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.

Chapter Four: Failure to Communicate

With a strangled noise that was half-gasp and half-scream, Kodachi woke. Her breathing was heavy, and cold sweat made both her nightgown and her hair cling to her trembling body. Traces of late-morning sunlight filtered in around the drawn blinds, but they provided no comfort. Her mind was reeling, as she tried to shut out the fractured images that were plaguing her sleep with increasing frequency.

Even now, in her waking hours, there was no relief. Visions flashed through her mind no matter how hard she tried to block them out. Visions she did not want to remember, images of herself brutally beaten by a rotting, corpse-like monster.

Visions of her own mother torturing her, all the while smiling in sadistic glee.

Not real! she thought, trying through sheer willpower to impose that fact on her remembrances. Not real, not real, not real, not real. Just... tricks. Tricks to make me doubt myself. Manipulations of those vile harlots, trying to keep my beloved Ranma from me!

But even the thought of her rivals prompted another burst of what she refused to believe were memories. Visions of blood, of the chaos of the battlefield, of people dying left and right around her. Visions of fighting back-to-back with those very same girls. Visions of a yellow-and-black monster driving a spear repeatedly through her stomach. Visions of Akane kicking the creature away from her with a cry of anger... only to have another monster exploit the opening she'd created in doing so, slamming an enormous sledgehammer into the Tendo girl from behind, her scream mingling with the crunch of bone.

Visions of the monster beating Akane to death, even as she tried, half-conscious, to act as a shield for the girl bleeding out beneath her.

Kodachi buried her head in her hands, as she tried to ignore the recollections that threatened to tear her view of the world to pieces, ignored them because they hadn't happened, they couldn't have happened, and anyone who said that they had happened was lying, lying, lying!

She clung to that forgetfulness. She clung to the Moon Kingdom magic that had allowed her to forget what she had experienced (because she hadn't experienced it, she hadn't!). Even in the face of what Ranma himself had told her, even in the face of all the memories and emotions that refused to stay repressed, she struggled with all her might to hold together the now-tattered remnants of the veil that hung between her and what she was afraid to remember.

She rolled unsteadily to her feet. If willpower would not quiet her mind, then perhaps action would. She showered, dressed herself in a black leotard, and equipped herself with her weapons of choice: her gymnastics tools, along with a generous helping of paralysis powder bombs. And with that she exited the Kuno home, intent on her objective.

As she departed she crossed paths with her brother, who was at his morning kendo practice. He paused as he saw her, glancing her way. "Sister. To where are you headed this morning?"

Kodachi thought she detected concern in his voice, and she tensed defensively in response. Was it her imagination, or had that tone found its way into Tatewaki conversation more often as of late? How much did he know? She had tried her best to hide her growing anguish, tried to keep anyone from seeing any sign of weakness in her. But she found that lately this was becoming harder and harder to do. The blind Chinese boy had already figured out far too much for her comfort, and if he had been talking to her brother, even someone as dense as Tatewaki might begin to realize things as well.

He must be part of their conspiracy too, she decided, for no other reason than it allowed her to feel anger, and anger helped her not to feel anything else. He knows that they've been lying to me, playing with my mind, and he has been helping them do it! How else could they get to me while I sleep?

She fixed him with a poisonous glare, but all she said aloud was: "I am going to visit my darling Ranma, brother. It has been far too long since I last sought his affections, and it would not do for one of those vulgar harridans chasing him to make any gains in my absence."

His black business suit immaculately pressed, Tanizaki Kazuo stood with his hands clasped behind his back as the elevator he was in descended. The trip was not a short one, though that was less an aspersion on the elevator's speed and more a testament to the sheer, staggering height of Tanizaki Tower. Zhang stood to his right, and a step behind. The Chinese assassin was silent, his hands concealed in the sleeves of his voluminous black robes.

Eventually the elevator came to a stop on the selected floor and the doors opened, allowing the two of them to step through. A short, thin-featured man was waiting for them on the other side. The man's hair was mostly grey, with only a few streaks of black remaining. His nervous, constantly-shifting eyes and bowed shoulders showed none of the cold, effortless poise that the first two radiated. "Good morning, Mr. Tanizaki," he said, bowing deferentially as the two of them walked past.

"Mr. Nagai," acknowledged Kazuo, not halting or slowing his stride. Nagai fell into step at the other man's left, opposite Zhang, though he had to scramble a bit to keep up with the steps of the other two men.

"There's good news from the National Diet, sir," Nagai continued. "Releasing that one piece of the blackmail material we have on the Prime Minister caused enough political trouble for his party that we were able to block the new tariff bill from passing without making it obvious just how many representatives we have in our pocket. And the Prime Minister doesn't seem to have realized it was us who released it; as far as he knows, it was the reporter who discovered it independently."

Kazuo responded with a small nod of approval. "How is the African situation?"

Nagai winced. "Not as good, sir. We've had our people trying to stall the sanctions in the U.N. like you told us to, but I don't think we have enough traction to stop them outright. It won't be long before Tochnost Armaments will be barred from selling into that conflict."

"That won't be an issue." While the ostensibly Russian-owned Tochnost Armaments was, indeed, one of the countless businesses that Kazuo controlled through an elaborate series of shell corporations and legal sleight of hand, their losing this business had been in Kazuo's plan from the very beginning. If he'd actually wanted to stop the U.N. from passing the resolution he would have thrown pressure against it from the American and Chinese governments as well.

No, he only needed Tochnost to be able to sell their specialized weapons to the warlord in question long enough for the overconfident fool to grow dependent on them, pushing his campaign past the point that his own technology and resources could sustain. Then, when the sanctions inevitably did pass, he would be hopelessly overextended without them. Kazuo had already arranged for other weapons dealers—his illegal ones—to be ready to provide what the warlord would need, at even more ridiculous prices.

The warlord, of course, would have little choice but to accept. Especially since his enemies would soon be receiving weapons from a different supplier that Kazuo owned as well. And either way, whichever side won in the end, the resulting debt would make an excellent lever through which to gain easy access to the rich natural resources in the territory controlled by the victor.

Nagai, of course, knew nothing of those plans, nor did Kazuo make the slightest attempt to enlighten the smaller man. The ability to do what he was told, with absolute dedication, even in the absence of any details at all was one of Nagai's strengths. That, along with an innate instinct for greasing political wheels and gathering intelligence, was the reason he had risen so high in Kazuo's organization.

Not that these games held all that much significance anymore, not with Unit Zero so close to being ready. Soon, if all went according to plan, there would not be a single person on the planet capable of opposing him. And with Earth subjugated, he would be free to turn his attention to greater heights, to pit his abilities and resources against more powerful opponents on a stage that far transcended this simple one.

Still, the game of politics was an amusing enough mental exercise to pass the time between more pressing concerns, and so Kazuo kept up appearances.

"If there are no other pressing concerns, Mr. Nagai?" the businessman asked. The smaller man shook his head, slowing to a stop in response to the implicit dismissal. Kazuo and Zhang continued onward, leaving him behind as they made their way to their actual destination.

It was not long before they reached it, a nondescript door that looked no different from any of the others in the hallway down which they had been walking. Kazuo stopped in front of it, and in response to a wordless command, Zhang stepped forward and gave three quick knocks on the door.

There was a long pause. Then, of its own accord, the door swung open, moved by an invisible force. Kazuo and Zhang glanced at each other, wry amusement in their expressions at the theatrical display. It was a mystery to Kazuo why Ekim couldn't even do something as simple as opening a door without trying to make it a display of his arcane power.

Regardless, the two of them walked into the room, the door shutting behind them as they did so. The scent of incense filled Ekim's chambers, the only dim illumination coming from several small, flickering candles. Other doors led out of the main room into other parts of Ekim's quarters, including one door that was particularly reinforced and locked. The walls were lined with shelves filled with musty, ancient books and scrolls, while in the center of the room sat a circular, table-sized altar with a pentagram inscribed inside it, and other mystic sigils running around its edge. Atop the altar lay a crude stone knife.

And there, seated in front of that altar with his back toward them, was a hooded figure shrouded in ornate ceremonial robes. No features could be seen from this angle, but the man spoke without looking back at them. "Why have you disturbed my meditations?"

"Because, Mr. Ekim, I would like you to clarify your most recent status report." Kazuo kept his tone level and professional. "Earlier this week you indicated that your work on Unit Zero's thaumaturgic binding was complete, and that you were in the final stages of your tests. Now I see a request for more materials and additional time. Has there been any change in your progress of which I should be aware?"

The robed figure—Ekim—snorted. "The art of sorcery is not something that can be rushed according to your petty timetables or made to fit in your bureaucratic schedules, Tanizaki," he said, his tone self-important. "Leave me be. I will inform you in my own time when my work on this latest project of yours is finished."

"That is unacceptable," responded Kazuo, his voice becoming noticeably colder. "We had an agreement, Ekim. As part of that agreement, when you promise me a date for completion of your work I expect you to live up to that—or at the very least, I expect an explanation for exactly why you failed to do so."

Kazuo could practically feel the sorcerer tense at the word "failed". When Ekim spoke again, it was with the hissing venom of a man whose overwhelming pride had been scorned. "You dare? You dare to imply that the work I performed for you was a failure?"

"I'm curious as to what else you expect me to view it as, if not a failure," the businessman replied. "The schedule you assured me that you could meet was not decided on a whim. If keeping it is beyond you, then that presents a problem that must be rectified."

Even as far apart as they were, Kazuo could hear the sorcerer's teeth grinding, and the flickering shadows around the man began to twist in a slithering, sinuous way that had nothing to do with the candlelight. "And what, exactly, does this 'rectifying' of yours entail?"

"Ideally, it entails that you get back on the damned schedule," answered Kazuo. "But if that turns out to be beyond you, then I can always terminate your employment and replace you with someone competent."

That barb got under Ekim's skin, as Kazuo had intended it would. "Replace me?" the man snarled, shooting to his feet and whirling around, revealing his face for the first time. His pallid skin was blotched with numerous liver spots, and stretched across gaunt, withered features. His pale yellow eyes glared out from underneath his hood, flashing with anger. "Replace the mightiest sorcerer of this age? Replace the chosen envoy of The Nameless One, the earthly conduit of His limitless power?"

