Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi. I'm just telling some stories about them.

Author's Note: Really, really sorry about the excessive delay on this one. Was hit by some incredible levels of burnout after finally completing the finale, in addition to all the upheaval of Real Life just going crazy.

Still, kept plugging away at it bit by bit, until I had everything the way I wanted it. Thank you very much for your patience, especially to everyone who sent encouragement even as I was slogging through all that. It really helped me push through.

Also, super huge thanks to SaiorPtah, for her amazing fanart "Zero Hour" of Sailor Moon's climactic fight, which can be found on her DeviantArt Page (under ErinPtah there). It knocked my socks off, and I'm incredibly grateful for her bringing it to life like that.

While this is the last "chapter", the fic is still not quite complete; there will also still be an epilogue after this. That installment, however, should be much shorter than this was, only a handful of scenes long.

At any rate, without further ado... the final (full) chapter of this story.

Chapter Nineteen: Dark Lords Ascendant

Sitting in the makeshift infirmary that they had set up within the Dark Kingdom, Luna watched over the unconscious young girl who had so recently escaped being the sacrifice for Ekim's ritual.

Doctor Mizuno was doing her best to treat the girl's injuries with what she had on hand. As the woman worked, Luna turned to the daimon who had carried the child to safety. "Are you sure it was the Nameless One itself that was coming through the portal?" she asked in a small voice, her stomach twisting in on itself with dread. "It's attacking directly?"

"I don't know..." the daimon said, clearly still shaken from what she had seen. "I don't know what the hell that thing was, or what was going on. They just told me to bring her here. So that's what I did."

Her words did nothing to reassure Luna, who could only sit there in anguish. I should be out there! she thought. I ought to be facing this with them!

But due to Ranma's ailurophobia, she'd had to remain behind. And although she knew it wasn't his fault, she had to fight back an irrational anger toward the young man for separating her from her girls in such a crucial time. That anger, however, only masked the deeper anger. Anger at herself for being so powerless that it had been the better choice to sideline her in favor of their new ally.

Please, let them be alright, she prayed, not having anything else she could do. Please let them all come back alive.

She felt a paw rest on her back, and she looked over at Artemis. The white moon cat was trying to offer what little comfort he could. She gave him a grateful smile, before glancing back as Doctor Mizuno hooked the injured girl up to an IV drip. Then the doctor turned back toward the two cats. "She's stable," she said. "Though we should still have someone with actual healing magic take a look at her as soon as possible."

After that, it was just minute after minute after endless minute of tense silence, weighing on their nerves as they waited helplessly. Then, with a suddenness that made them all jolt in place, Luna's communicator alert sounded. Immediately the moon cat hit the answering button with her paw. "What happened? Are you okay? Do you need any help?"

"We're okay!" came Sailor Moon's weary, static-tinged voice across the channel. "We're all really tired, and some of us are pretty banged up... but Sailor Saturn healed the people who were the worst off. We didn't lose anyone!"

Luna nearly broke down crying for joy. In her place, Artemis spoke up. "And the mission? Did you...?"

"It's done." That was Ranma's voice. "We're about to head back. We can tell you everything when we get there."

"We'll make sure the portal is open for you," Artemis said. The two moon cats looked at each other, wide smiles replacing the looks of apprehension they'd worn moments before.

They did it, Luna thought, fighting back tears of relief. They pulled through again.

Jimenko trudged through the ruined city, the still-unconscious form of Sailor Venus slung across her back. The return journey was much slower than the journey out, but eventually the weary members of the attack group reached the portal and began filing through, back into the rocky tunnels of the Dark Kingdom. As they emerged they found a crowd waiting for them. Friends, family members, monsters... all mingled together in an anxious throng that rushed toward them.

The lemure saw two humans approach her in particular, their eyes shifting warily between her and the unconscious Sailor Senshi she was carrying. Her parents? Jimenko wondered. Yeah, probably. With a grunt, she swung the human girl off her back and handed her over. The two humans seemed unsure of what exactly to do, but they took her, managing to support her between the two of them.

Behind them, Ryouga and Sailor Saturn walked through the portal together, a girl with blonde twintails on Ryouga's back. Tsukino Ikuko immediately rushed toward them... then slowed to a stop, sensing something amiss with the girl who looked exactly like her daughter. A moment later the portal pulsed again and Tuxedo Kamen emerged, carrying the actual Sailor Moon.

The clone looked back and forth at the multitude of surrounding faces in worry. Sailor Moon quickly spoke up. "It's okay! She isn't dangerous. Tanizaki isn't controlling her anymore."

Mrs. Tsukino took a few steps closer, causing the clone to shrink down, attempting to hide behind Ryouga's back. Ikuko's expression softened, though she spoke with a firm, motherly tone. "Then let's get her someplace she can lie down. She looks half-dead. All of you do."

No one disagreed. They filtered through the tunnels, many of the monsters who had been carrying unconscious Sailor Senshi now handing them off to friends or family members who were not so spent. Jimenko watched Sailor Venus as her parents carried her, a twinge of concern running through her.

Damn it all... the lemure thought, shaking her head. How low I've fallen. In her heart of hearts, she could no longer even pretend true animosity at this point. It was fortunate that their new Dark Lords had chosen the path of seduction and subversion to defeat the Sailor Senshi... because at this point, it was probably the only "victory" she would have been able to enjoy anymore.

It doesn't matter, she thought, clinging stubbornly to the excuse that allowed her to maintain her pride as a monster. That still counts as a victory! It's just... a better way of beating them. That's all.

As they went, Kasumi looked out across the returning group. Then an expression of mild perplexity crossed her face. "Oh, wait a moment," she said. "Where is Mousse?"

Ranma and Ryouga exchanged a quick glance. "He'll be back later," Ranma finally said. "He... had something he needed to do first."

Mousse walked, limping, through the shattered streets of Shinjuku Ward. The injuries Tanizaki had inflicted on him still hurt, but he clenched his teeth and continued on.

The tumult of battle had long since faded, leaving eerie silence in its wake, broken only by his own footsteps and the occasional rumble of thunder. The distant storm they had noted before launching their assault had almost reached him.

Soon raindrops began to fall around the blind warrior. Only a few at first, but slowly building. He extended his uninjured arm, twisting it to allow a large paper umbrella to drop from his sleeve and into his waiting grasp. Opening it, he continued onward as the hiss of the downpour grew around him. He could hear the impacts of the water on his surroundings, tracing the outlines of the toppled buildings and twisted debris in his perception.

Mousse continued to backtrack his own path, returning the way he had come. Zhang might have been defeated, but the authorities would no doubt want to take the assassin into custody. And even in his diminished state the man could still be dangerous to ordinary officers if he chose to resist. Only another Hidden Weapons master could confirm that he had truly been disarmed. Which meant it was a task for him.

Step by limping step, the robed figure hobbled through the cleansing downpour, lost in thought. Eventually he reached the street where he had faced Zhang for the last time... and there he stopped, taking in what was before him.

Mousse could sense no ki, no flow of life. He could hear the impact of the raindrops outlining the maimed body where Zhang had fallen, there amidst the countless weapons they had discarded in their duel. Walking closer and reaching down, Mousse felt the bandages still lying on Zhang's chest, exactly where they had fallen.

He hadn't even tried to stop the bleeding.

For several minutes, Mousse knelt there in silence. I wonder what expression he's wearing? the blind warrior thought. Pride? Anger? Acceptance? To choose his own end, rather than face a life other than the path he chose for himself...

Mousse exhaled, then rose to his feet, the rain continuing to fall around him. He probably saw it as an expression of his resolve, Mousse thought. He probably thought it came from his strength of will. But I... I can't see it as anything other than weakness.

With a groan, Chibi-Usa shifted beneath the covers of a bed she did not remember collapsing into. She slowly pried her eyes open, consciousness returning in fragmented bits and pieces. For what felt like forever she simply lay there, her bleary, unfocused stare fixed on some point far beyond the rocky walls of that room.

She might have drifted back in and out of sleep a few more times. She wasn't sure. But in the end, enough strength returned that she was able to roll painfully out of the bed and onto her feet. Apparently she'd slept in her civilian clothes, and she didn't feel up to changing into a new outfit even if she could find one. Instead she stumbled toward the door and out into the hallways of Beryl's old palace.

After several minutes of searching she found her way to the infirmary. Usagi lay in one of the beds, with her parents, Luna, and also her clone all clustered around her. The child they had rescued from Ekim's ritual was also sitting in a nearby bed, talking with Shingo, Usagi's younger brother. The girl looked much better than she had when last Chibi-Usa had seen her. Hotaru or Mamoru had probably healed her since then.

Beneda was moving between the beds, keeping an eye on her patients. She glanced up as Chibi-Usa entered. "Oh, you're awake!" she said. "Are you feeling alright? You probably need something to eat; I can ask Kasumi to get you something."

Now that the youma mentioned it, Chibi-Usa realized that she was, in fact, starving. "Just how long was I asleep?" she mumbled blearily. The last thing she could actually remember was unleashing all the gathered power up toward the rift in the sky. Then darkness.

"Over twenty-four hours," said Beneda. "Most of the others recovered sooner... but you were the focal point of that final attack. I guess killing an evil god really takes a lot out of you."

"Then... it worked?" Chibi-Usa asked, still slowly piecing everything together in her sleep-fogged mind. "We won?"

"Yes, you won," said Luna, pride in the moon cat's eyes. "Ami confirmed it afterward with the Mercury Computer. The Nameless One's prison dimension was completely cleansed and annihilated by the Golden Crystal and all your combined powers."

"And Ranma kicked Tanizaki's butt right off his skyscraper!" added Usagi, her voice weak but irrepressible. Then she looked up at her clone, placing a hand over the other girl's. "And she's safe now too. Everything worked out!"

Chibi-Usa walked over to a nearby chair, along the wall and slumped down into it. Was that it? The long struggle finally over? It felt unreal, especially since she hadn't witnessed the end herself, only hearing about it in shortened summary afterward.

After a while, she looked back up at the girl they had rescued from the ritual, her presence suggesting another question. "What about Ekim?" she asked. "Did we catch him?"

Beneda shook her head. "There wasn't any sign of him," she said. "But I don't think he got away. From what Konatsu described, he was almost dead... and my guess is that he ended up as the sacrifice that opened the rift."

"Even if he survived, he wouldn't be much of a threat anymore," added Luna. "His powers came from his pact with the Nameless One. With it dead, he'd just be an ordinary human. In fact..." A thoughtful look crossed her face. "A bond like that... probably means he was directly linked to that monster, in order to draw power from it. So when you destroyed it with magic of that scale..."

The moon cat smiled a small—yet surprisingly vicious—smile. "Well. Let's just say I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of any of those murderers who made a deal with that thing..."

More than twenty-four hours prior to that conversation, on a primitive, backwater planet on the other side of the galaxy, Prince Azkorolin, rightful heir to the throne of Namda, clenched his ancestral sword tight in an attempt to keep his hands from trembling. He stared at the door in front of him, the final barrier between him and the battle he had been training for half his life to face.

His golden-brown fur was stained blue with blood; they had been forced to fight through waves of Xenikar's minions just to reach this point. But they were nothing compared to their master. Azkorolin's companions stood on either side of him, giving their silent support. Their planet's young Sailor Senshi—Sailor Varkus—stood panting for breath at his right, long since transformed into her sailor seifuku. His bodyguard and teacher Omvar stood at his left, mandibles locked in grim silence, his warhammer held at the ready.

They all knew what was at stake. The resistance had committed everything to give them this one opportunity. This was their last chance to end Xenikar's reign of terror. If they failed here...

They couldn't fail here.

Drawing in a deep breath, Prince Azkorolin kicked the door with all his strength, flinging it wide open and revealing the throne room beyond. The trio rushed in, finally coming to a halt with their weapons brandished at the foot of the long, steep stairs that led up to the dais where the throne stood—high, high above them. And on that throne, regarding them with an amused sneer, sat their true enemy.

"Xenikar!" Sailor Varkus shouted, adopting her usual pose. "This is the end! Prepare to face justice for all your horrible crimes, for all the innocent lives you've taken! In the name of Varkus, we will crush you!"

The robed, purple-furred figure sitting on the throne laughed, and then rose to his feet. As he stood, Prince Azkorolin sensed the sorcerer's dark aura flare out from him, and the sheer malevolence drove the prince to one knee, barely able to hold his weapon in position. Omvar wavered as well, catching hold of a nearby pillar in an attempt to steady himself. Only Sailor Varkus was unaffected, and even she looked terrified at what she now faced.

"Pitiful," Xenikar gloated, as he began to descend the long, steep stairs toward them, a corrupted miasma seeping from his hands to swirl around him. "Not worth my time. None of you have a prayer of matching the power the Nameless One has bestowed upon me!"

How can we possibly beat something so powerful? Prince Azkorolin thought, fear clutching at his heart. But he fought it back, if only barely. He had to think of something! All their work, all the years of preparation that had led them to this moment... he couldn't let it end like this! Think! Think! There must be something you can do! Think!

