The Return

A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.

By Sunshine Temple

 

Naturally, I own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma. So here's the disclaimer

 

Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC.

 

Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Temporary Backup Site.

http://www.fukufics.com/fic/

 

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com

 

C&C is appreciated.

 

Book 3:  Raising Trouble

Chapter 7:  Settling In

Formerly:  Replacements and Remembrance Part 2ii

 

 


            Serenity reached out and slid a chair away from the table. She stepped forward, nearly bumping into the table edge with her skirting. She lowered herself slightly so that the bottom of armored skirt touched the floor.


             The mess hall had been driven to silence by her sheer size and plodding footsteps and now the brushing sound of her skirt's interlocking segments sliding against each other rang out. Each layer of the skirt telescoped a bit into the layer below, steadily pulling her forward and lowering her height. Laying on the table, Luna passively watched.


            As that happened she folded her knees under her until she was in a double kneel. Soon Serenity's elbows were about even with the tabletop, and she inched forward on her knees. Serenity put her left arm on her lap and shifted and picked up a large golden twin-tinned fork.  It still looked small in her immense armored fingers.


            "Yes, much easier than simply getting out of the... suit." Mars dryly noted pulling out her chair and sitting down across from her queen. Feeling her legs bump up against Serenity's skirting, she immediately regretted her choice in seating.


            Luna rose to her feet, jumped, and then climbed to the armor's shoulder.  There was plenty of space for her to sprawl out.


            "It's good... practice?" Makoto asked, taking a position next to her queen, but still offset by a couple feet by the skirting.


            "What should I say?" Serenity asked.


            "Why should you say anything?" Minako's voice was amused.


            "But I'm just here because I'm hungry."


            "I'm hungry too. That training did wear you out, but I think they'll figure out you're hungry," Minako shifted their head and highlighted Kiri.


            Her nostrils opening to the outside, Serenity was suddenly hit by the scent of frying bacon, sausage, ham, and dough. Mouth watering, Serenity watched as Kiri approached with a loaded platter.


            Arm quivering, she looked at the stack of sugar-sprinkled pancakes, the pile of fried dough fritters, the shimmering links of sausages, the heaping bowl of cut fruit, and a full carafe of juice.


            "Enjoy," Minako whispered, unlocking Serenity's mouth.


            Reaching down, Serenity cut a pancake and had to slowly fork it with her other hand. After giving a sigh that only Minako could hear, Serenity found her arm being guided and a steady supply of morsels began arriving at her mouth. Each one coming just after she had finished swallowing.


            "That's... weird," Rei picked at her cereal, but was transfixed by the conveyor-like motions of Serenity's arms.


            Makoto raised an eyebrow. "Why? This is normal volume for her, if anything she's being a bit slow."


            Rei nodded. "And neater... did the armor come with table manners?"


            From her seat next to Rei, Kiri looked over. "Yes, Rei. Yes it did."


            "Yeah... that's true," Rei winced. She looked over to see their giant queen pause, midway through her consumption. The sword arm went out and caught one tine inside the handle of the juice carafe and another outside it. Another tine grew out and all three thickened forming a strong grip over the handle.


            The pitcher was raised to her lips and the blade twisted just enough to being a steady pour. The progressive inclination paused a once in the middle to allow Serenity to catch her breath, but soon the entire carafe was drained and placed back on the platter. Serenity reconfigured her blade and resumed her meal.


            "Great throat control. No wonder DarkStar's been so friendly with her," Makoto commented.


            "Mako!" Rei exclaimed.


            "What? Minako'd make that comment if she could. I'm just filling in."


            "Given Mina's location..." Kiri looked over to Serenity's platter and seeing it three-quarters done got to her feet.

 

            "Well, this is quite the show," Rei leaned back and looked around the Mess.


            "They're not staring that much are they?" Makoto looked over her shoulder and saw the collected soldiers, agents, and demons. "They're not all..."


            "There's a two-ton, two-meter tall, silver and gold queen chowing down in front of them. Of course they'll stare."


            "At least our queen's more eye-catching than the demons," Makoto offered.


            "Yeah, at least." Rei watched Kiri return with another platter. "So, where's she putting it all?"


            Makoto glanced at the protrusions on the queen's chest armor. "Internal storage?"


            Rei sighed. "You're really trying to fill Mina's shoes aren't you?"


            Makoto shrugged.


            "Well, enjoy it while you can," Kiri noted. "There's no guarantee that the Company will agree to this little plan."


            "You mean someone sane may actually put their foot down? Thank heaven for scary secret agents," Rei snorted.


            "I'd put a stop to this if I really thought it was harming the Queen," Kiri noted.


            "Reassuring," Rei said, dryly.

 

***************

 

            On the other side of the Mess, the two ranking succubae observed the Senshi. "Your thoughts?" Eve filled her cup of coffee and nodded to Hazel, who was setting up a fresh pot.


            "I think you can guess," Ranma glanced over at the golden queen.


            "I don't know, you seemed to enjoy teasing that sword of hers." Eve smirked.


            "That armor's not... all... bad, but..." Ranma shook her head. "I didn't expect them to go off-plan quite this quick."


            Eve nodded slightly. Given what they knew of Minako's "changes", they had a scenario similar to this outlined.


            "Our training itinerary lasted a full twenty-four hours."


            Eve eyed the queen. "We can  insist they to abandon this silly armor idea."


            "We can." Ranma said, thoughtfully.


            "You're not recommending that we do it now?" Eve asked.


            "When push comes to shove can we keep Serenity out of armor? She's sticking with it for a reason."


            "True.   Fear?"


            "Partially." Ranma poured herself a glass of juice. "We're supposed to be training them, helping them. We can't just browbeat them."


           "That armor will require even more time in training, time we may not have.  It also would work in a role that may be... ill-suited."


            "Heavy direct assault?" Ranma nodded. "And we would have to abandon our decoy plan."


            "Even if we still had a decoy, a giant armored suit would be a prime target," Eve noted.


            "Yes, though that's not exactly a bad thing. If she'll be on the spear-tip anyway."


            Eve chuckled lightly before taking a sip.


            "Oh, not that way," Ranma rolled her eyes. "That suit certainly looks impressive."


            "Really? From what I saw, all you needed was the right tool and she'd open up like a canned ham."


            "That goes without saying.  But with the right support getting there with said tool could be very risky.  We'd really have to bring in Mom to run some tests. See how good that stuff really is but..."


            Eve raised an eyebrow.


            "But the armor's not the weak link is it?"


            Eve nodded. "The weak part's the same as it always was."


            "Yeah," Ranma agreed. "She's not weak, if anything her strength is making her stubborn."

           

            Eve raised an eyebrow at that.

 

            "Quiet you," Ranma groused. "Maybe requiring constant training isn't such a bad thing."


            "I thought that was your plan, before the armor."


            "Sure but now Serenity's got a shiny new toy to try out, and someone real close to her giving moral support. We can use that."

 


            "Yes.... her." Eve frowned. "Do you think Mercury is behind this? Could she pull this off?"


            "Whatever do you mean?" Ranma asked, guilelessly. "Yes, her stated goal is to upgrade the Senshi to serve and improve Queen Serenity. And yes, she's transformed people into suits of magical armor." Ranma's innocence evaporated. "What do you take me for?"


            "That doesn't answer my question."


            "I don't think Akumi is competent enough to put such a plan into motion. However, a successful operative will ensure that her opponents underestimate her."


            "Like the part you play?" Eve smirked.


            Ranma smirked. "However, if Akumi had been planning to use Minako this way... well..."


            "She would have done it already."


            "Right after the Soviets' attack, by my guess. The offer for protection is made and..." Ranma waved her arm to the opposite end of the Mess.


            "Before they had to come to us for protection."


            "Back when the Princess still believed she could handle this on her own."


            Eve nodded.


            "No, while this is Akumi's style... she wouldn't stand for this."


            Following her sister's gaze, Eve watched as Kiri ferried yet another platter of food. "An excellent point; more-so than you, she fears Meiou's influence."


            "And she's impatient. No, if this were Akumi's work, Serenity would have already blasted her way out of here, run out of jammer range and teleported to God-knows-where."


            "That doesn't preclude Akumi from being behind this. It's entirely possible her plan derailed with Venus following someone else's agenda," Eve noted.


            "That goes without saying." Ranma kept her eyes on the golden figure. "That's pretty much what Meiou and the Queen told me. Venus took advantage of what Akumi did to her and made herself into a protective suit. Yes, Akumi has a hand in this."


            "But it's a question of degree," Eve sighed.


            "Right, we can't dismiss Akumi." Violet eyes narrowed. "This chain of control here is getting a bit too long for my taste."


             "Right, and then there's how much influence little Kiri has in all this," Eve added.


            "We've been watching Puu, what you're forgetting is the new influence here, someone that literally has the Queen's ear."


            Eve chuckled. Minako was the gatekeeper, controlling everything that the Queen saw and did. "Clever girl."


            "Yes, a gatekeeper that's about as big of a bimbo you can get and still be able to breathe and walk at the same time."


            "This is the same girl that managed to operate alone in England before joining the rest of the Senshi in Japan?" Eve raised an eyebrow.


            "Doesn't keep her from playing the bimbo. There is a reason Akumi went after her first."


            Eve chuckled. "Still, this does mean that Meiou has been usurped. The Queen's new advisor has complete knowledge and privacy. You've seen how she talks now. The hesitations, the scripted lines."


            "On the upside, there's no whining and less babble."


            "That alone should raise your paranoia, if it's still a bimbo leading a bigger bimbo, as you presume." Sipping, Eve looked out at the Senshi. "This does complicate our contingencies."


            "Then it's fortunate that we're learning as much as we can."


            "That's what Meiou's doing."


            "Her being caught flat-footed has lost its novelty," Ranma dryly remarked.


            "That shiny new uniform is amusing."


