large envelope.

"They're Minako-chan's idea. She thought to invite the other Sailor Senshi too. Some bonding experience or something," Ranma said. It was a good idea. Ranma just felt a bit bad that he hadn't thought of it himself.

"That sounds like a good idea," Ami said, agreeing with Ranma's assessment. "If you want, I can take them and give them to her at school tomorrow."

"No, that's okay. I'm scheduled to meet up with her later. There's this singer Minako-chan thinks is a bit strange, and she thought it'd be useful if he and I were to meet," Ranma said.

"Well, you know Minako-chan," Ami said with a shrug of understanding.

Yes, he did. They both did.

"Well, with any luck you won't need it, but if you do, here's your henshin rod, as promised," Ami said, handing over the item in question.

"Thanks," Ranma said, taking the small rod, with its emblematic circle cut into four quadrants symbolizing Earth.

"It's a good thing I had managed to finish it earlier. I haven't had a chance to even think about it since that whole business with Sailor Iron Mouse," Ami said.

"Any news about that? I haven't heard any details, only that Minako-chan, Haruka-chan, and Michiru-chan were involved with some strange attack," Ranma said. Ranma would probably be able to learn something from Akane later, as most likely the topic would come up between Akane and Hotaru, Michiru, and Haruka. However, it didn't hurt to see what else he could learn from another source and another perspective.

"No, nothing," Ami said. "I've been searching through the archives ever since to see if I could find any reference to anything similar, but no luck. If the Moon Kingdom ever saw anything like her before, nobody saw fit to publish it in the official records."

"That wouldn't surprise me. Why don't I give it a try later? It's doubtful, but I might have access to a few things which aren't in the official files," Ranma suggested. They had probably removed his access to the main data store once he had disappeared, but oversights in bureaucracy did happen. That, and Serenity or somebody else might have intentionally left him access for some unknown reason as well.

"It's worth a shot. I'll find Minako-chan later and have her try too," Ami agreed. "The other thing is I asked Setsuna-chan to drop by as well. She might remember something which never made it into the records, or at least has a pointer about other places to check."

The naming of his daughter brought Ranma's breath up short. He asked, "She's coming here?"

"Who? Setsuna-chan? Yeah. She said she had some time, so I asked her to drop by," Ami said. "Why? Is that a problem?"

"Not really. It's just I haven't had a chance to talk to her since... well, you know," Ranma said. The announcement caused Ami's breath to catch in her throat.

"What? You mean you haven't spoken to her yet? Why haven't you? How could you just leave her like that?" Ami asked. Her voice rose at the end, edging towards an accusatory shout.

"It... it's difficult," Ranma tried to explain.

"Difficult? How is it difficult? You pick up the phone and push some numbers. It's not like me, who would need to break the temporal barrier and probably destroy reality," Ami said, now definitely accusatory.

"It's not like that," Ranma said, with a sigh. "Well, no, you're right. It is like that. But it's just weird, you know? I mean it's been so much time. For her. How am I supposed to talk to my daughter who is older than I am? She's changed so much. I don't even know what to call her anymore. Meioh-san? Setsuna-chan? Daughter?"

"If it makes you feel better, the same could be said for me," a familiar voice said from behind Ranma.

He spun on his feet as quickly as he could, but not as quickly as he would have liked to given his strange balance. Setsuna stood behind him. He hadn't even noticed her until she had said something. Ranma scowled to himself. Just how much had Setsuna heard?

"I didn't realize you'd be here. I should go. I can come by and visit later," Setsuna said, turning to leave.

"No, wait. You don't have to go," Ami said quickly. After a second or two, she prompted, "Isn't that right, Ranma-chan?"

This shook him out of his reverie, but Ranma still hesitated. He eventually managed to force himself to say, "That's right, you don't have to go... Setsuna... chan?"

Setsuna stared back, with a mixture of fear and hope dancing across her face. It was unschooled and open, harkening back to a much simpler time back on the Moon, when the biggest concern had been what dress to wear to the annual ball.

"You have something to tell her, isn't that right, Ranma-chan?" Ami asked. Her voice had the patient but leading tone of a teacher trying to get a student to say something.

"Yeah... that's right. I'm... I'm... that is to say..." Ranma said, still hesitantly. He knew what he wanted to say. Why was it so hard?

"I'm sorry," Ranma finally blurted out.

"What?" Setsuna asked back. It wasn't longing, or accusatory, or hopeful, or really containing any emotion. A simple question.

"I'm sorry," Ranma repeated. "For what we, for what I said before. You really are a great Sailor Senshi."

