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: Dang. I... really don't know what to say.
This story has been a part of my life for so long. Well over a decade working on it, planning everything out, trying to make it as enjoyable a tale as I could. It boggles my mind, to think of it as being...
So many ups and downs. And this final installment was no different. Took me way longer than any of the previous chapters in this fic... even though this epilogue is also way shorter than most of them. That was due to a bunch of factors. Most prominent among them being some pretty severe burnout that had been building up for a while.
That, combined with some nasty writer's block (and also the increasing realization that my initial plan for the epilogue just didn't really work as well as I thought it would) meant that I ended up just plain stuck for a long time. But recently, I realized that I had gotten enough distance from it that I actually could come back to working on it again and feel like I was making progress.
That enabled me to revamp my original outline for a different approach, one I think works a lot better than the old one did. It still captures the last few remaining parts of the story that I really did want to cover with the epilogue... yet in a way that avoids all the parts that just weren't working the way I wanted.
Which—heh—I suppose makes this one last "apology for how long an update for this fic took". (So I'm consistent to the very end, at least.)
So yeah, I am sorry it took so long to get such a small update out. But I do hope that it at least managed to be the right update. One that puts the last few remaining touches on the story that I've had the privilege of sharing with all of you over all these years.
And... it's that, more than anything else, that I wanted to say, before we get to this one last coda. There's no possible way this story could have gotten to this conclusion without all the input and encouragement that you guys provided over the years. The interaction, knowing that people were reading and enjoying the narrative, knowing that people wanted to know what happened next. Writing something this big has been an experience like no other writing project I've ever undertaken.
In short... I wanted to once again give such a huge, huge thank you to everyone who took any part of this journey that we've been on. And I hope that you enjoy this last little bit of wrap-up, now that the tale of the Dark Lords of Nerima is finally, fully complete.
And so, without further ado...
The birthday party continued on, well into the night.
The constant swirl of conversation, laughter, dancing, competition and revelry filled the Crystal Palace. The hasty, thrown-together nature of the party made it all the more unpredictable, as various guests took the initiative to enliven the festivities with all manner of unexpected antics, each wilder than the last. It was a night that none of them would ever forget.
But nothing could last forever. And eventually, even that wild night began to wind down. After a while, only the Sailor Senshi and the marital artists were left, along with their closest friends and family, in the middle of the otherwise-empty ballroom of the Crystal Palace.
Setsuna had attended the festivities in her civilian form, rare though that was for her. But now, with an incantation of "Pluto Crystal Power!" she became Sailor Pluto once more. And with a sinking heart, Chibi-Usa knew that her departure could no longer be delayed.
Under Sailor Pluto's watchful eye, she said her goodbyes. Some were heartfelt, such as her goodbye to the Inner Senshi. Some were teasing, such as when Ranma still insisted on calling her "Sailor Pipsqueak" despite the annoyed glare she gave him as he ruffled her hair. And of course, her farewell to Usagi was the same mixture of deep affection and mutual exasperation as ever.
It always felt so strange to say goodbye, despite knowing that—from her perspective—she would see them again almost immediately. Except it wouldn't be the same. Their future selves were them, no question, but... the interaction would be different. Not worse, but... different.
Still a goodbye. Despite everything.
It was hardest with Hotaru. The two girls hugged tight. Once again, Chibi-Usa was reminded how lucky she was to have had the chance to know her friend in this way. "Goodbye..." she murmured, sniffling a little. "Take care of yourself, okay?"
Hotaru smiled back, pressing her forehead against Chibi-Usa's. "See you soon."
Taking a deep breath, Chibi-Usa stepped backward. Then, with no more excuses to put it off, she drew out the Key of Space-Time and focused her will into it. She saw the familiar glow form at the tip of the ancient artifact, and the world around her dissolved into a multi-colored swirl. When the light faded, she found herself once again standing before the Gates of Time.
The young girl felt a hand rest on her shoulder, and she glanced back to see Sailor Pluto there. The two of them stood together in the shifting mists of that place beyond places. They were silent for a moment, before Sailor Pluto spoke. "Are you ready?"
Chibi-Usa nodded. With that, Sailor Pluto raised her Garnet Rod, power gathering to it. And in response to her command, the Gates of Time swung open. Then—after one last hug with Sailor Pluto—Chibi-Usa stepped across the threshold and vanished into the pale blue void of space-time. Within moments, everything familiar was lost to sight.
Eventually, she alighted in the ghostly corridor that formed the passageway between what was and what would be. Phantasmal pillars lined her path on either side, pale and transparent against the feverish riot of color that formed the omnipresent backdrop for that inhuman place.
As usual, the corridor resisted her movement, the pressure hammering against her as she tried to make progress, causing her pink hair to whip about her head. She had felt it many times now... but this time it seemed particularly fierce. Was this part of what Sailor Pluto had warned her about? A consequence of how much her future had shifted this time?
Still, Chibi-Usa had faced this passage enough times that not even the extra ferocity fazed her. She braced herself, raised her arms to shield her face, and pressed forward toward the destination in front of her.
Gritting her teeth, she kept putting one foot in front of the other. It was impossible to track how long she had been walking, if "time" even had any real meaning in a place like that. But one way or another, she continued on, slowly passing by pillar after pillar...
Until the terrible pressure suddenly stopped. Leaving her in a pocket of sudden, eerie calm.
Chibi-Usa looked around as she fought to catch her breath, unsure of what to expect. She turned in a circle, searching every inch of her surroundings for any sign of danger. But only once she'd completed her turn did she see that there was now a figure standing right in her path.