Kazuo raised his eyebrows a little. "If your recent performance is the best this 'limitless power' can accomplish then I would not, myself, call it particularly limitless."

The sorcerer's eyes flashed with rage, and darkness began to gather in his right hand, a writhing shadow that seemed to hover just on the border between substance and insubstantiality, squirming in his palm as though it were alive. "You require a lesson in humility, Tanizaki!" Ekim snarled, preparing to aim his hand toward the target of his wrath. "You must learn that—"

"Mr. Ekim." Kazuo released some of his killing intent as he delivered the ice-cold words, flooding the room with his battle aura. Ekim's eyes bulged, his muscles seizing up in sudden, instinctual fear. The scene remained frozen for a few seconds, before the businessman continued speaking. "Mr. Ekim, I do not suggest you point that spell at me unless you are entirely confident that you can fulfill all of the obligations described in your employment contract with one less arm."

Ekim licked his lips, trying—and failing, miserably—to hide the sudden trembling in his limbs. Kazuo walked closer, until he was standing right in front of the other man, looking him dead in the eyes. "I don't intend to waste any more time debating this with you," he said dispassionately. "Your employment in my organization has been very lucrative so far, wouldn't you agree? If you want that arrangement to continue, then you need to stop dragging your feet and get back on schedule. Understood?"

The sorcerer opened his mouth as though to speak, hesitated, then took one more look at the merciless steel in Kazuo's gaze. Then Ekim nodded, looking away as he released the roiling shadows in his palm, allowing them to dissipate back into nothingness. "...yes. Understood."

"Excellent. Then I will look forward to better news in your next status report." With that, Kazuo turned on his heel and walked out of the darkened chambers, with Zhang following behind. The Chinese assassin shut the door himself as he left.

Once outside, Kazuo allowed himself a small, vexed sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose between two fingers for a moment before heading back toward the elevator. "I'd expected to have grown used to it long before now," he admitted to the other man as they walked away. "But somehow, even after all these years, his childish egotism still manages to irritate me."

Zhang offered his employer a lopsided smirk. "Well, only a short-sighted fool would have willingly contracted his soul to the kind of being Ekim serves in the first place. We needed a pawn capable of tapping that level of magical power, and 'overconfident idiot' is more or less inherent in that kind of job description."

"I suppose," agreed Kazuo. "And his stupidity does make him—and by extension, his otherworldly master—easier to manipulate in the long run. Even so, that does little to alleviate the annoyance of having to deal with his tantrums on such a regular basis."

"No argument there." They walked for a little longer, and then Zhang spoke up again. "You realize what all that was really about, right? The sudden slip in the schedule, and all the posturing he was going through to cover it up?"

"Of course," said Kazuo, as the two of them reached the elevator and stepped inside, the doors closing behind them. "He's trying—again—to skim resources from his assigned tasks to work on his 'secret' ritual that he thinks we don't know about. If it had been an honest slip in schedule I wouldn't have come down so hard on him, but someone like him requires the application of a strong hand every now and then to keep him in line."

Zhang entered a long numeric code on a keypad inside the elevator, then pressed the button for their next destination. "And what about that ritual?" he asked as he did so. "Even if you don't want to force the issue while he's still useful to us, it would be... inconvenient... if he actually finished it."

"I've already taken precautions," was Kazuo's reply. "My operatives have already found and secured two of the unique items that he needs. He can buy as many archeological expeditions as he wants with the money we pay him, search ancient ruins until the end of time for artifacts that are sitting safely in one of my deep containment vaults on the other side of the planet. He's on our leash, and he doesn't even realize it."

The elevator descended further and further, until eventually the doors opened again, this time revealing the entrance to one of the Special Research floors of Tanizaki tower. More specifically, one of the floors devoted to bioresearch.

After passing through a security checkpoint manned by four guards, the two of them entered a long, antiseptically-white hallway. As they walked down it, they passed windowed doors on either side, leading into the labs where white-suited technicians and scientists could be seen laboring over computers, microscopes and sometimes operating tables. In many of the rooms, tall, cylindrical tanks could be seen, filled with a bubbling orange liquid in which floated many grey-skinned creatures of different sizes and shapes—one per tank.

Kazuo gave them little attention, pressing onward toward his destination. His progress was interrupted, however, by an angry shout from behind. "Tanizaki!"

The businessman paused, turning back to face the shouter with a look of studied politeness. When he spoke, it was in flawless, unaccented English. "Yes, Captain Davidson? Is there something you wish to speak to me about?"

"Damn right there is!" Captain Davidson strode down the hallway toward them, a huge, blond man that stood almost two heads taller than Kazuo, every inch of his body corded muscle. He was dressed in a thin patient's smock, as were the dozen or so similar-looking men who followed behind him, spilling out into the hall from one of the side labs. Soon they had blocked the hallway entirely, all of them glowering down at the businessman, their postures radiating barely-suppressed violence. Kazuo simply looked back at them, unperturbed.

"When are we going to see some action?" the blonde soldier demanded. "When you hired us, you promised you'd turn us into killing machines!"

"And I believe that I have kept that promise," was Kazuo's clam reply. "Or are you dissatisfied with the enhancements that Doctor Metzger's serum has granted you?"

"What good are Metzger's 'enhancements' if we just spend the rest of our lives in here getting poked and prodded by all these damned doctors?" Davidson growled back. His eyes were bloodshot as he glared down at his employer. "I want to get my team back into the field! I want to kill something human, not just these grey things they keep testing us against!"

"And the doctors... they haven't been giving us enough of the serum!" shouted another one of the soldiers. His eyes were even more bloodshot than Davidson's and Kazuo noticed that his fingers were trembling slightly. "If we were fighting somewhere for you... we could dose up more, right? We'd need to! You gotta send us back out there! Whoever it is you want dead... we'll kill 'em for you ten times over, I swear!"

"I will deploy you at the precise moment when it suits my objectives," Kazuo told him, his tone unchanged. "No sooner, and no later. In the meantime, I suggest that you devote yourselves to working with the doctors. Performing well in their tests can only improve your chances of being considered combat-ready."

"Bullshit!" screamed back the crazed mercenary, spittle flying from his mouth. "You're... you're just hoarding all the serum for yourself, aren't you?" Murmurs of assent drifted up from the crowd of soldiers spurring the accuser on. "You can't treat us like this! We won't let you!" With a roar of semi-coherent rage, the soldier launched himself at Kazuo, hand shooting out toward the businessman's head as though to grab it and crush it.

Kazuo deflected the grab, casually batting it aside with his left hand and then twisting his attacker's hand into a wristlock. Simultaneously his right hand lashed out, tapping a half-dozen different pressure points across the soldier's body with such speed that Kazuo doubted the soldier even saw it happen.

Whether the man saw it or not, he certainly felt what happened next. The man screamed, his limbs going into spasmodic convulsions as though they were trying to rip themselves free of his own body. He toppled backward, thrashing back and forth, arching his back as he howled in agony.

Kazuo adjusted his business suit, straightening it out slightly. "If that is all...?" he asked the other soldiers, who seemed to have had their fervor noticeably dampened by his display of superiority. They backed down like beaten dogs, filing silently back into their laboratory, dragging their still-screaming companion behind them. Captain Davidson was the last to leave, and paused in the doorway as though he intended to say something more. But Kazuo met his gaze once more and the soldier lost his nerve, retreating back out of sight with no further protest.

Once they were gone, Kazuo and Zhang resumed walking. "It doesn't seem like the latest batch of Metzger's serum has done much to get rid of the side effects," observed the Chinese assassin. "If anything, it seems like the psychotic degeneration has been even faster with this latest group, and the dependency issue is obviously still there."

"Unfortunately so," agreed Kazuo. "Truth be told, I'm considering cutting my losses on that entire project. It would have been nice to have a method of mass-producing intelligent, human super-soldiers without the need for a lifelong training effort, but we may have to make do with just the Synths for now. At least they don't display this... instability."

Zhang smiled. "If you do decide to cancel the project, I imagine the doctor will be very disappointed."

"Then he should have produced better results." As Kazuo spoke, he drew near to the door leading to his destination. Upon reaching it he pushed it open and stepped through, into a particularly large laboratory.

There were only two inhabitants in this particular lab, and one of them was manacled to an operating table. The other was an elderly man, his thinning hair gone completely past grey and into white, who was looking down at his terrified subject with clinical dispassion. Rubber gloves covered his hands, and he wore a white operating smock and a face mask.

The figure on the operating table was herself no ordinary sight. She was brightly colored, her skin a light purple, with short pink hair. There were, however, several places where her skin was broken by white lesions—wounds where her body seemed to be crumbling into dust. She struggled against her bonds, looking pleadingly up at the men standing over her while trying to whimper words around the gag in her mouth.

"Doctor Metzger." At Kazuo's words, the old man glanced up from his observations, apparently noticing his visitors for the first time. He walked over to them, removing the surgical mask to reveal a heavily-lined face. He briefly met his employer's gaze with one of his own, before looking down again.

"Ah. To what do I owe this honor, sir?" Metzger's Japanese was fluent, but still had a thick German accent to it. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"I wanted to personally discuss the recommendation you made in your last report," Kazuo explained. "Specifically, your recommendation that we perform another test run... with Unit Zero's limiters released to as much as fifty percent."

"Yes sir," replied Metzger. "I believe that it is necessary. In what few live tests we've performed, the power draw has never exceeded ten percent of the maximum expected value. We can't call ourselves ready until we've evaluated Unit Zero's performance in conditions much closer to full activation."

Kazuo nodded. "I understand your concerns. But there are other dangers to weigh. Even the reduced tests we've run so far have carried a risk of alerting the Sailor Senshi to what we are doing, and I do not intend to challenge them openly until at least Unit Zero is fully prepared. We are pitting ourselves against beings with enough power to rewrite reality on a planet-wide level, Metzger. That is not something done lightly."

"But without more stringent tests, I cannot even guarantee that the fundamental approach we are taking is a sound one!" protested the doctor. "Especially considering how much of the project depends on that Ekim and his mysticism. There could be any number of flaws. Flaws that could take any amount of time to correct!"

