Chapter 8

I steeled myself and went over to the vacant bench, where I sat myself. I didn't think that it would do me any favors to begin my plan while Ranma was still eating, so I waited, using the time to put my thoughts together. I'd been thinking about what I was going to do — and how I was going to do it — all day, of course, but it was getting a bit difficult to concentrate now that the moment of truth was nearly upon me, which was doing a real number on my nerves.

After Ranma finished eating, she returned the plate and chopsticks to the food capsule, before slipping said capsule into one of the pockets of her shorts. Then, before I could say or do anything, I watched as she pointed at the pile of firewood and set it on fire with a spell. When I turned my attention away from what she had just accomplished with said spell, I found her looking at me square in the eye.

"Okay," she said, as she crossed her arms with an air of impatience, "let's get this over with."

"Huh?" Came my intelligent response.

She sighed with a bit of exasperation. "Don't play dumb. It's clear that you want to say something, and we both know what it's about." She pointed at the campfire that she had just lit, before adding, "I'll give you until the time that burns down to embers to do whatever you came here for."

"Gee, that's awfully considerate of you," I replied, my words dripping with sarcasm. "What happened to the cold-shoulder treatment?"

She shrugged her shoulders and said, "It didn't work on your mother, and it doesn't seem to be working on you, either. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if you had seen through my act earlier, anyway. So," she proceeded to lean forward and stare at me levelly, "let's see if being more candid will get you out of my hair within the next few hours, because I'd rather not repeat what I had gone through with your mother."

This wasn't how I had imagined the beginning of our showdown playing out, since I had expected myself to be the one who took the initiative, but I could work with this. If I'm lucky, and it turned out that she wasn't going to be as reticent as she had been previously, perhaps I wouldn't need to fight tooth and nail to get the conversation to go in the right direction. There was only one way to find out, of course.

"Alright," I agreed, as I crossed my arms and returned her stare, "then answer me this: did you know that Kasumi broke down and cried over you, after you left yesterday?" When she failed to respond immediately (which I assumed had something to do with my question being unexpected), I forged ahead and added, "How can you do that to someone like her, when she cares about you so much?"

There was a flash of anger in her eyes, along with guilt, but her visage remained fairly impassive as she slowly said, "It's... complicated. Even if I told you my reasons, I doubt you'd understand."

"Try me," I challenged, hoping that her answer would give me the opening that I needed to go after my actual target.

She maintained eye contact with me as she leaned back into an upright position, her gaze trying to evaluate what was behind my own, before she sighed and glanced at the campfire. "Well, I suppose it would only be fair to make the limited time that I gave you worth it..." She paused, perhaps to figure out where to start with her next words, until our eyes met once more. "Have you ever felt so ashamed and unworthy of someone's attention that you couldn't face them?"

I simply nodded my head in reply. It had been that way with Setsuna, after she had been reincarnated, since my actions had played a large role in the events that had led up to her death. At times it had been that way with my parents as well, until I had finally been able to become a sailor senshi and cleared up a long-standing misunderstanding regarding a few details that concerned our relationship.

She seemed to consider my answer before softly saying, "Well, it's like that. I did a lot of stupid things when I was young, made a lot of mistakes, and when all was said and done she was the only one who still acknowledged me with kindness and concern." She chuckled self-deprecatingly. "One might think that too incredible to pass up, but I'm of the opinion that she's far too good for someone like me." She cast her eyes downward and sighed. "As much as I dislike hurting her, which is why I can't help humoring her from time to time, I hope to one day bring her around to my way of thinking, y'know?"

I gave her a scathing look. "It sounds — to me — like you're still being stupid, and making a big mistake."

She raised her eyes and fixed me with a glare. "See? If you had really understood that, you might have said something that could have warmed me up to the idea of becoming a sailor senshi. But now?" She snorted dismissively and turned her body away from me. "Maybe your daughter will have better luck."

Seeing the opening that I needed, I performed the mental equivalent of taking a deep breath and thought to myself, "Here I go..."

