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 Seven: Among the Enemy

Kazuo sat at the far end of the sterile, brightly-lit conference room, at the head of the long table that stretched down its center. Ekim was there as well, sitting just to the businessman's right, while Doctor Metzger sat to his left. It was not long before the door opened, admitting a familiar grey-haired, nervous-looking figure. Kazuo looked up. "Ah, Mr. Nagai," he said. "Please, come in."

The short, thin man took a few steps further into the room. "You wanted to speak to me about something, sir?"

"In a manner of speaking," replied Kazuo, gesturing to the seat next to Metzger. "I want you to attend a meeting that will be taking place shortly, although your presence will be mostly window-dressing. Zhang is bringing in a young man to meet me, and it will prove very advantageous if we can convince him to cooperate with us."

A look of understanding crossed Nagai's face. "And we are here to be part of your pitch?"

"Among other reasons," Kazuo said. "This boy is coming with the intent to learn more about us. The only way I convinced him to come with Zhang at all was by dangling that bait in front of him. We'll need to provide him with what he came here for—or at least the appearance of it—during negotiations to draw him along and build trust."

"I understand, sir."

The explanation was interrupted by a snort from Ekim. "I don't see why you're going to all this trouble for a handful of children," he said derisively. "They are nothing in the grand scheme of things. Little more than pawns."

"It's a poor chess player who disregards the importance of pawns," observed Kazuo mildly. "And at the moment, these particular pawns occupy a crucial position on the board. Right now the Sailor Senshi are focused on them. So long as that state of affairs continues, our operations are that much safer. If we can ally with him, that will be the ideal situation."

"And if we can't?" asked Metzger.

"I have other options," was Kazuo's reply. "Options that his visit will also serve. For now, we attempt to win the boy over... within limitations, of course. Most importantly, no one other than myself is to bring up the subject of Unit Zero, or the true purpose of that project." The businessman paused, looked over at Ekim, then continued. "And please, attempt at least a modicum of politeness."

Ekim looked away, crossing his arms as though this were all just a waste of his time. Nagai, for his part, walked over and took his seat by Metzger, silence falling in the room once more as they waited patiently for Ranma to arrive.

A brittle, strained silence filled Usagi's bedroom, the kind of silence that was at odds with the usual demeanor of most of those present. Rei was pacing back and forth at the foot of the bed, constantly sending worried glances over to where Usagi lay. Mamoru sat to Usagi's left, his arm around Chibi-Usa's shoulders, trying to ease some of the young girl's distress. Ami sat on the other side, staring down at the Mercury Computer as she ran yet another analysis of her friend's condition.

The rest of the Sailor Senshi, both Inner and Outer, were packed into the room as well, all of them anxious over what had happened to Usagi. Hotaru could scarcely believe the evidence of her own eyes. That these Dark Lords were powerful enough to bring down even Princess Serenity in such a way… it seemed impossible. What kind of attack did they use on her? the young girl wondered. And how can we counter something like that?

"Guys..." came Usagi's weak, barely-audible voice from the bed. "Don't worry so much... I'm all right, really..." She probably would have gone on, but Ami quietly shushed her, telling her to conserve her strength. After a few more minutes of study the blue-haired girl looked up, addressing them all.

"I've never seen anything like it," she said, worry filling her voice. "Whatever happened to her, her Star Seed—the Ginzuisho—was damaged in the process."

At those words Setsuna's head snapped up, and she looked at Ami with an indecipherable expression on her face. "Show me," she demanded, walking over to look over Ami's shoulder at the Mercury Computer's display. Whatever she saw there, it made her eyebrows knit together in a puzzled frown. "This makes no sense..." she murmured, as though talking to herself.

"What?" asked Minako, desperate for any information. "Do you know about what happened to her? What is this?"

Setsuna looked over at them, but her eyes were distant. "The Great Freeze," she said. "This was how it began. The first symptoms."

A ripple of surprise and consternation ran through the assembled girls. It was Ami who spoke up first. "You mean that Sailor Moon suffered an attack like this before the planet began to freeze?"

"No," corrected Setsuna, turning to Mamoru and looking him straight in the eyes. "It was you who was afflicted this way, not her. The timeline has been changed; events are no longer proceeding as they happened in the future we know."

They all considered the implications of that. Mamoru was the first to speak. "If that's true... then does it mean that the Dark Lords were responsible for freezing the Earth, the way things originally went?"

"Most likely," agreed Setsuna. "The ultimate cause of the Great Freeze was never discovered. Before seeing this, I had assumed that the symptoms you displayed at that time were your body reacting to the imminent ecological disaster due to your link with the planet's soul. But it may have been the other way around all along. Ranma may have used his attack on you somehow, and because of that link damaged the planet in the process."

"It's not just them," added Hotaru hurriedly, figuring this was as good a time as any. "There's also those grey monsters you fought before. They attacked again, while I was fighting Ryouga." She lowered her gaze, not quite looking at any of them before continuing. "He... saved my life."

The other Senshi looked at each other in surprise, trying to make sense out of the news. Usagi pried her head off the pillow, only to have Mamoru gently guide it back down. "What happened, exactly?" Setsuna asked, her gaze locked onto the younger Senshi's face.

Hotaru gave them a detailed description of what had happened, starting with her rescue of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, her subsequent duel against the Dark Lord, what he had done on seeing the grey creature about to impale her from behind, and the fight that had broken out after that. The reaction of the other girls was mostly puzzlement, as they each tried to reconcile Hotaru's report with what they had just witnessed of their enemies' behavior.

"I don't see what difference it makes," Haruka said at last, her arms crossed as she leaned against the far wall. "Even if that one had a flash of conscience, it doesn't change what his group is trying to do."

"How can you say that, Haruka?" asked Usagi, trying to pull herself up again. This time, both Ami and Mamoru caught her before she could exert herself too much. "Hotaru would be dead right now if it wasn't for him!"

"So what do you suggest?" shot back the older girl. "We sit back and let them kill you and freeze the whole planet just because one of them had a moment of compassion?"

"Of course not!" replied Usagi. "But—!" Her protest was cut off by a groan as she clutched at her chest, her expression twisting into a grimace as she curled up in pain.

"Usagi!" The Inner Senshi rushed to her side, and Ami brought her computer back up, typing furiously into it. "Usagi, you have to rest," the blue-haired girl pleaded. "You aren't in any shape to be exerting yourself. You have to give yourself a chance to heal."

Hotaru saw a guilty look cross Haruka's face. Once Usagi's burst of pain had passed Haruka spoke again, in a quieter voice this time. "Look, just concentrate on recovering, all right? Leave dealing with them to us. We'll take care of it."

"Where are you going to stay?" asked Mamoru. "You can't go back to your house; it's too dangerous now that they've learned your identities."

Makoto spoke up. "You can stay at my place if you want," she offered. "It should be safe there, and since I live alone we won't have to explain anything to anyone."

"No," Michiru said. "We'll be staying at the Concieria Hotel until we've settled matters. Setsuna has already arranged it. It shouldn't be traceable to either of us." Privately, Hotaru wished that they had taken Makoto up on her offer. She would have preferred to work closely with the Inner Senshi, to combine their forces as much as possible. But she knew that Haruka and Michiru's pride as Outer Senshi would make them resist being beholden to Makoto in such a way.

"We'll contact you once we've dealt with the situation and the princess is safe," continued Haruka. "Come on, Hotaru. Let's get going."

Hotaru hesitated, glancing back at Chibi-Usa, where her friend was sitting anxiously at her future mother's bedside. "Can I... stay here for a little longer?" she asked. "I want to stop by my house anyway before I go there. To say goodbye to my father, and also to let him know about the new location, just in case he tries to call me at Haruka and Michiru's."

"That shouldn't be a problem," answered Setsuna. "I'll give you the information about the room I've arranged. Just don't delay too long. We need to plan our next move."

A couple wards away, in a different room, a similar vigil was being kept. Ryouga and Shampoo lay on beds in Doctor Tofu's clinic, as Doctor Tofu and Beneda in her human form stood over them. Beneda's knuckles were white as she gripped the railing of the bed, looking down at her injured friend, silently, bitterly cursing herself for being, in the end, the root cause of all this.

The other martial artists from the ill-fated challenge stood clustered around, trying to give the two medical practitioners room while at the same time staying as close as they could. Ukyo, Akane and Mousse were the closest. The two girls were standing at the foot of the beds, while Mousse stood on the opposite side of Shampoo's bed from Doctor Tofu. Konatsu and Kuno stood a little farther off, the ninja hovering behind Ukyo while the kendoist leaned against the far wall.

Ryouga, for his part, had pried his eyes open and was looking up at them. "Yeah, I bet that those guys were the ones that sent those grey monsters after Sailor Saturn too," he croaked out weakly. "So what happened next?"

"We tracked the spy down," said Konatsu. "A man in black robes. We cornered him, but then his employer contacted us, and offered to meet Ranma to work out a deal. Ranma agreed."

"And you just let Ranchan go with him?" asked Ukyo, turning to look at the ninja in disbelief. "What if it's a trap?"

Konatsu flinched at the rebuke from Ukyo, but Mousse spoke up. "There wasn't any better choice," the blind master said, his voice flat and unreadable. "It was the only chance to find out who these attackers were. Even if we'd ignored their offer and made a fight of it, the only way we could have won would be to fight to kill. Against that man, at least one of us would likely have died, and we'd have gained no information anyway."

Mousse's appraisal met with an uneasy silence. Finally, Ryouga broke it. "Look, Ranma can handle himself," he rasped. "I'm sure he'll be able to get out of there in one piece, if nothing else. And once he does, we'll see what he learned about—" But the rest of his statement was cut off by wet, wracking coughs as agony flashed across his face.

"Ryogua!" was Beneda's frantic response. "Ryouga, stop trying to talk!"

"She's right," agreed Doctor Tofu, his tone more measured but still concerned. "Beneda, could you please guide the others out of here? You can continue discussing the situation elsewhere, but I need to attend to these two a little more."

"Of course, sir," Beneda replied, the hollow feeling in her chest growing. She was pretty sure she knew why the doctor wanted to be alone with the patients, but she didn't argue. "Come on," she called out instead to the other martial artists. "Follow me."

Ryouga watched as the others filed out of the treatment room. Doctor Tofu waited until the three of them were alone before turning his gaze back to his two injured patients. "Neither of you are in immediate danger at this point," he said, a weary look on his face. "But I need to discuss the extent of your injuries... privately."

He began by addressing Shampoo. "The damage to your rib cage was extensive, but not to the point of being life-threatening," he told her. "With your healing abilities and careful treatment, you should make a full recovery. Though it will likely take weeks, even for you."

The Joketsuzoku warrioress gave a small nod, her face unreadable. Doctor Tofu then turned to the lost boy. "Ryouga... your injuries were... worse."

Ryouga remained silent, already guessing much of what Doctor Tofu was about to say. "Both your broken bones and internal injuries were very severe, and you only exacerbated them by continuing to fight after taking such damage. I've treated them with every method I know, but... your left arm in particular was more 'crushed' than 'broken'. I can't make any promises about how much it will ever recover."

The lost boy nodded numbly, replaying through his mind the memories of Sailor Saturn discharging her magic-wreathed fist against him. He understood what Tofu was saying, although the full weight of it hadn't sunk in yet. "I..." he began, struggling for words. "This isn't... I... think I'll need some time to think this through."

"Of course," replied the doctor sympathetically. "I can give you some privacy, although I'll be checking in on you both from time to time." With that, he turned and exited the room.

In the ensuing silence, Ryouga stared up at the ceiling, fighting back the constant pain, kicking himself for what had happened. Stupid, stupid, stupid! he thought disgustedly. Getting distracted like that. Of course trying to grab a little kid when she thinks I'm a Dark Lord was going to make her desperate! I can't believe I let it catch me so off-guard. I should have been ready for something like that.

And now he was paying dearly for his mistake. What was this going to mean for him? For his martial arts? And at a time like this! The Senshi on the attack as well as this mysterious new threat, and he had gotten himself sidelined right at the start, leaving him unable to help any further. Self-recrimination gnawed mercilessly at him... so much so that he almost missed the sound of sheets moving from the bed to his left.

Almost, but not quite. Puzzled, he turned his head, despite the pain the motion caused. The sight that greeted his eyes was Shampoo, out of her bed and leaning in close to him, holding onto the side of his own bed for support.

"Wha—mmph!" Ryouga's startled cry was cut off as Shampoo's hand clamped down over his mouth. Both martial artists grimaced, every impact excruciating for them.

"Quiet!" hissed the young warrioress. "Ryouga not make noise doctor hear, understand? Or else doctor come force Ryouga and Shampoo back in beds."

Ryouga regarded her with wide eyes for a moment, but eventually nodded, upon which Shampoo removed her hand. "What are you doing?" he asked, in a perplexed whisper this time. "Shouldn't you be resting, so you can heal?"