The businessman frowned in thought. "I will take it under consideration," he replied at length. "Thank you for your input, doctor. It is, as always, appreciated."

Hearing the dismissal in his employer's voice, Metzger turned to walk back toward the operating table, but then paused. "By the way, sir... Speaking of the Sailor Senshi... I heard that you had your intelligence network on the alert for incidents regarding them. I sent you a memo an hour or two ago, but if you haven't received it yet I could just tell you in person."

Kazuo raised his eyebrows, surprised. "Indeed, please do. I was not aware that any such incidents involving them had taken place recently, but if you are aware of one..."

"Nothing has happened... yet," clarified Metzger. "The incident is going to take place later this afternoon. They will be involved in some kind of... scuffle that breaks out in the Juuban area, but beyond that I don't have any further details."

"I see." Kazuo nodded, understanding now. "This information is from the Janus Project, correct?"

"Yes sir," Metzger confirmed. "I realize that the reliability of that source has been... inconsistent at times, but I thought you should know regardless."

"You were right," was Kazuo's reply. "Thank you, doctor. I will have this matter looked into. Now, unless there is anything else, I will not keep you from your work any longer."

"Yes sir," Metzger said, turning to regard the still-whimpering figure manacled to the table. "It's frustrating. Of all the monster species we sampled in order to create our Synths, these Daimons had some of the most interesting properties. But this degeneration..." He indicated the white lesions on her body disgustedly. "There must be something about the original Daimon Egg formula that I still don't understand. Something I haven't been able to reverse engineer from the eggs we salvaged from the ruins of Mugen Academy. It vexes me."

"I have every confidence that you'll figure it out," Kazuo assured him. "There aren't many people with your depth of experience at this kind of experimentation."

"Mmm. Only time will tell." Metzger put his surgical mask back on. "At any rate, this specimen could prove informative. I do have a theory that I've been testing over the past few weeks, and once I dissect this one I may be able to determine whether I'm on the right track or not."

At those words, the Daimon's eyes widened, and she redoubled her terrified thrashing against her bonds. The volume of her muffled screams also increased, forcing Kazuo to speak a little louder in order to talk over her. "Then I will leave you to it," he said, and with that he and Zhang walked out of the laboratory. The soundproofed door clicked shut behind them, cutting off the Daimon's pleading sobs with abrupt silence.

Zhang looked over at his employer, raising an eyebrow. "What do you make of that news about the Sailor Senshi, Kazuo? Do you think it's important?"

Kazuo frowned. "Most likely not," he said at length. "It will probably turn out to be nothing more than a random monster or oni wandering into the Senshi's territory. It's certainly happened often enough before." He stroked his chin in thought for a moment before continuing. "Still, no sense in taking chances. Have one of our surveillance teams stake out the area. If this battle the Senshi are about to fight does turn out to be something more significant, there may be some way we can turn it to our advantage..."

"All right, so here's how it's gonna happen," Ranma explained to the audience that stood assembled in the dojo, the same audience that had been there the previous night. Ukyo, Konatsu, Ryouga, Beneda, Akane and himself. "We want to get everything cleared up as quick as we can, so I'm going to head over to the Juuban area and get the Senshi's attention. I figured I'd just fire off a bunch of fireworks like we did last time—kinda near the Moon girl's house, but not close enough to spook 'em. Then, when they come out to investigate, I just tell them the whole story, from beginning to end."

Beneda, however, didn't look happy at the plan as described. "I really think it should be me doing this, Ranma," she protested. "It was my fault to begin with that they think you're against them. I should be the one to face them and sort things out."

"Not a chance!" interjected Ryouga, punctuating his words with a slashing motion. "We don't know if they're going to believe us or not. It's not a question of whose fault it is, it's a question of who has the best chance to get away safe if it all goes to hell!"

"Is there really that much of a difference?" asked Beneda. "You all know the kind of power that Sailor Moon is capable of throwing around! If she doesn't believe us, then either way..."

Ranma shrugged. "Maybe. But I think that depends on whether or not she's using that big-white-fluffy-dress form that she used to fight Metallia. And I saw how dangerous that can be for her. If things do go bad, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to get away without too much trouble if she doesn't pull out all the stops right off the bat." He glanced around at the others. "Anyway, I'm the one taking the risk, and that's final."

No one else looked particularly happy about it, but it was clear that Ranma had no intention of budging. "All right, Ranchan," Ukyo said at last. "If that's the way you want it, then we'll do it that way. But... at least take this." She pulled out a small packet and handed it to Ranma. "It's one of my flour bombs. The latest model. Throw this down, and it should give you some extra cover to hide in if you do need to get out of there."

Ranma accepted the gift, sticking it into one of his pockets. "Thanks, Ucchan," he said. Then he got to his feet. "Well... guess there's no sense in wasting time. Wish me luck." And with that he turned and headed for the door.

His index finger resting firmly on his Gold General tile, his brow furrowed in concentration, Saotome Genma considered the Shogi board in front of him as he sat on the porch of the Tendo home. The situation did not look good. His old friend and training partner sat on the other side of the board, a pleased expression on his mustached face. Soun had him on the ropes at the moment, and Genma wasn't sure he would be able to get out of it.

He had almost come to a decision on where to move his piece when he was distracted by the sound of the porch door opening. The bald martial artist turned to see that his son had emerged from the house and was heading across the yard toward the outer wall of the Tendo compound. "Ranma!" he called out. "Where're you headed off to?"

Ranma paused, glancing back. "Juuban," he said, his voice cool and emotionless. "We ran into some trouble with the Sailor Senshi again. I'm going to try and straighten it out before it becomes as big a mess as last time."

"Last time...?" asked Genma. A sharp edge had entered his voice despite himself. "You're not going on about that again, are you boy? This... year you say only you can remember? I thought I told you to stop with that nonsense!"

Something in Ranma's eyes hardened, but when he spoke his tone was as level as before. "You asked where I was going. I answered. Whether you believe it or not, I don't really care."

And with that he turned, leaping to the top of the outer wall and from there to the nearby rooftops. Genma watched him go, with emotions churning in his stomach that even he did not understand. He had long ago grown accustomed to his son's anger at him, an anger that would flare up like a bonfire over some cowardice or deceit or provocation—some way in which the elder Saotome had disappointed his child.

But somewhere along the way—Genma wasn't sure exactly when—that had changed. On the surface, it had seemed for the better. Ranma had stopped exploding at him almost entirely, seldom showing much beyond the barest, cooling embers of his former bursts of anger. It had taken Genma some time to realize why.

It was because Ranma was no longer disappointed in his father. Because he no longer expected anything else of him.

Genma didn't know what had caused that change. Some small, subconscious part of him understood that he didn't want to know. But the one thing he could not shake was the realization that every time he had an argument with Ranma over the boy's "missing year," he would spend the next few nights plagued by shadowy, barely-remembered nightmares. Nightmares of Akane dying horribly while he and Soun ran away.

"Saotome?" Soun's voice cut into Genma's thoughts, bringing him back to the present. "Saotome, are you all right?"

The Tendo patriarch's expression didn't look very settled either, and Genma guessed that his old friend was probably feeling much of the same uncertainty that he was. But by unspoken agreement, neither of them admitted it. Instead, Genma slapped his knee, forcing a smile across his face. "Never better, Tendo," he said, as he reached down and moved his Gold General. "Never better."

Ranma had hardly left the dojo when Ukyo turned, fixing her eyes on her kunoichi servant. "Konatsu," she said, her voice fast and clipped. "I need you to follow Ranma and keep an eye on him, okay?"

Konatsu blinked at the request, his expression growing puzzled. "But... didn't Ranma say that he was going to do this alone?"

Ukyo shook her head impatiently. "He wants to keep the rest of us out of danger in case they don't believe him, but he's putting himself in more danger than he needs to. Please, Konatsu. There's no one better at going undetected than you. Just follow him secretly, and if there is trouble, help him get out of there in one piece. Please?"

The okonomiyaki chef did feel a little bit guilty, knowing that Konatsu would never refuse her, even if her request was to put himself at risk for the sake of the young man she loved instead of him. And indeed, the cross-dressing ninja didn't even hesitate. "Of course, Lady Ukyo!" he said. "You don't need to worry; I won't let anything happen to him!"

With that, he simply vanished in a flicker of super-fast movement, even his ki aura erasing itself from Ukyo's senses entirely. She knew that from this point on it would be futile for her to try and track his progress. He was, without question, a true genius of his art, and his skills had only increased over the years she had known him.

None of the others said anything, but Ukyo knew that none of them had liked the idea of Ranma going alone either—knew that they had all wanted to go themselves, just as she herself had. But Konatsu was the best choice, by far the most likely to remain undetected.

Now, all that was left for them was to wait, and to pray that the Senshi would believe Ranma's explanation.

"...and then Ranma told her that no matter what, they were going to succeed the next time they tried to bring their army through!" Luna's gaze shifted across each of the assembled Inner Senshi, along with Artemis and Chibi-Usa. Mamoru—the civilian identity of Tuxedo Kamen—had arrived as well, and was sitting next to Usagi with one arm around the blonde girl.

Makoto crossed her arms, frowning. "So how do we respond to this?" the tall brunette asked. "Sooner or later they're going to show up and feed us this story. But still... even if we know it's just a pack of lies, it doesn't feel right to just attack them if all they're doing is talking."

"You're right," agreed Ami. "Even if it's insincere on their part, them coming to us does still give us an opportunity to try and reason with them. From what Luna described, it sounds like they're reluctant to face us head-on, and also that they're nowhere near ready to summon their army again. If we show them that their ruse isn't going to work, we may be able to get them to back down without bloodshed."

"Yeah!" Usagi interjected enthusiastically. "We'll just tell them that Luna heard all their plans, and so they won't be able to trick us like that!"

"Wait, Usagi, we can't tell them exactly how we know," the moon cat cautioned. "Remember, I only overheard their planning because one of their servants hid me right before they started talking about it, and she lied to them to cover for me. Until we get her and her family to safety, we can't tell the Dark Lords anything that might risk making them suspicious about what she did that night."

"Well, it shouldn't matter too much how we found out," put in Minako. "With any luck, they'll just give up once they realize we're onto them."