If Setsuna was trying to give the illusion of aloof impassiveness, the effect was entirely ruined by the tears falling down her face.

"I guess... I'm trying to say that I'm proud of you. I don't think I could have lasted as long as you have," Ranma said. "Forgive me?"

Setsuna's answer was as sudden as it was obvious. She lunged forward and enveloped Ranma in an enormous hug, crying as she did so. Ranma was only too happy to return it, a couple of tears forming in his eyes as well.

"I missed you, mother," Setsuna said between sobs. "I missed you so much."

Ranma only patted her back soothingly in return.

"I think I'll just go off and leave you two alone for a bit. We can talk about the attack later," Ami said, excusing herself as she quickly left the room.

"It's been so lonely for all these years, and then you were born, and I wanted to visit you, but I couldn't, and these past few years have been the worst, and I thought you hated me," Setsuna continued.

"No, I don't. Maybe for a bit, but then Ami-chan and I talked about it, and it wasn't fair," Ranma said. "You did everything you could, and more. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

The two held each other, making up for all the time they had spent apart, and each trying to let the other know how much they were loved by sheer force of will.

Eventually Ranma said, "I see you've gotten better over the years, developing your skills and all that. I didn't even notice when you sneaked up on me."

"It took me a thousand years of practice, but I finally managed to beat you at martial arts," Setsuna said with a laugh. "No, not really. I had actually just teleported in."

"Setsuna-chan," Ranma said, and then growled. "Meioh-san. Whatever. I meant what I said before, I really have no idea what I should call you anymore."

"It sounds like Minako-chan and Ami-chan have settled on Setsuna-chan, and if it makes sense for them, then it makes more sense for my own mother to do the same," Setsuna offered. "What about you? What should I call you? Saotome-san? Ranma-kun? Mother? Maybe father?"

"You can call me whatever you want," Ranma said back with a smile.

"Then I think I'd like to call you mother," Setsuna said with a small laugh, tears still coming down her face.

"That would be perfect, Setsuna-chan," Ranma said. It would definitely cause confusion, from strangers if nothing else, especially when Ranma was male. He could only imagine the awkwardness at Sailor Senshi meetings for a while as well. But Ranma didn't care about any of that. He had his daughter back, and that was all that mattered.

The two held each other for minutes, upon minutes, upon minutes. Ranma kept patting Setsuna's head, letting her cry away the countless years of sorrow.

After what could have been hours, Setsuna asked, wiping away the tears which still flowed from her eyes, "Could you tell me that story again, of the Legendary Prince Toma?"

"That story? You've heard it so many times before," Ranma asked. It had always been Setsuna's favorite story growing up.

"Yes, but not in thousands of years," Setsuna countered.

"Maybe, but you were probably there and saw what Toma did yourself," Ranma countered.

"I did," Setsuna admitted, "but I like your version better."

"Okay, fine," Ranma acceded. He secretly did enjoy telling the story to his daughter as well, even if knowing that she now knew the truth added extra pressure on him. He just hoped it wouldn't ruin the experience any for her.

"Well, many, many years ago, there was this prince. He was a foolish little prince, and he was looking for a princess to share his kingdom with..."

Author's Note:

Thus ends the story of the history of Sailor Pluto, the beginning of the Moon Kingdom, and the major players involved with those events.

In my opinion, that's been the main plot thread all along. I didn't describe it as such in the summary of this story due to spoilers.

Are there more stories which could be explored here? Of course.

What kind of place will Ami, Minako, and Ranma each make for themselves in 20th century Tokyo? How will the three of them interact with and influence the Sailor Senshi who had stayed behind? What happened in the Moon Kingdom once three of the central figures in their society had disappeared? What are the histories of the other kingdoms in the Silver Millennium? What will the relationship between Ranma and Akane end up being? What will Akane do with her powers as Saturn Knight? What will come of Michiru's Jusenkyo condition? Whatever happened to Happosai? What will happen in the meeting between Minako, Ranma, and Yaten? What are the implications of the lack of Super Sailor Senshi forms for most of the Sailor Senshi? How will the presence of Ranma and Akane, as well as the more experienced Ami and Minako, not to mention Mamoru, affect the upcoming events with The Three Lights and the circumstances they bring with them?

Could somebody write a story which addresses one or more of the questions above? Definitely. However, none of those are the plot thread of this story. For the moment, Ranma and Setsuna have made peace with each other, and all is right with the world.

