Chaos Lord Productions Brings You.

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Stars in the Sky

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Written by Chaos Lord

Disclaimer: All entities and devices in this story belong to their respective owners.

WARNING: Extreme OOC ahead. If slavish adherence to the originals are your bag, read no further.

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Chapter 4 – Revelations

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For the fifth time in just a few minutes, Usagi Tsukino glanced at her watch. It was a blue Doraemon that her parents had bought for her when she turned ten. Though the instrument was more than a little childish for a girl her age, it worked and had a good amount of sentimental value. In the creature's wide open mouth, digital numbers clearly denoted the time. "Where is he," she muttered worriedly.

"Usagi," scolded the dark-haired Rei Hino, "watching the clock isn't going to make this guy show up any faster."

"But he should have been here by now."

"Maybe he's getting it on with his girl," offered Haruka helpfully. For which she received a swift kick in the shin courtesy of Michiru. "Damnit Michiru," she screeched loudly, "I was just sayin' what I'd be doing!"

The aqua-tressed woman scowled, "Not if you keep that up."

"You know," mused Minako as she poked a mound of orange sherbet with her spoon, "Haruka's probably right. I know they've done it at least once."

Ami blushed around the straw she was drinking through. "H,how do you know that?"

"I know love," she said simply. "And from the look in Ranma's eyes when he talked about his girlfriend they've made love once, maybe more. I can also tell that they have a real tight connection. May even be soul mates."

"Well, while its interesting to know the possible sexual practices of some guy I've never met," said Mamoru with sarcasm, "why am I here?"

"I thought Ranma would like to have a male friend," answered Usagi.

"Why the interest though? I mean, we haven't exactly been going after friends up till now.

Haruka nodded, "Yeah, why. Sure, he's nice enough, I guess. And he's got some speed, if what Ami says is true. But I don't see any real reason."

Surprisingly, it was Setsuna who answered, "Maybe because it's a nice thing to do? Or perhaps because Ranma could take out everyone in this room, save myself, without breaking a sweat? And then there is the issue of him being one of the few people on the planet with the skill to teach the lot of you how to really fight instead of just relying on the abilities of your suits?" As she spoke, her tone became increasingly hostile as her ire grew. Though none of the others knew it, they had pressed one of her few buttons, they spoke ill of her family. And while she didn't know Ranma that well personally, he was family and had gone through too much in life to be questioned by gossiping school girls and a rose-chucking pretty boy.

Everyone at the table looked at their normally dispassionate friend with the same kind of shock reserved for mass murders. The woman looked ready to lay out some serious pain. Usagi was the first to recover her voice, but, just as she was about to ask about the sudden display of anger, a sharp whistle pierced the constant buzz of the room.

The source of the whistle was none other than Matoki. Standing next to the counter in his ever-present apron, the man held a television remote. His face was mask of worry. "Everyone, quiet! Something is going on."

All eyes turned to the closest television. On the screen was a young woman in a professional looking suit and short ebony hair. To everyone in the arcade, she looked worried and unsure. In the background there was a street that looked like it had been through a war. Had there not been the words, "Live from Tokyo," scrawled across the top right corner of the screen, everyone might have thought it was indeed a war zone. "This is Kimiko Tetsuzaka of JNN channel five and the scene behind me can only be described as hell unleashed. A short while ago this battered street was the site of an epic battle between two young heroes and an oddly dressed man. What is notable is that Tokyo's famed heroines, the Sailor Senshi, were missing from the battle. In a JNN exclusive, we have footage from the epic conflict. I must warn you, the scenes are quite graphic. Parents, be advised, what you are about to see may be unsuitable for minors."

Usagi paid the warnings no heed. Instead, she looked sharply towards Ami. The girl and her computer was supposed to tell them when such attacks occurred. No such warning had been given, yet there had been a battle of sufficient size to warrant a news broadcast. To her horror though, it was quite clear that her blue-haired friend was just as surprised as she was. Such information was troubling on many levels, the least of which was that they may no longer have the ability to quickly deal with threats. Any further concerns were spirited away by Makoto's shocked gasp. In an instance, Usagi's head whipped back towards the tv.

On the cold, merciless, screen was the clear image of Ranma Alexander. By that point in the video, the pig-tailed young man was pushed back to defending a small alcove. On the ground there was an ever-widening pool of crimson and one could just make out the huddled form of a young woman behind him. With a sick fascination, everyone in the arcade watched as the dark forms beat the gallant defender mercilessly. Some, cheered Ranma on as he scored a blow. But their encouragement was only half-hearted, as everyone in the room, unspecialized spectators all, knew that what they were watching wasn't some hero about to save the day, it was an execution. The death blow was landed soon enough, and it was accompanied by shocked gasps and even some retching.

Though no one was left unaffected by the grisly imagery, the Senshi were especially devastated. There was someone that they had just befriended, and now they watched him get slaughtered by monsters they should have faced. Each of the young women, including Haruka, wept bitter tears at the sight of Ranma's companion holding his mutilated corpse. Never had any of them paid witness to such carnage. Only the final battle with Beryl's forces could even come close to the scale of horror, and their memories of those events were sketchy at best. Mamoru even went so far as to wrap his arms around his beloved. Both to take solace in her presence and to shield the young woman's innocence from the nightmarish imagery.

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Across the country, people watched the news broadcast with the same horrid emotions as the teens in the Crown Arcade.

In Ucchan's Okonomyaki, the proprietor, Ukyo Kounji, stood frozen in place, her eyes glued to the television. The room still echoed with the clattering of her spatula against the linoleum floor. On the griddle, one of her signature dishes slowly burned, unnoticed by both host and customer.

When she had first heard that Ranma was gone, Ukyo had been furious. The brown-haired girl had ranted and raved, and cried out for blood. Konatsu had been forced to duck beneath a table as his superior vented her frustration upon the surroundings. Around her tears, the young woman described, in vivid detail, how she would dispatch her wayward fiancé should he ever show his miserable hide.

That anger no longer existed though. The tortures she had planned for Ranma were a distant memory. Seeing his anguish was more than enough to satiate her blood lust. Now, all she desired was to undo the terrible imagery unfolding before her.

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Tears flowed in the quiet Nekohanten. The normally proud and bubbly Amazon Shampoo was doubled over in grief. Her purple tresses were buried in the shoulder of her great grandmother, Cologne, as she cried her soul out. Where Ukyo had lost a fiancé, she saw the death of her beloved husband. And like all first loves found, then lost, Shampoo could not imagine loving any other. She couldn't even conjure up the emotion to hate Kasumi. Though the nice girl took Ranma, his death made them sisters in sorrow.

Even Cologne felt the bitter sting of hot tears. Over the course of her three hundred plus years she had seen many a brilliant light fade into the darkness everlasting; and she was sure she would see yet more pass before she joined them. Her son-in-law had been one of brightest she had ever encountered. On more than one occasion she had shook her head as he ran headlong into the very face of death, laughing gaily all the way. Yet, no matter the danger, no large the challenge, Ranma had always won in the end. His was a light that seemed almost eternal. And, true to form, it took a veritable army to take him down. But he had done so defending an innocent and the woman he loved, Cologne knew of no more honorable a death.

Why was it that that thought did nothing to comfort her?

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Standing in the Tendo living room, Genma Saotome watched his son's performance with grim satisfaction. Even as the sobbing of the girls and Soun filled his ears, the portly martial artist couldn't help but smile. Though Ranma fought a loosing battle, the boy gave it his all; just like he taught him. Yet, how much of that bravery had been the product of their training? Genma could admit to himself that he had been a less than stellar father. Why, the entire ten year long trip had been one blunder after another. But despite all the wrongs he had committed, the boy had turned out grand. Ranma had even done something that he had never been able to, confront Happosai and win.