But Xenikar only continued to descend toward them, cackling with smug glee. "Your deaths will be so terrible that they will haunt the nightmares of any who even think to rise up against me from this day forward," he continued, his power swelling even further. "I will make your allies watch, as you plead for the release of the grave. And then, once I have stomped out the last remnants of your pathetic gang of revolutionaries, I will inflict such torments on your precious nation that—"

Then his head exploded.

There was no warning. Just a blast of golden light so brilliant that Prince Azkorolin had to twist his face away from it. When he turned back, blinking the afterimages out of his vision, he saw Xenikar's body... with only a smoking stump in place of a neck. For a frozen instant it tottered, before pitching forward and falling down the rest of the stairs. The corpse tumbled in a limp tangle of limbs, as all three of them watched every single meaty thud along the way. When it finally reached the bottom it rolled to a stop right in front of the trio, flopping between them as they stood in a dumbstruck semicircle around it.

For a long time they just stood there. Prince Azkorolin stared down at the headless body, trying to make sense of it... but his mind simply refused to wrap itself around what had just happened. Eventually he opened his mouth to say something... only to find out there was nothing whatsoever to say. After what seemed like forever, Sailor Varkus slowly reached out with her foot and gave the corpse a small nudge with the tip of her shoe.

The body rocked slightly, but made no other moves. Emboldened, Sailor Varkus gave it a harder nudge, with much the same result. Finally, she looked up at the other two. "Um..." she began. "Well. That was easy."

Prince Azkorolin could only stare down at the corpse in abject disbelief.

Ranma leaned against the wall of one of the conference rooms in Tanizaki's skyscraper. He crossed his arms, trying not to let on just how nervous he was as he watched Sailor Mars and Sailor Pluto pick through the cache of magical items that Tanizaki had collected, closely examining each object. Sure hope they know what they're doing... he thought. How many times has dealing with magical junk like that put us through hell?

Random magical items, in his opinion, were better off left alone. They usually had a way of blowing up in your face if you messed around with them.

Still, he supposed if someone had to deal with those things, the Sailor Senshi were probably the best bet. They, along with the martial artists, had returned here to the skyscraper the morning after the apocalyptic events, securing the building so they could deal with anything dangerous their foe had left behind. The Tokyo Police and the JSDF were still holding back per the Sailor Senshi's request—especially after seeing the sheer scale of the forces at play—but their requests for information were growing more and more insistent.

After a while, Sailor Pluto glanced up from the quiet conversation she'd been having with her shrine maiden compatriot. "I believe that we have identified the truly malevolent items here," she told Ranma. "However, there are still a few that I would like Sailor Mercury to scan, just to be on the safe side. Would you mind asking her to come up here?"

"Sure, I can do that," replied Ranma, glad of the chance to do something more useful than stand guard. He left the room, heading toward the elevator. As he walked, he glanced out of the exterior windows, taking in the impressive view of the city that they offered.

Between his exhaustion and the darkness limiting his vision, he hadn't truly taken in the full scope of the damage the night before. But now there was no hiding it. Shinjuku Ward had been laid waste by the powers that had raged across it, the landscape replete with fallen skyscrapers and the utter wreckage of smaller buildings. Damn... Ranma thought. I thought I was used to property damage. But this is pretty nuts, even by our standards.

Soon he reached the elevator, where he entered the new access code that Sailor Mercury had programmed into it. Stepping in, he descended to the floor that held Metzger's cloning tanks. Walking through the hallways and then the criss-crossing catwalks spanning the main chamber, he finally arrived at the smaller room containing all the backup clones of Sailor Moon that Tanizaki had made. Sailor Mercury was still where he'd last seen her, sitting in the middle of the room with her visor down, typing into her computer.

She didn't notice him walk in, her pensive stare fixed on her screen. Ranma had to clear his throat before she startled, looking up. "Oh, Ranma!" she said. "I'm sorry. I was lost in thought."

"Don't worry about it." Ranma's gaze swept across the dimly-lit room, the orange glow from the tanks illuminating the rows of identical bodies floating inside. "Any luck figuring if it's safe to pull them out?"

Sailor Mercury scanned the tanks again with her visor, then looked back down at her computer. "I'm... not sure," she said, chewing her lower lip in uncertainty. "I think we could wake them up without any physical damage, but..."

She hesitated, then pressed on. "All these clones—including Unit Zero—were grown to physical maturity in a very accelerated time frame by these tanks. Far too short for their brains to learn even the most basic of tasks in the usual way. Language, the rudimentary combat skills that Unit Zero displayed, even basic motor function. None of it would just be there automatically. Instead, it looks like Metzger modified a brainwashing device he'd salvaged from the Dark Kingdom. The same one Queen Beryl used on Mamoru, in fact. He altered it to burn a basic mental template into the clones' minds while the slept."

Sailor Mercury's mouth twisted in distaste. "His method was... crude." Her expression suggested that she wanted to describe it in much less polite language, but was holding back her anger. "It did what he wanted, but he could only manage broad strokes, and it caused great harm to these girls in the process. Have you noticed how, even though she can understand simple Japanese spoken to her, Unit Zero never speaks herself? It's because she can't."

She gestured down to her computer screen, which was showing some kind of brain scan. "Metzger managed to force the knowledge he needed into her, but in the process it damaged the language centers of her brain in other ways. And from what I can tell, she... most likely isn't ever going to grow beyond a fifth or sixth grade level of intelligence either."

"Can you... fix it?" Ranma asked hesitantly.

"In Unit Zero's case, probably not," Sailor Mercury admitted. "She's already developed her own personality and psyche beyond these broken building blocks that Metzger forced her to start with. Trying something so invasive at this point would probably cause more harm than any benefit we could offer her. But... if we had caught it earlier..."

But then she shook her head. "I don't know. It scares me to think about trying something like that. And I don't want to cause any more damage on top of what Metzger already did to them. It might end up being too dangerous, even for these clones, and there might be nothing we can do. I just... I have to be sure, before we wake them up. Sure that there isn't something we could safely do to help them."

Damn, thought Ranma. I am sure as hell glad I don't have to make that call. Stuff like that was over his head to begin with, and the possible consequences either way made it even worse. Aloud, though, what he said was: "What about all their... Star Seed... things? Don't tell me we're going to have the same problem with all of them as we did with Unit Zero."

Sailor Mercury shuddered at the thought. "No, thank goodness. It was only Unit Zero's Star Seed that was removed. What Metzger did wasn't even necessary for a member of Serenity's bloodline to inherit the Silver Crystal. Normally, it would just bind itself to the existing Star Seed, like it did with Usagi when she inherited it. The only reason they went to the trouble of severing the existing connection beforehand in Unit Zero's case was to force Usagi into a no-win situation. Nothing more."

"Bastards." Then Ranma sighed. "Anyway, if you feel like taking a break, Sailor Pluto was asking if you could scan some of Tanizaki's magic stuff for them. I guess there's still a couple they haven't quite figured out yet."

"Of course!" replied Sailor Mercury, tapping the side of her visor to retract it. "Just give me a moment; I'll be up there as soon as I can."

"Hmmm... how about 'Kimiko'? What do you think of that one?"

Usagi watched as her clone frowned in thought, pondering the latest name that she had proposed. It didn't look like her twin quite understood why Usagi was so intent on this question, but at any rate, she seemed willing enough to go along with it. Usagi, of course, was eager for the other girl to shed the dehumanizing designation that Tanizaki had assigned to her, and pick out a name that would fit better with the wider world she was soon to join.

When that name didn't seem to particularly click either, Chibi-Usa spoke up. "Maybe 'Shinobu'?" she asked. "That's a pretty name."

The Tsukino family—Usagi, along with her parents, brother, daughter, clone and moon cat—were all gathered in Usagi's room. Though still bedridden, she had been discharged once Ami had deemed her stable enough to depart the Dark Kingdom infirmary. The bed in these quarters, at least, was more comfortable than the medical bed had been. Makoto was nearby as well, standing watch over her in her weakened state.

Normally Mamoru would have taken that role, but he was currently needed elsewhere, negotiating with various politicians about the current situation. Likewise, most of the Sailor Senshi were either securing Tanizaki's skyscraper or otherwise dealing with the fallout of the past few days. Unable to help with that, Usagi contented herself in trying to repair some small measure of the more personal damage that Tanizaki had inflicted.

"How about 'Rika'?" suggested Shingo. "That might work."

The clone took in all the different names with a slightly bewildered air. Several of the others made suggestions, though none were clearly above the others. But Usagi paused, pondering a little deeper what she hoped the name might convey to her newfound twin as she went through the rest of her life. Something to signify a new course. Something to signify a firm rejection of what Tanizaki had tried to do to her.

She thought for a few more minutes, then looked up. "What do you think about... 'Megumi'?" she asked. "I think that name describes you really well. Because you are a blessing—something to be treasured and beloved."

The clone's eyes widened a little. Then, after a few seconds, she nodded once. Usagi smiled radiantly, causing Tsukino Megumi to blush a little as her other family members also congratulated her on that step forward.

That evening, after the other Senshi and Ranma had returned to the Dark Kingdom from their various tasks, they gathered in Usagi's room, most of them chatting over the events of the day. Ami was the notable exception, her attention still focused on the Mercury Computer as she typed into it, her eyes shifting rapidly across the resultant data, her expression frequently twisting into a look of distaste.

It was enough to raise Ranma's curiosity, and he decided to indulge it. "What're you working on?" he asked. "Doesn't look like you're enjoying it much."

Ami looked up from her device. "I'm going through our copies of Tanizaki's blackmail files again," she said, her voice tired. "We released a cursory version earlier, to show the world the extent of the problem. But we're going to need more than that going forward, so I've been examining them in greater detail."

"How bad is it?" asked Makoto.

"It's... depressing," Ami admitted, glancing back at her screen. "Sometimes Tanizaki would engineer circumstances to get some initial dirt on a politician. Sometimes his pawns would bribe them outright. But other times he'd just find someone with a horrible secret and use his influence to ensure that they reached a high position. In a twisted way, he was a genius at it... and he spent over two hundred years weaving his corruption through our society."

She pointed at the screen, quiet anger in her voice. "This representative, for example... all they had to do for him was plant a hidden camera in his youngest niece's bedroom. And once they had him on tape, they did everything they could to make sure he never lost an election. Because they owned him. That was the only thing that mattered to Tanizaki."

"That's horrible!" exclaimed Usagi, looking stricken. "Isn't there anything we can do? We can't let them get away with this!"

"It's hard to say," replied Ami. "This implicates so much of the government in one way or another. And from what Mamoru has told me, they're using every trick in the book to try and bury any attempt at prosecution. But they're also disorganized. And Sailor Pluto told me that she was looking into contacting some of the politicians that Tanizaki didn't own to offer our support."

Rei shook her head in disgust. "All these vile things... all those people hurt over all these years... all of it to keep feeding one man's ego."

"Yeah, it's just so... messed up," agreed Chibi-Usa. It looked like the youngest Sailor Senshi was struggling to put her feelings into words. "I still don't understand why he felt he had to go so far. Was it really so important to him? He already had money... power... he was even immortal! Did he really have to keep proving himself, even after he'd achieved that much?"

"Honestly?" Ranma spoke up. "All that stuff he had? I bet that just made it worse. Especially the immortality. I mean... once you've got that, what's even the point of ordinary fights anymore? There's practically no way anyone can beat you. And if the challenge is what gave your life meaning... well, then you gotta find something else. Something that can still challenge you."

"That does fit with the evidence," Ami said thoughtfully, striking a few keys on her computer and bringing up a new report. "I found some records indicating that Tanizaki made a practice of hiring assassins to target himself. It was apparently a sort of training. He did it more frequently earlier in his life—for example, as his 'grandfather' Tanizaki Iwao and his 'father' Tanizaki Nori—but if you track the payments... it does seem to happen less and less as time goes on."

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Ranma said. "He was so damn bored that he had to hire killers just to get interesting fights, and it sounds like he was even getting tired of that. After all, why even play a game you know you can't possibly lose?"

The pigtailed fighter turned to look at Usagi. "That's probably why he started focusing on other areas to test himself in. Like business and politics, rather than just martial arts. And in the end... that's probably why he wanted to take you on so badly. Because even with all his tricks and advantages and everything he had going for him? You were still dangerous enough to remind him what a real fight felt like."

"That... sounds so empty..." Usagi said, her face downcast. "Didn't he have anything else? Anyone else?"

Ranma shrugged. "If he ever did have anything like that... he threw it away a long time ago to chase his next battle. If he'd actually been the kind of guy who gave a damn about anyone else, there were a thousand better fights he could have picked. A thousand better challenges to take on. But he wanted to take on the biggest challenge of them all... and he didn't care who got hurt doing it."

It took a few more days, but eventually the Sailor Senshi felt safe in saying that Tanizaki's skyscraper had been secured, with none of its contents posing any immediate danger. With that taken care of, other concerns began to rise into focus, no longer able to be ignored. Including one that Ranma felt profoundly unready for.

Preparing for his father's funeral.