Shampoo made a small slashing gesture with one hand. "Is not enough time. Airen in trouble with Senshi, in trouble with new enemy, all right now. Shampoo not just lying in bed while happen." She paused, looking him up and down for a moment, like someone inspecting a piece of meat. "Same for Ryouga. Airen needing Ryouga at full strength too, if enemy is strong as look like."

The lost boy blinked, scarcely daring to believe that he had interpreted her broken Japanese correctly. Crazy, against-all-odds hope began to trickle past the wall of despair that had been closing in on him. "Are you saying... you know of a way to heal faster?"

"Shampoo... have idea," was the Chinese girl's cryptic answer. "Maybe work. Maybe not. Maybe person who try is dying. Ryouga still want to try?"

That was a question Ryouga didn't need to waste much time thinking about. Lay here crippled, while his friends fought for their lives, or take a risk on regaining his health and the use of his arm? "I'm in," he replied without hesitation. "What do we have to do?"

"Follow Shampoo," came the answer. "And hurry. If want this to work, should move quick as can, or might lose chance."

The thought of movement in his current condition was a daunting one, but Ryouga had spent a lifetime learning how to ignore pain. If it meant even a chance at what Shampoo was promising, he could endure any amount of it. Using his functional arm he pulled himself up into a sitting position, then with a grunt swung his legs off the bed and got back to his feet. His knees threatened to buckle, but his willpower kept him standing.

"All right," he said. "Lead the way."

Ranma followed Zhang down one of the countless hallways in the enormous skyscraper, his eyes not leaving the black-robed man for a moment. Ranma's every sense was alert for a trap or ambush, but so far nothing like that had taken place. Zhang walked on unconcernedly, showing no sign that he noticed Ranma's gaze drilling into his back.

At length they reached a certain door, at which point Zhang turned and opened it, holding it for Ranma and gesturing for him to go through. Ranma's response was a flat look, one that silently asked Zhang just how stupid he thought Ranma was to turn his back on him. The corner of Zhang's mouth quirked upward in a tiny smile, and he stepped through ahead of Ranma instead. The Anything-Goes heir followed behind.

Once inside, Ranma saw that there were four other people waiting, seated at the far end of a long table. On the left-hand side were two older men, one short, scrawny and nondescript, the other taller and wearing a white lab coat. Neither of them were particularly imposing, although the robed man across the table from them made Ranma's skin crawl a little with his pallid, wasted skin and unsettling gaze.

But the one who really arrested Ranma's attention was the man seated at the head of the table. He was dressed in a black, immaculately-pressed business suit, with just the slightest tinge of grey showing around the temples, distinct against the black of the rest. He regarded Ranma with an appraising gaze, until it felt as though his eyes were dissecting the young martial artist where he stood. Ranma looked back without flinching, until at last the man offered a warm smile and gestured for Ranma to sit down. "At last, Mr. Saotome. I am very pleased that you agreed to hear me out, despite the unfortunate position our activities have placed you in."

Ranma ignored the invitation to sit, crossing his arms instead. "Yeah, you screwed us over, all right. So you better have a damn good explanation for why you think we should play all nice now that we caught on to you."

"Of course," replied the man smoothly. "But first, allow me to make introductions. Doctor Metzger, in charge of my research division. Mr. Nagai, my chief political adjutant. Mr. Ekim, my foremost advisor in supernatural matters. You have, of course, already met Zhang, my most skilled troubleshooter and right-hand man. And I am Tanizaki Kazuo."

"I guessed the last part," Ranma remarked wryly. "Your name was kinda on the building when I came in." Privately, he was still adjusting to the idea that these new players had the sort of resources that Tanizaki Heavy Industries could obviously throw around, what with the sheer size of their headquarters; it had made even the surrounding skyscrapers look small in comparison. Still, he didn't let any of those misgivings show through in his voice.

"Yes, this company has been in my family for a very long time," Tanizaki said. "And for the past three years, I have turned its vast resources to a project which is now entering its most critical phase. A project greater than any I have attempted before. A project on which the very future of this planet may well hang. Tell me, Ranma. There are rumors circulating in the martial arts world that you took part in a great battle against an army of monsters during a lost year that few people today remember. Are those rumors true?"

The pigtailed fighter nodded once, warily. "Yeah. I was there."

"Then you know how that battle ended," Kazuo said. "Sailor Moon's final spell... the raw alteration of reality on such a sweeping, planet-wide level... surely you can see how dangerous that level of power is, if it is held in one person's hands, with no possible countermeasure against it."

"So the attack you hit Sailor Moon with... that was supposed to be your 'countermeasure', then?" Ranma probed.

"Precisely." Kazuo leaned forward, looking Ranma in the eyes. "I am not fond of the idea of leaving my world so defenseless before the whims of another, whether Sailor Moon or anyone else. For this reason, I have hired countless brilliant employees, spent immense amounts of money. All of it to find a method capable of defeating her... should it ever become necessary."

"Well aren't you noble," the pigtailed fighter shot back, sarcastically. "So to 'protect' the world from the girl who saved it, you decide to attack her without any warning. And you try to frame us for doing it."

"Our approach needed a field test before we could be certain it would work," was Kazuo's calm reply. "If the countermeasure had failed, and the Senshi had detected our attempt and traced it back to us before we could fix the problem, it would have spelled disaster for everything we hoped to accomplish. I regret the necessity of using you as a scapegoat, but I hope you can appreciate how it was in the best interests of humanity as a whole."

Ranma eyed the older man skeptically. Kazuo, meanwhile, kept on talking. "However, if you are willing to work with us from here on out, I can promise you and your associates rewards that are beyond your imagination. I assure you, someone with my resources is a very good friend to have."

"Work with you?" Ranma asked. "What exactly would we be talking about?"

"For the moment? Simply play the role you have taken on," Kazuo explained. "Keep our existence hidden from the Sailor Senshi. Distract their attention, while we put the finishing touches on the deterrent we have created. Then, once we are confident enough to deploy it openly, we will contact you again. With the deterrent complete, the Sailor Senshi will have no choice but to back down... and you will receive an extravagant compensation for your trouble."

"Sounds generous." Ranma didn't trust the man's claims, not for a moment. Not after what had happened in the warehouse. And he certainly had no intention of digging himself any deeper into trouble with the Senshi than he was already.

Still, the whole reason he had come here was to learn more about these guys. No sense in calling Kazuo out just yet. Not until Ranma had figured out more about what the man's game really was. "So... you keep talking about all these resources you have. What kind of resources, exactly? If you want me to sign on with you guys, I have to know more about what you're bringing to the table."

For a moment, he was afraid that his attempt to fish around had been too obvious. But Kazuo only gave him an understanding smile. "Of course," the businessman said, rising to his feet. "A perfectly reasonable concern. Come, allow me to show you some of what I can provide."

To everyone's great relief, Usagi continued to show signs of recovery as the afternoon wore into evening. Soon she was sitting upright in bed, with some of the color back in her face, though she was still very weak and tired quickly. Still, the fact that her condition was improving helped to lighten the mood of the other Senshi tremendously, along with the mood of Usagi's family members, who had been told that she was suffering from heatstroke.

Hotaru stayed as long as she could, doing her best to support Usagi and Chibi-Usa. Still, eventually she had to leave herself, and after checking the clock she knew that she could delay no longer. "I'm sorry," she told them, as she rose to her feet. "I need to leave for the subway now, or I won't be able to make it back in time to talk with my father before he leaves to teach his evening class." She wanted to say goodbye to him in person, not knowing how long she would be away this time, or what might befall her in battle.

"Of course!" replied her pink-haired friend, rising to her feet as well and wrapping Hotaru in a grateful hug. "Thank you for staying so long. It really meant a lot."

Hotaru made her goodbyes to the other Inner Senshi as well, then hurried down the stairs and out the door. And with that she was alone, walking down the sidewalk with nothing but her own thoughts for company.

And her thoughts were troubled ones. She knew that once she met with the other three Outer Senshi that they would unquestionably start planning a counterattack against the Dark Lords. It was their duty... but Hotaru found it hard to stomach the prospect of killing the young man who had saved her life.

Still, what was she to do? Refuse to fight at all? She couldn't do that, not after seeing what these foes had done to Usagi, and knowing what they would do to the world if not stopped. Ask the other Outers not to use lethal force? At least not on Ryouga? She knew they would never agree. Their uncompromising stance toward potential threats was something with which she had... personal experience.

She walked on, lost in thought, wishing that she'd had a chance to talk to Ryouga again after fighting the strange grey monster together. If I could just ask him why he did that, ask him what his motives really are... she told herself. Then maybe this wouldn't be so hard. But who knows where he is now?

Ryouga ran the back of his trembling hand across his forehead, wiping away the sheen of sweat as he focused on staying conscious. The trip over here, following Shampoo, had not been a pleasant one in his condition.

They hadn't even been able to come directly here either. Shampoo had needed to stop and badger the exact address of this place out of Konatsu, since he'd been the most recent one to visit on his spying mission earlier that morning. She'd also coerced a promise from the demure ninja not to inform Doctor Tofu that his patients had left his care to go on such a crazy venture.

Still, despite all the trouble, in the end they had arrived at their destination. Shampoo was even now peeking down over the edge of the rooftop they were on, keeping hawklike watch over the house that was—from what she'd told the lost boy—where Sailor Moon lived.

Shampoo's plan had rested on the idea that the Senshi would take their fallen leader back here sooner or later. The only question had been which Senshi would accompany her. And in that, at least, they had been in luck. From the number of presences Ryouga had sensed inside when the two martial artists had first arrived, it seemed that quite a few of the Senshi were in there.

And so they had waited. And waited.

The silent tension was broken at last by a soft intake of breath from the Chinese warrioress. "Shampoo think this is it," she said. "Ryouga have look."

Grimacing, Ryouga pulled himself over to the edge of the roof, peeking over himself. A girl had just exited the Tsukino residence, alone. She looked to be about fifteen years old, with short-cropped purplish hair. Ryouga could see how Shampoo had thought she was a match to the description he had given her when telling the others about his fight, but... "No. That isn't her."

"What Ryouga mean?" Shampoo asked. "Age fit. Build fit. Hair color and shape fit. What is different?"

"Well, it's just... She's not..." Ryouga struggled to put it into words. "Sailor Saturn, she... her face... no, her hair was..."

He hesitated, trying to put his finger on what exactly he meant to say. Sailor Saturn's hair had been... longer? Shorter? A different shade? All he knew was that, despite the fact that the girl walking down the street below fit every single criteria of description he had told Shampoo, he was completely unable to make their respective images match up in his mind as the same person. "...wow. Maybe this is their disguise magic?"

"Ryouga think?" asked Shampoo rhetorically, rolling her eyes a little. "Anyway, is best chance so far. Shampoo try. Even if girl down there not Saturn, maybe other Senshi have healing power too."

"I... don't think all of them do. Otherwise, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune could have just healed themselves, instead of waiting for Sailor Saturn to show up and do it for them," said Ryouga. "Anyway, you still haven't told me how on earth we're going to convince her to heal us! Until we can find some proof it wasn't us, she thinks we're the enemies who almost killed her princess! If they didn't believe Ranma before what happened at the warehouse, there's no way they'll listen to us now! And if that is Sailor Saturn down there, she'd crush us both in the condition we're in!"

Shampoo's only response was an enigmatic smile.

Hotaru continued to walk, making her way steadily in the direction of the nearest subway station. Her concerns over the battles to come still filled her thoughts, making her somewhat inattentive to her surroundings. Still, when she heard the noises coming up from the ground, it was enough to snap her out of her contemplations and prompt her to look down.

"Mew! Mew, mew, mew mew mew!"

It was a small cat, walking down the sidewalk toward her from the opposite direction. Or rather, trying to. It was obviously injured, its steps faltering and unsteady. Its periodic cries were plaintive and pain-filled, and it wasn't clear how much longer the poor thing could go on.

The fifteen year-old girl's heart went out to the poor, cute little creature, and she immediately rushed over and knelt down beside it. Fortunately, the animal didn't try to run away, just looked back up at her with big, watery eyes. It must be used to being around humans, Hotaru thought. Maybe it's someone's pet? It's well-behaved for a stray.

She took a quick glance in both directions around her, but by a stroke of good fortune the cat had approached her while no one else was in sight. Not wasting any more time, she reached out her hand, touching the animal on the side of its face and concentrating. A purple glow built at her palm, growing until it suffused the animal's entire body.

Its injuries seemed fairly extensive; it took almost ten seconds before Hotaru felt that her power had nothing left to do. The cat didn't move or struggle through any of it, just looked solemnly up at her. When the magic was done, the animal mewed twice in gratitude and licked Hotaru's fingertips a few times before scampering off.