Most people thought him an uncaring oaf. And while the oaf part was more than slightly true, Genma did care about his son. Hell, he loved the kid. Despite all the using and abusing, Ranma was his son and only a monster could raise a kid that long and not love him. The agreement with Tendo had been a result of that love. Sure, people were right in asserting that all the engagements had been stupid attempts to feed his belly, all, that is, except the one he made with Soun. Ol' Tendo had been an amazing friend and Masaki was a wild, yet caring woman. Between the two of them, Genma been sure that they would raise a wonderful daughter for his son to marry.

All that meant little now. Ranma was dead, but what a death. His son had painted a blazing sign in the heavens. And thanks to modern television, it would be one that wouldn't be readily forgotten.

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In a world where steal and plastic have trumped the warmth of another; where heroes are frowned upon in favor of the 'enlightened' normality of mediocrity; where truth and justice are merely slogans which corrupt men place on placards to assuage the apathetic populace; and where the weak are trodden upon by the barons of inequity; a spark of righteousness began to burn in the hearts of the Japanese. Before their eyes, a new hero was born. Even as the unknown young man consecrated a Tokyo street with his blood, the people began to immortalize him in their mind's eye. It didn't matter what his story was, on the screen he glorified truth, honor, love, and self sacrifice. Though they did not know it, the people had been anesthetized by modernity, but that man pulled them from their prosaic world. With renewed eyes, a nation looked at itself and the world around them and found itself outraged.

Change would come. A whole people saw the makings of a better world. And all it took was the death of one man.

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The tape did not end with death though. And, with a triumphant cry, all of Japan heralded the rebirth of a hero.

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Even as the jubilant cry deafened her, Usagi felt her own voice joining in the joyous chorus. With a soaring heart, she watched as Ranma emerged from the fires of his own cremation. Through even the television she could feel his power like it was a physical presence. And his girlfriend was beauty incarnate. Between the pair, a wondrous display unfolded on the television. Despite her own battles against the darkness, Usagi had never seen such a beautifully powerful confrontation. Fire and light danced across the illuminated glass with more grace and awe than the greatest of films.

Though the second act was actually longer than the first, in the powerful surge of jubilation it seemed to finish before it began. As the tape finished, the scene was replaced by Kimiko Tetsuzaka's tear stained face. "W,well," she started with a voice thick with emotion, "there you have it. That battle occurred here just a short while ago. And now we are left with more questions than answers. Who is this brave hero and his radiant princess? Where do they come from? What is this new threat to our nation? And where were Tokyo's defenders, the Sailor Senshi? I don't have any answers to these questions. But I do know this, I'll be going to sleep tonight a lot easier knowing that these brave people are out there, keeping us safe. This has been Kimiko Tetsuzaka, JNN Channel Five news."

While others were clapping and whistling, and hooting in glee, the teens at one table looked positively morose. Each looked to their friends and hoped to see some sign of hope on their face. But there was none. On national television they had been humiliated in a most graphic manner. What was almost worse than the humiliation was the fact that the reporter had been right. When a battle occurred, and lives were on the line, they were in an arcade gabbing over ice cream and soda. Sure they were only human, they had slipped up in the past, destroyed a car when they were aiming for a living Wurlitzer, but the defenders of love and justice did not let people die on their watch; until now.

Like all humans, the pain of their failure soon began to turn to anger and recrimination. Eyes, alight with fire and a desire to lay blame somewhere, turned to Ami.

"She should have known," thought Rei heatedly.

"Ami's little computer can detect anything," groused Haruka.

"Why didn't you tell us about this," asked Michiru coolly.

The blue-haired young woman looked from one acquisitory glare to another. She knew why they were angry, but knowledge did not banish the helplessness she felt. "I,I'm sorry. N,n,nothing showed up on the computer."

Usagi reached out a placed a hand on her friend's shaking shoulder. "Hey now," she scolded the others angrily. "You leave Ami alone. If she says it didn't see anything, then it didn't and there is nothing we can do about it. Okay?" Though she said it calmly, it was clear that Usagi was issuing an order to her Senshi.

When the others calmed down, and began to look abashed, Usagi smiled and nodded. "Now Setsuna, maybe you can . . . ." She came to a stop because the enigmatic elder Senshi was gone, all that was in her place was the drink she had been nursing before the video and a napkin with some writing on it. With the same speed and precision she used to hurl her tiara, the pig-tailed young woman lashed out and grabbed the note before any other could get their hands on it.

A quick perusing of the note detailed all the pertinent information. "Okay guys, we need to head to the address on this. Ami, can you lead us there?"

Happy to have an opportunity to help rather than to look the fool, Ami readily took the folded piece of paper and entered the address into her computer. In a few seconds, a map appeared on her screen complete with directions. "I sure can Usagi."

"Great! Then let's go."

Makoto reached out and grabbed her friend's arm. "Um, Usagi, did the note say how we should show up?"

"Yeah, just like we are now."

As the girls and guy followed Usagi out of the building, they mused at the actions of their mysterious comrade. That she would just up and vanish was no surprise to any of them, the woman had done it more times than they could count. What was odd was the order to be at a particular locale yet not be ready for a fight. Still, with the way they were felling, a fight was the last thing they wanted, so they welcomed a chance for some fresh air and exercise.

And if battle was their destination, then Heaven help whoever dared be so foolish as to attack innocents on that day.

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In the realm of the Time Gates, the smell of sulfur hung in the air like a thick blanket. A great many explosions had ripped through the area. Even the gates themselves displayed evidence of multiple detonations. Its once gleaming surface was marred by dark patches of soot as some great force ignited the very atoms around it. Though the gates were indestructible, the stains stood as sharp, silent, evidence of one woman's frustration. Eventually, the stains would either age or youthen away into nothingness, but for now they were a source of satisfaction to one woman.

Setsuna Meio, soon to be Alexander, was crumpled upon the ground; the Time Key in her hands barely held her up at all. When the video had shown Ranma's death blow, her's had been among the loudest of cries. An instant later she was at the Time Gate. Frantically, she used the mechanism to run through the past, present, and future events surrounding Ranma and the terrible fate which had befallen him. Up until the attacker had arrived, the gate provided its usual crystal clarity, then things began getting hazy; literally. A graininess permeated the images, one that only increased in intensity until, by the time Ranma died there was nothing but gray static. The only reason she was able to see anything in the area was that the gate was capable of tapping into television channels and she watched the events unfold via the news broadcasts.

The static was troubling. As far as anyone knew, there was nothing that could impede the gate's sight. Yet, somehow the greater part of the battle was no where to be found. Of course, Setsuna could never know that the gate was, in actuality, a creation of the Gods, and had a greater purpose than spying on the actions of the constellations. All she knew was that the artifact she had staked her career on was now being incredibly stubborn. In an uncharacteristic display of rage, the Senshi of Pluto unloaded several loudly worded Dead Screams into the recalcitrant mechanism. Though they did no damage, it made a world of difference to her mental state.

Since the present was giving her a headache, Setsuna turned to the past and the future. On several occasions in Ranma's past, ones that she had just skipped over as inconsequential, she found indications of the same static. None of these instances showed anything else out of the ordinary, but there were a clear indication of pattern in relation to the new Alexander. The future though, was greatly different, yet oddly the same. There was no static, the tall spires of Crystal Tokyo still dominated the skyline with their warm glow. Life went about as it had every time she had seen into that distant moment. Yet, there was also no Rama, no Kasumi. The Alexanders existed, and herself was still married to Justin. Not even a grave marker existed for the pair, hell even the records, so damaged by the cataclysm that was the prelude for the grandeur of Crystal Tokyo, lacked their presence. It was as if she was looking at the future that had existed before she met the pair.

"That should not be possible though," she muttered almost plaintively. While Crystal Tokyo had been the the predominant timeline since the fifteenth century, aspects of that future had always been in a state of flux. Roads would appear in the gates one week, only to vanish without a trace the next. The almost endless variation of free will played out on destiny.

Now though, destiny was in question. Between the static clouding her vision of the present and past, and the static nature of the future, the Time Gates had become nothing more than a very elaborate television/time machine. And the time machine part was a tad problematic as well, seeing as she could only go where there was none of that static. So, with nothing else she could do at the gates, Setsuna decided to turn to the one other source of comfort she had these days. Using the gate's mechanism, she backstepped to the point just after she left the arcade and teleported herself to the Alexander compound.

