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: Hey guys, I've gotten a number of questions regarding Pluto's role in all of these shenanigans, and I just wanted to make sure I clarified a few things about her powers/abilities. I put a slightly longer answer in the Dark Lords of Nerima FAQ (which you can get to via my author profile) but the short version is that fanfiction has kinda added a bunch of powers to Pluto over the years that don't really show up in the original anime canon.

The Gates of Time (in-series) aren't ever shown to be able to scry on arbitrary points in history, nor able to watch anyone's life story, TV-style. They're solely a transportation device. Pluto does know some details about the future (probably because she's talked with people from said future) but she doesn't know everything... and the future is now diverging from what she'd expect anyway since there's a time-traveler in the equation, so pretty much all bets are off now.

Anyway, hope that helps with explaining why she doesn't just automatically know/learn all the details of what's going on and clear up all the misunderstandings instantly. And, with that said, hope that you enjoy the chapter, and that you have a Merry Christmas!

Chapter Three: Heard in Secret

No one spoke much as the group of young martial artists made their way back to the Tendo dojo, walking together in the near-dark of late evening. Ryouga wasn't sure what thoughts were going through the others' minds, behind their troubled expressions; he only knew that his own blood was still boiling from seeing that Sailor Senshi with her blade at Beneda's throat.

It was eventually Ukyo who broke the silence. "Who were those two?" she asked. "They weren't any of the Sailor Senshi from four years ago, and I didn't recognize them back in the restaurant either, when they didn't have their disguise magic going."

The question seemed to shake Beneda out of her thoughts, and she glanced up. "They said they were Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune," she told them. "That would make them part of the Outer System Sailor Senshi. I didn't even realize that they had been reborn into this era as well."

"Outer System?" asked Akane. "How are they related to the Sailor Senshi we fought?"

Beneda's eyes lost focus a little, and Ryouga could tell that she was reaching back into her memories. "All I know are the old youma legends," she said, her voice taking on a reciting tone. "But supposedly, according to the stories from back then, they were the warriors tasked to defend the far borders of the Silver Millennium from threats originating outside the Solar System. The Senshi you fought, on the other hand, were Senshi of the planets closer to the Sun. Their role was to act as bodyguards for the Moon Princess."

"Huh. So how does this new bunch stack up against Sailor Moon and her friends, then?" asked Ranma.

The currently-human youma shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. The stories say that the Outers tended to be more powerful than their inner-system counterparts... and also more ruthless. But that's all legend from millennia ago; I don't know how accurate it is."

"They seemed ruthless enough to me," growled Ryouga, his expression dark. "They'd just better not let me catch them coming after you again—or they won't get off so easy next time."

At that, Beneda looked over at him. "No, it wasn't as bad as it looked!" she hurriedly assured him. "And considering their history with the Dark Kingdom, it only makes sense that they wouldn't trust me. I mean... they weren't happy to see me, but they didn't hurt me, even when they could have. Sailor Neptune was even trying to convince Sailor Uranus to put the sword away before you got there."

Ryouga clenched his teeth. Part of him knew that she was right—that it made sense for the Senshi to be suspicious—but the anger and fear from seeing his friend in that position refused to leave him. Noticing that, Beneda moved directly in front of him, looking him right in the eye. "Ryouga, you have to listen to me. This is all just a misunderstanding, and we have to work it out. Not make it bigger. Okay?"

The lost boy drew in a deep breath, forced himself to listen to Beneda's words, then let it out in a sigh, some of the emotion and adrenaline leaving along with it. "All right," he allowed at last. "All right. I promise I won't go running after them half-cocked if I see them again. Not unless they start something first, anyway." And, truth be told, if Sailor Neptune had been standing up for Beneda back there, then he probably owed the Senshi an apology for trying to blast her with a Shi Shi Hokodan like that.

A part of him still dearly wished that he could go a few more rounds with Sailor Uranus, though—Beneda's words notwithstanding.

"Look, let's all just get back to the dojo," broke in Ranma. "We can figure out what to do after we're someplace safe, and we've all had a chance to cool our heads."

"Right," Akane agreed. "Really, we should just be able to explain to the Sailor Senshi what's going on, and what really happened back then. If we do that, I'm sure we'll be able to work things out without too much trouble."

By the time they made it back to their house, now untransformed, Haruka was definitely feeling the pain from where that fighter had sucker-punched her, and the long trip back had only made it worse. She clenched her teeth, holding her side gingerly as she leaned on her lover, but otherwise tried her best not to let on just how much her ribs were hurting. Michiru was worried enough as it was.

As they approached, Haruka saw that there was a light on in the living room, and that a familiar silhouette was just barely visible through the drawn curtains. They were in luck. Sailor Pluto had come on one of her periodic visits. Though it wasn't luck entirely; she had been keeping a noticeably closer eye on them—along with the rest of the Senshi—ever since Chibi-Usa had come back from the future.

And it seemed now that those concerns had borne themselves out.

"Let's go," the blonde forced out, as they made their way down the last remaining feet of sidewalk. "We need to find out if there's anything she can tell us about all this."

Michiru nodded without comment, continuing to guide the other girl up the stairs and through the main door of their home. The two of them made their way through the hallway and into the living room, where they came face to face with Meiou Setsuna, the civilian identity of Sailor Pluto.

She was dressed not in her sailor seifuku, but rather in a blouse and skirt, over which she wore a light, businesslike jacket. Her long green hair trailed down behind her, reaching down to knee-level. The older woman looked the two of them up and down, a brief frown of worry crossing her normally-impassive face. "What happened to you?"

"We were hoping that you could tell us," was Haruka's response, as Michiru helped her over to a nearby chair and she sank gingerly into it. "We ran into someone interesting today, when we went to arrange the catering for the party. A Dark Kingdom youma, disguised as a human."

Now there was definitely no mistaking the flash of surprise and puzzlement that crossed Setsuna's face, neither of which were common emotions for her. "A... Dark Kingdom youma? Are you certain?"

"Absolutely," spoke up Michiru. "I even consulted the Deep Aqua Mirror, though we both knew what she was without it. There is no mistake."

"A Dark Kingdom youma..." murmured Setsuna, as though saying it a second time would cause it to make more sense. "But how could it have escaped the sealing?"

"You mean you don't know anything about this?" asked Haruka. "From how things went in the future?" Setsuna was usually very cagey about just how much knowledge she had concerning the course of events, but she looked well and truly puzzled at what they had told her.

"No," answered the green-haired woman simply. "Neo-Queen Serenity never mentioned anything like this to me. This encounter was a change to the timestream; you never would have gone on that errand had it not been for the Small Lady's party."

Haruka and Michiru glanced at each other, unsettled. So whatever this was, they would be going into it blind. Eventually, Setsuna spoke again. "How did it manage to injure you? At your current level of power a single youma should be hardly any threat at all."

"Oh, she wasn't a problem," said Haruka. "But she had friends. I don't know if they were other disguised youma or not, but whatever they were, they managed to jump us from behind while we were trying to question the first one." She then proceeded to give a more detailed account of just what exactly had happened from the beginning, along with descriptions of the different players.

Setsuna listened to it all in silence, without interrupting. Once Haruka had finished, she spent a few more moments in contemplation, and then spoke. "So. We face a completely unknown group, with unknown goals, comprised at least in part of former enemies."

"Do you think this group could be related to those grey monsters that the Princess and her Senshi fought off a few weeks ago?" asked Michiru.