Hotaru smiled as she watched the cat go. With all the doubts and uncertainty she was worrying through, it had felt very good to do a simple, unambiguous good deed—however small of a deed it had ended up being. With that satisfaction in her heart she stood back to her feet, and hurried off along her original course.

Ranma followed Kazuo's group into the next room, and immediately saw that it was quite different from the last few they had gone through. The preceding rooms had been magical workshops of some kind, filled with tomes, incense, magic circles and the like. This room, however, was more along the lines of a museum. Strange, varied items of all sorts were arranged into rows, all of them in glass display cases. "And these are all magic?" he asked.

"Most of them are little more than trinkets," spoke up Ekim, condescension in his voice. "Tanizaki brings them in for his subordinates to study. I oversee the work, sometimes personally on the rare occasion that his agents manage to find a piece notable enough to be worth my time."

The pigtailed fighter walked through the rows upon rows of items, glancing back and forth between the different cases as he went by. One held an plain-looking paper fan, another held a full set of English style teacups, while yet another held a large, ornate bronze key. As he looked at them, Ranma felt his skin crawl a little, flashbacks running through his mind to all the different times he had encountered or tried to make use of such magical items.

"Hope you know what you're doing..." he muttered. "If there's anything I've learned about dealing with crap like this stuff, it's that no matter how good it seems, it usually screws you over somehow."

Ekim snorted. "What do you take me for? Some talentless hedge magician? I am the Chosen of the Nameless One, boy, the greatest sorcerer of this age. I have nothing to fear from these toys."

"Well good for you..." Ranma muttered, already tiring of the man's abrasive ego. "Just keep them away from me."

Kazuo began to walk down a different row, parallel to the one Ranma was walking. "We are, of course, aware of that... chaotic tendency which is inherent in many of these items," he said. "Hence why these artifacts remain locked away here, in safekeeping. Still, it is sometimes possible for us to discover enough of how the items operate to mass-produce safer versions. Granted, those are usually significantly less powerful than the originals... but I consider it a small price to pay for stability."

"Either way, the true gain is usually not in the magical item itself, but in the knowledge we gain about the magical principles it operates on. Between what my researchers have discovered and the expertise Ekim brings, there are few organizations in the world who know so much about creating enchantments... casting spells..." He paused, and looked directly at Ranma across the top of the glass cases separating them. "...breaking curses..."

Ranma's head snapped up, his eyes widening in spite of himself. Kazuo's response was to give a tiny, amused smile, and then to continue walking. He really did do his homework... Ranma thought darkly, his eyes narrowing as he stared at Kazuo's back. That had been no coincidence, dropping that temptation right there. Probably that had been why Kazuo had brought him there in the first place. Because he'd known that showing off his mystical knowledge would have special relevance for his audience.

"Ah, now here is one of the greatest successes of our research." Kazuo had continued onward while Ranma had been digesting that, and the pigtailed fighter had to hurry to catch up. The businessman was standing in front of a small, metalic object hovering in place, which was made up of all manner of spiky projections around a central spire. This one was not inside one of the glass enclosures, but was on an open pedestal.

"...um, okay?" was Ranma's response, not exactly sure what he was supposed to be so impressed by. "It floats. That's... nice?"

The businessman chuckled. "This was one of our earlier designs, just a small model," he explained. "It's based off of wreckage that one of my teams found buried deep underneath an ancient Mayan temple. Even now, my people are working on a full-scale prototype. When completed, we estimate that the resulting spacecraft will have an effective range extending anywhere in the solar system."

Ranma raised his eyebrows a little. "Seriously? Didn't figure you for the type to be much interested in exploring outer space, of all things."

Kazuo ran his fingers along the model spaceship, tracing its lines. "Earth is not the only place where new resources, new sources of power can be found," he pointed out. "I see no reason to limit my search to one planet if the possibility exists to surpass even what can be found here."

"If you say so." Personally, Ranma didn't care where he wanted to fly with his little toy one day; he was interested in the fight going on right now. But so far Kazuo hadn't shown him anything with a direct bearing on that, just pointless distractions like this one. Ranma swept a half-hearted gaze around the room, looking for anything that looked like it was significant, but it was no good. I can't even guess what most of this stuff does, and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have brought me here if there was anything just laying around that would—

But his train of thought abruptly broke off, as he did a startled double-take at an object in one of the cases. "What the—?" he said, racing over to it. A closer look confirmed his initial reaction. "This is the Armor of Karna! What the hell is this doing here?"

Kazuo walked over as well, at a more measured pace. "Ah yes," he said, looking down at the contents of the glass case himself. "That's right, you and your friends were the ones responsible for the demise of its original owner. I arranged to have it brought here after that escapade in India came to my attention."

Memories flashed through Ranma's mind, memories of the weeks of running battles, memories of the grueling training at the Phuktal Monastery, memories of the final, desperate showdown at the secret ritual site on Nanda Devi Mountain. Memories of the first—and only—time that Ryouga had fully activated the Tora no Seishin technique.

"I admit that I am curious," Kazuo continued. "Considering the armor's state, there wasn't much my people could learn from it anymore. Still, if the legends are to be believed, its enchantments should have been all but impregnable. And yet..." He gestured down at the armor, an ornate, colorful masterwork of design. Its beauty was marred, however, by a fist-sized hole right in the center of the breastplate, and another identical one opposite it in the armor's back.

"It wasn't me who did it..." Ranma murmured. His thoughts were still caught in the past, seeing that damned armor again so unexpectedly. He remembered all too well the sick feeling when he realized the nature of the technique Ryouga was using. If it hadn't been for some truly miraculous luck at the end—if Shampoo's last, hopeless guess hadn't turned out to be correct on how to properly use the wishing flute's final wish—then Ryouga would have unquestionably died there on that mountain, along with the madman who had been using the ancient armor as part of his demented bid for godhood.

"Not you?" asked Kazuo, sounding a bit surprised. "Ah, then most likely your bandanna-wearing associate, then. Or perhaps the weapon master... though it doesn't really fit with his style."

Ranma's head snapped around, away from the display case and back to Kazuo, who was watching him with a mild expression. The pigtailed fighter ground his teeth. Damn it. I'm here to learn about him, but he's the one finding out more about us! Ranma doubted it had been a coincidence that the room they went to had that particular artifact. I gotta watch myself better. This guy doesn't miss a beat...

Ryouga watched in amazement as Shampoo—in her cat form—came bounding back to their hiding place. She was moving without any sign of injury at all, her wounds vanished as if by... well, magic. "It actually worked..." he muttered. Not that it should have been too much of a surprise, knowing how kind-hearted most of the Senshi were, but it was still impressive to see someone who had been all but bedridden minutes before now in the prime of health.

Shampoo used her paws to tip over a thermos of hot water she'd set out before leaving, and Ryouga jerked his eyes away, flushing beet red as her naked human form replaced her feline one. From what he could hear she was putting her clothes back on, but he remained facing in the opposite direction until finally Shampoo called out with a note of mild derision in her voice. "Is safe for Ryouga to look now."

Slowly, Ryouga peeked back around, until he had confirmed out of the corner of his eye that she was indeed telling the truth. Then he turned around fully. "All right. Now we try me?" Despite himself, he was getting excited. The prospect of returning to full health was so temptingly close he could almost taste it, and it pushed most other considerations from his mind.

"Yes," Shampoo said, raising the corresponding thermos of cold water she'd brought along as well. "After Ryouga is change, Shampoo drop in Senshi path up ahead. Ryouga not move until Sailor girl come, understand? If Ryouga get lost, is Ryouga own fault. Understand?"

The lost boy nodded meekly. Satisfied that she had gotten her point across, Shampoo took the cold-water thermos and splashed him with it.

Healing the injured cat had been a rewarding, but not too remarkable occurrence. A welcome diversion from the uncertain questions facing her, but not one that Hotaru found particularly unusual. She had done it, helped the poor creature as best she could, but hadn't thought too much on the matter afterward.

When, a few minutes later, she came across an even-more-injured piglet, also right in her path... that was when she started to suspect that something distinctly odd was going on.

The girl blinked, cocked her head, then walked slowly over toward the small black animal. What was happening here? Some kind of bizarre epidemic of little creatures getting hurt in this area? It seemed too much of a coincidence for the two occurrences to be unrelated. Could someone be doing this deliberately? She'd heard that was something crazy people sometimes did—torturing small animals for their amusement.

She shuddered. As if what they were dealing with already wasn't enough. Did they also have to worry about a lunatic operating in the same neighborhood as Usagi's family?

Like before, she knelt down by the animal to take a closer look, while the piglet looked back up at her with wide, soulful eyes. She winced at what she saw. Aside from all the other damage, the poor thing's left foreleg was obviously broken, to the point where she could scarcely believe that it was still moving. What kind of horrible person would do this to such a harmless little animal? she wondered, aghast.

At any rate, questions like that could wait; the important thing right now was to deal with the situation at hand. Whatever had caused this, she wouldn't leave the poor creature in such a state. She reached down, laying her hand on the creature like she had done with the cat, and focused. The purple light swelled again, to an intensity that nearly hid the piglet from sight. It took even longer this time, over a minute of intense concentration, but at the end of it the piglet was standing on four legs again, looking up at her with gratitude shining in its eyes. "Bwee! Bwee!" it exclaimed, testing out its repaired limb joyfully.

Hotaru smiled, relieved. This was the first time she'd tried to use her healing power to quite that extent. Back when she'd been sickly and possessed by Mistress 9 two years ago even healing minor cuts and scrapes had been an exertion, but after fully awakening as Sailor Saturn and annihilating the evil force afflicting her, she wasn't under the same limitations as before.

As she watched the piglet, her mind returned to the question of how these animals were getting injured, and who—or what—was responsible. It looks like it's wearing some kind of bandanna, she thought. That means it's probably someone's pet. Maybe the same person owns it and the cat?

She frowned after thinking that. Something was nagging persistently at the back of her mind. That bandanna... she thought, reaching down to pick the piglet up and turn it so she could get a better look. I've... seen a bandanna like this somewhere before. Not around a piglet, but...

Her eyes suddenly widened, as she remembered five such bandannas, blurring through the air at her, targeted to strike the Silence Glaive from her hands. Her grip on the creature immediately tightened, and she brought it to eye level. Could this string of injured animals really be connected to the Dark Lords somehow? It seemed bizarre, nonsensical, and yet...

The piglet had gone stiff in her hands, looking back at her with a decidedly nervous expression. "...bwee?" it said, hesitantly. Hotaru, for her part, was trying her best to make sense out of what was going on here. Was this a pet of Ryouga's? If so, then what was it doing here? And why on earth had it ended up right in her path with a broken limb?

Broken limb...

A broken left foreleg...

She stared at the piglet in her hands, her suspicions warring against her incredulity. It seemed like such a crazy idea, and yet it would hardly be the first time that the Sailor Senshi had faced shapeshifting magic. Had she really just healed one of the Dark Lords? "Are you... Ryouga?" she asked in a small voice, the words slipping out almost unbidden.

The piglet's eyes bulged, and it began to to frantically shake its head from side to side in a gesture of panicked negation. This did not, however, do very much to allay Hotaru's suspicions, and her grip on the small creature tightened even more as her thoughts raced. If this really was Ryouga, or even connected to him, then it had implications far beyond the simple fact that he was now back in fighting condition. It couldn't have been coincidence that he had been waiting exactly here, despite the fact that she was in her civilian form. That meant he had learned her secret identity.

Then a shock of pure ice ran down her spine. No, it was far worse than that. He had been waiting for her outside of the Tsukino family home.

He had learned Usagi's secret identity.

"Tell me who you really are," she demanded, something terrible and deadly entering her voice, despite the fact that she never once raised its volume. "How much do you really know? And who else knows?"

"Bwee! Bwee!" the piglet squealed, twisting and flailing in her grasp. But it had no leverage, and Hotaru clamped onto it tightly. Her gaze drilled into it, trying to puzzle out what was going on. Was this really the same opponent she had so recently fought? And if so, why had he come here like this instead of simply making a surprise attack with his remaining allies? The piglet continued to squirm, showing no sign of answering her questions.

Then, without warning, a silent shadow fell over her from behind. Hotaru sucked in a hiss of breath, remembering too late the cat she had healed before. If this one was an enemy, then it was a fair bet that the first one had been as well. He's not alone! I need to trans—!

But before she could even finish the thought, let alone activate her Senshi powers, she felt the ridge of someone's hand slam into the back of her neck in a surgical chop. She crumpled forward, the world around her spinning into black as she lost consciousness.

"Bwee!" Ryouga squealed, as the young girl collapsed into a limp heap, releasing her grip on him as she did so. He tried to cushion her fall as best he could with his small body, though there was only so much he could do. After they landed, and he wriggled out from underneath her, he looked up at Shampoo accusingly. "Bwee bwee bwee, bwee bwee bwee bwee!"