            "Yes...." Ranma narrowed her eyes as she looked across the room.


            "No comment about a creepy 'little girl' wearing black armor and red eyes?"


            The redheaded demon gave Eve a sideways glance.


            "It's still understated compared to what the others are wearing. Polished metal." Eve shook her head.


            "We knew they'd cause problems."


            "Them gaining metallic power-suits was something we considered, but... we didn't think it'd go this far."


            "The queen is lacking in understatement." Ranma remarked she turned and exited the mess hall.


            "Your plans?" Eve asked as they stepped outside.


            Ranma scanned the forest to spot the barely visible innermost line of fencing. "We train them; we learn. We don't have much time to make our decision."


            Eve frowned. "The queen's armor?"


            "Decoy plan aside. This adds new layers of control."


            "You think we've been conned."


            "Of course. Meiou's got her plans, but... Venus. That's a new one."


            "We could be overestimating her. She is a bimbo," Eve proposed.


            "That makes the perfect cover. People don't suspect halfwits."


            Eve smirked and wrapped an arm around the smaller woman's shoulder. "I've taught you well."


            Ranma purred. "Complacency kills."


            "You're not ruling out Mercury?"


            "Not entirely, no. If I were her, I'd simply use Venus to bring the queen back to me, but we know she's not one for simple plans."


            "A mole?"


            "Sure," Ranma shrugged. "Have the queen built in power then take all the Senshi and then us. It's crazy, but this is Akumi we're talking about."


            "It could also be a case of defective control. Maybe Venus is following a holding pattern due to a lack of fresh orders. Maybe our jammers interfere with such transmissions. Which means if we let the Queen get in range of Akumi..."


            Ranma sighed. "We'd have the queen transform into... what?"


            "Really? You wonder what a deluded dominatrix with queen issues would do once she gets her prize, conveniently encased in liquid precious metals?" Eve asked with mock innocence.


           

***************

 


            Kiri stepped into the bunkroom and sighed slightly. Sitting, or at least resting on partially telescoped skirting was the queen. Looking away from the room-dominating golden figure, Meiou checked the beds; they were empty.


            "Well... this is new."


            Eyes closed, the queen turned to Kiri.


            Meiou stepped forward. "Serenity?"


            "The queen is asleep," Minako's voice emitted from the crown's crescent ruby centerpiece.


            Meiou eyed the flashing gem. "You've decided to talk."


            "Does the Queen need to be disturbed?" Minako became a bit more atonal.


            "Does she?" Kiri raised an eyebrow as she started pacing in front of the auric armor. "I was under the impression that you were both being given some time to sleep, given the early morning training."


            "She is asleep."


            Meiou smirked. "Of course she is. What better place for her to sleep."


            "What do you want?" Minako asked, with just enough inflection to be icily terse.


            "You can talk, to her, but not with this little speaker." Kiri leaned forward and looked up at the looming figure. "What are you whispering in her ears? How are her dreams?"


            The armored head tilted slightly.


            "Yes." Kiri narrowed her eyes. "I can see it now: her on a raised dais in a shimmering court as courtesans lovingly polish her, polish you." Kiri's eyes went to the queen's left arm. "Or maybe it's more visceral. Maybe you have her out conquering. Introducing her to imperial pleasures?"


            "Oh! good idea. I was just giving her a massage."


            Meiou sighed. "Very cute."


            The mask bearing Serenity's face smirked.


            "You're going to have to let her out sometime."


            Venus straightened her head. "If you don't want to talk to the queen, then why are you here?"


            "You're the one I want to talk to."


            "Really?"


            "There is a great opportunity before us."


            Minako laughed. "And you worry about what I'm saying to the Queen."


            "Of course!" Kiri glared. "I'm supposed to be the manipulative advisor. Though we can work together. It's a good start, but with my help..."


            "Aw, how cute," Minako's gushing clashed with the golden form's gravitas.


            Kiri pouted. "What? You want to cuddle next? Maybe some petting?"


            "You didn't mind petting earlier in the morning." Minako countered. "It would help."

Kiri sniffed. "The queen does like affection."


            The armor's serene face looked smug.


            Running a finger along the waist-armor's anchor ring, Kiri looked up. "You're right, but do you realize the dangers? Look at Ami, if you break her heart...."


            Minako nodded. "She'll remake me."

 

***************

 


            "Yes Cecilia," Ranma said as she watched Sergeant Olsen Brummet and Corporal Cordell Giddings unpack a crate of Canadian variant FN FAL's.


            "Nineteen-eighty-one?" Cecilia asked looking at the date on the large crate.


            "It's a good year," Olsen noted as he stripped the packing material off one of the rifles and started removing a thick grease-like coating.


            Cecilia raised an eyebrow at Ranma.


            "Weapons don't go bad. As long as they're stored properly," Ranma added, eyeing the seals and coatings on the weapons.


           "Yeah, Cosmoline does the job, it's just a pain," Cordell noted, fingering the anti-rust grease that coated the weapons.


            Giving a thoughtful hum, Cecilia eyed Ranma.


            The redhead eyed the two troopers. "If you'll give me a moment." She turned to Cecilia and led her a couple paces away. "Yes?"

 

            "It's just...." Cecilia's eyes went to the guns.


            "Don't worry. Your girls won't be using those rifles. Not at the start. The Black Devils have some spares for your first lessons. Then once these are checked out and upgraded to modern spec, you can have them."


            Cecilia's cheeks pinked slightly. "It's not that."


            "Oh." Ranma frowned. "Would you prefer something WIC-made? It's far too early to use a full HOG, and the lower section fires the same round as those Canadian guns."


            "No..."


            Ranma tilted her head. "Then what's the problem."


            "It's all this." Cecilia waved at the weapons. "I'm not exactly comfortable with my girls using assault weapons."


            "Assault rifles." Ranma corrected. "An assault weapon is... not a real thing. Basically, its any gun that looks scary. An assault rifle  has select fire. That is they can work as a semi-auto carbine or a burst fire or a full-auto light machine gun or some combination."


            "That's... not what I meant."


            Ranma blinked. "Why? Your girls will get the best and safest training."


            Cecilia looked down.


            "You're a demon that can lob fireballs, cut through steel, and seduce just about anyone. Your girls could already hurt a lot of people if they were irresponsible."


            "I've just never used... I mean I never really hunted..."


            Ranma chuckled. "I'm Japanese, and spent a lot of time wandering China learning martial arts. Guns were even more alien to me." The redhead frowned at Cecilia's expression. "This isn't about guns is it?"


            The demoness bit her lip, her curls obscuring he face.


            "You'd be apprehensive about the physical training too. Any of the marital arts."


            Cecilia nodded.


            The redhead sighed. "Cecilia... Sissy," Ranma's voice softened. "You still have a choice. You can go back to having a quiet life. The Company can relocate you. You can go back to just having a family and raising your girls, but... if you want to stay, this is how it's going to be."


            "We're not... well, not fighters."


            "And yet you still want to help."


            Blushing slightly, Cecilia looked down.


            "You agreed to be support staff, and that's vital, but... that doesn't matter." Ranma gave a charitable smile. "Our enemies don't care; they'll kill you just the same. In a crisis, you can't panic, you can't freeze. If you want to help, this is a part of it. Training reduces the risk."


            "I know." Cecilia raised her head and met the brood mother's soft eyes. "How do you handle it? Knowing the risks, knowing what could happen to your broodlings?"


            Ranma gave a wan smile. "I try to do the best job I can. I give them the love and support they need. That includes training. It can be hard on them, but life is hard."


            "Well, that’s reassuring." Cecilia sighed.


            'That's life." Ranma eyed the other demoness.


            "Right. I agreed to the training, let's do it." Cecilia steeled herself.


            Ranma leaned in an hugged her. "I can't promise that nothing bad will happen to your girls, but I can promise that they'll be able to fight back."

 

***************


            Galina smiled as the tall man entered the hotel room; Desyat closed the door behind him. "Why hello Zhivkov." She stood up.


            "Really? Was Cherverkov too obvious?" de Veste groused from his seat.


            The apparent Zhivkov bristled. While his clothes were not terribly well-tailored, they did not clash; he had that much over the bulky, ill-dressed, man. "At least you know your history."


            "It's nothing." Mal shrugged. "Former prime ministers do make for obvious pseudonyms. Really, it's not like any of us are using our... Christian names," he said with a chuckle."


            Zhivkov inclined his head. "And what might I call you?"


             Mal looked over to Galina who nodded. "Mal. Mal de Veste," he said flatly.


            "I... see." Zhivkov turned to Galina and, facing away from Mal, raised an eyebrow.


            Galina eyed the plaid-suited man. "Todor, I assure you Mal's skills will come in handy. He has already proven his usefulness."


            "Oh?"


            "I showed them how to sweep for some... exotic bugs," Mal explained.


            Zhivkov nodded. "Yes, well there are questions. Comrade Kolarov was quite... colorful on the information you've furnished us so far."


            "Todor, we've worked together before. That's why I knew I could trust your men. Can you not trust us?"


            Zhivkov frowned. "This is different than your... enhancements."


            "If the work is too much you can go home." Mal played with his pinky ring. "Go east until you find a general that needs some... cleaning. Plenty of work, if you can keep quiet about it."


            At first, Zhivkov reddened at man's suggestion, but there was no disparagement in his suggestion. Worse, he was right. In a pinch it was relatively easy and fairly profitable work.


            "Do you have a problem with the terms?" Galina idly asked.


            "That is not what worries me." the Bulgarian narrowed his eyes. "These demons and all this magic, it's a bit much. At least the capitalist mercenaries are basic enough." He dared not ask why the likes of Galina even needed him and his men.


            "No!" Galina yelled. After a moment she motioned for Desyat to stay her hand. "What are the three teams used in a basic ambush?"


            Zhivkov blinked. "Pardon?"