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The home of the Alexander clan was, at the best of times, a teeming cauldron of joyous chaos. One this day though, as the news reports flooded in, chaos ruled and joy found little hold. A few minutes before the broadcast, the new couple to their home had come running in, only the meagerest of apologies were cast towards those they bowled over in transit. Yori and Justin looked up the stairs at the retreating forms of their relatives and wondered where the fire was. A slammed door only enhanced their curiosity. So it was that, they, and a few others, crept up the stairs after the youngsters. As the throng of people neared the bedroom, it became quite apparent what the couple was up to. Even through the thicker than average walls could be heard the sounds of unrestrained lovemaking. The Alexander home was no stranger to the wails of passion joined, but there were still blushes and mumbled words of embarrassment as the miniature mob moved away from the occupied room like it was radioactive.

Downstairs, the conversation soon turned to speculation as to the reason for such an impromptu lovemaking session. Tami was quite loud in her negative opinion of such activities, though since she always made such rants against inter-gender relations, most just ignored her. Several of the younger men, Kai in particular, wondered what Kasumi looked like right now, and quietly applauded their relative for bagging such a babe. Though the children snickered at the thought of sex, the adults cast the occasional worried glance up at the young lover's room. They had seen the blind panic on the couple's faces. The pair had moved through the house desperately, and not out of the desperation for carnal passion. Something had happened, something big, and it had rattled them so badly that they needed to seek solace in the other's flesh.

Their reasons did not need to be pondered for long. Soon, one of the staff came running in t the family room, his face a mask of worry. "Quick, turn on the television!" Like their fellow Japanese, the Alexanders watched in horror, yet were transfixed. Unlike the others though, they had read the end of the book. All they had to do was watch that ending unfold in dreadful detail.

It was about half-way into the opening act that Setsuna came rushing into the room. Like a missile, she sought out her beloved Justin and clung to him desperately; her tears adding to the ever widening pool of sorrow. Though she was infinity older than the young man who held her, Setsuna was comforted by his soft words of love and assurance. Right now she was not the immortal Sailor Pluto, a warrior who had watched mighty empires fall into legend, she was just a young woman whose entire world was this house.

The whole family remained in silence, even as the report died away. Lovers and siblings held one another, each acting as an anchor for the others. After a long while, the silence was intruded upon by the sound of the doorbell. Reluctantly, Setsuna extricated herself from the arms of her lover. "I'll get it everyone."

Looking up from Yori with troubled eyes, Joseph asked, "Are you sure?"

"It's no problem. I think its for me anyway." That was enough for the patriarch, as he turned back to his beloved. For a moment, Setsuna did the same and was nearly lost again in her Joseph's eyes. "Y,you stay here. Okay?"

"I'll keep the lap warm," he whispered before gently kissing her lips.

Even with the heavy emotion pressing down upon the room, Setsuna couldn't help but giggle at his promise. "Just don't scare the family," she whispered before standing and walking towards the front door. As she passed a mirror, Setsuna caught sight of her reflection. Honestly, she didn't look that good, her eyes were bloodshot from all the crying and her hair was a mess. For a moment, she thought about fixing all that, to maintain the facade of Pluto. But she was home and her family was just a few feet away and changing seemed like a denouncement of them. So, it was a proudly disheveled Setsuna who opened the door on her Senshi comrades.

As the girls looked at their enigmatic friend, they could not help but be shocked and filled with dread. Setsuna looked like she had been through a war, and for the normally well-kempt woman to appear as such, it must mean that something horrible was going on. As the leader, Usagi stepped forward and laid a concerned hand on the elder woman's arm. "Everything okay Setsuna?"

"Yeah," added Haruka,"you look like hell."

"I've felt better," admitted Setsuna truthfully. "The Time Gates are acting oddly and I have no clue why. Plus this whole Ranma situation has me severely out of sorts." It was an honest and open reply, probably the first she had ever given her teammates. The future was no longer certain, and since the path was not clear, she did not have to play the part of all-knowing guide any longer.

Usagi cast a worried look at her friends and saw shock and confusion on their faces. Setsuna had always been their steadfast rock, now she was coming unglued before their eyes. None of them even realized that the woman that they were seeing now was the real one and the Pluto they had known was nothing more than a facade. Still, she was a teammate and friend, and they would do their best to help the woman in her time of crisis. "Don't worry," assured Usagi softly. "I'm sure everything is going to be fine."

"Yeah," added Minako. "You know what they say, its always darkest before Arbor Day."

Setsuna giggled at the latest of Minako's vocabulary mangles; something that garnered her further looks of dismay. "You're right Minako."

"Um Setsuna," asked Ami hesitantly. "Why did you want us to come here?"

"Oh, this is Ranma's home," answered Setsuna with an almost flippant air. "If the worst happened, I thought you would want to meet his family. And if it didn't, I knew that, sooner or later, you all would be making a visit."

"Is Ranma okay," Makoto asked, her face a mask of worry.

Setsuna shrugged. "Who can say. I mean right now he is safe and upstairs. But you don't come that close of death and walk away wholly unchanged by the experience."

The girls nodded knowingly. Unlike many in their age group, they had death on a first name basis and though they tried to act as if it hadn't affected them much, there were still the occasional nightmares. Still, it is harder to see the necessity of having the perfect outfit after coming back from the dead. Of them all, Minako was the most familiar with the duality they all faced; having been a superhero on two continents. Before her eyes, albeit time delayed, that stud of a man Ranma had gone from just a normal guy to a hero in his own right. She knew, with some pain, that such transformations do not readily occur in the mind once the panic and rush of battle have subsided. Stepping forward, her face filled with understanding and compassion, she asked, "Anything we can do to help?"

"If you want, you can come in and talk with the family. They don't know about us, but they are surprisingly knowledgeable. And if you want to keep our secret then be damn careful about what you say, unlike others, they can put two and two together and get four." With that she turned and gestured for them to enter.

Without hesitation, Haruka, Michiru, and Hotaru stepped up and past their roommate. Here was a human Setsuna and the woman looked like she needed all the support she could get. And damn them if they didn't offer it. "We're here for ya," said Haruka firmly.

A large smile appeared on the green-tressed woman's face. "Thanks." Still in home mode, Setsuna followed through wit the sudden impulse to reach out and embrace her friend. The other woman stiffened in her arms for a moment before returning the gesture in kind. After a comfortable moment filled with the type of silence that can overflow entire volumes, both woman pulled away from the other; safe in the knowledge that their friendship had just become far firmer than it had been before.

As Haruka and the rest of her other family disappeared into the Alexander home, Setsuna turned to those girls who remained on the front step. "Well, are any of you going to join us?"

Ami was the first to respond. Shaking her head sadly, she said, "Sorry. I would love to, but with that video circulating, my mother is surely worried about my safety. You know how she can get when teens are endangered."

Rei nodded. "Yeah, I should go too. Who knows what trouble Granpa and Yuichiro are getting themselves into."

While the two others were moving away towards their homes, Makoto walked towards the door. "I don't have to be home until I want to."

Minako followed her teammate inside. "And I'm staying with her while my parents are away on business."

As the last of the Senshi who remained outside, Usagi just shrugged. "Well, if I can make a phone call, I think everything will be fine."

"I'm sure that they won't mind you using one to call your parents," assured Setsuna.

"Great," smiled Usagi. "Then I'm coming too."

With the last of the girls off the front yard, the elder Senshi closed the door and walked to the head of the group. From the other end of hall, Yori emerged and looked distressed. "What's the matter?"

"Nodoka's called. Apparently she saw the report too." Yori's every word was dripping with concern for her daughter.

Setsuna paled, "Damn. One of us should have called her sooner."

"You're right," nodded Yori sadly. "But we were all too tied up in our own pain to remember her."