As she spoke, there was the sound of a distant pop, followed by another, and then another. A curious expression on her face, Rei got up and walked over to the nearest window, here eyebrows going up a little at what she saw. "Well," she said at last. "If we're waiting for them to try and get our attention... I don't think we have to wait much longer."

The rest of them rushed over as well, Luna hopping up onto the windowsill for a better look. It was fireworks, shooting up into the air one after another from a ways off, exploding in bursts of white, blue, red, green and orange. That's the same way the Dark Lords got our attention four years ago, Luna thought. When they tried to force us to leave them alone by threatening to kill that poor girl they'd taken hostage.

"It's time," the moon cat said aloud. "Girls, you'd better transform. It looks like they're making their move."

Kodachi's plan to show up unannounced at the Tendo dojo and make an amorous attempt on Ranma's affections ran into a crippling roadblock early in its execution. Said roadblock being that Ranma did not seem to be at the Tendo dojo when she arrived. At least, she never caught sight of him in any of her spying, as she peeked over the adjacent rooftops.

She did see two of her rivals out in the yard, however. Akane was one of them, of course, but Ukyo was also present, the two girls talking together worriedly about something. As Kodachi watched, the okonomiyaki chef put her hand on the other girl's shoulder and gave it a quick, reassuring squeeze, to which Akane nodded as they continued to talk.

The gymnast ground her teeth, telling herself that the two of them were scheming something, working together to steal her Ranma away and share him between the two of them. But she would not fall victim to such foul play. She studied both girls closely, trying to guess what kind of devious plot they might be concocting—

—as Ukyo's battle spatula deflected the swing of a large club-wielding youma, knocking it off-course before it could hit her, while her ribbon lashed out in the other direction, slashing at the eyes of a youma trying to attack Akane—

Kodachi sucked in a shuddering breath, clenching her eyes shut and forcing the images from her mind, reminding herself that they were not real, not real, not real. Eventually, some semblance of control regained, she dropped down behind the house she was perched atop, then crept slowly across the street toward the Tendo home, using the compound's outer wall for cover. Soon she was close enough that, even with the wall between them, she could strain her ears and catch what her two rivals were saying on the other side of it.

"...always the hardest when there's nothing you can do," was the first thing she heard Akane say, concern and frustration in her voice. "If I could've gone with him to Juuban, it wouldn't be so bad. But just waiting here, when you know he's out there risking his life..."

"I know what you mean," agreed Ukyo, sympathetically. "I wish he'd been willing to take more of us along too. But that's Ranchan for you. If we'd gone along, I bet he'd be just as worried about us as we are about him now."

Akane's response was a sigh. "You're right, of course. I just hope he doesn't take too many chances. It's bad enough when he goes up against people who want to kill him for selfish reasons, but I'm worried about what will happen if a fight breaks out this time. With the way things are right now, he wouldn't fight back using anything that could seriously injure the Sailor Senshi... and that'll put him at a disadvantage."

The Sailor Senshi. The name provoked another flood of images in Kodachi's mind, and she knew that they were connected to the battle that she had fought in, the one that hadn't actually happened, it hadn't, it hadn't. She clenched her fists, trying with all her might to retain her already-fractured grip on what she considered to be reality. She bit down on her knuckle, hard, trying to focus, trying to make sense of what she had just learned.

Ranma had gone to the Sailor Senshi. The Sailor Senshi were connected to the memories somehow, and her rivals knew about it. It was all connected, all connected. She just couldn't see how and none of it made any sense anymore.

But one thing made sense. Only one thing, but it was the only thing that mattered. Those two tramps, harlots, schemers, deceivers... they had said that Ranma was in trouble. Ranma was in danger. Ranma was being threatened by the Sailor Senshi. She knew who they were. She had heard of them, even aside from the flashes of memory that weren't—couldn't be—memories. She knew that they were "magical girls" that operated largely in the Juuban area, just where Akane had said Ranma had gone. And if Ranma was in danger from the Sailor Senshi...

Well. That meant that the Sailor Senshi were about to be in danger from her.

Not caring to listen to any more, Kodachi turned away and began to run, moving as fast as she could in the direction her beloved had gone.

Moving as silently as a whisper, Tuxedo Kamen leapt up three stories to the rooftop of the nearby building, then crept across it until he had reached the edge, giving him a good view of the scene before him. On the rooftop across from him was, indeed, the Dark Lord Ranma himself, standing amidst a steadily-diminishing pile of fireworks. The sight recalled afresh the memory of their previous clashes, and just how close they had all come to death at his hands.

Not this time, the masked man promised himself. Not if I have anything to say about it.

The Sailor Senshi had not yet arrived; Tuxedo Kamen had gone ahead of them, taking up his customary position as hidden backup support. If Ranma tried anything, he would be there to help counter it. Fortunately, the Dark Lord didn't seem to have noticed his stealthy approach, and so he would have, as usual, the element of surprise on his side if it did become necessary to intervene.

He thought back to his previous fights against this opponent, as well as with the other Dark Lord, Ryouga, trying to plan for what might come. He'd been able to survive against them, and even hold his own when there had been youma acting as a third force that prevented any one side from being able to focus on another exclusively. Still, he knew that on the whole the Dark Lords had distinctly outclassed him in straight one-on-one combat.

But although he hadn't gained any new attacks or transformations over the years, the overall strength, speed and durability of his transformed body had still grown along with the Sailor Senshi's. And of all their team, close-quarters combat was his forte. If he's still the same as he was four years ago, I'm confident that I can beat him now, he thought. Hopefully it won't come to that. But if it does, I have to be ready to protect Sailor Moon.

And so Tuxedo Kamen waited, eyes locked on his unsuspecting target.

Moving as silently as a thought, Konatsu leapt up to the rooftop and hid behind the roof access stairway, a position from which he could keep an eye on the tuxedo-clad and cane-wielding man who was in turn keeping an eye on Ranma. Konatsu had begun scouting out the area even before Ranma had started to send up his fireworks, and had quickly noticed both the approaching Sailor Senshi and this masked figure who had gone ahead of them.

This man is the one for me to watch... the ninja thought. If they launch a surprise attack against Ranma, it will most likely be through him. I have to make sure he doesn't get the chance.

And so Konatsu waited, eyes locked on his unsuspecting target.

Ranma lowered the burning match to the next fuse, then watched as it caught and the flame began racing up toward the firework to which it was attached. In seconds the small explosive shot up into the sky with a loud shrieking noise, exploding in a burst of green sparks. There wasn't any sign of the Sailor Senshi yet, though a small crowd of gawkers had gathered below, probably trying to figure out what on earth he was doing. Hope one of those girls sees this soon... the pigtailed fighter thought. I don't have all that many of these things left...

And then, as though summoned by his thoughts, he heard a familiar voice calling up from the street below. "Ranma!"

The pigtailed fighter walked to the edge of the rooftop to look down at the speaker, standing at the center of her group of six similarly-dressed girls. They were spread out, keeping their distance from him and between each other, which Ranma noted approvingly. They probably remembered that he was at his best when close-up, and had spaced themselves out so he could only attack one of them at a time. All of the Sailor Senshi were looking up at him, but Ranma found his gaze captured by the one who had spoken.

She was very much like he remembered... and yet at the same time, very different as well. Her long blonde pigtails still flowed down nearly to her feet from either side of her head. She was taller now, no longer the scrawny middle-schooler, but rather a high school girl that was well on her way to becoming a woman. She still wore a white sailor seifuku, though its trimmings and frills were now much more intricate, with splashes of pink and yellow added here and there to the blue and red from before. Not to mention what looked like a pair of short wings—wings!—sprouting from her back.

But even more noticeable than any of that was the difference in her bearing. The girl who had faced him down in the gymnasium of Furinkan High had been terrified, pushing past her fear to stand with trembling legs and deliver her challenge. The Sailor Moon who stood before him now, however, met his gaze head-on, with quiet composure and a bone-deep determination.

Despite himself, the corner of Ranma's mouth quirked upward in a small smile. Kid's been doing some serious growing up, he thought. Aloud, what he said was: "Hey, Sailor Moon. Been a while."

"Yes, it has," agreed the blonde girl. "Is your friend Ryouga somewhere around here as well?"

The pigtailed fighter shook his head. "No, I came alone," he told them. "It's just me, I swear. I'm not here for a fight. I just want to talk things out. See, the thing is... I know we got off to a bad start last time, but... really, we were never against you guys from the beginning!"

"You... seriously expect us to believe that?" At the words, Ranma turned to look at Sailor Mars, who was looking up at him in dumbfounded incredulity. "You attacked us! You threatened to kill innocent bystanders to try and make us back down! You ranted to us about how you were going to conquer the entire world!"

Ranma scratched the back of his head. "Well, when you put it like that..." he muttered to himself. Then he spoke up louder. "Look, I can explain all that stuff! See, what was actually going on back then was that we were trying to trick everyone into thinking we were trying to take over the world, and then use that to fake getting banished, 'cause of how everyone wanted to kill us by then. Oh, and the whole thing of how our fight got started at first? With us attacking you? That was all just a complete misunderstanding."

Sailor Mars' expression in response to Ranma's claims was one of flat disbelief. The pigtailed fighter grimaced. This was going even worse than he'd expected. "Okay, maybe if I just started at the beginning..."

"Don't bother. We already know you're trying to trick us!" Ranma turned again, his gaze travelling down the line of Sailor Senshi to identify the latest speaker—

—and froze, his blood fairly curdling in his veins. He had been so wrapped up in the obvious threats to himself and to his friends, the threat of newer, more deadly Senshi and the power of the Moon Princess that could rip whole planets asunder that he had forgotten about a much, much simpler threat in dealing with these girls.

They had a pet cat! They had a freaking pet cat!

The small feline had only crossed Ranma's path very briefly in the original conflict four years ago—and only until Ryouga handled the situation—but now the memory returned with a vengeance. And there were two of the small creatures now, both of them standing off at the left end of the Senshi line. Ranma's hands clenched into fists, his heart hammering in his chest, cold sweat starting to run down his back.