"It's certainly possible," Setsuna agreed. "It's also possible that they are completely separate and unconnected. We simply do not know."

The three Senshi digested that. It was Haruka who spoke up next. "So what's our response?"

"At the moment, the most important thing is to warn the Princess and Small Lady of these developments," Setsuna replied. "After all, Usagi and her friends were the ones who faced the Dark Kingdom down four years ago, and if there are still any youma remnants active, revenge may be on their minds."

Haruka nodded. "Yes. And there's one thing that has me worried. When she recommended that okonomiyaki restaurant to us, Usagi mentioned that she knew the owner personally. Now, it might be a coincidence that the youma was at that one particular shop... but it might not be."

Even the thought that the Princess's identity might possibly have been compromised was a sobering one, and Haruka could see the effect on the other two. "I will visit her immediately," Setsuna told them, then turned and began to leave. She paused, though, just before exiting the room. "And while I do that, you should call Professor Tomoe. Ask him to send Hotaru over to your care for the foreseeable future."

Both Haruka and Michiru's eyes widened a little at that. "Is that really necessary?" asked Michiru. "I understand that this is an uncertain situation, but... do you really expect that it will require her power?"

"I don't know," replied Setsuna. And just for a moment, the older woman let her guard down. "I don't know. And right now, that frightens me more than anything else."

Ranma leaned back against the inner wall of the Tendo dojo as he sat, staring out at nothing in particular as he pondered their next move. "So let's see if I've got this right," he announced at length to the other people in the training hall. "We're pretty sure these 'Outer' girls ought to take orders from Usagi... but they're also kinda known for acting on their own too."

"Right," agreed Beneda, looking up from where she sat on the dojo floor. She had changed back into her stronger youma form on reaching the dojo; she probably felt safer in it, now that the value of her human form as a disguise was mostly gone. "Still, all things considered, if we can convince Sailor Moon that we don't mean any harm then she should be able to call them off. I think that will be our best course of action."

"Do you really think she'll believe us?" asked Ryouga, his expression skeptical. "Think about it: the last time we met, we were threatening to kill her and her friends, and then enslave the whole world. That doesn't put us in the most trustworthy position."

The pigtailed fighter shrugged. "Yeah, I know. But we gotta at least try. I figure I'll just lay it all out for her, and see how she reacts. Drop by where she lives and explain it all, tell her why we did everything we did. Then we'll see where it goes from there."

Ukyo winced. "You might not want to go right to her house, Ranchan," she suggested. "The last thing we want to do right now is put them any more on edge about us. I don't know if we should let on yet that we know her real identity."

"Good point." Ranma thought for a moment, then continued. "All right, then how about this. Tomorrow morning I'll head over to Juuban and... I don't know, get their attention somehow. I'll think of something. Anyway, that'll let me talk to them as Sailor Senshi. If Sailor Moon believes me, great. If not, then I'll beat it back here and we'll think of something else."

"I could come along too," offered Ryouga. "Just in case things get ugly."

Ranma shook his head. "No. I'm just going to talk, not to make a showdown out of this. The fewer people the better. Besides, if I do end up having to run, it'll be faster if I don't have to keep dragging you back on the right track every five seconds."

The lost boy grumbled a little, but there wasn't much he could say against Ranma's point. The pigtailed warrior, for his part, rose to his feet and stretched. "Well, anyway, you should probably stay the night over here, Beneda. We can put you up in Akane's room. It'll be just like old times."

Not that he actually expected the Sailor Senshi to try an attack in the middle of the night, of course. But still... it never hurt to be careful.

With a theatrical sigh, Aino Minako flopped over onto her back, her long blonde hair pooling around her as she stared up at the ceiling of the Tsukino home. "Finally!" she announced to the world at large. "At least that part's done. I didn't realize how much work a party like this would be!"

"We still have to write the last few invitations," reminded the voice of steadfast responsibility, personified in the form of Mizuno Ami. The blue-haired girl looked down at the sheet of paper in front of her, frowning in thought. "Usagi, what about Akiyama Miharu? That little kendoist girl that you and Chibi-Usa made friends with during the Dead Moon Circus invasion? Did you want to invite her?"

Across the room Usagi looked up, pausing in the good-natured bickering that had been going on between her and Rei for the past ten minutes—even as the latter was combing the former's hair, which had been temporarily let down from its usual twin-tails. "Oh, yeah!" the young princess exclaimed. "I was talking with her on the phone a few months ago, and she said that she was getting ready to challenge some really strong guy that she'd found named... 'Tatewaki', I think? It'd be great to talk with her again in person and see how that went!"

"I hope she's still getting along with her mother," added Chibi-Usa, from where she sat between Ami and Minako. "It'd be too bad if they started fighting again."

"I'm sure they're doing all right," said Kino Makoto. The brown-haired civilian identity of Sailor Jupiter was sitting on the other side of Minako, near to the door of the bedroom. "You two really helped them understand each other better. The rest of it is up to them."

The six girls were sitting in a loose circle in the middle of Usagi's bedroom, with a semi-organized spread of papers, cards and envelopes on the floor between them. Despite Ami's efforts to keep them on task, the planning session had gone far later than originally intended, and it was already dark outside. Still Minako wouldn't have it any other way. They would get everything done eventually—they always did—and the chance to sit here exchanging girl talk with her friends was worth any number of late nights to her.

And speaking of girl talk, this seemed about as good a time as any to drop the juiciest tidbit that she had been saving. "Oh, as far as invitations go..." she said with feigned casualness. "Would you mind if I brought along a guest of my own?"

Immediately, all eyes in the room were riveted on her. She hadn't said much, but despite her attempt to disguise it, they all knew that tone of her voice. "Who is he?" demanded Makoto.

The silly smile Minako had been struggling to suppress broke free of its restraints entirely. "His name is Yori," she said, leaning forward toward her friends, her eyes fairly gleaming with eagerness. "He's a second-year college student, studying to be an artist! I've had my eye on him for almost a week now, and I'm just about ready to make my move."

Chibi-Usa gave Minako a flat look, which the blonde summarily ignored. "So you haven't actually talked to him yet," the younger girl said, not sounding impressed.

Makoto, for her part, let out a frustrated sigh. "You're lucky," she said, sounding annoyed that Minako had gotten the jump on her this time. "I haven't even seen anyone like that around lately."

"Don't worry so much about it," said Ami, trying her best to be comforting. "There's still plenty of time for... things like that. We're still just seventeen, after all."

"She's right," added Rei, her own tone more lecturing. "A boyfriend would be nice, of course... but we shouldn't need one to be happy."

Minako made a face. "Easy to say, for the girl who has a boy running around at her every beck and call."

"Wha—?" the raven-haired girl spluttered. "For the last time, Yuichiro and I are not like that!"

"Suuuure you aren't," replied Minako in a sing-song voice—then whirled to point a finger directly at Usagi, who had just opened her mouth to speak. "And I don't even want to hear anything from the girl with a prince from her previous life."

Usagi responded with a guilty—though still irritatingly satisfied—smile. With those two silenced, Minako turned back to Ami, then hesitated. She actually wasn't sure what the quiet girl's situation was.

Ami met her gaze with a wan smile of her own. "I'm not... with anyone," she offered, before Minako could say anything. "But like I said, it's not anything to worry about. It's just... something that isn't happening right now."