There had been no flash of magic, nor any other supernatural effect to signal the woman's appearance. At least none that Chibi-Usa could detect. No, she was just... there. As though she had been there all along.
The young girl looked up into the eyes of the sudden arrival. She took in the woman's long, pink hair and her tall, majestic figure, wrapped in a simple, diaphanous white gown. And immediately, Chibi-Usa knew that this woman was her.
And yet... that realization didn't even come close to doing it justice. Chibi-Usa looked deep into those solemn, red-colored eyes, and caught just a glimpse of the bottomless wisdom of innumerable lives, spread across uncountable timelines and incarnations.
In that moment, Chibi-Usa realized that she was looking at her own soul. The greater part of a living being that transcended any single interval between birth and death. Her breath caught in her throat, and she stood there, transfixed by what she saw. She couldn't say anything... but at the same time she knew, in that moment of perfect understanding, that nothing needed to be said.
The other her gave Chibi-Usa a kind smile. Then she reached down and placed a single finger on Chibi-Usa's forehead. "Entrust these memories to me," she said softly. "We will draw upon them again in the fullness of time. But for now, allow yourself to live the life we have won for ourselves."
A warm pulse of pink light washed over Chibi-Usa from that point of contact, filling her vision. And when she finally blinked the afterimages from her eyes... she found herself standing in Tokyo. Not the Tokyo of a thousand years in the future, though. No, as new memories crashed over her with disorienting force, she realized that this was the Tokyo of a mere twenty years later.
She turned in place, looking at the buildings around her and their eclectic array of designs. There were still pale, elegant spires, the hallmarks of Crystal Tokyo architecture. But there were also numerous buildings of a more human design, as well as structures that blended the two in wild, unpredictable ways.
Chibi-Usa clutched her head as she tried to get her bearings, wincing as two entirely different lives collided in her brain. Except... it wasn't nearly so bad as Sailor Pluto had warned her it would be. Already the newer memories were taking precedence, while the memories of her recent trip slowly melded with her new memories of being told, growing up, what she had done in the past.
She still knew—intellectually—what she had experienced. But she found that the memories of this life, the life she would be living from now on, were far more vivid and immediate. And while she did have a splitting headache, it wasn't anything unmanageable. Was that due to the unexpected intervention of... herself?
But before the turbulent storm of memory had a chance to fully settle, an exuberant female voice interrupted her confusion. "An opening! Prepare yourself, Usa!"
The young girl whirled, just in time to see a figure hurtling through the air at her with a flying kick. Chibi-Usa's eyes went wide—
—but before her beleaguered thoughts could even catch up, her body was already moving on pure, ingrained reflex, twisting out of the way while her hands circled up to block. The kick crashed against her guard with jarring force, causing her to stagger back, while her assailant continued to press the attack.
Even as she landed, the other girl launched a furious series of punches, her arms blurring to near-invisibility as she expertly tested Chibi-Usa's guard, high and low. Chibi-Usa backpedaled frantically, her hands moving in an equally-intricate series of precise parries, just barely deflecting the assault. Eventually a few hits did get through, slamming into her ribs and drawing out a pained hiss.
Then the attacker saw an opening for another big strike. She flowed from that flurry of punches into a powerful spin kick. Chibi-Usa could only cross her arms in front of herself, absorbing the full force of the impact. It lifted her clean off her feet, flinging her down the street until she landed again, skidding to a stop, barely hanging onto her balance.
Chibi-Usa steadied herself, breathing hard, then glared over at her attacker in annoyance. "Do you have to keep doing that?" she groused.
But her assailant just laughed. She was the same age as Chibi-Usa. Her black hair ran down her athletic body in a long ponytail, contrasting against the red quipao she wore. Her face, meanwhile, displayed its usual cheeky, mischievous grin.
"Of course!" she answered, with no shame whatsoever. "I cannot allow one of my rivals to grow soft and neglect her training in favor of her princess duties, can I? A martial artist should always be prepared for battle! Now transform, and fight at your full power!"
"Tai Mu..." Chibi-Usa sighed. This was the eternal contest between the two girls, all throughout the years they'd grown up together. Chibi-Usa had never won an official match against Thyme without transforming... but by the same token, Thyme had never won against her while she was fighting in her Sailor Senshi form. It was an unspoken but mutually-understood truth between the two of them that the true winner would be the first one to overcome their respective hurdle.
"Sorry, Usa..." came a long-suffering male voice from behind her. "I tried to tell her not to do it, but..."
The young princess turned from her assailant to see the other two members of their close-knit group approaching. First was a boy, also right around her age, with short black hair and a simple white Chinese shirt over black pants. The familial resemblance between Saotome Tenma and his sister Saotome Thyme was unmistakable. Since he was technically the older brother, Tenma had taken on the role of "the responsible one", trying his best to somehow moderate Thyme's boundless enthusiasm. Though it was—in Chibi-Usa's opinion—a hopeless goal to even attempt. And one which his sister gleefully flouted.
And following close behind Tenma like a small shadow, as she usually did, was the quiet figure of Hibiki Chiyo. The youngest of them all, Chiyo was twelve to the rest of their fourteen, and the most reserved of the four. Still, she was just as inseparable a part of their group as any of them. Her purplish hair hung down in two braided pigtails, and she wore a dark blouse and skirt.
Tenma and Thyme had both been eating, sleeping and breathing martial arts since before they could even walk. And between her friendship with the siblings and the perils of her destiny as a Sailor Senshi, Chibi-Usa had been swept along as well. She had practiced with them regularly, even getting permission from her parents to go along on many of their training trips.