"Well, you go talk to her. We can save the introductions for later."

For the first time Yori actually noticed the presence of the other women in the hall. Upon the recognition, she gasped in shock and embarrassment. "Oh I am so sorry."

Usagi smiled as she bowed. "Please, don't worry about it. Go and talk to her."

Yori returned the bow before running off towards the phone.

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Nodoka Saotome sat beside her phone with the same poise as a kid with a.d.d who is high on pixey sticks. Since reuniting with Ranma, she had listened to many a wild tale about her son's adventures. On several occasions, she had even lived through them herself. Never though did she expect to see one unfold in such horrid detail as the one she just watched on the television. In wide-eyed horror she just sat there as her son, the young man who, but a few days ago, asked for release, was viciously torn apart by terrors beyond the capacity for rational understanding. Even when the footage had ceased, she still sat there, her body incapable of independent movement.

After a few moments though, some random thought broke through the haze and forced the Saotome woman to rise. Once her body had gained the smallest shred of momentum, it refused to stop. Like a bolt of lightning, Nodoka surged through her home at a fantastic speed. End tables were knocked over, lamps shattered upon the wood floor, all so that she could reach her phone a few nanoseconds sooner. Upon reaching the mass of plastic and wires though, she found the machine quite recalcitrant in its operations. The blasted thing had required four repeated dialings before it would properly connect to her mother's home, and, by then, multiple cracks had appeared in the tan plastic.

When one of her mother's servants had finally answered the phone, Nodoka had practically ordered the man to produce her mother. The harried man quickly assured her that he would produce Yori post haste; once again leaving her alone with her fears and the cat. Next to the communications device sat a small, cat-shaped, clock. A relic from better days, when her family had been whole, the timepiece silently counted the minutes since the servant left her on hold. Left and right did the eyes move and, with each movement, the entirety of time seemed to stretch out before Nodoka.

Finally, the voice of her mother echoed from he earpiece. "Nodoka? Hello?"

"Mother! I saw the news, is Ranma well? Is he home? Can I talk to him? What about poor Kasumi? Gods! That was so sad. Well? Why aren't you answering me," she demanded with a gasp, having finally burned through a lungful of air.

Yori's smirk could be heard through the receiver. "I would have if I could've gotten a word in. But to answer your questions, both Ranma and Kasumi are home and in one piece. Neither are available to talk to though."

Nodoka sent a hateful glare towards the phone and, by proxy, her mother. "Why on Earth can't I? I'm his mother, I have the right to talk to him!"

"I doubt they would appreciate an interruption at this time. Both appeared quite determined as they ran upstairs."

Soon enough, Nodoka realized what her mother was getting at. In an instant, the panic and anger drained from her face and was replaced by manic grin. "He's being manly?!"

"Uh . . . you could call it that."

If her mother said anything else, Nodoka didn't hear it. No, instead she was dancing merrily through the halls of her home. Grandchildren were something that she had longed for for many a year, now it looked like that dream was a distinct possibility. Along her dancing path, she pulled a pair of samurai fans from their place on the wall. These were gleefully incorporated into her joyous escapade. Meanwhile, the only witness to Nodoka's revelry was the phone which hung silently by its cord.

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It was an exasperated Yori who strolled into the living room of the Alexander home. Even as her wonderful husband stood to meet her, the Alexander matriarch looked across the assembled group. The girls Setsuna had brought in were conversing between themselves and the family. While she was a mess of emotions, Yori could not help but smile with pride at the family she and Joseph had created. Already the girls did not look like strangers, they were just the most recent additions to their clan. That was the Alexander way, anyone, be they teenage girls or city inspectors, were immediately included as if they had always been there. Yori thought bitterly of how her old clan, the Saotomes, were so cold and unfeeling, even to one another. Joseph though, had been adamant that there was another, better way to living with others and, like so often he was right.

As Joseph neared, his was the face of concern. The waves of emotions playing across his wife's form worried him. How had Nodoka taken the news of her son's demise and resurrection? Would she too show up on their front porch seeking asylum from those she had left the family for? Just thinking of his wayward child sent waves of confusion rippling across his soul. With her departure, Nodoka had betrayed them all greatly. Yet, she was still his daughter, and the part of him that was her father screamed to him to let her back without reservation. Luckily, his worry for Yori gave the Alexander patriarch the strength of will to compartmentalize all that in favor of her. "Did it go well," he asked as he pulled his beloved wife close.

Yori nodded as she enjoyed her husband's warmth. "She was upset at first, but when I told her about Ranma and Kasumi she started singing about his manliness." With a tiny glare, she looked up at Joseph's face. "You just had to read all those Conan books to her, didn't you."

Now it was Joseph's turn to look exasperated. "Hey, how was I supposed to know that they would do that to her?"

A giggle was Yori's response as she buried herself deeper into his embrace. "I'm just glad our family is safe."

"So am I."

"So, who are those girls Setsuna brought in?"

"Friends of Ranma's and students from Setsuna's school."

There was something in her husband's tone that told Yori the man was withholding a piece of information, but she didn't press the issue. "Okay. Do you think they will fit in well with us?"

On this, Joseph hesitated even more. "They are gelling well right now. But I can't tell what the future will bring."

Yori was visibly stunned. Usually, Joseph was so certain about people, even if had just met them. This hesitance was so unlike him that she decided to break her prior vow to remain silent. "Why? Have they done something wrong?"

"I don't know yet." He cast a quick glance to where Setsuna was sitting with Justin and Haruka and Michiru. "But I intend to find out."

Before his wife could inquire as to his meaning, the Alexander patriarch turned fully towards the gathering. "Ladies! May I present my wife, Yori Alexander."

Before she turned a bright smile towards the girls, Yori speared her husband with a look that promised a resumption of their conversation. "Welcome to our home. It is a pleasure to meet you all."

"Why don't you get acquainted," he offered as he gently pushed his wife of many years towards the mob. "Meanwhile, Setsuna and I can discuss a few things."

Though his voice was as jovial as ever, Setsuna could not shake a feeling of dread which swept through. Still, it could be nothing. So, with a peck and a squeeze, she stood from beside her fiancé and headed towards her future in-law.

Walking in silence, the pair navigated their way through the house until they arrived at Joseph's study. As she stood before the man's wide desk, Setsuna marveled at her nervousness. She, who had seen nations fall, who had lived longer than modern history, was worried about what a man the tiniest fraction of her true age may say. The woman did not have to wait long, for as soon as the door slid shut, Joseph was upon her.

"Why are they here Setsuna? And why was Ranma caught up in Senshi business?"

Though she knew she shouldn't be, Setsuna was surprised that he had realized who they were. Her first instinct was to deny everything. The Senshi's secret was too big to just blab to the first person who asked a direct question. In this case however, she ignored instinct in favor of family. "First, how did you know?"

Joseph snorted gruffly. "Please, you may be ancient, but you have almost no mental shielding. Between that, and your own need for family, you practically forced your whole life on me the first time we met."

Setsuna blushed and looked like the toddler in the cookie jar. "I had no idea."

"No, I suppose you didn't. I said nothing then because it wasn't my place to pry. You only wanted what we offered freely But now, your world has intruded upon ours and I would know why."

"First, you must understand, I love Justin with all my heart, and I would NEVER try to harm any of you. That includes Ranma. As you probably know, I have means by which I can see time."

"The Gates."

"Yes. When I met Justin I vowed not to use them to learn about you all. But Ranma changed things."

"That seems to be common with him."

Setsuna chuckled at that, "You have no idea."

"So why was he different?"

"I had sensed that there was more to his story than what he old us, and given the other's reactions to the unusual, I needed to know everything to properly warn them. Otherwise, the first roof-hop or splash and they'll start shooting. I swear to you, when I looked at him I didn't see any of this. In fact, a far as the Gates are concerned, time is proceeding as if Ranma never entered our lives."

"And there was no way to go back and save him?"