Makoto was frowning in thought as Ami spoke, then suddenly snapped her fingers. "Hey—what about that one guy? What was his name? You know... the one from four years ago who had one of the Rainbow Crystals? It looked like you two got along really well together. You should try to hook back up with him again. Maybe even see if Luna can restore his memories of that time!"

But instead of looking pleased by the idea, Ami's face fell at Makoto's words. There was a pained, uncertain silence that stretched on, until at last the blue-haired girl spoke. "That isn't necessary," she told them, her voice quiet. "Ryo... remembered that year on his own. His psychic abilities helped him. Just like they helped him before, to remember his previous life as a youma."

The other girls exchanged glances. The previous mood of joking and jibing had sombered at the sadness they could hear in their friend's voice. Eventually, Usagi spoke up. "What happened, Ami?" she asked, as she reached over to place a comforting hand on the other girl's knee.

Ami shook her head, her expression stricken. "I... It's not... I'm sorry. It's just not something that would do any good to talk about now. I shouldn't have even mentioned it."

Usagi looked as though she were going to inquire further, but their conversation was interrupted by the sound of footsteps approaching the room. A moment later the door opened, causing Chibi-Usa to let out a surprised "Puu-chan!"

For it was indeed Meiou Setsuna who had just walked into the room. Her expression was impassive as always, but Minako thought that she detected a faint air of tension about the green-haired woman that was not usually present. Something was up.

"Small Lady," the keeper of the Time Gates acknowledged with a nod. Then she turned to all of them. "I have come to give you a warning. There are... strange events afoot, and you should be on your guard. Haruka and Michiru encountered an unexpected threat earlier this evening when they went to visit the okonomiyaki shop that you suggested. There was a Dark Kingdom youma there."

All of their eyes widened at that, in a combination of surprise and puzzlement. This wasn't news Minako had expected to hear, nor was this a foe she had ever expected to face again. But adding to the peculiarity were the reactions of Rei, Ami and Usagi, who were looking at each other as though the news had some special significance in their minds.

In Ami's case, surprise quickly gave way to a thoughtful, worried frown. "A youma..." she murmured. "At Ucchan's, of all places. You don't suppose it could be related to..."

"Did they happen to say what the youma looked like?" Rei pressed Setsuna, her gaze intense. "It... didn't have green skin, did it? Or silver hair, kind of metallic-looking?"

Setsuna blinked. "That is almost exactly how they described the creature."

"No way..." breathed Usagi. "I thought she was dead?"

"We never actually saw it happen," Rei responded. "Maybe she faked it somehow. Or maybe..." She paused, and then her eyes widened a little. "Maybe someone else brought her back." The dark-haired girl looked back up at Setsuna. "Did Haruka or Michiru mention seeing anyone else nearby? They'd probably look human. Maybe a boy with black hair and a pigtail?"

Now Setsuna was starting to look truly flummoxed. "Someone matching that description did show up as well. Along with another young man wearing a yellow-and-black bandanna. They attacked Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, forcing them to flee."

"It's them," Usagi intoned ominously, while Rei and Ami nodded in agreement. "They're back."

"Who?" asked Setsuna, looking back and forth between the three girls. "Who is back?" Minako, for her part, was starting to feel like her world was being tilted at a forty-five degree angle, as the fundamental roles of the universe reversed themselves. Usagi was making mysterious, cryptic pronouncements, while Setsuna was trying her best to make sense out of them!

"The Dark Lords of Nerima!" was Usagi's answer. Then, upon seeing the blank expressions of everyone except Ami and Rei, she backed up and explained in more detail. "See, the thing is... these guys that Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune found... we already fought them once before."

Setsuna frowned. "Neo Queen Serenity never mentioned anything about such an incident to me."

Usagi shrugged helplessly at that, unable to speak for her future self. "Well... it wasn't really that big of a fight, I guess. Not compared to everything that happened after, with Metallia and Death Phantom and the rest. It only went for a couple of days before we beat them."

"When was this?" broke in Makoto, no longer able to hold back her own curiosity. "I don't remember any of what you're saying either!"

"It was during the early stages of the Dark Kingdom crisis, back when it was Jadeite who was opposing us," explained Ami. "But those enemies weren't in league with him. In fact, by the time we got involved they had already been fighting against each other for a while."

So that, at least, explained why it was only those three among the Senshi who knew about it. It did not, however, satisfy Minako's interest. "So what happened? Who were they?" the blonde girl asked.

"Conquerors," was Rei's grim answer. "They were an invasion force from some kind of... parallel universe or alternate dimension, and they said they were here to enslave ours. Of course, we couldn't let them do that, and the Dark Kingdom didn't want any competition either."

"As best we could tell, the green-skinned youma you described defected from her original masters, and joined the Dark Lords' side," added Ami. "She seemed to be important to their plans somehow, though we never discovered why. It all came down to a final battle, during which we learned that their ability to exist in this world depended on a magical artifact they were using."

"And when I broke the bowl, they just exploded right then and there!" put in Usagi. "Except... I guess it didn't really kill them after all." Minako detected a note of quiet relief in the princess's voice; despite whatever they had done, Usagi was clearly glad to learn that their defeat had not been fatal.

"It probably just sent them back to wherever they came from," was Rei's opinion. "And now they've found a way back to our world. Which means they're probably here for the same reason they were before."

Minako and Makoto glanced at each other. Both of them were still largely lost at this point, but the basics, at least, were clear. They faced a resurgence of a threat to the people they held dear, to the planet they were charged with protecting. Minako might not understand any of the specifics yet, but this was far from the first time they had faced a situation like this. If these "Dark Lords" wanted to come back for a second try... well, that just meant that now Sailor Venus and Sailor Jupiter would get a crack at them too.

"I see..." Setsuna, for her part, had regained most of her poise. "I would like to hear about these battles in more detail. Any information you can give me about these adversaries may prove important."

"Of course," was Ami's prompt reply. "We'll tell you everything we can remember."

Usagi sprang to her feet. "I'll go find Luna!" she told the rest of them. "She was there for it all too, so she might have some things to say about it."

Setsuna nodded, even as she moved to sit down with the rest of the Sailor Senshi, who moved to make room for her. Minako's gaze, however, followed Usagi for a moment as the blonde girl hurried toward the doorway of the room—

—and then, without warning, she stumbled in mid-step, pitching forward a little until she caught herself on the doorframe. Her other hand went to her chest, as though in response to a sudden pain. "Usagi!" Minako shouted.

The rest of the Senshi whirled at Minako's cry. But Usagi was already straightening up, the fit—or whatever it had been—passing as quickly as it had come. "Sorry, sorry," she told them, waving her hands a little. "I've just been feeling a little bit short of breath lately. I guess I've just been working too hard on this birthday party stuff."

Minako frowned, not sure what to make of what she had seen. But before she could say anything, Usagi darted off on her self-appointed mission, leaving the Senshi of Venus with yet one more troubled thought weighing on her mind.

Later that night, Ranma stood in the middle of the Tendo yard near the koi pond, his open hands raised in a fighting stance. His eyes were closed, his breathing slow and rhythmic as the cool night breeze whispered around him. For minute after minute he stood there, silent, unmoving. In that near-meditative state, he could sense the flow of ki all around him, however minute. In the grass, in the nearby tree, in the fish swimming in the pond.

Then he exhaled, and reached out. Carefully, delicately, extending a tiny amount of his own ki and spreading it across the area so that it mingled with the life energy of everything else nearby. It was long-distance ki manipulation, like when he formed one of his building-sized ki constructs around him, but far more subtle and complex. His aura slowly merged with those of the living things around him as he manipulated it to match, his brow furrowing in intense concentration.