            "This is basic." Galina turned away from the former soldier. "What are the components of an ambush?"


            "Uh," Zhivkov's memory went back to the balmy summer days in a barracks on the steppes learning from the Red Army. "Assault, security, and support."


            "Indeed. An attack goes so much better when flanks are secured and supporting fire can be called upon. The capitalists so love their force multipliers." Galina chuckled. "Not that simplicity doesn't have its own virtues."


            Controlling the growing dread in his chest, Zhivkov nodded. "Then that is our role? We counter their support?"

            "It's for the best. You wouldn't last if you got in close with these girls," Mal stated in the same even voice.


            "And your team would?" Zhivkov made sure to keep his tone free of accusation.


            Galina faced the Bulgarian. "Slightly."


             Zhivkov swallowed, no longer able to fully contain himself. "The events in the news..."


            "A spectacular failure." Mal levelly looked to Galina. "Casualties? KIAs?"


            Zhivkov clasped his hands behind his back. "Casualties," he repeated. He heard rumors that one of the Galina's team had been killed, once, when an ammunition dump went up but...


            "Yes. We are under-strength."


            Straightening his ring, Mal leaned back in his chair. "Now we lift the veil of ignorance."


            "I see." Zhivkov tightened his grip. "And if I may ask what... specialty does your team have?"


            "Team?" Mal chuckled. "Tell me comrade, are you a religious man?" He adjusted his pinky ring, amused.


            Pain shot up Zhivkov's wrist. "What kind of question is that?"


            Mal nodded. "Interesting."


            "Not going to call me a mercenary?"


            "Why?" Mal tilted his head. "We all kill people for money. I really can't begrudge you for that."


            "Then why?"


            Mal smiled, oily. "Sorry for the distraction."


            A'deen eyed the suited-man. "Comrade de Veste works alone, normally."


            "I see." Zhivkov shifted his grip on his wrist.

 

            Sighing, he could understand the value of his men to Galina and her ilk. This was not the first time he had worked with the Numbers. As A'deen implied, even... superior troops could benefit from additional support and security. A single man however...


            "No, you don't. That's the problem with your kind, when faced with something that doesn't fit your little world view you ignore it, you lie, you deny. Normally, that's a plus, it makes my job easier, but now... Fortunately, I'm not that worried. With your revolutionary remnants that'll just make for a nice distraction. These demons like to take their time with their kills, and you're bringing a lot of warm bodies." Mal said, his voice returning to its flat almost disengaged tone


            Galina glared.


            Zhivkov's eyes widened slightly as he watched Galina open her mouth then stop and turn away from de Veste. Aside from Red Army superiors, from way back, he knew of nothing that would stay her acid-tongue. Especially with an impertinent... hireling.


            Galina paused. "Mal is correct. Zhivkov, if you fail, if you underestimate this enemy, your men will be devoured by monsters."


            "Have you shown them battle footage?" Mal mildly asked.


            Zhivkov raised an eyebrow, while Galina and Desyat went still.


            "Ladies, it's in your eyes. Now maybe your optics don't have a record capability, but I doubt it. It's your prerogative how much you want to share, but... you, Todor, should know what your men could go up against."


            Galina pursed her lips.


            "The footage you sent me was... minimal. More would be helpful," Zhivkov allowed.


            Mal adjusted his glasses. "Apologizes if that was too presumptive."


            "It's a fair point." Sighing, Galina's eyes flicked to Desyat, who still stood silently near the door. "We'll get you the footage."


            "Thank you," Zhivkov nodded.


            "If you come up against these creatures, don't hesitate, don't let them get close, and don't let up your fire." Mal leveled his gaze at the Bulgarian.


            "Right." Zhivkov wondered if he would get advice that was not applicable to both the demons and Galina's team. "What of the other girls, these... magic users?"


            "Poorly led, poorly trained, poorly organized. However, their offensive capability is not to be trifled with. Unfortunately, we have even less detail on their weapons than we do on the demons'."


            Zhivkov nodded. "Though this is the group with the primary... client."


            "Yes, our 'client's' inner circle are useful targets of opportunity. From our information they provide key support and we've already whittled down their numbers."


            "Wouldn't eroding her human support push her further into the hands of the demons and the Company?" Mal asked. "Seems to me, that's having her trade up in terms or protection."


            "An unfortunate consequence of her continued survival."


            Zhivkov restrained a frown. Clearly, the situation had gotten worse. Otherwise A'deen would have no need to hire them. "And where have your losses come from?"


            "To date the demons. But I had a guess, the Princess' entourage will extract a price on your girls next time you fight."


            Galina glared at the brutish man.


            "Your caution of them is obvious. It seems to me, that they are your enemy. That these human girls... are just a way of keeping score."


            "We aim to complete this mission." Galina narrowed her eyes. "Killing our target is what counts."

 

***************

 


            "Are you sure you want to do this?" Minako's voice transmitted.


            Usagi lifted her arms and leaned forward trying to look down past the immensity of her chest. She succeeded but that only gave her a slightly better view of the belts of armor that spread out and down in a bell-shape from the thick anchoring circlet around her hips. "Please... humor me," Usagi, eventually, mentally commanded.


            "As you wish," Minako replied.


            Usagi gasped, her silver lips parting. She felt her body split apart as her torso separated from a seam that ran down the middle. Similarly, she felt her skirting decouple as the staggered layers disconnected and separated, revealing immense golden legs, which then began to peel apart.


            While the undersides of her arms popped open and her hair pulled back, her face melted away. And then... it was no longer her body splitting and pulling apart, it was her armor. Hesitantly, she pulled her arms and felt them slide out of their housings. Goose-bumps formed on the suddenly exposed, suddenly chilled skin.


            She stepped forward, almost stumbling at the height difference between where the armor placed her feet and the floor. Taking another half step she nearly stumbled again, this time at the drastic width reduction of her foot-print.


            "Weird," she muttered, looking at her hands. Her fingers seemed so... delicate without the articulated gold segments.

 

            She blinked. There was no overlay display, no additional information, just her eyes and ten naked slender digits, but most of all there was no voice. She turned back to the armor. "Mina?"


            Looming above the silver-haired queen, the armor looked disemboweled, harvested for vitals. Gently pulsing, silver tubes... veins... arteries ran throughout the cavity and she could see the support structures that held her body within. Serenity shuddered at the sight and unconsciously took a step back towards the armor.


            Frowning, Luna scrambled off of the armor just as clacks and metal rasping against metal resumed. The hair-helmet flipped back, the arms resealed and the chest closed back up. For a moment the armor looked almost normal and Serenity's heart sank at the sight of the faceless suit.


            But the closing continued, and armored sections accelerated the pace with which they folded over each other. Shoulder plates collapsed inward while chest armor peeled back and armored skirting telescoped inward and upward. The blade rapidly receded into a more traditional shape and the crystalline mountings of the heavy wand collapsed in a domino-like cascade.


            Gold and silver armor folded into itself transitioning from hulking Imperial armor unto the relatively lithe frame of Venus' golem form. Eyes flaring red, Venus handed the crescent wand back to Serenity.


            Serenity accepted the wand with a bow. "Thank you, for everything."


            A slight smile passed Venus' golden lips.


            "Well how sweet," Kiri said stepping into the bunk room. "But I don't think this getup will work."


            Venus nodded slightly.


            "Well, what?" Serenity crossed her hands over her chest, momentarily amazed that they were small enough to allow such an action. "Do you think I shouldn't ever leave the armor?"


            Kiri sighed. "Maybe if Mina... or Usagi or whatever we're calling her now, didn't have the Venus symbol all over her armor. We kind of want those Russians to think that they've actually killed three of us."


            Serenity's eyes sparkled. "A makeover then?"

 

            "She's already made herself into your armor." Kiri nodded after a moment. "Yes that will do. Mina, can you do a more... toned down version of your big armor?"


            Venus nodded and there was more rasping of armor. Shoulder armor folded out and the skirting went from the Senshi pleated to something a bit heavier, while still reaching just above the knees. Her hair went from a centurion-like golden crest to the sculpted metallic hair bun. Her sword grew though not to the immense two-handed size with the larger armor.


            Kiri nodded as the Venus symbols reverted back to crescent Moons. "That can work."


            Minako smirked.


            "Though it's still a bit suspicious having an animated armor suit, but so is the big suit that you two make." Kiri shrugged. "I presume you can still look human?"


            Her expression turning to a smirk, Minako had her armor collapse until it became golden skin which then paled into a human tone.


            Looking at... herself, Serenity shook her head. "I still get weirded out by that."


            "Not the first time," Minako laughed with Usagi's voice.


            Kiri nodded. "I suppose the princess becoming –well- princess armor works."


            "Especially since everyone else has metallic armor. Other than you." Serenity turned to Kiri.


            "Hmm... and what will the Russians think if they see the princess merging with the queen?"


            The other two girls frowned.


            "I'm not so sure they'd take kindly to a bit of Lunar Love Queen," Luna muttered.


            Serenity's eyes glinted. "Oooh."


            "Please don't give her ideas," Meiou sighed.


            "What? You're not amused by the idea of a giant shiny Cupid?" Luna asked.

 

***************

 


            An excavation scooped out the front half of a hill with the fill  piled upon the remainder of the hill and sides, making a miniature box canyon. Standing before the several meter tall berm were pairs of wood poles, with a sheet of cardboard straddling each. Three meters in front of the earthen mound and the targets were four bundles. The precision machinery gave a dull shine, the containers of high energy chemicals sat fat and heavy, and the fabric harness and pouches rested in curled tangles.


            In front of those were four vaguely-teenage girls with loose green jumpsuits and chalk-white skin. A vaguely sulfurous scent rose from them. Standing behind them were three older women, in similar if more... ready clothes.