The Joketsuzoku warrioress looked down at the piglet, her expression unimpressed. "Shampoo not see why Ryouga so angry for Shampoo saving Ryouga life."

Ryouga continued to bwee up at her, waving his hooves expressively, but Shampoo quickly grew impatient with trying to decipher piglet-speak and pulled out the hot-water thermos, dousing the lost boy with its contents in mid-bwee. The result was a spluttering, naked Hibiki, right in the middle of the sidewalk, blushing as he tried to cover himself while also catching the clothes that Shampoo tossed at him. She didn't bother to look away while he dressed himself with all the speed he could possibly muster, and he was utterly mortified by the time he finished. "Y- y- you didn't need to do that!"

Shampoo raised her eyebrows. "Is Ryouga talking about hot water, or knocking out Senshi-girl?"

"Both!" the lost boy exclaimed. He turned to look down at the girl sprawled out nearby. "...it's not like she was actually attacking me. She hadn't even transformed yet!"

"And if girl is Sailor Saturn, and Shampoo wait until after girl transform, then is nothing Shampoo can do anymore to stop girl from killing Ryouga." The Chinese girl crossed her arms as she delivered her blunt assessment. "Shampoo not taking chances."

Ryouga had no answer to that. In fact, he didn't know for sure if she even needed to transform at all to unleash her power. They'd assumed that was the case... but then she had healed both of them without even bothering to transform at all. For all he knew, she might be able to call on her destructive magic just as easily. What Shampoo had done might have been their only hope.

He knelt down, gently turning the unconscious girl over and picking her up in his arms as he rose back to his feet. He was still struggling to reconcile her with the nigh-unstoppable titan of destruction that had chased him through the city. It wasn't just the disguise magic that made it so hard to believe. Untransformed, with no magic protecting her, she looked so terribly fragile, and to his inhuman strength it felt as though her slight body weighed nothing at all.

He glanced back over at Shampoo, who was regarding him with a flat gaze. "What Ryouga think Ryouga doing?"

Ryouga responded with an incredulous look. "You don't think I'm going to leave her just lying there, do you?"

"Shampoo not see why not," answered the young warrioress. "Senshi girl wake up eventually. Nap on sidewalk is not killing her. Should keep distance as much as can, until Ranma find proof about how other group attack Senshi girls, not us."

"No." In this, Ryouga's tone was uncompromising. "I'm not just leaving her here, especially not with those grey... whatever the hell those things were running around, and that 'Zhang' guy, and whoever he's working for. We're taking her someplace safe."

The two of them locked gazes for a few more seconds, matching wills, until Shampoo finally made an annoyed sigh. "Fine," she said. "Then follow Shampoo. And hurry—before Senshi girl wake up and break Ryouga arm again."

Ranma walked behind Tanizaki and his flunkies, keeping his distance and monitoring his danger sense like a hawk. They had finished their trip through the magical workshops, and now they had moved into a series of laboratories that seemed to be the domain of the old German doctor.

He'd expected to feel relief at putting all that magical crap behind him, but in some ways these labs were even more disquieting. Nothing obvious, nothing he could even put his finger on. Nothing they let him see, at least. Everything they showed him was nice and pristine... but something still made his skin crawl as he walked down those clean, white hallways, through the various rooms.

It was far too faint to justify calling it "sensing a presence", to the point where it could have just been Ranma's imagination. But even so, it somehow felt to Ranma as though raw suffering had bled into every wall he passed. What does this Metzger guy really do, when I'm not here? Ranma wondered. Something tells me I wouldn't like the answer.

"...and here we have one of the greatest culminations of our efforts in this division," Metzger was saying. They had just entered a room filled with several large cylindrical tanks, stretching from floor to ceiling. The tanks were filled with a bubbling orange liquid, and each one contained a grey creature in some intermediate state of development. "With our current technology, these tanks can grow a full creature from a base biological sample in less than a day."

Ranma walked closer, inspecting the creature that was growing inside the fluid; it was small, faceless and had four arms that were stubby at the moment but would doubtless continue to grow. "Where'd you get a 'base biological sample' for this guy?"

"No single place," was Metzger's proud, lecturing reply. "I engineered the Synths, taking the best attributes I could from every source I could find. Every time a new type of monster appeared to attack humanity, Kazuo has discretely obtained samples for my for evaluation and possible incorporation. The foes of the Sailor Senshi have been, ironically enough, by far our greatest treasure trove. The Synths incorporate some degree of source material, whether large or small, from every monster type they faced."

The Anything-Goes heir continued to gaze at the creatures floating silently in the glass enclosures. Off to one side, Kazuo spoke up. "Incidentally, we sent a group of these to monitor the fight your friend Ryouga was taking part in," he said. "The combat started to go... rather badly, so I had our Synth force sent in to rescue him from his opponent. It seems he misunderstood our intentions, though, and began fighting them as well. Please convey my apologies to him for the misunderstanding. These creatures are not sapient beings, per se, but they do respond in self-defense to serious attacks."

Ranma glanced over at Kazuo. Is he serious? Was he really trying to help Ryouga? Or was it just another attack on the Senshi, and he's only telling me this to try and cover his ass, 'cause he knows I'd suspect him otherwise when I heard about it? But aloud, all he said was: "Well thanks. That was nice of you."

"You're welcome," replied the businessman. "Though I confess, we were not able to intervene before he took some very serious injury. I'm not certain if he's still alive, and even if he is, he is most likely crippled permanently. If you accept my offer, though, I would be willing to extend the full scope of my organization's medical resources to assist in his recovery. Considering the science and magic that I have at my disposal, I feel confident that my people could heal the injuries that the Sailor Senshi inflicted on him."

The pigtailed fighter felt his stomach tighten. Had it really been that bad? Or was Kazuo just exaggerating to put Ranma under his thumb, and to try and antagonize him toward the Senshi? His hands clenched. It didn't feel like the man was lying, especially since Ranma would learn the truth for himself soon enough. The thought of Ryouga being crippled—with this bastard being the only one with both the ability and the interest in healing him—was a pressure that Ranma hadn't expected.

After a few more moments of silence, Doctor Metzger coughed, then led them to the next room, and from there to the next. Different tanks, different types of Synths, but Ranma's thoughts kept coming back to what Kazuo had most recently tempted him with. Is Ryouga all right? he wondered. And then: Oh hell... If things went that bad over there, then what about Ukyo? Did anything happen to her?

The worries gnawed at him, but he received an unexpected distraction when they came to a different sort of room than the preceding ones. This one was a workout area, with reinforced punching bags, weight sets, and other assorted physical training paraphernalia. There were Synths standing in the room—the first time Ranma had seen one out of those tubes—along with other humans. The humans were mostly more research types, dressed in white lab coats like Metzger, except for the man in the fighting ring at the room's center.

The man was huge, a blond giant dressed in military-fatigue pants and a grey, sweat stained t-shirt. He was wielding a combat knife as he circled in the ring, his opponent one of the four-armed Synths, wielding a sword in each of its hands. They were only feeling each other out at the moment, making small feints and slashes, but it was clear that there was deadly intent hanging in the air.

It was the human who made the first move, lunging in with a vicious flurry of slashes, all of which the grey creature parried. It was not long in retaliating, going on the offensive and driving its opponent back with its superior speed and range. The human was managing to hold his own, but it was clear that the Synth was dominating the fight.

Then, his face twisting into an expression of rage, the human ripped a small tube off of his belt and jammed it into his upper arm, injecting himself with whatever was inside. Immediately Ranma felt the man's killing intent skyrocket out of control, his expression no longer enraged but positively feral. He leaped at the Synth, this time driving it backward, his knife slashes now overwhelming the creature. He struck one of the blades from the thing's grasp, then another, then used the opening to lunge in and bury his knife into the creature's chest, driving it to the floor of the ring and stabbing it again and again until finally it stopped moving.

After a few moments, the man stood and looked at them, panting erratically. "Tanizaki..." he growled in thickly accented Japanese. "What're you doing here? And who's the kid?"

"This is Saotome Ranma," answered Kazuo. "A highly skilled fighter and potential new hire. He is being given a tour of our facilities to see what our organization can provide. Ranma, this is Captain Davidson, leader of a small professional security force, who is participating in a program designed to enhance the combat capabilities of him and his men."

Davidson's lips peeled back into a snarl. "You bastard..." he growled. "I don't believe this! You're going to hire a runt like him for muscle, while you still keep us cooped up in the lab?"

Kazuo raised a hand in a placating gesture. "As I've said before, Captain. You knew when you volunteered for this program that it would require a great deal of testing. We need to ensure your enhancements are safe and working properly before you return to active duty. Besides, even if you were ready... I'm afraid that Ranma is still on an entirely different level from you. Even including the effects of the serum."

Davidson's fingers bent into animalistic claws at those words, and he vaulted over the ropes surrounding the ring to land next to the pigtailed fighter. "A different level?" he grated out, glaring down at Ranma with bloodshot eyes. "Him? You think some snot-nosed little kid is better than me and my men?"

Ranma bristled at the insult, his eyes flashing. "At least I'm not a talentless loser who needs to drug himself up to even pretend to be dangerous," he shot back. "And even with your fancy power-up... you ain't much."

The blond man's nostrils flared, his temper only hanging on by a thread. "Me and my men..." he rasped. "...are the most dangerous fighters in the world."

"Really?" was Ranma's unimpressed reply. "Because from where I'm standing you just look like a bunch of two-bit guinea pigs."

"Rrraaaaahhhh!" Ranma ducked to one side as Davidson's hand ripped through the empty space his head had occupied an instant before. The pigtailed fighter caught his attacker's wrist as it went by, redirecting the bigger man's momentum to fling him across the room and through the far wall in a crash of broken plaster and tortured metal. Davidson rolled back to his feet, residual debris from the hole in the wall falling intermittently between them.

Dropping into a crouch, the mercenary launched himself at Ranma again, his knife blurring in a frenzied pattern of slashes. He was fast, Ranma had to give him that, even if his berserk rage made his technique too predictable to be a real threat. Ranma weaved back and forth around the man's slashes, dodging by a hairsbreadth with insulting ease. After being jerked around all day, after all the failures and setbacks and frustrations, the pigtailed fighter reveled in the feeling of control, knowing that this, at least, was a conflict in which he unquestionably held the upper hand.

Eventually, though, he decided to end it. When Davidson lunged in next, Ranma shot forward to meet him, avoiding the blade and burying his fist into the other man's gut. The uppercut lifted the man clean off his feet and up into the air, at which point Ranma grabbed hold of his ankle, swung him completely overhead, and slammed him back down into the floor so hard that he bounced. Finally the mercenary came to a rest, curled up and clutching his stomach in pain.

"Impressive," came Kazuo's voice from behind Ranma. "You handled that very well. I apologize for my employee's inexcusable behavior. He will be... disciplined."

Ranma shrugged. "Nothing I'm not used to," he said. "So you got any other science stuff you want to show me? Or are we done here?"

"Yes, I think it would be best if we moved on," agreed Kazuo. "If you'll follow us..." The businessman and his subordinates turned to leave, with Ranma following once more in their wake.

As he left, though, Ranma's gaze lingered on the Synths. There was something bothering him about them, something just on the edge of his thoughts. Something Metzger had said, combined with something Kazuo had said before. Ranma was pretty sure it was nothing, that he was overthinking things... but even so he decided on a small test anyway. As he walked, he focused everything on reaching out with his ki senses, stretching his range to its uttermost lengths.

He could sense the group ahead of him, of course, and he also sensed the researchers milling through the surrounding rooms. Further beyond that, he could pick up other, more varied presences, neither Synth nor human. Were these the monsters that Metzger had told him about? Ranma focused on them...

...and then his eyes widened, his wild suspicion suddenly and unexpectedly confirmed. What? That's impossible! he thought, trying to figure out what this meant.

At least one thing was for sure. Ranma's trip here had started to produce the results he'd been hoping for. He'd finally discovered something that Kazuo hadn't intended for him to know.

Now he just had to figure out what to do with that knowledge.

Artemis sat next to Luna on Usagi's bed, trying his best to give the other cat his silent support. Usagi's injury had been a blow to them all, but Luna had taken it particularly hard. The combination, no doubt, of Usagi being her particular charge, and yet there being nothing at all she could do to help. Now that the immediate danger had passed the black cat was looking much better, but Artemis was still worried about her.

"So, Usagi," came the bright voice of the blonde girl who was Artemis' own responsibility. "What do you want for dinner? If you have any requests, just let me know and I'll pass them along to your mother."

"Curry!" was Usagi's immediate and unhesitating reply, licking her lips as she spoke. Artemis chuckled under his breath. He had no doubt that she'd been planning that out long before Minako even asked the question, in anticipation of how she could leverage her debilitated condition into some delicious food.