Don't freak out! Don't freak out! Whatever you do, don't freak out! he commanded himself, calling on all his willpower and self-discipline. You can do this! It's only two of those... those... those things! And they're three stories down there, not even close by! You've handled way worse than this, Saotome! Don't let it shake you!

Licking his lips nervously, he tried his best to respond to the accusation of the black... creature. "Wh- wh- wh- what are you talking about?" he asked, not quite looking at the small animal directly.

"You know exactly what I mean!" the cat retorted. "Everything you're telling us now is just a smokescreen! It's all to buy time for you to complete the exact same ceremony you tried to perform four years ago!"

Luna watched as the Dark Lord tried his best to deny her exposal of his true aims. He's not a very convincing liar when he's flustered, she thought. The young man was clearly having trouble responding to her charges; he was stammering, looking like he might panic and bolt at any moment, and was having trouble even looking her in the eye as he spoke.

"I'm... I'm telling you, you got it all wrong!" Ranma protested. "I'm not trying to trick you! All that stuff about killing you guys and summoning an army... that was the trick! But I'm being honest now, I swear! I don't want to fight you!"

"We don't want to fight you either!" called up Sailor Moon, her voice earnest. "Just stop your mind control on everyone you've enslaved, and surrender your dimensional-artifact-thing, and I'm sure we can work something out!"

"I don't have a dimensional-artifact-thing!" shouted back Ranma, almost hyperventilating now. "And I'm not mind-controlling anyone! Why would you even think that?"

"We know you are! Because—" Sailor Moon broke off, doubtless remembering Luna's admonition to protect the safety of the woman who had aided them. "—because of... magic... and stuff. Anyway, the important thing is that we really do know what you're doing! And if you won't stop doing it... then we're going to have to stop you!"

Ranma's breath was coming fast and erratic, as panic clawed for purchase against his mind. He was holding it at bay, but with increasing effort. Why aren't they listening? he thought desperately to himself. They were just refusing to believe anything he tried to tell them. And they wouldn't even explain why!

And the cat. The talking cat. Ranma still couldn't bring himself to quite look at it directly, but he didn't dare turn completely away either. At any moment he expected the small monster to leap at him from below, claws and teeth extended, ready to slash open his face and rip his flesh from his bones. It would make its move any second now. He was sure of it! Hell, the damned cat was probably the reason the Senshi weren't listening to him in the first place! The hideous, furry little devil obviously wanted him dead. It must have lied to the girls to poison their minds against him!

Sailor Mercury was talking now, saying something about coexistence and finding a peaceful solution to whatever reasons he had for his ambitions of conquest, but it was barely registering at this point. He had to get out of here. He should have known this would never work. In desperation, he reached into his pocket, his fingers closing on the flour bomb Ukyo had given him.

The feel of it in his palm gave him some tiny measure of comfort. Then, slowly, surreptitiously, he inched it out with a trembling hand, keeping it hidden behind his palm from the watchers below. He then breathed a small, shaky sigh of relief. He was better prepared now. If that crazed, bloodthirsty little demon down there tried to attack him, he could use Ucchan's gift to help escape.

From his hidden vantage point, Tuxedo Kamen watched as the situation in front of him steadily devolved. Ranma had clearly been caught off-guard by the Sailor Senshi already knowing about his scheme, and his composure had not held up well to being cornered. But unfortunately, even as rattled as he seemed to be, it didn't seem like he intended to give up the charade. Rather, he seemed to only be growing more erratic, and the masked man heightened his alert in case the young man decided to try something desperate.

And then he saw it. As Sailor Mercury tried her best to reason with him, Ranma's hand was inching out of his pocket, with something held in his palm—held specifically so that from their position the Sailor Senshi couldn't see that he was drawing it. Was it a weapon? A bomb? Whatever it was, Tuxedo Kamen couldn't let him use it on his unaware teammates.

His decision made, the masked man drew a rose and prepared to throw it, aiming to strike the object from Ranma's hand.

Konatsu's eyes widened. Just from what he could overhear, he had already gathered that negotiations with the Sailor Senshi were not going particularly well. But even so, he was surprised to see that the tuxedo-clad fighter he had been watching was now getting ready to attack, drawing a rose and preparing to hurl it in Ranma's direction.

The cross-dressing ninja, however, acted first. His hand shot out, sending a small shuriken hissing through the air, bisecting the rose's stem before its wielder could throw it. The masked man spun around, raising his cane defensively with one hand while pulling out a rose with the other, even as Konatsu shot across the rooftop toward him.

The kunoichi came in low at the last second, lunging forward as his opponent's cane slashed through the air just above his head. Konatsu buried an uppercut into his opponent's stomach, the force of the blow lifting the man off his feet. The man's breath left him in a gasping whuff, but he still attempted to bring his cane down onto the ninja's skull.

Konatsu whipped his ninja-to blade from its sheath and blocked in a single smooth motion, the two weapons slamming against each other. Then he spun, bringing the hilt of the weapon around into the side of the masked man's head, sending him flipping head over heels to crash to the rooftop a good distance away.

Well, thought the cross-dressing ninja resignedly, as he watched his opponent climb unsteadily back to his feet. I suppose this means that negotiations are over.

Sailor Moon listened to Sailor Mercury urging the Dark Lord to see reason, while at the same time watching Ranma's face for any sign that he might be accepting it. To her dismay, there was none. More and more, it was feeling like a fight of some kind was inevitable. They had to rescue Ukyo and the other girls, had to prevent Ranma's plan from coming to pass.

If only she could just find some other way, somehow...

And then, without warning, there was a sudden burst of motion on another rooftop. Sailor Moon turned to look, just in time to see a tuxedo-clad figure go flying through the air, from the attack of what seemed to be a female ninja. "Tuxedo Kamen!" she cried out.

Sailor Jupiter let out a hiss of anger. "The liar did have backup after all! He must have been planning for a sneak attack from the start if he couldn't fool us!" Green light had already begun to coalesce by her forehead, converging on the small antenna that had just risen from the center of her tiara. Then she released her power with a shout of "Jupiter Oak Evolution!"

Dozens of green, leaf-shaped energy projectiles began to shoot out from her tiara, targeting the ninja. The kunoichi leapt backward in a frantic series of dodges and flips as the blasts traced her path, detonating in a trail of huge explosions until the ninja escaped Sailor Jupiter's line of sight, disappearing back beyond the edge of the rooftop. The reprieve allowed Tuxedo Kamen to catch his balance, and he immediately chased after his opponent through the residual flames from the explosive barrage, his cloak billowing behind him.

Meanwhile, Ranma had thrown something down onto the roof he was standing on. There was a loud thump, and a white cloud burst out from the impact point to almost entirely cover the rooftop, cutting it off from view.

They could hear Tuxedo Kamen and the female ninja fighting above, and it was there that Sailor Moon decided to intervene first. She ran toward the building and leaped up onto it as well, followed by the rest of the Sailor Senshi. The cats remained behind, their eyes following anxiously as the girls disappeared over the rooftop edge; the building was too tall for them to make a jump like that.

Now that his opponent no longer had the advantage of surprise, Tuxedo Kamen was holding his own better than before. Even so, the kunoichi was still dominating the fight. Her sword deflected his every cane swing with ease, and she responded with punishing kicks and elbow strikes that the tuxedo-clad man was barely managing to weather.

The Senshi fanned out across the rooftop, attempting to get a good angle on the enemy that didn't risk hitting their masked ally as well as the two fought. Only Sailor Moon didn't bother, given that her most potent attack was a blast of purifying magic that was entirely harmless to ordinary human beings. She simply focused her will, the scepter-like Final Tiare appearing in her hands, golden light collecting at its tip, growing brighter and brighter as her power built. "Silver Moon Crystal—"

A red-and-black blur shot out of the swirling white cloud on the nearby rooftop and plowed into her before she could complete her attack. She stumbled, trying to catch her balance, whereupon Ranma brought his hand up in a sharp blow to the underside of her wrist, knocking the Final Tiare spinning out of her hands and into the air. He then placed his foot against her stomach and used it to deliver a shove that sent her flying straight at Sailor Jupiter. The brown-haired Senshi barely managed to catch her, and the two of them went skidding back across the rooftop, Sailor Jupiter's high heels leaving trails of sparks as they went.

"Venus Love and Beauty Shock!"

"Mercury Aqua Rhapsody!"

"Mars Flare Snip—ERK!"

Fire gathered in Sailor Mars' hands, forming itself into a large bow with a flaming arrow. She aimed it at Sailor Moon's attacker, sighting down the length of the shaft. But just before she could release her projectile Ranma caught the falling Final Tiare out of the air. The instant after he grabbed the scepter it seemed to vanish from sight, reappearing across the rooftop as it impacted into Sailor Mars' forehead. The blow knocked her back off her feet and caused her arrow to fire completely off-course, shooting off into the sky.

Sailor Venus and Sailor Mercury, however, both unleashed their powers without hindrance. Sailor Mercury molded the water swirling around her into the shape of a harp, which she then began to play, sending a torrent of water raging out from it toward her target. Sailor Venus simply blew a kiss, which became a glowing golden heart that she hurled at Ranma as well.

But the Dark Lord moved, disappearing from the path of either attack in a burst of speed so fast that even Sailor Moon's magically enhanced eyes could barely track his movement. The two attacks exploded harmlessly to his right, even as he launched himself from there toward Sailor Venus like a human cannonball.

"Crescent—" Sailor Venus tried for a second attack, but Ranma was on the blonde girl far too quickly. Even as golden light formed at her fingertips the Dark Lord had reached her—and then planted a hand on her head as he flipped over the girl and landed behind her. She tried to spin and face him, Crescent Beam still ready to fire, but the pigtailed fighter put a hand between her shoulder blades and shoved, sending her careening forward across the rooftop until she managed to catch her balance again. Ranma, for his part, had to hop back toward the opposite edge of the roof as Sailor Chibi-moon sent a flashing stream of pink hearts through the space he'd been occupying with a cry of "Pink Sugar Heart Attack!"

By then Sailor Jupiter had steadied both herself and Sailor Moon, and Sailor Mars was likewise scrambling back to her feet. At the same time Sailor Mercury called out to them, her voice clear and incisive. "He's too fast to hit with targeted attacks!" she said. "Everyone, use your powers that give you the most coverage instead!"