"No," she moaned pitifully. "The same force that blocks my sight makes it impossible for me to even teleport near him. I was only able to appear here because the static died down enough." By the time she finished, tears were rolling down her cheeks in great waves. Not since The Fall had she felt so completely helpless.

As a sigh escaped from Joseph's lips as he watched the "young" woman sob uncontrollably. He hated to do that to her, but he needed to know. With not a trace of reluctance, he crossed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around her. "There, there," he muttered as he gently rubbed her back. "No more tears. I believe you when you say you did all you could." Setsuna's tears only increased as sorrow was replaced by relief. Joseph let those tears flow, feeling that they had been withheld for far too long. Finally though, he asked, "Would you like some advice?"

Setsuna looked up at the elder Alexander hopefully, "Oh please yes!"

"Tell Ranma and Kasumi about you all. Maybe even tell the family."

"Why?" She knew the wisdom of telling the couple, but telling the family was confusing to her.

"I look at you and the others and I see so much pain. Its not right to let people so young carry such a burden all by yourselves."

"I'm not exactly the youngest person ever," quipped Setsuna.

"Aren't you though? I mean, which is the true Setsuna? The cold, dispassionate, guardian, ensuring the safe flow of time? Or is she the young woman who appeared hand-in-hand with Justin, who, with an evil grin, sprayed shaving foam in Kai's hand while he slept? Because I think she is the later, and the former is simply the mask she wears to hide from the world."

"You're probably right," she said with a sigh. "And that bit with Kai was all Tami's idea," giggled Setsuna.

A big grin cracked its way across his face. "That's funny, the way Tami tells it, you planned the whole thing."

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As consciousness slowly returned to her, Kasumi could not help but smile. Her's was not the almost fairy tale smile she normally greeted the day with, no this was more the satisfied of expression of a woman who had long ate from the tree of ecstasy and found it to her liking. With a happy sigh, she slowly opened her eyes onto the light of the new day. But instead of the rising Sun, distantly warming the Earth as it had since time immorial, the light of a trillion stars hung out across the sky like a nearly infinite string of Christmas tree lights. Instantly, her warm feelings were smothered by business. Reaching out, she gently shook Ranma, while only half-noticing that they were in their armored forms. "Ranma," she said softly, "you need to get up. Phoenix and Cygnus are coming."

Despite the rigorous exercise and little sleep of the prior night, Ranma's eyes slammed open. Like his love, he saw the infinite expanse of space and remembered. Making sure to check for some clothing for himself and his lover, Ranma slowly sat up. "Everything ok," though he knew on one level that nothing could harm them here, Kasumi's urgent tone still worried him.

"All is well Ranma," echoed the voice of Cygnus.

This time, it was Phoenix who spoke. "Indeed. You both should be commended on a battle well fought. It is good to have Alpha Centauri with us once more."

"So he made it back safely," asked Kasumi. Though she still felt hatred towards the darkness that had possessed him, the Tendo daughter could not feel the same about the cheerful man Centauri had become.

"Oh yes. And he wanted you to know that he still regrets what he did."

"He couldn't control himself. We can't hold him accountable for that." Despite those words, Kasumi felt a flash of anger flow from Ranma. With a sigh, she thought, "I guess I'll have to work on him."

"So, what's up?"

"Well, we wished to thank you, even if the situation left you little choice in the matter," replied Phoenix. "Also, there are several issues we must discuss."

"Here it comes," mumbled Ranma with resignation.

If Phoenix heard that, he gave no indication. "Now that you have accepted our offer, we have sent the other avatars to converge on your position. They are all people you have had interactions with in the past."

"Great," groaned Ranma, "knowing my luck, pig-boy'll beone of them."

"Ryoga Hibiki is far too unpredictable for this fight. Do not fear, they are some of the more level headed of your prior associates. And, they have been made aware as to your status as leader."

"Why me?"

"As my avatar, it was agreed that you should lead. You do have the most experience in the area."

"Great."

"There is . . . another matter we need to talk about too," stated Cygnus reluctantly.

"What's wrong," asked Kasumi worriedly.

"Yesterday, your battle was watched by your entire nation."

"WHAT," screeched Ranma. "How?"

"I m sorry, but apparently there were cameras in the area. The local news caught it and now everyone knows about it."

"Great! Now every crazy is gonna ta know where I'm at."

"Well, it is not as bad," assured Cygnus. "As we have told you, we inspire you humans. We exercised that power to suggest to people that who they saw was not you. Other than your family, friends, and the Senshi, no one realizes it was you two. They only will when you want them to. This applies to any future activities as well."

"So, even if we transform in front'v people, they won't realize it," asked Ranma.

"Correct," replied Phoenix. "Think of it like that Kuno boy. People will simply not accept that you and your armored state are the same person."

"That should make our lives easier," commented Kasumi. "Thank you."

Both birds bowed their heads, "It was the least we could do to honor the pain you both endured."

"Indeed," said Phoenix. "But we must leave you for now. It will be day soon, and I imagine yours will be a long one." From the bird's eyes, a brilliant flash of light strobed out; washing out all the color and rendering everything a bright white.

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With a groan, Kasumi raised an arm to block the light piercing her retinas. The attempt worked and she desperately searched for the offending source. As her eyes ratcheted over to said instigator, a deep crimson spread across her entire body. The light was reflecting off of the metal side of one of the thermoses perched on the end table. Rather pornographic imagery floated through her consciousness after thinking about the part they played in last night's activities.

Passionate would not have been strong enough adjective to describe their love making. After everything they had gone through they had been desperate for each other. That desire was only made more potent by the feelings streaming in from Ranma. So, by the time they made it to their room, both she and her beloved were ripping off the other's clothes in an effort to get that much closer. And oh how closer they got. Between her technical knowledge from countless books and a potent combination of his boundless stamina and an almost infinite capacity for improvisation, there few things they had not attempted in their pursuit of oneness.

Even Ranko put in a few appearances when biology dictated that Ranma's male half was no longer "up" to the task. Thanks to the link, those moments, where their naked feminine bodies were pressed together in wondrous coitus, were almost divine. Ranma seemed to enjoy those moments too, and, when he turned back, he had been so forceful, as if he had been trying to prove his manhood.

Speaking of manhood, Ranma's was once again rising to the occasion. "Probably because I was thinking about it," she thought as she ran a hand across its length.

A tired groan issued forth from Ranma's mouth. "Ah God, I knew it. Yer tryin' to kill me," he half groaned, half moaned. Despite his dire pronouncement, as Ranma opened his eyes, he smiled.

So too did Kasumi, though her's was more calculating. The kind of expression one may expect to find on Nabiki's face as an opportunity for money presented itself. "Some may say," she remarked sensuously as she slid across her love's body to take up a more favorable position, "that a little death or two is what makes life worth living." She followed that with an extensive argument that, in the end, Ranma couldn't disagree with.

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A while later, Ranma found himself resting comfortably in the warm waters of the Alexander furo. Sitting calmly on him was Kasumi. Though it was entirely non-sexual, a part of him found the closeness more emotionally rewarding than their activities the night before. Such a feeling, the simple love and understanding shared by two people, was everything that he had always wanted from others, yet his father and fiancés had demanded more and less from him. If asked, Ranma would probably state, unequivocally, that he had found paradise and was unwilling to leave. But, like all good paradises, his had a snake. In the back of his mind the Alexander male replayed the events of last night over and over, not the sex, though that was nice, no, he was examining the needs and desires that had run concurrently to the passion and love.

They had been intense. "Nah," thought Ranma, "that ain't a big enough word. Hell, I haven't wanted something so badly since I was in the damn pit." Just the thought of the dread place sent shivers down his spine. The comparison was appropriate though. He had wanted Kasumi so bad that, upon reflection, he doubted that he could have stopped himself should she have had said no. Suddenly, the image of such an event unfolded in his mind. In his mind's eye, Ranma could see his heart's delight sprawled out on their bed. She looked up at him, but instead of love or desire, all he could see was fright. Her terrified screams filled his ears like the tormented wail of a million damed souls. Even as he took from her everything his animalistic rutting wanted, he could see the tears of her pitiful sobbing.