Well, a good appetite is probably another sign of recovery, he thought philosophically, following Minako as she left Usagi's bedroom. He looked up at her as they walked. Mina was smiling with her usual devil-may-care attitude, keeping up a brave face, but he had known her long enough to tell that she had been shaken by the recent events like the rest of them. But, as with Luna, silent companionship was the only reassurance he could offer.

Then, halfway down the stairs, his sharp feline ears detected a small, muffled snapping noise, like the sound of something breaking. Even more peculiar, it sounded as though it had come from inside Usagi's parent's bedroom, of all places.

Artemis frowned. He knew that Ikuko and Shingo, Usagi's mother and brother, were both downstairs, and Kenji, her father, had not yet returned home from his work. So what had caused that noise?

It was doubtless nothing. He was probably being paranoid after all that had happened. And yet...

Spinning around, he silently darted back up the stairs again, much to Minako's bewilderment. Reaching the doorway, he peeked around the edge into the room beyond. And to his initial view the room seemed to be empty, with everything as expected.

Then the cat's eyes bulged, his fur standing straight on end, as a young man who perfectly matched the descriptions the other Senshi had given of the Dark Lord Ryouga crept into view from the direction of the room's window. Almost as unbelievable as his presence was who was with him; he was carrying an unconscious Hotaru cradled in his arms. Artemis watched, his jaw hanging open, his voice caught in his throat, as the bandanna-clad warrior snuck across the room and over to the bed, where he gently laid her down.

"Artemis?" came Minako's puzzled voice from behind him, along with the sound of her ascending the stairs herself. "What's going on? What are you looking at?"

The Dark Lord's head snapped up at the sound, and he jumped away, leaping out of sight in the direction from which he had come. Artemis dashed into the room himself, but it was now empty, save for Hotaru lying on the bed, and an open window with a broken latch.

"Hotaru! Hotaru!"

The first sensation Hotaru felt as consciousness filtered back to her was that of someone shaking her. She groggily pried her eyes open, and the sight that met her eyes was that of Minako leaning over her, a concerned look on her face. "Are you all right?" the blonde girl asked.

For a moment Hotaru just looked up at her, her thoughts muddled as she tried to piece together what was going on. Then her eyes widened as her memories came flooding back. She wrenched herself bolt upright with a gasp, looking back and forth around her as it slowly sunk in where she was.

Behind Minako, Ami, Rei and Makoto ran into the room, drawn by the commotion. "Hotaru?" asked Makoto, surprised and perplexed. "I thought you left already?"

"She did," affirmed Artemis, who was on the bed next to her, opposite Minako. "But I just saw a boy carry her back through that window, unconscious... a boy who matched your description of this 'Ryouga' character exactly."

That revelation sent looks of shock across the faces of the four Inner Senshi. For Hotaru, however, it was simply confirmation of what she had already suspected... even if she couldn't understand why.

Ranma followed his hosts back out of the research laboratories, and toward the elevator they had been using to travel between the different floors. His thoughts, though, were still caught up with what he had sensed before, and what it might mean.

Still, he was not so distracted that he did not notice that this time, neither Zhang, Ekim, Metzger or Nagai entered the elevator themselves. Only Kazuo had gone inside.

"What's the deal?" Ranma asked suspiciously. "Aren't they coming with us?"

"No, this is where we part company," replied Kazuo. "For the final stop on this excursion, I would like to show you my most prized trophy out of everything I have accumulated. When doing so, however, it is best to bring as few people as possible."

"How come?"

The businessman smiled. "Merely a precaution. To minimize any chance of arousing that which we will be observing."

Ranma raised his eyebrows a little, then shrugged and walked past the other four to enter the elevator himself. He'd come this far; he might as well see it through. Besides, he had to admit, he was curious.

Just as he had done every time they had used the elevator, Kazuo entered a long authorization code onto a keypad inside, and then they began to move downward. The trip this time was far longer than any of the previous rides had been. Eventually, Ranma realized that they had to have gone well below ground by now, but they just continued to descend and descend and descend.

When they finally came to a halt and the doors opened, Ranma found himself staring into a long, darkened hallway, only faintly illuminated by the glow from inside the elevator. Then the hallway lights began to activate automatically, one by one, progressing further and further down the corridor, illuminating the path ahead for them. Apart from the faint hum of the lights everything was stiflingly quiet, and neither of them spoke as they walked forward.

At last they came to a heavily-reinforced door, guarded by yet another keypad and a retinal-scan device. Kazuo entered a different code there, even longer than the one to start the elevator, and then allowed the device to scan his eye. After that, the door slid open.

The room beyond was large, circular, and dimly lit. A deep pit in the center occupied most of the room, completely closed off from the outer section by a glass column that stretched up to the ceiling, coated on its inner face with a sheen of frost. Ranma could feel a chill in the air emanating out from the enclosed chamber, and he resisted the urge to shiver.

He walked closer to the central area, until he could look down into the pit. The ice crystals encrusting the glass meant that it was difficult to make out details, but he could tell that the chamber was being kept cold by jets of freezing air blowing out of vents that were staggered in the pit walls. And there, in the very center of it all was an indistinct, humanoid figure, a black shadow sitting motionless in a thick metal chair.

It was hard to tell exactly how big it was, but Ranma guessed that it had to be two heads taller than him at the very least, with limbs like tree trunks. Enormous, bat-like wings were folded behind it. As Ranma reached the glass and peered in as close as he could, he saw that its chest was rising and falling with steady, rhythmic breathing. While he could discern little of its features, he could see its eyes—two glowing embers, burning points of flame, visible even at this distance.

And the creature's presence...

Ranma swallowed. "What is it?" he asked, unable to keep a slight tremor out of his voice.

Kazuo walked up to stand beside him, looking down into the pit as well. "It is a thing of the ancient dragons," he said. "Its name, roughly translated into our modern tongue, is 'the Wyrmspawn'. As for its nature and origin... the most reliable insight we possess comes from the tablets we found in the buried shrine that was itself miles above the creature's subterranean resting place."

He gestured around the outer perimeter, the part of the circular room outside the glass chamber, and Ranma noticed that there were pedestals standing at intervals, much like in a museum. Ranma walked over to the nearest one and looked down into the display case. Inside was a stone tablet, the etchings on it still distinguishable, if only just barely. There was some text—Ranma didn't even recognize the language—along with a stylized picture vaguely reminiscent of old hieroglyphics. It depicted an army of dragons facing off against eight figures. Figures that he realized with a start were dressed like the Sailor Senshi.

"As best we can determine, these events took place during the reign of the Serenity who was the grandmother of the girl who is the current Sailor Moon," Kazuo said. "They were already legend even by the time of Beryl's first attack. The dragons, in that age, were the dominant power on earth, a civilization of immense arcane knowledge and might. Eventually, in their pride, they pitted themselves against the Moon Kingdom, intending to subjugate them and obtain the secrets of their magic for themselves."

Ranma kept walking around the perimeter, soon reaching the next pedestal. The tablet inside that case was much like the previous one, except that the picture was of a woman in a flowing dress floating in midair, with one hand upraised, holding a crystal that was emitting shafts of light. Around her, fallen dragons were littered everywhere. "No points for guessing how that turned out for them," Ranma muttered. He'd had personal experience mere hours ago of himself being on the receiving end of exactly what the ancient etching depicted.

"Indeed," agreed Kazuo. "For all their might, even they could do nothing against the power of the Ginzuisho. Their forces were crushed, the survivors thrown back in disarray, trapped by the Senshi forces in their sole remaining stronghold. Their mighty empire was facing utter defeat."

The stone in the next pedestal showed no Senshi this time, only a group of dragons, each one releasing a drop of their blood onto a densely-packed circle of indistinguishable runes that formed some kind of magic circle of mind-boggling complexity. "In a final bid for victory, the seven most ancient sorcerers among them devised a plan," Kazuo continued. "They sent emissaries to Serenity, buying time under the pretext of negotiating for surrender terms, while they enacted their greatest gambit."

"For seven days, the seven dragons bent their knowledge, their power, their very essence to the creation of a single creature. An invincible monster of immense power... and one that was entirely immune to magic. A living weapon, designed specifically to kill Serenity."

Ranma glanced up, looking once again at the hulking, bat-winged figure sitting in the freezing chamber. "And that's what they made?" he asked. "Doesn't sound like it stopped the Senshi from beating them in the end, though."

"Actually, it did... in a fashion," Kazuo replied. "According to the tablets, the creation of the Wyrmspawn brought an instant end to the war, although not for the reason its creators intended. Their spellcraft was done in the greatest of haste, without sufficient caution or planning. And while they did not overestimate the power their creation would have... they did overestimate their ability to control it."

Ranma moved to the next display case. The etched drawing inside showed, at last, a representation of the creature sitting on the other side of the glass from him. It stood amidst a pile of corpses, one hand ripping out the heart of a dragon, the other holding a Senshi aloft by her obviously-snapped neck. "The moment the Wyrmspawn awakened the battle ceased to be a question of dragon against Senshi, but rather both trying to survive the creature's onslaught. It attacked without discrimination, killing whatever it saw. The seven sorcerers were the first to die, their own magic just as useless against the monster they had spawned as the Senshi's power would soon prove to be."

The next pedestal was the final one, completing the circuit around the central pit. It showed the Wyrmspawn locked in combat with a dragon larger than any of the previous ones, as the two of them tumbled into a deep shaft. At the mouth of the shaft lay the corpse of the woman who had felled the dragons in the earlier tablet... but standing over her was what looked like a younger version of herself, holding the same glowing crystal over the pit. "That's Sailor Moon's mom, then?" he asked.

Kazuo nodded. "The creature killed the queen before she even realized the true nature of the foe she fought, ripping through her most potent spells and then doing much the same to her. But her daughter—realizing that magic could not affect the creature directly—instead used the Ginzuisho to tear open a crevasse deep into the earth. She had noticed, you see, that her enemy was nearly mindless, its only instinct to attack any living thing it detected."

"The greatest surviving dragon warrior, seeking revenge on the monster and atonement for his part in unleashing such a thing, sacrificed himself to drive the Wyrmspawn into her chasm, which Serenity then closed over both of them. Not that a being of such power would be incapable of breaking free from such a prison, of course. But by enclosing it in a space so very far away from any other living thing, she removed the trigger for the beast's rampage. And so it simply remained there, for millennia upon millennia. Waiting with absolute patience for something to kill."

Ranma turned his eyes away from the picture carved in stone, and back to the real creature in the glass chamber. "Just like it's doing right now," he said, as a chill ran down his spine that had nothing to do with the low temperature.

"Indeed," Kazuo said. "The glass is, of course, a one-way mirror, preventing the creature from seeing out while allowing us to see in. There is other—very expensive—shielding in place as well, to reduce the chance of it sensing us. That is also the reason that its chamber is kept so cold; we found that low temperatures induce a state of mild torpor in the beast, making it less perceptive that it would otherwise be."

"How the hell did you even capture something like that in the first place?" Ranma asked.

"Not easily," Kazuo replied. "We had to find and excavate the memorial shrine first, and the creature itself was buried far deeper. But we dug, and eventually reached our goal." He smiled, as though recalling a fond memory. "That was when the battle began."

"You fought it yourself?"

"It was the only option," said Kazuo. "Anyone else would have been slaughtered. And it was, without question, the most ferocious opponent I have ever faced. The creature is relentless, untiring, unkillable, and possesses such raw power that any human strength is negligible in comparison. It was never a question of being able to destroy it; that would be impossible. But thanks to the tablets, we were prepared for what we would find. I was able to drive it back into an isolation chamber Doctor Metzger had prepared, repeating the tactic that stopped it originally."

Then the businessman sighed. "Unfortunately, despite how enjoyable the acquisition was, it has proved singularly useless as a research subject. Not even Ekim has been able to unlock the secrets behind its powers, especially since studying it too closely without prompting a rampage is nearly impossible."

"Glad to hear it..." Ranma muttered darkly under his breath, looking down at the hulking, indistinct figure of the Wyrmspawn as it sat there. Waiting. "'Cause one of those things is already one too many."

"...and I don't remember anything after that. I felt someone hit me from behind, and then I woke up in your parents' room."

With that, Hotaru finished her explanation to Usagi of what had happened to her, which had been preceded by Artemis' description of what he had seen. Around them, the reactions of Luna and the Inner Senshi were varying degrees of concern and utter puzzlement. Minako was sitting on Usagi's bed to her left, with Chibi-Usa on the right. Ami, meanwhile, was scanning Hotaru with the Mercury Computer again, checking to make sure that nothing had been done to her. Makoto was leaning against the back wall, her arms crossed, a thoughtful frown on her face.

It was Rei's expression that was tilted the most toward worry, as she paced back and forth at the foot of the bed. She was also the first one to speak up after Hotaru had finished. "This is very bad. They know where you live, Usagi! We have to get you someplace safe, someplace they might not know about yet!"