            Nose flaring, the one with green eyes smiled slightly. "Okay, you've all managed to use rifles without killing yourselves, now we're going to see if you can handle the next thing," Misako barked to the assembled succubae. "You, what's the first rule?" Misako pointed to the succubus standing at the end of the firing line.


            Hazel's eyes widened as she tried to recall. "Assume every firearm is loaded?"


           "Right." Misako smirked. "Always treat it like it is loaded, and related, when you start carrying always keep it loaded, an empty gun is just a pricey club. You, next rule." Misako said, pointing to the demon on the opposite end from Hazel.


            Desiree's eyes looked to Hazel and Auntie Ranma and that Company officer. "Well... Control the muzzle?"


            "When?" Misako's voice was deceptively gentle.


            "All the time?"


            "And why is that?"


            Desire's eyes darted down to the handgun just ahead of her feet. "Because it's always loaded... and the muzzle is where the bullets come out?"


            "Heh. Not bad," Misako smirked and looked to one of the girls in the middle.


            "Third one?" Meredith asked. "Right. 'Trigger finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard.' " She quoted from memory.


            "And when do you do that?"


            Meredith was about to say 'always' but stopped. "Until you're ready to... shoot?"


            Misako nodded. "There's a whole issue on when you're ready to shoot, but that's for later lessons. Right now we're giving the basics. Prissy last rule?" She said without looking at the girl.


            Priscilla chewed her lip. "See that it's unloaded. Prove its safe?"


            "What does that mean? Since the first rule says your gun is always loaded?"


            "But it's not..." Priscilla froze at Misako. "I mean we emptied our rifles when we cleaned them this morning. That nice Sergeant had us check them."


            "How?"


            "Removed the magazine and worked the action. Then looked inside. Then worked it again.  Check both visually and by feel to ensure that the weapon is empty."


            "Exactly," Misako beamed. "It's good that you're being cautious. What's the saying Lieutenant?"


            Kasumi looked up. "Complacency kills."


            "That's right." Misako nodded. "Obey these four rules and I'll guarantee you won't hurt yourself or your family." The green eyed girl walked behind the four succubae. "You might be wondering when you'd actually use these weapons. Right now, you're support staff, but more importantly you're demons. You can already call up various attacks, but..." Misako smirked. "It's far better to have a skill and never use it, than it is to need it and not have it. Isn't that right Mother?"


            Standing off to one side, Ranma's eye went up and her hand went over the handle of the SSP she wore on her hip. "Yes, Misa." She looked down the line of demons. "I've had to use my weapon in battle, and I was glad I knew how to use it. In a fight you won't have time to think, you'll just have your instincts and your training. These weapons are no different than the other skills you're being taught."


            "Right,  put on your eye and ear protection," Misako said as she slipped on her own set of ear plugs and purple ballistic glasses. "Good, now bend down and pick up your guns. Do not load them." Misako's eyes glinted. "Hazel! Your gun's drifting. Rule two!"

 

            She stepped over and made sure Hazel complied before complying. "This is the SSP. It fires the five-hundred S&W cartridge one of the only handgun rounds that are actually effective in NH combat. 

           

            "It bears a passing resemblance to the AMT Automag IV, but unlike those beasts, grandmother actually made a reliable weapon. Each magazine only holds seven rounds, which is a major limitation, and reloading is vital. Just be glad your fingers tend to be longer than human's."


            Hazel blushed and studiously kept the weapon's muzzle downrange.


            Simultaneously, Ranma and Kasumi stepped in and made sure that fingers were off the trigger and out of the trigger guards.


            "You didn't forget everything from this morning." Misako nodded. "Now take your fingers and hold the grip with your middle, ring finger, and pinky.  You want a good crush grip."


            "Closer, get it right up on the beaver tail," Kasumi adjusted Desiree's hand so that the beaver tail guard on the back of the grip was flush with flesh between the demon's pointer finger and thumb.


            "Right. Now rack the slide." Misako sighed at the younger girls. "No.. you don't ride the slide." She pulled out her own weapon, released the magazine, and cleared the chamber. "See, just get a good grab on the slide with your off hand. Then once you have it take the hand holding the gun and push it forward. Then let go of the slide. Right! That's it. See how much stronger that is."


            "Ohhh, that is simpler," Hazel nodded.


            Misako smirked. "Right, now use the slide lock and hold the slide back.  Now if your magazine goes empty, it'll look like this. Now you can use the slide release or pull back on the slide but hitting the release has one key benefit."


            "Uh... it's faster?" Meredith asked.


            "Yup, tugging the slide is a whole extra motion, where your thumb is already there to hit the relapse.  Also you can use it one handed, but one handed reloading is an advanced subject."

 

            The young demons nodded, a bit dubiously.


            "Place your weapons back into the holsters, and then pick up your belts."


            The broodlings complied and slipped their belts on. Kasumi and Ranma then helped them adjust the holsters and magazine carriers.


            "Good, good." Misako smirked. "Now you'll learn how to draw and holster. Won't that be fun?"


            Hazel's heart-shaped face turned quizzical. "Yay?"


            "After that you'll get to shoot."


            "Oh." Hazel blinked. "Yay!"


            "Yay, indeed." Gravely nodding, Misako turned to her mother and broke into a quick smile. " But first, we'll have to talk about stances. With a two-handed grip, it's just like your rifle stances. You're going to put the foot of your gun hand forward, bent knee and lean your weight  as you move your shoulders forward.  Good that's right. Your gun side foot will angle to the side  and be bent a little bit.  This is all to help absorb the recoil and give you a good stance.  Think an italicized  lower-case 'h'."

 

            Ranma and Kasumi moved in to help the others with their legs and feet.

           

            "Thanks!  You'll be surprised at how much a little thing like stance will help your shooting," Misako said while the redhead rolled her eyes.   Then Misako looked over her mother's shoulder and her grin broadened even more. "Oh, hi Grandma!"


            Ranma turned and spotted her mother approaching, lab coat incongruously draped over a set of WIC armor.


            "Well, well, how's the training?" Nodoka asked, stepping up to the range from behind the firing-line.


            "Just starting," Misako said.


            "They're doing good though."


            "Of course, they're family," Misako proclaimed.


            "BlackSky would be proud," Nodoka murmured, pensive.


            "Yeah, especially since they got away from Alexia's influence." Ranma glanced at her mother.


            "Family is important, it's good that you're helping yours."


            "It helps that they're agreeable." Despite her smile, concern crossed Ranma's eyes. "You complete the examination?"


            Nodoka nodded. "Misa-chan, can you spare her?"


            Misako raised an eyebrow. "Lieutenant Tendo's more than enough."


            Ranma turned to Kasumi and gave a slight nod. "Right, help Misa and the girls then. Good luck with the lesson, Dear," she then said to her daughter.


            After the officer and her daughter had walked several paces back to the buildings, Nodoka turned slightly. "Having her teach?" she asked pulling off her own ear protection.


            "It's good for Misako; she can use more responsibility," Ranma said as four shots barked in the distance.  She had slipped of the ear-muffs and winced a bit.  That was a downside to having enhanced senses.


            Nodoka nodded. "And the rest of Cecilia's brood, where are they?"


            "With Akane and Nariko learning the basics of hand to hand. Sophie and Morgan are helping, may as well sharpen their training too."


            "Quite the little school you've got going here," Nodoka chuckled.


            Ranma frowned. "Well, it's not like we're going to Furinkan anymore."


            Nodoka patted her daughter on the shoulder. "It's part of growing up. You girls have only so much time."


             "Yeah.... anyway, JTF2 is learning well enough. It helps that they've seen some NHs and Cecilia's girls seem eager enough. Apparently, they did good on rifle this morning."


            "But you're not concerned about them."


            Ranma stopped walking. "Mom, you examined her... them. What's the story?"


            "It's... something else." For a brief moment Nodoka tried to hold in a grin. "In truth, it's actually not that bad... Well, if you ignore the gaudy embellishments." Nodoka shook her head.


            "For a specific situation I could see it having a purpose." Eight shots, in four overlapping pairs interrupted Ranma's response. "And that giant skirt?"


            Nodoka chuckled. "It isn't completely absurd. Really," she defended against her daughter's skeptical expression. "First, it gives protection. Sure her legs are huge, but that's because they support all that mass, that's not all armor. The skirt also acts as a screen barrier too. Explosives will detonate against that first, not her legs."


            "It's a giant metal ball gown." Ranma frowned.  Part of her could see the...  she shook her head.


            "And that shape allows for fair leg mobility and allows it to act as a nozzle." Nodoka shook her head in recollection of that pre-dawn video footage. "And an overlooked thing that skirt does is stabilize. Not only does it lower her center of mass but since it's spread out, the armor increases her moment of inertia. Not that she still won't fall over due to absurd ground pressure."


            "Yeah her footwork really, really needs improvement."


            "Not just footwork, but wooden stairs, mud, decking, maybe even residential buildings are right out. Which just nails home how worthless she'd be in urban combat. The skirt is an interesting solution but... it's far too much. Its protection comes at too high of a cost in bulk and weight."


            Ranma nodded.


            "But the weight overlooks something else." Nodoka's eyes gleamed.


            "Oh?"


            "The whole armor weighs far more than the sum of their masses. Even if you add her golden golem mass to Serenity's. That's a powerful summon right there."


            "Expanding the brood's capabilities?"


            Nodoka nodded. "Being able to 'dial-in' your level of armor in combat would be exceedingly useful. Unfortunately, it's extremely energy intensive, though we might be able to get a workaround via your demonic summoning."


            "She's showing off," the redhead mumbled, looking out to the buildings. "Overall?"


            Nodoka shrugged. "In a vacuum, it's an impressive weapons system. Her main weapon is a much better focus. That makes it easier to channel heavy energy blasts. But all that armor is a liability, unless it's needed, and unless her enemy doesn't have a massive mobility advantage."