The rest of them nodded in agreement, already calling on their mystic energies from their positions spread across the rooftop, all of them now focused on the pigtailed fighter. Then, with shouts of "Jupiter Oak Evolution!", "Burning Mandala!", "Crescent Beam Shower!", and "Shabon Spray Freezing!" they unleashed a massed-fire blizzard of energy projectiles of all different shapes and colors. Flaming rings, ice-blue spheres, golden beams and glowing green leaves all flooded the air in a kaleidoscopic maelstrom.

Ranma's eyes bulged, and he let out a panicked yelp before spinning to dive headlong off the edge of the rooftop, vanishing from sight as the Senshi barrage screamed overhead. He reappeared a moment later, jumping back up onto one of the rooftops several buildings away as he surveyed them from a safer distance.

It was then that Sailor Moon heard the sound of an impact, and Tuxedo Kamen came flying across her field of vision, landing in a heap at the edge of the roof. The Senshi whirled toward where the ninja stood, ready to fight her as well... but instead of pressing her attack, the kunoichi jumped away as well, falling back to where Ranma now stood.

The two of them exchanged a few quick words, but Sailor Moon could not hear them over the distance. Then with one last glance at the rooftop occupied by the Senshi they turned and fled, hopping from rooftop to rooftop as they retreated.

Ranma's feet pounded across the rooftops as he ran, his mind churning as he tried to process the events of the recent past. This was a little easier now that he was out of the thick of combat. And much easier now that he was away from those damned cats.

It was fortunate that he'd had Ucchan's flour bomb to block off sight of them and collect himself, and even more fortunate still that the subsequent rooftop skirmish had taken place out of line of sight from the small felines. Otherwise, he might not have been able to give Konatsu much aid at all. He didn't know what Sailor Moon's attack would have done had he not interrupted it, but given the scale of power she could operate on he didn't want to take any chances.

"What do you plan to do next, Ranma?" asked the ninja, who was running alongside him. "It... doesn't seem like talking it over has worked out the way you wanted."

"No kidding." Ranma grimaced, while glancing back over his shoulder again to make sure that the Sailor Senshi weren't trying to hunt them down. They weren't; it seemed that they had instead rushed over to make sure the tuxedo-guy was all right. "Hell, I don't even know why they didn't believe me! From the way they were talking it sounded like they had some kind of... specific reason why they thought we were still trying to take over the world. But they wouldn't explain what it was! It doesn't make any sense!"

Konatsu nodded. "So to prove that we are innocent, we need to first figure out what this mysterious 'reason' of theirs is?"

"Yeah, I guess," Ranma said with a sigh. "But on the other hand, I don't know if we can figure all of it out in time to actually avoid a fight. And if we can't... then maybe it's better to focus on winning the fight instead."

The ninja was silent at that, leaving Ranma to wrestle with his thoughts. He didn't like any of his options, and it was only made worse by a nagging feeling of anxiety that wouldn't let him alone. It wasn't his danger sense, at least not exactly, but it was a similar kind of instinct that he had developed over the years. A vague sort of premonition, a sense of anticipation that despite his best efforts—as was depressingly usual for him—things were about to somehow go horribly wrong.

But how? True, the situation had not gone as planned, but at least they had gotten out of it in one piece. The Senshi weren't even chasing him, and the immediate danger, at least, seemed to be over.

So why was he still so uneasy?

Kodachi hadn't exactly had a sound plan of action in mind before heading for the Juuban area. All she knew from the conversation she had overheard was that Ranma was in danger from the Sailor Senshi, and that this was where he had gone. And so, armed with little more than a vague direction and her maniacal resolve, she had begun her search for him.

She hadn't known, when she'd caught sight of the fireworks far off in the distance, that they had anything to do with her darling, but it had been a better clue than nothing. She'd changed her course to aim for there, and even after the fireworks themselves stopped she continued to head in that direction.

The gymnast slowed her pace as she drew nearer, noticing that a white cloud-ish plume was rising up from one of the rooftops. One of the okonomiyaki tramp's flour bombs? she wondered, noticing its familiarity. Then, from a rooftop behind the cloud, she saw what looked like an arrow of flame shoot up into the sky and out of sight. Her eyes narrowed. Something is definitely going on there—a battle of some kind?

And if the strange happenings gave her suspicions more weight, what happened next confirmed them entirely. A huge torrent of destructive energy shot through the air from behind the cloud, making her eyes go wide at the sight. Then her darling Ranma came into view, joined shortly thereafter by Ukyo's ninja servant, whereupon the two of them turned and fled the scene.

Kodachi's hungry gaze tracked Ranma as he ran... but she resisted the temptation to chase after him just yet. There were other matters to attend to first.

Specifically, the matter of dealing with whoever it was that had dared to raise their hands against her beloved.

Sailor Moon breathed a sigh of relief as Tuxedo Kamen pulled himself back up to a sitting position, shaking his head as though to clear it. He didn't seem to have sustained any serious injury, beyond getting the wind knocked out of him along with a few bruises. The blonde girl knelt on the rooftop right next to him and the other Senshi did similarly, forming a loose circle. "Are you all right?" she asked, just to make sure.

Tuxedo Kamen nodded, suppressing a small wince. "I'm fine," he said. "Mostly just wounded pride. That ninja girl was... an amazingly skilled fighter."

"They both were." Sailor Jupiter glanced over at Sailor Moon, Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury. "You didn't tell us the Dark Lords were this strong."

"They weren't!" replied Sailor Moon. "I mean... they were super fast and strong and everything when we fought them the last time... but this was even more than it was back then!"

"Yes," agreed Sailor Mercury. "We clearly aren't the only ones who've improved since that fight. We need to factor their increased capabilities into our strategy for the next time we face them."

"And when do we do that?" asked Sailor Jupiter. "I know I'd like another crack at that Ranma guy, so the sooner we go after him the— look out!"

Right in the middle of her sentence, a small packet shot through the air with bullet-like speed, striking the ground right in the middle of the circle of Sailor Senshi, where it exploded in a cloud of swirling dust. But Sailor Jupiter—from her position in the circle—had seen the attack coming, which had given her a split-second to react. And she had used it. Not to save herself, but to lunge forward and shove both Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Kamen as hard as she could, hurling them clear. That left her right at ground zero, her limbs locking up in paralysis as she tumbled over along with the other Senshi.

Sailor Moon rolled to her feet, whirling around in the direction from which the packet had been thrown, in time to see an older girl clad in a black leotard alight on the rooftop and begin stalking toward them. There was something dangerous in her eyes, something erratic, something completely unstable. And yet, underneath it all, Sailor Moon could also see pain, a pain that made her own heart ache just glimpsing it.

"You miserable... treacherous... deceitful little wretches!" the girl hissed as she approached. "You will pay for trifling with my darling Ranma! You will all pay dearly!"

The crazed gymnast struck out at Tuxedo Kamen with her ribbon, its coils winding through the air with blinding speed, slashing up the rooftop wherever they hit. But the masked man deftly avoided the attacks, dodging around her every cut. When he retaliated, it was by hurling a single rose that she only just avoided, its thorns cutting a line of blood across her cheek as she jerked her head out of the path of the red-and-green projectile.

Tuxedo Kamen took advantage of the opening, lunging forward with a flurry of cane swings. The girl whipped out a gymnastics club from somewhere and managed to block the first few, the two weapons crashing against each other as she backpedaled under the onslaught. But soon one of the strikes got through, his cane slamming into the side of her head. She stumbled, reeling, allowing the tuxedo-clad fighter to spin and drive his weapon straight into her chest, flinging her the length of the rooftop.

He drew another rose to throw it, but Sailor Moon lunged forward and caught her protector by the arm before he could. "Wait!" she pleaded. "Don't kill her! She... isn't like Ranma. I can tell. She's... hurting. She's hurting so much. Please, I have to try and help her!"

The masked man hesitated, then nodded once in understanding, turning back to Kodachi, who had by then pulled herself back to her feet. Fortunately—her sneak attack notwithstanding—she didn't seem to be nearly so strong in a direct fight as Ranma or the ninja had been. Tuxedo Kamen tossed aside the rose he'd been about to throw and drew a different one, doubtless enchanted with a different effect. He then leapt at her, hurling roses as he went, keeping her entirely on the defensive as she fought with all her might just to avoid them.

Ranma was in mid-leap between buildings when he sensed the spike of killing intent from behind him. It was distant, but it was also huge, with not the slightest attempt to disguise itself whatsoever, battle aura pouring out like water pouring out of a broken fire hydrant. He landed, then immediately turned to look over his shoulder, squinting his eyes to try and make out what those tiny, distant figures were doing back there.

Then his eyes went wide, as he recognized the ponytailed figure in the black leotard who was even now fighting against the other two. Oh no, he thought. Oh hell no! What's she doing here?

It was the worst turn of events he could imagine. A lunatic like Kodachi attacking the Sailor Senshi would only confirm their suspicions yet more... and worse, he knew that the crazed gymnast wasn't actually skilled enough to survive the fight she'd just picked. The Senshi might well kill her. Even as he watched, he saw a tiny figure that had to be Sailor Moon raise her scepter, leveling it directly at Kodachi.

He had to stop this. He had to get over there before things got any worse than they already were. Calling on all his speed, he tore across the rooftops, the air howling around him as he hurtled back toward the fight, praying that he'd arrive there in time.

Sailor Moon took a deep breath. She didn't know exactly if this would work, didn't know if it would be able to help the girl with whatever was afflicting her, but it was the only thing she could think of to try. If it was Ranma's mind control that was causing this, then maybe she could restore her from that, like she had so many other people over the years.

Once again, with a flash of light, she summoned the Final Tiare to her hands, focusing her power into it. Once again, golden energy began to gather at the artifact's head, glowing brighter and brighter as its strength built. Once again, Sailor Moon began to call out the name of her attack.


Tuxedo Kamen landed in a defensive position, standing protectively between the girl he loved and the leotard-clad attacker. Behind him, Sailor Moon had already started to cast her magic. In seconds it would be unleashed, hopefully freeing their opponent from whatever misery Ranma had inflicted on her. He just had to hold her back for that long.