"But if they were going to attack us here, why didn't they do it already?" replied Usagi. "Why didn't they hurt Hotaru when they had the chance? Or Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, when they had them prisoner?"

"Who knows what's going through their heads?" Rei exploded. "It's not like they'd be the first enemies to not go for the kill right away! Remember how Rubeus captured us, and tied us to those crosses in his ship? Or how Queen Nehelina trapped us in those mirrors, so we'd have to watch what she did to Sailor Moon? Do you think they wouldn't have killed us eventually if we hadn't stopped them?"

Ami frowned. "If it were just taking prisoners that would be one thing," she said slowly. "What they did to Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune... that could have just been because they wanted hostages, like with Rubeus, or wanted to gloat, like with Nehelina." Then she looked up at Rei. "But to bring Hotaru back here? That isn't just not killing her, that's letting her go, and revealing what they know about where Usagi lives. They gave up any chance they had for a surprise attack, and for... what?"

Rei looked away, not having any answer. At length she spoke, her voice rough with emotion. "All I know is what I saw Ranma do to Usagi," she ground out. "You all saw it. Even when he had the perfect chance to end this all peacefully, he wouldn't take it. I don't know what twisted games he's playing, but we've already given him more chances than he deserves."

"Well... do we even know this had anything to do with Ranma?" offered Makoto. "I wasn't there for the first time you fought these guys, but so far it seems to me that Ranma has been the one pulling all the dirty moves. Lying to us about the plans that Luna overheard... bringing the ninja to our first meeting for the sneak attack, even though he swore he'd come alone... attacking Usagi after he pretended to surrender..."

The tall brunette glanced around the room at her friends, before shrugging and continuing. "But this Ryouga guy hasn't done anything like that, as far as I know. He challenged Haruka and Michiru straight-up, no tricks, and he didn't even attack until they'd gotten into their Senshi forms."

"And didn't kill them afterward, like you said," agreed Minako, warming to the idea. "If the Dark Lords don't agree on their methods, then maybe the reason they didn't just attack us here is because Ryouga's side is the only one who knows about Usagi!"

"That... makes sense," Rei allowed, after a moment of consideration. "Even during the first time we fought them, he did seem to have... some noble tendencies. One time he shielded that youma who joined them from my Fire Soul with his own body, even though it burned him badly to do it." That revelation prompted a look of surprise from Hotaru. She hadn't heard that detail before, that he had been willing to do something like that for one of his minions.

"Maybe..." agreed Artemis, his voice thoughtful. "But it isn't just that he didn't kill Hotaru. Why would he go so far as to bring her back here? I saw his face when he carried her in, and I don't think it was just that he wanted a fair fight. He looked like he was honestly concerned for her."

Chibi-Usa had been silent so far during the conversation, looking back and forth between the different speakers. Now she bent her head, her face scrunched up as though she were pondering the issue. Then, suddenly, her head snapped up, her eyes lighting up with sudden understanding. "Oh!" she exclaimed, the words pouring out of her in a rush. "Oh! I know what's going on! It's not strange at all; it makes perfect sense!"

Usagi looked quizzically over at the girl who would one day be her daughter. "Really? You know why he did all that stuff?"

The pink-haired girl nodded emphatically. "All of it! Why he saved Hotaru from those grey things! Why he didn't take her prisoner like he did Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune! Why he even made sure to bring her back here to a place where she could rest comfortably, instead of just leaving her out there!" She looked around at the other Senshi in turn, and ended up looking straight at Hotaru. "Don't you see? He's in love with you!"

Hotaru's eyes bulged at her friend's pronouncement, and she looked at Chibi-Usa like she'd grown a second head. "You... you don't really think—" she began, hesitantly.

"But it all fits!" interjected the young princess. "This is just like what happened between my mom and Prince Diamond back during the whole Black Moon fight! Death Phantom and Prince Diamond were working together, except Death Phantom was the really evil one, and he was tricking Prince Diamond into thinking that fighting us was the right thing to do! But then he saw my mom, and fell in love with her, and eventually she helped him see what a liar Death Phantom was!"

Now Chibi-Usa was really starting to pick up steam. "I bet that Ranma is tricking Ryouga somehow too! Except now he's starting to realize how wrong it all is! That's probably why he didn't even tell Ranma about this house, because his love for Hotaru is pulling him toward the side of good!"

Even Usagi was nodding in agreement now. "That also happened with Naru and Nephrite," she added. "It's true; the power of love really can change people, even villains. Do you think there's a chance that he does feel that way, Hotaru?"

Hotaru opened her mouth to speak, only to find that she was still completely befuddled by the direction the conversation had suddenly taken. Could that really be true? she wondered. How would I even tell? It wasn't as though she had any personal experience in the area. Between the violent seizures she'd been prone to while Mistress 9 was insider her, and the subsequent time she'd spent out of school while recovering her normal age after the battle with Pharaoh 90, she'd developed an iron-clad reputation among her schoolmates as "that creepy girl."

Not the sort of renown that engenders much romantic attention.

Still, she had to say something. She ran through her encounter with the Dark Lord again in her mind, this time searching it for any signs that might point toward an... attraction. "Well..." she said at length, stretching out the word. "He... never actually hurt me when we were fighting. Even when he caught me in that joint lock. I'm sure he could have just broken my arm right there if he had wanted to."

In fact, looking back with hindsight—and with Chibi-Usa's words now ringing in her ears—she realized that even the throw he'd used to set up the joint lock could have easily damaged her itself. It hadn't, at all. He hadn't even used the throw to slam her, just to put her in position with the minimum of force. A marked difference from his full-contact brawl against the other Outer Senshi, despite the fact that she had been by far the greatest threat. And then there was his gentle treatment of her just now...

Hotaru's perplexity only increased the more she thought about it. Could Chibi-Usa's wild theory actually be true?

Chibi-Usa, meanwhile, kept right on talking. "Probably the moment he saw you he was smitten by how beautiful and deadly you were!" she gushed, growing more and more excited about her scenario the more extravagant flourishes she added to it. "He probably knew right then that you were the only one for him, and now he's torn between his love for you and whatever tricks Ranma is using to keep him on the side of evil! In fact... I bet he's somewhere pining over you right now!"

The violent sneeze hit Ryouga out of nowhere, right in mid-jump between two rooftops. He stumbled a little on his landing, but quickly steadied himself, rubbing his nose with one hand. Shampoo, leading the way back toward Nerima, paused as well, glancing back at him. "Sorry," the lost boy said. "Don't know where that came from."

Shampoo rolled her eyes. "Ryouga hurry up," she said. "Shampoo want be back before Ranma return, so can hear what Ranma learn about new enemy soon as can."

"Right. You aren't the only one." Ryouga started jumping between rooftops again, his gaze focused on Shampoo, determined not to make her waste time chasing him down for accidentally veering off course.

Still, even as he raced back toward Nerima, he couldn't shake a strange prickling in the back of his neck. It was a subtle uneasiness that, over the years, he had come to associate with situations that were just about the get even farther out of control. It was unsettling to feel it now... but in the end, there was little he could do about it.

And really. The Sailor Senshi already thought that he and Ranma were evil Dark Lords from another dimension out to enslave the world. Try though he might, he couldn't imagine a way for the situation to get much more complicated than that.

"...madly, passionately in love with you!" Chibi-Usa finished, absolute conviction burning in her eyes.

Hotaru offered a hesitant smile back at her friend. The entire situation, at this point, had her at a complete loss for words. She didn't know whether or not Chibi-Usa's confident speculations were correct... and if they were correct she was even more at a loss as to what her response should be. The entire idea seemed surreal to her, like this was all happening to someone else, so that even trying to gauge her own feelings on the matter felt strange. What was the right reaction in a situation like this?

She was a Sailor Senshi. In the end, as long as Ryouga was a threat to the world, a threat to Chibi-Usa and Usagi, she would oppose him to her dying breath. But just how much of a threat was he, really? Was he truly keeping Usagi's identity secret from Ranma? If he was, then that was something that in Hotaru's estimation far exceeded even his saving of her own life.

I... need to talk to him again, she thought. I need to ask him why he did all those things, and hear the answer from his own mouth. Nothing will make sense until I do.

Taking a deep breath, she got to her feet. "The next time our paths cross, I'll try to learn more from him," she said. Then she turned and addressed Usagi specifically. "And... if I do have any... influence on him, I'll do my best to convince him to turn his back on Ranma."

Her feelings on the matter might have been muddied beyond all recognition, but of that much, at least, she was certain. She didn't want the boy who had saved her life to die, and if Chibi-Usa was right, then Hotaru might be the one he would most likely listen to. "But... for right now, I need to call my father, and then head to the hotel. The other Outer Senshi will be expecting me." Between all the unexpected delays and the discussion there was no way she could get back to her house in time to say her goodbyes in person, but if she called now there was still a chance she could catch her father before he left to teach his class.

"Of course," Usagi said. Hotaru made her goodbyes to them for the second time that evening, then hurried out of the room, and downstairs to the nearest phone. She dialed the number of her home, and waited as it rang and rang.

Finally she heard her father's voice... but her heart fell. It wasn't him, just the recording from the answering machine he had purchased recently. He must have left for his class early. "Hello, this is the Tomoe residence. I'm sorry to have missed your call, but if you leave you own number I will call you back as soon as I can."

"Father," Hotaru began, once the message tone had sounded. "Something... came up, and I won't be staying at the normal place anymore. Setsuna has arranged for us to stay at the Concieria Hotel instead. Everything's fine—we just needed a different location for what we were doing. If you want to contact me, Setsuna said you can use this number." She repeated the number that Setsuna had given her, then ended the message with "I love you."

She'd wanted to say goodbye in person, but this was the best she could do for now. At least this way she wouldn't need to hear him ask questions about what exactly had happened, questions to which she wouldn't be able to give a straight answer, because they were Senshi business.

Still, she wished that she could tell him everything, especially about the whole mess with Ryouga. She couldn't help thinking that her father would be able to make it all make sense if she could just ask for his advice.

I'm probably getting worked up over nothing, she told herself. Despite all the evidence, despite Chibi-Usa's enthusiasm about the idea, there was a part of her that simply couldn't believe that Ryouga had really fallen in love with her. It must be some kind of mistake or misunderstanding. There must be some other explanation for why he would be so kind.

True, Chibi-Usa had appealed to the example of it happening with Prince Diamond... but that didn't actually do much to address the core of Hotaru's doubts. It was, after all, Sailor Moon that Prince Diamond had fallen for, the beacon of hope in human form who had saved Hotaru from her own inevitable destiny. Hotaru didn't have any problem believing that a villain would change sides for someone like that. If the suggestion had been that Ryouga was in love with Usagi, she would have believed it in a heartbeat.

But she wasn't Usagi. As Tomoe Hotaru she was a freak and an outcast among her peers. As Sailor Saturn she was a cursed weapon of Death and Silence. It wasn't that she doubted whether a villain might change sides out of love.

It was just that, if one did, she couldn't imagine it would be for her.

It has to be some kind of misunderstanding, she told herself firmly. It has to be. But... still... I need to talk to him again. I need to know the real reason why he saved me. Whatever it is.

Ranma kept silent as the elevator ascended, mulling over what he'd learned. Opposite him, Kazuo watching him with an appraising look. The businessman had played his cards close to the chest so far, but Ranma felt he had learned more than the man had intended. Even beyond what he had sensed in Metzger's lab, there was something else he was beginning to suspect, something he wanted to press Kazuo on before this was over.

When the doors at last opened, it was to a view of a huge, spartan penthouse room at the very top of the enormous skyscraper. The walls running around it were entirely made from large multi-pane windows, opening out to a dizzying view of the Tokyo cityscape. There were large steel pillars dotting the room, along with several tables with various books and documents on them, and a computer setup at the far end that had more monitors and display screens than anything Ranma had ever seen before.

"My personal office," Kazuo explained. "Not many people have been given the privilege of seeing it, but I find it an excellent place for contemplation... and for making decisions."

"In other words," Ranma said, as he walked out of the elevator and into the room beyond. "You want my answer."

"I would appreciate it, yes." Kazuo walked out as well, following behind him. "You've seen the resources—and rewards—that my organization can provide. You've seen that I am capable of dealing with entities on the scale of the Sailor Senshi. We have common ground in this. They are, after all, trying to kill you."

"Because you set us up," Ranma reminded him.

"I may have contributed, but they were attacking you before that, were they not?" asked the businessman. "Surely that by itself shows why my countermeasure against them is necessary. They possess too much power to be allowed to operate without some way of reining them in should they chose to abuse their abilities."

That was the opening Ranma had been waiting for. "Yeah, see, there's something fishy about that," he said. "You told me you were trying to build this 'countermeasure' for just in case Sailor Moon went bad, and you wanted us to distract the Senshi while you finished it. Except the way I see it, if that was all this was, you're already finished. Whatever you made, it took down Sailor Moon right in the middle of her most powerful transformation. So what's left? Why don't you just make your big announcement to them, that you've got their number?"