It's been a lot of fun putting this piece together. It took a great deal of time and effort, but it's nice for me to finally bring some personal closure to one of the most notable abandoned fanfiction stories I've ever read. I'll probably periodically be going back and doing minor revisions and fixes to this story as they show up, so regardless of when you read this, I would still appreciate reviews, thoughts, and suggestions about ways to improve things. I'm going to avoid substantial changes to the story as compared to how it stands now, although I'm happy to hear any thoughts you might have about the plot or its implications, but typos are fair game to change in my opinion. So if you see any, please let me know.

Regardless, I hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed writing it, and now have at least some semblance of a conclusion. Now if only somebody could do the same for "Tenchi and Ranma: Together Forever," and "The Clan," and "Permanent," and "Paragon," and "Vengeance and a Half," and "Eldritch Asylum," and...

Original Outline:

After much thought, I've decided to include the outline that I worked from in making this story. This is primarily so anybody who is interested can see what of my story L. Giroux intended, what I omitted, what I changed, what I expanded upon, and what I created entirely on my own.

I'm not completely sure I should post a verbatim copy of the outline, though, seeing how I didn't write it as such. This is much like how I'm not posting "Lines of Destiny" here as well, as the site administrators never responded to my inquiries about it. Instead, I've condensed the outline into a series of plot points which I can legitimately say I did write.

It should go without saying that this includes substantial spoilers for "Lines of Destiny - Destiny's Intersection." If you haven't read that yet and instead skipped straight here, it's up to you whether or not you want to continue. Consider yourself warned.

With that out of the way, the outline in list form continues below. Almost more than what is mentioned, I would suggest you pay particular attention to what is not touched upon in what follows.

1) The destruction of the Katsunishiki's package is the fuse which starts the upcoming fireworks.

2) Secrets are revealed.

3) Akane and Ranma drift apart due to Akane wanting to help the Sailor Senshi while Ranma has growing confusion about his identity.

4) Tension between Mamoru and Ranma grows.

5) Happosai, who wants to punish Ranma, makes a mistake and opens a portal to a demonic dimension.

6) The Sailor Senshi are pressed hard to keep the demons, who are flooding in through the portal, at bay.

7) The demons are akin to foot soldiers in that they aren't difficult to kill, but they are chaotic and sometimes devious.

8) A small force comprised of Ami, Minako, Ranma, and Setsuna go investigate the portal. The others are needed to stay behind for the defense of Tokyo. The reason for this selection is that Ranma is the most potent force; Hotaru is stronger but her attacks are too big for a reconnaissance mission, and Akane is opposed to Hotaru going as well. Setsuna and Minako are the most combat experienced, with Minako's experience as Sailor V being notable. Ami goes because she's the reason for the whole trip, with the other three being escorts to protect her while she figures out a way to close the portal down.

9) They investigate the portal and think that they may need to go to the other side of it to close it.

10) This portal disrupts Setsuna's prediction talent and her access to the Gates of Time.

11) Setsuna stays behind to guard the portal as the other three go through it, entering a world in the last stages of an apocalyptic fight. This world is not an alternative Earth; it is an entirely different world.

12) Ami, Minako, and Ranma eventually take refuge in what appears to be a slightly modified but extremely powerful form of the Crystal Palace.

13) They eventually discover that the palace is sentient, but it can only communicate with Sailor Terra, due to her psionic powers.

14) The palace tells Sailor Terra that it is the last guardian of its world, and it will soon be destroyed by attacking enemy forces.

15) Sailor Venus mentions how the castle resembles the one they saw in the future and the group wonders if there is a connection.

16) Sailor Mercury [sic?] discovers that the palace is getting suicidal as it is supposed to have a symbiotic relationship with its inhabitants, who are all dead. This is like the "Tinman" episode from "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

17) The enemy forces increase their attacks to breach the palace's defenses, with the objective being its power core, which provides nearly limitless energy. The core can be drained, but it recharges itself, and thus is limitless.

18) The Sailor Senshi are unwilling to close the portal on their own, due to not having enough power and not being willing to let Sailor Saturn [sic?] sacrifice herself.

19) The palace makes a deal with the Sailor Senshi. It will self-destruct, which will destabilize the portal. In return, it asks them to save the essence/life-force/soul of its last resident, its presence being the only reason the palace hasn't self-destructed yet.

20) This essence is similar to a heart crystal, but can't survive outside the palace for long, so it needs one of the Sailor Senshi to take it within herself.

21) The essence only trusts Sailor Terra, as she is the only one it can talk to.

22) Sailor Terra accepts the essence within herself, with the thought that it's only an extra heart crystal to transport.

23) The palace also gives Sailor Terra the source of its power as it is unwilling to allow it to fall into demonic hands. This is a large, foot-wide, gray crystal.

24) As the Sailor Senshi leave the palace, the demons sense the power of the core, despite Sailor Terra having stored it in her subspace pocket, and attack.