Then he stepped back into a deeper stance, moving his hands in a slow, flowing arc. The grass bent as though blown by a sudden gust of wind, travelling through the yard in a circle around him. Except there was no such wind, no movement of the air to cause it. He repeated the movement, in the opposite direction this time, and again the grass flowed to match. Next he pushed his hands straight forward, making the grass ripple out toward the exterior wall surrounding the yard, then pulled his hands back, drawing the ripple back toward him.

He repeated the motions many times over, sometimes slower sometimes faster. One minute flowed into the next, until he had lost all track of time. Eventually, with the mental strain increasing, he finally released the technique with one last push, making the grass flow outward from him in every direction. He drew in a deep breath, let it out, then looked down at his arms. They were twitching and spasming, his nervous system thrown out of coordination by what he had done. Not good enough, he thought. Still way too much feedback from such a low intensity exercise. I'm going to have to work on it more.

"Practicing your Tenryu Tonan?" came a soft voice from the direction of the house. Ranma turned to look at Akane, sitting in the doorway leading to the house, watching him. He hadn't noticed her approach; his technique required such intense concentration within its area of effect that his sixth sense was practically blind to anything outside that while he was using it.

"Just the basic exercises," he answered. "Helps me clear my mind." Then he sighed. "Not going to be very much use if we end up fighting magical girls, though. They don't have big enough ki auras to do the really interesting stuff with. And until I get the feedback problem fixed it's pretty much suicide to use the full version against more than one opponent at a time anyway."

"Do you really think it's going to come to that?" Akane asked. "Fighting the Sailor Senshi again, I mean?"

Ranma shrugged. "When's the last time you remember us getting out of a mess like this without it finding some way to blow up in our faces first?"

His observation caused the ghost of a smile to cross Akane's face. "There's a first time for everything..."

"Maybe. We'll see. Just don't expect me to hold my breath."

For a moment Ranma regarded his fiancée, then took a few steps closer to her. "Hey... is everything all right? I mean, you know, except for the obvious stuff. It feels like something's bothering you." It was something he had noticed in her demeanor for the past few days, in fact, even before any of this business with the Sailor Senshi had started. This was just the first quiet moment where he'd had the chance to ask her about it.

Akane got up from where she sat in the doorway, and walked out into the yard, her body language suddenly uncomfortable. She turned away to look out at the koi pond, before finally speaking. "It's Shampoo," she said. "After the last match we had, she told me that she'd seen us. At the park, the week before last. Doing... you know. What we were doing." A faint blush tinted her cheeks at the last.

Ranma felt an added weight settle in his stomach. Some part of him had known that this would happen eventually, even if he hadn't wanted to admit it. Surrounded by as many high-level marital artists as they were, sneaking around like that was bound to get them found out sooner or later. "How did she take it?"

"I'm not sure. She was warning me about what would happen if we ever... went through with it. Actually got married. She said that she would have to kill me, but... it sounded more like she was intending to die herself."

The pigtailed fighter clenched his fists. Those damned Joketsuzoku laws. "I'm not going to let it come to that," he promised. "Not for you. Or for her."

"I know," was Akane's reply. "That's what I told her too."

"I'll come up with some way to make it work," Ranma continued. "Even if I have to go to China and take it up with Cologne and their whole stupid council. There has to be some way out of it. Some loophole we can use, or... something."

"Let's hope so," Akane said, her expression still pensive. Ranma couldn't really blame her. The obstacles against them being together openly did look pretty insurmountable as things stood. Still, he refused to give up on it. There had to be a way, even if he couldn't see it right now.

Ranma opened his mouth, trying to find the right words to reassure her. But before he could say anything, the sound of a crash came from inside the house. Both of them frowned, then turned and moved in the direction from which they'd heard it. Who'd be making noise like that at this hour? Ranma wondered. Sounded like it was coming from the kitchen.

The two of them entered the house, jogging down the hallway with Ranma in the lead. Soon he reached the nearest entry to the kitchen area, and opened the door, rounding the corner to see...

...Kasumi, dressed in a nightgown, who was kneeling down by one of the lower kitchen cabinets, apparently fishing around inside for something. She quickly closed the cabinet door and rose to her feet as Ranma entered, Akane right on his heels. "Kasumi?" he asked. "What happened?"

"Oh my! Ranma!" she said, sounding a bit startled. "I was just doing a bit of late-night cleaning, and I knocked over a few dishes on accident. I'm sorry for the racket." She pointed behind her, and Ranma saw that there were indeed several plates lying scattered on the floor where they had evidently fallen.

Ranma laughed, feeling a bit of relief seep into him. For just a moment there, he'd been worried that the crash had been something more sinister. This whole Senshi thing must have me wound even tighter than I realized, he thought. I'm even jumping at random noises now. "Nah, don't worry about the noise," he said aloud. "It's not a big deal. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay, that's all."

"Why thank you," was Kasumi's smiling reply. "But... what were you two doing up so late at night yourselves?"

Ranma and Akane glanced at each other. "Just... talking about how we're going to deal with the whole Sailor Senshi situation," he told her. True, it hadn't been the only thing they'd been talking about, but their relationship worries were far more private than he felt like sharing. Even to Kasumi.

"That's good to hear," Kasumi responded. "I'm sure it will all work out somehow."

"That's what we're hoping," put in Akane. "Anyway, don't stay up too late. No sense in running yourself ragged."

Kasumi nodded. "I won't. I'm already done with almost everything I really wanted to do, so I'll probably be heading up to bed in just a little bit."

"All right," Akane said. "See you in the morning, then!" With that—and a wave—Akane turned and walked back toward the main stairway, with Ranma following behind her.

The two of them ascended to the upper floor in silence, and Ranma walked her to her room. He could tell that she still wanted to finish the conversation that had been interrupted out in the yard. She paused in the hallway just outside her door, turned to face him, and then spoke. "Do you really think this is going to work, Ranma?" she asked in a small, quiet voice. "Do you really think we'll ever be able to be together? Not sneaking around like this, but for real?"

Ranma sighed, his shoulders slumping. "I... Akane, I can't promise what will happen, or how it'll all work out. But I can promise that I'm not going to give up on it. Sooner or later... I am gonna marry you." He blushed a little as he spoke the words; even now, they didn't usually talk about marriage so directly, but he'd felt the need to make it clear.

His fiancée gave him a shy smile, and reached out to take his hand, interlacing her fingers with his. "It's the same for me. Still... sometimes it just seems like things are getting worse instead of better." She let out a rueful laugh. "I mean, even the numbers are getting worse. When we tried to do it four years ago we only had three girls that were trying to stop us. Now just look at how many there are."

Ranma winced, thinking back to that ill-fated wedding attempt himself. It had been a mess, and that right on the heels of their victory over Saffron at Jusendo. How much more of a fiasco would such an attempt be today, with not just Shampoo, Ukyo and Kodachi, but also Jing-Wei the Phoenix girl, Kuroki Etsuko, and that crazed kunoichi seductress Miki?

"Yeah, I know what you mean," he agreed. "Still, you know the real reason things fell apart back then didn't have anything to do with the ceremony getting attacked. The reason it didn't work out is that we just plain weren't ready for it ourselves."

Akane gave Ranma's hand a quick squeeze. "At least we won't have to worry about that next time."