It began when he was approached by a government official, one of the many that had started to visit the Dark Kingdom with increasing frequency. They had taken custody of Genma's body after Tanizaki had thrown it into the crowd of reporters as part of his gambit. And now that the immediate crisis had been brought under some semblance of control, they were reaching out to his next of kin.

At first, Ranma was at a loss. In all honesty, a large part of the reason he'd been trying to keep busy in the days since the final battle had been to keep himself distracted from emotions that he still didn't know how to deal with. But this made it inescapable. He would have to face it head-on.

Ranma was, after all, the man of the Saotome family now. No matter how horribly wrong that sounded to the nineteen-year-old martial artist.

He brought his mother into the planning too, of course. Saotome Nodoka arrived already dressed in mourning, wearing a black kimono, her ever-present katana held in her hands. Ranma opened his mouth to greet her, to console her, to say something... but words simply failed him. What was the right response in a situation so strained, to a woman who was so important to him, and yet who had been absent for so much of his life? His own mother, who he barely even knew?

Even after they had met each other, well into his teens, and even after the threat of his father's rash vow to her had been—mostly—resolved, she had still mostly lived at the Saotome home, while he spent most of his time at the Tendo dojo. He had seen her from time to time, and enjoyed the experience of being with his mother in his own awkward way. But now that he tried to interact with her on a matter of such a deeply personal nature... he realized that in many ways she was still all but a stranger to him.

Nodoka said very little as Ranma talked with various people to make arrangements, mostly just voicing assent to her son's decisions. On the surface she portrayed the very ideal of the stoic warrior's wife... but there was something about her bearing that felt so painfully... hollow to Ranma.

As he kept talking to people, trying to figure out all the right steps, word began to get around. And as more people began to get involved, some started to suggest a larger ceremony, a state funeral to honor all those who died in the campaign against Tanizaki. That ended up including the twelve monsters who had died defending the portal against the Synths during the Wyrmspawn attack, the mother of the girl who Ekim had tried to sacrifice, and the security guard who had died trying to help that girl escape.

Ranma didn't know how he felt about such a big event. But gradually, he started to accept that it could help different mourners deal with their grief together, while allowing the world to better appreciate their sacrifices. And he would be lying if he said that the chance to share more of the planning and the decisions with others wasn't a relief.

The wake, at least, was a more private affair. Even if it was mostly a blur for Ranma. The chanting of the sutra, the offering of incense... it all passed by, one moment after another, as though it were happening to someone else as his body went through the motions. The one thing that did stick in his mind was Soun, getting progressively more drunk as the night wore on, telling story after story after story about training alongside Genma.

Many were stories that not even Ranma had heard before.

Ranma spoke too. But even he didn't remember what he said. Probably something vague and respectful. Something that a good son ought to say. Something that could never really describe the life that had been Saotome Genma, the truth of the man he'd been. How could Ranma put into words what it had actually been like—the good and the bad—in a way anyone else could understand?

He kept the traditional vigil all night. It was the long periods of silence that were the worst part, leaving him undistracted to wrestle with his thoughts. The one thing that made it bearable was that his friends had decided to keep it alongside him. Even without words, Akane's hand clasping his own helped to keep him centered, as did the silent presence of Shampoo, Ukyo, Ryouga and Mousse.

The funeral itself was actually easier. Less personal. Seeing the other mourners for the other dead... it helped to paint a larger picture of it all. It showed what his dad had given his life for, allowing all of the survivors to live on.

The human victims had coffins, but the monsters hadn't left bodies behind. The best they'd been able to do was to have the artist among the Seven Great Youma—Yumemi Yumeno—draw memorial pictures for everyone. The monsters had turned out in force; Ranma didn't know how close this was to any customs they had for honoring their dead, but they were determined to make their presence known.

Really, everyone was there. Monsters, martial artists, Sailor Senshi, the ordinary people that Tanizaki had been using as human shields for his cannon... everyone who Genma's last actions had saved. Ranma sat there in the middle of it all. There was a tightness in his chest, but it was a tightness that felt... right.

It didn't make sense of anything. But it felt like the sort of senselessness that made the world a warmer place, rather than a lonelier one.

Beyond that... Ranma just kept putting one foot in front of the other. After the funeral he received condolences from person after person, including famous figures he'd never expected to meet in his life. Not inclined to be over-awed by such things at the best of times, he barely even registered their importance now.

Then came the cremation, his father's coffin traveling along its track into the flames. Then the kotsuage ritual, using metal chopsticks to sort through the ashes and remove the bones. That was a heartbreak all unto itself, as he did it with his mother, Soun and the Tendo sisters.

Finally, he found himself standing at the Saotome family grave, watching as his father's ashes were interred. He had kept putting one foot in front of the other... but now, on this road, there were no steps left to take. He stood there next to his mother, among all the other black-clad mourners, watching the conclusion to Saotome Genma's story.

And then it was over. The mourners began to disperse, offering more condolences he barely heard, until it was only Ranma and his mother remaining.

He glanced over at her as she looked at the grave, wondering yet again what she was feeling. What was it like to mourn a husband you had barely seen for over a decade, as he took your son away from you on a warrior's journey? Did she miss him? Resent him? How had the two of them even come together in the first place, that she had made such a commitment? He didn't know. With Genma dead, he wondered if he would ever have the courage to ask.

"Are you..." Ranma began, but then his voice caught, and he had to gather himself until he was sure he could finish. It wasn't much, but it was the best he could come up with. "Are you gonna be okay?"

"Of course," came his mother's simple, immediate reply. "There is no need to mourn. After all, for the true warrior, death is lighter than a feather."

That was the "right" answer. Did she really believe it, though? Even to Ranma's ears the response seemed rote. He knew it sure as hell didn't feel light as a feather to him. Even if it was supposed to.

They stood there in silence for a while longer. Then his mother spoke. "Ranma... I'm sorry to trouble you, but... could you please go ask Kasumi if the arrangements with the flowers have been taken care of?"

"Sure," Ranma said. It would give him something to do, at least. He turned and walked off, trying to think of where Kasumi might have gone, realizing it would probably take him quite a while to find her.

The path from the graveyard rounded a corner behind some trees and bushes. Ranma followed it for a while, before suddenly remembering that he'd forgotten to ask his mother what she wanted him to do if those arrangements hadn't been taken care of. He turned and jogged back, rounding the corner again as he opened his mouth to ask the question—

—only to see his mother crumpled to her knees, clinging to the grave as she pressed her forehead against it, her shoulder shaking uncontrollably with anguished, muffled wails and sobs.

Ranma froze, his stomach twisting. One part of him wanted to run to his mother's side and try to comfort her. But he also realized that she did not want him to see her this way, that she had sent him away for this very reason.

His fists clenched as he stood there, trapped. He didn't know what the right decision was. He didn't know if there was a right decision. Respect his mother's wishes? Or disregard them in an attempt to actually share some of the pain she was bottling up inside?

Ranma suspected that no matter what he chose, he would hate himself for it afterward.

Several nights later, Chiba Mamoru walked wearily through the hallways of Beryl's old palace. He was no longer in his Tuxedo Kamen form, though he had used it for the innumerable meetings and press conferences that he'd attended back in the human world. For the moment, however, he had a few hours in which he could rest.

Rather than going straight to his room, however, he first stopped by Usagi's room to check on her. To his surprise, however, he found that she was gone, leaving rumpled sheets on the bed where she had been lying. She must be feeling better, if she's able to walk around, he thought. And she's probably restless after being stuck in bed for so long...

He called on his knowledge of his beloved to guess where she might have gone, then after a moment's thought walked further down the hallway before taking a left, until he reached the nearest balcony in the palace's outer wall. Usagi leaned against the railing, using it to prop herself up. She looked pale and unsteady, but it was still a marked improvement over her previous state.

"Usako." His quiet voice shook her out of her reverie and she glanced back, her face lighting up at the sight of him.

"Mamo-chan!" She wrapped him in an embrace, exuberance momentarily dispelling her drained state. Once the rush of strength passed, however, the hug turned into her clinging to him for support. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight to himself.

After a while, she looked up at him. "You look tired," she said. "How is it out there?"

Mamoru ran his fingers through her golden hair. "It's... still a mess," he admitted. "Two whole wards of Tokyo just... obliterated. Nearly a million people homeless. We've barely even started to calculate the cost of rebuilding, but it's going to be astronomical."

He sighed. "Which would all be bad enough even if the government weren't in shambles. The more people learn about how widespread Tanizaki's corruption actually was, the worse their legitimacy gets. Worse, a lot of them are more concerned with burying the investigations—or fleeing the country entirely—than getting people out of the refugee camps."

"All those people with nowhere to go..." Usagi said, concern in her voice. "How can we help them?"

"We're doing what we can," said Mamoru, though it didn't satisfy him either. "With all the chaos and infighting and paralysis at the governmental level, we've started just approaching the JSDF and disaster relief services directly and coordinating with them. I managed to convince them that we were the best bet for actually doing something for these people before the situation gets any worse."

Usagi looked down. "I just... wish I could do something too," she admitted. "Those people shouldn't have to suffer because they got caught up in our battle."

He could tell from her crestfallen expression how much it hurt her to be helpless in a situation like this. But he also knew it was a truth she had to come to grips with. In the end, even Sailor Moon had her limits. Not even she could do everything. She had given up so much to save her clone... but that choice had turned out to have its own consequences too.

That said, it wasn't as though they had to accept that as the end of the story either. "You've already done what you could," he told her, continuing to stroke her hair. "You've done more for others than anyone could have asked of you. This time... let us take some of the burden instead."

"You think it'll be okay?" Usagi asked, looking up at him.

"I'm sure of it," he answered, putting as much reassurance into his words as he could. "If we all work together, I'm sure we can find a solution."

"That's right!" Both Mamoru and Usagi turned to see a pajama-clad Chibi-Usa standing further back down the hallway. The pink-haired girl who would one day be their daughter approached, even as she continued to urge them. "There's a lot we can still do. Even some things we couldn't do before! But the first step is to go to sleep."

Mamoru nodded. "She's right. Whatever else we come up with, making sure we're rested is—"

"No, no," Chibi-Usa interrupted, shaking her head. "I mean, sleeping really is the first step. That's why I came to pass along a message." She fixed her gaze directly on her father.

"Helios wants to talk to you."

Despite Chibi-Usa's request, Mamoru couldn't fall asleep immediately, even after settling down in his room. In fact, the very question of what Helios wanted made it difficult, curious thoughts chasing themselves through his head. Still, he was tired, and eventually that won out, transporting his psyche to the lush forested realm of Elysion.

This dream was lucid from the beginning, and Helios, Usagi and Chibi-Usa were already there. When Helios spoke, it was with a slightly more formal air than usual; he seemed to consider this an occasion of some import.

"My liege," the young-looking man said, bowing. "Allow me to congratulate you on your victory over Tanizaki."

"Thank you," Mamoru said. "We couldn't have done it without your help."

"Perhaps," Helios said. "But what is certain is that my help has created repercussions far beyond Tanizaki himself. As you no doubt have heard... my sister is now free."

"She isn't hurting anybody, is she?" asked Usagi, worry in her voice.

"She is..." Helios hesitated, choosing his words carefully. "...exercising restraint. Nightmares persist, but she has increased their frequency only slightly beyond what she could already manage, even while sealed."

"I think we should let her be," urged Chibi-Usa earnestly. "Helios can keep an eye on her, but it doesn't sound like she's doing anything that would make it worth fighting her again... and she did help us against the Nameless One."

Mamoru wasn't quite so certain. Unlike his daughter, he hadn't spoken at any length with the dream entity. But he trusted Chibi-Usa's insight. "I agree," he said. "Violence should be our last resort. I think that would be best for everyone."

Usagi nodded as well. Their unanimous decision brought a look of relief to Helios' face. "Thank you," he said, letting out a long, breath of relief. "I... I know she has caused much suffering in the past, but... even so, it was still painful to keep her prisoner for so long. I thank you for giving her a second chance. It... means a great deal to me."

Chibi-Usa took his hand, squeezing it supportively. After a moment, Helios turned to look directly at Mamoru. "If that is your decision... then I have one more duty to fulfill. If my sister is no longer to be imprisoned, then I can finally return to you what should always have been yours. The greater portion of your birthright's power." Reaching up to his golden horn, Helios detached it in a flash of light, revealing the Golden Crystal.

"By the ancient rite, as recipient of the ancient trust, I release that which was bound," Helios intoned, repeating the same chant he had used all those days ago during the fight at Naru's apartment. "I return that which was granted. I restore that which was separated. Let the two once more become one!"

As he spoke, Mamoru's Golden Star Seed emerged from his chest, the two crystals floating toward each other, their glow increasing as they spun faster and faster around each other. Then, in a final flash of light, they merged. Once the radiance had faded, Mamoru stood there as Prince Endymion in all his regal glory, wearing his full armor and cape with his sword at his side.

Endymion looked down at his hand, flexing his fingers as he tried to accustom himself to the power once more flowing through him. Then he looked up at Helios. "Are you sure about this?" he asked. "You don't still need it to protect Elysion?"