Chiyo had often come along as well... though out of all of them she had the least interest in martial arts, and her skills were the most rudimentary. Her aptitude for magic, however... that was something unprecedented by purely human standards.
It was Chiyo who first noticed that something was off about her friend. "Are you okay, Usa?" she asked in that quiet, solemn voice of hers. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Once she commented on it, the others noticed as well, following Chiyo's worried question with questions of their own. Chibi-Usa shook her head, holding up her hands. "It's fine, I'm fine..." she insisted. "It's nothing to worry about. It's just... the memories finally hit today, that's all."
Her friends' eyes all widened in unison. They had, in theory, been expecting this day for a while now, but they hadn't been sure exactly when. Chiyo walked over to place a comforting hand on Chibi-Usa's shoulder. Thyme fidgeted in place, shifting from one foot to the other, looking torn between sympathy... and jealousy that she hadn't been able to accompany Chibi-Usa on what would have been their most epic adventure yet.
"Are you sure you're okay?" asked Tenma. Now the young man was using his serious-situation voice. "We could take you back to the Crystal Palace if you need to rest. I'm sure Beneda would understand if you weren't feeling well."
Beneda? Chibi-Usa frowned in confusion. Then she gathered her thoughts, searching with more focused intent through the collisions of memory for what Tenma was talking about. What had her plans been for this today?
It only took a moment for her to remember the significance. "No!" she said. "No, I'm fine. It's... not as bad as Puu-chan thought it would be. I want to go. I don't want to miss this."
"Then we should probably hurry," came a familiar voice from behind Chibi-Usa. "We wouldn't want to be late."
Her heart in her throat, Chibi-Usa turned. And as she did, she saw once again the dear friend she had so recently said her goodbyes to.
Except this wasn't the thirteen-year-old Tomoe Hotaru that she had met on her very first visit to the past. Nor was this the fifteen-year-old Tomoe Hotaru she had so recently been bonding with. No, this was the fully-adult Hibiki Hotaru.
Her long hair ran down her back to below her hips. She wore a black-and-purple version of her sailor seifuku, equal parts elegant and menacing, perfectly capturing the idea of a Sailor Senshi turned into an outright Dark Lady. Yet no such costume could actually hide the fundamental kindness that was so central to her.
Gone was the shy teenager who Chibi-Usa could talk to as an age-mate, or give romantic advice to. In what had felt to her like the blink of an eye, Hotaru had gained so many experiences that were still so far in Chibi-Usa's future. Becoming the ruler of a nation. Becoming a wife. Becoming a mother.
It felt silly to grieve the "loss" of someone who was right now looking at her with such affection. Yet Chibi-Usa could not resist that grief, even if only for a moment. And Hotaru, of course, understood.
She stepped forward to wrap the smaller girl in a hug. Without words, she pulled Chibi-Usa close, pulled her tight, so she could feel the warmth as she was held close by the wise, motherly woman who, once upon a time, had been the first friend she'd ever had of her own age.
Her long white dress flowing behind her, Neo Queen Serenity walked through the corridors of the Dark Kingdom palace. Dark Lord Ranma walked beside her, clad in the ceremonial armor of his office, his black cloak flaring out behind him as the two of them continued their conversation.
"...and we won't know for sure until Mousse and Mina get back," he said. He frowned in thought, and Serenity could tell that his brilliant tactical mind was already considering the possible outcomes. "But Ami says this could be the key to figuring out the Obsidian Core once and for all. I also sent Glyfa along with them for support. It'll give her a chance for a bit of actual field experience."
Serenity hummed in agreement. "Hopefully this mission into the quarantine zone will give us more information about the entity," she said. "Unlike most of the other invaders we've faced, I've never felt as though there was any true malice in its actions. It's just too... alien... in how it sees the world. If we could just bridge that gap... If Ami can find a way to communicate with it..."
"Worth a shot, at least," said Ranma. Though he did sound wary.
The two of them continued on their path, discussing various matters of state as they went in a comfortable rapport. After two decades of alliance between their respective nations, after all the crises and threats to the planet that they had faced side-by-side, all this was practically second nature to them. It wasn't until they reached a balcony, looking out across the cityscape of the subterranean monster kingdom, that Ranma took things in a different direction.
"Well," he said. "Enough of that for now. How are you doing, Usagi?"
Serenity smiled. Then she allowed her shoulders to relax a bit, her smile becoming a bit less serene, a bit more mischievous. "I'm fine," Usagi said. "Mamo-chan said to say hello for him; he's keeping an eye on things up in the human world so I can spend as much time down here as I want."
"Does that mean you'll be able to make the party for Beneda?" Ranma asked.
"Of course! I wouldn't miss it!" That was, after all, a large part of why she had arranged the schedule for this diplomatic visit to happen right now.
Usagi was about to say more. But she was distracted by movement out of the corner of her eye. Turning, she noticed a pair of boys wearing the uniforms of Dark Kingdom pages walk past in the hallway outside the balcony.
One of them—a boy with blue hair—simply passed by with a calm, respectful bow. But his companion, a white-haired boy... while he did bow, he also shot a look at Usagi that was equal parts awkward defensiveness and blushing youthful insecurity.
Then, just like that, they were gone again. Usagi frowned, a suspicion nagging at her. "Ranma..." she said. "Do you know who those two were?"