The pigtailed fighter smiled. Even now, he could hardly claim to be an expert on this whole "actually being a boyfriend" thing. Half the time he still felt unsure of himself, like he was feeling his way along in the dark. But more than anything else, it was moments like these, moments of quiet togetherness, that made him certain that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with this girl.

He reached up a hand and traced it along the side of Akane's face, brushing a few errant strands of hair back into place. "Believe me, I'm ready," he said, his voice thick with longing. "And yeah, it'll probably take a while to get things straightened out with Shampoo and Ukyo and the rest, but we'll figure that out eventually too." Then he chuckled. "At least, as long as Sailor Moon doesn't vaporize us all before then."

Akane rolled her eyes at Ranma's dry crack. "Like I said, I really don't think it'll come to a battle," she insisted. "We just have to convince them that we're not actually trying to take over the world. If they believe us then we should be able to avoid a fight altogether."

"That's if they believe us," Ranma reminded her. "But yeah, of course it's worth a shot. I just don't think it's going to be that easy. It never is."

"Such a pessimist..." replied the youngest Tendo.

Ranma laughed. "Well, whether they believe us or not, it doesn't change anything," he said. Then he put both his hands on Akane's shoulders, looking right into her eyes. He knew it had to be rough on her, watching all those other girls fawn over him on a near-daily basis while having to hide their own relationship, not knowing when or if they could ever make it official, and with one failed attempt at a wedding already behind her. So he tried to hit those doubts head-on.

"We're going to do this," he told her. His words were quiet, but he put all the conviction he had into them. "Someday, somehow, it's going to work out, and I am never going to give up until it does. And next time..." He took a deep breath, then plunged forward. "It isn't going to end like it did four years ago. That's a promise."

Akane nodded, her eyes tearing up a little. Then she threw herself forward, wrapping her arms tightly around Ranma and burying her face into his chest. Ranma's arms shifted to encircle her as well, one hand gently stroking her back as he savored the feel of her against him. And, despite everything else that was going wrong, or probably would go wrong in the future, right in that moment he counted himself the luckiest man alive.

Hours before that conversation took place, Luna paced up and down the length of Usagi's bedroom. The moon cat was trying to make sense of this most recent development, even as Usagi was changing into her pajamas and preparing for bed. The other Sailor Senshi had by now already departed.

When Usagi had first told her the news, Luna's reaction had been one of shock. After all that had happened, after all the ever-escalating threats they had faced... to think that they were now being confronted by these foes from so long ago. Questions ran back and forth through her mind. How long had they been back in this world? And what were their plans this time around?

It would be conquest again, almost certainly. But they knew none of the details. Just how close were they to re-creating the ritual that the Senshi had barely managed to stop the first time?

Setsuna had grilled all the involved parties—Luna included—going over the past events in as much detail as they could now recall. They had explained all they could, but the Senshi of Time had looked more confused at the end of the wild tale than she had at the beginning. She had promised to relay the information to the other Outer Senshi, though. Together, the two teams should hopefully be able to come up with a battle plan.

"Luna..." At the quiet voice, the black cat looked over at the dumpling-haired young woman who was both her liege and her precious charge. Usagi's expression was a troubled frown. "What do you think is going to happen? I mean, with the Dark Lords being back?"

"We'll have to fight them, most likely," was Luna's measured reply. "I know things were dangerous last time, but you're all far stronger than you were back then. And this time, it won't just be you, Rei and Ami fighting them either."

"Are you sure that's the only way?" Usagi pressed. "What if that youma Haruka and Michiru talked to was telling the truth? What if they really aren't trying to hurt anyone?"

"Then why would they even return to our world in the first place?" countered the moon cat.

"I... don't know," admitted Usagi. "But they might have had a reason. And we only found them by accident to begin with! Even Setsuna said that this was a change to the future, because of Chibi-Usa coming back, right? So if they're really trying to summon a big army again, then why didn't they attack us in the future with it?"

"Maybe something else interfered with their plan," Luna said. "Maybe the Great Freeze happened before they could put it into effect, and they retreated back to their own universe. Maybe their empire moved onto other targets while the earth was frozen for a thousand years."

"Or maybe that isn't their plan anymore!" the blonde girl urged. "We have to at least try to talk to them, Luna. Try to see if we can't work something out."

Luna hesitated, then nodded. "Of course we'll try to reason with them," she agreed. "I just... don't want you to get your hopes too high. Not everyone is like Galaxia, Usagi. Some people choose to be evil because that's just the way they want to be."

"I... know," said the young princess. "But we have to try. I'm sure that there's some way we can get through to them without having to kill them. Some way we can convince them that fighting and conquest isn't the answer."

The moon cat could only nod, as fresh worries filled her thoughts. Not only for how the upcoming confrontation might turn out, but also for what effect it might have on Usagi. The kind-hearted girl had never held any love of battle at all, and the final confrontation against Sailor Galaxia had solidified it even further. Seeing all the pain and devastation that the conflict had caused, she had refused to even fight back against her opponent, instead allowing the corrupted Sailor Senshi to attack her again and again, until at last Usagi had managed to use her love and compassion to pierce the Chaos twisting Galaxia's mind and free her from it.

It had been an awe-inspiring and humbling victory, but Luna was afraid of what might happen if Usagi tried to repeat it against someone without the core of goodness that Galaxia had still possessed. It would be nice to trust what the youma had told the Outer Senshi. But it could also be a trick, one perfectly suited to what Usagi so desperately wanted to believe. And based on what Luna had seen of the "Dark Lords" and their goals the last time they had fought, she suspected the latter.

Eventually Usagi climbed into her bed, and soon fell asleep. The moon cat watched over her princess's slumbering form, the sheets rising and falling with the young girl's steady breathing. The more Luna thought on the looming threat of another battle, the more she found herself desperately wishing—and not for the first time—that she herself had the power to fight Usagi's foes head-on, to take more of the burden off the shoulders of this child who had already done so much.

Except... maybe there was something else Luna could do, something beyond sending the girls into battle and supporting them as best she could. A role suited to a smaller, less powerful creature. Turning toward a window that they kept unlatched for just such purposes, the moon cat nudged it open with her nose and leaped outside into the night.

From there, Luna raced toward the nearest subway station. There were not as many passengers riding at such a late hour, and what subway personnel were still on duty weren't paying very close attention. The cat managed to slip aboard the train she wanted without anyone noticing, except for a rumpled-looking salaryman who wearily raised his eyebrows a little on seeing her sneak aboard, but otherwise ignored her. Then the train jolted into motion... and with that she was headed toward Nerima.

If Usagi wanted to see if that youma had been telling the truth, then Luna would find out for her.

The train ride gave her a little more time to reflect on her plan, to hammer out the details of what she was going to attempt with her investigation. There were three main locations in Nerima that she knew had been connected with the Dark Lords at one point or another: three possibilities where she could gather information. As restaurants, Ucchan's and the Nekohanten would doubtless be locked up right now, making them poor choices for surveillance.

But there was also the Tendo home, the very first place that Gosunkugi's information had sent them to all those years ago. If Ranma and Ryouga had re-established their hold on Ucchan's, they might have done so at the other locations as well.

Either way, the ideal time to spy on them would be right now, while they were still reacting to being found out, before they'd had a chance to relocate their operations or otherwise change their plans. Luna might not be able to fight, but she could at least try to learn what the Dark Lords intended to do now. And if—as Luna fully expected—their intent was still to harm her girls, then knowing the details of their latest scheme might prove invaluable in thwarting it.