25) In an attempt to save them, the palace sacrifices its remaining energy to destabilize the portal as the Sailor Senshi enter it, trying to buy them some time.

26) As the Sailor Senshi come back through the portal, it starts collapsing. Sailor Pluto, who at this point is no longer sure about the future, in a desperate move, uses a Chronos Typhoon to toss them to another time to prevent their death.

27) Ami, Minako, and Ranma end up in the early days of the Moon Kingdom.

28) In the past, Ami, Minako, and Ranma are not able to transform as their avatar relationships have not come into effect, making Ami and Minako relatively defenseless.

29) They still have access to their subspace pockets, so Ami has access to her computer, and possibly Minako has access to the Commander's Sword [sic?].

30) Ranma, Ami, and Minako end up preventing the assassination of the first Queen Serenity, who might be called Tranquility or some other name, at the hands of a rebel faction who don't want the Silver Millennium to happen.

31) After Ranma has some trouble returning to male form, Ami discovers that Ranma is pregnant.

32) Ami doesn't tell Ranma anything, as she is too scared of Ranma's reaction.

33) Ami is sure that this pregnancy is the result of absorbing the heart crystal and a coincidence of timing.

34) Serenity detects Ranma's pregnancy later and happily tells Ranma, who does not react well.

35) Serenity is then told of Ranma's curse.

36) Ami and Minako try to cheer up Ranma, much to her dismay.

37) Ranma ends up giving birth after several, and possibly nearly suicidal, abortion attempts. These attempts were foiled by either Ami, Minako, or Serenity.

38) Ranma doesn't suspect who she's given birth to, but Ami and Minako begin to have suspicions of the child's identity at this time.

39) After the birth, Ranma's curse is partially frozen in female form.

40) Ami, Minako, and Ranma eventually learn that Serenity is a powerful magic user. They ask her if she can send them back, seeing how Sailor Pluto doesn't seem to be around.

41) Serenity, who is the Queen by this point, says that she may be able to but that her personal power level isn't high enough.

42) Ranma offers the palace power core as assistance, compensation, and/or a bribe.

43) Serenity accepts the power core, and it eventually becomes the Ginzuishou.

44) Even with this added power, Serenity cannot send them back. It would require her to sacrifice herself, which Ami and Minako will not allow at any cost.

45) Ami, Minako, and Ranma spend 12-14 years in the Moon Kingdom.

46) Ranma reluctantly raises her daughter.

47) Ami and Minako train under Ranma for a long time.

48) Ami and Minako suggest the creation of a Senshi guard to Serenity, who implements the concept.

49) Serenity summons the spirit of each world.

50) Ranma's daughter is selected as the first Sailor Pluto, which confirms Ami's and Minako's fears.

51) Ranma, by this point, is rather confused. She doesn't want to believe that her daughter is the same person who later betrays her, despite the evidence suggesting that that is the case.

52) Not long after Ranma's daughter is nominated as Sailor Pluto, the older Sailor Pluto comes and gets them.

53) Ami, Minako, and Ranma are very angry that she took so long. Sailor Pluto counters by asking if Ranma really wanted to go back to the present while pregnant.

54) Ami, Minako, and Ranma learn that the Sailor Senshi have finally ended the demonic invasion, among other things. This will be detailed when the story gets to this point.

55) Sailor Pluto takes them back to about a month after they disappeared, and youthens them back to their original appearances as compensation.

56) Sailor Pluto fully unlocks Ranma's curse. She possibly offers Ranma a full flask of Nannichuan as compensation, bribe, and/or reward.

57) Sailor Pluto tells them that the choice of whether or not to tell the other Sailor Senshi what really happened is up to them.

58) Obviously, Ranma makes Ami and Minako swear they'll never reveal anything about her child.

59) In Tokyo, Ami, Ranma, and especially Minako can't quite get back into their roles.

60) Ami, Minako, and Ranma's behavior, plus the fact that Ami has somehow gotten good enough to beat Haruka in a fight, raises many questions.

61) There is a final confrontation between Ranma and Setsuna, with details which have not been determined yet. Setsuna tries to reconcile with Ranma, but he is extremely angry at her and doesn't want to talk.

62) The gist of all of this is that the "First" Sailor Pluto was an abused child. She wanted to find a way to remake her own childhood, so she'd have at least a normal childhood before becoming the loneliest being in the system. The idea would be to have some good memories when times go bad. Eventually, the First Sailor Pluto ends up dying in another dimension, which set the way for Ami, Minako, and Ranma to come to the Palace's rescue.

Last Updated: February 27, 2015