The gymnast must have realized the importance of what Sailor Moon was doing as well, because she dove headlong to the right, trying to get around him to where she could attack the blonde girl. In midair she drew—of all things—a rose, this one black instead of the red roses that he favored. Then she hurled it, sending it speeding toward its target.

But Tuxedo Kamen was too fast. He had matched her dodge, and his hand shot out even as the rose went by, snatching it out of the air before it could get anywhere close to Sailor Moon. Then he held it up in front of him so that she could see plainly how futile such an attack was.


Kodachi watched as the masked man caught her rose in mid-flight and held it up in front of him for display. He then opened his mouth—perhaps to give some kind of grand speech about the evil of using roses for nefarious purposes.

What he would have said she never learned, since the explosive in her rose detonated before he could deliver any of it. The concussive force of the blast knocked the man into an end-over-end flip, leaving the route to the blonde girl clear.

With a wild cry, she raised her gymnastics ribbon and lunged forward, the bladed fabric slashing out toward its target.


Sailor Moon's eyes widened as Tuxedo Kamen was hit by the explosion. The next instant the crazed gymnast was leaping toward her, her ribbon outstretched. The young princess had seen firsthand how dangerous her opponent's weapon was... but she also knew that if she aborted her attack to dodge she would lose her chance at helping this girl, and she would also leave her incapacitated teammates vulnerable. She couldn't let that happen!

So instead she steeled her will and gripped down on the Final Tiare with all her strength. The ribbon struck a split-second later, so supernaturally sharp that it made a razor look blunt, managing to cut even her magically-strengthened body. The crazed gymnast slashed at her in a frenzy, sending blood spraying left and right from her arms and stomach.

But Sailor Moon did not falter.


Ranma put everything he had into speed, rocketing across the rooftops at a dead sprint. Even at this distance he could practically taste the magical power gathering at the tip of Sailor Moon's scepter, and the sheer magnitude of it was absolutely terrifying. If she hits Kodachi with that...

Not to mention the bloody damage that Kodachi's ribbon was doing to Sailor Moon as well. He had to get the two of them apart! They were so close—only the tiniest fraction of a second away at his current inhuman speed... but he could see that it was too late. He could read it in her body language. Sailor Moon was launching her attack. Now.

He threw himself forward with all his strength, trying with all his might to at least reach Kodachi, to grab her, to try and dodge whatever was coming. He was all but invisible, moving so fast that even most martial artists would have only seen a flicker of red and black as he shot across the rooftop and—


—and then everything was golden light.

There was no "dodging" it. Power burst from her upraised scepter like the sun come to rest on earth, pouring over everything like a tidal wave. Ranma threw up his arms in front of himself in a futile gesture of defense, but could do nothing else as he felt the overwhelming magical energies wash over him. It seemed to go on forever, but eventually there was a final pulse, then what looked like thousands of pure white feathers rushing past him. Only then did the light fade.

Which was when Ranma discovered—to his mild astonishment—that he had not, in fact, been reduced to a tiny, smoking pile of ash.

He looked down, checking himself, but all his limbs seemed to be in their appropriate places. He was panting hard from the exertion of traveling that entire distance at the insane velocity he had, but otherwise he felt fine. He looked over at Kodachi, and she seemed to be all in one piece as well.

At least... physically she was. Looking closer, Ranma realized to his shock that there were tears running down the gymnast's face.

When the purifying light washed over Kodachi, the magic was driven by Sailor Moon's desire to free the girl from what was causing her such anguish. The Sailor Senshi had assumed that the cause was Ranma's control preying on her mind... when in fact the true problem lay in the tattered remnants of the half-conscious Wish she herself had made all those years ago, as she lay clinging to life in the Arctic snow.

Kodachi had been desperately clinging to that magic, trying to hold back the memories she did not want to face, refusing to let go even when outside evidence had caused her amnesia to steadily erode as the years went by. The tension had strained and twisted her already-fragile grip on reality, resulting in the tormented young woman who had attacked the magical girls.

Sailor Moon knew none of this. But that didn't much matter. Indeed, the fact that she was the author of both spells only meant that it was that much easier for the Silver Moon Crystal Power Kiss to do its work. When the golden light struck the gymnast, it took those broken remains of the spell blocking Kodachi's memory and dissolved them utterly in a flood of warmth and restoration.

Kodachi remembered. She remembered everything. The good and the bad, the painful things and the joyous things, the failures and the accomplishments and everything in between. She remembered the depredations that the Darkmistress had visited on her, and she remembered overcoming that torment to help Mousse kill the vile monster. She remembered the battle where she had helped to save the world. She remembered her death, and the deaths of her rivals. She remembered it all.

And all throughout her remembering, she was enveloped in the power of Sailor Moon's magic, as though her very soul were wrapped in a tight, loving embrace. It did not hide the pain from her—not this time—but it held her through that pain, a constant reminder of hope, a reminder that there was so much more than just what had hurt her.

She didn't know when she had started crying, but eventually she noticed that there were tears streaking down her face. She felt as though her defenses had been stripped away, all the lies that she had subconsciously relied on vanishing, leaving her soul naked and exposed to everyone.

It was too much. Far, far too much. She had to get away. With a sob, the gymnast turned and ran for all she was worth, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, her tears still falling freely as she fled.

Ranma stared in bewilderment, his mouth slightly agape, as Kodachi ran away from him, crying. What the hell? he wondered, trying to make some sense out of her behavior. It wasn't like Kodachi was very rational even at the best of times, but he'd never seen her act quite like this before.

Then he turned back to look at Sailor Moon. The white of her uniform was still stained a seeping crimson from the slashes Kodachi had given her, but she was regarding him with a determination that had only increased. "Are you still going to try and tell us that you aren't mind-controlling these girls into your being your servants, Ranma?" she demanded, her eyes flashing.

Ranma clenched his eyes shut in a brief, resigned wince, as he began to put two and two together and felt the inevitability of the situation closing in on him as a result. "Okay..." he said at length. "Okay, yes, I realize that to you that probably looked just like you freed her from my 'mind-control' or whatever, but... it wasn't... look, I can totally explain that one too!"

Actually, the more he thought about it, he wasn't even sure if he could explain it—not yet, anyway. He didn't actually know what had just happened, except for a vague sort of guess that Sailor Moon's magic might've had a different effect on someone whose head was as messed up as Kodachi's was. He didn't even know what that effect had been, and he wouldn't know until he had the chance to find the gymnast again and talk to her.

Either way, it didn't seem like Sailor Moon was particularly inclined to believe his protest. She raised her scepter in front of her, and Ranma felt the girl's incredible power swelling once again, causing his skin to crawl at the sheer magnitude of it. "I don't want to hurt you," she told him, her voice quiet. "But I won't let you hurt my friends either. And I won't let you keep your hold over Ukyo and the others, either. No matter what."

Behind her, the other Sailor Senshi were already starting to fight their way back to standing or kneeling positions. They were starting to shake off Kodachi's paralysis powder, and doing so faster than Ranma would have expected. Tuxedo Kamen had regained his footing as well, and moved to stand protectively in front of Sailor Moon, ready to intercept if Ranma tried anything.

And of course, Sailor Moon was the problem to trump them all. She was already injured and defending her impaired teammates... which was the kind of situation that Ranma absolutely didn't want to face her in. If she gets desperate enough to pull out all her stops, that'll be... very, very bad. This is not a good time to push her.

On the other hand, when would be a good time to fight someone so powerful? Sooner or later he'd have to do it. He'd tried to explain his innocence, and they'd inexplicably refused to believe him even before they'd seen the "evidence" of his mind-control with their own eyes. Would he ever get a better shot than this?

And yet, he knew from what he'd seen at the North Pole that it would only take her an instant to unleash her full strength once she'd made the decision. Could he really get past Tuxedo Kamen and completely knock her out—all before she could react? He wasn't exactly operating at full capacity either, not right on the heels of his insane sprint just to get there in time.

No, Ranma thought, chastising himself. No, you're going at this all wrong. You're smarter than this, Saotome! Don't try and beat her strengths head-on. There's gotta be some kind of trick you can pull. Some way to get the upper hand. Some way to make sure she can't just obliterate you even if she... manages... to...

And that was when the idea hit.

It was a trick all right. And a dirty one too. But it nevertheless allowed for the safest method Ranma could think of for dealing with a being who could wield as much raw power as the girl standing in front of him. Because there was one aspect of her abilities that he did know the limits of now—one avenue of attack that he was confident would work based on what he'd already seen.

The only problem was that he couldn't exploit it himself.

Ranma laughed. Just a soft chuckle at first, then louder and louder until it earned him some wary looks from the Sailor Senshi. The pigtailed fighter didn't care. "Okay," he said at last. "Okay. If this is the way it's going to be... then let's do this right." He raised his finger, then leveled it to point straight at Sailor Moon. "I challenge you."

Sailor Moon blinked. That hadn't been what she'd been expecting. "...challenge me?"

"All of you." Ranma swept his finger across all the assembled Sailor Senshi and Tuxedo Kamen for emphasis. "I challenge you all to a showdown. Tomorrow. Noon. At the old warehouse by the water tower, three miles north of Furinkan High. You guys against my team. Six against six. Heck, I'll even let you bring along Sailor Pipsqueak there for free if you want."

"Hey!" protested the pink-haired girl, her tone irate. "It's Sailor Chibi-moon!"

"Whatever." Ranma's mouth twitched upward in a cocky smirk. Despite everything that had gone wrong today, despite the danger he was still in, at least he was on familiar ground now. One way or another these kinds of situations always seemed to turn out like this for him. He didn't know why he'd ever thought this one might end up any different. "Anyway, here's the stakes. If you win, then you can do whatever you want with me. But if we win, then you have to admit that we aren't trying to kill you and take over the world. Which shouldn't be a problem, 'cause if we do win, it'd mean we could've killed you all if we damn well wanted to!"

With a grimace, Sailor Venus forced herself unsteadily to her feet, glaring over at him. "And what's to stop us from taking you on right here and now, while we outnumber you?" she demanded. "You've already tried sneak attacks on us twice now, first that ninja girl, then the gymnast girl. Why should we let you go just to try it again?"