 

            "Which the Numbers have."  The redhead rolled her shoulders.  The combat cyborgs ranged between inhumanly fast and incomprehensibly fast.

 

            "That said, the armor and sword are impressive from a materials standpoint.  Again in a vacuum it's all impressive."


            "Oh, you checked them out?" Ranma smirked.


            "The sword is very flexible. Which."


            "I don't think that it's a weapon."


            Nodoka raised an eyebrow.


            "The sword is big and pushes her to lean on Mina."


            Nodoka nodded. "I noticed the pauses too. She's waiting for advice."


            "Probably why the armor's so thick, insulates her from anything Mina doesn't want her to know about."


            Frowning, Nodoka nodded again. "Yes, the armor that is quite resistant to small arms fire and many smaller crew served weapons. Probably weak to HEAT though. Personally, there's some room for improvement in her armor."


            "Really? Do they know it?"


            "Daughter, I am an agent." The scientist smirked. "I complimented them on their skill in building various armor laminates, which allowed me to take some samples. It's... creative work, and I can come up with some improvements, if you want."


            "Let me rephrase. Do you think Mina knows?"


            "I think the armor does the job it was designed to do." Nodoka gave a hollow chuckle. "The armor itself is a rather interesting, if unoptimized, blend. Pure gold is a rather pathetic armor, given its properties, but that's mostly an aesthetic choice. Really it's a lamination of several materials charged with the expected Silver energies. This is similar to the current metal armor the others wear, on a larger scale of course, and fundamentally it’s the same as their cloth armor as well, save for a different substrate.


            "Now,simply scaling up the layer-count and replacing the matrix with something stronger is a brute force way to improve protection, but it's hardly the most efficient. Though when dealing with a design that seems... generous with issues of weight and bulk, mass has an effectiveness of its own."


            "Right." Ranma said, understanding only most of what her mother said.. "Do you think it's usable?"


            "Honestly? It doesn't seem suited for this type of combat. That's being very generous." Major Saotome smirked. "I suppose such a suit would fill the self-propelled artillery TO&E of the Silver Empire. From that perspective it's not that bad of a weapons system. As long as you keep to fields and away from built-up areas. Still such a system would ideally have an escort to deal with anything that got close. Technically, she is smaller, more mobile and less bulky than our... vehicles."


            "Which we don't use very much and would get torn apart in close combat anyway."


            "Right, we did fire a GPS-HIMARS system, but that was in a specific situation. And it's curious she hasn't gone for less armor in exchange for more mobility, while keeping the same firepower. "


            Ranma leaned on her mother. "We could try that, but I think there's a specific reasons she's so bulky and has fixed weapon mounts."


            Nodoka hugged the shorter woman. "Possession and fear of loss do seem to be quite apparent here."


            Ranma sighed happily. "Yeah, her problem isn't a lack of protection, it's a lack of control, and well that's her game."


            Nodoka nodded. "Right, slower responses, fewer words; she was consulting."


            "Sure, Serenity was letting someone else do the thinking, having someone else make all the decisions for her."


            "Only now, we can't see her abdicating all her responsibility."


            Ranma nodded. "Right! The armor doesn't make her be more decisive, it makes her less. Eve and I were talking about that this morning."


            "That shifts the balance of power."


            "Yes," Ranma narrowed her eyes. "Seems to me that it's just like Puu pulling her strings."


            "Puu doesn't completely encase Serenity, nor does she control everything she sees, says, and does."


            "Clever girl."


            "Don't be so sure of that, Dear." Nodoka cautioned. "Be wary of her, yes, but don't fall into the same trap your rivals do. Sometimes an airhead is just an airhead."

 

***************

 


            After watching the trio of clay disks explode, Nariko checked her watch. "Break time!  Nice work."

 

            Jupiter nodded and got up from her crouch and rejoined Mars and Pluto.


            Looking over her notes, Sophie nodded. "Yes, good job, fair accuracy, and strong team tactics."


            "Really?" Mars flicked a bit of dirt of her bronze skirting.


            "Oh yes, especially you and Makoto." Sophie said as she secured the trap machine. "You've worked together for a long time, it shows. You've got power and teamwork,  some formal training should really pay off."


            Kiri smirked. "You should have see them before I started working on their gunnery."

 

            Rei gave the younger-looking woman a narrowed gaze.


            As the group started walking back, Sophie appraised the armored girls. "That's part of it, your team skills are critical. Without them you're just individuals in a big fight."


            "And you expect us to run about shouting 'Cover me' and 'Covering'? " Mars raised an eyebrow. "That's a bit obvious isn't it?"


            "It can be exceptionally hard to hear your teammates in battle.  But when you work with someone long enough, you start to predict how they're going to move. Which you two have shown," Sophie explained.


            "We're honestly getting more reassured with your preformance,"  Nariko brightly added.


            "They complained when I trained them, too," Kiri noted as they walked across the base.


            "Yes, they'd do that," Sophie absently replied.


            "Our meeting," Nariko reminded.


            Rei blinked. "Hmm?"


            Sophie nodded to Nariko. "We'll be back, enjoy your break."


            "Huh," Makoto said watching them walk off.


            "Suspicious?" Kiri asked, as the two demons rejoined other demons.


            "Let's see, scientists are poking at the queen and... Usagi, and the demons are suddenly grouping up. Yeah, I don't think DarkStar's up to anything," Rei grumbled.


            Meiou's smile held traces of condescension. "She's not human. Don't forget that, they don't think like you do. A creature like her, her motives are either hopelessly complex or dreadfully simple."


            Looking at her distorted reflection in Pluto's armor, Rei grimaced. "That's not reassuring."


            "That's not my job." Kiri smirked. "My job is to serve the Line of Serenity."


            "It's Ranma, I'm betting on dreadfully simple," Jupiter interjected.


            "That's what she wants you to think. No one who's done all this-" Rei snorted and waved her arms to encompass the multi-national base, and the ruined AOM facility. "Could be simple."


            "You make a good point." Kiri chuckled. "There is definitely more at work here."


            "I liked it better when we could just fry everything that wasn't human," Rei muttered.


            Kiri raised an eyebrow.


            "What?" Rei demanded, glaring down at the shorter girl.


            "Well, we are being trained by demons, and our main enemies right now are human. Oh, and there's what our blonde friend's been turned into," Jupiter stated.


            "And things have gotten a lot more complicated."


            Pluto shook her head. "They always were complicated."


            "Really?"


            "Remember the Black Moon Clan? Time traveling insurrectionists under the thrall of an ancient horror. Or there's the Dark Kingdom. Again, a rebellion to the Silver Empire under the thrall of yet another ancient horror, but this time the roots lay in the problems of the occupation and pacification of Earth."


            "Yeah, but we still just fried them all," Jupiter reminded. "Well, until we got killed."


            Kiri chuckled. "Yes, there was that."

 

***************

 


            Adjusting her chest-rig, Ranma looked up at the queen, but only slightly. "Not armored-up?" she asked, absently nodding to Minako.


            Currently in her Moon princess guise, Minako nodded from her seat next to the Queen.


            "Luna recommended that I.... unwind," Serenity looked down at the cat luxuriating on her lap.


            Ranma chuckled.


            "This is about that? You're deciding whether or not you'll let me... us fight how we want."


            The redhead laughed as she slumped down onto a bunk and looked across the room to the couch where the "royalty" sat. "It's your choice. Fight how you want. We have pointed out the limitations of such heavy armor, especially with your being short-handed. But you can choose it."


            Frowning, Serenity idly pushed a lock of silver hair back into her bun. "Meaning that it's my choice whether or not I'll get your protection."


            The demon's smirk split, revealing her teeth. "I wouldn't put it that bluntly.  Really, you seem less rapt with the whole union thing." She glanced at the blonde.


            Minako blinked, slowly deliberately. "Meiou really should have gotten better terms on that contract."


            "Maybe she wanted to minimize her queen's demonic entanglements." Ranma eyed the drowsy cat, warily. "Maybe she was worried that a compromised Senshi would takeover the queen."


            Serenity glared. "Minako is not compromised!"


            "She was. And her little experiment could have put our plans at risk, could have put you at risk." Ranma spread her fingers. "


            "Now I know how my mother felt." Serenity sighed.


            "Oh?" Ranma laughed. "If I recall, I wasn't terribly assertive back in that life."


            Serenity's eyes narrowed. "Not you, BlackSky."


            The redhead's lips curled into a tight smile. "Usa.. Usa... Usa... Even you're not so wet-behind-the-ears that you'd blindly deal with the likes of my grandmother."


            Luna snickered.


            "But you can?"

 

            "I've only met her the once, and she's Family," Ranma smiled.

 

            "Gee, how reassuring," Serenity's tone was dry.


            "You're right, look at who you're working with now." Ranma then shook her head. "But despite her being my grandma,  even I'm not going to blindly deal with her."


            "Oh? Mother... Serenity... you know... There was that deal the Silver Millennium made with her. That worked out well."


            Ranma raised an eyebrow. "BlackSky got her pick of Earth's eldritch lore, libraries, mages, destroyed a rival, took all her land, avenged her favored granddaughter's death, and got her back. Meanwhile the Silver Empire started a troublesome occupation that planted the seeds of the Fall."


            Serenity – Usagi – stared at the demon. "That's...."


            The redhead leaned back, smiling broadly.


            "You're not even accounting the current situation." Luna rolled on her back. "We're at the demon's mercy.  We could try to find the Cyborgs and attack them on our own, but that would be  very risky."

 

            "We've learned what they can do and how to fight them." Serenity frowned at the cat. "But so have they; they're preparing something."


            "Yes, that's what I'm worried about, they have connections, they'll come up with something." Ranma's grin floated merrily. "Now you do have to wonder if you're being too paranoid about BlackSky; even eldritch demon queens have limits. Of course I could be lying to keep you conveniently complacent."