I slowly rose to my feet and stared down at her, with my arms akimbo and a stern expression on my face. "Is that what you think this is about?"

"Isn't it?" Came her stubborn reply, with the smallest hint of uncertainty, as she continued to look away from me.

"Let me tell you something," I said measuredly, as I made an effort to stay focused and calm. "For nine centuries of my life, starting when I was only six years old, my growth had been stunted — both physically and mentally. Can you even begin to imagine what that must have been like for me?"

It was a rhetorical question, of course, so I continued without skipping a beat. "I could never appear as anything more than a child, and my inability to think and reason like an adult assured that I would be treated like one. No matter the amount of years I lived, I could never get the treatment that I thought I deserved, and it hadn't helped that my parents couldn't figure out what to do with me."

"My peers began to outgrow me," I went on. "They had children, then their children had children, and so on and so forth. With each successive generation, I had to endure the speculations, gossip, ridicule, harassment... and bullying." I drew my arms to my sides and clenched my hands into fists, as certain experiences came to mind. "I didn't have any power, when I was expected to have some. I didn't have the crescent moon symbol on my forehead, like my mother did. To make matters worse, I don't resemble my parents as much as I'd like. Not even a DNA test, proving that I was the child of the queen and king, could stop how I was being treated."

I paused, took a calming breath, and continued in a softer tone. "I felt so lonely, and I hurt so much inside. My parents were often so busy that they had little time for me, and I began to doubt that they loved me, which made me wonder if all those people were right about me being a 'fake princess.'"

On a whim, I decided to seat myself beside Ranma, who continued to stare intently into the fire even as I began to do the same. "Then, one day, I couldn't bear it anymore. I had tried to act strong, both to protect myself and to prove who I was, but it never seemed to work. So, I went to the forbidden section of the palace, hoping to find a place where no one could find me..." I hesitated, not really wanting to admit what came next, which I had never shared with anyone before. "Well... To be more precise, I wanted to disappear."

"I take it that you didn't," Ranma observed, without humor, or turning her attention away from the fire.

I smiled wanly at that. "Fortunately, that was when I found my first, true friend. She was really nice, told me a lot of the same things about myself as my parents did, and cheered me up. Even though I wasn't supposed to be where she was, since her post and duty were of a secret nature, I was allowed to visit her whenever I wanted, and for a long time I took advantage of that privilege."

"Several years ago," I continued, as I leaned back on my hands and looked up at the darkening sky, "the latest batch of children around my apparent age began to repeat what their parents had said and done to me, no doubt having picked it up from them, as they had from theirs. However, unlike those other times, they went so far as to challenge me, saying that I had to use the Silver Moon Crystal — in specific — to prove that I wasn't a fake princess."

"As much as my friend had helped me to cope with my lot in life, I wanted even more to prove that I was the queen's daughter, because I wanted to grow up to be just like her. Of course, I would have liked it even more if I didn't have to cope with so many problems in the first place."

With a sigh, I pushed myself forward and rested my forearms on my knees. "Unfortunately, right when I had managed to sneak up to the Silver Moon Crystal and took it, Nemesis and the Dark Moon had chosen that time to strike. Looking back on it, I can't help wondering if that challenge had been a part of their plan."

Ranma raised her head a bit and said, "Hold on," before she turned her head to regard me. "Are you talking about that incident where the city was almost completely destroyed by that black crystal stuff?"

I looked at her with a measure of surprise. "You were there when it happened?"

"Not right when it happened," she corrected me, "but I went to investigate when I heard about it. I couldn't get too close, though, because my energy kept getting drained whenever I did."

I nodded my head in understanding before I looked ahead, toward Mount Fuji, and continued where I had left off. "At any rate, I was practically the only one unaffected by the attack, and I had felt so alone, scared and guilty. Above all, I had felt useless." I chuckled humorlessly as I remembered the events that followed. "I recalled the stories that my parents had once told me, about Sailor Moon's exploits, and I had the bright idea to go back into the past and get the Silver Moon Crystal from her, even though I knew that it wouldn't work for me no matter which time period it came from."