Ranma snorted, crossing his arms as he looked over at the blonde Senshi. "You don't exactly look like you're in the best shape yourself," he observed. "But hey! Your call if you want to try it now. Otherwise? You can take the chance to recover and come at us fresh tomorrow. Fair and square."

"Like you have any right to talk about 'fair and square'!" shot back Sailor Jupiter, who had risen to one knee. She looked like she had gotten the worst of the paralysis—probably had been closest to the powder-bomb when it had gone off. She was glaring at him too, but Ranma could tell that she didn't care for the odds either.

And this was what it all came down to. Ranma shifted his gaze, looking Sailor Moon right in the eye. She was the deciding factor. If she took the chance and just attacked him with one of her regular attacks he'd have to try and stop her before she could get it off. If she took the chance and went all the way to Fluffy White Dress mode... well, in that case he was pretty much dead. But if he could just get out of this situation in one piece...

Looking deep into Sailor Moon's eyes, trying to read the emotions he saw there, Ranma decided to take a gamble. He raised his hands with their palms outward, took a step backward, then another step, then spoke up. "Remember. Noon at the warehouse, if you want to settle this once and for all. Don't be late."

With that he turned away, deliberately showing his back to her, and calmly walked over to the edge of the rooftop, then jumped from there toward the next one.

Sailor Moon watched Ranma go, her Final Tiare leveled directly at his receding back, before she finally lowered it. As the adrenaline of combat left her, the weariness and pain from all the slashes she had taken flooded back over her, and her hands began to shake.

He'd been manipulating her. She'd understood that, even as he was doing it. The Dark Lord had known that she wouldn't shoot him in the back in cold blood. Sailor Galaxia would probably reprimand me again if she were here... she thought to herself as she watched him go. But even so, it... just isn't something I can do.

She knew she would have to stand against him ultimately; everything about the situation demanded it. And yet even now she felt the same uneasiness building inside her, the same sick sensation deep in her heart that she had felt while fighting against Galaxia, while fighting against Nehellenia. The feeling that this was all going wrong, that it didn't need to be this way, that it was possible to end this without the death and suffering that she so desperately wanted to avoid.

It wasn't something she could put into words. There was no reasoned argument she could make against the unassailable facts. He had already tried to conquer the world once before, proudly proclaiming his intent. Luna had overheard him plotting to do it once again. When they had confronted him with that, he had responded with a treacherous sneak attack right in the middle of negotiations, followed by a second one using the poor brainwashed girl.

They had to stop him. They had to. And yet, despite all that, her gut-level uncertainty remained. There had been something in his eyes when he protested his innocence. Something that she did not want to doubt, even in the face of how absurd it was to give his words the slightest bit of credence.

The young princess closed her eyes for a moment, trying to make sense of everything, trying to determine what the right course of action was. So much remained murky and unclear to her... but she at least knew the next step that she should take. For now, that would have to be enough. She opened her eyes again and turned to the other Sailor Senshi, who looked back at her with understanding.

"First of all," Sailor Moon said. "Let's see if we can track down where that girl ran off to. Ranma might try to recapture her, after all, so we need to make sure she's safe. And if we find her, she might also be able to tell us something more about what his plans actually are before we confront him again tomorrow."

Hours later, Tanizaki Kazuo sat in the chair next to the massive computer system in his otherwise austere penthouse suite, listening attentively as a plain-featured man who looked for all the world like a normal, average office worker finished giving his report.

"...and once both groups were on the rooftops together I couldn't overhear any more of their conversation without parting from the crowd and risking exposing myself," the man told him. "Still, I observed what I could. From what I could tell the combat continued up there for a while after that. There was even a lull for a little bit, and then it kicked up again for a while. The big blast of light was the last attack before the pigtailed boy fled once again."

"Fascinating..." was Kazuo's reply. He certainly hadn't been expecting anything like this when he'd sent his spies to observe the Sailor Senshi's latest conflict. "And you said they referred to this young man as 'Ranma', correct?"

"Yes sir."

"Ranma..." Kazuo mused, speaking the name thoughtfully. "Ranma... I've heard that name somewhere before."

He swiveled his chair around to face his computer and began to type, and soon a file appeared on the screen, complete with a grainy photo of a pigtailed young man fighting what seemed to be a large clay golem. "Is this the fighter you observed?"

"Yes sir."

"Mmm, I suspected as much." Kazuo stroked his chin as he contemplated the file. "Saotome Ranma. A young man of some renown in martial arts circles, though not a member of the... particular groups that we typically recruit from. Among other things, it seems he was involved in that incident in India last year."

Zhang's eyebrows went up a little, and he leaned closer from his position at Kazuo's right to get a better look at the file on the screen. "That was him? Impressive."

"And there have been other rumors as well," Kazuo continued, scrolling the text of Ranma's file down. "Some of the stories floating around have him taking part in action against the Dark Kingdom during the Lost Year. He has quite the legend, actually. Including feats like destroying entire youma armies with a wave of his hand, and then going on to mortally wound Metallia in single combat using a 'secret demon-slaying technique' that apparently only he knows."

The Chinese assassin coughed. "That seems a bit... farfetched."

"Yes, doubtless highly exaggerated," agreed Kazuo. Getting reliable information on what had actually happened during the Lost Year was next to impossible. All physical records were completely gone; the only possible source was the hearsay of those who had managed to regain their memories, and even those people were very few and far between. "Still, if this young man does have history with the Sailor Senshi then there is probably a kernel of truth behind it. I don't doubt that he did take part in the final assault on the Dark Kingdom. Probably even in a crucial role."

But what was even more interesting was that regardless of his stance toward the Dark Kingdom, his relationship with the Sailor Senshi seemed to have been an antagonistic one. Enough so that it had degenerated into open violence on their finding him again.

And that opened... possibilities.

"Thank you for your report," Kazuo said, giving his spy a gesture of dismissal. He waited until the man had left, the elevator doors closing behind him and the elevator itself starting to descend. Then he turned to Zhang.

"Contact Doctor Metzger," the businessman ordered. "Tell him to put as much pressure as he can on Project Janus. I want to know the exact time and place that this Ranma will next clash with the Sailor Senshi."

Zhang raised his eyebrows in mild surprise. "Yes sir," he said. "May I ask why this is so important?"

"Because as the good doctor mentioned earlier today, he feels that conducting a more large-scale test of Unit Zero is necessary before we can have enough confidence for a field deployment," Kazuo explained, a satisfied smile growing across his face as he contemplated this latest change to the situation. "And if they do fight each other again, it may well provide us the perfect opportunity to do just that."

Kuno Tatewaki walked, head bowed, along the grassy, secluded path. The only sound was the occasional crunch as his sandaled feet happened to step on a stray twig. The young man himself was lost in contemplation, ruminating on what he had heard from Ranma about what had happened to his sister.

Konatsu had been sent to search for her, while simultaneously avoiding the Sailor Senshi who seemed to be doing much the same thing, but neither he nor they had met with much success. By the time the search had started the fleeing girl had too much of a head start, and had vanished somewhere they could not locate.

She had not returned home, nor had she gone to Saotome's residence. But there was one other place that she might have gone, one other place where Kuno suspected that he might find her if Ranma's description of her emotional state had been accurate.

He continued to walk, his thoughts his only company, until eventually the path opened up into a modest clearing. And there, toward the center of the clearing, he could see his sister, kneeling curled up in front of one of the simple stone grave markers that dotted this part of the cemetery.

The young kendoist said nothing at first, simply walked over and knelt down beside her, staying with her in silence for a long time. Eventually he looked over at her, at the tear-tracks staining her face, at the expression she wore as she looked at the grave. Then he spoke. "You remember."

Kodachi nodded her head silently. Tatewaki turned back to look at the grave again for a while before continuing. "You will overcome this trial," he said. "You already overcame it once before. You are too strong to be defeated by merely the sudden resurgence of its memory."

A whisper that might almost have been a laugh escaped Kodachi's lips. "Of course, brother," she said, her voice rough with emotion, unsteady, but not uncertain. "There was never any doubt. I merely needed to... sort my thoughts through, now that I can see the reality of the phantasms I was trying not to believe."

Tatewaki nodded. And there was nowhere that his sister would feel more safe to do that kind of soul-searching than this one place.

The two siblings remained there, kneeling in front of the grave in silence, until at last Kodachi rose to her feet and bowed deeply toward the grave marker. Then she spoke. "Let us go, brother," she told him. "No doubt my darling Ranma is worried over my sudden parting from him. And... I find that I am in need of sleep. I believe that I will sleep better tonight than I have in some time."

Late that evening, Ranma paced up and down the length of the Tendo dojo as he ran through his plan once more. He had made all the preparations he could for now, talked with all the people who were going to be involved. Shampoo had agreed in a heartbeat once he'd called the Nekohanten and explained to her what was going on; she and Mousse had shown up later in the day to join the rest of the conspirators.

Another relief had been when Kuno had called, letting them know that he'd found Kodachi and that she was now safely home. Apparently Sailor Moon's Crystal-Kiss-Zap Power-Beam had ended up removing the blocks on her memories, which did certainly explain why she had been so distraught. Ranma had figured it had been something like that, but it was still nice to get the confirmation.

A small grin crossed the pigtailed fighter's face. He knew that he should be apprehensive about the opponents he was taking on this time—and part of him was—but he couldn't deny that another part of him was enjoying this. It had always stung his pride, just a little bit, that he'd had to throw his last fight against the Sailor Senshi, ending their conflict with his "loss" to them. So if a rematch did end up being inevitable, despite all his efforts to the contrary... well, he wasn't going to complain too much.

And he could beat them. He was sure of it. He'd worked everything out, figured out all the angles, and decided the strategy they were going to use this time. He knew they could pull this off. It would play out just like it always did when this kind of problem came up for him. Everything would come down to a big martial arts battle, and once it was over, whatever crazy misunderstanding the Senshi had gotten into their heads would get straightened out. And then things would go back to normal. Easy as that.

He let out a chuckle. "All right then!" he announced to the empty dojo. "Looks like the Dark Lords of Nerima are back in action."

"And this time... we're aiming to win."