             Minako narrowed her eyes.


            "I think we've drifted from why I came here. Unless you want to talk with grandma BlackSky. There are several ways she could solve your problem."


            "The combat cyborgs?"


            Ranma pouted. "Where's your imagination? I'm certain BlackSky can accommodate."


            "Accommodate what?"


            The redhead pursed her lips. "How blunt do I have to be? I'm trying to broker a Faustian bargain here."


            "I don't think that's what mother had in mind when she sent me forward."


            Palming her chin, Ranma chuckled as she leaned forward. "I'm not complaining about her deal with BlackSky."


            "Why are you doing this?"


            "You brought her up and you decided to play mecha," Shifting her eyes to Minako, Ranma's voice was stern. "And don't you act like you're above this. You've already made your deal-with-a-demon."


            Serenity glared and gripped Minako's hand. "And this is what I get for letting Puu make the terms of the deal. I should have been better off dealing with you personally."


            Ranma rolled to the side in fits of laughter. Laying halfway on the bed she looked up. Battered by continual chuckles, Serenity had tightened her grip, seemingly liquefying Minako's... compliant hand.


            "Sorry...." Ranma pulled herself back to sitting. "I'm still getting used to..." She shook her head and then ran her fingers through the tussled tresses, feathering further. As that happened, her tail came out and curled around her hips and flopped over the end of the bed where it lazily swung back and forth. Finally, she extended her horns. "There, may as well play it to the hilt." Ranma then leaned forward. "Now..." she purred, literally. "If you want to do thins personally... this is a bunk room. We can even have Minako too. I really don't mind blondes."


            Minako turned to Serenity and gave a quick smile.


            Door knocking open, two meters of terse Teutonic shapeliness strode in. Eve's icy blue eyes scanned the room.


            "Well, speak of the devil." Ranma chuckled. "Are they set?"


            "Yes, Major Sifton thinks we're mad, but he does agree his artillery crews need the practice."


            Ignoring Eve's words, Minako's face brightened. "Oooh, you like puns too?"


            "Don't get her started," Eve said. "You didn't tell them?" she asked Ranma.


            "Didn't get the chance. Queenie over here started talking about Grandma."


            Eve nodded.


            "So, what, you figured the conversation was going on too long and barged in to derail it?" Serenity asked.


            "Don't be silly." Luna rolled back onto her belly. "She probably just watched the camera feed."


            Turning to Serenity, the tall demon chuckled. "Unless mein Schwesterchen wants to feed on you, we do have a schedule to maintain."


            Ranma smirked. "You're the little sister here."


            "Are we going to use the new armor Min- er... Usagi came up with?" Serenity glared, her cheeks flush at the continued charade.


            "Correct, we need you two to get back together." Eve's eyes glinted.


            Ranma stood up and rocked her feet. "It really would have been better if command denied your little suit, but Jacob's got a sense of humor. To bad for you."


            "I don't understand where you got this notion of Colonel Edwards possessing a sense of humor." Eve deadpanned.


            "Why is this so difficult for you?" Serenity demanded. "If anyone should love big weapons and heavy armor, it's you guys."


            The demon sisters looked at each other.


            "At least she didn't say we were compensating," Ranma swished her tail in thought.


            "Penis envy? Really, must we be so Freudian?" Her tail flicking back and forth, Eve glanced at her SSP; its tip only a hair shorter than the dress uniform skirt it was holstered to.. "I don't think envy is the right word. It's not like we're talking about a difficult commodity for a succubus to acquire."


            "Though Morgan is... attached to her gun."


            "Really? Need I bring up Misako, or is that too obvious a retort?"


            "True, Morgan hasn't named hers."


            "Oh? I've heard her whisper a certain name around her gun," Ranma teased.


            Eve chuckled. "Please, Morgan didn't even kill that girl with her rifle."


            "This... doesn't answer my question." Serenity sighed.


            "Oh, but it does," Ranma's voice was almost sing song. "Sure, we could clank around in great big shiny armor, and lumber around with mini-guns, but... why?"


            Serenity blinked.


            "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."


            "You're telling me to not push the envelope? You?" Serenity's eyes were wide with disbelief.


            "There's a difference between equipment and performance. This thing is a careful balance between protection and weight," the redhead tapped her vest armor. "Not because an extra kilo will make it too heavy to carry, but because every bit saved gives more... space, more maneuverability. I can do all those fancy moves and do them that fast in spite of my armor not because of it."


            "My armor's different." Serenity squeezed Minako's hand again.


            Ranma smirked. "Perhaps, but at a cost of reducing the side of your team."


            "It is a wonder weapon," Eve's voice was dry.


            Serenity nodded. "That's not a complement, is it."


            "Wonder-weapons are symptomatic of various State illnesses. Sometimes, it's as benign as superpowers with more money than sense. Other times its the perspiration-inspired desperation of potentates, presidents, and tyrants gambling that grandiosity trumps tactics. Either way, it's a magnificent waste of resource."


            Serenity sniffed at the miniature lecture. "Then why are you helping me?"


            Eve smiled. "Well, it's not always a waste, at least in the long term. Such projects do provide technological break throughs."


            Ranma nodded and tapped the jammer pinned to her chest.


            Serenity paused. "You don't care about it as a weapon."


            "The heavy armor has some narrow cases where it would excel. If you want to spend time being proficient in it's use, we should also get what we can out of it. If you insist on fighting in it, we'll make sure it's not a deathtrap. But per the terms of our contract I'll strongly recommend you use a better suited set of armor." The redhead carefully lectured, her toothy grin never leaving.


            Serenity patted Minako's tensing hand. "These aren't new terms, are they?"


            Ranma shook her head.


            "And anyway, not all wonder weapons are a waste," Serenity's hand went to the wand strapped to her belt.


            "Sure, two even managed to end the last World War," Ranma flatly said.


            "I am death destroyer of worlds?" Eve quoted. "Though I'd call the Manhattan project more terrific than wondrous."


            "Terrific?" Serenity asked, helping Luna get back up to her shoulder.


            "English is a funny language." Eve opened the door. "In addition to being something good, terrific can refer to something extraordinarily intense or something that causes terror. I believe those two qualify."


            "See! Not all wonder weapons are failures." Ranma gushed. "Just look at what the wonder you inherited has done.


            Serenity narrowed her eyes. "That's why I like the armor. It gives me more control. I don't like the Silver Crystal. Do you have any idea what it can do? Do you realize how afraid I am of losing control?"


            Ranma paused and then nodded. "So afraid that you hired a demon to kill you if you did."


            "Yeah." For a moment, Serenity just looked tired. "So maybe, it's not best to make fun of attempts to give me a bit more control."


            "Yes, more control." The redhead tilted her head and nodded to her sister.


            "Little Lunar leader, what do you think this training is supposed to accomplish?" Eve asked with mock gentleness.


            "And is it really control if you're depending on someone else?" Ranma's eyes went to the "human" blonde next to Usagi.


            Serenity inhaled. "So what do you want me to do?"

 

***************

 


            Hotaru stared at the spiky-brown-haired teen. "What makes you think she's Sailor Moon?" She shot a glance to her companion who simply smirked and leaned back on the park bench.


            "Told you so." Chuckling, Usa looked up at the bare cheery tree above her. The leaves had fallen off months ago and it would be nearly half a year before the petals would be ready.


           Shingo sighed from a nearby bench that faced the two girls. "Our family name is Tsukino. Tsuki: moon. A bit obvious. And let's not forget that the horrible pun Tsukino Usagi makes." He looked past them at a pair of salary-men relaxing a few benches over.


            Usa nodded. "Rabbit of the Moon."


            Hotaru frowned. She had not expected things to go this way. "Okay, it's an uncommon name, but its not unique."


            "You didn't seem that fazed when I popped up?" Usa pointed out.


            "Yeah, funny that." Shingo narrowed his eyes. "I never seemed to question this new pink-haired red eyed cousin that none of us ever heard of. Neither did my folks. But my meat-ball headed sister did."


            Hotaru smiled slightly. "What clued you in?"


            Glancing at a couple walking down the part path, Shingo smirked. The woman's dress was nicely curved.


            "Usagi's new friends?" Hotaru asked.


            Shingo shook his head. "Nah, sure Usagi got her new friends when the weirdness started a few years back, but.... I mean it's Usagi. Anyway, they left on the exchange trip, and the weirdness stayed here. My suspicions, my questions went away. It was all a coincidence."


            "What happened?"


            "Osa-P closed."


            Hotaru tilted her head. "What?"


            Usa chuckled. "Oh,  you clever boy."


            "This have to do with Naru?"


            "Of course," Shingo snorted. "Miss Monster-bait and her mom vanish. That got me curious...." A splashing noise distracted him and he turned to see a bunch of older girls easing a miniature boat into a nearby pond.


            Hotaru gripped the bridge of her nose. "And you started checking out the news."


            "Terrorism, gas explosions. It's almost as if something strange is going on in Toronto. The very city where my sister and her friends are studying in."


            "But what about the strangeness here?"


            "You two are here," Shingo stated.


            Hotaru nodded, understanding the dual meaning of his words.


            "How come my sister's a super-hero? And how come it took so much for me to see it?" Shingo asked, his eyes going back to the salary-men.


            "It seems you figured it out." Hotaru frowned.


            "Only after it beat me over the head. It's like how I didn't think too much was strange with Usa there, but then without Usagi around..." Shingo waved at his "cousin".


            "The spell wore off then. Stupid Luna-P," Usa grumbled.


            "Maybe that's what happened with the other stuff," Shingo shook his head.


            "Anyway..." Hesitating, Hotaru looked down; she was not sure of Setsuna-Mamma's idea, but orders were orders. "Yes, your sister is Sailor Moon."