Helios shook his head. "Now that I no longer need to hold my sister in check, my own power should be more than sufficient," he said. "No, the Golden Crystal is needed in the waking world now. Especially with the damage that the Silver Crystal has sustained."

Usagi's face fell at his words. "Helios..." she began hesitantly. "Do you... know what is going to happen with the Silver Crystal? You've seen something like this before, right? I mean... splitting it in two... isn't that basically what happened with the Golden Crystal way back when?"

"The two situations are... similar," acknowledged Helios. "But there are also differences. When Prince Endymion's ancestors cast the spell to divide the Golden Crystal, they didn't intend a permanent break. Which is why it was also possible to reunite the parts, as you saw. In a very real sense—even when they were separated by distance—the two parts of the Golden Crystal were only ever one Star Seed. I was only borrowing the majority of its power, not using it as a replacement for my own."

Then Helios turned back to Usagi. "What you achieved is something much more... fundamental. Similar in approach, yes, but not such a half-measure. You completely severed the fragment you broke off, creating a new Star Seed that belongs to your clone, genuinely and permanently. A far more damaging and traumatic process. However, since it was a true separation... it may also be possible for the Silver Crystal to heal, given time. Though even if that does happen, it would take many years, at the least."

But despite the long road ahead of her, Usagi responded with a warm smile. "Thank you," she said. "That really helps a lot. Not knowing what was going to happen was the hardest part. But if there's hope, then I can keep moving toward it."

Her words sparked hope in Endymion as well. Looking down at the Golden Crystal, he vowed to use its power to support and protect his beloved's beautiful dreams, even in the real world. And thinking back to their conversation on the balcony, one possibility immediately presented itself.

"Usako... I have an idea," he eventually said. He was still working through the details, but with each passing second he was growing more and more convinced that it could work. "When we wake up, we should get the other Sailor Senshi together. I think there is something more we can do to help the people who were displaced by the fighting."

The next day saw a rush of activity after Mamoru outlined his plan to the others. They quickly moved to set up the groundwork, coordinating with their contacts in the government and the disaster relief agencies. Everyone threw themselves into the work, and by midday the preparations were complete.

Usagi looked out across the blasted wasteland that had once been Juuban district, scoured by the Wyrmspawn's fire like the rest of Minato Ward until all that remained were pitiful scraps of burned-out wreckage. Mamoru was next to her, giving her a steadying arm to lean on. The two of them stood within the foundations of what had once been the Bob-Floy ice cream store, the location of one of the nine Crystal Points that they had defended from the Black Moon Clan so long ago.

"I'm in position!" That was Sailor Venus' voice, coming over the communicator. She'd gone to where the Otafukuya cosmetics store had once stood, and where they'd thwarted the daimon Atsugessho's attempt to contaminate the Crystal Point at that location. Now, hopefully, it would serve a purpose similar to its original function.

"You really think this is gonna work?" asked Ranma, from where he stood a ways off to the side. He—along with Akane, Shampoo, Ukyo and several of the monsters—had gathered to watch them perform the magic. Even further back there was a huge throng of reporters as well, murmuring, with their cameras at the ready.

"When we did this in the previous way things went, it was to repair civilization on a global scale," said Mamoru. "Two municipal wards doesn't seem difficult in comparison. The main difference is that we'll be using the Golden Crystal instead of the Silver Crystal to initiate it."

Though he projected confidence, Usagi could detect an undercurrent of concern in his voice. Probably he was worried because she had insisted on joining their effort, even though she didn't yet have the strength to contribute much in her weakened state. But it had felt necessary to her, in a way she couldn't put into words. It wasn't just about power. It was about them all taking part in this. Together.

"I'm in position as well." That was Sailor Mercury's voice, coming from the Crystal Point where the Chess Tower had once stood. "That should be all of us." Coordination with the Outer Senshi had been a bit more difficult, since Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune's communicators used a different frequency while Sailor Saturn's transformation didn't give her a communicator at all. But they'd worked it out, and now a Sailor Senshi stood at each of the nine Crystal Points, ready to begin.

Usagi looked over to Mamoru, who nodded. He then raised the Golden Crystal high, while she did the same with the broken Silver Crystal. Swirling motes of magical energy, both white and gold, spun into existence around them, swirling in ever-faster arcs. Usagi could feel the latent power of the Crystal Point over which they stood, the connection waiting to be formed.

Their civilian clothes vanished amidst the torrent of power, replaced by the white gown of Princess Serenity and the cape and armor of Prince Endymion. A burst of golden light shot skyward, piercing the clouds. Moments later, beams arced across the sky from every direction, each beam bearing the color of the Sailor Senshi stationed at its source. They merged into a locus directly overhead that expanded and expanded, its radiance washing over the surroundings.

Around them, the lifeless, fire-blasted earth transformed before their eyes, the magic producing rich soil everywhere it touched, with verdant green foliage sprouting soon thereafter. The ground began to rumble, and then spikes of crystal began to emerge from the earth, winding together and merging as they formed structure after structure, countless different buildings of varying structure and design. A beautiful city conjured up from the ruins, still expanding with each passing second.

Where the crystals found the wreckage of previous structure they engulfed and absorbed them, breaking down the material to fuel its own growth. With living creatures, however, it was the opposite, building carefully and gently around and beneath them. Princess Serenity felt herself rise higher and higher, as the largest structure of them all formed under her very feet.

Once the magic had finally finished, Princess Serenity slumped, only to be caught by her lover. Together, she and Prince Endymion walked to the edge of the rooftop on which she now stood. They looked out across a gleaming cityscape filled with houses, gardens, fountains and walkways, all visible from their vantage point atop the Crystal Palace.

It was much as Princess Serenity remembered it from her trip to the future—albeit confined to a smaller area—so she was not surprised. But the same could not be said about some of the other onlookers. The snaps of camera flashes were firing in near-constant succession, the reporters' voices calling out in an awed cacophony as they took in the incredible change in the surroundings brought on by the regal couple.

With a small, relieved sigh, Princess Serenity leaned against her beloved. "Thank goodness..." she whispered. "Now we can at least give people back something of what they lost."

While most of the onlookers regarded the magnificent structure of the Crystal Palace with awestruck amazement, the watching monsters were not quite so impressed. In fact, looking closely, it was possible to see a competitive gleam enter their eyes.

"It's not that great," groused one of the daimons. "Too clean and shiny. I think our palace back in the Dark Kingdom is way better."

"Not a single skull design in the whole thing," agreed a youma. "Hardly a proper palace if it doesn't have that."

Jimenko listened with half an ear to their grumbling as she studied the scene for herself. Then she turned back to the rest of the group. "We need to respond to this," she said. "We can't let the prestige of their domain get any kind of leg-up on the Dark Lords' dominion. If the Sailor Senshi have a palace now... then it's time to make it clear that ours belongs to Ranma and Ryouga."

The lemure crossed her arms, the competitive gleam in her eyes growing even brighter. "We've done just about all we can to demonstrate our usefulness to them," she said. "Now let's make our pledge of loyalty official."

Hirano Ippei closed his eyes, removing his thick-rimmed glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly. When he finally put the glasses back on and re-read the report in front of him, however, the grim scenario it presented had not changed.

The grey-haired politician looked up at the several dozen other men that shared the cramped meeting room that they had appropriated. Mostly other members of the National Diet, with some other government functionaries mixed in for good measure. The group had no formal name; it was merely the largest working coalition of movers and shakers that had emerged relatively unscathed from the exposure of Tanizaki's centuries-long campaign to spread his proxy influence through the power structures of Japan.

"...so the immediate crisis, at least, seems to have been averted by the Sailor Senshi." The speaker was Yamada Shoichi, another member of the House of Councillors who—up until the past few weeks—Ippei would have considered a political opponent. But party lines, like many other things, had been thrown into disarray since then. "There's still a great many questions, including how we're going to integrate this... crystal city... with our existing infrastructure. But by all accounts the refugee problem seems to be abating as more people are settled, and we've been spared the crippling cost of trying to rebuild all that ourselves."

Ippei's mouth pressed into a thin line of distaste. "How fortunate..." he said, sarcasm dripping from every word. "And just think! We have achieved all of this at the trifling cost of a foreign palace setting itself up on Japanese soil!"

Yamada winced, but pressed on. "You're overreacting," he said. "Do you really think they intend to attack us?"

"Do you really think they have the slightest need to?" Ippei shot back, incredulous. "Have you seen the latest polls? How low our approval ratings have dropped? We let a maniac with delusions of godhood completely subvert our entire political process, and even after he revealed himself we couldn't do anything except stand around like impotent lackwits while the Sailor Senshi solved our problem for us!"

He exhaled, a long noise of frustration, his shoulders sinking. "The government is supposed to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force," he continued, tiredly. "But each time they save us from some threat that we're helpless against, it's another reminder of who's really protecting Japan. And now they're the ones providing for the people—from their damned palace—while we sit here. Paralyzed by infighting against a government full of criminals trying to save their own skins."

The room had gone deathly silent. Yamada's face was pale, but he still tried to put a better spin on the situation. "Th-that has to be an exaggeration," he spluttered. "I mean... I... I suppose a few extremists might want to form a government around them, but—"

Ippei barked out a mirthless laugh. "A couple weeks ago, we all had a front-row seat to watch those girls kill a horror beyond human imagination! We saw them stop the end of the damned world! And you think only extremists will want to follow them? Hell, you think I'm just talking about government?"

Even seen from a great distance, the monstrous, immense... thing that had torn a hole in the sky had left Ippei almost insensate with terror. But then he'd heard the voice in his head, speaking to the entire world with a sudden shock of impossible hope, telling them that the fathomless evil could be beaten.

And then they'd done it.

The old politician shook his head. "That isn't the sort of thing that stops at forming governments, Yamada. That's the sort of thing that forms religions."

A strained silence fell. Finally Yamada spoke again, his voice small. "So... what do we do?"

"A very good question, Mr. Yamada." Ippei whirled at the quiet, female voice, along with half the room. There, behind them, stood an elegant, green-haired woman wearing a Sailor seifuku. Sailor Pluto... Ippei thought, recognizing her from the dossiers he'd read. Where the hell did she come from?

He watched warily as she approached the table. The woman showed no sign of noticing the sudden tension choking the air. "I understand your concerns," she began, her voice calm. "We are all of us entering into uncharted territory. Nevertheless, it will be impossible to simply return to the old state of affairs. Not after the loss of our secret identities, and not after the steps that have been taken since then. For better or worse, the Sailor Senshi have entered the political arena."

"So... what exactly do you imagine that will entail?" asked one of the other councilors, frowning.

"Our first concern is dealing with the deadlock you find yourselves in," said Sailor Pluto. "You are quite correct that public trust in the current government has been shaken severely. And, in the case of many of your colleagues, for very good reason. Tanizaki spent centuries weaving his web of corruption, and rooting it out will require unprecedented upheaval. We would be willing to publicly back your attempts to prosecute these criminals, hopefully providing you with the legitimacy and public pressure to force them from office and institute reforms."

"And afterward?" spoke up Ippei, eyeing her suspiciously. "What do you imagine your role in the 'political arena' will be after this is over?"

"That will depend on what the Japanese people decide," said Sailor Pluto. "After all, it is their hopes and dreams that it is our task to protect. You need not fear any aggressive action on our part. Nevertheless... taking recent events into consideration, when the people do make their voice known, you may find that role to be... substantial."

A murmur ran through the assembled legislators. Ippei's expression hardened as he searched those inscrutable amber eyes, trying to take her measure. Searching for... he didn't even know what. Scheming? Condescension? Pity? But whatever it was, he couldn't find it. She only held his gaze in silence.

At length he spoke. "You're right about one thing," he said. The words tasted unpleasant on his tongue, but he was a realist before anything else. "We need you. Not just in a play for legitimacy to get us through this current crisis. If our universe really is the sort of place that has monsters like that thing in the sky, or any of the other threats we've seen over the past few years... then it's obvious that all humanity needs you."

For now, added the part of Ippei's thoughts that resented the admission that humanity couldn't yet fully protect itself. But give us time, and we'll see if we can't stand on our own two feet some day. He made sure not to voice those sentiments, of course, though he had the nagging sense that Sailor Pluto could tell how much he wanted to.

But when she replied, it was to correct his spoken sentiment, not his unspoken one. "We all need each other," she said. "This most recent conflict has made that more apparent than ever. Humans, Sailor Senshi, even the monsters... without the contributions from all of them we would have faced disaster. Now the world is changing in ways none of us ever anticipated. And all of us who now share it will need to work out our new places in it together."

Ranma walked through the stone hallways of the Dark Kingdom palace, dragging Ryouga along behind him. Beneda also accompanied them, along with Usagi, Ami, and Ryo. They were headed to the location where the lemure Jimenko had humbly requested Ranma and Ryouga meet her, and Ryo had suggested that the others tag along. Ranma had no idea what was going on... but he suspected that Ryo did. The precognitive youma-in-human-form was stifling a smile that suggested he didn't want to miss what happened next.

Well, whatever, thought Ranma. I'll find out what it is soon enough. While he waited, though, he was passing the time by doing something significantly more fun. Namely, teasing Usagi.