Ranma walked over to one of the huge windows that formed the room's wall, looking out across the city. From this height it was impossible to see people, cars, anything that small. Even the street divisions and blocks of buildings looked tiny from this vantage point, like he was looking out across a shogi board built to be played on by a god. "Because what you're doing isn't just a countermeasure. It's something more than that, something you still haven't gotten working exactly right. And after everything you showed me today... I'm pretty sure I know what it is."

Kazuo's faint reflection appeared in the glass beside Ranma, as the businessman moved over to stand at the window as well. "Really?" he asked, amusement in his voice.

"Oh, I know you probably didn't show me anything today that's directly part of your plan," Ranma said. "Just tried to distract me with a bunch of stuff you didn't care about me knowing, or stuff you figured I'd guess for myself once Ryouga told me about those grey creatures. But actually? Even if none of it had anything to do with your big project, it still told me something important. It told me the kind of guy you were."

"You're the kind of guy who collects magical artifacts like baseball cards, trying to pick 'em apart to see what he can get out of them. You're the kind of guy who captures any monsters he can get his hands on, to try and find ways to improve his own monsters. You're the kind of guy who goes and digs up a insane dragon-thing because you think you might be able to figure out what made it so strong. You're the kind of guy who has his people working on a damned spaceship so that you can search other planets for ways to make yourself more powerful."

Ranma turned his head, looking Kazuo in the eye, remembering again as he did so what he had sensed when Sailor Moon had been attacked. The feeling like something was eating away at her. "A guy like you? He wouldn't just want a way to stop Sailor Moon from using her power. He'd want a way to steal it."

Kazuo burst out laughing. "Well done!" the older man said, smiling at Ranma. "You're much more perceptive than I gave you credit for. Yes, you're quite right. If I stopped Sailor Moon using my method, it would also result in her power coming under my control. And in fact, anything less would be disastrous for everyone. Did you know that there have been six separate threats in the past three years that have almost destroyed our world? And that they were only averted thanks to the Sailor Senshi? Make no mistake, the power they wield is an absolute necessity... though it is not a necessity that they be the ones wielding it. Not anymore."

The businessman walked slowly along the wall of windows. "If my aim were merely to have a way of defeating them I would never have gone to this much trouble," he continued. "Do you really think a man of my resources could spend three years secretly observing the battles of the Sailor Senshi, and never once be able to follow them to their homes afterward? Even with someone of Zhang's caliber in my employ? It would have been utter simplicity for me to have Tsukino Usagi hit by a drunk driver on her way to school... to have Kino Makoto die in her sleep from what appears to be carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace... to have Tenoh Haruka's precious bike suffer a catastrophic mechanical failure during one of her races..."

Then he shook his head. "And if I'd been foolish enough to actually do any of that, then the world would have long since been destroyed by the likes of Pharaoh 90 or Sailor Galaxia. No, killing them has never been my goal. My only intentions are to have a way to remove their power—and even that I only intend to use if it becomes necessary."

Kazuo's voice radiated sincerity, but the fact that Ranma had been stabbed in the back already made him suspicious about the pure motives Kazuo was claiming for himself. Not to mention what he had sensed in Metzger's lab... "So what makes you a more trustworthy person than the Senshi to hold that kind of power?" he shot back.

"In your case?" Kazuo replied. "Mainly because I am not trying to kill you, while they are."

"She wasn't trying to kill us," Ranma responded quietly. "Not Sailor Moon. Even when she thought I was trying to kill her. Even when killing me would have taken just the flick of her finger."

"Do you really think that will still be the case, after what happened in the warehouse?" responded Kazuo. "We share an enemy. And against an enemy like the one you face, you will need allies."

"Maybe," Ranma said. "But for us being such natural allies, you're the one who tried to screw us over. Sailor Moon was the one who almost killed herself trying to make things work out without anyone getting hurt. Far as I can see, even being Sailor Moon's enemy is better than being your ally."

"I see." Kazuo didn't sound surprised. "Is that your decision, then?"

"Yeah." Ranma nodded. "Especially since I don't buy your selfless-defender-of-the-world act for one second. Personally? I think you're going to steal Sailor Moon's power for yourself the very first instant you can, whether she'd 'misused' it or not. Except that's not going to happen. Because I'm going to take you down."

Kazuo smiled a toothy smile, a dangerous gleam entering his eyes. "You certainly don't lack for courage..." he said. "Well then. If you do intend to 'take me down', you must know that you'll never have a better chance than right now. I'm separated from my men, with no one else around to interfere. You could hardly ask for a more perfect chance to kill me."

Ranma hesitated, trying to figure out what the older man's game was. Seeing the hesitation, Kazuo continued. "Or does the idea of a death match disquiet you? If so, we can make a wager of it. On my honor as a martial artist, I swear that if you can defeat me in this fight, I will personally confess my entire plan to Sailor Moon, corroborate your innocence, and throw myself on her mercy—which, considering her nature, she will no doubt grant. Is that sufficient incentive?"

Slowly, warily, Ranma slid back into a fighting stance, raising his hands in a loose guard. He didn't know what this guy's game was, but if he was so eager to fight Ranma, then at this point Ranma was more than willing to oblige him. It wasn't like he would get away without a fight anyway, if the older man decided to press the issue. Might as well take the opportunity now, on the off-chance that Kazuo was serious about his wager. "Saotome Ranma, of the Saotome-style Anything Goes school!" he called out in challenge.

"Tanizaki Kazuo, of the Tanizaki-style Five Fist school," his opponent replied with practiced ease.

Ranma raised his eyebrows a little. "Never even heard of it."

"Not many alive today have."

Silence fell over the chamber, as the two warriors bent all their concentration to trying to read each other. Ranma took in every detail of his enemy; Kazuo had not taken a stance, but was standing straight, his coal-black eyes looking back at Ranma. Second after second they stood there, the air between them saturated with imminent violence. Ranma made a slight adjustment, moving his guard a few centimeters. In reply, Kazuo shifted his weight almost imperceptibly, and the test of wills continued.

Then Ranma lunged toward the older man, vanishing from where he stood and crossing the distance between them near-instantaneously, his arms and legs lashing out in an intricate pattern of strikes. Layers upon layers of feints and misdirection leading up to the true attacks, all of them slamming with bone-jarring force against the blocks and parries that Kazuo threw up in reply as the two of them darted back and forth. Hundreds upon hundreds of techniques were exchanged in the blink of an eye, the sound of the impacts blending into a long, continuous noise.

Ranma held the initiative at first, but Kazuo's retaliation was not long in coming. He spotted an opening, and swung a vicious kick down at Ranma's knee, aiming to snap the joint. Ranma barely managed to lift his leg in time, allowing the kick to pass underneath while he used that leg to kick at Kazuo's temple. But Kazuo blocked it, caught Ranma by the ankle, and swung the boy in a full circle around himself by the leg before hurling him headfirst at one of the metal pillars dotting the room.

The pigtailed fighter twisted impossibly in mid-flight, his feet hitting the pillar instead of his skull. His legs bent into a crouch to absorb the impact, and then he sprang away, ricocheting to another pillar, then another one, then angling down on Kazuo from above with a devastating axe kick that smashed a crater into the metal floor as the businessman leapt away.

From there, the battle only grew more heated. Both martial artists hurtled back and forth between and around the pillars, hammering constantly at each other, on the ground and in the air, moving so fast that there seemed to be several of them at any given time, the afterimages flashing into and out of existence to trace the path of their duel.

Doesn't this guy get tired? Ranma thought in disbelief, even as he continued to press the attack. He was pouring everything he had into his assault, coming at his foe with every bit of speed and power he could muster, but even though Kazuo was matching him blow for blow it didn't seem to be tiring him in any noticeable way. This isn't good. I won't beat him the way things are going. I need to shake things up, need to find a way to change—oh crap!

Kazuo leapt back, extending a finger from each hand and pressing them together at the tip. An intense spark of ki formed between them, and when he pulled his fingertips apart, that spark lengthened into a thin, crackling whip of pale energy that he directed at Ranma in a series of blindingly-fast slashes.

Ranma was entirely on the defensive now, dodging frantically. It was taking everything he had to stay one step ahead of the ki weapon as it sizzled through the air, slicing through any pillars it touched like a knife through butter. And the attacks were getting closer with each attempt, one of them even managing to slice off part of his pigtail as he jerked his head out of the way. The slash also cut off his hair tie, sending his hair flying around his head as his pigtail came undone.

The ki whip came around for another slash, and Ranma could see that he wouldn't be able to dodge this one in time. So he used a more desperate move instead, one he'd picked up last year during one of his misadventures. He prayed that the structure of his opponent's ki construct was as fragile as it looked. If this didn't work, he would be wide open.

He held his right palm out toward the oncoming whip, and slammed his left hand into the right from behind. A spherical, vibrating pulse of ki erupted from the impact point. Kazuo's whip shattered with a blinding flash, when the two collided, and the businessman crumpled to one knee, letting out a short hiss of pain and clutching the arm he'd been using to wield the attack, which was twitching spasmodically.

Now! This is my chance, while he's still fighting off the backlash! Ranma launched himself headlong at his foe, pouring all his strength and momentum into a single, devastating punch. But Kazuo recovered from the ki feedback far faster than the Anything-Goes heir would have believed possible, and lunged to meet him. Ranma clenched his teeth in that fraction of a heartbeat before they met, calling on everything he had to land his attack...

...and then, just as Ranma was certain he'd caught his opponent, Kazuo made a small, sinuous, impossibly-deft movement, and the punch missed his head by less than a centimeter. Then he was inside Ranma's guard, his hand shooting up to grab the younger man's neck. The force of his charge lifted Ranma off his feet, carrying him backward to slam into one of the metal pillars, buckling it. Ranma gagged from the impact on his throat, his vision going white for a few seconds. When it returned, he saw that Kazuo was standing with two fingers an inch away from Ranma's left eye, a spark of ki burning at the tips.

Silence hung in the air for a moment. Then Kazuo spoke. "I think..." he said, a tight smile on his face. "...that this round is mine."

With that he released his grip on Ranma's throat, allowing the young man to drop to his feet. Ranma took a few unsteady steps away, rubbing at his throat. "So what now?" he finally croaked out.

Kazuo raised his eyebrows. "Now?" he repeated, as he adjusted the cuffs of his black suit. "Now you return to your friends, of course. I would have preferred that you cooperate with me directly... but if that is not an option then you are still more useful to me as a living distraction for the Sailor Senshi than a dead enigma. You have, after all, not the slightest bit of evidence that your obvious attack on Sailor Moon was anyone else's doing but your own."

Ranma continued to glare at him for a few more seconds. "We'll see," he said at last.

"It seems we will," Kazuo agreed. "Ranma... believe me when I say that I honestly have no interest in destroying you. There are few enough martial artists of your caliber left in this day and age, and I would consider your death a great loss. If you were to join me, you would be rewarded beyond anything you could even imagine once Sailor Moon's power is under my control. There is no reason we need to be enemies."

"Oh, there's a reason," was Ranma's reply, as the image came to his mind again of Sailor Moon's agonized face as she screamed in pain from the onset of whatever it was that Kazuo had done to her. "There is sure as hell a reason."

"...can't believe you would just run off like that! Do you have any idea how worried we were when we realized you were gone!"

Beneda glared at the two missing-until-recently patients. Her fists were clenched, and if she had been in her youma form they probably would have subconsciously formed into shurikens by now. It had been a while since she had been so infuriated, and she was releasing it in explosive style. "What were you thinking?" she continued. "Why didn't you let any of us know about this crazy plan of yours?"

Ryouga lowered his head, chastened under her words—unlike Shampoo, who was shrugging off the dressing down with her typical aplomb. "Well..." the lost boy said at last. "That was... pretty much why we didn't tell anyone. Because it was a crazy plan. But we figured we needed to try it anyway. And if we told you guys what we were going to do, and Doctor Tofu had decided it was too crazy... well, we'd be spending the next few days with our legs paralyzed, and we'd lose our chance."

"You could have told me," protested Beneda, hurt. "I wouldn't have told anyone else. Not if you didn't want me to."

"I know," agreed Ryouga, nodding. "I know you wouldn't have. But... stuff like that? About your patients' safety and everything? That would be something you'd get in trouble if you kept secret from Doctor Tofu, right? I didn't want to put you in that position. I figured we'd just get it done real quick, and maybe even make it back before anyone even realized we were gone." He offered her a hopeful smile. "And hey, it all worked out, didn't it?"