            "And why are you telling me this?" Shingo raised an eyebrow. "Clearly you two are on the same team. Given Usa's past history and what you're telling me, but why? You two didn't even know I'd figured it out, so you're not here to hush me up. You already know where she is. You also know that Naru's gone missing, so.... why, why me?"


            "How much do you know about your sister's friends?" Hotaru looked up.


            "What do you mean?"


            "What to they all have in common?" Usa added.


            "Not much. Height goes from Makoto to Ami. Brains also goes from Ami to Mina or sis. Then there's personality... I dunno... they're all female."


            "What about their families?" Hotaru pressed.


            "Makoto's an orphan... I think. Rei was at that shrine with her Grandfather. Doesn't Ami have a mother that's a doctor? I don't know about Minako"


            "What's missing? Something they don't have but Usagi does."


            "Fathers?" Shingo guessed.


            "So close." Usa chuckled. "No Rei's father is in politics and Ami's is an artist. Both are a bit... estranged."


            "There's something else they're missing." Hesitating, Hotaru glanced at Usa. "We're missing. All of us."


            "Siblings." Shingo frowned. "None of you have any brothers or sisters."


            Hotaru nodded.


            "Usagi's the only one. The only one of ten of us."


            "I'm the only one, then?" The young teen's stomach felt cold.


            Usa smiled thinly. "And you were wondering why we're talking to you."


            Shingo frowned. "Well shit."


            "Don't want to be a-" Hotaru paused for half a second. "Superhero?'


            Shingo shot the girls a level gaze. "I question the timing."


            "You're suspicious that after years of being in the dark and sitting on the sidelines that now you're suddenly being called up?" Usa giggled. "Smart boy."


            "I'd also like to know why there's two spooks watching us," Shingo asked his voice lowered.


            Usa slowly, deliberately turned her head and looked at the two agents. "Shame you only just noticed them."


            "He didn't just see those two," Hotaru corrected. "He noticed the pair that walked by, or at least the 'wife'."


            "Who wouldn't? That's a great dress," Usa counted.


            "Still, and he also noticed the girls by the pond."


            Shingo sighed. "Those are high school girls, they're playing with a little remote controlled boat, a pink boat."


            "It's a fair disguise. Just get some youthful looking women, stick them in the right uniforms," Usa nodded.


            "Odds that that the crate they've got for the boat has hidden compartments?" Hotaru asked.


            "Who are they? And if they've got subtle surveillance then why bother with two guys in suits? Isn't that a bit obvious?"


            Usa smiled. "Clearly, they want to be seen."


            "Want to be seen." Shingo blinked. "But you don't mix obvious surveillance with subtle. That there's obvious surveillance shows that someone's watching! Sure, it could distract from the real surveillance, but it doesn't hide that surveillance is going on. It makes no sense."


            "Really now? Are you sure there's no reason?"


            "Fine" Shingo turned again and frowned at the boat and the girls using it, one of them a blonde, looked up at him and gave a little wave. "Wait... three groups A, B and C. There's obvious group A. They're there to say 'You're being watched'. Then less obvious B is there to say 'You're being watched, and we're letting you know that you're being watched intentionally', meanwhile obvious C is there to up the chances of spotting someone in the obvious B role."


            Usa beamed. "Yes, they're showing they can watch us, while also showing they can watch us without us knowing."


            "Also their actions strongly imply there's at least a group D," Hotaru added.


            "Unless there's more 'obvious teams' and they're doing a test to see how many we can spot."

 

            Shingo groaned and clutched his head.

 

            "They would learn more about our abilities, while also being good training." Usa smiled.


            "How do you two know all this? Let alone notice the other two teams? Who's doing this? Isn't this a lot of people to send, for what? What do they want with me?" Shingo demanded.


            Usa smiled and glanced at the waving brunette. "Well, I think that one's checking you out."


            Hotaru arced an eyebrow. "I didn't know the Company employed perverts."


            "She dresses up as a schoolgirl for undercover work."


            "Well... she could be the right age. Maybe that's a batch of cadets, or full agents that were just recruited young."


            "Great... so instead of perverts, they're budding sociopaths harvested from society and given paramilitary training." Usa gave a broad and disturbingly sincere grin. "That's much better!"


            "This isn't answering my questions." Shingo glared.


            "No, it's not." Usa smiled. "Besides you guessed why we're here."


            "I'm not going to take some magical trinket, not with unanswered questions."


            Usa tilted her head.


            "After all this time you drop in and now call me? And it's because of my..." Shingo's eyes narrowed. "What happened to her?"


            Usa turned to Hotaru. "He is clever."


            "What happened to her?" Shingo repeated.


            "Nothing, yet." Usa frowned. "But... it's getting desperate."


            "And there's something only her or a blood relative can do?"


            Usa gave a bitter little smile.


            "What about you?"


            Crimson eyes hardened as Usa's expression soured.


           "There is the family resemblance. Maybe you're not a cousin, but you are something, and you're already a part of this. Why not you? Why me?"


            "Because I've already been tapped. When the time comes... it'll be a two-man job," Usa smoothly lied.


            "Then why are you over here? You needed to split up because there's still attacks in Japan?"


            Usa inclined her head.


            "Now, I'm starting to see why Usagi was so empty headed," Hotaru smiled, showing her teeth.


            "Nah, he's always been a little wise-ass."


            Hotaru's grin broadened. "Good, he'll fit right in. Maybe then Puu will actually call us in."


            "Maybe," Usa frowned, looking at Shingo.


            "Hey! I haven't agreed to this."


            "Oh, but you will. After all, if your sister can do it why can't you?"


            Shingo glared. "You haven't answered all of my questions."


            "In other words you've given us your terms for joining up," Hotaru proposed, her lips sliding back over her teeth.


            "It's better than what Usagi demanded from Luna."

            Shingo shook his head. "Who are all the spies?"


            "Mercenary organization that hunts monsters using big guns," Usa recited.


            "That just happen be watching two magical girls on a recruiting drive?"


            "Well, we are on the same side," Usa dryly stated.


            "It's a start. Are they hiring?"


            "What, you want a gun?" Usa teased.


            "It'd be better than roses."

 

            Usa nodded. "You figured that out?"

 

            "Once the bit about my sister? Yeah. It all feel in.  Shame about Mamoru, he wasn't a bad guy.  He made her happy at least," Shingo shrugged.


            "Don't worry about it," Hotaru smirked.


            "Right.... Wait... Luna... the cat? That stupid thing was Sis' mascot?" Shingo rubbed his forehead and looked out at all the... spooks. "That explains a lot. Fine, I'll do it, not like I'd screw things up worse."

 

***************

 

 

            An engine's roar reflected off the thick road-flanking trees. The disturbance, a purple Harley Davidson Night Rod flew down the meandering asphalt ribbon. Wearing shiny, black leathers the driver raced down the darkened road. Slowing to go down a side road, the motorcycle sprayed gravel behind it. The pressing trees suddenly abated, revealing a homely brick building standing in the clearing.


            Barely illuminated by a sliver of moonlight, a handful of stars, and a single cigarette, a Dodge Charger sat in front of the small building. After the motorcycle stopped, the driver got off. Unzipping her leather jacket revealed a handgun her right hip.


            "Well, it's been a while hasn't it, Red?" the smoking man asked as he leaned on the hood.


            Ranma's eyes tracked around the forest. "What do you want Murdock?"


            The mage laughed. "Oh, so cold."


            The redhead gave a flickering violet glare and strode forward.


            "Please, dispense with the theatrics." Murdock flicked his cigarette away. "If you were here for blood you wouldn't have simply driven up."


            Stopping a few paces before the man, the demoness sighed and crossed her arms in front of her chest.


            "Fine, to business." Murdock rolled his eyes.


            "Yes."

            "It's about the combat cyborgs."


            Ranma's brows arched. "Another of your clever ideas?"


            Murdock chuckled. "Do you really think I want our little queen dead?"


            The crimson eyebrow lowered. "So... are you just going to waste my time?"


            "I got you away from the helmet-haired nitwit and gave you an excuse to ride your bike. And really, it's been a long time since we talked." Opening his coat, Murdock pulled out a pack of cigarettes.


            "Well, you've been busy. Making friends and all."


            Flames briefly illuminated Murdock's smile as he lit a fresh cigarette. "And you've had family to take care of. We've all been oh so busy."


            "And how is Akumi?"


            "She's got this new plan. What you'd expect, really." Murdock sighed. "Standard villainous stuff. Maybe I should have stopped with you."


            "I'm not sure how insulted I should be at that."


            "You really were my best work." Murdock looked the demoness up and down. "So much potential. So much being exercised. Refreshing really."


            "I'm glad I meet your standards, but compared to Akumi you hardly screwed up my life. At least you never brainwashed and transformed one of my childhood friends... Wait... Naru was Usagi's friend, and they were friends right up until she left Japan."


            Murdock waved his hand. "Details, details."


            "Maybe Akumi's a screw-up because you smothered her. She'd too single-minded."


            "Giving advice on how to build a better villain?"


            "Weren't you just saying that it was refreshing of me to exercise my potential?"


            Chuckling, Murdock nodded. "Strange, you don't like foreplay."


            Ranma growled.


            "Temper." Murdock shook his head. "And you were doing so well."


            The redhead narrowed her eyes. "I think I'm allowed."


            "Going to bemoan your fate? Or perhaps segue into a threat?"


            Chucking, Ranma shook her head. "You really don't know me."


            Smile breaking, Murdock's cigarette nervously twitched. Then he regained his composure, oily smile returning, but this time he held a hand up to steady his cigarette.


            Ranma stepped forward. "Really, you should know by now. I don't make threats. If something is a threat to me, I kill it." Her lips curled up. "I am a simple creature."


            "And now you mention that you don't see me as worthy of killing... yet." Murdock looked up at the Moon. "How isn't that a threat?"


            "Ask Akumi." Ranma narrowed her eyes.