"Huh?" Ranma said, surprised at her question. "Them? Oh, they're immigrants from Tokyo. Brothers, actually. Their parents were hardline opponents of the increased role you and the Sailor Senshi were taking in the government. So they moved down here instead. Joined a faction that's been pushing for a more confrontational stance toward Crystal Tokyo. Though their little movement hasn't gotten nearly as much traction as they were probably expecting it to get, in a kingdom of monsters."
Not surprising, given how joined-at-the-hip the two nations had become over the years. Literally joined at the hip, in several cases. There was Ami and Ryo's marriage, of course, along with... well, whatever it was that Minako and Mousse had going between them. But even those paled in comparison to how completely Hotaru had won the monsters' hearts as their Dark Lady.
Humanity might have regarded Sailor Saturn with trepidation, once upon a time. The legendary Sailor Senshi who even the other Sailor Senshi feared. But to the monsters? It was a source of extreme pride that Ryouga had "seduced" the most terrifying and destructive of Serenity's guardians, the fearsome Senshi of Ruin. And Hotaru herself had made sure to blend that awe and intimidation with genuine compassion for the monsters, creating a Dark Lady that they practically worshiped.
Ranma, meanwhile, was still explaining about the two boys. "Anyway, their parents arranged a position for them here in the palace. Probably to give them a leg-up in politics. But I think they're starting to come around to our way of thinking. The older brother still talks a big game about 'the dangers of Serenity'... but at this point I think he's mostly just in denial about the crush he has on you."
Walking over to the hallway, Usagi leaned out to watch the brothers for a bit longer as they walked away. A tiny smile tugged at her lips. I see... she thought. So this is how their souls have incarnated in this new timeline...
Even as she considered that, another page ran past her, chasing shyly after the first two. This one was a girl, of similar age to the boys, with long green hair. Usagi watched in silence until all three of them had disappeared from sight.
Then she turned back to Ranma. "I suspect that they have great potential," she told her old friend. "If you nurture it—if you guide them on a noble path—their future accomplishments may prove impressive indeed."
Ranma raised an eyebrow. But Usagi said nothing more. "Oh fine, be all mysterious..." he told her, rolling his eyes.
Usagi laughed. And for a while the two friends simply relaxed there, leaning against the balcony, chatting with each other about matters of much lighter consequence. A brief respite in the midst of their duties, during which they could allow the time to pass leisurely, unburdening themselves from the weights that they had each shouldered.
Eventually, though, Ranma brought the conversation back to more pressing matters. "Well..." he said. "You want to head down to Ami's lab and check in on her? If nothing else, we can make sure she hasn't killed herself, what with the all-nighters she's been pulling to get that gizmo of hers up and running..."
"Yes, let's!" Serenity said, easily returning to the duties of her role. "We can talk with her while we wait for Mina and Mousse to report in. I do hope that their mission is going smoothly. With any luck, those reports of increased activity in the quarantine zone were simply... overstated?"
"Look out!" Sailor Venus shouted. She sprinted for all she was worth through the darkened South American jungle, branches whipping at her face, the moon hanging high in the night sky overhead. She clutched the precious sample container tight to her chest, as reality tore itself apart behind her. "Another Extrusion up ahead!"
"Already on it..." was Mousse's immediate reply. Moving in perfect, effortless sync, the two of them veered away from each other, making it more difficult for the Obsidian Core to target both of them at once.
This far out from the original incident point, it shouldn't have been an issue. But then again, this far out from the original incident point, the Core shouldn't have been able to manifest this many Extrusions at all. So Sailor Venus wasn't about to take chances.
Just as she had warned Mousse, another thing burst into view through the treeline to block their way. It appeared—to her eyes, at least—as a jerkily-moving, constantly-shifting geometric object. Its colors, however, just didn't resolve into any particular hue that she could give a name to. And the angles of its shape somehow refused to line up, in a way that hurt her head the more she tried to look at it.
It moved right through any trees in its path, without deviating its course. Not so much "smashing" the obstructions as making them... come undone. The trees just... twisted apart into nothingness, scattering along indescribable dimensions as the thing drew near. And the maddening screech that the thing produced as it moved... like eldritch fingernails dragged across the chalkboard of reality.
The Extrusion pulsated, undulating with a violent spasm. And then everything erupted right where Mousse had been standing, space-time snarling in on itself. But the blind warrior was already gone, vanishing in a flicker of unbelievable speed. Now he was in the trees above, ricocheting from trunk to trunk as he drew some very special weapons from his sleeves.
The long metal spikes were of Sailor Mercury's design. Marvels of magitech, lit up with a combination of blinking LEDs and glowing runes. He hurled them down with fearsome precision, impaling the Extrusion from every angle. Unlike mundane matter, these weapons did not come undone even as they pierced the thing, protected by a pale blue barrier.
And then those spikes fully activated.
They expanded their stabilization fields in synergy, pulsing to life with a melodic thrum. Wave after wave of bluish-white energy washed over the impaled Extrusion. The horrible screech spiked in volume... then completely cut off. And for just a moment, the thing's impossible geometries cohered into something more sane.
That moment was all Sailor Venus needed. She had already been gathering her power in preparation for what Mousse was about to do. The very instant the Extrusion solidified, she slammed a golden, heart-shaped blast right into its center, shattering it into a spray of countless shards. The two of them shot past without even slowing, the other three Extrusions still hot on their heels.
Vaulting over a particularly dense tangle of foliage, Sailor Venus glanced down at her right forearm. With nothing but a thought, a panel slid back on the prosthetic limb, revealing a glowing screen with a map it had scanned of the local area. "We're almost there!" she called out to the martial artist sprinting along beside her. "The quarantine barrier isn't far now!"