The sight was a terrible one, and it was all Ranma could do to prevent himself from retching upon Kasumi's silken hair. Still, that self control did little to abate his own tears that such imagery conjured within him.

For a long while, Kasumi had rested comfortably upon her love's lap, content to simply enjoy the warmth that she had been denied for a lifetime. Through their link, she shared in the warmth of Ranma and it only enhanced the experience. Eventually, that warmth grew distant, and eventually cold. She tried to divine the reasons for such feelings via the link, but Ranma was blocking her at every opportunity. Deciding that the old ways were still the best, Kasumi turned in her beloved's arms to look him dead in the face. What she saw made her gasp. Ranma, the unflappable man who had captured her heart with a smile and a wink, was crying silent tears. "RANMA! What's wrong?!"

"I, I think I'm turnin' inta a pervert. Maybe ya should get away from me before I do somthin' we both are gonna regret."

"Like what? Ranma, you are no pervert."

"But last night . . . . I couldn't stop myself . . . . so scared," he babbled incoherently as his imagination ran amok.

For an instant, the walls came down and Kasumi was able to see what terrified her love so, at first, it made her stomach turn, but in the end she settled on letting her heart break to see him so distraught over something she had so enjoyed. "Ranma. Listen, you are not a pervert, and neither am I. Yes, last night was intense, but it was like that for both of us. As much as you wanted it so did I. In fact, I am greatful for the amount of control you showed, because I don't know how long I would have been able to hold myself back. As it was," she said with a grin and a full body blush, "the whole way back I couldn't keep my hands off of you."

Though the fear was still there, Ranma couldn't help but smile at one particular incident. "Yeah, ya damn near killed us when ya grabbed me down there."

Kasumi giggled and nodded. "Yes, I did didn't I. So you see, if anyone in this relationship has to worry about being a pervert its me. And, since the only person on this planet I would want to do any of that stuff to is you, I think you won't mind me being a tad perverted. Now, I don't want you thinking about this any more, okay. If I even think you are, I may have to start malleting you like Akane." To prove her point, Kasumi pulled out a rolling pin from that secret place all Tendo women had.

"Okay, okay," laughed Ranma. "I'll stop, just don't start bein' like her. Next thing ya know ya'll start cooking like her too." The mere thought of such an event caused him to shiver with fright.

It effected Kasumi in a similar fashion. "I wouldn't even joke about that Ranma. It could be like father and saying his master's name too much."

After that, the two teens couldn't stop laughing for a good long while.

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Eventually, the pair worked their way downstairs and headed towards the dining room. Smiles abounded between Ranma and Kasumi as they rounded the corner. Those smiles froze solid as all sounds stopped and all eyes turned to them. "Um, everything okay," asked Ranma slowly. In his experience such tableaus were not a good thing.

Joseph raised an eyebrow, "I think we should be asking you two that. We saw what happened on the news. How are you holding up?"

The couple looked at each other and smiled. "We're good," they said together.

"Good," asked Tami sarcastically. "Ranma was shot to hell and back and you're good?"

Yori shot her grandchild an angry look, "Tamiko Alexander! What have I told you about such language young lady?!"

Tami looked down at the table liked a wounded puppy. "That its not nice for a little girl and every time I say them I havta wash my mouth out."

"Right. Now go and do that," replied the elder woman resolutely.

"Yes m'am." Looking like she was about to go to her own funeral, Tami stood up from the table and shuffled slowly out of the room.

In the awkward silence that accompanied the exchange, Ranma and Kasumi used the opportunity to make their way over to their chairs at the table. Even before he had gotten himself firmly seated, Ranma felt a pair of arms try to fully encircle him. As he looked over to the source of the embrace, he saw Monica's tear-filled eyes looking back up at him. "Hey now, what's up squirt?"

"I, I'm sorry Ranma. I couldn't warn you," she sobbed. "I wanted to, but I couldn't."

At that moment, the pigtailed Alexander was thrust into a situation he loathed and was less than prepared for, a crying girl. Awkwardly, he tried to calm her troubled psyche, but nothing he said seemed to help. Desperately, he looked over to Kasumi with a face that screamed out, "HELP ME!"

In an instant, she was out of her chair and kneeling alongside her love and the crying girl. "Shh, shh. It's all right Monica. We're fine. I'm sure you had your reasons."

Setsuna nodded her head with curiosity. That Monica had been able to see the future with Ranma and Kasumi in it meant that the young girl was officially a higher asset than the Time Gates. "What, exactly, were those reasons?"

Monica looked over to the green-haired woman. "Because I also saw what would happen if I did tell them. It would have ended worse, much worse."

As the mistress of time, Setsuna knew all too well how dicey knowledge of the future could be. They didn't call it the Curse of Cassandra for nothing. "I'm sure that you will tell us anything we need to know if we need to know it."

The little girl smiled mischievously, in spite of her tears. "Speaking of telling you something. It's time to tell us."

Though there were looks of confusion of the faces of most of those at the table, Setsuna knew exactly what the young precog meant. As the others turned to her to glean some sort of insight into the riddle Monica had presented, Setsuna had never felt so naked in her entire life; and that included the time when she and Senny had streaked through the Royal Palace when they were both children. In a voice that the Senshi would have been startled to hear, she asked weakly, "Are you sure?" To her displeasure, the little imp nodded in the affirmative. Wide-eyed, she looked around the table at the people she had come to view as her family. With each face, a treasured memory was called up about them. Finally, her gaze settled on Justin.

His was a face of concern, and Setsuna could feel him subtlety probe for information while at the same time showing all the love he felt for her. The sight was one that she would treasure forever, especially, if her fears bore out and he decided to ditch her in light of the news she was about to reveal. Slowly, the woman that was also Sailor Pluto, took her love's hand in her own and tried to will all her love for him into that joining. "I, I have something to tell you."

"Whatever it is," started Justin slowly, "I am sure we can get through it together." Since he had first met her, he had always felt that she was hiding a part of her from him. Justin had never broached the subject since he could tell that, whatever was bugging her, it was something that she wanted, and needed, to work out on her own. That being said, he wondered what terrible burden could possibly be that had her tossing and turning some nights.

Setsuna stood up from the table and took a step back. "I hope you can still say that after," she said before letting go of Justin's hand. Before she could reconsider or run from the room, Setsuna pulled out her wand and exclaimed, "Pluto Planet Power. Make Up!"

Justin stared wide eyed as a the love of his life was engulfed in a shimmering pillar of liquid light. Through the purplish-pink water, he could see her twirl around as her body was lit up by the entire visible spectrum of light. In an eye blink, the waters receded and what he saw was Setsuna in a elaborate, and slightly perverted, sailor fuku of the same type any girl in Japan might wear. In her hand was an ornate staff whose bottom was shaped like a key and was topped by a silver heart encasing a garnet orb. Once or twice he had seen her in a modified version of the outfit, thanks to their varied bedroom games. But this was different, the Alexander male could feel the power radiate off of his love. "Setsuna, what . . ."

Pluto shook her head, "No, like this I am Sailor Pluto. Last survivor of the once great Moon Kingdom and immortal guardian of the Gates of Time."

Cynthia gasped, "Oh my god! You're a Sailor Senshi!"

The others shared the young woman's amazement, but that didn't matter to Setsuna. All she was focused on was the reactions of her Justin. As long as he was okay with it, she could handle the others. What scared her though, was the non-look on his face. It was as if he had completely shut down. "Justin?"

Hearing the soft, almost tearful tone to his love's voice was enough to break the spell that hung over the Alexander male's mind. Slowly, he stood up and stepped over to the transformed woman. Looking into her eyes, he didn't see this Pluto person that she called herself. There was only Setsuna in those violet orbs. "No, you're Setsuna," he said before pulling her into a deep kiss.