I heard the disbelief in Ranma's voice when she interjected, along with something else that I couldn't quite place. "You can travel through time?"

Knowledge of the royal family being capable of time travel was supposed to be a secret; or, in the case of it being suspected, unconfirmed. However, if things with Ranma played out like I hoped they would, then it would become a non-issue. With that thought in mind, I nodded my head in affirmation.

"Normally," I began to explain, my voice making me sound regretful all on its own, "time travel isn't allowed. My friend is tasked with enforcing that edict, but I — in the boundless wisdom of my prevailing youth — had betrayed her trust, so I could steal one of the keys that would allow me to travel through time." I sighed at the memory. "It wasn't one of my proudest moments."

"I know how that is," Ranma replied, in a manner that made her sound distracted to my ears.

When I looked askance, I saw that she wasn't so much looking at the fire as she was staring through it. I supposed that my mention of time travel had caught her interest. Even though I wasn't finished with my story, I decided that it would be remiss of me to not take advantage of her preoccupation with the subject, since I figured that my story (thus far) had accomplished as much as I could have hoped for already, to inspire sympathy and/or empathy.

I turned my head to regard her directly and pointedly asked, "Is there anything that you regret?"

She blinked her eyes clear before she focused them on me, via a sidelong glance. "That should be obvious, by now. So, what are you getting at?"

I wasn't surprised that she was aware of my scheming, but I hadn't really tried to hide it: I'd only needed enough room to lay down some of the groundwork for what I had planned, and she had been patient and/or tolerant of my intentions long enough for me to do just that. Now, it was time to strike.

"Is that why you don't want to become a sailor senshi?" I posed gently. "Because you don't want to live with your regrets indefinitely?"

She looked away from me, but from her profile I could still see enough of her face to tell that she was deep in thought. When she failed to reply after a notable stretch of silence, I decided that it was time to see how much leeway my efforts had given me.

Her body stiffened when I placed my hand on her forearm, but I went ahead and asked, "Can you tell me what happened?"

She was silent for a few seconds before the tension left her body, which was accompanied by a heavy sigh. "Answer my question, first."

I hadn't intended to keep my intentions a secret, so I leaned back on my hands, kicked my legs out and casually said, "What am I trying to accomplish? Well, at the very least, I'd like to help you and Kasumi."

"I can't speak for Kasumi," she replied levelly, "but I never asked for any help, much less from a family of busybodies."

I sighed and tilted my head back, and I noticed some of the brightest stars breaking through the waning light. "You're quite selfish and self-centered, aren't you? Instead of wasting your life like this, has it ever occurred to you to do something for the sake of someone else?"

She snorted and crossed her arms stubbornly. "Who, exactly? Just about everyone I ever knew is gone, and..." She paused, closed her eyes and sighed with resignation. "And the pity in Kasumi's eyes is too much for me to bear, okay?"

I lifted my head and looked at her oddly. "Why not tell her that?"

"That's easy enough for you to say," she grumbled, before turning her head away and scratching at the side of her face. "I've never been good at that sort of thing."

"Okay," I temporized, since I didn't want to argue about how she still had that kind of problem after living for so many centuries (especially since I wasn't one to talk, even though it had been beyond my control), "then what about my friend? Would you be willing to help a stranger?"

"Is that the friend you mentioned before?" She inquired.

After confirming that with a verbal response, she turned to face me once again and pointedly added, "Let me guess: she's a sailor senshi, right?" At my nod, she sighed and went back to staring into the fire. "I knew it. If Kasumi and I are going to be the least that you hope to help, then I'm assuming that you had intended to include your friend all along. And if she does what you say she does, I'm guessing that it would require them to be a sailor senshi."

Left unsaid was the suspicion of having to become a sailor senshi in order to help her, since I had never clearly denied having such a motive, so I allowed my silence to confirm it. When that seemed to provoke heavy thought, I maintained my silence, not wanting to interrupt something that might work in my favor.