            Murdock chuckled. "Trying to blackmail my minion against me? Do you think I really care. Besides, you've had ample opportunity to kill her, you haven't because our little Queen would be upset."


            The demoness froze, her eyes slowly widening, her expression... sharpening. Her increasingly manic grin spit, revealing gleaming white teeth, which themselves split as she began to laugh.


            Murdock patiently waited for the demon's side-splitting mirth to die down. "Finished?"

            "My... this has to be an act." Ranma wiped a tear away. "You don't really think I'm holding back because it would... offend her."


            Murdock grinned. "Even you play politics."


            "And the Queen respects my resolve. It's amazing how often idealists will admire someone who can 'Get the job done,' and 'Make the tough choices.' "


            "Don't underestimate her, especially when she's pushed to her limit."


            "Believe me, I know." Ranma snorted. "But, isn't that your whole plan?" she dryly asked.


            Murdock smirked. "Wouldn't you like to know."

            "No... less is more. An unreadable expression has better pressure. Get it right and you can really unbalance someone."


            "Please, use the left-handed advice trick."


            The redhead smiled and cocked her hip. "Why? It worked when you did it."


            Murdock raised an eyebrow at the contents of her holster. "That's not an SSP you're wearing?"


            Ranma's eyebrow moved in response. "I didn't mention the runes you've got up."


            "That's a 1911 with... rosewood grips, those seem a bit fancy."


            "They're cocobolo, and they were a gift."


            Murdock tapped his chin. "You know... there are some succubus meeting rituals."


            "Do tell," Ranma dryly remarked.


            "Palavers have always been an opportunity for betrayal. That's why the tradition of disarmament came up, but demons..."


            Ranma chuckled. "Can't be disarmed."


            Murdock nodded. "Not easily anyway. Still some Houses took to the practice, and since the action itself was symbolic, so became the weapons. Thus members of those houses would carry an ornamental, but functional, weapon that represented their aggression."


            "You like talking don't you? You going to give a Latin lesson next?"


            "It's just that you're carrying a very pretty and superfluous weapon, not even your normal one." Murdock flashed a grin.


            The demoness sighed. "Totally wrong."


            "Oh?"


            "First, that's not all on the ritual. It's an issue of trust, Mage. Yes, surrendering a weapon is a pledge of non-aggression a symbol of trust. However, a greater sign of trust is for both parties to keep their weapons."


            Grey eyes widened slightly. "What?"


            "What better way to show you trust someone than allowing them near you with a deadly weapon? That the ritual is even conducted shows a lack of trust. Comrades... comrades-in-arms....well look at the phrase itself. When my Grandmother visited there was no exchange of weapons; she's family."


            "So, you either don't trust me at all, or you consider me an ally." Murdock shook his head. "You are a frustrating species."


            "You presume too much mage." Ranma smiled, flashing white. "I simply carried the smaller gun because an SSP is too big to comfortably drive with, let alone conceal properly."


            Murdock dropped his cigarette. "Okay then."


            "What do you want to tell me?"


            "We can't keep going?" Murdock joked.


            "Must we play this game?"


            "No more foreplay then?" Murdock's smile died when Ranma failed to smile.


            "Galina's been a busy girl," he said, with some reluctance.


            The redhead stared levelly, a violet flicker crossing her eyes.


            "She's been doing some reading."


            "Learning then? Well despite their own natures, most of their experience was against conventional targets. So, they're boning up on non-humans and magic?"


            Murdock nodded.


            "Do you have a list of books?" Ranma asked, interested.


            "Worried about combat cyborgs getting eldritch knowledge? Or perhaps you're more worried about the reverse?"


            "A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing," Ranma stated. Which was why Incognito turned informant. The book-dealer could handle –if barely- someone with Mistress Mercury's skill dabbling with such wares, but a group of magical neophytes... the redhead frowned, pushing those thoughts away.


            "Yes, we're talking about people that used a reality-collapsing weapon as a jamming device." Murdock shook his head, and drew into his coat. Under a steady purple gaze he slowly withdrew a business card.


            Ranma caught the tossed card and gave it a light sniff. She then inspected the list of titles; it seemed to match the list provided by the proprietor of East York Rare Books. "Can't have them ruining your plans. What else?"


            Murdock smiled slightly.


            "This could have been sent. No face to face," Ranma waved the card.


            The mage exhaled. "She'd hired some assassins."


            "I see she's not blinded by pride." Ranma smirked.


            "No she isn't. You and our Queen blindsided them last time; they learned. They know where they're weak against you two: magic and manpower." Murdock pulled out yet another cigarette. "The manpower, simply East-Bloc goons. Magic however..."


            Ranma smiled internally. The Numbers may have a blind-spot to magic, but Murdock had a blind-spot to mundanes. Galina was not one to hire cheap rabble.


            "For that, she found something... special."


            "Who'd she get?" Ranma asked, still pondering the quantity and quality of mercenaries that someone with Galina's connections could hire and transport.


            "Someone that I can't get a lock-on. Someone that's managed to counter my surveillance, stay ahead of everything I've thrown at him. He's a real spook."


            "Money well spent?" Ranma asked.


            "Too well spent. It doesn't make sense..." Murdock looked away.


           "So... a mysterious magic man's come to give them handy advice on how to escape the scary demons? A bit obvious, but you can't be that worried about them, since it sounds like they've hired you. Kill 'em yourself."


            Murdock narrowed his eyes. "Don't you think I tried to worm my way into their good graces?"


            "Really? So your winning smile didn't sway them?"


            "I thought they'd appreciate a display of how vulnerable they really were. Turns out they don't."


            Ranma sighed and glanced at the Moon. "You really don't get women. Do you?"


            "Look, you can't count on them being magically ignorant. They've closed up that blind spot." Murdock fingered his tie clasp.


            "And suddenly you care that they can block you out?"


            "Yes, hardly a unique skill. I can name a few groups that can do that," Murdock's queasy smirk sidled back.


            "And?"


            "Fine. He's a religious man. I figured that much out."


            Ranma cocked an eyebrow. "Catholic or Protestant?"


            "Oh nothing so simple as that. Though the being he worships is no less powerful or unknowable."


            Ranma frowned. "Great, so a faith of the tentacled kind?"


            "Not exactly." Murdock took a drag on his cigarette. "Look, you haven't figured out who hired these girls right?"


            "You're not suggesting that some monster from beyond hired the Russian cyborgs to kill Usagi, and then after the hit failed, sent in some cultist to advise them?"


            "Of course not, that's just you reading into my needlessly cryptic ranting. I'd never actually reveal something like that."


            The redhead rubbed her forehead. "And why do you care? This is your bread and butter ain't it?"


            "Because it doesn't make sense!" Silver light briefly reflected in Murdock's eyes. "This being shouldn't be working with them. It shouldn't be trying to kill Usagi."


            Ranma's toothy grin returned. "Did the little mage get tricked by some mind-breaking horror?"


            Murdock chuckled.


            "And of course you won't name it."


            The mage simply shook his head. "One doesn't say the name of such things lightly, but you'll be able to figure it out. The object of his worship... leaves a mark."


            "Another of your messes to clean up." Ranma's eyes sparkled. "You're starting to be more troublesome alive than dead."


            "Starting?'


            After staring at the demon's face, Murdock's shoulders sagged. "What do you want?"


            "When Akumi isn't gloating in an ice skirt she's plotting in her lab, and she's been awfully quiet lately. I want to know what she's up to. I also want to know what you've really found out about the cyborgs, not who they've hired, what you've learned about them." Licking her lips, Ranma paused. "And I want to know why Setsuna is hiding Usagi's daughter."


            "And in return?"


            Flipping her hand above her head, Ranma's smile vanished.


            Shock crossed Murdock's face and the circle of runes around him flared to life. Behind him an explosion tore apart the back half of the Dodge, spraying twisted metal and shattered glass. Rising to his feet, he winced as his ward was peppered with shrapnel.


            Turning back he caught sight of the demon ramming straight into his ward. Claws flipping out, she dug through the semi-translucent barrier and... heaved. Screaming, Murdock found himself pulled off the ground by the warding and thrown onto shattered roof of his car.


            Violet eyes cold, Ranma extended her hands and a pair of violet streams of fire shot out. Contained by spiraling white beams, the napalm streams skittered off the warding, but easily sliced through the car, which rapidly collapsed under Murdock's weight.


            Ranma strode closer to the scrap pyre that burned around Murdock's recumbent form. The gas tank ignited, the exploding flames briefly mingled with the demon's violet aura. "Mage, this isn't a deal, this isn't a game. My patience is at it's limit," she stated after the inferno receded.


            Shifting his back to keep a particularly sharp bit of metal from poking the warding, Murdock groaned. Cursing his complacently he looked up at the expected visage: deathly-pale skin, wildly writhing hair, sinuous flames, and cold glowing eyes. "Fine, I'll talk," he coughed.


            "Of course you will." Despite the corners of her lips rising, her expression chilled. "But not to me."


            Confused, Murdock blinked, until he heard the sound of another motorcycle engine. This one the efficient burr of a BMW.

 

 

End Chapter

 

I'd like to thank my pre-readers. They read through my most egregious mistakes so you don't have to. DGC, J St C Patrick, Pale Wolf, Wray, Kevin Hammel, Ikarus, Jerry Starfire, and Nadrek.

 

Special thanks to PCHeintz72 for giving some corrections and ideas, especially on improving the tone to WIC and demonic reaction to Minako's little stunt.

 

Also special thanks to Cryptic Mirror for creating a TV Tropes page for The Return. Very fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else gets added to it. There are still a few more tropes to go.

 

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/FanFic/TheReturn

 

 

Revision Notes:    It's been a while getting there but by now we're very much in "the Return standard"  that is where Ranma's an established demonic mom, mercenary and trainer.  And her extended brood is growing with Cecilia starting to become a proper sister.