"So what should I call you from now on?" he needled, grinning. "Your highness? Your majesty? Your Grand Exalted Mooniness?"

"Cut it oooout!" the blonde girl protested. "It isn't funny!"

Ranma begged to differ. He could see now why Rei kept on doing this; Usagi was even more fun to mess with than Ryouga. "I mean, you've got a palace now..." he said. "Doesn't get much more obvious than that."

Usagi's shoulders slumped. "It isn't fair!" she pouted. "We even stopped the Great Freeze! I thought that meant I could just marry Mamo-chan and just be an ordinary housewife instead! But now Sailor Pluto says I might have to still be Neo Queen Serenity anyway?"

"It's not that bad, Usagi," said Ami, in an attempt to console the distraught girl. "Even if you do end up in some kind of leadership role to help us through this crisis, it shouldn't need to be anything on the level of what it was in the old timeline. Things may look bad for Japan now... but it doesn't even approach what a global catastrophe like the Great Freeze was for the whole world."

The words seemed to mollify Usagi a little, but it was obvious she still had visions of boring political meetings and endless paperwork lurking in her thoughts. Ranma shook his head. "Well, better you than me," he said. "I'm just glad I don't have anything like that. You'll never catch me getting tied down in anything so annoying."

For some reason, Ryo broke out into what sounded like a coughing fit at that point. Ranma glanced over at him, puzzled... but by then Ryo had composed himself, his expression schooled into a poker face.

Soon enough, their small group finished winding their way through the menacing palace corridors and reached the room where Jimenko had asked to meet them. The lemure was already there when they arrived... along with representatives from each of the other monster groups. "You're here!" Jimenko said, her eyes lighting up as they entered. She shot to her feet, then bowed deeply, the other monsters mirroring her action.

Ranma scratched the back of his head, uncomfortable with the show of deference. "Um... you said you had something to talk to me an' Ryouga about?"

"Yes!" Jimenko said, nodding fervently. But Ranma also noticed an anxiousness to her posture, as though a great deal was resting on these next few moments. "Well, not just us. If it wouldn't be too much trouble, could you step through here for a moment?" She indicated a doorway to the left that led out onto a balcony.

Ranma exchanged a puzzled glance with Ryouga. Then he shrugged, stepping through the doorway with the lost boy following behind him. As they emerged, Ranma's eyes widened as he saw virtually the entire monster population spread out before him, a sea of countless inhuman faces looking up at them with breathless anticipation.

He turned back to Jimenko, only to find that she, along with the other nearby monsters, had all dropped to one knee, their heads bowed to the ground. "Masters Ranma and Ryouga..." Jimenko began haltingly. "We all wanted to congratulate you on your victory. And we wanted to thank you. Before the two of you rescued us from Tanizaki, we all thought we were doomed to live as his test subjects. But you gave us purpose again, gave us something to fight for. A banner to rally under, fighting in service of your empire."

Ranma stared down at the kneeling monsters, completely flummoxed. "Part of our... empire?" he said, trying to wrap his mind around what was going on. It was at this point that he noticed that Beneda was looking decidedly uneasy.

"Ummm..." she began, fidgeting as she stood there. "Yes, I was... meaning to bring this up. But with everything else going on, it just... never seemed the right time. Back when I first came to the Dark Kingdom, I did... tell them a few stories about your battles against the Sailor Senshi. To... you know... raise morale. And to help them see they could trust you."

"And we do trust you!" exclaimed one of the other kneeling monsters—the youma representative—her head still bowed in reverence, her voice thick with emotion. "These past few weeks... I can't tell you what it's meant to us to serve under real evil overlords once again! The things we've seen you accomplish... the victories you've led us to... Beneda's stories didn't even begin to do you justice!"

Ranma shot Beneda a look of pure incredulity, to which the youma responded with an apologetic wince. Obviously her "few stories" had turned into something far, far more in the minds of the downtrodden monster horde.

Even as Ranma tried to come to grips with the situation, Jimenko was talking again, desperation and hope warring in her voice as she pleaded. "And so... if you consider us worthy... if we've proven ourselves to be at all useful to your purposes in this battle... we desire nothing more than to pledge ourselves to your service from this point onward! If we have you as our masters, then I know we'll have nothing more to fear!"

Ranma opened his mouth to reply... only to discover he had no idea what to say. His mouth worked helplessly for a few seconds before he turned, searching for assistance with this unexpected development.

First he turned to Ami. The young genius wore a thoughtful expression, but then just gave a small shrug. "One way or another, they will need some form of government," she mused. "Forming one around the two of you is... actually not as bad as many scenarios I might have expected. At the very least, you could hardly do worse than their previous masters."

Boggling, Ranma turned to Ryo, but the precognitive young man just gave him a thumbs-up. "Don't worry about it," he said, grinning. "You're going to do fine! Probably."

His desperation mounting, Ranma turned at last to Usagi. Surely she would see how insane this all was. Surely she would have some solution, some way to help him back out of this without crushing the hopes of the monsters. Surely she—

But when Usagi looked back at him, it was with a wide smile that was just a bit too deliberately angelic to be entirely innocent. And with a slowly sinking heart, Ranma remembered how mercilessly he had been teasing her the whole way here on this very subject.

"Well, it sounds just perfect to me!" she said brightly, her tone warm, supportive and encouraging. "After all... you are the Dark Lords of Nerima, aren't you?"

She said it loud enough that some of her words carried all the way down to the horde of monsters spread out beneath the palace balcony. Perhaps the monsters below misheard, or misinterpreted it to mean that something had been decided, or perhaps they simply got caught up in the excitement of what they did hear. But either way, murmurs began to run through the crowd in response. "Dark Lords?" "Dark Lords!" "Our Dark Lords!"

Before Ranma could think of anything to do, the murmurs had swelled into a joyous, thundering chant that poured forth from countless voices at once. "The Dark Lords of Nerima! The Dark Lords of Nerima! Glory to the Dark Lords of Nerima!"

Ranma and Ryouga shared a wide-eyed, helpless glance, both of them realizing just how stuck they were, before finally letting out a resigned sigh and stepping up to the balcony railing to survey their chanting subjects. As they did, Ranma couldn't help but think back to the impulsive, off-the-cuff plan he'd made all those years ago, with little thought to the consequences. The wild, reckless idea to pretend that they actually were evil overlords.

And he thought of all the twists and turns it had taken on the long road leading here, to an army of monsters adulating them as the supreme rulers over a kingdom of darkness. The crazy lie had turned into reality before his very eyes.

He raised his hand, waving down at the cheering monsters with a strained smile on his face. As he did, he muttered out the side of his mouth, quietly enough that only his fellow Dark Lord could hear over the tumult. "Ryouga... just what the hell have we gotten ourselves into?"

"I'm not sure, Ranma," muttered back Ryouga, just as quietly. "But there is one thing I am sure of. This is all your fault."

Much later, Ryouga sat alone in one of the palace chambers, a private room with a few chairs and a small table he was using as a desk. His brow furrowed in a deep frown as he bent over the book he was reading, studying it intently. But he found little success. His mouth twisted in frustration as he re-read the page he was on one more time.

This book was the result of a request he'd made to Ami. He knew she was... well, smart... and he'd asked her to help him figure out what it actually meant to be a leader in the way these monsters wanted him and Ranma to be. This book had been her answer, requested from the human world outside.

He'd been dubious; book learning had never exactly been his style. But he'd agreed to give it a shot... only to quickly discover that the blue haired girl had significantly overestimated the level he was operating on. She probably didn't realize how little he'd actually attended school in the first place, given his tendency to get lost, making him even less of a literary sort.

Still, he plodded on, scratching his head as he worked through the points the author was making about how to inspire people to follow you. It wasn't that he was completely unable to understand it, but it was grueling work, and he suspected quite a bit of it was going over his head.


The lost boy's head shot up at the familiar voice, to see Hotaru standing in the doorway. His expression immediately brightened, and he grabbed another chair and pulled it over, allowing Hotaru—allowing his girlfriend—to slip in and sit next to him. "It's so good to see you," he said, relief in his voice. "It's been... a really crazy day."

"I heard." Hotaru looked at him with a smile that was equal parts fondness and amusement. "Have you decided what you're going to do?"

"We're still figuring that out." Ryouga stared down at the book... or more accurately, stared through it, not really registering the words. "At first I didn't want anything to do with it. I'm sure as hell no politician. But then I thought about it some more, and..."

Ryouga looked up from the book, into Hotaru's eyes. "When I fought Death Phantom... he told me that fighting and destroying things were the only things I would ever be good for. But I decided he was wrong. You helped me believe that he was wrong. And then I realized that all this... the monsters wanting to follow us... I think... this is my chance to really make him wrong."

He sighed. "The monsters... they're like Beneda was when I first met her. They've had their lives controlled by bastards for so long that it's all they've ever known. I might not know much about being a leader... and I know we'll have to find people who really know what they're doing for all the... complicated parts of running a kingdom. But I saw how those monsters looked up to me and Ranma. And I think... if it's us showing them that there's a better way... they might actually start to believe it."

The emotions swirling inside him were difficult to put into words, but he stumbled clumsily forward. "I... I want to help them, even if it's just a little bit. I want to do more with my life than just breaking things. And I think... this might be my chance to help fix something instead."

Hotaru placed her smaller hand over his, giving it a gentle squeeze. "I think that's wonderful," she said encouragingly. "If there's anything I can do to help, just tell me."

"Oh, we're going to need a lot of help," said Ryouga, letting out a long breath. "That's about the only thing I am sure of in this whole mess." Then he chuckled nervously. "I... uh... hope this doesn't get you into trouble, though. You know... your... um... boyfriend... being an overlord of the Dark Kingdom? That doesn't... break any Sailor Senshi rules, does it?"

Hotaru giggled. "No, it doesn't. And... can you keep a secret?" She leaned in closer, as did he, allowing her to whisper conspiratorially. "I fell in love with you even before I found out you weren't really a Dark Lord. So you becoming one after all... it doesn't change a thing."

Ryouga flushed at her words... then flushed even more as he realized just how close their faces were together. He froze for a moment. But then, hesitantly, he swallowed and leaned in just at tiny bit more. Hotaru's eyes widened a bit, but then after a brief pause she also leaned closer. Ryouga's stomach was twisting itself into knots, but the two of them continued to close the distance by almost-imperceptible amounts, until he could all but feel her lips on his.

The kiss, when it happened, was a chaste, slightly fumbling exchange, neither of them having much in the way of experience. But for Ryouga, it turned the world on its head. And when they pulled apart, he could see a similar excitement and wonder lighting up Hotaru's eyes as she looked at him.

He didn't have any words that would do any of it justice. So instead he just put his arm around his girlfriend, drawing her close. She, in turn, rested her head against him, the two of them finding comfort in the other's warmth.

Yes, everything about Ryouga's life had been uprooted, thrown into utter disarray. But he wouldn't trade what he had now for anything.

Darkness surrounded her. She was alone, and she couldn't remember where she was or how she'd gotten there, only that it was associated with a nameless dread.

She tried to walk, to run, to move. It seemed to produce some results... but the sense of her limbs was blurry, uncertain, and she couldn't tell if she was making any progress. She scrambled onward, increasingly frantic, her hands clawing for purchase that always seemed to just elude her.

Something was chasing her. She didn't know when she came to the realization, but she knew it was true. The predatory presence, the sense of threat was the most palpable thing in this place. She was in danger. She had to escape.

Her stumbling flight seemed to go on forever, until she came across someone else in the emptiness. Another girl—younger than her by perhaps a year—sitting curled up into a ball on the ground. "Who are you?" she asked. "What are you doing? We... we need to run!"

But the younger girl was too scared to even try to move. "It's no use," the girl whispered, pointing. "We can't get away from them."

Glancing back the way she had come, she saw a shadowy figure coming into view. The closer it came, the more she could sense its malevolence, and the more that fear sunk its claws into her. "No..." she sobbed, her body shaking. "No no no no no..."

She could see more details now, flowing black robes and a cool, clinical gaze that she recognized with a sickening jolt of terror. It was the man who had taken her, the assassin who had suddenly appeared and stolen her from the safety of her home. She tried to run, only to find that she could no longer even move. She could only stand there, quivering in abject terror as he closed in on her once again.

As he drew nearer his form shifted, becoming instead the businessman that the assassin had served. The one who had kept her prisoner after the assassin had delivered her to him. But the next shift was worse than all of them... as once again she found herself face-to-face with the hideously burned visage of the sorcerer, lurching toward her with his knife upraised.

She tried to scream but it only came out as strangled sobs, tears starting to run down her face as she stood there, still unable to move. The sheer terror felt as though it was crushing her chest, making it nearly impossible to breathe. He was going to kill her. She knew it. There would be no ninja to save her this time.

But then she felt small fingers gripping her own left hand. Somehow she looked back, and saw the girl she had found before, now cowering behind her. And she remembered that it wasn't just her own life at stake. The sorcerer would kill them both. Unless someone did something.

Unless she did something.