The two of them continued to race onward. They were faster than the Extrusions behind them... most of the time. But every so often one of them would glitch forward unpredictably, moving across non-Euclidean space. It was always unpredictable, depending on how much of their frame of reality they could impose on their surroundings at any given time. Sailor Venus glanced left and right, her every sense straining, trying to somehow anticipate from what direction the next strike would come.
Each near-miss only made the next more nerve-wracking. They darted and weaved for all they were worth as they sped between the trees, trying to throw off the incomprehensible menace. Until, far up ahead, Sailor Venus caught sight of one of the quarantine pylons, its tall, crystalline structure reaching skyward. With a gleeful cry of exhilaration she made her final push, giving all she had to the dash.
The Obsidian Core made one final attempt as well, its Extrusions surging toward them. But with each passing moment, the effort became more difficult for the incomprehensible entity. The hideous screech grew even more garbled, the vibration even more frantic. And the closer they got to the pylon, the more the geometries of their pursuers were again forced into coherence.
Up ahead, Sailor Venus could see the pylon guards racing out to man the searchlights and the heavy-caliber machine gun turrets that were mounted on the towering structure. But they were beaten to the punch by a blue-haired girl in her late teens, wearing the uniform of the Dark Kingdom Royal Guard. She leaped up to a vantage point high atop of the pylon's crystal spines and began hurling down ki blasts in a furious barrage of covering fire, the glowing projectiles carving paths of light through the night air above Sailor Venus and Mousse's heads.
This close to the pylon, even conventional attacks could meaningfully affect the Extrusions. The young woman's ki barrage blew one of the things apart, and moments later the machine gun emplacements opened fire as well. Enchanted armor-piercing rounds tore into another Extrusion, ripping it apart piece by piece.
But before either of them could shift their attention to the last remaining one, Sailor Venus skidded to a stop and turned to face it herself. Grinning wildly, she clenched her right fist, listening to the faint whine of the micro-servos as the prosthetic limb obeyed her command. Then she wound up, before swinging that fist in a fierce punch. One aimed at the final—yet still distant—threat.
At the full extension of her punch, her fist detached from her arm with a blinding flash as the high-powered rockets in the wrist ignited, propelling it toward her target at supersonic speed. The force sent her skidding back on her heels just a bit, but she watched eagerly as the projectile tore straight through the Extrusion's center of mass and out the other side, collapsing its internal structure.
Her fist used its maneuvering thrusters to swerve around through the air in a wide arc, until it returned to her and aligned itself with her wrist again, reattaching seamlessly. Once it had returned, Sailor Venus flexed her fingers, her grin only growing as she surveyed her handiwork.
Totally worth all the weeks and weeks of begging it had taken to wear Ami down, until she'd finally agreed to build in that function to her arm, rather than boring old backup batteries. And sure, maybe it wasn't the most practical attack ever. Especially not compared to what Sailor Venus' magic could do.
But it was a freaking rocket punch! How could anyone pass that up?
She turned back to look at Mousse, who sent a wry, fond smile in her direction. She returned it with a beaming grin of her own. And though the blind warrior couldn't technically see it, he had told her many times over the years that he could feel the warmth when she smiled at him regardless.
"See?" she said. "That wasn't so bad. Hardly any trouble at all!"
The hidden weapons master didn't even dignify that with a reply. And before Sailor Venus could say anything further, the young woman in the Royal Guard uniform leapt off the tower, landed in a crouch, and then hurried over to them. "Lord Mousse! Lady Venus!" she called out as she ran. "Are you alright?"
"We're fine, Glyfa," replied Mousse. "No injuries. And we got the sample we came for."
Glyfa looked relieved at his words, slowing to a walk as she drew near. Except for the blue hair, her features looked mostly human from a distance. But this close up, the slightly bluish tint to her skin was more noticeable, along with her barely-pointed ears and sharper teeth than most purely human girls.
The creation of the new Dark Kingdom had brought with it a growing stream of immigration, as its monstrous denizens intermingled with visitors from the human world. Before long, relationships began to form. Some of them even romantic ones.
And while children between monsters and humans would normally be impossible... a deal with the Musk Dynasty had provided a solution for any families who desired them. It had, in fact, given new life and meaning to an old Musk tradition that—even for them—had been long since abandoned. Once again, the Pail of Preservation and the Pot of Liberation were being used for their intended purpose.
Glyfa was among the first of these children to be born. Half-human, half-monster. The child of a human father and a youma mother, the latter of whom had taken human form with a Jusenkyo curse for the duration of the pregnancy. However—much like the Musk Dynasty's own bestial ancestry—the spiritual influence of her mother's true nature still seeped through to their offspring, giving such children their own unique powers and abilities.
"Were there any other attacks on the barrier while we were in there?" asked Sailor Venus.
"Just one, Lady Venus," Glyfa said. "About fifteen minutes ago. But it was much larger and more frenzied than normal. Fortunately, the guards and I were able to beat them back."
Which corresponded almost exactly with the time Sailor Venus and Mousse had first started to take their sample. It wasn't unexpected... which was why Sailor Venus had put all the pylons on high alert, and left Glyfa to bolster the defenses of the pylon that the Obsidian Core most frequently attacked. "Good job," said the Sailor Senshi. "I knew we could count on you."