Eventually, her furrowed brow receded and she quietly asked, "Tell me: why does she need help, and how would I be able to provide it?"

Relieved that she wouldn't reject the idea outright, I said, "For the past nine centuries she's remained at her post, all by herself. She doesn't have to, but she insists, and won't let anyone join her or take her place — even temporarily. While I agree that it's important to guard what she does, and I respect her sacrifice, I can tell that she's lonely despite telling me otherwise."

"How might you accomplish what no one else has?" I asked rhetorically, which inspired her to turn her wondering eyes toward mine. "That's because my friend is Sailor Pluto. And, if you awaken to your powers, you will become her counterpart: Sailor Charon."

She looked at me questioningly. "How can you be sure of any of that?"

"Because I've got a good source," I answered plainly, before I began to elaborate. "My grandmother — the late queen of the Silver Millennium, who now lives inside of a computer — seems to think so, and she's very reliable. She gave Sailor Pluto your sailor crystal for safekeeping, when she couldn't find your incarnation a very long time ago, because my grandmother had intended for her to have a partner." I paused and released a tired sigh, as I recalled various attempts to set her up with one of the other sailor senshi. "Unfortunately, my friend is more likely to accept Sailor Charon than anyone else, since she seems more partial toward my grandmother's desires than mine or my mother's."

I was looking at her imploringly now, which seemed to make her uncomfortable enough to cast her eyes elsewhere as she asked, "So, you're hoping that I can keep her company, or give her a break?"

I nodded my head resolutely. "She means the world to me. If it hadn't been for her sacrifice, when she had stopped time, I might still—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," she interrupted me, her hands raised in a gesture that complemented her words, and her face marked by surprise and puzzlement. "Sacrifice, as in death? And that was her?"

Now it was my turn to be surprised, but it faded quickly in light of being interrupted and suddenly having to tackle two questions. "Yes, and yes. Sailor Pluto has the power to stop time, but at the cost of her own life. I'm surprised that you noticed it, but maybe I shouldn't be, all things considered..."

"But she died, right?" She pursued that particular subject, as she frowned in confusion. "Yet, it sounds like she's still alive."

"She is," I confirmed. "My mother sent her back to the twentieth century, where she was reincarnated."

She cocked an eyebrow at that and said, "It sounds like you guys do a lot of time traveling, even though you have someone who is supposed to prevent that from occurring. Isn't that supposed to be dangerous?"

"It can be," I admitted, feeling a little embarrassed.

She waved her hand dismissively. "Yeah, well, it doesn't really affect my answer, anyway."

I perked up a bit at that, hoping for the best but noting that her casualness might not be a good indication of what to expect. "And what might that be?"

With a serious expression on her face, she looked me straight in the eyes and stated, "No."

I deflated upon hearing that, even though it hadn't been all that unexpected. "Can you tell me why you can't, at least?"

She seemed to consider her response for a moment, before she sighed and said, "Well, you did answer my question. So, exactly how much has Kasumi told you about me?"

"Not enough to tell me how you turned out like this," I softly replied.

She nodded her head in reply, before she frowned thoughtfully and directed her gaze skyward. While I assumed that she was gathering her thoughts, in preparation for what she would tell me, I felt a little bad about the situation having to come to this, knowing very well what it is like to bring something back into the light of day that was probably best left in the dark and forgotten about. However, I had already made up my mind about this, and I was willing to go to great lengths for Setsuna. I could only hope that she would be willing to go the same distance for herself.

Of course, I'd also like to improve the situation between Kasumi and Ranma, and help the latter in general. However, I didn't see that happening unless I could work things out with Setsuna, and I was convinced that I would need Ranma for that. If I have to take things as far as I'm beginning to suspect, then so be it. If everything pans out the way I hope, though, I won't regret my decision one bit.

When Ranma appeared to be ready to talk, she re-established eye contact with me and deliberately said, "It began before Crystal Tokyo. I was still in high school at the time, and unmarried. As you're probably aware, Kasumi's sister, Akane, and I had been engaged by our parents."

I nodded my head in acknowledgement.