He had almost reached them, his ravaged visage twisted with hate. In desperation she reached behind her with her free hand, grasping for anything she could use as a weapon. To her surprise, her hand closed on something that felt familiar. Turning, she saw that it was an old, cast-iron frying pan, one that her mother had always used.

She didn't understand why it was here, but there was no time to question. The sorcerer was just about to bring down his knife. In desperation, she swung her own weapon up first, the metal implement smashing across his face.

It hit with a blinding flash of light, the impact sending her attacker reeling away. Terrified to let up even for a moment, she lunged forward, swinging again and again, each blow more determined than the last, driving her assailant back with each hit. She screamed, a wild, wordless cry born from all the desperate emotions whirling within her as she struck and struck... until with the last of her strength she delivered one final swing, putting everything she had left into it.

The sorcerer shattered at the impact, the fragments turning to dust even as they fell, before they were swept away into nothingness. She stood over the emptiness where he had been, doubled over and gasping for breath. She looked down at the frying pan, the trembling in her hands subsiding a bit as her grip became stronger. Firmer.

Then she remembered the other girl, and glanced back to see if she was alright. To her surprise, the girl was no longer cowering. Rather, she looked back at her with the corner of her mouth turned up in the tiniest ghost of a smile. "Good," she said, albeit with a note of condescension in her voice. "Remember this moment, girl. That worm cannot hurt you anymore. His memory is the only strength he has left over you. And you're stronger."

She didn't understand what that meant. But she was already having trouble connecting her thoughts, as her awareness faded, submerging into unconsciousness. The last thing she saw before deeper sleep claimed her was the girl, watching her with glowing red eyes.

Melinoe glanced up at her little brother, who was watching her, wary as ever. She rolled her eyes. "There," she said. "I'm done with her for now. You can go ahead and fill her dreams with a continuous cavalcade of ponies, cotton candy, or any other nonsense you desire."

Helios nodded. "Thank you, sister," he said. It was clear that he wasn't entirely happy with her actions, but this new detente between them certainly had... promise. As long as the raw number of her nightmares didn't too much exceed what she had been able to accomplish even while sealed, her brother and his friends would have little justification to undertake the cataclysmic struggle it would require to seal her again. Combine that with the... new approach... she was experimenting with, and she doubted she would have to deal with those chafing chains anytime in the foreseeable future.

True, it didn't have quite the same raw, visceral thrill. But she was discovering that there was a certain... intriguing artistry... to bringing the humans to that extent of fear, yet in a way that left them stronger for the experience. It was even possible that maybe—maybe—the pink-haired brat had had a point, about Melinoe's role being larger than she herself had understood.

Not that she actually cared what her brother's irritating little fling thought, of course.

Her brother wasn't altogether satisfied with the current state of affairs, of course. The most recent subject of his nagging had been to try and convince her to get the humans' permission before taking them into one of her nightmares. Melinoe scoffed. Permission! As though the whinging little apes even knew what was best for them in the first place.

Still, for all her brother's hesitance, more than anything else Melinoe was grateful for the chance to interact with him on less outright hostile terms than she had in a long time. What the future might hold, not even she knew.

But at the very least... it seemed more hopeful to her than it had before.

Kodachi sat on the rooftop of her family home, her legs dangling over the edge as she looked out wistfully across the nearby town as the sun set on another evening. She let out a small sigh, savoring the tranquility of the moment.

Eventually, she heard her brother coming up behind her, his footsteps clacking against the roof tiles. "Kodachi..." he called out. "Will you be joining Akari and I for dinner?"

The gymnast nodded absently. "I will be down soon, brother. Thank you."

Rather than leave, however, Tatewaki hesitated, then came even closer, sitting down cross-legged next to her. There was silence for a while, her brother clearly struggling over what to say, and even at the end of it all he managed to come up with was: "Are you... doing well?"

Kodachi glanced over at him, offering a wan smile. What she wouldn't give to know the answer to that question herself. Tatewaki had grown increasingly protective of her well-being as he'd looked after her during her breakdown, but now that she had truly accepted her buried memories of her missing year and the violent death she'd suffered, he wasn't sure what to make of her new, calmer state.

She wasn't sure either. She knew that, one way or another, she would have to face the other girls again eventually. That she would have to face Ranma. Fighting alongside them during the final battle against Tanizaki hadn't been as painful as she'd feared; they had accepted her presence without question, without pushing, and the twisted feelings from her long period of paranoia toward them were mercifully fading as her memories re-integrated.

Even so, it still felt... strange. Her brother wanted to know if she was doing well? She wasn't entirely sure who she even was at the moment, as she guided the reforming pieces of her life back together, drawing on the new perspectives they offered. What parts did she really want to keep, and what parts were better let go?

She still wasn't sure. And she knew even less how to explain it in a way that Tatewaki would understand. Without her saying anything, however, he reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze of encouragement. She smiled back, gratitude in her eyes, and even if neither of them could put it into words... it wasn't necessary in that moment.

"I am doing well, brother," she decided to say, as she rose to her feet. "Now come. It won't do to keep your dear little Akari waiting."

Ranma and Ryouga walked through crowds of excitedly-whispering monsters as they followed Ryo and Jimenko on an impromptu tour of the main residential area of their new domain, followed by Akane, Shampoo, Ukyo, Beneda and Ami. Ryo was gesturing at the rock-and-crystal-hewn structures as they went, most of which were in extremely poor condition.

"This area took a lot of damage in the fighting, when Tanizaki first took over the Dark Kingdom," the youma-in-human-form explained. "And after that, he moved us into Metzger's camp. These homes have been left to deteriorate for years."

"Well that's something we can change," announced Ranma, albeit with far more assurance than he actually felt. He was still completely lost with all this "evil overlord" crap... but for now he was just trying to roll with the punches, and make it sound like he knew what the hell he was talking about. "We might not have crazy city-building magic like the Senshi... but with a little work we should be able to get this place back into shape."

A murmur of approval ran through the watching monsters. And that was one thing Ranma was quickly learning about this whole "leadership" thing. The most important thing of all was to always sound like you had everything under control. As long as everyone had hope and was working toward a solution, you might eventually find someone, somewhere who did know what to do, and listen to them. The key was to make sure everyone kept believing it was possible.

You just had to keep projecting confidence. And Ranma knew a thing or two about that.

Ahead of them, Jimenko nodded in agreement. "Yumemi's youma power could help out a lot," she suggested. "Might not be as flashy as that Moon Crystal... but if she can draw up some building material, that could go a long way really fast."

"Is she staying with the Dark Kingdom?" asked Beneda. "I know she was living with the humans for a long time before she was captured. I wasn't sure if she would go back, now that the crisis with Tanizaki is over."

"She seems to have formed strong bonds with many of the other monsters while surviving together in here," spoke up Ami. "When we talked with her, she indicated that she wanted to continue to aid in the Dark Kingdom's recovery. Not that it would prevent her from easily visiting her friends and family on the outside, of course. We're still working out the details... but after everything that's happened I can't imagine the border between Japan and the Dark Kingdom being a hostile one."

The answer only prompted more curiosity from Beneda. "What about the other members of the Seven Great Youma that Tanizaki caught?" she asked. "How many of them are staying?"

"Most of them," said Ryo. "Crane Game Joe didn't want anything to do with us, but along with Yumemi, Boxy is staying with the church he started. Even Rei's grandfather has taken an interest in this place... and I think he already remembers more of his past life than he's letting on. He's been talking philosophy and religion with Boxy on a regular basis now. And of course, I'll be living here, as will Ami and Doctor Mizuno."

Ami blushed a little, but nodded in agreement. "My mother wants to stay close to the daimons while she works on the treatment, with Professor Tomoe," she explained... though Ranma was pretty sure that she would have wanted to stay close to Ryo regardless.

Jimenko, for some reason, gave a small smirk at that declaration, as though some part of a plan was coming together. Ranma had to admit, even if he was in over his head as far as this whole "government" thing went, it would be one hell of a cheat to not only get advice from someone as smart as Ami was... but also from her boyfriend who could literally see the future.

That said, there was still one of the Seven Great Youma that Ryo hadn't mentioned, one of particular interest to Ranma. "Ummm... what about the... other one?" he asked Ami, trying to sound as casual as he could. "You know... the, uh... youma you had to fight when you and me and Ryouga first rescued this place? Is he still... around?"

"Oh, Bakene?" Ami asked, clearly understanding why he was so concerned about where the cat youma had gone. "No. He didn't want to stay in the Dark Kingdom once we beat Tanizaki. He would have been welcomed as a living legend here, of course. But instead of any of that... well, he only had one request of Sailor Moon."

Akane frowned, curious. "Really? What did he want her to do for him?"

Back in the human world, a young girl with brown pigtails sat morosely in the new bedroom that she had so recently moved into. It was certainly far better than the refugee camp that they had been living in ever since their home had been destroyed weeks ago. Engulfed in an immense fireball, along with most of Minato Ward.

It was the second time she'd lost a home to a merciless flame. At least this time the Sailor Senshi had given them warning to evacuate beforehand, so no one had died.

She sat on her new bed, staring at the flowing, crystalline walls. The design was a marvel, filled with the wonder of magic, as was the rest of her room. And yet she still felt as though she had been set adrift by the traumatic events of the recent past. Magic might be able to put a roof over your head... but the trauma of a life once again uprooted was not so easy to deal with, especially for a middle-school girl.

The girl wrapped her arms around herself, chewing her lower lip, feeling adrift and alone. She closed her eyes, hoping for some kind of relief, even as emotions she could not put into words churned in her stomach.

Then she felt something warm and furry thump against her lower leg.

For one terrible, beautiful moment, she forgot all the reasons why it couldn't be what she associated that feeling with. For a moment, she only felt the simple comfort offered by the memory. But then, an instant later, her reason caught up with her, reminding her of the brutal truth, crushing her heart beneath it, even more painful for that brief sliver of hope that had preceded it.

She opened her eyes, tears already starting to form...

...only to find that her initial, irrational hope had, in fact, been true. Because there, right in front of her, was the unmistakable form of a fat blue tomcat, rubbing against her legs.

"Rhett!" she cried out, reaching down and swooping him up into a crushing embrace. She was bawling now, even as she tried to somehow make sense of the miracle. "Rhett, where were you? How did you find me? We thought you'd died in that fire years ago!"

The sometime-youma didn't say anything, of course. He simply allowed his human to squeeze him, maintaining as much tolerant, lazy dignity as he could muster. Content to have returned home.

Back in the Dark Kingdom, the Dark Lords and their group continued the examination of their domain, taking in the various areas and talking with many different monsters. Ranma was starting to get a feel for the place, seeing it in more depth now than they ever had before. So many different lives, so different from humans in some ways and yet so similar in others. And so many of them looking to him and Ryogua to guide them.

It should have been daunting. It was daunting. But Ranma also felt something else, something growing within himself, something beyond how out-of-his-depth he felt. The more he saw, the more he felt that this was a fight worth taking on. And if he was going to get thrown into the middle of this, he might as well throw himself into it with everything he had.

He thought, oddly enough, of Tanizaki.

By using magic to put himself beyond the possibility of losing, the man had thrown away the thrill of the fight. And—in its place—he had taken on the challenge of building an empire instead. Ranma wasn't stupid enough to throw away his own ability to find challenge in a good battle... but there was a part of him that didn't mind the idea of testing himself against the task in which Tanizaki had, ultimately, failed.

And wouldn't that be a satisfying revenge? Ranma mused. To beat him at this too. To succeed where he couldn't. To do it better than he ever did, and without using his methods.

It was something to think about, at least. Still, for the first time since the monsters had sprung the idea on him, Ranma felt downright excited about the odds he faced, the struggles that might be in his path. His mind was already racing ahead, trying to think how he might train for something like this, how he might apply the lessons he'd learned to the kind of tactics this completely new kind of battle might require.

It might actually be fun.

Eventually their group swung back around toward the castle. The trip hadn't been physically draining... but the deluge of new information had given Ranma a lot to wrap his mind around. "Well, that's enough for one day," he said, turning toward the wing of the palace where he was bunking. "I'm gonna head back to my room."

"No, wait!" protested Jimenko. "Master, you shouldn't use such ordinary quarters anymore! We've prepared a pair of much more fitting chambers for each of you, just up ahead!"

Ranma and Ryouga exchanged glances, then Ranma shrugged. "Sure, why not?" he said, following Jimenko. The rest followed along as well, curious, and soon they came to a door that was significantly more ornate than the others.

"According to the youma, this used to be Queen Beryl's room," Jimenko explained. "But we ripped out most of the old décor and remade everything specifically in accordance with Lord Ranma's needs." With that, she opened the door and proudly offered them their first view of the interior.

Ranma froze, his eyes bulging at the outrageous sight that met his eyes. "Um... what?" he said weakly, at a loss for words. The room was fashioned like a cross between a B-movie dungeon and a sleazy love hotel. The most eye-catching part was the very large bed on the far wall, surrounded with many chains, whips, collars and a few other... interesting toys that Ranma himself wasn't entirely sure of their intended use.