Beneda sighed, rubbing her forehead in vexation. In truth, it was an unbelievable relief that Ryouga was no longer in his crippled state, an emotion that fought against the anger and worry that had been plaguing her ever since she had gone in to check on her friend and found that the two patients had absconded, leaving only a note behind about there being something they wanted to try to speed their recovery. "Just... don't do anything like that again, all right?"

"Don't worry," Ryouga assured her. She gave him a skeptical look, and had half a mind to keep on lecturing him, certain that the lesson had not yet sufficiently penetrated his thick skull.

But she was interrupted by the sound of a knock on the clinic door. Frowning, she hurried over and opened it. "I'm sorry, the clinic is closed temporarily for—Ranma!"

It had taken her a moment to recognize the Anything-Goes heir; his signature pigtail had been cut, leaving his hair to hang messily around his head, though he seemed unhurt otherwise. "Hey, Beneda," he said slipping through the door and into the clinic. "How's Shampoo doing? And... I heard that Ryouga..." His voice trailed off as he noticed the two of them standing right in the room, looking no worse for the wear.

"Is long story," Shampoo said. "Shampoo and Ryouga is getting hurt, but find way to fix."

Ranma's eyebrows went up. "...okay. Well I've got a bunch of stuff you guys need to hear too, so we'd better get everyone together. They all need to hear this."

"...and after I got out of the skyscraper, I headed back here as fast as I could," Ranma finished. "Don't think anyone was following me, as far as I could tell."

"At least we know more about who we're up against," Ukyo said. "Even if we still don't have proof that they framed us."

"If we want to expose them, we'll have to go after them directly," put in Mousse. His expression was dark and unreadable, and it sounded like he was chomping at the bit to do exactly that.

"Yeah, maybe," Ranma said. "But it's a big skyscraper to search, with all kinds of crazy security on all the doors and elevators. We could spend weeks trying to sneak around in there, and I don't know if we'd find what we need. And they'll be expecting something like that, too. On the other hand, there was something else I noticed while they were showing me around those labs. Something they won't expect us to know about." He turned and looked at Beneda. "Something that involves you."

Beneda blinked, puzzled. "Me? What do you mean?"

"It was when that Metzger guy was talking up his Synths," Ranma explained. "He let something slip. He said that he had used samples from every kind of monster that the Senshi had fought to build those things. Every kind."

"You mean... including youma?" Beneda asked. "That doesn't make sense. All youma except for me were sealed into the Dark Kingdom, and any research involving them in the lost year would have been lost right along with it. He probably just meant all the monsters he knew about."

"But they did know about the Dark Kingdom!" insisted Ranma. "Somehow, they knew! Kazuo asked me about the battle we were in when I first met him. They knew about the youma, and they knew about Sailor Moon's spell. So I stretched out my senses while I was in the labs, tried to detect as much as I possibly could... and I'm sure that I sensed at least a dozen youma in that area."

The words hit Beneda right in the center of her chest, and for a moment she was unable to grasp their full implications. "How...?" she managed at last. "Sailor Moon's spell... I thought for sure that I was the only one left on this side of the portal!"

"Maybe the seal isn't there anymore?" suggested Akane. "Could it have been broken again?"

"No way," Ryouga spoke up. "I remember checking it with Beneda right after it happened. She said that there was no way any human or youma could crack it."

"That's... not exactly what I said..." the currently-human youma corrected. "What I said was that it would be impossible for a human or a youma to do... without making bargains with the sort of thing you should never, ever make bargains with."

Ranma's lip twisted. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure that this Tanizaki guy has someone like that," he said. "Called himself 'Ekim'. Said he was the chosen of something he called the 'Nameless One'. If he really managed to open up the Dark Kingdom again, that could explain where they got the youma from. And they might have something going on in there that we could dig up some dirt on. They won't be expecting us there."

Beneda still felt stunned, as she fought to process this new development. She had made her peace years ago with never being able to return to her original world, and now, in the space of a few minutes, it had become not only possible, but perhaps even crucial. "I have to come along!" she blurted, almost before she knew what she was saying. "You'll need my help. I know how it is on the other side."

Or at least, she knew how it was. What would it be like now, with Beryl gone, with Metallia gone, and now with whatever this human might be doing there? "I'll be able to blend in better too," she continued. "And any youma would be more likely to talk to me than to a human."

The others exchanged glances. Ryouga looked the most reluctant, but eventually he nodded. Ranma spoke again. "Then it's settled. Tomorrow, we'll take a bunch of us down to Juuban and try checking out the portal in that cafe. Hopefully, we can find something there that'll let us blow the whistle on what Kazuo is doing."

Beneda nodded, numbly. I'm going back to the Dark Kingdom... she thought, the words only gradually sinking in. After all these years, I'm going back to the Dark Kingdom.

Kazuo stood, hands clasped behind his back, looking out across the darkening city, reflecting on the events of the day as he planned out his next move. The silence was broken as the elevator behind him opened and Zhang emerged. "He rejected your offer?" the black-robed assassin asked.

"Yes," Kazuo agreed. "In truth, I didn't think it was terribly likely he'd accept, not after meeting him in person. Still, it was worth the attempt."

"So what now?"

"We proceed with the modifications to Unit Zero while the Sailor Senshi are still fighting against our obstinate young friend. Also, we should expect Ranma to make another move against us, to uncover evidence of our involvement. Raise the security alert status of the entire building, and deactivate the elevator code we used while showing him around, just in case he managed to observe it and memorize it."

Zhang nodded. "I'll have it done. Is there anything else?"

"Yes. Did our pet sorcerer get enough opportunity to observe Ranma on our little 'tour'?"

"Ekim said that he'll be able to cast the spell you want... but it will have his usual restrictions for a ritual of that level. He'd need something to form the connection, something with a link to the victim. The stronger the better."

"Indeed. Such as, for instance... a piece of the target's own body." Kazuo turned away from the cityscape, walking over to the middle of the room and kneeling down to pick up several strands of hair from the floor, lying next to a fallen hair tie. "Fortunately, I made certain to obtain exactly that."

Zhang's eyebrows went up. "Impressive. Winning a fight is one thing, but getting something like this so cleanly, without making it obvious..."

"It wasn't easy. The boy is a formidable martial artist in his own right. Inciting the fight with Davidson turned out to be a worthwhile precaution; it was useful to have the chance to study his fighting style before challenging him myself. Obtaining the sample was much easier with that edge."

The black-robed assassin reached out his hand, and Kazuo deposited the strands of hair there. "How do you want Ekim to split his time?" Zhang asked. "He'll be needed for both this ritual and the work on Unit Zero."

"Tomorrow night will be the optimal time to make use of the spell," Kazuo said. "Have Ekim devote all the time he can spare to Unit Zero, so long as this ritual is finished by that deadline. Pawn though he may be, Saotome Ranma has managed to place himself in a very important position on the board... and he will serve my purposes there, one way or another."

That same evening, much lower down in the towering skyscraper than Tanizaki's penthouse office, different plans were also being discussed.

"...and Kazuo didn't even give a damn about me," growled Captain Davidson. "He was only concerned with his new golden-boy recruit." The blond man ground his teeth at the memory of the humiliation that the little punk had visited on him.

Another mercenary spoke up, the same one who had tried to attack Kazuo during the confrontation a few days before. "It's just like I tried to tell you all!" he spat. "Tanizaki's going to hang us out to dry! He doesn't think we're any use to him anymore!"

"I noticed that two more doctors got pulled off the project this week," grunted yet another mercenary. "When I asked, Metzger said that he'd moved them to 'other priorities'. How long do you figure before he scraps the whole project? And what'll happen to us when they do?"

"Worst case, they liquidate us," was Davidson's grim response. "Best case, they cut us loose, and we're on our own... with no more access to the serum." Even as he said the words, his hands were clenching into painfully tight fists. He didn't honestly see much difference between death and never again being able to feel as alive as he did when Metzger's serum was in his veins. The mere thought of going the rest of his life without it was unbearable, and his breathing began to grow more erratic the more he realized how likely it was to become reality.

"We have to do something," he said at last. "We need some kind of leverage on Tanizaki, some way to force Metzger to keep making us the stuff. And we're not going to get it just sitting around here like good little lab rats."

Around him the other mercenaries nodded in agreement, the lust for battle burning in their bloodshot eyes.

"I still think it's really romantic." From her sleeping bag on the floor of Usagi's bedroom, Ami listened as Chibi-Usa continued her defense of Ryouga's infatuation with Sailor Saturn. "Forbidden love between a villain and a hero!"

Usagi's recovery had continued, but she was still weak, and with the added worry of her secret identity being known, the other Inner Senshi had determined to guard her through the night. They had passed it off as a sleepover to Usagi's parents, and had managed to convince them to allow it. Now all six of the girls were crammed into the princess' bedroom.

"Just because it sounds romantic doesn't mean it'll work out that way," came Rei's voice through the darkness. "You kept talking about Prince Diamond, but even though he was being tricked by Death Phantom he was still a total jerk in ways that had nothing to do with that. He might've been in love with Usagi, but he wasn't the kind of guy she would have actually fallen for herself."

"I know," Chibi-Usa admitted. "But still, I don't think Ryouga is like that. From everything you told us about the stuff he did, he sounds like he'd be a really nice guy if he just stopped trying to conquer the world..."

Rei didn't say anything in reply, only snorted. After a while, Chibi-Usa sighed, and then continued. "I just... think it would be nice if Hotaru had someone special like that. Like mom has with dad, or... like I have with Helios." It was impossible to tell for sure in the darkness, but Ami was convinced she heard a blush in the young girl's voice as she spoke.

The conversation caused a dull throb in Ami's own chest, stirring up memories that had been buried until recently. It wouldn't have been so bad if they weren't facing old enemies from those same Dark Kingdom days, meaning that her thoughts already kept returning to that time period. Which meant that memories of her own try at making such star-crossed love work were closer to the surface than usual.

It hadn't been a Prince or a Dark Lord for her, though he had been one of the Seven Great Youma. Reborn into this world as Urawa Ryo, he had been the only one of the Seven who had known his true nature, thanks to the psychic powers he still retained. He had fallen in love with her, but his visions of the future had convinced him that he was doomed to be her enemy instead.

She had convinced him otherwise. Convinced him that the future could be changed. Despite his predictions, they had come both come through alive, and they began exchanging letters. Even after the Dark Kingdom's defeat, Ryo's powers had allowed him to remember the truth, just as they had when he had first been reborn. Their exchange of letters had continued through the struggle against the Doom Tree, and into the fight against the Black Moon Clan. She had never expected to have a romance like that, but found herself living one all the same. She had been... happy.

Then the letters had stopped coming.

At first she hadn't been worried, but as time went by her concern had grown. Eventually she had called his home, hoping to speak with him. His distraught mother had answered the phone instead.

What she told Ami hadn't been very coherent, but she had conveyed enough. There had been a fire. Someone's house that had burned down. The fire department hadn't been able to make it in time for some reason. His mother didn't even know why Ryo had been there, but Ami did; he had to have seen it in one of his visions.

He had gotten three people out safely, his mother had told her. Then he had gone in again to try and bring out someone else. He hadn't made it back.

Ami clenched her eyes tight, fighting back the tears. And as always, there was the most terrible, the most damning realization lurking in the back of her mind. When he had gone back into the fire that last time... he would have known what was going to happen. With his powers, he had to have known. But he had gone back in anyway. Because he had believed that the future could be changed.

She had taught him that.

I don't know what is really going on between Hotaru and Ryouga, Ami thought. But whatever it is, I hope she doesn't get hurt by it. Star-crossed love can sound very romantic... but from what I've seen it usually ends in tragedy.

"Then our course of action is clear," Setsuna said. "We must regain the initiative. Our enemies have learned far too much about us... but we also know about their location. Luna gave me the address of this 'Tendo Dojo' that she visited before. Tomorrow, we should take the fight to them before they have the chance to do anything further to the princess."

Hotaru watched, a sinking feeling in her chest, as Haruka and Michiru nodded in agreement. She had told the other Outer Senshi about what had happened at Usagi's, of course, while making sure to stress how Ryouga hadn't taken the opportunity to attack them. Still, she hadn't truly expected it to change their minds about going on the offensive. Even back during the conflict with Sailor Galaxia they had attacked the Sailor Starlights with far less provocation; there was little chance they would go easy on someone who was, in the end, a self-avowed villain. And certainly not after what had happened to Usagi.

"We'll hit them with everything we have," agreed Haruka, determination in her eyes. Then she turned to Hotaru. "The only way they'll have a chance against you is if another situation comes up like with that family, where you can't use your full power. And this time, we'll be there to help if it does."

Privately, Hotaru wasn't sure it would be so clear-cut as that, but she nodded all the same. "I'll be ready." She had to be there for the attack, even if she disagreed with it. It would give her the chance to act, to intervene if necessary, depending on how the situation went.

It might even give her the chance to get some answers from Ryouga, answers to the ever-growing number of questions she had for him.