As soon as the train had reached the appropriate stop, Luna raced back out again with all the speed her feline form could provide, and made for the Tendo home. It took longer than she would have liked. Her memories of their initial trip were far from perfect, and she had to do a considerable amount of backtracking and meandering in the general direction that she recalled.

Eventually, though, she arrived at her destination, leaping up on the outer wall that surrounded the compound. From there, she surveyed her target.

The building was different from how she remembered it. When she had been here last it had been abandoned, its structure severely damaged by what they later deduced had been a Dark Kingdom attack. Now, however, it was completely intact. It was also mostly dark, except for one lighted window that Luna could see on the upper floor. Fortunately for Luna's efforts, it seemed that not everyone had turned in for the night yet.

And sure enough, upon reaching out with her senses, she detected a locus of dark magic coming from the upper floor as well, one that she recognized instantly as the sign of a youma.

The moon cat made another leap, sailing from the top of the wall to land on a branch of a nearby tree. From there, she leapt atop the smaller building linked to the main house—probably the dojo Gosunkugi had mentioned. She then raced across the roof of the passage connecting the two structures, then jumped once again, managing to reach the roof of the first floor, where it surrounded the smaller second floor. Her claws scrambled for purchase against the tiles, but she managed to secure herself and make her way—carefully—around toward the lighted window.

As she got closer, Luna realized that the youma presence was coming not from the lighted room, but rather from the room immediately before it. She crept up to the nearest window, peeking up over the sill and looking in.

It was, in fact, a bedroom, one that seemed to belong to a girl based on its furnishings. Luna's attention was immediately drawn to the floor, where a figure lay sleeping on a floor mat in the middle of the room. If there had been any doubt from Setsuna's description, it was removed now, as she saw with her own eyes the very same youma that they had encountered all those years ago.

The windows were shut tight, however, and there was no easy way in. Nor would a sleeping subject be much use in obtaining the information she sought. Accordingly, the cat slunk further along the rooftop, until she reached the lighted window. Peering into that one, she saw that it was another bedroom, this one occupied by an—apparently—human girl. She was sitting bent over a desk, her back to Luna, and seemed to be studying various college textbooks.

Hmmm. That seems normal enough, the moon cat thought. It was, if nothing else, a point of hope—however small and circumstantial—for Usagi's theory that the youma had been telling the truth, that they had turned over a new leaf and were trying to live ordinary lives in this world.

The one curiosity, from what Luna could make out, was that the girl seemed to be using thousand-yen bills as her bookmarks.

The moon cat watched for a little while, but it soon became clear that there was no further information to be gained. She continued on her way, to the third and final room on that side of the house. It, like the previous two, was a girl's bedroom, but in this case the room was both dark and apparently unoccupied. There was also one more difference between this room and the previous ones.

This room's occupant, whoever it was, had left their window ajar.

A bit trusting for a villain, isn't it? thought Luna, surprised. But after a moment's consideration, she decided to seize the opportunity. Wedging her paws into the gap, she forced it open enough so that she could squeeze through and into the building itself.

She crept across the room, looking back and forth for anything important, but noticed nothing useful. Soon she had reached the far wall, and a much more serious obstacle: the door.

It was closed, but there was a bookshelf next to it that she estimated might allow her to reach the doorknob. She leapt atop it, then leaned herself precariously out into space, digging both her forepaws into the knob to catch herself before she tipped completely off, while she attempted to turn the infuriatingly round and smooth object.

She let out an irritated hiss as it refused to comply. For all the incredible abilities beyond mortal ken that she had witnessed in her lifetime, for all the phenomenal magic powers she saw unleashed on a regular basis... there were times like these when it was the power of thumbs that she most wished she possessed.

In the end it took a fair bit of wrestling, but finally, with one last, frustrated wrench, she managed to twist the knob enough to swing the door open and leap through. Now she was in the heart of their compound, and would have to be particularly careful. There was no telling what lay in wait for her.

She glanced down the hall to her left, and saw two other doors, clearly leading into the two other bedrooms she had already observed. But the hallway also branched off to the right from a place further down in that direction, and Luna decided to investigate that way. Her decision quickly led her to another room, this one having a much easier sliding door, for which she breathed a quiet thanks. Working her claws in between the door and frame, she slowly slid it open a crack, just enough to peer through and see what was on the other side.

Her eyes widened. There were two figures sleeping on floor mats inside the room. One—a bald, heavyset man—she didn't recognize, but the other she knew all too well. It was one of the self-proclaimed Dark Lords. The one named Ryouga.

Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be much else of interest in the sparsely furnished room, other than yet one more confirmation that they faced the self-same foes from last time. She watched for a few more seconds, then backed away from the door. Then, after some further searching of the upper floor with no results, she crept down the stairs to the lower level. There must be someone else still awake somewhere... she thought. The bed in the room I came in through was empty, at least. I just have to find them.

Her wish was granted sooner than she expected, as upon emerging from the stairs and looking down the hallway to her left she saw two people. One was a girl with short hair, who was sitting in a doorway that lead outside. She seemed to be watching the other figure, who was further out in the yard, and performing what appeared to be some kind of martial arts exercises. The moon cat recognized him instantly; he was the other Dark Lord, the one who had called himself Ranma.

Luna crept to a safer hiding place, peeking out from around the corner further down the hall, and continued to watch for a while, trying to analyze what the pigtailed warrior was doing, but with little success. Eventually, though, she decided to complete a quick circuit of the rest of the house before heading back here. She wasn't learning anything useful as things stood, and she didn't want to miss anything important elsewhere.

The next room she tried was the most peculiar by far. It was another bedroom, but unoccupied. Its most prominent feature was several large sacks lying around, which Luna, when she stuck her head into one of them, found to contain a bewildering assortment of women's underwear of different sizes, clearly stolen. How sick! the moon cat thought, incensed. Whether they've given up on conquering the world or not, they've clearly got at least one deviant among them...

A search of the rest of the room turned up a multitude of pornographic magazines and photographs, as well as a large number of books and scrolls. There were also a dozen or so trinkets, some of which Luna could sense had some magical properties, though she wasn't able to determine their purpose. Finally, there was a small note left by the side of the room's bed, written in a scrawl that was almost completely illegible, but which seemed to say something about a "training trip" and "more silky darlings", and was signed at the bottom with "Happousai".

For some inexplicable reason, she felt a small shudder of revulsion run through her on reading that name.

Eventually, though, she determined it was time to look elsewhere. She checked across the hallway next, sliding open the door to that room as well. It was much less interesting; as far as she could tell it was just a plain, ordinary kitchen. She looked around for a bit, poking into a few cabinets, but quickly decided that this wasn't worth her time. She was just about to turn and leave, when her ears caught the sound that made her blood run cold.

The sound of the door behind her sliding shut.

Clad in a warm robe, a modest nightgown and fuzzy slippers, Tendo Kasumi had just finished her bath, and was about to head upstairs to enjoy a good night's sleep. She had just cut through the family room and was about to make for the stairs, when she noticed something odd out of the corner of her eye. Movement. It had been tiny and barely noticeable, but she was certain that she had seen something squeeze through the door and into her kitchen.

The eldest Tendo daughter frowned, puzzled. What could it have been? She walked closer, peering in through the slight opening between door and frame. Her eyes widened at what she saw. A cat! Somehow, a stray cat had gotten into the house.