As she pressed herself against her man, Setsuna's heart was elated. The secret fears were gone now, cast to the winds by the soft breath exiting Justin's nose. Along with them went her fuku, it burst into a thousand motes of light before returning her to the clothes she had previously been wearing. For some time, the couple remained locked in their embrace. Eventually though, a cough broke the spell and they sheepishly turned back to the rest.

The first to say anything was a grateful looking Daniel. "Thank god Tami didn't see that." That effectively broke the tension in the room.

Even Setsuna laughed at the sentiment presented by the younger Alexander. With Justin in hand, she slid back into her seat at the table. "You're right Cynthia. I am one of the Senshi. I wont tell you who the others are though."

Marcus broke the question on everyone's minds. "Why didn't you know about the attack?" Though he meant to sound neutral, a distinct accusatory tone seeped in.

A pained sigh escaped Setsuna. "I didn't know. None of us did until the report. Even once I knew, the device I use to see through time could not lock in on it." She looked directly at Ranma and Kasumi, "For some reason I can't lock in on you now. Kasumi, you used to be completely clear for me, as was Ranma for the most part. Now, according to my machine, it's like you never existed. But I swear, if I knew I would have sent help, even if all I could get was me."

Kasumi took hold of Ranma's hand to show their solidarity. "We're sure you would have."

Ranma nodded, "Yeah. Probably a good thing ya guys didn't show."

Questioning looks covered the faces of most at the table. The Senshi were well known to be powerful defenders of "love and justice," that Ranma would dismiss their aid so flippantly was odd. As the Alexander's resident Senshi, Setsuna felt it was her duty to unhold the honor of her group. "Well Ranma, I wouldn't dismiss us out of hand. We could have provided valuable assistance."

Sensing the litany of sputtered denials her love was about to babble out, Kasumi leaned in to smooth out any ruffled feathers. "Ranma wasn't implying that the Senshi couldn't have helped. In fact, we're sure they would have been able to win in the end. Its just that you would have done too well. The people who employed us in this war told us that they didn't want our enemies killed, just cleansed of the darkness tainting them."

Setsuna was surprised at that. "Hmm, interesting. How trustworthy are these employers of yours?"

"Completely," said Ranma seriously.

"Okay, so we can be assured that we can trust what they say." Despite saying that, Setsuna felt a spike of suspicion. Though that was suppressed so as to not upset Ranma. "Sailor Moon has a purifying attack. Could that help?"

Ranma shook his head. "Nah. All you're attacks are deadly to them."

The rest of he family was watching the exchange in rapt fascination. Marcus though, had a question at that newest bit of info. "Wouldn't that mean they were bad?"

Setsuna shook her head, though her far away look told everyone that th woman wasn't exactly there. "Not necessarily. Back during the Silver Millennium there were about ten percent of the population that our magic hurt, or even killed. Some scientists from Mercury hypothesized that the abundance of the power was causing backlash in people's systems."

"Like an allergy that takes constant exposure to manifest," commented Daniel Though the talk about magic interested him little, he understood allergies.

"Correct," beamed Setsuna.

"So now what," asked Marcus.

"Now," started Yori with a grin, "some of us need to get to school."

In the midst of the conversation Ranma had practically forgot about his food and the closeness of school. He quickly looked to Yori and said, "Sorry." With that apology, he exploded into a blur of activity as his entire meal disappeared in a display of martial arts eating. Before anyone could take umbrage with his actions, Ranma bolted up and ran out of the house.

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In a separate part of town a similar display was occurring. This time though, instead of a black haired male, the panicked blur was none other than Juban's ever-tardy Usagi Tsukino. As was her custom, she had overslept. Despite eyelids that had begged her to sleep, most of he young woman's night had been attempting to grapple with a whole chain of thoughts. It had all started the night before right as she and the others were departing from the Alexander home. . . .

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As the porch light shadowed Setsuna's face, the woman said. "Usagi, Princess, there is something I have to tell you."

With the invocation of her title, Usagi was as serious as she could possibly be. "What's wrong?"

The woman pulled herself up to her full height. "I am going to tell them about myself as soon as possible."

On queue, the others immediately began to question their icy comrade. As the questions increased in volume and fervor, Usagi raised a slim hand, effectively killing any further discourse. "Why?"

"This latest incident has opened my eyes to the foolishness of our secrecy."

Minako chimed in, "It's worked for us this far." Being the Senshi with the most experience other than Setsuna, the blonde's word held significant weight.

"Has it? How many times have your loved ones been attacked so far? And that has been without telling them. Should our enemies discover your identities, our families would be in just as much danger as if one of them had blurted the secret to some Beryl minion. At least if we tell them, we will have people who can help us, even if its just a shoulder to cry on. And, I would like them to know in case something happens and we can't come back. Could any of you rest easy knowing that your parents would never know where you disappeared to? I know I can't." The ancient woman sighed and looked back into the house. "I will not tell them who you all are, but my mind is set."

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Setsuna had gone back inside then, and left Usagi to ponder her Senshi's words. Ponder indeed, all of last night had been spent in thought over the matter. Even Luna had been sought out for advice. Of course, she had provided little real help. The cat's cautious, almost paranoid, tendencies had spoken out against the Senshi of Time's course of action. At one point she had even intimated that Setsuna had been brainwashed by this new enemy and that the events on the television were some sort of elaborate hoax to lull the Senshi into accepting enemies into their midst.

That had been the point when Usagi started tuning the cat out. Sure, past opponents had deceived them, but never on the massive scale that Luna had suggested. So, with her advisor placed firmly on the unstable list, the blonde girl was left to her own devices. Through the course of her deliberations, Usagi increasingly saw the wisdom of her colleague's words. Who knew whether or not the next death would be one that the Crystal couldn't bring them back from? Should the worst happen, and they died without telling anyone, how would her parents react? Such thoughts had been drifting through Usagi's mind as she fell asleep and it had affected her dreams. Again and again nightmares of her mother and father in various states of despair plagued her rest.

All told, it was a wonder that she could wake up at all. Even after her mother had to employ the air horn to wake her, Usagi still took a while to get going. Flashes of the nightmares lingered and made it difficult to do anything but cry. Eventually, she had been able to pull everything together an start her day. Still, she could not get out of the house before hugging both parents like they might vanish.

Though panicked thoughts of tardy signs and buckets floated through her mind, one thing lessened that burden some. The comforting arms of her parents had settled the torment of the prior night. She would tell her them, if only so those terrible nightmares never came to pass.

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If one were the sort, they may have found it to be fate that Usagi and Ranma arrived at the school's gates at precisely the same instant. As it was, the two teens were in such a panic that they only exchanged a brief nod and a look that conveyed to the other a desire to talk once time permitted. With that nicety out of the way, the pair poured on the speed. As it stood, both were able to keep pace; Ranma from a lifetime of training and ki manipulation, and Usagi because she was unconsciously tapping into her Serenity power to accomplish the same feat. In fact, their parity of velocity resulted in a rather comic scene when they attempted to enter the class. So consumed, were they, with being on time that both moved fro the door and in the process the two heroes temporarily lodged themselves in the opening.

Had today been any other then maybe laughter would have erupted throughout the class at the teen's display. But the day was like no other and The Incident was on everyone's minds. Like Pearl Harbor for the Americans, The Incident completely consumed the populace, and the student body was no different. Every student, no matter the personality or popularity, talked about the grisly, yet hopeful, scene. Even the teacher was caught up in the fervor of events. So, as Ranma and Usagi wound their way through the desks and the seemingly endless torrent of voices, neither could could suppress their surprise at the total lack of reaction to the young man's presence. Only Minako, Ami, and Makoto offered even a token of amazement at Ranma's existence.

Once the bell had rung, there was little change in the discourse. Wherever possible, the courses were filled with epic tales of valor long past. They were compared to modern events with a strong bias to the unknown warrior and his shimmering angel. Somehow, even the math and science courses managed to include them in their discussions. Heroism or no, one constant from school remained. When the lunch bell sounded throughout the halls, everyone scattered.

Out, at their usual spot, the Senshi gathered to talk and eat. The question, which hung on all their minds, was articulated oh so succinctly by Makoto, "What the hell is going on?"