"Well," she continued, "our parents had sprung another surprise wedding on us, either assuming that we had resolved some of our outstanding issues or from having grown impatient with us." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Akane and I had become closer after they had done it the first time, so maybe they had thought the effect would be cumulative."

"Either way, they had tried to keep it a secret, so that there wouldn't be any surprise guests like last time. However, because they had only kept an eye on Nabiki since the day that they had made their plans, what they didn't know was that she was already a paid retainer for both Shampoo and Kodachi, in case just such a thing were to happen again. Ukyo had Konatsu casing the house, which I had been aware of, but I had let it go since I couldn't see what harm it could have done at the time."

She released a long, drawn-out sigh, which left her shoulders slumped at the end of it. "Kasumi had been able to warn me about our parents' plan, but not when it would be put into action, and I hadn't known how much time I had to figure something out. As it turned out, I'd only had until the next morning, and I hadn't expected being captured while I was still asleep."

She paused and stared down at her lap with an intense look on her face, where she had balled her hands into fists. I reached over and placed a hand over one of her fists, where I felt a tremor of emotion that she managed to hide from my eyes. She looked up at me, and I tried to convey — with a look — that I would understand if she didn't want to continue.

She smiled tentatively in response, and the hand beneath mine relaxed as she said, "This is the first time that I've shared this with anyone, and this will probably be my only opportunity to do it, so..."

I wasn't exactly sure what she meant by that, except that she was willing to continue, so I retrieved my hand and simply nodded my head.

"Anyway," she continued, in a softer tone of voice, "things quickly escalated when Akane and I woke up, finding ourselves in the dojo and dressed as the main attraction for a wedding. We'd only just begun to protest the situation when the others came to stop it, even more prepared and determined than the last time."

She closed her eyes, and I imagined that she was visualizing the events from her past with her mind's eye. "Everything happened so fast, from virtually everywhere, at pretty much the same time. Kuno came at me with his sword, so there was nothing new there. Ryoga 'just happened' to turn up again, at that exact moment. I learned later that his relationship with Akari had been rocky at the time, which explained why he had once again been of a mind to keep Akane and I apart, since he'd never fully gotten over her to begin with. Unexpectedly, Mousse had actually tried to help me," she snorted with displeasure, "but — of course — he had been worse than useless without his glasses on."

She opened her eyes halfway and stared down at her lap, and I'm not sure if the flickering light from the campfire had anything to do with the turbulence that I spied within her eyes or not. "Like last time, Ukyo and Shampoo had gone after Akane. Only this time they had been joined by Kodachi, who had focused her attention on me the first time around. In the confusion, I didn't see who scored the hit on Akane, but her father went ballistic when it happened. Until I had seen it for myself, I'd had no idea that the man could be capable of such savagery, as he single-handedly fought Kodachi, Ukyo and Shampoo away from the premises."

"And me?" She said quietly, just barely above a whisper. "I had been mortified. The girl I liked was lying prone on the floor, bleeding profusely from gaping wounds in her left leg, caused by a combination of explosive and acid. Despite what some might expect from someone like me, I'd never seen such a grisly sight before. At the time, I'd been too naive to think that anyone would do such a thing, especially if they wanted me to like them romantically."

"Everything changed after that," she stated, with a touch of sadness to her voice, which had been raised back to a normal speaking volume. "Akane being upset over being maimed and disfigured would be an understatement. No one could enter her hospital room without getting an earful — not even Kasumi had been spared from that. I never tried, though, because I was really conflicted at the time, and I was afraid of what she might say to me."

"Anyway, when she was released from the hospital, the first thing that she did was break Nabiki's jaw. After that, she began to pack up some of her things, so she could move out and live with a friend." She paused, and went quiet for a moment before she continued. "We had bumped into each other before she had left. I couldn't find any words to say to her, even though I had tried. She hadn't said anything to me either, and had avoided looking at me, so I had assumed the worst of what that could have meant."