Glyfa tried as hard as she could to keep a serious, professional look. But it was impossible to miss how she stood a little taller, blushing at the praise from a living legend. Sailor Venus looked fondly at the young woman. At nineteen years old, she was already a fair bit older than Sailor Venus and her friends had been on their earliest adventures, now more than two decades ago. Yet looking at the enthusiastic teen from Sailor Venus' current perspective...
Were we ever really that young? the veteran Senshi mused, indulging herself in a bit of nostalgic melancholy. It seems so hard to believe at times...
"If there's nothing else, we should head back quickly," Mousse interjected. "Ami will want to start her analysis on the sample as soon as she can. We're already behind schedule."
"Of course sir!" said Glyfa. "I'll have them release the seals on the portal immediately. Just give me a few minutes!" And with that she darted off, running past the pylon and toward the nearby bunker in which the Dark Kingdom had established a new portal to provide rapid reinforcements to the quarantine zone, should it ever become necessary.
Sailor Venus and Mousse followed at a more relaxed pace, walking alongside each other. "Sooo..." the Senshi of Love said flirtatiously, giving the blind warrior a small bump with her hip. "Did you have any plans for what you're going to do after we hand this sample off to Ami? It's been a while since we had the chance to really spend time together..."
"It has," Mousse agreed. "Though if we make it back soon enough, I was hoping to attend the celebration for Beneda getting her new place."
Sailor Venus blinked, then looked down at her cybernetic right arm, opening up the display screen to its clock function, and then remembering to switch it to Dark Kingdom time. "Oh!" she said, mentally kicking herself. "You're right! With everything going on, I completely forgot. Of course we'll need to visit her!"
With that, she linked her arm with Mousse's and took off at an increased pace, dragging the amused hidden weapons master along behind her. He allowed himself to be pulled with good humor, while Sailor Venus laughed, enjoying his presence. For however long it lasted, before one or the other of them was called away again.
Even now, after so many years of knowing each other, she didn't quite know how to best describe the comfortable rhythm that they had settled into together. It certainly didn't much resemble the heartsick yearning she had once felt for Alan, once upon a time, nor what Mousse had once felt for Shampoo. Then again... considering their history with such star-crossed loves, perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing.
All she knew was that she was happy. She had found a companion who she could spend time with, someone who understood her. A fellow warrior who could stand side by side with her against anything that fate threw their way.
And that, she had come to realize over the years, was more than enough for her.
"Come on!" she said, once again flashing her impish, infectious smile as she pulled on his arm. "We have to hurry if we want to make it in time!"
Beneda took a deep breath, looking up at the modest building in front of her. Objectively, it was just one building out of many on this Dark Kingdom street, with little to set it apart from the others. A bit newer, perhaps. Its style perhaps blending a bit more influence from human architecture in its stoneworking. But all in all, it was unremarkable.
To Beneda, however, it represented the culmination of so many years of study and work. Humble though it might be, it still made her spirit soar to see the sign displayed on the front.
Beneda's Acupuncture and Acupressure Clinic
From behind, the youma felt a hand rest on her shoulder with an encouraging clasp. She looked back to see Doctor Tofu smiling at her. A smile that she returned. "How did it feel for you?" she asked him. "The first time you opened your own practice?"
"Terrifying," was Doctor Tofu's reply. "But also exhilarating. It's entirely natural. Especially taking into account how groundbreaking this is."
Beneda chuckled nervously. Doctor Tofu's ordinary training had been challenging enough on its own. But she had undertaken an even more ambitious challenge: to take those underlying principles and figure out how to apply them to the various types of monster physiology.
It had been a long, difficult road. But now she stood here, ready at last to put it to use. Ready to help the citizens of the Dark Kingdom with what she had learned. Ready to pass on, in some small way, the kindness she had been shown.
Gathering herself, she walked forward and opened the doors. It was not, of course, her first visit to the premises... but it was her first visit as the owner. She could practically feel the weight of responsibility settling on her as she walked from empty room to empty room. The beds and equipment would be arriving in a few days, in time for the public grand opening, but for now there was a quiet austerity to the place.
Fortunately, that austere atmosphere was soon displaced, as more and more of her friends began to arrive.
Hotaru was the next to show up, with her daughter Chiyo, Ranma's kids, and Chibi-Usa all clustered around her. The Senshi of Silence greeted Beneda with an embrace before congratulating her. Though that congratulation did briefly fade into a more regretful look.
"I'm sorry Ryouga isn't with us," Hotaru said. "He wanted so badly to be here for this, and we were trying to make it happen. But... I looked away for too long when I was cooking dinner three days ago. I think he tried to join me in the kitchen, and..."
Her voice trailed off apologetically. Beneda did feel a twist of disappointment. She had hoped to have him here for this celebration. But she understood that his sense of direction meant that things like this would inevitably happen. And she had long ago accepted it as a tiny price to pay, so there was no point in entertaining regrets. "Don't worry," she reassured Hotaru. "I'll just give him a personal tour, whenever he finds his way back."
Even as they spoke, more people were showing up. Ukyo was next to arrive. She congratulated Beneda heartily on finally getting the place, from one small business owner to another. Urawa Ryo was right behind her, the Dark Kingdom's chief seer carrying—of all things—a blanket under his arm. He likewise congratulated Beneda. He also let them know that his wife would be running late, but that she, along with the others from the palace, would be here before long.
Akane and Shampoo showed up next, each of them resplendent in their full Dark Lady regalia. Shampoo's latest bold design left little of her toned body to the imagination, the black-and-gold garment barely more than an elaborate bikini supplemented by a few more gauzy fabrics wrapped sinuously around her. Akane's blood-red outfit was more modest... although Shampoo had been trying to tease her into being more daring of late, and Akane was showing a bit more midriff than she usually did.