"I know what you mean," replied a perplexed Ami. "Not a single person reacted to Ranma."

"Do you think the phenomenon is similar to our disguise fields," asked Michiru.

Ami shook her head. "I don't think so. Granted, I don't have all the data, but our fields seem to obfuscate our appearance, even on recorded media. With Ranma, he was clear on the tape. More than likely, there is some force making it so that people are not connecting The Incident with him."

"But why do we remember," asked Minako.

"Why don't we ask him," suggested Haruka. "Studmeister is headin' our way."

As he approached the girls, Ranma felt a not so small measure of fear. He had promised Usagi that he and Kasumi would show at the Crown Arcade. While he knew that his missing of that meeting was entirely not his fault, Ranma expected some level of anger from his potential friends. Their smiles put him somewhat at ease, but the young man knew all too well that a kind smile can be replaced by a two-by-four quicker than you can blink. So, before he was really seated, Ranma said, "Sorry fer last night."

The girls all blinked in confusion. "What are you sorry for," asked Usagi hesitantly.

"Fer missing ya guys at that arcade place. Kasumi n' me got caught up in a bit of a scrape." The apology sounded weak, even to his ears, but since no one seemed to know what he was really doing last night, it was the best he could come up with.

Every girl, from Ami to Michiru stared at the young man, who had captured a nation's attention, as if he had grown another head. Haruka, with her history of hearing strange, rude, crude, and downright nasty shit from her fellow racers, was the first to recover. "What about that bloodbath do you consider a freakin' scrape?!"

Ranma starred at the nodding girls as shock filled his mind. "Y, you mean ya guys saw that?"

"We all did," replied Usagi as she waived an arm an thus included all of Japan in the statement. "But we're the only ones that seem to remember that that was you."

"Hmm," grunted Ranma as he scratched his head. "That's weird, Phoenix said that only my family, friends, an' those Senshi chicks would get that." After a moment or two of pondering, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Aw well, they must've thought yer my friends or somethin'"

Usagi shared a look with the others. Had Ranma paid any attention, he might have noticed that it was the, "Is he kidding," look. With a sigh, she turned back to her newest friend. "Who's Phoenix?"

"He's the guy that gave me my new power," replied Ranma absently between bites. "Think he called it, an avatar." It was then that his words filtered through to his brain and suddenly the young man could hear Nabiki's sarcastic voice, "Way to go Ranma. Maybe you should tell the whole school while you're at it." Taking his eyes off his food for a moment, he added, "Umm, can you ya guys keep that to yerselves?"

A round of laughter followed the young man's almost timid request. Amidst the giggles, Makoto gasped out, "Of course we will."

"That's what friends do," added a smiling Minako.

"Though some ice cream helps too," chirped Usagi.

Haruka snorted, "You say that about everything."

Everyone, including Ranma, laughed at the joke. As he looked at the laughing and smiling girls, he couldn't help but wonder, "Is this what having friends is like?" He wasn't sure on the answer, but Ranma did know that he could get used to it.

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The forests of the Bayankala mountains were some of the lushest and most verdant in the world. As Genghis Khan attempted to conquer the four corners of the known world, these words slowed his mighty force to a standstill. Their thick boughs had provided ample cover for the three great cultures of the region; the Must, the Joketsuzoku, and the Phoenix. So dense was the forest, that few in the outside world even knew of the region's hidden treasures. Unfortunately, just as the thick foliage worked to keep people out, it was equally adept at keeping individuals in. Such a fact weighed heavily on the minds of a small group attempting to navigate the woods. To make matters worse, a recent downpour had turned the ground into a muddy mess.

No one in the group was especially happy at the turn of events. While anyone found find the situation unpleasant, there were members of the proud Phoenix people; though you would not know it by looking at them. Only their manner of dress and odd hair styles denoted their place of origin. Of them all, the only one to retain any trace of avian features was a boy sitting on a litter held aloft by four men. Above the lad's obvious boredom, he looked down to those carrying him worriedly.

"You do not have to do that," he half whined. "I can walk on my own."

Beside the god-child walked a teen aged girl with short blueish hair. She shook her head with exasperation, "No my lord, it isn't proper for one of your standing."

"But Kiima, wasn't it you who said I should be more like the common people and less like the aristocracy?"

Kiima felt her temper rise, an issue with carrying the Tendo girl's curse. "I did, Lord Saffron," she conceded. "But even you have some requirements that you can not avoid."

The Phoenix god sighed as he sat back. "I suppose you are right. Though it appears as if I am not the only one who as to suffer," he added as he looked to the left.

"My Lord," questioned Kiima as she attempted to spot what her sovereign was referring to.

Saffron pointed towards a particularly dense group of trees. "There is a young woman that way, probably an Amazon. From what I can tell, the conditions are making her miserable as well. Go over and ask her to join us, won't you."

"Certainly," saluted the guard commander. "Khoti!"

From the rear of the procession, a young woman came awkwardly marching up. Despite her odd movement, the woman's eyes were clear and sure. "Yes ma'am!"

"Lord Saffron has detected an Amazon. Go and offer her to join us."

Khoti saluted before moving towards her target. The dense underbrush made the trip exceedingly difficult. Only exacerbating the issue was Khoti's generous curves. "Damned Roc," grumbled the guard mentally. "He just had to screw up the simple task of retrieving some Nannichuan, didn't he." Like all members of the entourage, save Saffron, Khoti had received a Jusenkyo curse to blend in upon reaching their destination. Unfortunately, fellow soldier Roc had picked the wrong jar. So instead of turning into a handsome landling male, Khoti was stuck with an attractive, yet unfamiliar, female form.

Eventually, after much cursing and several whaps in the face by errant tree branches, Khoti caught a glimpse of the young woman. Talking a neutral stance, he called out, "Hail traveler!"

The woman started at the sudden sound intruding upon the silence of the forest, but she did not run away. Instead, in a light British accent, she replied, "Hail and welcome!"

With the traditional reply given, Khoti stepped into the small clearing. "Good day. My lord Saffron, asks for you to join him on his journey."

"Where is he going," asked the woman carefully. Though recent events called for a peace, old habits, and perceptions, die hard.

"Japan."

With a smile, the woman began to pack her things. "Then I'll happily join him."

Khoti returned the warm smile in kind. "Excellent! My I ask your name?"

"You may. It's Victoria."

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Author's Notes: There you have it, the conclusion of yet another chapter. This one was particularly difficult to write. Mostly because several scenes had to be rewritten multiple times since they were just not working for me. I ended up having to write some down on a legal pad just to get things flowing right.

In the concept stages for this chapter, I got a lot of flack for the part where everyone sees Ranma and Kasumi's fight. People said that it would be so graphic that no news station would show it. But I stuck with it. Every time I thought about their objections, all that came to mind was the twin towers falling. Now, I know that that event was infinitely worse than some scene in a fanfic, and I don't want anyone to think I am even attempting to belittle the events of that day, but that was the place I was pulling from; that raw emotion we all felt as we were glued to our television screens. The sense of national loss and outrage is something that I wanted to explore and portray. But after the lows of death I wanted a more jubilant tone to round it out so there was a spark of hope returned to a fictional, yet real, apathetic country. Its the sort of thing that changes a people, and I hope I can carry that tone through later chapters.

Speaking of later chapters, the Saffron-Victoria-Mint and Lime subplot will continue as a separate entity for a few more chapters. Eventually though, they will meet up with the main cast.

A bit about Saffron. I know that he was one evil bastard in the manga, but I am treating him like The Doctor. The knowledge remains the same, yet the personality changes with each incarnation.

Hopefully, with my new anti-block technique, the next chapter will be a tad faster. And for you that like Converging Paths, I'm starting to feel it again, so I've been fidleing with that. No Life Queen is still stalled in my mind though. I may end up ditching half of the chapter and going from there. Only time will tell.

Until next time, good luck and good reading.

Chaos Lord

King of the Wicker People.