She turned her body away from me a bit, until she was facing the campfire, and then rested her folded arms upon her knees. I followed suit, and for the first time I truly sensed that our exchange had become a companionable affair, as opposed to being a confrontational one. Considering where her tale was going, I could understand why she would begin to drop her guard to this extent.

"I was filled with a lot of self-doubt and guilt," she went on. "I didn't know what to do with myself. Not until our parents began to take out their frustrations with Akane out on me, because she had said a lot of things about them that they hadn't wanted to hear, as well as due to the situation in general. In addition to that, they'd had the nerve to tell me that I had to choose either Nabiki or Kasumi to replace Akane as my fiancée."

"I decided that Akane had the right idea. So, I left while everyone was asleep, since I didn't want to meet with any resistance. I didn't know where I was going to go, or what I was going to do, so I decided to do the one thing that I was most familiar with: traveling from place to place, and living out of a tent."

"Earlier," she said, as she spared me a glance, "you asked me about my curse. Well, I used the Chisuiton to lock it." She chuckled humorlessly at that, and her gaze fell to the ground. "I didn't know if I could get myself to see Akane, or even if I should. Even if I had, I doubted that I would be able to express how I felt to the extent that I did — especially if she didn't desire to see me in the first place. I figured: if I couldn't apologize and place myself at her mercy, the least that I could do was suffer along with her, and I did not like being a girl at the time."

"I take it that changed," I deduced, my tone gentle and sympathetic.

She nodded her head almost imperceptibly. "Yeah. I fought it every step of the way, but it was inevitable that I would adapt to it. I tried to pretend that I didn't like it, but I eventually realized that it defeated the purpose, and it felt like I was cheating Akane out of the punishment that I thought I deserved." She sighed and closed her eyes. "That's when I decided to live a solitary lifestyle, because I liked having people around to impress with my skills whenever the opportunity presented itself. From what I'd last heard (at the time), Akane had become a rather bitter person, and I didn't think that I deserved to be any happier than she was."

She opened her eyes and began to stare into the fire. "It was around that time that Ryoga began to hunt me down like he had before, only with more conviction toward killing me. Things hadn't worked out between him and Akari, and Akane had rebuffed him when he had gathered the nerve to pursue a relationship with her. He blamed the rejection on me, of course, since she obviously would have accepted him if I hadn't failed to protect her."

"Things eventually changed for her, though," she continued, with a faraway look in her eyes. "After a few decades had gone by, science and magic had advanced to the point where she could have her leg completely restored. That had gone a long way to improve her outlook on life, and it wasn't long afterward that she opened up her own gym. I felt happy for her, but at that point I believed that making an appearance would only spoil things for her, so I didn't."

She paused, and I could see the areas around her mouth and eyes beginning to strain. "It went on like that for a while. I hadn't expected my lifespan to be greatly extended because of the new queen, so not only had my solitary lifestyle become normal, it became all I knew. By the time anyone could actually find me, and pass along the message that Akane wanted to see me, I was very conflicted and indecisive. I wanted to see her so badly, even if she only wanted to deliver a long-overdue punishment, but I had developed a low opinion of myself and felt too ashamed to show my face to her. I mean, I was just a pathetic excuse for a woman who lived like a hermit and did nothing but feel sorry for herself."

"A few years passed," she went on, and by the sound of her voice I could tell that her throat was beginning to be strained by emotion. "Before I could make up my mind one way or the other, Phantom began to terrorize Crystal Tokyo. Fearing for her safety, I was finally able to gather up the nerve to see her, but..." She clenched her eyes shut, and her body went tense. "I had arrived too late. She'd placed herself between Phantom and some fleeing civilians, and had bought them enough time to get away." She paused again, swallowed, and began to shake. "Before she died, she had enough time to write... on the ground... 'baka.'"

I had half-expected her to break down and cry, but — aside from a pained expression on her face, and tears forming at the corners of her eyes — she was doing a remarkable job of suppressing the urge to do just that. I don't know if she was doing it for my sake, or if that was just the way that she was, or both, but my heart went out to her nonetheless, and I reached around her back to pull her against me without thinking about it.