They had come straight from training the Dark Kingdom Royal Guard, a duty the two of them had pursued for a long time now. Together, they worked to forge each new recruit into a powerful martial artist, while also honing and developing any unique skills or monster abilities the trainees had. The process was by all accounts a grueling one... but the result was a fighting force that had become legendary even beyond the Earth itself. A fighting force that had taken part in countless missions across planets both allied and enemy, saving innumerable lives from all manner of peril.
Jimenko arrived not long after, accompanied by her mate, a daimon named Baska. It had been far too long since Beneda had seen either of them. And to her surprise, she learned that they were planning to have a daughter soon. However, rather than resorting to Jusenkyo magic, they were planning to use a different method: taking an item that was dear to both of their hearts and using Professor Tomoe's latest daimon egg formula on it.
After a great deal of consideration, they had settled on their object: a packet filled with letters that the two of them had exchanged back when Baska had been studying abroad in the human world. Professor Tomoe had already given his approval, and the date was set for little more than a week from now. Beneda hugged both of them, promising to attend their Egg Ceremony when the day came.
With each passing minute, more and more people arrived. Some of them human, some of them monsters, all of them happy for what Beneda was undertaking. Soon the noise of many different overlapping conversations filled the air, the building's former quiet emptiness now long forgotten, replaced by the warm camaraderie of old friends.
When Ranma showed up, it was at the head of another group, this one consisting of Mousse, Usagi, Minako and a very tired-looking Ami. The half-youma Glyfa was with them as well... and when Tenma caught sight of her, the young teen shot to his feet and rushed over, nearly tripping over himself in his haste to greet the older girl. His sister Thyme rolled her eyes in amusement at his blushing antics... while Chiyo clenched her fists as she watched him in pained silence.
Considering the guest list, it was inevitable that the party would grow raucous. Still, it was a sign of their affection for Beneda that they didn't escalate to anything with a large risk of property damage. It was a show of uncommon restraint that Beneda was grateful for. The most that happened was when Thyme challenged Glyfa to a match of Martial Arts Rock-Paper-Scissors, and even then Ranma kept a close eye on the girls to make sure they didn't go too far.
On the opposite extreme from that energetic behavior, while Ami honestly did try to show her support... it didn't take much more than briefly sitting down in a chair for her exhaustion to catch up to her. In no time at all, she was out like a light. Ryo tenderly covered her with the blanket he'd brought, explaining that she had been pulling multiple all-nighters due to the situation with the Obsidian Core. Even now, she was only able to leave her lab because the tests she'd started on the sample Minako and Mousse had brought back wouldn't finish until tomorrow.
Beneda did everything she could to give the weary Senshi her much-needed rest, maneuvering the nosier guests away from the nook where Ami had curled up. The youma walked through her clinic—her clinic!—accepting congratulations and chatting with everyone. It was wonderful. She felt such warmth at this chance to share such an important moment with her friends.
With... almost all her friends.
The hours wore on, until Hotaru approached Beneda once more. "Have you seen Chiyo?" Hotaru asked, worriedly. "I can't find her anywhere."
That... was a bit troubling. Chiyo's sense of direction wasn't nearly so bad as her father's, with her Senshi bloodline serving to mitigate her Hibiki heritage somewhat. Still, even if her sense of direction wasn't quite on the same inhuman level, it was still bad, and the girl did have a distressing tendency to wander off and get lost.
"I'll take a look around myself," Beneda told Hotaru, who nodded gratefully. And with that they split up, each searching in a different direction as Beneda tried to think where Chiyo might have gone. Usually, in situations like this, she would be sticking close to...
Beneda glanced over to where Tenma stood, the boy moving his hands animatedly as he tried to impress Glyfa with his description of a new technique he was working on. And upon seeing that, a sneaking suspicion began to grow in Beneda. Until she decided to play a hunch.
She already knew where the stairs to the roof access were, and before long Beneda emerged to stand atop her clinic. And as she suspected, Hibiki Chiyo was there, away from the rest of the party. The young girl sat near the edge of the building, her expression morose, her legs crossed beneath her as she looked out across the subterranean city.
It reminded Beneda of all the times that Ryouga had sought refuge on a rooftop, when working through his own emotions. She walked over to sit down next to Chiyo, neither of them saying anything for a while. The youma simply gave the young girl the space she needed.
Finally, Chiyo glanced up at her, before speaking in a small voice. "Do you think... one day... that I'll be all... beautiful and sexy? Like... Glyfa is?"
Wrapping an arm around Chiyo's shoulder, Beneda pulled her closer into a comforting hug. "You don't need to compare yourself to anyone else, kiddo," she said. "Just take it at your own pace. You're wonderful just as you are."
Chiyo let herself be pulled, leaning her head against Beneda's shoulder. "Maybe you think so," she mumbled. "But Glyfa is the kind of girl that Tenma is interested in."
That much, at least, Beneda couldn't deny. "Maybe. But I'm pretty sure she doesn't think of him like that. He's more of a... kid brother to her."
"For now..." Chiyo said, her voice glum. "But he's so... so... amazing! What if she notices that one day?"
"I suppose that could happen," Beneda acknowledged. "She could eventually start to see him differently. Or... maybe he might start to see you in a different way. You never really know how these things will turn out in the end."
The youma looked down fondly at the girl nestled under her arm, taking her first steps into the stormy unknowns of human adolescence. A time when the thought of not ending up with your first crush could feel like the most awful fate imaginable.