"Do you like it?" asked Jimenko eagerly. "We... weren't sure exactly how you humans handled these sorts of things... but we did as much research as we could in human books on the matter! And if you need anything else—either for you or for your love slaves—just let us know!"

Ranma went deathly pale. And—even without looking behind him—he could feel three incensed battle auras igniting to life. Akane was the first to speak. "Love slaves?" he heard her say, enunciating each distinct syllable like she was playing a particularly sour taste over her tongue.

Even Jimenko realized that something had gone seriously wrong. "Er... concubines?" she suggested, though from her expression Ranma didn't think that had gone over any better. The lemure continued to fish for a way out, each one more tentative and nervous than the last. "Mistresses...? Wives...? Co-empresses...?"

But it was far too late. Ukyo's voice cut off the monster's floundering. "Just what exactly have you been telling them about us, Ranchan?" she asked, an irritated edge to her voice, and behind him he could hear her giant spatula being drawn.

Ranma let out a weak laugh, turning around to actually see his three fiancees glowering at him. "No, no, it's nothing I told them!" he protested, waving his hands nervously in a defusing gesture. "They just... got a few minor details wrong. That's all."

"Ranma think this minor detail?" asked Shampoo, raising an eyebrow as she cracked her knuckles. The pigtailed fighter swallowed, looked back and forth between the three irate girls…

...and suddenly, he couldn't help but break into a grin. In a way, this was a relief. They had been so caught up over the past weeks dealing with weighty, fate-of-the-world crap, that it felt positively liberating to return to the simple, stupid relationship squabbles with which they were so familiar.

With a laugh, Ranma darted between the fuming girls, egging them on with a smug grin. And just like that, the chase began. Restoring, even if only for a moment, some small level of normalcy, despite all the upheaval to their lives.

Much later that night, Ukyo sat behind the counter in the silent, darkened interior of her restaurant, staring out across the empty tables as she absentmindedly cooked up an okonomiyaki for her own consumption. She'd needed to get away, to think, and the well-practiced motions of cooking helped her to do that. So she'd returned here, to the establishment that she'd poured so much of her effort into over the past few years.

She had to admit, running around in a good old-fashioned Nerima-style ruckus had been refreshing for her, giving her a chance to blow off some steam in their long-familiar way. Still, even as she'd participated in the brawl, it had already started to feel... hollow. Like she was going through the motions without her heart truly being in it.

There was no great mystery as to why, either. Even now, her thoughts returned to that night. The night where they'd first reconciled with the Sailor Senshi. The night where Ranchan had explained to her, point-blank, that he intended to marry Akane.

What else could she do now, other than go through the motions? She'd seen it in his eyes, how serious he was. Crashing the ceremony with gunpowder okonomiyaki wasn't going to dissuade him this time; it would only damage the relationship they still had. Her hands clenched tight on the spatula she was using to flip her dinner, but she willed herself not to cry.

In that moment of anguish, she even went so far as to consider what the monsters had said earlier that day, their expectation that the Dark Lords would take a harem for themselves. Would she be willing to go that far? To offer—to plead—for something like that? Just so long as it meant she didn't lose Ranchan entirely?

But even as she considered it... she found that her answer was no. No, as crazy as the competition for Ranma had grown at times... she didn't need him so badly that she would resort to something like that. That wasn't the kind of future she wanted for herself.

In a strange way, thinking about it in those terms actually felt... freeing. It was so easy to get caught up in the thick of the struggle. So easy for it to dominate her vision, to feel like the most important thing... and consequently, for losing to feel like the worst possible disaster.

But by rejecting the monsters' offer, it allowed Ukyo to step back, to remember that her life was more than just that. If there was a price she wasn't willing to pay—even if it might let her be with Ranchan—then being with him wasn't actually the most important thing. And if it never happened, even though it might hurt, it wouldn't end her world. She was stronger than that.

The scent of burning food reached her nose, and she jerked back to alertness, realizing that she had stopped attending the okonomiyaki she had been grilling while she wrestled with her thoughts. Hurriedly she scraped it off onto a plate, sighing as she looked at the charred remains.

And if any tears escaped her eyes, despite her resolve not to cry... well, that was obviously the fault of the smoke.

Angrily, she swiped an arm across her face, then drew in a deep breath, centering herself. "Konatsu?" she called out.

The ninja's response was nearly instantaneous, appearing from wherever he'd been in a flicker of movement. "Yes, Miss Ukyo?" he said, eager to help. "Is there something you would like me to do for you?"

Ukyo looked him up and down for a moment, considering his own growth in the years he'd been working for her. Finally, she spoke. "Not right now. I was just... wondering. Do you think you might be ready to take on a bit more responsibility around here?"

Konatsu frowned. "What do you mean?"

Ukyo turned away, walking over to one of the windows and looking out. "I'm... thinking of going on a training journey," she said at length. "After things have calmed down around here, of course. I've got enough money saved up to buy an okonomiyaki cart, and... I was thinking about retracing my steps of my old journey. The one I went on growing up, back when all I cared about was training for revenge against Ranchan and his dad. It would let me revisit all the places I traveled through back then. I think..."

She paused, silence filling the room for a while, before she found the words she wanted to say. "I think... I might be able to see them with new eyes, now."

With that, she turned back to Konatsu. "But to do that, I'd need someone to run this place while I was away," she said, giving him a warm smile. "Someone that I can trust completely. What do you think?"

It wasn't what he most wanted, she knew. What he most wanted from her was the same thing she most wanted from Ranma. But—like Ranma—trust and friendship were all that she could offer. And for the first time... she felt like that might be enough.

Konatsu bowed his head. "I would be honored, Miss Ukyo."

Unlike Ukyo, who left to go back to the human world after the chase had wound down, Shampoo remained in the Dark Kingdom. She meandered away from the main cavern, traversing the twisting, alien tunnels until she found an out-of-the-way grotto where she could continue to work out her frustrations.

For her, that meant throwing herself into one of the more vigorous forms of the Joketsuzoku style. Her hair whipped about her as she twisted and spun, striking left and right, tearing fiercely through her imagined enemies.

She was not, however, too lost in her emotions to notice that she had gained an audience. She ignored their arrival, however, not pausing the flow of her techniques. Nor did they make any attempt to interrupt, watching her movements in silence.

Only once she had finished, her last strike held in position, did Shampoo hear Akane's quiet voice. "That's beautiful," she said. "You know... every time I watch you, I always wish I had that kind of grace."

Shampoo glanced back over her shoulder at the other girl. "If Akane want improve, can always try another match," she said, driving her fist into her palm. "Shampoo have enough time to wipe floor with Akane once or twice."

She injected a challenging note into her voice, one that made it clear that she would enjoy taking her frustrations out on a flesh and blood opponent, and would enjoy running roughshod over Akane in particular. Nevertheless, Akane did not back down for a moment, her only response a rueful smile. "Bring it on."

The two of them took stances and began to circle each other. Akane remained defensive, so Shampoo took the fight to her, closing in with a flurry of attacks. They clashed against each other, Shampoo's heart leaping as they collided, her strikes hammering against the other girl's guard. Akane fell back, but she retaliated as she did so. Shampoo artfully avoided most of them, but a few did score some glancing hits.

Shampoo bared her teeth in a wild expression, one that could technically be called a smile. She felt a tiny, bitter, conflicted spark of pride at the improvement Akane had gained over the past few years. In no small part thanks to her own efforts... even though she'd never admit aloud what both she and Akane already knew were her motives for these fights.

With a savage spin, she pulled Akane into a throw, slamming the other girl into the cavern floor. But she was distracted enough that Akane managed to wrap her legs around Shamoo, dragging her down as well. The match shifted to a contest of ground fighting, the two rolling over each other as they grappled for supremacy, straining against each other.

Superior strength gave Shampoo the edge, but Akane still fought tooth and nail. Eventually, Shampoo got her legs between them, hitting the other girl dead on with a two-legged kick that launched Akane off of her and into the air. She managed to land, struggling for balance, even as Shampoo performed a quick kip-up, shooting back to her feet and launching herself at Akane before she could recover.

The Joketsuzoku warrioress drove Akane back toward one of the rocky walls. The increasingly reckless attacks allowed Akane to score a few more hits herself, but Shampoo didn't care. She just powered straight through, overwhelming her opponent's guard with a furious chain of moves that blasted Akane straight into the stone behind her. She tried to push off of the wall, but Shampoo just grabbed her and slammed her back against it, pinning her there with her arm across the other girl's throat, their faces inches apart.

"Shampoo win. Again." It did feel good to have this power over the other girl, even if it couldn't give her the kind of victory she desired more than anything else. "Akane need do better if want to win when time comes to settle things once and for all."

"It won't come to that," was Akane's unflinching reply. "I won't let it. And neither will you."

A flash of anger crossed Shampoo's face, and she pressed even harder against the other girl, crushing her back into the stone. "Is just talk. And talk is cheap. Is no way around law. Shampoo must marry Ranma. Or die trying. Is duty. Is honor of tribe."

For a long time they matched gazes. Then Akane responded, her voice quieter. "Then what about... what Jimenko said?"

Shampoo felt her heart clench, and she looked at the other girl, incredulous. "Joke is not funny," she said. "Akane... is making joke, yes?"

But Akane's expression didn't waver. "Your law says you have to marry Ranma," she said softly. "What if... what if you could?"

For several seconds Shampoo simply gaped, her mouth working without any words coming out. "Akane... Akane expect Shampoo to accept fake?" she demanded, though the words came out unsteady, her emotions running wild in a thousand different directions. "Akane expect Shampoo to go through motions? Pretend-marry for law, and then live alone for rest of life?"

Her lips pulled back into a crazed, toothy expression. "Because Shampoo not live lie. Shampoo not marry Ranma, unless is real. Akane still think is good idea?"

Akane's response was a wan smile. Their faces were already so close together, it only took a small movement for her to rest her forehead against Shampoo's. "I meant what I said to you, you know. Back then, when we were fighting the Nameless One's creatures. I don't want to lose anyone I care about. I don't care what it takes. I don't care if it's something completely insane. We'll make it work anyway, no matter how crazy it is. Like we always do."

Then she laughed, a tiny little laugh. "And it's more than just not wanting you to die. That's the craziest part. I thought about it. All these years we spent fighting over Ranma. All the other stupid squabbles we had. All the times we trained together, even if you wouldn't admit that was what we were doing. Did you know... you were the first girl my age who I could really share that part of my life with? Even Ranma didn't take me seriously enough to really train with me. Not back then. But you did."

Akane blinked rapidly, her eyes starting to tear up. "We've fought against each other... and we trained with each other... and we've fought alongside each other... and we even died together. You can be one of the most aggravating people I've ever met... but there isn't a single moment of all that time that I'd want to lose. And I don't want it to stop, either. So if that means we spend the rest of our lives butting heads, then that's fine by me. It'd be worth it... so long as you stayed."

Shampoo felt as though she had been stabbed through the chest. She wrenched Akane out of the shattered stone wall, pulling her into a tight embrace, making sure that the other girl could not see the tears threatening to fall from her own eyes as well, as she clung tight to her friend. Her enemy. Her rival.

"Stupid Akane..." she whispered into the other girl's ear. "You win. Shampoo not going anywhere."

Even as events in Japan shifted toward a new normal—or at least what passed for that—increasingly urgent queries for information about just what on earth was going on were arriving from other places. One of particularly personal import was China, and even more specifically, the queries coming from the recently-founded league of tribes that Cologne and Meihui had spent the last few years putting together.

Communication had been difficult, at first; phone lines reaching out to such remote wilderness regions were unreliable and subject to downing at the best of times, and it turned out that some of Tanizaki's foreign agents had sabotaged them early on in the conflict to ensure that Ranma's allies there remained unaware of what was going on for as long as possible. Still, contact was eventually established, and Mousse had volunteered to go and discuss the recent developments in person.

Besides... he had something else he needed to do there.

It had been surprisingly easy to get here. Normal flights to and from Japan were still a mess due to the recent crisis... but apparently he was now a high-ranking political figure of the Dark Kingdom. That still sounded like madness to him, but he had to admit, it had enabled him to cut through a great deal of red tape.

Minako, surprisingly, had also volunteered to accompany him, saying that she didn't want to miss out on any training. And even when he'd tried to explain that he wouldn't be gone for that long she'd insisted, latching onto the idea with a force that suggested that "volunteer" had been the wrong word from the beginning.

They'd chatted on the flight over, Minako's ebullience pulling him out of his thoughts more than he'd expected. Apparently this wasn't her first time traveling, and she regaled him with stories of her adventures in England. After landing, they'd begun the hike into the mountains, eventually reaching the Joketsuzoku village.

It felt... strange, returning here after all that he'd experienced. Had it really only been three years? Or, well four, if you counted the year they'd repeated? He had gone through so much, changed enough that he felt like he barely even knew the Mousse who had lived here back then. He wasn't even perceiving the village the same way. It felt unnervingly alien, observing the—ostensibly—familiar surroundings using only his echolocation and his ki sense.