Oh no! she thought. This isn't good at all! If Ranma realizes that there is a cat in here... She winced, both in sympathy for Ranma's phobia, and also in anticipation of the damage that the panicking martial artist might cause to their home should things go badly.

No, there was only one thing to do. Cute though the cat was, she had to get it out of the house quickly—and without Ranma noticing. Accordingly, she slipped into the kitchen, shutting the door behind her as she prepared to try her best to catch the animal.

The cat spun at the sound, first whirling to face her, then scrambled backward, the hair on its back going up. Kasumi winced. The poor thing had clearly been frightened by her sudden appearance. "Don't run away, kitty," she said as she walked closer to it, her hands extended in preparation to make a grab for it. "I don't want to hurt you. It's just that you really shouldn't be here..."

Luna let out a low hiss as the woman closed in on her, the cat backing away to try and keep the distance even as her mind raced, trying to think of a way out of this situation. She had been caught, and in the worst possible situation. Both doors to the kitchen were now shut, and while she could eventually work them open again with her paws, there was no way she would be able to do it before the woman caught her. There was nowhere to run.

Does she recognize me as one of her foes? the moon cat wondered. I don't remember seeing her in any of the previous battles myself, so it's just possible she might think that I'm only a normal cat. But... what if she does realize what I really am, and she catches me?

Fear began to tinge the edges of Luna's thoughts. Fear, and self-recrimination at letting herself get cornered like this. She continued to back away, but she knew even without looking that she was rapidly running out of room. Her mind raced, trying to think of some way out of this, but her frantic planning was interrupted when the woman made a sudden lunging grab.

Luna managed to avoid the woman's grasping hands with a backward leap that used up the last of her space, thumping her against the wall behind. The woman made another attempt, and then another, the moon cat darting left and right, then leaping into the air and onto one of the nearby counters. But the woman continued to chase after her, relentless. Luna soon reached the end of the counter, leaping over a pile of drying dishes and out into space just in time to avoid yet another grab.

The moon cat landed, uncaught. But though her pursuer had missed her intended target, the woman's latest grab had accidentally bumped the pile of dishes that Luna had cleared, destabilizing them. With a loud clatter, several plates slid free and fell to the floor with a racket that seemed—to Luna's horrified ears—loud enough to wake the dead.

Both of them froze in place, their eyes widening. Seconds later, they heard footsteps entering the house from the direction that Luna had seen Ranma practicing. It's over, she thought numbly. I'm doomed.

To her surprise, however, the woman seemed just as distressed by this as Luna herself was. "Please, kitty!" the woman whispered, her voice urgent, her eyes sincere. "Stop running away from me! You can't let Ranma see you!"

The cat blinked, thrown completely for a loop by the sudden, impassioned plea. Why on earth would the woman say something like that? Was it possible that Luna had misread the situation entirely somehow? She had assumed that the woman was trying to apprehend her... but now it sounded almost like the woman had been trying to hide her!

For a moment Luna simply stood there, frozen with indecision. Then the woman made one last grab for her... and with no other options, Luna decided to take a leap of faith. She made no move to evade.

The woman grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, whirled, and stuffed the moon cat into the nearest cabinet at hand. Less than a heartbeat later Luna heard the door slide open, and a voice she recognized as Ranma's. "Kasumi? What happened?"

"Oh my! Ranma!" replied the woman, whose name was apparently Kasumi. "I was just doing a bit of late-night cleaning, and I knocked over a few dishes on accident. I'm sorry for the racket."

Within the darkness of the shut cabinet, Luna's eyes widened as she tried to take in this unbelievable turn of events. Kasumi had been trying to hide her after all! More than that, she was actually lying to Ranma to keep the moon cat's presence here a secret!

That implied many things, both troubling and hopeful. It seemed that this Kasumi did, in fact, know of her connection to the Sailor Senshi—since, of course, there would be no reason to lie about an ordinary cat. The fact that she felt the need to lie also indicated that Luna was in very real danger, should the Dark Lord realize that she was here.

But at the same time, it also meant that she had an ally here, one she had not expected to find. There was at least one member of the Dark Lords' group that did not seem to hold with her masters' goals, and was willing to risk their wrath to help those who opposed them. Luna gave a silent thanks for this Kasumi's bravery.

Ranma, meanwhile, was responding to what Kasumi had said. "Nah, don't worry about the noise," Luna heard him say. "It's not a big deal. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay, that's all."

"Why thank you," Kasumi told him. "But... what were you two doing up so late at night yourselves?"

"Just... talking about how we're going to deal with the whole Sailor Senshi situation," was Ranma's answer. Luna's ears perked up. This! This was exactly what she had come here for!

"That's good to hear," responded her benefactress. "I'm sure it will all work out somehow."

"That's what we're hoping." The words were spoken in a new voice that Luna did not recognize. A girl's voice. "Anyway, don't stay up too late. No sense in running yourself ragged."

"I won't," replied Kasumi. "I'm already done with almost everything I really wanted to do, so I'll probably be heading up to bed in just a little bit."

"All right," said the unnamed girl. "See you in the morning, then!"

With that, the sound of footsteps receded, heading back out into the hallway and then up the stairs toward the second floor. Luna sat there, unmoving, until finally Kasumi opened the door to the cabinet again and took her out. "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" she told the moon cat, her voice soft. "Now let's get you out of here, before Ranma finds you."

"Wait!" Luna said hurriedly, holding up a paw. "Wait, please, before that... I need to stay here for just a little bit longer!"

Kasumi's eyes widened in shock. Luna didn't meet her gaze directly, knowing that this was an unreasonable request after everything the woman had already done for her. Kasumi had put her life on the line, and if her deceit were ever discovered, Luna couldn't imagine what retribution her masters might inflict. But at the same time—from what Ranma had said—he had been right in the middle of discussing their battle plan! Knowing that might make the difference between life and death for the Sailor Senshi, and between freedom or enslavement for the entire world.

"Please," Luna begged again, after a few seconds. "Please, I'll be careful. I won't let him see me, I promise. But this is... so important. Please."

Kasumi hesitated, her mouth hanging open slightly... and then she blinked. "Well..." she said, hesitating. Then she seemed to make a decision, a kindly smile crossing her face. "...all right. I don't really understand, but... it sounds like this is really important to you. Just... please be careful." And with that, she set the moon cat back down on the floor.

"I will," Luna assured her. Then, moving with all the feline stealth she possessed, she followed after the two whose attention she had just avoided.

Kasumi watched bemusedly as the small black animal padded out of the room. A talking cat! Now that had been a bit of a surprise.

Could it be that she's a human with a Jusenkyo curse, like Shampoo? the Tendo girl wondered. Then she frowned in thought. She didn't spend very much time around Shampoo herself... but even so, she had been under the distinct impression that the Chinese girl couldn't talk when she was in her cat form. Or was she just remembering it wrong?

On the other hand, there was also the ghost cat, Maomolin who came by every now and then. He could talk as well. But this new cat hadn't looked ghostly at all, nor had she been his enormous size. Well... the more I think about it, she probably wasn't either of those things, Kasumi thought. She was probably something else altogether. Goodness! It can be so hard to keep up sometimes. Ranma does have a way of attracting these sort of magical happenings, doesn't he?