"You're so much like them, you know..." Beneda continued, a nostalgic smile crossing her face. "Both your father and your mother. I remember when your dad used to ask me for advice. Back when he was afraid that the girl he liked would never see him that way."
Chiyo looked up, intrigued. "You mean... mom wasn't interested in him at first?"
Beneda chuckled. "Oh, this was before he even met your mom," she said, leaning in conspiratorially. "And the first time he did meet her... he didn't even realize that she liked him at first. Not so different from Tenma and you, really. So don't let it get you down, okay kiddo? You can get through to even the densest of people. And even if it still doesn't go the way you want... sometimes the life you find instead will turn out to be even better."
The young girl chewed her lower lip. She didn't look completely convinced. But mentioning the example of her parents seemed to have given Chiyo something to think about, at least distracting her a bit. For a while they just sat there, Beneda keeping her arm around the heartsick girl, silently comforting her as best she could.
Eventually Chiyo did speak again, slowly pondering it through. "So... you're saying... that if it had worked out with that first girl that dad liked, he wouldn't have married mom? And they wouldn't have had me?"
Beneda nodded. "Sometimes the most precious things in our entire lives can come in ways we never could have expected. I wouldn't have ever met your dad—or any of you—if it wasn't for what I thought was the biggest failure of my life, way back then."
As she looked out across the Dark Kingdom while holding the small human close, Beneda couldn't help but reflect once again on the juxtaposition. How utterly different this was from how the Dark Kingdom used to be. From how she used to be.
She had so many people that were close to her now. So many people she cared for with a fierce passion. Including the child of her best friend. A girl that Beneda wanted so badly to shield from the pain and heartache she faced... even though she knew all too well that those pains and heartaches were important parts of growing up. Parts that Chiyo would have to experience for herself.
It was an emotion her past self could never have even imagined feeling for a human. But the youma she was today saw the beauty in those bonds of love. And she treasured them more than anything she'd ever had in that lonely, angry existence she'd once lived.
Even as Beneda was reminiscing, Chiyo's eyes lit up. "Oh, I remember that story!" the young girl said. "Dad... saved your life, right?"
"He did..." agreed Beneda quietly. "But he did something even more important than that. He helped me find something that was worth living for."
She watched as Chiyo digested her words. Then, seeing that the girl's mood was starting to improve, Beneda gave her another squeeze. "Anyway... we really ought to go find your mom. She's worried that you got lost again."
Chiyo nodded. Wiping a hand across her eyes to get rid of any hint of unshed tears, she climbed back to her feet. Then she hopped off the edge of the building, landing two stories below in a crouch. Beneda followed close behind, just in time to see Hotaru emerge from the clinic.
"There you are!" she said, relief and gratitude in her voice as she walked over to join them. "Thank you for finding her, Beneda."
"It's no trouble," the youma assured Hotaru. "In fact, it gave us a chance to talk for a bit. She wasn't actually lost. She just... needed a little time away from the crowd."
Hotaru nodded. "I understand," she said. Then she knelt down to speak gently with her daughter. "Honey? Please remember to let me know the next time you need to do something like that. You know what can happen with your sense of direction, if we aren't careful."
Chiyo nodded, her expression shamefaced. But Hotaru quickly reached out to hug her daughter close. "I'm not angry," Hotaru reassured her. "I just want to make sure I don't lose you."
After holding Chiyo for a while longer, Hotaru eventually stood up again. Beneda took the opportunity to interject. "So do you want to head back inside?" she asked. "From what I overheard before I left, it sounded like the Martial Arts Rock-Paper-Scissors battle might be expanding to an informal tournament... and Tenma could certainly use someone to cheer him on."
At that, Chiyo's ears definitely perked up, even if she was too embarrassed to respond to the offer herself. "That does sound wonderful," said Hotaru. "In fact, I think that—"
But then, without warning, her words broke off, even as her gaze shifted to focus on something behind Beneda. The youma turned to look as well... only to see a familiar figure standing there in the middle of the street. A figure she recognized instantly, even though his entire upper half was concealed by the large map he was puzzling over.
"Excuse me..." came Ryouga's unmistakable voice from behind it. "But could anyone point me in the direction of the nearest Dark Kingdom portal? I... think I took a wrong turn somewhere around Yokohama..."
Beneda's expression turned from one of surprise to a warm smile. But it was Chiyo who spoke up first. "Dad!" she cried out in joy, launching herself headlong toward Ryouga like a small missile. Upon hearing her voice, Ryouga immediately tossed the map aside just in time to catch her, wrapping her in a hug and spinning her around before setting her down again.
Beneda and Hotaru hurried over to him as well. Inside the clinic, some of the other guests also heard who had just shown up, and soon the word began to spread. Before long, many of them had also come outside to greet him, forming a small crowd. Ranma, of course, gave his old friend some good-natured ribbing, to which Ryouga just rolled his eyes. Hotaru, meanwhile, simply slid under his arm and gave him a quick, loving kiss as the others clustered around them.
From his ragged, travel-stained condition, Beneda could tell that Ryouga had been pushing himself even harder than usual over the three days he'd been lost, searching as fast as he could. "Did I make it in time?" he asked her, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "For the celebration, I mean. I... didn't want to be late in congratulating you, but..."
Beneda's fond smile only grew, a feeling of warmth swelling up within her. Now there was nothing whatsoever that this day lacked, with the arrival of the first true friend she'd ever had.
"Don't worry..." she told Ryouga. "You've always found me when you needed to."
~ fin ~