For a second, when she froze up, I worried that I had made a mistake. Much to my relief, however, she relaxed and leaned into me shortly thereafter. I guess my attempt to comfort her had been enough to derail how she had been feeling before, because — instead of carrying on — she wiped at her eyes and began to calm down, with the occasional sniffle being the only remnant of her prior state.

I didn't say anything. We just sat here, with my arm around her, watching the area around the campfire flickering in and out of prominence right along with it. Now that the campfire was the main source of light, which dictated the condition of the lighting as far as our eyes were concerned, we couldn't see much beyond the immediate area. It was like being in a little bubble of a world, with a life of its own, which had been brought to life by the dancing flames at its heart. I found myself a little spellbound by it, and wondered if Ranma ever had the same experience, or if so much exposure to it had worn away its allure.

Eventually, my full attention was brought back to the woman beside me, when she quietly said, "You know, at one point your mother tried to appeal to me with the promise of immortality." She chuckled lightly, with apparent humor. "It was one of the last things that she had tried, before realizing that I wouldn't be suited for the life of a sailor senshi, even if for a reason that differed from my own."

"Anyway," she continued, a little louder and clearer than before, "despite my grief, I didn't think that I should bear my pain forever, much less pass it on to my next incarnation. That, and I didn't like the idea of living with it for so long that I became numb to it, which would render its existence and purpose meaningless." She paused and released a tired sigh. "I failed Akane twice, missing any chance of being in her life again, and she in mine. When she died, she took her feelings toward me with her; so, I felt that it would only be appropriate if I were to do the same."

I thought that was a bit melodramatic, but I didn't think that it would be wise to say that to her. She had obviously made up her mind, so I thought it best to just accept it; that, and what my next action will have to be.

I looked up at her and cautiously asked, "What if you could prevent those things from happening to her?"

She frowned, then leaned away from me and turned her torso aside so she could see my face clearly. "Are you serious?"

With an expression to match the graveness of the matter, I nodded my head and said, "Completely serious."

I could see an assortment of emotions flash by within her eyes. These expressed themselves elsewhere in a subtle way, mostly in the form of minor facial twitches, as each emotion quickly superseded another in turn. Then, when it seemed that she could not find anything in my appearance that would belie my words, she returned her torso to its natural position and looked ahead of herself, her expression settling on one that told me that she was now deep in thought.

After a short time had passed, she calmly asked, "If we change the past, won't that mean that there won't be a reason to go back into the past to change it? Isn't that the kind of thing you're supposed to avoid?"

"That's right," I readily answered. "It's just a matter of figuring out a solution for it. I'm sure Sailor Pluto could think of something."

She looked at me with a dubious expression on her face, and a hint of hope showing in her eyes. "Are you sure about that?"

I puffed up with pride and nodded my head with confidence. "Of course! I bet it'll be a piece of cake for her."

I wasn't sure, but I could have sworn that she had looked irritated for the briefest of instants. However, since such a reaction to my words wouldn't have made any sense, I decided to forget about it.

She directed her attention toward the fire and once again rested her arms on her knees, and I sat by and quietly watched as she not only decided on the fate of her existence, but on a part of history's fate as well. I hadn't planned for things to go this far from the start, but I had figured that it might be necessary to involve time travel and had prepared myself accordingly. My mother will probably be upset with me because of it, if Ranma's answer required changing certain events that happened in the past, but I think she'll understand since I'm just going along with what my heart is telling me to do.

Once she was ready to speak, she closed her eyes and softly said, "I guess this is it, then. If you can save Akane, I don't care what happens to me."

Despite the tranquil expression on her face, I leaned over her a bit and grasped the shoulder farthest from me with one hand while I gently placed my other hand just above the elbow that was nearest to me. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah," she replied, before opening her eyes, which revealed that they were now glistening with unshed tears. "Not everyone gets a chance to undo their mistakes. I just hope that I don't make them again."

I squeezed her arm reassuringly. "You won't. I'll make sure of it."