She was still worried about the cat being in the same house as Ranma, of course. But the cat had promised to be careful not to let Ranma see her... and she'd just looked so very earnest when she had begged Kasumi to let her go. The woman just hadn't had the heart to refuse her.

For a moment, Kasumi wondered just what it had been that was so very important to the small animal. But then she shook her head. It wasn't polite to pry into others' affairs, after all. At any rate, she was sure it would all work out in the end.

Luna slunk quietly up the stairs, hoping with all her might that she would catch up in time to hear more of the conversation that the Dark Lord had said he'd been having with the unknown girl, on exactly how they were going to deal with the Sailor Senshi.

Up ahead she could already hear the murmur of whispered voices. It was coming from around the corner ahead of her, at the far end of the hallway that adjoined to the three bedrooms. Apparently they had stopped to talk just outside the door to the bedroom that the youma was sleeping in. Luna crept right up to the corner, straining her ears to listen around it.

"...just seems like things are getting worse instead of better," were the first words she was able to make out—spoken by the girl. Then there was a rueful laugh. "I mean, even the numbers are getting worse. When we tried to do it four years ago we only had three girls that were trying to stop us. Now just look at how many there are."

As the human girl spoke, Luna's mind flashed back to that fight, when Sailor Moon, Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury had, against all odds, managed to thwart these Dark Lords' plans for the first time. From what they were saying, it sounded like they had been given pause by encountering the Outer Senshi, and doubtless they had heard that Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Venus had been added to the Senshi's number since then as well.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," responded the Dark Lord. "Still, you know the real reason things fell apart back then didn't have anything to do with the ceremony getting attacked. The reason it didn't work out is that we just plain weren't ready for it ourselves."

Now that revelation startled Luna. So even back then, they hadn't been fully ready to enact their summoning ritual? Apparently, they had been even luckier than they realized in managing to catch their foes at such an inopportune time...

Then Luna heard the girl speak up. "At least we won't have to worry about that next time." The moon cat suppressed a soft hiss. So. There it was. They were indeed back to their old tricks, planning on repeating that same ceremony as before.

"Believe me, I'm ready," the Dark Lord said, and Luna could hear longing in his voice. "And yeah, it'll probably take a while to get things straightened out with Shampoo and Ukyo and the rest, but we'll figure that out eventually too." Then Luna heard him chuckle. "At least, as long as Sailor Moon doesn't vaporize us all before then."

Luna frowned. So Ukyo and Shampoo were necessary to their ceremony in some way? She couldn't imagine how, but at least it helped explain why they had reestablished their operations here, in the same place they had the first time. They had clearly re-brainwashed Ukyo, and it sounded as though they had done so to Shampoo as well. At least it sounded like they were worried about the threat the Sailor Senshi posed—which was a good sign.

"Like I said, I really don't think it'll come to a battle," insisted the unknown girl. "We just have to convince them that we're not actually trying to take over the world. If they believe us then we should be able to avoid a fight altogether."

"That's if they believe us," was the Dark Lord's reply. "But yeah, of course it's worth a shot. I just don't think it's going to be that easy. It never is."

So that's their plan to deal with us? Pretend to give up on their plans while continuing them in secret? Luna thought, amazed at the devious simplicity of the tactic. And the terrifying thing was, it probably would have worked. Usagi always wanted to see the best in people, and if this Ranma had gone to her pretending to repent—without knowing what Luna now knew—she doubted her princess would have found it in her heart not to believe him.

"Such a pessimist..." replied the girl.

At that, Luna heard the Dark Lord laugh. "Well, whether they believe us or not, it doesn't change anything," he said. His words were quiet, but filled with absolute conviction. "We're going to do this. Someday, somehow, it's going to work out, and I am never going to give up until it does. And next time... it isn't going to end like it did four years ago. That's a promise."

A grim feeling settled in Luna's stomach at the sheer determination she heard in those words. She could tell that he meant it with every fiber of his being, could tell that he would fight to his last breath to fulfill his goal. If the Sailor Senshi wanted to stop this ceremony they were planning, they would have to take him down by force.

Kasumi glanced up, her face brightening as the mysterious talking cat walked back into the kitchen. She had to admit, she'd been on pins and needles waiting to see how it all turned out. "Oh, good!" she said in relief. "I was afraid Ranma would notice you. Did you do whatever it was you needed to do?"

The cat nodded in affirmation. Then the small animal looked up at her and spoke, concern in her eyes. "Kasumi, you should leave this place and come back with me," she said. Her voice was urgent, though still kept to a whisper. "I know people who can protect you. You'd be safe there."

The Tendo girl blinked in surprise. It was nice of the cat to be so concerned about her, she supposed, but she didn't understand why. It wasn't like things were usually that dangerous around here, even when Ranma and his friends got rowdy. More importantly, what would her family do if she were gone? There was all the cleaning up around the house to consider, and the errands, and the cooking...

Oh dear. If she left, Akane might get it into her head to try cooking herself again!

"Um... thank you very much for your offer," she replied, trying to be as diplomatic as she could in her refusal. "But I can't just leave like that. It... might turn out very badly for my family if I did." She didn't like to speak ill of her younger sister, of course, but at the same time she had seen first-hand the usual effect of Akane's culinary endeavors.

For some reason a horrified expression crossed the cat's face at that. Then the feline nodded, saddened but accepting. "I understand," she said. "In that case I'll leave for now. But don't worry; I'll be back soon. And I promise, we'll do everything in our power to help you and your family."

"...thank you?" said Kasumi, not really following what the cat was saying, but not wanting to be rude. "Here, follow me, I'll open the side door for you."

The eldest Tendo daughter proceeded to do just that, and it was only after the cat had finally disappeared from sight that she allowed herself to fully relax. That had been a welcome change, she thought to herself. Usually when a situation like that came up, circumstances somehow conspired to make matters descend into chaos. Some part of her had been afraid that, even at the last moment, Ranma would somehow stumble across the cat despite all her efforts. But it seemed that tonight, at least, she had gotten the better of that tendency toward misfortune.

And so Kasumi smiled, then turned and headed back upstairs to her bedroom, gratified by the knowledge that her quick action had helped make Ranma's life just a little bit less troubled.

Usagi woke with a yawn as morning's light filtered in through her window. She slowly sat up, rubbing her eyes. It was only after a few groggy seconds that she noticed that Luna was sitting pensively at the foot of her bed. The cat's eyes were red-rimmed, and it looked as though she hadn't gotten much sleep the previous night. "Luna?" the blonde girl asked, worried. "Are you all right?"

Luna nodded. "I'm fine," she told the blonde girl. "I went out last night to spy on those Dark Lords—to try and listen in on what they intend to do in response to our finding them."

Now Usagi was wide awake. "Luna!" she exclaimed, distraught. "You should have told us before doing something like that! What if they'd caught you?"

"They almost did," admitted the moon cat, not meeting Usagi's eyes. It seemed she was a little embarrassed herself over her reckless actions. "But that's not important right now. I learned what they intend to do, Usagi. Sometime soon they're going to try and approach us, and they're going to tell us that they don't have any intention of fighting anymore."

Usagi's face lit up. "Oh, that's great!" she said, her tone full of relief. "I was really hoping that it would turn out like—"

"No!" interrupted Luna, shaking her head. "No, you don't understand. It's just a trick! They were also talking about how they still plan on performing the exact same ritual that we stopped the last time. It's just that this time, they intend to do it secretly! They're going to pretend they're not our enemies anymore... but no matter what, you can't believe anything they say!"