The language barrier had left Minako a little off-balance, with most of the Joketsuzoku unable to converse with her directly, but Cologne had quickly taken the young Senshi under her wing, showing her around the village. The other leaders of the allied tribes had already gathered, all of them desiring more information regarding the recent apocalyptic events.

He had presented the facts to them as clearly as he could, then did his best to answer the deluge of questions that came as a result. All of them were intent on learning what intentions the Sailor Senshi had for the wider world, and how the newly formed monster nation in the Dark Kingdom fit into all this.

Prince Herb asked whether the Sailor Senshi knew of other threats that they should be preparing for, such as Metalia or the Nameless One. The leader of the Tian Wu Swordsmen inquired as to the mechanics of the interaction between the Dark Kingdom and their world, whether the monsters were claiming any land on this side of the portal. From the Joketsuzoku, Elder Soap wanted to know to what extent the Sailor Senshi would be amenable to a more direct alliance with their tribes, considering their history together.

In retrospect, considering how many of the questions ended up being about the Sailor Senshi, it was a good thing that Minako had come along, and together they fielded questions for the better part of a day. The intense deliberations went long into the night, before finally adjourning, allowing Mousse and Minako to get some much-needed sleep.

The next morning, Mousse slipped away early, before the crack of dawn. There would be more talking and cross-examining to come, he was certain. But right now there was something else he was here for.

The blind weaponmaster walked through the silent forest, feeling the dampness of the morning dew around his ankles as he passed silently between the trees. Each step brought him closer to his destination, until at last he was there. At the small clearing that had been forever etched into his memory.

This was the first time since that night that he had ever dared return. He hadn't expected to find anything left; surely Ying Jie's body would have been gone after all this time. But to his surprise, he could sense the outlines of something planted in the ground right where his friend had fallen. Wood, from the way the vibrations played through it, and in the shape of a simple grave marker.

Slowly, as if in a trance, he walked over and knelt before it. Reaching out, he ran his fingertips along its length, tracing it from top to bottom with the lightest of touches. Then he bowed his head, remaining there in silence for a few minutes.

Eventually he did raise his head, and spoke. "Did you do this for him?"

He sensed the small figure emerge from the trees behind him, Cologne's distinctive aura moving toward him. She wasn't hopping on her cane this time, but rather carrying it in one hand as she walked over and knelt beside Mousse. "I did."

"I... didn't realize that you knew."

Cologne exhaled, a noise that might almost have been a rueful chuckle. "A foolish young boy runs away from home, desperate to prove himself. He returns exactly a year later, wracked with guilt, refusing to tell anyone where he'd been... and with a vastly improved fighting style built entirely around Hidden Weapons." The old woman turned her head to look at him. "Of course I knew."

Then the old master turned back to the grave marker. "I wanted to confirm it, though, so I backtracked your path. And once I found this place... well, I was able to work out more or less what had happened by studying the scene. I gave him a decent burial. I don't know what tribe he was from originally, but I said one of the Joketsuzoku blessings over the grave."

Mousse clenched his hands into fists, his eyes brimming with tears. "Thank you," he said, his voice rough.

They remained there in silence for a while longer, with nothing more to be said. Finally, Mousse raised his head. "I suppose we should be going," he told her. "The tribe leaders will have more questions for me."

"True," said Cologne, rising as well, the two of them walking back toward the village. "Not to mention the questions for that lovely young woman you brought with you."

Mousse heard the suggestive note in the old woman's voice, but he shook his head. "It's not like that," he said. "She's here to keep up her training with me. To learn to compensate for the arm she lost."

Cologne snorted. "Don't be absurd. I saw the way she looks at you. And those aren't the eyes of someone only interested in martial arts practice. Are you really going to let something like this pass you by? Because you're still unable to let go of something you can never have?"

Mousse aimed a deadpan expression at where he sensed Cologne standing. "Really. And are you asking that out of a concern for my romantic prospects... or because you see an opportunity to tie the Joketsuzoku even closer to the Sailor Senshi?"

That observation earned a cackle from Cologne. "You say that like there's a conflict between the two, boy," she replied. "It's a poor elder indeed who isn't able to pursue more than one goal at a time."

Beneda carefully double-checked the dosage as she prepared the hypodermic needle, taking exactly 5 cc of the faintly glowing purple substance that Professor Tomoe had spent so much effort trying to perfect. Then she turned to the daimon lying on the cot in front of her, injecting the supplement into her upper arm.

The daimon sighed in relief, the drug having an almost-immediate effect. Beneda was still a bit nervous; what the professor had created was still very experimental, and for now they were only testing it on the daimons who were in serious danger. The results, however, had been incredibly promising so far, with all of their patients showing remarkable improvement.

We can save them, Beneda told herself, the conviction causing a warmth to swell inside her. We can save them all.

Doctor Tofu was nearby, also attending to a daimon in the test group. At a table further back, Professor Tomoe and Doctor Mizuno were poring over the pages of results spread across its surface, talking in low, excited tones as together they studied the reports from each of the patients, trying to evaluate how the formula could yet be improved.

Beneda reached down, giving the daimon she'd just treated a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder and a comforting word, before moving on to the next one. Of course, there was a great deal of healing left to be done. But the fact that they could all face it together, each using their knowledge and ingenuity and compassion to mend some of the wounds left by Metzger's horrific experiments... it filled her with hope.

And not just hope for these daimon, but for all the monsters that had been trapped, both in servitude to their original masters and later under Tanizaki's cruel imprisonment. Including her own people. With their oppressor now gone, all the youma had the chance to see what she had seen all those years ago. The possibility of a life without the hatred and evil that had stained their experience for so long.

She had the chance to share that with them. Starting here, with Professor Tomoe's live-saving treatment. And with the monsters committed to following their new "Dark Lords" now, instead of a truly evil master...

...well, who knew where that might lead?

Chibi-Usa sat next to Hotaru on a bench in one of the lush gardens of the Crystal Palace. Most of the Inner Senshi were scattered around somewhere nearby, along with the Dark Lords, and several of their followers. They were all mostly just relaxing, exhausted after a long negotiation with the human governments discussing how trade with these new magical polities was going to work. Ami and Ryo had taken center stage, bearing the brunt of it... but it had been long and arduous for all of them.

But putting such boring matters behind her, Chibi-Usa leaned in close to her friend, her voice a whispered undertone. "So... you haven't gone any farther than that kiss?"

Hotaru blushed, then shook her head, her own voice similarly quiet. "No, we're taking it very slow. Neither of us is very... experienced... at this, and we're still figuring out how it's all going to work."

Chibi-Usa supposed that she couldn't blame them, though a small part of her had been hoping for something more juicy. "Well, don't worry about it," she said. "Just take things at your own pace, and you'll get where you want to go eventually. I'm sure by the time I get back to the future, you'll have already—"

But her voice broke off, uncertain. Just what was waiting for her in the future, now? Even on her previous visits, her presence had never changed the course of history to this extent. Averting the Great Freeze and saving countless lives... Crystal Tokyo now localized within Japan... The ascension of an allied Dark Kingdom filled with monsters they had fought in their previous adventures...

Just what would the future look like now?

Even the garden they were relaxing in now wasn't quite like any garden she remembered from her own Crystal Palace, the differences in its creation apparently resulting in a noticeably different design. Her pink eyes traced the familiar-yet-not surroundings, a pensive look crossing her face.

It was then that Sailor Pluto's voice came from directly behind them, causing both girls to jump. "That is something we must discuss, Small Lady," she said. "Your return this time will likely be more... taxing... than you have been accustomed to."

Chibi-Usa looked back over her shoulder, noticing that Sailor Pluto looked unusually disheveled, as though from overwork. "Are you okay?" she asked, concerned.

Sailor Pluto smiled. "I have been working on the Gates of Time. Preparing them for your return. For one thing, I will not be sending you back to the same era that you left."

"Why not?" asked the young princess, her face scrunching into a puzzled frown.

"Because the 'you' of that time is no longer a fourteen-year-old girl," explained Sailor Pluto. "In the original course of events, you were conceived over a thousand years from now. But that was due to the Great Freeze. Without that gap of frozen time, your soul will incarnate..." She paused, glancing over to the other side of the garden, where Usagi lay on a different bench, her head resting on Mamoru's lap. Then she gave a small cough. "...sooner."

The teen winced at the embarrassing thought of her parents doing... that. But fortunately Sailor Pluto continued on. "I have done everything I could think of to ease the transition. But even so, the changes to your personal history will likely make re-integrating with your future self... challenging. I have already asked the future Sailor Mercury to prepare a significant quantity of headache medicine, and requested that they clear your schedule for at least a week."

Chibi-Usa paled, her eyes going wide. "Umm..." she began weakly. "Just... how bad is this going to be?"

"It will not be pleasant," was the most Sailor Pluto would say. "And the longer you remain here, the wider the difference grows, and the more difficult it will become."

That caused Chibi-Usa's face to fall, and she looked down at the ground. It was always hard to say goodbye on these trips, and this one especially considering all the new friends she'd made. It was some consolation that, from the sound of it, she was only going forward about fifteen years or so this time... but even so, that still meant that everyone would be adults again on the other side. Not that she didn't love the adult Hotaru just as much, of course, but she would still miss the chance to talk with her like this. As another girl only a year or two older than her.

She wracked her brain, torn between the knowledge that she had probably already stayed longer than was wise, and the desire to remain for just a little bit longer. Was there any excuse she could make? Was there anything left to be done?

Then her head shot up. "Wait, the birthday party!" she said. "That was the whole reason I came back here in the first place! For the birthday celebration! I can't believe we forgot with everything that was going on!"

The exclamation was loud enough that Usagi picked up on it, going bolt upright herself. "Omigosh, you're right!" she said, distraught at the idea that she'd actually missed her own birthday, shared date with Chibi-Usa's as it was.

"I'm afraid so," acknowledged Sailor Pluto. "The actual date fell while Usagi was still in her coma after Unit Ze— after Megumi gained control of the Silver Crystal. Obviously not the circumstances for anything like that, and by the time the threat was over we were already well past it."

And it wasn't as though the time since then hadn't been chaotic as well. Still... "We should still celebrate it before I go!" Chibi-Usa insisted. "Please, Puu-chan! Can't we at least wait that long?"

The two of them exchanged a long look, and then Sailor Pluto's expression softened into a smile. "We can," she said, nodding. "But we should not delay."

"Leave it to us!" came Ukyo's voice over by where the Dark Lords had been sitting. "I can provide the food for the party. If you think about it, this all started because you wanted Ucchan's Okonomiyaki for your party... and that's exactly what you're going to get!"

Ryo spoke up as well. "I'm sure Yumemi would be willing to use her youma power to draw us up some decorations," he said. "And with this palace we certainly have a large enough venue. We can spread the word to all the friends you planned on inviting. It will be last-minute... but hopefully most should be able to attend."

"That's right!" said Makoto, driving a fist into her palm in excitement. "We can do this! Let's make this the best birthday party ever!"

Four days later, as Usagi spun across the dance floor in Mamoru's arms, she privately agreed that Makoto had been right. This was the best birthday party ever.

Not that the setup hadn't been haphazard and frantic. Nor had the result been the most polished, by the usual standards. The events and activities had been similarly last-minute, many of them being suggested on the fly, such as the karaoke contest that had ended in a passionate showdown between Minako and a daimon who Metzger had formed by applying a daimon egg to a flute.

The size of the party had grown astonishingly as well. So many new friends that they had met in the course of their wild, breathless fight for survival. Martial artists, monsters. Even a handful of famous political figures—both local and foreign—had managed to finagle their way onto the guest list.

All of them milled about, mingling to and fro. A kaleidoscopic sea of beings both familiar and alien, famous and unknown, rich and poor, human and inhuman. At any given moment there were countless different conversations going on, strange meetings that could only have happened in a place of common ground such as this. Makoto and Ukyo swapping cooking tips. Beneda and Chibi-Usa gossiping about Ryouga and Hotaru and how cute they looked together. Haruka and Ranma arguing about some martial arts something-or-other, with Akane and Shampoo occasionally interjecting.

It was all wonderful, all a sign of hope that warmed Usagi's heart. But right now, in this moment, all she saw was her Mamo-chan, looking deep into his eyes as she danced with him, the rest of the world fading away. She was leaning on him for support; her strength had been slowly recovering, but it would be a long journey of recovery, and it had been an eventful day already. Mamoru, of course, supported her effortlessly, as he always did.

Behind Mamoru, Ryouga and Hotaru went past, though their movements were quite a bit more tentative. Neither of them looked like they had much experience dancing, and they were each hesitantly helping their partner through the steps as they maneuvered across the dance floor, their faces red as they held each other.

All of it reaffirmed the faith that Usagi held dear, the unshakable conviction that everything would turn out okay in the end. With so many friends like these, what couldn't they tackle together? What couldn't they work through? If even the monsters that she'd had to fight before were now willing to coexist, then she was certain they could continue to make things better. To fight for a tomorrow that they could all be happy in.

With shining eyes, she looked up at Mamoru. He smiled back down at her. "Happy birthday, Usako," he said.

She smiled back, then tilted her head up expectantly. Their lips soon met, her arms wrapping around him in a deep, loving kiss.